1 Kings 18:21-40

Then Elijah stood in front of them and said, "How long are you going to waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him! But if Baal is God, then follow him!" But the people were completely silent.
Then Elijah said to them, "I am the only prophet of the Lord who is left, but Baal has 450 prophets. Now bring two bulls. The prophets of Baal may choose whichever one they wish and cut it into pieces and lay it on the wood of their altar, but without setting fire to it. I will prepare the other bull and lay it on the wood on the altar, but not set fire to it. Then call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the Lord. The god who answers by setting fire to the wood is the true God!" And all the people agreed.
Then Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, "You go first, for there are many of you. Choose one of the bulls and prepare it and call on the name of your god. But do not set fire to the wood."
So they prepared one of the bulls and placed it on the altar. Then they called on the name of Baal all morning, shouting, "O Baal, answer us!" But there was no reply of any kind. Then they danced wildly around the altar they had made.
About noontime Elijah began mocking them. "You'll have to shout louder," he scoffed, "for surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy. Or maybe he is away on a trip, or he is asleep and needs to be wakened!"
So they shouted louder, and following their normal custom, they cut themselves with knives and swords until the blood gushed out. They raved all afternoon until the time of the evening sacrifice, but still there was no reply, no voice, no answer.
Then Elijah called to the people, "Come over here!" They all crowded around him as he repaired the altar of the Lord that had been torn down. He took twelve stones, one to represent each of the tribes of Israel, and he used the stones to rebuild the Lord's altar. Then he dug a trench around the altar large enough to hold about three gallons. He piled wood on the altar, cut the bull into pieces, and laid the pieces on the wood. Then he said, "Fill four large jars with water, and pour the water over the offering and the wood." After they had done this, he said, "Do the same thing again!" And when they were finished, he said, "Now do it a third time!" So they did as he said, and the water ran around the altar and even overflowed the trench.
At the customary time for offering the evening sacrifice, Elijah the prophet walked up to the altar and prayed, "O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, prove today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant. Prove that I have done all this at your command. O Lord, answer me! Answer me so these people will know that you, O Lord, are God and that you have brought them back to yourself."
Immediately the fire of the Lord flashed down from heaven and burned up the young bull, the wood, the stones, and the dust. It even licked up all the water in the ditch! And when the people saw it, they fell on their faces and cried out, "The Lord is God! The Lord is God!"
Then Elijah commanded, "Seize all the prophets of Baal. Don't let a single one escape!" So the people seized them all, and Elijah took them down to the Kishon Valley and killed them there.

"Thus has the Lord God showed unto me; and, behold the Lord God called to contend by fire."--Amos 7:4

In the previous chapter, we found the appeal of Elijah to the people on Mount Carmel responded to by "mute expressive silence;" they "answered not a word." This may probably have been the result of conflicting emotions. In the case of some, who in their hearts were Jehovah-worshipers, it may have been the silence of guilty fear or cringing expediency. They may have been stifling their deep-felt convictions of truth in presence of the king and priesthood. With others, (the fawning, servile creatures of Ahab,) it may have arisen from dread of incurring the vengeance of the Prophet of Cherith; lest he who had manifested such power in material nature might visit them with sudden and deserved retribution, should they dare openly to avow themselves the abettors of idolatry.

Let us hasten at once to the sublime sequel. There is no picture in all history, sacred or profane, more thrilling or impressive. No wonder that poetry, painting, and music have conjointly seized on this memorable day and scene as fit theme and subject for their grandest efforts. Elijah feels, and feels deeply, that before the clouds of heaven break, and the curse of famine be rolled away from the land, the people, in the aggregate, must be brought back from their wretched apostasy, and that, also, by some great public acknowledgment of their sin. As theirs had been a national alienation from their fathers' God, so must theirs be a public renunciation of their abominable idolatries, and a renewed recognition of the one living Jehovah.

The mighty throng are still hushed, as the Prophet--God's consecrated minister between the living and the dead--prepares yet farther to speak. Before we listen to his address, we may in a few words recall, how very peculiarly he himself was situated in the midst of that vast concourse.

Other hearts, as we have already seen, true and loyal to Jehovah, were beating responsive with his at that moment throughout the land. But they were witnessing in sackcloth; they were languishing in dungeons, or hidden in caves and secluded places. On this consecrated mountain-height--this high altar of nature--the Tishbite stood alone--a sheep amid wolves--an isolated beacon-light amid the floods of ungodly men--a solitary cedar of God wrestling with the storm. It is difficult for us thoroughly to realize the strain on his faith and courage when thus deprived of human sympathy and support. The Waldenses of the Middle Ages, or the hero-martyrs of our own land, were in as imminent peril as he; but they were sustained in their endurance and privations by the words and deeds of fellow-sufferers. Cave and forest, alpine fastness, mountain, moor, and dungeon, were cheered by sympathetic hands and hearts.

That assemblage on Carmel, also, be it remembered, was no despicable multitude--no vulgar rabble. The political influence and strength of the nation were there. Elijah was coming into collision and hostility with the throne and the altar--with a debased king and priesthood--the court religion--the fashionable creed of the hour. With what intense emotion must he have uttered the opening words, "I, even I, only, remain a prophet of the Lord." His proposal is, that the Deity, which either party professes to worship, should decide the great question which has convened them on that high arena; that each should take a bullock, cut it in pieces, and lay it on wood on a separate altar of burnt-offering. The usual way of consuming the sacrifice was by applying a lighted torch to the fuel or faggots underneath. But the Prophet suggests, on this occasion, an appeal to miraculous intervention; that the Baal-worshipers and the Jehovah-worshipers should each invoke an "answer by fire;" and that whichever offering was miraculously ignited, should be regarded as conclusively determining the point at issue.

The crowd at once assented to the reasonableness of the test. Their unanimous response was--"What you say is good." An appeal which had thus commended itself to the spectators, could not well be resisted by the Baal priests. Indeed, the fairness of the proposal was unanswerable; for Baal being the reputed god of Light or Fire; it was a virtual appeal to his own element--a defiant challenge and reference to his own sacred emblem. Nor was the proposed method of arbitration strange or unfamiliar to the Jehovah-worshipers--the true Israel of God. Their sacred records and national annals furnished many examples of answers by fire, from the earliest, in the case of Abel's sacrifice, to the latest, within the memory of that generation, at the magnificent scene of the temple consecration under Solomon.

The moment has come. Elijah concedes the precedence to his 850 antagonists. "Rise, you priests of Baal; choose one of the oxen, and lay it on your altar!" Forth they come in their gorgeous Tyrian purple and gold. The bullock was prepared, and laid on the wood. It was still early morning when they began their wild orgies. The excitement increased with advancing day. The cry, "O Baal, hear us," again and again ascended to the bronze sky. Mountain height responded to mountain height, "but there was no voice, nor any that answered." Amid their frenzied dances, they look up wistfully to the heavens for the appearance of the descending symbol. Louder and still louder rises the vehement imprecation, 'O Baal, hear us!--you lords many, hear us!--you forest gods!--you mountain deities!--gods of rivers!--and, above all, you blazing Sun--Baal's burning throne and sacred shrine--send down a lighted torch, burning coals from your altar fires!'

Louder and louder, deeper and deeper, waxes the hoarse-voiced chorus! Until noon it continues--the maddened priests leaping upon the altar. But there is no answer. The heavens are still--the altar is silent--Baal's oracle is mute--the appeal is in vain! And now, as the sun has reached its meridian, Elijah interposes. He has been, hitherto, like the rest, a silent spectator. But at the height of noon, as the orb the others worshiped is pouring his fierce rays on their heads, he calls out, in words of cutting irony, "Cry aloud; for he is a god--either he is talking, or he is busy, or he is in a journey, or perhaps he sleeps, and must be awaked." But the biting sarcasm only increases the mad and frantic ravings and incantations of the ministers of Baal. When noon is past, they begin to "prophesy." They have wrought themselves now into a state of desperation. Drawing their knives and lancets, they inflict gashes on their bodies, and cover themselves with blood. Still, all is in vain. Their god will not arise. On the heights of the mountain, the unkindled wood and the untouched altar remain, during the long afternoon of that momentous day, just as they were erected at early morn. The perplexed priests retire bleeding and exhausted to their tents. Their cause is lost. Baal is not God!

Here, however, in passing, may we not well pause and gather for ourselves a lesson of humbling rebuke? How devoted were these abettors of a blinding superstition! We cannot read the passage, and pronounce their part in the gigantic conflict, a heartless formality--a dumb show--the pantomime of hypocrites. No! Self-deceived, as they were, they were, at least, men in earnest. Elijah--himself all earnestness--must have honored their zeal, though mourning that it was so misguided and misapplied. What a reproof to our ofttimes lagging faith; our lifeless prayers; our cold, unsatisfactory zeal in God's service. These heathen devotees of Carmel, worshipers of a figment--a dumb idol--with their knives and lancets, and self-inflicted tortures--how will they rise up in the judgment against many lukewarm professing Christians, and condemn them!

But now the time of the evening sacrifice--Israel's own sacred hour--has come. Elijah had allowed his opponents full time and scope for the required proof. He now comes forward and challenges personally the flagging attention of the crowd. Close by were the ruins of an altar, which had once been erected to Jehovah, but which, probably with many others in the land, had been demolished by one of the exterminating edicts of Jezebel. Summoning the people to draw near, he repaired the ruined place of sacrifice.

There is something impressive in the calm dignity of the Prophet, after these long hours of demonstrative vehemence and delirious excitement. We can picture him, with his sheepskin cloak, and shaggy hair, and stately figure--with no noisy clamor, or extravagant gesticulations, but rather with dignified self-reliance, standing amid the fevered multitude, and beginning with reverend hands to upraise the dismantled altar. There is always a quiet majesty about truth. How calmly stood Paul before Felix and Agrippa. With what meek, unruffled, expressive silence stood Incarnate Truth Himself before Pilate and Herod--the Lamb "silent before His shearers"--it was the same dignified calmness of demeanor which had previously unmanned the assassin band at the gate of Gethsemane--"As soon as He had said unto them, I am He, they went backward and fell to the ground!" It was so now, on Mount Carmel.

Ahab was agitated with conflicting fears. The people were in a frenzy of excitement. The priests were filled with delirium and rage. Elijah alone was unmoved--confident in the righteousness of his cause. He had everything periled on the next sunset hour. Failure!--and his own body, like that of the offered sacrifice, would be cut in pieces, and the Kishon be stained with his blood. Failure!--and the power and glory of his God would be compromised--every altar of Israel would be profaned, and Baal would sit triumphant in his impious shrines. But "Jehovah lives"--his first utterance--was his motto still; and he felt confident that that watchword would be caught up, before these night-shadows fell, and be repeated from lip to lip by the congregated thousands of Israel.

Of the dilapidated altar, he took twelve stones, "according to the tribes of the sons of Jacob, unto whom the word of the Lord came, saying, Israel shall be your name!" There was much significance in the act. It was a rebuke he read, not to the Baalites; but to the true Israel of God. By this 'parable in stone,' he would tell them that the disrupted monarchy--the breaking asunder of the ten tribes from the twelve--was unrecognized by God--that it was a sinful breach in their unity as the covenant nation--that they were still essentially one in the sight of Jehovah--having one common altar, though partitioned and dismembered by reason of their own guilty jealousies and strifes. No, he would point them on to the time when God's own purpose would be fulfilled regarding them, "And I will make them one nation in the land upon the mountains of Israel; and one king shall be king to them all--and they shall be no more two nations, neither shall they be divided into two kingdoms any more at all--neither shall they defile themselves any more with their idols, nor with their detestable things, nor with any of their transgressions--but I will save them out of all their dwelling-places, wherein they have sinned, and will cleanse them--so they shall be my people, and I will be their God," (Ezekiel 37:22, 23.)

Would that we had more Elijahs in the midst of us; ever and anon to bear their protest against the improper schisms and divisions which mar the strength and beauty and fair proportions of the Church of Christ! Blessed will that time be, when divided churches and divided nations shall become one in heart and one in worship; one in undivided aim for the good of men and the glory of a common Lord. When the distinctions of sect and party, which are now like the separate pools on the rocky shore, shall be swept over by the ocean-tide of Divine love; all united and mingled into one; and the old heathen exclamation become the testimony of an admiring world, "See how these Christians love one another!"

And now the wood is laid in order on Elijah's altar. The bullock is cut in pieces, and a deep trench is formed all around; moreover, in order to prevent any possible suspicion of imposture--such as would throw discredit on the reality of the miracle--the Prophet gives orders to the people to go down, either to the adjoining well, or to the Kishon--some have even surmised, though this is inadmissible, to the sea, and fill four barrels of water to be poured over bullock, wood, and altar. This is done four times in succession, until the trench is filled. He was cognizant of the fact, that the idolatrous priests of surrounding nations stooped at times to unworthy fraud and artifice in the case of similar answers by fire; sometimes by concealing torches, sometimes by kindling the subjacent wood, through excavations under the altar. In order that no such base arts might be attributed to him, he soaks the whole pile with the antagonistic element of water. While the altar is thus dripping and saturated, he proceeds to take his turn in the great testing struggle.

The period of the day was known to the whole Hebrew nation as "the hour of prayer." The priests in the Temple at Jerusalem, were at that same moment offering their evening oblation as the sun was sinking behind Mount Olivet, as now it was going down over Carmel, or hanging like a golden lamp over the burnished waters within sight. Behold the Prophet of Fire, wrapped in his mantle, on his knees in supplication! A breathless stillness--like the portentous quiet which reigns in nature before the bursting of the thunder-cloud--pervades the heterogeneous throng. With bated breath, king, priests, people, look on, while thus he addresses his God--"Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and of 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."

The first utterance in his prayer is "JEHOVAH!" There was but a moment of solemn pause. The prayer ascends--the FIRE falls. Bullock, wood, dust, stones, earth, all are consumed by the devouring element. The flame of Heaven has incontrovertibly, in the face of all spectators, authenticated the Prophet's word and mission, and flashed condemnation on his opponents. The people, on seeing it, fell on their faces; and a mighty shout rends the air, ringing from the mountain-summits, along the plain of Esdraelon, mingling with the rippling waves on the adjoining shores--"Jehovah he is God! Jehovah he is God!"

Sudden is the next step in the drama. Jehovah being re-enthroned; the priesthood of Baal must at once be crushed--extirpated root and branch--from the land they had so long cursed with their shadow. The recent general reverence of the people for this false worship now turns into rage. Catching up the malediction of their great national minstrel, "Confounded be all those who worship engraved images"--they drag, (at Elijah's command) the ringleaders down the side of the mountain, and the Kishon carries to the sea, in its crimsoned stream, the tidings of righteous vengeance. Elijah, in this apparently harsh and cruel act, only performed what Ahab as theocratic Regent had failed to do. It was not the vindictive massacre of a barbarous conqueror; but the faithful servant and viceregent of God fulfilling a stringent Divine command--a command, indeed, which admitted of no evasion--for the extermination of idolaters.

The Tishbite has now attained the fulfillment of his heart's ardent longing--the glory of God and the good of Israel. All his personal privations had been nothing, to his sorrow of heart on account of the people he was commissioned to teach, and warn, and instruct, being held spell-bound by an evil power. His life-prayer, his life-adjuration, if they only had had ears to hear it, was this--"O Israel, return unto Jehovah your God, for you have fallen by your iniquity;" and in his earnest, fervent supplication at this hour on Carmel, he tells the reason of his urgency, (v. 37,) "Hear me, O Lord, hear me! that this people may know that You are the Lord God, and that you have turned their heart back again." His prayer was heard. As they saw the forked flames descending on the Prophet's sacrifice--conscience-stricken at the remembrance of their apostasy, and inwardly marveling at the Divine patience and forbearance--the grateful thought must have passed through many hearts in that crowd, "It is of the Lord's mercies that we are not consumed!"

"Take heed, brethren," says the apostle, "lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief, in departing from the living God." The tendency of the corrupt heart is the same in all ages--though modified by peculiar circumstances--to "forsake the Fountain of living waters, and to hew out broken [leaky] cisterns, that can hold no water." Let us no longer act the part of traitor Israel, by calling to our Baal--whatever the form of the seducer be--"O Baal, hear us." There will be no answer. There can be none--if our cry be for anything else than the infinite Jehovah, to fill the aching voids and necessities of our natures. May it be ours rather to make the confident appeal, "Our God is in the heavens. Their idols are silver and gold, the work of men's hands. Those who make them are like unto them; so is every one that trusts in them. O Israel, trust in the Lord."

We cannot now expect such miraculous answers to prayer for the confirmation of our languishing faith as were given to the mighty pleader of Carmel. But in another spiritual sense, the God of Elijah still "answers by fire." Fire! It is the emblem of the work and agency of His blessed Spirit. He still "baptizes with the Holy Spirit, and with fire." Moreover, that highest of boons is procured in the same way as was the fire of Carmel--in answer to prayer. Our Father who is in heaven, gives his Holy Spirit "unto those who ask him." Spirit of God! descend upon us in Your enlightening, quickening, refining, purifying influences. In order to insure Your coming, we have not, like Elijah, to slay any bullock; we need prepare no burnt-offering. Our great Propitiation has already been made. The Son of Man and Son of God, has already offered Himself a bleeding victim. On this priceless sacrifice the fire of Divine wrath has descended. He, our true Elijah, has upbuilt the altar of ruined humanity. His ransomed people are its living stones. Through everlasting ages it will continue, the peerless monument and memorial of the Divine faithfulness, holiness, and love. "Unto principalities and powers in heavenly places will be made known by the church, the manifold wisdom of God."

And finally, in closing the chapter, let the eye once more rest with admiration on the prime actor in this magnificent drama. Mark his firmness and self-reliance--his meek spirit of dependence on Divine aid. Hating expediency--resolved to stand or fall with truth--superior to the world's censure--heedless that the majority is against him--with the consciousness of God being upon his side, he boldly confronts the floods of ungodly men, and alone he triumphs.

Some who read these pages may possibly be placed in similar circumstances. Standing solitary in the midst of scoffers--stigmatized as "peculiar:" surrounded by those who ridicule Elijah's God, and who sneer at their blind, credulous reverence for some obsolete Jewish Scriptures. Fear not. "Be courageous, like men. Be strong." You may be in the minority--all good men always have been so. The "broad way" is the crowded way. The true way is the one with the narrow gate. But "those who honor me," says God, "I will honor." "Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life."

To any who may be guilty of scorning Divine mercy, we cannot say, "Fear not." No, rather, remember you, also, the God of Carmel answers still "by fire." Yes, by fire, shall be His dreadful answer on that day when there can be for you "no more sacrifice for sin!" The Bible speaks of those who are "reserved unto fire." It speaks of a time when "God shall not keep silence, when a fire shall go before him, and it shall be very tempestuous round about him." When "the Lord Jesus, whom you now despise, shall be revealed from heaven, with his mighty angels in flaming fire, taking vengeance on those who know not God." Forbid, that when the discovery is too late--when all our refuges of lies crumble into dust, and all the gods we have worshiped are proved to have been dumb idols--forbid that then, we should for the first time, be awakened up to the conviction, which, during a whole life of sin and apostasy, we have disowned and denied, "That the Lord he is God--the Lord he is God;" and that our only personal interest in this 'living Jehovah,' through an endless eternity, is this--"Our God is a CONSUMING FIRE!"

"Seek the Lord, and you shall live; lest he break out like FIRE in the house of Joseph, and devour it; and there be none to quench it in Bethel." "Seek the Lord while he may be found; call upon him while he is near--let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts--and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon."