The Life of Elijah
by A.W. Pink
The Answer by Fire
In our last chapter we sought to make practical application unto ourselves of the prayer that was offered unto God by Elijah upon Mount Carmel. It has been recorded for our learning (Rom. 15:4), and encouragement, and many valuable lessons are contained therein, if only we have hearts to receive them. With rare exceptions the modern pulpit furnishes little or no help on this important matter, rather is it a stumbling block to those desirous of knowing the way of the Lord more perfectly. If young Christians are anxious to discover the secrets of acceptable and effectual prayer, they must not be guided by what they now hear and see going on in the religious world: instead, they must turn to that Divine revelation which God has graciously designed as a lamp unto their feet and a light unto their path. If they humbly seek instruction from God’s Word and trustfully count upon His Holy Spirit’s aid, they will be delivered from that anomaly which is now called prayer.
On the one hand, we need to be delivered from a cold, mechanical and formal type of praying which is merely a lip service, in which there is no actual approach unto the Lord, no delighting of ourselves in Him, no pouring out of the heart before Him. On the other hand, we need to be preserved from that unseemly, wild and fanatical frenzy which in some quarters is mistaken for spiritual warmth and earnestness. There are some who too much resemble the worshippers of Baal when they pray, addressing God as though He were deaf. They seem to regard excitement of their animal spirits and violent contortions of body as the essence of supplication, and despise those who speak unto God in a calm and composed, meet and orderly manner. Such irreverent frenzy is even worse than formality. Noise is not to be mistaken for fervour, nor raving for devotion. "Be ye therefore sober, and watch unto prayer" (1 Pet. 4:7), is the Divine corrective for this evil.
Now we turn to and consider the remarkable sequel to the beautiful but simple prayer of Elijah. And again we would say to the reader, let us attempt to visualize the scene, and as far as we can, take our place on Carmel. Cast your eye over the vast concourse of people there assembled. View the large company of the now exhausted and defeated priests of Baal. Then seek to catch the closing words of the Tishbite’s prayer: "Hear me, O Lord, hear me, that this people may know that Thou art the Lord God, and that Thou hast turned their heart back again" (1 Kings 18:37). What an awful moment follows! What intense eagerness on the part of the assembled multitude to behold the issue! What breathless silence must there have been! What shall be the outcome? Will the servant of Jehovah be baffled as had been the prophets of Baal? If no answer follow, if no fire come down from Heaven, then the Lord is no more entitled to be regarded as God than Baal. Then all that Elijah had done, all his testimony to his Master being the only true and living God, would be looked upon as a delusion. Solemn, intensely solemn moment!
But the short prayer of Elijah had scarcely ended when we are told, "Then the fire of the Lord fell, and consumed the burnt sacrifice, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench" (v. 38). By that fire the Lord avouched Himself to be the only true God, and by it He bore witness to the fact that Elijah was His prophet and Israel His people. Oh, the amazing condescension of the Most High in repeatedly making demonstration of the most evident truths concerning His being, perfections, the Divine authority of His Word, and the nature of His worship. Nothing is more wonderful than this, unless it be the perverseness of men who reject such repeated demonstrations. How gracious of God to furnish such proofs and make all doubting utterly unreasonable and excuseless! Those who receive the teachings of Holy Writ without a question are not credulous fools, for so far from following cunningly devised fables, they accept the unimpeachable testimony of those who were the eye-witnesses of the most stupendous miracles. The Christian’s faith rests upon a foundation that need not fear the closet investigation.
"Then the fire of the Lord fell." That this was no ordinary but rather supernatural fire was plainly evident from the effects of it. It descended from above. Then it consumed the pieces of the sacrifice, and then the wood on which they had been laid—this order making it clear that it was not by means of the wood the flesh of the bullock was burnt. Even the twelve stones of the altar were consumed, to make it further manifest this was no common fire. As though that were not sufficient attestation of the extraordinary nature of this fire, it consumed "the dust and licked up the water that was in the trench," thus making it quite obvious that this was a fire whose agency nothing could resist. In each instance the action of this fire was downwards, which is contrary to the nature of all earthly fire. No trickery was at work here, but a supernatural power that removed every ground of suspicion in the spectators, leaving them face to face with the might and majesty of Him they had so grievously slighted.
"Then the fire of the Lord fell, and consumed the burnt sacrifice." Exceedingly blessed, yet unspeakably solemn was this. First, this remarkable incident should encourage weak Christians to put their trust in God, to go forth in His strength to meet the gravest dangers, to face the fiercest enemies, and to undertake the most arduous and hazardous tasks to which He may call them. If our confidence be fully placed in the Lord Himself, he will not fail us. He will stand by us, though no others do; He will deliver us out of the hands of those who seek our hurt; He will put to confusion those who set themselves against us; and He will honour us in the sight of those who have slandered or reproached us. Look not on the frowning faces of worldlings, O trembling believer, but fix the eye of faith upon Him who has all power in heaven and in earth. Be not discouraged because you meet with so few who are like-minded, but console yourself with the grand fact that if God be for us it matters not who is against us.
How this incident should cheer and strengthen the tried servants of God! Satan may be telling you that compromise is the only wise and safe policy in such a degenerate day as this. He may be moving you to ask yourself the question, What is to become of me and my family if I preserve in preaching what is so unpopular? Then recall the case of the apostle, and how he was supported by the Lord in the most trying circumstances. Referring to his being called upon by that monster Nero to vindicate his conduct as a servant of Christ, he says, "At my first answer no man stood with me, but all men forsook me: I pray God that is may not be laid to their charge. Notwithstanding, the Lord stood with me, and strengthened me: that by me the preaching might be fully known, and that all the Gentiles might hear: and I was delivered out of the mouth of the lion. and the Lord shall deliver me from every evil work, and will preserve me unto His heavenly kingdom: to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen" (2 Tim. 4:16-18). And the Lord has not changed! Put yourself unreservedly in His hands, seek only His glory, and He will not fail you. Trust Him fully as to the outcome, and he will not put you to confusion, as this writer has fully proved.
How blessedly this incident exemplifies the power of faith and the efficacy of prayer. We have already said quite a little upon the prayer offered by Elijah on this momentous occasion, but let us call attention to one other essential feature that marked it, and which must mark our prayers if they are to call down responses from Heaven. "According to your faith be it unto you" (Matthew 9:29), is one of the principles which regulates God’s dealings with us. "If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth" (Mark 9:23). Why? Because faith has to do directly with God: it brings Him into the scene, it puts Him upon His faithfulness, laying hold of His promises and saying, "Do as Thou hast said" (2 Sam. 7:25). If you want to see some of the marvels and miracles which faith can bring to pass, read slowly through Hebrews 11.
And prayer is the principal channel through which faith is to operate. To pray without faith is to insult and mock God. It is written, "The prayer of faith shall save the sick" (Jas. 5:15). But what is it to pray in faith? It is for the mind to be regulated and the heart to be affected by what God has said to us: it is a laying hold of His Word and then counting upon Him to fulfill His promises. This is what Elijah had done, as is plain from his "I have done all these things at Thy word" (v. 36). Some of those things appeared utterly contrary to carnal reason—such as his venturing into the presence of the man who sought his life and ordering him to convene a vast assembly on Carmel, his pitting himself against the hundreds of false prophets, his pouring water on the sacrifice and the wood; nevertheless, he acted on God’s Word and trusted Him as to the outcome. Nor did God put him to confusion: He honored his faith and answered his prayer.
Once again we would remind the reader: this incident is recorded for our learning and for our encouragement. The Lord God is the same today as He was then—ready to show Himself strong on the behalf of those who walk as Elijah and trust Him as he did. Are you faced with some difficult situation, some pressing emergency, some sore trial? Then place it not between yourself and God, but rather put God between it and you. Meditate afresh on His wondrous perfections and infinite sufficiency; ponder His precious promises which exactly suit your case; beg the Holy Spirit to strengthen your faith and call it into action. So too with God’s servants: if they are to accomplish great things in the name of their Master, if they are to put to confusion His enemies and gain the victory over those who oppose, if they are to be instrumental in turning the hearts of men back to God, then they must look to Him to work in and by them, they must rely on His almighty power both to protect and carry them fully through the discharge of arduous duties. They must have a single eye to God’s glory in what they undertake, and give themselves to believing and fervent prayer.
"Then the fire of the Lord fell, and consumed the burnt sacrifice." As we have said above, this was not only exceedingly blessed, but also unspeakably solemn. This will be the more evident if we call to mind those awful words: "our God is a consuming fire" (Heb. 12:19). How rarely is this text quoted, and more rarely still is it preached upon! The pulpit often declares that "God is love," but maintains a guilty silence upon the equally true fact that He is "a consuming fire." God is ineffably holy, and therefore does His pure nature burn against sin. God is inexorably righteous, and therefore He will visit upon every transgression and disobedience "a just recompense of reward" (Heb. 2:2). "Fools make a mock at sin" (Prov. 14:9), but they shall yet discover that they cannot mock God with impunity. They may defy His authority and trample upon His laws in this life, but in the next they shall curse themselves for their madness. In this world God deals mercifully and patiently with His enemies, but in the world to come they shall find out to their eternal undoing that He is "a consuming fire."
There upon Mount Carmel God made public demonstration of the solemn fact that He is "a consuming fire." For years past He had been grievously dishonored, His worship being supplanted by that of Baal; but here before the assembled multitude He vindicated His holiness. That fire which descended from heaven in response to the earnest supplication of Elijah was a Divine judgment: it was the execution of the sentence of God’s outraged Law. God has sworn that "the soul that sinneth it shall die," and He will not belie Himself. Sin’s wages must be paid, either to the sinner himself or to an innocent substitute, which takes his place and endures his penalty. Side by side with the moral law there was the ceremonial law given unto Israel, in which provision was made whereby mercy could be shown the transgressor and yet at the same time the claims of divine justice be satisfied. An animal, without spot or blemish, was slain in the sinner’s stead. Thus it was here on Carmel: "The fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt sacrifice," and so the idolatrous Israelites were spared.
O what a wondrous and marvelous scene is presented to us here on Mount Carmel! A holy God must deal with all sin by the fire of His judgment. And here was a guilty nation steeped in evil which God must judge. Must then the fire of the Lord fall immediately upon and consume that disobedient and guilty people? Was no escape possible? Yea, blessed be God, it was. An innocent victim was provided, a sacrifice to represent that sin-laden nation. On it the fire fell, consuming it, and the people were spared. What a marvelous foreshadowing was that of what took place almost a thousand years later upon another mount, even Calvary. There the Lamb of God substituted himself in the place of His guilty people, bearing their sins in His own body on the tree (1 Pet. 2.24). There the Lord Jesus Christ suffered, the Just for the unjust, that He might bring them to God. There He was made a curse (Gal. 3:13), that eternal blessing might be their portion. There "the fire of the Lord" fell upon His sacred head, and so intense was its heat, He cried "I thirst."
"And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces: and they said, The Lord, He is the God; the Lord, He is the God," (v. 39). "They could no longer doubt the existence and the omnipotence of Jehovah. There could be no deception as to the reality of the miracle: they saw with their own eyes the fire come down from heaven and consume the sacrifice. And whether they had respect to the greatness of the miracle itself, or to the fact of its having been foretold by Elijah and wrought for a special purpose; or whether they contemplated the occasion as being one worthy of the extraordinary interposition of the supreme Being, viz., to recover His people who had been seduced into apostasy by the influence of those who were in authority, and to prove himself to be the God of their fathers; all these things combined to demonstrate its divine Author and to establish the commission of Elijah" (John Simpson).
"And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces: and they said, "The Lord, He is the God." The Lord is known by His ways and works: He is described as "glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders." Thus the controversy was settled between Jehovah and Baal. But the children of Israel soon forgot what they had seen and— like their fathers who had witnessed the plagues upon Egypt and the overthrow of Pharaoh and his hosts in the Red Sea—they soon relapsed into idolatry. Awful displays of the Divine justice may terrify and convince the sinner, may extort confessions and resolutions, and even dispose to many acts of obedience, while the impression lasts: but something more is needed to change his heart and convert his soul. The miracles wrought by Christ left the Jewish nation still opposed to the truth: there must be a supernatural work within him for man to be born again.
"And Elijah said unto them, Take the prophets of Baal; let not one of them escape. And they took them: and Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon, and slew them there" (v. 40). Very solemn is this: Elijah had not prayed for the false prophets (but for "this people"), and the sacrificed bullock availed not for them. So too with the atonement: Christ died for His people, "the Israel of God," and shed not His blood for reprobates. God has caused this blessed truth—now almost universally denied—to be illustrated in the types as well as expressed definitely in the doctrinal portions of His Word. The paschal lamb was appointed for and gave shelter to the Hebrews, but none was provided for the Egyptians! And, my reader, unless your name is written in the Lamb’s book of life there is not the slightest ray of hope for you.
There are those actuated by false notions of liberality, who condemn Elijah for his slaying of Baal’s prophets, but they err greatly, being ignorant of the character of God and the teachings of his Word. False prophets and false priests are the greatest enemies a nation can have, for they bring both temporal and spiritual evils upon it, destroying not only the bodies but the souls of men. To have permitted those prophets of Baal an escape would have licensed them as the agents of apostasy, and exposed Israel to further corruption. It must be remembered that the nation of Israel was under the direct government of Jehovah, and to tolerate in their midst those who seduced His people into idolatry, was to harbor men who were guilty of high treason against the majesty of heaven. Only by their destruction could the insult to Jehovah be avenged and His holiness vindicated.
Degenerate times call for witnesses who have in view the glory of God and are not swayed by sentimentality, who are uncompromising in dealing with evil. Those who consider Elijah carried his sternness to an extreme length, and imagine he acted in ruthless cruelty by laying the false prophets, know not Elijah’s God. The Lord is glorious in holiness, and He never acts more gloriously than when He is "a consuming fire" to the workers of iniquity. But Elijah was only a man! True, yet he was the Lord’s servant, under bonds to carry out His orders, and in slaying these false prophets he did what God’s Word required: (see Deut. 13:1-5; 18:20, 22). Under the Christian dispensation we must not slay those who have deceived others into idolatry, for "the weapons of our warfare are not carnal" (2 Cor. 10:4). The application to us today is this: we must unsparingly judge whatever is evil in our lives and shelter in our hearts no rivals to the Lord our God—"let not one of them escape!"