Prophesying Doom

Patrick Reardon looks at a prophet on politics

Besides surprised, Micaiah ben Imlah was feeling more than faintly puzzled. A messenger had just arrived from the palace in Samaria, summoning him to a large consultation of prophets that King Ahab had assembled to consider some new military option. Ahab, for reasons that Micaiah could only guess, wanted him to be a part of that consultation. Why? After all, the king had never been especially happy about Micaiah's earlier prophecies.

The time was 850 BC, roughly three years since King Ahab had joined forces with Ben-Hadad of Damascus, along with other allies in the region, to withstand the forces of the Assyrian emperor, Shalmaneser III, at the battle of Qarqar. So far, their ad hoc military league had been successful in discouraging further invasions from Assyria, and as long as there was a possible threat from that quarter, it seemed, peace would continue between Israel and Damascus (1 Kings 22.1).

But Ahab learned that peace with Damascus came at a price, and, notwithstanding the advantage that he enjoyed by maintaining this good relationship with Ben-Hadad, it truly rankled him that the latter still occupied an ancient Israelite city, Ramoth Gilead. The secure return of all Israelite cities had been one of the pledges exacted from Ben-Hadad several years earlier, when Ahab had defeated him at the battle of Aphek (20.1–34). The pledge was not being honoured. Besides, Ahab recalled, even at the battle of Qarqar, when he had joined forces with Ben-Hadad to meet the Assyrians, he himself had put no fewer than two thousand chariots on the field, eight hundred more than came from Damascus. Ahab was confident, then, that he could settle accounts properly with this Ben-Hadad with sufficient show of force.

Micaiah ben Imlah knew most of this already. What puzzled him was the fact that King Ahab was seeking his own prophetic word about attacking Damascus. After all, there were 400 ‘yes prophets’ at court already, who would tell his majesty exactly what he wanted to hear. Chief among them was Zedekiah ben Chenaanah, a thoroughly uncivil and surly fellow much given to theatrical flourish on matters of prophecy (22.11).

The royal messenger indicated to Micaiah that Ahab had little choice. King Jehoshaphat of Judah, he explained, on whom Ahab was relying for military assistance, was apparently having second thoughts on the business. Recently arrived at court in Samaria, the king of Judah was not entirely convinced by the enthusiasm of these 400 ‘yes prophets’ encouraging Ahab to go to war. Suspecting them to be nothing more than grovelling sycophants, Jehoshaphat wanted to make certain that the planned attack on Damascus was really God's will. So he requested that a new voice be added to the discussion. Ahab agreed to summon Micaiah, but reluctantly, for he added ‘I hate him, because he does not prophesy good concerning me, but evil’ (22.2–8).

The king's messenger to Micaiah pleaded with the prophet, then, not to upset the royal plans. Four hundred prophets, surely, could not be wrong. ‘Please,’ he said, ‘let your word be like the word of one of them, and speak encouragement’ (22.13). But Micaiah made him no such promise. Arriving at the gate of Samaria, where the two kings were enthroned in regal splendour, Micaiah resolved to be sarcastic with Ahab. This fool of a king was determined to wage war? Well, then, let him. ‘Go and prosper,’ Micaiah announced in a sing-song voice, ‘for the Lord will deliver it into the hand of the king!’ Ahab, however, would not let the matter rest. When he insisted on knowing ‘the truth in the name of the Lord,’ Micaiah gave him an undiluted dose, prophesying not only Israel's defeat at the hands of Ben-Hadad, but also Ahab's own death in the battle. Turning to Jehoshaphat when he heard these words, Ahab exclaimed: ‘Did I not tell you he would not prophesy good concerning me, but evil?’ (22.15–18)

Micaiah was promptly dispatched to prison until Ahab should return from battle, but he knew that the king would never come home. His own prophetic efforts that day had gone for naught, faced as he was with a moral buffoon forcing him, by a ‘no win’ question, to make a ‘no win’ prophecy. The Lord had determined Ahab's destruction (22.19–23). Realizing this, Micaiah headed off to prison. At least he would never again be called to court!

Patrick Henry Reardon is a Senior Editor of Touchstone: a Journal of Mere Christianity. www.touchstone.org

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