A version of this article originally appeared on 1517.
There has been a great deal of talk, of late, regarding justice, or the lack thereof. Conversations abound in an attempt to bring the concept of justice into corporeal realization. What does that mean? And what does that look like? How can we get a handle on genuine justice for the wronged and the oppressed? When we feel slighted, we naturally look for ways to retaliate. Those who wrong us must pay for their wrongdoing. Those who commit injustice must have justice come down on their heads. Folks are even taking to the streets to let their injustices be seen and known and felt. But what results isn’t justice but some more reasonable form of revenge.
When we — sinful, reprehensible we — become the enforcers of justice, we never bring about true justice. We either go too far or not far enough. For however impartial we pretend to be, the scales of justice are never balanced, primarily because we are utterly unable of executing grace and truth in their fullness. One or the other will always be lacking. In the absence of justice being achieved in our timing, in our way, we are given to taking matters into our own hands. We seize the proverbial gavel and lay down the law — a law of our own making, to be sure — which almost always results in havoc, not harmony. Hollywood has certainly capitalized on this feeling, with some of the most beloved stories captured on the silver screen being those that involve wreaking vengeance on one’s offender. It’s hard not to be stirred by Russell Crowe’s steely delivery of those ominous words in Gladiator, “My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius . . . Father to a murdered son. Husband to a murdered wife. And I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next.” When those lines are uttered, it’s almost impossible to resist fist pumping.
I say all that because the chain of events chronicled by the historian in 1 Kings 21 is chockfull of injustice, in which we see political bigwigs conspiring and using their positions of power to swindle a “regular Joe” out of what’s rightfully his. This back-door-dealing isn’t foreign to us — we all too palpably feel similar injustices manifest in our own day. But even more jarring, perhaps, is the fact that these outrageous deeds aren’t hidden but are on display for all to see. Brandished in plain view is the degree of gross injustice of which the human heart is capable. Reading the story of the absconding of Naboth’s vineyard will surely make you bristle at the cruelty of position, the corruption of power, and the callous self-interest each character demonstrates. Additionally, though, it ought also make us pine and pray for Someone who can truly make things right. Someone who can function as the true and better Arbiter of justice.
The historian picks up right where he left off at the end of chapter 20, with Ahab going home “heavy and displeased” following the demoralizing words of the anonymous prophet (1 Kings 20:42). On his way home, his eyes catch a glimpse of the luxuriant vineyard belonging to his neighbor, Naboth (1 Kings 21:1). This goodly vineyard appeals to Ahab’s vulnerable senses, and seeing its beauty, he knew he must possess it. Perhaps he figured that having that vineyard would alleviate his recent dismay. With the words of the prophet still ringing in his ears, Ahab knocks on Naboth’s door to see if he could buy the vineyard off of him (1 Kings 21:2). But despite the most lavish of offers the king could muster, Naboth doesn’t budge. “Not for sale,” he declares (1 Kings 21:3). Which, of course, sends Ahab into a spiral:
And Ahab came into his house heavy and displeased because of the word which Naboth the Jezreelite had spoken to him: for he had said, I will not give thee the inheritance of my fathers. And he laid him down upon his bed, and turned away his face, and would eat no bread. (1 Kings 21:4)
Like a typical tyrant, or your average two-year-old, Ahab expected his way to always be “the way.” He figured everything and everyone was subject to his every whim and fancy. No one had ever turned him down before. He definitely wasn’t expecting lowly Naboth to put up such a fight, and a well-reasoned one at that. Naboth, you see, makes two striking appeals in his refusal of the king of Israel. He (1) appeals to the law. “The Lord forbid it me, that I should give the inheritance of my fathers unto thee” (1 Kings 21:3). These words invoke directives in Yahweh’s law, which prohibited the transfer of property “from tribe to tribe” (Num. 36:7; Lev. 25:23–35). Naboth hadn’t gone senile after all. He had a legal and familial prerogative to maintain ownership of his vineyard.
Naboth, though, also (2) appeals to Yahweh. “The Lord forbid it me,” he says. There was a higher king to whom he answered, and that wasn’t Ahab. Naboth, therefore, evinces a genuineness and sincerity in his life as a faithful disciple of Yahweh, the true authority not only reigning over him but also over Israel, too. This surely struck a chord with Ahab, who had spent so much of his time on Israel’s throne dismantling the religion of Yahweh and replacing it with rampant iniquity and idolatry. Perhaps this is what perturbed King Ahab the most. The gaul of that vineyard owner!
Ahab, therefore, goes home “heavy and displeased.” This emotionally unstable king, who reacts to a negative prophecy and a business deal gone awry in the same way, does what any entitled ruler is given to do: throw a royal temper tantrum. He sulks on his bed, pushes away any offering of food, and pouts (1 Kings 21:4). Jezebel, ever the doting spouse, comes to Ahab’s bedside to try and understand this new mood her king’s in. He relays what went down, how he didn’t get his way, which, I’m sure, must’ve stunned the queen. Jezebel’s initial reaction says it all: “Dost thou now govern the kingdom of Israel?” she asks with eyebrows raised (1 Kings 21:7). “Are you the king or not?” she sneers. Whimpering weakness was foreign to this Phoenician queen. Where she comes from, no one dares refuse the royal family.
Stunned by her king’s yellow-bellied demeanor, Jezebel takes matters into her own hands. “I will thee the vineyard of Naboth,” she declares, with no small amount of derision. Immediately, she begins scheming. Some letters on official Israelite letterhead, a king’s forged signature, and the royal seal ought to do it (1 Kings 21:8–10). Jezebel’s hand-written machinations lay the groundwork for a provincial fast, at which Naboth would be honored “on high among the people.” During the course of the fast, two good-for-nothings (“sons of Belial”) would stand and attest to Naboth’s calumny and blasphemy, for which the penalty was death by stoning.
The menace of Jezebel is plainly seen as she slithers and connives this plot to sweep Naboth under the rug so her king can dance on top of it. Aggravating the shady and slimy dealings of this story is the fact that this scheme is executed according to the letter of the law: two witnesses testify the charge in a public quorum before carrying out the penalty (Deut. 17:6–7; 19:15; Num. 35:30; Lev. 24:13–16). For however farcical the crime was, this fabricated injustice had the appearance of truth, of legality. And so it was that all was done according to Jezebel’s letters, resulting in Naboth’s body left to rot in a ditch.
And the men of his city, even the elders and the nobles who were the inhabitants in his city, did as Jezebel had sent unto them, and as it was written in the letters which she had sent unto them. They proclaimed a fast, and set Naboth on high among the people. And there came in two men, children of Belial, and sat before him: and the men of Belial witnessed against him, even against Naboth, in the presence of the people, saying, Naboth did blaspheme God and the king. Then they carried him forth out of the city, and stoned him with stones, that he died. Then they sent to Jezebel, saying, Naboth is stoned, and is dead. (1 Kings 21:11–14)
The historian’s matter-of-fact accounting of Naboth’s demise is somewhat startling. These verses read more like a detective’s assessment of a homicide rather than an emotional story of injustice. With the vineyard owner properly disposed of, all was clear for the king to “take possession of the vineyard” he so desperately desired (1 Kings 21:15–16). For the price of postage, Jezebel had given her husband what he wanted — and shown the king of Israel “what real despots do.” I wonder, though, if it met Ahab’s expectations? As he walked the grounds of his new vineyard, was it all he dreamed it would be? For his sake, I pray so, because he’s about to get much more than he bargained for.
With Ahab quite pleased with himself and the success of his queen’s “perfect crime,” Yahweh shows up to disturb the peace. He appears to Elijah and shares his Word with him, informing the prophet of the king’s dastardly deed and the divine sanctions warranted because of it (1 Kings 21:17–19). There’s no misdirection or mincing of words, here, with Ahab’s fate being captured in the striking image of dogs lapping up his blood in the street. Yet, for however horrific that image is, it sounds entirely just. Doesn’t it? Our law-stricken hearts immediately applaud the Lord for such bespoke punishment. Ahab and his ilk appear to finally be receiving their comeuppance. You can’t provoke the Lord that long and not expect it to get the better of you (1 Kings 21:20–24).
With the penetrating wisdom of Yahweh’s words on his lips, Elijah paints a gruesome picture of what will befall Jezebel and Ahab. Destruction, devastation, with nothing at all to show for all their exploits. The legacy of King Ahab is one of unparalleled malevolence. “There was none like unto Ahab,” reports the historian, “which did sell himself to work wickedness in the sight of the Lord” (1 Kings 21:25). He apes Jeroboam’s epitaph, receiving the same fate which befell him (1 Kings 21:21–22; cf. 14:10). The only ones visiting his grave, and the graves of his great-grandchildren, are vultures and vermin.
All would be very well if it ended there. Wouldn’t it? Despite the scuttling of Naboth’s body and the swindling of his vineyard, he is vindicated in the end. His innocent death allows for the scope of God’s justice to be clearly seen. Indeed, no one, notwithstanding their status in society or position in politics, is outside the jurisdiction of God’s judgment. His Word governs all. And those who proclaim his Word with authority stand on the side of the Infinite One. Such is what has just occurred: Israel’s most wanted prophet has utterly decimated Israel’s royal family with an invective that originated from on high. And such is when we’re given a most compelling epilogue to this cruel tale:
And it came to pass, when Ahab heard those words, that he rent his clothes, and put sackcloth upon his flesh, and fasted, and lay in sackcloth, and went softly. And the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying, Seest thou how Ahab humbleth himself before me? Because he humbleth himself before, I will not bring the evil in his days: but in his son’s days will I bring evil upon his house. (1 Kings 21:27–29)
Wait, what? Where’s the satisfaction in that? You mean to tell me that Ahab and company are permitted to live, even after all they did, while Naboth and his entire family are liquidated? (2 Kings 9:26). If revenge is a dish best served cold, why didn’t those royal racketeers get their just deserts? Such questions are entirely valid, justified, even, in many respects. The way this story ends leaves us nonplussed, entirely flummoxed by God’s unjust response to Ahab and Jezebel’s gross injustice. Where’s the justice, O Just One?
A couple of things to note while you simmer down. (1) These words constitute merely the delay of judgment, not deliverance from it. Ahab’s repentance, while sincere in the moment, doesn’t last — with his descendants surely feeling the brunt of the Lord’s justice (2 Kings 9—10). But what good does that do for Naboth? you ask. Well, you’re right, not much. It’s worth mentioning, though, that (2) this scene is reminiscent of 2 Samuel 12, where the prophet Nathan confronts King David for performing similarly venomous machinations. And the result is the same, too, with both kings being brought to their knees by the incisive words which came from the prophets’ lips (2 Sam. 12:13–19; 1 Kings 21:27). I admit that it’s hard to support the redemption of someone we’ve judged irredeemable. Ahab certainly fits that bill. To be sure, I don’t think Ahab was converted, per se, but we ought not be so quick to side-eye his repentance, especially when it’s looked upon favorably by God himself.
Maybe you are still on the fence, though, unconvinced that anything tending towards justice has been tendered in this narrative. But regardless how this narrative sounds in our ears, the only One who holds the gavel to punish injustice is Yahweh. Such is what this entire story reveals.
Yes, justice is assured, just not in the way we think — precisely because God’s thoughts aren’t our thoughts, nor are his ways our ways, especially when it comes to the notion of mercy (Isa. 55:8). Whereas you and I are likely quick to pull the trigger on judgment, God is not. Even with those with résumés the likes of Ahab’s, ours is a God who is “ready to pardon, gracious and merciful, slow to anger” (Neh. 9:17; cf. Exod. 34:6; Num. 14:18; Pss. 86:15; 103:8; 108:4; Joel 2:12–13; Jonah 4:2; Rom. 2:4). While our hearts might thrive on retribution, God’s heart beats redemptively for every soul, “not willing that any should perish” (2 Pet. 3:9; cf. Ezek. 18:23, 32; 33:11). The hallmark of this text isn’t Ahab’s remorse, genuine or otherwise, it’s God’s penchant for mercy rather than judgment. The eminent Jonathan Edwards concurs1:
God has no pleasure in the destruction or calamity of persons or people. He had rather they should turn and continue in peace. He is well-pleased if they forsake their evil ways, that he may not have occasion to execute his wrath upon them. He is a God that delights in mercy, and judgment is his strange work.
There is no doubt that justice will be realized in the end (Nah. 1:5). God promises such to his children, assuring them that evil will rue the day it spurned the authority of the Holy One. As hard as it is, though, to wait till the End of Days for that to happen, we aren’t entitled to go about demanding our due, exacting our revenge, in the here and now. God and God alone holds the gavel. He is heaven’s only magistrate (Deut. 32:25; Rom. 12:19). He alone possesses the acumen to discern rightly and appropriately in every matter, according to his holiness. He is the Judge, who can lay down judgment or mercy — both are his divine prerogative.
What’s more, the justice we seek for wrongs done to us has already been effected, paid for in full, in the battered and bruised and bloodied body of the true and better Naboth, Jesus Christ the crucified. The injustice done to Naboth has been completely requited, with the Lord of all himself succumbing to the injustice of the cross. He, too, was brought before a makeshift jury, with backdoor deals and under-the-table kickbacks to ensure his guilty sentence. He, too, endured a sham of a trial where the false accusation of blasphemy was rendered true by the “authority” and legality of two farcical witnesses. He, too, was betrayed by those who were closest to him, by those who should’ve had his back (Mark 14:50; 1 Kings 21:11). Whereas the guilt of Naboth’s blood possesses the ground of Ahab’s new vineyard and shouts for requital, the blood of the true and better Naboth falls to the ground and offers words of acquittal (Heb. 12:24).
Such is how the French reformer Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples frames it2:
Oh, the unspeakable greatness of that exchange — the Sinless One is condemned, and he who is guilty goes free; the Blessing bears the curse, and the cursed is brought into blessing; the Life dies, and the dead live; the Glory is whelmed in darkness, and he who knew nothing but confusion of face is clothed with glory.
Justice is promised to us. “God will intervene to bring justice to his wronged people,” comments Dale Ralph Davis.3 It just might not necessarily occur in this life, and not necessarily in our way. Rather justice is promised to us, once and for all, as we behold in faith the bloodied face of our crucified Lord — who, though unjustly condemned, suffered the brunt of the Father’s justice in order to clear our name. The scene at Golgotha is host to the exactness of God’s judgment being borne by Christ the Lord. He got our comeuppance. He bore our wrath. Unmet appetites for justice, then, are appeased because God’s only begotten Son has already shouldered the verdict.
Jonathan Edwards, Sermons and Discourses 1723–1729, in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, edited by Kenneth P. Minkema (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press), 14:220–221.
Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples, quoted in J. H. Merle d’Aubigné, History of the Great Reformation of the Sixteenth Century (Philadelphia: Campbell & Chestnut, 1846), 3:274.
Dale Ralph Davis, 1 Kings: The Wisdom and the Folly (Ross-shire, England: Christian Focus, 2020), 305.