2. The Reign of Ahaziah
The second book of Kings opens just after the death of Ahab at about 850BC. Ahab had been king over Israel for about twenty years, and like the other kings of the divided Israel, was wicked in the sight of God. Ahab perhaps stands out as one of the kings who were most prominent in their disregard for God. It was he and his wife Jezebel that received much of the attention of Elijah (1 Kings 17) in his attempts of reform. The confrontation on Mount Carmal is perhaps the most graphic example of this. The book of Kings introduces Ahab as the most evil ruler to date,
1 Kings 16:30.: Now Ahab the son of Omri did evil in the sight of the LORD, more than all who were before him. 31. And it came to pass, as though it had been a trivial thing for him to walk in the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, that he took as wife Jezebel the daughter of Ethbaal, king of the Sidonians; and he went and served Baal and worshiped him. NKJV
After Ahab died, his son Ahaziah reigned over Israel. Ahaziah reigned for only two years (1 Kings 22:51). There is not a lot said about this Ahaziah, but the Kings record reveals some detail of his death. The parallel record, 2 Chronicles 20:35, only mentions him in passing, claiming that he “acted very wickedly.” Like his father Ahab, Ahaziah was a worshipper of the god Baal. In the book of Kings, he is described as being as evil as his father,
1 Kings 22:52.: He (Ahaziah) did evil in the sight of the LORD, and walked in the way of his father and in the way of his mother and in the way of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, who had made Israel sin; 53. for he served Baal and worshiped him, and provoked the LORD God of Israel to anger, according to all that his father had done. NKJV
This passage makes a number of claims about the evil of the kings of Israel. Firstly, Ahaziah is accused of doing evil in the way of both of his parents, Ahab and Jezebel. Given that these have already been described as the most wicked that Israel had seen to date, this is strong statement. He also took after Jeroboam who is said here to have caused Israel to have sinned. It is significant that here we see a leader being accused of making the country sin. It could be claimed that all people are responsible for their own actions (Jas 1:14), but here we see that in addition the leaders also held a responsibility to their followers. The condemnation of Jeroboam is not only that he sinned himself, but that he caused the nation to sin.
Verse 53 is structured to present the reason why Ahaziah is accused of being evil. It says that he “did evil ... for he served Baal and worshiped him...” This infers that the biggest single reason for God's dissatisfaction in Ahaziah was that he served and worshipped Baal.
Baal is a Canaanite word which simply means “lord” or “master”. It also referred to a god of the Canaanites which was allegedly the son of Dagon, a god of agriculture. Baal, too, was an agriculture god, supposedly responsible for farms and crops. People worshipped these gods for a number of reasons, but there were two principle motivations; Firstly there was the regard for the god itself, where they would serve it so that they would get good crops. There were different gods for different parts of their lives, and they would serve them in an effort to ensure success. The second motivation was that the worship itself was made attractive in its own right. Baal worship tended to be a pleasurable experience with extensive feasting, dancing and prostitution.
Due to its attractive nature, not only the Canaanites, but also the Israelites were attracted to Baal worship. Ahab, and his wife Jezebel, had introduced it into mainstream culture in Israel, and in response had received anger from God. Ahaziah too, was classed as evil in the sight of God for his Baal worship.
The faith of Ahaziah was shown 2 Kings 1, after he fell out of a window,
2 Kings 1:2.: Now Ahaziah fell through the lattice of his upper room in Samaria, and was injured; so he sent messengers and said to them, "Go, inquire of Baal-Zebub, the god of Ekron, whether I shall recover from this injury." NKJV
For some reason, he had fallen out of the window and had sustained serious injuries. He was obviously concerned about his condition, and tried to get some reassurance from his gods. He send messengers to Ekron to enquire of Baal-Zebub, but the messengers were intercepted on the way by Elijah, who had been given a message from God for Ahaziah,
2 Kings 1:3.: But the angel of the LORD said to Elijah the Tishbite, "Arise, go up to meet the messengers of the king of Samaria, and say to them, 'Is it because there is no God in Israel that you are going to inquire of Baal-Zebub, the god of Ekron?' 4. "Now therefore, thus says the LORD: 'You shall not come down from the bed to which you have gone up, but you shall surely die.' " So Elijah departed. NKJV
In this passage, God spells out what Ahaziah had done. In choosing to send to Ekron, he had shown his allegiance. He had made a decision to trust in Baal-Zebub rather than the God of Israel. God highlights this, and then says that he will not recover, but instead would die from his injuries. The use of the word “therefore” in connecting the two ideas shows that the lack of recovery was due to Ahaziah's lack of trust in Yahweh, the God of Israel. Because he had put his trust and allegiance in Baal, he would have to rely on Baal to heal him.
The Companies of Fifty
After Ahaziah received the message through Elijah, he then called for Elijah to come to him. He obviously held a regard for Elijah, as he sent a company of 50 soldiers to meet him,
2 Kings 1:9.: Then the king sent to him a captain of fifty with his fifty men. So he went up to him; and there he was, sitting on the top of a hill. And he spoke to him: "Man of God, the king has said, 'Come down!' " 10. So Elijah answered and said to the captain of fifty, "If I am a man of God, then let fire come down from heaven and consume you and your fifty men." And fire came down from heaven and consumed him and his fifty. NKJV
This was an amazing display from God. From the passage, the display of force appears unprovoked on the surface. It is evident, however, that the captain's use of the term “man of God” was not in true reverence. Instead Elijah chose to give a sign that he was really a man of God, and The sign was very severe. Not only did the fire consume the captain, but his fifty men as well. There doesn't appear to be any significant warning and opportunity for repentance, instead, the response was fast and decisive. This was a very powerful sign, to those who saw it, that the God of Israel was powerful, and that Elijah was his messenger.
This, however, did not deter the next captain of fifty that was sent from the king. If anything, this captain was more demanding than the first, commanding to Elijah, “come down quickly”. This captain and group then suffered the same fate. The king then sent a third delegation. This captain behaved somewhat differently,
2 Kings 1:13.: ... And the third captain of fifty went up, and came and fell on his knees before Elijah, and pleaded with him, and said to him: "Man of God, please let my life and the life of these fifty servants of yours be precious in your sight. NKJV
This time, God told Elijah that he could follow the messenger and see the king. Elijah then gave his previous message in person to the king, saying that he would surely die.
The Visibility of Punishment
One might ask what this episode actually achieved. The decisiveness of God would certainly be frowned on in today's climate. It was certainly very effective, however, as the third captain acted very differently to the first. There is nothing so effective as instant punishment to enforce discipline.
Consider the example of a line drawn on the ground. If there is a law to say that you are not permitted to walk over the line, some people might obey it and others may not. Imagine that that line and law had been in place for twenty years, and that the penalty for crossing the line would be death. To date, however, no-one had visibly died as a result of crossing it. Would people universally obey the law? It is unlikely. As an alternative, consider a line drawn on the ground along the edge of a tall cliff face. The law is now that you are not permitted to walk over the line, or else you suffer the punishment of death from falling off the cliff. In this case, people would, and do, almost universally obey the law.
The difference is that in the latter case, the punishment is very visible and fast. If the punishment is at all uncertain or some time in the future, people will not take it as seriously. This is readily observed in society. People will not tend to steal things while a security guard is watching. They will also avoid speeding when they see a speed camera. There are many examples of how laws are obeyed in the face of certain and visible punishment.
In the case of the third captain approaching Elijah, he knew of two other captains that had approached him, and out of that two, both had been killed together with their company. He could see the white line on the ground, and that it marked the edge of cliff face. He knew that he had to be careful, and that Elijah and his God were to be respected. This is why we see him pleading, “Man of God, please let my life and the life of these fifty servants of yours be precious in your sight.” The visible judgment had had an effect.
The impression this had on Ahaziah is not recorded, but shortly later he died according to the word of God. It is possible, however, that this incident had an impact on his successor. The next king of Israel, Jehoram (or Joram), was another son of Ahab. Although he was again considered evil, his rule is described slightly differently,
2 Kings 3:1.: Now Jehoram the son of Ahab became king over Israel at Samaria in the eighteenth year of Jehoshaphat king of Judah, and reigned twelve years. 2. And he did evil in the sight of the LORD, but not like his father and mother; for he put away the sacred pillar of Baal that his father had made. 3. Nevertheless he persisted in the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, who had made Israel sin; he did not depart from them. NKJV
The passage reads that his evil was not to the same depths of that of Ahab, and that the reason for that was that he had put away Baal. Just as Ahab had been described as the most evil to date for the sake of his Baal worship, Jehoram was described as being less evil for his lack of Baal worship. Perhaps he had learnt the lesson from the demise of his predecessor.
One of the early acts of King Joram was to ally with Judah and Edom to fight against the Moabites. After a week of traveling, there were in desperate need of water, and the kings became concerned. This was an ideal opportunity for Joram to follow the example of his predecessor and inquire of Baal for advice, but instead seems reluctant to do that. Instead the King of Judah takes the initiative and seeks for a prophet of Yahweh,
2 Kings 3:11.: But Jehoshaphat said, "Is there no prophet of the LORD here, that we may inquire of the LORD by him?" So one of the servants of the king of Israel answered and said, "Elisha the son of Shaphat is here, who poured water on the hands of Elijah." 12. And Jehoshaphat said, "The word of the LORD is with him." So the king of Israel and Jehoshaphat and the king of Edom went down to him. NKJV
While Joram was by no means righteous before God, the example of Ahaziah appears to have had at least a small impact. So in this case, it was only the visible judgment that had an impact.