The Battle on the Mountain
Scripture: 1 Kings 18
Synopsis: The Battle on the Mountain! It was a titanic struggle for the hearts and minds of the people of Israel. On one side: the pagan god, Baal with 450 prophets. On the other side: Yahweh with one lone prophet. Who will send the fire from heaven? Who will win the battle? And what was at stake? Elijah’s challenge continues to ring out today: “If Yahweh (the God of the Bible) is God, then follow him. If ______ (you fill in the blank) is God then follow him.” It’s decision time! 1 Kings 18
1 Kings 18 contains one of the most dramatic and exciting stories in the Old Testament. I have given my sermon the title, The Battle on the Mountain. The mountain is Mount Carmel, a hill some 1700 feet high, near the Mediterranean Sea, south of the present day port city of Haifa. I have stood on Mount Carmel and looked east out across the wide valley of Jezreel. From another vantage point on the mountain you can turn and look west out across the Mediterranean Sea. The battle that took place there was a battle for the hearts and minds of the people of Israel during a very dark period in their history. It is the landmark event in the life and ministry of Elijah, the prophet; the story we all associate with his name.
To set the stage, we left off last week at the end of 1 Kings 17 with the nation in the grip of a terrible drought. This fact alone gives us a vital clue to the issues at stake in the story. The stories of Elijah are found in the middle of the historical books of the Old Testament, and the record of the history of the nation Israel. In order to understand the history of Israel, we have to understand the covenant that God made with Israel when he gave them the Promised Land. It was a conditional covenant. In the Book of Deuteronomy, God clearly laid out the conditions of the covenant. There were certain conditions that would lead to prosperity and to blessings. And there were other conditions that would lead to disaster, tragedy and cursing. The blessings were intended as rewards for their obedience and the disasters were intended as warnings, to wake them up and to bring them back to the Lord in repentance and renewed obedience.
One of the clearest signs God established in the covenant was that of the giving and the withholding of rain. Let me read from Deuteronomy 11:13-17:
“And if you will indeed obey my commandments that I command you today, to love the Lord your God, and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul, 14 he will give the rain for your land in its season, the early rain and the later rain, that you may gather in your grain and your wine and your oil. 15 And he will give grass in your fields for your livestock, and you shall eat and be full. 16 Take care lest your heart be deceived, and you turn aside and serve other gods and worship them; 17 then the anger of the Lord will be kindled against you, and he will shut up the heavens, so that there will be no rain, and the land will yield no fruit, and you will perish quickly off the good land that the Lord is giving you.
So, when Elijah appeared before King Ahab at the beginning of 1 Kings 17 and announced that the rain was going to stop for several years, it was no random judgment or circumstance. As Ahab and Jezebel persisted in leading the people deeper and deeper into idolatry and pagan worship, God was announcing his intention to carry out the conditions of the covenant. He is simply saying, “Your hearts are turning aside to other gods. Therefore, I am shutting off the rain.”
That pronouncement had come true, and three and a half years have now passed since the last rainfall. Conditions in the land were desperate. God now begins to move to drive home his lesson and to call the people back to himself. He announces his intentions in the opening verses of the chapter:
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.” 2 So Elijah went to show himself to Ahab. Now the famine was severe in Samaria. (1 Kings 18:1-2)
And so the story begins. We are first told how Elijah makes his appearance to the king. In the process, we are introduced to another intriguing character in the story. The king is desperate. The drought is even affecting the capital and his own animals. So he sets off on an expedition to comb the entire country for fodder for his precious horses and livestock. He enlists the help of the man who he trusts as his chief steward, the one who is in charge of running his whole household. His name is Obadiah. Unexpectedly, we are told that Obadiah is a man who “greatly feared Yahweh.” He is a true and devout worshiper of Yahweh as the God of Israel. In fact his very name reflects his character. “Obed” or “Ebed” is the Hebrew root word for “servant” and the last syllable is once again the first syllable of Yahweh. Obadiah, the servant of Yahweh.
How he rose in the ranks of Ahab’s servants, we do not know. But I have my speculation. He had risen in the ranks because, as a servant of Yahweh, he was an honest man. Ahab knew he could be trusted. He was apparently a secret worshiper of Yahweh. But he was not a passive or an inactive one. He had risked, not only his position, but his very life to hide and feed 100 of Yahweh’s prophets throughout the long years of drought.
I want to pause here for a few minutes of reflection. The chapters we are studying are focused on the prophet Elijah. But this section of the chapter gives us a valuable and intentional clue – Elijah was not the only true worshiper left in Israel. God still had his people in key places: his servants who believed in Yahweh as the living God of Israel and who “stood in his presence” ready to do his will, even when it was hard; even when it was incredibly dangerous.
During my years here in Abu Dhabi, I have often marveled at where God has his people. In government offices, ruler’s palaces, offices and classrooms of higher learning, interacting with people at the very highest echelons of influence in the country. How did they get there? By the sovereign appointment of God. But also by being men and women of integrity; men and women of excellence who can be trusted to speak truth and do the right thing. That is one way God’s people can make an impact. But then there may come the time when God’s man or woman is in the right place and the right time – when he or she must to be ready to risk it all for God’s kingdom. Just like Obadiah, “Servant of Yahweh” risked everything to hide the prophets and smuggle food to them day after day, keeping alive the worship of the true God in Israel.
Well, that is just some food for thought for all of us to take home and meditate on. Let’s move on with the story. Ahab and Obadiah go in opposite directions, searching for forgotten or hidden patches of grass to keep their animals alive. Suddenly, Obadiah is met by the prophet Elijah. He recognizes him immediately, and defers respectfully to him as a servant and prophet of the Most High God. Elijah tells him to go and tell the king that Elijah has appeared.
Obadiah at first declines to do so. He is afraid that Elijah will disappear again and he will be held accountable for either making up the story, or even worse, now helping to hide the prophet. In either case, he could be executed by the angry king, who has spent three years searching everywhere for Elijah. But when Elijah reassures him that he will, indeed, appear to the king that very day, Obadiah goes to make the announcement.
When he hears that Elijah is near, King Ahab goes to meet him. The meeting does not start out well. Ahab accuses Elijah of being the source of the nation’s troubles. He greets him with these words: Is it you, you troubler of Israel?”
Elijah responds in the role of the true prophet: “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.
Remember, the role of the prophets was always to remind the nation of the covenant. Why was there a drought in Israel? Why had it not rained for three long years? Was it because Elijah was a trouble maker? No. He had simply been God’s spokesman to announce the drought. The real cause of the drought was the apostasy and disobedience of Israel’s rulers, including Ahab himself. This was the true cause of the disaster which had fallen upon the nation.
Elijah then instructs Ahab to assemble the people at Mount Carmel, along with the prophets of Baal and the female goddess Asherah. There Elijah challenges the people about their double mindedness. 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.” (verse 21)
The image is a graphic one. A person who limps lurches back and forth; first one way and then the other. A person who limps is also crippled, moving slowly if at all. This was the moral condition of the nation. They couldn’t make up their mind; back and forth, first one way then the other; observe a Jewish festival one weekend and then go to the temple of Baal the next. “Make up your minds!” Elijah thundered. “Decide who the true God is and follow him! Be done with this endless vacillation.”
The verse ends on a telling note. The text reads: And the people did not answer him a word. And with their silence they spoke volumes.
So Elijah proposes a great contest; a Battle on the Mountain, to determine who the true and living God is, once and for all. The conditions of the contest are simple. “Two bulls, two altars, wood, but no fire. You pray and call on Baal. I will pray and call on Yahweh. Whoever answers and sends fire from heaven, we will know that he is the true and living God.”
It is worth noting here that Baal was known as the god of fertility, who sent the rain to replenish the earth. He was also the god of storms and of lightening. This was his arena, his area of influence. Mount Carmel was also located close to the border between Israel and Phoenicia. Phoenicia, the land of Tyre and Sidon was Baal’s back yard – his territory. Not only that, but there are 400 prophets of Baal assembled there on the mountain against Elijah, the lone prophet of God. All the advantages are ceded to Baal.
The people agree – this is a fair test. And so the battle begins. The prophets of Baal go first. Listen to the description in verses 26-29:
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.
The heavens remained silent. The pieces of the sacrifice lay untouched on the altar, drying out in the afternoon sun as the flies no doubt began to gather.
Finally Elijah stepped forward, as if to say, “Now it’s my turn.” He called the people to draw close. Then he reconstructed an old, discarded altar. He took 12 stones, representing the 12 tribes of Israel. He cut up the bull and laid it out upon the altar with the wood. He dug a trench around the altar. Then he did something strange. In a time of drought, he called for water; four clay jugs full. “Pour the water over the altar,” he instructed. Then “Do it again.” And, “Do it a third time.” The water saturated the sacrifice and the wood and ran down the altar until it filled the trench.
Finally, when all was prepared, Elijah stepped up and began to pray. In contrast to the frantic shouting and dancing of the prophets of Baal, his prayer was simple, dignified, confident, as though he was speaking to a living Person; a Person who was actually present and listening.
“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.”
The words were hardly out of his mouth when the fire fell. From a clear blue sky, like a lightning bolt. Was there sound? We are not told. But the fire fell and consumed the sacrifice, the wood, the stones of the altar and even the dust and the water in the trench all around. Nothing was left except the scorch marks on the earth where the altar had been.
When they saw it, the watching multitude fell on their faces, shouting: “Yahweh hue’ HaElohim! Yahweh hue HaElohim’!” “Yahweh is God! Yahweh is God!”
It was a dramatic moment on the mountain. But more was yet to come. Elijah commanded that the prophets of Baal be seized. The instructions of God under the covenant were clear in Deuteronomy 13. Prophets who led the people astray into the worship of false gods were to be killed. And so they seized them and led them down the mountain and executed them there.
Even then the drama was not yet complete. The chapter began with a promise of rain. Yet, overhead the sun still shone in a clear blue sky. So Elijah went back up the mountain and bowed down to pray. Then he sent his servant to the top of the mountain to look out over the Mediterranean Sea. He came back with the report: “All clear. I don’t see anything.” Elijah kept praying and told him to go look again. Seven times he sent him to look out over the sea. Finally the man returned with the news. “I see a small cloud gathering, about the size of the palm of my hand.”
With that news, Elijah sent word to Ahab. “Get in your chariot and head for your palace in Jezreel before you get caught in the rain!” The cloud grew and the sky grew dark, and soon the rain began to fall, heavier and heavier. In a final display of God’s power on Elijah, he got up, tucked his robe up into his belt and began to run. It is 25 miles from Mt. Carmel to Jezreel. Elijah not only ran the whole way, but he outran King Ahab’s chariot and horses and arrived at the entrance of Jezreel before the king. It was a final exclamation point on a remarkable day. A day in which God confronted the forces of darkness and won a remarkable victory as he displayed his power before the nation. A day in which God, by his grace, urged the people once again to turn from their foolish and sinful ways and to turn back to him as the one and only true God; the living God; the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. A day when God, by his grace, once again sent the rain of his blessing upon the land.
I wasn’t there that day. Neither were you. I wish I had been! But even though I wasn’t there, I do know this. The living God who displayed his power on Mount Carmel that day is still alive today. He hasn’t changed. His power is undiminished. He doesn’t always choose to display it in such dramatic ways. God is sovereign and even unpredictable in his display of his power. He does miracles as and when he chooses, and not at our demand. But here in the pages of the Scripture his power is recorded for us to believe in, receive by faith and respond in worship. And in the face of such a record and such a display of God’s power, I am convinced that God would also have us listen to the words of Elijah which he spoke on the mountain that day.
How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if someone else is god, then follow him.”
We live in an age of relativism and syncretism. “Believe whatever you want. As long as you are sincere, you’ll be OK. All roads lead to heaven. There are no wrong answers.” And so we limp; back and forth, back and forth. Let’s make up our minds. If the Lord, the God revealed in Scripture is God, he demands exclusive worship. If he is the true God, then he is the only God. Let’s follow him. If he’s not, then let’s quit pretending and stop wasting our time. He will not be one God among many. He is the one true God, or he is no God at all.
What will our decision be? And then let us remember. This is not a decision that we can make with our minds only, while our lives, actions, and values remain unchanged. If he is God, follow him. He demands our love, our loyalty and our obedience. He is looking for Obadiahs and Elijahs who not only believe in him as the living God, but stand in his presence as his servants, ready to do his will.
QUESTIONS FOR THOUGHT AND DISCUSSION
- What feelings or thoughts come to you as read the dramatic story in 1 Kings 18?
- What lessons do you think we can take away from Obadiah’s role in the kingdom and what he did (verses 3-16)?
- Share an experience in which you witnessed the power of God at work. What effect did your experience have on you? Was the effect temporary or permanent?
- Read Elijah’s challenge to the people in 1 Kings 18:21. What do you think God might be saying to you through his words? Is there someone in your life right now who needs to hear this challenge? How might you be able to share it with him/her?
- Compare the prayer pattern of the prophets of Baal and of Elijah. What lessons can we learn about prayer from this comparison?
- Name meanings are often significant in the Scripture. Elijah means “Yahweh is God” and Obadiah means “Servant of Yahweh”. If you were to choose a name meaning for yourself (one that you would aspire to live up to) what might it be? (Limit yourself to 3 words)