Back in the early ‘70s, as a result of numerous global crises, there was a popular saying that circulated through society: “Hang in there, baby!” The phrase found its way onto posters, t-shirts, coffee mugs, etc. It became a ubiquitous catch-phrase of encouragement.
It’s part of the universal human condition that we will all face desperate circumstances from time to time. It typically starts with a disappointment – someone or something lets us down. A relationship breakdown, a job loss, or a sudden illness can get the better of us and eventually morph into discouragement. Left untreated, discouragement can eventually develop into full-blown despair. This is not a good place to be.
Lest we believe the falsehood that we are the only ones who encounter such desperate experiences, the Bible is full of examples of people reaching the end of their physical, spiritual and emotional ropes. Dangling over the precipice of despair, some of our most admired heroes of the faith were at some point on the verge of ‘letting go’.
There was Job who, despite his righteous life, lost everything (family, wealth and health) and cursed the day he was born (Job 1-3). Jonah, the ‘justice warrior’, who was so angry at God for showing grace to the wicked Assyrian’s of Nineveh that he wanted to die (Jonah 4:1-3). Young David, the future king and hero of Israel who wrote poetically and prolifically about his anxiety and despair (e.g. Psa. 143) as he was unjustly pursued by the insanely jealous King Saul (1 Sam. 23:14-18). The Apostle Paul, the greatest missionary of all time, who faced constant persecution, punishment, plots, prison and peril was on the verge of death on multiple occasions (Phil. 1:23; 2 Tim. 4:6-8). Even our Lord Jesus was grieved to the point of death by the thought of being separated from His Father (Luke 22:41-44).
While each of these instructive stories is worthy of careful study and deep reflection, I’d like to consider the story of another ‘desperate hero’, Elijah the Prophet.
One of the greatest prophets of the Bible, externally Elijah was peculiar and eccentric. Foreshadowing John the Baptist (Luke 1:13-17), he was a mysterious, powerful and much feared dessert-dwelling recluse. Not someone with whom most of us would immediately identify or relate to. But internally, Elijah was a person just like us (Jas. 5:17). He had the same dreams, passions and fears that we all share. Due to his unique God given mission, he dealt with all manner of dangerous threats as he faithfully and courageously fought against the tide of evil idolatry that had overtaken every aspect of Israel’s society. A society not unlike our world today.
Despite his frequent heroics and powerful sermons, Elijah hit a real low point along the way. Let’s pick up the story in 1 Kings 19:3-4.
“Then (Elijah) was afraid, and he arose and ran for his life and came to Beersheba, which belongs to Judah, and left his servant there. But he himself went a day's journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he asked that he might die, saying, "It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers." (1 Kings 19:3-4)
The context of Elijah’s hour of desperation was the immediate aftermath of his famous showdown with the evil King Ahab and the 450 prophets of Baal at the top of Mount Carmel. At God’s behest, Elijah ‘dispatched’ all the false prophets and publicly humiliated King Ahab by demonstrating the supreme power and sovereignty of God. As a result, Ahab’s wife Jezebel threatened to kill Elijah. She literally put out a ‘contract’ to assassinate him.
Despite having just achieved a great and awesome victory by the miraculous power of God, Elijah responded to this new threat with fear, panic and ultimately despair. Like Jonah, Elijah ran in the opposite direction, away from his calling. Finding himself in the wilderness, both metaphorically and literally, he felt completely alone hiding out in a state of self-pity. He was physically, spiritually and emotionally exhausted.
Coming down our mountains of success, we too can find ourselves ‘in the wilderness’. The valleys of despair always seem deeper when we descend from high peaks. Satan knows this, which is why we need to be especially alert and on our guard following spiritual victories.
Elijah was at the end of his rope. The good news is, there is no end to God’s ‘rope’.
Just as Elijah ran out of hope, seeing no way out of his desperate situation, God lovingly intervened.
“And he (Elijah) lay down and slept under a broom tree. And behold, an angel touched him and said to him, “Arise and eat.” And he looked, and behold, there was at his head a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water. And he ate and drank and lay down again. And the angel of the Lord came again a second time and touched him and said, “Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you.” And he arose and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb(aka Sinai), the mount of God.” (1 Kings 19:5-8)
The first thing God did was to provide for Elijah’s physical needs. God gave Elijah the injection of energy he needed to push on. But God knew that was not enough. Elijah also needed spiritual renewal. So, God sent him on another journey, to the place where God first met with Moses and subsequently established His Mosaic Covenant with Israel.
“And He said, “Go out and stand on the mount before the Lord.” And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord , but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper. And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (1 Kings 19:11-13)
On Mt. Sinai, God demonstrated His sovereignty over all Creation through a dramatic display of natural catastrophes and then ministered spiritually to Elijah in the form of a still, small voice. Elijah’s ‘wake up call’ came in the form of a pointed question asked in a whisper: “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
Like us, Elijah needed to be encouraged to get back on track – to get his focus off of his circumstances and back on the main game. In order to hear God’s corrective voice in our lives, we too need to stop, shut out the noise of the world reverberating in our minds and focus on what God is saying to us. No fanfare or spectacular manifestations required.
“But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me.” (Psa. 131:2)
In addition to physical and spiritual renewal, Elijah also needed emotional renewal. He felt all alone in the monumental task God had called him to – cleansing Israel of its pagan influences. The emotional renewal came in the form of a coalition of trusted allies.
“And the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus. And when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael to be king over Syria. And Jehu the son of Nimshi you shall anoint to be king over Israel, and Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah you shall anoint to be prophet in your place. And the one who escapes from the sword of Hazael shall Jehu put to death, and the one who escapes from the sword of Jehu shall Elisha put to death. Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.” (1 Kings 19:15-18)
God reminded Elijah that he was not alone. Not that he ever was. Me + God = A Majority
With God on our side, we will never be outnumbered (cf. John 14:16-20). Still, it’s touching that God chose to generously meet Elijah in his moment of weakness and desperation, by going above and beyond in His provision.
We should never underestimate the importance of godly fellowship and support from our Christian brothers and sisters. They are a gracious provision from our Lord. Elijah now had 7,003 new friends. And not the phoney Facebook variety.
Once we’re physically rested, spiritually restored and emotionally encouraged, the best remedy for despair is to get up and get to work. The more we focus on the work God has apportioned to us, the less likely we are to think about our problems. With God’s help, we can and must break the vicious cycle of disappointment, discouragement and despair. There’s too much at stake.
So the next time we find ourselves lost in the wilderness, let’s remember that we’re not alone. Let’s entrust ourselves into the safety of God’s omnipotent hands, knowing that despite our immediate temporal conditions, His plans and motives are always for the best. The same Heavenly Father who strengthened and encouraged Elijah in his time of need is standing with us as well, encouraging us to “Hang in there, baby!”
“So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” (2 Cor. 4:16-18)
For further encouragement, please read Rom. 8:28-39, 2 Cor. 1:3-5 and Phil. 4:11-13.