WEEKLY SERMON BLOG
"Worshipping What is Real” --- I Kings 18
In our contemporary culture, many wish to separate religious belief from truth. In the effort to ease tensions in our society over religious differences the consensus has become that what each one believes about God is a personal matter and should not be brought into the public square and should not be something over which we debate. Rather, it is asserted that whatever one believes about God (including if they believe no God exists) is a matter of preference and not fact; a preference that helps an individual to cope with life and perhaps enables them to be a better person in various ways.
This viewpoint is radically at odds with what the Bible teaches. This portion of the Book of First Kings in fact directly contradicts this popular notion about religion. Through the passage God Himself speaks through a powerful story to reveal to humanity that we must decide if we will worship and what we will worship in light of what is true. There is a real, actual God that exists and we are challenged to seek out the One that is really there, rather than allowing ourselves to be deceived into believing falsehoods manufactured in someone’s imagination.
I. Sinful King Ahab:
This particular story about God and His people Israel begins with the record of a new king ascending to the throne:
--- I Kings 16:29-34
In the ancient near east, a particular point in time was marked by the king who ruled at the time, and which year in his reign that the particular event took place. By our calendar, the date of this king’s ascension to the throne was 874 B.C. His ascension came fifty-five years after the division of the nation (immediately after the reign of Solomon). At this time a confederation of ten tribes constituted the nation of Israel and occupied the northern portion of the Land of Promise. To the south was the nation of Judah (composed primarily of that one tribe). The northern kingdom of Israel was plagued with an unbroken line of wicked kings. The first king of the northern kingdom established two idolatrous locations wherein the Israelites were to worship Yahweh. But with the arrival of Ahab, Israel had its most wicked king, and these verses give us insights into what made him such an evil king. First we are told that he repeated the evils of Jeroboam and then went even further into evil by marrying Jezebel. Jezebel was Phoenician (from the city state of Sidon), and in fact the daughter of the king of that foreign power. Ahab built her a temple for Ba’al because she was a devoted worshipper of that Canaanite deity. The king himself also had an idol of Ba’al constructed. As for Jezebel she wished to eradicate the worship of Yahweh in Israel and instead make Ba’al the official god of the Israelites. Ahab, by facilitating this objective, had become Israel’s most wicked king. The text makes it clear that Ahab made the sinful choice to marry this woman (vs.31). The reason he would have been culpable is because the Law of the Covenant warned the people not to marry such women and to resist any and all efforts to promote false worship in Israel. Finally, it is added that an individual named Hiel was given permission to rebuild the fortifications of the ancient city of Jericho. The reference to the word spoken by Joshua reminds the reader of the curse that Yahweh led Joshua to make on anyone who would rebuild the fortifications of that ancient wicked city:
--- Joshua 6:26
II. Elijah Proclaims a Drought:
Having been introduced to the antagonist in the story, now the writer introduces the protagonist; a zealous prophet named Elijah:
--- I Kings 17:1-7
This is the first reference to Elijah in the Bible, and we are told that he came from a small town located east of the Jordan River. He enters the scene with no other introduction than that and launches into a confrontation of the wicked king as God’s spokesperson. Elijah introduces the confrontation with the words, “As Yahweh lives”. This expression stresses the genuine existence of Yahweh, and the author did this in light of Ahab’s promotion of the worship of Ba’al (a god who does not actually live). The prophet announced that Israel would be cursed with a drought; one so severe that there wouldn’t even be dew on the ground in the mornings. This threatened curse struck at the very heart of the worship of Ba’al. The title “Ba’al” meant lord, and this god was believed to have power over the storms; therefore this god supposedly controlled when it rained. By saying there would be no rain until the prophet said so, God was challenging the claim that Ba’al had such power.
We are next told that God tells Elijah to flee into the eastern wilderness. God sustained him there for some time by a brook of fresh water; this was done through the supernatural provision of food that was delivered to him by ravens. In the next chapter (18:10) we are told that God does this to hide Elijah from Ahab who wanted to capture the prophet. We then are told that after a while the brook dried up and Elijah had to be directed elsewhere to survive the drought. This is noted to make clear that what God said, had come to pass; the promised drought was in progress.
III. Elijah’s Arranges and Audience with Ahab:
Later in the narrative we read that the time had come for the prophet to once more address the wicked king of Israel:
--- I Kings 18:1-15
We are informed that three years have passed since Elijah pronounced that Yahweh would send a drought upon the Land. This of course meant that throughout this time the supposed god of the storm, Ba’al, had not been able to make it rain. God tells Elijah that he is to present himself to the king. In order to understand what Elijah does next, one has to be aware that you didn’t just walk up to a king that easily in the ancient world. You needed someone to give you access to him, and Elijah knows just the man to give him that access.
We are then told that due to the drought, there was a serious famine in the Land. The lack of feed for Ahab’s herds led him to leave the palace to go looking for some place for his herds to graze. He also employed one of his officials, who was over the royal household, to lead an additional search for fodder at the same time. This official’s name was Obadiah. This was not the same individual who served as a prophet and composed the Biblical book bearing his name. Obadiah, thought he served in the court of this king, was a man who worshipped Yahweh. Because of his place in the court of the king he had been able to rescue, hid and feed 100 prophets of Yahweh when Jezebel the queen went about slaughtering the prophets who served Yahweh.
While Obadiah was out searching for available grassland for the king’s livestock he was approached by the prophet Elijah. Elijah asked Obadiah to bring the king to him. We are told that Obadiah was frightened by this request and even asked if the prophet was trying to kill him for some sin he had committed. The reason for the man’s fears was that he knew that God had been supernaturally hiding the prophet from the king. He was afraid if he brought this news to the king, God would again hide Elijah and Obadiah would be left to face the anger of the frustrated king.
But Elijah promised by oath that he would in fact remain where he was in order to meet with the king so there was nothing for Obadiah to fear.
Twice in this chapter, we read that someone swears by Yahweh of hosts who lives; first Obadiah (vs.9) and then Elijah (vs.15). The inclusion of these two oath statements continues to emphasize the key idea that Yahweh is the living God who actually exists, while all other gods (in this case particular reference is to Ba’al) do not live and are not real.
IV. Elijah’s Challenge to Ahab:
In the following verses we read about the challenge that Elijah proposes to Ahab regarding the issue of which God Israel will worship:
--- I Kings 18:16-19
At their meeting, Ahab greets Elijah as “O’ troubler of Israel”. This is clearly an accusation that Elijah was responsible for the suffering that was taking place in Israel because of the drought he announced. The odd thing is that Ahab doesn’t acknowledge the obvious conclusion that should be drawn from this accusation. Having acknowledged that the drought was related to Elijah’s pronouncement, the king had made a tacit acknowledgement that Yahweh and not Ba’al was truly in control of the weather. But rather than dealing with the clear implications of the drought, he simply cast Elijah as a villain in this conflict. However, Elijah responds to this by setting the record straight, that it was Ahab and his father who were to blame for the suffering that was going on. The suffering was because of their disobedience to the commandments of God. When God established His covenant with Israel He told the nation that His blessings were conditional on their obedience to His commandments. Yahweh had told Israel from the outset of His covenant with them that if they disobeyed Him, He would curse them with hardships, and the threatened hardships specifically included withholding rain:
--- Deuteronomy 11:16-17
Therefore the present misery could have been anticipated as the inevitable result of the worship of false gods. Since it was Ahab and his father who were ultimately to blame for Israel’s false worship, they were the ones causing distress for the nation.
Elijah then issues his challenge to Ahab. He calls upon Ahab to assemble the public to witness an epic contest of the gods. Yahweh versus Ba’al to see which one is truly God. Elijah also tells the king to summon all 450 prophets of Ba’al, and all 400 of prophets of Asherah to the contest. Asherah was a female god and the consort of Ba’al. Together these gods were thought to bring fertility. Elijah says that all these prophets sat at Jezebel’s table. This is an astounding statement. Normally the table belonged to the king, for it was his prerogative to grant the privilege of being a part of his court. The fact that it is Jezebel’s table indicates that she was the real power behind the throne, and prepares the reader for the revelation that it is the queen who will turn out to be the one who was truly trying to eliminate the worship of Yahweh in Israel.
V. The Failure of Ba’al:
In the following verses we read how Ba’al fails to prove that he is the true god:
--- I Kings 18:20-29
We read here that Ahab agreed to the challenge and assembled everyone that Elijah had listed. The contest of the gods was to take place on Mount Carmel. This mountain is actually a mountainous ridge from which one can see the coastal lowlands and the Mediterranean Sea. It was from the sea that the storms came to the land of Israel and so this location had become a common place for the worship of Ba’al. In the polytheism of the Ancient Near East, people did not believe that any god had universal power; rather, like human rulers, they had power over specific spheres of creation or over specific regions. The importance of this was that from the perspective of the worshippers of Ba’al Mount Carmel gave them home field advantage where it would be presumed that Ba’al was at his strongest and Yahweh at His weakest. Further the number of prophets on either side (450 for Ba’al and 1 for Yahweh) would also imply advantage. The more devotees that a god had, the more likely it was that someone could arouse him to action. Finally, Elijah also let the worshippers of Ba’al pick the bull they thought was best (ensuring a greater likelihood of a positive response from their god), and gave them the opportunity to call on their god first. So Elijah was setting the stage in such a way that Ba’al worshippers would have no excuse if their god was unable to prove himself.
Elijah then confronted the crowd and argued that both Yahweh and Ba’al could not truly be lord. The Israelites were vacillating instead of choosing which god they would truly give their allegiance to. This was to prepare the crowd to watch what would unfold as decisive, determining which of the two gods they would worship.
The challenge centered in finding out whether Yahweh or Ba’al would act to accept the sacrifice offered to them. The deity that did consume the sacrifice would be proving that he was the true god who deserved to be worshipped. So two altars were to be set up and on each the meat of a bull was placed upon it, and the deity would be called upon to burn the sacrifice. Since Ba’al was a storm god he supposedly not only controlled rain, he controlled lightening. So the people would be waiting to see which deity cast a lightning bolt at their altar to consume the offering.
The prophets of Ba’al accept the opportunity to go first in the challenge and begin to call upon their god to accept their offering. From early in the morning (the Hebrew term refers to day break and so it refers to a time that was at least fairly early) until noon the prophets sought Ba’al to respond and consume the sacrifice. After hours of prayers, chants, and ritual dances there was still no answer. At noon, Elijah began to mock and humiliate the prophets of Ba’al to illustrate the absurdity of their belief in this non-existent god. The text gives us four taunts that Elijah directs toward the prophets of Ba’al to suggest possible reasons why their god had failed to respond to their calls:
These taunts and the tension of the silence from their god led the worshippers of Ba’al to go further to prove their devotion to him. They begin cutting themselves, creating deep wounds and causing themselves great pain and misery which was intended to convey the sincerity of their worship. They repeatedly cut themselves, made prophetic proclamations, and pleaded with their god until three o’ clock in the afternoon (the time of the evening sacrifice). The reader is then told “But there was no voice; no one answered, no one paid attention” (vs.29). The repetition is for emphasis. These desperate prophets after hours of pleading and frenzied efforts to arouse their god failed to gain the desired response, the meat was still on the altar.
VI. The Vindication of Yahweh:
In the following verses we read how differently things went when Elijah chose to call upon Yahweh:
--- I Kings 18:30-39
We read that Elijah repaired an old altar to Yahweh that had been destroyed by Jezebel as a part of her attempt to eliminate the worship of Yahweh from Israel. We are told that in doing so Elijah assembled twelve stones that represented the twelve tribes of Israel. The allusion is to the calling of Israel; to remind the watching crowd who Yahweh was. Yahweh had redeemed Israel from Egypt in fulfillment of His promises to the patriarchs. He had then brought these people into the Land of Promise and enabled them to conquer the people who lived in it so that they could possess it. Yahweh was their God, the one from whom their identity as a peculiar people derived. Thus it was a gentle reminder of all they had allowed to be taken from them when this wicked king and queen replaced the worship of Yahweh with the worship of Ba’al. After setting up the altar, we are next told that Elijah dug a trench around the altar and made it “large enough to hold two seahs of seed”. The size of the trench is described in terms of something that holds about half a bushel of grain. A trench that held half a bushel would not be very large. Most likely we are to understand that the writer is referring to a standard container that held this amount of grain, meaning the trench was as deep as that container (a container that would hold approximately two gallons; perhaps about a foot or a little more in depth).
Then we read that the altar was soaked three times over with water from four water pots so that not only was everything on the altar drenched (including the meat and wood), there was so much runoff that it filled the small trench that Elijah had dug. The purpose of the soaking of sacrifice was the exact opposite of all that Elijah had said about the altar to Ba’al; instead of providing Yahweh with any advantages, the prophet was making it more difficult for the meat and wood to be burned as a sacrifice; highlighting the supernatural implications of what was about to happen.
So Elijah was done with the preparations for his turn to call upon his God by the time of the evening sacrifice; after several hours of failed attempts by the prophets of Ba’al. As Elijah calls upon God, he does not engage in frenzy, agitation, or self-mutilation; he simply invokes Yahweh to respond to the words of His prayer to vindicate that He is real, that Elijah was His servant, and that all of this was done to turn the hearts of the Israelites back to Himself.
Without any delay Yahweh responds to the prophet and not only consumes the meat upon the altar (accepting the sacrifice), but the heavenly fire also consumes all the wood, stone, and even the water in the trench. This is all done before the eyes of the Israelites in dramatic fashion. The fact that the fire consumed the stones also demonstrates that the fire was not natural; for neither lightning nor anything else we know of; it was the power of God. The display accomplishes God’s goal; it has proven to all those who were watching that Yahweh was the real God who genuinely has power to do what His prophets say and that Ba’al was a nothing and his prophets lying frauds. The Israelites in response are moved to worship and acknowledge the obvious; Yahweh is the real God.
VII. Elijah Proclaims the End of the Drought:
In the conclusion of this story we read:
--- I Kings 18:40-46
In light of the clear demonstration of the reality that Yahweh was truly God and Ba’al was not, Elijah order the execution of the prophets of Ba’al. The execution of false prophets who would lead people away from the worship of the true God was required in the Law God gave through Moses:
--- Deuteronomy 13:1-5
Elijah then tells king Ahab to prepare to feast in anticipation of the abundant rain that Yahweh and not Ba’al will provide. Then Elijah bowed himself to the ground and began to pray that God would send the promised rain to end the drought and further confirm that He is genuinely God. The posture of Elijah as he prays reveals the earnestness of his prayers. Since the rain normally came from the direction of the Sea, Elijah tells his servant to look in that direction for a sign of the storm. The servant looks and reports back six times that there was no sign of rain; but after the seventh petition the servant sees a cloud on the horizon so distant that one could hide it with one’s hand. At that point Elijah urged the king to set out in his chariots because soon there would be a storm coming with the needed rain.
We are told that Ahab went to Jezreel, and this was the king’s winter capital. On his way (a distance of about 15 to 20 miles) his chariot was overtaken by the rain.
There is some debate as to what is meant in verse forty-six. Based on the NAS, some have suggested Elijah outran the king’s chariot and that this implies that he was miraculously aided to run at superhuman speed. However, it is far more likely that the ESV rendering is better and that what is meant is that Elijah ran before Ahab’s chariot (a common thing in that time, where a king would be accompanied by an entourage that jogged beside the royal chariot). This seems to indicate that Ahab experienced a short-lived change in attitude that lasted until he returned to Jezebel; further confirming his spiritual dullness and personal weakness (in light of the fact that he had also seen the miracle with his own eyes).
More and more in our time people assert that regardless of the religion, all people basically worship the same god. Not only is that demonstrably false (confirmed by simply reading what various religions affirm) it is contrary to Biblical teaching. What is not recorded in this passage is Elijah saying something like, Yahweh is Ba’al, or Yahweh is Asherah, or Yahweh is Molech. The reason is because the other gods were either human or demonic lies that were meant to take the place of the truth that there is one God, and the truth about what He is like. The same is true regarding contemporary religions. Whether we invent new gods, or re-define the one true God, it is the same sin. It is twisting what is real, powerful, and wonderful into meaningless lies that are unable to help us in this life and will lead to eternal ruin in the next. This passage reminds us to worship the God who really is, the only God who can rescue, sustain, and provide us with hope for the future. Let us learn from this passage and resolve to believe what is true rather than allowing ourselves to be deluded into believing in lies.
In the Bonds of Christ,