In October of 1962, the pilot of a U-2 spy plane spotted Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba, just 90 miles from the United States. These missiles were camouflaged as trees, and they were aimed at various cites in the United States. As a result, the ill-fated “Bay of Pigs” invasion was staged, and it was a disastrous failure. It is not difficult to understand why President John Kennedy was concerned about Russian missiles in Cuba, aimed at United States cities. It was a serious threat to our national security.
Centuries earlier, something similar occurred in Israel. The nations surrounding Israel posed an on-going threat to the security of the nation Israel. As the Israelites prepared to enter the land of Canaan, they encountered opposition from a number of these nations (see Numbers 21:1-35; Deuteronomy 2:26ff.). Under Joshua, the Israelites crossed over the Jordan and began to drive out the Canaanites, though not completely (see Judges 1:1-36). As a result, throughout the period of the Judges the nation Israel was oppressed by many of the surrounding nations. Under Saul, some of the enemies of Israel were defeated, but under David, Israel was able to dominate their neighbors. This was true of Solomon’s reign in the earlier years, but in the latter years of his reign Israel’s dominance began to deteriorate.
When the united Kingdom was divided after the death of Solomon, the political and military dynamics radically changed. This was due to the fact that the northern Kingdom of Israel was sometimes at war with Judah (1 Kings 15:6-7). The impact of the hostility between Israel and Judah can be seen in this incident recorded in 1 Kings 15:
16 Now Asa and Baasha king of Israel were continually at war with each other. 17 Baasha king of Israel attacked Judah and he established Ramah as a military outpost to prevent anyone from leaving or entering the land of Asa king of Judah. 18 Asa took all the silver and gold that was left in the treasuries of the LORD’s temple and of the royal palace and handed it to his servants. He then told them to deliver it to Ben Hadad son of Tabrimmon, the son of Hezion, king of Syria, ruler in Damascus, along with this message: 19 “I want to make a treaty with you, like the one our fathers made. See, I have sent you silver and gold as a present. Break your treaty with Baasha king of Israel, so he will retreat from my land.” 20 Ben Hadad accepted King Asa’s offer and ordered his army commanders to attack the cities of Israel. They conquered Ijon, Dan, Abel Beth Maacah, and all the territory of Naphtali, including the region of Kinnereth. 21 When Baasha heard the news, he stopped fortifying Ramah and settled down in Tirzah. 22 King Asa ordered all the men of Judah (no exemptions were granted) to carry away the stones and wood that Baasha had used to build Ramah. King Asa used the materials to build up Geba (in Benjamin) and Mizpah (1 Kings 15:16-22).
Asa, king of Judah, was at war with Baasha, king of Israel. Because Baasha was at peace with Syria to his north, he felt free to concentrate on his conflict with Judah on his southern border. He began to fortify Ramah as a military outpost, which would virtually control the access to and from Jerusalem, a mere five miles to the south. This threat was just as disturbing to Asa, king of Israel, as the military buildup in Cuba was to President Kennedy. Asa took action. He gathered all the treasures he could find in the temple and the palace and sent them as a tribute to Ben Hadad, king of Syria, urging him to break his treaty with Israel and to establish a treaty with Judah. Ben Hadad accepted the offer and began to wage attacks on Israel’s northern borders, conquering some of Israel’s northern cities. This forced Baasha to give up his efforts to fortify Ramah and to concentrate on defending his northern borders. The dynamics of Israel’s relationship with the surrounding nations drastically changed with the division of the united Kingdom. Now, rather than Israel and Judah standing together against their enemies, they were aligning themselves with the surrounding nations against each other.
The events described in 1 Kings 15 provide the backdrop for our text in chapter 20. (We know from 1 Kings 20:34 that the “Ben Hadad” of chapter 15 is the father of the “Ben Hadad” of chapter 20.) Ben Hadad of Syria is more than happy to overrun Israel and to make the Israelites his vassals, and so in 1 Kings 20, we find Ben Hadad advancing on Samaria and issuing ultimatums.
Our text brings us to yet another “battle of the gods” which is recorded in 1 Kings. The first battle commenced in chapter 17. The test here was, “Which God can control the rains?” In response to Israel’s idolatry and disobedience, God sent Elijah to announce that there would be no rain in the land of Israel until he spoke the word (17:1). God then instructed Elijah to flee to the brook Cherith, where he could drink from the brook and where he was provided with bread and meat every morning and evening by ravens (17:1-7). When the drought dried up the brook, God instructed Elijah to go to the Sidonian town of Zarephath, where He had a widow who would provide for him (17:8ff.). After approximately three-and-a-half years, God ordered Elijah to present himself to Ahab. Elijah instructed Ahab to assemble all Israel on Mount Carmel, along with the 850 false prophets of Baal and the Asherah. There, Elijah challenged Israel to choose either Baal or Yahweh, based upon his ability to send down fire from heaven to consume the sacrifice offered to him (test 2). The challenge was accepted and, even though they were given the first chance, the 450 prophets of Baal could not produce fire from heaven. Elijah called upon Yahweh, who immediately sent fire from heaven. The people proclaimed Yahweh to be God, and they obeyed Elijah’s orders to kill the 450 false prophets of Baal.
Because of the people’s repentance on Mount Carmel, Elijah prayed that God would send rain to the parched land of Israel. As the clouds began to gather, Ahab hastily made his way back to Jezreel with Elijah leading the way before his chariot. The confrontation with Jezebel did not go as Elijah had hoped, and when she threatened to take his life within 24 hours, Elijah became frightened and fled for his life. Even though God dealt kindly with Elijah, there was no true repentance. Elijah was therefore ordered to return by the way he had come and to anoint Hazael as king over Syria, Jehu as king over Israel, and Elisha as prophet in his place. If the first test was about “rain” and the second was about “fire from heaven” (lightening), the third was about war. This “battle of the gods” seems to have taken place sometime after Elijah’s flight and is depicted in 1 Kings 20.
1 Now Ben Hadad king of Syria assembled all his army, along with 32 other kings with their horses and chariots. He marched against Samaria, and besieged and attacked it. 2 He sent messengers to Ahab king of Israel who was in the city. 3 He said to him, “This is what Ben Hadad says, ‘Your silver and your gold are mine, as well as the best of your sons and wives.’” 4 The king of Israel replied, “It is just as you say, my master, O king. I and all I own belong to you.” 5 The messengers came again and said, “This is what Ben Hadad says, ‘I sent this message to you, “You must give me your silver, gold, wives, and sons.” 6 But now at this time tomorrow I will send my servants to you and they will search through your palace and your servants’ houses. They will carry away all your valuables.” 7 The king of Israel summoned all the leaders of the land and said, “Notice how this man is looking for trouble.79 Indeed, he demanded my wives, sons, silver, and gold, and I did not resist him.” 8 All the leaders and people said to him, “Do not give in or agree to his demands.” 9 So he said to the messengers of Ben Hadad, “Say this to my master, the king, ‘I will give you everything you demanded at first from your servant, but I am unable to agree to this latest demand.’” So the messengers went back and gave their report. 10 Ben Hadad sent another message to him, “May the gods judge me severely if there is enough dirt left in Samaria for my soldiers to scoop up in their hands.” 11 The king of Israel replied, “Tell him the one who puts on his battle gear should not boast like one who is taking it off.” 12 When Ben Hadad received this reply, he and the other kings were drinking in their quarters. He ordered his servants, “Get ready to attack!” So they got ready to attack the city.
In the history of Israel, there were “superpowers” with whom God’s people had to contend—Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia—but on a day-to-day basis they had to deal with those nations or city-states which surrounded them. Among these “neighbors” would be the Philistines, the Midianites, the Moabites, the Syrians, and others. We have already read of the intrigue regarding Judah, Israel, and Syria when Asa, king of Israel, hired Ben Hadad of Syria to break his treaty with Baasha, king of Israel. It would appear that Syria was now going to attempt to tighten their grip on Israel. Ben Hadad (probably the son of the Ben Hadad in 1 Kings 15:18) marches toward Israel, joined by 32 kings and a combined army that must have totaled more than 127,000 men.80 When Ben Hadad nears the city of Samaria, he does what virtually every commander did before besieging a city—he gave them his terms for surrender. If the enemy surrendered, no lives would be lost, and terms for peace would be easier. If a city chose to fight and lost, their defeat would be devastating (see Deuteronomy 20:10-18).
Ben Hadad’s servants came to Ahab with terms for his surrender: he must turn over his silver and gold, along with his wives and his sons. Ahab felt he had no choice but to surrender and quickly agreed to Ben Hadad’s terms. It wasn’t over that quickly or easily, however. It would seem that while Ben Hadad was required by custom (primitive international law?) to offer terms for surrender, this is not really what he wanted. It would seem Ben Hadad either wanted to completely humiliate Ahab or that he intended to have his war and wipe him out completely. Two factors seem to influence Ben Hadad’s actions. First, he has 32 kings with him. These must be kings of city-states with whom he has an alliance. I suspect Ben Hadad is trying to impress them with his leadership and military prowess. This would tend to keep them in line, if they ever had any thoughts about changing sides. Second, there is the twice-mentioned (verses 12, 16) fact that Ben Hadad and his companions were drinking heavily. Ben Hadad was not sober enough to be driving, let alone declaring war. I wonder how many wars have started this same way. We certainly can see the wisdom of these words to kings in the Book of Proverbs:
4 It is not for kings, O Lemuel, it is not for kings to drink wine, nor for rulers to crave strong drink, 5 lest they drink and forget that which is decreed, and remove from all the poor their rights. 6 Give strong drink to the one who is perishing, and wine to those who are distressed; 7 Let them drink and forget their poverty, and remember their misery no more (Proverbs 31:4-7).
Word comes back to Ahab from Ben Hadad—the terms for peace have changed. Not only must Ahab agree to the terms previously declared, but he must also submit to Ben Hadad and his army searching and seizing anything he chooses. The first demands seem to involve only Ahab. As the king of Israel, he would symbolically surrender by giving up his personal treasures. But now Ahab is told he must consent to allow Syria to take what belongs to his “servants” (verse 6). One must determine what the term “servants” means here, but I am inclined to think it means more than just his household “servants.” I think it means that Ahab will surrender whatever Ben Hadad wants from Ahab’s subjects. In other words, Ben Hadad must be allowed to pillage whatever he wants. Now he is demanding that he be allowed to deal with Israel as though they had fought and lost. There was no benefit in this kind of “surrender;” Ahab and the nobility of Israel concluded that they might just as well fight, since they had nothing to lose by so doing.
I am quite interested in the fact that Jezebel’s name never appears in this entire chapter—nor does Elijah’s. I have to smile at how quickly Ahab agrees to give up his wives. Was Ben Hadad threatening to “take Jezebel off his hands”? What a thought! I do not see a lot of anguish here on Ahab’s part. And yet, when Ben Hadad’s demands extend beyond himself, Ahab seems to resist. This puzzles me. Why does Ahab suddenly seem to show a little courage, even determination? Does Ahab feel the same need to impress his leaders as Ben Hadad who wants to look good before the 32 kings with him? When Ben Hadad receives Ahab’s response, the drunken king begins to talk big. He utters an oath, which makes this a matter involving the gods: “May the gods judge me severely if there is enough dirt left in Samaria for my soldiers to scoop up in their hands” (verse 10). Ahab is not my hero, but I have to admit that his finest hour for me is when he responds, “Tell him the one who puts on his battle gear should not boast like one who is taking it off” (verse 11). This is a “macho” version of, “Don’t count your chickens before they’ve hatched.” This reply from Ahab pushed Ben Hadad over the edge so that he not only declared war against Israel but ordered his troops to attack. This he did while under the influence of alcohol, along with the other kings. They were in no condition to go into battle. It’s hard to fight a war with a hangover.
13 Now a prophet visited Ahab king of Israel and said, “This is what the LORD says, ‘Do you see this huge army? Look, I am going to hand it over to you this very day. Then you81 will know that I am the LORD.’” 14 Ahab asked, “By whom will this be accomplished?” He answered, “This is what the LORD says, ‘By the servants of the district governors.’” Ahab asked, “Who will launch the attack?” He answered, “You will.”
I read the first 12 verses of our text and, as a man, I can understand it. My wife (and most women), however, would almost certainly respond, “This is stupid and senseless! This war that will cost many lives is simply about two kings, their over-sized egos, and their problem with alcohol.” It really is a stupid war, isn’t it? There did not need to be a war nor did anyone have to die, but these two kings are too proud to back down. What appears up to this point to be a very human thing now takes on a very different look with the arrival of an unnamed prophet, who has a message for king Ahab.
Ahab must have gulped as he pondered what he had gotten himself into. He was faced with an opponent who greatly outnumbered him. It would take a miracle to save Israel from total annihilation. But for all its appearances of being purely human (and senseless) in its origins, it was a war that God had purposed to use for His glory. This is yet another occasion on which God is going to demonstrate His sovereignty. This great army will be handed over to Ahab and Israel on this very day. Here is a clear and concise prophecy revealing how God will prove Himself to Ahab and to Israel.
Ahab does not appear to doubt the words of this prophet. But then who else can he trust besides God? Here is a man who needs God’s help and knows it. Ahab inquires as to who should lead out in battle. The prophet informs him that it is to be the “servants of the district governors” (verse 14), all 232 of them (verse 15). There is some discussion and disagreement amongst the scholars as to whom this expression, “the servants of the district governors,” refers. It could be the equivalent of the “White House staff,” I suppose, those young civilians who serve the “leaders of the people” (verse 8). If this refers to men in the military, it would be the youngest and most inexperienced men82 in uniform. It is those whom all would have considered “least likely to succeed” in this task. God is once again stacking the odds against Himself and His people to clearly demonstrate His presence and power to His people. Ahab would have a 50-yard-line view as he would be leading the Israelites in the attack.
15 So Ahab assembled the 232 servants of the district governors. After that he assembled all the Israelite army, numbering 7,000. 16 They marched out at noon, while Ben Hadad and the 32 kings allied with him were drinking heavily in their quarters. 17 The servants of the district governors led the march. When Ben Hadad sent messengers, they reported back to him, “Men are marching out of Samaria.” 18 He ordered, “Whether they come in peace or to do battle, take them alive.” 19 They marched out of the city with the servants of the district governors in the lead and the army behind them. 20 Each one struck down an enemy soldier; the Syrians ran and Israel chased them. Ben Hadad king of Syria escaped on horseback with some horsemen. 21 Then the king of Israel marched out and struck down the horses and chariots; he thoroughly defeated Syria.
It is clear that these 232 young men were both young and inexperienced. If they were not warriors but civilians, as I am inclined to think, then this would add to the Syrians’ confusion as to their purpose. Ben Hadad and the kings with him were drunk in their tents, probably prematurely celebrating victory. Ahab sent the 232 young lads first and then followed behind some distance with his 7,000 troops.83 As the 232 young lads approached the Syrian camp, the Syrian lookouts spotted them. They sent word to Ben Hadad that men were approaching. The size of the approaching group, and the fact that these were not “mighty men of valor” raised some doubt as to what their intent was. Were they coming as diplomats to negotiate more favorable terms of surrender? Perhaps so. Were they coming to fight? If so, they would be easily defeated.
Ben Hadad makes another serious mistake. He orders his men not to kill those who are approaching but to take them alive. Why would he do this? I can think of only a couple of reasons. First, if they were coming to negotiate, Ben Hadad wanted to hear what they had to say. If all these men were killed, how would he know what they wanted? Second, you cannot humiliate and mock dead men. To take these men alive meant that the Syrians could humiliate them and then send them back to Ahab in shame, perhaps the way David’s men were sent back to him in shame by Hanun (2 Samuel; 1 Chronicles 19:4; see also Isaiah 20:4).
Whatever his reasons, Ben Hadad’s order completely changed the way in which these two groups would engage. It was the equivalent of having all the Syrian warriors tie one hand behind their backs. From a distance, you can kill off your enemies before they are very close to you by the use of arrows and spears. But to take the enemy alive, you must overpower them one-on-one in hand-to-hand combat. If your enemy can kill you, but you cannot kill him, it is a difficult task indeed to overpower him.
When the 232 “young lads” confronted the Syrians, they caught them off guard by each fellow striking down his opponent. This led to panic,84 and the Syrians sought to escape. Ahab pursued with his 7,000 men and routed the Syrians. Ben Hadad and some others were able to escape on horseback, but Ahab struck down the horses and chariots, soundly defeating the Syrians.
22 The prophet visited the king of Israel and instructed him, “Go, fortify your defenses. Determine what you must do, for in the spring the king of Syria will attack you.” 23 Now the advisers of the king of Syria said to him: “Their God is a god of the mountains. That’s why they overpowered us. But if we fight them in the plains, we will certainly overpower them. 24 So do this: Dismiss the kings from their command, and replace them with military commanders. 25 Muster an army like the one you lost, with the same number of horses and chariots. Then we will fight them in the plains; we will certainly overpower them.” He approved their plan and did as they advised.
Both Ahab and Ben Hadad are counseled. Ahab’s counsel comes from the Lord; Ben Hadad’s counsel comes from his advisors. The prophet—it appears to be the same prophet who first appeared to Ahab in verse 13—informs Ahab that the conflict with Syria is not over. He therefore instructs Ahab to make the necessary preparations for yet another battle, which will come in the spring. No other specifics are given to Ahab.
Ben Hadad’s counselors have a much more difficult task before them. I would hate to have been Ben Hadad’s press secretary on this occasion. What kind of a “spin” could you put on this terrible, humiliating defeat to make it look good? His counselors did the best they could with a bad situation. They explained this disaster in theological terms. The God of Israel, they claimed, was a “mountain god.” (Did He not just recently send down fire from heaven at Mount Carmel?) Their gods were “plain gods.” You could not expect them to give victory if you were fighting in the mountains, now could you? The only solution was to be sure to wage the next warfare on the plains. Knowing what they now know (or think that they do) they are unwilling to admit defeat and grant this victory of the Israelites. They want to stage a come-back contest. They would re-stage the contest, sending exactly the same number of men into battle. This victory would overturn the defeat they had just suffered.
Two other changes must be made. One is very clearly stated, the other carefully ignored. The 32 kings who accompanied Ben Hadad into battle were replaced by military commanders. They now knew the victory was not as easy as they had assumed earlier. They wanted to put their best foot forward in the coming war. Ben Hadad should therefore replace the kings with top military commanders. Was part of the reason for their defeat unproven men? They may have thought so. This is sort of like the owners of a losing football team replacing the coaching staff. There is yet another element, which may never have been spoken but which had to enter the minds of Ben Hadad and his army—drinking on duty. I imagine that when the Syrians stage their next attack on Israel, the king and his commanders (not to mention the warriors) will all be stone sober. Who could avoid seeing how their drunkenness hindered their efforts?
26 In the spring Ben Hadad assembled the Syrian army and marched to Aphek to fight Israel. 27 When the Israelites had mustered and had received their supplies, they marched out to face them in battle. When the Israelites deployed opposite them, they were like two small flocks of goats, but the Syrians filled the land. 28 The prophet visited the king of Israel and said, “This is what the LORD says: ‘Because the Syrians said, “The LORD is a god of the mountains and not a god of the valleys,” I will hand over to you this entire huge army. Then you will know that I am the LORD.’” 29 The armies were deployed opposite each other for seven days. On the seventh day the battle began, and the Israelites killed 100,000 Syrian foot soldiers in one day. 30 The remaining 27,000 ran to Aphek and went into the city, but the wall fell on them. Now Ben Hadad ran into the city and hid in an inner room. 31 His advisers said to him, “Look, we have heard that the kings of the Israelite dynasty are kind. Allow us to put sackcloth around our waists and ropes on our heads and surrender to the king of Israel. Maybe he will spare our lives.” 32 So they put sackcloth around their waists and ropes on their heads and went to the king of Israel. They said, “Your servant Ben Hadad says, ‘Please let me live!’” Ahab replied, “Is he still alive? He is my brother.” 33 The men took this as a good omen and quickly accepted his offer, saying, “Ben Hadad is your brother.” Ahab then said, “Go, get him.” So Ben Hadad came out to him, and Ahab pulled him up into his chariot. 34 Ben Hadad said, “I will return the cities my father took from your father. You may set up markets in Damascus, just as my father did in Samaria.” Ahab then said, “I want to make a treaty with you before I dismiss you.” So he made a treaty with him and then dismissed him.
It happened just as the prophet had said. Ben Hadad and his reconstructed army marched to Aphek, the spot they seem to have chosen to fight the Israelites. There are several “Apheks” in the area, but I am inclined to the view that this “Aphek” was on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee on the road from Damascus to Samaria. This would be flat enough to be considered a plain and would facilitate the use of horses and chariots, as required by the battle plan of the Syrians.
One can hardly imagine what that scene must have looked like as the two armies faced off at Aphek. There was a “sea” of Syrian soldiers, while the army of Israel was divided into two groups. The writer tells us they looked like two “little flocks of goats” while the Syrians “filled the land” (verse 27). The odds were, once again, incredible—impossible—and, I might add, just the way God wanted them. This was not a war to prove how courageous or mighty the Israelites were; it was a battle between the gods of the Syrians and Yahweh, the God of Israel. This was a battle to prove, once again, that God was with His people. Had Ben Hadad underestimated Israel? Had he foolishly used kings rather than military leaders? Had he boasted too soon of victory and toasted his success too many times before the battle began? Well, now he had time to think about all these things and to do it right the second time. Now Syria would be sure not to make the same mistakes. And now it seemed certain that the Syrians would prevail over Israel.
At this very discouraging moment in time, God spoke to Ahab once again through the prophet. He made it clear that God would once again deliver the Syrian army into Israel’s hands. This was to let Israel (the “you” is now plural) know that Yahweh is God. God is doing this for His own glory, because the Syrians had explained their loss in terms that made their gods equal to Yahweh and in terms that spoke of Yahweh as being less than He was. It was, once again, a “battle of the gods.”
For seven days the Israelites and the Syrians camped facing each other. Surely the Syrians were seeking to give the Israelites time to ponder their superior strength. On the seventh day, the battle commenced and the Israelites killed 100,000 men that day. The remaining 27,000 men ran for their lives, hiding inside the walls of the city of Aphek. There was no safety for them there. The walls fell in on them, killing virtually all of them. Somehow, Ben Hadad had managed to hide in an inner room so that he was one of the very few who survived. His survival was even a surprise to Ahab (verse 32).
Ben Hadad is now given more advice, and surprisingly, he takes it. He is told that the Israelite kings (unlike him) are compassionate to those who surrender. They counsel Ben Hadad to humbly surrender to Ahab and to plead for mercy. Ben Hadad concurs and sends messengers to pursue peace. How different this is from the message his messengers had brought to Ahab just a year before! The messengers were wearing sackcloth around their waists and ropes on their heads, a symbol of submission and surrender. They approached Ahab and informed him that Ben Hadad, “his brother,” was still alive and was begging for mercy. What a sweet taste this must have been to Ahab! The one who had earlier threatened and insulted him was now begging for mercy.
This “success” proved to be Ahab’s downfall. He quickly granted Ben Hadad’s petition, and even more. He not only let him live, but he also invited him up into his chariot with him. Ahab not only failed to kill him, but was treating Ben Hadad as a peer. To make matters worse, he entered into a treaty with him at that very moment, and then sent him home. How quickly this foe became a friend, indeed, a brother!
Was this compassion? Was this mercy? Are we seeing a new Ahab, one that we should commend? Surely not, as the final verses of chapter 20 will indicate. Ahab’s reasons for sparing Ben Hadad were self-serving. Perhaps he enjoyed the pleasure of letting Ben Hadad live. Did he let this king live for the same reasons he had ordered his soldiers to let the Israelites live (verse 18)? Was the groveling of Ben Hadad too pleasurable to end by death? Perhaps, but it would seem that Ahab’s primary motivation was economic gain. Ben Hadad immediately promised to return the cities his father had taken from Israel earlier (see 1 Kings 15:16-22). He also offered to allow Ahab to set up shops for trade in Damascus (verse 34). Ahab was so eager to get this in writing (so to speak) that he sealed the covenant right there in the chariot. How often money does talk, as it seems to have done here!
35 One of the members of the prophetic guild, speaking with divine authority, ordered his companion, “Wound me!” But the man refused to wound him. 36 So the prophet said to him, “Because you have disobeyed the LORD, as soon as you leave me a lion will kill you.” When he left him, a lion attacked and killed him. 37 He found another man and said, “Wound me!” So the man wounded him severely. 38 The prophet then went and stood by the road, waiting for the king. He also disguised himself by putting a bandage down over his eyes. 39 When the king passed by, he called out to the king, “Your servant went out into the heat of the battle, and then a man turned aside and brought me a prisoner. He told me, ‘Guard this prisoner. If he ends up missing for any reason, you will pay with your life or with a unit of silver.’ 40 Well, it just so happened that while your servant was doing this and that, he disappeared.” The king said to him, “Your punishment is already determined by your own testimony.” 41 The prophet quickly removed the bandage from his eyes and the king of Israel recognized he was one of the prophets. 42 The prophet then said, “This is what the LORD says, ‘Because you released a man I had determined should die, you will pay with your life and your people will suffer instead of his people.’” 43 The king of Israel went home to Samaria bitter and angry.
Twice in this chapter God has spoken to Ahab through a prophet. This time, God will speak again, but in a different manner. This is a message the king will be reluctant to hear, and so the message will come indirectly at first. It is very much like the message of rebuke God had for David, after he sinned regarding Bathsheba and her husband Uriah (2 Samuel 12:1-15). A story is told which evokes a response from the king. The king passes judgment, without realizing that he is condemning himself. The prophet then brings the message home to the king, informing him as to how God’s judgment will come for his sin.
In those days, there was “a school of the prophets” (see also 2 Kings 2:3-7, 15; 4:1, 38; 5:22; 6:1; 9:1), or as the NET Bible renders it, a “prophetic guild” (verse 35). One of the prophets, under inspiration, ordered a fellow-prophet to wound him. What a difficult thing to ask. What a terrible thing to have to do! No doubt it was out of compassion that the prophet refused to injure his colleague. But that compassion was disobedience to a command from God, and thus the first prophet rebuked the one which showed compassion, indicating that a lion would meet him in the road and kill him for his disobedience (verse 36). As prophesied, the prophet was met by a lion and killed. The next fellow commanded to injure the prophet took his orders seriously, and so he wounded him “severely” (verse 37).
The injured prophet must have been an ugly sight. He covered his head with a bandage so that his face would not be recognized, and then he stood along the road where king Ahab would pass. When the king passed by, the prophet called out to the king, seeking compassion. He told the king he was a soldier who had been given a prisoner to guard. The one who handed the prisoner over to the soldier made it very clear that the prisoner must not be allowed to escape, and that if he did, there would be serious consequences—he would pay with his life, or he must pay a steep fine. The soldier was obviously not paying close attention to his duties (he was “doing this and that”), and his prisoner escaped. Now, the one who had allowed him to escape was asking for mercy from the king. Ahab had no mercy on this fellow. He knew his duty, and he knew the consequences if he failed. Now, he must pay his dues.
The king was right, of course. This soldier had disobeyed orders. He allowed an enemy to escape, and now he must take his place and receive his punishment. When Ahab pronounced judgment on this “soldier,” the prophet removed his disguise, and the king realized he was a prophet. This prophet then applied the same judgment to the king which he had himself pronounced. Ahab had let a man go whom God had determined must die. Now that Ahab had let Ben Hadad go, he must pay for this sin with his own life. And not only this, the nation Israel would suffer in place of the Syrians. The king was guilty, condemned by his own actions and also by his own judgment. He left for Samaria bitter and angry. There was no joy in this “victory” because it was not really a victory any longer.
Just what made Ahab’s actions so wrong? Some would tell us that while the command to kill Ben Hadad is not recorded in our text, it must surely have been given to Ahab.85 I believe Ahab should have been well aware of this command. In Deuteronomy 17, God gives instructions concerning those kings who will rule over His people:
14 “When you come to the land the LORD your God is giving you and you take it over and live in it and then say, ‘I will appoint a king over me like all the nations surrounding me,’ 15 you must without fail select over you a king whom the LORD your God will choose. From among your own kin you must appoint a king—you may not designate a foreigner who is not one of your kin. 16 Moreover, he must not accumulate horses for himself nor allow the people to return to Egypt to do so, for the LORD has said, you must never again return this way. 17 He also must not marry many wives lest his affections turn aside, and he must not amass much silver and gold. 18 When he sits on his royal throne then he must make a copy of this instruction upon a scroll given to him by the Levitical priests. 19 It must be constantly with him and he must read it as long as he lives so that he might learn to revere the LORD his God, and observe all the words of this instruction and these statutes in order to carry them out, 20 so that he will not exalt himself above his fellow citizens and turn from the commandment right or left, and so that he might enjoy many years over his kingdom, he and his descendants, in the midst of Israel” (Deuteronomy 17:14-20, emphasis mine).
Every king was responsible to know the law of God, by which he was to govern God’s people. This was so important that the king was required to write out a copy of the law for himself, under the supervision of the priests. He was to constantly read the law and to obey it. The law had very specific instructions regarding war, as we see in Deuteronomy 20, not that far removed from the command to kings in chapter 17:
10 “When you approach a city to wage war against it then offer it terms of peace. 11 If it accepts them and submits to you, all the people found in it will become compulsory servants to you. 12 But if they do not accept terms of peace but make war with you, then you shall lay siege against their city. 13 The LORD your God will deliver it over to you and you will slay every single male by sword. 14 However, the women, little children, cattle, and anything in the city—all its spoil—you may take as your booty. You may appropriate the spoil of your enemies which the LORD your God has given you. 15 Thus you shall do to all cities very distant from you, those not of these nearby nations” (Deuteronomy 20:10-15, emphasis mine).
Was there anything particularly hard to understand about this command? Just in case this may have escaped the notice of Ahab, there is the account in 1 Samuel 15 about a king who did the same thing Ahab has now done:
1 Then Samuel said to Saul, “I was the one whom the LORD sent to anoint you as king over his people Israel. Now listen to what the LORD says. 2 Here is what the LORD of hosts says: ‘I have carefully noted what the Amalekites did to Israel by opposing them on the way as they came up from Egypt. 3 So go now and strike down the Amalekites. Destroy everything that they have. Don’t have any compassion of them. Put them to death—man, woman, child, infant, ox, sheep, camel, and donkey alike.’” 4 So Saul assembled the people and mustered them at Telaim. There were 200,000 foot soldiers and 10,000 men of Judah. 5 Saul proceeded to the city of Amalek, where he set an ambush in the wadi. 6 Saul said to the Kenites, “Go on and leave! Go down from the midst of the Amalekites, lest I sweep you away with them! For you dealt kindly with all the Israelites when they came up from Egypt.” So the Kenites withdrew from the midst of the Amalekites. 7 Then Saul struck down the Amalekites all the way from Havilah to Shur which is adjacent to Egypt. 8 He captured Agag king of the Amalekites alive, but he exterminated all his people with the sword. 9 However, Saul and the army had compassion on Agag and on the best of the flock, the cattle, the fatlings, the lambs, and on everything else that was of worth. He was not willing to annihilate them. But they exterminated everything that was despised and worthless. 10 Then the word of the LORD came to Samuel saying, 11 “I regret that I have made Saul king, for he has turned away from me and has not done what I said.” Samuel became angry, and he cried out to the LORD all that night. 12 Then Samuel got up early to meet Saul the next morning. But Samuel was informed, “Saul has gone to Carmel where he is setting up a monument for himself. Then he left and went down to Gilgal.” 13 When Samuel came to him, Saul said to him, “May the LORD bless you! I have done what the LORD said.” 14 Samuel replied, “If that is the case, what then is this sound of sheep in my ears? And the sound of cattle that I hear?” 15 Saul said, “They were brought from the Amalekites; the army spared the best of the flocks and cattle in order to sacrifice to the LORD our God. But everything else we annihilated.” 16 Then Samuel said to Saul, “Wait a minute! Let me tell you what the LORD said to me last night.” He said to him, “Tell me.” 17 Samuel said, “Is it not the case that when you were insignificant by even your own reckoning, you became head of the tribes of Israel? The LORD anointed you as king over Israel. 18 The LORD sent you on a journey saying, ‘Go and annihilate those sinful Amalekites and fight with them until you have destroyed them.’ 19 Why haven’t you paid attention to the voice of the LORD? Instead you have greedily darted to the spoil, doing something evil in the LORD’s estimation.” 20 Then Saul said to Samuel, “But I have paid attention to the voice of the LORD! I went on the journey that the LORD sent me on. I brought back Agag king of the Amalekites, after annihilating the Amalekites. 21 But the army took some of the flocks and cattle—the best of what was to be destroyed—to sacrifice to the LORD your God in Gilgal.”
22 Then Samuel said, “Does the LORD take pleasure in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as he does in obedience to his voice? Obeying is better than sacrifice; paying attention is better than the fat of rams. 23 For rebellion is like the sin of divination, and presumption is like the iniquity of idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, he has rejected you from being king.”
24 Then Saul said to Samuel, “I have sinned, for I have transgressed what the LORD commanded and what you said as well. For I was afraid of the army, and I paid attention to what they were saying. 25 Now please forgive my sin. Go back with me so that I can worship the LORD.” 26 Samuel said to Saul, “I will not go back with you. For you have rejected the word of the LORD, and the LORD has rejected you from being king over Israel.”
27 Then Samuel turned to leave. But he grabbed the edge of his robe, and it tore. 28 Samuel said to him, “The LORD has torn the kingdom of Israel from you this day! He will give it to one of your colleagues who is better than you! 29 The eminent one of Israel does not deal falsely nor does he change his mind. For he is not a human being who changes his mind.” 30 He again replied, “I have sinned. But please honor me before the elders of my people and before Israel. Go back with me and I will worship the LORD your God.” 31 So Samuel followed Saul back, and Saul worshipped the LORD. 32 Then Samuel said, “Bring me Agag king of the Amalekites.” So Agag came to him trembling, thinking to himself, “Surely death is bitter!” 33 Samuel said, “Just as your sword left women childless, so your mother will be most bereaved among women.” Then Samuel cut Agag in pieces there in Gilgal before the LORD. 34 Then Samuel went to Ramah, and Saul went up to his home in Gibeah of Saul. 35 Until the day of his death Samuel did not again see Saul. Samuel did, however, mourn for Saul. But the LORD regretted that he had made Saul king over Israel (1 Samuel 15:1-35, emphasis mine).
Whether or not Ahab was given direct revelation about Ben Hadad, he was given very clear general orders by God in the law; lest he not understand the application of this law, he need only look at the transgression of Saul in this same regard. God takes disobedience seriously.
I want you to notice that the Scriptures clearly identify the actions of Saul, and later Ahab, as disobedience. They knew better, or they should have. In the case of Ahab, he not only had the law itself, but a lesson from history to guide him. How sad that he did not listen and learn. Here, as in Saul’s case, we see a very important principle: PARTIAL OBEDIENCE IS DISOBEDIENCE.
The irony of it all is that disobedience is carried out in the guise of compassion. Both Agag and Ben Hadad were brutal killers and men who were opposed to God and His people. Here were men who, if permitted, would have killed the Israelite kings who showed kindness to them.
An important lesson we should learn here is to beware of sin cloaked in the garb of compassion. A parent who has a disobedient child may refuse to discipline that child as they should, doing so in the name of compassion or “unconditional love.” The church at Corinth knew that one of its members was living in immorality—with his father’s wife. They knew they should have “handed the guilty sinner over to Satan,” but they did not, and they were proud of it! How could this be? I would imagine they congratulated themselves for their “compassion.” I was reminded of this great Old Testament text, which speaks of God’s compassion:
5 And Yahweh descended in the cloud and stood with him there; and he made proclamation of Yahweh by name. 6 And Yahweh passed by before him and proclaimed: “Yahweh, Yahweh, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, and abounding in loyal love and faithfulness, 7 keeping loyal love for thousands, forgiving iniquity, and transgression and sin. But he by no means leaves the guilty unpunished; visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and on the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation” (Exodus 34:5-7, emphasis mine).
God is the supreme example of compassion. No one has ever come close to the compassion He has shown to His people. But notice that His compassion does not leave guilt unpunished. He does not look the other way and refuse to deal with the guilt of our sin. In His great compassion, He sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to bear the guilt and penalty for our sins, so that we may experience His mercy and grace. Our guilt was punished in the person of Jesus Christ. Guilt must always be punished. Ahab’s “compassion” was not godly compassion; it was self-serving. For this, Ahab would pay with his own life. The penalty Ahab should have meted out for Ben Hadad would now be meted out on him. Both he and Israel would suffer for his disobedience. Beware of disobedience carried out in the name of compassion.
1 “When the LORD your God brings you to the land that you are going to occupy and forces out many nations before you—Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites, seven nations more populous and powerful than you—7:2 and he delivers them over to you and you attack them, utterly annihilate them; make no covenant with them nor show them compassion” (Deuteronomy 7:1-2, emphasis mine).
There is a lesson for us to learn here regarding our response toward sin. We are to put to death the deeds of the flesh:
8 Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9 We know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he is never going to die again; death no longer has mastery over him. 10 For the death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. 11 So you too consider yourselves dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus (Romans 6:8-11).
10 But if Christ is in you, your body is dead because of sin, but the Spirit is your life because of righteousness. 11 Moreover if the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead lives in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will also make your mortal bodies alive through his Spirit who lives in you. 12 So then, brothers and sisters, we are under obligation, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh 13 (for if you live according to the flesh, you will die), but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live (Romans 8:10-13; cf. also 13:14; 2 Corinthians 4:11; Colossians 3:5).
When it comes to sin, we must be brutal and merciless in doing away with it, or anything which promotes it:
27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to desire her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better to lose one of your members than to have your whole body thrown into hell. 30 If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better to lose one of your members than to have your whole body go into hell” (Matthew 5:27-30, emphasis mine).
Is this not very close to the admonition God gave to Cain in Genesis 4?
6 Then the LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why is your expression downcast? 7 Is it not so that if you do what is right, you will be fine? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at the door, and its desire is to have you, but you can have the mastery over it” (Genesis 4:6-7).
Sin’s desire is to kill us. Our duty is to kill it, to mortify the flesh, and to reckon ourselves dead to sin. To seek to coexist with sin is to nurture that which seeks our death and destruction.
What an important lesson we have here regarding the lessons we should learn from history. It would seem that Ahab had little regard for what God had done for His people, Israel. He seems to have had little or no regard for God’s law, which prescribed his duty toward the Syrians in general and Ben Hadad in particular. He seems not to have heeded the lessons of history, which would have spared him from this folly and disaster. Surely it is not too much to expect a king to read the inspired Scriptures regarding those kings who have gone before him. If he had, he could have avoided repeating the sin of Saul and facing virtually the same consequences.
How sad it is that we now live in a day when history is not regarded as highly as it should be! Now, justification is made for revising history to make it conform to our current beliefs and practices. To embrace this view of history is to wipe out all the lessons of the past. From Ahab’s folly, let us learn to heed the lessons of history as they illustrate the blessings for those who obey God’s Word—and the disaster for those who disobey.
Once again, we are reminded that God is never hindered by the impossible. Indeed, once again God has orchestrated this confrontation in such a way as to give Israel little human hope so that His sovereign hand may be seen in this victory. We should see from this great divine intervention of mercy and grace what we should recognize everywhere—God’s grace is not His response to our piety or worthiness. It is His unmerited favor, in spite of our sin, and it is done for His glory. It is not our goodness which prompts God to act, but His desire to display His glory. It was not that Israel was deserving of divine deliverance, but that the Syrians had made this a battle of the gods. The Lord—He alone is God—and He demonstrates this for His glory and for the good of His people. To God be the glory!
80 I conclude this based upon the numbers we are given in 1 Kings 20:29-30. A total of 127,000 soldiers died in the second battle between Syria and Israel. We know that Ben Hadad was counseled to attack Israel the second time with the same number of troops with which he attacked the first time. This was to simulate a re-match. Thus, there must have been at least 127,000 soldiers marching against Israel in the first attack.
81 It is noteworthy that here the “you” is singular, while in verse 28 it is plural. In the first battle, Yahweh is proving to Ahab that He is God. In the second battle, He is demonstrating this to all Israel.
82 The term “servants” (plural) is found in its singular form (rendered “boy”) in 1 Kings 20:14 when it is used of David facing Goliath in 1 Samuel 17:33: “But Saul replied to David, ‘You aren’t able to go against this Philistine to fight with him! You’re just a boy! He has been a warrior from his youth!’”
83 One can hardly overlook the fact that the number of Israelite troops was 7,000. First, this is an insignificant force compared to the size of the Syrian army which opposed them. And further, God had indicated to Elijah that there were still 7,000 who had not bowed the knee to Baal (1 Kings 19:18). Does it not appear that the reader is to make some connection between the 7,000 in chapter 19 with the 7,000 in chapter 20?
85 “Though this order is not recorded in the biblical text, it is clear that Ahab had received it.” Walvoord, John F., and Zuck, Roy B., The Bible Knowledge Commentary, (Wheaton, Illinois: Scripture Press Publications, Inc.) 1983, 1985.