I won’t lie: the Bible sometimes says things that are undeniably strange. Case in point, one of the most perplexing passages in the Books of Kings (and the entire Bible) occurs in the concluding verses of 1 Kings 20, wherein a “certain man of the sons of the prophets” asks his friend to punch him in the face. When his friend refuses, the prophet condemns him to death-via-lion (1 Kings 20:35–36). After finally finding someone who would do his bidding and “smite him,” he disguises himself as a war veteran and has one of the most curious exchanges with “the king of Israel” himself (1 Kings 20:38–40). This prompts King Ahab to return to his house “heavy and displeased” (1 Kings 20:43). The entire sequence is puzzling, echoing the equally perplexing chapter 13, which also saw prophets and kings going back-and-forth, with a lion devouring a fellow-prophet for something (seemingly) innocuous to cap off the entire narrative.
To make sense of this scene, we are bound to examine the first thirty-four verses, which offer the proper context in which to understand this bewildering conclusion. The historian leaves the Elijah/Elisha narrative for a bit and proceeds to catch us up on King Ahab’s story, who now finds his kingdom under siege by “Benhadad the king of Syria” (1 Kings 20:1). Benhadad and a coalition of thirty-two neighboring monarchs march on Samaria to overtake it. The king of Syria, who considers himself a god, sends a message to Ahab declaring his rightful claim on all of Israel’s “goodliest” treasures.
And he sent messengers to Ahab king of Israel into the city, and said unto him, Thus saith Benhadad, Thy silver and thy gold is mine; thy wives also and thy children, even the goodliest, are mine. (1 Kings 20:2–3)
No doubt feeling the overwhelming terror of the Syrian host, Ahab rolls over, exhibiting nothing but cowardice. “My lord, O king, according to thy saying, I am thine, and all that I have,” Ahab responds (1 Kings 20:4). Hearing this spineless response, and sensing that Israel can be exploited for more of his own benefit, Benhadad ups the ante, intensifying his ultimatum by demanding that not only must Ahab give him whatever he desires but also that Benhadad’s cronies have free reign to pillage and plunder whatever they like (1 Kings 20:5–6). And this, apparently, is where Ahab draws the line. He calls together “all the elders of the land” to inform them on what is going on:
Then the king of Israel called all the elders of the land, and said, Mark, I pray you, and see how this man seeketh mischief: for he sent unto me for my wives, and for my children, and for my silver, and for my gold; and I denied him not. And all the elders and all the people said unto him, Hearken not unto him, nor consent. Wherefore he said unto the messengers of Benhadad, Tell my lord the king, All that thou didst send for to thy servant at the first I will do: but this thing I may not do. And the messengers departed, and brought him word again. (1 Kings 20:7–9)
Their advice emboldens Ahab take a stand with a renewed sense of Israelite patriotism. This, as you might expect, doesn’t sit well with Benhadad. He hears this rebuttal more as a rejection of his sovereign might. And so he makes it quite clear what his endgame is: total annihilation (1 Kings 20:10). “When I’m through with you,” he spits, “there won’t even be enough dust left over to fill my people’s hands.” To which Ahab replies with the Old Testament version of “don’t count your chickens before they hatch” (1 Kings 20:11). “Boasting means nothing,” the king of Israel notes, “until you’re taking off your armor.” While a mad Benhadad sets his armies “in array” against Samaria (1 Kings 20:12), Ahab and company welcome a most unexpected guest.
A prophet of Yahweh suddenly comes onto the scene (1 Kings 11:29; 12:22–24; 13:1; 17:1). This nameless man of God brings with him a very cheering message, one which reaches back into the ancient annals of Israelite lore. “I will deliver [this great enemy] into thine hand this day” (1 Kings 20:13). This was an old promise reiterated in the present. It was Yahweh’s bygone guarantee of victory before anyone had even taken up a sword or lifted a finger (Num. 21:34; Deut. 7:24; 11:25; Josh. 10:8; 11:6). But as God is accustomed to do, he heightens the tension and the need for faith in one fell swoop. Instead of battle-hardened soldiers, Yahweh says that Ahab’s defense corps should be comprised of “the young men of the princes of the provinces.” The historian mentions these young men no less than four times (1 Kings 20:14–15, 17, 19), likely so that no one would miss the point: this victory would be Yahweh’s, alone.
Adding to Benhadad’s self-aggrandizing, despotic reputation, the historian notes that he and the thirty-two other kings were “drinking themselves drunk” in the middle of the day, even as Ahab’s makeshift army marched out to face them (1 Kings 20:16). The king’s inebriation prompts him to make the befuddling war-time decision to merely detain his enemies, rather than destroy them (1 Kings 20:17–18). This proves to be more than a little foolish, with the rag-tag army of Israel trouncing the Syrian fighting force with apparent ease (1 Kings 20:19–21). Such is Yahweh’s way. He delights in showcasing the extent of his wisdom and power and might by utilizing the weakest and unlikeliest of vessels to accomplish his sovereign purposes.
But before Ahab and company can celebrate, another anonymous prophet (perhaps the same as before) returns with a message from on high, indicating that in a year’s time, Benhadad will invade yet again (1 Kings 20:22). Meanwhile, the Syrian horde returns to their encampment to figure out what went wrong. “How did we lose?” they inquire. As they all brainstorm this latest military blunder, the historian proceeds to give us a truly fascinating glimpse of “pagan theology,” if you will.
And the servants of the king of Syria said unto him, Their gods are gods of the hills; therefore they were stronger than we; but let us fight against them in the plain, and surely we shall be stronger than they. And do this thing, Take the kings away, every man out of his place, and put captains in their rooms: and number thee an army, like the army that thou hast lost, horse for horse, and chariot for chariot: and we will fight against them in the plain, and surely we shall be stronger than they. And he hearkened unto their voice, and did so. And it came to pass at the return of the year, that Benhadad numbered the Syrians, and went up to Aphek, to fight against Israel. (1 Kings 20:23–26)
With their superstitions driving them, they determine that this disastrous defeat was entirely due to bad geography. They decide to change battlefield locations (and strategies) and march on Israel once again. And notice how the historian captures the staggering difference in size between Israel and Syria: “And the children of Israel were numbered, and were all present, and went against them: and the children of Israel pitched before them like two little flocks of kids; but the Syrians filled the country” (1 Kings 20:27). Compared to mammoth Syrian army, the “children of Israel” looked infinitesimally small. In case you didn’t get it yet, Yahweh revels in the impossible and the insurmountable.
As Israel likely despairs at the perilous fate in front of them, a “man of God” shows up, once again (1 Kings 20:28). The prophet’s words are even more compelling than before, assuring all of Israel that theirs was a God not only of the hills but the valleys, too. Yahweh’s authority isn’t dependent upon geography. His sovereign might and mercy permeates every blade of grass, every grain of sand, even the air we breathe. Apparently, God took holy umbrage at the Syrian assumption of his locationally-limited authority. He intended, therefore, to demonstrate for all the world to see just how extensive his omnipotence really was.
The battle breaks out and, just as before, the Syrians are absolutely slaughtered (1 Kings 20:29–30). Yahweh brings about his people’s triumph in decisive fashion, with “big bad Benhadad” being reduced to a pitiful beggar in the process (1 Kings 20:31–32). The Syrian wise men inform their defeated king that Israel’s rulers have a reputation for being merciful. Thus he should try presenting himself as a contrite leader who is desperate for some kindness. This proves successful, as Ahab hears of the survival of Benhadad, “his brother.” Benhadad’s advisors immediately latch onto this designation, securing a conference with the king of Israel, where it is decided that Ahab and Benhadad will go into league with one another.
So they girded sackcloth on their loins, and put ropes on their heads, and came to the king of Israel, and said, Thy servant Benhadad saith, I pray thee, let me live. And he said, Is he yet alive? he is my brother. Now the men did diligently observe whether any thing would come from him, and did hastily catch it: and they said, Thy brother Benhadad. Then he said, Go ye, bring him. Then Benhadad came forth to him; and he caused him to come up into the chariot. And Ben-hadad said unto him, The cities, which my father took from thy father, I will restore; and thou shalt make streets for thee in Damascus, as my father made in Samaria. Then said Ahab, I will send thee away with this covenant. So he made a covenant with him, and sent him away. (1 Kings 20:32–34)
Ahab’s covenant is essentially a partnership with evil, with the one who “seeketh mischief” (1 Kings 20:7). It’s hard to comprehend the logic of entreating the oppressive tyrant who mocked you to your face into a trade agreement. I think this decision clearly shows that Ahab was not at all concerned about the words of God. Rather, he was only concerned with foreign policy and economic security. He was operating under the assumption that he was his own authority. And such is when we arrive at verses 35–43, which clarify what this whole thing has been about from the start.
In those concluding verses, we are introduced to a “student of prophecy” who says to his neighbor, “in the word of the Lord, Smite me” (1 Kings 20:35). His neighbor, naturally, refuses — and such is when our “prophetic student” utters that very severe word of prophecy against him (1 Kings 20:36). The outcome appears more than a little harsh. But what’s at stake, though, isn’t just a punch in the face, it’s the authority of Yahweh himself. That’s what the friend was actually rejecting. He might’ve thought he was doing his friend an act of kindness, but, in the end, all he was really doing was refuting the authoritative voice of Yahweh which spoke in and through his friend. Such is the seriousness of rejecting Yahweh’s authority.
After our “prophetic student” finds someone to “smite him” — he crafts a scenario to expose Ahab’s tragic trade agreement with Benhadad (1 Kings 20:37–40). He disguises himself as a soldier who had just returned from war and situates himself along the road where Ahab was expected to travel. As the king passes by his way, he cries out to him, forcing those royal ears to hear his beggarly story. In the middle of a skirmish, our feigned-soldier had been entrusted to keep watch over another man. If that man went missing, it would mean his life. And, as it happened, the man went missing. “What should become of me?” the prophet seems to inquire. To which Ahab replies, “You decided that for yourself” (1 Kings 20:40). And such is when the prophet reveals himself to the king:
And he hasted, and took the ashes away from his face; and the king of Israel discerned him that he was of the prophets. And he said unto him, Thus saith the Lord, Because thou hast let go out of thy hand a man whom I appointed to utter destruction, therefore thy life shall go for his life, and thy people for his people. And the king of Israel went to his house heavy and displeased, and came to Samaria. (1 Kings 20:41–43)
Whereas Ahab likely considered himself a shrewd politician after having successfully thwarting not one but two Syrian invasions, this man of God definitively declares that he’s actually done nothing but ignore the authoritative voice of Yahweh. The evil king Yahweh delivered into his hands was not only let go but was covenanted with (1 Kings 20:13, 28). Ahab had been gifted two emphatic revelations of the might and authority of Jehovah — revelations, it ought to be noted, that were entirely undeserved. Yet, even still, he plugged his ears and chose to listen to his own wisdom. He punted on the authority of Yahweh and instead clung to his own. Such, I think, is what this text compels us to consider.
Whose authority are you submitting to? Much like King Ahab, we are bound and determined to be our own authorities. The mantra of the human heart is, “I can have it my way.” This, I think, is best summed up in the poem “Invictus,” written by William Ernest Henley:
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul
Such is how we operate. Such, too, is why the authority of the Word of God is sometimes so difficult to grasp. We are so stubbornly sure of our ability to govern ourselves that we cannot bear someone or something exercising authority over us. We live our lives as though we’re our own masters, our own advisors, our own gods. But such inclinations only result in more brokenness and ruin and sin and death — which, as it happens, is where Yahweh delights to operate. Time and time and time again, God shows up in the messiness and mayhem of our little lives, in order to remind us whose authority rules our days. The One who reigns supreme over the entire universe is also the One who holds sway over your distressing times. He is the God who knows the stars by name, tallies the grains of sand on our coasts, and keeps count of how many hairs are on our heads (Matt. 10:26–31). There is nothing too big or too small for him. No, not even sin and death (1 Cor. 15:25–27).
You see, perhaps the most astounding aspect about this authoritative God is that he exerts his infinite authority for the benefit of sinners and sufferers alike. He is no miser or despotic tyrant. He is our Savior King, whose sovereign might and mercy is discharged in order to deliver us from eternal condemnation. “The One in charge of it all,” writes Paul Tripp, “is for us and exercises that authority for our benefit.”1 That authority is articulated in his Word, which shows, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that there isn’t a single speck in the known universes that exists outside of his sovereign attention (Pss. 8:6; 110:1). Even on the cross, this was true.
Even as the Savior’s hands and feet were pierced with nails and blood streamed from his side, the Triune God remained enthroned as the universe’s lone Sovereign. His life wasn’t being stolen. He was willingly laying it down (John 10:18). This he did in order that all who come to him in faith and repentance might find theirs. In holy authority, our Savior gave up his life and experienced our death in order that we “who were dead in trespasses and sins” might be raised to life eternal and abundant (John 3:16; 10:10; Rom. 6:4; Ps. 16:11). The single best place we can ever find ourselves, then, is under the securing, peaceful, restful authority of the one and only Heavenly Father. May we, in grace, faithfully and happily submit to this authoritative Savior King.
Paul Tripp, Suffering: Gospel Hope When Life Doesn’t Make Sense (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018), 176.