Elijah the Tishbite has to be one of the most colorful characters in Scripture. We first meet him standing before a startled king and telling him there will be no rain for the next three years (1 Kings 17:1) . It was not easy either to approach a king or to escape from him, but this hairy man with his leather belt (2 Kings 1:8) just slips through the guards, delivers God’s message, then runs to the mountains, about twelve kilometers (7 miles) away.
These were sorry times for the northern kingdom of Israel. Most had forsaken the Lord God (1 Kings 19:10) and were worshiping fertility gods instead. To say that it would not rain was a direct challenge to Baal, who was thought to bring rain to ensure fertile crops and herds that made farmers wealthy. The prevailing religious rites focused on fertility and income.
For the next three years the fertility gods are impotent. Then Elijah confronts the king again and asks for a showdown between himself and all the prophets of Baal and the goddess Asherah (goddess of fertility) -one man against 850 (1 Kings 18:17-20) .
When the day arrives and the crowds gather at the top of Mt. Carmel, Elijah addresses the people: “How long will you falter [limp] between two opinions?” (1 Kings 18:21, NKJV) . Bulls are chosen and prepared for sacrifice, and the people wait to see which god is powerful enough to answer by fire from heaven. The bull was the most powerful object of the ancient fertility religions. Surely the gods of fertility would show their strength.
Read 1 Kings 18:21-39. Despite the obvious reality of the great controversy here, what did Elijah really want to see happen in Israel, and why is that so relevant to us today?
1 Kings 18:37 says it all. The miracle, impressive enough as it was, wasn’t the real issue: the issue was Israel’s faithfulness to the covenant. Notice, too, who had turned their hearts. It was the Lord Himself, even before the miracle itself unfolded. But God doesn’t force hearts to return to Him. He sends His Holy Spirit, and the people, responding to that Spirit, have to first make the choice to turn back to Him; only then, in His strength, can they act upon that choice. It’s no different today. It’s the power of God alone that sustains the beat of every heart, but He doesn’t force even one of those beating hearts to follow Him.