Who is it that fights for the crown? - 1 Kings 20:1-43
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~~Who is to fight for the crown?
1 Kings 20
Probably one of the best films I have seen this year is, ‘The Darkest Hour’ concerning Winston Churchill’s struggles as Prime Minister during the early months of his premiership in 1940. As well as having to contend with the German army he had to struggle with the likes Lord Halifax in the government who wanted to cut some sort of deal with Hitler after the fall of France and the near catastrophe of Dunkirk. Churchill was resolute knowing that this was to be a struggle to the death if needs be because the freedom of the entire civilised world depended upon the outcome. And symbolic in all of this was the crown- the King. Should he, as advised by some, take his family to the safety of Canada or should he stay with his people and fight on? He decided to stay. But right at the end of the film there appears a quote from one of Churchill’s speeches which typifies the stance he and the King took and which speaks into our passage this morning in 1 Kings 20, ‘Success is not final, failure is not fatal, it is the courage to continue that counts.’
So do turn with me in your Bibles to 1 Kings 20 as we ask ‘Who will fight for the crown?’
The first thing we see is the threat to the crown, vv 1-12. This comes in the form of the Syrian king Ben-Hadad. His aim is to bring the northern Kingdom of Israel, centred on Samaria, under his rule and so he gathers together quite a formidable army with which to do it. In all probability there is the framing of the pagan King as a rival not to Ahab, but Yahweh- the LORD himself, with a kind of mimicking of God going on in vv 2&3. This comes out in two ways. First, in how he delivers his message, this is how the Kings James version has it , ‘Thus saith Ben-Hadad’ which he communicates through his messengers, just as God declares his message ‘Thus saith the Lord’ through his messengers the prophets in verses 13,28 and 42. But we also see a mimicking of God in terms of the content of the message, ‘‘Your silver and gold are mine, and the best of your wives and children are mine.’” This mirrors Yahweh’s owner’s rights as King in Psalm 50, ‘The earth and all that is in it is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills is mine.’ And this is not surprising, because when the true God is pushed out of the picture, the tendency is for us to take his place and the more power and clout we have the more we delude ourselves into thinking we are like God. This is the real ‘God delusion’, shaking our puny fists fist our Maker and his representatives, whilst imagining we will get away with it. And Ben-Hadad, as many like him since, is going to be disabused of his delusions of grandeur in no uncertain terms.
But it soon becomes clear who is not going to do this and that is the King of Israel-Ahab. Look at his mealy mouthed response in v 4, ‘The king of Israel answered, “Just as you say, my lord the king. I and all I have are yours.” Rather than ‘manning up’ Ahab simply gives up and waves the white flag of surrender without even an arrow being shot. Now maybe Ahab thinks that by rolling over so readily he is going to be spared a fight. You see, the politics of the day was for a dominant power to allow another country to continue with its king but to have what is called a ‘vassal status’, that is, they had to swear allegiance to the foreign king and pay an annual tribute and in some cases hand over some of the royal family who effectively become hostages. It is a bit like paying money to some gangster who is running a protection racket. That is what it looks like here. But it soon becomes obvious that Ben-Hadad wants more than capitulation from Ahab, he wants humiliation, v5, ‘The messengers came again and said, “Thus saith Ben-Hadad: ‘I sent to demand your silver and gold, your wives and your children. But about this time tomorrow I am going to send my officials to search your palace and the houses of your officials. They will seize everything you value and carry it away.’”
And true to form Ahab pathetically plays the victim. You can imagine him with a whiney voice ringing his hands in v 7, ‘“See how this man is looking for trouble! When he sent for my wives and my children, my silver and my gold, I did not refuse him.” ‘I have acted reasonably, what else does this fellow want? He is obviously spoiling for a fight- poor me!’ Ahab is quite happy to effectively surrender the crown so long as he can save his own miserable skin. There doesn’t seem to be much of the courage which Churchill spoke of is there?
However, Ahab’s advisors seem to have a bit more steel than he does and they encourage him to make a stand maybe that is because they know that a bully will just keep on making demand after demand. Ahab, tries to go for a compromise agreeing to the first demand but not the second. Ben-Hadad then hits the roof in anger at the audacity of the King of Israel to defy him. And so Ahab sends a message of his own, v 11, “Tell him: ‘One who puts on his armour should not boast like one who takes it off.’” That is, when someone has won the fight- at which point they are taking their armour off- that is when they are in a position to boast, but the fellow who is still putting on his armour before the fight is being rather premature in talking of victory. Or as we would say, ‘Don’t count your chickens before they are hatched.’ Now we are not sure how Ahab is acting here. Is he being the sage, the wise man? It does sound a bit like a Chinese proverb ‘He who puts armour on should not boast like he who takes armour off’; or is he being sassy, putting on a show, like the frightened boy in the school playground who having been threatened by a bully, shouts out, ‘Yeh, you and whose army?!’ It’s an act of bravado. Well we can be quite sure that Ahab is clueless as what to do next in contrast to Ben-Hadad who thinks it is a ‘no contest’. In fact he is so confident of winning that he throws a celebration party before the battle has even begun -v12.
Which brings us to the defence of the crown- vv 13-30. If Ahab is incapable of defending the crown, then who will? I am sure by now you will have worked out the answer- God.
Now we need to understand that this account is in many ways a follow up to the previous chapter and an answer to the disappointment Elijah had felt on Mount Horeb/Sinai. We might have expected the story to continue with Elijah and Elisha, but instead we have these nameless prophets turning up. But far from this being a detour, it is an important development. Elijah was all but broken because the covenant made at Horeb had been broken and it looked like there was no hope. Here we have God in effect reaffirming the covenant, demonstrating that no matter how fickle and hopeless his people may be, and especially the King, he remains faithful as the true King. Let’s see how.
Look at v 13, ‘Meanwhile a prophet came to Ahab, king of Israel and announced, “This is what the Lord says: ‘Do you see this vast army? I will give it into your hand today, and then you will know that I am the Lord.’” There are no preparations being made by Ahab to fight the Syrians but that doesn’t mean that God has not been preparing. First, he has prepared his prophets. This is a nameless prophet, but not an insignificant prophet. The situation is not as bad as Elijah had thought- God did have other men working for him. God is determined to keep the covenant and one of the main tasks of the prophet was to remind the people of the covenant. So the fact that he still has prophets shows that God is true to his promises, he hasn’t given up. Secondly, while the King of Syria may have arrogantly pronounced, ‘Thus saith Ben-Hadad’ and caused Ahab to quake in his boots, here we have a more definite pronouncement from a greater King, ‘Thus saith the Lord’ and he does have the power to bring about what he has pronounced. Ben Hadad could only hope to win; Yahweh is certain to win- it is a definite ‘I will give this vast army into your hand’. Yahweh does not minimise the opposition, he magnifies it and so all the more magnifies his glory. Thirdly, we have the reason for this action, ‘Then you will know that I am the LORD’ and this is reiterated when the Syrians come around for a second beating in v 28.
This is not a matter of saying, ‘I am the true God’- that was the lesson of Mount Carmel. This is a matter of saying I am the ‘covenant God’- the lesson of Mount Horeb. It is the covenant name which is to the fore, ‘The LORD’- ‘Yahweh’. It is God’s personal name, who he is. It is the name which sums up his character and his attitude towards his people as being not only the great ‘I Am’, the self-existent one, but ‘I will be whatever I need to be for you’- the faithful one who delivers on his promises. When Moses was on Mount Horeb where Elijah was to be many years later, he asked to see God’s glory after the people had broken the covenant by worshipping the golden calf. And this is God’s reply in Exodus 33, ‘And the LORD said, "I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the LORD, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.’ Isn’t that what we are seeing here? Ahab didn’t seek God’s instruction, it came to him unsolicited. 1 Kings 16:29ff tells us that Ahab was one of the worst Kings ever to sit on the throne of Israel- he was a miserable, wicked specimen. And yet here we have the Lord showing mercy to him - in other words being faithful to his name- this is the kind of God he is!
And isn’t this what we need to hear when we are faced with the taunts of those around us and as we see the forces of secularism lined up against us? There are times when it seems that it is much easier to take the route of Ahab when threatened and just to give in, so long as we can be left alone and so adopt vassal status. Sure, the world will put up with the church so long as it shuts up. The world will tolerate the church provided it goes along with its views on the pursuit of wealth and power; or so called same sex marriage or that family life can take many shapes and forms- and bit by bit we give in, so long as we are left alone to have a quiet life. But of course we will never be left alone, more and more will be demanded until what little is left of the Christian faith is hardly with having. Rather, God whose name is LORD says to us, ‘Stop looking at the vast army and look to me, look to my laws and my ways and my power which remains undiminished, ‘I will deliver these to you’. It is a reaffirmation of the covenant Elijah had thought was irretrievably broken.
And get this: God will make it plain that this is his victory. There will be no revising of history so that afterwards people can claim that it was just bad luck on the part of the Syrians or some amazing military insight of Ahab. No, from beginning to end this is going to be all of God. And this is spelt out in a number of ways.
For a start, Ahab’s inadequacy is emphasised throughout the story with his fumbling questions in verse 14, ‘Who will do this?’ ‘Who will start it?’ He seems like a startled rabbit caught in the car headlights. But God on the other hand has all the answers- he tells Ahab how to arrange his army and how to proceed. God is not caught off guard by anything, so even when Ben Hadad decides to attack again after the first battle, God is aware of it and sends another prophet to warn Ahab of it in v28.
Also are we not to see God’s sovereign hand at work outside the actual battles themselves?
For example, how are we to read v 18? Let me suggest it should be read like this, (read in a drunken way), v 17, ‘Now Ben-Hadad had dispatched scouts, who reported, “Men are advancing from Samaria.” He said, “If they have come out for peace, take them alive; if they have come out for war, take them alive.” We would have expected him to say, ‘If they come out for war, kill them’, but he is so sozzled with booze that he can’t even get that right, so if he can’t talk straight how on earth is he going to fight straight? Do we not think that God in his providence had given the King over to his arrogance and bad drinking habits? Also, in v 30 after the second battle, the wall of the city of Aphek collapses and kills 27,000 of his men, and so completely weakening Ben- Hadad’ s resolve to go on. Are we not to think that the collapse of that wall was also within God’s sovereign power, not necessarily bringing it down miraculously. but ensuring it had become weakened over time so it collapses precisely at this point- that is more than a coincidence surely?
You see, Yahweh is no localised tribal deity, a god restricted to the hills as the Syrians thought- so if only he could be enticed onto different turf he would be defeated, v23. No! He is the LORD over all the earth and over all peoples, as the Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper said, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”
If only Ahab had believed that. And so we come to the forfeiting of the crown, vv 31-43 which is where the story has been heading all along.
You have to ask what Ahab has been doing in the meantime such that he is not even aware his enemy is still alive v32. Worse still is the moment he does realise and declares him to be his brother- the very one who has threatened his life, his family and his kingdom! And of course so desperate are they to save their own skin, that Ben-Hadad’ s henchmen quickly latch on to this as a life line in v33 ‘Yes, that’s right your brother!’ They must have thought they had hit the jackpot with this one! And then to top it all Ahab invites Ben-Hadad into his chariot which is treating him as an equal! And in so doing Ahab exchanges the covenant of faith with Yahweh for the covenant of political expediency with Ben-Hadad, v 34.
And maybe Ahab thought ‘All’s well that ends well’ No more fighting and a good trade deal thrown in (v34), the end of a perfect day. But God has other ideas. And so another prophet is sent who has to implement the hard side of the covenant because God’s self- revelation in Exodus 34 goes on to say that God after ‘maintaining love to thousands and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.’ ‘Yet does not leave the guilty unpunished.’ The prophet who disobeys God’s command to strike the prophet is killed for his disobedience, as Ahab will be killed for his disobedience. And when the prophet in disguise appears before Ahab with his pretended feeble excuse that he had let a prisoner go free because he was busy ‘doing this and that’ (v40) and ‘Puff- he just disappeared’- that is precisely what Ahab had done. And so the judgement Ahab pronounces on the prophet is really judgement on himself- ‘Your life will be forfeited for his life’. And Ahab’s reaction? ‘Oh, no please forgive me LORD, I am sorry- how can I betray you who have been so good to me’? Hardly! True to form like a spoilt child he is sullen and angry and storms back to the palace no doubt to get some tea and sympathy from his wicked wife, Jezebel. He is now finished as far as God is concerned, and next week we will see Ahab doing something so despicable that we are left in no doubt that he rightly forfeits his crown.
Let me make a couple of points in the light of this.
First, we are not to make light of God’s Word. Whenever God speaks he is serious. He is serious in rescuing, he is serious in judging. It may be that for a long time now God has been showing you incredible patience and kindness, trying to woo you away from sin and into his loving ways. And yet, like Ahab, you feel grieved that God should have the temerity to tell you what to do, though he has every right to do so and does so because he loves you .If that is you then be careful- for as with Ahab, there may come a day when God says to you as he said to him, ‘Enough is enough’ and he gives you up. Turn to him now before it is too late.
Secondly, are we not grateful that our King, Jesus is not like Ahab? Jesus doesn’t compromise with God’s enemy- Satan- for the sake of an easy life. So when tempted by the devil in the wilderness, he doesn’t enter into a covenant with the him to share the kingdoms of the world, he decides to finish him off completely by going to the cross. In a deeper sense, Jesus out of love takes the judgement meted out in v 42, he forfeits his life for our life by bearing the punishment we deserve so that our guilty rebellion is taken away and as a result he shares with us his crown. You see, with Jesus success is final, with Jesus his ‘failure’ was not fatal and with Jesus he gives us the courage to go on.
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