Summary: Prevarication is not an option!
THE CONTEST ON MOUNT CARMEL
The prophet Elijah is nothing if not bold in his confrontation with King Ahab. The king accused Elijah of being “he that troubles Israel” (1 Kings 18:17). The prophet’s retort was rather to accuse Ahab and his family of troubling Israel, as they had forsaken the commandments of the LORD and were following Baal (1 Kings 18:18). Now it was time to have it out, between the LORD, and the supposed ‘god’ of storm and fire (1 Kings 18:19).
Ahab took up the challenge, and gathered the children of Israel, along with 450 prophets of Baal and Queen Jezebel’s 400 ‘prophets of the groves’ (1 Kings 18:20). The presence of the people is significant, as it was not only the king who was guilty of syncretism. The LORD had an argument to settle with His own people, (not with outsiders, so the absence of the queen is also significant): ‘Judgment begins at the house of God’ (1 Peter 4:17).
Now Elijah addresses not the king, not the ‘prophets’, but “all the people” (1 Kings 18:21). “How long do you halt” indicates the prevarications of indecisive travellers dithering at a fork in the road, unable to decide which way to go. Dancing between the alternatives, they appear to limp, like Saul’s crippled son (2 Samuel 4:4).
[The same word is used of the Baal prophets dancing and prancing, and leaping upon the altar (1 Kings 18:26). This stands in stark contrast to David’s ‘leaping and dancing before the LORD’, which his wife so despised (2 Samuel 6:16); and to the healed lame man’s entering into the Temple ‘walking, and leaping, and praising God’ (Acts 3:8).]
The words translated “limp” and “between two opinions” may be a deliberate word-play. “Opinions” are crutches upon which we depend. How can we possibly depend upon two crutches of such unequal length?
The challenge to the people is like that of Joshua - and on that occasion the people were ready enough to respond (Joshua 24:15-18). Elijah, however, found himself confronted by a stony silence, not unknown to those who preach in a hostile religious environment: “they answered him not a word” (1 Kings 18:21).
Despite the efforts of Obadiah (1 Kings 18:3-4), Elijah felt that he was the only one who was really contending for the LORD (1 Kings 18:22). [This same frame of mind would trouble Elijah later, when he fled from Jezebel (1 Kings 19:10; 1 Kings 19:14). Which is a whole other sermon!]
Elijah laid out the terms of his challenge before the people (1 Kings 18:23-24). In sporting terms, it was surely a ‘home’ fixture for Baal, since his were (supposedly) the arrows that brought forth lightning? As the contest continued, Elijah fearlessly stacked the natural odds against his cause (1 Kings 18:33-35), so that the people would know that the LORD is indeed God (1 Kings 18:37; 1 Kings 18:39)!
The whole Elijah cycle began with the prophet audaciously announcing that there would be no rain, except at his word (1 Kings 17:1). In the present passage we read that the people “answered not a word” (1 Kings 18:21). But when Elijah spoke out the terms of the challenge it was “Well spoken!” (1 Kings 18:24).
In Mendelssohn's oratorio called ‘Elijah’, much is made of the supposed Baal worship. This has been criticised, but it is the composer’s way of setting the contrast with first Elijah’s mocking (1 Kings 18:27), and then with the calmness and confidence of Elijah’s one-off prayer (1 Kings 18:36-37).
And the LORD was the One who answered, with fire (1 Kings 18:38)!
There are no doubt many temptations to compromise with the world around us in our own day and age. Idolatry comes in many forms, and tolerance is one thing, but syncretism is inadmissible. “There is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5).
“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” (1 Kings 18:39)!