1 Kings 18:19-40
Now therefore send, and gather to me all Israel to mount Carmel, and the prophets of Baal four hundred and fifty…
1. We are reminded of the great disparity between these opposing forces. Now, as then, Truth is in the minority. It was one man against four hundred and fifty. But so it is always. The world has never seen a popular majority for the truth. Only eight souls were saved in the ark; Abraham was alone in his faith; Israel was but a handful; and the "peculiar peoples" in every age have been "a remnant." Even the Son of God did not restore the equilibrium. The Reformation effected but a partial equalisation. The present age of missions, with all its conquests, finds the Church outnumbered in every region by its foes. Not only so, but in respect to earthly rank, power, prestige, the advantage has always been on the side of error. If at intervals the tide seems to turn, as when David, Solomon, Constantine give to religious truth political pre-eminence, such episodes are transient, and soon the old disproportion returns.
Truth for ever on the scaffold,
Wrong for ever on the throne,
abides as the rule obtaining in every age for the fortunes of the kingdom of heaven on earth.
2. This disparity was intensified and emphasised by divine direction. Elijah was commanded to give to his opponents precedence at every point. The criterion which he must submit for the testing of the rival religions was "the god that answereth by fire." That was a concession to the claims of Baal, who was called the "sun-god," with whom fire was a native element. On the other hand, Elijah's task was rendered as difficult as possible. He must stand by and see his rivals consume the entire day. This magnifying of evil and minimising of the resources of good has marked the Divine policy from the first. God has seemed to give to sin every advantage that it could ask for, and to keep his own cause at a corresponding inferiority. What a surprising difference, according to earthly standards, between Jesus and His enemies! Not only was He alone, unfavoured and unhelped, but they were supported by all the power of the Jewish Church, the Gentile government, and even the infernal world. Sin was allowed to parade and employ its uttermost resources, while holiness seemed to be proportionately depressed in the person of Him who was born in a manger and reared at Nazareth, who became the Friend of publicans and sinners, was betrayed by His own followers, and condemned to the accursed death. Similar fortunes have attended the people of God to this day. Not only have they been left to engage in a one-sided conflict where the numerical odds were always against them, but peculiar aggravations of this disparity have been common. The Church is still burdened with such unnecessary drawbacks. How often are we tempted to take literally the words which speak of the "foolishness of preaching," and to wonder why God hath chosen such needlessly foolish, weak, and base things of this world to serve Him!
3. This disparity between the two contestants was emphasised by Jehovah for the purpose of suitably displaying His own superiority to both of them. He gave to Baal every advantage and reduced His own resources to a minimum, in order to show that Truth at its lowest is stronger than Error at its highest. The result justified this plan; for the people were all the more impressed by the final victory of Elijah, because of the tremendous inequality of the conflict at the beginning. This gives us a clue to that policy of the Divine government which has been referred to. God has allowed sin to prosper in this world, and has permitted His own religion to take an inferior place, for the purpose of thus furnishing an arena for the exhibition of the Divine self-assertion. We understand, then, why Christianity has never been allowed to compete on equal terms with the dominant faiths of the world. God does not intend that His religion shall obscure Himself. He knows how readily the eye of man is caught and held by visible forms, and that spiritual truth is always endangered by material associations. Accordingly the earthly medium through which His grace shines must be as thin and plain as safety will permit. This was the reason why Jesus the Christ asked and received so little from the world. He owed nothing to its favour or its help. But as we now see, all that humiliation was the most effective background that could have been provided for the display of the spiritual kingdom of God.
4. The triumphs of grace thus obtained are also magnified by the Divine concessions to the enemy. It was yielding much to Baal when the ordeal of fire was proposed, for that meant to meet the sun-god on his own field and with his own weapons. Other tests might have been chosen which would have been more favourable to Elijah. But no; he must go into the enemy's territory and challenge him in his very citadel. Do the Egyptians worship the river Nile? Lo, the rod of Moses turns those sacred waters into blood. Are they the most cleanly of peoples, making a religion of physical purity? They are stricken with vermin by the word of the Lord. Do they idolise the goat, the ram, and the bull? The cattle of their fields must perish before the Divine scourge. Thus Pharaoh is taught that even within the range of his own religion the God of the Hebrews can find means to overthrow him. Similar transformations mark all the great conquests of Christianity. He meets scientific scepticism with the scientific faith of Miller, Hitchcock, and Drummond. He compels the art of sensuous Italy to minister to biblical truth in the Madonnas and Nativities. He transforms the pagan temple into the Christian church, and puts the Gothic spire to spiritual uses. This process of overruling and utilising grace is spreading through all the ranges of human enterprise.
5. These exhibitions of Divine self-assertion furnish a severe but useful test of human character. The priests of Baal were not the only ones whose faith and patience were taxed on Mount Carmel. It must have cost Elijah not a little to find himself placed for an entire day at so great a disadvantage. Nothing less than intense consecration and courage could have endured such a trial. This experience also was typical. It represents the lot of God's people in all ages. The very greatness of the Divine interpositions in their behalf has imposed on them burdens of self-denial and self-effacement.
6. The trials of God's people are sure to result in their triumph as well as His glory.
(C. J. Baldwin.)
Parallel VersesKJV: Now therefore send, and gather to me all Israel unto mount Carmel, and the prophets of Baal four hundred and fifty, and the prophets of the groves four hundred, which eat at Jezebel's table.