Zeal is No Excuse for Disobedience

1 Now Ahab had seventy sons in Samaria. So Jehu wrote letters and sent them to Samaria, to the rulers of the city, to the elders, and to the guardians of the sons of Ahab, saying, “Now then, as soon as this letter comes to you, seeing your master’s sons are with you, and there are with you chariots and horses, fortified cities also, and weapons, select the best and fittest of your master’s sons and set him on his father’s throne and fight for your master’s house.” But they were exceedingly afraid and said, “Behold, the two kings could not stand before him. How then can we stand?” So he who was over the palace, and he who was over the city, together with the elders and the guardians, sent to Jehu, saying, “We are your servants, and we will do all that you tell us. We will not make anyone king. Do whatever is good in your eyes.” Then he wrote to them a second letter, saying, “If you are on my side, and if you are ready to obey me, take the heads of your master’s sons and come to me at Jezreel tomorrow at this time.” Now the king’s sons, seventy persons, were with the great men of the city, who were bringing them up. And as soon as the letter came to them, they took the king’s sons and slaughtered them, seventy persons, and put their heads in baskets and sent them to him at Jezreel. When the messenger came and told him, “They have brought the heads of the king’s sons,” he said, “Lay them in two heaps at the entrance of the gate until the morning.” Then in the morning, when he went out, he stood and said to all the people, “You are innocent. It was I who conspired against my master and killed him, but who struck down all these? 10 Know then that there shall fall to the earth nothing of the word of the Lord, which the Lord spoke concerning the house of Ahab, for the Lord has done what he said by his servant Elijah.” 11 So Jehu struck down all who remained of the house of Ahab in Jezreel, all his great men and his close friends and his priests, until he left him none remaining.

12 Then he set out and went to Samaria. On the way, when he was at Beth-eked of the Shepherds, 13 Jehu met the relatives of Ahaziah king of Judah, and he said, “Who are you?” And they answered, “We are the relatives of Ahaziah, and we came down to visit the royal princes and the sons of the queen mother.” 14 He said, “Take them alive.” And they took them alive and slaughtered them at the pit of Beth-eked, forty-two persons, and he spared none of them.

15 And when he departed from there, he met Jehonadab the son of Rechab coming to meet him. And he greeted him and said to him, “Is your heart true to my heart as mine is to yours?” And Jehonadab answered, “It is.” Jehu said, “If it is, give me your hand.” So he gave him his hand. And Jehu took him up with him into the chariot. 16 And he said, “Come with me, and see my zeal for the Lord.” So he had him ride in his chariot. 17 And when he came to Samaria, he struck down all who remained to Ahab in Samaria, till he had wiped them out, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke to Elijah. 2 Kings 10:1-17 ESV

Jehu was methodical and ruthless in carrying out God’s judgment against the house of Ahab. After killing King Jehoram and ordering the execution of the queen-mother, Jezebel, he turned his attention to Ahab’s 70 male descendants. Jehu knew that as long as any of them remained alive, his hopes of consolidating the kingdom under his rule would be in jeopardy. These boys and young men were under the care and protection of royal guardians who served in Ahab’s administration. More than likely, they had answered to Jezebel. But now that she was out of the picture, Jehu issued a challenge to these protectors of Ahab’s dynasty.

“…select the best qualified of your master’s sons to be your king, and prepare to fight for Ahab’s dynasty.” – 2 Kings 10:3 NLT

Jehu proposed that they do battle for control of the kingdom. He and his allies would go up against the chosen heir of Ahab and the forces of Israel, and whoever was left standing would become the next king of the northern kingdom. But his offer was quickly rejected. The elders and officials of Samaria recognized that Jehu had the upper hand and any attempt to defeat him in battle would be ill-advised and ill-fated.

So, these men informed Jehu that they had no intentions of protecting or promoting the heirs of Ahab. But he demanded that they prove their loyalty by beheading all 70 of Ahab’s sons. The next day, the elders and officials of Samaria showed up in Jezreel and presented to Jehu their rather macabre coronation gift. He ordered that the 70 heads be placed in two piles beside the city gate, as a gruesome reminder of God’s divine judgment against the house of Ahab. No one who entered or exited the city of Jezreel could miss the message this hideous sight was meant to convey.

But the next morning, Jehu called the nervous citizens of Jezreel together. These people were caught in the middle of a violent and deadly change in administrations. For more than 30 years they had lived under the rule of Ahab and Jezebel. But almost overnight, their way of life had come to an abrupt end. They had witnessed the assassination of their king, the violent death of his mother, and the annihilation of every living male heir to the throne. They had no way of knowing what kind of king Jehu would be. So, in an effort to assuage their fear and apprehension, Jehu took full responsibility for the death of King Jehoram but then vowed that he would avenge the deaths of Ahab’s sons. This rather disingenuous display of righteous indignation was intended to win over the hearts of the people. But he failed to admit that he had been the one who ordered their executions. In his zeal to carry out the command of God, Jehu overstepped his authority. Rather than simply punishing the house of Ahab as God had ordered, Jehu used his newfound power to enact a bloody purging that spread far beyond his original assignment.

Jehu killed all who were left of Ahab’s relatives living in Jezreel and all his important officials, his personal friends, and his priests. So Ahab was left without a single survivor. – 2 Kings 10:11 NLT

We are not told the motivation behind Jehu’s actions, but we are given God’s response to it. Over in the book of Hosea, God provides a glimpse into His displeasure with Jehu’s overzealous and bloody purge. In the opening verses of the book, the prophet Hosea has just discovered that he is a new father. His wife, Gomer, a former prostitute, has given birth to a son. And God informs Hosea that he is to call the boy Jezreel.

And the Lord said to him, “Call his name Jezreel, for in just a little while I will punish the house of Jehu for the blood of Jezreel, and I will put an end to the kingdom of the house of Israel. And on that day I will break the bow of Israel in the Valley of Jezreel.” – Hosea 1:4-5 ESV

The entire book of Hosea is meant to display the unfaithfulness of Israel through the relationship between the prophet and his unfaithful wife. The name given to their son was meant to be a permanent reminder of Jehu’s ungodly actions that day in Jezreel. He had decided to do God’s will his way. By taking the lives of the elders and officials of Samaria, Jehu had overstepped his God-given authority. He had exceeded his role as an instrument of God’s judgment against the house of Ahab. Innocent people had died unnecessarily and he would pay for his costly mistake.

In a sense, Jehu was obedient to the command of God. He had been anointed by the prophet of God and given the task of eliminating the house of Ahab. And he did as he had been told. He killed King Jehoram. He ordered the death of Jezebel. He orchestrated the executions of all of Ahab’s heirs. He had even taken it upon himself to kill King Ahaziah of Judah because he was the grandson of Jezebel. The tentacles of Jezebel’s influence had reached all the way into the southern kingdom, infecting Judah and its people.

At one point, Jehu had an unexpected encounter with some of these royal relatives of Jezebel from Judah. Unaware of all that had transpired in Israel, they were on their way to visit the queen-mother. But when Jehu discovered their identity, he ordered their immediate executions.

“We are relatives of King Ahaziah. We are going to visit the sons of King Ahab and the sons of the queen mother.”

“Take them alive!” Jehu shouted to his men. And they captured all forty-two of them and killed them at the well of Beth-eked. None of them escaped. – 2 Kings 10:14 NLT

His determination to eliminate every last vestige of Ahab’s influence was comprehensive and commendable. He left no stone unturned. This dedicated servant of God did what he had been anointed to do.

…he struck down all who remained to Ahab in Samaria, till he had wiped them out, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke to Elijah. – 2 Kings 10:17 ESV

But in doing so, he had gone above and beyond his official commission, ordering the deaths of the innocent. While Jehu could justify his actions by claiming that the elders and officials had murdered the sons of Ahab, they had only done so because he had given them no other choice. Jehu had delegated to these men a responsibility that had been given to him alone. It was he who should have taken the lives of the 70 sons of Ahab. It was he who should have executed Jezebel. But he had ordered her death by commanding her servants to throw her down from the window of the palace. Jehu had used his newfound power and authority in ways that God had not ordered or ordained. He had chosen to accomplish God’s will according to his ways. And no amount of zeal, enthusiasm, or good intentions can justify disobedience.

Hundreds of years later, the apostle Paul would commend the nation of Israel for its enthusiasm toward the things of God. But he would also point out that their zeal was misplaced and misdirected. In their energetic effort to please God, they were actually living in disobedience to His will and in violation of His ways.

I know what enthusiasm they have for God, but it is misdirected zeal. For they don’t understand God’s way of making people right with himself. Refusing to accept God’s way, they cling to their own way of getting right with God by trying to keep the law. – Romans 10:2-3 NLT

Zeal is never an excuse for disobedience.


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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