Thursday, January 17, 2008

The LORD, he is God! (1 Kings 18)

My Explore Bible reading notes have been working through 1 Kings this year. Today we reach 1 Kings 18, where we read of the contest between the prophets of Baal and Elijah, the prophet of the Lord. Or, to be more accurate, between Baal and the Living God. I've previously blogged about the musical setting of these chapters by Mendelssohn, and it is good to revisit them.

The wider context of the contest on Mount Carmel was Israel's apostasy, led by King Ahab. You see, Ahab had married the daughter of the king of the Sidonians, Jezebel. Jezebel was a worshipper of Baal, and had led the people astray. High places, shrines, and prophets on the civil service. The country was in a mess.

Into this situation, Elijah had spoken God's word, declaring that there would be no rain for some time. Three years into the drought, Elijah appears (having ironically hidden in Jezebel's own land with a widow of Zarephath). When Ahab calls him the troubler of Israel, Elijah turns it around and says that it is actually Ahab who has caused the devastation.

Elijah announces the contest on Mount Carmel, and tells the king to summon the people to attend. On arriving, there are two bulls, one for the multitude of the priests of Baal (and Baal's wife Asherah), and one for Elijah. The one who answers by fire must be God. It is striking to see how Elijah addresses the people:

How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.

It's as if Elijah is saying that it is better to make up your mind, rather than sitting on the fence! It's also a challenge to put your money where your mouth is. If you know God is God, then acknowledge it, and serve him with all that you have. And if you think he isn't, then don't be half-hearted about it! Either God is worth our all, or he isn't worth anything.

Due to the greater numbers, the prophets of Baal and Asherah go first. From morning til noon they pray and sing and dance, calling on Baal to answer, to set the sacrifice on fire. Verse 26 says 'But there was no voice, and no one answered.' What a disappointment. Their god doesn't answer them. Elijah is one of my favourite prophets of all time - I can't wait to see him in heaven. And he shows one of the reasons why I like him so much. Nothing happens, and he gets a bit sarcastic. He urges them to keep up their worship of Baal, to keep crying and calling on him - after all, if he's a god, he should be able to answer. In fact, maybe he's sleeping, on a journey,
or even at the loo. After the afternoon of shouting, and even drawing blood, they draw faint. Once more we read - 'but there was no voice. No one answered; no one paid attention.' (1 Kings 18:29). What a damning indictment of the false religion in Israel. The one they looked to, the one they called upon, the one they depended upon for health and fertility and crops. No answer.

Now it's Elijah's turn. In contrast to the noise and blood and extravagance of the prophets of Baal, Elijah moves in quiet simplicity, restoring true worship to Israel, bringing the people back to Yahweh.The altar of the Lord, previously threw down is built up again, with twelve stones for the twelve sons of Jacob. Even this simple move is a telling statement, reminding the people of the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah.

Then, a trench is dug around the altar, and four water jars are filled three times each and poured on the sacrifice, altar and flowing into the trench. Humanly speaking, it would be impossible to light the sacrifice. But remember, this was during a time of drought - it hadn't rained for three years, so where did they get the water? It must have been a lengthy process to go down the mountain, fill the jars and pour them out; then again; then again. Don't miss the symbolism again of the twelve jars of water, matching the twelve stones.

Elijah then prays to the LORD. He reminds God who God is, claiming his name, and prays that God will reveal himself to be God again in Israel. There's an interesting phrase at the end of his prayer, and I'll think about it more - '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.' What does Elijah mean by 'that you have turned their hearts back'? Has God already turned their hearts back, and it's just up to the people to recognise it? Thoughts welcome.

Anyway - what happens next? Behold the mighty power of God!

Then the fire of the LORD fell and consumed the burnt offering and the wood and the stones and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench.

Not just the bull. Not just the bull and the wood. That would be enough! Yet even the stones and the dust is burnt up and consumed in the fire of the Lord. And all the water is removed as well. What an awesome God we have!

Notice the reaction of the people. No longer do they limp between opinions. Gone is the wavering and doubting and compromising. Instead, they cry aloud, faces in the dust:

The LORD, he is God; the LORD, he is God.

How do we learn from this passage? What can we take with us today and tomorrow? Do we waver between opinions? Are we Christians only when it suits us? Are we believers in church on Sunday, but then become like our colleagues, friends and neighbours the rest of the time? We need to stand up for God, having witnessed his power and his glory.

While we may not see wet sacrifices being consumed, we have a much stronger demonstration of God's power, wisdom and love in the cross of Christ. How can we reflect on the death of Christ and then act as if the Lord is not God? Are we concerned with God's glory, as Elijah was?

One day, all opposition to God's rule will be removed. Every knee will bow, willingly or not, and every created being will acknowledge that Jesus is Lord. What about you?

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