Can two people do the same thing and end up with different moral consequences? Can who people fighting in the same battle be rewarded or punished because of their reasons or motivations for fighting? Or perhaps we can ask a broader question: where is God in morally ambiguous or dicey situations?
The story of Ahab & Jehosaphat is an interesting one, because it shows us multiple players in a bizarre and morally complex situation. While it may be tempting sometimes to read the Bible as just a set of instructions, or a "do and do not" list, stories like the one we find in 1 Kings 22 show us that there is often way more going on beneath the surface. When we read stories like this, we have to consider multiple factors, seemingly contradictory outcomes, the internal motivations of different characters, and the different roles God plays when mediating between human and non-human agents.
Sound overwhelming yet? Well, don't worry. Let me set the stage for you.
First, the nation of Israel had been split in two by this point. The 10 tribes in the northern part of the country kept the collective name "Israel," while the two tribes in the southern part around Jerusalem were referred to as "Judea." Each of these functioned as their own kingdom, complete with their own king. While they often faced their own individual problems, they all shared the same family heritage and sometimes came together on issues of mutual interest.
Ahab, the king of Israel, wanted to take back a piece of land called Ramoth-gilead from the Syrians, and he asked Jehosaphat, king of Judah, to help him do it. While Jehosaphat agreed to help, he insisted that the consult God first, to see if He would approve of this course of action.
Ahab had hundreds of prophets in his royal court, but they were prone to dishonesty and flattery, generally only telling the king what he wanted to hear. Only one prophet, Micaiah, was known for telling the ugly truth, even if it displeased Ahab. In fact, Micaiah was often so blunt and critical that Ahab even said: "I hate him because he never prophesies anything good about me, but always bad" (1 Kings 22:8 NIV). So while the dishonest hired prophets encourage Ahab to go to war and be victorious, Micaiah solemnly warns that God does not approve of this plan, and that Ahab will die in battle if he goes on this campaign.
But in his stubbornness, Ahab puts Micaiah in prison and goes up to the battle anyway. Jehosaphat goes with him. In what seems to be an act of cowardice, Ahab tells Jehosaphat to keep wearing his royal robes while he disguises himself in the armor of a common soldier.
The enemy general, however, manages to figure out that Jehosaphat is not his primary target. He just wants to take down the king of northern Israel. When he realizes that Jehosaphat is not the guy he wants to kill, he refuses to take the bait and become distracted from his main military goal. Meanwhile, Ahab, who was in disguise as a regular soldier, ends up getting hid by a random arrow. He stayed propped up in his chariot at a little distance from the fighting for the rest of the battle, bleeding out from his wound until he died. Micaiah's prediction came true, and Ahab's forces were scattered (1 Kings 22:29-40).
There are a number of fascinating things to point out in this story. First, there is Ahab's blatant pettiness and his bad relationship with the only true prophet in his court. Ahab blatantly admits that he dislikes Micaiah because he's honest. Micaiah apparently knows that Ahab hates him and is willing to even troll Ahab by saying the same thing that the false prophets say.
13 The messenger who had gone to summon Micaiah said to him, “Look, the other prophets without exception are predicting success for the king. Let your word agree with theirs, and speak favorably.”
14 But Micaiah said, “As surely as the Lord lives, I can tell him only what the Lord tells me.”
15 When he arrived, the king asked him, “Micaiah, shall we go to war against Ramoth Gilead, or not?”
“Attack and be victorious,” he answered, “for the Lord will give it into the king’s hand.”
16 The king said to him, “How many times must I make you swear to tell me nothing but the truth in the name of the Lord?”
17 Then Micaiah answered, “I saw all Israel scattered on the hills like sheep without a shepherd, and the Lord said, ‘These people have no master. Let each one go home in peace.’”
18 The king of Israel said to Jehoshaphat, “Didn’t I tell you that he never prophesies anything good about me, but only bad?”
If it weren't for the seriousness of the situation, this exchange would almost be funny. "Should I go? Be honest with me." "Yeah go; you'll be fine." "I told you to be honest with me!" "Ok, then you won't be fine, in fact it's going to be terrible and you'll die." "SEE HOW THIS GUY NEVER SAYS ANYTHING GOOD ABOUT ME?"
That is pretty comical. But then Micaiah does something interesting: he pulls back the curtain between our world and the spiritual realm, and gives everyone a glimpse into God's throne room. And what we see there is a very peculiar assortment of spiritual beings involved in a planning process:
19 Micaiah continued, “Therefore hear the word of the Lord: I saw the Lord sitting on his throne with all the multitudes of heaven standing around him on his right and on his left. 20 And the Lord said, ‘Who will entice Ahab into attacking Ramoth Gilead and going to his death there?’
“One suggested this, and another that. 21 Finally, a spirit came forward, stood before the Lord and said, ‘I will entice him.’
22 “‘By what means?’ the Lord asked.
“‘I will go out and be a deceiving spirit in the mouths of all his prophets,’ he said.
“‘You will succeed in enticing him,’ said the Lord. ‘Go and do it.’
23 “So now the Lord has put a deceiving spirit in the mouths of all these prophets of yours. The Lord has decreed disaster for you.”
This probably raises a number of uncomfortable questions. Is God plotting alongside evil and deceptive spirits? Is he cooperating with them, and if so, why? Or is God simply allowing certain spirits to do evil things? Or, is this spirit actually carrying out an elaborate form of punishment against Ahab that matches his own history of dishonesty?
To answer those questions, you might compare this story with what you read in Job 1-2, Psalm 82, and 1 Samuel 16:14-23. You can also check out this interesting series by The Bible Project on the topic of Spiritual Beings. This episode in 1 Kings 22 seems to be part of a larger story about how non-human spiritual beings are part of how God deals with morally significant events that happen on earth. There is already an interesting layer of complexity here: what moral issues is God dealing with in heaven and how does that affect what happens on earth? Is God himself having to deal with a morally compromised environment, with morally compromised angels? How would that kind of situation affect the human story? How might that kind of situation require God's plan for everything to be more complicated?
There's another element here, though, and that is Jehosaphat. The way 1 Kings 22 memorializes him is much different than the way it summarizes the life of Ahab. Ahab was cowardly, dishonest, and twisted, and the battle of Ramoth Gilead ended up being his final judgment and downfall. Ahab displayed his cowardice and deceptiveness by trying to hide among his common soldiers, and a seeming coincidence took his life, as predicted by God's prophet.
But interestingly, Jehosaphat heard Micaiah's warnings and still went to the battle. He chose to support Ahab in combat, even in spite of a prophetic warning against going at all. So, did Jehosaphat sin, or demonstrate a lack of faith in God? Did Jehosaphat do the wrong thing by going to the battle alongside Ahab?
This is an interesting case study. We once again have to look deeper under the surface of the text, to try to infer the motivations of the characters. And we have to ask this question: can two people performing seemingly the same action actually be doing different things based on their motivation?
As a made up example, let's say there are two siblings - we'll call them Joey and Sarah. They both find out that their aunt, who happens to be very wealthy, is very ill and about to die. Both of them go to visit her and spend time by her bedside during her last few days of life. Joey does not particularly like this aunt, but goes and spends time with her in hopes that in so doing, he can convince her with flattery and gifts to leave him extra money in her will. Sarah, on the other hand, simply loves her aunt and doesn't want her to feel lonely during her final days.
Both of these children perform the same action: they visit a dying family member, share laughs, give flowers, and spend quality time with her. But because of their different motivations, Joey's actions were a form of manipulation, while Sarah's actions were an act of compassion.
It may be the case that something similar is happening with Jehosaphat and Ahab in 1 Kings 22. Ahab seems to be operating from greed and a hunger for power and wealth. The first verse of the chapter tells us that there has been three years of peace between Israel and Syria, and by making this choice, Ahab is re-igniting war. He does this all because he can't shake the belief that Ramoth Gilead "is ours." Ahab seems to be a bit of an opportunist - Jehosaphat has come to visit him, and he seizes this moment as a way to get more military support for his conquest.
Meanwhile, Jehosaphat seems more cautious and spiritual than Ahab. He doesn't want to make a move without first consulting God's prophets. But when it seems that Ahab is determined to go to battle, even against the prophet's warning, Jehosaphat sticks with him and fights alongside him. But this isn't Jehosaphat's war, or Jehosaphat's conquest. He simply went to help his neighbor Ahab. Perhaps he felt a sense of duty or brotherly love. Perhaps it was national loyalty, since the Israelites and Judeans were relatives. But in any case, after this story, Jehosaphat goes on to continue ruling, and is remembered for "doing what is right in the sight of the Lord" (1 Kings 22:41-44). He was by no means perfect, but compared to many other kings of their time, he was comparatively good.
This may seem like a lot of unrelated information, but here's the point:
So much of spiritual life takes place at a level that we simply cannot see.
Our internal motivations, and those of other people. The actions and goals of spiritual beings in high places. Principalities and powers. False and true prophets. Parts of God's plan that have not been explicitly revealed. All of these factors are apparently at play.
Christians often say "God is in control." But while this is definitely true, we should be careful not to underestimate the complexity of what that control looks like. We shouldn't write off the fact that the free choices of other people, or those of angels and demons, can also be unpredictable factors within God's plan. We also cannot look at human moral choices in a shallow or simplistic way. I know you did that, but why did you do that?
The more deeply we read the Bible, the more interesting questions we will have about the stories, characters, commandments, and prophecies contained within it. We may begin to see a reflection of the complexity of our own lives, and appreciate the way that God is able to interact with all that complexity and have a plan to save people. What lessons do you see for yourself in this peculiar story? If you're not sure, take a look at these follow up questions below.
- Read Ephesians 6:10-20. In light of the story about Ahab and Jehosaphat, how does Paul's advice about spiritual warfare apply? Do you think Jehosaphat had on "the armor of God" in this situation?
- What does it mean for us to wrestle against spiritual powers? Why do you think Paul calls them "rulers and authorities" or "principalities and powers?" Is he only talking about spirits, or could he also be talking about earthly powers?
- Take note of how, in the 1 Kings 22 story, the deceptive spirits cause Ahab - a political leader - to make a political and military decision. Could something like that still happen today, and if so, what does it mean for how we see world leaders?
- How does your answer to the last question affect the way you understand 1 Timothy 2:1-6?
- Read Ephesians 3:6-12. If the spirits we saw in 1 Kings 22 had the goal of inciting a war, and provoking violence and division between people, who seems, by contrast, to be God's plan in Christ? What is the relationship between God's people and the unseen powers of the spiritual realm? How does church unity and love factor into this?
- Read Jesus' parable about the wheat and the weeds (also called tares) in Matthew 13:24-30, and try to think about how this story might apply to the Ahab and Jehosaphat situation. Then, try to think about how the same principle might apply in your own life.
- For more background on Ahab, read 1 Kings 20-21 and answer the following questions:
- What kind of person does Ahab seem to be? What is his personality like?
- Would you describe Ahab as the kind of person who makes good choices? Does Ahab do a good job of thinking for himself, or is he easily swayed by the opinions of others?
- How would you describe Ahab's maturity as a person?
- What do you observe about Ahab's relationship with God? What does God do for Ahab? How does Ahab respond?
- Notice the prophecies in 1 Kings 20:38-43, 1 Kings 21:17-25, and compare them to the events in 1 Kings 21:27-29, and then to 1 Kings 22:34-38. Did God's plan for Ahab stay the same the whole way through? What role did Ahab's choices play? Was God willing to show mercy to Ahab? Do you think Ahab deserved to die the way he did?