22 Then Elijah said to the people, “I, even I only, am left a prophet of the Lord, but Baal’s prophets are 450 men. 23 Let two bulls be given to us, and let them choose one bull for themselves and cut it in pieces and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it. And I will prepare the other bull and lay it on the wood and put no fire to it. 24 And you call upon the name of your god, and I will call upon the name of the Lord, and the God who answers by fire, he is God.” And all the people answered, “It is well spoken.” 25 Then Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “Choose for yourselves one bull and prepare it first, for you are many, and call upon the name of your god, but put no fire to it.” 26 And they took the bull that was given them, and they prepared it and called upon the name of Baal from morning until noon, saying, “O Baal, answer us!” But there was no voice, and no one answered. And they limped around the altar that they had made. 27 And at noon Elijah mocked them, saying, “Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.” 28 And they cried aloud and cut themselves after their custom with swords and lances, until the blood gushed out upon them. 29 And as midday passed, they raved on until the time of the offering of the oblation, but there was no voice. No one answered; no one paid attention.
30 Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come near to me.” And all the people came near to him. And he repaired the altar of the Lord that had been thrown down. 31 Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of the Lord came, saying, “Israel shall be your name,” 32 and with the stones he built an altar in the name of the Lord. And he made a trench about the altar, as great as would contain two seahs of seed. 33 And he put the wood in order and cut the bull in pieces and laid it on the wood. And he said, “Fill four jars with water and pour it on the burnt offering and on the wood.” 34 And he said, “Do it a second time.” And they did it a second time. And he said, “Do it a third time.” And they did it a third time. 35 And the water ran around the altar and filled the trench also with water.
36 And at the time of the offering of the oblation, Elijah the prophet came near and said, “O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your word. 37 Answer me, O Lord, answer me, that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.” 38 Then the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt offering and the wood and the stones and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench. 39 And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, “The Lord, he is God; the Lord, he is God.” 40 And Elijah said to them, “Seize the prophets of Baal; let not one of them escape.” And they seized them. And Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon and slaughtered them there. – 1 Kings 18:23-40 ESV
The battle for the hearts of the people of Israel was about to begin. Having accepted Elijah’s challenge, King Ahab had decreed that the people assemble at nearby Mount Carmel. He also ordered the 450 prophets of Baal to come, ready to prove the power of their god. But as Elijah stood before the gathered assembly, he issued them a stern challenge.
“How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” – 1 Kings 18:21 ESV
His words are reminiscent of those spoken by Joshua hundreds of years earlier, as he addressed the nation of Israel near the end of his life. He too had called the people to choose who they were going serve, the one true God or the false gods of Egypt and Canaan.
“Now therefore fear the Lord and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness. Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” – Joshua 24:14-15 ESV
The fickle nature of the Israelites had not changed much over the centuries. They remained prone to chasing after any and every god who came along. They were equal-opportunity idolaters who seemed to have no sense of guilt or shame. Their willingness to accept and affirm any and all gods placed before them had been a problem from the beginning. While they never entirely abandoned their worship of Yahweh, they were constantly trying out new gods in a vain attempt to cover all their bases. Their syncretistic approach to religion and worship was driven by self-interest and greed. In a sense, they seemed to operate on the belief that two gods would be better than one. But Elijah was demanding that they make up their minds. He would not allow them to play the field and continue to offend Yahweh with their spiritual adultery.
In an attempt to stress the lopsided nature of the battle that was about to ensue, Elijah claimed that he was the only prophet of Yahweh still standing in Israel. But he was wrong and he knew it. In his earlier encounter with Obadiah, he had learned that there were at least 100 prophets whom God had spared. But Elijah chose to ignore this detail so that he could paint as bleak a picture as possible. At that moment, the odds were 450 to one. He was the sole prophet of God, preparing to face the overwhelming numbers of the prophets of Baal.
But Elijah knew that this day was not about a battle between him and the more numerous adversaries on the other side. It would be a divine display of Yahweh’s power and Baal’s impotence. Just as Baal had been unable to stop the ravages of the drought that had devasted the land for three years, he would prove incapable of hearing and answering the desperate cries of his prophets.
Elijah set the rules of the contest. Each side was to select an appropriate sacrifice, then offer it up on an altar before their respective god. Then they were to cry out to their deity of choice, and whichever god responded by consuming the offering with fire would prove to be the true god.
In describing the ensuing scene, the author clearly attempts to lampoon the efforts of the prophets of Baal. Their energetic and somewhat odd behavior displays their desperate hope that their god will show up.
…they called on the name of Baal from morning until noontime, shouting, “O Baal, answer us!” But there was no reply of any kind. Then they danced, hobbling around the altar they had made. – 1 Kings 18:26 NLT
And the harder they try to garner the attention of their seemingly distant and disinterested god, the more Elijah taunts their efforts.
“You’ll have to shout louder,” he scoffed, “for surely he is a god! Perhaps he is daydreaming, or is relieving himself. Or maybe he is away on a trip, or is asleep and needs to be wakened!” – 1 Kings 18:27 NLT
In desperation and growing frustration, they resort to shedding their own blood, vainly hoping that their self-mutilation might appease and awaken their god to action. But the author summarizes their prolonged and ineffective efforts with the simple statement: “there was no sound, no reply, no response” (1 Kings 18:29 NLT). Their god remained silent and unseen.
Broken and bloodied by their hours-long effort to call down fire from their god, they finally gave up. Then it was Elijah’s turn. After rebuilding the altar to Yahweh that Jezebel had ordered destroyed, Elijah had the altar and the sacrifice drenched in water. He purposefully stacked the deck against God, creating what would appear to be impossible odds. Elijah used 12 stones to build the altar and then drenched the altar and the sacrifice with 12 large jars of water. Even though this event was taking place among the ten tribes of the northern kingdom, Elijah wanted them to realize that Yahweh was the God of all Israel. They were a divided nation because of idolatry. But in God’s eyes, they were still His chosen people.
And Elijah’s simple prayer illustrates his belief that God longed to restore His covenant people. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob still loved His people and greatly desired that they would repent and return to Him.
“O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, prove today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant. Prove that I have done all this at your command. O Lord, answer me! Answer me so these people will know that you, O Lord, are God and that you have brought them back to yourself.” – 1 Kings 18:36-37 NLT
No histrionics. No desperate displays of emotional cajoling and pleading. Elijah simply asked God to display His power so that the people might know He was there and that He cared. Elijah was asking God to demonstrate His covenant faithfulness in spite of their unfaithfulness. And, unlike Baal, God heard and responded.
Immediately the fire of the Lord flashed down from heaven and burned up the young bull, the wood, the stones, and the dust. It even licked up all the water in the trench! – 1 Kings 18:38 NLT
The impact of this divine demonstration of power was immediate. Blown away by this supernatural display, the people fell on their faces and cried out, “The Lord—he is God! Yes, the Lord is God!” (1 Kings 18:39 NLT). The altar to Baal remained untouched, just as the prophets had left it. But the altar to Yahweh had been completely consumed, rocks and all. God had more than accepted the sacrifice that Elijah had offered. And in doing so, He confirmed His power, reconfirmed His covenant commitment, and validated His prophet. He was the one true God, and Elijah was His chosen messenger.
And as a final demonstration of God’s unparalleled greatness and His prophet’s authority to act on His behalf, Elijah ordered the capture of every single prophet of Baal. The people obeyed his command and brought all 450 of these false prophets to the Kishon Valley, where Elijah meted out divine judgment and justice on every single one of them. These men had played a major role in the nation’s spiritual decline. They were the visual representation of their false god, and their lies and deception had caused the people of Israel to abandon Yahweh for a god that was nothing more than a figment of man’s fertile imagination.
Looking on as this unexpected scene unfolded before their eyes, King Ahab and his wife Jezebel had to have been reeling from the shock of it all. Not only had their god not shown up, but his prophets had been destroyed. But, as we will see, rather than repent for their sins against God, they will respond in anger and resentment, attempting to take out their wrath on God’s messenger. This arrogant and self-consumed couple will continue to reject Yahweh, stubbornly refusing to admit, “The Lord—he is God! Yes, the Lord is God!”
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