1 Kings 20:1-43

Download audio

In chapter 20 we find the account of two campaigns of what will prove to be a long drawn-out war between Syria and Israel, sometime enemies and sometime wary allies. The importance of the narrative is that it illustrates the opportunities provided Ahab to obey Yahweh’s instructions and to prosper thereby and to demonstrate Ahab’s intractable unwillingness to submit to the Lord even in the face of overwhelming evidence that in such submission lay Ahab’s only hope of victory and of Israel’s safety and greatness as a people.

The fact that Elijah does not figure in this history is important proof of what the Lord told him at Horeb. He was not the Lord’s only prophet and events after Mt. Carmel would unfold not with one titanic bang after another, but through the more ordinary course of events.

Text Comment


The 32 kings would have been minor tribal chieftains, vassals of Ben-hadad, who had no choice but to show up with their soldiers when the King of Syria called. The Zakir stele, which records the outcome of the battle of Qarqar in 853 B.C., when a coalition including both Ben-hadad and Ahab defeated the mighty Assyrian army making its way westward toward the Mediterranean Sea, mentions ten kings in the coalition. In war in those days, just as war in our days, armies are enlarged by alliances.


This is the typical language of an ANE vassal, a weaker king in some kind of relationship of inferiority to some nearby more powerful king. The implication is that Ahab has rebelled against Syrian rule in some way, provoking Ben-hadad’s incursion into Israel.


Ahab was willing to give Ben-hadad money and people, but Ben-hadad demanded the right to loot the palace and the homes of his senior officials.


The situation had deteriorated to the point that Ahab’s protestations of good conduct were insufficient. Ben-hadad wanted his pound of flesh.


Even in those days monarchs could not declare war and hope to pay for it without the consent of the nearest thing they had then to a legislative assembly.


An ANE version of “Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched.”


We expect that it would be Elijah who would deliver the message, but the fact that the prophet remains unnamed suggests it was not Elijah. After all, there was a contract on his life and to appear before Ahab might well have amounted to delivering himself into Jezebel’s hands.

It should have been obvious to all, after Mt. Carmel, that the Lord is God. That they must still learn this is proof of the intractable nature of unbelief.


The promise of victory from the Lord did not mean that there were no tactics to be followed. The 7,000 is a small number and suggests, perhaps, that the point is that the Lord will give the victory and the number of soldiers is therefore immaterial. Yahweh is at the head of Israel’s army and that is the decisive fact. All of this is demonstration of the Lord’s patience with Ahab and with Israel.


Ahab was a weakling; always in the narrative he is a cipher. He seemed to be the kind of man ready to obey whatever instructions he received, from the Lord if they came from him, or from Jezebel if they came from her.


The fact that the servants of the governors (v. 15) were in the van, which seems unusual, may have provided the element of surprise. In any case it confirmed that the victory would not be won by conventional military tactics. That a few servants led the attack reminds us that this is Yahweh’s battle. Apparently, the Syrians didn’t realize that they were being attacked until it was too late.


This amounted to a warning against over-confidence. There would be a counter-attack and Ahab must be ready for it. He wouldn’t take Ben-hadad by surprise a second time.


This time Ben-hadad did not rely on tribal chieftains, but an army under unified command.


The military sense in this approach was to take the fullest advantage of Syria’s superior strength in chariot forces. And in a world where there was no God or in which there were many that would be enough; but in Yahweh’s world the key consideration was being completely overlooked! [Provan, 152-153]


In this second campaign Ben-hadad aimed not at the destruction of Samaria, the capital, but at the destruction of Israel’s army, a much more ambitious goal. His plans called for battle on the plain where his gods, he supposed, would be more powerful than the hill-gods of Israel. Leaving the nature of the living God out of account is the chronic failure of sinful man.


Again the point is that humanly speaking Israel had no chance.


The Syrians may have been waiting for reinforcements or for a favorable omen before engaging in battle.


As always in the historical narratives of the Bible we must consider what to do with the large numbers. The entire force at Qarqar, a much greater battle with much larger armies, numbered 62,000 soldiers and included not only the Syrian and Israelite armies but other formations as well, so 100,000 casualties seems too large. As I have pointed out before there are several entirely responsible explanations that do justice to the inerrancy and authority of Holy Scripture. For example, D.J. Wiseman, a recognized authority on the ANE world, longtime professor of Assyriology at the University of London and staunch evangelical, suggests that it may be that we should vocalize the Hebrew word “thousand” to the word “officer.” The consonants of both words are the same. They would be spelled identically, in other words, in the original text. Remember the consonants are the only letters that were written in biblical Hebrew in the days when it was written; the vowels were assumed and only added as marks beneath the letters much later. Remember also that there are no “numbers” per se in the Hebrew text, only letters that stand for numbers. If Wiseman’s suggestion were followed the text would read that 100 officers were killed on the first day of fighting – a devastating number in those days, and another 27 when the wall fell. [178] There are other plausible, serious suggestions and Reformed and evangelical scholars prefer one or the other as the best way of understanding these numbers that do seem to be far too large if taken literally of the soldiers involved.


Almost certainly the two concessions that Ben-hadad offered to Ahab were those demanded by Israel’s king. It was a convention of ANE diplomatic speech that concessions coerced by force were described as if they were the vassal’s own idea and cheerfully and voluntarily given.


This is the first reference to these “sons of the prophets,” a company of faithful men gathered around Elijah and Elisha. Think of this group as a kind of Confessing Church seminary such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer would run for a few years in Germany before it was shut down by the Nazi government. In any case, put the best construction on what you read here, not the worst. The young man knew very well he should have obeyed the man of God but did not. He failed a crucial test for a prophet; he refused to heed the word of the Lord just as Ahab had refused so many times to heed it.


The enacted parable seems harsh to us, but remember, Israel was to pay in blood many times over for Ahab’s failure to deal with the Syrian king as he should. [2 Kings 10:32]


No one is quite sure why the ruse. Would the king have recognized the prophet before he had a chance to trap him with his own words?

v.39     No ordinary soldier could raise a talent of silver so, should he fail to guard the man, he must be put to death.


Ahab, who has a propensity for pouting (a propensity that will be on display in the final two scenes of his life) will be dead in two chapters. [House, 230]

Now, what am I to do with this chapter? What would you do with it if it were your responsibility to write a sermon on this text? I have a very fine book on the history of Elijah and Elisha in First and Second kings, a book that concentrates on the theological message of these narratives. So I was eager to see what it would say about 1 Kings 20. Unfortunately, it skips the chapter entirely. The other commentaries that I use to prepare these sermons on Kings were largely unhelpful as well. They gave me information about the historical details and so on, but what does the chapter mean and what is it here for? What part of the message is being given in I Kings 20? Another dealt with the chapter in some detail as a study in the existence of enemies and the need for Christians to face the fact of them and to deal with them in a decisive way as testimony to Yahweh’s determination either to win his enemies to himself or to destroy them. We are to live with the reality of enmity, of conflict, of adversaries in our life of faith. If we do not, we are to some degree capitulating to the enemies of the Lord and making peace with those with whom the Lord is at war. [Leithart, 145-151] That is all true, of course, and one can, I think, find that lesson in the chapter. But is it the primary point of our text? I don’t think so. Why is this chapter here? Why do hear about these two battles between Ahab and Ben-hadad and then about the Lord’s judgment of Ahab?

Well the more I read and the more I thought the more I came to think that this chapter, recounting the relatively minor achievements of an evil king, gracious interventions by the Lord on Ahab’s behalf that, as it turned out, proved to produce no change in his spiritual viewpoint, and leading up to the prophecy of his soon-coming death, was directly related to and amounted to the demonstration of the message the Lord had given Elijah at Horeb in the previous chapter.

Remember the basic question: if Israel and her kings are going to reject the Lord, what is the Lord going to do to demonstrate that he alone is God? It was by no means a theoretical question. Jezebel was seeking Elijah’s life. What was Yahweh going to do about that and how was he going to do it? Would he arrange another dramatic demonstration of his majesty and the utter futility of idolatry like the demonstration he had given on Mt. Carmel? Was he going to destroy the house of Ahab with thunder and lightning from heaven? Was he going to vindicate Elijah in a similar way before Jezebel and leave that wicked woman thunderstruck and terrified by the glory of the Almighty and leave Baal the laughingstock of the ancient world?

But at Horeb the Lord did not come to Elijah in the wind or storm or earthquake but in the still small voice, indicating that the way forward for his prophet and for his faithful people was to be the way of ordinary providence, not the way of the miraculous; it was to be the way of faith and not of sight.

And that is what we have in chapter 20. These are the quiet ways of God’s providence here. It is divine providence to be sure. We have the prophet to tell us that. The fact that a smaller, weaker force – humanly speaking – should defeat a more powerful, better equipped army twice running is the work of God. But what produced that result? Well, too much drinking in the enemy camp, overconfidence on the part of the Syrians and their king, a lack of sufficiently serious military organization, perhaps in the first case, too many unmotivated troops who were there because they had to be, not because they wanted to be, and – what else can we say? – a surprising result when the battle was actually joined. Stranger things have happened. This certainly isn’t the only time a smaller force has defeated a larger one or a superiority of men and equipment proved insufficient to stave off defeat on the battlefield. It certainly isn’t the only time the element of surprise was crucial to the outcome of a battle or that overconfidence crippled the fighting spirit of an army once it had been gamely attacked.

Ahab was a dolt and it does not appear that the first of these victories would have been won had he not been given specific instructions by the Lord’s prophet, though they may have been the sort of instructions any wise tactician might have proposed as a way of overcoming long odds. And it is unclear that the Israelites would have had the necessary confidence in the second battle had not the prophet assured Ahab of victory. Remember, this was not long after what Yahweh had done on Mt. Carmel; the soldiers would have known what happened there and been vastly emboldened to know that Yahweh was fighting with them against Ben-hadad. But the battles themselves were fought and won in the conventional way, soldiers fighting soldiers and prevailing over them. We are told the Syrian casualties; we are not told the number of the Israelites killed and wounded, but no doubt there were casualties in the Israelite army as well.

And then the final section of the chapter confirms the point illustrated in the earlier paragraphs. Ahab was happy to have Yahweh grant him victories, but he had no interest in the kingdom of God. He was interested in his own kingdom for his own reasons. What is more he had learned nothing, nothing, from the extraordinary results on the battlefield that he knew very well were produced not because he was a faithful king, or a mighty warrior but because Yahweh was faithful to his  people Israel, even though they had betrayed him. He treated Ben-hadad as a ANE king might who thought he had prevailed through his own cleverness and his own power. He treated him with no thought to the moral and spiritual issues involved. And he was judged accordingly. And his judgment proceeded as it now almost invariably does in human life, through the quiet ways of divine providence. Ahab wasn’t killed by a bolt of lightning, he wasn’t picked up by the divine hand raised to the sky and then hurled to land again, or shriveled on the spot by the word of one of the Lord’s prophets. He died in battle. We read in chapter 22 that he was struck by an arrow fired at random in the heat of battle. A coincidence the world would say; a coincidence that the arrow missed his armor and struck through the small space between one piece of it and another. But, coincidence or not, just as Israel’s second victory over Syria, it was precisely the result the prophet of the Lord had said would ensue and for precisely the same reason: the Lord had judged Ahab and rejected him.

Let me remind you of the fact that the same contrast in divine method would be highlighted again in the next period of miraculous working, the apostolic age. Life went on for the early church after the drama of Pentecost. Christians were persecuted, the faith of some among them fizzled out and they returned to the world, false teaching appeared first here and then there, new believers were added to the number day by day, but alongside all of this great works of God were almost commonplace. The apostles were healing the sick, casting out demons, and predicting the future. No wonder, we think, in the teeth of even savage persecution the church grew dramatically. Who could stop a movement validated by demonstrations of supernatural power? Who could stand against a movement that obviously had the living God behind it?

But all too soon the day came when those dramatic manifestations ceased. Paul who healed multitudes merely by the utterance of his mouth could no longer heal even his close associate, Trophimus, and had to leave him behind as he went on to his death in Rome. Demons were no longer being cast out; indeed, it is quite possible that demon possession itself disappeared from human life at the same time. And yet, the church’s powerful assault on the unbelief of the world continued unabated. Indeed, its best days were still ahead of it. The apostles died one by one but the gospel lived on and men with only ordinary powers took the apostles’ place and carried on the work to even greater effect. Heresies came and went as before, persecution, sometimes savage, was brought against the church from time to time, false teachers appeared as they had during the age of miracles, but the church managed to endure, the truth was preserved, and the gospel was proclaimed throughout the Mediterranean world and to the eastern lands and multitudes became followers of Jesus Christ. Many more than had become followers through the ministry of the apostles themselves. And so it has continued to this day.

It has been the still small voice, the ordinary, quiet workings of divine providence, that have told the tale, not the wind, or storm, or earthquake. What you see in 1 Kings 20 is your life and the way it unfolds.

Think of it. We do not have a prophet to come and speak to us, but we have the Word of God that the prophets left behind them to guide us on our way. It points us to the way we ought to take, it gives us our tactics for the spiritual battles of our life, and in it we find our encouragement to believe in victory. We too achieve a victory in some aspect of life, in some part of our spiritual struggle, only to learn that another battle must still be fought. And around us everywhere we look are those who are blessed and those who are being judged according to the Word of the Lord and their fidelity or infidelity to it. Life goes on according to the providence of God. At no point does God demonstrate his mighty power visibly and publicly as he did on Mt. Carmel. He asks us to believe and to serve him and in and through our faithful life, even with all its imperfections, he works out his plan for us, for our lives and for the lives of others.

Let me give you an example of this divine way of working, one of the most beautiful examples of it that I know and one that comports very well with 1 Kings 20 because war and drink loom large in this history too!

There was a man of Kent during the years of the English civil war in the mid 17th century. A pronounced royalist and so an outright enemy of the Puritans and their spiritual program. He became a major in the King’s army, an army that never once won a battle against Cromwell’s Puritan soldiers. In 1648 one last attempt was made to rescue the king’s cause by force of arms. An army was raised in Kent and, 12,000 strong, marched on London. This force was met by an army loyal to Parliament at Maidstone and the battle was joined. It raged for a day and a night before the king’s men were defeated. One of their number, our hero, had fought so hard during the battle and had killed so many Puritan soldiers that he was signaled out by his captors for special punishment. While most of the captives were eventually released this man and eleven others were sentenced to death by hanging.

Calvinists, apparently, make better soldiers than supervisors of jails. The night before he was to be executed his sister came to the prison and found all the jailors drunk and asleep. She made her way to her brother’s cell and helped him affect his escape. For three days he lay in a ditch until the search for him had been called off and then he made his way, in disguise, to London and from there from one royalist house to another. He eventually made his way to the small town of Bedford. He had studied medicine before his stint as a soldier and in time he became the town doctor. Usually the town doctor is a figure much loved and appreciated. Not this man. His life was so dissolute, his maliciousness toward others, especially Puritans whom he despised, so outspoken and profane, his management of money so inept, that finally, broken by his drinking, gambling, and anti-social behavior he was reduced to the brink of suicide. One night he lost what was left of his money gambling and in a rage cursed God. Something few Englishmen would have done in that day and that time. But in that seething spiritual state he came across a book by Robert Bolton, the Puritan pastor – Bolton wrote several books; we don’t know which one it was – and found his conscience terror-stricken by what he read. Knowing his guilt before God he began to read the Bible and soon was converted. His life changed immediately. Like Paul, after his conversion, many of the Christians in the town were afraid of him and leery of associating with the man who had been so recently their worst enemy. But gradually it became clear to them that the man had been changed most wonderfully by the Spirit of God and soon he was a fixture of the little Bedford Baptist church and soon thereafter its pastor.

It was this man, John Gifford, this former drunk, this erstwhile enemy of the gospel, this once worthless fellow to whom John Bunyan was sent as a young Christian for spiritual counsel and establishment. It was this man, holy Mr. Gifford as Bunyan refers to him, who established John Bunyan in the things of God. And it is this man, John Gifford, who was immortalized as Evangelist in Bunyan’s masterpiece The Pilgrim’s Progress. [Works, xix-xx; Brown, John Bunyan, 81-84]

How did Gifford get from sworn enemy of the gospel to Christian pastor and counselor of John Bunyan? Well God’s providence took him there. Drunken jailors took him part of the way, a former education in medicine took him a bit further, a bad night of gambling and drinking took him still further, and first one book and then the Bible took him the rest of the way. The mysterious ways of divine providence! Quietly, step by step, along a course no one could have or would have predicted beforehand, the will of God was done, a soul was saved, and another man put on the way toward producing one of the greatest and most valuable books ever written. No wind, no storm, no earthquake, but the still, small voice.

Do you see? All of that is very like these two battles and the prophesied death of this worthless king such as we have in 1 Kings 20. To be sure, the prophet of God is there to direct and steer the course of events, but events unfold as events unfold and only afterward can anyone see how they inexorably fulfilled the will and purpose of God.

Now, I say again, that is your life and mine. Our struggles, our battles, our enemies, our victories, our friends, our experiences are all of this type. The battle must be fought, the victory may be temporary only and still another battle must be fought. The outcome is ultimately certain – so we read in the Word of God – but the immediate future is all unknown. We must simply follow the instructions the Lord has given us in his prophetic Word. There is no voice heard from heaven, no lightning or storm to confirm that we are on God’s side and are protected by his power; there is no earthquake to deliver us from the struggles of life. Battles must be fought, moral issues must be served. It is no fun to have an enemy, but it is wonderful beyond words if that enemy becomes eventually your friend. Will he? Who is to say at this point? We must love him as the Word commands and endure his enmity, and trust the Lord to do his will in and through our lives. Such is the way, the life of the kingdom of God. It is still harder to be a drunk. Will a person’s drinking lead him or her to despair that in the hands of the Holy Spirit will become the conviction of sin which, in turn, will lead to faith in Christ? Who can say? But meantime we must heed the counsel of the Word of God and pray for God’s grace. We live in so many ways in the dark. That is why we need the Word of God, which, had the Bible been written in our day, would have been called a flashlight, not a lamp for our feet. Such is the way, the quiet, the unobtrusive way of the kingdom of God. Such is the way in which vast multitudes of God’s people have lived and served in the world and brought multitudes more to faith in Christ. If a worthless man becomes king it is not a good thing for a nation or a people. We must suffer if our government is corrupt or inept or foolish. Ours is to continue in faithfulness to God and he will determine – because he determines all things – when such a government, such a nation, or such a people will be required to pay for its sins. Not every wicked king is executed as quickly as Ahab was. But everyone will have to face the judgment of God. Ahab’s great contribution to the life of the world is as an illustration of the inevitability as well as the severity of divine judgment.

But all of this again unfolded in such a quiet, deliberate, unpredictable way. Such is most all of life. For every Mt. Carmel there have been literally a million days of the ordinary outworking of human life in which Christian faith has been required to live by the Word of God and leave the issue to the Almighty, uncertain of when or how he will act to accomplish his will.

1 Kings 20 is the way of the world. God was as surely orchestrating events as he was on Mt. Carmel. God was as surely determined to bring his will to pass as he was when the apostles were performing miracles. The silliest thing in this entire account is the stupid assumption of the Syrians that Yahweh was less powerful on the plain than in the mountains! He is the God who made both mountain and plain. But just as surely as the divine hand was orchestrating events here in 1 Kings 20 as he was on Mt. Carmel, for every human being in the narrative there is but the ordinary round of human events, the life of faith or unbelief, and the outworking of the divine will in ways an unbeliever will never see but which should be perfectly obvious to a believing man or woman. Welcome to your life, brother and sister!