A Study of 1st Kings 19:4
“But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and, sat down under a juniper tree: and he requested for himself that he might die; and said: it is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life; for, I am not better than my fathers.”
(1st Kings 19:4)
From Carmel to the juniper tree!
From the glorious, heights of a victorious faith down into the lugubrious depths of utter despondency!
Out of the consciousness of an exultant assurance that God’s cause has the victory into the doleful state of mind of one who is ready to give up because all is lost!
Who of God’s people is not more or less acquainted with the vivid contrast and transition?
We have had moments of glorying. Neither was our glorying vain: it was a glorying in the cross of Jesus Christ, our Lord. The Lord was near and faith seemed strong. We rejoiced, not merely in the assurance of personal salvation, but in the strong conviction that, whatever betide, God’s cause in the world will surely have the victory. We were triumphant. God became very great; the enemy dwindled into insignificance. From the heights of a victorious assurance we challenged the enemy. Nothing seemed too difficult. With the psalmist we could sing that by God we would run through a troop, and leap over a wall! With the apostle we boasted that God is for us, and that, therefore, nothing could be against us, that we are more than conquerors through Him that loves us, and that no power on earth, in heaven, or in hell, present or future, can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord!
We were on the heights of Carmel!
And then we precipitated into the depths of gloom and doubt and despair that made us seek the mournful solitude of the juniper tree in the wilderness that there we might morbidly implore the LORD to release us from His service, seeing that His is a lost cause and that our labor for that cause is vain!
Nor, indeed, does there seem to be a very gradual descent, sloping from the heights of glorying into the depths of despair.
On the contrary, a very steep incline draws one from Mount Carmel to the juniper tree.
One moment we gloried in the LORD, and almost the next moment, it seems, we despair of His cause!
From the heights into the depths!
It is enough!
“Now, O LORD, take away my life!”
Thus the man of God, who had been a lonely witness for the cause of Jehovah in a time of great apostasy and wickedness, despairingly beseeched the LORD.
Let us not be too hard on the prophet.
He was a man of like passions even as we, and there were historical circumstances that at least may be said to have occasioned this headlong precipitation from glorious Carmel into the gloom of the juniper tree.
Carmel had been a revelation of the LORD’s power, but the revelation had not been permanent; it had been a prefiguration of “the day of the LORD,” but not that day itself. The people had been overawed by the revelation of the power of God, and had shouted that Jehovah is the God, but they had not repented with a true sorrow after God. They had slain the Baal’s priests at Kishon, but they had not turned their idolatrous hearts to the LORD. And the king had apparently repented, but his repentance had never been true. Relieved he must have felt when the prophet that ran before his chariot in the pouring rain had not persisted to accompany him to the palace, but had left him at the gates of Jezreel.
And when he came home, he “told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and withal how he had slain all the prophets with the sword.”
A sinister note we detect in these words.
No longer, we surmise, was there in this report of Ahab to the wicked queen a note of repentance, And whatever may have been his motive in bringing this report to Jezebel, the fear of the LORD was wholly absent from it; nor did the king have any intention to follow up the work of Elijah begun in the name of the LORD, and obliterate completely the worship of Baal from the land of Canaan. Nay more, as we read these words, we fear that the king’s report was clothed in words calculated to arouse the fierce wrath of the queen, and suggesting that she take action against the prophet, that “troubler of Israel.” Did he not report what Elijah had done? And was it, then, the work of Elijah that had been the dominating feature of the scene on Carmel? Was it not emphatically the work and power of Jehovah over against the utter impotence and vanity of Baal that had been revealed? And did not the king, forgetful of the fact that Carmel had been the revelation of Jehovah, place am evil emphasis on that part of his report that concerned the slaying of all the prophets of Baal?
In the report of the king, the revelation of the God of Israel became, no doubt, a murderous plot of the prophet of the LORD!
And the effect of it was as might have been expected: the queen was furious!
And she dispatched a messenger to Elijah with the fierce oath: “So let the gods do to me, and more also, if I make not thy life as the life of one of them by tomorrow about this time.”
And the prophet “went for his life. . . .”
Yet, we think, that the words have been quite properly rendered by: “he went for his life.”
It has been denied that the prophet fled for fear of the queen, A man like Elijah, it is argued, who was not afraid to face the wicked king and announce to him (the fierce wrath of God in his very palace; who, moreover, had been the recipient of such mighty revelations, and whom the ravens had fed upon the word of the LORD; who alone had fought the battle on Carmel and gained the victory by faith,—that such a mighty servant of Jehovah should now be afraid of the wrath, of the impotent fury of the wicked queen, and flee to save his life. The original Hebrew, it is pointed out, literally reads: “he went upon his soul,” which may have quite a different meaning. And, besides, why should Elijah flee for his life? Did he not strongly desire to die? Did he not, under the juniper tree, beseech the LORD to take his life from him. . .?
Such is the most simple rendering of the words. This meaning is suggested by the context. And the argument that Elijah was not susceptible to fear for the wicked queen overlooks the fact: that he was a man of like passions even cis we are. Nor is it true that this would be in conflict with his prayer under the juniper tree. Let us remember, that while the prophet fled on the spur of the moment, evidently taking the impotent threat of the queen quite seriously, his prayer under the juniper tree was uttered later, after he had first gone to Beersheba in Judah, and thereupon had travelled a day’s journey into the wilderness.
And as he travelled, and reviewed the situation, the gloom deepened, doubt and despair took more and more complete possession of his soul, till he became utterly despondent.
To Beersheba in Judah he travelled in the company of his servant. There he left him. Henceforth, he would need him no more. Was he not going to hand in his resignation to Jehovah? Alone he travelled on, in the wilderness, a day’s journey, contemplating no doubt, upon the hopelessness of the whole situation and becoming more and more convinced that all his strenuous efforts in the cause of the Lord, all his zeal, all his sufferings, all his labors had been vain!
O, how hopeless the cause of Jehovah appeared to him!
For what, after all, did it signify that the wicked queen was able to utter the threat against; his life? It meant that she was still in power, that the king had told her all about, Carmel and had not repented, that the four hundred prophets of Baal were still eating at the table of the queen, and that it would not be long before Jezebel’s wicked devices would obliterate completely the effects of Carmel’s victory, and Israel would be seduced to follow after the Baals once more. . . .
O, looking at the situation from a purely human viewpoint, as, no doubt, the prophet did that entire day of his lonely journey through the wilderness, there could be found plenty of justification for the profound despair and despondency of the man of God!
He longed for fruit upon his labors, tangible, visible fruit! And who does not?
He yearned for the cause of Jehovah to prosper in the world! And what man of God does not know this longing?
He strongly desired to see the victory of God’s covenant, and the complete defeat of all the powers of darkness!
And for a moment, on Carmel, it had seemed that the joy of beholding this victory would be his! Alas! it might not be so!
The enemy was still in power!
His labors had been rain!
LORD, stake my soul!
It is enough!
From Carmel to the wilderness!
Tremendous, apparently strange and inexplicable, yet thoroughly human reaction!
For though the circumstances were, indeed, the occasion of the complete discouragement and utter despondency of the man of God, they cannot explain his state of mind under the juniper tree entirely.
It is, true, the situation was bad, and Carmel had evidently failed to bring the final victory for which the prophet longed. But had not conditions been fully as bad, if not much worse, before Baal had been completely in power. The forces of darkness had had complete sway. All the people had, apparently at least, apostatized from the living God and embraced the cause of the enemy. The faithful were few and had been hid, in danger of their lives. The true prophets were killed. . . .
And then the man of God, rather than pour out his soul under juniper trees, had arisen a mighty warrior, a lonely witness, filled with zeal for Jehovah’s cause, mighty in power, strong in the LORD, to fight the battle alone.
Why, then, this sudden collapse? Why this precipitate descent from the heights of victory into the slough of despair?
Partly, at least, strange though it may seem, the answer to this question must be sought, not in Elijah under the juniper tree, but in the mighty man of God on Carmel!
Let us learn the lesson: the juniper tree always stands close to Carmel! It is on the very heights of faith and spiritual victory that the danger of doubt and despair lurks, and threatens to overwhelm our soul! It is in moments of high spiritual tension that God’s people in this world, and especially those that are called to battle in the front ranks of God’s host, must watch and pray, lest they fall into temptation. For then it is that the desire to remain on those glorious heights, whence we can see the victory of God’s cause even here in this world, takes a mighty hold on our soul. And then it is, too, that we are in danger to forget that “the day of the LORD” is not yet come, and Ito become completely unfit, for a time at least, to grapple with the ever rising forces of darkness once more!
Such, it seems to us, was Elijah’s experience!
Carmel had been victory! Visible, tangible victory the prophet, had witnessed there!
In a state of high spiritual tension the prophet hid been on the mount. A mountain height of faith and spiritual joy Carmel had been for him. O, how he had rejoiced in his battle with the priests of Baal! How certain he had been of victory, when vainly they called upon their god to bring fire from heaven to light the sacrifice, and when he had mocked them, and exposed their vanity in the sight of all the people! How he had been ravished with delight, when, after they had beheld the glory of the LORD, all the people had shouted that Jehovah alone is God, and when, at his word, they had slain the priests of the idol at the brook Kishon! And then there had been the sight of the apparently penitent king, his rapture on the mount when he beseeched Jehovah to fulfill His promise and send rain on the earth, the tremendous tension of soul and body when he ran before the chariot of the king, strong, victorious, to the gates of Jezreel! Every fiber of his soul, his mind and will and all his emotions, had been in a state of ecstatic exultation, kindled by the mighty revelation of the LORD on Carmel! . . .
The day of the LORD it was!
And now? . . . .
The reaction had come! The return to normal! And normal was that the day of the LORD, the day of final, visible, tangible victory was still far in the future, that, the powers of darkness, were still in the land, that they would rise again. . . .
“As the gods live I will kill thee tomorrow about this time!’’
For that reaction the prophet was not prepared!
And (thus, descending from the glorious mount of victory, he sank into the morass of despair!
O, God! take away my life! I wish to resign!
It is enough!
Marvelous ways of God!
For, even Elijah, the mighty servant of the LORD, must learn that he is, after all only a servant!
And a servant of the LORD is one through whom it pleases the Most High to do His own work! And when that servant is not satisfied with the way in which the God of hosts accomplishes His own work, he often must pass through dark valleys and by lonely juniper trees, to become fit for further service!
After glorious revelations Paul received his thorn in the flesh!
After Carmel, God makes His mighty servant very weak and small, to teach him that he is but a servant, dependent utterly on Jehovah’s grace, and that he must humbly follow.
His strength is made perfect in weakness!
And His is the victory!
Herman Hoeksema – 1943