It is remarkable that in the scriptures we often find a faithful witness for God in the most unexpected places.
In the household of the wicked king Ahab and his evil queen Jezebel, their chief servant was Obadiah, of whom scripture records, ‘Now Obadiah feared the Lord greatly’, 18. 3; ‘but I thy servant fear the Lord from my youth’, v. 12. When Jezebel ordered the death of the prophets of the Lord, Obadiah hid one hundred of them in two caves and risked his own life in providing them with bread and water. We could think of many others who, in a hostile environment, spoke out boldly for their Lord. When Jehoiakim, king of Judah, dared to cut sections from the scroll of the writings of Jeremiah and burn them on his fire, three men, Elnathan, Delaiah and Gemariah, remonstrated with the king that he should not ‘burn the roll’, Jer. 36. 25. When Daniel and his three friends stood fearlessly for God in Babylon, they were delivered from the ferocity of the lions and the furnace of fire, Dan. 3. 17; 6. 10, 20-22. God never leaves Himself without a witness on earth.
Obadiah asked the prophet, ‘Art thou that my lord Elijah?’ 1 Kgs. 18. 7. Elijah sent him to his master, King Ahab, to announce, ‘Behold, Elijah is here’. He repeated the request three times to a reluctant Obadiah. It was understandable that Obadiah had no desire to convey the news of Elijah’s arrival to Ahab, for the king had previously sent his servants to search far and wide to find the prophet, doubtless with a view to causing him harm. Now Obadiah’s life was in danger, especially if his work in protecting the prophets of the Lord had been discovered. Nevertheless, due to Elijah’s persistence, he agreed to go to the king. Elijah showed no fear. The Lord had sent him to meet Ahab, the man who had been searching for him to kill him; but he was confident that he was under divine protection.
Ahab greeted Elijah with a question, ‘Art thou he that troubleth Israel?’ v. 17. The prophet replied, ‘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’. 1 Kings chapter 16 verse 31 records that Ahab ‘went and served Baal, and worshipped him’, and 1 Kings chapter 21 verse 25 says, ‘But there was none like unto Ahab, which did sell himself to work wickedness in the sight of the Lord, whom Jezebel his wife stirred up’. Ahab led Israel into idolatry, breaking the first commandment, ‘Thou shalt have no other gods before me’, Exod. 20. 3. The form of idolatry which Ahab introduced was the worship of Jehovah and Baal, rather than the exclusive worship of Jehovah. The ministry of Elijah was to draw Israel back to the one true God. Scripture repeatedly warns us of the danger of divided loyalties, ‘A double minded man is unstable in all his ways’, Jas. 1. 8. The Lord claims the first place in the lives of His people. William Cowper (1731-1800) wrote,
‘The dearest idol I have known,
whate’er that idol be,
help me to tear it from Thy throne,
and worship only thee’.
The prophet told the king to assemble all Israel at Mount Carmel, and with them the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal. Elijah was alone, except for one servant, fearlessly confronting that vast gathering. It was soon to become evident that ‘one man with God is always in the majority’.
Elijah fearlessly presented the gathered company with a choice, ‘How long halt ye between two opinions? If the Lord be God, follow him: but if Baal, then follow him’, 18. 21. It must be one or the other; it could not be both. There was a stunned silence - ‘And the people answered him not a word’. Elijah outlined the test, which would indicate conclusively whom they should acknowledge as their God, Jehovah or Baal. Two bullocks would be taken, and the prophets of Baal could choose one. The animal was to be cut in pieces and laid on wood with no fire under it. Then they must call on the name of their gods. The deciding factor would be, ‘the God that answereth by fire, let him be God’. Everyone agreed that the outcome would be decisive, ‘And all the people answered and said, It is well spoken’. The prophets of Baal chose one of the bullocks, prepared it and laid it on the wood.
They began early in the morning to shout, ‘O Baal, hear us’, and they continued their cries until the time of the evening sacrifice. ‘But there was no voice, nor any that answered’, v. 26. As they became more exhausted, ‘they limped around the altar that they had made’, 18. 26 ESV. Elijah began to mock them, saying: (a) he cannot hear you; you need to cry louder; (b) he is too busy to answer you as he is engaged with someone else; (c) he is far away on a journey and out of reach; (d) he is asleep and you need to waken him, v. 27.
What a contrast between the futility of praying to an idol, and speaking to the true and living God, ‘his ear [is not] heavy, that it cannot hear’, Isa. 59. 1; He hears even silent prayers, 1 Sam. 1. 13, 27; He is never too busy to hear our prayer, ‘God is our refuge and strength, a help in distresses, very readily found’, Ps. 46. 1 JND; He is never at a distance from us, ‘The Lord is nigh unto all them that call upon him, to all that call upon him in truth’, 145. 18. He is never asleep and unavailable to us, ‘Behold, he that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep’, 121. 4.
The prophets of Baal were in a frenzy. They began to harm themselves, cutting their bodies with knives and lancets, until their blood gushed out, v. 28. We can see clearly here the danger of emotionalism, which has no connection to either God or His word. The result is not beneficial but harmful. By contrast, when our emotions are stirred by the word of God being preached in the power of the Holy Spirit, there is the potential for lasting blessing as a result.
Elijah stepped forward and addressed the assembled throng. He invited them to gather as close as possible, saying, ‘Come near unto me’, v. 30. All were able to witness what would take place; there was no sleight of hand, no trickery, nothing was concealed. Just as Paul said when he was speaking about the great foundational events of the gospel, ‘for this thing was not done in a corner’, Acts 26. 26. Luke spoke of ‘many infallible proofs’, 1. 3. When the people came close, Elijah repaired the altar of the Lord that was broken down. Years of neglect had reduced it to a heap of stones. To rebuild it Elijah took twelve stones, ‘according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob’, v. 31, and he made a trench around the altar.
After the death of Solomon there was a division of the twelve tribes: ten tribes in the north (Israel), and two tribes in the south (Judah). It is important to note that, although the tribes were divided, yet in the purposes of God there were still twelve. There were twelve loaves on the table of shewbread in the temple, twelve names on the breastplate worn by the high priest and looking forward to the new Jerusalem there will be twelve gates, ‘and names written thereon, which are the names of the twelve tribes of the children of Israel’, Rev. 21. 12. While men have introduced division, in the purposes of God there are still twelve.
The second bullock was cut into pieces and laid on the wood on the altar. In order to show that the fire could not possibly ignite by itself, Elijah commanded that they fill four barrels with water and pour it on the burnt sacrifice and on the wood, 1 Kgs. 18. 33. He told them to do it a second time, and then a third time, twelve barrels in all. The water completely saturated the sacrifice and the wood and overflowed, filling the trench around the altar. Then the prophet prayed earnestly to the Lord, ‘Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and of Israel, let it be known this day that thou art God in Israel, and that I am thy servant, and that I have done all these things at thy word’, v. 36. ‘Then the fire of the Lord fell, and consumed the burnt sacrifice, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench. 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’, vv. 38, 39.
James in his Epistle draws from the experience of Elijah to encourage us in the exercise of prayer, ‘The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working’, Jas. 5. 16 ESV; ‘He prayed earnestly that it might not rain’, v. 17. This was before Elijah had prophesied to Ahab in 1 Kings chapter 17 verse 1, ‘there shall not be dew nor rain these years, but according to my word’. His prayer was answered, ‘it rained not on the earth by the space of three years and six months’, Jas. 5. 17. When Elijah prayed again on Mount Carmel, ‘he cast himself down upon the earth, and put his face between his knees’, 1 Kgs. 18. 42. His prayer that it might rain was answered, ‘And it came to pass … that the heaven was black with clouds and wind, and there was a great rain’, v. 45.
In James chapter 5, Elijah prayed fervently, v. 16; earnestly, v. 17; repeatedly, v. 18.
In 1 Kings chapter 18, he prayed believingly, v. 41. Before there was any visible sign of even a dark cloud, he spoke to Ahab of ‘a sound of abundance of rain’. He prayed humbly, v. 42, when he cast himself down upon the earth. He prayed expectantly, v. 43, when he sent his servant to look towards the sea seven times.
It is a challenge for every believer to ask, ‘How many features of Elijah’s prayer life are seen in mine?’ When we pray for a particular need, we ought to be looking for an answer, and should not be discouraged when the answer seems to be delayed. Elijah sent his servant to look towards the sea for a sign of rain clouds approaching. Six times he returned saying, ‘There is nothing’; the seventh time the servant reported that he had seen a small cloud the size of a man’s hand. Had Elijah not been a man of faith, he may have ignored such a small token, but he took it rather to be the harbinger of good things to come. We too should look to see the early signs of the Lord at work in the lives of those for whom we earnestly pray.
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