We're making big changes. Please try out the beta site at beta.ccel.org and send us feedback. Thank you!
« Prev Chapter XL. Elijah's Despair. Next »

415

CHAPTER XL.

ELIJAH'S DESPAIR.

1 Kings xix. 4-8.

"So much I feel my genial spirits droop,

My hopes all flat, nature within me seems

In all her functions weary of herself,

My race of glory run, and race of shame,

And I shall shortly be with them that rest."

Samson Agonistes.

What are the causes which may drive even a saint of God into a mood of momentary despair as he is forced to face the semblance of final failure?

1. Even the lowest element of such despair has its instructiveness. It was due in part, doubtless, to mere physical exhaustion. Elijah had just gone through the most tremendous conflict of his life. During all that long and most exhausting day at Carmel he had had little or no food, and at the close of it he had run across all the plain with the king's chariot. In the dead of that night, with his life in his hand, he had fled towards Beersheba, and now he had wandered for a whole day in the glare of the famishing wilderness. It does not do to despise the body. If we are spirits, yet we have bodies; and the body wreaks a stern and humiliating vengeance on those who neglect or despise it. The body reacts upon the mind. "If you rumple the416 jerkin, you rumple the jerkin's lining." If we weaken the body too much, we do not make it the slave of the spirit, but rather make the spirit its slave. Even moderate fasting, as a simple physiological fact—if it be fasting at all, as distinguished from healthful moderation and wise temperance—tends to increase, and not by any means to decrease, the temptations which come to us from the appetites of the body. Extreme self-maceration—as all ascetics have found from the days of St. Jerome to those of Cardinal Newman—only adds new fury to the lusts of the flesh. Many a hermit and stylite and fasting monk, many half-dazed, hysterical, high-wrought men have found, sometimes without knowing the reason of it, that by wilful and artificial devices of self-chosen saintliness, they have made the path of purity and holiness not easier, but more hard. The body is a temple, not a tomb. It is not permitted us to think ourselves wiser than God who made it, nor to fancy that we can mend His purposes by torturing and crushing it. By violating the laws of physical righteousness we only make moral and spiritual righteousness more difficult to attain.

2. Elijah's dejection was also due to forced inactivity. "What doest thou here, Elijah?" said the voice of God to him in the heart of man. Alas! he was doing nothing: there was nothing left for him to do! It was different when he hid by the brook Cherith, or in Zarephath, or in the glades of Carmel. Then a glorious endeavour lay before him, and there was hope. But

"Life without hope draws nectar in a sieve,

And hope without an object cannot live."

The mighty vindication of Jehovah in which all the417 struggle of his life culminated, had been crowned with triumph, and had failed. It had blazed up like fire, and had sunk back into ashes. To such a spirit as his nothing is so fatal as to have nothing to do and nothing to hope for. "What did the Maréchal die of?" asked a distinguished Frenchman of one of his comrades. "He died of having nothing to do." "Ah!" was the reply; "that is enough to kill the best General of us all."

3. Again, Elijah was suffering from mental reaction. The bow had been bent too long, and was somewhat strained; the tense string needed to have been relaxed before. It is a common experience that some great duty or mastering emotion uplifts us for a time above ourselves, makes us even forget the body and its needs. We remember Jeremy Taylor's description of what he had noticed in the Civil Wars,—that a wounded soldier, amid the heat and fury of the fight, was wholly unconscious of his wounds, and only began to feel the smart of them when the battle had ended and its fierce passion was entirely spent.

Men, even strong men, after hours of terrible excitement, have been known to break down and weep like children. Macaulay, in describing the emotions which succeeded the announcement that the Reform Bill had passed, says that not a few, after the first outburst of wild enthusiasm, were bathed in tears.

And any one who has seen some great orator after a supreme effort of eloquence, when his strength seems drained away, and the passion is exhausted, and the flame has sunk down into its embers, is aware how painful a reaction often follows, and how differently the man looks and feels if you see him when he has passed418 into his retirement, pale and weak, and often very sad. After a time the mind can do no more.

4. Further, Elijah felt his loneliness. At that moment indeed he could not bear the presence of any one, but none the less his sense that none sympathised with him, that all hated him, that no voice was raised to cheer him, that no finger was uplifted to help him, weighed like lead upon his spirit. "I only am left." There was awful desolation in that thought. He was alone among an apostatising people. It is the same kind of cry which we hear so often in the life of God's saints. It is the Psalmist crying: "I am become like a pelican in the wilderness, and like an owl that is in the desert. Mine enemies reproach me all the day long, and they that are mad upon me are sworn together against me";674674   Psalm cii. 6, 8. or, "My lovers and my neighbours did stand looking upon my trouble, and my kinsmen stood afar off. They also that sought after my life laid snares for me."675675   Psalm xxxviii. 11, 12. It is Job so smitten and afflicted that he is half tempted for the moment to curse God and die. It is Isaiah saying of the hopeless wickedness of his people, "The whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint." It is Jeremiah complaining, "The prophets prophesy falsely, and the priests bear rule by their means; and my people love to have it so: and what will ye do in the end thereof?"676676   Jer. v. 31, xxix. 9. It is St. Paul wailing so sadly, "All they of Asia have turned from me. Only Luke is with me." It is the pathos of desolation which breathes through the sad sentence of the Gospels, "Then all the disciples forsook Him, and fled." The anticipation of desertion had wrung from the Lord Jesus the sad419 prophesy, "Behold, the hour cometh, yea, is now come, when ye shall be scattered, every man to his own, and shall leave Me alone: and yet I am not alone, because the Father is with Me."677677   John xvi. 32. And this heart-anguish of loneliness is, to this day, a common experience of the best men. Any man whose duty has ever called him to strike out against the stream of popular opinion, to rebuke the pleasant vices of the world, to plead for causes too righteous to be popular, to deny the existence of vested interests in the causes of human ruin, to tell a corrupt society that it is corrupt, and a lying Church that it lies;—any man who has had to defy mere plausible conventions of veiled wrong-doing, to give bold utterance to forgotten truths, to awake sodden and slumbering consciences, to annul agreements with death and covenants with hell; every man who rises above the trimmers and the facing-both-ways, and those who try to serve two masters—they who swept away the rotting superstitions of a tyrannous ecclesiasticism, they who purified prisons, they who struck the fetters off the slave—every saint, reformer, philanthropist, and faithful preacher in the past, and those now living saints, who, walking in the shining steps of these, endeavour to rescue the miserable out of the gutter, and to preach the gospel to the poor, know the anguish of isolation, when, because they have been benefactors, they are cursed as though they were felons, and when, for the efforts of their noble self-sacrifice, the contempt of the world, and its pedantry, and its malice can find for them no words too contemptuous or too bitterly false.

5. But there was even a deeper sorrow than these420 which made Elijah long for death. It was the sense of utter and seemingly irretrievable failure. It happens often to the worldling as well as to the saint. Many a man, weary of life's inexorable emptiness, has exclaimed in different ways:—

"Know that whatever thou hast been,

'Tis something better not to be."

That sentiment is not in the least peculiar to Byron. We find it again and again in the Greek tragedians. We find it alike in the legendary revelation of the god Pan, and in the Book of Ecclesiastes, and in Schopenhauer and Von Hartmann. No true Christian, no believer in the mercy and justice of God, can share that sentiment, but will to the last thank God for His creation and preservation and all the blessings of this life, as well as for the inestimable gift of His redemption, for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory. Nevertheless, it is part of God's discipline that He often requires His saints as well as His sinners to face what looks like hopeless discomfiture, and to perish, as it were,

"In the lost battle

Borne down by the flying,

Where mingles war's rattle

With groans of the dying."

Such was the fate of all the Prophets. They were tortured; they had trials of cruel mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonment; they were stoned, were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword; they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, they hid in caves and dens of the earth, being destitute, afflicted, tormented, though of them the world was not worthy. Such, too, was the421 fate of all the Apostles—set forth last of all as men doomed to death; made a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men. They were hungry, thirsty, naked, buffeted; they had no certain dwelling-place; they were treated as fools and weak, were dishonoured, defamed, treated as the filth of the world and the offscouring of all things. Such was conspicuously the case of St. Paul in that death, so lonely and forsaken, that the French sceptic thinks he must have awakened with infinite regret from the disillusionment of a futile life. Nay, it was the earthly lot of Him who was the prototype, and consolation, known or unknown, of all these:—it was the lot of Him who, from that which seemed the infinite collapse and immeasurable abandonment of His cross of shame, cried out: "My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?" He warned His true followers that they, too, would have to face the same finality of earthly catastrophes, to die without the knowledge, without even the probable hope, that they have accomplished anything, in utter forsakenment, in a monotony of execration, often in dejection and apparent hiding of God's countenance. The olden saints who prepared the way for Christ, and those who since His coming have followed His footsteps, have had to learn that true life involves a bearing of the cross.

Take but one or two out of countless instances. Look at that humble brown figure, kneeling drowned with tears to think of the disorders which had already begun to creep into the holy order which he had designed. It is sweet St. Francis of Assisi, to whom God said in visions: "Poor little man: thinkest thou that I, who rule the universe, cannot direct in My own way thy little order?" Look at that monk in his friars'422 dress, racked, tortured, gibbeted in fetters over the flaming pyre in the great square at Florence, stripped by guilty priests of his priestly robe, degraded from a guilty Church by its guilty representatives, pelted by wanton boys, dying amid a roar of execration from the brutal and fickle multitude whose hearts he once had moved. It is Savonarola, the prophet of Florence. Look at that poor preacher dragged from his dungeon to the stake at Basle, wearing the yellow cap and sanbenito painted with flames and devils. It is John Huss, the preacher of Bohemia. Look at the lion-hearted reformer feeling how much he had striven, not knowing as yet how much he had achieved, appealing to God to govern His world, saying that he was but a powerless man, and would be "the veriest ass alive" if he thought that he could meddle with the intricacies of Divine Providence. It is Luther. Look at the youth, starving in an ink-stained garret, hunted through the streets by an infuriated mob, thrust into the city prison as the only way to save his life from those who hated his exposure of their iniquities. It is William Lloyd Garrison. Look at that missionary, deserted, starving, fever-stricken, in the midst of savages, dying on his knees, in daily sufferings, amid frustrated hopes. It is David Livingstone, the pioneer of Africa. They, and thousands like them, have borne squalors and shames and tragedies, while they looked not at the things that are seen, but at the things that are not seen; for the things that are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal. Might not they all have said with the disappointed Apostles, "Master, we have toiled all the night and have taken nothing"? Might not their lives and deaths—the lives which fools thought madness, and their end to be without honour—be423 described as one poet has described that of his disenchanted king:—

"He walked with dreams and darkness, and he found

A doom that ever poised itself to fall,

An ever-moaning battle in the mist,

Death in all life, and lying in all love,

The meanest having power upon the highest,

And the high purpose broken by the worm."

"Yes; the smelter of Israel had now to go down himself into the crucible."678678   Krummacher.


« Prev Chapter XL. Elijah's Despair. Next »



| Define | Popups: Login | Register | Prev Next | Help |