A Deadly Spiritual Drought

1 After many days the word of the Lord came to Elijah, in the third year, saying, “Go, show yourself to Ahab, and I will send rain upon the earth.” So Elijah went to show himself to Ahab. Now the famine was severe in Samaria. And Ahab called Obadiah, who was over the household. (Now Obadiah feared the Lord greatly, and when Jezebel cut off the prophets of the Lord, Obadiah took a hundred prophets and hid them by fifties in a cave and fed them with bread and water.) And Ahab said to Obadiah, “Go through the land to all the springs of water and to all the valleys. Perhaps we may find grass and save the horses and mules alive, and not lose some of the animals.” So they divided the land between them to pass through it. Ahab went in one direction by himself, and Obadiah went in another direction by himself.

And as Obadiah was on the way, behold, Elijah met him. And Obadiah recognized him and fell on his face and said, “Is it you, my lord Elijah?” And he answered him, “It is I. Go, tell your lord, ‘Behold, Elijah is here.’” And he said, “How have I sinned, that you would give your servant into the hand of Ahab, to kill me? 10 As the Lord your God lives, there is no nation or kingdom where my lord has not sent to seek you. And when they would say, ‘He is not here,’ he would take an oath of the kingdom or nation, that they had not found you. 11 And now you say, ‘Go, tell your lord, “Behold, Elijah is here.”’ 12 And as soon as I have gone from you, the Spirit of the Lord will carry you I know not where. And so, when I come and tell Ahab and he cannot find you, he will kill me, although I your servant have feared the Lord from my youth. 13 Has it not been told my lord what I did when Jezebel killed the prophets of the Lord, how I hid a hundred men of the Lord’s prophets by fifties in a cave and fed them with bread and water? 14 And now you say, ‘Go, tell your lord, “Behold, Elijah is here”’; and he will kill me.” 15 And Elijah said, “As the Lord of hosts lives, before whom I stand, I will surely show myself to him today.” 16 So Obadiah went to meet Ahab, and told him. And Ahab went to meet Elijah.

17 When Ahab saw Elijah, Ahab said to him, “Is it you, you troubler of Israel?” 18 And he answered, “I have not troubled Israel, but you have, and your father’s house, because you have abandoned the commandments of the Lord and followed the Baals. 19 Now therefore send and gather all Israel to me at Mount Carmel, and the 450 prophets of Baal and the 400 prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table.”

20 So Ahab sent to all the people of Israel and gathered the prophets together at Mount Carmel. 21 And Elijah came near to all the people and said, “How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” And the people did not answer him a word. 1 Kings 18:1-22 ESV

For nearly three years, Elijah has been living in exile among the Sidonians. God had sent him there to protect and preserve him for the next phase of his mission. Three years earlier, Elijah had delivered God’s message of judgment to King Ahab and his pagan queen, Jezebel. Their joint decision to use their royal power to legislate the worship of Baal had brought down the anger of God in the form of a devastating famine. And knowing this godless couple would seek to kill His messenger, God had sent Elijah away so that he could live to fight another day. And that day had finally come.

In his original encounter with Ahab, Elijah had boldly declared that the famine would last until God ordered him to bring it to an end.

“As surely as the Lord, the God of Israel, lives—the God I serve—there will be no dew or rain during the next few years until I give the word!” – 1 Kings 17:1 NLT

Now, three years later, Elijah had received his marching orders from God.

“Go, show yourself to Ahab, and I will send rain upon the earth.” – 1 Kings 18:1 ESV

God had allowed the drought to take its toll. Three years without rain had resulted in a widespread famine that had even impacted the capital city of Samaria. It was there that Ahab had ordered the construction of a temple to Baal, the Phoenician fertility god.

He erected an altar for Baal in the house of Baal, which he built in Samaria. And Ahab made an Asherah. Ahab did more to provoke the Lord, the God of Israel, to anger than all the kings of Israel who were before him. – 1 Kings 16:32-33 ESV

But Baal’s presence had not spared the royal city. Whatever power the people believed him to possess had failed to stem the ravaging effects of the drought and the life-threatening nature of the resulting famine. Things had gotten so bad that Ahab ordered a search for any land where there might be grass to feed his horses and mules. As king, he was more concerned about the fate of his livestock than he was about the well-being of the people under his care. So, he sent his household manager on a desperate, but futile search for green grass in the midst of a famine. But what Obadiah ended up finding was something neither he nor the king ever expected.

As Obadiah was walking along, he suddenly saw Elijah coming toward him. Obadiah recognized him at once and bowed low to the ground before him. “Is it really you, my lord Elijah?” he asked. – 1 Kings 18:7 NLT

Obadiah was shocked to run into Elijah. After three years, he had probably assumed that the prophet had met an untimely end. But out of reverence and honor, he bowed before Elijah. This man, who served as a royal official in the court of King Ahab, was still a faithful follower of Yahweh. And the author provides an important parenthetical description that lets the reader know that Obadiah can be trusted.

Obadiah was a devoted follower of the Lord. Once when Jezebel had tried to kill all the Lord’s prophets, Obadiah had hidden 100 of them in two caves. He put fifty prophets in each cave and supplied them with food and water. – 1 Kings 18:3-4 NLT

This little detail concerning Obadiah will prove to be important as the narrative unfolds. First, it lets us know that after Elijah had delivered God’s message concerning the drought, Jezebel had launched a campaign to liquidate any and all of God’s prophets from the land of Israel. It seems reasonable to believe that her goal had been to catch and eliminate Elijah, but she was willing to execute any prophet of God who might stand in opposition to her will and the worship of her false god.

But the author’s little aside provides a second detail that will prove important. Jezebel’s death squads had failed to find and kill 100 prophets of Yahweh because they had been protected by Obadiah. At great risk to his own life, this royal official had willfully violated the queen’s command by aiding and abetting those whose executions she had ordered. God had chosen to use ravens to deliver food for Elijah. But in the case of the 100 prophets, He had chosen a member of Ahab’s royal court. Once again, God had used an unlikely and unexpected source to preserve His messengers. And the fact that these 100 prophets exist will become more important as the story unfolds.

Recognizing Obadiah as a member of the royal court, Elijah instructed him to return to the palace with a message for the king.

“Go, tell your lord, ‘Behold, Elijah is here.’” – 1 Kings 18:8 ESV

Obadiah, while a faithful follower of Yahweh, was not overly excited at the prospect of sharing this news with King Ahab. He knew that Elijah was a wanted man with a bounty on his head. Ahab had gone to great lengths in his efforts to locate and eliminate Elijah.

“I swear by the Lord your God that the king has searched every nation and kingdom on earth from end to end to find you” – 1 Kings 18:10 NLT

After three years, Ahab’s quest to find Elijah had proven unsuccessful, and his frustration would have been at an all-time high. Obadiah was afraid that if he delivered Elijah’s message and then the prophet disappeared again, the king would take out his anger on him. In an attempt to let Elijah know that he had already risked his life in the cause of Yahweh, Obadiah shared the story of his rescue of the 100 prophets. Hadn’t that been enough? Was God now requiring him to put his life on the line again just so he could deliver Elijah’s message to the king?

But Elijah promised his reluctant friend that he would not put his life in jeopardy. He wasn’t going anywhere because he had a job to do. In fact, he assured Obadiah that he would appear before the king that very day. So, Obadiah did as the prophet commanded and rode to find the king who was also conducting a futile search for green grass.

When Ahab heard the news, he dropped everything and rode to meet Elijah. Upon seeing the man he loathed and despised, the king sarcastically asked, “Is it you, you troubler of Israel?” (1 Kings 18:17 ESV). This arrogant and apostate king tried to blame Elijah for the nation’s woes. He knew that Elijah had spoken the drought into existence and he held him personally responsible for all the pain and suffering it had caused. His stubborn and unrepentant heart would not allow him to admit his own culpability for what had happened. It was the sin of Ahab and his wife that had brought down the judgment of God. Elijah had just been the messenger. And Elijah immediately placed the blame for Israel’s woes right where it belonged.

“I have made no trouble for Israel,” Elijah replied. “You and your family are the troublemakers, for you have refused to obey the commands of the Lord and have worshiped the images of Baal instead. – 1 Kings 18:18 NLT

Ahab and his father Omri had led the people of Israel into apostasy by promoting the worship of false gods. They had turned their backs on Yahweh, causing God’s chosen people to commit spiritual adultery by giving their allegiance and affections to the gods of the Canaanites. They were to blame for the drought and the famine it caused.

But it’s important to recall that God had told Elijah to deliver to Ahab a message that would have sounded like good news: “Tell him that I will soon send rain!” (1 Kings 18:1 NLT). Yet, while the drought was about to end, the judgment was far from over. God was about to deliver a devastating blow to the royal couple that would reveal the impotency of their false god and the futility of abandoning the one true God.

Elijah throws down the gauntlet, challenging the king to a public showdown that would pit Baal against Yahweh.

“Now summon all Israel to join me at Mount Carmel, along with the 450 prophets of Baal and the 400 prophets of Asherah who are supported by Jezebel.” – 1 Kings 18:19 NLT

Driven by pride, the king took the challenge and called for an assembly of all the people of Israel. And he ordered all the prophets of his false gods to gather together to do battle with Elijah and His God. Just consider the arrogance required to do what Ahab did. He was willingly and deliberately going to war with God Almighty, and he legitimately thought he could win. But his ego was in for a rude awakening. His gods were about to exposed for what they were: Figments of man’s fertile and futile imagination that would be proven lifeless and powerless before the God of the universe.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson