The book of 1 and 2 Kings traces the apostasy of the kingdoms of Israel and their kings but also the grace of God during this period. God was always working to get his people to turn back to Him. 1 Kings 17 and 18 is Elijah’s finest hour. In the show down with the false prophets of Baal and Asherah God calls upon Elijah to challenge the Israelites to decide whom they will follow, Yahweh or Baal. Elijah tells King Ahab “Now summon all Israel to meet me at Mount Carmel, along with the 450 prophets of Baal and the four hundred prophets of Asherah who eat at Jezebel’s table” (1 kings 18:19). (Christian Standard Bible)
The challenge is laid down and the stage is now set for the contest. If this had happened in the twenty-first century A.D. instead of the ninth century B.C., I think that ESPN would have covered the event, with camera crews on top of Mount Carmel, coaxial cables all over the place, and Al Michaels and Chris Collinsworth would be there to give the commentary. I can see it all now--even the locker room interview with the high priest of Baal before the encounter. It would have been billed for months as "Super Baal I"!
The whole thing strikes me as a combination of very sobering and ludicrous things. As Isaiah rightly points out, they would cut down a tree and use part of it to make an idol and the rest of it to provide fuel to cook their food. It is absurd to worship an idol as your source of life. It is absurd to have your joy and completeness and your sense of peace and wellbeing come from a thing that is made. That is what the word "idolatry" means. It is worshiping something manufactured.
The question becomes whom do you trust for your life? What is it that gives worth and value and completeness to your life? What makes you whole? Or to use an expression from this passage, "What makes life abundant?" Where does blessing come from? It is either from the Lord, or it is from something else. The whole point of this contest is to show how ineffective anything other than the Lord is. There is no idol, no other god that can satisfy the deep abiding hunger of the human heart.
“So, Ahab summoned all the Israelites and gathered the prophets at Mount Carmel. 21 Then Elijah approached all the people and said, ‘How long will you waver 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 Kings 18:20-21)
The competition begins with Elijah then saying to the prophets of Baal, “Since you are so numerous, choose for yourselves one bull and prepare it first. Then call on the name of your god but do not light the fire” (1 Kings 18:25). They do this from early morning until around 3 pm in the afternoon but Scripture says, “All afternoon they kept on raving until the offering of the evening sacrifice, but there was no sound; no one answered, no one paid attention.” (1 Kings 18:29)
Then Elijah set up his altar with the cut-up bull and soaks the pile of wood with water. This will be a supernatural event. Only God can do this. Then he offers up a simple prayer. There is no ranting or raving, there is no deep theological language used. Listen to Elijah’s words. 1 King 18:37, “Answer me, Lord! Answer me so that this people will know that you, the Lord, are God and that you have turned their hearts back.” I could not help but think of the words in Jeremiah 33:3 where God says, “Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and incomprehensible things you do not know.” What is so impressive to me about this whole account is the contrast between the wild ranting of the priests of Baal and the quiet confident faith and obedience of Elijah. He gathers the people, builds the altar, and says, "Lord, do it." God responds in verse thirty-eight “Then the Lord’s fire fell and consumed the burnt offering, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and it licked up the water that was in the trench.” There must have been an ear-splitting crash and claps of thunder as the lightning struck the offering, and the whole thing just exploded in a blaze of light. All that was left was a little patch of burnt earth. For a moment there must have been complete silence, and then everyone fell on their faces, saying, "Jehovah is God!"
What should we conclude from all of this? Well for one thing, do not forget that the God who threw down fire from heaven can still perform miracles and often when we least expect it. The other thing that we can take away from this story is that Elijah did what he did because of his knowledge of who God is and what He is like. Elijah knew of the promises of God and His faithfulness. And do you know what? So can we. We can be certain in like manner. We can be people who receive life from the word of God, know that it is true, and live our lives based on what we know to be true. The God of Elijah has not changed.
He still preforms miracles, keeps His promises, and is ever present.