The Battle Belongs to the Lord: Part Four, A Servant King, Idols, Elijah and the God who gives Victory.
God destroyed the power of Egypt and brought His people out, as on eagle’s wings (Ex 19:4), so that they could be His treasured possession (Ex 19:5). In God giving Himself in order to bring His people home, we see His Kingdom rule and reign; He is One who seeks out the lost (Mat 13:45-6).
After Israel had been brought out of Egypt, there was a time at which Moses was away from the people in order to listen to and receive commandments from the Lord concerning how one should conduct one’s life. It was during this time that Israel succumbed to her sin and feelings of vulnerability in building a golden calf as a means of security.
Building a golden calf was Israel’s attempt to localise and control the One who cannot be controlled in order to make herself feel secure. The Israelites were relying on something in the created order as a means of security instead of God – this being the very heart of idolatry.
An idol can be described as whatever your heart (lev) holds on to and relies upon above all else for ultimate security. We are covenant beings yet we are also in sin; if we are not holding the hand of our heavenly Father, we will find another means of security.
In the 21st century we generally think of an idol as something made of wood, stone or precious metal, yet an idol can be anything in the created order. For example, money could become an idol, or a position in society. Neither of these things are wrong in and of themselves but become wrong when they become our primary source of security and take up most of our attention. We are called to trust in the Lord, and in Him alone do we find our true being (Prov 3:5-6, Phil 4:6-7).
In Exodus, we see the inability of idols to feed and support humanity being highlighted as Moses ground the golden calf into powder, scattered it on water and made the Israelites drink it (Ex 33:20). It is as though God had said, “Go on then, let your idols really feed you.” We also see the judgement of God against idolatry in that 3,000 people died (Ex 33:27). As the writer of Proverbs says, “There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death.” (Proverbs 14:12).
Those Who Make an Idol Will Be Like Them.
In Psalm 115:8, we read that those who make idols will be like them – but what does this mean? The answer becomes apparent as we see what else the Psalmist has to say - those who trusted in idols were blind and deaf to the ways of the Lord:
“But their idols are silver and gold, made by the hands of men. They have mouths, but cannot speak, eyes, but they cannot see; they have ears, but cannot hear, noses, but they cannot smell; they have hands, but cannot feel, feet, but they cannot walk; nor can they utter a sound with their throats. Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them. O house of Israel, trust in the Lord — he is their help and shield. O house of Aaron, trust in the Lord — he is their help and shield. You who fear him, trust in the Lord — he is their help and shield.” Psalm 115:4-11
Throughout Scripture, it is apparent then when one worships idols (whether tangible and made of wood or stone, or simply wrong thinking) one becomes blind, deaf and powerless. For example, look at the words that God speaks to His people through Isaiah:
"Go and tell this people: "'Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving.' Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed."
In these verses we see God allowing His people to reap what they have sowed. As a result of following the false gods of surrounding nations, and at times making treaties with other nations, Israel followed that which had eyes but could not see and ears that could not hear. In reaping what they sowed they became like the false systems and idols that they trusted in - blind and deaf. Yes, God’s word would be preached but there would be no healing for those who clung to idols and their own way of life. Isaiah often speaks of healing from sin. Sin and punishment are graphically depicted in passages such as Isaiah chapter one where we read of the effects and judgement of sin being described physically in this way:
“Why should you be beaten anymore? Why do you persist in rebellion? Your whole head is injured, your whole heart afflicted. From the sole of your foot to the top of your head there is no soundness — only wounds and bruises and open sores, not cleansed or bandaged or soothed with oil. Your country is desolate, your cities burned with fire; your fields are being stripped by foreigners right before you, laid waste as when overthrown by strangers. The Daughter of Zion is left like a shelter in a vineyard, like a hut in a field of melons, like a city under siege. Unless the Lord Almighty had left us some survivors, we would have become like Sodom, we would have been like Gomorrah.”
Our lives often point to that which we focus on most and in the case of many in Israel at the time of Isaiah, this focus was idol worship – a relying on something or someone else apart from God for security and well-being. God allowed people to have what they wanted and Israel became like those they worshipped. If we don’t listen to God, then we learn a different way – through being allowed to reap what we sow.
Prof Oz Guiness in, No God but God, page 45
In the N.T. we see the confusion and deceit brought about by idol worship at a personal level in the life of Judas, who made an idol of money (John 12:5-6) and betrayed Jesus. Elsewhere in the gospels, we find many religious leaders who proclaimed the word of God yet could not see Jesus as the Messiah. The force of Isaiah’s words about becoming more hardened is seen in the plans of the chief priests who sought to kill Lazarus as well as Jesus (John 12:10) because Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead. They had blinded themselves and could not see. In contrast to this, shepherds, centurions, an old Spirit-led man and woman, and tax collectors could all see who Jesus really was.
We also find traits of idolatry in Corinth (1 Cor 1:10-12) where people were forming their own parties and there were those who worshipped in pagan temples whilst believing in Jesus.
“…One God replaces and abolishes all of the so-called gods and lords that stare down at the Corinthians every time they go to the markets in the town square.”
Dr. K.Bailey in, Paul through Mediterranean Eyes, page 237
Elsewhere, in the area of Galatia, there were many from a Jewish background who had been enticed back into believing that the law could save people.
“I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? Have you suffered so much for nothing — if it really was for nothing? Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard?” Galatians 3:2-5
Going back to the words of Isaiah 6, we see a total contrast between those who exchanged the glory of God for idols and Isaiah who had remained open to the word of God. On the one side, we have weak-kneed and spiritually sick people with limited vision and little hope of healing. On the other side, we have a man who was brought into the presence of the Lord and could see Him seated on the throne surrounded by seraphs (Isaiah 6:1-3). Isaiah was cleansed from His sin in an amazing act of grace, mercy and loving-kindness (Is 6:6-7) and was empowered to do all that God asked Him to do.
Elijah: A man outnumbered by the enemy who outgunned everyone when in the power of the Lord
Have you ever felt totally outgunned by all that is going on around – so much so that you cannot see how you can possibly survive? If so, then be encouraged by events that occurred on Carmel thousands of years ago. Be encouraged because the God who worked at Carmel to help his wayward people see him clearly is with us right now by the Holy Spirit.
The Downward Spiral that Led to Events on Carmel: Solomon to Elijah
Solomon is remembered as a man of great wisdom and strength who did great things in the Lord, however when Solomon operated in his own strength it was a very different story.
Solomon imposed a heavy burden on the nation with forced labour and high taxes in order to aid his building projects. After his death (c 922BC), his son Rehoboam refused to lighten the burden on the people or take wise counsel. The result of this was that the ten tribes in northern Israel (north of Bethel) declared independence from the rest of the nation and called themselves Israel. The rest of the nation became Judah (the southern Kingdom) and was made up of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, with Jerusalem as their capital. The divided nation could be likened to the divided body of a dead animal in an Ancient Near East covenant ceremony. The two parties making covenant would say “May we become like this animal if we break covenant.” People run into trouble when they forget God, make Him one amongst many or limit Him to a location ‘over there somewhere’. Part of the reason for this is because the Bible is not about great men or women but about men and women who can be great in the Lord. Humans are spiritual beings and are in a spiritual battle. We are not able to succeed on our own and an intellectual knowledge of God is not enough – there is a need to personally engage with our heavenly Father. However, the love and concern of God, our Father, is displayed as He reaches into Israel at a particularly low point in their history. He did this with the purpose of bringing back a people who deserved nothing, yet would be enabled to receive grace and mercy yet again. This comes about through Elijah, a man whose name means ‘My God is Yahweh’ (in other words, ‘my God is the Eternal One who breathes life and resurrects’). So, what was going on in the political scene in the days of Elijah? The simple answer is idolatry.
God’s Challenge at Carmel
Ahab (874BC – 853BC) was on the throne at this point and was the seventh king of Israel after his father, Omri, who had built Samaria as the capital of Israel. Omri had been heavily involved in international politics and he formed an alliance through the marriage of Ahab to Jezebel.
Jezebel was the Canaanite daughter of Ethbaal, king of Sidon, Ethbaal had established Phoenician worship in Israel with thousands of prophets of Baal who were responsible for killing many of Israel’s prophets. Nothing was going according to plan for Israel and the people were confused and caught between two belief systems. It was at this point that God stepped in through Elijah and challenged His people on Mount Carmel.
In the ensuing battle on Carmel, we could assume that the power of God simply smashed the power of the enemy and then ‘dragged’ a wayward people home like a parent would a troublesome child. Yet, this is not the full picture. The truth is that it is not raw power alone, but the compassion love and grace of God that triumphs in such a way that rebellious people are brought to their knees and raised up in new strength. In His words and actions, God destroys the lies of the accuser and sets people free as they embrace the truth (John 8:32).
God Taking the Initiative
Throughout Scripture, we see God taking the initiative again and again, whether through walking into the Garden of Eden after a wayward couple or sending Jonah into a pagan city. In all ways, we clearly see God’s desire to reach out to the lost.
In 1 Kings we read that God instructed Elijah to call the prophets of Baal and Asherah to Carmel along with people from all over Israel (1 Kings 18:9-22). In looking at what Elijah had to say, we see that the real problem was not the power of the enemy, but the wavering heart of a people who were swayed between two different worldviews. It is important to note that whilst the prophets of Baal and Asherah may have been empowered by darkness, the real problem for the believer begins when he or she starts to believe a lie. Aside from this, we also see the power of uncertainty in Israel and recognise that it is this uncertainty that enables the enemy to maintain illegitimate power.
On Carmel, Elijah tells the people to choose who they were going to serve, but they said nothing (v21). There had been the subtle erosion of truth going on for decades and they were struggling. Apart from this, many would have been too scared to say anything positive about the God of Israel whilst in the presence of both false prophets and a king who was under the thumb of his pagan wife, Jezebel. The people were wavering and were unwilling or unable to take a step of faith, having lost sight of God through allowing situations and circumstances to dictate what God was really like. They recognised the God of Israel as a seemingly absent God who was probably also the weaker God, given that Jezebel had put to death so many prophets.
All too often we have faith in what we think God is going to do in a given situation, but real faith needs to be firmly anchored in God’s nature and character first and foremost. This explains why some of the Hebrew pictures of faithfulness refer to a tent peg in solid ground or a tree rooted and established in God’s promises (e.g. Psalm 1). The picture of a flourishing tree reveals God’s willingness to give as the One who can be trusted.
In the confrontation on Carmel, Elijah encouraged the false prophets to do their very best and to continue for as long as they liked. Scripture tells us that these false prophets ended up in a frenzy of activity as they sought to get the storm-god Baal and other so-called deities to act on their behalf, and Elijah mocked them.
In a sense, Elijah’s mocking of these false gods was a means of showing that these gods were unimportant and without any legitimate power. We also note that Elijah challenged Baal on his so-called strong points. For example, Baal was portrayed with lightning in his hands and was supposedly the god of fire as well as the god responsible for both drought and rain. In his goading, Elijah wanted the prophets of Baal to do their very best in order to show that Baal was could not be comparable to the God of Israel in any way whatsoever. The Lord of Israel is the eternal One who breathes life and resurrects; He is the maker of heaven and earth and there is no one like Him.
“By the word of the Lord were the heavens made, their starry host by the breath of his mouth.”
In God’s confrontation with the prophets of Baal and Asherah we see, yet again, his love for a wayward people and the love of a Shepherd going after lost sheep. In Jesus, we see that this love is a costly love and reveals the lengths that God is willing to go to in order to restore creation to its rightful position with Him.
The Altar of the Lord
The hours went by and it was finally Elijah’s turn. After midday, Elijah instructed Israel to repair the altar of the Lord in order to instigate the afternoon sacrifice that Israel should have been keeping. This sacrifice, like all sacrifices, was carried out in recognition that God is the provider of all good things – including salvation. The altar was always made of uncut stones in order to signify that the place of salvation contains nothing from human beings; the usage of such stones followed the instructions given to Joshua (Joshua 8:31). Making an altar using dressed stones and tools would be to defile the place where everything was of grace and not of works (Exodus 20:24-25).
Elijah then had the altar doused in water three times. Presumably, at a time of drought, this would have been seawater. Some may think that this was done in order to prove that Elijah did not somehow ignite the tinder-dry wood with a spark. However, the complete consummation of the sacrifice was going to reveal the supernatural origin of the fire anyway. So perhaps something else was being shown in the usage of seawater – something to do with Asherah, who was another god worshipped at that time.
On occasion, Baal’s counterpart, Asherah (called the Lady of the Sea - appearing as this in the Ras Shamra literature found in 1928 by a Syrian farmer), was called upon to help her worshippers. Baal had already proven to be of no consequence and perhaps the prophets of Asherah were now about to be shown that the ‘Lady of the Sea’ was powerless in preventing the consummation of Israel’s sacrifice by fire. In other words, “your gods are nothing: you cannot bring fire, yet neither can you prevent the fire of the Lord.”
In all that transpired, God revealed that He is both present and in charge and about His business of reconciliation and restoration. In all that God does, we do not see sporadic, isolated pockets of blessing but the continuing outworking of God’s plan of redemption, of which we are all a part. Let’s also remember that it was not only for Israel’s benefit alone that God performed miracles as surrounding nations were able to see the One true God and find salvation through His work alone.
"Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other.”
The Deuteronomic law stated that the heavens would be shut if Israel worshipped false gods (Deut 11:16-17). However, in God’s gracious intervention through Elijah, the people returned to the Lord and the blessing of rain resumed after Elijah’s prayers. In God’s intervention at Carmel, Israel was released from double-mindedness and the resident evil was put to death. However, the battle was not yet over for Elijah.
Like most of us, I am sure that Elijah thought he was home and dry (despite the rain!) at this point, so it must have come as a great shock to find that Jezebel was still after him. Therefore, Elijah ran. Perhaps Elijah had allowed his focus to be taken up in the victory rather than the One who gave victory and so he ran for his life, travelled a day’s journey into the wilderness (1 Kings 19:3) and gave up. Elijah was now isolated, discouraged, at his wit’s end and so depressed that he prayed he might die (v4). Yet look at what God does…
Elijah was fed and watered and then travelled for forty days and nights to Mt Horeb where God met with him. God asked Elijah what he was doing at the mountain, indicating that it had been Elijah’s choice to go to Horeb. After all, God had met Elijah on Carmel and in the desert – there was no need to go somewhere else to find him!
In Elijah’s reply to God’s question we see how distorted our thinking can be when we become isolated and take our eyes off the Lord. Elijah told God about how bad Israel had been, forgetting that God had sent him to restore ‘bad’ Israel in the first place. He then stated that he was the only prophet left. Yet Elijah had been told by Obadiah that there were many other prophets who had been hidden (1 Kings 18:3-4; 13). Perhaps there was a little self-righteousness here – maybe Elijah thought he was the only real prophet because the others had hidden! It would be very easy to criticise Elijah, yet we need to be careful. We all struggle at times and anyone of us can end up in difficulty, even after we have just taken a great victory in the Lord.
By way of reply to Elijah, God does not answer directly but commissions him to anoint Hazael as king of Syria, Jehu king over Israel and Elisha as the one who would succeed him as prophet. God had not given up on Elijah and there was still work for him to do.
The Authority Within
Decades before Elijah found himself struggling in the desert, we read of one of the Psalmists praying for deliverance from the enemy. David, the psalmist, challenged himself in saying, “why are you downcast, O my soul…. put your hope in God and praise him, yet again, as the Saviour” (Psalm 42:5).
In this verse, the word ‘downcast’ is from ‘hamah’, speaking of the inner self bowing down like a crumbling mountain. The Psalmist could break through and rise in strength because he challenged his thinking and focused on the Lord. Because he did this, God became the ‘authority within’ as opposed to the control exercised over his mind by events going on around him.
God wants to strengthen our minds with the truth of His word, helping us to see who we really are in Him. It is His power that breaks the hold of wrong thinking and the emotional chains of the past. In Him, all that controls us in this way is broken; we must be open to Him in order to benefit from His presence and blessing.
Israel struggled and ended up being dominated by false power systems, yet it was not so much because these systems had power as it was a case of Israel’s double-mindedness and lack of engagement with God. When Israel was defeated and it seemed as if God had no power, the truth was that it was their own complacency that empowered the enemy, whilst God allowed them to reap their own harvest in order to see that their own ways really did not work. God also reminded the nations who had defeated Israel that this defeat in no way negated the power of God. For example, when the Philistines defeated Israel, they placed the Ark of the Covenant (the sign of God’s localised presence) in the temple of their own god, Dagon. The image of Dagon fell prostrate before the Ark on two subsequent days and tumours were inflicted upon the people of Ashdod and the surrounding regions (1 Sam 5:6-7). This showed the Philistines who was really in charge gave them the opportunity to turn to God.
Seeking the Lord Who Gives Victory
Another picture of God’s absolute supremacy over all forms of darkness is found in an incident recorded in 2 Kings. On this occasion, Elisha the prophet was in trouble with the King of Aram who was hell-bent on capturing him. The King of Aram sent out a large contingent of his army to find Elisha and before long they surrounded the city where Elisha was staying with his servant, Gehazi.
Gehazi went out early one morning to collect sticks and panicked when he saw the army of the enemy camped around the city. He rushed home as fast as he could and told Elisha what was going on. In a sense, we could say that Gehazi was working from earth to heaven and whilst Elisha put God first and worked from heaven to earth – and didn’t panic! God spoke through Elisha and encouraged Gehazi with the following words:
“Don't be afraid…"Those who are with us are more than those who are with them." And Elisha prayed, "O Lord, open his eyes so that he may see." Then the Lord opened the servant's eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all round Elisha.” 2 Kings 6:16-17
With the presence of the heavenly army, we could wrongly assume that the story finished with, “and the army of the enemy is totally destroyed.” After all, God has destroyed enemy armies before. However, we are not to take previous events and assume that we know what is going to happen in the present moment. The past, whilst being informative, does not give us the plan for the present - the Lord does and on this occasion, we see power being revealed in amazing grace and mercy to the enemy.
Elijah asked God to blind the enemy army (2 Kings 6:18) and then he led them into Samaria where the king of Israel asked if he should have them all killed. Instead of agreeing to this, Elijah instructed the people to feed them and then let them go free in an amazing act of grace and mercy! We need to be engaging with the way of heaven – the kingdom of God (the heart of our Father) - so that we can see and understand what God is doing as we live in the power of His presence.
We now move on to our final section is this part of the course: ‘The Battle Belongs to the Lord’ and in doing so, turn to look at Sheepfolds. This may seem to be a digression, yet in doing so we are able to see how and what God does in order to protect us from self at times.
Sheepfolds, Babylonian Captivity and a man called Daniel
We were made in God’s image (Gen 1:27) so that we could benefit from the Trinitarian love that has always existed between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. As sons and daughters of a heavenly Father we are able, by grace alone, to receive great blessing and grow in Him. God is The Shepherd (Ps 23:1), the Compassionate One (Ps 103:13) who has all authority and power and His desire to protect, lead and bless His people is clearly seen in the Aaronic blessing given to Israel at the very beginning of their walk with the Lord.
"The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace."
The picture behind blessing is that of a Father stooping low and getting alongside His people and is most clearly seen in the incarnation with the arrival of the promised Messiah. This Messiah would be a King, a Suffering Servant and an Anointed Conqueror.
In the Aaronic blessing, we see God’s desire to protect His people (“…and keep you”) with this conveying, in the original language, a picture of a fence protecting the sheep. If we stray from His presence (leaving the family home as did the prodigal son: Luke 15:13) we end up having to build protection around our lives. It is as though we end up in our own ‘sheepfold’ / ‘house’ as a means of protecting our lives and coping with some of the things that have happened to us, or society in general.
For the business person, the fence around him or her (or wall) could be too much time in the office and away from home as he or she strives for more finance or the position that will make them feel safe. For the abused woman, that wall could be an inability to let anyone get close to her again, and so it goes on. We build walls in order to protect us, yet so often that which is of self and which we assume protects us actually imprisons us and distances self from God.
When Israel strayed or made the deliberate decision to build her own walls of protection and a place where she could grow, God could have given up on the nation and let her reap the full harvest of her actions. However, whilst God did allow them to reap what they sowed, there was a purpose in doing so – it was not about giving up on them.
At times, God would allow an enemy to attack His people, but this always had a purpose. It was a case of, “So you want to walk in your own strength, then I will show you that you have no strength, and that your harvest destroys self as effectively as an enemy attacking you.”
We cannot successfully shepherd our own lives in a world where there is an enemy and evil; we have no chance of standing against evil in our own strength. Our own sheepfold fails, yet we so often don’t realise this.
God shows grace and mercy to Israel through acting in the way He does (we reap what we sow) and not totally giving up on them. This is the case, for example, in God allowing His people to go into Babylonian Captivity.
For generations and generations, God had challenged and warned His people through the prophets, yet Israel did not listen and therefore ended up in captivity. This was the case with the Babylonian captivity where the city of Babylon effectively became the new ’sheepfold’. This may seem strange but we need to recognise that this is the route by which God was bringing His people back to Himself - God being the Master of all situations. Think of it this way:
If Israel had been allowed to continue with her own version of life, she would have ended up destroying herself. Therefore, God used Babylonian captivity to bring Israel to an end of what she had become (independent of God and rebellious) so that she could return to a Father who stood back but did not desert His people. In being taken into Babylon, God showed Israel that her might and power was no match for the enemy. Yet in working through individuals such as Daniel, God demonstrated that Babylon, with all its pagan temples and rituals and power, was no match for God.
During his life, Daniel must have had many encounters with evil in a city that was full of pagan temples. This was also true of his three friends, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego; yet look at who was in charge. On one occasion, a group of pagan astrologers challenged the three friends who ended up being thrown into a blazing furnace by Nebuchadnezzar’s soldiers (Daniel 3:19-27) yet remained very much alive. Another person (the Angel of the Lord: Pre-Incarnate Christ) was then seen walking with the three men in the fire and when they were released from the furnace it was discovered that not one of the hairs on their heads had been singed, whilst the cords that bound them had been burnt away. In all of this, Nebuchadnezzar and his astrologers were brought to realise just how powerful the God of Israel was and that He is the One who oversees the affairs of men. Nebuchadnezzar had given Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego Babylonian names meaning ‘Order of Aku’ (Shadrach), ‘Who is like Aku’ (Meshach) and ‘Servant of Nego’ (Abednego) as a means of saying “I own these people” (with new names speaking of controlling the mind, will and emotions of others). In the way through which God saved the three young men, we see the heart behind their true names: Hananiah (‘grace of God’), Mishael (‘who is like God) and Azaria (‘God helps’).
In conclusion, we recognise afresh our identity in Christ and see yet again that throughout history, God has always been in control.
Scripture speaks of believers as His workmanship (Eph 2:10), living stones (1 Peter 2:5), and a royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:9), and as such we can receive blessing from the Lord (Numbers 6:24) no matter what is going on because all God’s promises to us are ‘yes in Christ’ (2 Cor 1:20).
End of part four of six.
Written and produced by Pastor Jem M.A.