‘In breaking news this morning an assassination has taken place in the city of Tirzah, capital of Israel. Reports from the city say that King Elah was at the home of the palace steward, where he’d been drinking heavily, when the commander of the country’s northern cavalry, Zimri, came in and killed him in an unprovoked attack. Elah had been king for less than two years. Zimri is also reported to have murdered the entire royal family, ensuring that when he proclaims himself king, there will be no rivals.
‘In a further complication, the army has chosen to support their commander Omri as king rather than Zimri. We will bring you further reports when they come to hand.’
It’s a familiar story isn’t it? It comes from the pages of our text but it could equally well have come from CNN reporting on Nepal, or Burma or Fiji, or any one of several African States. A military coup kills or deposes the rightful ruler and the country is thrown into turmoil.
Not that Elah was that much of a loss. After all a king who gets drunk with the steward of the palace isn’t much of a leader, is he? What’s more he was the son of Baasha who had been cursed by God because of all the evil he’d done as king.
But still that doesn’t excuse Zimri does it? To plot against your king is a serious matter. Three times in the passage we’re told that Zimri conspired against the king. Does that mean he conspired with Arza, the steward to get him drunk? Maybe, but we’re not told. In fact it isn’t important. What’s important is what Zimri did. As one who sets himself up to be king he needs to meet the highest standard of behaviour. And he fails.
‘We interrupt this broadcast with a news flash. The city of Tirzah was surrounded today by troops loyal to Omri. Just 7 days after Zimri became king he is under attack from his own army. The king has locked himself in his palace and is refusing to come out. In fact we’ve just heard that the palace is on fire with the king inside. Eye witnesses report that he could not have survived the fire. The army is now celebrating their victory and preparing to crown Omri as king.’
Our text tells us that Zimri “died 19because of the sins that he committed, doing evil in the sight of the LORD, walking in the way of Jeroboam, and for the sin that he committed, causing Israel to sin.”
But wait a minute. What could he have done that was walking in the way of Jeroboam? He was only king for a week. He didn’t have time to set up idols or temples. So what does it mean? Well, as I said, three times we’re told (vs 9,16,20) that he conspired to kill the king, in the same way as Jeroboam had conspired to become king instead of Rehoboam, taking the northern tribes with him.
Notice by the way that although Jehu the prophet had prophesied that all of Baasha’s descendants would die it doesn’t excuse Zimri for carrying out the execution. He had no authority from God to do it. He was just carrying out his own power play, following his own ambition.
But now he’s gone and Omri is there ready to be king. Except that life often isn’t as simple as we’d like it to be. Omri has no real claim on the kingship. All he has is the army who think he’s great. And there’s a second contender who has the following of at least half the population, Tibni son of Ginath. Maybe the “son of” gives us a hint that he’s a member of the upper class, a man of pedigree, but we really don’t know. All we know is that there’s sufficient rivalry between the two factions to stop Omri from wielding any real power until after Tibni dies. Which he does.
And so Omri is king outright. It’s taken 6 years but now he can rule as he sees fit. And we’re given 7 verses to record what he did in his twelve years of power. You know, John Howard was Prime Minister for 11 years, the second longest serving prime minister in our history. Imagine if our history books only gave him 7 sentences to sum up his time in power!
In fact Omri was a good leader of his people from a secular point of view. He was a strategist. He obviously knew how to gain loyalty from his troops and he was able to form significant alliances with surrounding nations, particularly the Phoenician Kings. He built Samaria on a 100m high hill that made it almost invulnerable to attack. He probably arranged for his son Ahab to marry the daughter of the king of Sidon, one of the major seagoing nations and he made Israel into a force to be reckoned with.
Yet we’re not told much about that at all are we? What’s the summary of his life that we’re given? “25Omri did what was evil in the sight of the LORD; he did more evil than all who were before him. 26For he walked in all the way of Jeroboam son of Nebat, and in the sins that he caused Israel to commit, provoking the LORD, the God of Israel, to anger by their idols.” And then there’s this throw away line: “to know more about Omri just Google ‘Annals of Israel’.”
For the next 100 years Assyria would refer to Israel as the “House of Omri” but all God’s word cares about is that he did more evil than all that went before him. It’s a terrible testimony isn’t it? And a terrible warning to us. You might be a great leader in the world, but if you don’t follow the ways of God all your efforts will be wasted. God isn’t actually impressed with our great achievements even if we are. You can imagine him looking at the great things humans do and all the fuss we make over them and yawning. Do you remember what he says to Job when Job complains at his injustice? He says something like this: “Hey Job, you think you’re pretty important don’t you? You think you can question my motives. Well, let me ask you some questions. Were you there when the earth was made? Do you know what holds it up? Do you even know how big it is? Do you know where the sun comes from in the morning or goes to in the evening? Or how about the snow? Do you know where that comes from? Or the rain and hail? Or how about something closer to home. Do you know where the mountain goats give birth? Or where the lions make their home?” And on and on he goes showing just how trivial our human knowledge really is. How trivial we are.
Yet at another level we’re far from trivial to God. God cares greatly about us. Not about our human endeavours, or our great achievements, but about our faithfulness to him. In fact we see that very clearly in this passage. Sometimes we might skip over this but when you read the passage carefully you can’t help but realise that the way these kings behave is of great concern to God. There’s a phrase that pops up over and over again in this chapter. It’s in vs2, 7, 13, 26 and 33. It’s the phrase: “provoking the LORD God of Israel to anger.” Or as one commentator translates it, “Exasperating the Lord God of Israel.”
It’s the sort of expression you hear parents of teenagers using. They push and push the boundaries until their parents can’t take it any more. It’s the same word that’s used in 1 Sam 1 of the way Peninnah goads and needles Hannah over her inability to bear a child to El Kanah, hoping to push her over the edge.
What we see here is the reaction that arises out of a personal relationship. His anger isn’t just a cold judicial anger at someone who’s transgressed the law. It’s the anger of hurt love, it’s the anger of a God who’s gone out of his way to love and care for these, his special people, his precious possession. This is the central message of these books of 1 & 2 Kings. The continued refusal by the leaders of Israel and Judah to follow God’s ways makes him furious, exasperated. God is incredibly patient with us, incredibly longsuffering, but his patience does have a limit. In some cases here that limit comes quickly but in other cases it takes a while. Zimri lasts 7 days, Omri lasts 12 years. And we’re about to meet the worst of the lot and he lasts 22 years! But in the end God is in control of history and his judgement is final.
Omri dies and his son Ahab takes over. As I said Omri has created stability and prosperity for Israel so Ahab is set up to succeed. Unfortunately though, Omri’s political strategy hasn’t been a godly one. He’s arranged for Ahab to marry the daughter of the king of Sidon, Jezebel. She’s brought with her the worship of Baal. Well, it was there already but she turned it into a state religion. Ahab built a temple for Baal where he put an altar so sacrifices could be made to Baal much more conveniently than having to go up to one of the high places. And he then began to join his wife in worshipping Baal.
And he had Jericho rebuilt so he could control the western approaches from the Jordan, despite Jericho having been put under a curse by God during the time of Joshua.
You can see why God was angry can’t you? But we’ll hear more about Ahab and his battles with God over the next couple of weeks.
For now I’d like us to think about the implications of all this for us. What are the themes that come out of this small section of the history of Israel that might be applicable to us?
Well, first there’s the issue of godly or ungodly kings and their effect on the nation as a whole. I haven’t mentioned this but in the background of this whole period is Asa, king of Judah. Did you notice that he keeps getting mentioned? Now it’s partly because the years of his reign allow you to count the years of the reigns of these other kings, but I wonder whether we’re also meant to notice the contrast between him and these kings. You see the summary of his life is this (1 Ki 15:11-12 NRSV) “Asa did what was right in the sight of the LORD, as his father David had done. 12He put away the male temple prostitutes out of the land, and removed all the idols that his ancestors had made.” Asa did what was right over a 40 year reign. Asa showed that it is possible to live righteously as a King, to follow in the footsteps of his ancestor David.
Next there’s the warning to be careful that we don’t provoke the Lord to anger by our repeated disobedience. There’s always a danger for us who live under the grace of the gospel that we begin to take our salvation for granted, to think of God as a kindly grandfather in the sky, winking at us when we do something wrong. Then we begin to think that a little bit of sin doesn’t really matter. A little bit of greed is normal. Everyone tells lies. I may be manipulative but it’s all in a good cause. I have my foibles but I’m only human after all. And I can always go back to God and ask for forgiveness, which he freely gives. And so we trivialise God’s response to our sinfulness. We trivialise the cost that Jesus has already paid to allow us to be forgiven. We should read these words and shiver in trepidation: “[They] provoked the LORD God of Israel to anger.” May that never be the case with us.
Next there’s the questions that arise whenever you read these sorts of Old Testament texts. Why is there so much violence? Why does God seem to deal with people this way? Why does he let people get away with it?
Well they’re big questions aren’t they and we don’t have time to deal with them completely but let me give you perhaps the beginning of an answer.
Part of our problem is that we live in a world where much work has been done to combat inequality and injustice. We have international bodies that are empowered to intervene when injustices appear to be happening: the United Nations and the British Commonwealth both intervene from time to time in situations like those we’ve been reading about today. Mind you even then they often have only limited success. Fiji is a classic example where the Commonwealth Heads of State have been virtually ignored. Burma is another one, as is Zimbabwe. But still we expect that international efforts will eventually win through. But what about a situation like this one in Israel where there’s no international body. Where there isn’t even an impartial judicial system, where the king is judge and juror. Who is there then to carry out justice? No-one. Except of course for God himself who intervenes from time to time to execute justice on those who continue to ignore him. And how does he execute justice? Well, sometimes it’s through a prophet who carries out God’s righteous judgement but other times it’s through the unrighteous actions of evil men and women; actions that they’re held responsible for, but nevertheless that serve God’s purposes. That of course is how Jesus came to be crucified wasn’t it? Evil people carrying out God’s sovereign will.
And finally in the big picture of the history of Israel we see God’s unfailing love of his people being tested over and over again, strained to breaking point as Israel moves inevitably towards God’s judgment, towards exile and obliteration. When that happens we’ll see the future of God’s people narrowing down to a remnant of faithful people within the tribe of Judah and in particular to a king who’s the true descendant of David. That king of course is Jesus Christ. But for now we realise that God’s people can’t ignore him, can’t disobey him, without reaping the consequences of their rebellion. Even though Ahab will reign for 22 years, eventually his time will run out as well and God will again demonstrate that he is lord of history as well as lord of the world.
1 Kings 16
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