Read: 1 Kings 18:17-39
When it comes to the hard choices in life, many people like to put them off. But one of God’s greatest spokesmen can help us make the most important choice of all.
In the ancient world, every tribe had a special class of religious leaders. They were called by different names—shamans, witch doctors, priests—but they performed the same function. Priests were go-betweens bridging the human and spirit worlds. They conducted the various ceremonies and rituals that gave people access to their deities. Priests were called upon to read and interpret signs and omens. They made sacrifices and presented offerings to the gods. They were asked to help protect against evil spirits or to heal the sick. But these priestly types generally weren’t deeply concerned with morality. They usually didn’t deal with the issue of right and wrong, with good or bad behavior. Priests dealt in spiritual power.
It was different in ancient Israel. The God of Israel, the true and living God of whom we learn in the Bible, was not just powerful. He was also good. Because God is a person whose very nature is moral, he cares a very great deal about morality in us. To the biblical God, doing good is more important than conducting rituals. Right living is more important than correct religious ceremonies. How people treat one another is more important than how they carry out sacrifices or recite forms of words. In fact, the only kind of worship the true God accepts is one that includes a personal commitment on the part of the worshipper to living a life of humility, truthfulness, mercy, and justice.
In order to teach this truth to people, God called some individuals to be a new and different kind of religious leader. These special servants were called prophets. Unlike priests, the biblical prophets were not so concerned with rituals or animal sacrifices. They didn’t really care about what people did when they came into the temple as much as they cared about how people lived outside the temple. Prophets told people clearly what was right and what was wrong. They pointed to sin plainly. They called for repentance, for turning away from sin, asking forgiveness of God, and living in a new and better way. And they warned about what would happen to those who refused to listen to God. Prophets were men who spoke for God, and not just many centuries ago. They still speak to us today.
A Spiritual Crisis
Elijah was the first of the great prophets. Though he did not leave any writings behind him as so many of the later prophets did, Elijah was universally acknowledged in Israel as the greatest of all the prophets. Elijah’s generation was dominated by a spiritual crisis in the northern kingdom of Israel. (The people of Israel had divided politically about a century before Elijah’s time into northern and southern kingdoms, Israel and Judah.) The real question in Israel during Elijah’s day was whether the worship of the Lord would survive at all.
The main problem in the kingdom of Israel was neither political nor economic; it was a faith problem. “Make up your minds!” thundered Elijah. “How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” The question confronting the Israelites was which God they would serve: the true God of the Bible or the numerous gods of their Canaanite neighbors. The people of Israel didn’t want to have to choose. They wanted to hold on to two very different kinds of God. They wanted to acknowledge the God of Israel—to have his Word, claim his power, perhaps offer him a prayer or a sacrifice—while also joining in the pagan rituals of their Canaanite neighbors; rituals which, to put it delicately, were somewhat more exotic than the austere worship of Israel’s Lord.
This sort of spiritual blending is a common thing. Scholars call it syncretism—combining different religious beliefs in a contradictory mixture. As you might expect, it’s a significant problem among people who have become Christians within cultures where traditional religions predominate. But contemporary Americans who have grown up in a country with a Christian heritage are often just as syncretistic. Many people retain some of the forms and customs and language of Christianity, but their lives are actually shaped and motivated by materialism or the cult of success or New Age philosophy or some other of the numerous idolatries of our culture. Syncretism, as I say, is common; it’s popular, it’s even understandable . . . but God hates it.
Elijah’s antagonist was King Ahab. Ahab was the seventh king to rule the northern kingdom of Israel. He was also one of the most prosperous and able kings, at least from a purely political standpoint. But spiritually it was a different story. Ahab’s wife was Jezebel, the Phoenician princess from nearby Sidon. She was a fanatical devotee of the pagan god Baal and was determined to exterminate the worship of the Lord in Israel and replace it with her Canaanite religion. It was beginning to look like her efforts would succeed. Hundreds of God’s faithful prophets had been killed or driven into hiding. They were replaced by the prophets and priests of Baal. God’s people were giving themselves to the false religions whose immoral practices had made him pass judgment upon the old inhabitants of the land. Now the people of Israel were beginning to do the very same things! At this crisis point, Elijah appeared on the scene.
Showdown on Mount Carmel
As we pick up the story in the Old Testament book of Kings, much has already happened. When Elijah first came to Samaria, the capital, he announced a prophetic sign of judgment: there would be no rain in the land for three years. Now he reappears to challenge Ahab, Jezebel and her priests, and the misguided people as well. Elijah suggests a great contest to prove once and for all who is really God. The challenge is promptly accepted. Here’s how the Bible historian describes it:
“Now send for people from all over Israel. Tell them to meet me on Mount Carmel. And bring the 450 prophets of the god Baal….” So Ahab sent that message all through Israel. He gathered the prophets together on Mount Carmel. Elijah went there and stood in front of the people. He said, “How long will it take you to make up your minds? If the Lord is the one and only God, follow him. But if Baal is the one and only God, follow him.” . . . Then Elijah said to them, “I’m the only one of the Lord’s prophets left. But Baal has 450 prophets. Get two bulls for us. Let Baal’s prophets choose one for themselves. Let them cut it into pieces. Then let them put it on the wood. But don’t let them set fire to it. I’ll prepare the other bull. I’ll put it on the wood. But I won’t set fire to it. Then you pray to your god. And I’ll pray to the Lord. The god who answers by sending fire down is the one and only God.” Then all of the people said, “What you are saying is good.” (1 Kings 18:19-24, NIrV)
At first glance, it appears to be an uneven contest. All the advantage seems to be on Baal’s side. He was supposed to be the god of the sun; he was known as “the Rider of the Clouds” who held the thunder and lightning in his hands. Igniting a sacrifice on one little altar on Mt. Carmel should have been a snap for a powerful god like Baal, and he even got first crack at it! Then look at the disparity of forces involved—450 prophets of Baal vs. the lone figure of Elijah. What chance did a single courageous voice from the wilderness have against all that spiritual clout? But numbers can be deceiving. Is popularity always the test of truth? We tend to assume that having the greatest crowds means possessing the most truth, and that large numbers are a sure sign of God’s presence and power. But there isn’t much biblical support for that way of thinking. In the Bible, popular religion is often false religion, as it was in the day of Elijah—and for that matter, in the day of Jesus as well.
So the showdown on Mt. Carmel commences. Baal’s prophets arrange the wood on the altar. They lay out their sacrificial animal, and begin to pray. They call on the name of Baal, their god, to send the answering fire. Time passes. Their prayers grow in intensity, now with chanting and shrieking cries added, now dancing, gyrating, leaping up and down around the altar. Still no response from Baal. The heavens are silent. Meanwhile Elijah, standing on the side and watching all this frantic effort, begins to offer a sarcastic commentary. He urges them to try a little harder. “Shout louder,” the prophet suggests, “after all, Baal is a god, isn’t he? Perhaps he’s off meditating somewhere; maybe he’s been sidetracked, or he’s away on a journey. I know! He’s fallen asleep, and you need to wake him up!” As the sun passes its high point and the day begins to slip away, the pagan priests whip themselves into a frenzy. In desperation they start slashing themselves with knives and lances, hoping that the sight of their own blood will arouse their god’s notice. But there was no answer. No one paid any attention. You can pray as hard as you want, but if the god you’re praying to is a dead idol, you will never get an answer.
The God Who Answers Prayer
Now comes Elijah’s turn. It’s just the hour of the evening sacrifice at the temple in Jerusalem, as the writer of Kings carefully notes. The prophet proceeds deliberately and calmly. He first rebuilds the Lord’s altar, using twelve stones, one for each of the ancient tribes of Israel. This was a bold and powerful symbolic statement, something like flying your flag in enemy territory, for it was a reminder that despite the political partition of the two kingdoms, Israel was still one people in the sight of God. Then Elijah prepared the sacrifice, but before going further he had it repeatedly soaked, until the water ran down and filled the trench he had dug around the altar. From that day to this, religious fakes have staged phony signs and wonders to impress the masses. Elijah wants to make sure there is no possibility anyone will think that what is going to happen is some sort of trick.
Finally, he prays, simply, calmly, eloquently. Elijah prays for two things: first and foremost, for the glory of God to be revealed. He asks God to let all know “that you are God in Israel” and to act “so these people will know that you, O Lord, are God” (vv. 36-37). He longs for God to glorify himself, not just to vindicate Elijah. He wants God to reveal himself as God, to God’s own infinite praise. Second, Elijah prays for the salvation of the people. He desires God to act so the people will know “that you are turning their hearts back again” (v. 37). And God answered Elijah’s prayer. Fire fell from heaven and consumed the sacrifice, the altar and all! And so Israel was humbled and brought back to the Lord on that great occasion (vv. 38-39).
This contest of Mt. Carmel is still being waged in countless places today. What is being put to the test are some of life’s most basic questions: Who really rules the world? What is ultimate reality? To whom, or to what, should I give my life? The answer to these questions still comes with fire from heaven. Not a lightning bolt igniting an animal sacrifice, but the light that flashed when the stone rolled away from Jesus’ empty tomb, the fire that fell in dancing tongues of flame on the heads of disciples who preached and prayed and loved the gospel into the world by the power of the Holy Spirit. God is real! Jesus is alive, and he is Lord! He rules the world—not chance, not luck or the laws of nature, not political or social or economic forces, not genetics or brain chemistry or natural selection. God’s spokesmen still challenge us. They speak to us in the scriptures and they say the same thing Elijah said: “Jesus is the Lord. He is God. Follow him!”
And if Jesus is Lord, why do we try to have it both ways? Why call him Savior while pursuing some other value? Why pray to him and still play with the world? Make up your mind! How long will you go on limping between two opinions? If Jesus is God, serve him. If Baal is God, then serve him. It’s time to decide!