Down in the Valley
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Down in the Valley

1 Kings 19:1–18  (ID: 2017)

On the heels of a great spiritual victory, Elijah found himself in deep despair. With his life threatened by the angry and idolatrous Jezebel, he began to see God in light of his circumstances—not the other way around. In this sermon, Alistair Begg speaks to those who are tempted to a similar despair, reminding us that just as God sought and restored Elijah, so He calls us to a renewed hope in Him.

Series Containing This Sermon

Dangers, Toils, and Snares

How to Find Peace amid Life’s Greatest Trials Series ID: 22702

Jars of Clay

Series ID: 22501

Sermon Transcript: Print

First Kings chapter 19 is the focus of our study this evening. I’m going to make the assumption that you are familiar with this account and therefore not take the time to read it. It is the record of Elijah, following the events of triumph where he had encountered the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. And in coming to this final character study this evening, we’re reminded of what we mentioned, I think, on our first evening together: that in biography, one of the great temptations is to try and gloss the faults of people, or perhaps at the other end of the spectrum to highlight them to an unhelpful and even an untrue degree. But the Scriptures possess a tremendous balance when it comes to these things. And while many of us may have been tempted, in addressing the record of the life of Elijah, to make sure that we portrayed chapter 18 and all of its success, as it were, in glorious Technicolor, we may have decided that we would just excerpt chapter 19, because the tremendous success of 18 is more than matched by the defeat of 19. Scripture, however, makes no attempt to conceal or to excuse the blemishes or the faults or the failures of its heroes. And as we said on Monday evening, that in itself is one of the pointers to the very infallibility and inerrancy of Scripture, the divine record which God has left to us.

The contrast revealed by the chapters 18 and 19 of 1 Kings are clearly presented, and in considering them, we learn something of God’s character, and we learn also of the frailty of God’s servants—and in this case, specifically Elijah. In chapter 18, we could quickly summarize it: we see Elijah introduced to us as the man of prayer, we see him as an individual of great humility, we see him clothed in power as he goes on his journeys from there, and triumph is written all over the eighteenth chapter of 1 Kings.

How remarkable it is, then, to simply glance down less than a paragraph and find that we are here confronted by this mighty servant of God now displaying the fact that he was frail as well. In 18, he manifests his bravery before hundreds of prophets who were in allegiance to Baal and who were antagonistic to the servant of God. From the bravery before hundreds, we find him panicking before one—and indeed, panicking before this woman Jezebel. In 18, he is on the mountaintop; in 19, he’s down in the valley.

And when you study this nineteenth chapter of 1 Kings, you may find yourself retreating to the Psalms, for they are the medicine chest of the soul. And if you know your Bible well enough, you may end up at Psalm 107, reminding yourself that the believer’s spiritual voyage is akin to that encountered by the sailors in that psalm, where it’s said of them that

they mounted up to the heavens and went down to the depths;
 in their peril their courage melted away.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
 and he brought them out of their distress.[1]

In the same way, as we walk the Christian pathway, we recognize, if we’re prepared to be honest at all, that we do not always experience the highs of spiritual encouragement, but we also encounter the lows of discouragement. And sometimes it can happen to us almost simultaneously, almost from great victory to a moment of defeat. The encouragement of some success, as perhaps we’ve witnessed to somebody—a stranger—concerning faith in Jesus Christ, and then almost momentarily to be confronted by discouragement.

Most of us find it okay to march when the band is playing and the crowd is out and all is going well. It is a little more challenging when the wheels come off our wagon, in the way that we used to sing in that song when you travel in the car with your grandpa, you know, “Four wheels on my wagon, and I’m still rolling along,” and then, “Three and I’m still rolling along,” and then down to zero, and “I ain’t rolling along.”[2] And let’s be honest enough tonight to say there are times when we get up in the morning, or we turn around one afternoon, and all of a sudden it would appear that every single wheel came off the wagon, and we are certainly not rolling. We’re stuck.

God’s servants at all levels of ministry I don’t believe are immune to this. When I was invited for the first time to the Pastors’ Conference at Moody Bible Institute, they invited me, I think, eighteen or twenty-four months before I appeared. In the letter of invitation, they said that I had to give them the title for two seminars which I would conduct. So I thought, “Well, what will I conduct seminars on two years from now? I mean, what do I know anything about?” Well, that reduced the opportunities dramatically, of course.

And as a result of some study that I’d been doing, I wrote back to them and said that I would do a seminar on the subject “Biblical Church Discipline,” and then that I would do a seminar under the heading “Dealing with Ministerial Depression.” The church discipline one was good. The ministerial depression one, depending on how you want to look at it, was phenomenally encouraging or horribly depressing. It was the most attended seminar in the whole Pastors’ Conference. And that wasn’t because I was giving it, because nobody knew me from a hole in the ground. And it was a standing-room-only event. And pastors, and some of them with their wives, turned out in droves to hear if somebody had anything creditable to say concerning dealing with the blues, or what do you do when you face discouragement?

As recently as a Sunday past, after I had preached, and I had preached from a section of the Bible that was illustrative of the necessity for the person in the pulpit to be humbled and to point away from himself to Jesus Christ—I did my best, I stayed within the time, we finished, and I stood around afterwards. The first lady up to me said, “Here, read this.” So I didn’t read it immediately, but I read it when I got in the car to drive home. And without going into all the details, the lady basically said, “You are the absolute antithesis of everything you spoke about this morning. You did everything that you said you’re not supposed to do. You are this, and you are that, and you are the next thing.” So I said, “Well, let’s see, you know. How much of this is true? How much of this is a word from the Lord? You know, maybe if I read it upside down, there’s an encouraging message or something.” But I put it in my pocket. I said, “Hey, you know, welcome to the ministry.”

I went home, I had my lunch, I did my thing. I got back to the prayer meeting at five thirty in the evening. I sat down. I wasn’t leading the prayer meeting; one of the other guys on the pastoral team was leading it. And I just joined in with a little group. And in a pause from prayer, the older lady with whom I had sat—there were a group of about five of us praying together—she took the bulletin for that evening, and she wrote on it. I didn’t see what she was writing, but she started to write, and she passed it to me. And on it, it said, “The word that God has given me for you tonight is this: ‘If God be for you, who can be against you?’”[3] And I told her afterwards, I said, “You know, did you do that on the spur of the moment?” She said, “No, I’ve been thinking about you all through the day, and I felt that I should give you that verse.” I said, “Well, you can’t tell anyone about this,” I said, “but your one verse counteracted what I have here in my top pocket. And so, from the discouragement of this morning to the encouragement of this evening, and we keep going.”

There are no dull days in pastoral ministry. I’ve never been bored in my life. There are delightful days, and there are disastrous days. And I’ve found that God gives me enough of those morning notes—or allows me to receive them—enough to keep me humble. (Relatively humble. I don’t want to be proud about being humble; we had that message earlier in the week.) And just enough of the evening notes to make sure that you don’t leave the pastoral ministry. How long is it since you wrote your pastor just an encouraging note? Have you done it this year? Done it in the last twenty-four months? Or do you just write him notes when the sermon was too long, or the hymns were too old, or too new, or whatever it was? Some of you are from churches all over the place. Well, maybe you go home, write the guy a note.

“It’s not difficult to believe that God loves us,” says one of the commentators, “when we’re on the heights of Carmel. But it’s not so easy when, like Elijah in the desert, we lie stranded, or as dismantled and rudderless vessels, we roll in the trough of the waves. Most necessary it is for our peace and comfort to know and believe that the love of God abides unchanging as himself.”

Now, let me try and trace a line though this. I didn’t mean to say all of that by way introduction, but I’ve said it now, so I can’t take it back. We’re told of Elijah that he received a threatening message. A threatening message. You’ve never been in pastoral ministry unless you’ve had a threatening message or two, right? The worst are the anonymous notes, because you don’t know who to respond to. This one was not anonymous, but it reached Elijah. Jezebel sent a messenger, verse 2 says, to say to Elijah, “May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them.” One of whom? One of the prophets of Baal. In other words, he received a death threat. His number was up, and he was going to be written into the history books if Jezebel had her way.

In the aftermath of spiritual triumph, it appears that the potential for defeat is at its height.

Now, we ought not to come up with any of this nonsense about “Why would a man be afraid of a woman?” There’s plenty of good reasons why a man would ever be afraid of a woman. You only need to read the book of Proverbs to understand just why he might be. And Jezebel was not exactly what you would call a run-of-the-mill lady. She had a number of operations which she was running that would have allowed her to hold her own in various families—let’s put it that way—in North America. And so, to receive this note from Jezebel was to be confronted by a real potential ordeal.

But aren’t you surprised to discover the response here in verse 3? It may read in your Bible, “And Elijah saw and ran for his life,”[4] or it perhaps reads in your Bible, “[And] Elijah was afraid and ran for his life.” Surely not! I mean, why? He’s just come from a situation where he was on his own, you know, in front of 450 guys who were totally opposed to who he was and what did. They were possessed of lances and swords, and as surely as they slashed themselves with them, they might had just as well have slashed him with them. And he had seen God come down in mighty power and vanquish the host of the enemies. And yet here, on the strength of just a message that had come from a lady about the fact that he may find himself like the prophets of Baal, Elijah runs for it—splits—and is gone.

Let me ask you: Can defeat so quickly follow upon success? And if so, why?

Well, the fact of the matter is that when we read our Bibles, we discover that this is perpetrated time and again. Think about the victory of faith expressed in Noah’s life, as he continued, without a drop of rain, to build the ark. And then think about the sorry description of all that happened to Noah in his drunkenness. Think about Abraham as he sets out on the journey of faith, and then think about what happened to him when he went down into Egypt. Think about David as he triumphs over Goliath; think about David in the moment that kings go out to war, as he finds himself embroiled in adultery and in murder and in total chaos.

I mentioned the sadness of A. W. Pink, but let me quote from him tonight. He says concerning these things,

God suffers it to appear that the best of men are but men at … best. No matter how richly gifted they may be, how eminent in God’s service, how greatly honoured and used of Him, let [God’s] sustaining power be withdrawn from them for a moment and it will quickly be seen that they are ‘earthen vessels.’ No man stands any longer than he is supported by Divine grace. The most experienced saint, if left to himself, is immediately seen to be as weak as water and as timid as a mouse.[5]

Therefore, it is vitally important that we pray faithfully for those that God has raised to places of leadership and responsibility amongst the people of God. Let me say to you again—and I’m not speaking about this place, because I recognize you’re from a variety of places—your pastor may preach the same messages as he has been preaching right up until this day to far greater effect if the congregation will only pray for him prior to, during, and subsequent to his proclamation.

You’ve all read of Spurgeon and how, when he used to show people round the Metropolitan Tabernacle, he would take them downstairs into a lower room, he would open the door, and he would say, “And this is the boiler house.” And people would say, “The boiler house? There’s not a boiler to be seen.” It just was full of seats. Spurgeon said, “No, no, you see, every Sunday morning when I preach here to the four thousand people who are upstairs, there are three and four hundred people downstairs in the basement who pray for me as I preach.”

Spurgeon never gave an evangelistic appeal. He only invited those who were troubled in their spirit to meet him in his vestry on a Monday morning. And it is recorded by the biographers that there was never a Monday morning in the history of Spurgeon’s ministry that he did not have inquirers concerning their soul and its condition before Almighty God. What was the key? Well, people would say because Spurgeon was a phenomenal preacher. The reason that you know about Spurgeon tonight, and I do too, is because of the five hundred people who were down in the boiler room when Spurgeon preached.

Elijah represents the failure of a hero. And the failures of the heroes of the Bible are there for us not to hide behind but as warnings to deliver us from expecting too much of others—and indeed, from expecting too much of ourselves. There is a limit that everybody faces, and Elijah maxed out at the end of 18. Elijah was drained, Elijah was bushed, Elijah was done in. And so it only took the briefest of messages, from a distance, through a third party, to send him running for it. And his experience is mirrored in the experience of others. In the aftermath of spiritual triumph, it appears that the potential for defeat is at its height.

Robert Murray M’Cheyne said—although he died at the age of twenty-nine—he said, “I have found that the seeds of every sin known to man dwell within my heart”[6]—a reminder to us that the individual who think he stands better take heed lest he falls.[7] Martin Luther said how, when he received some notable encouragement of God’s grace, he almost immediately knew the experience of the devil riding, as it were, on his back and seeking to drive him to the ground. We mentioned earlier in the week Paul’s words concerning Ephesians 6, and the necessity of the armor of faith, because of the fiery darts of the Evil One. And so it is that for many of us, two of the darts that come with greatest frequency are the dart of complacency, thereby neutralizing us, or the dart of despondency, thereby rendering our ministry also somewhat obsolete.

I think there are people here tonight, and despite the fact that the hymn singing has been great and the opportunity for fellowship has been fine, you’re not exactly on the mountaintop; you’re, rather, in the valley. There’s been a change in your life from faith to fear. Perhaps fatigue has set in physically. Perhaps you’ve had news, discouraging news, concerning your health. Perhaps you just see the waning of your powers, and you’re beginning to wonder just how long you have.

Well then, let’s just learn here from Elijah, because the reason that he found himself in this condition was largely because his focus changed. He started, as it were, to look at God through his circumstances rather than to look at his circumstances through God. There is a reason that the King James Version translates verse 3, “[And Elijah] saw … and [ran] for his life.” He looked at things but looked at them differently now.

Perhaps it was simply that he was so tired, and when you get really tired, you’re usually the last one to know. People come up to you and say, “My, you’re awful tired.” Doesn’t that make you feel great when they tell you that? “Oh, you’re looking awful tired.” And you go immediately and look in the mirror and say, “Do I really look that bad?” But the fact is that we’re often the last to know. We keep going and going and going. And eventually somebody says to us—if we don’t give out first—they say, “Hey.”

Let me tell you something, when you’re tired there are a number of things you mustn’t do. When you’re really tired, don’t write important letters. Okay? When you’re really tired, don’t quit your job or get a new one. When you’re really tired, don’t try and assess your spiritual condition. And when you’re really tired, definitely don’t try and assess the spiritual condition of anybody else. Because with that fatigue comes a change in focus.

And the focus shifted for this individual. He began to walk by sight and not by faith, and so his peace was affected. His spiritual prosperity was eroded. He had magnified the difficulties, and he was beginning to become paralyzed. Admittedly, an angry woman is an awesome opponent, but God was more than able to meet that.

Genesis chapter 12, in the encounter of Abram with the circumstances that weren’t all the best, reveal the exact same thing. After God has called Abram out, there is a famine which arises in the land, and as a result Abram goes down into Egypt. He goes there “to live there for a while because the famine [is] severe.”[8] And as he’s about to enter Egypt, he says to his wife Sarai, “I know what a beautiful woman you are.”[9] That must have made her feel good. Don’t know whether he said it in the morning or the evening, whatever it was, but that’s always a good start to the day, you know: “I know what a beautiful woman you are.” She didn’t know what was coming next. He was about to jeopardize her purity. He was about to jeopardize her life. He was about to jeopardize their marriage—for the sake of his own neck.

“When the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife.’ Then they will kill me but [they] will let you live. Say you are my sister, so that I will be treated well for your sake and my life will be spared because of you.”[10] You call that a giant? You call that a hero of the faith? How in the world can this happen? From the great success of his early beginning to the immediacy of a circumstance that is famine and that is warfare, and he crumbles like a pack of cards. The longer we live, the more we ought to be sympathetic with the conditions of men and women around us and recognize that what we experience is not alien to them either.

Elijah had not only begun to focus on the circumstances and clouded God in it, but he had begun to focus on himself. First Kings 19:9, he’d gone into a cave to spend the night. This was after he’d been strengthened, as we’ll see in a moment. “And the word of the Lord came to him: ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’” “You call this a place for a vacation, Elijah? What are you doing in a cave?” Listen to his reply: “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars … put your prophets to death with the sword.” Now, get this: “I, [even I,] am the only one left.” Verse 14: “I,” again he says, “have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty.” The end of verse 14, again: “I am the only one left.” Anytime we find ourselves with a threefold “I,” we are in danger. Elijah had fallen into the “self” trap. He had fallen into the notion of believing that he was the only one who was doing anything.

Do you ever have one of those days? “I’m the only person in here that cares about this. I’m the only one that’s doing anything around here.” It can be something as simple as setting up the chairs or putting out the cups and saucers for a fellowship evening. And because Mrs. X never showed up, and Mrs. Y said she wasn’t coming, and another lady, you’re the only one there. And so you have a little party for yourself—a little pity party: “You know, I’m the only person left around here that when I say it, I do it. This place is full of renegades and rascals. I’m the only one, Lord. You know, I’ve been very zealous about these cups and saucers. I’ve never missed a Thursday.” Anytime we find ourselves doing that, we’re probably in great danger, because the fact is, the only reason that we’ve ever known any faithfulness in our lives is because we have been kept “by God’s power,” as Peter tells us in 1 Peter 1:5. It is because “through faith” we have been able to stand. Anybody here tonight, and you’ve been coming into these meetings, and you’ve been congratulating yourself, saying, “You know, I’m the only one”? The fact is, you’re not.

Elijah was in the predicament because he was out of focus, but he was also out of fellowship. You see, whenever we take matters into our own hands, then faith and hope are no longer exercised. And when faith and hope are no longer exercised, then they will be replaced by something, and usually by discontentedness and a lack of peace. The progress to despondency in Elijah’s life is just very clear to see. In verse 3, he runs away. In verse 4, he ends up in the desert. He finds a little tree, the broom tree, and he sits down underneath it. And he prays “that he might die.”

We don’t have time to expand this tonight, and I don’t want to get into it over my head either. But if we’re going to take this at face value, what Elijah is saying is, “I’ve just had enough. I don’t want to face another day. I don’t want to see another person. God, I want to die.” There is all the difference in the world, dear ones, between anticipating the glory of heaven with joyful expectancy and lying down on the job.

When faith and hope are no longer exercised, then they will be replaced by something, and usually by discontentedness and a lack of peace.

Some time ago, I was asked to go and visit an elderly lady. They told me that she was dying, and so I went to see her. And when I got there, she was certainly lying down, and she had an oxygen supply that ran from a large tank that had been put in her home, through a tube and to her nose. Now, I’m no expert on death and dying, but I’ve been in pastoral ministry for seventeen years, and I’ve sat at the bedside of a lot of people that are dying. And I’m certainly not a doctor—we’ve made that clear, right? But neither the physical situation nor my own spirit of discernment within me told me that this lady was anywhere close to dying. Everybody was very quiet. They were all going around the house in a kind of predeath nuptial. But when I got in the room, I didn’t sense that at all. So I just spoke loud: “Ah, hello, Mrs. So-and-So, how are you doing?” “Sh, don’t you know the lady’s…?” I said, “Hey, outta here.”

Within fifteen minutes, this lady was sitting up in bed, having a real royal conversation with me. Today, she’s running all around Cleveland. She’s in the mall, she’s all over the place. What she’d done was, she’d got herself under a broom tree. She laid down, and she said, “That’s it. I’m finished now, Lord. Now, just take me home.” The Lord said, “No, I’m going to send you Begg, and he’ll shake you up a wee bit, and you’ll be up on your feet, and you’ll be running all around, annoying your husband for another five or six years.” Which is exactly what’s going on!

Now, I don’t know your lives. I don’t know your hearts. I know many of you live alone. I know there must be times of discouragement in your lives. Don’t find a broom tree for yourself and lie down under it. Do you hear me? God has purposes for you. Remember what I’ve told you: every day you get your legs over the bed is a sign that God is not finished with you—and even from your bed, or from your chair. So let’s learn by example what not to do, in relationship to Elijah here. He runs away, he goes to the desert, he finds a tree, he sits underneath it, he says, “I’ve had enough,” and he requests that he might die.

One of the biggest problems that Elijah faces is the problem of self-pity. Self-pity is like homesickness. People say to me, “Don’t you miss Scotland?” Of course I do. “Are you ever homesick?” And I always say, “Not for more than thirty seconds.” And that’s the truth, because homesickness is a stupid thing. What is the point of putting yourself through that when you’re three and a half thousand miles away from whatever represents home to you? You can’t get home by feeling sorry about the fact that you’re not home. So you have to just flush it out. And the same is true with self-pity.

And so God comes to him, and he refreshes him. Look what he does. After he had lain down under the tree and fell asleep, an angel came and “touched him and said, ‘Get up.’” Do you like getting woken up when you’re asleep? If he had really needed to sleep, the Lord would have let him sleep. But the Lord knew he needed to get up. So he sends an angel, and he says, “‘Get up and eat.’ [And] he looked around, and there by his [bed] was a cake of bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. [And] he ate and [he] drank and … [he] lay down.” So he must have been sleepy, right? But he was supposed to eat; so he ate, and then he lay down again.

And “the angel of the Lord came back a second time and touched him and said, ‘Get up and eat, for the journey is too much for you.’ So he got up and [he] ate and [he] drank. [And] strengthened by that food, he traveled [for] forty days and forty nights…” I mean, that’s what you call a drink of water, right? I mean, that’s amazing! If we get some of this bread and market it, it would be incredible. “…until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God,” and then it was when he got there that he goes into the cave and he spends the night. And even after the Lord has come and refreshed him and picked him up and sent him on this big journey, still he’s in the cave. Still he’s at this nonsense about, “I’m the only guy that’s left, Lord, that’s serving you.”

So the Lord, first of all, comes to refresh him, and then he comes in verse 12 to reveal himself to him. The Lord says in verse 11, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” And we know this story: how this great and mighty tearing of the mountains, of the winds, come. But the Lord’s not in the wind. And then in this great earthquake, but the Lord’s not in the earthquake. “[And] after the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was[n’t] in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. [And] when Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.” Why did he pull his cloak over his face? ’Cause he knew that he could not bear to look upon the glory of the Lord.

Isn’t it a strange thing how, in twentieth-century Christian television, everybody wants to go on the TV and tell about how they saw the glory of the Lord? You can fill up a half-hour program talking about what you saw and the experience that you had. Isn’t that so very different from the Bible? When Peter on the boat saw the glory of Christ, what did he do? He threw himself on the deck, and he said, “Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord.”[11] When Moses saw the glory of the Lord in the desert, he took his shoes off his feet at the command of God, because he knew that he was standing on holy ground.[12] When Elijah discovers that God reveals himself to him, he pulls his cloak over his face. When Isaiah sees the glory of God manifested, as his train fills the temple, he cries out, “I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.”[13] It seems to me that if we would really see the glory of the Lord, it wouldn’t put us on Christian television; it would put in the silence of our bedrooms, in the quietness of our hearts.

And we need to ask God to reveal himself afresh to us when we’ve found ourselves in this kind of self-pitying despondency. Spoke in “a gentle whisper.” Isn’t it interesting how often, out of the mouths of babes and children, God speaks to us—out of the tiny ones? I was interested, Joe speaking about the circumstances in his own life. You may have heard the story of the grandpa taking his grandson to the graveside of his grandmother. It was in Scotland, and they always have florists selling flowers out of baskets in the summer outside of graveyards. And so the grandpa had bought some flowers; he was going to put them in the jar there at his wife’s tombstone. And he gave them to his grandson to carry. And as they were making their way through the graveyard, the grandpa was despondent because of all the memories that were filling up in his mind. And the wee boy was plaguing him with questions: “Where in Gran, Grandpa? Is she in the ground?”

“No,” said Grandpa, “we put her body in the ground, but she’s not there.”

“Well, where is she, Grandpa?”

“Well, she’s with Jesus.”

“Well, where’s Jesus?”

“Jesus is in heaven.”

“Where’s heaven?”

“Well, Jesus went up into heaven, so it’s up, at least in our minds.”

So that satisfied the wee boy, and they continued to walk together. He continued to hold the flowers. And the grandpa got a few strides in front of his grandson, and he turned around to call him. And as he turned around to call him, he noticed that the boy was holding the tulips up in the air as he walked. And he said to his grandson, “Why are you holding the flowers in the air?”

And he said, “So that Granny can see them, if she’s looking.” The simple faith of a tiny child.

“God has made of death a narrow, sunlit strip between the goodbyes of yesterday and the hellos of tomorrow.”[14] Some of us have lost loved ones in recent days, and our hearts are tender towards it.

You know the story of the man making the journey with his son. And as they make their outward journey, traveling together, they come and pass over a rickety old bridge, which goes over the river. The boy’s anxious over the bridge, and when they make the return journey, they discover that the river has swelled its banks and washed the bridge away. And so the father picks up the child in his arms and begins to wade with him out into the river. And as he does so, the boy begins to cry. And the father simply holds him closer to his heart. And the boy falls asleep as his dad walks with him into the river. And the next thing the boy knows is that he wakes up in his bedroom, and the sun’s shining through the windows, and he’s home. That’s death for the Christian. What we fear most, we never experience. We fall asleep in the arms of Jesus, and we wake up, and we’re home.

The Lord came to his despondent servant, he refreshed him, he revealed himself to him, and finally, he reinstated him. The Lord says to him in verse 15, “Go back the way you came, and go to the Desert of Damascus. [And] when you get there, anoint Hazael king over Aram.” And then he gives him a whole list of duties to perform. The thing that strikes me about the contrast between 1 Kings 18 and 19 is the truth that runs through the whole of the Bible, and it is this: with God, failure is never final. The God whom we worship is the God of the second chance, right? “And the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, ‘Get up there to Nineveh.’”[15]

Is there somebody here tonight, and the word of the Lord has come to you with power and influence in the past? For whatever reason, it’s a long time since you’ve been on the mountain. Oh, you’ve got all the pretense, and you’re able to say the right things, and you cover it up well with a smile and the right kind of jocular attitude. But day by day, as you get in your car and drive out of this car park and make your journey home, you know that all is not well with you—that where you are supposed be and where you are is two different places. And the devil wants to come to you and kick you while you’re down and tell you that you’re done.

With God, failure is never final. The God whom we worship is the God of the second chance.

I want to say to you tonight that the God whom we worship is the God who completes what he begins. When Paul writes to Timothy, he reminds him that even “when we are faithless, he abides faithful, because he cannot deny himself.”[16] And when he writes to the Philippian believers, he says, “I am confident that he who has begun a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”[17] I mentioned to you last night that I think more progress is made in our spiritual pilgrimage through tears and failure than it is through success and laughter. Well, here’s an illustration of it in 1 Kings 19.

I’d like to leave you with two words. They’re not original to me. They’re actually original, in this story at least, to Martyn Lloyd-Jones, who was greatly used of God in Britain, and indeed, throughout the world. Martyn Lloyd-Jones was for me the epitome of all that a preacher might be. And so, as a young man, I used to love every opportunity I could to go and hear him preach. I once wrote to him, and he wrote back to me, and the letter is a treasure. I once met him in Glasgow after he preached there—my wife and I both did. I never forget he wore a black coat which buttoned right up to the top. He wore a hat that was black—looked like he came off the Mayflower, and this was in 1970-something. He wore black gloves that were like cotton, with holes in them, little knit gloves. And he always would keep his overcoat on when he sat on the platform until the time came for him to preach, and then he would take it off.

Eric Alexander was a young man also, and he precedes me by a good fifteen years. But he was a young man also under Martyn Lloyd-Jones’s influence. And he told me on one occasion that he wanted to go and stand by Martyn Lloyd-Jones as he greeted people at the end of his message—because, Eric Alexander said, he wanted to know what Lloyd-Jones said to people when they came up to talk to him.

And he said that he stood a little away, and the first individual came up and said whatever they had to say, and Martyn Lloyd-Jones looked him in the eye, and whatever else he said to them, his parting words were two: “Keep on.” And then the next person came, and the same thing: “Keep on.” And the third and the fourth, and all the way through. And Eric Alexander said to me, he said, “You know, at first I said to myself, Is that all that a great man like this could say to somebody? Just ‘keep on’? And then,” he said, “it dawned on me that that is ultimately what all of us need said to each other all the time. Just those two words: ‘Keep on. Keep on.’”

Whether it is the experience of Abram, whether it is the encouragement of Barnabas, whether it is the pursuit of the mountain with Caleb, or whether it is the valley of discouragement with Elijah, I exhort you to keep on.

Let’s pray:

Our God and our Father, we thank you that your Word shines as a lamp upon our feet.[18] Your Word is food for our souls. We thank you for every blessing and benefit which you bring to bear upon our lives as a result of the precious truth of Scripture. Thank you for the privilege of these days, Lord, for the kindness of these dear people, for their words of encouragement, and for all that it has meant; for all that I’ve seen of you in their lives, for all that I’ve learned of you from their words and their example. I pray for any, particularly tonight, who may find themselves deeply discouraged. I pray that, as they make their journey home, that you will refresh them, that you will reveal yourself to them, and that you will reinstate them to a place of usefulness.

Hear our prayers, and let our cries come unto to you. For Jesus’ sake we ask it. Amen.

[1] Psalm 107:26, 28 (NIV 1984).

[2] Burt Bacharach and Bob Hilliard, “Three Wheels on My Wagon” (1964). Paraphrased.

[3] Romans 8:31 (paraphrased).

[4] 1 Kings 19:3 (paraphrased).

[5] A. W. Pink, The Life of Elijah (London: Banner of Truth, 1963), 201.

[6] Quoted in Andrew Bonar, Memoir and Remains of the Rev. Robert Murray McCheyne (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1844), 201. Paraphrased.

[7] See 1 Corinthians 10:12.

[8] Genesis 12:10 (NIV 1984).

[9] Genesis 12:11 (NIV 1984).

[10] Genesis 12:12–13 (NIV 1984).

[11] Luke 5:8 (KJV).

[12] See Exodus 3:5.

[13] Isaiah 6:5 (KJV).

[14] William Jennings Bryan, “The Fundamentals,” The Forum 70 (July 1923): 1674. Paraphrased.

[15] Jonah 3:1–2 (paraphrased).

[16] 2 Timothy 2:13 (paraphrased).

[17] Philippians 1:6 (paraphrased).

[18] See Psalm 119:105.

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.