Elijah and the Prophets of Baal
07/21/96 and 02/08/09
I Kings 18:21
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.”
In the ninth century B.C., Ahab was king of Israel. He was married to Jezebel the daughter of the king of Sidon. Ahab built a house of worship for the god, or Baal, of his Sidonian wife. All the Canaanite gods were called Baals. The name of the Baal which Jezebel worshipped was Melkart. Some in Israel opposed the temple Ahab built to the Sidonian god Melkart, just as some had opposed the temples Solomon had built to the gods of his foreign wives, but those who stood for the pure religion of God were only a few, and most people in Israel considered them to be grumblers and disturbers of the peace, and paid them no heed. Probably, if Jezebel and her household had been content to worship quietly, nothing would have come of it.
However, Jezebel was not the kind of woman to do anything quietly. She was born to dominate. She was energetic, beautiful, determined. Those are good qualities. Unfortunately, she was also fanatically devoted to the worship of a false god. She could not stand the idea that her god, Melkart, would be merely tolerated in Israel. She determined that Melkart would be the only God in Israel.
In other words, Jezebel was a missionary for Melkart. You see, Satan has his missionaries just as Christ has his missionaries--which is something that we ought to keep in mind today. America today is flooded with cults and sects and notions. Not all of them are equally good. Some are downright Satanic.
Melkart, Jezebel's God, was satanic. The worship of Melkart included child sacrifice and cult prostitution. Nevertheless, Jezebel was determined that Melkart would triumph in Israel.
She imported 450 prophets of Melkart and 400 prophets of "the Asherah." Apparently, "the Asherah" was connected with Melkart's worship. These evil prophets fanned out over the land, preaching on every street corner, propagandizing for their Satanic master.
They were opposed by the prophets of the God of Abraham. The two sides debated and argued, and the people wavered. Then Jezebel decided to put an end to the resistance. I Kings says that she "cut off the prophets of the Lord" (18:4). She killed them. She gave the people a choice: Accept Melkart or die. Now I wish I could say that the people of Israel rose up against Jezebel and refused her evil god, but they did not. The people saw the swords of Jezebel's soldiers, and they bowed the knee to Baal. In their heart of hearts, the people still half-believed in the old God of their fathers, but Jezebel's swords and missionaries had some effect on them, and so they went “limping between two different opinions,” wanting to worship at both altars.
As we might say, they wanted to have their cake and eat it too. They wanted to compromise, but neither Jezebel nor Elijah wanted that. On this one thing, Elijah and Jezebel were in agreement. No compromise was possible between the Lord and Baal. No compromise is possible today between God and Satan.
In Matthew 6:24, Jesus said, "No man can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will hold to the one and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and Mammon." You cannot limp along between two opinions about God and the devil because if you do, you will end up serving the devil every time.
Now you might be wondering how Jezebel and her followers could so quickly come so close to converting Israel. Israel had the scriptures and the prophets. How could they in a space of a few years be half-converted to the worship of Melkart? Because they had never really been committed to God in the first place. That generation in Israel had become lukewarm in their faith. They had become indifferent to the things of God.
Does not that apply to many people today? This generation has become lukewarm about Christ, and indifferent to the church of Christ. They aren't atheists. They are just sort of unconcerned and uncaring, and so they fall victim to the first cult that comes along.
Fortunately, for ancient Israel, a few did care very much about God. Elijah cared. He was called Elijah the Tishbite. He was a stange and awesome person. He wore hair robes that were gathered in at the waist with a leather belt. He came from the other side of the Jordan River where the land and the people were rough. He lived upon the scantiest of food, and it was said that he could run faster than a horse. Perhaps he was the first jogger. He was a man wholly committed to God, and thus he did not fear Ahab or his evil queen.
He appeared suddenly one day in the very midst of court proceedings. We can see him now, clad in his rough clothes, stalking through the crowd of finely dressed court officials, he went up to the throne of Ahab and Jezebel, and said, "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"[17:1].
Ahab trembled at Elijah's warning, but Jezebel was made of sterner stuff. From that moment, she became Elijah's mortal enemy. She sent her assassins to kill him, but the prophet knew better than to remain within Jezebel's reach. He fled into the wilderness. For three years, he lived in hiding, and, for three years, famine and drought stalked the land. Then Elijah returned once more to Ahab.
When the king saw him, the king said angrily, "Is it you, you troubler of Israel?"
Elijah replied , "I have not troubled Israel; but you have". That must have shocked Ahab. Then Elijah said, "Have all Israel assemble for me at Mount Carmel, with the four hundred fifty prophets of Baal and the four hundred prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel's table" And such was the influence and power of Elijah that Ahab agreed. And Elijah stood upon the slopes of the mountain and challenged them, saying, It is time to make a choice. “If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him."
The people did not answer a word. They shuffled their feet and looked at the ground and coughed. The truth is they were perfectly content to go limping along between two different opinions. When Elijah saw that no one would support him, he shouted, "I, I alone, am left as a prophet of the Lord, while the prophets of Baal are four hundred and fifty. Let us then put our gods to the test, the Lord against Baal. Give us two bulls, one for Melkart and one for the Lord, and we shall each pile up some wood, and we shall cut up the bulls in pieces for a sacrifice to our gods. But we shall put no fire to the wood. Instead, we shall each call upon the name of our god, and the god who answers by setting the wood on fire is the true god."
A daring plan, it was. The crowd loved it. They shouted, "Yes, let's do it."
Early the next morning the prophets of baal laid the wood and prepared the bull. They put on splendid robes and priestly ornaments, and began to call upon Melkart. They worked in relays, taking turns beseeching their god to send fire. Nothing happened. They leaped and shouted and pleaded. "O Melkart hear us," they begged. Nothing happened.
All of this foolish hopping and shouting was amusing to Elijah. In the silence of the desert, he had often spoken with God. He knew that you do not need to dance and yell and make a spectacle of yourself to get God's attention. To Elijah, the yelling, sweating prophets of baal were just so many ridiculous clowns. He began to tease them. "Yell a little louder," he suggested. "Perhaps your god has gone on a trip and can't quite hear you. Or maybe Melkart is talking with someone else; maybe he is asleep."
By that afternoon Melkart's prophets were desperate. They tore their clothes and cut their arms and legs to show their faith. They stomped and jumped and gyrated and raved and bled, but no fire came down upon the altar of Baal.
The clownish antics of the prophets of Baal remind us of the words of Jesus in Matthew 6:7 "But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think they shall be heard for their much speaking." When we pray, our prayers do not need to be long and pompous. God hears the prayer of our hearts before we ever speak a word.
Look at Elijah. When the prophets of Baal finally gave it up, Elijah called the people to him before an old ruined altar of God. With twelve stones representing the twelve tribes of Israel, he rebuilt the altar. Then he made a trench around the altar and piled wood on it, and upon the wood, he placed the bull of sacrifice. To make certain that everyone knew that no trickery was involved and to make God's action more wonderful, he poured out four jars of water on the wood, and did this not once but three times, so that the wood was soaked and dripping.
Then Elijah prayed, "Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, let them know today that you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, that I have done all these things at your command. Hear me, Lord, so that this people may know that you are God" (18:36-37).
It was a short, solemn, sincere prayer, with spectacular results. Suddenly a bolt of lightning burst from the clouds and obliterated the sacrifice, the wood, the stones, the water, and left behind only a blackened crater. The people staggered back in astonishment. They cried, "The Lord is God, the Lord is God."
We need to ask ourselves a question here: Why was Elijah's prayer so successful? We understand why Baal’s prophets failed. They prayed to a false God, but we pray to Elijah's God. Why do we not receive Elijah answers to our prayers? Because we limp between two opinions. Look at Elijah--utterly committed, utterly consecrated to God. The cause of God was his cause, the will of God was his will. If you want Elijah answers to your prayers, you need Elijah commitment to God.
Elijah won a great victory for God on Mount Carmel. He turned back the tide of paganism. Israel was so impressed by the fire of the Lord that day that never again would the Israelites be in danger of losing their national soul to Melkart.
Elijah's troubles were not over by any means. Jezebel was still queen, and she hated God as much as ever. She persecuted, she killed, she forced Elijah to live in fear for many more years, but all her persecution did her no good. She had lost.
Now you might say, Well Baal was an old Phoenician God, and today no one follows him anyway. So how does this apply to us? Baal represents any idolatry, any worship that is other than the worship of God. Baal is the opposite of God. The opposite of God is always self-will and self-worship. It is that will that says, “I want.” It is that will that says, “Me first.”
Jesus said, in Luke 10:18, that he saw Satan falling from heaven. To say that Satan fell from heaven is to say that Satan turned away from God. Satan preferred his own will to God's will. Satan wanted to worship himself. That is what a lot of people want, and, in wanting that, they are Satan and they deserve hell.
So the Baal of our times is self-centeredness. Whenever I start doing what I want and disregard what God wants, I am a baal-worshipper. When Elijah demands that we choose God, he is demanding that we fully and completely submit our wills to God.
Now the truth is that today most people are like the people of Israel. We sort of worship God, and we sort of worship ourselves, and so we limp along between two different opinions, and most people are pretty much content with that.
But what Elijah is saying is that if we are not committed to God, we do not know what we are missing. The Lord brings fire to the altar. This same Lord will take our hand and lead us along the way of life. This Lord will support us in a time a trouble, uplift our hearts in a time of sorrow, put iron in our spines in a time of fear.
Notice that Elijah does not debate with the prophets of Baal about which god is best. He demonstrates that the Lord will act. The Lord brings fire to the altar; therefore this is the God that we want to worship.
So Elijah says, quit straddling the fence. Make a decision and stick by it. Elijah is talking to us. We are the ones who need to make a decision. So, Choose. Choose Baal or the Lord. How do you choose?
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
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