The Contest on Carmel
There were two kinds of Old Testament prophets: prophets of words and prophets of deeds. Of the former, the greatest is doubtless Isaiah. Of the latter, there has not been a greater than Elijah. He was a man of deeds more than words. He was a man of action rather than diction. And his experience with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel was probably the greatest of all his stirring deeds.
“And it came to pass, after many days, that the word of the Lord came to Elijah in the third year, saying, Go, show thyself unto Ahab, and I will send rain upon the earth” (18:1). The moment had arrived. Baal, supposedly the god of storm and good crops, had proven utterly powerless to relieve the drought that had afflicted Israel for three-and-a-half years (17:1; Jas. 5:17). The man of God, however, had been sustained through the Lord’s supernatural provision at the brook Cherith and in the widow’s home (17:2-24). It was now time for Elijah to confront Ahab again. This second confrontation would answer in a spectacular way, once and for all, the question as to who was the true and living God – the Lord or Baal. In modern parlance, one might say that it would be a match to decide who was the real “heavyweight champion of the world.”
THE CALL TO CARMEL 1 KIngs 18:17-21
Elijah’s word to Ahab was that he should gather all the false prophets under the throne’s employment to Mount Carmel — a high ridge jutting out into the Mediterranean near modern day Haifa. When the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal had gathered, along with a large contingent from all the children of Israel, Elijah issued an ultimatum: “. . . How long halt ye between two opinions? If the Lord be God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him. . . ” (18:21).
The basic problem of the Israelites was not that they had totally rejected the Lord and followed Baal, but that they wanted both the Lord and Baal! Elijah made it clear, however, that the Lord is a jealous God who allows no rivals to His worship. The people had to make up their minds. They could not worship both the Lord and Baal. It would actually be preferable to follow Baal totally than seek to mingle the worship of that false deity with the worship of the only true God. When Christ spoke to the Laodicean church, He put the matter this way: “I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot; I would thou wert cold or hot. So, then, because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew thee out of my mouth” (Rev. 3:15-16). Some people drink hot coffee and some people drink iced coffee, but lukewarm coffee makes them both sick! The same holds true in spiritual matters.
A politician was once asked, “Are you for this issue?” In the true manner of a politician, he replied, “Well, some of my friends are for this issue, and some are against it … and I am for my friends! How sad that many “professors” of religion are like these confused children of Israel. Some feel that they can live with one foot in the Kingdom of God and one in the kingdom of the world. Someone has said, “Don’t sit on the fence, or you’ll get shot at from both sides!”
Elijah’s call to the people of Israel was to make up their minds whom they would serve. God calls us today as He did through an earlier man of God, “. . . choose you this day whom ye will serve …” and may we respond as he did, “. . . but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Josh. 24:15).
THE CONFRONTATION WITH THE PROPHETS 1 KIngs 18:22-29
Elijah threw down the gauntlet to the Baal prophets. The terms of the contest were to be veritable trial by fire! The prophets were to choose a bullock, cut it in pieces, lay it on the wood of the altar, while Elijah did the same with a second bullock (18:23). They were then to proceed to implore Baal to send fire upon their altar. Elijah would do the same, but call on the Lord instead. “. . . and the God who answereth by fire, let him be God. . . ” (18:24). The people who were watching agreed that the terms were fair, so the match began!
The Baal prophets had their turn first, Throughout the morning hours they cried out for Baal to answer their increasingly frenzied entreaties, even leaping bodily on the altar to emphasize their frantic supplications. But the heavens were silent. Elijah even engaged in some “holy mockery” by poking fun at their nonexistent “god”. He reminded them that maybe Baal was hard of hearing, or maybe he was talking to someone else, or maybe he was involved in some personal business, or perhaps he was on vacation. Worse yet, this “mighty god” possibly was tired and was enjoying a siesta (18:27)! The reader might wonder if such taunting was “kind” on Elijah’s part, but the prophet was only pointing out the absurdity of idolatry compared to the omnipresent, omnipotent and omniscient LORD whose ears are always open to His children’s cries. God himself laughs at the foolish ideas of the heathen (Ps. 2:4) and points out vividly in other passages the absolute idiocy of worshiping dumb and deaf objects as so-called “gods” (Ps. 115:4-8; Isa. 44:9-20).
Elijah’s biting satire only drove the frantic devotees into a greater frenzy ~ they cut their own bodies with knives, thinking that perhaps Baal would then have pity on them. They continued thus to the middle of the afternoon, but when they finally dropped in exhaustion,”. . . there was neither voice, nor any to answer, nor any that regarded” (18: 29).
The misguided actions of the prophets serve to remind us of a very important truth. Faith and sincerity in religious worship do not insure that one’s worship is acceptable. No one could deny that they had faith! No one could fault them for not being sincere! The only problem is that their faith was in the wrong object and they were sincerely wrong! It is not enough to have faith — faith is only as good as its object. It is not enough to be sincere. Jesus reminded the Samaritan woman that true worship of God must be not only sincere, it must be “…in spirit and in truth” (Jn. 4:24).
THE CONFIRMATION BY JEHOVAH 1 KIngs 18:30-40
The ball was now in Elijah’s court. His calm, measured approach contrasted boldly with the frantic actions of the prophets. First, he rebuilt the broken down altar of the Lord with twelve stones, according to the twelve tribes of Israel, also adding a trench about the new altar (18:30-32). Secondly, he arranged the bullock in pieces on the wood and then ordered that twelve barrels of water (from the Mediterranean?) be poured on the sacrifice, filling the trench as well. Elijah wanted to make sure that no one would think that the coming miracle was only performed through some “trick” on his part. Thirdly, he prayed. The prayer was simple, direct and centered on the honor of God.
. . . Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and of Israel, let it be known this day that thou art God in Israel, and that I am thy servant, and that I have done all these things at thy word. Hear me, O Lord, hear me, that this people may know that thou art the Lord God, and that thou hast turned their heart back again (18:36-37).
Just as God responded to Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the Temple (2 Chron. 7:1), so He responded to Elijah. “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” (18:38).
The effect of this magnificent display was a unanimous decision on the part of the judges: “And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces, and they said, The Lord, he is God; the Lord, he is God” (18: 39). No one could dispute the decision. Baal had been shown to be a nonexistent imposter! The Lord God of the Hebrews had vindicated His prophet, who had risked not just his own reputation but the reputation of his God as well.
Dr. Richard Harvey related the following true experience in the January, 1975 issue of Moody Monthly which should serve well to apply this incident to our lives.
Three periods before the Thanksgiving holiday our chemistry professor always planned to lecture against prayer. He was so sarcastic, and so ridiculed prayer that he used to have the kids in stitches. Then every year at the close of his first lecture he would say, “By the way, is there anybody here who still believes in prayer? He would step in front of his lecture table. He would turn around and hold up a two-quart glass flask. There was a concrete floor in the classroom. Then he would say: “Now, if there’s anybody here who believes in prayer, I’m going to ask you to stand and pray that when I drop this flask it won’t break. Now I want you to know, students, that all of your prayers and the prayers of your parents and those of your Sunday school teachers and those of your pastors (and I’m willing for you to bring them all here to pray with you) — not all their prayers, nothing, can keep that flask from breaking when I let it go.” He had been doing this for fifteen years. Talk about Goliath!
When I was a senior a certain freshman came to the school. One day there was a knock at my door. I opened it and there stood this freshman. He said, “Are you Dick Harvey?
“Yes,” I said.
“Well, some of the upperclassmen told me that you were the only fellow in this school who believes in prayer. I want you to understand that I’m a born-again Christian. I’m majoring in chemistry — which is perhaps a foolish thing for me to do since I know what Dr. Lee does. But God has shown me that He wants me to stand up to him. Now I want you to pray that God will give me courage when the time comes and I also want you to pray that the flask won’t break. I would appreciate it if every time you pray you would ask God about this, even when you say grace at the table. I’ve got only a couple of weeks before Dr. Lee will be doing this and I want God to give me the courage to stand up to him.
“All right,” I said, “I’ll pray with you.”
Well, I was majoring in chemistry because I intended to go to medical school following my college work. I was downstairs in the qualitative analysis laboratory when the lecture hour came. About the time I knew Dr. Lee would defy prayer I went upstairs and stood in the back of the auditorium. My heart was full of fear; I was actually shaking. If you had been near me you would have thought I had palsy. Finally he came to the moment. Out in front he stepped and he said, “Now is there anyone here who still believes in prayer? The young fellow was sitting near the middle of the big auditorium. He stood right up and stepped into the aisle, “Dr. Lee,” he said, “I do.”
“My, this is real interesting, isn’t it?” Dr. Lee said. “We’ve got a fellow here who believes that God can answer prayer! Maybe I’d better explain to you again what I am going to do.” He went through the whole procedure: how he would hold up the flask, open his hand and let it drop. It would go into hundreds of pieces, he said, and there wasn’t any power in the world or in heaven that would stop that flask from breaking. After he finished his speech, he turned to the young man and asked, “Do you still want to pray?”
The young man said, “Yes, Dr. Lee, I do.”
“Well,” he said, “isn’t that interesting? Now we’ll all be real reverent while this young man prays.”
The young man did not even bow his head; he just lifted his eyes toward heaven and said, “Dear Heavenly Father, in the name of Jesus, I thank You and You have heard me. For Your honor and Christ’s name’s sake and for the honor of Your servant who puts his trust in You, don’t let this flask break. Amen.”
Dr. Lee took the flask, held it out, opened his hand and as it fell God changed its course. He drew it in. Instead of falling straight down, it hit the toe of Dr. Lee’s shoe and rolled over.
And it did not break!
The class gave Dr. Lee the hee-haw, and all the rest of the time he was there he never lectured on prayer. God ended that once and for all. Even though it happened many years ago, the story of the flask that wouldn’t break is still told on the campus of that school. Elijah was willing to stand up for his God and his God vindicated Himself and His prophet before an observing world. Are you willing to risk the jeers and taunts of others by standing up today for the Lord God of Elijah?