Summary: The decisive, dramatic contest atop Mount Carmel, that compels us to determine who we will serve.
Elijah has been called “the iron prophet.” After a three-year absence, he appears before Ahab; was he finally going to end the drought? The dry spell was indeed about to end, but first it must be established with no doubt as to who is God.
The king accuses the prophet of “troubling” Israel…when in fact it was Ahab’s turning from God and his accommodation of Baal worship that had caused the withholding of rain. The drought demonstrated God’s supremacy over this so-called storm-god. Elijah may have been a trouble-maker, but Ahab was a traitor, and the one responsible for the drought.
The prophet proposes a public contest to determine who is the true deity: a test of strength, a face-to-face confrontation between the prophet of the Lord and the so-called prophets of Baal. Satisfied with the odds (850 to 1) and the fairness of the offer, Ahab readily agrees. To refuse, he would have to admit Baal was a counterfeit, an imposter…and the Queen Jezebel would not be amused. Mount Carmel was significant for both Jews and pagans, so it was an ideal arena for the challenge, which Ahab orchestrates. A fight always draws a crowd, and Ahab encourages the nation to come and watch. Carmel is a coastal mountain range in northern Israel, close to the Mediterranean and the modern-day city of Haifa. Ahab unwittingly set the stage for one of the most dramatic acts in the history of Israel--a cosmic contest between good and evil, truth and falsehood.
What we believe matters. Yet all around us people insist that any way to God is valid, and they are convinced that there is no real objective truth. They dismiss biblical truth by saying, “You have your way, I have mine.” But we both can’t be right. Forsaking their spiritual heritage, the Israelites were willing to follow any deity that might help them in any way, in place of the Lord God.
Elijah confronts his double-minded countrymen, urging them to stop wavering, hesitating between two dividing opinions--verse 21. In an unholy compromise, they believed the fiction that both Jehovah and Baal were God. They were limping along without conviction. Elijah presses them to commit, once-for-all. He is calling Israel to follow after the Lord God and to forsake all other contenders. He’s not asking for mere concurrence, which admits, “OK, well now we know God is real”…but is He Lord of our lives? Convictions cause a change of behavior. Anyone can acknowledge there’s a God then go their own way. That’s apathy. Sadly, the text says that after Elijah’s charge, “the people said nothing.” Theirs was “the embarrassed silence of a people who did not know who they wanted to serve” (Ryken). The true believer is not silent. So it seems they had the leadership they deserved.
The reason people don’t commit themselves to God is simple: they are more committed to other things, things they love more than God. They are shaping God into their own image, to fit their needs and justify their actions. Whenever we try to re-define God, we dethrone God and become a distorted people.
An altar is built for the contest. As the storm-god, Baal should have no trouble sending lightning to consume the sacrifice. When nothing happens, the prophets panic, and Elijah begins to taunt them. Most English translations tone down the language; in the Hebrew, Elijah says: “Maybe Baal is using the bathroom!” No doubt Baal’s followers would have loved to kill Elijah on the spot, but this would not prove that their god was superior to Jehovah; it would only prove they had failed…and the nation was watching. So the false prophets work themselves into a frenzy--cutting themselves, trying to rouse Baal to pity and action. But Baal does not answer because he is not real. He is no god; he is a joke! Psalm 2 states, “The One enthroned in Heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them, then He rebukes them in His anger” (4-5).
It became clear to Baal’s prophets that--in spite of all their effort--nothing was going to happen at this altar to Baal, and the onlookers were losing interest in their frenzied efforts. The Israelites were not impressed. Mendelssohn’s majestic oratorio Elijah captures the intensity of their vain pleas with the chorus, “O Baal Answer Us!”
Elijah confidently steps up to the plate. Unlike the pagan prophets, he is not frantic. He rebuilds the altar with 12 stones, signifying the unified 12 tribes of Israel (this was during the time of the Divided Kingdom). The sacrifice he was offering was in behalf of the entire nation. Then he prays, briefly and powerfully, that God would restore Israel to faith.
Twelve times he soaks the altar to remove any doubt; there’s no possibility of spontaneous combustion! “Elijah was making it impossible for anything to happen unless God did it. If God didn’t send down the fire, that altar was never going to catch fire. Elijah wanted all the glory going to God, so when the fire came down, everybody would know beyond dispute it was the Lord” (Anne Graham Lotz).