The Prophet Elijah’s Depression and 1 Kings 19.1-8

Perhaps the scariest word in the modern western world today is “depression.” Robert Burton wrote a classic in the 1600’s called, “The Anatomy of Melancholy.” He writes, “If there is a hell upon earth, it is to be found in the depressed heart.” Mental health professionals today are calling depression an epidemic (see statements by Mandy Stevens, the NHS director of mental health in the UK). How do we survive depression? Welcome to Elijah’s road to sorrow.

What does Elijah’s road to sorrow look like? It looks like painful people: “Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah saying, ‘So may the gods do to me and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them (i.e. the slaughtered prophets of Baal) by this time tomorrow (verse 2).”

If Jezebel really wanted Elijah dead she would not have sent a messenger with a note, but a ninja-like assassin with a sharp blade. What is Jezebel doing? Today we call it psychological warfare. Jezebel is trying to get into Elijah’s head: “I have the power to give life, or to take it.” A humiliated Elijah is much more effective than a martyred Elijah for her purposes. People can bring overwhelming pain into our lives.

What does Elijah’s road to sorrow look like? It looks like painful defeat: “Then he was afraid, and he arose and ran for his life…(verse 3).” Literally. Elijah runs one hundred miles south to the furthest point possible in Israel from Jezebel. Now look at verse 3, “and left his servant there…” Dismissing his servant means Elijah is dismissing the ministry. He is quitting the ministry. Today we call it “Pastoral Burn-out.” Elijah leaves no doubt when he says, “It is enough…I am no better than my fathers (i.e. all those who have served the prophetic office in Israel)…(verse 4).” Defeat has the power to defeat us.

What does Elijah’s road to sorrow look like? It looks like a painful inner life. Elijah’s life is threatened, fleeing, surrendering, and hunted by enemies. In other words, Elijah’s life is in pain. So in verse 4, Elijah trudges alone into the wilderness, collapses under a “broom tree”, and asks God that he “might die.”

How can Elijah’s sorrow help us? The first answer is we are not alone. We have a God-given friend in Elijah. When we see Elijah’s depression we can say, “You too? You get me. I am not alone.” The second answer is found in the words of the angel sent to help Elijah, “the journey is too great for you (verse 7).” Everything in Elijah’s life is too great for him: painful people, painful defeat, and a painful heart. We are only human. Depression is an invitation to go places with God that we have never been before.

How can Elijah’s sorrow help us? The absence of depression does not save Elijah or us. Jesus does. Hope is not in the absence of painful people, painful defeat, or a painful inner life. Hope is the presence of Jesus. It is incredibly fascinating that Elijah’s despairing words, “It is enough”, are also found on Jesus’ lips at the cross, “It is finished.” On the cross the greatest friend of the depressed said, “It is enough. It is finished. My ministry is over now. O LORD, take away my life for my friends so that their sin, death, and pain is defeated once for all.” And Unlike Elijah’s prayer, God did.