The Scriptures contain some very, very strange passages. There are things in the Bible that make even the most committed readers shake their heads in confusion. One of the all-time strangest passages is 1 Kings 22.
Why? Just read it.
Here’s a little context.
Ahab b. Omri became king of Israel in 873 BCE. His predecessor, Omri, was a military commander who had led a coup and then successfully crushed his competition in a brutal civil war. He handed Ahab a successful kingdom, with alliances to a number of strong states around it.
Ahab married Jezebel, the daughter of Ishba’al, the king of Tyre, and together they established a variety of Canaanite cults in their capital city of Samaria. By marrying their daughter, Athaliah, to the heir to the southern kingdom of Judah, Jehoram. Together, Ahab and Jezebel ruled Israel and wieleded incredible influence until Ahab died in battle in 852 BCE.
Jezebel and two of her sons held power for a little over a year, but then a military commander named Jehu wiped out all of their children and killed Jezebel, claiming the throne for himself. Athaliah, in Judah, survived until she was ultimately killed in an uprising around 835 BCE.
A Strange Prophecy
1 Kings 22 takes place right before Ahab was killed. In fact, it deals with the prophecy of his death. Ahab formed an allegiance with Jehoshaphat, the king of Judah, hoping to defeat the rising power to their north, the Arameans.
The plan backfires. Ahab, who has defied YHWH, the Hebrew God, at every turn finds himself at the mercy of a nameless bowman. This could easily be attributed to YHWH no longer protecting Ahab. The problem is that in 1 Kings 22, the prophet Micaiah makes it plain that YHWH intentionally deceived Ahab and Jehoshaphat.
Here’s what Micaiah said:
Now hear therefore the word of YHWH! I saw YHWH sitting on his throne, and all the host of heaven standing by him on his right hand and on his left.
And YHWH said, ‘Who shall persuade Ahab, that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?’ And one said on this manner, and another said on that manner. And there came forth a spirit, and stood before YHWH, and said, ‘I will persuade him.’ And YHWH said unto him, ‘Wherewith?’ And he said, ‘I will go forth, and I will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.’ And he said, ‘You shalt persuade him, and prevail also: go forth, and do so.’
Now therefore, behold, YHWH hath put a lying spirit in the mouth of all of your prophets, and YHWH hath spoken evil concerning you. (1 Kings 22:19-24)
God sends lying spirits? He makes prophets deceive kings? How do we reconcile this with a God who cannot lie (Titus 1:2)?
No matter how you slice it, this is probably the most difficult passage in Scripture. If we take a hyperliteral view of the text, then we have no choose to admit that YHWH deceived someone indirectly to accomplish what amounts to the murder of a king.
What to do?
Most Christians are more than happy to be ignorant of passages like this. They have a sort of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy toward these kinds of things.
But now you’re looking at it. You’re seeing this passage for perhaps the first time. What do you do?
1. Context, context, context. Any time we are going to make an interpretation, we have to consider the context. What kind of literature is this? What is happening in the narrative? Who is speaking? Who is the audience?
In this case, we are reading a historical record. Kings is not meant to express doctrine. It records events as they occurred, and that means it includes a lot of things as they happened. As we all know, reality does not always fit into theology. The moment does not always appear to fit into the narrative.
2. Consider rhetoric vs. dogma. Throughout Scripture, the prophets say things that don’t conform to theology. They are momentary revelations that are often rhetorical devices. Nathan manipulated David through a story (2 Samuel 12). Ezekiel was commanded to prophesy while his wife lay dying (Ezekiel 24:18). Elisha made iron float (2 Kings 6:6).
This kind of stuff was not meant to be permanent truth. It was momentary revelation. Rhetorical acts and statements do not present doctrine. In fact, it is a terrible idea to form doctrine from these kinds of situations. If a prophet tells a story about something happening in heaven, he isn’t teaching the doctrine of heaven. He is bringing forth a point.
3. God deals differently with kings and nations. This might be hard to grasp, but the way God works with kings and nations is very different from the way he works with individuals. God forbids murder but at times commands war. David, a man after God’s own hearts, was not allowed to build the Temple because of his bloody past (according to 1 Chronicles). Paul tells us to honor those in authority over us while Jesus defied Caesar when Caesar’s law conflicted with God’s.
Of the three things I am listing here, this is the one I am most uncomfortable with. The Scriptures make it clear that God both controls the hearts of the kings and rulers AND that some kings and rulers are evil. God deals with kings and nations in ways that don’t make sense to individuals. That’s all I can say about the topic, really. If I ever figure out a formula or system for understanding it, I will let you know.
So, back to the question. What to do with 1 Kings 22?
First of all, we are reading things as they happened and that means we have to believe that Micaiah actually said this to Ahab and Jehoshaphat. But we are also reading the rhetoric of a prophet and the point is not the parable of YHWH and his spirits but rather the prophecy that Ahab would die. That was true.
It is easy to dwell in the valley of minutiae and argue about why Micaiah put things this way. Perhaps it is the same reason that John used the image of Caesar’s triumph in describing the throne room of God some three thousand years later in the Revelation (Revelation 4). It is a momentary revelation.
Perhaps it was a reflection of Micaiah’s knowledge of Ahab’s own workings. The way Ahab’s servant Zedekiah responds seems to indicate that Micaiah struck a nerve. Perhaps Ahab had held a counsel earlier to draw Jehoshaphat down to battle, and that the counsel had looked and sounded very much like the one Micaiah described.
Maybe God does mislead the leaders of nations to bring about their downfall? After all, he did harden pharaoh’s heart during the ten plagues.
What this text does not teach is that YHWH sits in heaven trying to figure out how to lie to and manipulate the average person. This narrative is not normative, meaning we don’t form doctrine from it. We accept it as true, but we also accept that it is meant to explain Ahab’s downfall – not to establish principles for our lives.