READ : 1 Kings 21:1-24
Throughout the story of Elijah in the book of I Kings there is a running conflict between the prophet and Ahab, King of Israel. This conflict comes to its head with Ahab’s destruction, not because of his great national sins but because of one private, personal act of injustice.
King Ahab’s reign was notorious for wickedness, mostly because he was too weak to resist the evil schemes of his wife Jezebel. John Milton, writing about another weak biblical leader, Samson, could just as well have been speaking of Ahab.
If weakness may excuse,
What murder, what traitor . . . but may
plead it? All wickedness is weakness.
(John Milton, Samson Agonistes)
Ahab and Jezebel both come to a bad end, but what triggers their final doom isn’t any of the great national sins they perpetrated. As terrible and wrath-provoking as those things were, they are not what finally called forth God’s judgment upon them. Rather, their final sin – the last straw, so to speak – was one private, personal act of injustice.
Four People, One God
The story begins in 1 Kings 21.
Now Naboth the Jezreelite had a vineyard in Jezreel, beside the palace of Ahab king of Samaria. And . . . Ahab said to Naboth, “Give me your vineyard, that I may have it for a vegetable garden, because it is near my house, and I will give you a better vineyard for it; or, if it seems good to you, I will give you its value in money.” But Naboth said to Ahab, “The Lord forbid that I should give you the inheritance of my fathers.” And Ahab went into his house vexed and sullen because of what Naboth the Jezreelite had said to him . . . And he lay down on his bed and turned away his face and would eat no food.
But Jezebel his wife came to him and said to him, “Why is your spirit so vexed that you eat no food?” And he said to her, “Because I spoke to Naboth the Jezreelite and said to him, ‘Give me your vineyard for money, or else, if it please you, I will give you another vineyard for it.’ And he answered, ‘I will not give you my vineyard.'” And Jezebel his wife said to him, “Do you now govern Israel? Arise and eat bread and let your heart be cheerful; I will give you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite.”
1 Kings 21:1-7
There are four main characters involved in this biblical drama. Naboth was a citizen of Jezreel, a town in the northern kingdom of Israel not far from the capital, Samaria. He apparently was not an important or influential man, and the only thing we are told about him is that he owned a vineyard near the palace of the king. That king was Ahab who along with his domineering and spectacularly evil wife, Jezebel, had a summer palace in the town of Jezreel. The final person in our story is the great Elijah, a towering figure who will come in at the climax to pronounce a sentence of doom upon Ahab and Jezebel that fully justifies the terrifying popular image of what an Old Testament prophet is like.
So there they are: Naboth . . . Ahab and Jezebel . . . Elijah. People of contrasting characters, stations in life, roles in biblical history. Their interaction gives us a deep insight into human psychology, especially the psychology of evil, the pathology of greed and the corruption of power. But what makes the story of Naboth, Ahab and Jezebel, and Elijah so compelling is not what it tells us about human nature, but the insight it gives us into the nature of God. Ultimately, this is a story about the God who sees and judges even the mightiest men and women.
A Man Who Could Not Be Bought
King Ahab was a great builder. Historians tell us that he strengthened cities and erected palaces and launched other large construction projects throughout his kingdom. The summer palace Ahab built for himself overlooking the city wall of Jezreel must have been a magnificent place. But what’s a palace without grounds and gardens to surround it and set it off?
Ahab looked out his window and saw just the land he needed, a vineyard next to the wall which belonged to Naboth. Now Ahab wasn’t completely ruthless. He wasn’t evil through and through. He made a fair offer for the land – another, better vineyard in trade, or if Naboth preferred cash on the spot. But Naboth said no. He didn’t want to sell and according to the law he didn’t have to sell, not even to a king.
There is much more to Naboth’s refusal than stubbornness or a sentimental attachment to his home. The significant clue is in the words he uses, “I will not give you the inheritance of my fathers” (v. 4).
When God brought the children of Israel into Canaan, the promised land, he caused parcels of land to be distributed in each tribal territory by lot. The alloted land was to remain in that particular family in perpetuity. In fact, one of the most unusual provisions of the Old Testament law was the so-called “Year of Jubilee,” which was instituted to ensure that no sale of ancestral lands remained permanent (cf. Leviticus 25:23). Every 50th year all debts were to be cancelled and all plots of land should revert to their original families. This would insure that the gap between the rich and the poor did not become too great, and, what was even more important, that no family was disenfranchised from its share in the covenant promise of the land.
So the family plot of land thus came to be a tangible expression of the promises of God, and a symbol of the eternal inheritance which he gives his children. So Naboth’s refusal to sell his family land was essentially an act of obedience to God and faith in the promises of God.
Naboth becomes a type of all the saints of God who refuse to compromise or sell out their heavenly inheritance, no matter what price the world offers or how fiercely it threatens. When Bishop John Hooper was arrested during the English Reformation and sentenced to be burned at the stake for heresy, he was urged to save his life by renouncing his reformed faith. “Remember,” his captors argued, “life is sweet, and death is bitter.” “Yes,” replied the undaunted reformer, “but eternal life is more sweet, and eternal death more bitter.”
So it is with the Naboths in every century. The word and the promises of God mean more to them than all the money, power or fame in the world. Naboth was a godly man who could not be bought.
A Man Who Would Not Be Thwarted
But next consider the ungodly man who would not be thwarted. Ahab was used to getting his way – after all, he was the king! He wouldn’t accept it when someone actually dared to say no to him. So when Naboth refused to sell Ahab that piece of land he wanted, the king reacted like a spoiled child; he went to his room and sulked.
When Queen Jezebel learned what was troubling her husband, she took it in hand to get him what he wanted. She sent a message to Jezreel’s civic leaders: they were to proclaim a public fast, as though to call on God for special help, at which, in an especially evil twist, Naboth was to be given the place of honor. Then false witnesses were to accuse him of blasphemy, and they were to take him out and immediately execute him. That was Jezebel’s plan.
And it’s some indication of the level to which people had sunk under Ahab’s rule that Jezebel’s despicable scheme was instantly carried out without objection. And so Ahab got his garden. But he didn’t get to enjoy it, for one simple reason: there is a righteous God in heaven.
A Man Who Could Not Be Avoided
Now we come to the story’s climax and to Elijah’s role in it. Elijah’s own ministry is nearing its end. God has already told him to anoint his successor, Elisha. The great prophet of the Lord has nearly finished his course. Most of his battles are behind him. But one confrontation remains. He comes face to face with Ahab in the vineyard of Naboth. “Have you found me, O my enemy?” cries Ahab at the sight of his old adversary. Yes, he had, and it was because God had sent him.
Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying, “Arise, go down to meet Ahab king of Israel . . . behold, he is in the vineyard of Naboth, where he has gone to take possession. And you shall say to him, “Thus says the Lord, ‘Have you killed and also taken possession?'” And you shall say to him, ‘Thus says the Lord: “In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth shall dogs lick your own blood.”‘ . . . And of Jezebel the Lord also said, “The dogs shall eat Jezebel within the walls of Jezreel.”
1 Kings 21:17-19
And in short order those horrible judgments both came true. Ahab and his wife were guilty of many crimes throughout their notorious careers: the introduction and promotion of the cult of Baal, the murder of hundreds of the Lord’s prophets, the persecution of Elijah himself. But the deed that topped them all and finally brought them down was this horrible act: the judicial murder of a simple, righteous man called Naboth and all for the sake of a vegetable garden. That crime set in motion a chain reaction of doom which, in the end, destroyed Ahab and his entire family.
I think the most important thing in the whole story is what it reveals to us about God. God hates injustice, especially that practiced by the strong and influential against the poor and weak. The God of justice will not allow the Ahabs of the world to go unpunished, or the Naboths to die unnoticed and unavenged. God has a special care for the powerless of the world; he protects and vindicates them in the end.
It would be well for us if we would do the same.