We read in the final paragraph of 1 Kings 22 of the beginning of the reign of Ahaziah, the son of Ahab, following Ahab’s death in battle. He was to have a short reign, only two years, and was to be a man who had learned nothing from his father’s fate.
I don’t know how many of you are aware of this but when you come to the period of the Kings in Old Testament history there is a wealth of collaborative information confirming and illustrating the history that is reported here in the Word of God. This history is also found on the famous Moabite Stone of Mesha the king of Moab. We read on that stone that Moab had been ruled by Israel during Omri’s days and through half the days of his sons which of course would include Ahaziah and Jehoram.
Apparently Ahaziah fell out of his window, though the architectural terms are somewhat uncertain in meaning. The more technical the term very often the more difficulty translators have in rendering it.
“Baal-zebub” means, literally, “the Lord of the flies.” It is possible that Baal-zebub here is a deliberate Hebrew corruption, a mockery of the name Baal-zebul (“Baal the exalted”). As you may remember, in the Gospels this name appears as a title for Satan and may be a put-down there too. What Ahaziah is proposing is to seek knowledge of the future by means of an oracle from one of the many manifestations of Baal in that part of the world. Why Ahaziah should inquire of this Baal among the Philistines is not clear; perhaps he was supposed to be a specialist in matters of sickness. Again, the answer from Baal would have been a “yes” or “no,” so the oracle had a 50/50 chance of being right. But, of course, no Israelite should have been tempted to appeal to the Philistines and their gods to secure healing or knowledge of the future. He should have remembered what happened to the Philistine cities when the ark of the covenant was among them. A plague broke out that the Philistines could do nothing to stop until the ark was returned to Israel. But such is the irrationality of sin. Men will worship anything, however ridiculous, so as not to worship the living God. [Dillard, 76]
There is one other aspect of this attempt on Ahaziah’s part that bears mentioning. The fact that Ahaziah has to go outside Israel to consult with Baal may well indicate that recent events and especially Mt. Carmel had done considerable damage to the Baal cult in the northern kingdom. As we noted last week, the prophets that Ahab consulted all seemed to speak in Yahweh’s name, not Baal’s. [Dillard, 75] But whatever may have been the case in the nation as a whole, the royal family was still thoroughly loyal to Baal; Ahaziah’s mother, Jezebel, would have seen to that.
It was evident to Ahaziah that his messengers had not made the 40 mile trip to Ekron and back.
Here is the description of Elijah’s appearance that will reappear in the description of the appearance of John the Baptist in the gospel of Luke.
It is very important to realize at the outset that Ahaziah’s intention was somehow to reverse the word that he had received from Elijah. He was hoping to intimidate the Lord’s prophet into changing his word. Notice the command: “come down.” No polite and respectful request. The king seems to the think Yahweh’s prophets are at his beck and call. Just as Ahab sought to find Elijah for three years, so his son tried to capture Elijah and bring him to Samaria and force him to do the king’s will. The King of Israel had no right to ask for such a thing and the effort was blasphemous in that it amounted to believing that Yahweh was subject to the king, not vice versa. What is more, given Ahab’s track record, and the recent imprisonment of Micaiah, a faithful prophet of the Lord, for delivering an unwelcome message from the Lord to Ahab, it is doubtful that Elijah would have been safe had he been dragged by the soldiers to Ahaziah.
The irrationality of Ahaziah’s rebellion against the Word of the Lord is revealed also in that, while he was ready to receive an oracle second hand, through messengers, from Baal in Ekron, when he got a word from the Lord through Elijah he demanded the prophet to be brought to him. It is almost as if Ahaziah, as Ahab before him, knew that Baal’s word might or might not be true, but Elijah’s word had to be reckoned with. The word he took most seriously was the word he had not sought!
In any case, Elijah was over his fit of jitters that had overcome him when Jezebel threatened his life. He called down fire again as he had on Mt. Carmel. Remember, lightning was supposed to be Baal’s specialty!
Yahweh was protecting his prophet and his word in much the same way he did on Mt. Carmel.
The hardness of Ahaziah’s heart is demonstrated by his indifference to the result of his first effort to seize Elijah. These kings did not care about their people.
The third captain shows a proper respect and deference for the Lord’s prophet but it is the angel of the Lord who alters the result, not Elijah himself, and does so with an implicit promise of protection: “do not be afraid of him.” Elijah’s life was in danger but the Lord assured his prophet of protection.
For all his trouble, Ahaziah gets the same message he had received earlier. As Ahaziah should have known, knowledge of the future and the power to heal belong to Yahweh, not to the imaginary gods of the pagan nations round about.
We are expecting, as had been prophesied, the end of Ahab’s line. Ahaziah had no son, but where is the violent end prophesied by Elijah in 1 Kings 21:21-22? As it happens, and as we learn in 2 Kgs. 3:1, Jehoram is also a son of Ahab; he was Ahaziah’s brother. Ahab’s house will not be destroyed until chapter 9 when Jehu murders Jehoram.
King Ahaziah suffered an accident. How will he respond? Well, as it turned out, just like his father. He thought first not of Yahweh but of Baal and when he received instead a message from Elijah that he would die from his injuries, instead of repenting, in a fit of rage he instructed soldiers to capture Elijah and bring him to Samaria. Twice groups of fifty soldiers were consumed by fire.
This supposed heartlessness on Elijah’s part – his killing of the soldiers who were, after all, only doing what they were told – has troubled many readers of the Bible, scholars and laymen alike. But, these men make clear as they begin to speak to Elijah in v. 9 and again in v. 11 that they are speaking for King Ahaziah. They are there on the king’s behalf and as we have often seen in life, soldiers very often die because they are doing the will of their king or government and, in this case, they were there to capture Elijah and drag him to the king where he would have been expected either to change his message or be executed for failing to do so. The great lesson of this history is that it is Yahweh, not Baal, who is the consuming fire and Ahaziah and these soldiers should have known that very well. It is very interesting that the third captain was also under orders but he knew better than to go and threaten the prophet of the Lord. We must not forget that still today if a man or woman will not humble himself or herself before the Lord, no matter the cost, and seek his mercy there remains for him or for her as the scriptures say in the OT and the NT alike nothing but “a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God.” [Heb. 12:27] What the soldiers suffered all unbelievers will eventually suffer.
The third captain certainly understood that lesson, appreciated the meaning of what had happened, and he escaped judgment accordingly. Besides, honest and believing readers of the Bible never have to worry about such reproaches made against the justice of God. He is perfectly just, always and to everyone, and if there were an innocent, believing man among either of those groups of 50, the Lord would have seen to his vindication in his judgment and in their salvation.
We have learned to detect clues in the historical narratives of the OT that point to the author’s theme. Sometimes it is a word that is repeated throughout the narrative. Sometimes the author announces his own evaluation or interpretation of the history by citing some words from one of the principal characters in the history. Here we have the repetition of a question three times in this short narrative. We have it first in the Lord’s instructions to Elijah in v. 3:
“Is it because there is no God in Israel that you are going to inquire of Baal-zebub, the god of Ekron?”
We have it again in the repetition of Elijah’s message by the King’s messengers to the king in v. 6.
“Is it because there is no God in Israel…”
And we have it a third time in Elijah’s declaration in person to Ahaziah in v. 16.
“Is it because there is no God in Israel…”
This is the great theme of all of this material in Kings: who is the living God and how will God, how will Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, reveal himself to be the one true and living God? In this case, of course, the Lord revealed himself by disclosing the future, by judging and executing Ahaziah and his henchmen, and by confirming that there is a prophet on earth, Yahweh’s prophet, who wields divine authority when he speaks and acts. None of this could be said of any of the so-called gods of the ANE at the time or at any time or of their priests and prophets. And that is why none of these gods is worshipped today. No one worships Baal. You can’t even blaspheme Baal; use his name in vain, as perhaps the Hebrew narrator did here, by turning his name “Baal is exalted” into “Lord of the flies.” Blasphemy is an artistic effect. To commit blasphemy the name has to have some sacred power, some weight, some authority in the human mind. The name of the God of the Bible, of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of the prophets, the God who came into the world as Jesus Christ, the name of that God has such power. You can blaspheme this God. If someone used Baal’s name as an intensifier or a punch line, everyone would wonder what in the world he or she meant. “Oh my Baal!” It just doesn’t work. Try to think blasphemous thoughts of Thor, or Marduk, or Molech. Those so-called gods are too ridiculous to blaspheme.
It is very important that you and I appreciate the nature of this question, asked three times, and its relevance for us today. Is it because there is no God in the United States, is it because there is no God in Tacoma that people live as they do? Is it because there is no God here that people seek their direction for life in every place but the Word of God? Is it because there is no God in Tacoma that people seek their guidance for life from Oprah or Deepak Chopra or some pollster or Wall Street guru? Is it because there is no God in Tacoma that people worry about virtually everything and anything but the judgment of the Lord?
The fact of the matter is that most people act as if there were no God in their town or country. Most people in Tacoma act as if there were no God in Tacoma and are always tripping off to Ekron to find help for their lives. After all: what does a person do who believes that there is a living God in Tacoma?
- Orders his life according to the will of that God and takes his commandments with full seriousness;
- Concerns himself first and foremost with the hand, the activity of God and strives to live in submission to God;
- Looks to God for both the meaning and the blessing of his life;
- Waits upon this God when times are difficult and life is uncertain;
- Reverences the name of this God before others who do not believe in God or honor him;
- And leaves to God the vindication of the truth in the sure and certain hope that the Lord’s word will not return to him void.
As I have told you several times of late, I have been reading a magnificent new biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, learning a great deal about this good and godly man that I had not known before. Some of you may remember that, in part to get him out of harm’s way in Germany, where his outspoken criticism of the new Hitler regime had made him a target of the secret police and others, several months before the outbreak of the Second World War Bonhoeffer was given and accepted an invitation to come to America to teach. His association with Union Theological Seminary on a previous visit some nine years before and his personal acquaintance with Reinhold Niebuhr, who then taught at Union, accounted for the fact that he was invited to join the faculty at Union, then a principal bastion of liberal Protestant theology. That same fact, his association with liberals, his having come to teach at Union, along with his acknowledged dependence upon the theology of Karl Barth, has long hampered Bonhoeffer’s reputation among evangelicals. He was associated in these outward ways with the liberal element in the Protestant world. Evangelicals have long been suspicious of people who are too friendly with liberals. As it happened, though he had come intending to stay at least a year and perhaps longer, he was to remain in America less than a month, meantime becoming convinced in his own soul that he belonged in Germany as part of the struggle against Hitler and national socialism.
What becomes clear in his journal entries during that month in New York, spent in conversation with prominent liberal theologians, was that Bonhoeffer was thoroughly disgusted with liberalism’s theology and preaching. What it lacked, he observed, was God. One Sunday morning in June of 1939 he went to hear Harry Emerson Fosdick at Riverside Church. “Quite unbearable” is his journal comment on the service and the sermon, which was not on any text of Holy Scripture, but on a passage from the writings of the American philosopher William James.
“The whole thing was a respectable, self-indulgent, self-satisfied religious celebration. This sort of idolatrous religion stirs up the flesh which is accustomed to being kept in check by the Word of God. Such sermons make for libertinism, egotism, indifference. Do people not know that one can get on as well, even better, without [such] “religion”?…
Even more interesting to me was that he read Niebuhr and came to the same conclusion: “No thinking in the light of the Bible here.” Still more, that same Sunday evening the morning of which he had visited Riverside Church, he walked from his rooms at Union to Broadway Presbyterian Church where a so-called “fundamentalist,” reviled by the Union men, Dr. McComb, preached on the Christian’s likeness to Christ. Here is Bonhoeffer’s journal entry after a fundamentalist sermon in the evening and a liberal sermon he found quite unbearable in the morning:
“Now the day has had a good ending. I went to church again. As long as there are lonely Christians there will always be [church] services. It is a great help after a couple of quite lonely days to go into church and there pray together, sing together, listen together. The sermon was astonishing…on “our likeness with Christ.” A completely biblical sermon – the sections on “we are blameless like Christ,” “we are tempted like Christ” were particularly good.”
But his concluding observation about Broadway Presbyterian Church and Riverside, the two churches he attended that Lord’s Day, arrested me and makes the point for this evening’s sermon.
“[Broadway] will one day be a center of resistance when Riverside Church has long since become a temple of Baal.” [Mataxas, 332-334]
What was the difference? It wasn’t that one was religious and the other was not, that one was a great Christian sanctuary and the other was not, that in one Christian hymns were sung and in the other not. In all those ways the churches were the same. The difference, Bonhoeffer said, was that in one God, the living God, was ignored and in the other he was revered and worshipped, loved and served. In the one the Word of God was old-fashioned and no longer relevant; in the other the Word of God was storm and fire and life, the hammer that breaks the rocks into pieces. In the one there was no God such as Yahweh; its god was the invention of the imagination, just as Baal-zebub; but in the other God was understood according to his revelation of himself in his Holy Word as given through the prophets and the apostles, God was present in his majesty and his mercy to be feared and to be loved, to be obeyed and to be served, and, above all, to be believed. Was there a God in the Riverside church? Not Israel’s God. Might as well try Ekron. Was there a God at Broadway Presbyterian Church? Yes, the living and true God, the God who made us, the God who rules over all, the God of salvation and of judgment, of heaven and of hell, the God of terrible holiness and wonderful mercy.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who did not doubt that there was a God in New York City and who dealt with that God during the few days he was there in the summer of 1939, the same God he knew who dwelt in Berlin – however his presence may have gone unrecognized by a great many who should have known better – was concerned to do the will of that living God, and so he returned to Germany, to what he and everyone else understood was great danger, and, though he did not know it at the time, he returned to suffer and then to die for this God.
Again and again, as here in 2 Kings 1, the Lord has demonstrated the authority of his Word and the reality of his presence, his majesty, his salvation and his judgment. Again and again he has honored those who reverenced his Word and judged those who despised it in the most public way. He did this on Mt. Carmel; he did it again here; he did it supremely in the life and ministry of his Son; he did it in the work of Christ’s apostles. But there comes a time when he offers no further visible demonstrations of the authority of his Word and requires that we believe and revere his Word, his written Word and his Son who is the incarnate Word. And Ahaziah reminds us that the great message of that Word, both the written and the incarnate Word, is the final issue of life and death. This narrative is all about Ahaziah wondering if he was going to live or die and it was all about God’s sentence of this king to death.
Everyone dies, not even a king such as Ahaziah can prevent death, hard as he tried and as many men as he sacrificed in hopes of forestalling his death.
Art is long, and time is fleeting,
And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
Funeral marches to the grave.
The only question, the great question, the final question is whether you will offer your life to God or whether he will take it from you in judgment. Oprah and Deepak and the Wall Street Journal cannot help you here; cannot help you any more than Baal-zebub could help Ahaziah. But reverence for the Word of God, as shown by Ahaziah’s one wise captain, can give you the blessing of God in this life and much, much more in the life to come.
Is there a God in Tacoma? You bet your sweet life there is!