Chapter 4

CHAPTER 4

The Vineyard of Naboth - Murder of Naboth - The Divine Message by Elijah - Ahab's Repentance.
(1 Kings 21)

IT is significant that the words describing Ahab's state of mind on returning from Jezreel to Samaria after his unsuccessful negotiation with Naboth for his vineyard, are precisely the same as those formerly used in regard to the impression made on him by the prophet's message (1 Kings 20:43). On both occasions he "was much [and rebelliously] excited and angry." The identity of terms indicates identity of feelings. The same self-assertion, independence of God, and want of submissiveness which had led to his release of, and covenant with, Ben-hadad, and inspired feelings of rebellion and anger on hearing the Divine message, now prompted his resentment of Naboth's conduct.

The summer palace of Jezreel was the favorite retreat of King Ahab and Jezebel. The present somewhat marshy plain of Esdraelon, the almost bare mountains of Gilboa, and the miserable village which now occupies the site of Jezreel, and overlooks the ruins of Bethshan, can afford no adequate idea of what the place was in the days of Ahab and Jezebel and of their immediate successors. Then the mountains of Gilboa were richly wooded, and sweet springs brought freshness to the air and luxurious beauty to the vegetation of Jezreel, even as they carried fertility down into the great plain beneath, which in the summer light shimmered and trembled like a sea of golden corn. At the northern declivity of Gilboa, where it descends, steep and rocky, on a knoll about 500 feet high, stood Jezreel. Protected from the fierce southern sun by the delicious shade of Gilboa, that rises up behind, it looked - as suited to a summer-residence in the East - northwards, across the plain to the mountains of Galilee, to Tabor, and in the distance to snow-capped Hermon. The height descended into the valley of Jezreel, where a sweet spring rippled, and close by gathered into a pool. Eastwards, you would look down on Bethshan, and, across the deep depression of the Jordan valley, to the mountains on the other side, on which rested the blue and purple light. To the west you might sweep those fifteen miles to Mount Carmel, and perchance the westerly breeze might carry up the plain the fresh scent of the sea. Such was the Jezreel of Ahab and Jezebel - the nearest, the safest, the sweetest summer-retreat from Samaria.

On the east and south-east, where the hot limestone rock shelves into the valley beneath, are to this day wine-presses. They mark the neighborhood of where the vineyards of Jezreel must have been, among them that of Naboth. Right above was the royal palace, narrowed and cramped within the city walls, of which indeed it seems to have formed part. Manifestly it would be object of desire to acquire the land nearest to the palace, with the view of converting it into a garden. What such a garden might bear, and what sweet outlook on it could be enjoyed from the windows of the palace, may be judged from the lemon-groves still existing in the near neighborhood. But Naboth, the owner of the coveted piece of land, could not be tempted to part with it by the king's offer of either a better vineyard or an equivalent in money. It was the ancestral possession of the family of Naboth, and piety towards God combined with reverence for the memory of his fathers to forbid the unholy bargain. It is a healthy sign to find such stern assertion of principle so fearlessly uttered. Israel could not be wholly sunken in corruption and idolatry, so long as it numbered among its peasant-proprietors men like Naboth, nor could the service of Jehovah have left its households when even in Jezreel a burgher could appeal from the demands of an Ahab to the authority and law of his God. And it affords happy evidence of what the legislation of the Pentateuch had secured for Israel, that even in the worst times an Ahab dared not, like a heathen monarch, lay hands on Naboth, nor force him to surrender the inheritance of his fathers.

It is another mark of that self-willed and uncontrolled frame of mind which had determined the bearing of Ahab towards Ben-hadad, and then towards the prophet sent to rebuke him, that he could not brook the refusal of Naboth. It was utter and childish petulance, as well as unbridled selfishness, to act as he did on his return to Samaria. He turned his face to the wall and refused to eat bread. In Samaria at least all was submissive to his will - thanks to the strong hand of Jezebel. But, outside her sway, he was always encountered and opposed by Jehovah: now by His prophets, then by His worshippers. Here was a power which he dared not resist, yet to which he would not submit. But Jezebel shared neither the feelings nor the scruples of her husband. She dared what she would, and she would what she dared. She now spoke to the king as a strong unscrupulous woman to a weak and unprincipled man. She must have known what had prompted the refusal of Naboth - although it deserves notice that, in his account of what had passed, the king had studiously omitted all reference to it (ver. 6). Similarly, Ahab must have known that when Jezebel demanded the royal signet, with which official documents coming directly from the king were stamped, she must have had in view some scheme of violence. And often does it seem more convenient - certainly more easy- to remain in willful ignorance, than to learn what would call for our active resistance, or, in the absence of it, fill our conscience with uneasiness. And while remaining in willful ignorance, Ahab may have flattered himself that he had not incurred responsibility in the murder of Naboth.

The measures of Jezebel were at least plain and straightforward. The old Mosaic civil order still continued in Israel by which jurisdiction, even in matters of life and death, lay in the first instance with the "judges and officers" of a place (Deuteronomy 16:18). This local "senate," consisting partly of elected life-members, partly of what may be designated a hereditary aristocracy, might in times of corruption become subject to court influence, especially in a small royal borough such as Jezreel. Jezebel knew this only too well, and with a terrible frankness wrote to each member of that senate what would seem the king's directions. By these each recipient of the letter would become a fellow-conspirator, and each feel bound to keep the horrible secret. As if some great sin rested upon the city (comp. 1 Samuel 7:6), and, in consequence of it, some heavy judgment were to be averted, (2 Chronicles 20:2-4; Jeremiah 36:6, 9), the eldership of Israel gathered the people to a solemn fast. If it had been so, and some great sin had been committed or were even suspected, it would have been the duty of the city thus to purge itself of guilt or complicity. For according to the deep and true idea which underlay all the institutions of the Old Testament, there is solidarity (as it is called in modern language) between those whom God has placed side by side. There is solidarity between all the members of the human family - solidarity of curse and of blessing, of judgment and of promise, because all have sprung from a common stock. There is solidarity also in a city, since ten righteous men might have preserved Sodom from destruction; solidarity in a nation, since the sins or the piety of its rulers were returned in blessing or in judgment on the people - a solidarity which as it pointed back to a common ancestry, also pointed forward to the full and final realization of its inmost meaning in that great brotherhood of believers which Christ came to found. And hence it was that, when blood had been shed and the doer of the crime-remained unknown, the elders of the district had by a solemn act to clear themselves of the guilt (Leviticus 4:13, etc.; Deuteronomy 21:1-9), and that, as here, when a great crime was supposed to have been committed, all would humble themselves in fasting before they put away the evil-doer from among them.

In the assembly thus called Naboth was to be "set on high," not in order to assign him an honorable place, so as the more effectually to rouse public indignation when one so honored was convicted of such crime, nor yet to give the appearance of impartiality to the proceedings that were to follow. Evidently the fast had been appointed in humiliation for a sin as yet unknown to the people, and the assembly was called to set before them the nature of this crime. For this purpose Naboth was "set on high," as one incriminated before the elders, against whom witnesses were to rise, and on whom judgment was to be pronounced by the people of his own city. This explains (ver. 10) how these "two sons of Belial"*  who were to bear false testimony against Naboth were "set before him."

* The derivation of the word "Beliyaal" has been differently explained, but all are agreed that its primary meaning is equivalent to wickedness.

The sacred text only informs us that the two witnesses (comp. Deuteronomy 17:6, etc.; 19:15; Numbers 35:30) testified that Naboth had "blasphemed" - uttered blasphemous language against "God and the king." It is scarcely conceivable that Naboth should not have made some defense, nor that the people would have given so ready credence to such a charge against one so well known, if some colorable confirmation could not have been found for it. May it not have been that the refusal of the vineyard to Ahab had become known to the townsmen of Naboth, and that these two sons of Belial were suborned to say that Naboth had at the same time pronounced in their hearing a curse upon Ahab - perhaps also that he had uttered threats of resistance? Such a solemn curse would be regarded as an act of blasphemy, not only against the king, but primarily against God, Whose authorized representative the king was (comp. Exodus 22:28). But blasphemy against God was to be punished by stoning (Deuteronomy 13:10; 17:5).*

* Blasphemy would come under the category of seducing to idolatry, or committing it.

As in all such cases, the punishment was immediately carried out, and apparently in Naboth's own vineyard, (Compare 1 Kings 21:19; 2 Kings 9:25,26.) where the witnesses would, according to our suggestion, have located the "blasphemy" spoken in reply to the request of the king. It is not necessary to suppose (as some commentators have done) that the property of a man stoned for such a crime was treated like that of one on whom the ban was pronounced, since in that case it would have been laid waste, not given to the king (Deuteronomy 13:16). But it was quite natural that the property of one who had been found guilty of high treason should be forfeited to the Crown. And so, when the elders of Jezreel informed Jezebel that Naboth was stoned, she could tell her royal husband to go and take possession of the vineyard that had been refused him for purchase by "the Jezreelite," since Naboth was dead.

There was bitter as well as haughty irony in the words of Jezebel, as if she had felt herself a queen whose wishes and commands were above all law, human or Divine, and could not be resisted by God or man (ver. 15). The text gives no indication that she had informed Ahab of the manner of Naboth's death; nor did the king make inquiry. But there was far more terrible irony of fact in what followed the words of Jezebel. On receiving the welcome tidings of Naboth's death, Ahab "rose up" to go and take possession of the coveted vineyard, - perhaps the very day after the judicial murder (comp. 2 Kings 9:26). But on that day Jehovah had bidden Elijah arise and meet Ahab with the Divine message, just as the king thought himself in secure possession of the fruit of his crime, as if there were no living God in Israel. We can picture to ourselves the scene. Ahab has come in his chariot from Samaria, apparently attended by his chief officers (2 Kings 9:25). Before entering his palace at Jezreel - on the way to it - he has reached the vineyard of Naboth. He is surveying with satisfaction his new possession, perhaps giving directions how it should be transformed into "a garden," when of a sudden there stands before him not one of the sons of the prophets, nor an ordinary seer, but the terrible figure of the Gileadite, with his burning eyes, clad in the rough cloak of black camel's hair, girt about with a leathern girdle. It must have recalled to Ahab his first apparition in the midst of Samaria, when the prophet had announced to his startled hearers the three years' drought, and then so suddenly and tracelessly vanished from sight.*  

* See Vol. 5. of this Bible History.

And the last time he met the prophet had been on Mount Carmel; the last glimpse had been when through the blinding rain he saw the dark figure running before his chariot to the very gate of Jezreel, as if he had come to herald the triumph of Jehovah, and to bring back a new God-devoted king. That had been a weird sight of the prophet, through the storm; and it had been a short dim dream of Ahab's to make the scene on Mount Carmel a reality in Israel. With Jezebel came back to him the evil spirit of his "madness;" nay, it had even sought, or consented to, the destruction of him who but yesterday had visibly brought God's fire on the broken altar, and God's rain on the parched land.

And now he stood once more before him - Ahab knew only too well why. It was for briefest but unmistakable message. Its first sentence swept away all self-deception. It had not been Jezebel but Ahab who had killed. And now he had taken possession, as if there were not Jehovah in heaven, nor yet the eternal reflection of His Being, and the permanent echo of His speaking, in right and truth upon earth. Having thus not only wakened the conscience of Ahab, but vindicated the authority of Him in Whose Name he spoke, the next sentence of Elijah's message announced stern, strict, even literal retribution. The retort of Ahab we regard as a childish lament to the effect that Elijah, who had always been his personal enemy, had now at last "found him"*  in some actual sin, on which he might invoke Divine punishment.

* The common interpretations of these words seem unsatisfactory. They are, "Hast thou ever found me thine enemy?" or, "Hast thou found this in me?" or, "Art thou again meeting me as my enemy?" Some see in the words only the surprise of Ahab at the sudden appearance of Elijah (Ewald), or else the language of defiance (Thenius).

It was an admission, indeed, in that moment of surprise, of his guilt and apprehension of the Divine punishment announced. But it conjoined with it this - if not in excuse, yet as a counter-charge - that Elijah was his personal enemy, and had lain in wait for the occasion to call down Divine judgment upon him. It was against this attempt to make it a merely personal controversy that Elijah's answer was directed (ver. 20). "I have found (not 'thee'), because thou hast sold thyself to work evil in the sight of Jehovah." What the prophet had spoken was not the outcome of personal enmity, nor was what had occurred the result of a sudden temptation or rash mood of the king, but of the whole direction of life which Ahab had deliberately chosen. And in this two elements were closely marked: that he had sold himself as a slave (Romans 7:14), so that he had no longer freedom of action, but had, as it were, to obey his master's behests; and that he had so sold himself, consciously or unconsciously, "to do the evil in the sight of Jehovah."

Accordingly, the judgment which Elijah announced was not merely personal to Ahab, as what he said about the dogs licking his blood; but it also struck his dynasty and doomed it to extermination for this twofold reason: "on account of the wrath which thou hast caused to go forth,*  and hast made Israel to sin." On the other hand, this general judgment should not take the place of personal punishment upon the doers of such a crime as the judicial murder**  of Naboth.

* The words properly mean: "the wrath which thou hast caused to be wrathful."

** In the murder of Naboth the two elements of personal provocation and of causing Israel to sin were also combined.

The dogs would "eat Jezebel at the wall of Jezreel," while a similar fate would overtake all the posterity of Ahab in the city (viz., of Samaria) or in the field. These must be regarded as personal judgments denounced on personal sins. This is also indicated by the intercalated remarks of the writer of the narrative (in verses 25, 26).*   But the actual punishment might be averted or modified by personal repentance, although not as regarded that pronounced on the national guilt in which the rule of Ahab had involved Israel.

* This intercalated notice of the writer is very interesting. It traces Ahab's slavish surrender to the service of sin to the incitement of Jezebel, and it likens the state of public idolatry then in the land to that of "the Amorites," that is, the Canaanites (comp. Genesis 15:16) whom God had destroyed. Surely no less punishment could follow the like abominations on the part of Israel.

If evidence of the truth of this narrative - and, as connected with it, of this whole history - were required, what is told in conclusion would furnish it. For a legendary story would not have represented Ahab as repenting and yet not renouncing his former courses. But this also is true to life. As formerly what he witnessed on Carmel, so now the words of Elijah went straight to Ahab's heart. He no longer disguised the truth from himself, nor sought to divert his mind by thoughts of personal animosity on the part of the prophet. It was against Jehovah that he had sinned, and before Jehovah he humbled himself. As a mourner he rent his clothes; as a penitent he wore sackcloth; as guilty he fasted; and as one staggering under a heavy load of grief and sin, he walked softly.*  

* The word rendered "softly" might denote the gentle, noiseless step of sorrow or humiliation; but it has also been rendered by "barefooted," as in mourning.

And all this publicly - in the sight of all men. It was fitting, if we may venture on the expression, and in accordance with God's previous declaration of judgment, that the living God Who had seen and avenged the crime done in secret should also acknowledge the repentance shown in public. Accordingly the word of Jehovah came once more to Elijah to declare that the personal repentance of the personal sin had brought remission of the personal punishment, though not of that denounced on the dynasty. The visible judgment, by which all were to perceive the retribution of God's justice, was delayed to the time of his son, and would have been delayed still further had he shown like repentance. But only delayed - for retribution must follow such open sin. And so the remembrance of it was kept up; and even this, in merciful warning to Ahab's son. But when the dogs licked up the blood of Ahab, as they washed the chariot stained with his gore, they recalled the yet unfulfilled judgment that hung like a dark cloud over the house of Ahab (1 Kings 22:38). But this was in Samaria, not in Jezreel, nor in the portion of Naboth, for, as the prophet had foretold, God brought not "the evil" itself, only its warning remembrance, in the days of Ahab. But on Jezebel would it descend with the terrible reality of a literal fulfillment.*

* The judgment on Jezebel was to be executed "by the wall of Jezreel" (21:23). The expression means properly: on the free space by the wall. And, as we remember that the window from which Jezebel looked down upon Jehu must have been in the city wall, since she addressed him as he entered in at the gate (2 Kings 9:30, 31), we can understand how literally the prediction was fulfilled.