Monday, 17 December 2007

The Surprising Locations of Grace

I don't think many people would disagree that Ahab, King of Israel in 1 Kings, was a thoroughly unpleasant individual. He was, in many ways, the ultimate wicked character in a fairy tale.

[Digression: You can be fairly certain that Ahab would have been ugly and without any fashion sense, or had some serious physical defect because, as Disney teaches us, you can't be a wicked prince unless you are disagreeable to look at. It just doesn't work. Surely the reason why he's wicked is that he tries to impose his ugliness on the beautiful princess?* Thankfully there is no beautiful princess in the Ahab story (because Jezebel has to be ugly as well because she too is wicked!), so we are saved from such a difficult dilemma. Which is just as well, because this post is really not about fairytales at all].
*Despite attempts to reverse this in Shrek, it is remarkable that 'unattractive' Shrek and Fiona both look a whole lot more attractive than the prince, etc.

To get back to Ahab - he really is a dreadful king. The heart sinks as he is introduced, not just because we know him by reputation as evil and we know it won't be good. But also because of the narration: "Ahab the son of Omri did evil in the sight of the Lord more than all who were before him." (16:30) The exile looms. And yes, we always knew it was coming, but it's a bit like Frodo's movement up to Mordor in the Lord of the Rings - the closer he gets the more your dread grows. Yes, you know he'll defeat the odds and all that (oh, come on, if you don't know how it ends now, you never will). But the process is so excruciating, you can't help wishing that it could be avoided, that in fact Ahab could be avoided.

But having introduced Ahab as the evil king par excellence, he then becomes almost comic. He is there when Elijah triumphs in the name of the Lord over Ba'al with fire sweeping down from heaven and demonstrating the Lord's greatness. And what does he do? He runs back home to Jezebel and dobs on Elijah. It is Jezebel who then threatens Elijah and sends him running into the wilderness. Ahab is standing there watching the whole scene unfold and does nothing. His silence does not give consent however, as his interaction with Jezebel shows: he is just too spineless to do anything himself.

Similarly, when he defies God by making a covenant with his enemy and hears God's judgment against him, his response is to be 'sullen and vexed' (20:43). In the next chapter, he tries to get Naboth to give him his vineyard, which would mean that Naboth would have to break God's laws of inheritance. He is again so 'sullen and vexed' when Naboth won't do this that he actually 'lay down on his bed and turned away his face and ate no food.' (21:4) I know 6 year olds who have more emotional maturity. Again, it is Jezebel who sorts it out for him, and if we thought going to bed and refusing to eat was an overreaction from a grown man, we get the female version from Jezebel. Not only does she murder Naboth but destroys his reputation in the process, (like using a rocket launcher to take out a rabbit really). So Ahab looks like a joke: a dangerous joke because he will get his own way, even if he can't do it himself and needs his wife to use her rather terrifying imagination to carry out his whims.

It is no surprise to then find the comedy of errors which happens at the end of Ahab's life in I Kings 22. Here Ahab is so certain that a particular prophet will prophesy against him that he refuses to hear him. When the king of Judah insists that this prophet be heard, he actually prophesies in Ahab's favour. Ahab doesn't believe him and insists that he tell the truth. Whereupon the prophet does tell the truth: he tells Ahab that in the council of God, his demise has been determined through the deception of all his prophets (who are prophesying positively about the upcomign battle), but that defeat is certain. So, Ahab will be deceived. Ahab's response? "Did I not tell you that he would not prophesy good concerning me, but evil?" (22:18) You can almost see his lower lip protruding, complete with tremor. And he throws the prophet into prison, making his (Ahab's) return from battle the condition of his release, which of course the prophet already knows will not come about.

He is told he is deceived and he is deceived.

[This would deserve its own chapter in the Biblical Theology of Deception: it is so full of issues - God deceiving, but is it deception when God actually tells you the truth about the deception? Because you can't say that God hasn't been absolutely honest with Ahab (and Jehoshaphat for that matter). So is it still deception?]

Ahab feels like a joke: the kind of king who is so inept that he needs his wife to come up with the wicked plans: weak, dithering, childish - someone to make Macbeth look decisive and malevolent.

Which is why the two twists in the Ahab story stand out so much.

The first is the rescue of Israel back in chapter 20. This is standard, run of the mill stuff for the OT, in which the army threatens God's people, God reassures the rulers that he will deliver and then he does, miraculously. God fights for his people. God rescues his people from threats. And he does it all twice.

It's just that you don't expect God to do it for Israel (who are steeped in idolatry). And you really don't expect God to do it while Ahab is on the throne. Surely God can only use willing, obedient people who love him? Surely God would only be committed to his people when they aren't caught up in idolatry and when they aren't split into two 'nations', and even then, surely he would be more interested in Judah?

But God is not so neat! And his mercy is extraordinary, and nowhere seen more explicitly and more extravagantly than when it is poured out on his people. So, at precisely the place where most of us would turn from such a messy situation and wait for a better king with a more obedient people, God steps in and rescues. He demonstrates again that despite everything these are his people and he will not be deterred from their salvation. And he will not be deterred from demonstrating his love and kindness in whichever context he chooses. It takes the idea that God can only use the obedient and holy and turns it on its head. God will use whom he will to accomplish his purposes, and this is seen dramatically and frequently in God's decision to save the unworthy.

The second twist is in Ahab's reaction to God's judgment in the wake of Naboth's death. There is a long prophecy against Ahab from 21:20-24, which is really quite awful: there's blood, dogs, birds involved, the end of a dynasty and the gory death of his wife. Not what anyone wants to hear. The narrator interrupts here, and just in case we had forgotten reminds us that 'there was no one like Ahab who sold himself to do evil in the sight of the Lord...' and goes on to list some of those things for two verses (vv25-26).

Then we get Ahab's reaction, which is deeply surprising. No pouting or holding of his breath, but repentance, of all things. And this is not about God's people now, but about this individual. Surely after all he's done, God will get the dogs and birds ready and ignore this petty repentance?

Yet, we are left with the impression that his repentance was serious and God took it seriously, and so God was gracious. So his repentance was no momentary regret but a genuine recognition that he had done the wrong thing. We only know this because of God's words to Elijah (seriously - Ahab could have gone 'about despondently' and we'd just think he was sulking again; we only know it is serious because of what God says to Elijah). (21:29) God tells Elijah that Ahab's death scene is mitigated - it happens to his sons instead (which to us seems unfair but that is something for another day). We are never left with the impression that Ahab's repentance 'made up for' his wickedness.

And it is an interesting display of his mercy. God comments to Elijah but interestingly not to Ahab. Does Ahab ever know? It is not in the passage or anywhere else and Ahab goes to his grave without the dogs or the birds - but given that he dies slowly in the field of battle, does his heart chill at the cawing of the carrion?
(An argument from silence of course, but I always find an argument from silence is good for the imagination, if not the soul; and it can keep one's mind occupied at 2am, so it's not all bad).

But this reaction of grace by God is the most unexpected of reactions: the entire rest of the passage has set us up for the justice of God's condemnation of Ahab. There is no way, if we are paying attention that we can want Ahab to get away with the awful things he has done. He has stumbled the entire nation of Israel and moved the exile event that much closer. Terrible things will happen to people and in the narrative have already happened to people because of Ahab. Worst of all, he has led the people into idolatry and scores of people are facing God's anger because of their worship of other gods. All because of Ahab. He's not just a weak idiot who affects no-one; he is king over God's people and he has devoured them. Even though he is a joke, his evil is no laughing matter.

Why should he receive any mercy? And here I think we find grace again nestled in a most scandalous place.

God shows mercy to Ahab.

It reminds me of Jonah - God showing mercy to a group of the most bloodthirsty and wicked of nations, all because it repents. It feels so easy. Why should someone have their curse removed or mitigated because they were genuinely sorry? Why should they 'get away' with such wickedness?

There is no easy answer to such a question. Indeed, there is no way of really understanding the way God's grace works. But it does demonstrate again that God will 'show mercy to whom he will show mercy' and will expect his people to rejoice in the face of the repentance of the wicked. God does not delight in the death of a sinner, but in salvation, where he declares and reveals himself.

And it implicitly calls on us to rejoice that God has been gracious to another sinner, because that is always the reaction of the people of God to the grace of God being shown, in however small or however strange a way. I think that is why God told Elijah: so he could rejoice as well as to understand that when Ahab died it would not be as previously prophesied. Ahab did repent, if only once and we are to be glad. Not just because we too were God's enemies and at that moment Jesus died for us, and so in one sense we are no better than Ahab. But because of who God is - he is the God who will be merciful, even in the grimmest, grimiest of situations, even to the most unexpected and unworthy of sinners.

God saves and saves and saves again. That is the story of the Bible. It's a scandalous story but one which rejoices the hearts of those whose lives depend on just that kind of God and his salvation in life and death.