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Prophet on the Run—Elijah’s Depression


Editor’s Note: This is taken from two sermons by Ray Pritchard. It is a bit long, but I wanted to keep it all together because it is such an outstanding Bible study on depression.

By Ray Pritchard

We all understand that depression is a major problem in our time. Every year in America 9.5% of all adults are diagnosed with some degree of clinical depression. Experts tell us that one out of every four women will suffer from clinical depression at some point and one out of every ten men. Researchers attribute that difference in numbers to the fact that men are far less likely to admit their problems and far less likely to seek help. Depression costs American companies $44 billion a year. It is the leading cause of disability in America.

We know that there are many causes for depression, and these things are often interrelated, including stress, difficulty in personal relationships, medical problems, poor diet, trauma, and genetic factors. Symptoms include persistent sadness, feelings of hopelessness, loss of energy, difficulty concentrating, sleeplessness, irritability, and sometimes it may lead to thoughts of suicide. Researchers tell us that depression seems to be spread across all sectors of society. No one is exempt and it’s not a matter of I.Q., age or social class. Some of the greatest people in history have struggled with feelings of depression. Who said this?

I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful soul on earth. To remain as I am is impossible. I must die to be better.

Ever felt that way? “I must die to be better.” Abraham Lincoln felt that way because those were his words.

The Minister’s Fainting Fits
Many people consider Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the famous London pastor of the late 1800s, to be the greatest preacher since the Apostle Paul. Yet Spurgeon openly admitted that he often struggled with depression. It is a matter of record that Spurgeon, who lived with various physical maladies, on more than one occasion was so overcome with feelings of worthlessness, depression and despondency that he left his pulpit in London to go to a resort in France where he stayed for two or three months at a time. Often he spent days resting on the couch because he was so depressed, so fearful and so despondent. His marvelous book Lectures to My Students contains a chapter called The Minister’s Fainting Fits, which Warren Wiersbe says every pastor should read at least once a year because Spurgeon is so honest about the pressures that men and women in the ministry face. He begins his chapter this way:

As it is recorded that David, in the heat of battle, waxed faint, so may it be written of all the servants of the Lord. Fits of depression come over the most of us…

He goes on to say many helpful things in the chapter, but one point seems especially relevant. In giving a list of the times when we are most prone to depression, this is where he begins:

First among them I must mention the hour of great success. When at last a long-cherished desire is fulfilled, when God has been glorified greatly by our means, and a great triumph achieved, then we are apt to faint. It might be imagined that amid special favors our soul would soar to heights of ecstasy, and rejoice with joy unspeakable, but it is generally the reverse. The Lord seldom exposes his warriors to the perils of exultation over victory; he knows that few of them can endure such a test, and therefore dashes their cup with bitterness.

He offers Elijah as proof of this point and concludes that in some measure, depression and discouragement after a great victory are part of the gracious discipline of God’s mercy lest we become proud and puffed up at our own accomplishments. It is in that light that we should study this ancient story for it has much to teach us today. The Bible records this story for all the benefit of all who serve the Lord. What happened to Spurgeon, what happened to Lincoln, what happened to Elijah will probably happen to all of us sooner or later.

I. His Condition Examined (I Kings 19)

The story begins this way:

“Now Ahab told Jezebel everything Elijah had done and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. So Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah to say, ’May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them’” (vv. 1-2).

You can just imagine with what eagerness Jezebel, that evil shrew, waited for the return of her husband Ahab. When she saw his chariot returning from Mount Carmel, she assumed it must be with good news. When he came into the palace at Jezreel, I am sure his face was ashen. No doubt she asked him what happened on the mountain. Since it was raining across the land, I suppose that Jezebel took it as a sign that the prophets of Baal had won the day. Ahab gave her the bad news. “What happened to the prophets of Baal?” “They’re all dead.” “What happened on top of the mountain?” “The Lord God of Elijah won the day, and Baal was defeated.”

Shakespeare said that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. Now Jezebel is going to get even. She sends a messenger to Elijah with some ominous news: “May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow …” I think it’s the tomorrow part that got to Elijah. He was not a man who would have gotten easily flustered by a non-specific threat. Jezebel is saying, “Check your watch, man of God, because by this time tomorrow, I’m going to slice you and dice you the same way you did to the prophets of Baal.”

How does Elijah respond? First, he was gripped by fear and doubt (v. 3). Why be afraid of this woman? Elijah just saw God do a miracle. He helped slaughter the false prophets.

Second, he reacted impulsively. The text says that he ran from Jezreel, which is in the northern part of Israel, not far from the Sea of Galiee, all the way to Beersheba, the far southern border of the nation. He ran south past Jerusalem, past Bethlehem, past Hebron.

Elijah is so scared that he decides to run as far from Jezebel as he can get. That meant a change in climate because Jezreel is pasture land but in Beersheba he is in the desert.

Third, he wanted to be alone. “When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there” (v. 3). That was a big mistake. The one thing he most needed was somebody to encourage him. Leaving his servant in Beersheba, he ventured into the desert, a day’s journey, sat under a broom tree, and prayed that he might die. Elijah is on his way to the most remote place he can find. When you’re gripped by fear and doubt, you want to run away and be by yourself.

Fourth, he allowed himself to be controlled by dark thoughts. Ever felt this way? “Lord, I’ve had enough. Lord, this is it. Take my life. I am a total failure.” At this moment, mighty Elijah, God’s mountain man, is filled with self-pity. Having temporarily lost his faith in God and gripped by fear and doubt, he ran away from his problems.

Overwhelmed by despair, he was filled with dark thoughts. This can happen to any of us. Have you ever taken one of those stress tests where they allot points for traumatic events in your life? If we gave Elijah that test, he would be off the charts. Before you get down on him, walk a mile in his shoes. He didn’t respond rightly to the pressure he faced, but how many of us would have done any better?

Can you think of anybody in the New Testament who temporarily lost his faith and his bearings? Can you think of anybody in prison who couldn’t remember what he had known earlier to be true? Consider John the Baptist. When he saw Jesus walking toward him, he cried out, “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Later Herod had John put into prison where he was ultimately behead.

Those of us who have never been behind bars don’t understand what prison is like. There is no place on earth darker and more demoralizing than a prison cell. Prison is a disorienting experience. And it’s no wonder that John the Baptist temporarily lost his spiritual bearings and sent the messengers to Jesus with a question: “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” (Matthew 11:3)

Now why do I bring up John the Baptist? Because when Jesus wanted to praise John the Baptist, he compared him to Elijah. “He is the Elijah who was to come” (Matthew 11:14). What Elijah was in the Old Testament, John the Baptist was in the New Testament. And both men struggled with depression and doubts. I believe that those whom God calls to do great, bold exploits are often the ones who are most prone to inner struggles with despondency and depression. In public John the Baptist is bold as a lion, yet put him in prison and he begins to lose his faith. Now here’s Elijah, great man of God, spiraling, spiraling downward, completely controlled by dark thoughts, filled with self-pity.

II. His Condition Diagnosed

If you study the biblical record, it seems clear that three things have happened to Elijah to bring him to this breaking point. These three things are very understandable, they go together, and they can happen to any of us at any time.

First, he was over strained mentally. It is possible to be under so much pressure for such a long period of time that the spring of life is wound so tightly that eventually it must break. Consider Elijah’s career as a prophet. From the mountains of Gilead to the king’s palace to the brook to the widow’s home to the showdown on Mt. Carmel, it’s been one crisis after another. The late Tom Landry, coach of the Dallas Cowboys, was fond of saying “Fatigue makes cowards of us all.” Everyone has a limit. You’ve got your limit, and I’ve got mine. It’s a good thing to realize when you’ve come to the end, and it’s a good thing to realize that before you get to the end.

You are not as smart as you think you are, and neither am I.

You are not as clever as you think you are, and neither am I.

You’re not as resourceful as you think you are, and neither am I.

You’re not as good under pressure as you think you are, and neither am I.

You’re not as strong as you think you are, and neither am I.

You’re not as wise as you think you are, and neither am I.

The mightiest oak tree in the forest can be easily brought down if you hit it with a tiny ax at just the right place. Elijah was over strained mentally. He had pushed himself until he could push no longer.

Second, he was exhausted physically. At one point in his ministry, Jesus told his disciples to “Come apart and rest for awhile” (Mark 6:31 KJV). Vance Havner was fond of saying, “If we do not come apart and rest awhile, we will simply come apart.” There is a time when you need to get up and go to work, and there is a time when you need to lay down and take a nap.

Sometimes the best thing we can do for the Lord is to take a vacation. Play tennis. Ride your bike. Watch a football game. Knit a sweater. Have a date with your sweetheart. Play with your grandchildren. Eat an ice cream cone. Take an evening, make some popcorn, sit on the couch and watch a video. There are times when God’s work demands strenuous action. And there is a time when you need to sit in the recliner, crank it back, get a bowl of Cheetos and a Coke, pick up the remote control, and watch ESPN for a while. There is a time to be active and busy, and there is a time to relax. There is a time to write, a time to work, a time to preach, and there is a time to put on your helmet and go ride your bicycle. Solomon reminded us in Ecclesiastes 3 that there is a time for everything under the sun.

A time for war and a time for peace.

A time to sow and a time to reap.

A time to weep and a time to laugh.

A time to be born and a time to die.

“To everything there is a season.” God ordains every season of life, including the times of hard work and the times when we must rest. In our twenty-first century world, the reward tends to go to those who burn themselves out the quickest.

Third, Elijah was out of touch spiritually. Verse 3 says that “Elijah was afraid and ran for his life.” The Hebrew text contains a phrase that disappears in some modern translation. The first phrase of verse 3 literally reads, “And when he saw.” That’s his fundamental problem. His mind is overstressed. His body is physically exhausted. And now his eyes are off the Lord and they’re on his circumstances. That’s what happens when you are under enormous mental stress, when you are physically exhausted, when you’ve been running on Red Bull and four hours of sleep a night, and you’ve been burning the candle at both ends. No wonder Elijah gets scared. He’s been under enormous pressure for so long that he can’t think clearly. Give him three nights of good sleep and Jezebel won’t bother him so much.

When you have been under stress for a long time, you don’t think clearly, and you make bad decisions that get you in trouble. That’s why the little phrase in verse 3 is so important: “And when he saw.” When he was on the mountain, all he could see was God. The prophets of Baal didn’t bother him at all. The circumstances didn’t matter. It was Elijah and God. But now in his state of emotional exhaustion, he sees Jezebel, he hears Jezebel, and where normally he would have stood his ground, he turns pale, runs for cover, keeps on running, and doesn’t stop till he ends up in a cave on Mount Sinai hundreds of miles away.

So this is where Elijah is for the moment. He cowers in a cave, wishing to die, and feels utterly alone, lost in his own despair. But God is not through with his servant yet. Though he ran as far as he could, Elijah could not outrun the Lord. God has much more work for him to do so Elijah can’t stay in the cave forever. Though he made many mistakes, he is still God’s man.

Let us pay close attention to how God deals with his discouraged servant. We find it the text that Elijah needed four things, and those four things he received from the Lord.

Number One: He Needed Rest and Refreshment.
Elijah sat under the broom tree so discouraged that he prayed that he might die. Then he fell asleep. The Lord sent an angel with a command from heaven: “All at once an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat’” (v. 5). How’s that for spiritual advice? Get up and eat. He doesn’t say get up and pray. He doesn’t say get up and read the Word. He doesn’t say get up and start preaching. He doesn’t say get up and serve the Lord. The angel tells Elijah to get something to eat.

Here’s a profound truth. Sometimes we need to eat. Sometimes we need to sleep. Sometimes we need to eat and sleep even more than we need to pray. There’s a time for everything. There is a time for crying out to God, and there is a time to roll over in bed, close your eyes and get a good night’s sleep. And there is a time when what you need is a Big Mac, French Fries and a chocolate milkshake. We all need a good night’s sleep and a good meal. Sometimes we just need to let our hair down and have a blast.

For some that means going water skiing. For others it means hiking in the mountains. For some it means sitting in a comfortable chair and knitting with your friends. For me it means riding my bike. That’s why God commanded man to work for six days and to rest on the seventh day. God built into the fabric of the universe that we need to work and work hard and serve the lord, and we also need some downtime. We need some rest and we need some relaxation. Sometimes the most spiritual thing you can do is to get up and have a good meal, because you’ll feel so much better.

So the angel gives Elijah a very specific command: “Get up and eat.” He looked around and found a cake of bread baked over hot coals and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and then he laid down and slept again. God’s mountain man is tuckered out. He took a nap. He got up, had some food, and he went back to bed again. Is he a sluggard? No. He’s just worn out in the service of God. “The angel of the LORD came back a second time and touched him and said, “Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you” (v. 7). Strengthened by that food he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God. There he went into a cave and did what? He spent the night there.

Now understand, he’s still got all kind of problems. We’ve not gotten to the real issues of life yet. But sometimes you can’t get to the deep issues until you deal with things like hunger and physical exhaustion. Basically God arranged for Elijah to have a six-week vacation, all expenses paid. That sounds good until you recall that he had to walk across the desert by himself to Mount Sinai.

Why did he go to Horeb? Because he knew Mount Sinai was the place you went when you know you need to meet God. He didn’t just pick out any mountain. If he wanted to find a cave, there were caves a lot closer than Horeb. He went back to where Moses met the Lord. There is a value in going back to certain places. There’s a value in going back to certain milestones in your life and certain physical locations in your life, places where you met God in the past.

When you are depressed, there are at three things you need, and God made sure Elijah got all three of them.

You need good food.

You need some rest.

You need some physical exercise.

I would consider walking forty days across the desert good physical exercise. You need rest. You need food. You need exercise. You need more that that, but that’s a good place to begin.

God’s restoration of Elijah begins with rest and relaxation for the body, the mind and the soul. But there is more to come.

Number Two: He Has to Face His Fears.

“And the word of the Lord came to him. ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’” (v. 9) That’s a good question. The last time we saw Elijah, he was winning a great victory on Mount Carmel. So what is he doing cowering in a cave, hundreds of miles away? Not that the Lord didn’t know. This question was not for God’s benefit, but for Elijah’s. “So explain yourself, son. You were my man up there on Mt. Carmel. What are you doing here?” God is saying, “It’s time to face your fears.” This is Elijah’s response: “I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword.” (v. 10). Everything he said was true.

He has been zealous.

The people had rejected the covenant.

They put the prophets to death.

No exaggeration at all. If he had stopped there, he would have been on solid ground. Now look at the next sentence. “I am the only one left. Now they are trying to kill me too.” The last part of that sentence is true; the first part was not true. But it was that first part, that feeling of being utterly alone, that needed an adjustment. He was so far gone in self-pity that he actually thought he was only the only righteous man left in Israel.

Let me stop at this point and make a simple application. Self-pity is the enemy of all spiritual growth. As long as you feel sorry for yourself, you’ll make a thousand excuses for not facing your own problems, and you’ll never get better. A few years ago I met a man who got in trouble because of the Internet. He got drawn into pornography and ended up committing adultery. When the truth came out, it nearly cost him his marriage. He told me that part of the restoration process included going to a weekly meeting of men struggling with all sorts of sexual sins. It was a very tough group. They had one rule and only one. No self-pity. No blaming your wife. No blaming your colleagues. No blaming your parents. No blaming your inner tendencies. No blaming something that happened to you when you were a child. If you started down that road, they would stop you. And he said if you continue with self-pity, they throw you out of the group, because self-pity is the enemy of all spiritual growth.

That one statement may be the most important thing I have to say. As long as you feel sorry for yourself, you cannot get better. As long as you blame others, you cannot get better. As long as you try to throw off your problems on somebody else, you cannot get better. And as long as you say, “I alone am left, O Lord, I am the only one who’s faithful, I’m the only one on your team,” as long as you talk like that, you cannot get better.

There are some people reading these words who are stuck spiritually because you are wallowing in a sea of self-pity, and you have convinced yourself that your problems are caused by other people, and you make a living blaming your circumstances and other people for your problems. And you wonder why you aren’t getting better. You are stuck and you will be stuck until you stop making excuses and start taking responsibility. You cannot and you will not get better because self-pity is the mortal enemy of all spiritual growth.

Number three: He Needed a New Vision of God.

Note how these three things go together. Rest and relaxation speaks to the body; facing his fears and his self-pity speaks to his mind; a new vision of God speaks to the need of his soul. He needed to be changed body, mind and soul.

When Elijah begins to wallow in self-pity, notice how God responds. Or more particularly notice what God doesn’t do. He doesn’t say what many of us would have said. “What is wrong with you? Get your act together.” We would have argued with Elijah and told him to snap out of it. “Come on! Get a grip!” God doesn’t put Elijah down, he doesn’t rebuke him, and he doesn’t ridicule him. Instead God meets him at the point of his deep despair. He just says, “Son, come with me. Get up. That’s right. Get up. Get out of your cave. Come on, Elijah. Come on out. I won’t hurt you. Come on out of the cave. I want to show you something.” That’s all God does. He does not condemn him. As we know, condemning depressed people generally doesn’t work. It doesn’t help us when we’re depressed if somebody condemns us, and it doesn’t help for us to condemn somebody else. It just makes the situation worse.

What follows is amazing. A mighty wind tore across the face of the mountain, shattering the rocks. But the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake. And after the earthquake there was a fire, but the Lord was not in the earthquake, and the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and he went out and stood in the mouth of the cave. F. W. Robertson has another helpful word at this point:

There are some spirits which must go through a discipline analogous to that sustained by Elijah. The storm-struggle must precede the still small voice. There are minds which must be convulsed with doubt before they can repose in faith. There are hearts which must be broken with disappointment before they can rise into hope. There are dispositions which, like Job, must have all things taken from them before they can find all things again in God. Blessed is the man who, when the tempest has spent its fury, recognizes his Father’s voice in its under-tone, and bares his head and bows his knee, as Elijah did.

Why does God put Elijah through this demonstration of divine power? God is getting his man back in touch with spiritual reality. Psalm 46:10 says, Be still and know that I am God.” The Lord wants Elijah to know that it is not in the earthquakes or the fire or the huge events where we most often encounter the Lord. We more often meet God in the small, forgotten places of life.

A few months ago I was complaining about something that had happened. My wife listened to me complain for a while and then she listened some more. Finally she decided she had heard enough so she said what wives have said to complaining husbands since the beginning of time: “Grow up.” I didn’t like that at all. For one thing, I didn’t want to grow up. I wanted to complain. So my wife said to me, “Stop complaining and open your eyes and see how good God has been to us.” She was right, of course.

So we started to play a little game to see how many God sightings we could find every day. And do you know what we found? We discovered that if we paid attention, every day there were always a handful of God sightings, of God doing something—a phone call or somebody dropping by with an unexpected word of kindness or a card in the mail or an answered prayer. Sometimes it’s just a small little thing God would do, just something that caused us to say, “That was the Lord who did that for us.” We learned that if you keep your eyes open for God, pretty soon you’ll see him everywhere.

Our problem is we want to see the earthquake; we want to see the fire all the time. We want the big demonstration. We want the spectacular answer to prayer. God says, “That’s not always where you’re going to see me, but just listen for the gentle whisper.” God always speaks loud enough for the willing ear to hear. I have found myself praying over and over, “O Lord, open the eyes of my heart that I might see you everywhere.” And you know what? It has enabled me to see God at work in places where I never saw him before.

Number Four: He Needed a New Commission.
In verse 13 God repeats his question, and Elijah repeats his answer. There are times when a mistake must be corrected with accurate information. So now God is going to give Elijah some accurate information. The Lord said to him, “Go back the way you came and go to the desert of Damascus” (v. 15). That’s a long journey from the Sinai desert, through the Holy Land, all the way up to the desert around Damascus. Then he has some very specific instructions:

When you get there, anoint Hazael king over Aram. Also, anoint Jehu son of Nimshi king over Israel, and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat from Abel Meholah to succeed you as prophet. Jehu will put to death any who escape the sword of Hazael, and Elisha will put to death any who escape the sword of Jehu. Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel—all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and all whose mouths have not kissed him” (vv. 15-19).

God is reminding Elijah that he’s not alone. Not only is God with him, God has another 7000 in Israel who have not bowed down to Baal. Understand there is no spot in this world so lonely where God is not already there. God is not just to be seen in the big things of life. He’s also to be seen in the stillness and in the small things. God is not limited by your small vision. In all of this God is reminding Elijah, “You are not alone, I am with you and I’ve got 7,000 more just like you. I’m going to give you a man to be your prodigy, your partner and your successor. You never were alone, you’re not alone now, and you’re not going to be alone in the future.”

Elijah had accomplished more than he thought. Those 7000 were men and women who took strength from Elijah’s brave confrontation with the prophets of Baal. So his life had not been wasted after all. No life is wasted that is spent in the service of our Lord who promised to reward even a cup of cold water given in his name. And this is the ultimate irony of the story. Elijah thought he had failed, but out of his perceived failure came assurance of his ultimate victory in the lives he touched who, like him, would not bow down to Baal.

Learn this lesson.
You are not in a position to estimate your own effectiveness. When you think have won, don’t be so sure. When you think you have failed, let God render the final verdict. You and I are as likely as Elijah to wrongly estimate both our victories and our defeats. Better to do our best and leave the results with God. He knows better than we do the lives that have been changed by our service for Christ.

If Satan cannot get to us externally, he’ll get to us internally. It is no surprise that Elijah’s greatest victory and his greatest defeat come back to back. It is not a sin to be discouraged. It is not a sin to be depressed. It’s what you do when you are discouraged, depressed and feeling hopeless that matters. Don’t fight the battle alone. Get some help. Get all the help you need. And remember this. God is still there. There’s no pit so deep that the love of God is not deeper still. If you are discouraged, be encouraged. The Lord still loves you. He has not forgotten you.

Father, thank you for the practical truth of your Word. I lift up those who struggle with feelings of discouragement and depression. Help us this week to get the rest we need. Encourage our hearts. Open our eyes, O Lord. Help us to see you everywhere. Give us ears to hear the still small voice and eyes to see your fingerprints everywhere. Help us to believe that when we feel most alone, you are most with us. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

©Keep Believing Ministries. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Dr. Ray Pritchard is the founder and President of Keep Believing Ministries. For twenty-six years he has been a pastor, speaker and author of twenty-seven books. Married to Marlene for thirty-three years, he enjoys being a dad to three sons, biking, world travel and playing with Dudley, beloved basset hound. Learn more about his ministry at www.keepbelieving.com.