'Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus the Messiah, the father of all compassion and the God of all comfort and good counsel, who brings both comfort and counsel to us in all our affliction, so that we in turn might bring help to those in all kinds of distress with the encouragement and counsel that we ourselves have received from God.'
One of the difficulties translating from another language is that there are some words that have no equivalent in terms of a single word in English. The Greek verb 'parakaleo' (along with its related noun 'paraklesis') is one such word; it has a range of meanings that just can’t be conveyed in a single English word. To comfort is one of the meanings it can have and, given that Paul introduces it by thanking the God of compassion, it’s natural that most translations should plump for this meaning here. However, it can also mean to encourage, to advise, to exhort, to appeal to, to urge or implore, even to admonish! The nearest word we have that covers at least some of the different meanings is to counsel but that word doesn’t quite have the remarkable flexibility of 'parakaleo', a word that is both multi-coloured and also able to bring emphasis to different colours depending on what circumstances you are using it in. At the risk of sounding a bit clumsy, I’ve opted to use different words for it here, one of them being comfort because the context does indeed suggest there is an emphasis on that here.
But I don’t think that just saying comfort here is adequate because on it’s own it isn’t enough to convey the other meanings at work; just as when someone is suffering they may need to be brought comfort, but comfort often isn’t the only thing they need. Just like the professionals trying to help the amateurs on Strictly Come Dancing; when the amateurs are really struggling the pros may bring them comfort but they also have a whole range of other strategies to help them on their journey to being better dancers, ranging from good advice to encouraging them, urging them on or even admonishing them. Indeed when some one is truly wallowing in their miseries just comforting them might only feed their desire to keep wallowing.
We can see some of this in the way God brings help to Elijah at his moment of deepest gloom. Elijah has fled to the wilderness after hearing of a threat on his life. I don’t think it is primarily fear that makes him run away; prior to this, he has shown himself to be very resilient and bold in the face of hostility. What we see here is much more a sense of hopelessness.
How is it that he has just see-sawed down from a moment of triumphant bravery and elation to rock bottom in such a short space? He has just had a big showdown with the prophets of Baal and given conclusive proof of the reality and power of Jahweh, the God of Israel, as against the powerlessness of the Canaanite Baal. The prophets of Baal are no more. But then comes the threat on his life. As a Melancholic projecting myself into that situation, I can imagine that what really got to him was not so much the threat in itself but something bigger that it represented for him. It looks like he had pinned a lot of hope in that great showdown with the pagan prophets: surely after such conclusive proof Israel would turn back to the God to whom she owes her very existence as a nation, wouldn’t she? Underlying the threat lay a message that was devastating to Elijah, 'you’ve given of your best and there is nothing greater that you can do, but nothing has changed! Nothing has changed at all!' I can imagine that this is what sends him reeling down from triumph to desolation.
It is in the wilderness that the Lord provides him with food and he hears that still small voice that speaks to him deep within and brings him comfort, 'Be still and know that I am God.' (Psalm 46:10) There is more than that; being brought to a still, calm place, Elijah is now in a position to receive more than just comfort, which he needs. He has been reduced to feeling that everything is pointless now; in classic Melancholic style he has turned a discouraging situation into a hopeless one, “there’s just me now - apart from that, there’s nothing else and nobody else at all!” The Lord tells him quietly, but firmly, that it’s not true that there is nothing else and no one else, God still has a long-term strategy and there are others in Israel who have not forsaken the Lord. There’s an inference here, 'don’t they need your support and example?' Elijah is a public figurehead whose ability to stand up for what is right against the tide of apostasy can bring much-needed encouragement to the small minority of loyal adherents to the Lord. As to Elijah’s implied question, 'where on earth do I go from here' there comes an answer, 'now here are your instructions………'