Bible characters with symptoms of depression: Elijah

Are there any characters in the Biblical narrative who suffered from some form of depression?

While we cannot know for sure, it’s possible to identify some of the symptoms in at least a couple of men from the Old Testament.

One is Elijah the prophet. He was one of God’s spokesmen while King Ahab and Queen Jezebel ruled the northern kingdom of Israel, and he courageously stood up to both of them in his attempts to restore Israel to a position of faithfulness to God.

Jezebel was a follower of the local fertility god Baal and she seemed determined to push her husband Ahab to enforce worship of Baal across the land.

Eventually Elijah and Ahab had a showdown on top of Mt Carmel to determine whose god really had the power in the land.

Baal’s prophets set up a grand sacrificial altar and spent much time and energy calling on Baal to show his power. Nothing happened. Elijah set up a simple altar and called on God to demonstrate that he was the true deity of Israel. Immediately God answered by sending fire from the sky to burn up the altar and everything on it.

It was indisputable evidence that Israel’s God was the true God and Baal was a false one with no power over them at all.

It should have transformed the nation. It should have started a great and glorious revival, with everyone turning their heart and mind back to God. It should have brought about the end of Baal worship in Israel and the casting out of anyone who still tried to promote it.

It should have meant defeat and humiliation for Jezebel. It should have led to Ahab confessing his error and turning to God in repentance.

Yet none of those things happened, at least as far as Elijah could see.

Ahab went back to his palace to report the outcome of the showdown to Jezebel, who doesn’t seem to have been present on the mountain. Instead of accepting defeat she immediately made plans to kill Elijah. Ahab apparently did nothing to stop her. There was no popular uprising against her from the people.

How did Elijah respond to this?

Please read 1 Kings 19:1-18.

Elijah wanted to give up. He wanted to die. While there is no evidence that he suffered from depression over a long period of time, it’s quite possible that he found himself in a depressed state as a result of God’s victory on Mt Carmel having failed, as far as he could see, to turn the people’s hearts and minds back to God.

Perhaps he was thinking: What was the point? It hadn’t made any difference. Nobody had changed their mind. Clearly nobody else cared about God. Elijah was the only one and now he was going to be hunted down and killed. He might as well have died right then.

We can recognise these as some of the symptoms of depression.

How did God respond to Elijah’s plea to die?

He took him up the mountain and, with a display of awesome divine power followed by a quiet and gentle voice, made the point that the nation’s revival was never intended to be about Elijah performing some great miracle.

Rather, it was about the slow, quiet process of changing people’s hearts a little bit at a time. Despite their apparent lack of response to Elijah’s miracle, it HAD made a difference. There were others, many others, who cared about God. Elijah wasn’t alone.

That can be a common problem for Christians. Perhaps it’s one you’ve experienced in your own life. It’s not unusual for a Christian or a church to go through a period of great activity and zeal, doing all sorts of things to try and preach the gospel or revive the church, only for it seem at the end that nothing has changed.

It can seem as if all of your effort and zeal made no difference. Nobody listened to your preaching. The church didn’t experience a revival. You might as well not have bothered. Perhaps you decide you’re not going to bother wasting your time again. Perhaps you feel like giving up or thinking that you might as well not even be here.

Have you ever felt like that?

If so, take heart from the lesson Elijah learned. Hearts and minds are not won overnight. Churches do not transform overnight. What counts is the slow, gradual process of God winning over a person’s heart and changing them to be more like him.

You and I will likely never know how our time and effort and love might have affected that process, or what might happen in a person’s life tomorrow or in ten years that our actions will have helped prepare them to react to in a certain way.

Think about Jesus on the cross. The people who should have accepted him as Messiah had screamed for him to be crucified. One of his closest friends had betrayed him to death. The rest had all fled in fear. He had nobody left. He hadn’t saved Israel from the Romans. He was being openly mocked by his enemies.

He might have concluded that he’d wasted three and a half years of his life, and achieved nothing.

Yet he did not. Jesus knew perfectly well the foundations his teaching had laid and the salvation that his death was going to bring. He knew that God’s Kingdom wasn’t going to happen immediately. He knew that his church wasn’t going to be ready for him for a long, long time.

And yet he was able to continue and go through the pain and humiliation of the cross because he looked to the joy that awaits him and us in the future.

In Elijah it’s possible that we see someone who experienced some of the symptoms of depression and yet was able to overcome it by trusting God, even when what he felt and what God said didn’t agree.

In our next post we’ll consider the other example from the Old Testament, this time sadly a person who was never able to overcome because he was never able to trust God: King Saul.

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