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A God You Can Trust
Reflections on 1 Kings 18:20-39

Dennis Bratcher

Introduction

Jerry was a long distance runner on our high school track team. He trained well, every day running the mile and a half to school and back home, books and all. Jerry’s specialty was the mile and more than once he came close to setting a state record. When Jerry ran, we could always count on him winning.

We might have won our division in track that year with Jerry as the anchor of our team. But Jerry had the bad habit of not showing up at crucial track meets. We never knew when Jerry would be there or why he wouldn’t show up.

At one important track meet late in the year the points were close in a fierce rivalry with a neighboring town. It was a home meet, and we hoped until the last minute that Jerry would show up. I remember this incident well because the coach, almost at random, picked me to run in Jerry’s place. Since I had never run the mile before, the result was never in doubt. I learned something that day from Jerry: If someone is depending on you, never let them down.

The story of Elijah is a different kind of contest. But in the story we learn something important about the faithfulness of God.

The Text

1. The challenge presented - a call for decision (18:20-24)

20 So Ahab sent to all the people of Israel, and gathered the prophets together at Mount Carmel. 21 And Elijah came near to all the people, and said, "How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him." And the people did not answer him a word.

22 Then Elijah said to the people, "I, even I only, am left a prophet of the LORD; but Baal's prophets are four hundred and fifty men. 23 Let two bulls be given to us; and let them choose one bull for themselves, and cut it in pieces and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it; and I will prepare the other bull and lay it on the wood, and put no fire to it. 24 And you call on the name of your god and I will call on the name of the LORD; and the God who answers by fire, he is God." And all the people answered, "It is well spoken."

This story takes place during the troubling times of King Ahab’s reign in the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Ahab’s father, Omri, had sealed a treaty with the King of Phoenicia by accepting his daughter, Jezebel, as wife for Ahab.

Jezebel was a zealous worshipper of Baal, the Canaanite god of rain and fertility (who went by the name Melqart in Phoenicia). Determined to replace the worship of Yahweh (the Israelite’s name for God) with Baal worship, she persecuted Yahweh worshippers unceasingly. Weak-willed Ahab did not intervene in her campaign. He even supported her by building a temple to Baal in Samaria, the capital (1 Kings 16:29-34).

Many Israelites detested Baal worship, not just because it was a challenge to the true worship of Yahweh, but also because it was a fertility religion. The people worshipped Baal by magic rituals, including human sexual acts, to give Baal power or to persuade him to act in some way.

Baal worship attracted many other Israelites. They found it easier to worship an idol they could see than God whom they could not. The magic and the sexual rituals appealed to their most primitive instincts. It is always easier to mold God, or religion, to our idea of what he should be than to change ourselves to match God’s standard. Most false gods or idols, even idols that are not necessarily physical ones, are simply human beings or human passions drawn large.

Elijah objected to Baal worship in any form as a violation of Israel’s covenant with God (Ex 20:3). He challenged everything that the people believed about Baal. He opened his prophetic ministry by confronting Baal on his own turf, proclaiming a drought in the name of God (17:1 ff).

Most Israelites did not speculate about the existence of gods other than Yahweh. Real life questions were of much greater concern. Who really controlled the rain, cycles of nature, life, and death? Which god could really affect human existence? If it were Baal, they would have to practice the magic to survive. Then they could live the materialistic, self-centered life that comes from serving gods of our own making. If it were Yahweh, then they would have to live by the high ethical and moral standards of the Law of Moses (Torah). Which god really mattered? Elijah would let God himself answer that question.

We should note that Elijah did not himself try to convert the people to belief in Israel's God. He did bring them to a point where they were ready to decide. For the people to make no choice meant they would go on serving Baal. Not choosing for God is to choose against Him. The people said nothing when Elijah challenged their divided loyalties (v. 21). Yet, they came to a point where they were at least willing to decide (v. 24).

That willingness to choose is a move toward faith because it shows an openness to allow God to work. If people are really open to God’s work in the world, if they are willing to base decision for God on God alone, then they will most often choose God. The church has no greater task than to move people toward a willingness to choose. Then it must trust God and His grace with the rest.

2. The contest is set - a confident faith (18:35-35)

25 Then Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, "Choose for yourselves one bull and prepare it first, for you are many; and call on the name of your god, but put no fire to it." 26 And they took the bull which was given them, and they prepared it, and called on the name of Baal from morning until noon, saying, "O Ba'al, answer us!" But there was no voice, and no one answered. And they limped about the altar which they had made.

27 And at noon Elijah mocked them, saying, "Cry aloud, for he is a god; either he is musing, or he has gone aside, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened." 28 And they cried aloud, and cut themselves after their custom with swords and lances, until the blood gushed out upon them. 29 And as midday passed, they raved on until the time of the offering of the oblation, but there was no voice; no one answered, no one heeded.

30 Then Elijah said to all the people, "Come near to me"; and all the people came near to him. And he repaired the altar of the LORD that had been thrown down; 31 Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of the LORD came, saying, "Israel shall be your name"; 32 and with the stones he built an altar in the name of the LORD. And he made a trench about the altar, as great as would contain two measures of seed. 33 And he put the wood in order, and cut the bull in pieces and laid it on the wood. And he said, "Fill four jars with water, and pour it on the burnt offering, and on the wood." 34 And he said, "Do it a second time"; and they did it a second time. And he said, "Do it a third time"; and they did it a third time. 35 And the water ran round about the altar, and filled the trench also with water.

Elijah called for this contest between Yahweh and Baal and he set the conditions. Yet, he gave every possible advantage to the prophets of Baal. He wanted no accusations that he had done some sleight-of-hand to win. The narrator tells the story with delight here. The frantic efforts of the Baal prophets, the length of time they prayed, the sarcastic comments of Elijah about their god, all serve to ridicule Baal. He is not much of a god if the people cannot count on him in a crisis.

Isaiah made much the same point. The people would cut wood, use half for cooking their food and then make the other half into a god to worship (Isaiah 44:13-19)! "Talk to your piece of wood," the prophet Habakkuk later taunted, "and see if it can answer you." (Habakkuk 2:18-19). Scripture tells Elijah’s story with absolute conviction that Baal is no god. He is only an absurd joke! No god is real if he does not matter in people’s lives.

Sadly, for many people today, God does not exist. Like the Israelites, most of us care little for questions about the existence of God. We are vitally concerned about the matters that directly affect our lives on a day to day basis: job, security, home, social life, etc. Especially in our western culture in which people pride themselves on self-sufficiency, many think they are the only ones who can affect these issues. They do not worship Baal. But they also have not chosen the God of the Bible. The idols of today are not wood and stone. People have made gods of themselves! Like the Israelites, they have never chosen for God and so have chosen against him. Like the Israelites, they worship a powerless god who is laughable as a god. As Elijah shows in our story, worshipping an idol does not mean that God is not real!

There is another important aspect to the story. Not only do the people need to see Baal for the superstition he is, they need to see Yahweh for the true God that He is. The story appeals to a wide range of symbols that forced the people to recall who Yahweh, the God of the fathers, really was.

The rebuilding of the ruined altar, the twelve jars of water, recalling the change of Jacob’s name to Israel, all served to call the people to return to the God of the covenant. The twelve stones had special meaning. They recalled the entire exodus event in which God had created the Israelite people from a ragged group of slaves. The Israelites had built a pile of twelve stones on the banks of the Jordan after they entered the land (Joshua 4). This served to remind them what God had done for them, that He would be their God and they would be His people.

Elijah set the contest with absolute confidence in God. He had no doubt that Yahweh was really God. He was willing to stake everything on that confidence.

3. Only God shows up - a God you can trust (18:36-39)

36 And at the time of the offering of the oblation, Elijah the prophet came near and said, "O LORD, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your word. 37 Answer me, O LORD, answer me, that this people may know that you, O LORD, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back." 38 Then the fire of the LORD fell, and consumed the burnt offering, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench. 39 And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces; and they said, "The LORD, he is God; the LORD, he is God."

There is a saying left over from the peace marches of the 1960s: What if they gave a war and nobody came? After all the antics of the prophets of Baal, he never showed up. The god they called the rider of the clouds and portrayed with the fire of lightening flashing from his hands, fizzled that day on Carmel. That is the problem with gods that are not really gods; you can’t depend on them. To paraphrase an old television commercial, if you can’t trust your god, who can you trust?

Elijah’s quiet, brief, and elegant prayer stands in sharp contrast to the all-day binge of groaning by Baal’s followers. It is as if Elijah thought that God already knew what He needed to do (note Matt 6:8). Elijah simply confessed God as God, and asked for Him to reveal himself to the people.

Perhaps we need to check our own prayers to see if they resemble the prayers of the Baal prophets more than Elijah’s prayer. There are times of distress when we need to cry out to God from the depths of our being. Even in those times, we do not have to persuade him to be God! Prayer that tries to coax God to action reveals more about the attitude of the one praying than it reveals about God. Prayer is not to convince God; it is to confess before God our faith in Him.

God answered the prayer of Elijah, evoking a confession of faith from the people: "Yahweh, He is God!" Sometimes I hear people call for blind faith. "Just believe in God," they say. I don't think that there is such thing as blind faith. At least, not at first. Faith must always build on something. For Moses, it was a burning bush. For the Hebrews it was the mighty Egyptian army lying on the shore of the Red Sea. For the later Israelites it was the fallen walls of Jericho. For Hezekiah it was a deserted Assyrian camp. For John the Baptist it was the blind receiving their sight. For Mary Magdalene it was an empty tomb.

This story is not about Elijah, or miracles. It is about God. And it’s about us. God will always do whatever is necessary to reveal himself to human beings. He will always make the first move toward humanity. We must choose in response. It may be a great supernatural event like fire from heaven, or it may be a whisper from a whirlwind. Yet, God will always act to show himself as God. If we are honest, if we have come to the place where we are willing to choose, who else could we choose but God?

Conclusion

Several years ago I attended a series of revival services conducted by a well-known evangelist. Each night he called for miracles in the services as a means to get people to believe in God. On the last night he decided it was time to "prove" God. He called a tragically crippled young woman to the front of the church and declared that God was going to heal her. After more than thirty minutes of increasingly intense prayer, she still sat in the wheel chair. He brushed aside the apparent failure by announcing that God would still heal her, but in his own time.

Did God fail? Can we, like Elijah, set up tests for God to prove he is there? No, I think not. If we are not careful, we will begin to resemble the magical prophets of Baal more than followers of God!

Yet, God does reveal Himself. Few of us can believe blindly. God knows that. If we think about it for a moment, most of us have had our own "Red Sea experience." That time when we knew beyond question that God was God. God is not at our beck and call like some cosmic short order cook. But He is there. And He is God!

O Lord, forgive me for selfish prayers, for treating you as if YOU were MY servant. I have chosen you as my God. Lord, I believe that you are God. Help my unbelief.

Questions for discussion

1. What are some modern examples of gods or idols that we have created in our own image, that represent human beings or passions drawn large?

2. If it is true that the task of the church is bringing people to the point where they are willing to choose for or against God, how does this affect evangelism in the church?

3. What kind of miracles does God do today to reveal himself to people? What are some examples of modern "Red Sea" experiences?

4. Can God always be counted on to intervene in our world in a crisis? If so, how does he intervene? If not, how can He be considered trustworthy?

5. Can faith ever be blind? Why or why not?

6. Does prayer convince God to act when he would not act otherwise? What is the purpose of prayer? Does God always answer prayer?

7. How would you describe a practical atheist?

-Dennis R. Bratcher, Copyright © 2013, Dennis R. Bratcher, All Rights Reserved
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