“Prayers for Desperate Times—Elijah’s Prayer”
1 Kings 19:1-18 January 18, 2009
SI: We’re in the middle of a nine week study of prayers for desperate times.
We’re looking at nine different believers in the Bible who were facing
an overwhelming crisis, and they prayed, and God answered.
This morning we are looking at an incident in the life of the prophet Elijah.
In chapter 18 of 1 Kings, Elijah experienced the greatest high of his life.
In chapter 19 he experienced his deepest low.
What was the high of chapter 18?
Elijah’s showdown with King Ahab and the 450 prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel.
You remember that story. God answering Elijah with fire from heaven—
burning up his sacrifice. And all the people began to chant:
The Lord, he is God. The Lord, he is God.
And they put the prophets of Baal to death.
And God sent rain to end the 3 ½ years of drought.
And it seemed to Elijah that revival was breaking out,
that his years of struggle were over, and that Israel was turning back to the Lord.
But, there was one person who was unimpressed with Elijah and God,
and her reaction sent Elijah into a tailspin.
He went from the greatest moment in his life to just a few weeks later
telling God that he just wanted to die.
INTRO: When Charles Spurgeon was just 22 year old, so many people were
coming to hear him preach at the New Park Street Baptist Church in London
that he begged church members to stay away so visitors could hear the Gospel.
The church had to do something so they started renting bigger and bigger halls.
And they ended up renting the biggest hall in London at the time—
the Surrey Gardens Music Hall.
At the first service Spurgeon held there, over 10,000 people packed the hall.
But right before he got up to preach, someone yelled out, Fire!
There wasn’t a fire and Spurgeon could see that from his vantage point.
He tried to calm the crowd but there was a panic and seven were trampled to death.
Spurgeon was so shaken by the experience that he was unable to function
for two weeks. He thought this was going to cripple the revival that was starting.
He thought he saw Satan’s hand in the confusion and deaths.
He was so low that his wife and friends would not let him read newspapers.
They were afraid of his reaction because the Press was savaging him.
The London papers blamed Spurgeon for the atmosphere in the music hall—
said he had people so worked up emotionally, susceptible to panic.
And the Press predicted that this was the beginning of the end of Spurgeon.
He was a novelty act now the shine was off.
They were wrong, Spurgeon prayed, his wife and friends prayed,
and the he Lord lifted him out of that dark place
and he went on to preach in London for almost 40 more years.
In later years he wrote a book for young ministers
and there is a chapter in that book titled “The Minister’s Fainting Fits.”
In that chapter he wrote this:
“Fits of depression come over the most of us. Usually cheerful as we may be, we must at intervals be cast down. The strong are not always vigorous, the wise not always ready, the brave not always courageous, and the joyous not always happy. There may be here and there men of iron, to whom wear and tear work no perceptible detriment, but surely the rust frets even these; and as for ordinary men, the Lord knows, and makes them to know, that they are but dust.”
Spurgeon focuses particularly on ministers, but he touches on an experience
common to many Christians—those seasons and incidents in which
you are “cast down.” Those times you know you are but dust.
Elijah had this experience. He sat under a tree in the desert and prayed:
“I have had enough Lord, take my life. I am no better than my ancestors.”
Elijah was not the only person in the OT who prayed that he wanted to die.
Moses prayed that prayer when the Israelites kept complaining about their food.
“If this is how you are going to treat me, put me to death right now.”
Jonah too: “Now, O Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
And, of course, Job did a number of times.
It could be that some of you here feel the same way.
Perhaps for some time you have been standing for the Lord in a difficult place.
Hard place is at school with your friends, or at workplace issues there.
Maybe it is in your own marriage or family, strain of some kind.
Maybe some personal matter of your heart,
You’ve stood for the Lord, faithful, prayed, seen victories, hopes up,
then faced defeats have become so discouraged—feel like saying with Elijah:
“I have had enough Lord!” This is just too much.
If the only thing we learned from this story is that great saints like Elijah
got depressed, that wouldn’t be very helpful, wouldn’t be worth a sermon.
The wonderful thing about this story is that God answered Elijah’s prayer.
No matter how down you are, how acute your grief or depression—
you have the privilege of pouring out your complaint to the Lord.
And if you are feeling so low and hopeless and sorry for yourself
that you even pray: Lord, I just want to die.
He’ll hear that prayer—and he’ll answer you.
He won’t kill you—He’ll lift you up and give you what you need.
Let’s look at this story under two headings:
1. The prayer in the desert
2. The answer on the mountain
How you should pray when you are down and discouraged.
How you should expect God to answer your prayers.
MP#1 The prayer in the desert
What do you think of Elijah’s prayer under that scrubby desert tree?
Was it a good prayer?
Let’s compare his prayer to the prayer of King Jehoshaphat studied two weeks ago.
When three enemy armies were threatening Jerusalem with annihilation
Jehoshaphat prayed like this:
“O Lord, God of our fathers, are you not the God who is in heaven?
You rule over all the kingdoms of the nations.
Power and might are in your hand, and no one can withstand you.”
And then, if you remember, Jehoshaphat went on to recall God’s covenant
promises to Abraham, and Joshua, and Solomon.
And then he ended by saying—We don’t know what to do but eyes on you.
Jehoshaphat looked back at God’s faithfulness 500 and even 1000 years before.
Elijah couldn’t even look back two weeks to what God did on Mt. Carmel.
Jehoshaphat didn’t accuse God or question his wisdom.
He said, I’m standing here waiting for your guidance.
Elijah told God, I’ve had enough!
In other words, God, you don’t know what you’re doing!
And his prayer reeks of self-pity. Take my life. I’m no better than my ancestors.
Look at the different effects these prayers had on the men who prayed them.
After Jehoshaphat prayed, he armed his men and marched out to the place of battle.
After Elijah prayed he went into a depressive sleep and had no incentive to do
anything. The angel had to wake him up and feed him twice to get him going.
I think Elijah’s prayer in the desert illustrates an important faith lesson—
Prayer changes us. Good prayers make us strong.
Bad prayers make us weak.
And when you are going through a difficult time, and feeling cast down,
you need to make yourself pray good prayers, as hard as it is.
There’s an old debate that goes like this:
Does prayer change things or does prayer change us?
In other words: Do your prayers actually change situations and circumstances
or do they just change your view of the situation?
Theologians have gone round and round about this.
The biblical answer is both.
Prayer changes things and it changes us.
We don’t know how prayer changes things.
All we know is that in his time and ways, God hears our prayers,
takes them into account, and changes things.
Hannah couldn’t get pregnant, she prayed and she got pregnant.
Way Bible describes is that the Lord opened her womb.
There was a drought for 3 ½ years and Elijah prayed and it rained.
Bible says the Lord sent rain.
Did he work through natural laws? Maybe he did.
Most answered prayers aren’t miracles. Aren’t God setting aside laws of nature.
Instead, somehow he works through them.
But still we would affirm that prayer changes things.
And, prayer changes us. And that’s really the point I want to make.
Elijah provides us with a dramatic negative example.
His disrespectful, self-pitying prayer pulled him down even deeper.
He did not address God as sovereign Lord and King.
He did thank God for his past faithfulness.
He did not express trust that God would do what was best—and it hurt him.
Some people might push back against what I’m saying and argue—
But Elijah was real. This was how he really felt.
As Americans, being real is one of our valuses.
He was just being honest with God and we can’t criticize him for that.
I think we can.
On the one hand, prayer is just the instinctive cry of a child of God.
It’s just like a baby crying out for its mother.
If you are saved, you just cry out to God.
It’s just the natural expression of spiritual life.
But on the other hand, prayer is something that is learned.
It’s practiced. It’s deliberate.
It’s a Christian saying: Part of me wants to say:
“God, you don’t know what you’re doing in my life and I want to die.”
But I’m not going to say that because that’s not how he wants me to pray,
and praying like that will just drag me down.
When Jesus’ disciples asked him: Teach us to pray.
Jesus didn’t say, Just tell God how you feel.
He said, This is how you pray.
Our Father, in heaven. Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread . . . and so on.
He gave a pattern for prayer.
Prayers that follow the pattern lift you up more quickly.
Martin Luther always used the Lord’s prayer in his private devotions.
This is what he would do. Take each phrase, and he would do four things.
Praise God because of it. Thank him for the blessings from it.
Repent of his lack of faith in it. Make his requests in light of it.
“Our Father in heaven.”
I praise you that you are my Father and that you rule over all things.
I thank you for you fatherly care of me, your son. Care experienced today.
I confess that I haven’t trusted you as my Father.
I ask you to give me this thing I need, but I know as my Father you will do best.
And then he would move on to “Hallowed be thy name.”
This is what Luther said sometimes happened to him.
There would be some huge problem,
some overwhelming circumstance threatening to cast him down.
He would resist just blurting it out.
He would take a breath and pray: Our Father in heaven.
And he would be so overwhelmed at the wonder that God was his Father.
His Father, who loved him. And that his Father was on throne of heaven—
that the thing that had so worried him would shrink to nothing.
And he would get up, and go out and face it.
When you are cast down. Remember that good prayers can lift you up.
Praise God for his greatness
Thank him for his love for you in Christ.
And you will find, sooner rather than later, that you see the big picture.
But guess what? Even if you pray a sorry prayer full of self-pity and blame—
the Lord still hears and answers. That’s what’s so wonderful about this story.
God is the hero. Not Elijah.
Elijah crawls under a bush and prays: I’ve had enough Lord, kill me.
And the Lord hears and answers. Let’s now look at . . .
MP#2 The answer on the mountain
The Lord answered Elijah with three very personal commands.
And he still gives these three commands to his desperate and down cast
people today. Listen, you need to hear this.
First command: Be still, I am near.
When Elijah climbed the mountain, Lord asked, Why are you here?
And Elijah poured out this litany of complaints against the Israelites,
all his discouragement—I have been very zealous, the Israelites have . . .
Elijah had his list of things that were wrong with his life
and with the people in his life and he laid it all out there.
And, of course, we can identify with that. We have our own lists.
God, here are the people and things in my life that are wrong.
But to fully understand what Elijah hoped to do by presenting God with his list,
you have to remember where he was—standing on Mt. Horeb.
What was Mt. Horeb? It was another name for Mt. Sinai.
This was the place God had given the law to Moses 500 years earlier.
This was the place God had come down with fire and trumpet to declare
the blessings and curses in his covenant with Israel.
Elijah was saying: God, here’s my list, now why aren’t you blasting them?
Have you forgotten me God? Are you no longer working?
And the Lord said: I’ve heard your list, now go out and stand on the mountain.
Then there came wind, earthquake, fire—shattering rocks.
What phrase is repeated each time? “But the Lord not in wind, earthquake, fire.”
But after all this there came a gentle whisper.
Still small voice, gentle blowing, faint murmuring.
What was quiet, gentle, still, whisper? It was the presence of the Lord.
Elijah knew the Lord was there. Went out with cloak over his face.
Soaked in that stillness, that gentle voice.
It’s mysterious. But it seems God was saying.
Elijah, you are so concerned about your list.
You think I’m only with you if I’m blasting and smashing and changing things.
Calm down, Elijah. Listen. Be still. I’m near.
When you get discouraged—must be still and know Lord is near.
Can get so worked up, with your list of what God must do, how he must do it.
Quiet your soul, meditate on Lord. Put your list aside and focus on Him.
Second command: Be faithful, I will use you.
After Elijah calmed by the quiet presence of God’s Spirit,
Lord asked him again: What are you doing here Elijah.
And I think that’s very significant.
Because it shows that God really is concerned about the things that concern you.
He wants you to put them aside first, and be still, and recognize his presence.
But then, when he gets you calmed down he says: OK, let me hear your list again.
You do the same thing with your children, don’t you?
They come in all upset and tearful and the world is falling apart.
And you say, Calm down. I’m here. Now, take a deep breath. Now tell me.
So Elijah tells the Lord the very same thing a second time.
But it must have been in a very different tone.
Not—demanding, desperate. God, You’ve got to do something. I can’t take it.
He poured out his grief to God.
Things had not gone as he had expected after Mt. Carmel.
Jezebel was still on the throne. People still following Baal.
He had worked for years to bring Israel back and it seemed to have all failed.
Lord said: OK, I’ve heard you. “Go back the way you came.”
In other words, Go back to your work and calling.
I’m not done with you. I still have work for you to do.
After 40 days in the desert, feeling like his ministry was over, useless,
God still had use for Elijah in the calling where he had become so discouraged.
God gave him some specific duties, related to his prophetic office.
Very often, just like Elijah, your discouragement will center on some calling.
Discouraged about matters at school, work, family, or marriage.
For me, it’s often Monday mornings.
That’s the day I’m going to quit the ministry.
It’s the day I’m most painfully aware of my inadequacies and failures.
The Lord says, Go back the way you came, keep doing what I’ve called you to do.
Keep doing what a husband or wife, mother or father is supposed to do.
Keep doing what whatever it is you are called to vocationally.
Keep working in your business. Keep plugging away for your boss.
It’s through the ordinary callings of life, that God works.
Be faithful and he will use you.
Third command: Be encouraged, the Lord is at work.
Before Elijah leaves the mountain, this parting word from Lord.
“Yet I reserve 7,000 in Israel, all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal
and all whose mouths have not kissed him.”
Answer to Elijah’s complaint: I am the only one left.
A big part of Elijah’s discouragement was that he was so pessimistic.
He simply could not see that the Lord was working—especially in people.
He could see sin. He could see failure. He was good at that.
And it convinced him that the whole thing was rotten.
But God said, Be encouraged Elijah.
My Holy Spirit is at work in Israel in a whole bunch of people.
Very often, our discouragement follows the same pattern.
Become pessimistic cannot believe that God is at work,
Don’t believe that his grace will triumph in our lives or lives of other people.
But it will, you need to look for evidence of his grace, be encouraged.
This has helped me greatly as a pastor and as a Christian.
When I’m meeting with people, talking to them I tell myself—
The Holy Spirit is at work.
Sometimes I say it out loud when I am going to have a conversation
with somebody and I know I’ll tend to be discouraged or judgmental.
I’ll say. I believe in the Holy Spirit.
And that helps me see beyond the sins and weaknesses that so easily discourage.
Be encouraged, the Lord is at work. The Holy Spirit is moving.
CONC: God’s people sometimes are troubled and cast down.
It happened to Moses, Elijah, Spurgeon—may have happened to you.
And here’s the amazing thing—it even happened to Jesus.
He was in Gethsemane. It was night.
It says that he began to be sorrowful and troubled and said to disciples:
“My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.”
John’s Gospel records Jesus saying:
“Now my heart is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this
hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour.”
In other words, the troubling temptation was to despair
and fail to carry out his mission. But what did he do in that hour?
He rested in his Father.
“Yet not as I will, but as you will.”
And how was Jesus rewarded for this magnificent prayer of faith—
He was put to death on the cross so that we could live.
Jesus prayed, Father, I don’t want to die, but you know exactly what you’re doing.
And God sent him to the cross abandoned him there to die alone.
Elijah prayed, God, you don’t know what you’re doing, I want to die.
And God smiled on him and gave him a reason to live.
And that’s exactly the way he treats you.
Rest in that. Be still and know the Lord is near.
Be faithful, do the work he had called you to do. He can still use you.
And be encouraged, his Spirit is at work.