“And he repaired the altar of the Lord that was broken down.” – 1 Kings 18:30
All religion centers on the belief in God. However varied the concepts of God have been in the course of the ages with the different peoples, however coarse and obscure the ideas of His will and requirements have been, yet from the beginning religion has consisted of the recognition of an almighty God and the learning and fulfillment of His Divine will, as it was understood at different times. People sometimes use the word “religion” to apply to any theory of conduct which they have chosen to adopt; they say, “That is my religion.” It is true that the word itself means a “binding back,” and that we may be bound back from doing many things we want to do by worldly considerations of various kinds, but such a binding back does not change the heart – in fact, it is more than likely to create in the heart self-conceit and the pride of self-intelligence. Though in the preceding epochs and eras the Lord could not reveal Himself in the fullness of His Divine Humanity, though for a long period of time the external state of mankind made it necessary to have worship clothed with the veil of external forms which were not even understood, yet religion has always been the inmost of man and has always served as the means by which the Lord could guide His children to His heavenly kingdom, and there has been at all times a “secret place of the Most High” in man’s soul where the altar of the Lord could be erected.
The altar of the Lord is the symbol of our acknowledgment of the Lord in the heart and life, setting up the law of the Lord as the supreme law of all our thoughts and actions.
At the time of our text Elijah was prophet in Israel, but the people were worshiping Baal and had forgotten all the miracles by which they had been led out of Egypt. It was the time when Ahab was king and the priests of Jehovah had been slain and the altar of Jehovah had been torn down.
Isaiah writes: “Thus saith the Lord that created thee, O Jacob, and he that formed thee, O Israel, Fear not: for I have redeemed thee, I have called thee by thy name; thou art mine.”
That the Lord created us is a thought that may not at first awaken in us any deep sentiment. Yet it carries with it all of the purposes that the Lord had in creating us. He created us that He might dwell in us and give us of His own glory and bestow upon us His love and blessings. To reject Him, tearing down His altar in our souls, is to defeat the purposes of our creation.
That the Lord created us carries with it His further statement, “Thou art mine.” The Lord created the universe and all things in it. Not a single thing in it can possibly be man’s except by gift from the Lord. To appropriate anything in the world without acknowledging it to be from the Lord is spiritually to appropriate what belongs to another. Not only does what is outside of man belong to the Lord, but also all that is of worth inside is His. The power to will, to think, and to act is from Him and is no more ours than the sunlight is ours. He created the soul and from moment to moment gifts it with all of its powers and possibilities. We call it theft to take the property of another without his consent, but it is a deeper evil to take things that are the Lord’s and use them for selfish and worldly purposes. This is worshiping Baal, and then Baal rules in our lives – a tyrannical lord whose burden is not light, who continually demands subjection, and brings slavery instead of freedom. It is the love of self and the world which always promises but never fulfills its promise.
We serve Baal whenever our interests become centered in the external things that the world offers, when we lose touch with the one thing needful, with the One who is “the way, the truth, and the life.”
Modern life is full of innumerable distractions, full also of things which we cannot avoid because we have need of them. But they should not rule us; we must rule over them. By the centering of our interest in the many external things of the world the altar of the Lord is torn down within us. We may think that we believe in the Lord because we have been taught to do so and to go through the motions of worship, but our faith may be a matter of mere thinking.
We recall that in the test at Mount Carmel Baal’s prophets called upon him but he did not answer. Neither does Baal hear us. Though we sacrifice to him daily in the pursuit of happiness, though our natural ideals appear to us in the brightest colors, though we put ourselves to exceeding much trouble in order to reach our goal, Baal does not hear us; we grow more and more dissatisfied, uncertain, unpeaceful, unhappy.
When the priests of Baal had cried to Baal in vain from morning till afternoon, Elijah called the people to come near and he repaired the altar of Jehovah. He had known from the beginning that all their crying upon Baal must be in vain, and he had stood ready, waiting only for them to be willing to hear him.
Elijah the prophet represents the Divine truth of the Word. The fullness of light and life is waiting, happiness unthought of is in store for every one of us if we will but accept it. No one was ever created for any other purpose than to enjoy the fullest possible attainment of those highest aspirations and faculties that the Lord has put in our nature and which – by every means He can employ without violating our freedom – He is trying to draw out and call to life. What we need to do in order to cooperate with Him, the way in which the altar of our God can be repaired within us is revealed to us in the Book of Life, the Word of God. In it the Divine Life is made known to us, the life of Him who is the Life, who has lived out all the experiences through which human nature can go, who has met all the difficulties that human nature can meet, who has overcome all the foes by which human nature can be assailed. What the Lord speaks to us in His Word are words of life; they show us the way by which we can reach our true destiny and attain conjunction with Him, which is life eternal.
A lawyer once asked the Lord what he must do to gain eternal life. The lawyer knew the answer well enough, for he himself gave it by repeating the two great commandments. But even then he pretended ignorance by asking the question: “Who is my neighbor?” a question which again he had to answer himself. We likewise know the commandments. We have heard them from our youth up, and have in a measure kept them. Some may find them hard but, if so, they do not look upon them in the right spirit. The commandments do not impose a burden upon us but are a revelation of what is required for our happiness, and point out the only way in which we can attain it. If they seem hard, the fault does not lie with them but with us. And if we look a little more deeply into the commandments, we come to see that they are not merely exhortations but are at the same time promises.
Not only knowledge of them is needed, however, and not only the wish to live according to them. The courage to do them is needed. We do not know either what or how much is good for us. The Lord alone knows this and provides all and as much as is good for us. He knows our inner nature. He has our eternal welfare in view. And if we will look to Him and seek to be guided by Him, He will bring us into greater happiness than we in our ignorance are able now either to comprehend or to understand.
Today this is true in a higher degree than ever before, for the Lord has made His second coming, and new light is given. These truths are what the world needs and what we in particular need. They are by no means impractical or abstract. In the past the goal of human life has seemed unreal because of the spiritual darkness which has enshrouded the minds of men because the altars of the Lord were broken down.
The altar of the Lord in the human soul has been restored. It is built from the truths of the Word. Let us recognize what they teach so clearly: that we are all created for heaven, for that world which, though unseen to us now, is more real than this. And let us realize that the Lord continually strives to lift us up out of our states of self-interest and worldliness, out of the bonds of ignorance and evil to the heights of freedom. When we open our minds to the reception of His truth, the altar of the Lord within us will be repaired.