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AHAB, KING OF ISRAEL
Three years' Famine in Israel - Elijah meets Obadiah and Ahab - The Gathering on Mount Carmel - The Priests of BaaI - Description of their Rites - The time of the Evening Sacrifice - Elijah prepares the Sacrifice - Elijah's Prayer - The Answer by Fire - Israel's Decision - Slaughter of the Priests of Baal- The Cloud not bigger than a Man's Hand - Elijah runs before Ahab to Jezreel. (1 Kings 18)
THREE and a half years had passed since the ban of Elijah had driven clouds and rain from the sky of Israel, and the dry air distilled no dew on the parched and barren ground (comp. Luke 4:25; James 5:17* ). Probably one of these years had been spent by the prophet in the retirement of Wadi Cherith; another may have passed before the widow's son was restored from death to life; while other eighteen months of quiet may have followed that event.
* Not only the New Testament writers (as above quoted), but the Rabbis fix the period of rainlessness at three years and a half, and every explanation which attempts to date this period as beginning before the appearance of Elijah is forced and unnatural. Accordingly the expression "the third year" in 1 Kings 18:1 must refer to Elijah's stay at Sarepta - about two years and a half after his arrival there.
Surely, if ever, the terrible desolation which the prophet's word had brought upon the land must by this time have had its effect upon Israel. Yet we meet no trace of repentance in king or people: only the sullen silence of hopeless misery. What man could do, had been attempted, but had signally failed. As the want and misery among the people became more pressing, King Ahab had searched both the land and all neighboring countries for Elijah, but in vain (1 Kings 18:10), while Jezebel had wreaked her impotent vengeance on all the prophets of Jehovah on whom she could lay hands, as if they had been Elijah's accomplices, to be punished for what she regarded as his crime. If all the representatives of Jehovah were exterminated, His power could no longer be exercised in the land, and she would at the same time crush resistance to her imperious will, and finally uproot that hated religion which was alike the charter of Israel's spiritual allegiance and of civil liberty. Yet neither Ahab nor Jezebel succeeded. Though Elijah was near at hand, either in Ahab's dominions or in those of Jezebel's father, neither messenger nor king could discover his place of retreat. Nor could Jezebel carry out her bloody design. It affords most significant illustration of God's purpose in raising up "prophets," and also of the more wide sense in which we are here to understand that term, that such was their number, that, however many the queen may have succeeded in slaying, at least a hundred of them could still be hid, by fifties, in the limestone caverns with which the land is burrowed. And this, we infer, must have been in the immediate neighborhood of the capital, as otherwise Obadiah (the "servant of Jehovah"), the pious governor of Ahab's palace (comp. 1 Kings 4:6; 2 Kings 18:18; Isaiah 22:15), could scarcely have supplied their wants without being detected (1 Kings 18:4). Nor was Obadiah the only one in Israel who "feared Jehovah," though his position may have been more trying than that of others. As we know, there were still thousands left in Israel who had not bowed to Baal (1 Kings 19:18).
But there was at least one general effect throughout the land of this terrible period of drought. Every one must have learned that it had followed upon the announcement of Elijah; every one must have known what that announcement had been, with all concerning Jehovah and His prophet that it implied; and, lastly, if no general repentance had taken place, every one must at least have been prepared for the grand decisive trial between God and Baal, which was so soon to take place. And still the weary days crept on as before; the sun rose and sank on a cloudless sky over an arid land; and there was no sign of change, nor hope of relief. It was summer. Jezebel had left the palace of Samaria, and was in her delicious cool summer-residence at Jezreel, to which more full reference will be made in the sequel (comp. 1 Kings 18:45, 46; and the inference from 1 Kings 21:2). But Ahab was still in Samaria, busy with cares, caused by the state of the land. This temporary absence of Jezebel explains not only Ahab's conduct, but how he went to meet Elijah, attempted no violence, and even appeared in person on Mount Carmel. So great was the strait even in Samaria itself, that the king was in danger of losing every horse and mule, whether for the public or his own service. To discover if any fodder were left in the country, the king and Obadiah were each to make careful survey of part of the land. Obadiah had not proceeded far on his mission, when the sight least expected - perhaps least desired - presented itself to his view. It was none other than Elijah, who had been Divinely directed to leave Sarepta and meet Ahab. As there is not anything in Holy Scripture without meaning and teaching, we may here mark, that, when this is assigned by the Lord as the reason for Elijah's mission: "I will send rain upon the ground" (1 Kings 18:1), it is intended to teach that, although it was Jehovah Himself (and not Elijah, as the Rabbis imagine) who held "the keys of the rain," yet He would not do anything except through His chosen messenger.
Obadiah could have no difficulty in immediately recognizing Elijah, even if he had not, as seems most likely, met him before. With lowliest reverence he saluted the prophet, and then received command to announce his presence to Ahab. But timid and only partially enlightened, although God-fearing, as Obadiah was, this was no welcome message to him. Ahab had so long and so systematically sought for Elijah, that Obadiah could only imagine the prophet had been miraculously removed from shelter to shelter, just in time to save him from being detected by the messengers of Ahab. In point of fact, we know that such was not the case; but those who have lost the habit of seeing God in the ordinary Providence of everyday life - as is the case with all who are conformed to the world - are too often in the habit of looking for things strange, or for miracles, and thus become at the same time superstitious and unbelieving. What - so argued Obadiah - if, after he had intimated Elijah's presence to the king, the prophet were once more miraculously removed? Would he not have to pay with his life for Elijah's escape; would not suspicious Ahab or bloodthirsty Jezebel wreak their vengeance on him as an abettor of the prophet? Most groundless fears these, as all which are prompted by the faint-heartedness of partially enlightened piety; and so Elijah hastened to assure him, not, as it seems to us, without a touch of pitying reproof. The meeting which followed between the king of Israel and the representative of Jehovah was characteristic of each. It is a mistake to suppose, as interpreters generally do, that the words with which Ahab accosted Elijah, "Art thou the one* who troubleth Israel?" were intended to frighten the prophet by a display of authority.
* I have given this the primary meaning of the Hebrew word ("this,"that one"), and not, as interpreters generally, the rare derivation "here."
Even Ahab could not have imagined that such would be their effect. It seems rather like an appeal. See what thou hast done; and what now? In truth, a man such as Ahab must have felt it difficult to know how to address the prophet. But Elijah was not, even momentarily, to be drawn into a personal controversy. With a sharp reproof, which pointed out that it was not he but the sin of Ahab and of his house which had brought trouble upon Israel, he directed the king to gather unto Mount Carmel the representatives of all Israel, as well as the 450 prophets of Baal and the 400 prophets of Astarte who enjoyed the special favor of the queen.
Putting aside for the moment the thought of the overruling guidance of God in the matter, it is not difficult to understand why Ahab complied with Elijah's direction. Naturally he could not have anticipated what turn matters would take. Certain it was that the land was in a terrible strait from which, if any one, Elijah alone could deliver it. Should he provoke him to fresh judgments by a refusal? What was there to fear from one unarmed man in presence of a hostile assembly? If Elijah could remove the curse, it was worth any temporary concession; if he refused or failed, the controversy with him would be easily settled, and that with popular approval. Besides these, there may have been other secondary reasons for Ahab's compliance. As we have noticed, Jezebel was not then in Samaria; and Ahab may have felt that secret misgiving which is often the outcome of superstition rather than of partial belief. Lastly, he may at the moment have been under the influence of the overawing power of Elijah. It could scarcely have been otherwise in the circumstances.
That day Carmel witnessed one of the grandest scenes in the history of Israel. Three such scenes on mountain-tops stand out before the mind: the first on Mount Sinai, when the Covenant was made by the ministry of Moses; the second on Mount Carmel, when the Covenant was restored by the ministry of Elijah; the third on "the Mount of Transfiguration," when Moses and Elijah bare worshipful witness to the Christ in Whom and by Whom the Covenant was completed, transfigured, and transformed. In each case the scene on the Mount formed the high point in the life and mission of the agent employed, from which henceforth there was a descent, save in the history of Christ, where the descent to Gethsemane was in reality the commencement of the ascent to the Right Hand of God. Moses died and was buried at the Hand of God, Elijah went up with chariot of fire; Jesus died on the cross. Yet whereas from the mountain-top Moses and Elijah really descended, so far as their work and mission were concerned, the seeming descent of Jesus was the real ascent to the topmost height of His work and glory.
No spot in Palestine is more beautiful, more bracing, or healthful than Carmel, "the Park-like." Up in the northwest, it juts as a promontory into the Mediterranean, rising to a height of five hundred feet. Thence it stretches about twelve miles to the S.S.E., rising into two other peaks. The first of these, about four miles from the promontory, is not less than 1740 feet high. Still further to the south-east is a third peak, 1687 feet high,* which to this day bears the name of El-Mahrakah, or "place of burning" (sacrifice).
* For these measurements and other interesting notices I am indebted to Conder's Tent-work in Palestine, vol. 1., pp. 168, etc. See also Dean Stanley's description in his Sinai and Palestine, Mr. Grove's article in Smith's Bible Dict., and other accounts.
This, there can scarcely be a doubt, was the place of Elijah's sacrifice. Let us try to realize the scene. On whichever side the mountain be ascended, the scene is one of unsurpassed beauty. The rich red soil, where not cultivated, is covered by a thick brushwood of luxurious evergreens. Not only flowering trees and delicious fragrant herbs, but all the flora of the North of Palestine seems gathered in this favored spot. So early as November, the crocus, narcissus, pink cistus, and large daisy are in bloom, and the hawthorn in bud. In spring, wild tulips, dark red anemones, pink phlox, cyclamen, purple stocks, marigolds, geranium, and pink, yellow, and white rock-roses make it bright with gay coloring. For numerous springs trickle along the foot of the mountain and fertilize the soil. Ascending to El-Mahrakah we catch glimpses of cliffs, which in some places descend sheer down to the plain. At last we reach a plateau where at the edge of a steep slope there is a perennial well, filled with water even in the driest season. Yet a little higher rises another plateau of rich soil, shaded by olives; and finally we reach the topmost peak, a semi-isolated knoll. This was the place of the two altars; that of Baal, and that ruined one of Jehovah restored by Elijah, and dating from before the building of the Temple, when such worship was lawful. On the plateau beneath, under the shade of the olives, full in view of the highest altar-peak, were on the one side Elijah, and on the other King Ahab, the priests of Baal, and the people. Yet a little lower was the well whence the water for Elijah's sacrifice was drawn. Some 1400 feet beneath, where the rapid descent is close to steep precipices and by sharp crags, rolls that "ancient river" Kishon, where the wild slaughter of the priests of Baal formed the closing scene in the drama of that day. But up on the topmost altar-height what an outlook! Westwards over Carmel and far to the sandhills around Caesarea; northwards, the Galilean hills, Lebanon and Hermon; eastwards, across the plain of Esdraelon, some six miles off, to Jezreel, - further away, to Shunem, Endor, Nain, Tabor, Nazareth, and even distant Gilead. A theater this truly befitting what was to be enacted on it.
Among those who on that day had gathered under the olives on that shady plateau just beneath the topmost peak, the four hundred priests of Astarte were not found. Whether they had shrunk from the encounter, or had deemed it inconsistent with the wishes of their spiritual patroness, the queen, to appear on such an occasion, certain it is that they were not with their four hundred and fifty colleagues of the priesthood of Baal. These must have been conspicuous amid king, courtiers, and the motley gathering from all parts of the land, by their white dresses and high pointed caps. Over against them, his upper garment of black camel-hair girt with a leathern girdle, stood the stern figure of the prophet; in the foreground was King Ahab. It was, indeed, a unique gathering, a wondrous array of forces, a day of tremendous import. To this Elijah had bidden king, priests, and people, and he left them not long in doubt of his object. First, he turned to the people with these words, which must have alike shown them their real condition and appealed to their judgment: "How long halt ye" (pass ye from one to the other* ) "as to the two opinions" (divisions, parties** )?
** It is not easy to render the Hebrew word exactly. It occurs in Psalm 119:113 ("I hate divided thoughts"); Isaiah 2:21; 57:5 ("clefts"); Ezekiel 31:6 ("boughs," divided branches). The expression was probably proverbial.
If Jehovah be the Elohim - go after Him; but if the Baal, go after him! To an appeal so trenchantly true there could in the then condition of the public mind be no answer. Their very appearance on Mount Carmel was an attestation of this mental passing to and fro on the part of Israel - irrational, unsatisfactory, and self- condemnatory (Deuteronomy 6:4, etc.). But the question of Elijah also formed a most apt preparation for what was to follow. The two divided opinions were now to be brought to the test of truth; the two parties to measure their strength. Let Israel see and decide!
In the breathless silence that pursued upon this challenge Elijah now stood forward, and pointing to the white-robed crowd of priests over against him, he recalled to king and people that he and he only remained - that is, in active office and open profession* - a prophet of Jehovah. Single-handed, therefore, he would go to the contest, if contest of power it were against that multitude. Power! They worshipped as God the powers of nature:** let them then make trial on whose side the powers which are in nature were arrayed.
* The others being hid in caves, were for all practical purposes for the present as non-existing.
** It deserves more than passing notice, that the modern denial of God may be reduced to the same ultimate principle as the worship of Baal. For, if the great First Cause - God as the Creator - be denied, then the only mode of accounting for the origin of all things is to trace it to the operation of forces in matter. And what really is this but a deification of Nature?
Let this be the test: the priests of Baal on their side, and he on his, would each choose a bullock and prepare it for sacrifice, but not kindle the fire beneath, "and it shall be the Elohim who shall answer by fire, He is the Elohim." A shout of universal assent greeted the proposal. In the circumstances it would be of the greatest practical importance that the futility of Baal-worship should be exhibited in the fullest manner. This explains the details of all that follows. Besides, after a whole day's vain appliance of every resource of their superstition, the grandeur of Jehovah's majestic interposition would also make the deeper impression. But although from Elijah's point of view it was important that the priests of Baal should first offer their sacrifice, the proposition was one to which no objection could be taken, since Elijah not only gave them the choice of the sacrificial animal, but they were many as against one. Nor could they complain so far as regarded the test proposed by Elijah, since their Baal was also the god of fire, the very Sun-god.*
* As already stated, Baal was the real deity of Asia, worshipped under different forms (hence the plural: Baalim). Moloch was only Baal under another aspect, that of destruction, comp. Jeremiah 19:5; 32:35.
Now commenced a scene which baffles description. Ancient writers have left us accounts of the great Baal-festivals, and they closely agree with the narrative of the Bible, only furnishing further details. First rose a comparatively moderate, though already wild, cry to Baal; followed by a dance around the altar, beginning with a swinging motion to and fro.*
The howl then became louder and louder, and the dance more frantic. They whirled round and round, ran wildly through each other's ranks, always keeping up a circular motion, the head low bent, so that their long dishevelled hair swept the ground. Ordinarily the madness now became infectious, and the onlookers joined in the frenzied dance. But Elijah knew how to prevent this. It was noon - and for hours they had kept up their wild rites. With cutting taunts and bitter irony Elijah now reminded them that, since Baal was Elohim, the fault it must lie with them. He might be otherwise engaged, and they must cry louder. Stung to madness, they became more frantic than before, and what we know as the second and third acts in these feasts pursued. The wild howl passed into piercing demoniacal yells. In their madness the priests bit their arms and cut themselves with the two-edged swords which they carried and with lances.*
* This is the correct rendering of verse 28, and not "knives and lancets," as in the Authorized Version.
As blood began to flow the frenzy reached its highest pitch, when first one, then others, commenced to "prophesy," moaned and groaned, then burst into rhapsodic cries, accusing themselves, or speaking to Baal, or uttering incoherent broken sentences. All the while they beat themselves with heavy scourges, loaded or armed with sharp points, and cut themselves with swords and lances - sometimes even mutilated themselves - since the blood of the priests was supposed to be specially propitiatory with Baal.
Two more hours had this terrible scene lasted - and their powers of endurance must have been all but exhausted. The sun had long passed its meridian, and the time of the regular evening-sacrifice in the Temple of Jehovah at Jerusalem had come. From the accounts of Temple-times left us we know that the evening sacrifice was offered "between the evenings," as it was termed - that is, between the downgoing of the sun and the evening.*
In point of fact the service commenced between two and three p.m. It must have been about the same time when Elijah began the simple yet solemn preparations for his sacrifice. Turning from the frantic priests to the astonished people, he bade them draw nigh. They must gather around him, not only in order to be convinced that no deception was practiced, but to take part with him, as it were, in the service. And once more Israel was to appear as the Israel of old in happier times, undivided in nationality as in allegiance to Jehovah. This was the meaning of his restoring the broken place of former pious worship by rolling to it twelve of the large pieces of rock that strewed the ground, according to the number of the tribes. And as he built the altar, he consecrated it by prayer: "in the name of Jehovah." Next, the soft crumbling calcareous soil around the altar was dug into a deep and wide trench. Then the wood, and upon it the pieces of the sacrifice were laid in due order. And now, at the prophet's bidding, willing hands filled the pitchers from the well close by.* Once, twice, thrice he poured the water over the sacrifices, till it ran down into the trench, which he also filled. This, as we suppose, not merely to show the more clearly that the fire, which consumed the sacrifice in such circumstances, was sent from heaven, but also for symbolic reasons, as if to indicate that Israel's repentant confession was poured upon the offering.
And now a solemn silence fell on the assembly. The sun was going down, a globe of fire, behind Carmel, and covered it with purple glow. It was the time of the evening sacrifice. But Jehovah, not Elijah, would do the miracle; the Hand of the living God Himself must be stretched out. Once more it was prayer which moved that Hand. Such prayer was not heard before - so calm, so earnest, so majestic, so assured, so strong. Elijah appeared in it as only the servant of Jehovah, and all that he had previously done as only at His Word: but Jehovah was the covenant-God, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Israel, manifesting Himself as of old as the Living and True, as Elohim in Israel: the conversion of Israel to Him as their God being the great object sought for.*
* 1 Kings 18:37 indicates the final (moral) purpose not only of this but of every miracle. The last clause of the verse should be rendered in the present tense: "and that Thou turnest their heart back again."
He had said it, and, as when first the Tabernacle was consecrated (Leviticus 9:24), or as when King Solomon (1 Chronicles 21:26; 2 Chronicles 7:1) brought the first offering in the Temple which he had reared to Jehovah, so now the fire of Jehovah leaped from heaven, consumed the sacrifice and the wood, enwrapped and burnt up the limestone rocks of which the altar was constructed, and with burning tongue licked up even the water that was in the trench. One moment of solemn silence, when all who had seen it fell in awe-stricken worship on their faces; then a shout which seemed to rend the very air, and found its echo far and wide in the glens and clefts of Carmel: "Jehovah, He the Elohim! Jehovah, He the Elohim!"
And so Israel was once more converted unto God. And now, in accordance with the Divine command in the Law (Deuteronomy 13:13; 17:2, etc.), stern judgment must be executed on the idolaters and seducers, the idol-priests. The victory that day must be complete; the renunciation of Baal-worship beyond recall. Not one of the priests of Baal must escape. Down the steep mountain sides they hurried them, cast them over precipices, those fourteen hundred feet to the river Kishon, which was reddened with their blood.*
But up on the mountain-top lingered King Ahab, astonished, speechless, himself for the time a convert to Jehovah. He also was to share in the sacrifice; he was to eat the sacrificial meal. But it must be in haste, for already Elijah heard the sighing and low moaning of the wind in the forest of Carmel. Himself took no part in the feast. He had other bread to eat whereof they wot not. He had climbed the topmost height of Carmel out of sight of the king. None had accompanied him save his servant, whom tradition declares to have been that son of the widow of Sarepta who had been miraculously restored to life. Most fitting minister, indeed, he would have been in that hour. Once more it was agonizing prayer - not once, but seven times repeated.*
* Seven - the number of the Covenant.
At each break in it the faithful attendant climbed the highest knoll, and looked earnestly and anxiously over the broad expanse of the sea, there full in view. At last it had come - a cloud, as yet not bigger than a man's hand. But when God begins to hear prayer, He will hear it abundantly; when He gives the blessing, it will be without stint. Ahab must be up, and quick in his chariot, or the rain, which will descend in floods, will clog the hard ground, so that his chariot would find it difficult to traverse the six miles across the plain to the palace of Jezreel. And now as the foot of the mountain was reached, the heaven was black with clouds, the wind moaned fitfully, and the rain came in torrents. But the power of Jehovah* was upon the Tishbite.
He girded up his loins and ran before the chariot of Ahab. On such a day he hesitated not to act as outrunner to the convert-king; nay, he would himself be the harbinger of the news to Jezreel. Up to the entrance of Jezreel he heralded them; to the very gate of Jezebel's palace he went before them, like the warning voice of God, ere Ahab again encountered his tempter. But there the two must part company, and the king of Israel must henceforth decide for himself to whom he will cleave, whether to Jehovah or to the god of Jezebel.