1 Kings 19:1–9 (NIV)✞: Elijah Flees to Horeb
In the last passage we looked at Elijah facing off against the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel, in a passage where God clearly triumphs over His enemies—as if there were ever any doubt—and we get a clear story about how we think things are supposed to work: the good guys win, the bad guys lose. Now that God has proven that He is God—and Baal is not—He is sending rain again, ending the long drought.
In this passage it all falls apart. That’s a slight exaggeration, but new Christians might be surprised to see the quick downward turn this passage takes coming after the triumphal previous one.
It starts with King Ahab returning home to Jezebel and telling her about everything Elijah has done, including killing the prophets of Baal. She doesn’t take it well:
2 So Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah to say, “May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them.”
And then, after bravely facing off against Ahab and the prophets of Baal, Elijah shows how terrifying Jezebel is:
3 Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. When he came to Beersheba in Judah, he left his servant there, 4 while he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness. He came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, LORD,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.”
There might be a number of reasons why the formerly brave Elijah is now terrified, but simple exhaustion is one:
5 Then he lay down under the bush and fell asleep.
All at once an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.” 6 He looked around, and there by his head was some bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again.
7 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.” 8 So he got up and ate and drank. Strengthened by that food, he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God. 9 There he went into a cave and spent the night.
In my mind there are two explanations why it may be that Elijah goes from extremely brave to extremely afraid, and I’m thinking they might both be true at the same time:
- Jezebel is scarier than anyone else
- Elijah is exhausted
The name “Jezebel” has become synonymous with evil because of this woman. Given how Kings/Chronicles treat her, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if Elijah finds her even more scary than her husband Ahab.
But regardless of whether Jezebel is part of the reason for Elijah’s fear, exhaustion—as well as hunger—are definitely part of his problem.
When he prays for the LORD to take his life, God doesn’t even bother to answer him; He simply lets Elijah sleep for a while then sends an angel with food. And then… Elijah sleeps some more, and more food is sent! Finally, after this time of rest, Elijah makes the rest of his journey.
Is this the entirety of Elijah’s problem? Not at all! In the next passage we’ll see that he still feels he has a grievance against the LORD (which God graciously allows him to air), so it wasn’t just that he was tired and hungry. But that was definitely part of his problem.
Taking Care of Our Own Physical Needs
Which brings me to a point I’ve heard a number of preachers mention from this passage, which is important for Christians to understand: yes, being tired does impact our emotional and spiritual state. Even if we’re tired because we’ve been serving God, the source of our exhaustion doesn’t actually matter: tired is tired.
If they’re not careful, Pastors and ministry leaders and Elders can burn out just like anyone else. It takes wisdom to know when to push one’s self and when to take some rest; it takes wisdom and mindfulness1 to remember to eat and drink and exercise and everything else one needs to do in the 21st Century to keep healthy. (Avoid screen time? Read our Bibles? Pray?)
This is yet another area where 21st Century Western Christians can suffer from our “it’s either this or that, not both” approach to spirituality. If it’s 4PM and I haven’t eaten all day, and I get crabby with my wife, we think that either my crabbiness is due to my hunger (and therefore not my fault), or the crabbiness is due to my sin (and therefore I shouldn’t blame hunger for my own sin). However, both can be true at once: my sinfulness is always there, but hunger can make it stronger, making it harder to resist, to the point where I get crabby when I otherwise might not have. I can say that eating properly would have allowed me to keep my sin under control while also saying that getting crabby with my wife is sinful (even if I’m hungry).
As a human—with both a physical body and a spirit, which cannot be pulled apart—it’s a good idea for me to take proper care of myself, eating and sleeping and exercising, which will help me to be “healthy” both physically and spiritually. If I’m physically healthy it’s one less thing that will strengthen my sinful nature, allowing me to stay more spiritually healthy than I might otherwise be.
What About Mental Health?
Although I don’t have the expertise or experience to speak in depth about this, I will say that everything I said above applies as much to mental health as it does to physical health. The only difference, in my mind, is that, complex as physical health is to get “right,” mental health is even harder. When someone suffers from mental health issues the solution to those issues may not be clear or easy to diagnose – at least, not in comparison to physical health. There are a number of mental health issues where it’s difficult to come up with a hard-and-fast diagnosis, or even when there is a diagnosis it might be difficult to come up with a treatment plan that works. (Sometimes medication is helpful sometimes it’s not; sometimes a treatment works for one person but doesn’t work for another; sometimes, even when medication is a good solution, it takes trial and error to get the dosages and mixtures right. There seems to be more complexity in this area than there are in many physical problems with the human body.)
But just because something is difficult doesn’t mean it’s unimportant. (Quite the opposite!) Christians who suffer from mental health issues should try to get treatment, and keep trying.
Christians who don’t suffer from mental health issues shouldn’t treat Christians (or anyone else) who do as if they are somehow less spiritual. We would never tell a person with a broken leg, “if you were more spiritual then you wouldn’t have broken your leg when you fell out of that tree!” Yet somehow many Christians have no compunction whatsoever about telling a person who suffers from depression, “it’s because you have no faith!” That’s not a loving response to someone who’s suffering.
- I mean “mindfulness” in the classic, literal sense: one has to be aware of one’s own body and health – not to mention the clock! ↩