Let’s read together from 1 Kings chapter 18:17-45. This is the story of Elijah’s confrontation with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel and Elijah’s confrontation of the gods, the false gods, at Mount Carmel. And it unveils really the big theme of the whole book of Kings, the first and second books of Kings, and that’s that in every story throughout the books of Kings there’s a choice to be made, and that choice is often based upon the first commandments – “You shall have no other gods,” only the one true God. And this is one of the epitomes of that motif throughout the books of the Kings, that there’s a choice here between gods to discern and differentiate the gods, to discern between the spirits, to choose life or death, to choose here the desert or the vineyard is the choice that’s being given. So, let me pray and then we’ll read it together. Let’s pray.
God, we ask that You would come and help us to read Your scriptures well and to understand. We ask for this help in Christ’s name, amen.
So we’ll read 1 Kings 18:17-45. This is God’s Word:
“When Ahab saw Elijah, Ahab said to him, ‘Is it you, you troubler of Israel?’ And he answered, ‘I have not troubled Israel, but you have, and your father's house, because you have abandoned the commandments of the Lord and followed the Baals. Now therefore send and gather all Israel to me at Mount Carmel, and the 450 prophets of Baal and the 400 prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel's table.’
So Ahab sent to all the people of Israel and gathered the prophets together at Mount Carmel. And Elijah came near to all the people and said, ‘How long will you go limping between 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. Then Elijah said to the people, ‘I, even I only, am left a prophet of the Lord, but Baal's prophets are 450 men. 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. And you call upon the name of your god, and I will call upon the name of the Lord, and the God who answers by fire, he is God.’ And all the people answered, ‘It is well spoken.’ Then Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, ‘Choose for yourselves one bull and prepare it first, for you are many, and call upon the name of your god, but put no fire to it.’ And they took the bull that was given them, and they prepared it and called upon the name of Baal from morning until noon, saying, ‘O Baal, answer us!’ But there was no voice, and no one answered. And they limped around the altar that they had made. And at noon Elijah mocked them, saying, ‘Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.’ And they cried aloud and cut themselves after their custom with swords and lances, until the blood gushed out upon them. 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 paid attention.
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. 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,’ 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 seahs of seed. 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.’ 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. And the water ran around the altar and filled the trench also with water.
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. 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.’ 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. And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, ‘The Lord, he is God; the Lord, he is God.’ And Elijah said to them, ‘Seize the prophets of Baal; let not one of them escape.’ And they seized them. And Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon and slaughtered them there.
And Elijah said to Ahab, ‘Go up, eat and drink, for there is a sound of the rushing of rain.’ So Ahab went up to eat and to drink. And Elijah went up to the top of Mount Carmel. And he bowed himself down on the earth and put his face between his knees. And he said to his servant, ‘Go up now, look toward the sea.’ And he went up and looked and said, ‘There is nothing.’ And he said, ‘Go again,’ seven times. And at the seventh time he said, ‘Behold, a little cloud like a man's hand is rising from the sea.’ And he said, ‘Go up, say to Ahab, ‘Prepare your chariot and go down, lest the rain stop you.’’ And in a little while the heavens grew black with clouds and wind, and there was a great rain. And Ahab rode and went to Jezreel.”
The Call to Differentiate Between the Gods
So, we’re going to look at three things briefly tonight here. We learn about the call in this story to differentiate between the gods, how to find out the truth when you are discerning between the gods, and then there’s a call at the end to choose between the true and the false. So first, the call to differentiate between the gods. This is the middle of the Elijah story and it’s about 850 BC and Elijah is the sole prophet of God in the land of Israel, the northern kingdom. The kingdom of Israel and Judah had split about seventy-five years before this. And Ahab is the king of the north, the king of Israel, and the book of Kings tells us that Ahab was the worst of all of Israel’s kings. And he made it worse because he married Jezebel. And even if you don’t grow up in a church context, everybody knows the name Jezebel, right, because she was a Canaanite Baal worshiper. And together when they got married, they built Samaria, the capital of Israel, the northern kingdom. And in Samaria, we know that they built, at the dead middle, a temple dedicated to the baals, to the gods.
And it’s important as you read this passage to know that in the Old Testament a baal is not a word for a specific god, but baal is the generic near eastern way of just talking about a lowercase “g” god. Any object in the creaturely world that you take, and you divinize, you claim to have some type of divine ability or property, that’s a baal. And so, you can take anything and make it into a baal. And in the world of Samaria, there were rain baals and crop baals and gold baals and sheep baals and cattle baals and sun baals and the list goes on. Any common object that was surrounding them they typically made into a baal. But we know that Jezebel, and at this temple, had one very specific god that she worshiped above all the rest, and that’s called the baal of Tyre and Sidon. And the baal of Tyre and Sidon is the god of crops and especially rain; the fertility of crops through rain. So this was the god of rain that was worshiped at the center of this temple. But in Samaria, in the northern kingdom of Israel at this time, you could worship anything you want. It was a very pluralistic context. You could go to the temple and you could worship Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament, and you could step to the right and worship the baal of Tyre and Sidon or the crop baal or the rain baal or whatever; you could worship anything. And that means that this context was incredibly pluralistic, religiously pluralistic – that you can believe in whatever gods you wish to believe in. In fact, it was seen as better in this context to worship all the gods, all the gods you can imagine to make sure you cover all your bases. In case you feel punished in a particular area of life, you have all the gods covered when you go to temple and you go to worship.
But here when our passage opens, we have the confrontation between Ahab and Elijah – King Ahab and the one prophet of God, Elijah. And Elijah, in the mind of Ahab and in the mind of the people of Israel, has brought drought upon the land. There’s been a drought for three years. And why? Why a drought? Think about it. Jezebel and Ahab worshiped the baal of rain above all other gods in Samaria and when they build Samaria the first thing that God does through the prophet Elijah is He says, “No more rain, because if you think you can cry out to the god of rain, that there’s some spirit that brings rain for you, I’m going to show you that I am the only real God that can actually bring the rain.” And that’s why there’s been a drought for three years. And that means Elijah has become public enemy number one, not only for Ahab and Jezebel but for everybody. Everybody hates Elijah because he’s caused a drought and death and destruction in the land of Israel for three years. And now the time has come for the big confrontation. It’s been building up for three long years.
And here it is in verse 17. Ahab sees Elijah and he says in the most Tolkein-est way, literally in Hebrew, “You, the trouble-bringer of Israel,” or it can be translated as, “the chaos-causer.” And I want to read it as “the barrel-rider” and “the ring-bearer” and “the death-wielder” and all these other great phrases. That’s what it literally says, “You, the chaos-causer of Israel!” Ahab is accusing him and saying, “We would have had peace because we allow anybody to worship any god they want to worship, and so it’s a democratic and pluralistic land that is tolerant of everybody’s beliefs, but you have brought destruction through drought by saying” – what? The claim of exclusivity. You see, he’s saying, “You brought chaos upon Israel because you’re claiming exclusivity for the God of Israel, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. You’re saying that you have to actually choose, that you can’t worship both the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and the baals. And that is what is creating the chaos of our land and dividing us and not giving us peace.” You see?
And then Elijah turns the table and says, “No, you’re the chaos of Israel,” in verse 18, “because you have failed to choose; you’ve broken the first commandment.” And so Elijah says, “Gather all the people of Israel at Mount Carmel and bring the 450 prophets of baal, the 400 prophets of Asherah.” And he tells them in verse 21, “It’s time to stop limping and choose between the two.” And that word “limping” there is a funny word in English. It literally means “dancing.” So he’s referring to their cultural, cultic, ritual dancing in the temple in Samaria and saying, “It’s time for you to stop dancing in front of the statue that you have made of the God of Abraham and the statues that you have made in front of all these other gods. It’s time for you to stop dancing back and forth between the two of them” – literally dancing as an act of worship in front of them – “and decide whether you’re for or against the real God.”
So he’s telling them, “Discern the spirits. If the Lord God is God, then follow the path of truth. Obey the truth. Think carefully. Discern the fact.” And it says here that the people did not answer. They didn’t say a word when he called on them to choose. In other words, what we’re being told here is that the people wanted to remain religiously neutral. Religious neutrality – that all religions, in the end, are basically the same. That all religions, in the end, are basically getting at the same God and the same truth. And Elijah here is saying nobody is neutral. There’s no such thing as religious neutrality because the claims of the Christian God are claims of exclusivity. That you are either for Him or against Him, but you can’t be for Him and for another God. Christianity, the Biblical religion, is exclusive.
This means that this story that uses phrases like, “the trouble-bringer of Israel” and “the chaos-causer” so ancient in the modern person’s eyes, so primitive when you read it, is incredibly modern, shockingly relevant. It reads like something spoken directly at the 21st century. Why? Because we live in the exact same moment of radical, religious pluralism where the common Western mind says that, “Aren’t all religions basically the same?” Today – we know this of course in places like New York and LA and Chicago and London and Paris, but it’s true in Jackson as well – most people, most people even who claim to be atheists, non-theists, those who don’t believe in a god, are trending away from any kind of hostility towards religion. Most people, actually, very open and accepting of religion in general in the modern world. Eighty-four percent in the last worldwide survey of religion says that 84% of all peoples in the world believe in some type of supernatural reality, some type of god. But while the Western mind is not hostile to religion and to claims of saying, “I believe in something more. I’m on a path, a religious path of some sort,” the Western mind is hostile to claims of religious exclusivity – that one religion, that one God would claim to be the true God, the real God in differentiation from all the other gods.
And one helpful place to go to get help from this is Stephen Prothero’s book in 2010, “God Is Not One.” He is a Boston University chair of religion and he’s not a Christian, but he was confronting our current cultural moment where most people in the Western society think that all religions are basically teaching the same thing. And he wrote a book called, “God Is Not One,” and in it he examines Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, Confucianism, Yoruba religion, Taoism, and atheism. And this is what he says: “The eight rival religions of the world that rule the world are not one. They each devise a unique problem to human existence and they each offer a unique salvation that is different from the other.” And so he goes on to say that when our culture, as if you’ve watched a debate between two religious groups on YouTube or been to one perhaps, there’s usually “that guy” who stands up in the Q&A time and says, “I appreciate what all of you different theologians from the different religions are saying, but in the end it just sounds to me like you’re all saying the same thing – Love God and love neighbor and everything will be fine and all will be well with you.” And Prothero says, “No, to say that all religions are basically alike is to disrespect and to fail to listen to thousands of years of developed theology in each of these religious claims.” And he says that it’s not tolerance to claim the equality of religions; it’s intolerance because you failed to actually listen to the claims that they’ve been making for centuries.
And what Elijah is coming at the beginning of this passage and saying to 21st century people, Western people, is that there is no such thing as religious neutrality. When it comes to the Christian God, you can only be for God or against God. You cannot worship more than one god when it comes to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
How to Discern Between the Gods
And so secondly, we have to look, then, for what’s true. How do you discern between the gods? How do you decide what’s true, what’s real, what’s authentic, what actually exists? And we have to do exactly what happens in this passage. You have to let the gods confront each other. You have to put them side by side and see who can really bring down the fire. You have to search for truth and find out what’s real. And here, we have the great confrontation between baalism on the one hand and Biblical Christianity, Biblical religion on the other. And the context involves this – right? He says, “We’re going to each prepare a sacrifice and take a bull. And you call on your god to consume the sacrifice and I’ll call on God to consume the sacrifice.”
And in verse 25 he says, “You guys go first.” Why? “Because you have a ton of people and I’m by myself.” And that’s really important here because in Baalism, worshiping baals, how do you get your god to do anything? You have to perform for your god by saying the right things as the right time with a certain amount of people – cultic, ritual baal worship. That’s what it involves. And so, he’s saying, “You’ve got 450 prophets of Baal. You’ve got 400 prophets of Asherah. That’s 850 people! If all gods are the same, if all gods work like this where you can simply do a dance and say a few lines and get them to come down, then you’re going to win because you’ve got 850 people doing this dance and I’ve got just me! And so you go first, and we’ll see what happens.”
And then we get one of the greatest pieces of poetry in the whole Old Testament in this narrative about the baal worship here. This is actually written in Hebrew as a poem. And you can see what happens starting in verse 26. For four to five hours, they cry out in a cultic ritual of prayer. And the text literally says, “But no voice.” And what happens when you cry out to your god, a creature that you’ve divinized, and he doesn’t answer you? What do you do then? Well then you begin to dance. They “limped.” There’s that word again. They limped for the baal for hours and hours and literally the text says, “No answer.” There’s no complete sentences here which makes it all the more dramatic. “No voice. No answer.” And then if you’ve cried out to your idols and they haven’t helped you, they’ve disappointed you, and if you dance for your idols and perform for them and they don’t come down and help you, then what do you do? You cut yourself. You shed your own blood for them. You sacrifice everything. You give your whole life over to them trying to find your identity in this baal, this idol that’s before you. And that’s exactly what they did. They cut themselves. They bleed for their god and they give up everything here. There’s three phases of idolatry performance here and it says at the end, “No one answered. No one paid attention. No voice.” And of course Elijah has his joke right there in the middle that I won’t describe in any detail! Let’s just say that the English mutes it a little bit, I think!
Baalism is what we call today, what the New Testament calls idolatry. And the basic thrust of it is really obvious and clear. Paul warns us about it in Romans 1. He says it’s taking an object that God has created and it’s assigning an ultimate value to that object and it’s worshiping it through performance for the sake of some earthly reward. And in the ancient near east there were rain baals and crop baals and fertility baals and beauty baals and money baals and power baals. And this is such a primitive story, such an ancient story, and yet nothing has changed because today there are beauty baals and money baals and family baals and power baals and social capital baals and tradition baals and church attendance baals and sports baals and fitness baals and food baals. And you, maybe I haven’t found yours yet, but it’s somewhere down the list. This looks like a primitive story but it’s incredibly modern. It’s written for the 21st century. Everything in life is potentially a baal, a false god, because Baalism is taking something good that God has made, turning it into your savior, into your hope for identity in life, and therefore turning a good thing into a bad thing, into an evil thing, into an idol.
David Foster Wallace, the great novelist that committed suicide in 2006, who was not a Christian, his address at Kenyon College in 2005 has been read and read publicly in pulpits throughout the land, especially in the PCA, to the point of cliché but I can’t help but read it against because it’s so relevant. He, as a philosopher and thinker was able to understand very clearly exactly what’s happening in Baalism and this is what he says:
“In the day to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There’s no such thing as not worshiping. There is no religious neutrality. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing someone like Jesus Christ is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap into real meaning in life, then you will never have enough. You will never feel like you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. Worship power and you will end up feeling weak and afraid. You will need evermore power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, and you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about all of these forms is that they are unconscious. They are default settings for human beings. They are the kind of worship you just gradually slip into over time, day after day.”
He says, “They are the default settings for human beings.” That’s what John Calvin meant when he said the human heart is an idol factory. It can never stop producing baals, idols.
A Christian scholar, Walter Brueggemann, he says it this way about this passage: “Modern Baalism reduces the mystery of life into manageable techniques, into power plays at success. It’s a life of independence, not dependence. It’s control instead of trust. If you live a life that tries to take control of everything by means of your own performance, as soon as you suffer, as soon as you lose something that you’re chasing after, you will be crushed. Your baal will fail you. Your god will say, ‘Dance for me!’ and you will try to hold it up for so long until your god demands a sacrifice.” That means that Baalism, performative idolatry, making anything in our lives that’s creaturely into something that we think as precious where we get our identity from, leads to drought. The rains will not come and that means its death.
The Call to Choose
The Christian God is different. That’s what this story is about. The Christian God is different. So finally – How is He different? Where is the call here to choose between the true and the false as we come to a close? The confrontation in verse 36 carries on with Elijah building the altar. In verse 30 to 35, he makes it extra hard by soaking everything down in water three times. There’s no tricks here. There’s no rituals; there’s no gimmicks. It’s hard to burn wet wood, and that’s what’s going on here. And then Elijah simply says, “God, make Yourself known and reclaim the hearts of these people gathered here at Mount Carmel.” If you want to know the true God, the God who is absolute Spirit, the only way is if that God chooses to reveal Himself, if that God chooses to bring the fire down. And all he does is say, “God, would You reclaim these people’s hearts? Would You come down?” And He does and the people fall on their faces and say, “This is the Lord God. This is the truth. I’ve discerned the spirits through the confrontation.”
And the point of the passage is so simple. It’s that baals are creatures, not the real God. And so don’t take anything in your life and worship it and forget the true God, forget that He’s the only one who can define who you are, that He is the only place of real hope. The point couldn’t be more simple. But there is a bigger picture here, and the bigger picture is just two brief reasons why Christianity is so different.
And the first is because the story ends with Ahab. Did you catch that at the end? The story ends with Ahab in verse 41. The author is asking all of us by ending with Ahab, “Who are you in this passage? Where am I? Who are you in this passage?” And what should have happened to Ahab? What would justice be when he turned the entire nation of God’s people away from God and into utter idolatry? And when the most wicked of all kings, the ultimate idolater of them all standing there, and salvation has come down upon the altar, Elijah turns to him and in verse 41 he says, “Go up.” But the word is ambiguous. It can be translated, “Come up.” It’s an invitation. The most wicked of all the idolaters there, Elijah says, “Now that salvation has come down on this mountain, Ahab, come up, take, eat and drink.” He gets invited at the end of this passage to come up on top of the mountain and break bread and drink the wine of God.
That’s what makes Christianity so different than all the other religions. The baals, the idols in our lives say, “Perform for me! Sacrifice everything for me!” And the God upon whom we’ve shaken our fist, we, the baal worshipers, the idolaters, when He sends the fire down and burns up the bull, He says to us Ahabs, “Come up the mountain and drink My wine and eat My bread.” That’s radical grace. It’s grace that makes Christianity so different. And one of the important things to know is that this disputation, this confrontation happens on Mount Carmel. And the word “Carmel” in Hebrew means, “the garden of God.” The drought in Eden had come in God’s land, but now that the bull has been burned up by the fire, even the most wicked of all peoples is being invited, “Come, eat and drink in the garden of God. The way has been opened up for you, Ahab.” It’s an invitation and it’s an invitation for all of us.
And secondly and finally, it’s so different because this story is not really about Elijah. You know, if you don’t pay close enough attention you might miss the most important character, and it’s not Elijah. It’s the bull. It’s the bull! How is it that God is able to say to Ahab, to the people at Mount Carmel, “Come up to the vineyard of God. Eat, drink, you idolaters, you baal worshipers”? It’s because for a moment justice has been stayed when the fire came down and consumed the offering in the garden of God. You see, Elijah was there to actually point away from himself. This was all about him being a shadow. You know that’s what prophets do. They come to prophecy about something better than themselves. And in the gospels in Matthew 11, Jesus is speaking to the crowds about John the Baptist. You remember this? And He says, “Truly I say to you, of all of the people born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist.” And that’s a lot of people, right? Most people have been born of women in the past. And he’s the greatest, Jesus says. And He says, “For all the prophets and the law that prophesied up to John, if you’re willing to accept it, I’m telling you today, he is Elijah.”
Elijah, here, was pointing these idolaters to something greater than himself, a shadow, a bull. Just like the new Elijah in Matthew 11, John the Baptist, who came to point to something much, much greater than himself – exactly the role of the prophet. You know John the Baptist ministered first east of the Jordan River eating on locusts and wild honey. And do you know that Elijah was sent east of the Jordan River at the beginning of his ministry for three years and he fed only on the food of the wilderness that the ravens brought to him? God’s been weaving this shadow into a grand metanarrative for many, many centuries to point to something greater. And Luke 1:17, “John the Baptist will go before the Christ in the spirit and power of Elijah to turn back the hearts of the fathers.” This was always about something bigger. And Elijah is saying, “Look at the bull!” And John the Baptist came saying, “Look at the Man of power on the cross!”
Here’s the big picture. What’s different about Christianity? “God so loved the world that He, like the baals said, ‘Dance for me and cut yourselves for me and spill your blood for me!’” No! “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son to be burned, to be cut, to be destroyed, so that idolaters might be invited into the vineyard of God.”
Okay this is literally the close now. There’s an interesting moment in the gospels in Luke 9 that parallels this passage. When the day drew near for Christ to be taken up on the cross, it’s referring to, He set His face to go to Jerusalem, to the altar, to the cross. And He sent messengers, prophets, ahead of Himself. And where were they sent? To Samaria, the same place as we’re reading about here, to make the preparations. But the people of Samaria did not receive Him. And when His disciples, James and John, saw this, they said, “Lord, do You want us to call the fire down from heaven and consume the people of Samaria?” And Jesus turned and rebuked them and said, “No,” and they went to another village.
You see, the prophets, the disciples, thought that they were going to bring true justice to these idol worshipers in Samaria by doing what the prophets of the old could do – call down fire and consume. And Jesus says, “No, no, no. The fire is going to come down, but it’s not going to be for them. The fire is not for the idolaters. It’s for the Son of God.” They rejected Him. We rejected Him. And so He died, for us. The love of God for idolaters in the face of the humiliated Son of God – that is what makes Christianity different. So that’s an invitation to feast on the grace of God. Let’s pray.
Our Lord and God we give thanks for Your radical grace, and we give thanks in Christ’s name, amen.
© 2019 First Presbyterian Church.
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