We were thinking about "the gods" just a few days ago. How we see just how much power they have. We don’t know why the Israelites were at Mount Carmel. Perhaps the people were desperate and would do almost anything if they thought it would end the drought. Whatever was going to happen up there, it was going to be interesting, and many were there to see it for themselves. Initially, the people did not say a word; they did not commit themselves, one way or the other (v21). It is only after Elijah spells out the challenge that the people openly agree that it is a fair contest (v24).
This is not a conflict so much between Elijah and King Ahab. Despite Ahab is being an exceedingly wicked man, the most wicked king Israel had seen, Elijah’s face-to-face conversation with him is limited.. The real conversation is between Elijah and the Israelites. The Israelites are wavering between Yahweh and Baal, and also between Ahab (and Jezebel) and Elijah. They have been straddling the fence, and it is time for them to commit themselves one way or the other. Pagan theology often welcomes a plurality of gods, but the God of Israel does not. So let the people choose, here and now, whom they will serve.
We are told that Baal was sometimes pictured with a bolt of lightning in his hand: "The people believed Baal to represent the sun-god also and in their epics thought he rode the thunderclouds and sent lightning (as did the Hebrews the LORD, Ps 18:14; 104:3-4).” So, too, we find that God is said to send fire from heaven: "Moses and Aaron then entered into the Tent of Meeting and went out and blessed the people, and the glory of the LORD appeared to all the people. Then fire went out from the presence of the LORD and consumed the burnt offering and the fat parts on the altar, and all the people saw it so they shouted loudly and fell on their faces (Leviticus 9:23-24)".
I wonder how many people really expected to see fire? If anyone did, they were disappointed. Around noon, Elijah began to call attention to the failure of these prophets and their god.
Donald Wiseman notes:
Elijah’s taunt is that Baal was acting in a merely human manner. He uses terms known to the people from the Ugaritic Baal myths. Was the god musing on the action to take (deep in thought)? Had he gone aside to answer the call of nature? Or had he left on a journey with Phoenician merchants? Was Baal asleep as Yahweh was not (Ps. 121:3-4)? The practice of self-inflicted wounds to arouse a deity’s pity or response is attested in Ugarit when men ‘bathed in their own blood like an ecstatic prophet.
What a pathetic “god” this Baal is! Elijah was brutal in his attack, but this was no time for subtlety. Either their “god” was God, or he was not. If he was not available at a critical time like this, then he could never be counted on; he should never be trusted, and especially if the God of Israel did respond.
These false prophets think that there is some merit in shedding blood. They have not been able to get their god’s attention in any other way, and so they begin to mutilate their bodies with swords and spears, as though the sight of blood will finally arouse Baal. It is not the blood that men shed that counts; it is only the blood which the Son of God shed on man’s behalf. It is Jesus’ shed blood which should get our attention.
I think the people are looking on all the time that Elijah is rebuilding his altar. Twice Elijah instructs them to pour more water on the sacrifice. It is his way of proving that what happens next is of God and God alone. Elijah prays that God will hear his prayer so that the people will know that Lord alone is God, and so that his people will worship Him alone. He prays that the people will see that he has done all these things at the Lord’s command. He does not pray specifically for Ahab to turn, but rather generally, that this people will hear and turn. He prays that they will know that it is God who has turned their hearts toward Him. Almost immediately, it would seem, God did respond. He sent fire from heaven that consumed the bull and the wood, and the stones, the dust, and the water. The fire consumed everything.
God had won. The people not only reached the right conclusion, they acted on it as they should have. They fell on their faces, acknowledging, “The LORD, is the true God! The LORD is the true God!” (v39). In all the excitement of the contest on Mount Carmel, we almost forget about the rain!
These events follow on the exact same point we saw yesterday: If my people…
Israel’s sin resulted in divine discipline—God ceased to give rain. The confrontation on Mount Carmel, then, was designed to turn Israel away from her idolatry and back to God, in order that God might once again send the rains. It was God who brought them to repentance. It was not Israel that was seeking God; it was God who was seeking Israel, as always.
There is a final lesson here concerning prayer. Prayers to the wrong god are futile. Success praying does not necessarily depend on numbers, fervency, frequency or fame. It is much more about the righteousness of one who prays (James 5:13-18).