V. THE LONG-SUFFERING
EXAMPLE IN THE CASE OF AN IMPENITENT SINNER. CHARACTER OF AHAB. 1 KINGS xxii.
THE narrative in this chapter brings prominently out two
very different characters that of Ahab, king of Israel, and that of
Jehoshaphat, king of Judah. We begin with the consideration of Ahabs
character, as it is illustrated in the closing scene of his life.
This Ahab had been all along in his life, as he continued to be in his death, a signal monument and example of the long-suffering patience of God In the very beginning of his reign he had provoked the Lord by a new crime. He did evil, it is said, in the sight of the Lord, above all that were before him; and, as if it had been a light thing for him to walk in the sins of Jeroboam, he took to wife Jezebel, the daughter of Eth-Baal, king of the Zidonians, and went and served Baal and worshipped him (1 Kings xvi. 30).
The sin of Jeroboam was not so much idolatry as schism not the worship of false gods, but the worship of the true God in a false, unauthorized, and divisive course. After the revolt of the ten tribes, he saw that their political separation from Judah would be of short duration if they still went up to Jerusalem to worship; whereupon, taking counsel (1 Kings xii. 28), he set up in Dan and Bethel two golden calves, in imitation of the cherubic emblems in the temple, and as substitutes for them; and, ordaining a separate priesthood to minister at these new shrines, he made the people believe that they need not go out of their own possessions to find the God who had brought them out of Egypt. This was the policy of Jeroboam and his successors, to make the ten tribes independent of Jerusalem in things sacred as well as in things civil, by erecting separate altars, as well as a separate throne. Still they did not profess to differ in the object of their worship from their brethren of the two tribes, who continued subject to the house of David.
But Ahab improved upon this device; he completed the separation, and consummated the apostasy. Having married, against the law, a heathen princess, he openly adopted the heathen worship. The daughter of the king of Zidon easily introduced and established the Zidonian idolatry, the worship of Baalim, or the heavenly hosts. This fierce and persecuting idolatry well-nigh suppressed the religion of Jehovah, and exterminated his prophets. A small but chosen band, however, of these devoted men escaped the fury of Ahab and Jezebel; and in this depth of wickedness, when the Levites were expelled, the priesthood degraded, and the people sunk in crime, boldly maintained the cause of God.
Among these, Elijah was the chief. On the very first out-breaking of Ahab's new offence, he was commissioned to announce one of the judgments threatened by Moses, that of long drought. A parched land and a famished population wrought at last a salutary change. Elijah, miraculously preserved during the famine, appears suddenly before the king, challenges the priests of Baal to a trial of their respective faiths, and having confounded them and vindicated himself by the fire from heaven descending on his altar, brings back the prince and people to the acknowledgment of the true God. The heathen priests and prophets are slain. Those of Jehovah are sought out and honoured, (1 Kings xvii. and xviii.)
It was in this interval of partial and transient reformation that Ahab, by divine encouragement, defeated the king of Syria, and repelled his invasion. But in the very height of triumph he forgot God, and made a covenant with the enemy, whom he was commanded utterly to destroy; suffering him to escape on his promising to restore a few towns formerly taken from the Israelites. He had victory given to him, and final deliverance secured, if only he had been willing, in faith, to follow up and follow out the advantage he had gained, and, according to God's command, utterly exterminate the foe. But he would be wiser more politic or more pitiful than God. He would make terms of compromise, drive a profitable bargain, and, in consideration of a merely nominal and apparent concession for the Syrian king soon showed he was not in earnest let the oppressor go in peace. For this he was rebuked by one of the prophets: "Thus saith the Lord, Because thou hast let go out of thy hand a man whom I appointed to utter destruction, therefore thy life shall go for his life, and thy people for his people." The rebuke, instead of humbling, irritated and provoked him: "He went to his house heavy and displeased." (1 Kings xx.)
Soon he was still farther misled by that covetousness which in his case most emphatically was idolatry. The longing eye which he cast on Naboth's vineyard seduced him into compliance with his wife's diabolical counsel to have Naboth stoned to death on a false charge of blasphemy; and that unscrupulous and unprincipled woman having regained her influence over him, soon hurried him again into the worst excesses of his former heathenism; insomuch that "there was none like unto Ahab, which did sell himself to work wickedness in the sight of the Lord, whom Jezebel his wife stirred up; and he did very abominably in following idols." (1 Kings xxi.) But still he is not forsaken by God. In the very instant of his relapse into sin, the prophet Elijah is sent to admonish him. Ahab repents; not perhaps very thoroughly, or with a really godly sorrow, but still so as to procure for himself one more respite, one other trial. For it is a striking feature of the providence of God, as exemplified in Scripture, that he sometimes accepts even a hypocritical, or at least a temporary and superficial, reformation, so far as to make it the occasion of a new respite and a new trial; but it may be the final respite, the final trial, as it was in the case of Ahab (1 Kings xxi. 17-29).
Let us pause, however, here for a moment, and behold thus far, and at this stage, the goodness of God. In an age and nation of abounding iniquity, he has all along been raising up witnesses of his truth and his love. And in the particular case of Ahab, how patiently has he waited! It seems as if he were willing to make all possible allowance for the man's natural infirmity, his impetuosity of temper, the circumstances in which he has been placed, and the influences exerted over him. He is reluctant to give him up altogether. He labours to arrest his downward career; he hails and welcomes every appearance of improvement; he counteracts the advice of evil counsellors by the faithful and effectual expostulations of true prophets; he is long-suffering and slow to anger.
But there is a period to this forbearance. The time is come when Ahab's fate must be decided. We arrive at the history of Ahab's fall, the last, controversy between the goodness of God on the one hand, and the wilfulness of this heady and high-minded man on the other. Let us mark the successive stages of this strife: the king's wilful purpose; the Lord's gracious opposition; the issue of the contest; the issue and end of all.
PART FIRST. The King's Wilful Purpose (1 Kings xxii. 1-6).
Ahab's purpose is announced in the beginning of the chapter. We find him, after three years of peace, preparing to attack the Syrians. The Syrian king, whom Ahab had treated with such ill-timed levity, and with whom he had made so sinful a compromise, has, as might have been anticipated, failed to fulfil the stipulated terms of ransom, and to restore the cities of Israel Ahab, provoked at his own simplicity in having suffered so favourable an opportunity to slip, through his fond trust in the honour of a perfidious prince, and stung by the recollection of the prophet's rebuke, conceives the design of retrieving his error, and compelling the fulfilment of the treaty, on the faith of which he had been weakly persuaded to liberate the enemy whom God had doomed. In this, Ahab acts under the impulse of resentment and ambition. He burns with the desire of avenging a personal wrong and insult, rather than of fulfilling the decree of God. Had he consulted the will of God, he must have seen and felt that it was now too late for him to take the step proposed. He had let the time go past. When God gave him victory, and assured him of power over his enemy, then he should have used his opportunity. This he had failed to do; and for his failure he had been reproved by God, and warned by the prophet that his people and his life were forfeited. He might have acquiesced in the reproof, and learned caution from the warning; and, thankful for the undeserved blessings of peace and safety which he enjoyed, he might have waited patiently on the Lord, who, in his own good time and way, would have accomplished his purpose. This would have been his true wisdom; and the best, or rather the only proof which he could give of the sincerity of his repentance, would have been to show himself thus humbled instead of being displeased. Certainly Ahab should have been the very last person to think of rousing and provoking the very foe who, by the divine sentence and by his own compromise, had gained so sad and signal an advantage over him.
But instead of following so wise a course, Ahab blindly rushes into the opposite extreme from his former fault; and because before he has been blamed for not going far enough, with God on his side, he is provoked to go too far now, though God has declared against him. His conduct was like that of the Israelites of old, who, discouraged by the report of the spies, refused to invade the land, even when assured of God's help; but when God refused his help on account of their unbelief, instead of humbly receiving the just punishment of their offence, were stung by it to the madness of making the rash attempt themselves. So Ahab,- instead of meekly submitting to the displeasure of God for his late unjustifiable weakness, would brave that displeasure again by an act of equally unjustifiable rashness; in the very temper of a petted and froward child, who, when reproved for doing too little, thinks to show his spirit by instantly doing too much.
Still, however, though in breaking the peace or truce with which he is favoured, and venturing to provoke his perfidious and powerful neighbour, Ahab is acting without the warrant, nay, against the express warning of the Lord, he is not without his reasons, and they are very plausible reasons, to justify the step proposed. In the first place, it is in itself an act of patriotism and of piety; at least it looks very like it, and may easily be so represented: "And the king of Israel said unto his servants, Know ye that Ramoth in Gilead is ours, and we be still, and take it not out of the hand of the king of Syria?" (ver.3). The city unquestionably belonged originally to Israel, and the king of Syria had promised to restore it, along with his other conquests. It lay within the territory of the tribe of Gad. It was a city of the Levites, and a city of refuge. It was a possession, therefore, an important and indeed sacred possession of the Israelites. What harm, then, is Ahab doing? Where is the injustice of his proceedings? Nay, is it not fair, reasonable, honourable, to attempt the recovery of his own and his people's rights? Is he not even consulting the honour of God, in seeking thus zealously the restoration of what is God's? Justice, duty, religion, appear to sanction his purpose.
Secondly, it has received the countenance of a friend: "And he said unto Jehoshaphat, Wilt thou go with me to battle to Ramoth-gilead? And Jehoshaphat said to the king of Israel, I am as thou art, my people as thy people, my horses as thy horses" (ver. 4). And that friend is not a wicked man, but one fearing God, and acknowledged by God as righteous.
And, thirdly, it has obtained the sanction of four hundred prophets: "Then the king of Israel gathered the prophets together, about four hundred men, and said unto them, Shall I go against Ramoth-gilead to battle, or shall I forbear? And they said, Go up; for the Lord shall deliver it into the hand of the king" (ver. 6). And these are not prophets of Baal; for his prophets had been lately dishonoured and almost utterly destroyed, and Ahab could not venture to bring any of them forward before so pious a prince as Jehoshaphat. Ahab is at this time professing a regard to the true religion, and he keeps at his court and about his person many disciples of the schools of the prophets, who themselves hold, or are reputed to hold, the prophetic character. The most complaisant and courteous of their number would doubtless be his counsellors: the boldest, as we know, he imprisoned. Still the approbation of these four hundred prophets, such as they were, might well confirm his resolution.
Looking, then, at the act itself as an act of patriotic and pious zeal, encouraged by the consent of his friend and the concurrence of the prophets, Ahab, we may think, might well be misled. And we might pity and excuse him too, as one misled, did we not see him so willing to be so. Is he not all the while deceiving himself, and that too almost wilfully and consciously? Is it not the fact does he not feel it in his secret soul to be the fact that it is no sincere regard to the honour of his God and the good of his people that actuates him, but pride, vain-glory, ambition, and a spirit of impatience under the Lord's rebuke? Is he not aware, that in the enterprise which he contemplates he has no call from Heaven, and no right to reckon on help from on high? That instead of having any title now to attack his enemy and to recover his lost possession, he should be very grateful if he is not himself attacked, his own life and his people's being declared to be forfeited? Then as to his friend's consent, has he dealt fairly with that friend? Has he stated to him all the circumstances of the case? And does he not see plainly his friend's desire to conciliate, or fear to offend? Is he not deliberately taking advantage of a good man's weakness? Lastly, as to the prophets, has he no cause to suspect flattery and falsehood? Is he not of free choice preferring their soothing lie to the honest truth? Does he not know that there is one prophet at least whom he cannot venture to consult? And is not this of itself a proof that he is by no means himself satisfied that he is right; that, on the contrary, he feels or fears that he may be doing wrong?
Beware, ye pilgrims in an evil world, ye soldiers in an arduous fight, beware of your own rash wilfulness, of the weakness of compliant friends, and of the flattering counsels of evil men and seducers, who in the last times in the last and critical stage of individual experience, as well as of the world's history are sure to wax worse and worse! There is no design, no device, no desire of your hearts, which you may not find some specious arguments to justify, some friends to countenance, aye, and some prophets too to sanction. You scarcely ever can be tempted to take a single doubtful or dangerous step in life without having some plea of reason or religion to warrant it. It may be a step which God does not require you to take, and which he does not promise to assist you in taking. You may be putting in jeopardy your principles, and risking the very safety of your souls, by rushing needlessly and un-warrantably into the province of the enemy, and braving, or even courting, temptation challenging, by invasion of its haunts, the seductions of an evil world provoking the slumbering power of sin, of the very sin to which, by former concessions and compromises, you have given a formidable advantage over you. Ah! But you have some good purpose to serve in thus exposing yourselves you have some important end to gain. You have to make up for past neglect; you have to repair past errors; you have to win back to God some part of what the great adversary has conquered, which still you think might be cleansed and sanctified again; you have to assert your Christian freedom and vindicate your superiority over the world, the devil, and the flesh. And if you should go a step too far, and venture somewhat imprudently into the very midst of the strong-holds of this world's god, you will surely, in consideration of the sincerity of your motives, be forgiven and protected. And then you can get good men, in their complaisance, to go along with you, and even some form, or feeling, or fashion of religion some spiritual plea of gospel liberty or love to consecrate the undertaking; and you may seem to have a very good cause, or at least a very fair excuse, for venturing, as you do, on the very margin of what is wrong.
Aye, but are you sure that, all this while, there is no guile in your spirit? Is there no consciousness of a selfish aim, no feeling that, in part at least, you are seeking to gratify your own pride and passion, as well as to advance the interests of righteousness, when, not content with the security and peace which by God's special mercy you might enjoy, through simply believing in Jesus, hiding yourselves in him, and humbly keeping aloof from the evil one, you are thus ready to risk a nearer encounter with the foe, and trust in your own ability to conquer? Are you not deceiving yourselves, and willing to be deceived? Is there no pious friend, to win whose approval you feel that you would need to state your case falsely, or partially? Is there no sound judgment that you fear to consult; no eye of searching penetration and keen reproof to which you would not wish the whole purpose of your hearts to be unveiled; no argument or expostulation to which you would not like to listen; no prophet of the Lord whom you dare not send for?
Oh, if there be, let this proof of a bad, or a doubtful cause, startle and alarm you! Doubt, deliberate no more, if you would not be lost. However innocent, however justifiable, the line of conduct in question may be, however plausible the arguments in its favour, however ready the consent of friends, however full the sanction, of prophets, be sure it is the beginning of evil, the first step to ruin, as it was in the case of Ahab.
PART SECOND. The Lord's Gracious Opposition (1 Kings xxii. 7-23.)
We come now to consider the Lord's opposition to Ahab's purpose; for God did not yet leave this infatuated man to himself he interposed to warn him by the mouth of a faithful servant. The king of Israel is satisfied with the oracular answer of the prophets. Not so, however, the king of Judah. He suspects something wrong, missing probably among the four hundred some one of whom he has heard. Hence his question (ver. 7), "Is there not here a prophet of the Lord besides that we might enquire of him?" And hence the pains he takes to overcome Ahab's prejudice against Micaiah (ver. 8): "And the king of Israel said unto Jehoshaphat, There is yet one man, Micaiah the son of Imlah, by whom we may enquire of the Lord: but I hate him; for he doth not prophesy good concerning me, but evil. And Jehoshaphat said; let not the king say so." The king of Judah, it is true, does not venture to speak very boldly; for that he is too timid, or too temporizing. Still he persuades Ahab, and so far prevails as to have Micaiah summoned from the prison in which, for his freedom of speech, he had been confined: "Then the king of Israel called an officer, and said, Hasten hither Micaiah the son of Imlah."
This Micaiah is supposed to be the prophet who re proved Ahab formerly, on the occasion of his compromise with the Syrian king; and it was probably his boldness on that occasion that caused him to be imprisoned. That for some such reason he was at this time a prisoner, seems to be plainly implied, both in the king's manner of summoning him and in the terms in which he is afterwards remanded to confinement (ver. 26, 27). To please, then, his over-scrupulous ally, Ahab calls Micaiah into his counsels. But mark in what spirit he does so; not willingly, but reluctantly; not out of a candid desire to hear him, but with a fixed prejudice and predetermination against him.
And is not this, the spirit in which good advice is too often asked, and the word of God consulted, when it is too late, when a man's mind is already all but made up? You go when your conscience will not otherwise let you alone, or when the remonstrances of pious friends trouble you; you go to some man of God, to God himself, by prayer and the searching of his word: for what? What is it that you want? Light for duty, however self-denying? Or light to justify your doubtful course? Alas! alas! it may be all a mere form, gone through to satisfy some scruple of a friend; or it may be a desperate effort to catch at any semblance of divine permission for what you have, at any rate, set your heart on doing.
Look at Ahab, for example. See how he is occupied while his messenger is gone for Micaiah. Instead of preparing himself to judge impartially, he is still lending an itching ear to the prophets of smooth things, one of whom goes so far as to mock and mimic the symbolic mode of prophecy adopted by the true prophets, and to represent, by the similitude of two pushing horns, the supposed successes of the allied kings: "And the king of Israel and Jehoshaphat the king of Judah sat each on his throne, having put on their robes, in a void place in the entrance of the gate of Samaria; and all the prophets prophesied before them. And Zedekiah the son of Chenaanah made him horns of iron: and he said, Thus saith the Lord, with these shalt thou push the Syrians, until thou have consumed them. And all the prophets prophesied so, saying, Go up to Ramoth-gilead, and prosper: for the Lord shall deliver it into the king's hand" (ver. 10-12). Thus Ahab is confirmed in his purpose, and is still further prejudiced against Micaiah.
Meantime that man of God is called. He is advised, in friendship perhaps, to accommodate himself to the humour of the king, and to fall in with the rest of the prophets (ver. 13): "And the messenger that was gone to call Micaiah spake unto him, saying, Behold now, the words of the prophets declare good unto the king with one mouth: let thy word, I pray thee, be like the word of one of them, and speak that which is good." His answer is noble (ver. 14): "As the Lord liveth, what the Lord saith unto me, that will I speak." And right nobly does he redeem his pledge.
He stands before the princes, undaunted by their royal state. First of all, he rebukes the prejudice of Ahab, by seeming to flatter it (ver.15): "So he came to the king. And the king said unto him, Micaiah, shall we go against Ramoth-gilead to battle, or shall we forbear? And he answered him, "Go, and prosper: for the Lord shall deliver it into the hand of the king." He says this in bitter irony and sarcasm, taunting the king, and using the very words of the prophets to whom he delighted to listen. 'What is the use of consulting me? They have given you already the advice and the promise which you desire. Doubtless they are to be believed, and you have resolved to believe them. They bid you go; yes! Go by all means. They assure you of success; certainly they must know best.' The irony conveys a cutting reproof, and a merited one; and with this the holy prophet might have left the prince to believe his own and his flatterers' lie.
But the mercy of God and the sin of Ahab are to be yet more signally brought out. Micaiah, therefore, when again adjured, speaks plainly. Ahab discerns the sharp and keen ridicule of the prophet's first address, and feels the rebuke. He presses him more closely: "How many times shall I adjure thee that thou tell me nothing but that which is true in the name of the Lord?" (ver.16.) In reply, the prophet first describes what he saw in vision, scenes of desolation, the king lost, and the people dispersed, the shepherd smitten, and the sheep scattered; an expression which became proverbial, and was prophetic of another scene, when another Shepherd was smitten: "And he said, I saw all Israel scattered upon the hills, as sheep that have not a shepherd: and the Lord said, These have no master: let them return every man to his house in peace " (ver. 17). And then, still more thoroughly to awaken and alarm the king, the prophet, by a striking announcement of what is presented to him in vision as at that moment passing in the unseen world, denounces the falsehood of the other advisers, and unveils to Ahab the crisis of his fate: "And he said, Hear thou therefore the word of the Lord: I saw the Lord sitting on his throne, and all the host of heaven standing by him on his right hand and on his left. And the Lord said, who shall persuade Ahab that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead? And one said on this manner, and another said on that manner. And there came forth a spirit, and stood before the Lord, and said, I will persuade him. And the Lord said unto him, wherewith? And he said, I will go forth, and I will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets. And he said, Thou shalt persuade him, and prevail also: go forth, and do so. Now therefore, behold, the Lord hath put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these thy prophets, and the Lord hath spoken evil concerning thee" (ver. 19-23).
Thus Micaiah describes the Lord sitting on the throne of judgment, and in judgment sending forth a spirit of delusion to lure and decoy Ahab to his fall: not that God ever seeks and desires the destruction of his creatures, or influences them by any necessity to be destroyed; but that, both as the natural consequence and also as the just punishment of their perverseness, when he sees them, in spite of all remonstrances, enamoured of destruction, he suffers them to destroy themselves. He leaves them, when willing to be deceived, at the mercy of the great deceiver. He causes blindness to fall on those who will not see, and hardness of heart on those who will not believe; and when men are ready to grasp a lie, sends a lying spirit to put a lie in their right hands.
And yet even to the last, in judgment God remembers mercy. The very scene of judgment which the prophet discloses does not imply any fixed and irrevocable design of wrath against Ahab; with such a design, indeed, the disclosure of the scene would be incompatible and inconsistent. We speak of the revealed, not the secret will of God; with the revealed will of God alone Ahab had to do. And accordingly this scene, while it indicates a fearful trial, appointed in just wrath God himself sending forth a lying spirit indicates also, in the very intimation given of it previously by one whom Ahab knew he ought to believe as a true prophet, that the Lord would have him to be forewarned and forearmed. He thus puts into Ahab's hands, if he will but take them, the arms by which he may meet the adversary; the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God; and the shield of faith, whereby he may be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked one. It is in love that this scene is disclosed in truest and most tender pity to rouse, to arrest, to turn him, ere it is too late. There is yet time for him to stop short; else why this last attempt to open his eyes?
And is it not ever thus? The sentence of final infatuation does not come without previous intimation. However you may be deceived, or may be deceiving, yourselves, is there not a voice of truth, or a prophetic warning, which you feel might keep you right if you were but willing to be kept right? Lying spirits of Satan may be sent abroad; but is not the Spirit of the living God still to the last striving with you? Though all your friends, and all the prophets, and all the longings of your own heart, join to beguile you, is there not still something in your conscience, in the Bible, in the providence of God, which tells you that all is not well, and bids you pause and see how Satan is mustering his agents to betray you, and God is permitting or appointing it, on account of your sin? And is not this the very height of your criminality and the aggravation of your doom, that, with your eyes opened, and suspicions and doubts awakened, when, by the misgivings and forebodings of your own souls, as well as by signs all around you, God is in mercy calling you to beware of the fearful visitation of judicial blindness and a reprobate mind, soon to be inflicted on such as you are, you can still listen to the soothing voice which speaks according to your wish, and count the faithful monitor your enemy because he tells you the truth?
So it was with Ahab. "Did I not tell thee," he says to his ally, that this Micaiah was mine enemy, "that he would prophesy no good concerning me, but evil?" (ver. 18.) You see what I gain by consulting so severe and gloomy a fanatic. But, after all, why should he arrest our glorious career of triumph? What need have we of his sanction? Have we not enough of countenance without him? What fault have you to find with the four hundred, who have all with one consent promised us victory? And then see how tame and mean-spirited this saint is, how meekly he submits to insult and affront': "But Zedekiah the son of Chenaanah went near, and smote Micaiah on the cheek, and said, Which way went the Spirit of the Lord from me to speak unto thee?" (ver. 24.) When he is buffeted, he takes it patiently.
Is he a fit counsellor of brave men and potent kings? Is his sour and malignant envy, grudging our success, his morose and unaccommodating temper, crossing our purposes, thus always to blast our fair prospects with the ominous presage of woe? No; his very presence spreads cowardice and disaffection. Let him leave war and government to nobler spirits; away with him to his dungeon and his cell, to meditate his tame doctrine of slavery and peace, and muse on the glories of his visionary heaven.
The prophet, having faithfully discharged his conscience, and served his God and his king, retires happy to his prison, calm and confident of the result: "And Micaiah said, Behold, thou shalt see in that day, when thou shalt go into an inner chamber to hide thyself. And the king of Israel said, Take Micaiah and carry him back unto Amon the governor of the city, and to Joash the king's son; and say, Thus saith the king, Put this fellow in the prison, and feed him with bread of affliction and with water of affliction, until I come in peace. And Micaiah said, If thou return at all in peace, the Lord hath not spoken by me. And he said, Hearken, people, every one of you." (ver. 25-28). The prince, enraged and irritated by the consciousness of this last wrong, having sealed his doom by his abuse of this last mercy, losing now all temper and self-command, rushes infatuated to battle and to death: "So the king of Israel and Jehoshaphat the king of Judah went up to Ramoth-gilead" (ver. 29).
PART THIRD. The Issue of the Contest (I Kings xxii. 29-38).
We come now to the closing scene, the issue of Ahab's trial. Having at last overmastered the scruples of his friend, Ahab marshals the hosts of Israel and Judah to go up against Ramoth-gilead. And here, in the first place, let the expedient by which Ahab consults his own safety be observed. For he does not feel entirely comfortable and secure; he cannot rid himself of the uneasy apprehension which the prophet's word has suggested. There is danger. Oh! but he will fall on a shrewd way of escaping it! The prophet has announced that it is the shepherd, that is the king, who is to fall; and accordingly, as it turns out, the orders of the Syrian commander are (ver. 31), that his troops are to spare all meaner enemies, and bend their whole force against the royal captain of the Jewish host. Ahab, knowing the hazard, cunningly proposes to resign the post of honour to his ally: "And the king of Israel said unto Jehoshaphat, I will disguise myself, and enter into the battle; but put thou on thy robes. And the king of Israel disguised himself, and went into the battle" (ver. 30). While Ahab is to disguise himself, or, in other words, to go forth in the ordinary armour of a common soldier, Jehoshaphat is to retain his royal robes and assume the command. The design of the crafty prince is so far successful. His too easy friend accepts the post of honour, as being the post of danger too. The dauntless spirit of this honourable man suspected no fraud in his ally, and shrunk from no force of the enemy. How narrowly he escaped without paying the penalty of his confidence and complaisance, we may afterwards remark. Meantime, what are we to think of the meanness of him who could thus treacherously impose upon another the conduct and hazard of his own unholy enterprise, and that other, too, his sworn comrade, his friend? what but that there can be no friendship, no honour at all, in a confederacy of sin, a confederacy against God? Cowardice, treachery, these are the characteristics of an evil conscience and a doubtful cause. Ahab was perhaps no coward naturally, no traitor to the sanctities of friendship; yet how unscrupulously does he sacrifice his friend and ally to the dastardly hope of shifting away from himself the sin and danger of the step that he is taking? And what are we to expect but that, false to his God, a man will be false to his friend also. Especially in any matter in which he has sought to fortify his own wavering resolution by his friend's companionship, he make that friend's godly character available as a shield and cover for his own sin.
Let none trust the fidelity of him who is not faithful to his best, his kindest, his most generous benefactor, his Saviour, his God. Consult your own conscience. When you are prepared to violate the restraints of God's holy law, and to despise the warning of his holy prophets, will you stand upon much ceremony with the cobweb delicacies of courtesy and kindness, of that honour which is but breath, and that friendship which is but a name? Will you hesitate one moment to endanger the peace, the safety, or the reputation, even of the man who treats you with the most simple and confiding frankness? Will you scruple to turn his simplicity to your own account, and to play and work upon his confidence? You will try to make him as bad as you are yourselves; perhaps a little worse. By flattery, by solicitations, by false representations of your design, you will persuade him to join you to give you his consent and countenance to take a lead perhaps in your enterprise. Under pretence of honouring him, deferring to his advice and trusting in his wisdom, you will propose that he should stand forward while you occupy the back ground. And if you succeed, how will you secretly exult! And if he be a good man, you will triumph all the more. You will lay all the blame and all the risk on him; and under his wing you will think that you are safe.
But will the treacherous and cowardly device avail? Did it in the case of Ahab? No; God is not mocked. He sees the trembling caitiff [obsolete word for coward'] under his mean disguise. And in the random shot which struck the guilty prince we recognise the immediate hand of the Lord in judgment. The expedient, indeed, has apparently almost answered Ahab's purpose. His friend, the king of Judah, as he expected, is mistaken for him, and becomes the mark for a thousand weapons: "And it came to pass, when the captains of the chariots saw Jehoshaphat, that they said, Surely it is the king of Israel. And they turned aside to fight against him: and Jehoshaphat cried out" (ver. 32). Ahab himself in the meantime escapes detection, and is exulting in the success of his scheme, and in his own security; when, as if to mark him out as the victim, not of man, but of God, no well-aimed dart, but an arrow sent at a venture, becomes to him the unerring bolt of wrath, and accomplishes his just and predetermined doom: "And a certain man drew a bow at a. venture, and smote the king of Israel between the joints of the harness; wherefore he said unto the driver of his chariot, Turn thine hand, and carry me out of the host; for I am wounded" (ver. 34).
It is thus, sinner! that the judgment of God will overtake you, and "your sin will find you out." You may follow the multitude to do evil, and, mingling in the multitude undistinguished and unobserved, you may seem to get rid of your own individual responsibility and your own individual risk. You may flatter yourself that in your worldly course you have lost and merged your own particular share of the guilt and hazard in the general mass, and, as one of many involved in a common liability, are not specially marked and specially doomed. You may place before you, in the foremost rank, some dear friend, some greater and better man than yourself, who can better stand the brunt of battle. Against him the charge must be made; on him the fault, if any, must lie: he stands between you and judgment, and under the warrant and with the excuse of his authority, you feel yourself secure.
Still, "be sure your sin will find you out." An arrow drawn at a venture will enter your soul. The Lord singles you out individually, and separately deals with you. There is a shaft of conviction or a bolt of wrath on the wing, rushing seemingly at random through mid, air the arrow of Christ the king shot from his word, his gospel. Whose heart shall it sharply pierce? Yours, sinner! though a high name lead you, and a high example authorize you. Then stand forth now from the crowd alone, singly, separately, pierced in your heart now, that you may not be pierced hereafter. Flee from the camp and company of the wicked. "Say not, A confederacy, to whom this people say, A confederacy, neither fear ye their fear; but sanctify the Lord of hosts in your heart, and let him be your fear, and let him be your dread." Beware of Ahab's doom. Beware of Ahab's sin. Trifle not with the remonstrances of God. Abuse not his long-suffering. Resist not his Spirit, when he is, in long-suffering patience, striving with you. In particular, 1. Beware of the beginning of Ahab's evil course - his fatal compromise with the enemy of his peace. See that you enter into no terms with any sin, and that you be not hardened through its deceitfulness. When God in Christ gives you the victory, delivering you from condemnation by his free grace, and upholding you by his free Spirit; when, justified and accepted in the Beloved, you see every sin of yours prostrate beneath your feet, stripped of all its power to slay or to enslave you be sure that you make thorough work in following out the advantage you have gained that you listen to no plausible proposals of concession that you suffer no iniquity to escape that you mortify every lust. For, if a single iniquity be tolerated, or allowed, or indulged; if a single sin remain alive; if, deceived by Satan's sophistry, you let our vanquished enemy go, and trust to his fair promises of moderation and good behaviour, who can tell what a thorn in the flesh that one enemy may prove to you, what a root of bitterness to spring up and trouble you! How soon may you be led into Ahab's course of impatience, presumption, and rebellion! To what shifts and subtleties of an unsatisfied conscience may you be compelled, like him, to resort! How, by one petty sin unmortified and unsubdued, may your peace be disturbed, your heart hardened, and your soul involved again in danger and in death! Let, your prayer, Oh penitent believer! be the prayer of the psalmist: "Who can understand his errors? Cleanse thou me from secret faults. Keep back thy servant also from presumptuous sins: let them not have dominion over me: then shall I be upright, and I shall be innocent from the great transgression. Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, Lord, my strength and my redeemer."
2. Beware of welcoming ...a slumbering foe. If there be any enemy of your peace to whom, by former compliances or concessions, you have given an advantage over you, beware of invading his territories again. Be on your guard against the very first beginnings of evil of any evil especially that you have ever, in all your past lives, tolerated, or flattered, or fondled in your bosoms, when you should have been nailing it, without pity, to your Saviour's cross. You may have many plausible reasons for venturing into nearer and closer contact with it than is at all necessary or safe. You may wish to recover a lost opportunity of grappling with it in the death-struggle of repentance and faith; you may wish to assert your Christian liberty and power. But, oh! beware, if conscience whisper that there is in you any latent lurking remnant of the spirit that made you once indulgent towards that sin, or anything like that sin. "Look not on the wine-cup when it is red." "Make a covenant with thine eyes that they behold not a maid." "If thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell."
3. Beware of the deceitfulness of sin. The wiles of the devil are not unknown to you. In a doubtful case, where you are hesitating, it is easy for him to insinuate and suggest reasons enough to make the worse appear the better cause. Generally you may detect his sophistry by its complex character. Truth is simple; the word of God is plain: "Come out from among them and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing." The voice of conscience also is clear: "How can I do this wickedness, and sin against God?"
4. Beware of being hardened through the deceitfulness of sin. Beware of a judicial hardening of your hearts, or of your being given over to believe a lie. Imagine to yourselves what may be at this very moment going on in the high court of heaven concerning you. It may be your case that is under consideration; it may be the crisis of your fate that is come. No Micaiah is here, indeed, to unfold the solemn scene; but something in your own conscience may tell of it. There is hesitancy: Felix trembles Agrippa is moved. It is not yet too late; you are at the very point of the decisive choice. All is trembling in the balance. Then, today, if ye will hear His voice, harden not your hearts. Trifle not with the convictions of conscience or the strivings of the Spirit of God. Beware of provoking and incurring the sentence "Ephraim is joined to his idols, let him alone;" or the judgment indicated by Him who is the faithful and true witness, in his parable of the barren fig-tree "Cut it down, why cumbereth it the ground?" the judgment which, after all suitable influences have been applied in vain, is acquiesced in by the intercessor himself as in the last resort inevitable "Then after that thou shalt cut it down" (Luke xiii. 6-9).
Go to Scripture Characters no. 6.
SCRIPTURE CHARACTERS BY ROBERT S. CANDLISH, D.D., FREE ST. GEORGE'S, EDINBURGH. LONDON: T. NELSON AND SONS, PATERNOSTER ROW EDINBURGH; AND NEW YORK.
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