Title: Crisis of confidence in God? 

Theme: Sovereign – man or God?
Sermon date: 14th July
Reading: 1 Kings 18 v.16-46

No icebreaker tonight!

As there is a lot of material, please select what you feel your group would benefit in studying, the questions are towards the end.

Introducing: The Book of Kings


In Jewish Bible’s Kings are among the “Former Prophets”, whereas in Christian Bibles Kings is labelled “History”. This difference means that these two faith communities read these books with different emphases. 

  1. Jews are less interested in Kings as a story of what happened than in it as illustrative of how God kept his hand on the nation with its usually-disobedient kings. Most particularly Kings is a part of the larger work scholars call “The Deuteronomistic History”, which covers Joshua-2 Kings in our Bibles, the major concern of which is to account for the exile of 587 BCE and what this says about the rule of YHWH. 
  2. Christians have focused more on the book as the story of what happened in the period covered, though Kings is not a “history” in the modern sense of the term
Kings was a single book until the LXX (Septuagint), the Greek translation of the OT, which was the only text available to NT writers. Thus the division into 1 and 2 Kings is relatively recent, dating from between C3-C2 BCE

The story told in 1 Kings is in three parts plus an appendix:
  1. 1-11: tells the story of Solomon’s ascent to the throne and his very significant reign, during which he became known for his wisdom, and built the first temple. However, he was also severely evaluated for yielding to the pagan culture around him 
  2. 1 Kings 12-2 Kings 17: In this long section, the nation splits into two separate nations: the Northern Kingdom of Israel, led by one of Solomon’s sons, Jeroboam. Rehoboam, another son, led the Southern Kingdom of Judah. The Northern Kingdom was destroyed by Assyria in 722 BCE. Much of this part of Kings overlaps the stories of the now-divided kingdom. 
  1. 2 Kings 18.1-25.21 focuses on Judah, the Southern Kingdom, taking us through the reigns of various Davidic kings until their disobedience led to the Exile to Babylon, the capital of the Kingdom of Babylonia, in 586 BCE. Josiah (chapter 22-23) comes in this section, the only king to have divine approval. Our passage falls at the beginning of this section 
  2. 2 Kings 25.22-30 forms a brief appendix which tells of the appointment and assassination of Gedaliah, an Israelite appointed to rule over a Judah whose ruling elite had been sent into exile. He was appointed at the start of the exile in 587 BCE. Cyrus, the Persian king who had conquered Babylonia in 538 BCE, allowed the exiles to return in that year (the temple was rebuilt with difficulty in 521-16 BCE). Also in this appendix is a notice that Jehoiachin, the exiled king of Judah, was released from prison in the thirty-seventh year of the exile

Introducing Elijah

  1. Elijah (his name means “Yahweh is my God”) was a Northern prophet living in the mid C9 BCE, a Tishbite who probably came from Gilead on the East bank of the Jordan River. He appears in 1 Kings 17-2 Kings 2 
  2. The major theme of Elijah’s ministry was conflict with the monarchy, especially Ahab and his son Azariah over issues of a monarch-supported Baal cult and social justice. In this period the North was at peace and prosperous, though ruled corruptly 
  3. Thus, the famous stories of Elijah’s prophetic ministry:
    1. 1 Kings 17-19 has the contest between the gods of Baal and YHWH over the issue of rainfall and fertility. Elijah has to escape the persecution of King Ahab’s pagan wife, Jezebel, by fleeing into the desert
    2. 1 Kings 21 tells of Elijah’s challenge to Ahab’s murder of Naboth and his royal confiscation of Naboth’s land
    3. 2 Kings 1 depicts Ahab’s successor, Azariah, as another devotee of Baal 
  4. Elijah has many of the characteristics of prophetic figures in Israel’s history:
    1. He performs miracles
    2. He intercedes powerfully for individuals and for the nation – we’ll see this in 18.42-45
    3. He calls the monarchy to account for its departure from true worship and for its unjust treatment of ordinary people
    4. In all these, he speaks an authoritative word of power 
  5. Elijah is connected to Moses in allusions to the Exodus in 1 Kings 17-19 and for Christians to Jesus through his mysterious assumption to heaven in a whirlwind (2 Kings 2.1-15), and through his confrontation with his country’s rulers. The Gospel story of the Transfiguration (Mark 9 and parallels) combines these connections between Elijah and the Bible’s two most significant figures, Moses and Jesus

1 Kings 18.1-15 in Review

  1. You will remember how in last week’s notes, Christine would no doubt have pointed to signs of Elijah’s stature:
    1. He is called my lord [Adonai] Elijah at vv.7, 8. The same Hebrew word is used at v.11 to refer to the king
    2. His arrival has to be announced specially, with the kind of ceremony one would associate with a visiting dignitary: It is I. Go tell your lord that Elijah is here [v.8] 
  2. The meeting is going to be difficult for, as the terrified servant who has been asked to proclaim Elijah’s arrival reminds Elijah of how he had protected a hundred prophets from Jezebel’s rampaging killers [v.13]. This is going to be a contest between the man who holds all the power and the Lord’s prophet, a man of gigantic stature, though with little power. It would be like Desmond Tutu versus P.W. Botha, the South African President (a confrontation that took place many times in the years close to the end of apartheid in SA): political power versus spiritual power

1 Kings 18.16-19: the king and the prophet meet 

  1. Ahab wastes no time in going on the attack: Is it you, you troubler of Israel [v.17] – the Hebrew word “akar” refers to stirring up trouble on a grand scale, with profound social ramifications 
  2. Elijah comes back with a precise counter-accusation: I have not troubled Israel; but you have  because you have forsaken the commandments of the Lord and followed the Baal’s [v.18] 
  3. Notice, then, how Elijah takes charge by ordering the king to have all Israel assemble for me at Mount Carmel, together with a large collection of Jezebel’s prophets who have attached themselves to Baal and Asherah, pagan cults [v19].
  1. How is it that Elijah could make a challenge like this to a ruthless king? Because his accusation in v.18 has deprived the king of his spiritual authority and the king knows it
(Baal was a Canaanite storm, fertility, and fire god; Asherah was Baal’s consort). Baal provided the most powerful and enduring challenge to Yahwism in Canaan. Canaan had an agricultural economy heavily dependent on rain, so you can see how strong a claim Baal had on Canaan’s inhabitants. John Goldingay (Introduction to the Old Testament) argues that Baalism worked almost entirely by divination. If he is right, Baalism shared this with Yahwism (e.g. Gideon’s sign of the fleece in Judges 6) and, indeed, with early Christianity (think of the casting of lots at the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, a typical divinatory practice). Baalism differed from Yahwism in that divination by a variety of methods was the only way its adherents got to know their god(s) will, whereas for Jews in the OT divination was an occasional method. The chief method of knowing God’s will, of course, was the Torah

1 Kings 18.20-29: the contest between YHWH and Baal begins 

  1. Elijah speaks to the people, demanding that they choose between the two claimants to the divine throne in Canaan: Baal and Yahweh: If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him [v.21b]. Elijah’s address is mocking: How long will you go limping (…keep hopping between two opinions [NJPS]; waver [NIV]; sit on the fence [REB]). All these translations capture perfectly the instability in the faith of Israel at this time 
  2. In vv.22-24 Elijah sets up the challenge: two young bulls are to be prepared for sacrifice by fire – note how Elijah plays directly to Baal’s alleged strength. Whichever G(g)od answers the prayer by burning up its bull will be the true deity 
  3. In vv.25-29 Elijah gives the first try to the Baalites, who are then mocked as they invoked Baal by name from morning until noon…But there was no voice and no answer. 
  1. So they carry on, as does the mockery: They limped about the altar they had made (different Hebrew word, pasach – same root as pesach = pass over, but here with its other meaning of “to waver” or “wobble”)

1 Kings 18.30-35: Elijah prepares the sacrifice 

  1. Elijah begins by rebuilding the altar, a stone for each tribe of Israel, before getting the sacrifice ready. Notice that he wets the altar, the bull, the wood and the trench around the altar so that the water ran all around the altar, and filled the trench also with water [v.35]. 
  1. Given that he is going to ask Yahweh to burn up the whole lot with fire why does he first wet everything? The answer, of course, is that Elijah wants to demonstrate that nothing can get in the way of Yahweh’s action: he stacks the odds against Yahweh to prove Yahweh’s sovereign power

1 Kings 18.36-40: Elijah invokes Yahweh 

  1. Elijah beseeches Yahweh to hear his prayer, which Yahweh does, instantly, by raining fire down, consuming the burnt offering, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and even licked up the water that was in the trench [v.38] 
  2. Israel responds appropriately: When all the people saw it, they fell on their faces and said, ‘The Lord is indeed God... [v.39] 
  3. Elijah orders all the prophets of Baal to be killed

1 Kings 18.41-46: The drought ends 

  1. The end of the drought is the final proof of Yahweh’s power. Recall that the drought had been divinely made: 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 [17.1]. Well this word arrives in this ending to the contest between Baal and Yahweh 
  2. Stress is put on making Ahab witness the miracle of rain that is the consequence of Elijah’s ministry. The miraculous nature of this storm is emphasized in vv.43-45, though this could also be read as a perfectly ordinary beginning to an intense storm 
  3. I stressed at in my introduction the capacity of typical Yahwistic prophets to perform miracles, so it is not unexpected that Elijah’s victory in this contest ends on a miraculous note as the power of the Lord sweeps him ahead of Ahab (who is riding a horse and had a head start on Elijah who, however, ran in front of Ahab to the entrance of Jezreel [v.46]

Questions for Discussion

These questions are offered as suggestions. Other questions may occur to the group in addition or in place of any of the ones I offer. My “answers” are in bold print – they are nothing more than a hint of what was in my mind as I set the questions – they suggest possibilities

Q.1 Elijah calls King Ahab the troubler of Israel [18.17]: read 16.29-34 for a summary statement of Ahab’s sins and Elijah’s accusation at 18.18, which caused Yahweh to afflict the country with a devastating drought [17.1].
How do you respond to what you have read?

Q.2 Why does Yahweh punish the country because of the sins of the king?

Because the king was supposed to represent the rule of Yahweh to the people, so the king stood for Yahweh. Hence, if he strayed he took the people with him. Because Yahweh, through Samuel, had warned the people against choosing a king to replace Yahweh as king. He had warned the people that their kings would lead them astray.

Q.3 Think of the political landscape in UK today: do we the people suffer for the sins of our leaders or not, or is the connection between king and people in the biblical story we are reading just from another culture?

In the ancient world there was no such thing as the individualism and compartmentalizing so common in our thinking – everything was inextricably linked together. That culture was thus quite different from ours. Nonetheless, I think your discussion will probably conclude that the ‘sins’ (or mistakes/ incompetencies/errors of judgement) of our leaders do affect us all

Q.4 How does the way the writer tells the story of the contest at Mount Carmel show Elijah deliberately stacking the odds against himself (and Yahweh) in order to prove Yahweh’s uncontainable power?

He is one faithful prophet against 450 Baalite prophets [18.22] He soaks his altar and its surrounds, as well as the bull for sacrifice, with water to make it, common-sense-wise, more difficult for Yahweh to rain down fire upon the altar [18.33-35]

Elijah offers the people an apparently-simple choice: If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him [18.21].  Baalism represents the attractions of the culture of Canaan into which the Israelites had come:

Q.5 What would be “Baal” for Christians today – what, in other words, would be completely inadmissible for you as Christians about the culture within which you live out your faith?

There would be obvious things like drunkenness, sexual immorality (but this can be complex – would you regard couples who live together in long-term relationships without being formally married as immoral?), idolatry (what does this mean for you? Some idols in our contemporary world that have been identified are: the materialism that dominates our culture, its obsession with health and beauty, with sexual pleasure, with success as well as with work – where has the Sabbath gone?). What about ecumenism (which demands respect for other religions) – is this “Baal”?

Are same-sex relationships “Baal”, do you think?  (This is such a complex and controversial issue which needs more time than you would be able to give it. I merely flag it as the kind of issue which is demanding that Christians rethink their relationship with a culture that accepts such relationships, legally and morally). What would be the best way to give this issue proper attention in a parish church like ours? I suggest you confine your discussion to this, without getting into the issue of whether same-sex relationships can themselves be within the will of God

Q.6 Is Elijah actually offering a kind of “law” of spiritual life, in fact – either total obedience to God or total disobedience at every, and any time and situation? Or is he addressing the requirement of that moment? If he is doing the latter, how would you express what he is asking of Israel?

Elijah is forcing them to understand that in the contest to follow their manner of worship will show which G(g)od they follow. Thus, note 18.26-29 where, if they follow Baal they will [1] call on the name of Baal from morning to noon, [2] cut themselves with swords and lances until the blood gushed out over them, and [3] rave on until the time of the offering of the oblation… By contrast, if they follow Yahweh they will be silent, trusting in the word of the prophet (knowing that a prophet is, by definition, a man who speaks God’s word). At this moment, in other words, no one can hide or try to ride two horses at once; this is the point Elijah wants to get across because trying to ride two horses at once is exactly what king Ahab has been doing, as has his army of 450 prophets following his lead

I think Elijah is speaking into the moment, but you may want to read the choice Elijah offers as a kind of spiritual “law”, and certainly other biblical texts may suggest this kind of interpretation – see Deuteronomy 30.15-18, for example. However, making “spiritual laws” out of statements in the Bible is often a risky business, as will be clear if you read the passages below and discuss the questions I have set. First passage is 1 Cor 11.2-16; the second is Mark 10.1-22. 

1 Cor 11.2-16: As an indicator that the question is more complex than biblical fundamentalists will admit, consider this passage,  which orders that it is God’s will that all women cover their heads when at prayer (he means public worship primarily) and that women should not cut their hair at all - ever. Men, by contrast, should never wear long hair – to do so is to disobey God.

Q.7 I wonder how many of you who may want to argue that there is a simple choice between obedience to God and disobedience live in this “biblical” way?

The answer, I expect, would be that none of you go to the Bible these days for a law on how to choose the hair style you want for yourself – or am I wrong?

Mark 10.17-22: Likewise, consider Jesus’ challenge to the rich man in this passage, in which the man turns away from Jesus’ challenge that to be a disciple must require him to give away all his wealth.

Q.8 How many of us take this literally? Would ordinary life be possible if we all did? Are we meant, in fact, to take this text literally, and if not how should we interpret it?

To answer the first part of the question: ordinary life would be impossible if people took this literally. Let me illustrate: when St Francis of Assissi was called his calling was to live by begging, on the basis of taking Jesus’ statement literally. His followers grew to such a number that the Italian economy was threatened by his army of beggars, so Francis had to re-assess his calling. Not that it had been wrong, but that it became wrong when circumstances changed; and so he built monastic houses and put his monks to work the fields. His example illustrates the reality that it may be right to take Jesus literally for a short time but it would be impossible over time

To answer the second part: if Jesus’ whole ministry offers a glimpse into the perfected kingdom of God, if it is a sign, in other words, of the kingdom, a challenge such as this can be interpreted as a sign of the intention of God for the eschatological kingdom in which getting and spending will have no place and there will be neither rich nor poor. Jesus in other words doesn’t expect this to happen in the here-and-now; he addresses the rich man using typically-extreme language – typical, that is, of biblical prophets - to shock this man into re-evaluating his life. Put differently, Jesus is not expecting that this man must sell all he has; rather, using the kind of overstatement common to prophetic pronouncements, he is challenging a rich man to re-evaluate his life radically

Notice that Elijah’s entire ministry involved politics: he is called to oppose an unjust king and his pagan wife, where injustice and disobedience to the Torah are inextricably tied together

Q.9 How are these two issues, religion and politics, intertwined in our passage?

The drought which this contest will bring to an end was caused by Yahweh because Ahab did more to provoke the anger of the Lord, the God of Israel, than had all the kings of Israel who were before him [16.33], so Elijah’s opposition to Ahab and his prophets had this religious perspective (recall that in the ancient world “religion” and “politics” were not thought of as being separated at all)

We have a glimpse of the injustice of Ahab’s reign at 18.4 where we are told Jezebel was killing off the prophets of the Lord – an injustice, note that in itself shows how politics and religion went hand-in-hand. This is an opener for the story of Naboth’s vineyard in ch 21, where Ahab, under the influence of his wicked queen, steals the vineyard from Naboth, his subject whom he is sworn to protect, but whom he then has murdered

Q.10 Was the ministry of Jesus political, or was the salvation he offered “religious”?

Jesus was a prophet in his ministry as God’s Son – note that he had all the attributes of a biblical prophet that I summarized with respect to Elijah (point 4 under the heading “Introducing Elihah” above). Therefore his ministry shared the thrust in all the Prophets against the injustices perpetrated by unjust, ungodly rulers

Without doing into detail, this is why Jesus was no victim but constantly attacked his opponents directly. One of the high points of the political nature of his ministry was his action in the Temple, when he showed his – and God’s – displeasure at the way the Temple leaders had connived with Judah’s Roman rulers and so had turned the Temple, the very heart of Israel’s faith, into an ungodly institution

Q.11 What role should the church play in our nation’s political life? Does it do so well at the moment?

We live in an age when many Christians seem to think that religion is about being “religious” and not political – in fact I have known parts of the church where it is taught that to be involved in politics at all is a sin! Therefore, the question I have posed, which would have been a no-brainer for any biblical Israelite and for Jesus, may be quite problematic for contemporary Christians used to seeing life in separated compartments.  Is “salvation” meant to transform society or merely get believers into heaven is the question, ultimately?

Close by sharing the grace with each other
                                                                                                                                                                   Tim Long

Tim Long, 25/06/2019