The ministry of God’s Word can lead the man of God to great depths of despair. It can bring him to the point of a death wish. Elijah was such a man. His name means, “My God is Yahweh.” The story of Elijah’s prayer for death is told in 1 Kings 17–19, and we can learn much from it, today.
None of the kings of Israel, that is, the northern kingdom (930–722 B.C.) were good and did right in the sight of Yahweh, the God of Israel. Term limits had not been invented, yet, so kings could rule for decades. King Ahab ruled at Samaria for twenty two years, and he provoked God by doing more evil than all the kings before him (1 Kgs 16:33). His wife, Jezebel, a Sidonian princess was a worshipper of Baal. Baal, a demon in disguise, was a regional fertility god who won the hearts of the people of Israel. Ahab and Jezebel were evangelists for Baal, and this is what set them at enmity with the prophet Elijah.
Yahweh caused a drought to come to Israel, which made Baal look bad. It was Elijah’s desultory remark to Ahab that set the story in motion, “As Yahweh, the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand surely there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word (1 Kgs 17:1).” The drought caused a famine, which produced hardship for the people of Israel, who had torn down the altars to Yahweh and broke their covenant with Him (1 Kgs 19:10). Even the prophet needed supernatural provision (1 Kgs 17:4, 16). On top of that Jezebel was killing the prophets (1 Kgs 18:4), causing the survivors to hide in man-of-God caves (1 Kgs 18:4). Needless to say, it was a stressful time to be a prophet of Yahweh, a minister of God’s Word.
Evil King Ahab blamed the plight of Israel on Elijah, the prophet, calling him “the troubler of Israel (1 Kgs 18:17).” Elijah proposed a duel of gods upon Mount Carmel (1 Kgs 18:19). 450 prophets of Baal versus one prophet of Yahweh demonstrated the spiritual state of Israel in those days (860 B.C.). When Baal did not show up for the contest, Elijah mocked him (1 Kgs 18:27). Elijah then set up an altar, and no doubt he broke the water restriction ordinances by dousing the altar and its contents twice with water. He called on Yahweh, who delivered an impressive fire from heaven to consume all of it. The people temporarily inclined toward Yahweh, the God of Israel, and Elijah killed the prophets of Baal, causing the Brook Kishon to turn red with blood (1 Kgs 18:40). The point was made: Yahweh is God and Baal is a lie. King Ahab was not happy, and to add insult to injury the prophet told him it felt like a heavy rainstorm was on its way (1 Kgs 18:41).
The day was not over, for when the rains came, ending the three year drought, Ahab hopped in his chariot and rode eighteen miles west to Jezreel to tell Queen Jezebel what had happened (1 Kgs 19:1). Elijah had no Uber option, so he practically ran a marathon on top of his MMA bout to the death with the prophets of Baal. After outrunning Ahab’s chariot west, he headed south to the far reaches of the land of Israel at Beersheba on the border of the Negev desert. The highly successful man of God was now motivated by fear of Jezebel’s threat to assassinate him (1 Kgs 19:2). It had been some long days of ministry.
Elijah, the prophet of Yahweh, left his servant at Beersheba and journeyed another day south into the Negev and sat down by himself under a juniper tree, where he prayed for himself that he might die, saying to God, “It is enough; now, O Yahweh, take my life, for I am not better than my fathers (1 Kgs 19:4).” There are a few causes that brought the minister of God to this place of quitting the ministry, even praying a pray for his own death. We must consider these causes, and then we will consider God’s response.
First, Elijah was physically exhausted. Ministers can be very driven men of God. Workaholics are common to the office of elder, especially with pastoral gifts. God’s people are numerous and notoriously wayward, often doing what is right in their own eyes. They are easily led astray by false prophets on television. Pastors care for souls that are all too often backsliding from God to the idols of this world. Elijah needed food and drink, and God was his provider (1 Kgs 19:6). God also gave the prophet a place to rest from his labors, and the prophet slept under the juniper tree (1 Kgs 19:5).
Second, Elijah was emotionally drained. Spiritual warfare is taxing upon the soul (Eph 6:10–20). As a prophet of Yahweh, Elijah was a forerunner of Jesus Christ, who was a man of sorrows, familiar with grief (Is 53:3). The deception of Satan against a people easily led astray is our spiritual battlefield. It feels to the man of God as if he were alone in the fight, like Elijah against the 450 priests of Baal. It has been said that one man with God is a majority, but how quickly spiritual gains are seemingly lost to the next charlatan and his or her best-selling book.
Irrational fear can sometimes override the faith of a minister of God’s Word. When a man of God knows the Bible through his studies, he is acutely aware of the evil world in which he dwells in opposition. The forces of evil appear to have dominion and powerfully influence the people that the prophet wishes to see saved. It does not help that the people are inclined to destroy the ministry of the prophet. Most operate unconsciously when undermining the minister’s labor through gossip, drama, and factions. “The Lord led me” to create division in the church by opposing the pastor. Really? Fear prevails upon the people, and even upon the minister, when the sovereign dominion of Yahweh falls from view. Fear is a faith killer, and it causes the sheep to bite one another, even their shepherd.
Third, Elijah was alone (19:3). He left his servant at Beersheba. It is not good for a man, especially a man of God to be alone. How often do we see this fatal flaw? Moses needed to be corrected by Jethro on this issue. Jonah is the classic isolationist. Apollos did not have the Gospel message quite right until he met Priscilla and Aquila. Judas, the betrayer, shared his plans with none of the other disciples. Two are better than one.
Fourth, Elijah lost hope. “It is enough (19:4),” is the sentiment of one who sees no future ahead. It is a bad day when the seer cannot see anything on the time horizon. Prophets are driven by future visions. What would Christianity be today if we did not have prophetic revelation of the future? It would be bankrupt. God has granted us just enough view of our glorious future to keep us going during our suffering service in this life. When a minister’s labor does not have an immediate good effect, he can see no value in pressing on in his high calling. “Vanity of vanities, the Lord is not with me,” is the musing of a lonely, exhausted, and depressed pastor.
Fifth, Elijah saw futility in his life’s work. Disappointments are born on the back of lofty expectations. The prophet always begins his ministry with excitement for what God will do. “Maybe I will become a famous preacher in Israel?” is the beginning, but it quickly turns south like Elijah did. Compromise is obviously required for the false prophet. The true prophet discovers that the people hate the message and the messenger. Judgment and punishment of sin is so unpopular, today, that many preachers simply avoid the subject in favor of “God’s love of your self-help improvement plan.”
“Take my life, for I am not better than my fathers,” is the death wish of disappointment. The history of Israel was one of apostasy toward God. He raised up prophets, but nothing changed in the people of Israel. They always killed the prophets. They forsook their part in the agreement with God. They turned to demons and worshipped idols to try and get what they wanted out of life. They did not value life, “eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die.” Fatalism reached Elijah, too.
God’s response to the prophet is our remedy for fear over faith and the prayer for death. We will look at a few ways Yahweh restored faith to the man of God.
First, God sent angels to minister to Elijah (19:5, 7). The angels touched him. They brought provision. The journey was to continue for the man of God, so he needed God’s provisional strength. It builds faith when God takes care of the material needs of his ministers, especially in supernatural ways. Paul was so appreciative toward the Macedonians (2 Cor 8–9) when all the other churches neglected to financially support him. They were unlikely prospects for sacrificial giving, as were ravens in Elijah’s day. God touches His servants with daily bread.
Second, God brought Elijah to a place (19:8). Mount Horeb (Sinai) was the mountain of God. It was the meeting place for Moses to meet with God. The forty day and forty night trek reinforces the imagery of God testing his people. It was true for Israel in the wilderness (40 years), and Jesus in the Judean wilderness (40 days). The core of Jesus’ discipleship ministry was privy to the Mount of Transfiguration (Mt 17). The point is to get a glimpse of the glory of God in order to bolster one’s faith.
Third, God posed a heart-searching question for Elijah to contemplate (19:9). It is a question for all ministers to ask often, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” While Elijah was in his own man of God cave, various tumults were going on outside. The terrors were empty, however. Tornados, earthquakes, and fires are big events in nature. If there is one thing the Bible teaches us about God, it is His work in the small things. False prophets love the big show, but God works quietly with individuals. He is personal. God’s approach was in the gentle breeze. Things were changing for the man of God, as he received a breath of fresh air when he emerged from his cave (19:13). God’s question was repeated.
Fourth, God tolerates our melancholy assessments of the spiritual status quo. Yes, Elijah had been zealous for the Lord (19:10, 14). True, the sons of Israel had forsaken the covenant and torn down altars to Yahweh. Indeed, the people of Israel had killed the prophets. And yes, Elijah’s life was threatened. But, no, the man of God was not alone, despite his dour self-assessment. Men of God are never alone, for God is with them. Circumstances in the world are always bad. They are quite often bad in the church, too. Are these things too much for God to accomplish His will and good pleasure?
Fifth, God put the prophet back to work (19:15–16). Man was made to work because he was made in the image of God who works. Work gives meaning and purpose to our days in the land of the living. We pray, “God, bless and confirm the work of my hands, yea, confirm and bless (Ps 90:17).” Toil is turned into a labor of love when God has commissioned it.
Sixth, God gave the man of God a friend. Elisha was a farmer turned prophet, much like, Amos. He followed Elijah and ministered to him (19:21). They labored together. Jesus sent out his disciples in pairs. The apostles went out in pairs. It is good for pastors to have a faithful friend and associate in the ministry.
Finally, God gave assurance of His sovereign election to Elijah. God had kept seven thousand faithful ones in Israel (19:18). The apostle Paul quoted 1 Kings 19:18 when making his case for God keeping a faithful remnant in Israel during his day (Rom 11:4). God’s work of salvation goes on like a gentle breeze. The volatile faith and fears of a minister of God’s Word cannot thwart God’s sovereignty in salvation. All whom God has chosen will come to Him (Jn 6:37, 44, 65), and He will keep them faithful to Himself (Gal 5:22).
In summary, we have considered the difficult situations of a prophet. We have seen how circumstances can take a toll on the man of God’s faith. We have seen how God responds with grace toward His servants.
In conclusion, we must keep our eyes fixed on Jesus (Heb 12:2), not the circumstances we face. We must increase in faith by the provision of His grace (Lk 17:5; Rom 12:3). Ironically, the man who prayed the prayer for death never saw death, being taken up to heaven alive in a chariot of fire (2 Kgs 2:11). Amazing grace! God is gracious. He is worthy of our continued faith in the midst of the fight. Elijah taught us this good lesson, today, so come out of your cave…a gentle breeze of hope and grace will meet your bolstered faith on the mountain of God, who is called, “Christ Jesus, our Lord, our Rock, our Refuge, and our Redeemer.” Amen.
David E. Norczyk
Spokane Valley, Washington
January 24, 2021