We now find ourselves at the titular moment of 1 Kings. Perhaps when you first read of the prophet Elijah in chapter 17, your mind skipped ahead to this exact scene — that is, the scene of Elijah’s contest with the prophets of Baal on the slopes of Mt. Carmel. The plot points in this narrative are familiar enough, what with the prophetic competition and the altars and the fire. However, this chapter, for all its familiarity and all its drama, is significant for us not only because of the miracles on display. Rather, it is significant precisely because of what those miracles demonstrate: 1 Kings 18 shows us exactly the type of religion we have.
What kind of religion do you practice at church? Have you ever pondered that question? Many would rightly say that we who are of the Protestant class of religion don’t really have a “religion,” per se, we have a relationship. And by all accounts this is true. But one is gravely mistaken in assuming that the church’s relationship with Christ does not also entail religious fervor and faith. Whereas other systems of belief are either “all religion” or “all relationship,” Christianity (a.k.a., the religion of Yahweh) is different — precisely because ours is a relational religion. We are in a religious relationship with the One who spoke worlds into existence, who created from nothing, and yet chose to visit us as one of us (Ps. 8:4–5; Heb. 2:5–8; Phil. 2:5–8).
What, then, does our religion look like? What makes it different? And how does the religion of the Bible (of Yahweh) compare to other religions of the world? Look no further than the “Contest at Carmel,” in which we are presented with four distinguishing features of the religion of Yahweh.
A religion of resolve.
Elijah returns to Samaria under the direction of Yahweh himself (1 Kings 18:7–8). He comes back with the divine commission to confront the iniquitous and idolatrous King Ahab (1 Kings 18:18). And in that initial meeting between Ahab and Elijah, it is Elijah who appears to rule.
Now therefore send, and gather to me all Israel unto Mount Carmel, and the prophets of Baal four hundred and fifty, and the prophets of the groves four hundred, which eat at Jezebel’s table. (1 Kings 18:19)
Elijah is noticeably ordering King Ahab around, summoning him to “send and gather” all the prophets of his gods, essentially reducing the ruthless monarch of Israel to nothing but a messenger-boy. “Go, do my bidding,” Elijah says in effect. And what’s astounding is Ahab does just that — he goes and gathers all “the prophets together unto Mount Carmel” (1 Kings 18:20). “Sent” and “gather” are the same in both verses, perhaps indicating just how desperate Ahab was for this dreaded famine to be over — so desperate, in fact, that the king acquiesces to become a momentary errand-boy following the instructions of Yahweh’s prophet.
In any case, Elijah gets everyone’s attention with one of the boldest opening salvos ever recorded:
And Elijah came unto all the people, and said, How long halt ye between two opinions? If the Lord be God, follow him: but if Baal, then follow him. And the people answered him not a word. Then said Elijah unto the people, I, even I only, remain a prophet of the Lord; but Baal’s prophets are four hundred and fifty men. Let them therefore give us two bullocks; and let them choose one bullock for themselves, and cut it in pieces, and lay it on wood, and put no fire under: and I will dress the other bullock, and lay it on wood, and put no fire under: and call ye on the name of your gods, and I will call on the name of the Lord: and the God that answereth by fire, let him be God. And all the people answered and said, It is well spoken. (1 Kings 18:21–24)
Here, Elijah relays the terms for the “contest” he and the prophets of Baal are about to have. Each “team” was to get a bull to dress and prepare for sacrificing, but they were to “put no fire under” it (1 Kings 18:23). Instead, each team would be given the chance to call on their respective deity to supernaturally ignite the altar and engulf the sacrifice. Baal vs. Yahweh, whichever deity strikes first, wins. It’s a contest of prayer and spontaneous combustion. And for as corny as this sounds, this is Elijah’s exact premise (1 Kings 18:21, 24). The prophet of God engages the prophets of Baal in the ultimate religious contest: a primetime public show in which either the god of the hour (Baal) or the God of “old time religion” (Yahweh) would be proven true. “Let him be God,” Elijah says, “winner take all.”
We are obliged to pause and wrap our heads around what is truly at stake, here, and what makes this “contest” so monumental. (1) Elijah is “out of place.” He didn’t just happen upon Mt. Carmel or choose that site at random. According to many, Mt. Carmel was the site of an ancient sanctuary for Baal worship. Some have even called it “Baal’s Bluff,”1 which meant that Elijah wasn’t merely going into enemy territory, he was going into sacred enemy territory for the sole purpose of dismantling everyone’s sacrosanct veneration of that place.
But, furthermore, (2) Elijah is “out of bounds.” Baal worship is all the rage at this point, placating to Israel’s immediate (felt) needs. It had everything going for it, complete with political backing, tradition (Judg. 2:11–13), and a sensuous liturgy that appealed to the masses. Baal worship scratched the Israelites’ itching ears (2 Tim. 4:3). Seemingly everyone is in favor of the liturgy of Baal. Thus when Elijah pits himself against all the prophets of Baal, he’s making a serious move against the grain, against what’s popular. He is subjecting himself not only to fierce criticism but also grave endangerment by standing up for this God so called Yahweh. “No worships him anymore,” the crowd might’ve jeered.“That’s the God of those older folks. That’s the tired, boring religion where no one’s allowed to have any fun.” Elijah, therefore, is urging the multitudes to witness and, ultimately, accept the truth of a religion that was seen as woefully outdated and past its prime.
Finally, though, (3) Elijah is outnumbered. Not only is Elijah touting the merits of “old time religion” in place where it does not belong, he is doing so as its only voice. In case you missed it, the historian reminds us no less than three times in just a few verses that Elijah was outnumbered (1 Kings 18:19, 22, 25). “I, even I only, remain a prophet of Yahweh,” the prophet declares. This “contest,” then, appears more like a “suicide mission.” Maybe Obadiah’s concerns were right after all. Maybe this was a bad plan. But, as Dale Ralph Davis notes,2 “Yahweh’s power has never depended on how many cheerleaders he has.”
Therefore, notwithstanding all that was against him — despite being “out of place,” “out of bounds,” and grossly outnumbered — what do we find Elijah doing? We find him faithfully “standing in the gap” (Ezek. 22:30), calling for all of Israel to witness, to confess, to repent in the presence of Yahweh alone. Such is Elijah’s true summons. His true invitation is for the multitudes to see Yahweh’s power. He is, in a way, setting up the prophets of Baal to fail, knowing that whatever they try won’t work. But him telling them that and them seeing that are two totally different things.
Elijah resolves, therefore, to engage in this “contest” despite all that was against him precisely because he knew who was with him, Yahweh himself. And he is with you, as well. Looking at the state of the world right now, you might be led to believe that Christianity is in much the same state as in Elijah’s day. “Out of place.” “Out of bounds.” “Out of touch.” But guess whose God is still alive? Whose God is always on the move? Yahweh! The Christian religion (religion of Yahweh) is a religion of resolve — precisely because “the Lord of hosts liveth” (1 Kings 18:15).
A religion of relief.
With the ground-rules agreed upon, Elijah lets the home team go first (1 Kings 18:25). They put their bull carcass on the altar and begin crying out to Baal. “From morning even until noon” they cried, but nothing happens (1 Kings 18:26) — not even a spark, not even a flicker. Elijah, then, delays the inevitable by goading the prophets of Baal into even more deranged displays of religiosity:
And it came to pass at noon, that Elijah mocked them, and said, Cry aloud: for he is a god; either he is talking, or he is pursuing, or he is in a journey, or peradventure he sleepeth, and must be awaked. (1 Kings 18:27)
Elijah’s mockery of the prophets of Baal is worthy of consideration. His first jab was that they had an issue of volume. Baal couldn’t hear them, so they had to cry louder. “Perhaps he’s meditating,” Elijah taunts, “or on vacation, or he’s napping, so raise your voices to stir him to acknowledge you.” Demonstrating their religiosity, they take the bait and proceed to make quite a show of themselves:
And they cried aloud, and cut themselves after their manner with knives and lancets, till the blood gushed out upon them. And it came to pass, when midday was past, and they prophesied until the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice, that there was neither voice, nor any to answer, nor any that regarded. (1 Kings 18:28–29)
This spectacle is not only disturbing, it is devastating. The silence is deafening, the stillness demoralizing. Despite all their frantic and frenzied attempts to get Baal to move, to do anything at all, nothing happened. “There was neither voice, nor any to answer” (1 Kings 18:26, 29). There was no one listening. And how dissimilar this unsettling, hysterical display of the prophets of Baal is compared to the quiet, calm, deliberate prayer of Elijah:
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. 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. (1 Kings 18:36–37)
The Lord’s prophet prays steadily. No panic. No frenzy. No hype. No crazed displays of religiosity — just a simple prayer. “Hear me, O Lord, hear me.” Indeed, Elijah’s demeanor throughout this contest is decidedly not panicky or frantic — precisely because he didn’t need to be. He was Yahweh’s servant, a messenger of the Living God. And, as G. Campbell Morgan terms it,3 “if you worship God your life is linked to Omnipotence, your life is linked to Omniscience, your life is linked to Omnipresence.”
Notwithstanding how loud someone worships, if it is to a dead god, the worship is empty and vain. The cacophony of noise which bespeaks the worship of pagan deities matters little in the grand scheme of things. Don’t be taken up by the showmanship of those who claim to be “worshiping.” Christianity is not a religion of kitschy show or overblown panic. If there is a preacher out there who is making you distraught and disturbed through the course of his preaching, it’s a good bet he’s not preaching the Christian faith. The Christian religion is a religion of relief.
The message of Christianity is meant to relieve you of your sins and unburden you from a maniacal worry about tomorrow — precisely because of the One who has already shouldered your sins and has already ordered the end of all things. Panic gives way to peace, frenzy fades into faith when Christ is preached. The entire ministry of the Christian religion is one of relief in the knowledge of sins paid for and tomorrows cared for by Christ alone.
A religion of remembrance.
The “prayers” of the prophets of Baal amount to nothing, and now it is Elijah’s turn. He begins by “repairing the altar of the Lord that was broken down” (1 Kings 18:30). The movement to replace Yahweh with Baal had apparently extended to demolishing all the old altars. Elijah takes his time rebuilding this one, stone by stone. “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: and with the stones he built an altar in the name of the Lord” (1 Kings 18:31–32). He goes a step further, though, in demonstrating the true power of Yahweh by dousing the altar in water:
He made a trench about the altar, as great as would contain two measures of seed. 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. 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. And the water ran round about the altar; and he filled the trench also with water. (1 Kings 18:32–35)
Anyone in their right mind knows that Elijah is going to have a terribly frustrating time getting that wood to ignite now. “Why in the world did he do that?” I imagine the crowd murmuring. But the Lord’s prophet is unphased, approaching the altar calmly, prayerfully (1 Kings 18:36–37). And after his prayer, fireworks! A fireball falls from heaven, consuming everything. “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” (1 Kings 18:38). This dazzlingly divine moment of spontaneous combustion left no room for doubt: this was a work of God. Such was Elijah’s entire point.
“Elijah had stacked the deck against Yahweh,” Davis notes, “so that when his fire came there could be no other explanation except that it was an ‘act of God.’”4 He’s giving them no recourse, no excuse for what they’re witnessing. His prayer isn’t, necessarily, for fire to fall in order to astound the crowd, but for Yahweh to “turn their hearts back again.” The fire isn’t the point — it’s what the fire would demonstrate. Namely, that Yahweh alone is God (1 Kings 18:37).
Elijah’s prayer is that God would evidence the holy might of his name so that none would question his sovereign authority. His intent was to bring Israel to a place of remembrance; to remind them who their God was. He is Yahweh, the covenant-making and covenant-keeping God for whom nothing is impossible (Gen. 18:14; Exod. 15:11; 34:10; Pss. 40:5; 78:4; Jer. 32:17, 27; Zech. 8:6; Matt. 19:26; Luke 1:37). The prophet’s calculated rebuilding of this altar serves to remind Israel of Yahweh’s covenant with them through Moses, through Noah, and (ultimately) through Adam. It’s an unmistakable emblem that those old promises are still valid. However greatly Israel had failed and forgotten their way, Yahweh still remembered them. All that was “broken down” could be repaired because Yahweh was still the “God in Israel” (1 Kings 18:36). In that way, then, this “contest” is Israel’s opportunity. Such is how Dale Ralph Davis sees it5:
There is a hint of mercy and a glimmer of hope in the text. If Elijah is Yahweh’s prosecutor, he is also his evangelist. If Carmel is Israel’s rebuke, it is also her invitation . . . the Carmel contest proves not only that Yahweh is truly God but that he is truly gracious. He is not only the real God but the reconciling God. Yahweh’s fire is both an overt proof and a subtle invitation.
The intentional reminder of the covenants brings to mind all the things God has done and has promised to do on behalf of his people. The fire, then, is a demonstrable marker that those words are still true. May we, too, be captured by a continual remembrance of the God who is for us, both now and forever.
A religion of righteousness.
The ending of this story catches us off guard. The brilliant theatrics of fire falling from heaven is certainly dazzling (1 Kings 18:38). The response of the people is incredibly moving (1 Kings 18:39). But then Elijah seemingly spoils everything by having all the prophets of Baal slaughtered.
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. 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. (1 Kings 18:39–40)
What should we do with this? What are we to make of this? Isn’t this a little “over-the-top” on Elijah’s part? Does he really need to slaughter all of them? In short, yes, because that’s in keeping with the law of God (Exod. 22:20; Deut. 13:5; 17:2–5; 18:20). But the deeper point, perhaps, is that the annihilation of Baal’s prophets is indicative of the type of God Yahweh is. He is a God of unflinching righteousness and zealous holiness. He is jealous for the hearts of his people (Exod. 20:5; 34:14; Deut. 5:9; 6:15; Josh. 24:19). He does not stand idly by while his own are seduced with the hysterical noise of false religion. Instead, he consumes all unholiness in white hot righteousness.
Yahweh is “a consuming fire, even a jealous God” (Deut 4:24; 9:3; Heb 12:29). Those who set out to replace or dethrone the King of kings, seducing others to follow along, will one day find that for all their attempts to do so there is no overthrowing the Lord of all things. “Here is no tame God,” writes Davis; “he — we might say — keeps slopping over into my life, claiming it, invading it, refusing to allow me to put him in his religion box. We may prefer a god we have domesticated — we show him his deity litter and keep him in his place. But that is not the real God.”6 The real God is alive, and he sits enthroned in the heavens as the only sovereign before whom the whole world will eventually bow (Phil 2:10–11).
Thus, in the end, there is no “contest.” Not really. There are no other “competing religions.” There is only one God, there is no other. There is only one religion in which our resolve, our relief, our remembrance, our righteousness is found — and that is with the religion which announces that Yahweh has taken on flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14).
Dale Ralph Davis, 1 Kings: The Wisdom and the Folly (Ross-shire, England: Christian Focus, 2020), 234–35.
G. Campbell Morgan, The Westminster Pulpit: The Preaching of G. Campbell Morgan, Vols. 1–10 (Fincastle, VA: Scripture Truth Book Co., 1954), 7.218.
Davis, 238, 240.