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1 Kings 20:22-22:28

Roger Hahn

The closing chapters of 1 Kings and the opening chapters of 2 Kings are a confusing collection of stories about Elijah, Elisha, Ahab, Ahab's successors, the interaction of Aram (Syria) and Israel, and Jehoshaphat. The literary purpose of the section appears to be to show the circumstances leading to the fulfillment of God's commission to Elijah in 1 Kings 19:15-18. Thus chapter 20 is built around the relationship between Ahab and Ben-hadad of Syria. Chapter 21 focuses on Ahab and Jezebel taking possession of Naboth's vineyard. From the perspective of the author of 1 Kings, both chapters give a reason for God's judgment on Ahab. 

In chapter 20 Ahab set Ben-hadad free when he had the chance to kill this enemy of Israel. In chapter 21 Ahab and Jezebel disregard the plan of God for property rights in Israel. In both cases Ahab is worthy of death. Chapter 22 finally describes the course of events leading up to and including the battle in which Ahab was killed. The role of Micaiah the prophet is an important part of the message of 1 Kings.

Chapter 20 deals with two battles between Israel and Aram. Aram was the kingdom to the north and northeast of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. It is sometimes referred to as Syria and occupied the territory that is now known as Syria. Damascus was the main city and usually the capital of Aram. This nation was first mentioned as a political threat to Israel during the time of Saul. David and Solomon usually held the upper hand against Aram, but there were times when they did not. From the time of Ahab on, Aram played a significant role in Israel's history. The Assyrians destroyed Aram in 732 BC.

Ahab, Ben-hadad of Aram, and an unnamed prophet are the major characters of chapter 20. Elijah is not mentioned. He does not need to be mentioned, for through the events of chapter 20 God was at work bringing judgment to Ahab. Two battles, one near Samaria and one at Aphek, are the major actions of chapter 20.

The chapter begins with the note that Ben-hadad invaded Israel and laid siege to the capital city of Samaria. The text describes three exchanges of messages between Ahab and Ben-hadad. Though the opening verses of chapter 20 do not say where Ben-hadad was encamped, the sending of messengers suggests that he was at some distance from Samaria. In the first communication Ben-hadad claimed the right to Ahab's silver, gold, wives, and children. Surprisingly Ahab accepts Ben-hadad's claim. Though no explanation is ever given, it appears that Ben-hadad had previously defeated Ahab and placed him in vassal status.

In the second communication Ben-hadad becomes more belligerent demanding that Ahab deliver the unspecified tribute of silver, gold, wives, and children within 24 hours or Ben-hadad would send his officers into Samaria to forcibly take whatever they wanted. At this point Ahab refused to comply. Ben-hadad was infuriated and sent the third message, promising to reduce Samaria to a pile of dust so small that there wouldn't even be a handful apiece for all the soldiers in his army. To this arrogant threat Ahab responded with a proverb, One who puts on armor should not brag like the one who takes it off. The proverb corresponds to our saying, "Put your money where your mouth is." It was a defiant challenge to Ben-hadad to back up his threat with action.

The circumstances look bleak for Ahab when an unnamed prophet appears and offers the promise of Yahweh that Israel will be victorious. Against overwhelming odds Yahweh will deliver an unexpected victory. Ahab sent a decoy of a small group out to begin the battle with Ben-hadad who has become drunk in the meantime. When the battle was joined, the Israelites were victorious and the Arameans fled. However, Ben-hadad escaped on horseback, which meant the power behind the threat was still on the loose.

The Battle At Aphek - 1 Kings 20:22-34 

Both Ahab and Ben-hadad received counsel following the great Israelite victory. In verse 22 Ahab is warned that since Ben-hadad escaped, he would be back. By the following spring the battle will be rejoined. Ahab should be prepared. The warning to Ahab is given by the prophet. This note is a subtle indication that the warning should be taken with utmost seriousness.

On the other hand, Ben-hadad was advised by his servants - not by prophets. This is a subtle hint by the narrator of 1 Kings that their advice is not reliable. The false part of their counsel appears first. They explain the Israelite victory in terms of geography. The Israelite gods are gods of the hills or mountains according to Ben-hadad's servants. No wonder Israel won the battle when it was fought in the mountains near Samaria. Next time he should engage Israel in the plain; their gods will not be able to overcome the Aramean military superiority on the plain. The servants also recommended replacing the 32 city-kings that had been unit commanders for Ben-hadad with professional soldiers. Replace all the lost soldiers and chariots and wage the next battle on the plain.

The narrative then jumps forward in verse 26 to the following spring. Ben-hadad mustered his mighty army and went up to Aphek to wage the battle. The Israelites also mustered their army and marched to the battle site. Ben-hadad had followed the advice of his advisors and his army was restored to the full fighting force of the previous year. 

It appears that Ahab had ignored the prophet's counsel, and Israel was not prepared for battle; their army was small. In a picturesque comment, the author of 1 Kings compared Israel's small army to two little flocks of goats dotting the hillside. On the other hand, the Aramean army filled the whole country. As before there appears to be no military hope for Israel.

Once again the prophet (apparently the man of God in verse 28 is the same prophet as has already appeared) came on the scene and announced that Yahweh would give Israel the victory. Two reasons are given for the divine intervention. First, the Arameans need to learn (as does Israel) that Yahweh is not only God of the mountains; He is also God of the plain. Secondly, Israel must know that Yahweh is God. 

Seven days later the battle was joined and the tiny Israelite army slaughtered a great host of Arameans. Those who were not killed fled into the city of Aphek where the city wall fell and killed most of the rest of them. Spared in this great destruction are the king, Ben-hadad, and his servants. However, his army has been destroyed, and he is under virtual siege in Aphek.

As at the beginning of chapter 20 Ben-hadad sent a message to Ahab. However, the tables are now turned. It is Ben-hadad pleading for mercy rather than arrogantly demanding tribute. It is surprising to the modern reader that Ahab readily granted mercy, calling Ben-hadad my brother. They negotiated a settlement in Ahab's chariot. In return for his life Ben-hadad would restore certain cities he had previously taken from Ahab, and he would open the markets of Damascus to bazaars from Ahab. Damascus had a long reputation for being an important commercial center. Access to the markets of Damascus would have been a great economic boon to Ahab. 

Not mentioned in the text is the fact that Ahab also gained an important military ally against the growing Assyrian threat north of Aram. This section concludes with the readers feeling good about what has happened. The narrator is about to change that.

The Interpretation of Ahab's Actions - 1 Kings 20:35-43

Verses 35-43 are built around three strange encounters. First, one of the prophets asked another prophet to strike him. When the second prophet refused, the first prophet announced his death for disobedience to God. Second, the first prophet found another fellow-prophet and asked to be struck. This third prophet agreed and struck the first prophet and wounded him. The first prophet left and stationed himself along the road to wait for Ahab to pass by. He is bandaged from the wound he received from prophet number 3 and to disguise himself from the king. This suggests that the first prophet may be the prophet who had earlier announced the two victories.

When Ahab appeared, the first prophet called on him to perform a typical kingly function and decide a legal matter. The wounded man (the first prophet) relates that during the battle (presumably at Aphek) he had been assigned to guard a prisoner. The consequences of letting him escape would be either his life or a talent of silver - a ridiculous price, about one hundred times the price of a slave. While the wounded man was busy here and there, the prisoner escaped. 

Obviously, the wounded man is asking Ahab to be as merciful to him as he had been to Ben-hadad. He wants to be released from the consequences that had been ordered for allowing the prisoner to escape. Ahab shows no mercy. "Your own mouth has pronounced your judgment," he said, indicating that the consequences would be just what the man had said. He would pay with his own life. 

At that point the wounded man ripped off the bandage disguise, and Ahab recognized him as one of the prophets. Clearly, the wounded man had been telling a parable. Ahab was the one who had let the prisoner go free, Ben-hadad. Furthermore, God had condemned Ben-hadad to destruction and Ahab had set him free to bring political and financial advantage to himself. Ahab now is the one who has announced his own judgment. With his life he would pay for the life of Ben-hadad whom he let go. Ahab recognized that he has been had and departed in sullen resentfulness.

Chapter 20 is another call for obedience. Perfect obedience requires constant and faithful attention to God and vigilance to not be distracted here and there from the task to which God calls us. The chapter began with Ahab being blessed by God giving an unexpected victory. The chapter ends with Ahab condemned for his disobedience. The chapter culminates a long process of inattention to God on the part of Ahab. Even when God gave him two miraculous military victories when he should have been defeated, Ahab took the credit for the victories himself and continued to operate on the basis of human wisdom. What is remarkable is not that God finally passed judgment on Ahab, but that He delayed so long is doing so.

Naboth's Vineyard - 1 Kings 21:1-29

Although Samaria was the capital of the Northern Kingdom during the reign of Ahab, he also built a palace in Jezreel. First Kings 18:46 suggests that Ahab and Jezebel were living there at the time of the contest on Mt. Carmel. Second Kings 9:30-37 implies that Jezebel preferred Jezreel as her home after Ahab died. Jezreel was lower in elevation and would have been warmer than Samaria in the winter. Some scholars believe that Ahab had built a winter palace for himself there.

Next to Ahab's Jezreel palace was a vineyard owned by Naboth that Ahab decided he would like to have for a vegetable garden. Ahab then offered to buy or trade for Naboth's vineyard. There is no reason to suppose that Ahab was trying to cheat Naboth or that he was being heavy-handed in trying to bully Naboth into an unprofitable sale. Ahab offered either fair market value price or an equivalently valued vineyard. From Ahab's perspective there was no reason Naboth would not sell him the vineyard, and he (Ahab) had sufficient resources that he felt he could pay whatever price would be necessary to get the vineyard. To his surprise and dismay Naboth declined his offer. Naboth's reason for rejecting Ahab's offer was that the vineyard was part of his ancestral inheritance.

Israel did not consider land to be a private possession and a commercial commodity that the owner could dispose of in any way that he wanted. Rather land was a gift from God given to each family at the time of the conquest of Canaan. God was perceived as the real owner who allowed the family to keep and use the land in trust. Leviticus 25:23 and Numbers 27:1-11 and 36:1-12 reflect this theological understanding of land. As a result, land was passed on through the family, and even if it were sold, the year of Jubilee provided that it would come back to the family to whom God had given the land.

It is possible that Naboth could have rejected this theological view of the land that existed in Israel and taken the money from Ahab. However, since he chose to claim the vineyard as part of his inheritance given his family from God, even the king could not force him to give up the vineyard. Ahab understood the Israelite view of the land and recognized that Naboth was within his rights and that his own attempt to get the vineyard was stymied. Ahab went home to sulk, which 1 Kings 20:43 indicates was not an unusual reaction to not getting his own way.

Verses 5-10 shift the subject from Ahab to Jezebel. When Ahab failed to show up for next meal because he was pouting, she found him and asked why he was so upset that he was not eating. Ahab described his failure to get Naboth to sell him his vineyard, but he did not provide the significant reason for Naboth's refusal. He states that Naboth had said, "I will not give you my vineyard." In fact, Naboth had not described the property as a vineyard, but as an ancestral inheritance given to his family by the Lord.

Jezebel had been raised in Phoenicia. She may not have been familiar with the Israelite idea that even the king is subject to the Law of God. Or she may have known that Israel and, in this case, Ahab were subject to God's Law, but she would reject that view. In either case, she criticized Ahab for failing to exercise his royal prerogatives and promised that she would get the vineyard for him.

Jezebel's plan for obtaining the vineyard is a chilling example of total disregard for human life and decency. She would manipulate religious sentiment and commitment through a legal frame-up. She wrote letters in Ahab's name, signed them with his seal, and sent them to the elders and nobles of Jezreel. She asked them to proclaim a fast and place Naboth in a prominent position. Then two scoundrels were to be hired to accuse Naboth of cursing God and the king. Jezebel understood certain aspects of Israelite psychology very well. A fast was commonly called as the result of some catastrophe such as defeat in battle, drought, or a plague. The fast would be an act of repentance by which the people made amends to God for that which had displeased Him and caused the problem.

This set-up provided Jezebel a perfect opportunity to dispose of Naboth. The calling of a fast would raise a sense of alarm that some calamity was happening. The people would gather with a sense of apprehension and anxiety eager to discover the cause and the cure for the problem. For two witnesses to stand up at such an event and declare that a prominently-seated person had cursed God and the king would cause an immediate crowd reaction. The cursing would be the cause for the calamity (which is never specified), and mob reaction would take over and kill Naboth. 

Jezebel was playing on several aspects of Israel's theological heritage. The idea of a fast to repent and discern the cause of tragedy was used. She was aware of the necessity of two witnesses to establish the truth (Deuteronomy 17:6; 19:15). She knew that Israelite teaching called for the death penalty for blasphemy against God (Exodus 22:28 and Leviticus 24:10-16). Further, Psalm 2:7 indicated that the king of Israel was described as God's son. To curse God and the king was doubly blasphemous as well as being treasonous.

Verses 11-14 describe the way in which the elders and nobles carried out her heinous scheme. The details of these verses simply repeat as event the plan described by Jezebel. Perhaps the shocking thing is that the elders and nobles followed her plan without dissent. Even worse is that the people are also totally taken in and they carry out the murder of an innocent man. They dragged Naboth outside the city so his death would not defile it (Leviticus 24:14 and Numbers 15:36), stoned him to death, and so they believed that they had purged evil from their midst. 

The violence of his death is compounded by the fact that his body is not afforded an immediate, decent burial. Rather, the dogs lick his blood. Second Kings 9:26 also implies that Naboth's sons were also killed. Under Israelite law they would have been the legal heirs to the vineyard. By killing them there are no legal claimants to the property, and the way is open for the king to annex the vineyard as part of royal property. When the killing has been accomplished, the nobles and elders sent a message to Jezebel that her request had been accomplished. When she informed Ahab that Naboth was dead, he asked no questions but headed for the vineyard to take possession of it.

The subject shifts to Elijah in verse 17. There is no indication that Elijah knew anything about the interchange between Ahab and Naboth or about Jezebel's plot to get rid of Naboth. In fact, the last time Elijah was mentioned was in chapter 19 when he was inviting Elisha to serve with him many miles from Jezreel. 

Nevertheless, the word of Yahweh came to Elijah to get to Naboth's vineyard to meet King Ahab. The Lord also provided Elijah with the words to say. The accusation that God makes came in the form of a question, "Have you killed and also taken possession?" It is interesting that God held Ahab responsible for the killing though Jezebel had been the one who arranged it and the nobles and elders who performed it. Likewise, God held Ahab responsible for taking possession of the vineyard though that act was just in progress rather than having been accomplished. The judgment that Yahweh instructed Elijah to pronounce was that Ahab's blood would be licked by the dogs in the same way and place as had occurred to Naboth.

Ahab's response to the appearance of Elijah shows his guilt. "Have you found me, O my enemy?" Though it is possible that it means no more than, "Are you bugging me again?" Ahab's question implies that he knew Israel's law had been violated. Elijah's answer, "I have found you," also indicates that guilt has been discovered. The prophet then described Ahab as selling himself to do evil. It is not clear whether Elijah’s litany of sins is in direct response to the Naboth incident or a summation of the whole direction of Ahab's life as a Baal compromiser. He has sold himself to do what is evil, he has provoked the Lord to anger, and he has caused Israel to sin. Verses 25-26 provide an editorial evaluation of Ahab's notorious sinfulness, urged on by Jezebel.

Ahab's response is surprising. When he heard Elijah's words of judgment, he repented. The Lord was moved by his repentance and reported to Elijah that the announced judgment would not come upon Ahab during his lifetime, but would be deferred to the reign of his son. Thus God's last word to Ahab is a word of grace.

There are several important theological themes in the story of Naboth's vineyard. The murder of Naboth came about from simple covetousness. The chapter teaches that not even the king is above God's law that forbids covetousness. Regardless of what Phoenician and Canaanite culture might have allowed kings to do by virtue of their absolute power, Israel's king stood under the Law of God. This story is an important reminder that no human being is exempt from God's laws. Neither wealth, nor power, nor status allows anyone to go their own way, disregarding God's known will, without facing the consequences of God's judgment.

Secondly, this story reveals the horrible depths that one can go to when religious faith and piety is manipulated for personal gain. Jezebel's ruthless strategy was a grim reminder to Israel of the consequences of Baal worship. For so many Israelites the worship of Baal was not a rejection of Yahweh and certainly did not express the desire to do away with the Law of God. Rather, their Baal worship was simply based on the desire to prosper economically and to have all their bases covered. However, once one offers allegiance to Baal - a religion built on self-gratification - there will be no limit to which one goes to get one's own will. By worshipping Baal, the Israelites lost their defense against a Jezebel who would ruthlessly manipulate their own religious traditions to cause them to murder one of their own people. But they had no defense against her drive to self-indulgence since their worship of Baal arose from self-indulgence. American Christianity is in desperate jeopardy in this very area.

Finally, Ahab was held accountable for the crime against Naboth even though he did not commit it himself. As king he was responsible to maintain righteousness and justice in the land. From God's perspective Ahab abandoned his kingly responsibility to Naboth and allowed this tragedy because of his own self-centeredness and weakness. It is a sobering thought that God would hold us accountable for the sins that are committed by our family because we have failed to provide the spiritual environment that would lead them into righteousness.

The Question of a Campaign to Regain Ramoth-gilead - 1 Kings 22:1-28

Chapter 22 returns to the relationship between Aram and Israel that was discussed in Chapter 20. There Ahab had twice won battles against Ben-hadad in a miraculous way. However, as a result of chapters 20 and 21, God has condemned Ahab. Will he be able to win again under these circumstances? A new subject enters in this chapter, King Jehoshaphat, king of the Southern Kingdom of Judah.

While Jehoshaphat was visiting Ahab, Ahab tried to get Jehoshaphat to join him in a military campaign against the Syrians to regain possession of Ramoth-gilead. This city would have been one of the cities that Ben-hadad promised to restore to Israel as part of the bargaining for his life (1 Kings 20:34). However, Ben-hadad had not followed through with his promise, and Ahab wanted to try to gain this strategic city. There is plenty of reason Jehoshaphat should not have been interested in joining in Ahab's plan. However, verse 5 implies that his sense that Israel and Judah belonged to each other caused him to offer all his resources to support Ahab.

However, Jehoshaphat placed one condition on his cooperation. First there would need to be a word from the Lord confirming that it was acceptable to mount the proposed military campaign. Though the prophet of chapter 20 had given Ahab the promise of victory twice, it is not Ahab but Jehoshaphat that required the word from God. This is a clear indication that Ahab is still operating on his own strength and wisdom. When Jehoshaphat called for a prophetic word, Ahab summoned four hundred prophets who all gave the message that Ahab wanted to hear. For reasons that are not explained, Jehoshaphat asked for a prophet of the Lord. Ahab knew of such a prophet, Micaiah, but expressed his hatred of Micaiah because he had prophesied so much disaster against Ahab.

Micaiah was summoned. His first response was to affirm Ahab's desire to attack. However, when Ahab pressed him to speak the truth, he reported two visions. In the first he saw all Israel scattered upon the mountains like sheep without a shepherd. This is a clear reference to the death of the king (Ahab), for the Old Testament often used the word shepherd to describe the king. In the second vision, Micaiah reports that Ahab will die if he goes to battle at Ramoth-gilead. In fact, the four hundred prophets spoke favorably of the campaign because God had sent a "lying spirit" on them to entice Ahab to his death. Micaiah's visions brought a swift response. Another prophet, Zedekiah, slapped him and Ahab threw him in prison. Micaiah calmly responded that the battle itself would reveal whether or not he was telling the truth.

Study Questions for Reflection and Discussion

These readings and study questions are in preparation for next week's lesson.

As you begin each day's study ask the Lord to help you understand and rightly apply His Word to your life.

First Day: Read the notes on 1 Kings 20:22-22:28. Look up the Scripture references given.

1. Identify one or two insights that seemed significant to you and tell why they were.

2. Select a truth that has a personal application for your life. Describe how it would apply to you.

3. Write a brief prayer asking God to help you be obedient to Him rather than pursuing your own agendas.

Second Day: Read 1 Kings 22:1-53. Now focus on 1 Kings 22:29-53.

1. How did Ahab meet his death? In what ways did it fulfill what God had said?

2. What were the strengths of Jehoshaphat as king? How does this chapter show Jehoshaphat in a good light?

3. What were the weaknesses of Jehoshaphat as king? How does this chapter show him in a negative light?

Third Day: Read 2 Kings 1:1-18. Focus on verses 1-8.

1. Why will Ahaziah die from his injury rather than recovering?

2. What is the danger in seeking the answers we need from sources other than God?

3. Write a brief prayer expressing your desire that Christ be all in all for you.

Fourth Day: Read 2 Kings 1:1-18. Focus on 2 Kings 1:9-18.

1. What do you think the fire that fell from heaven symbolized or expressed? Was there any defense against it?

2. Why did the angel of the Lord allow Elijah to go with the third captain? What characteristic(s) did he have that allowed him to be spared?

3. What role does the word of the Lord play in these verses? What role ought it play in your life?

Fifth Day: Read 2 Kings 2:1-25. Now focus on 2 Kings 2:1-12.

1. Why did Elijah want Elisha to stay? Why do you think Elisha did not want to leave Elijah?

2. What do you think a double portion of the spirit of Elijah meant? What kind of person would you like to receive a double portion of their spirit?

3. What do you think verse 10 means? Why is that the condition for receiving the double portion of Elijah's spirit?

Sixth Day: Read 2 Kings 2:1-25. Focus on 2 Kings 2:13-25.

1. What is the importance of Elisha striking the water with Elijah's mantle?

2. What do the incidents of the water and of the bears teach you about Elisha? What do they teach you about God?

3. Write a brief prayer asking God to make your life effective in serving Him.

-Roger Hahn, Copyright 2013, Roger Hahn and the Christian Resource Institute
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