Summary: One man's brave stand against those who would rob him of his inheritance.
THE THEFT OF A VINEYARD
Some of us have had the privilege of living in a land where, on paper at least, there was no trespass law. Whether this was because ‘the land belongs to the LORD’ is doubtful - surely no land can share today in the special status of ancient Israel? Yet there is the acknowledgement that ‘the earth is the LORD’s and the fullness thereof’ (Psalm 24:1; 1 Corinthians 10:26), implicit in Naboth’s defence of his inheritance (1 Kings 21:3).
King Ahab had a summer palace right next to Naboth’s vineyard (1 Kings 21:1), and he desired to purchase the man’s land to make a vegetable garden (1 Kings 21:2). Nothing wrong in that - or so it would seem - and ample compensation was being offered. Yet the vineyard was not Naboth’s to sell (1 Kings 21:3): it had been given as his inheritance in keeping with the laws of the division of the LORD’s land (Joshua 13:6-7).
Ahab was a sulky character, petulant in the extreme when he did not get what he wanted (cf. 1 Kings 20:43). True to character, Ahab took to his bed, turned his face to wall, and refused to eat (1 Kings 21:4). Then his wife Jezebel came into the room (1 Kings 21:5), upbraided him for not asserting his kingly authority (1 Kings 21:7), and announced that SHE would get him the vineyard.
Her sinister scheme made a travesty of the law, and hid its face under the cloak of religion. In the name of the king she had the elders of Naboth’s city proclaim a solemn fast (1 Kings 21:8-9). There she had them place false witnesses to accuse the good man of blasphemy (1 Kings 21:10). Naboth was taken out and stoned to death (1 Kings 21:13).
Ahab had not been directly involved in this ghastly transaction, but the minute he heeded his wife in rising up to “take possession” (1 Kings 21:16) he became an accessory after the fact. Hence Elijah’s accusation: “Have you killed, and also taken possession?” (1 Kings 21:19). Who was king Ahab to ‘take possession’ of another man’s inheritance anyway? [One is put in mind of Nathan’s parable to David (2 Samuel 12:4) - which also involved the murder of an innocent man to please the acquisitiveness of a king (2 Samuel 12:9).]
Elijah’s pronouncement against Ahab was, in the words of one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas, ‘punishment to fit the crime’ (1 Kings 21:19). In 1 Kings 18:17-18, Ahab had accused Elijah of being ‘the one who troubles Israel’, to which Elijah replied that it was Ahab who was troubling Israel. Now Ahab addresses Elijah as “my enemy” (1 Kings 21:20), at which Elijah accused Ahab of having “sold himself to work evil in the sight of the LORD.”
Our Lord Jesus Christ said that ‘those who (habitually) commit sin are slaves to sin’ (John 8:34). The Apostle Paul indicated that ‘those who are set free from sin (paradoxically) become slaves to righteousness’ (Romans 6:18). Which kind of so-called ‘slavery’ do we prefer?
“Because you have done evil,” said Elijah in the word of the LORD, “I will bring evil on you” (1 Kings 21:20-21). ‘Evil’ may be a moral indictment, as in 1 Kings 21:20 - or a disaster (in this case brought on by the LORD’s judgment), as in 1 Kings 21:21. Both are the same word in the original Hebrew.
As well as being a history, this incident gives us some insight into the ways of men in this world, and also the operation of the LORD despite them. King Ahab, like King David before him, cannot hide his sins from the King of the Universe. In place of acquisitiveness, King Jesus enjoins ‘poverty of spirit’ (Matthew 5:3) - a bitter pill for some to swallow!
There is a sequel to this tragedy. Ahab showed signs of repentance (1 Kings 21:27), and received some relief from the judgment against him (1 Kings 21:29). Ahab did, however, die a violent death (1 Kings 22:38), as had been threatened (1 Kings 21:19). And, for the theft of a field, the kingdom was rent from him (1 Kings 21:21).
It is also true that, whilst this passage does not have a happy ending, the account nevertheless is intended to reassure God’s own people that He is still ultimately and completely in control. This is true whether they are in exile, like some of the earlier readers of these histories (Israel and Judah), or facing the caprice and injustice of those who wield power in this earth. The LORD still cares for the powerless in this earth - how much more for His own loyal servants, His precious vineyard.