The first thing that we notice from our read­ing of this portion of the life of Elijah is how he went from his greatest triumph, the contest on Mount Carmel, to his greatest low point: “O LORD, take away my life; for I am not better than my fathers” (1 King 19:4). This in the space of four verses and probably fewer days! It is quite extraordinary how quickly things changed in the mind of Elijah. He had decisively beaten the entire concept of Baal worship, destroyed its power as the prophets of Baal were slain and rescued Israel from the grip of a terrible drought. One might have thought Elijah could rest content for just a short space before regrouping to restore that nation.

Having stood up to the king Ahab and 850 chief attendants of Baal worship, we cannot doubt the courage and faith that Elijah displayed on behalf of his God. Why is it then, when Jezebel decreed him dead if she caught him, that he ‘high tails’ it for the wilderness?

A very human trait

James offers the only answer which seems to fit, and even then it is not so much an explanation as an observation: “Elias was a man subject to like pas­sions as we are” (James 5:17). It is clearly a human trait to go from triumph to despair very quickly. Those of us with children will see this almost every day as cries of happiness turn to cries of despair in seconds. We might like to think we have grown up but the reality is we merely manage to lengthen the interval between the two only a little. When we see our children behave in such a fickle way we gently bear with them, we remonstrate kindly and redirect them. God was the same with His servant Elijah and will be no different with us. It is part of the weakness of the human condition that triumph and despair are not nodding acquaintances – un­happily they are cell-mates! How many of us have known the joy of triumph only to have it followed quickly by the depression of failure?

Faith and courage are at times no match for a despondent heart. It was in this spirit that Elijah fled to the wilderness. There may be many of us in that same ‘wilderness’ today. Any success in the past seems a distant and past memory; hope for the future seems dim and so the present has lost its meaning and we, in effect, sit idly with Elijah under a juniper tree wishing our life away.

The Spirit tells us twice that it was a juniper tree. Clearly this detail is of some importance. We might gain some insight into the mind and circumstances of Elijah by comparison with the experience of Job. At this point pause and read Job 30 and read of his feelings; note the connection to the juniper tree in verse 4 and the general spirit of despondency which pervades the record.

Angelic care

We note that Elijah had left his servant behind. Ironically, depression does not seek companion­ship, though that is just what is needed. We note also that the hand of God, seen but unappreciated by Elijah, was ministered to him by means of an angel.

We must develop a close relationship with God in the good times that will sustain us and help us through the bad times. There is no record in Scripture of angelic support for those who don’t know God. Perhaps this might be our next thought for exhortation: “the angel of the LORD encamps around those who fear him, and delivers them” (Psa 34:7 ESV). There is no suggestion in this record that in that moment Elijah responded to the ministra­tions of the angel, that he appreciated them or that they helped, yet a loving God provided His angel just the same and He will do so for us also. Elijah meanwhile had not yet responded to the twofold ministration of God and yet at the same time he was despondent because people did not at once respond to his preaching. How many times have we been sustained and never realised it and never stopped to appreciate it? What fickle creatures we are!

At the depths of his greatest depression, feeling how hard it was to fulfil his Father’s will, even our Lord was strengthened by an angel. Depression and feelings of despair are very human emotions. We all, including Christ, share them. We are reminded that he was touched with the feeling of our infirmities. If great men of Scripture (and there is none greater than Christ) suffered feelings of despair to the point of exhaustion and a desire for it all to end, shall we breeze through life untouched? If great men of Scripture needed angelic assistance, can we do it alone? If great men of Scripture received angelic assistance, do we suppose that we will not?

Here, I suppose, is where we struggle the most. We may think: God might send an angel to Moses, to Elijah or to Jesus in their time of need but I am no Elijah and I’m certainly not Christ. It is not, therefore, likely that God will support me! How wrong is that thinking! We recall the words of Jesus in Matthew 18 but I invite you to turn up this pas­sage if for no other reason than to be reminded by the black ink on the white page that such a passage is in our Bibles for our comfort. We will read it in a slightly different context than Jesus spoke it but the message for us is real enough. Let us read verse 10. Did Jesus suggest that our angels are constantly in the presence of God on our behalf in order to do nothing? The very idea is preposterous. It matters not how small you feel, every little one of Christ is represented at the highest place, the throne of God Himself. Did not Paul remind us that angels are all “ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for them who shall be heirs of salvation” (Heb 1:14).

Are we therefore alone?

And yet we feel alone! Elijah felt alone. He even said he was alone. There was none else. He was ignoring entirely that his loneliness, at least, was the result of having dismissed his servant, who had faithfully been his companion. Perhaps not bliss­fully, but ignorant nonetheless of the thousands who also worshipped Yahweh, not Baal, Elijah felt alone. Do we imagine that Jesus did not feel alone as he bore the burden of our sin? We don’t need to imagine, we can read it in Psalm 69: “I looked for some to take pity, but there was none; and for comforters, but I found none” (v20).

Brothers and sisters, there are times when we feel completely alone, yet even then we know that the angels of God are with us, unseen and often unappreciated, but always there to deliver us. Let us read for encouragement the words of Psalm 34:4-10. Take note; we are not promised that God will prevent us from falling into trouble but that He will deliver us out of trouble. That may sound the same but they are very different things: “I sought the LORD, and he heard me, and delivered me from all my fears. They looked unto him, and were lightened: and their faces were not ashamed. This poor man cried, and the LORD heard him, and saved him out of all his troubles. The angel of the LORD encampeth round about them that fear him, and delivereth them. O taste and see that the LORD is good: blessed is the man that trusteth in him. O fear the LORD, ye his saints: for there is no want to them that fear him. The young lions do lack, and suffer hunger: but they that seek the LORD shall not want any good thing.”

We are also told that the angel knew what lay ahead of Elijah and provided what was required. God has appropriately not revealed what our jour­ney will be, for we may not be able to endure the knowledge of the hardships of the future, but this we do know, it will be too great for us to embark on without the strength supplied from God. We have both the nourishment of Scripture and the angelic providential care to sustain us in our journey through life’s wilderness. God wisely knows that such a journey is not one we can take in our own strength and provides sustenance appropriate for us.

A visitation at Horeb

The record reads as if Elijah did not know where the journey was to take him. One gets the sense that God was leading him, drawing him towards Horeb. One also gets the idea, despite the evident omnipresence of God, that God was waiting for Elijah at Horeb and was drawing him towards it. This was to be for Elijah a defining moment.

No sooner had Elijah got to Horeb than God posed the question, “What doest thou here, Elijah?” (1 King 19:9). It would seem that the emphasis is on the word ‘here’. Considering that it was at Horeb where God showed Moses His name and His glory, the question for Elijah might be rephrased, ‘what do you think of my character and purpose’? We see a little of this idea in Elijah’s answer as he draws attention to his achievements and invokes the militant title of God. Elijah anticipated that God should enforce His covenant with power. Elijah complained to God about Israel. Paul described it as making intercession to God against Israel (Rom 11:2). We would never complain to God in prayer about our brothers and sisters, would we? Perhaps we are more like Elijah than we might care to admit. Little did he then realise that it was to be his own work to gently turn the hearts of the fathers and children in Israel back to Yahweh their God.

Perhaps Elijah had sheltered in the very same cave where Moses earlier had witnessed the glory of God. It was certainly in the same general local­ity; we might therefore expect that he should have been thinking of the lofty words of Exodus 34 and not, “I, even I only, am left,” as if the purpose of God depended on him alone. Sometimes we get to thinking that the purpose of God depends on us and it always takes us to a bad place. There was only ever one man on whom the purpose of God depended and we remember him at least every first day of the week.

Restoring hearts

We might think that God should display His judgments and change the ecclesia by way of wind, earthquake and fire! We might even think (as Elijah did) that we and we alone are the instru­ments God will use to achieve this. Yet the reality is that it is not by might nor by power but by the spirit of the word of God calling softly to men’s hearts that will make any difference.

We remember what the prophet said of Christ, how he was to preach and with what spirit he was to come (Isa 42:1-3). This was a lesson Elijah had to learn. God does not need us. The work would go on without Elijah and after Elijah was gone. In the anointing commissions he was given we are reminded of that.

Elijah was a truly great man; but his work was not complete at his death. There would be others to take up that work like Elisha and later John the Baptist and Jesus Christ, and in the future Elijah himself will yet work on behalf of his people. Elijah ultimately was a type of Christ but where he failed, Jesus succeeded. He is a man subject to like passions as us but who overcame and is set down at the right hand of God. What lessons can we learn from Elijah that we also need in the house of Christ?

We learn that we dare not have one foot in the camp of Baal and one in the household of Christ. As the Apostle Paul said, “Ye cannot drink the cup of the Lord, and the cup of devils: ye cannot be partakers of the Lord’s Table, and of the table of devils” (1 Cor 10:21). We learn that we cannot be a ‘Son of Thunder’ and beseech by the meekness and gentleness of Christ. We remember that God’s angels are watching over us, those who shall be the heirs of salvation. We remember that we are never alone for our Lord said, “I will never leave thee nor forsake thee”. We remember that our Lord never makes intercession against us as Elijah thought to do, but for us. What a blessing that is! We learn that if we refuse the waters that go softly then we will need to beware of the rushing torrent of God’s judgment. But the judgments of God are His and not ours. Our part now is to preach with the soft and living water of Christ. We remember that through tears and weakness, loneliness and despair we were saved from death by our Lord, who knows our frame and shares our sorrows. If it was hard for Elijah and sorrow took him to the brink of despair, was it any easier for our Lord? We know it was not. As we now ponder the cost of the victory through his life, in the garden and on the cross, let us resolve to make our lives worthy of the effort Jesus made on our behalf in thankful devotion.