Here is a sermon I preached yesterday at our church that’s relevant to matters we discuss often here.
Read 1 Kings 18:1-40
The Rise and Fall of the Hebrew Empire
This account of Elijah and the Prophets of Baal is one of the most well-known and colorful narratives in the whole of the Old Testament. It is often taught to children, it was set as an Oratorio by nineteenth century composer Felix Mendelsohn, and it continues to grip the imagination of Christians to this day. But in order to understand the full significance of this account, we need to just briefly consider the occasion and purpose for the writing of the Book of Kings.
Context of 1 Kings: A People in Exile
Kings traces events in the life of Israel from the last days of David’s reign up through the captivity of Judah. The last two events recorded in 2 Kings are after the Israelites had been taken into captivity in Babylon, but there is no record of their return to Jerusalem. Therefore, most scholars believe that Kings was written during the time of the Hebrew exile.
Concerns of a People in Exile
And, as with any written history, the historian recorded the events with his target audience in mind in order to give them some particular lessons in answer to a few poignant questions that would have naturally been in the minds of these people in exile.
Imagine that you are a Hebrew and that you have found yourself captive in a pagan land far from your home. What would you be thinking? What kinds of questions would you be asking?
First, you would be asking, How did we get here? Why are we in captivity? Why have we lost God’s blessing? Why are our houses and cities and Temple in ruin?
And this leads inexorably to the next question: Has God left us? Will he keep his promises to us?
The people of Israel knew well the covenants that God had made with them as his people. He had chosen Jerusalem as the place of his dwelling, and yet now that city and the Temple therein lay in ruin. He had promised to David an everlasting dynasty, and yet no son of David sat on the throne. Had God failed to keep his promises to Israel?
Both of these concerns are actually addressed by the same answer, and it is the purpose of the Book of Kings to do just that. In essence, the Books of Samuel and Kings together could be called, “The Rise and Fall of the Hebrew Empire.” Samuel recounts the rise of Israel through the reign of David, and Kings traces its demise.
It is actually exactly because God is faithful to keep his promises that answers both concerns. God had established a unilateral, unconditional covenant with David, and part of the purpose of Kings is to demonstrate that God would continue the Davidic line despite the Babylonian captivity. In fact, the final event recorded in 2 Kings 25 is the fact that Jehoiachin, the current living decedent of David’s royal line, was released from prison, dined at the king’s table, and had his needs met for as long as he lived. This was the historian’s way of saying, “Don’t worry; even though we are in exile, God will continue to keep his covenant with David.”
However, although God’s covenant with David was unconditional, his covenant with Moses was conditional. God had said in Deuteronomy 28:1, “And if you faithfully obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all his commandments that I command you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth.” The conditions for their prosperity in the land God had given them was their obedience to his commands.
On the other hand, he had also proclaimed in Deuteronomy 28, “But if you will not obey the voice of the Lord your God or be careful to do all his commandments and his statutes that I command you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you,” and those curses specifically culminate in captivity by their enemies. In essence, the covenant God made with Moses is exactly what we have taught our children since they were very little: Obedience brings blessing, but disobedience brings punishment.
Kings demonstrates why God had to keep his promise to punish them. It traces how Israel slowly fell through religious compromise. This compromise began with David’s son, Solomon, who married many foreign wives, allowing pagan worship to permeate the nation. This results in the split of the nation into the northern and southern kingdoms, and in the north, Jeroboam continues this compromise by instituting syncretistic worship practices. His intention was never to worship false gods or forsake the worship of Yahweh. But if he had continued to follow God’s commands and allow his people to travel south to Jerusalem to worship, he would have lost control of his people. So, Jeroboam gave into pragmatism, setting up his own center of Yahweh worship, mixing the worship of Yahweh with pagan worship practices.
Yet God had specifically commanded in Deuteronomy 12,
You shall surely destroy all the places where the nations whom you shall dispossess served their gods, on the high mountains and on the hills and under every green tree. 3 You shall tear down their altars and dash in pieces their pillars and burn their Asherim with fire. You shall chop down the carved images of their gods and destroy their name out of that place. 4 You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way. 5 But you shall seek the place that the Lord your God will choose out of all your tribes to put his name and make his habitation there. There you shall go, 6 and there you shall bring your burnt offerings and your sacrifices.
God did not want to be worshiped in the same way the pagans worshiped their gods. He did not want to be worshiped in their places, using their altars and their methods. God wanted to be worshiped only in the ways that he chose and in the places that he ordained. Yet this is exactly where Jeroboam failed when he adapted the pagan places and methods of worship for the worship of Yahweh.
And religious syncretism always inevitably leads to full idolatry, and this is exactly what happens. The kings following Jeroboam continue the syncretism that he had established until King Omri, once again disobeying the clear commands of God in favor of pragmatism, arranges the marriage of his son Ahab to the sweet, gentle, honorable, virtuous princess of the neighboring kingdom of Phoenicia, Jezebel. Omri accomplishes his goal of peace with Phoenicia through that marriage, but as a result, Jezebel brings with her to the marriage her unbreakable devotion to the worship of Baal.
No longer was the northern kingdom of Israel characterized by mere syncretism, as terrible as that is. Now, King Ahab institutes full-blown Baal worship, for the first time actually erecting a temple and altars to the pagan deity.
And the people quickly give in. They had to survive, after all. Baal was the god of rain and fertility. The people wanted to be prosperous; they wanted to be comfortable; they wanted their crops and livestock to grow and their wives to bear children, and worshiping Baal was necessary for that to happen; surely Yahweh wouldn’t mind if, in the name of comfort and prosperity they would offer sacrifices to Baal in addition to their worship of Yahweh. In fact, they would be able to serve Yahweh better if they lived in peace with their pagan neighbors and were able to provide materially for their families.
It is into this bleak circumstance that the Prophet Elijah bursts on the scene. The only description we have of Elijah is that he was a hairy man who wore a leather belt. This wild-eyed, hairy prophet, this uncultured Neanderthal who lived by a stream being fed by birds, this Radagast the Brown like figure bursts unannounced into the throne room of King Ahab and proclaims, “As the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word,” and then disappears again into the wilderness.
No doubt Ahab and his court scoffed at this crazy prediction. Who is this wild fellow, out of touch with his time? But then several days go by, and no rain. Days turn into weeks, and week turn into months, and no rain. And then month after month goes by, and still no rain. For three years no rain or dew falls. Crops dry out; animals begin to die of thirst.
And then after three years, God speaks to Elijah and tells him to go show himself once again to Ahab and rain will come again. What follows then, in our text, are four confrontations that Elijah has. Four confrontations that culminate in a great worship war and that later teach the people in exile some very important lessons.
Now keep a few things in mind as we look at these confrontations. First, Elijah is alone here. He is bolding standing up for Yahweh, confronting compromise and idolatry in his culture, and he is the only one doing it at this time. Second, to stand up in this way was to put his very life on the line. He has already spent three years on the run, giving up comfort and security for the sake of the Lord, but now he is running straight into the lion’s den, risking everything in the name of confronting sin.
Confrontation with Obadiah
The first confrontation that Elijah has is with Obadiah. This is not the minor prophet Obadiah. This is the chief servant of Ahab’s court, probably second in command of the whole kingdom. The text tells that he greatly feared the Lord. Privately, he had continued to worship Yahweh, even in the midst of Ahab and Jezebel’s Baal worship. And he had done great things for God, hiding Yahweh’s prophets from Jezebel’s murderous intentions.
Yet Obadiah was a bit of a compromiser himself. All of the rest of the God-fearing Jews and Levites had fled to the southern kingdom where they could worship Yahweh as he had commanded, but Obadiah had stayed. Later Elijah says later that he is the only faithful, active prophet of Yahweh left in the land; the other prophets are in hiding, and Obadiah is impotent. He was content to worship the true God in private, but when it came to standing up against the idolatry of the kingdom, Obadiah let his concerns for his position and prosperity and his fear for his life to prevent him from confronting false worship. He didn’t want to be identified with crazy counter-cultural servants of God like Elijah. He wanted to peacefully coexist while simply worshiping God in secret. Perhaps he thought he could have more influence over the sinfulness around him if he kept quiet.
Yet Elijah confronted Obadiah’s complacency and commanded that he arrange a meeting with Ahab, and Obadiah ultimately complied.
Confrontation with Ahab
This leads to Elijah’s next confrontation, this time with Ahab. Ahab had been looking for Elijah all across the nation, and so when he finally sees him, he immediately cries, “Is it you, you troubler of Israel?” to which Elijah correctly responds, “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.” Indeed, as we have seen, this is exactly true, and this is a poignant lesson the historian wants the people in exile to recognize: abandoning the commandments of Yahweh and following after false gods is what has brought trouble upon them.
And in order to drive this lesson home, Elijah proposes a grand contest, a cosmic battle between Baal and Yahweh, between Baal’s prophets and the prophet of Yahweh. And so Ahab agrees and arranges this competition. He sends a proclamation across the whole nation, and all the people of Israel gather to witness the event. They had nothing better to do, after all; the crops had all dried, the animals had all died. Why not gather at the top of Mt. Carmel to enjoy the festivities?
Elijah’s choice of Mt. Carmel is interesting for two reasons. First, it lay at the border of Israel and the neighboring nation of Phoenicia, Jezebel’s native land. This was the perfect location for a contest between the gods of the two nations. Second, Mt. Carmel was known for its frequent lightning strikes. In a sense, Elijah was giving Baal, the god of storm, the home field advantage.
Confrontation with the People of Israel
And it is here on Mt. Carmel that Elijah has his third confrontation. He draws near to the crowds of people who had gathered to watch, and glaring at them with his piercing eyes, he proclaims with a condemning tone, “How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” He recognizes that the people had never fully intended to forsake the worship of Yahweh; they had simply adopted the worship methods of their surrounding culture and eventually added the worship of Baal out of pragmatism. Yet Elijah proclaims the unpopular truth with clarity and simplicity: You cannot have both. Yahweh and Baal cannot both be God. You cannot be a lover of God and a lover of the world at the same time. So quite limping between two different opinions and make your choice!
Confrontation with the Prophets of Baal
Finally, Elijah sets his sights on the prophets of Baal. Notice how different these two ways of approaching deity were. The difference between how the prophets of Baal worshiped and how Elijah worshiped was not simply the object of their worship. The worship itself was very different.
Sometimes we get the idea that God’s concern is only that he is worshiped; how we worship him doesn’t really matter. In fact, some would go so far as to say that the manner of worshiping the true God need not be any different from the worship of false gods. The worship of Yahweh, the argument goes, was simply contextualized to the way the surrounding cultures worshiped. Both the worship of Yahweh and the worship of Baal had temples. They both had altars and sacrifices and priests. The manner of worship was no different; the difference is only the object of worship.
Yet this account of Elijah and the prophets of Baal vividly proves otherwise. Notice who initiated the worship between Baal and his prophets: the worshipers did. They were the ones who desperately tried to get the attention of their god. Baal had not revealed himself to them nor given them instructions as to how he wanted to be approached. Rather, in their theology, Baal was simply the Lord of the land, and so in order to appease him and persuade him to bless them with prosperity, the prophets of Baal had to do things that would please him and meet his needs. Notice also the character of their worship. The worship of Baal was characterized by loud, ecstatic cries, by incessant dancing around the alter—literally “limping,” the same Hebrew word Elijah had used to describe the syncretism of the people, and by self-mutilation.
And, of course, no one answers. There is no fire from heaven, no lightning, not even rain. Just silence. And Elijah takes this occasion to mock the futility of this false worship. And notice how in this mocking, Elijah reveals another significant difference between Baal and Yahweh. Perhaps Baal is deep in thought and can’t hear you; maybe he is busy or using the restroom; or perhaps he is on a trip or asleep. Just cry a little louder and maybe you’ll get his attention! You see, in the theology of Baal—and this is true, by the way, of every single religion that has ever existed outside of Judaism and Christianity—the god is part of nature; Baal is limited by time and by space; he has physical needs and grows weary.
But he that watches over Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps. Yahweh is not part of nature; he transcends nature because he made it. Elijah did not initiate this worship encounter in order to get God’s attention, appease him, and meet his needs. On the contrary, the true God is the initiator of worship. God revealed himself in creation, instituting the central worship concepts of sanctuary and priest in the garden and of atonement and sacrifice after Adam and Even fell into sin. God revealed himself to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to Moses, and to David. And God had revealed himself to Elijah. Elijah was simply responding to what God had told him to do. And the fact that Elijah’s prayer comes “at the time of the offering of oblation” is no accident. Elijah was approaching God at the time he had appointed. He doesn’t use the pagan altar, either; rather, Elijah rebuilds the altar of Yahweh that had been torn down. And instead of loud, ecstatic, orgiastic, degrading worship, Elijah simply prays a modest prayer that itself is not asking for anything that God himself had not already promised, but is rather based in the covenant promises of God:
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.
And immediately, God answers. It doesn’t take a long, drawn out time of creating the right atmosphere of worship or working up into an emotional frenzy for the fire of God to come down. God had revealed himself to Elijah and told him what to do, and all it took was simply obedience in faith, and God proved himself to be the one true and living God. This is no natural strike of lightning that falls, either. This is the all-consuming, white hot, holy fire of God that falls down from heaven, consuming the offering and the wood and the stones and the dirt and the water, leaving a scorched black hole in the earth.
I imagine there was not a single person left on his feet. And I imagine there were a few moments of complete silence at what had just occurred.
But then a voice from the crowd breaks the silence: “Yahweh, he is God.” And another voice joins in: “Yahweh, he is God.” And voice after voice joins in until the whole company of people cries out in chorus: “Yahweh, he is God.”
And then Elijah enacts exactly what God had commanded long ago in the Law. He commands that the people seize the prophets of Baal, and he slaughters every single one of them.
Lessons to a People in Exile
Now imagine again that you are a Hebrew in exile in Babylon. You are concerned with whether God will keep his promises made to David. You are wondering how things developed to the point where you were no longer experiencing the blessings of God. What would the account of this worship war teach you?
Lessons for Hebrews in Exile
It would teach you that the Lord, he is God.
It would teach you that God has always and will always do exactly what he has promised. He will keep his promise of judgment upon those who disobey his commands, judgment upon those who attempt to worship him in ways that he has not prescribed or in ways that borrow from pagan worship, judgment upon those who completely forsake the true God and instead worship false gods, judgment upon those who compromise out of a desire for prosperity and pragmatism, judgment upon those who refuse to stand up and confront the idolatry around them out of fear they will lose their comforts, their prestige, their influence, or even their lives.
It would teach you that God will ultimately turn the hearts of his people back to him, and if even the worst offender will but turn away from his idolatry, confess that God is Lord, and worship him alone, God will withhold his just wrath.
It would teach you that God will keep his promise of blessing toward those who obey his commands. It would teach you the solution to your captivity: Turn back to God! Worship him only. Don’t give into religious compromise and syncretism. Don’t bow down to the dominant idols of the culture out of a pragmatic desire for prosperity, comfort, and influence.
And it would teach you that God will ultimately keep his promise that the royal line of David will be established forever.
This was the message this account was meant to teach the People of Israel in exile: a message of warning and a message of hope.
Lessons for Christians in Exile
And it is a message that is no different for us today, for we are the people of God in exile. Peter calls us sojourners and exiles in 1 Peter. This world is not our home; we are living in exile among pagan peoples who worship false gods.
We are a people surrounded by a culture that worships prosperity and immorality. Oh, there may no longer be altars and temples to Baal in our modern civilization, but they are no less a reality. They’ve just been updated. Now the temples of Baal are called malls and cinemas, and his altars are called televisions and computers.
We are a people who have compromisers in our midst, those unwilling to sacrifice their comforts, their prestige, and their influence in order to confront the idolatrous culture. Instead of standing up against the sinfulness of our culture, some of our own people and our own leaders ignore the debauchery, sometimes even embracing it in the name of “cultural contextualization,” and hide behind their prestigious titles, desiring to earn the respect of the pagan world.
We are a people whose worship is marked by syncretism with pagan worship—our worship is often characterized by the assumption that we initiate worship, that we need to do things to please God and call him down, that we need to work ourselves up into an emotional atmosphere of worship in order to experience the presence of God.
We are a people who need this message just as desperately as the people of Israel.
Second Kings 17 succinctly diagnoses the cause of Israel’s downfall: “And this occurred because the people of Israel had sinned against the Lord their God, who had brought them up out of the land of Egypt from under the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and had feared other gods 8 and walked in the customs of the nations whom the Lord drove out before the people of Israel, and in the customs that the kings of Israel had practiced.” This could just as easily describe the growing demise of the Evangelical church in twenty-first century America. This could just as easily describe the reason we are impotent and the spread of the gospel wanes: “And this occurred because the people of Jesus Christ had sinned against the Lord their God, who had brought them up out of slavery to sin and death, and had feared other gods and walked in the customs of the nations who hate God and his gospel, and in the customs that the pragmatic leaders of the Church practiced.” We, like Israel, have followed after the allurements of the culture around us and have forsaken the commandments of the Lord. We, like Israel, deserve what is coming upon us.
But we, like Israel, have hope. The last verse of 2 Kings assures the people in exile that David’s royal descendent is alive and well, but the promise of hope does not end there. The last verses in the Old Testament tie directly to this event as well. Malachi 4:5 prophesies, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. 6 And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.” Four hundred years later, an angel appears to a simple priest in the Temple and applies this prophecy to a son yet to be born, a son he was to name John. This son would grow to become a counter-cultural, hairy prophet in leather, roaming around a river, boldly calling a compromising people to repentance. And this prophet would prepare a way for a descendent of David’s royal line, Jesus the Messiah, our only hope.
The lessons for us today are no different from the lessons given to the Hebrews in Exile:
The Lord, he is God.
God has always and will always do exactly what he has promised. He will keep his promise of judgment upon those who disobey his commands, judgment upon those who attempt to worship him in ways that he has not prescribed or in ways that borrow from pagan worship, judgment upon those who completely forsake the true God and instead worship false gods, judgment upon those who compromise out of a desire for prosperity and pragmatism, judgment upon those who refuse to stand up and confront the idolatry around them out of fear they will lose their comforts, their prestige, their influence, or even their lives.
God will keep his promise of blessing toward those who obey his commands. And so the solution is the same for us as it was for Israel: Turn back to God! Worship him only. Don’t give into religious compromise and syncretism. Don’t bow down to the dominant idols of our culture out of pragmatic desire for prosperity, comfort, and influence. Stand up against the sinfulness around you, confront the compromise of your fellowship Christians, even if it means you have to stand alone, even if it means you will be unpopular, even if it means risking your comfort, your security, or even your very life.
No one is certain who wrote the Book of Kings. Jewish tradition says that Kings was penned by the prophet Jeremiah, largely due to the fact that significant paragraphs in Kings, including the last paragraph of 2 Kings, is word-for-word identical to paragraphs in the book of Jeremiah.
While it is unlikely Jeremiah wrote Kings—he died before some of the events at the end of 2 Kings, Jeremiah’s book was likely used as a source in the compilation of Kings. In Jeremiah’s prophecy, he delivers a word of hope from God, a message that Felix Mendellsohn chose to include in his well-known oratorio, Elijah, a word from God that the Hebrews in exile needed to hear as a solution to their sinfulness and idolatry: “If you seek me, you will find me, if you seek me with all your heart.”
Oh that we, like the captive Hebrews, would heed these words today.