Christians can be affected by depression. From 1 Kings 19 this article traces the development of events that ended in Elijah being depressed, and applies them to believers today.

Source: The Banner of Sovereign Grace Truth, 2004. 5 pages.

From Strength to Complaint

Translator’s Note🔗

Since the publication of the translation of my father’s first book, A Helping Hand, there have been frequent requests that the sequel to this book, Nogmaals een Helpende Hand (Once more a Helping Hand), be translated as well. Having promised my father just prior to his death that I would translate all the books he has written, I hereby wish to ful­fill this obligation. It is my earnest prayer that this book, which will be published serially in this periodical, may also prove to be a blessing to many, and that office-bearers may especially glean much instruction from it. May the God who led my father through a deep valley of affliction, but also delivered him from this horrible pit, use this book to comfort others with the comfort with which He comforted my father. Rev. B. Elshout


The publication of this book is motivated by my compassion for those who wrestle with problems of a psychological nature. The many grateful reactions to my previous book, A Helping Hand, prompted me to extend a helping hand once more to those burdened by these problems.

It is important that those who suffer, as well as those who are called to counsel them, have a correct understanding of the causes of mental suffering. The reading of a book such as this could be helpful in preventing depressions that are symptomatic of a different problem in someone’s life. An ounce of prevention is worth more than a pound of cure.

In 1 Kings 19, we find a description of a crisis in the life of the prophet Elijah. I believe that this portion of Scripture yields instruction regarding what causes certain types of depressions, as well as the means whereby a person can be delivered from them. This book will study how 1 Kings 19 records for us one man’s experience in the valleys that all believers go through in the life of faith. Elijah emerged from this crisis as a purified and seasoned man, and others can as well. The God who delivered Elijah from his misery still lives!

It is the prayer and wish of the writer that the LORD would use this book to deliver people who are in need, so that all glory goes to Him who is wonderful in counsel and excellent in His works (Isa. 28:29).

The prophet Elijah is not only a man whose history is recorded in the Bible, but also a man who struggled with depression.

There are professionals who apply the term “depres­sive” only to people who are either mentally disturbed or who suffer from a serious psychological disorder. Other professionals use this term in a much wider sense. It is in the latter sense that I wish to designate Elijah’s condition as depressive.

We may and must be thankful for the fact that, in His Word, the Lord does not only focus on Elijah on the mountain peak of the life of faith. God’s Spirit has deemed it beneficial and necessary to also focus on him as a man of like passion as we are, wrestling with fear and problems that seem to defy solution. This hero of faith, who did great things in the might of God (see 1 Kings 17 and 18), is set before us in 1 Kings 19 as a man who suffers from battle fatigue and who is weary of life itself — a man who has but one wish: to fall asleep, never to awake again. Who would have thought that a powerful man such as Elijah, shortly after what had transpired on Mount Carmel, could be so depressed that he would pray, “It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am not better than my fathers” (1 Kings 19:4).

Just as many could never imagine that they could be subject to such a serious depression, it is most prob­able that Elijah also did not count on this possibility. The wish expressed by Elijah was preceded by a period of great fear, anxiety, and restlessness. The one gave birth to the other, which is usually the case. Therefore, the record of 1 Kings 19 contains a wealth of instruc­tion for people who suffer from depression, and for those who are called to counsel and guide people who are thus afflicted.

In 1 Kings 17 and 18, we meet Elijah as a man who is full of the strength of the Lord. These chapters show us how God’s Spirit can transform a son of man into a man who is very zealous for the honor of the Lord and for His kingdom. First Kings 19, however, shows us a man of like passions as we are — a man who was fearful and frail, who suffered from battle fatigue, and who was spiritually paralyzed by fear.

Many have asked themselves how it is possible that Elijah could descend so quickly from a mountain peak to a valley so deep that words fail us to describe its depth. Many depressed persons and their relatives have asked themselves how it is possible that they or oth­ers could have come into such circumstances that the tensions and problems of religious, domestic, social, and ecclesiastical life can no longer be processed in a normal fashion.

Upon reviewing the biographical data of Elijah’s life, one can conclude that he was not a man who did a half job. He abhorred half-hearted measures. For him it was either doing something well or not doing it at all. He was not a man who halted between two opinions.

It can be a good personality trait to be precise, conscientious, and detail-oriented in everything one does. A keen sense of duty and responsibility can also be a very good thing. However, combined with someone’s personality structure and other circumstances, this can produce such psychological stress that it leads to being overstressed. When a person, motivated either by pride or a desire to suppress or overcome feelings of inferiority, always demands excellence of himself, it will sooner or later lead to being overstressed, which can lead to depression.

From Elijah’s words, “Now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am not better than my fathers,” we could con­clude that it had been his desire and goal to be better than his fathers. It can be a personality trait to desire and strive to be better than others and to do everything better than others. Ambition is as much a sin as avarice. Ambition is a hard taskmaster which never says, “It is enough.” This hard taskmaster has ruined the lives of many.

It is, however, also possible that the desire to be better in all things than others and to do all things bet­ter than others proceeds from religious training. We know that God’s law demands of us perfect obedience to all God’s commandments. The desire to live in harmony with God’s Word and thus be void of offense can be a very good desire — that is, if it proceeds from the root of a childlike desire to fear the Lord. A faith that aims for God’s honor and the well-being of our neighbor and works by love, as well as strives to always have a conscience void of offense before God and man, is the fruit of the work of the Holy Spirit.

In that sense, it is commendable when someone desires to be better than those who do not take God’s honor and will very seriously. In fact, the more love there is in someone’s heart toward a God who, for Christ’s sake, is so good to wretched men, the more zeal there will be to strive to resist sin in one’s self and others, and to promote righteousness in ourselves and others. We must continually examine ourselves before the countenance of God regarding the motive of our actions and what our objective is in pursuing perfection. Even in the greatest of the saints there are remnants of legalism which can lead to bondage or stress.

The Bible says that Elijah was a man of like passions as we are. I do not know whether Elijah’s striving to be better than his fathers was contaminated by unholy ambition. I do know, however, that being overstressed and depressed can in some cases be attributed to the aforementioned factors. Watchfulness and prayer are of the essence here! In our striving to be perfect, our intentions can be so good, but that ambition which renders us unable or unwilling to accept the fact that we cannot achieve perfection is an evil from which we must be delivered.

Our apparent zeal is too often a cover-up for our natural aversion to being beggars at the throne of grace. It is not easy to conclude that we naturally despise being dependent upon grace. When we detect this within ourselves, it ought to lead us to humility rather than despair, for enemies are reconciled with God by the death and grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. He came to save sinners and He teaches us to pray by His Spirit, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” Such prayers the Lord desires to hear and answer.

What Preceded Elijah’s Depression🔗

As we attempt to answer the question of how Elijah ended up in a condition of such despondency (1 Kings 19:4), we must first of all consider what preceded it.

This anxiety and despondency was preceded by a very stressful period. We may safely assume that Eli­jah had gradually prepared for his encounter with Ahab. The Spirit’s work to equip Elijah in solitude for his public ministry obviously had an effect upon him. The words, “As the LORD God of Israel liveth, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years, but according to my word” (1 Kings 17:1), were uttered with explosive force.

When we are called upon to perform a demanding task, it takes its toll on our bodies — even if the Lord has called and equipped us in an extraordinary manner to do so. The great tension which this sometimes generates will be very taxing on our psyche. Since Elijah was a man of like passions as we are, his stress level must have been very high before and during his encounters with Ahab.

Performing a task which demands a high level of psychological energy — such as when great demands are made on us as a result of domestic, work-related, or church-related stress — can easily lead to being overstressed if not counterbalanced by rest and relaxation. A bow which is always drawn will ultimately break.

At times, finding time for relaxation can be impossible. However, it can also be true that we neglect opportunities to relax or even avoid them. Sometimes we take refuge in our work for fear of having to come to grips with ourselves. This can lead to being addicted to work, which is unquestionably detrimental to our psychological and physical well-being. The price of such foolishness is often very high. Constant work will sooner or later lead to being overstressed; being overstressed in turn leads to other problems such as being incapable of doing our work for a shorter or longer period of time.

The first and second encounters between Elijah and Ahab were separated by a period of three years and six months. By the goodness of the Lord, his stay at the brook Cherith and with the widow of Zarephath pro­vided Elijah with the necessary relaxation after a period of great stress regarding his first encounter with Ahab.

The deep depression from which Elijah suffered and which led to his petition, “Now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am not better than my fathers,” was precip­itated by Elijah’s second encounter with Ahab, as well as by what subsequently occurred on Mount Carmel.

The Sequence of Events on Mount Carmel🔗

What transpired upon Mount Carmel may safely be labeled the climax of Elijah’s life. In 1 Kings 18:36 we read, “Let it be known this day that thou art God in Israel, and that I am thy servant, and that I have done all these things at thy word.” From this we know that everything Elijah did on Mount Carmel was done in harmony with what God had told him. We also know that God made it known that He was God in Israel and that Elijah was His servant. Who can express in words what it must have been like for Elijah when, in response to the answer God gave upon Elijah’s prayer, the entire nation prostrated itself and cried out, “The LORD, he is the God; the LORD, he is the God!” (18:39). What amazement, adoration, and joy must have filled the heart of Elijah when he heard these words!

Elijah must have been exceedingly joyful when the people did more than just speak the words and, upon his invitation, took hold of Baal’s priests who they had never dared to touch. The journey from the brook Kishon and the slaughter of the four hundred fifty prophets of Baal was the culmination of what had transpired thus far. We cannot even begin to imagine what physical and psychological demands this must have made upon Elijah. I am sure that it must have been considerable. In addition, the time that Elijah spent on Mount Carmel after the slaughter of the prophets of Baal, supplicating for rain, must have been taxing for him. Processing all these things must have pushed him to his limits.

Considering what transpired that evening, we may safely conclude that Elijah’s psychological reserves were nearly depleted after the dramatic events of this climactic day in his life.

Upon Every Climax Follows a Valley🔗

It is well-known that highs in our lives are followed by lows. Every climax triggers a reaction — sometimes even an anti-climax. After a series of dramatic events in a short period of time, one will be especially vulnerable to a psychological slump. Periods of depression can often be explained by what precedes them.

No one would blame a blown electrical fuse if the fuse failed due to excessive demands being made on it. Neither would we do so if the fuse failed because of a short in the line. This is perfectly normal. However, when someone’s psychological fuses blow due to excessive stress or emotional short-circuiting, the reac­tions are often quite different. Frequently, people try to establish a cause-effect relationship between expe­riencing a breakdown and a given sin. This ought not to be. Of which sin was Elijah guilty that would explain that his depression was a punishment? Did he think too highly of himself and of the importance of his work? That is indeed possible, for he was a man of like passions as we are. I do not believe, however, that we may make such a connection. Did he do something for which he could justly be rebuked? I believe not. And yet, after having had a spiritual mountain-peak expe­rience, he descended into a very deep pit. He was neither the first nor the last person to have such an experience. Did the Lord tempt him above what he was able to bear? No; otherwise he would never have come out of this pit.

Through his mountain-peak experiences, Elijah learned how great, glorious, and faithful the Lord is. In the deep valleys he had to learn how small, insignif­icant, sinful, and helpless he was. He was a man of like passions as all others who had to learn to live by grace alone — and who, out of the fullness of Christ, received grace for grace. In order that he would not exalt him­self because of what he had experienced on Mount Carmel, he came into the situation so well known to us. All that happened to Elijah was not meant for his destruction, but for his benefit and the benefit of oth­ers. It was love, not wrath, that moved God to direct things in this fashion, so that the Lord would be glorified and Elijah would prosper spiritually. That is evident from what followed Elijah’s depression. Many throughout history have learned to see their suffering in that light. Its purpose is to yield knowledge of self and of God, make and keep one humble, and lead to glorifying God and His ways. The petition from Psalm 38, “Forsake me not, O LORD: O my God, be not far from me. Make haste to help me, O Lord my salvation” (vv. 21-22), is a petition the Lord wants to hear from the lips of those who suffer. When that prayer is answered, people can even thank the Lord for having experienced such depression.

Recently I saw a stone attached to a branch of an apple tree. The owner of the orchard had attached the stone to help the branch grow in such a fashion that it would yield the maximum amount of fruit. The stone was necessary to make the branch fulfill the purpose intended by the grower, and it prevented the branch from growing in a direction that would not be subservient to fruitfulness.

In seeing the stone attached to the branch, I observed a picture of how the Lord deals with many people. In His love and wisdom, the Lord frequently uses difficulties to prevent growth in the wrong direc­tion. The fruits He wants to produce are those which are worthy of repentance — all to His honor, and to the salvation of ourselves and others.

By way of His Word, Spirit, and providence, God will see to it that people will fulfill His purpose. To that end, He has laid help upon One who is mighty, Jesus Christ, by whose hand the pleasure of the Lord will prosper — and to accomplish this, He will not spare our flesh and blood.

May the Lord teach us to view our trials in that light! That light is a wondrous light; it drives away all darkness and causes us to worship Him in holy ado­ration, for He is wonderful in counsel and excellent in working (Isa. 28:29). All of this is beautifully expressed in the following poem:

He Maketh No Mistake🔗

My Father’s way may twist and turn, 
My heart may throb and ache,
But in my soul I’m glad I know,
He maketh no mistake.

My cherished plans may go astray,
My hope may fade away,
But still I’ll trust my Lord to lead,
He doth know the way.

Tho’ night be dark and it may seem,
day will never break;
I’ll pin my faith, my all in Him.
He maketh no mistake.

There’s so much now I cannot see,
My eyesight’s far too dim;
come what may, I’ll simply trust
And leave it all to Him.

And by and by the mist will lift
And plain it all He’ll make.
Through all the way, tho’ dark to me,
He made not one mistake
A. M. Overton

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