1 Kings 21
Ahab and his wife Jezebel are probably the baddest of the bad in all of the Bible. The two of them are so self-centered and self-focused that evil just pours out of them like sewer from a broken sewer main. They are certainly a pair of real nasties.
It turns out that Naboth had a vineyard right next door to the king’s palace. And Ahab wanted that vineyard in the worst way imaginable. It must have tortured him to look out of his palace windows every day and see that vineyard. And the more he looked at it, the more he wanted it. And he had some grand plans for it. He was going to yank up the grapevines, dig it up, plow it under and plant vegetables. Standing in the way of Ahab’s plans, though, was the small matter of ownership. I’m indebted to Jeff Morse for this bit of wisdom that he taught to his children: “There are two kind of things in this world. Things that are yours, and things that are not. Learn to know the difference.”
So at first, in order to secure the vineyard, Ahab attempts to make a deal with Naboth. Naboth, have I got a deal for you! I want your vineyard. I want to plant vegetables. I’m not an unfair person. I will swap you for a better vineyard, or I will pay. How’s that for a deal? Ahab is the king. Who can refuse the king?
But Naboth said, no deal. I’m not selling. Not even to the king. The land is part of my inheritance. In fact, Naboth was much stronger than that in his refusal. He said, “The Lord forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance.” This leads us to suppose that the land must have contained the graves of some of Naboth’s ancestors. If this is true, then the land could not have been sold for any price. In Hebrew culture, graves made the land sacred and holy. Ahab should have known this, and I strongly suspect that he did know it. And yet he had so little regard for Naboth and his family that he went ahead and made the offer anyway. I suspect this because Ahab intended to change the character of the land completely. He had no consideration whatsoever for the land’s history, or for its present use. It did not matter to him that it contained graves, or even grapevines for that matter.
Naboth’s “No” did not set comfortably with Ahab. The text says that “Ahab went home resentful and sullen,” and that “He lay down on his bed, turned away his face, and would not eat.” That is certainly mature and grown-up behavior for a king. Ahab’s lust has paralyzed him. He’s not functioning. He’s not eating. His covetousness is eating him alive. He can’t have what he wants, and he’s miserable because of it.
I meet a lot of people who are not followers of Jesus, and they have lots of stories to tell about the people who have wronged them and the grudges that they hold against those people and the vengeance that they one day intend to extract. People tell ministers this stuff, I think, because they are looking for sympathy. What they get instead is pity. Some people can become so consumed by their pursuit to have their own way, that little else seems to matter in their lives. It becomes a singular obsession.
This is nothing new with the human species. Our first ancestors were overcome with lust and greed. The temptation in the Garden of Eden can be summed up with one word. That word is “more.” The serpent said, you don’t have enough, you’re incomplete, you shouldn’t be satisfied, satisfaction is complacency. Think of yourselves, God is cheating you. You deserve more. Sadly, too many people today still believe that lie. It is a very good lie, and it has been believed for a very long time. In fact, it has become the truth, just as it was originally intended by the evil one who spoke it first.
I believe that intense desires, when they come our way, have the potential, if we listen for the voice of God, to transform our lives and to change us into people who will welcome the prospect of becoming more godly. But in order for that to happen we’ve got to get over the idea that we are not in need of any renovation at all; that we are just fine, just the way we are.
It was obvious that Ahab needed a change in his life, but he was too stubborn to reflect on the renovations that he needed to make in order to have his life transformed. And a new vineyard, rooted up and plowed under, and transformed into a vegetable garden was not going to transform his life in any way that was positive. That is very clear from this story. It is actually, rather ironic that Ahab was willing to utterly transform a vineyard, but completely unwilling to allow God the privilege of transforming his life. That’s tragic, but not completely unheard of in our own lives. We’re often motivated to plow under everything around us, but rarely do we consider starting with ourselves. My AA friends have a much better way of putting that, but it is nothing that I can repeat in a sermon.
Had Ahab been willing to start with himself, he would have gone home from his failed meeting with Naboth a changed man. He would have had a greater respect for Naboth, and for Naboth’s heritage. He would have learned that Naboth’s “No” was also God’s “No.” He might even have realized that it was pure selfishness and greed that had motivated him to want the land in the first place. Instead, he went home in a depressed funk, and curled himself up in his bed.
And this is where The Jezebel, who happens to be his wife, who also happens to be named Jezebel, bursts in on him. Jezebel is not a nice woman. I picture her as being an attractive sort of woman but in a coarse sort of way. Her voice is shrill and harsh, and unlike her husband, she has the chutzpah to get done what she wants when she wants it. A wise person would be careful to address her as “sir.” I am sure that her husband did. Jezebel has no regard for anyone, including her own husband. You fool, Ahab! You are the king! Did you forget that? You can have anything that you want! You are the most powerful man in Israel! Use your authority and power!
Now Jezebel is also a very intelligent woman, and she knows from experience, that her husband would rather mope than act. Wives know these things about their husbands, and so Jezebel takes things into her own hands. She engineers a plan to have Naboth eliminated. And because she is the queen, and because she is also Jezebel, no city official is going to challenge her, no matter how ridiculous she sounds and no matter how utterly evil her plan is. Everyone knows better than to evoke a fresh exhibition of anger from this nasty woman. I imagine that this is not their first rodeo with her. She is probably quite familiar to them. Hear again what she has to say in her craftily composed letters. And don’t forget on whose stationery she wrote them and with whose seal she sealed them.
“Proclaim a fast, and seat Naboth at the head of the assembly; seat two scoundrels opposite him, and have them bring a charge against him, saying, ‘You have cursed God and the king.’ Then take him out and stone him to death.”
Sometimes our pew Bibles don’t tell the whole story. The charge against Naboth, in the original Hebrew is not that Naboth “cursed” God, but rather that Naboth “blessed” God. That’s interesting. But the reason for that is that the writer of this account was so disgusted and so repulsed by Jezebel’s behavior, and so much in respect of the holy name of God, that he could not bring himself to put the words “curse” and “God” together in the same sentence. And so he wrote that Naboth “blessed God” knowing that his readers would appreciate the irony. The editors of our English Bibles apparently don’t think that we are all that sophisticated. The double irony here is that Naboth did, in fact, bless God when he refused Ahab’s offer. To obey God is to bless God. Our Scriptures are so absolutely amazing, don’t you think?
But our English Bibles do tell us pretty much all that we need to know. Naboth was found guilty of the crimes that Jezebel had created for him. And in obedience to Jezebel’s command, Naboth was stoned to death. In II Kings 9:26, we learn that Naboth’s sons were also killed that day. And now with no heirs left to inherit the land, Ahab can legally take possession of it. Those vegetables certainly came at a huge moral price.
How do we respond when God says “No” to us? Are we willing to listen to God and be transformed in the process, or will we, like Ahab and Jezebel do all that is needed to get our own way? Have we cultivated a heart that can actually hear it when God says “No”? Ahab and Jezebel certainly did not hear God say “No”, but that is because they had become so self-absorbed, so self-focused, so self-seeking and so self-serving that they wouldn’t have been able to hear the voice of God anyway. That’s not an excuse. It is a tragedy.
God never says “No” capriciously. God’s “No” is always the result of his love for us and it is always for our best. It may seem counter-intuitive, but God’s “No” can lead to blessings and joys in our lives that we might not ever have imagined. What an awful shame to be stuck with something that we wanted and got, when God in fact wanted something far more wonderful and far more lovely for us! But in order to have received what God had planned for us, we needed to listen to and heed God’s “No”. Our lust and greed often leads us into a situation that is perfectly awful; one which we wish almost immediately could be undone, when we finally realize how foolish we have been. God can always redeem a perfectly awful situation: that’s what he does most and what he does best. But better to cultivate a heart that can delight in God, and rejoice in God in the first place, and listen for the voice of God, rather than to try to wing it on our own. Sometimes God’s “No” leads to a far better “Yes” than we could ever have imagined.
Every human story ends with an obituary. This one ends with an obituary that also functions as a warning:
“Indeed there was no one like Ahab, who sold himself to do what was evil in the sight of the Lord, urged on by his wife Jezebel. He acted most abominably in going after idols, as the Amorites had some, whom the Lord drove out before the Israelites.”
Let us pray for ourselves that we will receive a better obituary from God than Ahab did.