1 Kings 16:15-18:16
First Kings devoted 11 chapters to the reign of Solomon. Then the next three chapters dealt with his two successors in the Northern and Southern Kingdoms, Jeroboam and Rehoboam. Suddenly, the pace shifts in chapters 15 and 16. In the space of those two chapters the author present the reigns of Abijam and Asa in the Southern Kingdom and Nadab, Baasha, Elah, Zimri, Omri, and Ahab in the Northern Kingdom. We discover the pattern of presentation of each king that will be followed throughout the rest of 1 and 2 Kings.
The author introduces each of the kings of the Southern Kingdom by presenting:
The kings of the Northern Kingdom are presented in the same way except that their ages and mothers are not usually mentioned.
At the conclusion of the author's treatment of each king he gives:
The actual account of each king between the introduction and conclusion varies a great deal. However, over half the verses of chapters 15 and 16 are composed of the introductions and conclusions to the eight kings who are dealt with.
The rapid-fire treatment of kings slows dramatically after chapter 16. Though Ahab is introduced in 1 Kings 16:29, the conclusion of his reign (and thus his death notice) does not come until 1 Kings 22:39-40. However, though Ahab is frequently mentioned in 1 Kings 17-22, he is not the main subject. The real subject of these chapters is the prophet Elijah who will occupy center stage in this book from 1 Kings 17-2 Kings 2.
1 Kings 16:15-34 - From Zimri to Ahab
It is hard to imagine the Northern Kingdom sinking lower than it had with the reign of Elah, described in 1 Kings 16:8-14. Though Elah is credited with having reigned two years he probably survived just over a year. When the author of 1 Kings evaluated him in verse 13 he had to lump Elah's sin together with that of his father, Baasha. However, Elah was assassinated while in a drunken stupor. Since his father, Baasha, had assassinated Jeroboam's son, Nadab, after just a year on the throne, there is poetic justice to Elah's death. It also means that for the second time consecutively the Northern Kingdom has failed to establish a dynasty. In both cases the succeeding son has been assassinated within less than two years on the throne. And Elah was killed while drunk. The Northern Kingdom had a severe crisis of leadership.
But things did get worse. Zimri, Elah's assassin, only lasted seven days on the throne and he committed suicide! First Kings 16:9 describes Zimri as the commander of half of the chariots of Elah. Verses 15 and 16 state that as soon as the army heard that Zimri had assassinated Elah and made himself king, all Israel made Omri, the commander of the army, king, and he besieged Zimri at the capital city of Tirzah.
This summary must involve certain generalizations. It is doubtful (if not impossible) that "all Israel" made Omri king at this point, unless the statement in verse 15 that Zimri reigned for seven days is false. Given the communications of that time, there was not time for the news that Zimri had become king to reach all the tribes of Israel before Omri had acted. Omri was leading the army against the Philistines at Gibbethon, about 50 miles from Tirzah. For the news of Zimri's rise to the throne to reach Omri, the decision to rebel plus the action required to move the army 50 miles and besiege the capital, and to force Zimri's suicide all in seven days was moving very fast in the ancient world.
It is most likely that the decision to make Omri king was made by certain members of his high-ranking officers. Part of the issue seems to be military jealousy between the chariot divisions and the army proper. First Kings 16:23 indicates that it was not until four years later that Omri actually became the king.
One might be inclined to think that Zimri would not have accomplished much during a seven-day period as king. However, verses 11 and 12 note that he killed every male member of the family and friends of Baasha. Thus he exterminated a family name from the earth.
Verse 19 attributes his suicide to the sins Zimri had committed, both in following the footsteps of Jeroboam and in his own leadership of Israel into sin. One can only wonder what kind of personality Zimri was that he would commit suicide by burning down the king's palace with himself inside. Surely, the commander of half of Israel's chariots could have put up a better fight than that. A Hebrew reader would have been even more perplexed since the name Zimri in Hebrew means "God is my protection" or "strength." Obviously God was neither Zimri's strength nor protection. Unimaginable as it may have been, things had gotten worse in Israel with Zimri's rise to the throne. They did not get better soon.
Verses 21-23 reveal the turmoil that the Northern Kingdom was undergoing. Half of Israel supported Tibni for king, and half supported Omri. It is noteworthy that Tibni is not "introduced" or given a "conclusion" as a king of Israel. Therefore, at least in the mind of the author of 1 Kings, he never really reigned as king. It is even possible that Tibni was a nickname rather than a legal name. Tibni would mean "the man of straw" in Hebrew. If the author of 1 Kings has no respect for him, Tibni might be our author's nickname for a contender for the throne who was not even a true Israelite.
Nothing else is known of Tibni, and the notice of his death is elaborately casual. The Hebrew simply states that the people who followed Omri became stronger than the people following Tibni, and Tibni died. We are left to wonder to what degree military action was involved. Did Tibni die naturally or was he assassinated? Did the supporters of Tibni oppose Omri after Tibni's death or was the kingdom united? The author has no interest in answering our questions. He simply notes in verse 23 that four years after Zimri committed suicide while under siege from Omri, Omri finally became king and began his rule in Tirzah.
Omri is credited with moving the capital of the Northern Kingdom from Tirzah to Samaria. Samaria was only located about nine miles west of Tirzah, but it was a much more defensible site. Zimri's failure to hold Tirzah against Omri's army when the Philistines had had no trouble resisting Omri at Gibbethon shows how hard Tirzah was to defend.
Samaria was located on a hill that rose some three hundred feet above the valleys on the north, west, and south. The east approach to Samaria was via a long, sloping ridge. Even to this day one can stand on the top of the hill of Samaria with an unobstructed view in almost any direction. The city was also much closer to the major highways of ancient Canaan. Travel to Jerusalem, Shechem, Megiddo, the Mediterranean coast, and the Jordan Valley was easily accessible from Samaria. The main weakness of Samaria was the lack of a water supply at the top of the hill. Omri appears to have been sensitive to the military danger of being cut off from his water supply in the valley. Archaeologists have dated a large pool or cistern for holding water to the time of Omri.
Verse 24 states that Omri named the city after the man from whom he bought the hill, Shemer. While this comment may be true, it is likely that the author of 1 Kings is poking fun at Samaria and the Northern Kingdom. The Hebrew word Shemer means "dregs." The Hebrew consonants of Samaria literally mean a "watching point" which was a very appropriate name for such a hill. No doubt that was the real meaning of Samaria.
However, the author of 1 Kings knew the wickedness of the Northern Kingdom - so terrible already - would actually sink to new lows under the kings ruling from Samaria. His comment in verse 24 then is probably a compressed pun. Omri bought a hill that he thought would be a watching point but it really would become the dregs of the wickedness of Israel. The establishment of the capital at Samaria was the only achievement of Omri that the author of 1 Kings saw fit to mention after the death of Tibni. He only notes in verse 25 that Omri did more evil than all who were before him and then gives the concluding formula for Omri.
Historians are more generous with their appreciation of Omri than was the author of 1 Kings. Omri was the first king of the Northern Kingdom who managed to establish enough political stability that his son could survive for more than a year on the throne. In fact, Omri's great-grandson, Joram, ruled for seven years before a change of dynasty took place. Even after Jehu had killed Joram in a bloody coup, the Assyrian kings and court records referred to him as a son of Omri. A hundred years later, 140 years after Omri took the throne, Assyria - the major world power of that time - called Israel the land of Omri. Some historians have even compared him to David in that he brought the kind of stability and prosperity to a troubled kingdom that David had brought in his time to the United Kingdom.
The establishment of Samaria as the capital was somewhat parallel to David's choice of Jerusalem for a capital. A defensible, politically neutral site served to consolidate power and unite a nation in both cases. Archaeology shows that Samaria was not inhabited until Omri purchased it for a capital. The quality of construction done under Omri reveals a high level of workmanship.
Politically, Omri appears to have been astute also. The border skirmishing that had sapped the strength of both the Southern and Northern Kingdoms was halted and a temporary peace between the two kingdoms was achieved. An alliance with Phoenicia was developed and sealed with the marriage of Omri's son to the daughter of the king of Sidon. With peace on his southern and northwestern borders Omri actually expanded Israel to the southeast, pressuring Moab. The establishment of peace, the construction activity of building a capital, and the move of the capital to major trade routes also all imply an economic upturn for Israel during the reign of Omri.
Though historians and archaeologists pay tribute to Omri's political leadership, the archaeological evidence confirms the spiritual evaluation of the author of 1 Kings. Many pottery fragments upon which people had written were found in the excavation of Samaria. The writing includes many references to Baal as well as to Yahweh. This indicates that the syncretistic practice of worshipping Baal while giving lip service to Yahweh was prevalent under Omri. From the perspective of 1 and 2 Kings such a spiritual failure was far more significant in the long run than political and economic success. Would that God's people today could be as convinced of that truth as the author of 1 and 2 Kings was!
Omri was succeeded by his son Ahab in about 869 BC. Ahab is probably the most notorious king of the Northern Kingdom in the minds of lay students of the Bible. Jeroboam I and Jeroboam II may have been at least considered more wicked, but colorful confrontations between Ahab and Elijah have fixed him as the most notorious sinner in Bible story imagination. The author of 1 Kings certainly has a low opinion of Ahab. Though he has described several previous kings as doing evil more than all who were before them, he describes Ahab in this way also in verse 30. Ahab set a new record low in obedience to God in the history of Israel. The author made the same statement about Omri in verse 25 but he gave no specific instances of why Omri was so condemned. There is no lack of specific sins that gave rise to the condemnation of Ahab.
The first sin that is mentioned is that Ahab took as his wife Jezebel, the daughter of King Ethbaal of the Sidonians. This is the marriage arranged by Omri as part of the treaty with the Phoenicians. This marriage is introduced by an unusual phrase. To the author of 1 Kings it seemed that Ahab thought following in line with all the sins of Jeroboam was a pretty trivial or light matter. If he was going to make his mark as a sinner, he would need something more serious. Our author was convinced that his marriage to Jezebel was that much more serious sin. Deuteronomy 7:3-4 had forbidden marriage with people from the surrounding nations. However, Solomon had openly and thoroughly violated that command of God.
One wonders why the author of 1 Kings should be too upset that Ahab would also. Part of the reason is that it was Jezebel that Ahab married. No individual in Israel's history, male or female, was as aggressive in promoting Baal worship and persecuting Yahweh worship as Jezebel. As DeVries states, Ahab did a previously unthinkable sin by "marrying the baalist daughter of a baalist king." Phoenicia was the center of Baal worship at that time, and Ahab's wife brought an evangelistic zeal for Baal with her.
The following phrase in verse 31 declares that Ahab's marriage to Jezebel was not just one of political advantage. He served Baal and worshipped him. Jezebel's influence on Ahab was spiritual as well as political. The use of both the words "served" and "worshipped" show the extent of that influence. The Hebrew word for "served" means to work for. The word for "worshipped" means to bow down before. It appears that Ahab was a complete convert to Baal worship.
Thus it is no surprise that the next sin for which the author of 1 Kings condemns him is the construction of an altar for the worship of Baal in the House of Baal in Samaria. This is the first specific mention of a king constructing a Baal temple as part of the capital city. The final sin that is mentioned is the logical consequence of Ahab's commitment to Baal worship. He constructed a sacred pole or Asherah to symbolize Baal's sexual consort.
That previous kings had tolerated, condoned or even participated in such worship practices was one thing. But in the mind of the author of 1 Kings that the king himself, the man who symbolized the nation, would actually take the lead in constructing and promoting Baal worship was the worst imaginable sin Ahab could commit. So in language stronger than verse 30 he notes in verse 33 that Ahab did more to provoke the anger of the Lord than had all the kings who had ruled the Northern Kingdom prior to his reign.
Verse 34 seems to be an odd addition to the treatment of Ahab. What the author is trying to say is that Ahab's wickedness was so great that Hiel of Bethel felt free to violate an ancient taboo and mock the curse of God. Joshua 6:26 concludes the story of the capture and destruction of Jericho with Israel taking an oath, "Cursed before the Lord is the one who arises and builds the city of Jericho; with his first-born he will lay its foundation, and with his youngest son he will erect its gates."
The curse had several levels of meaning. First, it was a prohibition against Israel ever rebuilding Jericho. Secondly, the curse alludes to the practice of some of the Canaanites of burying children in the foundation of building to propitiate the gods and ward off evil. Archaeologists have found the remains of infants placed in jars and entombed in the masonry of the foundations. Such practices would have been unthinkable at the time of Joshua. The curse essentially said, "May Israel sink as low as their Canaanite neighbors in burying their babies before Jericho is rebuilt." Little did Joshua imagine that such a time would come in the history of Israel. The author of 1 Kings remembered the curse. He noted that it was during the reign of Ahab that Hiel built Jericho in violation of the curse, and that he buried two of his sons in the foundations of the cities in fulfillment of the curse. Only under a king as wicked as Ahab could such a terrible sin have happened.
But the author of 1 Kings has another message also. When Ahab had brought Israel to unthinkable depths of sin, God was at work raising up a prophet who would challenge Ahab and proclaim authentic faith in Yahweh. In the words of Paul in Romans 5:20, "Where sin abounded, grace abounded all the more."
1 Kings 17:1-2 Kings 1:18 - Stories about Elijah
Few figures of the Old Testament have the power of identification that Elijah has. He seems to be a classic example of a prophet. An outsider, living constantly under the death-threat of a wicked ruler, boldly declaring the word of God, yet inwardly depressed and discouraged, there are aspects of Elijah that appeal to almost all Biblical readers. In some ways he is the Simon-Peter of the Old Testament. His bold, forthright faith epitomizes what we would like to be in our highest wishes. His exhaustion, fear, and depression are points at which many of us can identify with Elijah in reality. Elijah comes on the scene when Ahab and Jezebel had taken the Northern Kingdom to its lowest ebb of idolatrous Baal worship. Elijah, whose very name means "Yahweh is my God," comes to stand in the gap and turn the tide. The best-known Elijah stories appear in 1 Kings 17-19 and are built around Elijah's announcement of a drought. The rest of the Elijah material is interspersed with historical notes and does not have a unifying historical event to provide theological focus.
Chapters 17-19 appear to be constructed as a drama in three acts. Act 1 is chapter 17 and revolves around the challenge to Baal worship by means of the drought. Act 2 is chapter 18 and involves the confrontation between the prophets of Baal and Elijah. Act 3 is found in 1 Kings 19:1-18 and involves Elijah's flight and self-examination after Act 2. Each act has the following five elements in the same order:
1 Kings 17:1-24 - Elijah and the Drought
Elijah wasted no time in confronting Ahab. The rugged prophet from the frontier area of Gilead appears before Ahab and throws down the gauntlet. As the Lord lives . . . there will be neither dew nor rain these years. The challenge is not immediately obvious to modern readers, but it would have been shockingly clear to Ahab and any Israelite of the Biblical period. Baal was renowned as the god of rain. Baal worship was built on the assumption that Baal controlled the rain and that the sexual acts of Baal worship would cause Baal to grant rain (see Baal Worship in the Old Testament).
Elijah stood before Ahab, the king who had endorsed, promoted, and led Israel in Baal worship, and declared, "You claim that Baal gives the rain. You believe your worship will cause Baal to send the rain. Yahweh is going to stop the rain, and Baal won't be able to do anything about it. Your worship of Baal will be absolutely worthless because your Baal is powerless before Yahweh."
Elijah also increased the stakes a bit more. "As Yahweh lives," he said. The very life and existence of Yahweh would be put on the line. No drought, no Yahweh. The other side of the equation is not stated, but it does not need to be. It is obviously, "No rain, no Baal." What is at stake in whether there is drought or not will be the very existence of Yahweh versus Baal. Thus the whole question of whom Israel will worship will be determined in a battle of the clouds. Elijah further declared that not only would there be no rain, there would be no dew.
If, in fact, Yahweh would stop the rain and create the drought, it would bring great hardship on all the Israelites involved. Could Yahweh take care of his people while winning the battle of Baal? The rest of chapter 17 is the answer to that question as Elijah experienced Yahweh's care through the first three years of the drought. The answer is unfolded through three short stories marked off by the phrase, "the word of the Lord."
The first story appears in verses 2-7 and is introduced by the phrase, The word of the Lord came to him, saying. The voice of God then instructed Elijah to withdraw from Samaria and hide himself by a brook called Cherith and that He would provide for him there. The following verses simply describe Elijah obeying God's voice, drinking from the brook, and receiving bread and meat from ravens twice a day. God was providing very well and Elijah was safe and well fed until the brook dried up. The author of 1 Kings points that it was not surprising that the brook dried up - after all there was drought going on. Yahweh's battle with Baal seemed to destroy the provision He had made to take care of Elijah.
But the word of the Lord comes again to Elijah in verse 8 and sends him to Zarephath in Sidon to be fed by a widow. Yahweh is raising the stakes again! Not only is Yahweh going to defeat Baal at his own game of rain, he will send Elijah to Baal's home base of Sidon and take care of him there. Further, Yahweh will use a widow to do it.
In the Biblical world widows were at the bottom of the economic ladder. Of all the poor people, widows were the poorest. Widows often could not survive themselves. It is preposterous to think that a widow could also feed a freeloading prophet! But God sends Elijah and he goes to the widow's house. When he arrives he asks her for some food. She replies that she is down to her last meal and she is in the process of preparing that for herself and her son and then they will starve to death. Elijah cheerfully told her not to worry about that, but to give him her last meal. Yahweh, the God of Israel, would provide her food until the drought was over.
No one in their right mind would have done what Elijah suggested, let alone a widow facing her last meal. But at the word of Yahweh she did what Elijah asked, and her supply of flour and oil did not fail as long as she needed it. The author notes at the end of verse 16 that this miracle was "according to the word of the Lord." Yahweh had met the challenge. In Baal's home territory Yahweh fed his prophet through a widow with nothing.
The final story in chapter 17 describes the death of the widow's son. There are two levels of meaning at work in this story. First, the widow's son was her source of security, meaning, and even life. His death meant that the miracle of the flour and oil meant nothing to her. What will Yahweh do when the lady He is using to meet the prophet's need loses hope? Second, rain was not just rain in an agricultural economy. Rain was also life. If Yahweh had shut off the rain was He not also, in effect, cutting off life? What can Yahweh do when His drought destroys life?
The answer to both questions does not come by proclamation or words; it comes by Yahweh's action through Elijah. The prophet simply took the boy up to his room and prayed and the child was brought back to life. Yahweh will not only be master of the rain He will also be master of life and death. And the widow's response was to affirm the reliability of the word of the Lord.
1 Kings 18:1-46 - The Contest on Mt. Carmel
Just as the word of the Lord was the key to the three stories of chapter 18, the same word of the Lord suddenly sends Elijah back to confront Ahab after three years of drought. The narrator quickly changes the scene from Elijah to Samaria. The drought has been severe in Samaria and Ahab can no longer feed the horses and mules of his great chariot force. He is reduced to seeking out hay hidden in the valleys by farmers. Ahab went in one direction looking and sends his chief palace officer, Obadiah, in another direction. Obviously Ahab is a desperate and angry man because of the effects of the drought. Elijah's life wouldn't be worth much if Ahab could find him.
The narrator prolongs the suspense of the inevitable meeting between Ahab and Elijah by having Elijah meet Obadiah. The prophet immediately demands an audience with Ahab. Obadiah, the king's chief palace assistant, is put on the defensive before the man of God. "What if I go tell Ahab and then you don't show up?" he asks. Obadiah knew Ahab's frame of mind and was worried for his own. But when Elijah swore that he would appear, Obadiah returned to Ahab to arrange for the fateful meeting.
Study Questions for Reflection and Discussion
These readings and study questions are in preparation for next week's lesson.
These are study and reflection questions to facilitate a weeklong devotional journey into the Books of Kings. As you begin each day pray that the Lord will speak to you through His Word and that the Holy Spirit will breathe spiritual life into your heart through your study and reflection.
First Day: Read the notes on 1 Kings 16:15-18:16. Look up the Scripture references given.
1. Identify one or two new insights that you found meaningful.
2. Select a truth that has a personal application for your life. Describe how it would apply to you.
3. Write a brief prayer asking God to help you trust Him to provide for all your needs while He accomplishes His will in your life.
Second Day: Read 1 Kings 18:1-46. Now focus in on 1 Kings 18:17-40.
1. What advantages did Elijah give to the follower of Baal in the contest of which God would answer by fire? Why do you think Elijah did that?
2. What purpose did Elijah want to accomplish by this contest? How long is it possible for people to "limp between two opinions?" What application can you draw for your life?
3. Why did Elijah mock the prophets of Baal? What spiritual point does it drive home for your own life?
Third Day: Read 1 Kings 18:1-46. Focus in on 1 Kings 18:30-46.
1. What was involved in Elijah's rebuilding the altar of the Lord? What steps are necessary for us to repair our relationship with God?
2. What were the specific requests of Elijah's prayer to God? Which of those requests could have a spiritual application? What would it be?
3. In light of the contest between Yahweh and Baal what is the point of the great rainstorm? List some ways that God has proven Himself to you.
Fourth Day: Read 1 Kings 19:1-21. Focus on these same verses.
1. Why do you think Elijah was afraid after the successes of chapter 18?
2. How far did Elijah flee? Did he flee beyond Jezebel's power? Did he flee beyond God's power?
3. Write a brief prayer confessing some of your fears to God. Ask Him what good your fleeing from those fears is doing. Ask Him to help you face up to those fears.
Fifth Day: Read 1 Kings 19:1-21. Continue to focus on these verses.
1. What attitudes and characteristics does Elijah display in these verses? How do you feel when you read what Elijah said and did in these verses?
2. How did God respond to Elijah in these verses? How does God's response to Elijah make you feel about God? What impact might God's response to Elijah have on your relationship with the Lord in the future?
3. Compare the calling of Elisha with Luke 9:57-62. What conclusions can you draw about the importance of immediate and complete obedience?
Sixth Day: Read 1 Kings 20:1-43. Now focus on 1 Kings 20:1-21.
1. What impression of Ahab do you get from reading the focus verses?
2. To what did Ahab owe the victory in the battle described here? To what degree is God responsible for any victory or success that we enjoy?
3. Write a brief prayer asking God for wisdom to discern His will and for grace to follow it in all the circumstances of your life.