1 Kings 17-22

Every prophet lives in a context. Some, like Nathan, are only called on one time to correct a king who is a man after God’s own heart. Others, like Jeremiah, are called to serve when a whole nation is on the brink of disaster and his whole life is given over to conflict, persecution, hatred, obstruction and then an unknown death. Like the book of Hebrews says, “Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated – the world was not worthy of them. They wandered up deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.,”

The work of the king, the Levites and the priests was a piece of cake compared to the work of the prophet. While some did have it harder than others none of them likely would have chosen the work on their own. God had to call them to it. In fact, we can see from the misleading words of false prophets who chose the work for themselves that being a false prophet was a popular job – at least for a time. Wicked kings and rulers loved them. They surrounded themselves with them. They always asked them for their opinion and advice because they knew they would only hear, “The people love you. You are a winner. You can never be defeated. God is with you and has anointed you to lead the nation.” Who could resist that affirmation? Who would want to hear anything else but how successful they were and how adored they were by the people?

Truth is not welcomed. Polls are twisted and disinformation is rampant. Men who might have been honorable and even courageous under other circumstances are spineless and without conviction. As David wrote in Psalm 12: “The wicked freely strut about when what is vile is honored among men.” Or as Solomon wrote later in Proverbs 29:12: “If a ruler listens to lies, all his officials become wicked.”

It is just such a set of circumstances into which Elijah is called. There is a history of wickedness, betrayal, rebellion, insurrection and illegitimate rulers when we meet Elijah and Ahab in 1 Kings 17.

What has preceded Ahab? His father, Omri, was a commander of the armies of Israel during the assassination of king Elah who was killed while he was drunk by Zimri one of the other commanders. Rulers and the military sometimes see things differently. In other words, Zimri organized a military coup against the rightful king. Zimri, the commander who killed the king and stole the throne, reigned for seven days until the rest of the army created a counter-coup and named Omri, Ahab’s father as king. Omri likely had his only other opponent for the throne killed and then ruled for twelve years. Like so many others, his epitaph reads, “he did evil in the eyes of the Lord and sinned more than all those before him.” There seems to have been competition for who could do more evil than all those who came before him because the same is said about his son, Ahab, who became the next king. In fact, twenty two years later upon Ahab’s death it is written. “There was never a man like Ahab, who sold himself to do evil in the eyes of the Lord, urged on by Jezebel his wife. He behaved in the vilest manner by going after idols..” We’ll get to Jezebel in a few minutes. I just wanted to set the stage for the conditions to which Elijah is called to speak for God. It is not a history of peaceful and orderly transitions of power.

His first words to Ahab in Chapter 17 are, “As the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word.” Of course, for an agricultural society that means the economy is going to collapse completely over the next several years and there is nothing to do about it. There is no Federal Reserve or Department of Agriculture to bail them out. Being king is going to become very difficult when people are starving. Ahab will need all the support he can get. And then Elijah leaves and hides in a ravine by a stream east of the Jordan where he is fed by ravens. He does not run away. He is sent away.

After three years of famine Elijah is sent again to Ahab to tell him God is going to finally send rain. Of course, sometimes kings kill not only the messengers of bad news. They kill messengers of good news who first brought the bad news. So, what does Ahab say to Elijah when he comes before the king? “Is that you, you troubler of Israel?” That’s how prophets are normally seen in their time. They are troublers. Do you remember the quote from the late Senator John Lewis, “Do not get lost in despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year. It is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”

That was Elijah’s calling as well. He was bringing necessary trouble. Ahab saw it as trouble that was inconvenient for him and threatening his cronies but how did God see it? It was Ahab and his family that had made the kind of trouble for Israel that would eventually destroy the nation. They had abandoned the Lord and gone after idols. It was Elijah’s calling to trouble Israel and make some noise. That’s what genuine prophets do. They make good trouble. They don’t allow vile men to shift the blame.

You would think that Ahab would have Elijah killed or imprisoned on the spot but he doesn’t. In fact, Elijah orders him, the king, to summon all the people of Israel along with the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and the four hundred prophets of Asherah who eat at Jezebel’s table. How easily ordered around Ahab is. He’s evil but not strong. He is wicked but not courageous.

Of course, eating at someone’s table, then and now, means you are part of the household and the inner circle. You enjoy all the benefits and privileges of being close to power. Powerful people like to count how many priests they have supporting them. They like to trot them out for photo ops and to show everyone how supportive the religious leaders are of their administration. It’s a great life – until it is not. That is what we are about to witness.

We know the story well. Elijah says to the people, “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.”

How do people respond? They respond then as many do now. “But the people said nothing.” Crickets. Not a word of commitment either way. They are hedging their bets and waiting to see who will win. They don’t want to cross the king and, with every good reason, do not want to make Jezebel angry so they wait it out in silence. They wait until Elijah says, “the god who answers by fire – he is God.” People want a winner. They want fire and total certainty but then, as the prophets of Baal discover, the people want blood. “All revolutions consume their leaders.”

“Then the fire of the Lord fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench. When all the people saw this, they fell prostrate and cried, “The Lord, he is God! The Lord – he is God.” Then Elijah commanded them, seize the prophets of Baal, Don’t let anyone get away! They seized them, and Elijah had them brought down to the Kidron Valley and slaughtered there.”

What does Ahab do after the slaughter of the priests who sat at Jezebel’s table? He runs home to avoid being caught in the torrential rain God promised and his first words are, “Now Ahab told Jezebel everything Elijah had done and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword.” Ahab is impressed. Not so much Jezebel.

She sends a messenger to Elijah with these words, “May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like that of one of them.” Just as you slaughtered 850 of my people I will slaughter you. Then you will know whose god is most powerful. I am the power behind the throne. I am, in fact, above the throne.

For years, I have heard pastors talk about how Monday morning after a particularly strong sermon there is a sense of depression – almost defeat – the next morning. On Sunday they are forceful and their words are powerful. The Spirit is present. But then there is something soon after that deflates the balloon and makes them want to find a place to hide. No one knows what it is but it is real. Often our worst moments follow our most courageous and widely praised. That could be true for Elijah but there is more to it, I think. I think it is the inhuman nature of Jezebel. Elijah has no fear of Ahab or all the priests of Baal but there is something unique and truly wicked about her.

If you read the character of Lady Macbeth in Shakespeare’s play, you will discover that same dark nature and relationship with her husband. It’s even likely Jezebel was the inspiration for Lady Macbeth. Macbeth is ambitious to be king but there is something stopping him from taking that final step of killing Duncan the king. It is not unlike Jezebel and Ahab when Ahab wants the vineyard of Naboth. When Naboth refuses Ahab’s offer Ahab went home, sullen and angry because Nabath said, “I will not give you the inheritance of my fathers.” Ahab lay on his bed sulking and refused to eat. What does Jezebel say? “Is this how you act as king over Israel. Get up and eat! Cheer up. I’ll get you the vineyard of Naboth.” And she does by having Naboth framed for treason and stoned to death.

In Shakespeare’s play, Lady Macbeth urges Macbeth to quickly kill Duncan the king when she senses he is hesitating. Let me paraphrase what she says to him:

You want to be great and you are ambitious but you do not have enough of a truly wicked nature to take what you want. I am afraid that your nature is too full of the milk of human kindness and you will not do what needs to be done to have what you desire. If you do not take what you want then you will live the rest of your life a coward in your own eyes. Do not talk yourself out of this. Come close to me so that I may whisper my dark spirit into your ear. You must appear to be a friend of the king and so deceive everyone loyal to him. You must appear to be innocent but be a serpent in reality. Put yourself in my hands and we will be king and queen.

Jezebel, like Lady Macbeth, is far more powerful and dangerous than her husband. It is the kind of wickedness that puts fear into the heart of everyone around them and with an almost supernatural power makes even the bravest of leaders and prophets run for their lives. This is not what we imagine when we think of women in the Bible. Yes, there are strong – even deceitful – women like Jael who drives a stake through the temple of Sisera, or Abigail who works her way into the heart of David while married to another man or Delilah or Potiphar’s wife. All of them are strong characters but none like Jezebel. She is given over to evil entirely and she is surrounded by evil men, false prophets, and weak kings. She has nothing of the milk of human kindness about her. She is a lost soul. She is an infection – an open sore.

And at that moment Elijah believes he is the only one left to face the evil in the house of Ahab. He runs and is ashamed of himself but what does he discover? Unlike the people who need a show, it is not in the wind or the earthquake or the fire that he hears God. It is in the stillness that the true prophet discovers he is called and is given the courage to return to what seems like an impossible and fatal calling.

“Go back the way you came. Go back to what made you run. Go back to what seems impossible because you are not alone. It may not be many but there are 7,000 whose knees have not bowed to Baal.”

The last time Elijah confronts Ahab is after Naboth has been killed for his vineyard by Jezebel. “This is what the Lord says: In my place where dogs licked up Naboth’s blood, dogs will lick up your blood -yes, yours! Because you have sold yourself to do evil in the eyes of the Lord I am going to bring disaster on you. I will consume your descendants and cut off from Ahab every last male in Israel – slave or free. Dogs will devour Jezebel by the wall of Jezreel. Dogs will eat those belonging to Ahab who die in the city, and the birds of the air will feed on those who die in the country.”

The end of Ahab’s life is bloody. He is killed by a random arrow in battle and he bleeds to death in his chariot. “They washed the chariot at a pool in Samaria where the prostitutes bathed and the dogs licked up his blood, as the word of the Lord had declared.

Thirty years after Ahab’s death Jehu is the king. He comes to Jezreel where Jezebel is living and after she painted her eyes and arranged her hair she looked out the window and said, “Have you come in peace, you murderer of your master?” Bad choice of last words it turns out. All that is left of her entourage is, ironically, three eunuchs who, at Jehu’s command, throw her out the window to her death.

Jehu went in and ate and drank. “Take care of that cursed woman,” he said, “and bury her, for she was a king’s daughter.” But when they went out to bury her, they found nothing except her skull, her feet and her hands. They went back and told Jehu, who said, “This is the word of the Lord that he spoke through his servant Elijah the Tishbite: On the plot of ground at Jezreel dogs will devour Jezebel’s flesh. Jezebel’s body will be like dung on the ground in the plot at Jezreel, so that no one will be able to say, ‘This is Jezebel.’”

Days later he kills all of Ahab’s sons – seventy of them along with all his chief men, his close friends and his priests. He killed every last person in Ahab’s family and that was the final blow to the house of Ahab. Nothing survived of them in the end.

You know the saying, “The wheels of justice grind slowly but exceedingly fine.” It’s true. It took many decades but even the darkest companions of evil will eventually fall and disappear completely. Their house will be no more. It may be a random arrow or an avenging successor but the house will fall. This is the word of the Lord.

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