Even Ahab?

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One of the worst periods in the history of Israel was that time when Ahab was king and Jezebel the Phoenician his queen (I Kings 16:29-22:40). In many respects Ahab’s kingship was marked by success, especially in areas of commerce and foreign policy, but Ahab and Jezebel led the Israelite people on a campaign of idolatry that threatened the extinction of the worship of YaHWeH (JeHoVaH). Kings summarizes Ahab’s life by saying, “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, like the Amorites the LORD drove out before Israel.” (I Kings 21:25-26, NIV). He is characterized as a man without peer for the damage he did, the evil he engaged in, and the rebelliousness of his attitude toward God. Chronicles refers to him as one who hated the LORD (II Chron. 19:2) and tells us that Jehoshaphat, an admired and Godly king of Judah, jeopardized his own relationship with God and endangered his people by forming alliances with the house of Ahab. The moral and religious record of Ahab is horrible from beginning to end. He “did more evil in the eyes of the LORD than any of those before him.” He thought the past sins of idolatry were “trivial” and set out to do more than any of his predecessors. He “did more to provoke the LORD, the God of Israel, to anger than did all the kings of Israel before him.” (I Kings 16:30-33, NIV).

Ahab was periodically rebuked by the prophets of YaHWeH, such as Elijah (I Kings 17:1, 18:18); sometimes he was benevolently guided by them (I Kings 20); and several times his doom was pronounced by these messengers of God (I Kings 20:41-43, 21:17-24, 22:17). His behavior toward God was not due to a lack of information or communication. God reached out to him repeatedly and demonstrated the reality of his power, especially through the prophet Elijah. In spite of God’s abundant demonstration of concern for Ahab, and concern for Israel, his messages and his displays of power, Ahab persisted in rebellion, persisted in hating God, for no reason we can discern in the narratives. Ahab’s life does not seem to have been unduly hard or bitter, and his attitude toward the God who persistently revealed himself is remarkably hostile. Thus, if ever a man justly deserved the condemnation of the Almighty, Ahab seems to be that man. According to the prophets who knew him and wrote about him, he was the worst-and certainly had no excuse for his wickedness. He could not claim ignorance nor argue lack of proof.

However, when Ahab hit rock bottom in his behavior because of his petty covetousness in the matter of Naboth and his vineyard, when the crime of “false witness”, and the perversion of justice facilitating murder and theft seemed acceptable as a means of gaining a piece of ground for a garden, at just that time when God’s justice in condemning Ahab seems most obvious, and the most severe denunciation of Ahab’s evil behavior had been pronounced, and the horrible description of violent and ignominious doom for Ahab, Jezebel, and all their offspring (I Kings 21:17ff) had been given; at that time of utter moral debasement and contempt for right, Ahab, completely out of character, went through the motions of repentance. He tore his clothes, put on sackcloth, and fasted. He “went around meekly.” (I Kings 21:27). The prophets didn’t want us to think in reading this that Ahab’s character was showing its true lights, or undergoing an abrupt but long lasting change, and so it is immediately before this event that the scathing summary of Ahab’s life recalled above is presented (verses 25-26). He was, we are reminded, sold to evil and behaved in the vilest manner. But this time, out of all the times God addressed Ahab through his prophets, a responsive chord was struck. Ahab the wicked king humbled himself, and God was frankly pleased and compassionate (verses 28-29). All the consequences of Ahab’s sinful life could not be wished out of existence, and yet God forestalled the disaster, just because Ahab humbled himself this once. A few years later the same old God-hating Ahab died violently and the elements of Elijah’s prophecy against him began to coalesce against his family, but for a time Ahab, even wicked, rebellious, God-hating Ahab, was as worthy a recipient of God’s mercy as any of us, because he too humbled himself before God (James 4:10).

While Ahab is not the only example of such a generous response by God to the gestures of repentance, he certainly is an impressive example. No matter whether Ahab was or could be reformed for the long haul, God perceived the meek behavior as genuine, and accepted it as such. Was God momentarily fooled by Ahab? Or by the Ninevites (Jonah 3-4)? Or by me when I promised I wouldn’t and then I did? Didn’t he know that in a day or two they(we)’d be back to their(our) old behavior? Of course he did, and of course he does. This is that appalling kind of forgiveness that we want to receive from God, but are reluctant to give to one another. Forgiveness at the drop of a sorry that doesn’t beg the question by saying “what about last time?” or “what about tomorrow?” God could respond generously to Ahab, even wicked, idolatrous, cruel, rotten Ahab, to whom he owed nothing, who would soon be back to his evil ways. And he can respond to me, just as readily, just as favorably, and to you. But the tough question is, how readily can I respond to you, and how favorably? And how readily will you respond to me, and how favorably? God’s kind of forgiveness doesn’t dwell on past failures or worry about likely future failures so much as it responds to current needs and attitudes. It’s hard for us to live that way, to forgive that way, and yet Jesus seems to expect us to exactly that, to learn to forgive in the same way that God does, to be able to forgive even Ahab (Matt. 6:12, 14-15) and give him another chance when my mind argues, “he doesn’t deserve it.”

But really, neither do I.

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