God Rules the Heart of Every Man
Elijah’s Battle with the Prophets of Baal
London Men’s Convention
When I read a story in the Old Testament, I want to read it on its own terms and let the flow of the story tell me the author’s main point. I don’t want to force my ideas from somewhere else in the Bible onto the story — no matter how true those ideas are.
And since I believe that the whole Bible is God’s word, and profitable for men in twenty-first-century London, I want to see both how the New Testament reaches back and connects with the story, and how it reaches forward and connects with your lives.
It is a thrilling thing to me when the main point that I see in a God-inspired Old Testament story is picked up in the New Testament and becomes radically relevant for men in twenty-first-century Britain. That is a thrilling thing. And that’s what I hope you will see:
- The point of the story in 1 Kings 18:16–46, and
- How the New Testament picks it up, and
- What difference it will make for you today.
Let’s first walk through the story together. I’ll make some comments as we go, and we will see if we can tell what the main point is.
God Will Make It Rain
A little bit of setting. It’s been about one hundred years since King David ruled a united Israel. The kingdom is now divided between Israel in the North and Judah in the South. Ahab is king. He has forsaken Yahweh, the true God, and worships the idol Baal. His wife is the infamous Jezebel. God’s leading prophet at the time is Elijah. There has been famine in the land for three years, and, as far as Ahab is concerned, Elijah is to blame.
Elijah had said in 1 Kings 17:1, “As the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.” But now things are about to change. First Kings 18:1, “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.’”
That’s going to happen. God says it will. But don’t make the mistake of thinking that, because God says something is surely going to happen, there don’t have to be intervening means to bring it about. If God ordains the end, he ordains the means to get there. And what a showdown is going to take place in order for this rain to show up.
Just a Voice
The actual confrontation starts in 1 Kings 18:16–18. “Ahab went to meet Elijah. When Ahab saw Elijah, Ahab said to him, ‘Is it you, you troubler of Israel?’ And 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.’”
“If you try to get your life from anything but the true God, you will be lame all your life.”
You think that this famine is trouble, Ahab? You and your prophets of Baal are about to see some trouble. I’m not your problem. God Almighty, whose word you scorn, whose worth you trash with your Baal worship, he’s your problem. As you’re about to see. I’m just a voice.
In 1 Kings 18:19, Elijah continues to Ahab: “Now therefore send and gather all Israel to me at Mount Carmel.” All Israel! This is going to be one major spectacle! He goes on, “And the 450 prophets of Baal and the 400 prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table.” She has her own special idol and band of prophets — which is why she has hounded all the prophets of Yahweh into the caves (1 Kings 18:4).
First Kings 18:20–21, “So Ahab sent to all the people of Israel and gathered the prophets together at Mount Carmel. And 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.”
Don’t Limp After Other Gods
It may be that the point here is: Stop being indecisive. You can’t live your life halfway between God and idols. What a tragic waste many men make of their lives because they just can’t become radically devoted to God. And they can’t quite give him up. Maybe the point is: That’s hopeless.
But let me suggest something else going on here. Why use the word “limp,” or “hobble around” in verse 21. “How long will you go limping or hobbling, like you’re lame?” That word occurs again in verse 26b when the prophets of Baal are desperate trying to get their god to answer them: “‘O Baal, answer us!’ But there was no voice, and no one answered. And they limped [they hobbled] around the altar that they had made.” I don’t think those two uses of the word limp or hobble are an accident. If you try to get your life — your meaning, your worth, your fire — from anything but the true God, you will be lame all your life. The world may call it a dance. God calls it a limp.
Against All Odds
First Kings 18:22, “Then Elijah said to the people, ‘I, even I only, am left a prophet of the Lord, but Baal’s prophets are 450 men.’” These are not good odds: 1:450. But that’s the way God likes it. It’s going to get worse in just a few minutes.
First Kings 18:23–25, “‘Let two bulls be given to us, and let them [the prophets of Baal] choose one bull for themselves and cut it in pieces and lay it on the wood, but put no fire to it. And I will prepare the other bull and lay it on the wood and put no fire to it. And you call upon the name of your god, and I will call upon the name of the Lord, and the God who answers by fire, he is God.’ And all the people answered, ‘It is well spoken.’ Then Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, ‘Choose for yourselves one bull and prepare it first, for you are many.’” It’s like Elijah is saying, “You are 450. I’m one. I get to go last.”
First Kings 18:25–26, “‘And call upon the name of your god, but put no fire to it.’ And they took the bull that was given them, and they prepared it and called upon the name of Baal from morning until noon, saying, ‘O Baal, answer us!’ But there was no voice, and no one answered. And they limped [they hobbled] around the altar that they had made.”
Sound of Silence
First Kings 18:27–28, “And at noon Elijah mocked them, saying, ‘Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.’ And they cried aloud and cut themselves after their custom with swords and lances, until the blood gushed out upon them.” Biblically and experientially, I think it’s fair to say that mockery is of limited value in the ministry. But there are times and places when, in the Holy Spirit, it may be exactly what is needed when people are destroying their own lives in the lives of others in the service of false gods. This bloody self-mutilation was their custom. No wonder they limped and hobbled! They’ve been lacerating themselves for years in the service of this false God.
First Kings 18:29, “And as midday passed, they raved on until the time of the offering of the oblation [that’s probably and early-evening sacrifice], but there was no voice. No one answered; no one paid attention.” No voice. No answer. No attention. Only crushing, bloody silence. And the 450 have had their turn. Nothing. Nothing but self-destruction. And that too is going to get worse.
God Works from Disadvantage
First Kings 18:30–32, “Then Elijah said to all the people, ‘Come near to me.’ And all the people came near to him. And he repaired the altar of the Lord that had been thrown down. Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of the Lord came, saying, ‘Israel shall be your name,’ and with the stones he built an altar in the name of the Lord.” Don’t miss this. This altar is made of twelve stones representing the people. This really matters. Because what’s going to happen to the stones in just a moment is absolutely stunning. They represent Israel, the name given to Jacob after he wrestled with God and prevailed.
“God loves to be at a disadvantage just before he wins.”
First Kings 18:32–35, “And he made a trench about the altar, as great as would contain two seahs of seed. And he put the wood in order and cut the bull in pieces and laid it on the wood. And he said, ‘Fill four jars with water and pour it on the burnt offering and on the wood.’ And he said, ‘Do it a second time.’ And they did it a second time. And he said, ‘Do it a third time.’ And they did it a third time. And the water ran around the altar and filled the trench also with water.”
So not only are the odds 450:1 — it is dry wood versus soaked wood. And dry bull versus soaked bull. And no trench of water versus full trench of water. God loves to be at a disadvantage just before he wins. Think of Joseph in prison just before he rules Egypt. Think of Gideon with his three hundred just before he defeats the Midianite hordes. Think of Daniel in the lion’s den. Think of Jesus on the cross. Think of the church in London. God loves to be at a disadvantage just before he wins.
Turn Hearts Back
First Kings 18:36–37, “And at the time of the offering of the oblation, Elijah the prophet came near and said, ‘O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your word. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.’” This is the most explicit statement of purpose in all the story. We’ll be back to it.
First Kings 18:38, “Then the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt offering and the wood and the stones and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench.” Everything! The bull. The wood. The water. The stones — even the stones — Israel! Consumed. And all that’s left is God. Over there the altar of Baal, the bull, the limping, bleeding prophets — religion can go on. Just no God. Men, don’t toy with God. He can take you out in one flash — and do you no wrong.
Dead-Serious About Sin
First Kings 18:39, “And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, ‘The Lord, he is God; the Lord, he is God.’” Yes, he is. The same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8).
He is the same. But not all of his ways are the same. The violence we are about to witness was God’s will when it happened. He had the right to execute and to appoint the executioners. The holy nature of his justice, the deadly seriousness of idolatry, the final suffering that comes from sin — all these realities never change. But with the coming of Jesus Christ, the people of God are no longer a theocratic state, no longer defined by a single, ethno-political regime.
So Paul says, “What have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge?” (1 Corinthians 5:12). And the nature of that judgment for idolatry is not execution, but excommunication. “God judges those outside. ‘Purge [or remove] the evil person from among you’” (1 Corinthians 5:13). “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ To the contrary, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him’” (Romans 12:19–20).
But for now, here in Israel, on Mount Carmel, under this regime, revealing these timeless realities of God’s justice and sin’s seriousness, this is what happens:
God Answers Persevering Prayer
First Kings 18:40–42, “And Elijah said to them, ‘Seize the prophets of Baal; let not one of them escape.’ And they seized them. And Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon and slaughtered them there. And Elijah said to Ahab, ‘Go up, eat and drink, for there is a sound of the rushing of rain.’ So Ahab went up to eat and to drink.” God had promised it in verse 1: “I will send rain upon the earth.” Now almost everything was in place. God had shown himself to be God. One more thing remains: God will make the rain an answer to persevering prayer.
“God has his people. Thousands of them. And he means to have more.”
First Kings 18:42–46, “And Elijah went up to the top of Mount Carmel. And he bowed himself down on the earth and put his face between his knees. And he said to his servant, ‘Go up now, look toward the sea.’ And he went up and looked and said, ‘There is nothing.’ And he said, ‘Go again,’ seven times. And at the seventh time he said, ‘Behold, a little cloud like a man’s hand is rising from the sea.’ And he said, ‘Go up, say to Ahab, “Prepare your chariot and go down, lest the rain stop you.”’ And in a little while the heavens grew black with clouds and wind, and there was a great rain. And Ahab rode and went to Jezreel. And the hand of the Lord was on Elijah, and he gathered up his garment and ran before Ahab to the entrance of Jezreel.”
He ran before the rain. He didn’t limp and hobble around. He ran.
God Rules Every Heart
What’s the point of this story? I don’t mean that the story has only one lesson for us. But where does it come to a head? I think it comes to a head in verse 37. Because Elijah himself says, This is what I want people to know. Verse 37: “Answer me, O Lord, answer me, that this people may know.” Know what?
First, “that you, O Lord, are God.” You are not an idea. You are not a memory. You are not tradition. You are not a religion. You are not a projection of our imagination. You are not a force. You are not an archetype. You are not a symbol. You are God — the living, active, fire-sending, sin-hating, idolatry-destroying, prayer-hearing, personal God.
And second, at the end of verse 37, make this people know “that you have turned their hearts back.” Cause your people to know this. The hearts of Israel had gone after the Baals. Their hearts had betrayed God. Spurned God. Belittled God. Devalued God. Loved other things more than God. This entire event on Mount Carmel is aiming to make God’s people know this: If they turn back to God, it is God who turned them back. That’s the point of the story.
When the people cry from the heart (verse 39), “The Lord, he is God; the Lord, he is God,” God has done that. Yes, the Lord rules fire. Yes, the Lord rules flesh and wood and rocks. Yes, the Lord rules the rain. Yes, the Lord rules the limping, running legs of man. But the story reaches its climax in verse 37: The Lord rules the human heart. “Answer me, O Lord, answer me, that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back” (verse 37).
Know this, Israel, for the good of your soul, and the glory of God. When your heart turns back to the Lord, your heart is not sovereign. God is. Oh, yes. You turned. Your heart turned. Your will turned. Your affections turned. It was really you who turned! But open your eyes, Israel, as you stand before the ashes of these stones — your ashes — and before the corpses of these prophets, and before the rushing of this rain — open your eyes and know: God turned you back. Your heart. Your will. Your affections. God did that.
God Keeps Every Heart
And you would think that at this high point of Elijah’s confidence, he would never lose sight of God’s sovereign rule over the hearts of men. But look what happens in the next chapter (1 Kings 19:14): “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.”
“So, God, the hearts of your people have somehow escaped from your sovereign hand and I’m the only one left.” To which God responds in 1 Kings 19:18, “Yet I will leave [literally: I will cause to remain] seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.” No, Elijah. I know those who are mine. I turned their hearts to me. And I cause their hearts to remain mine. Seven thousand of them have not bowed to Baal. They are mine. I turned their hearts. I have kept them.
This is where the apostle Paul, in the New Testament, reaches into this story. There is so much unbelief in Israel in his day — so much rejection of the Messiah — just as in Elijah’s day. So Paul asks in Romans 11:1, “Has God rejected his people?” He answers, “By no means!” And he reaches back to the despairing words of Elijah, “I alone am left” (Romans 11:3)
Then Paul puts God’s sovereign words over against Elijah’s despairing words (quoting 1 Kings 19:18 in Romans 11:4): “But what is God’s reply to him? ‘I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.’” I have kept! I have kept them! Their hearts are in my hands.
Chosen by Grace
So Paul draws this lesson in Romans 11:5: “So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace.”
In every generation, among Jews and Gentiles — that’s everyone in London — there is a remnant chosen by grace. God turns hearts to himself by grace, and God keeps hearts for himself by grace. This is what it means for God to be God in Britain. Elijah cries out in London — I cry out in London, “Answer me, O Lord, answer me, that this people may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back” (1 Kings 18:37).
Cause them to know that you are God! And that you rule the hearts of men — their hearts! The hearts of their families! The hearts of their colleagues! The hearts of their political leaders! And as they look out across this nation — whether concerned about secularization or Islamization — cause them to know, God rules the hearts of men. All of them!
God Will Hold You Fast
Brothers, don’t be the despairing Elijah of 1 Kings 19. Be the God-entranced Elijah of 1 Kings 18. Don’t say, “They have turned all your churches into shops and theaters and condos. And I alone am left. With my spiritual resilience!” No. Double no. You are not the only one. And it wasn’t your spiritual resilience that has kept you from forsaking Christ.
God has his people. Thousands of them. And he means to have more. Because he is God. He has bought them with the blood of his Son. And he will have them. He will turn their hearts back. And keep them forever. That’s what it means to be God.