Trust God Against Overwhelming Opposition
Sunday School Lesson for May 11, 2003
Background Passage: 1 Kings 18:1-46
Focal Teaching Passage: 1 Kings 18:16-40
Elijah Confronts Ahab (18:16-19)
Following three years of the drought, which had come as a sign of God’s displeasure and divine judgment upon Israel, Elijah confronted king Ahab with a direct charge of apostasy—“You have abandoned the Lord’s commands and have followed the Baals” (v. 18). This prophetic accusation came in response to Ahab’s determination to rid the land of Yahweh’s prophets (see 18:1-15), and especially Elijah whom Ahab named the “troubler of Israel” (v. 17). Note that Elijah’s specific charge against Ahab was that he had led the people to abandon the worship of the God of the covenant—the One who had spoken though the patriarchs and Moses, and had manifested both His power and His grace in the calling out and preservation of the covenant nation. By giving worship to the Baals, mere man-made idols with no real existence, Yahweh’s commandments and precepts had been summarily discarded. In other words, the real problem in Israel was not a lack of sufficient rainfall, but a lack of faithfulness to God [Wiseman, 168].
Armed with prophetic boldness, Elijah commanded the king to “summon the people from all over Israel to meet me on Mount Carmel.” This action indicated that, as far as the prophet of God was concerned, the time had come for a public display of the power of Yahweh as opposed to the impotence of the Baals. It is critical to note that Elijah made an “explicit connection between the drought and apostasy,” and therefore, “transformed the conflict between Ahab and Elijah into a contest on a higher level” [Nelson, 116]. This contest, on one hand, would be between “the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and the four hundred prophets of Asherah” and the man of God, Elijah. In reality, however, the real contest would pit Yahweh and Baal—the One true and living God against the idol.
The Test at Mount Carmel (18:20-37)
While Ahab was assembling the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel as Elijah had specified, the prophet confronted the people with the facts of their sin against the Lord. His question—“How long will you waver between two opinions?” (v. 21)—suggests not so much a headlong rush into idolatry, but an unwillingness to commit themselves to the worship and service of Yahweh alone. By living without religious convictions, and practicing a kind of theological fence sitting, the nation had actually chosen to worship the idol-gods by default. Elijah’s counsel to the nation, then, was fully appropriate—“If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him” (v. 21).
In verses 22-24, Elijah set the stage for a dramatic test between the deities. He proposed a trial involving “two bulls,” one sacrificed by the 450 prophets of Baal, and one to be offered by Elijah himself (vv. 22-23). Note the particular details of the contest:
Interestingly, the people of Israel fully agreed to the test and pronounced it acceptable to them—“What you say is good” (v. 24).
As the contest began, Elijah allowed the prophets of Baal to go first, giving them every opportunity to strike a pre-emptive victory [Nelson, 117]. Verses 26-29 display how the false prophets went about frantically calling upon their deity to answer by fire:
It is quite humorous that Elijah began to mock and even “taunt” the false prophets as they sought to engage their god (v. 27). He suggested that the Baal was hard of hearing—“Shout louder!”—distracted—“Perhaps he is deep in thought”—or even “traveling” to some other location. The word translated “busy” in this verse even indicates Elijah’s crude suggestion that the Baal may have been occupied in the out-house! The prophet of God made it clear that, as far as he was concerned, Baal was no god at all. At best he was simply “a joke!” [Nelson, 118].
In verse 29 we see that, despite their best efforts to call upon Baal to display himself, “there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention.”
Following the complete failure of the prophets of Baal, Elijah summoned the people of Israel to “Come here to me” (v. 30). With their full attention riveted to the second act of the contest, Elijah repaired the altar and made use of “twelve stones” which represented the covenant nation—“the tribes descended from Jacob, to whom the word of the Lord had come” (v. 31). He then gave specific orders concerning the preparation of the altar for the display of Yahweh’s sovereign power:
· The sacrificial animal was cut into pieces and laid upon the wood (v. 33).
With all of the preparations completed, Elijah “stepped forward” and began to call upon the God of Israel to answer him. Note the significant elements of the prophet’s simple and humble supplication:
Elijah’s Prayer and God’s Answer (18:38-40)
When Elijah had finished his prayer to the God of Israel, “the fire of the Lord” immediately fell from heaven and “burned up the sacrifice,” including the very “wood, the stones, and the soil,” and even “licked up the water in the trench” (v. 38). Certainly, this was no ordinary fire or a simple, well-timed lightning strike. Its miraculous nature was fully confirmed by the reaction of the onlookers who “fell prostrate” and began to repeatedly confess, “The Lord—he is God! The Lord—he is God!” (v. 39). With this, Elijah’s prayer was fully answered and the name of the Lord was glorified in Israel.
That day the people of Israel learned, in dramatic fashion, that “Yahweh can send fire or rain from heaven, but Baal cannot respond to his most valiant worshippers. A god like Baal is no God at all. A God like Yahweh must be God of all” [House, 221]. In other words, what was originally intended as a contest between two competing deities, in reality turns out to be “a contest between God and an empty delusion” [Nelson, 121].
The contest ended in a most violent and disturbing way as Elijah orders the execution of the prophets of Baal—“Seize the prophets of Baal. Don’t let anyone get away!” This order of execution must be understood as an act of obedience to the Levitical law of Deuteronomy 13:1-11 which specifically calls for the death of false prophets. It was not, then, an “act of wanton cruelty but the necessary retribution, ordered by Elijah as the ‘new Moses’ on behalf of God, against false prophets” [Wiseman, 170]. This action should also be seen as an instance of divine vindication in connection with Jezebels’ previous murder of Yahweh’s prophets (18:4).
One: Sliding into apostasy—Israel sinned initially by tolerating the practice of Baal worship in the land. Apparently, it was little theological compromises along the way that resulted in their national sin. Think about how this relates to believers in the twenty-first century world. Are there any connections here? How are believers today challenged at this level?
Two: The wages of sin . . . the blessings of faith—This passage clearly displays that sin against God has profound consequences (the national drought, and the death of Baal’s prophets). Yet, it also shows us that there are equally profound blessings associated with faith in God, pure worship, and obedience to His commandments. What are some of these blessings? Also, you will want to consider the powerful way this passage teaches us that faith must have a worthy object. Zeal, sincerity, and even extreme forms of discipline and self-sacrifice are useless if the object of one’s faith is not sufficient.
Three: The need for repentance—Look carefully at 18:37 where Elijah expresses both the prayer and the confidence that God will turn the “hearts” of His people “back again.” Think about how God brought this about. What is necessary for spiritual conversion to occur? Is conversion only for those who are lost, or is there a legitimate sense in which even Christians need to be converted?
Four: Shadows of Calvary—Consider how this incident at Mount Carmel prepares us for the atoning death of Christ and His glorious resurrection. Are there any parallels between this event and the ministry of Jesus? Think about the “mountain-top showdown” recorded in Luke 4:1-13 and how it might be foreshadowed in this Old Testament story.