T. Pierce Brown
This is the third in a series of articles about Elijah, which started with 1 Kings 17. Eventually Ahab said to him, “Art thou he that troublethIsrael?” This reveals a common trait of men, especially guilty men. As I write this article, I am listening to a newscast of the Ambassador of Iraq who said they had the right to attackIsraelbecauseIsraelwas the aggressor and had attacked them. The fact that they had just fired seven Scud missiles intoIsraelwithout even a response fromIsrael, and the fact that they were the ones to invadeKuwaitwere completely disregarded. This is not unusual. Almost every person who is in trouble because of his own sin will blame someone else. Most of us learn to start early. I heard of a child who was making ugly faces at his little sister. His mother asked him why he was doing that. He pointed to his pet bulldog and said, “He started it.”
Most criminals and many social workers that presume to help them have blamed society, neighbors, relatives, heredity, training, and even God. I have heard persons say, “That is just my nature. God made me that way.” Even the weatherman is blamed for the weather. Often a person in the Lord’s church who has his iniquity pointed out by the preacher blames the preacher. Since Adam and Eve started this blaming their sin on others, it is probable that the Calvinistic theologians would not only say, “We inherited our sinful nature from them” but that we also inherited this tendency to blame someone else for our sins.
What troubledIsraelwere the same kinds of things that trouble the church today. We could preach sermons and write articles on the specifics, such as self will, false doctrine of various sorts, soft and generalized preaching, pride, and various other things. But it certainly is not people of God who, like Elijah, try under God’s direction to correct those sins that are at fault.
When we look at Elijah and the prophets of Baal, we are constrained to point out some lessons it illustrates for us. First, truth is usually in the minority. In Noah’s day, in Abraham’s, and in all others, the truth of Jesus is applicable. “Strait is the gate and narrow is the way that leads to eternal life, and few there be that find it” (Matthew 7:14). We must never try to decide what is right by how many persons approve of it. It is proper to listen to what men think, if what they think is an examination of God’s word. Much of the time, however, the idea is, “I know God says that, but I think this.”
Second, God apparently often gives the forces of evil every seeming advantage to show his power and glory. Here, practically allIsraeland 450 powerful priests were on one side. There was only one Elijah. It was true then and now that one man and God make a majority. Baal was the sun god. If anyone should be able to answer by fire, he should. As in the case of Moses, God defeats the false gods on their own grounds.
In every age he has used the foolish weak things of the world to confound the mighty (1 Corinthians1:27-28). Joshua had to march around the wall seven times and have horns blown. What a strange way to overcome an enemy! Gideon had to send most of his men home and face an overwhelming enemy force with only 300. We always make a tragic mistake if we assume that our power and strength is in big programs, pretty buildings, numbers of people we can lure in with gimmicks, or human devices of any kind. The gospel is the power of God unto salvation, and anything we do that detracts from that or exalts something besides God’s way, word and will is not strength, but weakness.
When we come to story of Elijah’s confrontation of the people ofIsraelin 1 Kings 18:21, we find a central question that may be applicable to us. “How long halt ye between two opinions? If the Lord be God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” Remember the background of this story so you can better appreciate this memorable scene. There had been no rain for years. By famine and hunger God had appealed to the conscience of the nation, but in vain. Now, under the direction of God, Elijah was rising up in righteous indignation to cast out Ahab, Jezebel and the priests of Baal.
Elijah stands in sharp contrast to the weak, frail, fearful vacillating majority ofIsrael. He puts his finger on the problem and points out the solution. He had said to Ahab, “I have not troubledIsrael; but thou and thy fathers house in that ye have forsaken the commandments of the Lord, and thou hast followed Baalim.” That is the problem. Now the solution is, “Gather to me allIsraeland the prophets of Baal and let them make a choice.”
To be like Elijah takes physical and moral courage. It takes intense conviction of the righteousness of the course for which one contends. It takes a hatred of evil. It takes a life committed to God, possessed and directed by God’s Spirit. How desperately we need men today like Elijah to push us toward making the right choices, to prepare us for the coming of Christ. John the baptizer came in the spirit and power of Elijah to prepare men for the first coming. We need similar men to prepare us for the second one.
Notice the alternative Elijah suggested and some lessons for us. Elijah asked, “How long halt ye between two opinions?” He used the Hebrew word “seippim” which means “thoughts.” It is not the word used in Job when his friends were giving their opinions. Though I am not able to give a definitive scholarly conclusion, my judgment is that the word does not suggest that they had an intellectual doubt of the reality of God. It was a moral decision. The point is hard to prove and clarify, but it will be easier to see as we make application to our lives.
The point was not that they doubted that God existed and thought that Baal did. They wanted to worship both! How does that apply to us? Paul speaks of “the god of this world” in 2 Corinthians 4:4. That god takes many forms. One is material wealth. We may not cast that god in the form of a molten image like a golden calf. We may not set it up like Nebuchadnezzar in the plains of Dura. But it is just as real whether set up onWall Street,London,Tokyo, or little images in our own homes. A man may be so despicable that many would not want to be seen in his presence. But if he wins the sweepstakes and receives millions of dollars, he now is invited into homes and welcomed as friend. So when men make money their god it does not mean they have an opinion that there is no God. They sometimes try to worship both.
Another form the god of this world takes is rank and prestige. InEnglandthey speak of “The House of Lords” and “The House of Commons.” InAmericait takes a thousand forms. In politics it may run from the President on down to the chief of the garbage disposal squad. Any man may make a god of his rank. In the church it is also true. If a man is president of a college, editor of a paper, or a “big” preacher (whatever that is), his rank may cause him to be looked upon as a “god” or one who has special authority and power because of his position. This does not imply that the person in that position looks upon himself as a “god,” for many editors, presidents, great preachers are humble servants of God.
It does mean that Bacon had the right idea when he spoke of idols of the cave, marketplace, theatre, tribe, etc. Men make a god of fashion, pleasure, knowledge, or almost anything else. In all such cases, whatever other gods we may have, it does not mean that we have an opinion there is no Jehovah God. It does mean that we sometimes waver between which should come first, and try to serve both.
Service to God must be exclusive. Jesus said that we cannot serve God and mammon. Compromising service is bad for at least five reasons. First, it is hypocritical and bears all the stigma and punishment for that. Second, it gives no real satisfaction to one who wavers between two choices. Not only do the temptations keep coming back to one who acts like Balaam, but a person gets no real and permanent enjoyment of either choice, for each tends to cancel the other. That is, many persons have enough religion to make them unhappy with the world, and enough worldliness to make them unhappy with their religion. As James 1:8 puts it, “A double minded man is unstable in all his ways.”
Who are those who thus halt between two opinions? It is not those who are blatant, open, avowed and deliberate sinners. It is not those who are completely committed and devoted to God. They are those who have enough knowledge to understand the will of God, but not enough faith, love and determination to do it. They also may be those who are sometimes dissatisfied with their present condition, empty lives, hurt conscience and yearn for something better and more satisfying. But they do not have enough faith, love and determination to commit themselves fully to God and do things his way.
We may ask another similar question. Why do persons halt between these two contradictory ways? One reason is that some have never given the choices an earnest prayerful consideration. As in the parable of the sower, there is no depth of earth, so the seed springs up quickly, but wilts. Because of the lack of depth in thinking, one is ignorant of the relative value of serving God or serving one of the gods we have mentioned. Sometimes, the cares of the world or deceitfulness of riches choke out the person’s will to put God first. In some there is not enough courage or will power to abandon the present course of vacillation. Some are just waiting for what they think is a more convenient season to commit themselves to God.
Always, we need to realize and be able to impress on those with whom we study that any matter that is important needs a decision now. If your house is burning, you do not decide to wait until tomorrow to do something about it. Often a person says, “I will decide tomorrow whether to follow Christ.” That usually is not so. They are deciding today to reject Christ. There is no more important matter to decide than who will be your Lord, or what sort of God you serve. There is no other way to be both happy and secure. Any indecision is injurious not only to ourselves, but to those we love, for it suggests that God and his will are not important. Any time we do not deliberately make a choice for Jehovah, it is an indication of lukewarmness and makes God sick. The longer one halts between these two kinds of opinions, the harder the heart grows and more difficult the task of doing right becomes.
They waited to make their decision until the fire came down from God. If you and I wait that long, it will be too late. Even those of us who have earlier made a decision to serve God should reexamine our lives, attitudes and actions, and discover if we may have allowed one of the false gods mentioned in the first of this article to gain precedence in our lives. It never hurts to recommit ourselves to God, though it does not have to be done with a public display.