Summary: Elijah demonstrated seven of the most common symptoms of depression; God responded and with in four ways to help Elijah overcome his depression.
A friend of mine spent four years working in psychiatric wards in hospitals while he was in college and graduate school. He said the approach to the patients seemed to be the same: it would begin with medication, individual counseling and group therapy and often lead to EST (electric shock therapy). Although the psychiatrist seemed about as imbalanced as the patients, the counseling often did some good because the patients would learn from him a more orderly plan for their life (the psychiatrist’s) than their own; however, it seldom resulted in health. The medications provided an artificial balance, but not a real one. Eventually the EST would result in a “forgetting” of the problems and provide relief for a while. But a return to the environment from whence the patients came would remind the patients of why they were depress; this often resulted in a return to the psychiatric ward. Of course, eventually the EST treatments would begin to scramble the patients’ brain and distort their ability to think. Why did these approaches not work? In spite of the fact psychiatric medicine has some helpful diagnostic tools, there just weren't any definitive answers.
Everyone is susceptible to depression. We might call it a “mood swing” or say we are having a “bad day,” but depression is depression. It might last for a short time or might reach what is called “clinical depression,” that is a severe level.
Perhaps the thought of personal depression is discouraging (depressing?). Let me assure you that some of the giants of our faith had devastating bouts of depression. At one time Moses was so depressed with leading Israel that he asked God to take his life (Numbers 11:10-15). Also, Elijah, one of the two humans who never tasted death, experienced a similar death wish. We are in good company when we are depressed, although this fact offers little solace.
“For whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope.” (Romans 15:4) Ah, there are answers, real answers, effective answers. God has recorded them in His Word.
Textual Background: I have found the most concentrated amount of Biblical answers in a couple of the events from the life of Elijah. Elijah was a prophet to Israel [at the time God’s nation was divided into the Northern Kingdom (Israel) and the Southern Kingdom, Judah]. At the time King Ahab and his wife Jezebel had saturated the country with the idol Baal. In order to prove Baal was nothing, Elijah set up a contest on Mount Carmel (supposedly Baal’s holy mountain). This contest is recorded in I Kings 18:20-40. The 450 Baal prophets were to build an altar, lay a sacrifice on it, and pray that their God would send fire from heaven to light the sacrifice and prove his lordship (vv. 23-25). The Baal prophets built their altar and laid their bull on it. Then they began to pray and pray and pray (vs. 26). They even cut themselves with knives in an effort to get their god’s attention (vs. 28), but there was no response. Of course, Elijah offered some interesting commentary to them as they were failing (vs. 27). Then it was Elijah’s turn. He built an altar, dug a trench around it, filled it with water, and laid the sacrifice on the altar (vv. 30-35). At the time of evening sacrifice, Elijah prayed and the Lord sent such an intense fire from heaven that it consumed the bull, the wood, the stones of the altar, the dust around it, and all the water in the trench (vv. 36-38). Suddenly the people cried out, “The Lord, He is God!” (vs. 39) If the Baal prophets hadn’t had a bad enough day, Elijah had them seized and killed all four hundred fifty of them.
What does all this have to do with understanding depression? Everything! Certainly in Elijah’s mind the Mt. Carmel victory should have been complete; now Yahweh would assume His rightful place as the Lord of Israel. Wrong! When Jezebel heard of the fate of her prophets, she vowed to kill Elijah (I Kings 19:1-2). Upon discovering this, Elijah ran for his life, went to Beersheba, and prayed that he might die (vv. 3-5). As we read this account from Elijah’s life, we are going to see the classic symptoms of depression being revealed and God’s solution to depression. Let’s begin with the definition of depression and the symptoms Elijah experienced.
Perhaps the best definition for depression is “a loss of hope.” When we find ourselves in what we perceive to be a hopeless situation, we will grow depressed. A person who is in a dead-end job, with no “hope” of getting a different one, will grow depressed. When a person is in a relationship that has no perceivable hope of improvement, the result is depression. In fact, a depression might be experienced in such a simple circumstance as owning a car that is such a “lemon” there seems to be no hope of it ever running properly. Elijah had great hope that all of Israel would respond to God’s igniting the sacrifice by turning to the living God. Instead, he found himself running for his life. He lost hope; he became severely depressed. Many of the symptoms of clinical depression manifested themselves at this time.