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What are you doing here, Elijah?

So he arose, and ate and drank; and he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights as far as Horeb, the mountain of God. And there he went into a cave, and spent the night in that place; and behold, the word of the Lord came to him, and He said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” I Kings 19:8-9 ESV

In the writing of my recent doctoral thesis I spent a considerable amount of time studying Elijah’s encounter with God on Mount Horeb as described in I Kings chapter 19. I found this account to be encouraging and relevant in many ways. Elijah is despondent and critically depressed. He feels alone and is so frustrated by the apparent failure of his mission as a prophet that he begs God to die. After being revived by an angel and making a supernatural journey he arrives at Mount Horeb very possibly at the same cleft in the rock where God revealed himself to Moses nearly 700 years earlier.

God greets Elijah with a question. “What are you doing here Elijah?” It is easy to see this as a sharp rebuke of the Old Testament prophet, for surely he was far beyond the bounds of his post, and the narrative implies that he was looking for some sort of dramatic theophanic experience similar to that of Moses that would validate his role as a prophet of Israel.

Former president of Southwestern Seminary, Russel Dilday, sees great compassion in these words: “Though it contains the sting of a divine rebuke, it seems to have been God’s gracious way of inviting Elijah to pour out his heart. When Jesus appeared to the disciples on the Emmaus Road, they were depressed about the things that had happened in Jerusalem; and the Lord asked them, “What things?” Of course Jesus knew ‘what things.’ He had asked not for information, but to encourage them to unload the burden of their hearts. God did the same for Elijah.”