Summary: Elijah is discouraged, but not for the reasons most people offer. It is popular to portray Elijah intimidated by vicious Jezebel and running scared in a cowardly retreat, yet his desert journey is not a sign of weakness.
Elijah enjoyed a triumphant showdown at Mount Carmel. As we consider the aftermath, we’re apt to focus on what appears to be weakness in Elijah. This is largely due to how this passage has been translated and interpreted. The Elijah seems to be a different man in the turn of a page. Is he? While some people experience a let-down after a victory, this isn’t the case here. Elijah is discouraged, but not for the reasons most people offer. It is popular to portray Elijah intimidated by vicious Jezebel and running scared in a cowardly retreat. Some commentators seem as eager to attack Elijah as was the prophets of Baal! Yet Elijah’s journey is not a sign of weakness.
Notice verse three: “Elijah was afraid and ran for his life.” I’d like to offer another translation: “Elijah perceived Israel’s condition, arose and went for his soul.” The prophet saw that, in spite of his victory at Carmel, little was going to change in Israel. Something needed to change in him.
Elijah soundly defeated the prophets of Baal, and rain returned to the land. In the closing paragraph of chapter 18 (41-45), Elijah gives Ahab a chance to repent (he doesn’t), then tells the king to get into his chariot and head for home before the heavy rain prevents him from travel; he’ll get stuck in the mud. A small cloud appears, grows larger, then the clouds burst in a downpour! Rain at last! James 5 notes: “Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for 3 ½ years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops” (5:17-18). God commands the clouds to send rain, “and all the scientists in the world are powerless to reverse it” (Pink).
Yet little had changed. There was no national repentance. The nation’s apathy and apostasy continued unabated. Elijah hoped the victory at Carmel would result in a decisive return to God and a final rejection of Baal. He expected a wide-sweeping national revival. Yet Jezebel continues to yield her pagan influence; she rejects the clear evidence/proof of God’s supremacy. “There was a blaze of light on Mt. Carmel, yet the darkness remains” (Davis). People say “If God would just give me proof, I’d believe in Him.” Ahab and Jezebel had ample, undeniable proof, yet stubbornly remained untouched, hard-hearted, and they redoubled their opposition.
Jezebel is furious and sends Elijah a messenger. Why not just send an assassin? Why warn the prophet? Maybe he was too popular in Israel and killing him might well backfire politically. Jezebel couldn’t risk having a martyr. She sends an envoy with a message of death, but God sends an angel with a gift of life.
Elijah was depressed. Winston Churchill called depression “my black dog”. Many people find themselves dogged by depression. Henri Nouwen observes: “Every time I slip into another depression it seems as if I resist coming into the light and enjoy staying in my self-made darkness. Living in the light means acknowledging joyfully the truth that all that is good, beautiful, and worthy of praise belongs to God. It is only a truly God-centered life that will pull me out of my depressions and give me hope. It is a clear path, but a very hard path as well.”
Elijah was disheartened and broken, but not fearful. He wanted to die, but not at Jezebel’s hand--that would be regarded as her triumph, a victory of evil over good, reversing the triumph of Carmel. If he just wanted to die, he could’ve remained in place, and plenty of Baal’s followers would’ve gladly accommodated him! Elijah’s journey south was a plan, not panic. He goes into the wilderness, where none could credit Jezebel with his death…if God so chooses. God knows the prophet needed some time alone with his distress. He is ready to resign, but rather than take Elijah home, God informs the prophet that He’s not done with him. And God acknowledges, “The journey is too great for you” (7). He understands when we’re at the end of our resources. He sustains Elijah, and this desert trek becomes for him a spiritual retreat, a renewed vision. “He went for his soul.” Nourished, Elijah was able to continue his God-directed journey to Mt Horeb, 150 miles further south.
Elijah was troubled over the spiritual lethargy and indifference of Israel. He wonders whether Israel will ever return to God. “What’s it going to take to get their attention?” He felt he had failed and was dejected. Do we ever grieve over the apathy of people who seem content to live apart from God? We get sad for ourselves; are we ever sad for God? Elijah was. Nothing was more important to him than Israel trusting in God…and when they went on their own uncaring way, it wounded him to the heart. What does it do to us?