ELIJAH 1 – ELIJAH AND THE PROPHETS OF BAAL

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SET READINGS (Proper 4)

  • 1 Kings 18:20-39
  • Luke 7:1-10
  • Galatians 1:1-12
  • Psalm 96

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STICKING YOUR HEAD ON THE BLOCK

Have you ever been in a position where you felt you had to take a stand against some bad behaviour or wrong teaching that needed to be challenged?

Have there been occasions when you probably should have said or done something and didn’t?

In many situations, believers are putting themselves at considerable risk just by meeting together in home groups to study the Bible and worship God.  How much would you be willing to risk if you lived in a country where it was illegal to meet together for Christian worship?

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CONFRONTING THE PROPHETS OF BAAL (1 Kings 18:20-39)

The Northern Kingdom of Israel has descended into chaos. Ruled by King Ahab, who “did more evil in the eyes of the LORD than any of those before him” (1 Kings 16:30) and his cruel and conniving wife Jezebel, who has made Baal worship the principle religion, and whose idolatrous priests and prophets control the hearts and minds of the people.

Into this toxic situation steps Elijah. God commands him to confront King Ahab and tell him,

“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.”
(1 Kings 17:1)

After this confrontation, God sends Elijah into hiding, but in God’s purposes the time comes, after three and a half years, for Elijah to come back into the open and confront the people and the prophets of Baal once again. Elijah challenges Ahab. And Ahab sends messengers throughout the land to gather the people at Mount Carmel. Elijah also sends for “the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and the four hundred prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table.” (1 Kings 18:19)

We know that the relationship between Elijah and the prophets of Baal would have been as bad as it could get, but Baal was also facing a people who were deeply influenced by the idolatry and culture of Canaanite religion. 1 Kings 18:21 tells us they were “wavering between two opinions”. Maybe they still had a nagging guilt, and knew at the back of their minds that they should be worshipping Yahweh, but no-one had the strength of character to stand against Baal worship. They were attempting to sit on the fence, to appease both sides.

Elijah declares before the people that, “I am the only one of the LORD’s prophets left.” That’s not strictly true, as we know there were one hundred others who were hidden away in caves from Jezebel’s view. But Elijah was the only one willing to put his head above the parapet and confront the idolatry and false religion face to face.

The confrontation involves preparing two sacrifices. Elijah undertakes to follow the same procedure as the prophets of Baal – to prepare the altar, lay the wood for the sacrifice, but to trust their God to send down fire to consume the sacrifice. “Then you call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the LORD. The god who answers by fire–he is God.”

Fire is characteristic of the power of Yahweh, symbolic of his holiness as he descends in the fire and the cloud on Mount Sinai, his protection and guidance in the cloud and pillar of fire through the desert wanderings, and his righteous judgement on Sodom and Gomorrah. And maybe most important in this situation, a purifying fire that comes to cleanse the hearts of his people and turn them back to God.

So the prophets of Baal,

… took the bull given them and prepared it. Then they called on the name of Baal from morning till noon. “O Baal, answer us!” they shouted. But there was no response; no one answered. And they danced around the altar they had made.

Elijah stands and watches them until noon, then he starts taunting them, winding them up.

“Shout louder!… Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.”

One phrase in this verse is significantly toned down. Being “busy” is almost certainly a euphemism, and a pretty crude one. The CJB (Complete Jewish Bible) has “Maybe … he’s on the potty”, or to Anglicise the terminology, “Maybe he’s gone to the loo”.

Is this too much? How does Elijah get away with using this kind of language? Psalm 96, the Psalm set for this week’s readings, includes the following lines:

For great is the LORD and most worthy of praise; he is to be feared above all gods.
For all the gods of the nations are idols, but the LORD made the heavens.
Splendor and majesty are before him; strength and glory are in his sanctuary.

Elijah has a very high view of his God Yahweh, and knows, as the Psalmist says, that all other “gods” are just idols, with no power whatsoever to bring about any harm or retribution for his taunts. Whereas Yahweh is worthy of all honour and praise, Baal is worthy only of dishonour and shame. Elijah is making the points that the prophets of Baal are worshipping nothing more than an idol of wood or clay.

The prophets of Baal redouble their efforts, shout louder, slash themselves with swords and spears until their blood flows, but to no avail… until the time of the evening sacrifice, when time comes for Elijah to offer his sacrifice.

Note that Elijah doesn’t use the same altar as the prophets of Baal had used. Rather he “repaired the altar of Yahweh which was in ruins”. He rebuilds it by taking 12 stones – unhewn stones as specified in Deut 27:5-6 – representing the 12 tribes of Israel. Of course everything Elijah does here is symbolic. Rebuilding the broken altar mirrors God’s desire to restore the broken nation of Israel, to bring them back together as one nation under his holy presence.

Elijah very deliberately and carefully follows God’s instructions for building the altar and laying the sacrifice, showing the necessity for God’s people to return to a life of obedience to God’s covenant commands.

And it’s certainly no coincidence that he waited all day until the time of the evening sacrifice. The sacrifice should have been offered at the same time at the Temple in Jerusalem. That’s unlikely, as the Temple (apart from a short time under good King Josiah) had fallen into disrepair, and become a home for Canaanite idols and temple prostitutes.

But by choosing the proper time of the evening sacrifice, Elijah reflects God’s desire to bring all his people, from north and south, to offer sacrifices of righteousness that will rise as a sweet savour of praise and worship to a loving and forgiving Heavenly Father.

But Elijah hasn’t finished. He tells the people to pout four large jars of water over the sacrifice and over the wood, then to do the same again, and again. Twelve full jars in all, again symbolic. Elijah is making 100% certain that when God’s send his fire down to consume the offering there is no doubt whatsoever that it’s Yahweh who gets the credit and the glory.

And Elijah’s powerful prayer is also clearly designed to give all the glory to God, not to himself.

“O LORD, 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, O LORD, answer me, so these people will know that you, O LORD, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.”

So God sends his fire to consume the offering, and the wood, and the water in the trough around the altar… and the miracle of God’s consuming fire has the desired effect:

When all the people saw this, they fell prostrate and cried, “The LORD–he is God! The LORD–he is God!”

In the medium/long-term context the reformation didn’t last, although Elisha continues Elijah’s prophetic ministry, and Jezebel meets a very gory (and deserved) end. Israel continued to descend into idolatry and sin, and finally is defeated and taken into exile by Assyria. But Elijah’s courage and faith in God, and his example of powerful and effective prayer, is recorded as an example for us to follow as we are faced with today’s challenges and confrontations in a fallen and sinful world.

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PAUL CONFRONTS THE FALSE RELIGION OF THE “JUDAISERS” (Galatians 1:1-12)

Although there are no intended parallels between the OT, NT and Epistle readings in the period between Trinity and Advent, there are still some surprising connections and parallels to be found.

The situation facing Paul, and his response to it, are so similar to Elijah’s situation that it’s beyond being a coincidence.

  1. Paul is writing to believers who are being drawn away from the true Gospel message by false teachers, often referred to as “Judaisers”, who are teaching that new believers must be circumcised and follow the commands and customs of the Jewish religion. Paul says these people are “throwing you into confusion”, much like the people of Israel who were “wavering between two opinions”.

Both congregations needed to be confronted with the wrongness and futility of the false religion and false teaching which they were following, and restored to the true faith.

  1. Paul, like Elijah, is very much standing on his own in upholding the freedom of gentile believers and opposing the legalism of the Judaisers. He even has a face-to-face confrontation with Peter, because Peter is guilty of standing with the Judaisers (the “circumcision group”)

When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong.
Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray. (Galatians 2:11-13)

  1. Paul emphasizes, like Elijah, that his authority in confronting this situation comes not from himself, but from God. He is acting as God’s servant and spokesman, and it is God’s purpose to correct their false teaching and restore them to the true faith

…sent not from men nor by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father

  1. Paul insists that any teaching that does not reflect the true message as received from the teaching of Jesus himself is “no gospel at all, just as the false gods of Elijah’s day were no gods, but worthless idols.
  2. Paul’s condemnation of the false teachers is harsh, and deliberately repeated word for word to emphasise the strength of his feelings. We may feel (especially today when our culture puts tolerance very high on the social agenda) that he is being unreasonable in his attitude.

If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!

What today’s reading from 1 Kings omitted was the fact that Elijah had the prophets of Baal seized and slaughtered. From today’s viewpoint we might consider this unreasonably violent. But consider the seriousness of the situation. Jezebel and her priests of Baal were leading the whole nation into idolatry and in danger of bringing on themselves destruction and exile in historical time, and eternal condemnation for rejecting the God of their salvation.

In the longer term. Israel as a nation reverted to their idolatrous practices and was defeated and scattered among the gentile nations, But Elijah’s courageous stand, and the consequent reformation and return to the true worship of Yahweh brought temporary relief from judgement and exile.

In the same way, Paul is condemning the Judaisers because their teaching is attempting to divert the gentile believers from the true gospel and shackle them with legalistic rules and regulations.

Jesus used very similar language of those who sought to put stumbling blocks in the way of those seeking to follow the true way of faith.

Jesus replied, “And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.
(Luke 11:46)

Whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me. But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.
(Matthew 18:5-6)

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DISCUSSION …

Read the set passage from Luke 7:1-10

In the OT and Epistle readings we have seen the courage and faith of Elijah and Paul, who were willing to stand out on their own against those who were opposing the truth of God.

In Luke 7:9 Jesus says of the Roman Centurion: “I tell you, I have not found such great faith even in Israel.”

  • What was so special about the Centurion’s faith?
  • Jesus says he has not seen such faith “even in Israel”. What does this say about the people of Israel in Jesus’ day?
  • The Pharisees placed considerable burdens and legalistic regulations on the people, which Jesus condemned, and Paul also struggled with Jewish believers who wanted to place conditions on the gentile believers. What did Jesus require of the Centurion in order to answer his prayers?
  • Whose example should we follow?… Why?

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MEDITATION …

Today’s Psalm provides an ideal accompaniment to the story of Elijah and prophets of Baal.

The Psalm praises the holiness and majesty of God, and contrasts God’ power and glory with the impotence of the “gods” of the nations. “He is to be feared above all gods. For all the gods of the nations are idols, but the LORD made the heavens.”

Note especially that the capitalized form “LORD” stands in place of the Hebrew Yahweh, the name “above every name” that was so holy to the Jews that they never pronounced it out loud, so we don’t actually know for certain how the word was pronounced. (It’s written in Hebrew just with the four letters YHWH).

Read the Psalm out loud and it becomes even more obvious just how many times the name of Yahweh is repeated. He is far above everything that we can imagine in heaven and earth!

Psalm 96

Sing to the LORD a new song;
sing to the LORD, all the earth.
Sing to the LORD, praise his name;
proclaim his salvation day after day.

Declare his glory among the nations,
his marvelous deeds among all peoples.
For great is the LORD and most worthy of praise;  
he is to be feared above all gods.
For all the gods of the nations are idols,
but the LORD made the heavens.
Splendor and majesty are before him;
strength and glory are in his sanctuary.

Ascribe to the LORD, O families of nations,
ascribe to the LORD glory and strength.
Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name;
bring an offering and come into his courts.
Worship the LORD in the splendor of his holiness;
tremble before him, all the earth. 

Say among the nations, “The LORD reigns.”
The world is firmly established, it cannot be moved;
he will judge the peoples with equity.

Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad;
let the sea resound, and all that is in it;
let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them.
Then all the trees of the forest will sing for joy;
they will sing before the LORD, for he comes,
he comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness
and the peoples in his truth.