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The prophet of God comes again, and both foretells the intended rencounter of the Syrian, and advises the care and preparation of Israel; 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. God purposeth the deliverance of Israel; yet may not they neglect their fortifications. The merciful intentions of God towards them may not make them careless. The industry and courage of the Israelites fall within the decree of their victory. Security is the bane of good success.
It is no contemning of a foiled enemy. The shame of a former disgrace and miscarriage whets his valour, and sharpens it to revenge. No power is so dreadful, as that which is recollected from an overthrow.
The hostility against the Israel of God may sleep, but will hardly die. If the Aramites sit still, it is but till they be fully ready for an assault time will shew, that their cessation was only for their advantage. Neither is it otherwise with our spiritual adversaries; sometimes their onsets are intermitted: they tempt not always; they always hate us: their forbearance is not out of favour, but attendance of opportunity. Happy are we, if, out of a suspicion of their silence, we can as busily prepare for their resistance, as they do for our impugnation.
As it is a shame to be beaten, so yet the shame is less, by how much the victor is greater. To mitigate the grief and indignation of Benhadad's foil, his parasites ascribe it to gods, not to men: a human power could no more have vanquished him, than a divine power could by him be resisted; Their gods are gods of the hills.
Ignorant Syrians, that name gods, and confine them; varying their deities, according to situations! They saw that Samaria, whence they were repelled, stood upon the hill of Shemer: they saw the temple of Jerusalem stood upon mount Sion: they knew it usual with the Israelites, to sacrifice in their high places; and perhaps they had heard of Elijah's altar upon mount Carmel and now they sottishly measure the effects of the power, by the place of the worship; as if He, that was omnipotent on the hill, were impotent in the valley.
What doltish conceits, doth blind paganism frame to itself, of a godhead! As they have many gods, so finite. Every region, every hill, every dale, every stream hath its several gods; and each so knows his own bounds, that he dares not offer to encroach upon the other; or, if he do, buys it with loss. Who would think, that so gross blockishness should find harbour, in a reasonable soul? A man doth not alter with his station. He, that wrestled strongly upon the hill, loseth not his force in the plain: all places find him alike active, alike valorous; yet these barbarous Āramites shame not, to imagine that of God, which they would blush to affirm of their own champions. Superstition infatuates the heart, out of measure; neither is there any fancy so absurd or monstrous, which credulous infidelity is not ready to entertain with applause.
In how high scorn, doth God take it, to be thus basely undervalued by rude heathen! This very mis-opinion concerning the God of Israel, shall cost the Syrians a shameful and perfect destruction. They may call a council of war, and lay their heads together, and change their kings into captains and their hills into valleys, but they shall find more graves in the plains, than in the mountains. This very misprision of God shall make Ahab, though he were more lewd, victorious. A hundred thousand Syrians shall fall in one day, by those few hands of Israel; and a dead wall in Aphek, to whose shelter they fled, shall revenge God, upon the rest that remained. The stones in the wall shall rather turn executioners, than a blasphemous Aramite shall escape unrevenged. So much doth the jealous God hate to be robbed of his glory, even by ignorant pagans, whose tongues might seem no slander!
That proud head of Benhadad, that spoke such big words of the dust of Israel, and swore by his gods, that he would kill and conquer, is now glad to hide itself in a blind hole of Aphek; and now, instead of questioning the power of the God of Israel, is glad to hear of the mercy of the kings of Israel; 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 on our heads, and go out to the king of Israel: peradventure he will save thy life.
There can be no more powerful attractive of humble submission, than the intimation and conceit of mercy. We do, at once, fear and hate the inexorable. This is it, O Lord, that allures us to thy throne of grace, the knowledge of the grace of that throne. With thee is mercy, and plenteous redemption. Thy hand is open before our mouths; before our hearts. If we did not see thee sinile upon suitors, we durst not press to thy footstool. Behold now, we know that the King of Heaven, the God of Israel, is a merciful God let us put sackcloth upon our loins, and strew ashes upon our heads, and go meet the Lord God of Israel, that he may save our souls.
How well doth this habit become insolent and blasphemous Benhadad and his followers, a rope and sackcloth! Arope, for a crown; sackcloth, for a robe.
Neither is there less change in the tongue; Thy servant Benhadad saith, I pray thee let me live. Even now the king of Israel said to Benhadad, My lord, O king, I am thine: tell my lord the king, all that thou didst send for to thy servant, I will do. Now Benhadad sends to the king of Israel, Thy servant Benhadad saith, I pray thee, let me live. He, that was ere while a lord and king, is now a servant; and he, that was a servant to the king of Syria, is now his lord: he, that would blow away all Israel in dust, is now glad to beg for his own life, at the door of a despised enemy. No courage is so haughty, which the God of Hosts cannot easily bring under. What are men or devils, in those Almighty hands?
The greater the dejection was, the stronger, was the motive of commiseration. That halter pleaded for life; and that plea but for
a life, stirred the bowels for favour. How readily did Ahab see in Benhadad's sudden misery, the image of the instability of all human things! and relents at the view of so deep and passionate a sub
Had not Benhadad said, Thy servant, Ahab had never said, My brother. Seldom ever was there loss in humility. How much less can we fear disparagement, in the annihilating of ourselves, before that Infinite Majesty!
The drowning man snatches at every twig. It is no marvel, if the messengers of Benhadad caught hastily at that last of grace, and hold it fast, Thy brother Benhadad.
Favours are wont to draw on each other: kindnesses breed on themselves; neither need we any other persuasion to beneficence, than from our own acts. Ahab calls for the king of Syria; sets him in his own chariot; treats with him of an easy, yet firm, league; gives him both his life and his kingdom.
Neither is the crown of Syria sooner lost, than recovered. Only, he, that came a free prince, returns tributary: only, his train is clipped too short for his wings; a hundred and twenty-seven thousand Syrians are abated of his guard, homeward.
Blasphemy hath escaped too well. Ahab hath, at once, peace with Benhadad, war with God. God proclaims it by his herald, one of the sons of the prophets; not yet in his own form, but disguised, both in fashion and complaint.
It was a strange suit of a prophet, Smite me, I pray thee. Many a prophet was smitten, and would not; never any but this wished to be smitten. The rest of his fellows were glad to say, Save me; this only says, Smite me.
His honest neighbour, out of love and reverence, forbears to strike. "There are too many," thinks he, "that smite the prophets, though I refrain. What wrong hast thou done, that I should repay with blows? Hadst thou sued for a favour, I could not have denied thee: now thou suest for thy hurt, the denial is a favour." Thus he thought, but charity cannot excuse disobedience. Had the man of God called for blows upon his own head, the refusal had been just and thankworthy; but now that he says, In the word of the Lord, smite me, this kindness is deadly: because thou hast not obeyed the voice of the Lord, behold as soon as thou art departed from me a lion shall slay thee. It is not for us to examine the charges of the Almighty. Be they never so harsh or improbable, if they be once known for his, there is no way but obedience or death. Not to smite a prophet, when God commands, is no less sin, than to smite a prophet, when God forbids. It is the divine precept or prohibition, that either makes or aggravates an
And if the Israelite be thus revenged, that smote not a prophet, what shall become of Ahab, that smote not Benhadad ?
Every man is not thus indulgent. An easy request will gain blows to a prophet, from the next hand; yea, and a wound in smiting.
I know not whether it were a harder task, for the prophet to require a wound, than for a well-meaning Israelite to give it. Both must be done. The prophet hath what he would, what he must will, a sight of his own blood; and now, disguised herewith, and with ashes upon his face, he waylays the king of Israel, and sadly complains of himself in a real parable, for dismissing a Syrian prisoner delivered to his hands, upon no less charge than his life; and soon receives sentence of death, from his own mouth. Well was that wound bestowed, that struck Ahab's soul, through the flesh of the prophet. The disguise is removed. The king sees not a soldier, but a seer; and now finds, that he hath unawares passed sentence upon himself. There needs no other doom, than from the lips of the offender; 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. Had not Ahab known the will of God concerning Benhadad, that had been mercy to an enemy, which was now cruelty to himself, to Israel. His ears had heard of the blasphemies of that wicked tongue. His eyes had seen God go before him, in the example of that revenge. No prince can strike so deep into his state, as in not striking. In private favour, there may be public unmercifulness, 1 Kings xx.
AHAB AND NABOTH.
NABOTH had a fair vineyard. It had been better for him, to have had none: his vineyard yielded him the bitter grapes of death. Many a one hath been sold to death, by his lands and goods: wealth hath been a snare, as to the soul, so to the life. Why do we call those goods, which are, many times, the bane of the owner?
Naboth's vineyard lay near to the court of Jezebel: it had been better for him, it had been planted in the wilderness. Doubtless, this vicinity made it more commodious to the possessor; but more envious and unsafe. It was now the perpetual object of an evil eye; and stirred those desires, which could neither be well denied nor satisfied, Eminency is still joined with peril; obscurity, with peace, There can be no worse annoyance to an inheritance, than the greatness of an evil neighbourhood. Naboth's vines stood too near the smoke of Jezebel's chimnies; too much within the prospect of Ahab's window.
Now lately had the king of Israel been twice victorious over the Syrians, No sooner is he returned home, than he is overcome with evil desires. The foil he gave was not worse than that he took, There is more true glory in the conquest of our lusts, than in all the bloody trophies. In vain shall Ahab boast of subduing a foreign enemy, while he is subdued by a domestic enemy withinhis own breast.
Opportunity and convenience are guilty of many a theft. Had not this ground lain so fair, Ahab had not been tempted.
His eye lets in this evil guest into the soul, which now dares
come forth at the mouth. Give me thy vineyard, that I may have it for a garden of herbs, because it is near to my house; and I will give thee a better vineyard for it; or, if it seem good to thee, I will give thee the worth of it in money.
Yet had Ahab so much civility and justice, that he would not wring Naboth's patrimony out of his hand by force, but requires it upon a fair composition, whether of price or of exchange. His government was vicious; not tyrannical. Propriety of goods was inviolably maintained by him. No less was Naboth allowed to claim a right in his vineyard, than Ahab in his palace. This we owe to lawful sovereignty, to call ought our own; and well worthy is this privilege, to be repaid with all humble and loyal respects.
The motion of Ahab, had it been to any other than an Israelite, had been as just, equal, reasonable, as the repulse had been rude, churlish, inhuman. It is fit, that princes should receive due satisfaction, in the just demands, not only of their necessities, but convenience and pleasure. Well may they challenge this retribution, to the benefit of our common peace and protection. If there be any sweetness in our vineyards, any strength in our fields, we may thank their sceptres. Justly may they expect from us the commodity, the delight of their habitation; and if we gladly yield not to their full elbow-room, both of sight and provision, we can be no other than ungrateful. Yet dares not Naboth give any other answer to so plausible a motion, than, The Lord forbid it me, that I should give thee the inheritance of my fathers. The honest Israelite saw violence in this ingenuity. There are no stronger commands, than the requests of the great. It is well, that Ahab will not wrest away this patrimony: it is not well that he desired it. The land was not so much stood upon, as the law. One earth might be as good as another; and money equivalent to either. The Lord had forbidden to alien their inheritance: Naboth did not fear loss, but sin. What Naboth might not lawfully do, Ahab might not lawfully require.
It pleased God, to be very punctual and cautelous, both in the distinction and preservation of the entireness of these Jewish inheritances. Nothing but extreme necessity might warrant a sale of land; and that, but for a time: if not sooner, yet at the jubilee, it must revert to the first owner. It was not without a comfortable signification, that, whosoever had once his part in the Land of Promise, could never lose it.
Certainly, Ahab could not but know this divine restriction, yet doubts not to say, Give me thy vineyard. The unconscionable will know no other law, but their profit, their pleasure. A lawless greatness hates all limitations, and abides not, to hear men should need any other warrant but will.
Naboth dares not be thus tractable. How gladly would he be quit of his inheritance, if God would acquit him from the sin! Not out of wilfulness, but obedience, doth this faithful Israelite hold off, from this demand of his sovereign; not daring to please an earthly king, with offending the heavenly. When princes com