The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
And it came to pass after these things, that Naboth the Jezreelite had a vineyard, which was in Jezreel, hard by the palace of Ahab king of Samaria.Naboth's Vineyard
1 Kings 21
We sometimes hear that Ahab was a covetous man: are we quite sure that the charge is just and that it can be substantiated? How could he be covetous? He proposed terms, saying, "Give me thy vineyard, that I may have it for a garden of herbs, because it is near unto my house: and I will give thee for it a better vineyard than it; or, if it seem good to thee, I will give thee the worth of it in money" (1Kings 21:2). The terms do not upon the face of them appear to be unreasonable or inapplicable. Surely this is not mere covetousness, if covetousness at all? The vineyard was close to the palace, and that fact was assigned as a reason for wishing to open negotiations concerning its transfer. But do we not sometimes too narrowly interpret the word covetousness? It is generally at least limited to money. When a man is fond of money, wishes to add to it, and is not scrupulous as to the means by which he seeks to enhance his fortune, we describe him as covetous. The term is perfectly applicable in such a case. But the term "covetous" may apply to a much larger set of circumstances, and describe quite another set of impulses and desires. We may even be covetous of personal appearance; we may be covetous of popular fame, such as is enjoyed by other men; we may be covetous in every direction which implies the gratification of our own wishes; and yet with regard to the mere matter of money we may be almost liberal. This is an astounding state of affairs. A man may be liberal with money, and yet covetous in many other directions. Sometimes when covetousness takes this other turn we describe it by the narrower word envy: we say we envy the personal appearance of some, we envy the greatness and the public standing of others. But under all this envy is covetousness. Envy is in a sense but a symptom: covetousness is the vital and devouring disease. Under this interpretation of the term, therefore, it is not unfit or unjust to describe Ahab as a covetous man.
Look at his dissatisfaction with circumstances. He wishes to have "a garden of herbs." That is all! He is king of Israel in Samaria; but there is one little thing of which he has not yet possessed himself, and until he gets that into his hand he cannot rest well: there is a dream that troubles him, there is a nightmare that makes him afraid to lie down to sleep. Look at what he has: who can measure it? Who can run through the enumeration of his possessions? Who can take an exhaustive inventory of all the riches of the king of Israel? But there is one little corner that is not his, and he wants it, and until he can get it all the rest goes for nothing. The great Alexander could not rest in his palace at Babylon because he could not get ivy to grow in his garden. What was Babylon, or all Assyria, in view of the fact that this childish king could not cause ivy to grow in the palace gardens? Ahab lived in circumstances: he lived in the very narrowest kind of circumstances; as a little man, he lived in little things, and because those things were not all to his mind it was impossible for him to be restful or noble or really good. Once let the mind become dissatisfied with some trifling circumstance, and that fly spoils the whole pot of ointment. Once get the notion that the house is too small, and then morning, noon, and night you never see a picture that is in it, or acknowledge the comfort of one corner in all the little habitation: the one thing that is present in the mind throughout all the weary hours is that the house is too small. Once get the idea that the business is undignified, and you go to it late in the morning, and leave it early in the afternoon, and neglect it between times, and are ashamed to speak of it, and will not throw your whole heart and soul during business hours into its execution. Once get the notion that the neighbourhood is unfashionable, and it goes for nothing that the rooms are large and airy, that the garden is one of the best you ever had, that there is ample scope for a rich library, that all the neighbours are men of peculiar intelligence and goodness; all go for nothing, because the tempter has said, This neighbourhood is not a fashionable quarter of the town, and when people come to know that you are living here they will lose confidence in you and respect for you. If we live in circumstances, we shall be the sport of events; we shall be without dignity, without calmness, without reality and solidity of character; let us, therefore, betake ourselves into inner thoughts, into spirituality of life, into the soul's true character, into the very sanctuary of God: there we shall have truth and light and peace; there the stormy wind cannot disturb us, and the great darkness is but an outside circumstance, for within there is the shining of the light of God.
Then notice in Ahab a childish servility to circumstances. "Ahab came into his house heavy and displeased... and he laid him down upon his bed, and turned away his face, and would eat no bread" (1Kings 21:4). Yet he was the king of Israel in Samaria! He actually had subjects under him. He was in reality a man who could give law, whose very look was a commandment, and the uplifting of his hand could move an army. Now we see him surely at his least. So we do, but not at his worst. All this must have an explanation. We cannot imagine that the man is so simply childish and foolish as this incident alone would describe him. Behind all this childishness there is an explanation. What is it? We find it in 1Kings 21:25 :—"But there was none like unto Ahab, which did sell himself to work wickedness in the sight of the Lord, whom Jezebel his wife stirred up." That explains the whole mystery. The man had sold himself to the devil. And men are doing that self-same thing every day. If it were a transaction in the market-place—if the auctioneer were visibly interested in this affair, if he could call out in audible tones "so much is the price, and the man is about to take it;" people would shrink from the villainous transaction. But this is an affair which does not take place in the open market or in the open daylight. It is not conducted in words. If the men involved in such transactions could speak the words, the very speech of the words might break the spell and destroy the horrible infatuation. But the compact is made in darkness, in silence, in out-of-the-way places. It is an understanding unwritten, rather than an agreement in detail signed in the presence of witnesses. It is a mystery which the heart alone can understand, which even the preacher cannot explain in terms but he can only throw himself upon his own consciousness, and throw others upon their consciousness, and call for a united testimony to the fact that it is possible to sell one's very soul to evil. Now we understand king Ahab better. We thought him but little, frivolous of mind, childish and petty, without a man's worthy ambition; but now we see that all this was but symptomatic, an outward sign, pointing, when rightly followed, to an inward and mortal corruption.
Now let us look at the case of Naboth and the position which he occupied in this matter. Naboth possessed the vineyard Ahab is said to have coveted. Naboth said, "The Lord forbid" (1Kings 21:3). He made a religious question of it. Why did he invoke the Eternal Name, and stand back as if an offence had been offered to his faith? The terms were commercial, the terms were not unreasonable, the approach was courteous, the ground given for the approach was not an unnatural ground,—why did Naboth stand back as if his religion had been shocked? The answer is in Numbers 36:7 :—"So shall not the inheritance of the children of Israel remove from tribe to tribe: for every one of the children of Israel shall keep himself to the inheritance of the tribe of his fathers." So Naboth stood upon the law. In Ezekiel, we read:—"Moreover the prince shall not take of the people's inheritance by oppression, to thrust them out of their possession; but he shall give his sons inheritance out of his own possession: that my people be not scattered every man from his possession" (xlvi. 18). So Naboth was not answering haughtily or resentfully; he was answering solemnly and religiously. When money was offered for his fathers' inheritance, he spurned the offer. There are some things, blessed be God, we cannot pay for. When Ahab said, "I will give thee for it a better vineyard than it," he knew not of what he was speaking. There can be no better vineyard than the vineyard of the fathers; there can be no vineyard equal to the vineyard that is sown with history, planted with associations, solemnised and endeared by a thousand precious memories. There ought to be some things we cannot barter. Surely there ought to be some things we should never try to sell. Verily when we hear propositions made to us that money shall be given in exchange for certain things, our whole soul should rise in horror and indignation, and repel the approach of a barter which itself expresses an infinite because a most spiritual injustice. So Naboth's position was strong, and Naboth had the courage to answer the king in these terms. Kings must submit to law. Kings ought to be the subjects of their own people. Ahab was taught that there was a man in Samaria who valued the inheritance which had been handed down to him. Have we no inheritance handed down to us—no book of revelation, no day of rest, no flag of liberty, no password of common trust? Do we inherit nothing? Did we make the age as it is, and is civilisation a creature of our own fashioning? And are we not bound to hand on to others what was handed to us intact and unpolluted? Let us live in a sacred past, and regard ourselves as trustees of many possessions, and only trustees, and bound to vindicate our trust, and have an ample acquittal at the last.
So Ahab lay down upon his bed, turned away his face, and would eat no bread. But there is a way of accomplishing mean desires. There is a way of obtaining what we want. Take heart! there is a way of possessing oneself of almost whatever one desires. There is always some Merlin who will bring every Uther-Pendragon what he longs to have; there is always some Lady Macbeth who will show the thane how to become king. There is always a way to be bad! The gate of hell stands wide open, or if apparently half-closed a touch will make it fly back, and the road is broad that leadeth to destruction. Jezebel said she would find the garden or vineyard for her husband. She taunted him—"Dost thou now govern"—throwing into the word "govern" a subtle and significant emphasis—"the kingdom of Israel? Arise, and eat bread, and let thine heart be merry: I will give thee the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite" (1Kings 21:7)—and any number of vineyards: come to table, and be today as yesterday. How will she proceed? She will be ceremoniously religious:—"Proclaim a fast"; O thou sweet, white, pure religion, thou hast been forced into strange uses! "Proclaim a fast": lengthen your faces: mimic solemnity: promise your hunger an early satisfaction, but look as if you were fasting. It is a sure sign of mischief when certain men become serious. The moment they appear to be religious the devil is just adding the last touch to the building which he has been putting up within their souls. When they talk long words—when they speak about responsibility, obligation, duty, conscience, compulsion of conviction, they are walking over tesselated pavement into the very jaws of hell. They do not mean their words; they do but use them: "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked." First of all, then, be ceremoniously religious, Jezebel; then trample down truth: "Set two men, sons of Belial, before him, to bear witness against him, saying, Thou didst blaspheme God and the king" (1Kings 21:10). Falsehood is always ready. A great black lie is always willing to be loosed and to be set going in the minds of men to pervert them and mislead them. It is always open to the bad heart to speak the untrue word. Nor is the untrue word always frankly and broadly spoken. If so, it could be answered in some cases. The false word is hardly spoken at all; it is uttered in a whisper; falsehood is made to use signs, gestures: even silence is made to bear witness to falsehood. Truly again we may say, "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked." Tell a lie big enough about any man, and it will be difficult, if not impossible, to do away with the consequences of the false accusation. People will always be found to say, There must be something in it; it may not be just as rumour has it, but surely a statement of that kind never could have been invented; allowing a good deal for exaggeration, there must be something in it. Nor is it always possible to get even righteous men to purge their minds of that damnable sophism. Men who ought to stand up and say, "No, there is nothing in it," hang down their heads, and with a coward's gesture let the lie pass on. This is how men insult the Son of God, and crucify the Man of truth. They will not be thorough, bold, fearless, and make the enemy ashamed of himself for either having invented or repeated a falsehood. Nor may the man escape because he says he heard the lie. Tell him he may have heard it, but he is responsible for repeating it: he may have no control over the hearing, but the moment he repeats it, he adopts it, and renders himself amenable to the Eternal Righteousness. Make the very law into an instrument of injustice! Charge this man with blasphemy and treason, and then take him out and stone him, that he may die! Do not give him time to speak; do not ask for his defence; do not give him an opportunity of interrogating the witnesses. But who would cross-examine two "sons of Belial"? Better almost to die than to taint the hands and eyes with the touch and look of such children of blackness!
"Then they carried him [Naboth] forth out of the city, and stoned him with stones, that he died" (1Kings 21:13). It is all over! Jezebel did this—Jezebel a woman, a king's wife, did this. High position goes for nothing when the heart is wrong. Great influence means great mischief when the soul is not in harmony with the spirit of righteousness. Is Naboth quite dead? Yes, he is dead. Take the vineyard—take possession of it instantly! Now grow herbs, and grow them plentifully. The vineyard is now at liberty—take it! "Ahab rose up to go down to the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, to take possession of it" (1Kings 21:16). But who is this that looms in the distance? Is it Naboth? No. How comes this man to be here just now—ay, just now? How the end is marked off into points, and how does providence reveal itself at unexpected times and in ways unforeseen! Who is this? He looks stern. He has an eye of fire. His lips are shut as if they could never be opened. He does but look! Who is it? "Elijah the Tishbite." He has a message:—"Thus saith the Lord, Hast thou killed, and also taken possession?... Thus saith the Lord, In the place where dogs licked the blood of Naboth shall dogs lick thy blood, even thine" (1Kings 21:19). A sad walk! Ahab went down to take possession of a vineyard, and a death-warrant was read to him! After all, it is safe to live in this universe: there is law in it, there is a genius of righteousness, there is a Force that moves onward towards noble issues. "And Ahab said to Elijah, Hast thou found me, O mine enemy? And he answered, I have found thee: because thou hast sold thyself to work evil in the sight of the Lord," and such and such judgment shall befall thee.
Ahab went out to take possession of a garden of herbs, and there he stands face to face with righteousness, face to face with honour, face to face with judgment. Now take the vineyard! He cannot! An hour since the sun shone upon it, and now it is black as if it were part of the midnight which has gathered in judgment. There is a success which is failure. We cannot take some prizes. Elijah will not allow us! When we see him we would that a way might open under our feet that we might flee and escape the judgment of his silent look. If any man is about to take unholy prizes, let him remember that he will be met on the road by the spirit of judgment and by the spirit of righteousness. If any man is attempting to scheme for some little addition to his position or fortune, in the heart of which scheme there is injustice, untruthfulness, covetousness, or a wrong spirit, let him know that he may even kill Naboth, but cannot enter into Naboth's vineyard.
What shall we do, then? Let us turn away from this evil spirit. "Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts." A little that a righteous man hath is better than the riches of many wicked. "Be content with such things as ye have." Having bread and water, let us be therewith content. "I have learned;" says the Apostle Paul, "in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content." How long shall we live in circumstances, in mere external conditions? So long as we live in the present, we shall exhibit all the littlenesses of children without any of their simplicity and pureness. We are called to greater things—even to life in the Lord Jesus Christ, and to the possession of an inheritance incorruptible, undefiled, and that fadeth not away: an amaranthine Paradise, for ever green, for ever unstained by sin. Crush beginnings of evil. Resist beginnings. Your heavenly Father knoweth what things ye have need of. If you want a little corner added to your estate, let the Lord find it for you, and it will be done in a way in which no man will be injured, but in which the spirit of righteousness will be honoured. If you have too much, he will take part of it away and give it to another. We have not learned of Christ, unless we can say, "Not my will, but thine, be done: give me little, or give me much, as it may please thee, only take not thy Holy Spirit from me; give me to feel that all I have I hold as steward, and to thy call I am alone amenable." He who lives in this way may not have much to show of an external kind that can be represented in arithmetical numerals, but he will have a soul peopled with angels, a mind full of bright thoughts, a heart living with sweet charities; and as for his outlook, surely he will be a man of expectations: in his thought here he will have the peace of God, and by-and-by will be "homed and heavened" in the very heart of his Father.