Elijah’s residency in the northern kingdom of Israel gave him an advantage in confronting the people because he knew what was going on there. Like king Ahab, the people were caught in the middle of two worship systems, one that honored the pagan god Baal and one that honored Jehovah; the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who delivered the Israelites from bondage in Egypt and had given them the land of Canaan to dwell in.
Elijah challenged the people to make a choice based on whichever one they believed to be the true God. “And Elijah came unto all the people, and said, How long halt ye between two opinions? If the LORD be God, follow him: but if Baal, then follow him. And the people answered him not a word” (1 Kings 18:21).
The message Elijah was trying to convey was that worshipping two gods was getting them nowhere. The people were hopping back and forth depending on their circumstances and were not committed to either deity. The reason the people couldn’t give Elijah a straight answer was because they were stuck. They weren’t sure if they were ready to walk away from God altogether and didn’t know if Baal could protect them the way the LORD had.
In order to prove to the people of Israel that Baal was no match for God, Elijah designed a test to demonstrate the superiority of the LORD. It involved the sacrifice of a bullock as a burnt offering without using any fire. Elijah’s instructions to the people were “call ye on the name of your gods, and I will call on the name of the LORD: And the God that answereth by fire, let him be God. And all the people answered him and said, It is well spoken” (1 Kings 18:24).
Elijah’s contest was intended to show the people of Israel that their idols were inanimate objects with less than human capabilities. Baal could not see or hear them and he was unaware of the worship they performed to honor him (1 Kings 18:26). In stark contrast, God instituted the Israelite’s system of worship and made a covenant with them to guarantee the fulfillment of his promises to his people.
In order to emphasize God’s awareness and involvement in what was going on, Elijah drenched his bullock and the altar it was placed on with water before he prayed to the LORD to consume it with fire. It says in 1 Kings 18:33-35 that Elijah filled four barrels with water, poured it on the burnt sacrifice and on the wood, then repeated the process two more times until more than 30 gallons of water ran round about the altar and filled a trench that Elijah dug to hold it. His extreme demonstration made it clear that it would be impossible for Elijah to light the fire for the sacrifice.
Then the fire of the LORD fell, and consumed the burnt sacrifice, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench. And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces: and they said, The LORD, he is the God; the LORD, he is the God. (1 Kings 18:39)