Every (honest) pastor I know struggles in some way with discouragement. Discouragement has many triggers and comes in many different forms (like the demon in Mark 5:6-13, his name is legion). Perhaps the worst and most surprising discouragement is the kind that sneaks in during ministry success.
There is a certain kind of deep, crushing discouragement to which we are most vulnerable only after God has sent his miracles, after our dreams have come true, after our prayers have been answered. It presses in when you are sitting silently in your office after preaching your best sermon, or when you are driving home alone after God has just sent revival, or when you wake up that subdued Monday morning right after a powerful Easter service.
Those are lonely, vulnerable moments. I have sat in my office, alone, after preaching my best sermon, and literally cried without knowing why. In the emotional depletion and quietness of those experiences, deep questions surface: Is that it? Does what I’m doing really matter? Am I making any difference at all? What next?
That is Elijah predicament in 1 Kings 19. Elijah has one the greatest triumphs in the entire Bible in 1 Kings 18, single-handedly cleansing the nation from idolatry. But right afterward he plummets into disillusionment and deep discouragement. By taking a look into Elijah’s heart in this chapter, and how God meets him there, we may consider how God speaks into our own 1 Kings 19 moments.
A threat from King Ahab’s wife, Jezebel, triggers Elijah’s discouragement and sends him fleeing for his life. But Elijah’s behavior is puzzling. Why is he afraid of Jezebel when he has just stood up to the 450 false prophets and the entire nation they seduced? How can he be so stalwart in chapter 18 and then so fearful in chapter 19? Even more puzzling, why does Elijah flee for his life in verse 3 only to then ask God to take his life in verse 4? Why run from death and then ask for death?
We get a window into Elijah’s driving psychology in verse 3: “he was afraid.” But afraid of what? It cannot be a mere fear of death, because in the next verse he asks for death. The clue comes with the reason Elijah supplies for his death wish: “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers” (verse 4). Throughout 1 and 2 Kings, prophets and their disciples are often depicted in father/son language (1 Kings 13:11-12, 2 Kings 2:12, 6:21). Elijah is really saying, “I am no better than any of the prophets and spiritual leaders who came before me.”
In all likelihood, Elijah had hoped to cleanse the nation from idolatry, but Jezebel’s threat reveals that the royal house is still corrupt. So Elijah is thinking, Nothing has changed, even after Carmel! God sends fire from heaven, but it only results in a popular-level revival, not repentance in Ahab. I won the battle, but we’re still losing the war. I pulled up a few weeds, but they can just grow back tomorrow. I haven’t gotten any farther than any of those who went before me.
This is not a fear of dying, but the kind of fear that makes you want to die. This is the fear of deep discouragement; the fear of a crushed spirit; the fear that enshrouds you in that lonely moment after revival, when you question your ministry not for its failures but for its victories.
So God sends Elijah on a journey, providing nourishment and rest for his physical needs, and then eventually guiding him to a cave on Mount Horeb. There God sends a wind, an earthquake, and a fire, and each time it says, “But the Lord was not in [it].” Then God sends a low whisper, a gentle wind. This time it doesn’t say, “God was not in it”—with the seeming implication that God is manifesting himself to Elijah specifically in this gentle whisper, this “still small voice” (KJV).
Though the meaning of this theophany is disputed, many commentaries detect an association between the louder natural disasters and Elijah’s ministry expectations from Carmel. As one old commentary puts it, “The design of the vision was to show to the fiery zeal of the prophet, who wanted to reform everything by means of the tempest, the gentle way which God pursues, and to proclaim the long-suffering and mildness of his nature.” In other words, God seems to tell Elijah that he doesn’t just work in the fire from heaven of 1 Kings 18 (like national revival), but also in gentle whisper of 1 Kings 19 (like preserving a remnant).
As I reflect upon my own 1 Kings 19 moments, and our broader ministry culture in the contemporary West, three applications from this story come to mind.
1. Amid the apparent (and real) losses of ministry, God is resourceful.
God is at work in ways we don’t know. In his bitterness, Elijah lost sight of those unknown plans. He says, in effect, “I’m the only one left, and the story ends with me” (vv. 10, 14). And God says, “No, I’m raising up other leaders after you, and I have 7,000 others beside you” (vv. 15-18). Elijah’s ministry expectations are too narrow: they do not allow for the broader range of strategies that God employs.
Thinking at the denominational/ecclesiological level, we Reformed Christians must especially guard against an Elijah-like, self-referential, remnant mentality. We should be careful not to assume that God is only working in churches with our theology, or that when God is working you will necessarily even know about it. In that place where we may be tempted to think, “I’m the only one left,” God well might respond, “I have 7,000 others.”
Thinking at the global/cultural level, we Western Christians should not overestimate our importance in God’s global mission. Sometimes you hear people talking in doomsday categories if the church in Western Europe and North America becomes culturally isolated or persecuted. Without downplaying the importance of our struggle against secularization, let us never lose sight of the encouraging ways God’s kingdom is surging ahead in many other parts of the world.
2. Amid both the quiet and the noise of ministry, God is steady.
God is faithful to Elijah: providing, protecting, revealing, engaging, gently confronting. He is faithful to his people: judging evil, preserving a remnant, fulfilling his promises.
God’s faithfulness and purpose haven’t changed from the soaring victory of chapter 18 to the crushing disillusionment of chapter 19. Only Elijah’s expectations and emotions have changed. Elijah can truly say, “I have been very jealous for the Lord” (vv. 10, 14); he sincerely wants God’s cause to triumph. But he is not open to how God will execute his cause; he cannot say, “Yet not my will, but yours.”
Like Elijah, we also face a danger of measuring ministry by our own expectations rather than the purposes of God. This passage confronts our celebrity culture, our preference of the quick and the loud over the slow and the quiet, our need to hit a home run when God calls us merely to bunt to get on base. This story helps us pray, “Lord, help us to not only seek what you want to do, but how you want to do it. Help us not to be so fixated on your work amid 1 Kings 18 earthquake and fire that we miss your work amid the gentle whisper of 1 Kings 19.”
3. God is merciful to his ministers.
God is patient with Elijah during this process. He cares for his needs and engages with him. Then, in 2 Kings 2:11, Elijah is transported to heaven in—of all things—a chariot of fire and a whirlwind. Amazingly, Elijah experiences the dramatic fire and wind he longs for—but not how he expected.
In the midst of our 1 Kings 19 struggles, we find mercy for our Elijah-like stubbornness, and meaning in our Elijah-like discouragement, as we look to Jesus. Whatever that dark feeling of discouragement is and means, whatever was grabbing at Elijah’s heart in I Kings 19:3, whatever that voice is that presses in us in that quiet moment alone after we’ve preached our guts out—I know Jesus faced it in the extreme in the Garden of Gethsemane, on the long walk to Calvary, and in his final choking hours. Jesus knew that fear, that helplessness, that darkness and uncertainty, to the extreme. And he conquered it by rising from the dead.
Lord, give us ears to hear you in that faint whisper. Let us see you, not just in the fire that falls from heaven, but in that quiet moment before God, when all the noise blurs away and we are forced to measure life by you alone. And give us faith that resurrection is coming even while we “carry in the body the death of Jesus” (2 Cor. 4:10).