Nature is all that IS, or WAS, or EVER WILL BE. —The Berenstain Bear’s Nature Guide (1975)
The twentieth century saw the rebirth of nature worship in the West. Nature has been promoted in the realms of both science and religion. This is because both materialism and pantheism assume the fundamental unity of reality. In Carl Sagan’s words, “The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.” Materialists and pantheists differ on the nature of the cosmos—matter vs. spirit— but they are alike convinced that nothing exists outside the cosmos and that that nature is, in fact, the whole kit and kaboodle. For both materialists and pantheists, a truly transcendent God is out of the question.
This perspective is represented in Scripture by Baal worship. Baal was a generic name for the multitude of local deities who represented the forces of nature. The priests of Baal believed they could manipulate nature with their rites and rituals. When Israel adopted Baal worship—as she did again and again—her religious leaders pushed God aside into irrelevance and placed their primary focus on the comprehensive role of nature in man’s everyday affairs. God, perhaps, provided a philosophical safety net, but nature was the immanent power that man needed to both serve and master.
Israel’s last affair with Baal worship came in the days of king Ahab and his Phoenician wife, Jezebel. God raised up the prophet Elijah to confront this spiritual adultery. First, Elijah called for a drought, and it came. After three and half years, he brought matters to a head. The history is recorded in 1 Kings 18.
The Contest Begins
Elijah summoned all of Israel to Mt. Carmel on the southern boundaries of Phoenicia. There, he proposed a contest. The prophets of Baal and Asherah would prepare a sacrifice, but leave it unlit. So would he. Then each side would call upon their respective gods or God to light the altar. “And the God who answers by fire, he is God.” All the people agreed.
The prophets of Baal seemed to have a number of advantages going into the contest. They were, more or less, in Phoenician territory, and Baal was a Phoenician import. They were playing in Baal’s backyard. They were on high ground, which was meteorologically and ritually perfect field conditions. There were also quite a few priests of Baal, compared to one man representing God’s side. Not only that, Baal was the god of the sun and the storms, the masculine side of nature. The lightning bolt was his preferred weapon. The contest, at least theoretically, was set up to give Baal and his priests the advantage.
On the other hand, Baal’s prophets may have been uneasy about the whole thing. The contest had come about because Elijah had called for three and a half years of drought in God’s name—and it became a harsh reality. Baal hadn’t managed provide even in a little shower during those years. That was probably a little disconcerting to these prophets. Certainly they had some explanation consistent with their system, “some theory of soils, or air, or etheric tensions” among other excuses. What they didn’t have was rain. Still, they were “gamers” and entered the contest with enthusiasm.
From morning till noon the prophets of Baal called upon their god:
O Baal, hear us!
O Baal, hear us!
O Baal, hear us!
O Baal, hear us!
O Baal, hear us!
But nothing happened. As the sun reached its peak (and Baal was theoretically in his full strength), Elijah began to mock his adversaries: “Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is meditating, or he is busy, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is sleeping and must be awakened” (v. 27, NKJV). The ESV renders “busy” as “relieving himself.” Yep, Elijah took a shot at the prophets’ most deeply held religious beliefs. No political correctness here.
At this point the prophets of Baal increased their efforts and expanded their techniques. They began to cut themselves “after their manner” until their blood gushed out. They hoped to shock or stimulate nature into a useful response by self-mutilation and a show of blood and dedication. But more hours passed, and still “there was neither voice, nor any to answer, nor any that regarded” (v. 29).
The Contest: Yahweh’s Victory
Finally it was Elijah’s turn. He called the people to come near. He repaired a dilapidated altar originally dedicated to God. It had twelve stones corresponding to the twelve tribes of Israel. Elijah made a deep trench around the altar. He placed the wood and sacrifice on the altar and ordered the whole thing drenched with four barrels of water. He did this three times. The math: Four barrels poured three times equals twelve bad tribes. He was subtly reminding Israel of their covenant apostasy. The water soaked the wood and filled the trench. Elijah was creating crazy odds and high drama.
At the time that the evening sacrifice was normally lit in the Temple at Jerusalem, Elijah raised his voice to God. In two short sentences and with only one repetition, he asked God to validate his ministry and to reveal Himself as the one true God. Immediately fire fell from heaven and consumed the offering, the wood, the stones, the dust, and the water in the trench.
All the people fell on their faces and spontaneously raised the cry, “Yahweh, He is the God; Yahweh, He is the God!” (v. 39).
We should mistake what Elijah was up to. He wasn’t playing games. He wasn’t reducing religion to the level of popular vote or public spectacle. The issue was covenant obligation and obedience. If God was who He said he was, then Israel as a nation had to keep His laws or face His wrath. And God’s law tolerated no false prophets or pagan evangelists within His kingdom (Deut. 13). Elijah ordered the people to take the prophets of Baal down to the river, and there he executed them all (v. 40). Again, no political correctness here.
Then Elijah went to pray. Quietly, with his head between his knees, he prayed seven times for rain (vv. 42-43). After each prayer, he sent his servant to go look toward the western sea. Finally the man said, “Behold, there ariseth a little cloud out of the sea, like a man’s hand” (v. 44). That was all Elijah needed to hear. He sent word to Ahab to prepare his chariot so he wouldn’t be stopped by the rain. Meanwhile, the heavens darkened, the wind came, and rain descended in torrents. The drought was over. And Elijah, in the power of God’s Spirit, ran all the way back to Jezreel ahead of Ahab’s chariot (vv. 45-46).
There is one God. He is transcendent and immanent, omnipotent and personal. He governs the universe in an orderly fashion so that man may make use of that order in his task of stewardship. But God is distinct from His created order and can alter it or set it aside at His pleasure: He does miracles.
Such a God can’t be manipulated, threatened, bullied, or cajoled. No science or magic can move His hand. We can’t use Him as we please. God uses us as He pleases. He commands, and we are to obey. Obviously, such a God is as offensive to modern man and post-modern man as He was to Ahab and his prophets.
There is something more we ought to observe. The text tells us that, when the prophets of Baal went into their ecstatic frenzy, “there neither voice, nor any to answer, nor any that regarded” (v. 29). Moderns glibly say, “Of course not. Baal was a myth.” But Scripture tells us many times that there was a spiritual reality behind the pagan gods. We also know that the pagan world actually sacrificed to demons (Deut. 32:17; 2 Chron. 11:15; 1 Cor. 10:20). So whatever demonic forces lurked in the shadow of Baal and Asherah were as helpless as the dumb idols before the power of God. God might give them a long leash to tempt and deceive the nations, but when the prophet spoke the word of God… hell got muzzled. No magic. No power. No contest.
If the truth of religion is a matter of personal opinion, then religion is culturally irrelevant. But if God is real, His reality has social, political, and legal implications. The kingdom of God matters on Earth and in history. And this the unbeliever finds intolerable. “You may keep your God in your private thoughts,” he tells us, “but don’t you dare bring Him and His absolute rule out into the public square. We won’t tolerate such bigotry, ignorance, and hatred.”
The worship of nature is quite another matter. Because when man worships nature… he worships himself. That, my friends, is humanism, and it remains the prevailing religion of our day. Ever wonder why the foundations seem to be crumbling before our very eyes? Look no further than the collective worship of the American zeitgeist. We persist in asking Baal for help and are shocked by the silence. Go figure.