“Come … apart into a desert place, and rest a while….” (Mark 6:31)
What comes to your mind when you hear the word desolate? Is it positive or negative?
An English dictionary offers synonyms like bleak, barren, miserable or lifeless. A “desolate place,” then, could be a desert with nothing but sand dunes as far as the eye can see. (But even sand dunes are beautiful.)
Perhaps solitary would be a better word to describe such a place. It’s not barren or lifeless; it’s just empty of people.
I grew up on a wheat farm in the Nebraska Panhandle, with nothing to see but the distant horizon and our nearest neighbor’s farm a mile away. Some might consider that desolate, but to me it was “home sweet home.” The methodical clank of the windmill driven by the relentless wind and the song of the meadowlark are sounds I still cherish when I desire solitude.
Jesus considered desolate places to be very desirable. Rather than avoiding them, He sought them out as places refreshment. Consider the following examples where the ESV translates the Greek word eramos as desolate:
Mark 1:1-12; Luke 4:1-15: Jesus was baptized in a desolate area, and was led by the Holy Spirit to spend 40 days in the wilderness. Here in this desolate place, Jesus turned away Satan’s assaults.
Luke 4:42: After thwarting a mob’s attempt to kill Him in Nazareth—and after an exhausting schedule of healing, miracles and encounters with demons, Jesus sought out a desolate place for respite.
Mark 1:35; Luke 6:12; 9:1-6: Jesus spent a night praying in a desolate place before choosing 12 apostles and sending them on a mission.
Mark 6:30-32: When the apostles returned and reported to Jesus, He said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest awhile.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away to a desolate place by themselves.”
Luke 5:15,16; 9:18, 28: Jesus routinely retreated to desolate places to pray. On one occasion, His disciples asked Him to teach them to pray. Three of them witnessed Jesus’ amazing transfiguration on a lonely mountaintop.
Luke 22:39: So routinely did Jesus seek solitude that Judas knew where to find Him—and hand Him over to His enemies.
Many years ago, I preached a series of messages I called “God’s Mountain Men.” Like the mountain men of the old West, these men in the pages of Scripture preferred solitude over the crowds and noise of the city. Lot, for example, chose the ease of city life, while Abraham preferred the shade of an oak tree and a tent. Seasoned by the wilderness, Abraham became so bold in his relationship with God that he dared to negotiate face-to-face with the Almighty on behalf of his nephew in the city. One day, after the sun had set, Abraham entered into a solemn covenant with God (Genesis 15). There is no greater example of faith in God than Abraham.
Abraham’s grandson, Jacob the schemer, was molded into a man of faith after twice encountering the God of his grandfather while camping in a desolate place (Genesis 28:10-22; 32:22-32).
Moses spent 40 years in the wilderness herding sheep. Lessons that he had never learned as a prince in Egypt prepared Moses to lead Israel out of Egypt and through the desolation. His first encounter with God at the burning bush was frightening—and the second encounter almost deadly. Extended visits with God on the summit of Sinai, however, deepened the relationship—even to the point where Moses dared to speak with God as “friend with friend.” Times spent in solitude with the Lord in the tent of meeting were so transforming that Moses’ face would actually glow (Exodus 33:7ff. 34:29). (Can you imagine him walking through camp in the evening with his face radiating like a lantern?)
David experienced solitude in the wilderness, both as a shepherd and as a long-term fugitive from Saul. Having experienced desolation in the desert as well as the delights of the palace, he would write: “One thing I have asked of the Lord, and that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple” (Psalm 27:4). Solitude shaped David into the “man after God’s own heart.”
I could write about the prophets, John the Baptist and even Paul as examples of great men who were shaped by the wilderness.
But I offer one man as a case study: Elijah the Tishbite, who suddenly emerges into the biblical narrative in 1 Kings 17. At one of the darkest moments in Israel’s history, this man from the hill country of Gilead boldly confronted King Ahab and warned of severe drought in Israel. Elijah then went to live in desolate place across the Jordan River. After three years of severe drought, Elijah reappeared to announce the end of the drought and to challenge 450 prophets of the pagan god Baal to a showdown. The outcome would clearly demonstrate to his watching countrymen whether Yahweh or Baal was the true, living God. (I assume most of my readers are familiar with the story in 1 Kings 18.)
On the summit of Mount Carmel, two altars with two sacrificial bulls would serve as object lessons for the people of Israel. Would Baal, the god of the storm, deliver the fire? From early morning to noon, Team Baal chanted and ranted furiously with no response. Then Elijah called the people over to the altar of Yahweh, where a simple prayer was dramatically answered when a lightning bolt ignited and consumed the bull—and the altar. The decision was rendered: “Yahweh is God!”
Elijah challenged the crowd to seize and kill the prophets of Baal. Then, after praying for rain, Elijah ran back to the city of Jezreel to discover that he was wanted—dead or alive—by the evil Queen Jezebel. For some reason, the queen’s warning completely deflated God’s prophet. No longer bold with faith and wanting nothing to do with the city, he fled into the wilderness and prayed to die. (The very thing he had tried to escape.) However, refreshed with sleep and catered by angels, Elijah trekked through the desert to Mount Horeb—the very Mountain where Moses had enjoyed rich fellowship with God. Elijah secluded himself in a cave. His pathetic response, when the Lord asked, “What are you doing here?” revealed his desperate loneliness and disappointment with God. Ignoring a violent windstorm, an earthquake and fire outside the cave, Elijah was intrigued by a low whisper.
God restored His broken prophet, and Elijah finished his life mission with strength and courage. What a lesson for me. For all of us.
Sleep deprived, physically exhausted and emotionally empty after an adrenalin high, the great prophet had come apart at the seams. Had his earlier boldness been mere bravado? Fearless before 450 prophets, he wilted at the threat of one woman. His great faith faltered. Like us, he was just another man, after all.
Our Creator, who formed us out of dirt, knows that we need respite and solitude. We need times to refocus, refuel and refresh our relationship with God. That is why He ordained the Sabbath day as a time of rest. That is why Jesus said and modeled that the Sabbath was made for man, not as just one more rule to keep. We need down time. We need rest stops—desolate places away from the rat race. With all of our “labor saving” devices and appliances, many of us remain gerbils running on a wheel, but going nowhere fast. Stress, a word almost devoid in the Bible, saturates our conversations today.
One obvious exception was Jesus. He is never described as being in a hurry. He always had time to touch a leper, visit with a Samaritan or counsel a rabbi. He had time to hold little children on His lap while the disciples stressed over the schedule. Most of all, He always had time to pray. Preferably in a quiet, even desolate place.
Do I require less? Can I expect to run “full-bore” 24/7 without complications? Can you?
Living again in a city and limited physically, I can no longer trek through wilderness. So, where is my desolate place? My place of solitude? My tent of meeting? It doesn’t need to be a remote mountain.
For me, at this stage in life, my desolate place is the recliner in our living room between 5:00 and 7:00 am. The house is quiet. I’m alone with my Bible and my second cup of coffee. It’s a time to read. To contemplate. To talk to God. To listen for that “quiet whisper” that drew Elijah form his cave.
It is my time to come apart from life’s demands…lest I come apart myself.