A Case of Blues—Elijah*

Bibliology
Guest Writer Clovis G Chappell

“But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a juniper tree, and requested for himself that he might die” (1 Kings 19:4).

One day you were reading in the New Testament and you came to that surprising word from James: “Elijah was a man subject to like passions as we are” (James 5:17). And if you were reading thoughtfully, you stared at that sentence in wide-eyed amazement. And then in your heart you said, “It isn’t true. Elijah’s story doesn’t read a bit like mine.”

Then you thought of how he came and put his finger in Ahab’s face and made that face go white. You thought of how he carried Heaven’s key in his pocket for three years and six months. You thought of his lifting the dead boy into life; of his victory on Carmel; of his quiet walk to the little station beyond the Jordan where the Heavenly Limited met him and took him home. And again you felt like saying that James was altogether mistaken.

To fortify yourself more fully you reread his story. Then you came to this passage and you read it with a gasp: “And he came and sat down under a juniper tree ….” And down by the print of your foot you saw the big footprint of the old prophet and you said, “After all, we are very much alike. After all, he got in the dumps, fretted and broke his heart with the blues, even as I.”

Now, what was the matter with Elijah? He was not a natural and deliberate pessimist. There are some folk who are, you know. There are some people who study to be pessimistic. They are the “self-appointed inspectors of warts and carbuncles, the self-elected supervisors of sewers and street gutters.” They pride themselves on being guides to the Slough of Despond and on holding a pass key to the Cave of Giant Despair.

One such woman, being asked how she felt, said, “I feel good today. But I feel the worst when I feel the best because I know how bad I am going to feel when I get to feeling bad again” ….

No, this man was not a deliberate pessimist. If he had been, his name and memory would have rotted long ago, for the men that bless us are the hopeful men, the forward-looking men.

I read of a man who was put in jail during the Boer War simply because he was continually prophesying disaster. He was a discourager. He refused to see anything hopeful. And a man of that kind ought to be in jail because he is as harmful as a man with the smallpox. “He who steals my purse steals trash, but he who filcheth from me” my sunny outlook, my expectation of the dawn of a tomorrow, “takes that which not enriches him, but makes me poor indeed.”

What was the matter with Elijah? Well, in the first place, he was tired. He was utterly spent. He had passed through a trying and exacting ordeal. We can well imagine that preceding the test on Carmel his were toilsome days and sleepless nights. Then came the great day of contest and victory. There was, of course, no rest that day. And, in the exhilaration of victory, you know how he ran before the chariot of Ahab from Carmel to Jezreel, a distance of seventeen miles.

Arrived there, he received a message from Jezebel threatening his life. He had expected, of course, that the men who had shouted “The Lord He is God” (18:39) would stand by him. But they did not. He had expected that even Jezebel would be afraid to lift her voice in defense of the old defeated heathenism of the past. But, here again, he was much mistaken. In fact, instead of tamely acknowledging defeat she sends him this word: “So let the gods do to me, and more also, if I make not your life as the life of one of them by tomorrow about this time” (19:2).

Jezebel’s threat upset the prophet’s sense of victory. He came to feel that he had not won after all. For the first time he gave way to fear. Cowardice rushed on him and drove him, without rest, down the road that led into the wilderness. The terminus of this road was, quite naturally, the juniper tree.

So one source of his discouragement, one secret of his being in the blues, was that he was utterly tired. It is hard indeed for a man to be hopeful when his nerves are on edge. It is hard for him to keep out of the blues when he is completely exhausted. As a tired body yields at such times far more readily to physical disease, so does it yield more readily to the exquisite torture of discouragement and depression.

A second reason for his collapse was a lost sense of the divine fellowship. Up to this time Elijah’s every step had been ordered of the Lord. He had a sense of the divine presence that was continuous. But Jezebel’s threat had made him believe that he must look out for himself. So he took his case into his own hands. And that is the road that must always lead to the juniper tree.

Such a collapse is next to impossible as long as we keep on intimate terms with God. Yonder is a man named Paul on a ship that is going to pieces. The sea …

He curls its lips, He lies in wait
With lifted teeth, as if to bite!
~Joaquin Miller, “Columbus” (1914)

The sailors’ faces are ghastly with hunger and panic. But while despair grips every other heart and while death laughs with hollow laughter through the popping timbers of this wrecking ship, this man steadies himself and shouts, “Be of good cheer” (Acts 27:25). What is the secret of his cheer? “There stood by me this night the angel of God whose I am” (27:23). He was saved by an intimate and personal sense of the divine presence.

Elijah had lost this sense of the divine. Hence the deep, dark night of utter discouragement was on him. Thus, utterly wearied and his old intimacy with the Lord gone, the worst naturally followed. All his hopes seemed to fall about him. There came to him a heart-breaking sense of personal failure. He sobbed out the complaint: “I am no better than my fathers” (1 Kings 19:4). “They allowed Israel to drift into idolatry. I have not been able to bring it back. I have accomplished nothing. I toiled long and hard, dreaming that at the end I would clasp the warm, radiant hand of success and victory, but in reality I only clasp the skeleton hand of failure.”

Have you ever had a feeling that you were of no account and never would be; that in spite of all that God had done for you, you were a failure? There are few things more fraught with heartache and bitterness and discouragement than that. That is something that makes you want to sob and give up the fight utterly. And there are many folk who allow themselves to come to that dismal conviction. They work, and nobody seems to appreciate it. They toil, and nobody compliments them. Then they decide that they do not amount to anything, and they feel like giving up the fight.

I read the other day a fascinating essay from Frank Boreham. In this essay the author spoke of a certain discouraged friend of his. He declared it his purpose to help this friend by sending him a present. And the strange present that he was going to send him was an onion. Yes, he was going to wrap this onion in lovely tissue paper and put it in a beautiful candy box and tie it with pink ribbon and post it to his friend at once.

Now, why send him an onion? Well, for the simple reason that though an onion is one of the most valuable of all vegetables, though it is the finest of relishes, though it has added piquancy to a thousand feasts, yet nobody praises the onion. Of course, you know the author is right here. You may have read some great poetry in your time, poems on daffodils, violets, roses, daisies. Even you have known a great poet who could write about a louse and a field mouse, but where do you find a poem about an onion? What orator waxes eloquent in its praise? What bride ever carries a bouquet of onions as a bridal bouquet?

This is true, of course, but why is it true? Not because the onion is useless. The real reason is because it is so strong. It is harder to grow sentimental over great strong things—though tears have been shed over onions, as our essayist has pointed out. There are some we praise, you know, because we think that they need it to keep them going. They are weak. There are others we do not praise because they are so strong, or because, being strong, we expect strong things of them. The football hero receives an ovation when he makes a touchdown, but no greater than the baby receives when it takes its first step. There was more noise in the former case, but only because there was a larger crowd of spectators. So it is not wise to conclude that because nobody is praising you, you are of no account in the world.

Not only did Elijah for the moment lose faith in himself, but he lost faith in others as well. He thought there was not a good man in all Israel. And if you want a shortcut to wretchedness, get to a place where you do not believe in anybody. Some people seem to cultivate this disposition as if it were an asset. It is not an asset. It is the worst possible liability. If you want to make a hell for yourself in the here and now, cultivate the habit of seeing a selfish motive back of every seemingly unselfish act. School yourself to believe that all men and all women have their price. Say not in haste, but deliberately, that “All men are liars.” (Psalm 116:11).

That is the leading characteristic of the devil. “Have you considered My servant, Job?” the Lord asked, “that there is none like him?” (Job 1:8).

“Yes,” replied the devil, “I have considered him. I know him through and through. I know him better than You do. He is deceiving You. He is putting it over on You. You think he loves You for Yourself—I know that he loves You simply, because You are feeding him bonbons. Let me touch him, and he will curse You to Your face” (cf 1:9-11). That is the devil’s habit. That is what makes him such a success as a devil.

If you do not believe in people, no wonder you are miserable. If you do not believe that a fluctuating Simon can be changed into a rock; if you do not believe that a Magdalene can, through the grace of God, become a herald of the Resurrection; if you do not believe that this world of men is a salvable world; then it is not to be wondered at that you are blue. If you do not believe in the honesty and goodness and purity of at least a few, I do not see how you can be in any other place than a veritable perdition.

There are bad men, vicious men, godless men, but they are not all so. Do not believe that they are.

There are loyal hearts, there are spirits brave;
There are souls that are good and true,
Then give the world the best you have
And the best will come back to you.   

Give love, and love to your heart will flow
And strength for your utmost need.
Give faith and a score of hearts will show
Their faith in your worldly deed.   

Give truth and truth will be paid in kind,
And honor will honor meet;
And a smile that is sweet is sure to find
A smile that is just as sweet.

For life is the mirror of king and slave;
It’s just what we are and do.
Then give the world the best you have
And the best will come back to you.
~Madeline Bridges, “Life’s Mirror

But if you frown at the world, the world is going to frown at you; and if you mistrust it, it will mistrust you. I used to stand as a boy on the riverbank on my father’s farm and shout at the great rugged cliff across the silver Buffalo River. If I spoke kindly to the grim old cliff, its answer would be in the same kindly tone. If there was harshness and menace in my voice, it came back the same way. And life is a big echo. It speaks to us in the tone of our own voice. It gives us the faith or the unbelief that we ourselves give.

And with faith in self gone and also faith in men, it is not to be wondered at that Elijah requested for himself that he might die. But though he made this request, it is not the true sentiment of his heart. It is not the real Elijah speaking. A man ought never to make an important decision when he is experiencing the blues. He is not himself anymore than is a man under the influence of drink. Elijah is not himself here. How do we know? He doesn’t mean what he is saying. How do we know that?

Well, he is requesting for himself here that he might die. Now, if he was in earnest about dying, Jezebel would have attended to that for him without any prayer on his part, if he had stayed round Jezreel for a while. The truth of the matter is that the love of life is strong in him. The truth of the matter also is that he still believes somewhat in himself and in God and in men. He is experiencing the blues now and is not saying what he believes when he is at his best.

When you get in the dumps and fret and fume and wish you were dead, stop right there and tell yourself that you are a liar. You do not wish anything of the kind. I heard of a man once who was repeatedly threatening to commit suicide. He had a good friend who was a pious man and who was grieved by such threats. But he heard them till he knew they meant nothing, so one day he stepped into this man’s room at the hotel, laid an ugly-looking revolver down on the dresser and said, “John, old man, you have been threatening to take your own life for some time. I do not want you to do it. It is murder, and you will have no chance to repent. I love you as I love myself. For this reason I have decided to kill you. I will live long enough to repent. So get over there at the table and make your will.” And the man’s face went white, and he wanted to wait till tomorrow.

How did God cure this man Elijah who was in the blues? First, He used a common remedy. He put him to sleep. He let him rest. Rest is a religious thing for a tired man. Now, a man who has overworked himself needs to rest from his work. Many blue people need rest from idleness. One big reason they are blue is that they have nothing else to do. God gave this man a rest. That was the first step.

Second, He showed him his sin. He showed him where he was wrong and brought him to repentance and thus restored the old relationship of the past. He asked him this question: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (1 Kings 19:9). The emphasis is on the “doing.” Elijah must have blushed at that question. And he said, “Oh, I am whining. I am complaining. I am trying to keep books, to add up a few columns of figures and test by that as to whether I am a success or a failure” (cf 19:10).

Now, what the Lord wanted Elijah to learn is what He wants you and me to learn, that our job in this world is not bookkeeping. It is not for us to try to sum up the amount of good we have done. It is not for us to test whether we have succeeded or whether we have failed. The truth of the matter is that we are not always competent to tell the difference between success and failure. There are some seeming successes that, in reality, are failures; and some supreme failures have turned out to be glorious successes.

The greatest failure in the eyes of men that was ever made, was the failure on Calvary, and yet it came to pass that the world’s darkest night was, in reality, the mother of its brightest day—that its grimmest desert became its sweetest flower garden. Do not break your heart and tear your hair keeping books.

One of the sanest things I ever heard was spoken by an able preacher who came one day to preach in my town. Almost no one came to hear him. And he preached a wonderful sermon and closed with this most sensible word: “I don’t know what I have accomplished by coming to this town. I only know that I have come with God in my heart and have done my best. I am not keeping books. God is doing that. Someday on the other side of the river I am going to take down my book and look at it—God will let me—and I am going to see what I accomplished when I came to your town.” That is sensible and that is religious.

And so, the Lord was saying to Elijah: “It is not your business to keep books. You do not know how to keep them, in the first place. You added up a column of figures and got zero. I added it up and got 7,000. Yes, there are 7,000 that have not bowed the knee to Baal. You have been a help. You have been an inspiration. You have not been a failure, because you have walked with Me” (cf 19:18). God doesn’t fail, and the man who walks with him will not fail. He may not accomplish his ambition. He may not realize many of the great hopes of his life; but if he lives in the secret place of the Most High, his life will never be a failure.

I read not long ago of a young woman who consecrated her life to God for mission work in India. She was ready for the great enterprise; but before she was to set sail for that far country, her mother was taken sick with a lingering disease. She had to stay and nurse her for some three years. Then the angel of release came, and the mother went home.

Preparations were made a second time for her setting out to India. But from a little home in the distant west there came a call for help. A widowed sister of this would-be missionary was sick, and there were three little children to be cared for. She went to her sister’s bedside. In a short time the sister died, and the three little orphans were left on her hands; and the one big hope of her life had to be given up. It seemed strange. It seemed hard. Yet she remained true to the task that lay nearest. At last, all three children were able to look after themselves. But by that time she herself was too old to go to her loved mission field.

Then, one day, one of those orphans for whom she had given up her life’s dream put her arms around her neck and told her that she was going to be a missionary and that the field that she had chosen was India. And in later days the other two told the same story. So they all three went away to India to which she had so longed to go. And as they passed out to the land of her love and her prayers, this heroic soul knew that she had not failed.

And so, God’s call to Elijah, to you, and to me is to leave off our heart-breaking bookkeeping, to put our hands in His, and to resume the journey. And as we go, we shall in some way shake off our discouragement as a hampering garment, and we shall find ourselves in the sunlight once more. And we shall come to know for ourselves that “You will keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on You” (Isaiah 26:3).

“Draw near to God, and He will draw near to you … Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and He will lift you up” (James 4:8, 10).

Copyright © 2014 Alexandra Lee

Photo Credit: Mountainside juniper tree

*Adapted from Clovis G Chappell [1882-1972], Sermons on Biblical Characters (New York: George H Doran, 1922; Richard R Smith, 1930), sermon 10. Quotes, scriptural locations, photos, links, emendations added.

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