The LORD’s Merciful Justice

The LORD’s Merciful Justice

This morning we continue to consider how the LORD used Elijah to confront that evil power couple, King Ahab of Israel and his Phoenician queen, Jezebel. In this season of planting gardens—Ron and I recently put in our vegetable garden—we see the drama in our morning’s passage revolving around Ahab’s desire to purchase a vineyard to plant his vegetable garden. And in this seemingly simple desire, the depth of his and Jezebel’s evil is magnified for all of the horrific events to follow have to do with this garden.

An Israelite man named Naboth, who was a Jezreelite,[1] had the misfortune of owning a vineyard near Ahab’s palace, and Ahab asked Naboth for it[2]: “Let me have your vineyard to use for a vegetable garden, since it is close to my palace. In exchange I will give you a better vineyard or, if you prefer, I will pay you whatever it is worth” (2). At face value, this seems a reasonable request. King Ahab offered to exchange Naboth’s vineyard, which is nearby, for an even better vineyard or to pay for its value, whichever Naboth preferred. But rather than take advantage of the king’s offer, Naboth refused saying, “The Lord forbid that I should give you the inheritance of my ancestors” (3). Now this refusal may seem unwise to us—what’s the big deal, after all? King Ahab is a man of power and he’s offered to give Naboth something of equal or better value for his troubles. So why the reluctance?

Well, the lynchpin to understanding the events to follow—as well as God’s merciful justice—is Israelite covenantal law. Though Ahab may be King and Naboth his subject, both men are Israelites first. As such their behavior is circumscribed by the law which had been given to the people of Israel by the one, true God. So the problem with King Ahab’s request is that in Israel, even royal power was limited by covenantal law.[3] By the law’s decree, individual Israelites weren’t allowed to sell land in perpetuity and there was a complex set of laws that kept land in the family and prevented its accumulation in the hands of a few. In essence, the land was viewed as belonging to God and given to the twelve tribes of Israel both as a provision for them and for them to stewards over it on God’s behalf. So Ahab’s offer reveals his complete disregard for Israelite law.[4] He’s acting not according to the customs of Israel but according to those of the culture of Queen Jezebel in which Canaanite kings could easily confiscate the land held privately by their subjects.[5] Again, Ahab is king over Israel and should be setting the standard for his people, not breaking God’s law to take advantage of them.

Knowing this background also helps us understand that Naboth’s refusal to give up his land was based on a proper conviction that the land was the Lord’s, who had granted a perpetual lease to each Israelite family, which lease was to be jealously guarded as the family’s permanent inheritance in the promised land.[6] Naboth couldn’t give up the inheritance of his ancestors because by well-established legal and religious customs provided by God, ancestral property had to remain in the family in perpetuity.[7] Further these laws are the reason why Ahab was vexed and sullen when Naboth refused his offer to exchange or buy out his vineyard. Ahab knew Jewish law was on Naboth’s side both legally and religiously. Because Naboth’s vineyard was his portion of his family’s inheritance, to sell it would have meant cutting off his own descendants.[8]

Now when Jezebel, Ahab’s wife, found him, she asked him, “Why are you so sullen? Why won’t you eat?” (5). And what is less surprising is her response to the situation once she found out. Jezebel, too, is reflecting the values of her culture where Phoenician and Canaanite kings in their despotic practices wouldn’t even hesitate to use their power to satisfy their personal interests.[9] When Ahab tells Jezebel why he’s so upset, summarizing his exchange with Naboth over the vineyard (6), Jezebel springs into action. “Is this how you act as king over Israel?” she asks. “Get up and eat! Cheer up. I’ll get you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite.” And she does.

First “[S]he wrote letters in Ahab’s name, placed his seal on them, and sent them to the elders and nobles who lived in Naboth’s city with him” (8). And the content of the letter clearly stated her intentions, again written in Ahab’s name: “Proclaim a day of fasting and seat Naboth in a prominent place among the people. 10 But seat two scoundrels opposite him and have them bring charges that he has cursed both God and the king. Then take him out and stone him to death” (9b–10). So Jezebel, with Ahab’s complicity, fosters apprehension among the town’s inhabitants, because a call for a day fasting would have been a characteristic response to a crisis or major transgression.[10]

Now in her plot against Naboth, Jezebel violated two important Old Testament principles. The first concerns the nature of witnesses in dealing with sin in the nation. Since God’s nature is holy, his people Israel, were called to be holy as well and the law is provided by God to instruct them in holiness. On the one hand, crime and sin within the nation had to be dealt with; on the other hand, it was to be addressed in a judicious manner. It couldn’t simply be a matter of one person’s word against another, but rather an individual’s guilt had to be confirmed by at least two or three people.[11] As we read in Deuteronomy 19:15–20:

15One witness is not enough to convict anyone accused of any crime or offense they may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. 16 If a malicious witness takes the stand to accuse someone of a crime, 17 the two people involved in the dispute must stand in the presence of the Lord before the priests and the judges who are in office at the time. 18 The judges must make a thorough investigation, and if the witness proves to be a liar, giving false testimony against a fellow Israelite, 19 then do to the false witness as that witness intended to do to the other party. You must purge the evil from among you. 20 The rest of the people will hear of this and be afraid, and never again will such an evil thing be done among you.

So the first principle that Jezebel ignored was that of the need for two reliable witnesses to a crime, as provided in God’s law for the protection of his people. The two scoundrels she secured weren’t witnesses to anything but instead fabricated the account of Naboth’s apostasy. Jezebel intentionally and maliciously abused this principle by asking that “two scoundrels” be seated opposite Naboth to bring false charges against him. Namely that he had “cursed both God and the king” (13), offenses punishable by death.[12]

A second principle violated by Jezebel is called in Latin the lex talionis[13] or the law of retaliation. Stated simply, this law required that the punishment fit the crime. And we find it in the final verse of the same passage from Deuteronomy 19[14]: “21 Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.” The intent of this law, negatively stated, was that those who committed crimes be punished for their crimes, and, positively, that the punishment correspond in both kind and degree to the injury committed. So punishment was to be administered for crimes committed, yes, but it was to be in keeping with the crime committed. In the case of Naboth, his true crime—and according to Israelite law there really wasn’t any crime—was that he refused to sell King Ahab his vineyard. But the false crime of which he is accused and for which he’s punished, is that of cursing both God and king. And for this false crime he is to be taken “outside the city and stoned…to death” (13). And from 2 Kings[15] we know that he was actually stoned in his own field—not outside the city—and that his sons were stoned with him, thus eliminating his heirs.

Once Naboth had been horrendously murdered by means of Jezebel’s evil scheme, she told Ahab, “Get up and take possession of the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite that he refused to sell you. He is no longer alive, but dead” (15). And Ahab did, verse 16. But this evil of Jezebel and Ahab doesn’t go unpunished. Elijah, God’s prophet, is beckoned by the LORD (17), and told in verses 18–19: 18 “Go down to meet Ahab king of Israel, who rules in Samaria. He is now in Naboth’s vineyard, where he has gone to take possession of it. 19 Say to him, ‘This is what the Lord says: Have you not murdered a man and seized his property?’ Then say to him, ‘This is what the Lord says: In the place where dogs licked up Naboth’s blood, dogs will lick up your blood—yes, yours!’” In other words, the lex talionis, the law of retribution, will now be applied to Ahab. Because Ahab unjustly murdered Naboth and seized his property, Ahab himself will die. His blood will be licked up by dogs, animals considered to be unclean.

Now when Ahab saw Elijah, he said to him “So you have found me, my enemy!” (20). And Elijah, God’s messenger, replied, “I have found you,…. [B]ecause you have sold yourself to do evil in the eyes of the Lord, 21 He says, ‘I am going to bring disaster on you. I will wipe out your descendants and cut off from Ahab every last male in Israel—slave or free. 22 I will make your house like that of Jeroboam son of Nebat[16] and that of Baasha son of Ahijah,[17] because you have aroused my anger and have caused Israel to sin.’” Jeroboam and Naasha were two other evil kings of Israel who were punished by the LORD for their evil. King Ahab would have known about them and understood clearly the judgment the LORD would now bring upon him for his evil. Nor does Jezebel escape the LORD’s punishment for her evil for, as stated in verse 23, similarly “Dogs will devour Jezebel by the wall of Jezreel.” And not only will Ahab and Jezebel be punished but, verse 24, “Dogs will eat those belonging to Ahab who die in the city, and the birds will feed on those who die in the country.” As Ahab has done away with Naboth and his descendants, so now Ahab and his descendants will similarly die disgraceful deaths. And we’re provided with a parenthetical assessment—and condemnation—of this evil power couple in verse 25: “(There was never anyone like Ahab, who sold himself to do evil in the eyes of the Lord, urged on by Jezebel his wife. 26 He behaved in the vilest manner by going after idols, like the Amorites the Lord drove out before Israel).” The Amorites here refers to the entire, evil, pre-Israelite population of Canaan.[18]

But what’s amazing, as our passage wraps up, is that we see that Elijah’s words from the LORD have an effect upon this most evil of Israel’s kings, Ahab, who repents of his evil. “[H]e tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and fasted. He lay in sackcloth and went around meekly.” And what is even more notable is that we see God’s mercy in response to even Ahab’s repentance. In verses 28–29, the word of the LORD again comes to Elijah, “Have you noticed how Ahab has humbled himself before me? Because he has humbled himself, I will not bring this disaster in his day, but I will bring it on his house in the days of his son.” And that’s precisely what ends up later happening.[19]

Now make no mistake, both King Ahab and Queen Jezebel end up dying shameful deaths, complete with dogs, flee-bitten animals that roamed around in packs, licking up their blood.[20] But it’s incredible to consider that despite the depth of Ahab’s evil, when he repented over Elijah’s word from the LORD, the LORD revealed his mercy even to Ahab.

Now because you and I weren’t there when all of life began—in the beginning when God made all that exists, the heaven and the earth, the fish of the sea, the beasts of the field, and the birds of the air, the first woman and man and all that exists—and declared all of it very good;

And because you and I weren’t there when it all went wrong. When evil came to our first parents in the form of a serpent in a garden, encouraging them to disbelieve in God’s Word; encouraging them to disbelieve in God’s goodness;

I think it can be very difficult for us to appreciate that one of the primary reasons God had to create a people for himself—ultimately from Abraham—is because fallen humanity was unable, by its own will, desires, and powers, to live as God intended—in harmony and fellowship with him, in harmony and fellowship with each other, and in harmony and fellowship with the rest of the created order.

So God had to teach Abraham and his descendants; he had to later give his people the law through his servant Moses, that his people would know what it means to love the LORD with all their hearts, souls, minds, and strength, and their neighbor as themselves. Though we often misunderstand the law, viewing it as a list of “do’s” and “don’ts,” in fact the law is what love looks like when it is put into practice.

And the LORD’s love and compassion become even more evident when he provides an even greater disclosure of himself by sending his Son, Jesus—who is the Christ, who is God in the flesh—that Abraham’s descendants, including us, might see what God’s love and justice look like.

In Matthew 5:38–42, Jesus refers to the lex talionis, the law of retribution, from Deuteronomy 19:21. He states in part of his sermon on the mount:

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

God is long-suffering but won’t tolerate evil forever

So in Jesus’ teaching we see an even greater degree both of the LORD’s compassion and of the compassion that, ideally, he would have us exercise. Though initially God had to teach his people that loving others requires that even when we execute punishment, it is to be done in proportion to the offense committed, what he ultimately desires for us is that we leave vengeance in his hands and learn to treat others in a generous manner even when they take advantage of us. Anyone is able to love a friend; but only God is able to teach us to love even our enemy. I’m sure it isn’t a coincidence that this teaching follows the passage I just read from Jesus’ sermon as he goes on to state in Matthew 5:43–48:

43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor[Lev. 19:18] and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Brothers and sisters, do you see how much God wants us to know and experience love as he intended? He wants us to love even as he loves. Even when we’re unaware of him—even when we turn our backs on him—he still provides us with the sun and rain we need to survive. Sun and rain are an example and expression of his love for all his creation for without them all that is living would die.

And God, knowing how difficult it would be for us to love him and love each other as he designed, from the beginning intended not only to come to earth in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ, that we might have firsthand experience of what love looks like, but also intended to send us Christ’s Holy Spirit to indwell us, that we might live the love he intended for us, ruling in our hearts, conforming us to his law, conforming us to behave in ways that are genuinely loving towards him and each other.

We often set love and justice in opposition but in reality, as God designed, they complement one another. To act in a just manner is to display love for justice protects those who would otherwise be taken advantage of. But even beyond justice, God desires us to display mercy, to be kind to the undeserving for we are all undeserving of his love.

Throughout Scripture, we see God loving all those he created in his image. Though our sense of justice may make us want to see Ahab get his just deserts, God extends mercy even to the most evil king ever to rule over the nation of Israel when he repented of his evil. God’s fathomless, bottomless, immeasurable, and infinite love shouldn’t only lead us to repent but should draw us to him—cause us to come running to our loving Father who ever awaits with open and loving arms.

Each week in our service during the pastoral prayer we have an opportunity to confess our sins and this is wonderful for it allows us to avail ourselves of the love that ever awaits us.

If this morning you’re struggling with not knowing or feeling God’s love, understand that this is just a feeling—the reality is that we can’t escape his love.

If you’re struggling with a particular sin this morning—of omission, not doing what you know God would have you do, or commission, doing what you know God would not have you do—then know that the moment you turn from your sin and to God, he will embrace you.

If even King Ahab, who worshipped the false gods of Baal and Asherah and acted according to their evil ways, is extended God’s mercy, how much more will all who follow Jesus Christ be extended his mercy for we are his children and he will never leave us or forsake us.

Let us turn to our heavenly Father now in gratitude for his inexhaustible merciful justice which he has given to us through the life and resurrection of his Son and the giving of his Holy Spirit. Please pray with me.

[1] Reformation Study Bible notes that Jezreel was about twenty-four miles north of Samaria. Ahab maintained a palace here in addition to one in the capital (18:45).

[2] The “some time later” comment in verse 1 refers to after the time Ahab set Ben-hadad, King of Syria, free rather than killing him as commanded by God. As a result the LORD pronounced a judgment upon Ahab who returns to his palace “sullen and angry.”

[3] NIV notes. Cf. Deuteronomy 17:14–20: 14 When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you and have taken possession of it and settled in it, and you say, “Let us set a king over us like all the nations around us,” 15 be sure to appoint over you a king the Lord your God chooses. He must be from among your fellow Israelites. Do not place a foreigner over you, one who is not an Israelite. 16 The king, moreover, must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself or make the people return to Egypt to get more of them, for the Lord has told you, “You are not to go back that way again.” 17 He must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray. He must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold.18 When he takes the throne of his kingdom, he is to write for himself on a scroll a copy of this law, taken from that of the Levitical priests. 19 It is to be with him, and he is to read it all the days of his life so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees 20 and not consider himself better than his fellow Israelites and turn from the law to the right or to the left. Then he and his descendants will reign a long time over his kingdom in Israel.

[4] ESV notes.

[5] NIV notes.

[6] NIV notes.

[7] RSV notes. Cf. Leviticus 25:10, 13–17, 23–24, 34: 10 Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each of you is to return to your family property and to your own clan….13 “‘In this Year of Jubilee everyone is to return to their own property. 14 “‘If you sell land to any of your own people or buy land from them, do not take advantage of each other. 15 You are to buy from your own people on the basis of the number of years since the Jubilee. And they are to sell to you on the basis of the number of years left for harvesting crops. 16 When the years are many, you are to increase the price, and when the years are few, you are to decrease the price, because what is really being sold to you is the number of crops. 17 Do not take advantage of each other, but fear your God. I am the Lord your God…. “‘The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you reside in my land as foreigners and strangers. 24 Throughout the land that you hold as a possession, you must provide for the redemption of the land….34 But the pastureland belonging to their towns must not be sold; it is their permanent possession.

[8] Reformation notes. See the accounts of Zelophehad’s daughters in Numbers 27:1–11; 36:1–2.

[9] NIV notes.

[10] Reformation notes. For other instances of fasting’s importance, see Judges 20:26; I Samuel 7:5, 6; 2 Chronicles 20:3; Jonah 3:5, 7–9.

[11] Note also: Numbers 35:30: Anyone who kills a person is to be put to death as a murderer only on the testimony of witnesses. But no one is to be put to death on the testimony of only one witness.; Deuteronomy 17:6: On the testimony of two or three witnesses a person is to be put to death, but no one is to be put to death on the testimony of only one witness.

[12] Deuteronomy 24:15–16: 15 Say to the Israelites: ‘Anyone who curses their God will be held responsible; 16 anyone who blasphemes the name of the Lord is to be put to death. The entire assembly must stone them. Whether foreigner or native-born, when they blaspheme the Name they are to be put to death.

[13] From Latin lex = law and talio(n) = retaliation from talis = ‘such.’

[14] It’s also mentioned in Exodus 21:24 in the context of a pregnant woman giving birth prematurely due to being hit by people fighting. Also Leviticus 24:20 in the context of restitution for taking the life of someone’s animal or the neighbor himself.

[15] 2 Kings 9:21, 25–26: 21 “Hitch up my chariot,” Joram ordered. And when it was hitched up, Joram king of Israel and Ahaziah king of Judah rode out, each in his own chariot, to meet Jehu. They met him at the plot of ground that had belonged to Naboth the Jezreelite…. 25 Jehu said to Bidkar, his chariot officer, “Pick him up and throw him on the field that belonged to Naboth the Jezreelite. Remember how you and I were riding together in chariots behind Ahab his father when the Lord spoke this prophecy against him: 26 ‘Yesterday I saw the blood of Naboth and the blood of his sons, declares the Lord, and I will surely make you pay for it on this plot of ground, declares the Lord.’ Now then, pick him up and throw him on that plot, in accordance with the word of the Lord.”

[16] See I Kings 14:10: Because of this, I am going to bring disaster on the house of Jeroboam. I will cut off from Jeroboam every last male in Israel—slave or free. I will burn up the house of Jeroboam as one burns dung, until it is all gone.; I Kings 15:28–30: 28 Baasha killed Nadab in the third year of Asa king of Judah and succeeded him as king. 29 As soon as he began to reign, he killed Jeroboam’s whole family. He did not leave Jeroboam anyone that breathed, but destroyed them all, according to the word of the Lord given through his servant Ahijah the Shilonite. 30 This happened because of the sins Jeroboam had committed and had caused Israel to commit, and because he aroused the anger of the Lord, the God of Israel.

[17] See; I Kings 16:3–4, 11–13: So I am about to wipe out Baasha and his house, and I will make your house like that of Jeroboam son of Nebat. Dogs will eat those belonging to Baasha who die in the city, and birds will feed on those who die in the country…. 11 As soon as he began to reign and was seated on the throne, he killed off Baasha’s whole family. He did not spare a single male, whether relative or friend. 12 So Zimri destroyed the whole family of Baasha, in accordance with the word of the Lord spoken against Baasha through the prophet Jehu— 13 because of all the sins Baasha and his son Elah had committed and had caused Israel to commit, so that they aroused the anger of the Lord, the God of Israel, by their worthless idols.

[18] NIV notes. see Genesis 15:16: In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.; Deuteronomy 1:6–8: The Lord our God said to us at Horeb, “You have stayed long enough at this mountain. Break camp and advance into the hill country of the Amorites; go to all the neighboring peoples in the Arabah, in the mountains, in the western foothills, in the Negev and along the coast, to the land of the Canaanites and to Lebanon, as far as the great river, the Euphrates. See, I have given you this land. Go in and take possession of the land the Lord swore he would give to your fathers—to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—and to their descendants after them.”

[19] ESV: Ahad died in battle and was buried in Samaria (I Kings 22:34–37), not outside Jezreel “in the place” where Naboth was stoned (21:19; cf. v. 13); and yet, when dogs in Samaria lick up his blood washed from his chariot, the authors declare that to be according to these words (22:38). [Therefore the best explanation may be that] The prophecy was fulfilled in two stages, first by Ahab’s death and then by the death of his son Joram, whose body was in fact thrown into Naboth’s vineyard (2 Kings 9:25–26, which also is ‘according to the word fo the LORD’)] esp. given the delay in punishment due to his repentance in 21.29. NIV: Ahab’s subsequent repentance (v. 29) occasioned the postponement of certain aspects of this prophecy until the time of his son Joram, whose body was thrown on the field of Naboth (2 Kings 9:25–26). Ahab himself was killed in battle at Ramoth Gilead (22:29–37) and his body was brought to Samaria, where the dogs licked the blood being washed from his chariot (22:38).

[20] I Kings 22:37–38: 37 So the king died and was brought to Samaria, and they buried him there. 38 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.]; 2 Kings 9:10, 30–37: 30 Then Jehu went to Jezreel. When Jezebel heard about it, she put on eye makeup, arranged her hair and looked out of a window. 31 As Jehu entered the gate, she asked, “Have you come in peace, you Zimri, you murderer of your master?” 32 He looked up at the window and called out, “Who is on my side? Who?” Two or three eunuchs looked down at him. 33 “Throw her down!” Jehu said. So they threw her down, and some of her blood spattered the wall and the horses as they trampled her underfoot. 34 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.” 35 But when they went out to bury her, they found nothing except her skull, her feet and her hands. 36 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. 37 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.’”

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