Elijah’s confrontation I Kings 18:17-40
We’ve looked at Elijah in terms of where he’s been and what he’s done at the beginning of each week. And now I want to focus for a few moments on the man himself, even though we don’t know too much about his background. For instance, we know nothing about his family, his religious upbringing, whether or not he came from a background of wealth or poverty, or even his education. That fact that we don’t know any of these things is relevant from the standpoint that this tells us that none of these things are important as far as who he is and what he came to do. We do know that he was obedient to the will and the word of God. He went where he was sent and he went when he was sent. There doesn’t seem to be any hesitation about him. Elijah had died to self and he was constantly at the disposal of God. He was God’s man with God’s message. He knew God and God was at work both in him and through him. He had no home and no family ties or anything else that would hold him back from serving the Lord and not because no one would have him but for the simple reason that this was how he could best serve the Lord. I see this and I say for him this was great. If that’s what your called to do. The Bible says some people are called to be single. I have met a few of these people and they are not single because they haven’t found the one they spent the whole lives looking for. They’re single because they chose to be and they’re content. God has created them to be like they are for His purposes.
Now let me just summarize where we’ve been so far.
1. First we saw the provision of God. As Elijah went to Cherith and he was fed by the birds and drank from the brook. From there he went to Zaraphath where we saw the miraculous provision of the oil and flour as God provided for him, the widow and her son.
2. Secondly we saw the protecting hand of God. Ahab had searched and questioned everybody and everywhere but the prophet was no where to be found. He couldn’t find him because God hid him. Psalm 91:1 says, “He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most high shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.” For us today I believe the secret place of the Almighty is found in the place of prayer. It’s that secret place where we spend time with Him. And that’s exactly what Elijah did in Zaraphath.
3. Then we saw the power of God as He provided life from the dead when the widow’s son was raised. And you will remember that I mentioned that this was the first instance of anyone being brought back from the dead.
4. And now we see his position as Elijah stands on the side of God. There were four hundred and fifty false prophets on one side and Elijah is alone on the other. God tells him later on that there were seven thousand others in Israel that didn’t bow the knee to Baal but we wonder where they were that day. I think if they had opened this service by singing ‘who is one the Lord’s side’ they might be able to hear Obadiah mumble to himself, “I am, sometimes” but that would be it. Elijah would be doing the number as a solo.
Today we’ll see how God proves to the people and to us that He’s the One who’s pre-eminent or the One and only One. As He says elsewhere, “I am God and there is none beside Me.” And so the stage is set for a confrontation.
Ahab summons the people and they all come to Mt. Carmel. When I first read this I wondered what Ahab is up to but I think he’s so desperate for rain, he’s willing to try anything. And the people have all come to see Elijah. There are two kinds of prophets in the Old Testament. There are speaking prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah. They seem to major in areas like prophecy and judgement on unbelief. And then there were the miracle working prophets like Elijah and Elisha. They never preach long sermons but they’re like E.F. Hutton. “When he speaks, everybody listens.”
I think the people not only came because the king told them to, but they also wanted to see Elijah, to see if he would do a miracle. I mean after all, he was the guy who stopped the heavens from raining for the last three and a half years. I think these people are kind of like King Herod who was happy to see Jesus because it says he wanted to see Him work a miracle. Then again these people might have been just as happy to see an execution. No doubt they were ticked off about the drought as Ahab was and so they would be just as happy as him to see the prophet get what was coming to him. Then again, they may have just come out of curiosity. To answer the simple question. Who was this man? Was he the mouthpiece of God or was he a madman? Remember there was no movies and no television. So what else did they have to do?
And then we see the setting. It all takes place on beautiful Mt. Carmel. It’s a low mountain that overlooks the plains of Megiddo and the Mediterranean Ocean. As I said last day, this would be home team advantage for the prophets of Baal and those who followed them. You see, they believed that Mt. Carmel was the home of the weather gods. They had special sanctuaries built there for this very purpose. And you remember that I said Baal was the storm god. If lightening were to strike anywhere it would probably strike here. And so the confrontation would the answer the question once and for all, who is the real God. Is it Jehovah or is it Baal?
Elijah isn’t one to give great sermons but in this confrontation he makes seven statements through which we come to understand the message of this portion of scripture.
1. How long are you going to halt between two opinions? Basically, he was asking them to pick a side. Are you with God or are you with Baal?
A These people were simply sitting on the fence. They hadn’t totally rejected Jehovah nor had they committed themselves to Baal. They had a little bit of their Hebrew background and they mixed it with some of the new religion. Basically, they would say, “What’s wrong with Baal worship? You got to live and let live. They have their religion and we have ours. I’m sure there’s a lot we can learn from each other. We have turkey dinners at our church and bingo at theirs and we both play in the same softball league. Everybody gets along great. After all, isn’t that what religion is supposed to be about?
We see something like this today as we meet people who say they are believers but they also hold to a form of evolution. My question for them is simply, how can you worship a creator and then claim He is incapable of creating. You can’t combine creationism with a form of atheism.
B These people weren’t what you’d call on fire for God but they be offended if you said they were cold. They were lukewarm and you remember what Jesus said about those who were lukewarm. In Revelation 3:20, Jesus said,”He would spit them out of His mouth.” I find it interesting to see that this is the same condition that will exist in the last days. If we took the time to look at the church of Laodicia we’d see that they had the appearance of spirituality but the scripture says they lived for money and clothing. This describes people who are committed to the here and now. If you can’t spend it or wear it then who cares. In I Timothy 4 we read that in the last days men will be lovers of pleasure more than lovers of God. When we think of this our first thought is, well that certainly describes the people of our day. But this isn’t talking about the people of the world. These are the supposed believers of the last times. The so-called Christians will be lovers of pleasure more than lovers of God. They’re more interested in fellowship than evangelism.
C These people were sitting on the fence. You know what the problem with sitting on the fence is, it’s that you get shot at from both sides. The Christian’s accuse you of being worldly and the non-Christians accuse you of being fanatical. The people on the fence never feel comfortable. D So he asks them, how long will you halt between two opinions? How long are you going to hang around the middle and not be totally committed to either side? And it says, ”The people answered him not a word.” They said nothing! They just stared. And we wonder why?
i Maybe they were asleep. That’s happened to all of us at one time or another. Have you ever gone to church, sat through the service, sung the hymns and gave your offering, then went home and during dinner someone said, ”What did you think of the message this morning?” And you can’t think of a word that was said. I think that’s happened to all of us at one time or another.
When Sally and I were first married we moved to Oshawa and we decided to visit a few churches in the area to see where we would fit in. We were looking for a church where we could be active while also be fed and challenged from the word. We went to one church where I really enjoyed listening the pastor. He spoke well, had a nice tone to his voice and I found listening to him very relaxing. After the service Sally asked me, “What did he say.” And to be honest, I had no idea. I don’t think he said anything, but he sure said it well. So these people might have been asleep.
ii Maybe they were daydreaming. You all know what that’s about. The pastor is talking about the symbolism of the left foot of the beast in the book of Revelation and you’re busy planning your holidays, turning over your garden or thinking about how you really need to clean up your basement. I asked one guy what he got out of the sermon and he told me he never listened. He said he spent the time planning his calender for the next week. Stuart Taylor told me he had a woman in his church in North Sydney who never missed a service. She was there every time the doors were opened. One day he went to visit her and he asked if she was enjoying the series he was doing. She said, “Oh, I’m sorry. I never listen. My mother is buried out by the side of the church and when I go to the services I feel like I’m spending time with her.” So the people might have been daydreaming.
iii Maybe the hearts were hardened. They’d heard it all before and they would listen but they had no intention of obeying. What they’re thinking is, “You’re not going to make a religious fanatic out of me.”
These were people with one foot in Judaism and one foot with Baal. They’re like people today who want to hear the “well done” from Jesus while at the same time get the smile of the world. Those two do not go together. If you love the Lord the world is against you. And if you love the world the Lord is your enemy. You can’t have it both ways.
We wonder why do people go to church if they have no intention of obeying what they hear? I think some go out of obligation. We’ve all heard the one who says, we go for the kids. A little bit of religion is good for them. When I was a kid we had a plaque in Sunday school that read, “Don’t send your children to Sunday School, take them.” And that was in a United Church in Cape Breton. I wonder if it’s still on the wall.
Some go out of tradition. We’ve always gone. It’s what we do. I spoke with a man at the Salvation Army in Toronto one night. He was an usher at the service and wore the uniform. I asked if he had been a member very long. He said he was the fourth generation of his family to belong to the army. The more he talked about the Army the less I believed he was even saved. He was involved in the organization more than anything. Some people go because they have to go. It’s like the guy who said, “My mother made me go when I was a kid and now my wife makes me go.” These people are really obvious on Grey Cup night. They sit there and pout all through the service. There are some who go out of legalism. Hebrews 10:25 says we are to assemble and there are those who will assemble if it kills them. Some go for entertainment. They might enjoy the music, a film or even the message.
People go to church for all kinds of strange reasons. I had a friend who pastored a little church in Tennessee while he went to Bible College. During the three years he was there two students from his school who were straight “A” types always attended. They not only went to every service he preached but they made up a form. They critiqued every message he gave. This form had several points including the quality of his exposition, whether or not his illustrations were effective and appropriate and the quality of his speaking. And they gave him a letter grade on every message. They handed him the forms on the way out the door. And he said they were brutal. I asked, “How could you stand it?” He said, “At first I couldn’t. Then I decided to do such a great job that they would have nothing to criticize. And slowly but surely I became better and so did the critiques.” It’s interesting that neither of those two guys ever went into the ministry. They’re probably helping some pastor somewhere become a better preacher.
There’s one more person who goes to church very regularly and is unsaved. He is the deceived. You know, there are some people in every church who will be part of the very fabric of the work who will not be saved. The scripture says they will be there. I know I used this passage last day to refer to the liberal crowd but it also fits the one who claims to be a fundamentalist. He is very active in the church but doesn’t know the Lord. Look with me at Matthew 7:21-23 “Not every one that saith unto Me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? And in thy name cast out devils? And in thy name done many wonderful works? And then I will profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.” Now listen to what it says about this person. He preached, he cast out demons and he did many wonderful works. And he probably got awards from various Christian organizations for all he did. These people won’t know until the very end that they have been working for salvation that was provided for free. The bottom line, is they never saw themselves as sinners in the need of salvation.
So, some come for the wrong reason and others come with the wrong attitude. Thankfully, many come because they love the Lord and His word. I think if we’re here with a prayerful heart God will bless us even if the message is on the seven sneezes of the dead boy in II King 4 where Elisha raised him from the dead.
And so we ask why didn’t they say anything? I think the reason is simple. They realized Elijah’s challenge wasn’t to Baal, it was to the unbelief of Israel. And so he asked them how long? After all, you can’t wait forever.
2. In verse 22 he says, “I stand alone, I, even I remain a prophet of the Lord.” We wonder where the seven thousand believers were and why is it that none of them stood with Elijah. Edmund Burke once wrote, “Evil men triumph while good men stand by in silence.” There was a big crowd there and there might have been some believers but if there was they never said a word. I think the reason Baal worship spread so fast and so far was that no one objected.
The lukewarm believers must have hated Elijah because he exposed their feeble attempt to appease a holy God by their simple verbal profession of faith. And I think the Baal worshipers hated him too because he said they were there to lead the jews away from the one true God. One thing we know for sure. Elijah wasn’t there to make friends. He was God’s man with God’s message. And when you think of it, we’re in the same situation as he is. We have an unpopular message today as well. It’s not only that fact that people are sinners and separate from God but it’s the reality of hell. People don’t mind hearing about the love of God or about how wonderful heaven is. I mean this is the basic message you’ll hear at every funeral in town. It gives everybody a warm and fuzzy feeling that everything will work out right and everyone walks away feeling pretty good. I realize there are times when we can’t say too much but every once in a while we have an opening and we have to take it. So Elijah said, “I stand alone, I, even I am a prophet of the Lord.” He was there with a message. He was not there to get a group hug.
3. We have the proposition of a contest. In verse 24 he says, “You call on the name of your god and I’ll call on mine, whoever answers by fire let him be God.”
And the people all responded by saying, “It is well spoken” which is another way of saying now there’s a great idea. If Jehovah answers then He wins and if Baal answers then he wins. Whoever answers we win because we get to see a miracle. It’s like a fireworks competition. And if no one answered the people could ignore them both. As far as they were concerned they couldn’t lose.
4. In verse 25 Elijah says to them, “You go first, choose your bullock and dress it first, call on the name of your gods and put no fire under it.” He says put no fire under it because he doesn’t want any tricks. So they chose it, cut it and called on their god from morning till noon. They cried and screamed, the leapt on the altar, they cut themselves with lances and swords, they danced and cried but no one heard them. It’s not like I want to give them credit for believing but they did believe. They were wrong but they were sincere. If sincerity could have saved anybody these people with their praying, shouting and dripping with blood should have been saved but they weren’t. They were sincere but sincerely wrong. You see our faith is only as good as the object of our faith. John 4:24 says, “They that worship God must worship in spirit and in truth.” We have to be in the right relationship with God which is in the right spirit and according to the truth just means that we have to repent of our sin and trust God to save us. People trust in church membership, in baptism or the fact that they’ve come from a Christian home but as the hymn writer said, “Nothing takes away my sin, nothing but the blood of Jesus.”
And then notice that while all this was going on it says Elijah mocked them. And this is really something when you realize that he was there all by himself. I mean it’s one thing to mock someone when your part of a crowd but he was on one side and all Israel had been identifying with the false prophets were on the other. And his mocking just drove them harder. What he says is look at how puny your god is. And he says this by shouting, “Cry aloud.” Your god is probably talking to someone and can only carry on one conversation at a time. And then he says, maybe he’s pursuing which is another way of saying that he has gone to the bathroom. Or maybe he’s gone on a trip. After all, your god might have gone out to sea to protect some sailor from a storm. You can’t expect your god to be everywhere at once, can you? Or “Maybe he’s asleep.” Your god needs rest too doesn’t he? Besides what Elijah had to say it would almost seem like their gods had been mocked them because it also says “they cried aloud,” which is another way of saying they had yelled their heads off. And they cut themselves and blood gushed everywhere. These people were stupid but they were sincere. We don’t belittle their faith just the focus of their faith. It’s like the Jehovah Witnesses. We see their beautiful building and the care they take with their property. And then we see their people going door to door every Saturday. There’s no doubt about their sincerity but they’re still lost. So in spite of their belief and everything they did verse 29 says, “No one heard, no one responded.”
What a comparison to our all caring, all seeing, all knowing, all powerful God. He hears the whisper of a child’s first prayer, He never leaves us nor forsakes us and the scripture says that He who watches over Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps. He’s always watching, always listening.
5. Then Elijah said, “Come a little closer, I want you to see what I’m going to do.” He wants them to see that there’s no tricks and no slight of hand. What he’s saying is, don’t just look for fireworks or you’ll miss the point. There’s something to learn here and not just something to see.
i He tells them to set up twelve stones. These represent the twelve tribes of Israel. God is using this illustration to take them back to the basics. He’s pointing to the first covenant the people had with God. It’s like Vince Lombardi the football coach. After all a losing game he came into to the locker room and said to his team, “Gentlemen, this is a football.” And so Elijah is getting right down to basics.
ii Then he had them build an altar. Obviously there had been an altar because they had the stone there but the fact that it was broken down was evidence that Jezebel had ordered them all removed. They had no use for it anymore anyway since they stopped sacrificing because they allowed the world to influence their thinking. After all, if they were no longer conscious of sin so there was no need of a sacrifice. The broken altar was evidence of their broken fellowship with God.
iii Then he dug a trench. This was to separate the people from the holy ground.
iv Then he butchered the bullock. Notice it wasn’t a lamb, a bushel of grain or a couple of turtle doves. What he offered was the offering proscribed by law for the high priest or the prophet of God. He was declaring to the people and to God that he was a sinner. He wasn’t standing above them pointing out their sin he was identifying with them. After all, we have to be cleansed from sin before God will use us to lead others to the place of salvation. Notice who’s doing all the work. The prophet was leading by example.
v Now he turns his attention to the people. He says, “Go get twelve barrels of water.” The first thing we’d ask is where? Remember there’s been a drought for the last three and a half years. They were on the top of Mt. Carmel and at the foot of the mount was the Mediterranean Ocean. And this is significant because it’s salt water. Leviticus 2:13 says that no sacrifice was to be offered without salt. So they weren’t just soaking the wood. They were doing the whole will of God. Salt gives the sacrifice a sweet smell rather than the odor of burning flesh. Salt also keeps away the insects and in doing so it keeps the sacrifice pure.
So Elijah set up the stones, built the altar, dug the trench, gathered the wood and butchered the sacrifice and now it was their turn to participate and identify with the sacrifice.
6. Then Elijah prays and it’s interesting to see his prayer compared to the prayer of the prophets of Baal. They prayed for about eight hours and he prayed for about twenty seconds. His prayer is summed up in two verses. Verse 36-37, “Lord God of Abraham, of 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 hearts back again.”
And God’s response was immediate. The fire fell and it consumed the sacrifice, the wood, the stones, the water and the dust. This was no ordinary fire because everything burned. The fire of God that they saw that day brought them back to their beginnings.
For instance we see fire consuming the offering of Abel in Genesis 4:4,5. In Genesis 15 God came down in a flame to consume Abraham’s sacrifice and confirm His covenant. Sodom and Gomorrah were consumed by fire. In Exodus on Mt. Sinai, fire appeared to indicate the presence of God. God appeared as a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night as the Israelites traveled through the wilderness. The ten commandments were given on Mt. Sinai as God descended in the form of fire. God appeared to Moses in the burning bush. The fire of God fell and consumed the people who apposed Him in Moses day. The sons of Aaron were killed by fire when they offered strange fire before the Lord. Fire fell on the sacrifices on the brazen altar. As Solomon finished the temple the scripture says, the fire of God fell and consumed the sacrifices. And then the book of Hebrews tells us our God is a consuming fire. In each of these situations the fire is symbolic of the presence of God.
7. Elijah spoke once more. First he said, “Seize the prophets of Baal, let not one of them escape.” And then he told the people to confess their sin and deal with the sins in their midst. You have to deal with your own sin before you can deal with the sin of others. I heard that in the southern churches it was common for the preacher to call someone right out of the congregation and confront them with their sin. They say gossip is not a real problem there.
A couple of months ago we were at John MacArthur’s church in California and during the Lord’s Table he read the name of a member who had left his wife and was living in sin. The pastor’s and members of the board had gone to see this man and he refused to repent of his sin and now they read his name out of the membership but with the idea that the people would continue to pray for his repentance. This is a large church of about ten thousand members and they do that every month. We would expect that in churches that practice this kind of disciple they would have a problem attracting members but just the opposite is true. You see membership means something. It means you are a visible expression of the body of Christ. And the people know you care enough to go after them if they’re living in sin.
There are three principles we can derive from this section of scripture. The first is that God is not worried about numbers. After all, the score was four hundred and fifty to one but as Elijah shows us, when you’re with God, you’re on the winning side. It didn’t matter if they had four hundred or four hundred thousand. God was going to display His power for His purpose and that was that.
The second principle is that God uses people that have faith in God’s ability rather than those who are just pre-occupied with problems. As someone said, “We all face brilliant opportunities disguised as unsolvable problems.” We need to learn to pray when we face difficulties and then allow God time to work.
And the third principle is that Elijah teaches us that God is more concerned with our availability than our ability. I’m sure that of the seven thousand people who God said had never bowed the knee to Baal there was probably one or two that were much more eloquent than Elijah. They might have had the ability but he had the availability. And when it comes right down to it. When God uses ordinary people who are willing to be used and then He gets the credit.
As I said at the beginning Elijah was looking to settle the question, “Who is the true and living God?” And I don’t believe an intellectual conclusion is enough. God is not looking for people who are convinced. He wants those who are committed. And so as the prophet asked the people the question, “How long are you going to halt between two opinions.” I’ll ask you, ”Who is going to be in charge of your life?” Is it you or is it God? No one questions your sincerity but what are you trusting in? We have a great church here but the church can’t save you. We practice baptism by immersion but if you go in the water lost you’ll come out of the water just as lost as you went in. We have the Lord’s table once a month and there we remember His sacrificial death. You could eat all the bread on the plate and drink all the juice in the little glasses but if you haven’t accepted Jesus Christ as your savior you will be just as lost as the drunk on the corner. All these things are great but they’re all evidence of the relationship we have with Him. None of these things takes the place of the reality of knowing Jesus as our personal Lord and Savior. I believe we all have to do as the apostle Paul said, “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith.”