Of Kings and Prophets
Scripture: 1 Kings 20:1–22:53
Synopsis: In this sermon, we survey 3 chapters, 1 Kings 20-22, taken from the heart of the historical books of the Old Testament and the history of the northern kingdom of Israel. The times were dark as the nation and its leaders turned away from God to follow idols. But God was still there and he was not silent. His voice was still audible through his courageous servants, the prophets. What lessons can we learn from their example? More importantly, what do we learn about God and his character in these chapters? Find out in this message entitled Of Kings and Prophets.
This is the fourth of five messages in this series on Elijah. This one is going to be different from the others. For one thing, we are covering a longer section of the text: in fact, 3 chapters, from 1 Kings 20-22. And Elijah only appears personally in one of these chapters. Nonetheless, I want to at least touch on all three chapters, as they provide valuable insight into what we might refer to as “the days of Elijah”: the times in which Elijah lived and ministered.
The stories of Elijah occur in the middle of the books that narrate the history of Israel. The nation has been divided into two: Israel and Judah. Elijah ministered in the northern kingdom; Israel. Of the two halves of the divided nation, Israel had the saddest record; not one good king in their entire history. And of this list of bad kings, King Ahab is described as the worst of them all.
Under their sequence of ungodly rulers, the nation had become corrupt at every level. They had abandoned the worship of Yahweh, the true God to follow the idols of the pagan nations who had previously lived in the land. Corruption in worship had resulted in corruption of society in the abandoning of God’s principles of justice. The rich and powerful were free to prey on the poor and the powerless. Because of their corruption and unfaithfulness to their covenant with God, God repeatedly abandoned them to their enemies, leaving them weak and powerless militarily.
Yet in these dark days of decline, the chapters in front of us reveal a valiant counter narrative as God continued to reveal himself to the nation and to call them back to himself and to the covenant. God’s warriors in this battle were the prophets; men who lived the truth and spoke the truth in spite of great difficulty, danger and sometimes even death.
Elijah, of course, was the most famous. He is the one whose story we have been following. But he was not the only one. 1 Kings 20 tells the story of a series of battles against the king of Syria. When a great Syrian army had assembled against Israel, we are told that God sent a prophet to King Ahab. We are not even told his name. But this is what he said:
And behold, a prophet came near to Ahab king of Israel and said, “Thus says the Lord, Have you seen all this great multitude? Behold, I will give it into your hand this day, and you shall know that I am the Lord (Yahweh).” (1 Kings 20:13)
King Ahab listens and follows the prophet’s instructions. He and his army win an amazing victory against a vastly more powerful army.
The Syrians withdraw. But the prophet returns to King Ahab and warns him to get himself ready militarily, because the Syrians will return in the spring. There is a rather amusing sub-plot introduced at this point in the story. As the Syrians analyze their defeat to such a small military force, they attribute it to spiritual forces and the gods of Israel. But they make a serious error in judgment. Because their own gods are territorial, they conclude that the gods of Israel must be territorial as well. Listen to their reasoning in verses 23-25:
And the servants of the king of Syria said to him, “Their gods are gods of the hills, and so they were stronger than we. But let us fight against them in the plain, and surely we shall be stronger than they. 24 And do this: remove the kings, each from his post, and put commanders in their places, 25 and muster an army like the army that you have lost, horse for horse, and chariot for chariot. Then we will fight against them in the plain, and surely we shall be stronger than they.” And he listened to their voice and did so.
God will not allow such false reasoning and assumptions to stand. The next spring, the armies of Syria assemble in the valley, on the plains. Once again, in spite of their preparations, the armies of Israel are outnumbered. They are described as two small flocks of goats, while the Syrians covered the countryside. But once again, God sends a prophet to the king.
And a man of God came near and said to the king of Israel, “Thus says the Lord, ‘Because the Syrians have said, “The Lord is a god of the hills but he is not a god of the valleys,” therefore I will give all this great multitude into your hand, and you shall know that I am the Lord.’ ” (1 Kings 20:28)
Once again, God intervenes and the prophet’s words come true. The smaller forces of Israel win the battle and inflict huge casualties on the Syrian army. 1 Kings 20 is actually quite a marvelous chapter in Israel’s history, as God fights for his people. He is doing it to demonstrate to the nation once again that he is able to care for them and to deliver them if they will only follow him and remain true to the covenant.
But the chapter does not end well. King Ahab does not give the credit to God. And he does not finish the task. When the King of Syria surrenders to him, he does not follow the prophet’s instructions. Instead, in a misplaced effort to forge a military alliance, he makes a treaty with him and lets him go.
So God sends another prophet who rebukes the king with these words, in verse 42:
And he said to him, “Thus says the Lord, ‘Because you have let go out of your hand the man whom I had devoted to destruction, therefore your life shall be for his life, and your people for his people.’ ” 43 And the king of Israel went to his house vexed and sullen and came to Samaria.
With his disobedience, King Ahab snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. What could have been a glorious chapter in Israel’s history ended in the pronouncement of coming judgment.
Here, the prophet Elijah enters the story again. This is the story we read in the Scripture reading, in 1 Kings 21. This story illustrates for us what kind of people Ahab and Jezebel were. They were not only leading the people into false worship, but they were utterly without conscience in their use of royal power and privilege and in their greed and desire to get their own way. An innocent man is murdered in order to add a convenient vegetable garden to the king’s land holdings. Since we read the story, I won’t repeat it here. But it is a little snapshot, a vignette that illustrates the abuses of power and the rampant injustice that characterized Israel during this period in history.
Into this seemingly insignificant story of an otherwise unknown man, God sends Elijah. I can almost picture the scene. King Ahab is walking through his newly acquired vineyard. What was in his mind? Possibly he was laying it out in his imagination – where he would plant his vegetables when the vines had been uprooted. Then he came around a corner of a trellis, and Elijah stood in front of him. I can imagine the jolt of shock and even fear that ran through him. Instant recognition; guilt feelings; maybe even some shame? As they face each other there in the vineyard, Elijah pronounces the gory details of doom that will fall on Ahab and Jezebel because of their sins. It was the final straw. God’s patience was at an end. Judgment was coming.
We have one more chapter to cover today. Chapter 22 records the outworking of God’s judgment and the fulfilling of Elijah’s prophecy against King Ahab. In this chapter, we are also introduced to another faithful prophet of God; a man by the name of Micaiah. In the story, King Ahab forms an alliance with the king of Judah, a man by the name of Jehoshaphat. King Jehoshaphat agrees to join King Ahab in a military expedition against Syria. But King Jehoshaphat is a follower of Yahweh, the true God. He requests that they first seek a word from the Lord before going into battle. King Ahab is happy to comply and soon assembles 400 prophets. It is a little difficult to know exactly who these men were. At least some of them claimed to prophecy in the name of Yahweh. I think this is probably a good example of the rampant syncretism that reigned during that time period. Remember Elijah’s challenge on Mount Carmel? “How long will you limp between two opinions?” Back and forth, between the idols and the true God. King Ahab could still call out a troop of prophets who knew how to play the game and use the right language.
All of the prophets give an identical message. It was the message the king wanted to hear. “God will give you victory.” But King Jehoshaphat can tell that something is not quite right. Something is not ringing true. So he presses the matter. “Don’t you have another prophet of Yahweh we can inquire of?”
Reluctantly, Ahab acknowledges: “Yes, there is one old sour-puss that we can call. But I hate him. He only gives bad prophecies!”
But they send for him anyway. The messengers try to prepare him to follow the politically correct script of the day. Verse 13 tell us, And the messenger who went to summon Micaiah said to him, “Behold, the words of the prophets with one accord are favorable to the king. Let your word be like the word of one of them, and speak favorably.”
I love Micaiah’s answer in verse 14: But Micaiah said,“As the Lord lives, what the Lord says to me, that I will speak.”
These are the words of a true prophet. And so Micaiah is brought before the two kings. The other prophets are still present, dancing around and prophesying success for the expedition. When Micaiah is asked to speak, he first of all pretends to play along. “Attack and be victorious!” he announces.
But King Ahab can tell he is speaking sarcastically. “Tell the truth,” he demands. And Micaiah does. He describes Israel as sheep scattered on the hills without a shepherd. He then describes a scene in heaven in which he pictures God holding a counsel of war. He asks those assembled for ideas for how to entice King Ahab to go into a battle where he would be killed. Finally, after various ideas are discussed, one steps forward with a plan: “Send him lying prophets,” he says. At this point in the story, I can picture Micaiah gesturing around the room at the other prophets. “Here they are. They are all lying. The truth is that you will die in this battle.”
Micaiah is immediately hustled off to jail. The kings go out to battle anyway. King Ahab goes in disguise. But a random arrow, guided by the sovereign hand of God, pierced his armor. He died at sunset. When they brought him back in his chariot to Samaria, they washed out his chariot near the place where Naboth had been stoned – and the stray dogs licked his blood.
I will be honest with you. Scripture texts like this are not easy to preach on. In fact, I’d guess that the vast majority of you have never heard a message taken from these chapters. When I find myself struggling to know what to do with a narrative passage of Scripture, I find it helpful to turn it into a theology question. What do we learn about God from these events? The history of Israel is a history of God at work in time and space. God is always at work. But in the Bible, we have not only the record of events, but we have glimpses behind the scenes to what God was doing and why.
What do we learn about God from these chapters? Let me highlight six truths about God from these stories.
1. God is sovereign in the affairs of men and nations.
This comes through clearly throughout these chapters. The human characters all play their roles and make their decisions and they are held accountable for their decisions and actions. But God’s sovereignty is displayed through, over and in it all. From his pronouncement of who will win the battles, to the seemingly random flight of an arrow, to the dogs licking King Ahab’s blood by the pool in Samaria in fulfillment of Elijah’s words. We cannot escape the sovereignty of God, even as we cannot always explain it. As the prophet Daniel proclaims, “The Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men and gives them to anyone he wishes.”
How he displays his sovereignty is a matter he holds in his own hands, guided by his own wise counsel. Sometimes he may sovereignly withhold his hand and allow normal cause and effect to take their course. Other times he may supernaturally intervene. But he is always sovereign in every detail.
2. God is omnipresent.
If you are unfamiliar with that word, it means literally “to be present everywhere.” Many polytheistic and animistic religions believe in territorial gods and territorial spirits. Each village has its patron god or goddess. There are gods of the mountains and gods of the valleys and gods of the seas. This was the assumption that guided the Syrians as they plotted their military strategy in chapter 20. But Yahweh, the true and living God, the God of Creation, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is not a territorial God. He is the God of heaven and earth. He is present everywhere. There is no place where he is not. He demonstrates this in these chapters by winning astounding victories in the hills and on the flat plains of the valleys.
As Christians, we all know that in our heads. But sometimes we need to be reminded of that in our hearts. I remember my first year away from home. I grew up in Africa. But I left Africa to attend university in the U.S. when I was 18. During my first year, God reminded me repeatedly that he lived in America as well as in Africa. I especially remember an experience my first summer. I had traveled to Newark, New Jersey to work in an inner city summer ministry. On my first morning there I found myself standing alone on a street corner in the projects. For someone who grew up in rural Africa, the city was a very scary and intimidating place. But as I stood there, looking around, feeling frightened, there came this very strong realization that God was there. God lives in the city as well as in the country. God lives in America as well as Africa. And friends, if you are feeling alone this morning, you need to be reminded that God lives in Abu Dhabi. He is here. You are not alone.
3. God says what he means and he means what he says.
This is demonstrated on many levels in this text. First, we can refer back to the conditions of the covenant all the way back in Deuteronomy, where God promised that for obedience, he would send rain and bless the crops and he would give his people victory over their enemies. But if they disobeyed the covenant, he would withhold the rain and they would be defeated in battle by their enemies. We have already seen the drought in fulfillment of those words. In these chapters, we see God at work on the battlefield. He shows grace by giving them victory. But ultimately, when they will not acknowledge him, he sends them to defeat.
That is the broad scope of what is happening. But it is made very specific here, as God’s prophets are sent repeatedly to the king to tell him what is about to happen and why. And their words are fulfilled, time after time. God says what he means and he means what he says. There may be delays due to his patience as he gives his people time to repent. But when that repentance is not forthcoming, the judgments fall.
We have the divinely inspired and authenticated words of God in written form. God has spoken. And he says what he means and he means what he says. This is true on the temporal level of cause and effect in this life. It is also true as it depicts eternal truth about the life to come. God speaks. He expects us to listen and to obey.
4. God is just and desires justice at every level of society.
Why is the story of Naboth in the Bible? It illustrates the character of Ahab and Jezebel and the fact that injustice was rampant under their rule. But it also illustrates that God cares about justice. There is a tendency on the part of people in power to think that the rules do not apply to them. There is a sense of entitlement. “Aren’t you the king?” Jezebel asks Ahab. The implication is that if you are the king, you can use that power to get anything you want. But that is not God’s value system. He is watching and he will hold rulers and those in authority to account, if not in this life, then in the life to come.
I point out this principle for two reasons. Some of you are victims of injustice. There is an entire epistle in the New Testament, 1 Peter, written to address how we should respond to us when that happens, as we learn to “entrust ourselves to him who judges justly” and wait on the Lord. But I would also make this application to you if you are in a position of power and privilege in your profession or occupation. God is watching. He is just. He does desire justice at every level of society. With power comes not only privilege, but also responsibility to be just in all our dealings.
5. God is patient and full of grace.
There is a passage describing the character of God in the administration of his covenant, given for the first time all the way back in Exodus 34:6-7:
The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abound in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin…
This attribute of God is on clear display in these chapters. Why did God keep sending his prophets? Because of his patience and his desire to give his people every opportunity to repent. In the New Testament, Jesus told a parable of landowner who kept sending his servants to receive his share of the vineyard’s income. Repeatedly the corrupt farm workers abused, beat and sent the prophets away empty handed. In that parable, God is the landowner, and the servants are his prophets. This text is a clear example of God sending the prophets with warning after warning and instruction after instruction, calling the people and their rulers back to obedience and faithfulness to the covenant. As often as they ignored one, God would send another one. His patience is amazing!
There is also the example of the victories God gave in 1 Kings 20. Israel didn’t deserve these victories. They were in a state of rebellion. Yet by grace, God gave them these victories so that they would know, as he said through the prophets, “That I am the Lord.” It was another chance for them to turn back to God.
Finally, in his dealing with King Ahab himself, we have an amazing testament to God’s patience. When he is confronted by Elijah in the Naboth’s vineyard, Ahab demonstrates at least some level of repentance. Let’s look at how it is described in 1 Kings 21:27-29.
And when Ahab heard those words, he tore his clothes and put sackcloth on his flesh and fasted and lay in sackcloth and went about dejectedly. 28 And the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying, 29 “Have you seen how Ahab has humbled himself before me? 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 upon his house.”
This passage does not tell us a great deal about Ahab, but it does tell us a great deal about God. After all that Ahab has done, God is willing to give him another chance. The judgment is not withdrawn, but it is postponed to give him a chance to demonstrate a change of heart. It doesn’t last, as the next chapter shows, but it show remarkable restraint and patience on God’s part.
God is patient and full of grace, giving repeated opportunities for people to repent and turn to him. But point #5 must be balanced by the final point in this theology lesson.
6. God’s patience is not unlimited.
This is clearly proclaimed in that passage in Exodus. When I read it a few minutes ago, I didn’t finish the verse. Let’s pick up the reading again in verse 7:
…keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the father on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.
God’s patience has limits. Peter makes this same point in the New Testament in 2 Peter 3:9-10:
The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief and then the heavens will pass away with a roar…
God is keeping track. His patience is remarkable, but it is not unlimited. His words of judgment will come true if we do not repent and make our peace with him while we can.
Well, that is our theology lesson for the week. I am not sure which of these points God brought you here to be reminded of today. But let me close with two quick applications to take away with you.
. It is possible (and necessary) to be just in an unjust society.
God is looking for and expects his people to live by a different standard. In all our dealings, let us be just and fair within our sphere of influence. Let’s stand up for the Naboth’s in society, and not participate in victimizing them.
2. It is possible (and necessary) to be faithful to God’s truth in a society that denies or compromises his truth.
Micaiah, the prophet, paid a price for speaking the truth before the king. But he spoke the truth anyway. Even if everyone else seems to be singing from the same song sheet, if it’s not God’s song sheet, then we need to sing a different song – even if it puts us out of tune with the world around us. False messengers abound. God is still looking for his people, his spokesmen and spokeswomen who will speak his truth humbly, but clearly and without apology.
I remember many years ago when I was in university. I was taking a class in sociology. The class was entitled, “Deviant Behavior.” In the very first class session, the professor told us that there were no absolute standards of right and wrong. Because there was no standard of right and wrong, then there was no standard to deviate from. Because there was no absolute standard to deviate from, there was really no such thing as “deviant behavior.” So we were going to spend the class discussing behavior which society commonly labeled as deviant, but since we knew that it was not deviant, our goal was not to criticize or condemn, but simply to understand.
That was how the class started and it only went downhill from there. If I had not needed the class credit for graduation, I would have dropped out. But to my shame, looking back on it now, I stayed in the class and I remained silent. But I will never forget one particular class period late in the semester. We were discussing some particular type of behavior. I don’t even remember what it was now, and it doesn’t matter. But finally a girl in the back of the class blurted out, “But that’s wrong!” Immediately the professor challenged her. “What do you mean, that’s wrong? Who says it’s wrong?” There was a long pause and then she responded, “The Bible!”
God may not have called us to be prophets. But he has called us to be people of the truth. A lying spirit is abroad in the world today, denying God and his truth at every turn. May God give us the courage of Elijah and the other prophets to speak forth his truth.
QUESTIONS FOR THOUGHT AND DISCUSSION
- To understand the narrative sections of the Old Testament, we must always keep in mind the historical setting in which they occurred. Share what you know about the time period in which 1 Kings 20-22 occurred. (Refer to the introductory notes in a good study Bible if you need more information.)
- What parallels do you see between that time period and our own?
- What was the role of the prophets in Israel? How is our role in society different? How is it the same? What lessons can we glean from the lives of Elijah and the other prophets in these chapters?
- Pastor Cam uses these chapters to teach 6 lessons about God. Discuss each one in two ways: How is this truth demonstrated in these chapters? What are the practical applications for this truth in our lives?
- God is sovereign in the affairs of men and nations.
- God is omnipresent.
- God says what he means and he means what he says.
- God is just and desires justice at every level of society.
- God is patient and full of grace.
- God’s patience is not unlimited.