1 Ben-hadad the king of Syria gathered all his army together. Thirty-two kings were with him, and horses and chariots. And he went up and closed in on Samaria and fought against it. 2 And he sent messengers into the city to Ahab king of Israel and said to him, “Thus says Ben-hadad: 3 ‘Your silver and your gold are mine; your best wives and children also are mine.’” 4 And the king of Israel answered, “As you say, my lord, O king, I am yours, and all that I have.” 5 The messengers came again and said, “Thus says Ben-hadad: ‘I sent to you, saying, “Deliver to me your silver and your gold, your wives and your children.” 6 Nevertheless I will send my servants to you tomorrow about this time, and they shall search your house and the houses of your servants and lay hands on whatever pleases you and take it away.’”
7 Then the king of Israel called all the elders of the land and said, “Mark, now, and see how this man is seeking trouble, for he sent to me for my wives and my children, and for my silver and my gold, and I did not refuse him.” 8 And all the elders and all the people said to him, “Do not listen or consent.” 9 So he said to the messengers of Ben-hadad, “Tell my lord the king, ‘All that you first demanded of your servant I will do, but this thing I cannot do.’” And the messengers departed and brought him word again. 10 Ben-hadad sent to him and said, “The gods do so to me and more also, if the dust of Samaria shall suffice for handfuls for all the people who follow me.” 11 And the king of Israel answered, “Tell him, ‘Let not him who straps on his armor boast himself as he who takes it off.’” 12 When Ben-hadad heard this message as he was drinking with the kings in the booths, he said to his men, “Take your positions.” And they took their positions against the city.
13 And behold, a prophet came near to Ahab king of Israel and said, “Thus says the Lord, Have you seen all this great multitude? Behold, I will give it into your hand this day, and you shall know that I am the Lord.” 14 And Ahab said, “By whom?” He said, “Thus says the Lord, By the servants of the governors of the districts.” Then he said, “Who shall begin the battle?” He answered, “You.” 15 Then he mustered the servants of the governors of the districts, and they were 232. And after them he mustered all the people of Israel, seven thousand. – 1 Kings 20:1-15 ESV
With the opening of chapter 20, both Elijah and Elisha, his newly commissioned replacement, suddenly disappear from the scene. Elijah will not be mentioned again until verse 17 of chapter 21. It would appear that he and his young protégé were busy fulfilling the command of God.
“Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus. And when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael to be king over Syria. And Jehu the son of Nimshi you shall anoint to be king over Israel, and Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah you shall anoint to be prophet in your place.” – 1 Kings 19:15-16 ESV
After Elijah had cast his cloak on Elisha, the two of them must have spent a significant amount of time searching for Hazael and Jehu. They would have begun their journey in Abel-meholah, Elisha’s hometown, located about 25 miles south of the Sea of Galilee. As they made their way north to Damascus in Syria, the sovereign plan of God continued to unfold in the land of Israel. In his former state of disillusionment and despair, Elijah had thought he was the last prophet alive in Israel, but he was about to be proven wrong. While he and Elisha were busy searching for the new kings of Syria and Israel, God was going to raise up other prophets to act as His spokesmen to King Ahab.
God’s miraculous defeat of Baal on Mount Carmel had left Ahab and Jezebel unphased and unrepentant. The loss of their 450 prophets had not diminished their enthusiasm for their false god. And they had failed to acknowledge the sudden end of the three-and-a-half-year drought as a gracious act of God. This arrogant and prideful couple remained stubbornly opposed to the God of Israel. But just as the prophets of Baal had been no match for Yahweh, so Ahab and Jezebel would soon discover that their power and prominence would provide them no protection against the judgment of God.
With the end of the drought, the famine that had plagued the land slowly abated. But now, Ahab found himself facing a threat of a different sort. Any sense of relief he felt from the drought’s ending and Elijah’s sudden disappearance quickly faded when the Syrians laid siege to the capital city of Samaria. Surrounded and facing a confederation of forces that greatly outnumbered Israel’s army, Ahab found himself in a difficult situation. And the terms of surrender he received from King Ben-hadad made things far worse.
“Your silver and gold are mine, and so are your wives and the best of your children!” – 1 Kings 20:3 NLT
Operating from a position of weakness, Ahab was forced to agree to Ben-hadad’s terms but stubbornly refused to comply. Perhaps he was trying to buy time. But his delay only aggravated the problem, causing Ben-hadad to up the ante.
“I have already demanded that you give me your silver, gold, wives, and children. But about this time tomorrow I will send my officials to search your palace and the homes of your officials. They will take away everything you consider valuable!” – 1 Kings 20:5-6 NLT
Ahab had been able to survive the drought, living in luxury as his people suffered and died. But now, he was facing the loss of everything he held near and dear. Ben-hadad was threatening to steal Ahab’s glory, and for a man whose identity was derived from what he possessed, this message got his attention.
Ahab, desperate to preserve his status and prevent the loss of everything he considered of value, consulted his advisors. They convinced him to refuse any further negotiations with the Syrians. Their advice was that he keep his original commitment to give up his wives and children and pay Ben-hadad a large tribute of silver and gold. But he was not to allow the Syrians access to the capital so they could plunder all his possessions. Eager to protect his personal domain, Ahab took their counsel and sent word to Ben-hadad. But his message was not well-received. Ben-hadad reacted with anger and issued his final word on the matter in the form of a vow.
“The gods do so to me and more also, if the dust of Samaria shall suffice for handfuls for all the people who follow me.” – 1 Kings 20:10 ESV
The words of Ben-hadad are eerily similar to those delivered by Queen Jezebel to Elijah after he had destroyed the 450 prophets of Baal. She, too, had made an oath to her false gods, swearing to kill Elijah or face their judgment.
“So may the gods do to me and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” – 1 Kings 19:2 ESV
It’s interesting to note that Ben-hadad, a pagan, believed that his gods were real and capable of giving him success in battle. Yet, Ahab, king over the chosen people of Yahweh, makes no mention of any gods whatsoever, including the gods of his wife. He was operating in his own strength and according to the wisdom of men. And he displays his arrogance and over-confidence in his response to Ben-hadad.
“A warrior putting on his sword for battle should not boast like a warrior who has already won.” – 1 Kings 20:11 NLT
As would be expected, Ben-hadad was infuriated by Ahab’s boastful message and ordered an immediate attack on the city. He was done negotiating with this pompous and pride-filled fool. And, as those reading this story, we fully expect and even hope that God will allow Ahab to get what he so justly deserves.
But God’s ways are not our ways. While we see the Syrians’ attack as the hand of God against wicked King Ahab, the author reveals that God has other plans altogether. As Ahab and the citizens of Samaria brace themselves for the coming attack, God sends a prophet with a message of hope.
“This is what the Lord says: Do you see all these enemy forces? Today I will hand them all over to you. Then you will know that I am the Lord.” – 1 Kings 20:13 NLT
This statement shocks and surprises us. It seems so unexpected and undeserved. Why in the world would God do such a thing for an arrogant and egotistical man like Ahab? He was idolatrous and had led the entire nation of Israel into apostasy. Among all the kings of Israel, he was the poster boy for wickedness and immorality. And yet, here was God giving him a message of divine deliverance.
Ahab responds with a series of questions rather than drop to his knees in humble repentance and gratitude for God’s gracious intervention. First, he asks, “By whom?” He demanded details. Ahab wanted to know who would get the credit for the victory. And the prophet replied, “By the servants of the governors of the districts” (1 Kings 20:14 ESV). Much to Ahab’s disappointment, God was not going to use him as the means of delivering the decisive blow to the Syrians. That prompted Ahab to ask, “Who shall begin the battle?” (1 Kings 20:14 ESV). He desperately wanted to know if he would have any part to play in this divine deliverance. And, once again, to our surprise and dismay, God informs Ahab that he will have the privilege of putting God’s plan into play.
With God’s plan clearly articulated, Ahab set about putting the pieces together to make it happen.
Then he mustered the servants of the governors of the districts, and they were 232. And after them he mustered all the people of Israel, seven thousand. – 1 Kings 20:15 ESV
This verse should bring to mind the promise God had made just before He sent Elijah on his mission to anoint the future kings of Syria and Israel.
“I will preserve 7,000 others in Israel who have never bowed down to Baal or kissed him!” – 1 Kings 19:18 NLT
God had promised His reluctant prophet that He would raise up a remnant from among the apostate people of Israel, and He would use these faithful few to accomplish His will. Now God was using Ahab, the apostate king of Israel, to choose the 7,000 faithful whom God would use to defeat the Syrians in battle. Ahab would begin the battle, but he would not secure the victory. That privilege would fall to those who had not bowed down to Baal.
None of this was about Ahab. He was the king, but, in reality, he was nothing more than a bit player in God’s sovereign plan for the redemption and restoration of His people. Ahab may have worn the crown, but God was King over Israel. And while Ben-hadad’s superior numbers appeared to give him the advantage, God had the faithful few. He was going to bring about a great victory, using those few who had refused to bow their knees to Baal.
God was about to reveal His power through weakness. And He would do so through those whose presence was unknown but whose faith had remained unwavering. With God on their side, this faithful remnant would defeat the enemy, and their unexpected victory would bring great glory to God. And in the Song of Moses recorded in the Book of Deuteronomy, we’re given an explanation for the kind of victory God is about to bring.
How could one person chase a thousand of them,
and two people put ten thousand to flight,
unless their Rock had sold them,
unless the Lord had given them up?
But the rock of our enemies is not like our Rock… – Deuteronomy 32:30-31 NLT
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