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12. The Ineffectual Prayers of the Baal Priests (1 Kings 18:23-29)

The Confrontation on Mount Carmel (Scene 5)


In our last study we left Elijah with a challenge to the people of Israel and to the Baal priests, and, I might add, to us. We were challenged to choose decidedly to follow the true God. Now we come to the test proposed to prove who the true God really is. The principle is simply once the true God has manifested Himself and is known, it is foolish, indeed it is absurd to follow the false man-made gods of idolatry. But why is it illogical and foolish to follow our man-made idols? Well, that’s the point of this passage and we will let the passage speak its bold message into our ear.

This passage gives us a test between the idolatrous systems of Satan and mankind, and the plan of God. Standing boldy for the God is Elijah, a man of God who uncompromisingly believed God’s Word. As a representative person in heroic narrative, the test illustrates the testimonial effect and power any believer can have when they, like Elijah, become confident of their mighty resources in the Lord and stop operating by their own idolatrous solutions.

In this chapter we have three illustrations of prayer:

(1) The Prayers of the Baal Priests: But NO ANSWER from Heaven (vss. 26-29)

(2) The Public Prayer of Elijah: FIRE from Heaven (vss. 30-40)

(3) The Private Prayer of Elijah: RAIN from Heaven (vss. 41-46)

Elijah Proposes the Test of Fire

The Procedures for the Test

It is important to note the particulars of what Elijah did to remove any possible excuses and to show the complete futility of their faith, he let them go first and gave them plenty of time. He gave them all day to pray and go through their religious routine. Later in the day he added some cold and cutting sarcasm, but he did this to highlight and make the issues dramatically conspicuous. Furthermore, note the odds. Elijah made this entire scene as difficult as possible, not only for the prophets of Baal, but also for the LORD. The Prophet was neither people-oriented, nor problem-oriented. He knew there was no problem too big for the Lord. The issue is never the size of the problem--never. The issue is knowing and acting in faith on God’s will regardless of the outcome.

What is our tendency? It’s to be either people-oriented or problem-oriented, or both. We tend to gather all the data we can on the problems, and then start telling ourselves how this or that is simply not going to work. We back off because the problems are too great for God to handle. Maybe it’s because we don’t want to get the Lord in a bind. Certainly we need to gather the data to know the score. That’s why He sent the twelve spies into the land at Kadesh Barnea. The goal, however, is not to get our eyes on the problems, but rather to know the problems so we know what to trust the Lord for, if we are confident God is telling us to do it.

Three times Elijah mentions putting no fire under the sacrifice (twice in vs. 23 and once in vs. 25). So What’s the Point? God does not ask us to give Him a hand with the impossible. Sometimes we are guilty deforming God into our own little helpless idol who must be helped along by the fires we build under Him to consume our sacrifice. Does this mean we are to sit by and do nothing? Of course not! Elijah repaired the altar and the sacrifice and he did it according to the principles of the Word. But he put no fire under the sacrifice.

God wants us to study, pray, and witness by life and lip, but we can’t make people believe or change. That’s God’s job. He doesn’t need our manipulative schemes to get us to move toward the truth or accomplish the job He sends us to do. A classic illustration of this is a wife who has a disobedient or unbelieving husband. The typical pattern for many wives in this situation is to badger their husbands about spiritual things or manipulate them into going to church. This is building a fire under her sacrifice, but it’s not the method nor the means prescribed by Peter in 1 Peter 3:1-6.

The Purpose of the Test

The test was obviously designed to manifest and prove the true God. Was it Yahweh, the Lord of Israel, or Baal? Even these idolatrous people recognized that was a good idea. Why? Because it is foolish to worship what is false, or to worship in a false way because both are an exercise in futility.

There is an obvious lesson here. We each need to examine the authenticity of our own spiritual lives. Who and what is the object of our worship? How can we test that? By the effectiveness of our Christian lives when measured by the principles and tests of the Word.

There are two general tests to consider:

(1) Am I really saved? Have I put my trust in Christ by faith. I can’t experience real life and the power of Christ if I am not a child of God by faith in Jesus Christ. If I am not truly regenerated by the Spirit of God, I will definitely be building my own fires under my own sacrifices. The test for us is 1 John 5:11-13.

(2) But a child of God, a true believer in the person and work of Christ, can also fail to experience God’s power in his or her life in authentic, transformed living. This occurs when we fail to walk with the Lord in the light of His Word by faith in His provision and power. Some important questions we might ask are:

  • Am I growing and changing?
  • Are there marks of Christ-like change taking place in my life?
  • Do I manifest the fruit of the Spirit?
  • Am I consistently faithful to God and others?
  • Am I learning to control my temper and my tongue?
  • Are my values and priorities in line with heavenly treasure?
  • How is my relationship with my spouse, with my children, with those at the office, at church?
  • Am I ministering to others, sharing the gospel, etc.? In other words, is there bonafide fruit?

The test of the reality of our fellowship is the primary message of 1 John. It is written to test our claim to fellowship (1 John 1:5-10), not relationship or salvation. It tests our claim that we are walking in the light when in reality we might be walking in darkness--in a state of carnality and dishonesty with God and ourselves. 1 John 5:11-13 is a message of assurance based on personal faith in Christ, but this is not the theme of the book.

There is, therefore, the need to ask the question: Does my life demonstrate the marks of a life of faith and fellowship with the Lord? And we are not just talking about overt behavior--conforming to a set of do’s and don’ts, or going through some religious routine. We are talking about the inner life--our faith and attitudes that form the foundation for actions.

The Nature of the Test

The test consisted of an answer “by fire.” Elijah declared, “The God that answers by fire, He is God.” But why fire? Baal was worshipped as the Lord of Fire, the Lord of the Sun. Some even worshipped him by passing their children through the fire (2 Kgs. 16:3). So the failure of Baal to bring down fire would demonstrate the fallacy of their beliefs about Baal. In Scripture, fire is used symbolically to communicate certain spiritual principles according to the contexts:

(1) In the Old Testament fire was a sign of the presence and supply of the Lord (e.g., the burning bush in Exodus 3:2, and the pillar of fire in Exodus 13:21-22). Obviously, then, fire would be a clear sign that Yahweh was the true God.

(2) It was a sign that God had accepted the priests, their sacrifices, and their service, and that Israel could have access to God through the priestly ministry inaugurated in the Old Testament (Lev. 9:1-24). After the sacrifices were prepared and offered according to the prescribed ritual of God’s Word, the priestly service was inaugurated in Leviticus 9. It was then the glory of the Lord appeared to all the people and fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the portions of fat on the altar.

(3) Likewise, the fire in 1 Kings 18 would also demonstrate God’s acceptance of Elijah’s sacrifice and ministry and His rejection of the Baal prophets and their sacrifice.

(4) Fire was viewed as a means of purification (Num. 31:21-23). Perhaps the Lord was showing Israel that if they returned to Him, they could have their sins forgiven and be restored to fellowship.

(5) Fire is a sign of divine judgment and wrath against sin and rejection of God’s plan. Over and over again it is a picture of God’s wrath (Isa. 26:11; Heb. 10:27; 12:28-29; 1 Cor. 3:13-15). The fire would further demonstrate God’s wrath on the system of Baal. Right after this the prophets were seized and put to death (vs. 40).

The answer of God by fire to consume the sacrifice would clearly demonstrate that Yahweh was the only true God, that God had completely rejected and judged Baalism and the Baal prophets, and that access to the true God could come only through the prescribed sacrificial system of the Old Testament that foreshadowed the person and work of Christ as the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6).

The Baal Prophets
Prepare the Test and Call on Baal

The activity of the Baal priests was a total waste, an exercise in utter futility, and it illustrates the futility of all false religion and all forms of idolatry. False religious systems are futile for two reasons.

First, they are futile because they cannot give access to God. They can and do give access to demonic or satanic powers, but not to the living and true God. In this scene, we have all the ingredients of false religion. We have religious priests, we have a sacrifice, an altar, prayer, religious ritual, and religious zeal to the point of lengthy activity (from morning until noon). There is also great loudness (calling out with a loud voice), and zeal to the point of mutilation of the body. Some might say, “but that was fanatical idolatrous Baalism and demonic. You can’t say all the practices of other religious groups are futile.” We can say that and we must because the Bible clearly declares all other religions to be false as well as demonic with doctrines that are the product of nothing less than demonic inspiration and activity (Acts 4:12; 1 Tim. 4:1-3).

The religions and idolatrous systems of the world may vary in their particulars, but they all have certain ingredients in common that demonstrate they are false. These we need to know so we can recognize them for what they are.

(1) They have people working, doing something to be saved or to become spiritual. There is a basic trust in mankind and his works, and a failure to see the awesome holiness of God along with our sinfulness. This forms a barrier of separation between us and God. To get God to answer, the Baal priests worked themselves into a religious dither. Elijah, on the other hand, prayed a short and simple prayer. He prayed in faith while resting in God’s grace and covenant promises.

(2) They reject the person and work of Christ as God’s one and only means of reconciliation and salvation. The Baal priests built their own altar while Elijah repaired the altar of the Lord, a shadow of the cross and a portrait of coming to God through Christ. The Baal priests rejected God’s solution while Elijah trusted in it.

(3) They tend to be ecumenical (eclectic or syncretistic). They readily combine and accept many beliefs as legitimate means of access to God. They may accept Jesus as one of the great religious leaders or prophets, but not as the Son of God and the one and only Savior of the World. Many of Israel’s leaders sought to combine the worship of Yahweh and the worship of Baal, the heathen systems of idolatry. Israel sought to be eclectic just as the modern New Age Movement.

(4) While friendly to those religions that are eclectic, they eventually become hostile and engage in some form of persecution against those who proclaim the truth. But Scripture and Jesus Christ Himself emphatically declare that there is only one way to God (John 14:6; Acts 4:12; Matt. 7:13-14).

The second reason all false religious systems are futile is because they fail to meet man’s needs: They can’t save from either the penalty or power of sin. They can’t deliver from the power and darkness of Satan. They can’t give the Holy Spirit (a proof of salvation, Romans 8:9), can’t give the kind of peace the Lord gives (John 14:26), and they can’t bring God’s answers through prayer. Elijah stresses this in 18:27.

The Mockery of Elijah

Note the cutting sarcasm here. “Occupied” probably means in the Hebrew “he is relieving himself.” This reminds us that to worship what is false, worship in a false way, or in disobedience to the Word, deceives our hearts and is an exercise in futility. Scripture repeatedly warns us that there are many hindrances to prayer and bonafide worship even for those who know the Savior.

See Appendix B for a summary of Hindrances to Prayer.

The Bible teaches us there are many forms of idolatry including greed and covetousness (Eph. 5:5; Col. 3:5). Actually, anything mankind worships or depends on for security, significance, or happiness, other than the Lord, becomes a form of idolatry. Today, people do not generally construct gods of wood and stone, but they do make gods out of their own ideas, opinions, and strategies for life. All false religions and forms of idolatry, including our strategies for handling life, are the products of the vacuum action of the soul. They are the workings of our own blindness to provide substitutes to fill the void in our lives and are substitutes for God’s plan for life (Rom. 1:18f; Eph. 4:17f).

What are some of the forms of idolatry we might engage in? What are these gods of idolatry? They consist of the things we devise by which we seek security, happiness, or by which we seek to get our needs met apart from a faith relationship with the true God. These idols may be religious, philosophical, or materialistic. They may be any of the strategies by which people seek to meet their needs as they envision them.

Some important questions we might ask ourselves.

(1) Is pleasure and comfort our god? Do we set our hearts on having fun and being comfortable? In other words, do these dictate what we do so they keep us from ministry or availability to the Lord. Do we determine whether we will go to church, or a fellowship group by what’s on television or whether the fish are biting?

(2) Is business or mammon our god? Do we set our hearts and security on making money and spend all of our energy and time in the pursuit of climbing the ladder of success so that it interferes with our ability to carry out other priorities such as family, church, and community?

(3) Is social standing and position our god? Is our life, our schedule, our time dictated by a desire to become accepted among the social elite or among a particular peer group?

(4) Since covetousness is a form of idolatry, an important question to ask is who and what we are coveting or depending on to meet what we envision as our needs and believe will fulfill our desires. What do I tell myself I must have to be secure, happy, or significant? Is it people, things, position, acceptance, comfort, or just what?

Satan, as the deceiver, is powerful and can bring some answers to man’s prayers, but only under the permissive will of God, and never to man’s true blessing or benefit. He undoubtedly had the power to bring fire from heaven in answer to the ravings of the Baal priests just as the magicians in Egypt were able to counterfeit some of the miracles performed by Moses, but here, God’s sovereignty overruled in order to make the issue clear. So today, people can find some semblance of joy and peace in false religions and in the details of life, money, power, and position, but they will always fall short of true and lasting peace. This only comes through faith in the Savior and through intimate fellowship with Him.

John 14:27 Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives, do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, nor let it be fearful.

Related Topics: Character Study

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