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“So Obadiah went to meet [Israel’s wicked king,] Ahab and told him, and Ahab went to meet Elijah [the LORD’s prophet]. When he saw Elijah, he said to him,’Is that you, you troubler of Israel?’
‘I have not made trouble for Israel,’ Elijah replied. ‘But you and your father’s family have. You have abandoned the LORD’s commands and have followed the Baals [the predominant false gods at that time]. Now summon the people from all over Israel to meet me on Mount Carmel. And bring the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and the four hundred prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table.’
So Ahab sent word throughout all Israel and assembled the prophets on Mount Carmel. Elijah went before the people and said, ‘How long will you waver between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.’
But the people said nothing.
Then Elijah said to them, ‘I am the only one of the LORD’s prophets left, but Baal has four hundred and fifty prophets. Get two bulls for us. Let them choose one for themselves, and let them cut it into pieces and put it on the wood but do not set fire to it. I will prepare the other bull and put it on the wood but not set fire to it. Then you call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the LORD. The god who answers by fire–he is God.’
Then all the people said, ‘What you say is good.’
Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, ‘Choose one of the bulls and prepare it first, since there are so many of you. Call on the name of your god, but do not light the fire.’ So they took the bull given them and prepared it.
Then they called on the name of Baal from morning till noon. ‘O Baal, answer us!’ they shouted. But there was no response; no one answered. And they danced around the altar they had made.
At noon Elijah began to taunt them. ‘Shout louder!’ he said. ‘Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.’ So they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed. Midday passed, and they continued their frantic prophesying until the time for the evening sacrifice. But there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention.
Then Elijah said to all the people, ‘Come here to me.’ They came to him, and he repaired the altar of the LORD, which was in ruins. Elijah took twelve stones, one for each of the tribes descended from Jacob, to whom the word of the LORD had come, saying, ‘Your name shall be Israel.’ With the stones he built an altar in the name of the LORD, and he dug a trench around it large enough to hold two seahs of seed [about 13 quarts/15 litres]. He arranged the wood, cut the bull into pieces and laid it on the wood. Then he said to them, ‘Fill four large jars with water and pour it on the offering and on the wood.’
‘Do it again,’ he said, and they did it again.
‘Do it a third time,’ he ordered, and they did it the third time. The water ran down around the altar and even filled the trench.
At the time of sacrifice, the prophet Elijah stepped forward and prayed: ‘O LORD, God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. Answer me, O LORD, answer me, so these people will know that you, O LORD, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.’
Then the fire of the LORD fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench.
When all the people saw this, they fell prostrate and cried, ‘The LORD–he is God! The LORD–he is God!'”
(1 Kings 18:16-39)
One would think that after such an incredibly dramatic and unquestionably clear demonstration of God’s power that all of Israel, who witnessed the event, would forsake their devotion to Baal, smash their false idols and return wholeheartedly to the LORD their God. Certainly this is what Elijah must have hoped for with all his heart and even expected!
But instead, King Ahab’s wicked wife, Jezebel, when she heard what had happened, intensified her bloodthirsty vendetta against the LORD’s prophets and viciously pursued Elijah’s life. (You can read these events in 1 Kings 19). Elijah feared for his life and ran into the desert. There in heartbroken despair he prayed for the Lord to take his life. Instead, the Lord miraculously strengthened him, and Elijah journeyed forty days into the wilderness until he came to Mt. Horeb (Mt. Sinai), the mountain on which God gave Moses the Ten Commandments and entered into a covenant with Israel. There Elijah laid down in a cave in total isolation in the darkness of night.
I have heard a number of sermons and comments that deride Elijah for doing this. Those who hold this view criticize his character and express that they cannot understand how Elijah could fall so quickly into the depths of despair after soaring on the heights of such a great victory.
But I think I can understand how this happened to this precious prophet of God.
Elijah loved the Lord his God with all his heart. More than anything, he wanted all of Israel to, “Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5).
Elijah loved God, and he loved his people, Israel. More than anything, he longed for them to worship God faithfully and passionately, as they had done in days of old. Surely Elijah’s heart longed for the days of King David, when “…he and the entire house of Israel brought up the ark of the LORD [the symbol of God’s presence and kingship over Israel] with shouts and the sound of trumpets…” (2 Samuel 6:15). Certainly Elijah must have prayed without ceasing for Israel’s restoration back to this pure, loving worship of God.
However, Elijah’s heart was broken and deeply grieved over the widespread idolatry and apostasy within Israel in his day, just as the Lord was grieved. God’s servants’ hearts will always break over the things that break his heart. The Israelites’ lack of love for the Lord cut deeply into Elijah’s heart, but what could Elijah do? Even Israel’s leadership indulged themselves in idolatry and false religion, and not only that, but they were even murdering all of the Lord’s servants! This wasn’t just a society of cool love for the Lord, it was the Lord’s own people gone entirely apostate (except for the small remnant of faithful ones the Lord had preserved for himself (1 Kings 19:18)). How disheartening and grievous this must have been for the Lord’s prophet!
On Mt. Carmel, when all of Israel had gathered for the showdown with Baal, Elijah confronted the Israelites and asked them:
“How long will you waver between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.” (1 Kings 18:21)
What happened next must have wounded the prophet:
“But the people said nothing.” (1 Kings 18:21)
Then came Elijah’s golden moment, the moment he had been aching for and praying for for such a long time…
There in the presence of all Israel:
“…Elijah said to all the people, ‘Come here to me.’ They came to him, and he repaired the altar of the LORD, which was in ruins. Elijah took twelve stones, one for each of the tribes descended from Jacob, to whom the word of the LORD had come, saying, ‘Your name shall be Israel.’ With the stones he built an altar in the name of the LORD…” (1 Kings 18:30-32)
How inexpressibly sweet and consoling that moment must have been for Elijah, when he tenderly gathered all of Israel close to himself and with his own two hands rebuilt the altar of the Lord in their midst.
FINALLY, Elijah’s deep longing, to begin the restoration of Israel to her God, was fulfilled.
How many years had that altar laid in ruins? How long had Israel’s 12 altar stones been strewn apart and dismembered? This moment was monumental for Israel and for Israel’s prophet.
When God answered Elijah’s prayer by fire, the people fell down and exclaimed that the LORD is God. However, the following chapters reveal that Israel and her leadership still had no true change of heart after witnessing that event. They never responded in deep repentance, and they did not return to their God in worship. In the following years there were smatterings of spiritual reform here and there, but in the end God exiled both Israel and Judah away from their homeland of Israel because of their persistent idolatry and refusal to repent and return wholeheartedly back to him in worship.
Can you see how, after having his deepest longing fulfilled and then snatched away from him, Elijah could immediately crash into the depths of despair?
“Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.” (Proverbs 13:12)
No wonder why Elijah prayed afterwards that the Lord would take his life. He felt his entire ministry and life’s purpose was in vain. If the leadership only increased their venomous opposition against him and the Israelites refused to return to the Lord after that unquestionable display of the his existence and power, then what else could possibly change their minds?
Elijah felt that Israel had finally confirmed their rejection of the Lord as their God. He felt totally and utterly alone and said to the Lord:
“Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors” (1 Kings 19:4) and “I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only left and now they are trying to kill me too” (1 Kings 19:14).
However, the Lord said to Elijah, “Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel–all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and all whose mouths have not kissed him” (1 Kings 19:18).
So why have I chosen to illustrate this particular moment now?
Because I believe it is a word in season to us Christians.
When we look at Christendom today it is largely like Israel in Elijah’s day. Much idolatry and false religion has infiltrated the professing church. I am not just referring to the veneration of Mary or the encroachment of New Age and humanistic influences, etc. I am primarily referring to the false religious practices present within Evangelical Christianity, in particular, in the area of worship. Much of what Christendom calls “worship” is not truthful and spiritual worship.
As we study the Bible, we see a common and consistent pattern established in Scripture:
The essence of worship is sacrifice.
The whole Old Testament is centered upon worship that is intrinsically sacrificial in nature. In the New Testament this pattern of sacrificial worship continues, for we are exhorted, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God–this is your spiritual act of worship” (Romans 12:1).
There are many different things we Christians casually call “worship”. For some it’s a ‘hymn sandwich’; for others it’s a rock concert where we sing songs about ‘me’; for others it’s two fast songs, announcements, then three slow songs; for others it’s verse, chorus, verse, chorus, chorus and repeat.
But is any of this true, Biblical worship that is based upon the principle of sacrifice? Does any of it genuinely touch the heart of God? Is this what God is looking for?
“Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4:23-24 (my emphasis))
God is seeking those who will worship him in spirit and truth.
When David numbered the fighting men (1 Chronicles 21) God directed him to build an altar to him at the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite. When David arrived, Araunah told David he would give him his threshing floor, the oxen for the sacrifice, the wood to burn it and the grain and wheat for the offerings all for free, but David said to him, “No, I insist on paying the full price. I will not take for the LORD what is yours, or sacrifice a burnt offering that costs me nothing” (1 Chronicles 21:24 (my emphasis)).
David is renowned in the Scriptures as “a man after God’s own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14), and his worshipful example was always the standard by which every other king in the Bible was measured. David said that he would not sacrifice a burnt offering which cost him nothing.
According to Old Testament law the burnt offering was a sacrifice symbolizing total devotion and surrender to God. Other types of sacrifices were consumed by the priests or the worshipers, but the burnt offering was to be wholly consumed by fire. The entire sacrifice was totally and irrevocably given over to God.
Do we worship God like this?
Is our understanding of worship one of absolute and continual surrender of ourselves to God, as Romans 12:1 says?
Do we view worship as a lifestyle, or have we reduced into something we do for an hour on Sundays?
Furthermore, the Old Testament law says that a burnt offering was to be offered on the temple altar every morning and every evening and that the fire of burnt offering was to never go out (Leviticus 6:8-13). Does the fire of our ‘burnt offering’–our total devotion and absolute surrender to God–ever flicker or go out?
Like Elijah, I earnestly long for true, Biblical worship–that which is sacrificial in nature, total in consecration, continual in practice and offered in spirit and truth–to be re-established in the church today.
The altar is the foundation upon which sacrifices are made. In Elijah’s day, Israel’s altar of worship on Mt. Carmel was lying in ruins.
Similarly, the foundations of our understanding and practice of worship in the church today are mostly lying in ruins. We have largely lost touch of the Biblical concept of worship by sacrifice.
Although many Christians do faithfully worship God through sacrificial lifestyles (and I praise God for people such as these, for they are a great encouragement to me), in general, I think we can all admit that as a church we have largely moved away from this very costly (and Biblical) type of sacrificial worship.
Instead, we have fashioned alternative types of ‘worship’ which lack this central and indispensable element of sacrifice.
(On a side note: Whether we choose to worship God through a cappella KJV Psalms or electric guitars is of no relevance, for God does not look at the outward form of our worship but the inward disposition and attitude of our hearts as we worship (1 Samuel 16:7).)
In my drawing I wanted to capture that precious, private moment between Elijah and God, when he was finally able to rebuild the altar of worship after years of weeping over Israel’s unfaithfulness. I earnestly prayed God would help me capture in Elijah’s expression the sacredness of that moment, his long-awaited consolation, the contentment of his longing fulfilled and his gratefulness to God.
I also draw this picture to honor Elijah and his faithful commitment to the Lord despite the overwhelming heartache, discouragement and opposition he faced. I do it to declare that the deep longings of Elijah’s heart to see God’s people return to him in worship, which he never got to see fulfilled in his day, is still alive and burning in the hearts of God’s remnant people today. Elijah’s desire is not dead; his mission was not in vain; the Lord’s purpose is not defeated.
O Lord, teach us how to worship you in spirit and in truth. Teach us what it truly means to worship by sacrifice. Lord, please use each one of us to rebuild the altar of sacrificial worship wherever we may see it lying in ruins. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
(See also: “Restoring The Tabernacle of David” (John The Baptist Artworks Series 2), “Sacrifice: The Fragrance of Worship” (Praise and Worship Series 2), and “Lion of Judah: Until You Are Enthroned Upon The Praises of Israel” (John the Baptist Artworks Series 2)).