Elijah and the Prophets of Baal

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This morning we are carrying on with our studies in the life and work of Elijah, the Old Testament prophet. We will be looking at 1 Kings 18.1-40. And my headings this morning are first, THE CONTEXT of this passage; secondly, THE TEACHING we find here; and, thirdly, THE ENCOURAGEMENTS from the passage.


First, THE CONTEXT

1 and 2 Samuel in the Old Testament tell of the kingdom of Israel under David that started off relatively well. 1 and 2 Kings then detail serious decline that began with Solomon. Like many a politician Solomon was seduced by greed, sex and other religions. His son Rehoboam had even more greed. This led to the kingdom splitting in two, with the north being called Israel and the south Judah.

By the time of Elijah in the north there was moral and spiritual collapse. The problem was Baalism. This spawned nature religions theoretically offering fertility. If you performed the rituals, your crops would be fertile; and if you wanted to be fertile, you could hone your sexual skills with the shrine prostitutes – female (or male).

The king in Elijah's time was Ahab. His father, Omri, had left the northern kingdom of Israel in reasonable economic and political shape. We know that from the famous Moabite stone. But our historian in 1 Kings is less interested in the details of political relationships than in what really counts, namely whether or not a nation has a relationship with almighty God. So the spotlight is now not on Ahab but the prophet Elijah. The historian sees Elijah as a spokesmen for the God of the universe with a message not just for then but for all time. The message is that there is only one true God - the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and not one of the Baals.

But Ahab did not believe this. Like Solomon he had been seduced by greed and sex. He had married Jezebel the daughter of the king of Tyre. A women with the looks of a model, she was heavily into Baalism which was not only into sex but also violence (some versions performed child sacrifice). Not surprisingly Ahab was getting more into Baalism himself. The result was, says the Bible, he "did more evil in the eyes of the Lord than any of those before him" (16.30). But to many around him he seemed so reasonable. He probably just thought other religions like Baalism could be helpful as well as the worship of Yahweh (that is the modern spelling of "Jehovah" – the true God). Ahab was a multifaith man.

But Baalism was socially disastrous as well as untrue. So God, in his mercy, wanted an end to these false Baal religions. To bring people to their senses he caused a drought that Elijah predicted (chapter 17.1). Elijah then went into hiding and was incognito, except to some simple ordinary people, as we learnt in the rest of chapter 17. So that brings us to chapter 18. Look at verses 1-6:

"After a long time, in the third year, the word of the LORD came to Elijah: 'Go and present yourself to Ahab, and I will send rain on the land.' So Elijah went to present himself to Ahab. Now the famine was severe in Samaria, and Ahab had summoned Obadiah, who was in charge of his palace. (Obadiah was a devout believer in the LORD. While Jezebel was killing off the Lord's prophets, Obadiah had taken a hundred prophets and hidden them in two caves, fifty in each, and had supplied them with food and water.) Ahab had said to Obadiah, 'Go through the land to all the springs and valleys. Maybe we can find some grass to keep the horses and mules alive so we will not have to kill any of our animals.' So they divided the land they were to cover, Ahab going in one direction and Obadiah in another."

There was not just famine but "severe" famine. So what does Ahab do? - think about helping people who were dying? Is he suggesting the people turn back to the true God? No! He is more interested in grass than God and horses than humans. And what about Jezebel? Well, she is, verse 4, "killing off the Lord's prophets". There is persecution going on. False religions are far from tolerant when God's prophets say beliefs and lifestyle are wrong. These were bad times. Nor are they totally unlike today – with its greed, sex and false religions. So much for the context.


Secondly, THE TEACHING of our passage.

It teaches mainly about Obadiah and Elijah.

But first, can I say, it teaches or implies something about the interpretation of history. It was a famous Professor of Modern History at Cambridge, Herbert Butterfield, who said:

"Our final interpretation of history is the most sovereign decision we can take … It is our decision about religion, about our attitude to things, and about the way we will appropriate life."

Of course, a Baalist interpretation of history would never have produced chapter 18. And, of course, it would have had to ignore the miraculous event on Mount Carmel. It would have said that Ahab was a wise politician who wanted to run a good economy with good relations with the people of Tyre. He was a tolerant man, seeking a religiously inclusive society who thought people mature enough to have a mixture of Baalism and the worship of Yahweh in a multifaith society. He would have wanted the children to worship Yahweh in their ancient equivalent of school assemblies on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and Baal on Tuesdays and Thursdays. And all would have been fine but for the fundamentalist ravings of a prophet and intolerant bigot named Elijah. That interpretation is there in Ahab's own take on what was happening. Look at verse 17:

"When he [Ahab] saw Elijah, he said to him, 'Is that you, you troubler of Israel?

That is the Baalist interpretation of history. It says Elijah is the trouble. The Bible history writer, however, says, "nonsense! Baalism is the trouble." He agrees with Elijah who said, verse 18:

"'I have not made trouble for Israel,' Elijah replied [to Ahab]. 'But you and your father's family have. You have abandoned the Lord's commands and have followed the Baals.'"

The Bible's interpretation of history is that at the heart of any and every society are not political structures and economic performance but beliefs. What you believe about life and death, heaven and hell, and God and eternity has social and, therefore, political consequences. So much for historical interpretation.

Let's now think about Obadiah (one of the 13 Obadiahs in the Bible). Look now at verses 7-16:

"As Obadiah was walking along [you remember, looking for pasture for the kings horses], Elijah met him. Obadiah recognized him, bowed down to the ground, and said, 'Is it really you, my lord Elijah?' 'Yes,' he replied. 'Go tell your master, "Elijah is here."' 'What have I done wrong,' asked Obadiah, 'that you are handing your servant over to Ahab to be put to death? As surely as the LORD your God lives, there is not a nation or kingdom where my master has not sent someone to look for you. And whenever a nation or kingdom claimed you were not there, he made them swear they could not find you. But now you tell me to go to my master and say, "Elijah is here." I don't know where the Spirit of the LORD may carry you when I leave you. If I go and tell Ahab and he doesn't find you, he will kill me. Yet I your servant have worshipped the LORD since my youth. Haven't you heard, my lord, what I did while Jezebel was killing the prophets of the LORD? I hid a hundred of the Lord's prophets in two caves, fifty in each, and supplied them with food and water. And now you tell me to go to my master and say, "Elijah is here." He will kill me!' Elijah said, 'As the LORD Almighty lives, whom I serve, I will surely present myself to Ahab today.' So Obadiah went to meet Ahab and told him, and Ahab went to meet Elijah."

Obadiah was so different to Elijah. Elijah was very much "up front" and larger than life. Obadiah was cautious and aware of worse case scenarios. He was a Sir Humphrey - your archetypal civil servant. Indeed, he was a civil servant - high up in the court of Ahab. But because of his different personality and gifts, Obadiah was able to play a vital role at the heart of power. He was in a position where, quietly and bravely, he saved the lives of one hundred faithful prophets. And having a top civil-servant's salary he also could provide them with food and drink. Nor did he compromise. We are told in verse 3 he was not only a believer in the Lord but a "devout" believer – or as the other translations have it, he "feared the Lord greatly." He was like Joseph earlier at the court of Pharaoh or Daniel later in Babylon. They never compromised and, for the most part, were not required to. There are a number of people here like that. You are pretty senior in your work place. It can be difficult in our own morally and spiritually collapsing society. But God has put you there, not to have an easy ride with a lot of money, but to witness to him and help change things. If you are a doctor, or in social services or business or education – in fact in more and more places of work - you will have to be both as wise as serpents and harmless as doves. You will have to face conflict. That is why you need the help of groups like the Christian Institute, the Lawyers Christian Fellowship or the Christian Medical Fellowship. And remember those word's in the prayer of Jesus for his disciples in our New Testament reading: (John 17.15 and 16)

"My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one ... Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth".

So much for Obadiah. The main teaching in this is passage, of course, is about Elijah as we heard in our Old Testament reading. Read it again when you get home. I haven't time to read it again now. In one sense it is very straight forward. It is about the contest on Mount Carmel, between Elijah and the prophets of Baal. Elijah was concerned to make the mass of people give up their multi-faithism. They were to be either for Baal or Yahweh - the true God. They couldn't be for both. Verse 21 is key:

"How long will you waver between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him."

When a society is godless or following false religions and decadent there are basically three responses for true believers. Either you go with the flow, or you opt out, or you resist the flow. It is as simple as that. Godly priests and Levites had opted out of the north soon after the split and gone south (2 Chron 11.13). The resistance then came from godly prophets and lay people like Obadiah. The great majority, however, went with the flow and compromised. But these compromisers were of two sorts. There were the people like Ahab and his family who had (verse 18):

"… abandoned the Lord's commands and … followed the Baals."

And also there were the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and the four hundred chaplains to Jezebel. But the mass of people summoned to Mount Carmel were different. These were the waverers "between two opinions". These were the live and let live people. As an insurance policy, they seemed to be wanting to worship both Baal and Yahweh. They may have said, "Baal is a Semitic word for 'Master'; and as Yahweh is the great 'Master', why the fuss? We are just talking about varieties of the same thing." So some say today, "'Allah' is the Arabic word for 'God'; so Islam and Christianity are also just different varieties of the same thing." But this can be even worse than saying, Baalism is right while the faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is wrong.

When there is no such thing as right and wrong, or truth and error and all is one, chaos follows and there is no hope of ever reaching the truth. Unity is important, but never at the price of truth. And true believers in Elijah's day could so easily be seduced by the lure of Baalism. Apart from its sexual permissiveness, it had royal patronage and you would get on better at work if you went with the flow of Baalism. And Baalism was an ancient religion - it had that note of romanticism about it, like Stonehenge and Druidism. So Elijah organized this contest. The prophets of Baal, after many hours and with their dervish-like rituals, could not ignite their sacrifice. Then, late in the day, came Elijah's turn (verse 36):

"At the time of sacrifice, the prophet Elijah stepped forward and prayed: 'O LORD, God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. Answer me, O LORD, answer me, so these people will know that you, O LORD, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.' Then the fire of the LORD fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench. When all the people saw this, they fell prostrate and cried, 'The LORD--he is God! The LORD-- he is God!'"

This was a miracle that has never been repeated. Elijah says he had a special commission from God, verse 36: "I ... have done all these things at your command." So he was praying according to God's will - not his own fanatical hunches. Is such a miracle possible? If almighty God is the creator of the material as well as of the spiritual world and Jesus Christ was raised by the power of the Holy Spirit and left a tomb empty that first Easter day, the answer must be yes. Is such a miracle believable? Again, the answer must be yes. It seems that miracles in the Bible cluster around the crises of sacred history. One of these was this time in Israel's history when Israel could have sunk into complete apostasy. Sane critical scholarship cannot get rid of the miraculous from the Bible. And this event does not read like some obvious fabrications from ancient history. Well, once the contest was over, we read in verse 40:

"Then Elijah commanded … 'Seize the prophets of Baal. Don't let anyone get away!' They seized them, and Elijah had them brought down to the Kishon Valley and slaughtered there."

Today that sounds horrific. But remember - God's people in Elijah's day had lessons yet to learn. We have the privilege of the teaching of Jesus and the Apostles in the New Testament. Elijah, in his day, was simply enforcing the existing law on false prophesy. But the New Testament shows that the Old Testament penalties of God's law are not essential to the principles of God's law. So for example, Paul makes it clear that the law on incest was still relevant for the Church at Corinth (1 Cor 5.1). But he does not insist on the death penalty found in Leviticus 20.11. Rather the sinner needs not execution but church discipline until there is repentance. The danger with us, however, is that while rightly having more humane punishments, we wrongly forget the principles – in this case the fact that worshipping another God is one of the greatest of all sins. So much for the teaching of our passage.


Thirdly, THE ENCOURAGEMENTS

Paul says, referring to the Old Testament, in Romans 15.4: "Everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope." How, then, is this passage encouraging and helping you to "endure" – which means carrying on when the going is tough? Let me answer that in conclusion by listing some of its encouragements.

One, this passage reminds you that even in the most terrible of times our God is on the ultimate throne and in control – he is Lord of both the natural world and the spiritual world. He is Lord and reigning on Mount Carmel – a Baalite stronghold – as he is Lord and reigning everywhere else. There are no "no-go" areas to our God. And he knows everything about your situation and mine, as he did about Obadiah's and Elijah's. He watches over those who trust him.

Two, it reminds you that there are absolutes – it is not wrong to want to know the truth. It reminds you that there is right and wrong. And multi-faithism is wrong and has negative social and environmental consequences. It reminds you that religions do have different social consequences. "If (verse 21) the Lord is God" and you follow him, there will be different social consequences to if you believe "Baal is God" and you follow him.

I read last week these words on the social consequences, not of Baalism, but of Islam - a religion obviously relevant today: "Individual Muslims may show splendid qualities … but the influence of the religion paralyses the social development of those who follow it." That was Winston Churchill's view. Humble evangelism, therefore, in the Spirit of Christ is loving, not arrogant. Summarizing the Bible's teaching, Article XVIII of the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England says: "holy Scripture doth set out unto us only the Name of Jesus Christ, whereby men must be saved." Who needs to hear that message this morning? Jesus Christ still says, "No-one comes to the Father except through me" and "come to me … and I will give you rest" (John 14.6 and Mat 11.28)

Three, this passage reminds you that it is not strange when, like Elijah, you find your loyalty to God means you are in a minority of one.

Four, it reminds you that when you think you are in a minority of one, actually there probably are many others believing and thinking as you do. Elijah thought he was alone, but there were at least 101 other true believers referred to in this chapter – Obadiah plus the 100 godly prophets. In the next chapter you hear of 7000 others who had rejected Baal.

Five, it reminds you that in times like these God uses different people in different places in different ways to achieve his purposes. Not all are called to be like Elijah. "Obadiahs" are also needed. And you have unique gifts that God can use. So don't worry by not being like Elijah.

Six, it reminds you of the power of prayer when it is for God's glory and according to his will.

Seven, the next verses remind you that rain will come – some day, in God's time. We will hear about that next week.



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