Frederick W. Robertson

Sermon 27



Preached October 13, 1850

  Frederick W. Robertson

“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.” - l Kings 19:4

It has been observed of the holy men of Scripture that their most signal failures took place in those points of character for which they were remarkable in excellence. Moses was the meekest of men, but it was Moses who “spake unadvisedly with his lips.” St. John was the apostle of charity; yet he is the very type to us of religious intolerance, in his desire to call down fire from heaven. St. Peter is proverbially the apostle of impetuous intrepidity, yet twice he proved a craven. If there were any thing for which Elijah is remarkable, we should say it was superiority to human weakness. Like the Baptist, he dared to arraign and rebuke his sovereign: like the commander who cuts down the bridge behind him, leaving himself no alternative but death or victory, he taunted his adversaries the priests of Baal, on Mount Carmel, making them gnash their teeth and cut themselves with knives, but at the same time insuring for himself a terrible end, in case of failure, from his exasperated foes. And again, in his last hour, when he was on his way to a strange and unprecedented departure from this world - when the whirlwind and flame-chariot were ready, he asked for no human companionship. The bravest men are pardoned if one lingering feeling of human weakness clings to them at the last, and they desire a human eye resting on them - a human hand in theirs - a human presence with them. But Elijah would have rejected all. In harmony with the rest of his lonely severe character, he desired to meet his Creator alone. Now it was this man -so stern, so iron, so independent, so above all human weakness - of whom it was recorded that in his trial-hour he gave way to a fit of petulance and querulous despondency to which there is scarcely found a parallel. Religious despondency, therefore, is our subject.


I. The causes of Elijah’s despondency.

II. God’s treatment of it.


The causes of Elijah’s despondency.

1. Relaxation of physical strength.

On the reception of Jezebel’s message, Elijah flies for his life - toils on the whole day - sits down under a juniper-tree, faint, hungry, and travel-worn; the gale of an Oriental evening, damp and heavy with languid sweetness, breathing on his face. The prophet and the man give way. He longs to die: you can not mistake the presence of causes in part purely physical

We are fearfully and wonderfully made. Of that constitution which in our ignorance we call union of soul and body, we know little respecting what is cause and what is effect. We would fain believe that the mind has power over the body, but it is just as true that the body rules the mind. Causes apparently the most trivial: a heated room - want of exercise - a sunless day - a northern aspect - will make all the difference between happiness and unhappiness, between faith and doubt, between courage and indecision. To our fancy there is something humiliating in being thus at the mercy of our animal organism. We would fain find nobler causes for our emotions. We talk of the hiding of God’s countenance, and the fiery darts of Satan. But the picture given here is true. The body is the channel of our noblest emotions as well as our sublimest sorrows.

Two practical results follow. First, instead of vilifying the body, complaining that our nobler part is chained down to a base partner, it is worth recollecting that the body too is the gift of God, in its way Divine - ”the temple of the Holy Ghost;” and that to keep the body in temperance, soberness, and chastity, to guard it from pernicious influence, and to obey the laws of health, are just as much religious as they are moral duties; just as much obligatory on the Christian as they are on a member of a Sanitary Committee. Next, there are persons melancholy by constitution, in whom the tendency is incurable; you can not exorcise the phantom of despondency. But it is something, to know that it is a phantom, and not to treat it as a reality - something taught by Elijah’s history, if we only learn from it to be patient, and wait humbly the time and good pleasure of God.

2. Want of sympathy.

“I, even I only, am left.” Lay the stress on only. The loneliness of his position was shocking to Elijah. Surprising this: for Elijah wanted no sympathy in a far harder trial on Mount Carmel. It was in a tone of triumph that he proclaimed that he was the single, solitary prophet of the Lord, while Baal’s prophets were four hundred and fifty men.

Observe, however, the difference. There was in that case an opposition which could be grappled with: here there was nothing against which mere manhood was availing. The excitement was passed, the chivalrous look of the thing gone. To die as a martyr, yes, that were easy, in grand failure; but to die as a felon - to be hunted, caught, taken back to an ignominious death - flesh and blood recoiled from that.

And Elijah began to feel that popularity is not love. The world will support you when you have constrained its votes by a manifestation of power, and shrink from you when power and greatness are no longer on your side. “I, even I only, am left.”

This trial is most distinctly realized by men of Elijah’s stamp and placed under Elijah’s circumstances. It is the penalty paid by superior mental and moral qualities, that such men must make up their minds to live without sympathy. Their feelings will be misunderstood, and their projects uncomprehended. They must be content to live alone. It is sad to bear such appeal from the present to the judgment of the future. Poor consolation! Elijah has been judged at that bar. We are his posterity: our reverence this day is the judgment of posterity on him. But to Elijah what is that now? Elijah is in that quiet country where the voice of praise and the voice of blame are alike unheard. Elijah lived and died alone; once only the bitterness of it found expression. But what is posthumous justice to the heart that ached then?

What greater minds like Elijah’s have felt intensely, all we have felt in our own degree. Not one of us but what has felt his heart aching for want of sympathy. We have had our lonely hours, our days of disappointment, and our moments of hopelessness - times when our highest feelings have been misunderstood, and our purest met with ridicule. Days when our heavy secret was lying unshared, like ice upon the heart. And then the spirit gives way: we have wished that all were over - that we could lie down tired, and rest like the children, from life - that the hour was come when we could put down the extinguisher on the lamp, and feel the last grand rush of darkness on the spirit.

Now, the final cause of this capacity for depression, the reason for which it is granted us, is that it may make God necessary. In such moments it is felt that sympathy beyond human is needful. Alone, the world against him, Elijah turns to God. “It is enough: now, O Lord.”

3. Want of occupation.

As long as Elijah had a prophet’s work to do, severe as that work was, all went on healthily; but his occupation was gone. To-morrow and the day after, what has he left on earth to do? The misery of having nothing to do proceeds from causes voluntary or involuntary in their nature. Multitudes of our race, by circumstances over which they have no control - in single life or widowhood - in straitened circumstances - are compelled to endure lonely days, and still more lonely nights and evenings. They who have felt the hours hang so heavy can comprehend part of Elijah’s sadness.

This misery, however, is sometimes voluntarily incurred. In artificial civilization certain persons exempt themselves from the necessity of work. They eat the bread which has been procured by the sweat of the brow of others - they skim the surface of the thought which has been ploughed by the sweat of the brain of others. They are reckoned the favored ones of fortune, and envied. Are they blessed? The law of life is, in the sweat of thy brow thou shalt eat bread. No man can evade that law with impunity. Like all God’s laws, it is its own executioner. It has strange penalties annexed to it: would you know them? Go to the park, or the esplanade, or the solitude after the night of dissipation, and read the penalties of being useless, in the sad, jaded, listless countenances - nay, in the very trifles which must be contrived to create excitement artificially. Yet these very eyes could, dull as they are, beam with intelligence: on many of those brows is stamped the mark of possible nobility. The fact is, that the capacity of ennui is one of the signatures of man’s immortality. It is his very greatness which makes inaction misery. If God had made us only to be insects, with no nobler care incumbent on us than the preservation of our lives, or the pursuit of happiness, we might be content to flutter from sweetness to sweetness, and from bud to flower. But if men with souls live only to eat and drink and be amused, is it any wonder it life be darkened with despondency?

4. Disappointment in the expectation of success.

On Carmel the great object for which Elijah had lived seemed on the point of being realized. Baal’s prophets were slain - Jehovah acknowledged with one voice - false worship put down. Elijah’s life-aim, the transformation of Israel into a kingdom of God, was all but accomplished. In a single day all this bright picture was annihilated.

Man is to desire success, but success rarely comes. The wisest has written upon life its sad epitaph - “All is vanity,” i. e. , nothingness.

The tradesman sees the noble fortune for which he lived, every coin of which is the representative of so much time and labor spent, squandered by a spendthrift son. The purest statesmen find themselves at last neglected, and rewarded by defeat. Almost never can a man look back on life and say that its anticipations have been realized. For the most part life is disappointment, and the moments in which this is keenly realized are moments like this of Elijah’s.


II. God’s treatment of it.


1. First He recruited His servant’s exhausted strength. Read the history. Miraculous meals are given - then Elijah sleeps, wakes, and eats: on the strength of that goes forty days’ journey. In other words, like a wise physician, God administers food, rest, and exercise, and then, and not till then, proceeds to expostulate; for before, Elijah’s mind was unfit for reasoning.

Persons come to the ministers of God in seasons of despondency; they pervert with marvellous ingenuity all the consolation which is given them, turning wholesome food into poison. Then we begin to perceive the wisdom of God’s simple homely treatment of Elijah, and discover that there are spiritual cases which are cases for the physician rather than the divine.

2. Next Jehovah calmed his stormy mind by the healing influences of Nature. He commanded the hurricane to sweep the sky, and the earthquake to shake the ground. He lighted up the heavens till they were one mass of fire. All this expressed and reflected Elijah’s feelings. The mode in which Nature soothes us is by finding meeter and nobler utterance for our feelings than we can find in words - by expressing and exalting them. In expression there is relief. Elijah’s spirit rose with the spirit of the storm. Stern, wild defiance - strange joy - all by turns were imaged there. Observe, “God was not in the wind,” nor in the fire, nor in the earthquake. It was Elijah’s stormy self reflected in the moods of the tempest, and giving them their character.

Then came a calmer hour. Elijah rose in reverence - felt tenderer sensations in his bosom. He opened his heart to gentler influences, till at last out of the manifold voices of nature there seemed to speak, not the stormy passions of the man, but the “still small voice” of the harmony and the peace of God.

There are some spirits which must go through a discipline analogous to that sustained by Elijah. The storm-struggle must precede the still small voice. There are minds which must be convulsed with doubt before they can repose in faith. There are hearts which must be broken with disappointment before they can rise into hope. There are dispositions which, like Job, must have all things taken from them before they can find all things again in God. Blessed is the man who, when the tempest has spent its fury, recognizes his Father’s voice in its under-tone, and bares his head and bows his knee, as Elijah did. To such spirits, generally those of a stern rugged cast, it seems as if God had said, “In the still sunshine and ordinary ways of life you can not meet Me, but like Job, in the desolation of the tempest, you shall see My form, and hear My voice, and know that your Redeemer liveth.”

3. Besides, God made him feel the earnestness of life. What doest thou here, Elijah? Life is for doing. A prophet’s life for nobler doing - and the prophet was not doing, but moaning.

Such a voice repeats itself to all of us, rousing us from our lethargy, or our despondency, or our protracted leisure, “What doest thou here?” here in this short life. There is work to be done - evil put down - God’s Church purified - good men encouraged - doubting men directed - a country to be saved - time going - life a dream - eternity long - one chance, and but one forever. What doest thou here?

Then he went on farther: “Arise, go on thy way.” That speaks to us: on thy way. Be up and doing; fill tip every hour, leaving no crevice or craving for a remorse, or a repentance to creep through afterwards. Let not the mind brood on self; save it from speculation, from those stagnant moments in which the awful teachings of the spirit grope into the unfathomable unknown, and the heart torments it self with questions which are insoluble except to an active life. For the awful Future becomes intelligible only in the light of a felt and active Present. Go, return on thy way if thou art desponding - on thy way; health of spirit will return.

4. He completed the cure by the assurance of victory. “Yet have I left me seven thousand in Israel who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” So, then, Elijah’s life had been no failure after all. Seven thousand at least in Israel had been braced and encouraged by his example, and silently blessed him, perhaps, for the courage which they felt. In God’s world for those that are in earnest there is no failure. No work truly done - no word earnestly spoken - no sacrifice freely made, was ever made in vain. Never did the cup of cold water given for Christ’s sake lose its reward.

We turn naturally from this scene to a still darker hour and more august agony. If ever failure seemed to rest on a noble life, it was when the Son of Man, deserted by His friends, heard the cry which proclaimed that the Pharisees had successfully drawn the net round their Divine victim. Yet from that very hour of defeat and death there went forth the world’s life - from that very moment of apparent failure there proceeded forth into the ages the spirit of the conquering Cross. Surely if the Cross says any thing, it says that apparent defeat is real victory, and that there is a heaven for those who have nobly and truly failed on earth.

Distinguish, therefore, between the real and the apparent. Elijah’s apparent success was in the shouts of Mount Carmel. His real success was in the unostentatious, unsurmised obedience of the seven thousand who had taken his God for their God.

This is a lesson for all: for teachers who lay their beads down at night sickening over their thankless task. Remember the power of indirect influences: those which distill from a life, not from a sudden, brilliant effort. The former never fail, the latter often. There is good done of which we can never predicate the when or where. Not in the flushing of a pupil’s cheek, or the glistening of an attentive eye; not in the shining results of an examination does your real success lie. It lies in that invisible influence on character which He alone can read who counted the seven thousand nameless ones in Israel.

For ministers, again - what is ministerial success? Crowded churches - full aisles - attentive congregations - the approval of the religious world - much impression produced? Elijah thought so; and when be found out his mistake, and discovered that the applause on Carmel subsided into hideous stillness, his heart well-nigh broke with disappointment. Ministerial success lies in altered lives and obedient humble hearts: unseen work recognized in the judgment-day.

What is a public man’s success? That which call be measured by feast-days and the number of journals which espouse his cause? Deeper, deeper far must lie work who works for eternity. In the eye of that, nothing stands but gold - real work: all else perishes.

Get below appearances, below glitter and show. Plant your foot upon reality. Not in the jubilee of the myriads on Carmel, but in the humble silence of the hearts of the seven thousand, lay the proof that Elijah had not lived in vain.