1 KINGS 20 – GOD LEADS ISRAEL TO TWO VICTORIES OVER SYRIA
A. Ben-Hadad comes against Samaria.
1. (1 Kings 20:1-6) The demands of Ben-Hadad, king of Syria.
Now Ben-Hadad the king of Syria gathered all his forces together; thirty-two kings were with him, with horses and chariots. And he went up and besieged Samaria, and made war against it. Then he sent messengers into the city to Ahab king of Israel, and said to him, “Thus says Ben-Hadad: ‘Your silver and your gold are mine; your loveliest wives and children are mine.’” And the king of Israel answered and said, “My lord, O king, just as you say, I and all that I have are yours.” Then the messengers came back and said, “Thus speaks Ben-Hadad, saying, ‘Indeed I have sent to you, saying, “You shall deliver to me your silver and your gold, your wives and your children”; but I will send my servants to you tomorrow about this time, and they shall search your house and the houses of your servants. And it shall be, that whatever is pleasant in your eyes, they will put it in their hands and take it.’”
a. Ben-Hadad the King of Syria gathered all his forces together; thirty-two kings were with him: This was a formidable military attack against Israel. Though they were outwardly strong politically and militarily during the reign of Ahab, they were not strong enough to discourage such an attack.
i. “Ben-Hadad may be the same king Asa enlisted against Baasha in 15:18; or he may be that king’s son or grandson by the same name.” (Dilday)
ii. “The thirty-two kings would include minor tribal chiefs.” (Wiseman)
b. My lord, O king, just as you say, I and all that I have are yours: Ahab’s response to Ben-Hadad fit his general personality. He was a man concerned with the luxuries and comforts of living, and so he did not have the character to stand in the face of such a threat. Ahab surrendered unconditionally to Ben-Hadad.
i. Ahab believed he was in no position to resist Ben-Hadad. o doubt, the national and military might of Israel was greatly weakened by the three and a half year drought and famine that had just ended.
c. They shall search your house and the houses of your servants: This was a greater demand than what Ben-Hadad made at first. “When Ahab agreed to his terms readily, Ben-Hadad demanded the additional right to unlimited search of the palace and the houses of Ahab’s officials so as to carry away anything of value.” (Patterson and Austel)
2. (1 Kings 20:7-9) Ahab is counseled by his elders to resist.
So the king of Israel called all the elders of the land, and said, “Notice, please, and see how this man seeks trouble, for he sent to me for my wives, my children, my silver, and my gold; and I did not deny him.” And all the elders and all the people said to him, “Do not listen or consent.” Therefore he said to the messengers of Ben-Hadad, “Tell my lord the king, ‘All that you sent for to your servant the first time I will do, but this thing I cannot do.’ “ And the messengers departed and brought back word to him.
a. The king of Israel called all the elders of the land: It was wiser for Ahab to seek the counsel of the elders of the land before he surrendered to the Syrians. Now, in the brief time between the message of surrender and the actual abduction of his women and the plundering of his goods he sought counsel.
b. Do not listen or consent: The elders of Israel rightly saw that such surrender to Ben-Hadad and the Syrians was the first step to a total loss of sovereignty for Israel. If they wanted to remain a kingdom at all, they had to resist this threat.
c. But this thing I cannot do: Ahab told Ben-Hadad that he would do most of what he requested, but not all. But to deny a tyrant on one point is to deny him on every point. Ahab could expect a harsh reaction.
3. (1 Kings 20:10-12) Ben-Hadad threatens and readies his army.
Then Ben-Hadad sent to him and said, “The gods do so to me, and more also, if enough dust is left of Samaria for a handful for each of the people who follow me.” So the king of Israel answered and said, “Tell him, ‘Let not the one who puts on his armor boast like the one who takes it off.’” And it happened when Ben-Hadad heard this message, as he and the kings were drinking at the command post, that he said to his servants, “Get ready.” And they got ready to attack the city.
a. The gods do so to me, and more also: Jezebel swore a similar oath of vengeance against Elijah (1 Kings 19:2).
b. Let not the one who puts on his armor boast like the one who takes it off: Though it was uncharacteristically bold speech from Ahab, it was also a wonderful piece of wisdom. The idea is that you should do your boasting after the battle, not before.
c. They got ready to attack the city: Syria and its allies readied, and the city of Samaria braced for a furious attack.
B. Victory for Israel.
1. (1 Kings 20:13-15) The prophet promises victory.
Suddenly a prophet approached Ahab king of Israel, saying, “Thus says the LORD: ‘Have you seen all this great multitude? Behold, I will deliver it into your hand today, and you shall know that I am the LORD.’” So Ahab said, “By whom?” And he said, “Thus says the LORD: ‘By the young leaders of the provinces.’ “ Then he said, “Who will set the battle in order?” And he answered, “You.” Then he mustered the young leaders of the provinces, and there were two hundred and thirty-two; and after them he mustered all the people, all the children of Israel; seven thousand.
a. A prophet approached Ahab king of Israel: This nameless prophet does not seem to be either Elijah or Elisha. He was one of the 7,000 in Israel that were quietly faithful to Yahweh.
i. Adam Clarke had an interesting (though unlikely) idea: “It is strange that on such an occasion we hear nothing of Elijah or Elisha. Is it not possible that this was one of them disguised?”
b. Behold, I will deliver it into your hand today, and you shall know that I am the LORD: This was a generous promise of God towards Ahab and Israel. Their hardened idolatry and rejection of God deserved divine abandonment. God had every right to just leave them alone and let them perish without His help. Yet God is rich in mercy, and He showed that mercy to Ahab and Israel.
i. There is a small irony in the statement, “and you shall know that I am the LORD.” Ahab saw the victory of Yahweh over the pagan god Baal on Mount Carmel – yet he was not completely convinced. Graciously, God would give him even more evidence.
c. So Ahab said, “By whom?” Ahab looked around at his army and military leaders and naturally wondered how God could bring a victory against a mighty enemy with them. Ahab wondered who would lead the battle and God told him, “You.” God wanted to win this victory by working through the unlikely people Ahab already had.
i. Whenever a work for God is to be done, we often ask Ahab’s question: “By whom?” When many Christian leaders ask God that question, they expect God will answer by bringing someone new to them, a leader or champion that can do the work or at least help with it. However, God’s normal way of working is to use the people already with the Christian leader, even if they seem to be a very unlikely army.
ii. God would do this work against Syria and Ben-Hadad with an army of only seven thousand. Undoubtedly, these were not the same seven thousand that stayed faithful to God in Israel, but there was a correspondence between their numbers to show that God could and would work through each group.
2. (1 Kings 20:16-21) Victory for Israel.
So they went out at noon. Meanwhile Ben-Hadad and the thirty-two kings helping him were getting drunk at the command post. The young leaders of the provinces went out first. And Ben-Hadad sent out a patrol, and they told him, saying, “Men are coming out of Samaria!” So he said, “If they have come out for peace, take them alive; and if they have come out for war, take them alive.” Then these young leaders of the provinces went out of the city with the army which followed them. And each one killed his man; so the Syrians fled, and Israel pursued them; and Ben-Hadad the king of Syria escaped on a horse with the cavalry. Then the king of Israel went out and attacked the horses and chariots, and killed the Syrians with a great slaughter.
a. Ben-Hadad and the thirty-two kings helping him were getting drunk at the command post: The same sinful heart that made Ben-Hadad attack Israel also made him a drunk. In part, he was defeated by his own weak character.
b. If they have come out for peace, take them alive; and if they have come out for war, take them alive: It may be that Ben-Hadad intended to say that if the men from Israel had come for war, they should be attacked and killed. Perhaps he spoke in a drunken confusion, giving foolish orders to his soldiers.
c. The Syrians fled, and Israel pursued them: God blessed the army of Israel and the leaders that Ahab had, even blessing Ahab’s own leadership of the army. Despite great odds, they won the battle.
i. “The battle strategy appears to have been to send out the small but well trained advance party who could perhaps draws near to the Syrians without arousing too much alarm and then, at a given signal, initiate a charge that, joined by Ahab’s main striking force, would both catch the drunken Arameans off guard and throw them into confusion. The plan was more successful than Ahab dared to imagine.” (Patterson and Austel)
3. (1 Kings 20:22) The prophet advises preparation.
And the prophet came to the king of Israel and said to him, “Go, strengthen yourself; take note, and see what you should do, for in the spring of the year the king of Syria will come up against you.”
a. The prophet came to the king of Israel: This nameless prophet again advised Ahab. The victory over Ben-Hadad did not end the conflict between Israel and Syria.
b. Go, strengthen yourself; take note, and see what you should do: The prophet directed Ahab to prepare for a Syrian attack in the coming spring. The prophet knew that God works through the careful preparation of His people.
C. A second victory over Syria.
1. (1 Kings 20:23-25) The Syrians try again.
Then the servants of the king of Syria said to him, “Their gods are gods of the hills. Therefore they were stronger than we; but if we fight against them in the plain, surely we will be stronger than they. So do this thing: Dismiss the kings, each from his position, and put captains in their places; and you shall muster an army like the army that you have lost, horse for horse and chariot for chariot. Then we will fight against them in the plain; surely we will be stronger than they.” And he listened to their voice and did so.
a. Their gods are gods of the hills: The idea of the localized deity was prominent in the ancient world. They felt that particular gods had authority over particular areas. Because the recent victory was won on hilly terrain, the servants of the king of Syria believed that the God of Israel was a localized deity with power over the hills, not the plains.
i. Here they imagined that God could be molded into into an image that they wanted or could related to. “The art of god-making is very common among men. Instead of going to revelation to see what God is, and humbly believing in him as he reveals himself, men sit down and consider what sort of God he ought to be, and in so doing they are no wiser than the man who makes a god of mud or wood or stone.” (Spurgeon)
ii. Many today think that God is a God of hills but not of the plains. They think God is a God of the past but not of the present. They think God is a God of a few special favorites but not of all His people. They think that God is God of one kind of trial, but not of another kind. “Depend upon it, since Satan could not kill the church by roaring at her like a lion, he is now trying to crush her by hugging her like a bear. There is truth in this, but it is not all the truth. Do you really think, my brethren, that God cannot preserve his Church in the particular trial through which she is now passing? Is he the God of the hills of persecution, but not the God of the valleys of prosperity?” (Spurgeon)
iii. “Will God aid a Whitfield and not help a poor local preacher holding forth upon the green? Will he assist the earnest minister who addresses thousands, and desert the simple girl who teaches a dozen little children the old, old story of the cross? Is this after the fashion of God, to patronise the eminent and neglect the lowly? Does Jesus despise the day of small things?” (Spurgeon)
b. Then we will fight against them in the plain; surely we will be stronger than they: The action they recommended was logical, given their theology. Their theological belief directed their advice and action.
2. (1 Kings 20:26-28) The armies muster and God promises victory.
So it was, in the spring of the year, that Ben-Hadad mustered the Syrians and went up to Aphek to fight against Israel. And the children of Israel were mustered and given provisions, and they went against them. Now the children of Israel encamped before them like two little flocks of goats, while the Syrians filled the countryside. Then a man of God came and spoke to the king of Israel, and said, “Thus says the LORD: ‘Because the Syrians have said, “The LORD is God of the hills, but He is not God of the valleys,” therefore I will deliver all this great multitude into your hand, and you shall know that I am the LORD.’”
a. Now the children of Israel encamped before them like two little flocks of goats, while the Syrians filled the countryside: When Ben-Hadad came to avenge their previous loss, they came with overwhelming force. Ben-Hadad didn’t want to risk another humiliation.
b. Because the Syrians have said, “The LORD is God of the hills, but He is not God of the valleys,” therefore I will deliver all this great multitude into your hand: God took the bad theology of the Syrians as a personal insult. Our bad and wrong ideas about God always take away from His glory and majesty, never adding to them.
i. “God resents their blasphemy, and is determined to punish it. They shall now be discomfited in such a way as to show that God’s power is every where, and that the multitude of a host is nothing against him.” (Clarke)
3. (1 Kings 20:29-30) A second victory for Israel against Syria.
And they encamped opposite each other for seven days. So it was that on the seventh day the battle was joined; and the children of Israel killed one hundred thousand foot soldiers of the Syrians in one day. But the rest fled to Aphek, into the city; then a wall fell on twenty-seven thousand of the men who were left. And Ben-Hadad fled and went into the city, into an inner chamber.
a. The children of Israel killed one hundred thousand foot soldiers of the Syrians in one day: This was clearly a miracle, yet it was a miracle working through the existing Israeli army, not by another outside agency. God wanted to show that as unlikely as it seemed, God could work through this outwardly weak and ineffective instrument.
b. Then a wall fell on twenty-seven thousand of the men who were left: After the great victory on the battlefield, God moved in other extraordinary ways to defeat the Syrians, who had defamed His character through their bad understanding of Him.
i. “The 27,000 killed in Aphek would include everyone in the city when the walls fell.” (Wiseman)
4. (1 Kings 20:31-34) Ahab’s willingness to make peace with an enemy of God.
Then his servants said to him, “Look now, we have heard that the kings of the house of Israel are merciful kings. Please, let us put sackcloth around our waists and ropes around our heads, and go out to the king of Israel; perhaps he will spare your life.” So they wore sackcloth around their waists and put ropes around their heads, and came to the king of Israel and said, “Your servant Ben-Hadad says, ‘Please let me live.’ “ And he said, “Is he still alive? He is my brother.” Now the men were watching closely to see whether any sign of mercy would come from him; and they quickly grasped at this word and said, “Your brother Ben-Hadad.” So he said, “Go, bring him.” Then Ben-Hadad came out to him; and he had him come up into the chariot. So Ben-Hadad said to him, “The cities which my father took from your father I will restore; and you may set up marketplaces for yourself in Damascus, as my father did in Samaria.” Then Ahab said, “I will send you away with this treaty.” So he made a treaty with him and sent him away.
a. Please, let us put sackcloth around our waists and ropes around our heads, and go out to the king of Israel: Not long before this Ben-Hadad spoke severe threats against Ahab and the Kingdom of Israel (1 Kings 20:1-6). Now he humbled himself as much as he could to win mercy and favor from the unexpectedly triumphant King of Israel.
i. “The rope around the head was a sign of supplication, the figure being that of the porter at the wheel of the victor’s chariot.” (Patterson and Austel)
ii. Sinners should come to God the King with the same manner as Ben-Hadad. They should come with sincerity, with humility, with surrender, with earnestness, and with close watching to see whether any sign of mercy would come to them.
b. Is he still alive? He is my brother: Ahab felt a kinship towards this pagan king with exceedingly pagan ideas of God. Perhaps Ahab wanted Ben-Hadad and Syria’s friendship as protection against the powerful and threatening Assyrian Empire. If so, he looked for friends in the wrong places.
i. “This was not courtesy, but foolery. Brother Ben-Hadad will ere long fight against Ahab with that life which he had given him (chapter 22:31).” (Trapp)
c. I will send you away with this treaty: Ahab had no business making this treaty. The victory was the LORD’s and did not belong to Ahab; he had no right to negotiate away the victory.
5. (1 Kings 20:35-38) A prophet prepares to confront the king.
Now a certain man of the sons of the prophets said to his neighbor by the word of the LORD, “Strike me, please.” And the man refused to strike him. Then he said to him, “Because you have not obeyed the voice of the LORD, surely, as soon as you depart from me, a lion shall kill you.” And as soon as he left him, a lion found him and killed him. And he found another man, and said, “Strike me, please.” So the man struck him, inflicting a wound. Then the prophet departed and waited for the king by the road, and disguised himself with a bandage over his eyes.
a. A certain man of the sons of the prophets: This seems to be a different prophet from the man mentioned earlier in the chapter. This is another reminder that the 7,000 faithful followers of Yahweh were active in Israel.
i. “Although he is not named, Josephus believed the anonymous ‘man of God’ introduced in 1 Kings 20:35 was Micaiah who figures so prominently in the next story. He suggested it was in retaliation for Micaiah’s prophetic condemnation that the king put him in prison.” (Dilday)
ii. “This is the first reference to these special bands of prophets (2 Kings 2:3-7; 2Ki_2:15; 2Ki_4:1; 2Ki_4:38; 2Ki_5:22; 2Ki_6:1; 2Ki_9:1) who appear during the critical period of the Omride dynasty but are otherwise not well attested.” (Wiseman)
b. Strike me, please: Directed by God, the prophet needed an injury to display to King Ahab. When his neighbor refused, the prophet announced coming judgment on the neighbor – through the unusual method of a lion attack (a lion found him and killed him).
i. The neighbor was not just another man in the kingdom of Israel. The implication was that he was a fellow member of the sons of the prophets. He himself was a man given to following God and sensitive to God’s work in the prophets. He should have known better. Though this is not as clear in the New King James translation, it is more clear in other translations: his companion (NIV), a certain member of a company of prophets said to another (NRSV) another (NASB) to another man (NLB).
ii. “This seems a hard measure, but there was ample reason for it. This person was also one of the sons of the prophets, and he knew that God frequently delivered his counsels in this way, and should have immediately obeyed; for the smiting could have had no evil in it when God commanded it, and it could be no outrage or injury to his fellow when he himself required him to do it.” (Clarke)
c. Disguised himself with a bandage over his eyes: Ready with his injury, the prophet waited for the arrival of King Ahab so he could deliver his message from God to the king.
6. (1 Kings 20:39-40) The prophet gives an object lesson.
Now as the king passed by, he cried out to the king and said, “Your servant went out into the midst of the battle; and there, a man came over and brought a man to me, and said, ‘Guard this man; if by any means he is missing, your life shall be for his life, or else you shall pay a talent of silver.’ While your servant was busy here and there, he was gone.” Then the king of Israel said to him, “So shall your judgment be; you yourself have decided it.”
a. Your servant went out into the midst of the battle: After the pattern of other prophets, this anonymous prophet brought a message to King Ahab through a made-up story.
b. While your servant was busy here and there, he was gone: The prophet’s story told of a man who was responsible to guard the life of another, and proved himself unfaithful. In the story, the guilty man’s excuse was that he was busy here and there – which was no excuse at all. He should have paid attention to the job he had to do.
i. “This was likely enough to happen on a battlefield. It would not be possible to hold your prisoner, and to busy yourself about other things at the same time.” (Meyer)
ii. The prophet’s made-up story with the fictional excuse becomes real in the life of many, especially many ministers of the Gospel. “If a man is called to preach the Word, and becomes busy over a hundred things other than that of his central work, and so loses the opportunity to preach, his failure is complete. That which is our God-appointed work, we must do. If we fail in that, the fact that we have been ‘busy here and there,’ doing all sorts of other things, is of no avail.” (Morgan)
iii. He was gone: Even as the fictional prisoner escaped, so many opportunities escape us in the Christian life. “I want you all to remember this morning that if any portion of life has not been spent in God’s service it is gone. Time past is gone. You can never have it back again, not even the last moment which just now glided by.” (Spurgeon)
b. So shall your judgment be; you yourself have decided it: In the prophet’s story, he was unfaithful in guarding something that was entrusted to him. Ahab rightly judged that he should be held responsible for his failure to guard what was entrusted to him.
7. (1 Kings 20:41-43) The rebuke from God.
And he hastened to take the bandage away from his eyes; and the king of Israel recognized him as one of the prophets. Then he said to him, “Thus says the LORD: ‘Because you have let slip out of your hand a man whom I appointed to utter destruction, therefore your life shall go for his life, and your people for his people.’” So the king of Israel went to his house sullen and displeased, and came to Samaria.
a. The king of Israel recognized him as one of the prophets: This showed why the prophet found it wise to disguise himself as a soldier recently returned from battle, and why the wound was necessary. Ahab consciously shielded himself from the prophets.
b. Because you have let slip out of your hand a man whom I appointed to utter destruction, therefore your life shall go for his life, and your people for his people: God intended that Ben-Hadad should be utterly destroyed, but He also intended that this happen by the hand of the army of Israel. God was interested in more than the mere death of Ben-Hadad, but also in the way that death came about.
c. So the king of Israel went to his house sullen and displeased: Ahab was sullen and displeased, but he was not repentant. He had the sorrow of being a sinner and knowing the consequences of sin, without having the sorrow for the sin itself.