The Global Message of 1 Kings
The books of 1 and 2 Kings record Israel’s prolonged struggle between true and false worship. From the reign of King Solomon until the exile to Babylon—a period of nearly 400 years—the prophets of God clash with the kings of Israel and Judah regarding their idolatrous behavior. Since God’s predictions about exile are eventually fulfilled, the prophets prove to have the last word over those kings who follow other gods. In this way the Lord shows himself superior over all other spiritual powers, including the false gods that so many of Israel’s faithless kings follow.
Amid the chorus of idols beckoning for the attention of God’s people both in ancient times and today, only the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ reigns supreme and deserves our trust.
Spiritual Warfare on Mount Carmel
In 1 Kings, the sovereignty of the Lord over other powers is expressed most powerfully in the confrontation between the prophet Elijah and the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18). This story is frequently cited as an example of a “power encounter”—that is, a procedure for triumphing over the powers of darkness. Advocates of such approaches to spiritual warfare typically claim that power encounters are necessary to bring breakthroughs for the gospel, especially in animistic and tribal contexts. But the broader context of 1 Kings 17–18 indicates that “truth encounters” and “power encounters” always work together in proving that the Lord is superior to all false gods.
God Usurps Baal’s Power in Sidon
God’s fickle people. The prophet Elijah appears on the scene (1 Kings 17:1) shortly after we read that King Ahab has built a temple in Israel for Baal, the Canaanite god of fertility (16:32). This happens only a few decades after Solomon built the temple in Jerusalem and confessed, “O Lord, God of Israel, there is no God like you, in heaven above or on earth beneath” (8:23). Yet Israel’s king now chooses to worship a pagan deity who must die every year in the autumn season and be resurrected to life in the spring so that the rains may come. Since the land of Israel lacked a constant water supply, each planting season brought the annual temptation for God’s people to put their hope in fertility gods like Baal.
God’s powerful word. Elijah’s opening words to Ahab pose a direct challenge to Baal and his supposed power: “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” (1 Kings 17:1). Elijah declares that his God, not Baal, always lives and controls the rain. This truth will be proven through the powerful “word” that Elijah receives from God. This divine word tells Elijah to hide east of the Jordan, where he will receive miraculous sustenance from ravens by a brook (17:3–4). Once this brook dries up from drought, the “word” tells Elijah to go and stay in Zarephath, a town in Sidon (17:7–9).
God’s surprising ways. The land of Sidon is Baal’s home territory. But God does not call Elijah to confront Baal directly at this point, choosing instead to send him to the most unlikely person to give him food in a famine—a widow whose own supplies are about to run out. When Elijah asks her for food and water, her reply is an implicit challenge to see whether the Lord can do better than Baal: “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a jug. And now I am gathering a couple of sticks that I may go in and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it and die” (1 Kings 17:12). Elijah reassures her that the Lord will be faithful to his “word” in providing for her (17:14–16), and later he raises her son from the dead—something Baal cannot do (17:17–24). It is amazing that Elijah’s ministry begins here in a destitute widow’s home, far from Israel, but it is in such surprising places that God’s word is proven faithful. By first defeating Baal in Sidon, the God of Israel proves that he rules over the whole earth.
God Defeats Baal’s Prophets in Israel
Elijah’s proposal. In chapter 18, Elijah’s return to Israel begins with the now-familiar refrain, “the word of the Lord came to Elijah,” telling him to go to King Ahab (1 Kings 18:1). Ahab resents Elijah’s return and refuses to acknowledge the prophet by name (18:17) since pronouncing his name in Hebrew would undermine Ahab’s loyalty to Baal (in Hebrew, “Elijah” means “the Lord is my God”). So Elijah suggests having a contest to settle this theological dispute once and for all: “Now therefore send and gather all Israel to me at Mount Carmel, and the 450 prophets of Baal and the 400 prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table” (18:19). A single prophet of the Lord will confront 850 pagan prophets! Yet Elijah’s concern is more for the faith of the people, whom he challenges to make up their minds: “How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him” (18:21). Elijah declares that the god who answers by fire is the true God (18:24).
God’s victory. The people soon learn that their loyalty to Baal is misguided. After preparing the bull to be consumed by Baal’s fire from heaven, the prophets repeatedly call out, “O Baal, answer us!” (1 Kings 18:26). Nobody responds, so Elijah taunts the people (18:27). Baal’s prophets respond by trying harder, shouting louder, and slashing themselves in an effort to compel Baal to answer (18:28). But Baal is not there: “There was no voice. No one answered; no one paid attention” (18:29). Baal is silent and nowhere to be found because the Lord alone is supreme over all pagan powers.
Prayer in Spiritual Warfare
Dignified faith. Many people think that prayer in spiritual warfare must be aggressive and loud. Though Elijah has mocked the prophets of Baal, his final prayer to the Lord is simple and dignified rather than obnoxious: “O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your word” (1 Kings 18:36). No gyrating and ritual are found here, just Elijah’s straightforward request that God would show his power. This is the quiet trust in the Lord that is called for as God’s people today all around the world engage in battling “the cosmic powers over this present darkness” (Eph. 6:12).
Confidence in God’s word. Such trust is generated as we hold fast to God’s word. The divine word that sustained Elijah in chapter 17 accomplished its victory in chapter 18. The Lord answered Elijah with fire, and the people confessed, “The Lord, he is God; the Lord, he is God” (1 Kings 18:39). A steady downpour then began to fall in response to Elijah’s silent prayers for rain (18:42). In 1 Kings 17–18, confronting and subduing pagan powers is more about faithful prayer than frenetic ritual. Spiritual warfare according to the Bible is not a confrontation of escalating, frantic chaos but rather a firm trust in the Lord who is sovereign over all the powers. His divine word is our anchor and confidence. Indeed, he “upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Heb. 1:3).