A sermon by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ar.
November 3, 2013
– THE KINGS –
1 Kings 21:20-29; Colossians 3:1-10
Have you ever had guests in your home that couldn’t leave fast enough for you? They don’t straighten up after themselves, they leave their dirty towels on the bathroom floor for you pick up, their dirty dishes in the sink for you to wash, and generally expect you to wait on them hand-and-foot as well as pay for everything? “Have I ever,” some of you may be thinking. “It happens every time the in-laws come to visit!”
Well, please do not be lured into thinking that just because certain people rose to the level of royalty in the Hebrew scriptures they were the kind of folk you’d want to have as house guests. They were crude, violent, largely tribal people who would do anything, and kill anybody – sometimes even their own family members – to gain higher political ground and obtain the power that goes with it.
Not even David, the man after God’s own heart, comes through this unscathed. Just this week I read an article that attempts to portray what really happened with David. It depicts him as having taken the throne from Saul by force, and then says this: “Like a modern-day third-world dictator, he (David) led a private militia of veteran mercenaries answerable only to him, one that was easily able to overpower any opposition.”
“David did a lot of the things he’s famous for,” the article says: “he did rise from humble beginnings to become king; he did create a new nation; he did inaugurate Jerusalem as a religious center. But to achieve these results, he had to sacrifice virtually all of the values that we want to imagine that our heroes embody.”1
If there is any truth to that whatsoever, it certainly didn’t get any better with the kings that came after him.
Last week, we considered how, due to the poor leadership of David’s grandson Rehoboam, the northern tribes of Israel split from the southern tribe known as Judah. Over the years that followed, there remained an uneasy truce between the two nations. They did, at times, aid one another in going into battle against their common enemies. They were all Hebrews, after all. Together, their ancestors had escaped the bondage of Egypt. But they never united again as one nation. So when and if you read the stories of the various kings that ruled between the time of David and when Israel was taken into exile by Babylon – a period of roughly five-hundred years – notice that narratives of the kings from both the north and the south are told.
One of the most notorious of these kings is Ahab, who ruled the northern tribes of Israel for almost twenty years. Ahab was the son of Omri, who, we are told in the scriptures, did that which was evil in the sight of the Lord. Basically, that means that Omri allowed foreign and pagan religious practices to flourish under his leadership. But he was a shrewd leader and introduced a stability in Israel that the nation had not seen in a long time, if ever. It is true that Omri didn’t give much attention to the God of Israel, nor did he spend much of his time devoting himself to the worship of God. He was too busy building alliances with his neighboring states… the sort of thing he thought kings were supposed to do.
At the center of that alliance-building was the arranged marriage of Omri’s son Ahab to Jezebel, the daughter of the king of Sidon, the capital city of Phoenicia. This was not a marriage of love but of economic benefit to both nations. The Phoenicians were traders while the Hebrews were farmers. Phoenicia could supply Israel with forest products, with minerals and manufactured goods, while the Hebrews could provide them with olive oil, wheat and other agricultural and food products. Together, they could control the caravan routes that came from Egypt into the Trans-jordan. Omri, Ahab’s father, even brought Judah in on the deal so the three countries could benefit mutually from this economic partnership.
All this, on the surface of things, appears to be good political leadership. But there’s always another layer to these stories, and that is where the Hebrew scriptures come in. From the perspective of the historians of Israel, this is how they viewed things…
The newfound friendship with Phoenicia, brokered first by Omri and continued under his son Ahab, included, as we mentioned, the arranged marriage between Ahab and Jezebel. Jezebel’s religious devotion was given to her god, the deity known as Baal. What that means is, Jezebel brought more than a dowry to her marriage. She also brought all her pagan priests, more than four hundred and fifty in number. She introduced the latest Phoenician fashions in terms of dress and furniture and art, all for the growing upper classes and wealthy merchants who were flooding into Israel by means of the trade routes that had been opened. This poor, backwater part of the world was now being influenced by its “more sophisticated” pagan neighbors.
If you want an analogy, think of it this way… Fifth Avenue New York has invaded the Ozark hills.
Despite his allowing this encroachment of pagan influences, Ahab was not all bad. When he came to the throne of Israel, he continued his father’s alliance with the southern tribe of Judah. As we said, the two nations were never united again, but they did maintain a fairly cordial relationship. He fortified the new capital city at Samaria and was known as a prolific builder. But while all the outward signs of political leadership were positive and good, inwardly things were starting to erode.
That’s the way rust does, you know. You don’t see it at first because it does its dirty work behind the scenes. But then, eventually, it rises to the surface, and when that happens it is usually too late to do anything about it.
So here’s the composite picture: the wealthy class, relatively new to the Hebrew nation of Israel, tended toward the Phoenician influences, as well as the Phoenician gods, and the poorer, rural, native peasants largely clung to the faith they had always known, a devotion to the God who had brought their ancestors out of Egypt. The gap between rich and poor widened, and devotion to God continued to diminish in favor of the pagan god known as Baal and the fertility goddess called Ashtaroth. If the Israelite priests objected, they were simply eliminated or driven from the land. Obviously, this growing gap between the classes of people in Israel could not be sustained. Something had to give.
When it did, it came at the hands of the prophet Elijah, the one Ahab called “the troubler of Israel.” First, Elijah delivered to King Ahab the news that there would be a famine in the land. And so there was. Then, Elijah confronted the priests of Baal at Carmel, and defeated them in a dramatic display of God’s power. You can be certain that was not looked upon with favor by Jezebel, but you would think that Ahab would have been converted by now to Elijah’s way of thinking. Not so. The marriage between Ahab and Jezebel may have been a political arrangement and not out of love, but her influence on Ahab cannot be discounted. Neither can his weakness of character.
Jezebel’s zeal for her god Baal may be traced to her father having been a priest before he became king. The pagan version of a preacher’s kid, her overriding desire was to bring the faith of her gods, and the Phoenician way of life, to the Israelite people. In other words, she was more devout than Ahab, more serious about her religious zeal than he ever thought of being. If there was an evangelist in the family, it was Jezebel, not Ahab.
So what came first, the chicken or the egg? Was Ahab weak because of Jezebel’s strong, overbearing personality, or did she have to take up the mantle of strength because he was so weak? I still remember the advice of a deacon from years ago in another church. We were working through a rather controversial issue and had received some criticism for our efforts. One person, in particular, had been quite critical of what we were attempting to do. In response to all this, the deacon said he needed for his pastor – that would be me – to have a soft heart and thick skin. It is not an easy thing to do. It certainly proved to be difficult for Ahab.
There is an interesting story in the chapter preceding the one from which we read this morning. A prophet confronts Ahab for not doing what he had been told by God to do. When the prophet pronounces judgment upon the king, we are told that Ahab “went to his house resentful and sullen…” (20:43). It is not the last, nor the only, time this word “sullen” is used to describe Ahab’s temperament. Look at his story and you’ll find that Ahab was often found to be that way. He had a way of sulking about the royal mansion, and I would imagine, in the process irritating Queen Jezebel to no end.
In the short account we read earlier, the word that is used of Ahab is “dejectedly.” When he had been told by the prophet of God’s anger toward him, and the punishment that would ensue, Ahab went about “dejectedly.” That is Ahab’s major problem: he had a cold heart and thin skin, and that is not a good combination for one who would be king.
The classic story of Ahab has to do with his coveting the vineyard of a man named Naboth the Jezreelite. That in itself is a sign of Ahab’s weakness, that as king, having anything his heart could possibly desire, he still wants something not available to him. The vineyard had been in the possession of Naboth’s family for many years. Now, Ahab wants it and Naboth won’t let him have it.
Naboth is not just being stingy. The ancient law of Israel contained a provision that kept the possession of lands in the hands of the original owners. That means that property ownership had theological, as well as financial, implications. “The Lord forbid that I should give you the inheritance of my fathers.” He means it literally… “The Lord forbid…” For Naboth, giving Ahab his vineyard was a sin against God. Naboth believed this fervently and Ahab at least seems to honor it… but not without his typical behavior. He lies down on his bed sulking while facing the wall. He knows the law. If Naboth won’t sell him his vineyard, there’s nothing Ahab can do about it. It is Torah, the way things are meant to be in the land of Israel. But that doesn’t mean he has to like it.
Jezebel, on the other hand, knows nothing of Torah, doesn’t care to know about Torah, and doesn’t plan to adhere to Torah’s demands. “Do you not govern Israel?” she says to her sulking husband. Do you know what she is really saying? “Are you a man or a mouse?” “Arise, and eat bread, and let your heart be cheerful; I will give you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite.” “I will give you…”
Jezebel was not constrained by the law. As far as she was concerned, she was the law. Having come from a different culture that knew no such laws, it was her feeling that whatever Ahab’s heart desired, that is what Ahab should have. After all, he is king, and no one tells the king what he can or cannot do or can or cannot have.
At first, she doesn’t get through to Ahab. He’s wallowing so deeply in his self-pity that he can’t hear what she is saying. So, she takes matters into her own hands by having Naboth falsely accused of a crime… punishable, as many crimes were in that day and time, by death. The execution is quickly carried out, and with Naboth dead Ahab can have his coveted vineyard.
Some things simply come at too high a price. Yet, we are told, Ahab did repent of his wrongdoing… after being confronted about it. We also learn it will not get him off… not entirely. The consequences of his sin will be visited on his house for the generations to come. It just goes to show that even in a story like this there is at least some hope for reconciliation. Still, I don’t think we’d want to have Ahab and Jezebel as guests in our home.
It’s too bad Ahab lived in the wrong generation because he could have used the Apostle Paul’s advice. In writing to the church at Colossae, Paul encourages them to “seek the things that are above…” That seems to be the problem with kings. Their focus is so given to building their kingdoms they give little or no time to the Kingdom of Heaven.
I suppose, then, it’s good that you and I aren’t royalty. We don’t have a kingdom to build; we have a kingdom to seek. Come to think of it, didn’t Jesus have something to say about that as well? “Seek first the kingdom of God an his righteousness and then – then – all these things will be added unto you.”
Did you hear that, Ahab? It may be too late for Ahab, but not for you and me. And that, I would hasten to say, is the most important consideration for us this morning. Don’t you agree?
Lord, help us to be strong in you by seeking your kingdom… above all things. Through Christ our Lord we pray, Amen.
1The Daily Beast, 10/27/13.