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Based on 1 Kings 18:21 – 39

Elijah on Mt Carmel

Elijah on Mt Carmel

One of Elijah’s great monuments in Scripture is the victory God gave him and Israel over the god Baal and his priests on Mount Carmel. The event is often recounted for the great show of strength God made in sending down fire to consume the sacrifice. It is also remembered for the boldness of God’s prophet in challenging the confident ministers of the heathen god.

While these are important aspects in and of themselves, I would like to explore a layer often unexplored, that weaves all these wonderful pieces of the story into the greater fabric of God’s plan to redeem His people from the bondage and allure of sin. The story is a beacon call to revival and reformation amongst God’s people.

21 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. 
During the period of about 931 BC to 875 BC, that is from King Jeroboam of the newly separated kingdom of Israel to Ahab, the nation of Israel was led steadily into a rejection of their faith in God. Influenced by a succession of idolatrous kings, they were led to accept and adopt the gods of the surrounding nations. The gods Baal and Ashtoreth featured prominently as the objects of their worship, and even amidst the pleading of God’s many prophets, they insisted that not the God of Elijah, but Baal, should receive the adoration of the people, for it was Baal, they said, who “brings forth the harvest in its season and provides for man and beast.” {Prophets and Kings, pp 124}

It is instructive that the story begins with a call to revival and reformation. Elijah’s challenge is not merely aimed at demonstrating an empirical truth,  but at turning the hearts of the children back to their Father. There was as much the wondrous love of God at play that day as there was his awesome power and detest of sin. The stoic philosopher Seneca said that “A large part of mankind is angry not with the sins, but with the sinners.” God showed Himself completely opposite to that vein of thought, and we will explore how, at Carmel, the same hand of reconciliation that was outstretched at Calvary is plainly to be seen.

Jesus’ earthly ministry was aimed at leading the people to a decisive decision for God. No longer should the nation of Israel continue in a feigned acknowledgement of God through empty ceremonies and vain ritual. Jesus sought to rekindle the living spirit of faith within their hearts, and to produce once more a worship that could be wholly consumable by the fire from heaven; a worship pleasing to the Father, offered in spirit and in truth.

22 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.  23 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: 

Elijah’s challenge was simple. The claim of the Jewish religious establishment was that God was truly satisfied with the state of their religion. The prophets of Baal thought similarly that they had an efficacious faith, and a god who would listen and act at the beckoning of his priests. Elijah’s choice of bull (or bullock) is highly significant. Besides the lambs and goats, bulls were offered as a sin offering on behalf of the entire nation (Leviticus 4: 3 – 12). In the atonement service the priest offered a bull as a sin offering for himself before atoning for the nation with the blood of the goat. Elijah stands as typifying the priest that the people needed. He asks for the bulls because he intends to impress upon the people their national transgression and show, not only that God endorses his ministry as a prophet, but that the sin of the nation is still forgivable.

24 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.  25 And Elijah said unto the prophets of Baal, Choose you one bullock for yourselves, and dress it first; for ye are many; and call on the name of your gods, but put no fire under.  

“… and the God that answereth by fire….” Elijah uses the Hebrew word Elohyim for God, which likely suggests a tacit jab; Elijah certainly did not believe that Baal or any other pagan gods would be able to consummate the heathen sacrifice. He seemed to say that only the one true God, Elohyim, would answer this call and show Himself mighty before them all.

26 And they took the bullock which was given them, and they dressed it, and called on the name of Baal from morning even until noon, saying, O Baal, hear us. But there was no voice, nor any that answered. And they leaped upon the altar which was made. 

From morning until noon. Long did the priests of Baal cry out to their god. Exasperated with the silence, they burst into that same cacophony that belies the faithless worship of our day. A good friend once told me that if people think that shouting rancorously in church is the way to get God’s attention then they have never shouted loudly enough. Their display was a frenzied, excited, exhausting one. They leaped upon the very altar on which they expected the fire of Baal to suddenly descend. The same disrespect for holy places and things, the same presumptuous entry in the presence of Divinity is manifest today, so that the movement of charisma almost succeeds in replacing the power of the gospel with the gospel of power.

It was the prayer of the Jewish leaders to get some sort of approval from God for their actions in crucifying Jesus. They thought not only to do this but also to win back the respect and favour of the people and the Roman authorities, and thereby secure their positions and great prosperity. Theirs was as much a frenzied attempt to demonstrate the power and rightness of their religion as any, and with much public rioting and general confusion they sought to push and nudge the Saviour to the cross.

The Jews that gathered to condemn Jesus were many indeed. There were unions forged between factioning sects such as the Pharisees and Sadducees, old foes such and Pilate and Herod, and different economic and demographic classes. There was a general consensus that Jesus should die, that the national religion should be preserved, as prophesied by the high priest, and that the old order of godless, self-righteous and Earth-centered religion should continue.

Indeed, the Jewish nations chose, and dressed their bullock well. Yet unknown to them, it was not they who chose, but Christ who lay down His own life willingly (John 10:18), and it was not a huge, feisty bull, but a small and servile Lamb, Whom Heaven lay upon the alter for the salvation of the nation of God.

27 And it came to pass at noon, that Elijah mocked them, and said, Cry aloud: for he is a god; either he ist alking, or he is pursuing, or he is in a journey, or peradventure he sleepeth, and must be awaked.  28 And they cried aloud, and cut themselves after their manner with knives and lancets, till the blood gushed out upon them.  

It appears that the people had gathered at some point in the morning to witness this great event. All the way up to noon, Baal had been prayed to, shouted to, sang to, danced to, self-mutilated to, and all to no avail.

The Jews had two daily sacrifices. The morning sacrifice, and the evening sacrifice, which were to be offered continually, day after day (Exodus 29:38-42, Numbers 28:3, 1 Chronicles 16:40, etc). It appears that on this day the people were to observe which of these competing deities was the true confirmer of the covenant of peace mediated by priests through sacrifice. Baal and God claimed the same powers and the same right to the worship of the people, and the same sacrifices. In effect, Baal claimed the office of atoner for sin, the very position of Christ, and therefore claimed sacrifice in recognition of this, much like God did through the sacrificial system established in Eden.

If Baal was really such a God, then surely he could consummate the morning phase of the daily sacrifice. Surely, he could smell the sweet savour, and answer with fire from Heaven.

29 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. 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.  

Elijah, in true Divine inspiration, then goes through a sequence that so strongly typifies the action of God in the saving of humanity that it is breathtaking to behold. After the tired priests of Baal have all but given up, Elijah calls out with that same call that Jesus gave and gives to all who turn from Him: “Come near unto me.” Once the people had gathered closer, the prophet begins to repair and old, long abandoned altar, on which once upon a time, a pious people, a royal priesthood, and a holy nation used to sacrifice to the Lord. Elijah does not construct a brand new altar. He repairs a forsaken one. The Hebrew term employed here carries the idea of “mending”, “curing”, as by a physician, “healing thoroughly”, and “making whole”. Can one fail to notice the idea of reconciliation, redemption and restoration?

The act of repairing this abandoned altar is significant. Jesus’ entire mission, and particularly his time on the cross, was meant to repair the foundation of true worship: the heart. He came to heal the broken heart. Is He not called the Great Physician? He says “These people serve me with their lips but their hearts are far away from me” (Matthew 15:8). But in love He declares, “Behold, I stand at the door (of your heart) and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens, I will come in to him” (Revelation 33:20).

All along God has sought the circumcision of our hearts (Deuteronomy 10:16, 30:6). This is to say that His greatest desire has been that we freely, committedly bind ourselves to Him. Up there on the cross, the process had already begun. Satan and his minions were at a complete shock as to what was happening. Even they could see, however blind the Jewish authorities were to it, that God, whom they had accused of tyranny, vindictiveness and lovelessness, was in Christ, reconciling man to Himself (2 Corinthians 5:19).

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.  

Expectedly, Elijah is not arbitrary in his methodology. He reconstructs this altar with twelve stones, one of each tribe of Israel, representing the entire nation of Israel. He does this despite the division of the kingdom, with Israel now only comprising ten and Judah to the south the other two (1 Kings 11:31). To God, it was still one nation spiritually, special to Him, and needful of holistic salvation.

1 Peter 2:5 intimates a similar idea. The Christian church is made of us, living stones, used to build up a temple in which a spiritual sacrifice acceptable to God is made. What can this sacrifice be? Well, just as Elijah was called to bring the people back from disobedience and apostasy, so are we admonished by the penitent Psalmist, that the sacrifice of the Lord is a broken and contrite spirit (Psalm 51:7); a heart that returns from the pits of sin to the bosom of Christ, as the prodigal son to his sweet, long missed home and his welcoming father (Luke 15:11-32).

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.  34And 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.

Here we seen in striking colour the image of Calvary merging with that of Carmel. The sin offering is slain, and lies bloody on the alter. Four barrels of water are filled, and poured on the sacrifice, three times. That is twelve barrels of water, again significant of the twelve tribes. The sublime lesson is that God is able to save entirely and utterly, though an entire nation should become so steeped in its sins. Indeed He is able to save to the uttermost those who come to God by Him (Hebrews 7:25).

While often understood to mean the drenching of the sacrifice and altar so as to make the burning more theoretically difficult, I venture to suggest that there was more to it than just that. The water must also symbolise something more. The priests of Baal, Elijah and the people had not gathered to witness a sacrifice ignited by men through whatever means of fire starting existed in their day. Elijah’s challenge was clear: there was to be only one evidence of Divinity that day: the descent of fire from the heavens and its consummation of the burned offering. Surely no one would have expected gods who could send down fire from heaven to be deterred by twelve barrels of water.

Water symbolises cleansing. Not only was the sacrifice drenched but also the entire alter of twelve stones as well as the surrounding trench. The entire nation of Israel was symbolically invited to be cleansed in this act, much like they were when they crossed – indeed as Paul shows, when they were baptised in – the red sea (1 Corinthians 10:1). The water of baptism is the symbol that the sins are washed away, and this was a public invitation to the nation of Israel to return to God and be cleansed.

As the water mingled with the blood of the sacrifice, so it mingled with the blood of the greater Sacrifice on Calvary. The water and the blood are both seen flowing out of His pierced side (John 19:34), a token of life wrapped around the signal of death. By the blood we are purchased by the King, and by the water we are washed, dressed up, and sanctified to dwell eternally in His presence.

 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.  

Once again, only as a result of the direction of He Who fashions history for the accomplishment of His divine plan, it is not until the time of the evening sacrifice, the ninth hour, 3pm as we know it today, that the event reaches the climax. Elijah stepped forward toward the alter, like Moses stepped forward into Sinai, like Aaron stepped forward into the tabernacle of meeting, to call upon the name of God, to offer sacrifice.

We will do well to be reminded what the entire purpose of sacrifice was in the first place. Sacrifice was necessary because of transgression (Hebrews 9:22), and transgression was there as a result of straying from the terms of covenant (1 John 3:4). It is no wonder that at this time, with the interest of Israel excited, and the man of God in intercession, that Elijah calls upon the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the patriarchs through whom, at the founding of the nation, the promise was made, and the covenant of peace was established between God and his people.

God was ever willing to bring Israel back that day at Carmel, as He was that day at Calvary, and at the time appointed for the evening sacrifice, which was to be a daily admission of sin and prayer for forgiveness (Exodus 29:38-42), Elijah stepped forward to make the intercession, as did Christ about a millennium and a half later, when He spoke those eternal words about the consummation of the covenant of peace and reconciliation between God and man: “It is finished.”

At about noon, the sixth hour, Elijah begins to repair the alter. At the ninth hour, at the time of the evening sacrifice, the offering is ready to be offered up. These three hours were a climaxing of the plan of salvation: a climaxing of the reconciliation of God to man. In this time, the people’s attention would have turned from the tired priests of Baal, and would have been fixed with interest of Elijah and the bull that was being prepared to be sacrificed.

The corresponding period in Christ’s day was marked by a period of darkness. Matthew 27:45 tell us that darkness covered the whole land. Heaven, in mixed sadness and anticipation, was preparing to receive the greatest Sacrifice ever offered by the hand of men. And about the ninth hour, Christ cried out with a loud voice gave up his spirit, and died.

37 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.  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.  

Total consummation. God accepted Elijah’s sacrifice in spectacular fashion. It was not merely a show of strength. It was not merely a declaration of His superiority over Baal; it was a genuine reminder to the people that if they did right, they would be accepted. The message went to them as it went to Cain: “If you do what is right, will you not be accepted?” (Genesis 4:7).

We must also note carefully the prayer that Elijah offers, in answer to which this great manifestation is made. He asks God to demonstrate to the people that He has “turned their heart back again”, once again echoing the invitation to repent and turn from their wicked ways. This is the great work of God, His great mystery, and this is the very mission of His Son: Christ in us, the hope of glory (Colossians 1:27).

An equally wonderful spectacle greeted the passing of the Lamb of God upon the cross. The heavens grew dark, and there was a great earthquake that shook the land upon His death. This was testament to both the grief of God, and of His acceptance of the sacrifice made by the Son. That this sacrifice is efficacious to the redemption of fallen mankind was evidenced by the immediate resurrection of many dead saints who stormed into Jerusalem and proclaimed the good news of new life in Christ (Matthew 27:52, 53). This was His great fire of consummation. Should God have chosen real fire to consummate this sacrifice, I dare say none who was in the vicinity of Calvary would have survived, for like Elijah’s altar, surely the entire mountain, and perhaps more, would have been consumed by the great size and intensity of that divine flame.

As Elijah finished his service at Carmel, so did Christ on Calvary. As Elijah’s was a demonstration of God’s power over evil, so was Christ’s a demonstration of His victory over sin. As Elijah’s was a judgment against the worshipers of Baal, so Christ’s is a condemnation of Satan and his minions. As Elijah’s was an invitation to turn back the wayward heart to God, so is Christ’s the means by which we may accomplish this, and as Elijah’s was the answer to a pastoral, prophetic and timely prayer, so Christ’s is the fulfilling of the greatest desire of all ages: that God Himself would abide in the hearts of His children.

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.

What more apt response? What more inspired declaration? What clearer word, what simpler truth could have been offered? The people were struck and awed that God has moved in a mighty way before them, and they were convicted. Four centuries ago their fathers had seen His dark clouds upon Mount Sinai and heard His voice, and trembled. Today they once again saw a glimpse of His awesome majesty and mighty power. The people who had hitherto sang the praises of Baal, and praised him for the dew and the rain, now turned their hearts to God, or rather, had their hearts turned by God, so that they acknowledged Him as above all, and over all.

God was true to His word: “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” (2 Chronicles 7:14)

How shall we respond when we see the bruised, battered and killed Messiah upon the cross? Can it be with indifference? Can it be a passing sight we soon forget? Or is it an indelible vision, a Damascus encounter? As Elijah prayed that God would remember and renew His covenant with the people, so Christ has died to ensure that the covenant is fulfilled in each life, and established in each heart. Yet unlike Elijah’s bull, which is dead to this day, the wonderful news is that Christ ever lives to make intercession for us (Hebrews 7:25). He is the true priest, of which Elijah that fateful day was the type.

Above all the Baals that lure us in these final days, may Christ be central. I invite you to look again upon Calvary. Look again upon the slain Christ, who hangs there because of none other but you. I invite you to allow your heart the entrance of His love, turn from your sin, and be reconciled with He Who loves you like no other person can. Like those convicted children of Israel, let our settled declaration be, that above every alluring pleasure, beyond every selfish ambition and, over every worldly impulse, The LORD, he is the God our lives and the Author and Finisher of our faith.

Photo credit: davidtlamb.com