A God You Can Trust
Reflections on 1 Kings 18:20-39
Jerry was a long distance runner on our high school track team. He
trained well, every day running the mile and a half to school and back home,
books and all. Jerry’s specialty was the mile and more than once he came
close to setting a state record. When Jerry ran, we could always count on
We might have won our division in track that year with Jerry as the
anchor of our team. But Jerry had the bad habit of not showing up at crucial
track meets. We never knew when Jerry would be there or why he wouldn’t show
At one important track meet late in the year the points were close in a
fierce rivalry with a neighboring town. It was a home meet, and we hoped
until the last minute that Jerry would show up. I remember this incident
well because the coach, almost at random, picked me to run in Jerry’s place.
Since I had never run the mile before, the result was never in doubt. I
learned something that day from Jerry: If someone is depending on you, never
let them down.
The story of Elijah is a different kind of contest. But in the story we learn
something important about the faithfulness of God.
1. The challenge presented - a call for decision (18:20-24)
20 So Ahab sent to all the people of Israel, and
gathered the prophets together at Mount Carmel. 21 And Elijah came near to
all the people, and said, "How long will you go limping with two different
opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him."
And the people did not answer him a word.
22 Then Elijah said to the people, "I, even I
only, am left a prophet of the LORD; but Baal's prophets are four hundred
and fifty men. 23 Let two bulls be given to us; and let them choose one
bull for themselves, and cut it in pieces and lay it on the wood, but put
no fire to it; and I will prepare the other bull and lay it on the wood,
and put no fire to it. 24 And you call on the name of your god and I will
call on the name of the LORD; and the God who answers by fire, he is God."
And all the people answered, "It is well spoken."
This story takes place during the troubling times of King Ahab’s reign in
the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Ahab’s father, Omri, had sealed a treaty
with the King of Phoenicia by accepting his daughter, Jezebel, as wife for
Jezebel was a zealous worshipper of Baal, the Canaanite god of rain and
fertility (who went by the name Melqart in Phoenicia). Determined to
replace the worship of Yahweh (the Israelite’s name for God) with Baal
worship, she persecuted Yahweh worshippers unceasingly. Weak-willed Ahab did
not intervene in her campaign. He even supported her by building a temple to
Baal in Samaria, the capital (1 Kings 16:29-34).
Many Israelites detested Baal worship, not just because it was a
challenge to the true worship of Yahweh, but also because it was a fertility
religion. The people worshipped Baal by magic rituals, including human
sexual acts, to give Baal power or to persuade him to act in some way.
Baal worship attracted many other Israelites. They found it easier to
worship an idol they could see than God whom they could not. The magic and
the sexual rituals appealed to their most primitive instincts. It is always
easier to mold God, or religion, to our idea of what he should be than to
change ourselves to match God’s standard. Most false gods or idols, even
idols that are not necessarily physical ones, are simply human beings or
human passions drawn large.
Elijah objected to Baal worship in any form as a violation of Israel’s
covenant with God (Ex 20:3). He challenged everything that the people
believed about Baal. He opened his prophetic ministry by confronting Baal on
his own turf, proclaiming a drought in the name of God (17:1 ff).
Most Israelites did not speculate about the existence of gods other than
Yahweh. Real life questions were of much greater concern. Who really
controlled the rain, cycles of nature, life, and death? Which god could
really affect human existence? If it were Baal, they would have to practice
the magic to survive. Then they could live the materialistic, self-centered
life that comes from serving gods of our own making. If it were Yahweh, then
they would have to live by the high ethical and moral standards of the Law
of Moses (Torah). Which god really mattered? Elijah would let God himself
answer that question.
We should note that Elijah did not himself try to convert the people to
belief in Israel's God.
He did bring them to a point where they were ready to decide. For the people
to make no choice meant they would go on serving Baal. Not choosing
for God is to choose against
Him. The people said nothing when Elijah challenged their divided loyalties
(v. 21). Yet, they came to a point where they were at least willing to
decide (v. 24).
That willingness to choose is a move toward faith because it shows an
openness to allow God to work. If people are really open to God’s work in
the world, if they are willing to base decision for God on God alone, then
they will most often choose God. The church has no greater task than to move
people toward a willingness to choose. Then it must trust God and His grace
with the rest.
2. The contest is set - a confident faith (18:35-35)
25 Then Elijah said to the prophets of Baal,
"Choose for yourselves one bull and prepare it first, for you are many;
and call on the name of your god, but put no fire to it." 26 And they took
the bull which was given them, and they prepared it, and called on the
name of Baal from morning until noon, saying, "O Ba'al, answer us!" But
there was no voice, and no one answered. And they limped about the altar
which they had made.
27 And at noon Elijah mocked them, saying, "Cry
aloud, for he is a god; either he is musing, or he has gone aside, or he
is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened." 28 And
they cried aloud, and cut themselves after their custom with swords and
lances, until the blood gushed out upon them. 29 And as midday passed,
they raved on until the time of the offering of the oblation, but there
was no voice; no one answered, no one heeded.
30 Then Elijah said to all the people, "Come near
to me"; and all the people came near to him. And he repaired the altar of
the LORD that had been thrown down; 31 Elijah took twelve stones,
according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the
word of the LORD came, saying, "Israel shall be your 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 bull in pieces and laid it on the wood.
And he said, "Fill four jars with water, and pour it on the burnt
offering, and on the wood." 34 And he said, "Do it a second time"; and
they did it a second time. And he said, "Do it a third time"; and they did
it a third time. 35 And the water ran round about the altar, and filled
the trench also with water.
Elijah called for this contest between Yahweh and Baal and he set the
conditions. Yet, he gave every possible advantage to the prophets of Baal.
He wanted no accusations that he had done some sleight-of-hand to win. The
narrator tells the story with delight here. The frantic efforts of the Baal
prophets, the length of time they prayed, the sarcastic comments of Elijah
about their god, all serve to ridicule Baal. He is not much of a god if the
people cannot count on him in a crisis.
Isaiah made much the same point. The people would cut wood, use half for
cooking their food and then make the other half into a god to worship
(Isaiah 44:13-19)! "Talk to your piece of wood," the prophet Habakkuk later
taunted, "and see if it can answer you." (Habakkuk 2:18-19). Scripture tells
Elijah’s story with absolute conviction that Baal is no god. He is only an
absurd joke! No god is real if he does not matter in people’s lives.
Sadly, for many people today, God does not exist. Like the Israelites,
most of us care little for questions about the existence of God. We are
vitally concerned about the matters that directly affect our lives on a day
to day basis: job, security, home, social life, etc. Especially in our
western culture in which people pride themselves on self-sufficiency, many
think they are the only ones who can affect these issues. They do not
worship Baal. But they also have not chosen the God of the Bible. The idols
of today are not wood and stone. People have made gods of themselves! Like
the Israelites, they have never chosen for God and so have
chosen against him. Like the Israelites, they worship a
powerless god who is laughable as a god. As Elijah shows in our story,
worshipping an idol does not mean that God is not real!
There is another important aspect to the story. Not only do the people
need to see Baal for the superstition he is, they need to see Yahweh for the
true God that He is. The story appeals to a wide range of symbols that
forced the people to recall who Yahweh, the God of the fathers, really was.
The rebuilding of the ruined altar, the twelve jars of water, recalling
the change of Jacob’s name to Israel, all served to call the people to
return to the God of the covenant. The twelve stones had special meaning.
They recalled the entire exodus event in which God had created the Israelite
people from a ragged group of slaves. The Israelites had built a pile of
twelve stones on the banks of the Jordan after they entered the land (Joshua
4). This served to remind them what God had done for them, that He would be
their God and they would be His people.
Elijah set the contest with absolute confidence in God. He had no doubt
that Yahweh was really God. He was willing to stake everything on that
3. Only God shows up - a God you can trust (18:36-39)
36 And at the time of the offering of the
oblation, Elijah the prophet came near and said, "O LORD, God of Abraham,
Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel,
and that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your
word. 37 Answer me, O LORD, answer me, that this people may know that you,
O LORD, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back." 38 Then the
fire of the LORD fell, and consumed the burnt offering, 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 God; the LORD, he is God."
There is a saying left over from the peace marches of the 1960s: What if
they gave a war and nobody came? After all the antics of the prophets of
Baal, he never showed up. The god they called the rider of the clouds
and portrayed with the fire of lightening flashing from his hands, fizzled
that day on Carmel. That is the problem with gods that are not really gods;
you can’t depend on them. To paraphrase an old television commercial, if you
can’t trust your god, who can you trust?
Elijah’s quiet, brief, and elegant prayer stands in sharp contrast to the
all-day binge of groaning by Baal’s followers. It is as if Elijah thought
that God already knew what He needed to do (note Matt 6:8). Elijah simply
confessed God as God, and asked for Him to reveal himself to the people.
Perhaps we need to check our own prayers to see if they resemble the
prayers of the Baal prophets more than Elijah’s prayer. There are times of
distress when we need to cry out to God from the depths of our being. Even
in those times, we do not have to persuade him to be God! Prayer that tries
to coax God to action reveals more about the attitude of the one praying
than it reveals about God. Prayer is not to convince God; it
is to confess before God our faith in Him.
God answered the prayer of Elijah, evoking a confession of faith from the
people: "Yahweh, He is God!" Sometimes I hear people call for blind faith.
"Just believe in God," they say. I don't think that there is such thing as
blind faith. At least, not at first. Faith must always build on something.
For Moses, it was a burning bush. For the Hebrews it was the mighty Egyptian
army lying on the shore of the Red Sea. For the later Israelites it was the
fallen walls of Jericho. For Hezekiah it was a deserted Assyrian camp. For
John the Baptist it was the blind receiving their sight. For Mary Magdalene
it was an empty tomb.
This story is not about Elijah, or miracles. It is about God. And it’s
about us. God will always do whatever is necessary to reveal himself to
human beings. He will always make the first move toward humanity. We must
choose in response. It may be a great supernatural event like fire from
heaven, or it may be a whisper from a whirlwind. Yet, God will always act to
show himself as God. If we are honest, if we have come to the place where we
are willing to choose, who else could we choose but God?
Several years ago I attended a series of revival services conducted by a
well-known evangelist. Each night he called for miracles in the services as
a means to get people to believe in God. On the last night he decided it was
time to "prove" God. He called a tragically crippled young woman to the
front of the church and declared that God was going to heal her. After more
than thirty minutes of increasingly intense prayer, she still sat in the
wheel chair. He brushed aside the apparent failure by announcing that God
would still heal her, but in his own time.
Did God fail? Can we, like Elijah, set up tests for God to prove he is
there? No, I think not. If we are not careful, we will begin to resemble the
magical prophets of Baal more than followers of God!
Yet, God does reveal Himself. Few of us can believe blindly. God knows
that. If we think about it for a moment, most of us have had our own "Red
Sea experience." That time when we knew beyond question that God was God.
God is not at our beck and call like some cosmic short order cook. But He is
there. And He is God!
O Lord, forgive me for selfish prayers, for
treating you as if YOU were MY servant. I have chosen you as my
God. Lord, I believe that you are God. Help my unbelief.
Questions for discussion
1. What are some modern examples of gods or idols that we have created
in our own image, that represent human beings or passions drawn large?
2. If it is true that the task of the church is bringing people to the
point where they are willing to choose for or against God, how does this
affect evangelism in the church?
3. What kind of miracles does God do today to reveal himself to people?
What are some examples of modern "Red Sea" experiences?
4. Can God always be counted on to intervene in our world
in a crisis? If so, how does he intervene? If not, how can
He be considered trustworthy?
5. Can faith ever be blind? Why or why not?
6. Does prayer convince God to act when he would not act otherwise?
What is the purpose of prayer? Does God always answer prayer?
7. How would you describe a practical atheist?