The Confrontation on Mount Carmel (Scene 1)
The stories of the Bible are built around three basic ingredients: setting, characters, and a plot. In addition to the literal, historical meaning, the setting often assumes symbolic significance. Cherith, a place of cutting, and Zarephath, a smelting place, both portray the ideas of the testing and refining that God puts us through to transform our character. The setting of Mount Carmel is equally symbolic, if not more so. In the Bible, revelation often occurs on mountains (e.g., Moses’ meeting with God on Sinai; Elijah’s encounter with the Baal priests in this chapter before all Israel; his encounter with God himself in chapter 19; and Jesus’ transfiguration on the Mount of Olives).
Chapter 18 is the story of Elijah’s confrontation with the Baal priests on Mount Carmel, but it is also the story of the end of the three-and-a-half years of drought in the land of Israel. In fact, in keeping with the plot of the story of Elijah as heroic narrative, the confrontation on Mount Carmel was designed to show two things: (a) that the drought was not merely an unfortunate coincidence of nature, but divine discipline from Yahweh, the one and only true God, and (b) that the rain and the end of the drought were the work of Yahweh. It was not the work of Baal, the so-called god of thunder, rain, and fertility. This chapter and the Carmel incident were designed to teach us that our false gods of whatever sort--materialistic, idealistic, or human--are totally inadequate. Our false gods, of course, include whatever we place our trust in rather than in the true and living God as revealed to us in the Bible.
In the process of developing this larger story and its truth, a number of smaller incidents and happenings occur and each has its own message to tell and truth to teach as it becomes a part of the greater plot and picture. Let’s focus our attention on the coming of the Word of the Lord to Elijah and the new directions he received from the Lord, which stand in such stark contrast to the actions of Ahab.
As a brief review to set the stage, we have seen Elijah in varying conditions:
(1) In 17:1 we saw him openly confront evil Ahab for the first time and warn him about the coming drought. He did this as one who stood, lived and served in constant awareness of the aliveness of Yahweh, the true God of Israel. The fact of the drought and now its end by the word of Elijah following the test on Mount Carmel, would be proof that only the prophets of Yahweh represented the true God and spoke the truth, and that God demanded obedience from His people. A time of warning and declaration.
(2) Then we saw the prophet in seclusion by the brook Cherith, which undoubtedly became a time for him to be alone with God to draw upon his supernatural resources in the Lord--the Word and prayer. This was a time of preparation for things to come.
(3) Finally, we saw Elijah in Zeraphath at the home of the poor widow. This became a place of testing, testimony, and confirmation.
All of this serves to remind us that in the process of the larger purpose of God for one’s life, God is always at work to test, train, and prepare us for other things. We need to learn the importance of being faithful in the smaller responsibilities of life. Now three years have passed and it is time for God to make His point to Israel through the prophet. Elijah was a tool being sharpened and fashioned for things to come, but it is no different for us--if we are available to be sharpened and used.
If what Elijah did in 17:1 took courage, we can be sure what he was now called upon to do took twice the courage and faith. The confirmation and experience with the widow and her son were timely and sovereignly designed to get Elijah ready for the next phase of God’s will.
How typical and gracious of our Lord. If we will listen, God is at work preparing us for the ministries he has for us in dozens of ways. He may give us the right passage of Scripture, or He may bring the right person with a word of challenge and rebuke, a word of comfort and encouragement, or some other manifestation of His grace. Whatever, the Lord is always mindful of our needs and in His loving care is seeking ways to build our lives and prepare us for ministry. ARE WE LISTENING?
“Now it came about” is the same construction we had in 1 Kings 17:7 and 17. Literally it is, “and it came to pass.” Again, let’s be reminded that this is not by chance, but by the sovereign timing of God who was providentially carrying out His purposes with Elijah and Israel. How we need to learn to see the hand of God bringing things to pass in our lives according to His timing and purposes. As His thoughts are not ours, so it is that His timing is often not ours as well.
“After many days.” Notice--not simply after years, or in the third year, but the verse says, “after many days . . . in the third year.” May I make some suggestions as to this wording?
(1) For God’s people, no matter how fast or slow the years may seem to pass, God deals with us on a day-by-day, one-day-at-a-time basis. Every day of the believer’s life is important to God and should be so for us. To illustrate this, in the Tribulation when talking about the nations or the Beast and his system, God measures time in terms of months (42 months--Rev. 11:2; 13:5). But when talking about the saints and their days in the Tribulation, time it is measured in terms of days (Rev. 11:3-6; 12:6). Why? (a) Because no day for a believer is unimportant to God regardless of who we are, where we are, how seemingly insignificant or how painful our situation may be. God cares for us and for all the details of our lives (1 Pet. 5:7).
If God is so concerned, shouldn’t I be as well? This means we need to carefully watch how we are walking day by day. Each day is to be redeemed by walking circumspectly and wisely because of our own sinful propensities and the constant threat of our enemies (Eph. 5:15-16). Each day is to be numbered, reckoned as important with opportunities in view of the shortness of life (Ps. 90:12; 39:4-5). Each day is to be viewed in the light of eternity because every day has eternal ramifications. It takes earthly time to lay up heavenly treasure (1 Pet. 1:13f; Ecc. 3:9-13; 9:10).
(2) The term “many” brings up another point to be pondered. As we saw in 17:7, the text there was literally “at the end of days.” There the point was a specific time and plan. God had provision for Elijah for a certain number of days at the brook, known only to God from all eternity, though unknown to Elijah. While this is also included here, there is a change in emphasis. If we believe in the inerrant, verbal, plenary inspiration of Scripture, we need to see this change is not by chance. There is a reason and it is brought out in the context that follows by the reference to the severity of the famine and the incident of Ahab and Obadiah looking for water.
Let’s reconstruct the picture. Elijah had been sent by God to accomplish a mission, and then the Lord took him out of circulation. In the meantime things were going from bad to worse in Israel. Elijah had been sort of stashed away in a Gentile city ministering to two instead of dozens. Of course, he was a blessing to this woman and her son as we have seen. But we might wonder, could he not have done much more in Israel preaching the Word? But God’s plan was different! So the days passed and it must have seemed like “many days” to Elijah who surely longed for action. It must also have seemed like many days to the nation that had been suffering under the drought for three-and-half years.
Do you ever feel like that about your life? Do the days sometimes seem like weeks and the months like years? When the days seem like many, what are we to do? When those times come, I believe God wants us to remember that He is El Olam, the God of eternity with whom one day is as a thousand years and vise versa. But how is that to help?
This name for God, El Olam, and the Hebrew term olam, often translated “everlasting,” are used to express God’s eternal duration (Ps. 90:2, “even from everlasting to everlasting, Thou art God”), but it also stresses God’s unchangeableness, His immutability, and His faithfulness. As the everlasting God, He is also one who can always be counted on.
What this means to the believer is seen in most of the passages where El Olam or Olam alone are used (Ps. 25:6; 93:2; 100:5; 103:17; 125:1; Isa. 26:4; 51:6; 40:28; Gen. 21:33). It means life is full of changes and uncertainties and times that often seem like “many days.” Conditions change, times change, people change, needs change. We see this every day as we go through life. One’s needs as a child, as an adolescent, as a young adult, or as an adult in the evening years of life, change. Furthermore, our world, our government, our society, everything undergoes change, and usually for the worse as we are seeing in our society today. But God, as El Olam, never changes. “He is the same yesterday, today, yes, and forever” (Heb. 13:5).
Scripture teaches us that God’s eternality is fundamental to God’s immutability, His unchangeableness, which is the foundation for God’s faithfulness and His ability to care for us and come to our aid. Hebrews 1:12b reminds us of this very fact. In contrast to the world that is running down like a clock, we read, “But Thou art the same, and Thy years will not come to an end” (cf. Ps. 102:26-27).
So, what does this mean to God’s people? How does this affect the way we think and respond to life and its constant changes and the days that sometimes seem like many days? “Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth does not become weary or tired. His understanding is inscrutable” (Isaiah 40:28-29). Two wonderful attributes of God as El Olam are declared to us in Isaiah 40. Knowing these attributes ought to change the way we live.
God Is Inexhaustible. He never gets tired. God rested on the seventh day not because He was tired but because His work of creation was finished. He never faints or grows weary. So what does this mean? Isaiah answers that in the next verse. “He gives strength to the weary, and to him who lacks might He increases power” (Isa. 40:29f). It means God is there for us day after day through the ups and downs and through those days that seem like many days. What, therefore, should we do? We need to wait on the Lord and seek our strength in His care.
God’s Understanding Is Inscrutable. There is no end to God’s understanding. He knows the beginning from the end and every detail of our lives and history. God knows what He is doing and what He is doing is best regardless of how it appears to us.
I think it is significant the Hebrew word Olam includes the idea of secret or hidden. The secret things belong to the Lord. As the eternal I Am, the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End, everything is running according to His purposes (cf. Isa. 46:9-11). So, when our times seem like many days, we must not run ahead or away, but rest in the Lord as El Olam. We need so much to wait on the Lord like Elijah and not move until the Lord says go. Elijah did not worry or venture out of retirement on his own. He did not complain, but simply continued to keep check on his own relationship with the Lord. He trusted and waited patiently for the Lord to direct him, use him and enlarge his sphere of usefulness and ministry as the Lord directed--if God so directed. Certainly, there was no demandingness with Elijah! In the meantime, he was a blessing to the widow and her son and God was able to prepare him for things to come. Too many times we become so wiped out by our problems we become useless to the Lord and to others.
Here we see that God finally spoke to Elijah and sent the prophet back to Israel to confront King Ahab and the people with the truth. But God had already been speaking through the conditions of barren fields and sealed up heavens. Note the comment of 18:2b, “Now the famine was severe in Samaria.” There are times when God’s servants need to be silent, when hearts are cold and ears are deaf. These are times when God sometimes speaks through the trials of life to get people’s attention, to force them to see their need, inadequacy, or the inadequacy of the life they have chosen in place of God and His plan.
“The Word of the Lord” occurs in 17:2, 8, and here. In fact, this phrase occurs in the Bible 254 times. It is used of God’s special revelation to mankind to bring people to Himself and to provide the guidance for their lives they so desperately need. Each time I see this phrase, I am reminded of my need to go to the Word for guidance, for the principles and promises of Scripture that I need to direct my way according to God’s precious will.
“Go, show yourself to Ahab, . . .” In 1 Kings 17:3 he was commanded “to hide himself” and now he is commanded “to show himself.” Elijah was as willing to do one as the other. Neither was naturally easy. Each required faith and fellowship with God, and one was preparatory to the other (Luke 16:10).
“I will send rain on the face . . .” The people had experienced the fulfillment of the warnings of Deuteronomy 28 concerning drought for disobedience. Now it was time to bring rain, but the people needed to know for sure that the lack of rain and now the rain that would come were from the Lord and not Baal.
“So Elijah went to show himself to Ahab.” Do we truly grasp the full significance of this? Note, the very next words. “Now the famine was severe in Samaria.” Perhaps these words were quickly added to help us grasp the faith and integrity of Elijah. This clause and the verses that follow (3-6) are designed to highlight the awful conditions of the drought that we might truly appreciate what Elijah was facing. For more than three years, due to Elijah’s prayer and prophecy before Ahab and his court, there had been no rain. As a result, there had been pain, misery, death, hunger, and starvation. And with that, there had also been anger, hate, feelings of revenge, all aimed at the prophet--especially by King Ahab and his court. In this regard, note Elijah’s new title in 18:17. He was seen as “the troubler of Israel.” He was blamed as the cause and seen as a curse.
Furthermore, for more than three years Ahab had persistently searched for Elijah to kill him, but to no avail. Can you imagine the humiliation to the King’s arrogant heart, and the increased resentment against the prophet who had been able to avoid the search of the King, his men, and allies (18:10). And now the Lord says, “Go show thyself to Ahab.” That is a little like saying, “See that 18-wheeler? Go jump in front of it.”
There is a story of a monk that illustrates what it means to trust the Lord in difficult circumstances like Elijah faced. There was a monk who excelled all his peers, and for leisure and relaxation he was a bird watcher. One afternoon he came across a very rare bird that flew over the ledge of a high cliff and lit on a small ledge down below. The priest excitedly peered over, but to no avail. So he stretched a little farther and little farther until finally he slipped. As he fell over the edge, he was able to grab a shrub that grew out of the rock. His arms were tiring, but being a man of faith, he thought proudly, “Someone will be on top to help me.” So he yelled, “Hey up there, I need help. Hey, anybody up there?” Then a deep voice was heard; the voice of God. The voice said, “I am here, do you have faith?” “O yes,” answered the monk. “Then let go” replied God, “and I will take care of you. Just rest in my care.” For a moment there was dead silence, then the monk said, “Anybody else up there?”
When the Lord brings trying and difficult circumstances into our lives and tells us, as the Word does, to trust Him and move out in faith, how do we act? Do we look around for other solutions? Do we look into our bag of tricks and come up with our own strategies of self-protection like escape, withdrawal, defensiveness and other defense-like strategies? Do we become depressed? Do we complain and murmur or blame? Do we lose the joy of the Lord? Do we get out our resume and update it? Or do we demonstrate faith and Christ-like character?
Verses 2-6 contrasts the character of Elijah with that of the King. Elijah moves out in obedience to do the will of God. He was available for ministry and to confront the people concerning their spiritual needs. But King Ahab, the shepherd of Israel, is another story altogether. With his people suffering from the drought, he was out looking for grass for his mules, and cattle, rather than caring about the conditions of his people. (From secular records, we know Ahab had several thousand horses.)
What is character? Someone has said “character is what a man is in the dark.” It is what we are in private, in our homes, when faced with temptation, or as here, with a test of our courage when the so-called odds are stacked up high against us. Elijah was called to ministry, as all believers are, and that ministry was to glorify God and minister to the needs of others. But ministry and leadership are only religious activities or even worse--religious business--unless there is real spiritual character as the product of a deep and living faith.
The Pharisees called what they did ministry and leadership, but Jesus called it hypocrisy! Jesus knew these religious actors were more interested in selfish things like position, praise, power, possessions, and their comfort than in fellowship and service to the living God and ministry to people. Christian character, Spirit-filled living, means obedience to God. It means faith and courage. It means service to others and that means involvement and sacrifice.
God told Elijah: “Go show yourself to Ahab”; here was God’s command, and then “and I will send rain on the face of the earth,” this was God’s promise. But obedience to this command also meant glory to the Lord. It bore testimony that God’s Word by the mouth of God’s prophets was true. And it meant for God’s people the removal of suffering, and perhaps for some who would see these things and believe, spiritual blessing as well. But what was in it for Elijah? Where was the promise for him of blessing and deliverance from Ahab? It simply was not there, at least not directly!
For people of faith, spiritual integrity and character, for people who love God and people, the blessing is in the privilege of serving the Lord and people, in seeing God’s name vindicated and Satan defeated. Here is the ultimate goal of the Word--love for God and love for others (Mark 12:29-34). This is the heart of ministry--Service and Sacrifice! Unfortunately, what many people know about service and sacrifice is simply how to spell the words. Elijah had to have his eyes on the Lord and, as he indicated in 17:1, live in the light of the aliveness and faithfulness of his God as the God with everlasting arms.
(1) Are we living one day at a time, resting and waiting on the Lord as El Olam and drawing on His wisdom and strength, waiting on His wise and perfect timing?
(2) Are we listening daily to God in the Scripture? Are we taking time to learn God’s principles and then are we using them to direct our path, to build our faith and character to keep us from running ahead of the Lord with our tactics?
(3) Do we have the courage to act on our convictions? Or are we ever looking for ways to avoid having to step out in faith and trust the Lord? What’s going on in your life that needs a decision of faith, but you are afraid to do so because of possible consequences?