Elijah was one of the greatest prophets in the Old Testament, alongside Abraham, Moses and King David. Under the reign of King Ahab and his wife Jezebel who were worshippers of Baal, one day on Mt Carmel, on the northern territory of Israel, Elijah challenged 450 prophets of Baal to call upon their god to miraculously ignite the sacrifice they had prepared, a young bull placed on Baal's altar, in front of a large crowd of people, mostly Israelites, who were unsure of who to worship - Yahweh, the God of Israel, to whom history so richly testifies of his presence, leadership and care for Jacob's children, along with the testimony of their miraculous delivery from their slavery in Egypt through the parting of the waters of the Red Sea - or to Baal, of whom there was no recorded history except the multitudes of infants burned alive through means of child sacrifice.
By the time of evening, after the prophets of Baal had called on their god to ignite their sacrifice and receiving no response, Elijah rebuilt the Altar to Yahweh, placing twelve stones, each for one of the twelve tribes of Israel, laid the bull over some wood and he even ordered water to be poured over the whole edifice, filling the trench which was dug around it. One prayer was all it took, and from the sky a ball of fire came down and not only ignited the sacrifice, but burned to crisp the corpse, the wood, the stones and dried up all the water in the trench. Two significant things happened here which proved that the fire was miraculous: First it burnt up the stones. By nature, rocks don't burn. If heat is applied to rocks, they would eventually melt and flow as an incandescent stream we call lava, the viscosity of the flow depending on the type of rock heated. Secondly, water quenches fire and does not burn at all. Therefore it had been suggested by some scholars whether petrol (gasoline) was used to soak into the sacrifice and the wood underneath it. The major setback with that idea was this would be accusing Elijah of cheating, and as such, thoroughly unfair to the 450 deceived prophets of Baal who were all slaughtered afterwards (See 1 Kings 18).
Another miracle was performed not long before this contest on Mount Carmel, although much less spectacular, but equally powerful. The raising of the son of the widow at Zarephath in Sidon, north of Israel. During a drought in Israel lasting for more than three years, this widow offered food and shelter to the prophet. Her only son became ill and died. Elijah bent over the boy's face and prayed three times, and the boy revived. Elijah was indeed a man of God, powerful enough for even the King of Israel, Ahab, to quail before him.
But Ahab's wife Jezebel did not take kindly to the slaughter of the 450 prophets of Baal. In fact, Ahab himself, who was at Mount Carmel and witnessed the contest, literally betrayed Elijah by telling her everything he had done, knowing full well how she would have responded. Jezebel vowed that unless Elijah was killed by the same hour the next day, let her god Baal do what he pleased with her.
This same Elijah, who demonstrated such powerful works of God in Israel, including raising a boy from the dead and soon afterwards, standing alone in a contest against a 450-strong opposition, was now running scared. Running for his life from just one angry woman! Oh dear, Elijah, where is your powerful God now? Was his arm so short that he couldn't save, or his ears so dull that he couldn't hear? Or was Elijah ready to throw in the towel, having had enough of his ministry and its constant opposition?
After some days, Elijah arrived at mount Horeb, (which I think is Mount Sinai) and dwelt in a cave there. It was there that God manifested his power to Elijah in the form of wind, an earthquake and fire, as in some kind of theatre show. But God's presence weren't in either of them. Instead he spoke to Elijah in a still small voice, asking the prophet what he was doing here. When Elijah felt defeated, all he could do was look at all the negatives in his ministry. Naturally introverted and prone to see the glass half empty rather than half full, his tirade was not untypical of his character:
I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I'm the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too. (Vs. 10, 14)
God did not reprove Elijah for his tirade. After all, with just one prayer, didn't he defeat 450 prophets? Here the wonderful grace of God is revealed. After telling him to assign Elisha to take his place and to anoint two other princes as Kings, including Jehu over Israel, he then declared:
Yet I reserve seven thousand (men) in Israel - all those knees who have not bowed down to Baal and all those mouths who have not kissed him. (1 Kings 19:18).
So important was that statement that Paul the Apostle quotes it in his letter to the Romans (Romans 11:2-4) and uses it to advocate an important argument: Did God reserve those men to himself because they chose not to bow to Baal? Or their refusal to bow to Baal was because God had already chosen them? It is interesting that Paul wrote "reserved" in the past tense, within the context that even in his day there was a remnant of Israel chosen by God to receive his grace, and not by their works. If the mercy of God was achieved by works, Paul insists, then the mercy would no more be by grace - Vs. 5,6.
Therefore we conclude that the reason these guys did not bow the knee to Baal was because they were restrained by the Holy Spirit in their lives, who had already put a much stronger love for Yahweh in their hearts as a result of having already received salvation. This salvation came by faith in the Promise, of that of the Messiah who was to come, to atone for their sin forever. It was the same faith through which they were redeemed as with our faith that we are saved by the grace of God. The only difference was that they looked forward to the coming Messiah; today we look back.
In the above verse, I have inserted the word men in brackets. This is backed by the KJV version of Romans 11:4 where the word appears in the context, which isn't in italics, indicating that the word men was in the Greek original, but was omitted in the NIV, where the quote was taken. What does this imply? I think this implies that a much greater number than 7,000 of Israelites at the time of Elijah were saved, if we include their families. Although we cannot give any accurate numeracy, if each family had two children, and their kids followed their parents example of faith, the numbers could have swelled to 28,000. But as families go, not every child will follow his father's faith. A good example of this was King Manasseh of Judah, who did not follow the faith of his father, King Hezekiah. But if Jewish families tended to be large during those days, with some of the children following their parents faith and others not, an estimate of 28-30 thousand Israelites who were saved at Elijah's generation, I think, is a fair bet.
I have always firmly believed that in every generation, there was always a remnant who were saved. Paul himself had indicated this, that there was a remnant in his day as they were in Elijah's day. So what about during church history? And the world today?
The Bible tells us that at the day of Pentecost, three thousand Jews were saved at once, from the result of the apostle's testimony. More and more Jews were added in the years to come. But as the number of Jewish converts began to wane, the apostles therefore turned to the Gentiles, with Paul and Barnabas becoming the two chief ministers of Gentile Christians, while Peter and James remained ministering to the Jews. By AD 313 Emperor Constantine merged the Christian Church with the State to become a State religion, with numbers rapidly growing as persecution ceased, the slow death of spiritual vitality, the introduction of pagan traditions brought in by members who were obliged by the State to become Christians without the initial regeneration of the heart, resulted in the birth of the Roman Catholic Church, with its head bishop in Rome.
With the spread of Roman Catholicism right across Europe, including the British Isles, the spiritual decline of the church resulted in the Dark Ages, when fear and superstition dominated, as a result of the church's sotorology (study of salvation) was centered on works rather than on grace, with an absolute submission to the Pope binding upon all.
The Dark Ages were when most people did not know anything about the grace of God, and the population totally ignorant of the Bible, it being unavailable to the laity. (The laity are church-goers not of the clergy.) It was during those days that the doctrine of Purgatory emerged, along with indulgences, which meant that terror of Purgatory had kept the people earning their indulgences by doing good works and paying the clergy massive fees to have themselves and their loved ones prayed out of Purgatory and entry into Heaven.
And yet, during the Dark Ages, there were a remnant of Christians who truly knew the Lord and were saved by grace through faith alone. These included the Vaudois, the Albigensis and the Waldenses, churches across the south of France and Switzerland who believed in faith in Christ alone brings salvation, going as far back as the Fourth Century, over a thousand years before Martin Luther and John Calvin brought the Reformation. These churches were persecuted by the Church of Rome. On one crusade, 60,000 men, women and children were slaughtered in the French town of Beziers, wiping out the entire population of true Christians under the instruction of Pope Innocent III in 1209. It is a sad thing to say, but this is history. As such, it is also certainly true that God keeps a remnant of true believers uninterrupted, in every generation as despite the persecution, these churches grew and flourished.
And what about today? Browsing the Internet, I have managed to collect some statistics on world Christianity.
The recent count have brought up a result of 2,084,509,000 professing Christians worldwide, making 32% of the global population, with about half of this being Roman Catholics. Another count resulted with 648 million evangelicals. However, I do believe that even among Roman Catholics, of whom Protestants had for so long denied being true Christians, there are some who found the mercy of God, even if they knew little of the Bible and much on tradition. The same is true with Protestants. There are saved Protestants and Protestants who are lost. But whatever the case would be, in this generation there are remnants who are saved, as it's been in every generation.
And what about countries where Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism dominate? Even in those places I believe that God would say that he has reserved for himself a remnant who has not bowed to Islam, Hinduism or Buddhism. The principle remains the same, unchanged throughout all history.
Yet God wants all men everywhere to repent and believe the Gospel. All includes everybody and excludes nobody. For as Peter wrote, that it is not the will of God that anyone should perish, but all should come to repentance. Here we see the sovereignty of God and human choice, seemingly contradictory, yet working hand in hand. My inward desire is to see every single person saved. Every person. This include the greedy bankers in the City as well as the lonely female who is aging without any family support. God desires all to be saved, yet he would not force anyone against their will. Then again, Jesus did say that no man can come to him unless the Father draws him, and those who comes to him, Jesus will never throw out but will raise him up on the last day. (John 6:44) When praying to his Father, Jesus thanked his Father in Heaven for giving them (his disciples) to him, for they were the Father's from the beginning (John 17).
How God can keep a remnant safe from eternity past yet at the same time command all men everywhere to repent and receive eternal life, is something our finite minds will never understand. But the Bible teaches it and we must accept it.
God is beyond understanding, beyond human reasoning. He is infinite, we are finite. And I'm so glad. For he is God, able to save to the uttermost. Something to feel secure and worthy of praise.