2. Elijah Challenges Baal on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18)

Audio (47:02)

William Brassey Hole (1846-1917), 'Elijah's Sacrifice on Mount Carmel',
William Brassey Hole (1846-1917), 'Elijah's Sacrifice on Mount Carmel', from Old Testament History (Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1925) (larger image)

Elijah has been hiding in Phoenicia from King Ahab for three years. In the meantime, the drought that Elijah prophesied as a consequence of the sins of Baal worship has come with a vengeance, causing a famine to settle with its iron grip upon the land, especially in Israel. There is widespread suffering.

I wonder what Elijah thought about his ministry during this time. He isn't hearing from the Lord, so far as we know. If the Lord seems to put us on the shelf for a time due to health, economic difficulties, or other circumstances, we can feel like time is being wasted. And that we are failures. We need to be doing something. But Elijah waits patiently, being fed daily in the widow's household, and causing her to prosper even in the midst of the famine.

2.1 Elijah, Obadiah, and Ahab (1 Kings 18:1-18)

The Word of the Lord (1 Kings 18:1-2a)

Now at long last, God speaks to Elijah,

"1 After a long time, in the third year, the word of the Lord came to Elijah: 'Go and present65 yourself to Ahab, and I will send rain on the land.' 2 So Elijah went to present himself to Ahab." (1 Kings 18:1-2a)

"The word of the Lord came to ..." is a phrase that marks the Old Testament prophets. Yahweh speaks!66 God tells Elijah that it is time.

"In the third year" is an imprecise Biblical expression. It can indicate parts of three years (1 Kings 15:2) or three literal years. Both Jesus and James understood the duration of the drought as three-and-a-half years (Luke 4:25; James 15:17-18).67

The hiding is over. Now Elijah will go voluntarily to appear before the king who hates him and has been scouring the earth for him. The danger can't be overstated. But Elijah leaves the safety and comfort of Zarephath and goes without complaint towards the king's palace.

Ahab and Obadiah (1 Kings 18:2b-6)

What follows next is an interesting anecdote about Obadiah, the official in charge of Ahab's palace in Samaria and over his household. It turns out that he is a devout believer in Yahweh.

"2b Now the famine was severe68 in Samaria, 3 and Ahab had summoned Obadiah, who was in charge69 of his palace." (1 Kings 18:2b-3a)

The narrator goes on to tell us about Obadiah (whose name means "servant" or "worshipper of Yahweh"). I wonder if Obadiah himself didn't contribute to this portion of the Elijah Saga or share the story with whoever wrote it?

"3b (Obadiah was a devout believer70 in the Lord. 4 While Jezebel was killing off71 the Lord's prophets, Obadiah had taken a hundred prophets and hidden them in two caves, fifty in each, and had supplied them with food72 and water.)" (1 Kings 18:3b-4)

The narrator tells us the back-story, given in parentheses in most English Bibles. We learn about the intense persecution taking place against the prophets of Yahweh, probably groups or bands or "schools" of prophets that we see occasionally during this period.73 This is not just Jezebel making life difficult for followers of Yahweh; she is killing whatever prophets she can find. This is a life-and-death struggle for the religious dominance of Baal worship in Israel! To be able to support 100 men gives us some indication of Obadiah's wealth and importance in the kingdom, as well as his courage in the face of mortal danger with this degree of "civil disobedience."

It is surprising that Ahab and this chief palace official are the ones out looking for grassy areas as the famine continues. I would expect Ahab to have many servants at his command. Nevertheless, Ahab personally organizes the search.

"5 Ahab had said to Obadiah, 'Go through the land to all the springs74 and valleys. Maybe75 we can find some grass to keep the horses and mules alive so we will not have to kill76 any of our animals.' 6 So they divided the land they were to cover, Ahab going in one direction and Obadiah in another." (1 Kings 18:5-6)

If he finds any pastureland left in the kingdom, Ahab will take it for his own animals -- as a matter of "national security," no doubt.

Elijah Meets Obadiah (1 Kings 18:7-15)

While they are out searching, Elijah just "happens" to meet Obadiah.

"7 As Obadiah was walking along, Elijah met him.77 Obadiah recognized him, bowed down to the ground, and said, 'Is it really you, my lord Elijah?'

8 'Yes,' he replied. 'Go tell your master, "Elijah is here."'" (1 Kings 18:7-8)

Obadiah knows Elijah. His prostration before him is a sign of his reverence for this man of God. But Obadiah is suspicious that he won't actually appear before the king and leave Obadiah to suffer Ahab's wrath.

"9 'What have I done wrong,'78 asked Obadiah, 'that you are handing your servant over to Ahab to be put to death? 10 As surely as the Lord your God lives,79 there is not a nation or kingdom where my master has not sent someone to look for you. And whenever a nation or kingdom claimed you were not there, he made them swear80 they could not find you. 11 But now you tell me to go to my master and say, "Elijah is here." 12 I don't know where the Spirit of the Lord may carry you when I leave you. If I go and tell Ahab and he doesn't find you, he will kill me. Yet I your servant have worshiped the Lord since my youth." (1 Kings 18:9-12)

Obadiah, as a believer in Yahweh, already feels insecure in his position in the palace. Now he is afraid that Elijah won't appear before Ahab after all, and he will be held criminally negligent. When they are angry, absolute monarchs are known to summarily execute court officials who displease them.

We also learn that Elijah has not been paranoid. Ahab has indeed sought him both in Israel and in all the surrounding nations (1 Kings 18:10), but the Spirit of the Lord has "carried him away" to a place where he couldn't be found. Obadiah is afraid that will happen again.

Ahab is Elijah's arch enemy. For Elijah to appear before him might be seen as suicide, except that Ahab fears Elijah's God and is desperate to see the famine lifted.

Jezebel Seeks to Kill Yahweh's Prophets (1 Kings 18:13-14)

One indication of the danger Obadiah faces is Jezebel, who is aggressively seeking to destroy Yahweh's influence in Israel. Obadiah continues,

"'13 Haven't you heard, my lord, what I did while Jezebel was killing the prophets of the Lord? I hid a hundred of the Lord's prophets in two caves, fifty in each, and supplied them with food and water. 14 'And now you tell me to go to my master and say, "Elijah is here." He will kill me!'" (1 Kings 18:13-14)

Verse 13 demonstrates two truths: Jezebel is vicious and Obadiah is a true and courageous believer. If Obadiah's role in hiding the prophets is found out, Jezebel will see that he is executed!

Obadiah Arranges the Meeting (1 Kings 18:15-16)

Elijah reassures him by swearing an oath.

"Elijah said, 'As the Lord Almighty lives,81 whom I serve, I will surely present myself to Ahab today.'" (1 Kings 18:15)

I love how Elijah takes pride in the trust that Yahweh Almighty has in him -- Yahweh "whom I serve!" He may be a mere servant, but he is a trusted servant, doing the Lord's bidding and serving as his spokesman to Israel. Sometimes we despise servants, as if freedom were the highest value. But Elijah is proud to be a servant of the Lord. Are you?

Based on Elijah's promise, Obadiah arranges the meeting.

"So Obadiah went to meet82 Ahab and told him, and Ahab went to meet Elijah."(1 Kings 18:16)

Q5. (1 Kings 18:3-16) What do we learn about Obadiah from this passage? What do we know of his faith? Of his courage? Of his fears? If you were in Obadiah's situation, how much courage would you have shown?

2.2 Contest on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18:17-46)

After years of severe drought, Elijah and Ahab are face to face again.

Troubler of Israel (1 Kings 18:17-18)

Elijah and Ahab begin by verbally circling around each other, exchanging barbs.

"When he saw Elijah, he said to him, 'Is that you, you troubler of Israel?'" (1 Kings 18:17)

Ahab calls Elijah the "troubler of Israel." The root verb means to "stir up, disturb, trouble."83 The affliction of this drought and famine is all your fault, Elijah.

It is almost predictable when an evil man is confronted with his sins, that he will accuse his opponent of the very same thing. But, of course, it isn't Elijah who has brought affliction to faithless Israel; it is Ahab himself. Now Elijah calls out Ahab's lie.

"'I have not made trouble for Israel,' Elijah replied. 'But you and your father's family have. You have abandoned the Lord's commands and have followed the Baals.'" (1 Kings 18:18)

Ahab and his father Omri before him are guilty of two offenses against the Lord:

1. Abandoning.[84] Yahweh's commands are the Covenant that God has made with his people, contained in the Torah. Israel's kings have turned away, disregarded, and acted as if the Lord's Word is irrelevant. Not only that, Ahab is permitting his wife to kill Yahweh's remaining representatives, the prophets. She is the zealous impetus, but he is carrying it out.

2. Following85 the Baals. It is one thing to abandon Yahweh. It's another to actively embrace an opposite and contrary god, Baal. "Follow" here has the sense of to follow in a theological sense, "to adhere" to Baal, his values, and his worship. As you may recall from Lesson 1.1, Baal is the regional god of fertility and rain, with his consort Asherah. Images of Baal and Asherah or Astarte abound in Israel by this time; archeologists are still digging them up today. Baal worship was strictly forbidden by the First and Second Commandments:

  1. You shall have no other gods before me (Exodus 20:3), and
  2. You shall not make for yourselves and worship any idol or "graven image"86 (Exodus 20:4-6).

Sometimes, humans have pretended to be neutral. They don't believe in the Christian God, they say, or any god. They have abandoned belief in a deity. What they don't understand is that spiritual neutrality is impossible. You are either in the River of God, moved by his pull on your life, or you are dragged by the powerful currents of the world, engineered by the devil, unaware that you are serving Satan. Paul explains this phenomenon.

"You were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath." (Ephesians 2:1--3)

It is possible to be led by Satan and be oblivious to his influence. The only cure for this is obedience to the Lord. Spiritual neutrality is a myth.

Elijah Challenges Baal on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18:19)

Years ago, Elijah had declared a drought by the word of the Lord. The lack of rain and dew is now acutely felt in Israel. Crops wither and die. Starvation threatens. So after three-and-a-half years, Elijah proposes a contest between Baal (the supposed god of rain and fertility) and Yahweh on Mount Carmel. He lays out the terms to Ahab.

"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. 20 So Ahab sent word throughout all Israel and assembled the prophets on Mount Carmel." (1 Kings 18:19-20)

Mount Carmel from the Kishon Valley at sunset (photo by Chadner)
Mount Carmel from the Kishon Valley at sunset (photo by Chadner).

Ahab has little choice. His land gripped by famine; perhaps this is a way out.

Observe how weak Ahab is. The real impetus behind Baal worship is his Phoenician wife Jezebel. The 450 prophets of Baal and another 400 prophets of Asherah "eat Jezebel's table." This doesn't mean she has a long table in the palace that the prophets sit around. Rather, it means that she feeds and supports all these prophets out of the nation's treasury. At this point in history, Baal worship is clearly the state-subsidized religion. Yahweh worship is being actively suppressed by the queen. Yet Ahab aids and abets his wife's religious crusade.

Location of Mount Carmel
Location of Mount Carmel (Larger map)

Mount Carmel is a coastal mountain range about 24 miles (39 km) long visible from a great distance. It begins in the north with a headland extending into the Mediterranean Sea just west of present-day Haifa. The Kishon River (the present day Nahr el-Muqaṭṭa) runs along the northeastern flank of the mountain. Mount Carmel is also known for its more than 2,000 caves.87 Perhaps the prophets of Yahweh that Obadiah is feeding are hiding in this area (1 Kings 18:4, 13). We don't know.

Exactly where on the mountain the confrontation with the prophets of Baal took place, we're not sure, but Carmel's summit (1,724 ft.; 525 meters) is where Elijah and his servant go to look for rain at the end of the confrontation (1 Kings 18:42). Mt. Carmel had doubtless been a place of Baal worship as a "high place." There was also an abandoned altar to Yahweh there (1 Kings 18:30), so it could be considered "common ground" for the contest between Yahweh and Baal.

Limping between Two Opinions (1 Kings 18:21)

At Elijah's word Ahab has summoned the people and the prophets of Baal and Asherah to the site. And Elijah is clearly in charge. He begins by confronting the people's faithlessness.

"Elijah went before the people and said, 'How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow88 him; but if Baal is God, follow him.'

But the people said nothing." (1 Kings 18:21)

"Waver" (NIV), "go limping" (ESV, NRSV), "halt" (KJV) translate a verb meaning "to be lame, limp."89 It isn't that they don't believe in Yahweh -- they do. But they also believe in Baal and can't seem to make up their minds.90 They are like a lame man who can't take firm strides in one direction.

This is the problem with syncretism, or combining two or more religions. I live in California where there is a strong influence from the New Age movement, a collection of beliefs that draws heavily on Buddhism (Karma, Transcendental Meditation, reincarnation, vegetarianism), the occult, wicca, and native American religions. There is a strong emphasis on the "god within you," and a de-emphasis on the Creator and Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. "Oh, I believe in Jesus," someone might say. "He is my favorite of all the Great Masters. I groove on him."

Syncretism. If we believe in everything, we are committed to nothing. As Jesus said, "You can't serve both God and money" (Matthew 6:24) -- though many of us are tempted to try.

I think that the temptation to syncretism with the world's values affects us in every generation. Joshua spoke to the people who had entered the Promised Land and seen the exploits of the Lord, yet were tempted with other gods:

"If serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your forefathers served beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord." (Joshua 24:15)

Q6. (1 Kings 18:21) What is the danger of syncretism? What currently competes with your allegiance to Jesus in terms of time, focus, commitment, etc.? Why is there competition, do you think? How long will you go limping between two opinions?

Defining the Rules of the Contest (1 Kings 18:22-24)

Elijah states the reason for the contest: to finally put to rest the question about which is Israel's true God, Yahweh or Baal. Now Elijah lays out the rules for the contest on Mount Carmel.

"Then Elijah said to them, 'I am the only one of the Lord's prophets left, but Baal has four hundred and fifty prophets." (1 Kings 18:22)

Perhaps Elijah is the only public, out-in-the-open prophet of Yahweh at this time, though we know there were others in hiding (1 Kings 18:13). Elijah stands alone against a large crowd of Baal worshippers.

Elijah calls for bulls -- perhaps the most typical animal sacrifice for this land of shepherds and herdsmen. In the Torah, it is often the animal specified to sacrifice for sins of the nation.

"23 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. 24 Then you call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the Lord. The god who answers by fire -- he is God.'

Then all the people said, 'What you say is good.'" (1 Kings 18:23--24)

The gathered people of Israel, who were silent when Elijah challenged them to make a decision between Yahweh and Baal (verse 21), now speak approvingly of the terms of the contest. Elijah has achieved "buy in" from the people, the group he longs to lead back to Yahweh their God.

The wood is to be laid on the altar under the sacrifice but not lit. The carcass of the young bull91 is not put on the fire whole, but butchered with the major pieces laid on the altar for a burnt sacrifice -- that is, a sacrifice designed to be completely burned up.

The Prophets of Baal Attempt to Sacrifice (1 Kings 18:25-29)

There is no coin toss to see which team will go first. Elijah grants that advantage to the opposing team.

"25 Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, 'Choose one of the bulls and prepare it first, since there are so many of you. Call on the name of your god, but do not light the fire.' 26 So they 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." (1 Kings 18:25-26)

The contest begins in the morning, with probably thousands of the people of Israel gathered around watching this large band of prophets calling on their god with loud voices. They seem to be dancing or leaping trying to get Baal's attention. Perhaps, "performed their hobbling dance" (NJV) catches the sense of the word.92 The storyteller observes with heavy sarcasm: "There was no response; no one answered" (verse 26)

After watching this go on all morning, the people are getting bored with the lack of a result. Elijah starts to make sarcastic comments, pointing out to the Baal worshippers the impotence of their god.

"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.'" (1 Kings 18:27)

The verb translated "busy" (NIV) is more accurately, "relieving himself" (ESV), or as the RSV delicately puts it, "gone aside."93 Elijah is enjoying their frantic powerlessness.

Elijah's prodding results in a redoubling of their efforts. Nothing they can do gets Baal's attention, whether cutting themselves to evoke his sympathy or "frantic prophesying."

"28 So they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed. 29 Midday passed, and they continued their frantic prophesying until the time for the evening sacrifice." (1 Kings 18:28-29a)

The spectacle has gone on for most of the day, winding down with exhaustion about 3 pm, "the time for the evening sacrifice" in the Jerusalem temple. The storyteller concludes this episode with deeply ironic words.

"But there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention." (1 Kings 18:29b)

Elijah Repairs the Altar of the Lord (1 Kings 18:30-35)

The people may have drifted off while all this was going on, but Elijah summons them again to observe what he is doing.

"Then Elijah said to all the people, 'Come here to me.' They came to him, and he repaired the altar of the Lord, which was in ruins.'" (1 Kings 18:30)

When I read the words, "He repaired the altar of Yahweh, which was in ruins," my heart grieves. Once there was an active altar here on Mount Carmel dedicated to Yahweh, where his believers would sacrifice in praise and faith and joy. But no more. It was broken down, the stones scattered.

I think of all the churches that have shut their doors. Little churches, struggling churches, now silent. I think of large auditoriums that were once filled, now empty or only attended by a handful of the faithful gathered at the front, in disrepair because there isn't enough money for maintenance. In villages all over England ancient church buildings are declared "redundant" and closed. All over Europe cathedrals rise as relics to a faith once vibrant, now deserted by a people who seldom, if ever, attend. The altars are broken down and need to be repaired! Revive us again, O Lord!

Elijah has waited until the energy of 450 prophets of Baal has spent itself in useless petition. Now he calls to the people. "Come here to me."

"31 Elijah took twelve stones, one for each of the tribes descended from Jacob, to whom the word of the Lord had come, saying, 'Your name shall be Israel.' 32 With the stones he built an altar in the name of the Lord." (1 Kings 18:31-32a)

I imagine him asking the people for their help in finding the scattered stones of the old altar to Yahweh that once stood on this mountain. With the crowd watching and a few helping they search the area for the twelve large stones. Then some of the men, stronger than the rest, help roll or carry the stones to the site. Elijah directs them as they dry-fit the stones to make a sturdy altar, large enough on which to sacrifice a bull. Rock by rock, Elijah rebuilds the altar until it is complete. Until the rocks are fit together and stable.

As each of the twelve stones is placed, I imagine him reminding the people of their significance. Teaching them. You are the descendants of twelve brothers, the twelve tribes of Jacob. Your ancestor Jacob was a man who knew God, who wrestled with Yahweh all night and at the conclusion of the contest received a new name -- Israel.

"Your name shall no more be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed." (Genesis 32:28)

You are not the people of the false god Baal, Elijah is saying to the people gathered around him. You are God's people, you are Israel. He calls them back from what they had become through sin and syncretism, to who they are as Yahweh's children. They've suffered from identity amnesia; they've forgotten who God has called them to be. It is time to know the truth about their heritage.

Q7. (1 Kings 18:30-32a) What is the significance of Elijah "rebuilding" the altar of Yahweh? What rebuilding needs to be done in your own worship practices? Your church's? What has caused your "altar" or practice of worshipping and living before the Lord to be broken down? How will you repair it?

"32b He dug a trench around it large enough to hold two seahs of seed. 33 He arranged the wood, cut the bull into pieces and laid it on the wood." (1 Kings 18:32b-33a)

Once the altar is rebuilt, Elijah begins to dig a trench around the altar which will soon be filled with water, deep enough to hold three gallons or about 15 liters. Several followers are helping now. They are hoping as they dig that Elijah will succeed where the prophets of Baal have failed miserably. That Yahweh will answer by fire. Elijah's faith is contagious.

Elijah hadn't required Baal's prophets to douse the wood of their altar with water. But he wants the people to be absolutely certain that on the altar of Yahweh there is no trickery, no fire that he has somehow started surreptitiously.

"33b Then he said to them, 'Fill four large jars with water and pour it on the offering and on the wood.'

34 'Do it again,' he said, and they did it again.

'Do it a third time,' he ordered, and they did it the third time. 35 The water ran down around the altar and even filled the trench." (1 Kings 18:33b--35)

The kad or "water jar" that women would use for their trips to the well would hold perhaps 2 or 3 gallons (15 liters) of water.94 Though this was a time of severe drought, he sent some people off down the mountain -- to some springs or perhaps as far as the Kishon River in the valley below -- with four jars. The crowd waited until they returned and then poured water again and again on the sacrifice until the wood itself was saturated, incapable of burning, and the water was running off into the trench Elijah had dug around the altar.

An Evangelistic Prayer (1 Kings 18:36-37)

Now Elijah prays.

"At the time of sacrifice, the prophet Elijah stepped forward and prayed: 'O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command.'" (1 Kings 18:36)

Notice the two-fold purpose of this prayer.

"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." (1 Kings 18:37)

Elijah is doing this at God's command in order that the people will know with conviction two things:

  1. Yahweh is the true God, and
  2. Yahweh is turning their hearts back again to him.95

This is not only the shaming of a false deity. It is evangelistic. It is to bring repentance. It is to draw to Yahweh after many years hearts that once believed in him and followed him. Yahweh is calling his people home.

I see echoes in Elijah's prayer about turning back the hearts of the people in nearly the last verse of the Old Testament (which we'll consider more deeply in Lesson 7.2).

"I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn96 the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; or else I will come and strike the land with a curse." (Malachi 4:5--6)

Turning of hearts is a synonym for repentance. Yahweh, through his servant Elijah is seeking to bring his people to repentance from their apostasy and return to Yahweh their Father and God.

Q8. (1 Kings 18:37; Malachi 4:5-6) In what way does Elijah have a ministry of "turning hearts back again," of calling for true repentance? How was this fulfilled in Elijah's successor John the Baptist? (Mark 1:4-6). Why is this an important ministry for pastors and evangelists?


Charles G. Finney (1792-1875) was one of the great American evangelists of the nineteenth century. In his Lectures on Revivals of Religion (1835) he stressed the importance of regular revival gatherings in a community to counteract the continual pull of the world in the other direction. Camp meetings and annual "revivals" and "altar calls" are modern-day manifestations of the movement Charles Finney began.

Unfortunately, there is a big difference between attending a series of meetings and true, Holy Spirit-driven, heart-changing repentance that produces real revival in a people.

You might profit from studying the history of revivals -- such as the Great Awakening (1730-1750), the Second and Third Great Awakenings, the Welsh Revival (1904-1905), the Azusa Street Revival (1906), the East Africa Revival (1929-1950), the Jesus Movement (1970-1985), and others.

We desperately need revival today! Lord, revive us again! (Psalm 85:6; 80:18).

The Fire of Yahweh (1 Kings 18:38-40)

"Then the fire of the Lord fell97 and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench." (1 Kings 18:38)

What happened that day on that mountain top was not just fire, but fire so hot and so intense that even the rocks exploded and the soil was scorched. The sacrifice that had been laid upon the wood had utterly disappeared. God had truly answered with fire.

Perhaps you've seen what a lightning strike, a thunder-bolt, can do to a tree or a building. It is powerful! But this thunder-bolt didn't come from thunder clouds nor was it a lightning-quick strike. It came from a cloudless sky and continued zapping the sacrifice on the altar until it was completely consumed!

The people were terrified. After observing this all-convincing demonstration of Baal's impotence and Yahweh's power, the message is crystal clear.

"When all the people saw this, they fell prostrate and cried, 'The Lord -- he is God! The Lord -- he is God!'" (1 Kings 18:39)

They are on their faces, prostrate before the Lord, calling out across the mountaintop, "Yahweh, he is God. Yahweh, he is God."

Slaying the Prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:40)

On Mount Carmel today stands a dramatic statue of Elijah with an uplifted sword and his feet upon a slain prophet of Baal.
On Mount Carmel today stands a dramatic statue of Elijah with an uplifted sword and his feet upon a slain prophet of Baal.

But the job of reestablishing the worship of Yahweh in Israel isn't complete. There is one more step -- ridding the kingdom of false prophets.

"Then Elijah commanded them, 'Seize the prophets of Baal. Don't let anyone get away!' They seized them, and Elijah had them brought down98 to the Kishon Valley and slaughtered there." (1 Kings 18:40)

The people, who now realize with sorrow and anger they have been duped by the prophets of Baal, are quick to obey Elijah. They surround the prophets and force them down the mountain to the Valley of the Kishon at its base. It is a community event, a purging of the evil from among them. In both Hebrew and in English, the leader is often credited with achievements of his followers. The text says that Elijah brought them down and slaughtered them, but I am sure he had lots of help that day. Strangely, nothing is said of the 400 prophets of Asherah, who were present but seemed to have no part in the contest on the mountain.

In a multi-cultural and tolerant society, it is difficult for us to think of 450 men being slaughtered for propagating a false and deceptive religion. But if you've read the Bible, you are well aware of the penalties for propagating false religions in a theocracy instituted by Yahweh as the true King. It is unwise for us in the twenty-first century to judge Elijah for slaying the prophets of Baal without living in his context and under the laws that prevailed then.99 Today, God isn't commanding us to kill those who oppose him. Jesus didn't call on his disciples to fight when he was captured. His kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36). Wiseman notes:

"Christians view idolatry as no less sinful, but see total judgment as reserved for the final Day (1 Corinthians 6:9; Revelation 20:11-15; 21:8)."100

When we repent of our sins and turn to the Lord, there is a time for the death of the old self so that the new might live. I recall that when people in Ephesus saw the supernatural, they were afraid. Then they voluntarily and openly confessed their sins and utterly destroyed the valuable occult scrolls that had led them into evil (Acts 19:17-19). Lack of deep repentance is the cause of much of the shallow profession of Christianity in our day.

The apostle Paul reminded the Colossian believers:

"Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God." (Colossians 3:2-3)

Q9. (1 Kings 18:40) When we repent before the Lord, why is it important to put away the things that facilitate and tempt us back into our old life of sin? Yes, we want to avoid extremism. But what is the value of a clear break with evil? What is the danger of not making a clear break with evil?

The Sound of Heavy Rain (1 Kings 18:41-42a)

"41 Elijah said to Ahab, "Go, eat and drink, for there is the sound of a heavy rain." 42 So Ahab went off to eat and drink." (1 Kings 18:41-42a)

Elijah and Ahab are together following the slaughter of the prophets. Elijah tells Ahab, "Go (up), eat and drink." In other words, the matter is in hand. The drought and the time of deprivation are over. It is time to celebrate the coming of the rain. I think he is suggesting that Ahab go back up101 the mountain to where a pavilion has been pitched for the king during the contest. Nearby will be his chariot, because a bit later Elijah directs him to "go down" ahead of the rainstorm (1 Kings 18:44b).

Elijah completes the sentence, "For there is the sound of a heavy rain."102 Ahab can't hear anything. But Elijah the prophet can! Prophets are sometimes called "seers" because they can see visions of what is to come. Prophets hear what God is saying, even when those all around cannot. Elijah hears the pounding of a heavy rainstorm before it ever happens and assures Ahab that it is coming.

A Cloud as Small as a Man's Hand (1 Kings 18:42b-44)

Ahab goes to his tent to dine, but Elijah scales Carmel to its peak, from which he can see far out west into the Mediterranean, north to Mount Hermon, east to the ridge of mountains that runs from Samaria through Jerusalem and on to Hebron. To the south is the expanse of the Negev desert. But Elijah is not sightseeing.

"Elijah climbed to the top of Carmel, bent down to the ground and put his face between his knees." (1 Kings 18:42b)

He is squatting, with his head between his knees. This is the posture of humiliation or mourning, a position of humble prayer, where Elijah is beseeching God to bring the rain whose sound he has heard. James recalls this prayer.

"Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly103 that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops." (James 5:17--18)

James J. Tissot, 'Elijah from Mt. Carmel Sees a Clouds Afar Off' (1896-1902),
James J. Tissot, 'Elijah from Mt. Carmel Sees a Clouds Afar Off' (1896-1902), gouache on board, Jewish Museum, New York

As Elijah is praying, he keeps telling his servant to look again to see if any clouds are present -- out to the Mediterranean, the direction from which the prevailing wind will come. Elijah is in earnest prayer, asking, looking, seeking for a sign of the answer he is sure will come. You can hear the voice of the storyteller in his recounting of the repeated scans of the western horizon.

"43 Go and look toward the sea, he told his servant. And he went up and looked.

There is nothing there, he said.

Seven times Elijah said, 'Go back.'

44 The seventh time the servant reported, 'A cloud as small as a man's hand is rising from the sea.'" (1 Kings 18:43-44a)

A cloud begins to form -- first, the size of man's hand stretched out towards it on the horizon. Rapidly, the cloud grows until it covers the sky and begins to darken.

Racing in the Rain (1 Kings 18:44b-46)

Now Elijah calls his servant to find the king, who is casually finishing a meal.

"44b So Elijah said, 'Go and tell Ahab, "Hitch up104 your chariot and go down before the rain stops you." 45 Meanwhile, the sky grew black with clouds, the wind rose, a heavy rain105 came on and Ahab rode off to Jezreel.'" (1 Kings 18:44b)

It's interesting how Ahab seems obedient to Elijah's suggestions after the fire fell on Yahweh's sacrifice. Now, as the storm begins to gather force, the chariot clatters down the mountain as Elijah races ahead of it.

James J. Tissot, 'Elijah Runs before the Chariot of Ahab' (1896-1902)
James J. Tissot, 'Elijah Runs before the Chariot of Ahab' (1896-1902), gouache on board, Jewish Museum, New York

"The power of the Lord came upon Elijah and, tucking his cloak into his belt, he ran ahead of Ahab all the way to Jezreel."(1 Kings 18:46)

Elijah prepares to run by "tucking his cloak into his belt" (or "girded up his loins" as the KJV puts it) so his long cloak doesn't interfere with running. The "power" (literally "hand") of the Lord is upon him and he runs like the wind (or by the wind of the Spirit) for about 17 miles (27 km.) to Ahab's summer palace at Jezreel.106 I see this as the exhilaration of a kind of Spirit-empowered victory lap.

Why is he running to Jezreel? The text doesn't tell us.107 As it turns out, Elijah doesn't see Jezebel in person. Ahab does.

"Now Ahab told Jezebel everything Elijah had done and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword." (1 Kings 19:1)

Ahab relays the events to her and she responds by sending a threat to Elijah by messenger, since he is nearby. Perhaps we are intended to see the contrast between Elijah running in victory in the power of the Spirit (1 Kings 18:46) to Elijah running for his life in fear of Jezebel's death threats (1 Kings 19:3)."108

Lessons for Disciples

There are a number of lessons for disciples to ponder from this rich passage.

  1. Devout men and women like Obadiah are willing to do radical and dangerous things to carry out God's will and protect God's people (1 Kings 18:3-15) -- a powerful example to us!
  2. Elijah takes pride in being the "servant" of the Lord Almighty (1 Kings 18:15). We can take the same sense of self-worth from being trusted by Jesus to be his representatives in our world. Servant is a high office, one we learn from Jesus himself (John 13:2-17; Mark 10:43-45; Colossians 1:23).
  3. It is not possible to faithfully serve two gods -- whether Yahweh or Baal, Mammon or the Lord Jesus Christ. Syncretism, or mixing two or more religions, is not possible while still remaining a faithful Christian. To follow the Lord, we must actively turn away from, repent of, service to any other. Following the Lord is an exclusive relationship (1 Kings 18:21).
  4. Elijah rebuilding the altar of Yahweh on Mount Carmel reminds us of the need to rebuild whatever in our life has broken down and kept us from true and fervent worship of and commitment to the Lord (1 Kings 18:30-32a).
  5. Elijah prays that the people will know the true God and turn their hearts back to him (1 Kings 18:37). This is similar to the prayers of all God's prophets and apostles and pastors for their people, "to know the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge" (Ephesians 3:18-19).
  6. The killing of the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:40) is symbolic of our need to forsake and die to the false ways that have led us astray.
  7. Elijah the prophet hears the sound of heavy rain and prepares for it, even before it is visible (1 Kings 8:41-44). We live a life of faith in following what God leads us in, even if we don't yet see the fulfillment of his promises. "We walk by faith, not by sight" (2 Corinthians 5:7).
  8. Elijah races Ahab's chariot the 17 miles from Mount Carmel to Jezreel. God sometimes empowers his servants to great feats by the Spirit, such as Sampson's great strength. It is wrong to abuse our bodies without a break and we shouldn't presume on the Lord. But, having said this, there may be times when the Spirit clearly empowers us to do what we could not otherwise endure.

Elijah: Rebuilding Yahweh's Altar, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Available in paperback, PDF, and Kindle formats.


Father, your desire for us is a turning again to you and forsaking those things that lead us astray. Please work your revival today in our souls, and then teach us to walk in a place of continual renewal day by day. In Jesus' name, we pray. Amen.

Key Verses

"You call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the Lord. The god who answers by fire -- he is God." (1 Kings 18:24, NIV)

"Elijah said to all the people, 'Come here to me.' They came to him, and he repaired the altar of the Lord, which was in ruins." (1 Kings 18:30, NIV)

"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." (1 Kings 18:37, NIV)

"When all the people saw this, they fell prostrate and cried, 'The Lord -- he is God! The Lord -- he is God!'" (1 Kings 18:39, NIV)


References and Abbreviations

[65] "Present" (NIV, NRSV), "show" (ESV, KJV) is the Niphal imperative of rāʾâ, "appear, become visible, make one's appearance" (Holladay 328). Also 1 Kings 18:2, 15.

[66] For example, Genesis 15:1, 4; 1 Samuel 15:10; 2 Samuel 7:4; 24:11; 1 Kings 6:10; 13:20; 16:1; 17:2, 8; 18:1; 19:9; 21:17, 28; 2 Kings 20:4; 2 Chronicles 11:2; 12:7; Isaiah 38:4; Jeremiah 1:4, 11, 13:2; 2:1; Ezekiel (often); Jonah 1:1; 3:1; Zechariah 1:1, 7; etc.

[67] Some have thought that here it might be symbolic of a full seven-year drought cut short (Wiseman, 1&2 Kings, p. 167). The Bible records another three-year famine as a punishment for Saul's sin (2 Samuel 21:1).

[68] "Severe" (NIV, ESV, NRSV), "sore" (KJV) is ḥāzāq, "strong, violent, severe" (Holladay 100, 3).

[69] "In charge" (NIV, NRSV), "over" (ESV), "governor" (KJV) is literally the preposition ʿal , "'above, over' the house," that is, Ahab's palace (Holladay 272, II, 1.

[70] "Devout believer" (NIV), "revered" (NRSV), "feared" (ESV, KJV) is the adjective yārēʾ, "fearing, afraid" (TWOT #907a), from the verb , "fear," with the object as God, "shudder at, be in awe of, hold in deference" (Holladay, 142, 2; also in verse 13b); and the adverb mĕʾōd, "very, in the highest degree" (Holladay 180).

[71] "Was killing off" (NIV, NRSV), "cut off" (ESV, KJV) is the Hiphil infinitive of karat, "cut off," here in the Hiphil, "root out, eliminate, destroy" (Holladay, 165, H2a). Also in verse 13.

[72] "Bread and water" (ESV, NRSV, KJV) uses the noun leḥem, "bread," in general = "food, nourishment" (Holladay, 175, 4). "Food and water" (NIV) is preferred.

[73] 1 Samuel 10:5-13; 19:21-24; 1 Kings 20:35; 2 Kings 2:16; 4:1, 38-44; 6:1-3; 9:1-4.

[74] "Springs" (NIV, ESV, NRSV), "fountains" (KJV) is maʿyān, "spring," a flow of water from an opening in a hillside or valley (TWOT #1613a).

[75] "Maybe" (NIV), "perhaps" (ESV, NRSV), "peradventure" (KJV) is the adverb ʾûlay, "perhaps" (expression of hope, entreaty, fear) (Holladay 6).

[76] "Have to kill" (NIV), "lose" (ESV, NRSV, KJV) is the Hiphil imperfect of karat, "destroy," here, "have to kill a portion of the cattle" (Holladay 165, 3b).

[77] "Behold" (ESV, KJV), omitted in NIV, NRSV occurs twice in these verses. The Hebrew is hinnēh, "behold, lo, see," an interjection demanding attention, occurring over one thousand times. Often used to point out things, more often to point out people (TWOT #510). "Behold, Elijah met him..." (vs. 7, ESV), and "Go tell your lord, 'Behold, Elijah is here'" (vs. 8, ESV). Also in vss. 11 and 15. Since "behold" isn't used much in contemporary English, it is omitted in translations seeking to be more contemporary and less literal.

[78] "Done wrong" (NIV), "sinned" (ESV, NRSV, KJV) is the Qal perfect of ḥāṭāʾ, "sin, incur guilt" (TWOT #638), or perhaps "be blameworthy, guilty" (Holladay 100, 3).

[79] "As surely as the Lord your God lives" is the same oath we see elsewhere to underscore that Obadiah is telling the truth. See more on oaths in Lesson 1.1 on 1 Kings 17:1.

[80] "Made them swear" (NIV), "take on oath" (ESV, KJV), "require an oath" (NRSV) is the Hiphil perfect of šābaʿ, "make (someone) swear" (Holladay 359, 1).

[81] Elijah's oath (vs. 15). See more on oaths above in Lesson 1.1 on 1 Kings 17:1.

[82] The phrase, "went to meet," which appears twice in this verse, is three words: (1) the Qal imperfect of hālak, "go, walk," (2) the preposition le, and (3) the Qal infinitive of qārab, "come near, approach."

[83] "Troubler" is the Qal participle of ʿākar, "stir up, disturb, trouble" (TWOT #1621); "make someone taboo, cut someone off (from social life)" (Holladay 272).

[84] "Abandoned" (NIV, ESV), "forsaken" (NRSV, KJV) is the Qal infinitive of ʿāzab, "leave, abandon" in a religious sense, here Yahweh's covenant (Holladay 269, 1).

[85] "Followed" (here and twice in verse 21) is two words: the Qal imperfect of hālak, "go, walk," here in the theological sense, "follow, adhere to" a god/God, mostly negative of Baal (Deuteronomy 4:3; Holladay 79, 9b); and the preposition ʾaḥar, "after," here with hālak, "walk (together) with" (image: one behind the other), Hosea 2:7 (Holladay 10, 2d).

[86] "Idol" (NIV, NRSV), "carved image" (ESV), "graven image" (KJV) is pesel, "idol (of stone, clay, wood, or metal)" (Holladay 294); "idol, image," from pāsal, "hew, hew into shape (TWOT #1788). Pesel refers particularly to something carved or cut from wood or stone (P. L. Garber and R. J. Way, "Idol," ISBE 2:794).

[87] Rice, 1 Kings, p. 152.

[88] "Follow" is two words: the Qal imperfect of hālak, "go, walk," here in the theological sense, "follow, adhere to" as seen in 1 Kings 18:18.

[89] Qal of pāsaḥ, "be lame, limp" (Holladay 294, 1; TWOT #1787). The word occurs in the Piel stem in 1 Kings 18:26, "limp around" (in cultic observance).

[90] "Opinions" seems to come from a root referring to branches or boughs. Wiseman observes: "... It can be interpreted also as hobbling between two forks (denoting tree branches or cross roads or even crutches)" (Wiseman, 1&2 Kings, p. 169). "Opinions" is sĕʿippâ, "division, divided opinion" (TWOT #1527f). Holladay (p. 258) translates the word as "crutches" (prepared from tree-limbs). The root (which doesn't appear in the Old Testament), seems to have something to do with boughs or branches.

[91] "Bulls" (NIV, ESV, NRSV), "oxen" (NASB), "bullocks" (KJV) is Hebrew par, "young bull, bullock" (TWOT #1831a); "young bull" (Holladay 296).

[92] "Danced" (NIV), "limped" (ESV, NRSV), "leaped" (NASB, KJV), "performed their hobbling dance" (NJV) is the Piel imperfect of pāsa which we saw in verse 21, perhaps "limp around" (Holladay 294).

[93] "Busy" (NIV), "relieving himself" (ESV), "wandered away" (NRSV), "in a journey" (KJV) uses the noun sûg, "bowl movement" (Holladay 350); "movement" (TWOT #1469). The Targum sees this as a euphemism for going to relieve oneself (Rice, 1&2 Kings 2:319).

[94] J. C. Moyer, "Jar," ISBE 2:967.

[95] "Turning" (NIV) is the Hiphil perfect of the verb sābab, "turn, turn around," here, in the Hiphil, "change" (Holladay 252, H4). The basic meaning of the root seems to involve the idea of turning or going around (R.D. Patterson, TWOT #1456).

[96] The verb here is the Hiphil perfect of šûb, "turn, return," the twelfth most common verb in the Old Testament. This is the word usually used to speak of repentance (TWOT #2340). The Hiphil has the causative idea, "cause to go/come back," here, "bring back (someone's loyalty)" (Holladay 363, H6).

[97] "Fell" is the Qal imperfect of nāpal, "fall" (unintentionally), sometimes used idiomatically in battle for one force "falling" upon another in an attack (Holladay 241, 8; TWOT #1392).

[98] "Brought down" is the Hiphil imperfect of yārad, "bring down" (Holladay 143, 1).

[99] Deuteronomy 13:5, 13-18; 17:2-5; Numbers 25:1-13.

[100] Wiseman, 1&2 Kings, p. 170.

[101] "Go" (NIV), "go up" (ESV, NRSV, KJV) is the Qal imperative of ʿālâ, "go up ascend" or perhaps "go up (on journey, pilgrimage) (Holladay 273, 1 and 2).

[102] "Sound of a heavy rain" has three Hebrew nouns: gešem, "rain shower > rain" (Holladay 65, 2); qôl, "sound, noise" (TWOT #1998a); and hāmôn, (acoustic) "din, uproar" (Holladay 82, 3; TWOT #505a), from the verb hāmâ, "cry aloud, mourn, rage, roar, make noise, be clamorous."

[103] "Prayed earnestly" (NIV, KJV), "prayed fervently" (ESV, NRSV) is two Greek words, the Aorist middle indicative of the verb proseuchomai, "to pray"; coupled with the noun proseuchē, "prayer." This doubling of the word indicates intensity.

[104] "Hitch up" (NIV), "harness" (NRSV), "prepare" (ESV, KJV) is the Qal imperative of ʾāsar, "bind, tie, harness" (TWOT #141), used in Jeremiah 46:4 as "harness the horses, in 1 Samuel 6:7, 10 to yoke animals to a cart.

[105] "Heavy rain" (NIV, NRSV), "great rain" (ESV, KJV) is the noun gešem, "rain" and the adjective gādôl, "great, many, much."

[106] The distance is estimated by Wiseman, 1&2 Kings, p. 171.

[107] Jones suggests that it is: "... A combination of his wish to be there in person to present the challenge of his God's achievement to Jezebel and of his desire to share in the popular response in Jezreel to the coming of rain" Jones (1&2 Kings 2:326) citing J. Gray, I & II Kings: A Commentary (Old Testament Library; London: SCM Press, 1970). However, neither of those reasons seem compelling or reasonable to me.

[108] "Ran" is the Qal imperfect of rûṣ, "run" (1 Kings 18:46). "Fled" (NRSV), "ran" (ESV, NIV), "went" (KJV) in 1 Kings 19:3 is Qal imperfect of hālak, "go, walk" (TWOT #498).

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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