We have a somewhat longer reading this evening, a reading that provides, and is meant to provide, an overall impression of life in Israel, the northern kingdom, during the first half of the 9th century B.C., that is from the year 907 B.C. to the beginning of the reign of Ahab in 872 B.C. You will notice that we are given little detail regarding these kings or their respective reigns. We have read of Asa’s long reign in Judah. Now attention shifts northward to the kings who reigned in Israel while Asa was king of Judah (911 B.C. to 870). In fact we will remain in the north until the final verses of 1 Kings.
The additional information regarding Baasha’s father, Ahijah, is added to distinguish this man from the Ahijah of whom we will read in v. 29.
Remember, we read in chapter 14 the prophecy that Jeroboam’s house would be cut off because of his sins (14:10). Baasha is the instrument of that divine judgment. Here we have another instance of the Lord using sin sinlessly. Baasha is an evil man but in assassinating Nadab for his own evil purposes he accomplished the Lord’s will, however unwittingly. Baasha killed the entire family of Jeroboam, of course, to forestall any occasion for reprisal or a counter-coup in the future. He had no intention of dealing with some Bonnie Prince Charlie years later! This will not be the last time such a thing was done. Think of the murder of Czar Nicholas’ family at the time of the communist revolution in Russia for the same reason. Now counter-revolutionary movement could gather around the Czar’s family if it no longer existed.
This prophecy is very like the prophecy against the house of Jeroboam in 14:11. The point of the similarity is that Baasha will to suffer the same punishment as Nadab for the same reasons.
Baasha’s spiritual failure is the key point, so everything else that he may have done in his twenty-four year long reign the narrator of I Kings leaves for you to find in some other book.
So, in other words, Baasha was guilty for what he did against the house of Jeroboam even though he was the instrument of God’s judgment in doing so. In the same way the Babylonians would be the instrument of God’s judgment against Judah at the end of her long, downward course into sin and rebellion against the Lord, but that didn’t make the Babylonians righteous people and they were eventually punished for their sins as well.
If you want to find out about the rest of the acts of Elah you can look in that book, that’s the idea. The Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Israel is not our Chronicles. That book tells us nothing about the kings of Israel, only about the kings of Judah. This is probably some kind of semi-official archive.
Zimri is the most unsuccessful of Israel’s kings, reigning only seven days! Israel wasn’t having much success at Gibbethon, having begun laying siege to it before Baasha became king some twenty-six years before (15:27). No doubt the siege was sporadic, but the point is that Israel no longer went in conquest of her enemies as she once had done. She couldn’t even retain her own territory, as Gibbethon had been, much less take territory from others. Her armies had lost the blessing of God.
Throughout history kings and prime ministers have always ruled at the leave of their armies. Soldiers have always been more likely to follow their commanders than their political bosses. How many army led coups have there been in the world over just the past century! The temptation is great because the commander of any army has at his disposal a weapon far more powerful than anything the government possesses.
A very brief account of a civil war fought to determine the next king of Israel. We don’t know anything about this Tibni.
The civil war lasted some four years, comparing v. 23 to v. 15.
Tirzah had been the capital but it had just been damaged by fighting and by the fire in which Zimri had died.
This incident regarding Jericho and an effort to rebuild it is included here to demonstrate Ahab’s utter disregard for the word of the Lord. Certainly Hiel could not have made the attempt to rebuild the city without the approval of Ahab. When the city was destroyed under Joshua, he had pronounced a curse on anyone who attempted to rebuild it.
At the cost of his firstborn shall he lay its foundation,
And at the cost of his youngest son shall he set up its gates.”
But such a prophecy mattered not at all to Ahab, nor did the place of Jericho in the history of Israel as the covenant people of Yahweh. Ahab had lost all touch with the history of Israel’s salvation and was thinking about things as the pagan he had become. It also suggests that Hiel was a man past caring about the potential danger to his sons, all the more after he had suffered the loss of his firstborn. These are men dead at the heart!
In any case, instead of destroying Canaanite cities as Joshua had done, Ahab’s program is to rebuild them.
Modern people have a very hard time accepting that the march of history is not controlled by economics or military strength or politics, but instead by the blessing or judgment of the Lord. For that reason they do not imagine that their peace and prosperity should be tied not to the effectiveness of the government or the power of their economic system but to their moral faithfulness as a people. The American electorate certainly doesn’t think in these terms. But that is the Bible’s philosophy of history and it is the theme of this narrative.
As Nadab is murdered and succeeded by Baasha, as Elah is murdered by Zimri, as civil war breaks out, leading to the death of Zimri and then continues for four years until Omri gains power, nothing is more characteristic of the northern kingdom than its political instability. We read in Proverbs 28:2:
“When a land transgresses, it has many rulers, but with a man of understanding and knowledge its stability will long continue.
Idolatry usually produces a violent, oppressive state, not a peace-loving one in which prosperity is widely enjoyed by the citizenry. This does not happen accidentally, but according to a fixed law. We read that law in Psalm 115:8: “Those who make idols become like them.” And what are idols like? They are blind, deaf, and dumb. They are inactive, unreliable, and, strange to say given the fact that they were supposed to be gods, they were petulant, and easily offended, and grasping, and violent. They were so, of course, because they were nothing more than the projection of themselves by the people who worshipped them. Worshipping such so-called gods – which is to say, worshipping oneself – does not make for righteous people or peaceful and prosperous nations.
It is this theological perspective, this deeper narrative of history that we have before us in this account of the kings of Israel. And there are several very interesting and important features of this theological view of history on display in the text we have read.
- The first of these is the unshakeable fact of the Lord’s sovereignty.
Nations will prosper or they will decline or they will collapse strictly according to the will of God. I read the other day a commentary on the popular bumper sticker that we probably have all seen: “God is my Co-pilot.” We expect that sticker to be affixed to a car belonging to a Christian. Who else would be likely to advertize his or her faith in God in such a way. It isn’t the sort of thing we expect a Muslim to say; still less an irreligious person. “God is my Co-pilot.” But, of course, it is a ridiculous, even vaguely blasphemous thing to say. God is not anyone’s co-pilot. A co-pilot is, in the nature of the case, second-in-command. He is an assistant pilot, a helper to the commander of the airplane.
Nowadays it may be the case that many Christians actually think of God in these terms. God is there to help them, to serve as their assistant, even – though they would not, I hope, put it this way to themselves or others – to do what they tell him to do. But that is not God’s place, nor his role, nor his place either in our individual lives or the life of mankind and of the nations of the earth. God is the pilot, pure and simple, and he does not consult us before deciding how or where he will fly the plane.
God’s absolute control over events – including and especially the events that most profoundly shape the life of men and nations at any time – is absolute. It is not subject to the will of man to the least degree. The Lord does what pleases him in heaven and on earth. God exercises an iron will over human history. And that point is front and center from the beginning to the end of our text.
Everything comes to pass just as Yahweh’s prophets said it would. Jeroboam’s house was destroyed just as the prophet said it would be. Israel’s royal houses come and go just as the prophets said they would. Baasha served as the instrument of the Lord’s vengeance on the house of Jeroboam when he assassinated Nadab. But then Zimri murdered Elah just as Jehu, the Lord’s prophet, had predicted. None of these murderous men was a righteous man, but by their hand the word of the Lord was fulfilled. God can use the worst of men doing the most evil of things to accomplish his holy will.
On the other hand, in Judah there remains a stable Davidic succession, one son following his father after another. This too the prophets had foretold.
Baasha thought he was king because he had the courage to take violent action against his king. Zimri imagined he would be king for a similar reason. He saw weakness in the royal house and figured to take advantage of it. Neither had the least idea that he was, in fact, in his sinful grasping for what did not belong to him, an instrument in Yahweh’s hand to judge the sinful royal houses of Israel. But that is what they did. The Lord was accomplishing his will for his purposes. Baasha and Zimri, from the vantage point of history, were pawns, however willing; pawns and little more.
- The second of these features of a theological view of history as it is illustrated in this narrative of Israel’s royal houses is the fundamental principle of spiritual fidelity as a chief cause of ultimate outcomes.
It is highly interesting that we hear almost nothing about the political or military accomplishments of these kings. Baasha reigned for twenty-four years and the only salient fact we are given about his rule is that he “walked in the way of Jeroboam and in his sin which he made Israel to commit” (15:34).
This singularity of judgment and evaluation is even more pronounced in the case of Omri. Omri was a consequential man and a king of some considerable substance and reputation but we find most of the evidence of that, interestingly, in non-biblical sources. Omri is mentioned in the Moabite Stone, a very important archeological find, and there we learn that he subjugated Moab during the time of his reign. There is a hint of this in v. 27 where we read of “the rest of the acts of Omri that he did, and the might that he showed…” Omri was a military commander when he became king and he remained an effective general. He effectively unified Israel as a kingdom, decreasing tribal distinctiveness, increasing the strength of national feeling, and so stabilized the turbulent situation in Israel. He kept foreign armies at bay, created treaty relations with nearby states. He built Samaria, Israel’s new capital, and chose its location wisely. It was to withstand several sieges before its eventual destruction by the Assyrians in the late 8th century B.C. His government was so competentthat the Assyrians, even a century later, referred to Israel as “the house of Omri,” though the Omride dynasty was only to last through three generations or about 40 years. So 60 years after the last Omride king in Israel the Assyrians still thought of Israel as the house of Omri.
Omri was a vast improvement over those who went before him as people are wont to evaluate politics and political leaders. But the revealing thing is that Omri’s reign is described and dispatched in this narrative in much the same way Zimri’s reign is described even though it lasted a bare seven days. Zimri too “walked in the way of Jeroboam” and that is the main thing we have to know about him, as it is the main thing we have to know about Omri.
We will notice a similar preoccupation with spiritual matters, with evaluation by moral and spiritual faithfulness, in the case of Omri’s son Ahab. Ahab too was a competent king and military commander of some giftedness. The apple did not fall far from the tree in his case. He defeated the Syrians to his north. Later, at the battle of Qarqar on the Orontes river, he supported the Syrian king in a great battle against the Assyrian army of Shalmaneser and effectively delayed for a century Assyria’s advance into the Levant, the eastern end of the Mediterranean. None of those military accomplishments, however, is so much as even mentioned in the biblical narrative though they brought Israel considerable glory at the time. What matters is Ahab’s utter disregard for Yahweh’s covenant with Israel, his enthusiasm for Canaanite idolatry, and his refusal to heed the Lord’s prophets.
Neither Omri nor Ahab was rewarded by the Lord for his military successes or punished for his building programs. Each was judged and condemned for his spiritual infidelity and the deeply immoral conduct that resulted from it. May I say it this way? Heaven cares much less about health care reform, tax policy, or even the war on terrorism than about the paganism of modern American life.
- The third characteristic of this theological philosophy of history is the emphasis placed on personal responsibility.
We get this everywhere in the Bible whenever the sovereignty of God is laid before us in the kind of absolute terms that we have laid before us here. We can overlook this because it seems so obvious to us, but each of these men is judged according to what he did. He walked in the way of Jeroboam. He shouldn’t have, but he did. He knew better, but he did it anyway. None of them is regarded as an innocent victim of forces beyond his control. Nadab, Baasha, Elah, Zimri, Omri, and Ahab were all given the opportunity to reign over Yahweh’s people Israel. Each knew very well what his responsibility was: to rule as David had ruled by faith in the Lord, in loyalty to Yahweh’s covenant with Israel, and in obedience to the Law of Moses. We read in the case of some that a prophet came to him and spoke the Lord’s Word to him directly. We will read about that in spades in the case of Ahab. In the case of others we are not told that but in no case was he far enough removed from David and Solomon or from the message of the prophets that he didn’t know what Yahweh demanded of him.
Baasha may or may not have known of the prophecy of the Lord’s destruction of Jeroboam’s house, though he probably did – that would hardly have been a secret among the elite population of the kingdom, it had been announced publicly at the sanctuary – but even if he didn’t, he should have had no difficulty understanding that he was just as vulnerable to assassination as Nadab had been and that Nadab’s religious and political program had not spared him. These were men who knew the Law of Moses and simply chose to ignore it. They knew the curses that had been promised to fall upon those who betrayed the Lord’s covenant and they didn’t believe or take those warnings seriously.
They behaved as cheap oriental despots and they suffered the predictable consequences. We see this in the big picture and the small as the narrator paints it for us. Take, for example, the siege of Gibbethon, a once Israelite town that had been lost to the Philistines. The attack had commenced as early as Nadab’s reign and was still underway 26 years later, as we read in 16:15. But because of the civil war that resulted from Zimri’s abortive effort to seize the throne by murdering Elah, the Israelite army abandoned Gibbethon to the Philistines to conduct operations against other Israelite forces. As Matthew Henry shrewdly notes, “Philistines are sure to gain when Israelites quarrel.” [Cited in Leithart, 118] Israel grows weak under these kings. The Philistines, whom David and Solomon had thoroughly subjugated, were now too much for them to handle. They can’t recover a single town.
And the reason for this is that these men behaved badly. They were the furthest thing from what an Israelite king ought to have been. And they were punished and judged for that and for nothing else but that. The narrator wants us to know that and makes a point of emphasizing their personal responsibility before God for what they did and for what they did not do.
We have an absolute divine authority and sovereignty and rule and control on display here and we have an absolutely responsible human being who gets what he deserves for the choices he made. Not one or the other, but both together, as always in the Bible.
- The fourth feature of this theological view of history is the assertion that God’s time is not man’s time.
This is a point that will often be made in the Bible and that we often must take to heart. The house of Jeroboam was destroyed in the very next generation, when Nadab his son was murdered. The house of Omri does not come to an end for three generations even though the Omrides are morally and spiritually worse than the kings that came before them. They are eventually judged and destroyed, but not immediately as some others were. The Lord can be patient. But his judgments are sure.
And we have that here at the very end of our text with this report of the effort to rebuild Jericho, cursed by Joshua centuries before. It matters not that so much time had passed, centuries in fact. The Word of the Lord had been spoken. No one had made the attempt to rebuild the border city until the spiritual mind of Israel was so dull and dead that no one cared any longer about an ancient prophecy spoken by no one less than Joshua, the successor of Moses! But as soon as the effort was made the prophesied punishment was inflicted. Hiel lost his firstborn and his youngest son, we read “according to the word of the Lord which he spoke by Joshua the son of Nun.”
It requires faith to believe that the Lord’s warnings of judgment will not fail to come to pass when nothing happens for years, even centuries, on end. But if there is anything this narrative is designed to teach us it is that whether the years are few or many is of little consequence: the Word of the Lord will stand and promised judgment will befall those who rebel.
There are some other features of the theological view of history on display here that we could profitably explore if we had more time. We could note the tendency of sin to worsen and its consequences to multiply as time passes. Sin never reaches its level and remains static. Sin is corrupting and debilitating in its very nature. It always gets worse. Even when you think it cannot get worse, it does. It does here. Earlier kings fostered idolatry, but Ahab made it the national religion of Israel.
Or we could notice that sin often gains strength from the genius of its advocates and practitioners. Omri was a very able man. That is one reason why he prevailed against Zimri and then in the civil war against Tibni. It was precisely his ability, his confidence, his leadership that made his spiritual influence so baleful in the nation. In our society, the terrible disintegration of our moral life has proceeded apace with remarkable advances in technology. There is an impression of progress, of success that blinds us to the devastation and the disability and the terrible backwardness of modern life. Genius and giftedness is not a curb on the effects of sin, it is spur to them.
I think, for example, of Napoleon, a kind of Omri or Ahab of his day, though on a grander scale. Millions of innocent people died because of Napoleon’s grasping personal pride. And millions more would have died had the close call of Waterloo not turned out as it did. After Napoleon’s debacle in Russia, Metternich, the Austrian diplomat, offered him terms that, in effect, would have required him to cede his conquered territories but allow him to retain his own kingdom in France. Bonaparte, furious at the wound to his pride, refused the terms that six months later he would have been delighted to accept. Metternich, shaken by the emperor’s refusal to face reality, asked him if he really wanted peace – didn’t the lives of his men matter to him? Bonaparte told him that rather than accept such dishonorable terms, he would gladly sacrifice a million men. [Paul Johnson, Napoleon, 135] A man utterly dead to the higher principles of human life, but a man of tremendous military art, of almost limitless resolve, and of extraordinary powers of leadership. All in the service of utterly destructive pride unhindered by the principles of the Christian faith he had rejected as a young man. Genius is a terrible affliction to a people when it is employed in the service of sin!
Or we could talk about the influence of great men upon the common people. We know that there were faithful folk in Israel all through the history of her rebellion against God. But their numbers grew increasingly insignificant as time passed. The kings, on the other hand, altered the religious life of an entire nation. The people may have wondered at first and for a time whether this repudiation of the worship of Yahweh according to the Law of Moses was wise, but not for long. As is almost always the case, the people will go along and their thinking will conform to that of the elite and powerful in their culture.
All of this is illustrated powerfully in our narrative. This is what is happening in Israel: sin gathers strength as able and powerful men lead the nation away from Yahweh and his covenant. And this is to be our view of history as well, including our brief moment in the passing of the years.
It is, of course, a mistake to liken the United States of America or any political nation or entity in our world to Israel. The USA is not the church of God; it is not and never was in covenant with the Lord as a nation. But it is also the case that the principles that govern the history of Israel, such principles as we have mentioned this evening, are the principles that govern the history of all men and nations because they are in fact the application of the character, the wisdom, the power, the sovereignty and the judgment of God. For them too:
- History is a divine plot and God is in absolute control;
- The prospects of a people are directly related to their moral condition;
- Each nation as each man is directly responsible to God and accountable for its behavior;
- And God’s time is not ours; we cannot measure his approval or disapproval in the moment, but only when he finally acts to exercise his judgment in the world according to his Word.
Even with regard to those additional features of a biblical philosophy of history that we mentioned but did not elaborate, they remain true at all times and in all places. It remains the case that sin and its consequences are progressive, for example, and that genius does not mitigate but deepens the consequence of rebellion against God.
It is one of the wonderful qualities of Holy Scripture that you can read your newspaper and find its truth on every page. Not in the sense of predictions about this or that taking place in the middle east, but in the sense that the way of the world, the progress of human affairs, is described and explained in the pages of the Bible. We do not have to; we never have to apologize for God’s Holy Book as if somehow it has become outdated or irrelevant or no longer accurate. It is as accurate an account of human life in God’s world as it ever was and it is profoundly accurate. Even from the history of Israel in the 9th century B.C. we can understand what is happening in our own day and time.
That is a wonderful, wonderful gift that God has given us: to understand the world in which we live and to be able to see in that world the evidence of God’s truth and of his ways. There is so much in life that we cannot understand; that simply baffles us. But, because we are Christians with the Bible in our hands, there is a very great deal that we understand exactly, so exactly that we can predict what must come of the sinful choices men and nations make, what must come and what will come, because this is God’s world! The folk around you nowadays do not understand the world. It is something, the knowledge you have, that you ought to inject into any number of conversations. You know things about the world of man, about the inevitable result of certain things that the unbeliever does not know. They do not know God and so they don’t know what God does or what is of greatest concern to him and how he judges and saves. They have not been taught the ways of God with man as we have been taught in the Word of God. They cannot look at the world and see God’s truth revealed and God’s hand at work. The world is a complete mystery to them. They hope for things, but they have no way of knowing what will come to pass. But for us that is not so. We know God and we know God’s ways. We know what matters to him and what he has promised to do. We live in a world that, however disappointing to us, is not a mystery in many ways but an open book. We know what is going to happen even if we don’t know precisely when. And that is because it is God’s world in which he is bringing to pass his holy will that he has described to us and illustrated for us in his Word.
And who is this God? He is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. He is our Father in heaven. He is the God who visits the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate him but shows mercy to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commandments.