(I usually begin my posts about Scripture by reproducing the entire passage at the top of the page. However, this is a lengthy account. Please read 1 Kings 18 before proceeding to this article.)
For three and a half years, Elijah has hidden as a refugee, mostly boarding in the home of a widow in a pagan city. Eventually, though, God would call him back to Israel.
When Elijah prophesied the drought upon the land, he told King Ahab that there would be no rain, “except by my word” (1 Kings 17:1). God planned for Elijah to one day call for rain upon the land. When God disciplines His people, His goal is to bring them closer to Himself, to call for repentance. God’s plan was not to starve Israel out of existence: It was to prove to the people that He, not Ba’al or one of the other false deities of the neighboring lands, controlled the elements.
Elijah would return to Israel to culminate this key purpose of his ministry. The drought, and the upcoming battle of God vs. Ba’al on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18:20–40) would be the battle for Israel’s soul. God’s redemptive plan for the world hung in the balance, because He had determined centuries earlier that it would be through the seed of Abraham, the people of Israel, that the nations of the world would be blessed (Genesis 12:1–3).
In times of trial, there can be three results. The righteous may rise up and become more diligent in serving the Lord. Obadiah, a servant of the royal family, protected a handful of prophets while Jezebel continued to kill as many servants of God as she could. Some who are not following God may repent and become believers (I believe this was the case with the widow in Zarephath). Others, though, may become even more hardened against God. When Ahab finally saw Elijah, after three years of drought, he blamed the prophet for the nation’s hardships:
When Ahab saw Elijah, Ahab said to him, “Is this you, you troubler of Israel?” He said, “I have not troubled Israel, but you and your father’s house have, because you have forsaken the commandments of the Lord and you have followed the Baals” (1 Kings 18:17–18).
Who is the true troublemaker? The one who rejects God, demands that others follow in his rebellion, and brings condemnation upon himself and his followers? Or, the person who warns of the danger?
The answer to those questions hinged on a more foundational question: Is there a true God and, if so, who is He? Elijah served Yahweh, the LORD, the God who had made a covenant with Abraham and his descendants (the nation of Israel) and gave His law to Moses. Ahab and his wife, Jezebel, believed Ba’al was the greatest god (but, not the only one). The prolonged drought was Yahweh’s method of showing that He was the one true God. Even though the people thought Ba’al was a nature deity, who controlled the weather, Yahweh had held back any rain that Ahab sought from his god.
It was time for a battle for the soul of the nation. The people of Israel must repent and return to their God. Their calling, to be a blessing to all the world (by bringing forth its Messiah, Jesus) hinged on this moment.
The battle seems pretty bizarre, but it was designed to make certain that only a real God could win. Elijah (who thoughts he was the last of the Yahweh-worshippers) would place a sacrifice on an altar. Four-hundred fifty prophets of Ba’al would also. Then, they would each call on their God and ask him to “come and get it.” Let the true God set his offering on fire.
I think that, if any event in the Bible warranted a hilarious YouTube video, it was this “pray-off.” Elijah allowed the prophets of Ba’al to pray all day. They prayed from morning until it was almost time for the evening sacrifice. They danced; they leaped; they screamed; they started cutting themselves. All they heard was Elijah teasing them, suggesting that maybe Ba’al was occupied in the outhouse or taking a long nap.
After a full day of their shenanigans, Elijah decided to take his turn. After dousing the ox and altar with probably the last available water, he said a brief, simple prayer. God answered with a bang. Elijah did all he could to make burning the offering impossible, but nothing is impossible for God.
Modern-day servants of God will usually not be called to engage in quite as dramatic a confrontation against false religion. We are in a battle, though. Like Elijah, modern American Christians find ourselves in the midst of a daily battle for the soul of our nation.
Until recently, Ba’al worship seemed a thing of the past to modern people of faith (this has changed recently, though). While the idols of the ancient world may be a thing of the past, new idols have emerged to war against faith in the one true God of Scripture. Islam, particularly its most radical forms, is committed to world domination and the eradication of all other religions. Secular humanism and other atheistic ideologies stand opposed to Christianity, but often find their way into the church to distort its faith.
Today, some of those false religions proclaim a message of “tolerance.” While certain elements of tolerance are noble and in fact central to the Gospel (we should welcome people of different racial, socioeconomic, and ethnic backgrounds into our churches; we should welcome people regardless of their past; we should forgive), it is proclaimed in a way that denigrates the teachings of Jesus. Biblical tolerance means we accept people despite their flaws and backgrounds, and we exercise grace; it does not mean we pretend that sin does not exist. It does not mean we accept all “ways to God” as equally valid. Jesus said that He is the way, truth, and life, and that nobody comes to the Father except through Him. Biblical tolerance—particularly that taught by Jesus—does not contradict an exclusive claim to absolute truth. (If you have an issue with that, you may bring it up with God.)
The modern-day Elijah is called to pray for God’s kingdom to come, and His will to be done, on Earth as it is in heaven. He is called to proclaim the absolute nature of God’s revelation. He is called to stand for God even when the odds are stacked against him. Finally, he is called to trust God to do the impossible when the entire world has apparently turned its back on Him.
This post copyright © 2016 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.