The historian’s commitment to the Saga of Ahab finally comes to a close with the events of 1 Kings 22, continuing with much the same material as before. Meaning, Ahab’s dogged resistance to anything tending towards the truth of Yahweh is still very much on display. And it might just be that that resistance is louder and bolder than ever before. Such, I think, has been the historian’s objective: to demonstrate what it looks like and what results from a flagrant aversion to Yahweh’s Word and wisdom. It’s not by mistake that after corroborating the sovereignty of God at Carmel and Horeb (1 Kings 18—19) that the historian proceeds to show the heights of mankind’s sin and stubbornness through a trilogy of chapters focusing on the folly of King Ahab.
Besides his brief spell of repentance at the close the previous chapter (1 Kings 21:27–29), there’s almost nothing positive to say about his time on the throne of Israel. At every turn, he has repelled the promptings of Yahweh and plugged his ears at the sound of his Word. His aversion to the God of Israel, even as he sits as Israel’s king, is manifest in the idolatrous and iniquitous monarchy he established, which saw an untold number of false gods and licentious liturgies gain national recognition and cultural acceptance (mostly through the coaxing and coercion of his ill-fated bride, Jezebel). This patent subversion to Yahweh’s authority, however, comes home to roost in the most demonstrable manner possible in this narrative, with Yahweh once again affirming his absolute authority and command over all things.
It has now been three years since Ahab and Benhadad’s treaty (1 Kings 20:34; 22:1). Pertinent to this narrative, though unrecorded in Scripture, is Syria and Israel’s conflict with the Assyrian king, Shalmaneser III, at the Battle of Qarqar. One of the underlying reasons Ahab and Benhadad engaged in a covenant with one another was due to the looming terror of the Assyrian Empire. Historical records remain inconclusive as to who actually came out victorious at Qarqar, with Shalmaneser purposefully conflating and/or misremembering details of his defeats. (He claims, though, to have inflicted over 14,000 casualties that day.) Whatever the case, this military engagement seems to give Ahab a renewed sense of authority and autocracy, inspiring him to draw up battle-plans to make war with nascent trade partner Benhadad and the Syrian army at Ramoth-gilead (1 Kings 22:2–3). To that end, he arranges a conference with his other ally, Judah’s King Jehoshaphat.
Jehoshaphat, who had “made peace with the king of Israel” years prior (1 Kings 22:44; 2 Chron. 18:1), goes along with this scheme, extending Ahab an ill-advised right-hand of agreement. Jehoshaphat’s only caveat, though, is that the “word of the Lord” must be consulted (1 Kings 22:4–5). He requests an inquiry to divine Jehovah’s approval before engaging in such a conflict. Ahab obliges, assembling four hundred prophets to bring him a word by which he and Jehoshaphat would be able to ascertain the merits of their conceived conquest. And whereas Ahab gets the message he wants to hear (1 Kings 22:6), Jehoshaphat remains unconvinced. “Is there not here a prophet of the Lord besides,” he asks, “that we might enquire of him?” (1 Kings 22:7).
Those were likely the last words Ahab wanted to hear, as he unenthusiastically admits that he knows a guy. “There is yet one man,” he concedes, “but I hate him” (1 Kings 22:8). Ahab, never one to camouflage his bias, candidly verbalizes his thorny relationship with the prophet Micaiah. Apparently, out of the remaining Yahwistic prophets in Israel, Micaiah had garnered quite a reputation for the unequivocal and unvarnished sermons he delivered. His words sounded caustic, embroiling he and the king in no small amount of contention. As we’ll soon find out, though, Micaiah’s brusque delivery was a consequence of his resolve to declare nothing but the bald truth of Yahweh (1 Kings 22:14). His “unpleasant tidings,” therefore, might’ve been coarse, but they were inspired, and necessary.
Thus, while a reluctant Ahab dispatches an officer to summon Micaiah, he and Jehoshaphat continue their inquiry, with each king getting decked out in their royal regalia to listen to prophet after prophet share their supposed beatific pontifications (1 Kings 22:9–10). As all this is going on, a particularly showy son-of-a-gun named Zedekiah gets up and produces “horns of iron,” perhaps from the depths of his cloak, as object-lessons in his rousing prophecy of Ahab’s conquest. “With these,” he declares, “shalt thou push the Syrians, until thou have consumed them” (1 Kings 22:11). I have no doubt that this display pleased Ahab greatly. It had the right blend of glamor and mythos to sound believable (Deut. 33:17), leaving all the other prophets nothing to do but nod their heads in agreement (1 Kings 22:12).
The messenger finally finds Micaiah, greeting him with news of what’s been going down in Samaria recently. “Hey, heads up,” the messenger essentially says, “there are a bunch of prophets who’ve been summoned to bring a word about the king’s new war, or whatever, and here’s what everyone else has been saying, so be sure you fall in line this time” (1 Kings 22:13). Micaiah responds to such insight with an almost devout aloofness: “As the Lord liveth, what the Lord saith unto me, that will I speak” (1 Kings 22:14). A modern rendering might go something like this: “Yeah, don’t care. I’m gonna preach the words Yahweh gives me.” I imagine that messenger brushing his forehead, knowing full well the scene that was about to occur.
Micaiah, then, goes before Ahab and Jehoshaphat and proceeds to regurgitate the prophecies that have already been filling that hall (1 Kings 22:15). Ahab calls his bluff. Micaiah has never conformed to conventional wisdom before, so why this time? What gives? “How many times shall I adjure thee that thou tell me nothing but that which is true in the name of the Lord?” the king bellows (1 Kings 22:16). To which Micaiah concedes, proclaiming the Lord’s devastating word for the king:
And he said, I saw all Israel scattered upon the hills, as sheep that have not a shepherd: and the Lord said, These have no master: let them return every man to his house in peace. (1 Kings 22:17)
In contradistinction to the rather schmaltzy prophecies already uttered, where everything works out well for Ahab and company (1 Kings 22:6, 12),1 Micaiah’s words are a gut-punch of divine honesty. This conquest won’t end in great success but in a great scattering of the people of Israel. If this proposed war proceeds as planned, Israel will be thrown into chaos. They’ll be dispersed, dashed upon the rocks, having no shepherd to bring them home. Such, you see, is the byproduct of conscious ignorance and disregard for the True Shepherd and his Word of Truth. When Yahweh’s words and ways are deemed irrelevant and immaterial, we cast ourselves into the chaos and disarray of our wisdom.
Ahab, of course, doesn’t like Micaiah’s words, not one bit. He turns to Jehoshaphat and gives the Old Testament equivalent of, “See, I told you so” (1 Kings 22:18). This latest example in a long line of biting indictments from the mouth of Micaiah, son of Imlah, exasperates the king of Israel. Micaiah, though, continues to speak up, reinforcing his prophetic sermon with a remarkable vision from heaven itself:
Hear thou therefore the word of the Lord: I saw the Lord sitting on his throne, and all the host of heaven standing by him on his right hand and on his left. And the Lord said, Who shall persuade Ahab, that he may go up and fall at Ramothgilead? And one said on this manner, and another said on that manner. And there came forth a spirit, and stood before the Lord, and said, I will persuade him. And the Lord said unto him, Wherewith? And he said, I will go forth, and I will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets. And he said, Thou shalt persuade him, and prevail also: go forth, and do so. Now therefore, behold, the Lord hath put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these thy prophets, and the Lord hath spoken evil concerning thee. (1 Kings 22:19–23)
After reading those verses, you are likely left with a flurry of questions scurrying around in your head. Let’s start with some obvious observations. Micaiah, here, relays a heavenly vision — a lá Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones (Ezek. 37) — replete with an august picture of “the Lord sitting on his throne.” This, of course, is an image peppered throughout Scripture (Ps. 9:7; 11:4; 45:6; 103:19; Isa. 6:1–4; Jer. 17:11–12; Ezek. 1:26; Rev. 4:2). It’s not an unfamiliar scene. What is unusual, however, is the Lord seemingly calling for one of the “host of heaven” to seduce Ahab into marching upon Ramoth-gilead, where he will ultimately fall. Such is the literal meaning of the word “persuade” in verses 20–22. That God would summon an enticing spirit to work a deceptive scheme “in the mouth of all these prophets” seems entirely contrary to what we know about Yahweh, who never lies (Num. 23:19; Titus 1:2; Heb. 6:18), “neither tempteth he any man” (James 1:13). What are we to make of this?
The troublesome tenor of this passage, to be sure, betrays our feeble, finite humanity. Our anthropoid understanding can’t even hope to grasp the infinite wisdom of God. And that’s very much on display, here. Even still, those who wish to see a conundrum that likewise renders null the rest of the canon are free to do so — at their own peril, though, because there is no such conundrum. We shouldn’t presume to be frightened, as though there’s something overtly problematic about the Lord of all things granting permission to a “lying spirit” to “go forth” and tell lies, seeing as (1) it’s happened before (Job 1:6; 2:1) and (2) it’s assured to happen again (2 Thess. 2:11–12).
But let’s set aside the wild goose chase of trying to identify who this “lying spirit” is and, instead, focus on Ahab. You might be thinking, “Why would God knowingly want to deceive Ahab?” That’s the “human” way of understanding this narrative, and it’s flawed. This way of thinking is a non-starter because Ahab is already deceived. Flip through the historian’s accounts of Ahab’s reign and you will notice they are rife with example after example of the king’s deluded plunge into deceit, idolatry, and egotism. Ahab was his own authority. The Word of Yahweh, for all intents and purposes, was irrelevant. To his ears, the prophetic words of the Lord are nothing but the holy buzzkill to his self-indulgent intentions (1 Kings 22:8, 18). Before Micaiah ever appeared in front of him, Ahab had already been duped by his own pride and self-aggrandizement, to the degree that nothing was going to impede the advance of his renown. Not even that irksome son of Imlah.
The point of Micaiah’s vision, therefore, was to bear witness to the fact that the king of Israel was beyond the point of responding to Israel’s One True God. He wasn’t listening or heeding Yahweh’s direction, let alone Micaiah’s. When Micaiah discloses this so-called “game of lies” (1 Kings 22:23), he is making it known that it’s neither he nor Yahweh who’s deceiving him, it’s those prophets. And, more specifically, it’s himself. The king was being led to believe that this conquest was a sure thing because that’s what he wanted to believe.2 It ultimately wouldn’t have mattered what Micaiah prophesied: Ahab was going to do what Ahab wanted to do. He was going to abide by his own authoritative voice.
The “lying spirit,” whatever or whoever that was, was Yahweh’s sanctioned judgment on King Ahab for his continued refusal to acquiesce to the authority of Yahweh alone. It was God’s sovereign will that Ahab fall and suffer the consequences for a lifetime of incongruent and stubborn resistance to all things Yahweh. Accordingly, Ahab wasn’t so much caught in a web of lies by an unruly heavenly spirit, so much as he was led by the lying spirit of his own heart (Jer. 17:9). This, I’d say, is what it looks like when one is “given over to a reprobate mind” (Rom. 1:28–32). The longer mankind insists he is his own authority and determines “to do those things which are not convenient,” the more God is inclined to give them what they desire. “If you go on despising his word,” notes Dale Ralph Davis,3 “God may withdraw his light and allow you to walk in the darkness you seem to prefer.” While the Lord does not inspire deceit, he does allow those who are already deceived to be further deceived, because such is their just judgment.
Now, I trust, you see the weight of this moment. Micaiah’s words are like artillery fire on huddled troops. Zedekiah doesn’t take too kindly to the notion that he’s been deceived by a “lying spirit,” and swiftly lets him know with a right-cross to the left cheek (1 Kings 22:24). Ahab, as you might imagine, doesn’t like the sound of that either, so he decides to lock Micaiah up and give him the skimpiest of rations (1 Kings 22:26–27). It was the king’s assumption that he’d be coming back in one piece, and “in peace,” following this conflict with Syria. He’d deal with this infernal prophet then. But for both Zedekiah and Ahab, Micaiah’s words are like omens (1 Kings 22:25, 28). “We shall see, won’t we.”
Interestingly enough, for however much he disliked and defied the prophetic words of Micaiah, Ahab still feared them. Perhaps in the back of his head a little voice kept prodding him, “What if it be true?” Why else do you think he’d concoct such a silly ruse to hide himself on the battlefield (1 Kings 22:30)? In an effort to avoid fate, Ahab disguises himself as an ordinary lackey among the Israelite ranks. The historian clues us in to why by inserting Benhadad’s command to his men to fight “only with the king of Israel” (1 Kings 22:31). Ahab was his primary target, no doubt because of his duplicity in reneging on their covenant.
But things don’t go as planned for Ahab. The Syrians soon discover that the king decked in royal array is not, in fact, Israel’s king but Judah’s. Benhadad has no quarrel with Jehoshaphat, therefore he calls off his men “from pursuing him” (1 Kings 22:32–33). And just when it looked like Ahab might eke his way out of this conflict, a random archer in the Syrian ranks lets an arrow fly. Its trajectory wasn’t all that spectacular. Countless arrows before it had been loosed that day, and many more had yet to be unquivered. But this was not like those other arrows, because this arrow’s flight was guided by none other than the hand of Yahweh himself.
And a certain man drew a bow at a venture, and smote the king of Israel between the joints of the harness: wherefore he said unto the driver of his chariot, Turn thine hand, and carry me out of the host; for I am wounded. And the battle increased that day: and the king was stayed up in his chariot against the Syrians, and died at even: and the blood ran out of the wound into the midst of the chariot. (1 Kings 22:34–35)
These verses are, without doubt, among the best in all of Scripture to convey the meaning of the phrase, “God is in control.” Whereas you and I might say we believe that, we’re still left dumbfounded when we read of this type of granular control being exhibited by our Heavenly Father. And rightly so. Who would’ve thought that the same Lord who facilities the jurisprudence of heaven would care about the trajectory of arrows? But such is the point: that’s how in control God is, where even a random arrow loosed by a no-name archer can find the smallest crevice “between the joints of the harness” of the king’s armor.
And so it is that Ahab falls, with the allied forces of Israel and Judah following suit (1 Kings 22:36–37). The king bleeds out on the battlefield, with his blood quenching the thirsty dogs of Samaria, just as Elijah had foretold (1 Kings 22:38–40; cf. 21:19). So ends the story of Ahab, one whose reign is forever marked an indifference for the things of Yahweh.4 But what does all this mean for us?
I could have finished this essay in four words: God is in control. That could’ve stood on its own as sufficient exposition for this robust narrative. But that’s the intriguing part about Scripture: it’s not always looking to tell you the truth so much as it is looking to show it to you. God endeavors through his Word to bring you face-to-face with the unexaggerated and inescapable truth that his sovereign fingers are in, over, and underneath every moment we’re alive. His authority permeates all things and all times. He is in control over the prophetic and the erratic and everything in between. This, you see, is the larger point of both Micaiah’s vision and this narrative as a whole — namely, to demonstrate God’s supreme command over everything, even the movements of mankind’s history.5 Which brings to bear two corollary points.
If God is in control, then we, like Micaiah, can exude a holy indifference to conventional wisdom.
Micaiah’s inspired dismissiveness to the rhetoric of his day is like an arrow that whizzes through time to pierce the self-concerned bubbles that often keep us silent out of fear for what “they” might say. His disregard for the grandiloquent sentiment proffered by Ahab’s prophets is correspondent to our moment, too. Ours is a time that is desperate for churchmen and churchgoers alike to be equally as devoted and dedicated to the words of Yahweh, with commensurate verve. Popular opinion might say something different. The pressure to conform is, indeed, great. Messengers might try to convince you that orthodoxy has changed. That you can’t say “that” anymore. That’s too offensive. “That’s not really what everyone else is saying.” But, to be sure, God’s Word doesn’t operate on a sliding scale of what’s socially acceptable.
The truth of God’s Word might not and likely will not jive with the popular rhetoric of the day. But his words are the only true words. Now and always that is so (Isa. 40:8). The truth of Yahweh never changes. His words are “settled in heaven” (Ps. 119:89). They are as fixed in the impenetrable glory of his righteousness as he is (1 Kings 22:19). The stability of God’s Word serves to stabilize us, too. Such is what allows Micaiah to stick to his guns and stay true to Yahweh, even if that meant some time behind bars (1 Kings 22:27). But that’s sort of what faith is and what faith does. “Faith is staking everything upon Yahweh’s sheer word,” Dale Ralph Davis attests, “wagering all upon the veracity of God.”6 May we be emboldened to do the same.
If God is in control, then we can stop fretting over the present volume of evil.
Doesn’t it seem like the voice of wickedness is so much louder than the voice of wisdom? Ours is certainly a day when those who engage in evil are seemingly getting louder and more powerful by the hour. But notwithstanding how vocal evil gets, God hasn’t lost an ounce of control over the universe. No matter how many authorities assemble and plan and make decisions from man-made thrones, there remains a higher throne still, above them all, from which sovereign plans and almighty purposes go forth, perfectly accomplishing the Lord’s perfect will.
There is a sense in which we view the Bible like any other piece of mythological literature, in that it seemingly pits the forces of evil versus the forces of good in an eternal squabble for the fate of humanity’s soul. And while that might sound like the premise for an engrossing fantasy-adventure novel, it doesn’t really apply to Scripture — precisely because God has no equal. No one rivals him or his Word. The Word of Yahweh is unimpeachably authoritative. Nothing can stand against it. Not even evil. Christopher Ash, Writer-in-Residence at Tyndale House and Ministry Trainer at St. Andrew the Great church in Cambridge, insightfully affirms that the Lord keeps “evil on a leash.”7 While, at times, it might feel like the forces of evil have unrestrained access to move and plunder and thwart the advance of goodness, truth, and justice, God’s power extends to limit even the havoc evil is able to bring about. Ash continues8:
He is the only God, without rival. Even the mystery of evil is his mystery . . . And that means that as we suffer, and as we sit with others who suffer, we may with absolute confidence bow down to this sovereign God, knowing that the evil that comes may be terrible, but it cannot and will not ever go one tiny fraction beyond the leash on which God has put it.
Evil isn’t winning, even when it appears like it is. Like arrows that unexpectedly hit their mark in the midst of battle, there are unseen operations of Yahweh that are sovereignly displacing evil’s scheme. God overrules every satanic machination which oozes from that damned father of lies. There is nothing that goes forth unnoticed or unchecked by our enthroned Lord (Ps. 76:10). In his presence, all things bow, “things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth” (Phil. 2:10). Evil, too, falls prostrate in the presence of the Almighty Father. Darkness deigns to boast in front of the Light. Even the malevolent intent of the prince of the power of the air is overrided by the Lord of all things for the glory of his purposes (Rom. 8:28). Evil may have its moment but it won’t succeed in eternity. And one day, that leash will one day be used as evil’s noose.
The enduring image of this narrative, then, is also the prevailing fact and preeminent truth of our faith. It’s the everlasting hope that there’s never been a moment when that throne’s been empty. It is the assurance that even still, even now, the Lord is “sitting on his throne.” And, to be sure, he who sits on the throne isn’t sitting idly by, passively monitoring life’s events from that heavenly balcony. Yahweh is actively involved in every moment, at every turn. History is bound to accomplish his redemptive design. God is in control. God is on the throne. That’s where he always is. That’s where he’s always been. That’s where he always will be. That throne has never been vacant. Not now, not ever.
The point, here, is that Ahab’s prophets weren’t really prophesying. They were just spouting off words to make their king happy. They’re nothing but a bunch of brown-nosers who had turned the Word of the Lord into a sycophantic masquerade. Perhaps deep in the recesses of his heart, Ahab knew this. That his prophets were ingratiating themselves into his favor, attempting to curry kingly benefits by “declaring good unto the king.” But even if he did, he liked their brown-nosing too much to admit it.
I was helped immensely with this exposition by the insightful examination of this same text by Prof. James A. Diamond, entitled, “Discerning False Prophecy: The Story of Ahab and the Lying Spirit.”
Dale Ralph Davis, 1 Kings: The Wisdom and the Folly (Ross-shire, England: Christian Focus, 2020), 213.
There’s an intriguing ancillary detail that’s worth mentioning, here. Throughout the first thirty-eight verses of chapter 22, the historian employs the titles “the king” or “the king of Israel” instead of referring to Ahab by name. He does this some 29 times in 38 verses. It’s almost as if the historian is going out of his way not to mention Ahab’s name, which is sort of what Ahab did with Yahweh. He went out of his way to rid his life of Yahweh’s influential word.
“For the writer of kings, history is no accident but is directed by the word Yahweh speaks” (Davis, 326).
Christopher Ash, Trusting God in the Darkness: A Guide to Understanding the Book of Job (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2021), 121.