Prophet in despair
He came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, LORD,’ he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the bush and fell asleep. (1 Kings 19:4-5, NIV)
The contrast is astonishing. One day, victory: soon after, despair. So much so that the prophet Elijah asks God to take his life. It is so strange!
Elijah had been at Mount Carmel when a great victory was won. Israel in those days (around the 860s BC) had turned from the living and true God, the LORD, to worship the Baals. The prophet had challenged his Baal counterparts to a contest: each was to call on their god, and they’d see who would answer by sending down fire. Despite the prophets of Baal calling all day, nothing happened. But after a simple prayer from Elijah, the LORD sent down fire. The crowd saw who’s really God, and the prophets of Baal were executed. It had been a great moment!
But in the very next chapter we find Elijah in utter despair. Queen Jezebel has been incensed by the extinction of the Baal prophets and vows to take Elijah’s life. He flees for his life - but then, strangely, walks miles out into the waterless desert on his own, asking God to take his life. Why?
Some commentators suggest that he is suffering from some kind of clinical depression. That is possible; God’s people are far from exempt from that horrible illness. Others say he was experiencing a physical reaction to exhaustion - an understandable response after the drama on Mt Carmel. Others again say he was really suffering from an exaggerated sense of self-importance, which caught up with him.
However, none of these are the reason the Bible gives. All the writer tells us is that after the great victory at Carmel came Jezebel’s evil response. That, it seems, was in itself enough to send him to despair. Yes, there had been a great victory; but evil was back.
It is such helpful realism. In the story of God’s people - a story we are in the thick of - there have been huge ups and downs for the churches. Great victories have been won, and the gospel has gone forward. But evil still has a way of creeping back in. And so it will be until the glorious day when Christ returns. We saw plenty of that in our journey as a church through the book of Revelation in recent months.
And it is evil which depresses the prophet - not his own comfort or reputation. For all he’s bothered about is God’s glory. As God engages the suicidal prophet in conversation, Elijah says, “I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me, too.” All his concern was for God’s name, and the well-being of His people. This is what animated him; but the flip side is that this is what made his despair at evil worse.
Are we not reminded of the Lord Jesus, quoting the Psalm, “Zeal for your house will consume me” ? (John 2:17)
May we know that same sense of personal investment in God’s glory, even if at times we feel the ups and downs very keenly!