ELIJAH 3 – NABOTH’S VINEYARD

 (Download doc file)

SET READINGS (Proper 6)

  • 1 Kings 21:1-21a
  • Luke 7:36-8:3
  • Galatians 2:15-21
  • Psalm 5:1-8

——————————————————–

WHY DOESN’T GOD DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT?

Today’s Psalm expresses a cry of help to God from his believing and trusting servant:

Listen to my cry for help, my King and my God, for to you I pray.
In the morning, O LORD, you hear my voice;
in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait in expectation.

Naboth may well have prayed a prayer just like this in the morning that Ahab woke up and fancied taking over his family vineyard to plant as a vegetable garden. He was, we have to assume, a God-fearing man who was just trying to do the right thing and protect his family inheritance.

But by the end of the day he was dead, killed by Ahab’s greed and Jezebel’s ruthlessness. And, we might add, the weakness and apathy of those regular citizens of Jezreel who didn’t have the guts to stand up for Naboth against institutional corruption and greed.

Why does God allow such things to continue in our world? Why should folk like Ahab and Jezebel be allowed to get away with such behaviour, while innocent folk like Naboth pay the price?

  • What examples do you see in our own society of the poorer members of our community being unfairly treated?
  • Why doesn’t God do something about it?
  • What can we (God’s people) do to help address the situation?

——————————————————–

NABOTH’S VINEYARD (1 Kings 21:1-21a)

The story of Naboth’s vineyard is a fascinating story in its own right, especially for giving us an excellent insight into the characters of Ahab and Jezebel. But it‘s an important episode in the larger story of Elijah’s ministry, as this is the event that sets up the ongoing confrontation between Elijah (and God!) on one side, against Ahab and Jezebel on the other.

The action all takes place around the city of Jezreel, where Ahab’s palace was situated. Jezreel was pretty much in the centre of the northern kingdom of Israel, and historians claim that Ahab’s palace, or fortress, housed his main cavalry troops.

Unfortunately for Naboth, his family home, and his ancestral vineyard happened to be close to Ahab’s palace, and Ahab fancied it would be a good site to plant a new vegetable patch. Ahab proposes that Naboth hands over his vineyard for cash, or in exchange for another (and better) vineyard elsewhere. But Naboth refuses to accept the king’s offer.

“The LORD forbid that I should give you the inheritance of my fathers.”

Naboth is not taking the Lord’s name in vain here. It was indeed one of the most fundamental commands of the Law of Moses, and a requirement of the Israelites’ possession of the Promised Land, that family property should remain within the family’s possession for posterity, handed down over the generations. If anything did happen that caused family property to be sold (or leased) to repay family debts, then at the year of Jubilee all such property had to be handed back to the original owner.

Such laws ensured that the rightful inheritance passed from one generation to the next, and limited the possibilities for the rich to get richer by exploiting the poor.

But apart from the legal right for Naboth to maintain his own family inheritance, think about the short-term idiocy of digging up a vineyard –  loved and watered and productive for generations – in order to plant a vegetable garden that would need replanting every year. Just because Ahab didn’t want to have to walk too far to tend his allotment!

Ahab’s response is to act like a spoilt teenager. “He lay on his bed sulking and refused to eat.” And he stayed there sulking until Jezebel came home and found him. She rightly chides him for being so childish. “Is this how you act as king over Israel?” But Jezebel goes much further.

“Get up and eat! Cheer up. I’ll get you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite.”

Jezebel’s subsequent actions shows just how vicious and deceitful she is, and illustrates the fact that Jezebel, rather than Ahab, is the one in control of Israel and all its affairs.

Jezebel sends instruction to the elders and nobles of the city of Jezreel, but we are told that, “she wrote letters in Ahab’s name, and placed his seal on them”. Why would she need to do that? Surely the elders of the city would recognize Jezebel’s hand in the instructions they received and know they would be in trouble with Jezebel if they didn’t do what they were told.

The overall picture we get from this story is of Ahab as a very weak, pathetic character who lets himself be manipulated by a domineering wife, and of Jezebel as a woman who is used to assuming command, as has no compunction about taking her husband’s authority for granted.

Her instruction to the leaders of the community are chilling.

“Proclaim a day of fasting and seat Naboth in a prominent place among the people. But seat two scoundrels opposite him and have them testify that he has cursed both God and the king. Then take him out and stone him to death.”

There are other means that Jezebel could have used to get Naboth out of the way, but having him falsely accused and stoned to death as a criminal would ensure that his property would be confiscated and pass to the royal estate. (There is much here to remind us of the way Jesus was betrayed and condemned to a cruel death on the cross).

So the elders and nobles did as Jezebel told them. No doubt too afraid of Jezebel to dare disobey her instruction. Then they sent word to Jezebel:

“Naboth has been stoned and is dead.”

Job done.

At this point Jezebel went to report to Ahab what had happened, and

“When Ahab heard that Naboth was dead, he got up (still sulking in bed while all this was happening?!) and went down to take possession of Naboth’s vineyard.”

Where was God while all this was happening? Why does he not step in? That’s a common complaint, and the subject of several of the Psalms. Psalm 73 is especially appropriate.

I envied the proud when I saw them prosper despite their wickedness.
They seem to live such painless lives; their bodies are so healthy and strong.
They don’t have troubles like other people;
they’re not plagued with problems like everyone else.

And so the people are dismayed and confused, drinking in all their words.
“What does God know?” they ask.
“Does the Most High even know what’s happening?
Look at these wicked people—
 enjoying a life of ease while their riches multiply.”

So I tried to understand why the wicked prosper.
But what a difficult task it is!
Then I went into your sanctuary, O God,
and I finally understood the destiny of the wicked.

(Psalm 73:3-5, 10-12, 16-17 NLT)

What a difficult task it is, indeed. But finally, says the Psalmist, I went into your sanctuary, and then I understood. God does see everything, and ultimately he will have the last word, either in this life or in the next.

What about Naboth? Naboth died a righteous death, protecting his ancestral heritage, and denying Ahab’s selfish and short-sighted greed. Hebrews 11 mentions those who were persecuted and killed for their faith in God.

Some died by stoning, some were sawed in half, and others were killed with the sword. Some went about wearing skins of sheep and goats, destitute and oppressed and mistreated. They were too good for this world… All these people earned a good reputation because of their faith… (Hebrews 11:37-39 NLT)

Naboth earns his place in the list of those who died in faith, and who will receive their reward – eternal life and a crown of glory – in God’s everlasting kingdom.

But God hasn’t finished yet with Ahab and Jezebel. He sends Elijah to confront Ahab at Nabal’s vineyard, where Ahab has gone to take possession.

If we look beyond the rather dramatic wording (which is typical of what we might call “apocalyptic language” designed to express the seriousness of God’s anger and disgust at Ahab and Jezebel’s behaviour), Elijah is effectively signaling the end of Ahab and Jezebel’s rule over Israel. God is rejecting Ahab and his descendants from ruling over Israel, and will appoint another in his stead, just as he rejected Saul and appointed David to be King in his place.

But there is an interesting twist in the tail. Jezebel will meet a gory end exactly as Elijah predicts, but as for Ahab,

When Ahab heard these words, he tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and fasted. He lay in sackcloth and went around meekly.
Then the word of the LORD came to Elijah the Tishbite:”Have you noticed how Ahab has humbled himself before me? Because he has humbled himself, I will not bring this disaster in his day, but I will bring it on his house in the days of his son.”
1 Kings 21:27-29

Perhaps Ahab does have a conscience after all! He shows every sign of genuine repentance over his behaviour, and God accepts the humility and sincerity of his fasting. God’s punishment is postponed. Ahab was killed in battle not long after these events, but at least his death is more honourable than that of his disgraced wife Jezebel.

And all of this began with King Ahab wanting a suitable place to plant a vegetable garden!

——————————————————–

DISCUSSION …

The Psalmist confesses (Psalm 73:16-17):

So I tried to understand why the wicked prosper.
But what a difficult task it is!
Then I went into your sanctuary, O God,
and I finally understood the destiny of the wicked.

  • How can seeing things from God’s long-term perspective help us to find an answer?

Ahab’s personal punishment was postponed because of his repentance, but his dynasty was replaced just as God predicted, and Elijah was told to anoint Jehu as king instead.

  • What does this show us about God’s character and the nature of his judgements?
  • Even though Ahab’s personal repentance was accepted by God, his sin still had long-term consequences for his descendants and for Israel as a nation. How did God eventually respond to Israel’s continued immorality and idolatry?
  • What can we learn from prophets like Elijah and Elisha who stood out against the inevitable downward slide?

——————————————————–

MEDITATION …

Psalm 5 effectively answers many of the questions that have arisen from our discussions.

The Psalmist is confident of God’s righteous character, of his hatred of sin, deceit and pride. He knows that God will deal with the wicked and judge them in due time. But as for him, he resolves to enter the house of the Lord, to seek his guidance and help, and to continue faithfully worshipping and following the path of righteousness that God has set before him.

Let’s resolve to follow the Psalmist’s example.

Psalm 5:1-8

For the director of music. For flutes. A psalm of David.

Give ear to my words, O LORD, consider my sighing.
Listen to my cry for help, my King and my God, for to you I pray.
In the morning, O LORD, you hear my voice;
in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait in expectation.

You are not a God who takes pleasure in evil;
with you the wicked cannot dwell.
The arrogant cannot stand in your presence;
you hate all who do wrong.
You destroy those who tell lies;
bloodthirsty and deceitful men the LORD abhors.

But I, by your great mercy, will come into your house;
in reverence will I bow down toward your holy temple.
Lead me, O LORD, in your righteousness because of my enemies—
make straight your way before me.