Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
In this and the succeeding chapter we pass from the domestic and peaceful simplicity of the quiet refuge at Zarephath to a grand description, first, of the struggle and victory of the great warrior of God, then of his momentary failure and rebuke—brought out to our generation with fresh dramatic beauty by the glorious music in which it has been clothed by the genius of Mendelssohn. The narrative of this chapter, full of picturesque vividness and graphic touches of detail, shows in every line the record of an eye-witness of facts; yet, like all great historical scenes, it is symbolical, typifying the victorious conflict of unaided simple spiritual power against the pomp and material force of the world, of the one man who knows and feels his mission from God against the many, only half persuaded of their superstitions, and of the religion of the God of righteousness and truth against the base and sensual worship of physical power. The latter chapter, perhaps even more sublime, is in a graver and more solemn strain. It marks the reaction after triumph in a character of impulsive and vehement earnestness, looking for visible and immediate victory, and, while it foretells the continuance of his struggle through other hands, teaches the higher lesson of the subtler power of the “still small voice” of spiritual influence.
And it came to pass after many days, that the word of the LORD came to Elijah in the third year, saying, Go, shew thyself unto Ahab; and I will send rain upon the earth.(1) The third year.—By the accurate tradition, preserved in Luke 4:25, James 5:17, it would seem that the drought lasted “three years and six months.” If, therefore, the expression in the text is to be taken literally, it must be reckoned from the beginning of the visit to Zarephath.
And Ahab called Obadiah, which was the governor of his house. (Now Obadiah feared the LORD greatly:(3) Obadiah.—The name (“servant of Jehovah”) here corresponds to the character of the man. It is curiously significant of the hesitating and temporising attitude of Ahab, that, while Jezebel is suffered to persecute, a high officer in the court is able to profess openly the service of Jehovah, and secretly to thwart the cruelty of the queen. In his heart Ahab always seems to acknowledge the true God, but is overborne by the commanding and ruthless nature of Jezebel.
For it was so, when Jezebel cut off the prophets of the LORD, that Obadiah took an hundred prophets, and hid them by fifty in a cave, and fed them with bread and water.)(4) Jezebel cut off the prophets.—The persecution here referred to, in which for the first time the royal power was placed in distinct antagonism to the prophetic order, is only known by this allusion. It may probably have followed on the denunciation of judgment; and Elijah’s retirement to Cherith and Zarephath may have been a means of escape from it. If Elijah’s oft-repeated phrase, “I, even I, alone remain,” is to be taken literally, Obadiah’s merciful interposition must have availed only for a time, or have simply given opportunity of escape.
And as Obadiah was in the way, behold, Elijah met him: and he knew him, and fell on his face, and said, Art thou that my lord Elijah?(7) Art thou that . . .—The sense is either (as the LXX. has it) “Is it thy very self, my lord Elijah?” or (perhaps more suitably to the context), “Thou here, my lord Elijah,” when all seek thy life? The prophet’s answer is still simpler in its original brevity, “Behold, Elijah!” standing in dignified contrast with the humble and almost servile address of Obadiah, which is clearly the offspring not only of reverence, but of fear.
As the LORD thy God liveth, there is no nation or kingdom, whither my lord hath not sent to seek thee: and when they said, He is not there; he took an oath of the kingdom and nation, that they found thee not.(10) There is no nation.—This unremitting search—implying perhaps some supremacy or authority over neighbouring kingdoms—suits ill with the half-hearted enmity of Ahab. No doubt it was the work of Jezebel, in Ahab’s name, connived at (as in the murder of Naboth) by his timidity.
And it shall come to pass, as soon as I am gone from thee, that the Spirit of the LORD shall carry thee whither I know not; and so when I come and tell Ahab, and he cannot find thee, he shall slay me: but I thy servant fear the LORD from my youth.(12) The Spirit of the Lord shall carry thee.—In this phrase there is perhaps a survival of the original physical sense of the word “Spirit”—the whirlwind which is “the breath of the Lord.” (Comp. 2Kings 2:16; Acts 8:39.) To Obadiah it seemed that only by such miraculous agency could Elijah have been removed from the persecution for so long a time, and that, having emerged for a moment, he will be swept away into his hidden refuge again.
And it came to pass, when Ahab saw Elijah, that Ahab said unto him, Art thou he that troubleth Israel?(17) Art thou . . .—Probably (as in 1Kings 18:7) the rendering should be, “Thou here, the troubler of Israel!”—defying vengeance (that is) in the very land which thou hast troubled.
And he answered, I have not troubled Israel; but thou, and thy father's house, in that ye have forsaken the commandments of the LORD, and thou hast followed Baalim.(18) Baalim—that is, as usual, “the Baalim”—the phrase being probably used contemptuously for false gods generally, the Baal, the Asherah, and perhaps other Canaanitish idols, being included.
Now therefore send, and gather to me all Israel unto mount Carmel, and the prophets of Baal four hundred and fifty, and the prophets of the groves four hundred, which eat at Jezebel's table.(19) Carmel.—The word signifies a “garden” or “park” (see Isaiah 29:17; Isaiah 32:15-16, &c.) and, when used for the proper name of the mountain, has commonly the article. Mount Carmel—rightly called “the park,” well planted and watered, of central Palestine—is a limestone ridge, with deep ravines thickly wooded, running north-west for about twelve miles from the central hills of Manasseh, so as to form the south side of the bay of Ptolemais, and almost to reach the sea, leaving, however, a space round which the southern armies constantly poured into the plain of Jezreel. It varies from 600 feet to 1,700 feet in height. Near its higher eastern extremity there is a place still called El Maharrakah, “the burning,” in view of the plain and city of Jezreel, and commanding from one point a glimpse of the sea, which is the traditional (and highly probable) scene of Elijah’s sacrifice. Carmel is previously mentioned in Joshua 19:26, as falling to Asher, and the existence of the altar of the Lord shows that, as was natural, it was made one of the “high places,” and, indeed, it appears to have been known as such even to the heathen. In the prophetic writings it is referred to as proverbial for its luxuriant pasturage and beauty. (See Isaiah 33:9; Jeremiah 4:26; Amos 1:2; Amos 9:3; Song of Solomon 7:6.) No more striking scene could well be found for the great drama of this chapter.
The prophets of the groves (Asherah) . . .—These, being probably the devotees of the female deity Astarte, seem to have been especially favoured by the queen. It is, however, to be noted that, in spite of Elijah’s challenge, they do not appear at all in the subsequent scene. (See 1Kings 18:22; 1Kings 18:40.)
And Elijah came unto all the people, and said, How long halt ye between two opinions? if the LORD be God, follow him: but if Baal, then follow him. And the people answered him not a word.(21) How long halt ye between two opinions?—In this exclamation is expressed the very motto of Elijah’s life. It is that of righteous impatience of the “halting” (i.e., limping to and fro) “between two opinions—at all times more dangerous, because more easy, than open apostasy—which was evidently characteristic of Ahab, and probably of the mass of the people. It might have suited well the accommodating genius of such polytheism as had been brought into Israel since the days of Solomon himself, but was utterly incompatible with the sole absolute claim of the worship of Jehovah. Perhaps Jezebel would have scorned it equally for Baal. Compare the indignant expostulation of Ezekiel (Ezekiel 20:31; Ezekiel 20:39). The question, once clearly understood, is always unanswerable, and is listened to here in awestruck silence.
And call ye on the name of your gods, and I will call on the name of the LORD: and the God that answereth by fire, let him be God. And all the people answered and said, It is well spoken.(24) And call ye on the name of your gods.—This gift of a “sign from heaven”—not unfamiliar to Israelite experience (see Leviticus 9:24; 1Chronicles 21:26; 2Chronicles 7:1)—which may not, as our Lord teaches us (Matthew 12:38-39; Matthew 16:1-4), be craved for or demanded as a ground of faith, is, like all other miracles, granted unasked when it is seen by God’s wisdom to be needed, in order to startle an ignorant and misguided people into serious attention to a message from heaven. In this instance the worship of Baal was a worship of the power of Nature, impersonated perhaps in the sun; and the miracle therefore entered (so to speak) on the visible sphere, especially usurped in his name, in order to claim it for the Lord Jehovah.
And they took the bullock which was given them, and they dressed it, and called on the name of Baal from morning even until noon, saying, O Baal, hear us. But there was no voice, nor any that answered. And they leaped upon the altar which was made.(26) O Baal, hear us.—This repeated cry—the ever-recurring burden of the prayer, uttered probably first in measured chant, afterwards in a wild excited cry—stands in an instructive contrast (which has been splendidly emphasised in Mendelssohn’s music) with the simple, earnest solemnity of the prayer of Elijah. It has been obvious to see m it an illustration of our Lord’s condemnation of the worship of the heathen, who “think that they shall be heard for their much speaking” (Matthew 6:7). There is a grave irony in the notice of the blank silence which followed this frenzied cry. “There was no voice, nor any to answer, nor any that regarded.”
They leaped upon—properly, leaped up and down at the altar, in one of those wild dances, at once expressing and stimulating frenzy, in which Oriental religions delight, even to this day.
And it came to pass at noon, that Elijah mocked them, and said, Cry aloud: for he is a god; either he is talking, or he is pursuing, or he is in a journey, or peradventure he sleepeth, and must be awaked.(27) Elijah mocked them.—The mockery of Elijah—apparently even blunter and more scornful in the sense of the original—has been with over-ingenuity explained as applying to various supposed actions of Baal. It is merely the bitter irony of sheer contempt, calling Baal a god only to heap upon him ideas most ungodlike; “He is busy, or he is in retirement; he is far away, or in the noon-day heat he is asleep.” Characteristic of the fierce indignation of Elijah’s nature, in this crisis of conflict, it is yet not unlike the righteous scorn of the psalmists or the prophets (see Psalm 115:4-8; Psalm 135:15-18; Isaiah 44:9-20; Isaiah 46:1-7; Jeremiah 10:2-10, &c.) for the worship of “the vanities” of the heathen. There was no place for toleration of prejudice, or tender appreciation of a blind worship feeling after God, like that of St. Paul at Athens (Acts 17:22-23). The conflict here was between spiritual worship and a foul, cruel idolatry; and the case was not of heathen ignorance, but of Israel’s apostasy.
And they cried aloud, and cut themselves after their manner with knives and lancets, till the blood gushed out upon them.(28) Lancets—should be lances. This self-mutilation, common in Oriental frenzy, was possibly a portion, or a survival, of human sacrifice, in the notion that self-torture and shedding of human blood must win Divine favour—a delusion not confined to heathen religions, though excusable only in them.
And it came to pass, when midday was past, and they prophesied until the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice, that there was neither voice, nor any to answer, nor any that regarded.(29) They prophesied—raved in their frenzy; like Saul in the hour of madness (1Samuel 18:10), or of overpowering religious excitement (1Samuel 19:20-24). As a rule, not perhaps without some rare exceptions, the true prophetic inspiration, even if felt as overmastering the will (see Jeremiah 20:7-9), gave no place to frenzy. “The spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets.”
And Elijah said unto all the people, Come near unto me. And all the people came near unto him. And he repaired the altar of the LORD that was broken down.(30) The altar of the Lord—evidently referred to as well known, and here accepted by Elijah as having a true sacredness. The exclusive consecration of the appointed sanctuary at Jerusalem, if ever as yet thoroughly recognised, was now obviously broken down by the religious severance of Israel.
And Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, unto whom the word of the LORD came, saying, Israel shall be thy name:(31) Twelve stones.—The emphatic notice of these, as emblematic of the twelve tribes, is significant. In spite of political division, and even religious separation, the tribes were still united in the covenant of God.
And with the stones he built an altar in the name of the LORD: and he made a trench about the altar, as great as would contain two measures of seed.(32) Measures.—The “measure,” the third part of the ephah, hence also often called shalish (a “tierce,” or “third”), was something less than three gallons. A trench to contain only six gallons seems too insignificant for the context; hence it is supposed that the sense is “large enough for the sowing (as in a furrow) of two measures of seed.”
And he put the wood in order, and cut the bullock in pieces, and laid him on the wood, and said, Fill four barrels with water, and pour it on the burnt sacrifice, and on the wood.(33) Fill four barrels—or pitchers. The filling of these at the time of drought has naturally excited speculation. A ready surmise, by those unacquainted with the country, was that the water was taken from the sea flowing at the base of Carmel; but a glance at the position and the height of the mountain puts this not unnatural surmise out of the question, as difficult, if not impossible. Examination of the locality has discovered a perennial spring in the neighbourhood of the traditional scene of the sacrifice, which is never known to fail in the severest drought. From this, no doubt (as indeed Josephus expressly says), the water was drawn, with, of course, the object of precluding all idea of fraud or contrivance, and bringing out strikingly the consuming fierceness of the fire from heaven, so emphatically described in 1Kings 18:38.
And it came to pass at the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice, that Elijah the prophet came near, and said, LORD God of Abraham, Isaac, and of Israel, let it be known this day that thou art God in Israel, and that I am thy servant, and that I have done all these things at thy word.(36) Lord God of Abraham.—In this solemn and earnest invocation of God, as in Exodus 3:15; Exodus 6:2-3, the name JEHOVAH, describing God as He is in Himself—the One eternal self-existent Being—is united with the name which shows His special covenant with “Abraham, and Isaac, and Israel.” In His own nature incomprehensible to finite being, He yet reveals Himself in moral and spiritual relations with His people, through which they “know that which passeth knowledge.” The prominence of the name “Jehovah,” thrice repeated in this short prayer of Elijah, is significant as of the special mission, symbolised in his very name, so also of his immediate purpose. He desires to efface himself. The God of Israel is to show Himself as the true worker, not only in the outer sphere by miracle, but in the inner sphere by that conversion of the hearts of the people, which to the prophet’s eye is already effected. Like his antitype in the New Testament, Elijah is but a voice calling on men “to prepare the way of the Lord.”
And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces: and they said, The LORD, he is the God; the LORD, he is the God.(39) They fell on their faces.—Exactly as in Leviticus 9:24, at the inauguration of the sacrifices of the new Tabernacle by the fire from heaven, with the characteristic addition of the cry, “Jehovah; He, and He only, is God.”
And Elijah said unto them, Take the prophets of Baal; let not one of them escape. And they took them: and Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon, and slew them there.(40) Slew them.—This ruthless slaughter of Baal’s prophets, as a judgment on their idolatry and perversion of the people, belongs alike to the fierce righteousness of the character of Elijah, and to the spirit of the old Law. (See, for example, Deuteronomy 13:6-18; Deuteronomy 17:2-7.) The law was adapted (as in the terrible crucial example of the slaughter of the Canaanites) to the “hardness of men’s hearts.” In the imperfect moral and religious education of those times, it did not recognise the difference between moral and political offences punishable by human law, and the religious sin or apostasy which we have been taught to leave to the judgment of God alone; and it enjoined an unrelenting severity in the execution of righteous vengeance, which would be morally impossible to us, who have been taught to hate the sin, and yet spare, as far as possible, the sinner. The frequent quotation of such examples by Christians—of which Luke 9:54 is the first example—is a spiritual anachronism. In this particular case, however, it is also to be remembered that those slain were no doubt implicated in the persecution headed by Jezebel, and that the Baal-worship was a licentious and perhaps bloody system. Elijah, presiding over the slaughter which dyed the waters of the Kishon with blood, felt himself the avenger of the slaughtered prophets, as well as the instrument of the judgment of God.
And Elijah said unto Ahab, Get thee up, eat and drink; for there is a sound of abundance of rain.(41) Get thee up, eat and drink.—There seems a touch of scorn in these words. Ahab, remaining passive throughout, had descended to the place of slaughter in the valley, looking on silent—if not unmoved—while the priests, whose worship he had openly or tacitly sanctioned, were slain by hundreds. Now Elijah bade him get up to his palace, taking it for granted that, fresh from that horrible sight, he is yet ready to feast, and rejoice over the approaching removal of the judgment, which alone had told on his shallow nature. The king goes to revel, the prophet to pray.
So Ahab went up to eat and to drink. And Elijah went up to the top of Carmel; and he cast himself down upon the earth, and put his face between his knees,(42) Put his face between his knees.—The attitude is, of course, one of prayer, but is a peculiar attitude—distinct from the ordinary postures of standing and kneeling—which has been noted as existing still among the modern dervishes. Possibly it is characteristic of the vehement excitement of the moment, and of the impulsive nature of Elijah.
And said to his servant, Go up now, look toward the sea. And he went up, and looked, and said, There is nothing. And he said, Go again seven times.(43) Go again seven times.—From this delay of the answer to prayer Elijah’s example became proverbial for intensity and perseverance in supplication (James 5:17). The contrast is remarkable between the immediate answer to his earlier prayer (see 1Kings 18:36-37) and the long delay here. The one was for the sake of the people; the other for some lesson—perhaps of humility and patience—to Elijah himself. When the answer does come, it fulfils itself speedily. The “little cloud” becomes all but immediately (for so “in the mean while” should be rendered) a storm blackening the whole heavens, borne by a hurricane from the west.
And it came to pass in the mean while, that the heaven was black with clouds and wind, and there was a great rain. And Ahab rode, and went to Jezreel.(45) Jezreel.—This is the first mention of the city Jezreel, a city of Issachar (Joshua 19:18), as a royal city. The name (signifying “Jehovah hath sown”) was applied to the whole of the rich plain, the garden and battlefield of northern Palestine. (See Judges 6:33 : 1Samuel 29:1; 2Samuel 2:9.) The city was made a royal residence by Ahab, as Samaria by Omri. It stands in a position of some strength and great beauty, supplied by unfailing springs of water, visible from Carmel, and commanding views east and west far over the plain.
And the hand of the LORD was on Elijah; and he girded up his loins, and ran before Ahab to the entrance of Jezreel.(46) The hand of the Lord was on Elijah—in a striking reaction of enthusiastic thankfulness after the stern calmness of his whole attitude throughout the great controversy, and his silent earnestness of prayer. At the head of the people he brings the king, conquered, if not repentant, home in triumph. To our conception of a prophet this frenzied excitement seems strange. Nor could it have belonged to a Samuel, an Elisha, or an Isaiah. In the simple and enthusiastic warrior of God it is natural enough.