ELIJAH: When Ahab obeyed God

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The mission of Elijah must have had other more deep-reaching results in Israel than even those with which God had comforted His servant.

The “seven thousand” who had never bent the knee to Baal, must also have been greatly quickened and encouraged by what had taken place on Carmel. Nay, it could not but have made lasting impression on King Ahab himself. Too self-indulgent to decide for Jehovah, too weak to resist Jezebel, even when his conscience bothered him, or directed him to the better way, the impression of what he had witnessed could never have wholly passed from his mind. Even if, as in the case of Israel after the exile, it ultimately issued only in pride of nationality, yet this feeling must ever afterwards have been in his heart, that Jehovah He was God” “the God of Gods'” –and that Jehovah was in Israel, and the God of Israel.

It is this which explains the bearing of Ahab in the first wars with Ben-hadad of Syria. It need scarcely be said that this monarch was not the same, but the son of him who during the reigns of Baasha (1 Kings 15:20) and Omri had possessed himself of so many cities,both east and west of the Jordan, and whose sovereignty had, in a sense, been owned within the semi-independent Syrian bazaars and streets of Samaria itself (1 Kings 20:34). To judge from various notices, both Biblical and on Assyrian monuments, this Ben-hadad had inherited the restless ambition, although not the sterner qualities of his father. The motives of his warfare against Ahab are not difficult to understand. It was the settled policy of Syria to isolate and weaken the neighboring kingdom of Israel. With this object in view, Ben-hadad IV. (the father of this king of Syria) had readily broken his league with Baasha, and combined with Asa against Israel. But since the days of Omri the policy of both Israel and Judah had changed. Their former internecine wars had given place, first to peace, and then to actual alliance between the two kingdoms, cemented at last by the marriage of the son of Jehoshaphat with the daughter of Ahab (2 Chron. 18:1 ; 2 Kings 8:18).

Adding to the cause for this uneasiness of Syria must be affixed the close alliance between Israel and Tyre as indicated, if not brought about, by the marriage of Ahab with Jezebel. Thus the kingdom of Israel was secure both on its southern and western boundaries, and only threatened on that towards Syria. And the increasing prosperity and wealth of the land appear not only from the internal tranquility that obtained during the thirty-six years of the reign of Ahab and his two descendants, but also from the circumstance that Ahab built so many cities, and adorned his capital by a magnificent palace made of ivory (1 Kings 22:39). Lastly, the jealousy and enmity of Benhadad must have been increased by his own relations to the great neighboring power of Assyria, which (as we shall see)were such as to make a dangerous alliance between the latter and Israel an event of political probability.

In these circumstances, Ben-hadad resolved to strike such a blow at Samaria as would reduce it to permanent impotence. At the head of all his army, and followed by thirty-two vassal kings, or probably rather chieftains, who ruled over towns with adjoining districts within the territory between the Euphrates and the northern boundary of Israel he invaded Samaria. He met with no opposition, for, as Josephus notes {Ant. 8:14, 1), Ahab was not prepared for the attack. But even if it had been otherwise, sound policy would have dictated a retreat, and the concentration of the Israelitish forces behind the strong walls of the capital. This proved a serious check to the plans of Ben-hadad. The Syrian army laid, indeed, siege to Samaria, but the heat of the summer season, – the character and habits of his allies, and even the circumstance that his own country seems to have been divided among a number of semi-savage chiefs, must have proved unfavorable to a prolonged warfare. Ben-hadad might have succeeded if at the first onset he could have crushed the small, hastily-raised forces of Ahab by sheer weight of numbers. But the slow systematic siege of a well-defended city, into which Ahab had evidently gathered all the leading personages in his realm and all their wealth, must have appeared even to a boastful Oriental a doubtful undertaking, which might at any time be converted into a disaster by the sudden appearance of allies to Israel from Judah, Tyre, or perhaps even from Assyria.

It was probably shortly after the commencement of the siege of Samaria, that Ben-hadad sent envoys to demand in imperious terms the absolute submission of Ahab (1 Kings 20:2). At least so the latter seems to have understood it, when he declared his readiness to agree to his enemy’s terms. But whether Ben-hadad had from the first meant more, or his insolence had grown with what he regarded as the necessities and fears of Ahab, the next day other heralds came from Ben-hadad, requiring in terms of extreme and wanton insult, not only the surrender of Ahab, but that of Samaria; and especially of the palaces of its nobility, for the avowed purpose of plunder. It was evident that Ben-hadad intended, not the surrender of Ahab, but the destruction (“evil”) of the capital, and the ruin of the whole land (ver.7). Possibly the apparently strange demand of Ben-hadad (ver.6) may indicate a deeper scheme. To oblige Ahab formally to submit, would be of comparatively small, at most, of only temporary use. On the withdrawal of Ben-hadad the hostility of Israel would, as experience had shown, once more break forth under Ahab, or some new military leader, and threaten Syria with the same or even graver danger than before. But if the spirit of the leaders could be crushed by having their substance taken from them, then the chiefs of the people would not only be detached from their native monarchy, which had proved powerless to protect them, but in future rendered dependent on Syria, and hence led to seek the favor of Ben-hadad, instead of giving their allegiance to their own Israelitish rulers.

But the scheme was foiled by the clumsy frankness of its avowal. Ahab summoned to his council the elders of Israel. He told them how on the previous day he had expressed to Ben-hadad his willingness to make absolute personal submission and surrender of all that he possessed –as Josephus, no doubt, correctly puts into his mouth –for the sake of their preservation and peace. But the new terms which Ben-hadad proposed involved the leaders of the people as well as himself, and meant ruin equally to them all. In these circumstances, “the elders” counseled the absolute rejection of the terms demanded. Their advice was ratified by a popular assembly (ver.8). These measures of Ahab were wise. Besides, the bearing of Ben-hadad must have indicated even to a ruler less astute than Ahab, the weakness and folly of his opponent. And, instead of attacking the city, on the refusal of his terms, as he would have done had he been sure of his army, Ben-hadad now only sent a message of ridiculously boastful threatening, to which Ahab replied with calm dignity (vs. 10 -11).

Thus, for a time at least, Ahab seems in the school of adversity to have learned some of the lessons which his contact with Elijah might have taught him. Besides, it is only reasonable to suppose that both the composition of the force outside the city, and the utter demoralization of its leaders, were known in Samaria. A summer campaign in Palestine would have tried even the best disciplined troops. But the Syrian host contained a motley following of thirty-tow Eastern chiefs, who probably had little other interest in the campaign than the hope of plunder. It was an army incoherent in its composition, and unwieldy from its very numbers. Hitherto their advance had been unchecked, and its progress, no doubt, marked by the desolation of the country along their straggling line of march. Their easy success would make them not only more reckless, but also unwilling to engage in serious fighting, especially in those hot and enervating days, when their leaders lay in the cool shadow of their booths, indulging in drunken orgies. It was a dissipated rabble, rather than an army.

Ben-hadad and his allies were engaged in a midday bout when the reply of Ahab to the Syrian challenge arrived. Received under such circumstances, we scarcely wonder that it provoked the order of Ben-hadad to make immediate preparation for an assault on the city. But in whatever sense these preparations consisted, –whether in the advance of siege engines, or a massing of the troops, they could scarcely have been very effective, since all the Syrian chiefs continued at their orgies, so that the hour of battle surprised them while incapacitated by intoxication (ver. 16).

Matters were very different within Samaria. There a prophet appeared, to announce not only deliverance from the Lord, but to point its lesson in the contrast between the great multitude of the enemy, and the small number of Israel’s host, by which they were to be defeated. This, with the view of showing to Ahab and to Israel that He was Jehovah, the living Covenant-God, Who gave the victory.

Thus the teaching of Elijah on Mount Carmel was now to find its confirmation and application in national blessing. And that the influence of that scene had not been, as Elijah had feared, only temporary and transient, appears even from the presence of a prophet in Samaria, and from the whole bearing of Ahab. He is neither doubtful nor boastful, but, as having learned the prophetic lesson, anxious to receive plain Divine direction, and to follow it implicitly. Apparently the land was parceled out among “princes of the shires,” either hereditary chieftains of districts, or governors appointed by the king: an arrangement which throws further light on Ben-hadad’s previously expressed purpose; to permanently to break the power of these leaders of Israel. These ” princes of the shires ” seem to have been each resounded by a small armed retinue: ”the young men” (comp. 2 Sam. 18:15). By these, numbering in all only 232 men, the victory over the great Syrian host was to be achieved. It only remained for Ahab to inquire, “Who shall commence the warfare?” For in such a victory the main condition would be exact conformity to all Divine directions, in order to show that all was of God, and to give evidence of the principle of faith on the part of the combatants.

Having received the direction that he was to begin the battle, Ahab lost no time. At midday –probably of the following day –when, as no doubt was well-known in Samaria, Ben-hadad and his thirty-two confederates were “drinking” themselves ”drunk” in the booths, the 232 of the body-guard of the princes marched forth, followed by the 7000 men which formed the army of Israel. Although this number naturally reminds us of the 7000 who had not bent the knee to Baal, there is no need to regard it as referring to them, or (with the Rabbis) to “the true children of Israel.” The precise number (232) of the body-guard points to an exact numeration, nor need we perhaps wonder if in the wonder-working Providence of God there was a striking coincidence between the number of the faithful and that of Israel’s victorious host.

The same wonder-working Providence appears in the manner in which victory was granted. As so often, we mark the accomplishment of a result, miraculous when viewed by itself, yet, as regards the means, brought about in the order of natural causation. And thus we ever learn anew that although too frequently we do not perceive it, we are constantly surrounded by miracles, since Jehovah is the living God; and that hence ours should be the faith of a constant expectancy. It reads as we might have expected in the circumstances, that, when Ben-hadad was informed that men had come out from Samaria, he commanded in his drunken conceit and boastfulness, they should not be attacked, but made captives and brought to him. It may have been that those who were sent to execute this command went not fully armed. At any rate they seem to have been quite unprepared for resistance; and when these 232 Israelitish soldiers cut down each a man, no doubt following it up by further onslaught, the Syrians might naturally imagine that this was only an advanced guard, which was intended to precede a sortie of the whole garrison of Samaria.

A panic, not uncommon among Orientals, seized the unprepared and unmarshalled masses, whose officers the while lay drunken in the booths. The very number of the Syrians would make a formation or rally more difficult, while it would afterwards increase the confusion of what soon became an indiscriminate flight. At this moment King Ahab issued from Samaria with his whole army. Whether, as our present Hebrew text bears, the king struck at the war-horses and war-chariots of the enemy, with the view of capturing them, or, as the ancient Greek translators (the LXX.) seem to have read, he “took” them,” implying that there had not been time to harness the war-chariots when the Israelitish host was among them “the result ” would be the same. Ben-hadad, followed by a few horsemen, escaped by hasty flight as, the word used in the original conveys, on a “chariot-horse,” showing how sore was the stress when the king was obliged hastily to escape on the first horse to hand.

If it were necessary to demonstrate the compatibility of direct Divine help, and of reliance upon it, with the most diligent use of the best means, the narrative which follows would show it. After this great victory the king and people might have indulged in outward, or still worse, in professedly religious security to, the neglect of what was plain duty. But the same prophet who before had announced Divine deliverance, now warned Ahab to gather all his forces, and prepare, for that –“at the turn of the year,” that is, in the spring (comp.2 Sam. 11:1), he might expect another attack from Syria. And to make best preparation for the coming danger, in obedience to the Divine word, would not supersede but presuppose faith, even as we shall work best when we feel that we have the Divine direction in, and the Divine blessing on, our undertakings.

It was as the prophet had told. It seems quite natural that the courtiers of Ben-hadad should have ascribed the almost incredible defeat of such an army to supernatural causes, rather than to the dissipation and folly of their king. They suggested that the gods of Israel were mountain-deities, and that the rout of Syria around mountainous Samaria had been due to this cause. But the result would be far different if the battle were waged in the plains, man against man, and not gods against men, (“but, on the other hand, we shall fight with them in the plain [see, if] we shall not be stronger than they!”) The grounds of this strange suggestion must be sought partly in the notions of the heathen world, but also partly in the sin of Israel. The ancient heathen world worshiped not only gods on the heights, but gods of the heights, and the sin of Israel in rearing altars and chapels on “the high places” must have led to the inference that the national worship was that of mountain-deities. Thus did Israel’s disobedience bring also its temporal punishment.

But to their general advice the courtiers of Ben-hadad added certain practical suggestions, to avoid the secondary causes to which they attributed their late defeat. The tributary ” kings” were to be dismissed, and their places filled by governors. This would give not only unity to the army (comp. 1 Kings 22:31), but these officers, appointed by Ben-hadad himself, would naturally take a more personal interest in the cause of their king. And, instead of the former army, Ben-hadad was to raise one equal in numbers, but –as the text has it– “from those with thee ” (that is; thine own subjects).

In these well-conceived measures there was only one, but that a fatal, flaw. They proceeded on the supposition that the God of Israel was like one of the heathen deities. And this point was emphasized in the defeat of the Syrians, which was announced to Ahab by “a man of God,” probably another than “the prophet” who had formerly been commissioned to him. But it deserves special notice that this message only came after the invasion of the Syrian host. Thus would the temptation be avoided of neglecting all ordinary preparations: faith would be tried, and also called forth; while, by this prediction, and from the disparity between Israel and the host of Syria, Israel would once more learn to recognize in this deliverance that Jehovah He was God.

The winter rains had ceased, and the spring wind and sun had dried the land. There was a fresh crispness in the air, and a bright light over the scene, when the immense Syrian host swarmed down into that historic battlefield of Israel, the great plain of Jezreel. We are carried back in imagination to the scene of Saul’s last fatal defeat (1 Sam. 29:1), and beyond it to that of Gideon’s glorious victory. Once more the foe lay at Aphek, with his back against the hill on which probably the fortified city of that name stood, and facing the plain where it is broadest. As in imagination we travel southwards to the highlands, and to those mountains among which Samaria lies embosomed, we feel how literally Ben-hadad had acted on the suggestion of his servants to avoid a contest with the mountain-deities of Israel. It was the very time and place for Jehovah to show forth that great lesson which underlies and sums up all revelation. Of the Israelitish host we know not the numbers ” only that, as they camped in two divisions on the opposite side of the valley, perhaps beneath the two spurs of the ridge that juts into the plain from the south-east, they seemed like two little flocks of kids –so small and weak, as compared with their enemies. For seven days the two armies lay observing each other. From the circumstance specially mentioned in the text, that the Israelites had gone out “provisioned”(ver.27, margin), and even from their camping in two divisions, we infer that the object of Ahab was to remain on the defensive, which, indeed, the inferiority of numbers rendered imperative. Besides, the Jewish position was most happily chosen. It barred the advance of the enemy, who could not move forward without first giving battle to Israel.

The Syrians must have perceived the advantage of Ahab’s position, with his back to the base of his operations, while the division of Israel into two camps might enable them to envelop their enemies if they attempted an advance, in which case the very size of the Syrian army would, from its unwieldiness, prove a serious difficulty. But the danger of idle delay in a hostile country, and in an Eastern warfare, was nearly as great. And so on the seventh day the attack was made –as we judge, by the Syrians. Their defeat was crushing. The great Syrian host of 100,000 was destroyed, and the men who either made their way from the battle-field to Aphek, or who had been left there as a garrison, experienced another and even more terrible calamity. While crowding into the gates, or else while occupying the ramparts, which had probably been hastily thrown up or strengthened, a wall fell upon 27,000 of their number.

Further defense being thus rendered impossible, the previous confidence of Ben-hadad gave place to abject fear. He fled from room to room ” into the innermost chamber. His servants, who had formerly given such warlike counsel, now advised him to sue in most humble manner for his life, holding out the hope of the mercifulness of the kings of Israel of which they had heard. There is an ominous sound in this. The kings of Israel had never been distinguished for mercy. But they had only too often shown their sympathy with the heathen kingdoms around, and manifested a desire to make alliance with them, and to conform to their ways. Yet, even so, it is not easy to explain the conduct of Ahab when the Syrian envoys of Ben-hadad appeared before him, in true Eastern manner, with sackcloth on their loins and ropes round their necks, suing only for the life of him who now ostentatiously styled himself Ahab’s slave.” It could scarcely have been due to weakness of character when Ahab broke into the almost joyous exclamation,”Is he yet alive?” Nor could it have been merely from kindness of disposition that he ostentatiously substituted: “he is my brother” for the designation, “thy slave Ben-hadad,” used by the Syrian envoys.

They were not slow to perceive the altered tone of the king. They favorably interpreted and laid hold on that which had come from him; and they said: “Thy brother Ben-hadad.” Presently, at Ahab’s invitation, Ben-hadad himself was brought, and made to stand by the side of the king in his chariot ” both in token of companionship and for more private conversation. In truth, nothingness than a treaty of alliance was in hand between them. Ben-hadad undertook to restore the towns which his father had taken from Ahab’s father (in a warfare of which we have no other record) and to allow to Ahab the same rights and privileges as to having “streets,” or rather ” bazaars ” –what in modern language would be called an Israelitish “factory” –in the Syrian capital, which Ben-hadad’s father had possessed in Samaria; and with this covenant Ahab dismissed the Syrian king.

We have said that it is not easy to understand what motives could have prompted an act which, even politically, was a grave mistake. Was it flattered vanity on the part of Ahab, or sympathy with the heathen king, or part of his statecraft to secure, not only an ally, but a vassal on the northern flank of his kingdom, or all these combined ? In any case he must have looked upon the victory over the Syrians in a manner far different from that in which it had been announced to him by the God who had wrought it. Ahab no longer thought of Jehovah; he inquired not as to His purpose or will.

There was an ominous similarity between his conduct and that of Saul in regards to Agag (1 Sam. 15) Evidently, Ahab claimed to have himself gained the victory, and felt sure that in like circumstances “should Ben-hadad rebel” he would equally gain it once more. It was he, and not the Lord, who would shape and direct the destinies of Israel. Jehovah was only the national deity of that Israel of which Ahab was the king. And so the error of the Syrians was substantially repeated by Ahab, and the lesson which Jehovah would have taught by their defeat had to be learned anew by Israel and its king –this time in judgment.

This explains the commission with which God now charged one of “the sons of the prophets. –We mark that the expression here occurs for the first time. It referred to those associations under the leadership of some prophet (hence sons of the prophets)which, in the decay of religious life in Israel; served such important purposes, alike for the preservation of religion, and in the execution of the Divine behests. In fact, they would recall to Israel, what, as a nation, Israel had been destined to be, and ever keep it before them. Thus they represented, so to speak, ideal Israel in the midst of apostate Israel. To a member of this community it came “by the word of Jehovah” –that is, by direct command from Him –to confront Ahab with such a symbolic (or parabolic) presentation of his late conduct as would show it in its true light, and lead the king to pronounce sentence on himself. Thus only could a man like Ahab be convicted, if not convinced, of sin.

In the execution of this commission the “son of the prophet” went to one of his colleagues, and, telling him that it was “by the word of Jehovah,” bade him “smite” him. It was conduct not unlike that of Ahab when this behest was resisted by the prophet. Remembering these two things: that the person addressed was also a “son of the prophets,” and that he had been informed that it was “by the word of Jehovah,” we can understand the Divine judgment which so speedily overtook him when he was torn by a lion. For the fundamental idea, the very law, of the prophetic was absolute, unquestioning obedience to the command of God. This was the lesson to be taught by these associations and their leaders, and it explains how sometimes exceeding strange things were given them to do in public, that so in the absoluteness of their obedience they might exhibit the absoluteness of God’s authority. Hence not to have visited with signal judgment the disobedience of the prophet would have been not only to contravene the principle on which the whole prophetic institution rested, but also the very lesson and message which was to be conveyed to Ahab. But what one “son of the prophets” had refused, another soon afterwards did. Then the “son of the prophets,” now smitten till he was wounded,” disguised himself with a bandage upon his eyes,” and waited for the king by the way. The reason of his appearing as a wounded man was that he might appeal to the king with the more show of truth, and of claim upon his interference, as wounded in the fight. And a symbolism may also have been designed. For, as the prophet’s conduct was intended to represent that of the king, it might be wished to anticipate this possible excuse of Ahab that the difficulty of his circumstances had rendered it not easy to retain Ben-hadad by the analogous case of a wounded man, who might have fair ground of excuse if he allowed his prisoner to escape.

The story which the wounded prophet told the king was to the effect that, while in the battle” and this is an important point, as intended to indicate that Ahab was only like a soldier engaged in a warfare in which God, and not the king of Israel, was the commander “one had turned aside and bidden him have safe custody of a captive, with this injunction: “If he be missed [as when the prisoners are mustered], thy life shall be for his life, or else thou shalt pay a talent of silver.” From the language we infer that the person who handed over the prisoner was represented as a superior officer; that the battle itself was ended, and that the captive was a very valuable prisoner, since such a price was set upon him. But while the pretended soldier “was busy here and there” –or, as it has been proposed to be read: “looked here and there” –the prisoner escaped. In these circumstances he appealed to the king that he might not be punished as threatened by his leader. The king had no hesitation how to decide. He told him that in recounting his story he had already pronounced sentence upon himself. Then the prophet, having removed the bandage from his eyes, so that the king recognized him, announced the application of the Divine parable. The war had been Jehovah’s, not Ahab’s, and Ben-hadad had been the “banned” of the Lord. “Because thou hast let go forth out of thine hand (custody) the man of my ban (compare Lev. 27:29), therefore thy life shall be for his life, and thy people for his people.”

The judgment pronounced was not only righteous, but alike the necessary sequence of God’s dealings throughout this history, and of Ahab’s bearing in it. And in the judgment the people as a whole must also share. For even if theirs had not been the same spirit as that which had prompted the conduct of Ahab, yet the public acts of rulers are those of the nation, and national sins are followed by national judgments. Ahab had been on his triumphant return to Samaria, there to receive the popular applause for his achievements, when, in presence of all his retinue, he was thus publicly confronted by the prophet’s message. He now “went to his house much excited and angry.” And this also casts further light both on what Ahab had done, and on what he was about to do.


Written by, Alfred Edersheim, M.A., D.D., Phd.
Edited for thought and sense


Meet the author and part of your Christian heritage:  Alfred Edersheim (March 7, 1825 – March 16, 1889) was a Jewish convert to Christianity and a Biblical scholar known especially for his book The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (1883). 

Edersheim was born in Vienna of Jewish parents of culture and wealth. English was spoken in their home, and he became fluent at an early age. He was educated at a local gymnasium and also in the Talmud and Torah at a Hebrew school, and in 1841 he entered the University of Vienna. His father suffered illness and financial reversals before Alfred could complete his university education, and he had to support himself.

He converted to Christianity in Pest when he came under the influence of John Duncan, a Church of Scotland chaplain to workmen engaged in constructing a bridge over the Danube. Edersheim accompanied Duncan on his return to Scotland and studied theology at New College, Edinburgh and at the University of Berlin. In 1846 Alfred was married to Mary Broomfield. They had seven children. In the same year he was ordained to the ministry in the Free Church of Scotland. He was a missionary to the Jews at Iaşi, Romania for a year.

On his return to Scotland, after preaching for a time in Aberdeen, Edersheim was appointed in 1849 to minister at the Free Church, Old Aberdeen. In 1861 health problems forced him to resign and the Church of St. Andrew was built for him at Torquay. In 1872 Edersheim’s health again obliged him to retire, and for four years he lived quietly at Bournemouth. In 1875 he was ordained in the Church of England, and was Curate of the Abbey Church, Christchurch, Hants, for a year, and from 1876 to 1882 Vicar of Loders, Bridport, Dorset. He was appointed to the post of Warburtonian Lecturer at Lincoln’s Inn 1880-84. In 1882 he resigned and relocated to Oxford. He was Select Preacher to the University 1884-85 and Grinfield Lecturer on the Septuagint 1886-88 and 1888-89.

Edersheim died at Menton, France, on March 16, 1889.