The Showdown

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Sometimes the greatest public victories are followed by the most demoralizing personal collapses. 

It happened to Elijah – arguably a unanimous first ballot inductee if they ever open a Hebrew Prophet Hall of Fame.

In I Kings 18, this scraggly-looking “mountain man” stands all by himself against the vilest monarchs in ancient Israel.  King Ahab and his wife Jezebel have taken the nation’s spiritual elevator all the way down to the basement.  They’ve become official leaders of the cult of Baal, the local pagan god of weather and fertility.  Baal is reputed to be the provider of rain, wheat, figs, and babies.  And what does Baal require in exchange for his extravagant kindness?  According to his priests, Baal demands gruesome sacrifices – including, ironically, little children.

Elijah’s mission is to call the people away from Baal and back to Yahweh.  Significantly, his name is synonymous with his mission.  “Elijah” means “Yahweh is God.” 

The prophet says to King Ahab beginning in verse 19,  “Now summon the people from all over Israel to meet me on Mount Carmel.  And bring the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and the four hundred prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table…” Elijah went before the people and said, ‘How long will you waver between two opinions?  If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.’” 

Elijah throws down the gauntlet.  The word translated “waver” in this verse means to wobble or to limp.  The Israelites are dragging their feet between God and Not God.  Depending on what day it is, and how well the crops are growing, they might want a generous serving of Yahweh – but with a little Baal on the side.  Elijah says, “Make up your minds.  You can’t have it both ways.”

This is one of those make-up-your-mind moments in the Bible.

We cannot have Jesus and cheat on our taxes.  We cannot love God and tear people to shreds behind their backs.  We cannot be filled with the Spirit and saturate our minds with bitterness.  Our electoral process makes room for undecided voters right up to the last moment.  But eventually you have to mark a ballot. 

That’s why the last five words in I Kings 18:21 are so deflating: “But the people said nothing.”  They have no preference…no opinion…no passion in their bones.  They’re just spectators wondering which god is going to make them most happy.

Elijah shifts into gear.  He proposes a public contest.  “I am the only one of Yahweh’s prophets left, but Baal has four hundred and fifty prophets.  Get two bulls for us.  Let them choose one for themselves, and let them cut it into pieces and put it on the wood but not set fire to it.  I will prepare the other bull and put it on the wood but not set fire to it.  Then you call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of Yahweh.  The god who answers by fire – he is God.” 

Dueling deities – the crowd loves it.  This is better than a mid-winter basketball showdown between Duke and North Carolina. 

In truth, this ought to be a slam-dunk for Baal.  After all, he is the god of weather and lightning bolts.  For Elijah, this is a bit like challenging Mrs. Paul to a fish fry.  His very life is at stake. If fire doesn’t fall on Yahweh’s altar, Elijah is not going to get off Mount Carmel alive.

The contest proceeds in verse 26: “So they [the Baal gang] took the bull given them and prepared it.  Then they called on the name of Baal from morning till noon.  ‘O Baal, answer us!’ they shouted.  But there was no response; no one answered.  And they danced around the altar they had made.” 

At this point Elijah can’t resist a little prophetic trash talking.

“At noon Elijah began to taunt them.  ‘Shout louder!’ he said.  ‘Surely he is a god!  Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling.  Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.’”  Here’s how the LivingBible paraphrases Elijah’s comments: “Perhaps he is talking to someone, or is out sitting on the toilet…”

Who said the Old Testament isn’t a hoot? 

The tension grows in verse 28: “So they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed.  Midday passed, and they continued their frantic prophesying until the time for the evening sacrifice.”

Then we come to this telling sentence:  “But there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention.”  No, no, no.  Any time something is repeated three times in the Bible, that something is being specially emphasized.  This is an underlined, bold face, flat-out No

And this should tell us something.  The prophets of Baal are totally sincere.  They truly believe that lightning is going to strike at any moment. 

But they are now going to become a living demonstration that it is possible to be sincerely wrong

Elijah calls for an end to the charade.  With symbolic flair, he uses twelve stones – one for each of the ancestral tribes of Israel – to rebuild the altar of the Lord.  Then he asks that four large jars of water be dumped three times each on his sacrifice (there’s that number three again), just to make the possibility of fire inconceivable. 

Finally he offers a simple prayer:  “O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel… Answer me, O Lord, answer me, so these people will know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.’

“Then the fire of the Lord fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench.  When all the people saw this, they fell prostrate and cried, ‘The Lord – he is God!  The Lord – he is God!’” 

And what would this have sounded like in Hebrew?  El – li – Jah!  El – li – Jah!   The people are shouting hisname

Suddenly this has the feel of a rock concert or a political rally.  For one bright moment, the people of Israel burn with holy zeal for God. 

Bible teachers love this story.  It aligns with other watershed, make-up-your-mind moments: 

God says through Moses, “I have set before you this day life and good, death and evil.  Now choose life.” (Deuteronomy 30:15,19)  Joshua says, “Choose this day whom you will serve.” (Joshua 24:15)  Jeremiah cries out, “I set before you the way of life and the way of death.” (Jeremiah 21:8)

But within the space of a few hours, Elijah himself will go from total public domination to total personal collapse.  He will run away in fear and even yearn for death.  How is that even possible? 

If you’ve ever experienced a dreadful Low after an incredible High, it’s worth exploring what happens next in this story.

That’s where we’ll pick things up tomorrow.