Many Bible teachers see in Elijah a clear example of depression, so let’s take some time to briefly examine the key passage that indicates his struggle with it. This passage details the events that followed Elijah’s great victory over the prophets of Baal and Asherah:
NKJ 1 Kings 19:1-3 “And Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, also how he had executed all the prophets with the sword. 2 Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, ‘So let the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by tomorrow about this time.’ 3 And when he saw that, he arose and ran for his life, and went to Beersheba, which belongs to Judah, and left his servant there.”
It is hard at first to grasp such a response from the great prophet who had just publicly challenged and killed the prophets of Baal (at least 450 of them, unless we include the prophets of Asherah who were present as well, which would bring the number up to 850 false prophets, 18:19, 40). After all, why would we think he would be afraid of what Jezebel could do to him after he had just experienced such a great victory from the LORD? Yet when he heard what she intended to do he ran for his life, apparently in fear but definitely under tremendous stress.
NKJ 1 Kings 19:4 “But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he prayed that he might die, and said, ‘It is enough! Now, LORD, take my life, for I am no better than my fathers!’”
It seems obvious that Elijah is feeling pretty low, so low in fact that he wants to die. And it seems clear that his depression is due to the terrible circumstances he is in, running for his life from the wrath of the wicked queen Jezebel. But we will discover later in the passage that this wasn’t the primary reason for his sorrow. For now, however, let’s see how God responds to Elijah’s prayer that He would take his life.
NKJ 1 Kings 19:5-8 “Then as he lay and slept under a broom tree, suddenly an angel touched him, and said to him, ‘Arise and eat.’ 6 Then he looked, and there by his head was a cake baked on coals, and a jar of water. So he ate and drank, and lay down again. 7 And the angel of the LORD came back the second time, and touched him, and said, ‘Arise and eat, because the journey is too great for you.’ 8 So he arose, and ate and drank; and he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights as far as Horeb, the mountain of God.”
Instead of taking Elijah’s life as he has requested, the LORD preserved his life by providing food and additional rest for the weary prophet. God knew what Elijah really needed was some food and rest, at least for the time being. And this may also be an important factor in helping many depressed people who are struggling with sorrow over stressful or traumatic life events, for often times such people stop sleeping and eating as they should, and this only exacerbates their situation and magnifies their problems. After all, how clearly do any of us really think when we are exhausted and hungry?
But this is only a part of God’s plan to get Elijah through his trials. It is a temporary aid to help him come to the place he needs to be in order to experience God’s presence in a new way and to prepare him to hear what he really needs to hear.
NKJ 1 Kings 19:9-10 “And there he went into a cave, and spent the night in that place; and behold, the word of the LORD came to him, and He said to him, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ 10 So he said, ‘I have been very zealous for the LORD God of hosts; for the children of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars, and killed Your prophets with the sword. I alone am left; and they seek to take my life.’”
Here we find that the true source of Elijah’s depression isn’t just that Jezebel was seeking to kill him – if that weren’t bad enough – but that, even after the great showdown with the prophets of Baal and Asherah, the people of Israel still didn’t repent (at least Elijah doesn’t think so). One gets the impression that Elijah had hoped for a great revival that did not materialize. Instead, however, he was left alone among a godless people who had slain all his fellow prophets. But if he was the only prophet left, and they wouldn’t listen to him, what hope was there for the people of Israel? Such appear to be the kind of thoughts that plagued Elijah, thoughts of hopelessness and discouragement. But perhaps he also saw himself as a failure, since he had poured his life into serving the people of Israel, even risking his life in the process, only to see no apparent fruit at all. But Elijah still doesn’t see the whole picture, as God will point out to him.
NKJ 1 Kings 19:11-14 “Then He said, ‘Go out, and stand on the mountain before the LORD.’ And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind tore into the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces 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; 12 and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. 13 So it was, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood in the entrance of the cave. Suddenly a voice came to him, and said, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ 14 And he said, ‘I have been very zealous for the LORD God of hosts; because the children of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars, and killed Your prophets with the sword. I alone am left; and they seek to take my life.’”
Here I suspect the LORD was addressing the real issue for Elijah, namely his expectations as to how God was going to work through his ministry. Notice how, for example, after bringing Elijah to the very same mountain where He had previously given the law to Israel amidst great wind, earthquakes and fire (Exod. 19:16-20; 20:18-19; Heb. 12:18-21), the LORD now causes these same events to occur. But this time He does not speak from the midst of these awesome occurrences as He had done before. Instead He speaks through a still small voice. In other words, He speaks in a way that Elijah may not have expected, and I think He does so in order to help Elijah see that just because He works in unexpected ways does not mean that He is not still working to bring about His plans.
But Elijah still didn’t get the point, as his repetition of his complaint to the LORD demonstrates (vs. 14). He apparently didn’t see what he had expected to see from the people of Israel, and this led to his feelings of depression and despair. But even here he seems to have missed what was really happening to some extent, because the author of 1 Kings reported a positive response by the people of Israel to what God had done through Elijah. He expressly stated that, after the fire of the LORD had fallen and consumed Elijah’s sacrifice, “when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces; and they said, ‘The LORD, He is God! The LORD, He is God!’” (18:39). And then we are informed that the people seized the false prophets when ordered to do so and brought them to Elijah to be executed (18:40). Why, then, does Elijah not see this as a positive development? Why does he think he is the only faithful Israelite left?
Perhaps Russell Dilday was correct when he wrote of Elijah’s response that:
Despondency has a way of selectively focusing on certain facts from life and conveniently overlooking others. As he gushed out his lonely complaint about being the only faithful one left, he forgot about the great multitudes at Carmel who acknowledged that Yahweh was God. He forgot about the one hundred prophets protected by courageous Obadiah. “Despair is always color-blind; it can only see the dark tints.” (The Preacher’s Commentary, Vol. 9, e-Sword)
Perhaps Elijah simply questioned the sincerity of the peoples’ earlier response, however, and perhaps he didn’t believe Obadiah when he told him about how he had saved one hundred of the LORD’s prophets (18:3-13). If so, then he was clearly wrong in his assessment, and God would show him that he was wrong by informing him that there were indeed still some faithful people among the Israelites.
NKJ 1 Kings 19:15-18 “Then the LORD said to him: ‘Go, return on your way to the Wilderness of Damascus; and when you arrive, anoint Hazael as king over Syria. 16 Also you shall anoint Jehu the son of Nimshi as king over Israel. And Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel Meholah you shall anoint as prophet in your place. 17 It shall be that whoever escapes the sword of Hazael, Jehu will kill; and whoever escapes the sword of Jehu, Elisha will kill. 18 Yet I have reserved seven thousand in Israel, all whose knees have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.’”
Notice that the LORD did two things here in addressing Elijah’s depression and discouragement. First, He gave Elijah something else to do. He wasn’t going to let Elijah give up and simply wallow in his self-pity. Second, He informed Elijah that he was simply wrong in thinking that he was alone in Israel, since the truth of the matter was that the LORD had reserved seven thousand in Israel who had not bowed the knee to Baal (vs. 18).
So we have seen how Elijah’s depression was manifested, and we have also seen many of the corresponding issues that often surround depression, such as fear, stress, wanting to die, physical tiredness and lack of sleep, not enough to eat, feeling all alone, self-pity, having a warped perspective and being unable to clearly see the true situation. How many of these things may lead to or accompany our battles with depression?
I think Gary Gilley, pastor at Southern View Chapel in Springfield, Illinois, has a helpful take on this passage in an online article entitled A Look at Depression Through the Lens of Scripture:
Physical and/or emotional fatigue as well as poor eating habits may also be a factor. In I Kings 19 Elijah’s primary cause of depression appears to have been because of fatigue, etc. God’s initial therapy for Elijah was food and sleep (verses 5-8). Later God helped Elijah get his eyes off himself and on to God (who revealed His sovereignty, verses 11 and 13). Then, He had Elijah take a realistic look at life (verse 18), and finally He got His prophet to once again get involved in ministry (verses 15-19). The whole process took several weeks.
The example of Elijah is one the depressed person should study, for — like this great man of God — depressed people are often focusing on themselves instead of God and others. This focus is often distorted further by fatigue and poor diet. The remedy is often a refocusing of our attention, as well as rest and proper eating habits.
This sounds like sound advice to me.