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November 7th, 2016

“Great men are almost always bad men.”  (Lord Acton)

1 Kings 21:20-26

It could be worse

This is yet another Scripture where our response to the reading, “Thanks be to God!” feels almost inappropriate. We close the text reading, “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….” Thanks be to God?

Yes. Thanks be to God for inspiring prophets and writers to record and preserve these ancient stories. George Santayana memorably wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (The Age of Reason, 1905).

We come to the eve of the presidential election. As we vote for our next President, America will almost certainly choose one of two individuals that very few people believe are the best choices to lead our nation. By now we have all heard a litany of reasons to despise both of them. Many people think it couldn’t be worse.

It could be worse. It has been worse many times in history. Assyria, Babylon, and Rome all had far worse rulers than Hillary or Donald will turn out to be. Russia and Germany and Iraq had Stalin, Hitler, and Saddam.

“But,” you say, “we are not them.” We have almost 250 years of history with the world’s best political system. We expect more of ourselves.” I would have expected even more than that from Israel, only 150 years after King David ruled. He was certainly flawed, but God had his whole heart.

In Ahab we have a king over God’s people whose motto is, “Make Israel Great Again.” He has a reputation in the Bible and outside the Bible as a strong man when it comes to the security of his people. Chapter 20 records a very significant win on the battlefields. The man knows what he’s doing as commander-in-chief. But power goes to his head, and he thinks he can do no wrong.

His wife Jezebel is a woman of passion about what she believes, a go-getter. She is persistent and determined in the pursuit of her goals. She’s really smart about how to represent her intents publicly, and at the same time pursue privately her true goals. She believes she is what her nation needs. But she’s really only about her own agenda.

Many Americans believe that my description of Ahab and Jezebel perfectly fits Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton – the main distinction being that they won’t rule together. They’re political rivals. If you genuinely like one of the candidates (and do not just detest the rival) maybe you don’t like my parallel between your candidate and either Ahab or Jezebel. It’s not necessary for you to like it for me to make my key point today. As the election nears, my job is to articulate a distinctively biblical perspective. In the providence of God, this Scripture does just that.

A bribe to break God’s law

Elijah’s been conspicuously absent since we left him on Mt. Horeb (or Sinai). He wasn’t supposed to be there. He was running from God’s assignment in the hard place. God said twice, “What are you doing here?” Elijah didn’t have a good answer. He had an answer, but it wasn’t a good one. He didn’t like where God had called him, and descended into depression over his inability to change anything. God told him there would be change – he was to anoint a new king over Israel, a new king over Israel’s neighbor, Syria, and a new prophet, Elisha, to take his place. Elijah went and found Elisha, but nothing changed right away. The transitions will come later.

Meanwhile, the king of Aram attacked Israel. Ahab tried to accept the terms for peace, but Ben-Hadad asked too much, so Ahab resisted… and won – not once but twice. He had to be an effective leader on the battlefield. Much is expected of a ruler, and he came through with an incredibly risky decision that proved to be the right one. What he didn’t do was to kill Ben-Hadad when he had the chance, and for this he was condemned by an unnamed prophet. The record says this made him “sullen and angry” (20:43) and that’s the immediate context leading into chapter 21.

What followed is a story that illustrates how low evil can descend. It’s not the worst act a despot has ever committed. This is nothing like the Holocaust, for example. But it portrays the same essential problem, one that Lord Acton (1834-1902), an English Catholic historian and writer, so poignantly phrased this way: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”

It’s not that surprising that on the heels of his greatness in battle Ahab puts on display his badness of character, “urged on by Jezebel, his wife” (21:25).

Already in a bad mood from the prophet’s rebuke, Ahab returns to Jezreel. His political capital is Samaria, about 30 miles south. Jezreel seems to be both a personal retreat and a strategic outpost because of the proximity of the Via Maria (highway connecting Africa and Eurasia), its panoramic elevation, and its perennial spring. This is where Ahab retreated after the contest on Carmel. It must have been a favorite spot for Jezebel, because both times Ahab came home to her in this location. Of the two sites, it’s possible Samaria still had more to do with the worship of Yahweh, and Jezebel had turned Jezreel into a center for the worship of the Canaanite gods, the Baals.[1]

Now that the war is over, Ahab turns his attention to peacetime interests. He decides he wants to buy a vineyard near the palace owned by a man named Naboth. In what seems to be a rather innocent and above-board proposal, he offers to pay a fair price to Naboth or give him an even better vineyard in exchange. It’s probably not an innocent proposal, for two reasons. First, changing a vineyard into a vegetable garden has a symbolic meaning. The vineyard represents God’s provision and care, while “vegetable garden” is a phrase used of Egypt (Deuteronomy 11:10-12). Second, Jewish law forbids the permanent sale of land from one tribe to another. It’s not a stretch to believe that there had already been many conflicts about the possession of property in this town by a king not belonging to the tribe of Issachar.

Ahab is offering a bribe for breaking God’s law! Naboth is apparently a Bible-honoring Israelite who will obey God even if he can improve his financial status or landholdings, and even if he risks the wrath of a powerful king who disregards Yahweh. Besides, his ancestors have had this vineyard for as long as 500 years. So Naboth answers Ahab, “No! Yahweh forbid that I should give you the inheritance of my fathers.”

Ahab sulks some more, this time in front of his wife. He lies on his bed and refuses even to eat. Jezebel asks him what’s wrong, and he relates the story. Jezebel responds, “You sniveling, whiny, wimpy excuse for a monarch! Get up and eat. Put on a happy face. I’ll get you your vineyard.” He apparently doesn’t ask her how she plans to do it.

She concocts the perfect scheme that will look to some like it’s all about obeying God’s law. (She’s really brilliant.) She writes a letter in the king’s name, seals it with the royal seal, and sends it to Jezreel’s leading citizens – with whom she is apparently in cahoots. She instructs them to proclaim a day of fasting – a religious day – and to seat Naboth in a prominent place. Then they are to seat two “scoundrels” (literally, “sons of Belial,” an alternate name for Satan or the antichrist – it’s someone who is either worthless or actually evil) across from Naboth. They will accuse this godly man of cursing God and the king. With two witnesses, the citizens have no choice but to stone Naboth.

Jezebel has no actual interest in honoring Yahweh, but she knows how to manipulate the law. Her plan works to perfection, and she reports to oblivious Ahab, “No worries, Naboth is dead. Go seize your vineyard.” If he inquires as to how it happened, we’re not told. He only cares about turning that vineyard into a vegetable garden.

The word of the LORD comes to Elijah, and he is told to meet Ahab in his new vineyard. This part of the story is very much like Nathan the prophet confronting King David over his adultery with Bathsheba and his murder of her husband Uriah. Ahab hasn’t seen Elijah for a while, and still considers him “my enemy” (20).

Elijah tells Ahab, “You have sold yourself.” This sin is worse than any other to date. In Hebrew, this phrase is all word one – a verb with pronouns as prefix and suffix – “you sold you.” You tried to buy land, but in the process you sold yourself. Elijah pronounces God’s judgment on Ahab and on Jezebel, prophesying that his entire family will die in a coup and stray dogs will feed on the body of Jezebel at the wall of Jezreel. This is where the text says, “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.”

Power inebriates

So what’s a preacher to do with this text on the Sunday before Election Day 2016 in America? I hope you believe me when I say I did not plan this passage for this day. Even if I didn’t, you might think I’m inclined to compare Ahab to Trump or Jezebel to Clinton. That is not my intent. In keeping with the teachings of Jesus, Paul, and Peter, I will give honor to whoever is elected President. It is my Christian duty.

But I also fear for that person. Why? Something bothers me more than what these two candidates have done, allegedly or truly, so far. I fear what an election victory and the Oval Office will do to the soul of Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. I fear that the new President will feel vindicated. I fear the attitude that says, “What I’ve done wrong needs no repentance because I just got elected to the highest office in the land.” It’s almost impossible to win the Presidency of the United States, even to win the nomination of your party, without selling yourself.

To paraphrase Lord Acton, “To aspire to greatness is to risk badness.” Any person we elect is at risk for becoming a worse person because of power that comes from being in charge. I have a book on my shelf titled, The Power of Humility. R. T. Kendall says more about the danger of pride than the power of humility, but he does note that the purpose of the cross is to strip us of self-righteousness. We are all equally in need of God’s grace through Christ.

Somebody needs to write a book titled The Power of Power. When I talk about power, I’m not just talking about Presidents or kings. If you are anyone’s boss, if you are a spouse, if you are a parent, if you are a teacher, if you are a public speaker, if you have money or influence or anything else anyone wants from you, you need to understand the power of power.

1 Kings 21 illustrates this. Power not only corrupts; it deceives. Power treats people either as assets for gaining more power (that’s how Ahab treated Naboth) or obstacles to be destroyed if they get in the way (that’s how Jezebel treated Naboth). Power is like death and lust – never satisfied (Proverbs 27:20). Power finds evil allies who excuse and abet evil behavior, even encourage it, like Jezebel did for Ahab. Power blames others for what you did to yourself, as Ahab often blamed Elijah. Power raises expectations even higher until it disillusions. Thus even Elijah came off his victory at Carmel discouraged because power had no lasting effect. Power inebriates those who possess it.

Is there no hope for either Clinton or Trump if they occupy the White House? We who know God and read his word will never, ever say “no hope” about anything or anyone. The same Bible that records egregious instances of evil power also recounts numerous instances of powerful people brought to their knees in genuine repentance. To paraphrase George Santayana, those who forget the past are doomed to despair about the present. God is at work!

Remember the story of Jonah, and how he refused at first to go to Nineveh because he feared the Assyrians would actually repent? They did! After Jonah’s warning, the king of Nineveh “rose from his throne, took off his royal robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat down in the dust” (Jonah 3:6). He said, “Let everyone call urgently on God. Let them give up their evil ways and their violence” (8).

Remember a king in Judah named Manasseh? 2 Chronicles 33 records that like Ahab in the north, he erected altars to the Baals and made Asherah poles (3). He bowed down to stars (3). He sacrificed his own sons by fire (6), practiced witchcraft (6), and put an idol inside the temple of Jerusalem (7). Under Manasseh the people of Judah “did more evil than the nations the LORD had destroyed before the Israelites.” He was their Ahab. And yet, when he experienced a great military defeat and was taken to Babylon, “he sought the favor of the LORD his God and humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers” (12).

Remember the great Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar? He was so arrogant in his power over a vast empire, but when God humbled him, he said, “Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven, because everything he does is right and all his ways are just. And those who walk in pride he is able to humble” (Daniel 4:37).

Yes, he is. That’s the surprising end to the story in 1 Kings 21. When Elijah declares God’s judgment on Ahab and Jezebel, everything you know about them makes you expect that Ahab will call Elijah derogatory names, blame him for causing yet more problems, and maybe even get out of the way so Jezebel can finish him off like she did Naboth.

Instead, the Bible says, “When Ahab heard (Elijah’s) words, he tore his clothes, put on sackcloth, and fasted. He lay in sackcloth and went around meekly” (27). The LORD then appeared to Elijah and said, “Because (Ahab) has humbled himself, I will not bring this disaster in his day” (21:29).

Never underestimate the power of God to transform hearts and change the course of history. Regardless of who you want to be elected and regardless of who is elected, I hope you will join me in praying for our new President: “Lord, do it again. Humble the powerful. Help our President’s heart to be opened to you. You are the only One with all power. Our hope is in you, not in any human leader.” Thanks be to God! Amen.

 

[1] Click here for more on Jezreel.

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