Ahab, Errant King of Israel

Lessons from Ahab’s Life

“Who shall entice Ahab, that he may go up and fall at Ramoth‑Gilead?” (1 Kings 22:20 ASV. Other texts from the Christian Standard Bible.)

King Ahab was Israel’s 7th king, a significant number in Hebrew theology and tradition. He was a skilled general, an active administrator, a relentless negotiator, and a pursuer of alliances that seemed to benefit Israel’s stability in the short term. On occasion he exhibited humility, and even repentance, when confronted by God’s prophets or tough challenges. Yet the Bible is clear: “Ahab did more to anger the LORD God of Israel than all the kings of Israel who were before him” (1 Kings 16:33).

Ahab’s Upbringing (1 Kings 16)

Ahab was the second king of the Omrian dynasty, following his father Omri, who started his reign under dramatic circumstances. While Omri was leading Israel’s armies against the Philistines, a certain Zimri massacred the drunken king Elah along with the entire house of Baasha, according to prophecy (1 Kings 16:2, 3). Zimri then became king of Israel in Elah’s place. When the army heard of Zimri’s deed, they made Omri king of Israel. He delivered swiftly by ending Zimri’s reign after only 7 days. Even so, Omri still had to emerge successful from a lengthy civil war against Tibni before he could claim the throne uncontested (1 Kings 16:16‑22).

During his 12‑year rule, Omri worked hard to stabilize and fortify Israel. He also moved Israel’s capital to Samaria, a city he built on land bought from Shemer for 150 pounds of silver, a large sum at the time. With such a father, Ahab learned to be a skilled military leader, have a hands‑on approach to problems, develop strategic partnerships and manage the nation’s perception of him. Omri, however, indulged in idolatry and it is safe to assume he did not train Ahab to love Jehovah God in his youth (1 Kings 16:26, Proverbs 22:6).

As Israel’s leader, Ahab was continually challenged by the Lord’s prophets to change his way. This included miracles, military victories, rebukes and forgiveness. Still, Ahab refused to fully turn to the Lord, and his reign had tremendous negative impacts on both Israel and Judah. We will consider 4 events in which God directly intervened in King Ahab’s life.

Event 1: The Three‑and‑Half Year Drought (1 Kings 17, 18)

Ahab’s first interaction with a prophet was when Elijah announced the three‑and‑a‑half year drought. Immediately afterwards, Elijah had to run for his life and hid in Zarephath, a city belonging to Sidon of all places. While Jezebel was killing the prophets, Ahab feverishly searched for Elijah throughout Israel and all the neighboring kingdoms. Interestingly, Ahab worked closely during the drought with a certain Obadiah (not the prophet), a very faithful man who saved and fed 100 prophets of God during this time (1 Kings 18:3‑6). Yet even Obadiah feared being executed by Ahab, should he promise to find Elijah and not deliver on it (1 Kings 18:10).

Elijah returned to announce the end of the drought by first appearing to Obadiah suddenly (1 Kings 18:7). This might typify that the faithful ones are able to perceive God’s salvation ahead of the world. Obadiah arranged a meeting of Elijah with Ahab, who then agreed to set up the showdown between Elijah and Jezebel’s prophets on Mount Carmel.

Ahab was a silent spectator during Elijah’s miracle on Mount Carmel that momentarily turned Israel back to God. The king did not interfere with the slaughter of Baal’s 450 prophets, and he complied with Elijah’s requests, sensing correctly that he should not oppose God on the day of Israel’s salvation (1 Kings 18:41). As Ahab then returned to Jezreel, exulting for the coming rain, Elijah took a shortcut (across drought‑dried swampland) to arrive first, while the storm was fast approaching behind them both.

However, once safe in his Jezreel stronghold, King Ahab refused to change the status quo and allowed Jezebel to hunt down Elijah once more (1 Kings 19:1, 2).

Event 2: Victories Against the Arameans (1 Kings 20)

Ben‑hadad, king of the Arameans, assembled a great army of 32 kings and attacked Israel. Ahab displayed a mix of guile, courage, and humility by first trying to negotiate a way out of the conflict and later by consulting with the elders. All attempts to negotiate were abused by Ben‑hadad.

The Lord helped Ahab to a great victory, providing a detailed strategy through an unnamed prophet. “A prophet approached King Ahab of Israel and said, ‘This is what the LORD says: Do you see this whole huge army? Watch, I am handing it over to you today so that you may know that I am the LORD’” (1 Kings 20:13). The prophet also told the king of Ben‑hadad’s intention to attack again in the spring and Ahab won a second miraculous victory. “This is what the LORD says: Because the Arameans have said: The LORD is a god of the mountains and not a god of the valleys, I will hand over all this whole huge army to you. Then you will know that I am the LORD” (1 Kings 20:28).

Once again, Ahab stopped looking for God’s advice once the victory was secured. He called the defeated Ben‑hadad “my brother,” and negotiated terms of surrender with a king who tried to destroy Israel twice in less than a year. As a result, a son of the prophets was sent to Ahab to prophesy the king’s future death at the hands of the Arameans.

The event ended with Ahab returning to Samaria “resentful and angry.” This might signify how the world today cannot change its ways even when saved from most dire of dangers, such as back‑to‑back conflagrations that threaten utter destruction (1 Kings 20:43).

Event 3: The Killing of Naboth (1 Kings 21)

The killing of Naboth is the most pivotal event in Ahab’s life and it reveals Jezebel’s influence at its worst. Naboth owned a vineyard next to Ahab’s palace and refused to sell his “fathers’ inheritance” when offered a generous price by the king. The Jubilee year was no longer being observed in Israel; so any sale would be final.

Naboth represents those who reject the spirit of the world, and whose inheritance is more valuable than the goods of this life. Though the rejection upset Ahab greatly, he knew he could not break the civil laws he enforced and benefitted from. But Jezebel had other plans. She usurped Ahab’s royal seal and sent letters in his name to set up a mock trial. Even though she was a priestess of Baal, the strategy she used saw Naboth stoned to death under the false accusation of cursing God and the king (1 Kings 21:8‑10). Procedures were followed hypocritically, including proclaiming a fast. As a result, an innocent man, Naboth, died as one who supposedly broke both God’s law and the civil law. Anti‑typically, institutionalized Christianity has misapplied God’s commandments and mimicked the Old Testament rituals in order to destroy those who did not conform to the spirit of this world (James 4:4).

This arbitrary killing of Naboth brought swift judgment. The Lord’s commandments were flagrantly violated by Israel’s leaders: they coveted the neighbor’s land, stole it, incited others to bear false witness, and took the Lord’s name in vain. This was done because Ahab and Jezebel had followed other gods and idols above the true God (Exodus 20:1‑17).

Ahab’s acceptance of Naboth’s vineyard shows the symbiotic relationship between him and Jezebel. A godly king would have refused such a “gift.” God sent Elijah to deal with Ahab while the king was still taking possession of the vineyard (1 Kings 21:18‑24). God’s punishment was severe and two‑fold:

● Ahab’s dynasty would be eradicated violently, similar to the two dynasties before him. The dogs would lick Ahab’s blood in the same place where Naboth’s blood was spilled.

● Jezebel would also meet a violent death and would not receive a proper burial. The dogs would eat her remains in “the plot of land at Jezreel,” most likely Naboth’s land that was neighboring Ahab’s palace.

Having witnessed the annihilation of Baasha’s family, Ahab understood immediately the seriousness of God’s judgment. In 1 Kings 21:27‑29 he showed true repentance, even if only for a short time. “When Ahab heard these words, he tore his clothes, put sackcloth over his body, and fasted. He lay down in sackcloth and walked around subdued.

Then the word of the LORD came to Elijah the Tishbite: “Have you seen how Ahab has humbled himself before me? I will not bring the disaster during his lifetime, because he has humbled himself before me. I will bring the disaster on his house during his son’s lifetime.”

Ahab’s repentance and delay of punishment is similar to the story of Nineveh in the book of Jonah. In contrast, Jezebel never repented of her deeds, neither in type nor antitype (Revelation 2:20‑23).

A silent spectator in this encounter was Jehu, who at the time was “riding behind Ahab.” Jehu was anointed by Elijah to fulfill much of the above prophecy. He later recalled the Lord’s pronouncement against the house of Ahab as his motivation (1 Kings 21:19, 2 Kings 9:25).

Event 4: The Defeat by the Arameans (1 Kings 22, 2 Chronicles 18)

Ahab’s final battle, and the events leading to it, are emblematic of the subtle destructiveness of his ways. King Ahab avoided waging war against Judah. Instead, he made an alliance with Jehoshaphat, king of Judah, by marrying his daughter Athaliah to Jehoram, Jehoshaphat’s first born (2 Chronicles 18:1). In the long term, this was very harmful for Judah. Just like Jezebel, Athaliah was an evil influence who turned Jehoram to the “ways of Ahab.” The marriage of Ahab’s daughter with Jehoshaphat’s son also brought idolatry into Judah and nearly caused the end of the house of David (2 Chronicles 21:6, 13, 22:3). The only survivor was the young babe Joash, who was hid in God’s Temple for six years. It is a sobering lesson on how God’s people should not make worldly alliances or walk in the advice of the wicked (Psalms 1:1).

Some years after the marriage of Athaliah to Jehoram, Ahab threw a huge feast for Jehoshaphat and his entourage, reminiscent of the days of Solomon. Then Ahab persuaded Jehoshaphat to join him in attacking Ramoth‑Gilead. Ramoth‑Gilead was a city that the Arameans did not turn over to Israel’s king according to the earlier capitulation terms. Jehoshaphat, a godly king, agreed, with the condition to first ask the LORD’s will on the matter. Ahab produced 400 false prophets who all claimed God would hand the victory to the king. Jehoshaphat’s reaction to this mockery is worded such: “Isn’t there a prophet of the LORD here anymore? Let’s ask him.” To his credit, Ahab stopped pretending and called over Micaiah, whom he hated “because he never prophesies good about me, but only disaster.” The king was astute enough to demand a truthful prophecy from Micaiah, rather than the lip service he was coached to say (2 Chronicles 18:15).

Micaiah’s prophecy is the final pronouncement of Ahab’s death at the hand of the Arameans. A displeased Ahab imprisoned the prophet and asked to “feed him only a little bread and water until I come back safely.” He also devised a battle plan that made Jehoshaphat the target of the Aramean elite units, while Ahab himself dressed like a regular warrior. The plan backfired and Jehoshaphat survived, while Ahab was mortally wounded by a stray arrow. The blood from his wound flowed into the bottom of the chariot, and the king of Israel continued to fight the Arameans “until evening; then he died at sunset” (2 Chronicles 18:25-34).

“Then someone washed the chariot at the pool of Samaria. The dogs licked up his blood, and the prostitutes bathed in it, according to the word of the LORD that he had spoken. The rest of the events of Ahab’s reign, along with all his accomplishments, including the ivory palace he built, and all the cities he built, are written in the Historical Record of Israel’s Kings” (1 Kings 22:38, 39).

The Marriage with Jezebel

Ahab was a most capable leader, and still, he did not look to God for guidance. Nothing impacted his life more than his marriage with Jezebel: “there was no one like Ahab, who devoted himself to do what was evil in the LORD’s sight, because his wife Jezebel incited him” (1 Kings 21:25, 1 Kings 16:31‑33). His alliance by marriage with Jehoshaphat also pushed widespread idolatry into Judah a generation later.

King Ahab gave Jezebel free rein over Israel. She slaughtered God’s prophets (1 Kings 18:4), persecuted Elijah (1 Kings 19:2), and killed Naboth. During the famine, Jezebel had 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of Asherah eating at her table while even King Ahab himself was actively mitigating the effects of the drought (1 Kings 18:5, 6, 19). She was successful in making Israel accept Baal as the god of prosperity, of dew, and rain. It was a destructive substitution for the promises found in God’s Law, with Elijah saying to Jehovah God, “the Israelites have abandoned your covenant, torn down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword” (1 Kings 19:10).

Jezebel’s name is used in Revelation 2:20‑23 to signify the evil that entered Christianity through idolatry. She never repented and never changed her ways. When Jehu entered Jezreel, an adorned Jezebel tried to derail his resolve by comparing him to Zimri, killer of his master (2 Kings 9:31). Indeed, institutionalized religion seeks to survive even now by vilifying the reasons and manner of our Lord’s return.

Conclusion

Throughout Ahab’s story, we find many who served God in different capacities: Elijah, Obadiah, Jehu, Micaiah, Naboth, many unnamed surviving and slaughtered prophets, and even here a son of the prophets (1 Kings 20:35 ff). In a world defined by the cult of meritocracy, prosperity gospels, marriage of religion and politics, it is up to each Christian to go to God for guidance on how to be among the 7,000 whose knee has not bowed to Baal and whose mouth has not kissed him (1 Kings 19:18).

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