1 Kings 20
Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

This chapter, evidently drawn from a different source, is interposed in the middle of the record of the prophetic career of Elijah. The history evidently belongs to the latter years of Ahab’s reign, probably some time after the events of the previous chapter. The existence of the schools of the prophets, and the prophetic authority exercised, appear to indicate that for some reason Jezebel’s influence on behalf of Baal had been reduced to impotence, and the worship of God restored. (Comp. 22:5-28.) It touches mainly on the external history of the reign, and shows it to have been one of no inconsiderable prosperity.

And Benhadad the king of Syria gathered all his host together: and there were thirty and two kings with him, and horses, and chariots: and he went up and besieged Samaria, and warred against it.
(1) Ben-hadad.—This is the inherited title of the Syrian kings. (See Amos 1:4; Jeremiah 49:27.) From the allusion in 1Kings 20:34 it appears that this Ben-hadad was the son of a king who had been victorious against Omri—possibly pushing still further the advantage gained in the time of Baasha. It is evident that he assumed, perhaps by inheritance, a sovereignty over Israel.

Thirty and two kings.—All the notices of Syria show it as divided into small kingdoms, confederated from time to time under some leading power. In the days of David this leading power was that of Hadadezer of Zobah (2Samuel 8:3-13; 2Samuel 10:19), although Hamath was apparently independent. Now Damascus, under the dynasty of Hadad, assumes a most formidable predominance. Ahab cannot stand before it, but shuts himself up, probably after defeat, within the strong walls of Samaria.

(2–4) And he sent.—This message and the answer of Ahab (“My lord, O king”) are the assertion and acceptance of Syrian sovereignty over Israel: all the possessions and the family of the vassal are acknowledged to be the property of his superior lord. Ahab surrenders, but not at discretion. Ben-hadad refuses all qualified submission.

Yet I will send my servants unto thee to morrow about this time, and they shall search thine house, and the houses of thy servants; and it shall be, that whatsoever is pleasant in thine eyes, they shall put it in their hand, and take it away.
(6) Whatsoever is pleasant.—The demand, which is virtually for the plunder of Samaria, probably neither expects nor desires acceptance, and is therefore a refusal of all but unconditional surrender. It is notable that in the last extremity Ahab falls back on an exceptional appeal to the patriotism of the people.

The “elders of the land” (evidently present in Samaria at this time) were the representatives in the northern kingdom of the ancient assembly of the “elders of Israel,” existing from the time of Moses downwards as a senate, having power not only of advice, but of concurrence, in relation to the Judge or King. (See Exodus 3:16; Exodus 12:21; Exodus 24:1; Deuteronomy 27:1; Deuteronomy 31:9; Joshua 7:6; 2Samuel 5:3; 1Kings 8:3). The solemn appointment of the seventy in Numbers 11:24-25 seems to be simply the re-constitution and consecration of the original body. Each tribe and each town had also its lesser body of elders. (See 1Samuel 30:26, “the elders of Judah;” Deuteronomy 19:12; Deuteronomy 21:3, &c., “the elders of the city.”) The authority of all these assemblies must have been at all times largely overborne by the royal power (see 1Kings 21:11), and must have varied according to time and circumstance.

And Benhadad sent unto him, and said, The gods do so unto me, and more also, if the dust of Samaria shall suffice for handfuls for all the people that follow me.
(10) The dust of Samaria—when razed to the ground. The phrase probably implies a threat of destruction, as well as a boast of overwhelming strength. Josephus (Ant. viii. 14, 2) has a curious explanation—that, if each of the Syrians took only a handful of dust, they could raise a mound against the city, higher than the walls of Samaria.

The historian, with a touch of patriotic scorn, paints Ben-hadad as a luxurious and insolent braggart. He receives the message at a feast, “drinking himself drunk,” and, stung by its tone of sarcasm, does not condescend to bestir himself, but orders his servants to an instant attack. The command is given, with a haughty brevity, in a single word (“Set”), which may be “Array troops,” or “Place engines,” as in the margin. The LXX. translates, “Build a stockade” (for attack on the walls).

And, behold, there came a prophet unto Ahab king of Israel, saying, Thus saith the LORD, Hast thou seen all this great multitude? behold, I will deliver it into thine hand this day; and thou shalt know that I am the LORD.
(13) There came a prophet.—The appearance of this unknown prophet evidently shows (see also 1Kings 22:6-7) that Ahab’s enmity to the prophetic order was over since the great day at Carmel, and that the schools of the prophets were forming themselves again—perhaps not free from connection with the idolatry of Jeroboam, but safe from all attacks from the worshippers of Baal. It is notable that in all these political functions of prophecy Elijah does not appear, reserving himself for the higher moral and religious mission from God. Ahab receives the prophet’s message with perfect confidence and reverence; he has returned in profession to the allegiance to Jehovah, which he had, perhaps, never wholly relinquished.

And Ahab said, By whom? And he said, Thus saith the LORD, Even by the young men of the princes of the provinces. Then he said, Who shall order the battle? And he answered, Thou.
(14) Who shall order the battle?—The marginal reading seems right, “Who shall give battle?” “Who shall begin the fray?”

Then he numbered the young men of the princes of the provinces, and they were two hundred and thirty two: and after them he numbered all the people, even all the children of Israel, being seven thousand.
(15) The young meni.e., the attendants or armour-bearers of the territorial chiefs, no doubt picked men and well armed. The whole garrison is stated as seven thousand—enough, perhaps, to man the walls, but wholly unfit to take the field. The sally is made at noon, when (as Josephus relates) the besiegers were resting unarmed in the heat of the day.

And they slew every one his man: and the Syrians fled; and Israel pursued them: and Benhadad the king of Syria escaped on an horse with the horsemen.
(20) And they slew . . .—The attack of this handful of men, supported by a sally of the whole garrison, is not unlike the slaughter of the Philistine garrison and host in the days of Saul (1 Samuel 14), or the still earlier rout of the army of Midian by the night attack of Gideon (Judges 7:16-23). Probably, as in these cases, the Israelites may have risen from various lurking-places to join in the pursuit and slaughter. It does not necessarily follow that the event was miraculous. Such dispersions of vast Oriental armies are not uncommon in history. The lesson is that drawn with noble simplicity by Jonathan: “There is no restraint to the Lord to save by many or by few” (1Samuel 14:6).

And the prophet came to the king of Israel, and said unto him, Go, strengthen thyself, and mark, and see what thou doest: for at the return of the year the king of Syria will come up against thee.
(22) The return of the year.—The early part of the next year, after the winter was over, “when kings go out to battle” (2Samuel 11:1).

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.
(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.

And it came to pass at the return of the year, that Benhadad numbered the Syrians, and went up to Aphek, to fight against Israel.
(26) Aphek.—The name, signifying simply a “fortress,” as applied to several different places. There are two places which suit well enough with the Aphek of this passage and 2Kings 13:17, as being a battlefield in the plain country between Israel and Syria. One is the Aphek of 1Samuel 29:1, evidently in the plain of Esdraelon; the other a place on the road to Damascus, about six miles east of the Sea of Galilee.

And the children of Israel were numbered, and were all present, and went against them: and the children of Israel pitched before them like two little flocks of kids; but the Syrians filled the country.
(27) Were all present.—The marginal reading “were victualled,” or, perhaps, more generally, “were supplied,” with all things necessary for war, seems correct. The comparatively small number of the Israelite forces, even after the great victory of the year before, appears to show that, previous to the siege of Samaria, Ahab had suffered some great defeats, which had broken the strength of Israel.

And there came a man of God, and spake unto the king of Israel, and said, Thus saith the LORD, Because the Syrians have said, The LORD is God of the hills, but he is not God of the valleys, therefore will I deliver all this great multitude into thine hand, and ye shall know that I am the LORD.
(28)A man of God—apparently not the same as before. We see from 1Kings 20:35 that the prophetic order was now numerous. The vindication of the majesty of God before the Syrians, as well as before Israel—like the more celebrated case of the rebuke of the blasphemy of Sennacherib (2Kings 19:16-34)—is in accordance with the prayer of Solomon, or the similar utterances in the Psalms (Psalm 67:2; Psalm 102:15; Psalm 138:4), “That all the people of the earth may know thy name, to fear thee;” and also with such prophetic declarations as those of Ezekiel 20:9, “I wrought for my Name’s sake, that it should not be polluted before the heathen.” It is a foreshadowing of that view of all nations, as in some degree having knowledge of God and probation before Him, which is afterwards worked out fully in the prophetic writings. The intense and powerful Monotheism of the religion of Israel, in spite of all its backslidings, could hardly have been without influence over the neighbouring nations (see 2Kings 5:15), especially at a time when the remembrance of Solomon’s vast empire, and still wider influence, would yet linger through the tenacious traditions of the East.

But the rest fled to Aphek, into the city; and there a wall fell upon twenty and seven thousand of the men that were left. And Benhadad fled, and came into the city, into an inner chamber.
(30) A wall—properly, the wall of the city, whether falling by earthquake, or in the storming of the place, by Israel. The numbers in the text are very large, as in many other instances. It is possible (see Introduction) that there may be corruption, although the same numbers are found in the ancient versions. But the massing in small space of Oriental armies, and the extra ordinary slaughter consequent on it, are well illustrated in history; as, for instance, in the Greek wars with Persia or even our own experience in India.

And his servants said unto him, Behold now, we have heard that the kings of the house of Israel are merciful kings: let us, I pray thee, put sackcloth on our loins, and ropes upon our heads, and go out to the king of Israel: peradventure he will save thy life.
(31) Ropes upon our heads—like “the ropes round the necks” of the burghers of Calais, in the days of Edward III. The envoys offer themselves as naked, helpless criminals, to sue for mercy.

Now the men did diligently observe whether any thing would come from him, and did hastily catch it: and they said, Thy brother Benhadad. Then he said, Go ye, bring him. Then Benhadad came forth to him; and he caused him to come up into the chariot.
(33) Now the men.—There has been much discussion of the meaning here, and some proposals of slight emendations of the reading. But the general sense seems accurately rendered by our version. “The men watched” (“as for augury,” says the LXX.), “and hasted, and caught up” (so as to make it sure) “what fell from him.” What follows may be a question, “Is Ben-hadad thy brother?” but probably the simple acceptance of the title is better. The whole description is graphic. The Syrians speak of “thy slave Ben-hadad.” Ahab, in compassion or show of magnanimity, says, “my brother.” Eagerly the ambassadors catch up the word, which, according to Eastern custom, implied a pledge of amity not to be recalled; and Ahab accepts their inference, and seals it publicly by taking the conquered king into his chariot. (Comp. 2Kings 10:15-16.)

And Benhadad said unto him, The cities, which my father took from thy father, I will restore; and thou shalt make streets for thee in Damascus, as my father made in Samaria. Then said Ahab, I will send thee away with this covenant. So he made a covenant with him, and sent him away.
(34) Make streets—properly, squares, or quarters of a city. This concession implies a virtual acknowledgment of supremacy; for the right to have certain quarters for residence, for trade, perhaps even for garrison, in the capital of a king, belongs only to one who has sovereignty over him. Hence it goes beyond the significance of the restoration of the cities—conquered, it would seem, from Omri, unless, indeed, taking “father” in the sense of predecessor, the reference is to the Syrian victories in the days of Baasha. (See 1Kings 15:20.) The narrative seems to convey an idea that the covenant was made hastily, on insufficient security. The great point, however, was that a war, victoriously conducted under prophetic guidance, should not have been concluded without prophetic sanction.

And a certain man of the sons of the prophets said unto his neighbour in the word of the LORD, Smite me, I pray thee. And the man refused to smite him.
(35) A certain man—according to Josephus, Micaiah, the son of Imlah. This tradition, or conjecture, agrees well with the subsequent narrative in 1 Kings 22.

The sons of the prophets.—This phrase, constantly recurring in the history of Elijah and Elisha, first appears here. But the thing designated is apparently as old as the days of Samuel who is evidently surrounded by “a company” of disciples. (See 1Samuel 10:5; 1Samuel 10:10; 1Samuel 19:20.) The prophetic office seems never to have been, like the priesthood or kingship, hereditary. “Sonship,” therefore, no doubt means simply discipleship; and it is likely enough that the schools of the sons of the prophets were places of higher religious education, including many who did not look for the prophetic vocation; although the well-known words of Amos (Amos 7:14), “I was no prophet, neither was I a prophet’s son,” clearly indicate that from their ranks, generally though not invariably, the prophets were called. Probably the institution had fallen into disuse, and had been revived to seal and to secure the prophetic victory over Baal-worship. To Elijah the “sons of the prophets” look up with awe and some terror; to Elisha, with affectionate respect and trust.

Then said he unto him, Because thou hast not obeyed the voice of the LORD, behold, as soon as thou art departed from me, a lion shall slay thee. And as soon as he was departed from him, a lion found him, and slew him.
(36) A lion shall slay thee.—It is obvious to compare the example of 1Kings 13:24.

So the prophet departed, and waited for the king by the way, and disguised himself with ashes upon his face.
(38) Ashes upon his face.—It should be a “bandage over his head,” to cover his face, and to accord with the appearance of a wounded soldier. Unless the wound had some symbolic significance in application to Ahab or Israel, it is difficult to see what purpose it could serve.

And as the king passed by, he cried unto the king: and he said, Thy servant went out into the midst of the battle; and, behold, a man turned aside, and brought a man unto me, and said, Keep this man: if by any means he be missing, then shall thy life be for his life, or else thou shalt pay a talent of silver.
(39) Thy servant.—The parable is, of course, designed (like those of 2Samuel 12:1-4; 2Samuel 14:5-11) to make Ahab condemn himself. In Ahab, however, it excites not compunction, but characteristic sullenness of displeasure, like that of 1Kings 21:4.

And he said unto him, Thus saith the LORD, Because thou hast let go out of thy hand a man whom I appointed to utter destruction, therefore thy life shall go for his life, and thy people for his people.
(42) A man whom I appointed—properly, a man under my curse. The rash action of Ahab, like the deliberate disobedience of Saul (1 Samuel 15), may have been due partly to compassion, partly to weakness. In either case it had no right to stand unauthorised between God’s judgment and him on whom it was pronounced; for even soft-heartedness, as in the case of Eli, may be treason to the cause of righteousness. The prophet (like Elisha, in 2Kings 13:19) speaks partly as a patriot, jealous—and, as the event proved, with a sagacious jealousy—of the lenity which left the deadly enemy of Israel unsubdued; but he speaks also as the representative of God’s stern and righteous judgment. which Ahab, after signal deliverance, had treated as of no account. (For the fulfilment of his words, see 1Kings 22:34-36.)

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

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