Come back with me to Mount Carmel, to a critical moment in Israel’s history. The people of God have succumbed to leaders who encourage them to abandon God’s commandments and follow the false god, Baal. In 1 Kings 18, Elijah the prophet confronts the people with a clear choice: ““How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.”
To help them make their choice, Elijah proposes a contest between Yahweh, the God of Israel, and Baal. The contest seems to be completely stacked against Yahweh and Elijah – Baal has 450 prophets; Yahweh has one. What’s more, Baal was often seen as the god of fire, and this contest is going to be all about fire.
Elijah’s proposal is that both ‘sides’ will build an altar, then lay a bull (cut into pieces) on the altar. “‘And you call upon the name of your god, and I will call upon the name of the Lord, and the God who answers by fire, he is God.’ And all the people answered, ‘It is well spoken’.” (1 Kings 18:24)
The prophets of Baal go first. For several hours, they cry out ‘Oh Baal, answer us!’ They whip themselves into a frenzy, cutting themselves with swords, ‘limping’ around the altar, ‘raving on’ – all to no avail. The writer’s simple summary is powerful: “But there was no voice, and no one answered.” (18:26) In the midst of it all, Elijah sits back and mocks: ‘Keep going’, he laughs. ‘Maybe Baal’s thinking, or on a journey, or busy, or asleep!’
Next, it’s Elijah’s turn. And in case the odds weren’t stacked against him enough already, he asks for twelve jars of water to be poured over his altar. Then, after all that, he offer this simple prayer: ““Yahweh, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your word. Answer me, Yahweh, answer me, that this people may know that you, Yahweh, are God, and that you have turned their hearts back.” (18:36-37) Immediately, the fire of Yahweh consumes the bull, the wood, the stones, and the leftover water lapping around the side of the altar. Game over. Yahweh wins.
We often speak about ‘the power of prayer’ – and rightly so, as long as we understand what is meant. For the power doesn’t actually lie with prayer itself. The power lies with God.
If ‘the power of prayer’ really made all the difference, Baal would have won that contest, hands down. Hundreds of people in a frenzy of prayer for hours, versus one man praying for a few brief seconds? Elijah’s prayer was powerful because of the God to whom he prayed.
By all means, let’s keep speaking about the power of prayer – as long as we remember that it’s really just shorthand for speaking about the power of God. God is infinitely powerful; prayer is our way of humbly asking God to use his power.
“The prayer of a Christian is not an attempt to force God’s hand, but a humble acknowledgment of helplessness and dependence.” (J.I. Packer)
Heavenly Father, thank you for your infinite power. Thank you that you showed that power clearly in the time of Elijah, and that I can call on you in prayer, just as he did. Please help me to remember that I cannot force your hand in prayer. Please help me to humbly rely on you and depend on you for all things. In Jesus’ name. Amen.