In the previous article, Elijah had set up a “contest” of sorts between the false god Baal, and the true God that he served. The prophets of Baal had failed to exact a response from their god. Now, it is Elijah’s turn to call out to the true God.
1 Kings 18:31-35 describes how Elijah builds an altar out of 12 stones. This may be a parallel to Joshua (see Joshua 4), who had 12 stones taken out of the Jordan river and set up as a remembrance of what God did for His people there when they crossed it. Joshua 8:30-31 also tells about how Joshua built an altar to God with “uncut stones”, as had been commanded in Exodus 20:25 and Deuteronomy 27:1-8.
Then, Elijah does something that seems counterintuitive to “winning” this challenge. He has 12 jars – large jars, not little cups – of water poured over the altar and sacrifice. If Elijah had been planning to bring fire through human efforts, this would be completely contrary to what most advisors would have suggested to him.
If you know how this story ends, you can see what Elijah is doing here. However, to the people watching this as it happened, it may not have made sense. If the challenge is for a prophet to have his god bring down fire onto a sacrifice, jars of water being poured out over the animal and the altar – so much that it’s running over into a trench around it – is not going to make it easy. If someone was a charlatan, trying to fake things, they weren’t going to be able to sneak in a coal or two under the meat and claim that a few embers qualified as their god’s work.
In this context, Elijah might seem to be making things more “challenging” for God to bring down fire on the sacrifice, but he is actually doing so in order to make it clear that any fire on the altar is not a coincidence or scam.
Verse 36 brings us to Elijah’s prayer to God:
At the time of sacrifice, the prophet Elijah stepped forward and prayed: “LORD, the 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, LORD, answer me, so these people will know that you, LORD, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.”
1 Kings 18:36-37 NIV
Now, there may be times when we want to call down fire from heaven. After all, James and John suggested that idea (as recorded in Luke 9:51-54), albeit for a different reason. Maybe we are just trying to get a fire started for a cookout, or perhaps we need a passion for serving God to be [re-]kindled in our hearts.
Before we talk about commanding fire on our own, though, I’d like to point out a few things in Elijah’s prayer:
- First, he addresses God with respect, and makes it clear that he is praying to a specific God. In a world where people worshiped a lot of gods, it was important to be clear on this point. In the same way, I think that we would do well to give God credit for the blessings He gives us in our lives, rather than ascribing His work to our own skills (or to coincidence, good luck, or just being blessed – that is, without saying who is blessing us).
- Secondly, Elijah explains why he is asking God to do something. This isn’t a way to show off how “in-touch” with God Elijah is. Elijah’s request is for God to show the people that He is real, so that they will turn to Him (away from where their hearts are at the time).
- In addition, Elijah’s prayer confirms that he is doing this at God’s instruction. While we might want to have God do whatever we want Him to, I don’t think that’s how it works. Instead, when we pray “Your will be done”, or when we act according to His direction, things work the other way around: We do whatever God wants us to do, and then He acts according to His wisdom.
What was the result?
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.
1 Kings 18:38 NIV
Boom! Well, there goes that sacrifice…and the altar…and everything else!
Remember what Elijah prayed would be accomplished? He prayed that the people would know who was God, and that He was “turning their hearts back again” (see verse 37). God honored Elijah’s prayer (which, by the way, doesn’t appear to include the word “fire” at all, at least in what we have recorded here), and showed the people that He was indeed God.
So, how about us calling down fire from heaven (or any other big requests that we have for God)? If (when?) we feel like our prayers aren’t having the same effect as Elijah’s, let’s make sure that they are offered in the same respect as his were:
- Be sure that we are praying to the right God, and not expecting false gods (like money, power, people, or governments) to answer us.
- Be sure that we are praying for things that are consistent with God’s goals. Purely selfish prayers shouldn’t be expected to achieve much (see James 4:3), although I think that it’s OK to ask for help for ourselves (like Paul did, when asking for his “thorn in the flesh” to be taken away; see 2 Corinthians 12:6-10). When we pray for things that will turn people’s hearts back to God, though, I think that’s a pretty good goal.
- And, be sure that we are praying according to God’s direction, since this is His plan (i.e., His history being made) anyway. If you’re not sure what God wants you to pray for or do, pray what is on your heart, and then sincerely defer to God’s will: “your will be done” (as we find in the passage that we sometimes call “the Lord’s Prayer”, from Matthew 6:9-13).
I’m not saying that we should selfishly ask for anything we want, for the wrong reasons. However, serving a God who has the power to bring fire, calm water, and anything else He chooses to do in this world, means that there is a lot more power available to help us do His will than we usually give Him credit for.
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.