God warns his people Israel to be distinct from their idolatrous neighbors, so he prohibits them from copying these detestable pagan rituals to honor their dead or their idols. This principle of holiness, of being set apart and distinct from the unbelieving culture, is the mark of God’s people, whether in the old or new covenant.
Scripture Readings: 1 Kings 18:20-46 (text); Revelation 2:18-29
August 8, 2010
Like us on Facebook
Elijah’s contest with the prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel is one of the most well-known Old Testament stories. Mention the name Elijah in evangelical circles and images of fire from heaven at Mount Carmel are instantly painted. But like the stories of Adam and Eve, Noah and the ark, Abraham and Isaac, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and the Pharaoh, Moses and the Red Sea, Joshua and Jericho, David and Goliath, and Daniel and the lions, Elijah at Mount Carmel is just one of those nice Sunday school lessons for children. “It’s an interesting tale, but what’s it to me and to you?”
Mount Carmel is a landmark mountain by the seacoast overlooking the modern day city of Haifa in northern Israel. It offers a commanding view of the area in all directions. It was a strategically-situated place because of military and geopolitical reasons: it served as the gateway of the northern half of the nation. And whoever controlled the worship that took place on the mountain controlled the spiritual life of the nation. The priests and the prophets of Baal knew this well, so years earlier they had built an altar to their idol-god Baal on top of the mountain.
From ancient Near East history, we learn that Baal worship was a bizarre mixture of idolatry, perverted sexuality and child sacrifice. The god Baal controlled the sun, the seasons and the weather. He could send rain, fire, thunder and lightning on the earth. And since ancient Israel was an agricultural nation, Baal was an extremely powerful deity.
To download a printer-friendly PDF version of this sermon, click here.
Baal worship presented an attractive alternative or supplement to the worship of the Lord (Yahweh) for many Israelites throughout their time in Canaan, no doubt partly because that land was so utterly dependent on rain for its fertility.
It is in this context that the last—and worst—of the kings of the northern kingdom of Israel was Ahab son of Omri. He was described as an evil king, “more than all who were before him” (1 Kings 16:30). He added to the sins of the previous kings when he married Jezebel, a foreign woman and a Baal-worshiper, who eventually led him into the worship of Baal. In fact, Jezebel had hundreds of God’s prophets executed, so that only one hundred were left alive. In contrast, 450 Baal and 400 Asherah prophets ate at the king’s table.
Under the reign of wicked king Ahab, Baal worship had virtually swept the northern kingdom. The worship of the one true God had been almost completely extinguished. This was because Baal worship appealed, just as 1 John 2:16 says, first, to the idolatrous eyes; second, to the desires of the flesh; and third, to the pride in possessions of the people.
In our text, we will study how—through Elijah, God’s mountain man—God judged Israel’s threefold apostasy:
- Pagan Idolatry
- Spiritual and Physical Adultery
- Worldly Materialism
I. Pagan Idolatry
The big challenge for Elijah was Israel’s violation of God’s first and second commandments, led by their wicked king Ahab himself and his pagan queen Jezebel. So Elijah went to the king, and asked him to gather all the people at Mount Carmel to decide once for all who is the true God: Israel’s Yahweh or the Canaanite Baal.
The word “Baal” is not strictly a name but a title (meaning “lord”) for the ancient Canaanite god Hadad—“Lord Hadad” (Baal-Hadad). His symbol is the bull, probably related to the bull-god that Israel worshiped at Mount Sinai hundreds of years before.
In verse 33, Ahab is said to have also made an Asherah pole. This is to worship the goddess Asherah, the mother of Baal and all other gods, and the wife of their most high god. The Asherim were wooden cult symbols in the form of trees connected with the worship of this goddess.
So because of their idolatry, God sent a fitting judgment on Israel: a three-year drought, so that their crops and farms failed. God showed them who is the master of the weather and the fertility of the land. Can their god Baal produce rain? “No,” God says, “only I can send rain and water the earth.” Only God, the one true God of Israel, can bring fertility and life, not Baal or any of the many pagan gods.
At Mount Carmel, Elijah tells all the 450 Baal prophets to bring two bulls, one for their sacrifice and one for his own. But he first confronts the people to decide whom they will worship, Yahweh or Baal, “How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” But the people were not willing to make a commitment.
This is a very dangerous situation for Israel and for us today. When asked to repent and believe, some people will say, “Later, when I’m old and ready to die. But right now, I’ll relax, eat, drink and be merry.” But Jesus warns us, just as he warned the rich unbeliever, “You fool, this night, your soul will be required of you” (Luke 12:20). God warns everyone, “Today, right now, is the day of salvation. Do not harden your hearts, because you don’t know when your soul will depart from you.”
Some people reach 70, 80 or 90 years of their lives. But some die at a very young age. It does not matter at what age you die, as long as you belong, body and soul, in life and in death, to your faithful Savior Jesus Christ, who has redeemed you from your sins and made you citizens of heaven. What if one day you discover that you only have days, or weeks or months to live? Are you sure that you will make your commitment to worship God alone? What if in a moment you became disabled and not able to have a mind to repent of your sins and believe in Christ? Like the Israelites whom God judged, you will be lost forever in the eternal fire.
Elijah then asks the prophets to cut their bull and lay it on the wooden altar, but not set fire on it. They have to ask Baal to send fire from heaven to consume the wood and the sacrifice. From morning till late afternoon, the 450 Baal prophets “limped” weakly around the altar and asked Baal to answer their frantic prayers. But there was no answer.
So Elijah mocked and taunted them and their god Baal, “Your God must be busy, thinking, relieving himself, or sleeping. Wake him up!” The desperate prophets then cut themselves up and mutilated their bodies with knives, “as was their custom,” to please Baal. Obviously, there was no answer forthcoming from their idol-god.
From this custom comes another warning to the current cultural craze among teens, and even among older adults, of body piercings for nose rings, lip rings, tongue rings, cheek rings, and tattoos all over their bodies. From the ancient days, pagans mutilated and cut their bodies and tattooed themselves to mourn their dead (Lev 19:28), or to honor their idol-gods during their worship rituals, just as the Baal prophets of Jezebel did. The demon-possessed man in Mark 5 was described as “always crying out and cutting himself with stones” (Mark 5:5). From just these few examples, the connection between paganism and cutting or mutilating the body is well-established.
A contemporary example of the unbelieving culture that must be avoided by Christians is the popular Gothic fashion—a dark, mournful, erotic and occultic fashion and style that highlights darkness: black-dyed hair, black lips, dark eyes and black clothes.
God warns his people Israel to be distinct from their idolatrous neighbors, so he prohibits them from copying these detestable pagan rituals to honor their dead or their idols, “And you shall not walk in the customs of the nation that I am driving out before you, for they did all these things, and therefore I detested them” (Lev 20:23). This principle of holiness, of being set apart and distinct from the unbelieving culture, is the mark of God’s people, whether in the old or new covenant. Are you setting yourself apart from the anti-Christian culture around you when you yourselves copy their body piercings, tattoos and Gothic attire?
As well, verses 28-29 says the prophets “raved on”—frantic, frenzied, disorderly and violent worship rituals common in ancient northern Canaan. Isn’t this similar to the frenzied, ear-splitting evangelical rituals today? Why do evangelicals imitate what is so obviously pagan worship not too far removed from Baal worship practices?
After the Baal prophets failed to bring fire from heaven, it was Elijah’s turn. Not only did he use a stone altar, he doused the altar and the sacrifice with buckets and buckets of water until the altar was overflowing with and surrounded by water.
Then Elijah prayed to God to send fire so that the people may know who the true God of the universe is, and then repent of their idolatry and turn back to him. “Answer me, O Lord, answer me!” Elijah cried out to God. The Lord answered him immediately as fire came down from heaven and consumed the bull, the representation of Baal. So God consumed the pagan god, showing the idolatrous Israelites who the true God is. But not only the bull was consumed; even the stones, the dust and the water were destroyed!
It was only then, after seeing this mighty wonder, that Israel acknowledged their true God. But later history informs us that as before, their profession of belief was very short-lived.
II. Sexual Immorality
Baal controlled not only the weather, but also the fertility of the land and the people. Worshipers offered sacrifices and then engaged in sexual activity with the priests and priestesses. They believed that power and the fertility of the land came from this sexual activity connected with Baal worship.
Baal worship also involved child sacrifice. After Solomon married 700 foreign wives, he built pagan altars for Chemosh and Molech (1 Kings 11:7). These altars probably introduced this pagan abomination into Israel, which Jezebel would have enforced under King Ahab. But God looked on it with fury against Israel (2 Kings 16:3).
In Scriptures, idolatry is called spiritual adultery against a jealous God. Thus, sexual immorality is almost always mentioned in connection with idolatry. In Numbers 25, the pagan Midianite women seduced Israelite men into committing prostitution with them at Peor. In this way, the Midianites were able to induce Israel into idolatry, to worship Baal, resulting in the death of 24,000 people by a plague sent by a wrathful God.
Jesus even called the Jews of his day “an evil and adulterous generation” who seek for a sign (Matt 16:4). Was he referring to sexual adultery? No, he was condemning the Pharisees and scribes of spiritual adultery because they worshiped not the true God of grace and mercy and instead worshiped their idols of good works, legalism, and signs and wonders.
Likewise, James calls those who love this world’s pleasures, ways and thoughts as adulterers, “You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God” (Jas 4:4).
Today, many Christians are adulterers! They profess faith in Christ, but the fruits of that faith are nowhere to be seen in their lives. They love the world’s pleasures and goods and thinking more than the word of God. They spend hours on Facebook and computer games, but when the sermon is more than 10-15 minutes, they complain, “The sermon was too long!” They love singing worldly, man-centered “Christian” songs rather than singing the Psalms and the word of God. They would rather spend their money on expensive iPhones, iPods and Rock Band, but scorn buying inexpensive books about God and the Bible written by godly scholars.
This is the spiritual adultery of this evil and perverse generation.
Christ has a warning to us today in his letter to the church in Thyatira. This city was well-known for their riches based on their metal and fabric crafts. All the craftsmen have their pagan festivals to celebrate their pagan gods. These festivals included sexual immorality with their priests and priestesses. In Revelation 2:19–20, a self-proclaimed prophetess seduced the Christians in Thyatira to idolatry and sexual immorality. This is why this “prophetess” is aptly called Jezebel, so named after the pagan queen of Israel who worshiped Baal and sought to kill God’s true prophet Elijah.
God warned the church in Thyatira that he will strike them with sickness and death, just as he did to the Israelites who worshiped Baal at Peor. In the same way, God warns Christians today that their adulterous relationship with the world and their actual sexual immorality will bring God’s wrath—if not in this age—then on Judgment Day.
III. Worldly Materialism
Another result of Israel’s spiritual adultery was their misguided dependence on their pagan god Baal for prosperity. For them, Baal provided them with sunshine and rain for their farms and animals. Baal gave them prosperity if he was pleased with their sacrifices and their sexually perverse festivals. If he was not, he would make them suffer drought, storms, pestilences and other calamities.
Just as the unbelieving Pharisees asked Jesus for miracles in order that they would believe, many Christians today are bent on asking God to show them signs and wonders. They are obsessed with miraculous healings, speaking in tongues, prophecies, slaying in the spirit, and prosperity in their lives.
This is why there are so many false teachers who are filthy rich, because of the greed of many in the evangelical churches. Just like the Israelites under King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, they would love and worship a god only if he is a god of wealth and health. This god is not the true God, but the idol-god Baal. Thus, in reality, many Christians today who follow Joel Osteen, Benny Hinn, Mike Velarde, Apollo Quiboloy, Eddie Villanueva, the G12 Movement, and other false prosperity gospel preachers, are greedy Baal-worshipers and spiritual adulterers.
For the love of an abundant harvest and a prosperous life, Israel sold themselves as adulterers who worship the idol-god Baal. And even from the very beginning, the church was already beset with the problem of materialistic greed. Ananias and Sapphira loved their earthly possessions so much that they abandoned their professed faith in Christ and died as a result of lying to God—on account of their love for money. This is why Paul observed, “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs” (1 Tim 6:10).
Paul calls all kinds of sexually immorality, adultery, homosexuality, thievery, greed, drunkenness, reviling and swindling as forms of spiritual idolatry. Do not be deceived, he warns: those who do these things will never inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor 6:9-10).
And those who lead their flock astray by their false teachings will reap their judgment in the end, “And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep” (2 Pet 2:3).
At Mount Carmel, God displayed his mighty act of defeating the idol-god Baal and his 950 prophets through Elijah the mountain man who brought down God’s fire from heaven.
The prophet Malachi foretold that Elijah would come again in the last days. John the Baptizer fulfilled this prophecy (Matt 17:12-13), because just as Elijah was a forerunner of Christ, so was John. He was the forerunner of the One who would baptize his people with water and with the fire of the Holy Spirit (Matt 3:11). And just as Elijah preached against pagan idolatry, sexual immorality and material covetousness, so did John.
When Christ died on the cross and rose again, he gave you as his people freedom from idolatry, sexual immorality, covetousness and all kinds of ungodliness. He clothed you with his own righteousness so you would not be consumed by his wrath.
Because when Christ returns, his eyes and his face will be as fire consuming all those who worshiped Baal then, and worship the idols of the world today, rather than him and his Father in heaven. And he will send all of them, together with all rebellious angels, idolaters, the sexually immoral, and lovers of the world, into eternal punishment in the lake of fire.
But all those of you in whom the Holy Spirit created true repentance in your heart and faith in Christ alone, who worship the true God the creator of heaven and earth, will “shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Matt 13:43). Amen.