I Kings 18:17–19:18. The War Against Baal
Pt.ii. Elijah On Mt. Carmel.
Key Notes: Risking everything, then upping the ante. Triumphant power. Elijah runs for his life. God's patient care of his exhausted servant. Warfare then and now.
Elijah had started the drought, and he ended it in a dramatic way. He forced a direct confrontation with Baal. Who controls the water and the fire: God or Baal?
IK.18:17–19 As he had promised Obadiah, Elijah went to meet Ahab. Ahab accused Elijah of troubling Israel; Elijah told Ahab that it was he who had forsaken the commandments of the Lord and followed Baal. Elijah ordered Ahab to assemble all Israel to Mt. Carmel with the priests of Baal and of Asherah--850 in all. Ahab complied without argument.
IK.18:20–24 On Mt. Carmel, Elijah asked Israel how long they would keep limping between two opinions. Chose God or chose Baal. A sacrifice would be prepared. The real God would Himself light the fire on the offering. It was a controlled experiment done in public. Everyone agreed that it was a good idea.
IK.18:25–29 Baal's prophets went first, and did their orgiastic dancing and blood-letting for perhaps six hours. Elijah taunted them into more furious activity. No god spoke.
IK.18:30–35 Elijah then had his opportunity. He went to a ruined altar to God, rebuilt it with twelve stones for the twelve tribes, and laid wood, and the bull in pieces on it. Then he handicapped the power of God. He dug a trench around the altar, and saturated the whole structure with water. No tricks. No flint and steel in the pocket. No gasoline and matches.
IK.18:36–39 He called the people near. At the time of the evening sacrifice, Elijah prayed that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob would confirm Elijah as His servant and answer his prayer. No doubt there was a moment of silence. Then the fire fell. It consumed even the stones. (Limestone degrades in intense heat.) The people fell on their faces and acknowledged JHWH as God.
IK.18:40 Elijah executed all the prophets of Baal on the spot. Ahab did not interfere or even complain.
IK.18:41–46. Elijah told Ahab to break his fast. The rain was coming. There was no sign of rain, but Elijah prayed on his knees until his servant came back the seventh time with the first sign of a thunder-head. He urged Ahab to head for home, and then outran his chariot the 17 miles to Jezreel--a summer residence of Ahab and Jezebel.
IK.19:1–8. When Ahab told Jezebel the news of Mt. Carmel, she sent a message to Elijah that he had 24 hours to live--vengeance for what he had done to the prophets of Baal. She could have sent troops to capture him, but she only sent a threat.
Elijah ran for his life to Beer-sheba, 90 map miles south, left his servant and ran another day into the wilderness. He prayed to die. Then he fell asleep under a broom tree until the angel of the Lord woke him to a meal of hot cake and water. He ate and again fell into exhausted sleep. The angel of the Lord woke him a second time to eat. He revived, and went on the strength of that food to Mt. Sinai. The distance is 160–220 map miles south of Beer-sheba, perhaps 420 miles by the published roads, most of which skirt the center and go along the edges of the sea. The terrain is rugged. It would take roughly 20 days of ordinary walking plus climbing the 7000ft. jagged peak of Mt. Sinai/Moriah. It took 40 days, averaging 10 miles a day, and he apparently did not eat on the journey.
IK.19:9–14 God now spoke to Elijah: "what are you doing here?"
Elijah had been very jealous for JHWH Sabaoth. Israel had forsaken the covenant, thrown down the altars, killed the prophets and now they were after him too. He was the only one left. God told him to stand up on the mountain.
God passed by and displayed a dramatic wind-storm, an earthquake, and a fire. But God was not any of these, only in a still, small voice. Elijah recognized the voice and hid his face.
A second time God asked what he was doing here.
Again, Elijah said he was the only one left.
IK.19:15 Then God told him to walk back north into Syria, the wilderness of Damascus. There he was to anoint Hazael king over Syria, Jehu king over Israel, and Elisha to be his successor. Incidentally, there were 7000 in Israel who were God's elect remnant. He was not alone and never had been.
Nobody in the OT runs like Elijah. Was he supernaturally energized? From Mt. Carmel to Jezreel, the hand of the Lord was on him. Then he ran from Jezreel to Beer-sheba. He ran south 40 days and nights to Mt.Sinai on the food the Angel of the Lord gave him. I suspect Elijah was a much younger man than we usually imagine.
In the second phase in the war against Baal, Elijah fought Baal by fire, blood and water.
*Fire: Elijah risked everything on a calculated miracle pushed by adding water to prevent the fire he was calling for. God must confirm that he is God's servant and that Israel's heart would be turned back. BAAL lives? BAAL is dead.
*Blood: We apologize for ELijah's systematic slaughter of 850 prophets of Baal, forgetting the previous slaughter of the prophets of God. We are also forgetting that these were teachers and propagandists for a malignant religious system guaranteed to debase men and women and demoralize a nation. Baal's head was being hit. The heart of Baal must be hit also. More judgment will follow.
*Water: Elijah risked again, prophesying the return of the rain. The answer came to him after intense prayer. Baal cannot send the rain. Baal's hands had been cut off.
The intensity of Elijah's work is not easy to imagine. He put his life and reputation in front of thousands of Israelites. He was greeted with silence and polite skepticism. His prayer was intense and in public. There was only one right thing to happen. Would it happen?
After his great victory, Elijah was vulnerable. Jezebel had only to shake her finger and the prophet ran for his life. We note that God did not stop him. In fact, God supported him with food and water, so that the journey would not be too costly.
It is not strange that the person who puts out great spiritual exertion will collapse afterward. We would have been surprised if he had not. People who do intense spiritual work know that there must be a respite afterward. God did not chide him for collapsing. It is embarrassing to realize that he could be stampeded by Jezebel, but God gave him time to recover, to reconnoiter, and in time to be reassigned. Jezebel would be dealt with in due time.
When Elijah spoke to God, he said in effect that his mission was not successful. The altars were still broken down, the covenant forsaken--even after Mt. Carmel. He was correct. Skeptics are not persuaded by evidence, even miracles. It will take the turnover of a generation (40 years) before Baalism is defeated.
When Elijah had run out of everything in himself, God met with him, and showed him three displays of what we call nature's power. The displays came from God but He was not part of them. Perhaps the meaning is that the destruction of Baalism by physical forces was a necessary but negative part of the war, while the Holy Spirit's still small voice was the real agent of change.
Then God gave him new orders and a companion, Elisha, so he could not say he was alone. The "Elijah Syndrome" is the feeling of aloneness which Christians sometimes suffer from. It is usually temporary, especially when we go to a new place where we feel under the gun and do not at once find fellowship.
We are left with a nagging question. How do we react to the execution of the Baal prophets? Should we be assassinating abortionists? Should we go to war against Islam? Should we burn down Hindu temples? Should we destroy images of Buddha as the Taliban did?
Almost universally, the answer is no. Jesus said "My kingdom is not of this world, else would my servants fight." (Jn.18:36). Jesus rebuked Peter for swinging a sword at the high priest's servant. (Matt.26:51). The early Christians, lambs among wolves, defeated the Roman Legions not with swords, but by prayer, witness and suffering.
Then what have we learned from Elijah's actions? We take in his warfare metaphor, knowing that we do not battle against flesh and blood but against principalities, against powers, against the world rulers of this darkness. We seek God's demonstrations of power, but know that His ultimate work is done by the Spirit's still, small voice.