18 June 2016

1 Kings 21:17-29

"Because he has humbled himself before me." (v.29)

Psalm: Psalm 105:1-15


It is in passages like this that the notion of retribution, rather than rehabilitation, is most difficult.

The prophet Elijah seems to be introduced as a stranger in verse 17, even though he and King Ahab have already been locked in conflict at Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18). Ahab later addresses him as his well-known nemesis - "Have you found me, O my enemy?" Ahab may be the king of Israel but he knows immediately that the message Elijah brings will not be good news.

The role of the prophet in the Old Testament is to be the conscience of the king, as we see in the relationship between Samuel and Saul and then Nathan and David. Elijah and Ahab (with his wife Jezebel) are in deepest conflict and Elijah announces, with what sounds angry invective, the word of the Lord that the penalty for this sin will be severe. Both Ahab and Jezebel will meet violent deaths with their bodies abused. Elijah announces the end of Ahab's dynasty and leaves the scene.

Ahab responds in penitence or fear - the action of penitence is usually evident in the rending of clothes, fasting and wearing sackcloth. But the response that he "went about dejectedly" is not the composure of repentance. It is the attitude of anger at being found out in the face of a fear of a greater power.

There is the suggestion however that Ahab has "humbled himself" and the astonishing thing is that Ahab repents. Quite unexpectedly, and so, Elijah brings the word of the Lord that through overwhelming grace Yahweh (another name for God) will reverse or delay the judgement.

But the event of 1 Kings 22 suggests this was a temporary repentance and that ultimately Ahab and Jezebel die horrible deaths (2 Kings 9:30-37).

This story fits into the broader narrative of the children of Israel in Babylonian exile. It is part of the answer to the question: Why are we in exile? This story of the betrayal by Ahab of the proper role and responsibility of ruling of God's people is just part of that story. Ahab was just another king who had let the people down.

To Ponder

  • How do we match the overwhelming grace of Yahweh with the retribution meted out in passages such as these?
  • The history of Israel is one of devotion followed by desertion. Reflect on your own spiritual life and pattern - how does it ebb and flow?
  • Those that have want more. How well does that describe our contemporary culture? And you? What is your response?

Bible notes author

The Revd Dr Howard Mellor

Howard Mellor is a Methodist presbyter. Together with his wife Rosie they are currently serving as Mission Partners in Hong Kong.