GOD’S GRACIOUS DEFENSE OF ISRAEL AGAINST TWO SYRIAN ATTACKS FAILS TO COMPEL OBEDIENCE FROM KING AHAB
The amazing part of this story is the graciousness of the Lord to intervene on behalf of the Northern Kingdom and deliver them from two assaults by Syrian forces under King Ben-hadad. Surely King Ahab did not deserve such merciful treatment after he failed to stand up to Jezebel and repent of the nation’s idolatry upon the Lord’s dramatic demonstration of power and sovereignty directed against the prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel in chapter 19. But King Ahab could not get out of his own way. Instead of trusting in the Lord for the future of the nation, he capitulated to King Ben-hadad and entered into a compromising political and economic treaty. He failed to cut off the head of Israel’s enemy when the Lord provided the opportunity and even the mandate to do so. The prophetic parable of imminent judgment was the predictable response by the Lord.
Dale Ralph Davis: We must therefore realize how the Bible writer has arranged the last three chapters of 1 Kings. As he united chapters 17–19 around the ‘God war’, so he combines chapters 20–22 into another triad in which each chapter emphasizes the failure of Ahab and how the word of God stands opposed to him. Because of Ahab’s spineless moderation, both Ahab and Israel stand under doom (20:42); because of his heartless oppression, his household will be exterminated (21:21–24); and because of his thickheaded obtuseness, his life is forfeit (22:19–23, 29–38). No other king receives such a literary battering from the sacred writer, but no other king the likes of Ahab had come along (21:20, 25; cf. 16:30, 33). Chapters 20–22 then intend to display Ahab’s repeated (and fatal) opposition to the word of Yahweh.
Donald Wiseman: The history turns from that of Elijah to recount two wars in the campaign between Aram and Israel at Samaria (20:1-21) and Aphek (vv. 22-34). Both accounts underline that this was the final opportunity for Ahab to show whether he would obey God’s word through his prophet, and both stress the danger of punishment and reverse if the LORD’s command was not carried out to the full. These narratives prepare for the death of Ahab and the abandonment of a rebellious Israel.
Dan Bockenfeld: For the past few passages, we have been focusing on Elijah and how God has been using him and helping him understand the nature of God, but now, there is a shift in the narrative and the focus is on King Ahab.
Peter Pett: The prophetic author’s interest, however, is not in the history of the period, but in the fact that after His revelation of Himself at Mount Carmel YHWH was making clear that if only Ahab would turn back to YHWH with all his heart, YHWH would be able to deliver him from all his enemies.
Mordechai Cogan: The relations between Israel and Aram-Damascus, previously dealt with briefly in 1 Kgs 15:18–20, are the subject of the present chapter and are narrated through the perspective of prophetic narration.
I. (:1-25) GOD DEFENDS ISRAEL AGAINST THE FIRST ATTACK BY SYRIA AT SAMARIA
A. (:1-12) Preparations for Battle
1. (:1-6) Outrageous Demands of Ben-hadad
a. (:1) Siege Against Samaria to Secure the Trade Routes
“Now Ben-hadad king of Aram gathered all his army, and there were thirty-two kings with him, and horses and chariots. And he went up and besieged Samaria, and fought against it.”
Thomas Constable: This pericope records the first of three battles the writer recorded in 1 Kings between Ahab and the kings of Aram, Israel’s antagonistic neighbor to the northeast. The first of these evidently took place early in Ahab’s reign (ca. 874). Ahab’s adversary would have been Ben-Hadad I (900-860 B.C.).
Wiersbe: Ben-hadad wanted to control the trade routes through Israel because he had lost the northern routes to Assyria, and he also wanted to be sure that Israel would provide men and weapons in case of an Assyrian invasion.
Donald Wiseman: The thirty-two kings would include minor tribal chiefs.
Peter Pett: This war would appear to have been occasioned by a refusal by Ahab to pay the tribute due under a vassalage treaty. Because of this Benhadad came with his allies to enforce the treaty, at which point Ahab submitted. But when Benhadad then tried to extract considerably more than was due, and to humiliate Ahab, Ahab resisted, and was promised by YHWH that victory would be his so that he would recognise YHWH for Whom He was. And the result was that he achieved a great victory. . . It was Benhadad who now controlled the trade routes, and had grown rich and powerful.
b. (:2-4) Seizure of Tribute and Members of the Royal Family Expected
“Then he sent messengers to the city to Ahab king of Israel, and said to him, ‘Thus says Ben-hadad, 3 Your silver and your gold are mine; your most beautiful wives and children are also mine.’ 4 And the king of Israel answered and said, ‘It is according to your word, my lord, O king; I am yours, and all that I have.’”
The Pulpit Commentary: Nothing reveals Ben-hadad’s object more clearly than the mention of Ahab’s wives. When we consider how jealously the seraglio of an Eastern prince is guarded, and how the surrender of the harem is a virtual surrender of the throne (… 2 Samuel 16:21, 22 …), and certainly a surrender of all manhood and self- respect, we see that his aim was to wound Ahab in his tenderest point, to humble him to the lowest depths of degradation, and possibly to force a quarrel upon him.
c. (:5-6) Shocking Escalation of Demands = Seize Anything We Want
“Then the messengers returned and said, ‘Thus says Ben-hadad, Surely, I sent to you saying, You shall give me your silver and your gold and your wives and your children, 6 but about this time tomorrow I will send my servants to you, and they will search your house and the houses of your servants; and it shall come about, whatever is desirable in your eyes, they will take in their hand and carry away.’”
2. (:7-8) Wise Counsel to Refuse the Outrageous Demands
“Then the king of Israel called all the elders of the land and said, ‘Please observe and see how this man is looking for trouble; for he sent to me for my wives and my children and my silver and my gold, and I did not refuse him.’ 8 And all the elders and all the people said to him, ‘Do not listen or consent.’”
3. (:9-11) Undiplomatic Negotiations
“So he said to the messengers of Ben-hadad, ‘Tell my lord the king, All that you sent for to your servant at the first I will do, but this thing I cannot do.’ And the messengers departed and brought him word again. 10 And Ben-hadad sent to him and said, ‘May the gods do so to me and more also, if the dust of Samaria shall suffice for handfuls for all the people who follow me.’ 11 Then the king of Israel answered and said, ‘Tell him, ‘Let not him who girds on his armor boast like him who takes it off.’”
The proverbial: “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch”
Wiersbe: his covetousness led to his defeat. In addition to taking the king’s wealth and the royal family, Ben-hadad wanted to send officers to search all the royal buildings and take whatever they wanted! Agreeing with this request was much too humiliating for proud Ahab, so he and his advisers refused to accept it.
David Guzik: The elders of Israel rightly saw that such surrender to Ben-Hadad and the Syrians was the first step to a total loss of sovereignty for Israel. If they wanted to remain a kingdom at all, they had to resist this threat.
4. (:12) Commitment to Do Battle
“And it came about when Ben-hadad heard this message, as he was drinking with the kings in the temporary shelters, that he said to his servants, ‘Station yourselves.’ So they stationed themselves against the city.”
Ben-hadad was not taking his enemy seriously. His judgment was impaired by his drinking and feasting.
B. (:13-14) Prophetic Intervention
1. (:13) Implausible Military Victory Revealed
“Now behold, a prophet approached Ahab king of Israel and said, ‘Thus says the LORD, Have you seen all this great multitude? Behold, I will deliver them into your hand today, and you shall know that I am the LORD.’”
This victory was not due to any virtue on the part of Ahab or Israel; but to the Lord’s love for his people and desire to give then opportunity to repent. This victory had a specific divine goal in mind = to promote the knowledge of YHWH and loyalty to the covenant.
MacArthur: The victory would show Ahab that the Lord was in every respect the mighty God He claimed to be. Though the people and king of Israel had dishonored God, He would not utterly cast them off.
2. (:14a) Identity of the Military Leaders Revealed
“And Ahab said, ‘By whom?’ So he said, ‘Thus says the LORD, By the young men of the rulers of the provinces.’”
Peter Pett: Ahab had been sufficiently impressed by what had happened at Mount Carmel to listen, and he then asked the prophet by whom this deliverance was to take place. Who were those to be involved? The reply brings out YHWH’s sense of humour. Benhadad had demanded Ahab’s children, had he? Well, he could have them. The deliverance would by ‘the young men’ (the word can also mean children) of the princes of the provinces, those not defiled by contact with the court and the Baalism of Samaria.
3. (:14b) Initiative to Engage the Enemy Revealed
“Then he said, ‘Who shall begin the battle?’ And he answered, ‘You.’”
C. (:15-21) Predetermined Victory for Israel
1. (:15) Mobilizing the Troops
“Then he mustered the young men of the rulers of the provinces, and there were 232; and after them he mustered all the people, even all the sons of Israel, 7,000.”
Thomas Constable: The “young men [Heb. na’ar] of the rulers of the provinces” were apparently the servants of these rulers, since the Hebrew word elsewhere (3:7; 11:17; 14:3, 17, 28; 18:43; 19:3) describes young male servants (not elite soldiers). Thus God ordered a relatively weak force to oppose the Arameans initially, as in the past (Judg. 7:7; 1 Sam. 17:33), so that it would be obvious that He had granted the victory.
Patterson and Austel: The battle strategy appears to have been to send out the small but well trained advance party who could perhaps draw near to the Syrians without arousing too much alarm and then, at a given signal, initiate a charge that, joined by Ahab’s main striking force, would both catch the drunken Arameans off guard and throw them into confusion. The plan was more successful than Ahab dared to imagine.
2. (:16-19) Exploiting the Poor Judgment of Drunken Ben-hadad
“And they went out at noon, while Ben-hadad was drinking himself drunk in the temporary shelters with the thirty-two kings who helped him. 17 And the young men of the rulers of the provinces went out first; and Ben-hadad sent out and they told him, saying, ‘Men have come out from Samaria.’ 18 Then he said, ‘If they have come out for peace, take them alive; or if they have come out for war, take them alive.’ 19 So these went out from the city, the young men of the rulers of the provinces, and the army which followed them.”
MacArthur: The battle strategy was to send out the young leaders who could perhaps draw near to the Syrians without arousing too much alarm and then, at a given signal, initiate a charge, joined by Ahab’s main striking force that would catch the drunken Syrians off guard and throw them into confusion. The glorious victory, won so easily and with such a small force, was granted so that Ahab and the people would know that God was sovereign.
3. (:20-21) Winning a Decisive Victory
a. (:20) Dominating the Individual Duels – but Allowing Ben-hadad to Escape
“And they killed each his man; and the Arameans fled, and Israel pursued them, and Ben-hadad king of Aram escaped on a horse with horsemen.”
Peter Pett: It is possible at this stage that recognising in the young men the usual offer of a ‘trial by combat’ in which chosen men of each side would first fight in order to see whose side the gods were on, Benhadad’s captains sent out the equivalent number of young men to do battle.
b. (:21) Slaughtering the Fleeing Arameans
“And the king of Israel went out and struck the horses and chariots, and killed the Arameans with a great slaughter.”
D. (:22-25) Postscript
1. (:22) Israel Warned to Prepare for Rematch and Not Get Over-Confident
“Then the prophet came near to the king of Israel, and said to him, ‘Go, strengthen yourself and observe and see what you have to do; for at the turn of the year the king of Aram will come up against you.’”
Dale Ralph Davis: If, as stated, hope comes by a word of promise, verse 22 shows that security comes through a word of warning. The same prophet approaches Ahab again, giving him a vital piece of intelligence: next year the king of Aram will be coming up against you again. Victory is sweet but vigilance is essential. Ben-hadad will be back; prepare to meet him. Here is more grace, Yahweh’s protective revelation to shield his people.
Peter Pett: God was now making a determined attempt to win Ahab away from the worship of Baal and the syncretism of Jeroboam to a true worship of Him, and to make him realise that his only hope lay in full submission to Him as YHWH. Thus he sent a prophet to keep Ahab in touch with events, and to remind him of His ever present eye. This prophet advised Ahab to build up his fighting capabilities, and to be careful what he was about, because within a year he could be sure that Benhadad would be back. He was seeking to teach Ahab continual dependence.
Thomas Constable: “The turn of the year” (v. 22) could mean the coming around again of any time of the year, but, since kings usually resumed warfare in the spring and early summer, that time of the year is probably in view here. Late spring and early summer were seasons for military expeditions, because at that time of year in the Middle East, grass was readily available for the horses.
2. (:23-25) Syria Prepares for Rematch Based on False Confidence
“Now the servants of the king of Aram said to him, ‘Their gods are gods of the mountains, therefore they were stronger than we; but rather let us fight against them in the plain, and surely we shall be stronger than they. 24 And do this thing: remove the kings, each from his place, and put captains in their place, 25 and muster an army like the army that you have lost, horse for horse, and chariot for chariot. Then we will fight against them in the plain, and surely we shall be stronger than they.’ And he listened to their voice and did so.”
David Guzik: The idea of the localized deity was prominent in the ancient world. They felt that particular gods had authority over particular areas. Because the recent victory was won on hilly terrain, the servants of the king of Syria believed that the God of Israel was a localized deity with power over the hills, not the plains.
II. (:26-34) GOD DEFENDS ISRAEL AGAINST THE SECOND ATTACK BY SYRIA AT APHEK
A. (:26-27) Preparations for Battle
“So it came about at the turn of the year, that Ben-hadad mustered the Arameans and went up to Aphek to fight against Israel. 27 And the sons of Israel were mustered and were provisioned and went to meet them; and the sons of Israel camped before them like two little flocks of goats, but the Arameans filled the country.”
MacArthur: Though several towns in Israel bore the name Aphek, he one mentioned here probably lay about 3 mi. E of the Sea of Galilee, N of the Yarmuk River. . .
Compared to the massive herd of Arameans covering the land, Israel looked like two little goat flocks. Goats were never seen in large flocks or scattered like sheep; hence the description of the two compact, small divisions.
Peter Pett: It was not likely that Benhadad would take this reverse lightly. While his forces had fled in panic with the result that he had forfeited all the gains and tribute that he had been expecting, and had lost a good number of men, he was still militarily strong, and now he had the further motive in that there was a humiliation to wipe out and a rebellious one time vassal to subdue. Thus he began to prepare himself for a second attempt on Israel.
B. (:28) Prophetic Intervention
“Then a man of God came near and spoke to the king of Israel and said, ‘Thus says the LORD, Because the Arameans have said, “The LORD is a god of the mountains, but He is not a god of the valleys; therefore I will give all this great multitude into your hand, and you shall know that I am the LORD.’”
Peter Pett: But there was one difference, and that was that YHWH was with Israel, and intended to make quite clear that the foolish words of the Aramaeans about His limitations were nonsense. This is emphasised by the repetition of the words from 1 Kings 20:23. This is spelled out to Ahab with the assurance that the folly of their words would be made clear when Ahab gained the victory. Then he would know truly Who YHWH was, which was the whole point of the exercise.
Dale Ralph Davis: Consider the argumentation. By the coming victory Yahweh will both show goodness to Israel and get glory for himself. The latter is the primary concern in verse 28. Syrian stupidity has distorted the truth about Yahweh, casting him in the image of a humdrum pagan deity. When Israel levels them on level ground Yahweh shall have exposed their theological nonsense for what it is. After disaster number two (vv. 29–30) what an opportunity Syrians have to see the truth, if they will. However, the man of God stresses the impact the prophecy and the victory should have upon Israel: ‘and you shall know that I am Yahweh.’ Frequently, it is God’s professed covenant people who most need convinced of Yahweh’s power and omnipotence. We may stand within Israel’s camp but keep lapsing into Syrian modes of thinking.
C. (:29-30) Predetermined Victory for Israel
1. (:29) Engagement after Seven Days
“So they camped one over against the other seven days. And it came about that on the seventh day, the battle was joined, and the sons of Israel killed of the Arameans 100,000 foot soldiers in one day.”
Thomas Constable: The Arameans greatly outnumbered Israel (v. 27), but God promised Ahab victory so he and all Israel, as well as the Arameans, would know that Yahweh was the true God (v. 28). God enabled the soldiers of Israel to defeat their enemy (v. 29), but He also used supernatural means to assist them (v. 30; cf. Josh. 6; et al.). One hundred casualties a day in ancient warfare was considered heavy, but God gave His people 1,000 times that number that day.
2. (:30) Escape of Ben-hadad after Destruction by Collapsing Wall
“But the rest fled to Aphek into the city, and the wall fell on 27,000 men who were left. And Ben-hadad fled and came into the city into an inner chamber.”
Rice: The striking parallels to the conquest of Jericho, as the interval of seven days before the battle and the falling of the city walls, clearly identified the battles at Samaria and Aphek as holy war.
D. (:31-34) Postscript
1. (:31-32a) Scheming by the Servants of Ben-hadad Seeking Mercy
“And his servants said to him, ‘Behold now, we have heard that the kings of the house of Israel are merciful kings, please let us put sackcloth on our loins and ropes on our heads, and go out to the king of Israel; perhaps he will save your life.’ 32 So they girded sackcloth on their loins and put ropes on their heads, and came to the king of Israel and said, ‘Your servant Ben-hadad says, Please let me live.’”
August Konkel: A rope on the head indicates servitude, either as a prisoner of war or as someone who has given up his rights to one who has the power of life and death.
2. (:32b-34) Sparing Ben-hadad = Colossal Blunder by Ahab
“And he said, ‘Is he still alive? He is my brother.’ 33 Now the men took this as an omen, and quickly catching his word said, ‘Your brother Ben-hadad.’ Then he said, ‘Go, bring him.’ Then Ben-hadad came out to him, and he took him up into the chariot. 34 And Ben-hadad said to him, ‘The cities which my father took from your father I will restore, and you shall make streets for yourself in Damascus, as my father made in Samaria.’ Ahab said, ‘And I will let you go with this covenant.’ So he made a covenant with him and let him go.”
David Guzik: Ahab felt a kinship towards this pagan king with exceedingly pagan ideas of God. Perhaps Ahab wanted Ben-Hadad and Syria’s friendship as protection against the powerful and threatening Assyrian Empire. If so, he looked for friends in the wrong places.
Thomas Constable: Ahab’s plan was contrary to God’s Law that called for the deaths of Israel’s enemies (Deut. 20:10-15). Ahab welcomed Ben-Hadad into his chariot (v. 33). This was an honor. The Aramean king was quick to make concessions in return for his life (v. 34). Compare Saul’s refusal to execute Agag. The covenant the two men made involved the return of Israelite cities that Aram had previously taken and trade privileges for Israel with Damascus (v. 34). Ahab figured that it would be better for him and Israel to make a treaty than to obey God’s Law (cf. Exod. 23:32). Perhaps the reason Ahab was so eager to make this treaty was that the Assyrian Empire was expanding toward Israel from the northeast.
Wiersbe: Ben-hadad immediately entered into a treaty with Ahab and gave back to Israel the cities his father had taken (I Kings 15:20). He also gave Ahab permission to sell Israel’s produce and wares in the market at Damascus, which amounted to a trade agreement. That the king of Israel should make such a treaty with the enemy is remarkable, but Ahab had no convictions (except those of his wife) and always took the easy way out of any situation. Furthermore, he needed the support of Aram in case the Assyrians should decide to move south. This treaty lasted three years (22:1).
III. (:35-43) NO DEFENSE AGAINST THE SPINELESS POLITICAL DEALMAKING OF FAITHLESS KING AHAB
A. (:35-37) Preparation for Confronting King Ahab = Parable in Action
“Now a certain man of the sons of the prophets said to another by the word of the LORD, ‘Please strike me.’ But the man refused to strike him. 36 Then he said to him, ‘Because you have not listened to the voice of the LORD, behold, as soon as you have departed from me, a lion will kill you.’ And as soon as he had departed from him a lion found him, and killed him. 37 Then he found another man and said, ‘Please strike me.’ And the man struck him, wounding him.”
B. (:38-40) Prophetic Ruse
“So the prophet departed and waited for the king by the way, and disguised himself with a bandage over his eyes. 39 And as the king passed by, he cried to the king and said, ‘Your servant went out into the midst of the battle; and behold, a man turned aside and brought a man to me and said, Guard this man; if for any reason he is missing, then your life shall be for his life, or else you shall pay a talent of silver. 40 And while your servant was busy here and there, he was gone.’ And the king of Israel said to him, ‘So shall your judgment be; you yourself have decided it.’”
David Guzik: In the prophet’s story, he was unfaithful in guarding something that was entrusted to him. Ahab rightly judged that he should be held responsible for his failure to guard what was entrusted to him.
MacArthur: a talent of silver. This was about 75 lbs. of silver, more than a common soldier could afford and for which debt he would face death.
C. (:41-42) Pronouncement of Judgment
“Then he hastily took the bandage away from his eyes, and the king of Israel recognized him that he was of the prophets. 42 And he said to him, ‘Thus says the LORD, Because you have let go out of your hand the man whom I had devoted to destruction, therefore your life shall go for his life, and your people for his people.’”
Thomas Constable: The obedient prophet’s parable recalls the one Nathan told David (2 Sam. 12:1-7). Ahab condemned himself by what he said. God would kill Ahab for not killing Ben-Hadad (22:37). He would also cause Israel, which Ahab headed and represented, to suffer defeat rather than the Arameans (v. 42; cf. 1 Sam. 15:22-29). Ahab foolishly chose to follow his own plan instead of obeying the Lord. Obedience probably would have terminated the conflict with the Aramean army.
Peter Pett: Then the prophet made clear that he had been speaking about the king himself. He in his blindness had let go the very man whom YHWH had devoted to destruction. His judgment thus returned upon himself. He had failed YHWH and he and his people would have to pay the price of his failure.
John Gates: the spiritual principle set forth is that believers must not extend toleration, even in the name of mercy, to the forces of Satan. It had lain within the power of Ahab to end forever the life and death struggle between Syria and Israel. Now with Ben-hadad free, the struggle would continue, with disastrous results.
Donald Wiseman: An acted parable is used to lead Ahab to realize his inconsistency and guilt in going against God’s express will and postponing judgment on Ben-Hadad. This was to cost Israel dearly in death and destruction (cf. 2 Kgs 10:32) and load to the final fall of the Northern Kingdom. The literary device of the story to bring conviction or error can be compared with Samuel’s condemnation of Saul (I Sam. 13:14-30), and Nathan of David (2 Sam. 12:1-13). It is the responsibility of a prophet to direct one who errs to the right interpretation of events and so lead to self-judgment. Here we are reminded that not even a king is above the law but is subject to divine-justice (v.42).
Dale Ralph Davis: Yahweh here labels Ben-hadad, literally, ‘the man of my destruction [ḥerem],’ Ahab had spared the man Yahweh meant to destroy; he had been ‘busy here and there’ (v. 40) preening his image as the moderate, temperate, reasonable victor, and had let Yahweh’s prisoner escape. Hence the destruction designed for Ben-hadad will fall upon Ahab and his people. This is the import of Yahweh’s word. Ahab begins by sparing his enemy (vv. 31–34) and will end by destroying his people (v. 42).
D. (:43) Postscript = Retreat of Sulking King Ahab
“So the king of Israel went to his house sullen and vexed, and came to Samaria.”
Thomas Constable: This section is similar to the one that recorded Saul’s failure to follow Yahweh’s command that also resulted in God cutting him off (1 Sam. 13:13-14). The parallels between Saul and Ahab are remarkable throughout this record of Ahab’s reign.
Warren Wiersbe: Instead of repenting and seeking the Lord’s forgiveness, Ahab went home and pouted like a child.
MacArthur: Ahab was resentful and angry because of the Lord’s reaction to his actions (cf. 21:4).