1 Kings 20


As we enter these last three chapters, we read about the last five years of Ahab’s reign, and we read about war after war between Israel, Judah and Syria. Whilst these three nations are fighting each other, in the background, there is another nation rising, a nation which is going to change the history of the northern kingdom of Israel forever, that nation is the Assyrians.

Ben-Hadad Attacks Samaria

‘Now Ben-Hadad king of Aram mustered his entire army. Accompanied by thirty-two kings with their horses and chariots, he went up and besieged Samaria and attacked it. He sent messengers into the city to Ahab king of Israel, saying, ‘This is what Ben-Hadad says: ‘Your silver and gold are mine, and the best of your wives and children are mine.’ The king of Israel answered, ‘Just as you say, my lord the king. I and all I have are yours.’ The messengers came again and said, ‘This is what Ben-Hadad says: ‘I sent to demand your silver and gold, your wives and your children. But about this time tomorrow I am going to send my officials to search your palace and the houses of your officials. They will seize everything you value and carry it away.’ The king of Israel summoned all the elders of the land and said to them, ‘See how this man is looking for trouble! When he sent for my wives and my children, my silver and my gold, I did not refuse him.’ The elders and the people all answered, ‘Don’t listen to him or agree to his demands.’ So he replied to Ben-Hadad’s messengers, ‘Tell my lord the king, ‘Your servant will do all you demanded the first time, but this demand I cannot meet.’ They left and took the answer back to Ben-Hadad. Then Ben-Hadad sent another message to Ahab: ‘May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if enough dust remains in Samaria to give each of my men a handful.’ The king of Israel answered, ‘Tell him: ‘One who puts on his armor should not boast like one who takes it off.’ Ben-Hadad heard this message while he and the kings were drinking in their tents, and he ordered his men: ‘Prepare to attack.’ So they prepared to attack the city.’ 1 Kings 20:1-12

Ben-Hadad gathered an army and the thirty-two kings were rulers of the cities states who made an alliance with Ben-Hadad. It appears that Ahab agrees to the request of the alliance of kings under Ben-Hadad, we see this because he paid gold and silver and has hostages to Ben-Hadad.

Ahab also knew that Baal couldn’t do anything to save him but appeared to be content to buy his life on any terms whatever. Rather than being a courageous king and defending his people, he was willing to give him gold, silver, wives and children. I guess he thought it was better to be a living poor king than to be a dead rich king.

Ahab agreed with the alliance but he didn’t allow him to enter the capital which didn’t go down very well with Ben-Hadad and so he threatens to flatten Samaria.

Ahab tells him that, ‘one who puts on his armor should not boast like one who takes it off,’ which basically means that no one should boast as if the battle has already been won, hence you take your armour off when the battle is finished. And so the stage is set for a war between Ahab and Ben-Hadad.

Ahab Defeats Ben-Hadad

‘Meanwhile a prophet came to Ahab king of Israel and announced, ‘This is what the LORD says: ‘Do you see this vast army? I will give it into your hand today, and then you will know that I am the LORD.’ ‘But who will do this?’ asked Ahab. The prophet replied, ‘This is what the LORD says: ‘The junior officers under the provincial commanders will do it.’ ‘And who will start the battle?’ he asked. The prophet answered, ‘You will.’ So Ahab summoned the 232 junior officers under the provincial commanders. Then he assembled the rest of the Israelites, 7,000 in all. They set out at noon while Ben-Hadad and the 32 kings allied with him were in their tents getting drunk. The junior officers under the provincial commanders went out first. Now Ben-Hadad had dispatched scouts, who reported, ‘Men are advancing from Samaria.’ He said, ‘If they have come out for peace, take them alive; if they have come out for war, take them alive.’ The junior officers under the provincial commanders marched out of the city with the army behind them and each one struck down his opponent. At that, the Arameans fled, with the Israelites in pursuit. But Ben-Hadad king of Aram escaped on horseback with some of his horsemen. The king of Israel advanced and overpowered the horses and chariots and inflicted heavy losses on the Arameans. Afterward, the prophet came to the king of Israel and said, ‘Strengthen your position and see what must be done, because next spring the king of Aram will attack you again.’ 1 Kings 20:13-22

We don’t know who this prophet was but it appears now that Ahab is in trouble, a real prophet of God came to him to tell him the truth. The prophet tells gives him some instructions concerning what to do against Ben-Hadad. The prophet’s advice to Ahab was to take the offensive.

The total army of 7,000 was only a pitifully-small handful compared to the estimated 130,000 troops of Ben-Hadad. Ahab asks the prophet the question, ‘who will start the battle?’ and I’m sure that Ahab would have been shocked when he is told that he himself will start the battle, especially since he only had 232 young men. There would be no doubt in Ahab’s mind that his victory only came because of God, not because of anything he did.

‘Meanwhile, the officials of the king of Aram advised him, ‘Their gods are gods of the hills. That is why they were too strong for us. But if we fight them on the plains, surely we will be stronger than they. Do this: Remove all the kings from their commands and replace them with other officers. You must also raise an army like the one you lost—horse for horse and chariot for chariot—so we can fight Israel on the plains. Then surely we will be stronger than they.’ He agreed with them and acted accordingly. The next spring Ben-Hadad mustered the Arameans and went up to Aphek to fight against Israel. When the Israelites were also mustered and given provisions, they marched out to meet them. The Israelites camped opposite them like two small flocks of goats, while the Arameans covered the countryside.’ 1 Kings 20:23-27

Ben-Hadad believed, what many people believed in these days, that each deity only lived in certain places, here we see that he believed that Israel’s God only lived in the hills.

The reason they believed God lived in the hills is because this is where Israel offered their sacrifices, in the high places. And so, because of this belief, he decided that his army should fight Israel on the plains, thinking that Israel’s God didn’t live there.

The Syrians wanted to allow the kings to determine the battle plan but allow the captains of the soldiers to engage the enemy on the battlefield. Compared to the Syrian army, Israel’s army looked like two small flocks of goats, but what the Syrians didn’t take into account was that God Himself was going to fight this battle for Israel.

Even though Israel was an idolatrous nation, He never gave up on them, He still fought their battles, Joshua 6:2 / Joshua 6:16 / Joshua 8:1 / Joshua 8:18 / Judges 7:2 / Judges 18:10 / 1 Samuel 23:4 / 1 Samuel 24:4. God wasn’t and can never be confined to one place, He is everywhere, 1 Kings 8:27 / Psalm 139:7-12.

‘The man of God came up and told the king of Israel, ‘This is what the LORD says: ‘Because the Arameans think the LORD is a god of the hills and not a god of the valleys, I will deliver this vast army into your hands, and you will know that I am the LORD.’ For seven days they camped opposite each other, and on the seventh day the battle was joined. The Israelites inflicted a hundred thousand casualties on the Aramean foot soldiers in one day. The rest of them escaped to the city of Aphek, where the wall collapsed on twenty-seven thousand of them. And Ben-Hadad fled to the city and hid in an inner room.’ 1 Kings 20:28-30

Once again, we’re reminded that God never does anything without a reason, God was going to fight with Israel and Israel will win so that they Israel and the Syrians, by default will know that He is the Lord.

Notice how many of the Syrians died, 127,000 in total, there’s can be no doubt that a supernatural God was behind this. If Israel and the Syrians didn’t believe that God was real and won this battle, then nothing would.

‘His officials said to him, ‘Look, we have heard that the kings of Israel are merciful. Let us go to the king of Israel with sackcloth around our waists and ropes around our heads. Perhaps he will spare your life.’ Wearing sackcloth around their waists and ropes around their heads, they went to the king of Israel and said, ‘Your servant Ben-Hadad says: ‘Please let me live.’ The king answered, ‘Is he still alive? He is my brother.’ The men took this as a good sign and were quick to pick up his word. ‘Yes, your brother Ben-Hadad!’ they said. ‘Go and get him,’ the king said. When Ben-Hadad came out, Ahab had him come up into his chariot. ‘I will return the cities my father took from your father,’ Ben-Hadad offered. ‘You may set up your own market areas in Damascus, as my father did in Samaria.’ Ahab said, ‘On the basis of a treaty I will set you free.’ So he made a treaty with him and let him go.’ 1 Kings 20:31-34

Ben-Hadad’s officials realise that there is nothing they could do, and so they go to Ahab with sackcloth around their waists and ropes around their heads. The sackcloth was a sign of humility and the ropes were a sign of submission.

Notice that Ahab says that Ben Hadad was his brother, this wasn’t literal but it was said because Ahab didn’t want to kill Ben-Hadad because the Assyrian Empire in the north was beginning to grow at this time.

The Assyrians were a real threat and because Syria stood between Israel and Assyria, Ahab wanted to keep an alliance with Syria. This agreement explains why the Syrians and the Israelites fought together at the battle in Qarqar in 854/53 B.C.

Coffman in his commentary says the following.

‘What an incredibly stupid and ridiculous thing was this that Ahab did, allowing Ben-Hadad to announce the terms upon which he received his life and his freedom. What about all that gold and silver that Ahab had paid prior to the first battle? Why did he not demand its re-payment?’

‘Ben-Hadad did not even promise to build streets for Ahab in Damascus but would allow Ahab to build them! And those cities Ben-Hadad promised to give Ahab, they already belonged to Israel! Poor Ahab here ‘brothered’ himself out of the spoils that should have belonged to the victor; and as a prophet soon would tell him, he had ‘brothered’ himself out of his own life as well!’

A Prophet Condemns Ahab

‘By the word of the LORD one of the company of the prophets said to his companion, ‘Strike me with your weapon,’ but he refused. So the prophet said, ‘Because you have not obeyed the LORD, as soon as you leave me a lion will kill you.’ And after the man went away, a lion found him and killed him. The prophet found another man and said, ‘Strike me, please.’ So the man struck him and wounded him. Then the prophet went and stood by the road waiting for the king. He disguised himself with his headband down over his eyes. As the king passed by, the prophet called out to him, ‘Your servant went into the thick of the battle, and someone came to me with a captive and said, ‘Guard this man. If he is missing, it will be your life for his life, or you must pay a talent of silver.’ While your servant was busy here and there, the man disappeared.’ ‘That is your sentence,’ the king of Israel said. ‘You have pronounced it yourself.’ Then the prophet quickly removed the headband from his eyes, and the king of Israel recognized him as one of the prophets. He said to the king, ‘This is what the LORD says: ‘You have set free a man I had determined should die. Therefore it is your life for his life, your people for his people.’ Sullen and angry, the king of Israel went to his palace in Samaria.’ 1 Kings 20:35-43

Here again, we find another unnamed prophet of God who brings the news of judgment upon Ahab because he allowed Ben-Hadad to go free.

It appears that despite God slaughtering the Syrian army Ahab didn’t recognise that God was behind the victory for Israel. It’s almost as if he happily makes an agreement with the Syrians but at the same time, he totally ignores that it was God who had protected them.

Several years ago, King Saul failed to kill Agag, who was king of the Amalekites, and Saul was punished because of it, Ahab makes the same mistake by allowing Ben Hadad to live, 1 Samuel 15:17-33.

Notice that Ahab was ‘sullen and angry’, he obviously believed the rebuke he had from the prophet. The joy he must have had after the victory quickly turned into deep disappointment because he now knows that God didn’t approve of him allowing Ben-Hadad to live and go free.

Go To 1 Kings 21