The Reign of Ahab
The Northern Kingdom's Last Chance
(2 Kings 17:1-22:53)
When we come to this passage, we are coming to the greatest crisis which faced the northern kingdom of Israel. Whereas things had been pretty bleak for the 10 northern tribes after Jeroboam introduced idolatry into their worship, Israel sunk to the bottom with the reign of Ahab. The darker it gets though, the more brilliant the light shines forth. Lightning may be pretty remarkable whenever it strikes during the day; however, it is spectacular whenever it streaks across the midnight sky. With the ministry of Elijah, the lightning pierces the midnight sky.
This is the critical moment for Israel. The word "crisis" has as its root the idea of "decision." This is the time of decision for Israel. She has flirted with idolatry for the past 70+ years; now God says it is time for her decide. Her decision will determine her fate. She will either renounce idolatry once and for all and enjoy God's blessing, or else she will continue to vacillate between worship of God and worship of Baal--AND be totally destroyed as a nation.
Because most of us do not like history, we don't realize that history has watershed moments in it. For example, 1776 was a watershed moment in the history of our nation. The men were faced with the decision, "Do we continue as subjects of the British empire, or do we start our own nation?" That decision has affected us for the past 200+ years. In the 1930's this nation was gripped in the throes of a great depression. FDR set us on the path of socialism which changed our country for the past 70+ years. Well, this is a watershed moment for Israel. She will either respond positively to the Lord, or she will do downhill rapidly. It is that serious.
INTRODUCTORY SUMMARY OF AHAB'S REIGN (16:29-34)
1 Kings informs us right off the bat that Ahab's reign is a disaster. To drive home the point that Ahab was evil, what does the author of 1 Kings say about Ahab (16:30, 33)?
Ahab's primary sin was in allowing his wife Jezebel to impact the religion of Israel. Jezebel was the daughter of Ethbaal the king of Sidon. According to Josephus, Ethbaal had originally been the priest of the goddess Astarte in Sidon; however, he rose up in rebellion against the king of Sidon, murdered him, and became king in his place. This man was so powerful that not only did his daughter Jezebel become queen over Israel, his granddaughter Dido also became the founder of the city of Carthage, Rome's major nemesis for over a hundred years.
What god did Jezebel introduce into the worship of Israel (16:31-32)?
This god (later identified as Hercules in Greek mythology) was worshiped as the Lord of the heavens, while his consort Asherah was worshiped as the goddess of the earth. These 2 served as the major deities of the Canaanite fertility religion. The land of Palestine has always been just a few inches of rainfall away from being a desert. Rain literally became god. In order to entice Baal to rain down upon the earth Asherah, the male worshipers of Baal would have sexual relations with female priestesses, while female worshipers would have sexual relations with male "priests," prostitutes. The coming together of the worshipers and priests/priestesses was supposed to entice Baal and Asherah to come together, that is, to have Baal rain down upon Asherah. Because Ahab allowed Jezebel to introduce worship of Baal into Israel, he is noted as the worst of Israel's kings up to this point.
ANNOUNCEMENT OF JUDGMENT (17:1-7)
Without any announcement or prior warning, Elijah who came from the city of Tishbe in the region of Gilead (today's western Jordan) marches right into the capital of Israel, Samaria, and lowers the boom on Ahab. Because of Ahab's sin what will not happen until Elijah gives the word (1 Kings 17:1)?
Having pronounced that word, Elijah immediately departs. No room for discussion or negotiation. Judgment has been called down upon Israel.
The interesting thing about this whole episode is that it strikes right at the heart of the worship of Baal. Jezebel promoted Baal as a fertility god; in other words, worshiping Baal was supposed to lead to rains and bountiful harvests. God though shows how impotent this Baal is by inflicting Baal's worshipers with drought, the very thing that Baal was supposed to prevent. By inflicting Baal's worshipers with a drought, Yahweh was showing that either (1) Baal was impotent against the power of Israel's God, Yahweh, or (2) that Baal did not really exist. In either case the Israelites should have never taken their allegiance away from Yahweh and given it to Baal.
Upon delivering his message of judgment, Elijah is forced to flee the city of Samaria and the inhabited parts of Israel and Judah first in order to escape persecution by Ahab who might force him to recant and second in order to escape the pleadings of the Israelites whenever the drought caused them to suffer terribly.
Elijah flees to the brook Cherith, a wadi which emptied into the Jordan River. (A wadi is a type of ravine which floods during the rainy season but which is dry during the rest of the year. The location of this wadi is unknown.) Elijah is completely isolated from people while at this brook. In order to supply him with food, God sends to him ravens who carry with them meat and bread every morning and every evening. This provision continues until the brook dries up because of the drought which has hit the land.
ELIJAH'S SOJOURN WITH THE WIDOW OF ZAREPHATH (17:8-24)
Upon leaving the brook Cherith, Elijah heads north to the village of Zarephath which lay on the Mediterranean coast between Tyre to the south and Sidon to the north. The ironic thing is that it was governed by none other than Ethbaal the king of the Sidonians, the father of Jezebel. Ahab and Jezebel are searching high and low for Elijah and cannot find him, while all along he is right under their noses in the kingdom of Jezebel's father. Upon entering Zarephath, Elijah is told by God that He has arranged it for a widow to care for him. Until the drought is lifted, Elijah remains with this widow and her son.
THE CONTEST ON MOUNT CARMEL
With the contest between God and Baal on Mt. Carmel, we come to one of the 2 great dramatic events in all of the OT. The first dramatic event must be the exodus from Egypt, especially the rescue of God's people at the Red Sea. The second though must be what occurs on Mt. Carmel. Not only is the build-up filled with tension; the climax is awesome. It is the event in which God demands that Israel choose once and for all who will be her God, the Baal of Tyre or the Yahweh of Abraham. This is THE moment for Israel. It will determine her ultimate fate as a nation.
The Challenge is Issued (18:1-19)
Three and a half years have passed since God afflicted Israel with the drought. God speaks to Elijah and informs him that it is now time to end the drought; however, it will come only to an end after God has dramatically demonstrated to the people that He alone is God over Israel.
How severe has the drought become in Israel (1 Kings 18:2)?
In order to find pasture for his horses, what step does Ahab take (18:3-6)?
How had Obadiah shown his allegiance to the Lord (18:4)?
While Obadiah is searching for green pastures, he is met by Elijah. Elijah instructs Obadiah to return to Ahab and inform him that he wishes to meet with him. How does Obadiah respond (18:9-14)?
How does Elijah respond (18:15)?
Elijah makes good his word and shows up to confront Ahab. When Ahab encounters Elijah, he charges him as "the troubler of Israel." For all practical purposes Ahab is accusing Elijah of treason, a crime punishable by death. Elijah though does not cower before Ahab. Many times our stands for Jesus are so feeble. We take a stand for Christ, and then when somebody confronts us, we shrink back and almost apologize for what we have said. Not so with Elijah. How does he strike back at Ahab (18:18)?
What does Elijah command Ahab to do (18:19)?
Elijah is going to propose a contest between Baal and Yahweh. This contest will determine once and for all who really is God over Israel: Baal or Yahweh. Ahab complies with Elijah's orders.
The Contest on Carmel (18:20-46)
At the appointed time Ahab along with the leading men of Israel and the 450 priests of Baal (apparently Jezebel refused to allow her 400 priests of Asherah to attend) meet Elijah on the top of Mt. Carmel. Carmel is not technically a mountain but rather a ridge, located just south of modern-day Hoffa, running southeast towards Bethshan (just southwest of the Sea of Galilee). At its base runs the brook Kishon.
When the assembly arrives, Elijah tells them that the time to choose has come. They are to quit vacillating between Baal and Yahweh (literally, "hopping from one leg to the next"); instead they are to choose once and for all who will be their god: Baal or Yahweh. When the people remain silent (still wishing to have it both ways), Elijah issues the challenge to the priests of Baal and the leaders of Israel. He suggests a contest. What kind of contest does Elijah propose (18:23-24)?
Since Elijah has suggested the contest, he takes extra steps to make sure that he has been as "fair" as possible. He allows the priests of Baal to select their own altar and the animal they wish to sacrifice. He even allows them to go first. The priests of Baal build their altar, place wood upon it, and then place their slain ox upon it. Starting that morning, they begin to appeal to Baal to honor their prayers by sending down heavenly fire upon their sacrifice. This goes on all morning long. 1 Kings 18:26 gives a description which describes Baal's pitiful response to this situation: "there was ____ voice and ________ one answered, and _____ one paid attention."
Finally, around noon Elijah begins to taunt and mock the priests of Baal. He sneers at their attempts to rouse Baal. How does he taunt the priests of Baal (18:27)? (Look in the margin of your Bible which should be more explicit.)
This sends the priests into a frenzy. They take their knives and begin to lacerate their bodies. (Although this may seem bizarre to us, this was standard practice for many of the ancient religions. There are stories of the cult of Cybele in which the male worshipers not only lacerated themselves but actually castrated themselves.) The priests did this in hopes of moving Baal to compassion for his worshipers. In any case all the dancing, screaming, and bleeding had no effect on Baal. Baal had failed miserably in this contest. Now it was time for Elijah's God.
It is about 3 o'clock in the afternoon, the time of the evening sacrifice in the Temple. Elijah takes 12 stones and rebuilds the altar which had originally been on Carmel and which had been dedicated to Yahweh. By using 12 stones instead of 10 for the altar, Elijah is communicating that God had never intended for the nation of Israel to be divided religiously, politically maybe, but never religiously. The true worship of Yahweh at Jerusalem was the only worship He sanctioned. Next, he places the wood and the animal on the altar.
At this point Elijah does an "in-your-face" move. In order to prove that he is engaged in no trickery, how much water does Elijah pour on the altar and the animal (18:34-35)?
The result is that not only are the wood and animal soaking wet but that the trench itself is overflowing with water. This heightens the tension and drama of the situation.
Elijah now steps back and prays to Yahweh. Note the difference between his prayer and the prayers of Baal's priests. Whereas the priests of Baal prayed all day long, how long did Elijah pray (18:36-37)?
How long we pray is not as important as who we pray to.
He addresses his prayer to "the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel." Note that he calls Jacob "Israel" instead of "Jacob," Israel being the name God gave him AFTER He had transformed him. He does this to show that although the 10 northern tribes called themselves "Israel," they alone did not constitute Israel; it took all 12 tribes to make up God's people.
By appealing to God as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, Elijah is also referring to Him as the God who made a covenant with these 3 men and their descendants. God has kept His part of the covenant; He has remained faithful to the people. The fact that He sent Elijah to them and that He was about to prove that He alone was God was evidence enough that He was still faithful to them. It was not He who broke the covenant; it was they who had broken the covenant. They were the ones who had been faithless in their relationship with God. As Paul says: "[Our] unbelief will not nullify the faithfulness of God, will it? May it never be! Rather, let God be found true though every man be found a liar, as it is written, 'That Thou mightest be justified in Thy words, and mightest prevail when Thou art judged' " (Rom. 3:3, 4). God is never the cause of our broken relationship with Him. The full responsibility of a broken relationship lies with the person, not with God.
At this point one of the greatest moments in Israel's history occurs. After
Elijah prays, what happens (18:38)?
How did the people respond when they saw this happen (18:39)? (Their response is almost comical.)
Elijah now seizes the moment and orders them to execute the prophets of Baal. The people comply, taking the 450 priests of Baal down to the river Kishon and slaughtering them. (This is not vengeance on Elijah's part but rather the execution of God's judgment against false prophets and idolators. Although the church is not entrusted with this task, a worse judgment will befall these kinds of violators on Judgment Day.)
Next Elijah sends word to Ahab and tells him to start feasting because he can hear the sound of rain coming. He then goes with a servant boy to the edge of the Carmel ridge overlooking the Mediterranean Sea and starts praying for rain. Elijah assumes a posture of utter humility. What posture does he assume whenever he prays to God (18:42)?
After praying, he asks the servant boy if he sees any rain clouds coming. When the boy replies: "No," Elijah returns to praying. How many times does this occur (18:44)?
On the last occasion the boy replies that he sees a cloud the size of a hand approaching. Elijah now knows that rain is coming.
Elijah rushes down to Ahab and tells him that he must hurry in his chariot back to his palace in Jezreel if he wants to escape getting caught in a quagmire caused by the rain in the Valley of Jezreel. Elijah though does not send Ahab off by himself. Instead, empowered by the Spirit of the Lord, Elijah not only runs by Ahab's chariot, he actually outruns Ahab's chariot from Carmel to Jezreel (over 20 miles in distance). The site of these 2 men traveling together to Jezreel demonstrates the relationship God wanted His prophets and kings to have all along. They were not meant to be antagonists but rather co-leaders in ruling His people. This is for all practical purposes the last glimmer of hope Israel will experience for the next 100+ years. Israel's repentance was short-lived. In spite of this spectacular event, Israel will lapse once more into idolatry. She is headed for the cataclysm of 721 BC.
THROUGH THE EYES OF THE APOSTLES
The Widow From Zarephath (Luke 4:24-26)
Jesus uses the story of this woman to rebuke the people of God in His day, the Jews. Although God consistently reached out to the Jews for 1,400 years, they consistently rejected God for 1,400 years. On the other hand, a non-Jewish woman from Zarephath whom God had NOT cultivated for 1,400 years accepted Him. The Jews really had no excuse at all in rejecting Jesus.
Elijah and Prayer (James 5:17-18)
Although Elijah is speaking God's word to Ahab, we see in James 5:17-18 that more is involved. According to James it was because Elijah prayed that God refused to send rain upon Israel. The implication is that God would not have sent the drought unless Elijah had prayed for it. Yes, God wanted to bring Israel back to Himself; yes, God did want to send down fire from heaven to convince His people that He is Lord. HOWEVER, this would not have happened if Elijah had not prayed. Why were his prayers necessary? Why are your prayers necessary? In The Chronicles of Narnia the animals keep telling Peter that they cannot go to war unless he leads them. Why does Lewis keep repeating this? God's attitude is this: since we got ourselves into this mess, we are majorly responsible to help clean up the mess. Man brought sin into the world; therefore, man has to be majorly involved in helping get rid of that sin. Just like Aslan the Lion wins the war with the witch, so Christ is the One who will win the war against Satan. HOWEVER, we too must participate in the war since we're the ones who made the mess in the first place.
Note that this is not the prayer of a bitter old man who wants to see others suffer; it is the prayer of a man zealous for the righteousness of God and for the salvation of his people. This is the prayer of a man who wants to take back his nation for God. (James stresses the fact that we too can have this same kind of prayer life.)
Look at Elijah. Look at the brash nature of his prayers. He prays that the heavens be shut up; he prays that the dead (the son of the Zarephath widow) will rise again. How dare he? He dares because his God is a great God, a brash God who does brash things. We have so reduced God to being the God of doing nothing more than finding our car keys. Well, if God finds our car keys for us (which is so insignificant), how much more will He give us the greater things, the things that really concern Him. Let's pray and claim Corsicana for Christ. Let's take back our state, our nation, our world. Heck, let's even take back our families--whether you are a parent, a grandparent, sibling, etc. The only things that will prevent this are our lack of faith and our laziness.