I Kings 19:19–20:43. War With Baal. Pt. III. Two Wins Over Syria.
—and You Shall Know That I Am the Lord.
Key Notes: Elisha is Elijah's servant. Two victories for Ahab. Ahab's character. Acts of mercy that are not merciful.
We conclude Elijah's Mt Carmel crisis with the appointment of Elisha as his successor, then turn to Ahab interacting with another prophet in two battles with Syria. The story involves two controversial acts of mercy.
IK.19:19 Elijah found Elisha plowing with 12 yoke of oxen. That suggests 6 plows working in adjacent furrows, with Elisha bringing up the rear, supervising the operation. It implies a wealthy family and a vigorous man hard at work. The mantle of leadership falls on a man already hard at work.
Elisha apparently understood the implications of Elijah's symbolic action at once. He begged leave to say goodbye to his mother and father. Elijah's laconic reply would seem to downplay the importance of Elisha's call, a bit of irony. Then Elisha demonstrated his break with his past by making a sacrificial feast of the oxen with the wooden yoke as fuel.
Elisha became Elijah's servant / apprentice. IIK.3:11 says he "poured water on the hands of Elijah."
IK.20:1–6 Meantime, Benhadad of Syria attacked Ahab, besieging Samaria. He sent a message to Ahab that his family and treasure were in the hands of Benhadad. Ahab agreed. This suggests that Israel was already a client-state of Syria.
How Israel got into a dependent relationship with Syria is not clear. We know that an alliance of Israel, Syria, and Phoenicia fought off Assyria at Qarqar in 853BC, when Assyria was trying to establish itself on the coast of the Mediterranean. Assyrian records says that Ahab contributed 2000 chariots and 10,000 foot-soldiers to the battle. However, Asa of Judah had bribed Hezion, previous king of Syria, to break his alliance with Baasha of Ephraim and attack him. The Syrians then captured the territory of Naphtali, east of the Sea of Galilee, certainly weakening Israel.
Benhadad sent a second message to Ahab saying that his servants would not only take Ahab's family and treasure, but ransack his palace for whatever they wanted. He was assuming that he could do that without a fight.
IK.20:7–11. At that, Ahab reacted and refused. Benhadad swore by his gods that he would make Samaria into small dust. Ahab told him not to count his chickens before they hatched.
IK.20:12–22. Before the battle began, a prophet promised Ahab that God would give the Syrian army into the hands of Israel, so that Ahab would know the Lord. Ahab asked how the battle should be done, and the prophet told him to begin by sending out the 232 select warriors, servants of the regional governors. They filed out and attacked the Syrians, followed by 7000 regular soldiers.
Benhadad was in his tent drunk, with the 32 minor kings that supported him, unconcerned at the prospect of a minor skirmish. He managed to escape on horseback. Israel captured many horses and chariots. The prophet warned him to think about the future. The Syrians would come again in the Spring.
IK.20:23–34. The Syrian strategists thought that God was a god of the hills, and could not defend Israel on the plains. They also replaced the 32 kings with military commanders. They headed to Aphek, a city east of the Jordan. The Syrians filled the countryside, while Israel's army looked like two little herds of grazing animals.
A prophet again approached Ahab. Because the Syrians thought God could not help Israel on flat ground, the Syrian army would fail and Ahab will know that the Lord is God. One-hundred twenty-seven thousand Syrians were lost, partly due to a collapse of the wall of Aphek.
IK.20:20–34. Benhadad and his crew were holed up in the city. They thought Israel's kings were merciful, so the servants came to Ahab in burlap and ropes, begging life for Benhadad. Ahab said Benhadad was his "brother", and the Syrians thought that was a fine word. Benhadad was welcomed to Ahab's chariot and made a treaty to return Naphtali to Israel and give Israel a license for markets in Damascus. A good deal all around.
IK.20:35–43. But those pesky prophets....
One of the sons of the prophet commanded another "by the word of the Lord" to wound him. He refused. A lion would soon kill him--and did. He bade another to strike him. Then he covered his induced head-wound with a bandage and went out to intercept the king passing by. He complained to the king that he was responsible for a prisoner but got preoccupied and the prisoner escaped. This would cost him his life or a talent of silver.
The King shrugged off the man as self-condemned. Then the prophet removed his disguise and told that king that he (Ahab) had let Benhadad go, one whom God had devoted to destruction, and his life would be forfeit. It was Ahab who was self-condemned.
Ahab went home sad and defeated. [No matter what I do, I can't please these people. I won two battles with Syria. I got the best of the bargain with Benhadad. I am merciful to my enemies. And still they harass me.]
Relations between Israel and Syria were usually hostile.
Before Jephthah the Judge liberated them, Israelites worshiped the gods of Syria. Judg.10:6
David conquered Syria and put garrisons in Damascus. IISam.8:6
Solomon bought horses from Egypt and sold horses and chariots to Syria. IK.10:29. That was forbidden (Deut.17:16) and obviously foolish. He did not need the money.
Rezon of Syria harassed Solomon. IK.11:25
Asa of Judah bribed Hezion of Syria to attack Baasha of Israel. IK.15:20
Ahab defeated Benhadad with a small force and God's support. IK.20:16–24
Ahab defeated Benhadad again but spared Benhadad. IK.20:34
Ahab died fighting Benhadad for control of Ramoth-Gilead. IK.22:1–40
Naaman, the Syrian general, was cured of leprosy by Elisha. IIK.5
A siege of Samaria was broken by Elisha. I IK.6:1–24
Another siege of Samaria was broken by a miracle. IIK.6:25-
Elisha's arrows prophesied three victories over Syria by Jehoash of Israel. IIK.13:14–24
Rezin of Syria and Pekah of Israel went against Ahaz of Judah but failed. IIK.1
Syria is the enemy of Israel to this day.
There are two ethical puzzles in this study. The first involves a son of the prophets who refused to wound his fellow, and paid for it with his life. It seems very harsh. He was apparently merciful, unwilling to do harm and died for it. He did not understand God's larger perspective.
If we remember the young prophet who also was treated severely in IK.13, we have a repeat death by a lion. It is hard to find commentators willing to offer an explanation, but in both cases, the prophet disobeyed a clear command from God. The moral appears to be: simply obey. If the prophets did not escape when they did not obey clear commands, how can anyone else expect to be exonerated? Heb.2:2–3
The second ethical puzzle is Ahab's condemnation for letting Benhadad go free. Israel's kings, remarkably, had a reputation for mercy. Did Ahab not know that God had condemned Benhadad?
The NT puts high value on mercy and compassion. "Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy." (Matt.5:7).
Ahab is a study in character. He is easily led, and rather passive. Jezebel controls his religious policies and some economic decisions. (IK.21). Elijah can command his attention. Elijah killed all the prophets of Baal without Ahab’s protest. He thinks the contest with Syria is of small consequence. He calls Benhadad "brother", brings him up into his chariot and lets him go, although Benhadad has threatened to take everything he owns. He appears to have little regard for his own family. On the other hand, he calls Elijah his enemy, although he takes no action against him either. He has greater affinity for the pagan Syrian king who threatens his people than for the prophet of God who is the savior of his people. He is what the Proverbs writer calls "simple".
"The simple believes everything, but the prudent looks where he is going." (Prov.14:15)
"A prudent man sees danger and hides himself; but the simple go on and suffer for it." (Prov.22:3)
What he did not understand is that Benhadad was his mortal enemy. In the third contest between Israel and Syria, "brother" Benhadad instructed his captains to kill Ahab. "Fight with neither small nor great, but only with the king of Israel." (IK.22:31). Ahab embraced the snake that would kill him. IK.22:38
Ahab's mercy is wrong on three counts:
a. It left his people more vulnerable to further attack.
b. It flouted God's kindness to Israel, who gave Israel victory over her enemy.
c. Ahab did not recognize a murderer when he saw one.
Not all acts of mercy are merciful.
Not all acts of love are loving.
Not all deeds of justice are just.
Not all works of righteousness are righteous.
Mercy must embrace the motive, the person's situation, and the consequences. We cannot be mindless in our goodness. One cannot, for example, liberate Iraq from a brutal dictator--an act of mercy--without understanding a people not known to be peaceful, heavily armed, with endemic Islamic militancy and very mixed feelings toward the West.
May God rule our attempts at kindness for good.