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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary

1 Kings 21

 

 

Verses 1-29

NABOTH’S VINEYARD

1 Kings 21:1-29

"The triumphing of the wicked is short, and the joy of the godless is but for a moment."

- Job 20:5

"If weakness may excuse,

What murderer, what traitor, parricide,

Incestuous, sacrilegious, but may plead it?

All wickedness is weakness."

- Samson Agonistes.

The chief glory of the institution of prophecy was that it rightly estimated the supremacy of the moral law. The prophets saw that the enforcement of one precept of righteousness involved more true religion than hundreds of pages of Levitic ritual. It is the temptation of priests and Pharisees to sink into formalism; to warp the conceptions of the Almighty into that of a Deity who is jealous about inconceivable pettinesses of ceremonial; to think that the Eternal cares about niceties of rubric, rules of ablutions, varieties of nomenclature or organization. In their solicitude about these nullities they often forget, as they did in the days of Christ, the weightier matters of the law, mercy, judgment, and truth. When religion has been dwarfed into these inanities the men who deem themselves its only orthodox votaries, and scorn all others as "lax" and "latitudinarian," are not only ready to persecute every genuine teacher of righteousness, but even to murder the Christ Himself. They come to think that falsehood and cruelty cease to be criminal when practiced in the cause of religious intolerance.

Against all such dwarfing perversion of the conceptions of the essential service which man owes to God the prophets were called forth to be in age after age the energetic remonstrants. It is true that they also had their own special temptations; they, too, might become the slaves of shibboleths; they might sink into a sort of automatic or mechanical form of prophecy which contented itself with the wearing of garbs and the repetition of formulae long after they had become evacuated of their meaning. {Zechariah 13:4} They might distort the message "Thus saith Jehovah" to serve their own ends. They might yield to the temptations both of individual and of corporate ambition. They might assume the hairy garb and rough locks of Elijah for the sake of the awe they inspired while their heart "was not but for their own covetousness." {Jeremiah 22:17} They might abuse their prestige to promote their own party or their own interests. They were assailed by the same perils to which in after days so many monks, hermits, and religious societies succumbed. Many a man became a nominal prophet, as many a man became a monk, because the office secured to him a maintenance-

"Twas not for nothing the good bellyful, The warm serge and the rope that goes all round, And day long blessed idleness besides";

and also because it surrounded him with a halo of imaginary sanctity. The monks, we know, by their turbulence and partisanship, became the terror of the fourth century after Christ, and no men more emphatically denounce their mendicancy and their impostures than the very fathers who, like St. Jerome and St. Augustine, were most enamored of their ideal. As for the hermits, if one of them securely established a reputation for abnormal austerities he became in his way as powerful as a king. In the stories even of such a man as St. Martin of Tours we detect now and then a gleam of hauteur, of which traces are not lacking in the stories of these nameless or famous prophets in the Book of Kings.

No human institution, even if it be avowedly religious, is safe from the perilous seductions of the world, the flesh, and the devil. Perpetually

"The old order changeth, giving place to new, And God fulfils Himself in many ways Lest one good custom should corrupt the world."

Mendicant brotherhoods and ascetic communities were soon able by legal fictions, to revel in opulence, to steep themselves in luxury, and yet to wield a religious authority which princes envied. When we read what the Benedictines and the Minorites and the Carthusians often became we are the less surprised to find that even the Schools of the Prophets, while Elijah and Elisha yet lived, could abdicate as a body their best functions, and deceiving and deceived could learn to answer erring kings according to their idols.

But the greatest and truest prophets rose superior to the influences which tended to debase the vulgar herd of their followers in days when prophecy grew into an institution and the world became content to side with a church which gave it no trouble and mainly spoke in its own tones. True prophecy cannot be made a matter of education or "tamed out of its splendid passion." The greatest prophets, like Amos and Isaiah, did not come out of the Schools of the Prophets. Inspiration cannot be cultivated, or trained to grow up a wall. "Much learning," says Heraclitus very profoundly, "does not teach; but the Sibyl with maddening lips, uttering things unbeautified, unperfumed, and unadorned, reaches through myriads of years because of God." The man whom God has summoned forth to speak the true word or do the heroic deed, at the cost of all hatred, or of death itself, has normally to protest not only against priests, but against his fellow-prophets also when they immorally acquiesced in oppression and wrong which custom sanctioned. {see Jeremiah 23:20-40} It was by such true prophets that the Hebrews and through them the world were taught the ideal of righteousness. Their greatest service was to uphold against idolatry, formalism, and worldliness, the simple standard of the moral law.

It was owing to such teaching that the Israelites formed a true judgment of Ahab’s culpability. The act which was held to have outweighed all his other crimes, and to have precipitated his final doom, was an isolated act of high-handed injustice to an ordinary citizen.

Ahab was a builder. He had built cities and palaces, and was specially attached to his palace at Jezreel, which he wished to make the most delightful of summer residences. It was unique in its splendor as the first palace inlaid with ivory. The nation had heard of Solomon’s ivory throne, but never till this time of an "ivory palace." But a palace is nothing without pleasant gardens. The neighborhood of Jezreel, as is still shown by the ancient winepresses cut out of the rock in the neighborhood of its ruins, was enriched by vineyards, and one of these vineyards adjoining the palace belonged to a citizen named Naboth. It happened that no other ground would so well have served the purpose of Ahab to make a garden near his palace, and he made Naboth a fair offer for it. I will give you, he said, "a better vineyard for it, or I will pay you its full value in ingots of silver."

Naboth, however, was perfectly within his rights in rejecting the offer. It was the inheritance of his fathers, and considerations nothing short of sacred-considerations which then or afterwards found a place in the written statutes of the nation-made it wrong in his judgment to sell it. He sturdily refused the offer of the king. His case was different from that of the Jebusite prince Araunah, who had sold his threshing-floor to David, and that of Shemer, who sold the Hill of Samaria to Omri. {1 Kings 16:24}

A sensible man would have accepted the inevitable, and done the best he could to find a garden elsewhere. But Ahab, who could not bear to be thwarted, came into his house "heavy and displeased." Like an overgrown, sullen boy he flung himself on his divan, turned his face to the wall, and would not eat.

News came to Jezebel in her seraglio of her lord’s ill-humor, and she came to ask him, "What mutiny in his spirit made him decline to take food?"

He told her the sturdy refusal of Naboth, and she broke into a scornful laugh. "Are you King of Israel?" she asked. "Why this is playing at kinghood! It is not the way we do things in Tyre. Arise, eat bread, be merry. I will give thee the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite."

Did he admire the mannish spirit of the Syrian princess, or did he secretly shrink from it? At any rate he let Jezebel take her own course. With intrepid insolence she at once wrote a letter in Ahab’s name from Samaria, and sent it sealed with his signet to the elders of Jezreel. She ordered them to proclaim a fast as though to avert some public calamity, and-with a touch of dreadful malice as though to aggravate the horror of his ruin-to exalt Naboth to a conspicuous position in the assembly. They were to get hold of two "sons of worthlessness," professional perjurers, and to accuse Naboth of blasphemy against God and the king. His mode of refusing the vineyard might give some colorable pretext to the charge. On the testimony of those two false witnesses Naboth must be condemned, and then they must drag him outside the city to the pool or tank with his sons and stone them all.

Everything was done by the subservient elders of Jezreel exactly as she had directed. Their dawning readiness to carry out her vile commands, the deadliest incidental proof of the corruption which she and her crew of: alien idolaters had wrought in Israel. On that very evening Jezebel received the message, "Naboth is stoned and is dead." By the savage law of those days his innocent sons were involved in his overthrow, {2 Kings 9:26} and his property, left without heirs, reverted by confiscation to the crown, {2 Samuel 16:4} "Arise," said the triumphant sorceress, "and take possession of the vineyard you wished for. I have given it to you as I promised. Its owner and his sons have died the deaths of blasphemers, and lie crushed under the stones outside Jezreel."

Caring only for the gratification of his wish, heedless of the means employed, hastily and joyously at early dawn the king arose to seize the coveted vineyard. The dark deed had been done at night, the king was alert with the morning light. He rode in his chariot from Samaria to Jezreel, which is but seven miles distant, and he rode in something of military state, for in separate chariots, or else riding in the same chariot, behind him were two war-like youths, Jehu and Bidkar, who were destined to remember the events of that day, and to refer to them four years afterwards, when one had become king and the other his chief commander. {2 Kings 9:25; 2 Kings 9:36}

But the king’s joy was short-lived!

News of the black crime had come to Elijah, probably in his lonely retreat in some cave at Carmel. He was a man who, though he flamed out on great occasions like a meteor portending ruin to the guilty, yet lived in general a hidden life. Six years had elapsed since the calling of Elisha, and we have not once been reminded of his existence. But now he was instantly inspired to protest against the atrocious act of robbery and oppression, and to denounce upon it an awful retribution which not even Baal-worship had called forth.

Ahab was at the summit of his hopes. He was about to complete his summer palace and to grasp the fruits of the crime which he had allowed the wife to commit. But at the gate of Naboth’s vineyard stood the swart figure of the Prophet in his hairy garb. We can imagine the revulsion of feeling which drove the blood to the king’s heart as he instantly felt that he had sinned in vain. The advantage of his crime was snatched from him at the instant of fruition. Half in anger, half in anguish, he cried, "Hast thou found me, O mine enemy?"

"I have found thee," said the Prophet, speaking in Jehovah’s name. "Thou hast sold thyself to work evil before me, and I will requite it and extinguish thee before me. Surely the Lord saw yester night the blood of Naboth and the blood of his sons. Thy dynasty shall be cut off to the last man, like that of Jeroboam, like that of Baasha. Where the dogs licked the blood of Naboth, the dogs shall lick thine. The harlots shall wash themselves in the water which thy blood has stained. Him that dieth of thee in the city the dogs shall eat, and him that dieth in the field shall the vultures rend, and the dogs shall eat Jezebel also in the moat of Jezreel."

It is the duty of prophets to stand before kings and not he ashamed. So had Abraham stood before Nimrod, and Moses before Pharaoh, and Samuel before Saul, and Nathan before David, and Iddo before Jeroboam. So was Isaiah to stand hereafter before Ahaz, and Jeremiah before Jehoiachin, and John the Baptist before Herod, and Paul before Nero. Nor has it been at all otherwise in modern days. So did St. Ignatius confront Trajan, and St. Ambrose brave the Empress Justina, and St. Martin the Usurper Maximus, and St. Chrysostom the fierce Eudoxia, and St. Basil the heretic Valens, and St. Columban the savage Thierry, and St. Dunstan our half-barbarous Edgar. So, too, in later days, Savonarola could speak the bare bold truth to Lorenzo the Magnificent, and Knox to Mary Queen of Scots, and Bishop Ken to Charles II. But never was any king confronted by so awful a denunciation of doom. Probably the moment that Elijah had uttered it he disappeared; but could not a swift arrow have reached him from Jehu’s or Bidkar’s bow? We know how they remembered two reigns later the thunder of those awful words, but they would hardly have disobeyed the mandate of their king had he bidden them to seize or slay the Prophet. Nothing was further from their thoughts. Elijah had become to Ahab the incarnation of his own awakened conscience, and it spoke to him in the thunders of Sinai. He quailed before the tremendous imprecation. We may well doubt whether he even so much as entered again the vineyard of Naboth; never certainly could he have enjoyed it. He had indeed sold himself to do evil, and, as always happens to such colossal criminals, he had sold himself for naught-as Achan did for a buried robe and a useless ingot, and Judas for the thirty pieces of silver which he could only dash down on the Temple floor. Ahab turned away from the vineyard, which might well seem to him haunted by the ghosts of his murdered victims and its clusters full of blood. He rent his clothes, and clad himself in sackcloth and slept in sackcloth, and went about barefooted with slow steps and bent brow, a stricken man. Thenceforward as long as he lived he kept in penitence and humiliation the anniversary of Naboth’s death, as James IV of Scotland kept the anniversary of the death of the father against whom he had rebelled.

This penitence, though it does not seem to have been lasting, was not wholly in vain. Elijah received a Divine intimation that, because the king troubled himself, the threatened evil should in part be postponed to the days of his sons. The sun of the unfortunate and miserable dynasty set in blood. But though it is recorded that, incited by his Tyrian wife, he did very abominably in worshipping "idol-blocks," and following the ways of the old Canaanite inhabitants of the land, none of his crimes left a deeper brand upon his memory than the judicial seizure of the vineyard which he had coveted and the judicial murder of Naboth and his sons.

How adamantine, how irreversible is the law of retribution! With what normal and natural development, apart from every arbitrary infliction, is the irrevocable prophecy fulfilled: "Be sure your sin will find you out."

"Yea, he loved cursing, and it came unto him; Yea, he delighted not in blessing, and it is far from him Yea, he clothed himself with cursing like as with his garment, And it came into his bowels like water, like oil into his bones." {Psalms 109:17-18}

Ahab had to be taught by adversity since he refused the lesson of prosperity.

"Daughter of Jove, relentless power,

Thou tamer of the human breast,

Whose iron scourge and torturing hour

The bad affright, afflict the best,

Bound in thine adamantine chain

The proud are taught to taste of pain,

And purple tyrants vainly groan

With woes unfelt before, unpitied and alone."

But as for Elijah himself, he once more vanished into the solitude of his own life, and we do; not hear of him again till four years later, when he sent to Ahaziah, the son of Ahab, the message of his doom.

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on 1 Kings 21:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/1-kings-21.html.

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