The Downward Spiritual Spiral

29 In the thirty-eighth year of Asa king of Judah, Ahab the son of Omri began to reign over Israel, and Ahab the son of Omri reigned over Israel in Samaria twenty-two years. 30 And Ahab the son of Omri did evil in the sight of the Lord, more than all who were before him. 31 And as if it had been a light thing for him to walk in the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, he took for his wife Jezebel the daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and went and served Baal and worshiped him. 32 He erected an altar for Baal in the house of Baal, which he built in Samaria. 33 And Ahab made an Asherah. Ahab did more to provoke the Lord, the God of Israel, to anger than all the kings of Israel who were before him. 34 In his days Hiel of Bethel built Jericho. He laid its foundation at the cost of Abiram his firstborn, and set up its gates at the cost of his youngest son Segub, according to the word of the Lord, which he spoke by Joshua the son of Nun. 1 Kings 16:29-34 ESV

Things have not been going well in the northern kingdom of Judah. The downward spiritual spiral that began with the reign of Jeroboam has continued unabated. His decision to re-image the God of Israel as a golden calf had been in direct violation of the command given to Moses by God hundreds of years earlier.

“I am the Lord your God, who rescued you from the land of Egypt, the place of your slavery. You must not have any other god but me. You must not make for yourself an idol of any kind or an image of anything in the heavens or on the earth or in the sea. You must not bow down to them or worship them, for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God who will not tolerate your affection for any other gods. I lay the sins of the parents upon their children; the entire family is affected—even children in the third and fourth generations of those who reject me.” – Exodus 20:1-5 NLT

And yet, in spite of God’s clear instructions, Jeroboam made his own gods and then attempted to claim that they, not Yahweh, had delivered the nation from their captivity in Egypt.

So on the advice of his counselors, the king made two gold calves. He said to the people, “It is too much trouble for you to worship in Jerusalem. Look, Israel, these are the gods who brought you out of Egypt!”

He placed these calf idols in Bethel and in Dan—at either end of his kingdom. But this became a great sin, for the people worshiped the idols, traveling as far north as Dan to worship the one there. – 1 Kings 12:28-30 NLT

Jeroboam’s decision brought a curse from God upon his dynasty. As a result, his son, Abijah, died in infancy. Another son, Nadab, inherited the throne upon Jeroboam’s death, but in the second year of his reign, he was assassinated by a man named Baasha, who declared himself king. Baasha fulfilled the curse God had placed over the house of Jeroboam by having every one of his descendants put to death. But because Baasha proved to be a wicked king who led the people into further idolatry, God placed a curse on his house as well. Baasha was assassinated by Zimri, the commander of his chariots, who then proceeded to wipe out the entire royal household. But Zimri’s reign would last only seven days. When faced with a coup led by Omri, his former superior officer, Zimri chose to commit suicide. Omri then declared himself to be the legitimate king of Israel. But his reign would prove to be no better than that of his predecessor. In fact, the author flatly states, “Omri did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, and did more evil than all who were before him. For he walked in all the way of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, and in the sins that he made Israel to sin, provoking the Lord, the God of Israel, to anger by their idols” (1 Kings 16:25-26 ESV).

There has been no break in Israel’s downward trajectory. Like water in a sink when the plug is pulled, the spiritual state of the nation continues to spiral down the drain. And just when it appears that Israel has reached an all-time low, another character is introduced who manages to establish himself as the official record holder for apostasy and wickedness.

Omri was superseded by his son, Ahab, but in more ways than one. Not only did this young man ascend to his father’s throne, but he managed to eclipse his father’s record of sin and rebellion. The author introduces Ahab’s reign with the stinging indictment: “Ahab the son of Omri did evil in the sight of the Lord, more than all who were before him” (1 Kings 16:30 ESV). And then he follows up that far-from-flattering assessment with tangible proof.

He compares the wickedness of Ahab with that of Jeroboam, the first king of the northern tribes of Israel. Jeroboam had been guilty of making his own false gods and giving them credit for something Yahweh had done. In a sense, Jeroboam had tried to create his own version of the one true God. But Ahab had decided to abandon Yahweh altogether, replacing Him with Baal, the god of the Canaanites. But his choice of this particular god was influenced by his wife, Jezebel. His marriage to Jezebel had been orchestrated by his father as part of a treaty he had made with Ethbaal, the king of Tyre and Sidon. In order to form an alliance with this pagan nation, Omri had arranged a marriage between his son and Ethbaal’s daughter. This unholy alliance was in direct violation of God’s command.

When the LORD your God hands these nations over to you and you conquer them, you must completely destroy them. Make no treaties with them and show them no mercy. You must not intermarry with them. Do not let your daughters and sons marry their sons and daughters, for they will lead your children away from me to worship other gods. – Deuteronomy 7:2-3 NLT

While the marriage had been Omri’s idea, the author refuses to absolve Ahab of any guilt for his role in the affair. He had been fully compliant and complicit.

…he took for his wife Jezebel the daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and went and served Baal and worshiped him. – 1 Kings 16:31 ESV

And just as God had warned, Ahab’s pagan wife ended up having a powerful and negative influence over him. This marriage that had been arranged for purely political purposes was going to have dramatic spiritual implications. What Omri had done to secure the state of his kingdom would end up sealing its fate. Jezebel would end up doing more to degrade the spiritual health of the nation than any king, including her own husband.

This pagan princess introduced her new husband to the gods of her people. The Phoenicians and Canaanites considered Baal to be the most powerful of all the gods. According to their mythology, he was the offspring of El, the chief god, and Asherah, the moon goddess. Baal was sometimes referred to as the sun god or the god of thunder. He was considered a fertility god, who rewarded those who worshiped him with fruitfulness, in the form of children and abundant crops.

Ahab seems to have willingly and eagerly adopted the false gods of Jezebel, ordering the construction of a temple dedicated to Baal and the erection of an Asherah pole for the worship of Baals’s mother, the moon goddess. These actions stand in stark contrast to those of Solomon, who had built a temple for Yahweh in the capital city of Jerusalem. Now, here was Ahab, the king of the northern tribes of Judah, building a temple in the capital city of Samaria in which to worship the false god of the Canaanites. The people of Israel had sunk to an all-time low. And it was going to get even worse.

The author provides a foreshadowing of things to come when he states that Ahab “did more to provoke the anger of the Lord, the God of Israel, than any of the other kings of Israel before him” (1 Kings 16:33 NLT). And then he gives a tangible expression of Ahab’s ill-fated actions. It seems that Ahab had given orders to rebuild the destroyed city of Jericho. This task was assigned to a man named Hiel. But the endeavor would prove costly. While overseeing the construction of the city, Hiel would end up losing two of his own sons. 

This somewhat strange and seemingly out-of-place narrative is meant to illustrate Ahab’s blatant disregard will of God. His determination to rebuild the city of Jericho was in direct violation of God’s command. When the Israelites had first entered the land of Canaan, hundreds of years earlier, Jericho had been the first city they had defeated and destroyed. God had given them a supernatural victory over the city and its inhabitants. And then He commanded its destruction, placing a curse on anyone who tried to rebuild the ruins.

“Cursed before the Lord be the man who rises up and rebuilds this city, Jericho.

“At the cost of his firstborn shall he
    lay its foundation,
and at the cost of his youngest son
    shall he set up its gates.” – Joshua 6:26 ESV

Hiel, under direct orders from the king, ended up violating the command of God, and, as a result, he inadvertently found himself suffering the curse of God. The author sadly states that this poor man “laid its foundation at the cost of Abiram his firstborn, and set up its gates at the cost of his youngest son Segub, according to the word of the Lord” (1 Kings 16:34 ESV).

The marriage of Ahab and Jezebel would prove to be one of the worst things that ever happened to the people of God. This unholy alliance would end up bringing great sorrow upon the nation, leading the people into further rebellion against God. And, eventually, Jezebel would become the poster girl for wickedness and evil. Her very name would become a byword for all that stands opposed to God. In fact, her name appears in the very last book of the Bible, as a less-than-flattering description of a woman who would end up leading the church at Thyatira into immorality and the worship of false gods (Revelation 2:20).

But the devastating exploits of this power couple were just beginning. And, as we will see, their evil actions would not go unnoticed or unpunished by God.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

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