1 Kings 18:17-20:21
Chapter 18 of 1 Kings brings to a conclusion the battle between Yahweh and Baal over rain. Elijah had announced in 17:1 that there would be no rain except by his word. Baal, the god of the storms, would be rendered powerless by the word from Yahweh. After locking the rain clouds for three years, Yahweh sent Elijah to Ahab with the word that He would send rain to the land again. 1 Kings 18:17 describes the first meeting of Ahab and Elijah since the drought began. Verses 19-40 present the story of the contest between Elijah and the prophets of Baal. Here, in the context of worship, the battle between Baal and Yahweh is dramatized in a single day. The remainder of chapter 18 details the coming of rain at the prayer of Elijah.
Chapter 19 continues the series of stories about Elijah, but with a dramatic turn. No longer is Elijah the victorious representative of God. Rather he flees for his life in despair and receives special help from the Lord for himself. On his return to Israel he calls Elisha into the prophetic ministry. The opening verses of chapter 20 present the strange story of Ahab's conflict with Ben-hadad, the king of Aram.
Conflict on Mt. Carmel - 1 Kings 18:17-40
The encounter between Ahab and Elijah begins with a surprising calm. The fury of Ahab that was implied early in chapter 18 is left behind. The issue as they meet is to establish blame. Ahab describes Elijah as the troubler of Israel. We may assume that Ahab believed that Elijah had insulted Baal and that all the problems of the drought were not Yahweh's doing, but Baal's angry punishment because of the insult he had suffered. The verb "trouble" in Hebrew was used of an infectious influence that brought pollution. The Old Testament Law understood that such pollution disrupted society and would cause the polluted one to be cast out. Thus Ahab suggests that Elijah was an infection that had brought a disruptive pollution to Israel. The obvious solution in Ahab's mind would be to excommunicate Elijah.
Elijah responds that it is Ahab and his father Omri that have been the disruptive infection in Israel. His accusation is specific. Ahab is the troubler of Israel because he has forsaken the commands of Yahweh and has followed Baal. Elijah has correctly applied Biblical teaching to this question of who was troubling Israel. Disobedience to the Lord is always a polluting influence that must be removed. Deuteronomy 21 and 22 contain a series of drastic punishments that are explained as necessary to purge evil from Israel's midst.
The Old Testament was not naive about the way evil influences spread. Our culture is naive about evil's pernicious influence. To tolerate evil in any area of our lives is to leave the door open to the spread of worse evil. Habits, thoughts, and attitudes that are wrong are not harmless; they are dangerous influences weakening a person's whole moral structure. The moral collapse of many contemporary Christian leaders can be traced to allowing seemingly insignificant sins to remain. The presence of evil in our society opens the door for the increase of evil - both in depth and range. More people will be ensnared by sin when we tolerate evil in society. Those involved in sin will sink to lower depths of depravity. Disobedience to God is the real troubler of society and of persons.
Elijah then proposes a contest at Mt. Carmel between the prophets of the baals and himself. Though Baal was the name of the chief storm god of Canaan, most cities had their own local baal fertility god. Thus Elijah summons all Israel to a meeting between representatives of all the local baals, of the chief Baal, and of the asherah, the female consorts for the baals and himself.
The choice of Mount Carmel as the location of the confrontation may be significant. Mt. Carmel is on the only jut of land breaking the straight Israelite Mediterranean coastline. Present day Haifa is located on the northern slopes of Mt. Carmel. At Elijah's time it was near the border between Israel and Phoenicia. Possession of it had fluctuated between Israel and Tyre through the previous centuries. Since it had been possessed part of the time by the Phoenicians it was the one of the first places Baal worship had been introduced to Israel. Thus Elijah picks the most Baalistic territory in Israel for the contest between Yahweh and Baal. In the minds of the people the home court advantage would belong to Baal.
When representatives of the people of Israel were gathered, Elijah appealed to them to make a choice between Yahweh and Baal. His question revealed the history of the Northern Kingdom. Yahweh had never been formally rejected as Israel's God. The Northern Kingdom had simply wanted to worship Baal also. While Baal could tolerate such an arrangement, Yahweh would not. Elijah compared the situation to being crippled. The general idea of what Elijah intended is clear, but the exact reason he chose the word "limped," is debated. It is the same word that was used to describe the ritual dance of the prophets of Baal in verse 26. The question may be, "how long will you limp along doing the Baal dance? When will you choose the obviously correct choice, Yahweh?"
Another interpretation is that Israel was hobbling along trying to use two canes - both Yahweh and Baal - to walk. After the three years of drought in which Yahweh had shown His superiority to Baal, Israel would now be forced to acknowledge and choose the true God. They would be forced to throw away one cane and only rely on Yahweh.
The tragedy of verse 21 is that the people of Israel are challenged to make a choice about whom they will follow, but the people did not answer him a word. Israel had become so spiritually bankrupt that they could not or would not even verbalize the obvious choice. One of the most heartbreaking experiences for a Christian is to see a person that needs the Lord confronted with the obviously right time to make a spiritual move, and to watch that person sit stone silent, unable or unwilling to accept what God was ready to do for them.
Elijah makes five different proposals in verses 21-40. The first proposal was to the people to choose whom they would follow. They are silent, and that proposal dead-ends. The second proposal is made in verses 23-24 and suggests that the prophets of Baal and Elijah each prepare an offering, and that the god who answers by fire will be acknowledged as God. The people accept this proposal and thus the action will advance along these lines.
The third proposal comes in verse 25 where Elijah offers to the prophets of Baal for them to go first in their effort to get Baal to answer. Verses 26-29 describe the response of the prophets of Baal. The fourth proposal did not come until verse 37 when Elijah prayed, a prayer that was successfully answered. The fifth proposal comes in verse 40 to seize the prophets of Baal.
Verses 26-35 form the central part of this story. Here the prophets of Baal make their attempt to win fire from heaven from their god; Elijah mocks them, and then Elijah makes his preparations for Yahweh to answer with fire. No details of the preparation of the prophets of Baal are given in verse 26. Perhaps that indicates that Mt. Carmel was already being used for Baal worship and the altar was ready. It also may mean that the prophets of Baal were nervous and insecure and rushed directly into the act of prayer without proper preparation of the altar and sacrifice. Their action is contrasted with Elijah careful preparation of the altar before his prayer.
The narrative action slows down at this point. More details are given which has the effect of slowing the story down and emphasizing the fact that nothing is happening from Baal. Verse 26 points out that the prophets of Baal had prayed from morning until noon with no results. The Hebrew phrase is important. There was no voice and no answer. Yahweh was the God who spoke. He spoke the world into existence; He called Abraham out of Ur, and He spoke to the prophets. There was always a word from Yahweh, but there was no voice, no answer from Baal.
At noon Elijah began to up the ante by mocking the prophets of Baal. Scholars debate the exact meaning of the insults, but the effect is clear: Baal is being diminished by the insults being sustained by his prophets. The suggestion that Baal is meditating or musing implies that he is forgetful and is so preoccupied with himself that he does not notice the dilemma of his prophets. Elijah's comment that Baal may be gone for a bit has often been interpreted as a euphemism for having a bowel movement, an idea picked up in the Living Bible and the Good News Bible versions. Though some readers find such humor distasteful it does express the raw sarcasm of Elijah. Baal is being laughed at as if he were no more than a human being. Who would want to follow a god like that?
Perhaps Baal is asleep, Elijah suggests. Psalm 121 declares that Yahweh does not slumber or sleep (although Psalm 44:23 urges God to awake and respond). It is possible that Elijah is referring to an aspect of Baal theology. Tablets found in the excavations at Ugarit in the 1930's show that in some parts of Canaan Baal was thought to die in the fall as the dry season began and to lie dead in the winter before rising again in the spring when the rains returned. Elijah's joke is that Baal might be taking his dry-season nap.
The prophets of Baal fall into the joke themselves by crying louder and cutting themselves with swords. The Canaanites mourned the dead by cutting themselves with knives. Thus their desperate actions suggest that they too fear that Baal is dead and cannot hear them. The author of 1 Kings then repeats and expands the dreadful report of verse 26, there was no voice, no answer, and no response. If Baal isn't dead, he might as well be, because he does not respond to his prophets at all. The silence of Baal sets the stage for Elijah.
Elijah first invited the people of Israel to come close. The God of the Bible is always involved in the lives of people. His followers cannot remain withdrawn and uninvolved. They must come close to each other and to God Himself as He acts in their behalf. Then Elijah repaired the altar of Yahweh. This sentence also suggests that Mt. Carmel had been a place where Yahweh had once been worshipped, but the altar had been thrown down.
The language of verses 30-32 reminds us of the heritage of the twelve tribes and of the way Yahweh brought Israel across the Jordan River. Elijah reminded the people of their national name, "Israel." In Genesis 32:28 Jacob's name was changed to Israel after he had wrestled all night with God. Part of their heritage was struggle with God. Jacob had prevailed with God; Elijah now calls upon the people to remember their heritage.
Elijah also further stacked the deck against Yahweh. By digging the trench and drenching the altar, sacrifice, and wood Elijah made an answer by fire almost inconceivable. Then he had the water poured over the altar two more times. Baal had failed when he had the first opportunity to answer by fire. Baal had failed when he had 450 prophets praying to him. Yahweh was up against His own people who had turned against him and even the altar, sacrifice, and wood were totally drenched. From a human standpoint there was not much reason to expect a miracle and a response from Yahweh.
Verse 36 indicates that Elijah's prayer began at the proper time for the offering (oblation). This is a subtle reminder of the importance of obedience. God had laid out a program of worship in the Law. Obedience to all the details, even the time of offering, was an important part of this story. The prayer went straight to the heart of the matter. The people must come to know that Yahweh is God in Israel. The Hebrew word for "known" speaks of the knowledge of experience more than intellectual knowledge. The people were aware of their history and of the claim of God on their lives. What had not happened was the reality of them experiencing Yahweh as God. Their theology was ahead of their personal experience with God. Elijah knew that the crucial issue would not be to educate them about the nature of God (theology) but to see their hearts turn toward personal relationship with and obedience to the Lord.
The climax of the prayer comes in verse 37 where Elijah asks that Israel not only know in their own experience that Yahweh was God, but also that Yahweh himself had turned their hearts back to Himself. Here again in the Biblical notion of grace. Israel would have to choose to follow Yahweh instead of Baal. But when they made that choice to return to the Lord, Elijah prayed that they would realize that it was not by their own initiative and wisdom that they had repented. Rather God had graciously given them the desire, the opportunity, and the willpower to make that right choice. This is another example of the way the Bible places all the responsibility for serving the Lord upon us to make that choice. But at the same time all the credit and glory for the choice to follow God belongs to God who invites and enables us to choose to serve Him.
Once Elijah's prayer was recorded, the rest of the story unfolds with breathtaking rapidity. The fire of Yahweh fell; the whole altar, sacrifice, water, everything was consumed; the people fell on their faces and confessed that Yahweh was God, and they seized the prophets of Baal and executed them all. The contest with Baal was no contest. Yahweh answered with fire instantly; Baal had failed after a whole day of prayer from his prophets. One man of God overcame 450 false prophets. In every way God was triumphant. There only remained for Yahweh to show that He could exercise the prerogative of Baal and produce rain.
Yahweh Brings the Rain - 1 Kings 18:41-46
Once the people had rejected Baal and his prophets the way was opened for Yahweh to bring back the rain that had been at the heart of the conflict since chapter 17. The story of the return of rain focuses on Elijah. He is the leader empowered by God in every way. He is always one step ahead of the action.
Elijah began by urging Ahab to eat and drink because the rain was coming. The lack of rain had caused a shortage of water. No need to worry about that anymore - drink all you want. The lack of rain had produced a drought that meant a shortage of food. For a long time every bite of food and every drink of water had been measured in Israel against the uncertainty of drought and thirst. No more, Elijah boldly told Ahab: eat and drink. This was a confident affirmation of the certainty that God was about to unleash the rain that would end the drought.
Yet the mighty man of God who could promise so much becomes the humble man of God bowed in intercessory prayer in verse 42. Once Elijah entered into that prayer he did not stop until the answer was on the way. He did not even go himself to check on the cloud patterns and possible rising storm. His servant is sent to check out those details while Elijah remained in fervent prayer. It is not until the servant is sent the seventh time (the Biblical number for completeness) that the small cloud appears.
Once that small cloud appeared Elijah immediately warned Ahab to drive at once to Jezreel about 15 miles from Mt. Carmel before the rain made the roads impassable for the king's chariot. Almost immediately the small cloud gave way to black clouds covering the sky and a wind arose and heavy rain began to pour. Though Ahab was riding furiously, the narrator tells us that the hand of Yahweh was on Elijah and he ran in front of Ahab's chariot 15 miles to Jezreel.
Elijah's prayer and his instructions to Ahab reflect an incredible faith in the God who had stopped the rain, supplied Elijah's needs for three years, and answered with fire. Because three years have been compressed into two chapters of 1 Kings and because of the way we read Scripture, we easily forget that Elijah's life was always on the line. Faith was not easier for him because he saw God acting in ways that we don't. There were long periods of living on the strength of God's decisive words and deeds done in a few moments. Elijah was no plaster saint who just easily and automatically did God's will. The struggle for him was like the struggle for us. Chapter 19 will make that very clear.
God's Care for a Burned Out Prophet - 1 Kings 19:1-21
The focus of attention in chapter 19 is on Elijah. After two chapters of overwhelming prophetic success, after two chapters of seeing the hand of God at work in powerful ways, we might expect Elijah to be spiritually invincible. However, this chapter focuses on Elijah's depression and his inability to function spiritually at all.
The circumstances leading to his spiritual crash landing are briefly described in verses 1-3. Ahab told Jezebel about the death of the 450 prophets of Baal. She responded with the kind of anger and hatred that is so characteristic of sin. Never mind that the drought destroying her people had ended. Never mind that Baal's prophets had totally failed in the contest of Carmel. Never mind the facts; Jezebel responded out of the self-centeredness of sin and she promised vengeance. She sent a messenger to Elijah with the grim promise that she would kill Elijah within twenty-four hours. Elijah's response was fear, flight, and depression.
It is too easy for the modern Christian to sit back and wonder why Elijah would suddenly become fearful and despondent. After all he had been at the center of all the mighty acts of God described in chapters 17 and 18. First, Jezebel had genuine human authority to kill Elijah. His life was at stake. While Ahab appeared indecisive and weak, Jezebel does not. She appears fully capable to carrying out the most violent and irrational actions when they suit her fancy. A person's whose life has never been at risk for serving the Lord should not stand in judgment against Elijah.
Secondly, Elijah had not been just a passive observer of the great works of God described in chapters 17 and 18. He had been in the middle of a great spiritual conflict. Tremendous emotional and spiritual energy is required for such a conflict. Elijah was exhausted both physically and spiritually. To use contemporary terminology he was in state of spiritual burnout. However, the narrative of his flight for his life is insightful.
Verse 3 states first that he fled to Beersheba which belongs to Judah and left his servant there. Beersheba was on the southern edge of the Southern Kingdom. Jezebel was queen of the Northern Kingdom. Elijah had put a whole nation between himself and Jezebel. By any reasonable understanding he would have been safe in Beersheba.
However, such reasoning assumes that it was only Jezebel that he was fleeing from. In a very real sense Elijah was also fleeing from God and from the pressures that the call of the God on his life had brought. And so he continued his flight. Beersheba was on the edge of the desert as one headed south into the Sinai Peninsula. After a day's journey into the desert Elijah then continued his flight until he arrived at Mt. Horeb where he collapsed in a cave.
The flight to Mt. Horeb is ironic. Elijah was well past Jezebel's territory and was safe from her threats. If he was fleeing from God he was going the wrong direction, for he fled straight to God's own mountain when he came to Horeb, which is more often called Mt. Sinai. Elijah was discovering what the Psalmist expressed in Psalm 139:7-12. There is no place to flee from God. His Spirit seeks us out wherever we may go.
The depth of Elijah's spiritual depression appears in verse 4. Though he had fled for his life from Jezebel, he then asked God to end his life for him. At this point the kindness and gentleness of God are noteworthy. Instead of judgment or condemnation, instead of a spiritual pep talk about how he ought to be trusting God, Elijah receives food and drink and rest. Twice a messenger from God brought him food and drink and let him rest. Part of God's work in his life appears in verse 7 when the messenger of God feeds him. Elijah is urged to eat lest the journey be too much for him. God understood that Elijah was not finished traveling. It was necessary to go on to Mt. Horeb, for Elijah to come to the end of his road (and rope) before he could receive restoration from God. And so the Lord provided the resources and strength to make that final stage of the journey to the place where He could work with Elijah.
When Elijah arrived at Mt. Horeb and had rested for a night the Lord finally confronted him, "What are you doing here, Elijah?" The word from God is not heavy with condemnation, but there is reproach in the question. It is as if God were saying to him, "You came here, Elijah, I didn't bring you. Why did you come? What do you want? What are you trying to accomplish by running here on your own? What are you doing here?" God's reproach is met by Elijah's reproach. I am been very zealous. I have been faithful. But the Israelites, the people you sent me to, have rejected the covenant, they have killed your prophets. Then Elijah comes to the issue, I alone am left, and they are seeking my life.
Yahweh's response is again gentle and wise. He does not argue with Elijah; he does not contradict his prophet. He does send him to the mountain where years earlier Moses had seen God's backside and had experienced God's glory. Elijah was privileged to see a great wind, an earthquake, and fire, all typical symbols of the presence and power of God in the Old Testament. But the amazing comment by the narrator is that God was not in the wind or the earthquake or the fire.
Then in sheer silence God appeared to Elijah and Elijah knew it. Two things are important. First, God appeared to Elijah. The answer to the prophet's depression and sense of abandonment was not words, but the very presence of God. In our deepest pain, when we feel that God has gone against us, the answer is not words of theology or preaching, but simply the presence of God. Second, Elijah had experienced the presence and power of God in the wind and the fire in chapter 18. He needed to learn that God's power is not experienced only in such dramatic and visible ways. God's power is just as present and just as powerful when there is only silence.
After revealing Himself to Elijah God against asked the question, "What are you doing here, Elijah?" Elijah's answer was the same, but he is now able to receive the truth and a renewed commission from God. He is invited to participate in God's plan to deal with Israel's problems and commanded to anoint certain people who will fit into the unfolding plan of God. Then God quietly let Elijah know that he was not alone. Seven thousand people remained in Israel who remained faithful to Yahweh and who have never bowed the knee to Baal.
The sign that God had really gotten through to Elijah comes in verse 19. He set out from Mt. Horeb and returns to do what God sent him to do.
The Battle of Samaria - 1 Kings 20:1-21
The scene shifts dramatically in chapter 20. God had told Elijah at Mt. Horeb that judgment was coming on Ahab. The anointing of Jehu was an announcement of the end of Ahab's reign. Chapter 20 describes the historical process that God began to use to bring about the end of Ahab's dynasty. The king of Syria (Aram), Ben-hadad, laid siege to Ahab's capital of Samaria. Ahab is forced to pay tribute and it appears as if the entire kingdom might be lost. Yet a prophet of God offers Ahab the opportunity to experience grace one more time. When Ahab responded positively, God gave the Syrian army into his hands and Israel won a great battle. However, Ben-hadad was allowed to escape, and so further trouble lay in the future.
Study Questions for Reflection and Discussion
These readings and study questions are in preparation for next week's lesson.
As you begin each day's study ask the Lord to help you understand and rightly apply His Word to your life.
First Day: Read the notes on 1 Kings 18:17-20:21. Look up the Scripture references given.
1. Identify one or two new insights that were meaningful to you.
2. Select a truth that has a personal application for your life. Describe how it would apply to you.
3. Write a brief prayer asking God to minister to you at the point of your fears and discouragement.
Second Day: Read 1 Kings 20:22-43. Focus on these same verses.
1. Why did the Arameans think they lost the battle to Israel? Do you ever think of God as ineffective in certain areas of your life?
2. Do you think Ben-hadad's life should have been spared? Why or why not? What were the consequences?
3. Verses 39-40 provide a parable of Ahab's mistake. What kinds of things cause you to become busy here and there and to fail to do God's will?
Third Day: Read 1 Kings 21:1-29. Now focus on 1 Kings 21:1-14.
1. According to Leviticus 25:23 and Numbers 36:1-9, why could Naboth not sell his vineyard to Ahab?
2. What does it tell you about God that He provided each family to have perpetual ownership of its own inheritance land? How does God demonstrate that kind of love in your life?
3. Compare Jezebel's actions in these verses with those of David in II Samuel 11:6-24. What must inevitably happen to Jezebel now? Why?
Fourth Day: Read 1 Kings 21:1-29. Focus on 1 Kings 21:15-29.
1. Who does God hold responsible for Naboth's death? Why?
2. What judgment does God pronounce on Ahab and Jezebel? Is the judgment of God fair? Why do you think so?
3. What evidence of grace do you see in these focus verses? What application of this grace can you make in your own life?
Fifth Day: Read 1 Kings 22:1-28. Now focus on 1 Kings 22:1-14.
1. What actions of King Jehoshaphat of Judah show wisdom? What actions show a lack of wisdom?
2. Why did the king of Israel (Ahab) not like Micaiah? What kind of pressure did Micaiah experience in these verses? How did he respond?
3. How do you respond when different "prophets" give different statements about the will of God? What insight do Deuteronomy 13:1-5 and 18:21-22 provide?
Sixth Day: Read 1 Kings 22:1-28. Now focus attention on 1 Kings 22:15-28.
1. What was Micaiah's response to the question of whether the kings should go to battle?
2. What price did Micaiah pay for delivering a true word from God? What price are you willing to pay to be obedient to God?
3. Write a brief prayer asking the Lord give you insight into His will and courage to follow it completely.