How to Help a Caveman –
1 Kings 19
Article 27 of 32 from the Miscellaneous series
June 2006 – We do live in strange times. Someone has called this the Age of Anxiety, and it seems appropriate enough. Not long ago I found this headline: “Most Think Country Headed in Wrong Direction.” Those words could be slightly altered to read like this:
“Most Think Family Headed in Wrong Direction.”
“Most Think Marriage Headed in Wrong Direction.”
“Most Think Career Headed in Wrong Direction.”
“Most Think World Headed in Wrong Direction.”
Shortly before we moved from Chicago, we attended services at Arlington Heights Evangelical Free Church. During his pastoral prayer, Colin Smith said, “It seems that we live in cataclysmic times,” referring first to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and then to the devastating earthquake in Pakistan that left tens of thousands dead. I thought later of the subway bombing scare in New York and the continuing violence in Iraq. Then I had lunch with a friend who is an executive working in Christian media. As we talked about the subway scare, he commented that everyone in the restaurant is thinking, “When will it happen in Chicago?” While not everyone may have been thinking about it at precisely that instant, the fear that “it” will happen to us has been right beneath the surface ever since 9/11. I have often thought that the national blood pressure went up about 100 points after 9/11 and has never really come down. Our fear makes us angry, uptight, tense, hostile, sullen, and very impatient with each other. I see it on my bike rides because when you travel city streets, you live in constant awareness that a) drivers don’t see you, b) if they see you, they don’t notice you, and c) if they really do see you, they don’t like you. So you constantly pay attention to the cars coming and going and often brushing right against you. I see the frustration on the faces of the drivers, and often I hear it when they honk their horns at the slightest provocation.
Lest you think I’m overstating it, the September 2005 issue of Johns Hopkins Magazine focused on the Seven Deadly Sins:
Americans hate each other. There is not only the everyday empirical evidence of wrath along interstate highways, but in the snakepits of real estate, marriage, shopping, pro wrestling, and health insurance.So begins the article on Anger by Wayne Biddle. He adds this trenchant observation:
Anger seems nowadays just a millionth of an inch beneath every human surface, passive or aggressive, and it will bite your head off, stab you in the back, laugh in your face, leave you twisting in the wind–maybe all at once, and more.I think Colin Smith is right. We do live in cataclysmic times, and the anger that lurks beneath the surface is a symptom of a world that seems to be spinning out of control. During lunch my friend and I spoke of the opportunities this provides for Christians to be bold about our faith. The Bible predicts a time in the last days when God will shake the nations so that so those things that cannot be shaken will remain (Hebrews 12:26-27). When Eugene Peterson paraphrased the last part of verse 27 in The Message, he said that God will shake the earth, “getting rid of all the historical and religious junk so that the unshakable essentials stand clear and uncluttered.” Unshakable essentials. That says it all. God is shaking the earth so that we will figure out what matters most.
The Paths of GloryIn the end everything that man builds collapses before his eyes. A friend sent me an email containing these lines from a poem called “Gray’s Elegy” written in a country churchyard in England:
The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power<According to 1 John 2:17, “The world is passing away along with its desires” (ESV). Indeed, the best and brightest of us will someday die. All that we do will eventually be forgotten.
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave
Awaits alike the inevitable hour
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
Consider these next two sentences carefully:
Those who look to this world for approval will eventually be disappointed because the best things of this world must one day disappear.
Those who look to the God who created the world will find safety and security that will last forever.
What a revelation the judgment day will be for all of us. The things we thought were so important, so crucial, so vital, the things we included on our personal résumé, the degrees we earned, the money we made, the deals we closed, the classes we taught, the friends we cultivated in high places, the buildings we built, the organizations we managed, the budgets we balanced, the books we wrote, the songs we sang, the records we made, the trips we took, the portfolios we built, the fortunes we amassed, the positions we finally attained so that the people of the world and even our Christian friends would know that we didn’t just sit on the couch watching the Simpsons every night, all that stuff that we take such pride in, the things that in themselves are not evil or wrong or bad, but are the “stuff” of life in this world, all of it, every single last bit of it, every part of it, considered singularly and then combined together to give us our reputation, our standing, our place in the world, even our place in the Christian world, our name in the lights, our claim to fame, our reason for existence, our bragging rights, if you will, the proof that we were here and made a name for ourselves in the short 50 or 60 or 70 or even 80 or 90 years that we have on planet earth, think of it!, all of it added together means nothing, zip, zero, nada, vanity of vanities, all is vanity, and I think I’ve heard that somewhere before. That’s a very long sentence, isn’t it? I wrote it that way to emphasize how easy it is for us to get sucked into the world’s way of thinking, how quickly it happens, and on so many different levels. All of it will someday amount to nothing.
Most of you reading this sermon know that I’ve written a few books. Sometimes people hear that I’m an author and seem a bit impressed. But it doesn’t amount to much in the great scheme of things. I remember soon after my first book came out, a friend called to say he found a copy at a garage sale for 25 cents. When I asked if he bought it, he laughed and said no. Such is life. You write books that are published with great fanfare only to go out of print sooner or later and end up on some dusty bookshelf, or more likely in a garage sale, or even more likely sold for a few pennies on Ebay. Long ago I realized that my books are destined to be landfill someday. Some of them probably already are mulch in a yard in southern California. Such is life.
If this sounds melancholy, I don’t mean it that way. It’s just the way the universe works. Nothing lasts forever, including you and me. We won’t live forever on the earth. We are disposable creatures, very much perishable, “a flower quickly fading,” here today and gone tomorrow. And we do live in cataclysmic times, in which God is shaking the world. That shaking will increase in the days to come as we near the return of Jesus Christ to the earth.
The Brain Strain and the Heart PainAfter living under the threat of terrorist attacks, rogue nuclear states, and being blindsided by earthquakes, tsunamis and hurricanes, I don’t blame anyone for feeling a bit shaky. Patience is in short supply everywhere. I ran across a little poem that seems to describe contemporary life:
This is the Age of the Half-read Page
And the Quick Bash, and the Mad Dash
The Bright Night, with the Nerves Tight
The Plane Hop, with a Brief Stop
The Lamp Tan in a Short Span
The Big Shot in a Good Spot
And the Brain Strain and the Heart Pain
And the Cat-Naps, till the Spring Snaps
And the Fun’s Done!
When the Bible paints the picture of its great heroes, it does not just use the light colors of victory and happiness and joy. It also paints the full portrait with the dark colors of sadness, difficulty, depression, defeat, sin and temptation. That is certainly the case when we come to the story of that great mountain man Elijah. He has just defeated Ahab and the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. Immediately the story moves from his greatest victory to his most humiliating defeat. Without a pause we go from the top to the bottom. This is the story of Elijah’s personal breakdown. This is the story of Elijah’s battle with discouragement, despondency and depression. One writer calls this “Elijah’s nervous breakdown.” I do not doubt that that is a good description.
Elijah is in trouble. He is messed up, depressed, discouraged, stressed out, burned out, mentally fried, physically drained, and spiritually out of sorts. He’s exactly like many of us, in other words. The next to the last line of that poem seems to perfectly describe him when it speaks of the brain strain and the heart pain. At some point, if you keep on pushing, the spring snaps and the fun’s done. For Elijah, the fun was done, at least for a while.
1 Kings 19 not only tells us what happened to Elijah, it also describes how God met him at his lowest point. Certainly Elijah was depressed and discouraged. After his great victory on Mount Carmel, I think he expected the nation to experience a vast turning to the Lord. But when Jezebel threatened him, he cracked under the pressure and ran south to Beersheba, and from Beersheba he went a day’s journey into the desert. There he sat under a broom tree in utter dejection. Judging himself a failure, he prays that God might take his life. F. W. Robertson points out that his predicament is common to all:
What greater minds like Elijah’s have felt intensely, all we have felt in our own degree. Not one of us but what has felt his heart aching for want of sympathy. We have had our lonely hours, our days of disappointment, and our moments of hopelessness, times when our highest feelings have been misunderstood, and our purest met with ridicule. Days when our heavy secret was lying unshared, like ice upon the heart. And then the spirit gives way: we have wished that all were over, that we could lie down tired, and rest like the children from life, that the hour was come when we could put down the extinguisher on the lamp, and feel the last grand rush of darkness on the spirit.Because we are all made of the same clay, let us pay close attention to how God deals with his discouraged servant. We find it the text that Elijah needed four things, and those four things he received from the Lord.
Number One: He Needed Rest and Refreshment.Elijah sat under the broom tree so discouraged that he prayed that he might die. Then he fell asleep. The Lord sent an angel with a command from heaven: “All at once an angel touched him and said, ’Get up and eat’” (v. 5). How’s that for spiritual advice? Get up and eat. He doesn’t say get up and pray. He doesn’t say get up and read the Word. He doesn’t say get up and start preaching. He doesn’t say get up and serve the Lord. The angel tells Elijah to get something to eat.
Here’s a profound truth. Sometimes we need to eat. Sometimes we need to sleep. Sometimes we need to eat and sleep even more than we need to pray. There’s a time for everything. There is a time for crying out to God, and there is a time to roll over in bed, close your eyes and get a good night’s sleep. And there is a time when what you need is a Big Mac, French Fries and a chocolate milkshake. Sometimes you need a big plate of chicken-fried steak, mashed potatoes, green beans, cole slaw, sweet tea, and homemade peach cobbler. We all need a good night’s sleep and a good meal. Sometimes we just need to let our hair down and have a blast. For some that means going water skiing. For others it means hiking in the mountains. For some it means sitting in a comfortable chair and knitting with your friends. For me it means riding my bike. That’s why God commanded man to work for six days and to rest on the seventh day. God built into the fabric of the universe that we need to work and work hard and serve the lord, and we also need some downtime. We need some rest and we need some relaxation. Sometimes the most spiritual thing you can do is to get up and have a good meal, because you’ll feel so much better.
So the angel gives Elijah a very specific command: “Get up and eat.” He looked around and found a cake of bread baked over hot coals and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and then he laid down and slept again. God’s mountain man is tuckered out. He took a nap. He got up, had some food, and he went back to bed again. Is he a sluggard? No. He’s just worn out in the service of God. “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’” (v. 7). Strengthened by that food he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God. There he went into a cave and did what? He spent the night there.
Now understand, he’s still got all kind of problems. We’ve not gotten to the real issues of life yet. But sometimes you can’t get to the deep issues until you deal with things like hunger and physical exhaustion. Basically God arranged for Elijah to have a six-week vacation, all expenses paid. That sounds good until you recall that he had to walk across the desert by himself to Mount Sinai.
Why did he go to Horeb? Because he knew Mount Sinai was the place you went when you know you need to meet God. He didn’t just pick out any mountain. If he wanted to find a cave, there were caves a lot closer than Horeb. He went back to where Moses met the Lord. There’s a value in going back to certain milestones in your life and certain physical locations in your life, places where you met God in the past.
When you are depressed, there are at three things you need, and God made sure Elijah got all three of them.
You need good food.
You need some rest.
You need some physical exercise.
I would consider walking forty days across the desert good physical exercise. You need rest. You need food. You need exercise. You need more that that, but that’s a good place to begin.
God’s restoration of Elijah begins with rest and relaxation for the body, the mind and the soul. But there is more to come.
Number Two: He Has to Face His Fears.“And the word of the Lord came to him. ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’” (v. 9) That’s a good question. The last time we saw Elijah, he was winning a great victory on Mount Carmel. So what is he doing cowering in a cave, hundreds of miles away? Not that the Lord didn’t know. This question was not for God’s benefit, but for Elijah’s. “So explain yourself, son. You were my man up there on Mt. Carmel. What are you doing here?” God is saying, “It’s time to face your fears.” This is Elijah’s response: “I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword.” (v. 10). Everything he said was true.
He has been zealous.
The people had rejected the covenant.
They put the prophets to death.
No exaggeration at all. If he had stopped there, he would have been on solid ground. Now look at the next sentence. “I am the only one left. Now they are trying to kill me too.” The last part of that sentence is true; the first part was not true. But it was that first part, that feeling of being utterly alone, that needed an adjustment. He was so far gone in self-pity that he actually thought he was only the only righteous man left in Israel.
Let me stop at this point and make a simple application. Self-pity is the enemy of all spiritual growth. As long as you feel sorry for yourself, you’ll make a thousand excuses for not facing your own problems, and you’ll never get better. A few years ago I met a man who got in trouble because of the Internet. He got drawn into pornography and ended up committing adultery. When the truth came out, it nearly cost him his marriage. He told me that part of the restoration process included going to a weekly meeting of men struggling with all sorts of sexual sins. It was a very tough group. They had one rule and only one. No self-pity. No blaming your wife. No blaming your colleagues. No blaming your parents. No blaming your inner tendencies. No blaming something that happened to you when you were a child. If you started down that road, they would stop you. And he said if you continue with self-pity, they throw you out of the group, because self-pity is the enemy of all spiritual growth. As long as you feel sorry for yourself, you cannot get better. As long as you blame others, you cannot get better. As long as you try to throw off your problems on somebody else, you cannot get better. And as long as you say, “I alone am left, O Lord, I am the only one who’s faithful, I’m the only one on your team,” as long as you talk like that, you cannot get better.
You may be stuck spiritually because you are wallowing in a sea of self-pity, and you have convinced yourself that your problems are caused by other people, and you make a living blaming your circumstances and other people for your problems. And you wonder why you aren’t getting better. You are stuck and you will be stuck until you stop making excuses and start taking responsibility. You cannot and you will not get better. Self-pity is the mortal enemy of all spiritual growth.
Number three: He Needed a New Vision of God.Note how these three things go together. Rest and relaxation speaks to the body; facing his fears and his self-pity speaks to his mind; a new vision of God speaks to the need of his soul. He needed to be changed body, mind and soul.
When Elijah begins to wallow in self-pity, notice how God responds. Or more particularly notice what God doesn’t do. He doesn’t say what many of us would have said. “What is wrong with you? Get your act together.” We would have argued with Elijah and told him to snap out of it. “Come on! Get a grip!” God doesn’t put Elijah down, he doesn’t rebuke him, and he doesn’t ridicule him. Instead, God meets him at the point of his deep despair. He just says, “Son, come with me. Get up. That’s right. Get up. Get out of your cave. Come on, Elijah. Come on out. I won’t hurt you. Come on out of the cave. I want to show you something.” That’s all God does. He does not condemn him. As we know, condemning depressed people generally doesn’t work. It doesn’t help us when we’re depressed if somebody condemns us, and it doesn’t help for us to condemn somebody else. It just makes the situation worse.
What follows is amazing. A mighty wind tore across the face of the mountain, shattering the rocks. But the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake. And after the earthquake there was a fire, but the Lord was not in the earthquake, and the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and he went out and stood in the mouth of the cave. F. W. Robertson has another helpful word at this point:
There are some spirits which must go through a discipline analogous to that sustained by Elijah. The storm-struggle must precede the still small voice. There are minds which must be convulsed with doubt before they can repose in faith. There are hearts which must be broken with disappointment before they can rise into hope. There are dispositions which, like Job, must have all things taken from them before they can find all things again in God. Blessed is the man who, when the tempest has spent its fury, recognizes his Father’s voice in its under-tone, and bares his head and bows his knee, as Elijah did.Why does God put Elijah through this demonstration of divine power? He’s getting his man back in touch with spiritual reality. Psalm 46:10 says, “Be still and know that I am God.” The Lord wants Elijah to know that it is not in the earthquakes or the fire or the huge events where we most often encounter the Lord. We more often meet God in the small, forgotten places of life. A few months ago I was complaining about something that had happened. My wife listened to me complain for a while and then she listened some more. Finally she decided she had heard enough so she said what wives have said to complaining husbands since the beginning of time: “Grow up.” I didn’t like that at all. For one thing, I didn’t want to grow up. I wanted to complain. So my wife said to me, “Stop complaining and open your eyes and see how good God has been to us.” She was right, of course. So we started to play a little game to see how many God sightings we could find every day. And do you know what we found? We discovered that if we paid attention, every day there were always a handful of God sightings, of God doing something–a phone call or somebody dropping by with an unexpected word of kindness or a card in the mail or an answered prayer. Sometimes it’s just a small little thing God would do, just something that caused us to say, “That was the Lord who did that for us.” We learned that if you keep your eyes open for God, pretty soon you’ll see him everywhere. Our problem is we want to see the earthquake; we want to see the fire all the time. We want the big demonstration. We want the spectacular answer to prayer. God says, “That’s not always where you’re going to see me, but just listen for the gentle whisper.” God always speaks loud enough for the willing ear to hear. I have found myself praying over and over, “O Lord, open the eyes of my heart that I might see you everywhere.” And you know what? It has enabled me to see God at work in places where I never saw him before.
Number Four: He Needed a New Commission.In verse 13 God repeats his question, and Elijah repeats his answer. There are times when a mistake must be corrected with accurate information. So now God is going to give Elijah some accurate information. The Lord said to him, “Go back the way you came and go to the desert of Damascus” (v. 15). That’s a long journey from the Sinai desert, through the Holy Land, all the way up to the desert around Damascus. Then he has some very specific instructions:
When you get there, anoint Hazael king over Aram. Also, anoint Jehu son of Nimshi king over Israel, and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat from Abel Meholah to succeed you as prophet. Jehu will put to death any who escape the sword of Hazael, and Elisha will put to death any who escape the sword of Jehu. Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel—all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and all whose mouths have not kissed him”(vv. 15-19).God reminds Elijah that he’s not alone. Not only is God with him, God has another 7000 in Israel who have not bowed down to Baal. Understand there is no spot in this world so lonely where God is not already there. God is not just to be seen in the big things of life. He’s also to be seen in the stillness and in the small things. God is not limited by your small vision. In all of this God is reminding Elijah, “You are not alone, I am with you and I’ve got 7,000 more just like you. I’m going to give you a man to be your protégée, your partner and your successor. You never were alone, you’re not alone now, and you’re not going to be alone in the future.” Elijah had accomplished more than he thought. Those 7000 were men and women who took strength from Elijah’s brave confrontation with the prophets of Baal. So his life had not been wasted after all. No life is wasted that is spent in the service of our Lord who promised to reward even a cup of cold water given in his name. And this is the ultimate irony of the story. Elijah thought he had failed, but out of his perceived failure came assurance of his ultimate victory in the lives he touched who, like him, would not bow down to Baal.
Learn this lesson. You are not in a position to estimate your own effectiveness. When you think have won, don’t be so sure. When you think you have failed, let God render the final verdict. You and I are as likely as Elijah to wrongly estimate both our victories and our defeats. Better to do our best and leave the results with God. He knows better than we do the lives that have been changed by our service for Christ.
If Satan cannot get to us externally, he’ll get to us internally. It is no surprise that Elijah’s greatest victory and his greatest defeat come back to back. It is not a sin to be discouraged. It is not a sin to be depressed. It’s what you do when you are discouraged, depressed and feeling hopeless that matters. Don’t fight the battle alone. Get some help. Get all the help you need. And remember this. God is still there. There’s no pit so deep that the love of God is not deeper still. If you are discouraged, be encouraged. The Lord still loves you. He has not forgotten you.
Stand and fight, child of God, for you are not alone.
Never give up.
Never give up.
Never, never, never, never, never, never give up.
The Lord is on your side. Amen.
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