My notes on Ligon Duncan’s message on 1 Kings 19 (paraphrased)
Discouragement is no stranger to the lives of faithful pastors and faithful Christians. And today, I want to give special encouragement to discouraged faithful pastors and Christians.
There are things we are meant to learn in our disappointment. Some of you start out in Christian ministry thinking, “If I am faithful to God, doing his bidding, trusting his grace, empowered by his Spirit, I will not have the crushing darkness as part of my experience.” And then it comes. And you’re left asking, “Why is this happening? What’s happening to me, O God? What am I supposed to do with this? I didn’t think it was going to be like this. I didn’t see this coming…”
What do we do with that?
God wants us to know that as we study our disappointments, we’ll see what we love. When the bottom falls out, you will learn things about what you love that you never knew before. And it won’t always be pretty.
You’ll learn what you believe when the bottom falls out. When the crushing disappointment comes. And you’ll learn where you really rest, where you find your satisfaction…
In our disappointments, we are tempted to forget that God is God and God is good. In every deep disappointment, in every deep discouragement, we are tempted to forget that God is God and God is good—and it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been teaching people, you will still be tempted to forget.
And we are tempted to idolatry. We are tempted to think that there’s a greater treasure that is being withheld or taken away, a treasure greater than what God has already given to us.
First Kings 19 is not where you want to be in ministry; you want to be in chapter 18. That’s where Elijah defeats the prophets of Baal. That’s where you want to be in ministry. You don’t want to be in chapter 19. And isn’t it a total shock that you can get from 1 Kings 18 to 1 Kings 19? I’ve read it a thousand times and I still don’t get how we get there.
But that’s where we are today.
I wonder what are your greatest losses in life?
What are your unfulfilled dreams? Your unsatisfied plans and longings? Your hopes and dreams that you’ve had taken from before your very eyes?
I don’t’ ask whether you have them, I ask what they are.
And the question is, what do we do with them? What do we do with them. Because how we respond there, might be the most important thing we do in life.
I wonder what you do when you ask why, and you’ve heard no answer? Good things, you’ve longed for. Godly things… you’ve had them and they’ve been taken away or you’ve never had them at all.
I wonder if the Lord’s ever brought your greatest treasure before your eyes and said, “You can’t have it.” And if he’s brought it again, and he’s said, “You still can’t have it.”
The story of Elijah is the story of a ministry of power. No one since Moses had this kind of power. He hoped for great things, godly things, but he walked through his entire life knowing what it’s like to have his hopes dashed. He knew what it’s like to be disappointed, but he also testifies to the Lord’s unrelenting, ruthless grace in the pursuit of his glory and his minister’s joy.
Even people who believe in God’s sovereignty can fail to believe God
Elijah’s experience a powerful display of God’s power at Mt. Carmel. He’s just outrun a chariot. And he meets this messenger, and it’s a message from this woman, his enemy, who says, “You think I’m impressed . . . ? By this time tomorrow you’re going to die.” You might not expect this message. And you might expect that Elijah would say, “I’ll be right here—who are you going to bring? Did you forget what just happened?”
But what happens? It’s like he’s forgotten the sovereignty of God. This man, who faced the prophets of Baal, this man is a disappointed man. He has seen the entire dream of his ministry go unfulfilled. You see this in the wilderness when he says in verse 10:
“I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.” (1 Kings 19:10 ESV)
His world has come crashing down around him. He saw his dream for Israel come crashing down around him—he hoped on Mt. Carmel that the nation would turn and trust in the Lord and God to be glorified in Israel. And in the wake of that, he gets this message, “You’re going to be dead by this time tomorrow.”
There’s no way a man can be discouraged like this who doesn’t love his message—he longs to see God glorified and when it doesn’t happen, his world almost comes to an end.
Maybe you long for conversions—and when they don’t happen, you’re disappointed. The church down the street has conversions by the thousands, and you have 65 people who can’t even get along. Or maybe you’ve been blessed with conversions and an edifying ministry, but your own son is a stranger to the Lord. There is a despair, a discouragement that comes to God’s faithful servants. And when it comes, you learn where you rest, you find where your satisfaction really lies.
This is what’s happened to Elijah. And so he runs and keeps running into the wilderness.
Even people who fight against idolatry can fall into it
Elijah had forgotten his name—this is a theological crisis going on. He has forgotten what he’s been preaching and the God he wants Israel to embrace. His name means “My God is Lord.” “The Lord—He is God” is his message and he’s forgotten it. It’s evident in his message and in the way God comes to him (v. 11-13).
He sends in a whirlwind, the mountain is dissolving, but God is not in it. He brings fire and an earthquake, but God was not in it. This is what Elijah wanted, he wanted a spectacular display that would turn the people back to the true worship of the Lord—and it does not happen. God does not answer yes to his prayers that he would operate in the spectacular. He operates in the whisper.
This is confirmed in the errands he sends him on. In verses 15 and following, he tells him that this is going to happen through the King of Syria, through another king of Israel and through another prophet. It’s like Moses, who at the end of his life, sees the Promised Land and hears, “You’re not going in.”
When you hear a voice that says you should have what you want be sure that it comes with a hiss. But when you hear a voice that says, “You see all this, it’s good, it’s wonderful—you don’t get to have it,” you can [joyfully] say, “That’s just like you Lord, that’s how you deal with your most faithful servants. . . . You ruthlessly crush their idolatries because of your compassion and grace because you want them to have a greater joy. . . . not because you’re not good, but because you are good. You wean them away from their desires so they are left with nothing but you.”
Elijah’s message to Israel was to give up their idolatry and return to the Lord and God refuses to let Elijah preach that message and not believe it himself. He will not let you preach a message that you have not believed and experienced yourself.
Elijah wanted God to be exalted, but he had a way he wanted it to be done.
Do you realize that when our Savior was in the garden, praying, “Father, take this cup from me . . . but nevertheless, not my will but your will be done,” that he is fighting a battle against idolatry and he’s winning?
God loves Elijah too much to let him keep his idol. And then what does God do? He puts him on the shelf. This is effectively the end of his ministry. He doesn’t end well.
Listen to the notes from the ESV Study Bible:
Is Elijah back on track as a result of his trip to Mount Horeb? The closing verses of ch. 19 suggest not. There is no mention here or in the upcoming chapters of Elijah’s ever meeting (or trying to meet) Hazael and Jehu (see vv. 15–16). One never reads of Hazael’s being anointed, while it falls to Elisha to arrange the anointing of Jehu (2 Kings 9:1–13). Even Elijah’s response to God’s command about Elisha seems less than wholehearted. There is no mention of his “anointing” of Elisha as his prophetic successor; he merely enlists him as his assistant (1 Kings 19:21).
The Lord is hard to his servant. See what happens when the Lord sidles up to Elijah at Horeb, what does he do? He says, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He’s not looking for information, he’s rebuking him…
Elijah is so despondent that when God says he’s going to show him his glory, there’s no evidence that he left the cave until the whisper. And when he did, he wrapped his face in a cloak. He just wanted to die.
So the Lord puts him on the shelf. And we don’t see him again until we see him again in 2 Kings 2:
When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Ask what I shall do for you, before I am taken from you.” And Elisha said, “Please let there be a double portion of your spirit on me.” And he said, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it shall be so for you, but if you do not see me, it shall not be so.” And as they still went on and talked, behold, chariots of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven. And Elisha saw it and he cried, “My father, my father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” And he saw him no more.
Then he took hold of his own clothes and tore them in two pieces. (2 Kings 2:9-12 ESV)
You think God doesn’t know the greatest desires of his servants’ hearts? You think he leaves his servants on the battlefield? A call goes out from heaven and God says, “You bring him in fire and in a whirlwind!”
And why did Elisha need to see this? Because he had to give testimony to the inspired author of 2 Kings. Do you really think that God does not know the greatest desires of his servants’ hearts?
This is not the last time we see Elijah in the Bible. There comes a time again when God tells Elijah, I want you to go down to a mountain again. In Luke chapter 9, we read:
Now about eight days after these sayings he took with him Peter and John and James and went up on the mountain to pray. And as he was praying, the appearance of his face was altered, and his clothing became dazzling white. And behold, two men were talking with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. (Luke 9:28-31 ESV)
Elijah here sees the glory of God—he looks into the eyes of the Savior of the world! That’s what Elijah saw. He saw, “Lord it wasn’t enough that all the Northern Kingdom would reject their idolatry and turn to the Lord, you wanted men, women and children form every tribe and tongue and nation to see the glory of God. It all makes now.”
And that’s how God works. He gets at our most fundamental idolatry and he crushes it in his unfathomable love and we go on in our lives understanding that
Don’t underestimate God. Don’t underestimate his ruthless, compassionate commitment to his glory or his commitment to your everlasting joy. He will pursue you compassionately and ruthlessly and rip out the idols that would otherwise consume you and destroy you.
I want to ask Elijah what the Lord said to him after his return from the mount of Transfiguration—and I want to ask him what he said. Because there we see the Lord give him more than we could ever ask or even think when we think that the Lord had taken away more than we ever wanted.
That’s the God you preach. That’s the God we proclaim. Don’t think that he will use you as his servant and leave you to writhe in your disappointments because he has a plan for your everlasting joy in your declaration of the gospel that gives everlasting joy to all in the nations who embrace it.
The Lord does not treat his servants lives as cheap.
Believe that. And as we live between 2 Cor 4-6, do not lose heart because at those very moments comes the greatest tests. What you do in those moments means everything. Can we not because of Paul’s instruction say we shall not be despondent like Elijah but say, “Lord, this is what you built me for.”