1 Kings 21:17-20
They covet fields and seize them, and houses, and take
them. They defraud a man of his home, a fellowman of his inheritance.
Our narrative once more brings us in contact with Ahab, king of Israel, whom we now find in his palace of Samaria. How changed since last we beheld him. Now he lies on a bed in one of the royal chambers in helpless dejection--moaning and tossing in feverish and restless misery. What catastrophe has overtaken that regal mourner?--why that settled gloom on these regal brows? Has the hand of death been in the palace halls?--has one of the princes of the blood royal been borne to the sepulcher of the kings of Israel--and left the aching void of bereavement in that smitten heart? Or, has it been some sudden overwhelming national disaster? Have the billows of war swept over his territories?--is the tramp of Benhadad's conquering armies heard at his gates, threatening to desolate his valleys, and carry the choice of his subjects captive to Damascus? No, no. His family circle is unbroken; and the trophies of recent victory adorn his walls. It is a far more insignificant cause which has led the weak and unworthy monarch to wrap himself in that coverlet, and to pout and fret like a petulant child.
This lordly possessor of palaces cannot obtain a little vineyard he has coveted--and life is, forsooth, for the moment, embittered to him. Lamentable, but too truthful picture of human nature! Here is a King--a man at the proud pinnacles of human ambition, the owner of vast territories--the possessor of one of the most princely of estates--his ivory palace perched on the wooded slopes of Gilboa--looking across the wide fertile plain of Esdraelon. What our own Windsor is to Britain, or Versailles to France, so was this Jezreel, with its noble undulating grounds, to the kingdom of Israel. Even amid the miserable mud-huts of the modern Zerin, the traveler can picture, from the unchanged features of the site, what the beauty of that summer park and palace must have been. But on the outskirts of this regal domain, there happened to be one small patch of ground, the hereditary possession of a Jezreelite of the name of Naboth--and on the occasion of one of the royal visits to this favorite hunting-place, the eye of the king has settled upon it. Its acquisition seems so desirable, that he resolves to have it at any cost, either by purchase or excambion. In the true spirit of an Israelite, however, Naboth rejects the royal proposal to alienate his patrimonial acres.
Without palliating Ahab's infantile conduct, we may, at first sight indeed, deem that Naboth was an uncourteous, if not a disloyal subject, in thus thwarting the royal wishes--that it would, at all events, have been no more than a becoming and graceful deference to the will of his sovereign, at once to surrender the desired possession. A little consideration, however, not only justifies Naboth's determined refusal, but greatly aggravates Ahab's guilt in urging the transaction. The soil of Israel belonged neither to Ahab nor Naboth, but to JEHOVAH. By the law of Moses, the owner of that vineyard at Jezreel was rigidly prohibited from parting with his paternal inheritance. Even in the case where debt necessitated a temporary transfer of property, that transfer was always coupled with the condition that the land could be redeemed at any time by the original and inalienable possessor; and, moreover, even without money redemption, it again reverted to him on the arrival of the year of jubilee. When Naboth therefore rejected Ahab's offer, it was not on the ground of personal disinclination, far less in a fit of dogged obstinacy. There was nothing of churlish rudeness--no boorish discourtesy in his reply. With the calm self-possession of one who acted from high religious principle, he thus grounds his refusal, "The Lord forbid it that I should give the inheritance of my fathers unto you."
We may not indeed altogether exclude the influence of personal considerations on Naboth's conduct. Like other Jews, he was doubtless deeply attached to the heritage of his ancestors. His vineyard would be a spot endeared by sacred associations. It had been the hallowed home of childhood; the cradle of his earliest recollections. On these mountains of Gilead and Samaria, childhood's eye had gazed. Childhood's ear had drunk delight from the murmurs of the still existing fountain. Seated under the purple clusters of its trellised vines, he may have listened to instruction from reverenced lips. More than all--the honored dust of his sires doubtless reposed in some adjoining rocky cave; and holy memories would endear his "inheritance" beyond the compensation of all Ahab's gold.
But this, we repeat, was not his main motive in refusal; it was the resolve of a high-minded patriot Israelite, to fear his God, even though in doing so he should incur the displeasure of his king. That little ancestral plot of ground he felt to be his by a divine tenure. Obligated by Jehovah himself, and loyal to a Greater than Ahab, he had no alternative left him in dealing with the regal bribe. All honor to this noble-minded citizen, who resisted the talents and the royal smiles that would tamper with his conscience and his duty. We shall think of him as one of the seven thousand who loved, from his inmost soul, the God of his fathers, and refused to kiss the shrine of Baal. A pattern is he, to the many in every age, who would too often sacrifice principle and right on the altar of worldly policy; and, by base expediency, truckle to power and patronage. In these days, when we collect photographs of the great and good among our contemporaries, we may well find room for this bold sturdy peasant or vine-dresser of Jezreel--enrol him among the number of our moral heroes, and write under his name the motto--"I must obey God rather than man."
But what is conscientious scruple? It is a myth and delusion to a mind blinded and debased like that of Ahab. He leaps in a tantrum into his chariot. As he drives back that long twenty-five miles to Samaria, it is with his countenance fallen. His wishes have been thwarted--his royalty insulted--his dignity compromised--his will gainsaid--his pride injured--by a petty subordinate. The result is, he is miserable--all his magnificent possessions appear nothing, because he cannot call that patch of ground his own. Unworthy of a king--unworthy of a man--he flings himself on his bed, and sobs out to himself the tale of this most miserable disappointed ambition!
Is there no way by which these unroyal tears may be wiped away, and the coveted possession be yet obtained? If Ahab himself lacks the moral courage to reach the wish by some foul and dastard deed, is there no one in the courtly circle who can gratify him, by means which imperious wills have often adopted before--cutting in two that conscientious scruple with the sword? One there was, able and willing for the task. Jezebel, who, as we already know, had inherited all the bold passions and oriental vices of her father, was the very heroine for the emergency. Quick as thought, she devises her accursed plot. By a series of easily planned perjuries, the royal equanimity will soon be restored; the royal park and pleasure-grounds soon have the desired appendage; and, what was better to her vindictive nature, Naboth shall learn at what cost he spurns the royal wish, and questions the royal prerogative. Getting into her possession the king's signet-ring, to give the appearance of a regal mandate to her proclamation, she causes letters to be written to the nobles and elders of Jezreel, to proclaim a fast; accusing Naboth at the same time of high treason--the charge to be supported by two perjured witnesses. Never was queen-craft more apparently triumphant and successful. Once get that incompliant citizen accused of blasphemy, and, by a divine law, the property of the blasphemer and rebel reverts to the crown. Ahab, by an old statute, would become at once lawful lord of this petty vineyard.
Two depraved men are induced without difficulty to perjure themselves, in order to compass the destruction of an innocent man. A fast is proclaimed. It is a hideous mockery in the name of religion. "A fast!" as if some dire disaster, in the shape of famine, pestilence, or war, impended over the city, or some dire sin needed expiation. The two "sons of Belial"--the bribed witnesses who charged Naboth with the fictitious crime--demand from the people summary vengeance on his head. He had "blasphemed God and the king"--the King as the visible representative of God. He had incurred the terrible penalties annexed to the boldest of transgressions, "You shall not curse God, nor revile a prince among your people."
O Justice! under your sacred name how many crimes have been perpetrated--how many traitors to sacred truth have dragged the innocent to destruction! It does give a terrible picture of the moral debasement at this period of Israel's history, that so many were to be found among nobles and elders--(the privileged classes--the aristocracy of their day)--to aid and abet in so foul a deed. Not even one voice was raised in protest against the enormous wickedness. No wonder, after weaving such a network of deceit as this, that Jezebel's name should have been handed down from generation to generation as the symbol and by-word of all that is execrable--that it should be used in the last book of the inspired volume, by lips which cannot lie, as the emblem of wild fanaticism and licentiousness.
The deed is done. The exasperated rabble have dragged Naboth out of the city, and "stoned him with stones;" and, as we learn subsequently, his innocent family were simultaneously involved in the cold-blooded massacre. The king loses no time in forthwith claiming the wages of unrighteousness. He confiscates Naboth's goods; the coveted vineyard has lapsed into his hands. "And Ahab," we read, "rose up to go down (that is, from Samaria to Jezreel) to the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite to take possession of it."
Yes, the plot had succeeded to a wish--a triumph of female sagacity. Not one noble or elder had divulged the terrible secret, which had given the semblance of legality to atrocious villainy. The bones of the murdered were heaped out of sight in some forgotten grave; and what was perhaps more than anything else to Ahab, Elijah was now, as he imagined, out of the way. He had heard nothing lately of his old troubler and tormentor. Perhaps some confused story had reached him of the wilderness flight--that in a fit of cynical temper, the Prophet had turned at once coward and hermit, and was spending the dregs of a fanatic life in the untrodden wilds of the Arabian desert. The king's fleet horses bear him along the highway to take formal possession of his dearly-bought possession. He enters the gates, and is already planning how this aceldama--this "field of blood"--can be turned to the greatest advantage. Ah, he hears it not! The dulled ear of conscience is closed; but the voice of Naboth's blood is crying from the ground, "O God, to whom vengeance belongs, show yourself."
Soon is the prayer heard. There was one close by, whose presence he little dreamt of--one who had last conducted him in triumph, after a day of miracle and grace, to these same gates of Jezreel. Now he stands before him the messenger of wrath--the "Prophet of Fire"--an incarnate spirit of evil tidings. It is ELIJAH?--his own great, bold, brave self again no longer daunted and panic-stricken by Jezebel, and ready, when his malediction is delivered, to gird himself for flight. The prediction of Ahab's dreadful end might indeed well have struck fresh terror into his heart as he uttered it. But he is another man since we recently met him in the Sinai desert. The frenzied queen may again vow vengeance as she pleases; he will not shrink from duty. The old visions of Horeb--the wind, and earthquake, and fire--proclaim in his ears that "Jehovah lives."
A career of unblushing impiety, on the part of Ahab, had now culminated in the most hideous of crimes, and the Herald of vengeance delivers unabashed his message. It is one of his former rapid, sudden, meteor-like appearances. Without warning or premonition, he confronts Ahab, like the ghostly shadow of the monarch's own guilty conscience; and, with a tongue of FIRE, flashes upon him the accusation--"Have you killed, and also taken possession?" We know not a grander subject for a great picture than this--the hero-prophet standing erect before the ghastly, terror-stricken king; breaking through the barriers of court etiquette, and caring only for the glory of the God he served and the good of Israel, charging him with the murderer's guilt, and pronouncing upon him the murderer's dreadful doom. The trembling monarch, awaking in a moment from his dream of iniquity to a sense of the presence which confronted him, shrieks aloud--"Have you found me, O my enemy." "I have found you," is the reply, "because you have sold yourself to work evil in the sight of the Lord." And then he proceeds to deliver the terrible sentence--The sword was to avenge the blood of the innocent. His family, root and branch, were to be extirpated--the wild dogs of the city and the winged vultures of heaven should banquet on the flesh of his sons!
The king cowered in despair. He tore his clothes, put sackcloth on his flesh, and in bitter misery bewailed, when it was too late, his aggravated sin. So heartfelt, however, was this agony of remorse, that the God he had insulted graciously respites his sentence. For three years, opportunity was given him, though in vain, for a fuller repentance and amendment, before the weapon of deferred retribution descends. But the day of vengeance comes at last. At the end of that period, in going up to battle, to Ramoth-Gilead, he is mortally wounded. In a crimson pool, at the foot of the chariot, he lies in the last convulsions of ebbing life--"The chariot was washed in the fountain of Samaria, and the dogs licked his blood!"
Jezebel's end was more signal and appalling still. At that moment, which we have described, when Ahab entered to take possession of the vineyard of Naboth, two attendants were seated at the back of his chariot, who overheard the stormy interview between him and the Prophet. The words Elijah then uttered, sank deep into the heart and memory of one of these. It was Jehu the son of Nimshi. And when, from the position of an attendant he rose to the dignity of a conqueror, and entered with a triumphant army the streets of Jezreel--though twenty long years had elapsed, he seems neither to have forgotten nor misunderstood his commission, as the scourge of God, and the avenger of innocent blood.
When the Queen, savage and debased as ever, tried first by pretentious arts, and then by insult, to conquer or defy her invader, the blood of the incensed warrior rose in his veins; by his orders, she was thrown from her window outside the city wall--trampled under feet of the horses, and torn to pieces by the dogs.
2 Kings 9:30-36– When Jezebel, the queen mother, heard that Jehu had come to Jezreel, she painted her eyelids and fixed her hair and sat at a window. When Jehu entered the gate of the palace, she shouted at him, "Have you come in peace, you murderer? You are just like Zimri, who murdered his master!"
Jehu looked up and saw her at the window and shouted, "Who is on my side?" And two or three eunuchs looked out at him. "Throw her down!" Jehu yelled. So they threw her out the window, and some of her blood spattered against the wall and on the horses. And Jehu trampled her body under his horses' hooves.
Then Jehu went into the palace and ate and drank. Afterward he said, "Someone go and bury this cursed woman, for she is the daughter of a king." But when they went out to bury her, they found only her skull, her feet, and her hands.
When they returned and told Jehu, he stated, "This fulfills the message from the Lord, which he spoke through his servant Elijah from Tishbe: 'At the plot of land in Jezreel, dogs will eat Jezebel's flesh.
There are many voices addressed to us from Naboth's vineyard.
One of these is– Beware of covetousness! That vineyard has its counterpart in the case and conduct of many still. Covetousness may assume a thousand chameleon hues and phases, but these all resolve themselves into a sinful craving after something other than what we have. Covetousness of fortune--a grasping after more material wealth, the race for riches. Covetousness of place--aspiring after other positions in life than those which Providence has assigned us--not because they are better--but because they are other than our present God-appointed lot--invested with an imaginary superiority.
And the singular and sad thing is, that such inordinate longings are most frequently manifested, as with Ahab, in the case of those who have least cause to indulge them. The covetous eye cast on the neighbor's vineyard is, (strange to say;) more the sin of the affluent than of the needy--of the owner of the lordly mansion than of the humble cottage. The man with his clay floor, and thatched roof, and crude wooden rafters, though standing far more in need of increase to his comfort, is often (is generally) more contented and satisfied by far than he whose cup is full. The old story, which every schoolboy knows, is a faithful picture of human nature. It was Alexander, not defeated, but victorious--Alexander, not the lord of one kingdom, but the sovereign of the world, who wept unsatisfied tears.
Ahab had everything that human ambition could desire. The cities of Israel his father had lost, had been all restored--peace was within his walls, and--prosperity within his palaces. His residences were unparalleled for beauty. His lordly park, and territories, and gardens at Jezreel--stretching for miles on every side of the city--had every rare tree and plant and flower to adorn them. But what pride or pleasure has he now in all these? Plants bloom, and birds sing, and fountains sparkle, in vain. So long as that one patch of vineyard-ground belonging to Naboth is denied him, his whole pleasure is blighted. He cannot brook that insult of refusal. It has stung him to the quick, and sends him to pout and fret, in unroyal tears, on his couch in Samaria!
How many there are, surrounded with all possible affluence and comfort, who put a life-thorn in their side by some similar chase after a denied good, some similar fretting about a denied trifle. They have abundance; the horn of plenty has poured its contents into their lap. But a neighbor possesses something which they imagine they might have also. Like Haman, though their history has been a golden dream of prosperity--advancement and honor such as the brightest visions of youth could never have pictured--yet all this avails them nothing, so long as they see Mordecai the Jew sitting at the king's gate!
Seek to suppress these unworthy envious longings. "For which things' sake," says the apostle, (and among these things is covetousness,) "the wrath of God comes on the children of disobedience." Covetousness, God makes a synonym for idolatry. He classes the covetous in the same category with the worshipers of stocks and stones. "Be content with such things as you have." Paul was ever sound in philosophy as in religion--his ethical, as well as his theological system, is one worthy of our profoundest study and imitation. Here is one of his maxims--"I have learned in whatever state I am therewith to be content. I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound; every where, and in all things; I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need."
The secret of his contentment was, that he was possessor of those "true riches," which made him independent of all worldly honors and gains and distinctions. "I have coveted," says he, "no man's silver or gold or apparel." Why? because he had nobler treasures than the mines of the earth could yield or its looms fabricate. Having Christ for his portion, he could say--"I have ALL and abound." The vineyard which he coveted, was that which "God's own right hand had planted, and the Branch he had made strong for Himself!" Be assured that nagging discontent will grow, if you feed it, until it comes to eat out the kernel of life's happiness--a discontented manhood or womanhood culminating in that saddest of conditions, a peevish old age.
In other sorrows, (the real trials of life,) the heart is upheld and solaced by sympathy, and by the nobler consolations of God's truth. But who or what could minister to a mind thus diseased? Who could pity the soul whining and murmuring in the midst of plenty? Who could throw away balm-words of comfort on those piercing themselves through with many sorrows, when these sorrows are imaginary--ghosts of their own discontented brain? As you value your peace, exorcize the foul fiend. Let Naboth alone in his vineyard, and enjoy yours just as it is. Impose not self-inflicted torture by longing for what you are better without. When shall we be taught in this grasping, avaricious, unsatisfied age, that a man's life, (his true being--his manhood--his glory,) consists not "in the abundance of the things which he possesses!"
Another of the voices from Naboth's vineyard is– Keep out of the way of temptation! If AHAB, knowing his own weakness and besetting sin, had put a restraint on his covetous eye, and not allowed it to stray on his neighbor's forbidden property, it would have saved a black page in his history, and the responsibilities of a heinous crime. Let us beware of tampering with evil. "If your right eye offends you, pluck it out, and cast it from you." "Avoid it," says the wise man, speaking of this path of temptation, "pass not by it, turn from it, and pass away."
If ACHAN had not cast his eye on the goodly Babylonish garment, the shekels of silver, and the wedge of gold, he would have saved Israel a bloody debacle and himself a fearful end. But he saw them; and the sight fed and fostered and stimulated the covetous master-passion--the latent avarice of his greedy heart. It was DAVID'S wandering eye that led to the twin crime of adultery and murder. He, also, ventured to the place of temptation. He had become an idler when he should have been a worker. The old, heroic, chivalrous days were over, when he would have despised luxurious ease, and been away rather to share the hardships of his brave army then in the field. Instead of this, he was basking in inglorious unsolderlike fashion, after his noontide meal, on the roof of his palace. He was out of the way of duty, and in the way of temptation; and one fatal look, and one fatal thought, entailed a heritage of bitter sorrow on himself and on his children's children.
Each has his own strong temptation--the fragile part of his nature--his besetting sin. That sin should be specially watched, muzzled, curbed--that gate of temptation specially padlocked and sentineled. One guilty neglect of duty--one unhappy abandonment of principle--one inconsistent, thoughtless word or deed--may be the progenitor of unnumbered evils. How many have bartered their peace of conscience for worthless trifles--sold a richer inheritance than Esau's birthright for a mess of earthly pottage! And once the first fatal step is taken, it cannot be so easily undone. Once the blot on fair character is made, the stain is not so easily erased.
Ahab's first and irretrievable blunder, was dated long anterior to the coveting of the vineyard. We have before noted that his thoughtless, unlawful, unprincipled union with a heathen princess, whose father's name and throne were blackened with infamy, was the commencement of his downward career--the first instalment of that price, by which, we read, "he sold himself to work iniquity." He would never, in any circumstance, have been a great man; he had no native vigor or independence of character for that; but, under better fostering influences, he might have been molded into a useful one. His facile, vacillating nature, might, by a better adaptable power, have been brought to incline to the side of virtue. But Jezebel was his evil genius. He was a mere puppet in her hands. She took anything that was noble and generous from him--instigating him only to execrable deeds. His better self surrendered to her base artifices, he became a depraved, effeminate weakling.
What we have already said, in a previous chapter, regarding the marriage union, is equally applicable to all business and social connections. How many, in the formation of these, by looking merely to worldly advantages, make shipwreck of faith and of a good conscience! How many a young man has been lured, by the prospect of monetary recompense, where his religious principles will be tampered with, or where he will be in danger of scheming at dishonest gains! The high sense of honor and integrity once lost or compromised, he becomes an easy prey to base arts--underhand, dishonorable ways, and double dealings. No worldly gains or position can make up for the absence of true wealth of character and principle. All that Phoenician riches could secure or lavish, followed the Sidonian princess to her Hebrew home in Samaria. But what of this? Under that Tyrian purple there lurked a heart, which turned all she had into counterfeit and base alloy. Oh, rather far, the poorest, lowliest, most unostentatious lot, with character unsoiled, than gilded ceilings and array of servants, plate, and equipage, where the nobler element of moral riches is lacking. Rather the crust of bread and the crippled means, with unsullied principle and priceless virtue, than all that boundless wealth can procure without them.
Another voice from Naboth's vineyard is– Be sure your sin will find you out! Ahab and Jezebel, as we have seen, had managed to a wish, their accursed plot. The wheels of crime had moved softly along without one rut or impediment in the way. The two murderers paced their blood-stained inheritance without fear of challenge or discovery. Naboth was in that silent land where no voice of protest can be heard against high-handed iniquity. But there was a God in heaven who makes inquisition for blood, and who "remembered them." Their time for retribution did come at last, although years of gracious forbearance were allowed to intervene. As we behold the mutilated remains of that once proud, unscrupulous queen, lying in the common receptacle of filth and carrion outside the city of her iniquities, her blood sprinkling the walls--or, in the case of the partner of her guilt, as we see the arrow from the Syrian bow piercing through "the jointed armor"--or as he lies weltering in his blood--his eyes closing in agony--the wild dogs, by the pool of Samaria, lick the crimson drops from the wheels of his chariot and the plates of his armor--have we not before us a solemn and dreadful comment on the words of Him who "judges righteous judgment"--"These things have you done, and I kept silence; you thought that I was altogether such a one as yourself--but I will reprove you, and set them in order before your eyes. Now consider this, you that forget God, lest I tear you in pieces, and there be none to deliver." "He that, being often reproved, hardens his neck, shall suddenly be destroyed, and that without remedy."
And are the principles of God's moral government different now? It is true, indeed, that the present economy deals not so exclusively as the old in temporal retribution. Sinners now have before them the surer and more terrible recompense and vengeance of a world to come. But not infrequently here also, retribution still follows, and sooner or later overtakes, the defiant transgressor. They who "sow to the wind" are made to "reap the whirlwind;" the solemn assertion of a righteous God is not uttered in vain--"I will search with lanterns in Jerusalem's darkest corners to find and punish those who sit contented in their sins, indifferent to the Lord, thinking he will do nothing at all to them."
Yes, and moreover, even should crime and wrongdoing be successfully hidden from the eye of man, CONSCIENCE, like another stern Elijah in the vineyard of Naboth, will confront the transgressor and utter a withering doom. How many such an Elijah stands a rebuker within the gates of modern vineyards, purchased by the reward of iniquity! How many such an Elijah stands a ghostly sentinel by the door of that house whose stones have been hewn and polished and piled by illicit gain! How many an Elijah mounts on the back of the modern chariot, horsed and harnessed, pillowed and cushioned and liveried with the amassings of successful roguery! How many an Elijah stands in the midst of banquet-hall and drawing-room scowling down on some murderer of domestic peace and innocence, who has intruded into vineyards more sacred than Naboth's--trampled VIRTUE under foot, and left the broken, bleeding vine, to trail its shattered tendrils unpitied on the ground!
And even should Conscience itself, in this world be defied and overborne; at all events in the world to come, sin must be discovered; retribution (long evaded here) will at last exact its uttermost farthing. The most dreadful picture of a state of eternal punishment, is that of sinners surrendered to the mastery of their own special transgression; these sins, like the fabled furies, following them, in unrelenting pursuit, from hall to hall and from cavern to cavern in the regions of unending woe--and they, at last, hunted down, wearied, breathless, with the unavailing effort to escape the tormentors, crouching in wild despair, and exclaiming, like Ahab to Elijah, "Have you found me, O my enemy?"
We may appropriately close this chapter with the
impressive words and prayer of the Psalmist--