Dousing the Altar (Elijah)

The God who answers by fire

This is part of a series: I’m taking a moment in the lives of people in the Bible to see how it might be relevant to our lives, today. That moment may be just part of their story, or it may be all we’re told about them. Either way, you should read it directly from the source. This week’s story comes from 1 Kings, chapter 18.

When our story starts, Ahab, the coward king of Israel, and Obadiah, the head of his household, are scouring the land of Israel for a spring that hasn’t yet dried up in hopes that they’ll find enough grass to keep their horses from dying. The Jordan river has evaporated into sludge and even the brook that the prophet Elijah (who started this whole mess) was getting his water from has run dry.

You’ve got to hand it to Elijah, he’s not one of those prophets who just waits around for someone in power to summon him. He shows up and shows them who’s in power. He made his galling entry to the biblical scene in the previous chapter by telling King Ahab that there wouldn’t be rain, not even dew, without his saying so. Nor was there, for three and a half years. You can see why Ahab is not thrilled he’s shown up this time.

Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come near to me.” And all the people came near to him. And he repaired the altar of the Lord that had been thrown down . . . And he made a trench about the altar, as great as would contain two seahs of seed. And he put the wood in order and cut the bull in pieces and laid it on the wood. And he said, “Fill four jars with water and pour it on the burnt offering and on the wood.” And he said, “Do it a second time.” And they did it a second time. And he said, “Do it a third time.” And they did it a third time. And the water ran around the altar and filled the trench also with water.

Remember that they are in a drought. Elijah himself doesn’t have water to drink. Imagine what the people felt watching gallons of it being dumped out. I can’t even imagine where they got it. It wasn’t the cattle on the altar that was the sacrifice, the livestock was already dropping like flies. The real sacrifice was the water, running over, pouring down. All of it consumed in an instant.

Nevermind that water doesn’t burn. Put the very last of what you can’t live without on the altar before God and see if He will not set it ablaze.

Elijah knew what he was doing. He once asked a widow to do the same thing.

He finds her gathering sticks in the wilderness. They are, she tells him, so that she can take the last of her flour and the last of her oils and bake it into something for her and her son to eat, after which they plan to die.

Elijah tells her, “Go home and do as you have said. But first make a small loaf of bread for me from what you have and bring it to me, and then make something for yourself and your son.” It’s actually offensive, what he asks her. Take all you have to live on . . . and give it away.

If God is not taking what you’re giving Him, maybe it’s because what you’re giving Him hasn’t cost you anything.

Jesus described another widow in the same circumstances, note his wording: “ . . . she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.

He condemns those who give out of their “surplus.”

I will not offer burnt offerings to the Lord my God that cost me nothing,” said King David. He wasn’t talking about offerings at the time, he was talking about the purchase of the land where the temple was going to be built. David understood. Deep sacrifice prepares the place for deep worship.

The point is not price, it’s heart. After all, Elijah’s complaint against the people of Israel is of halfheartedness. Verse 18:21 says:

And Elijah came near to all the people and said, “How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” And the people did not answer him a word.

Are you all in? Like Elijah, who promised that oil poured out would not run dry. Like the widow who gave her two pennies and gained an eternal testimony. Like Abraham, strapping his own son to the altar, or God, hanging His up on a cross.

If you don’t think you have anything to give that your life depends on, just give your whole life. What we so often forget is that the water would have been used up anyway, the oil and flour would barely have lasted a day, our lives will be spent whether or not we choose what they’re spent on. Don’t think that you can save your life by trying to keep it, Jesus said, you will lose it either way.

Lay it out on the altar. And the God who answers by fire, He is God.

2 thoughts on “Dousing the Altar (Elijah)

  1. Thank you Emily for your depth and honesty. This goes down to the very core of who we are and what it means to sacrifice and I appreciate it. True sacrifice hurts…there is no way around it, but God is good.

  2. I’ve heard that story from the time I was a little kid in Sunday School. I even remember the little figures of Elijah and the altar stuck on the flannel board. We once acted it out, pouring the water, and I only thought of it as Elijah making it harder for the wood to burn, so that the miracle would be the greater.

    It never occurred to me before that the water was the real sacrifice.

    I’ve never thought of that story as what happens when you pour out the last of what you have, give beyond the point of hurting. “Put the very last of what you can’t live without on the altar before God and see if He will not set it ablaze.” Thanks for the thought, Emily

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