Ahab’s Tantrum and the Age of Rage

I have heard this passage, I Kings 21:1-28, mentioned once during a sermon, by way of illustration, though I don’t think that the entire sermon centered on it. I’ve had some remarks prepared for a while on why I think that this is an appropriate passage to preach on today, but the recent riots in London have given me more encouragement that this passage speaks to a real need in our age. After having heard recently several more preachers mention the common passages such as David’s adultery with Bathsheba, the woman ad the well in John 4, and now the rich young ruler, I’m suggesting that this one be given more consideration as one which speaks to a problem nowadays.

The passage is at least as notorious, though not as salacious, as David’s adultery with Bathsheba. Ahab, one of the wickedest kings, if not the wickedest king, that Israel ever knew, makes an offer to buy the vineyard of Naboth, a resident of the city of Jezreel, because it is conveniently located. Naboth refuses, so Ahab become angry and sulks. Ahab’s wife, the notoriously evil Jezebel, find out the reason, and takes action to have Naboth slandered and murdered by false accusation, and Ahab manages to get the vineyard after all. God then pronounces judgment on the life and family of Ahab through Elijah the prophet. For perhaps the only time in his life Ahab demonstrated a humbled, repentant attitude, so God postponed the judgment upon his family and dynasty for a few years.

The first thing to note in the passage is that Ahab makes a plausible offer for the vineyard to obtain it for his personal convenience, of the, “You do this for me, and I’ll do this for you.” This is the kind of offer that takes place many times in businesses and lives, and such negotiations are not in themselves wicked. Under the Old Testament Law family parcels could be ‘sold’, in terms which are more like land rental, and this would not have been wrong in itself, though by the Law the land would have reverted back to Naboth’s family in the year of jubilee. In the northern kingdom of Israel, it is probable, though, that the year of jubilee had never been celebrated, if it had ever actually been put into practice at all in the history of Israel. But in the Israel of Ahab, it is more probable that all land sales were permanent, as when his father purchased the hill of Shemer which became the citadel of the capital city of Samaria (I Kings 16:24).

This then forms the basis of the rebuff of Naboth. He realized that the land was not just his personally, but part of what God had given to his family, as part of their inheritance of the promised land. His refusal may seem abrupt or even rude to modern ears, but it seems to have come from a genuine faith in the God of Israel. For him to have made this assertion, it is well possible that Naboth may have been one of the seven thousand faithful remnant in Israel whom God mentioned to Elijah in 19:18. What is not said is that this would also have entailed his making a deal with Ahab. That Naboth may have also had his doubts about Ahab’s holding up his part of the bargain is not stated, though it is easily understandable that he might also have desired to avoid making a deal with an untrustworthy king. But the emphasis is that his refusal was entirely justified and also the statement of faith by a righteous man.

So then, the refusal of Naboth provoked the tantrum of Ahab, and this tantrum is noteworthy in its childishness. He apparently did not gibber in rage at Naboth – which I’ve seen some selfish and unscrupulous people do when faced with even a mild refusal entirely justified and perhaps even being based upon scripture – but went to his room and refused to eat. This reaction is an example of the type of depression that I’ve seen mentioned in some books by psychiatrists as repressed rage. And I think that there can be a lot of it, and it can actually become an obsession that rules the the lives of some people, when they find themselves faced with not receiving what they want from the church, from other people, from the circumstances of life, and even from God himself. Something or someone has said, “No,” to them, and they cannot stand it.

I think that the repressed rage like that of Ahab is around nowadays in two areas. The first area is that of narcissistic rage and narcissistic misery. This is the rage and disappointment of those who through their monstrous self conceit believe that they are entitled to something that goes along with and reinforces that self conceit. The second is the repressed rage of men in modern society. This has been reported by a number in the psychiatric profession, and it may be more prevalent than many realize, even among men in the church. Simply put, it may be that the unexpressive man of few words, or the man who needs alcohol to become talkative may be dealing with deep rage and disappointment with his wife, family, work and vocation, and other circumstances. And I wonder myself how much of this may become an emotional leakage that helps to fester the rage that erupts in verbal and physical abuse.

To go on with the passage, Jezebel came up with a cowardly and despicable scheme to appease her husband and get the vineyard from Naboth. It often seems that there’s a Jezebel to go with an Ahab, in a marriage where the two are not growing in godliness but partners in crime, so to speak. In the passage it’s clear that from the viewpoint of her pagan background she shared her husband’s sense of entitlement to the property of Naboth. So, through the holy pretense of a day of fasting, she arranges for the slander and murder of Naboth, and for the theft of his family inheritance – three of the ten commandments broken right there.

So, the judgment pronounced by God through Elijah is explicit and terrible. Dogs – not a pet dog but the pariah dogs common to the ancient world —  would lick up Ahab’s blood and devour Jezebel, and the entire dynasty of Ahab would be destroyed. This is actually in addition to the judgment pronounced by another unnamed prophet in 20: 41-43, and also through Micaiah the prophet in 22:17-23. But because Ahab demonstrates repentance in 21:27-29, the full effect upon his own family is postponed. God had already told Elijah about Jehu as one of his instruments of judgment, but Jehu would not be actually anointed king and set about fulfilling the prophecies of judgment on the house of Ahab until II Kings 9. As an aside, this passage explained to me why the commands of God in I Kings 19:15-16 to Elijah to anoint Elisha as his successor, Hazael as king of Aram and Jehu as king of Israel were not completed until II Kings 8 and 9. In terms of geography, Elijah would been closest to Elisha on his return journey from Sinai, so he anoints him first. But the installments of judgment that would come with the anointing of Hazael and Jehu were postponed until later, and may have been delayed in anticipation of the demonstration of repentance by Ahab. If Ahab had not repented, it’s possible that Jehu may have been anointed king much sooner and commissioned to carry out the full judgment of God on the house of Ahab during the lifetime of Ahab.

This passage then shows a different kind of anger than much of what is found in the counsel on forgiveness and refraining from revenge, when one has been the target of the aggression and abuse of another person. Had Naboth lived, and had he lived with the full New Testament teaching on forgiveness, this kind of forgiveness would have been appropriate for him to give to Ahab. That would have been the same kind of forgiveness that Jesus gave to the soldiers who performed his crucifixion, that Stephen gave to his lynch mob in Acts 7 and Corrie ten Boom gave to the guards who had tormented and abused her sister Betsie. It’s very hard to call what Ahab would have justifiably owed to Naboth as forgiveness instead of anger, since Naboth had really done nothing wrong. Naboth had only given Ahab a fully justifiable, “No.” And this is the kind of rage that needs to be addressed much more: the outraged sense of privilege and entitlement. This is the kind of rage that comes from outraged pride and thwarted desires – ego wounds – where the angry person has actually not been wronged. That person may be frustrated, disappointed and outraged, and may disagree with the refusal of their self conceits and desires by either the legitimate no of another person or even of God through circumstances.

This passage also shows a common reaction of others to this kind of tantrum: appeasement. If Ahab had had a wife more like Abigail (I Samuel 25), she most likely would have tried to do something to deflect and assuage his anger, but Jezebel chose the alternative of appeasement that many spouses, parents, brothers, sisters, friends, and even fellow Christians and pastors may choose when they face a person filled with this kind of rage. They will try to get that person what that person wants to make that person feel better. And being entangled in appeasing someone else may well entangle someone in the same judgment of God as the person who is rushing towards judgment in his or her defiance of the explicit will of God.

If I were to preach on this passage, it would not be myself as a prophet of doom on those in the outraged sense of entitlement and privilege – though it would bear saying that the righteous judgment of God will come against those who engage in these kinds of wicked deeds in pursuit of what they feel they deserve from others, from circumstances and from God himself. Rather, I would contrast the conduct of Ahab and Jezebel and the choices that they made that doomed their dynasty with what the New Testament teaches on  humility, contentment, forbearance, and trusting God to supply one’s legitimate needs and desires.

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