The Greater Story

25 When the man of God saw her coming, he said to Gehazi his servant, “Look, there is the Shunammite. 26 Run at once to meet her and say to her, ‘Is all well with you? Is all well with your husband? Is all well with the child?’” And she answered, “All is well.” 27 And when she came to the mountain to the man of God, she caught hold of his feet. And Gehazi came to push her away. But the man of God said, “Leave her alone, for she is in bitter distress, and the Lord has hidden it from me and has not told me.” 28 Then she said, “Did I ask my lord for a son? Did I not say, ‘Do not deceive me?’” 29 He said to Gehazi, “Tie up your garment and take my staff in your hand and go. If you meet anyone, do not greet him, and if anyone greets you, do not reply. And lay my staff on the face of the child.” 30 Then the mother of the child said, “As the Lord lives and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So he arose and followed her. 31 Gehazi went on ahead and laid the staff on the face of the child, but there was no sound or sign of life. Therefore he returned to meet him and told him, “The child has not awakened.”

32 When Elisha came into the house, he saw the child lying dead on his bed. 33 So he went in and shut the door behind the two of them and prayed to the Lord. 34 Then he went up and lay on the child, putting his mouth on his mouth, his eyes on his eyes, and his hands on his hands. And as he stretched himself upon him, the flesh of the child became warm. 35 Then he got up again and walked once back and forth in the house, and went up and stretched himself upon him. The child sneezed seven times, and the child opened his eyes. 36 Then he summoned Gehazi and said, “Call this Shunammite.” So he called her. And when she came to him, he said, “Pick up your son.” 37 She came and fell at his feet, bowing to the ground. Then she picked up her son and went out. 2 Kings 4:25b-37 ESV

Oftentimes, when reading the stories contained in the Scriptures, we find ourselves trying to ascertain their meaning or attempting to discover some helpful point of application. We desperately search for some relevant truth that we might apply to our own lives. And while this is a worthy goal, our relentless quest for a personalized point of application can leave us missing the primary message of the passage. This can be especially true when we lift these stories out of their surrounding context. When we turn the stories of the Bible into Bible stories, we tend to rob them of their Scriptural context and meaning.

In reading the story of the Shunammite woman, it would be easy to focus our attention on the loss of her child and the faith she exhibited by seeking out the prophet. And while there are lessons to be learned from her actions, the author seems to have a far greater and more important point of emphasis. This entire story takes place in the context of Israel’s ongoing apostasy. It is a time of spiritual darkness and moral apathy. The kings of Israel have consistently led the nation away from the worship of Yahweh by promoting their own replacement deities. From the golden calves erected by Jeroboam to the Canaanite gods, Baal and Asherah, the people of Israel have had a host of idols from which to choose. But through it all, Yahweh has remained faithful and all-powerful. And He has chosen to reveal Himself through His prophets. First, He spoke and exhibited His power through Elijah. Then, upon Elijah’s death, God continued to reveal Himself through Elijah’s former servant, Elisha.

But the stories involving Elijah and Elisha are not intended to focus our attention on these two men, as much as they are to draw our eye to the God who worked through them. They were messengers of Yahweh and human conduits of His grace, mercy, power, and, at times, His judgment. They are the human representatives of God Almighty, speaking and acting on His behalf, and displaying before the people His divine attributes.

So, when the Shunammite woman discovers her son is dead and seeks out the prophet of God, it is less a statement about her faith than it is about God’s invasion of the darkness of Israel. All that takes place in this story is intended to point to Yahweh, not the woman, Gehazi the servant, or Elisha the prophet. But because we’re human, we tend to focus all our attention on the human actors in the drama and, in doing so, we run the risk of minimizing the role of the leading actor in the play: God Himself.

If we isolate this story from its context, we will miss out on all that the author has been trying to reveal about God. Earlier, in chapter 17 of 1 Kings, the author told the story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath. After his decisive victory over the 450 prophets of Baal, Elijah had been threatened with death by Queen Jezebel. So, he had run for his life. But God had intercepted His fearful prophet and sent him to the town of Zarephath in Sidon. There Elijah met a poor widow who was gathering wood in order to cook a final meal for her and her son. But Elijah had performed a miracle, providing the woman with a seemingly never-ending supply of flour that would sustain their lives for a long time to come. Sound familiar? It should. Because a very similar scene took place when Elisha encountered the prophet’s widow in 2 Kings 18. This woman was about to lose her boys to slavery because of an unpaid debt. She was destitute and down to her last jar of oil. But Elisha intervened and miraculously multiplied her oil so that she had enough to satisfy her debt and sustain her boys for years to come.

But the similarities don’t stop there. The feel-good story of the widow of Zarephath also contains a less-than-happy plot twist. Her young son dies unexpectedly, and she confronts Elijah about this devastating turn of events.

“O man of God, what have you done to me? Have you come here to point out my sins and kill my son?” – 1 Kings 17:18 NLT

Even Elijah was at a loss as to why this tragedy had taken place, and he expressed his exasperation to Yahweh.

“O Lord my God, why have you brought tragedy to this widow who has opened her home to me, causing her son to die?” – 1 Kings 17:20 NLT

But the point of the passage is not the woman’s anger or Elijah’s disappointment with God. It is the divine intervention of Yahweh.

And he stretched himself out over the child three times and cried out to the Lord, “O Lord my God, please let this child’s life return to him.” The Lord heard Elijah’s prayer, and the life of the child returned, and he revived! – 1 Kings 17:21-22 NLT

Remember, both Elijah and Elisha had been chosen by God to be the human vessels through whom He revealed Himself to the people of Israel. They were nothing more than men, but God had set them apart for His use. He spoke and acted through them and, oftentimes, in spite of them.

But don’t miss the significant parallels found in all of these stories. The Shunammite woman, like the widow of Zarephath, suddenly finds her joy interrupted by the death of her child. So, she seeks out the prophet of God. This time, it’s Elisha. And she confronts him about this devastating turn of events. Her worst nightmare has come true.

“Did I ask you for a son, my lord? And didn’t I say, ‘Don’t deceive me and get my hopes up’?” – 2 Kings 4:28 NLT

She was angry and justifiably so. And Elijah was caught off guard, having been given no prior insight from God concerning the death of her child. God had not revealed the nature of her distress or given the prophet a solution to remedy it. But once Elisha discovered what had happened, he acted promptly. At one time, Elisha had been the servant of Elijah, and he would have been intimately familiar with the story of the widow of Zarephath. Most likely, he had been there to witness the miraculous death-to-life transformation that had taken place.

So, fully trusting that God would intervene yet again, he commanded his servant to take his staff and lay it on the body of the dead child. But this “remedy” proved ineffective. That was not the way God was going to restore the boy’s life. He wanted Elisha to be personally and physically involved in the miracle. It was not that God could not or would not operate through a staff. He had done so before and could do so again – if He so chose. Consider all the miracles God had performed through the staff of Moses. But on this occasion, God was going to require that Elisha be intimately involved in the delivery of the miracle. And just as Elijah had “stretched himself out over the child” (1 Kings 17:21 NLT), so Elisha “lay down on the child’s body” (2 Kings 4:34 NLT). In both cases, these men acted as God’s hands-on representatives, illustrating His intimate concern for His people through their own physical touch and personal involvement.

In a sense, the God of the universe had required both Elijah and Elisha to have some skin in the game. They became active agents in the delivery of God’s miracle. But neither of these men was meant to be the focus of the story or seen as the source behind the miracle. They were simply instruments in the hand of God. But their personal touch made the transcendent God more knowable and relatable. Through their intimate involvement, they made the care and concern of God tangible and visible. God chose to revive the lives of these two boys through the personal touch of His chosen prophets.

And, once again, let’s not miss the overall context of Scripture. These two stories point to an even greater display of God’s love and intimacy that was to come. Centuries later, God would send His own Son as His anointed messenger, delivering a message of repentance and renewal to the rebellious people of Israel. Jesus would become the final prophet of God, who would make the power and presence of God known through His incarnation. He would become God in human flesh, delivering the divine message of redemption and spiritual rejuvenation. Like Elijah and Elisha, Jesus would be required to personally engage with the nation of Israel. But His involvement in the restoration of life to the spiritually dead nation would require a far greater price than either Elijah or Elisha had paid. Jesus would end up sacrificing His own life so that many might live. He would stretch out His hands on a cruel Roman cross, paying the penalty for mankind’s sin by offering His own sinless life as a substitute. He would die so that we might live. He would pay the ultimate price so that those who were dead in their trespasses and sins might experience new life and enjoy a new relationship with 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

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

41 Jehoshaphat the son of Asa began to reign over Judah in the fourth year of Ahab king of Israel. 42 Jehoshaphat was thirty-five years old when he began to reign, and he reigned twenty-five years in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Azubah the daughter of Shilhi. 43 He walked in all the way of Asa his father. He did not turn aside from it, doing what was right in the sight of the Lord. Yet the high places were not taken away, and the people still sacrificed and made offerings on the high places. 44 Jehoshaphat also made peace with the king of Israel.

45 Now the rest of the acts of Jehoshaphat, and his might that he showed, and how he warred, are they not written in the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Judah? 46 And from the land he exterminated the remnant of the male cult prostitutes who remained in the days of his father Asa.

47 There was no king in Edom; a deputy was king. 48 Jehoshaphat made ships of Tarshish to go to Ophir for gold, but they did not go, for the ships were wrecked at Ezion-geber. 49 Then Ahaziah the son of Ahab said to Jehoshaphat, “Let my servants go with your servants in the ships,” but Jehoshaphat was not willing. 50 And Jehoshaphat slept with his fathers and was buried with his fathers in the city of David his father, and Jehoram his son reigned in his place.

51 Ahaziah the son of Ahab began to reign over Israel in Samaria in the seventeenth year of Jehoshaphat king of Judah, and he reigned two years over Israel. 52 He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and walked in the way of his father and in the way of his mother and in the way of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, who made Israel to sin. 53 He served Baal and worshiped him and provoked the Lord, the God of Israel, to anger in every way that his father had done. 1 Kings 22:41-53 ESV

Once again, the author shifts the focus of his narrative from Israel to Judah. With Ahab’s God-ordained demise, the northern kingdom of Israel found itself with a new ruler, Ahaziah, the son of Ahab. But in Judah, Jehoshaphat, who had survived the failed battle against Ramoth-gilead, continued his long reign over the southern kingdom. While Ahab’s exploits clearly portray him as the most wicked of all the kings of Israel, Jehoshaphat provides a refreshingly stark contrast. The author provides a brief, yet positive summary of his reign:  “Jehoshaphat was a good king, following the example of his father, Asa. He did what was pleasing in the Lord’s sight” (1 Kings 22:43 NLT).

But two significant stains marred Jehoshaphat’s 25-year reign. First, while he remained committed to the worship of Yahweh, he failed to remove all the pagan shrines dedicated to the false gods of the Canaanites. As a result, the people continued to offer practice idolatry in direct violation of God’s command. Secondly, Jehoshaphat had made a treaty with Ahab, the king of Israel. Like his father before him, Jehoshaphat put his faith in an outside power rather than trust in Yahweh. In Asa’s case, he had chosen to align himself with Ben-hadad, the king of the Syrians, hoping he could protect Judah from the ongoing threat of Israelite aggression. But he had been reprimanded for placing his trust in someone other than God.

“Because you relied on the king of Syria, and did not rely on the Lord your God, the army of the king of Syria has escaped you. Were not the Ethiopians and the Libyans a huge army with very many chariots and horsemen? Yet because you relied on the Lord, he gave them into your hand. For the eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to give strong support to those whose heart is blameless toward him. You have done foolishly in this, for from now on you will have wars.” – 2 Chronicles 16:7-9 ESV

Now, his son, Jehoshaphat, was guilty of the same sin. Rather than making a treaty with the Syrians, he had chosen to work hand-in-hand with Ahab, the king of Israel. According to 2 Chronicles 19:1, Jehoshaphat made a marriage alliance with Israel, agreeing for his son, Jehoram, to marry Ahab’s daughter, Athaliah. And this decision would end up putting Jehoshaphat in an awkward position, forcing him to side with Ahab in his ill-fated battle against Ramoth-gilead. While Ahab lost his life in the battle, Jehoshaphat was able to return to the safety of Jerusalem, where he was immediately confronted by the prophet of God over his role in the whole affair.

“Should you help the wicked and love those who hate the Lord? Because of this, wrath has gone out against you from the Lord. Nevertheless, some good is found in you, for you destroyed the Asheroth out of the land, and have set your heart to seek God.” – 2 Chronicles 19:2-3 ESV

Yet, despite these two rather egregious mistakes, Jehoshaphat was a good king who tried to encourage the people of Judah to worship God. Early on in his reign, he had sent a contingent of officials, including Levites and priests, to all the cities of Judah, with instructions to teach the Book of the Law to the people (2 Chronicles 17:7-9).

He also appointed judges in the land, instructing them to do their jobs with integrity and honesty, providing the people with just and wise decisions.

“Always think carefully before pronouncing judgment. Remember that you do not judge to please people but to please the Lord. He will be with you when you render the verdict in each case. Fear the Lord and judge with integrity, for the Lord our God does not tolerate perverted justice, partiality, or the taking of bribes.” – 2 Chronicles 19:6-7 NLT

But sadly, the righteous reign of Jehoshaphat did not end well. Once again, he made an unholy and unwise alliance with the king of Israel – this time with Ahaziah, the son of Ahab. We get a more detailed explanation of this failed agreement in the book of 2 Chronicles.

Some time later King Jehoshaphat of Judah made an alliance with King Ahaziah of Israel, who was very wicked. Together they built a fleet of trading ships at the port of Ezion-geber. Then Eliezer son of Dodavahu from Mareshah prophesied against Jehoshaphat. He said, “Because you have allied yourself with King Ahaziah, the Lord will destroy your work.” So the ships met with disaster and never put out to sea. – 2 Chronicles 20:35-37 NLT

What makes this decision by Jehoshaphat so difficult to understand is that it came after God had provided Judah with a stunning victory over the Ammonites and Moabites. The people of Judah had found themselves outnumbered by their enemies, but God had given His assurance that He would fight for them. They had no reason to fear.

“Listen, all you people of Judah and Jerusalem! Listen, King Jehoshaphat! This is what the Lord says: Do not be afraid! Don’t be discouraged by this mighty army, for the battle is not yours, but God’s. Tomorrow, march out against them. You will find them coming up through the ascent of Ziz at the end of the valley that opens into the wilderness of Jeruel. But you will not even need to fight. Take your positions; then stand still and watch the Lord’s victory. He is with you, O people of Judah and Jerusalem. Do not be afraid or discouraged. Go out against them tomorrow, for the Lord is with you!” – 2 Chronicles 20:15-17 NLT

And God had kept His word. Not only did He destroy their enemies, but he blessed the people of Judah with an abundance of unexpected wealth.

When Jehoshaphat and his people came to take their spoil, they found among them, in great numbers, goods, clothing, and precious things, which they took for themselves until they could carry no more. They were three days in taking the spoil, it was so much. – 2 Chronicles 20:25 ESV

Their God had not only protected them, but He had provided for them. They lacked nothing as long as they placed their hope and trust in Yahweh. Yet, for some reason, Jehoshaphat chose to join Ahaziah in the construction of ships to bring back gold from Ophir. But those ships never made it to sea. They were destroyed before they could ever leave the port. Like his father before him, Jehoshaphat placed his trust in someone other than God and paid a high price for his mistake. And his unwise decision left a permanent stain on his legacy.

But as 2 Chronicles 17-19 reveals, there were many positive aspects to Jehoshaphat’s reign. All in all, he was a good king who loved Yahweh and tried to shepherd the people of Judah as his ancestor David had done. Yet, the same thing cannot be said of Ahaziah, the son of Ahab and the king of Israel. The author paints a rather bleak portrait of his short and sin-stained reign.

He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and walked in the way of his father and in the way of his mother and in the way of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, who made Israel to sin. He served Baal and worshiped him and provoked the Lord, the God of Israel, to anger in every way that his father had done. – 2 Kings 22:52-53 ESV

And with that assessment, the book of 1 Kings comes to an abrupt and less-than-flattering end. The two kingdoms continue the downward spiral that began with the reign of Solomon. There have been brief glimpses of faithfulness, but for the most part, the nations of Israel and Judah remain plagued by infidelity and idolatry. Their kings are revealed as flawed men who tend to use their God-given power to promote themselves and their own agendas rather than lovingly shepherd the flock of God according to the will of God. And that pattern will continue as the author begins the second half of his history of the divided kingdom.

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

A Life Gone to the Dogs

29 So the king of Israel and Jehoshaphat the king of Judah went up to Ramoth-gilead. 30 And the king of Israel said to Jehoshaphat, “I will disguise myself and go into battle, but you wear your robes.” And the king of Israel disguised himself and went into battle. 31 Now the king of Syria had commanded the thirty-two captains of his chariots, “Fight with neither small nor great, but only with the king of Israel.” 32 And when the captains of the chariots saw Jehoshaphat, they said, “It is surely the king of Israel.” So they turned to fight against him. And Jehoshaphat cried out. 33 And when the captains of the chariots saw that it was not the king of Israel, they turned back from pursuing him. 34 But a certain man drew his bow at random and struck the king of Israel between the scale armor and the breastplate. Therefore he said to the driver of his chariot, “Turn around and carry me out of the battle, for I am wounded.” 35 And the battle continued that day, and the king was propped up in his chariot facing the Syrians, until at evening he died. And the blood of the wound flowed into the bottom of the chariot. 36 And about sunset a cry went through the army, “Every man to his city, and every man to his country!”

37 So the king died, and was brought to Samaria. And they buried the king in Samaria. 38 And they washed the chariot by the pool of Samaria, and the dogs licked up his blood, and the prostitutes washed themselves in it, according to the word of the Lord that he had spoken. 39 Now the rest of the acts of Ahab and all that he did, and the ivory house that he built and all the cities that he built, are they not written in the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Israel? 40 So Ahab slept with his fathers, and Ahaziah his son reigned in his place. 1 Kings 22:29-40 ESV

Despite being warned by the prophet Micaiah that his attack of Ramoth-gilead would end in disaster and his own death, Ahab had chosen to go through with his ill-fated plan. But in an attempt to thwart the will of God, Ahab had come up with the brilliant idea to wear a disguise that would keep the Syrians from recognizing him as the king. He knew he would be a target of Ben-Hadad’s wrath because his attack on Ramoth-gilead would be in violation of their long-standing peace agreement. And he was right to be worried because Ben-hadad had commanded his troops to focus their attention on Ahab.

Now the king of Syria had commanded the thirty-two captains of his chariots, “Fight with neither small nor great, but only with the king of Israel.” – 1 Kings 22:31 ESV

Ahab’s decision to go through with the battle despite Micaiah’s warning clearly indicates the rebellious nature of his heart and his blatant disregard for the will of Yahweh. He truly believed he could devise a plan that would allow him to escape God’s wrath and accomplish his will at the same time. Ahab was conniving and manipulative and, evidently, quite persuasive because he was somehow able to convince King Jehoshaphat of Judah to go into battle wearing his royal armor while he wore a disguise. He hoped that, in the heat of battle, the Syrians would mistake Jehoshaphat for himself and focus all their attention on him. Somehow, he convinced the king of Judah to go along with this blatant display of self-centered self-preservation.

And his plan almost worked. As the battle began, the Syrians spotted Jehoshaphat and gave chase, but they soon realized they were pursuing the wrong man. Ahab had managed to fool the Syrians, but he would not be able to hide his identity from God Almighty. And he would not be able to escape the judgment God had decreed against him.

As the battle raged, one of the Syrian archers loosed an arrow that flew through the air and ended up striking Ahab “between the scale armor and the breastplate” (1 Kings 22:34 ESV). But this seemingly lucky shot had been sovereignly ordained and directed by the hand of God. Ahab had tried to escape God’s will but had failed. His disguise had been unable to hide him from God’s all-seeing eye, and his armor had proved to be insufficient protection from God’s all-powerful judgment.

And as the battle continued all around him, Ahab slumped in his chariot, his blood pouring from his wound and his life slowly ebbing away. At sunset, he took his last labored breath and died, and the news of his demise quickly spread across the battlefield.

 …at evening he died. And the blood of the wound flowed into the bottom of the chariot. And about sunset a cry went through the army, “Every man to his city, and every man to his country!” – 1 Kings 22:35-36 ESV

Micaiah had warned Ahab that his death was inevitable because his actions were in direct violation of God’s will. If he chose to go through with his attack on Ramoth-gilead, Ahab would suffer the divine consequences. And when Ahab died, lying in a pool of his own blood on the floor of his chariot, his troops abandoned the battle. The sheep found themselves without a shepherd, so they returned to their homes in peace, just as God had predicted they would.

“I saw all Israel scattered on the mountains, as sheep that have no shepherd. And the Lord said, ‘These have no master; let each return to his home in peace.’” – 1 Kings 22:17 ESV

With Ahab’s death, the battle for Ramoth-gilead came to an abrupt end, and the armies of Syria, Israel, and Judah abandoned the field and returned home. Ahab’s body, still lying in his chariot, was returned to Samaria. Amazingly, this wicked and rebellious king was given the honor of a royal burial. But the author describes a rather macabre scene that stands in stark contrast to the state funeral given to this unrepentant and undeserving king. As Ahab’s body was interred with all the pomp and circumstance that comes with a royal funeral, servants went about the unpleasant task of washing his blood from his chariot.

…his chariot was washed beside the pool of Samaria, and dogs came and licked his blood at the place where the prostitutes bathed, just as the Lord had promised. – 1 Kings 22:38 NLT

This scene took place in direct fulfillment of the words of Elijah the prophet. He had warned King Ahab that his complicity in the death of Naboth would result in his own death.

And you shall say to him, ‘Thus says the Lord: “In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth shall dogs lick your own blood.”’” – 1 Kings 21:19 ESV

It would seem that the place where the servants chose to wash Ahab’s blood from the chariot was the same place where the innocent Naboth had been stoned to death. Ahab’s body was buried in a royal tomb, but his life’s blood was unceremoniously poured out in a place recognized for its sin and degradation. It was a site within the walls of Samaris inhabited by those who were considered unclean and immoral. And the king’s blood was literally licked up by scavenging dogs.

Ahab’s reign as king of Israel came to an abrupt and violent end. And while he would be remembered for many of his achievements, he would go down in history as one of the most wicked of all Israel’s kings. His legacy would be marked by apostasy, rebellion, idolatry, and immorality. He had proved to be a competent king, but his stubborn refusal to honor God would forever mar his reputation and leave a permanent stain on the northern kingdom of Israel. And when the author states that “Ahab slept with his fathers” (1 Kings 22:40 ESV), it is a thinly veiled inference that Ahab died unrepentant and unforgiven, just like his predecessors. While alive, Ahab made no place for God in his kingdom. In death, he would discover that he had no place in God’s kingdom. In life, he had chosen to replace God with false gods, and that decision would prove to have eternal consequences.

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

Sheep Without a Shepherd

15 And when he had come to the king, the king said to him, “Micaiah, shall we go to Ramoth-gilead to battle, or shall we refrain?” And he answered him, “Go up and triumph; the Lord will give it into the hand of the king.” 16 But the king said to him, “How many times shall I make you swear that you speak to me nothing but the truth in the name of the Lord?” 17 And he said, “I saw all Israel scattered on the mountains, as sheep that have no shepherd. And the Lord said, ‘These have no master; let each return to his home in peace.’” 18 And the king of Israel said to Jehoshaphat, “Did I not tell you that he would not prophesy good concerning me, but evil?” 19 And Micaiah said, “Therefore hear the word of the Lord: I saw the Lord sitting on his throne, and all the host of heaven standing beside him on his right hand and on his left; 20 and the Lord said, ‘Who will entice Ahab, that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?’ And one said one thing, and another said another. 21 Then a spirit came forward and stood before the Lord, saying, ‘I will entice him.’ 22 And the Lord said to him, ‘By what means?’ And he said, ‘I will go out, and will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.’ And he said, ‘You are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go out and do so.’ 23 Now therefore behold, the Lord has put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these your prophets; the Lord has declared disaster for you.”

24 Then Zedekiah the son of Chenaanah came near and struck Micaiah on the cheek and said, “How did the Spirit of the Lord go from me to speak to you?” 25 And Micaiah said, “Behold, you shall see on that day when you go into an inner chamber to hide yourself.” 26 And the king of Israel said, “Seize Micaiah, and take him back to Amon the governor of the city and to Joash the king’s son, 27 and say, ‘Thus says the king, “Put this fellow in prison and feed him meager rations of bread and water, until I come in peace.”’” 28 And Micaiah said, “If you return in peace, the Lord has not spoken by me.” And he said, “Hear, all you peoples!” 1 Kings 22:15-28 ESV

Imagine the scene. Micaiah, the prophet, has been forcibly dragged before King Ahab, who is seated on the dais with his guest, King Jehoshaphat of Judah. Surrounding the two potentates are 400 prophets of Baal, each taking turns declaring their version of the truth. For hours, they have been telling King Ahab exactly what he wants to hear: “Go up to Ramoth-gilead and triumph; the Lord will give it into the hand of the king” (1 Kings 22:12 ESV). One of them, a man named Zedekiah, had even crafted a pair of iron horns and used them as a prop to support his message to the king: “Thus says the Lord, ‘With these you shall push the Syrians until they are destroyed’” (1 Kings 22:11 ESV).

Then Micaiah shows up. Unlike the 400 yes-men who have been masquerading as spokesmen for the false god, Baal, Micaiah was a prophet of Yahweh. And, as such, he was obligated to speak only those words given to him by God. Which is exactly what Micaiah had told the man who had come to fetch him.

As the Lord lives, what the Lord says to me, that I will speak.” – 1 Kings 22:14 ESV

Yet, when King Ahab asked Micaiah to reveal what his God thought about the planned attack of Ramoth-gilead, Micaiah simply repeated the words of the false prophets. He basically told the king, “Go for it!” But Ahab sensed the thinly veiled sarcasm behind Micaiah’s answer and demanded that he tell him the truth. Ahab knew from past experience that Micaiah and his God were going to oppose his plans. He had even revealed to King Jehoshaphat just how much he loathed Micaiah, telling him, “He never prophesies anything but trouble for me!” (1 Kings 22:8 NLT).

Micaiah knew that it really didn’t matter what he told Ahab because the king would do what he wanted to do. Ahab’s stubbornness and arrogance would prevent him from hearing and heeding the message of Yahweh. But Micaiah shared it anyway.

“In a vision I saw all Israel scattered on the mountains, like sheep without a shepherd. And the Lord said, ‘Their master has been killed. Send them home in peace.’” – 1 Kings 22:17 NLT

Ahab was infuriated because Micaiah had just predicted Israel’s defeat and the king’s own death. But this less-than-encouraging message was just what Ahab had expected from the prophet of Yahweh. Just like Elijah, Micaiah proved to be a messenger of doom and gloom, bent on delivering nothing but bad news concerning Ahab’s kingly aspirations.

But Micaiah was not done. He next revealed how God had chosen to implement His plan for Ahab’s demise.

“Listen to what the Lord says! I saw the Lord sitting on his throne with all the armies of heaven around him, on his right and on his left. And the Lord said, ‘Who can entice Ahab to go into battle against Ramoth-gilead so he can be killed?’

“There were many suggestions, and finally a spirit approached the Lord and said, ‘I can do it!’

“‘How will you do this?’ the Lord asked.

“And the spirit replied, ‘I will go out and inspire all of Ahab’s prophets to speak lies.’

“‘You will succeed,’ said the Lord. ‘Go ahead and do it.’” – 1 Kings 22:19-22 NLT

Micaiah had been given a vision of a conversation that had taken place in the throne room of God Almighty. In the vision, Yahweh is portrayed as a king surrounded by his advisors and his army. He is soliciting input from the heavenly host, asking for their counsel on the best way to get Ahab to proceed with his attack on Ramoth-gilead, which will result in his death. A spirit speaks up and offers to deceive the prophets of Baal by giving them a false message of victory. God approves the plan and sends the spirit on his way. Then Micaiah informs Ahab that this is exactly what has happened.

“So you see, the Lord has put a lying spirit in the mouths of all your prophets. For the Lord has pronounced your doom.” – 1 Kings 22:23 NLT

Amazingly, Micaiah tells Ahab the stark reality of all that had just transpired. The 400 prophets had been unwittingly declaring a lie, enticing Ahab to go through with his plan to attack Ramoth-gilead and, inadvertently, bringing about his death.

Yet, even when faced with the truth, Ahab stubbornly refused to give up his plan. He ordered Micaiah’s arrest and imprisonment and commanded that he be given nothing but bread and water until he had returned safely from his battle for Ramoth-gilead. But before being hauled off to prison, Micaiah made one final pronouncement to the king and all those who stood within earshot.

“If you return safely, it will mean that the Lord has not spoken through me!” Then he added to those standing around, “Everyone mark my words!” – 1 Kings 22:28 NLT

The problem with Ahab was not just his stubbornness and idolatry. It was his refusal to shepherd the people of Israel. All his self-centered acts of self-promotion had done irreparable damage to the nation of Israel. He had led the people into apostasy and idolatry. And, as a king over God’s chosen people, he would be held responsible for his failure to care for Yahweh’s flock. Hundreds of years later, the prophet Ezekiel would declare a foreboding message from God concerning all those kings who, like Ahab, had left the people of God like sheep without a shepherd.

Then this message came to me from the LORD: “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds, the leaders of Israel. Give them this message from the Sovereign LORD: What sorrow awaits you shepherds who feed yourselves instead of your flocks. Shouldn’t shepherds feed their sheep? You drink the milk, wear the wool, and butcher the best animals, but you let your flocks starve. You have not taken care of the weak. You have not tended the sick or bound up the injured. You have not gone looking for those who have wandered away and are lost. Instead, you have ruled them with harshness and cruelty. So my sheep have been scattered without a shepherd, and they are easy prey for any wild animal. They have wandered through all the mountains and all the hills, across the face of the earth, yet no one has gone to search for them.” – Ezekiel 34:1-6 NLT

This motif of shepherdless sheep goes all the way back to the days of Moses. When the great deliverer of Israel was nearing the end of his life, he had appealed to God, asking Him to provide the people of Israel with a new shepherd.

Then Moses said to the LORD, “O LORD, you are the God who gives breath to all creatures. Please appoint a new man as leader for the community. Give them someone who will guide them wherever they go and will lead them into battle, so the community of the LORD will not be like sheep without a shepherd.” – Numbers 27:15-17 NLT

And centuries later, long after Ahab had died, Jesus would appear on the scene, offering His own assessment of the spiritual state of the people of Israel.

Jesus traveled through all the towns and villages of that area, teaching in the synagogues and announcing the Good News about the Kingdom. And he healed every kind of disease and illness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them because they were confused and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. – Matthew 9:35-36 NLT

The Good Shepherd couldn’t help but look at His own people and see them as shepherdless sheep, wandering about confused and helpless. For centuries, they had been misled and mistreated. Their political and spiritual leaders had used and abused them. Those who should have been feeding and caring for them had ended up taking advantage of them. They had followed the example of Ahab. But Jesus had arrived on the scene as the Son of David, emulating the example of the man after God’s own heart. Jesus was the quintessential shepherd, the Good Shepherd, who would lay down His life for the sheep. And like His forefather, Jesus would shepherd the flock of God with care and compassion.

He chose David his servant
    and took him from the sheepfolds;
from following the nursing ewes he brought him
    to shepherd Jacob his people,
    Israel his inheritance.
With upright heart he shepherded them
    and guided them with his skillful hand. – Psalm 78:70-72 ESV

At the end of the day, Ahab’s greatest problem was that he was a lousy shepherd. His chief sin was that he had failed to care for God’s flock. He had made his own needs a higher priority than the needs of the people. Like most of the kings of Israel and Judah, Ahab had abused his divinely ordained power and position. And he would have to answer to the Great Shepherd of Israel.

He will feed his flock like a shepherd. He will carry the lambs in his arms, holding them close to his heart. He will gently lead the mother sheep with their young. – Isaiah 40:11 NLT

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

The Pressure to Compromise Your Convictions

1 For three years Syria and Israel continued without war. But in the third year Jehoshaphat the king of Judah came down to the king of Israel. And the king of Israel said to his servants, “Do you know that Ramoth-gilead belongs to us, and we keep quiet and do not take it out of the hand of the king of Syria?” And he said to Jehoshaphat, “Will you go with me to battle at Ramoth-gilead?” And Jehoshaphat said to the king of Israel, “I am as you are, my people as your people, my horses as your horses.”

And Jehoshaphat said to the king of Israel, “Inquire first for the word of the Lord.” Then the king of Israel gathered the prophets together, about four hundred men, and said to them, “Shall I go to battle against Ramoth-gilead, or shall I refrain?” And they said, “Go up, for the Lord will give it into the hand of the king.” But Jehoshaphat said, “Is there not here another prophet of the Lord of whom we may inquire?” And the king of Israel said to Jehoshaphat, “There is yet one man by whom we may inquire of the Lord, Micaiah the son of Imlah, but I hate him, for he never prophesies good concerning me, but evil.” And Jehoshaphat said, “Let not the king say so.” Then the king of Israel summoned an officer and said, “Bring quickly Micaiah the son of Imlah.” 10 Now the king of Israel and Jehoshaphat the king of Judah were sitting on their thrones, arrayed in their robes, at the threshing floor at the entrance of the gate of Samaria, and all the prophets were prophesying before them. 11 And Zedekiah the son of Chenaanah made for himself horns of iron and said, “Thus says the Lord, ‘With these you shall push the Syrians until they are destroyed.’” 12 And all the prophets prophesied so and said, “Go up to Ramoth-gilead and triumph; the Lord will give it into the hand of the king.”

13 And the messenger who went to summon Micaiah said to him, “Behold, the words of the prophets with one accord are favorable to the king. Let your word be like the word of one of them, and speak favorably.” 14 But Micaiah said, “As the Lord lives, what the Lord says to me, that I will speak.” 1 Kings 22:1-14 ESV

King Ahab had been placed under a curse from God for having spared the life of Ben-hadad, the king of Syria. Rather than obey God’s command to put his enemy to death, Ahab had chosen to sign a peace treaty with him that would allow Israel to profit from Syria’s lucrative trading business. Yet, despite the judgment leveled against him by God, Ahab’s decision seems to have produced positive results.

The treaty that Ahab had brokered produced three years of peace and prosperity between the two nations. Israel and Syria had become allies and trading partners. According to an inscription on an Assyrian tablet discovered in 1861, Ahab and Ben-hadad had been part of a 12-nation confederation that faced Emperor Shalmaneser and the Assyrians in the battle of Qarqar in 853 BC. So, while God had decreed that Ahab’s dynasty would come to an end with his death, the king of Israel continued to enjoy a small measure of success. And his insatiable desire for glory and self-aggrandizement would eventually drive him to jeopardize his peaceful and prosperous relationship with Syria.

During the time in which Ahab had been on the throne of Israel, Jehoshaphat had become the king of Judah. He had succeeded his father, Asa. And according to the book of 2 Chronicles, Jehoshaphat had proven to be a good king.

The Lord was with Jehoshaphat, because he walked in the earlier ways of his father David. He did not seek the Baals, but sought the God of his father and walked in his commandments, and not according to the practices of Israel. Therefore the Lord established the kingdom in his hand. And all Judah brought tribute to Jehoshaphat, and he had great riches and honor. His heart was courageous in the ways of the Lord. And furthermore, he took the high places and the Asherim out of Judah. – 2 Chronicles 17:3-6 ESV

Because Jehoshaphat chose to remove all the false gods and restore the worship of the one true God, his reign was blessed, and the southern kingdom of Judah became a powerful force in the region. But Jehoshaphat, like his father before him, made the mistake of placing his trust in the Syrians. When King Baasha of Israel had begun to build a fortified city on the border between Israel and Judah, King Asa had sought the help of Ben-hadad and the Syrians. Asa “took silver and gold from the treasures of the house of the Lord and the king’s house and sent them to Ben-hadad king of Syria” (2 Chronicles 16:2 ESV). He used these funds to convince Ben-hadad to break his covenant with Israel and join forces with him. His ploy worked, and Baasha stopped construction on his military outpost. But God condemned Asa for his alliance with Ben-hadad, warning that Judah would face non-stop war during the rest of his reign. Rather than trust God, Asa had placed his hope in a foreign king who worshiped false gods.

And while his son Jehoshaphat would prove to be faithful to God, he would also make an alliance with an ungodly, idol-worshiping king.

Now Jehoshaphat had great riches and honor, and he made a marriage alliance with Ahab. After some years he went down to Ahab in Samaria. And Ahab killed an abundance of sheep and oxen for him and for the people who were with him, and induced him to go up against Ramoth-gilead. – 2 Chronicles 18:1-2 ESV

This marital alliance ended up putting Jehoshaphat in an awkward situation. While visiting Israel’s capital city of Samaria, Jehoshaphat was presented with an official request from Ahab for military assistance in recapturing the city of Ramoth-gilead from the Syrians. It galled Ahab that the Syrians had stolen a city that had once belonged to Israel, and nothing had been done about it.

“Do you know that Ramoth-gilead belongs to us, and we keep quiet and do not take it out of the hand of the king of Syria?” – 1 Kings 22:3 ESV

So, he called on Jehoshaphat to help him right this apparent wrong. And Jehoshaphat quickly and readily agreed.

“I am as you are, my people as your people, my horses as your horses.” – 1 Kings 22:4 ESV

But Jehoshaphat, anxious to remain obedient to God, asked Ahab to seek the Lord’s counsel. And it’s important to understand that Jehoshaphat wanted to know what the “Lord” (Yahweh) would have them do. But when Ahab commissioned his 400 prophets to seek the will of the gods, they came back with the answer:

“Go up, for the Lord (ăḏōnāy) will give it into the hand of the king.” – 1 Kings 22:6 ESV

These men do not mention the name of Yahweh, and Jehoshaphat seems to have immediately recognized that these were false prophets who had been seeking the will of their false god. So, he asked Ahab if there were no prophets of the one true God left in Israel. And Ahab confessed that there was one, a man named Micaiah, who he hated with a passion.

“He never prophesies anything but trouble for me!” – 1 Kings 22:8 NLT

Micaiah never told Ahab what he wanted to hear, so the king avoided him like the plague. But Jehoshaphat insisted that Micaiah be consulted before any action was taken against the Syrians.  So, reluctantly, Ahab sent someone to fetch his least-favorite prophet. In the meantime, his 400 false prophets bombarded Jehoshaphat with their cheery predictions of success.

“Go up to Ramoth-gilead and triumph; the Lord will give it into the hand of the king.” – 1 Kings 22:12 ESV

We’re not told how long it took for Micaiah to be located and brought to Samaria. But during the delay, Jehoshaphat found himself pressured to listen to the false prophets and throw in his lot with Ahab. The temptation to compromise his convictions was great. He could have easily given in and listened to the popular opinions of the crowd, but instead, Jehoshaphat waited to hear a word from Yahweh.

Even Micaiah found himself pressured to follow the party line. The messenger who located him delivered a not-so-subtle warning that there was only one answer King Ahab wanted to hear.

“Look, all the prophets are promising victory for the king. Be sure that you agree with them and promise success.” – 1 Kings 22: 13 NLT

But Micaiah would not be bullied into submission. He knew how much Ahab hated him, and he would be risking his life to disobey a direct order from the king. But his allegiance to Yahweh was greater than his fear of Ahab. So, he told the messenger, “As surely as the Lord lives, I will say only what the Lord tells me to say” (1 Kings 22:14 NLT).

That must have been a long and awkward trip back to Samaria for the messenger. He probably feared for his own life because he knew the prophet would give the king bad news. Everyone who worked for Ahab and all the people who lived in Israel knew that their king had no love affair with Yahweh. He had spent his entire reign promoting the worship of false gods like Baal and Asherah. And he had done everything he could do to ignore and even eliminate the prophets of God. Ahab knew exactly what Micaiah was going to say when he showed up, and it would not be what he wanted to hear. Ahab needed Jehoshaphat’s help, and he knew that Jehoshaphat’s God would stand opposed to his ambitious plans to recapture Ramoth-gilead. Ahab didn’t want to hear from God because he was not willing to do the will of 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

The Just and Righteous Judgment of God

17 Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying, 18 “Arise, go down to meet Ahab king of Israel, who is in Samaria; behold, he is in the vineyard of Naboth, where he has gone to take possession. 19 And you shall say to him, ‘Thus says the Lord, “Have you killed and also taken possession?”’ And you shall say to him, ‘Thus says the Lord: “In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth shall dogs lick your own blood.”’”

20 Ahab said to Elijah, “Have you found me, O my enemy?” He answered, “I have found you, because you have sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord. 21 Behold, I will bring disaster upon you. I will utterly burn you up, and will cut off from Ahab every male, bond or free, in Israel. 22 And I will make your house like the house of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, and like the house of Baasha the son of Ahijah, for the anger to which you have provoked me, and because you have made Israel to sin. 23 And of Jezebel the Lord also said, ‘The dogs shall eat Jezebel within the walls of Jezreel.’ 24 Anyone belonging to Ahab who dies in the city the dogs shall eat, and anyone of his who dies in the open country the birds of the heavens shall eat.”

25 (There was none who sold himself to do what was evil in the sight of the Lord like Ahab, whom Jezebel his wife incited. 26 He acted very abominably in going after idols, as the Amorites had done, whom the Lord cast out before the people of Israel.)

27 And when Ahab heard those words, he tore his clothes and put sackcloth on his flesh and fasted and lay in sackcloth and went about dejectedly. 28 And the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying, 29 “Have you seen how Ahab has humbled himself before me? Because he has humbled himself before me, I will not bring the disaster in his days; but in his son’s days I will bring the disaster upon his house.” 1 Kings 21:17-29 ESV

Ahab was busy surveying his newly acquired vineyard when he received a surprise visit from his old arch-nemesis, Elijah the prophet. The king had been making plans to transform Naboth’s vineyard into his own personal garden, but Elijah was about to replace Ahab’s dream with a nightmare.

Elijah, speaking on behalf of God, leveled the charge against Ahab in the form of a condemning question: “Haven’t you committed murder and taken possession of the property of the deceased?” (1 Kings 21:19 NET). Elijah wasn’t looking for a confession from Ahab because his guilt was well-established. Jezebel’s little ploy to falsely accuse Naboth of cursing God and the king had fooled no one, most especially God. And before Ahab could respond, Elijah delivered the next part of his message.

“This is what the Lord has said: ‘In the spot where dogs licked up Naboth’s blood they will also lick up your blood—yes, yours!’” – 1 Kings 21:19 NET

It’s important to recall that Ahab was already under a curse from God for his refusal to execute Ben-hadad, the king of Syria. After Ahab had decided to spare Ben-hadad so that he might sign a trade agreement with him, God had sent a prophet with a dire pronouncement:

Because you have spared the man I said must be destroyed, now you must die in his place, and your people will die instead of his people.” – 1 Kings 20:42 NLT

Ahab had spared the life of a man whom God had condemned to death, and then he had murdered a man who undeserving of death. And, as a result, Ahab found himself under a double-curse from God. The first prophet had told Ahab that he would die for his first act of rebellion against God. Now, Elijah informed Ahab that his murder of Naboth had determined the nature of his death. It would be a violent and humiliating death, with the king’s blood poured out on the very same spot where Naboth had been unjustly stoned to death. And the only ones present at his death would be the wild dogs that would feast on his blood.

But Elijah’s words appear to have made no impact on Ahab. He simply responded, So, my enemy, you have found me! (1 Kings 21:20 NLT). He expresses no fear. He acknowledges no guilt. So, Elijah provided the stubborn and unrepentant king with further details concerning his fate. The prophet had traveled all the way to Jezreel for this confrontation because Ahad was totally committed to doing evil in the sight of the Lord. He had no morals or scruples and displayed no fear of or respect for Yahweh. He did whatever he wanted to do without ever considering whether his actions were in keeping with the will of God. And now he would learn the price he would have to pay for his rebellion. Ahab would face the same fate as two of his predecessors: Jeroboam and Baasha.

“I will bring disaster on you and consume you. I will destroy every one of your male descendants, slave and free alike, anywhere in Israel! I am going to destroy your family as I did the family of Jeroboam son of Nebat and the family of Baasha son of Ahijah, for you have made me very angry and have led Israel into sin.” – 1 Kings 21:21-22 NLT

Ahab’s dreams of building a kingdom and a legacy that would last for generations had been forfeited. There would be no dynasty because God was going to eliminate all his male heirs. Ahab would have no sons to sit on his throne after him. And it should be noted that Elijah delivered this message on the very plot of land on which Ahab had hoped to build a garden. His dreams of fruitfulness were being dashed by God. He and his wicked wife, Jezebel, would be the last of their line because God was going to wipe out their heirs and destroy all hope of them propagating their legacy of sin and rebellion. Elijah let the king know that Jezebel would also pay dearly for her role in leading Israel into idolatry and apostasy. In fact, Ahab’s entire household would end up suffering degrading deaths as judgment for his sin.

“Dogs will eat Jezebel’s body at the plot of land in Jezreel. The members of Ahab’s family who die in the city will be eaten by dogs, and those who die in the field will be eaten by vultures.” – 1 Kings 21:23-24 NLT

At this point, the author provides a parenthetical commentary, intended to explain the harshness of God’s judgment. When it came to committing acts of wickedness and evil among the rulers of Israel, Ahab and Jezebel were the poster-couple. Despite the abysmal track records of Jeroboam and Baasha, Ahab and Jezebel had managed to establish an all-new low when it came to doing evil in the sight of the Lord.

Even for the callous and hard-hearted Ahab, this news was far more than he could bear. When the full scope of God’s judgment had finally registered in Ahab’s brain, he was devastated.

…he tore his clothes and put sackcloth on his flesh and fasted and lay in sackcloth and went about dejectedly. – 1 Kings 21:27 ESV

And, evidently, his display of sorrow and repentance was real because God acknowledged it as such.

“Do you see how Ahab has humbled himself before me? Because he has done this, I will not do what I promised during his lifetime. It will happen to his sons; I will destroy his dynasty.” – 1 Kings 21:29 NLT

Because Ahab had finally managed to display a semblance of humility and remorse for his actions, God would show mercy to Ahab. He would allow Ahab to live out his life, but Ahab’s son, Joram, would have to suffer in his place. Joram would have his blood spilled on the ground where Naboth was stoned to death (2 Kings 9:25-26). And there is no indication that Jezebel ever repented, so she would still have to endure the judgment God had prescribed for her many sins. Her humiliating and gruesome death is recorded in the book of 2 Kings.

When Jezebel, the queen mother, heard that Jehu had come to Jezreel, she painted her eyelids and fixed her hair and sat at a window. When Jehu entered the gate of the palace, she shouted at him, “Have you come in peace, you murderer? You’re just like Zimri, who murdered his master!”

Jehu looked up and saw her at the window and shouted, “Who is on my side?” And two or three eunuchs looked out at him. “Throw her down!” Jehu yelled. So they threw her out the window, and her blood spattered against the wall and on the horses. And Jehu trampled her body under his horses’ hooves.

Then Jehu went into the palace and ate and drank. Afterward he said, “Someone go and bury this cursed woman, for she is the daughter of a king.” But when they went out to bury her, they found only her skull, her feet, and her hands.

When they returned and told Jehu, he stated, “This fulfills the message from the Lord, which he spoke through his servant Elijah from Tishbe: ‘At the plot of land in Jezreel, dogs will eat Jezebel’s body. Her remains will be scattered like dung on the plot of land in Jezreel, so that no one will be able to recognize her.’” – 2 Kings 9:32-37 NLT

Ahab and Jezebel had lived their lives according to their own standards. They had attempted to replace Yahweh with their own gods. They had repeatedly violated His commands and had ruled the people of Israel according to their own selfish agenda. But they would pay dearly for their rebellion. Their wickedness would result in the righteous and just judgment of 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

The High Cost of Getting Your Own Way

1 Now Naboth the Jezreelite had a vineyard in Jezreel, beside the palace of Ahab king of Samaria. And after this Ahab said to Naboth, “Give me your vineyard, that I may have it for a vegetable garden, because it is near my house, and I will give you a better vineyard for it; or, if it seems good to you, I will give you its value in money.” But Naboth said to Ahab, “The Lord forbid that I should give you the inheritance of my fathers.” And Ahab went into his house vexed and sullen because of what Naboth the Jezreelite had said to him, for he had said, “I will not give you the inheritance of my fathers.” And he lay down on his bed and turned away his face and would eat no food.

But Jezebel his wife came to him and said to him, “Why is your spirit so vexed that you eat no food?” And he said to her, “Because I spoke to Naboth the Jezreelite and said to him, ‘Give me your vineyard for money, or else, if it please you, I will give you another vineyard for it.’ And he answered, ‘I will not give you my vineyard.’” And Jezebel his wife said to him, “Do you now govern Israel? Arise and eat bread and let your heart be cheerful; I will give you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite.”

So she wrote letters in Ahab’s name and sealed them with his seal, and she sent the letters to the elders and the leaders who lived with Naboth in his city. And she wrote in the letters, “Proclaim a fast, and set Naboth at the head of the people. 10 And set two worthless men opposite him, and let them bring a charge against him, saying, ‘You have cursed God and the king.’ Then take him out and stone him to death.” 11 And the men of his city, the elders and the leaders who lived in his city, did as Jezebel had sent word to them. As it was written in the letters that she had sent to them, 12 they proclaimed a fast and set Naboth at the head of the people. 13 And the two worthless men came in and sat opposite him. And the worthless men brought a charge against Naboth in the presence of the people, saying, “Naboth cursed God and the king.” So they took him outside the city and stoned him to death with stones. 14 Then they sent to Jezebel, saying, “Naboth has been stoned; he is dead.”

15 As soon as Jezebel heard that Naboth had been stoned and was dead, Jezebel said to Ahab, “Arise, take possession of the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, which he refused to give you for money, for Naboth is not alive, but dead.” 16 And as soon as Ahab heard that Naboth was dead, Ahab arose to go down to the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, to take possession of it. 1 Kings 21:1-16 ESV

Chapter 20 ended with the statement: And the king of Israel went to his house vexed and sullen and came to Samaria” (1 Kings 20:43 ESV). The author used two Hebrew words, sar and zāʿēp̄, to describe Ahab’s state of mind. And like most words in the Hebrew language, these two words carry a range of meanings. When we read that Ahab was “vexed and sullen,” it conjures up images of an unhappy child who is pouting because he didn’t get his way. But Ahab wasn’t just throwing himself a pity party; he was angry and resentful. And it’s easy to understand the intensity of his emotions when we consider the severity of God’s judgment. Ahab had chosen to spare the life of Ben-hadad so that he could sign a potentially lucrative treaty with him. But this decision was had not been God’s will, and Ahab would suffer greatly for it.

“Because you have let go out of your hand the man whom I had devoted to destruction, therefore your life shall be for his life, and your people for his people.” – 1 Kings 20:42 ESV

With that bit of bad news still ringing in his ears, Ahab had left the Valley of Aphek and returned to his palace in Samaria. When he arrived, he was in a dark mental state. The New English Translation describes him as “bitter and angry.” He deeply resented the punishment meted out to him by God. The Hebrew word sar conveys the idea of a stubborn, almost rebellious resistance to this God-ordained fate. And the word zāʿēp̄ lets the reader know that Ahab was wearing his emotions on his sleeve. His anger was visible. Since he couldn’t take out his anger on God, it spilled over onto all those around him. Even his neighbor, Naboth.

At some point after the victory over the Syrians, Ahab visited his summer palace in Jezreel. One day, while surveying the grounds of his palace, he noticed Naboth’s vineyard, which was located nearby. Seeing that this was fertile land, Ahab determined that it would make a fine spot to plant a garden for his palace. So, he approached Naboth with an offer.

“Since your vineyard is so convenient to my palace, I would like to buy it to use as a vegetable garden. I will give you a better vineyard in exchange, or if you prefer, I will pay you for it.” – 1 Kings 21:2 NLT

But Naboth politely turned down the king’s generous offer, explaining that the land on which the vineyard was located was part of his inheritance. According to Mosaic Law, the Israelites were forbidden to sell the land that God had given to them as their inheritance. The book of Leviticus outlined this divine prohibition against property transactions involving land dedicated to the various tribes of Israel.

“The land must never be sold on a permanent basis, for the land belongs to me. You are only foreigners and tenant farmers working for me.” – Leviticus 25:23 NLT

The book of Numbers provides further clarification concerning God’s ban on the transfer or sale of any of the land He had allotted to the 12 tribes.

The inheritance of the people of Israel shall not be transferred from one tribe to another, for every one of the people of Israel shall hold on to the inheritance of the tribe of his fathers. – Numbers 36:7 NLT

Naboth was simply obeying the law as given by God to Moses. He was legally prohibited from accepting Ahab’s offer. But none of this mattered to Ahab. And Naboth’s firm but polite response produced in Ahab the same effect as God’s earlier warning of judgment.

And Ahab went into his house vexed and sullen because of what Naboth the Jezreelite had said to him – 1 Kings 21:4 ESV

Ahab responded with bitterness and anger. But notice that his anger was not directed at Naboth but at what Naboth had said. When Naboth informed the king that he could not sell him the land, his justification had been based on the law of God. Once again, God had interfered with Ahab’s plans, and it left him a strong sense of resentment and frustration. His anger was with God and His constant intervention into his affairs. Ahab couldn’t even buy a vineyard without running into this ever-present God who seemed to stick His nose into everything. Denied his desire for a garden, Ahab allowed his anger to turn to depression and deep despondency, even refusing to eat.

Concerned about the deteriorating condition of her husband’s mental health, Jezebel asked Ahab for an explanation. But notice the brevity of his reply. Rather than give Jezebel the full context of his conversation with Naboth, he simply states that he made a fair offer that was summarily rebuffed. His recollection of what Naboth said is anything but accurate. He mentions nothing about God’s ban on the sale of tribal land. He simply states that Naboth refused his offer.

Frustrated by her husband’s sullen state and obvious lack of initiative, she accuses him of forgetting who he is and the kind of power he possesses. “Are you the king of Israel or not?” she asks him. From Jezebel’s perspective, Ahab had abdicated his divine rights as the king. He was the sovereign over all of Israel, and he had the power to do whatever he wanted to do. No one, including Naboth, had the right to stand in his way. And to prove it, she implemented a plan to put Naboth in his place and the vineyard in her husband’s possession.

This pagan queen, who had introduced the worship of Baal to the nation of Israel, hired false witnesses to accuse Naboth of cursing the God of Israel. These men were to show up at a fast, held in honor of Yahweh, and declare that Naboth had cursed both God and the king. And Jezebel had pre-arranged with the elders of Jezreel that they would immediately stone Naboth to death for this fictitious crime.

And everything went just as Jezebel had planned. Naboth was falsely accused and executed. When the elders of Jezreel informed Jezebel that Naboth was dead, she immediately shared the good news with Ahab.

“Arise, take possession of the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, which he refused to give you for money, for Naboth is not alive, but dead.” – 1 Kings 21:15 ESV

Notice that Ahab asks for no explanations. He doesn’t ask his wife a single question concerning Naboth’s well-timed death. He simply got out of bed, put on his royal robes, and took possession of the land that would soon be his new garden. He got what he wanted and didn’t seem to care how it had happened. But Jezebel’s actions had only made things worse. She had falsely accused an innocent man and had orchestrated his unlawful execution. And she had still violated God’s law concerning the land inheritance. According to Mosaic Law, Naboth’s land would have passed on to his descendants. God had made it clear that the land He had given to the tribes as their inheritance was to remain within their possession.

“…give the following instructions to the people of Israel: If a man dies and has no son, then give his inheritance to his daughters. And if he has no daughter either, transfer his inheritance to his brothers. If he has no brothers, give his inheritance to his father’s brothers. But if his father has no brothers, give his inheritance to the nearest relative in his clan. This is a legal requirement for the people of Israel, just as the Lord commanded Moses.”  – Numbers 27:8-11 NLT

Jezebel’s murder of Naboth was wrong on every level. She had violated a range of divine decrees to get her husband what he wanted. Her blind ambition resulted in unconscionable behavior that would only exacerbate God’s judgment against her husband. Ahab had his vineyard. Jezebel had her husband back. But their joy would soon turn to sorrow. They had both gotten what they wanted, but their personal achievements would come with a high price. Ahab’s new garden, while free, would cost him dearly. And Jezebel’s plot to murder Naboth, while successful, would come with a hefty price tag for which she would pay dearly.

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

Snatching Defeat From the Jaws of Victory

29 And they encamped opposite one another seven days. Then on the seventh day the battle was joined. And the people of Israel struck down of the Syrians 100,000 foot soldiers in one day. 30 And the rest fled into the city of Aphek, and the wall fell upon 27,000 men who were left.

Ben-hadad also fled and entered an inner chamber in the city. 31 And his servants said to him, “Behold now, we have heard that the kings of the house of Israel are merciful kings. Let us put sackcloth around our waists and ropes on our heads and go out to the king of Israel. Perhaps he will spare your life.” 32 So they tied sackcloth around their waists and put ropes on their heads and went to the king of Israel and said, “Your servant Ben-hadad says, ‘Please, let me live.’” And he said, “Does he still live? He is my brother.” 33 Now the men were watching for a sign, and they quickly took it up from him and said, “Yes, your brother Ben-hadad.” Then he said, “Go and bring him.” Then Ben-hadad came out to him, and he caused him to come up into the chariot. 34 And Ben-hadad said to him, “The cities that my father took from your father I will restore, and you may establish bazaars for yourself in Damascus, as my father did in Samaria.” And Ahab said, “I will let you go on these terms.” So he made a covenant with him and let him go.

35 And a certain man of the sons of the prophets said to his fellow at the command of the Lord, “Strike me, please.” But the man refused to strike him. 36 Then he said to him, “Because you have not obeyed the voice of the Lord, behold, as soon as you have gone from me, a lion shall strike you down.” And as soon as he had departed from him, a lion met him and struck him down. 37 Then he found another man and said, “Strike me, please.” And the man struck him—struck him and wounded him. 38 So the prophet departed and waited for the king by the way, disguising himself with a bandage over his eyes. 39 And as the king passed, he cried to the king and said, “Your servant went out into the midst of the battle, and behold, a soldier turned and brought a man to me and said, ‘Guard this man; if by any means he is missing, your life shall be for his life, or else you shall pay a talent of silver.’ 40 And as your servant was busy here and there, he was gone.” The king of Israel said to him, “So shall your judgment be; you yourself have decided it.” 41 Then he hurried to take the bandage away from his eyes, and the king of Israel recognized him as one of the prophets. 42 And he said to him, “Thus says the Lord, ‘Because you have let go out of your hand the man whom I had devoted to destruction, therefore your life shall be for his life, and your people for his people.’” 43 And the king of Israel went to his house vexed and sullen and came to Samaria. – 1 Kings 20:29-43 ESV

The arrival of spring in Israel was accompanied by the revitalized and greatly enlarged Syrian army. King Ben-hadad had led his forces to the Valley of Aphek, carefully avoiding any confrontation with the Israelites in the hill country, where he believed their gods wielded special power. A battle on the level plains of Aphek would give his chariots a distinct advantage and help ensure a victory over the hated Israelites.

For six days, the two armies remained in their respective camps, waiting for the opportune moment to launch the attack. The much smaller Israelite force was led by King Ahab, who had been received word from a prophet that God would give them the victory that day.

“Because the Syrians have said, ‘The Lord is a god of the hills but he is not a god of the valleys,’ therefore I will give all this great multitude into your hand, and you shall know that I am the Lord.” – 1 Kings 20:28 ESV

Ben-hadad was operating on misinformation. His advisors had convinced him that the Israelites’ gods were limited in their power. They were “gods of the hills” (1 Kings 20:23 ESV) and would be incapable of dictating the outcome of the battle as long as the Syrians fought the Israelites on neutral ground. But Ben-hadad would find that his strategy for success was greatly flawed. He had amassed a huge army and had chosen the ideal location that would eliminate any interference from the gods of his enemy – or so he thought.

On the seventh day, the battle began. And much to Ben-hadad’s shock and dismay, his forces were quickly overwhelmed by Israel’s inferior army. The author summarized the battle by stating, “the people of Israel struck down of the Syrians 100,000 foot soldiers in one day. And the rest fled into the city of Aphek, and the wall fell upon 27,000 men who were left” (1 Kings 20:29-30 ESV).

We’re not told the size of Ben-hadad’s army, but these numbers reflect staggering losses that would have proved devastating to the Syrians. In one day, in a single battle, they lost 127,000 men. And the mention of the 27,000 who were crushed by the walls of the city is intended to reveal the hand of God in this victory. It is a subtle yet unmistakable reference to Israel’s victory over the city of Jericho when they first entered the land of promise. For six days, the Israelites had marched around the circumference of the city. But on the seventh day, following God’s instructions, they circled the walls seven times and then blew their trumpets.

So the people shouted, and the trumpets were blown. As soon as the people heard the sound of the trumpet, the people shouted a great shout, and the wall fell down flat, so that the people went up into the city, every man straight before him, and they captured the city. – Joshua 6:20 ESV

And what the Israelites did next is important. Following God’s commands, they devoted everything in the city to destruction.

…they burned the city with fire, and everything in it. Only the silver and gold, and the vessels of bronze and of iron, they put into the treasury of the house of the Lord. – Joshua 6:24 ESV

With this as a backdrop, Ahab’s actions and the reaction of God will make much more sense. Having escaped the battlefield and successfully avoiding the falling wall, Ben-hadad sought refuge inside the city. He was trapped and at the mercy of King Ahab. So, his advisors counseled him to surrender and appeal for clemency. After all, they advised him, “the kings of the house of Israel are merciful kings” (1 Kings 20:30 ESV).

The always shrewd and self-aggrandizing Ahab probably saw this as an opportunity to ingratiate the defeated Syrian king and secure a beneficial treaty between their two nations. By allowing Ben-hadad to live, Ahab hoped to open up new trading opportunities that would further enhance his power and wealth. But at no point does the passage show Ahab seeking the will of God in this matter. God had given him the victory, but Ahab was taking the credit by determining the fate of the defeated Syrian king.

God had promised to give the Syrians into Ahab’s hand, and He had delivered on that promise. And the unexpected victory was intended to reveal to the Israelites that Yahweh was Lord. With his decision to spare Ben-hadad, Ahab was essentially declaring himself to be lord. He was in control. It was his kingdom, and, as sovereign, he believed he had the right to decide what was best for Israel.

Ahab struck a deal with Ben-hadad, agreeing to return land that had once belonged to the Syrians on the condition that they set up trading posts. Ahab was in it for what he could get out of it. This arrangement with the Syrians made strategic and fiscal sense in his mind. By securing a treaty with the Syrians, he could create a buffer on his northern border, providing protection from the Assyrians’ growing menace. But he also knew he could benefit financially by gaining access to the Syrian’s lucrative trading business. In Ahab’s mind, this was a win-win scenario.

But God had other plans. He commissioned yet another prophet, sending him with a word of warning to Ahab. But to carry out his assignment, the unnamed prophet was required to sustain an injury that would allow him to gain access to the king. When this prophet asked one of his colleagues to assist him, his request was denied. His fellow prophet refused to take part in this bizarre plan, and it ended up costing him his life.

“Because you have not obeyed the voice of the Lord, a lion will kill you as soon as you leave me.” And when he had gone, a lion did attack and kill him. – 1 Kings 20:36 ESV

This man’s refusal to do what the prophet of God said was essentially a rejection of God’s will, and he was condemned for his disobedience. As strange and difficult to understand as it may be, this incident is meant to illustrate the importance of following the will of God. Like Ahab, this unnamed prophet had decided to operate according to his own will. And just as God had held his reluctant and disobedience prophet culpable for his actions, so too would he hold Ahab accountable for his decision to spare the life of Ben-hadad.

The prophet finally found someone to strike him in the face, creating a convincing injury that would allow him to disguise himself as a wounded soldier. His face covered in a bandage, the prophet sat beside the road, waiting for King Ahab to pass by. When the king arrived, the man explained that he had been in the battle that day. At some point, he had been given the responsibility to watch over a prisoner. He was warned that he would be killed or forced to pay a substantial fine if he allowed the prisoner to escape. But while the man had been distracted, the prisoner had gotten away.

And Ahab, who had just extended undeserved mercy to the king of Syria, refused to show a fellow Israelite any mercy or empathy. He simply stated, “So shall your judgment be; you yourself have decided it” (1 Kings 20:40 ESV). And with those callous words, Ahab unwittingly condemned himself. As soon as the prophet removed the bandage that covered his face, Ahab recognized him as one of the prophets of Yahweh. And what Ahab heard next left him “vexed and sullen” (1 Kings 20:43 ESV).

“This is what the Lord says: Because you have spared the man I said must be destroyed, now you must die in his place, and your people will die instead of his people.” – 1 Kings 20:42 NLT

Ahab had stubbornly refused to acknowledge Yahweh as Lord. He continued to view himself as the true sovereign over Israel. But because he chose to reject God as King, Ahab and his people would suffer the fate intended for Ben-hadad and the people of Syria. Ahab’s self-centered and self-promoting actions would bring the judgment of God and turn a divinely ordained victory into death and defeat. One way or the other, Ahab and the people of Israel were going to know that God is Lord.

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

Getting to Know God the Hard Way

16 And they went out at noon, while Ben-hadad was drinking himself drunk in the booths, he and the thirty-two kings who helped him. 17 The servants of the governors of the districts went out first. And Ben-hadad sent out scouts, and they reported to him, “Men are coming out from Samaria.” 18 He said, “If they have come out for peace, take them alive. Or if they have come out for war, take them alive.”

19 So these went out of the city, the servants of the governors of the districts and the army that followed them. 20 And each struck down his man. The Syrians fled, and Israel pursued them, but Ben-hadad king of Syria escaped on a horse with horsemen. 21 And the king of Israel went out and struck the horses and chariots, and struck the Syrians with a great blow.

22 Then the prophet came near to the king of Israel and said to him, “Come, strengthen yourself, and consider well what you have to do, for in the spring the king of Syria will come up against you.”

23 And the servants of the king of Syria said to him, “Their gods are gods of the hills, and so they were stronger than we. But let us fight against them in the plain, and surely we shall be stronger than they. 24 And do this: remove the kings, each from his post, and put commanders in their places, 25 and muster an army like the army that you have lost, horse for horse, and chariot for chariot. Then we will fight against them in the plain, and surely we shall be stronger than they.” And he listened to their voice and did so. 

26 In the spring, Ben-hadad mustered the Syrians and went up to Aphek to fight against Israel. 27 And the people of Israel were mustered and were provisioned and went against them. The people of Israel encamped before them like two little flocks of goats, but the Syrians filled the country.

28 And a man of God came near and said to the king of Israel, “Thus says the Lord, ‘Because the Syrians have said, “The Lord is a god of the hills but he is not a god of the valleys,” therefore I will give all this great multitude into your hand, and you shall know that I am the Lord.’”1 Kings 20:16-28 ESV

King Ahab found himself in a strange predicament. His capital city, Samaria, was under attack by a confederation of 32 kings, led by King Ben-hadad of Syria. But much to Ahab’s surprise, a prophet of Yahweh had appeared with a plan for Israel’s deliverance.

“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.” – 1 Kings 20:13 ESV

The very God whom Ahab and Jezebel had attempted to replace with their false gods had announced that He was going to rescue His disobedient and unfaithful people. And God had told Ahab exactly how the victory would take place.

By the servants of the governors of the districts.” – 1 Kings 20:14 ESV

God was not going to utilize Ahab’s army to fight the Syrians. This is significant because Ahab, like all his predecessors, had assembled a large military force. There is even evidence to that fact, found on an ancient Assyrian stone tablet. It bears an inscription describing the battle of Qarqar between Ahab and his enemy King Shalmaneser III of Assyria. The tablet records the size of the army that assembled to do battle that day: “2,000 chariots and 10,000 men of Ahab king of Israel.”

But on this occasion, God chose to place Ahab’s formidable resources in a secondary position, choosing instead to use “servants” – a group of common people who, when assembled, amounted to only 7,000 in number.

Confident that he would defeat the Israelites, Ben-hadad and his vassal kings were drinking themselves drunk in a pre-victory celebration. So, when scouts arrived with a report that Israelite forces had been seen leaving the city, Beh-hadad had assumed they were bringing news of Israel’s surrender or their decision to continue the battle. While he and his military commanders continued to toast their inevitable victory, the 7,000 servants made their way to the Syrian camp, followed by Ahab and his army.

This surprise attack caught the Syrian forces completely unawares and unable to respond. Led by the 7,000 servants, Ahab’s army quickly routed the Syrians, forcing them to abandon camp and run for their lives. Quickly sobered by this unexpected reversal of fortunes, Beh-hadad managed to escape. But the rest of his forces didn’t fare as well.

And the king of Israel went out and struck the horses and chariots, and struck the Syrians with a great blow. – 1 Kings 20:21 ESV

Notice that the author conveniently eliminates any mention of Ahab’s name. He simply refers to him as “the king of Israel.” He repeats this obvious slight in the very next verse, refusing to give Ahab any credit for the victory. He simply warns him that the battle may be done, but the war is from over.

“Come, strengthen yourself, and consider well what you have to do, for in the spring the king of Syria will come up against you.” – 1 Kings 20:22 ESV

Ben-hadad would be back. He had suffered a devastating defeat, but once he had time to assess what had happened that day, the Syrian king would return, more determined than ever to avenge his loss by destroying the Israelites. And his advisors encouraged his plans by suggesting that his loss had been divinely ordained. In their pagan way of thinking, the only thing that could explain a loss of this magnitude was the intervention of the gods. They rationalized away their defeat by concluding that they had chosen the wrong place to do battle.  They absolved Beh-hadad of any responsibility for the loss by assuring him, “Their gods are gods of the hills, and so they were stronger than we. But let us fight against them in the plain, and surely we shall be stronger than they” (1 Kings 20:23 ESV).

Little did they know how right they were. Their defeat had been the result of divine intervention, but geographic location had played no role in it. Yahweh was the God of the hills and the valleys. He was sovereign over all the earth. Unlike their false gods, Yahweh was unbound by time and space. The extent of His power was limitless. To the God of Israel, the location and the size of the opposing army made no difference. And so, when Ben-hadad’s advisors counseled him to rebuild his army and restructure his military command, it would prove to be futile advice. They had no idea what they were dealing with and their ignorance led them to make some very dangerous assumptions. First, they assumed that the God of Israel was similar to their own gods – limited in power and vulnerable to defeat. After all, their gods had failed to deliver them. So, if they could find Yahweh’s weak spots, the next battle would go their way.

And Ben-hadad, eager to avenge his loss, took their advice and spent the winter rebuilding his army. He replaced the 32 kings with seasoned military commanders. He ordered the construction of new chariots. And he made plans to take the fight to the valley, where the God of Israel would have no power and play no role in the outcome of the battle.

It is fascinating to consider that all of this was in the sovereign will of God. He had orchestrated all the details concerning the original battle, including Ben-hadad’s escape. God had even told Ahab that the Syrians would return. Ben-hadad’s rebuilding and reconfiguring of his army had been part of God’s plan. The original battle had been intended to restore the Israelites’ belief in God. Prior to their victory, God had told them, “I will give it into your hand this day, and you shall know that I am the Lord” (1 Kings 20:13 ESV).

But God knew that little had changed in Israel. Even after their miraculous defeat of the Syrians, the people still remained unconvinced of Yahweh’s status as the one true God. When spring rolled around, they found themselves facing their former foe again. This time, Beh-hadad showed up with a much larger and better-equipped army than before, and rather than laying siege to the city, they gathered in the Valley of Aphek. Ben-hadad had brought a bigger, better army and had chosen a battleground that was outside the reach of Yahweh’s power. Or so he thought.

The stage was set. The enemy of Israel had returned. And the author paints a rather bleak and foreboding picture of the situation.

Israel then mustered its army, set up supply lines, and marched out for battle. But the Israelite army looked like two little flocks of goats in comparison to the vast Aramean forces that filled the countryside! – 1 Kings 20:27 NLT

Here was Israel, outnumbered and underequipped yet again. They were no match for the Syrians. And this time, they would not have the walls of the city to protect them. They would be fighting on open terrain, facing an army equipped with chariots and horses and motivated by revenge.

But God sent another prophet with a promise of His presence and power.

“Thus says the Lord, ‘Because the Syrians have said, “The Lord is a god of the hills but he is not a god of the valleys,” therefore I will give all this great multitude into your hand, and you shall know that I am the Lord.’” – 1 Kings 20:28 ESV

Despite the overwhelming odds, God would provide another victory over their enemy. By the time this day was over, they would know that He was the one true God. But notice that in verse 28, the author leaves out Ahab’s name again. He simply refers to him as “the king of Israel.” God was going to deliver this victory despite Ahab, not because of him. Not only did Ahab deserve to lose this battle, but he also deserved to die for his blatant rebellion against God. But God was acting on behalf of His covenant people. He was doing this to protect the integrity and honor of His name. He had made covenant promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He had given His word to Moses and David. And while Ahab had failed to use his position as the shepherd of Israel to lead them in faithful obedience, God would prove Himself true to His word and committed to His covenant promises.

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

The Faithful Few

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. And he sent messengers into the city to Ahab king of Israel and said to him, “Thus says Ben-hadad: ‘Your silver and your gold are mine; your best wives and children also are mine.’” And the king of Israel answered, “As you say, my lord, O king, I am yours, and all that I have.” 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.” 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.’”

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.” And all the elders and all the people said to him, “Do not listen or consent.” 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

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