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Let us endeavour to picture the scene. It is early morning. From all sides the eager crowds are making their way toward this spot, which from remotest times has been associated with worship. No work is being done anywhere: a single thought possesses the minds of young and old alike as they respond to their king’s summons to gather together for this might concourse. Behold the many thousands of Israel occupying every foot of vantage ground from which they could obtain a view of the proceedings!
Were they to witness a miracle? Was an end now to be put unto their sufferings? Was the long hoped-for rain about to fall? A hush descends upon the multitude as they hear the tread of marshaled men: conspicuous with the sun-symbols flashing on their turbaned heads, sure of court favour and insolently defiant, come the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal.
Then, through the crowds, is carried a litter of the king, on the shoulders of his guard of honour, surrounded by his officers of state. Something like that must have been the scene presented on this auspicious occasion. “And Elijah came unto all the people” (v. 21). Behold the sea of upturned faces as every eye is focused on this strange and stern figure, at whose word the heavens had been as brass for the last three years. With what intense interest and awe must they have gazed upon this lone man of sinewy build, with flashing eyes and compressed lips. What a solemn hush must have fallen upon that vast assembly as they beheld one man pitted against the whole company. With what malignant glances would his every movement be watched by the jealous priests and prophets. As one commentator puts it, “No tiger ever watched its victim more fiercely! If they may have their way, he will never touch yonder plain again,” As Ahab himself watched this servant of the Most High, fear and hatred must have alternated in his heart, for the king regarded Elijah as the cause of all his troubles, yet he felt that somehow the coming of rain depended upon him.
The stage was now set. The huge audience was assembled, the leading characters were about to play their parts, and one of the most dramatic acts in the whole history of Israel was about to be staged. There was to be a public contest between the forces of good and evil. On the one side was Baal with his hundreds of prophets, on the other Jehovah and His lone servant. How great was the courage of Elijah, how strong his faith, as he dared to stand alone in the cause of God against such powers and numbers.
But we need not fear for the intrepid Tishbite: he needs no sympathy of ours. He was consciously standing in the presence of One to whom the nations are but as a drop in the bucket. All Heaven was behind him.
Legions of angels filled that mountain, though they were invisible to the eye of sense. Though he was but a frail creature like ourselves, yet Elijah was full of faith and spiritual power, and by that faith he subdued kingdoms, wrought righteousness, escaped the edge of the sword, waxed valiant in fight and turned to flight the armies of the aliens. “Elijah stands forth before them all with a confident and majestic mien, as the ambassador of heaven. His manly spirit, emboldened by the consciousness of the Divine protection, inspired with courage, and awed all opposition. But what an awful and loathsome sight presented itself to the man of God, to see such a gathering of Satan’s agents who had withdrawn the people of Jehovah from His holy and honorable service, and had seduced them into the abominable and debasing superstitions of the Devil! Elijah was not a kindred spirit with those who can see with composure their God insulted, their fellow-countrymen degrading themselves at the instigation of wily men, and destroying their immortal souls through the gross impositions practiced upon them. He could not look with a placid eye upon the four hundred and fifty vile impostors, who made it their business, for filthy lucre or for courtly favour, to delude the ignorant multitude to their eternal destruction. He looked upon idolatry as a crying shame: as nothing better than evil personified, the Devil deified, and Hell formed into a religious establishment; and he would regard the abettors of the diabolical system with abhorrence” (John Simpson).
It seems reasonable to conclude that Ahab and his assembled subjects would expect Elijah on this occasion to pray for rain, and that they would now witness the sudden end of the long drought and its attendant famine.
Had not the three years of which he had prophesied ( 1 Kings 17:1), run their weary course? Was mourning and suffering now to give place to joy and plenty again? Ah, but there was something else besides praying that the windows of Heaven might be opened, something of much greater importance which must first be attended to. Neither Ahab nor his subjects were yet in any fit state of soul to be made the recipients of His blessings and mercies. God had been dealing with them in judgment for their awful sins, and thus far His rod had not been acknowledged, nor had the occasion of His displeasure been removed. As Matthew Henry pointed out, “God will first prepare our hearts, and then cause His ear to hear: will first turn us to Him and then turn to us ( Psalm 10:17). Deserters must not look for God’s favors till they return to their allegiance.” “And Elijah came unto all the people, and said,” The servant of God at once took the initiative, being in complete command of the situation. It is unspeakably solemn to note that he said not a single word to the false prophets, making no attempt to convert them. They were devoted to destruction (v. 40). No, instead he addressed himself to the people, of whom there was some hope, saying, “How long halt ye between two opinions?” (v. 21). The word for “halt” is totter : they were not walking uprightly. Sometimes they tottered over to the side of the God of Israel, and then they lurched like an intoxicated person over on the side of the false gods. They were not fully decided which to follow. They dreaded Jehovah, and therefore would not totally abandon Him; they desired to curry favour with the king and queen, and so felt they must embrace the religion of the state. Their conscience forbade them to do the former, their fear of man persuaded them to do the latter; but in neither were they heartily engaged. Thus Elijah upbraided them with their inconstancy and fickleness.
Elijah made a demand for definite decision. It is to be borne in mind that Jehovah was the name by which the God of the Israelites had always been distinguished since their coming out of Egypt. Indeed, the Jehovah-God of their fathers was the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob ( Exodus 3:15,16). “Jehovah” signifies the self-existent, omnipotent, immutable, and Eternal Being, the only God, beside whom there is none else. “If Jehovah be God, follow Him: but if Baal, then follow him.” There was no “if” in the mind of the prophet: he knew full well that Jehovah was the one true and living God, but the people must be shown the untenability and absurdity of their vacillation. Religions which are diametrically opposed cannot both be right: one must be wrong, and as soon as the true is discovered, the false must be cast to the winds. The present-day application of Elijah’s demand would be this: if the Christ of Scripture be the true Saviour, then surrender to Him; if the christ of modern Christendom, then follow him. One who demands the denying of self, and another who allows the gratifying of self, cannot both be right. One who requires the uncompromising mortification of sin, and another who suffers you to trifle with it, cannot both be the Christ of God.
There were times when those Israelites attempted to serve both God and Baal. They had some knowledge of Jehovah, but Jezebel with her host of false prophets had unsettled their minds. The example of the king misled them and his influence corrupted them. The worship of Baal was popular and his prophets feted; the worship of Jehovah was discountenanced and His servants put to death. This caused the people in general to conceal any regard they had for the Lord. It induced them to join in the idolatrous worship in order to escape ill-will and persecution. Consequently they halted between the two parties. They were like “lame persons” unsteady, limping up and down. They vacillated in their sentiments and conduct.
They thought so to accommodate themselves to both parties as to please and secure the favour of both. There was no evenness in their walk, no steadiness in their principles, no consistency in their conduct. Thus they both dishonored God and debased themselves by this mongrel kind of religion, wherein the “feared the Lord, and served other gods” ( 2 Kings 17:33). But God will not accept a divided heart: He will have all or none.
He will permit of no compromise. You must declare yourself. When Moses saw the people of Israel dancing around the golden calf, after destroying the idol and rebuking Aaron, he stood in the gate of the camp and said, “Who is on the Lord’s side? let him come unto me” ( Exodus 32:26).
O my reader, if you have not already done so, resolve with godly Joshua, “But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” ( Joshua 24:15).
Nothing is so repulsive to Him as the lukewarm professor: “I would thou wert cold or hot” ( Revelation 3:15)—one thing or the other. He has plainly warned us that “no man can serve two masters.” Then “How long halt ye between two opinions?” Come to some decision one way or the other, for there can be no compromise between Christ and Belial.
There are some who have been brought up under the protection and sanctifying influence of a godly home. Later, they go out into the world, and are apt to be dazzled by its glittering tinsel and carried away by its apparent happiness. Their foolish hearts hanker after its attractions and pleasures. They are invited to participate, and are sneered at if they hesitate. And only too often, because they have not grace in their hearts, nor strength of mind to withstand the temptations, they are drawn aside, heeding the counsel of the ungodly and standing in the way of sinners.
True, they cannot altogether forget their early training, and at times an uneasy conscience will move them to read a chapter out of the Bible and to say their prayers; and so they halt between two alternatives and vainly attempt to serve two masters. They will not cleave to God alone, relinquish all for Him and follow Him with undivided hearts. They are halters, borderers, who love and follow the world, and yet retain something of the form of godliness.
There are others who cling to an orthodox creed, yet enter into the gaieties of the world and freely indulge the lusts of the flesh. “They profess that they know God; but in works they deny Him” ( Titus 1:16). They attend religious services regularly, posing as worshippers of God through the one Mediator and claiming to be indwelt by that Spirit through whose gracious operations the people of God are enabled to turn from sin and to walk in the paths of righteousness and true holiness. But if you entered their homes, you would soon have reason to doubt their pretensions. You would find no worship of God in their family circle, perhaps none, or at best a mere formal worship in private; you would hear nothing about God or His claims in their daily conversation, and see nothing in their conduct to distinguish them from respectable worldlings; yea, you would behold some things which the more decent non-professors would be ashamed of. There is such a lack of integrity and consistency in their characters as renders them offensive to God and contemptible in the eyes of men of understanding.
There are yet others who must also be classed among those who halt and hesitate, being inconstant in their position and practice. This is a less numerous class, who have been brought up in the world, amid its follies and vanities. But by affliction, the preaching of God’s Word, or some other means, they have been made sensible that they must turn to the Lord and serve Him if they are to escape the wrath to come and lay hold on eternal life. They have become dissatisfied with their worldly life, yet, being surrounded with worldly friends and relatives, they are afraid of altering their line of conduct, lest they should give offense to their godless companions and bring down upon them their scoffs and opposition. Hence they make sinful compromises, trying to conceal their better convictions but neglecting many of God’s claims upon them. Thus they halt between two opinions: what God will think of them, and what the world will think of them. They have not that firm reliance on the Lord which will lead them to break from His enemies and be out and out for Him.
There is one other class which we must mention, who, though they differ radically from those which we have described above, yet must be regarded as proper subjects to ask, “How long halt ye between two opinions?”
While they are certainly to be pitied, yet they must be reproved. We refer to those who know that the Lord is to be loved and served with all the heart and in all the He commands, but for some reason or other they fail to avow themselves openly on His side. They are outwardly separated from the world, taking no part in its empty pleasures, and none can point to anything in their conduct which is contrary to the Scriptures. They honour the Sabbath day, attend regularly the means of grace, and like to be in the company of God’s people. Yet they do not publicly take their place among the followers of Christ and sit down at His table. Either they feel too unworthy to do so, or fear they might bring some reproach on His cause.
But such weakness and inconsistency is wrong. If the Lord be God, follow Him as He bids, and trust Him for all needed grace. “If Jehovah be God, follow Him; but if Baal, then follow him.” The double minded man is unstable in all his ways” ( James 1:8). We must be as decided in our practice as in our opinion or belief, otherwise—no matter how orthodox our creed—our profession is worthless. It was evident there could not be two supreme Gods, and therefore Elijah called upon the people to make up their minds which was really God; and as they could not possibly serve two masters, let them give their whole hearts and undivided energies to that Being whom they concluded to be the true and living God.
And this is what the Holy Spirit is saying to you, my unsaved reader: weigh the one against the other—the idol you have been giving your affections unto and Him whom you have slighted; and if you are assured that the Lord Jesus Christ be “the true God” ( 1 John 5:20), then choose Him as your portion, surrender to Him as your Lord, cleave to Him as your all in all. The Redeemer will not be served by halves or with reserves. “And the people answered him not a word” (v. 21): either because they were unwilling to acknowledge their guilt, and thereby offend Ahab; or because they were unable to refute Elijah, and so were ashamed of themselves. They did not know what to say. Whether convicted or confused, we know not; but certainly they were confounded—incapable of finding an error in the prophet’s reasoning. They seem to have been stunned that such alternatives should be presented to their choice, but they were neither honest enough to own their folly nor bold enough to say they had acted in compliance with the king’s command, following a multitude to do evil. They therefore sought refuge in silence, which is to be much preferred to the frivolous excuses proffered by most of such people today when they are rebuked for their evil ways. There can be little doubt but what they were awed by the searching questions of the prophet. “And the people answered him not a word.” O for that plain and faithful preaching which would so reveal to men the unreasonableness of their position, which would so expose their hypocrisy, so sweep away the cobwebs of their sophistry, which would so arraign them at the bar of their own consciences that their every objection would be silenced, and they would stand self-condemned. Alas, on every side we behold those who are seeking to serve both God and mammon, attempting to win the smile of the world and to earn the “well done” of Christ. Like Jonathan of old, they wish to retain their standing in Saul’s palace and yet keep in with David.
And how many professing Christians there are in these days who can hear Christ and His people reviled, and never open their mouths in reprimand— afraid to stand up boldly for God, ashamed of Christ and His cause, though their consciences approve of the very things for which they hear the Lord’s people criticized. O guilty silence, which is likely to meet with a silent Heaven when they are pleased to cry for mercy.
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 by God. And all the people answered and said, It is well spoken” (vv. 22-24). This was an eminently fair challenge, because Baal was supposed to be the fire god, or lord of the sun. Elijah gave the false prophets the preference, so that the outcome of the contest might be the more conspicuous to the glory of God. The proposal was so reasonable that the people at once assented to it, which forced their seducers out into the open: they must either comply with the challenge or acknowledge that Baal was an impostor.