1 Kings 20:23
And the servants of the king of Syria said unto him, Their gods are gods of the hills; therefore they were stronger than we; but let us fight against them in the plain, and surely we shall be stronger than they.
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(23) Gods of the hills.—The idea of tutelary gods, whose strength was greatest on their own soil, is naturally common in polytheistic religions, which, by the very multiplication of gods, imply limitation of the power of each. Now the greater part of the territory where Jehovah was worshipped was a hill-country. Samaria in particular, the scene of recent defeat, lay in the mountain region of Ephraim. The Israelite armies, moreover, being mostly of infantry—having, indeed, few or no cavalry, except in the time of Solomon—naturally encamped and fought, as far as possible, on the hills; as Barak on Mount Tabor (Judges 4:6-14), Saul on Mount Gilboa (1Samuel 31:1), and Ahab himself (in 1Kings 20:27). Perhaps the worship of Jehovah in the “high places” may have also conduced to this belief that the “gods of Israel were gods of the hills,” whose power vanished in the plains; where, of course, the Syrian armies of chariots and horsemen would naturally fight at advantage. Shrewd policy might, as so often is the case, lurk in the advice of Ben-hadad’s counsellors under the cover of superstition; as, indeed, it seems also to show itself in seizing the opportunity to increase the central power, by organising the troops of the tributary kings under officers of his own.

1 Kings 20:23. Their gods are gods of the hills, &c. — The heathen, in general, had no notion of the God of the universe, but only worshipped local and tutelary deities; who, they thought, ruled over particular countries, and distributed the several parts of those countries among them, some being gods of the woods, others of the rivers, and others of the mountains: and the Syrians fancied the gods of the Israelites, whom they thought to be no better than their own gods, to be of the latter kind, gods of the hills, because the land of Canaan was a mountainous land, and the great temple of their God, at Jerusalem, stood upon a hill, as did the city of Samaria, where they had received their last blow; or because the Israelites did generally choose high places for the places of their worship. It is observable, that the Syrians do not impute their ill success to their negligence, and drunkenness, and bad conduct, nor to the valour of the Israelites, but to a divine power, which was indeed visible in it. Let us fight against them in the plain — In this counsel there was not only superstition, but policy; because the Syrians excelled the Israelites in horses and chariots, which were most serviceable on plain ground.

20:22-30 Those about Benhadad advised him to change his ground. They take it for granted that it was not Israel, but Israel's gods, that beat them; but they speak very ignorantly of Jehovah. They supposed that Israel had many gods, to whom they ascribed limited power within a certain district; thus vain were the Gentiles in their imaginations concerning God. The greatest wisdom in worldly concerns is often united with the most contemptible folly in the things of God.Their gods are gods of the hills - The local power and influence of deities was a fixed principle of the ancient polytheism. Each country was considered to have its own gods; and wars were regarded as being to a great extent struggles between the gods of the nations engaged in them. This is apparent throughout the Assyrian inscriptions. Compare also 2 Kings 18:33-35; 2 Kings 19:12. The present passage gives an unusual modification of this view. The suggestion of the Syrian chiefs may have been a mere politic device - they being really anxious, "an military grounds," to encounter their enemy on the plain, where alone their chariots would be of much service. In the plain the Israelites had always fought at a disadvantage, and had proved themselves weaker than on the hills (see Judges 1:19, Judges 1:27, Judges 1:34). 22-26. the prophet came to the king of Israel, and said—The same prophet who had predicted the victory shortly reappeared, admonishing the king to take every precaution against a renewal of hostilities in the following campaign.

at the return of the year—that is, in spring, when, on the cessation of the rainy season, military campaigns (2Sa 11:1), were anciently begun. It happened as the prophet had forewarned. Brooding over their late disastrous defeat, the attendants of Ben-hadad ascribed the misfortune to two causes—the one arose from the principles of heathenism which led them to consider the gods of Israel as "gods of the hills"; whereas their power to aid the Israelites would be gone if the battle was maintained on the plains. The other cause to which the Syrian courtiers traced their defeat at Samaria, was the presence of the tributary kings, who had probably been the first to take flight; and they recommended "captains to be put in their rooms." Approving of these recommendations, Ben-hadad renewed his invasion of Israel the next spring by the siege of Aphek in the valley of Jezreel (compare 1Sa 29:1, with 1Sa 28:4), not far from En-dor.

The servants of the king of Syria suppose that their gods were no better than the Syrian gods, (which the idolatry of the Israelites had given them too great cause to imagine,) and that there were many gods who had each his particular charge and jurisdiction; which was the opinion of all heathen nations, that some were gods of the woods, others of the rivers, and others of the mountains; and they fancied these to be the latter, because the land of Canaan was a mountainous land, Deu 12:2; and the great temple of their god at Jerusalem stood upon a hill, and so did Samaria, where they had received their last blow: or because the Israelites did generally chose high places for the worship of their gods. It is observable that they do not impute their ill success to their negligence, and drunkenness, and bad conduct, or cowardice, of which they were really guilty; nor to the valour of the Israelites; but to a Divine power, which indeed was visible in it.

Let us fight against them in the plain; wherein there was not only superstition, but policy, because the Syrians most excelled the Israelites in horses, which are most serviceable in plain ground.

And the servants of the king of Syria said unto him,.... His ministers of state, his privy counsellors:

their gods are gods of the hills, therefore they were stronger than we; and beat them in the last battle; this notion they might receive from what they had heard of Jehovah delivering the law on Mount Sinai to Moses, and of the miraculous things done lately on Mount Carmel, as well as of their worship being in high places, especially at Jerusalem, the temple there being built on an hill, as was Samaria itself, near to which they had their last defeat; and this notion of topical deities very much obtained among the Heathens in later times, some of which they supposed presided over rivers, others over woods, and others over hills and mountains (e): so Nemestinus the god of woods, Collina the goddess of hills, and Vallina of valleys (f); and Arnobins (g) makes mention of the god Montinus, and Livy (h) of the god Peninus, who had his name from a part of the Alps, so called where he was worshipped; and there also the goddess Penina was worshipped; and Lactantius (i) speaks of the gods of the mountains the mother of Maximilian was a worshipper of; and even Jupiter had names from mountains, as Olympius, Capitolinus, &c. and such was the great god Pan, called mountainous Pan (k):

but let us fight against them in the plain, and surely we shall be stronger than they; and prevail over them, and conquer them.

(e) "Dii fumus agrestes, et qui dominemur in altis montibus.----" Ovid. Fast. l. 3.((f) Vid. D. Herbert de Cherbury de Relig. Gent. c. 12. p. 198, 112. (g) Adv. Gentes, l. 4. (h) Hist. l. 21. c. 38. (i) De Mort. Persecutor. c. 11. p. 22. Vid. Ovid. Metamorph. l. 1. Fab. 8. ver. 320. "Et numina montis adorant". See Ephesians 4. ver. 171. (k) Sophoclis Oedipus Tyr. ver. 1110.

And the servants of the king of Syria said unto him, Their {k} gods are gods of the hills; therefore they were stronger than we; but let us fight against them in the plain, and surely we shall be stronger than they.

(k) Thus the wicked blaspheme God in their fury, who nonetheless he does not permit to go unpunished.

23. their gods are gods] R.V. their god is a god. The LXX. also renders by the singular. The Syrians would speak of the God of Israel as a national divinity, just as they would of their own god. The former battle had been fought in the hill country round about Samaria, and this may have given encouragement to the idea that in a level plain, like that in which their own Damascus lay, the Syrian forces would meet with more success. It was not unnatural, in the heathen ideas about the gods, that they should consider each divinity specially able, and suited, to protect the land over which he was supposed to have the charge.

Verse 23. - And the servants of the king of Syria said unto him [naturally anxious to retrieve their character and obliterate their disgrace], Their gods are gods of the hills [All pagan nations have believed in local deities, Dii montium, dii nemorum, etc. (see 2 Kings 18:33-35; 2 Kings 19:12, 13). Keil accounts for this belief - that the gods of Israel were mountain divinities, by the consideration that the temple was built on Mount Moriah, and that worship was always offered on "high places." Kitto reminds us that the law was given from Mount Sinai, and that fire had recently descended on Mount Carmel. "In Syrophoenicia, even mountains themselves had Divine honours paid to them" (Movers, Phoen. 1:667 sqq.) But it is enough to remember that Samaria was a hilly district, and that the courtiers must find some excuse for the defeat]; therefore they were stronger than we; but [Heb. (וְאוּלָם often well rendered but not in this instance) by the LXX. οὐ μὴν δὲ ἀλλά] let us fight against them in the plain, and surely we shall be stronger than they. [This counsel, which apparently rests on religious grounds alone, was, it is probable, really dictated by the practical consideration that in the plain the Syrians would be able to deploy their chariots a most important arm of their service in a way which they could not do in the valleys round Samaria. See 1 Kings 16:24, note. Moreover the Israelites would lose the advantage of a strong position and the cover of their fortifications if they could be induced to meet them in the "great plain," or on any similar battlefield.] 1 Kings 20:23The Second Victory. - 1 Kings 20:23, 1 Kings 20:24. The servants (ministers) of Benhadad persuaded their lord to enter upon a fresh campaign, attributing the defeat they had sustained to two causes, which could be set aside, viz., to the supposed nature of the gods of Israel, and to the position occupied by the vassal-kings in the army. The gods of Israel were mountain gods: when fighting with them upon the mountains, the Syrians had had to fight against and succumb to the power of these gods, whereas on the plain they would conquer, because the power of these gods did not reach so far. This notion concerning the God of Israel the Syrians drew, according to their ethnical religious ideas, from the fact that the sacred places of this God - not only the temple at Jerusalem upon Moriah, but also the altars of the high places - were erected upon mountains; since heathenism really had its mountain deities, i.e., believed in gods who lived upon mountains and protected and conducted all that took place upon them (cf. Dougtaei Analect. ss. i. 178,179; Deyling, Observv. Songs 3.pp. 97ff.; Winer, bibl. R. W. i. p. 154), and in Syrophoenicia even mountains themselves had divine honours paid to them (vid., Movers, Phniz. i. p. 667ff.). The servants of Benhadad were at any rate so far right, that they attributed their defeat to the assistance which God had given to His people Israel; and were only wrong in regarding the God of Israel as a local deity, whose power did not extend beyond the mountains. They also advised their lord (1 Kings 20:24) to remove the kings in his army from their position, and appoint governors in their stead (פּחות, see 1 Kings 10:15). The vassal-kings had most likely not shown the desired self-sacrifice for the cause of their superior in the war. And, lastly (1 Kings 20:25), they advised the king to raise his army to its former strength, and then carry on the war in the plain. "Number thyself an army, like the army which has fallen from thee." מאותך, "from with thee," rendered correctly de tuis in the Vulgate, at least so far as the sense is concerned (for the form see Ewald, 264, b.). But these prudently-devised measures were to be of no avail to the Syrians; for they were to learn that the God of Israel was not a limited mountain-god.
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