Bible studies in the life of Elijah
The showdown: Elijah vs the prophets of Baal!
By Fraser Gordon
Last time we looked at the raising of the widow's son in 1st kings chapter 17 and we also looked at the word which came to Elijah saying that he was to return and go back and see Ahab. On his way there he met with Obadiah who was a faithful believer who feared the Lord greatly. However, he was very different to Elijah. As we saw, Elijah was someone who drew a line in the sand and called you to be on one side or the other. Obadiah was someone who feared the Lord greatly, but stayed put. He probably didn't have a great influence over Ahab and Jezebel, but he did what he could do and when Jezebel was trying to wipe out the prophets he hid them. From then on you don't hear anything about Obadiah in the Word of God. We will carry on from verse 17 and this part of the passage is really the big showdown! It is Elijah versus 450 prophets as to who the true God is and who has the power!
Elijah versus Ahab
1 Kings 18:17-19 When he saw Elijah, he said to him, "Is that you, you troubler of Israel?" (18) I have not made trouble for Israel, Elijah replied. "But you and your father's family have. You have abandoned the LORD's commands and have followed the Baals. (19) Now summon the people from all over Israel to meet me on Mount Carmel. And bring the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and the four hundred prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel's table."
It is amazing that Ahab, as king, was actually quite spineless. He was ordered around by Jezebel and followed her agenda, yet on his first meeting with Elijah he said to him “Is that you, you troubler of Israel?” He blamed Elijah for the drought which had lasted for 3 ½ years. There was nothing growing in the land, and the king and his servant Obadiah were out looking for grass to keep the livestock alive. In other words, because there had been a drought for so long, and there was nothing growing, it was all Elijah’s fault! Ahab has no consciousness of his own sin, or his own contribution as to what is happening in the nation of Israel, so he is blaming Elijah.
1 Kings 18:20-21 So Ahab sent word throughout all Israel and assembled the prophets on Mount Carmel. (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.
You have three types of people gathered here: Elijah, who is a faithful prophet of the Lord, the 450 false prophets and all the people of Israel. Elijah said to them “How long will you falter between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow Him, but if Baal, follow him”. In other words pluralism is not okay. If you remember what was happening in the land, Jezebel had said that it was okay to worship both Yahweh, and Baal. However, she then tried to remove the existence of God from the land and set up Baal worship alone. At this point the people were divided; they thought it was okay to worship Jehovah and also to worship Baal. Then Elijah came and said that they could not have pluralism, they could not worship both. It is either one or the other. If Jehovah is God, then worship Him, but if Baal is God then devote yourself to him. They could no longer sit on the fence. When you look at scripture, Jehovah always separated Himself. He said “You cannot have any other gods before Me. I have to be completely holy and separate amongst the nation of Israel”. There was no room for any other so-called deities. There was one God, and that was it. It is the same when you get into the New Testament. Jesus didn't claim to be one of the ways; He claimed to be ‘The Way’. He said “I Am The Way, The Truth and The Life, no man comes to the Father but by Me’.
There are many fence sitters in Christianity. For example in American Christianity just about everyone says that they are a born again believer, but have one foot in the world and one foot in the things of the Lord. It is the same here; these people had a foot either side of the fence. So Elijah came and said ‘you cannot falter between two opinions. You are double minded, you either serve one or the other. You cannot serve both’. He asked them how long they would falter between two opinions. Now Baal was the god of thunder and he was also the god of fertility. Elijah is saying to these people ‘look, we have had a drought here for three and a half years, if Baal is god why have we not had any rain?’ ‘How long is it going to take you to see that this is a judgement by Jehovah upon the land and that He is showing He has the power over the rain, not Baal’. It is evident that something is happening in the land and he says “Look, make a decision. It is either one or the other”.
The showdown begins...
1 Kings 18:22-24 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."
Again you see that Elijah believes he is the only prophet left. There is no mention of Obadiah or of the 100 prophets that Obadiah had hidden in a cave either. Elijah felt that he was the only one that God had but it wasn't the case as you will see as you follow the story right through.
So the test of who is the true God was going to be by fire. Upon thinking about this there is a power in the dark side. Think about when Moses went back to free the nation of Israel from Pharaoh. God had given him certain signs to perform - a rod to cast down which would become a snake but when he did this the magicians did exactly the same thing. So there is an amount of power on the dark side. However, it is interesting that when he cast the rod down onto the ground it became a serpent. The magicians did the same with their rods but Moses’ rod ate up all of the other rods. Now a serpent is always a picture of sin. This picture of the rod of God shows Him taking upon Himself all the sins of the world.
Israel was happy with this test by fire and felt that it would be a true one. Whoever actually answered by fire would be the true God. Is it Baal, the god of thunder and fertility, or is it Jehovah?
1 Kings 18:25 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."
It is interesting that he lets them go first. Think about the game of rugby. Normally if you win the toss you let the opposition kick off because you want to get your hands on the ball first. But Elijah said to the prophets of Baal – ‘here you are, go for it. There are 450 of your prophets, you go first.’ He gave them the first opportunity to display Baal’s power.
Is Baal sleepy?
1 Kings 18:26-27 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 one answered. And they danced around the altar they had made. (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 traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened."
There is a lot of sincerity in the devotion of these false prophets. It says that from morning till noon they cried out to Baal and leapt upon his altar. However, it is interesting that “there was no voice, and no one answered”. Then Elijah started to mock them. I don't know about you, but if you have ever tried to do something with sincerity (which these prophets were doing), and then been mocked, there would be nothing worse. They are trying to call on Baal who they believed was the god that would send fire and they are being mocked by Elijah. Elijah said to them “Maybe he is sleeping; maybe he is away on a journey. Call aloud.” So what do they do? They began cutting themselves with knives.
1 Kings 18:28 So they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed.
I am amazed at how many religions there are that believe that blood must flow to get God's attention. Certainly in times past, even in Christendom, the monks used to believe that the flesh actually had to suffer or go through some type of pain to get God's attention. They believed blood had to flow to awaken God and for Him to answer. However, when you look in the Bible there is a verse that states in Deuteronomy that the people of Israel were never to cut themselves because God would not accept the blood of men. In the Old Testament God has always been interested in the blood of an innocent lamb which would be shed on their behalf and would take their sins and cover them for a year. When you get to the New Testament, the book of Hebrews states over and over again that God is only interested in the blood of one man and that is the man Christ Jesus. It talks a lot about His blood, the blood which brings us forgiveness. It is this blood that is sprinkled on the heavenly tabernacle and on heavenly things which brings us purification and gives us boldness to approach God. He is not interested in people cutting themselves or suffering in the flesh in those types of ways. So here are the prophets of Baal, with blood flowing all over the place and Elijah is mocking them.
1 Kings 18:29 Midday passed, and they continued their frantic prophesying until the time for the evening sacrifice. But there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention.
The time of the evening sacrifice is about three in the afternoon when the animal would be placed upon the altar in Jerusalem. So they had been going from the morning until three o'clock with all devotion and sincerity, dancing around the altar and doing as much as they could. It is a sad state for at the end of verse 29 it says that “there was no voice, no one answered, and no one paid attention.” I think that the words ‘no one paid attention’ has to do with the multitudes of Israel that Elijah was talking to. At some point the multitudes realised that nothing was happening here, that these men have been going for the past six hours and there is no response from their god Baal. In fact it is getting boring. Elijah let them do as they wished and hasn't interfered up until this point.
Time for Jehovah’s test
1 Kings 18:30-31 Then Elijah said to all the people, "Come here to me." They came to him, and he repaired the altar of the LORD, which was in ruins. (31) Elijah took twelve stones, one for each of the tribes descended from Jacob, to whom the word of the LORD had come, saying, "Your name shall be Israel."
The first thing that Elijah does is to restore that which is broken down. Baal's altar was obviously intact and didn't need repair but the altar of Jehovah had been broken down. It is interesting that he took twelve stones. Can you remember that when we started our study on Elijah we looked at what was happening within the kingdom? It was split with two tribes that were living down in the South and ten tribes in the North where this is happening. They set up alternate areas for worship. There was a division within the nation of Israel. Elijah realises that in God’s eyes these people are still one nation. There is no division. So he rebuilds with twelve stones because in God’s eyes the covenant is still with the whole nation of Israel. So the first thing Elijah has to do is restore that which is broken. Thinking about our culture in the West, those that are older can see that things have started to be torn down. Our nation was founded upon Biblical principles but there is such a great move now to divide and pull down those things that our nation was founded on. The Bible, church and Christianity no longer have a voice in Western countries. America is even worse than New Zealand. But Australia and New Zealand are heading that way as well. Teaching the Bible in schools has come to the point where it is actually offensive to some people. What will it take for New Zealand to turn around? Will it take an Elijah? If so there would have to be a restoring back to the foundations of the country. How long has it been since there was a real move or revival within New Zealand? If you read the history books of when Christianity first came to New Zealand, there was mass revival among the Maori people. They took the Word of God and it was Maori people spreading it to Maori people. One man brought it here but it just spread like fire among the tribal people. I know that there have been little moves along the way but I am not sure whether you could call them real revivals. The charismatic movement went some of the way, but nothing like what happened in Wales where the pubs shut down because the presence of God was so real wherever you went and many were converted. In New Zealand we need the presence of God to move in our country.
If you want to know what New Zealand's standing with God is at the moment look at Romans 1 from verse 18 which talks about the wrath of abandonment. That is what happens when a country or a nation moves away from that which it had been founded on. Generally we think of the wrath of God as Him coming down with fire, whereas the wrath of abandonment is a giving over. If you look at our western culture and read Romans 1 from verse 18 on you will see that yes, everything that is mentioned there is happening. When a country goes from what it was, this is what happens. It is a giving over to all of those evil practises. How far it will go we do not know but hopefully there will be a restoration.
So the first thing that Elijah did was to repair the altar of the Lord.
Let’s make it hard so it has to be God!
1 Kings 18:32-35 With the stones he built an altar in the name of the LORD, and he dug a trench around it large enough to hold two seahs of seed. (33) He arranged the wood, cut the bull into pieces and laid it on the wood. Then he said to them, "Fill four large jars with water and pour it on the offering and on the wood." (34) Do it again, he said, and they did it again. "Do it a third time," he ordered, and they did it the third time. (35) The water ran down around the altar and even filled the trench.
He didn't make things easy for himself. When you think about what he had experienced he had been fed by an unclean bird, a raven. He had been sent to a widow who didn't have the ability to provide for him but God used that widow and an empty barrel to make provision. There has been a dead boy he had seen God raise. Here he is now pouring water on the very thing that is to be offered. What he is showing here is that if God is going to come and do this miracle it will have nothing to do with me. I am putting hindrances in the way so that you will know that this is God. So he poured water on everything. Mount Carmel was apparently 1600 feet high and there is a drought in the land, so I don't know where they got the water from but it would have been quite an effort because they had to pour water on the altar three times.
Who gets the glory? Elijah or God?
1 Kings 18:36-37 At the time of sacrifice, the prophet Elijah stepped forward and prayed: "O LORD, God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. (37) Answer me, O LORD, answer me, so these people will know that you, O LORD, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again."
He offers this prayer at 3 p.m. and it is probably less than a minute long. If you think about the prophets of Baal they had been going for at least six hours and you had 450 people crying out to god yet Elijah only offered up one short, simple prayer.
There was a man called Billy Strachan who I heard talk on just these two verses and he believed that there was a split in these verses and I think he was probably right. What is the difference between verse 36 and 37? There are a few “I's” in verse 36. He says “Lord God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel let it be known this day that you are God in Israel”. Cool so far!! Then he adds “And I am your servant and that I have done all these things at Your Word”. Billy Strachan believed that there was a gap between that and “hear me O God” in verse 37. Elijah may have believed that the fire should have come at this point because he then goes on to say “Hear me O Lord, hear me, so that this people may know that You are the Lord God and that You have turned their hearts back to you again”. In the first part, it is possible that Elijah being the type of character that he was, wanted some recognition in all of this. When the fire didn't fall he actually thought “No, this is about God” and he points out that they may know that the Lord is God and is working to turn their hearts back again. God is always the one who is active, always the one who is seeking. He is always the one who is trying to restore His people back to Himself. God is centre stage in the second half of that prayer. In the first half there is a mixture of God and Elijah and the fire didn't fall. But it certainly fell in the second half because God is sovereign and God is the one who deserves all the gratitude. He is the one who caused the drought and He is the one that is going to restore all those multitudes of people that were wavering on the fence between Baal and Jehovah.
The fire falls and their eyes are opened
1 Kings 18:38-39 Then the fire of the LORD fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench. (39) When all the people saw this, they fell prostrate and cried, "The LORD--he is God! The LORD--he is God!"
It is interesting to note that when the fire fell, it consumed everything. It even licked up the water surrounding it! It fell on absolutely everything that was offered and you would think that the fire would fall upon the false prophets as well but it didn't. The fire has always fallen upon the sacrifice. Calvary is exactly the same. When Christ offered Himself as the perfect sacrifice the full judgement of God came down upon His Son. The Bible says that “He was made sin so that we could be made righteous”. The full judgement of the Father came down upon His Son which is what happened here. Jesus was actually made sin and so much so that the Father had to separate Himself from His beloved Son. This led to Jesus crying out “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” For the first time in all eternity He is separated from the Father. Never before had that happened. The full fire of God's judgement upon sin, as a principle, was poured out upon His Son at Calvary.
Now look at their response for they instantly knew that it is not Baal but it is actually Jehovah who is Lord. This is something that God has done. They cried “The Lord He is God, the Lord He is God.” Now if you were one of the prophets of Baal you would be getting a little bit nervous at this point.
1 Kings 18:40 Then Elijah commanded them, "Seize the prophets of Baal. Don't let anyone get away!" They seized them, and Elijah had them brought down to the Kishon Valley and slaughtered there.
In verse 40 Elijah said to them “seize the prophets of Baal, do not let one of them escape” so they seized them and Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon and he executed them there”. So there is no longer any room for fence sitting. There is no room for divided opinions. When the miracle occurred it was evident who was God and because of Old Testament law Elijah had to execute the false prophets. So these 450 false prophets were taken down and slain.
The real blessing is actually yet to come. All of this is a prelude. The real blessing is that God was going to send rain and the fire was to show the people who is the true God. I don't know where all the rest of the prophets were because when Elijah first talked with Ahab he said “I want the 450 prophets of Baal and the 400 prophets of Asherah who are with Jezebel”. There is no mention of those other prophets, so they are possibly still with Jezebel.
The persistent prayer of Elijah
1 Kings 18:41-46 And Elijah said to Ahab, "Go, eat and drink, for there is the sound of a heavy rain." (42) So Ahab went off to eat and drink, but Elijah climbed to the top of Carmel, bent down to the ground and put his face between his knees. (43) Go and look toward the sea, he told his servant. And he went up and looked. "There is nothing there," he said. Seven times Elijah said, "Go back." (44) The seventh time the servant reported, "A cloud as small as a man's hand is rising from the sea." So Elijah said, "Go and tell Ahab, 'Hitch up your chariot and go down before the rain stops you.' " (45) Meanwhile, the sky grew black with clouds, the wind rose, a heavy rain came on and Ahab rode off to Jezreel. (46) The power of the LORD came upon Elijah and, tucking his cloak into his belt, he ran ahead of Ahab all the way to Jezreel.
So straight after the fire had fallen and the prophets had been killed, Elijah said to Ahab “go up eat and drink for there is rain coming”. God is going to send what He has promised. The people have now turned back to Him and the rain will actually fall. So you have this picture of Ahab eating and drinking with still no real concern from him about what has happened and no real conversion back to God. Elijah prays straight away that God will send the rain and you see him bowing down to the ground. It is interesting that the rain doesn't come immediately so you have the picture of persistence in prayer. Elijah sent his servant seven times until finally he saw a little cloud on the horizon, the size of a man's hand. Then Elijah knew that the rain was on its way. It was only a small thing that his servant saw but he knew God had fulfilled His promise.
This whole experience is one of greatest spiritual highs for Elijah. However as we shall see in the next couple of studies, times of fear and despair would soon envelop our great prophet.