1 Kings 21:1–22:53
Main Idea: In greed and wickedness, Ahab and Jezebel seize the vineyard of a faithful servant named Naboth, but the couple’s sin doesn’t go unnoticed by the all-seeing Judge, who will have the last word.
I. Be Prepared to Suffer for the Sake of Righteousness (21:1-16).
A. Ahab’s covetousness (vv. 1-2)
B. Naboth’s righteousness (v. 3)
C. Ahab’s sullenness (v. 4)
D. Jezebel’s sliminess (vv. 5-7)
E. Collective wickedness (vv. 8-14)
F. Temporary happiness (vv. 15-16)
II. Be Willing to Sacrifice for the Sake of the Oppressed (21:8-16).
III. Remember: There Will Be a Payday Someday (21:17–22:53).
A. The prophet Elijah appears (21:17-29).
B. The payday train arrives (22:1-53).
The heading in your Bible for chapter 21 might say something like “Naboth’s Vineyard.” At first glance the title may not interest you unless you like gardening, enjoy grapes, or your name is Naboth. You might assume this story has little relevance for modern readers. However, that assumption would be incorrect. This chapter makes my blood boil because of its tragedy and relevance. This isn’t a story about grapes; it’s a story about the injustice of man and the justice of God. We learn what it’s like to suffer injustice, what it costs to do justice for the sake of the oppressed, how much we long for God’s justice, and how we can be made right with God the Judge.
Chris Wright tells the story about a young man from India who read the Bible for the first time. For whatever reason the first passage he read was the story of Naboth’s vineyard. Wright met this young man at a conference where Wright was teaching on the Old Testament. The young man told Wright that he became a Christian by reading the Old Testament, and he was particularly thrilled that they would be studying the Old Testament in the sessions. Wright tells how this young reader was drawn to the God in the story of Naboth’s vineyard:
He grew up in one of the many backward and oppressed groups in India, part of a community that is systematically exploited and treated with contempt, injustice and sometimes violence. The effect on his youth was to fill him with a burning desire to rise above that station in order to be able to turn the tables on those who oppressed him and his community. . . . He was contacted in his early days at college by some Christian students and given a Bible, which he decided to read out of casual interest, though he had no respect at first for Christians at all.
It happened that the first thing he read in the Bible was the story of Naboth, Ahab, and Jezebel in 1 Kings 21. He was astonished to find that it was all about greed for land, abuse of power, corruption of the courts, and violence against the poor—things he himself was all too familiar with. But even more amazing was the fact that God took Naboth’s side and not only accused Ahab and Jezebel of their wrongdoing but also took vengeance upon them. Here was a God of real justice, a God who identified the real villains and took real action against them. “I never knew such a God existed!” he exclaimed. He read on through the rest of Old Testament history and found his first impression confirmed.
He then went on, he told me, to read the books of the law, and his amazement grew. “God!” he cried out, even though he didn’t know who he was talking to, “You’re so perfect! You think of everything!” . . . He found himself praising this God he didn’t know. “God, you’re so just, you’re so perfect, you’re so holy!” he would exclaim, believing this was the kind of God that answered the need of his own angry struggle.
Then he came upon Isaiah 43:1, and came to an abrupt halt. “But now, says the Lord.” It is a beautiful word in Telugu, apparently. It means, “yet, in spite of all that.” The end of Isaiah 42 describes Israel’s sin and God’s just punishment. But suddenly, unexpectedly, God is talking about forgiveness and pardon and love. “I couldn’t take that,” he said. “I was attracted to the God of justice and holiness. I ran away from a God of love.” But he couldn’t. For as he read on he found such a God more and more—still in the Old Testament! It was about then that the Christian friends came and explained more about the fullness of God’s justice and love on the cross, and he came at last to understand and surrender to the God he had found in the Old Testament and his life was transformed through faith in Christ. . . . “I never knew such a God existed.” But he does—not just in the past of ancient Israel, but in today’s world. Are we afraid to discover him? (Wright, “I Never Knew,” 3)
I love that response: “I never knew such a God existed.” Let us rediscover this awesome God in this Old Testament story.
There are four main characters in chapter 21: Naboth, Ahab, Jezebel, and Elijah. We read of Ahab’s coveting and sulking and of Jezebel’s manipulation and destruction. R. G. Lee, who preached a sermon from this passage titled “Payday Someday,” introduced Ahab as “the vile human toad who squatted upon the throne of his nation—the worst of Israel’s kings,” and he called Jezebel a snake “coiled upon the throne of the nation” (“Payday Someday”).
We also have Naboth, the faithful Israelite who models obedience. Remember when God told Elijah he had “7,000 in Israel” who had not bowed to Baal (1 Kgs 19:18)? Here is one of them—living just outside the palace of this evil king. He has a little vineyard that he cherishes, which had been in his family for years. Finally, we have a rejuvenated Elijah appearing before Ahab (cf. 1 Kgs 19), reminding the vile human toad that he can hide nothing from God’s sight and that his sin will surely find him out (Num 32:23).
As we move through the narrative, consider three particular applications: be prepared to suffer for the sake of righteousness, be willing to sacrifice for the sake of the oppressed, and there will be a payday someday.
Be Prepared to Suffer for the Sake of Righteousness
1 Kings 21:1-16
We see in Naboth an example of a person being persecuted for righteousness’s sake. In Ahab and Jezebel we see the nature and destiny of those who inflict such injustice on them.
This story also reminds me of the last part of the Sermon on the Mount (esp. Matt 5:11-12) and of a parable Jesus told about a vineyard (Matt 21:33-46). Concerning the latter, that particular parable served as an allegory of the whole history of Israel, a nation who persecuted their prophets (the servants tending the vineyard) and rejected and killed Jesus. In the parable such persecution didn’t go unnoticed by the owner of the vineyard, who inflicted miserable punishment on the unrighteous ones. Such is the story of Naboth. The unrighteous kill the righteous, but the true Owner of the vineyard is aware and will have the last word.
Ahab’s Covetousness (vv. 1-2)
Had he been alive today, Ahab would have subscribed to Better Homes and Gardens and enjoyed House Hunters on HGTV. His own palace may have been on MTV Cribs. He loved building his palaces, and he loved enlarging his gardens. He had a summer palace in Jezreel. After having some hard years of drought, now things were going pretty well for him in many ways. Rain could water his plants. Desiring now to expand his comforts and add to the beauty of his palace, he took an interest in the vineyard of Naboth. He makes an offer. Even though it was a nice vineyard, Ahab wants to turn it into a vegetable garden. So he offers him a sweet deal. He offers Naboth “a better vineyard.” Or, if Naboth is finished with the vineyard business, he says he will just pay him what it’s worth. Sounds generous, right?
But there are problems with this offer. Consider his desire to turn it into “a vegetable garden.” This proposal would have been significant for an Israelite. We read about a “vegetable garden” in the same chapter of Deuteronomy where we read about the famine being a punishment for idolatry (Deut 11). God told His people,
For the land you are entering to possess is not like the land of Egypt, from which you have come, where you sowed your seed and irrigated by hand as in a vegetable garden. But the land you are entering to possess is a land of mountains and valleys, watered by rain from the sky. It is a land the Lord your God cares for. (11:10-12)
The vegetable garden was a reminder of Egypt. It required human care, whereas the promised land relied on God’s care. Add to this the fact that Israel was known as a vine under God’s care (Ps 80; Isa 3:13-15; cf. Mark 12:1-12; John 15:1-17), and you can see that Ahab’s desire is to turn Israel back to Egypt. Israel’s kings had already turned the people back to Egypt with their foreign wives, and here Ahab continues this trend by making this proposal.
This is more than a little story about a vineyard. It’s a battle of the kingdom of God versus the kingdom of darkness.
Further, Ahab falls into the sin of covetousness. This sin is committed when you desire something that isn’t yours, like someone else’s possessions, wife, success, or body, just to name a few. It’s often associated with possessions, as in this case. Ahab has so much, but now he wants someone else’s property. God gives him a land with milk and honey and vineyards, but he wants more. He surely knew this property was off limits since the land belonged to God and the families were not to sell their land, but Ahab wants it anyway. His appetites were beastly. To paraphrase R. G. Lee, Ahab was like a bear looking to lick a bit more honey, a lion looking for a piece of cheese, or an overstuffed bull looking for a bit of grass outside his own pasture (“Payday Someday”).
Ahab’s course of action illustrates James’s words on the nature of sin’s progress: “Then after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and when sin is fully grown, it gives birth to death” (Jas 1:15). Ahab’s desire gives birth to sin and eventually leads to death.
Ahab’s story isn’t new. He’s like David, who desired someone else’s wife and then murdered an innocent man (2 Sam 11–12). Ahab is like Cain, killing his brother.
Covetousness (or “greed”) begins in the heart, and it leads to other sins. Idolatry always leads to further sins: “But those who want to be rich fall into temptation, a trap, and many foolish and harmful desires, which plunge people into ruin and destruction” (1 Tim 6:9). Is this verse not expressed in Ahab’s tragic story? Sinful desire leads to harmful desires and destruction. Is it not also seen at the crucifixion of Jesus? Covetous men testified falsely against Him, betrayed Him for 30 pieces of silver, and ultimately nailed Him to the cross.
Don’t take covetousness lightly. We must watch out for greed in our hearts (Luke 12:15; Eph 5:3; Col 3:5). Jesus said one of the reasons the word doesn’t take root in hearts is that the “seduction of wealth” and the “desires for other things” choke the word (Mark 4:19). Therefore, guard your heart. Put sin to death. Give generously. And find your ultimate joy in the Savior, not in things of this world.
Naboth’s Righteousness (v. 3)
Enter the faithful Israelite. Oh, the difference between Naboth and Ahab! Naboth responds to Ahab’s proposal, saying, “I will never give my fathers’ inheritance to you.” Naboth is theologically motivated, not financially motivated. His God was not money but Yahweh. Naboth knew the Old Testament understanding of land—that land ultimately belonged to God, who gave it to the families. He knew God brought Israel into the land, fulfilling His word to Abraham (Gen 17:8), driving out the previous residents, and through Joshua allocating it to the tribes as their inheritance (Josh 13:1ff.). Naboth knew that selling the land wasn’t an option and that established laws kept the land in the families (Lev 25; Num 36:7-9). Under certain emergencies an Israelite might sell land (Lev 25), but that didn’t apply to Naboth’s situation here. We read later how the prophets spoke against the neglect of property laws, saying, “Woe to you” (Isa 5:8; Mic 2:1-2). We read of Ezekiel’s looking forward to the day in which the rulers wouldn’t oppress but would allow the rightful people to posses the land according to their tribes (Ezek 45:8).
What a picture of righteousness! Think about it: Naboth could have been richer. He could have perhaps negotiated a bit more and worked his way up the royal ladder. But Naboth lives by the word of God and for another world. This is the only time we hear him speak. He simply says, “The Lord forbid that I should give you the inheritance of my fathers” (v. 3 ESV). Righteousness involves saying, “The Lord forbid.” Even though the culture might accept something, that doesn’t mean the Lord favors it. To paraphrase Paul, Naboth detests what is evil and clings to what is good (Rom 12:9). When presented with some unrighteous temptation, may the Lord give you power to say, “Absolutely not!” (Rom 6:1-2).
Your theology determines your biography. What we believe drives what we do. These men have two different theologies, and consequently, they have two different biographies.
Ahab’s Sullenness (v. 4)
Ahab responds like a spoiled child who throws a fit when being denied a trinket while having a room full of toys: “Ahab went to his palace resentful and angry, because of what Naboth the Jezreelite had told him.” This seems to be a common attitude of Ahab (cf. 20:43).
Look at this picture of a king: crying and refusing to eat because he didn’t get what didn’t belong to him! Lee says he is whining like a sick hound (“Payday Someday”). He probably had servants trying to cheer him up, musicians playing music, and entertainers trying to put him in a better mood. He was the pouting potentate.
Sulking isn’t just childish. It also exposes something more than greed. Sulking exposes this about your heart: you aren’t content with the providences of God. In the heart of the disciple is a deep trust that God is in control, and while things may not be going super well, you can go on without throwing a fit and refusing dinner.
This story is also sad when you consider that Ahab and Jezebel had God-given abilities. Their minds and skills, however, were used for evil and not for good. Look at how quickly Jezebel could devise a plan to kill Naboth! She could have put her skills to use for the kingdom—for the poor, the orphan, or the widow. How tragic it is to see people who are blessed by God using their gifts for the things of this world instead of the kingdom of God. Ahab should have been out caring for the nation; instead, he is crying in his bedroom over a little vineyard. How small his vision was; how cold his heart was. Beware of the self-centeredness of Ahab.
Jezebel’s Sliminess (vv. 5-7)
Throughout Ahab’s reign we have observed his weak passivity and Jezebel’s snake-like influence. Here Jezebel asks Ahab what is wrong, and he proceeds to tell her of Naboth’s refusal. Only Ahab doesn’t report the story correctly. Naboth didn’t say, “I won’t give you my vineyard” (v. 6; emphasis added). The whole point was that the vineyard was not Naboth’s to sell in the first place. He actually said, “The Lord forbid that I should give you the inheritance of my fathers” (v. 3 ESV; emphasis added).
Jezebel then tells Ahab, “Now, exercise your royal power over Israel. Get up, eat some food, and be happy. For I will give you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite” (v. 7). With this sarcastic exclamation she seems to call Ahab a wimpy crybaby. She decides to take care of the matter herself since her weak husband cannot demonstrate power.
Perhaps she compared her weak husband to her father and thought, “King Ethbaal would never allow his subjects to refuse him.” Such a thought would have probably enraged her. She had influenced Ahab to act like pagan kings, but he was not demonstrating their force in this particular episode, so she decides to take over. She will get the land without paying a dime.
Jezebel, like Eve in the garden, has no regard for God’s authority. She will do what she wants, taking forbidden fruit, while her docile, Adam-like husband stands by passively.
Instead of using royal power to bless others, we have an example of using power to mistreat others (cf. Deut 17:14-20). This is a classic case of injustice, which can be understood as the abuse of power. Sadly today the powerful often manipulate, abuse, and torture the weak through bribery, corrupt legal systems, intimidation, and force. Land grabbing remains a serious matter around the world. In many places the vulnerable have their land and livelihood violently taken from them and have no place to turn.
If God ever gives you influence, remember why you have it. It isn’t to satisfy your selfish desires. It isn’t to trample on others or glorify yourself. You have influence so you can bless others in general and those with no influence in particular (Prov 31:8-9). Such godly character is nowhere to be found in Ahab and Jezebel, and sadly it was not found in the leaders of Naboth’s town either.
Collective Wickedness (vv. 8-14)
Jezebel goes to work. She writes letters with the king’s letterhead to those in charge of Naboth’s town. She gives specific instructions (vv. 9-11). Each line was like another stone with which to execute an innocent man. Such a plan sounds familiar: an innocent man, falsely accused by false witnesses being killed outside the city (cf. Matt 26:57-68).
Then we read the cold story. The men of the city follow Jezebel’s plan (vv. 11-13). They took him outside the city and stoned him to death.
So corrupt judges submit to Jezebel’s wicked demands. Here’s an example of a legal system becoming a tool for devilish politicians. Notice how easily this passes through the system. Such a process shows how corrupt this collective group of leaders was.
They send word back to Jezebel that Naboth is dead. All of this injustice is done in the name of religion. A day of prayer was observed on the same day this faithful Israelite was executed. They also followed the law of having two witnesses (Deut 17:6-7; 19:15; Num 35:30), and the appropriate penalty was then applied for cursing God (Lev 24:13-16).
Ahab and Jezebel had no interest in following God’s word, but when it allowed them to get what they wanted, then they considered it. They used God to get what they wanted. And they apparently thought they could get away with it.
Temporary Happiness (vv. 15-16)
It appears the game is over. Jezebel tells Ahab that Naboth is dead. Then she tells him to take possession of the vineyard. If you glance over to 2 Kings 9:26, you see that Naboth’s sons were also taken out in order to remove any other interferences with family rights of the land. Perhaps she laughed and mocked her husband: “Look what I’ve gotten you for free.” Her conscience seems unprovoked by this innocent man’s death.
Perhaps this incites righteous indignation inside your heart. It does mine. If so, you can resonate with Psalm 73 as the psalmist laments over the “prosperity of the wicked” (v. 3). He talks about all they enjoy, while he is “punished every morning” (v. 14). Then we read, “When I tried to understand all this, it seemed hopeless until I entered God’s sanctuary. Then I understood their destiny” (vv. 16-17). In other words, the psalmist realized the happiness of the wicked is temporary. It will not last long. For the unbeliever this life is as close to heaven as he will get. There will be a “payday someday.” Don’t envy the wicked. Instead, place your faith in Jesus and live for another reward. Say with the psalmist, “Who do I have in heaven but You? And I desire nothing on earth but You” (73:25). Ahab will enjoy his little vineyard for a brief time, but he didn’t kill the true Owner of the vineyard.
As we stand over the grave of Naboth, we can find encouragement and instruction on being faithful in the midst of suffering. His story reminds me not only of the Beatitudes but also of Peter’s words in 1 Peter 4:12-19. Peter reminds us that we should be prepared to suffer when we decide to follow Jesus. He says we shouldn’t be surprised by persecution. We should rejoice in the midst of it. We should remember the spiritual blessing of suffering for Christ. We should glorify God through the suffering. We should remember that suffering for righteousness is sanctifying and temporary, while the unrighteous’s suffering will be horrific and eternal. And finally Peter tells us to entrust our souls to God during the whole trial.
Jesus modeled suffering for righteousness and what it looked like to entrust one’s soul to God in the midst of it. Peter says earlier in his letter,
He did not commit sin, and no deceit was found in His mouth; when He was reviled, He did not revile in return; when He was suffering, He did not threaten but entrusted Himself to the One who judges justly. (1 Pet 2:22-23)
We have a Savior who understands human suffering, for He was the ultimate righteous sufferer. The story of an innocent scapegoat isn’t on the periphery of the Bible; it is the central message of it (Leithart, 1 and 2 Kings, 157). As Jesus endured such suffering, He was making a way for us to escape God’s ultimate judgment and empowering us to live in the present as believers in Him. Peter says, “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the tree, so that, having died to sins, we might live for righteousness; you have been healed by His wounds” (2:24).
Be Willing to Sacrifice for the Sake of the Oppressed
1 Kings 21:8-16
Not only should we be willing to suffer for the sake of righteousness, but we should also be willing to sacrifice for the sake of the oppressed. I draw this point from the inactivity of the people in Naboth’s city. Where are the protesters? Nowhere. Not one single person steps up to defend Naboth. The leadership of Naboth’s city does nothing, the people do nothing, and that is exactly the reason injustice goes on today. It has been said, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” I don’t want to call these “good men,” but I am sure injustice prevailed because the people did nothing.
The reason they complied with Jezebel’s wishes was that they were afraid of the consequences of refusing her. We can understand their fear, but we cannot condone their actions. They do nothing to stop the death of a faithful Israelite and apparently allow the death of his sons to happen without raising their voices. Like Jesus, Naboth was killed by “lawless people” (Acts 2:23).
As noted previously about Ahab’s and Jezebel’s lack of concern for blessing others, especially the weak, as kings were obliged to do, so here is another example. The leaders in Naboth’s town should have used their influence to protect the weak. Instead, they crumbled under pressure. They feared a woman and her mafia more than they feared God (cf. Matt 10:28).
But we shouldn’t just shake our heads at the people in Naboth’s city. Let us beware of our own passivity and indifference to the great problems of our day. What are you doing about poverty, land grabbing, abuse, trafficking, and the spiritual lostness of our world? We must repent not only of our sins of commission but also of our sins of omission. It has been said, “The opposite of love isn’t hate; it is indifference.” Are you unmoved by the Naboth-like stories of our world?
Serving in Jesus’ name will inconvenience us. It will cost us. But love acts. Are you using your influence, time, and talent for the sake of those in need? Don’t confuse sympathy with love. Feeling sorry for the orphan, the widow, the abused, and the lost doesn’t help them. Love acts. If God gives you any influence, use it to protect and bless those in need. Sacrifice by spending time in prayer for victims of injustice. Give financially for the good of others. Go to the nations to speak the gospel to those who have never heard it. Do it knowing that though suffering awaits you, Jesus is with you, and He will bring you safely into His heavenly kingdom.
In the 2013 movie 42, about baseball hero Jackie Robinson, Harrison Ford gives a stellar performance as general manager Branch Rickey. I was moved by how Rickey gave a glimpse of what it looks like to suffer on behalf of another. Obviously, Robinson endured unimaginable mockery and criticism, but so did Branch Rickey, who defended Robinson. Near the end of the movie, Robinson presses Rickey as to why he submitted himself to the whole painful ordeal. Rickey explains that earlier in his life he had the opportunity to stick up for the best player on his college team, who was a black man, but he did nothing. Then Rickey said, “There was something unfair about the heart of the game I loved, and I ignored it. But a time came when I could no longer do that. You let me love baseball again. Thank you.”
Rickey was unhappy with his past apathy and indifference and sought to do something about it. Maybe you have stood back long enough from fighting on behalf of the oppressed. Let me encourage you to play ball. Speak up. Get involved. Act.
Remember: There Will Be a Payday Someday
1 Kings 21:17–22:53
Following Ahab’s deception, we learn of Ahab’s imminent death. Two particular prophets will predict his death, and then 22:29-40 describes this death.
The Prophet Elijah Appears (21:17-29)
Ahab is enjoying the herbs from his vegetable garden, and Jezebel is probably planning her next scheme. But then someone appears. It’s the “Hillbilly from Tishbe!” Elijah is back!
We read that familiar phrase again: “Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah” (v. 17). God says, “Get up and go to meet Ahab king of Israel, who is in Samaria. You’ll find him in Naboth’s vineyard, where he has gone to take possession of it” (v. 19). Twice we read where Jezebel told Ahab to “get up” (21:7,15); now God tells Elijah to “get up.” For every Jezebel who tells an Ahab to get up and do injustice, God has an Elijah to whom He says get up and speak justice.
Because of Ahab’s murder and wrongful acquisition of land, the Lord tells Elijah to say, “In the place where the dogs licked Naboth’s blood, the dogs will also lick your blood!” (v. 19). God will step in to defend the defenseless. Ahab will reap what he has sown. God was not unaware of these events. Proverbs says, “The eyes of the Lord are everywhere, observing the wicked and the good” (Prov 15:3).
Elijah obeys and goes to meet Ahab. The king asks, “So, you have caught me, my enemy” (21:20). Previously, Ahab called him a “destroyer” (18:17), but now he calls him “my enemy.” Elijah was Ahab’s enemy because Ahab had become an enemy of God.
Elijah responds that God will destroy Ahab’s royal dynasty because he has provoked the Lord to holy anger, and Ahab will suffer the same fate as Jeroboam and Baasha (21:22). Elijah tells Ahab that God will also execute judgment on his serpent-wife, Jezebel.
These prophecies were fulfilled eventually. Jezebel’s execution is described in 2 Kings 9:30-37. Years after Elijah’s prophecy an army captain named Jehu, obeying God’s word, had all of Ahab’s descendants killed. He also gave an order to have Jezebel, who had put on her makeup in anticipation of Jehu’s arrival, thrown down from an upstairs window. She died from the fall. When Jehu sent men to bury her, they found only traces of her body, which had been eaten by dogs, thus fulfilling Elijah’s prophecy
The Lord delayed judgment, but it came. And when it came, it came swiftly and sovereignly. Perhaps Ahab thought Elijah was not telling the truth. Perhaps Jezebel mocked her husband every time they ate out of Naboth’s vineyard, and mocked Elijah, sarcastically asking, “Did he not say judgment was coming? Where are the dogs?” But R. G. Lee was probably right in saying that Ahab jumped every time a dog barked (“Payday Someday”).
The wicked may prosper for a short time in this life, but the arrow of God’s judgment will strike, and God, the righteous Judge, will have the last word. Ahab may have been able to manipulate corrupt judges, but he could not manipulate the ultimate Owner of the land of Israel and the Judge of all the earth.
This passage gives suffering believers great comfort. Though Christians may suffer around the world today, not one single unjust action goes unnoticed by God. No one had to report this event to God. Davis says, “Jezebel’s letters had already been put through the shredder at city hall; none of the shady details came out in the papers. Elijah himself apparently didn’t know until Yahweh told him. . . . Yahweh didn’t let it pass. He saw and intervened (cf. Ex 3:7-8a)” (1 Kings, 304). Just as in the Exodus narrative: God heard, saw, and knew about His people’s suffering, and He brought judgment on Egypt.
The question we might have in the story is, why did God wait so long? Naboth is already dead. We like the fact that God pronounces judgment, but what of Naboth? The mystery of God’s timing in judgment appears throughout Scripture. Moses is spared, but others die at the hands of wicked Pharaoh. The toddler Jesus is spared though others die at the hands of Herod. John the Baptist is put to death by the heartless king Herod Antipas (Mark 6:14-29). Herod Agrippa kills James, but Peter experiences an amazing jailbreak (Acts 12). How can we make sense of these stories? While we will never understand the mysterious ways of God, the text still stands as a great comfort for us (as the opening story of the young man from India interpreted it). The flow of the story is intended to show us that God defended Naboth. As Davis says:
The Naboth episode, we can say, is no guarantee of immunity, only of justice—and that not necessarily this October. But come it will, for 1 Kings 21 is a preview of 2 Thessalonians 1:6-7. We have the narrative in 1 Kings 21; we have the doctrine in 2 Thessalonians 1. God will intervene to bring justice to his wronged people. We mustn’t allow our quandary over the timing of Yahweh’s justice to eclipse our comfort over the fact of it; indeed, the way Yahweh takes up the cudgels here for his wronged people is what, in part, makes him such an attractive God. (1 Kings, 304)
God defends the weak. God knows. God sees. God will judge the unjust in His own timing.
What we read in verses 25-29 after the Elijah encounter surprises us. We might expect Ahab to respond to this message with more evil deeds or for God to act immediately. Instead, we read that Ahab “tore his clothes, put sackcloth over his body, . . . and walked around subdued” (v. 27). This act was a sign of repentance. God then speaks to Elijah:
Have you seen how Ahab has humbled himself before Me? I will not bring the disaster during his lifetime, because he has humbled himself before Me. I will bring the disaster on his house during his son’s lifetime. (v. 28)
Though Ahab will die violently in battle, his dynasty will go for a while under the reign of his sons. Judgment is delayed but not canceled.
There is a difference between a rain delay and a cancellation. In Scripture God often delays judgment when people repent. The prophecy of Huldah to Josiah is an example of this principle (2 Kgs 22:8-20).
Was Ahab’s repentance authentic? He did humble himself, and God granted him delayed judgment, so there seems to be reason to accept it as genuine. But then again, true repentance involves restoration. We don’t read of any actions of King Ahab in trying to restore what he broke. He doesn’t give the vineyard back to Naboth’s family or admit his wrongdoing. True repentance looks like Zacchaeus, who after coming to Jesus returned fourfold what he owed to others (Luke 19:8). I would call this scene a merciful act of God but not true repentance. In the midst of wrath, God remembered mercy. God’s display of mercy was an invitation for Ahab to go deeper into repentance, that is, to live a life of repentance and obedience to Him. It was an invitation to “produce fruit consistent with repentance” (Matt 3:8).
What kind of God could show such mercy? He is the God who has shown us mercy. For you see, we deserve to be punished for our sins, also. While we may not sin exactly like Ahab, we are guilty of sinning against God. Jesus likens anger to murder in the Sermon on the Mount. Only One is perfectly righteous: Jesus. And there will be a payday someday for everyone. How can we escape God’s just judgment? R. G. Lee says,
. . . the only way I know for any man or woman on earth to escape the sinner’s pay-day on earth and the sinner’s hell beyond—making sure of the Christian’s pay-day on earth and the Christian’s heaven beyond the Christian’s pay-day—is through Christ Jesus, who took the sinner’s place upon the Cross, becoming for all sinners all that God must judge, that sinners through faith in Christ Jesus might become all that God cannot judge. (“Payday Someday”)
We need a substitute. And that’s what we have in Jesus. God provided the righteousness we need in Him. Judgment will fall. Either Jesus takes your judgment, or you will face it. We cannot hide from God. He knows our sins—in thought, word, motive, and deed. We have one solution: we must be hidden in Christ. In Christ we are safe. In Christ we’re righteous. In Christ we’re loved. In Christ we don’t have to fear impending judgment. In Christ we have power to stand up for the oppressed, and we look forward to future reward in His kingdom.
This great salvation is made possible by the greatest story of the innocent sufferer, Jesus. For Naboth’s story calls our attention to Jesus’ story in Matthew 26:59-68. Jesus’ enemies conspired against Him too. They falsely accused Him of blasphemy, mocked and beat Him, and eventually took Him outside the city to kill Him (Heb 13:10-13). Jesus’ blood speaks a better word than the blood of Abel and the blood of Naboth (Heb 12:24), for their blood cries out for vengeance, but Jesus’ blood cries out with forgiveness to everyone. Jesus is the innocent scapegoat offering salvation to the world and promising that one day the cries of the martyrs will be heard and their blood will be avenged.
The Payday Train Arrives (22:1-53)
Ahab’s doom is sure. Even though God’s wrath has been delayed, it is surely coming. His death has been foretold by two different prophets (20:41-42; 21:19). In chapter 22 we find yet another prophet, Micaiah, foretelling Ahab’s disaster as well.
Peace existed between Aram (Syria) and Israel for three years. Despite a previous Israelite victory, Aram still has control of an important city: Ramoth Gilead in the Transjordan. Wishing to reclaim this city, Ahab decides to form a partnership with the king of Judah, Jehoshaphat.
If we jump over to verses 41-50, we learn a bit more about Jehoshaphat. The Chronicler spends much more time describing his reign than the writer of Kings (2 Chr 17:1–21:1). In addition to his peaceful relationship with the wicked king of Israel (1 Kgs 22:44), we also read about some commendable qualities of this 25-year-long king of Judah (vv. 41-42). He followed the ways of Asa, and he did what was right in God’s eyes (v. 43). He also removed the male cult prostitutes from the land (vv. 45-46). Unfortunately, though, he didn’t completely remove the high places. Despite his failures he was one of Judah’s better kings, strengthening the nation militarily and spiritually. His life of prayer and faith is displayed vividly in 2 Chronicles 20. The writer of Kings notes that he controlled Edom, who became a supporter of Judah later (2 Kings 3). Why would Jehoshaphat go to war alongside Ahab? Perhaps it was for political reasons, or perhaps because his son married Ahab’s daughter (2 Kgs 8:18: 2 Chr 18:1).
While Jehoshaphat does some unwise things, he at least seeks to know God’s will before battle. So he seeks an authentic prophet (1 Kgs 22:7). Ahab had gathered up 400 “yes-men” prophets. The story is read well against the backdrop of Elijah and the false prophets in 1 Kings 18 (Provan, 1 and 2 Kings, 162). We meet one prophet saying something entirely different from the majority once again. Ahab only wants to hear “good” (22:8; cf. 2 Tim 4:3). Consequently, he doesn’t like the idea of calling the prophet Micaiah, who is captive to the word of God.
Due to Jehoshaphat’s influence, Ahab calls Micaiah. All the prophets appear before the kings and prophesy. One prophet, Zedekiah, uses horns to act out his message, declaring that Ahab will gore the Arameans like an ox (22:11; Ezek 4:1–5:4). All the other prophets agree with Zedekiah. When Micaiah enters, he’s told to follow suit. However, this prophet will only speak what the Lord gives him to speak. Sarcastically, though, Micaiah begins his speech by confirming the words of the prophets. Ahab smells the sarcasm and requests the truth. Micaiah then delivers the news: “I saw all Israel scattered on the hills like sheep without a shepherd. And the Lord said, ‘They have no master; let everyone return home in peace’” (22:17). The Lord has decreed Ahab’s disaster. This is now the third prophet to tell him of his future.
Micaiah goes on to tell Ahab about the means God, who is seated on the real throne, will use to bring about his death. The plan involves God’s using these lying prophets to entice the king to go off to war (vv. 19-23; cf. 1 Sam 16:14-15). Before one jumps to question God’s method, we need to see that God doesn’t deceive Ahab; He actually tells Ahab what He’s doing. Yet Ahab still listens to the lying prophets despite having this knowledge.
Micaiah is struck in the face, seized, and punished. It’s not the last time that a truth-telling prophet will be punished (cf. Matt 5:10-12; John 18:22; Acts 23:2-3; Jas 5:10). Micaiah stands as a hero of the faith, speaking God’s word courageously and faithfully.
Ahab then arrogantly goes off to war. We aren’t told about how the decision was reached, but Jehoshaphat went along with it. Stupidly, Ahab decides to disguise himself in the war, as if a disguise can thwart God’s stated purposes.
The Arameans are looking to take out Ahab but only find Jehoshaphat, whom they let go. Then an unnamed archer shoots “without taking special aim” (22:34). The arrow strikes Ahab between the scale armor and the breastplate. The writer gives every impression that this took place under the sovereign Lord’s power. Ahab gets propped up in his chariot and eventually dies, and his blood flows into the bottom of the chariot. When his body gets brought back to Samaria, as his servants are washing the blood off the chariot, “the dogs licked up his blood, and the prostitutes bathed in it” (v. 38). The mention of prostitutes reminds the reader of the whole idolatrous life of Ahab (e.g., 14:24; 15:12). Provan says, “He has fed the people idolatry, and now he is consumed by it” (1 and 2 Kings, 164).
God’s triple prediction came to pass (20:42; 21:19; 22:17,23). Now the reader anticipates the fulfillment of the rest of the prophecies concerning his house. But Ahab’s son Ahaziah reigned in his place and continued in the evil ways of his wicked father.
In six plus chapters about Ahab, we learn the incredible folly of rejecting God’s Word and the absolute certainty of God’s judgment. Allow his story to lead you to repentance. Trust in Christ before payday comes for you. Love Christ, who is the perfect King and who will avenge the blood of every Naboth one day. Anticipate the day in which the King greater than David appears in glory to establish His kingdom, filled with shalom, where peace and righteousness dwell forever. When you suffer like these faithful prophets, fill your mind with this glorious future. Someday the wicked will be justly punished. Someday those who are in Christ will see the Savior in glory. Let us think of the next world as we live faithfully in this one.
Reflect and Discuss
- Why did Naboth value his vineyard so much?
- What do you have of spiritual value that isn’t worth trading for goods or money?
- Do any other passages in the Bible speak to the question above?
- Jezebel manipulates and abuses others to get what she wants. What are some sins that are so bad that even unbelievers repudiate them?
- Why are the powerless people of the world, like Naboth, of such value to the Lord?
- God relents some of His wrath when Ahab repents. What does this teach us about God’s character?
- Do you ever feel that someone is too evil to receive God’s mercy?
- Ahab despises Micaiah because he criticizes him. Do you invite or despise criticism?
- How can believers today value the Word of the Lord in their lives?
- Ahab attempts to escape the judgment of God by disguising himself. In what ways are you tempted to try to escape the consequences of sin?