The Futility of Idols

And Elijah the Tishbite, who was of the sojourners of Gilead, said unto Ahab, “As YHWH, the God of Israel, liveth, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years, but according to my word” (1 Kings 17:1).

Here we have the moment that James describes in James 5:16-18: Elijah, prophet of God but still a man with a nature like ours, prayed to God, and it did not rain for three and a half years. such is a powerful demonstration of the effectiveness of prayer, proving that God can do amazing things when His people devote themselves to prayer and righteousness.

Yet there certainly is a dark side to this prayer– Elijah has just consigned the land and its people to drought for three and a half years. A drought means no rain, and when there is no rain, crops fail. When crops fail, there is no food. When there is no food, people starve, suffer, and die.

We might feel inclined, through the lens of “modern sensibilities,” to think of this as utterly merciless, cruel, barbaric, and inhuman. What kind of prophet is Elijah to consign his people to famine and death? What kind of God would withhold rain and thus lead His people to starvation and death? Or, in less judgmental terms, why is it that Elijah prays for it to not rain as opposed to praying for some other demonstration? Why does God punish Israel with a lack of rain as opposed to some other calamity or difficulty?

In order to make some sense of this we must understand what is going on at the time. Elijah has been called by God– whose personal name is YHWH or “Yahweh”– because Ahab king of Israel is exceedingly wicked (1 Kings 16:30). He and his wife Jezebel, daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, have rejected YHWH in favor of Baal, Asherah, and the Canaanite gods (1 Kings 16:31-33). Israel followed along in this apostasy.

Baal, in the Canaanite belief system, was a storm god and a fertility god. Baal was believed to provide the storms that led to crop growth and thus fertility. Baal is in a contest against Mot, the god of death; when Baal wins, there is fertility; when Mot wins, there is famine and death. Much of the belief system of the Canaanites surrounded the idea of fertility, both in crops and in child-bearing.

We should not imagine that God or Elijah really want the people to suffer for suffering’s sake. Instead, a powerful lesson is being taught: the gods of the world are emptiness and nothing. During the drought, no doubt, Ahab and Jezebel constantly sacrificed to Baal and plead for mercy from him, along with many of the Israelites. During the contest on Mount Carmel, the prophets of Baal plead with Baal, even cutting themselves in the process (1 Kings 18:26-29). Yet, as the Kings author says, “there was neither voice, nor any to answer, nor any that regarded” (1 Kings 18:29). Baal was not there– because there was no Baal.

Afterward YHWH demonstrated His existence powerfully with fire from heaven and a return of the rains (1 Kings 18:30-46). The lesson was evident: YHWH was God, not Baal. YHWH is responsible for the rains and fertility, not Baal.

This was not the first time YHWH had made such a demonstration; the plagues upon Egypt in Exodus 8-12 are also demonstrations that YHWH, and not the gods of the Egyptians, is really in control. It’s a demonstration with which it is hard to argue: if you believe that Ra is the sun god, but at the command of YHWH the sun turns to darkness, and your pleas to Ra change nothing, then it is clear at least that YHWH is stronger than Ra if Ra even exists. It is only when idols are dethroned that people really reflect on the power of the One True God.

We should not think that we are much different today. Granted, we do not have many people going to temples and bowing down to statues of perceived divinities as was prevalent in Biblical times. But that does not mean that we have solved the challenge of idolatry– far from it (1 John 5:21)! Our idols are just more abstract. And we still need powerful demonstrations of their ultimate inefficiency and inefficacy.

For generations money has been an idol (Matthew 6:24, Ephesians 5:5). It is easy for people to trust in their material goods– their stuff, their bank accounts, their investments, and even their government’s entitlement programs. And yet what was powerfully demonstrated during our great recession? Wealth is uncertain, and cannot be trusted (1 Timothy 6:17)! Government is proven to be uncertain and ultimately not entirely trustworthy; stuff also cannot bring satisfaction. Health, status, prestige, relationships, fame, the Internet, science, you name it– all of them are really subject to the One True God, and in and of themselves, cannot save, and cannot be entirely trusted. Unfortunately, all too often, we only perceive this after they have been rendered ineffective and inefficacious in our lives. It is only in crisis do we learn that we need to rely upon God and not the gods of the world.

If we want to avoid needless suffering we would do well to learn from Israel’s example and trust in the One True God and not the gods of this world. God always has a way of demonstrating His power and authority over every false god, and we would do well to trust in Him and not suffer His chastisement!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Futility of Idols

The Troubler of Israel

And it came to pass, when Ahab saw Elijah, that Ahab said unto him, “Is it thou, thou troubler of Israel?”
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 the Baalim” (1 Kings 18:17-18).

There had been three difficult years in Israel. The rain had been withheld; crops died, and people throughout the land went hungry. The people and the land were in great distress.

But what was behind the drought? Why did the rains cease? The reason is made evident in Scripture: Elijah the Tishbite, the great prophet, prayed to God, and it did not rain (1 Kings 17:1, James 5:17-18). The rain would not return until it was done by his word.

King Ahab is quite aware of this– it is precisely what Elijah had said to him. Therefore, in his mind, the matter is easily settled– Elijah is the culprit and the reason for the distress. Ahab sought Elijah in every surrounding nation (1 Kings 18:10). As the drought and thus the famine worsened the greater the blame was placed on Elijah. He became a very effective scapegoat. Therefore, when Elijah finally presents himself before Ahab, Ahab calls Elijah the “troubler of Israel.”

In all of this, however, the most important question is not asked. Why did Elijah pray to withhold rain in the first place? Is he some malevolent person who seeks the ruin of Israel? Hardly! Ahab and his wife Jezebel had led the people of Israel astray, inducing them to serve the Baals and to not give YHWH the LORD His honor (1 Kings 16:30-33). Elijah needed to make a grand demonstration of who was really the true God, and this demonstration begins with the withholding of rain. Baal, after all, was the Canaanite god of fertility. If Baal was really a divinity, and if Israel should really honor and serve him, would he not provide them rain when they rendered him the appropriate service? And yet for three and a half years there was no rain. The Power behind Elijah the Tishbite was far greater than the Baals.

1 Kings 18:19-40 will feature the public humiliation and then execution of the priests of Baal, and the Israelites will confess again that YHWH is God. And then in 1 Kings 18:41-45 Elijah will pray and rain will fall upon Israel again.

The real “troubler of Israel,” then, is Ahab, for he was found impious before God and led God’s people Israel astray. But that is not the answer Ahab wanted to hear, and it is certainly not the answer that Ahab (or Jezebel) wants Israel to hear and believe. Thus Elijah feels compelled to go on the run for his life, a justified scapegoat, but a scapegoat nonetheless (cf. 1 Kings 19:1ff).

Such scapegoating happens all too often. When problems arise, for whatever reason, people want to find someone to blame. No one ever wants to blame themselves– therefore, they find a scapegoat, someone upon whom the burden of blame and responsibility is placed. Elijah is seen as the reason for the drought here, even though the real reason is the idolatry of Israel. In the days of the Roman Empire, whenever a famine, earthquake, or plague ravaged the land, the Christians would be blamed. Assigning blame and scapegoating happens to this very day. Sometimes the people who are blamed deserve the blame. Many times the blame goes well beyond the original misdeed. And there are plenty of times when there is really no one to blame, but someone has to take the heat anyway.

But the most pernicious circumstances are those when the truly guilty parties work hard to shift the blame onto the innocent parties, as Ahab does with Elijah. Not a few times have the righteous found themselves in great persecution and distress as the ungodly work to absolve themselves of the responsibilities of their actions. It is quite unjust, but we can be sure that God will execute justice (cf. Romans 2:5-11, 2 Timothy 4:14)!

We will find ourselves in the mist of circumstances when two parties blame each other for the situation in which they find themselves. It is always easier to shift blame than to accept blame. That is why we must diligently make sure that we are not the “troublers” of the family, the church, the workplace, etc., and that we do not justify the “troublers” at the expense of those who are trying to do the right thing. Let us judge righteous judgment and act responsibly!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Troubler of Israel