Come with me to Carmel.
Detail from Map012
It is early morning on Mount Carmel. We are standing on the highest point, looking north-
Nearby, at Carmel's base, winds the brook Kishon, now a mere stream, but still fed by water seeping from the limestone range we are standing on; and as we turn and look to the south, before us stretch the fertile lowlands, the garden of Palestine, but now parched and barren with three years' drought. Everywhere we look is the same dusty brown.
Probably best to hide the map now -
To the east the merciless sun is beginning to rise and its heat can already be felt. Above and around us is a clear blue sky: no cloud to be seen in any direction, no hint of mist. Away in the distance is the city of Jezreel, with the royal palace and the temple of Baal distinctly visible. And everywhere is eerily silent: no wind, no animals, no birds – nothing.
But now we can begin to see some movement in the distance. Soon from all sides we can make out individuals, families, small groups. Now they are crowds, making their way towards this spot, which, from long ago, has been associated with worship. No work is being done anywhere, Ahab’s search for grass has been abandoned, and the only thought of young and old alike is concentrated on the mighty assembly to which they have been summoned.
See how many thousands of Israel are slowly gathering, and taking up every vantage point from where a view can be had. What is this all about? Why have we been called together? Why on Carmel? Who is that person attempting to direct the crowds away from where he is standing?
The people suddenly fall silent and another sound can be made out: the regular tread of men, marching in unison; four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal, conspicuous with the sun-
Again the crowd parts; and the king enters, borne high on a litter by his guards and surrounded by the great officers of state.
Where is Jezebel? Not only did she ignore the King's command but she made sure that her priests stayed home as well. While she was outwardly disinterested, inwardly she was furious. And bitter, and insolent, and defiant.
Secretly she was already acknowledging failure and defeat and probably had a good idea what would become of the priests of Baal. However while she may acknowledge defeat by God, she would never acknowledge the sovereignty of God. Having proved himself by fire we will see that Jezebel's attitude is simply that Elijah has humiliated her and she will therefore take her revenge.
What happens now? The people are gathered, the scene is set, but who is in charge? Ahab may have summoned the people together but his involvement seems to end there. A hush descends on the people and all eyes turn to Elijah. One man against a nation! Look at the priests of Baal: see the evil in their faces as they look at Elijah. No wild animal ever watched its victim more fiercely! If they could have their way, he will never touch that distant plain again.
The King is distinctly uncomfortable. He doesn’t ‘do’ religion. He knows from the experience of the last three years that the gods that Jezebel worships and for whom he built temples, have been powerless to bring rain. And yet is there a God who can? Did that same God actually stop the rain in the first place? Were the fables he was taught as a child actually true?
He is King, he should be in control. Yet now he feels out of his depth. His eyes too are drawn to this strange man who appears totally fearless, and confident. A man who seems to have amazing authority.
The crowds are full of excitement. Whatever happens they are promised a good day's outing, and when Elijah throws down his challenge the air is electrified -
And Elijah? He is only a man – just like us – but he has spent the last three years being prepared by God for this moment and now he can be confident that his faith is not misplaced.
1 Kings 18:21-
21 Elijah went before the people and said, “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.”
But the people said nothing.
22 Then Elijah said to them, “I am the only one of the Lord’s prophets left, but Baal has four hundred and fifty prophets. 23 Get two bulls for us. Let them choose one for themselves, and let them cut it into pieces and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. I will prepare the other bull and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. 24 Then you call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the Lord. The god who answers by fire—he is God.”
Then all the people said, “What you say is good.”
25 Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “Choose one of the bulls and prepare it first, since there are so many of you. Call on the name of your god, but do not light the fire.” 26 So they took the bull given them and prepared it.
Then they called on the name of Baal from morning till noon. “O Baal, answer us!” they shouted. But there was no response; no-
27 At noon Elijah began to taunt them. “Shout louder!” he said. “Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or travelling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.” 28 So they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed. 29 Midday passed, and they continued their frantic prophesying until the time for the evening sacrifice. But there was no response, no-
Elijah spoke seven times during the course of that amazing day, and as we consider each of these, we will see that his words show what was taking place in his heart.
(1) 1 Kings 18:21 Elijah went before the people and said, “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.”
To his clear faith, which was almost sight, there was no ‘if’. He did not doubt for a moment that Jehovah was God. But he wanted to show the people how shaky their position was. To follow gods who were so diametrically opposed could not both be right. One of them must be wrong; and the imposter must be identified and removed.
The present position of the people was actually both illogical and absurd. They were torn: on the one hand they had the new gods who encouraged sexual promiscuity, and on the other the God they had been taught about as children who demanded total purity. They were struggling to serve two masters like Obadiah: doing their best for both, and failing to please either.
The people actually believed in both gods – one who controlled fertility and growth, and who encouraged sin, and then at the same time they believed in an almighty God who created and maintained everything with absolute authority, who demanded purity. How was it possible for the people to find themselves in this illogical situation?
Was it that they had simply drifted into this state of affairs; as people often do into absurd and wrong beliefs, and we can all be guilty of that?
It sometimes needs someone to ask us a question, before we are made to think about what we really believe. And to face up to the truth that our faith may be misplaced.
So the time had come for the nation to be halted in its attempt to mingle the worship of Jehovah and Baal, and to be compelled to choose between the two issues that presented themselves. Elijah knew that if once his people were forced to choose between the two, and to say whether the Jehovah of their fathers, or Baal, should be God, there could be no doubt as to their verdict.
But the people seemed to be stunned. V21: the people said nothing. Why was that?
Was it that they were actually ashamed that such alternatives should be presented to them?
If we are going to show other people how unreasonable their position is, we will need to be very clear where we ourselves stand. Only the truth can stand against false arguments, and the safest form of truth is the word of God himself.
(2) What was Elijah’s next statement? V22-
An odd proposal: Baal was, among other things, supposed to control the weather – especially bad weather.
With the nation suffering from drought, wouldn’t it have been much more appropriate to have chosen a torrential downpour rather than more burning heat? So why wasn’t the test for each god to supply rain?
How many times during the last three and a half years would the prophets of Baal have been asked, or commanded, to implore their god for rain? And how many times had they failed embarrassingly? So to have suggested this, would never have been acceptable. Fire from heaven however was what they had been suffering for three years – and lightning was certainly within the scope of Baal. So as far as the false prophets and the people were concerned this was actually an ideal test.
And Elijah? His motives were very different, and we will consider them next time.
(3) When Elijah, therefore, proposed that each side should offer a bull, and await an answer by fire, the people were ready to agree. End of verse 24: Then all the people said "What you say is good".
How could Elijah have the confidence that God would not fail him? He had spent days in prayer, God's plan had been revealed to him, and it was unthinkable that God would push his servant into the front of the battle and then leave him. True, a miracle must be performed before the day was out, but Elijah had spent the last three years been taught to expect miracles.
How can we have the same confidence?
God will never fail us if we trust him completely. He may keep us waiting until the last minute, but then Jesus will come walking across the very waves that threaten us.
(4) Now Elijah’s speaks the fourth time v27: At noon Elijah began to taunt them. "Shout louder!" he said. "Surely he is a god!"
It was not unknown for the false priests to simulate miraculous fire, consuming offerings in a set-
Three hours passed. Slowly the sun rose mockingly in the sky until it reached its peak. The heat was unbearable, but worse was the utter futility of all their best efforts. The skies were silent. Elijah could hardly conceal his delight in their defeat. He knew it would be so. In fact he was so sure that he could afford to mock them, by suggesting a cause for the indifference of their god.
"Shout louder!" he said. "Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or travelling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened."
Sarcasm is a valid weapon when it is used to expose fraudulent claims, and when it can convince people of the foolishness of their ways.
V28: So they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed.
Surely their excesses would be enough to touch the heart of any god, however hard to move! And, since the heavens still remained silent, didn’t it prove to the people that their new religion was a delusion and their new god a powerless sham?
Three more hours passed by until it was time for the priests of God in the temple at Jerusalem to offer the evening lamb. V29: But there was no response, no-
The altar stood cold and smokeless, the bull rejected.
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