Commentary: Headed North to Mount Carmel

Welcome back, fellow travelers!

An hour or so ago we, loaded back onto the bus after a long walk along the Mediterranean Sea and the ruins of Caesarea Maritima. We are now headed 40 minutes north, to the top of Mount Carmel, the Monastery there, and the monastery’s beautiful gardens maintained by the Carmelite Order.

Biblically, Mount Carmel is often referenced as a symbol of beauty and fertility.  To be given the “splendor of Carmel” was to be blessed, indeed (Isaiah 35:2).  Solomon praised his beloved by saying, “your head crowns you like Mount Carmel” (Song of Songs 7:5).

Sitting at 1,742 feet above sea level Mount Carmel is most famous for a story, which takes place during the troubling times of King Ahab’s reign between 872-852 B.C.E. It started when Ahab’s father, Omri, had signed a treaty with the King of Phoenicia by accepting his daughter, Jezebel, as the wife for his son, Ahab.

Along with Jezebel, Ahab also inherited her practices of worshipping foreign gods, the Ba’al. This is why you should make sure you ask all the important questions when dating. But Ahab didn’t, and In a bid to keep his wife happy, he permitted Jezebel to bring the worship of Baal into Israel and even built her a private temple where she could worship Ba’al (1 Kings 16:31–33).

But Jezebel wasn’t content to just worship Ba’al privately. Her desire was to make her worship, the worship of the people of Israel, so she persecuted those who worshipped the one true God of Israel, Yahweh. Because they gave themselves to the worship of Ba’al, Israel endured more than three years without any rain.

The rain is actually a very important point in the story, so don’t let it pass you by too quickly; hold onto it.

It is at this point in the story that the prophet Elijah, whose name means “The Lord is my God,” makes his entrance. His name is a good one for a man who has been sent by God to call the people back to the worship of the God of Israel. And it is on Mount Carmel that we have the showdown between God’s man, the prophet Elijah, and Jezebel’s priests, the prophets of Ba’al.

The confrontation begins as Elijah comes to the people at Mount Carmel and says, “How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Ba’al, then follow him.” I find it interesting that Elijah doesn’t make an argument. Instead, he is here on behalf of the truth, and he will let the truth speak for itself. He begins by calling the people to stop sitting on the fence. If the truth they claimed was truly the truth, then they should stop limping around because it was crippling them. It is as if he said, “If you believe what you believe then stand up (straight) for what you say you believe.” Word.

So Elijah presents a challenge to help them to see the truth, and it’s a pretty good one…

He said, “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.” (1 Kings 18:22-24) And all the people answered, “It is well spoken.”

The Hebrew of “It is well spoken” means, “hey, that’s a pretty good challenge!” The real point of this challenge was which “god,” Yahweh of Israel or Ba’al really mattered? I personally love that Elijah didn’t see the need to  “argue for God”, but instead by the nature of the challenge Elijah let God answer that question for Himself. God is more than willing to answer if we just would just learn to let Him speak for Himself.

Now, back to the main event…

“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.” (1 Kings 18:25-29) 

I want you to note that Elijah gave every possible advantage to the prophets of Ba’al in saying, “choose for yourselves.” He did not want anyone to say that somehow he had rigged the fight, that there was an unfair advantage given to slant this battle in Yahweh’s favor.

“and they 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. 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.” 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.” (1 Kings 18:26-29) 

Remember, the point of this challenge is which God truly matters, and which truth was really true.

And shocking, Ba’al didn’t answer. With absolute conviction, the story tells us that Ba’al is no god by his silence. I mean, no god is real if he doesn’t matter or make a difference in the lives of the people who follow him, right? What Elijah is showing the people then, and us today, is that the things that attempt to stake a claim as gods in our lives truly have no power when it really matters.

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.” (1 Kings 18:30)

Again the prophet calls the people to come near. This is the invitation to see what Yahweh is going to do. This is such a gift for people who have desperately been clinging to the wrong truth.

“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,” 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. 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.” 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. And the water ran around the altar and filled the trench also with water.” (1 Kings 18:31-35) 

Many who teach this story focus on the miracle of the fire from heaven, and they are not wrong to do so, but in making that the focus they often miss something very important. Remember, because of Israel’s disobedience there was a drought in the land. Water was a scarce commodity and not something to waste on theatrics. With each jar of water, Elijah called for, the people must have thought, “That’s our water! What a fool!”

The Apostle Paul would later write in 1 Corinthians 1:25, that “the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” I have to believe that wasting a precious commodity like water on wet wood seemed pretty foolish to the people. One of the things that I have learned over the years, is that the fear of looking foolish is really a pathway to pride. And that weakness, the willingness to look foolish for something truly important, is often the heart of true strength.

I have to admit I love that Elijah puts himself in the weakest possible position in the contest. It reveals he has no doubt that the one true God, Yahweh would answer, because He cares about His people.

So, Elijah prays to Yahweh…

“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.” (1 Kings 18:36-39)

Notice the massive difference between Elijah’s prayer in contrast to the all-day prayers from the priests of Ba’al’s. Elijah knew that Yahweh already knew what He needed to do, so he didn’t just confess Yahweh as God, but asked Him to reveal himself to the people as God.

Our prayers tell people much about us.

It serves as a barometer for our truth.

Friends, we do not have to persuade God to be God.

Prayer is not to convince or coax God; it is to confess before God our faith in Him.

 “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.” (1 Kings 18:38)

What a miracle! Yes, but the true miracle is in the next verse…

And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, “The Lord, he is God; the Lord, he is God.” (1 Kings 18:38-39)

This is the miracle. A people who were crippled by a lie, limping between two truths, have returned to the one true God of Israel.

But the impact of this moment is not just felt on the mountain. On our last trip our Israeli guide, Eitan Ritov, told us earlier in the year there was a terrible storm in the area of Mount Carmel, and that during the storm he was able to see lightning strike the top of the mountain from his home over 60 miles away in the Galilee region. Think about that for a moment. It means that the testimony of Yahweh wasn’t just for those on the mountain, but all those up to, and maybe even over, 60 miles away! That friend, is the power of the truth.

But wait there is more. Remember the water?

“And the heavens grew black with clouds and wind, and there was a great rain.” (1 Kings 18:45) That water poured out on the wood wasn’t wasted.

It is a great story, isn’t it? But like all great stories, I want us to be careful because we can so often make a story about what it isn’t. This story is not about Elijah, about the miracle of fire, the water, the people, or even the rain. It is about the truth of God and the extent that He will go to share Himself with us.

Even in ways that might look weak or foolish, God will always do whatever is necessary to make Himself known. Ba’al the pagan god never showed up, and that is the problem with gods which are not really gods; you just can’t depend on them. But the one true God of Israel, the same God who sent His own Son Jesus Christ into the world from which we celebrate Christmas, did show up, and He continues to show up – even today. That’s the truth.

As we say at the conclusion of every adventure in the land:

Till next time…In Israel!

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