God is always just – 1 Kings 21 – Naboth’s vineyard

It’s easy to disbelieve that God is always just, but 1 Kings 21 helps us think through how that works and what it means in real life.

From Sunday 31st October 2021, the Barnabas Fund are encouraging churches to pray for the world-wide persecuted church. Their booklet “Praying for the Persecuted Church” has short summaries of the situation in many of the hardest countries in which to be a Christian.

The tale of Naboth’s Vineyard might seem a long time ago and far away, but right now, today, it’s entirely relevant across the world. And, maybe surprisingly, even here in the UK.

These notes accompany a sermon on YouTube. You’ll find more in the series in our sermon index.

Evil often rules through law & order (1-16)

Last time we read about how a foreign king got 32 other kings and their armies into one big army against Israel and King Ahab. God sent word to King Ahab that Israel would defeat the oppressor – even though that looked extremely unlikely. God was shown there to care for his people when unfairly, unjustly oppressed – and especially when the oppressors publicly dishonour God himself (“he is a god of the hills, but not valleys”).

In the end, though, Ahab himself ended up “angry and sullen” because he wanted his own way, not God’s way. He wanted good gifts from God, but not to obey God.

In 1 Kings 21:1-4, Ahab ends up “angry and sullen” again – and again it’s because he wants something but God’s law forbids it. Ahab had a palace in Jezreel (a kind of country residence, presumably), and Naboth’s vineyard was just next door. Ahab actually made a reasonable and generous offer. Naboth refused, but not offensively so.

Under the law of Leviticus 25, Naboth knew the land was the LORD’s – it wasn’t his to sell. It had to stay in his family as the inheritance God himself had given. “Pah!” thought Ahab, “God’s laws getting in the way again!” So he went home, “angry and sullen” again.

Jezebel comes along (1 Kings 21:5-7) and suggests that a king has absolute authority to do as he pleases! “Never mind, I’ll sort it.”

She sends instructions to the local officials in Jezreel to frame Naboth in a crime he didn’t commit, and then stone him to death. The instructions are cold & calculating in 1 Kings 21:8-10. And they are executed thoroughly: 1 Kings 21:11-14. The deed is done. Jezebel has fixed the situation for her husband. Read 1 Kings 21:15-16.

Institutional opposition to God

What you’re seeing here is deep-rooted, institutional opposition to God’s kingdom and ethics, being worked out against the vulnerable, individual God-fearing Naboth whose just trying to get along with his life under God’s law.

  • You will see the same deep-rooted, institutional opposition across the world (“principalities and powers”):
    • In China, the state tries to have strict control over what is taught in churches.
    • In India, a 14-year-old boy was killed in police custody for sharing his faith.
    • Still, in Pakistan, Christians are often denied justice.
  • In our own country, there’s growing discontent with Christian teaching where it differs from “British Values” – eroding freedom of speech and religion; it comes slowly.

But the thing to notice is this: Although much opposition to God and his people comes from terrorist groups and extremists, more comes from government rule of law.

  • Look what Jezebel did: She went through local officials.
  • False accusations were made by 2 witnesses, which was enough for a court to condemn an innocent man and execute him. All state-sponsored with the king’s signature.

Why didn’t the officials refuse? Why did they go along with what was obviously wrong? Because they knew they’d be next if they refused. And yet – they were still wrong to go along with it.

Jesus knows by experience

When Jesus himself was on trial before the High Priest, they brought all sorts of false testimony against him. The key point came when 2 witnesses came forward. Jesus knows what it’s like to be systematically persecuted by the state. He knows what it’s like to be falsely accused. And what has happened to him will continue to happen to his people.

But: There is always justice (as we’ll see). And Jesus knows your pain; he is your sympathetic high priest. There’s no bypass round the valley of shadow, but Jesus is a shepherd who will walk with your through it. He walks with his people in China, India, Pakistan, North Korea, and all the rest: And walks with you too.

God always brings justice (17-26)

1 Kings 21 certainly sets the tone for God’s people to expect oppression – even from governments and rulers, principalities and powers. But it’s much more hopeful than just, “Grin and bear it.”

Read 1 Kings 21:17-21.

There’s much to be said here. The first is simple and obvious: God knew what had happened. Ahab and Jezebel believed that they could just get away with what they’d done. They believed themselves answerable to no-one. They were above the law, and if anyone had a problem then they could be dealt with too. But God knew.

More, God would hold them accountable. The charge comes to Ahab quite clearly while he’s standing in the vineyard. The Lord charges him with murder and theft. He had no right to take Naboth’s life or his land.

The Lord will hold everyone to account. Those anti-God, antichrist regimes that exist around the world – they will all be held accountable before God on the day of judgment. Chinese party officials, Eastern European bureaucrats. Anyone who ever gave an order to burn down a church, imprison a pastor, or wipe out a Christian community.

Institutional accountability to God

But there’s more. Governments are accountable to God for all aspects of their rule – whether to Christians or anyone.

  • God notes all abuses of power – where a government ought to be caring for the poor, the defenceless, the vulnerable, the immigrant – but actually abuses and refuses them.
  • Some people think Christians shouldn’t comment about such things: I’m often reminded of the angel Joshua met in Joshua 5:13-15.
    • Joshua approached him and asked, “Are you for us or for our enemies?” “Neither,” he replied. “I have now come as commander of the LORD’s army.”
    • We’re not Tory, Labour or anything else – we’re citizens of heaven, and will speak up for the Lord wherever and whenever there is wrong.
  • In our own country, through this pandemic, billionaires have become 35% richer while foodbank usage has also grown – by 35%. There’s something wrong with the UK.
  • There are plenty of examples of incompetence and indifference from this government that led to tens of thousands suffering and dying in care homes from Covid, frightened and alone. 
  • Whether or not this government is ever held to account by the British public, both government and opposition officials will one day need to give an account to God for their action – and, in many cases, inaction.
  • And we might ask, where has been the Christian outrage?

Don’t shoot the messenger

Notice from these verses Ahab’s response too. He called Elijah his “enemy”. The prophet’s job is to pass on the word of God.

Elijah didn’t choose what he had to say. He wasn’t Ahab’s enemy.

All he did was to say what God had told him to say. Ahab didn’t want to hear it, so anyone who came with God’s word was his enemy.

  • Christians are accused of hate crimes for saying all sorts of things that in the Bible.
  • In fact, the ‘hate’ is directed at Christians – though even they are the proxy. The real hatred is towards God.
  • People don’t want to hear that they are sinful. You want to do what you want to do, and you don’t like being told it’s wrong. 
  • But God alone says what is right and wrong, and he will hold you accountable by his own, unchanging standard.
  • Don’t shoot the messenger. Thank the Elijah’s who bring God’s words to you – they are warning you and leading you to life!

Before we come to that, there’s probably a question in some of your minds. It’s ok to say that God brings justice, but can you really say there was justice for Naboth? He’s dead. Is there really justice for that 14-year-old boy and countless millions of others who’ve suffered simply because they claim to be Christian?

If this life under the sun was all there was, then it’s very hard to say that justice is done. Some bad people seem to win. But Jesus rose from the dead. And he will return. That will be an amazing day of glory, and judgment.

Read 2 Thessalonians 1:3-10. The Naboths of the world will see Jesus and know eternal bliss with him. You who reject God will be forever rejected.

The Lord delights in grace (27-29)

1 Kings 21 ends with a bit of a surprise. Read 1 Kings 21:27-29.

Was Ahab’s response for real?

  • It seems so, yes. Though it turns out to be fairly short-lived.
  • But for all his apparent mourning in sackcloth (burlap) we notice that he didn’t give the Vineyard back, or pay recompense to Naboth’s family.
  • Because those would have been the signs of actual repentance. Repentance costs you; you want to undo wrongs where possible and put things right.
  • Repentance that costs nothing isn’t repentance.
  • What we’re seeing here in Ahab is remorse, not repentance. He’s gutted at the punishment, not repentant of his crime.

And yet, in his actions, he is acknowledging that God is right, and that God is powerful enough and just to execute the judgment given. It’s wonky and shallow, but God is honoured somewhat by Ahab’s response.

So in return God doesn’t cancel the judgement, but he does postpone it. God is gracious – lavish in undeserved kindness. No-one could have said God did any wrong if he’d just ignored Ahab’s response, but he chose to notice it. God is glorified in this act of grace, because you can see what he is like and how gracious he is to you.

Kings, presidents, prime ministers, officials and leaders of all shapes, sizes, colours, languages and nationalities – will all be held to account before God.

Personal accountability before God – and an invitation

And you will too.

  • For his people who suffer at the hands of others, there is comfort from the living presence of Jesus, your sympathetic high priest who went through similar abuse; he lives and intercedes for you and is ready to help you in your distress.
  • You might not see justice visibly done in this life, but everyone will see it when Jesus returns. His people will dance and sing and leap and yell and rejoice with complete abandon; everyone else will be abandoned by God forever. The Day of the Lord is coming.

Your sin is an offence to God, but God came down to save you. And now he speaks, very clearly, a word of invitation to you: Joel 2:11-13

The day of the Lord is an awesome, terrible thing. Who can possibly survive? That is why the Lord says, “Turn to me now, while there is time. Give me your hearts.

    Come with fasting, weeping, and mourning.

Don’t tear your clothing in your grief, but tear your hearts instead.” 

Return to the Lord your God, for he is merciful and compassionate, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. He is eager to relent and not punish.

Ahab put on a bit of a show, but it wasn’t real. Don’t be like that. God came to save you by taking the punishment you deserve. He calls you now to repent of your sin, and live.