It was his finest hour. "All Israel" had been summoned to Carmel, and with them the idolatrous prophets who enjoyed the patronage of Jezebel (1 Kings 18.19). Observe that they were distinct from "all Israel". They had infiltrated the nation and had corrupted its religious life, just as today "grievous wolves" can "enter in among you, not sparing the flock" (Acts 20.29).
They were in two minds about where their loyalties should lie: Jehovah or Baal? Thus the challenge, "How long halt ye between two opinions?" (v.21). The word used implies that they were jumping from foot to foot with indecision. For a later generation it was Christ or Barabbas. At Ephesus it was Christ or Diana. For us it could be God or mammon, Christ or Belial. How long halt ye between two opinions? In the big spiritual issues of life, which way do the balances tip? At Carmel, Elijahs query met with an embarrassed, sullen silence.
The prophet felt his isolation and his minority status (v.22), a feeling that was unwarranted and which robbed him of joy. There were another 7,000 who were true to the Lord. Perhaps some were as timorous as Obadiah, but others were as bold as the redoubtable Micaiah who was a thorn in Ahabs side. Self-pity will erode the joy that comes through standing for God in the face of stern opposition (Acts 5.41).
The Prophets of Baal
The challenge put to them was to appeal to their god, Baal, to set fire to a sacrifice. Their tactics included vain repetition and high drama (v.26), noise and self-abuse (v.28), but all to no avail. Just as the people did not answer Elijah (v.21), so Baal did not answer them (vv.26,29)! "He that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep" (Ps 121.4), but, tongue in cheek, Elijah suggested that Baal did sleep, or was preoccupied (v.27)! Failure to meet the test cost these prophets their lives (v.40), for sin cannot be tolerated when it has such a detrimental effect on the people of God. It is sobering that such severe judgment can be experienced in the sphere of a local assembly, though obviously not inflicted by a human hand as at Carmel (1 Cor 11.30; Rev 2.20-23).
Elijah would now demonstrate the sufficiency and supremacy of the Lord. He invited the people to draw near. Being close would satisfy them that there was no trickery such as might have been expected from the prophets of the sun-god, but it was also an indication of Elijahs affection for them; he wanted them "near".
The altar on Carmel was derelict. The ruin was evidence of the sheer hostility of that generation to its God (19.10,14). It would have been fine if the scattered stones had indicated that there was now a Scriptural conviction that Jerusalem alone was the centre for worship but, sadly, such was not the case.
In an earlier day, twelve stones from Jordan had symbolised the twelve tribes of Israel (Josh 4.9,20), and now, the twelve stones strewn across Carmel were a reminder that though divided, the nation was one nation, and so Elijah rebuilt the altar with these very stones. It is important to remember that although Christian testimony has been fragmented by denominationalism, looking at the big eternal picture from Gods standpoint, "there is one body" (Eph 4.4), "one new man" (Eph 2.15), "one flock" (Jn 10.16, RV). We are "made perfect in one" (Jn 17.23).
Elijahs actions are instructive. He dealt with things in an orderly way. The wood was set "in order" (v.33), and the various pieces of the bullock arranged as prescribed in Leviticus 1. If we expect God to work, there has to be Godly order and compliance with His commands. "Let all things be done decently and in order" (1 Cor 14.40). He was confident that there is nothing too hard for the Lord. The God who destroyed the Midianites with Gideons feeble army, and the God who used a mere youth with a sling and stone to conquer the giant, is the God who can do the impossible! Thus the offering was drenched and the moat was filled. Baals inability to kindle dry sticks would be shown up by Gods power to ignite the soaking sacrifice! Elijahs confidence in his God should be the mark of every true believer: "with God nothing shall be impossible" (Lk 1.37).
The prophets prayer holds lessons. He addressed God as the "God of Abraham, Isaac, and of Israel" (v.36). He was the God of history, whose record of faithfulness to His people was beyond question. Elijah had confidence that He was unchanged and that "this day" He would demonstrate that He was the God of the present generation. Let us have the conviction that the God of whose power and affection we have read in Scripture has not been relegated to history. He is our God; we are His servants. Let us take heart.
The fact that Elijah had obeyed Gods command encouraged him to believe that God would respond to his appeal. "I have done all these things at thy word". There was only One who could say, "I knew that thou hearest me always" (Jn 11.42), but undoubtedly, obedience and devotion are necessary if we expect God to react positively to our requests. Conversely, "If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me" (Ps 66.18).
The prophet was convinced too that God is the God of restoration and that He had "turned their heart back again" (v.37). In our prayers, let us believe that no matter how dark the circumstances, or how serious the departure, God can work in hearts to effect repentance and promote recovery. "He restoreth my soul" (Ps 23.3).
"The fire of the Lord fell" (v.38). Mercifully, it fell on the sacrifice, and not on the people! We can relate to that, and bless God that we are free from judgment because a blessed Substitute took our place in sacrifice. He "suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God" (1 Pet 3.18). Evidence of divine power had an impact on the people, and on the dust of the hillside they fell down and acknowledged God (v.39). Their experience at the altar moved them to worship. Isaiahs experience at the altar moved him to serve: "Here am I; send me", he said (Is 6.8). In our day we sing, "Jesus keep me near the cross". Proximity to the "altar" cross of Calvary will promote worship and stimulate service as the love of Christ constrains us (2 Cor 5.14).
With the contest over, and the prophets slain, Elijah now sets himself to pray for rain. Meanwhile, Ahab ate and drank (v.42)! In Jobs day, while some young men ploughed, or cared for sheep, or tended camels, others were content to eat and drink (ch.1). Even yet, the self-indulgent are happy to leave the praying and the toiling to others.
Elijahs prayer was reverent (v.42), it was expectant and not unbelieving (v.43), it was persistent (vv.43-44). Earlier, his prayer was answered immediately; here he had to "Continue in prayer" (Col 4.2). In compassion, God responded quickly to his prayers and to the repentance of the people, and "in a little while" (v.45, RV) the heaven was black with clouds and the discipline was lifted. "Draw nigh to God, and he will draw nigh to you" (James 4.8). The man who here had waited on the Lord now renews his strength (Is 40.31), for he appears to have outrun Ahabs chariot to the city.
In 1 Kings 19 we see a new side to Elijah, and his actions seem completely out of character. He was "a man subject to like passions as we are" (James 5.17), and under threat from Jezebel he fled the scene. The general lessons are that success leaves us vulnerable, and that men tend to fail on their strong points. Here, his characteristic courage failed him, just as Moses meekness failed him at Meribah (Num 20.1-13).
His first safe haven was Beer-sheba, the well of the oath. There, Abraham had "called on the name of the Lord, the everlasting God" (Gen 21.33). The memory of that should have restored the dear mans confidence, but, sadly, fear had paralysed his thinking. All that was in his mind was to put as many miles as possible between himself and the source of the danger. He craved solitude, and so he abandoned his servant at Beer-sheba. One of the symptoms of drift is the tendency to withdraw from the company of those whose fellowship we once enjoyed. There are times when solitude is to be desired, as when Abraham left his young men when he went to worship (Gen 22.5). On occasions, spiritual exercises require us to distance ourselves from distractions to be alone with Him, but when in the grip of discouragement as with Elijah here, we do need support and fellowship rather than isolation.
To be continued.