1 Kings 20

Who was Ben-hadad [Ben-hadad II]?
A. He was King of Aram [Syria]. (20:1) This was not the same Ben-hadad who was a contemporary of Baasha, king of Israel (see 1 Kings 15:16-22).

B. He led an unsuccessful siege against Samaria, the city built by Omri (20:1-12). He besieged the stronghold of Samaria with the aid of thirty-two kings. These were vassals (or viceroys who ruled single cities or districts) who were later replaced by competent military commanders (see 1 Kings 20:24).

What message did Ben-hadad deliver to Ahab?
He sent a messenger to Ahab with insulting and humiliating terms of surrender. “Your silver and your gold are mine; your most beautiful wives and children are also mine” (20:2,3).

What was Ahab’s reply?
Ahab was in agreement with these initial terms (20:4,7), indicating that Israel may have already been a vassal of Samaria (see 1 Kings 20:34).

What follow-up message did Ben-hadad deliver to Ahab?
The terms of surrender became even more humiliating as Ben-hadad demanded unlimited search and seizure rights “in [Ahab’s] house and the house of [his] servants” (20:5-6).

What did Ahab do when he received the second message?
He consulted “all the elders of the land” (20:7) who advised him to not listen or consent to the demands of Ben-hadad (20:8). He sent Ben-hadad’s messengers back with word that while he would agree to the initial demands, he would not give in to the second demands.

Notice that Ahab did not cry out to Baal for help or to God. Perhaps he had forgotten how to pray. Instead he looked to men for counsel and help.

What did Ben-hadad threaten to do when he received Ahab’s message?
He threatened to crush Samaria using the same formula that Jezebel had used in her message to Elijah (compare 1 Kings 20:10 to 19:2). In fact, his remark in 1 Kings 20:10 is a bragging remark regarding the size of his army. Ben-hadad, in essence, told Ahab that his army was so immense that if every one of his soldiers were to carry away a handful of dust from Samaria some of his soldiers would go away empty handed!

What message did Ahab send back to Ben-hadad?
“Let not him who girds on his armor boast like him who takes it off” (20:11). Paraphrased: “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.” Or (Latin), Ne triumphum canas ante victoriam (the victory must be won before it is celebrated). Ben-hadad received Ahab’s message “as he was drinking with the kings” (20:12). This reply motivated the drunken (see also 20:16) Ben-hadad to move his army against Samaria (20:12).

What message did “a prophet” deliver to Ahab?
A prophet approached Ahab and assured him of victory over Ben-hadad’s great army. The purpose of the victory was to teach Ahab an important lesson, “and you shall know that I am the Lord” (20:13).

How did Ahab conduct the military campaign against Ben-hadad?
A. He mustered 232 “young men of the rulers of the provinces” (20:15). These were “young professional soldiers in the service of the district commanders” (Broadman Bible Commentary, Volume 3).

B. He mustered all the people and formed an army of 7000.

C. They began their attack at noon while Ben-hadad was still drinking (20:17). The fact that Ben-hadad was drinking may indicate how overconfident he was. He was not alarmed by the news that “Men [not an army] have come out from Samaria” (20:17). The “young men of the rulers of the provinces” led the attack that resulted in a great loss of Syrian men, horses and chariots. The drunken and boasting Ben-hadad fled the battle!

What word did the prophet have for Ahab following the battle?
The prophet informed Ahab that Ben-hadad would come against him once again in the spring (see 2 Samuel 11:1). He instructed Ahab to make preparations for that occasion (20:22).

Note: This is a reminder that the enemies of God are never idle and that God’s people should remain vigilant lest the enemy overtake them.

What advise did Ben-hadad’s servants give him?
A. They told him that the reason Israel had been victorious in battle was because they had fought in the mountains. They said this was advantageous to Israel because “their gods are gods of the mountains” (20:23). This gives us some insight into pagan theology. They felt that boundaries and regions limited gods. This was a slander against God’s sovereignty.

B. They advised the king to engage Israel in battle on the plain where their mountain gods would be of no help to them (20:23,25).

C. They advised the king to replace the kings (see 20:1) with competent military commanders and muster an army equal in size and strength to the army that Ahab had defeated in the previous battle.

D. Ben-hadad “listened to their voice and did so” (20:25). In the spring of the year he marched his army to Aphek to fight against Israel (20:26). Aphek is located “on the main road east of Lake Galilee between Israel and Damascus” (Broadman Bible Commentary, Volume 3). The Syrian army was so immense that “the sons of Israel camped before them [were] like two little flocks of goats” (20:27), by comparison.

What important message did “a man of God” deliver to Ahab?
A man of God appeared on the scene and told the king that God would vindicate his name and prove to both Israel and Syria that He was not just some impotent local deity (20:23), but the God of the universe. God would allow Ahab another victory to demonstrate that He alone was God. This second victory in the face of tremendous odds was also meant to remind Ahab and Israel that “I am the Lord” (see 1 Kings 20:13,28). As foretold by the man of God, Israel was victorious once again (20:29-30).

What did Ben-hadad do to insure his own safety?
Some of his men appealed to the mercy of Ahab by dressing themselves in sackcloth with ropes around their necks (after the fashion of captives). They pled with Ahab to spare their lives and the life of their king. Ahab gave them a favorable response (20:32), met with Ben-hadad, made a covenant with him, and let him go (20:33-34). This action was contrary to the will of God (20:42). Ahab acted without the counsel of God or anyone else regarding the disposition of Ben-hadad. (Compare 1 Samuel 15:3,9 regarding Saul’s treatment of Agag the Amalekite king.)

How did God feel about Ahab letting Ben-hadad go free?
God was displeased (20:35-43). He let Ahab know of his displeasure through “a certain man of the sons of the prophets” (20:35). This “certain man” disguised himself as a soldier who had carelessly allowed a prisoner of war to escape. Ahab pronounced judgment upon the soldier (prophet in disguise) not realizing that he had been induced to judge his own case (see also David and Nathan in 2 Samuel 12:1-15). The prophet removed the disguise “and the king of Israel recognized him as one of the prophets” (20:41). The prophet then pronounced God’s judgment upon Ahab for letting Ben-hadad, a man under God’s ban, go (20:42). Ahab would forfeit his life for this foolish and careless action (20:42). Ahab then “went to his house sullen and vexed” (20:43). The sequel to this chapter on international military affairs is in 1 Kings 22.

Practical Considerations

God’s enemies are never idle.
After defeating Ben-hadad in battle, a prophet informed Ahab that Ben-hadad would come against him once again in the spring. God’s enemies are never idle. Someone has said that the devil never takes a vacation. God’s people should remain sober and on the alert because their “adversary, the devil, prowls about like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).

God is concerned about His name and reputation.
God overheard the conversation of Ben-hadad’s servants regarding why Israel had been successful in battle. The Syrians slandered God’s sovereignty by stating that he was an impotent god limited by regions and territories. God vindicated his name by allowing Ahab to be victorious in battle against the Syrians on the plain. We too, should be concerned about God’s name and reputation. We should be careful lest we give others occasion for misunderstanding God.

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