Ancient Israel was sliding ever more swiftly into abject paganism. Weak King Ahab and his cruel wife, Jezebel, were burying Israel under a suffocating mantle of evil. God sent Elijah to reverse this disastrous descent into heathenism.
Elijah, a faithful prophet of the true God, had early in his life learned the fear of God. His calling was to fight against idolatry and injustice, protesting a corrupt society.
One day, as Elijah confronted the king, Ahab asked sarcastically: "Is that you, O troubler of Israel?" Elijah coolly responded to Ahab's insult: "I have not troubled Israel, but you and your father's house have, in that you have forsaken the commandments of the Lord and have followed the Baals [false gods]."
Courageous Elijah followed with a direct challenge to the king: "Now therefore, send and gather all Israel to me on Mount Carmel, the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal, and the four hundred prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel's table" (1 Kings 18:17-20). Ahab did as Elijah asked and gathered the false prophets on Mount Carmel.
It is remarkable that Ahab responded in this manner to Elijah's challenge. As the events unfold, we see the prophets of Baal behaving like sheep being led to slaughter.
In Elijah's day Israel had willingly fallen into a vortex of evil. The nation had turned to idol worship. God's people had forgotten the one true God who, generations earlier, had repeatedly delivered them from their troubles. Much of their attitude was attributable to Israel's morally weak king, Ahab, and his overbearing pagan queen, Jezebel.
Elijah the Tishbite, a faithful prophet of the true God, had early in his life learned the fear of God. His calling was to fight against idolatry and injustice, protesting a corrupt society. His sudden, direct pronouncements and his abrupt appearances and disappearances created an air of mystery.
Ahab appears to have honored God early in his reign, as the names of his sons show: Ahaziah ("God possesses") and Jehoram ("God is high"). Brave in battle but morally weak, he acquiesced to the degrading influence of Jezebel, a fanatical Tyrian devotee of her false religion.Ahab had cemented a political alliance between Israel and Phoenicia by marrying Jezebel, daughter of the Phoenician king. The consequences for Israel were to prove disastrous.
To please her, Ahab erected a temple to Baal at Israel's capital, Samaria (1 Kings 16:32). He allowed Jezebel to support hundreds of foreign priests (1 Kings 18:19) and permitted her to execute prophets of the true God (1 Kings 18:4; 1 Kings 18:13). The Israelites tragically followed the lead of their king and queen as they degenerated into idolatry. Jezebel's religious customs became the court religion and were rapidly being adopted throughout the nation. God called Elijah to staunch the spread of the cancer eating away at the fabric of Israelitish society.
Elijah Confronts Ahab and Jezebel's Prophets
The saga of Ahab and Jezebel is a stark warning to succeeding generations. The Scriptures say that Ahab "did evil in the sight of the Lord, more than all who were before him" (1 Kings 16:30).
"And it came to pass, as though it had been a trivial thing for him to walk in the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, that he took as wife Jezebel the daughter of Ethbaal, king of the Sidonians; and he went and served Baal and worshiped him. Then he set up an altar for Baal in the temple of Baal, which he had built in Samaria. And Ahab made a wooden image. Ahab did more to provoke the Lord God of Israel to anger than all the kings of Israel who were before him" (1 Kings 16:31-33).
After Ahab's flagrantly evil acts, God sent Elijah to confront the monarch and pronounce a curse on Israel: "As the Lord God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years, except at my word" (1 Kings 17:1).
God punished backsliding Israel for its idolatry, sending a crippling drought. It took some time for the effects of the drought to be felt. Knowing the murderous inclinations of Jezebel, God sent Elijah to the east, to hide near the Brook Cherith, which joined the Jordan River. There Elijah would have ample water; there God would send birds to feed him (1 Kings 17:3-5). Elijah could eat while the rest of the nation withered from the drought.
Eventually, with no rain to replenish it, the brook dried up. Elijah's life was again apparently in danger.
The Widow's Mite and God's Might
God instructed Elijah: "Arise, go to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and dwell there. See, I have commanded a widow there to provide for you" (1 Kings 17:9). Parched but obedient, Elijah entered the city and noticed a widow gathering sticks. He asked her to bring him a little water to drink. As she went fetch the water, he called to her and asked her to bring him a scrap of bread (1 Kings 17:10-11).
The biblical account describes the woman's crestfallen response. She dejectedly explained that she had no more bread, only a handful of flour in a bin and a little oil in a jar. She was picking up sticks so she could prepare a meal from the last of her food. After that food was gone, she had resigned herself to the certainty of death from starvation for her and her son.
Elijah told her that God would not allow her and her son to perish. The bin of flour would not be used up, nor would the jar of oil run dry, until God sent rain to break the drought.
The widow honored Elijah's request and prepared bread for him. Elijah's word was good: Her flour and oil, enough for only one last meal, miraculously fed the woman, her son and Elijah for many days.
But the woman's trials were not over. She was shocked when her son fell sick and died. In her grief she blamed Elijah for her son's death.
Moved by her anguish, Elijah prayed fervently for her son: "O Lord my God, have You also brought tragedy on the widow with whom I lodge, by killing her son? . . . I pray, let this child's soul come back to him" (1 Kings 17:20-21).
God heard Elijah's prayer and brought the boy back to life. Elijah presented him alive to his mother. This miracle convinced the widow: "Now by this I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is the truth" (1 Kings 17:24).
But it would take more than miracle for Israel to learn that Elijah was God's prophet—and even more to convince Ahab and Jezebel.
Capricious Ahab, Murderous Jezebel
After the third year of drought, God instructed Elijah to visit Ahab and tell him that the drought would soon be over (1 Kings 18:1). Meanwhile, Ahab had charged Obadiah, the overseer of his household and a God-fearing man, to search for grass to feed his mules and horses.
During Obadiah's search, he met Elijah. Elijah instructed Obadiah to return to the king and tell him he would visit him.
But Obadiah was afraid. If he relayed Elijah's message to the king but Elijah failed to appear as he said he would, Ahab might kill him. So Obadiah prevailed on Elijah not to endanger his life. It was he, after all, who had helped save 100 prophets of God, hiding them in caves and sustaining them with bread and water.
Jezebel had massacred the prophets of God whom Obadiah could not hide, but he had risked his life for those he had hidden. Elijah appreciated Obadiah's fearful concern. He reassured Obadiah that he would indeed appear before Ahab, that he need not worry.
Elijah kept his word. When he came to the king, Ahab chided Elijah, "Is that you, O troubler of Israel?" (1 Kings 18:17). Elijah pointedly responded that Ahab himself was responsible for Israel's troubles and the prolonged drought that was ravaging his nation.
To settle the matter, Elijah put forth a challenge: "Now therefore, send and gather all Israel to me on Mount Carmel, the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal, and the four hundred prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel's table" (1 Kings 18:19).
Amazingly, Ahab complied. Was he deluded by his own arrogance into thinking he could meet Elijah's challenge? We don't know. Perhaps he thought he could humiliate Elijah, thereby diminishing his influence on Israel. Whatever Ahab's thoughts may have been, it must have seemed a risk worth taking: hundreds of Baal's prophets against only one Elijah.
Showdown on Mount Carmel
When all the participants had gathered on the mountain, Elijah set the stage to reveal the existence and power of the one true God. "How long will you falter between two opinions?," he called out to the Israelites gathered to watch. "If the Lord is God, follow Him; but if Baal, then follow him" (1 Kings 18:21). Nobody spoke. Fascinated though unconvinced, they watched his every move, hung on his every word.
Elijah's plan was simple. It required the offering of two sacrifices, one from the prophets of Baal and one from Elijah. Baal's prophets could choose among the bullocks and sacrifice first. Elijah's instructions were straightforward: "Then you call on the name of your gods, and I will call on the name of the Lord; and the God who answers by fire, He is God" (1 Kings 18:24). Everyone agreed to the arrangement. Everyone would see and know who was God.
The prophets of Baal hastily prepared their offering. They cut up the animal, then placed an abundance of dry wood under the offering. Then they called on their gods. In a exhausting, long-winded effort, they cried out to Baal from morning until noon. "O Baal, hear us!" they begged (1 Kings 18:26).
When all the participants had gathered on the mountain, Elijah set the stage to reveal the existence and power of the one true God. “How long will you falter between two opinions?,” he called out to the Israelites gathered to watch.
The prophets of Baal called, but there was no answer. The pagan priests even leaped around the altar to motivate their gods to respond. Still no answer.
About noon Elijah began to mock his rivals: "Call louder, for he is a god. It may be he is deep in thought, or engaged, or on a journey; or he may have gone to sleep and must be woken up" (1 Kings 18:27, Revised English Bible).
Elijah's words provoked them into frenzied desperation: "They cried still louder and, as was their custom, gashed themselves with swords and spears until the blood flowed" (1 Kings 18:28, REB). Bloody and weakened, Jezebel's prophets continued their crazed pleas to their gods until evening. Still they were met with silence.
Then came Elijah's turn. He asked the people to move in closer while he picked up a dozen stones, representing the 12 tribes of Israel, and reconstructed the broken-down altar.
Around the altar he dug a trench. He arranged the wood and cut the sacrifice in pieces and laid it on the altar. He instructed others to drench the sacrifice and wood with water. Elijah asked them to repeat the drenching with water a second and third time, soaking everything so thoroughly that the trench overflowed. There would be no allowance for error or trickery.
Elijah asked God to reveal Himself to Israel as the one true God. His prayer was brief but telling: "Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that You are God in Israel, and that I am Your servant, and that I have done all these things at Your word. Hear me, O Lord, hear me, that this people may know that You are the Lord God, and that You have turned their hearts back to You again" (1 Kings 18:36-37, emphasis added throughout).
Then the all-consuming "fire of the Lord" suddenly fell on the altar and burned up the sacrifice. Even the water in the trench around the altar disappeared in the flames (1 Kings 18:36-38).
It was an awesome, frightening sight. The stunned bystanders fell on their faces and cried out: "The Lord, He is God! The Lord, He is God!" (1 Kings 18:39).
Elijah seized the moment. He ordered the Israelites to seize the prophets of Baal. "Do not let one of them escape!" (1 Kings 18:40). On Elijah's instruction, they brought the pagan priests to the Brook Kishon, where Elijah executed them.
Jezebel had murdered God's prophets. Now God had Jezebel's degenerate pagan prophets killed. The spread of idolatry was stopped in its tracks.
The Miracle of Rain
God had revealed Himself to His chosen people, Israel. Their sincere and faithful response would soon bring blessings. "Then Elijah said to Ahab, 'Go up, eat and drink; for there is the sound of abundance of rain'" (1 Kings 18:41).
Seven times Elijah sent his servant to check for rain clouds. During his last trip, he saw a small cloud rise from the sea. Rain was on its way.
Elijah immediately told Ahab, "Prepare your chariot, and go down before the rain stops you" (1 Kings 18:44). Ahab rode down the mountain to Jezreel. Miraculously, Elijah outran the king's chariot! (1 Kings 18:46). God again showed His power through this superhuman feat.
Israel's long trial had come to an end. God was vindicated, restored to His rightful place in the eyes of His people.
The New Testament mentions this particular incident as an encouraging example of faith and answered prayer (James 5:17-18). In fact Elijah is portrayed as one of the great men of God of all time. Centuries after his time, John the Baptist (whose ministry preceded Christ's), is said to have come in the "spirit and power of Elijah" (Luke 1:17).
'The Lord is God!'
Elijah's name demands attention. It means "The Lord is God!"—spoken vehemently and emphatically. It means, in essence, "That One, and no other, is the only true God!"
Without knowledge and conviction of the one true God, people follow the world's evil ways and reap its curses. You and I have lived this way (Ephesians 2:1-3). God is calling everyone, everywhere to repent, to turn from their false gods (2 Corinthians 4:4) and return to the one and only true God (Acts 17:30-31).
Mankind does not know the true God. But the prophet Isaiah predicted that all will someday be able to learn God's truth (Isaiah 11:9). That has not yet happened. It will happen, after Christ's second coming.
There will be no televangelists in that day, pleading with their viewers to "know the Lord" (Hebrews 8:11). Jesus Christ will rule supreme on earth, uncontested and uncontestable in his righteous reign. Satan will be bound for 1,000 years (Revelation 20:3).
There will be only one religion, one faith. No one will need ask, "Do you know the Lord?" God's ways will be taught to all mankind. "None of them shall teach his neighbor, and none his brother, saying, `Know the Lord,' for all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them" (Hebrews 8:11).
However, before Christ's second coming will come times of hunger, pain, destruction and widespread death. God will send Jesus Christ to rescue mankind from self-extermination—from the consequences of our own greed, selfishness, anger and arrogance that will bring us to the brink of human annihilation (Matthew 24:21-22).
Beyond that horrendous time lies a marvelous age—1,000 years of peace and prosperity. In that wonderful world of tomorrow, when everyone will know the true God, reverently honoring and obeying Him, God's peace and prosperity will cover the earth as the waters cover the seas!
You, too, can know the one true God, the God of Elijah. You don't have to wait until mankind has to learn the hard way to acknowledge the true God. You can rejoice with those ancient Israelites, "The Lord is God, the Lord is God!"