The Prophet Series: Elijah, part 5
The Prophet Series: Elijah part 5
In our history of Elijah we find ourselves as witnesses of one of the grandest scenes in all of Israel's history. Elijah has chosen one of the hills of Mount Carmel, a peak called El-Mahrakah (the place of burning), as a stage on which to face down Ahab, king of Israel, and the prophets of Baal. This mountain is one of unsurpassed beauty and as such it represents God's gift to Israel of a land flowing with milk and honey. At the lower plateau, at the edge of a steep slope is a perennial well that is filled with water even in the driest season. This well is a significant type of Christ since Israel has been in a three and a half year drought, yet Elijah will still find copious amounts of water for the Lord's sacrifice.
Two altars are on this hill. One altar is the construct of the priests of Baal while the other altar, an old altar built unto the Lord some time long ago, has been destroyed by the people and its stones lay ignored and strewn over the ground. Elijah repairs this altar and readies it for the Lord's sacrifice. No man can destroy what God has ordained and blessed.
The people have come from far and wide and have filled the natural amphitheater at the base of the hill. Elijah then comes near to them and from the hill his booming voice fills the valley with God's ultimatum.
1KI 18:20-21 So Ahab sent a message among all the sons of Israel, and brought the prophets together at Mount Carmel. And Elijah came near to all the people and said, "How long will you hesitate between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow Him; but if Baal, follow him." But the people did not answer him a word.
Literally, Elijah asks them, "How long do you limp upon both sides? Is Jehovah God, then go after Him; but if Baal be God, then go after him" The people were obviously laboring to combine the worship of Baal and Jehovah. They wanted to compromise God's law for the favor of sensuality without receiving any consequences. Since they have tried to worship both Jehovah and Baal they find themselves unable to say anything against either of them. They don't want an ultimatum but a compromise, but Jehovah demands the worship of the whole, undivided heart.
PSA 119:113 I hate those who are double-minded,
DEU 6:13-15 You shall fear only the Lord your God; and you shall worship Him, and swear by His name. You shall not follow other gods, any of the gods of the peoples who surround you, for the Lord your God in the midst of you is a jealous God; otherwise the anger of the Lord your God will be kindled against you, and He will wipe you off the face of the earth.
Elijah breaks their ambivalent silence with his own confident declaration as a bold and committed worshipper of Jehovah.
1KI 18:22-24 Then Elijah said to the people, "I alone am left a prophet of the Lord, but Baal's prophets are 450 men. Now let them give us two oxen; and let them choose one ox for themselves and cut it up, and place it on the wood, but put no fire under it; and I will prepare the other ox, and lay it on the wood, and I will not put a fire under it. Then you call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the Lord, and the God who answers by fire, He is God." And all the people answered and said, "That is a good idea."
Elijah states that only he remains, but he understands that there are other prophets in Israel, one hundred of whom have been hidden by Obadiah (see part 4). Elijah is not ignorant here but is stating the truth that he alone is openly and boldly worshipping Jehovah and boldly speaking His name. He stands next to the king who has sought his life for over three years. He stands in open defiance of the threats of Jezebel, wherever she is seething and plotting.
For some reason the prophets of Asherah have not attended for an unknown reason (it may be the Jezebel ordered them not to attend), but still, 450 prophets dressed in brilliant white and wearing tall, pointed hats stand opposed to Elijah. The cult of Baal worshipped as god the powers of nature. It is the deification of Nature and a bold faced rejection of the Creator. As the sun god and the storm god Baal is supposed to have the power to bring fire from heaven and in front of all the people Elijah is going to challenge the priests to ask Baal to do just that. So then, the people will no longer be faced with rumors or myths concerning the deeds and power of Baal, but with the very reality of who is of power and who is not. Baal, the name put upon a empty projection of Satan himself, has no power and the people will face that reality.
Elijah is going to ask Jehovah to do the same. We do not read anywhere that God had instructed Elijah to do this. His prayer to God indicates that this plan is Elijah's brain-child. It may be that Elijah, in his deep understanding of God and his recent experience of the power of prayer while with the widow and her son, has entered upon this plan in deep faith that left no doubt in his mind that this was the prudent course that would open the eyes of the people and glorify God. Plus, Elijah knows that God has done this before. Jehovah had manifested Himself as the God of Israel by causing fire to fall from heaven upon the first sacrifice presented in front of the tabernacle and to consume it. LEV 9:24 Then fire came out from before the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the portions of fat on the altar; and when all the people saw it, they shouted and fell on their faces.
Elijah hoped in faith that in like manner Jehovah would even now reveal Himself as the living God to the gathered people of Israel. Ahab and the prophets have found themselves caught in a trap. Four hundred and fifty of them are facing one man who has agreed to ask to the Lord the very same thing that all of them will ask Baal. For this reason they cannot draw back, even though they are likely quite fearful since none of them have ever done such a thing, nor have they ever seen Baal perform one miracle. Their only hope is the Jehovah will not do anything so at least they can claim a tie.
JER 50:24 "I set a snare for you, and you were also caught, O Babylon, While you yourself were not aware;
In order to cut off every excuse in the event that their attempt proves a failure, Elijah not only yielded the precedence to them to proceed first, but gave them the choice of the two oxen brought to be offered. How could the people not willingly gave their consent?
So the priests of Baal get to work and they perform the way they usually did, which in the past would have involved trickery and deceit, which history tells us they often did. If they had ever attempted such a "miracle" they would have hidden a man under the altar with a flame who would have ignited the wood through a secret opening. But under the watchful eye of Elijah and all the people, they are unable to use deceitful, sleight of hand techniques. They are forced to actually ask Baal for a miracle. The lies and deceit of the enemy will eventually be revealed.
1CO 4:5 Therefore do not go on passing judgment before the time, but wait until the Lord comes who will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men's hearts; and then each man's praise will come to him from God.
1KI 18:25-29 So Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, "Choose one ox for yourselves and prepare it first for you are many, and call on the name of your god, but put no fire under it." Then they took the ox which was given them and they prepared it and called on the name of Baal from morning until noon saying, "O Baal, answer us." But there was no voice and no one answered. And they leaped about the altar which they made. And it came about at noon, that Elijah mocked them and said, "Call out with a loud voice, for he is a god; either he is occupied or gone aside, or is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and needs to be awakened." So they cried with a loud voice and cut themselves according to their custom with swords and lances until the blood gushed out on them. And it came about when midday was past, that they raved until the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice; but there was no voice, no one answered, and no one paid attention.
The scene before us is striking and in fact comical. Their "leaping around the altar" refers to the pantomimic sacrificial dance that pagan priests were known to perform. "The scene which commences baffles description. Ancient writers have left us accounts of the great Baal-festivals, and they closely agree with the narrative of the Bible, only furnish¬ing further details. First rose a comparatively moderate, though already wild, cry to Baal; followed by a dance around the altar, beginning with a swinging motion to and fro. The howl then became louder and louder, and the dance more frantic. They whirled round and round, ran wildly through each other’s ranks, always keeping up a circular motion, the head low bent, so that their long disheveled hair swept the ground. Ordinarily the madness now became infectious, and the onlookers joined in the frenzied dance. But Elijah knew how to prevent this. It was noon—and for hours they had kept up their wild rites." [Keil and Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament]
The Israelites watching from the valley would have before witnessed and participated in such dances and would have been tempted to begin the frantic, lunatic dance themselves, but Elijah halts this escalation with biting sarcasm. He reminds them that they have claimed that Baal is Elohim, and if he is, then the lack of fire must be the fault of the priests and so they mustn't be howling and dancing frantically enough. Elijah suggests that maybe Baal is otherwise engaged, or he's away on vacation, or maybe he is just napping and this stings the priests into even further madness leading to complete exhaustion. For several more hours they carry on more frantic than before. What we know of these rituals is that as time went on their wild howls turned to demonic yells. In their madness they bit their arms and cut themselves with their two edged swords and lances and their blood flowed into the ground. The blood of the priest is supposed to propitiate Baal and so as they bled, their frenzy reached its highest pitch and they commenced to moan and prophesy and burst into frenzied cries. They carried this on until sunset and they grew completely exhausted. And … Nothing happened. There was no fire, no sound, nothing.
1KI 18:30-40 Then Elijah said to all the people, "Come near to me." So all the people came near to him. And he repaired the altar of the Lord which had been torn down. And Elijah took twelve stones according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of the Lord had come, saying, "Israel shall be your name." So with the stones he built an altar in the name of the Lord, and he made a trench around the altar, large enough to hold two measures of seed. Then he arranged the wood and cut the ox in pieces and laid it on the wood. And he said, "Fill four pitchers with water and pour it on the burnt offering and on the wood." And he said, "Do it a second time," and they did it a second time. And he said, "Do it a third time," and they did it a third time. And the water flowed around the altar, and he also filled the trench with water. Then it came about at the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice, that Elijah the prophet came near and said, "O Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, today let it be known that Thou art God in Israel, and that I am Thy servant, and that I have done all these things at Thy word. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, that this people may know that Thou, O Lord, art God, and that Thou hast turned their heart back again." Then the fire of the Lord fell, and consumed the burnt offering and the wood and the stones and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench. And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces; and they said, "The Lord, He is God; the Lord, He is God." Then 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 slew them there.
The priests took all day and obtained nothing. Elijah prays in a matter of minutes and the power of Jehovah in judgment blasts down fire from heaven that engulfs the wood, the offering, the altar, the dust, and the water. The judgment of God consumes everything as all sin - every sin done by man throughout all time - was judged upon Christ on the cross.
The twelve stones that were separated and strewn over the ground were gathered by Elijah and placed together again as an altar. This was a practical declaration that Israel should not be a nation divided into two kingdoms. They are one people under Jehovah. Then Elijah does a curious thing. He douses the offering and the wood with many gallons of water. This made it clear that no tricks were occurring in secret. No man could have instantly ignited this fuel in such a condition of dampness. He even constructs a deep trench around the altar which becomes full by the overflow. But do we remember that Israel has been in a drought for over three years? Where could he have gotten such a volume of water?
Jehovah Jireh - God always provides. It is well known that in this location, just at the edge of the plateau is a covered well. In such springs the water remains always cool, under the shade of a vaulted roof, and with no hot atmosphere to evaporate it. While all other fountains were dried up, we can well understand that there might have been found here that superabundance of water which Elijah poured so profusely over the altar. Even in the midst of a great drought, God provides water for His witness.
The people fell on their faces and found their faith. Elijah uses their enthusiasm to call them to action against their deceivers and to seize the prophets of Baal. The brook of Kishon is nearby at the base of the mountain and there Elijah had every one of them slain. This is not revenge, for vengeance is the Lord's. This was the only way of beginning to purge the evil of the phallic cult from Israel. In the Law, the act of idolatry carries the sentence of death.
There is still more to the account of Elijah's, full as it is, and it carries more pertinent lessons for our own lives of faith. Now Elijah is ready to deal with Ahab and Jezebel, but he makes a common mistake. Elijah believes that the king and queen must repent after this display from God. How could they not after such a scene of power and glory from Jehovah and such impotence from Baal? Elijah is certain in his own mind about what will happen next and what God will do next, but he is wrong in his assumption. So many of us have made this mistake and been overrun with despair and we will see just that in Elijah. Elijah doesn't run away from the king and queen out of fear, but rather he runs out of despair and disappointment due to his faulty view of the near future. We will see this important lesson in our next installment on this great prophet's life.
To God's glory,