Perhaps it may turn out a sang,
Perhaps turn out a sermon.

-- R. Burns Epistle to a Young Friend

Monday, September 29, 2014

Chaining the Devil

And the two worthless men came in and sat opposite him. And the worthless men brought a charge against Naboth in the presence of the people, saying, “Naboth cursed God and the king.” So they took him outside the city and stoned him to death with stones.  Then they sent to Jezebel, saying, “Naboth has been stoned; he is dead.” – 1 Kings 21:13-14

Naboth wasn’t killed because he was a bad man.  He was falsely accused and executed because he had a vineyard that King Ahab wanted.  The vineyard was a nice piece of property, apparently, and it lay near, if not adjacent to, the palace grounds.  Naboth owned this property as part of his family inheritance, though he seems to have resided in another, unnamed town.  Ahab wanted to plant a vegetable garden and made an offer of direct payment or trade to Naboth, who refused him flatly.  We don’t know if Naboth didn’t like Ahab, or perhaps he had some special connection to that vineyard, maybe his grandfather told him never to sell it.  Whatever the case, Ahab was distraught by the refusal. 

The king went to bed and would not eat, rather like a petulant, spoiled child who didn't get his way.  His wife, Jezebel, treated him like a child, certainly.  When she found out what was troubling him, she vowed to fix it through her own diabolical means, sending a letter in the name of King Ahab to the leaders of Naboth’s town with instruction on carrying out a vicious plot.  They obeyed, and Naboth died. 

The aftermath brings Elijah back into the picture:  Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying, “Arise, go down to meet Ahab king of Israel, who is in Samaria; behold, he is in the vineyard of Naboth, where he has gone to take possession.  And you shall say to him, ‘Thus says the Lord, “Have you killed and also taken possession?”’ And you shall say to him, ‘Thus says the Lord: “In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth shall dogs lick your own blood.”’”  Ahab said to Elijah, “Have you found me, O my enemy?” He answered, “I have found you, because you have sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord (1 Kings 21:17-20). 

Elijah told the king he was doomed to die, and, despite Ahab’s semi-successful repentance, it happened as Elijah prophesied.  You can read about it in the 22nd chapter of 1 Kings. Ahab goes to battle in disguise, hoping, one supposes, to elude his prophesied end by deception.  But a certain man drew his bow at random and struck the king of Israel between the scale armor and the breastplate. Therefore he said to the driver of his chariot, Turn around and carry me out of the battle, for I am wounded (1 Kings 22:34).  His blood collected in the chariot.  When he died, his servants washed the chariot in the pool where the dogs drank and the prostitutes bathed. 

Ahab’s sin came back upon his own head (and Jezebel got hers, too), but there were innocent parties involved.  What about Naboth?  If this were a movie, I might complain about a plot hole.  What goes around, comes around is fine; reap what you sow, and all that works great when we are rewarded for good and suffer for evil.  As best I can tell from the Scripture – apart from anyone’s interpretations and extrapolations, Naboth was not killed because he had a negative confession or because he was weak in faith, but because someone else did wrong. 

Did God want Naboth killed?  Couldn’t He have intervened and rescued this innocent man?  He was aware of the plot, knew everyone's movements, and managed to have Elijah waiting to pour ice water on Ahab's ill-gotten happiness.  Why could God not have sent Elijah to warn Naboth?  Look how Ahab died from an arrow that was not even aimed at him.  We tend to think that God had something directly to do with the flight of that missile and with the way Ahab was standing that exposed him to the fatal strike.  Twenty years ago the thought that I might not understand perfectly what was going on in this story never occurred to me.  I ain't so smart anymore, but I am still convinced that evil will destroy those who practice it. 

Yet how do we account for the suffering, torture, persecution, and death of people like Naboth – maybe not perfect people, but more or less innocent bystanders?  How do we account for Uriah the Hittite or James or Stephen or Paul or the Christians in the Middle East and Nigeria and Sudan and China?  How do we account for good people who are murdered by psychopaths and thugs, killed by storms and natural disasters? 

I am not capable of giving a definitive or final answer to those kinds of questions.  Neither, I think, is anyone else. 

We are sovereign and independent agents who can choose to do good or do evil.  When Elijah confronted Ahab, he said that Ahab had “sold” himself to do evil.  Wickedness – even in the minor keys – is like a chain reaction. When we unleash it and give ourselves over to it, somebody is going to suffer, and, ultimately, we are going to have to answer for our part in it.  The Bible sometimes talks about our sins versus sin.  Sin is in the world, at the core of the world system.  You might even say it is the world’s operating system – a moral equivalent of Windows 8.  I always figured God ran UNIX, but it could be VMS. 

Because of the mode in which the world exists, evil is constantly breaking out.  It cannot be ignored.  We cannot stop other people from buying into it.  We are not yet capable of controlling the natural world the way that Jesus did in walking on the water or calming a storm.  Nevertheless, we can control ourselves.  We can decide to sell out to God or to evil.  If we choose God and His way, we are still traveling through this world.  We are still subject to its tragedies, accidents, cataclysms, and some of its diseases as well as to the evil that men might do against us.  The only evil that we can be guaranteed to avoid, then, is that which we create for others and subsequently for ourselves. 

We can stand against evil, and we should.  We do not always know how that will turn out.  We may be delivered from a trial or through a trial.  We may emerge from a catastrophe unscathed or be carried out feet first.  I believe God can get me out of anything, heal any disease, and protect me from any threat.  But sometimes things happen that I do not like, that I would avoid if I could.  Sometimes those things seem to be no one’s fault.  It’s just a fallen world.  Other times it may be that someone has decided to sell out to evil.  I may be the target, or I may just get caught in the crossfire. 

It can be hard to have faith in those situations.  It can be hard to resist the temptation to “unleash hell” in retaliation.  That is, however, the crucible of our faith, where it is refined and purified.  I have to continue to trust God especially when I do not have any visible reason to keep trusting Him. 

I can only, for my part, strive to avoid selling out to sin.  The same is true of every one of us.  The funny thing is that if we would all do that, the amount of wickedness flying around looking for a place to land would be greatly reduced.  This is why Jesus said, Turn the other cheek.  This is why we bless those who persecute us.  This is why Paul said, Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. 

I can’t always make things better, but I can make them much worse, for myself and for everyone else.    

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