Commentary on 1 Kgs 18:41-46
Today’s reading follows immediately on yesterday’s dramatic account of the contest between Elijah and the priests of Baal. It completes the proof of Yahweh’s uniqueness and power over the impotent Baal.
God has answered Elijah’s prayer by raining fire on the sacrificial victims drenched in water. Now the rain itself comes and the drought is over. And it is clearly the work of Yahweh.
It is described in a lovely scene marvellous in its delicacy and the whole episode is magnificently expressed in music in Felix Mendelssohn’s oratorio “Elijah”.
First, Elijah tells King Ahab to go back to his palace to eat and drink. A fast had been in effect to prepare for the sacrifice, which we read about yesterday, and to hasten the coming of the rain. Already the sound of the rain can be heard by the prophet.
While Ahab went to eat, Elijah went to the summit of Mt Carmel and began to prostrate himself in prayer. His first prayer against the priests of Baal had been answered. Now he prayed for the drought, the punishment of God for the people’s idolatry, to be brought to an end.
He then tells his servant to look westwards out to sea. “There is nothing,” reports the boy. He is told to go back seven times and on the seventh time he says: “There is a cloud, small as a man’s hand, rising from the sea”, that is, from the west. (Mount Carmel looks down on the Mediterranean.) In the Scriptures the number seven is symbolic of completeness and wholeness. The number plays a significant role in both Matthew’s and John’s gospels.
Immediately the servant is told to warn the king. The king is to harness his chariot and get home before he is stopped by the heavy rain. Immediately, the sky grows dark and ominous and the rain begins to come down in torrents. Ahab, riding in his chariot, makes at once for Jezreel, which then served as an alternative capital for the kings of Israel (the Northern Kingdom). Elijah, given winged feet by God, is able to outrun the chariot and reaches the outskirts of Jezreel first.
The scene again is symbolic: Elijah, God’s prophet, runs ahead. He is followed by his king, Ahab, in his chariot, while the Lord himself riding the thunderclouds comes bringing the rain the people had been deprived of because of their sin. This dramatic scene, with the Lord’s prophet running before the king and the Lord himself racing behind him riding his mighty thundercloud chariot, served as a powerful appeal to Ahab to break once for all with the now discredited Baal and henceforth to rule as the servant of the Lord. In the whole story, it is Elijah who leads the way to God, while Ahab, who is supposed to be God’s representative for his people, lags behind.
Let us today thank God for the sun and rain, which, as Jesus reminds us in the Gospel, are the signs of his even-handed love for every single person. A love he urges us also to show. Let us, too, put aside all the false gods in whom we place so much trust. In my own case, I might try to identify which are the gods I tend to follow.