1 Kings 17
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By Stephen Green
First Published in Christian Voice October 2008
1 Ki. 17:1 And Elijah the Tishbite, who was of the inhabitants of Gilead, said unto Ahab, As the LORD God of Israel liveth, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years, but according to my word. . . .
1 Ki. 18:1 And it came to pass after many days, that the word of the LORD came to Elijah in the third year, saying, Go, shew thyself unto Ahab; and I will send rain upon the earth.
2 And Elijah went to shew himself unto Ahab. And there was a sore famine in
. . . .
17 And it came to pass, when Ahab saw Elijah, that Ahab said unto him, Art thou he that troubleth
18 And he answered, I have not troubled
; but thou, and thy father's house, in that ye have forsaken the commandments of the LORD, and thou hast followed Baalim.
19 Now therefore send, and gather to me all
unto mount Carmel, and the prophets of Baal four hundred and fifty, and the prophets of the groves four hundred, which eat at Jezebel's table.
20 So Ahab sent unto all the children of
, and gathered the prophets together unto mount Carmel.
21 And Elijah came unto all the people, and said, How long halt ye between two opinions? if the LORD be God, follow him: but if Baal, then follow him. And the people answered him not a word. . . .
27 And it came to pass at noon, that Elijah mocked them, and said, 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. . . .
38 Then the fire of the LORD fell, and consumed the burnt sacrifice, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench.
39 And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces: and they said, The LORD, he is the God; the LORD, he is the God.
40 And Elijah said unto them, Take the prophets of Baal; let not one of them escape. And they took them: and Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon, and slew them there. (KJV)
Moses and Elijah stand as the towering figures of the Old Testament, so much so that they appeared with Christ at His transfiguration (Matt 17:3-4) and were instantly recognised by the disciples. And if the miracle-working Moses was the channel through which God revealed His law, Elijah can be regarded as the greatest of the prophets.
God raised Elijah up at a time when the worship of Ba-alim, the many Ba-al demonic entities, threatened not just His law, but the very name of the Lord in
Ba-al simply means 'Lord', 'Master' or 'Husband'. Each pagan nation around
tended to have its own 'Ba-al'. The Ba-als were fertility gods and their worship resulted in the injustice and sheer wickedness of human sacrifice. Now, as a result of the prophets speaking out against such evil, the existence of true worship was itself in danger.
The Bible in Kings and Chronicles identifies the defining sin of bad kings as that of walking 'in the sin of Jeroboam the son of Nebat'. The sin of Jeroboam was the raising up of the golden calves, in other words, the sin of idolatry. And yet it was not the case that people just decided to worship in another way and life went on as normal, as secularists might have us imagine. Then, as now, religion was not a 'private matter'. The deity followed by those in power influenced aspects of law and justice.
Ahab was already sinning greatly when he married Jezebel the daughter of Ethbaal (it means 'With Ba-al') king of Zidon (or
). Perhaps a mere alliance with the sea-trading and fishing Phoenicians was intended, but with Jezebel came the worship of fertility gods, and when these measures and the accompanying injustices were opposed by the prophets of God, Jezebel set about persecuting the prophets themselves.
There is an interesting, chilling, historical footnote in the last verse of 1 Kings 16 which gives us an insight into how human life was regarded at the time by those who followed fertility gods. Hiel the Bethelite fulfilled Joshua's curse (Josh 6:26) when he rebuilt
; he sacrificed his eldest son by burying him in the foundations, and slaughtered his youngest when he dedicated the gates.
By exalting and worshipping features of the natural world, trees, the earth, fertility, the sun, the moon, for example, we downgrade other features, in particular, human life. And the experience of the present day shows that when we worship man and human intellect instead of God, it is no different. Human life, made in the image of God, becomes less than sacred. This was what paganism in
had resulted in, and this is why it was so much greater a sin than Jeroboam's political expedient of setting up the golden calves. Human sacrifice, especially that of infants, the exaltation of sex including temple prostitution and institutionalised homosexuality, the repression of godly principled opposition, were now a fact of everyday life amongst a people who were actually covenanted to the Lord.
But when we think of the slaughter of the unborn in Great Britain, with evil secularists wanting to extend that to Northern Ireland (as if enough innocent blood has not already been spilt there), the way that sex has been exalted above duty to become almost a right, the relentless promotion of homosexuality in the United Kingdom and the continual moves to silence the preaching, faithful Church, we find distinct echoes of Israel under Ahab and Jezebel with our own time.
Into this maelstrom of evil enters Elijah. It is possible that he was trained in the 'Sons of the Prophets' school reputedly set up by Samuel, and equally possible that he was now its head. He was well respected by Obadiah, that godly man who had found himself in the position of prime minister to Ahab and was engaged in sheltering two companies of prophets in caves.
In contrast to Obadiah's recognition of Elijah as 'my Lord', Ahab's approach is more abrupt. 'You're the one causing
all this trouble,' we might put it in today's language. Elijah's retort that Ahab had himself brought about
's problems by following paganism showed that this was not a meeting of minds. On top of that, Elijah's response reveals a return of Ahab's animosity which we should be hard put to reconcile with modern-day notions that we must be loving and gracious to all we meet at all times.
I have to admit I am challenged by the word of God in James about Elijah. The thought that he was a man like us, with the same 'passions', emotions, anxieties and so on gives me a problem, as I cannot ever see myself as having the depth of faith which would call down fire from heaven. But above that, James tells us that Elijah prayed that it would not rain. Elijah actually prayed for something which would bring harm on his fellows. That is hard to take. James even gives the episode as a glowing example of effectual fervent prayer.
No doubt Elijah's prayer was the result of seeking the Lord, and hearing His instruction, but I think we are more used to the Lord bringing judgment against a wicked nation Himself, rather than using a human being, a prophet, not just to pronounce it, but to bring it about. When Abraham heard of God's impending judgment against
, he interceded on
's behalf. We do not read that Elijah did that.
The result of Elijah's preaching and prayers made him a man both hated and feared by the elite of his day. The prayers of John Knox terrified a queen. How much more so the prayers of Elijah. We shall never know what made him issue his
challenge to Ahab, except his faith and his closeness to God, nor what prompted Ahab to accept the challenge. Matthew Henry suggests that they expected Elijah to lift the curse and pray for rain. 'But he had other work to do first' says Henry, ominously.
In verse 21, from Elijah's first challenge, it seems that at least some of the people were trying to worship God and Ba'al simultaneously. 'Follow one or the other', says Elijah. Again, we have the same situation today. We have those who say they are Christians, who sing the worship songs and do all the Christian things, but who are still secularists at heart. They have pagan minds which prefer laws dreamed up by men to laws written by the finger of God. They do not have enough confidence in God to put all their trust in Him, in His word and His law. So much of the state of the nation in Elijah's time resounds down the ages to focus our thoughts on ours.
So we come to Elijah's second challenge, that of the sacrifices. In the event, when Ba'al fails to send fire after many hours of pagan incantations, Elijah ridicules his prophets. One of his suggestions in verse 27 may be interpreted as 'perhaps he has popped out to relieve himself'. It occurs to me that the presence of God must have been as tangible to the false prophets as it is when Christians pray against New Age exhibitions; it is common for the tarot readers and fortune tellers to complain that their spells will not work. Be that as it may, again our preconceptions of what it means to be a man of God are challenged by Elijah's sarcasm and scorn. 'Perhaps he is asleep and needs waking up', he sneers.
Then, upon his triumph, when God sends the fire and the people acknowledge the Lord as God, Elijah mounts what can only be seen as a military coup. He kills his opponents, or more properly the Lord's opponents, who are members of the ruling elite, the prophets of Ba'al and of Asherah (the groves). We may not like this approach from our cultural perspective, although the Victorians loved it - Mendelssohn's oratorio Elijah portrays the episode in all its gore. In the end, Elijah's armed revolt is short-lived - Ahab and Jezebel still had control of the army - but he is preserved to cast his mantle and a double portion of his spirit upon Elisha and has the honour of being taken up into heaven.
Before we run away with an idea that God has Himself and through His prophet acted in an uncaring, unloving manner, let us just consider how gracious God has been. There has been much innocent blood shed; Elijah, in his brief period of rule, has avenged that blood, put to death the traitorous false prophets, and tried to establish a society based once more on justice. God has bent the rules on sacrifices; they were supposed only to be carried out in the temple in
, but here one has been made and honoured by God on a pile of stones on mount Carmel. In Genesis and on
, the Lord provided the sacrifice Himself; here He provides the fire. God requires repentance before redemption; here He graciously makes repentance inevitable, turning their hearts Himself by such a wonder that no-one could doubt that He is God. Even though the wicked king and queen, Ahab and Jezebel, failed to repent and were left in place, God still sent the blessing of the rain. Finally, when Elijah went into deep depression at the failure of his coup, God promised him that He had 7,000 left and that He still had work for Elijah to do.
So there is much to challenge us and encourage us in the ministry of Elijah. Active in politics, fearless before kings, faithful in prayer. At times he was persecuted, but at other times unassailable. Who will pray to have anything like his spirit? We too can feel as if we are the only ones left. The Lord always has His remnant. We may have victories along the way, and there will be discouragements. But the Lord can use still use us; Elijah was instructed to anoint Jehu to be king. In the event, that duty was passed on, Jehu became king, and eradicated Ba'al worship from
not many years later (2Kgs 10:28). The Lord plays a long game, and it is a mark of His grace that He condescends to use men and women with different gifts. We may not all end up with an oratorio written about us, but we can all be faithful to the work God has called us to do.