Sermon preached on 1 Kings 20 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 02/23/2020 in Novato, CA.
A theme that comes out in this passage is the knowledge of the LORD. It’s in verses 13 and 28; God says, “And you shall know that I am the LORD.” This isn’t about just some basic identification of who God is. This kind of knowledge refers to something deeper. God wants his people to truly know him in his fullness. There is a relational sense to this knowledge, that they would have a relationship with God in a way that the world does not. There is also a knowledge here of God’s character, and his power, and his position. Such knowledge should promote reverence, obedience, gratitude, and joy, for who God is, and for their relationship with him. As we study this passage today we see God mercifully seeking to promote such knowledge among his people. Let us study this passage then to help us also grow in truly knowing the LORD.
We begin in our first point to consider God’s first victory in this passage against Syria. That’s right away how this chapter starts out. We find the arrogant Ben-hadad, King of Syria, trying to pick a fight with Israel. Ben-hadad with a humongous army made up of a coalition of forces with thirty-two other kings rolls up against Samaria, the capital city of Israel. The army is huge according to verse 13 and it’s impressive according to verse 1 with its horses and chariots. As they near Samaria, Ben-hadad sends his messengers into the city to Ahab. Likely this first request of silver and gold and wives and children is more of a demand to put Ahab and Israel in a vassal status to Syria. It was probably a claim to own him Ahab in a sense “on paper” but not necessarily meaning that Ahab was going to immediately surrender all his gold, silver, wives, and children over to him. For Ahab to consent to this says that they would be submitting politically to Ben-hadad and Syria with various demands that might come out of that, probably especially the giving of tribute and likely military support. But Ben-hadad doesn’t stop there. Maybe because Ahab gave in so quickly, he then sends another round of messengers. This time they significantly increase the demand. Ben-hadad wants to be able to have his servants come the next day and search through everything they have and take whatever is valuable.
Beyond the bold arrogance here by Ben-hadad, notice the formula used by the messengers in verses 2 and 5. “Thus says Ben-hadad”. Sound familiar? It sounds very familiar to, “Thus says the LORD.” In fact, that’s where this goes. After Ahab seeks counsel from the elders and determines to not consent to Ben-hadad’s second request, Israel is in imminent danger from this huge Syrian army. But that’s when Ahab receives a different messenger. A prophet of the LORD comes and says “thus says the LORD,” verse 13. I appreciate how God points out through the prophet that this Syrian force is a great multitude. It’s God pointing out the obvious threat to Ahab. Ahab and all Israel is in deep trouble on their own. But the good news is that God is going to step in and defend his people Israel and give them the victory over this evil enemy. Ahab welcomes this news from the prophet and immediately asks for more instructions. Ahab wants to know how he is to go about this. Ahab learns that he is to strike first using the “servants of the governors.” This Hebrew word for the servants here emphasizes that theses are the young, likely as in inexperienced” men. This only totals 232 men. They are going to get sent in first and following behind them the rest of the mustered army will come. But that is only 7,000 men. Likely the Syrian forces numbered somewhere over 100,000 based on the numbers for the second battle which apparently was a similar size as this first battle. The point is that this victory is clearly a divine thing because they aren’t going to be able to have a victory with so few people against so many people unless God does the impossible for them.
Realize that this is great mercy from God to Israel. Think about it. Why should God show them such mercy? Well, we can appreciate why God would want to vindicate his name over the arrogant and evil Ben-hadad. Ben-hadad had set himself as a great enemy over God’s people and now God was going to show his power in response. We can understand that. But why is God willing to even still help Israel after all their great idolatry? Remember, after God showed himself on Mt. Carmel, Ahab goes back to Queen Jezebel and they decide to continue to persecute the prophets of the LORD. Why show them such mercy? And here, in verse 13, we see that God is especially at work here to show mercy to Ahab. When God says he will do this so that “you” will know that I am the LORD, the word for “you” is in the singular. In other words, God’s specifically talking to him, to King Ahab. Why is God in this first battle with Syria going to deliver Israel? Even though Ahab hadn’t sought God’s help or showed signs of repentance? God is going to deliver Israel like this so that King Ahab himself might truly know the LORD. That he might recognize the LORD for who he is – the great and powerful God overall by whose mercy Israel is saved and redeemed time and again. This is especially amazing to think that God is going to do this for Ahab, to give Ahab such opportunity to know the LORD when we had just read last chapter of God’s plan to raise up Jehu. Jehu will be used by God to destroy Ahab’s house and dynasty. Yet, here, the merciful Lord yet gives opportunity for Ahab’s reclamation.
Well, the LORD does indeed give them a mighty victory. The young servants of the districts go out and find the kings are all drunk and making merry. Surely that contributes to this mighty defeat as the Syrians flee. God’s people are saved by the might of the Lord. So then, God graciously sends them more prophetic revelation. The prophet returns in verse 22 and tells Ahab to prepare for Syria to return next spring.
That brings us next to consider the second victory God gives Israel here against Syria. The actions continue in verse 23 when the Syrians discuss what went wrong. In foolish, pagan thinking, they conclude that Israel’s God must be the god of the hills and so they plan a new battle against Israel on the plains. There, Syria concludes they’ll have the victory. Well, we find them in the springtime, as had been prophesied, Syria comes against Israel again. This time the battle is near Aphek, which was probably a border town of Israel. Again, we see a huge threat to Israel. Again, we see the mustered army of Israel so tiny in comparison. Verse 27 brings this out by saying that in comparison Israel looked like two tiny little flocks of goats in comparison, but Syria filled the countryside. That’s when for a third time in this chapter a prophet comes to King Ahab. Again, the prophet brings good tidings to Abab of victory.
Why? Again, we don’t see Ahab or Israel calling out to God for help. We don’t see description of them repenting and returning to the ways of the LORD. Yes, clearly one reason God will help is again because of the slanderous accusations of the evil Syrians. They dared to blaspheme the LORD God of the heavens and the earth by saying that he was only the God of the hills. A pagan should know they are in trouble when they start making such comments. It’s like the quote reported about the Titanic that, “Not even God himself could sink this ship.” That’s not the kind of thing you want to say! We’ll see the Assyrians get into similar trouble later on in 2 Kings when they tell the people of Jerusalem that their God won’t be powerful enough to save them. So, yes, that is one reason why God comes to the rescue here of Israel. But again, notice the other reason in verse 13. So that “you shall know that I am the LORD.” Interestingly, this time the “you” is plural, even though he’s speaking to Ahab. In other words, this time the prophet says that God wants to not only give Ahab opportunity to know the LORD as their mighty savior. God wants all Israel to know the LORD as such. Again, such mercy is here when we remember that it was just last chapter when God told Elijah at Mt. Sinai that he was going to raise up a Syrian king to destroy all of Israel except for a small seven-thousand-person remnant. Yet, before that happens, the merciful Lord yet gives opportunity for Israel’s reclamation.
And indeed God gives Israel an even greater victory in this second battle here against Syria. In the first battle, Syria was largely able to flee from Israel. Here, God allows them somehow to initially strike down 100,000 of them. Then they flee into the walled city of Aphek, where in something reminiscent to Jericho, the wall falls down upon them and kills 27,000 more. Then the evil King Ben-hadad with some of his servants are captured – delivered into the hand of King Ahab. Victory is once again the LORD’s!
That leads us then to our third point where suddenly the tone of the chapter changes quickly. We find that when King Ben-hadad and his servants think their end is near, they have one last strategy. Based on the rumor they’ve heard that Israelite kings are merciful, they decide to humbly plea for mercy. They put on sackcloth, tie ropes around their heads, and go to King Ahab and plead for their lives. In response, Ahab offers them mercy. He calls King Ben-hadad his brother who now speaks humbly and offers many concessions to Ahab. They end up making a covenant based on these terms and he lets Ben-hadad go free.
God is not happy about this. This comes out starting in verse 35 when we see yet another prophet come into view. This chapter is full of prophetic ministry but at verse 35 it transitions from prophets bringing good and merciful tidings to Ahab to bringing him words of judgment. By the time we get to this final section starting in verse 35, we realize that we are especially told about these two battles in order to set the context for this judgment being issued on Ahab. Ahab is in trouble for sparing the life of this evil Syrian king.
This final section begins with the strange word from the LORD by one prophet to another prophet to strike him. This prophet won’t do it and is killed by a lion in response. The point is clear if not a bit strange in how it’s made. If a prophet can be held liable with his life for disobeying a word from the LORD, then surely a king can likewise be held accountable. The prophet then finds another man to strike him, and he does. The prophet then is noticeably wounded and that sets the stage for him to disguise himself with a bandage and wait for King Ahab to pass by. Sometimes prophets give parables to make their point. We can remember how the prophet Nathan confronted King David with a parable that got David to condemn himself. Sometimes prophets would act out their parables. This prophet does both.
So then the prophet sets up a test that in retrospect is very similar to what Ahab failed in. The wounded prophet waits for Ahab and then tells him that he let go a man he was charged to watch – at the cost of either his life or 1 talent of silver. Ahab, serving in his kingly capacity, gives a judgment right there to the prophet that he is guilty by his own admission. The prophet then removes the disguise and points it back to Ahab. Ahab is the one who is guilty. He let go the prisoner that God had entrusted him to guard. God had delivered over King Ben-hadad to Ahab in order for him to be put to death. Ahab let that evil man go and now the judgment that he just pronounced on this prophet will come upon himself.
This scenario is interesting. We might immediately ask how was Ahab supposed to know that he was to kill King Ben-hadad instead of showing him mercy? The text doesn’t explicitly tell us how Ahab was supposed to know this, but the text does seem to imply that Ahab should have known. Well, it’s always possible that King Ahab was told explicitly by a prophet, but it’s just not recorded here, only implied. Others have suggested the teachings in the law about Israel and war should give Ahab enough to conclude that he shouldn’t let Ben-hadad go free. More to this text, the actions of Ben-hadad here alone should suggest this. This passage shows Ben-hadad as a repeated antagonist of Israel and slanderer of God. After his first defeat he came back a second time. How many people died on both sides because of what he did here. His final acts of humility and repentance surely are just that – acts. They were calculated moves to try to save his skin – not a real change of heart. He’s a man who is sad he got caught not a man sad over his evil. For that matter, God had clearly orchestrated all this victory. God gave Ben-hadad over to Ahab. Ahab should have done a better job recognizing providence here. At a minimum, Ahab should have inquired of the LORD before making a covenant with Ben-hadad – remember the similar mistake when Israel didn’t inquire of the LORD when making a covenant with the Gibeonites long before.
If I were to try to play the devil’s advocate here, I might say, “But isn’t God a merciful God?” Maybe Ahab thought showing mercy was the godly thing to do here. There are so many scriptures that highlight God as one who is merciful and forgiving. Wouldn’t it be good for an Israelite King to be known as merciful? Didn’t God just show Ahab and Israel so much mercy even here in this passage? Maybe Ahab took great pride in such a thought – Ahab the merciful! Yet, we have to remember that while God’s mercy is very much highlighted in Scripture, so is his justice also. There is a biblical and healthy tension in Scripture on this fact. He shows great mercy upon mercy to his people; even to outsiders and even enemies at times – think of Jonah’s ministry to Nineveh. But there is also a time for justice and judgment and wrath, something he particularly pours out on those enemies of his chosen people. Pharaoh and Egypt were humbled with the plagues and subsequent Exodus under the leadership of humble Moses. God had David silence permanently the slanderous slurs of Goliath. God had ordered King Saul to completely wipe out the Amalekites.
This is such an interesting dynamic in the character of the LORD. God is one who at times shows great mercy to those he chooses to, and at other times terrible wrath to his enemies. Yet this gets at the heart of Ahab’s issue here. The theme we’ve read today is about God wanting his people to know him. Why did Ahab show mercy to Ben-hadad when God wanted him to show judgment? Because Ahab didn’t really know the mind of the LORD. Ahab did not have a heart after God’s own. So, here, he shows mercy at the wrong time and God condemns him for it.
Interestingly, there’s a subtle clue here that Ahab even misses the hope of redemption that is held out to him here. If this disguised wounded prophet played the role of Ahab, you might remember that he said he had to guard the prisoner at the cost of his life or for one talent of silver. The opportunity to pay a talent of silver instead of with his life is the idea of a redemption price. His life could be redeemed instead of taken – if only there was one who could pay that redemption price. Ironically, surely Ahab could have mercifully offered to pay that one talent redemption for him, but didn’t. Apparently Ahab was more willing to show mercy to Ben-hadad to this son of Israel, but I digress. My point is that the parable-picture of the prophet hinted that instead of paying for a mistake with one’s life, that there could also be a redemption price paid. Yet Ahab when condemned to pay for his life, did not offer any repentance. He didn’t plead to God for a redemption or for any mercy. He didn’t inquire if there was another way that he could make things right with the LORD. Instead, he just goes home vexed and sullen. Even with his own matters, he apparently here doesn’t know the mind of the LORD to know what makes for justice and for mercy with God.
Well, there would yet come a king for God’s people who knows the LORD God in the full. The one who comes from the bosom of God to reveal him unto us. I speak of Jesus Christ. Interestingly, we find the amazing balance of mercy versus judgment in Jesus’ own ministry and teachings. While James would later rightly write in James 2:13 that mercy triumphs over judgment, we learn again with Jesus that mercy does not negate judgment and justice. While on the one hand Jesus calls us to show love to enemies, he also called King Herod a fox and said that house of Jerusalem stood forsaken because how they persecuted the prophets. While Jesus said blessed are the merciful, he also pronounced woe upon the hypocritical pharisees and Judas Iscariot. Jesus advocated mercy surely more than anyone while at the same time still finding a category for justice that needed to be applied.
Of course, isn’t justice highlighted in the full in Jesus mercifully giving up of his life on the cross? There, the single greatest act of mercy happened at the same time as the single greatest pouring out of God’s wrath yet to date. This was done in order to pay the redemption for all God’s elect – ours included! I call us then again today to flee to the cross of Jesus Christ in faith. Escape the wrath of God to come by finding mercy in the redemption which is in King Jesus! This is so important because when Jesus returns, there will be no where to flee from the wrath of God – not the plains, not the hills, not anywhere – except on the hill of calvary by entrusting yourself to the cross of Jesus Christ.
In conclusion, today’s passage reminds us that the LORD wants us to know him. To know who he is, to know his character, his power, his position. This should cause us to revere him more, worship him more, rejoice in him more, and look to obey him more. But in truly growing in knowing our God, it means learning more of his heart. That obviously includes knowing when is a time for mercy and when is a time for judgment. We need both and we need to know when to administer each. Ours is especially a gospel ministry of grace and mercy to the world. But there will also be a time to speak and even act strongly against the enemies of the church both from within and without. Let us pray for wisdom from above and a heart grown in Christ to know when and how to distinguish between mercy and justice. And let us seek to learn this heart especially in his Word where God’s amazing character is wonderfully revealed to us. Let us do so unto that great final day of the Lord when mercy and judgment will come again together in the full one last time. Amen.
Copyright © 2020 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
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