Judgment in Jezreel
In the land of Israel a broad valley stretches thirty-six miles from the port city of Haifa on Mount Carmel southeastward to the Jordan River. This fertile plain separates the mountains of Galilee to the north from those of Samaria to the south. This fertile expanse has been given many names over the years: the Valley of Esdraelon, the Valley of Jezreel, and in the New Testament, Armageddon. It has been the scene of numerous military encounters through the centuries. It was on this soggy expanse that the armies of Barak routed those of Sisera (Jud. 4). It was here that King Josiah met his death at the hands of Pharaoh-neco (2 KL 23:29). It was here that Allenby routed the Turks during the First World War in 1917, and here the fledgling Israeli army defeated an Iraqi contingent in 1948. It shall be here also that the armies of the beast will gather to fight “the battle of that great day of God Almighty” (Rev. 16:14).
The bleak ruins of the little town of Jezreel rest quietly today on the southern edge of that valley. If they could speak, those silent sentinels of stone would relate many absorbing tales which they have witnessed over the centuries. Not the least of those stories would be the one that lies before the reader of 1 Kings 21. It was in Jezreel that the wicked King Ahab had built a magnificent palace to rival the one his father, Omri, had built in Samaria twenty miles to the south. It was to Jezreel that Ahab fled following the disastrous defeat of his Baal prophets on Mount Carmel (1 Ki. 18:45-46), and it was from this winter palace that he ruled with his domineering and evil wife, Jezebel. It was here also that a simple Israelite citizen named Naboth had the unfortunate lot of owning a vineyard next to Ahab’s palace. Finally, it was at Jezreel that Ahab met for the final time his old nemesis, Elijah, and also where Jezebel experienced the awful judgment of Almighty God. A king, a farmer, a queen, and a prophet were the actors in a tragic drama which one writer has aptly titled, Payday Someday.
The King and the Farmer 1 Kings 21:1-4
During this period of apostasy when only a few thousand Israelites were not bowing the knee to Baal (1 Ki. 19:18), it is encouraging to read about the spiritual commitment of a man like Naboth. Naboth owned a plot of ground that he had inherited from his father and that had been kept in the family for many generations. He was faithful in tending and cultivating a beautiful vineyard that had been planted on that land. It was not his fault that Ahab’s palace happened to adjoin his property. We can imagine that one day Ahab was overlooking the area from his balcony when he noticed his next-door neighbor busily at work in his vineyard. Ahab did not need another vineyard (he owned plenty of them), but how nice it would be, he thought, if he had a fertile plot of land close by on which he could cultivate some special herbs with which to season his royal meals.
Ahab approached his neighbor with what looks like a very fair offer; “.. . Give me thy vineyard, that I may have it for a garden of herbs, because it is near unto my house, and I will give thee for it a better vineyard than it; or, if it seem good to thee, I will give thee the worth of it in money (v. 2). The offer was simple: Naboth could trade his vineyard to Ahab for a better one located elsewhere, or Ahab would pay him a fair price to purchase it outright.
Some modern readers may be surprised at Naboth’s response: “And Naboth said to Ahab, The Lord forbid me, that I should give the inheritance of my fathers unto thee” (v. 3). Was Naboth trying to hold out for a better offer? Was he trying to upstage the powerful king and make him come begging for the deal? Or was he simply a stubborn old miser standing his ground in the face of modern change? None of these possibilities can adequately explain Naboth’s refusal to close the transaction. Naboth’s firmness was based on his commitment to the Word of God. Before the Israelites ever settled in the Promised Land, God commanded that they should never sell a paternal inheritance (Lev. 25:23; Num. 36:7). The land was to be kept in the family. Thus, God’s Word forbade Naboth from selling the land, and he was ready to stand up to anyone, even the king, to obey that command. Such spiritual stubbornness is greatly needed in our day of lukewarm compromise when principle is often sacrificed for expediency. One might try to argue that with this offer Naboth could secure for himself and his family a better and more productive vineyard provided by Ahab! But situation ethics was as wrong in Naboth’s day as it is today. “. . . Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams” (1 Sam. 15:22).
Ahab had every right to make Naboth an offer, but his reaction to Naboth’s refusal graphically reveals his childish immaturity: “And Ahab came into his house sullen and displeased because of the word which Naboth, the Jezreelite, had spoken to him; for he had said, I will not give thee the inheritance of my fathers. And he lay down upon his bed, and turned away his face, and would eat no food” (v. 4). Big, bad Ahab!! The sight of a monarch with lower lip protruding, stomping into his bedroom and flinging himself upon his bed, facing the wall and refusing to eat is enough to make us laugh if it were not so sad.
The King and the Queen I Kings 21:5-16
But Jezebel, his wife, came to him, and said unto him. Why is thy spirit so sad, that thou eatest no food?” (v. 5). Ahab was a weak man, and there is no sadder spectacle than a weak man domineered by a strong woman. The whole matter would have ended had not Jezebel entered the picture. What has been said of this woman up to this point has revealed her to be a cunning instrument of Satan to turn away the hearts of God’s people from the truth. In one of those politically expedient marriages between royal houses, Ahab had taken Jezebel as his wife (1 Ki. 16:31). This evil princess had arrived at the royal palace accompanied by her patron deity, Baal. Soon she had succeeded in introducing the worship of this foreign nature god into large areas of the kingdom. Her campaign of paganization was accompanied by an outright persecution of the true prophets of God (1 Ki. 18:4, 13). It was Jezebel who buckled Elijah’s knees with her threat to his life following the defeat of her Baal prophets on Carmel (1 Ki. 19:1-2). Truly this woman was a personification of evil in its worst form. When the Lord Jesus accused the church in Thyatira of spiritual fornication, He called the instigator of the affair by the name of this wicked woman (Rev. 2:20-23). Probably no female name is associated with such insidious cruelty as Jezebel. Ahab would probably have forgotten the whole “Naboth affair,” but the next events reveal graphically the truth of 1 Kings 21:25: “But there was none like unto Ahab, who did sell himself to work wickedness in the sight of the Lord, whom Jezebel, his wife, stirred up.
When she discovered the reason for Ahab’s sadness, the poison of her malevolent personality was poured out in a diabolical plan. A woman like Jezebel was not at all concerned whether her husband had an herb garden or not — it was the principle of autocratic executive power that was at stake. The rights of the individual (i.e., Naboth) must always take second place to the dictatorial whims of a monarch.
In the midst of all her wickedness, Jezebel manifested a sort of evil brilliance. Her plan to secure Naboth’s vineyard for Ahab had all the trappings of piety and legality. An official letter from the king with his own seal was to be sent to the officials of the city. It should be noted that her first sin was forgery, for she would write the letters herself and employ Ahab’s seal (v. 8). Her second sin was hypocrisy, for she called for a fast to be proclaimed (v. 9). This fast was to call attention to the fact that some great sin had been committed that caused God’s displeasure against the city. Evil people will often use religion to. serve their evil ends. Her third sin was perjury, for the letters called for two “sons of Belial” (i.e., scoundrels) to give a false testimony implicating the innocent Naboth (v. 10). Their charge was that Naboth had cursed God and the king — a capital offence under the law (Lev. 24:14). Sadly, there are always people who can be found to whom truth is a valueless commodity, especially when they can sell it for a high price (cf. Mt. 26:59-62). The fourth sin committed by Jezebel and company that day was murder: “. . . Then they carried him forth out of the city, and stoned him with stones, so that he died” (v. 13). A later reference informs us that Naboth’s sons, his rightful heirs to the property at his death, also shared the same fate as their condemned father (2 Ki. 9:26). A grieving widow and mother was heard weeping in Jezreel that night, bereft of those closest to her. A man had simply chosen to follow God rather than man, and his life had been snuffed out by a scheming queen and a weak king who had acquiesced to her malevolent plan.
When the news of the travesty of justice reached the royal couple, Ahab arose to take official possession of the vineyard. The whole incident was covered with a veneer of justice. If a man died leaving no heirs, his property reverted to the care of the state. Now the head of that state entered the vineyard to secure it for himself.
The King and the Prophet 1 Kings 21:18-29
At this point in this sordid affair, one might ask, “Will this crime be allowed to take place? Is there no justice? Where is God?” To all appearances, Naboth’s disinheritance and murder was the “perfect crime.” The citizens of Jezreel were no doubt convinced that their unfortunate neighbor deserved his fate. Only a very few were privy to the dastardly plot concocted by Jezebel. The stage was now set for Ahab to enjoy his “prize” without fear of interference by anyone.
However, Ahab and Jezebel had ignored the truth expressed by an earlier king of Judah in Proverbs 15:3, “The eyes of the Lord are in every place, beholding the evil and the good.” Jehovah God had not allowed the wicked deed to go unnoticed. It was now time for Him to act. He revealed His word to Elijah, informing the prophet of Ahab’s deed and instructing him to deliver a message of judgment to the king (vv. 17-19).
Ahab entered the vineyard and was basking in his new acquisition, when he was rudely awakened by the figure of a man clothed in camel hair with eyes ablaze with the fire of God. Ahab vividly remembered this wild looking character. It was he who had announced the drought of three years on the land (1 Ki. 17:1). It was he who had engineered the defeat of Jezebel’s “darling” prophets on Mount Carmel (1 Ki. 18:19-40).
“And Ahab said to Elijah, Hast thou found me, O mine enemy? And he answered, I have found thee, because thou hast sold thyself to work evil in the sight of the Lord” (v. 20). Without delay, Elijah continued to deliver one of the most stunning declarations of judgment in the Word of God. Elijah prophesied the following: (1) Every male child of Ahab’s will die (v. 21); (2) Ahab’s dynasty will cease, just as Jeroboam’s and Baashas came to an untimely end (v. 22); (3) Jezebel will be eaten by dogs in Jezreel (v. 23); and (4) dogs will lick up the blood of Ahab, as they had done to Naboth (w. 19, 24).
The message of judgment fell on Ahab like a crushing stone: “And it came to pass, when Ahab heard those words, that he tore his clothes, and put sackcloth upon his flesh, and fasted, and lay in sackcloth, and went softly” (v. 27). He did not argue with Elijah. The prophet had been proven right too many times before. The immediate effect on the king was that he put on all the trappings of outward repentance — the rending of garments, the sackcloth, the fasting. It is also added that “he went softly,” or “walked about slowly,” like one in deep trouble. A great Bible scholar remarks on this passage, “This repentance was neither hypocritical, nor purely external; but it was sincere even if it was not lasting and produced no real conversion” (C.F. Keil). The Lord himself acknowledged it to be a real repentance, “Seest thou how Ahab humbleth himself before me? Because he humbleth himself before me, I will not bring the evil in his days; but in his son’s days will I bring the evil upon his house” (v. 29). The judgment was not revoked, it was simply postponed. The calamity upon Ahab’s home did not take place in his lifetime, but in the days of his son, Joram. This was later graphically fulfilled in the murder of Joram by Jehu and the casting of his corpse in the stolen plot of ground in Jezreel (2 Ki. 9:24-26), followed immediately by the execution of the remaining seventy sons of Ahab (2 Ki. 10:1-11).
Once more, Elijah displayed great courage in delivering this message of judgment. It was an unpopular message, but sorely needed and most appropriate. The message of God’s wrath is even more unpopular today. False views of God’s love are spread abroad in our day, but the fact remains that before a sinner can understand the love of God, he must first understand the holiness of God. Elijah’s message needs to be thundered out again in this ungodly age in which we live.
The King and God 1 Kings 22:1-39
The Bible does not state how long Ahab continued to “go softly” and display evidence of his repentance. Evidently, Elijah departed as suddenly as he had appeared. As three years passed (v. 1 ), the memory of this dramatic encounter began to fade from Ahab’s mind. His kingdom continued to prosper outwardly. Perhaps Ahab concluded that this time Elijah was wrong. A war with Syria, however, provided the context in which God’s judgment would take place.
Along with Jehoshaphat, king of Judah, Ahab rode off to Gilead beyond Jordan to recover the captured town of Ramoth. Even though another prophet named Micaiah had prophesied his demise (v. 17), Ahab rode off confidently, deceived by an evil spirit (vv. 19-24). In the heat of the conflict,”. . . a certain man drew a bow at a venture [lit. at random], and smote the king of Israel between the joints of his armor. . .” (v. 34). When that Syrian archer released his arrow, he had no idea that the God of Heaven would reach down and guide its flight directly to a vulnerable spot in Ahab’s armor. Such is the method that God often uses to accomplish His purposes. The king was severely wounded, and even though he tried to stay in the battle, he eventually died. Ahab was buried in Samaria: “And one washed the chariot in the pool of Samaria, and the dogs
licked up his blood; and they washed his armor, according unto the word of the Lord which he spoke (v. 38). How appropriate the poetic justice of God! How faithful the word of judgment spoken three years earlier by the prophet! Ahab could not escape the righteous judgment of God though the passage of time seemed to indicate otherwise.
But what about Jezebel, the evil hand that ruled Ahab and the mind that hatched the plan that murdered poor Naboth? Fifteen years passed slowly, and Jezebel continued unscathed and safe. Even though she retired from public life, no great catastrophe of judgment had fallen on her as Elijah had announced. The poet, Longfellow, graphically captured in verse the solemn truth played out on the pages of Scripture:
Though the mills of God grind slowly,
Yet they grind exceeding small;
Though with patience He stands waiting,
With exactness grinds He all.
Another king from another family had ascended the throne of Israel by force. After bloodily smiting Joram, the son of Ahab, Jehu rode to Jezreel to execute his wrath on Jezebel. The eunuchs who lived in the palace with her were only too willing to throw her out the window at the feet of Jehu’s horses. The account in 2 Kings 9:33-36 is most graphic: “And he said. Throw her down. So they threw her down. And some of her blood was sprinkled on the wall, and on the horses; and he trod her under foot .. . And they went to bury her; but they found no more of her than the skull, and the feet, and the palms of her hands. Wherefore they came again, and told him. And he said. This is the word of the Lord, which he spoke by his servant, Elijah the Tishbite, saying, In the portion of Jezreel shall dogs eat the flesh of Jezebel” (ww. 33,35,36).
The perfect crime was not so perfect after all! Ahab and Jezebel had not reckoned on the omniscient Jehovah God and His righteousness. Yes, there will be a Payday Someday for everyone who has flaunted the Word of God thinking he can get away unnoticed and unpunished. The psalmist wondered how God could allow the wicked to prosper, “Until I went into the sanctuary of God; then understood I their end. Surely, thou didst set them in slippery places; thou castedst them down into destruction” (Ps. 73:17-18). The apostle expressed it this way: “Be not deceived. God is not mocked, for whatever a man soweth, that shall he also reap” (Gal. 6:7).