Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 12, 2016
1 Kings 21:1-10, (11-14), 15-21a Commentary
In the hymn This Is My Father’s World we profess, “Though the wrong is great and strong, God is the ruler yet.” Yet the “wrong” often seems almost too strong. It often has so many willing allies. All too many powerful people and institutions seem so eager to use their power for “wrong” purposes.
Set against the modern backdrop of the extent and power of what’s “wrong,” the Old Testament text the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday is comforting. It reminds us that no matter how unjust and “wrong” powerful people and institutions may be, “God is,” as we sing, “the ruler yet.”
As our text opens, Ahab is still Israel’s king who should be a model of faith and obedience. After all, God expected Israel’s leaders to be different from the surrounding nations’ kings who pursued their own wealth and power. God expected Israel’s kings to submit to God’s law because their reigns should be reflections of God’s own heavenly kingship.
However, Ahab is not a godly king. He doesn’t want what’s best for God’s people. What’s more, his wife Jezebel is an outspoken advocate for her god, Baal. Both together and separately they’ve also tried to make the life of God’s prophet Elijah both miserable and short. Ahab and Jezebel, then, are symbols of the greatness and strength of “the wrong.”
Yet even sinful people feel the need to relax. So Ahab and Jezebel took some time off from harassing Elijah to live in a winter palace in Jezreel. Apparently Ahab also fancied himself a kind of amateur gardener there. Perhaps he thought he could stretch the royal budget by growing a few potatoes and beans.
The king, however, didn’t think his own garden was big or good enough. So he looked enviously at the garden of his neighbor, Naboth. As a result, Ahab made his neighbor an offer he assumed he couldn’t refuse: either a trade for or outright purchase of his garden.
Naboth, however, had no interest in selling or trading his vineyard. Since he had apparently inherited it, he had no interest in getting rid of what had been in his family for years. Yet when Naboth says he inherited (3) his garden, he also means that God leased it to his ancestors when they entered the Promised Land. He essentially means that he inherited his land from Yahweh himself.
God gave the Israelites the land of promise that they were to always keep in their possession. So while God allowed the Israelites to rent out or temporarily sell their land, God wouldn’t let them permanently sell it. Naboth, then, was simply obeying God by refusing to permanently sell his garden to Ahab.
Ahab, however, is neither much of a biblical or legal scholar. So what does Israel’s mighty king do when his neighbor won’t give up his land? He goes home to pout and sullenly refuse to eat anything. The king acts like a child who slinks to the dinner table and then deliberately turns her chair away from the table so she won’t have to eat.
Yet even for Ahab, this seems like a disproportionate response to his disappointment. Why does the king get so upset about such an apparently small thing? Some scholars point out that it’s precisely this triviality that so bothers Ahab. After all, while’s he’s Israel’s mighty king, he can’t even persuade an ordinary local landowner to sell to or trade him the land he wants.
Ahab fully knows the power of neighboring kings. In fact, in the very next scene his wife will give him an elementary lesson in royal brutality. Most kings don’t ask. They simply take. Yet God limited the power of Israel’s kings like Ahab. God expected them to be human imitators of his royalty.
When Samuel anointed Saul he predicted Israel’s kings would exploit their people, just as foreign kings did. While God wanted Israel’s kings to serve the Israelites, God knew that all too often they would mostly serve themselves.
Yet apparently Ahab feels powerless to do anything about Naboth’s refusal except to mope like a pouting toddler. This leaves it up to his wife, Jezebel, to straighten things out. She has no qualms about brutally exercising royal power, much the way her own royal father probably did.
Jezebel shows who’s really in charge in Israel’s royal court. She ruthlessly acts in Ahab’s name to arrange a conspiracy that will put Naboth to death and seize his vineyard. If Naboth won’t give Ahab his property, she’ll take it from him.
She first manufactures a crisis that she gives Naboth some kind of major role in dealing with. Jezebel then manufactures trumped-up charges against Naboth for breaking the third commandment. If judges find Naboth guilty of the crime of cursing both God and Ahab, he’s liable to execution. So when they find him guilty of it, Jezreel’s citizens march him outside of the city, where they stone him to death.
Though the queen apparently didn’t pick up a stone, Jezebel was responsible for Naboth’s murder. This, however, doesn’t seem to trouble Jezebel at all. When the authorities report Naboth’s death to her, she triumphantly speaks to her likely still pouting husband. “You can have Naboth’s vineyard,” the queen tells Ahab. “Now you can plant a few extra cucumber and tomato plants. Your neighbor’s dead, just like he deserved for ‘dissing’ you that way.”
Yet while it seems as if Ahab and Jezebel have gotten away with an incredible injustice against a fellow Israelite, they actually haven’t. God sends Elijah back to Ahab for at least the third time in recent memory. After all, among other things, God’s prophets often served as Israel’s kings’ conscience. In this case, however, the relationship between Elijah and Ahab is more like what one biblical scholar calls guerrilla warfare. The prophet, after all, confronts the king suddenly, and then quickly leaves again.
Elijah warns Ahab that Jezebel and his punishment for Naboth’s murder will be severe. Yet amazingly, incredibly, miraculously, this somehow provokes Ahab to repent. For a time, at least, the king does all the necessary things to show that he’s genuinely sorry for his sins.
And while the Bible suggests Ahab’s repentance is temporary, God responds to it by delaying the destruction of Ahab’s reign anyway. Ahab’s dynasty will die, but not until his son Ahaziah ascends Israel’s throne.
Yet Ahab proves to be sinfully unwilling to delay God’s judgment permanently. So just as God has promised through Elijah, both he and Jezebel die horrible deaths, at the command of Jehu, whom the prophet anointed. In fact, Israel’s king has his soldiers throw Ahab’s mutilated corpse right where Naboth’s vineyard once stood.
The Israelites who first read this story are probably in exile at the time. This story helps answer the question of just why God sent them into exile. Among other sins, it was because Israel’s kings and queens betrayed God’s laws for royalty. Even Israel and Judah’s best kings, people like David, Solomon, Jehoshaphat and Jehu, were deeply flawed.
In a season of much political discussion, Ahab and Jezebel’s confrontation with Naboth has implications. Those who preach and teach this text may want to explore them with those to whom we preach and teach.
It reminds us that God is the one who lifts up rulers into their places. While Ahab may have assumed that he ascended to power in his father’s royal footsteps, we know that God actually put him in power. However, the Lord also just as quickly yanked the king down.
After all, sins against society’s most vulnerable members are sins against God. The Old Testament is full of stories of how seriously God takes the abuse of power like Ahab’s seizure of Naboth’s vineyard. So this text invites God’s people to pray for the leaders of the world.
Christians sometimes have good reason to criticize national leaders. But 1 Kings 21’s preachers and teacher may want to ask if hearers are as eager to pray for them and God’s leading of them as we are to criticize them. The temptation to rule and use power unjustly is, after all, very powerful. While they may not be tempted to abuse them, leaders are tempted to ignore the poor, weak and powerless. So Christians pray that God will give those in power a heart and compassion for society’s most vulnerable members.
However, this text also invites Christians to make themselves more aware of powerful peoples’ stands on the poor and other vulnerable people. Before they vote, Christians learn as much as they can about candidates’ attitudes and actions toward defenseless people.
What’s more, when leaders abuse their power, this text invites Christians to assume Elijah’s job of prophetically speaking out. It summons us to address God’s Word publicly and courageously to the various misdeeds of our society’s powerful people.
This may not make Christians popular with the allies of those in power. But, by God’s Spirit, prophetic work may bless those whose abuse of power we address. After all, leaders who neglect and abuse society’s vulnerable members aren’t just hurting those people. They’re also disobeying God. And our text has forcefully reminded us just what consequences that may have.
Former American president Lyndon Johnson’s life is a fertile field for those who want to proclaim biblical truths about the dangers of power. In his book, The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Means of Ascent, Robert Caro writes, “The hunger that gnawed at LBJ most deeply was a hunger not for riches but for power in its most naked form; to bend others to his will.
At every stage of his life, this hunger was evident: what he always sought was not merely power but the acknowledgement by others – the face-to-face, subservient acknowledgment – that he possessed it. You had to ask. He insisted on it.”
In commenting on this, Neal Plantinga adds, LBJ “wanted to dominate other people. [Part of this came, no doubt, from the residual shame from crushing ignominies and defects of his childhood.]”
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