Many people probably think that the primary job of the old covenant prophets was to predict the future. Certainly, many of the prophets revealed what was to come; however, seeing the future was not their chief job. Instead, the prophets served primarily as covenant prosecutors. They announced to God’s people, particularly the kings, when they were being unfaithful, and they exhorted them to obedience lest the curses of the Mosaic covenant fall on the covenant community (see Lev. 26; Deut. 28).
In the days of Ahab, king of Israel, Elijah prosecuted the covenant, announcing the punishment of drought for the northern kingdom’s idolatry (1 Kings 17:1; see Deut. 28:23). But after three years of no rain, the Lord chose to end the drought, as we see in today’s passage (1 Kings 18:1). For three years, the unfaithful Israelites saw the powerlessness of Baal, the supposed god of the storm, to bring rain, but now it was time to cause the water to fall again. Yet the Lord would not do this without proving one more time that He is God and Baal is not. A dramatic sign would show Israel that the rain was coming not because Baal finally got around to hearing their prayers but because the God of Israel was moving.
Thus, Elijah went to Ahab to schedule a showdown with the prophets of Baal. The winner in the contest would prove which deity should be worshiped. First Kings 18:2–19 indicates that Elijah’s meeting with Ahab was arranged by a godly man named Obadiah, who had saved the lives of many of the true prophets of Yahweh, the God of Israel, when Queen Jezebel tried to annihilate them. Even in those ancient days, the enemies of God were trying to destroy His church, but God preserved it through the work of Obadiah.
The ensuing showdown between Elijah and the prophets of Baal is well known. Note the contrast between the true prophet Elijah and the false prophets of Baal. The false prophets tried to manipulate their deity into action by raving and cutting themselves, but they got nothing. After mocking Baal, Elijah simply prayed and God responded (vv. 20–38). Like Elijah, we are not to try to manipulate God by working ourselves up into a frenzy; He answers the simple, humble prayer made in faith.
Once the Lord miraculously consumed Elijah’s offering, Elijah executed the false prophets in keeping with the provisions of Deuteronomy 13 (1 Kings 18:39–40). Idolatry is deadly business.