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Matthew Henry's Commentary – Verses 31–43
Verses 31–43

Here is an account of what followed upon the victory which Israel obtained over the Syrians.

I. Ben-hadad’s tame and mean submission. Even in his inner chamber he feared, and would, if he could, flee further, though none pursued. His servants, seeing him and themselves reduced to the last extremity, advised that they should surrender at discretion, and make themselves prisoners and petitioners to Ahab for their lives, 1 Kgs. 20:31. The servants will put their lives in their hands, and venture first, and their master will act according as they speed. Their inducement to take this course is the great reputation the kings of Israel had for clemency above any of their neighbours: “We have heard that they are merciful kings, not oppressive to their subjects that are under their power” (as governments then went, that of Israel was one of the most easy and gentle), “and therefore not cruel to their enemies when they lie at their mercy.” Perhaps they had this notion of the kings of Israel because they had heard that the God of Israel proclaimed his name gracious and merciful, and they concluded their kings would make their God their pattern. It was an honour to the kings of Israel to be thus represented, as indeed every Israelite is then dressed as becomes him when he puts on bowels of mercies. “They are merciful kings, therefore we may hope to find mercy upon our submission.” This encouragement poor sinners have to repent and humble themselves before God. “Have we not heard that the God of Israel is a merciful God? Have we not found him so? Let us therefore rend our hearts and return to him.” Joel 2:13. That is evangelical repentance which flows from an apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ; there is forgiveness with him. Two things Ben-hadad’s servants undertake to represent to Ahab:—1. Their master a penitent; for they girded sackcloth on their loins, as mourners, and put ropes on their heads, as condemned criminals going to execution, pretending to be sorry that they had invaded his country and disturbed his repose, and owning that they deserved to be hanged for it. Here they are ready to do penance for it, and throw themselves at the feet of him whom they had injured. Many pretend to repent of their wrong-doing, when it does not succeed, who, if they had prospered in it, would have justified it and gloried in it. 2. Their master a beggar, a beggar for his life: Thy servant Ben-hadad saith, “I pray thee, let me live, 1 Kgs. 20:32. Though I live a perpetual exile from my own country, and captive in this, yet, upon any terms, let me live.” What a great change is here, (1.) In his condition! How has he fallen from the height of power and prosperity to the depths of disgrace and distress, and all the miseries of poverty and slavery! See the uncertainty of human affairs; such turns are they subject to that the spoke which was uppermost may soon come to be undermost. (2.) In his temper—in the beginning of the chapter hectoring, swearing, and threatening, and none more high in his demands, but here crouching and whining and none more low in his requests! How meanly does he beg hi life at the hand of him upon whom he had there been trampling! The most haughty in prosperity are commonly most abject in adversity: an even spirit will be the same in both conditions. See how God glorified himself when he looks upon proud men and abases them, and hides them in the dust together, Job 40:11-13.

II. Ahab’s foolish acceptance of his submission, and the league he suddenly made with him upon it. He was proud to be thus courted by him whom he had feared, and enquired for him with great tenderness: Isa. he yet alive? He is my brother, brother-king, though not brother-Israelite: and Ahab valued himself more upon his royalty than on his religion, and others accordingly. “Isa. he thy brother, Ahab? Did he use thee like a brother when he sent thee that barbarous message? 1 Kgs. 20:5, 6. Would he have called thee brother if he had been the conqueror? Would he now have called himself thy servant if he had not been reduced to the utmost strait? Canst thou suffer thyself to be thus imposed upon by a forced and counterfeit submission?” This word brother they caught at (1 Kgs. 20:33), and were thereby encouraged to go and fetch him to the king. He that calls him brother will let him live. Let poor penitents hear God, in his word, calling them children (Jer. 31:20), catch at it, echo to it, and call him Father. Ben-hadad, upon his submission, shall not only be honourably conveyed (he took him up into the chariot), but treated with as an ally (1 Kgs. 20:34): he made a covenant with him, not consulting God’s prophets, or the elders of the land, or himself, concerning what was fit to be insisted on, but, as if Ben-hadad had been conqueror, he shall make his own terms. He might now have demanded some of Ben-hadad’s cities, when all of them lay at the mercy of his victorious army; but was content with the restitution of his own. He might now have demanded the stores, and treasures, and magazines of Damascus, to augment the wealth and strength of his own kingdom, but was content with a poor liberty, at his own expense, to build streets there, a point of honour and no advantage, or no more than what the kings of Syria had had in Samaria, though they had never had so much power as he had now to support the demand of it. With this covenant he sent him away, without so much as reproving him for his blasphemous reflections upon the God of Israel, for whose honour Ahab had no concern. Note, There are those on whom success is ill bestowed; they know not how to serve God, or their generation, or even their own true interests, with their prosperity. Let favour be shown to the wicked, yet will he not learn righteousness.

III. The reproof given to Ahab for his clemency to Ben-hadad and his covenant with him. It was given him by a prophet, in the name of the Lord, the Jews say by Micaiah, and not unlikely, for Ahab complains of him (1 Kgs. 22:8) that he used to prophesy evil concerning him. This prophet designed to reprove Ahab by a parable, that he might oblige him to condemn himself, as Nathan and the woman of Tekoa did David. To make his parable the more plausible, he finds it necessary to put himself into the posture of a wounded soldier. 1. With some difficulty he gets himself wounded, for he would not wound himself with his own hands. He commanded one of his brother prophets, his neighbour, or companion (for so the word signifies), to smite him, and this in God’s name (1 Kgs. 20:35), but finds him not so willing to give the blow as he is to receive it; he refused to smite him: others, he thought, were forward enough to smite prophets, they need not smite one another. We cannot but think it was from a good principle he declined it. “If it must be done, let another do it, not I; I cannot find it in my heart to strike my friend.” Good men can much more easily receive a wrongful blow than give one; yet because he disobeyed an express command of God (which was so much the worse if he was himself a prophet), like that other disobedient prophet (1 Kgs. 13:24), he was presently slain by a lion, 1 Kgs. 20:36. This was intended, not only to show, in general, how provoking disobedience is (Col. 3:6), but to intimate to Ahab (who no doubt was told the story) that if a good prophet were thus punished for sparing his friend and God’s, when God said, Smite, of much sorer punishment should a wicked king be thought worthy, who spared his enemy and God’s, when God said, Smite. Shall mortal man pretend to be more just than God, more pure or more compassionate than his Maker? We must be merciful as he is merciful, and not otherwise. The next he met with made no difficulty of smiting him (Volentinon fit injuriaHe that asks for an injury is not wronged by it) and did it so that he wounded him, 1 Kgs. 20:37. He fetched blood with the blow, probably in his face. 2. Wounded as he was, and disguised with ashes that he might not be known to be a prophet, he made his application to the king in a story wherein he charged himself with such a crime as the king was now guilty of in sparing Ben-hadad, and waited for the king’s judgment upon it. The case in short is this—A prisoner taken in the battle was committed to his custody by a man (we may suppose one that had authority over him as his superior officer) with this charge, If he be missing, thy life shall be for his life, 1 Kgs. 20:39. The prisoner has made his escape through his carelessness. Can the chancery in the king’s breast relieve him against his captain, who demands his life in lieu of the prisoner’s? “By no means,” says the king, “thou shouldst either not have undertaken the trust or been more careful and faithful to it; there is no remedy (Currat lexLet the law take its course), thou hast forfeited thy bond, and execution must go out upon it: So shall thy doom be, thou thyself hast decided it.” Now the prophet has what he would have, puts off his disguise, and is known by Ahab himself to be a prophet (1 Kgs. 20:41) and plainly tells him, “Thou art the man. Isa. it my doom? No, it is thine; thou thyself hast decided it. Out of thy own mouth art thou judged. God, thy superior and commander-in-chief, delivered into thy hands one plainly marked for destruction both by his own pride and God’s providence, and thou hast not carelessly lost him, but wittingly and willingly dismissed him, and so hast been false to thy trust, and lost the end of thy victory; expect therefore no other than that thy life shall go for his life, which thou hast spared” (and so it did, 1 Kgs. 22:35), “and thy people for his people, whom likewise thou hast spared,” and so they did afterwards, 2 Kgs. 10:32, 33. When their other sins brought them low, this came into the account. There is a time when keeping back the sword from blood is doing the work of the Lord deceitfully, Jer. 48:10. Foolish pity spoils the city. 3. We are told how Ahab resented this reproof. He went to his house heavy and displeased (1 Kgs. 20:43), not truly penitent, or seeking to undo what he had done amiss, but enraged at the prophet, exasperated against God (as if he had been too severe in the sentence passed upon him), and yet vexed at himself, every way out of humour, notwithstanding his victory. He who by his providence had mortified the pride of one king, by his word cast a damp upon the triumphs of another. Be wise therefore, O you kings! and be instructed to serve the Lord with fear and rejoice with trembling, Ps. 2:10, 11.