How to Help a Caveman
1 Kings 19
March 7, 2006
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We do live in strange times. Someone has called this the Age of Anxiety, and it seems appropriate enough. All week long I’ve been watching those “2005 Year in Review” specials. We have just finished twelve months that started with the tsunami disaster and included the worst hurricane season on record. I don’t blame anyone for feeling a bit shaky as 2005 comes to an end. 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 last we met Elijah, he was in trouble. He is messed up, depressed, discouraged, stressed out, burned out, mentally strained, physically drained, and spiritually out of sorts. He’s exactly like most 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.
Our text tells us not only what happened to Elijah, it also describes how God met him at his lowest point. A few days ago I happened to catch a few minutes of a leading Christian psychiatrist being interviewed on TV. After discussing the physical and medical factors that can lead to depression, he remarked that for most American Christians, depression is basically a spiritual issue. There is always a danger in a statement like that because people will read all sorts of things into it. Later he made it clear that he believes in using all necessary medical means when that is appropriate to treat depression because there are often genuine medical issues involved. As I listened to him, I think he was trying to say that depression may be a symptom of underlying spiritual issues that need to be faced and addressed. 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. 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 is a value in going back to certain places. 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. That one statement may be the most important thing I have to say. 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.
There are some people reading these words who are 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 because 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? God is 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 is reminding 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 prot