How do you rate the times we live in, in terms of the degree of wickedness that is at work? Over the last generation in this country we’ve seen a massive turning away from God both in terms of church decline and also moral decay. And yet it has to be said, things could get a lot worse yet. We’re not yet seeing the worst that Satan can throw at us. We’re not yet seeing what unrestrained evil on the rampage in our society would look like. I pray we’ll be spared that. But we don’t know what the years ahead will hold for us. As the history of the last century shows, things can change very fast in world affairs.
Evil can take a terrible hold on the minds of whole populations very easily – especially when the godly foundations of society are already seriously eroded, as is undoubtedly the case for us today. So we need to be prepared. We need to be able to recognise evil when we see it. And we need to know how to respond to it. If we’re not prepared, we could all too easily find ourselves swept up in a tidal wave of evil that will completely destabilise our faith, if not wash it away completely. Well, our passage this morning can help us be prepared.
This morning we’re beginning a new series on Lessons from Elijah. Elijah makes his first appearance in 1 Kings 17.1. But we’re going to back up a bit because we need to see why the time was right for Elijah to come on the scene. So to do that, we’re going to look at 1 Kings 16.29 – 17.1. Do please have that open in front of you – you’ll find those verses on p 358 in the Bibles in the pews. My title is simply “Elijah and the King”. And I have two headings, which you can see on the outline on the service sheet: first, THE ANATOMY OF EVIL; and secondly, GOD’s RESPONSE TO EVIL. So:
First, THE ANATOMY OF EVIL
If we’re not going to be caught unawares by the emergence of a new level of evil, then we need to know what to look out for. We need to understand the anatomy of evil. And King Ahab of Israel is a case study. 16.29:
In the thirty-eighth year of Asa king of Judah, Ahab son of Omri became King of Israel, and he reigned in Samaria over Israel for twenty-two years.
Now, before we go any further, let’s just get our bearings. You will notice that we have two kingdoms spoken of here – the Kingdom of Israel, and the Kingdom of Judah. These two kingdoms used to be one, under the rule of King David and then under his son Solomon. On the death of Solomon, the united nation of Israel collapsed into civil war and then partition. The north divided from the south. The south continued be ruled by the family of David – the north was not. The north took the name Israel, the south, Judah. The first northern king was Jeroboam, who is significant for us here, as we’ll see. The focus of these verses is the northern kingdom – Israel – and the king of that kingdom at this time – Ahab.
Before we come on to Ahab, though, a word about Asa. Ahab, as you can see there, became king in the thirty-eighth year of Asa king of Judah. Asa, in other words, is the king of the southern kingdom. He is important by way of dramatic contrast with Ahab. Why? Just turn back for a moment to 15.9. Look at what is said there about Asa:
In the twentieth year of Jeroboam king of Israel [the first king of Israel after the split], Asa became king of Judah, and he reigned in Jerusalem for forty-one years… [Never mind his grandmother – on to verse 11 – and here’s the key thing about Asa] Asa did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, as his father David had done… [and on again to 14b] Asa’s heart was fully committed to the Lord all his life.
Now, Asa was far from perfect. But wouldn’t that be great if that was how God summed up your life once you become ashes in a jar or food for worms? Insert your own name: X’s heart was fully committed to the Lord all his (or her) life. I fear I’m already too late for that, and maybe you are too, because of lost years of half-hearted or non-existent devotion. But what about from now on?
By contrast with Asa, there’s one other bloke to consider before we get to Ahab, and that’s his dad Omri. Ahab, son of Omri became king of Israel. What’s the Lord’s end-of-life report on Omri? What kind of family background is Ahab the product of? Omri had come to the throne by power of personality and brute force as a victorious factional leader with blood on his hands. And what did he make of himself, having reached the top? 16.25:
But Omri did evil in the eyes of the Lord and sinned more than all those before him.
Are you a father? It is salutary for those of us who are to ask ourselves what kind of legacy of godliness – or the opposite – we’ll hand on to our children. The life of each one of us will be assessed by God come the Day of Judgement.
Well those are Ahab’s two potential role models. There’s the king over the southern border, Asa. Asa’s heart was fully committed to the Lord. Then there’s his father, Omri. Omri held the national record for wickedness. Which way would Ahab go? 16.29 again:
Ahab son of Omri became king of Israel, and he reigned in Samaria [a city that his father had built] over Israel for twenty-two years.
So this is not a short reign. His longevity suggests political stablility, and with political stability generally came prosperity, so outwardly this looks like a successful reign. The stock market rose steadily. Everywhere you looked construction projects were underway. But the Lord’s criteria for success are rather different. Verse 30:
Ahab son of Omri [another reminder there of his ominous pedigree] did more evil in the eyes of the Lord than any of those before him.
As we’ve already seen, that’s saying something. His father already held the record – but Ahab smashes it at the first attempt. It’s like Ellen MacArthur snatching the round the world record from Frenchman Francis Joyon before he’s even had time to get used to holding it. What did Ahab do to earn this dubious reputation with God? Three things are mentioned here.
First, Ahab was effortlessly idolatrous. Verse 31:
He not only considered it trivial to commit the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat…
What were the sins of Jeroboam? He was addicted to idolatry. 13.34:
This was the sin of the house of Jeroboam that lead to its downfall and to its destruction from the face of the earth.
You would have thought that would have caused Ahab to pause before going down the same road, but not a bit of it. He didn’t turn a hair. He didn’t lose any sleep. The apostle Paul talks in 1 Timothy 4.2 of “hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron”. That’s Ahab all over. What should have caused him torments of shame did not even register on his guilt meter. It was broken.
That’s one of the really frightening things about evil. It becomes a habit. What once seared a still sensitive conscience now is a trivial matter, that is done without hesitation and without consideration. Evil begins to come naturally. God preserve us from seared consciences such as Ahab’s. And God preserve us from leaders – whether in church or state – who are like that. Ahab was effortlessly idolatrous.
Secondly, Ahab married badly. That is to say, he married Jezebel. Verse 31:
He not only considered it trivial to commit the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, but he also married Jezebel daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and began to serve Baal and worship him. He set up an altar for Baal in the temple of Baal that he built in Samaria. Ahab also made an Asherah pole…
Jezebel was the unconverted daughter of a pagan king. It might well have been an economically advantageous alliance – a kind of merger of two political corporatations with a good fit and lots of mutual benefits and economies of scale for both sides. But once more, that’s not how God measures success. The marriage of an Israelite to an unconverted pagan was clearly and strictly forbidden by God in his Law, because of the danger that the Israelites would be dragged into paganism themselves.
And you can see the point of the Lord’s warning, because having spliced himself to a fanatical Baal worshipper with an even more powerful personality than he had, Ahab jumps in to Baalism himself with both feet. Whether his heart was in it or he just didn’t want to upset She Who Must Be Obeyed is not really relevant. Practically before the ink had dried on the marriage certificate and the honeymoon suitcases were unpacked, he was up to his neck in the vilest idolatry. One little detail of it is worth noticing. God’s Law said: “cut down their Asherah poles” (wood or stone columns in honour of the so-called mother-goddess Asherah). 15.13 says this of Asa (the king in the south):
He even deposed his grandmother Maacah from her position as queen mother, because she had made a repulsive Asherah pole.
And what does Ahab do? 16.33:
Ahab also made an Asherah pole…
Ahab married badly – and that is gross understatement.
Thirdly, Ahab sponsored other people’s evil behaviour. That’s the point of the incident that’s related in 16.34:
In Ahab’s time, Hiel of Bethel rebuilt Jericho. He laid its foundations at the cost of his firstborn son Abiram, and he set up its gates at the cost of his youngest son Segub, in accordance with the word of the Lord spoken by Joshua son of Nun.
After the walls of Jericho had been miraculously destroyed by God as the Israelites entered the land under Joshua, Joshua forbade their rebuilding. The unfortified Jericho would stand as a reminder of the grace of God and the victories that God gave his people. So Joshua 6.26 reports:
At that time Joshua pronounced this solemn oath: “Cursed before the Lord is the man who undertakes to rebuild this city, Jericho: At the cost of his firstborn son will he lay its foundations; at the cost of his youngest will he set up its gates.”
Jericho had remained unfortified from that day on. Until Ahab. So when, under Ahab’s rule, Hiel rebuilds Jericho, that is yet another first in the evil stakes – a blatant disregard of God’s warning of judgement, with the inevitable consquences for the family of Hiel. Ahab was not only a direct perpetrator of evil. He was a sponsor of the wickedness of his subordinates as well.
So these verses provide a pretty comprehensive anatomy of an extremely evil national leader. Even in this last century – perhaps especially in this last century – we’ve seen this kind of phenomenon emerging again and again. Stalin, Hitler, Mao were each of them responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of people and for an idolatrous rejection of the living God. These are antichrist figures who foreshadow the coming of the final and worst antichrist that the Bible makes clear we should expect before the end. Behind them all lies Satan himself. And beneath them are all the petty tyrants and godless leaders who are such a blight on the face of the earth.
What does our first response need to be if we’re going to be faithful to Christ? We need to recognise evil. Our eyes must be open. We must know it when we see it – and not have the wool pulled over eyes by public relations machine, the spin, the promises of higher living standards or any other distraction from what is really going on. Christians must be alert and not be caught off guard.
And, of course, Christians must reject evil. Recognise it, and then reject it. We have to settle this in our minds now, before the test begins: whatever the cost to us, we will not compromise with wickedness. So let’s be on our guard. History can move fast. Be prepared. Be ready to recognise evil, and to reject it – whatever price we have to pay.
Thankfully, we are not alone in such a situation. God acts. And that’s my second and final heading:
Secondly, GOD’S RESPONSE TO EVIL
One thing to say is that if you want to see God’s response to evil, and in particular the evil of Ahab, then keep coming on these Sunday mornings because we’re going to see God’s response unfold over the next few weeks as we learn lessons from Elijah.
However, what we have here in our passage is a taster of what is to come. There’s no detail here – there’s no flesh on the bones – but in just two verses here we can see the shape of how God reacts to the evil that threatens his world. The two verses are 16.33 and then 17.1:
Ahab also made an Asherah pole [as we’ve already seen – but see how this verse continues], and did more to provoke the Lord, the God of Israel, to anger than did all the kings of Israel before him.
Then there’s the rebuilding of Jericho incident. And then Elijah bursts on to the scene from nowhere at the start of chapter 17:
Now Elijah the Tishbite, from Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, “As the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word.”
There are a number of things that we need to understand about God’s response to evil. The first is simply that he’s still alive. As evil goes on the march, it might look as if God is simply not there any more. It might look as if God is dead – or never was there. But Elijah begins: “As the Lord, the God of Israel, lives…” That’s where we start. The Living God lives. And he lives today as he did back then.
Not only is the Lord alive, but he is still the God of his covenant. He is, to quote Elijah, “the God of Israel”. The same one who brought them out of Egypt. The same one who sent his son and raised him from the dead.
And the initial reaction of the living God to evil is that it provokes him. The worse the evil, the more provocation. So Ahab “did more to provoke the Lord” than all who went before.
Then provocation turns to anger.
“Ahab… did more to provoke the Lord, the God of Israel, to anger than did all the kings of Isreal before him.”
Anger is right. Not always when it’s our anger, because we’re so self-centred and that distorts our anger. But God’s anger is the right response to wickedness. When we see evil, it should make us angry too. The test for us, then, is what we do in response to our anger. What can we see here of how God reacts to his own anger?
Well, it’s clear that God’s reaction to the provocation and the anger it generates is delayed. Ahab is left to get up a head of steam. He is not dealt with immediately. We might want God to step in immediately, but God has his purposes and very often he doesn’t step in straight away. But that doesn’t mean he won’t.
And, though he doesn’t react immediately, he remains in sovereign control. He is still ‘the Lord, the God of Israel’ – a phrase used in 16.33 and then again on the lips of Elijah in 17.1. The fact that God seems inactive, even absent, should not fool us or worry us. He remains the Lord, and he is biding his time.
And then, when the time is right, he sends his servant to confront the evil. The very name Elijah means ‘My God Is Yahweh [the Lord]’. And he is the one, says Elijah ‘whom I serve’. When the time was right, Jesus came. When the time is right, God steps in to bring about his purposes and to rescue his people. The Holy Spirit acts. It’s true now as it was then.
And the servant of the Lord uses the weapon of God’s word – which is the sword of the Spirit.
There will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word.
That is not a word that originates with Elijah. That is a prophetic word – a word from God. When God speaks, things change. When God speaks, then his people are rescued and evil comes under judgement.
This drought is kind of token judgement that guarantees the final judgement that will fall on the likes of Ahab at the Last Day – the Day of Judgement. He had been warned – as we all have been. So Deuteronomy 11.16-18 is clear:
Be careful, or you will be enticed to turn away and worship other gods and bow down to them. Then the Lord’s anger will burn against you, and he will shut the heavens so that it will not rain and the ground will yield no produce, and you will soon perish from the good land the Lord is giving you. Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds…
At the right time, God will deal with evil. Of that, we can be sure. When we find ourselves face to face with rampant evil, how should we react? We should trust God. And we should stand firm. We can be confident, whatever things look like outwardly, that God has things under control. We need not fear. And we mustn’t be moved from our faith in Christ, or from steadily serving him.
Here, then, is an anatomy of evil, which helps us to be alert for when it will rear its ugly head again, to recognise it for what it is, and to reject it utterly.
And here too, in these verses, we can see encapsulated God’s response to evil. He is always in control. It provokes and angers him. There may well be a delay, but when the time is right God steps in and sends his servant to confront it with the weapon of his word. Evil comes under judgement. And God’s people can be sure that rescue is on its way. So we must trust and obey. And never flinch.