I Kings 22, Psalm 105, Acts 20
Are we free to shape our future?
I Kings 22
First Kings ends with an interesting account of a battle that changed the face of the kingdom and leaves us pondering, “Can we shape our own future or is our destiny predetermined? Is there a plan for each of our lives that simply unfolds or are we free agents able to shape our own future?”
Three years have elapsed since the alliance of Ahab and Ben-Hadad was formed in chapter 20. This alliance bought them time under the impending threat of the Assyrian king Shalmaneser III, who was moving westward. Think of President Putin secretly moving Russia soldiers and surrogate fighters and weapons across the Ukrainian border as he presses to extend the boundaries of Russia westward.
In 853 B.C, Shalmaneser finally posed a threat to Aram, where he was met by a coalition of twelve western nations at the Battle of Qarqar. Think of NATO forces and the fighter planes from Portugal and Canada featured on the front of today’s Wall Street Journal participating in flying maneuvers over NATO countries bordering Russia. They were sending a signal to President Putin, after the number of intercepts of Russian fighter planes near the borders of these countries has doubled since last year.
Is war inevitable? Does God know who will be killed in advance and who will win the war? Are we players on a stage where all of the lines and actions have been mapped out in advance? The Bible wrestles with such questions in today’s Old Testament lesson.
Qarqar, where the defining battle occurred, was located about 150 miles north of Damascus. This region is once again embroiled in war as the destiny of Syria is at stake. Shalmaneser claimed victory in the Battle of Qarqar, but a subsequent study reveals that the western coalition of twelve nations succeeded in most of their objective of holding off Shalmaneser’s forces. The confederacy of nations held strong for twelve years, before their bond eroded and Shalmaneser took control of the region. Shalmaneser’s success encouraged Ahab to take military action and seek to regain Ramoth-gilead.
Chapter 22 opens with King Jehoshaphat of Judah meeting with Ahab the king of Israel, who asks, “Do you know that Ramoth-gilead belongs to us, yet we are doing nothing to take it out of the hand of the king of Aram? Will you go with me in battle at Ramoth-gilead?” Jehoshaphat replies, “I am as you are; my people are your people, my horses are your horses.” (1 Kings 22:4) His words seem to mirror Ruth’s reply to her mother-in-law Naomi, “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” (Ruth 1:16)
Then Jehoshaphat utters a great line, “Inquire first for the word of the Lord.” (1 Kings 22:6) Each of us would be wise to do this before moving forward with great changes or decisions in our lives. We would be wise to ask, “What does the Lord want from me? Is this the step that I should be taking? What is God’s will for me or for my family and me in the midst of this situation? What would God have me do with my (relationship, marriage, church, organization, business, education, school, medical or legal practice at this time)? In such moments it is a great time to study the Scriptures more profoundly and listen more closely to what God is revealing in Scripture, saying in our heart and suggesting in our mind.
The king of Israel does not listen to the Lord, but summons 400 prophets and let them speak. They speak in unison, saying, “Go up; for the Lord will give [Ramoth-gilead] into the hand of the king.” (1 Kings 22:6) If ever a leader was surrounded by “Yes men” Ahab is it. When 400 people all tell you the same thing, you either know that it is absolutely true and there is no need to seek out other points of view or that you have surrounded yourself with people who will only tell you what you want to hear. How many leaders are surrounded by people who only tell them what they desire to hear?
In her Pulitzer Prize winning book Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin tells the story of how President Abraham Lincoln created the most unusual cabinet in the history of the American presidency by taking his political rivals into his cabinet and harnessing them to win the Civil War. Each of these men was more privileged and accomplished than Lincoln, but Lincoln succeeded because he was able to put himself in the place of other men and was able to experience what they were feeling and understand their motives and desires. His cabinet frequently opposed him and offered different points of view, which enabled Lincoln to deal with incompetent generals, hostile congressman and his raucous cabinet.
Jehoshaphat to his credit seeks other voices. He wants a second opinion in addition to the 400 uniform voices. He asks, “Is there no other prophet of the Lord here of whom we may inquire?” (1 Kings 22:7) Ahab notes, “There is still one other by whom we may inquire of the Lord, Micaiah son of Imlah; but I hate him, for he never prophesies anything favorable about me, but only disaster.” (1 King 22:8) Micaiah is quickly summoned, and like a trained animal says, “Go up and triumph; the Lord will give it into the hand of the king.” (1 Kings 22:15) Knowing that he is only telling him what he wishes to hear, the king presses back against the prophet.
This time, Micaiah is true to form and predicts utter destruction of the forces of Israel. “I saw all of Israel scattered on the mountains, like sheep that have no shepherd…” he tells the king. (1 Kings 22:17) For his reward, Micaiah is put in prison on a reduced amount of bread and water until the king returns in peace. Prisons in those days were not meant for reforming a criminal, but were more often labor crews that worked in palaces or temples. Sometimes, individuals were simply thrown in pits, while others were political prisoners and often used in humiliating public displays.
The king of Israel decides to cover his bets and enter battle in disguise, which was not uncommon in Assyria. When a bad omen such as an eclipse occurred, kings would use an elaborate ritual to create a substitute king to take their place. This person bore the brunt of the ill fate that was intended to fall upon the king. By disguising himself the king could avoid his fate. Ahab’s disguise may fool the enemy, but it does not fool the forces of destiny, which according to Micaiah had prescribed his doom.
Aramean chariots were used for specific purposes in battle. While they may have joined in the initial infantry attack, they were almost always used for specific objectives such as targeting the opposing king. In the Battle of Qarqar, they pursued Ahab. By chance, a soldier shot an arrow, which pierced the sections of armor worn by the disguised king. The king’s armor consisted of a solid breastplate and an armor kilt, and the arrow pierces the seam and gives a death blow to Ahab, who bleeds to death.
They carry Ahab to Samaria, where he is buried. His blood-bathed chariot is washed by the pool of Samaria, where dogs lick up his blood and prostitutes bathe in the dead king’s blood, fulfilling a prophecy. Jehoshaphat is thirty-five and will reign for another twenty-five years, and the succession of good kings and bad kings continues. We are left wondering, “Do we have free will? Is our destiny predetermined? Can we create our own future or are we predestined for a future that will unfold?
Psalm 105 is a wonderful recollection that recalls the wanderings of the patriarchs as Abraham left Ur of the Chaldees in Mesopotamia and traveled to Canaan via Gerar and Egypt. Joseph makes his family move to Egypt, where they sojourn, and God watches over them. We recall the shackles that the Hebrews wore in Egypt and the plagues that God sends upon their tormentors. The psalmist recalls the pillar of cloud and fire that accompany the Israelites as they trek through the wilderness. The story of the Exodus is recounted in poetry and song.
Few things are more powerful in a culture than poetry and song. The searing division of Protestants and Roman Catholics in Ireland has been immortalized in both. Once during a Celtic pilgrimage, I was with a group of clergy in a pub on the outskirts of Dublin listening to wonderful Irish music when the crowd, which had imbibed plenty of Guinness, became raucous. I focused on the poetic lyrics and realized that what we were listening to was an IRA fighting song. We quickly exited the pub.
The poetic words set to music resurrected hatred of Protestant by generations of Roman Catholics and stoked the crowd that seemed to relive the pain that their ancestors had experienced. For century upon century, Jews have recalled the wounds inflicted upon them in Egypt and proudly remember the journey to freedom taken in the Exodus and the security that they encountered in the Promise Land.
No matter how boring a preacher may be or how long-winded his or her sermons may be, few can come as close to Paul for inflicting damage upon his listeners. While Paul preaches late into the night in a lamp-lit upstairs room, a young man named Eutychus, whose name means “fortunate” in Greek, is sitting on a windowsill and listening to Paul drone on. Finally, Eutychus doses off and falls three floors to the ground, where he appears dead. Paul races downstairs with the congregation, picks up the boy and says, “Do not be alarmed, for his life is in him.” (Acts 20:10)
Some believe that Eutychus was merely knocked unconscious, but others claim that Luke, a physician by training, was writing a first person account as an eyewitness. Luke could tell that the boy was dead and sees that Paul’s actions restored life to Eutychus. This story echoes the acts of the prophets such as Elijah in 1 Kings 17:17-24 and Elisha in 2 Kings 4:32-37.
The Eucharist is celebrated and the boy is taken home, while Paul and the congregation return upstairs, where he continues to preach and they converse until dawn. This story should be frequently read to those who get bored in a one-hour church service.
Paul, who refers to himself as a “captive of the Spirit,” prepares his listeners for his departure before he embarks on his third trip to Jerusalem. He says, “I did not shrink from doing anything helpful, proclaiming the message to you and teaching you publicly and from house to house, as I testified to both Jews and Greeks about repentance towards God and faith toward our Lord Jesus.” (Acts 20:21) Few people in history gave more of themselves to God than Paul.
He leaves with a clear conscience, which is all that any of us can hope to do, when we prepare to set out and leave those whom we have known and loved, knowing that he has done his best. “I am on my way to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and persecutions are waiting for me. But I do not count my life of any value to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I have received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the god news of God’s grace.” (Acts 20:22-24)
What was the message that he had shared? It was a “message of [God’s] grace, a message that is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all who are sanctified.” (Acts 20:32) To be sanctified is to be set apart for God to work through and become a saint. Paul knew that God sets apart each person each baptized person and intends for him or her to be a saint. We can only hope that when the time comes for us to leave our loves ones that we will know that we have served God well.
Paul notes that he has “worked with [his] own hands to support [himself] and [his] companions,” asking nothing from others to support himself. Artisans in the ancient Near East worked with their hands to support themselves, unlike the small upper class, which drew their income from landowning. The philosophical elite despised manual labor. Rabbis had trades, but philosophers preferred to charge fees for their teaching, lived off the wealth of the rich or begged.
“In all of this I have given you an example,” concludes Paul, “that by such work we must support the weak, remembering the words of the Lord Jesus, for he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” (Acts 20:35) In some ways, this is the gospel in miniature. A Christian life is a life turned inside out, where the focus is on serving others. In so doing, we find our deepest purpose and the essence of our existence and receive our deepest joy. The prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assisi captures this selfless spirit of love and joy well as we pray,
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
It is in dying that we are born to eternal life. (Book of Common Prayer, p. 833)
Inquire first for the word of the Lord.” (1 Kings 22:6)
In all of this I have given you an example, that by such work we must support the weak, remembering the words of the Lord Jesus, for he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” (Acts 20:35)
Do you believe that God controls your destiny or that you are free to chart your own course and take responsibility for your actions and your future? Are you leading an inside out life, where your focus is constantly on others?
Holy God, you are the source of our very being, and you breathe life into us each day, offering us more opportunity to do your will, to seek your purpose, to focus on others, to let the good gifts that you have shared with us flow into the lives of others. Help us to make wise choices, manage our time well, treasure simple gifts and watch as you reveal yourself in nature and in encounters with others as we focus more on giving than on receiving this day. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania