Our reading today begins with the reign of Abijam in Judah (15:1). The writer is clear that Abijam (like his father Rehoboam before him) was not in any way a righteous king or even a righteous person (v. 3). The only reason the kings of Judah reigned was for the sake of the covenant God made with David (vv. 4-5). Like Asa after Abijam (v. 8). Note verses 2, 8, and 10. This is not some unholy family tree. The word for “mother” can also mean “grandmother” or “female ancestor.” Maacah was named for both because she was the “Queen Mother” of Judah (see v. 13).
We see that Asa was not like his father or grandfather. He was a Godly man (vv. 11-13). But he did not stop idol worship by others (v. 14). We also see the ongoing war between Judah and Israel in verses 16-20. That both kingdoms are making alliances with other nations against each other shows the complete breach between them.
Verse 25 takes us back in time a bit to the reign of Nadab (see 14:20). As opposed to Judah, the monarchy of which will for a long time be from the line of David, we see that in Israel, political intrigue and unrest will cause wholesale changes on the throne. Here, Nadab is murdered by Baasha (v. 27), who seizes power (v. 28), and kills all of Jeroboam’s house in fulfillment of 14:10. But Baasha was also an evil king (v. 34), and is promised the same fate as Jeroboam (16:2-4). Then his son Elah takes the throne after his death. We are seeing patterns established. But it is more than just the pattern of the Israelite kings. Note verse 7. God will punish Baasha not just for his evil, but because he destroyed the house of Jeroboam.
Wait!!! Didn’t God ordain the destruction of Jeroboam’s house? Yes. But He punished Baasha for doing it?!? Yes. God uses even the choices of men (even the sinful ones) for His ends, but it never absolves us of our responsibility for our actions. And this is establishing the pattern for the punishment of Judah, which will be carried out by Babylon, which will bring judgment on Babylon (see 2 Kings 20:16-18, Jer 25:8-9, and Jer 25:12).
And in verses 9-12, we see that the pattern plays out. Zimri then takes the throne of Israel (v. 15). But not for long. Omri comes to seize power (vv. 16-18). And then the Northern Kingdom is divided (v. 21), until Omri takes out the competition (v. 22). He then establishes Samaria as the capital of Israel (v. 24). We then find out he was the most evil king yet (v. 25)! It is only getting worse (the judgments of God more severe) for Israel! And it is about to get worse still!! Meet Ahab (v. 29-30). He (and his wife, Jezebel) advances the idolatry of Israel (vv. 31-33). Note that it is under Ahab that Jericho is rebuilt by Hiel (v. 34 – see Josh 6:26). Israel was literally and defiantly building up what God tore down.
So God sends perhaps the most famous prophet of Israel, Elijah, to Ahab (17:1). In the style of Moses declaring plagues on Egypt, Elijah announces that there will be no rain in Israel for years, until he says so (it winds up being 3 1/2 years – see Luke 4:25 and James 5:17). Elijah is then (in the style of Israel at the Exodus) sent outside the country (“east of the Jordan” in v. 3) where God supernaturally provides for his needs (v. 6). Note in verse 7 that the drought extends beyond Israel, showing that there is no distinction between Israel and other nations.
God then sends Elijah to Sidon (another Gentile land) where he will be provided for by a widow (v. 8). Note that she is only recently a widow based on the fact that she is still dressed in her mourning clothes (that’s how Elijah recognizes her as a widow in verse 10). God’s plan, however, is news to the widow. Because of the drought, she planned to eat the last of her food with her son, and then expected to starve to death (vv. 11-12). But Elijah tells her that God will provide for her because of her generosity (vv. 13-16).
The story of Elijah raising the widow’s son (vv. 17-24) has a purpose. It is meant to show the power of God at work in and through Elijah. But it is also meant to show the reason that the power of God was at work in and through Elijah. The key is verse 24. The works are meant to prove the truth of the words of the prophet. This is why Jesus would perform miracles during His own ministry (John 10:25-38).
This sets up the confrontations of chapter 18, where God works His power through Elijah. We see that there are other Godly people in Israel (Obadiah and the prophets he protected – 18:3-4). Based on Obadiah’s reaction to Elijah’s request that he tell Ahab about him (vv. 9-14), two things become evident. First, Ahab (really Jezebel) considered Elijah the greatest threat to him. Second, Jezebel (the real power behind the throne) hates God. This is showing the utter opposition to God of Jezebel, Ahab, and Israel.
Elijah meets Ahab (v. 18), and is now going to prove his words by his works. He requests a meeting with the prophets of Baal1 and Asherah (v. 19). He is ready to take them on, one on 850, in front of “all of Israel” (obviously hyperbolic). His question to Israel in verse 21 is reminiscent of Joshua’s warning in Joshua 24:15. Israel must choose who to follow. So Elijah issues his challenge (vv. 23-24). It isn’t a contest between him and the prophets of Baal, it is between YHWH and Baal. Note in verse 24 that Elijah calls Baal “your god”. He is speaking to the people of Israel, not the false prophets. This shows the wholesale turn of Israel to idolatry.
We see the great lengths the prophets of Baal go to in order to summon their god (vv. 26-29), all to no avail. Elijah then “repairs the altar of the Lord that had been thrown down” (v. 30). This means that the altars previously used to worship YHWH were destroyed, further demonstrating Israel’s abandonment of YHWH worship (this is what they were supposed to do with the altars of false gods – see Ex 34:13). The taking of the 12 representative stones (representing “united” Israel) is an indictment against the Israelites. Elijah now goes to great lengths to make it more difficult to burn the offering (vv. 33-35), even having the Israelites themselves do the work.
Elijah now speaks the words that the works will verify. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is still God and is directing Elijah (v. 36). Elijah then asks very specifically for a display of power to prove Who He is and that He is calling Israel to repentance (v. 37). And God shows His power by not only consuming the burnt offering by fire, but the stones, the water, and the dirt around the altar (v. 38). The people react with their choice of allegiance: YHWH is God (v. 39)! And the prophets of Baal are killed (v. 40).
We see in verse 41 that Ahab watched the whole thing. Elijah tells Ahab to celebrate, because rain is returning to Israel (v. 41). This is showing that the drought was punishment for unbelief, and the confession of Israel that YHWH is God alleviates the punishment. So Elijah prays for rain (v. 42). Note that he does not stop praying until his prayer is answered (vv. 43-44). Elijah then supernaturally outruns Ahab’s chariot (v. 46), setting up a confrontation with Jezebel.
1 In Canaanite religion, Baal was the second in command to El (sometimes used to refer to God in the Old Testament), who put Baal in place as the supreme ruler of Canaan. I think it is likely that Baal was an actual heavenly being: a fallen angel who had rebelled against YHWH. It sure seems like the prophets here were expecting him to answer, a strange expectation (especially to go to such lengths!) if it hadn’t happened before. His failure to appear shows YHWH’s supreme power even over other “gods”, which is the point of the narrative.