Judgment was pronounced upon King Ahab by the prophet of the Lord at the end of chapter 20. But before that judgment is executed there is one final, despicable story to tell of the reign of this pathetically weak and wicked man.
Ahab’s sin in the previous chapter was the clemency he extended to a foreign king the Lord had defeated in battle and a king who presented a long term danger to Israel. Now that clemency toward an enemy king will be sharply contrasted with Ahab’s despotic cruelty toward one of his own people. So far we have not heard anything at all about Ahab’s brutality toward his own people, which royal sin is pointed out often enough in regard to the reigns of other Israelite kings. But we hear of it now.
Naboth was loyal to his ancestral heritage and determined to keep his land in his family. Of course, considerations of this type meant very little to a man like Ahab. He had no concern for the Law of God which explicitly stated that the land of Israel belonged to Yahweh and that he had given it to various tribes and clans as a perpetual inheritance and in his law preserved the land to the same family that had first inherited it.
Take note, for Naboth this would have been a good deal, financially speaking. The expansion of the palace would have driven up the value of Naboth’s land and he could have driven a hard bargain because Ahab was, as we say, a motivated buyer. But Naboth was not motivated only by worldly considerations as Ahab was. No doubt, later, Ahab justified his actions by remembering that he had made a fair offer to Naboth and the man had stubbornly refused an offer most people would have accepted gladly.
This is why the guilt for what is about to happen is attributed principally to Ahab, not Jezebel, though she is also condemned. He was, after all, the king and it was because the letters were written in his name and sealed with his seal – of which he could not have been unaware – that the crime was carried out so willingly. It may not have been his idea but it was his responsibility that it was done.
What a remarkable thing for a woman to say, “set two worthless men opposite him.” She knows exactly what kind of men would do the sort of things she was asking them to do.
In any case, the forsaking of God’s law does not mean, it has never meant, in the history of mankind, its replacement by another law equally as good. When God’s law is forsaken, it inevitably means the corruption of a people and systemic injustice.
2 Kings 9:26 seems to suggest not only that Naboth was stoned to death but that his sons as well, opening the way for Ahab to claim the land in the absence of any heirs.
Elijah was to confront Ahab at the very scene of the crime as it were. God knows what Ahab has done and is going to reveal the secret. And the result is that Ahab doesn’t even get to enjoy his new land before hearing that he and his wife are going to become dog food as a result of their crimes. [Dillard, 71]
The implication seems to be that the king felt free to confiscate the land of an executed criminal with no heirs.
There seems to be a conflict created here because in 22:38 we read that the dogs licked up Ahab’s blood outside Samaria, not outside Jezreel. It is possible to translate v. 19 differently to read simply “instead of Naboth’s blood, the dogs will lick up yours.” [Provan, 160] which would remove the geographical inconsistency. It is also true that a number of Ahab’s family died in Samaria and the thought may be collective here. [Leithart, 156]
To call Elijah his enemy after the events on Mt. Carmel reveals the true condition of this man: he is dead at the top. It also reveals his radical self-centeredness, as though the only important consideration was Ahab’s personal peace and affluence.
Elijah repeats and intensifies the prophecy of the death of Ahab and the annihilation of his house that the unnamed prophet had already pronounced at the end of the previous chapter.
After this summary condemnation of Ahab and his reign, we are unprepared for what comes next.
The following chapter will reveal that Ahab’s repentance was only superficial and temporary. We hadn’t been told that Ahab would have been executed and his house brought to ruin in his own days, but apparently that was the Lord’s intention.
There has always been and there is today an immense amount of naked injustice and cruelty in the world. Through every age of history and all over the world property is unjustly seized, women are raped, children are kidnapped and sometimes sold into slavery, and men, women, and children are the victims of murder and nothing is done about it. Sometimes nothing can be done because the crime cannot be solved or the perpetrators cannot be found, but in many cases the perpetrators of the crimes are shielded by powerful forces from any punishment or by the legal authorities themselves.
Florence and I watched the film The Mission several days ago. We had seen it years before but not recently and the horrifying injustices committed against the native population of Brazil, the story of the film, make the blood boil. And one watches such a film with more than mere detachment because, of course, we know that this sort of thing and worse actually happened everywhere and all the time in the European conquest of both North and South America. Our wonderful ministry in Yakama, Sacred Road, exists in some significant part because of the hellish and soul-destroying experience it was for Native American people to come into contact with so-called “Christian” civilization. Or we could speak at length of the dreadful experience of the people forcibly brought to the shores of the new world to be slaves in what was thought and said to be a Christian country. Looking back on it one cannot but cringe in shame that so-called civilized countries allowed – no, even encouraged – the utterly inhumane and cruel mistreatment of other human beings for economic gain. It was the terrible injustice of the treatment of the slaves, generation after generation – the laws that forbade their being taught to read and write in each of the southern states before the Civil War; the practice of selling individuals away from their spouses or families – that in the years before the Civil War caused even many loyal southerners to warn of divine judgment to come. And, of course, after the carnage of that terrible war, so willingly to descend again into that hateful practice of the mistreatment of other human beings in the Jim Crow period was the Devil’s work, pure and simple. The Devil has never cared about justice and the people who do his work never care about injustice, unless, of course, it is committed against them!
I’m also reading a superb new biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and martyr. So much pure evil was done to other people as a result of Nazi rule in Germany in the 1930s and 40s and very little of that was ever actually punished. War, of course, produces it own universe of injustice and criminality. One of the reasons why war ought always to be avoided until every conceivable option has been exhausted is that so much naked injustice occurs in war, so much unnecessary violence against otherwise innocent people, so much rape and pillage is committed by every army, and vast multitudes of people are invariably deeply embittered as a result, no matter how just the outcome of any war might be, taken by itself. That is why war so often, almost inevitably, leads to more war. One of the worst features of injustice is that a man or woman who is the object of it becomes conscious of little else in life. Or, as John Adams once put it, “When a man is hurt he loves to talk of his wounds.”
America’s love affair with narcotics – our millions upon millions of empty souls – has churned up massive amounts of pure, unmitigated evil in a number of countries south of our border. Innocent people in Mexico and other Latin American countries live in fear of their police departments because they have been so thoroughly corrupted by drug money. Kidnapping and extortion are now so common in some Latin countries they may be classified as an industry. It is a deadly job being a judge or a prosecutor in Columbia these days especially if you are the sort of man or woman who seeks to act honorably and honestly.
And, in our own land, injustice can be found in whatever direction one chooses to look. Think of the millions of violent deaths of babies in the womb, the killing of whom now is an industry in the United States, or the life-destroying harm done to our children in so many ways in what is now called the “porn culture,” or spouses who are victims of betrayal in marriage who suffer terribly for the sins of others committed against them for which, in our culture, there is no punishment and no balancing of the scales, or people or companies made to pay for the crimes of others. No one is going to return the money so many lost in Bernie Madoff’s ponzi scheme.
Thankfully, we in the United States have rarely to face the corruption of the legal process such as secured for Ahab and Jezebel the execution of Naboth. But the fact is even our system of laws and courts provide — what we still call nowadays our criminal justice system – has more and more become less a system designed to secure justice and more a system designed to manage social problems. As a matter of course we now hold individuals and companies responsible to pay for the redress of wrongs which they did not actually commit or ever think of committing. Very large companies have been destroyed by successful lawsuits no matter that the plaintiffs could not demonstrate that the company had actually done anyone any harm. Ours is a culture in which the protection of individual rights – and the number of those rights has multiplied in recent years – has frequently overwhelmed the pursuit of justice. In much of modern legal thinking the concept of justice – a concept that virtually requires absolute standards of truth and falsehood, right and wrong so that you can think of such a thing as balancing the scales, which, in turn, virtually require the existence of a universal judge, that is God – I say in much of modern legal thinking the concept of justice tends to collapse into the concept of rights. So if a man rapes and murders a child – I am speaking of a particular case famous in the annals of American jurisprudence – but escapes punishment on a technical breach of his legal rights, it is not in this thinking any longer an injustice. The victim is dead; nothing can be done for her. Her friends and family have no “rights” in the criminal prosecution which is a contest between the state and the accused. If the legal rights of the parties were observed justice was done. [Phillip Johnson, Objections Sustained, 142] And so the criminal justice system becomes the perpetrator of a grand injustice and yet everyone involved in the process is satisfied. No system is perfect, but you expect, at the very least, that the officers of your criminal justice system would wring their hands collectively – all of them (defense and prosecution alike) – if one known to have committed a terrible crime is never punished for the crime. We know that doesn’t happen: such a collective wringing of the hands! Quite the contrary! The defense exults in its victory! We have, in other words in many ways, domesticated injustice in our country and in our time. For, after all, the ordinary person, no matter his politics, when the victim of a crime, cares less about rights than he cares about justice, which everyone knows in his heart of hearts is nothing more nor less than the balancing of the scales.
I have never personally been the object of any serious injustice but my father was. When he left civilian life for the army during the Second World War he was the pastor of a large and thriving Presbyterian Church USA congregation in Gainesville, Texas. It is the church in which Young Life came to its existence. Upon returning to the United States at the end of the war he learned from the Army Chief of Chaplains that an action had been brought against him in his presbytery. The interim pastor, supplying the church in my father’s absence, had rummage through Dad’s files and found a letter from the minister of another denomination urging him to bring his church out of the increasingly liberal Presbyterian Church USA. There was no letter in return saying that Dad would think about doing so or might do so or would do so. But the presence of that letter to my father became the basis of the action by which he was eventually deposed from the PCUSA ministry. The Army Chief of Chaplains was so disgusted that when the presbytery clerk wrote him to tell him to remove my father from the army chaplaincy as he was no longer a Presbyterian minister in good standing, he wrote back to say that he would decide who served as a chaplain in the U.S. army, thank you! It was a toxic mix of theological liberalism offended by a conservative ministry, offense taken at Dad’s repeated objection to liberal candidates for the ministry in the presbytery, and jealousy of a more successful ministry. And the result was that a faithful pastor in the PCUSA was deposed for “thinking about” violating his ordination vows. Not for violating them, for he hadn’t done that, nobody could prove that, but for thinking about doing so, which, in fact, they couldn’t prove he had done either!
This sort of thing and so much worse happens all the time. People are the victims of injustice at work and in their neighborhoods. It is what happened to Naboth. Ahab wanted his vineyard and Naboth wouldn’t give it to him, so charges were trumped up, Naboth was judicially, legally murdered, and Ahab got his vineyard after all. This history is so far away from us, so removed from our life that we are inclined to remain untouched by such a story all the more because the personal details are not filled in. But imagine that Naboth was your husband or your father; that it was your family’s land that was being stolen; that you had no recourse and knew no justice would be done. Today is the Sunday we remember Christians around the world suffering for their faith. This sort of thing is what is happening to them! Imagine Naboth himself, knowing and protesting that the charges were groundless; that, surely, no one would believe the reports of the worthless men who had been found to bring them.
“These people know me. They know my character. These are my friends and neighbors. Why are they doing this?” No doubt he thought at first that reason would prevail. But in a short while he had been dragged out of town. He kept pleading with them to consider what they were doing. He kept denying the charges and asking for evidence, but no one would listen. Why wouldn’t they listen? And then the first stone struck and the second. He couldn’t say goodbye to his wife. He couldn’t assure her that he hadn’t done any of what he had been accused of. Or, perhaps, she was there to watch him being murdered. If his sons had been dragged out with him, as 2 Kings 9:26 may suggest, perhaps she was not only there but had to watch both her husband and sons being killed. Watch people she knew throw stones at him until he was dead for something he had never done or thought to do. For Naboth to be forced to watch his sons die alongside himself must have magnified the injustice and cruelty many times over. And then it was all over. Naboth and his boys were lying dead. The men of the town went home and, perhaps from time to time a pang of conscience was felt, but life went on and they said what similar people have always said, “We were only obeying orders” and “How could we have stood up to the king?”
There is injustice in the world, terrible injustice everywhere you look. And what can be done about it? Well, surely, we ought to work for justice and against injustice. Certainly much can be done. But the account of Naboth certainly is not in the Bible to teach us that we can eliminate injustice from the world. Even our best efforts over time will not eliminate the evil that some men practice against others. The most just of societies have always been deeply penetrated by injustice. Such is the condition of mankind in sin and in rebellion against God.
But as Christians we are given answers to this fundamental problem of human life, the pervasiveness of injustice in the world. There is something for us to say. We are not left to the wringing of our hands.
- First, there is a final and absolutely comprehensive solution to injustice that will be found in the judgment of God.
Naboth was dead and his vineyard was gone. Nothing could be done or would be done about that because Ahab was the king and, in the final analysis, he was, humanly speaking, beyond the reach of human justice. Naboth’s wife would live her remaining years missing her husband, devastated by the way he died, unable to look the people of Jezreel in the eye without undisguised contempt, mourning her dead husband and sons every day of the rest of her life. The narrative does not even suggest that Ahab in his remorse gave Naboth’s vineyard back to his family! Like so much injustice in the world it remained and would remain unaddressed, unpunished, unatoned. People whose hope for the redress of injustice is entirely confined to this world are people to be greatly pitied, for they shall never be satisfied. They will grind their teeth to the end and to no avail.
But what might be true in terms of the life of this world is not true of the judgment of God or the life to come. Elijah appears to tell Ahab of the punishment that awaits him and his family for the crimes he has committed. And the punishment fits the crime. Ahab was utterly unconcerned for the inheritance that was rightly Naboth’s and as a consequence the Lord would destroy Ahab’s inheritance and the generations that would have followed him. As Naboth’s blood was spilled on the open ground, so would Ahab’s and even worse would be the case when Jezebel died. To die unburied was a sign of divine forsakenness in those days and that, is of course, precisely what all of this means: Ahab and his family have been forsaken of God. The accent falls on the present as so often in the OT, on the manner of Ahab’s death, on the destruction of his descendants, his royal house, but, remember, the OT knew of the judgment of God in the world to come and speaks of that judgment as it speaks of salvation in the world to come. All of this was important because of the way it illustrated what was to come in the next world and the posture the Almighty would take toward Ahab, Jezebel, and their descendants. If their worldly end was this bad, if it amounted to being forsaken by God; if God brought their lives to an end this way in this world, how much worse will it be in the world to come. That is the idea.
What we want when face to face with injustice is a just and righteous resolution. We want the scales to be put in balance. But only God can do this and only eternity provides the opportunity for a full and complete resolution and restoration. Naboth was dead, but Ahab did not escape punishment for his crime. And heaven had already received Naboth and hell was made ready for Ahab and Jezebel. In no other possible way can injustice be put right. And it is the promise of Holy Scripture from beginning to end that this is precisely how it will be put right: in the judgment of the Lord in the world to come when a just judge balances the scales. What does it profit a man if he gains a vineyard but loses his soul? And do not fear the one who can kill the body but fear the one who can destroy both soul and body in hell!
- The second thing we are taught to believe and to say about injustice in the world in this account of a terrible injustice and God’s dealing with it is that mercy triumphs over judgment (James 2:13).
In the final analysis mercy is our hope, not judgment. Judgment is necessary absolutely and in God’s universe it will be matched to fit every crime, but if our hope remains in judgment and not mercy then what of our injustices, what of our offenses committed against others?
Fact is, we are all unjust, we all in a thousand petty ways have dishonestly and hypocritically accused others, judged them in our hearts, and there condemned them to punishment. We have all been Ahabs and Jezebels and every honest man or woman knows it. Our only possible defense is that we never did anything as bad as this. Perhaps not, but that is a miserably inadequate defense before a God who knows the heart and weighs the attitudes and the potentials of a human life as well as the actual thoughts, words, and deeds of a human being.
The remarkable thing about this history, as you yourself know – you felt it as we read it – was the Lord’s mercy to Ahab after he had done such dastardly things. As it happened, his repentance was short-lived and superficial, but he was spared worse because the Lord does not desire the death of the wicked but that all should come to repentance and the knowledge of the truth.
The world can’t understand this. It wants its pound of flesh. But what it never admits and refuses to realize is that if that were God’s only approach to human sin and evil deeds, everyone would have to face divine punishment. When the world reads of some of the Nazi war criminals finding Christ after the war and before their death, it does not welcome that as good news. When the world hears that David Berkowitz, the infamous serial killer “The Son of Sam,” finds Christian faith in a New York state prison, it does not rejoice that mercy has triumphed over judgment. It mocks the very idea that such a man can do such evil and still find forgiveness and peace with God. The world does not rejoice in the salvation of such men. It thinks if God were to forgive them he would be unjust for these men ought to be punished severely. But unbelieving people do not admit that, were that God’s only answer to human evil, they would themselves be punished and perhaps not even less severely. For God knows what every human being would do if placed in the right circumstances, if only the right pressure were applied, if only many others were doing the same thing at the same time. This is what Hannah Arendt famously referred to as the “banality of evil.” Ordinary people have it within them to act in terribly wicked ways, horribly wicked ways if only conditions are favorable, if only the behavior is accepted, even approved by others. Only some are unwilling to conform and usually because of deeply religious motives. So don’t expect God to think well of you when he knows from his knowledge of the depths of your hearts that, left to yourself, you would do similar things, you too would conspire against Naboth at the wishes of the king, if only the right pressure were applied, if only the right promise was made, if only the right temptation was dangled before your eye. You know that already, of course, if you are honest with yourself because you have done so many things you are ashamed of because of relatively mundane temptations and for fear of consequences that, at their worst, would hardly have inconvenienced you, much less threatened your life or welfare. The lies we tell, the lusts we indulge, the bitterness we harbor, the pride we tolerate: the men of Jezreel have nothing on us except opportunity and fear of still greater consequences or hope of still greater rewards.
Of course, God’s mercy, as we know did not nullify his judgment or his justice. Sins must be paid for, the scales must be balanced. But when we are unable to balance them except by endless punishment, he intervened to take the punishment upon himself and upon the person of his son. The innocent scapegoat – such as Naboth is here – is not peripheral to the biblical story of human life. It is central, essential. Christ too, as you know, was convicted on trumped up charges manufactured by worthless men and by a corrupt and collaborating court, and taken out of the city to be murdered. But in his case and ultimately it was not a corrupt king that demanded his death but the living God on behalf of those whose sins he intended to forgive and whose unjust living he intended to overcome by his grace.
Taking all these things into account what are the lessons of this great chapter, this sad history?
- To count on nothing that human injustice can take from us. Let us lay up our treasure in heaven – where is to be found our inheritance, our land, as the children of God – where moth and rust do not corrupt and where thieves cannot break in and steal. Over these past several months I have been speaking a great deal to the dying about the inheritance of the people of God and the vanity of the possessions that we enjoy in this world. I wish on no one Naboth’s end or the heartbreak of his wife, but we are all going to die. How and when is not the crucial question. It cannot be. The crucial question is and shall always be: what of me when I die? Is it Paul’s “better by far” or is it the rich man’s desperate longing for a cup of cold water? Would you rather be Naboth, faithful to God’s law, or Ahab, a man so spiritually dead that even his repentance, noteworthy as it was at the time, proved at last a sham and a fraud? Ahab lived longer than Naboth, or did he?
- To know and to take comfort from the fact that the massive injustice perpetrated by human beings against one another will someday be put right. Will be put so right that the scales will be brought again into perfect balance. A sensitive heart couldn’t bear to live in the world, I would think, if it did not know that this is so. God is the avenger of evil! Jesus Christ is, as the NT never tires of telling us, the avenger of evil. He is the savior but also the avenger of blood. The last book of the Bible rings the changes on this terrible but absolutely necessary feature of the character of our Savior and King. He will punish the wicked precisely as they deserve to be punished.
- And, finally, it is never too late to be saved. If God stood willing to be merciful to Ahab, that empty man, that disgusting little man, that cruel and selfish man, then surely he stands willing to forgive you, no matter your sins, if only you would repent and trust in him.
It was a terrible thing that was done to Naboth. Those men have already answered for it, unless they found God’s forgiveness. But Naboth’s terrible death at the hands of evil men has a silver lining. By this memorable piece of history the world has been taught the severity of God and, at the same time, his great mercy, the two things, indeed finally the only two things the world absolutely needs to know.