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1 Kings 18:20-40 Study Guide: Elijah and the Prophets of Baal

Community Group Study Guide — Elijah and the Prophets of Baal
1 Kings 18:20-40

Study Information:
For the next two study guides we will focus on how God used the prophet Elijah to call his people back to faithfulness to him. It was a time in the history of Israel when King Ahab allowed a cult of a pagan god to run rampant in the nation. Ahab had married Jezebel and allowed the politics of Israel and the worship of God to mix with the worship of this foreign god Baal and it resulted in the people of god pursuing sin. There is much to this story, but for these two study guides we will focus on what took place on two mountains: Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18) and Mount Horeb (1 Kings 19). On Mount Carmel, God used Elijah to call his people back to faithfulness as they forsook their idols and on Mount Horeb God comforted Elijah in his despair and reminded him that God works in unseen ways and his faithfulness never wavers.

The Flow of the Culture
1 Kings 18:17-19
The Old Testament prophets acted as a check against the power of the king. God raised up prophets, and gave them the voice of his word to call the people back to covenant faithfulness and to check the power of the king. At this point in history Israel had split into two nations; the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah. Israel had many different lines of kings and hardly any of them were godly or faithful to the God of the Bible, whereas Judah had one royal line with David’s family and there were both good and wicked kings in that family line. For Israel, one of the worst kings they had was Ahab. The scripture tells us that Ahab did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, more than any other king before him (1 Kings 16:30). This evil included marrying Jezebel, serving Baal and promoting immoral practices like sacrifice of children. What we learn from our text is that as went the king so went the people. Israel began to worship Baal to such an extent that the prophets of God started to hide away into caves and God started to enact covenant curses and withheld rain from the people (Deut 28:15-24). The covenant with Moses was a conditional covenant and conditioned blessings for following God’s laws and curses for disobedience. This was meant to bring God’s people back to obedience, but often they slid further and further into idolatry and immorality. Such was the scene where we first met Elijah. God commanded Elijah to go to Ahab and predict the drought (1 Kings 17:1). God providentially cared for Elijah during those years but the people suffered because of their idolatry.

The drought likely pushed people towards idolatry because Baal was a god worshipped for agricultural success. Baal promised rain, but did not deliver. We can all get caught up in worshipping things that promise success or comfort but do not deliver. Likewise because we can be tempted to go with the flow of culture we can be ignorant with our sin or treat it too gently. Many of us do not worship statues or sacrifice materially to these gods, but we do face the temptation to put things before God with the hopes they will deliver what we think we need. Career, money, advancement, family, comfort, control, pleasure…, they are all modern gods with the ancient names removed. In the past you’d worship Aphrodite for pleasure, Jupiter for strength, Baal for harvest; today we’re “sophisticated” and just removed the old names and worship the things they promise anyways. Yet, notice that for all the worship of Baal in the ancient world, he was unable to respond and give them rain and even in the showdown that happened at Mount Carmel, Baal never showed.

Whom do You Serve?
1 Kings 18:20-22
Elijah called the people of Israel to choose whom they would serve. He called out their waffling between God and Baal and challenged them to no longer limp between two opinions (1 Kings 18:21). The showdown took place at Mount Carmel, in Northern Israel, where Elijah stood by himself against 450 prophets of Baal. They met with two altars prepared and two bulls and whoever had fire come down from heaven to consume their bull would win the showdown. The prophets of Baal danced around, cut themselves and cried out to Baal from morning until noon and nothing happened. This went on through midday and we’re told “no one answered, no one paid attention” (1 Kings 18:29). Elijah pointed out the humor in all this calling out that maybe Baal was asleep or using the bathroom (1 Kings 18:27). Basically they had made a man-made god and so Elijah described human activities for what this god might be doing.

Elijah went to his altar and took buckets of water and dumped them out so much so that the dried out ground not only got soaked but also filled up with water. Remember this was a time when there was a 3 plus year drought. Elijah called out to God with the plea to God that the people would turn their hearts back to God (1 Kings 18:37). God sent fire down from heaven that consumed the bull and all the water around the altar. The people responded with enthusiasm initially (we will see next study guide that this did not last), and they seized the prophets of Baal and put them to death for all their immorality. This can seem unjust or unfair to us, but let’s remember that worshipping Baal involved infant sacrifice and immorality. Finally, God sent rain back to the land (1 Kings 18:44-46).

The story leaves us with the question, “whom do we serve?” The gods we worship end up like Baal in that we can cry out to them for help and comfort but they’re non-responsive. You can get ahead a bit with comfort, pleasure, success and money, but in the long run these gods fail to deliver what they promise. May this story remind us of that and help us to fight sin and get rid of the hidden idols in our hearts.

Jesus and the Altar
The good news of the gospel is how we see Christ respond to us in our need. Rather than calling down fire from heaven to burn up the offering, Jesus climbed up onto the altar himself to be the offering. Instead of an altar of sacrifice on the mountain top, Jesus went to a cross outside the city where he offered himself to buy us back from our idolatry and to manifest to us the love and justice of God. One of the characteristics of idols is that they demand that you sacrifice for them, and yet Jesus turns that all around as he sacrificed himself for us. This gives us the encouragement and the power to fight sin and idolatry in our lives, knowing that our God is real, faithful and powerful in a way that false God are not.

At your community group:

Take 15-20 minutes to share about how God has been at work in your life, prayer concerns and pray for one another.

How did God speak to you through the scripture and the sermon this week?

Discussion Questions:
Read 1 Kings 18:20-40

What was the spiritual situation in Israel at this time? Describe Ahab and how he led the people towards wickedness.

Who was Elijah and how did God call him to serve in Israel at this time?

Describe the showdown on Mount Carmel. Who was there? How was the test on Mount Carmel set up to show God’s power?

What are some ways Christians today can fight sin and idolatry?