History has repeatedly demonstrated that as goes the leader, so go the people. The history of Israel is no exception. During any moment in its history, the health and prosperity of Israel was directly tied to how the king measured up against the Deuteronomic rubric:
[The king] must not acquire many horses for himself or cause the people to return to Egypt in order to acquire many horses, since the Lord has said to you, “You shall never return that way again.” And he shall not acquire many wives for himself, lest his heart turn away, nor shall he acquire for himself excessive silver and gold. And when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself in a book a copy of this law, approved by the Levitical priests. And it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the Lord his God by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes, and doing them, that his heart may not be lifted up above his brothers, and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, either to the right hand or to the left, so that he may continue long in his kingdom, he and his children, in Israel. (Deut. 17:16–20)
First Kings tips us off that things are about to go sour with a few seemingly inconsequential details of King Solomon’s reign: “And Solomon gathered together chariots and horsemen. He had 1,400 chariots and 12,000 horsemen” (1 Kings 10:26). Strike one for Solomon. “And the king made silver as common in Jerusalem as stone” (v. 27). Strike two. “Now King Solomon loved many foreign women” (11:1). Strike three, he’s out: “And the Lord was angry with Solomon, because his heart had turned away from the Lord, the God of Israel. . . . The Lord said to Solomon . . . ‘I will surely tear the kingdom from you’ ” (vv. 9, 11). Solomon’s idolatry set into motion a course of events that led to a divided kingdom and a subsequent series of one evil king after another. In the north, the succession of illegitimate kings began with Jeroboam: Jeroboam, Nadab, Baasha, Elah, Zimri, Tibni, Omri, and Ahab, who “reigned over Israel in Samaria twenty-two years.” Ahab “did evil in the sight of the Lord, more than all who were before him” (16:29–30).
During Ahab’s reign, the people abandoned covenant fidelity to the Lord. The Jewish historian Josephus noted that Ahab “made no alteration in the conduct of the kings that were his predecessors, but only in such things as were of his own invention for the worse, and in his most gross wickedness.”1 The injection of pagan worship into Israel proved to be fertile soil for cultic and moral syncretism. Into this context the Lord sent His prophet Elijah to announce a lengthy drought, the first of the covenant curses instituted in the Mosaic covenant: “Take care lest your heart be deceived, and you turn aside and serve other gods and worship them; then the anger of the Lord will be kindled against you, and he will shut up the heavens, so that there will be no rain, and the land will yield no fruit, and you will perish quickly off the good land that the Lord is giving you” (Deut. 11:16–17). Covenant infidelity earns covenant curses. Further, the drought demonstrated that the God of Israel was stepping into the ring with the pagan storm god Baal. The ensuing narrative (1 Kings 17–18) describes the battle for the title of “God in Israel” (18:36). This winner-take-all competition—executed by the contending deities’ respective prophetic agents—resulted in a widespread confession of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and an extermination of Baal’s prophets (sanctioned according to Deuteronomic principles). This competition had a twofold purpose: The Lord attested to His power through His prophet Elijah in order to invite His wayward people to repent and return to the true God of Israel. In short, Israel’s covenant-keeping God challenged Baal to a competition in order to publicly identify the one true God and call His wayward people back to Himself. Thus, the primary purpose of the Carmel event was proof and petition.
Proof: Who Is God in Israel?
Long has the art of competition been employed as a means to settle a disagreement. Ahab accused Elijah of being the underlying cause behind Israel’s drought, and Elijah flipped the accusation around, challenging Ahab to a competition (1 Kings 18:17–19). He invited all of Israel to witness this competition between Elijah and all the prophets of Baal who associated with Jezebel. Ahab’s alliance-making marriage with Jezebel of Tyre advanced Ahab’s cultic and political agenda, for his new wife shared her husband’s lack of concern for covenant law and proper Israelite worship. The Tyrian deities Baal and Asherah had altars constructed for them on Israelite soil. Baalism had officially been deemed the religion of the land under the official sponsorship of Jezebel. She went so far as to destroy competing altars—particularly altars for the God of Judah.
The Lord had tolerated such apostasy in His land long enough. In round one, the prophets of Baal would erect an altar and call on their god to bring fire down on it. Presumably, this sending of fire wouldn’t be difficult for a storm god. It’s worth noting the significant advantages Elijah conceded to Baal’s prophets. First, they got home advantage. Mount Carmel is located on the Mediterranean coast south of the Kishon River. It’s also due south of the region of Phoenicia (Sidon and Tyre), the home of Jezebel. Second, Elijah was outnumbered—450 prophets versus one prophet. Another advantage appears in round two: Elijah had his servants drench the altar with four jars of water three times. Last, the prophets of Baal went first. Had they succeeded in evoking Baal to rain fire down on the altar, the game would have been over. Nevertheless, after a whole day of prayer and wild, blood-splattering antics, “there was no voice. No one answered; no one paid attention” (1 Kings 18:29).
Round two recounts Elijah’s preparation and prayer. He rebuilt the altar that was presumably torn down at the behest of Jezebel and those opposing the true and exclusive worship of Yahweh. Elijah used twelve stones to symbolize the tribes of Israel, signifying that the Lord had set His love on that nation. This contrasted the true people of Yahweh, the God of Israel, with the false people of Yahweh, indicating that the true people of Yahweh consisted of twelve tribes, not ten tribes who split to the north. Elijah then ordered a series of soakings on the altar. Again, this served as an authentication of the divine power by removing all possibilities of fraudulent magic. Elijah called on the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to bring down fire. No crazy stunts or bloody antics—just a simple, albeit earnest, prayer. Elijah’s prayer concluded, and the Lord responded immediately.
Petition: How Long Will You Limp between Two Opinions?
Elijah’s first plea was that “it be known this day that [Yahweh is] God in Israel” (v. 36). The second plea was that “this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back” (v. 37). The first plea was answered when the Lord’s fire consumed the altar and everything near it, including the water. The second plea was answered in the widespread confession where the people cried out, “The Lord, he is God; the Lord, he is God” (v. 39).
It is true that Old Testament prophets were covenant prosecutors. However, it is equally true that they were pleaders. They repeatedly pleaded with the people to return to the Lord. The Carmel event was indeed a rebuke against Israel’s rebellion, but it was also a plea for them to return. It’s important to acknowledge the graciousness of the Lord’s invitation. An apostate people deserved the same fate as the prophets of Baal; instead, they were given an opportunity to repent. Throughout the history of Israel, God sent prophet after prophet to call the people back to faithfulness. Elijah, notable for the way he called the people to recognize the Lord as God alone and exhorted them to return to Him, can be considered perhaps the greatest in this long line of prophets.
John the Baptist was the second Elijah who called the people of Israel to repent and turn back. Jesus was the last prophet who called His people back to the Lord: “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things” (Heb. 1:1). The last prophet—God incarnate—demands our total allegiance. He requires His people to worship Him exclusively (addressing the question, Whom are you worshiping?). Elijah’s question remains binding on all of humanity: “How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if [____], then follow [____]” (1 Kings 18:21). Not only are we to worship the Lord exclusively, we are also to worship Him properly—according to the prescriptions He has revealed (addressing the question, How are you worshiping?). God has provided only one channel by which humanity can worship Him—the Lord Jesus Christ, “the way, and the truth, and the life,” for “no one comes to the Father except through [Him]” (John 14:6). We must come to God only through the means He has provided. In the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus asked whether the cup of the Father’s wrath might pass from Him (Matt. 26:39)—was there another way for the Father to reconcile humanity to Himself? Of course, Jesus submitted to His Father’s will; yet, the next day we got the answer to that question: there was no other way. Like the showdown on Mount Carmel, the showdown on Mount Calvary was proof that Christ is God:
The curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened. . . . When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe and said, “Truly this was the Son of God!” (Matt. 27:51–52, 54).
But it was also a gracious invitation to repent and turn back to the Lord. This was God’s authorized altar—the place He sacrificed His Son for the sins of the world. This is the only way of forgiveness and restoration—through the altar at Golgotha, where Christ was lifted up for the sins of those who believe and follow Him. If we would relinquish our grip on false gods and follow the one true God, we must come to His authorized altar—the Lord Jesus Christ—and be restored to God through Christ alone. On Mount Carmel, the Lord proved that He is God and invited His wayward people to return to Him. On Mount Calvary, Jesus Christ proved that He is God and invited His wayward people to return to Him:
Proof: “Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know—this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” (Acts 2:22–23)
Petition: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ.” (v. 38)
Our responsibility? Behold the proof and heed the petition.
Editor’s Note: This post was first published on November 16, 2018.
- Flavius Josephus and William Whiston, The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1987), 236. ↩