1 Kings 19 is one of the most remarkable chapters in the Bible. For the depressed and lonely it is a necessary chapter, for it encourages a view of God as a Presence who loves in spite of what we do and what we are. It is a display of God's power, as well, and is similar to the rebuke God gave to Job when Job questioned and murmured (although given similar circumstances, how well would we have endured?). God answered Job out of the whirlwind (Job 38:1) as he sat on the dunghill with his friends, and He answered Elijah in the still small voice on Mount Horeb, as Elijah peeked out from the cave in which he sought to hide from the world in which he was so disappointed (1 Kings 19:12).
Even in discouragement God meets us where we are, whether we have unwillingly and unwittingly landed on the heap of the rubbish and wreckage of life or we are hiding in a cave, away from what we perceive to be an inhumane humanity. He knows whether we need the whirlwind or the soft breeze to get us back on His track. God knows that we damage our compass of life now and then with the heat of our passions and the cold of our indifference. Our "sense of instrumentation" becomes faulty and we head in the direction of a living death. We need to regain the sense of "mission and submission."
It is interesting that Elijah, Moses and Jonah all requested that they be allowed to die. Listen to Jonah: "Now, O Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live" (Jonah 4:3); Moses: "If this is how you [Lord] are going to treat me, put me to death right now" (Numbers 11:15); Elijah: "I have had enough, Lord, take my life; I am no better than my ancestors" (1 Kings 19:4c). Job's troubles drove him to cursing the day he was born: "May the day of my birth perish..." (Job 3:3a). His existence which was a joy before has now become his intolerable burden. It is good for us to know that God's greatest heroes had their moments of despair--and that there are some prayers God does not answer the way we would like.
It is also good to know that one of God's great heroes, Paul, said, "It is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. Convinced of this...I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith..." (Philippians 1:24,25). Paul wanted Paradise where the weary find rest, the sad find joy, the lonely find kindred spirits, the fearful find safe harbor, and the doubting Thomases and Thomasenas find assurance and reassurance.
But earthly claims checked Paul's desire, and check ours, also. He wanted to dissolve but instead resolved against his own wishes. Paul obviously had no fear of dying, but his eye and heart were single to the glory of God and that meant staying in his earthly vessel for a while longer. In 2 Corinthians 4:16, Paul says, "Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day." We are "treasures in jars of clay."
Paul also pleaded with God through earnest and prolonged prayer that an irritation be removed from his life. Paul did not take a fatalistic attitude about pain and suffering; he knew it was all right to ask God for its removal. "Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take [the thorn] away from me. But he said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness'" (2 Corinthians 12:8,9). So it is not wrong for us to plead with God to remove a sorrow or an annoyance from our life. Indeed, as our Friend, He expects us to ask Him so that we may receive. In the meantime, "I [Jesus] have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers [and sisters]" (Luke 22:32). His grace is His prayer for us. And there is a condition which Paul understood, as well: after we are strengthened, we then are to encourage and inspire others: "Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God" (2 Corinthians 1:3,4).
Jesus asked His Father to be spared the cup when He knelt in agony in the Garden. He had told his disciples, "My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me" (Matthew 26:38). He wanted company in His agony. He asks them later, "Could you...not keep watch with me for one hour?" (v.40). What a loving rebuke! Yes, Jesus, the Man of Sorrows, was acquainted with grief. He even prayed, "My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will" (v.39).
Jesus prayed to be spared death but He willingly died. It appears that His prayer was not answered and yet it was, for Jesus fulfilled His mission. God did not answer the prayers of Moses, Elijah, Jonah or Job, for their missions were not yet fulfilled. All prayers were and are answered because strength was and is given to meet the trials; finally, God's will was and is done in all lives. What we wish does not determine God's will, whether we wish the release of death or the pleasures of life. It is God who determines the courses and discourses of our lives.
In our fears and griefs of life, and the seeming unfairness of what others do, we run away just as quickly as Elijah from Jezebel and Jonah from Nineveh and Moses from Egypt. We, too, would like to shed the skin, the lien--the terrible obligation--of our life. We, too, feel that we are no better than our predecessors; in fact, we may be making a huge mess of life. "But I said, 'I have labored to no purpose; I have spent my strength in vain and for nothing...'" (Isaiah 49:4). When Keats was dying, he said, "I have written my name on water." Later, Keats' name was written on marble. Christ Himself would be perceived as a total failure on earth--and Christ's name is written on hearts and for eternity.
The good news is that God is there in the whirlwind of tragedy and failure and He's in the still small voice of conscience, too. He knows our frame, that we are made of dust and fragile hearts; He redeems our life and crowns us with His love and compassion. Praise the Lord, O my soul! (Psalm 103).
Some have condemned Elijah for running away from Jezebel and for requesting that God take his life. But there is another side--certainly a more humane view--of what Elijah experienced. Elijah's fire on Carmel became a more gentle breeze on Mount Horeb and he learned treasured lessons there, alone and friendless (so he thought) that he could not learn in the heat of the so-called victory over the false prophets of Baal. Even Elijah had to learn that great lesson we all must learn: "Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord" (Psalm 27:14).
Sometimes, like Elijah, we have to be put in a cave to get out of a "cave mood," as one author calls it. "There he went into a cave and spent the night" (1 Kings 19:9). Elijah was shut into his littleness so he might understand the largeness that God was about to show him. God was processing Elijah for a greater work. "He [God] brought me into a spacious place" (Psalm 18:19a).
There is a dichotomy here with Elijah: he fled to save his life and then asks that it be taken away. We are all dichotomous leaves waving with the winds of what we perceive to be misfortune when it might be the breath of the Lord trying to bring breadth to our life. It was so with Elijah as he swayed with the strong squall of Jezebel's threats. Moses, too, struck for God's cause but not in God's way: "One day [Moses] watched [his own people] at their hard labor. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew...He killed the Egyptian..." (Exodus 2:11,12). God sent Moses into the desert to prepare his heart and body and mind for the more spacious place of saving his people. There are times when we have to be "caved in" to gather strength and to learn valuable lessons so we may be worthy to do God's work within the greater plan which He has for us.
But what about the discouragement and physical exhaustion we experience as human beings? Does God really understand how frail we are? Yes! When we fail and fall, He lifts us to even greater heights of work for Him. "The Lord upholds all those who fall and lifts up all who are bowed down" (Psalm 145:14). Our Lord's life on earth was spent in putting down the lofty and lifting the lowly. "But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first" (Matthew 19:30). If we think we are last in fame and fortune, we need to remind ourselves that it is the meek who God calls His children. And when we are bowed down with infirmities of mind and body, He reaches down to raise us from a living death.
From sinking sand He lifted me,
With tender hand He lifted me;
From shades of night to plains of light,
O praise His name, He lifted me.
(Hymn, He Lifted Me, Charles H. Gabriel, 1856-1932).
"So he [Jesus] went to her, took her hand and helped her up" (Mark 1:31). He does no less for all his helpless children. But Jesus came and touched them. 'Get up,' he said, 'Don't be afraid'" (Matthew 17:7). "People were also bringing babies to Jesus to have him touch them" (Luke 18:15). "For though a righteous man falls seven times, he rises again" (Proverbs 24:16). Seven times; seventy times seven times; whenever we fall! The secret is in getting up again. What a great comfort this verse is to the discouraged who grope for strength and find they do not even have the strength to gather strength. "Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus" (Philippians 1:6). "For it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose" (Philippians 2:14). The good man's fall is an event; the bent of the good man's life is goodness. This was so with Elijah. It was so with Peter, too. One look from our Lord and we weep bitterly over our fall from His grace and graciousness (Matthew 26:75).
"The eternal God is your refuge, (not a cave!), and underneath are the everlasting arms" (Deuteronomy 33:27). Underneath our sorrow are arms that lift us to the shore of serenity. "Teacher, don't you care if we drown?" (Mark 4:38). He said to their storm as He says to our chaos, "Quiet! Be still!" (v.39). "Then the wind died and it was completely calm" (v.39b). "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest" (Matthew 11:28).
"I have made you and I will carry you" (Isaiah 46:4). Because He created us, He will carry us! What a sublime thought this is to the brokenhearted. "`For I know the plans I have for you,' declares the Lord, 'plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future'" (Jeremiah 29:11). It isn't God's plan for us to be defeated and to run away. He will even carry us to the designated place He has for us, but if we are running in the wrong direction, we will run by ourselves.
"So we say with confidence, 'The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?'" (Hebrews 13:6); "If God is for us, who can be against us?" (Romans 8:31); "I will not die but live, and will proclaim what the Lord has done" (Psalm 118:17). People are often in danger: Joseph in the pit, Moses in the ark of bulrushes, Job on the dunghill, David's narrow escapes from Saul, Paul who was let down in the basket, and Jesus who "hid himself, slipping away from the temple grounds" (John 8:59) for His time had not yet come. "But they were furious and began to discuss with one another what they might do to Jesus" (Luke 6:11); "If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first...But this is to fulfill what is written in their Law: 'They hated me without reason'" (John 15:18,25). They hated without reason, only with emotion that is prejudiced. Jezebel hated Elijah because of emotion, and Elijah ran away from this unreasonable woman.
The extraordinary message of 1 Kings 19 is that it is God's ordinary way of caring for us. Lest we think God is neglecting us, let us remember that He gives provisions and not visions when we are in distress. He uses the common means, rest and food: "Then he [Elijah] lay down under the tree and fell asleep ("I will lie down and sleep in peace, for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety" Psalm 4:8). "All at once an angel touched him and said, 'Get up and eat'" (1 Kings 19:5). In the depths of despair we are to rest and then, bidden by God Himself, we are to get up and to eat. He asks us to do our part. We must not let the seeming facts of what is happening in our life to eclipse our faith and obscure our vision of God and so keep us from going to Him as He comes to us.
"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'" (1 Kings 19:7). Not once but twice he is bidden to arise from his lethargy of body and spirit and eat for strength so he might continue on his journey. God does not give up on us! "So [Elijah] got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he traveled..." (1 Kings 19:8). God prepared a table in the wilderness for His beloved Elijah who thought he had failed God. What a glorious lesson! Surely He prepares a table for us in our wilderness and provides for us a satisfying Bread of Life. We are to feed on Him that we may have the strength to live in and for Him.
"The spirit is willing, but the body is weak" (Mark 14:38b). Christ Jesus could say this to His beloved disciples who slept through His lonely hour because He, too, knew rejection and sorrow and hunger and weariness to the extreme degree. God understands that we are not willfully weak. On the one hand, we have sins of infirmity; on the other, we have infirmities that are not sins: fatigue, natural consequences of growing older, hunger, thirst, environment and heredity. This does not excuse us from overcoming, but it helps to know that God empathizes with us because "He took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows" (Isaiah 53:4). "In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express" (Romans 8:26).
It is after we are strengthened that He deals with the immediate problem: "What are you doing here, Elijah?" (1 Kings 19:9b); "But the Lord God called to the man, 'Where are you?'" (Genesis 3:9); "Then the Lord said to Cain, 'Where is your brother Abel?'" (Genesis 4:9). God asks us, too, why are we where we are and what are we doing with our lives. We are our brothers' and sisters' keepers, and this means being responsible and acting responsibly: both a willing and a doing.
Elijah ran away from his responsibilities. Adam and Eve ran away from responsibility for their actions. Elijah's circumstances did not add up to reasons to run away and neither do ours, much as we long to do so at times. "I can do everything through him who gives me strength" (Philippians 4:13).
Only God knows our quiet and pervasive influence in the lives of those with whom we endure, and that is what it is at times in our lives. If we are not where God wants us to be, then God calls us by name and lets us know through that still, small and effective voice of conscience: silent because no sound is audible ("He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets" Isaiah 42:2); small because it is simple and not portentous; effective because it is God who speaks: it is the Divine Whisper of Mind to mind.
Why are you here and not at your post of duty?" Why are we elsewhere? "Why do you go about so much, changing your ways?" (Jeremiah 2:36). God wants us to stay at the post of purpose and service. We may have to tie ourselves to it when the storm and earthquake come, but how good if we can say with Paul at life's end, "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith" (2 Timothy 4:7). If the post crushes our heart and we feel at times that someone has driven a stake into it, then let us remember that God chooses not to work in the earthquake but in our heartbreak, and we may take heart--and His heart--in this thought.
"The Lord said, 'Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by'" (1 Kings 19:11a). After we are refreshed and have strength enough to get up, then we must go up: ascend the mountain to holiness of thought. God cannot feed a mind that is supine. There is a meeting of minds on the mountain. This is where we hear the Divine Whisper. The mountain is a spiritual retreat and this is where God sent Elijah and where He sends us. "Leave your cave of despondency, and come up to Me so I can give you a new song and a new trust--and a new thrust!" He says, "Come up to Me that I may give you rest of mind...but you must have the will to meet My will. As long as you make no effort, then I cannot make it for you."
How ironic that two men who requested death did not die but were translated! How fortunate for us that God does not answer every prayer! We ask amiss. If we ask contrary to God's will and for our ease of responsibility, then He in wisdom does not grant our request. But He will answer according to what is finally best for us.
Patricia Erwin Nordman