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Bible Commentaries

Coke's Commentary on the Holy Bible

1 Kings 20

Verse 12

1 Kings 20:12. Set yourselves in array, &c.— Draw near; and they drew near to the city. Houbigant.

Verse 13

1 Kings 20:13. Behold there came a prophet The Scripture nowhere informs us who this prophet was. It is something extraordinary, that during this whole war with Ben-hadad, neither Elijah nor Elisha, the two principal prophets of Israel, should appear; though other prophets, whereof there seems to have been a considerable number, make no scruple of executing their office; whether it was, that this war commenced before Jezebel's persecution of the prophets, or that this impious queen abated her persecution, and let them have some respite, when she had, as she thought, exterminated Elijah, cannot now be ascertained.

Verse 14

1 Kings 20:14. Even by the young men of the princes of the provinces By the help of the servants, which the princes of the provinces have. Houbigant, The Hebrew word נערי naari has some ambiguity in it, and may signify either the sons or the servants of the princes of the provinces. It was by these young men, says Poole, and not by old experienced officers, that this battle was to be won; that thereby it might appear, that the victory was wholly owing to God's gracious and powerful Providence, and not to the valour or fitness of the instruments.

Verse 23

1 Kings 20:23. Their gods are gods of the hills See Num 23:27 and Virgil, En. viii. ver. 698, &c. Bishop Warburton observes, that when Ben-hadad, whose forces consisted of chariots and horsemen, had warred with ill success against the king of Israel, his ministers, in a council of war, delivered their advice to him in the terms included in this verse. From this passage, says he, I collect, 1. That the army of Israel, consisting all of infantry, had chosen the situation of the hills; and this with proper military skill. 2. That their constant success with such a disposition of their forces occasioned this advice of the ministers of Ben-hadad. These men, possessed with the general notion of local tutelary deities, finding the arms of Israel always successful on the hills, took it for the eminent manifestation of the powers of their gods; Their gods, say they, are gods of the hills. Their superstition dictated the first part of their opinion, and their skill in war the second; Let us fight them in the plains. The operations of war had been hitherto most absurd: they had attacked an army of infantry with one of cavalry on hills and defiles. The advice of these ministers was truly good; but how to put it in execution was the question; for, they being the assailants, the Israelites were masters of the ground: so that, after all, there was no other way of bringing them into the plains, than by beating them from the hills; and there they must have stuck till famine and desertion had ended their quarrel. In this exigence, their blasphemy against the God of Israel enabled them to put their counsels against him into execution. They fancied, according to the superstition of that time, and so gave out, that he was God of the hills, but not of the vallies. His omnipotence being thus disputed, he placed his people in the plains, and sent his prophet, 1Ki 20:28 to predict the coming vengeance on his enemies; and their defeat was a singular and undeniable confirmation both of his divine omnipotence and veracity. Div. Leg. vol. 3: p. 290, &c.

Verse 30

1 Kings 20:30. The rest fled to Aphek, &c— Aphek was situated in Libanus upon the river Adonis, between Heliopolis and Biblos, and in all probability was the same which Lucas speaks of, as swallowed up in a lake of mount Libanus, about nine miles in circumference, wherein there are several houses, all entire, to be seen under water. The soil about this place was very bituminous, which seems to confirm their opinion who think that subterraneous fire consumed the solid substance of the earth whereon the city stood, so that it subsided and sunk at once, and a lake was soon formed in its place. And there a wall fell, would be rendered more properly, and the wall fell, meaning the whole wall of the city; an event which may be accounted for in a natural way, by supposing that the Syrians, after their defeat, betook themselves to this fenced city of Aphek, and, despairing of any quarter, mounted the walls, or retired into some castle with a resolution to defend themselves to the last, and that the Israelitish army, coming upon them, plied the walls of the castle on every side so warmly with their batteries, that down they came at once; and killing some, wounding others, and making the rest disperse with fear, did all the execution which the text intends. But though the event may thus be accounted for, it is more reasonable to think that God upon this occasion wrought a miracle, and either by some earthquake or sudden storm of wind, overturned this wall upon the Syrians; and, indeed, if any time was proper for his Almighty arm to interpose, it was this, when these blasphemous people had denied his sovereign power and authority in the government of the world, and thereby in some measure obliged him, in vindication of his own honour, to give them a full demonstration of it; to shew that he was the God of the plains as well as of the hills; that he could as effectually destroy them in strong holds as in the open field, and make those very walls wherein they trusted for defence, the instruments of their ruin. See Patrick and Poole.

Verses 31-32

1 Kings 20:31-11.20.32. Let us—put sackcloth on our loins, and ropes, &c.— The approaching persons, with a sword hanging to the neck, is, in the East, thought to be a very humble and submissive manner of coming before them. So William of Tyre, describing the great solemnity and humiliation with which the governor of Egypt under the caliph of that country appeared before his master, tells us, that he prostrated himself on the ground thrice, with his sword hanging to his neck, which, at the third prostration, he took off and laid down. Thevenot has mentioned this circumstance in the account he has given of the taking of Bagdat by the Turks in 1638, extracted from the letter of a person of distinction in the Turkish army, to one of the Sangiacks of Egypt; for upon the besieged begging quarter we are told, that the lieutenant, and principal officer of the governor of Bagdat, went to the grand vizier with a scarf about his neck, and his sword wreathed in it, (which, says he, is an ignominious mark of submission,) and begged, both in his own and his master's name, aman, that is to say, pardon and mercy; and having obtained it, the governor came and was introduced to the grand signior, and obtained not only a confirmation of the promise of life which had been made him, but also divers presents of value. Thevenot supposed, that the hanging the sword about the neck was an ignominious mark of submission; but its being used by the governor of Egypt, when he appeared before his master, shews, that though it was an expression of humiliation and perfect submission, it was not an ignominious one; but a token it undoubtedly was of such respect as was thought proper for the conquered to pay to the victor, when they begged their lives; and as such was used, I suppose, by Ben-hadad: for those ropes about the necks of his servants were, I should imagine, what they suspended their swords with, if the customs of later times may be thought explanatory of those of ancient days, as in the East, particularly, they often are. Observations, p. 354.

Verse 34

1 Kings 20:34. Thou shalt make streets for thee in Damascus, &c.— Ben-hadad, received to mercy, and treated with respect, promised upon this occasion to restore to the kingdom of Israel the cities that his father had taken from it. And thou shalt make, said he, streets for thee in Damascus, as my father made in Samaria. This was a proposal better relished by Ahab, than understood by commentators. Bishop Patrick tells us, that some suppose the word חצות chutsoth to signify market-places, where things were sold, the toll of which should belong to Ahab: others think that he meant courts of judicature, where he should exercise a jurisdiction over the Syrians; others, what we now call a piazza, or rather what by Rauwolff is called a a fondique, champ, carvatschura, or caravansera, and by others a kane; 1:e. a great house, built like a cloister, round a great court-yard, and full of warehouses and apartments, in which foreign merchants are wont to live, or travellers to repair, as to an inn, and of which Ahab was to receive the rents. But commonly, says the Bishop, interpreters understand by the word, fortifications or citadels, as we now speak; Vallandus, however, attempts to prove, that palaces are meant, the building of which by Ahab was a great token of subjection in Ben-hadad. Perhaps the privileges which we know were actually granted to the Venetians for their aid, by the states of the kingdom of Jerusalem, in the time of the captivity of Baldwin II. may more satisfactorily explain these words of Ben-hadad. William of Tyre, the greatest historian of the Croisades, has preserved that ancient and curious instrument; from which convention, as well as from the accounts he has elsewhere given of the privileges granted to other nations for their assistance, it appears, that they were wont to assign churches, and give streets, in their towns and cities to those foreign nations, together with great liberties and jurisdiction in these streets. Thus he tells us, that the Genoese had a street in Accon, or John D'Acre, together with full jurisdiction in it, and a church, as a reward for taking that city, together with a third part of the dues of the port. Thus too the above-mentioned ancient instrument very clearly shews, that the Venetians had a street also in Accon; and explains what this full jurisdiction in a street means, by giving them liberty to have in their street there an oven, mill, bagnio, weights and measures for wine, oil, and honey, if they thought fit, and also to judge causes among themselves; together with as great a jurisdiction over all who dwelt in their street and houses, of whatever nation they might be, as the king of Jerusalem had over others. May we not believe, that the same or nearly the same franchises and regalities which were granted to the Venetians and Genoese, in order to obtain aid from them, the father of Ahab had granted to Ben-hadad's father to obtain peace, and Ben-hadad, upon this fatal turn of his affairs, proposed to grant to Ahab in Damascus;—a quarter for his subjects to live in, and which he should possess, and over which he should enjoy the same jurisdiction, as he did with respect to the rest of his kingdom? Such a power in Samaria, and such a making-over a part of it to the father of Ben-hadad, and annexing it to the kingdom of Syria, with a right of building such idol temples as he thought fit, was a sufficient disgrace to the father of Ahab, as the proposing to give Ahab now a like honour in Damascus was an expression of a very abject adulation in Ben-hadad. The privileges that commentators have mentioned are either not of importance enough to answer the general representation of matters in the history, or are absolutely destructive of them. A medium is therefore to be sought for; and such an one, we presume, is here satisfactorily proposed. See Observations, p. 355.

Verses 35-36

1 Kings 20:35-11.20.36. A certain man—said unto his neighbour in the word of the Lord, Smite me, &c.— Said—by the command of the Lord, &c. Houbigant. The prophets, as we have before observed, both in their parabolical speeches and symbolical actions, are to be considered as persons of a singular character. See ch. 1 Kings 11:30-11.11.31. We have one here, desiring his companion, a person bred up in the same school with him, to give him a wound, that thereby he might have a better opportunity of reproving Ahab for his ill-timed clemency to Ben-hadad. To desire to be wounded was, in appearance, a request so frantic, that his brother prophet might justly have denied him, had he not been satisfied that his request was from God. But herein lay the great fault of the recusant; though he knew the authority of God's commands, and that this was the very thing which he enjoined; yet, out of an indiscreet pity and compassion to his brother, he refused to comply. Had he been a stranger to the several methods of divine prophesy, he might have excused himself with a better grace; but as he was equally a prophet, bred up in the same school as the other, and well understood the weight of his brother prophet's request, he was utterly inexcusable.

Verse 38

1 Kings 20:38. With ashes upon his face Houbigant reads, with a bandage;—he had his eyes covered with a bandage. Several of the versions render it with a veil. See 1 Kings 20:41.

Verse 42

1 Kings 20:42. Thus saith the Lord, because thou hast let go, &c.— The offence which God threatens to punish thus severely in Ahab, consisted in his suffering such a blasphemer as Ben-hadad to go unpunished, which was contrary to an express law, Leviticus 24:16. If it should be urged, that this was nothing to Ben-hadad, since the law concerned the Israelites only, the reply is, that this law extended not to those only who were born in the land, but, as it is there expressed, to strangers likewise, who were among them and in their power, as Ben-hadad certainly was. God had delivered him into Ahab's hand for his blasphemy, as he had promised, 1Ki 20:28 and therefore this act of providence, compared with the law, did plainly intimate that he was appointed by God for destruction. But so far is Ahab from punishing him as he deserved, that he treats him like a friend and brother, dismisses him upon easy terms, and takes his bare word for the performance, without the least care about the reparation of God's honour. See Patrick and Poole.

REFLECTIONS.—1st, We have here,

1. Samaria besieged by Ben-hadad king of Syria, with thirty-two tributary or confederate kings under him: and sin had so weakened Israel's hands, that they met with no resistance in their way even to the capital. Note; They who provoke God to leave them, are defenceless indeed.

2. As ambition and covetousness dictated the invasion, swoln with insolence and pride on his success, he sends Ahab a haughty message as his vassal, and bids him submit and surrender his all without reserve. Note; Success makes vain minds insolent.

3. Ahab, whose coward heart dared not oppose the haughty conqueror, and whole guilt forbad him to hope for help in God, tamely submits to purchase his peace at this ignominious price.
4. Ben-hadad, grown more insolent on his submission, and now concluding his affairs desperate, rises in his demands. Not content with his treasures, or his vassalage, he requires that his servants may search his house, and the houses of his great men, and plunder them of every thing that is valuable, and expects his answer by the morrow. Note; (1.) There is no satisfying a covetous mind. (2.) Mean spirits delight to tyrannize over those who they think dare not resist them.

5. Roused by so unreasonable a demand, Ahab summons his council, and exposes to them the concessions he had offered, and the fresh demands imposed on him. They encourage him to stand out, and promise to support him; on which the messengers are dismissed with a denial, yet couched in such terms as might least offend; and with a proposal to ratify the former offer.
6. Enraged at his refusal, Ben-hadad swears by his gods to beat Samaria into dust, and to bring such an host into the field that there shall not be enough for each to take a handful. Note; (1.) The greatest talkers are not the greatest doers. (2.) The threats of pride are often impotent and vain.

7. Ahab wisely admonishes him of the uncertainty of war, and that the most confident are not always the most successful. Note; As long as we are in the flesh, it becometh us with fear and trembling to work out our salvation: when we shall put off the body in the grave, then we may shout for victory.

2nd, The treaty being broken off, each side prepares for war.
1. Ben-hadad commands the city to be invested, or preparation made for an assault; though himself took no care to superintend the attack, but sat at noon-day drinking himself drunk with the kings in his pavilion, unapprehensive of danger, and by his ill example rendering them as negligent and debauched as himself. Note; Those who feel themselves most secure, are often nearest the precipice of ruin.

2. In Ahab's distress, unworthy as he is of such a mercy, yet for Israel's sake, God interposes, and sends his prophet, with encouragement to him, and assurance of victory that very day, that he may be convinced that God is the Lord, the true Jehovah. On his inquiry how, or by whom, his deliverance should be wrought, he is commanded to draw out the young men of the princes of the provinces. Ahab obeys, numbers the young men, no more than 232, and after them 7000, probably such as offered to second them; a most unequal force against such an enemy: but God's promise is better than the most numerous host; and these despicable forces best suited to abase the pride of the insolent king. Note; (1.) God shews the wicked many mercies, to work upon them to repent, or leave them inexcusable. (2.) We must obey God in the use of means, however inadequate they may appear, and trust him for the event.

3. Ahab, according to the divine command, sallies forth at noon, with his little force, whilst Ben-hadad was drunk in his tent; and on news being brought him of the appearance of some troops, despising their numbers, he commands, whether they came for peace or war, to take them prisoners: but when the Syrians advanced to seize them, the Israelites caught each his man, and slew them, which wrought such a panic in the host, that they instantly fled; while the rest of the forces follow now under the king, and obtain a complete victory. Note; (1.) Those who walk in pride, God is able to abase. (2.) The weakest instruments are effectual in God's hands.

3rdly, Ahab, triumphant, little thought that the storm was gathering afresh, and promised himself no farther disturbance. But,
1. God warns him, by a prophet, of the preparations making against him, and bids him prepare for another campaign; for, though the former victory was not atchieved by human strength, he must not tempt God by neglecting to use his best endeavours. Note; (1.) We are apt to flatter ourselves that the danger is over, when the present trial is overcome; and not to be aware, how restless are our spiritual foes, and that earth and hell will not let us be quiet long. (2.) Though God only can enable us to overcome, we must labour as earnestly as if the success depended on ourselves.

2. Ben-hadad is encouraged by his servants to raise another army, to retrieve his lost honour. They suggest to him, that Israel's God was only mighty in the hills, but in the valley they had nothing to fear from him, according to their false notions of topical deities.
3. With unequal forces the two armies take the field. The Syrians like locusts covered the country; whilst the two little bands of Israel, not a man of whom was lost in the last encounter, appeared as few and weak as two little flocks of kids. But one advantage they had which overbalanced all; God was for them. His prophet assures them of victory, though they deserved it not, to make the Syrians know that the God of Israel is every where omnipotent and irresistible. Note; As unequally matched does the church of God and every believer in it appear amidst their spiritual foes; but God is with them, therefore they are more than conquerors.

4. The issue confirms the prophet's word. Seven days they encamped near each other; on the seventh, after this encouragement, Ahab dared join in the unequal conflict, and prevailed. One hundred thousand Syrians fell that day; and when the shattered remains of the army took refuge under the walls of Aphek, an earthquake, or whirlwind, threw down the wall upon twenty-seven thousand men, and slew, wounded, or dispersed them.

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Bibliographical Information
Coke, Thomas. "Commentary on 1 Kings 20". Coke's Commentary on the Holy Bible. 1801-1803.