Tuesday, October 11, 2022

Praying for the Lion

Almost seven chapters of 1 Kings are devoted to Ahab’s reign over Israel. A further ten chapters of 2 Kings make repeated references to him, and to the consequences of his life and choices for both Israel and Judah.

The Holy Spirit has seen fit to tell us substantially more about this wicked man than about any other king of the northern kingdom, and more than many Judean kings, notwithstanding the fact that he did more to provoke the Lord to anger than all the kings of Israel who preceded him.

Moreover, the expression “as the house of Ahab” became the standard by which the writers of Chronicles, as well as the prophet Micah, assessed the wickedness of Israel’s later kings.

Strange Tales

1 Kings 20 tells the story of Ahab’s successful defense of his nation against the much more numerous armies of the Syrian monarch Ben‑hadad. We may wonder why God would choose to bestow such great victory on a king and a people behaving so wickedly, but perhaps the Syrians were worse. In any case, the Lord twice tells Ahab why he is doing it: so that “you shall know that I am the Lord”. That’s a pretty basic message, but I suppose it’s all Ahab and his reprobate nation were up for.

Tucked in right at the end of the chapter is this odd little story about a pacifist getting killed by a lion:

“And a certain man of the sons of the prophets said to his fellow at the command of the Lord, ‘Strike me, please.’ But the man refused to strike him. Then he said to him, ‘Because you have not obeyed the voice of the Lord, behold, as soon as you have gone from me, a lion shall strike you down.’ And as soon as he had departed from him, a lion met him and struck him down. Then he found another man and said, ‘Strike me, please.’ And the man struck him — struck him and wounded him. So the prophet departed and waited for the king by the way, disguising himself with a bandage over his eyes.”

The Lord needed a man to go give Ahab the word about the consequences of sparing Ben‑hadad’s life after God had miraculously given the Syrian king into Ahab’s hands. And apparently the Lord wanted his prophet visibly injured to convey this message with some degree of authenticity. The Hebrew equivalent of smeared ketchup or theatrical blood would not do. So the prophet went to his “fellow” — probably another prophet, though the Hebrew is sufficiently ambiguous that we can’t say for sure — at the command of the Lord and politely asked him to give him a solid whack about the head. The fellow refused, which initially seems quite reasonable to me. The prophet then announced that for his refusal to strike him, the man would shortly be killed by a lion, which we are told immediately took place. The next man the prophet asked to strike him complied, which, given the first fellow’s example, also seems quite reasonable to me.

Struck Down

Now obviously it will not do to assign primary responsibility for a grisly death to the prophet who cursed this fellow, since the Lord stood behind his words and promptly made them come true. This being the case, the anecdote raises a question or two. Like, really? Killed by a lion for refusing to hit somebody over the head? That seems a little extreme on the Lord’s part, does it not?

Initially, I think it does. And yes, sometimes God asks people to do things that simply don’t make sense to us. They offend our sensibilities. They seem unnecessary or bizarre; maybe not quite as far out there as “Take your only son Isaac, whom you love”, but at least as odd as “Go and wash in the Jordan seven times” or “Take the arrows and strike the ground with them”.

Further, God doesn’t always make it clear what will happen if we do what he’s commanding, or how it will work out for us. A little faith in his goodness and his ultimate justice is required. The prophet didn’t explain himself to this fellow, after all. He didn’t tell him the reason why he was supposed to hit him, or tell him in advance what would happen if he did or didn’t comply. He simply gave him God’s word: “Strike me, please.”

But let’s consider the situation from the perspective of the fellow who was asked to strike the prophet. First, it was a prophet of YHWH who asked to be struck. That in itself should have produced immediate compliance in the wake of Elijah’s killing of 450 prophets of Baal just a few chapters earlier. No Israelite had forgotten that episode. Secondly, the prophet was asking “at the command of the Lord”. When he disobeyed, it was not merely a man he was disobeying, it was God himself (“Because you have not obeyed the voice of the Lord”). Was this made explicit to the fellow? We can’t say for sure, but it is not unreasonable to assume that when a prophet speaks, he speaks for God. This being the case, while the man’s refusal to follow instructions seems initially like meekness or gentleness to us, it was really an act of rank unbelief, and a public repudiation of the prophetic word that could not go uncorrected.

That’s a lesson we need to take to heart.

Commands That Don’t Make Sense

The New Testament is full of commands that simply don’t make sense to a mind acculturated to think like the world. Why is it “Husbands love your wives” and “Wives submit to your husbands”? That’s not terribly equitable. Why are women to be silent in church? Some women know the Word better than their husbands. Why a common cup? That’s not healthy! Why can’t two people of the same sex who love each other live together in a committed relationship? They’re not hurting anyone! Why do I need to be publicly immersed in water as a confession of faith in Christ? Isn’t that a little insulting to my parents, who had a ceremony for me when I was a child? Why can’t I date unsaved girls? The Christian girls I know just aren’t my type.

In many cases, God has been gracious in explaining to us why these things are so, though as servants we are hardly in a position to demand explanations of our Master. In others, we are left quite in the dark, much like the child who finds that sometimes the answer he receives to his question “Why?” is simply, “Because I said so.”

Unlike that unfortunate fellow in 1 Kings, if I decline to comply with the voice of the Lord as revealed in his word today with respect to my Christian walk, I will almost surely not be torn to shreds by a lion. We may all be thankful for that. And we certainly don’t have prophets around to unsettle us with strange and terrifying requests. That too may be a good thing.

But God is no more in the business today of allowing men to prove him wrong by defying his will and subsequently prospering than he was in the days of Ahab. At bare minimum, his message to us — like his message to Ahab — is that he is Lord. We should not kid ourselves that what we read in our New Testaments is any more negotiable than the prophet’s word to his unbelieving fellow. These instructions for life and worship are not merely polite suggestions. They are the commands of Christ and the will of God for us. Even if we are not struck down on the spot when we ignore them, we will surely come out the worse for wear in one way or another.

Frankly, a lifetime of marriage to a man or woman bound for hell might leave you praying for the lion …

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