ELIJAH: A pastor among wolves, and Ahab’s desperate decision



Elijah came near to all the people and said, “How long will you hesitate between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow Him; but if Baal, follow him.” But the people did not answer him a word.
–1 Kings 18:21

In the breathless silence that ensued upon this challenge Elijah now stood forward…

…and pointing to the white-robed crowd of priests over against him, he recalled to king and people that he and he only remained, that is, in active office and open profession –a prophet of Jehovah. Single-handed, therefore, he would go to the contest, if contest of power it were against that multitude.

Power! They worship as God the powers of nature; let them then make trial as to on whose side these powers which are in nature are arrayed. Let this be the test: the priests of Baal on their side, and he on his, would each choose a bullock and prepare it for sacrifice, but not kindle the fire beneath,” and it shall be the Elohim who shall answer by fire, He is the “Elohim.”

A shout of universal assent greets the proposal. Under the circumstances it would be of greatest practical importance that the futility of Baal-worship should be exhibited in the fullest manner. This explains the details of all that follows. Besides, after a whole day of vain appliance of every resource of their superstition, the grandeur of Jehovah’s majestic interposition would also make the deeper impression. But although from Elijah’s point of view it was important that the priests of Baal should first offer their sacrifice, the proposition was one to which no objection could be taken, since Elijah not only gave them the choice of the sacrificial animal, but they were many as against one. Nor could they complain so far as they regarded the test proposed by Elijah, since their Baal was also the god of fire, he was the very Sun-god himself.

Now commences a scene which baffles description. Ancient writers have left us accounts of the great Baal-festivals, and they closely agree with the narrative of the Bible, and only furnish further details. First rises a comparatively moderate, though already wild cry to Baal; followed by a dance around the altar, beginning with a swinging motion to and fro. The howl then becomes louder and louder, and the dance more frantic. They whirl round and round, running wildly through each other’s ranks, always keeping up a circular motion, the head low bent, so that their long disheveled hair sweeps the ground.

Ordinarily the madness now became infectious, and the onlookers join in the frenzied dance. But Elijah knew how to prevent this. It was noon, and for hours they have kept up their wild rites. With cutting taunts and bitter irony Elijah now reminds them that, since Baal was Elohim, the fault must lie with them. He might be otherwise engaged, and they must cry louder. Stung to madness, they become more frantic than before, and what we know as the second and third acts in these feasts then ensues. The wild howl passes into piercing demoniacal yells. In their madness the priests bite their own arms and cut themselves with the two-edged swords which they carry and with lances.

As blood begins to flow the frenzy reaches its highest pitch, when first one, then others, commence to “prophesy,” moaning and groaning, then bursting into rhapsodic cries, accusing themselves, or speaking to Baal, or uttering incoherent broken sentences. All the while they beat themselves with heavy scourges, loaded or armed with sharp points, and cut themselves with swords and lances, sometimes even mutilating themselves –since the blood of the priest was supposed to be specially propitiatory with Baal.

Two more hours of this terrible scene have past, and their powers of endurance must have been all but exhausted. The sun has long passed its meridian, and the time of the regular evening-sacrifice in the Temple of Jehovah at Jerusalem has come. From the accounts of the Temple-times left us, we know that the evening sacrifice was offered “between the evenings,” as it was termed, that is, between the down going of the sun and the evening.

In point of fact, the evening Temple service was to commence between two and three p.m. It must have been about the same time that Elijah begins the simple yet solemn preparations for his sacrifice. Turning from the frantic priests to the astonished people, he bids them to draw nigh. They must gather around him, not only in order to be convinced that no deception is being practiced, but to take part with him, as it were, in the service.

And once more Israel is to appear as the Israel of old in happier times, undivided in nationality as in allegiance to Jehovah. This was the meaning of his restoring the broken place of former pious worship by rolling to it twelve of the large pieces of rock that have strewed the ground, according to the number of the tribes. And as he builds the altar, he consecrates it by prayer: “in the name of Jehovah.” Next, the soft crumbling calcareous soil around the altar are dug into a deep and wide trench. Then the wood, and upon it the pieces of the sacrifice are laid in due order. And now, at the prophet’s bidding, willing hands fill the pitchers from the well close by. Once, twice, thrice he pours the water over the sacrifices, till it runs down into the trench, which he also fills.

This, as we suppose, was not merely to show the more clearly that the fire, which consumes the sacrifice in such circumstances, is sent from heaven, but also for symbolic reasons, as if to indicate that Israel’s penitent confession is being poured upon the offering. And now a solemn silence falls upon the assembly. The sun is going down, a globe of fire behind Mount Carmel, and it covers the mountain with a purple glow. It is time for the evening sacrifice.

mt carmel elijahBut Jehovah, not Elijah, would do this miracle; the Hand of the living God Himself must be stretched out. Once more it was prayer which moved that Hand. Such prayer was not heard before –so calm, so earnest, so majestic, so assured, so strong. Elijah appeared in it as only the servant of Jehovah, and all that he had previously done was only at His Word: but Jehovah was the Covenant-God, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Israel, manifesting Himself as of old as the Living and True, as Elohim in Israel: the conversion of Israel to Him as their God being the great object sought for…

He had said it as when first the Tabernacle was consecrated (Lev. 9: 24),or as when King Solomon (1 Chron. 21:26; 2 Chron. 7: 1) brought the first offering in the temple which he had reared to Jehovah, so now the fire of Jehovah leaps from heaven, consuming the sacrifice and the wood, wrapping and burning up the limestone rocks of which the altar was constructed, and with burning tongues lick up even the water that was in the trench. One moment of solemn silence, when all who has seen it falls in awe-stricken worship on their faces; then a shout which seems to rend the very air, and finds its echo far and wide in the glens and clefts of Carmel: “Jehovah, He the Elohim! Jehovah, He the Elohim!”

And so Israel is once more converted unto God. And now, in accordance with the Divine command in the Law (Deut. 13:13 ; 17:2, etc.), stern judgment must be executed on the idolaters and seducers; the idol-priests. The victory that day must be complete; the renunciation of Baal-worship beyond recall. Not one of the priests of Baal must escape. Down the steep mountain sides they hurried them, casting them over precipices, some fourteen hundred feet to the river Kishon, which is reddened with their blood. –But up on the mountain-top lingers King Ahab, astonished, speechless, himself for the time a convert to Jehovah. He also is to share in the sacrifice; he also is to eat the sacrificial meal. But it must be in haste, for already Elijah hears the sighing and low moaning of the wind in the forests of Carmel.

Elijah, himself takes no part in the feast. He has other bread to eat that they know not. He has climbed the topmost height of Carmel and out of sight of the king. None has accompanies him save his servant, whom tradition declares to be that son of the widow of Sarepta who was miraculously restored to life. A most fitting minister, indeed, he would be in that hour.

Once more it was agonizing prayer –not once, but seven times repeated. At each break, the faithful attendant climbs the highest knoll, and looks earnestly and anxiously over the broad expanse of the sea, which is there before him, glittering in full view. At last it comes –a cloud, as yet not bigger than a man’s hand.

But when God begins to hear a prayer, He will hear it abundantly; when He gives his blessing, it will be without stint. Ahab must be up, and quick in his chariot, or the rain, which will descend in floods, will clog the hard ground, so that his chariot would find it difficult to traverse the six miles across the plain to the palace of Jezreel. And now as the foot of the mountain is reached, the heaven is black with clouds, the wind moans fitfully, and the rain now comes in torrents.

But the power of Jehovah was upon the Tishbite. He girds up his loins and runs before the chariot of Ahab. On such a day he hesitates not to act as outrunner to this convert-king; nay, he would himself be the harbinger of the news to Jezreel. Up to the entrance of Jezreel he heralds them; to the very gate of Jezebel’s palace he goes before them, like the warning voice of God, ere Ahab again encounters his tempter.

But there the two must part company, and the king of Israel must henceforth decide for himself to whom he will cleave, whether to Jehovah or to the god of Jezebel.


Written by, Alfred Edersheim, M.A., D.D., Phd.
Edited for thought and sense


Meet the author and part of your Christian heritage:  Alfred Edersheim (March 7, 1825 – March 16, 1889) was a Jewish convert to Christianity and a Biblical scholar known especially for his book The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (1883). 

Edersheim was born in Vienna of Jewish parents of culture and wealth. English was spoken in their home, and he became fluent at an early age. He was educated at a local gymnasium and also in the Talmud and Torah at a Hebrew school, and in 1841 he entered the University of Vienna. His father suffered illness and financial reversals before Alfred could complete his university education, and he had to support himself.

He converted to Christianity in Pest when he came under the influence of John Duncan, a Church of Scotland chaplain to workmen engaged in constructing a bridge over the Danube. Edersheim accompanied Duncan on his return to Scotland and studied theology at New College, Edinburgh and at the University of Berlin. In 1846 Alfred was married to Mary Broomfield. They had seven children. In the same year he was ordained to the ministry in the Free Church of Scotland. He was a missionary to the Jews at Iaşi, Romania for a year.

On his return to Scotland, after preaching for a time in Aberdeen, Edersheim was appointed in 1849 to minister at the Free Church, Old Aberdeen. In 1861 health problems forced him to resign and the Church of St. Andrew was built for him at Torquay. In 1872 Edersheim’s health again obliged him to retire, and for four years he lived quietly at Bournemouth. In 1875 he was ordained in the Church of England, and was Curate of the Abbey Church, Christchurch, Hants, for a year, and from 1876 to 1882 Vicar of Loders, Bridport, Dorset. He was appointed to the post of Warburtonian Lecturer at Lincoln’s Inn 1880-84. In 1882 he resigned and relocated to Oxford. He was Select Preacher to the University 1884-85 and Grinfield Lecturer on the Septuagint 1886-88 and 1888-89.

Edersheim died at Menton, France, on March 16, 1889.