Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. Today’s Old Testament lesson from 1 Kings 19 is difficult to understand if we have not been through trials similar to Elijah’s. For if we have not been through the crucible ourselves, then it is all too easy for us to criticize this runaway prophet as a coward or a quitter. Or we may laugh at his complaint as childish or even cartoonish.
But depending on your experience, today’s text offers you an opportunity for one of two ways: either learning compassion for those who struggle with depression and defeat, or how to find comfort and hope in the midst of suffering and sorrow. I hope that you are willing to reserve judgment on the prophet Elijah in order to discover the dawn on the other side of the dark night of the soul.
Our story comes right after Elijah’s triumphant victory over the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18. On Mt. Carmel, far in the northwest of the northern kingdom of Israel, Elijah confronted the cult of the state, which was the worship of the fertility god Baal. “Answer me, O LORD, answer me,” he prayed, “that this people may know that you, O LORD, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back” (I Kings 18:37, ESV). After Elijah prayed, the LORD God, Yahweh, sent down fire from heaven to consume his soggy sacrifice—and the altar! They people fell in terror and confessed that Yahweh is God instead of Baal. And then Elijah told them to take their swords and kill the false prophets who misled them in the worship of Baal. 450 pagan priests died that day.
Now when King Ahab told Queen Jezebel about everything Elijah had down, she was furious. She was an acolyte of the Baal religion—and sworn enemy of Elijah. So she sent a messenger to tell him to get out of Dodge or face the deadly consequences of sticking around.
The Bible says, “Then [Elijah] was afraid, and he arose and ran for his life” (1 Kings 19:3). I know that we prefer our heroes to stand and fight, but in his fright, Elijah resorted to flight instead. He ran far away to the south and crossed the border into neighboring Judah where, at least, some of the kings still worshiped Yahweh instead of idols. Then, after leaving behind his servant boy in the safety of the city, he journeyed further south in the Negev Desert. There he laid down under a broom “tree” (more of a shrub!) and begged God to let him die: “It is enough now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers” (1 Kings 19:4).
We may laugh at Elijah’s plea is nothing more than a pity party. But we would be wrong so to do. He should not jest at scars who has never borne a wound! Elijah’s prayer is the plaintive cry of a broken heart and weary soul. Elijah had had enough! For all of his apparent “success,” he was still human. He was tired, lonely, afraid, and plain, old worn out. He didn’t lack conviction, but he lacked courage. He wasn’t warmed up to the idea of losing his head or his skin for speaking the truth. He’d already done enough for the Lord. Now it was time for God to let him go quietly into exile, retirement, or the grave.
I must admit that I used to view this story mainly through the lens of the ministry. As the former pastor of a toxic congregation (not this one), I can relate to the desire to call it quits and leave the ministry because of opposition. Other prophets, such as Moses, Jonah, and Jeremiah, had similar thoughts and feelings (cf. Num. 11:15; Jon. 4:3, 8).
But my encounter with this text was different this time than it was three or six years ago (the last times this passage came up on the lectionary). After the sudden deaths of both my parents in short succession (less than 10 months apart), I fell into a deep, dark depression. I had no warning that they were going to die, and I didn’t get to say goodbye. I felt as though God had robbed me. I missed my parents terribly, of course, but I also felt lost in life without their love and guidance. At age 35, I was an orphan, and many of the things that would ordinarily give me joy and purpose, including my family, work, and hobbies, no longer seemed to shine as brightly as they once did.
I went to bed most nights wishing that I wouldn’t wake up, and it was difficult to roll out of bed in the morning. No matter what people said or did to try to help me, everything was just too much or not enough. My mantra became “I’m tired, and I don’t want to be here anymore.” I repeated that over and over and over again multiple times each day of every week for several months. The darkness closed in about me, and I just wanted to die. I was good at putting on a smile and pretending everything was okay, because that’s what people expected of me. But I was only faking it to make it. I was ready to give up. Like Elijah, I prayed, “Enough already! Just take me home, Lord, because I can’t do this anymore” (cf. 1 Kings 19:4).
My wakeup call came after I involuntarily muttered this mantra in the car after picking up Benjamin from school. Deeply concerned, he called from the backseat, “Where are you going, Daddy? I don’t want you to leave me.” That’s when I knew something had to change. My children need me. My purpose in life is to be their father. I need to keep going for them.
It does little good to try to talk somebody out of their depression, or yell at them, or tell them to “snap out of it.” Therapy and medication don’t always work. Even faithful believers and mighty ministers like Moses and Elijah found it difficult to stand up under the weight of their melancholy and resist the temptation to give up and give in to the darkness. So just trying to cheer people up or make them feel guilty for feeling sad is not helpful. As the Bible says: don’t sing songs to a heavy heart (Prov. 25:20).
I can understand why Elijah prayed, “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life…” (1 Kings 19:4). And if you can’t understand that, don’t judge those who suffer from terrible grief at the loss of loved ones, financial distress, unemployment, chronic pain, or a terminal illness. It is not a faithless act to ask God to take away your life. It is entirely wrong to try to take your own life. But many might saints before us have prayed for God to end their lives. Thank God he didn’t!
Instead, God sent an angel to strengthen Elijah. Rather than allowing the prophet to lay down and die, the angel touched him on the shoulder and told him to get up and eat. A miraculous meal of water and bread was laid out before him. “And he ate and drank and lay down again” (v. 6). The angel of Yahweh (whom many regard as the pre-incarnate Christ) came a second time and told him, “Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you” (v. 7). So once again, Elijah got up and ate and drink. And we went in the strength of that food for forty days and forty nights on his way “to Horeb, the mount of God,” which is also known as Mt. Sinai, the place where Israel camped in the wilderness and God gave Moses the Ten Commandments.
Yahweh did not accept Elijah’s resignation. Instead, he visited him and gave him resolve to keep going. There was work to do. Life and ministry are difficult, and sometimes you’d rather die than keep at it. But God gave Elijah the strength he needed for what lay ahead. And, in the verses that follow our pericope, he would assure Elijah of his presence and confirm that he was not alone. In fact, there were still seven thousand people in Israel that did not fall away from faith in Yahweh and bow down to Baal.
Commenting on this story, one Lutheran theologian writes:
“Depressed persons cannot usually be talked out of their gloom. What does sometimes help is a sense of purpose, and that is exactly what God provides with a new commission. The failed narrative pattern is complaint answered by theophany (vv. 9-12). The successful pattern is complaint overwhelmed by a new assignment (vv. 13-18). God simply will not permit Elijah to give up his office.”
A renewed sense of the call—and a little food for the journey—were what Elijah needed. And God gave them to him.
Yahweh didn’t let Elijah call it quits. And he won’t let you or me give up either. Instead he comes to us in the flesh of Jesus, his Son, the living bread come down from heaven, and he says, “Arise and eat.” He beckons you to worship, to feast on his Word, and to eat his Body and drink his Blood. “Take and eat… take and drink…” The journey of life is too great for us, and if we were without succor and sustenance, none of us could make it. But God grants forgiveness, healing, peace, and strength through Jesus Christ, our Lord. The bread that Jesus gives for the life of the world is his own flesh. And in the strength of that food, we can journey many miles—and through many trials.
The longing for death and the grave does not make you a bad Christian. But there is work to do and people who love you. So when the darkness descends, rather than wrapping it around you like a blanket, rest in the one who bids you to rise and eat. Your journey may seem too great, but his was worse: the Via Dolorosa, the Way of Sorrows, the journey to the cross and grave—yet, at last, the empty tomb! Christ has passed through fire and water for you (Ps. 66:12), quite literally, to hell and back again. And now, no matter what meets you on the road, he is with you. “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20).
You are not alone. Don’t give up. Arise and eat. In the name of Jesus. Amen.