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Bible Commentaries
1 Kings 20

Ellicott's Commentary for English ReadersEllicott's Commentary



This chapter, evidently drawn from a different source, is interposed in the middle of the record of the prophetic career of Elijah. The history evidently belongs to the latter years of Ahab’s reign, probably some time after the events of the previous chapter. The existence of the schools of the prophets, and the prophetic authority exercised, appear to indicate that for some reason Jezebel’s influence on behalf of Baal had been reduced to impotence, and the worship of God restored. (Comp. 22:5-28.) It touches mainly on the external history of the reign, and shows it to have been one of no inconsiderable prosperity.

Verse 1

(1) Ben-hadad.—This is the inherited title of the Syrian kings. (See Amos 1:4; Jeremiah 49:27.) From the allusion in 1 Kings 20:34 it appears that this Ben-hadad was the son of a king who had been victorious against Omri—possibly pushing still further the advantage gained in the time of Baasha. It is evident that he assumed, perhaps by inheritance, a sovereignty over Israel.

Thirty and two kings.—All the notices of Syria show it as divided into small kingdoms, confederated from time to time under some leading power. In the days of David this leading power was that of Hadadezer of Zobah (2 Samuel 8:3-13; 2 Samuel 10:19), although Hamath was apparently independent. Now Damascus, under the dynasty of Hadad, assumes a most formidable predominance. Ahab cannot stand before it, but shuts himself up, probably after defeat, within the strong walls of Samaria.

(2–4) And he sent.—This message and the answer of Ahab (“My lord, O king”) are the assertion and acceptance of Syrian sovereignty over Israel: all the possessions and the family of the vassal are acknowledged to be the property of his superior lord. Ahab surrenders, but not at discretion. Ben-hadad refuses all qualified submission.

Verse 6

(6) Whatsoever is pleasant.—The demand, which is virtually for the plunder of Samaria, probably neither expects nor desires acceptance, and is therefore a refusal of all but unconditional surrender. It is notable that in the last extremity Ahab falls back on an exceptional appeal to the patriotism of the people.

The “elders of the land” (evidently present in Samaria at this time) were the representatives in the northern kingdom of the ancient assembly of the “elders of Israel,” existing from the time of Moses downwards as a senate, having power not only of advice, but of concurrence, in relation to the Judge or King. (See Exodus 3:16; Exodus 12:21; Exodus 24:1; Deuteronomy 27:1; Deuteronomy 31:9; Joshua 7:6; 2 Samuel 5:3; 1 Kings 8:3). The solemn appointment of the seventy in Numbers 11:24-25 seems to be simply the re-constitution and consecration of the original body. Each tribe and each town had also its lesser body of elders. (See 1 Samuel 30:26, “the elders of Judah;” Deuteronomy 19:12; Deuteronomy 21:3, &c., “the elders of the city.”) The authority of all these assemblies must have been at all times largely overborne by the royal power (see 1 Kings 21:11), and must have varied according to time and circumstance.

Verse 10

(10) The dust of Samaria—when razed to the ground. The phrase probably implies a threat of destruction, as well as a boast of overwhelming strength. Josephus (Ant. viii. 14, 2) has a curious explanation—that, if each of the Syrians took only a handful of dust, they could raise a mound against the city, higher than the walls of Samaria.

The historian, with a touch of patriotic scorn, paints Ben-hadad as a luxurious and insolent braggart. He receives the message at a feast, “drinking himself drunk,” and, stung by its tone of sarcasm, does not condescend to bestir himself, but orders his servants to an instant attack. The command is given, with a haughty brevity, in a single word (“Set”), which may be “Array troops,” or “Place engines,” as in the margin. The LXX. translates, “Build a stockade” (for attack on the walls).

Verse 13

(13) There came a prophet.—The appearance of this unknown prophet evidently shows (see also 1 Kings 22:6-7) that Ahab’s enmity to the prophetic order was over since the great day at Carmel, and that the schools of the prophets were forming themselves again—perhaps not free from connection with the idolatry of Jeroboam, but safe from all attacks from the worshippers of Baal. It is notable that in all these political functions of prophecy Elijah does not appear, reserving himself for the higher moral and religious mission from God. Ahab receives the prophet’s message with perfect confidence and reverence; he has returned in profession to the allegiance to Jehovah, which he had, perhaps, never wholly relinquished.

Verse 14

(14) Who shall order the battle?—The marginal reading seems right, “Who shall give battle?” “Who shall begin the fray?”

Verse 15

(15) The young meni.e., the attendants or armour-bearers of the territorial chiefs, no doubt picked men and well armed. The whole garrison is stated as seven thousand—enough, perhaps, to man the walls, but wholly unfit to take the field. The sally is made at noon, when (as Josephus relates) the besiegers were resting unarmed in the heat of the day.

Verse 20

(20) And they slew . . .—The attack of this handful of men, supported by a sally of the whole garrison, is not unlike the slaughter of the Philistine garrison and host in the days of Saul (1 Samuel 14:0), or the still earlier rout of the army of Midian by the night attack of Gideon (Judges 7:16-23). Probably, as in these cases, the Israelites may have risen from various lurking-places to join in the pursuit and slaughter. It does not necessarily follow that the event was miraculous. Such dispersions of vast Oriental armies are not uncommon in history. The lesson is that drawn with noble simplicity by Jonathan: “There is no restraint to the Lord to save by many or by few” (1 Samuel 14:6).

Verse 22

(22) The return of the year.—The early part of the next year, after the winter was over, “when kings go out to battle” (2 Samuel 11:1).

Verse 23

(23) Gods of the hills.—The idea of tutelary gods, whose strength was greatest on their own soil, is naturally common in polytheistic religions, which, by the very multiplication of gods, imply limitation of the power of each. Now the greater part of the territory where Jehovah was worshipped was a hill-country. Samaria in particular, the scene of recent defeat, lay in the mountain region of Ephraim. The Israelite armies, moreover, being mostly of infantry—having, indeed, few or no cavalry, except in the time of Solomon—naturally encamped and fought, as far as possible, on the hills; as Barak on Mount Tabor (Judges 4:6-14), Saul on Mount Gilboa (1 Samuel 31:1), and Ahab himself (in 1 Kings 20:27). Perhaps the worship of Jehovah in the “high places” may have also conduced to this belief that the “gods of Israel were gods of the hills,” whose power vanished in the plains; where, of course, the Syrian armies of chariots and horsemen would naturally fight at advantage. Shrewd policy might, as so often is the case, lurk in the advice of Ben-hadad’s counsellors under the cover of superstition; as, indeed, it seems also to show itself in seizing the opportunity to increase the central power, by organising the troops of the tributary kings under officers of his own.

Verse 26

(26) Aphek.—The name, signifying simply a “fortress,” as applied to several different places. There are two places which suit well enough with the Aphek of this passage and 2 Kings 13:17, as being a battlefield in the plain country between Israel and Syria. One is the Aphek of 1 Samuel 29:1, evidently in the plain of Esdraelon; the other a place on the road to Damascus, about six miles east of the Sea of Galilee.

Verse 27

(27) Were all present.—The marginal reading “were victualled,” or, perhaps, more generally, “were supplied,” with all things necessary for war, seems correct. The comparatively small number of the Israelite forces, even after the great victory of the year before, appears to show that, previous to the siege of Samaria, Ahab had suffered some great defeats, which had broken the strength of Israel.

Verse 28

(28)A man of God—apparently not the same as before. We see from 1 Kings 20:35 that the prophetic order was now numerous. The vindication of the majesty of God before the Syrians, as well as before Israel—like the more celebrated case of the rebuke of the blasphemy of Sennacherib (2 Kings 19:16-34)—is in accordance with the prayer of Solomon, or the similar utterances in the Psalms (Psalms 67:2; Psalms 102:15; Psalms 138:4), “That all the people of the earth may know thy name, to fear thee;” and also with such prophetic declarations as those of Ezekiel 20:9, “I wrought for my Name’s sake, that it should not be polluted before the heathen.” It is a foreshadowing of that view of all nations, as in some degree having knowledge of God and probation before Him, which is afterwards worked out fully in the prophetic writings. The intense and powerful Monotheism of the religion of Israel, in spite of all its backslidings, could hardly have been without influence over the neighbouring nations (see 2 Kings 5:15), especially at a time when the remembrance of Solomon’s vast empire, and still wider influence, would yet linger through the tenacious traditions of the East.

Verse 30

(30) A wall—properly, the wall of the city, whether falling by earthquake, or in the storming of the place, by Israel. The numbers in the text are very large, as in many other instances. It is possible (see Introduction) that there may be corruption, although the same numbers are found in the ancient versions. But the massing in small space of Oriental armies, and the extra ordinary slaughter consequent on it, are well illustrated in history; as, for instance, in the Greek wars with Persia or even our own experience in India.

Verse 31

(31) Ropes upon our heads—like “the ropes round the necks” of the burghers of Calais, in the days of Edward III. The envoys offer themselves as naked, helpless criminals, to sue for mercy.

Verse 33

(33) Now the men.—There has been much discussion of the meaning here, and some proposals of slight emendations of the reading. But the general sense seems accurately rendered by our version. “The men watched” (“as for augury,” says the LXX.), “and hasted, and caught up” (so as to make it sure) “what fell from him.” What follows may be a question, “Is Ben-hadad thy brother?” but probably the simple acceptance of the title is better. The whole description is graphic. The Syrians speak of “thy slave Ben-hadad.” Ahab, in compassion or show of magnanimity, says, “my brother.” Eagerly the ambassadors catch up the word, which, according to Eastern custom, implied a pledge of amity not to be recalled; and Ahab accepts their inference, and seals it publicly by taking the conquered king into his chariot. (Comp. 2 Kings 10:15-16.)

Verse 34

(34) Make streets—properly, squares, or quarters of a city. This concession implies a virtual acknowledgment of supremacy; for the right to have certain quarters for residence, for trade, perhaps even for garrison, in the capital of a king, belongs only to one who has sovereignty over him. Hence it goes beyond the significance of the restoration of the cities—conquered, it would seem, from Omri, unless, indeed, taking “father” in the sense of predecessor, the reference is to the Syrian victories in the days of Baasha. (See 1 Kings 15:20.) The narrative seems to convey an idea that the covenant was made hastily, on insufficient security. The great point, however, was that a war, victoriously conducted under prophetic guidance, should not have been concluded without prophetic sanction.

Verse 35

(35) A certain man—according to Josephus, Micaiah, the son of Imlah. This tradition, or conjecture, agrees well with the subsequent narrative in 1 Kings 22:0.

The sons of the prophets.—This phrase, constantly recurring in the history of Elijah and Elisha, first appears here. But the thing designated is apparently as old as the days of Samuel who is evidently surrounded by “a company” of disciples. (See 1 Samuel 10:5; 1 Samuel 10:10; 1 Samuel 19:20.) The prophetic office seems never to have been, like the priesthood or kingship, hereditary. “Sonship,” therefore, no doubt means simply discipleship; and it is likely enough that the schools of the sons of the prophets were places of higher religious education, including many who did not look for the prophetic vocation; although the well-known words of Amos (Amos 7:14), “I was no prophet, neither was I a prophet’s son,” clearly indicate that from their ranks, generally though not invariably, the prophets were called. Probably the institution had fallen into disuse, and had been revived to seal and to secure the prophetic victory over Baal-worship. To Elijah the “sons of the prophets” look up with awe and some terror; to Elisha, with affectionate respect and trust.

Verse 36

(36) A lion shall slay thee.—It is obvious to compare the example of 1 Kings 13:24.

Verse 38

(38) Ashes upon his face.—It should be a “bandage over his head,” to cover his face, and to accord with the appearance of a wounded soldier. Unless the wound had some symbolic significance in application to Ahab or Israel, it is difficult to see what purpose it could serve.

Verse 39

(39) Thy servant.—The parable is, of course, designed (like those of 2 Samuel 12:1-4; 2 Samuel 14:5-11) to make Ahab condemn himself. In Ahab, however, it excites not compunction, but characteristic sullenness of displeasure, like that of 1 Kings 21:4.

Verse 42

(42) A man whom I appointed—properly, a man under my curse. The rash action of Ahab, like the deliberate disobedience of Saul (1 Samuel 15:0), may have been due partly to compassion, partly to weakness. In either case it had no right to stand unauthorised between God’s judgment and him on whom it was pronounced; for even soft-heartedness, as in the case of Eli, may be treason to the cause of righteousness. The prophet (like Elisha, in 2 Kings 13:19) speaks partly as a patriot, jealous—and, as the event proved, with a sagacious jealousy—of the lenity which left the deadly enemy of Israel unsubdued; but he speaks also as the representative of God’s stern and righteous judgment. which Ahab, after signal deliverance, had treated as of no account. (For the fulfilment of his words, see 1 Kings 22:34-36.)

Bibliographical Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on 1 Kings 20". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ebc/1-kings-20.html. 1905.
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