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Sermon preached on 1 Kings 21 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 03/01/2020 in Novato, CA.
What gets you emotional and fired up about? Ahab here at first gets emotional and fired up to the point of depression over something he cannot have. Jezebel seems to get fired up about her husband’s lack of shrewdness and gladly takes the opportunity to exercise some on his behalf. Naboth gets excited here about honoring God and finding great value in the inheritance God have given his family. At the end of this passage we are surprised to see Ahab’s emotional reaction of humility that even God says to Elijah it noteworthy. While we are often concerned about godliness in terms of what we do, this passage reminds us that godliness begins in the heart. What does your heart desire? What do you get excited about and desire? Let us keep this in mind as we dig into today’s passage.
We begin in our first point then to contrast the wrong desire of Ahab here with the right desire of Naboth. Verses 1-2 present the initial desire of Ahab. There is a neighbor of King Ahab in Jezreel named Naboth. Naboth’s vineyard was right next door to Ahab’s palace there and Ahab wants to buy it from Naboth so he can plant a vegetable garden there. Let me point out that verse 1 calls Ahab the king of Samaria, which is interesting because we know he’s the king over all Israel, not just Samaria. But by telling us that, it reminds us that Ahab’s capital city and thus what should be his primary residence is in Samaria. Our passage is about his secondary home in Jezreel. Ahab sees his neighbor’s vineyard and really wants that plot of land there to expand his second palace in Jezreel.
Think about the opportunity here, from a world’s perspective for Naboth. From a mere pragmatic aspect, this would seem like a great deal for Naboth. He’s given the offer to either accept the fair value of the land in money, or Ahab’s willing to get him an even better vineyard elsewhere. Basically, Naboth would be trading up and growing his net worth. More than that, he’d be surely gaining the king’s favor. Seems like a no-brainer decision from a certain point of view. And, of course, it especially seems like a good offer to take in the hindsight of what refusing the king’s offer might entail – aka the ruthless vengeance of Queen Jezebel. Yet, Naboth refuses the offer.
The reason is told to us in verse 3. Naboth said “The LORD forbid that I should give you the inheritance of my fathers.” Let me explain what Naboth surely means here. There is not a direct prohibition, per se, in the Bible that would forbid this sale. However, Naboth evidently knows what God has said about this in his Word and knows that he should not sell his family’s land in the Promised Land in these circumstances. Basically, when God’s people were given the Promised Land, God had the land divided up first by tribe and then by family within each tribe. This was described an inheritance from God to those tribes and families. The law of God was very clear that these tribal allocations could not be sold permanently. Leviticus 25 describes that should someone fall into poverty and find need to sell their land, they could do so but essentially only in the form of a lease. Every 50 years there would be a Year of Jubilee where the land would all revert back to the original ownership among the original allocations assigned by God. Consequently, God said that any sale of land should priced with this in mind, that effectively you would be leasing the land until the next Year of Jubilee. Furthermore, the law required for the right of redemption of land that you sold. If you or a family member acquired the means to be able to buy back the land that you sold off, then you were allowed to do so.
The spirit in all this is obviously understood here by Naboth. The land was a God-given inheritance in this Promised Land of milk and honey. It was to be cherished and valued for what it was, not liquidated and sold off for purposes of profit. While the law allowed for a temporary selling of it in an hour of need, the spirit of the law was to keep it otherwise. The New Testament helps us to recognize the land was ultimately typological. It was an earthly picture under the old covenant that pointed to an eternal heavenly inheritance that God would ultimately give his people. So, Naboth was right here to deny Ahab. In such circumstances surely the LORD would not have Naboth to sell his family’s inheritance in the Promised Land.
Ahab then goes home and sulks. The language in verse 4 is that he was vexed and sullen because of this. It’s the same language used at the end of last chapter when the prophet condemned him for releasing King Ben-hadad. After being condemned then, he goes home sullen and vexed. And now again, he’s sullen and vexed because he can’t have what he wants. In case this is not clear, all this is a violation of the tenth commandment by Ahab. In reflecting on this, it should be clear that Ahab shouldn’t have tried to buy the field from Naboth in the first place. But he especially shouldn’t be so depressed about it after he’s denied the purchase. I mean, look, he’s not eating, and he’s just laying around on his bed. It’s like he’s fallen into a state of depression over this. What it reveals is his covetous heart that doesn’t want to be told no to what he desires. His pining like this for something that he can’t have is sinful and wrong.
We can find some application here to ourselves. Coveting is a sin of the heart and it is easy to fall into. What do we do when we find ourselves having forbidden desires for something that belongs to our neighbor? There are two wrong ways to deal with such coveting seen in this passage. One wrong way is to delve into depression over your grief of what you can’t have. A second wrong way is to follow Jezebel’s example and find a way to take what doesn’t belong to you. The right response is to repent of your sinful desire and look to put it off. Paul speaks of putting off such covetousness at several points in the New Testament. I appreciate how he puts it in Colossians 3. There after speaking of putting off things like passion, evil desire, and covetousness he then pairs that with a call to put on things like mercies, kindness, humility, meekness and especially love. Instead of envying what our neighbor has, and wanting to take it from them, we should love them and be happy for them and what they have. Paul talks there how we need to be the new creations in Christ. In that, may we look to find contentment and redirect our lusts toward godly desires.
Well, unfortunately that’s not what happens in our passage for today. Moving on to our second point, notice with me all the perversions and persecution that comes from this when Jezebel comes home and finds Ahab in his sullen and vexed state. She basically admonishes her husband for his sulking. She chides him that he is supposed to be the king and implies that he should be able to get whatever he wants. Of course, Jezebel grew up as a princess in the pagan kingdom of Sidon and that’s surely how their kings operated. But the kings of Israel were supposed be governed by the Word of God which said that the kings weren’t above God’s law.
It’s at this point we see her step in and try to resolve this matter. But everything she does is full of perversion and with the result of the persecution of the godly man Naboth. She begins with offering encouragement to her husband’s heart, encouraging him to eat and that she’d take care of things. It’s a good thing in general for a wife to minister to her depressed husband and attempt to gladden his heart. But she perverts that good service because her healing words to his soul ultimately come as evil medicine. She’ll solve his heart’s desire with great sin.
So then, we see her perversion of the king’s name in verse 8 when she writes letters in his name and seals them with his royal seal. She sends these letters out as if she were the king and the purpose of the letters is conspiracy. In these letters she calls for a perversion of religious worship. The elders and leaders of the city are to call for a solemn fast. This was to be the context for getting Naboth in trouble. Maybe they told the community there was a great sin that needed to be dealt with so everyone should gather in fasting. But this was to make a sham and pretense out of the religious act of fasting.
Then we see her pervert justice. Her letters call for a gathering of two worthless men who would serve as false witnesses against Naboth. She’d have them claim he had cursed both God and the king – which would have been a direct violation of Exodus 22:28 and particularly blaspheming God carried with it the death penalty, per Lev 24:16. She calls for two such witnesses because that’s what justice demanded under the law – you couldn’t put someone to death on the testimony of just one witness. You needed two or three witnesses to establish any fact, Deuteronomy 17:6. But that’s where justice is so badly perverted here because these witnesses would be lying. The ninth commandment specifically prohibited false witness against one’s neighbor. Various passages in the Bible speak against the great evil of such malicious witnesses who conspire together to lie because it causes a fundamental breakdown in the ability to give justice. And of course, the reason Jezebel perverted justice like this was so that Naboth would be put to death. As we see in verse 19, this is murder – a violation of the sixth commandment.
But realize that not only were Jezebel’s actions full of so many perversions, they all served to persecute a faithful man of God. Surely Naboth was one of the few who were part of that seven thousand remnant among Israel that God had told Elijah about. Not only does she get Naboth put to death, but later 2 Kings 9:26 implies that all Naboth’s sons were put to death here. That would have left no heir, and of course then they seize the land for themselves.
An application that comes during this second point is the reality that God’s people have often been persecuted and continue to face persecution. When we see the mighty miraculous miracles of someone like Elijah, we might falsely think that God’s people didn’t face persecution in such times. But of course, a close study of Elijah’s life has shown to us that not to be the case. The fact that Elijah himself went relatively unscathed in the persecution department at that time was clearly the exception not the norm. What was true here is true today. The New Testament tells us to expect persecution as those who follow the Lord Jesus. Jesus himself suffered persecution including being the victim of false testimony in a trial where justice was perverted. Likewise, we are not surprised to see Stephen in the book of Acts to likewise be the victim of false testimony, Acts 6:11. We too should not be surprised in the various ways enemies of the faith might afflict us. Jesus’ words tell us this in John 16:33 saying, “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”
But the good news in all of this is that God is not unaware of our sufferings for his name. This leads us then to our third point to consider the judgment and related humility that we find in the last part of this chapter. The prophetic word of the LORD intrudes into our passage in verse 17. There we find that God has seen and God knows the evil that Ahab has done. Like in the Garden of Eden, even though Eve took the lead in taking the fruit and giving it to her husband, God confronted Adam first just like he confronts Ahab here instead of Jezebel. God brings word through Elijah of judgment upon them. Yes, this judgment includes Jezebel. The dogs will eat her within the walls of Jezreel. But it especially includes a strong judgment against the whole house of Ahab. Like the previous two dynasties in Israel – Jeroboam’s house and Baasha’s house – God will cut off Ahab’s house. Like those other dynasties, God’s judgment will involve not only completely wiping out all possible successors to the throne, but they won’t get properly buried but the dogs and bird will eat them.
The context for this judgment is obviously centered around the evil Ahab did with Naboth. Verse 19 records God citing Naboth’s murder and the subsequent taking of his vineyard. But notice as well the additional context given in verses 25-26. While this evil alone with Naboth was sufficient for God to act in justice, the verses go on to say the Ahab was the most evil king of all time for Israel. It references his idolatry like the Amorites before whom God had expelled from the land in order to give it to Israel. Ahab had reverted the land to such a state that could feasibly warrant Israel to then be expelled too. But God especially blames the leadership of Ahab for the state of the nation – leadership incited by his wicked wife Jezebel. That’s not so much stated as to somehow lessen his guilt. Rather, like Adam who listened to Eve to eat of the fruit, Ahab is all the more guilty that he would submit to his wife’s wicked leadership in such regards.
So then, something surprising happens in our passage. In verse 27, Ahab has a different reaction than what we’ve come to expect. Remember, last chapter a prophet declared God’s judgment upon him for sparing King Ben-hadad and all it said is that Ahab went home sullen and vexed. But this time his response is very different. He actually is described as humbling himself in light of God’s words of judgment. He tears his clothes, puts on sackcloth, and fasts and lays in his sackcloth. His demeanor is said to be one that is dejected, which I think the sense is conveyed well by the word the NIV uses there to translate – it says he went about meekly. In other words, gone is the boastful arrogance of Ahab who in the past railed defiantly at Elijah as the troubler of Israel and even here as his enemy. There’s an interesting similarity to his attitude here versus earlier when he was depressed that Naboth wouldn’t sell him his vineyard. There too he didn’t eat and acted all depressed. The difference with this is it clearly seems to be put in terms of a humility before the LORD in effort to show contrition before God.
Now, if you don’t feel too sorry for Ahab, I can say that you are not alone. Many have read this passage and frankly have trouble believing that Ahab was really sorry. Others have pointed to the fact that next chapter his behavior is not commendable either. While we aren’t able to plumb the depths of Ahab’s heart to know the full state of it, we can’t ignore that God takes notice of it. While Ahab’s reaction does seem to be more of a temporary remorse than a substantive change, we can’t help but see that God notes his humility here. God brings this to the attention of Elijah. And he thus brings it to our attention here. It results in the tangible stay of execution by God here. Verse 29, God says that he will not bring this decreed disaster during Ahab’s day but in his son’s days. And so, we should recognize that God doesn’t give a full pardon here to Ahab – he merely delays the execution of the judgment. But the fact that God mercifully does respond to Ahab’s pleadings, shows the manifold grace of God. The fact that he extends Ahab’s time before this judgment falls is even suggestive that there may yet be opportunity for further grace to be found should Ahab pursue it. Sadly, we don’t see any further such pursuits by Ahab after this chapter. Rather, next chapter he seems to spurn the word of the LORD in a different prophet and imprisons him because he doesn’t like his prophecy.
It can be hard to get our head wrapped around God’s mercy here to someone so utterly wicked as Ahab. But if we are at all tempted to cry foul of God for any ways that he shows mercy to someone like Ahab, may we remember again our many sins against God. May we have some of this humility toward God demonstrated here in this text if we are at all tempted to complain of God showing mercy to someone. We are each great sinners on our own and our lives are completely dependent on this character of God called mercy. Rather, this passage but reminds us again of the dual qualities of God: justice and mercy that come together in God’s own time and good purposes. He is not unaware how his people have suffered at the hand of evil men and will see to their justice and vindication. Likewise, each of his saved people have come to know his abundant mercies and graces and ought to have great humility toward God for that.
And we remember again that this mystery of justice and mercy comes together in the full in the person of King Jesus. He is that king who didn’t look to steal an inheritance from us by taking away our life. Rather, King Jesus allowed for his life to be taken to give us of his own heavenly inheritance. In his death he paid with his blood for the redemption of our souls from sin, that we might be brought into his royal family and to share in his heavenly inheritance. And it is this heavenly inheritance that even now he safeguards for us until the day that he returns to bring us into it in the fullness of glory. While the world may yet persecute us and afflict us, this is an inheritance that they cannot take away from us. Let us meekly and humbly rejoice in our savior who so mercifully delivers to us an inheritance as sons as those who have been made co-heirs of God with Christ.
May this passage also renew our priorities. On an earthly level, may we put off coveting worldly things and put on love toward our neighbors. And in regard to eternal things, may we find the contentment in valuing our heavenly inheritance in Christ as our chief possession! Amen.
Copyright © 2020 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.