The text of 1 Kings 18 is an interesting one, with several stories going on. While verses 16-45 are the main scope, a wider context of the story must be observed. There is a bit of divine irony, humor, and direction in the wider context. 1 Kings 18 is situated in a larger story that happens in the surrounding chapters.
1 Kings 17 begins a larger Elijah narrative, the story shifts from the Kings to the prophet of God. In chapter 18, the confrontation of Elijah and Ahab comes to a head, but in begins in chapter 17. Elijah warns the King, “As the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word.” He then departs to Zarephath and helps a widow survive; a story brimming with deeper meanings. Zarephath means ‘refinery’ or ‘smelting shop.’ Elijah, a prophet of God, flees his own county to a foreign power (Phoenicia), to a city that is a center for that foreign powers military-industrial complex. This city produces weapons of war to use against Israel. While there Elijah helps a widow that has been forgotten by her own society and on the verge of death experience the grace of God. No wonder the crowd listening to Jesus in Luke 4 had trouble with the message!
Three years later Elijah returns to his own country to again confront Ahab. But first, a humorous little story about just how desperate the situation is. Ahab has summoned Obadiah, the manager of the palace and summoned him to go and find some grass for the animals. Ahab tells Obadiah, “Go through the land to all the springs and valleys. Maybe we can find some grass to keep the horses and mules alive so we will not have to kill any of our animals.” And then the text delivers a statement about Ahab’s powerlessness. So they divided the land they were to cover, Ahab going in one direction and Obadiah in another. The King of Israel has been proven to be powerless. He is out wandering the countryside looking for grass. Not very kingly is it?
So when Elijah finally arrives on the scene to confront Ahab, there is already plenty of tension. Ahab begins by saying, “Is that you, you troubler of Israel?” Ahab’s accusation goes back to Elijah’s statement at the beginning of chapter 17. Elijah was the one that had said there would be no rain until he said so. The reason that Ahab must spend his time looking for grass instead of dealing with matters of the state, is because (at least in his eyes) all the fault of Elijah. The powerless King Ahab is bothered by all that Elijah has done.
But lest we think too highly of Elijah, the text makes sure to tell us who the real actor in the story is. In the following chapter (chapter 19) Elijah is tired and disillusioned. He has spent years running and fears now for his life. He claims that he is the only one left, the last person in the world that loves God. God responds by providing Elisha, a subtle reminder that things are not always as they seem, God always has a plan, God is always acting in this world. God’s people are never alone, they are never the last one. The real actor in the story is always God.
And situated between these larger stories, Elijah’s warning and giving of grace to a foreign widow and Ahab’s powerlessness, and Elijah’s desperate cry, is the story of 1 Kings 18 that we want to look at today. It is this story that illuminates the surrounding stories. It is a confrontation between the Elijah and Ahab, prophet versus king. It is also a story of the prophet of God versus the prophets of Baal. But the thing that drives all of these sub-stories is the larger story of Yahweh versus the god of Baal, the people’s allegiance is at stake. Ahab has led the nation astray and enticed them to follow a different god, and Elijah shows up to challenge the people’s belief that Baal has the power to end the drought.
1 Kings 18:16-40 must be read in light of all of this; because right away there is the issue of the real troubler of Israel. Ahab thinks it is Elijah because he is the one that has kept it from raining for three long years; but Elijah counters (and will quickly prove) that the real problem is Ahab. “You have abandoned the Lord’s commands and have followed the Baals.”
Then Elijah proposes a test, a showdown, a duel. Elijah, the lone prophet of God against 450 prophets of Baal. These improbable odds seem good to the nation and the stage is set. 1 versus 450. These seem like impossible odds, but any astute biblical reader knows that’s the way God works, because it isn’t about human power but about Gods. God had already done the same thing earlier in Israel’s history with Gideon. Twenty-two thousand men were turned away so that humanly it seemed impossible, then God, with 300 men, was able to rout a powerful Midianite army.
It is popular today to trap someone, and have them ‘right where we want them.’ God must be saying something similar. The 450 prophets of Baal and the King and Queen of Israel versus the lone prophet of Israel. They must be a confident bunch. Everyone with power in the country to do anything has trapped this lowly prophet. Of course they accept this deal, because they are still naive enough to believe that they will win. Except now God says, “I have them right where I want them.”
This is a chance for God to demonstrate his power. He will show them who the true ruler of Israel is. Elijah confronts the king for his apostasy and abandonment of God; and the people for waving in their faith. This wavering though is more literally understood as one wavering on crutches. It speaks of being lame and hobbling around. The people have become lame in their faith on the crutches of Baal!
Elijah also criticizes the King and the people of not following Yahweh but Baal, and the need to choose and follow the correct God “The verbal idea is to remain somewhere for a protracted period of time past the expected norm… Such delays were considered sins.”*
Not only has Ahab abandoned God, but has stayed and rested in the presence of other gods! The words of Elijah are harsh to the King. “You have brought trouble on Israel by forsaking the covenant and living with Baal!” When Elijah implores the people to choose and follow God (verse 21), it is a strong command to follow the covenant faithfully and remain in the presence of Yahweh.
The prophets of Baal go first in the showdown. They choose their bull, build their altar, and begin an invocation and incantation to their god. “Baal, answer us!” was their cry. But the only response was silence.
Then Elijah, who had known what they outcome would be all along, begins to taunt them. “Shout louder!” Eugene Peterson attempts to translate the humor this way: “Call a little louder—he is a god, after all. Maybe he’s off meditating somewhere or other, or maybe he’s gotten involved in a project, or maybe he’s on vacation. You don’t suppose he’s overslept, do you, and needs to be waked up?” And he gets close, but a more literal translation is that perhaps they tried to call Baal while he is relieving himself. Shout louder, you happened to call while he was going to the bathroom! Just wait a little longer for him to finish and he will answer the door.
And of course, the prophets of Baal are desperate enough to try anything. They do shout louder. And they do cry harder. They begin to dance in a frenzy and mutilate themselves as a sign of devotion. See Baal, we are so dedicated that we will hurt ourselves for you, don’t you want to respond now? But the text states bluntly: “But there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention.” The narrator knows the outcome, and lets us in on the secret too. No one will answer. Elijah warned the King and the people to make a correct choice, the prophets had already made an incorrect one, and no one was going to come to their rescue. They were crying to no god at all.
Meanwhile, the story shifts back to Elijah, “Come here to me.” he tells the people. It is no longer a laughing matter, all joking aside. You get the sense that he says that as a loving father calling his children. As they gather he repairs the altar of the LORD. The prophets of Baal had to build an altar, they were trying something new, the prophet of God rebuilt an altar, rebuilding the foundation of where they had come from. He prepares the wood and sacrifice, and then does something bizarre.
“Then he said to them, ‘Fill four large jars with water and pour it on the offering and on the wood.’ ‘Do it again,’ he said, and they did it again. ‘Do it a third time,’ he ordered, and they did it the third time. The water ran down around the altar and even filled the trench.”
An odd sort of thing to do, but two things stand out:
One, We must remember that God has them right where he wants them. God doesn’t fight fair. Remember, he has already given himself 450 to 1 odds, but that’s not good enough. He wants to leave absolutely no doubt about his power, he will act and demonstrate his supreme authority. Not only can he ignite dry wood and flesh, but he can do it when it is dripping wet.
Two, we must remember the drought. It has been three long years since there has been rain, or even a light dew on the ground. There has been no measurable mark of humidity for over three years. Pouring out four large water jugs, three times, wastes a lot of water. Twelve jugs of water have been desperately wasted. The last remaining sources of water have been poured out, the people, quite literally, have nothing left.
Earlier, Elijah told them to stop waffling or limping between two options. No longer can the people confess to follow God and Baal, one always becomes a priority. This was the same message of Jesus, no one can profess to follow God and Mammon (Matthew 6:24). Elijah has just forced their hand. You tried Baal, and he failed. Now, just in case you have any doubt, I will force you to trust God. I will take away the last things you have, your water. You want to follow a so-called fertility god? Water is the source of all life, and it has now been sacrificed as well. The people have absolutely nothing left, all has been put on the altar.
Elijah offers a simple prayer, “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.” He reminds God in his prayer of his history in the nation of Israel, but I can’t help but think that he was saying that just as much to God as he was to the people, because of course, God knew all that, he was the one who had brought Elijah here. Elijah had followed God faithfully, and as stated in the covenant, what that meant, was that God was now obligated to act faithfully.
It worked! Fire consumed not only the meat, but the altar, water, stones and soil! Everything was gone! All had been consumed by God’s fire. No room left for limping anymore. The people have seen God’s acting in their lives. They cry out in faithfulness “The LORD is God!”
The showdown is over, the victor has been crowned. The people declare their allegiance to Yahweh and not to Baal. God has proven once again that he loves working from the power of weakness, 1 on 450 isn’t enough let’s add some water as well. Paul would later add his own commentary, “For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.”
With the victory, the story moves towards a quick resolution. The false prophets get what’s coming to them, the King is told to leave the mountain, and before the chapter is over, a fierce and heavy rain has fallen on the land. The people have quit limping between two decisions (Yahweh or Baal) and have made a correct choice, which led to the desired outcome: the blessing of rain on the land.
The story is one of allegiance interlaced with humor. God proves himself faithful yet again and as the only real choice. The false prophets and their so called god have been rendered powerless (and even dead) by the end of the story. And the story, if we let it, speaks to us as well.
We too follow false gods (Matthew 6:24), we too go astray, we too have to come to the point of giving it all up (denying ourselves and taking up our cross), we too must come to the point where we no longer waffle between following God and following the world. This is what we do: we journey with Jesus towards the cross, that moment where we give everything up only to find that we gain it all back and so much more. Our lives must be shaped by his values and desires, not waffling on the crutches of God and money, or God and power, or God and status, it is God alone.
This is an adaptation of a post that originally appeared here and was originally a lenten sermon.
*There are a couple of footnotes listed, one is from Walter Brueggemann’s commentary on 1 Kings and the other is from Bill Arnold and his article in the New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis.