Introduction: The days of Elijah were some of the best and some of the worst in Israel’s history. One of the highest points took place when God responded to Elijah’s prayer in a way that nobody could deny. Not only did this take place in the presence of pagan prophets, the event also took place where a memorial to the True and the Living God once stood.
1 The problem
Text, 1 Kings 18:17-19, KJV: 17 And it came to pass, when Ahab saw Elijah, that Ahab said unto him, Art thou he that troubleth Israel? 18 And he answered, I have not troubled Israel; but thou, and thy father's house, in that ye have forsaken the commandments of the LORD, and thou hast followed Baalim. 19 Now therefore send, and gather to me all Israel unto mount Carmel, and the prophets of Baal four hundred and fifty, and the prophets of the groves four hundred, which eat at Jezebel's table.
Some background: Years before this, Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, became king over all Israel (1 Kings 12). He made some foolish comments and as a result, the ten northern tribes broke away from the two southern tribes to make their own nation. The northern people chose Jeroboam to be king. This didn’t come as a surprise, as God had promised this would happen because of Solomon’s sins (1 Kings 11:26-40). Jeroboam did worse than Solomon, though, by building two golden calves and requiring the people to worship them. His actions were wrong and eventually led to the entire northern kingdom taken captive in later years (2 Kings 17).
Now Ahab was king of the northern tribes. The Bible doesn’t have much good to say about him, especially since he was one of the worst kings of Israel. Even worse, he married a pagan woman, Jezebel, who brought the worship of Baal into Israel. Those of Israel who remembered history might well have recalled what happened when Solomon had married literally hundreds of foreign women, including those from Sidon (“Zidonians”, 1 Kings 11:1). Instead of introducing them to the True God, the God of Israel, Solomon worshiped the pagan idols these women had brought along (how else could he have worshiped them, if they weren’t there in the first place?).
And years later, Ahab marries a woman from Sidon who brought her idols (and, probably, priests and “prophets” of that false religion). The past several years had been turbulent for the North, but things apparently were settled, economically and politically speaking, when Ahab became king. His total devotion to Jezebel’s idols was one of the worst things anyone could do.
But he did so anyway, and, it seems, he did this with all of his heart.
So there’s the problem in a nutshell. The nation was founded in rebellion against the rightful king, and the official religion of this new nation began with idolatry. The current king had married a foreign woman who also brought her own pagan deities and devotees with her into the nation of Israel. And Ahab, the king, finally meets Elijah, the prophet of the True God, asking him if Elijah was the one “troubling”—causing problems for—Israel!
Elijah’s response is one of the classics in Scripture. He basically told Ahab, “YOU are the one causing problems for Israel! YOU and your father’s house (relatives) forsook the LORD’s commandments (indeed they had) and are now following the Baals!”Note that Elijah used the plural, stating there was more than one “Baal” which Ahab and most of the rest were worshiping.
Ahab’s reaction to Elijah’s message is not recorded but Elijah wasn’t finished. He then threw down a challenge or proposal to Ahab, to see once and for all which deity Israel should worship.
2 The proposal
Text, 1 Kings 18:20-25, KJV: 20 So Ahab sent unto all the children of Israel, and gathered the prophets together unto mount Carmel. 21 And Elijah came unto all the people, and said, How long halt ye between two opinions? if the LORD be God, follow him: but if Baal, then follow him. And the people answered him not a word. 22 Then said Elijah unto the people, I, even I only, remain a prophet of the LORD; but Baal's prophets are four hundred and fifty men. 23 Let them therefore give us two bullocks; and let them choose one bullock for themselves, and cut it in pieces, and lay it on wood, and put no fire under: and I will dress the other bullock, and lay it on wood, and put no fire under: 24 And call ye on the name of your gods, and I will call on the name of the LORD: and the God that answereth by fire, let him be God. And all the people answered and said, It is well spoken. 25 And Elijah said unto the prophets of Baal, Choose you one bullock for yourselves, and dress it first; for ye are many; and call on the name of your gods, but put no fire under.
Once Ahab heard Elijah’s challenge or proposal, he at least honored it. Ahab sent (messengers?) to all Israel, meaning the Ten Tribes, who sent delegates to Mount Carmel. The 450 prophets of Baal came, as well, but there is no mention of the 400 “prophets of the groves” coming. Interestingly, as a point of reference, Mt Carmel is near modern day Haifa.
Now all of the people there heard Elijah’s terms of the proposal. He first asked a question, “How long ‘halt ye’ between two opinions?” This could mean the people of the Ten Tribes were worshiping the LORD, God of Israel and Baal, or it could mean they pretended to worship the one or the other. Still another idea is that some would pray to the one and if the requested answer didn’t come, then he or she would pray to the other. I’m reminded of so many times when children would ask one parent “can I do this?” and if one said no, the child would “appeal” to the other parent. None of us ever did that, or experienced that, did we?
Commentators with a lot more knowledge of Hebrew than I do have made some very telling observations about this phrase but one thing in common is the concept that these Israelites had to make up their minds about which deity—God, or Baal—they were going to worship and serve. And this was the whole thrust of Elijah’s proposal.
The balance of this passage describes how Elijah proposed the test to see which deity was the True God. He instructed the prophets of Baal to choose a bullock, cut it into pieces, and then finally lay the pieces on top of the wood on top of the altar. He also added a reality check, one thing to ensure nothing artificial took place: he told the 450 prophets to not put any fire on the altar. I remember reading somewhere that pagan priests would have devices installed in their altars, so that if a lever was pulled or something like that, then fire—which had already been placed in the hollowed-out part of the altar—would then be released and ignite the sacrifice or offering. Elijah, again, seemed to be aware of this and insisted on either deity answering without any help, assistance, or manipulations! And Elijah bound himself to the same spirit of the proposal by saying he would do the same thing for the bullock provided for his own sacrifice. Of note, a bullock’s age is never given in the Scriptures but some other sources stated that a bullock was a male bull, four years of age or older. Bullocks were also used in various offerings during the days and dispensation of Law; see the books of Exodus through Deuteronomy for further information about these animals and their purposes.
Then Elijah made the final appeal of the proposal. He told the prophets of Baal to call on the name of their “gods” and Elijah would do the same. Whichever deity answered by fire, that would be the deity the people would worship. The proposal was finished.
The performance was about to begin.
3 The performance
--The prophets of Baal went first
Text, 1 Kings 18:26-29, KJV: 26 And they took the bullock which was given them, and they dressed it, and called on the name of Baal from morning even until noon, saying, O Baal, hear us. But there was no voice, nor any that answered. And they leaped upon the altar which was made. 27 And it came to pass at noon, that Elijah mocked them, and said, Cry aloud: for he is a god; either he is talking, or he is pursuing, or he is in a journey, or peradventure he sleepeth, and must be awaked. 28 And they cried aloud, and cut themselves after their manner with knives and lancets, till the blood gushed out upon them. 29 And it came to pass, when midday was past, and they prophesied until the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice, that there was neither voice, nor any to answer, nor any that regarded.
The prophets of Baal went first in this contest, according to the terms of Elijah’s proposal to see which deity the people of Israel would worship. These prophets first took the bullock which had been given to them (whoever issued them this bullock is not specified). Then they “dressed” it, meaning they killed the animal and arranged the pieces on their altar. I’ve not been able to find much about how these prophets and/or priests of Baal-ism arranged the pieces of the sacrifice on the altars or any preparation. For Israel, the True God gave them precise instructions on how to prepare bulls, rams, sheep, and so forth. Leviticus 4 gives two such examples. No matter—as we’ll see, these false prophets didn’t really accomplish much of anything.
These men started “from the morning (verse 26)” which could mean anything from sunrise to about 9 a.m. As an aside, Jesus was crucified and the cross was put in place about “the third hour” or 9 am (so Matthew Henry’s commentary). Some might see an irony, in that many years in the future, the Son of God would come and die, beginning His final work of redemption by shedding His blood, at the very time pagan priests such as these were calling on the name of their deity—which couldn’t smell, see, hear, taste, or anything else (Psalm 115)!
And that certainly wasn’t all. After these false prophets prepared the bullock, they began to call on the name of Baal. They did this for hours!—from morning until noon. This makes me wonder if all 450 did this at the same time, or if they did this in relays or teams. The noise alone would have been unbearable: just think of 400-plus people, chanting or shouting anything, in a relatively small place, and no doubt the echoes going everywhere.. Not only that, these prophets also “leaped upon the altar”, which most likely means they were dancing, prancing, or doing whatever they did around or near the altar. Even in Baal worship, and I know this may sound strange, I doubt those prophets or priests wanted to contaminate the sacrifice/s by people coming in contact with the offering! In all fairness, these prophets were doing what they believed in and what they believed to be right
But nothing happened.
Between three and six hours—wasted!—because their deity, Baal, could not and did not answer.
Now at noon, when I would suppose these prophets were exhausted from several hours of “prayer” or chanting or whatever they did to “call upon the name of Baal”, Elijah speaks. He mocked or made fun of them after their futile gesture! He first urged them to “cry aloud”, and isn’t that exactly what they had been doing for several hours?
Nothing happened, Elijah seemed to be saying, so do some more! Try harder! They must have forgotten a twist on an old proverb, “if at first you don’t succeed, you must have done something wrong!”
Elijah added that since Baal was a “god”, he—Baal—might be talking or pursuing or is on a journey. Several commentators have provided explanations for what the phrase“on a journey” could mean. Some think that just like some of the “gods” of other nations, Baal was walking around or was on a hunt or seeking pleasure (some of his worshipers sure did). One other theory is that since Baal seemed to be in “kinda/sorta human form”, he was taking a side trip. That particular commentator observed that, in English, the rendering was very “coarse” but the gist of it was that Baal had left the temple to visit the toilet!
As an added insult, Elijah said maybe Baal was asleep! How this could happen, what with 450 of his prophets crying out to him for several hours, is to me one of the most humorous statements in the entire Bible. Contrast this “response” of Baal to the promise of the God of Israel in Psalm 121:3-4 (KJV): “3 He will not suffer thy foot to be moved: he that keepeth thee will not slumber. 4 Behold, he that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep.”
The prophets seemed to take Elijah’s taunts or sarcasm seriously. Verse 28 states the prophets of Baal did indeed cry aloud, perhaps more intently this time. And not only that, they were even more intently trying to receive an answer from Baal: they began to cut themselves with knives and spears (lances, not the modern-day lancet as used in medicine). As horrifying as this was to watch, it was a reflection of some of the “Baal Epic” mentioned in books about the Old Testament. Briefly, as I understand it, Baal was a “god” of many things (fertility, weather, and the list goes on). He had family problems and was killed by one of the other “deities” in the system. Worse, Baal’s body was cut up and dispersed throughout creation. Eventually he came back to life—only to have that cycle repeat itself time and again (apologies if I got any of the details of this account incorrect). Were these prophets attempting to re-enact the death of Baal in order to please him? What did these people hope to gain by nearly killing themselves?
Incredibly, these 450 prophets kept this thing going for three additional hours; even worse, this took place between about noon to 3 pm, usually the hottest part of the day! Even though Mount Carmel was close to the Mediterranean Sea, the heat from the sun might have neutralized any relief from any breezes coming in from the sea.
And just like the first attempt to get an answer from Baal, there was no voice, no answer, “nor any that regarded”. The prophets had tried for nearly six to seven hours for Baal to answer by fire, calling on his name on two separate occasions, even dancing and leaping, going so far as to gash their own bodies with knives and lancets.
But, again, nothing happened.
Now it was Elijah’s turn.
--The prophet of the LORD, Elijah, went next
Text, 1 Kings 18:30-30 And Elijah said unto all the people, Come near unto me. And all the people came near unto him. And he repaired the altar of the LORD that was broken down. 31 And Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, unto whom the word of the LORD came, saying, Israel shall be thy name: 32 And with the stones he built an altar in the name of the LORD: and he made a trench about the altar, as great as would contain two measures of seed. 33 And he put the wood in order, and cut the bullock in pieces, and laid him on the wood, and said, Fill four barrels with water, and pour it on the burnt sacrifice, and on the wood. 34 And he said, Do it the second time. And they did it the second time. And he said, Do it the third time. And they did it the third time. 35 And the water ran round about the altar; and he filled the trench also with water.
The text doesn’t tell us how much time passed between the last efforts of Baal’s prophets to get him to answer by fire and Elijah’s actions here. Elijah probably waited a moment or two after the last chants or outcries to Baal faded away so that he could have the peoples’ complete attention and focus. He started by saying, “come near unto me.” The people were close enough to hear, but were still too far away to see what was going to happen.
Something was bound to happen!
After they came near, Elijah’s first physical act was to rebuild an altar to the LORD, God of Israel, which was broken down. God bless the dear soul/s who built this altar to the LORD: the area around Mount Carmel was given to the tribe of Asher, as best I can determine (see Joshua 19) but whoever built this altar to the LORD, God of Israel may never be known on this earth. At any rate, that old altar, a memorial, was broken down, again by unknown forces. The ones responsible for the destruction could have been soldiers of Sisera, who invaded the region in the times of the Judges (see Judges 4-5). Even more chilling, the destroyers could have been fellow Israelites who had abandoned the True God of Israel for the golden calves of Jeroboam (1 Kings 12) or some who converted to the worship of Baal once Jezebel brought that deity into Israel. Verse 26 only mentions the “altar which was made”, no statement of when that pagan altar had been built. Was it already there, or did the 450 prophets build it before they began to call upon the name of Baal, their deity?
But none of that mattered to Elijah. He first rebuilt that old altar to the LORD, using the very same stones, apparently, which the original builders had used. Then he built a brand-new altar to the LORD, using 12 stones for the 12 sons of Jacob, later named Israel. The dimensions of both altars are never given but we know the new altar was large enough to hold the pieces of the bullock Elijah was about to prepare.
He didn’t stop there, however. Elijah also dug a trench around the altar, large enough to hold two “measures” of seed; the exact size of these “measures” is not certain. After the trench was completed, Elijah first put the wood in order (where did he get it?), cut the bullock in pieces, and arranged those pieces on the wood. Yet, once all this was done, he demanded something unusual be done to the sacrifice.
Elijah demanded that four barrels of water be poured on the bullock’s pieces and the wood! Remember, this took place during a three-year drought and water was precious. Where the water came from is never specified: some think it was from the sea; others, from the River Kishon; still others, from a spring of water that kept flowing even in these days of drought. No matter where the water came from, 12 barrels of precious water were poured on the animal and wood, meaning among other things that there was no possible way Elijah could cheat or cause fire to come down and consume the offering. In fact, there was so much water that the water flowed into the trench Elijah had prepared.
Now, what was going to happen?
3 The prayer
Text, 1 Kings 18 36-37, KJV: 36 And it came to pass at the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice, that Elijah the prophet came near, and said, 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. 37 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.
Elijah had apparently just finished building the new altar of 12 stones after repairing the previous altar which had been torn down. He had also cut up the bullock’s carcass then arranged the pieces on the wood, all of that on top of the new altar. To prove he was doing nothing by magic or trickery, he had 12 barrels of water poured on the sacrifice. So much water was poured that it filled the trench! The people were probably wondering, what is he going to do next?
Elijah did nothing. Except, that is, he prayed. He came near (to the altar?) about 3 p.m., which was the time of the (first) evening sacrifice. And he prayed a very brief prayer, only about a minute in length. I have no idea how long it would have taken him to speak these words in Hebrew, his native language. But, no matter, because God heard every word—and understood.
Every time I’ve read this passage, I’m drawn to the contrast between Elijah’s prayer of only a few seconds stood and the several hours of Baal’s “prophets” calling on his name. Elijah himself had done very little, it seems, for most of the day until now. He began his prayer with a reminder that he wasn’t doing any of this on his own—he did this because God had told him to. Then he closed with a request: not, interestingly, that God would answer by fire but that the people would know, again, that the LORD was the God of Israel and that He had turned the hearts of the people back to Him.
Which deity would answer? And if so, how? The prophets of Baal had tried for six hours or so to try and get Baal interested enough, for lack of a better term, to answer. Nothing happened. Elijah had prayed for less than a minute. For the moment, nothing happened.
But wait—something was about to happen!
4 The power
Text, 1 Kings 18 38-40, KJV: 38 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. 39 And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces: and they said, The LORD, he is the God; the LORD, he is the God. 40 And Elijah said unto them, Take the prophets of Baal; let not one of them escape. And they took them: and Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon, and slew them there.
Once Elijah finished his prayer, it seems God immediately answered. There was no doubt about it, no mistakes, no magic or trickery or any such thing. The fire of the LORD fell—and what a sight that must have been!—and consumed everything in its path: the sacrifice (called a “burnt sacrifice here but there had not been a fire as of yet), the wood, the stones, and even the water that had filled the trench! All of it was gone! And Elijah had done nothing except pray.
When the people saw this, they finally made their decision. Recall that at the first, they had said nothing (verses 20-21) when Elijah challenged them to follow either God or Baal. Then, a little later, when Elijah laid down the terms of the proposal, the people said, “That’s a good idea (paraphrased)”, a bit noncommittal, in verses 22-24. Apparently they had stayed silent during the two contests or performances from Baal’s prophets during the day as well as during Elijah’s prayer just before this. Now, having seen the fire of the LORD, they confessed freely, “The LORD, he is (get this) THE God!” No more waffling or being double-minded, these folks had made their decision to follow the LORD, and Him alone.
The story here closes with one ugly but important detail. Elijah instructed the people to “take” the prophets of Baal and not to let them escape. This was necessary for a number of reasons: first, whether these prophets of Baal were apostate Hebrews or had moved into Israel from other lands, they were responsible for leading people astray spiritually. God’s true prophets always told the truth but it’s anybody’s guess what these men might have said. Second, in the Law, God had plainly commanded that people like these be executed (see Deuteronomy 18:20). Whether they knew it or not, false teachers and false prophets were responsible for many people rejecting the True God for idols and without repentance towards the True God, there was no hope of salvation. Romans 1:18-32 gives a graphic account of what happened to people who rejected God and I’m sure that those whom Paul said “held (suppressed) the truth in unrighteousness (Romans 1:18, KJV)” included any number of false prophets. Third, had these false prophets escaped, they would most likely have returned to Samaria for Jezebel’s protection and maybe have spread elsewhere to teach and proclaim the things of Baal.
None of that had to happen, however. Even though these prophets had seen Baal do nothing, and had seen the LORD, God of Israel answer by fire, consuming everything including the altar and the water, there is no record any of them showed any kind of remorse or repentance. In a word, they saw the power of God but rejected it.
Thus ends the story, where the people assembled on Mount Carmel saw the futility of their false “god”, Baal, and saw the power of the God of Israel. They saw one of the most amazing displays of God’s power when they saw the fire of the LORD fall from Heaven (only a few have ever seen this). Best of all, they repented and reaffirmed their faith in the God of Israel and removed these 450 prophets of Baal from Israel—permanently.
The memorial that disappeared? I feel that it was the altar which Elijah had built, expressly for that purpose. I doubt the original altar which Elijah repaired was destroyed. We’ll never know for sure down here. For us, though, we do not need physical altars of stones or sacrifices. We can look back to a time when we experienced the power of God “unto salvation (Romans 1:16)” which is just as real and dynamic as anything these people saw. For those of you reading this, and are believers, remember that the same God Who answered Elijah will answer your prayers, too, according to His will. Don’t lose faith and don’t give up. Victory is coming.
For those of you reading this and are not believers, let me encourage you to consider your soul’s condition. Down deep in your heart, you know if you are or are not right with God. So why not take advantage of the forgiveness and salvation our Lord makes possible? You don’t want to end up like those false prophets, do you? You can have salvation free for the asking! Just ask the Lord God to save your soul and forgive your sins after you admit you’re a sinner. If you mean it with all your heart, salvation is yours. I can attest to it—it’s as easy as that!
Scripture quotations taken from the King James Version of the Bible (KJV)