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Bible Commentaries

Garner-Howes Baptist Commentary

1 Kings 20

Verses 1-12

First Kings - Chapter 20

Syrian Challenge, Verses 1-12

At just what period of Ahab’s reign this invasion and siege of Samaria by the Syrians occurred is uncertain. It would appear to have been after the drought, and might account for the pitifully small forces Israel had with which to face the mighty army of Ben-hadad. The king of Damascus, or Syria, was the mightiest of an array of thirty-two kings total from the country of the Syrians. These lesser kings were rulers of smaller cities owing allegiance to the larger, Damascus, over which Be­hadad ruled. With Samaria under siege, Ben-hadad sent his messengers to Ahab with a proposal by which he would agree to withdraw. Ahab must send the Syrian king his silver, gold, the best of his harem, and the choicest of his children. Ben-hadad said, "They are mine," meaning that by virtue of his superior forces Ahab could not keep him from taking them. The spineless Ahab returned word at once, agreeing and fawning over his adversary as, "My lord, O king."

Ahab proved a much easier mark than even the Syrian king expected, so he was emboldened to add to his demands. He sent his messengers again, saying that Ahab would not be allowed to weigh the gold and silver and choose the women and children himself. But Ben­hadad would send his messengers again to observe what was considered by Ahab the very best and would accept only that. They would search the palace and the houses of the city for themselves on the next day.

Something prompted Ahab to resent this, and he finally called a council of the elders of his country. He told them of the first demand of Ben-hadad and how he had readily agreed to it. But now the Syrian king was demanding to take only the best, determined by an insulting band of spies who would search his things. Ahab suspected him of trying to stir him up to justify something still worse. So the elders advised King Ahab not to agree to this last demand. So the message went back to Ben­hadad that Ahab would abide by his first agreement, but could not do the latter.

Upon hearing this Ben-hadad sent a mocking challenge to Ahab He swore by his pagan gods that the dust of Samaria’s filthy streets, if it could be converted into armed men, would be insufficient to withstand a handful of Syrian men. Ahab seems to have gained some intestinal fortitude through the exchanges. Now it is he who returns a bold challenge to Ben-hadad, `Let not him that girdeth on his harness boast as he that putteth it off." This meant, "Don’t count the battle won before it is fought." Ben-hadad was throwing a big drinking party with his kings in their pavilions (large tents), and was unwilling to interrupt it. He ordered his servants to set the army for an assault on the city.

Verses 13-21

Ahab’s Victory, Verses 13-21

God rewarded Ahab’s show of courage by sending a prophet pro­mising to give him victory over the boastful Ben-hadad and the great Syrian army. He called Ahab’s attention to the mighty physical cap­ability of the Syrians, then said, "I will deliver it into thine hand this day." He made it clear why He was allowing Ahab such a spectacular victory. Not because Ahab had suddenly shown a surge of stamina, or because Israel was the under-dog, nor because of the paganism of the Syrians. It was that Ahab and Israel might have still another evidence of the true God, the Lord of all.

Ahab seems to have welcomed the thought and began to make inquiries of the prophet as to how the battle should be ordered. When such things as this are observed in Ahab one cannot help thinking the king might have, if left to himself, turned out to be a believer and follower of the Lord, but he was wholly dominated by his wife, Jezebel. Ahab needed to read, and heed, the advice of Solomon, "A continual dropping in a very rainy day and a contentious woman are alike; whosoever hideth her hideth the wind, and the ointment of his right hand betrayeth him" (Proverbs 27:15-16).

Ahab was told the princes of the provinces should lead the men, and Ahab himself should be at their head. There were two hundred thirty­-two of the young princes and only seven thousand fighting men. While Ahab was getting this small force together Ben-hadad and his tributary kings were getting drunk in the officers’ pavilion. Their party was too important for them to interrupt and go out against a small and seemingly insignificant force of approaching Israelites. When Ben-hadad was apprised of their approach he told the lesser officers to take them alive, whether they came to fight or to make peace. Evidently he hoped to have some sport with them.

But when the Syrians approached to meet the seven thousand Israelites they got a great surprise. Not only had the men of Israel come to fight, but they were invincible. God made it impossible in some unrevealed manner for the Syrian multitudes to make an effective defense. The Israelites slew Syrians right and left, confusion broke out among the enemy forces, and even the cavalry fled. Ben-hadad was not too drunk to mount a horse and flee with them, barely escaping the vengeful Israelites. A very great slaughter was effected against Ahab’s enemies, and God had proved Himself to Israel again.

Verses 22-34

Second Victory, Verses 22-34

Ahab had not seen the end of the Syrian affair. The prophet came to him again and warned him that he should strengthen himself and prepare for the return of the king of Syria at the time of war in the next year. The kind of preparation Ahab needed to make might have been material, for certainly his forces had been pitifully small in comparison to those of Ben-hadad. But the Lord had shown Israel that they did not need huge armies to win battles with the Lord their God fighting for them. Therefore, it seems likely that the chief preparation which Ahab and Israel needed to make was spiritual, in a return to the worship of God as Elijah and such prophets had been preaching to him already.

Meanwhile the king of Syria considered his problem. Clearly he had lost his great army due to the intervention of the divine power of Israel’s God. When he observed, however, the kind of gods Israel had been serving he noted that they were of the same nature as that his own nation worshipped. So he judged the caliber and proficiency of such gods on his own experience, and concluded that the god of Israel was a god of the hills only. If he could draw him down into the valley the gods of Syria would surely prevail.

So Ben-hadad proceeded to replace his army man for man, horse for horse, and chariot for chariot. To strengthen his renewed army he removed the thirty-two kings from commanding the forces and placed each contingent under a militarily trained man. In this he received the co­operation of his people. When the weather was again right for going to war he invaded the eastern tribes of Israel and pitched his army for battle in the plain around Aphek. There was an Aphek in western Israel, northeast of Mount Carmel, where the Israelites had sometimes met the­ Philistines in conflict. But this Aphek was east of the Sea of Chinnereth (Galilee) in what is modern Golan Heights.

Here came Ahab’s army to meet them, larger and better equipped surely than the previous year, but still miserably inadequate from the physical standpoint to face Ben-hadad’s new military machine. Israel’s army looked like two little flocks of young goats beside it. It is surely a mark of some faith on Ahab’s part that he even came to the battle. But now came to him another man of God to assure him that the Lord will again give him the victory that he may have further emphasized to him that He is the true Lord God of Israel. This He will do because of the conclusion of Ben-hadad that the God of Israel is powerful only in the hills, but not in the valleys. God will give Israel victory, a decisive victory, here in the valley of Aphek. Then the Syrians, too, will know that God is the only true God and that He has all power.

For a week the two armies faced one another in hostile combat preparation, on the last day the battle was engaged. Immediately the Lord began to keep His promise. The Israelites slew one hundred thousand foot soldiers, and the rest fled behind the walls of Aphek Here the Lord continued to show His hand against the enemy, for the walls fell on the survivors and crushed twenty-seven thousand of them to death. What became of the cavalry and chariots is not stated. They may have hurriedly returned to Damascus, some seventy-five straight-line miles to the northeast. But if so, they left this time without their king, Ben­hadad, who found himself hiding in a secluded room in the city of Aphek.

Ben-hadad logically feared for his life, and his courtiers consid­ered how he might escape the wrath of King AHab They had learned that the kings of Israel were often inclined to grant mercy to their enemies, and so felt that Ben-hadad might display humility before Ahab and thus save his life. So messengers came to Ahab, dressed in sackcloth of mourning and ropes of servitude on their heads, requesting that Ben­hadad’s life be spared. This show of great deference to the victorious king made Ahab’s head swim with pride, and he immediately forgot that it was the Lord who had won the victory and whose right it was to dete­rmine the fate of the enemy king and answered out of his haughty heart.

Ahab expressed his pleasure that Ben-hadad had not been killed, and, whereas the messenger§ had referred to him as "thy servant Ben­hadad", Ahab called him, "my brother," elevating him to equality. At once the servants noted the tenor of the king’s words and began to refer to their king as "thy brother Ben-hadad". So Ahab sent for Ben-hadad, took him up into his chariot, and concluded a treaty of peace with him. Not once did he consult the Lord, by sending for the prophet again, or in any other manner. So far as Ahab was concerned he seems to have considered that his genius had gotten the victory.

Ben-hadad agreed to restore the cities of Israel which he had annexed to Syria, even to those which had been taken away many years before by Ben-hadad’s father. Also he allowed Israel to establish ’streets in Damascus’; such as Ben-hadad had established in Samaria. This seems to refer to areas of free trade in the city, where the merchants and traders of Israel could freely display their wares. With this agreement the two kings departed, Ben-hadad being released to return to his own country. He must have contemplated what a fool he had played Ahab for.

Verses 35-43

Too Busy! Verses 35-43

Ahab was not to get off without God’s reprimand and judgment. The Lord moved one of the young prophets, probably from Elijah’s training school, to go to the king with His message. It called for a disguise as a wounded soldier, and the young prophet requested the aid of one of his fellows. He was to strike him and wound him, but he refused to do so. As a result he was told that disobedience to the Lord’s will would cost him his life. A lion would accost and slay him as soon as he left the company. It happened as foretold. This is a reminder to God’s servants to comply with His will regardless of how distasteful to self it may be (cf. Matthew 16:24).

The young prophet succeeded in getting himself smitten, so soundly, in fact, that he received a bloody wound. The prophet then went out with his disguise and ashes on his face and stood by the road where Ahab would pass by. There he was when he stopped the king with a woeful story. He said he had been in the battle when another soldier brought a prisoner to him and charged him with keeping him safely. If he should escape he would require of the young man his life, or he should pay an indemnity of silver talent (almost $22, 000 in present values), which was an impossible sum for a poor man to acquire.

The story was a parable, directly applicable to Ahab and his handling of the Ben-hadad affair. It was the Lord who gave Ben-hadad a prisoner, into the hand of Ahab, who should have guarded him until the Lord passed judgment on him. But busy with his own thoughts about prestige and honor he was suddenly gone, and now Ahab must pay the penalty. The king decided his own fate. The prophet wiped the ashes from his face, and Ahab recognized him. Because Ahab had allowed Ben-hadad to escape, though God had appointed him to destruction, Ahab will pay with his own life, for he will perish in battle with the Syrians, (1 Kings 22:34-35). His people and nation would perish at the hands of the Syrians and those who overcome them. Ahab was very upset and went back to Samaria, realizing that he had won a hollow victory, but too late to change it.

There is a great lesson in the parable of the young prophet, applicable to all God’s servants. It warns against lost opportunities. While people are busy here and there, with things of a selfish nature, things of the world, they let pass many opportunities to worship and bear a witness for the Lord. At what cost these are passed by may not be apparent until eternity. Christians should be always mindful of this. (Note Jeremiah 8:20).

Lessons to be learned: 1) God is able to strengthen all those who will look to Him for the help they need to face the enemy; 2) God’s people should always be ready to go out with the promises of God, expecting victory; 3) God is unlimited; He is the same powerful force in every situation, for He is all-powerful; 4) men who leave God out of their plans and take credit for all good things in their experience will suffer a great disaster; 5) it is foolish to get too busy to do what the Lord has for one to do, and those who do so must answer to Him at last.

Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Blessed Hope Foundation and the Baptist Training Center.
Bibliographical Information
Garner, Albert & Howes, J.C. "Commentary on 1 Kings 20". Garner-Howes Baptist Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ghb/1-kings-20.html. 1985.