Scripture: 1 Kings 19:1-18
The twentieth-century English novelist and Christian apologist G.K. Chesterton famously said, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”
I’m sure most of us can relate. I’m sure the prophet Elijah in today’s scripture could relate!
There are few portraits in scripture of the pain and sorrow that often accompany faithful Christian living more poignant than that of Elijah in 1 Kings chapter 19. And today’s sermon will focus on three challenges to faithful living that Elijah himself faced, which we also face today: first, the challenge of our emotions; second, the challenge of our Enemy; and third, the challenge of our expectations…
Our emotions, our Enemy, our expectations… That’s what this sermon is about.
First some background: The nation of Israel, at this point in history, is split in two—between the northern kingdom, which retains the name “Israel,” and the southern kingdom, which is called “Judah.”
Unlike in the southern kingdom, Judah, where you would still occasionally have some good and faithful kings, all of the kings of the northern kingdom were awful. And perhaps none more so than King Ahab and his wife Jezebel. Jezebel was a pagan who worshiped the pagan god Baal. And with her husband’s consent she implemented a plan to completely eliminate the worship of the God of Israel—and, in fact, to murder faithful people who did worship God.
To say the least, if you’re a prophet like Elijah, called by God to minister in the northern kingdom when Ahab was king, you know you’ve got your work cut out for you!
Through Elijah’s prophetic work, in response to Ahab and Jezebel’s evil schemes, God sent a famine on the land—no rainfall for three years.
But by the end of the previous chapter, chapter 18, God ends the famine and sends rain. But it only happened after Elijah had a dramatic confrontation with the 450 prophets of Baal. Elijah orchestrates a miraculous display of God’s power—and proves that the god Baal and his prophets are powerless. Through Elijah, God sent fire down from the sky and completely consumed an altar that Elijah set up. This frightened the people of Israel so much that, according to 1 Kings 18:39, the people fell on their faces in repentance: “The Lord, he is God. The Lord, he is God.” And Elijah administered capital punishment against all these blaspheming false prophets in Israel.
So that’s where we are at the beginning of today’s scripture. Let’s look at chapter 19, verse 1: “Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, ‘So may the gods do to me and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.’”
And when Elijah got this word, see verse 3: “Then he was afraid, and he arose and ran for his life…” He went way down south to Beersheba, which is the southernmost part of the southern kingdom of Judah—and remember, Judah was in a different country… But this speaks to how desperate Elijah was to escape Jezebel’s clutches!
To say the least, Elijah was emotional…
Listen, just last week my son Townshend and I went to Riley Moore Falls, near Westminster—which is one of the great treasures of living in this part of the country. It is a lovely waterfall and swimming hole. I’ve been a couple of times. But I was somewhat reluctant to go with Townshend. Because I know Townshend. He’s been to this waterfall many times with his friends, and he’s much, much braver than I am. And I felt confident he’d want to climb up rocks and jump from high places—and expect me to do the same things… And I was pretty sure if I did those things, I would kill myself or drown.
And some of you are like, “Pastor Brent, haven’t you recently taken up skateboarding as a hobby?” Yes, I have. But I don’t mind falling and breaking bones on solid ground. I think it’s the water I’m slightly afraid of!
Anyway, Townshend was an excellent guide for me—and very patient. There were a couple of places where we climbed up on steep rocks and walked across narrow ledges. And at first I’m like, “Unh-uh! No way!” And Townshend said, “Dad, look… You have a foothold right here. Just put your foot right there. And then put your other foot here. At one point I was crawling, in fear, very cautiously, along this narrow path. And Townshend is like, “You can just walk here… normally… Just one foot in front of the other. You’ll be fine.”
In other words, it was as if he were saying, “Dad, this is just walking. You know how to do this. You’ve done this before. Don’t be afraid. You’ll be fine.”
And gosh… When we read about Elijah’s response to Jezebel’s message—“I’m going to kill you by this time tomorrow!”—I want to say the same thing to him: “Elijah, you’ve done this before. You’ve been in this situation before. Don’t be afraid. You’ll be fine. Just like you were ‘fine’ before.”
I want to say, “Elijah, you of all people should know that if God can rain fire down from heaven—as you just saw him do a couple of days ago—among the many other miraculous things you’ve personally witnessed God do—then surely you know that you have nothing to be afraid of here. After all, you stood up to Jezebel’s husband, Ahab, and 450 false prophets, all of whom wanted you dead. Yet through the power of God, they were no match for you! Through the strength that God gave you, you took them all on—and won! So why are you worried about this one person, Jezebel? You know how to do this. You’ve done it before!”
But… The reason I struggled to do what Townshend asked me to do at Riley Moore Falls, and the reason Elijah struggled to do what God was asking him to do, was our emotions. Fear, in this case… Take fear out of the equation and both Elijah and myself would have been just fine!
And then there’s another powerful emotion—perhaps even more debilitating than fear—that we see in verse 4. After being on the run for a full day, Elijah prays this prayer: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers.”
Do you know what emotion that is? Yes… depression. And it sounds like a severe case of it, too.
I am speaking right now to some people who, like Elijah, struggle with depression… who, like Elijah, sometimes feel like dying… and who have even been tempted to commit suicide… You feel like you have no control over this dreadful and potentially deadly disorder. And I’m aware that some preachers—too many, in fact—are willing to say something like this: “You’ve got a spiritual problem! That’s why you’re depressed. It’s because of some sin. Or it’s because of something you’ve done wrong. Or it’s because of a lack of faith.”
I remember Sheila Walsh, a contemporary Christian singer from the ’80s and co-host of The 700 Club. She has clinical depression. She used to be too afraid to admit it to other Christians, not to mention her television audience, because she worried about their judging her and blaming it on sin or a lack of faith.
The Bible doesn’t do this.
Remember the case of the man born blind in John chapter 9. Jesus’ disciples asked him: “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that caused him to be blind?” And Jesus’ answer was, “Neither… This man’s blindness isn’t the result of sin!”
And listen: The same is true for Elijah and his depression! Notice: God does not scold Elijah: “If only you only had more faith, and stopped doubting, and stopped sinning, then you wouldn’t be feeling like this!”
No! The first thing God does for Elijah is send him an angel… to do what? To feed him, to give him water to drink, and what else? Twice it says the angel touched him. I’m sure that was a healing touch for Elijah! God knows that Elijah needs that touch, needs that companionship, needs to know he’s not alone in this crisis. Do you ever just need a hug? Of course you do! That’s what this angel does for him.
God knows that a part of Elijah’s problem is physical… biological… it’s in his body. He’s hungry and thirsty. He’s exhausted. He’s emotionally spent. He’s isolated, too… with no friends around. That’s a deadly combination! So God first takes care of his physical needs.
There’s a message there for us when we’re dealing with emotions like depression and anxiety. As with Elijah, a part of the problem could be physical, biological… And so by all means, if you can’t “get over” your depression or anxiety, talk to your doctor. It’s perfectly okay to seek medical intervention—and if your doctor, in his wisdom, thinks medical intervention might help, that’s fine. Consider that this medical intervention is at least one part of the healing that God is providing for you.
I hope that’s clear…
Because in Elijah’s case, he also needs some necessary spiritual healing. And I want to talk about that for a moment.
In addition to food, water, and companionship, what else does Elijah need? He needs sleep. He slows down long enough to sleep… He sleeps at least twice in these verses.
Elijah rests, perhaps for the first time in days, after which, he’s better able to cope with everything else he needs to do.
I was listening to a sermon not long ago by pastor Steve Brown, one of my favorite preachers. He’s so honest about his own sins and struggles. It’s refreshing to me. I don’t remember what passage of scripture he was preaching on in this sermon—something from the gospels. But he complained about how the Lord was really “stepping on his toes” in these verses—because whatever Jesus was warning against was something that Brown himself struggled with. Then he said, “I wish Jesus talked more about the sin of sloth—or laziness—because I don’t have a problem with that one.” He said, “I’m a workaholic. I work all the time!”
And he said this with irony: He knew that being a “workaholic” wasn’t any less “sinful” than whatever sin Jesus was talking about. But he also knew that we pastors don’t mind admitting from the pulpit that we’re “workaholics,” because we know that no one in the congregation will say “boo.” I mean, sure, we give lip service to the sin of “workaholism,” but we don’t really mean it. We secretly think it’s a virtue, not a vice. I mean, if you’re in a job interview and your future employer asks you, “What’s your biggest weakness?” Just say, “I’m a workaholic,” they’ll be like, “Great! How soon can you start?”
Employers love having workaholics for employees… And churches love having workaholics for pastors! And with smartphones in our pockets and at our fingertips, 24/7, workaholism is worse than ever! Work just has a way of constantly following us around—weekends, vacations, all hours of the day or night. “Who cares? It might be an emergency!” we say.
But I’m sorry: If we are workaholics, and we’re not resting and taking care of ourselves, and we’re not enjoying recreation, we are doing nothing less than breaking the fourth commandment about Sabbath rest. That’s a serious sin! In the Old Testament God gave people the death penalty for breaking the Sabbath! And, oh no, that seems so harsh to us! But if God didn’t give the death penalty for it, you know as well as I do that the ancient people of Israel would have been breaking the Sabbath all the time! Just like we would!
Because, we think, “It’s not really that important to get Sabbath rest.” How many sermons have you heard on the topic of “Sabbath rest.” Come to think of it, how many times have I mentioned it in sermons?
The good news of course, is that Christ has fulfilled the law for us, including the fourth commandment. We are set free from the Law. Christ even suffered and died for our disobedience to the Law. But God gave us the fourth commandment because he knows we need Sabbath rest!
God did not create us to work and work and work and go and go and go. And this is no secret: We’ve got medical bills to prove that God did not create us to be workaholics!
And surely part of the reason we’re often in emotional turmoil—and surely part of the reason Elijah was in emotional turmoil—is a failure to take Sabbath rest.
And that, brothers and sisters—that failure to take Sabbath rest—is a spiritual problem!
Why? Because in failing to rest, it’s as if we’re telling God something like this: “God, I don’t trust that you know how to run the universe without me. My work is an indispensable part of your plan for our world, and I don’t want you to fail, God. I want you to succeed. So for your sake, Lord, I can’t afford to rest right now.”
I’m sure you see the problem with that. Elijah must have felt a little bit like that… Look at verses 10 and 14: He tells God something like this: “I’m the only one left—and they’re out to kill me, too! And if they kill me, God, what hope is there for Israel? There won’t be anyone left to accomplish all that needs to be accomplished.”
In other words, “You can’t do this without me, God. And they’re out to get me too! What are you going to do if they kill me? Everything’s going to fall apart!”
Elijah believed that the weight of the world was on his shoulders!
And of course, God reminds him that this isn’t true at all: Verse 18: “Contrary to what you think, Elijah, there are seven thousand people in the northern kingdom of Israel—in spite of all the evil and idolatry—seven thousand—who haven’t yet bowed their knee to Baal. And trust me, God says, “I’m going to take care of this problem with King Ahab, and Jezebel, and all these idolaters—using an Israelite named Jehu and a Syrian king named Hazael. I’m going to make sure that they take care of this problem… with a sword! Because I’m in control here. Trust me.”
Do we feel as if the weight of the world is on our shoulders? It isn’t! We can afford to take Sabbath rest! We need it!
And that’s Point Number One… How to deal with our emotions.
You know what’s interesting… Look at verse 2. Jezebel sends a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” If the queen was able to send a messenger to Elijah telling him that he’s going to kill him by this time tomorrow, then that means that she could just as easily have sent an assassin to go ahead and kill him today. Right? Why send a messenger to warn him in the first place? Wouldn’t that just give him a better chance of surviving?
Was Jezebel such an evil genius that she knew that she could do worse than kill Elijah: After all, if she killed him, he’d go straight to heaven to be with the Lord. That wouldn’t be so bad for him. But no… she seemed to know that she could harm Elijah far worse… by killing his spirit. Which is what she tries to do and very nearly succeeds!
How did she know he would respond this way? I mean, she knew what Elijah had just done on Mt. Carmel in chapter 18. If Elijah had the power to ask God to rain fire down from heaven and destroy an altar, what made her think Elijah wouldn’t call fire down from heaven to destroy her?
And this brings us to Point Number Two: Another challenge to faithful Christian living in addition to our emotions is… our Enemy.
See,Elijah has an enemy far craftier than just Jezebel. And this enemy knows how to harm him not justphysically, but even worse: to harm him spiritually. Our ultimate enemy knows precisely what our Achilles’ heel is—he knows our weaknesses, our soft spots, the places where we’re most vulnerable. And that’s precisely where he attacks.
One commentator wondered aloud why Elijah doesn’t seem to be afraid of King Ahab but is terrified of his wife… We don’t know why… I’m sure there are interesting psychological reasons. Regardless, Elijah’s Enemy knew about his fear, and he exploited it!
And this enemy, of course, is the devil: As the apostle Paul warns us in Ephesians 6:12, “[W]e are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places.”1
Which was an ironic thing for Paul to say because—from a worldly perspective—Paul seemed to be fighting against “flesh and blood enemies” all the time: In fact, Paul describes just some of the things his enemies do in 2 Corinthians chapter 11: They beat him with rods on many occasions. They whipped 39 times on many occasions. One time they stoned him and left him for dead. They constantly slandered him and persecuted him. They threw him in prison multiple times… In fact, as we know from history, Paul’s enemies eventually beheaded him.
But no, Paul says. None of these flesh-and-blood enemies count for anything. Because our ultimate Enemy—the one who’s working behind the scenes and pulling strings—that’s Satan and all the spiritual forces of evil that conspire with him. Satan is our real enemy… our ultimate enemy.”
But if that’s the case, what can we do about it?
Look at verse 16. God asks Elijah to anoint his successor—confusingly, someone with a very similar name—Eli-sha. Eli-sha prayed that he could have a double portion of Elijah’s spirit. And God gave it to him. So we see Elisha accomplish even more powerful things than his predecessor.
In fact, in 2 Kings chapter 6, Eli-sha was in similar trouble with a powerful king—not the king of Israel, but Israel’s enemy, Syria. The king of Syria would plan an attack against Israel. God would reveal details of the plan to Elisha, who would turn around and pass this intelligence to the king of Israel. So the king of Israel would be prepared and thwart every enemy attack.
This happened many times before the king of Syria found out that the real problem here was the prophet Elisha. So he sends an army to go and apprehend Elisha, maybe kill him. Elisha’s servant finds out, and listen to what 2 Kings 6:15 to 17 says:
When the servant of the man of God—that is, Elisha’s servant—rose early in the morning and went out, behold, an army with horses and chariots was all around the city. And the servant said, “Alas, my master! What shall we do?” [Elisha] said, “Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” Then Elisha prayed and said, “O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see.” So the Lord opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw, and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.
Compare and contrast Elisha’s response to this king who’s out to kill him with Elijah’s response to Jezebel. Eli-sha seems serene and completely unbothered. Elisha doesn’t seem like someone who struggles to find Sabbath rest. What’s the difference?
Elisha, unlike Elijah, knew that there was an unseen reality that was far greater than anything he could see, feel, or hear. Even though he had a visible enemy in this Syrian king and his army, and even though he had an invisible enemy, the devil, behind the scenes, pulling strings, these enemies were no match for God… and the angelic forces God had arrayed against Elisha’s enemies.
Elisha knew that, and that gave him great peace of mind. And if it’s true for him, it’s true for us! “[H]e who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.”2 We have the Holy Spirit, the very Spirit of God, living within us. And we have angels surrounding us and fighting for us!
If God would only lift the veil separating this world from the heavenly realm, and we could see what was really going on, we would never be afraid!
And this brings us to our third and final point: our expectations…
At the end of chapter 18, before today’s scripture, it seems to Elijah as if, finally—finally!—things are going to change for the better in Israel. Finally, the people of Israel are going to abandon their idolatry and renew their covenant with God. Finally, even King Ahab and Queen Jezebel will surely repent of their sin and idolatry and worship the one true God… Especially after what they’ve just seen God do! Finally, the kingdom of Israel is back on the right track after all these years of apostasy… and who knows, it seems likely that Elijah himself will be just the one to lead the people back to God. After all, Elijah answered God’s call, he proved faithful, he did everything God asked, and the people responded. The future looks bright!
But Elijah was wrong. His expectations were dashed.
Alcoholics Anonymous has a famous saying, which pertains to Elijah: “Expectation is a planned resentment.” Expectation is a planned resentment.
Do we see resentment in Elijah? Of course… Resentment is in his “Now I’m only one left” speech is about. Self-pity is a form of resentment.
And surely one part of the explanation for Elijah’s response to Jezebel’s warning is his expectations.
And this brings us to the most famous part of today’s scripture. When he’s in the cave on Mt. Horeb—otherwise known as Mt. Sinai, where God gave Moses the Ten Commandments—and God says, in so many words, “Wait for me.” And first comes a tremendous wind—but the Lord wasn’t in the wind, we’re told. And then comes an earthquake, but the Lord isn’t in the earthquake. And then comes a fire, but the Lord isn’t in the fire. Instead, Elijah hears what the King James calls, famously, a “still small voice.” And only after that the Lord speaks to Elijah and reveals his plans to him.
Elijah no doubt expected God to reveal himself in these big, powerful, dramatic ways—like wind, earthquake, and fire. And God does do that… every once in a while. In fact, God revealed himself in fire to Elijah and the people of Israel in the previous chapter.
But not here. And this is God’s way of saying, I think, “Elijah, you expect me to do these big and powerful and dramatic things in your life and in the world, but that’s not the way I work most of the time. I usually work in very small and often imperceptible ways. And just because you can’t often see the things I’m doing doesn’t mean I’m not here… at work.
“It also doesn’t mean that I’ve abandoned you. Your job is to be faithful to me and do my will… and trust me with the results. You may not be able to ‘see’ what I’m up to until heaven… but in the meantime, trust me!”
And that’s a message for us, too.
Finally, please notice: Elijah was finally healed of his fear, his loneliness, his anger, his depression, his self-pity… when God spoke to him in that still small voice.
God still speaks to us in that voice today… when we turn to him, in his Word. Amen.