The Life of Elijah
by A.W. Pink
A Dreadful Message
"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" (1 Kings 21:20). We have already considered Ahab’s question and the first part of the prophet’s reply; we turn now to look at the solemn charge which he preferred against the king. "Because thou hast sold thyself to work evil in the sight of the Lord." Here we may observe how essential it is that we note particularly each word of Holy Writ, for if we read this verse carelessly we shall fail to distinguish sharply between it and an expression used in the New Testament, which, though similar in sound, is vastly different in sense. In Romans 7:14 we find the apostle declares, "But I am carnal, sold under sin." That statement has puzzled quite a few, and some have so misunderstood its force that they have confounded it with the prophet’s terrible indictment against Ahab. It may be somewhat of a digression, yet numbers of our readers will probably welcome a few expository comments upon the difference in meaning of these two expressions.
It will be noted that Romans 7:14 begins with the affirmation, "For we know that the Law is spiritual," which among other things means, it legislates for the soul as well as the body, its demands reaching beyond the mere outward act to the motive which prompted it and the spirit in which it is performed; in a word, it requires inward conformity and purity. Now as the apostle measured himself by the high and holy requirements of God’s law, he declared, "but I am carnal." That was not said by way of self-extenuation, to excuse his coming so far short of the Divine standard set before us, but in self-condemnation because of his lack of conformity thereto. That is the sorrowful confession of every honest Christian. "I am carnal" expresses what the believer is in himself by nature: though born from above, yet the "flesh" in him has not been improved to the slightest degree. Nor is that true of the believer only when he has suffered some fall: he is always "carnal," for there is no getting rid of the old nature; though he is not always conscious of this humiliating fact. The more the Christian grows in grace the more does he realize his carnality - that the "flesh" pollutes his holiest exercises and best performances.
"Sold under sin." This does not mean that the saint gives up himself to be the willing slave of sin, but that he finds himself in the case or experience of a slave, of one whose master requires him to do things against his own inclinations. The literal rendering of the Greek is "having been sold under sin," that is, at the Fall, in which condition we continue to the end of our earthly course. "Sold" so as to be under the power of sin, for the old nature is never made holy. The apostle speaks of what he finds himself, what he is before God, and not of what he appeared in the sight of men. His "old man" was thoroughly opposed to God’s Law. There was an evil principle in him against which he struggled, from which he longed to be delivered, but which continued to exert its fearful potency. Notwithstanding the grace he had received, he found himself far, far from being perfect, and in all respects unable to attain thereunto, though longing after it. It was while measuring himself by the Law, which requires perfect love, that he realized how far short he came of it.
"Sold under sin": indwelling corruption holds the believer back. The more spiritual progress he is enabled to make, the more he discovers his handicap. It is like a man journeying uphill with a heavy load on his back: the farther he proceeds the more conscious does he become of that burden. But how is this to be harmonized with "sin shall not have dominion over you" (Rom. 6:14)? Thus: though indwelling sin tyrannizes the believer, it by no means prevails over him totally and completely. Sin reigns over the sinner, having an absolute and undisputed dominion over him, but not so with the saint. Yet it so far plagues as to prevent his attaining unto perfection, which is what he craves: (see Phil. 3:12). From the standpoint of the new nature and as God sees him in Christ, the believer is spiritual; but from the standpoint of the old nature and as God sees him in himself, he is "carnal." As a child of Adam he is "sold under sin," as a child of God he "delights in the Law of God after the inward man" (Rom. 7:22). The acts of a slave are indeed his own acts, yet not being performed with the full consent of his will and delight of his heart they are not a fair test of his disposition and desires.
Vastly different was the case of Ahab from that which we have briefly sketched above: so far from being brought into captivity against his will, he had "sold himself to work evil in the sight of the Lord." Deliberately and without limit, Ahab wholly gave himself up unto all manner of wickedness in open defiance of the Almighty. As Balaam "loved the wages of unrighteousness" (2 Pet. 2:15), and therefore freely hired himself unto Balak to curse the people of God, as Judas coveted the silver of the chief priests, sought them out and covenanted to betray the Saviour unto them (Matthew 26:14, 15), so this apostate king "sold himself to work evil" without compunction or reserve. His horrible crime in respect of Naboth was no detached act contrary to the general tenor or course of his life, as David’s sin in the matter of Uriah had been, but was simply a specimen of his continual rebellion against God. "Having sold himself to work evil in the sight of the Lord, as if in contempt and defiance of Him, he was openly, constantly, and diligently employed in it as a slave in his master’s business," (Thomas Scott).
"Thou hast sold thyself to work evil in the sight of the Lord." His downward course commenced when he married Jezebel (v. 25), a heathen, an idolater, and the consequences of that horrible union are recorded for our learning. They stand out as a red light, a danger signal, a solemn warning to the people of God today. The Law expressly forbade an Israelite to marry a Gentile, and the New Testament just as definitely prohibits a Christian from marrying a worldling. "Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness?" (2 Cor. 6:14). It is at his or her peril that any Christian willfully treads under foot this Divine commandment, for deliberate disobedience is certain to incur the marked displeasure of God. For a child of His to enter the state of wedlock with an unbeliever is to make Christ have concord with Belial (2 Cor. 6:15). When a Christian man marries a worldling, a son of God becomes united to a daughter of Satan. What a horrible combination!
In no uncertain tones did Elijah denounce Ahab for his defiant union with Jezebel and all the evils it had brought in its train. "Thou hast sold thyself to work evil in the sight of the Lord." That is the prime business of God’s servant: to make known the indignation and judgment of Heaven against sin. God is the enemy of sin. He is "angry with the wicked every day" (Ps. 7:11). His wrath is revealed against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men (Rom. 1:18). That wrath is the antagonism of holiness to evil, of consuming fire to that which is incapable of sustaining it. It is the business of God’s servant to declare and make known the awful case and course of the sinner, that those who are not for Christ are against Him, that he who is not walking with God is fighting against Him, that he who is not yielding himself to His service is serving the Devil. Said the Lord Jesus, "Whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin" (John 8:34), complying with the orders of his master, the slave of his lusts, yet the willing slave, delighting therein. It is not a service which has been forced upon him against his desires, but one into which he has voluntarily sold himself and in which he voluntarily remains. And therefore it is a criminal servitude for which he must be judged.
This, then, was the ordeal which confronted Elijah, and in essence it confronts every servant of Christ today. He was the bearer of an unwelcome message. He was required to confront the ungodly king and tell him to his face precisely what he was in the sight of a sin-hating God. It is a task which calls for firmness of mind and boldness of heart. It is a task which demands that the glory of God shall override all sentimental considerations. It is a task which claims the support and co-operation of all God’s people. Let them do and say nothing to discourage the minister in the faithful discharge of his office. Let them be far from saying, "Prophesy not unto us right things: speak unto us smooth things, prophesy deceits" (Isa. 30:10). Rather, let the people of God pray earnestly that the spirit of Elijah may rest upon their ministers, that they may be enabled to open their mouths "with all boldness" (Acts 4:29), that they may keep back nothing which is profitable, that they may shun not to declare all the counsel of God (Acts 20:20, 27). Let them see to it that there be no failure to hold up their hands in the day of battle (Ex. 17:12). Ah, my reader, it makes a tremendous difference when the minister knows he has the support of a praying people. How far is the pew responsible for the state of the pulpit today?
"Behold, I will bring evil upon thee" (v. 21). It is the business of God’s servant not only to paint in its true colors the course which the sinner has chosen to follow, but to make known the inevitable consequence of such a course. First and negatively, they who have sold themselves to work evil in the sight of the Lord "have sold themselves for nought" (Isa. 52:3). Satan has assured them that by engaging in his service they shall be greatly the gainers, that by giving free rein to their lusts they shall be merry and enjoy life. But he is a liar, as Eve discovered at the beginning. Of those who sell themselves to work evil it may be inquired, "Wherefore do ye spend money for that which is not bread? and your labour for that which satisfieth not?" (Isa. 55:2). There is no contentment of mind, no peace of conscience, no real joy of heart to be obtained by indulging the flesh, but rather the wrecking of health and the storing up of misery. Oh, what a wretched bargain is this: to sell ourselves "for nought"! To squander our substance in riotous living and then come to woeful want. To render full obedience to the dictates of sin and receive only kicks and cuffs in return. What madness to serve such a master!
But the servant of God has a still more painful duty to perform, and that is to announce the positive side of the consequences of selling ourselves to work evil in the sight of the Lord. Sin pays terrible wages, my reader. It is doing so at this present moment in the world’s history. The horrors of war, with all the untold suffering and anguish they entail, is the wages of sin now being paid out to the nations, and those nations which have sinned against the greatest light and privileges are the ones receiving the heaviest installments. And is it not meet it should be so? Yes, a "just recompence of reward" (Heb. 2:2), is what the Word of Truth designates it. And identically the same principle pertains to the individual: unto every one who sells himself to work evil in the sight of the Lord His rejoinder is, "Behold, I will bring evil upon thee," dire judgment which shall overwhelm and utterly consume. This, too, is the duty of God’s servant: solemnly to declare unto every rebel against God, irrespective of his rank, "O wicked man, thou shalt surely die" (Ezek. 33:8), and that same verse goes on to tell us that God will yet say unto the watchman that failed in his duty, "his blood will I require at thine hand." Oh, to be able to say with Paul, "I am pure from the blood of all men" (Acts 20:26).
"And will make thine house like the house of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, and like the house of Baasha the son of Ahijah, for the provocation wherewith thou has provoked Me to anger, and made Israel to sin. And of Jezebel also spake the Lord, saying, The dogs shall eat Jezebel by the wall of Jezreel. Him that dieth of Ahab in the city the dogs shall eat; and him that dieth in the field shall the fowls of the air eat" (vv. 22-24). The mills of God grind slowly but they grind exceeding small. For many years Ahab defied Jehovah but now the day of reckoning was nigh at hand, and when it dawned, Divine judgment would fall not only upon the apostate king and his vile consort but upon their family as well; so that his evil house should be utterly exterminated. Is it not written, "the name of the wicked shall rot" (Prov. 10:7)? We are here supplied with an awe-inspiring illustration of that solemn principle in the governmental dealings of God: "visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children" (Ex. 20:5). Behold here the justice of God in making Ahab reap as he had sown: not only had he consented unto the death of Naboth (21:8), but the sons of Naboth also had been slain (2 Kings 9:26), hence Divine retribution was visited not only upon Ahab and Jezebel but on their children too.
"And will make thine house like the house of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, and like the house of Baasha the son of Ahijah." In declaring that He would make the house of Ahab like unto that of two other wicked kings who preceded him, God announced the total destruction of his descendants, and that by a violent end. For the house of Jeroboam— whose dynasty lasted barely twenty-four years—we read, "He smote all the house of Jeroboam: he left not to Jeroboam any that breathed, until He had destroyed him (1 Kings 15:29); while of Baasha—whose dynasty lasted only just over a quarter of a century—we are told, "He left him not one male, neither of his kinsfolks, nor of his friends" (1 Kings 16:11). Probably one reason why the fearful doom which overtook the families of his predecessors as here specifically mentioned, was to emphasize still further the enormity of Ahab’s conduct—that he had failed to take to heart those recent judgments of God. It greatly aggravates our sins when we refuse to heed the solemn warnings which history records of the unmistakable judgments of God upon other evildoers, as the guilt of our generation is so much the greater through disregarding the clarion call made by the war of 1914-18 for the nations to turn from their wickedness and return to the God of their fathers.
And what was the effect produced upon Ahab by this message from Jehovah? Disconcerted and displeased he was on first beholding the prophet, yet when he heard the awful sentence he was deeply affected: "he rent his clothes, and put sackcloth upon his flesh, and fasted, and lay in sackcloth, and went softly" (v. 27). He made no effort to silence Elijah by self-vindication. His conscience smote him for approving the murderous act, for seizing the booty though not killing the owner thereof. He knew well that connivance at wickedness by those in authority, who ought to restrain it, is justly visited upon themselves as their own deed; that the receiver of stolen goods is as bad as the thief. He was abashed and abased. God can make the stoutest sinner to tremble and the most arrogant humble himself. But all is not gold that glitters. There may be a great outward show of repentance without the heart being changed. Many have been made afraid of God’s wrath who would not part with their sins. It is to be carefully noted there is no hint that Ahab put away Jezebel or restored the worship of the Lord.
That which is recorded here of Ahab is both solemn and instructive. Solemn, because it sounds a warning against being deceived by appearances. Ahab made no effort to justify his crimes nor did he lay violent hands on Elijah. Nay more: he humbled himself, and by his outward acts acknowledged the justice of the Divine sentence. What more could we ask? Ah, that is the all-important point. External amendment of our ways, though good in itself, is not sufficient: "rend your heart, and not your garments" (Joel 2:13), is what a holy God requires. A hypocrite may go far in the outward performance of holy duties. The most hardened sinners are capable of reforming for a season: (Mark 6:20; John 5:35). How many wicked persons have, in times of danger and desperate illness, abased themselves before God, but returned to their evil ways as soon as restored to health. Ahab’s humiliation was but superficial and transient, being occasioned by fear of judgment and not a heart hatred of his sins. Nothing is said of his restoring the vineyard to Naboth’s heirs or next of kin, and where righting of wrongs is absent we must always seriously suspect the repentance. Later we find him saying of a servant of God, "I hate him" (22:8), which is clear proof that he had undergone no change of heart.
Instructive also is the case of Ahab, for it throws light on God’s governmental dealings with individuals in this life. Though the king’s repentance was but superficial, yet inasmuch as it was a public or visible humbling of himself before God, He was so far owned and honored, and an abatement of His sentence was obtained: "Because he humbleth himself before Me, I will not bring the evil in his days, but in his son’s days" (v. 29)—he was spared the anguish of witnessing the slaughter of his children and the complete extermination of his house. But there was no repeal of the Divine sentence upon himself. Nor was the king able to avoid God’s stroke, though he made attempt to do so (22:30). The Lord had said "in the place where dogs licked the blood of Naboth shall dogs lick thy blood" (21: 19), and we are told "so the king died, and was brought to Samaria; and they buried the king in Samaria. And one washed the chariot in the pool of Samaria; and the dogs licked up his blood; and they washed his armor, according unto the word of the Lord" (vv. 37, 38). He who sells himself to sin must receive the wages of sin. For the doom which overtook Ahab’s family (see 2 Kings 9:25; 10:6, 7, 13, 14, 17).
"And of Jezebel also spake the Lord, saying. The dogs shall eat Jezebel by the wall of Jezreel" (21:23). No vain threats were those which the prophet uttered, but announcements of Divine judgment which were fulfilled not long after. Jezebel outlived her husband for some years but her end was just as Elijah had foretold. True to her depraved character we find that on the very day of her death "she painted her face, and tired her head, and looked out at a window" to attract attention (2 Kings 9:30). It is solemn to observe that God takes note of such things, not with approbation but abhorrence; and it is equally solemn to learn from this passage that those women who paint their faces and go to so much trouble in artificially dressing their hair and seeking to make themselves conspicuous, belong to the same class as this evil queen or "cursed" creature (v. 34). She was thrown out of the window by some of her own attendants, her blood sprinkling the wall, and her corpse being ruthlessly trampled under foot. A short time after, when orders were given for her burial, so thoroughly had the dogs done their work that naught remained but "the skull and the feet and the palms of her hands" (2 Kings 9:35). God is as faithful and true in making good His threatenings as He is in fulfilling His promises.