A merciless wind blew across the sun-scorched lot, whipping the fine, sandy dust into whirlwinds, stinging Nathan’s tired eyes and dry throat. His bare feet crunched along on hot, sharp rocks as he wandered through the noisy crowd, perspiration glistening on his bare back and chest.
His thoughts raced with memories of oh so many gatherings before when he had trekked to the great high places along with throngs of other seekers in order to lose himself in revelry and sensual excitement. The worship of Baal and Asherah had captured the imaginations of many young people who longed to find something more fulfilling than working for a living, and Nathan was one who had abandoned himself entirely to the careless and often wanton lifestyle of a devotee.
It was something that his parents had resisted at first, appealing to him not to forsake the dry principles of hard work and morality that constituted their own understanding of God. But Nathan had wanted nothing to do with such an impersonal religion as the one he had grown up with. Eventually he had prevailed with his parents by invoking the powerful argument, “Everybody’s doing it.”
And it was pretty much true. Almost without exception, the entire country had accepted Baal worship as part of their culture. There were sacred groves and high places everywhere, and even the political leaders endorsed the voluptuous celebrations with their pulsating music and loose morals. And although Nathan often had to choke down the painful emptiness of a bad conscience, he was caught up in a social current so powerful that he could always outwardly justify his deeds.
As Nathan roamed through the crowd, he hoped to catch sight of some of the priests of Baal or Asherah. His young emotions swelled with feelings of loyalty, devotion, and even love toward these men. They were, in a sort of mixed-up way, his friends and heroes. Even though he didn’t know any of them personally, he saw them as responsible for the pleasures he experienced at these gatherings.
This particular event, however, was going to be different. Taking a sip from the leather bottle that hung over his shoulder, Nathan swished the tepid liquid around in his parched mouth and considered what the day might hold for him.
The country had for three solid years been locked in a drought, one which rumor attributed to the curse of Elijah, the prophet of Yahweh. This man had been one of the few who had clung tenaciously to the ancient religion of the Hebrews, and had not adapted to the popular beliefs of the day. And now he had demanded a meeting with the prophets of Baal and Asherah here on Mt. Carmel in the presence of all Israel. Nathan sensed there would be a confrontation of some sort, but he had no idea what form it might take. His hope was that whatever occurred would bring the drought to an end and, in the process, provide him with a little enjoyment.
The loud blast of a ram’s horn pulled Nathan out of his thoughts, and he followed the flow of the crowd to the place where they were being summoned. There on a large rock stood a man wrapped in a rough and dusty cloak of camel’s hair, his own grey hair and beard shining in the sunlight. As Nathan drew near, the man lifted up his voice, “How long will you waver between two opinions? If Yahweh is God, follow Him, but if Baal is God, follow him!”
This, then, was Elijah. Nathan strained to see the man’s face. He had expected either a wild-eyed fanatic, or some crusty old religious fossil, but what he saw surprised him. Here was a man whose countenance bore the marks of both suffering and joy, a man of passion as well as dignity. Something deep inside of Nathan stirred as he listened to this man’s words.
”I am the only prophet of Yahweh left, but Baal has four hundred and fifty prophets. Get two bulls for us. Let them choose one for themselves, and let them cut it into pieces and put it on the wood, but not set fire to it. I will prepare the other bull and put it on the wood, and not set fire to it.” Elijah turned toward the edge of the crowd, and Nathan, following his gaze, saw the prophets of Baal clustered there in their flashy costumes. Elijah shouted to them, “Then you call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of Yahweh. The god who answers by fire — He is God.”
The crowd chorused their approval and Nathan found himself shouting in agreement. This would be the most spectacular show he had ever seen. Immediately the prophets of Baal began chanting, a rhythmical, hypnotic melody uttered by hundreds of male voices, half-singing, half-moaning, as they swayed and swayed, lifting up their hands and rocking their bodies in a way that Nathan had become familiar with. Their music was the same as he had listened to countless times before, but never had he heard all of them singing together. Their sheer intensity and soul-power was overwhelming. Nathan found himself swaying and singing with them.
In a sort of daze he watched as they slaughtered the young bull and cut it up. Then he followed with the crowd as they made a great procession to the smooth stone altar at one side of the clearing. Up the stone steps the prophets filed, bearing the carcass of the slaughtered bull, and with great solemnity they heaved it onto the altar.
Predictably, the music changed, the drum beat picked up tempo, and with a great shout, the prophets all broke into wild dancing, their colorful costumes waving about as they leaped and swayed to the beat. One lifted his voice in a sort of musical wail, “O Baal, hear us!” and the rest thundered back, “O Baal, answer us!” It was all familiar to Nathan, and he found his soul seething with indescribable emotions once again.
But today, Nathan was starting to be uncomfortable with the familiar scenario. It was in this state that he wandered about until well after noon, when the voice of Elijah caught his attention. The aged prophet was taunting the Baal worshippers that their god had not sent fire to consume their sacrifice. “Shout louder!” he cried. “Surely he is a god! Maybe he’s just deep in thought. Call louder and get his attention.”
A few people began to chuckle, but when Elijah shouted, “Maybe he’s gone on a trip!” they burst into laughter. Even Nathan, as disturbed as he was, managed a smile. And when Elijah called out, “He’s probably just asleep and needs to be awakened,” the crowd roared with laughter — all, that is, except the prophets of Baal, who glared at Elijah with silent hatred.
Suddenly, one of the leading prophets split the air with a scream and slashed himself across the arm with a large knife. Seconds later, the others began gashing themselves, crying, “O Baal, answer us!” The crowd ceased their laughter and fell once again under the influence of the prophets of Baal, but Nathan began to realize what was troubling him so. Doubt was forming in him. He was beginning to think that the last few years of his life had been wasted on an illusion. And the long-silenced voice of his conscience was stirring with anxious thoughts about his own selfishness. What if Baal wasn’t a real god? What sort of judgement was he facing for the countless times that he had lifted his soul up to false gods?
Such were the thoughts he pondered as the afternoon wore on and the prophets of Baal wore out. As evening came, Elijah once again called out, summoning the people to the opposite side of the clearing. The prophets of Baal slouched, exhausted, here and there, unable to evoke a response from their god. Elijah, on the other hand, was quietly making an altar out of rough stones, laying wood on it, slaughtering a bull and placing it on the wood. There was no chanting or ceremony to accompany his sacrifice, but he did do one thing that caught everyone’s attention. Before he was done, he dug a trench around the altar and drenched the bull, wood, altar, and all with twelve large jars of precious water, until everything glistened and dripped and the trench filled to the brim.
Then he stood in the midst of the crowd and, looking up into the cloudless sky, lifted his hands in prayer. “O Yahweh, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, today let it be known that you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your command. Answer me, O Yahweh, that this people may know that you, O Yahweh, are God.”
Elijah’s prayer seemed effortless and not very impressive, by contrast with all the storm and fury of the prophets of Baal. All was quiet except for the sound of water dripping from the altar onto the ground. Then the sky erupted with a thunderous roar as a great column of fire, bright as the sun, descended from the sky, engulfing the entire altar in flames.
For a single shocked moment, Nathan stood stunned, shielding his face from the brightness. Then his knees buckled under him, and he fell on his face in fear. The entire crowd lifted their voices, and a single cry arose from them all, “Yahweh! He is God!”
It all came together for Nathan in that paralyzing instant. He had been duped. All the music and sensual excitement that the worship of Baal had provided was merely a sham. It was just a distraction to cover up the fact that Baalism was just as empty as the stale principles that Nathan’s parents tried to cling to. The religion that they tried to pass on to him was devoid of heart and soul — nothing more than a lifeless list of dos and don’ts that could never capture his devotion. But the excitement of Baal worship, with its many pleasures, had given him only feelings of love and devotion, without anyone real to be loved by or devoted to.
And it was worse than that. Nathan was more than just duped. As he lay weeping in the dirt, he realized it was actually evil for him to suppress the voice of his conscience and participate over and over in the unclean worship that accompanied these gatherings on the high places. No matter how much he tried to convince himself that it was a celebration of love and freedom, he had always known it was just self-gratification.
Nathan lifted his tear-stained face from the earth and gazed in the direction of the altar. He expected to see the sacrifice burning there, but instead he saw only a patch of scorched earth. The fire of Yahweh had consumed the sacrifice, the wood, all the water in the trench, and even the stones of the altar itself.
A chill raced up Nathan’s spine. Who was this God, who was able to devour even the stones of the altar? What restrained such an awesome being from sending His fire to destroy Nathan? What kind of sacrifice could Nathan possibly offer to make up for his many sins? Why hadn’t Nathan and all the others been incinerated by the fire of God? Was it possible that He still cared for such as they?
Our Master Yahshua once said:
I have come to cast fire upon the earth; and how I wish it were already kindled! (Luke 12:49)
He was not speaking of a mere physical fire, not even one capable of evaporating stones. He was speaking of the very essence of God Himself. God, who is love, is a consuming fire. When His Spirit dwells in someone’s heart, He possesses and controls and compels that person to acts of sheer unselfishness. That is the fire that our Master desired to see kindled. That was the whole purpose of His life on the earth. It was also the reason He died and was raised from the dead. He wanted to see divine essence dwelling in human beings, a whole nation of people entirely devoted to loving as he loved.
The story of humanity is much like that of Nathan. Almost without exception, human beings are far from God’s heart. Many make an attempt at decency, but much of their effort is dry and principled and lacking in passion. Those who do exhibit passion are frequently also those who are enslaved to their own lusts. In their desire to experience something real, they lift up their souls to every kind of sensual excitement imaginable, sometimes even pretending that the feelings they experience indicate that they are in touch with God.
But God is love. And love expresses itself through impassioned deeds of selfless concern for others. If this love is not present, God is not present. He has long since vacated the halls of institutionalized religion, with its lifeless attempts at preserving traditional values through rote obedience. And He has never set foot in any gathering where human egos or sensual feelings are the center of attention.
For those who are seeking, like Nathan in the story, the message is clear: you can’t put your trust in any man or god who doesn’t deliver the fire. If you are looking for love, you are looking for God. If you are looking for God, you are looking for love. God is love, but where is God?
Thus says the high and exalted One, who lives forever, whose name is Holy, “I dwell on a high and holy place, and also with the contrite and lowly of spirit, in order to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite.” (Isaiah 57:15)
God can only be found in the midst of a humble people, those who repent from the ways in which they have sinned against their Creator. There the fire of His love will one day burn hot enough not only to revive their spirits, but also to be a light to the whole world.