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Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath

Thomas J Parlette

“Elijah and the prophets of Baal”

1 Kings 18: 20-39


In 1872, a tradition began at Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park. It was called the Yosemite Firefall. History tells us that each night in the summer months, a man named David Curry would stand at the base of Glacier Point and call out “Let the fire fall” – and burning embers would be spilled over the cliff and fall to the valley 3000 feet below. Thousands of people would gather in the meadow below to watch this fiery waterfall spectacular.

After almost a hundred years, the Park service put an end to the Yosemite Firefall in 1968 – it wasn’t a natural event and so many people were coming out to see it that the meadow was getting trampled. So the Firefall is no more.(1)

In this mornings passage we have another kind of firefall – a firefall from heaven, as we hear about the showdown between Elijah and the prophets of Baal.

This story is part of series of encounters between the prophet Elijah and King Ahab. Ahab was the ruler of the Northern Kingdom between 869-850 BC. He was not a good King – he is well known for his unjust policies and especially for leading the people away from their traditional worship of YHWH and moving them toward a mix of the Canaanite and Phoenician culture and worship of their neighbors.

The Lord was upset by this, and called Elijah to publicly oppose King Ahab. The Israelites were worshipping both Baal – the Canaanite agricultural God responsible for rain and storms and fertility – and YHWH, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel. In effect, the Israelites were hedging their bets, they were playing both sides of the street – they continued to worship the God of their ancestors, but they also worshipped Baal, just in case.

There is a story told about a man who went to a Major League Baseball game. No matter which team got a hit or scored a run, he would stand up and cheer. Finally, someone behind him leaned forward and asked, “Why are you rooting for both teams?”

And the man said, “I live too far away to get to a ball game like this more than once every couple of years – so I pull for both teams. That way, no matter who wins, I go home happy.”(2)

That’s exactly what Israel was doing – hedging their bets, sitting on the spiritual fence, rooting for both sides, you know, just in case. So Elijah puts the question to them – “How long will you go limping with two different opinions…?” As someone once told me, if you walk down the center line of two lane highway long enough, eventually someone is going to run you over. You’ve got to pick a side, you have to choose one way or the other. Who are you going to follow – Baal or YHWH? You can’t have it both ways.

The God of the Bible insists on exclusive loyalty. In fact, the first of the Ten Commandments states it pretty clearly – “You will have no other Gods but me.”

And this is not the first time this has been an issue for the people. Joshua once made the same challenge. After the death of Moses he called for a renewal of the covenant and said, “Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve…but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” Until you are sure about God, you will be unsure about nearly everything else.

The German philosopher Hegel once said that “Life has value only when it has something valuable as it’s object.”(3) Elijah is calling the people to put God as the object at the center of their life. Martin Luther was right on target when he said, “I know of no other God except the God whom I see in my Lord Jesus Christ.”(4)

So to help them along with their choice, Elijah challenges the prophets of Baal to a contest. Two altars will be built, two sacrifices will be made – and the God who consumes the sacrifices with fire will be declared the winner.

The prophets of Baal are given every advantage in this contest. They get to go first, so Elijah can’t be accused of rigging anything. And this is supposed be their Gods strong suit – he is the God of storms – rain and thunder and lightning – fire should be right up his alley.

The contest begins in the early morning with 450 prophets or priests of Baal. With that many helping hands, it easy to get an altar built and prepare the sacrifice. But getting an answer from Baal proves to be much more difficult. There are hours and hours of crying and howling and begging. With their faces turned to the heavens, the prophets of pleaded for fire to come down, cutting and piercing themselves with swords and lances to get an answer from Baal.

The day wore on, their voices grew hoarse and Elijah taunted them from the sidelines – “Where is your God, where is Baal? You better cry louder – Maybe he’s taking a nap. Maybe he’s in the restroom. Maybe he’s on vacation.” Finally the prophets of Baal stop, and as the scripture says, “There was no voice, no answer, no response.”

As the ancient Rabbi’s tell it in the Midrashim, YHWH caused the entire universe to fall silent in that moment. The fish stopped swimming, the animals stood still and quiet and the birds nested silently in the trees. There was not a sound in all the earth that the prophets of Baal could claim was the voice of their god.(5)

Then all attention shifts to Elijah. The sun is beginning to set behind the peak of Mount Carmel and Elijah begins to rebuild the ruined altar of Jehovah. He rebuilds it by himself with 12 stones – representing the 12 tribes of Israel. He places the sacrifice on the altar. Next he calls for four barrels of water to be poured on the sacrifice and the wood – to soak it thoroughly. Then, for good measure, he calls for four more barrels, and four more after that – 12 barrels of water in all. Everything is drenched so that even the trench surrounding the altar is filled with water.

As the ancient Rabbi’s tell it, as Elijah was making these preparations all on his own, it was taking him much longer than expected. But he wanted to finish the contest on that same day, to avoid any controversy. So Elijah asked God to make the sun stand still as it had for Joshua. God obliged, and the contest went on as planned.(6)

Then Elijah begins to pray – no wailing, no screaming, no self-inflicted wounds. Just a prayer. Let the fire fall, O God.

And fall it does! God answers and the fire consumes the sacrifice, and the altar, and the stones, and the dust and even the water in the trench. The fire falls and the contest is over.

YHWH – 1. Baal – zero.

Notice two things in particular about how Elijah handles this contest. First of all, he does nothing. The prophets of Baal screamed and wailed, and cut themselves – the put on a quite a show. But Elijah does none of that. He simply sets the stage to let God work.

That’s what we are called to do in our spiritual lives, individually and as a church – set the stage to let God work. Too often we think that everything depends on us, on our efforts, on what we do. We are very results oriented. It’s tempting to live by that modern motto, “If you aren’t growing, you’re dying.” But that’s not what scripture teaches. Scripture teaches that we plant the seeds of faith, we nurture it, we water it, we watch it grow – but ultimately God gives the growth. We plant the seed, we set the stage, we make the conditions as favorable as we can – but God is the one who will bring the growth. That is how Elijah approaches this contest – he sets the stage for God to let the fire fall.

Notice also how Elijah prays. It’s not a long prayer. It is simple. It is direct. It is uncomplicated and gets right to the point. Two verses – about 60 words, that’s it.

It is also so unselfish, says nothing about himself, aside from saying that he is God’s servant. He doesn’t pray for victory. He doesn’t pray for strength or power. He doesn’t pray, “O Lord don’t let me down and make me look bad in front of all these people.” He simply prays, “I’ve done what you asked – now make yourself know so these people will know that you, alone, are God.”

Show them there is no substitute for the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel.

A man named Aaron Baker tells a story about growing up. Whenever he would go out to dinner with his family, and the time came to think about ordering dessert, his father would say to him, “Don’t order the apple pie.”

“Now my father was not a cruel man, he was not trying to deny me the pleasure of a nice piece of pie. Neither was I allergic to anything in apple pie. He was simply trying to protect me from disappointment. You see, my mother made the best apple pie in the whole world, and my father had learned from experience that it wasn’t worth ordering it any where else. No apple pie could ever compare with my mother’s. So don’t order the apple pie – there is no substitute.(7)

On Mount Carmel, the fire fell and God showed the people that there is no substitute for their God.

In the end, this contest between Elijah and the prophets of Baal was never really a contest at all. It was over before it began. The fire fell. The people were amazed. And God turned the hearts of the people back to the one true God.

May that be so for us all, even today. Amen.


  1. Homiletics, Vol. 20, No. 3, p.42.
  2. Robert Leslie Holmes, “Two Kings and Three Prophets” CSS Publishing Co., 2000, p.30.
  3. Perfect Illustrations, Christianity Today International, 2002, p.177.
  4. Barbara Brokhoff, “Grapes of Wrath or Grace?” CSS Publishing Co. 1994, p. 34.
  5. The Storyteller’s Companion to the Bible, ed. Michael Williams, Vol. 3, Abingdon Press, 1992, p. 164-165.
  6. Ibid… p. 164-165.
  7. More Perfect Illustrations, Christianity Today International, CSS Publishing CO., 2003, p. 68-69.