Mountaintop experiences: have you ever had one? In the Bible, they often represent spectacular spiritual revelations in places that are closer to heaven. Think of Moses receiving the commandments on Mount Sinai, or Peter, James, and John witnessing the transfiguration of Jesus and his conversation with Moses and Elijah. And speaking of Elijah: our list might include the prophet’s dramatic defeat of the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel.
Today, when we call someone a “prophet,” we usually mean that they have an uncanny ability to predict the future. In the Bible, however, a prophet was essentially a mouthpiece of God or the gods. True, that sometimes meant bringing a word about the future, as when predicting a coming calamity. But even then, this was less a matter of fortunetelling per se than delivering an divine oracle of judgment.
Of all the Old Testament prophets (Moses excluded), the most revered was probably Elijah. And of all the stories of Elijah, the most memorable is probably his showdown with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel.
The kingdom of Israel had deteriorated after the days of David, splitting into the northern and southern kingdoms following the reign of Solomon. A succession of kings brought either idolatry or reform to the land, and godly prophets were often tasked with speaking truth to power, which was always a dangerous business.
Elijah was such a prophet. His career began during the reign of King Ahab and his wife Jezebel. Because Ahab was a Baal worshiper, the prophets of Baal multiplied in Israel, the northern kingdom. Elijah was sent to Ahab to declare a drought that became so severe it caused a famine and threatened the king’s livestock. After two bone-dry years, Elijah was sent again to Ahab to announce the coming of rain.
On the way, Elijah ran into Obadiah, a godly official in Ahab’s court who had secretly hidden a hundred of God’s prophets from the deadly persecutions of Jezebel. Elijah told Obadiah to announce his arrival to Ahab; Obadiah’s plaintive response, essentially, was “But he’ll kill me!” Obadiah, however, did as he was told, and Elijah came into Ahab’s courts.
Elijah blamed the drought on Ahab and Jezebel’s idolatry, and proposed a test: “Now therefore have all Israel assemble for me at Mount Carmel, with the four hundred fifty prophets of Baal and the four hundred prophets of Asherah who eat at Jezebel’s table” (1 Kings 18:19, NRSVUE). Imagine it: Elijah on a mountaintop, competing with 850 false prophets to show whose god was truly God. Carmel was apparently the site of an altar to God that had been destroyed (vs. 30), making it a fitting site for the contest.
The crowds responded enthusiastically to what Elijah proposed to the prophets of Baal: Take two bulls, one for you, and one for me; you get to pick. We’ll build separate altars and prepare our respective bulls for a burnt sacrifice. But don’t set fire to the wood. Call upon your god to consume it by fire instead. Then we’ll see who the real God is!
The prophets of Baal did as suggested. For hours, they called out to Baal and danced around the altar. Nothing. Elijah mocked them: Maybe he’s asleep? Wake him up! They cried out even louder; they gashed themselves with swords until they were covered with blood. Still nothing.
Then it was Elijah’s turn. He rebuilt the Lord’s altar and placed the butchered bull on top. To make a point, he drenched the sacrifice and wood with water. Then he drenched it again. And again — what might have seemed a waste of precious water during a severe drought! By that time, evening had fallen. Elijah then prayed that God would reveal himself so that the people would repent of their idolatry.
Envision the spectacle: from out of the night, fire fell on the sacrifice. The bull was consumed. The water, the wood, even the stones were vaporized. The people repented, and Elijah had the prophets of Baal executed.
And soon after, the rain began to fall.
If this were a Disney movie, that’s where the story might end; the credits would roll to gentle but triumphant music as the raindrops fell.
But this wasn’t a Disney movie. When Jezebel heard from Ahab what Elijah had done, she vowed revenge. Elijah, she promised, would be dead within a day.
Elijah, who had won such a decisive mountaintop victory, fled to the wilderness. Plopping himself beneath a tree, he prayed for God to take his life (1 Kings 19:4).
. . .
The lives of biblical prophets don’t make good Disney material because they don’t lend themselves to the requisite happy ending. Their prophetic vocation is a continual grind. Their faith and obedience earns them more scars than accolades, and their lives are frequently on the line. But somehow, by the grace of God, they endure.
As we’ll see, this is the kind of endurance that James wishes for believers suffering injustice. We’ll explore that further as we finish our story of Elijah.