Depression a Biblical Case Study - Elijah
Few, if any, of us have ever faced a woman like Jezebel. She was the very influential and utterly ruthless wife of the king of Israel, the power behind Ahab’s throne. When she issued a threat, as she did in 1 Kings chapter 19 verse 2, she had the influence and the power to carry out that threat to the letter, for she was a formidable foe.
Sadly, the prophet of chapter 19 is not the Elijah of chapter 18 of 1 Kings. The man who had publicly taken on the prophets of Baal and defeated them, the man who had been reliant upon the power of God, the man who had been the vessel for the manifestation of God’s power, is now a shadow of his former self. The man who had ascended Carmel’s mountain top is now in the valley of despair.
It would be critical of Elijah to ask questions about his faith. But I wonder how many of us have sat in the darkness and despair of our painful plight and asked the question, ‘Why?’ or, more personally, ‘Why me?’? At such times of despondency, a clear exposition of scripture does not spring to mind. The brain does not function as it should. In the loneliness of the wilderness, sitting under a juniper tree, Elijah cries, ‘It is enough . . . take away my life’, 19. 4.
What can we learn of Elijah’s situation? Mind, a support organization for those with mental health problems, indicates a number of warning signs to look for. Some of those are shown here in 1 Kings chapter 19.
He felt a worthless failure, ‘I am not better than my fathers’, v. 4;
Depressed people feel a sense of worthlessness and failure. They have lost all sense of self-esteem.
He was exhausted, ‘he lay and slept’, v. 5;
It is often thought that people who are depressed cannot sleep. This is not always the case – some can sleep but find it difficult to wake up and become active. They are lethargic.
He was hungry and thirsty – the angel of the Lord supplies him with two meals, vv. 5, 7.
Depressed people often do not take care of themselves. They neglect to eat or perform the normal activities of life associated with their appearance.
He felt isolated and alone, ‘I, even I only am left’, vv. 10, 14.
There is a real feeling of isolation and hopelessness. It seems there is little point in going on with life.
He was a hunted man under threat of death, ‘they seek my life, to take it away’, vv. 10, 14.
Having suffered some major setback, there is a marked change of behaviour in the person – what a contrast with Carmel.
In many ways, Elijah was at the physical and mental extremities of life. He felt the tremendous pressure associated with his work for God. He was, as we might say, ‘at the end of his tether’! His request is a genuine, and heartfelt plea, ‘he requested for himself that he might die; and said, It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life’, v. 4. Have we ever felt like Elijah felt? The isolation of a path of faithfulness coupled with the persecution of a hate-filled and powerful individual would take the godliest to the point of no return! Yet, in his despair, at the lowest ebb of his experience, ‘there came a voice unto him’, v. 13. The God of the extreme drought, of the miraculous provision, and of the fire of Carmel, draws near in ‘a sound of gentle stillness’, v. 12 margin.
It is remarkable. The man who had seen, and had been the chosen vessel to demonstrate, the power of God comes to know the peace of God. His mind in turmoil, his life threatened, his feeling of isolation playing heavily upon him, God comes in the stillness. There is a sense of that ‘peace of God which passeth all understanding . . . [keeping] your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus’, Phil. 4. 7.
But let us consider how God handles the case of Elijah, in order that we might appreciate, as believers, how we might comfort those in the extremities of life and help them in their despair.
What did God provide for His suffering servant?
‘And as he lay and slept under a juniper tree, behold, then an angel touched him, and said unto him, Arise and eat’, v. 5.
The instruction was to ‘arise and eat’. We tend to major on the spiritual welfare of the individual, and it is right that the spiritual should be uppermost in our thoughts. However, in a situation like this, we have to tackle the physical needs before we can rightly address the spiritual. How can we speak on spiritual issues if the individual is hungry and weary? If we go back to Elijah’s extremity we see that he was hungry, thirsty, and tired. This is where God starts.
A listening ear
‘The word of the Lord came unto him, and he said unto him, What doest thou here, Elijah?’ v. 9.
God asks the question of Elijah, ‘What doest thou here?’ The omniscient God – the One who knows all things – asks Elijah what he is doing in that particular place. Surely, God already knows the answer! The reason why God asks the question, and asks it twice, vv. 9, 13, is to engage Elijah in conversation. He wants Elijah to ‘tell Him how he feels’. You will note the open question that is asked.
Despite his sense of loneliness and isolation what Elijah needed was to realize he was not alone, he needed a listening ear. How patient and caring is our God! When His servant is in difficulties, He draws near. He is not in the wind, the earthquake, or the fire, but in the still small voice. Elijah doesn’t need the fire of Carmel to devour the sacrifice. He needs the still small voice of calm for his troubled mind.1
Reassurance as to the future
‘Jehu the son of Nimshi shalt thou anoint to be king over Israel’, v. 16.
This might be the most difficult point to replicate as we seek to support fellow saints who find themselves where Elijah was. This was God giving a revelation of His mind, the will and purpose of God. God takes Elijah into His confidence!
Elijah was in fear of his life because of Ahab and Jezebel his wife. They hated Elijah and were hunting him down to kill him. However, in the purposes of God it was Ahab and Jezebel that should fear. Elijah was to anoint their successor, Jehu, and Ahab and Jezebel were to die well before Elijah was taken up into heaven. What’s more, Elijah was to anoint the man who would be responsible for Ahab’s death in battle, Hazael, king of Syria.
It is worth pondering the ways of God in relation to His servants. Think of Job, as he lay in the depths of his sorry plight supported by miserable comforters who blamed the situation upon Job himself. What did Job learn from his experience? He said, ‘I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee’, Job. 42. 5. God blessed the latter end of Job. Not only did he gain more than he had lost, but his experience of His God became personal and direct. Perhaps we need to remind our hearts that it is when we come to an end of ourselves that our experience of God is deepened.
Succession in the work of the Lord
‘Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abelmeholah shalt thou anoint to be prophet in thy room’, v. 16. ‘So he departed thence, and found Elisha the son of Shaphat’, v. 19.
God not only told Elijah that he had work for him to do but he also revealed the man who would carry on the work of the Lord after Elijah was gone. It would have been so easy for God to point out to Elijah that he was wrong. Apart from Obadiah, whom Elijah seemed to have written off, and the prophets that he had hidden, there were seven thousand in Israel that had not bowed unto Baal. Equally, God was able to reveal Elisha as Elijah’s ultimate successor. Things were not as bleak as Elijah seemed to think.
Yet God’s handling of Elijah shows a degree of sensitivity that is worthy of our consideration. There is the danger that our patience runs thin and we so easily slip into the ‘snap out of it and pull yourself together’ mode. This is not so with God. He listens, Elijah repeats his view, and then God gently shows Elijah that he still has a work to do, and that God is sovereign.
As circumstances may overwhelm the saint of God it would be good to draw alongside, listen, oftentimes to repeated complaints, and then kindly show how God still has a work for them to do. There is a need to rebuild that sense of importance and indicate their value to the testimony of the Lord’s people.
The writer is not a trained counsellor nor is this article written on the basis of medical training and expertise. What we have sought to trace through this passage is something of how God handled Elijah. This is but one example of many and, perhaps, some of the remedies may have been personal to Elijah and his circumstances. However, let us all seek and pray to be used of God to provide succour to those in hard places.
Annie Flint’s hymn captures the thought:
‘He giveth more grace
when the burdens grow greater,
He sendeth more strength
when the labours increase,
To added affliction
He addeth His mercy
To multiplied trials
His multiplied peace’.
- We might draw a parallel with Paul’s experience, ‘At my first answer no man stood with me, but all men forsook me: I pray God that it may not be laid to their charge. Notwithstanding the Lord stood with me, and strengthened me’, 2 Tim. 4. 16-17.