Abuse of Power
Let’s turn to 1 Kings 21. We are in the middle of a study of Elijah, working our way through 1 Kings. Last week, we ended with the call of Elijah at the end of chapter 19. In a moment, we’re going to skim over chapter 20 because the Elijah is not mentioned and we’re going to land in chapter 21. I think it would be helpful as we think about the theme that we’re seeing unfold through these passages if you look at the image that we’ve used. I think this accurately conveys the scene because sometimes in our lives, we look on the horizon of our life and it looks like dryness, like drought.
Is God doing anything? And at times, we can feel stupid holding an umbrella, which implies we’re trusting God to send rain when there are no clouds or evidence of him doing so. He promises that he will make us lie down in what color pasture? Yes, green pasture. He’s going to provide. And yet often, he calls us to seasons of our lives that do not look like he’s doing anything.
So, will we, in faith, keep our umbrella up? Really the question is,
“Where is God when it appears nothing good is happening?”
The way chapters 20 and 21 answer that question is the contrast between a macro answer and a micro answer, the wide-angle lens in chapter 20 and a very up-close lens in chapter 21. So, let me summarize the wide angle. Chapter 20 is all about the wars between the King of Syria Ben-hadad and the king of Israel Ahab. Ben-hadad threatens Ahab.
“I’m going to come, and I want you to give me your best wives, children, possessions.” Ahab at first is compliant. “This is OK. We’ll do that.” And Hadad comes back again. “Hey, what’s taking you so long.” Ahab gathers a group of counselors together and says, “Do you think we should do this.”
They’re all like, “No, that’s crazy.” And so, Ben-hadad starts trash talking. And one of Ahab’s rare magical moments is in verse 11 when he responds to Ben-hadad. Chapter 20: 11, “Let not him who straps on his armor boast himself as he who takes it off.”
Isn’t that a great line? You’re acting like a guy who just won a battle and you haven’t even fought yet! You’re counting your chickens before they hatch. You’re trash talking before you’ve done anything! Great line. Battle happens.
God gives the victory to Israel, even though Ahab didn’t have the forces to bring it about and certainly was not a good man to deserve it. But God is up to something much bigger as you see at the end of verse 13, “You shall know that I am the Lord.” Same thing again at the end of verse 28, “You shall know that I am the Lord.” So, he gives in him the first battle.
Second battle: Ben-hadad comes back again. This time they are arguing, as you will see in verse 23, the servants of the King of Syria Ben-hadad say,
“Hey, the reason we lost the first battle was because they have gods of the hills and our gods are not gods of the hills. Our gods are gods of the plains. So, if we fight them in the plains, we will beat them because our gods are stronger than their gods of the hills.”
And that was a really dumb thing to say to the Lord of all creation as if God has a jurisdictional boundary where his power only works in certain places. So, in light of that challenge, God gave them victory again in unlikely ways as we’ve seen all throughout this story – through a raven, through a brook, through a widow, fire, quiet whisper. God is present in ways that we would not have anticipated. After these great victories, Ahab blows it and ends, in verse 43, in his characteristic manner: vexed and sullen. You’ll see again in chapter 21:4, he takes up this vexed and sullen posture. He has the gift of moping, as we will see.
That’s the wide angle of chapter 20. God is present. When it does not appear that he’s doing anything, He is very active, and his word is powerful. Now we’re going to move right up close from these big national battles to one king, one farmer, and a vineyard. The story of Naboth, which is an amazing story, we’re going to look at today. The story can be broken into three parts.
The first part is Ahab’s problem in verses 1 through 7. Ahab desperately wants Naboth’s vineyard. This is his second home, his vacation home. In Jezreel, he has a home in the capital of Samaria, and he asked Naboth, as we just read, if he would sell or trade his vineyard. He is looking out his window at this great plot of land. The proximity would be really nice. He’s drooling for fresh cucumbers and tomatoes, and he figures he wants this property. But Naboth says no, not because he’s trying to be difficult, but he’s trying to be faithful. You will see in verse 3:
“The Lord forbid that I should give you the inheritance of my fathers.”
Selling land was a big deal. Well, Ahab went away vexed and sullen, resentful and pouting. He, as that verse goes on to say, turned his face away. He would not eat. It’s quite a pathetic scene. The little kid who doesn’t get his way, and he’s staring at the wall and “Well, I’ll just starve myself to death to show you!” Go for it. Jezebel is miffed, his wife. Verse 7:
“Do you now govern Israel?” What kind of king are you? Remember Jezebel is the daughter of the Phoenician king. The Phoenician King did not view himself as under any law. He’s above the law. If he wants something, he does what? He just takes and kills whoever and does whatever. And there’s no accountability. So, she comes up with a plan, a solution.
This is the second part: Jezebel’s solution in verses 8 to 16. She assures her husband that he’s going to get his vegetable garden and sends letters to the leaders of Naboth’s town and notice how she’s careful to do the wrong thing the right way. She says, “We’re going to call for a fast, proclaim a fast.” She apparently, as governments are really good about doing, utilizes a current event, like a disaster or some kind of crisis, to foment a concern that someone has done something that is causing all of us to be in a bad place.
So, they have this fast and they hired these two worthless individuals. There are always people who are willing to do anything and say anything for a buck, and so these two people make this allegation against Naboth, a righteous man who had done nothing wrong, suggesting that he had done something wrong, and the leaders foment the people into a frenzy, and they take Naboth out and indict him for blasphemy, (cursing God), for treachery, (cursing the king), and he is stoned and killed.
Verses 13 to 16 describe this five times, using the word “dead.” Stoned him to death…he is dead… was dead…not alive but dead… was dead. And this repetitive description of Naboth’s death communicates the clinical, cold, unfortunate, yet necessary, event that needed to occur if you get in the way of a king’s desire. This is eminent domain on steroids. The government needs some land. You happen to own it. You’re in the way. You need to be removed. Apparently from 2 Kings 9:26, the sons of Naboth were also killed because that way they can’t lay claim to their inheritance. Verses 15 and 16. The deed is done. The vineyard is taken. The problem is solved.
I think we just need to pause there for a moment. Put yourself in the widow of Naboth’s place for a moment. What does that feel like when you have just been treated so unjustly, and the very people you would turn to bring justice are the people who committed the crime? Where do you turn? And if you can feel the weight of that, you get a sense of what it’s like to live in a world without God. Because there is no justice. And there is nowhere to turn.
But in the midst of this horrific injustice, the third section: God’s response. Verse 17:” Then the word of the Lord came.” In the midst of a dark time, full of doubt and disobedience, God’s word is still true and arrives on time just when Ahab is in his garden, waiting for his landscaping architect to arrive. Instead, Elijah pulls up. Now, that’s a bummer, isn’t it? Don’t you hate that when you hatch a plan, it’s coming forward just perfectly, and then God brings a word to your mind, or a friend speaks a word. We hear a sermon, and you’re just like “Agh! This was a perfect plan!” It seems so easy. It all came together.
It’s got to be the will of God. Naboth was in the way. He was being obstreperous. He needed to go. God spoke to Elijah and sent him to Ahab and his response could be summarized in two words: justice and mercy. Let’s talk at the beginning about justice. Verse 19: “Have you killed and also taken possession? You think you can take a life and a vineyard without being held accountable?”
And God issues through Elijah the sentence. Three things: your blood will be licked up (verse 19).Your dynasty will be cut off (verses 21 to 22). He mentions “your house” (your dynasty) will end. And thirdly, rather gross, your wife will be eaten. Verse 23: “The dogs shall eat Jezebel within the walls of Jezreel.” The chapter ends, however, with a picture, a glimpse of mercy. Ahab (verse 27) “tore his clothes, put on sackcloth, fasted and mourned.”
It does not look like true repentance, but as Ahab shows some signs of humility, God responds. And Ahab has a chance to get his heart and house in order. We see God’s presence in the midst of a dark time. One of the main messages of this story is the fact that God gives power and hates when it is used to hurt the weak.
God gives power and hates when it is used to hurt the weak. Dr. Chris Wright was speaking at a conference in India. After he had delivered his message and he had referred to several Old Testament passages, a man, who is now a doctor in India, came up to him and said, “I’m so glad to see you teaching from the Old Testament. God used the Old Testament to bring me to himself.” He went on to describe what it was like to grow up in India as a part of a caste, that’s a part of a community that was consistently treated unjustly, humiliated and, often, physically abused. And he said, “As a young man, I was going off to college, went to college to learn Marxism in order to incite rebellion, revolution and seek revenge for the way I had been treated. But I get to college, committing myself to all this, and I meet a bunch of Christians – Christian students, and they gave me a Bible and encouraged me to read the Bible.”
This guy had never read the Bible before. He opens the Bible randomly and guess what story in the Old Testament he reads first. It’s the story of Naboth and his vineyard. Listen to how Dr. Wright describes what this man told him.
“He was astonished to find that it was all about greed for land, abuse of power, corruption of the courts, and violence against the poor – things that he himself was all too familiar with. But even more amazing was the fact that God took Naboth’s side and not only accused Ahab and Jezebel of their wrongdoing, but also took vengeance upon them. Here was the God of real justice. A God who identified the real villains and who took real action against them.
‘I never knew such a God existed!’ he exclaimed.”
Now at that time, the man said that he was not a believer. He eventually came to Christ. But his view of who God is was transformed by this story, the story of Naboth and his vineyard. So, let’s take a few minutes to talk about five examples in this story of how God gives power and hates when it is used to hurt the weak. Number one:
Notice how in this story, no one is invisible. No one is invisible or dispensable. God sees Naboth. God hears the cry. He responds. Naboth, humanly speaking, is a nobody. I mean he’s a pebble in the wheel of Ahab’s royal limousine. He’s in the way and he’s to be removed. But God sees, and he brings justice.
Do you understand that about God? Justice is not an invention of man. It wasn’t created by our country’s fathers. It’s not a view that some human invented. It actually flows from the character of God. He is just. He loves justice and that is why all of us have it within us. Yes, at times a perverted sense of justice, but we all crave it, long for it when we are wronged. James 5:4 says,
“Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, are crying out against you, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of Hosts.”
Imagine that! The Lord of all armies hears the cry of no-name laborers who aren’t being paid for the work that they’re doing. That is the God of justice. He sees the injustice, he hears the cry. You are not invisible. You are not dispensable.
Secondly, private ownership matters. Private ownership matters. When God came to Elijah and sent him to confront Ahab, notice in verse 18, he described Ahab as “in the vineyard of Naboth.” But Naboth is dead. The vineyard is Ahab’s, but not in God’s eyes. The vineyard is still Naboth’s.
You have taken, Ahab, what is not yours to take! So why would God care? Well, part of it is related to the Promised Land, as Leviticus 25 describes, the land is God’s and he entrusts it to individuals and that’s a sacred trust. But even if we were to back up further, you have to see that from God’s perspective, private ownership matters.
How do we know that? Well, look at the law: ten commandments. Commandment number eight: “You shall not steal.” How can you steal if it belongs to no one? You shall not steal because private ownership matters. Commandment number ten: “You shall not covet,” which means it’s not just wrong to take, it’s wrong to crave, to covet what is someone else’s. Well, why? If private ownership doesn’t matter, it’s nobody’s. But from God’s view, he has entrusted it to somebody.
When Israel was clamoring for a king, God warned them about what that king, what government loves to do. And I’m going to read a compressed version of 1 Samuel 8:11-19. See if you, it’s going to be hard to observe, but see if you can pick up on a theme.
“These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take… he will take… he will take… he will take… he will take… he will take…”
Did you see it? He’s going to take your son. He’s going to take your daughters. He’s going to take your fields and your grains. He’s going to take. I know you want to be like all the other nations, but he will take. God values private ownership. Think of the Year of Jubilee every 50 years. Even those people, in a point of desperation, which was not wrong to do, sold their land because they had no other choice. After 50 years, it will go back to the original owner because private ownership matters.
This is one of the reasons Christians have historically opposed systems like communism and socialism because those systems oppose private ownership. Karl Marx in his communist manifesto said this. “The theory of the Communists (these are his words) may be summed up in the single sentence: abolition of private property.”
Now today, it’s become quite fashionable, especially among young people, to recommend a form of socialism that we call Democratic Socialism. Democratic socialism is like gang rape. If it’s wrong for one person to rape someone, it doesn’t make it right if a group of people rapes someone. If it’s wrong for one person to steal something from someone else, it’s wrong for a group of people to vote to steal something from someone else. It’s still wrong. There are better ways to help the poor than to try to do wrong in order to get a chance to supposedly do right. It’s still theft, which makes it immoral because private ownership matters.
Number 3: power must be used well. Power must be used well. Power, when we talk about power, we’re talking about the capacity to do something or especially the ability to influence. Power comes in a lot of different forms, which is really interesting to think about. Every one of us has certain powers. Some have more obvious power than others, but power comes in physical, political, financial, verbal, emotional, sexual, psychological, legal – all sorts of different forms.
As Dr. Diane Langberg, who has given her life to counsel both people who have committed horrific abuses of power and people who have experienced as survivors and victims of that abuse, she brings it down to two things that are always present when power is abused: deception and coercion.
Deception comes in two forms. First of all, self-deception. We have to deceive ourselves into believing certain things about ourselves or the other person in order to abuse power. But then secondly, we practice deception in order to propagate this to others. The second thing that’s always present deception, but also coercion, and that is there is threatening or silencing or intimidating or manipulating. And the irony of the abuse of power is that it is most often practiced by people who feel weak, people who feel needy or anxious, fearful about something, so they abuse their power.
Think about Ahab, vexed and sullen Ahab, yet an abuser. And the tragedy of power abuse is it is contagious. It’s like the flu. It flows through families and businesses and even churches. You can see it in this story. You have Ahab who craves something and deceives himself into thinking he can’t be happy without it. Jezebel comes along and makes sure that can be achieved. But the thing that kills me is when the town’s leaders get that letter, why didn’t they say, “Stop! No!” because they themselves are under the influence of the power above them. They’re fearful for their lives, so they, in turn, because they’re under pressure, they exert pressure on those who are below them. And the cycle continues, and you see this happening in homes and you see this happening in any organization.
Power abuse is contagious. Which is why you can have a husband, for example, who is abusive, but the wife looks the other way even though the children are being damaged because she’s under pressure, but then she passes that on as a participant in this now by her compliance, which you see with the townspeople. So, it creates this system of abuse that is tragically contagious. Dale Davis describes this,
“Injustice flourishes not only by wickedness but by weakness, not merely from a lack of goodness but by a lack of guts.”
It takes guts for the townspeople to say, “No. We’re standing with Naboth, even though it may cost us our lives.” It’s interesting that all of us have certain amounts of power, and this is really important for us to understand as image bearers. We are made in the image of the God who made all things. He calls us both to resemble himself and to represent him. And that endues us with great power.
We are called to exercise dominion and not live our lives merely reacting to whatever force is exerted on us. So even a little kindergarten girl at recess on the playground has a certain degree of authority over a smaller kindergarten girl who is being mistreated and can speak on her behalf, understanding the power she has. That’s something we can teach our kids as they as they grow up.
One blessing I got excited about recently was the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize which went to Denis Mukwege, who was one of two. He is known in his country as Dr. Miracle for his specialized procedures to help women. For over 20 years, he has a gynecologist has treated tens of thousands of women who have been abused by militants in Congo. He is a follower of Jesus and because of his faith in Christ, he has given his life to treat, to counsel, to protect women. Why? Because all of us have been given power and the goal is not to use it to hurt others, but to help others.
Number four: misuse of power is dehumanizing. Misuse of power is dehumanizing. Now, this is true both for the villain and the victim.
When power is abused, the dehumanizing effect on the victim is quite obvious. In Naboth case, his body is crushed under a pile of stones. He is treated horribly, but the part that many of us miss is that those who wield power in a wrong way are not only dehumanizing the people they hurt, but they are dehumanizing themselves. In verse 20 and verse 25, you get a glimpse of this.
Elijah confronts Ahab. “You have sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord.” Isn’t that language? “You have sold yourself.” “No, wait, I was trying to buy something. I was trying to acquire not sell.” But when you take what is not yours, you are losing some of who you are, who God made you to be.
You can’t do wrong without losing a part of who God made you to be. Every time we give ourselves to evil, we are hurting not only the people we wrong, but we are also stripping ourselves of the dignity of our humanity as image bearers of our Creator. And because we don’t understand this, we read or hear the gruesome judgment that God brought about on Ahab and Jezebel and it sounds archaic or barbaric.
But don’t miss what God is saying and really picturing. If we jump forward in the story through the end of 1 Kings and into 2 Kings, you will see what happened. For example, in 1 Kings 22:38, God predicted (God had predicted in the past) that Ahab’s dogs would lick Ahab’s blood. He goes into a battle. It is predicted that he is going to be killed. He disguises himself so he would not. A random arrow strikes him through his armor. And the dogs lick his blood out of his chariot.
His son Joram, Ahab’s son who became King of Israel, when he was killed, his body (2 Kings 9:25) was thrown on the plot of ground belonging to Naboth, the Jezreelite. God’s judgment is at times slow, but it is sure. What we sow, we will reap. Jezebel’s death was 20 years from this pronouncement, but it was vivid and horrific.
The new power in the country came riding into Jezreel, looked up in the palace, and saw Jezebel. He called out to two or three eunuchs that were around her to throw her from the building. Her body was cast down, landed on the ground, and the horses ran over her. When it was time to bury her, (and this is how that section ends) 2 Kings 9:37, “so that no one can say this is Jezebel.” She was unable to be identified. Her body was so horrifically maimed. You say, “That’s gross!”
It is gross! And the dehumanization of the abuse of power is gross. It is gross! God is giving us a vivid picture of the end of this, of our craving things that we think we need even at the expense of others. It is gross. As disgusting as it is, God is saying, “Please, my child, see how dangerous this is.” It is dangerous for families. It’s dangerous for businesses and ministries and churches. Misuse of power is dehumanizing.
And finally, humility is essential and beautiful. The passage ends in a striking way with Ahab humbling himself, wearing sackcloth and mourning. And the part that just blows me away is God’s response to this. I know if I were God I’d be like “Ahab, you’ve done so many horrible things. We’re putting you on probation. We’ll see how it goes.”
But God calls Elijah over to him and says, “Hey, have you seen how Ahab is humbling himself? And God looks so vulnerable, doesn’t he? I know it sounds dangerous to say, but God is exposing himself in such humility there
to just say, “Hey, have you seen how Ahab is humbling himself?” It’s almost like parents of a little leaguer. You know little Harvey goes out there whiffs every time, strikes out every time, but at the end of the game, the parents are saying to the other parents and the coach, “Hey, did you see what Harvey was doing in the dugout? He was helping out.
He was lining up the bats, and he was picking up the peanut shells, and he was cheering on the team. Go Harvey!” They desperately want something to cheer about. And God shows Himself with such vulnerability here. Ahab has messed up on every point. Yet God is still irresistibly drawn to even a bit of humility, and that shows us the heart of God.
He does not delight in the shedding of blood or exacting judgment. He delights in showing mercy! He will not deny truth. He will not ignore injustice, but he’s so ready when we humble our hearts to give grace.
He resists the proud, but he does give grace to who? To the humble. He gives grace to the humble. Now today, many of us confuse humility with humiliation, especially those who have been horrifically treated. Our tendency can be to run from humiliation to intimidation and think if I can just intimidate people enough, I won’t experience this kind of humiliation. That’s one of the reasons hurt people often hurt people. People who feel coerced often become people who coerce, but God offers us a better way, a way of humility, not humiliation. A way of humility, which is an accurate view of ourselves and others in the presence of God. Jesus modeled that humility for us. He is really the ultimate Naboth, isn’t he? He was betrayed in a garden. He was wrongfully accused. He was framed for a crime he didn’t commit.
And he was killed, but he didn’t do it merely as a victim. He did it as a willing participant because he died for us and rose from the grave to show us a better way, a way of life. Not just a way of doing things but set us free from that dehumanizing effect of sin and selfishness and the blindness of craving things that will only destroy us and others. And that would be our prayer this morning that we, in the face of this real wrong and real justice, would run to God who is so ready to show mercy in Jesus Christ.