I Kings 20

The Word Made Fresh

1Ben-Hadad king of Aram called his entire army to arms. He was joined by thirty-two other kings with their horses and chariots, and they attacked and laid siege to Samaria. 2He sent a delegation into the city to king Ahab with this ultimatum: “From Ben-Hadad: 3Your silver and gold are mine, and your fairest women and children are mine.”

4Israel’s king responded, “As you say, O King. I and all that I have belong to you.”

5The delegation returned later to say, “This is Ben-Hadad’s response: ‘I order you to turn over your silver and gold and your women and children. 6Tomorrow about this time I will send my servants to you. They will search your house and the houses of your people and take whatever they want.”

7The king of Israel summoned the elders. He told them, “You see how this man is looking for trouble. He has demanded that I turn over my wives, my children, my silver and my gold, and I have not refused his demands.” 8The elders and the people agreed that he should not capitulate. 9So he told Ben-Hadad’s delegates, “Tell my lord the king that I agreed to his first demand, but I cannot allow what he is now proposing.”

They left, and returned with this reply: 10“Ben-hadad says, ‘The gods can sweep me away if what remains of Samaria amounts to even a handful for each of my soldiers.”

11The king of Israel responded, “Tell him that the man who puts on his armor shouldn’t boast as if he has already taken it off.”

12Ben-hadad was drinking with the other kings under their shelters, and when he received this message, he ordered his army to take up their positions, and they arrayed themselves against the city.

13Then a prophet approached Ahab king of Israel. He said, “This is from the LORD: ‘Have you been watching all this great army? Today I will give them all into your hands, and you will know that I am the LORD.’”   

14Ahab asked, “Who will do this?”

The prophet responded, “The LORD says the young men who serve under the district captains will do it.”

“Who will begin the attack?” Ahab asked.

He replied, “You!”

15So, Ahab summoned the young district officers, two hundred thirty-two in all, and gathered the other seven thousand Israelite soldiers. 16They began their attack at noon while Ben-Hadad and the thirty-two kings with him were under their shelters drinking themselves drunk. 17The young officers led the way.

Ben-Hadad’s sentries told him men were coming out of Samaria. 18He said, “Whether they are coming peacefully or not, take them alive.”

19By then the officers were out of the city with the soldiers behind them. 20They began killing their enemies, and the Arameans fled the battle with Israel in pursuit. Ben-Hadad escaped on a horse with his cavalry. 21The king of Israel attacked the horses and chariots and utterly defeated them, inflicting heavy losses.

22Afterwards, the prophet again approached the king of Israel. “You must gather your forces and plan your strategy, because in the spring the king of Aram will attack again.”

23Then the advisors of the king of Aram told him, “Their gods are mountain gods. That is why they were able to defeat us. But if we battle them in the plains, we will surely overcome them. 24So, do this: instead of letting all these other kings command their troops, put the armies under trained officers. 25Also, you must raise another army like the one you lost and replace every horse and chariot. Then we will be able to fight Israel on the plains and we will certainly defeat them.” He agreed with their assessment and began to prepare as they suggested.

26When springtime came again Ben-Hadad gathered his forces and invaded Israel at Aphek. 27The Israelites summoned and equipped their army and went out to meet them. They seemed like two little flocks of goats, while the Arameans were spread out across the valley. 28But then a man of God approached the king of Israel and told him, “The LORD says, ‘Since the Arameans believe that the LORD is a mountain god but not a god of the plains, I will give all of them into your hands and you will know that I am the LORD.’”

29For seven days they encamped over against each other, and then the battle began. The Israelites killed a hundred thousand Aramean soldiers that day. 30The rest fled to the city of Aphek, and the city wall fell on twenty-seven thousand more of them.

Ben-hadad also fled into the city to hide. 31His advisors told him, “We have heard that the kings of Israel are merciful. We will wear sackcloth and hang ropes from our heads and surrender to the king of Israel. Perhaps he will spare your life.” 32They did so and went out to the king of Israel and said, “Your servant Ben-Hadad begs you to spare his life.”

“Is he still alive?” said Ahab. “He is my brother!”

33They were encouraged. “Yes!” they said. “Ben-Hadad is your brother!”

“Bring him here,” said the king. So, Ben-hadad came out to him, and Ahab invited him into his chariot.

34Ben-hadad said, “I will return to you the towns my father took from your father. And you have my permission to set up bazaars and do business in Damascus as my father did in Samaria.”

“I will release you on those terms,” said Ahab, and they agreed to a treaty together and Ben-hadad was allowed to go free.

35A man who belonged to a group of prophets was inspired by the LORD to say to another man, “Hit me!” But the other refused. 36Then he said, “Because you have not obeyed the LORD, as soon as we are parted you will be killed by a lion.” After they had gone their separate ways, the other man was attacked by a lion and killed.

37Then he found another man and said to him, “Hit me!” And the man hit him, hard, and hurt him. 38The prophet went on his way then, wrapped a bandage around his eyes, and waited on the road for the king. 39When the king passed by, he cried out, “I was in the middle of the battle. One of the soldiers brought a captive to me and told me to guard him. He told me if the man escaped my life would be given for his life, or I would be fined seventy-five pounds of silver. 40But while I was busy with other responsibilities, the man escaped.”

The king said, “Then that is your punishment. You have said so yourself.”

41The man then tore the bandage from his eyes, and the king recognized him as one of the prophets. 42He said to the king, “This is what the LORD says: ‘Since you set the man free whom I had sentenced to death, your life will be exchanged for his, and your people for his people.’”

43The king returned to his home in Samaria, upset and angry.


1-6: A crisis in Samaria! King Ben-Hadad of Aram marches his army to the city and demands that Ahab turn over all his silver and gold and wives and children. Surprisingly, Ahab seems to agree. Then Ben-Hadad sends a message saying that he will send servants to search the city and take whatever appeals to them (if Elijah had anointed Hazael first, as he was supposed to do, Ben-Hadad would be gone and this might never have happened).

7-12: Ahab blanches at the second demand. He gathers his advisors and tells them he is quite ready to hand over his wives and children and gold and silver, but he will not allow them to search his palace. I mean, a man has to draw the line somewhere, hasn’t he? His advisors advise him to just say “no.” He does, and Ben-Hadad is insulted, and threatens Ahab in return. Ahab tells him not to count his chickens before they hatch, and Ben-Hadad immediately arrays his troops around the city.

13-15: A “certain prophet,” unnamed, tells Ahab God will help him win the battle. He is to put the “young men” who serve the district governors at the head of his troops and engage in a pre-emptive attack against the enemy. This is good advice; we have seen what the “young men” can do.

16-18: Ahab does so and catches Ben-Hadad drunk and unprepared.

19-21: The “young men” lead the charge and rout the Arameans. Once the enemy is on the run, Ahab takes charge of his forces and pursues them. Ben-Hadad escapes.

22: The unnamed prophet appears again to warn Ahab that Ben-Hadad will try it again next spring.

23-25: Ben-Hadad’s advisors have their own ideas. They speculate that Israel fights better in the hills than on the plains. They attribute that idea to the thought that Israel’s gods (note the plural) are gods of the hills, but the Arameans use chariots, which are better suited to warfare on level ground. They also recommend that he leave the politicians (the other kings) behind and let trained military commanders lead the army instead. And we thought that was a contemporary problem.

26-30: Aphek is a border town that was initially part of the territory of the tribe of Asher (Joshua 19:30). It has been the scene of other battles, with the Philistines in particular (I Samuel 29:1), and will be again (II Kings 13:17). Ben-Hadad amasses his troops there, and the Israelites counter with their own army, which our historian is certain was much, much smaller than the Aramean army. An unnamed “man of God” tells Ahab that, since the Arameans think Israel’s God can’t fight in the valley, Israel’s God is going to show them something. They face off for a week without any action, and then the battle begins. Israel kills 100,000 of them, and another 27,000 die when a wall falls on them in Aphek, but body counts in the field are notoriously unreliable.

31-34: Ben-Hadad takes refuge in Aphek, too, but it is clear that the battle is lost. His advisors suggest surrender, and he agrees. They throw themselves on Ahab’s mercy, and Ahab indicates a willingness to negotiate. Ben-Hadad offers to give back territory taken from Israel by his father (whose name was also Ben-Hadad – see 15:20), and Ahab agrees.

35-43: We are treated to a scenario in which another unnamed prophet works out what the will of God must be. He tells one colleague to hit him, but the man refuses. Since he refuses to carry out God’s word (after all, God told the man to tell the other man to hit him) he must die by lion. That is in keeping with the precedent set earlier (13:20-24) that a prophet who disobeys God’s word must die by lion. I don’t know why. But the unnamed prophet continues his research by asking another fellow to whack him, which the other fellow promptly does. The unnamed prophet is then convinced that all of this surely means Ahab must die, and goes and tells him so. This puts Ahab in a foul mood. It is not a good thing for a king to be in a foul mood.


Ahab is a fascinating character, isn’t he? We are left to wonder just how different his story – and the judgment against him – might be if he hadn’t married that pagan woman Jezebel. Solomon, too, had married outside the faith, seven hundred times, and it hadn’t turned out well for him, either. Over the years I have seen young men and women who were brought up in the church marry someone who was not, and it almost always results in them losing faith. This is not a judgment, just an observation.