Bible Laying Open on a Table

When God Does Nothing

Author: Ray C. Stedman

Now will you turn again to I Kings 19? In this series on Bible characters and what they have to say to us in our times and in our age, we are turning to one of the most interesting figures in the Old Testament – the prophet Elijah. We will not try to cover all of his life, but we want to take one of the incidents from his career. I think you know enough about Elijah already to know that he is one of the greatest of God’s saints. The New Testament makes clear that here is a prince among believers. He is one of the two men whom the Bible speaks of who never knew physical death: Enoch, who was a contemporary of Noah, and Elijah the prophet, who was caught up into heaven without dying. He appears in the New Testament, as well as in the Old. One of two Old Testament characters of which that can be said; for, you remember, with Moses, he appeared on the Mount of Transfiguration and spoke to the Lord Jesus concerning His death, which He was to accomplish in Jerusalem. He was chosen by the apostle James to illustrate for us the might of a man of prayer and, in many ways, the Bible reveals that here is an outstanding, mighty man of God. There is that unusual prediction about Elijah found in the closing verses of the Old Testament at the end of the book of Malachi, in which it is predicted that Elijah the prophet will appear on earth before the great day of the Lord shall come. Just what that involves has been a subject of fascinating study to many Bible students; but here, indeed, is a great man.

But, we find him, in this chapter 19 of the book of Kings, at a most awkward moment, where he is neither heroic nor courageous, but he is very, very human. For in this chapter, as we have read, we find him sitting disconsolate and dejected under a juniper tree. I think this incident is why James, in his letter, referring to Elijah, calls him a man of like passions with us. For though he achieved such tremendous heights of greatness in his faith and in his conflict with the prophets of Baal, nevertheless, he was a man very much like us. This incident proves it, for here we discover that he is suffering from a highly aggravated case of what we familiarly call the Monday morning blues. He is sitting under a juniper tree wishing he were dead. This is the spiritual affliction that has, because of this incident, been called juniperitis. Many, many of us have suffered from it; it is a very common affliction as old as the race of man. It is familiarly called, also, the I quits. Who of us has not fallen prey to this black mood at one time or another? Which of us has never said the phrase, which is the unmistakable symptom of this disease, Ah, what is the use? Well, as always, these Old Testament events, we are told, were written for our instruction. Here is one that sets forth some very practical, helpful advice to us on the characteristics and the cause and the cure of despondency—the blue mood.

Let us begin this morning with a look at the cause of this common affliction among us. What is it that lies back of these times of dejection and despair? Times when we ought, because of, perhaps, our spiritual circumstances, to be in a time of elation and blessing, we find ourselves gripped by some almost unexplainable spirit of dejection—of despondency. What is the cause for it? As we have read this story through already this morning, 1 Kings 19, you will remember that the immediate cause here of Elijah's dejection was a message that he had received from Jezebel, which indicated an unexpected turn of events. The message from Jezebel the queen took him by surprise.

Elijah's ministry took place during the reign in Israel, the Northern kingdom, of a very willful, self-centered, easily influenced king – King Ahab, who had married a pagan priestess named Jezebel. That name has been passed on in history, because she made it infamous. This event that we are looking at this morning occurs immediately following the tremendous account of Elijah's victory over the 450 priests of Baal on top of Mount Carmel. This too, has been justly celebrated in both secular and sacred history. Evidently, Elijah expected a different reaction from Jezebel and Ahab following this simply stupendous victory.

You remember the story of how Elijah had laid the gauntlet down, had challenged Jezebel to summon all the priests of Baal, this sex-centered worship of that day, into a contest on the top of Mount Carmel. They had built two altars there and the priests had laid a sacrifice upon their altar and Elijah had laid a sacrifice upon his altar. The challenge was that whichever one could pray and ask their god to send down fire from heaven to consume the sacrifice, He would be the God of Israel. You remember the story of how the priests of Baal went around their altar all day long chanting and calling out to Baal to visit them and cutting themselves in the flesh and beating their bodies and trying to attract the attention of their god. There is that humorous aspect of it when Elijah stands by and simply taunts them, says to them, What is the matter? Where is your god? Is he out to lunch? Has he gone to sleep? Is he on a journey? Why does he not listen to you? Then, he caused barrels of water to be brought up from the nearby sea and poured over the sacrifice on the altar of Jehovah and, at last, as he prayed, the fire came down and consumed the sacrifice and the stones and the wood and the water and everything else. In the tremendous emotional impact of that great victory, Elijah took the priests of Baal – 450 of them – down into the gully and they were put to death and the nation was cleansed.

As a result of this great, tremendous victory, Elijah evidently is expecting that Ahab and Jezebel, godless though they are, will be shaken in their unbelief. The message from Jezebel that comes to him, threatening his very life – telling him that by this time tomorrow morning, he will be a dead man – takes Elijah by great surprise. So tremendous has been the victory, so mighty has been the demonstration of power, so awesome has it been, so thorough and complete has been the destruction of the idol priests in the victory on Carmel that Elijah evidently felt that the power of evil in this country would be broken. But now comes the message from Jezebel that says, By tomorrow morning, I will have your life. As a result, Elijah fell apart at the seams, as we would put it.

The unexpected reply shakes him and is it not true that most, perhaps, of the black moods of despair that grip us come at times when we have been disappointed in some result that we have expected? Some unexpected turn of events has caused us to lose faith - for the time being, at least. Things do not turn out as we hoped and, as a result, we hit rock bottom. We feel the dark cloud of gloom pass over our spirit and we are in the grip of this despondent attitude. That is almost always the immediate, external cause of despondency, disappointment, unexpected results. But it also reveals a deeper reason. If you look beneath this account of Elijah, you can see that behind the unexpected results and their affect upon him is a revelation, both to him and to us, of an incomplete trust in his own life. What Elijah was doing was going along with God, as long as God was doing what Elijah expected him to do. There was no doubt, as you read the previous chapter of the great victory on Carmel, that Elijah knew what God was going to do, that Elijah knew that God was going to answer with fire and follow it with rain from the sky. There is no shadow of doubt in his mind and heart as he goes through this confrontation with the powers of evil on Mount Carmel. He knows what God is going to do. The God of Elijah lives. But this event has shaken him, because he does not expect it. In other words, his faith was placed, not upon God, but upon his knowledge of God.

This is frequently the cause of our despondency, is it not? We discover that it is not that we are really reckoning upon God, the Adequate One, to do anything that He wants to do, but we are reckoning upon what we expect God to do and when He does not act the way we think he ought to act, our faith hits rock bottom. Now, there is the cause. I think we have put our finger here upon the major cause of despairing attitudes among Christians – not only the unexpected turn of events, but also, the unsuspected trust in ourselves.

Look at the characteristics of this. I think we will recognize them very easily. First of all, there was this fear, which is evidenced by the flight of Elijah. When he got the message from Jezebel, he was afraid and he arose and went for his life down into the desert regions. As we have often defined it, a Christian (and I love this definition) is to be one who is completely fearless, continually cheerful, and constantly in trouble. This is what a Christian is called to be and is expected to be. He can be that only as he is living out of the adequacy of Jesus Christ indwelling him. He is completely fearless. But the desire to run, which is frequently evident in our life as it was in Elijah’s, always spells one thing – fear. We are afraid to face what is in front of us. We are afraid to face the circumstances in which we find ourselves. We want to run; we want to get away, go someplace else. And yet, as you read the New Testament, have you ever noticed that the one thing that Jesus says over and over and over again to His disciples is, Fear not. Fear not. Fear not? That is the one thing a Christian is not permitted to do – is to be afraid. For fear indicates we have ceased trusting in God and started trusting in ourselves. The whole explanation of this account of Elijah lies right there. This mighty man of great faith and courage; this rugged, heroic prophet had stopped his trust in a living God and had begun to trust in his own feeble self. And the result – fear gripped his heart and he fled into the desert.

Notice the second characteristic of despondency always, invariably, is this unreasonableness that accompanies it. Elijah finds himself under a broom tree, or a juniper tree, as the King James has it, and he says he wants to die. Yet, the reason he is running away is because he is afraid he will be put to death. What an unreasonable, inconsistent attitude! If he really wanted to die, all he needed to do was to show up before Jezebel and she would gladly have accommodated him. But we always become utterly illogical when we turn from faith to fear – always. We even become perverse - unaccountably contradictory. Have you ever experienced that and seen it, either in yourself or anyone else? We can give one reason for something and the next minute, turn around and say exactly the opposite and see no contradiction in what we have said. There is this unreasonable illogic about the matter of unbelief.

Then a third mark here, evidence of this despondent attitude, is self-pity. Elijah says, It is enough; it is enough, which is simply an elegant way of saying he is fed up with the set up. He is tired of the whole situation. He feels put upon. He feels he has done his share. He has had all that he can take. He has reached the limit of his capacity. You ever talk like this? This self-pity is a mark, invariably, of having fallen from faith into an attitude of self-trust and self-trust always results in self-pity. We begin to feel that we have borne the great share of the burden, that we have come to the end of our resources. But the one thing that the Word of God clearly makes known to us is that we, ourselves, never know the limit of our resources. Furthermore, that as we are reckoning upon the divine resources, we never reach the bottom of the barrel. What is it that Corinthians 10:13 says, if not that? God is faithful who will not allow you to be tempted above that which you are able. Yet, so many times, we think we have come to the end and that it is more than we can take, but God knows better.

It was not enough in the case here of Elijah. The truth is it was not enough, even for his own blessing. There was more of ministry ahead of him, including that remarkable episode when he was caught up into heaven by the chariot of fire. He would have missed that had he died here. The great thing and the remarkable thing about this prophet is that he never did die. God had that blessing in store for him. So, it was not enough.

Not only is self-pity a mark of this, but there is self-disparagement. Why did he add these words, I am no better than my fathers, if not that he is indulging in that morose, perverse delight of hurting yourself by insulting yourself? Have you ever done this? He would have resented, I am sure, someone else saying this, You are no better than your fathers, but he loves to say it himself. What is this strange perversity that makes us love to pick wounds in our own ego and then enjoy the pain of it? That is what he is doing here – he is wallowing in pity for himself, feeding his own wounded ego and enjoying the feeling of torture, self-torture, that comes from it.

Then along with this comes self-justification. You see it in this pat, rehearsed defense that he makes twice when God says to him, What are you doing here? Listen. He says in verse 10,

I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the people of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thy altars and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.

And down in verse 14, the same thing exactly—word for word. You can see what is happening. He has rehearsed this little story again and again and again. He has it down pat. In case somebody asks him how he is doing today, it all is ready to pour right out.

Self-justification and, coupled with that, the deep pessimism, I, only I, am left. The picture is utterly black, as he sees it. Self has blotted out God. There is no ray of hope for the future. We see ourselves as the last resource of God. God has done nothing, apparently plans to do nothing and only we are left and then all will be lost. You recognize this now?

Notice the cure – the wonderful cure that God sets forth for us. God's answer to the overwrought prophet comes on three distinct levels answering to the makeup of man: physical, emotional, and spiritual. Here we discover that God, in His grace, moving to meet our need, always meets the whole man.

Look at the physical first. Verse 5:

And he lay down and slept under a broom tree; and behold, an angel touched him, and said to him, Arise and eat. And he looked, and behold, there was at his head a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water. And he ate and drank, and lay down again. And the angel of the LORD came again a second time, and touched him, and said, Arise and eat, else the journey will be too great for you.

The first step in God's program of resuscitation for this prophet here is to feed him and put him to bed. He meets the physical first. I love that. How intensely practical God is! For half of Elijah's problem here is simply that he was suffering from sheer physical weariness. He needed a good night's sleep and a good full meal. I am convinced that much of the time, when we suffer from despondency and dejection, the first step in the cure will be this very thing – that we simply get a good night’s sleep. This is a perfectly religious activity ø nothing wrong with it at all. If it bothers you to get a good night’s sleep, I suggest you read this passage again and again, for God put the prophet to bed. That is the way it started.

The second step is emotional. Verse 8:

And he arose, and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God.

Now, Horeb is Sinai. Mount Horeb is another name for Mount Sinai, where the law was given. God evidently sent the prophet there. It is not directly said so, but it is implied here that he is led of the Lord as he goes back to Mount Sinai. Why does he go there? Because Sinai is the place of holy memories. Sinai stood forever as the reminder to Israel of God's power and God's grace. As Elijah went back to the place where Moses stood before the rock and the great rock gushed forth water, as a picture of the rivers of living water that Christ our Rock pour out into the life of those who come to Him; as he stood at the foot of the mountain that shook and trembled under the might and power of God and from which the law thundered forth, he could not help but be reminded – emotionally, now – of the tremendous adequacy of God – of all that He could do. It is a wise man, believe me, who flees to some Horeb when life turns black on his hands. He went back to the place, which, even in its very associations, reminded him—every stone, every rock, every crag, every cave of the mountainside spoke in eloquent terms of a God Who cared and a God Who could do.

The third aspect of Elijah's cure and the essential one, of course, is spiritual. But, God does not start there. Notice that. We want to jump to that, but God takes care of the physical and emotional first; then He moves to the spiritual. In the spiritual cure, He did a very unusual thing. Verse 11:

And he said, Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the LORD. And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.

Elijah's great lesson is to come to a clear understanding of the processes of God's working and, in typical oriental fashion, God taught it to him through the parable of this scene here. The prophet went out and a tremendous hurricane swept around the mountain of Sinai, so strong and powerful that it began to loosen the very rocks and they crumbled and fell around the prophet. I doubt if this bothered Elijah in the least. I think the power and brutal force of that storm matched the storm that was raging inside the prophet. There is nothing to indicate that he was afraid in the least. And following the great tempest came an earthquake, as the rocks shook beneath him. The ground trembled and moved and rolled and shook under him. I think there is no natural force more terrifying than an earthquake. But, he is still not afraid. After that, a tremendous electric storm with the lightning leaping from crag to crag around him and the sky split asunder moment after moment by these tremendous white hot sparks of lightning. After the fire, there comes, what the Hebrew calls, the gentle voice of stillness - absolute silence. And, in that silence, the prophet is aware that God is moving.

Now what does this parable mean? It reveals to us, I think, much of what was going through the mind and heart of Elijah. This great prophet, with his eagerness for God's welfare – his concern for God's purity – doubtless had been longing, as we often do, for a mighty wind of the Spirit to blow through this nation (we have our Lord’s conversation with Nicodemus where He speaks of the Spirit of God as a wind that blows where it desires) - the wind of the Spirit, sovereign, mysterious, mighty in its moving. The prophet had longed that this would happen to the nation, but no wind came. Nothing was happening. He hoped for a political earthquake that would overthrow the throne of Ahab and the godless queen Jezebel and destroy the idols around; but, no earthquake came. He longed for a searching, scorching blast of the fire of judgment, coming down and consuming the forces of heathenism in the nation; but, none of it happened. But, he was to learn that the still, small voice of an awakening conscience is the most powerful force in all the world – that God moves there. It is quite wrong for us to assume that whenever God is at work, there must be blood and fire and noise and smoke and power. No, God works when things, apparently, are at a standstill. Throughout the Scripture, you have again and again, this lesson driven into our hearts by these old stories that when things seem to be utterly hopeless – nothing is happening – in the resources and activity of God, the greatest things of all are happening.

Does He not teach us that in nature? I remember how, often, as a boy, in the winter in Montana, I used to look out upon that bleak and wintry landscape covered with three or four feet of snow, not a leaf on the trees, everything so bare and dreary and desolate-looking, and I would long for spring. It seemed almost impossible that anything could break the icy grip of winter's hold upon the land. But, you know, spring never did come with a roar. It always came gently and quietly – that invisible force at work that put the leaves back onto the trees and brought the grass out of the ground and melted all the snow and sent it away. This is the way God works. You know the mightiest physical force on earth? Well, it is not the hydrogen bomb. As far as man has been able to reckon, the mightiest force that he knows anything about in our earth is the silent, noiseless power of the tide., which simply can lift whole cities, if need be, without any strain at all. Invisible, noiseless, irresistible—this is the way God works. This is what He wants us to learn.

When Napoleon's armies were marching across Europe on their way to Russia, the whole of the land trembled before the might of this great army and it looked as though it was absolutely invincible. You read the accounts of that day and they looked upon the armies of Napoleon as absolutely unstoppable. But God stopped them. You know how He stopped them? With the softest substance on earth – a snowflake – multiplied millions and billions of times. With that, He turned back the forces of Napoleon and Napoleon, writing his memoirs, later, on the island of St. Helena, said, There was a hand moving in Europe that I could not see.

Now this is the great lesson that God wants to teach the prophet and I am sure that He wants to teach us - that when God seems to be doing nothing, the greatest things are taking place. Think of Paul in that prison in Rome, as he is writing to his friends – long, painful letters written out at great length, sometimes by his own hand with his eyesight failing and having to get his face right down close and painfully scrawl out these letters - longing to be free, to preach to the people, to travel abroad again, to reach to the regions beyond, to comfort and to teach. Little dreaming, that the letters that he is writing, almost in desperation for anything else – some other means of communication – were, in God's purpose, fated to change the entire history of the world. You see? When nothing is happening, everything is happening.

Some of us have been praying for months for a dear friend to get a job – and he has got a job. He has been out of work for nine months, but he was telling some of us this week how, for those nine months that nothing was happening, he discovered now, looking back, that God had been preparing his heart for the job and that when he got it, he was ready for it and much more besides.

God's program not only involves activity – that is what we look at all the time - but God is concerned also with changing attitudes. A changed attitude is often the key to a transformed life. This is what happened with Elijah; his attitude was changed.

Notice one other thing. Not only did Elijah learn of God’s ways, but, also, of God's resources. Verse 15:

And the LORD said to him, Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; and when you arrive, you shall anoint Haz'ael to be king over Syria; and Jehu the son of Nimshi you shall anoint to be king over Israel; and Eli'sha the son of Shaphat of A'bel-meho'lah you shall anoint to be prophet in your place. And him who escapes from the sword of Haz'ael shall Jehu slay; and him who escapes from the sword of Jehu shall Eli'sha slay. Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Ba'al, and every mouth that has not kissed him.

While Elijah was despairing of the future, God was planning for it. There was a new scourge raised up in Syria to punish Israel. There was a new king in Israel to purify the land. There was to be a new prophet to proclaim the Word of God in greater power than Elijah had with double the spirit of Elijah resting upon him. Plus!! 7,000 men throughout the land, who were faithful to God and never bowed the knee to Baal. Elijah was saying, I, only I, am left. How little he knew of God's resources. And, my friends, how little we reckon on the might of God when we think that the circumstances of our present day are more than He can handle – or the circumstances of your life.

One of the best pieces of advice I have ever heard was when a friend told someone one day, who was complaining about their circumstances and felt they had a problem too big for God to handle, I will tell you what you do. You go home and stand in front of a mirror and you take a good look at what is in the mirror and you say to God, You see that man in there? That man is too much for You to handle. There is a problem too big for You - far beyond your wisdom or strength. Of course, the ludicrousness of it was enough to drive the point home.

God moves with undeviating purpose throughout history, both nationally and individually. The ultimate cure for despondency is to reckon on His adequacy whether you can see it or not. That is the great lesson here.

Some years ago, I read an account of a Navajo Indian - an old Navajo Indian down in Arizona - who was very wealthy. He had made a lot of money by the discovery of oil on his property, but he kept all his money in the bank in town. Every now and then, the old man would come in off his ranch, into the bank, and he would come in to the president of the bank and he would say to him, Rain all gone, streams dry up, grass all gone, sheep all die. And the banker knew exactly what to do. He would go into the vault and he would get out great stacks of silver dollars and stack them up on the table and invite the old man to come in and sit and look at them and say, This is your money. And the old Navajo would go in and sit down in front of this money and eye it and finger it and count it and feel of it. After a bit, he would get up and go out to the banker and say, Rain coming now, plenty of grass, plenty of water, sheep all fine. And back he would go to the ranch. Now, that old Indian was quite wrong about his dependence upon that money as his ultimate resource - it could have faded away as rapidly as the grass – but, one thing he had learned was that the cure for a dejected spirit is to take account again of your resources.

This is the great lesson of Elijah's, that when we come to the place where things seem to be going bad and nothing seems to be happening - these times that press great trials upon our spirit when things seem to be going quite counter to what we expect, we are to lift our eyes from the situation unto the Savior and reckoning upon His resources, remembering this account of Elijah - that God accomplishes His purposes and cannot be stopped.


Our Father, what a reminder this is to our feeble faith to rest upon Thee, Who, in Thy might and power, are able to move, despite what the human heart may say. You turn the heart of man to suit You, Lord. The heart of the king is in Thy hand. Thou turneth it whithersoever Thou will. We pray that Thou would remind us of this. Teach us that in Thy planning and season, there come times when nothing seems to be happening, but, in those times, our faith looks up to Thee. We reckon on Thy faithfulness. We pray that this lesson may be implanted in our hearts unforgettably. In Jesus' name. Amen