The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
And it came to pass after many days, that the word of the LORD came to Elijah in the third year, saying, Go, shew thyself unto Ahab; and I will send rain upon the earth.Ahab, Obadiah, and Elijah
God is the time-keeper. He says, Now. We wonder we cannot go just when it is convenient to ourselves; we think we see the exact juncture when it would be right to go, but if we went just then a serpent would bite us on the road. We want to go to heaven, but God says, Not yet. We want to begin the battle, but God says, Wait. Think of waiting "many days" and doing nothing! But what if waiting be the best working? What if we can best do everything by simply doing nothing? There is a time to stand still and see the salvation of God.—Mark another thing in these verses: the Lord said Go, and Elijah went! Not, Elijah objected; Elijah reasoned; Elijah pointed out the difficulties; but simply Elijah went. That is the true ideal of life. Always be ready. Contrast with this the case of Jonah. Elijah had no fear of Ahab. He who fears God cannot fear man. If you go up to your duties in your own strength you will find them difficult; if you come down upon them from high communion with God you will find them easy.
The governor of the house of Ahab was called Obadiah. The word Obadiah means "servant of Jehovah," and it would seem to have been a true description of the man, for we read that "Obadiah feared (or reverenced) the Lord greatly" (1Kings 18:3). In 1Kings 18:3-16, we have the conversation between Elijah and Obadiah.
"And Ahab called Obadiah, which was the governor of his house. (Now Obadiah feared the Lord greatly: For it was so, when Jezebel cut off the prophets of the Lord, that Obadiah took an hundred prophets, and hid them by fifty in a cave, and fed them with bread and water.) And Ahab said unto Obadiah, Go into the land, unto all fountains of water, and unto all brooks: peradventure we may find grass to save the horses and mules alive] that we lose not all the beasts. So they divided the land between them to pass throughout it: Ahab went one way by himself, and Obadiah went another way by himself. And as Obadiah was in the way, behold, Elijah met him: and he knew him, and fell on his face, and said, Art thou that my lord Elijah? And he answered him, I am: go, tell thy lord, Behold, Elijah is here. And he said, What have I sinned, that thou wouldest deliver thy servant into the hand of Ahab, to slay me? As the Lord thy God liveth, there is no nation nor kingdom, whither my lord hath not sent to seek thee and when they said, He is not there; he took an oath of the kingdom and nation, that they found thee not. And now thou sayest, Go, tell thy lord, Behold, Elijah is here. And it shall come to pass, as soon as I am gone from thee, that the Spirit of the Lord shall carry thee whither I know not; and so when I come and tell Ahab, and he cannot find thee, he shall slay me: but I thy servant fear the Lord from my youth. Was it not told my lord what I did when Jezebel slew the prophets of the Lord, how I hid an hundred men of the Lord's prophets by fifty in a cave, and fed them with bread and water? And now thou sayest, Go, tell thy lord, Behold, Elijah is here: and he shall slay me. And Elijah said, As the Lord of hosts liveth, before whom I stand, I will surely shew myself unto him today. So Obadiah went to meet Ahab, and told him: and Ahab went to meet Elijah."
What are the general lessons as affecting Ahab, Obadiah, and Elijah? Some of them are these:—
1. It is possible for a man to be very bad in one direction and very tolerant in another. It was so in the case of Ahab. He was the worst of the kings of Israel, yet he kept a governor over his house who feared the Lord greatly.
2. The Lord causes the most wicked men to pay his religion the homage which is due to its excellence. A bad king employs a good governor! He who himself disobeys Jehovah yet engages a servant who fears the Lord greatly.—The thief likes an honest man for steward.—The blasphemer likes a godly teacher for his child.—The great speculator prefers an unspeculative man for book-keeper. It is thus that virtue has many unconscious votaries.
3. He who is the slave of idolatry becomes an easy prey to the power of cruel tempters. We do not know that Ahab was a cruel man, but we do know that Jezebel was a cruel woman, and Ahab was greatly influenced by his passionate and sanguinary wife. Ahab's provocation of the Lord (xvi. 33) may have been in the direction of idolatry alone: but to be wrong in your conception of worship is to expose yourself to every possible attack of the enemy. To pray in the wrong direction is to be weak in every other.
4. Ahab was a speculative idolater, Jezebel was a practical persecutor; Ahab showed that speculative error is consistent with social toleration. You must distinguish between Ahab and Elijah in this matter. It was Jezebel who slew the prophets of the Lord (1Kings 18:13), and Ahab knew that his servant Obadiah had hidden fifty of these prophets in a cave, and yet Ahab kept Obadiah in his service.—Redeeming points do not restore the whole character.—"One swallow does not make a summer."
5. In the same character may be met great faith and great doubt. Obadiah risked his life to save fifty of the prophets of the Lord, yet dare not risk it, without first receiving an oath, for the greatest prophet of all! This mixture we find in every human character. "How abject, how august is man!"
In Ahab, Obadiah, Elijah, and Jezebel, we see a fourfold type of human society; there is the speculator, the godly servant, the far-seeing prophet, the cruel persecutor. Society has got no further than this today. The Ahabs of the age are leading us away into speculation that ends in idolatory and in infinite provocation of the Lord; the Obadiahs of the age are still praying, and serving God, and saving even the worst households from the wrath of heaven; the Elijahs of the age are still hurling their divine thunders through the corrupt and stagnant air, and piercing with lightning shafts the gloomy and threatening future; and the Jezebels of the age are still narrow, bitter, indignant, vengeful, and sanguinary. O wondrous combination! So checked, so controlled, by invisible but benignant power. Speculative error has its counterpart in actual cruelty, and patient worship has its counterpart in daring service.
Application: (1) Be the servant of the Lord; (2) To-day, Christ calls for faithful testimony; (3) If we suffer with Christ we shall also reign with him.
And it came to pass, when Ahab saw Elijah, that Ahab said unto him, Art thou he that troubleth Israel?Elijah's Challenge
We have said that Ahab was a speculative idolater rather than a cruel persecutor. Jezebel acted the part of cruelty; Ahab acted the part of unbeliever and spiritual rebel generally. A proof of the probable correctness of this view is found in the incident before us. When Ahab met Elijah he did not show a spirit of cruelty. He said unto the prophet, Art thou he that troubleth Israel? He did not threaten him with the sword; he did not demand his immediate surrender and arrest; he seems rather to have looked upon Elijah with wonder, perhaps not unmixed with admiration of a figure so independent and audacious. The tone of Ahab's mind may be inferred from the kind of challenge which he accepted. It exactly suited his speculative genius. Elijah proposed a trial between himself and the idolatrous prophets, eight hundred and fifty in number, proposing that the god that answered by fire should be God. The idea instantly commended itself to Ahab as excellent. He liked the high and practical speculation. He was fond of intellectual combat, and he warmed at the notion of a holy fray. The man who could accept a notion of this kind was not cruel, or wild, or fond of human blood. Ahab was even wickedly religious; the more altars and groves the better,—yea, altar upon altar, until the pile reached to heaven, and grove after grove, until the line met itself again and formed a cordon round the world. If he had started from a right centre, Ahab would have been the foremost evangelist in the ancient Church.
Let us now look at the controversy itself.
This plan was proposed by the prophet of the Lord, and not by the servants of Baal. Truth addresses a perpetual challenge to all false religions and all wicked and incompetent workers. Its challenges have heightened and broadened in tone from the first ages until now. Moses challenged the necromancers of Egypt, Elijah challenged the priests of Baal, Christ challenges the world. At first the challenge was more strictly physical, now it is intensely spiritual. What religion produces the highest and finest type of character? That is the challenging question! That sane men should prefer a display of physical power or skill to a spiritual contest is an illustration of the infancy and rudeness of their minds, not a proof of the best form of competition. Where, in Christian or in pagan lands, have we the finest men, the purest character, the most sensitive honour? Where are schools, hospitals, asylums, and charities of every kind most abundant? That Christian countries are disgraced by some of the foulest crimes possible in human life, may but show that their very foulness and atrocity never could have been so vividly seen and so cruelly felt but for the enlightenment and culture furnished by Christianity. In any other countries they would have been matters of course; in Christian lands their abomination is seen by the help of Christian light.
The appeal or challenge was forced upon the prophets of Baal; it was not spontaneously accepted by them. This should be made very clear, as it is a point apt to be overlooked. Perhaps the common impression is that Elijah challenged the prophets directly, standing face to face with them, without any medium of communication. Nothing of the kind. Elijah first challenged king Ahab, and he snatched eagerly at the sensational chance, little knowing what he was snatching at! Having spoken first to the king, Elijah spoke next to the people, demanding why they hesitated between two opinions, and insisting that they should make a choice between Jehovah and Baal. Then Elijah made his grand appeal to the people of Israel, and they answered and said, "It is well spoken;" then having secured the approval of the king and of the people, Elijah called upon the prophets to proceed to trial.
To-day Christianity appeals not to a few sectarian prophets, or a few bewildered speculators, nor to a few scientists who are wild with boy-like joy because they have found a bird's-nest, but have never seen the bird that built it; Christianity makes its appeal to the great, broad heart of human nature, to the common sufferings of the race, to the indestructible sentiments of mankind—to the people first and the prophets next, and calls upon the people in all their multitudinousness to force their mumbling prophets to bring the mumble that chokes their throat to distinct and calculable articulation, and to compare the noise of charlatanism with the music of divine teaching. In Elijah's day the people said, "It is well spoken," and of Christ it is said, "The common people heard him gladly." Christianity speaks to sorrowing souls; not to the riddles which perplex a brain here and there, but to the agonies that strain and torture the universal heart.
Full opportunity has been given to men to show the worth of their idolatries and superstitions. In this controversy the prophets of Baal had the first chance. Elijah stood back that they might do their best. False religions cannot complain that they have not had field enough. And what has been the result? Invocation enough (1Kings 18:26), leaping enough upon the altar (1Kings 18:26), bleeding enough with knives and lancets (1Kings 18:28), time enough—even from the morning to the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice (1Kings 18:29), and no answer! "There was neither voice, nor any to answer, nor any that regarded" (1Kings 18:29). It is precisely so with every false creed, every false science, every false prophet today. There is nothing to show! All effort ends in silence. Prodigious exertions finish in prodigious emptiness. Of every teacher, other than Christian, we ask: Where are the sinners whom you have released from the torment of remorse? Where are the mourners whose tears you have dried? Where are the graves on which you have planted the flower of a happy resurrection? Where are the answers of your gods, that we may examine them, test them, and see how they came out of the fire of daily trial? Millions of men praise Christ. Sinners will stand up thick as armies, filling the valleys, thronging the hills, declaring that in Christ they have found the joy of pardon. Mourners will declare that he has dried their tears. Souls that had no life will say with thankful joy that Christ rekindled their lamp when the fierce wind had blown it out. This is the strength and glory of Christianity—that living witnesses attest its power and proclaim its infinite sufficiency.
Every assault upon truth must bring mockery and death upon the assailants. Elijah mocked the prophets on Carmel and slew them at Kishon. Such is the inevitable fate of the Lord's enemies! It is right to address mocking challenges to the teachers of false doctrine, and it is right to slay them; not to slay them with the sword, but with argument, with consistency, with the zeal of inextinguishable consecration, with faith that cannot be impaired by the most insidious or the most rampant scepticism. It is the eternal necessity of things that men who oppose themselves to truth must either repent or perish.
The appeal comes to us with overwhelming force today. How long halt ye between two opinions? It cannot be that there is the slightest doubt as to the truth of Christianity. It cannot be that the understanding is in darkness. It cannot be that the argument is incomplete. It cannot be for want of open and positive and triumphant proof. It can only be because we love wickedness, and roll under our tongues the iniquity which intoxicates the senses and damns the soul.
The Exact Site of the Carmel Contest.—Van de Velde gives a vivid delineation of the precise locality. He was, it is believed, the first traveller who identified the site of the "Burning."
"One can scarcely imagine a spot better adapted for the thousands of Israel to have stood drawn up on than the gentle slopes around. The rock shoots up in an almost perpendicular wall of more than two hundred feet in height on the side of the vale of Esdrelon. On this side, therefore, there was no room for the gazing multitude, but, on the other hand, this wall made it visible over the whole plain, and from all the surrounding heights, so that even those left behind, and who had not ascended Carmel, would still have been able to witness, at no great distance, the fire from heaven that descended on the altar.... Here we were certain the place must have been, for it is the only point of all Carmel where Elijah could have been so close to the brook Kishon as to take down thither the priests of Baal and slay them, return again to the mountain and pray for rain, all in the short space of the same afternoon. Nowhere does the Kishon run so close to Mount Carmel as just beneath El-Mohhraka (the place of the Burning).... Two hundred and fifty feet beneath the altar plateau is a vaulted and very abundant fountain. In such springs the water remains always cool, under the shade of a vaulted roof, and with no hot atmosphere to evaporate it. While all other fountains were dried up, I can well understand that there might have been found here that superabundance of water which Elijah poured so profusely over the altar."
And Elijah said unto all the people, Come near unto me. And all the people came near unto him. And he repaired the altar of the LORD that was broken down.1Kings 18:30-46
30. And Elijah said unto all the people, Come near unto me. And all the people came near unto him. And he repaired the altar of the Lord that was broken down.
31. And Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, unto whom the word of the Lord came, saying, Israel shall be thy 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 measures of seed.
33. And he put the wood in order, and cut the bullock in pieces, and laid him on the wood, and said, Fill four barrels with water, and pour it on the burnt sacrifice, and on the wood.
34. And he said, Do it the second time. And they did it the second time. And he said, Do it the third time. And they did it the third time.
35. And the water ran round about the altar; and he filled the trench also with water.
36. And it came to pass at the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice, that Elijah the prophet came near, and said, Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and of Israel, let it be known this day that thou art God in Israel, and that I am thy servant, and that I have done all these things at thy word.
37. Hear me, O Lord, hear me, that this people may know that thou art the Lord God, and thou hast turned their heart back again.
38. Then the fire of the Lord fell, and consumed the burnt sacrifice, 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 they said, The Lord, he is the God; the Lord, he is the God.
40. And Elijah said unto them, Take the prophets of Baal; let not one of them escape. And they took them: and Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon, and slew them there.
41. ¶ And Elijah said unto Ahab, Get thee up, eat and drink; for there is a sound of abundance of rain.
42. So Ahab went up to eat and to drink. And Elijah went up to the top of Carmel; and he cast himself down upon the earth, and put his face between his knees,
43. And said to his servant, Go up now, look toward the sea. And he went up, and looked and said, There is nothing. And he said, Go again seven times.
44. And it came to pass at the seventh time, that he said, Behold, there ariseth a little cloud out of the sea, like a man's hand. And he said, Go up, say unto Ahab, Prepare thy chariot, and get thee down, that the rain stop thee not.
45. And it came to pass in the mean while, that the heaven was black with clouds and wind, and there was a great rain. And Ahab rode, and went to Jezreel.
46. And the hand of the Lord was on Elijah; and he girded up his loins and ran before Ahab to the entrance of Jezreel.
When the worshippers of Baal had tired themselves, and had awakened no response in reply to their vehement prayer, it became Elijah's turn to prove the Lord God of Israel. At his bidding all the people came near, and he proceeded to redeem his own side of the challenge.
"And he repaired the altar of the Lord that was broken down" (1Kings 18:30). Let us recall the circumstances. Elijah is alone, religiously, upon Carmel; all the prophets of Baal were there, and all the prophets of the grove. Not only were they present, they were also highly excited. The day has gone against them. Whatever happened now could tell nothing in their favour. Ahab was there, in all probability. Great numbers of people were there. Unless Obadiah was there, not a man in all the host sympathised with Elijah. And yet the lonely prophet proceeded to build the altar of the Lord that was broken down. The altar of the Lord had been thrown down by the fury of the people, and Elijah put it together again stone by stone. The Lord could have answered without an altar, but why should human means be spared? The Lord could grow harvests for us, but why should we be spared the labour of tilling the ground? The very act of ploughing does us good; so does the act of coming to church; so does every effort that lies in the line of duty. Elijah would be stronger to pray from the fact that he had been engaged in building the altar. Prayer comes well after work. Why build an altar on a lonely mountain when it could be used only once, and then be done with for ever? Why not have built it in a city where it could have been used from year to year? It would be worth while to build the largest and costliest cathedral ever reared by human hands, if but one sinner were converted in it—one soul turned to Christ—and then the edifice built of precious stones were thrown down, or unroofed that it might be haunted by the wind. God knows nothing of our poor miserly economies. He sets a soul in price against the universe!
"And Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, unto whom the word of the Lord came, saying, Israel shall be thy name" (1Kings 18:31).—But the kingdom was divided, and one part was called Judah, and yet Elijah speaks of Israel as one. We know the meaning well. There are grand occasions in life in which all differences, divisions, schisms, alienations, are sunk, and the true union is realised and proclaimed. England and America are no longer nationally one; monarchy and republicanism are a long way from one another; but there may arise controversies in the history of the world when the vital element that makes all Anglo-Saxon peoples one will assert itself, and bring many voices and many testimonies into the unity and emphasis of one mighty thunder. Elijah looked at Israel in its oldest and best aspects. Chargeable with serious defalcation it certainly was, yet he knew that in erecting that trial-altar he touched every nerve in the heart of undivided Israel, and made every son of Jacob a helper in his prayer.
Having made his preparations complete, and the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice having come,—the westering sun glowing upon Carmel, and the hush of a solemn expectancy falling upon the chagrined and wonderstruck mob of false prophets and their dupes, Elijah came near the altar and said—"Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and of Israel, let it be known this day that thou art God in Israel, and that I am thy servant, and that I have done all these things at thy word; hear me, O Lord, hear me, that this people may know that thou art the Lord God, and that thou hast turned their heart back again" (1Kings 18:36-37).—Notice what elements combine in this wonderful prayer: (a) What a drawing together into one body again of all that was pathetic in God's relationship to the past,—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, names that were ornaments and histories; a battle in every accent, a victory in every syllable! (b) What a projection of the past upon the destiny of the future: we make too little of the past; we grasp a hair when we might seize a cable,—when we pray, a thousand years should crowd their sacred triumphs into our supplications; all the holy dead should swell the voice of our tender cry and make it thunder in heaven as a mighty appeal: when you pray your mother prays, and her mother, and a long line of womanly intercessors, (c) What a wonderful power of concentration, of asking for one thing, of making the point clear. Do we always know what we are praying for? Do we ask for many things, without asking for one in particular? Are there not occasions on which life narrows itself into one want and into one demand? (d) What an example of simple and direct argument in prayer! We are to put the case as we see it. We see its under side or earthly aspect. God asks us to tell him what we see; to urge the case from our own point of view; and having done so, we are to leave it in his hands. Elijah did so, and this was the result:—"Then the fire of the Lord fell, and consumed the burnt sacrifice, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench" (1Kings 18:38).—Regarding this as an answer to prayer let us see what there is to account for it—(a) A great occasion; the false prophets had been challenged; they were present to witness the result; a king and a nation had been appealed to. (b) A holy character; Elijah was not an experimentalist, not a speculator; he was a holy man tried and proved, and held in high esteem in heaven; it is constant holiness that flames out into exceptional and peculiar power, (c) A worthy object; it is for a distinct and indisputable revelation of God, and this revelation was required not so much for an intellectual as for a moral purpose, namely that the heart of the people might be turned back to God. Thus however sensational (to use a word that is often misapplied) may have been the mere method of the answer, there are round about the whole incident reasons of the simplest and weightiest nature.
So much for the prayer for fire; it will be interesting to contrast with this the prayer of the same prophet for water. Elijah went up once more to the top of Carmel, and prayed unto the Lord for rain. The prayer for fire was answered at once; the prayer for water was not. By putting the two instances together we shall see how they explain one another, and what a striking argument for their common probability is established. Notice as the fundamental fact that the prayer for fire was answered instantaneously, and that the prayer for water was not answered until it had been offered seven times.
There was an urgency in the one case which there was not in the other. The king was waiting; so were the prophets; so were the people; it is an unprecedented crisis in the history of the nation. In the case of the rain, the prophet was alone; no immediate expectancy on the part of the public was to be answered.
We are not to live in the unusual and the exciting, but in the ordinary and regular. It was good for Elijah himself to be taught that he was only a suppliant, not the Lord. God has always been sparing of his exceptional manifestations. Christ was sparing in his miracles: he never did them merely for the sake of doing them. Elijah was but human, and if he had always received the same instantaneous reply that was given in the case of the fire his very power in prayer might have become a temptation. It is in the nature of man to push his success towards disastrous ends.
No human imagination would have risked such a conjunction of immediateness and delay as is given in this chapter. Such a contrary act on the part of God is a simple impossibility to the imagination. It amounts to what is called, sometimes foolishly, a discrepancy or contradiction. Yet it is the very law of the mystery of our life! We live it, but dare not imagine it! Great honours are followed by great reverses to keep us sober. God will not bring his way within the sweep of our reckoning; he will not admit us into his secret places; we see part of his way; a whisper of his method we may hear, but not the thunder of his power.
Out of this reasoning comes the high probability of the historical and literal truthfulness of the whole narrative. Literary completeness there is none. No attempt is made to satisfy the suggestions of fancy. All tricks of management, all skill in artistic disposal of incident is ignored, and truth is left to attest and vindicate its reality.