Elijah was an extraordinary prophet, but even more so because of the culture in which he lived. Without any announcement, Elijah appeared in Israel and boldly confronted his generation with a strong warning from God. His messages thundered with pronouncements of judgment against the inky blackness of Israel's evil spiritual night.
Israel had turned its back on the living God; and, like all nations that forsake the Almighty, it degenerated into a corrupt and heathenistic society. To understand Elijah's greatness, we must understand the political and religious arenas in which he ministered.
Decline of the Kingdom
The Jewish kingdom's decline began more than 100 years before Elijah came on the scene-in the days of King Solomon, who ruled from 970 to 931 BC. Although blessed with more wisdom than any man on Earth, Solomon succumbed to the custom of his day and married many foreign women to cement political alliances. This practice, forbidden in the Mosaic Law (Dt 17:17). This practice, forbidden in the Mosaic Law (Dr 17:17), hastened the nation's spiritual decay.
Even more despicable, Solomon allowed his pagan wives to build altars to their gods (Ashtoreth, Milcom, Chemosh, and Molech) east of Jerusalem on the Mount Lives, where the women practiced gross idolatry by burning incense and offering sacrifices.
Less than a century later, King Jehoram of Judah (848-841 BC) sacrificed his firstborn son on the city wall to the heathen god Chemosh (2Ki 3:27). There are heartbreaking tales of children being sacrificed in the name of Molech, an abominable practice the Mosaic Law highly condemned (Lev 20:2-5).
As time passed, Solomon's wives turned his heart toward their idols, and Solomon did evil in the sight of the Lord. He was not fully devoted to the God of Israel, as was David his father. Because of Solomon's pride, arrogance, idolatry, unbridled passion, and neglect of God's Law, God ripped the kingdom from Solomon's son Rehoboam-dividing it in two.
After Solomon's death, Rehoboam, whose mother was an Ammonite, reigned over Israel. He proved to be an arrogant frivolous, unintelligent man who was totally nonreligious and untrained in God's Law. The seeds of wickedness that Solomon had sown produced the fruit of rebellion against the reign of his son.
An uprising ensued when a man named Jeroboam, along with the congregation of Israel, asked Rehoboam to ease the grievous burden of compulsory service and oppressive taxation that Solomon on had levied on the nation. Taking the advice of his peers over that of his elders, Rehoboam replied, "My father made your yoke heavy, but I will add to your yoke; my father chastised you with whips, but I will chastise you with scourges" (1Ki 12:14).
Upon receiving this news, the 10 northernmost tribes seceded from the Davidic Kingdom. As prophesied, Jeroboam became the ruler of the northern kingdom with Samaria as the capital. Rehoboam was left with Judah and Benjamin, the two southern tribes-plus Levi-with Jerusalem as the capital.
Depravity of the Kings
The northern kingdom expanded its borders, took control of the trade routes surrounding it, and became extremely prosperous. An upper-class society emerged that built expensive homes, enjoyed a carnal lifestyle, and exploited the poor. Corrupt leaders oppressed the people and committed violence and robbery, while merchants chafed at closing their businesses for religious observances.