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1 Kings 18:1. The word of the Lord came to Elijah in the third year— St. James, speaking of this event, says, that it rained not on the earth for the space of three years and six months. Our blessed Saviour makes mention of a like compass of time, Luke 4:25.; and yet neither of these are contradictory to what the sacred history tells us, viz. that the word of the Lord came to Elijah in the third year. For we must remember, that, as Egypt had usually no rain, but was watered by the river Nile, so the land of Canaan had generally none, except twice a year, which they call the early and latter rain. The former of these was in the month ניסן Nisan, which answers to our March, and the other in the month מרחשׁון Marcheshvan, which answers to our October. Now, at the beginning of the drought, Ahab might very probably impute the want of rain to natural causes; but when, after six months, neither the former nor the latter rain fell in their season, he began to be enraged at Elijah, as the cause of this national judgment, and forced him, at God's command, to save his life by flight: and from that time the three years of the historian are to be computed, though from the first notice which Elijah gave Ahab of this approaching calamity, to the expiration of it, was certainly three years and a half. This calamity is said to have been procured by Elijah's prayers; yet we must not therefore imagine that his prayers were spiteful and malicious, but necessary rather, and charitable to the offenders, that, by the sharp and long affliction which they produced, God's honour and the truth of his word and threatenings, now universally contemned, might be vindicated; and that the Israelites, whose present impunity hardened them in their idolatry, might hereby be awakened to see their wickedness, their dependence upon God, and the necessity of their returning to his religion and worship. See Bedford's Script. Chron. l. vi. c. 2. and Poole's Annotations.
1 Kings 18:3. Ahab called Obadiah— The Jews have many strange stories respecting Obadiah, very little to be relied upon. It is plain from what he says to Elijah, that he was a truly religious man, who worshipped God alone, and had a singular affection for his servants; enough, one would think, to have made Ahab discard, if not persecute him, had he not found him so highly useful in the management of his domestic affairs, as to connive at his not worshipping Baal or the calves.
REFLECTIONS.—1st, When Israel seemed on the verge of ruin, God graciously interposed, and sent his prophet back to save them. We have
1. The distress to which they were reduced. Famine now stalked through the land, the parched ground yielded no food, and the lowing herds sunk down at the dry brook for want of water. To save, if possible, the few beasts that were left, Ahab with Obadiah goes on a progress through the land, to see if peradventure some grass might be found. But while the country groaned under drought, a worse famine afflicted it than that of bread or water, even a famine of the word of the Lord. The cruel Jezebel, madly attached to her idols, and more enraged, instead of humbled, under this judgment, since Elijah is not found, wreaks her vengeance on his brethren, slaying the prophets who were yet trained up in the ancient schools, and cleaved to the true religion. Nor had any escaped but for the piety of Obadiah, a great good man, even from his youth, in the worst of days, and amidst the abominations of such a court. To screen them from her fury, he hid one hundred in two caves, and fed them with bread and water; dangerous as the attempt might have proved to himself, if discovered, and expensive as in such a season even this provision must have been. Note; (1.) A fruitful land God maketh barren, for the iniquity of those who dwell therein. (2.) Judgments enrage instead of humbling the heart of the impenitent. (3.) The greatest misery a land can groan under is, the expulsion of God's prophets. (4.) The few faithful have ever been, and ever will be, more or less, a persecuted people. (5.) Few great men are good men, and in a corrupt court piety is least to be expected: yet God has his chosen vessels in the worst times and most dangerous places; even Nero's house and Ahab's court admit of exceptions. (6.) No danger must deter, nor expence be spared, where God's suffering cause demands our help, and claims our protection. (7.) When matters seem most desperate, God can and often does, raise up for his suffering ministers and people powerful and faithful friends.
2. God now enjoins Elijah to return to Samaria. Eagerly had Ahab sought him through all the tribes and neighbouring people, and by an oath engaged them to send him back, if he were found among them. But God had hid him, and Ahab sought in vain. Three years and six months the famine had lasted; but the time is come when God will give rain, and Elijah is bidden to shew himself to Ahab.
2nd, We have the interview between the wicked king and the holy prophet, where each appears in character.
1. Ahab, with insolent pride and abuse, accords him as the troubler of Israel. Note; (1.) It is no unusual thing to misrepresent God's zealous ministers as enemies to the state. (2.) They who are the messengers of the best tidings, the impenitent brand as their troublers.
2. Elijah boldly retorts the accusation, and bids him see the troubler of Israel in the worshipper of Baalim. He designed their peace, even in his warnings, whilst Ahab provoked the judgment by his sins. To prove this, he desires a convention of the people to Carmel, with the prophets of Baal, and there it shall appear to what cause the want of rain is to be ascribed. Note; (1.) When duty calls, we must not fear the faces of kings. (2.) They are troublers of a land, whose sins provoke God's anger against it.
3. Ahab consents, curious perhaps to know the issue of this controversy between Elijah and the prophets of Baal; at least, desirous of rain on any terms, which he despaired of, but from Elijah's word.
1 Kings 18:22. I, even I only, remain a prophet of the Lord— From these words one can hardly imagine, that all those hundred whom Obadiah preserved, 1Ki 18:13 were men actually inspired, and invested with a prophetic character. There is little doubt but that even in Jezebel's time there were remaining in Israel schools of the prophets, which she endeavoured to destroy, as well as those who were bred up in them, that there might be none left to instruct the people in the true religion. These she certainly looked upon as enemies to her idolatry; and she might possibly persuade her husband that they were disaffected to his government, and favourers of the kings of Judah, because they worshipped the same God, and thought that the proper place of his worship was Jerusalem; and therefore the greater was the piety and courage of Obadiah in rescuing so many victims from the hands of this furious and enraged woman. See Patrick and Le Clerc.
1 Kings 18:24. The God that answereth by fire, let him be God— This was not the first time that God had declared his approbation of his worshippers, by sending down fire to consume their sacrifices (see Lev 9:24 and Judges 6:21.); and though, perhaps, it may be possible for evil spirits, who may have great knowledge how to manage meteors and exhalations to effect their purposes, to make fire descend from the clouds; yet since they can do nothing without a divine permission, it is absurd to think that, in a matter of competition between him and false gods, he should give evil spirits any licence to rival him in his miracles. If, as it is generally believed, Baal was the idol of the sun, or that power whom his worshippers supposed to preside over the element of fire, the reason of Elijah's proceeding is very obvious, as it afforded a full proof that Jehovah, the God of nature, was alone the Sovereign Lord and Ruler of all its operations.
1 Kings 18:26. And they leaped upon the altar that was made— Or, leaped up and down at the altar. Margin. The marginal rendering seems by far the best: and the reference appears plainly to be a custom very common among heathen worshippers, of dancing round the altars of the deity whom they worshipped; and this sometimes with a variety of strange gesticulations. The dances of the Salii were of this sort. Houbigant, however, thinks that the word ויפסחו vaipassechu should not be rendered leaped, but walked, signifying that they walked in solemn procession round the altar.
1 Kings 18:27. Elijah mocked them, and said, Cry aloud, &c.— Nothing can be imagined more poignant and sarcastic than these words of the prophet, in which he ridicules in the finest manner possible their wretched, false, and derogatory ideas of the Deity. The two last notions of being asleep, and not at home, how absurd soever they may be when applied to the Deity, were certainly such as several idolaters conceived of their gods, as appears from various passages in Homer, in one of which, Iliad i. ver. 423 the poet tells us, that Thetis could not meet with Jupiter, because "he was gone abroad, and would not return in less than twelve days;" and at the conclusion of that book he gives us an account of the manner in which the deities went to sleep:
"Then to their starry domes the gods depart, "The shining monuments of Vulcan's art; "Jove on his couch reclin'd his awful head, "And Juno slumber'd on the golden bed." POPE.
How debasing ideas these, compared with that awful intelligence which Revelation gives us of a Deity, who neither slumbereth nor sleepeth; but who, every where present, is, at all times, conscious even of the secrets of the heart; at all times ready to hear and able to grant the petitions of his people!
1 Kings 18:28. Cut themselves after their manner, &c.— A strange method, one would think, to obtain the favour of their gods! And yet, if we look into antiquity, we shall find, that nothing was more common in the religious rites of several nations, than this barbarous custom. Plutarch, in his book de Superstitione, tells us, that the priests of Bel-lona, when their sacrificed to that goddess, were wont to besmear the victim with their own blood. The Persian magi, according to Herodotus, used to appease tempests and allay the winds, by making incisions in their flesh. Those who carried about the Syrian goddess, as Apuleius relates, among other mad pranks, were every now and then cutting and flashing themselves with knives, till the blood gushed out; and even to this very day, we are informed, that in Turkey, Persia, and several parts of the Indies, there are fanatics who think they do a very meritorious service, highly acceptable to the deity, by cutting and mangling their own flesh. See Leviticus 19:28. Calmet, and Picart's Religious Ceremonies. The word prophesied, in the next verse, implies their praying or singing hymns in praise of their gods.
1 Kings 18:30. He repaired the altar of the Lord that was broken down— The altar, which the sacred author here calls the altar of the LORD, was certainly one of those which were built in the time of the judges and first kings of Israel, when, for want of a fixed place of worship, such structures were permitted. Both Tacitus and Suetonius speak of the God of Carmel, whom Vespasian went to consult when he was in Judea; but they tell us, that there was neither temple nor statue upon the mountain, except one single altar, plain, but venerable for its antiquity. The altar of Carmel seems to have had its original from the altar of the true God, which the ancient Hebrews first erected, and Elijah afterwards repaired; and which even the heathens held in such veneration, that when they came to be masters of the country, they would not so much as place an image by it.
1 Kings 18:33. Fill four barrels with water, &c.— The prophet did this to make the miracle more conspicuous and convincing, to shew that there was no fallacy in it, no fire concealed in or about the altar; but that the lightning, which was to consume the sacrifice, came from heaven, and at his invocation; and so Josephus tells us, that Elijah invited the people to draw near, that they might search and spy every where, if they could find any fire secretly conveyed under the altar. Antiq. lib. 8: cap. 7.
1 Kings 18:37. Hear me, O Lord, hear me— Elijah, according to Abarbanel, was more urgent and fervent in his prayer, because he had undertaken to make the experiment of God's power of his own accord, and without any particular command from him; nothing doubting but that he would appear, to vindicate his own honour, even though the prophet offered sacrifices on a high place, which was not agreeable to the law.
1 Kings 18:40. Elijah said—take the prophets of Baal, &c.— It appears from the course of the divine history of this people, that the Israelites had ever a violent propensity to mix with the neighbouring nations, and to devote themselves to the practices of idolatry. This would naturally, and did in fact, absorb large portions of them; and the sole human means which preserved the remainder, was the severity of their civil laws against idolatry. It will be necessary to remind the reader of that particularly which is recorded, Deu 17:2-5 which will throw great light upon this transaction, and vindicate the conduct of Elijah from objections. Such laws were necessary to support a separation of the Israelites from the idolatrous nations; but penal laws, enforced by the ordinary magistrate for matters of opinion, are manifestly unjust. Some way, therefore, was to be contrived to render these laws equitable; for we are not to suppose that God would ordain any thing which should violate the rule of natural justice. Now these penal laws are equitable only in a theocracy; and therefore a theocracy was necessary. It will be proper to observe, that God was pleased to stand in two arbitrary relations towards the Jewish people, besides that natural one in which he stands towards them and the rest of mankind in common. The first was, that of a tutelary deity, gentilitial and local, the God of Abraham, &c. who was to bring their posterity into the land of Canaan, and to protect them there, as his peculiar people. The second was, that of supreme magistrate and law-giver: and in both these relations, he was pleased to refer it to the people's choice, whether they would or would not receive him for their God and King. The people, therefore, thus solemnly accepting him, these necessary consequences followed from the Horeb contract. First, that, as the national God and civil magistrate of the Jews centered in one and the same object, their civil policy and religion must be intimately united and incorporated. Secondly, as the two societies were thoroughly incorporated, they could not be distinguished, but must stand or fall together: consequently, the direction of all their civil laws must be for the equal preservation of both, as the renouncing him for king was the throwing him off as God, and the renouncing him for God was the throwing him off as king. There was, however, this manifest difference in the two cases, as to the effects: the renouncing of God as civil magistrate might be remedied, without a total dissolution of the constitution; not so the renouncing him as tutelary God; because, though he might and did appoint a deputy in his office of king among the Jewish tribes, yet he would have no substitute, as God, among the pagan deities: therefore of necessity, as well as of right, idolatry was punishable by the civil laws of a theocracy, it being the greatest crime that could be committed against the state, as tending by consequence to dissolve the constitution; for the one God being the supreme magistrate, it subsisted in the worship of that God. Idolatry therefore, as the renunciation of one God alone, was, in a strict philosophical as well as legal sense, the crime of lese-majeste, or high treason. Thirdly, the punishment of idolatry by law had this farther circumstance of equity, that it was punishing the rebellion of those who had chosen the government under which they lived when freely proposed to them. Hence, in the law against idolatry, Deu 17:2 the crime is with great propriety called the transgression of the COVENANT. Thus we see the law in question stands clear of the cavils of infidels, and the abuse of intolerant believers. We see that the severity used by Elijah was as justifiable as that of Phinehas, which is spoken of with great commendation, Numbers 25:11.Psalms 106:30; Psalms 106:30. We may likewise infer from this exertion of the penal laws against idolatry, that the theocracy subsisted at this time, because such laws are absolutely unjust under any other form of government.
1 Kings 18:45. The heaven was black with clouds and wind— When rain falls in the eastern countries, it is often preceded by a squall of wind; so the ingenious editor of the Ruins of Palmyra tells us, that they seldom have rain there, except at the equinoxes; that nothing could be more serene than the sky all the time they were there, which was about a fortnight in March, except one afternoon, that there was a small shower, preceded by a whirlwind, which took up such quantities of sand from the desert as quite darkened the sky. This circumstance of the wind's taking up such quantities of sand as to darken the sky, may serve to explain the present passage, which describes the heaven as black with wind, as well as clouds; for neither of these circumstances, a squall preceding the rain, or its raising great quantities of dust, is peculiar to desarts. Dr. Russel speaks of both as common at Aleppo, which is at a considerable distance from a desart. The wind's prognosticating rain is also referred to Proverbs 25:14.
1 Kings 18:46. And he girded up his loins, and ran before Ahab— In this country long and loose garments were in use, and therefore when people were inclined to run, or make any great expedition, their custom was to gird them round their waist. The eastern princes used frequently to be preceded by running footmen, chanters, &c. Hanway tells us, that when the famous Kouli Khan removed his camp, he was preceded by his running footmen, and by his chanters, who were nine hundred in number, and frequently chanted moral sentences and encomiums upon him, occasionally proclaiming his victories also. We are willing to suppose, that Elijah's running before Ahab's chariot to the gates of Jezreel, was not unworthy of his prophetic character. Bishop Patrick supposes he ran before Ahab like one of his footmen, in which he shewed his "readiness to do the king all imaginable honour;" and that he was "far from being his enemy." But, if Ahab had chanters running before him, like Kouli Khan, it does not appear at all contrary to the rules of decorum, for one brought up to celebrate the divine praises, to put himself at the head of them, to direct them in singing, praise to him who was then giving them rain, and to intermingle due encomiums on the prince who had permitted the extermination of the priests of Baal: or if he had none such, yet, if it had been practised in those times, and was thought graceful, and becoming a prince, nothing forbad Elijah's doing it alone; and perhaps what is said concerning the singers of the contemporary king of Judah, 2Ch 20:21-22 may enable us to guess whether it was a practice totally unknown at that time. The expression of the divine historian, that the hand of the Lord was upon him, perfectly agrees with this thought; for it appears from 2Ki 3:15 that it signifies the enabling a prophet to prophesy: and therefore we may understand these words of God's stirring him up to the composing and singing of some proper hymns on this occasion, as well as enabling him to run with greater swiftness than his age would otherwise have permitted him to do. See 1 Samuel 18:6-7.
REFLECTIONS.—How great does Elijah appear, alone supporting the cause of God against an idolatrous king, a wicked people, and a multitude of false prophets!
1. With zeal he reproves their inconstancy and infidelity. As there can be but one self-existent, infinite, eternal Being, their halting between God and Baal proved their wavering minds; and the attempt to reconcile their incompatible services evinced their folly. Note; (1.) Unsettled notions in religion have a direct tendency to lead us to unsound practices. (2.) There is no reconciling Christ and Belial, the love of God and the love of the world: the very attempt is a proof of an apostate heart.
2. As conviction sealed up their lips, he condescends (being authorised from God so to do) to make them a fair proposal to try the merits of the cause. Though multitudes and authority, king, priests, and people, were against him, alone he offers to enter the lists on God's behalf, and rests the issue of the trial on an answer of fire from heaven, to consume the sacrifice he proposed. Let him be acknowledged the true God, whose power thus appeared. Note; God's ministers must not be discouraged at seeing all the world united against them. If God be on their side, that is enough to embolden them.
3. The people approved the proposal, and Baal's prophets either dared not reject it, lest they should appear deceivers, or hoped in the issue, if not to prevail in the contest, yet to be on a level with their adversary, and that the shame of his disappointment would then fall heaviest upon him. Note; God entangleth the wise in their own craftiness, and the hope of the hypocrite perisheth.
4. Elijah, because they were many, gives them the preference in the trial; let them begin their sacrifice, but put no fire under it. They prepare their bullock, lay it on the altar, and with loud calls invoke the presence of their deity till noon. Baal probably represented the sun, and from his burning rays at noon they hoped some beam would kindle up the flame: but when past the meridian, mad with vexation, they leaped on or about the altar, and with knives and lancets wounding themselves, sought by their blood to render their deity propitious to their prayers; whilst Elijah, with high disdain and ridicule, mocked at their folly in these mad gestures and cries, as if their god was engaged in business, on a journey, or asleep, and needed to be awaked. Baal, deaf as his image, paid no regard to their prayers, or praises, or prophetic fury, and left his votaries covered with confusion and despair. Note; The corporal severities of popery are like the wounds of Baal's prophets, not of any value in the sight of God, but merely satisfying the pride of the fleshly mind. See Colossians 2:23.
5. It is now Elijah's turn to make the essay; and the calmness and dignity of his procedure bespeak his confidence of success. An ancient altar was there, on which sacrifice had been offered before the temple was built, but now either decayed by time, or thrown down by the idolatrous worshippers of Baal. This he repairs with twelve stones, according to the number of the sons of Jacob, whose name God had altered into Israel on his prevailing prayer; and he doubted not that the same power with God would attend his own. He calls the people to draw near; and having prepared his sacrifice, to prevent the suspicion of delusion, he bids them pour upon it four barrels of water three several times, till the trench he had dug around the altar was filled. Then, at the time when the evening sacrifice at Jerusalem was offering, he drew near the altar, and with holy awe, yet humble boldness, addresses his prayer to the covenant God of their fathers, entreating him to appear, for the magnifying of his own great name, for the conviction of the people, and their conversion from idolatry, as well as to vindicate his prophet's injured character, and prove his divine mission. Instantly the devouring fire descends, and, to the astonishment of the beholding multitude, devours the sacrifice and wood; yea, it burns the very waters dry, and consumes the stones of the altar even to the dust. Note; (1.) Great is the power of effectual prayer: if it bring not the visible fire from heaven, it will still draw down the fire of love, and enable us to offer that best sacrifice, a flaming heart, to God. (2.) The conversion of souls is the deepest concern that lies on a faithful minister's heart. (3.) When the fire of God's wrath fell on Jesus, the sinner's sacrifice, then was the ransom paid, and the covenant of peace established among men.
6. Vanquished by such evidence, the people in adoration fall on their faces, as confounded at their idolatry, and confessing now the only true God: but alas! the change was of short continuance. Note; Miracles may extort confessions, but cannot convert the soul. (1.) Like Elijah, we must not faint because we do not instantly receive, but persevere in prayer, and we shall not be disappointed. (2.) Great events arise from small beginnings: the work of grace in the heart at first is like the little cloud; it begins, perhaps, by a casual word dropped without design, but by and by overspreads all the faculties of the body and soul. (3.) They who are most distinguished of God, and with greatest boldness are called to rebuke men's sins, must shew their humility exemplary as their zeal, and pay every due respect to men's persons. (4.) When God strengthens us, we shall run, and not be weary.
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Coke, Thomas. "Commentary on 1 Kings 18". Coke's Commentary on the Holy Bible. https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany