The chapter of 1 Kings 18 contains a fairly well-known account of a competition of sorts, where Elijah challenged 450 prophets of the god Baal to a contest. (There were another 400 prophets of the goddess Asherah around, but I’m not sure if they participated or just stood around – or maybe snuck off.)
There’s another event at the start of this chapter (1 Kings 18:1-15), where we find this guy Obadiah, who works for the evil King Ahab (as “his palace administrator”, verse 3). Obadiah has been on God’s side, though, helping to hide prophets. King Ahab brings Obadiah along to look for grass (to feed livestock) during the famine, and they split up. Obadiah encounters Elijah the prophet, and Elijah tells Obadiah to get Ahab. Obadiah’s response is pretty real: he fears that God will take Elijah away while he (Obadiah) is going to get Ahab, and so Ahab will kill Obadiah. Elijah assures Obadiah that he will indeed meet with Ahab, so Obadiah does what Elijah had asked.
Verses 20-21 set the stage for the “main event” in this chapter. Here’s verse 21:
Elijah went before the people and said, “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.”
But the people said nothing.
1 Kings 18:21 NIV
This is the same choice that everyone has: to follow Jehovah God, or to follow something else. I don’t know why the people didn’t respond – whether it was out of fear of the king, indecisiveness, or just cowardice – but the fact is, there’s no such thing as not choosing. The first couple of commandments from the Ten Commandments (see Exodus 20:1-6, Deuteronomy 5:1-8) make it clear that God isn’t looking to be a part of who we worship. He deserves the uncontested first place in our lives.
So, in verses 22-25, Elijah sets up the rules of this “contest”. Here’s an excerpt:
Get two bulls for us. Let Baal’s prophets choose one for themselves, and let them cut it into pieces and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. I will prepare the other bull and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. Then you call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the LORD. The god who answers by fire—he is God.”
Then all the people said, “What you say is good.”
1 Kings 18:23-24 NIV
All that the god (or God) who is real has to do here is to light the fire on a prepared sacrifice. After all, anything worth worshiping as a god should be able to do something like this in the real world.
Matthew Henry points out that the God who can forgive sins (by accepting an offering, providing His own fire) is the one who can redeem Israel, and restore their land (which, at this moment, really needs rain). He writes, “The God therefore that has power to pardon sin, and to signify it by consuming the sin-offering, must needs be the God that can relieve us against the calamity. He that can give fire can give rain; see Matt. 9:2, 6.”
I think that there is a tendency today to segregate things called “gods” into some sort of spiritual realm. False ideas of religion and faith are somehow limited to another world that isn’t tangible or practical, and so things in the material or social worlds (like the domains of engineering, finance, science, or relationships) end up becoming other gods.
While there is a spiritual world that we can’t always see, let me assure you that spiritual forces – both the good God of the universe, and those who oppose Him – are actively having an impact in the physical world, too. The true God who is spirit is also the God who came to earth as a human being, and is also the God who created the physical world that we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch around us.
Elijah – and, it seems, even these pagan prophets and the people who came to see the contest – understood that the true God must be able to act in the physical world, and must also be able to operate outside of it (that is, capable of making an impact in the material world beyond the physical world’s limitations).
An unwillingness to accept this key principle (or a failure to understand it) might explain why some people struggle to believe in miracles. If their god is stuck in a spiritual realm (rather than also being all-powerful in the physical world), then there’s no way that this god can impact the material world. And, if their god is limited to the material realm (without being transcendent or beyond the tangible world), then that god can’t change things outside of the laws of physics.
As you may know, the prophets of Baal go to all sorts of lengths to get a reaction from the god that they purport to serve. When they don’t get results (which is what we would expect from a false god), Elijah taunts them.
I like how the NIV ends verse 29: “But there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention.”
Let’s continue this study next time…
From Sunday School lesson prepared for July 18, 2021
- The Lookout, July 18, 2021 © 2021 Christian Standard Media.
- Scripture taken from the Holy Bible, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
- Matthew Henry Commentary on the Whole Bible (Complete). Matthew Henry. 1706, via BibleGateway.com.