The prophet Elijah was raised up by God to be singularly used in taking on one of the most wicked kings in the history of Israel, by withholding rain for 3 1/2 years, by confronting 400 of the prophets of Baal, by calling fire down from heaven and by turning the people of Israel back from their idolatrous worship to the worship of the true and living God. Yet, he was afraid of this wicked king’s pagan wife–a woman whose evil motives and threats threw him into a fearful, paralysis-resulting depression. Sinclair Ferguson explains the decline of Elijah into this deep state of depression on account of Jezebel, when he says,
“There was something about the way in which evil was personified in the life of Jezebel that this amazingly courageous prophet who was prepared to take incalculable risks on Mt. Carmel (he was able to face 400 prophets of Baal and King Ahab on Mt. Carmel)–and yet apparently there was something about Jezebel that made him feel that it was impossible for him to confront her. So, instead of confronting her (and this was a grave mistake on the part of Elijah) he fled from her–Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. He had faced all kinds of risks before but now he was afraid and he ran for his life. Here’s the point: So long as Elijah kept on running, the very thing from which he ran was the one thing with which he could never deal. And for someone whose heart is set on walking in the ways of the Lord, that is a course of action calculated to produce a spiritual sense of both oppression and depression. And so his disappointment became flight. And he was in grave danger of carrying, for the rest of his life, a situation that he refused to deal with out of fear that would pursue him and determine the course of his life from now on in.”
Elijah’s depression was sinfully motivated. He allowed his fear of Jezebel to override his confidence in the God who had already done powerful and marvelous works through him.
There is, in the Bible, both a natural and a spiritual depression. There is a sinful and a sinless spiritual depression. Again, Ferguson explains, “In the Bible, we can divide melancholy and depression into two categories–there is a melancholy that is natural and there is a melancholy that is spiritual. We then have to divide between a spiritual melancholy that has a holy origin and a spiritual melancholy that has a sinful origin.”
It is probably safe to say that most of the spiritual depression that we experience is sinful–at least in part–due to our own sin natures. We, like Elijah, so often respond to situations and circumstances–allowing sinful fear to drive us to despair, despair to depression and depression to spiritual paralysis. When that happens, it is a tell tale sign that the depression we have experienced is sinfully motivated. But, what, someone might ask, would a sinless depression look like? What does it mean for someone to be in a state of despondency with a heart that is fully set on God and His glory?
By way of contrast to Elijah’s depression, there is the depression of the Lord Jesus Christ. That might (ought) to sound strange to us at first. After all, the writer to the Hebrews tells us that it was “for the joy set before him” that “he endured the cross” (Heb. 12:2). However, in Matthew 27:38, Jesus told His disciples, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death.” Jesus was weighed down with heaviness of heart and depression of soul when he was looking into the cup of the wrath of God in the Garden–a cup that he would drink to the full on the cross. Ferguson teases out what this means for Jesus when he notes,
“There are one or two occasions in the life of our Lord Jesus Christ when I think that it would be true to say that Jesus was depressed. In its own way it is rather stunning. If we don’t grasp this about Jesus, I don’t think that we will ever really understand that Jesus entered into our full humanity. When Jesus was in the Garden of Gethsemane, the Gospel writers, Mark in particular, use language about Jesus that indicates to us that he went through a period of deep depression. He uses language about his soul being distressed and oppressed–language that is used elsewhere of the world of the first century, of people that are suffering from a deep sense of melancholy and a deep sense of distraction that makes it almost impossible for them to focus their minds on the things that are true and real. And this is what Jesus began to enter into as he began to enter into the darkness of the cross. The disintegration of human life that is the judgment of God on human sin was the dark valley into which our Lord Jesus Christ entered. But, notice this, it was utterly holy for Jesus to sense that melancholy and depression as he gazed upon what sin had done to the human race and what the judgment of God would do to him on the cross of Calvary. It was utterly holy, totally free from sin.”
The agony of soul that Jesus experienced in the Garden of Gethsemane is captured by the physical effects of that agony in the great drops of blood pouring out of his body on that cold night. Jonathan Edwards explained,
“If the suffering of Christ had occasioned merely a violent sweat, it would have shown that he was in great agony; for it must be an extraordinary grief and exercise of mind that causes the body to be all of a sweat abroad in the open air, in a cold night as that was, as is evident from John 18:18. ‘And the servants and officers stood there, who had made a fire of coals, (for it was cold,) and they warmed themselves; and Peter stood with them, and warmed himself.’ This was the same night in which Christ had his agony in the garden. But Christ’s inward distress and grief was not merely such as caused him to be in a violent and universal sweat, but such as caused him to sweat blood. The distress and anguish of his mind was so unspeakably extreme as to force his blood through the pores of his skin, and that so plentifully as to fall in great clots or drops from his body to the ground.”
The sinless depression of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane is the solution to our own sinful spiritual depression. In this sense, we can say that Jesus’ depression had a redeeming value for our souls. In short, how can we remain sinfully despondent when we see the Son of God sweating out our redemption as he looked at what our sin has done in this world and prospectively anticipated what he would endure under the wrath of God in the cross to deal with that sin? How can we not rise up to serve God with renewed spiritual strength and vigor when we consider all that Christ endured for us? Oh that we would forever meditate on this precious truth and allow it to animate our spiritual service in the dark nights of our souls.