Summary: Discouragement comes when we focus on the problem rather than God, on the wonders of God rather than the Word of God, on our inadequacies rather than God’s resources.
We find ourselves at an interesting time of history. Perhaps, more than any other time, we find ourselves polarized as a people. During the world wars the country seemed to come together in patriotic unity, but with the absence of war, and the influx of prosperity, we seemed to have lost the common causes that once united us as a people. Now we find ourselves at different poles: black and white, young and old, male and female, right wing and left wing, conservative and liberal, republican and democrat, evangelical and radical. We are faced with being in a culture with more that divides us than unites us. That was the situation in Israel during the time of Elijah. The nation was completely polarized with people who followed the true God on one pole, and those who worshiped the pagan gods on the other.
Our story begins with Jezebel, the queen of Israel’s King Ahab, putting the prophets of the Lord to death. She was committed to bringing the worship of the evil, pagan god Baal to Israel. The worship of Baal was a fertility cult and involved gross immorality and human sacrifice. Baal was also the storm god. The images of Baal have him holding a lightning bolt in one hand. He could send fire from heaven and the storms which would follow. Because of Jezebel’s wickedness, Elijah the prophet appeared to King Ahab and said: “As the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word” (1 Kings 17:1). Over the next few years God would show that he, not Baal. was the ruler of rain. They could worship their storm god all they wanted to but there would be no rain. Elijah himself would be fed by ravens as he lived by the brook Kerith. At the end of three years Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal to a duel. Both Elijah and Baal’s prophets would set up altars with a sacrifice and call upon their respective gods to consume it.
At the beginning of the contest Elijah said to the people: “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.” And then we read the words: “But the people said nothing” (1 Kings 18:21). With that the contest began. The 450 prophets of Baal began to dance and pray. They cut themselves hoping it would move Baal to pity, but the heavens were silent. From the side Elijah began to taunt them and make fun of their god. The Bible says, “At noon Elijah began to taunt them. ‘Shout louder!’ he said. ‘Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.’ So they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed” (1 Kings 18:27-28).
Finally Elijah offered a simple prayer and the sacrifice on his altar was consumed by fire from heaven. A lightning bolt came that the people might have expected from the storm god, one like Baal carried in his had in the images that were made of him. The fire consumed the sacrifice and even licked up the water in the ditch that had been poured over the sacrifice. When the people saw it they fell on their faces and cried: “The Lord — he is God! The Lord — he is God!” (1 Kings 18:39). And then Elijah did to the prophets of Baal what Jezebel had done to the prophets of the Lord.
Then Elijah said to King Ahab: “Go, eat and drink, for there is the sound of a heavy rain” (1 Kings 18:41). The drought was about to end. Elijah went back up to the top of Mt. Carmel and bowed himself with his face between his knees and said to his servant: “Go and look toward the sea.” His servant came back and said, “There is nothing.” Only the hot sun shone in the sky. After the seventh time, his servant came back and said, “A cloud as small as a man’s hand is rising from the sea” (1 Kings 18:44). In a little while the heavens grew black with clouds and wind, and there was a tremendous storm.
What more dramatic proof was needed that the Lord God of Israel was Lord of storm, rain, crops and the Creator of all nature. Elijah was sure that this was the end of all Baal worship in Israel. He was so elated that he ran ahead of Ahab’s chariot all the way back to Samaria and waited for Ahab to tell the wicked Jezebel all that the Lord had done that day. Elijah thought that when King Ahab told her that her prophets were dead and that the people promised loyalty to the true God, she would fold under this overwhelming victory. But instead of Jezebel surrendering the fight, admitting defeat, and saying with the rest of Israel: “The Lord he is God,” she premised to kill Elijah if it was the last thing she did. And Elijah was as discouraged as he had been elated before.