Now we have come to I Kings 22, the last chapter of the book. Remember the division of Samuel and Kings and Chronicles into I and II has nothing really to do with thematic concerns. In fact, we are really interrupting the story in a rather obvious way by dividing the books this way and even more so in Samuel. It had to do with nothing more than the amount of material that could fit on any particular scroll. The longer books had to be divided and hence our I and II Kings.
This could be the time, it has often been suggested by scholars to be the time, when Syria and Israel were allies against a common enemy, the Assyrians. The battle of Qarqar, one of the most significant battles of ANE history, was fought in 853 B.C. when a coalition of Syrians, Israelites and a number of other smaller kingdoms, of which Ahab was an important part, defeated the Assyrians attempting to come westward from present day Iraq. For a century the Assyrian advance westward was delayed and for that reason the destruction of Israel was not to come until 721 B.C. It might have come in the middle of the ninth century instead of the later part of the eighth century had the battle of Qarqar not been fought and won.
Ramoth-gilead was a town on the border between Syria and Israel; the Syrians had taken possession of it at some point in the past and Ahab wanted it back. Jehoshaphat was a good king of Judah but he made a marriage alliance with Ahab, which he never should have done. We have a second account of this history in 2 Chron. 18. Jehoshaphat’s reply in v. 4 is stated in the conventional terms of ancient treaties.
Jehoshaphat wants Yahweh’s blessing before going to war which is wise but the question is, of course, does Ahab have any prophets of the Lord at court. He has killed many and driven others into hiding. We don’t know exactly what happened to the hiding prophets after the victory of Elijah over the prophets of Baal at Mt. Carmel, but already doubts are rising in the mind about Jehoshaphat’s wisdom. Surely he knew by this time who and what Ahab was.
The prophets, court advisers not so unlike modern political advisors, gave the king the message he wants to hear. It is not entirely clear, however, what message they gave. The Hebrew literally reads, “The Lord will give into the hand of the king.” There may be a studied intentional ambiguity here, ambiguity meant to protect the prophets no matter the outcome. Give what into the hand of which king? If Ahab wins they can say that they predicted that the Lord would give Ramoth-gilead into Ahab’s hand. If Syria wins they can say they predicted that the Lord would give Ahab into the hand of the king of Aram. “What did you think we meant?” I’m not sure whether there is such ambiguity or, following Ahab’s question, the Hebrew should be taken to state clearly that Ramoth-gilead will be won back by Ahab in a victory over the Syrians, which is, of course, as we shall see, how Ahab took the statement and how the prophets intended him to be take it. [Leithart, 161]
Obviously Jehoshaphat knows that what he is hearing is not the word of the Lord.
Ahab’s prophets knew what the King wanted to do and what message they were expected to deliver and so they kept delivering it, emphasizing it as OT prophets often did with visual aids. It conjures up a scene like that of the prophets of Baal leaping and shouting and cutting themselves on Mr. Carmel though here there are no obvious practices associated with the worship of Baal. This is the kind of thing Ezekiel ded; this is the kind of thing Jeremiah did. Perhaps Mt. Carmel had some effect on the prophetic community in Israel and Ahab’s organization of the prophets after all. Once again, it is four hundred to one! [Provan, 162] In any case, these men knew what happened to prophets who didn’t hew the party line. They didn’t want to be like Micaiah whom the king hated. Ahab and Jezebel had killed some, others had gone into hiding. You weren’t respected for speaking the truth; you were rewarded for confirming the king and queen’s opinions.
Whether it was the ironic tone in Micaiah’s voice or the want of any statement on Micaiah’s part that this was the word of Yahweh, Ahab knew not to take Micaiah’s first statement seriously. Remember the Lord’s prophet had twice before predicted victory over the Syrians and those predictions had come true. So the fact that it was a positive word didn’t by itself mean it wasn’t true.
Another example of the Lord using sin sinlessly. Ahab’s prophets, of course, were perfectly willing to prophesy lies and had been doing so for years. God had already pronounced the judgment that is to come upon Ahab and this is the means by which that judgment is brought to pass. This sort of thing happens a good bit in the Bible and we need to accommodate this material into our doctrine of divine providence. God is in control of even the evil machinations of men and sometimes even the evil thoughts of men are formed as it were by an influence that comes from God. No one is beyond his sovereign rule; everyone must, at last, do his will and contribute to the outworking of his plan and purpose. How we are to reconcile this material here with the biblical assertions that God does not tempt anyone or cause anyone to do evil and that God is not the author of sin is not an altogether simple matter to be sure. It is one of many instances in Holy Scripture when we are required to believe two things at the same time that can seem to us virtually contradictory. But that has more to do with the finitude of our minds than with any contradiction in reality or in the divine mind. Paul can say that at the end of time God will send to those who are perishing “a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false, in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth…” [2 Thess. 2:11-12] But it is clear in that text as here that the delusion was itself a judgment; punishment for their obdurate unbelief and disobedience. The important thing to note is that God is in absolute control of even the most determined of sinners and that ultimately, they too must do his will and serve his purposes in the world.
Finally, it is important to note that, as matters proceed, the Lord tells Ahab not a lie but the unvarnished truth. The false prophets may tell Ahab lies, but the Lord’s prophet at last tells Ahab precisely what will happen and, oddly, Ahab seems to know that he must reckon with this man’s words in a way he does have to with the words of the four hundred. So the truth is there it is told plainly and emphatically.
In other words, events will prove me right and you wrong.
Where was Jehoshaphat in all of this? It speaks very poorly of Judah’s king that he didn’t stand up for Micaiah; even more so that he didn’t heed his counsel after specifically asking for it. Micaiah would never have spoken if Jehoshaphat hadn’t made a point of asking for a word from the Lord’s prophet so for him to continue to participate with Ahab in this plan of battle is inexcusable. We read in 2 Chron. 19:2 that the Lord eventually rebuked Jehoshaphat for taking part in this battle.
If Jehoshaphat was not a good king and if he had not done such good things in the service of the Lord in Judah we would wonder if the man had a screw loose. “I’ll disguise myself and you enter the battle as a target,” is effectively what Ahab said to him. “Gee, what a good idea; why didn’t I think of that!” Jehoshaphat says in reply.
On the other hand, what is Ahab thinking? If his 400 prophets are right, why does he need a disguise? And if the one prophet of the Lord is correct, what good will a disguise do? This is the inconsistency of unbelief, something we see all the time. People acting in contradictory ways because they remain loyal to some degree to contradictory ideas. “There is a God, but I don’t have to take his word seriously. But perhaps I should do something after all.” Ahab is not at all sure that Micaiah has not spoken the truth and so is trying somehow to outwit his fate. [Robinson, 248]
It is an old tactic and often an effective one: cut off the head and the body ceases to fight.
No amount of advance planning can thwart the providence of God. An arrow shot into the melee was enough to bring Ahab’s life to an end.
These were not professional armies but militias, by and large. When the battle was lost everyone simply went home.
It is most likely that what this means is that the pool by which the king’s blood was washed from the chariot was the pool where the prostitutes washed, not that they washed themselves for some reason in the blood. But the point of mentioning that it was the prostitutes’ pool is to remind us of the totally unclean life and reign of Ahab.
The sense is not that the house was made of ivory but that it was filled with furniture, fittings, and decorations made of ivory. [Wiseman, 190] In any case, Ahab was a complex man: childish in some ways but able and effective in others. Easily influenced by his wife, he put the final touches on Israel’s abandonment of the covenant with Yahweh. He knows enough at one point to repent but fundamentally is a man in complete and open rebellion against the will and the ways of the Lord and he finally paid the price for his disloyalty to the living God.
Edom had been lost to Solomon (11:14-25), but was apparently regained by Jehoshaphat, who installed a deputy to govern the vassal state. Israelite rule made it possible to exploit trade possibilities through Ezion Geber on the Red Sea.
Jehoshaphat’s reign reminds us in some ways of Solomon’s but the days of glory are past. He builds ships but they are wrecked in port and never sail. In 2 Chron. 20:35-37 we learn that the reason Jehoshaphat was not successful in this endeavor was that he was in league with the wicked Israelite king Ahaziah, the son of Ahab.
Jehoshaphat seems to have learned his lesson. In fact we will soon learn he had not.
This chapter narrates the fulfillment of the judgment that had been prophesied first by an unnamed prophet and then again in an intensified form by the prophet Elijah against Ahab and his royal house and it completes the narrative of his reign. But its great theme is obviously the contest between true and false prophecy. The situation here is not as it was on Mt. Carmel. These prophets, however much they may have served Baal and Asherah as well – that is unclear – claimed to have a word from Yahweh, that is, from the Lord. Remember virtually every place in the OT where you find Lord in your Bibles the personal name Yahweh lies in the Hebrew text beneath. Zedekiah, whose name means, Yahweh is righteous, prefaced his prediction of victory at Ramoth-gilead with the words “Thus says the Lord…” (literally, “Thus says Yahweh…”). And the rest of them agreed saying that Yahweh would give Ramoth-gilead into Ahab’s hand.
Then, later, we read in v. 24 when Zedekiah struck Micaiah on the cheek, he taunted him by asking, “How did the Spirit of the Lord go from me to speak to you?” Again, Zedekiah was claiming to speak for Yahweh, the Living God, Israel’s covenant God, not for Baal or for Asherah.
The fact that false prophets, false ministers of the Word of God, would arise in Israel and trouble the people of God and undermine their faith was already anticipated in Deuteronomy and elaborate directions were given in the Law of Moses to ensure that Israel would be able to distinguish true from false when preached to by the prophets of the Lord. One such test is precisely the one that Micaiah appeals to here in vv. 25 and 28. If a prophet predicts the future and his predictions do not come true, he is a false prophet and should be put to death for he has blasphemously claimed to speak for the Lord when he did no such thing. As it happened, of course, the 400 prophets were wrong and Micaiah was right, and his predictions were the more impressive given that everything that could be done to overturn them was done: Ahab went into the battle in disguise; he remained undetected most of the battle, but nevertheless was killed by an arrow fired at random.
The other primary test of a true prophet’s credentials was that his teaching and preaching agreed with what was already laid down in the Word of God. The 400 prophets of Ahab obviously failed in that way as well, supportive as they were of a royal house that had abandoned the Law of Moses root and branch in favor of the typical idolatries of the region. Micaiah, on the other hand, repeated the prophecy of judgment that had already been spoken twice by other prophets of the Lord, including Elijah, and, by doing so, obviously concurred with those other prophets in believing that Ahab was being judged precisely because of his defection from the covenant the Lord had made with Israel.
But at the moment, when the two messages were being delivered, the first by Zedekiah and the second my Micaiah, two prophets that both have Yah which is short for Yahweh in their name, things were not as simple as they had been on Mt. Carmel. There it had been a case of the prophets of Baal behaving like prophets of Baal and the Lord’s prophet behaving like the Lord’s prophets always behaved. And there events revealed which prophet spoke for the living God in the most dramatic, emphatic, undeniable way. Here were two groups claiming the same authority and the same revelation from the same God. Events were to prove Micaiah to be the true prophet of the Lord, but, of course, by the time that had been made clear it was too late. The battle had been lost and Ahab was dead.
Now, lest there be any failure to appreciate the immense importance of this text, let me remind you that what we have in 1 Kings 22 is an illustration of the history of the church ever since. The Bible shows itself, perhaps you have noticed this and perhaps you have even been bothered by it at one time or another, largely indifferent to what the unbelieving world teaches and believes. It cares little for the distinctions that may be made between one religion and another, between the various sects and cults. In its pages it never gives us an account of Zoroastrianism belief as it was held in the time of Daniel and Babylon or Greco-Roman mythology and its inanities. Egypt is very important in biblical history but we are told little to nothing about the Egyptian religion and belief system. But the Bible is very interested in the corruption of the faith once and for all delivered to the saints within the church herself. There is a great deal in the Bible about false versions of the true faith, about false teachers, and about the predictable errors into which erstwhile believers in the Word of God regularly are found to fall. It is as if, according to Holy Scripture in the final analysis, it makes little difference what false religion may be believed by the world – it is all false anyway and partakes of the errors that are left when the truth concerning the one living and true God is denied – but it makes all the difference in the world whether the church herself, the pillar and foundation of the truth, as Paul calls her, remains faithful to that truth. If she does not, not only will the church or much of the church perish in unbelief, but the world will be bereft of the one witness to the truth upon which her hope of salvation depends.
Again, I remind you, this is the story of the church and it is as much her story today as at any time in the past. American evangelicals tend to forget this to minimize the importance and the place of this lesson in the Bible because of their tendency to dismiss enormous segments of Christendom from their idea of the church. The church, in their view, is those Christians who agree with them about the Bible and about the facts of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, and his coming again. The church is the invisible church, the true blue people of God. The church is that body that proclaims that justification is by faith alone and a man must be born again if he is to enter the kingdom of God and so on. But that is not the Bible’s understanding of the church and the people of God! The church of Jesus Christ according to Holy Scripture in this world is the Roman Catholic church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, and all manner of Protestant sects, including those we rightly think are mostly useless for any purpose for which the Christian church exists in the world. But if so, if the church of the Lord Jesus Christ is all of that and all of those people, how much of the church is represented in our time by the 400 prophets who assured Ahab and Jehoshaphat that Ramoth-gilead was theirs for the taking? Most of it, surely. Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy amount to well over half of the Christian population of the world, though their proportion is shrinking. And though there are, thankfully, hundreds of millions of evangelical Christians and their number is growing daily, there are also many millions of Protestant people who receive teaching no better than Ahab got that day from Zedekiah and his cohorts. And, alas, even so-called evangelicals often get teaching hardly much better than that!
Of all the Christians in the world, how many are led and taught by men and women whose teaching is untrue in just the way that the teaching of those 400 men was untrue and proved to be untrue? How many people who attend Christian worship of a Sabbath day are being taught by people whose teaching will stand neither of the two primary tests of false prophecy as given in the word of God: 1) what they say will happen will not and 2) what they say does not agree with the faith once and for all delivered to the saints.
And always it is the same. There are two features of false teaching that virtually always characterize it in the experience of the church. They are the same two features that characterized it that day in Samaria.
- First, it is popular.
I don’t mean necessarily that it is always the truth supported by the most people, though often and usually it is. Here there were 400 prophets on the one side and but one on the other. I remember R.C. Sproul making this point by telling the story of a fellow he studied with at seminary. This fellow was clearly the brightest student in the school. The professors created some courses just for him because he was so far beyond the other students in intellectual ability. That was Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. It was a liberal theological faculty but had one staunch conservative, the church historian and theologian John Gerstner. R.C. recalls that he and perhaps some other students were talking with this very intellectually able seminarian and he explained his own liberal leanings by saying, “Look, there are all these professors with liberal views and only the one who is committed to historic, orthodox Christianity.” R.C.’s point was that even the ablest student in the place, even the student who was smarter than some of his professors, was basically making up his mind about reality by counting noses. For more people than you think this is how they come to believe whatever it is that they believe: they count noses, however unwittingly, however subtly the influence is born in upon them, either all noses or the noses in their particular community or society. They agree with the prevailing side. The want to win and so they look to see which side is the stronger and align themselves with that side. In this sense false teaching in the Christian church is usually popular in that it comes to be held by the largest number of people in a particular place or denomination or spiritual culture.
But false teaching is also popular in that it characteristically takes its inspiration and receives its impetus from the prevailing winds. It moves in that direction congenial to the spirit of the day. It is popular in the sense that it trades in the biases and the aspirations and the certainties of the culture. It fits in and its teaching is easy to believe because it partakes of the authority of what is familiar to people, what is commonplace to people, what makes sense to people at that place at that time.
That was certainly the case here. These false teachers were Yahweh’s men, or so they claimed, but they had no problem operating in the atmosphere of Baalism in the Israelite court. They could do idolatry as well as Yahwism. They were flexible. They fit in to the worldview of the ANE with many gods and many types of worship and, of course, almost everyone in Israel did as well so their state of mind, their belief system was popular in the sense that it was easily accommodated to that of everyone else. And, in particular, it was popular in that it fit in with the prevailing inclinations and prejudices of the court, of the elite culture, the culture that eventually defines things for everybody else.
And so it has always been. False teaching in the church always tends to the direction set by the prevailing winds. It is rarely if ever counter-cultural; it is almost always culture-friendly, the sort of teaching that in most places in the culture – in the business world, in the university, in the media – will never get you into trouble. It will rather bring you acceptance. You will fit in. Indeed, false teaching in the church usually is that form of teaching that the world will respect, recognize, and reward. Harry Emerson Fosdick, in the 1920s and 30s accommodated the Christian faith to popular American culture, to the spirit of social do-goodism so popular at that time, and John D. Rockefeller built him an immense and magnificent church on the Hudson from which to proclaim his message. No man of great wealth, that I am aware of, built such a church for a fundamentalist preacher!
- The second feature of false teaching in the church is that it is invariably easy-going.
There are remarkably few exceptions to this view. Put orthodox, biblical teaching side by side with any deviant form of the same and the deviations will be immediately recognized as the easier form, the softer form, the smoother form. Paul will talk of false teachers characteristically “tickling the ears” of their hearers. He meant they will teach what their hearers want to hear; what their hearers would like to be true. It is virtually a fixed law.
What do false forms of the Christian faith eventually become? Do they not become a message of love without judgment, a message of salvation without damnation, a message of grace without repentance? This is not absolutely and invariably true, to be sure. The Devil knows that some will be tempted by a message more demanding, more bracing. The Pharisees did not practice an easy faith, though the Samaritans did and most Jews of the time did. But, then, that is the reason Pharisaism was never that popular among the Jews. It was admired, but from a distance. But for us remember even Pharisaism was the easy way compared to the way marked out by the Lord in his Sermon on the Mount! If your righteousness does not exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees, you shall in no way enter the kingdom of God. And the Lord was not talking about imputed righteousness there he was talking about your way of life.
But in Ahab’s time and in our own time, the false forms of our faith all have the same characteristic: they are all light, and easy, and undemanding, the way human beings would like things to be if they had their druthers. False teachers appeal to members of the church precisely by telling them what they want to hear. We expect that of the world and its teachers, but it is a great betrayal when in the church the truth is obscured and finally hidden altogether behind a mountain of pap.
Think of our day. What parts of the faith are being surrendered to the world on the edges of the evangelical Christian church? Well, that is obvious. They are all the difficult parts. The parts made particularly difficult for us in this culture. No one minds Christians believing in salvation, but it is hard to believe that only those with faith in Christ can be saved. It is a very difficult part of our faith: its exclusivity. It would be easier if all manner of people, no matter their religion, could be saved. And, sure enough, that is what a great many so-called Christian teachers are now saying; surprise, surprise. Roman Catholics who once taught with all the authority of the papal office that you had to be in submission to the Bishop of Rome to be saved now have no difficulty even in their catechism saying the people who are the practitioners of other faiths may be saved in large numbers.
In a day like ours it is hard to believe that certain popular behaviors are incompatible with a Christian profession and so, predictably, in the teaching of many in the Christian church, they are suddenly no longer incompatible. Nowadays in many parts of the church you can be virtually anything and be a Christian, so long as your chosen sin is politically correct or found on the list of those behaviors the practitioners of which are viewed more as victims than perpetrators. So the fact that the Bible abominates a particular behavior – promiscuity or homosexuality or materialism or divorce or whatever – is ignored. What every human soul, left to itself wishes to be true – that there is forgiveness without repentance – proves to be true after all in the teaching of many of the church’s preachers. What is not to like in such a message? In a feminist world such as ours nothing was more certain than that soon there would be those in the church teaching that the Bible’s sometimes sharp distinction between male and female and its reservation of certain roles to men in human life and in the life of the church no longer applied. I say, such teaching is not only usually the more popular way, but it is invariably in a culture like ours the easier way.
I don’t mean to say, now hear me, that such teachers ever put it to themselves as I have put it to you. If there is anything that really irks these teachers and annoys and offends them, it is the suggestion that they are capitulating to the culture. They will deny it absolutely. They are, they protest, simply following the Word of God where it leads them. No doubt there are charlatans who figure out how to please a religious audience and soak them for all their worth. Robert Tilton, the TV preacher from Dallas, who went to prison some time back, was such a man. He was a grifter, a con-man pure and simple; he just practiced his con on gullible religious people and became wealthy as a result. But most of these teachers, as, I suspect, most of Ahab’s 400 prophets were reasonably sincere men, at least as sincere as most people in their native hypocrisy can be. They believe what they teach. They are committed to their message. The Devil has no difficulty persuading them that the hogwash they are spouting is nothing other than the way, the truth, and the life. True enough, the pulpit of such churches is usually pretty lifeless and irrelevant, but that is not to say that the preachers don’t believe what they are saying.
Indeed, there is certainly a continuum as so often in life. Were there among Ahab’s 400 prophets a few who actually believed in Yahweh, who loved the Lord and his Word, but had grown used to accommodating the culture of Israel’s court at a few key points as there are evangelical teachers today who have done the same thing? I suspect there were some men like that among the 400 if the rest of church history is anything to go by. I have been reading the new biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and its story of the accommodation of the German church to Hitler’s government; its supine capitulation to pure, unmitigated evil, makes horrific reading. But as the biographer makes clear it isn’t all as simple as it might have seemed. There were those among the German Christians, the title used by those who were supportive of the Hitler government, who were deeply disturbed by certain things that were happening, but, mesmerized by the injustice of Versailles and the disorder in Germany in the post-war years, and the thought that the country obviously needed a strong government, they believed that such a government could be made over time to change its ways. Indeed, some of these German Christians spoke openly of their hope – surely a Christian hope – that Adolf Hitler might be converted and become a Christian himself. And there were, at the same time, those among the Confessing Church who were far too reticent to take a public stand against, say the Nuremberg Laws, the laws that disenfranchised the Jews in Germany, for similar reasons: they didn’t think it wise, they didn’t think it helpful or useful to confront the government this way, and because of a perfectly human fear of losing their jobs and their homes. I suspect there were some like that among the 400 that day in Samaria, hoping against hope that the Lord would be with Israel in the coming battle, even believing that he would be because all 400 were saying the same thing, and perhaps annoyed with Micaiah because he gave them a guilty conscience or because they felt his uncompromising approach was making it less likely that Ahab would ever be brought to see reason.
But, all of that gray murkiness, all of that compromise to whatever extent, is blown away by the stiff wind that blows from heaven. God is not at our beck and call. He is not weak like Baal. He is to be loved to be sure, but he is also to be feared. No mere man can withstand his judgment no matter how clever, no matter how hard he tries. He is even able and willing to deceive in order to assure the punishment of those who have rebelled against him. He is not like the gods of the ANE. He is not like the god of the philosophers, the idea who sits idly by in heaven, impotent and largely uninterested. He is a God of vengeance and holiness, a consuming fire whose judgments no man can escape no matter what clever ruses he employs. Yahweh is pure with the pure, as purity is defined in his holy law; he is merciful to the humble; but he is cunning and shrewd with the wicked who imagine that they can outfox the living God. [Leithart, 164]
Yahweh is to be loved for he is love itself and to be trusted for he is faithful to those who trust in him. But it is a fearful thing to fall into his hands as one who had refused to honor his Word, do his will, or believe his promises. No one has ever tricked him or deceived him or beaten him in a contest. Ahab didn’t. No one else has since and no one ever will. Here is the ESV’s translation of Psalm 18:25-26:
With the merciful you show yourself merciful;
With the blameless man you show yourself blameless;
With the purified you show yourself pure; and
With the crooked you make yourself seem tortuous.
That is the reason why we must take care to heed the Word of the Lord without compromise and why we must resist and refuse anyone who comes bringing a different message than that message brought first by the Lord’s ancient prophets, then by his Son, and finally by the Lord’s apostles. That is why our antenna must go up at the first hint that the version of the gospel that we are being given proves to be a more popular, a more easygoing, more easily believed version. The reason is: we won’t get away with our refusal to take his Word seriously. No one ever has and we won’t either.