He Gives His Beloved Sleep
“This trouble is from the Lord! Why should I wait for the Lord any longer?”1 As 2 Kings 6 wraps up, the despair is evident. Samaria is under a siege that has lasted long enough that some of the inhabitants have resorted to cannibalism. Faced with a situation outside of his control, with no apparent hope of rescue, Jehoram (king of Israel) sends a messenger to kill Elisha. As the messenger relays the kings words, we experience both the kings pain and horror at his reaction.
Dark nights that seem to have no end, situations that leave you wondering whether God is there to help or hurt you are not unfamiliar for us. While not the norm for most of us, they are not novelties either. This certainly seemed to be the case for Gerard Manley Hopkins, at least judging by the words in his poem (Carrion Comfort). Consider the first stanza:
Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist—slack they may be—these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.2
Before looking at the content of the poem, it is worth taking a moment to appreciate the emotion that Hopkins has worked into the poem through it’s phrasing. For instance, notice how the entire stanza is all of two sentences. Thanks to short phrases between the multitude of commas, though, the sentences don’t read as the lucid thoughts of a contemplative man. Instead, we get the broken, scattered thoughts of someone going through great personal suffering. This feel is strengthened by a repetition of words at the beginning of each sentence. In particular, one can almost hear a sigh as Hopkins writes, “I can; / Can something . . .”
Then, there is the text of the poem itself. Hopkins paints the fight for hope as a fight against death. Despair, the carrion comfort, is contrasted with hope, wishing for day to come, or at least not wishing not to be. The picture remains grim as the poem continues. After describing his inability to escape the menacing force that seems focused solely on grinding him down, Hopkins relates that he has had to steal the little joy and cheer he has found. The real punch, though, comes when he turns to ask who’s side he should take in his current struggle:
Cheer whom though? The hero whose heaven-handling flung me, fóot tród
Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one? That night, that year
Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.3
Even as we are caught up in the struggle of which side has the claim to the right, Hopkins drives home the horrible realization of whom he is fighting. Hopkins isn’t wrestling with just any being. He is taking on his God.
What ought we to do when it seems like God is actively fighting against us? When, as far as we can tell, we are in the right but God still seems content to, at best allow evil to triumph, or at worst actively work on the side of wrong. One potential place we can head for answers is Elijah’s life after the showdown at Mount Carmel.
Having convincingly proved God’s might and handicapped further idol worship, one would think that Elijah would have kept the momentum moving and taken the fight to the idol worshippers still present in Israel. Instead, a death threat from Jezebel sends him running into the wilderness. This isn’t merely a tactical redeployment, either. Elijah indicates that he has given up when he prays, “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my fathers” (1 Kings 19:4). In Elijah’s mind, the calculations are running. If fire from heaven, the death of idolatrous priests, and the ending of a three-year famine aren’t enough to show all in Israel who is truly God, than he is a washout. Why continue working . . . there isn’t anything more he could do. It’s a faithless response—ironically pointing out that faith doesn’t come solely from seeing God’s work. What happens next though should give us hope for our days of faithless discouragement.
Lightening from the sky would be an expected response. If Elijah can’t keep his faith in God, then God might as well finish him and find a new prophet. But that isn’t God’s response. Nor, initially, does God give Elijah a spiritual pep talk to quick boost his faith and get him back in the game. No, instead God recognizes Elijah’s human frailty and give him what he needs: food and sleep (1 Kings 19: 5-7). Only after Elijah has spent two days being restored physically does God bring him to Horeb for direction. And, while we are looking at that direction, it is worth noting that God’s list of commands does not amount to, “well, we really lost some time back there while you were resting. Time to buckle down and work overtime to catch up.” Rather, God’s directions involve delegating responsibilities to others, including an apprentice who will be Elijah’s steady companion until God takes Elijah to heaven. Then, after Elijah has rested, recentered on God’s directions, and been shown who will help carry out God’s direction, God brings one last piece of encouragement. “Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him” (1 Kings 19:18) In effect, it is a reminder that Elijah cannot see all that God has or will do. Contrary to Elijah’s synopsis, idol worship has not taken over Israel. God will protect his servants, even if Elijah can’t see it happening.
As we see God’s care for Elijah, there are several points of application to our own lives. First, our despair should never be a cause for further despair. Instead of bemoaning your lack of faith, fall back on the mercy displayed through Elijah. Second, look for God’s provision—even in the mundane things like food and sleep. This may take some action on your part. If God is concerned enough to give Elijah food and sleep, than you should make a point to take care of yourself physically, especially during the darker days of life. Third, come back to the Word. While restoring yourself physically, restore yourself spiritually. The Psalms, with their message of God’s unquestionable control over the world, particularly come to mind as an excellent place to focus your reading.4 Fourth, though perhaps better pulled from a different passage, surround yourself with others. When Paul directs us to “bear one another’s burdens”5 the implication is that others will bear our burdens at some point. Sharing those burdens is never easy, at least if your temperament is anything like mine. A practical first step here is to invest in those relationships before the dark times come. It will be much easier to open up to someone you have found you can trust than to someone you’re just getting to know. Finally, remember that God ultimately has a fuller perspective on what is taking place. The evil in the world has been defeated—even if in our lives it seems like it’s power is still rather strong. The fate of the world does not rest on our shoulders, and it is perfectly fine to pull back and rest when have been broken down by the work around us. As the Psalmist reminds us: “It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep” (Psalm 127:2).