“The Effectual Fervent Prayer”

Elijah has predicted drought (17:1). He did this immediately in the presence of Ahab. No rain came for three and one-half years (James 5:17), proving that Elijah was a true prophet (Deuteronomy 18:22). To protect Elijah from the wrath of Ahab and Jezebel, the Lord made special provision for him at the Brook Cherith and through ravens, an unclean bird. He did not eat the bird but the normally selfish unclean fowl brought substance for Elijah’s sustenance. The Lord, however, did not remove the natural effects of the drought (17:2-7). He probably  was sent there after about six months of drought, when the certainty of what he prophesied had begun to make an effect on agricultural production in Israel.  The Lord then provided for Elijah through a widow (17:9) at Zarephath, a Gentile and thus a ceremonially unclean person, who had concluded that her death, as well as that of her son, was imminent soon after they consumed the last meal (17:12). From the conversation, it appears that she had embraced the revealed faith of pure Israel as true, and did not worship the Baals. The Lord had determined that she would believe the promise of Elijah for consistent provision and also to honor his request for food from her as the “firstfruits” of the promise (17:13, 15). The child died, the woman felt distraught and that she had been mocked by the prophet, who as she speculated, had come merely to bring upon her head a punishment for past sins. Elijah implored the Lord to intervene again by restoring the child’s life (17:20, 21). God restored the life of the child in answer to his prayer demonstrating again the authentic character of Elijah’s position as a prophet. Now a larger test of Elijah’s position as a prophet would unfold. Not only must predictions of the prophet come true, but he must lead the people to a right knowledge of and worship of the one true God (Deuteronomy 13:1-3).

I. Elijah is commanded to appear before king Ahab (18:1, 2). In the third year since he went to Zarephath, God has Elijah leave his hiding in the home of the widow and go to confront Ahab again. Six months at the beginning of the drought, six months at the brook Cherith, and probably 2 plus years in Zarephath make for upwards of three years. Add a couple of months for 450 prophets of Baal to be gathered for the proposed duel of the gods, and we are near the three and one-half years of no rain. Through his prophet, God sets up a test of truth manifest by unique power. Rain will not come until that test has fully demonstrated who controls all the elements.

II. Obadiah and Ahab go to look for grass (3-6). Ahab’s livestock were on the verge of being so reduced that neither food nor replenishment by reproduction would be possible.

A. Obadiah had not gone to the southern kingdom as many in Israel had done upon the occasion of the split (2 Chronicles 11:1-16)and so did not worship according to the commands. He did not, however, worship the Baals but maintained his worship of the one true God. Perhaps we are meant to see in this a precursor to the statement of Jesus in John 4:23, 24—neither mountain but in Spirit and truth.

B. Obadiah’s personal spirit of martyrdom for the One True God is seen in his protection of 100 “prophets of the Lord” from the murderous schemes of Jezebel. These “prophets” probably were not classic prophets who received special revelation and instructions from Yahweh, but were believers of the written word revealed to Moses and Joshua and teachers of that word to others. Jezebel had a campaign to rid the kingdom of all such people. By his action, Obadiah put his own life at risk.

C. In spite of Obadiah’s rejection of the Baals, Ahab trusted him and had made him steward of his household. He could trust him to be loyal to his project of finding grass for the animals.

III. Elijah told Obadiah to give a Message to Ahab: “Behold, Elijah is here.” (7-16). This was troubling to Obadiah.

A. Elijah had been much on the mind of Ahab and Jezebel for at least three years and Obadiah was well aware of who he was (for he had appeared in person before Ahab) and that the royal couple was upset, fatally so, with the effectuality of the prophecy.

B. In a widespread and feverish search for Elijah, they had not been able to find him. Now Obadiah has the onus of locating Elijah as his immediate responsibility. Should he report that he has found Elijah, knowing the purpose of eliminating the troublesome prophet is the main goal of Jezebel, and the Spirit of God (through whom Elijah spoke and speaks) whisks him away again to protect him from the clutches of assassins, his own life, Obadiah’s, would be terminated quickly.

C. Obadiah indicates his sincere service of Yahweh through the massive undertaking of prophet-protection. His religion is not sham, nor has he done aught to call down such a judgment on himself. If Elijah has been sent just to let judgment fall on Obadiah, he begs for a candid consideration of his attempts at maintaining the truth in a hostile culture.

D. Elijah assured Obadiah with a solemn oath based on a commonly held and ultimate truth: “As the Lord of Hosts lives, before whom I stand, I will surely show myself to him today” (15). The coming confrontation is the purpose of this appearing; discrediting the prophets of Baal, and also destroying them, will be the result. He will not flee and God will not take him away for he is sent for this purpose. As Christ was sent to bear witness to the truth (John 18:37), honor the law (Colossians 2:13, 14), and to put to flight and make a public display of demonic forces (Colossians 2:15), so Elijah (as a forerunner of Christ) has that as his mission in this particular historic event. He will not shrink from it.

E. Obadiah fulfilled his commission to Ahab, and Ahab went to lay his eyes on Elijah, perhaps with the intent of also laying his hands on him (16).

IV. Ahab and Elijah meet face to face (17-19).

A. Ahab looks upon the prophet as a “troubler of Israel” for his prediction of the drought. This is a tacit admission either of the personal power of Elijah or a candid recognition that he is a true prophet of God. Ahab had heard the prophecy directly, was experiencing its truth and power, and now recognizes that it is happening directly in accord with the words of Elijah. Elijah, therefore, is the “troubler of Israel.”

B. Elijah returns the accusation with reasons.

    1. They had forsaken the commandments of the Lord. Their worship was in the wrong place and their entire manner of living had made sport of the moral law as well as the ceremonial law of God.
    2. They worshipped the Baals. The Baals whose devotees asserted their pervasive presence in all of nature—the sun, moon, stars, vegetation, animal life, and the fertility of all things—had been unable to prevent the drought. Such ineffectiveness in the face of need, such impotence to overcome the word of a prophet of the Lord, should have disillusioned both Ahab and the propjets; but still they clung to their false gods. Such is the hardness of the unregenerate heart and its impervious resistance to evidence that is contrary to adamantine posture toward truth.
    3. Elijah proposed, therefore, a contest of an extended and public nature that should settle once and for all the question of the absolute impotence, and thus non-existence of the Baals. Gather them together from all over Israel, Elijah commanded Ahab.

V. Elijah proposed a contest between the Baals and Jehovah (20-39).

A. Ahab gathered together all the prophets of Baal, 450 in number. We are not told if the 400 prophets of Ashera also were gathered. The number of persons who support an error or a falsehood does not change its relation to the truth.

B. Elijah upbraided the people for their uncommitted and uncourageous spirit. They must come to a point of devotion to the truth and the true God in their own souls, and worship him no matter what the cost. Even with this challenge they would not respond (21).

C. Elijah made the proposal of determining who was the true God by demonstrating who was the true prophet. The odds, as Elijah, pointed out, were 450 to 1 (22).

      1. Elijah proposed that two oxen be brought as an offering . Both prophetic representatives would cut up the sacrifice, set it on wood, put no fire on it.
      2. Both parties were to implore their God[s] to consume a sacrifice by fire. The god [God] implored by the prophets was to consume the sacrifice upon the request of the prophet. Then the clincher, “The God who answers by fire, He is God” (24).
      3. The people then responded, contrary to their previous silence, that this seemed to be a good idea.
      4. Elijah told the prophets of Baal to select an ox, prepare it, put no fire under it, and begin to call on their god. Since they were so many, the contest should be over soon, for such an agreement between so many representatives of such a powerful coterie of deities would prompt a decisive and indisputable response. Why waste time in coming to a conclusion, based on palpable and empirical evidence, as to who is the true God? (25)

D. Verses 26-29 describe the preparation of the sacrificial animal, the day long attempts of the Baaline prophets to prompt their deities to answer. It was a pitiful, sad, and alarmingly brutal attempt—raving, cutting, gushing blood—to cajole their non-existent company of deities to burn up the sacrifice they had so dutifully laid out. The writer of kings comments laconically, “No one answered, and no one paid attention” (29).

E. Elijah’s time has now come at the appointed time for the evening sacrifice as it would be practiced at the temple in Jerusalem.

    1. Elijah repaired the altar of God. This probably had been ruined during the first year of the reign of Jeroboam as he constructed his own altars and appointed his own priests (1 Kings 12:31-33). These altars to the true God of Israel were operative before the temple was complete (1 Kings 3:2).
    2. He took twelve stones, easily available from mount Carmel, representing the twelve tribes of Israel as a testimony against their division. He then had four pitchers of water poured three times, again twelve in all, on the altar and the sacrifice (34). The wood and the sacrifice were drenched and the trench that Elijah had made was filled (35). If one were looking for a typology in this event, he could easily make a case for the sacrifice of Christ and the cleansing power of the Spirit as the means by which the Israel of God will be saved.
    3. Clearly this was done in order to eliminate any possible accusation that the fire was kindled in a trick. The prophets of Baal, had the first choice of the ox, they had the first opportunity at striking fire from their god, and Elijah had put his attempt in great peril by the accumulation of water on the sacrifice, the altar, the wood, and the surrounding trench.

F. Elijah’s prayer

    1. He addressed God in terms of the patriarchs with the reminder that they were in particular the children of Israel. He then requested the Lord to let it be known that he was “God in Israel” (36). For the children of Israel to be worshipping any God other than the One who revealed himself to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and delivered them from the clutches of Egypt and its gods is a study of pure irrationality and precipitous apostasy.
    2. Elijah asked for verification that he was the prophet of the true God. That would be accomplished through a quick and thorough an answer to the prophet’s supplication for a display of divine glory and power (36b).
    3. Earnest requests for God’s answer are consistent with his prayer for the life of the dead son of the widow of Zarephath (17:21, 22). Earnestness does not violate Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:5-8. The context, the content, and the intent of the prayers in that example are far different in the case of Elijah. Elijah wants the people to know that God’s answer will be a manifestation of grace in turning their hearts from worshipping dumb idols to serve a God, living and true (cf. 1 Thessalonians 1:9, 10).
    4. Fire fell from the Lord in heaven. Not only was the sacrifice consumed, but the wood, the stones, the dirt, and all the water in the trench evaporated. This is a picture of the thoroughness of the saving grace of God. In addition to the forensically issued verdict of justification upon sinners, giving them a status before the justice of God absolutely alien to their personal guilt, they also are transformed by regeneration and the thorough renewing of their minds. Finally, by the power that enables the Lord to subdue everything to himself, their bodies are transformed into the likeness of his glorious body (Philippians 2:13; 3:10, 11; Romans 12:1, 2; Philippians 3:20, 21).
    5. The evidence is so powerful, purposeful, and thorough that the people fall on their faces and call God by his covenant name, “The Lord, he is God” (39)

VI. The people capture all the prophets of Baal for execution (40). None of them escaped and all were executed. It seems that Elijah did it himself, or at least it all was done with the insistence of his prophetic authority. This was in accord with the command of God (Deuteronomy 13:5, 6, 13; 18:19-21).

VII. With the slaying of the prophets of Baal, and the turning of the people (at least temporarily) back to the Lord, Elijah prayed and waited for the end of the drought (41-46). Why do we find God tying his decreed will and unstoppable providence to the words and prayers of the prophet?  This phenomenon is to verify his own uniqueness and control of the world and also that he has ordained the effectuality of prayer for the accomplishment of many things. God has decreed all things and his providence carries out his decrees (Ephesians 1:11). If, however, there were never any palpable evidence of God’s doing a specific thing in answer to the fervent prayer of a prophet, or apostle, or a righteous man, then we would have no point at which to connect an event with the immediate action of God. The man of God predicted the drought because God said it would happen. It happened as predicted, so we know that God did it. The man of God prayed for fire to fall and consume the sacrifice. It happened as proposed and prayed for, and thus we know that God did it. Jesus said he would be crucified and then after three days rise again. It happened as he said, and thus we know that God did it. Nothing occurs over which God does not have control and that is not an execution of his eternal decrees; we see glimpses of such intimate involvement when chosen spokesmen of God speak, and their speech comes to pass. It is not mere coincidence but has happened as God has decreed. This truth allows us to see with eyes of faith that God answers our prayers and, in fact, embraces them in his providential determination for accomplishing his purpose (2 Corinthians 1:9-11; Philippians 1:19; 1 John 5:14, 15; James 5:16-18).

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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