Elijah Triumphs with God
1 Kings 18:20–39
1 Kings 18:20–24, 30–35, 38, 39
After participating in this lesson, each student will be able to:
1. Give the significant details of the account of Elijah’s contest with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel.
2. Tell why this confrontation was such a crucial event in the history of God’s people.
3. Write a prayer that commits him or her to take a stand for God’s truth in a situation where doing so will go against an ungodly viewpoint.
How to Say It
Daily Bible Readings
Monday, Oct. 30—God Is Great (Psalm 145:1–7)
Tuesday, Oct. 31—None Is Like God (Psalm 86:8–13)
Wednesday, Nov. 1—God’s Majesty and Might (Psalm 93)
Thursday, Nov. 2—Contest on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18:17–24)
Friday, Nov. 3—Elijah Taunts the Baal Worshipers (1 Kings 18:25–29)
Saturday, Nov. 4—Elijah Builds an Altar to God (1 Kings 18:30–35)
Sunday, Nov. 5—Elijah Prays, God Acts (1 Kings 18:36–39)
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
Why Teach this Lesson?
Last night I heard a heart-wrenching story. It seems that my dear friend’s granddaughter had been harassed at her middle school after being open about her faith in Jesus. A group of girls, one in particular, made a mission of tormenting her. Among ugly words in e-mail messages, the attacker told her that she believed in a God who doesn’t exist.
Minutes before hearing this disturbing story, another friend had told me about an experience he had had at work that day. His dealings with a broken man who had lost a wife, a job, and experienced a health crisis led my friend to want to share his faith with this desperate soul. Yet to do so would breach company rules and risk his job.
Sometimes we, like Elijah, feel alone in representing the one true God to a dark world. And while God may not manifest his power with a downpour of fire, we must pray to God for help. We do that because we know that his power and truth will shine through faithful lives.
A. The Power of One
During the summer of 2004, Mike Krzyzewski (pronounced Sha-SHEF-ski), head coach of the men’s basketball team at Duke University, was approached about becoming head coach of the National Basketball Association’s Los Angeles Lakers. “Coach K,” as he is known, had gained a reputation as one of the premier coaches in college basketball. The high salary and prestige that accompanied coaching a team like the Lakers were tempting.
In the midst of his deliberations, Krzyzewski received an e-mail that proved to be the pivotal influence in his decision. Andrew Humphries, a junior at Duke, sent an impassioned message for Coach K to stay. The e-mail brought tears to the eyes of Krzyzewski; he rejected the Lakers’ offer and chose to remain at Duke.
Andrew Humphries was just one person—yet he had the power to persuade! The prophet Elijah also was just one man. His voice seemed like a whisper in Israel when compared with the powerful, government-backed influence of Baal worship. Yet when just one person chooses to stand firm on behalf of the one true God, the results can be one of a kind! Coach K could well have made a different decision even after Humphries’ e-mail. Would the people on Mount Carmel dared to have chosen Baal after seeing the power of God before their eyes?
B. What Profit Were the Prophets?
Many associate the word prophet with someone who has the ability to predict the future. The role of the Old Testament prophets, however, went much further than this. Every prophet conveyed a significant message and was raised up by the Lord during a particularly critical time in the history of God’s people.
Prophets were raised up by the Lord during periods when paganism became an especially serious threat to God’s people. This is one of the reasons that the prophet Elijah’s ministry was pivotal. Ahab and Jezebel (particularly Jezebel) were intent on promoting the worship of pagan gods throughout Israel. Baal was considered a god of storms and fertility, meaning that he was believed to be in charge of providing life—to crops, animals, and human beings.
God used Elijah to counter this false and repulsive system of worship. Elijah demonstrated that the God who had called Israel to be his people was still in control.
C. Lesson Background
By the time Elijah’s ministry began, the nation of Israel had been divided for approximately half a century. (Israel is often used to designate the ten tribes that constituted the northern kingdom with Judah referring to the two tribes of the southern kingdom.) Elijah himself appears in the biblical record quite suddenly. Nothing is said about his parents, his childhood, or even his call to be a prophet.
The first time he is mentioned is in 1 Kings 17:1, where he announces a period of drought in the land of Israel. This challenge was a slap in the face of the god Baal and of those who worshiped him, since Baal was believed to be the provider of storms that would bring rain.
Elijah was then guided through a series of circumstances that served to prepare him further for his ministry and assure him of God’s presence. First, he was told to go to the Kerith Ravine, where ravens brought him food twice a day (1 Kings 17:5, 6). When the brook dried up because of the drought, the Lord told Elijah to travel northward to Zarephath of Sidon. There the Lord used a widow to provide Elijah with food in a miraculous manner. Later when the widow’s only son became ill and died, Elijah prayed to the Lord and the boy was brought back to life (vv. 7–24).
Notice that the miracles had something to do with providing food in life-areas where Baal was believed to be in control. Sidon was Jezebel’s homeland (1 Kings 16:31). Elijah thus saw God’s clear superiority to the pagan gods!
In the third year of the drought, the Lord told Elijah to “Go, and present yourself to Ahab, and I will send rain on the land” (1 Kings 18:1). Elijah sent a message to Ahab through Obadiah, an official of Ahab’s who was also a devout follower of the Lord.
When prophet and king met, Elijah issued a challenge to Ahab to summon all Israel to assemble at Mount Carmel. Ahab was also to gather the 450 prophets of Baal “and the four hundred prophets of Asherah” (1 Kings 18:19). The goddess Asherah was believed to be Baal’s consort.
At this point, Elijah did not specify what he planned to do at Mount Carmel. Our printed text begins by describing Ahab’s compliance with Elijah’s challenge.
I. People Addressed (1 Kings 18:20–24)
A. The Place (v. 20)
20. So Ahab sent word throughout all Israel and assembled the prophets on Mount Carmel.
Ahab does as Elijah says, sending word throughout all Israel and gathering the prophets on Mount Carmel. Later Elijah observes that the 450 prophets of Baal are present (v. 22), but he says nothing about the 400 prophets of Asherah. For some unknown reason, Jezebel apparently forbids her prophets to come to Mount Carmel. Probably her failure to comply with Elijah’s challenge is simply an act of defiance. Maybe Ahab is willing to do what Elijah says, but Jezebel is not about to!
One may ask why Mount Carmel serves as the place for this assembly. Mount Carmel is actually a mountain ridge some 12 miles in length. Near the summit of the ridge is a plateau where a contest such as this one can take place. A spring of water is close at hand. It flows even during extremely dry seasons. This is why Elijah can have 12 containers of water poured on his sacrifice (vv. 33, 34, below) even though this incident occurs during drought conditions.
B. The Plea (v. 21)
21. 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.”
But the people said nothing.
Elijah begins his address to the Israelites with a question: How long will you waver between two opinions? Elijah is describing the spiritual unsteadiness of the people in the crowd that day. The alternative to such wavering will be a confident, steady walk with the Lord, which they do not possess.
The issue facing the people on this occasion is remarkably simple. Two options confront them: the way of the Lord and the way of Baal. In today’s pluralistic religious climate, Elijah’s statement is still timely. We may choose a narrow road to salvation or a wide road to destruction (Matthew 7:13, 14).
Observe the audience’s passive, apathetic response: the people said nothing. Perhaps they are cowering in fear, knowing that to answer in favor of Baal will displease Elijah, while answering in favor of the Lord will ignite the rage of Jezebel. Perhaps their silence reflects their lack of passion for or interest in anything having to do with spiritual matters. It is also possible that Elijah’s uncompromising words make all too clear their failure to obey the Lord; thus their silence may indicate a sense of shame or embarrassment. In any case, the safe response (from a worldly point of view) is to keep quiet.
C. The Plan (vv. 22–24)
22. Then Elijah said to them, “I am the only one of the Lord’s prophets left, but Baal has four hundred and fifty prophets.
Elijah observes that he is the only one of the Lord’s prophets left. Yet we know from an earlier statement in 1 Kings 18:4 that Obadiah, one of Ahab’s officials, has hidden 100 prophets of the Lord from Jezebel’s murderous fury. In addition there are prophets such as Micaiah (1 Kings 22:8) and various unnamed men who are part of the group known as the “sons of the prophets” (1 Kings 20:35). Elijah probably means that he is the only one of the Lord’s prophets who is present for this confrontation.
Elijah’s emphasis on the contrast between 1 and 450 highlights a key principle: truth is not determined by the number of people who embrace a certain position. Truth is truth, no matter how many or how few hold to it at any given time.
23, 24. “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 the Lord. The god who answers by fire—he is God.”
Then all the people said, “What you say is good.”
The rules of the contest are simple. Each side is to prepare a bull in the same manner: they will cut it into pieces, and lay it on the wood. Then each side is to call on the name of its deity. The God who responds by fire will prove himself to be the true God.
The fire that Elijah mentions may refer to lightning. Remember that the issue at hand is which deity is in control of the rains. Lightning would serve as a signal of the coming of the drought-ending rains. That would demonstrate decisively to those gathered on Mount Carmel which God is in control of the forces of nature.
Perhaps the prophets of Baal relish the opportunity to go first. Should Baal respond to their cries, the contest essentially will be over. However, their going first only sets the stage for what Elijah will do, because it will highlight how powerless Baal really is.
1Kings 18:25–29 (not in our printed text) record the futile efforts of the followers of Baal. The threefold emphasis at the conclusion of verse 29 provides a solemn closure to the failure of Baal’s prophets: “there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention.” The stage is now set for a dramatic display of divine power.
II. Preparation Accomplished (1 Kings 18:30–35)
A. Setting Up the Altar (vv. 30–32)
30. 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.
While nothing is said specifically about the altar used by the prophets of Baal, it is noted that Elijah repaired the altar of the Lord, which was broken down. No doubt this altar had been a victim of the apathy and neglect of the people toward the worship of the true God.
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.”
The use of 12 stones by Elijah is noteworthy in light of the fact the nation of Israel has been divided for several decades by this time. Yet Elijah recognizes through this action that God’s original intention is that the Israelites be 12 tribes—yet one nation—under him.
Visual for Lesson 10
Point to this artwork as an illustration of someone standing alone for God. 1 Kings 18:24
In the sixteenth century English royal power increasingly asserted itself over Ireland. That pressure set off some four centuries of political and religious struggle. The Anglo-Irish war of 1919–1921 resulted in two separate countries. Mostly Catholic southern Ireland became independent. Northern Ireland was mostly Protestant and aligned with Britain.
Throughout much of the twentieth century, dissidents hoped for political reunification of Ireland. These dissidents used terrorist methods to try to force the British out of Northern Ireland. One could have hoped that since each side of the Protestant-Catholic divide claimed to be Christian, they could all act as if they were and quit killing each other.
The century-long division of the Irish peoples is somewhat similar to that of God’s people of old. Israel and Judah were divided politically and religiously. Israel in the north had turned mostly to Baalism; Judah in the south had remained somewhat faithful to Yahweh (although it had dabbled in idolatry also). By building his altar out of 12 stones, Elijah hoped that the symbolic number would speak to all the tribes of divided Israel. Perhaps they would remember their common heritage before the one true God.
Faithfulness to God is without doubt the best way for any nation to find internal peace. That fact should not be lost on the people of any democracy when they go to the polls to elect their leaders. —C. R. B.
32. With the stones he built an altar in the name of the Lord, and he dug a trench around it large enough to hold two seahs of seed.
The act described earlier in verse 30 as repairing the altar of the Lord is now described in another way: Elijah built an altar in the name of the Lord. Elijah is building an altar under the authority of and in reverence for the true God. God’s name has lost none of its power, in spite of Ahab and Jezebel’s attempts to stamp it out.
This verse also notes that Elijah makes a trench about the altar, as great as would contain two seahs of seed. This computes to about 13 quarts. If such an act seems odd to the onlookers, it does not compare with what Elijah does next.
B. Soaking the Sacrifice (vv. 33–35)
33, 34. He arranged the wood, cut the bull into pieces and laid it on the wood. Then he said to them, “Fill four large jars with water and pour it on the offering and on the wood.”
“Do it again,” he said, and they did it again.
“Do it a third time,” he ordered, and they did it the third time.
Elijah proceeds to prepare the sacrifice according to the rules established earlier. But then he does something else quite unexpected: he commands that four barrels of water be poured on the offering three times. As noted earlier, water may be available from the streams that flow at higher elevations, such as that of Mount Carmel, despite the severe drought that is now in its fourth year (Luke 4:25; James 5:17).
35. The water ran down around the altar and even filled the trench.
By soaking completely the sacrifice and the altar, Elijah sets the stage for an even more impressive demonstration of the power of the true God. At the same time, Elijah is also putting his own reputation as the Lord’s prophet on the line. He will look utterly foolish if God fails to answer.
Elijah’s actions also indicate to the audience that he is not engaging in any kind of trickery to ignite his sacrifice. If the sacrifice is ignited, the only possible explanation will be that God has done it.
The prayer of Elijah, recorded in verses 36 and 37, is not part of our printed text. His simple, earnest plea to the Lord contrasts markedly with the frenzied madness of the prophets of Baal. And whereas there was no response of any kind to the prophets of Baal, such is not the case now.
III. Prayer Answered (1 Kings 18:38, 39)
A. The Lord’s Response (v. 38)
38. 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.
In a spectacular display of unmistakably divine power, the fire of the Lord consumes everything that is part of the preparation for the sacrifice. Even the water in the trench is licked up by the fire.
B. The People’s Reaction (v. 39)
39. When all the people saw this, they fell prostrate and cried, “The Lord—he is God! The Lord—he is God!”
All the people, who were silent earlier when confronted by Elijah (v. 21), do not hesitate to express their reaction after what they witness. What else could they conclude? The Lord—he is God.
The aftermath of the contest on Mount Carmel includes the slaughter of the prophets of Baal. That is in accordance with the Law of Moses concerning false prophets: “a prophet who speaks in the name of other gods must be put to death” (Deuteronomy 18:20). Also comes the long-awaited rains. The drought has ended, and—more importantly—the Lord, his prophet, and his Word have been vindicated.
“Don’t Try This at Home”
We’ve all heard of fire-breathing preachers of the gospel. Colin Davis, a Church of England vicar in Devon, England, is a fire-eating preacher! While he was in college training for the ministry, he saw a fire performer and thought he would be able to use the trick to attract attention to the message of Christ. Neither his former work as a banker nor his current work as a preacher would seem to predict this particular avocation!
Davis says he uses the trick for its attention-grabbing impact, comparing the feat to Jesus’ use of parables. Only occasionally does his performance take place in church; more often he does it in school assemblies. On those occasions he makes students vow before the demonstration that they will not try it.
In one sense, Elijah’s use of fire was like Colin Davis’s use of fire: it certainly captured the attention of his audience! On the other hand, there is a striking difference: Davis’s performance is just that—a trick that has no physical effect. But Elijah’s fire was sent by God from Heaven to consume everything in its path. We can respond, “Don’t try this at home” to both. Seeing the constant shower of God’s blessings in our everyday lives should be all we need to evoke the same reaction as that of Elijah’s audience: “The Lord—he is God!” This bears repeating.
—C. R. B.
Perhaps after reading an account such as that of Elijah we may wonder, “Why don’t we see demonstrations of God’s power such as this today? If we could offer the kind of evidence that Elijah did on Mount Carmel, think of the impact it would have on our culture! Does God no longer provide these demonstrations, or do we as his people lack faith?”
We should remember that as Christians we bear witness to the greatest of all demonstrations of God’s power: the resurrection of Jesus his Son from the dead. That always has been the essence of the gospel message (1 Corinthians 15:1–4).
Interestingly, when the New Testament instructs Christians on how to live in light of that event, it points to the quiet, often inconspicuous deeds of service done in the name of Christ. The metaphors of salt and light (Matthew 5:13–16) are hardly noisy or flamboyant in how they function. But no one can question their effectiveness or their necessity.
Elijah’s surroundings demanded the kind of highly visible, dramatic manifestation of power that God wrought at Mount Carmel. We see similar demonstrations during other critical periods in biblical history (the plagues in Egypt and the miracles of Jesus, for example). But a primary challenge issued to New Testament believers today is that of a consistently holy lifestyle. Peter challenged the Christians of his time to live holy lives among unbelievers that “though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God” (1 Peter 2:12).