7. My Way— The Story of Ahab and Jezebel
King David had been absent from the scene of Hebrew history for about 135 years when this story opens. His great kingdom, enlarged and more richly endowed by his son Solomon, had been fractured into two weakened fragments. The southern kingdom of Judah was being ruled by his descendants, while the northern kingdom of Israel suffered under a succession of wicked men at the helm. One of them was the husband in the next marital relationship we want to study.
He is introduced to the pages of Scripture with these shocking words: “And Ahab the son of Omri did evil in the sight of the Lord more than all who were before him” (1 Kgs. 16:30). He had the dubious distinction of being the most wicked king who reigned over Israel up until his day. We expect almost anything from a man that degenerate, and are not surprised to read, “And it came about, as though it had been a trivial thing for him to walk in the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, that he married Jezebel the daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and went to serve Baal and worshiped him” (1 Kgs. 16:31).
“Sidonians” was another name for the Phoenicians, that seafaring people on the Mediterranean coast who occupied the great cities of Tyre and Sidon. With the ever-present menace of Syria and the growing threat of Assyria, Ahab decided that he needed an alliance with this neighboring nation, so he made a treaty with the king of Phoenicia and sealed it by marrying his daughter. That is how Jezebel happened to move to Samaria, the capital of Israel, and there is only one way to describe it — a whirlwind hit Israel.
The king of Phoenicia was not only the political leader of his people, he was also the high priest of their religion, as his name Ethbaal implies. Jezebel had grown up steeped in the worship of Baal and his female consort, Astarte (or Ashtoreth). Baal was considered to be the god of the land. He owned it, they said, and he controlled its weather and the increase of its crops and cattle. Ashtoreth was considered to be the mother-goddess of fertility. So idols of both Baal and Ashtoreth stood side by side in their temples and were worshiped by priests and temple prostitutes with lewd dances and sacred orgies, with the hope that their god and goddess would follow their example and increase the productivity of their agriculture, their animals, and their children. In times of crisis such as famine, they slashed themselves and even sacrificed their children to appease the gods and implore their help.
Jezebel was fanatical about her religion. The worship of Jehovah must have seemed dull and commonplace by comparison, and she was determined to change it. She was a headstrong, self-willed, domineering woman, and with a moral weakling for a husband, she had little trouble getting her way. She got him to build a house for Baal beside the palace in Samaria, as well as an “Ashtoreth,” that is, an idol of the fertility goddess. Then she brought 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of Ashtoreth from Phoenicia, housed them in the palace, and fed them in royal style. Their duties would have been to promote the worship of Baal and Ashtoreth throughout the land.
Not satisfied to establish her religion in Israel, Jezebel sought to stamp out every remnant of Jehovah worship and to kill every true prophet of God. She had to have things completely her way, and she almost succeeded. Some prophets survived by compromising their convictions and turning into “yes” men for Ahab. Another group of 100 were hidden in a cave and fed secretly by a godly servant of Ahab named Obadiah. But Elijah was the only one courageous enough to stand up openly against Jezebel’s wickedness. God gave him a great victory when he called down fire from heaven upon Mount Carmel. The prophets of Baal were slain and it looked as though the nation would turn back to God. But Jezebel was not finished with her sinister work. She swore in her rage that she would kill Elijah, and he ran for his life, collapsed in the wilderness under a juniper tree, and pleaded with God to let him die. It was the lowest point in the godly prophet’s great career. And Baal worship lived on, dragging the nation to new depths of degradation. This stubborn, headstrong, self-willed wife of Ahab brought disruption and distress to Israel for years to come.
Marriages to stubborn, willful people can bring unhappiness to all concerned. Their indomitable self-will which has never been surrendered to God will seldom give in to those around them. With unyielding obstinacy they keep demanding their own way and looking for every possible means and method of doing or having what they want. They will not listen to reason; they will not consider the feelings of others; they will not face the potential consequences of their intended actions. They believe that they are right and others are wrong, and they are determined to have everything their way. They obviously know very little of God’s love which “does not seek its own” (1 Cor. 13:5), but have only self-love which insists on its own rights and demands its own way. Those who live with people like this eventually find themselves emotionally destroyed. For the survival of those around us, for the happiness of our mates and for harmony in our marriages, we must face up to every trace of stubborn self-will and claim God’s grace to deal with it.
Of course, Ahab was just as self-willed as Jezebel, but with a different temperament. For one thing, he had willfully entered a marriage that was politically convenient, but contrary to every word from God. But Ahab’s self-will becomes even more evident in an incident involving the king and his vegetable garden. Shortly after his marriage to Jezebel, Ahab not only beautified the palace at Samaria so that it came to be called “the ivory house” (1 Kgs. 22:39), but he also built a second palace in Jezreel, twenty-five miles to the north, in an area of a more moderate climate in the wintertime. “Now it came about after these things, that Naboth the Jezreelite had a vineyard which was in Jezreel beside the palace of Ahab king of Samaria” (1 Kgs. 21:1). Ahab decided he wanted Naboth’s property, so he went to him and said, “Give me your vineyard, that I may have it for a vegetable garden because it is close beside my house, and I will give you a better vineyard than it in its place; if you like, I will give you the price of it in money” (1 Kgs. 21:2). Naboth declined the offer, just as he should have done, for God had forbidden the Jews to sell their paternal inheritance (Lev. 25:23-34). Naboth was simply obeying the law of the Lord.
“So Ahab came into his house sullen and vexed because of the word which Naboth the Jezreelite had spoken to him .... And he lay down on his bed and turned away his face and ate no food” (1 Kgs. 21:4). Can you believe that a grown man would act this childishly? Some do. Weak, vacillating people like Ahab often want their own way just as much as headstrong, domineering people like Jezebel. But they react differently when they do not get it. While the forceful ones rant and rave, strike out at those who stand in their way, throw fits and destroy things, the weak ones sulk and pout and fret like spoiled children. They may refuse to get out of bed and even refuse to eat. They just want to feel sorry for themselves and let everybody know how bad things are for them. All they really succeed in doing is letting people know how self-centered and immature they are.
Self-will of either variety, the violent kind or the peevish kind, can ruin a marriage. The trouble often starts when our mates infringe upon our inviolable rights. Maybe the husband will not let his wife buy something she thinks she has a right to have, or the wife prepares an absolutely terrible dinner on the very day hubby is expecting his favorite dish. Instead of letting the love and graciousness of Jesus Christ control us, our sinful natures take over and we go into our rage routine or sulk syndrome, whichever it is with us. And it slowly but surely eats away at our relationship. And that inflexible self-will which has never been broken and yielded to God may ultimately lead to much greater problems. I have heard some say, “I don’t love her anymore. I don’t want her. I’m going to find some happiness for myself and I don’t care what the Bible says.”
God wants to break our sinful, stubborn wills. He wants to conquer them with His love. The first step to victory is simply to admit that continually demanding our own way is disobedience to God’s Word, and therefore sin. Talk to the Lord about it. Be honest with Him. Tell Him frankly that you would rather have your own way than be unselfish and considerate of others, but acknowledge that it is contrary to His Word. Ask him to help you. Then by an act of your will, determine to do the loving thing. That step of faith will open the channel of God’s power. He will not only enable you to carry through with your decision to act in love, but He will give you genuine delight in doing His will.
But go back to Ahab and his vegetable garden for a moment. Jezebel found Ahab sulking in his bed and said to him, “How is it that your spirit is so sullen that you are not eating food?” (1 Kgs. 21:5). So he explained to her how Naboth refused to let him have his vegetable garden. She replied, “Do you now reign over Israel?” (1 Kgs. 21:7). In modern terms, that might sound more like, “What are you, a man or a mouse? Squeak up! Don’t you know that you are the king. You can take anything you want.” With her Phoenician background, Jezebel could not seem to understand that even the king in Israel was subject to the laws of God.
We discover how thoroughly this weak and wicked man was dominated by his overbearing wife when she said, “Arise, eat bread, and let your heart be joyful; I will give you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite” (1 Kgs. 21:7). She planned to commit a hideous crime; she was going to pay two false witnesses to testify that they heard Naboth blaspheme God and the king, so that both he and his sons would be stoned to death and the king would be free to lay claim to his land (cf. 2 Kgs. 9:26). She was going to teach Ahab her philosophy of life: “Take what you want and destroy anyone who stands in your way.” And Ahab did not have the courage to stop her.
A man will do strange things when he is taunted and ridiculed by his wife. “Why didn’t you stand up to him?” one wife jeered when she heard of her husband’s latest disagreement with the boss. “When are you going to start acting like a man?” So the next time he did, and he lost his job and everyone suffered. So the next round went like this: “You can’t even provide for your family. What kind of a man are you?” So he showed her by roughing her up a little, and then by turning to cheating and stealing to make ends meet. And again, everyone in the family suffered. A man needs respect from his wife, not ridicule. Of this disgraceful incident in Ahab’s life, God said, “Surely there was no one like Ahab who sold himself to do evil in the sight of the Lord, because Jezebel his wife incited him” (1 Kgs. 21:25). Some men need to be spurred on, to be sure, but not to do evil! A godly wife will challenge her husband to listen to God and live for Him, not encourage him to sin.
But the story is not over. These two were self-willed to the end. Elijah met Ahab in Naboth’s vineyard and pronounced God’s judgment on both him and his wife for their wicked deed. It was several years later when that judgment came on Ahab, and it too is a story of self-will. The incident started over a city east of Jordan called Ramoth-Gilead, which Ahab said belonged to Israel but was still in the hands of Syria. When Jehoshaphat, King of Judah, came to visit Ahab, he asked him if he would go to battle with him for Ramoth-Gilead. Jehoshaphat agreed, but wanted to consult the Lord first. Ahab called his “yes” men together and they assured him that the Lord would give Ramoth-Gilead into the hand of the king. But Jehoshaphat was still not satisfied. He wanted another opinion: “Is there not yet a prophet of the Lord here, that we may inquire of him?” (1 Kgs. 22:7). And Ahab replied, “There is yet one man by whom we may inquire of the Lord, but I hate him, because he does not prophesy good concerning me, but evil. He is Micaiah son of Imlah” (1 Kgs. 22:8). So Micaiah was called, and although he knew his life was in danger, he spoke what God told him. Israel would be scattered on the mountains like sheep without a shepherd (1 Kgs. 22:17). As we might expect, Ahab rejected Micaiah’s prophecy and had him cast into prison. He was going to have what he wanted and do what he pleased, regardless of God’s will.
But it didn’t work out quite like he planned. Ahab knew the Syrians would be after him personally, so he removed his royal garments and disguised himself as a regular soldier. “Now a certain man drew his bow at random and struck the king of Israel in a joint of the armor” (1 Kgs. 22:34). That soldier did not know he was shooting at the king, but his arrow penetrated the narrow slit between the pieces of Ahab’s armor. Very few bowmen would have been that accurate. It was obvious that God was guiding that arrow, and Ahab’s self-will ended in his untimely death.
Jezebel outlived him by almost fourteen years. Jehu, the captain of Israel’s army, was to be the instrument of divine discipline in her case. After slaying King Jehoram, the son of Ahab, he rode to Jezreel. Scripture says, “When Jehu came to Jezreel, Jezebel heard of it, and she painted her eyes and adorned her head, and looked out the window” (2 Kgs. 9:30). She knew what was about to happen, but she was going to die like a queen, arrogant, self-willed and unrepentant to the end. She shouted abuses at Jehu from her upstairs window, but at Jehu’s command, several of her servants threw her down, “and some of her blood was sprinkled on the wall and on the horses, and he trampled her under foot” (2 Kgs. 9:33). It was a violent death, but it illustrated again the seriousness of sinful self-will in opposition to God.
Yet their influence lived on in their children. And this is often the saddest side effect of lives like Ahab’s and Jezebel’s. Two sons of Ahab and Jezebel later ruled in Israel. The first was Ahaziah. Of him God says, “And he did evil in the sight of the Lord and walked in the way of his father and in the way of his mother and in the way of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, who caused Israel to sin. So he served Baal and worshiped him and provoked the Lord God of Israel to anger according to all that his father had done” (1 Kgs. 22:52, 53). The second son to reign was Jehoram. As Jehu rode to execute vengeance on the house of Ahab, Jehoram cried, “Is it peace, Jehu?” Jehu summed up Jehoram’s reign with his reply: “What peace, so long as the harlotries of your mother Jezebel and her witchcrafts are so many?” (2 Kgs. 9:22).
Ahab and Jezebel also had a daughter, Athaliah, and she married another man named Jehoram, the son of Jehoshaphat, king of the southern kingdom of Judah. “And he walked in the way of the kings of Israel, just as the house of Ahab did (for Ahab’s daughter was his wife), and he did evil in the sight of the Lord” (2 Chron. 21:6). So it was that the evil influence moved south. At Jehoram’s death, his son by Athaliah became king of Judah. “Ahaziah was twenty-two years old when he became king, and he reigned one year in Jerusalem. And his mother’s name was Athaliah, the granddaughter of Onui. He also walked in the ways of the house of Ahab, for his mother was his counselor to do wickedly. And he did evil in the sight of the Lord like the house of Ahab, for they were his counselors after the death of his father, to his destruction” (2 Chron. 22:2-4). And the evil influence lived on!
God only knows how many generations will be affected by our sinful self-will, our insistence on having things our way instead of God’s. This shocking story ought to provide the incentive we need to put off every remnant of self-will and yield ourselves fully to do the will of God.
Let’s talk it over
1. How do you think Ahab should have handled the situation when it became obvious to him that Jezebel wanted to eliminate Jehovah worship from Israel?
2. How can a wife increase her respect for her husband? How can a husband help her?
3. Do you feel that your mate is infringing on any of your “inviolable rights”? Discuss with each other how the situation can be handled.
4. Which way does your selfish nature exhibit itself—with rage or with sullenness? What clues help you recognize your rising self-will? What can you do to combat it?
5. Do you seem to be demanding your own way much of the time? Ask your mate what he or she thinks, then prayerfully consider the answer.
6. Have you both yielded yourselves to Christ as Lord of your lives and are you willing to let Him make the changes necessary to improve your relationship with each other? (Your willingness to hear your mate out without getting irritable or defensive may be an accurate measure of that willingness.)