© 2003, J.W. Carter
As the nation of Israel drew further and further away from God under the leadership of continually more apostate kings, we meet the prophet Elijah whom God called to declare His word to his faltering nation. The apostasy of Israel's king Ahab was more grievous than any previous king, to the point that he persecuted those who would profess faith in Yahweh, demanding that all would worship Baal pantheon, the pagan storm god, the god of rain, and ultimately the chief fertility god. We find Elijah to be an ordinary man, yet one of great trust in God who often overcame his own feelings of inadequacy to rely fully on God in times of need. We first met him when he, against possibility of death, delivers bad news to the King: the drought that they were experiencing would continue until he, personally, declared its end. Trusting God for protection, he declared this as a judgment from God in response to Ahab's wicked leadership. Elijah then went into hiding from Ahab, trusting for God to care for him in the wasteland of Cherith, and then trusted God to care for him through the lives of a destitute widow. Elijah also trusted in God when He revealed his purpose for all people through the raising from the dead of the widow's son. We see in Elijah a man who trusted fully in God, even though he often lacked confidence in other areas of his life. He is a man who many people can identify with and draw confidence in God through a knowledge of his experiences and God's purpose that was demonstrated through them.
When we come to the 18th chapter of 1 Kings, God has revealed to Elijah that the period of drought is about to come to an end, and he is to go to Ahab with this message.
And it came to pass, when Ahab saw Elijah, that Ahab said unto him, Art thou he that troubleth Israel?
Having endured three years of drought, Ahab, a follower of Baal who installed the worship of Baal and Asherah (his "consort") as the state religion, had a keen interest in the part that Elijah had to play in this drama. Ahab still sought to blame Elijah for the drought, assuming that the rain was being withheld by his angry pagan god. Ahab had three years to wonder why this drought had come. Pagan philosophy attributed all indiscernible events to gods, and sought them for answers. Were they not appeasing the gods properly? Was Israel's worship of them not adequate? Who is to blame for this? As the king, Ahab is responsible for the welfare of the nation and the nation is suffering. Consequently, Ahab searched the nation for Elijah.
Ahab was probably surprised by Elijah's visit. By coming to Ahab, Elijah maintained some of the authority that would be lost if he were brought as a prisoner. Seeking to maintain the upper-hand, Ahab accuses Elijah of being responsible for this disaster that has come to his nation. Literally, Ahab says "Are you the one who is causing all of this trouble?" Never for a moment would Ahab think that he, as the king, could be responsible for what was happening. He had done everything to appease the Baalim, so this god of rain could not be angry with him.
Ahab's lack of discernment is an example of how ignorance insulates people from the truth. We can put together entire systems of belief that are entirely consistent in their doctrine, and sincere in its application, yet those systems are sincerely wrong. Ahab fully believed in the pagan Baalim traditions that he and his wife, Jezebel, promulgated to the nation.
And he answered, I have not troubled Israel; but thou, and thy fatherís house, in that ye have forsaken the commandments of the LORD, and thou hast followed Baalim.
When we look at the acts of Elijah, his confidence and trust in God seems to be continually demonstrated. Elijah is opposed by an evil and wicked king who, as evident from other scriptures including the first part of chapter 18, would not hesitate to kill one who brought bad or erroneous news to him. Rather than waffle around the subject, Elijah boldly blames Ahab for this disaster. However, as Elijah confronts Ahab, he makes no reference to himself or his own authority. Elijah simply states the fact that he and the kings before him ("thy father's house") have turned away from the commandments of God, and have turned to Baal. (Note that "Baalim" is the plural form of "Baal," as this god is formed from a complex pantheon of gods.)
Now therefore send, and gather to me all Israel unto mount Carmel, and the prophets of Baal four hundred and fifty, and the prophets of the groves four hundred, which eat at Jezebelís table. 20So Ahab sent unto all the children of Israel, and gathered the prophets together unto mount Carmel.
We have no indication of what was discussed between Ahab and Elijah between verses 18 and 19, but something transpired to motivate Ahab to listen to Elijah. Ahab was the king, and faced with the wise and truthful statements from Elijah he would be forced to reconcile the disparity between the worship of the Baalim and the teachings of the torah that he was exposed to from his youth. Somewhere in the discussion, Ahab must have asked Elijah, "What am I to do?" for we find Elijah giving Ahab instructions. Elijah instructs Ahab to gather together all of the pagan prophets. Those familiar with the story will often recognize the calling of the 450 prophets of Baal. Note that included also are the 400 prophets of "the grove". These would be the prophets of Asherah, Baal's "consort", the female side of this pagan godhead. It is under the Asherah poles, set up in the groves, that Israel would practice their sensual and perverted pagan ritual. By calling together both groups, he is gathering the entire pagan leadership, the prophets of the masculine Baal, and the prophets of the feminine Asherah. Elijah also called for the presence of "all the children of Israel," requesting attendance of the leadership from all of the northern tribes. Note at this point, the reference does not include Judah who broke away under the kingdom of Rehoboam.
And Elijah came unto all the people, and said, How long halt ye between two opinions? if the LORD be God, follow him: but if Baal, then follow him. And the people answered him not a word. 22Then said Elijah unto the people, I, even I only, remain a prophet of the LORD; but Baalís prophets are four hundred and fifty men.
Elijah was about to bring a demonstration of the One True God's power. The conflict between the "two opinions" referred to by Elijah had been significant. Faced with the devastating drought, the prophets of the Lord were not silent. As a result of the conflict, Ahab, at the behest of Jezebel persecuted the prophets, seeking to kill them all. Obadiah, one of the kings servants who trusted the Lord, hid one hundred of the Lord's prophets (compared to Elijah, these would be the leadership of those who trusted God and would speak the truth, rather than the one who God had anointed with the special prophetic understanding that Elijah was given.) He placed them in caves, in groups of fifty and cared for them (Chapter 18:1-16), Consequently, it is evident that there was still a remnant of people in the nation who would not follow Ahab, Jezebel, and their pagan gods. This was a schism that divided the nation. Because the king was the follower of Baal, only God could mend the nation by changing the heart of Ahab and the hearts of those who listened to him. Elijah questions the people, "How long are you going to allow this to continue? Pick one of these two and settle the issue." The people, the representatives of Israel, could not answer. If they answered that Baal was the Lord, they would contradict the torah. If they answered that the Lord was God, they would contradict the edicts of the king. This was a dilemma that seemingly had no solution, a dilemma brought on by the sin of a wicked and prideful king.
Elijah then starts to set the stage for the drama to follow. By pointing out the large numbers of Baalim prophets in contrast with himself, he shows the grave contrast that has beset the nation. He stands alone in defense of the Lord against 450 who hold both positions of ritual authority with the people and the blessings of the king. To the pagan nation, he would appear powerless against the entire religious leadership. So, he challenges them to a duel.
The precedent for such a duel was established by Aaron (Lev. 9). Still, Elijah's commitment to go forward with this drama is yet another indication of his tremendous trust in God. If his duel was to fail, God would be discredited, a situation that Elijah would never be able to resolve. He had complete, full confidence that what was to take place was God's will for this event. He had no doubt of the outcome of what is to take place. How did Elijah have such sure knowledge? Did God audibly speak to Elijah and give him instructions? Or, did Elijah simply have a close enough relationship with God that he knew what would happen? The duel would involve a burnt offering sacrifice, and Elijah was familiar with the history of its consumption by the pillar of fire in the Temple on the day of atonement. Was this day the day of atonement? Certainly, we have a lot of questions concerning Elijah's confidence in the outcome of the day's events, but we cannot question his trust in God to be faithful in this moment of intense opposition.
Let them therefore give us two bullocks; and let them choose one bullock for themselves, and cut it in pieces, and lay it on wood, and put no fire under: and I will dress the other bullock, and lay it on wood, and put no fire under: 24And call ye on the name of your gods, and I will call on the name of the LORD: and the God that answereth by fire, let him be God. And all the people answered and said, It is well spoken
Elijah instructs the prophets of Baal to obtain two young bulls for a sacrifice. They would follow the process prescribed in the Torah by building an altar, killing the young bull, and placing its meat in a pile of wood that is placed on the altar. The sacrifice would include a period of prayer and then the wood would be lit. However, on the day of atonement, in the Holy of Holies of the Tabernacle, the sacrifice used to be accepted by God by the consuming fire of the Shekinah glory, the pillar of fire that would descend from over the Tabernacle and entirely burn the sacrifice. So, Elijah would present a sacrifice to the Lord, and the prophets of Baal would present a sacrifice to Baal. However, remembering the sacrifice on the Day of Atonement, a sacrifice that had not been witnessed in many generations (since the early years of Solomon's reign), Elijah would require that the fire that consumes the sacrifice would be ignited not by the prophets, but by their god. The people knew their history, and they knew the stories of the pillar of fire. Still, they had such confidence that their pagan religion was true that they fully agreed to the duel. They thought that this was, indeed, an excellent manner in which to prove the deity of their own pagan gods. They fully believed in the power of these imaginary gods, and had no doubt that they would respond to such a duel. Their system of belief was characterized by a methodology that prescribed their gaining the attention of their gods through ritual. Surely, the gods would not ignore such a challenge to their authority. This would get their attention.
And Elijah said unto the prophets of Baal, Choose you one bullock for yourselves, and dress it first; for ye are many; and call on the name of your gods, but put no fire under. 26And they took the bullock which was given them, and they dressed it, and called on the name of Baal from morning even until noon, saying, O Baal, hear us. But there was no voice, nor any that answered. And they leaped upon the altar which was made.
Elijah allowed the prophets of Baal to go first. Of course, Elijah knew that since no such god exists, no fire could come to consume the sacrifice. He is prepared to be rather amused by the event. One can visualize the scene. Atop the pagan alter is a pile of bloody meat, turning sour in the hot mid-day sun. The Baalists started calling upon their god to consume the sacrifice in the morning hours and continued through noontime. In their frenzy of effort they went so far as to dance on the altar in an effort to get the attention of their gods. Despite all of their chanting, all of their dancing, there was silence from a god they had never actually heard from. The life-giving rain that they attributed as a blessing from Baal was a blessing that comes down from the one true God.
And it came to pass at noon, that Elijah mocked them, and said, Cry aloud: for he is a god; either he is talking, or he is pursuing, or he is in a journey, or peradventure he sleepeth, and must be awaked.
At this point, Elijah is moved to taunt them as noon gives way to the afternoon. Elijah had a relationship with God. He knew that the One True God is responsive and he hears and understands the voice of God in his heart. "Surely he is a god. What is the matter, is he too busy to notice you?" As he criticizes this non-existent God, he points out characteristics of the One True God in a fugue of antiphonal irony. Is he distracted by deep thought? God is great enough to still hear the prayers of all people. Is he busy? God is never too busy to respond to those He loves. Is he not here because he is traveling? God is omnipresent, available fully to all people without regard to where they are located in this universe. Is he sleeping? God never has a need for sleep. God is omnitemporal, he never changes and is always present from before the beginning of time and past the end of the age of this universe.
And they cried aloud, and cut themselves after their manner with knives and lancets, till the blood gushed out upon them. 29And it came to pass, when midday was past, and they prophesied until the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice, that there was neither voice, nor any to answer, nor any that regarded
The results of Elijah's taunts are predictable. The intensity of the pleas of the Baalists increased all the more. Again, their methodology for ritual was designed to get the attention of the gods. The underlying purpose behind the ritual prostitution was to get the attention of the fertility gods, and their observation of the sensual activity would motivate them to take part in similar activity, resulting in an increase in their crops and the reproduction of their animals. They were so intent on getting the attention of their gods that they cut themselves with knives. Surely the gods would notice such acts of self-deprecation. This act of self-flagellation continues today in many world religions, including some sects of Islam, demonstrated in the rituals of the faithful following the liberation of Baghdad from Saddam Hussein's oppressive government. The prophets were trying every possible method to gain the attention of their gods. Still, as evening approached, there is no sign from heaven.
And Elijah said unto all the people, Come near unto me. And all the people came near unto him. And he repaired the altar of the LORD that was broken down. 31And Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, unto whom the word of the LORD came, saying, Israel shall be thy name
As we have seen, there was a large contingent of leaders from the tribes of Israel, called as witnesses to this event. It was to these people that Elijah called for commitment concerning a decision as to whether they would acknowledge Baal and Asherah or the Lord as God. They had seen the intense effort put forth by 450 prophets, all of the leaders of the pagan sect and watched as there was no response from their god. Elijah then rebuilt the broken down altar to the Lord by taking twelve stones, one for each of the tribes of Israel, declaring that these twelve tribes shall be known as Israel. It is interesting to note that at the time of this event, Judah was an estranged brother. Though Judah was separated from the nation of Israel, Elijah looked past their current circumstances and recognized and acknowledged the nation of Israel for what it is: the progeny of Abraham, subject to the promise that God had made to him, and not a political kingdom as set up by the people when Saul was anointed king. God had, through Samuel, told the nation that it was not His will that they should follow a king rather than Himself, and that the kings would lead the people away from Him. When Elijah made his statement to the people he was referring to Israel as a nation, and not as a kingdom, a distinction that is noteworthy.
And with the stones he built an altar in the name of the LORD: and he made a trench about the altar, as great as would contain two measures of seed. 33And he put the wood in order, and cut the bullock in pieces, and laid him on the wood, and said, Fill four barrels with water, and pour it on the burnt sacrifice, and on the wood. 34And he said, Do it the second time. And they did it the second time. And he said, Do it the third time. And they did it the third time. 35And the water ran round about the altar; and he filled the trench also with water
Elijah's confidence in the Lord is amazing, though understandable. Up to this point Elijah had experienced God's grace on his personal behalf on several occasions noted at the beginning of this study. When one recognizes the hand of God in their lives, faith is strengthened. The desire to see God is fulfilled, and one is more confident to trust in God in subsequent times of need. Elijah assembled the sacrifice on the rebuilt altar according the the traditional law, but modified one structure himself: the trench. Typically a trench is dug around the altar to catch the blood, but since the butchering of the sacrifice has taken place, there is no great flow of blood, so the trench would be little more than a depression. However, Elijah digs a trench around the altar that is much larger than what is normal. Then he adds a step to the process that would have amazed the witnesses as he ordered barrels of water poured over the sacrifice, and over the wood. Not satisfied with its saturation, he called for its dousing three times, sufficient to thoroughly saturate the wood, and filling the large trench he had dug. It is one thing to set fire to dry desert kindling, but to start with saturated wood would be considered impossible in their culture. Elijah literally, in the eyes of the witnesses, put together a sacrifice that would be impossible to immolate. Elijah clearly understood where the lines of opposition lay, and that God would honor the sacrifice as a testimony of who He is. No measure of water would affect God's ability to consume the sacrifice, but certainly would go a long way to teach a lesson to the wayward people of Israel.
And it came to pass at the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice, that Elijah the prophet came near, and said, LORD God of Abraham, Isaac, and of Israel, let it be known this day that thou art God in Israel, and that I am thy servant, and that I have done all these things at thy word. 37Hear me, O LORD, hear me, that this people may know that thou art the LORD God, and that thou hast turned their heart back again.
There is quite a contrast between the effort demonstrated by the 450 prophets of Baal and the prayer lifted by Elijah. Where the Baalists had dedicated several hours to increasingly frenetic changing, dancing, and self-flagellation, Elijah's simple prayer only lasts from ten to fifteen seconds, and is in the form of a simple, sincere, request. First, he makes it clear to whom he is praying. The Lord of the Sacrifice is that same God who is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel. Elijah asks that God would show Himself before Israel this day, and that the people would clearly know that it is Him whose power is revealed, and not that of Elijah. Elijah states that it is his desire that the people, through God's acceptance of the sacrifice, would recognize their apostasy and repent, turning back to Him.
Then the fire of the LORD fell, and consumed the burnt sacrifice, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench
God's response was immediate. The word translated, "Then" is the Hebrew word, "Yohm" which refers to a change of time with one event on one side, and another on the other. It is translated "day" as the days are enumerated in Genesis' first chapter. It is often translated as "when." The context here implies that when Elijah's prayer ended, the fire began. The pillar of fire, the Shekinah Glory of God that demonstrated His presence to the children of Israel as it led them through the wilderness and resided over the tabernacle, consuming the sacrifice on the day of atonement immediately descended from heaven and consumed the sacrifice. This event marks this day as a day of atonement for the people who observed. It was late evening, and the consummation of the sacrifice must have been spectacular. Just as Elijah had gone far beyond the normal preparation of the sacrifice, God went far beyond the typical manner of its consumption. Not only did the pillar of fire consume the sacrifice and the firewood, it also consumed all of the water and the very stones that were used to build the altar, leaving nothing behind. God showed his acceptance of the sacrifice, and by consuming the stones, the acceptance of Israel. However, with that acceptance comes the purpose behind the sacrifice in the first place, that the sacrifice would be a symbol of their repentance.
The witnesses saw the contrast between a powerless pagan god, and the One True God who created all that is, and is the Lord over it. They had heard the stories of God's pillar of fire coming to consume the sacrifice, but those were only legends, stories propagated by the elderly, read from some old scrolls from some past time. God demonstrated to them in a very understandable fashion that He is still God, that He is still the Lord of the Sacrifice, and that He still is faithful to forgive those who would repent and turn to him.
And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces: and they said, The LORD, he is the God; the LORD, he is the God.
The need for faith in the hearts of the Hebrews was replaced by sight. When they saw the consumption of the altar by the brilliant fire from heaven there was no room for debate amongst any of them. Those who were descendants of Abraham saw the God of their fathers and fell on their faces in repentance, rejecting the false teachings of the Baalists, and recognizing God as the One True God, the God whom they had rejected. Meantime, the prophets of Baal witnessed the same event from a different perspective. They were shown the clear impotence of their god. They were shown the error of their theology. For many, the definition of their own lives would be shaken. However, their hearts would not be changed. After generations of wandering away from God, the nation returned in repentance, largely because of the faith of one man, Elijah. Because Elijah trusted God in this situation of conflict, He was used of God to bring the challenge to the people and orchestrate the consummation of the sacrifice.
How many tasks and events do we avoid because of our inadequate faith? Though faith as small as a mustard seed is sufficient for salvation, one needs to grow in their faith as they mature in Christ so that it can serve as a shield (Eph. 6:12 ff.) to deflect the fiery darts of circumstances in our lives.
And Elijah said unto them, Take the prophets of Baal; let not one of them escape. And they took them: and Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon, and slew them there.
When Joshua crossed the Jordan river to take the promised land from the Canaanites, God instructed him to destroy all of those in the region so that the tribes of Israel would not be drawn away from God by them. Joshua failed in this part of his task, creating enclaves in the land of Canaan rather than establishing a nation. That shortcoming vexed the nation ever after. Elijah did not make that same mistake. He did not release the prophets of Baal to continue to spread their pagan teachings, but rather instructed the children of Israel to surround all of them and take them down to the brook of Kishon, and put them to death. It is interesting to note that the scripture does not mention the disposition of the 400 prophets of the grove, prophets of Asherah. As Ahab took the lead in moving the nation to honor the masculine Baal, Jezebel led the nation to honor the feminine Asherah. By destroying the Baalim leadership, the influence of this pagan teaching would significantly diminish in the land, and with it, much of the influence of the teaching of Asherah. The prophets of Asherah also witnessed the events of this day, and would take that knowledge home with them. They would also report the days events in great detail to Jezebel.
And Elijah said unto Ahab, Get thee up, eat and drink; for there is a sound of abundance of rain. 42So Ahab went up to eat and to drink. And Elijah went up to the top of Carmel; and he cast himself down upon the earth, and put his face between his knees, 43And said to his servant, Go up now, look toward the sea. And he went up, and looked, and said, There is nothing. And he said, Go again seven times. 44And it came to pass at the seventh time, that he said, Behold, there ariseth a little cloud out of the sea, like a manís hand. And he said, Go up, say unto Ahab, Prepare thy chariot, and get thee down, that the rain stop thee not. 45And it came to pass in the mean while, that the heaven was black with clouds and wind, and there was a great rain. And Ahab rode, and went to Jezreel. 46And the hand of the LORD was on Elijah; and he girded up his loins, and ran before Ahab to the entrance of Jezreel.
Following the repentance of Israel, God ended the drought. From the reign of David, we witnessed a continually developing apostasy on the part of the nation of Israel. The nation did not fall into sin quickly, but rather, their sin was characterized by a continual erosion of their trust in the Lord. One-by-one they allowed the culture of the world into the culture of the nation until, after a few generations, there was little of the original faith left. The nation moved so far from God that it started to persecute those who professed faith in God. One might be able to look at the United States and see how faith in God has similarly eroded. Today, Christianity is the persecuted church in America.
The experience of Israel shows us how we must be diligent in our maintenance of the purity of the faith. It also shows us how God used one simple man who trusted him to bring that nation back to faith.