Have you ever prayed to the good Lord to die? “Just go ahead and take me out, Lord. Take me to heaven. I’m tired of living. I can’t go on another day. Nothing is going right. My life is a failure. Everything I try fails. My marriage has fallen apart. I have more bills than I can pay. My friends have left me.” Have you ever despaired of life so much that you prayed to die?
Sometimes, I think it’s OK to pray that prayer. I’m thinking about those with terminal illness whose bodies are racked with pain and nothing more can be done to prolong life. I have stood beside their bedsides and read Scripture passages about the assurance of heaven and the hope of being transformed from this “mortal” body into an “immortal“ body as Paul so eloquently describes in 1st Corinthians, chapter 15. “When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: "Death has been swallowed up in victory." I have given voice through my prayer over them for the hope of heaven. That is the great confident hope all of us who are in Christ have at the end of our journey.
But, what about praying to die before the end of our journey? Have you ever done that?
I think if you’re honest, you have. I have. And, if we have, we are in good company.
Elijah despaired of life and prayed to die. “While Elijah himself went a day's journey into the desert, he came to a juniper tree, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. "I have had enough, LORD," he said. "Take my life” (I Kings 19:4).
Let us go back and review the circumstances that led Elijah to his desperate prayer. In doing so, review your own circumstances that lead you to the juniper tree of despondency and hopelessness.
Elijah roared on the scene when he confronted the wicked and despicable King Ahab. The king built a temple to the sensual god, Baal, in Samaria, built Baal altars, and erected Ashtoreth poles, the female partner of Baal, throughout the Northern Kingdom of Israel.
Because of the idolatry in Israel and the wickedness of the king and queen, the LORD pronounced judgment by way of a drought that would come upon the land through His spokesman, Elijah. The drought would wreck havoc upon the economy. But instead of repenting and turning to God, Ahab put out a warrant for the prophet’s arrest.
After three and a half years of devastating drought, Elijah courageously met Ahab again face-to-face and challenged him and his prophets of Baal and Ashtoreth to a duel at the base of Mt. Carmel.
Ahab summoned the people to attend and brought his 850 prophets of Baal and Ashtoreth.
Elijah called for a decision from the people. "How long will you waver between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him." But the people said nothing.
The false prophets spent the entire day praying, dancing around their altar, cutting themselves, and all other manner of pagan rituals to motivate Baal to send fire from heaven and burn up their unholy sacrifice.
Elijah mocked their efforts. “Perhaps Baal is out to lunch. Maybe he is asleep or away on another assignment.”
In the evening, the great prophet repaired the long neglected altar of the LORD God. He prepared the animal sacrifice, drenched it with water, and then prayed to the God of heaven and earth.
The Lord answered. Fire from heaven gutted the soaked sacrifice.
The Scripture records the reaction of the people. “When all the people saw this, they fell prostrate and cried, "The LORD-- he is God! The LORD-- he is God!" Then Elijah commanded them, "Seize the prophets of Baal. Don't let anyone get away!" They seized them, and Elijah had them brought down to the Kishon Valley and slaughtered the false prophets there.”
Next, Elijah climbed Mt. Carmel with only his servant. They looked out over the Mediterranean Ocean and saw the rain clouds forming. Soon, blessed, life-giving rain poured down like manna from heaven breaking the drought.
Elijah went back to Jezreel with Ahab hoping that the king and his queen, Jezebel, would now lead the people to worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But, he was sorely disappointed.
Jezebel’s face turned red with rage as Ahab related to her the events at Mt. Carmel and the death of the false prophets. Her power was threatened. Her gods humiliated and mocked. Scorned, angry, and embarrassed, she ordered that Elijah be found and executed.
The next scene unfolds with Elijah fleeing for his life. He leaves Jezreel in the North and escapes to the southernmost tip of the Southern Kingdom to a little oasis called Beersheba. There, he drops off his servant and continues a day’s journey through the wilderness where he collapses in hopelessness under a juniper tree.
Let’s analyze the state of depression from Elijah’s point of view.
He had a great victory from the LORD at Mt. Carmel. He had great hope that Ahab and Jezebel would repent from their worship of Baal and Ashtoreth and turn to the one true God. He hoped that the king and queen would lead the nation of Israel to worship the LORD and “have no other gods before them.” He may have even thought from that point forward that he would be well received by the king and queen and given a place to lead the nation in the worship of God.
Instead, his plans and hopes were foiled. Wanted posters went up throughout the land for his arrest and execution. His greatest expectations were dashed upon the rocks of unfulfilled dreams. He felt surely that God had let him down. He was disappointed in the Lord even as you and I are when prayers aren’t answered in the way we want, and people important to us reject us.
Elijah fell from the mountain top and landed in the wilderness of despair praying to end his life. He left his servant behind and isolated himself. That is the way of depression. The feeling of aloneness and that nobody cares leads to a depressed person abandoning friends and family.
Elijah felt like a failure. He felt worthless, rejected, and alone. The zeal for life left him, and it was replaced by the annihilation of his self-hood.
So, have you prayed to die? Is that your prayer? Well, consider yourself in good company because you are in the company of Elijah, one of the greatest if not the greatest prophet in the Old Testament.
About 900 years after Elijah prayed to die, Jesus went up on a mountain with Peter, James, and John. Who should come down in the cloud and stand with them but Elijah and Moses? Yes, the same Elijah that felt like a failure and prayed to die.
How does God feel about the Elijahs who want to give up on life?
Does He condemn? Judge? Criticize? Does He shout, “Get over it, get up, and go back to work!?” Is He impatient?
Let’s go back to Elijah under the juniper tree. He’s laying in the fetal position with his knees curled up under him. He’s got the shades pulled down. He just wants to sleep away the pain. He doesn’t want to talk to anyone, eat anything, do anything, or go anywhere. “Just leave me alone!”
Like a gentle, angelic nurse waking a desperately sick patient to give him a sip of water, God sent an angel to awaken Elijah. His hollowed, sad eyes blinked open. There in front of him were hot coals to warm him, freshly baked bread to nourish him, and a jar of water to refresh him.
Strengthened in body, he left the juniper tree. Would he go back north to Jezreel ready to face the mean-spirited and hateful Jezebel, or was there some place else he urgently needed to go?
He stepped out from under the tree and walked further south into the desolate wilderness. Yes, the wilderness for it is in the wilderness that God finds us, and we find God.
Elijah had to figure it out alone with God. He had to find the meaning of his life, his purpose, his self-hood, and figure out that God is sovereign and can do with us what He chooses.
Elijah set out for Mt. Horeb, the same wilderness mountain also known as Mt. Sinai where God wrote the Ten Commandments with his finger and gave them to Moses.
At Mt. Horeb, God would speak to him in a different way than He manifested Himself at Mt. Carmel. There at Mt. Horeb, God sent a powerful wind. An earthquake loosed mighty boulders and sent them crashing down the mountain side. And then there was fire - fire from heaven.
But in all of these, God was not in them like before. Instead, He whispered Elijah’s name. He whispered hope, acceptance, assurance, restoration, and redemption.
It is in the wilderness, alone and with God, where God speaks truth to us. “I love you. I accept you with all of your failures, faults, and disappointments.” No wonder such words are called “The Good News of the Gospel.”
The Lord understands our human condition. He understands our disappointments, fears, and depression. He never condemns us in those low wilderness times . Elijah came out of the wilderness a different and changed man. The Lord restored his soul. He renewed his faith. He strengthened him, changed him, and put him on a new and different way. A Mt. Horeb experience humbles us and always leaves us changed for the better especially in our relationship with the LORD.
That’s always the way it is when we seek God in the wilderness of Mt. Horeb. Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened. Ask and you will receive.
Like Elijah, we go to Mt. Horeb’s wilderness and God speaks to us. He speaks to us in the great hymns we sing, in the Scriptures we mediate upon, in the sermons we hear. He speaks to us in the loneliness of our prayer time. His quiet voice is heard over the den of confusion and the noise of rejection, disappointment, mean-spirited Jezebels, and hopelessness. He makes everything new again and gives us the peace that passes all understanding. He never condemns us in those juniper tree times. He doesn’t judge, reject, and tell us to “shake it off.”
He nurtures us with his food and drink. The very Bread of Heaven and the Water of Life is our sustenance and nourishment.
Medical science has made great advances in the study and treatment of depression. Not only do adverse circumstances like those in this chapter of Elijah’s life bring on depression, but deficiencies in neurotransmitters like serotonin can also cause depression. There are anti-depressant medicines today that help rectify these serotonin deficiencies to relieve symptoms of depression and help make us functional again.
But, the Elijah times of despondency have caused me to go to Mt. Horeb’s cave, and the Lord has never failed to speak to me in the still, small voice of affirmation, assurance, and love. The voice may be that of a psychologist, a pastoral counselor, a physician, a member of my church, a friend, or my wife. Or, the voice could be that of our blessed Savior speaking, "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”
In closing, I leave you with this great hymn of the church written by Horatious Bonar (1808-1889).
I heard the voice of Jesus say,
"Behold, I freely give
The living water, thirsty one;
Stoop down and drink and live."
I came to Jesus, and I drank
Of that life giving stream;
My thirst was quenched, my soul revived,
And now I live in him.