1 Kings 21 COMMENTARY (Ellicott)

1 Kings 21
Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

The narrative of this chapter, clearly drawn once more from the prophetic record of Elijah’s life and mission, returns to the same vividness of style and lofty spiritual teaching perceptible in 1 Kings 18, 19. It describes the turning-point of Ahab’s probation, which, like the great crisis of David’s history, is an act of unrighteous tyranny, so common in Eastern despotism, that it would hardly be recorded by an ordinary historian. So in the prophetic writings moral evils, especially profligacy and bloodshed and oppression of the weak, are denounced at least not less severely, and even more frequently, than religious unfaithfulness. The whole description is strikingly illustrative of Ahab’s character, in its essential weakness and subservience, more fatal in high place of authority than resolute wickedness. It might be painted in the well-known description of Felix by Tacitus, as “swaying the power of a king with the temper of a slave” (jus regium, servili ingenio exercuit).

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.
(1) Which was in Jezreel.—The LXX. omits these words, and makes the vineyard to be “hard by the threshing-floor of Ahab, king of Samaria”—the word being the same as that rendered “void place” in 1 Kings 22:10—apparently near the palace of Ahab in Samaria, not in Jezreel. The Vulgate renders “who was” instead of “which was” in Jezreel. The question of the position of the vineyard, apparently the scene of Naboth’s murder, is difficult. The “plot of ground” of Naboth, referred to in 2 Kings 9:25-26—not, however, called “a vineyard”—is clearly at Jezreel. where, as a native of the place, Naboth would be likely to hold land. But the vineyard may have been an outlying property near Samaria, which Ahab might naturally suppose Naboth, even for that reason, likely to sell. In favour of this supposition—which is, perhaps, on the whole the more probable—is the very emphatic prediction of 1 Kings 21:19, which in 1 Kings 22:38 is declared to have been fulfilled at the pool of Samaria. Moreover, the whole action of the chapter, as far as Ahab is concerned, seems to have been at Samaria; and, indeed, if we take 1 Kings 21:18 literally, this is actually declared to be the case. On the other side, however, we have the reading of the text, the more obvious interpretation of the words “his city” in 1 Kings 21:8; 1 Kings 21:11; and the reference to the prophecy of Elijah, in connection with the casting of the body of Jehoram into the plot of ground at Jezreel (2 Kings 9:25-26). It is, perhaps, impossible to clear up the discrepancy entirely with our present knowledge.

(2–4) And Ahab spake.—The whole history is singularly true to nature. At first, as the desire of Ahab was natural, so his offer was courteous and liberal. The refusal of Naboth—evidently grounded on the illegality, as well as the natural dislike, of alienation of “the inheritance of his fathers” (see Leviticus 25:13-28; Numbers 36:7), and therefore not only allowable, but right—has nevertheless about it a certain tone of harshness, perhaps of unnecessary discourtesy, implying condemnation, as well as rejection, of the offer of the king. It is characteristic of the weak and petulant nature of Ahab, that he neither recognises the legality and justice of Naboth’s action, nor dares to resent the curt defiance of his refusal. Like a spoilt child, he comes back sullen and angry, throws himself on his bed, and will eat no bread. All that he has is as nothing, while the little plot of ground is refused; as to Haman all was worthless, while Mordecai the Jew sat in the king’s gate (Esther 5:13). This temper of sullen, childish discontent is the natural seedplot of crime, under the instigation of more determined wickedness.

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.
And Naboth said to Ahab, The LORD forbid it me, that I should give the inheritance of my fathers unto thee.
And Ahab came into his house heavy and displeased because of the word which Naboth the Jezreelite had spoken to him: for he had said, I will not give thee the inheritance of my fathers. And he laid him down upon his bed, and turned away his face, and would eat no bread.
But Jezebel his wife came to him, and said unto him, Why is thy spirit so sad, that thou eatest no bread?
And he said unto her, Because I spake unto Naboth the Jezreelite, and said unto him, Give me thy vineyard for money; or else, if it please thee, I will give thee another vineyard for it: and he answered, I will not give thee my vineyard.
And Jezebel his wife said unto him, Dost thou now govern the kingdom of Israel? arise, and eat bread, and let thine heart be merry: I will give thee the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite.
(7) Dost thou now.—The scorn of Jezebel is, like the impatience of Lady Macbeth, expressed in a striking boldness of emphasis. First comes the bitter irony of the question, “Dost thou govern the kingdom of Israel, and yet suffer a subject to cross thy will?” expressing her scornful wonder at one who “lets I dare not, wait upon 1 would.” Then in the invitation, “eat bread, and let thine heart be merry,” there seems the same half-contemptuous recognition of a self-indulgent weakness of nature, which may be traced in Elijah’s words in 1 Kings 18:41, “Get thee up, eat and drink, for there is a sound of abundance of rain.” Ahab is fit only to desire and to revel; it is for bolder spirits to act for good or for evil.

So she wrote letters in Ahab's name, and sealed them with his seal, and sent the letters unto the elders and to the nobles that were in his city, dwelling with Naboth.
(8) Sealed them with his seal—with the name, or token, of the king, engraved on stone, and impressed (see Job 38:14) on a lump of clay attached to the letter. The sealing (as the modern sense of “signature” implies) was the pledge of authenticity and authority. (See Genesis 38:18; Nehemiah 9:38; Nehemiah 10:1; Esther 3:10; Esther 3:12, Daniel 6:17, &c.) The use of the seal—ordinarily worn or carried on the person—implies Ahab’s knowledge that something is being done in his name, into which he takes care not to inquire.

In his city.—This would be most naturally interpreted as Jezreel; but if Naboth dwelt or sojourned at Samaria, it may be Samaria. Jezebel naturally desires that neither Ahab nor she herself, though close at hand, should appear in the matter; but gives the necessary authority in writing, because without it the deed could not be done.

And she wrote in the letters, saying, Proclaim a fast, and set Naboth on high among the people:
(9) Proclaim a fast.—This might be only to cover all that was to be so foully done with a cloak of religious observance, or, perhaps more probably, to imply that some secret sin had been committed, which would draw down vengeance on the whole city, and so to prepare for the false accusation. There is a like ambiguity as to the explanation of the command, “set Naboth on high,” as either an exaltation of pretended honour, or the “lifting up his head” (Genesis 40:20) for accusation. It may be noted that the whole scheme implies a return of the people to at least the outward observance of the Law of the Lord.

And set two men, sons of Belial, before him, to bear witness against him, saying, Thou didst blaspheme God and the king. And then carry him out, and stone him, that he may die.
(10) Two men—in accordance with Numbers 35:30; Deuteronomy 17:6.

Sons of Belial.—See Judges 19:22; Judges 20:13; 1 Samuel 1:16; 1 Samuel 2:12; 1 Samuel 10:27; 1 Samuel 25:17; 1 Samuel 25:25; 1 Samuel 30:22; 2 Samuel 16:7; 2 Samuel 20:1, &c.; properly, “children of lawlessness, or worthlessness.”

Blaspheme.—The word is the same used in Job 1:5; Job 1:11; Job 2:5, there rendered “curse.” It properly signifies “to bless;” thence, to “part from with blessing;” finally to part from, or “disown.” It is, rather, therefore, “to renounce” than “to blaspheme.” The punishment, however, was stoning, as for positive blasphemy. (See Leviticus 24:16; Deuteronomy 13:9-10.)

And the men of his city, even the elders and the nobles who were the inhabitants in his city, did as Jezebel had sent unto them, and as it was written in the letters which she had sent unto them.
(11) And the men of his city . . . did.—The pains taken in the invention of this foul plot, and the ready acquiescence of the rulers of the city in carrying it out, are characteristic of the baser forms of organised Eastern despotism—not venturing to take life by simple violence without some cause apparently shown, and yet always able to poison the springs of justice, and do murder under form of law. In Israel, where the king was held to be but a vicegerent of God, subject, in theory, under the old constitution or “manner of the kingdom” (1 Samuel 10:25), to the supreme law, the need of clothing crime with legal form would be especially felt.

They proclaimed a fast, and set Naboth on high among the people.
And there came in two men, children of Belial, and sat before him: and the men of Belial witnessed against him, even against Naboth, in the presence of the people, saying, Naboth did blaspheme God and the king. Then they carried him forth out of the city, and stoned him with stones, that he died.
(13) Carried him forth—as usual, in order to avoid polluting the city with blood—possibly to his own ground, the coveted vineyard itself.

Then they sent to Jezebel, saying, Naboth is stoned, and is dead.
And it came to pass, when Jezebel heard that Naboth was stoned, and was dead, that Jezebel said to Ahab, Arise, take possession of the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, which he refused to give thee for money: for Naboth is not alive, but dead.
(15) Take possession.—Naboth’s sons (see 2 Kings 9:26) were murdered with him, so that there was none to claim the inheritance. Even had this not been so, the property of executed traitors would naturally fall to the king, although no enactment to this effect is found in the Law.

And it came to pass, when Ahab heard that Naboth was dead, that Ahab rose up to go down to the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, to take possession of it.
(16) When Ahab heard.—It is characteristic of Ahab that he takes care to ask no question about Naboth’s death, desirous “to be innocent of the knowledge,” and yet tacitly to “applaud the deed.” The guilt is Jezebel’s; the fruit, his own. In the LXX. there is here a curious and striking insertion: “he rent his clothes and put on sackcloth,” representing Ahab as struck with momentary horror, and then, after thus salving his conscience, still resolving to carry out his desire for the coveted vineyard. The picture is equally true to nature, especially to such a nature as his. But the insertion has little authority, and is probably a mistaken interpolation from 1 Kings 21:27.

And the word of the LORD came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying,
(17) Elijah.—We have heard nothing of him since the call of Elisha, as though he had once more retired to solitude. In the mere political service of the preceding chapter, important in the eyes of the world, he takes no part; but emerges now for the higher moral duty of rebuking crime, and avenging innocent blood, in what Eastern tyranny would deem a very trivial matter. Ahab’s address to him seems to imply wonder at his unusual appearance among men.

Arise, go down to meet Ahab king of Israel, which is in Samaria: behold, he is in the vineyard of Naboth, whither he is gone down to possess it.
(18) Which is in Samaria.—These words are almost unmeaning, unless they literally signify that Ahab was then in Samaria, not in Jezreel. To interpret them as simply part of Ahab’s title, or as signifying the country, not the town of Samaria, is to explain them away.

And thou shalt speak unto him, saying, Thus saith the LORD, Hast thou killed, and also taken possession? And thou shalt speak unto him, saying, Thus saith the LORD, In the place where dogs licked the blood of Naboth shall dogs lick thy blood, even thine.
(19) Hast thou killed, and also taken possession?—The stern, indignant brevity of the accusation, at once shaming the subterfuge by which Ahab shifts his guilt to Jezebel, and unmasking the real object of the whole crime, leaves the king speechless as to defence, unable to stay the sentence which at once follows. The marked particularity and emphasis of that sentence, “In the place where the dogs licked the blood of Naboth shall dogs lick thy blood, even thine,” preclude all explanations, which would seek its fulfilment in the fate of Jehoram (2 Kings 9:25); nor can such explanations be justified by reference to 1 Kings 21:29, for it is not this part of the sentence which is deferred by Ahab’s repentance. (See Note on 1 Kings 22:38.)

And Ahab said to Elijah, Hast thou found me, O mine enemy? And he answered, I have found thee: because thou hast sold thyself to work evil in the sight of the LORD.
(20) Hast thou found me, O mine enemy?—The cry is partly of dismay, partly of excuse. Ahab, having no word of defence to utter, endeavours to attribute Elijah’s rebuke and condemnation to simple enmity, much as in 1 Kings 18:17 he cries out “Art thou he that troubleth Israel?” The crushing answer is that the prophet came not because he was an enemy, but because Ahab had “sold himself”—had become a slave instead of a king—under the lust of desire and the temptation of Jezebel.

Behold, I will bring evil upon thee, and will take away thy posterity, and will cut off from Ahab him that pisseth against the wall, and him that is shut up and left in Israel,
(21-24) Behold, I will bring evil.—Distinct from that message of personal judgment is the doom of utter destruction pronounced on the dynasty of Omri—the same in substance, and almost in word, as that already pronounced in 1 Kings 14:10-11; 1 Kings 16:3-4. It is, indeed, called forth by the last sin of Ahab, but the ground assigned for it (1 Kings 21:22) extends to the whole course of idolatry and apostasy, “making Israel to sin.” It is only this more general sentence which is postponed by the repentance of Ahab (1 Kings 21:29).

And will make thine house like the house of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, and like the house of Baasha the son of Ahijah, for the provocation wherewith thou hast provoked me to anger, and made Israel to sin.
And of Jezebel also spake the LORD, saying, The dogs shall eat Jezebel by the wall of Jezreel.
Him that dieth of Ahab in the city the dogs shall eat; and him that dieth in the field shall the fowls of the air eat.
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.
(25) The dogs shall eat Jezebel.—In all his address to Ahab, Elijah has, as yet, disdained to name the instigator, on whom the coward king, no doubt, threw his guilt. Ahab stands revealed as the true culprit before God, without a shred of subterfuge to veil his ultimate responsibility. Now, briefly and sternly, the prophet notices the bolder criminal, pronouncing against her a doom of shame and horror, seldom falling upon a woman, but rightly visiting one who had forsworn the pity and modesty of her sex. In the “ditch” (see margin) outside the walls, where the refuse of the city gathers the half-wild dogs—the scavengers of Eastern cities—her dead body is to be thrown as offal, and to be torn and devoured.

This verse and the next are evidently the reflection of the compiler, catching its inspiration from the words of Elijah in 1 Kings 21:20. There is in them a tone not only of condemnation, but of contempt, for a king most unkingly—thus selling himself to a half-unwilling course of crime, against the warnings of conscience, not disbelieved but neglected, for the sake of a paltry desire—thus moreover, grovelling under the open dominion of a woman, which, to an Eastern mind, familiar enough with female intrigues, but not with female imperiousness, would seem especially monstrous.

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.
(26) As did the Amorites.—The reference is probably not only to the idolatry and worship of false gods, but to the nameless abominations always connected with such worship.

And it came to pass, when Ahab heard those words, that he rent his clothes, and put sackcloth upon his flesh, and fasted, and lay in sackcloth, and went softly.
(27) And went softly.—The translation seems correct; the meaning is variously conjectured. The LXX. (in some MSS.) has “bent down” in sorrow; the Vulgate similarly “with head bent down;” the Eastern versions and Josephus, “barefooted,” which seems far the most probable meaning.

And the word of the LORD came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying,
Seest thou how Ahab humbleth himself before me? because he humbleth himself before me, I will not bring the evil in his days: but in his son's days will I bring the evil upon his house.
(29) How Ahab humbleth himself.—As there is something entirely characteristic of Ahab’s impressible nature in this burst of penitence; so in the acceptance of it there is a remarkable illustration of the Divine mercy. The repentance might seem not only to come too late, but to be the mere offspring of fear—more sensible of the shame of discovery than of the shamefulness of sin. Man’s judgment would despise it; God sees in its imperfection some germs of promise, and His partial remission of penalty shows it to be not disregarded in His sight. Ahab himself is still to suffer the predicted doom; but he is to die in honour, and the utter destruction waits, till Jehoram shall fill up the measure of iniquity.

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