The Confrontation on Mount Carmel (Scene 4)
Now then send and gather to me all Israel at Mount Carmel, together with 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of the Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table. So Ahab sent a message among all the sons of Israel, and brought the prophets together at Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18:19-20).
One of the great needs at all times in a society, but especially in times of great apostasy, is for God’s people to step forward for God and His truth. Those who do, however, are nearly always a minority. While God always has His people, they are, as they are described in the Bible, a remnant or a minority. Even in Elijah’s day, there was a remnant. Seven thousand had not bowed the knee to Baal (1 Kgs. 19:18; Rom. 11:4-5). But to Elijah it seemed as though he was the only one left. All the other prophets had either been murdered or reduced to a state of inactivity. They were hiding in caves. Elijah alone stood on Mount Carmel to confront the hundreds who belonged to the idolatrous cults of Baal and Asherah.
Taking a stand for the truth and facing a majority who stand against the truth often leaves us feeling lonely. Humanly speaking it very often appears we are alone. We must remember, however (as Elijah did at this point), when we stand for the Lord we are in the majority because standing with us is the Infinite Almighty and His myriad of hosts.
One of the descriptive titles of God in the Bible is “the LORD of Hosts.” What we need is the insight and faith of Elisha, Elijah’s successor. Elisha prayed for his servant, “O Lord, I pray, open his eyes that he may see.” Elisha’s servant was terribly disturbed because he could see only the large number of enemy that surrounded them. He prayed that his servant might have eyes to see the myriad of God’s host surrounding them (cf. 2 Kgs. 6:15-17).
Now back to Elijah. Later, in a state of depression with his eyes off the Lord, this feeling of aloneness covered Elijah like a cloud and wiped him out. Here, however, Elijah was in essence saying to the people, “Look, I stand here alone against four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal. Unless the Lord is who I claim He is, what, humanly speaking, can one man do against so many?” In view of what Elijah knew God would do, he was calling their attention (and ours) to an important truth. When we stand for the Lord of the Bible, we stand in the sovereign strength and majority of the true God of the universe who surrounds us with His hosts.
This is a day in which the body of Christ needs to be like Elijah. As in Ezekiel’s day, God is calling out from among His people those who will stand in the gap and count for the Lord. There are huge gaps in the walls of our nation and society. These are breaches in the wall of biblical values and our Christian heritage. These are places where the enemy has been swarming through to destroy and corrupt. Ezekiel wrote, “And I searched for a man among them who should build up the wall and stand in the gap before Me for the land, that I should not destroy it; but I found no one” (Ezek. 22:30).
Do you feel alone at the office or on the job? Are you facing that call to stand in the gap or stand before the majority and take a stand for the Lord? Ask the Lord to give you eyes to see His presence with His multitude of hosts. Before we will do this, however, something dynamic must happen in our lives.
The place chosen for the contest was Mount Carmel. “Carmel” is a Hebrew word that means “a garden land, a place of fruitfulness or fertility.” It comes from karam, “to tend vines” or kerem, “a vineyard.”
No spot in Palestine is more beautiful, more bracing, or healthful than Carmel, “the Park-like.” Up in the northwest, it juts as a promontory into the Mediterranean, rising to a height of five hundred feet. Thence it stretches about twelve miles to the S.S.E., rising into two peaks. The first of these, about four miles from the promontory, is not less than 1740 feet high. Still further to the southeast is a third peak, 1687 feet high, which to this day bears the name of El-Mahrakah, or “place of burning” (sacrifice). This, there can scarcely be a doubt, was the place of Elijah’s sacrifice.21
And Elijah came near to all the people and said, “How long will you hesitate between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow Him; but if Baal, follow him.” But the people did not answer him a word. (1 Kgs. 18:21)
In verse 21 we see one of the key issues of our day and any day--the instability of indecision and double-mindedness. It’s so easy to straddle the fence. But what a dangerous position! It’s inconsistent with the reality of God and it leads to great instability in every part of one’s life. Sometimes it seems like the thing to do because of the pressure, but it is pure insanity.
It would seem reasonable to conclude that both King Ahab and his subjects were expecting Elijah to pray for rain to end the drought. But not so. Neither Ahab nor the people were in any way ready for the blessing of rain. The Lord had them under judgment for neglecting His Word and for their idolatry, which they had as yet failed to acknowledge. There were some serious issues in their lives that had to be faced before God could bless them with rain. How like us! We want God’s blessings without facing our responsibilities concerning our relationship with Him and the need for deep down repentance. Much of Christendom today, departing from the message of the Bible, appeals to this desire for blessing without calling attention to man’s real need as set forth in Scripture.
Let’s look at 1 Kings 18:21 in four parts: (a) the problem, (b) the question, (c) the issue, and (d) the silence.
The basic problem is seen in the words “hesitate between two opinions.” “Hesitate” is the Hebrew pasach. It is debated whether or not there are two distinct verbs in Biblical Hebrew in this form, but the form of this verb with the consonants psch is used in two distinct ways: (1) “to pass over, spring over;” or (2) “to limp, be lame, or be crippled.” It is translated “crippled,” (NASB) and “lame,” (KJV, NIV) in 2 Samuel 4:4. In 1 Kings 18:26 it is translated “leaped,” (NASB), and “danced” (NIV). One of the foremost Hebrew lexicons believes this word should be translated “they went limping about the altar” in 1 Kings 18:26.22
Here in 1 Kings 18:21, it means “to limp” and refers to the unsteadiness of a person because of indecision. It is like a person who limps and hesitates between steps. It gives us a striking picture of what we are like when we are double-minded about our commitment to the Lord. “Between two opinions” is literally, “limping on two opinions” like someone on two unequal legs. “Opinions” is the Hebrew seippah, “division, divided opinion.” An adjective of the same root is translated “double-minded” in Psalm 119:113. The Psalmist says, “I hate those who are double-minded, but I love Thy law.” Clearly the people were divided in their allegiance between belief and commitment to Yahweh and belief and commitment to the idolatrous cult of Baal. The Spirit of God and their conscience warned them against Baalism and pulled them toward the Lord, but their fear of men, persecution by the queen, and their attraction to the immorality of the cult pulled them in the other direction.
Likewise today, there is always a great pull for people to lead lives of duplicity to some degree. They may go to church on Sunday, but the rest of the week they are dominated by other loves, concerns, and commitments. They feel the tug of God on their hearts and the love of the world at the same time. Like a fan, oscillating back and forth, they become indecisive because they are trying to love God and the world at the same time.
Elijah, as with the rest of Scripture, demanded a definite decision. A decision that is fundamental to all of life. We cannot walk the fence with the Lord. Scripture and a true grasp of who the Lord is demands our full commitment. Anything else is not only insane, but leads to serious consequences that affect every aspect of the life. Indecision leaves us spiritually and morally lame and unstable in all our ways.
Scripture speaks clearly on this:
Matthew 6:24--”No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will hold to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.” This warns us that half-hearted commitment to the Lord leads to no real commitment at all. We end up choosing against the Lord in the crucial issues of life.
Matthew 12:30--”He who is not with Me is against Me; and he who does not gather with Me scatters.” In practical terms, either we are with the Lord 100 percent, or we end up standing against Him and His plan and purposes for us as His people.
James 1:5-8--Teaches us that failure to completely rest one’s life in God’s hands leads to instability that touches every area of the life.
With the words, “How long” the prophet was asking them what it was going to take to wake them up. How much of God’s discipline would they have to endure before they realized the way of life they’d chosen was not working? Not only had God closed the blessings of heaven, but He was revealing the emptiness and barrenness of the life they had chosen. What was it going to take?
The question here relates to two things: (a) It relates to time. “How long” brings out the principle of the hardening of one’s heart as time passes (Heb. 3:7). (b) It relates to the effect, just limping along with a walk that is lame and weak. It calls attention to a walk far from God’s plan of abundant living for believers. Isaiah spoke to the dynamic effect that faith in God’s person and plan brings into one’s life. He said, “Yet those who wait for the LORD will gain new strength; They will mount up with wings like eagles, They will run and not get tired, They will walk and not become weary” (Isaiah 40:31).
We might compare the challenge and call of Hebrews 12:11-15. The recipients of this book were under the discipline of the Lord because they were not walking by faith in the sufficiency of the Savior. In these verses the author shows us what happens when we depend on our own means of living the Christian life. We become weak and feeble. We are like a person who is lame because of a limb that is out of joint. We need to allow the Lord to bring healing and His strength into our lives by resting in His means of sanctification through the Lord Jesus.
This is seen in the two conditional clauses beginning with “if.” The first “if” calls attention to the reality of the God of the Scripture. Here we see the principle that the reality of God, who is the Creator and Sovereign, demands that mankind, the creature, trust Him and then follow Him. Anything else is logically absurd; it is pure madness. The second “if” challenges us to acknowledge the fact we may have placed our faith in a false god. If that is true, we need to acknowledge the futility of that false god. Once we know who the true God is, it’s absurd to follow the false gods of our own making. Our false gods cannot save us nor deliver us from the pain of this life. They only distract, destroy, and deter us from the blessings of the true God.
Finally, two religious systems that are diametrically opposed might possibly be right if God was not God, but not if God has manifested Himself clearly in human history. In view of that, both paths simply cannot be right. Contrary to modern opinion, one must be right and the other wrong. One must result in blessing, life and peace. The other in cursing, death and destruction.
When we totter along in indecision about our trust and commitment to God, we need to remind ourselves of Elijah’s challenge and the ultimate issue. If God is God (and He is), follow Him. Don’t try to sit on the fence or pursue what is clearly false.
The text tells us “But the people did not answer him a word.” I am reminded of Job’s response to God’s revelation to him concerning His infinite majesty. Job repeatedly proclaimed his innocence to his three friends. In the process, he became somewhat demanding of God. Then the Lord came on the scene and began to reveal His majesty to Job. After God’s first speech, wherein He revealed His awesome majesty, Job was brought to silence. He said, “Behold, I am insignificant; what can I reply to Thee? I lay my hand on my mouth” (Job. 40:4). Likewise when faced and challenged with the truth of what Elijah said, the people were speechless. There was simply no room for self-justification. They had no argument that would make sense against this challenge of Elijah, and neither do we.
There is no argument, at least not one that makes sense, against total commitment of our lives to follow the Lord. Any other decision is nonsense. It is absurd in view of the facts of who God is, of what He has done for us in Christ, and of the emptiness of a life without total commitment to Him. When the reality of the true God and His claims on our lives grip us, we find we have no logical or sensible choice but to trust Him to the degree that we then commit our lives totally to Him.
The decision for God as our one and only true Master, is also the decision to lay up treasure in heaven. It is also the decision to cast our needs and burdens on Him. Above all, it is the decision to trust in God’s solutions rather than our own tactics to handle life. Enslavement to the visible and man-made gods of this world like materialism, power, pleasure, position, etc., makes faith in the invisible suspect. Certainly, if we are so enslaved, God is not directing our lives.
First Kings 18:21, like Matthew 6:19-21, is a challenge concerning heavenly treasure and a call for a radical evaluation of our lifestyle, our sources of trust, our goals in life, and our commitment. Jesus sees earthly and heavenly fortune hunting to be in direct competition. He says, do not lay up earthly treasure, but lay up heavenly treasure. We might prefer it to be a question of both/and whereas He shows us it is an either/or.
First Kings 18:21 teaches us that when we attempt to straddle the fence we become like a tottering cripple. Furthermore, James 1:5-8 shows straddling the fence creates an instability that assaults every area of one’s life. I may claim to have faith in the Lord, but as long as I am distressed and anxious about my lot in life, financial status, social status, reputation, self-image, or whatever, my profession is hollow and footsteps unstable. I am like a person with one leg shorter than the other.
Who is a Christian? A Christian is one who is in vital relationship with the sovereign God of the universe through faith in the person and work of Christ. A Christian is a child of the living God who created the marvels of the universe. In view of that, perhaps nothing is more pathetic than to see a child of the living God, tottering between two opinions, torn between a vital commitment to the Lord, and seeking happiness in the gods of this world. As an illustration, let me share a story, one shared by John White in his book, The Golden Cow.
A self-made Cantonese importer invited my wife and me to dinner once. His house was breathtaking--a fortress outside and all softness and luxury within. In the foyer stood an artificial tree, perhaps five feet high, whose leaves and flowers were exquisitely fashioned from clusters of semiprecious stones. Ornate cabinets displayed valuable treasures. His tableware looked like solid gold but we did not dare ask.
Our host was about sixty years old and displayed a considerable knowledge of Scripture, yet as he talked there was not glow of joy about him. He told us he planned to make enough money to spend his closing years in serving the Lord “without being a burden on anybody.” (The tableware alone could have kept some of us going in Christian work for quite a while.)
He never did get to serve the Lord. He had sold his heritage for stone and metal trinkets inside a painted fortress. He would have agreed that spiritual things matter more than material security, but his behavior contradicted his professed beliefs. Riches had coiled like a living vine around his heart, slowly strangling his love for God and people.23
The principle of 1 Kings 18:21 and that of Matthew 6:19f means that as long as the idols of this world fascinate us, i.e., the things we think we must have to be happy--money, power, praise, attention--we are going to find life miserable. White writes, “We were created to have one center. To have two is to be miserable and to enjoy neither spiritual things nor material.”24