Ahab and the people expected that Elijah would, in this solemn assembly, bless the land, and pray for rain; but he had other work to do first. The people must be brought to repent and reform, and then they may look for the removal of the judgment, but not till then. This is the right method. God will first prepare our heart, and then cause his ear to hear, will first turn us to him, and then turn to us, Ps. 10:17; 80:3. Deserters must not look for God’s favour till they return to their allegiance. Elijah might have looked for rain seventy times seven times, and not have seen it, if he had not thus begun his work at the right end. Three years and a half’s famine would not bring them back to God. Elijah would endeavour to convince their judgments, and no doubt it was by special warrant and direction from heaven that he put the controversy between God and Baal upon a public trial. It was great condescension in God that he would suffer so plain a case to be disputed, and would permit Baal to be a competitor with him; but thus God would have every mouth to be stopped and all flesh to become silent before him. God’s cause is so incontestably just that it needs not fear to have the evidences of its equity searched into and weighed.
I. Elijah reproved the people for mixing the worship of God and the worship of Baal together. Not only some Israelites worshipped God and others Baal, but the same Israelites sometimes worshipped one and sometimes the other. This he calls (1 Kgs. 18:21) halting between two opinions, or thoughts. They worshipped God to please the prophets, but worshipped Baal to please Jezebel and curry favour at court. They thought to trim the matter, and play on both sides, as the Samaritans, 2 Kgs. 17:33. Now Elijah shows them the absurdity of this. He does not insist upon their relation to Jehovah—“Isa. he not yours, and the God of your fathers, while Baal is the god of the Sidonians? And will a nation change their god?” Jer. 2:11. No, he waives the prescription, and enters upon the merits of the cause:—“There can be but one God, but one infinite and but one supreme: there needs but one God, one omnipotent, one all-sufficient. What occasion for addition to that which is perfect? Now if, upon trial, it appears that Baal is that one infinite omnipotent Being, that one supreme Lord and all-sufficient benefactor, you ought to renounce Jehovah and cleave to Baal only: but, if Jehovah be that one God, Baal is a cheat, and you must have no more to do with him.” Note, 1. It is a very bad thing to halt between God and Baal. “In reconcilable differences (says bishop Hall) nothing more safe than indifferency both of practice and opinion; but, in cases of such necessary hostility as betwixt God and Baal, he that is not with God is against him.” Compare Mark 9:38, 39; Matt. 21:30. The service of God and the service of sin, the dominion of Christ and the dominion of our lusts, these are the two thoughts which it is dangerous halting between. Those halt between them that are unresolved under their convictions, unstable and unsteady in their purposes, promise fair, but do not perform, begin well, but do not hold on, that are inconsistent with themselves, or indifferent and lukewarm in that which is good. Their heart is divided (Hos. 10:2), whereas God will have all or none. 2. We are fairly put to our choice whom we will serve, Josh. 24:15. If we can find one that has more right to us, or will be a better master to us, than God, we may take him at our peril. God demands no more from us than he can make out a title to. To this fair proposal of the case, which Elijah here makes, the people knew not what to say: They answered him not a word. They could say nothing to justify themselves, and they would say nothing to condemn themselves, but, as people confounded, let him say what he would.
II. He proposed to bring the matter to a fair trial; and it was so much the fairer because Baal had all the external advantages on his side. The king and court were all for Baal; so was the body of the people. The managers of Baal’s cause were 450 men, fat and well fed (1 Kgs. 18:22), besides 400 more, their supporters or seconds, 1 Kgs. 18:19. The manager of God’s cause was but one man, lately a poor exile, hardly kept from starving; so that God’s cause has nothing to support it but its own right. However, it is put to this experiment, “Let each side prepare a sacrifice, and pray to its God, and the God that answereth by fire, let him be God; if neither shall thus answer, let the people turn Atheists; if both, let them continue to halt between two.” Elijah, doubtless, had a special commission from God to put it to this test, otherwise he would have tempted God and affronted religion; but the case was extraordinary, and the judgment upon it would be of use, not only then, but in all ages. It is an instance of the courage of Elijah that he durst stand alone in the cause of God against such powers and numbers; and the issue encourages all God’s witnesses and advocates never to fear the face of man. Elijah does not say, “The God that answers by water” (though that was the thing the country needed), but “that answers by fire, let him be God;” because the atonement was to be made by sacrifice, before the judgment could be removed in mercy. The God therefore that has power to pardon sin, and to signify it by consuming the sin-offering, must needs be the God that can relieve us against the calamity. He that can give fire can give rain; see Matt. 9:2, 6.
III. The people join issue with him: It is well spoken, 1 Kgs. 18:24. They allow the proposal to be fair and unexceptionable “God has often answered by fire; if Baal cannot do so, let him be cast out for a usurper.” They were very desirous to see the experiment tried, and seemed resolved to abide by the issue, whatever it should be. Those that were firm for God doubted not but it would end to his honour; those that were indifferent were willing to be determined; and Ahab and the prophets of Baal durst not oppose for fear of the people, and hoped that either they could obtain fire from heaven (though they never had yet), and the rather because, as some think, they worshipped the sun in Baal, or that Elijah could not, because not at the temple, where God was wont thus to manifest his glory. If, in this trial, they could but bring it to a drawn battle, their other advantages would give them the victory. Let it go on therefore to a trial.
IV. The prophets of Baal try first, but in vain, with their god. They covet the precedency, not only for the honour of it, but that, if they can but in the least seem to gain their point, Elijah may not be admitted to make the trial. Elijah allows it to them (1 Kgs. 18:25), gives them the lead for their greater confusion; only, knowing that the working of Satan is with lying wonders, he takes care to prevent a fraud: Be sure to put no fire under. Now in their experiment observe,
I. How importunate and noisy the prophets of Baal were in their applications to him. They got their sacrifices ready; and we may well imagine what a noise 450 men made, when they cried as one man, and with all their might, O Baal! hear us, O Baal! answer us; as it is in the margin: and this for some hours together, longer than Diana’s worshippers made their cry, Great is Diana of the Ephesians, Acts 19:34. How senseless, how brutish, were they in their addresses to Baal! (1.) Like fools, they leaped upon the altar, as if they would themselves become sacrifices with their bullock; or thus they expressed their great earnestness of mind. They leaped up and down, or danced about the altar (so some): they hoped, by their dancing, to please their deity, as Herodias did Herod, and so to obtain their request. (2.) Like madmen they cut themselves in pieces with knives and lancets (1 Kgs. 18:28) for vexation that they were not answered, or in a sort of prophetic fury, hoping to obtain the favour of their god by offering to him their own blood, when they could not obtain it with the blood of their bullock. God never required his worshippers thus to honour him; but the service of the devil, though in some instances it pleases and pampers the body, yet in other things it is really cruel to it, as in envy and drunkenness. It seems, this was the manner of the worshippers of Baal. God expressly forbade his worshippers to cut themselves, Deut. 14:1. He insists upon it that we mortify our lusts and corruptions; but corporeal penances and severities, such as the Papists use, which have no tendency to that, are no pleasure to him. Who has required these things at your hands?
2. How sharp Elijah was upon them, 1 Kgs. 18:27. He stood by them, and patiently heard them for so many hours praying to an idol, yet with secret indignation and disdain; and at noon, when the sun was at the hottest, and they too expecting fire (then if ever), he upbraided them with their folly; and notwithstanding the gravity of his office, and the seriousness of the work he had before him, bantered them: “Cry aloud, for he is a god, a goodly god that cannot be made to hear without all this clamour. Surely you think he is talking or meditating (as the word is) or he is pursuing some deep thoughts, (in a brown study, as we say), thinking of somewhat else and not minding his own matter, when not your credit only, but all his honour lies at stake, and his interest in Israel. His new conquest will be lost if he do not look about him quickly.” Note, The worship of idols is a most ridiculous thing, and it is but justice to represent it so and expose it to scorn. This will, by no means, justify those who ridicule the worshippers of God in Christ because the worship is not performed just in their way. Baal’s prophets were so far from being convinced and put to shame by the just reproach Elijah cast upon them that it made them the more violent and led them to act more ridiculously. A deceived heart had turned them aside, they could not deliver their souls by saying, Isa. there not a lie in our right hand?
3. How deaf Baal was to them. Elijah did not interrupt them, but let them go on till they were tired, and quite despaired of success, which was not till the time of the evening sacrifice, 1 Kgs. 18:29. During all that time some of them prayed, while others of them prophesied, sang hymns, perhaps to the praise of Baal, or rather encouraged those that were praying to proceed, telling them that Baal would answer them at last; but there was no answer, nor any that regarded. Idols could do neither good nor evil. The prince of the power of the air, if God has permitted him, could have caused fire to come down from heaven on this occasion, and gladly would have done it for the support of his Baal. We find that the beast which deceived the world does it. He maketh fire come down from heaven in the sight of men and so deceiveth them, Rev. 13:13, 14. But God would not suffer the devil to do it now, because the trial of his title was put on that issue by consent of parties.
V. Elijah soon obtains from his God an answer by fire. The Baalites are forced to give up their cause, and now it is Elijah’s turn to produce his. Let us see if he speed better.
1. He fitted up an altar. He would not make use of theirs, which had been polluted with their prayers to Baal, but, finding the ruins of an altar there, which had formerly been used in the service of the Lord, he chose to repair that (1 Kgs. 18:30), to intimate to them that he was not about to introduce any new religion, but to revive the faith and worship of their fathers’ God, and reduce them to their first love, their first works. He could not bring them to the altar at Jerusalem unless he could unite the two kingdoms again (which, for correction to both, God designed should not now be done), therefore, by his prophetic authority, he builds an altar on Mount Carmel, and so owns that which had formerly been built there. When we cannot carry a reformation so far as we would we must do what we can, and rather comply with some corruptions than not do our utmost towards the extirpation of Baal. He repaired this altar with twelve stones, according to the number of the twelve tribes, 1 Kgs. 18:31. Though ten of the tribes had revolted to Baal, he would look upon them as belonging to God still, by virtue of the ancient covenant with their fathers: and, though those ten were unhappily divided from the other two in civil interest, yet in the worship of the God of Israel they had communion with each other, and they twelve were one. Mention is made of God’s calling their father Jacob by the name of Israel, a prince with God (1 Kgs. 18:31), to shame his degenerate seed, who worshipped a god which they saw could not hear nor answer them, and to encourage the prophet who was now to wrestle with God as Jacob did; he also shall be a prince with God. Ps. 24:6; Thy face, O Jacob! Hos. 12:4. There he spoke with us.
2. Having built his altar in the name of the Lord (1 Kgs. 18:32), by direction from him and with an eye to him, and not for his own honour, he prepared his sacrifice, 1 Kgs. 18:33. Behold the bullock and the wood; but where is the fire? Gen. 22:7, 8. God will provide himself fire. If we, in sincerity, offer our hearts to God, he will, by his grace, kindle a holy fire in them. Elijah was no priest, nor were his attendants Levites. Carmel had neither tabernacle nor temple; it was a great way distant from the ark of the testimony and the place God had chosen; this was not the altar that sanctified the gift; yet never was any sacrifice more acceptable to God than this. The particular Levitical institutions were so often dispensed with (as in the time of the Judges, Samuel’s time, and now) that one would be tempted to think they were more designed for types to be fulfilled in the evangelical anti-types than for laws to be fulfilled in the strict observance of them. Their perishing thus is the using, as the apostle speaks of them (Col. 3:22), was to intimate the utter abolition of them after a little while, Heb. 8:13.
3. He ordered abundance of water to be poured upon his altar, which he had prepared a trench for the reception of (1 Kgs. 18:32), and, some think, made the altar hollow. Twelve barrels of water (probably sea-water, for the sea was near, and so much fresh water in this time of drought was too precious for him to be so prodigal of it), thrice four, he poured upon his sacrifice, to prevent the suspicion of any fire under (for, if there had been any, this would have put it out), and to make the expected miracle the more illustrious.
4. He then solemnly addressed himself to God by prayer before his altar, humbly beseeching him to turn to ashes his burnt-offering (as the phrase is, Ps. 20:3), and to testify his acceptance of it. His prayer was not long, for he used no vain repetitions, nor thought he should be heard for his much speaking; but it was very grave and composed, and showed his mind to be calm and sedate, and far from the heats and disorders that Baal’s prophets were in, 1 Kgs. 18:36, 37. Though he was not at the place appointed, he chose the appointed time of the offering of the evening sacrifice, thereby to testify his communion with the altar at Jerusalem. Though he expected an answer by fire, yet he came near to the altar with boldness, and feared not that fire. He addressed himself to God as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, acting faith on God’s ancient covenant, and reminding people too (for prayer may prevail) of their relation both to God and to the patriarchs. Two things he pleads here:—(1.) The glory of God: “Lord, hear me, and answer me, that it may be known (for it is now by the most denied or forgotten) that thou art God in Israel, to whom alone the homage and devotion of Israel are due, and that I am thy servant, and do all that I have done, am doing, and shall do, as thy agent, at thy word, and not to gratify any humour or passion of my own. Thou employest me; Lord, make it appear that thou dost so;” see Num. 16:28, 29. Elijah sought not his own glory but in subserviency to God’s, and for his own necessary vindication. (2.) The edification of the people: “That they may know that thou art the Lord, and may experience thy grace, turning their heart, by this miracle, as a means, back again to thee, in order to thy return in a way of mercy to them.”
5. God immediately answered him by fire, 1 Kgs. 18:38. Elijah’s God was neither talking nor pursuing, needed not to be either awakened or quickened; while he was yet speaking, the fire of the Lord fell, and not only, as at other times (Lev. 9:24; 1 Chron. 21:26; 2 Chron. 7:1) consumed the sacrifice and the wood, in token of God’s acceptance of the offering, but licked up all the water in the trench, exhaling that, and drawing it up as a vapour, in order to the intended rain, which was to be the fruit of this sacrifice and prayer, more than the product of natural causes. Compare Ps. 135:7. He causeth vapours to ascend, and maketh lightnings for the rain; for this rain he did both. As for those who fall as victims to the fire of God’s wrath, no water can shelter them from it, any more than briers or thorns, Isa. 27:4, 5. But this was not all; to complete the miracle, the fire consumed the stones of the altar, and the very dust, to show that it was no ordinary fire, and perhaps to intimate that, though God accepted this occasional sacrifice from this altar, yet for the future they ought to demolish all the altars on their high places, and, for their constant sacrifices, make use of that at Jerusalem only. Moses’s altar and Solomon’s were consecrated by the fire from heaven; but this was destroyed, because no more to be used. We may well imagine what a terror the fire struck on guilty Ahab and all the worshippers of Baal, and how they fled from it as far and as fast as they could, saying, Lest it consume us also, alluding to Num. 16:34.
VI. What was the result of this fair trial. The prophets of Baal had failed in their proof, and could give no evidence at all to make out their pretensions on behalf of their god, but were perfectly non-suited Elijah had, by the most convincing and undeniable evidence, proved his claims on behalf of the God of Israel. And now, 1. The people, as the jury, gave in their verdict upon the trial, and they are all agreed in it; the case is so plain that they need not go from the bar to consider of their verdict or consult about it: They fell on their faces, and all, as one man, said, “Jehovah, he is the God, and not Baal; we are convinced and satisfied of it: Jehovah, he is the God” (1 Kgs. 18:39), whence, one would think, they should have inferred, “If he be the God, he shall be our God, and we will serve him only,” as Josh. 24:24. Some, we hope, had their hearts thus turned back, but the generality of them were convinced only, not converted, yielded to the truth of God, that he is the God, but consented not to his covenant, that he should be theirs. Blessed are those that have not seen what they saw and yet have believed and been wrought upon by it more than those that saw it. Let it for ever be looked upon as a point adjudged against all pretenders (for it was carried, upon a full hearing, against one of the most daring and threatening competitors that ever the God of Israel was affronted by) that Jehovah, he is God, God alone. 2. The prophets of Baal, as criminals, are seized, condemned, and executed, according to law, 1 Kgs. 18:40. If Jehovah be the true God, Baal is a false God, to whom these Israelites had revolted, and seduced others to the worship of him; and therefore, by the express law of God, they were to be put to death, Deut. 13:1-11. There needed no proof of the fact; all Israel were witnesses of it: and therefore Elijah (acting still by an extraordinary commission, which is not to be drawn into a precedent) orders them all to be slain immediately as the troublers of the land, and Ahab himself is so terrified, for the present, with the fire from heaven, that he dares not oppose it. These were the 450 prophets of Baal; the 400 prophets of the groves (who, some think, were Sidonians), though summoned (1 Kgs. 18:19), yet, as it should seem, did not attend, and so escaped this execution, which fair escape perhaps Ahab and Jezebel thought themselves happy in; but it proved they were reserved to be the instruments of Ahab’s destruction, some time after, by encouraging him to go up to Ramoth-Gilead, 1 Kgs. 22:6.