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There was no one like Ahab, who sold himself to work wickedness in the sight of the Lord, committing abominations, following idols, and stirred up to great evil by his wife Jezebel. And yet when Ahab humbled himself before the Lord, the Lord relented from the immediate judgment he had promised. This story reminds us that God’s merciful kindness is great.
Summary of the Text: Getting a running start, remember that we first met Ahab in 1 Kings 16 when he became King of the northern kingdom of Israel (Samaria), and we are told that Ahab did more to provoke the Lord God of Israel to anger than all the kings of Israel that were before him (1 Kgs. 16:33). Under Ahab’s reign Jericho was rebuilt, with the foundations dedicated in the blood of two sons (16:34). Recall the animosity of Ahab for Elijah, beginning with Elijah’s announcement of a severe drought on the land (17:1), followed by the great showdown between Ahab’s prophets of Baal and Elijah three years later (18:17-46), and the great manhunt for Elijah forcing him into exile in the wilderness (19:1-21). Just before our text, Ahab has displayed manic-like bouts of rage and depression, where the Lord gave great military victories, but Ahab failed to deliver a crushing blow and he went home to his house in a furious displeasure (1 Kgs. 20:43). Following this, Ahab tried to buy Naboth’s vineyard, but failing that he once again throws a royal fit on his bed (21:4). And it is after his wife, Jezebel, has orchestrated the lynching of Naboth that our text picks up with the Lord instructing Elijah to go to Ahab and pronounce His sentence of the utter destruction of his family (1 Kgs. 21:17-24). The narrator once again reminds us (as if we needed reminding) that there was none like Ahab who did wickedness in the sight of the Lord (21:25-26). But when Ahab tears his clothes, puts on sackcloth, fasts, and goes about in humility, the Lord takes notice and tells Elijah that Ahab has humbled himself and therefore the judgment will be postponed (21:27-28).
Arise and Go Down to Meet Ahab
This whole story really is astounding. First off, put yourself in Elijah’s shoes — being sent yet again to Ahab. Ahab had married Jezebel – daughter of the king of the Sidonians and champion of Baal worship (1 Kgs. 16:31). Remember all the prophets murdered, and all the prophets still hiding from Ahab and Jezebel (1 Kgs. 18:13). Remember Jezebel’s oath to kill Elijah and him running for his life (1 Kgs. 19:2-3). Remember Elijah’s exhaustion and deep discouragement after the Mt. Carmel showdown (1 Kgs. 19:10). Remember how so many in Israel had turned away from God (1 Kgs. 19:14). Remember Ahab’s awful attitude (1 Kgs. 20:43, 21:4). Remember Jezebel’s plotting and Naboth’s murder – and think of Naboth’s family. The assignment of going to Ahab yet again to announce God’s judgment would have been very hard. What good would it do? Why tell him of his wickedness again? There was no one who had sold himself to work more wickedness in the sight of the Lord than Ahab (1 Kgs. 21:25). Even Ahab’s initial greeting is utterly disheartening and dripping with hatred: “Hast thou found me, O mine enemy?” (1 Kgs. 21:20). Are there people in this world, in your life that seem to be in the same category? Could they be more hard-hearted? Could they be more antagonistic? Could they be more of an enemy? Is there something in you that says, Why bother? What good will it do?
Bright Light for a Dark World
Part of our problem is that we have been fed the lie that we must choose between law and grace, high standards and mercy. But that is the one thing, as Christians, we must not do. There is no radical grace apart from the law establishing our pitch-black guilt, and there is no pure mercy apart from the high standards we have utterly failed. “Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other” (Ps. 85:10). “Grace, mercy, and peace be with you from God the Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father, in truth and love” (2 Jn. 1:3). Mercy and truth, righteousness and grace can only be rightly held together in Jesus Christ. Otherwise, well-meaning people will veer between crushing legalism and sentimental licentiousness. We will swerve between pure condemnation and pliable accommodation. But this means that every refusal to hold mercy and truth together is a rejection of Jesus.
This is why we insist on proclaiming the horror of sin in all of its hideousness because Jesus was crucified for our hideous sin. “But there was none like unto Ahab, which did sell himself to work wickedness in the sight of the Lord, whom Jezebel his wife stirred up. And he did abominably in following idols…” (1 Kgs. 21:25-26). The message from Elijah was not sugar-coated; it was direct and harsh in its delivery (1 Kgs. 21:20-23). The point of this is not to encourage you to deliver this exact message to every pro-abort person in your family, office, or Facebook feed. The point is simply that we must name sin biblically – hatred, adultery, murder, lust, idolatry, prostitution, abomination, vile affections, perversion, unnatural affection, shameful. All our excuses, all our blaming, all of our “victimologies” and rapidly multiplying “intersectionalities” of victimhood are attempts to lighten certain sins, and this is fundamentally an attack on grace, an attempt to rob the world of God’s merciful kindness. We name sin in all of its hideousness because Jesus endured the hideousness of the cross. We proclaim the darkness of sin so that the light of complete forgiveness might shine on every man. We speak the truth in this love (Eph. 4:15).
For His Merciful Kindness is Great
“This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief. Howbeit for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might shew forth all longsuffering, for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on him to life everlasting” (1 Tim. 1:15-16). So the first application is straightforward: What have you done? What have you thought? What have you said? What have you looked at? What have you failed to do? Do you think you are beyond the reach of God’s mercy? Do you think that it is so dark, so disgusting, so shameful that God cannot have anything to do with it? But the Bible is the story of God’s grace. This is why we should love the genealogies. Long lists of sinners, mostly unknown to us, beloved to their God. The only difference between the saved and the damned is pride. The saved were not better people, the damned were not worse. The saved humbled themselves, cast themselves on God’s mercy, but the damned refuse His offer. If God notices the fleeting, desperate humility of Ahab will he not notice you when you call out to Him? If God saved Paul to show forth all longsuffering, then this was a pattern for you.
But all of this is also for the world. I had begun preparation of this sermon before Governor Cuomo signed the New York abortion law this last week. But here we are. What is your attitude toward the other Ahabs and Jezebels of this world? On the one hand, we must be praying that God raise up Elijahs who will go to Governor Cuomo and tell him the hard truth. We ought to be praying that God will raise up Elijahs to walk into the New York legislature and proclaim the vileness of their actions. But having proclaimed these dark truths and having walked out of those chambers, if those same brazen and bloodthirsty men and women fall to their knees in grief-stricken repentance, we must be praying that those Elijahs are the kinds of men who would gladly walk back into Cuomo and his goons and announce that their sins have been forgiven. Could you do that?
Do you hate sin because you love grace? Are you eager for their forgiveness?