Studies in the life of Elijah - Mount Carmel - Part 2
Jeremy Gibson, Derby, England
In the face of grave danger Elijah’s boldness knew no bounds. He fearlessly confronted King Ahab, charging him with the twin crimes of forsaking ‘the commandments of the Lord’ and shamelessly following ‘Baalim’, v. 18. Elijah then ordered the angry ruler to gather all Israel to Mount Carmel, including 850 false prophets, v. 19. Such courage was displayed ‘after many days’ of waiting patiently upon God. Finally, after three-and-a-half years Elijah received God’s authoritative word to act: ‘Go, shew thyself unto Ahab; and I will send rain upon the earth’, v. 1. Even the details of Elijah’s conflict with the prophets of Baal were given to him, v. 36. He would not delay, but ‘struck while the iron was hot’, v. 2. Appreciating the greatness of God, Elijah referred to Him as the living Lord of hosts, the One to whom angelic armies render unquestioning obedience. If we want the same spiritual courage as that of Elijah the formula remains unchanged. We, too, need to abide God’s time, for ‘he that believeth shall not make haste’, Isa. 28. 16. Since delay diminishes ardour, we must obey promptly the word of God which arms us for spiritual conflict,1 and is the sole authority for the life of the man of God.2 Neither can we fear man ‘whose breath is in his nostrils’, 2. 22; rather, ‘sanctify the Lord of hosts himself; and let him be your fear, and let him be your dread’, 8. 13. Put simply, be in awe of God.
The meeting with Obadiah was another major contributor to Elijah’s strength before King Ahab. Gifted and diligent, Obadiah, like Joseph in Egypt and Daniel in Babylon, had excelled in the court of an ungodly monarch,3 while keeping his fear of God fresh, 1 Kgs. 18. 3. He used his position to save the lives of God’s prophets, vv. 4, 13, and his spiritual perception remained undimmed, for Obadiah recognized Elijah immediately, humbly falling ‘on his face’ before him, v. 7. And so, for Elijah’s encouragement, before he faced King Ahab, he found himself in the presence of another godly man. Fellowship with other believers is so important that the writer to the Hebrews exhorted, ‘Let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works: not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together’, Heb. 10. 24, 25. Before Abram faced the king of Sodom he first met Melchizedeck, Gen. 14. 18-20. Jonathan ‘strengthened [David’s] hand in God’, 1 Sam. 23. 16. And, as Paul approached Rome, he was met by other brethren, ‘whom when Paul saw, he thanked God, and took courage’, Acts 28. 15. Christian fellowship augments our own spiritual courage, for as ‘iron sharpeneth iron, so a man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend’, Prov. 27. 17.
Ahab’s godlessness seems to grow as the story unfolds. As a weak husband, he permitted his wife to slay the Lord’s prophets, 1 Kgs. 18. 4. In contrast to a true spiritual leader, Ahab was more interested in the wellbeing of his livestock than his people, v. 5. Despite Obadiah’s faithful service over many years, Ahab would have slain him for the slightest offence, v. 9. And even after three-and-a-half years of drought Ahab remained recalcitrant. He continued to hunt down Elijah, v. 10. He persisted in blaming Elijah for Israel’s trouble, v. 17, and refused to accept that the root cause of Israel’s problems was his own idolatry, v. 18. Ahab’s idolatry was so bad that its influence continued for at least another two hundred years.4
‘There was to be a public contest between the forces of good and evil’.5 Elijah, Obadiah and seven thousand others may not have bowed to Baal, 1 Kgs. 19. 18, but the rest of the nation had acquiesced to Ahab’s vigorous promotion of Baal worship and were undecided whether Jehovah or Baal was Israel’s true God. The people were silenced at Elijah’s challenge, ‘How long halt ye between two opinions’, 18. 21. But such indecision was about to be dealt a cutting blow, with representatives of the entire nation watching on. Since ‘no man can serve two masters’, Matt. 6. 24, it is worth asking ourselves the same question. How long do we halt between two opinions? Do we put pleasure, business, or earthly possessions before Christ? The tension on Mount Carmel would have been palpable. Having arrested the attention of the nation, Jehovah would now declare Himself decisively to be Israel’s true and living God. The public nature of the challenge anticipated a future confrontation that will take place in the valley area of Megiddo below, when Messiah will face ‘the kings of the earth and of the whole world . . . [gathered] to the battle of that great day of God Almighty’, Rev. 16. 14. This sudden public showdown prevented Baal’s prophets from any trickery. While occultic practices thrive in the dark, God’s truth welcomes the sharpest scrutiny and this is exactly what Elijah experienced as the eyes of the nation rested upon him.
The challenge by fire was appropriate, since Baal was supposed to be able to produce fire. But this pagan idol was powerless before the true God, who is ‘a consuming fire’, Heb. 12. 29. Baal’s prophets were given every possible advantage. They outnumbered Elijah 450 to 1, they were allowed first choice of bullock, and they were given all day to call down fire from Baal, 1 Kgs. 18. 36. But in desperation they ‘leaped upon the altar which was made’, v. 26, ‘cried aloud, and cut themselves after their manner with knives and lancets, till the blood gushed out upon them’, v. 28 – a cruel practice forbidden in Israel, Deut. 14. 1. But the frenzied activities of Baal’s prophets were in vain. Echoing heaven’s laughter at the ungodly, Ps. 2. 4, Elijah mocked their futile efforts: ‘Cry aloud: for he is a god; either he is talking, or he is pursuing, or he is in a journey, or peradventure he sleepeth, and must be awaked’, v. 27. But ‘the everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth, fainteth not, neither is weary’, Isa. 40. 28. All false gods, including Baal, ‘have mouths, but they speak not: eyes have they, but they see not: They have ears, but they hear not: noses have they, but they smell not: They have hands, but they handle not: feet have they, but they walk not: neither speak they through their throat’, Ps. 115. 5-7.
At the time of the evening burnt offering, 1 Kgs. 18. 29,6 the people approached Elijah’s altar to witness the unleashing of Jehovah’s power, v. 30. God sanctioned this one-off sacrifice on a high place away from Jerusalem7 and permitted Elijah to lay the sacrifice and wood on the altar8 because of the need to publicly declare Himself to be Israel’s God. Jehovah made it clear that this sacrifice was not to be repeated, by completely destroying the altar. The never-to-be-repeated character of Elijah’s sacrifice anticipated the cross when ‘Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many’, Heb. 9. 28. Furthermore, the fire falling on the bullock, rather than on sinful Israel, also prefigured the substitutionary function of Calvary, when the Lamb of God ‘bare our sins in his own body on the tree’, 1 Pet. 2. 24. Since all the priests had fled southward, 2 Chr. 11. 13, Elijah was merely fulfilling, not usurping their God-given role. And when he saturated his bullock with water rather than pouring on it a drink offering of ‘half an hin of wine [which is flammable]’, Num 15. 10, he only did this to enhance the display of God’s power. Even the way in which Elijah constructed his altar is instructive. Although not clearly stated, it is likely that Elijah built his altar with twelve whole stones in obedience to the law of God,9 the twelve stones representing the twelve tribes of Israel and thus national unity, 1 Kgs. 18. 31.10 And he built his altar in Jehovah’s name, v. 32, praying that God would be honoured and Israel converted, vv. 36, 37.11 This is how we should worship; obediently, in harmony with God’s people and purely for the Lord’s glory.
This almighty display of God’s power convinced the people that ‘the Lord, He is the God’, v. 39. Even though Baal’s prophets were slain, v. 40,12 and the New Testament exposes false teachers as equally abhorrent to God,13 Christians are exhorted to silence, not slay false teachers. Ahab’s heart remained untouched. He still put personal comfort before the wellbeing of God’s people, vv. 41, 42. In stark contrast, Elijah prayed, fully convinced that God would make good His words, vv. 43-45.14 He prayed in faith, hearing a sound of abundance of rain before there was any, v. 1. He prayed humbly, casting ‘himself down upon the earth, and put his face between his knees’, v. 42. And he prayed expectantly, commanding his servant seven times over to ‘go up now, look toward the sea’, v. 43. Just as God began to answer Elijah’s prayer with a small cloud (before the downpour), we should look out for answers to our prayers.
It was only when Israel had confessed the Lord to be God that the rain came, and it is only after Israel’s future conversion that this world will feel the blessings of Christ’s millennial rule.15 Ahab might have moved quickly – any delay would have caused his chariot to become stuck in the muddy Jezreel valley16 – but Ahab in his chariot was beaten by Elijah racing on foot, energized by God, his loins girded, v. 46. We too have a race to run. And in our race we are to gird up the loins of our minds, 1 Pet. 1. 13 – freeing them from unnecessary clutter – and ‘lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and [let us] run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith’, Heb. 12. 1, 2.
- Eph. 6. 14, 17.
- 2 Tim. 3. 16, 17.
- See Prov. 22. 29.
- See Mic. 6. 16.
- Pink A. W., The Life of Elijah, Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, reprinted 1997, pg. 121.
- See Exod. 29. 38-42; Num. 28. 3-8.
- Jerusalem was the divinely appointed site of worship, Deut. 12. 1-28.
- This was the prerogative of priests, Lev. 1. 7, 8.
- See Exod. 20. 25, 26.
- Compare Ezra 6. 17.
- Compare Rom. 10. 1.
- Compare Deut. 17. 2-7.
- 2 Pet. 2. 1; Jude 4.
- Jas. 5. 18.
- Rom. 11. 26.
- Compare Judg. 4. 15; 5. 20, 21.