Summary: The story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal is a classic. What we sometimes forget is that a memorial, an altar to the LORD, was already there before Elijah came! The rest of the story is gripping!
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.