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Doubtless, Ahab startled to hear of Elijah coming to meet him; as one, that did not more hate, than fear the prophet. Well might he think, "Thus long, thus far, have I sought Eli-· jah. Elijah would not come to seek me, but under a sure guard, and with some strange commission. His coarse mantle hath the advantage of my robe and sceptre. If I can command a piece of the earth, I see he can command heaven." The edge of his revenge is taken off, with a doubtful expectation of the issue; and now, when Elijah offers himself to the eyes of Ahab, he, who durst not strike, yet durst challenge the prophet; Art thou he, that troubleth Israel? Jeroboam's hand was still in Ahab's thoughts. He holds it not so safe to smite, as to expostulate. He, that was the head of Israel, speaks out that, which was in the heart of all his people, that Elijah was the cause of all their sorrow. Alas! what hath the righteous prophet done? He taxed their sin, he foretold the judgments; he deserved it not, he inflicted it not yet he smarts, and they are guilty. As if some fond people should accuse the herald or the trumpet, as the cause of their war; or, as if some ignorant peasant, when he sees his fowls bathing in his pond, should cry out of them as the causes of foul weather.
Oh the heroical spirit of Elijah! He stands alone, amidst all the train of Ahab; and dares not only repel this charge, but retort it; I have not troubled Israel; but thou, and thy father's house, in that ye have forsaken the commandments of the Lord, and thou hast followed Baalim. No earthly glory can daunt him, who hath the clear and heartening visions of God.
This holy seer discerns the true cause of our sufferings to be our sins. Foolish men are plagued for their offences; and it is no small part of their plague, that they see it not. The only common disturber of men, families, cities, kingdoms, worlds, is sin. There is no such traitor to any state, as the wilfully wicked. The quietest and most plausible offender is secretly seditious, and stirreth quarrels in heaven.
The true messengers of God carry authority, even where they are maligned. Elijah doth at once reprove the king, and require of him the improvement of his power; in gathering all Israel to Carmel; in fetching thither all the prophets of Baal.
Baal was rich in Israel, while God was poor. While God hath but one hundred prophets hid closely in Obadiah's caves, Baal hath eight hundred and fifty: four hundred and fifty dispersed over the villages and towns of Israel; four hundred at the court. God's prophets are glad of bread and water, while the four hundred trencher prophets of Jezebel feed on her dainties: they lurk in caves; while these lord it in the pleasantest groves. Outward prosperity is a false note of truth.
All these, with all Israel, doth Elijah require Ahab to summon unto Carmel. It is in the power of kings, to command the as
sembly of the prophets. The prophet sues to the prince, for the indiction of this synod. They are injurious to sovereignty, who arrogate this power to none but spiritual hands.
How is it, that Ahab is as ready to perform this charge, as Elijah to move it? I dare answer for his heart, that it was not drawn with love. Was it out of the sense of one judgment, and fear of another? He smarted with the dearth and drought; and well thinks Elijah would not be so round with him for nothing. Was it out of an expectation of some miraculous exploit, which the prophet would do in the sight of all Israel? Or, was it out of the overruling power of the Almighty? The heart of kings is in the hands of God, and he turns it which way soever he pleaseth.
Israel is met together: Elijah rates them; not so much for their superstition, as for their unsettledness and irresolution. One Israelite serves God, another Baal; yea, the same Israelite, perhaps, serves both God and Baal. How long halt ye between two opinions? If the Lord be God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him. Nothing is more odious to God, than a profane neutrality, in main oppositions of religion. To go upright in a wrong way is a less eye-sore to God, than to halt betwixt right and wrong. The Spirit wisheth, that the Laodicean were either hot or cold: either temper would better be borne, than neither; than both. In reconcilable differences, nothing is more safe, than indifferency both of practice and opinion; but in cases of so necessary hostility as betwixt God and Baal, he, that is on neither side, is the deadliest enemy to both. Less hateful are they to God that serve him not at all, than they that serve him with a rival.
Whether out of guiltiness, or fear, or uncertainty, Israel is silent; yet, while their mouth was shut, their eyes were open.
It was a fair motion of Elijah, "I am only remaining a prophet of the Lord: Baal's prophets are four hundred and fifty. Let them choose one bullock; let me choose another. Their devotion shall be combined; mine single. The God that consumes the sacrifice by fire from heaven, let him be God." Israel cannot but approve it: the prophets of Baal cannot refuse it; they had the appearance of the advantage, in their number, in the favour of king and people.
Oh strange disputation: wherein the argument which must be used is fire; the place whence it must be fetched, heaven; the mood and figure, devotion; the conclusion, death to be
Had not Elijah, by divine instinct, been assured of the event, he durst not have put religion upon such hazard. That God commanded him this trial, who meant confusion to the authors of idolatry, victory to the truth. His terror shall be approved, both by fire and by water: first, by fire; then, by water. There was no less terror in the fire, than mercy in the rain. It was fit
they should first be humbled by his terrors, that they might be made capable of his mercy; and by both might be won to repentance. Thus still, the fears of the law make way for the influences of grace; neither do those sweet and heavenly dews descend upon the soul, till way be made for them, by the terrible flashes of the law.
Justly doth Elijah urge this trial. God's sacrifices were used to none, but heavenly fires; whereas, the base and earthly religion of the heathen contented itself, with gross and natural flames.
The prophets of Baal durst not, though with faint and guilty hearts, but embrace the condition. They dress their bullock, and lay it ready upon the wood; and send out their cries to Baal, from morning until midday; O Baal, hear us. What a yelling was here, of four hundred and fifty throats tearing the skies for an answer! What leaping was here upon the altar; as if they would have climbed up to fetch that fire, which would not come down alone! Mount Carmel might give an echo to their voice; heaven gave none. In vain do they roar out, and weary themselves in imploring a dumb and deaf deity.
Grave and austere Elijah holds it not too light, to flout their zealous devotion. He laughs at their tears, and plays upon their earnest; Cry aloud; for he is a God: either he is talking, or he is pursuing, or he is travelling, or he is sleeping, and must be awaked. Scorns and taunts are the best answers, for serious idolatry. Holiness will bear us out, in disdainful scoffs and bitterness, against wilful superstition.
No less in the indignation at these insulting frumps, than zeal of their own safety and reputation, do these idolatrous prophets now rend their throats with inclamations; and, that they may assure the beholders they were not in jest, they cut and slash themselves with knives and lancets, and solicit the fire with their blood.
How much painfulness there is in misreligion! I do not find, that the true God ever required or accepted the self-tortures of his servants. He loves true inward mortification of our corruptions; he loves the subduing of our spiritual insurrections, by due exercise of severe restraint; he takes no pleasure in our blood, in our carcasses. They mistake God, that they think to please him, by destroying that nature, which he hath made; and measure truth, by rigour of outward extremities. Elijah drew no blood of himself: the priests of Baal did.
How fain would the devil, whom these idolaters adored, have answered the suit of his suppliants! What would that ambitious spirit have given, that, as he was cast down from heaven like lightning, so now he might have fallen down in that form upon his altar! God forbids it: all the powers of darkness can no more shew one flash of fire in the air, than avoid the unquenchable fire in hell. How easy were it for the power of the Almighty,
to cut short all the tyrannical usurpation of that wicked one; if his wisdom and justice did not find the permission thereof useful to his holy purposes.
These idolaters now, towards evening, grew so much more vehement, as they were more hopeless; and at last, when neither their shrieks, nor their wounds, nor their mad motions could prevail, they sit down hoarse and weary; tormenting themselves afresh with their despairs, and with the fears of bitter success of their adversary when Elijah calls the people to him, (the witnesses of his sincere proceedings,) and, taking the opportunity both of the time, the just hour of the evening sacrifice, and of the place, a ruined altar of God now by him repaired, convinces Israel with his miracle; and more cuts these Baalites with envy, than they had cut themselves with their lancets.
O holy prophet, why didst thou not save this labour? What needed these unseasonable reparations? Was there not an altar, was there not a sacrifice, ready prepared to thy hand? That, which the prophets of Baal had addressed, stood still waiting or that fire from thee, which the founders threatened in vain. The stones were not more impure, either for their touch or their ntentions; yet, such was thy detestation of idolatry, that thou bhorrest to meddle with ought, which their wickedness had defiled. Even that altar, whose ruins thou didst thus repair, was miserected, though to the name of the true God; yet didst thou find it better, to make up the breaches of that altar, which was misconsecrated to the service of thy God, than to make use of that pile, which was idolatrously devoted to a false god. It cannot be but safe, to keep aloof from participation with idolaters; even in those things, which, not only in nature but in use, are unclean.
Elijah lays twelve stones in his repaired altar, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob. Alas! ten of these were perverted to Baal. The prophet regards not their present apostacy: he regards the ancient covenant, that was made with their father Israel; he regards their first station, to which he would reduce them. He knew, that the unworthiness of Israel could not make God forgetful: he would, by this monument, put Israel in mind of their own degeneration and forgetfulness.
He employs those many hands, for the making a large trench round about the altar; and causes it to be filled, with those precious remainders of water, which the people would have grudged to their own mouths; neither would easily have parted with, but, as those that pour down a pailful into a dry pump, in the hope of fetching more. The altar, the trench is full. A barrelful is poured out for each of the tribes; that every tribe might be afterwards replenished.
Ahab and Israel are no less full of expectation; and now,
when God's appointed hour of the evening sacrifice was come, Elijah comes confidently to his altar, and, looking up into heaven, says, Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day, that thou art God in Israel, and that I am thy servant, and that I have done all these things at thy word. Hear me, O Lord, hear me, that this people may know that thou art the Lord God, and that thou hast turned their hearts back again.
The Baalites' prayers were not more tedious, than Elijah's was short; and yet more pithy, than short; charging God with the care of his covenant, of his truth, of his glory. It was Elijah, that spake loud. Oh strong cries of faith, that pierce the heavens, and irresistibly make their way to the throne of grace!
Israel shall well see, that Elijah's God, whom they have forsaken, is neither talking, nor pursuing, nor travelling, nor sleeping. Instantly, the fire of the Lord falls from heaven, and consumes the burnt sacrifice, the wood, the stones, the dust, and licks up the water that was in the trench.
With what terror must Ahab and Israel needs see this fire rolling down out of the sky, and alighting with such fury so near their heads; heads, no less fit for this flame, than the sacrifice of Elijah! Well might they have thought, "How easily might this fire have dilated itself; and have consumed our bodies, as well as the wood and stone; and have licked up our blood, as well as that water!" I know not, whether they had the grace to acknowledge the mercy of God; they could do no less, than confess his power; The Lord is God; the Lord is God.
The iron was now hot, with this heavenly fire. Elijah stays not till it cool again, but strikes immediately; Take the prophets of Baal; let not one of them escape.
This wager was for life. Had they prevailed in procuring this fire, and Elijah had failed of effect, his head had been forfeited unto them: now, in the contrary success, theirs are lost to him. Let no man complain, that those holy hands were bloody. This sacrifice was no less pleasing to God, than that other. Both the man and the act were extraordinary, and led by a peculiar instinct. Neither doth the prophet this, without the assent of the supreme magistrate; who was now so affected with this miraculous work, that he could not, in the heat of that conviction, but allow the justice of such a sentence. Far be it from us, to accuse God's commands or executions of cruelty. It was the ancient and peremptory charge of God, that the authors of idolatry and seduction should die the death: no eye, no hand might spare them. The prophet doth but move the performance of that law, which Israel could not without sin have omitted. It is a merciful and thankworthy severity, to rid the world of the ringleaders of wickedness.