What more unlikely candidate to utter a wise saying than the wicked and wily King Ahab? Yet, in spite of his idolatry, immorality and selfishness he had a few positive traits. Although the inspired record clearly reveals in Ahab a weak moral character, it also bears witness to his strengths, one of which was the apparent ability to launch a stinging verbal jab. He is also shown to be a clever political strategist, cunning in his ability to win the admiration of friend and foe alike and he was far-sighted in dealing with the foreign policy issues of Israel.
The twenty year reign of Ahab as king over the northern tribes of Israel took place between 869-850 B.C. The story of Ahab, along with his infamous Queen, Jezebel, is recorded in 1 Kings 16-22. The record reveals that Ahab reigned in the middle of a fifty-year dynasty (Omri, Ahab, Ahaziah and Joram) that brought a strength and dominance to Israel that had not been seen since the united kingdom under the rule of King David.
At the time of King Ahab’s reign, the cities of Israel were fortified. There were alliances with foreign powers; primarily with the Phoenicians, the foremost commercial nation of the time. This alliance was sealed by Ahab’s ill-omened marriage to Jezebel, a Sidonian. Later Ahab molded a three year peace with Syria. There also existed a peaceful and friendly relationship between Israel and its kindred kingdom of Judah (sealed with yet another marriage, that of Ahab’s daughter Athaliah to Jehoram, son of Judah’s king Jehoshaphat).
Of course, the alliances maintained by Ahab came with a price. From the Sidonians he was pressured to import a virulent strain of idolatry in the form of Baal worship which eventually had the kings of Israel offering their own children in fiery sacrifices. Alliances with other nations were contracted against the ancient counsel of God who intended that His people remain free of foreign influence. The evil and domineering Jezebel also provoked Ahab to do wrong and inaugurated the first great religious persecution against the Jews.
Ahab proved to be a willing partner in compromise. He was spineless in his devotion to Jehovah while abetting the inclusion of idol worship into the religious culture of the ten northern tribes. His wife, Jezebel, however, would stop short of nothing less than total annihilation of the Jewish people and their religion. Ahab may have been far-sighted politically, but his short-sighted moral and religious outlook would bring about his eventual doom.
The events that lead up to Ahab’s obscure proverb begin in 1 Kings 20:1. But before we zero in on that proverb, we will review the events that led up to its utterance.
First, we look at Ben-hadad, king of Syria (Aram) reigning in Damascus. [Historians are not agreed on whether this was the same Ben-hadad whose reign coincided with Kings Asa of Judah and Baasha of Israel some forty years earlier (1Kings 15:9-22; 2 Chron 16:2,4), or the son of the previous Ben-hadad. (For a discussion see ZPEB. Vol 1. p 518.)]
Ahab’s northern kingdom of Israel must have been quite strong at the time, for Ben-hadad sought to overtake it with an allied army of thirty-two tributary kings along with horses and chariots. Ben-hadad’s first objective was to lay siege against Samaria, the city from which Ahab ruled Israel. During the siege he sent messengers to King Ahab demanding the surrender of his silver, gold, wives and children. Ahab initially agreed to the demands. Yet, when Ben-hadad’s messengers came back to Ahab announcing that the next day they would arrive to seize everything of value, Ahab decided to seek counsel from the elders of the land. The elders advised Ahab to refuse Ben-hadad’s demands. So, when Ben-hadad received news of Ahab’s refusal, he sent the following ominous warning: “May the gods deal with me, be it ever so severely, if enough dust remains in Samaria to give each of my men a handful” (1 Kings 20:10).
Ahab maintained his ground and sent back to Ben-hadad the following message in the form of a proverb: “One who puts on his armor should not boast like one who takes it off.” More about Ahab’s wise saying in a moment, First, let’s conclude the battle narrative.
Upon receiving Ahab’s message Ben-hadad prepared his soldiers to attack. His vast army could easily have destroyed the smaller force from Israel, which numbered only 7,000, had it not been for the advice given to Ahab by a prophet of God (20:13, 28). The clever tactical maneuvers advised by the prophet were employed on the battle field and the Syrian army suffered heavy losses and was defeated. The following spring Ben-hadad mustered another army against Israel. The text (1 Kings 20:27) vividly describes how Israel was out manned: “The Israelites camped opposite them like two small flocks of goats, while the Syrians covered the countryside.” Again however, Ben-hadad was soundly defeated on the plains of Aphek (over 127,000 casualties). Ben-hadad himself survived both battles and personally surrendered to Ahab. A treaty was worked out in which Ahab failed to press his advantage and Ben-hadad was allowed to live. Commerce between Israel and Syria was restored and for three years there was no war between the two countries.
Ahab’s life ended following the three year peace in a battle over Syria’s encroachment on the Israelite city of Ramoth Gilead. During the battle, Ahab disguised himself as a common soldier. Nevertheless a providentially random arrow found its way between the sections of his armor and he was wounded. His final act was to valiantly remain standing in his chariot throughout the day long battle to embolden his troops, even though he was bleeding to death. That evening Ahab succumbed to his wounds and died, thus ending the career of one of the most infamous kings in history.
Now, back to Ahab’s proverb. “One who puts on his armor should not boast like one who takes it off.” Sounds a lot like the common saying: “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.” We are also familiar with: “If you’ve done it, it ain’t bragg’n.” Problem was, Ben-hadad hadn’t quite done it yet! The Biblical narrative paints a very proud picture of Ben-hadad as he makes demands of King Ahab and prepares to march into Samaria to take what he desires. No doubt he must have been puzzled by Ahab’s bold reprimand. He made one tragic blunder, however. He forgot that Israel, even though rebellious, was still a nation belonging to Jehovah God. Ben-hadad lost two mighty armies because he forgot to consider God when he made his plans.
Boasting on the part of anyone is completely out of place in matters where God is involved (and that’s most all matters). We must all live our lives keeping in mind a few principles that Ben-hadad forgot: 1) God is in control. 2) He has a plan for each of us, and expects us to follow that plan. 3) If we don’t follow God’s plan, we will be sorely punished. Ahab certainly gave a wise bit of advice to his enemy. Too bad he didn’t follow it more closely himself. Let’s not make the same mistake.