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Friday, June 21st, 2024
the Week of Proper 6 / Ordinary 11
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Bible Commentaries
1 Kings 18

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

Verses 1-16

God’s revelation of His people 18:1-16

Elijah would next learn from God how the Israelites would respond to his ministry as God’s servant.

Evidently God made the famine especially severe in Samaria (1 Kings 18:2) because Ahab and Jezebel were the causes of it and lived there. As a believer in Yahweh, Obadiah had been a blessing to 100 of God’s prophets even in the famine (1 Kings 18:3-4). Surveyors have counted over 2,000 caves in the Mount Carmel area. [Note: Patterson and Austel, p. 142.]

When Obadiah met Elijah, he voiced his submission to the man of God and to Yahweh. He did so by calling Elijah his "master" (1 Kings 18:7). However, Obadiah served two masters. Elijah pointed this out by referring to Ahab as Obadiah’s master (1 Kings 18:8). To rise as high as he had in Ahab’s government, Obadiah had to have lived a double life of external support for Ahab while internally following Yahweh.

Obadiah’s confession that Yahweh lived presents him as a genuine believer (1 Kings 18:10). This is exactly the same profession that both the widow (1 Kings 17:12) and Elijah had made (1 Kings 17:1). Obadiah went to great pains to convince Elijah that he was a believer in Yahweh. He must have felt this explanation was necessary because of his position in Ahab’s cabinet (1 Kings 18:13). He obviously struggled with whether he could believe Elijah when the prophet told him he would speak to Ahab (1 Kings 18:11-12; 1 Kings 18:14). Having received a second promise from Elijah that he would not disappear (1 Kings 18:15), Obadiah finally obeyed the prophet’s command (1 Kings 18:8) and went to Ahab (1 Kings 18:16).

"Why Obadiah should be so featured is, at first, puzzling. Yet the episode appears to have two major purposes. First, Obadiah’s speech reveals to Elijah the gravity of the crisis in Samaria during his absence . . .

"Second, through the use of irony, Obadiah’s scene establishes the unique authority of Elijah." [Note: Cohn, "The Literary . . .," pp. 338-39.]

Obadiah was similar to many believers in Yahweh who were living in Israel then. They had divided allegiances, their faith in God was weak, they were fearful for their own safety, and they were slow to respond to God’s word. What a contrast Obadiah was to the Gentile widow of Zarephath (cf. Matthew 15:21-28)! Elijah saw beforehand, in Obadiah’s response to him, how believers in Israel would respond to what he would soon do on Mount Carmel. Elijah would call on the people to do essentially what he had commanded Obadiah to do: obey the Lord’s word through His prophet.

Verses 17-40

The vindication of Yahweh 18:17-40

Ahab had a problem of perception similar to Obadiah’s (1 Kings 18:17; cf. 1 Kings 18:7). The real source of Israel’s troubles was Ahab and Omri’s disregard of the Mosaic Covenant and their preference for idolatry (Deuteronomy 6:5).

"This was a crime against the state worthy of death (like that of Achan, Joshua 6:18; Joshua 7:25; and Jonathan in 1 Samuel 14:24-29)." [Note: Wiseman, p. 168.]

Probably hundreds, if not thousands of people, gathered since Elijah summoned all Israel to Mount Carmel. Elijah probably chose this mountain, as God led him, because it stood between Israel and Phoenicia geographically, neutral ground between Yahweh’s land and Baal’s. Furthermore the Phoenicians regarded Carmel as a sacred dwelling place of Baal. Storms with lightning and thunder were common on Mount Carmel, and Baal worshippers viewed them as manifestations of their deity. The name "Carmel" means "the garden land," and it was famous for its fertility. In the minds of many, Baal had the advantage in this contest. Elijah ordered Ahab around (1 Kings 18:19), as was appropriate, since the prophet was the representative of the true King of Israel. Surprisingly Ahab obeyed. His weak will becomes even more obvious later in 1 Kings.

"To eat at the table of the king or queen was to be subsidized by the state (cf. 2 Samuel 9:9-11; 1 Kings 2:7). So aggressive is Jezebel that she promotes at state expense the worship of Baal and Asherah." [Note: Rice, p. 149.]

Interestingly, this was a contest of prophets, not priests. The priests had less influence for Yahweh in Israel than the prophets. Apparently the prophets in Phoenicia were more powerful too. Perhaps God accepted Elijah’s offering, by a non-priest, because there were no faithful priests in the Northern Kingdom at this time (cf. Numbers 18; Deuteronomy 18). The Israelites had been straddling the spiritual fence just as Obadiah had (1 Kings 18:21).

"The issue is not that Israel wanted to reject Yahweh and choose Baal, but rather to serve them both. Elijah called for an either/or decision." [Note: B. S. Childs, Old Testament Theology in a Canonical Context, p. 65.]

"Here is the Martin Luther of old-time Israel, who singlehanded challenged the whole priesthood of the state religion, and all the people of the realm, to the decisive test on Mount Carmel." [Note: Baxter, pp. 111-12.]

Elijah realized that he was not the only prophet of Yahweh who remained in Israel (1 Kings 18:22; cf. 1 Kings 18:13), but in this situation the odds were one against 450. There are several similarities between Judges 4, 7 and 1 Kings 18. All three encounters with Israel’s enemies took place on the south side of the Jezreel Valley. The Kishon figured in both Barak and Elijah’s victories over the Canaanites. Gideon faced odds of 450 to one as Elijah did, and both men experienced miraculous deliverances. In the future Israel’s enemies will again assemble against her in this valley at Armageddon. Then Jesus Christ will be the hero and will bring an even more spectacular victory to His chosen people (cf. Revelation 16:16; Revelation 19:11-21).

Elijah felt alone. His victory would require a supernatural act of God. The oxen as symbols of service may have represented the people of Israel (cf. Numbers 7:3). Elijah would sacrifice them as a burnt offering of worship (1 Kings 18:23). Which "people" would their respective deities accept, those the pagan priests symbolically offered to Baal or those Elijah offered to Yahweh? Aaron had previously conducted a similar test (Leviticus 9). The deity who brought fire down would be the true God. By coming in fire, God illustrated His power to judge (Leviticus 10:1-2).

Even though Baal worshippers thought the thunder represented Baal’s voice, they did not hear his voice on this occasion (1 Kings 18:26). This was not a rainmaking dance but a wild dance in worship of Baal. [Note: Wiseman, p. 169.] Elijah did something that must have shocked everyone present: he mocked Baal. In the ancient East, even if a person did not worship an idol, he at least took its status as a god for granted. [Note: Rice, p. 150.] However, Elijah refused to acknowledge that Baal was a god at all. He suggested that Baal might be "occupied" (1 Kings 18:27; lit. relieving himself). [Note: Gray, p. 398; Gary A. Rendsburg, "The Mock of Baal in 1 Kings 18:27," Catholic Biblical Quarterly 50:3 (July 1988):415. For other interpretations of this verse, see Leo Hayman, "A Note on 1 Kings 18:27," Journal of Near Eastern Studies 10 (1951):57-58.] His devotees also thought Baal accompanied the Phoenician sailors, so Elijah suggested he might be on a journey (1 Kings 18:27). All of these possibilities exposed Baal’s limited powers. Pagan worship has always proved destructive to humanity, as the priests’ cutting themselves illustrated (1 Kings 18:28). For six hours the priests of Baal ranted and raved to no avail (1 Kings 18:29).

Yahweh’s altar at that site (one of the high places?) had fallen into disrepair (1 Kings 18:30). Elijah rebuilt it, as the Mosaic Covenant specified, with 12 uncut stones symbolic of Israel’s 12 tribes. There was still only one Lord, one covenant, and one nation with one destiny in the plans and purposes of God, even though the nation had split into two parts.

"As Moses built an altar at Sinai and set up twelve stones for the twelve tribes (Exodus 24:4), and Joshua erected the twelve stones at Gilgal in the Gilgal covenant festival (Joshua 4:3), so Elijah built an altar of twelve stones ’according to the number of the tribes’ of Israel (1 Kings 17 [sic 18]:31)." [Note: Frank Moore Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic, p. 192.]

The 12 pitchers of water (1 Kings 18:33-34) likewise represented Israel, probably as God’s instrument of refreshment to the world. Elijah may have obtained the water from a spring or perhaps from the Great (Mediterranean) Sea that is not far from some parts of Mount Carmel. The traditional site of this confrontation, however, is at the east end of the Carmel range of mountains, far from the sea.

Elijah prayed a simple prayer for God’s glory at 3:00 p.m., the time of Israel’s sacrifice that illustrated its daily commitment to Yahweh (1 Kings 18:36-37). [Note: Josephus, 14:4:3. Cf. Acts 3:1.] Emphasizing the fact that Yahweh had been Israel’s God since patriarchal times, Elijah prayed that the Lord would reveal Himself as Israel’s God. He also asked that the people would perceive that He had accepted His servant Elijah’s offering that he had presented in harmony with God’s Law. The heart of the people needed turning back to God, and Elijah prayed for evidence of that as well (1 Kings 18:37).

God revealed Himself as He had earlier in Israel’s history (Leviticus 10:1-2). He accepted the sacrifice of the nation symbolized by the 12 stones, the dust out of which He had created the people, and the 12 pitchers of water (1 Kings 18:38). The Israelites did turn back to God. They demonstrated their repentance with obedience to the Mosaic Law, and God’s prophet, by slaying the false prophets as the Law prescribed (1 Kings 18:40; cf. Exodus 22:20; Deuteronomy 13:1-18; Deuteronomy 17:2-7; Deuteronomy 18:20). The Kishon Wadi lay just north of Mount Carmel in the Jezreel Valley below.

Elijah’s actions on Mount Carmel were a strong polemic against Canaanite religion. [Note: George Saint-Laurent, "Light from Ras Shamra on Elijah’s Ordeal upon Mount Carmel," in Scripture in Context, pp. 123-39; Leah Bronner, The Stories of Elijah and Elisha; Robert B. Chisholm Jr., "The Polemic against Baalism in Israel’s Early History and Literature," Bibliotheca Sacra 151:603 (July-September 1994):267-68.]

"The contest on Carmel is not, as often billed, between Elijah and the prophets of Baal: it is between his Lord Yahweh himself and Lord Baal." [Note: Auld, p. 118.]

". . . the whole chapter . . . is seen to have a single motive from beginning to end: the bringing of rain, that Yahweh’s supremacy may be established in Israel, not by a barren Pyrrhic victory through a supernatural fire-bolt, but by meeting the crying need of His people for water . . ." [Note: D. R. Ap-Thomas, "Elijah on Mt. Carmel," Palestine Exploration Quarterly 92 (1960):155.]

Verses 41-46

The end of the drought 18:41-46

Evidently thunder accompanied the falling of the fire (lightning?) from heaven (1 Kings 18:41). [Note: John Ruthven, "A Note on Elijah’s ’Fire from Yahweh,’" Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 12:2 (1969):111-15.] Elijah told Ahab, who had personally witnessed the contest, that he could celebrate by eating (1 Kings 18:41). Perhaps he had been fasting to end the drought. Ahab evidently went up Mount Carmel from the Jezreel Valley below to eat, but Elijah went up higher to pray for rain (1 Kings 18:42). His posture evidenced humility and mourning as well as prayer.

Rain normally came on Carmel from the west, from the Mediterranean Sea (1 Kings 18:43). Elijah persisted in prayer, doubtless basing his request on the people’s repentance and God’s promise to bless that with rain (Deuteronomy 28:12). Perhaps the cloud shaped like a man’s hand (1 Kings 18:44) represented God’s hand returning to the land to bless His people again (cf. 1 Kings 18:46). Jezreel (1 Kings 18:45) was Ahab’s winter palace that stood 10 to 20 miles east of Carmel in the Jezreel Valley, depending on where on Mount Carmel these events took place. Perhaps Elijah ran along the ridge of Mount Carmel while Ahab’s chariot got bogged down in the muddy valley below (1 Kings 18:46).

This concludes the account of Israel’s three and one-half year drought (1 Kings 17:1 to 1 Kings 18:46; cf. Luke 4:25; James 5:17; ca. 860-857 B.C.). This drought was a foreview of the three and one-half year Great Tribulation in which God will punish Israel even more severely for her apostasy in the future (cf. Revelation 8-18). The major motifs of this section are Yahweh’s superiority over Baal and His faithfulness to withhold blessing (rain) as a punishment and to send it in response to repentance.

"Often in the history of the world great issues have depended on lone individuals, without whom events would have taken a wholly different turn. Yet few crises have been more significant for history than that in which Elijah figured, and in the story of the Transfiguration he rightly stands beside Moses. Without Moses the religion of Yahwehism as it figured in the Old Testament would never have been born. Without Elijah it would have died. The religion from which Judaism, Christianity and Islam all in varying ways stemmed would have succumbed to the religion of Tyre. How different the political history of the world might have been it is vain to speculate. But it is safe to say that from the religion of [Baal] Melkart mankind would never have derived that spiritual influence which came from Moses and Elijah and others who followed in their train." [Note: H. H. Rowley, "Elijah on Mount Carmel," Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 43:1 (September 1960):219. R. P. Carroll, "The Elijah-Elisha Sagas: Some Remarks on Prophetic Succession in Ancient Israel," Vetus Testamentum 19:4 (October 1969):408-14, drew attention to the Mosaic parallels and office depicted in the Elijah-Elisha sagas (1 Kings 17 -2 Kings 13). See also Ellison, p. 35, for a list of comparisons between Moses and Elijah.]

"Without question Elijah is one of the most distinctive and diversely talented individuals in the Bible. He is prophet, preacher, political reformer, and miracle worker all at the same time. At the heart of this multifaceted person, though, rests one overriding conviction. Elijah hates Baalism as much as Jezebel loves the cult, and he desires to magnify Yahweh over Baal and defeat the interloping religion once and for all. He makes it his mission to teach that Yahweh lives, that Baal does not exist, and that ethical standards flow from a commitment to the living God." [Note: House, p. 212.]

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on 1 Kings 18". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/1-kings-18.html. 2012.
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