Commentary on 1 Kings 19:4-8
Wilderness, rest, nourishment. These are the restoring practices that gave Elijah strength for the journey.
We can recognize Elijah’s state: utterly exhausted from the work of the Lord, in danger from speaking truth to power, with seemingly little to show for his efforts. Elijah is afraid, overwhelmed, burned out. He leaves his companion behind and walks into the wilderness, sits down under a tree and asks to die. “I’ve done enough! Take my life now” (verse 4).
Many of us are driven by the sense that no matter what we do, it’s not enough. There will always be more suffering, entrenched systems of injustice, new wars breaking out, fresh disasters occurring; human brutality to one another continues unabated and so, we try to do more. We want to be faithful to God’s calling into the world that God so loves. Yet we feel ineffectual and exhausted. We are overwhelmed, burned out, done! Our energies depleted, despair gaining ground, we fantasize about just walking away.
Notice two of the moves Elijah makes at this point: he goes into the wilderness and he lays down to rest. Most of us only go into the wilderness when forced by life circumstances. When we find ourselves lost in the wilderness of our own lives, it can be terrifying and disorienting. We want out as quickly as possible! Yet wilderness is precisely where so many divine encounters occur: Hagar and Ishmael, Israel’s wandering for forty years, Jesus’ forty days. The desert Christians of the fourth century grasped this insight and created an entire movement in the wilderness.
What is it about wilderness that is so fertile? First, it is a no-place. The wilderness is a spacious, blank page, without agenda or expectation. It can be disorienting and uncomfortable, but it can also be a place of possibility, where the old ways no longer work and the “next thing” has not yet consumed our vision. The spareness of a no-place creates a spaciousness, unburdened by over-stimulation.
Wilderness can also be fertile as a place of unknowing. We get the sense from Elijah that he’s done all he can in service to the Lord and now, unable to see a way forward, a future, he is resigned. We need to be willing to be in such places of not-knowing, where there are no easy answers or quick fixes. Again, while this can be uncomfortable, it can also be freeing. Sitting with our un-knowing can open us up for Holy Presence. Rather than getting busy planning, managing, figuring it all out, we can become simple, aware of all we do not know, and surrender to this spacious wilderness, trusting God to meet us here.
What might it be like, when overwhelmed or burned out, to choose a wilderness space, a no-place? When we can sit in our unknowing, holding space for ourselves to breathe, we may receive a divine messenger, an angel bringing us a word (verse 5).
Second, Elijah lays down and falls asleep. Because he has just asked to die, this falling asleep seems connected, a sort of mini-death. Sleep may be another form of release, letting go of his own sense of success or failure, laying down the burdens of holy work to allow deep rest in body, mind and spirit.
And Elijah does this not only once, but twice! After getting up to eat and drink, he goes back and lays down again (verse 6). It is not a quick “power nap,” but sustained rest, as much rest as he needs to be restored fully.
Unfortunately, many of us seek rest in the wrong places, through various forms of numbing. The most common are overwork, alcohol and binge-watching or binge-scrolling. These do not provide true rest. Genuine rest can take many forms, from naps to play to focused creativity. However, solid sleep is especially essential for full restoration, as science establishes the crucial role of sleep in healing and health.
What if we viewed these acts of rest as acts of faith? A way of de-centering “self-in-control” so that true rest can restore us, making us more open and available to however God calls us into the future?
Now let’s notice what God does. God sends a messenger (angel) who says, “Get up and eat” (verse 5). The angel does NOT say, “Get up and go back to work” or “Get up and get going.” God invites Elijah to simply eat and God provides the nourishment—a cake and water right there next to him. Not an elaborate feast, but a simple meal, given for him in his great need. Not unlike the simple meal Jesus offers at the Eucharist table.
God does this twice, just as Elijah sleeps twice. In case we didn’t get it the first time, rest and nourishment are repeated. Again, the angel touches Elijah and instructs him to eat, to take nourishment, “otherwise the journey will be too much for you” (verse 7). Elijah is invited here to recognize his creatureliness, his need for food to fuel his body and provide strength for the road ahead: “then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God” (verse 8).
We can easily go through life as though we are brains-on-a-stick, ignoring our bodies and denying ourselves as creatures. We resist living in solidarity with other creatures who know they need rest and food. This passage invites us to embrace our creatureliness, our need for rest and nourishment, not as signs of moral failure but as our connection to the One-Who-Provides. The gospel reading this week (John 6) points to the Bread of Life that nourishes us all.
Wilderness, rest, nourishment. These are simple and transformative, yet daunting. I hope we can see them as faithful. That is, as key practices that both form and witness to our faith. May we embrace the invitation to wilderness, rest and nourishment, trusting in God’s provision for journey into abundant life.