Elijah on Mt. Carmel
Read – 1 Kings 18:17-39
Key Verse – And Elijah came to all the people, and said, “How long will you falter between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow Him; but if Baal, follow him.” But the people answered him not a word (1 Kings 18:21 NKJV).
Key Thought – There is only one God, and He does not share allegiance.
First some background. This event took place during the years of the divided kingdom, Israel in the north, consisting of 10 tribes, and Judah in the south, consisting of 2 tribes.
There are three main characters in the story.
Ahab was the king of Israel at this time, and he was one of the most wicked of it’s kings, all of whom were wicked. To say that a person is the most wicked of a group that was entirely wicked, is saying a lot. The Bible puts it pretty succinctly when it says of him, But there was no one like Ahab who sold himself to do wickedness in the sight of the LORD, because Jezebel his wife stirred him up (1 Kings 21:25 NKJV).
Ahab’s wife Jezebel was, if anything, more wicked than Ahab himself. Viewed from any angle you can think of, she was a disgusting and evil pig. Both would eventually receive the judgement they deserved, Ahab dying in battle when a randomly shot arrow found a tiny chink in his armor (a God thing), and Jezebel when her own servants threw her out a window to the pavement below, where dogs ate her.
Finally, there was Elijah, a prophet mighty in word and deed. Even though in the world’s eyes, a prophet would seem to rank below either a king or a queen, Elijah stood taller than both here.
The scene took place during a time of terrible famine, which had occurred in response to Elijah’s prayer (cf. James 5:17). Elijah had prayed that it would not rain, and it had not rained for 3 years. As with most similar event, God was judging His people for their idolatry and sinful choices. They had turned from worshipping Jehovah alone, and were either wholly or partially worshipping the false gods Baal and Asherah. Baal was the male deity and Asherah his female consort. Baal was the Canaanite storm god.
Now, the famine was about to end (18:1), and Elijah was going to call his people back to the worship of Jehovah.
Elijah called a meeting with Ahab (vss. 7-8)
Ahab had been hunting for Elijah throughout the famine, seeking his life (vs. 10). But Elijah was one of the bravest men described in the Bible, and he did not fear Ahab in the least, so when the time came for the famine to end, Elijah sent for Ahab, and requested a meeting.
Ahab met with Elijah (vss. 17-19)
The king accused Elijah of being not only his enemy, but the enemy of all Israel. Elijah threw that accusation right back in his face, though, pointing out that his idolatry and Baal worship was the cause. I don’t know about you, but I find the interaction between the prophet and the king interesting. The king feared and obeyed the prophet, but the prophet did not fear the king, and demanded, yea COMMANDED the king. This is the opposite of what we would expect.
A couple years ago I attended a service at the church of a dear pastor friend, who was retiring from ministry. One of the speakers at the service was another friend, with whom I had attended college. Prior to his taking the pulpit, there was a recognition of some people in the audience who had come to wish the retiring pastor well. One was a young man who was on furlough from the mission field. He was recognized and there was a polite nodding of heads as the crowd acknowledged their appreciation. The second was another young man who was home on leave from military service overseas. The crowd, upon hearing this, applauded thunderously. My friend took the pulpit and began his sermon with a word of admonition. “I served overseas in the military for many years,” he began. I am retired military, and therefore I have the right to say what I’m going to say. “You ought to be ashamed of yourselves for applauding so loudly for that young man who is home from military service, and barely acknowledging the one who is giving his life to serve the Lord overseas.” You could have heard a pin drop. He was not in any way demeaning the sacrifice of the young soldier, but rather rebuking us all for our lack of appreciation for the even greater service of the missionary.
Spurgeon said, “If God calls you to be a minister, don’t stoop to becoming a king.” There is perhaps no greater reminder of this truth than here, where we see Elijah towering over this cowering punk of a king.
Elijah commanded Ahab to gather all the prophets of Baal (450 of them), all the prophets of Asherah (400 of them), and all the people of Israel, to Mount Carmel (vs. 19). Mount Carmel lies on the border between Phoenicia (land of the Baals) and Israel (land of Jehovah). It was regarded by the Phoenicians as the sacred dwelling place of Baal. The mountain is symbolic in Israel of fertility and plenty. Isaiah wrote of it, It shall blossom abundantly and rejoice, Even with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, The excellence of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the LORD, The excellency of our God (Isaiah 35:2 NKJV). And Jeremiah wrote, But I will bring back Israel to his home, And he shall feed on Carmel and Bashan; His soul shall be satisfied on Mount Ephraim and Gilead (Jeremiah 50:19 NKJV). I have stood atop Mount Carmel, and it is a beautiful place. I took the picture on the front of this morning‘s bulletin when I was there. It depicts a statue of Elijah atop the mountain, defeating the prophets of Baal.
Well, Ahab complied, and they all assembled on Carmel, except for the 400 prophets of Asherah, who are not mentioned. Perhaps Jezebel refused to let them go.
Elijah rebuked the people of Israel for their backsliding.(vs. 21).
How long will you falter between two opinions? Elijah called the people to a choice… a decision…. There is only one God… and you cannot divide your allegiance as the people of Israel were doing. God demands singular allegiance.
I’m going to come back to this verse in a few minutes. It is one we ought to have marked in our Bibles. And Elijah came to all the people, and said, “How long will you falter between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow Him; but if Baal, follow him.” But the people answered him not a word (1 Kings 18:21 NKJV).
Then, his gaze moving from the people to the false prophets:
Elijah threw down the gauntlet. (vss. 22-24)
He called them out. He challenged them to a dual. He took off his gloves and slapped them across the face. However you want to view it or describe it, this was one man challenging 450 other men to a contest… to a feat of strength. We might paraphrase vss. 22-24 as “There is only one of me to your 450. So let’s rumble!”
Now, there are a couple ways we might interpret his contention that he was the last of the prophets. He might have actually felt that way. Later he would complain of the same thing, and seem to really believe he was out there all by himself in serving the one true God. cf. (1 Kings 19:10,14). Of course, it was not true. For so it was, while Jezebel massacred the prophets of the LORD, that Obadiah had taken one hundred prophets and hidden them, fifty to a cave, and had fed them with bread and water (1 Kings 18:4 NKJV). Yet I have reserved seven thousand in Israel, all whose knees have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him (1 Kings 19:18 NKJV). God always has His remnant, so if Elijah’s “I’m the only one left” was just him being thumb sucky, he was wrong.
But another possible interpretation is that Elijah was not suggesting he was the only prophet left, but rather that in this context… on that mountain… he was one man against 450. Perhaps he made this point to strengthen his argument that Jehovah was the one true God. Even a multitude of 450 false prophets and their false god were no match for a lone man with the one true God. “It’s just little old me against your army of 450. Seems like a fair match to me.”
Truth is not determined by a majority! That’s a good thing for us American’s to remember. It’s a good thing for you young people to remember. Just because the crowd says it is so, does not in any way make it so.
Well, the challenge was simple enough. He would be given a bull, and the 450 would be given a bull. Each would pray to their God (god, in the case of Baal), and whichever answered the prayer by sending fire to devour the offering, would be the winner.
Now realize what Elijah was doing – he was literally throwing down the gauntlet and challenging Baal in his own house! Mount Carmel was considered ground zero for Baal. And Baal was the storm god of rain and lightning. He gave them the choicest of locations, the first choice of the bulls, and even the choice of activity – one that should have been squarely in Baal’s wheelhouse – the god of fire answering by fire.
Elijah gave Baal time to respond. (vss. 25-29)
They prepared the bull of their choice, and laid it out on an altar they made. They prayed to their god. They prayed again. Then they prayed again. They prayed all morning right up until noon. But there was no voice; no one answered (vs. 26b).
So around noon, they started getting a bit exasperated and they started leaping about the altar. Elijah had apparently been sitting a ways off, quietly observing all this activity, but around noon he could contain himself no longer. He began to mock them (vs. 27). He suggested that maybe they weren’t praying loud enough. Maybe their “god” couldn’t hear them… maybe he was meditating and needed to be aroused from his meditation. Maybe he was busy. The ESV translates that most accurately, I think, for the phrase seems to mean that he was “relieving himself.” “Cry louder,” said Elijah, “for maybe your god is in the little boy’s room!” Maybe he was asleep, or maybe he had gone on vacation and they needed to call him back from there.
This goading seemed to send them into an even greater frenzy for now they began to cut themselves with knives and spears, as was apparently a customary part of their worship of Baal. This nonsense continued on past noon until the time of the evening sacrifice drew near. That was about 3:00 in the afternoon. So for the better part of 6 hours, these 450 men had prayed, prayed louder, shouted in desperation, and finally cut themselves bloody, in trying to get their false god to answer them. Imagine this scene… 450 (that’s at least 4 times the number of people we have in the building this morning) grown men praying, yelling, screaming, cutting themselves, gyrating around the altar on which lay their dead sacrifice.
You see, their efforts for hours make it clear that these false prophets truly believed what they preached. They truly believed Baal could hear them and answer them. It is entirely possible to sincerely believe in a thing, and be sincerely wrong. But there was no voice; no one answered, no one paid attention (vs. 29). That’s one of the sadder verses in the Bible, I think.
Elijah repaired the old altar of the LORD and prepared his offering. (vss. 30-35).
He did not build something new, but restored what was already there. Too often we think we need to reinvent things… reinvent the wheel. I subscribe to a plethora of email articles about church growth and church planting and church building, and it is amazing how many of them could be summed up with the phrase, “We can’t do it this way any longer… we need to have a new way.” Every new generation comes along with the arrogant demand that “if you want to reach us, you’re going to have to change things.” But the glorious and amazing thing about the gospel of Jesus Christ is that it works just as it is, for every generation. It has worked for 2000 years and will work until Jesus comes back. We might need to, from time to time, freshen up our methods, or take advantage of new technologies, but the day we try to change the message or methods prescribed in the Bible is the day we start down the slope of worshipping the Baals.
Elisha was the prophet who, some years in the future from this event on Carmel, would succeed Elijah. The Bible records several miracles that Elisha performed. One of them occurred like this. Elisha and a group of men were cutting down trees. One of them took a big swing with his axe, and watched in dismay as the head of the axe flew off, went into a body of water, and sank out of sight. He had borrowed the axe, and therefore he was distressed because he couldn’t pay for the loss. Elisha asked him where the thing had entered the water, and the man showed him where. Elisha then thew a stick in the water at that place, and the axe head floated to the top so the man could retrieve it. You can read that story in 2 King 6:1-7
Years ago I listened to a sermon by my then-pastor Tom Malone on that story. I can still see him acting out the part of Elisha. “Where did you say you lost it?” “RIght there,” said the man, pointing to a spot in the water. “Where?” probed Elisha. “Right there… that exact spot,” replied the man. “Then right there is where you’ll find it now,” said Elisha, in Dr. Malone’s reenactment. Where you lost it is where you’ll find it now.
Elijah started calling the people back to Jehovah in the exact spot where they had fallen from it… he repaired the altar they had allowed to fall into disrepair. Or perhaps they had actually torn it down. Later Elijah would again be in one of his thumbsucky moods and he would complain to God about the people, saying the children of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, torn down your altars… (1 Kings 19:10). We can do that, you know. We can tear down our own altars, destroy our own churches, destroy our own homes. Solomon said, The wise woman builds her house, but the foolish pulls it down with her hands (Proverbs 14:1).
Warren Wiersbe applied Elijah’s method here to the home when he wrote, “This is the first step toward blessing—repairing the personal altar of devotion, the family altar, the altar of sacrifice, and communion with God.”^[Warren W. Wiersbe, “Wiersbe’s Expository Outlines on the Old Testament,” (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1993), 1 Ki 18.]
Well, Elijah rebuilt the altar, and then he dug a trench around it, large enough to hold about 14 quarts of water. A “seah” was equivalent to about 7 quarts. He laid out the wood on the altar, then he cut the bull in pieces and laid the pieces on the altar. All this was pretty normal routine when preparing a burnt offering.
But then he did something different. He told those standing nearby to get 4 waterpots full of water and soak down the offering, the wood, and the altar. He told them to do this 3 times (vss. 33-34). Now there are always those who think themselves smarter than the Bible, and some such have ridiculed this story because Elijah was able to find so much water in the midst of this terrible draught. But there are springs on Carmel which exist to this day. One source pointed out that the springs were even close enough to the site of this event that they could have easily run back and forth in the allotted time to get and pour the water. The springs on Carmel are said to flow even in the driest seasons.
The water covered everything, and filled the trench around it to the brim. The water would prove conclusively that this was not a trick. There was no secret fire under or in the altar, for the water would have extinquished it. vss. 23,25 – put no fire under it. Apparently, this was a trick they used or had used before, so show that their god of fire could make fire. “Not this time,” said Elijah.
Elijah prayed. (vss. 35-37)
He prayed a totally “God centered” prayer. Read it and see if you don’t agree. He was seeking glory for God… that all would know who the one true God was and is.
I am convicted by Elijah’s prayer, and long for such rock solid faith. Elijah truly believed, and demonstrated his belief, that God can do anything. He can fix anything that is broken. He can restore anything that is lost. He can heal any sickness. He can forgive any sin. He can do anything… anything… ANYTHING!
To stand before everybody as Elijah did here, and believe that, is something I pray for myself, and for all of you. I have people sit in my office and tell me of some trouble they think impossible to fix. I wonder everytime I listen to those same words, “It’s too late… there’s no fixing this,” do you even KNOW God? It’s not too late for Elijah’s God! Why for yours? Our enemy the devil will tell you that problem you’re facing is insurmountable. He will tell you that you need to find your own way, for God has abandoned you. He will tell you that you need to seek answers where the majority of people seek them, in the world and its false gods, rather than in the one true God. Oh that we would always be as Elijah – believing to the uttermost in the power of our God to do what needs to be done.
Well, the one true God answered by fire. (vs. 38)
And it was no ordinary fire. It obliterated the sacrifice, the wood, the stones, the dust, and all the water. Had you and I been looking on, we would have seen a large stone altar, covered with copious amounts of wood (enough to burn up a bull), a dead bull lying thereon, a trench dug round the altar, and water dripping from everything and filling the trench. Once the fire had fallen, we would have seen none of that. Nothing. Every bit of it would just be gone… no longer there… obliterated. There was nothing but empty and clean ground where once all that had stood.
Those looking on could interpret this no other way. This was “a God thing”. And they fell prostrate on their faces and acknowledged it. The LORD, He is God! (vs. 39).
What it Means
We’ve made a couple of applications already:
We’ve already mentioned the fact that 1+1=SUCCESS. Elijah didn’t need a crowd. Him and God made a majority, and the same is true of you and I. We don’t need a crowd, a majority, or even a minority. All we need is God. This application has been common to most of the Old Testament stories we’ve studied in this series.
– Noah found it to be true when he spent 100 years building an ark, alone against all others who thought him nuts. But he survived the flood because he trusted in God, and that was all he needed.
– The children of Israel found it to be true when they stood with the back to the Red Sea and watched the immense military machine of the Egyptians advance. But all they needed was God, and He proved it to them by opening a path through the sea to safety.
– David found it to be true when he faced Goliath, and watched in awe as God guided a stone to it’s mark and defeated the giant.
– Daniel found it to be true when he chose to worship God alone, even when everybody else bowed to worship the king. And he found God was there with him, even in the lion’s den.
We’ve also already mentioned the fact that just because a crowd says it, doesn’t make it true. From the beginning of time, mankind has been disposed to follow the crowd. It is no different today. As little children we all used the same words when telling mom why we did something we should not have done, “But Mom, everybody else was doing it!” Today it’s worse than ever, though. Now with social media, we can build our own crowds… our own special groups of people who think just like we do. We can unfriend or unfollow those who don’t tow the line, and we can actually build a crowd just exactly the way we like it. But that crowd is no more right than any other. “You shall not follow a crowd to do evil… (Exodus 23:2 NKJV).Oh that we would be more like Elijah and remember that just because a crowd says it, even our own hand picked crowd, doesn’t make it true.
I think we also touched on the fact that our God CAN and DOES… even the IMPOSSIBLE. This is another application we’ve seen throughout this series. Our God loves to hear that word “impossible.” I think He smiles when He hears it, for it gives Him a chance to prove the absurdity of it. I’m reminded of one of my favorite New Testament illustrations. Jesus was listening to a man describe the condition of his terribly ill and demon possessed son. The man said to Jesus, if You can do anything, have compassion on us and help us (Mark 9:22).Jesus reply was wonderful. Jesus said to him, If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes (Mark 9:23). The original language there is fascinating, for Jesus actually said something like, “If you can!?!? Believe!” Or to paraphrase a bit further, “What are you saying? Are you saying I CANNOT? All thing are possible if you believe!”
Oh that we would get hold of this and believe it with all our might. NOTHING is impossible with our God. If there is a theme that runs throughout this series we’ve preached on the Old Testament stories it is that – NOTHING IS IMPOSSIBLE WITH OUR GOD. Whatever it is, our God can heal it… He can fix it… He can remake it… He can handle it. His arm is not shortened, and nothing nothing nothing nothing nothing is too hard for our God.
There is one final application, though, that I think might be the main application from this text, and I conclude with it.
There is only one God, and He does not share allegiance.Think back for just a final minute on Elijah’s question to the people on that mountain. And Elijah came to all the people, and said, “How long will you falter between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow Him; but if Baal, follow him.” But the people answered him not a word (1 Kings 18:21 NKJV).
Certainly some of the people had abandoned the worship of Jehovah completely and thrown in with the Baal worshippers. But others were tottering. They still claimed to believe in Jehovah, but were trying to believe also in Baal. They had one foot in each camp. They were “limping on two crutches” as one source translated Elijah’s words.
We do that far more than we care to admit. Rather than wholeheartedly follow the Lord, we keep right on living our secular lives, and worshipping our secular little idols, while sprinkling in a bit of Jesus worship alongside it. But it doesn’t work that way. God does not share allegiance, and we have to choose.
– You cannot serve Jesus and money at the same time.
– You cannot serve Jesus and a career at the same time.
– You cannot serve Jesus and family at the same time.
– You cannot serve Jesus and any other idol you have in your life.
– He demands your all. And when you give Him your all, He gives you His all.
Are you faltering between two opinions? Only one of them is right… only one God can and will answer by fire. Everything else is false!
And Elijah came to all the people, and said, “How long will you falter between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow Him; but if Baal, follow him.” (1 Kings 18:21 NKJV)