Summary: Where is the endless mercy and compassion of the God of the Covenant?
Tuesday of the Eleventh Week in Course 2020
For those who knew the promise God made through Moses as the Israelites journeyed through the desert, what was happening to Israel about 870 years before Christ was a great puzzle. God had revealed Himself as One full of tender mercy and compassion to the people of His covenant, down to a thousand generations. And just look at what we have heard about Israel in the time of King Ahab, who ruled the northern kingdom–the one who considered itself the “true” Israel–only about sixty years after the death of King Solomon. There was a famine brought on by drought that lasted over three years. And now Elijah, whom Ahab considered his greatest enemy, condemns Ahab and his descendants to being wiped out. Where is the endless mercy and compassion of the God of the Covenant?
The phrase “did what was evil” in the sight of the Lord appears no fewer than thirty-five times in the books of Kings and Chronicles, all with respect to the kings of Israel and Judah. That answers the question. When Joshua had completed the part of the conquest and settlement of Israel assigned to his life, he called all the tribes together and asked them to choose between serving the Lord, obeying His Law and worshiping Him alone, or serving the phony gods of the inhabitants of the land they had come to possess. Three times–a number that is the perfection of consent–they promised “we will serve the Lord” or “His voice we will obey.” In the times of King David and King Solomon, by and large the Israelites followed the Mosaic Law, but as soon as those kings passed from the scene, we begin to see as an almost constant refrain, both kings and people “did what was evil” in the sight of the Lord. So all the curses written in the Law of Moses fell upon them–plague, pestilence, drought and almost never-ending invasions by other nations. Again and again it happened, with only about three good kings and their eras in Judah, until both kingdoms were wiped from the map.
You see, the problem with citing Moses’s promise of mercy and compassion from God to the thousandth generation, is that it was a promise to the faithful Israel. God had also told them that “I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me.”
Now here, about three generations from Solomon, we have an Israelite king, Ahab, who is universally considered the most evil in the whole history of the northern kingdom. His father, Omri, had wiped out the offspring of the evil king Baasha, but he was evil himself. We’ve read earlier in our lectionary how Ahab took over from Omri after Omri’s twelve year reign. But “Ahab the son of Omri did evil in the sight of the Lord more than all that were before him. And as if it had been a light thing for him to walk in the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, he took for wife Jezebel the daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and went and served Baal, and worshiped him.” So when we see Ahab and Jezebel here plotting to take Naboth’s vineyard by means of a judicial assassination, of course Elijah would show up and speak God’s condemnation of their actions.
But there is a subtle, almost whimsical side to the story. Naboth’s vineyard was right next to Ahab’s palace, built in the brand-new city of Samaria. All through the Scriptures, Old Testament and New as well, the image of a vineyard is used for the God-fearing nation of Israel. We planted four grapevines about twenty years ago in our garden, so I know things about them. Grapevines, properly cared for and pruned drastically every year, will produce for many decades. Vegetables are mostly annuals, that have to be dug up after their production cycle. So Naboth’s vineyard, which could have been there for a hundred years, was a symbol of the Israel that was called by God and planted to thrive in the land under a covenant of fidelity. For Ahab and his doxy wife to rip it up and plant spinach and beans and pray to Baal for a good harvest was a double insult to the true God.
When Ahab identifies the prophet as “my enemy,” Elijah rightly identifies what is going on. Ahab has sold out to false gods because of his wicked wife, who is the real ruler of Israel. It’s the only place in the OT where someone is accused of selling himself to do evil. Ahab’s real enemy is Satan, who has seduced him to a life of evil through the woman, Jezebel. If we jump forward four score decades to the words of Our Lord, we see that His hardest commandment is to love any human perceived as an enemy. That means want only good for those who harm and persecute us. And the greatest goods being forgiveness and grace, we are really praying for their conversion and healing. Lord, give us the grace to act as the Father does, doing good for everyone.