Our lesson today centers on Elijah’s dramatic contest with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. When Elijah prayed to the living God, God’s power was clearly evident, and the people fell on their faces to proclaim that the Lord (not Baal) is the true and living God.
The section between our last lesson (in 1 Kings 17—see Bible Helps booklet #346), and this lesson (in 1 Kings 18), tells how Elijah left Phoenicia and returned to Israel. The severe drought had been in effect now for more than three years. Elijah was told to go and talk with Ahab the king—and on the way, he met Obadiah, a God-fearing man who was the steward of Ahab’s palace. Obadiah was hunting for water and for some grass for the king’s animals (verses 5-6). Elijah sent word with Obadiah that he wanted to speak with the king (verses 7-8). Obadiah conveyed the message to the king.
When Elijah met Ahab, the king’s first response was to blame Elijah for the trouble that had befallen his kingdom. Israel was in the midst of a prolonged drought. Ahab said to Elijah, “Art thou he that troubleth Israel?” (1 Kings 18:17). Elijah quickly reminded the king (1 Kings 18:18) that it was not he, Elijah, who had troubled Israel. Instead, it was the king, King Ahab—in that “thou, and thy father’s house . . . have forsaken the commandments of the Lord, and thou hast followed Baalim.” This was the root cause of all the trouble in Israel. It was not Elijah who troubled Israel; actually, Elijah (the man of God) was one of the best friends Israel ever had.
Ahab and Jezebel had introduced idol worship and had imported hundreds of foreign pagan prophets. The king and his wife had abandoned God’s commands and instead, were encouraging the worship of Baal. Elijah was a courageous prophet of God and was not afraid to tell Ahab the truth. It was Ahab’s idolatry and disobedience that brought God’s judgment of drought upon Israel. The drought was not the result of any misconduct on Elijah’s part.
We also learn in the early part of 1 Kings 18 (verse 4) that Jezebel (the queen) had not only imported pagan priests, but had also ordered the slaughter of God’s faithful prophets. But Obadiah (who feared the true God of Israel) had secretly preserved 100 of the true prophets by hiding them in a cave and feeding them bread and water (verses 4, 13).
At this crucial time in Israel’s history—when idolatry was on the increase, and more and more of God’s loyal servants were being persecuted—Elijah went to Ahab and asked for an opportunity to show that the Lord God is supreme. And Ahab accepted Elijah’s challenge. God had promised that the rains would soon come and alleviate the drought that had gripped the land (verse 1). But who was in control of the weather—the Lord God Jehovah, or Baal, the pagan storm god?
A contest was about to take place on Mount Carmel. Carmel is not a mountain peak, but a range of mountains extending from the shores of the Mediterranean Sea southeastward about twenty miles to the central hills of Samaria. The Carmel mountains were regarded by the Phoenicians as the sacred dwelling place of Baal, and so the contest was to take place on Baal’s home turf.
1. The Bold Challenge (1 Kings 18:20-29)
The people in the northern kingdom of Israel had become very idolatrous. The worship of Baal (and the goddess Asherah) had the official endorsement of King Ahab. There were 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of Asherah (verse 19).
A severe famine had gripped the land. It lasted more than three years. Now the Lord commanded Elijah to go to Ahab and announce that the Lord would soon send rain (1 Kings 18:1), but the nation would need to decide whether Jehovah (the Lord God of Israel), or Baal (the pagan storm god), was the true God.
When Elijah and Ahab met, Elijah brought before Ahab the idea of a simple contest between the prophets of Baal and the prophet of God. Ahab agreed to the challenge, and sent a message to all the people, and summoned the pagan prophets to appear on Mount Carmel (verse 20). Apparently only the 450 prophets of Baal showed up—and when they had gathered, Elijah stood in front of them and asked, “How long halt ye between two opinions?” (verse 21).
Israel had not totally rejected the Lord God, but instead, was seeking to combine the worship of God with the worship of Baal. And Elijah said to the people, “You’ve got to make a choice; either the Lord is God or Baal is god—but not both of them!” Elijah understood the truth that one cannot loyally serve two masters at the same time.
Elijah’s sobering challenge was met with stony silence. Verse 21 says that “the people answered him not a word.” So Elijah proposed a test to reveal whether the Lord Jehovah, or Baal, was the true God. Elijah recommended that two bullocks should be slain and placed on separate altars—the one for Baal, and the other for the Lord God. Each would then call on his god to send fire and consume the sacrifice on the altar.
First, the prophets of Baal would prepare the animal for sacrifice, lay it on the wood on their altar, but without setting fire to it. Then, Elijah would prepare another animal, lay it on the wood of his altar, and again not set fire to it (verses 22-23). The prophets of Baal would call on the name of their god, and Elijah would call on the name of the Lord. The god who answered by setting fire to the wood and consuming the sacrifice would be the true God. Verse 24 says that all the people agreed to this plan.
The prophets of Baal went first. All morning they shouted and danced and prayed, and even injured themselves. They tried their best to arouse Baal to action, but no fire came. The prophets of Baal were sure their god would respond and send fire, because they believed that Baal (the god of the storm) could shoot lightning flashes from the sky. But there was no response from Baal. About noon time, Elijah began to mock the pagan prophets. He said that Baal may have been thinking about other things—maybe he was sleeping, or perhaps he was away on a trip, or he may just have been busy (the Hebrew literally says he may have been “relieving himself”—that is, answering a call of nature). Elijah was confident of success in the contest, because he knew that Baal was powerless and that the Lord God was alive and able to answer.
When it was obvious to all that the prophets of Baal had failed to get an answer, it was Elijah’s turn.
2. The Careful Preparations (1 Kings 18:30-35)
The drama intensified when Elijah called the people to come closer to him while he prepared the altar of the Lord (verse 30). An altar dedicated to the worship of God had been built on the site long before, but it was in disrepair. Evidently the people of Israel had not used this altar for a long time, or perhaps some of their enemies had destroyed it. Anyhow, Elijah took twelve stones (one for each of the twelve tribes of Israel) and used the stones to repair the altar (verse 31). The use of twelve stones was a reminder to the people, of the covenant that God had made with Jacob and all twelve of his sons. Though the tribes had now been divided into two nations, they were still one people in God’s purposes—with a single Lord, a single covenant, and a single destiny.
When the altar was repaired, Elijah dug a trench around the altar large enough to hold several gallons of water. After digging the trench, Elijah arranged the wood on the altar, laid the animal on the wood, and called for twelve barrels of water (four containers emptied three times) to be poured over the sacrifice, and the wood, and in the trench surrounding the altar. (The “barrels” mentioned in verse 33 were not 55-gallon drums, but smaller containers—earthenware crocks—that were commonly used in the Middle East.)
The water was poured over Elijah’s sacrifice to remove any possibility of fraud or misunderstanding about the offering. The soaking with water showed everyone present that the burning of the sacrifice which would take place was not a natural phenomenon or a magician’s trick, but a miracle from God.
And then Elijah calmly and quietly prayed to the God of heaven. He addressed God as he would address any living person.
3. The Powerful Response (1 Kings 18:36-39)
In the sight of all the people, Elijah approached the altar (verse 36), and prayed to the Lord God of Israel, appealing to Him to answer his plea, and send fire from heaven to consume the sacrifice. Elijah’s prayer was very simple. He prayed, “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 (bidding)” (verse 36).
Elijah did not have to spend long hours calling upon God to get Him to respond with fire. In contrast to the slowness and silence of Baal, Jehovah God answered quickly with an intense fire from heaven. The fire of the Lord crashed down and consumed the burnt offering, and the wood, and the stones, and even the dirt surrounding the altar. Furthermore, it licked up all the water that was in the trench (verse 38)!
God’s powerful response made an impression on the minds of the people. There was admiration mingled with awe for the holiness and power of the Lord God. Verse 39 says that the people fell on their faces (they fell to the ground), and said, “The Lord, he is the God; the Lord, he is the God.” When Elijah’s sacrifice was consumed by fire from heaven, the people of Israel responded strongly in favor of Jehovah God.
Elijah did not set up this contest and pray that the Lord God would respond to make a name for himself as a true prophet. The latter part of verse 37 says that Elijah’s concern was that the people might repent and return to the Lord. The text says, “Hear me, O Lord . . . that this people may know that thou art the Lord God, and that thou hast turned their heart back again.”
The people needed to see that Baal was a powerless and lifeless bronze idol—a worthless object that couldn’t do anything for them. By way of contrast, the Lord God was all powerful—and He Who sent the fire would also be able to send the rain—and the devastating drought would come to an end.
When the contest was completed, and it was clear that the Lord indeed was the true God, then the false prophets of Baal were seized and were condemned and executed according to the law of God as set forth in Deuteronomy 13:1-11.
It was Elijah who previously had predicted the drought to Ahab (recorded in 1 Kings 17:1). Now, the prophet told the king that there would be a heavy rain storm (1 Kings 18:41). Ahab went down out of the mountain to eat and drink; Elijah walked back up the mountain to pray for rain. He kneeled down and with his head between his knees, he persevered in prayer. At first the rain cloud was small like a man’s hand, but soon the whole sky grew dark, and heavy rains began to fall (1 Kings 18:41-45). Elijah advised Ahab to get going back to the palace in Jezreel if he didn’t want his chariot to become stuck in the mud.
This most dramatic demonstration of God’s power marks a turning point in Israel—at a time when the worship of the Lord was almost wiped out by those who opposed Him. A single prophet challenged the whole northern kingdom of Israel to return to God.
This seems like the proper time to spend a few minutes looking further at the appearance of miracles in the Bible. Special miracles were the exception rather than the rule during much of Bible history. Miracles are clustered around four critical periods in the Bible account. They were prominent in the days of Moses and Joshua, Elijah and Elisha, the prophet Daniel, and the time of Christ and the apostles.
Moses and Joshua—Aaron’s rod turned into a serpent; the Red Sea parted and the Israelites crossed on dry ground; manna was provided in the wilderness; the sun stood still in Joshua’s day.
Elijah and Elisha—Elijah was fed by ravens; he restored a young boy back to life who had died; he called fire down from heaven to consume a sacrifice on Mount Carmel; Elisha recovered a lost ax-head when the iron came to the surface of the water.
The prophet Daniel—Daniel was protected in a den of lions; the three Hebrew friends survived in a burning fiery furnace; Nebuchadnezzar was condemned to eat grass like an animal.
Jesus and the apostles—Jesus walked on the water; raised people from the dead; multiplied food to feed the 5000. Paul took up a serpent without experiencing any harm. Peter was released from prison and loosed from his chains.
In spite of all these miracles found on the pages of the Bible, whole eras of time passed without any record of miracles. Many centuries passed between Moses and Elijah, and there is no record of any miracles. Miracles were out of sight during the centuries between the time of Daniel and the time of Christ. Many of God’s servants were never used to perform miracles. The Bible clearly says that John the Baptist (the greatest of all human beings) never performed a miracle (John 10:41). And so even in Bible times miracles were rare. The translation of Enoch into heaven is the only recorded miracle in the entire 1,700 year period between Adam and the Flood. And then during the long centuries from Joshua to David, only very rarely did a miracle ever occur. Signs and wonders and miracles are only effective because they are rare.
The Old Testament miracles established the supremacy of God (as the true and living God) over all the dead gods of idolatry. The miracles of Christ established His claims to deity. The miracles performed at the time of the apostles established the church as a divine institution. When the church was well founded, the scaffolding was taken down, and miracles are much less frequent in our day.
I am not saying that God does not exert His supernatural power today when a miracle is necessary. As the Omnipotent One, He does not change—and there are faithful Christians who have experienced that there is still nothing too hard for the Lord! What I am saying, however, is that in this age of grace, the perpetual display of miracles is not commonly seen. God has protected the significance of miracles by the rarity of their occurrence.
There are a few practical applications from our lesson on Elijah in this issue of Bible Helps:
1) Many in our churches today seem to be like the people of Israel in Elijah’s day. Multitudes then had no real interest in becoming fully committed and dedicated followers of Baal. They wanted to serve the Lord God, and at the same time, enjoy some of the pleasures that went along with the worship of Baal. It is easy in our culture to make a profession of faith in Christ, but at the same time, flirt with the pleasures of this world system. Yet Jesus plainly said that we cannot serve God and mammon. We cannot be supremely loyal to God, and at the same time follow the values of an unregenerate society.
2) We often wonder how it was possible for the people of Israel to fall under the sway of idols. We would never do such a foolish thing! But we must remember that anything which siphons off our allegiance to God is an idol, and so we must intentionally seek to avoid various false gods that may tend to entice us—things made of chrome, steel, and glass; adulation of sports heroes; hours spent watching television, etc. It’s hard to imagine anyone reaching age 70, looking back over life and saying, “It’s been a great life, I spent more than a tenth of it watching TV.” It is easy to drift away from supreme loyalty to God. Idolatry is still alive and well in our circles.
We must keep in mind as we study lessons like the one in this issue, based on Old Testament events—that these things happened to them to serve as examples, and they are written down to instruct us (1 Corinthians 10:11). Men like Elijah help to strengthen us as we continue our journey in this hostile world. They encourage us to pray, to trust in God, and to have faith. The lesson also reminds us that Elijah was human like we are—and he struggled with times of doubt and fear like we do. James says that Elijah was a man subject to like passions as we are (James 5:17). The God of Elijah is alive and active today. If you will turn to Him, and pray to Him, and trust Him, and obey Him—you too will know that He is the living God.