The prophet Elijah prayed powerfully. He prayed for healing and the dead came to life. He prayed for rain and torrents fell. He prayed for fire and fire shot down from heaven. Yes, Elijah literally called for fire. One of his “calls for fire” really clarifies what it means to call for fire in prayer.
The kingdom of Israel had accelerated its desertion of God during the reign of King Ahab and his wife Jezebel. Jezebel, who was not an Israelite, influenced her husband to worship the pagan god Baal and the fertility goddess Asherah. The king and queen encouraged the worship of pagan gods; they mercilessly pursued and executed prophets who proclaimed the worship of Israel’s God. Elijah preached fearlessly during much of this persecution, inspiring other prophets like Obadiah to remain faithful. In 1Kings 18, Elijah challenges King Ahab to assemble four hundred fifty prophets of Baal and four hundred prophets of Asherah to face off against him im a confrontation to determine whom Israel should worship. Ahab complied. A large crowd assembled to watch the battle of the prophets on Mount Carmel, a ridge in northwestern Israel. Elijah spoke first to the people and challenged them, “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God follow him, but if Baal is God, follow him” (1 Kings 18:21). The people said nothing.
Elijah pointed out to the crowd the disparity in numbers between his opposition and him. The prophets of Baal would prepare a sacrifice of a bull; so too would Elijah. Elijah told the prophets of Baal that they could sacrifice first; they could call on the name of their god, but they could not light the fire for the sacrifice. Baal had to light the fire. The prophets of Baal prayed loudly, danced, and even began to cut themselves as hours passed with no answer from their god. Elijah taunted them, suggesting they should shout louder, that perhaps Baal was traveling or asleep. When the time came for the evening sacrifice Baal still had not answered.
Then Elijah prepared his sacrifice. After building an altar and digging a trench around it, he arranged wood on the altar, cut the bull into pieces and laid it on the wood. He then asked for twelve large jars of water to be poured on the sacrificial bull (four jars, three times each). Elijah wanted the witnesses of this event to have no doubt as to what had happened if God answered. Then Elijah prayed.
Elijah’s call for fire does not mention literal fire. He prays, ” O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant and have done all these things at your command. Answer me, O Lord, answer me, so these people will know that you, O Lord are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again.” Notice what the prophet prays. He prays that God will validate himself as the god worthy of Israel’s worship. He prays that God will validate his ministry and make clear that he, Elijah, is a true spokesman for God. He prays that God will turn the hears of the people back to himself, and that the people will know that it is the one true God who is changing their hearts. He prays for the conversion. Like the apostle Paul centuries later, Elijah’s fervent prayer is that Israel be saved.
God answers with a fire that totally consumes not only the sacrifice, but the stone altar onwhich it rested. The people fall to the ground and confess, “The Lord (or Yahweh, the Hebrew name for God)- he is God! The Lord – he is God! God answered Elijah’s call for fire in dramatic fashion. Elijah had not prayed precisely for fire. He had prayed for the changing of hearts and minds. God’s fiery answer made it happen.
When we witness injustice or hear mockery of Christian faith, our anger ignites a lust for combat. We want to fight the evil and conquer it for God. Elijah’s prayer instructs us that putting on the armor of God and calling for fire sometimes means praying for the changing of hearts and minds. Elijah’s example makes clear that this is not a course for the faint-hearted. The odds may seem insuperable, but “if God is for us, who can be against us?”(Romans 8:31).