The account of Elijah and the prophets of Baal is recorded in 1 Kings 18. After Israel had gone more than three years without rain as a judgment for their idolatry, the prophet Elijah confronts the evil king Ahab and challenges him to a spiritual showdown. The king was to have all Israel gather at Mt. Carmel, along with the 450 prophets of the false god Baal and the 400 prophets of the false goddess Asherah (verse 19).
On Mt. Carmel, Elijah said to the people of Israel, “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him” (1 Kings 18:21). The people remained noncommittal at that point. Elijah then challenged the prophets of Baal to prepare a bull as an offering for their god—Elijah would do the same—with this catch: they could light no fire on their altar. The God who answered with fire from the sky would be considered the true God (verses 22–25).
The people agreed that this was a good plan, and the prophets of Baal went first. The pagan prophets cried out and danced around their altar from morning till noon with no answer from Baal. Elijah began to mock them, saying, “Shout louder! . . . Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened” (1 Kings 18:27).
So the prophets of Baal “shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed. Midday passed, and they continued their frantic prophesying until the time for the evening sacrifice” (1 Kings 18:28–29). Despite hours of effort, nothing happened. The historian’s comment hints at the emptiness of Baal-worship: “There was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention” (verse 29).
Elijah then called the people to him as he repaired the altar of the Lord. He used twelve stones and dug a trench around the altar. He then placed wood on the altar and laid the cut pieces of the bull on it. Elijah then had the people douse the altar with twelve large jars of water. The water soaked the sacrifice and the wood and filled the trench (1 Kings 18:30–35).
Once the sacrifice was ready, Elijah prayed, “Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. Answer me, Lord, answer me, so these people will know that you, Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again” (1 Kings 18:36–37). Then God did what Baal could never do: the fire of the LORD fell from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the wood and the stones and the dust, “and also licked up the water in the trench” (verse 38). The people of Israel bowed down and declared the Lord as God (verse 39).
Elijah then commanded the people to put the prophets of Baal to death, in keeping with God’s command in Exodus 22:20. Following this event, the Lord finally ended the drought and sent rain upon the land (1 Kings 18:45).
The miraculous event of fire from heaven was an answer to the prayer of Elijah. God was seeking to turn the hearts of His people back to Himself. He used a time of drought to get their attention and then, through His prophet, performed a dramatic miracle right before their eyes. No one who witnessed that event doubted that the Lord was God and that Baal was a powerless wannabe. The repentance of the Israelites was soon followed by God’s provision of rain.
James teaches us that “the prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective” (James 5:16), and he uses Elijah’s prayer life as a case in point: “Elijah was a human being, even as we are. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops” (James 5:17–18).