Elijah has returned to Israel for the purpose of confrontation with Ahab and the prophets of Baal whom Ahab had installed as the directors of Israel’s religious life. This is clear in that upon his return to Israelite territory Elijah instructs Obadiah to arrange a meeting with Ahab and clearer still in the instructions he gives the king.
It is highly interesting and a point often subtly but powerfully made in the OT narrative that, while Ahab has supposedly rejected Elijah’s understanding of reality – otherwise why would he repudiate the Law of Moses and import Baalism from Phoenicia? – he still recognizes Elijah’s authority as a prophet of the Lord. Apparently even Ahab recognized that the drought had begun on Elijah’s command and wouldn’t end until Elijah ended it. We are inclined to think, as no doubt the narrator intends us to think, “Hello?” If Elijah can cause a drought in the name of Yahweh – a drought that has now lasted three years and has devastated the country – perhaps Ahab would do well to listen to what the man has to say! Perhaps Baal isn’t all he’s cracked up to be! Such is man, however, in the blindness of sin.
It is interesting that Ahab, though Obadiah had described him as a man to be feared, is obviously psychologically no match for Elijah. Ahab speaks once, “…you troubler of Israel”; Elijah silences him; after that he does what Elijah tells him to do and we hear no more from Ahab.
Mt. Carmel rises to 1800 feet above the surrounding plain, rising from the shore of the Mediterranean Sea above the modern port city of Haifa. As the highest elevation in the area it would naturally be a popular place for the worship of Baal and, no doubt, was already in use for that purpose. Again that is significant. Yahweh is taking on Baal, as it were, on his own turf. The encounter would not take place at the summit of the mountain, however, but at some more accessible location on the heights. We read in v. 42 that Elijah would later climb to the summit, indicating that he had not been there before.
The reference to “all Israel” usually in the Bible is a reference to the elders who represented the people, so when the elders were present the people were present in representative form. In any case, there were more than the prophets of Baal and Asherah present, as we will read again in v. 39. Indeed, it would be these people, whoever they were, who would execute the prophets upon Elijah’s instruction after the demonstration that they were serving a false god.
Remember that in the Bible virtually wherever you have the word Lord what you actually have in the Hebrew text is the personal name of God, Yahweh.
Elijah’s remarks indicate that there was something left of a loyalty to Yahweh in Israel, but he was now reduced to one among other gods. He was no longer in Israel’s mind and heart the one true and living God. But, of course, in Elijah’s mind that made Israel’s situation worse not better. As F.W. Krummacher explained: “They confounded [Yahweh] and Baal together, and invented a religion in which they gave themselves up to all the lusts and abominations of heathenism, but retained the self-complacent notion that they still walked in the way of their fathers; they thought the form of worship might be a little different from that of their ancestors, [but] the substance was the same.”  We have seen this a thousand times in church history: the attempt to mix Christianity with the prevailing conceits of a culture and the result is always the same: the triumph of unbelief and the eclipse of biblical faith.
Interestingly, only Elijah and the prophets of Baal have real conviction, conviction that they are willing to put to the test.
In other words, humanly speaking, the deck was stacked in favor of Baal. There were 850 prophets of Baal and Asherah and only Elijah standing for the Lord, unless we are to draw the conclusion from v. 22 that the prophets of Asherah did not show up, perhaps a further demonstration of Ahab’s impotence, this time in relation to his wife, Jezebel. They were her prophets and she didn’t send them to be tested by Elijah. Wise woman! [Provan, 140]
In the art of the period Baal is depicted with a thunderbolt in his hand. He was the god of lightning, so it should have been a small matter for him to send fire upon altar his prophets had made. Yahweh is challenging Baal at his specialty.
The phrase “altar they had made,” is significant. What we have here is the comparison between a man-made religion and a divinely revealed one. Elijah will not “make” his own altar. We will read in v. 30 that he repaired the altar of the Lord that had been torn down and did so with 12 stones, each representing one of the tribes of Israel. What is more, he will wait to pray until the hour of the evening sacrifice. Elijah’s understanding of reality is founded upon the revelation of God’s covenant. Idolatry is a human invention.
The medieval Jewish commentator, Rashi, took “busy” [which you have in the NIV] to be a reference to Baal’s going to the privy. Most commentators have not followed him in that interpretation. The ESV gives that translation as you find it here, “he is relieving himself.” But the point is the same whether Baal is just busy or in the bathroom, the more mocking taunt. You have all these men calling to get his attention hour after hour; where did he go? Like Paul in Athens, Elijah too was familiar with the religious ideas of his contemporaries. He knew Baalism inside and out. In the documents of Baal worship from Ras Shamra, the archaeological site in modern Syria of the ancient city of Ugarit, we learn that Baal worshipers really did think that Baal might be on a journey or might even fall asleep and be unaware of your particular need. So clearly there is some mockery here but there may be less mockery in Elijah’s remark than has sometimes been thought. These worshippers themselves thought that might be a problem.
In the behavior of the prophets of Baal we are reminded that deeply emotional states of religious feeling can be induced without any supernatural influence. Obviously Baal was not driving these prophets on as we are about to learn that Baal is a figment of the imagination. This prophetic frenzy was a feature of ANE worship and is attested in literature from the period.
The dilapidated state of Yahweh’s altar is evidence of how completely the worship of the Lord had disappeared in much of Israel during Ahab’s reign. Of course, there shouldn’t have been an altar to Yahweh built on such a high place. There was but one altar and it was in Jerusalem. But in context any worship of Yahweh was preferable to the worship of Baal.
The twelve stones remind the people of their historical identity as the people of Yahweh. Israel is twelve tribes, not the 10 who make up the northern kingdom.
Not only was Elijah outnumbered 850 to 1, not only was the location a favored place for Baal worship, not only did Elijah offer Baal a chance to display what was supposed to be his special power as the god of the storm, of lightning, Elijah then made matters worse for himself by soaking his offering with water. “No possibility of spontaneous combustion here.” [Provan, 138-139]
In complete contrast to the frenzied attempts of the prophets of Baal, Elijah offers a simple, theological prayer and waits in faith for the Lord to act. But it is not divine action for its own sake that Elijah is seeking. In his prayer he asks that Israel might learn the truth and repent and return to the Lord.
It appears as if the people had learned their lesson and were ready now to return to the Lord and to worship and serve him alone. We will discover otherwise in the next chapter. As in the Lord Jesus’ own day, even the most dramatic of all demonstrations of divine power cannot, in and of themselves, overcome the hardness of a sinful heart, though they may create temporary enthusiasm.
Tender-hearted readers of the Bible can often be troubled by such wholesale executions. But, remember, these false prophets were killing Israelites forever, consigning them to eternal judgment. What is more, the living God had just confirmed Elijah as his prophet in the most unimpeachable way possible; what he commanded under the circumstances ought to have been done. In Deut. 13:1-11 we read that it was commanded in God’s law that false prophets be executed. It is no accident that on the plain nearby Mt. Carmel, we read in Revelation 16:16-21 will come the last apocalyptic battle – with flashes of lightning and peals of thunder – between the kingdom of God and the forces of evil in the world. It is a metaphor, surely, but it reminds us that what we have here in 1 Kings 18 is an enactment on a smaller scale of the final, terrible cataclysm that will consign the unbelieving world to its just judgment. [Dillard, 46-47]
In a detail we often overlook, the sacrifice is now eaten as sacrifices were in the worship of Israel. The covenant is being renewed with Israel as when the nation’s elders ate and drank before the Lord at Sinai in Exodus 24. One imagines that Ahab did not feel too much like eating and drinking, with the corpses of his prophets turning the Kishon to blood. [Leithart, 137] But he is weak before Elijah and has little choice but to do what he has been told, however little his heart may have been in it. In any case, once again, at a great turning point in Israel’s history we have a sacrifice, the very sacrifice that would eventually become the Lord’s Supper: reminding us that all of the Lord’s dealings with his people in grace and judgment at the last depend upon the sacrifice that will eventually be offered by the Son of God for the people of God.
Both Elijah and Ahab had to hasten to Jezreel before the storm hit and made the roads impassable. Elijah apparently headed for Jezreel in the mistaken belief that the war between Yahweh and Israelite unbelief and rebellion was now over. He is soon to learn that the result of his defeat of Baalism on Mt. Carmel was nothing of the kind.
The minister who preaches on this text feels at once that there is little or nothing that he can say that will make any point more powerfully than the text does itself. Is there a more dramatic episode anywhere in biblical history? Is the lesson of any historical event more obvious than it is here? The people themselves shout it out: “The Lord, he is God! The Lord, he is God!” Elijah, likewise, in the beautiful prayer that Mendelssohn has made a glorious tenor aria, describes the proper lesson to be taken from this history: Baal, like all the invented deities of mankind is revealed to be the nothing that he always was, a figment of the human imagination, a projection of human experience and desires and nothing else. That being so, Israel, realizing anew that Yahweh is the one and only living and true God, must return to him, and to his Word, for Elijah, as the Lord’s prophet, represents the Word of God.
In a postmodern, relativistic, pluralistic world such as the modern West, it is perfectly obvious that the message of this history – for history is what it is – is the explicit contradiction of the thinking of most people in our culture. Everyone is free to choose his own religion – that has always been so – but one’s choice of a faith does not validate that faith. Idolatry, of both the ancient and the modern type, is the investment of mind and heart in what is not real. It is a charade; were the consequence not so terrible, we would be inclined to call it a farce. For that is how these prophets appear, leaping and dancing and shouting and cutting themselves to attract the attention of a figment of their own imagination: farcical. Sooner or later one bumps into the rock hard surface of the truth and discovers how different reality is from imagination. As the lightning fell upon Elijah’s sacrifice and licked up the water and cooked the meat, those 450 men – or 850 if they were all there – too late discovered that there was a God in heaven and it was not Baal! Only those who worshipped and served this God were safe in time and in eternity.
Subsequent events will demonstrate that the true and lasting effect of this wonderful demonstration of the glory of God and the truth of his revelation through his prophets was upon the believing church, not the rebellious people of God, still less upon the world as a whole. As Jesus himself would later say, “If they will not believe Moses and the prophets, they will not believe if a man should rise from the dead.” But what a grand encouragement for the children of God and what a glorious demonstration of our faith.
Now, to be sure, you and I read this electrifying history and cannot help but wonder why the Lord does not do this more often. If only every century or two he would reveal himself in this stunning, unforgettable, irrefutable way, would not the world and the church be so much better for it? Some of you will remember that scene in Woody Allen’s film Manhattan. Woody and his date are standing in line in a theater lobby and an obnoxious show-off in front of them is pontificating to his date about the philosophy of Marshall McLuhan. Finally Woody can’t stand it anymore and butts into the conversation in front of him telling the man that he knows nothing about the thinking of McLuhan. The man heatedly replies that he teaches philosophy at NYU and is, in fact, a specialist in McLuhan. Woody takes the man by the arm and says, “Come over here.” He leads him across the room to a man standing there by himself who happens to be Marshall McLuhan. “Does this man understand your teaching?” Woody asks McLuhan. “This man doesn’t have the foggiest idea what I am trying to say,” McLuhan replies. Then Woody turns to the camera and says to his audience, “Don’t you wish this happened in real life!”
Well, we naturally think the same thing. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if such a thing as Elijah’s triumph on Mt. Carmel happened in our lifetime, that the prophets of the false gods of the Western world were confronted as Elijah confronted the prophets of Baal and put in their place as those false prophets were put in their place. It would not have to happen often, just now and then! After all, we take note of the fact that Obadiah and the hundred prophets of the Lord he hid in caves were provided with no miraculous food, by ravens or in jars that never ran out. We fully understand that it was never God’s intention that the miraculous would be commonplace in the world of men. Indeed, were it commonplace, it would not longer be miraculous and would lose the importance that such supernatural events must have in gospel history. We appreciate that we must live by faith and not by sight. We know that there are deeds of difficulty and daring and patience and perseverance that we are summoned to perform as the servants of the Lord. We accept that fact willingly. But if only once, now and again, something like this occurred, how it would strengthen our faith and put a spring in our step and confidence in our witness! And, no doubt it would. But it is not God’s will. For whatever reasons, only a few times in human history has the truth of the gospel been demonstrated by divine power in the face of human beings who did not believe in and would not submit to the living God. That it happened those few times is proof that, had God willed, it could happen much more often; but it is also proof that such visible demonstrations of the invisible God are not God’s plan for his people or for the world.
Imagine the 7,000 in Israel who had not bowed the knee to Baal. Were some of them present when the lightning ignited Elijah’s sacrifice? Even if they only heard the story later, imagine their eyes filling with tears, the straightness returning to their backs, their confidence refreshed in the face of an intransigent and still unwilling royal house and still indifferent Israelite people. And still today, this history sends chills down the spine of people who know the Lord and know that the Word of God is true. It is an extraordinary report that we read here. Modern people are very likely to think it mythological, a legend, a story invented to make a point. Isn’t it odd, in some ways, that we read this same passage and know for a certainty that we are reading history in the ordinary sense of the term? Is this not because of the context of this narrative, in Kings, and in the Bible as a whole. Convinced that the Bible is the Word of God because we have heard God speaking to us in and through it, convinced that Holy Scripture is the truth because we have found it the truth everywhere and always, convinced that there have been prophets of the Lord who had performed extraordinary feats because we have met Jesus Christ himself, the greatest of these prophets and have participated in his own resurrection from the dead, it is a small thing for us to believe that Elijah did such a thing and such divine power came down from heaven. And for us such history is pure encouragement.
But I want to remind you, this evening, that though supernatural demonstrations like these are virtually unique in Biblical history so rarely did they occur, separated from one another by so many centuries in each case, the same sort of thing happens in our world all the time. Idolatry is unmasked as a figment of the imagination and the truth of God’s word is demonstrated in the most surprising and wonderful ways. Indeed, Mt. Carmel is everywhere in our life and the Lord’s lightning is striking all the time to demonstrate who is in fact the living God.
Israel in Ahab’s day and America in our day both threw off the authority of God’s law and what has been the result of that. A new day of freedom and prosperity? Did the sexual revolution usher in the Age of Aquarius and introduce us finally into a state of permanent peace and harmony? Hardly. What we got instead was the Age of AIDS, the Age of the Broken Family, the Age of the Broken Marriage, the Age of desperate children, the Age of Venereal Disease on a scale hitherto unprecedented in a civilized state, the Age of Pornography, and the Age of Abortion. We threw off the Law of God and got darkness, pain, and sorrow for our pains. We became so disgusting in the eyes of the world that we have provoked a significant body of foreign opinion to consider us satanic as a people and as a culture; the kind of culture that ought to be wiped off the face of the earth. That too is lightning from heaven. The law of God is proved just as well by the misery that eventuates when it is disobeyed.
Or take Ahab and Jezebel. There are always champions of unbelief rising up to pour scorn on the faith of Christians, to argue that it is worthless, out of date, even sinister and harmful. And as often as they appear in the world, the Lord sends Elijah to cut them down to size. Is it not amazing, when you think of it, that in every age God has raised up Elijahs to counter the influence of the prophets of Baal? Never does he leave himself without a witness and a powerful and persuasive witness. It is surely remarkable that in an age that had gone completely over to Darwinism, at least in the elite culture of media and university, when the prophets of secularism were rejoicing in their victory, the Lord should raise up, completely out of the blue, a frumpy law professor from Cal Berkeley, a specialist in evidence, with a razor sharp mind and a gift of communication who had no thought whatsoever of taking on the Darwinian establishment. But as a result of some reading and a chance meeting in England, Phillip Johnson found himself writing books and leading the van of a new generation of young scientific scholars who have shaken Darwinism to its roots. Who would have thought it just a few years ago?
Or, in a time when atheists have found their voice and a new breed of champions who are writing confidently of the end of religion, the Lord should take by far the most intellectually sophisticated of them, Antony Flew, and punish him for a lifetime of the academic advocacy of atheism by turning him into a theist at the end of his life, but not so near the end that he couldn’t write an intelligent and very tightly argued book announcing his desertion of the cause of his lifetime and why.
Or when Christopher Hitchens aspires to write God is Not Great the Lord has already provided a counterstroke by calling Christopher’s brother – a better writer and a more humane man – to faith in Jesus Christ.
Or earlier still, while still in our own generation, when it seemed that the 60s had dealt virtually a death blow to evangelical Christianity in the United States, there should suddenly appear Francis Schaeffer, on the one hand, and the Jesus movement on the other, [Schaeffer had gone to Europe to participate in the ministry of child evangelism because he had had such successful Vacation Bible Schools at his church in St. Louis,] and more young people became Christians in a fifteen year period – both in aggregate and perhaps per capita – than perhaps had come to Christ at any other time in American history. Is that not too Elijah on Mount Carmel. In some respects nothing more unlikely happened in the world during those fifteen years.
Or take Britain in the 1920s through the 1940s. The evangelical church was almost completely in eclipse. Believers were demoralized, churches were hemorrhaging their few remaining attendees, and the believing church as a whole was virtually leaderless. And then an Oxford don, perhaps, at least in the matter of the liberal arts, the most educated man in the world of his day, found himself unaccountably under the spell of the gospel of Christ and not only came to faith but began to defend and explain that faith in a way that made sense to millions. And around the same time a young doctor came to faith in Christ, a man who had no inkling that he might spend his life in the Christian ministry, but left medicine for the pulpit and soon was holding great congregations spellbound in central London. And soon he would be joined by a phalanx of young scholars and preachers, R.V.G. Tasker, John Stott, J.I. Packer among them, and the gospel would find its voice where many thought it would never be heard again. Tasker was an influential professor at the University of London and at the time of his conversion he was the chairman of the New English Bible translation project, which was a very important new translation at the time. He found evangelical faith listening to Martyn Lloyd Jones and suddenly one of the most prestigious positions in English biblical scholarship was held by a staunch evangelical. The reaction of his peers was predictable and vicious, proof again of how utterly unexpected and shattering such a defection was at the time. The prophets of Baal were never reconciled to their debacle on Mt. Carmel.
Such things happen everywhere and always. Who in 1948 would have predicted the growth of the Christian church in China, growth so dramatic and explosive that it is now a factor in the predictions made by our State Department concerning likely Sino-American relations in years to come? The State Department hopes the revival continues because they expect that Christians will be less likely to go to war than unbelievers in China. Who would have predicted the explosive growth of Christianity in Africa or in Nepal or in many other parts of the world? What is this, I ask you, but again and again Mt. Carmel and the sudden and unexpected overturning of expectations that everybody seemed to have of the final triumph of Baal?
The contest appears one-sided. All the colleges and universities, or almost all of them, have gone over to Baal, there are so many more of his prophets speaking in the culture than the Lord’s men, at least many more whose voices are heard in the media. Surely whether we are talking about television or films, internet or politics, 450 to 1 seems about right, does it not? And yet, out of the university the Lord will pluck an Elijah; out of the media as well (ask Bob Case for names and conversion accounts).
It is a phenomenal fact that no matter that Ahab was the king and Jezebel the queen, no matter that virtually the entire nation had taken to Baal and given hardly a thought to her history or to the revelation of himself that Yahweh had made to Israel at Mt. Sinai and in the generations since, nothing prevented the Lord from proving the power of his truth and life to the world. If the world will not believe, as it often will not in the teeth of such a demonstration, the church will at least find its courage and strength again.
Do you not think it remarkable and wonderful, as I do, that no other holy book in all the world sticks out its chin like the Bible does? It purports to relate the history, specific, often datable history of the ancient world. It names names, it trades in the migration of peoples, in battles, in the rise and fall of empires. This is the farthest thing from the typical mythology of ancient holy books. The Bible is straight forward history and the interpretation of that history. The Bible was written over 1500 years by many different men. It has been brought down to us in copies, thousands of copies. And yet, still today, no matter the attacks that are made upon it, no matter the efforts made to prove its historical unreliability, there is no point, no single assertion of the Bible among all the datable, verifiable or falsifiable assertions in the biblical narrative that is today known to be false. Not one. I don’t deny that there are many scholars who are sure that the Bible is untrue in what it reports here or there regarding a historical figure or event. But, the fact is, at every one of those points there will be a sizeable body of scholarly opinion – both believing and unbelieving – that defends the historicity of the biblical text.
We were told in the 19th century that the Hittites were a fabrication of the Hebrew imagination. Now so many Hittite documents have been unearthed by archaeologists that many remain to be translated for the first time. We were told that Moses could not have written the Pentateuch because writing had not been invented by his day. That howler, no matter its assertion by one of the most prestigious biblical scholars of the time, has been sent to that scrap heap where may be found a great many other confident assertions of biblical error now falsified by the passage of time and the discovery of new information.
Here is our Bible, like the Bible that Elijah knew, only much longer, that offers itself to the world. Is it the Word of God? You are welcome to attempt to disprove that it is. But be warned. The Lord loves his book and he will not see it undermined in the world. A great many clever people have tried before you and they have not succeeded yet! Here comes another archaeological dig or an ancient text being translated for the first time, or some advance in lexicography or cognate linguistics, and learned and devout scholars are handed another piece of divine lightning with which to do battle with the prophets of Baal.
So, do not imagine, brothers and sisters, that Mt. Carmel is found only in Israel and that Elijah has no descendants, or that such confrontations between divine power and human rebellion do not still occur. What we see there demonstrated so catastrophically and dramatically, has been demonstrated thousands of times ever since and many times wonderfully in our own time. Our God holds the lightning in his hand and no number of false prophets, however great, can unseat him from his heavenly throne. “I will be exalted in heaven and I will be exalted on earth!” So the Lord says, and so he has demonstrated again and again. We are to take heart. There are a great many Mt. Carmel’s still to come!