After many days the word of the Lord came to Elijah, in the third year, saying, “Go, show yourself to Ahab, and I will send rain upon the earth.” 2So Elijah went to show himself to Ahab. Now the famine was severe in Samaria. . . . 17When Ahab saw Elijah, Ahab said to him, “Is it you, you troubler of Israel?” 18And he answered, “I have not troubled Israel, but you have, and your father’s house, because you have abandoned the commandments of the Lord and followed the Baals. 19Now therefore send and gather all Israel to me at Mount Carmel, and the 450 prophets of Baal and the 400 prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table.” 20So Ahab sent to all the people of Israel and gathered the prophets together at Mount Carmel. 21And Elijah came near to all the people and said, “How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” And the people did not answer him a word. (1 Kings 18:1-2, 17-21)
Because of the drought that was brought upon Israel as a covenant curse for their idolatry, the author tells us that a severe famine was upon Samaria. This drought was announced through Elijah so it’s surprising that when Ahab sees him, he calls Elijah the ‘troubler of Israel.’ But as Elijah points out, the draught isn’t his fault – it’s Ahab’s. Ahab is the real troubler of Israel. It’s been his willingness to the embrace the Baal worship of his wife, Jezebel, and his rejection of the Lord that has brought this curse upon them.
Remember who Baal is? He was one of the false gods of the Canaanite peoples. Baal was the god of fertility whose power was displayed in the storms and rain. Baal was thought to give abundance to the crops in the field as well as kids in the family.
Baal worship would have been attractive to the people of Israel for a couple of reasons. First, at this point it was sanctioned by their king and queen. Jezebel came as an ardent evangelist for her faith, making it acceptable to the people. Second, it has both history and relevance. Baal worship wasn’t something new. It had been a part of the Canaanite peoples since Israel came into the promised land. But it was also relevant. To people who were either farmers and shepherds or those who heavily dependent on farmers and shepherd, this religion scratched where they itched. After all, who doesn’t want vast amounts of wheat in the fields, reproducing cattle, and lots of kids to help you work the farm? Still yet, Baal worship also hit the sweet spot of the sinful heart – a base desire for sensuality. You see, part of Baal worship was sacred prostitution. You went to the temple, gave your offering, then went in and worshipped with all your glands hoping Baal would get the idea and do the same with his goddess wife, causing blessing of fertility to flow from the heavens. In that regard, Baal worship could be the fastest-growing religion today if people could market it the right way!
Yet, in the end, Baal worship is simply idolatry. It’s giving worship to a false god instead of the one, true God. And it’s this open, rampant idolatry that’s brought God’s judgment upon his people. But now, more than judgment, God also displays grace. He sends Elijah to Israel to help them see the need to renounce Baal and return to a faithful worship of the one, true God.
Thus Elijah tells Ahab get all of the false prophets that your wife supports, get the people of Israel and meet me at Mount Carmel. And when the king, the prophets, and the people gather together, Elijah issues the challenge – “How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.”
Elijah was calling them out. He was saying, ‘You cannot give your worship to both Yahweh, the Lord God of Israel and Baal. You have to choose. Either the Lord really is who he says he is – the only wise God – or Ball is god. Either way, you have to choose.’
Elijah establishes the challenge in such a way that this is not a spectator event. At the end of the day, they can’t say, ‘Well, I guess Yahweh really is God; now, where are going for dinner tonight?’ No, worship leads to discipleship – choose, then follow. Choose who you believe is God, then live like it actually matters.
I think this reality is part of this new resurgence of atheism has been blasting away in the last ten years or so. You have Richard Dawkins publishing the best-selling book The God Delusion, where he argues God is both illogical and irrelevant. But then you see he reveals the reality of his position with the bus signs he had made up. Dawkins paid to have buses in London carry a sign which says, “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”
Dawkins shows that he’s not really sure there is no God; there’s just probably no God. But he chooses not to believe, because he knows belief in God has consequences. In his sinful mind that means no joy in life and lots of worry about keeping God happy. That’s a pagan view of God. Nevertheless, what it also shows is that there are consequences to belief. So for him, it’s easier to just suppress that belief.
My point is this: Elijah’s words ring true even today. We all worship something, and if there is really a God who is the Creator of all things, then he is owed our allegiance. Today we have to hear Elijah, just as Israel did: “How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” We might be tempted to say, ‘I don’t worship any false gods!’ But don’t be so quick. Just because we don’t worship Baal or Asherah or Molech doesn’t mean we don’t worship false gods. We do; we just call them things like money, beauty, power, self-esteem, family, and sex.
Pastor Tim Keller is explains that “Idolatry is anything I look at and say, ‘If I have that, my life has value.’ Anything that is so central to your life that you feel you can’t live without it is an idol. Idolatry is making a good thing an ultimate thing.”
If that’s true – and I think it is – then we have just as many idols as Israel or any other people group in the world has ever had. This is why Calvin calls the human heart an idol factory. We can turn anything into an idol, and we do.
So Elijah’s challenge is for all of us, even today. Will we try to add our idol worship with our worship of God? Or will we tear down the idols of our hearts and give an undilutted worship to the one, true God?