Ever feel like your story is over – nowhere to turn, out of options, no vision for the future? Did you ever want to just quit or run away because the pressure was so intense? So did an unusual man named Elijah.
His story takes place in a time of apostasy. It was about the year 875 B.C. The Northern Kingdom of Israel is spiritually bankrupt. Their king, Ahab, presided over deep spiritual decline. And Ahab the son of Omri did evil in the sight of the Lord, more than all who were before him. And as if it had been a light thing for him to walk in the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, he took for his wife Jezebel the daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and went and served Baal and worshiped him (I Kings 16:30-31). Elijah is raised up by God as a prophet to pronounce judgment upon Ahab and his kingdom and to call Israel back to the worship of Yahweh, the true God.
After prophetically calling for a drought on the land he goes into hiding. Then, in the third year, Elijah is instructed by the Lord to show himself to Ahab. “And I will send rain upon the earth,” the Lord said to Elijah. He then calls fire down from heaven upon his sacrifice in the presence of the people and the prophets of Baal. The hearts of many are moved to proclaim “Yahweh, he is God? Yahweh, he is God!” Then he prays and the Lord sends a great rainstorm in fulfillment of his word.
After a bloody encounter with the prophets of Baal where he has them slain, Jezebel sends Elijah a message, “So may the gods to me and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by this time tomorrow” (I Kings 19:20). Elijah’s response was to run as far and as fast as he could. From Mt. Carmel in the north he ran for his life to Beersheba in the southern desert of Judah. He leaves his servant at the edge of the wilderness and continued further into the desert. Once there he expressed a wish to die. Exhausted and spent, he asked the Lord to take his life. Elijah has gone from the height of victory in the confrontation on Carmel to the depths of despair in the dessert wilderness in a matter of days. How did his emotional reserves fall so far so fast?
There are some important lessons for us from the life of Elijah, both in the lead-up to this emotional and physical collapse, and in his subsequent experience of God’s restorative grace and word of renewal.
Here is a snapshot of his fall and restoration. These lessons speak to us of our own spiritual battles today.
Elijah Experienced a Genuine Threat
Jezebel’s threat against Elijah’s life was not a case of empty words. Jezebel was a powerful queen with military resources at her disposal who had a track record as a persecutor of God’s people. Jezebel was a servant and promoter of the worship of the foreign god Baal. She was empowered by a fierce demonic force which surely played havoc with Elijah’s sense of judgment. Her expressed intent to kill Elijah post-haste was a credible threat. In our own spiritual challenges we do well to recognize the validity of the expressed intentions of others, both human and spiritual, to do harm and to respond accordingly. Minimizing is not an effective response.
Elijah Allowed His Fears to Dictate His Response
Allowing our fears to determine our response is not effective, either. Instead of realizing that he had just prevailed in a great spiritual showdown with the prophets and power of Baal, Elijah allowed himself to be conquered by the threats of a vanquished foe. The adrenaline rush of triumph on Carmel, and his flight to Beersheba, drained every physical and emotional resource he had, making his great hour of victory the moment of deepest vulnerability. In fear, he ran himself into a state of exhaustion and despair. “It is enough, now, O Lord, take away my life” (I Kings 19:4). A state of elation, depletion, or emotional turmoil is a detriment to sound judgment and decisions made out of these states of mind are often fatal.
I once read an article by George Ohlschlager entitled “Lion Rules of Warfare.” It is a great description of the pitfalls we face in conflicts with hostile spiritual forces. In the article, he cites a forensic study of a refugee passing through the Krueger National Wildlife Refuge bordering Mozambique in South Africa. Many fleeing from war-torn areas passed through the park, especially at night. The forensic study examined the circumstances of a man who had been killed by a lion. It revealed four errors in judgment that sealed the deceased man’s fate.
First, according to the evidence, he was travelling alone. He was an inviting target for a predator looking for an easy mark. Second, he was travelling at night when lions have an advantage against their intended targets. Third, he carried no weapon, even a stick. But it is the last error that is most interesting for our meditation. Fourthly, when confronted by the deadly predator, the victim ran. To us, this makes perfect sense, but according to the forensic specialists, this final error sealed his fate. The lions recognized in his flight weakness and fear. They attacked him as easy prey. The lesson? Next time you see a lion, don’t give in to your fears but face him down! Easier said than done.
I was teaching a seminary class in Kiev, Ukraine some years back. On the outskirts of the city many stray dogs form small packs. On a short hike I was confronted by several dogs who surrounded me, growling and nipping at my feet looking for a weak point to attack. I had no stick, and my first impulse was to run. I spent a lot of time around dogs growing up. I knew running was the worst possible response. Against every fiber within me I resisted this desire to run which would have assured an attack and a series of bites, then a certain trip to the hospital for painful rabies shots. Instead I faced the ringleader and made myself as big as I could, holding out my arms in wingspread fashion, and shouted at the barking, darting dogs. When the alpha grew tired of the game, he turned and ran off. The others followed. My heart continued racing, and I breathed a huge sigh of relief.
Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world” (I Peter 5:8-9).
Elijah’s Despair is Relieved by God’s Grace
The angel comes to Elijah in his depleted condition. His words are instructive. “Arise and eat.” Not, “Where is your faith?” or “How did you get yourself into such a mess?” or “This is a sorry state for a man of God.” No, God in his mercy makes angelic provision for the spent prophet. A caked baked on hot stones and a jar of water, physical replenishment. This, rather than a rebuke, is an expression of grace. Underserved favor brings Elijah to a place of moving forward.
I once took a group from a church I pastored in Central Virginia to a gathering an hour and a half away in Washington D.C. It was an outdoor prayer meeting on a holiday in the nation’s capital. Since I was familiar with the area I instructed the group not to bring lunches because there would be plenty of places to find something to eat. To my chagrin the ten of us were stranded at lunchtime with very few vendors open for business. That was a first for me. Our high spirituality quickly turned into a game of accusation and incrimination. “Why didn’t we bring any food? Whose idea was that? This was poorly planned!” It only takes a few hunger pangs to turn the very spiritual into the very carnal in a matter of moments!
While we were engaged in this discussion, a man with a glowing face approached us. In the midst of the thousands present he had singled us out and asked, “Are you all hungry?” “Yes, indeed,” we answered. “Our group here has about 10 boxed lunches leftover. Would you be interested?” Of course we were, and oh how spiritual we all were as we declared God’s faithfulness to us “in the wilderness.” The point is, it was a work of grace, not merit. Planning is good, foresight is excellent, grace is even better. God graciously relieved our dilemma by his grace, just as he did for Elijah.
Elijah’s Condition is Compounded by Misperception
After he is led for forty days into the wilderness, Elijah encounters the glory of God in a still small voice, “the sound of a low whisper.” Elijah has heard from God and must answer his question “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He is stuck in the conviction that he alone is upholding the kingdom and honor of God. “They have killed your prophets, torn down your altars, and blasphemed your name. I’m the only one left. I’m holding up your kingdom all by myself!” Only it’s not true, except in Elijah’s head. We do the same. We neglect to account for the multitudes who serve God with us and for us. These are the unseen, unheralded, unappreciated but marvelous people crucial to God’s greater purposes.
Have you ever seen yourself as alone, in the workplace, the office, the classroom, the home, the church? You are not alone, and you are not the only one left. There are many who are on your side, God’s side, and who are serving God’s purposes. Let’s realize our distorted view of the truth is often our own worst enemy. “I have seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal,” says the Lord.
The Path of Restoration Runs Through Obedience to God’s Fresh Word
The Lord tells Elijah, “Go back the way you came, face your adversary and obey my voice. Anoint Jehu king of Israel, anoint Haziel king of Syria, and anoint Elisha as prophet in your place. I will use them to accomplish my ongoing purposes.” The Lord is saying, Elijah, your story is not over, there is another chapter to be written. It is not my purpose that you go out as a defeated, depleted prophet, desolate and despairing. My goal is not defeat. No, the end of the story is that you will exit in a blaze of glory carried out by the chariot and angels of God. They will sing about it for centuries, “Swing low sweet chariot!”
Christ is God’s Gracious Provision and Path of Restoration
God graciously restores the despairing soul, he gives us a plan, a word to go forward and to write the next chapter. Jesus himself faced an hour of intense pressure. He asked for a way out of an intensely threatening situation. As the perfect Son of Man, he knew to cling to his Father, and even to drink the cup he wanted to avoid. For the joy set before him he endured the cross despising the shame. After making propitiation for our sins he was raised from the dead, ascended into heaven, and is seated at the Father’s right hand. The consummation of history is his – how much more the new and final chapters of your life?
Do you feel like your story is over? Like Elijah, and even our Savior, your story’s not over. There is yet another chapter to be written!