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We are now to behold the effects which Elijah’s giving way to fear had upon him. The message which had come from Jezebel, that on the morrow she would take revenge upon him for his slaying of her prophets, rendered the Tishbite panic-stricken. For the moment God saw fit to leave him to himself, that we might learn the strongest are weak as water when He withholds His support, as the powerful Samson was as impotent as any other man as soon as the Spirit of the Lord departed from him. It matters not what growth has been made in grace, how well experienced we may be in the spiritual life, or how eminent the position we have occupied in the Lord’s service, when He withdraws His sustaining hand the madness which is in our hearts by nature at once asserts itself, gains the upper hand, and leads us into a course of folly. Thus it was now with Elijah. Instead of taking the angry queen’s threat unto the Lord and begging Him to undertake, he took matters into his own hands and “went for his life” ( Kings 19:3).
In the preceding chapter we intimated why it was that the Lord suffered His servant to experience a lapse at this time: in addition to what was there said we believe the prophet’s flight was a punishment on Israel , for the insincerity and inconstancy of their reformation. “One would have expected after such a public and sensible manifestation of the glory of God, and such a clear decision of the contest pending between him and Baal, to the honour of Elijah, the confusion of Baal’s prophets, and the universal satisfaction of the people, after they had seen both fire and water come from heaven at the prayer of Elijah, and both in mercy to them: the one as a sign of the acceptance of their offering, the other as it refreshed their inheritance, that they should now all as one man have returned to the worship of the God of Israel and taken Elijah for their guide and oracle, that he should henceforth have been their prime minister of state and his directions laws both to king and kingdom. But it is quite otherwise: he is neglected whom God honored; no respect is paid to him nor any use made of him; on the contrary, the land of Israel to which he had been and might yet have been a great blessing, is soon made too hot for him” (Matthew Henry). His departure from Israel was a judgment upon them.
In the Scriptures God’s children are exhorted again and again not to fear : “Neither fear ye their fear, nor be afraid” ( Isaiah 8:12).
But how are weak and trembling souls to render obedience to this precept?
The very next verse tells us: “sanctify the Lord of hosts Himself, and let Him be your fear, and let Him be your dread.” It is the fear of the Lord in our hearts which delivers from the fear of man: the filial awe of displeasing and dishonoring Him who is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. “Be not afraid of their faces,” said God to another of His servants, adding, “for I am with thee to deliver thee, saith the Lord” ( Jeremiah 1:8).
Ah, it is the consciousness of His presence which faith must realize if fear is to be stilled. Christ admonished His disciples for their fear: “Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith?” ( Matthew 8:26). “Be not afraid of their terror, neither be troubled” ( 1 Peter 3:14), is the word which we are required to take to heart.
In connection with Elijah’s flight from Jezebel we are told first that he “came to Beersheba, which belongeth to Judah” ( 1 Kings 19:3). There it might be thought a safe asylum would be secured, for he was now outside the territory governed by Ahab, but it was only a case (as the old saying goes) of “jumping out of the frying pan into the fire.” For at that time the kingdom of Judah was ruled over by Jehoshaphat, and his son had married “the daughter of Ahab” ( 2 Kings 8:18), and so closely were the two houses of Jehoshaphat and Ahab united that when the former was asked to join the latter in an expedition against Ramoth-gilead, Jehoshaphat declared, “I am as thou art, my people as thy people, my horses as thy horses” ( 1 Kings 22:4).
Thus Jehoshaphat would have had no compunction in delivering up the one who had fled to his land as soon as he received command from Ahab and Jezebel to that effect. So tarry in Beersheba Elijah dare not, but flees yet farther.
Beersheba lay towards the extreme south of Judea, being situated in the inheritance of Simeon, and it is estimated that Elijah and his companion covered no less than ninety miles in their journey thither from Jezreel. Next we are told that he “left his servant there.” Here we behold the prophet’s thoughtfulness and compassion for his lone retainer: anxious to spare him the hardships of the dreary wilderness of Arabia, which he now proposed to enter. In this considerate act the prophet sets an example for masters to follow, who should not require their dependents to encounter unreasonable perils nor perform services above their strength. Moreover, Elijah now wished to be alone with his trouble and not give vent to his feelings of despair in the presence of another. This, too, is worthy of emulation: when fear and unbelief fill his heart and he is on the point of giving expression to his dejection, the Christian should retire from the presence of others lest he infect them with his morbidity and petulance—let him unburden his heart to the Lord , and spare the feelings of his brethren. “But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness” (v. 4). Here we are given to see another effect of fear and unbelief: it produces perturbation and agitation, so that a spirit of restlessness seizes the soul.
And how can it be otherwise? Rest of soul is to be found nowhere but in the Lord, by communing with and confiding in Him. “The wicked are like the troubled sea, when it cannot rest” ( Isaiah 57:20): necessarily so, for they are utter strangers to the Rest-Giver— “the way of peace have they not known” ( Romans 3:17).
When the Christian is out of fellowship with God, when he takes matters into his own hands, when faith and hope are no longer in exercise, his case is no better than that of the unregenerate, for he has cut himself off from his comforts and is thoroughly miserable. Contentment and delighting in the Lord’s will is no longer his portion: instead, his mind is in a turmoil, he is thoroughly demoralized, and now vainly seeks to find relief in a ceaseless round of diversions and the feverish activities of the flesh. He must be on the move, for he is completely discomposed: he wearies himself in vain exercises, till his natural strength gives out.
Follow the prophet with your mind’s eye. Hour after hour he plods along beneath the burning sun, his feet blistered by the scorching sands, alone in the dreary desert. At last fatigue and anguish overcame his sinewy strength and he “came and sat under a juniper tree and requested for himself that he might die” (v. 4). The first thing we would note in this connection is that, disheartened and despondent as he was, Elijah made no attempt to lay violent hands on himself. Though now for a season God had withdrawn His comforting presence, and in a measure withheld His restraining grace, yet He did not and never does wholly deliver one of His own into the power of the Devil.
And he requested for himself that he might die.” The second thing we would note is the inconsistency of his conduct. The reason why Elijah left Jezreel so hurriedly on hearing of Jezebel’s threat was that he “went for his life,” and now he longs that his life might be taken from him. Herein we may perceive still another effect when unbelief and fear possess the heart.
Not only do we then act foolishly and wrongly, not only does a spirit of unrest and discontent take possession of us, but we are thrown completely off our balance, the soul loses its poise, and consistency of conduct is at an end. The explanation of this is simple: truth is uniform and harmonious, whereas error is multiform and incongruous; but for the truth to control us effectually faith must be in constant exercise— when faith ceases to act we at once become erratic and undependable and, as men speak, we are soon a “bundle of contradictions.” Consistency of character and conduct is dependent upon a steady walking with God.
Probably there are few of God’s servants but who at some time or other are eager to cast off their harness and cease from the toils of conflict, particularly when their labours seem to be in vain and they are disposed to look upon themselves as cumberers of the ground. When Moses exclaimed, “I am not able to bear all this people alone, because it is too heavy for me,” he at once added, “And if Thou deal thus with me, kill me, I pray Thee, out of hand” ( Numbers 11:14,15).
So, too, Jonah prayed, “Therefore now, O Lord, take, I beseech Thee, my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live” (4:3). Nor is a longing to be removed from this world of trouble peculiar to the ministers of Christ. Many of the rank and file of His people also are at times moved to say with David, “Oh that I had wings like a dove! for then would I fly away, and be at rest” ( Psalm 55:6).
Short as is our sojourn down here, it seems long, too long for some of us, and though we cannot vindicate Elijah’s peevishness and petulance, yet this writer can certainly sympathize with him under the juniper tree, for he has often been there himself.
It should, however, be pointed out that there is a radical difference between desiring to be delivered from a world of disappointment and sorrow and a longing to be delivered from this body of death in order that we may be present with the Lord. The latter was the case with the apostle when he said, “Having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better” ( Philippians 1:23).
A desire to be freed from abject poverty or a bed of languishing is only natural, but a yearning to be delivered from a world of iniquity and a body of death so that we may enjoy unclouded communion with the Beloved is truly spiritual. One of the greatest surprises of our own Christian life has been to find how few people give evidence of the latter. The majority of professors appear to be so wedded to this scene, so in love with this life, or so fearful of the physical aspect of death, that they cling to life as tenaciously as do non-professors. Surely Heaven cannot be very real to them. True, we ought submissively to wait God’s time, yet that should not preclude or override a desire to “depart, and be with Christ.”
But let us not lose sight of the fact that in his dejection Elijah turned to God and said, :It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life; for I am not better than my fathers: (v. 4). No matter how cast down we be, how acute our grief, it is ever the privilege of the believer to unburden his heart unto that One who “sticketh closer than a brother,” and pour out our complaint into His sympathetic ear. True, He will not wink at what is wrong, nevertheless He is touched with the feeling of our infirmities. True, He will not always grant us our request, for oftentimes we “ask amiss” ( James 4:3), yet if He withholds what we desire it is because He has something better for us. Thus it was in the case of Elijah. The Lord did not take away his life from him at that time: He did not do so later, for Elijah was taken to Heaven without seeing death. Elijah is one of the only two who have entered Heaven without passing through the portals of the grave.
Nevertheless, for God’s chariot Elijah had to wait God’s appointed time. “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life; for I am not better than my fathers.” He was tired of the ceaseless opposition which he encountered, weary of the strife. He was disheartened in his labours, which he felt were of no avail. I have striven hard, but it has been in vain; I have toiled all night and caught nothing. It was the language of disappointment and fretfulness: “It is enough”—I am unwilling to fight any longer, I have done and suffered sufficient: let me go hence. We are not sure what he signified by his “I am not better than my fathers.” Possibly he was pleading his weakness and incapacity: I am not stronger than they, and no better able to cope with the difficulties they encountered. Perhaps he alluded to the lack of fruit in his ministry: nothing comes of my labours, I am no more successful than they were. Or maybe he was intimating his disappointment because God had not fulfilled his expectations. He was thoroughly despondent and anxious to quit the arena.
See here once more the consequences which follow upon giving way to fear and unbelief. Poor Elijah was now in the slough of despond, an experience which most of the Lord’s people have at some time or other.
He had forsaken the place into which the Lord had brought him, and now was tasting the bitter effects of a course of self-will. All pleasure had gone out of life: the joy of the Lord was no longer his strength. O what a rod do we make for our backs when we deliberately depart from the path of duty.
By leaving the paths of righteousness we cut ourselves off from the springs of spiritual refreshment, and therefore the “wilderness” is now our dwelling-place. And there we sit down in utter dejection alone in our wretchedness, for there is none to comfort us while we are in such a state.
Death is now desired that an end may be put to our misery. If we try to pray it is but the murmurings of our hearts which find expression: my will, and not Thine, be done being the substance thereof.
And what was the Lord’s response? Did He turn with disgust from such a sight and leave His erring servant to reap what he had sown and suffer the full and final deserts of his unbelief? Ah, shall the good Shepherd refuse to take care of one of His strayed sheep, lying helpless by the wayside? Shall the great Physician refuse assistance to one of His patients just when he needs Him most? Blessed be His name, the Lord is “long-suffering to usward, not willing that any should perish.” “Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear Him” ( <19A313> Psalm 103:13). Thus it was here: the Lord evidenced His pity for His overwrought and disconsolate servant in a most gracious manner, for the next thing that we read of is that he “slept under a juniper tree” (v. 5). But the force of that is apt to be lost upon us, in this God-dishonoring day, when there are few left who realize that “He giveth His beloved sleep” ( <19C702> Psalm 127:2). It was something better than “nature taking its courses: it was the Lord refreshing the weary prophet.
How often is it now lost sight of that the Lord cares for the bodies of His saints as well as for their souls. This is more or less recognized and owned by believers in the matter of food and clothing, health and strength, but it is widely ignored by many concerning the point we are here treating of. Sleep is as imperative for our physical well-being as is food and drink, and the one is as much the gift of our heavenly Father as is the other. We cannot put ourselves to sleep by any effort of will, as those who suffer with insomnia quickly discover. Nor does exercise and manual labour of itself ensure sleep: have you ever lain down almost exhausted and then found you were “too tired to sleep”? Sleep is a Divine gift, but the nightly recurrence of it blinds us to the fact.
When is so pleases Him, God withholds sleep, and then we have to say with the Psalmist, “Thou holdest mine eyes waking” (77:4). but that is the exception rather than the rule, and deeply thankful should we be that it is so. Day by day the Lord feeds us, and night by night He “giveth His beloved sleep.” Thus in this little detail—of Elijah’s sleeping under the juniper tree—which we are likely to pass over lightly, we should perceive the gracious hand of God ministering in tenderness to the needs of one who is dear unto Him. Yes, “the Lord pitieth them that fear Him,” and why? “for He knoweth our frame; He remembereth that we are dust” ( <19A314> Psalm 103:14).
He is mindful of our frailty, and tempers His winds accordingly; He is aware when our energies are spent, and graciously renews our strength. It was not God’s design that His servant should die of exhaustion in the wilderness after his long, long flight from Jezreel, so he mercifully refreshes his body with sleep. And thus compassionately does He deal with us.
Alas, how little are we affected by the Lord’s goodness and grace unto us.
The unfailing recurrence of His mercies both temporally and spiritually inclines us to take them as a matter of course. So dull of understanding are we, so cold our hearts Godward, it is to be feared that most of the time we fail to realize whose loving hand it is which is ministering to us. Is not this the very reason why we do not begin really to value our health until it is taken from us, and not until we spend night after night tossing upon a bed of pain do we perceive the worth of regular sleep with which we were formerly favored? And such vile creatures are we that, when illness and insomnia come upon us, instead of improving the same by repenting of our former ingratitude, and humbly confessing the same to God, we murmur and complain at the hardness of our present lot and wonder what we have done to deserve such treatment. O let those of us who are still blessed with good health and regular sleep fail not daily to return thanks for such privileges and earnestly seek grace to use the strength from them to the glory of God.