What kind of life would you consider “blessed”? We might think, for example, of the promise of Psalm 1. The Lord watches over those who follow the way of righteousness (vs. 6). They will be like trees planted by a stream: they are green and fruitful, and “in all that they do, they prosper” (vs. 3, NRSVUE). Much of the rest of the Psalter seems to assume this promise.
But as we’ve seen repeatedly in the pages of this blog, the Psalter itself is far more complicated, filled with complaints of injustice and suffering. The psalmists sometimes seem desperate, crying out to God, wanting to know how long they must wait for relief, if indeed relief is coming at all.
In this uncertain space between praise and lament, victory and defeat, the psalmists are joined by the prophets. In the previous post, we watched Elijah go into a deep funk after the miraculous victory atop Mount Carmel. He fled to the wilderness because Jezebel was hunting him, and there he was tempted to give up, praying for God to take his life. Twice he complained to God that he had served faithfully, but for what? He was the only prophet left (1 Kings 19:10,14).
A chapter earlier, however, Obadiah had told Elijah how he had “hid a hundred of the Lord’s prophets fifty to a cave and provided them with bread and water” (1 Kings 18:13). A chapter later (20:13-22), we read of prophets giving divine counsel to Ahab in his conflict with the Arameans. Elijah, in other words, was exaggerating: he was not the last prophet, and he knew it.
But such are the colorful words of someone ready to throw in the spiritual towel.
God, of course, did not kill him. He fed Elijah in the wilderness until he had enough strength for the next leg of his journey, a forty-day walk to Mount Horeb, where he hid in a cave.
The next morning, God spoke to Elijah. First, there was a powerful wind — powerful enough to break up the mountain! — but God was not in the wind. There was an earthquake. There was fire. But God was only in the whisper that followed (1 Kings 19:11-12). Elijah, listening, stood at the mouth of the cave. God gave him no Psalm 1 promise — Elijah, I’ll watch over you, and you’ll prosper in everything you do — only the declaration that there were still 7,000 people in Israel who had not yet bowed to Baal. With that, Elijah received his marching orders and went on to his next assignment, which included commissioning his successor, Elisha.
. . .
James, as we have seen, tries to encourage the poor believers who are suffering unjustly at the hands of their rich oppressors who are, unfortunately, believers as well. He counsels them to embrace a long-suffering kind of patience, an endurance that embodies grace under pressure. And he holds up both Job and the prophets as examples of such endurance. Regarding the latter, James writes:
As an example of suffering and patience, brothers and sisters, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. Indeed, we call blessed those who showed endurance. (James 5:10-11a, NRSVUE)
“Blessed.” At first blush, it sounds like an odd way to describe someone like Elijah, who at times seemed more depressed than blessed. But such is the biblical image of endurance. Elijah was blessed, not because his life was easy and trouble-free, but because he had divine help in standing up to the pressure of his calling. It is, after all, faith working in the midst of trouble that produces endurance, as both Paul and James attest (Rom 5:4; James 1:3).
Jesus, too, connected blessing to the endurance of the prophets. He spoke not only to the poor being oppressed by the rich, but the poor in spirit who suffered the brokenness of the world in general:
Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matt 5:11-12)
You’re part of a long, rich tradition, he seems to say in the Beatitudes. Your blessedness doesn’t mean an end to suffering, to poverty of spirit, mourning, meekness, or the hunger for justice. You have to look past the suffering to the future that God intends for all creation, a future in which the kingdom is complete.
Some days, that forward-looking, eschatological perspective will have to do, even as we lament and moan, even when we’re tempted to give up.
There will be mountaintop experiences. But most of the time, in faith and with hope, we just keep on keeping on.