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The righteous are bold as a lion: undeterred by difficulties, undismayed by the numbers which are arrayed against difficulties, undismayed by the numbers which are arrayed against them. If God be for them ( Romans 8:31), it matters not who be against them, for the battle is His and not theirs. True, there were “a hundred men of the Lord’s prophets” hidden away in a cave (v. 13), but what were they worth to His cause? Apparently they were afraid to show their faces in public, for there is no hint that they were present here on Carmel. Out of the four hundred and fifty-one prophets assembled on the mount that day, Elijah only was on the side of Jehovah. Ah, my readers, truth cannot be judged by the numbers who avow and support it: the Devil has ever had the vast majority on his side.
And is it any otherwise today? What percentage of present-day preachers are uncompromisingly proclaiming the truth, and among them how many practice what they preach? “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” (vv. 23, 24). The time had now arrived when things must be brought to a head:
It was of the utmost importance that the people of Israel should be roused from their ungodly indifference and that it should be incontrovertibly settled who was the true God, entitled to their obedience and worship.
Elijah therefore proposed to put the matter beyond dispute. It had already been demonstrated by the three years” drought, at the word of the prophet, that Jehovah could withhold rain at His pleasure, and that the prophets of Baal could not reverse it or produce either rain or dew. Now a further test shall be made, a trial by fire, which came more immediately within their own province, since Baal was worshipped as the lord of the sun, and his devotees consecrated to him by “passing through the fire” ( 2 Kings 16:3). It was therefore a challenge which his prophets could not refuse without acknowledging they were but impostors.
Not only was this trial by fire on which forced the prophets of Baal out into the open and therefore made manifest the emptiness of their pretensions, but it was one eminently calculated to appeal to the minds of the people of Israel. On how many a glorious occasion in the past had Jehovah “answered by fire!” That was the sign given to Moses at Horeb, when “the Angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush: and he looked, and behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed” ( Exodus 3:2).
This was the symbol of His presence with His people in their wilderness wanderings: “The Lord went before them by day in a pillar of a cloud, to lead them the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light” ( Exodus 13:21).
Thus it was when the covenant was made and the Law was given, for “mount Sinai was altogether on a smoke, because the Lord descended upon it in fire: and the smoke thereof ascended as the smoke of a furnace” ( Exodus 19:18).
This too was the token He gave of His acceptance of the sacrifices which His people offered upon His altar: “there came a fire out from before the Lord, and consumed upon the altar the burnt offering and the fat: which when all the people saw, they shouted, and fell on their faces” ( Leviticus 9:24).
So it was in the days of David: (see 1 Chronicles 21:26). Hence the descent of supernatural fire from heaven on this occasion would make it manifest to the people that the Lord God of Elijah was the God of their fathers.
The drought was a Divine judgment upon the idolatrous country and God’s wrath must be appeased before His judgment could be averted. And this leads us to the deeper meaning of this remarkable drama. There can be no reconciliation between a holy God and sinners save on the ground of atonement, and there can be no atonement or remission of sins except by the shedding of blood. Divine justice must be satisfied: the penalty of the broken law must be inflicted—either on the guilty culprit or upon an innocent substitute. And this grand and basic truth was unmistakably set before the eyes of that assembled host on Mount Carmel. A bullock was slain, cut in pieces, and laid upon wood, and He who caused fire to descend and consume that sacrifice avouched Himself to be the true and only God of Israel. The fire of God’s wrath must fall either on the guilty people or on a sacrificial substitute.
As we have pointed out above, the descent of fire from Heaven on the vicarious victim ( 1 Chronicles 21:26), was not only the manifestation of God’s holy wrath, consuming that upon which sin was laid, but it was also the public attestation of His acceptance of the sacrifice, as it ascended to Him in the smoke as a sweet-smelling savor. It was therefore an evident proof that sin had been dealt with, atoned for, put away, Divine holiness now being vindicated and satisfied. Therefore it was that on the day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit descended, appearing as “cloven tongues like as of fire,” Acts 2:3. In his explanation of the phenomena of that day, Peter said, “This Jesus hath God raised up, whereof we all are witnesses.
Therefore being by the right hand of God exalted, and having received of the Father the promise of the Holy Ghost, He hath shed forth this, which ye now see and hear,” and again, “Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God hath made that same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ” ( Acts 2:32,33,36).
The gift of the Spirit as “tongues like as of fire” evidenced God’s acceptance of Christ’s atoning sacrifice, testified to His resurrection from the dead, and affirmed His exaltation to the Father’s throne. “The God that answereth by fire.” Fire, then, is the evidence of the Divine presence ( Exodus 3:2): it is the symbol of His sin-hating wrath ( Mark 9:43-49): it is the sign of His acceptance of an appointed and substitutionary sacrifice, ( Leviticus 9:24): it is the emblem of the Holy Spirit ( Acts 2:3), who enlightens, inflames and cleanses the believer.
And it is by fire that He shall yet deal with the unbeliever, for when the despised and rejected Redeemer returns, it will be “in flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God and that obey not the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ: who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord” ( 2 Thessalonians 1:8,9).
And again it is written, the Son of man shall send forth His angels, and they shall gather out of His kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity; and shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth” ( Matthew 13:41,42). Unspeakably solemn is this: alas that the unfaithful pulpit now conceals the fact that “our God is a consuming fire” ( Hebrews 12:29). O what a fearful awaking there will yet be, for in the last day it shall appear that “whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire” ( Revelation 20:15). “Let them therefore give us two bullocks; and let them choose one bullock for themselves, and cut it in pieces, and lay it on the 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.” It will thus be seen that the test submitted by Elijah was a threefold one: it was to center around a slain sacrifice; it was to evidence the efficacy of prayer; it was to make manifest the true God by the descent of fire from Heaven, which in its ultimate significance pointed to the gift of the Spirit as the fruit of an ascended Christ. And it is at these same three points, my reader, that every religion—our religion—must be tested today. Does the ministry you sit under focus your mind upon, draw out your heart unto, and demand your faith in, the atoning death of the Lord Jesus Christ? If it fails to do so, you may know it is not the gospel of God. Is the One you worship a prayer-answering God? If not, either you worship a false god, or you are not in communion with the true God. Have you received the Holy Spirit as a sanctifier? If not, your state is no better than that of the heathen.
It must of course be borne in mind that this was an extraordinary occasion, and that Elijah’s procedure supplies no example for Christ’s ministers to follow today. Had not the prophet done according to divine commission, he had acted in mad presumption, tempting God, by demanding such a miracle at His hands, placing the truth at such hazard. But it is quite clear from his own statement that he acted on instructions from Heaven: “I have done all these things at Thy Word” (v. 36). That, and nothing else but that, is to regulate the servants of God in all their undertakings: they must not go one iota beyond what their Divine commission calls for. There must be no experimenting, no acting in self-will, no following of human traditions; but a doing of all things according to God’s Word. Nor was Elijah afraid to trust the Lord as to the outcome. He had received his orders, and in simple faith had carried them out, fully assured that Jehovah would not fail him, and put him to confusion before that great assembly. He knew that God would not place him at the front of the battle, and then desert him. True, a wondrous miracle would have to be wrought, but that occasioned no difficulty to one who dwelt in the secret place of the Most High. “And the god that answereth by fire, let Him by God,” let Him be accounted and owned as the true God: followed, served and worshipped as such. Since He has given such proofs of His existence, such demonstrations of His mighty power, such manifestations of His character, such a revelation of His will, all unbelief, indecision and refusal to give Him His rightful place in our hearts and lives is utterly inexcusable. Then let Him by your God, by surrendering yourself to Him. He does not force Himself upon you, but condescends to present Himself to you: deigns to offer Himself to your acceptance, bids you choose Him by an act of your own will. His claims upon thee are beyond dispute. It is for thine own good that thou shouldest make Him thy God—thy supreme good, thy portion, thy King. It is thine irreparable loss and eternal destruction if thou failest to do so. Heed, then, that affectionate invitation of His servant: “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service” ( Romans 12:1). “And all the people answered and said, It is well spoken” (v. 24). They were agreed that such a proposal should be made, for it struck them as an excellent method of determining the controversy and arriving at the truth as to who was the true God and who was not. This would be a demonstration to their senses, the witnessing of a miracle. The word which Elijah had addressed to their conscience had left them silent, but an appeal to their reason was at once approved. Such a supernatural sign would make it evident that the sacrifice had been accepted of God, and they were eagerly anxious to witness the unique experiment. Their curiosity was all alive, and they were keen to ascertain whether Elijah or the prophets of Baal should obtain the victory. Alas, such is poor human nature; ready to witness the miracles of Christ, but deaf to His call to repentance; pleased with any outward show that appeals to the senses, but displeased with any word that convicts and condemns. Is it thus with us ?
It is to be noted that Elijah not only gave his opponents choice of the two bullocks, but also conceded them the stage for the first trial, that they might, if they could, establish the claims of Baal and their own power, and thus settle the dispute without any further action: yet knowing full well they would be foiled and confused. In due course the prophet would do, in every respect, what they had done, so that there should be no difference between them. Only one restriction was placed upon them (as also on himself) namely, “put no fire under” (v. 23), the wood—so as to prevent any fraud. But there was a deeper principle involved, one which was to be unmistakably demonstrated that day on Carmel—man’s extremity is God’s opportunity. The utter impotency of the creature must be felt and seen before the power of God could be displayed. Man has first to be brought to the end of himself ere the sufficiency of Divine grace is appreciated. It is only those who know themselves to be undone and lost sinners who can welcome One who is mighty to save. “And Elijah said unto the prophets of Baal, choose you one bullock for yourselves, and dress it first; for yet are many; and call on the name of your gods, but put no fire under. 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” (vv. 25, 26). For the first time in their history these false priests were unable to insert the secret spark of fire among the faggots which lay upon their altar.
They were compelled, therefore, to rely on a direct appeal to their patron deity. And this they did with might and main. Round and round that altar they went in their wild and mystic dance, breaking rank now and again to leap up and down on the altar, all the while repeating their monotonous chant, “O Baal, hear us, O Baal hear us”—send down fire on the sacrifice.
But notwithstanding all their importunity with Baal, “There was no voice nor any that answered.” What a proof that idols are but “the work of men’s hands.” “They have mouths, but they speak not: eyes have they, but they see not:… they have hands, but they handle not: feet have they, but they walk not… they that make them are like unto them; so is everyone that trusteth in them” ( <19B504> Psalm 115:4-8). “No doubt Satan could have sent fire ( Job 1:9-12), and would, if he might have done it; but he could do nothing except what is permitted him (Thomas Scott). Yes, we read of the second beast of Revelation 13 that “he doeth great wonders, so that he maketh fire come down from heaven on the earth in the sight of men” (v. 13). But on this occasion the Lord would not suffer the Devil to use his power, because there was an open trial between Himself and Baal. “But there was no voice nor any that answered.” The altar stood cold and smokeless, the bullock unconsumed. The powerlessness of Baal and the folly of his worshippers was made fully apparent. The vanity and absurdity of idolatry stood completely exposed. No false religion, my reader, is able to send down fire upon a vicarious sacrifice. No false religion can put away sin, bestow the Holy Spirit, or grant supernatural answers to prayer. Tested at these three vital points they one and all fail, as Baal’s worship did that memorable day on Carmel.