Carmels and Caves

James 5:17 - Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it might not rain, and it did not rain on the earth for three years and six months.

Also read 1 Kings 17-19.

Elijah! What's the first mental picture that popped into your mind when you read the name, Elijah? Well, if you remember anything from the Old Testament account of Elijah, you probably visualized a fearless prophet dressed in rough wilderness garb, calling down fire from heaven. Right on! That's Elijah all right--on Mount Carmel. There on that mountain Elijah courageously spoke out against the religious idolatry of his day. He called down fire from heaven and proved to the people of Israel that the pagan gods called Baals were nothing but helpless idols. But Mount Carmel was not the only place visited by the prophet Elijah. We also read of him in a cave at Mount Horeb.

Chances are that this picture of Elijah did not come to your mind during our little experiment above. Elijah's cave experience is not nearly as well known as the Carmel event. The "cave crisis" was not exactly a high point in Elijah's ministry. In fact, the cave at Mount Horeb was a spiritual low in the life of this great prophet of God. However, God used this valley experience as a further turning point in Elijah's ministry. Our text above says that Elijah was "a man with a nature like ours." All growing Christians experience spiritual highs and lows. There are the Carmels and there are the caves! Let's trace the path of Elijah from the triumph of Carmel to the trauma of the cave, and learn a few of the lessons that God has for us in 1 Kings 17-19.

Elijah came on the scene at a time when Israel had not only turned away from the Lord but had also begun to follow the pagan religions of the surrounding nations. Long gone were the "good old days" of the united kingdom under David and Solomon. The kingdom was now split into the southern kingdom of Judah and the northern kingdom of Israel. Jeroboam I, the very first king of northern Israel, put his kingdom on the downhill road of idolatry by setting up two golden calf idols for the people to worship. All ties with the true worship of the Lord at the temple in Jerusalem (capital of the southern kingdom) were severed. No wonder the biblical record of the kings of Israel repeats over and over that "Jeroboam made Israel sin."

Elijah was raised up as a prophet of God to the northern kingdom about 40 years after Jeroboam--during the reign of wicked King Ahab. Ahab continued to lead Israel into idolatry. He built a temple for the degrading Baal worship in Samaria, his capital city (1 Kings 16:28-34). He married the idolatrous foreigner, Jezebel, who encouraged the prophets of Baal and the Asherah, a pagan female deity, to prosper in Israel and actually live at government expense (18:19). The evil Jezebel systematically killed off many prophets of the Lord (18:4, 13). Thus Ahab "did more to provoke the Lord God of Israel than all the kings of Israel that were before him" (16:33).

Suddenly Elijah stepped into this picture of religious apostasy. Such idolatry called for confrontation and judgment. However, before the confrontation at Carmel could take place, the nation had to be forced to realize that God's blessing had been withdrawn from the land. The people had to realize that the gods which they were now worshipping were not helping them one bit. For 3 1/2 years there would be no rain--not even dew (17:1)! Israel knew that rain was a sign of God's blessing, according to His covenant promises (Deuteronomy 28:12). They also knew that a prolonged drought meant that God was punishing them (Deuteronomy 28:24). And the rain that God would not provide, the pagan gods could not provide!

For 3 1/2 years Israel was conditioned by God for the show-down at Carmel. We logically ask at this point, how stupid could the people be to go on following the helpless and lifeless Baals? Could we not just as logically ask the same question about our own nation today? Our country appears bent on self-destruction as it increasingly forsakes the God of the Bible and His blessings to serve other gods. Perhaps the "droughts" of recent days (oil, for example) are conditions that God has permitted to bring the nation to its knees--or to a Mount Carmel type judgment!

While the nation of Israel was "reaping what it had sown," Elijah was being prepared for Mount Carmel. After telling Ahab that the nation's water shortage problem was going to last for years (not weeks or months!), Elijah disappeared from public view. For the next couple of years God taught His prophet about His miraculous ways of provision and protection. Remember, it was a time of drought and famine, and Jezebel was out to kill every prophet of God--especially Elijah (18:10). But God has His ways of protecting and providing for His servants.

Have you come to know God as the one who can provide for you and protect you in any and all situations? What about when you don't get your paycheck? What about when someone is "out to get you" and discredit you? Like Elijah, every growing Christian must learn to depend on God alone to gain confidence in Him as an all-caring and all-capable God. Only then are we ready for the Mount Carmels.

Mount Carmel was close to enemy territory. Nearby Phoenicia was the former home of Queen Jezebel and the source of many of the prophets of Baal. It seems that Elijah purposely chose this location so that there would be no possible question raised later on about "home field advantage". Now Elijah, having learned confidence in the Lord, boldly challenged the prophets of Baal to get their god to answer by fire (18:24). He also challenged the crowd from Israel who had gathered for the excitement. "How long will you hesitate between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow Him, but if Baal, follow him" (18:21). Is it possible that the same question is being asked of you? Are you hesitating between a life choice of serving gods like materialism or "the good life", and the choice of going all-out for the Lord who created you and gave His life for you?

Baal, of course, was no match for the Lord! How could the demonic powers behind the Baals even begin to compare with the omnipotence of God? Elijah mocked the pagan prophets as they carried on their "Come on Baal, light my fire" ritual! We may laugh at their pathetic ravings now, but these pagan prophets were as serious then as many of our friends are today--selling their souls to the gods of this world in exhausting but futile activity. When it was quite obvious that Baal had failed, Elijah calmly and confidently repaired the altar of the Lord and then inundated the altar, wood, sacrifice and surroundings with water. He didn't want the unbelievers to "cop-out" with an excuse like, "It must have been some kind of trick!" It was no trick when the fire of the Lord fell. It consumed everything--even the water! The only reason the fire did not consume the false prophets was that they were left for the people to take care of--a responsibility they should have taken care of long before. (See Deuteronomy 13.)

The climax of the triumph at Carmel was the coming of the rains. Elijah was so filled with the joy of the Lord and so thrilled with the way everything had worked out that he outran Ahab's chariot to Jezreel, a town about 30 miles away! Talk about spiritual highs! But it was a short-lived mountain top experience. No sooner had they reached Jezreel than Elijah was ready to throw in the towel. Why? Because things did not go as he had expected when they got to Jezreel--and Jezebel.

Elijah thought that on the basis of what Ahab had seen at Carmel, the king would turn back to the Lord and send wicked Queen Jezebel packing. But instead, Ahab merely reported the day's happenings to Jezebel, who in turn threatened to kill Elijah within 24 hours. Elijah turned and ran for his life. He didn't stop running until he had put about 300 miles and a lot of wilderness between himself and Jezebel. He told the Lord along the way that he wanted to die because he was a failure (19:4). (We would never say anything like that, would we?!) And then at Mount Horeb Elijah crawled inside a cave to continue his self-pity. What a comedown - the mighty Elijah pouting in a cave!

But we shouldn't be surprised. "Elijah was a man with a nature like ours." Don't we cycle pretty rapidly from mountain-top to valley? Yes, and like Elijah, we are always more vulnerable right after a spiritual triumph. And like Elijah, we are particularly susceptible to discouragement and disillusionment when we are occupied with ourselves and ourministry rather than with the Lord Himself. Notice Elijah's emphasis on himself and his ministry when he answered the Lord's probing question, "What are you doing here, Elijah?" What is our response when God asks us the same question?

The grace of God is certainly emphasized throughout God's dealings with Elijah--even at the cave. Not only did God care for His fatigued servant on the way to the cave, but He graciously taught His short-sighted servant in the cave. Elijah learned that God speaks not only by hurricanes and earthquakes and fire from heaven, but also by the gentle voice (19:11-14). Elijah learned that he was not the only believer still hanging in there (19:18). Elijah also learned that God recommissions His erring servants (19:15-17). Every growing Christian needs to learn these same lessons. They go a long way towards overcoming the "cave mentality" as well as inhibiting the "Carmel to cave" cycle.
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