What Can We Learn About Depression from Elijah?

You probably remember the big showdown between Elijah and the prophets of Baal from the Bible. If you grew up in Sunday School or children’s church, I’m pretty sure you heard the story taught with flannelgraph figures.

Ahab was one of the most wicked kings of Israel. God had told the prophet Elijah to tell Ahab there would be no rain in Israel for three years. No rain meant no crops; no crops meant famine. Finally, after three years, God sent Elijah to confront Ahab. Elijah called for the 450 prophets of Baal to set up an altar, as would Elijah. A bull would be cut up and laid on their altars. They would each call on their God, and the one who answered by fire was the real God.

Elijah let the other prophets go first. They prayed, cried, cut themselves for hours, but nothing happened.

Then Elijah’s turn came. He had men dig a moat around the altar and then pour enough water to soak the meat and altar and fill up the moat. Then Elijah prayed, “O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your word. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back” (1 Kings 18:36-37).

And God did! Fire fell and consumed the bull, the wood, the stones, and all the water. “And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, ‘The Lord, he is God; the Lord, he is God’” (verse 39).

The prophets of Baal were slain. Rain came. That should have been that.

But it wasn’t. When Jezebel, Ahab’s wicked wife, heard what had happened, she sent a message to Elijah threatening his life.

And Elijah was afraid and ran, asking God to take his life.

How did Elijah go from facing down 450 false prophets to running from one woman? How did he go from the heights of such victory to the depths of wanting to die?

Some teachers are very hard on Elijah here. Some have even said that when God told Elijah to anoint Elisha as his successor, Elijah basically lost his ministry. Just this week, after starting this post, I saw someone accusing Elijah of “pouting.”

Thankfully, I’ve heard this passage treated differently more recently. And in my last read-through a few days ago, several things stood out to me.

Ministering to the physical ministers to the spiritual.

A lot of preachers say Monday morning is their worst time of the week. I’m not a preacher, but when I have taught or ministered in some way, I am pretty depleted afterward.

It’s significant to me that at the outset, God lets Elijah sleep, feeds him, and lets him sleep again.

We have a tendency to think it’s noble to disregard our physical needs for spiritual purposes. At times that is necessary: fasting, taking care of a new baby, ministering to someone who is ill. Sometimes you have to just do your best and trust God to make up for the deficit. But as a general rule, God has built a need for nourishment and rhythms of rest into our being. Especially when we’ve had a major crisis, or even a major victory, we can expect a crash afterward and a need for rest and recovery.

Time with God brings a change in perspective.

I find the questions that God asks people fascinating. “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (1 Kings 19:9). God knows the answers. But when He asks a question, instead of starting off with confrontation or instruction, He gives people opportunity to examine their hearts.

Elijah had thought he was all alone. He shouldn’t have—Obadiah had just told him about hiding a hundred prophets in caves for their protection. Maybe Elijah didn’t feel he was God’s only prophet, but he was the only one taking a stand. But God said, no, there were 7,000 who had not bowed the knee to Baal. The next few chapters tell of the work of some other prophets of the Lord.

God often works in quiet ways.

Like Elijah, we would have expected everything to change after the confrontation on Mt. Carmel. That demonstration had proved conclusively that the God of Israel was the real God, hadn’t it? Probably some people’s hearts turned, but Ahab’s and Jezebel’s hadn’t.

It’s interesting that the Bible most often shows God working through quiet ways rather than the miraculous. Of course, God is God. He can work a miracle any time He wants, and He still does today. But most of the miracles took place in the time of Moses, Elijah and Elisha, Jesus’ ministry, and the days of the early church in Acts. People in Jesus’ day begged Him for a sign, but He knew that if they wouldn’t believe the truth they had, they wouldn’t believe a sign, either.

God told Elijah to stand on the mountain. God passed by, and a strong wind tore rocks away. But God wasn’t in the wind. Then there was an earthquake, but the Lord wasn’t in the earthquake. Then came a fire, but God wasn’t in the fire. Then came a low whisper: other translations say a gentle whisper or a still, small voice.

The ESV Study Bible says, “God has other ways of working than the spectacular (though He is always free to work in supernatural ways)” (p. 637). This doesn’t mean God didn’t use the showdown. But the work wasn’t finished yet, and “the quiet ways of God must take their course before” this part of history is over (p. 637).

Trust God with the results.

It’s hard to pour your heart into something that apparently hasn’t done any good. The key word there is apparently. We can do God’s will God’s way and still look like we failed. But God knew what would happen and what He would do. It may look like God isn’t winning, but the story isn’t over yet.

Just a few chapters later, God’s prophecies about Ahab and Jezebel would come to pass. A king of Judah would see a revival come to the land.

Don’t go it alone.

When Elijah anointed Elisha as his eventual replacement, he didn’t retire immediately. For the rest of his ministry, he had a friend and mentee. “Then [Elisha] arose and went after Elijah and assisted him” (1 Kings 19:21). Some years after Elijah was gone, Jehoshaphat asked for a prophet of the Lord. “Then one of the king of Israel’s servants answered, ‘Elisha the son of Shaphat is here, who poured water on the hands of Elijah'” (2 Kings 3:11). Before Elisha became a mighty prophet in his own right, he served Elisha, ministering to his needs.

Do the next thing God has for you.

Was God done with Elijah?

No. God gave him three different men to anoint for different purposes (Elijah handed off two of those to Elisha). In chapter 21, God sent Elijah to confront Ahab over his theft of Naboth’s vineyard (apparently with no fear of Jezebel this time). In 2 Kings 1, God gave Elijah a message for King Ahaziah.

In 2 Kings 2, Elijah was taken up in a chariot of fire, the only person we know of who was ever taken to heaven that way. (Interestingly, God did not answer Elijah’s prayer that he might die. God had something different in mind.)

An angel said John the Baptist would come in the spirit and power of Elijah (Luke 1:8-17).

Elijah and Moses appeared when Jesus was transfigured (Matthew 17:1-8).

May believe that one of the two witnesses in Revelation 11 will be Elijah.

Does that sound like someone God was done with, or even displeased with?

Not to me.

God doesn’t cast us off when we get discouraged. If He did, all the psalmists who cried out to God in anguish and momentary disillusionment would have been in trouble. But He does want us to come to Him and renew our minds with His Word.

Of course, there is a type of depression that involves brain chemistry and can benefit from medication. But these measures—taking care of physical needs, gaining perspective, fellowship with others, trusting God with results and serving Him—can help even in those cases.

(I often link up with some of these bloggers.)

17 thoughts on “What Can We Learn About Depression from Elijah?

  1. I’ve always been fascinated by God’s patient and tender care for Elijah at this point. It reminds me of one of the “truths learned in Kindergarten” – sometimes you just need a healthy snack and a long nap. And praise God – he provides both. We humans think better when our physical needs are met.

  2. What a helpful post! You brought out so many interesting details. I like the thought about why God asks people questions … also the importance of rest, etc. I so love the stories of various Biblical characters, and how even the “greats” had their struggles.

    • Seeing how Bible people had struggles is a big help to me, too. I should have included the passage from James 5:17: “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth.”

  3. Great post! It is so true that God is often in the quiet. We’re told to listen for God’s still, small voice. You have to be still to see God working sometimes. Elijah had just come from a major victory over the prophets of Baal but when confronted by the wicked queen’s threats, he seemed to be defeated. God met him just where he was – providing just what he needed at the time – rest and nourishment

  4. I have always been encouraged by how God dealt so gently and compassionately with Elijah, and I agree it’s important to remember that he often works in quiet ways, not just in the big dramatic moments.

  5. Thanks for your wisdom! I think all these a very helpful measures when dealing with Depression – taking care of physical needs, gaining perspective, fellowship with others, trusting God with results and serving Him..

  6. The relationship between physical and spiritual wellbeing is so important and symbiotic. I find peace in the quiet times when I can appreciate the wonderful world around us and give thanks for my family and other blessings. Thanks for linking up with #DreamTeam

  7. Pingback: June Reflections | Stray Thoughts

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