[K:NWTS 2/1 (May 1987) 20-24]

Life for Land

I Kings 21:1-29

Stuart R. Jones

Several years ago, a governor of one of our larger states tried to condemn an attractive piece of land owned by a dentist so he could acquire it himself. The reason given to justify this act was that the land was so near the governor's own fashionable home, it posed a security risk. Once the media made this abuse of power known, the plan was abandoned. Surprisingly, no one seemed to be aware of the historical and biblical parallel in the story of Naboth and Ahab. Nevertheless, the visceral reaction of the man on the street to such greed and power abuse probably would be the same in both instances.

We cannot explain the severe judgment of verse 25 in terms of our visceral hatred of social injustice however. This verse says Ahab was the worst. He becomes a benchmark for evil in the northern kingdom of Israel the same way Manasseh does in the southern kingdom. Ahab outdoes the previous benchmark of evil, Jeroboam. How does the incident involving Naboth fit into this judgment? It is clear that Elijah's curses are related to this incident.

Two observations may help answer our question. First, this sin of Ahab and his wife shows the pervasive character and fullness of their sin. They began by rejecting the exclusivity of the Lord God's claim on Israel. They fostered idol worship. Then they ignored and persecuted the prophets of the true God. These sins against God would seem great enough. What is Naboth compared to sins against God? Yet the sin against Naboth demonstrates the fullness of the sin in a very real way. Even the man on the street is stirred by this sin. Persecution begins with rejecting God and then his officers, but it also reaches out to attack the faithful believer. The fullness of God-rejection is seen when the small ones are attacked. This leads us to our second observation.

Naboth regards the land differently than Ahab does. Ahab sees land as simply real estate. He regards the land as an economic thing–it can be bought and sold and that is all that matters to him. He has an immediate use for the land of Naboth and that immediate plan is frustrated.

When Naboth walks on his land he sees something else. He sees the land where his fathers lived, planted, reaped, raised their families. He sees the land where he hopes his own sons will grow up; where their families will sit under their own vine and fig tree with none to disturb or molest them. He sees the land as his own portion in Israel, even an Israel that is divided and sometimes ruled by less than desirable kings. The land is not a mere means of production. Otherwise he could sell to Ahab and buy elsewhere. But where could he buy land in Israel that would permanently belong to him and his sons? To buy outside of Israel does not make sense; but even if it did, we face the real issue at that point. The land is a gift from God and a token of his covenant favor. This is not a marketable commodity. Naboth is reluctant to sell from sentimental feeling about the old homestead. Naboth recognizes that selling to Ahab will practically, if not legally, exempt him from the protection of the Jubilee year when land goes back to the original family owners. Besides, he has no debts or reason to sell anyway. This is too sacred a business with which to play games.

These observations explain why Ahab's sin is not fully explicated in terms of social oppression. Stealing land in Israel is religious oppression. But we do not need to rely on these observations alone to arrive at our conclusion. We can see this demonstrated in the very chapter we are examining. It is seen in the curse that comes on Ahab in verses 21 and 22. Ahab will have no family heritage. Not only will there be no dynasty of Ahab, but there will be no sons to hold the land. God's punishment fits the crime and Ahab's crime is not only theft and murder. It is the attempt to remove one man's place in Israel for his own convenience. Ahab is willing to injure Naboth spiritually for generations to come for the sake of his own temporary pleasure. He is the opposite of what a theocratic king is supposed to be in Israel, viz., a servant who preserves life and justice for the covenant people.

Ahab's evil is an Old Testament benchmark, and yet the iniquity of Israel is not full. God's patience awaits the day when Jesus will be cut off from the land of the living for the price of a field. Judas receives a curse that strikingly parallels the curse on Ahab. Acts 1:20 reports this curse:

"Let his habitation be desolate, and let no man dwell therein; and his bishopric let another take." (KJV)

Two distinct Psalms are brought together here to combine two distinct blessings which are lost (Psalm 69:25 and Psalm 109:8). Judas loses both an office and an heritage. The lot which was once used to convey Israel's first interest in the land–a goodly heritage–is now used as a means of sovereign grace and judgment to convey title from Judas to someone else. The lines are not fallen in pleasant places for Judas anymore. This is the first movement in fleshly Israel's removal from the land. A greater curse than Ahab's belongs to Judas and fleshly Israel. More than a means of grace is lost in the land. Grace itself is lost.

Judas felt real estate was more real than a promissory note from God. He represents Israel's sentiments in wanting a political Messiah with the goal of restoring real estate. This goal is so all-consuming that the Jews drive the Meek One from the earth in order to possess land. Whatever works! Ahab's sin has come to fullness. Only this time, the meek one who is killed is the Creator of heaven and earth, the One destined to rise above heaven and earth.

Both office and heritage are lost. But fleshly Israel's expulsion from the face of the ground also brings reason and hope. The curse of Cain is exhausted upon Jesus Christ. The church's relationship to the earth becomes drastically altered. Property, real or personal, is a means of grace again. The power of land or sin to subdue our lives is changed forever. "Dust to dust" is not the last word. When Jesus emerged from the rich man's garden tomb, he made the land something more useful in his kingdom's advancement. The Meek One has inherited the earth because he was willingly cut off from the land of the living (Isa. 53:8ff.). He emerges from a rich man's tomb with more than a grave plot or Naboth's vineyard in his possession. He holds title to everything. He is pleased to share these spoils with you and me. All things are ours. Fields can now be sold to Jew or Gentile. The law's restrictions no longer stand in the way of meeting immediate needs, nor demonstrating a more far-reaching church unity. Jesus' resurrection ownership has less to do with creating a community of goods than creating a sense of immediacy in our use of his goods. Don't plan to live here forever–not even through your sons.

The early Christians in the book of Acts, Annanias and Sapphira excepted, felt constrained to sell their land because a more real possession was at hand. They understood the Psalmist when he said, "The Lord is the portion of my inheritance" (Ps. 16:5). The Psalmist was no Levite, like Barnabas. This was David speaking of a present reality. These first Christians understood the covenant blessing on the meek. They understood the empty tomb.

One saint refuses to sell land–by faith. He loses the land anyway. Another saint sells the land–by faith. Both believe in a resurrection. But they live at different times in relation to Jesus' resurrection. Both saints see property as a means of grace glorifying God. Property is not the complete substance of grace. God alone is the completely satisfying heritage of grace. Naboth would not sell the land because it would be like selling a sacrament. He would not sell his interest in Christ. It would have to be taken from him. Only a man who believes in the resurrection can see an important difference here. The land is not the final blessing. He knew it was possible he might die and lose the land anyway. The good and wholesome life–the life with God's shalom peace-blessing–does not require a vine and fig tree so much as God's own living presence.

We live in a day of greater prophetic light. We should know these things well. It is too easy to condemn Ahab and Judas. We often only see the sins of murder and oppression, failing to see the deeper source of such sins, namely, unbelief; failing to believe possessions here are less real and substantial than the blessing of God's living presence in our lives. Greater light rejected means greater guilt. Is your property a sign of God's love to you and a tool for his glory, or is it the sum total of God's favor in your life? Whose view do you adopt, Naboth's or Ahab's? Is God's presence and promise more real to you than real estate? Is godliness with contentment great gain or just lack of proper ambition? The answer to these questions separate fleshly Israel from the true. Of which are you?

First Orthodox Presbyterian Church
Baltimore, Maryland