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“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).
Hour after hour the prophets of Baal had called upon their god to make public demonstration of his existence by causing fire to come down from heaven and consume the sacrifice which they had placed upon his alter; but all to no purpose: “there was no voice, nor any that answered.” And now the silence was broken by the voice of the Lord’s servant, speaking in derision. The absurdity and fruitlessness of their efforts richly merited this biting sarcasm. Sarcasm is a dangerous weapon to employ, but its use is fully warranted in exposing the ridiculous pretensions of error, and is often quite effective in convincing men of the folly and unreasonableness of their ways. It was due unto the people of Israel that Elijah should hold up to contempt those who were seeking to deceive them. “And it came to pass at noon, that Elijah mocked them.” It was at midday, when the sun was highest and the false priests had the best opportunity of success, That Elijah went near them and in ironical terms bade them increase their efforts. He was so sure that nothing could avert their utter discomfiture that he could afford to ridicule them by suggesting a cause for the indifference of their god: “Peradventure he sleepeth, and must be awaked.” The case is so urgent, your credit and his honour are so much at stake, that you must arouse him: therefore shout louder, for your present cries are too feeble, they are not heard, your voice does not reach his remote dwelling place: you must redouble your efforts in order to gain his attention. Thus did the faithful and intrepid Tishbite pour ridicule on their impotency and hold up to contempt their defeat. He knew it would be so, and that no zeal on their part could change things.
Is the reader shocked at these sarcastic utterances of Elijah on this occasion? Then let us remind him that it is written in the Word of Truth, “He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh: the Lord shall have them in derision” ( Psalm 2:4).
Unspeakably solemn is this, yet unmistakably just: they had laughed at God and derided His warnings and threatenings, and now He answers such fools according to their folly. The Most High is indeed longsuffering, yet there is a limit to His patience. He calls unto men, but they refuse; He stretches out His hand unto them, but they will not regard. He counsels them, but they set it all at nought; He reproves, but they will have none of it. Shall, then, He be mocked with impunity? No, He declares, “I also will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when your fear cometh; when your fear cometh as desolation, and your destruction cometh as a whirlwind; when distress and anguish cometh upon you. Then shall they call upon Me, but I will not answer; they shall seek Me early, but they shall not find Me” ( Proverbs 1:24-28).
The derision of Elijah upon Mount Carmel was but a shadowing forth of the derision of the Almighty in the day when He deals in judgment. Is our own lot now cast in such a day? “For that they hated knowledge, and did not choose the fear of the Lord: they would none of my counsel: they despised all My reproof.” Who, with any spiritual discernment, can deny that those fearful words accurately describe the conduct of our own generation? Is then the awful sentence now going forth, “Therefore shall they eat of the fruit of their own way, and be filled with their own devices. For the ease of the simple shall slay them, and the prosperity of fools shall destroy them” ( Proverbs 1:29-32 [margin])?
If so, who can question the righteousness of it? How blessed to note that this unspeakably solemn passage ends with—“but whoso hearkeneth unto me shall dwell safely, and shall be quiet from fear of evil.” That is a precious promise for faith to lay hold of, to plead before God, and to expect an answer thereto, for our God is not a deaf or impotent one like Baal.
One would have thought those priests of Baal had perceived that Elijah was only mocking them while he lashed them with such cutting irony, for what sort of a god must he be which answered to the prophet’s description! Yet so infatuated and stupid were those devotees of Baal that they do not appear to have discerned the drift of his words, but rather to have regarded them as containing good advice. Accordingly, they roused themselves to yet greater earnestness, and by the most barbarous measures strove to move their god by the sight of the blood which they shed out of love to him and zeal in his service, and in which they supposed he delighted. What poor, miserable slaves are idolaters, whose objects of worship can be gratified with human gore and with the self-inflicted torments of their worshippers! It has even been true, and still is today, that “the dark places of the earth are full of the habitations of cruelty” ( Psalm 74:20). How thankful we should be if a sovereign God has mercifully delivered us from such superstitions. “And they cried aloud, and cut themselves after their manner with knives and lancets, till the blood gushed out upon them” (v. 28). What a concept they must have held of their deity who required such cruel lacerations at their hands! Similar sights may be witnessed today in heathendom. The service of Satan, whether in the observance of idolatrous worship or in the practice of immoralities, whilst it promises indulgence to men’s lusts is cruel to their persons and tends to torment them in this world. Jehovah expressly forbade His worshippers to “cut themselves” ( Deuteronomy 14:1). He indeed requires us to mortify our corruptions, but bodily severities are no pleasure to Him. He desires only our happiness, and never requires one thing which has not a direct tendency to make us more holy that we may be more happy, for there cannot be any real happiness apart from holiness. “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” (v. 29). Thus they continued praying and prophesying, singing and dancing, cutting themselves and bleeding, until the time when the evening sacrifice was offered in the temple at Jerusalem, which was at 3 p.m. For six hours without intermission had they importuned their god. But all the exertions and implorings of Baal’s prophets were unavailing: no fire came down to consume their sacrifice. Surely the lengths to which they had gone was enough to move the compassion of any deity! And since the heavens remained completely silent, did it not prove to the people that the religion of Baal and his worship was a delusion and a sham? “There was neither voice, nor any to answer, nor any that regarded.” How this exposed the powerlessness of false gods. They are impotent creatures, unable to help their votaries in the hour of need. They are useless for his life; how much more so for the life to come! Nowhere does the imbecility which sin produces more plainly evidence itself than in idolatry. It makes utter fools of its victims, as was manifest there on Carmel. The prophets of Baal reared their altar and placed upon it the sacrifice, and then called upon their god for the space of six hours to evidence his acceptance of their offering. But in vain. Their importunity met with no response: the heavens were as brass. No tongue of fire leaped from the sky to lick up the flesh of the slain bullock. The only sound heard was the cries of anguish from the lips of the frantic priests as they maltreated themselves till their blood gushed forth.
And my reader, if you be a worshipper of idols, and continue so, you shall yet discover that your god is just as impotent and disappointing as was Baal. Is your belly your god? Do you set your heart upon enjoying the fat of the land, eating and drinking not to live, but living to eat and drink?
Does your table groan beneath the luxuries of the earth, while many today are lacking its necessities? Then know you that, if you persist in this wickedness and folly, the hour is coming when you shall discover the madness of such a course.
Is pleasure your god? Do you set your heart upon a ceaseless whirl of gaiety—rushing from one form of entertainment to another, spending all your available time and money in visiting the garish shows of “Vanity Fair?” Are your hours of recreation made up of a continual round of excitement and merriment? Then know you that, if you persist in this folly and wickedness, the hour is coming when you shall taste of the bitter dregs which lie at the bottom of such a cup.
Is mammon your god? Do you set your heart upon material riches, bending all your energies to the obtaining of that which you imagine will give you power over men, a place of prominence in the social world, and enable you to procure those things which are supposed to make for comfort and satisfaction? Is it the acquisition of property, a large bank-balance, the possession of stocks and shares, for which you are bartering your soul?
Then know you that, if you persist in such a senseless and evil course, the time is coming when you shall discover the worthlessness of such things, and their powerlessness to mitigate your remorse.
O the folly, the consummate madness of serving false gods! From the highest viewpoint it is madness, for it is an affront unto the true God, a giving unto some other object that which is due unto Him alone, an insult which He will not tolerate or pass by. But even on the lowest ground it is crass folly, for no false god, no idol, is capable of furnishing real help at the time man needs help most of all. No form of idolatry, no system of false religion, no god but the true One, can send miraculous answers to prayer, can supply satisfactory evidence that sin is put away, can give the Holy Spirit, who, like fire, illumines the understanding, warms the heart and cleanses the soul. A false god could not send down fire on Mount Carmel, and he cannot do so today. Then turn to the true God, my reader, while there is yet time.
Ere passing on, there is one other point which should be noted in what has been before us, a point which contains an important lesson for this superficial age. Let us state it thus: the expenditure of great earnestness and enthusiasm is no proof of a true and good cause. There is a large class of shallow-minded people today who conclude that a display of religious zeal and fervour is a real sign of spirituality, and that such virtues fully compensate for whatever lack of knowledge and sound doctrine there may be. “Give me a place,” say they, “where there is plenty of life and warmth even though there be no depth to the preaching, rather than a sound ministry which is cold and unattractive.” Ah, my reader, all is not gold that glitters. Those prophets of Baal were full of earnest zeal and fervour, but it was in a false cause, and brought down nothing from Heaven! Then take warning therefrom, and be guided by God’s Word and not by what appeals to your emotions or love of excitement. “And Elijah said unto all the people, Come near unto me. And all the people came near unto him” (v. 30). Clearly evident was it that nothing could be gained by waiting any longer. The test which had been proposed by Elijah, which had been approved by the people, and which had been accepted by the false prophets, had convincingly demonstrated that Baal could have no claim to be the (true) God. The time had thus arrived for the servant of Jehovah to act. Remarkable restraint had he exercised all through those six hours while he had allowed his opponents to occupy the stage of action, breaking the silence only once to goad them on to increased endeavor. But now he addressed the people, bidding them to come near unto himself, that they might the better observe his actions.
They responded at once, no doubt curious to see that he would do and wondering whether his appeal to Heaven would be more successful than had been that of the prophets of Baal. “And he repaired the altar of the Lord that was broken down” (v. 30).
Mark well his first action, which was designed to speak unto the hearts of those Israelites. Another has pointed out that here on Carmel Elijah made a threefold appeal unto the people. First, he had appealed to their consciences, when he asked and then exhorted them: “How long halt ye between two opinions? If the Lord be God, follow Him: but if Baal, then follow him” (v. 21). Second, he had appealed to their reason, when he had proposed that trial should be made between the prophets of Baal and himself that “the god that answereth by fire, let Him be God” (v. 24). And now, by “repairing the altar of the Lord,” he appealed to their hearts.
Therein he has left an admirable example for the servants of God in every age to follow. The ministers of Christ should address themselves unto the consciences, the understandings and the affections of their hearers, for only thus can the truth be adequately presented, the principal faculties of men’s souls be reached, and a definite decision for the Lord be expected from them. A balance must be preserved between the Law and the Gospel.
Conscience must be searched, the mind convinced, the affections warmed, if the will is to be moved unto action. Thus it was with Elijah on Carmel. “And Elijah said unto all the people, Come near unto me. And all the people came near unto him.” How strong and unwavering was the prophet’s confidence in God. He knew full well what his faith and prayer had obtained from the Lord, and he had not the slightest fear that he would now be disappointed and put to confusion. The God of Elijah never fails any who trust in Him with all their hearts. But the prophet was determined that this answer by fire should be put beyond dispute. He therefore invited the closest scrutiny of the people as he repaired the broken altar of Jehovah. They should be in the nearest proximity so that they might see for themselves there was no trickery, no insertion of any secret spark beneath the wood on which the slain bullock was laid. Truth does not fear the closet investigation. It does not shun the light, but courts it. It is the evil one and his emissaries who love darkness and secrecy, and act under the cloak of mysticism. “And he repaired the alter of the Lord that was broken down” (v. 30).
There is far more here than meets the eye at first glance. Light is cast thereon by comparing the language of Elijah in 19:10—“The children of Israel have forsaken Thy covenant, thrown down Thine altars.” According to the Mosaic law there was only one altar upon which sacrifices might be offered, and that was where the Lord had fixed His peculiar residence— from the days of Solomon, in Jerusalem. But before the tabernacle was erected, sacrifices might be offered in any place, and in the previous dispensation altars were built wherever the patriarchs sojourned for any length of time, and it is probably unto them that Elijah alluded in 19:10.
This broken altar, then, was a solemn witness that the people had departed from God. The prophet’s repairing of the same was a rebuking of the people for their sin, a confession of it on their behalf, and, at the same time, bringing them back to the place of beginning.
And reader, this is recorded for our instruction: Elijah began by repairing the broken altar. And that is where we must begin if the blessing of Heaven is to come again on the churches and on our land. In many a professing Christian home there is a neglected altar of God. There was a time when the family gathered together and owned God in the authority of His Law, in the goodness of His daily providence, in the love of His redemption and continuing grace, but the sound of united worship no longer is heard ascending from that home. Prosperity, worldliness, pleasure, has silenced the accents of devotion. That altar has fallen down: the dark shadow of sin rests on that house. And there can be no approach to God while sin is unconfessed. They who hide sin cannot prosper ( Proverbs 28:13). Sin must be confessed before God will respond with holy fire. And sin must be confessed in deed as well as in word: the altar must be set up again. The Christian must go back to the place of beginning. (See Genesis 13: 1-4; Revelation 2. 4, 5).