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The contents of 1 Kings 20 have presented quite a problem to most of those who have written thereon. It opens with the statement, “And Benhadad the king of Syria gathered all his host together: and there were thirty and two kings with him, and horses and chariots: and he went up and besieged Samaria, and warred against it.” So confident of victory was he that he sent messengers to Ahab saying, “Thy silver and thy gold is mine; thy wives also and thy children” (v. 3). Having seen something of the accumulated and aggravated sins of Ahab, we might well suppose the Lord would give success to this enterprise of Benhadad’s and use him to humiliate and punish Ahab and his apostate consort. But this expectation is not realized. Strange as that appears, our surprise is greatly increased when we learn that a prophet came unto Ahab saying, “Thus saith the Lord, Hast thou seen all this great multitude? behold, I will deliver it into thine hand this day; and thou shalt know that I am the Lord” (v. 13). In the immediate sequel we behold the fulfilment of that prediction: “The king of Israel went out, and smote the horses and chariots, and slew the Syrians with a great slaughter” (v. 21): thus the victory was not with Benhadad but with Ahab.
Nor does the above incident stand alone, for the next thing we read of is: “And the prophet came to the king of Israel, and said unto him, Go, strengthen thyself, and mark, and see what thou doest: for at the return of the year the king of Syria will come up against thee” (v. 22). This seems passing strange: that the Lord should come to the help of such a one as Ahab. Again the prediction was fulfilled, for Benhadad came with such immense forces that the army of Israel appeared “like two little flocks of kids, but the Syrians filled the country” (v. 27). Once more, a prophet came to Ahab saying, “Thus saith the Lord, Because the Syrians have said, The Lord is God of the hills, but He is not God of the valleys, therefore will I deliver all this great multitude into thine hand, and ye shall know that am the Lord” (v. 28). The outcome was that “The children of Israel slew of the Syrians a hundred thousand footmen in one day” (v. 29). But because he allowed Benhadad to go free, another prophet announced unto Ahab, “Thy life shall go for his life” (v. 42).
God’s time to destroy Ahab and all who followed him in idolatry had not yet come. It was through Hazael and not Benhadad the Divine vengeance was to be wrought. But if the hour of retribution had not then arrived, why was Benhadad permitted thus to menace the land of Samaria? Ah, it is the answer to that question which casts light upon the above problem. The “day of the Lord” is deferred because God is long-suffering to His elect, “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” ( 2 Peter 3:9,10).
Not until Noah and his family were safely in the ark did the windows of heaven open and pour down their devastating flood. Not until Lot was delivered from Sodom did fire and brimstone fall upon it: “I cannot do anything (said the destroying angel) till thou be come thither” (Genesis 19: 22). And so it was here: not until Elijah and his helper had completed their work, not until all the “seven thousand” whom Jehovah reserved for Himself had been called, would the work of judgment be effected.
Following upon the account of Elisha’s call to the ministry the inspired narrative supplies us with no description of the activities in which they engaged, yet we may be sure that they redeemed the time. Probably in distant parts of the land they sought to instruct the people in the worship of Jehovah, opposing the prevailing idolatry and general corruption, laboring diligently though quietly to effect a solid reformation. It would seem that, following the example of Samuel ( 1 Samuel 10:5-10; 19:20), they established schools here and there for fitting young men unto the prophetic office, instructing them in the knowledge of God’s Law and preparing them to become expounders of it unto the people, and also to lead in psalmody—an important service indeed. We base this view on the mention of “the sons of the prophets that were at Bethel” and “at Jericho” ( Kings 2:3, 5). Thus it was that Elijah and Elisha were able to proceed for a year or two unmolested in their work, for being engaged in defending himself and his kingdom from powerful enemies, Ahab was too fully occupied to interfere with them. How wondrous are God’s ways: kings and their armies are but pawns to be moved here and there as He pleases.
In what has been before us we may see what varied means the Lord employs to protect His servants from those who would injure them. He knows how to ward off the assaults of their enemies, who would oppose them in their pious efforts to be good. He can make all things smooth and secure for them, that they may proceed without annoyance in discharging the duties which He has assigned them. The Lord can easily fill the heads and hands of their opponents with such urgent business and solicitations that they have enough to do to take care of themselves without harassing His servants in their work. When David and his men were hard pressed in the wilderness of Maon and it appeared they were doomed, “There came a messenger unto Saul, saying, Haste thee, and come; for the Philistines have invaded the land. Wherefore Saul returned from pursuing after David, and went against the Philistines” ( 1 Samuel 23:27,28).
How incapable we are of determining why God permits one nation to rise up against another, against this one rather than that!
The two prophets continued their work in preaching to the people and instructing their younger brethren for some time, and in view of the promise in 19:18 we may conclude the blessing of the Lord rested upon their labors, and that not a few were converted. Gladly would they have remained in this quiet and happy occupation, only too glad to escape the notice of the court. But the ministers of God are not to expect a smooth and easy life. They may be thus indulged for a brief season, especially after they have been engaged in some hard and perilous service, yet they must hold themselves in constant readiness to be called forth from their tranquil employment to fresh conflicts and severer duties, which will try their faith and demand all their courage. So it was now with Elijah. A fresh trial awaited him, a real ordeal, nothing less than being required to confront Ahab again, and this time pronounce his doom. But before considering the same we must look at that which occasioned it. “And he laid him down upon his bed, and turned away his face, and would eat no bread” ( 1 Kings 21:4).
The reference is unto Ahab. Here lay the king of Israel in a room of the palace, in a fit of dejection. What had occasioned it? Had some invader overcome his army? No, his soldiers were still flushed with victory over the Syrians. Had his false prophets suffered another massacre? No, the worship of Baal had now recovered from the terrible disaster of Carmel. Had his royal consort been smitten down by the hand of death? No, Jezebel was still very much alive, about to lead him into further evil. What then had brought about his melancholy? The context tells us. Adjoining the royal residence was a vineyard owned by one of his subjects. A whim suddenly possessed the king that this vineyard must become his, so that it might be made an attractive extension to his own property, and he was determined to obtain it at all costs. The wealthy are not satisfied with their possessions but are constantly lusting after more.
Ahab approached Naboth, the owner of this vineyard, and offered to give him a better one for it or to purchase it for cash. Apparently that was an innocent proposal: in reality it was a subtle temptation. “The land shall not be sold forever (outright): for the land is Mine” ( Leviticus 25:23); “so shall not the inheritance of the children of Israel remove from tribe to tribe: for every one of the children of Israel shall keep himself to the inheritance of the tribe of his fathers” ( Numbers 36:7).
Thus it lay not within the lawful power of Naboth to dispose of his vineyard. But for that, there could have been no harm in meeting the equitable offer of Ahab, nay it had been discourteous, even churlish, to refuse his sovereign. But however desirous Naboth might be of granting the king’s request, he could not do so without violating the Divine Law which expressly forbade a man’s alienating any part of the family inheritance. Thus a very real and severe test was now presented to Naboth: he had to choose between pleasing the king and displeasing the King of kings.
There are times when the believer may be forced to choose between compliance with human law and obedience to the Divine Law. The three Hebrews were faced with that alternative when it was demanded that they should bow down and worship an image set up by Nebuchadnezzar ( Daniel 3:14,15). Peter and John were confronted with a similar situation when the Sanhedrin for bade them preach any more in the name of Jesus ( Acts 4:18). When the government orders any of God’s children to work seven days in the factories, they are being asked to disobey the Divine statute, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.”
While rendering to Caesar the things which Caesar may justly require, under no circumstances must we fail to render unto God those which He demands of us, and if we should be bidden to rob God, our duty is plain and clear: the inferior law must yield to the higher—loyalty to God takes precedence over all other considerations. The examples of the three Hebrews and the apostles leave no room for doubt on this point. How thankful we should be that the laws of our country so rarely conflict with the Law of God. “And Naboth said to Ahab, The Lord forbid it me, that I should give the inheritance of my fathers unto thee,” 21:3. He started back with horror from such a proposal, looking upon it with alarm as a temptation to commit a horrible sin. Naboth took his stand on the written Word of God and refused to act contrary thereto, even when solicited to do so by the king himself. He was one of the seven thousand whom the Lord had reserved unto Himself, a member of the “remnant according to the election of grace.” Hereby do such identify themselves, standing out from the compromisers and temporizers. A “Thus saith the Lord” is final with them: neither monetary inducements nor threats of punishment can move them to disregard it. “Whether it be right in the sigh: of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye” ( Acts 4:19), is their defence when browbeaten by the powers that be. Settle it in your mind, my reader, it is no sin, no wrong, to defy human authorities if they should require of you anything which manifestly clashes with the Law of the Lord. On the other hand, the Christian should be a pattern to others of a law-abiding citizen, so long as God’s claims upon him be not infringed.
Ahab was greatly displeased by Naboth’s refusal, for in the thwarting of his desire his pride was wounded, and so vexed was he to meet with this denial that he sulked like a spoiled child when his will is crossed. The king so took to heart his disappointment that he became miserable, took to his bed and refused nourishment. What a picture of the poor rich! Millionaires and those in high office are not to be envied, for neither material wealth nor worldly honours can bring contentment to the heart. Solomon proved that: he was permitted to possess everything the natural man craved, and then found it all to be nothing but “vanity and vexation of spirit.” Is there not a solemn warning here for each of us? How we need to heed that word of Christ’s, “Take heed, and beware of covetousness: for a man’s life consisteth not in the abundance of the things which he possesseth” ( Luke 12:15).
Coveting is a being dissatisfied with the portion God has given me and lusting after something which belongs to my neighbour. Inordinate desires always lead to vexation, unfitting us to enjoy what is ours. “But Jezebel his wife came to him, and said unto him, Why is thy spirit so sad that thou eatest no bread? And he said unto her, Because I spake unto Naboth the Jezreelite, and said unto him, Give me thy vineyard for money; or else, if it please thee, I will give thee another vineyard for it: and he answered, I will not give thee my vineyard” (vv. 5, 6). How easy it is to misrepresent the most upright. Ahab made no mention of Naboth’s conscientious grievance for not complying with his request, but speaks of him as though he had acted only with insubordination and obstinacy. On hearing that statement, Jezebel at once revealed her awful character: “Dost thou now govern the kingdom of Israel? arise, and eat bread, and let thine heart be merry: I will give thee the vineyard of Naboth” (v. 7). As Matthew Henry expressed it, “Under pretence of comforting her afflicted husband, she feeds his pride and passion, blowing the coals of his corruptions.” She sympathized with his unlawful desire, strengthened his feeling of disappointment, tempted him to exercise an arbitrary power, and urged him to disregard the rights of another and defy the Law of God. Are you going to allow a subject to balk you? Be not so squeamish: use your royal power: instead of grieving over a repulse, revenge it.
The most diabolical stratagem was now planned by this infamous woman in order to wrest the inheritance of Naboth from him. First, she resorted to forgery, for we are told “she wrote letters in Ahab’s name, and sealed them with his seal, and sent the letters unto the elders and to the nobles that were in his city, dwelling with Naboth” (v. 8). Second, she was guilty of deliberate hypocrisy. “Proclaim a fast” (v. 9), so as to convey the impression that some horrible wickedness had been discovered, threatening the city with Divine judgment unless the crime were expiated—history contains ample proof that the vilest crimes have often been perpetrated under the cloak of religion. Third, she drew not the line at out-and-out perjury, suborning men to testify falsely: “set Naboth on high among the people (under color of giving him a fair trial by legal prosecution), and set two men, sons of Belial, before him, to bear witness against him, saying, Thou didst blaspheme God and the king” (v. 10)—thus even in “the place of judgment wickedness was there,” Ecclesiastes 3. 16.
Here was a woman who sowed sin with both hands. She not only led Ahab deeper into iniquity, but she dragged the elders and nobles of the city into the mire of her Devil-inspired crime. She made the sons of Belial, the false witnesses, even worse than they were before. She became both a robber and a murderess, filching from Naboth both his good name and heritage.
The elders and nobles of Israel were base enough to carry out her orders— sure sign was this that the kingdom was ripe for judgment: when those in high places are godless and conscienceless, it will not be long ere the wrath of the Lord falls on those over whom they preside. At the instigation of those nobles and elders, Naboth was “carried forth out of the city and stoned with stones that he died” (v. 13)—his sons also suffering a similar fate ( 2 Kings 9:26), that the entail might be cut off.
Let it be well attended to that this unprincipled woman, so full of limitless ambition and lust of power, is not only an historical personage, but the predictive symbol of a nefarious and apostate system. The letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2 and 3 supply a prophetic outline of the history of Christendom. That of Thyatira, which portrays Romanism, makes mention of “that woman Jezebel” (2:20), and striking are the parallels between this queen and the monstrous system which has its headquarters at the Vatican. Jezebel was not a Jewess, but a heathen princess, and Romanism is not a product of Christianity but of paganism.
Scholars tell us her name has a double meaning (according to its Zidonian and Hebrew significations): “a chaste virgin”—which is what Rome professes to be: and “a dunghill”—what Rome is in God’s sight. She reigned in power as Israel’s queen, Ahab being merely her tool: kings are the puppets of Rome. She set up an idolatrous priesthood. She slew the Lord’s servants. She employed dishonest and fiendish methods to obtain her ends. She met with a terrible end.
First , he possessed a vineyard: so also did Christ ( Matthew 21:33).
Fourth , each refused to heed the voice of the Tempter.
Fifth , each was falsely accused by those who sought his death.
Seventh , each was put to death by violent hands.
Eighth , each was slain “outside” the city ( Hebrews 13:12-14).
Ninth , the murderers of each were charged with their crime ( Kings 21:19; Acts 2:22,23).
Tenth , the murderers of each were destroyed by Divine judgment ( 1 Kings 21:19-23; Matthew 21:41; 22:7). “And it came to pass, when Jezebel heard that Naboth was stoned, and was dead, that Jezebel said to Ahab, Arise, take possession of the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreeite, which he refused to give thee for money: for Naboth is not alive, but dead. And it came to pass, when Ahab heard that Naboth was dead, that Ahab rose up to go down to the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, to take possession of it” (vv. 15, 16). Jezebel was permitted to carry out her vile scheme and Ahab to acquire the coveted vineyard. By his action he testified his approval of all that had been done, and thus became sharer of its guilt. There is a class of people who refuse personally to commit crime, yet scruple not to use their employees and hired agents to do so, and then take advantage of their villainies to enrich themselves. Let such conscienceless rascals and all who consider themselves shrewd in sharing unrighteous gains know that in God’s sight they are partakers of the sins of those who did the dirty work for them and will yet be punished accordingly. Many another since the days of Ahab and Jezebel has been allowed to reach the goal of his lusts even at the price of fraud, lying, dishonesty and cruel bloodshed. But in due course each shall discover that “The triumphing of the wicked is short, and the joy of the hypocrite but for a moment” ( Job 20:5).
Meanwhile the Lord God had been a silent spectator of the whole transaction with respect to Naboth. He knew its atrocity, however disguised by the impious semblance of religion and law. As He is infinitely superior to kings and dictators, so He is qualified to call them to account; and as He is infinitely righteous, He will execute judgment upon them without respect to persons. Scarcely had that horrible crime been committed than Ahab is reckoned with. “And the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying, Arise, go down to meet Ahab king of Israel, which is in Samaria: behold, he is in the vineyard of Naboth, whither he is gone down to possess it. And thou shalt speak unto him, saying, Thus saith the Lord, Hast thou killed, and also taken possession? And thou shalt speak unto him, saying, Thus saith the Lord, In the place where dogs licked the blood of Naboth shall dogs lick thy blood, even thine” (vv. 17- 19). Here was the prophet’s ordeal: to confront the king, charge him with his wickedness, and pronounce sentence upon him in God’s name.