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Chris Appleby Ministries

Chris Appleby Ministries

 

The Last Straw        audio (5MB)

1 Kings 21

Reading through the story of Ahab and Jezebel, I occasionally feel a bit sorry for Ahab. He gets a glimpse every now and then of what’s the right thing to do. You feel like he’d really like to do the right thing, but he’s made so many bad decisions in the past that he just can’t get there. His worst decision of course was to marry Jezebel and let her get away with polluting the worship of Israel with her own worship of Baal. In fact you’d have to say that he even encouraged her by building a temple to Baal in Samaria itself. He comes across as such weak character doesn’t he, particularly compared with the strong character of Jezebel? And even when he realises the truth of his situation or the justice of a matter, he allows Jezebel to overrule him. It’s ironic that Jezebel criticises him for not acting as king, but gladly overrules him when she doesn’t like what he’s doing. We saw that with the aftermath of the demonstration of Yahweh’s power on Mt Carmel. Ahab appeared to be convinced but Jezebel was unmoved and acted independently to avenge the prophets of Baal.


We’ll see a similar scenario in our passage today, but first, let me fill in the gap between last week and this.
We’ve skipped over chapter 20 where the army of Syria twice try to capture Samaria. The first time a prophet of Yahweh tells Ahab how they can be defeated. And they’re miraculously delivered. The second time the king of Syria decides that he lost the first battle because Yahweh is a god of the hills, so he’ll start his battle in the valley. And again the prophet of Yahweh announces that the vast army of Syria will be defeated so Ahab will know that he is Yahweh - the LORD. The only trouble is Ahab doesn’t care that God is delivering the king of Syria into his hand to be not just defeated, but executed. Instead Ahab decides there’s value in making a treaty with him. Perhaps he can be useful in some conflict with one of his other neighbours. But as a result God announces that Ahab’s life will stand in the place of the life of the king of Syria that he’s spared. And that brings us to today’s reading.
Ahab has built a country retreat at a place called Jezreel, about 30km north of Samaria. This country palace is next door to a vineyard owned by a man named Naboth. And Ahab thinks to himself, that spot would be perfect for a vegetable garden to supply my palace. So he makes Naboth an offer; a perfectly reasonable offer you’d think. He’ll give him another piece of land in exchange or he’ll pay him a suitable sum of money.
The trouble is, Naboth is a serious Israelite. He knows and respects God’s law. He’s a true believer. He knows that God has given each person in Israel a portion of land to be their possession in perpetuity. He’s even made laws about how in the year of Jubilee the land is to go back to the family to whom it was given in the first place. So Naboth tells Ahab: “The LORD forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance.” There’s such a strong contrast here between Naboth who’s insistent on obeying God’s law, even if it might be at some financial cost and Ahab who’s only interested in his own comfort.
But give Ahab his due. He knows that Naboth is right. He can’t compel him to sell his property. But what does he do? He goes home in a huff, climbs into bed and sulks, refuses to eat.
Enter Jezebel - again! “What sort of a king are you? Get up, eat some food, and be cheerful; I will give you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite.” She’s been around long enough to know how to deal with troublemakers. Ahab’s problem is he thinks he has to act within God’s law. Jezebel figures that the king is the law. You see she’s grown up in a pagan world where the king was the highest authority. This Israelite concept of an authority higher than the king was completely foreign to her way of thinking. So off she goes to fix it, while Ahab has some lunch.
But notice how she goes about this underhanded bit of scheming.

Religious injustice

First she does it under the pretense of religious indignation. Naboth will be accused of blasphemy, cursing both God and the king and he’ll appear to get what he deserves.

Legal Injustice

Then she makes sure the legal niceties are followed. She makes sure there are two witnesses to accuse him, that the elders of the city are present, that it’s all done in public and that the penalty fits the crime. Don’t worry about the fact that they’re going to lie about Naboth. Justice must be seen to be done.
There’s a heartlessness about the way she acts isn’t there? Naboth is just an insignificant hurdle in the way of Ahab’s and her happiness. Forget that Naboth is a righteous man. Once he’s out of the way Ahab can do what he likes. I guess any of Naboth’s family who are left will have learnt their lesson. They won’t object when Ahab comes to lay claim to this now vacant piece of land. And so by v15 it’s all over. Simple wasn’t it?
Sadly, though, this isn’t just a story about Ahab and Naboth. This is a representative tale of the way things often work out in a world where the unrighteous often have political and economic power and the righteous have none; where the righteous are constrained by a desire for integrity and honesty in their dealings but the rest of the world are not. Paul Wheelton mentioned in his talk to Mike’s Mates last Tuesday how there have been times when his desire to do business honestly has been at odds with the behaviour of some of his competitors but he decided that he’d remain faithful to his Christian principles in doing business. And I’m sure his is not an isolated example. Peter warned his readers (1 Pet 4:12 NRSV) “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.” Jesus warned that if they persecuted him they would certainly persecute those who chose to follow him. And that’s exactly what’s happening here in Jezreel. Naboth is simply obeying God when he refuses Ahab and he suffers the ultimate consequence for his faithfulness.
Notice too that this sort of injustice is often executed by legal governments. Whether it’s Jezebel writing in the name of Ahab, or Nebuchadnezzar throwing Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego into the fiery furnace, or the Roman authorities killing Jesus or punishing Paul, it’s so often done in the name of a legal system. Today it might be a Muslim government applying Shariah law to citizens who decide to become Christians. But it might equally be a western government applying secular standards of behaviour in a way that penalises those who want to observe Christian standards. There’s a debate going on at the moment among some Christians concerning exemptions to the equal opportunity act. One of the arguments for exemptions is that without them Christian employers may be subject to a penalty if they refuse to employ people whose beliefs are at odds with the aims of their organisation. This has certainly been the case in other parts of the world so we need to be careful how our laws might affect us here.

All of God’s Servants are Responsible for Acting Faithfully

It has to be said that Jezebel isn’t the only culprit in this story. The elders and nobles of Jezreel are just as guilty for what they did. Any one of them could have objected, could have refused to play along. Any one of them could have revealed the subterfuge they were taking part in. People who are appointed as magistrates always have a higher responsibility to act with justice than anyone else. Yet they do exactly as they’re told.
What we learn here is that injustice flourishes not only by wickedness but also by weakness. There isn’t an evil leader in history who hasn’t succeeded because their followers were too weak to oppose their injustice. Of course if we’re to stand against this sort of injustice it may involve a cost mightn’t it? This was what Dietrich Bonhoeffer found when he chose to oppose Hitler and ended up being killed.
In a business setting the worker who refuses to act against their conscience risks losing the favour of the boss and possibly even their job but to give in makes us as culpable as our employers.

God will intervene to bring justice to his wronged people.

I guess Jezebel thought she’d got away with it when the messenger arrived from Jezreel. You can imagine them breaking out the champagne to celebrate their new block of land. But just as they’re looking over their new possession, Elijah arrives and Ahab knows that something’s gone wrong.
“Have you found me, O my enemy?” says Ahab. “Afraid so” says Elijah. And then comes the word of judgment from God: “Because you have sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the LORD, 21I will bring disaster on you; I will consume you, and will cut off from Ahab every male, bond or free, in Israel; 22and I will make your house like the house of Jeroboam son of Nebat, and like the house of Baasha son of Ahijah, because you have provoked me to anger and have caused Israel to sin. 23Also concerning Jezebel the LORD said, ‘The dogs shall eat Jezebel within the bounds of Jezreel.’ 24Anyone belonging to Ahab who dies in the city the dogs shall eat; and anyone of his who dies in the open country the birds of the air shall eat.”
In case Jezebel thought the king was the highest authority in the land, our text makes it clear that there’s one who stands over and above even him. Elijah is told not just to go and speak to Ahab, he’s even told where he is at that moment.
Most people who do evil deeds think they can get away with it. They think no-one will notice, or no-one will know it was them, or they think they can explain it away if they do get caught. But what we find here is that God is watching us at every moment. He knows where we are and what we’re doing; he understands our motives, our inner thoughts; he sees what we’re planning and what we think we can get away with.
And so it is with Ahab. God sees him and sends Elijah to pronounce judgement on him. This is the last straw. God has been holding off judgement. He’s given him chance after chance but now Ahab has gone too far. The expression is a strong one isn’t it. He’s “sold himself to do what is evil in the sight of the LORD.” God takes the ownership of the promised land very seriously. This is the birthright of God’s people. And Ahab has sold himself to his own greed, undermining the justice of the courts and committing murder in order to add a trifle to his already huge wealth.
And so Ahab’s family line is to be cut off, just as Naboth’s was. He will die in the very place where Naboth was stoned. And his house will be wiped out. As for Jezebel, the dogs will lick her blood, again in the town of Jezreel. The site of their final act of injustice will be the place of their death. There’s a certain poetic justice to all of this isn’t there?
Oh, and for those who are thinking this is all a bit harsh on Ahab and Jezebel, he adds, “25(Indeed, there was no one like Ahab, who sold himself to do what was evil in the sight of the LORD, urged on by his wife Jezebel. 26He acted most abominably in going after idols, as the Amorites had done, whom the LORD drove out before the Israelites.)”

God delights to exercise mercy while imposing justice.

But then just as we think it’s all over for Ahab, there’s this short and surprising epilogue. As has happened before, Ahab realises the error of his ways. “27When Ahab heard those words, he tore his clothes and put sackcloth over his bare flesh; he fasted, lay in the sackcloth, and went about dejectedly.” And do you see how God reacts. It’s almost with a sense of delight or at least satisfaction. “Then the word of the LORD came to Elijah the Tishbite: 29“Have you seen how Ahab has humbled himself before me?” It’s as though God can’t wait to tell Elijah the good news. Finally Ahab has paid attention! Finally he’s got the message! Finally he’s realised that God is serious about all this; that he really means it. And so God holds off his punishment “Because he has humbled himself before me, I will not bring the disaster in his days; but in his son’s days I will bring the disaster on his house.” And when we get to 2 Kings 9 we discover that it’s Ahab’s sons who die in Jezreel while Ahab’s blood is licked up by the dogs of Samaria.
Notice though that that postponement of judgment isn’t a removal of judgment. Ahab deserves everything he gets. So why does God delay it? I think the reason is that God wants us to see that he isn’t just interested in justice. God is first and foremost a God of mercy. I think those people who complain about the God of the Old Testament being all about judgment haven’t really read the Old Testament. Here is a classic example of a God who desires not the death of a sinner but that they turn from their wickedness and live (Ezek 18:23). I don’t think you’d say that Ahab has truly repented. He’s like so many people today. He’s sorry - that he got caught. But God gives him the benefit of the doubt. He at least accepts that his repentance is sincere “at the moment”, even if it won’t last. And perhaps he wants Ahab to experience that relenting of punishment with the hope that he’ll take his repentance even further.
This is truly the God we worship. A God who extends the offer of forgiveness even to those who are his enemies. Just as the father of the child in Mark 9 could cry out “I believe. Help my unbelief” and it was enough for Jesus, so God delights to see a sinner who turns away from sin even if it’s only a small start. He offers forgiveness and then expects us to follow up with even deeper repentance.
But we mustn’t forget that God is also a God of justice who will look after those of his servants who are unjustly treated, who will judge those who refuse to obey his laws. We may well experience injustice in this world simply because we choose to obey God rather than humans but in the end God will vindicate us and those who oppose him will be overthrown.

 

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