Ahab and the Vineyard of Naboth
A Study in 1 Kings 21
King Ahab is one of the better known personalities in the history of Israel. The description of his life in the Old Testament takes up more space than the description of any other wicked man who is described there. A number of persons are named in 1 Kings 21, and by way of introduction, we want to take a brief look at each one individually.
The first person is Naboth: Naboth was an Israelite who loved God. He loved his family, and he loved his nation, He was a good man; he abhorred that which was evil and clave to that which was good. Close by the summer palace of Ahab the king, Naboth had a little vineyard which he had inherited from his forefathers, and it was dear to his heart.
The second person named here is Ahab: Ahab was the seventh king of the Northern Kingdom of Israel (c. 850 B.C.); he was the worst of Israel’s kings. He wore rich robes, but beneath those beautiful robes was a wicked and troubled heart. He ate the finest foods served on lavish platters, but he had a starved soul. He lived in palaces inlaid with ivory and gold, but still he wasn’t satisfied. Read about his wickedness in 1 Kings 21:25,26: “But there was none like unto Ahab, which did sell himself to work wickedness in the sight of the Lord, whom Jezebel his wife stirred up. And he did very abominably in following idols, according to all things as did the Amorites, whom the Lord cast out before the children of Israel.”
The third character is Jezebel: Jezebel was the king’s wife. She was the daughter of Ethbaal, the king of Tyre (1 Kings 16:31). Her people (the Zidonians) were idolaters, and she hated anyone who spoke against her pagan gods. She was a daring and reckless person. One writer says, “Most of that which is bad, in all the evil women that ever lived (in all generations), found expression in the life of Jezebel, the painted viper of Israel.”
The fourth person mentioned is Elijah: Elijah was the prophet of God. He lived at a time when tens of thousands in Israel had forsaken God’s commandments, thrown down God’s altars, and slain God’s prophets. Elijah wore the roughest kind of clothes, but underneath that crude clothing was a righteous and courageous heart. He was like a tall cedar as he wrestled with the cyclones of paganism, for he did it without bending and without breaking.
We want to look now more closely at this account in 1 Kings 21 which tells about the murder of Naboth. It’s not a new theme—it’s just the old story of human greed and its consequences.
- Ahab’s Demand
1 Kings 21:1,2, “And it came to pass after these things, that Naboth the Jezreelite had a vineyard, which was in Jezreel, hard by the palace of Ahab, king of Samaria. And Ahab spake unto Naboth, saying, Give me thy vineyard, that I may have it for a garden of herbs, because it is near unto my house: and I will give thee for it a better vineyard than it; or, if it seem good to thee, I will give thee the worth of it in money.”
Ahab was taking a drive in his chariot one day, and he spied a well-kept vineyard not far from his summer palace, and he wanted it. You see, the wealthy are not satisfied (even with all their possessions) but are constantly lusting after more. So Ahab talked with Naboth, the man who owned the vineyard, and made him an offer. I’m sure that Ahab had no intention of cheating Naboth out of his vineyard, neither did he think that he would kill him in order to get it. He offered Naboth two choices—either to accept its worth in money, or to receive a better vineyard for it instead.
Ahab was perfectly fair and square in his request; and under ordinary circumstances, we would expect Naboth to put away any sentimental feelings he may have had toward the vineyard in order to please the king of his nation. But you see, there was another party involved in this transaction. Jehovah God was the real owner of the ground, and every tribe had received its inheritance by lot from God with the added condition that the land should not be sold forever. Lev. 25:23, “The land shall not be sold forever: for the land is mine; for ye are strangers and sojourners with me.” Num. 36:7,9, “So shall not the inheritance of the children of Israel remove from tribe to tribe . . . Neither shall the inheritance remove from one tribe to another tribe: but everyone of the tribes of the children of Israel shall keep himself to his own inheritance.” God had said that the land should not be transferred from one tribe to another; so Naboth had a real decision to make—he had to choose between pleasing the king and displeasing the King of Kings.
Naboth said to Ahab, 1 Kings 21:3, “The Lord forbid it me, that I should give the inheritance of my fathers unto thee.” Naboth rightly refused to sell the land or to swap it for a better vineyard. Such a transaction would have been a clear violation of God’s command regarding Israel’s inheritance. Not all Jews were as scrupulous about the matter as Naboth was, for sometimes they did sell their land; but Naboth feared God. Being afraid to disobey God’s clear command, Naboth refused to sell. Just so it is today—when a law of the country clearly conflicts with an express command of God, we ought to obey God rather than men, Acts 5:29; and that’s exactly what Naboth did.
It’s true that Naboth had a feeling of attachment for the land. It had always been his home; he had played there as a boy and toiled there as a man. All the memories of his childhood were tangled in the grapevines of that vineyard. His father’s hands (which now were folded in the dust beneath the sod) had toiled in that garden. His mother used to gather purple clusters of grapes from those vines; and thus, surely Naboth loved every spot in that vineyard.
Then, too, with Ahab’s summer palace being so close, Naboth had a glimpse of the idolatry and the wild parties that were commonly held in the king’s palace. He likely felt that his little plot of ground, which had been sanctified by the sweet memories of his father and mother, would be tainted and cursed forever if it came into the hands of the king and the queen.
But remember, it wasn’t only for sentimental reasons, that Naboth refused the proposition. It was because he feared God. God had clearly said that the land should not be transferred from tribe to tribe, and he was afraid to disobey God’s clear command. Naboth was one of the seven thousand (in Elijah’s day) who had refused to bow the knee to Baal; and so—quickly and firmly and courteously—he refused the offer. Naboth said, “The Lord forbid it me, that I should give the inheritance of my fathers unto thee.”
Verse 4 of 1 Kings 21 says, “And Ahab came into his house heavy and displeased because of the word which Naboth the Jezreelite had spoken to him . . . and he laid him down upon his bed, and turned away his face, and would eat no bread.” Ahab was greatly displeased by this refusal. When he heard Naboth’s decision, he went home and threw himself down on his couch, turned his face to the wall and refused to eat. He just lay there, sullen and angry. Isn’t that a ridiculous picture? The king of a nation acting like a spoiled child, because a good man (on account of his religious convictions) refused to swap a little vineyard.
Now we may not act quite like that, but our spirits can become pretty peevish sometimes when things don’t go our way. Ahab had lost nothing; no one had injured him; no one had made an attempt on his life. He had a great army and a fat treasury. He had lots of good things—but here he was, acting like a baby. This reminds us of Haman (in the Book of Esther), all worked up because Mordecai the Jew refused to bow before him. The third chapter of Esther, verse 5 says, “And when Haman saw that Mordecai bowed not, nor did him reverence, then was Haman full of wrath.”
Listen friends, the size of a man’s character can be determined by the size of the things that bother him. If you’re bothered by every little trivial misunderstanding, you’d better grow up. When you’re faced with trials, difficulties and hard places, think of all the good things you have. Think of all those who love you and are concerned for your welfare. Thank God for those who understand you, and pray for you, and look for the best in you. Don’t let trivial, insignificant things ruin your happiness; if you do, you’re acting like this wicked king, not like a son of God.
- Jezebel’s Plot
Jezebel (the Queen) noticed the king’s fury; and when she heard what had happened, at once she revealed her awful character. She was determined to get Ahab what he wanted. Her bosom heaved with anger, and her eyes flashed with rage. She said to Ahab (with a tongue sharp like a butcher knife), “Are you not the king of this country?” (verse 7). And then she went on; she said, “Let it to me, Ahab. I’ll get that vineyard for you!”
By himself, Ahab probably would never have thought of stealing the vineyard or of killing Naboth in order to get possession of it; but Jezebel was the polluted reservoir that fed the streams of Ahab’s iniquity. She sympathized with his covetous desire for this vineyard and urged him on. A good woman can help a man to see his folly, but a woman like Jezebel only adds fuel to the fire.
Verses 8-13 tell how she went about getting the vineyard for Ahab: First of all, she resorted to forgery. She wrote letters in Ahab’s name, sealed them with the king’s seal, and sent them to the elders and nobles of Jezreel, Naboth’s home community. Secondly, she was guilty of deliberate hypocrisy. In the letters she made the implication that some terrible sin had been committed in their city. She said it was needful to proclaim a fast in order to avoid the wrath of heaven. Every sentence (in those letters) was filled with hate. (One writer says, “Black ink never wrote a more evil plot on white paper”).
Here was a woman that sowed sin and iniquity with both hands; and she paid for it in the end, as we will notice in a few minutes. The phrase, “set Naboth on high” (verse 9), meant to “set him before the bar of justice,” not in the seat of honor. “On high” meant he should be placed in the seat of the accused, so that every eye could watch his reactions closely.
Verse 11 says the elders proclaimed a fast (they were afraid to contradict the wishes of the queen); and then curious throngs of people hurried to the city on the day of this fast. Certain men of worthless character were hired to testify against him, and he had no chance to answer. They accused him of blaspheming God and the king, and then dragged him to a place outside the walls of the city, and there with stones they beat his body to the ground. Children screamed; women shrieked; and men moved about in confusion. Naboth’s head was crushed with stones; his legs were splintered; his arms were broken; his ribs were mangled. Naboth was dead—and so were his sons. (2 Kings 9:26 says both Naboth and his sons were killed, therefore Naboth’s property was without family heirs and reverted to the king).
Jezebel received the news with great delight (verses 14-16) and proudly told Ahab what had taken place. Then Ahab ordered Jehu, his chauffeur, to get his chariot ready; and off he went on the twenty-minute journey to the summer palace to take possession of the vineyard.
- God’s Rebuke
Jehu was known as one who drove furiously. He was a speedbreaking driver of his day, and soon brought his horses to a stop just outside the gate of the stolen vineyard. Ahab stepped out onto the soft, rich soil and walked around, inspecting the vineyard. As he walked, he planned how he would have his gardener pull up the vines to plant instead, cucumbers and squash and melons; thus, as he desired, the vineyard would be for him a garden of herbs. Verse 2 tells us that’s what he wanted with the vineyard.
So far everything seemed to be working in Ahab’s favor; and we might be inclined to ask the question, “Surely if in Heaven there’s a God who loves righteousness, why does He let the wicked get away with such grievous wrongs?” But the fact of the matter is, the wicked don’t get away with them. God is not blind that He cannot see; He’s not deaf that He cannot hear; He’s not paralyzed that He cannot move. The living, righteous, sin-hating God (to whom every man must give an account some day) was observing all this wickedness. He seemed to be a silent spectator of this whole transaction, but over in the wilderness (read verses 17-20) God had a prophet. He was a spiritual giant named Elijah.
When Ahab arrived that day to take possession of his vineyard, he experienced an unexpected surprise. He wasn’t the only person who visited Naboth’s vineyard on that particular day. As he walked up and down that choice garden analyzing where he would plant the various vegetables and herbs—suddenly he heard a footstep behind him; he turned and there he stood, face to face, before the prophet of God, Elijah the Tishbite.
Elijah’s eyes were keen and piercing. Ahab’s face turned pale; and before Elijah could speak, Ahab said to him, “Hast thou found me, O mine enemy?” verse 20. (Even today the preacher who preaches against hypocrisy and carnality and worldliness, is frequently considered an enemy). And Elijah said (with his eyes burning their way down into Ahab’s guilty soul), “I have found thee, because thou has sold thyself to work evil in the sight of the Lord.” And then in verses 21 to 24, Elijah predicts the doom of Ahab and Jezebel.
He said of Ahab that every male of his posterity would be cut off from him (verse 21) and that someday the dogs would lick up his blood (verse 19). This was an awful doom pronounced upon Ahab, and it happened just as Elijah had said it would. True, there was a partial repentance; and God’s judgment was stayed for a number of years. During those years, I can imagine that Ahab never heard a dog bark, but that he didn’t jump. And then the day came—the king of Judah visited Ahab, and they agreed to go into battle together against Ramoth-gilead. Read 1 Kings 22:29-39. “And a certain man drew a bow at a venture, and smote Ahab between the joints of the harness: wherefore he said unto the driver of his chariot, turn thine hand, and carry me out of the host; for I am wounded. And the battle increased that day: and the king was stayed up in his chariot against the Syrians, and died at even: and the blood ran out of the wound into the midst of the chariot. . . . And one washed the chariot in the pool of Samaria: and the dogs licked up his blood; and they washed his armour; according unto the word of the Lord which he spake.” Always remember, one who sells himself to sin is going to receive the wages of sin.
And the same thing was true for Jezebel. (God had said in verse 23 of our chapter, “The dogs shall eat Jezebel by the walls of Jezreel.”) She kept on reigning over Israel for a number of years, but 2 Kings 9 tells the story of her death. Jehu came to take the kingdom from her; she was thrown down from the palace window, and the dogs feasted on her flesh. It took twenty years (she lived twenty years after the murder of Naboth), but the harvest finally came. The Bible says in 2 Kings 9:35 that when they went to dispose of her remains, “They found no more of her than the skull, and the feet, and the palms of her hands”—the dogs had eaten the rest. One of God’s laws that can never be broken is the law of sowing and reaping. “For whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.”
This has been a story of cruelty, hypocrisy, falsehood, covetousness, murder and injustice. It’s one of the most gruesome accounts in the whole Bible, but there are a number of lessons we should learn from it. These Old Testament accounts were written for our learning.
(1) Naboth Was A Real Man Of God
He had spiritual convictions, and he stood by them regardless of the cost. This is what Peter means by “virtue,” when he says, “Add to your faith, virtue.” We need to know what we believe and stand boldly for these convictions at all times, even if it means death.
(2) Degeneracy Of Womanhood Leads To Decay Of Manhood
If you’ll search the Bible, and study history, and observe from your own experiences, you’ll find that the spiritual life of a nation rises no higher than the spiritual life of its women. I don’t believe there’s a force in all the world, that could destroy America, if its women were pure and godly. It was a woman who caused Samson to have his eyes punched out; it was a woman who danced Herod into hell. It was a woman who suggested to Haman that he build a gallows on which to hang Mordecai; it was a woman who told Job (in the midst of his suffering) to curse God and die.
But, we must point out too, that if women have mastered men for evil, they have also mastered men for good. Some of the finest flowers that grow in the garden of God are women. Many men today are what they are, because of a woman’s faith and love and tears and devotion to Christ. Abraham Lincoln used to say (for example): “All that I am, and all that I ever hope to be, I owe to my mother.”
I thank God for a mother who belongs to the old school: she never shuffled a deck of cards or spent a night on the dance floor or smoked a cigarette, but she does have a desire to please God. Young men, when you choose a wife, pick one who is more concerned about purity than paint, and one who is more concerned about holiness than hairdos. Choose a wife who will lift you closer to God, not one whose influence will drag you down to hell.
(3) The Way Of The Transgressor Is Hard
Ahab had definitely wronged a true-hearted man in Israel, and he was punished accordingly. Satan tries to deceive people into believing they can sin and get by, but you can be sure that every person will reap what he sows. It doesn’t matter what the transgression is: shoplifting, envy, violating traffic laws, holding judgmental attitudes toward others—whatever it is—you can be sure your sin will find you out.
Whatever a man sows, that he shall also reap. If we serve sin, God will pay off with punishment; if we serve God, He will pay off with reward. Every mother ought to teach this truth to her children. Every father ought to lovingly teach it to his sons and daughters. Every preacher ought to preach it everywhere. You can’t get by with sin. Nobody ever did, and no one ever will.
BIBLE HELPS | Robert Lehigh, Editor | PO Box 391, Hanover, PA 17331 United States of America