Elijah in the Vineyard of Naboth.

1 Kings 21.

After the call of Elisha, and the statement that "he arose and went after Elijah, and ministered unto him," there is no further record of Elijah's activity until we come to this chapter. The Spirit of God fills up the interval with the development of Ahab's wickedness, and of his utter inability to profit by the goodness of God in His intervention to succour Israel once and again from the hands of the Syrians. The effect of grace upon the natural man is but to render him more and more obdurate. Thankful for a present deliverance, Ahab availed himself of it for his own aggrandizement, and to make friends with a man whom Jehovah had appointed to utter destruction. Having thereby brought himself anew under the judgment of God, "he went to his house heavy and displeased" - displeased because he was met at every turn by One who held him accountable for his sins, and One from whose grasp he could not escape.

It would almost seem that Ahab never learnt a single lesson from the many warnings he had received; for our chapter opens with an exhibition of unbridled lust - the lust of covetousness. Naboth, the Jezreelite, had a vineyard hard by the palace of Ahab, king of Samaria. Ahab well knew that an Israelite was not permitted to sell the inheritance of his fathers. (Numbers 36:7.) But what of that? Was not Ahab "king of Samaria"? Why, therefore, should he be deprived of gratifying his desire by an old divine law? The vineyard, moreover, was very conveniently situated, and he was willing to make a fair exchange or to pay the price demanded. Why then should he be baulked in his design? Simply because Jehovah had prohibited the sale of the land; and hence the pious Naboth said to Ahab, "The Lord forbid it me that I should give the inheritance of my fathers unto thee." Chagrined and thwarted, the king once more went to his house "heavy and displeased," "and he laid him down upon his bed, and turned away his face, and would eat no bread." Utterly weak and irresolute, he wailed and sulked because he did not dare to commit the sins which would enable him to gratify his cupidity.

Jezebel now again appears on the scene. She has been well described as "the wife of responsible Ahab," and consequently the height of his offence was, as we learn from the use of Jezebel's name in Rev. 2, in suffering her to take his place, and to act by his authority. More wicked, if possible, than her husband, as resolute as he was timid, untroubled by any scruples, neither fearing God nor regarding man, she would soon obtain for Ahab the coveted vineyard. "Dost thou now," she asks, "govern the kingdom of Israel? Arise, and eat bread, and let thine heart be merry: I will give thee the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite.'' Then, having secured the death of the obnoxious Israelite by a series of infamous and diabolical acts she returned and said to the king, "Arise, take possession of the vineyard of Naboth … for Naboth is not alive, but dead."

Nothing reveals more fully the wicked perversity of Ahab's heart than the fact that, in obedience to the command of his wife, he went immediately down, without a question as to the cause or manner of Naboth's death, to take possession of the vineyard. At last his desire could be gratified! So thinks many a sinner as he plucks the coveted fruit from the branch, and puts it to his lips; but he forgets that he cannot escape from the eye of God. While Ahab was lying upon his bed, irritated by Naboth's refusal to sell his vineyard, and while the wicked Jezebel was devising the means of compassing Naboth's destruction, God was watching. If He is not in all the thoughts of the sinner, the day of reckoning will none the less surely come. Already Jehovah had instructed Elijah to go down and meet Ahab: "Behold he is in the vineyard of Naboth, whither he is gone to possess it." Jehovah had once more lifted up His hand in judgment; and who can stand in His sight when once He is angry?

Obedient to the divine word, Elijah went and found the king in the midst of his newly-acquired possession. And what a message it was he had to deliver! "Thus saith the Lord, Hast thou killed, and also taken possession? … Thus saith the Lord, In the place where dogs licked the blood of Naboth shall dogs lick thy blood, even thine." Observe, that though Jezebel had procured the death of Naboth, Ahab is held responsible for the crime. Allowing another to act under his authority, and willing to profit by her iniquity, Jehovah arraigns him for the murder committed. Thus the guilt of the act was tracked home to Ahab, to the lust of his own heart, which he had allowed to draw him on to covet his neighbour's possession. Hence the severity of the sentence which Elijah was sent to pronounce, a sentence demanded by all that Jehovah was as revealed to His people Israel. Innocent blood had been wantonly shed, and God looked upon it, and required it from the guilty monarch. Smitten to the heart, if not conscience-stricken, by the scathing words that fell from the lips of the prophet, Ahab exclaimed, "Hast thou found me, O mine enemy?" In his moral blindness, it was always Elijah, and only Elijah, who confronted and thwarted him in his evil designs and practices. The God of Elijah he knew not, and thus it was the man of God whom he deemed to be his inveterate enemy. "I have found thee," answered the prophet, "because thou hast sold thyself to work evil in the sight of the Lord." Yea, who can hide himself or his sins from the all-searching eye of God?

Remark how that Elijah, having thus briefly answered Ahab's question, passes at once to proclaim the coming judgment upon Ahab, his house, and Jezebel; and, as if to increase the solemnity of his words, he speaks now directly in the name of the Lord. It is no longer even, "Thus saith the Lord;" but, as energised by the Spirit, he becomes the living channel of Jehovah's voice. "Behold," the Lord says through the lips of Elijah, "I will bring evil upon thee, and will take away thy posterity," etc. Sentence upon Ahab had already gone forth (v. 19), and now the doom of his house is uttered (vv. 21, 22, 24), and the special judgment of Jezebel. (v. 24.) Immediately upon the description of the stroke of justice which was about to fall upon Ahab, his house, and Jezebel, the Spirit of God in a short parenthesis (vv. 25, 26) interrupts the narrative to give, in a brief summary, the grounds on which the sentence had proceeded. The murder of Naboth was the occasion of it; but even this foul crime was but the consummation of a long guilty course. There was none like unto Ahab, who did sell himself to work wickedness in the sight of the Lord, whom Jezebel his wife stirred up. He even equalled the Amorites in his wicked enormities - those whom the Lord cast out before the children of Israel. In such a way the Lord, for our instruction, will condescend to justify His dealings with Ahab and his house.

For the moment Ahab was bowed to the dust, and he humbled himself under the mighty hand of God. Jehovah's judicial rod smote him to the quick, for when he "heard those words … he rent his clothes, and put sackcloth upon his flesh, and fasted, and lay in sackcloth, and went softly." That this was not a genuine repentance towards God is proved in the issue; and yet nothing could more strikingly reveal the tender grace of the heart of God than the notice He took of these signs of Ahab's sorrow. "Seest thou how Ahab humbleth himself before me?" he said to Elijah; and then He revealed to the prophet that because Ahab had humbled himself, the sentence upon his house (not the sentence upon Ahab or Jezebel, but upon the king's house and posterity) should be postponed till after Ahab's death - till his son's days. What could more conclusively prove the yearnings of God's heart over the wickedest of men? or that He desireth not the death of a sinner? "Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should die?" saith the Lord God, "and not that he should return from his ways and live?"

As a last observation, it may be pointed out that there may be a semblance of repentance which is not, after all, a real work of the Spirit of God. Fear of coming judgment may often so affect the natural man that he will clothe himself for a season in sackcloth and ashes. But if the conscience be not reached, and if there be not repentance towards God, all such feelings will speedily pass away like the morning dew when the sun arises. God is never deceived, but in His government in this world He can take account of feelings like Ahab's, even though they stop short of real self-judgment. It is, indeed, by the riches of His goodness and forbearance and long-suffering that He would lead men unto repentance.