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Bible Commentaries
1 Kings 20

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries



In this chapter, the ministry of Elijah is, for the moment, passed over; and we have the record of God’s dealings with Ahab in his struggle against Benhadad. This change of emphasis is seized upon by some critics as “evidence of another source,” but that explanation of the change is not correct. The apparent change is only apparent, there being no genuine change whatever. In 1 Kings 20 God is still trying to convince Ahab that Jehovah is the true God (1 Kings 20:13; 1 Kings 20:28).

Elijah was not really available in this situation, because, as we saw in the last chapter, he declared that, “It is enough,” thus believing that any further pursuit of a change in Ahab was hopeless. Therefore God, whose merciful forbearance with Ahab’s unbelief far exceeded that of the discouraged Elijah, gave Ahab two great victories over Benhadad. Why? “That Ahab shall know that I am Jehovah” (1 Kings 20:13). Thus, the purpose of this chapter is exactly the same as that of 1 Kings 19.

Furthermore, a victory of Israel over the aggression of Damascus was, in God’s eternal purpose, absolutely necessary. If Damascus had been successful in the complete subjugation of Israel, Judah also would have quickly fallen, and the chosen people would have been destroyed.

The victories which God gave Ahab in this chapter came at a time when they brought no glory whatever to Ahab. The victories were dramatically the victories of God, not the victories of Ahab. He had already surrendered in shame and disgrace, and thus, both Ahab and Jezebel should have discerned how helpless and useless their pagan god Baal was to provide any effective help or relief for Israel. How wonderful was the mercy and forbearance of God that these further opportunities to accept the Truth were provided for this excessively wicked royal couple!

It is amazing that some of the commentators speak of “the much more favorable light”(F1) in which Ahab is presented in this chapter, but such opinions are due to the blindness of some alleged “scholars” to what is obviously the most shameful and incompetent behavior of this “jackass king” Ahab. Ahab deserved such a designation as much as Ishmael whom God referred to as “a wild ass among men” (Genesis 16:12). It is an unqualified mystery to us how anyone can find any “favorable light” on Ahab in this chapter.

Keil described the actions of Ahab here as, “Cruel… blind… inconsiderate… and thoroughly impolitic… and as being due to unprincipled weakness, vanity and blindness.”(F2) We may add that his actions were clear-cut disobedience of God’s will, treachery against his own people, and as unqualifiedly stupid as one could possibly imagine.

It is disgusting to find some writers who speak flatteringly of Ahab’s mercy and kindness to a beaten foe. “He is courageous, merciful and resourceful.”(F3)

“It is folly to praise the lenient policy of Ahab, and to condemn the harsh policy of the prophets. God was concerned with protecting His people Israel. Benhadad had already caused enough destruction and death in Israel. In making a covenant with Benhadad, Ahab violated God’s law that forbade foreign alliances. God delivered Benhadad into Ahab’s hand in order that Ahab might execute him, and Ahab’s failure to do it resulted in untold suffering and hardship for God’s people.”(F4)

There is no certain chronology available for this section of Kings. “The battle of Qarqar occurred in 853 B.C.; and, at that time, according to extra-Biblical sources, Ahab was in alliance with Damascus and nine other Aramaean kingdoms against Shalmanezer III of Assyria, but Ahab was fatally wounded fighting against the king Damascus at Ramoth-gilead in 852 B.C.”(F5) Scholars do not agree on just how to fit all these together, but there could be no great importance of doing so, even if we could. “No chronological data are given us in the long but fragmentary details of Ahab’s reign.”(F6)

Verses 1-6


“And Benhadad the king of Syria gathered all his host together; and there were thirty and two kings with him, and horses and chariots: and he went up and besieged Samaria, and fought against it. And he sent messengers to Ahab king of Israel, into the city, and said unto him, Thus saith Benhadad, Thy silver and thy gold is mine; thy wives also and thy children, even the goodliest, are mine. And the king of Israel answered and said, It is according to thy saying, my lord, O king, I am thine, and all that I have. And the messengers came again, and said, Thus speaketh Benhadad, saying, I sent indeed unto thee, saying, Thou shalt deliver me thy silver, and thy gold, and thy wives, and thy children; but I will send my servants unto thee tomorrow about this time, and they shall search thy house, and the houses of thy servants; and it shall be that whatsoever is pleasant in thine eyes, they shall put it in their hand, and take it away.”

Nothing is said here about how long the siege of Samaria had been going on, but it evidently had lasted a long time. The defeat of Israel was so complete that Ahab agreed to the harsh terms of surrender proposed by Benhadad. But that was not enough to appease the covetous greed of Benhadad; he amended his proposal to include the privilege of raping the whole city, searching the houses of all the people, and looting everything of value.

Of special interest is Ahab’s agreement to turn all of his wives into the possession of Benhadad. Jezebel, of course, was the leading woman in that harem; “And how frenzied must have been the thoughts of that terrible woman when she saw that her Baal and that Astarte, to whom her father was a priest, and all those hundreds of priests, and the temple to Baal which she had built, and all those blood-stained invocations and pompous ceremonies they held - that all of that had UTTERLY failed to save her, that now all hope was lost, and her husband had agreed to hand her over as part of the loot required by a conquering enemy.”(F7) And then, when Jehovah the God of Israel saved her, there is no evidence that she exhibited the slightest degree of appreciation!

“Thy silver and thy gold is mine; thy wives, and thy children” Jamieson thought that, “Ahab agreed to submit, probably thinking that it meant no more than the payment of tribute.”(F8) We doubt the validity of that interpretation, but, even if it is correct, Benhadad’s amended terms of surrender left no doubt of what he demanded.

Ahab’s pitiful extremity here is instructive. “If God is not allowed to rule over us, then our enemies shall command us. A rebel to God is a slave to everything else.”(F9) Ahab knew that Baal was powerless to help him, and he had no reason to believe that God would aid him, and he here revealed himself as contented to buy his life on any terms whatever, being willing to live like a beggar rather than to die like a courageous king should, defending his people.

Verses 7-12


“Then the king of Israel called all the elders of the land, and said, Mark, I pray you, and see how this man seeketh mischief: for he sent unto me for my wives, and for my children, and for my silver, and for my gold; and I denied him not. And all the elders and all the people said unto him, Hearken thou not, neither consent. Wherefore he said unto the messengers of Benhadad, tell my lord the king, All that thou didst send for thy servant at the first I will do, but this thing I may not do. And the messengers departed and brought him word again. And Benhadad sent unto him and said, The gods do so to me, and more also, if the dust of Samaria shall suffice for handfuls for all the people that follow me. And the king of Israel answered and said, Let not him that girdeth on his armor boast himself as he that putteth it off. And it came to pass, when Benhadad heard this message, as he was drinking, he and the kings that were with him, in the pavilions, that he said unto his servants, Set yourselves in array. And they set themselves in array against the city.”

“The king… called all the elders” As Jamieson said, “There is reason to believe that Ahab would have yielded even to Benhadad’s further demands had not the voice of these elders and all the people been raised against it.”(F10)

“If the dust of Samaria shall suffice for handfuls, etc.” Cook’s interpretation of this threat was, “If you resist, your town shall be reduced to ruins; and all the remains will not suffice to furnish a handful of dust to each of my soldiers, they are so many.”(F11)

“Let not him that girdeth on his armor boast himself as he that putteth it off” “This was one of the wisest words that Ahab ever spoke; and it is a good memento to us all.”(F12)

“Set yourselves in array” This is the equivalent of “Let the attack begin.”

Verses 13-15


(See the chapter introduction for the reasons why God intervened here upon behalf of Israel.)

“And, behold, a prophet came near to Ahab king of Israel, and said, Thus saith Jehovah, Hast thou seen all this great multitude? Behold, I will deliver it into thy hand this day; and thou shalt know that I am Jehovah. And Ahab said, By whom? And he said, Thus saith Jehovah, By the young men of the princes of the provinces. Then he said, Who shall begin the battle? And he answered, Thou. Then he mustered the young men of the princes of the provinces, and they were two hundred and thirty-two: and after them he mustered all the people, even all the children of Israel, being seven thousand.”

There is no way that Ahab could have avoided the knowledge that the victory that came to him that day came from Jehovah God alone. The total army of 7,000 was only a pitifully-small handful compared to the one 130,000 troops of Benhadad.

“Who shall begin the battle?” This question is the equivalent of asking, “Who shall attack?” It must have astounded Ahab that Israel was to launch the attack and that with only 232 young men of the princes of the provinces. As it turned out, that Divine strategy won the day.

Verses 16-21


“And they went out at noon. But Benhadad was drinking himself drunk in the pavilions, he and the kings, the thirty and two kings that helped him. And the young men of the princes of the provinces went out first; and Benhadad sent out, and they told him, saying, There are men come out from Samaria. And he said, Whether they are come out for peace, take them alive; or whether they are come out for war, take them alive. So these went out of the city, the young men of the princes of the provinces, and the army which followed them. And they slew every one his man; and the Syrians fled, and Israel pursued them: and Ben-haded escaped on a horse with horsemen. And the king of Israel went out, and smote the horses and chariots, and slew the Syrians with a great slaughter.”

“And they went out at noon” This was exactly the strategy that delivered Santa Ana and his army into the hand of Sam Houston in the battle of San Jacinto. Santa Ana was entertaining himself with the “Yellow Rose” of Texas; and Benhadad and his thirty-two royal allies were drinking themselves drunk!

“And Benhadad sent out….” This maneuver by Benhadad was for the purpose of ascertaining the size and intention of the movement toward his army. It is easy to see what happened. Benhadad’s messengers saw only that little band of 232 men, all of them obviously young and inexperienced, and they, no doubt, viewed the whole thing as absolutely harmless. We may be sure that Benhadad and his drunken companions laughed out loud at the “threat.” Hammond has explained why Benhadad might have given that foolish order to take what he thought to be the 232 ambassadors (seeking his clemency, as he supposed) - to take them alive. “So incensed is he that he will not respect the rights of ambassadors; he probably intended that they should be tortured and slain before his face.”(F13)

“Whether they are come out for peace,… or war, take them alive” This stupid order by a drunk Benhadad thus actually forbade the Syrian soldiers to kill anyone! That freed the 232 young men to slaughter the Syrians by the hundreds without much resistance. A great panic seized the whole army of Benhadad. And when the 7,000 soldiers of Ahab’s army, following closely behind, saw what was happening they enthusiastically joined in the pursuit of the fleeing army of the Syrians, slaughtering many thousands of them.

“And the king of Israel… smote the horses and chariots, etc.” The RSV renders this passage thus: “And the king of Israel went out, and captured the horses and chariots, and slaughtered the Syrians with a great slaughter.” The RSV is preferable in this verse.

Verses 22-25


“And the prophet came near to the king of Israel, and said unto him, Go, strengthen thyself, and mark, and see what thou doest; for at the return of the year the king of Syria will come up against thee. And the servants of the king of Syria said unto him, Their god is a god of the hills; therefore they were stronger than we: but let us fight against them in the plain, and surely we shall be stronger than they. And do this thing: take the kings away, every man out of his place, and put captains in their room; and number thee an army like the army that thou hast lost, horse for horse, and chariot for chariot; and we will fight against them in the plain, and surely we shall be stronger than they. And he hearkened unto their voice, and did so.”

“And the prophet came near to the king of Israel” “The Rabbinical commentators among the Jews identify this prophet as Micaiah.”(F14) Josephus also concurred in this, noting that in a later episode, Ahab imprisoned him (1 Kings 22:8).(F15)

Sure enough, exactly as God’s prophet had warned Benhadad, the return of the year brought another vicious attack by Benhadad against Israel. He chose, this time, a town on the plain, Aphek. But, since there were a dozen places bearing that name in Israel, it is still uncertain exactly where this second battle was fought.

Verses 26-30


“And it came to pass at the return of the year, that Benhadad mustered the Syrians and went up to Aphek to fight against Israel. And the children of Israel were mustered, and victualed, and went against them: and the children of Israel encamped before them like two little flocks of kids; but the Syrians filled the country. And a man of God came near and spake unto the king of Israel, and said, Because the Syrians have said, Jehovah is a god of the hills, but he is not a god of the valleys; therefore will I deliver all this great multitude into thy hand, and ye shall know that I am Jehovah. And they encamped one over against the other seven days. And so it was, that in the seventh day the battle was joined; and the children of Israel slew of the Syrians a hundred thousand footmen in one day; but the rest fled to Aphek into the city; and the wall fell upon twenty and seven thousand men that were left. And Benhadad fled, and came into the city, into the inner chamber.”

“And ye shall know that I am Jehovah” This gives one of the reasons why God blessed Israel with the great victories mentioned in this chapter. It was not only a necessary action on God’s part to preserve the Chosen People through all threatening circumstances until the Messiah should be born, but there was also an extension to Ahab in these victories of still more evidence that should have convinced him of the reality of the true God Jehovah and of the utter worthlessness of Baal. Incidentally, Jezebel herself was also included in the periphery of God’s merciful forbearance in these events.

“And the wall fell upon the twenty and seven thousand men that were left” The text does NOT say that this disaster killed the 27,000 men, but such a disaster would have so wrecked and demoralized any kind of fighting unit that the Israelites pursuing them would have had little or no opposition in the slaughter of any who might have survived the fall of the wall. We find no fault whatever with what is written here, but for some timid souls who seem to think it would have been impossible for a falling wall to kill 27,000 men, Snaith has this: “The destruction of the city wall is often used to describe the capture of a city; and the verse may actually mean that this large, number of men lost their lives when the city was captured and taken.”(F16)

To all intents and purposes, Benhadad’s temporary hiding place was useless. He was already in the control of Ahab.

Verses 31-34


“And his servants said unto him, Behold now, we have heard that the kings of the house of Israel are merciful kings: let us, we pray thee, put sackcloth on our loins, and ropes upon our heads, and go out to the king of Israel; peradventure he will save thy life. So they put sackcloth on their loins, and ropes upon their heads, and came to the king of Israel, and said, Thy servant Benhadad saith, I pray thee, let me live. And he said, Is he yet alive? he is my brother. Now the men observed diligently, and hasted to catch whether it were his mind; and they said, Thy brother Benhadad. Then he said, Go ye, bring him. Then Benhadad came forth to him; and he caused him to come up into the chariot. And Benhadad said unto him, The cities which my father took from thy father I will restore; and thou shalt make streets for thee in Damascus, as my father made in Samaria. And I, said Ahab, will let thee go with this covenant. So he made a covenant with him and let him go.”

What an incredibly stupid and ridiculous thing was this that Ahab did, allowing Benhadad to announce the terms upon which he received his life and his freedom. What about all that gold and silver that Ahab had paid prior to the first battle? Why did he not demand its re-payment? Benhadad did not even promise to build streets for Ahab in Damascus, but would allow Ahab to build them! And those cities Benhadad promised to give Ahab, they already belonged to Israel! Poor Ahab here “brothered” himself out of the spoils that should have belonged to the victor; and as a prophet soon would tell him, he had “brothered” himself out of his own life as well!

“To set free a man with passionate hatred, immense ambitions, and boundless capacities for warfare, binding him only with a pack-thread of insincere promises was the conduct of a fool. It was a terrible treachery against the interests of God’s people for Ahab not to clip Benhadad’s wings and make him incapable of future injuries against Israel.”(F17) “Ordinary gratitude to God should have prompted Ahab to inquire of the Lord what his duty was in this situation; Ahab’s conduct was unjustifiable.”(F18) “It was Ahab’s duty to punish this bitter foe of Israel with death.”(F19)

Verses 35-43


“And a certain man of the sons of the prophets said unto his fellow by the word of Jehovah Smite me, I pray thee. And the man refused to smite him. Then said he unto him, Because thou hast not obeyed the voice of Jehovah, behold, as soon as thou art departed from me, a lion shall slay thee. And as soon as he was departed from him, a lion found him, and slew him. Then he found another man, and said, Smite me, I pray thee. And the man smote him, smiting and wounding him. So the prophet departed, and waited for the king by the way, and disguised himself with his headband over his eyes. And as the king passed by, he cried unto the king; and he said, Thy servant went out into the midst of the battle; and, behold, a man turned aside, and brought a man unto me, and said, Keep this man: if by any means he be missing, then shall thy life be for his life, or else thou shalt pay a talent of silver. And as thy servant was busy here and there, he was gone. And the king of Israel said unto him, So shall thy judgment be; thyself hast decided it. And he hasted and took the headband away from his eyes; and the king of Israel discerned him that he was of the prophets. And he said unto him, Thus saith Jehovah, Because thou hast let go out of thy hand the man who I had devoted to destruction, therefore thy life shall go for his life, and thy people for his people. And the king of Israel went to his home heavy and displeased, and came to Samaria.”

“A certain man of the sons of the prophets” Josephus identified this man as the same prophet who had spoken to Ahab earlier, namely, Micaiah.(F20)

“The sin of Ahab in sparing Benhadad seems commendable in our eyes, but to the Hebrews it was the most terrible sin of all, the violation of the hereto or the ban.”(F21) Other commentators have expressed similar views, but this writer cannot accept them as valid. It was a rough, heartless and unscrupulous world through which God brought his chosen people. And Ahab’s foolish mercy in sparing a man whom God had condemned was not merely sinful, it was CONTRARY to what God had commanded! It was not “the prophets” who condemned Ahab, it was God Himself who did so.

“And as thy servant was busy here and there, he was gone” What a marvelous topic for a sermon! What a seductive temptation it is for those who hope to receive eternal life to fritter away every opportunity to obey the Lord, “Till all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death.”

“And the king… went to his home, heavy and displeased” “This means that he did not acknowledge the justice of his condemnation, and that he went home full of sullenness and suppressed anger.”(F22) Where is all that “favorable light” which this chapter is supposed to shed upon this sinful and incompetent Ahab?

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on 1 Kings 20". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/1-kings-20.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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