Ahab is one of the most infamous Kings of ancient Israel. His endless sparring with Ellijah is a stereotypical contrast between the holy man and the bad king. While the Biblical portrait emphasizes his weak and vacillating nature (and Jezebel's pagan idolatry) passing references to his military prowess and building campaigns remind us that there was more to the story. Fundamentally, the books of Kings judges a king based on one criteria, faithfulness to God. Ahab's failure comes to fruition in the readings today and yesterday (Kings 22).
Yesterday we read that Ahab asked the King of Judah (Jehoshaphat) to join him in an incursion of Aram. The three years of peace come to a violent close because of a land dispute (Ramoth-Gilead). Jehoshaphat is subservient to the King of Israel pledging his loyalty in the endeavor. However, he thinks it best to consult the prophets to determine if God is in support of the venture. We are told four hundred prophets are gathered and they give the divine thumbs up. Not satisfied with this, Jehoshaphat asks if there is another. Ahab responds that there is, Micaiah, but he continues, "I hate him, because he never prophesies anything good for me, but only misfortune." The more pious Jehoshapat tells Ahab, "Don't say that your majesty."
Micaiah is thoroughly prepped by the messengers sent to fetch him, and he is informed that the Lord is supposed to say "Yes!" Micaiah declares he will only speak what the Lord tells him, but upon meeting the Kings he gives them a positive prophecy. Obviously, his non-verbals betray him (something a written text cannot convey) because the king is exasperated and demands the truth. (To quote Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men---'you can't handle the truth' Ahab)
Micaiah' message is one of doom and death. Israel will be scattered on a hill like sheep without a shepherd (recall Jesus uses the same words of the Jews in His time). Ahab says, "Didn't I tell you...?" and ignores the fatal message. Micaiah explains that God has sent/allowed a deceitful spirit to entice Micaiah. The revelation of "the plan" to mislead the king, however, does not deter Ahab. However, one of the prophets steps forward to slap Micaiah. Then Ahab has him locked up in prison on bread and water to await Ahab's return. Micaiahs' response to this chills the blood: "If you return then the Lord did not speak through me..."
Ahab did not return. Even though he disguised himself in the battle, he was struck between the breastplate by an arrow ("A man drew his bow at random"). It is not clear if it is enemy or friendly fire. What is clear is God's judgment has come to pass. The king bleeds out in his chariot on the hot day. His gory ends fulfills the prophecies about him (dogs lick up his blood) and the people of Israel are dispersed as Micaiah said that they would be. In the days ahead we will read about the equally horrible end to Jezebel. Not a pretty story.
We always live in a time when God's word can rankle. In every time and place the message of God can produce disfavor. People in leadership are no more likely to be angry and not like the prophet in their midst. However, people in power can, and do, exercise that power in ways to silence the contrary voices. We are not told what happened to Micaiah. Perhaps he was left to starve to death in the prison. Maybe he was recognized as a truth speaker and released. If the former, he is a type of John the Baptist and a grim reminder that fidelity to God can be costly.
The temptation "to speak words which men love to hear" is strong for anyone who has been rejected, over and again, or grown weary of preaching "a hard word." We mentioned yesterday that Jeremiah frequently was on the brink of turning in his resignation. In troubled times it is easier to keep silent and avoid the conflict. It might even seem prudent, or pastoral, or humble. When one hears the mighty powers utter the words, "I don't like him, he never says anything good about me," it seems like a reminder that "there is good in everyone" and "accentuate the positive"! It is, therefore, a temptation to avoid the hard word and speak sweetness. The problem is bitter truth is true and sweet lies are not. Reality has little concern about its flavor--it just is.
All of us are tempted to play the compliant one. All of us are tempted to twist God's word into a more appealing form. It is especially the case when patriotism or team spirit or group honor is at play. It is especially the case in dark and difficult days. The early church fathers, Ignatius and Polycarp, knew such things. Both martyred in the early second century, they were hated because of the their simple holiness and refusal to say the things which kings (and other men in power) wanted to hear. I close with Ignatius message to the (then) younger bishop Polycarp, as Ignatius prepared to die for his faith and Polycarp served as a bishop in his church: Critical times like these need you, as a boat needs a helmsmen or the storm tossed mariner a haven, if men are ever to find their way to God. Those words are as true today as they were in 115AD. Our choice is to seek to be liked or to be true (come what may).