Studying 1 Kings 22 15-23, 26-28

We are studying 1 Kings 22:15-23 and 26-28 for Sunday, May 2. This is a portion of the narrative around the king of Israel’s plan to attack Ramoth-Gilead in concert with the king of Judah, and the prophecy of the prophet Micaiah concerning that ill-advised plan. [Some questions on the text are here.] Here are my notes on the text:
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BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: We are back in the Deuteronomistic history. This episode comes almost at the end of the book of 1 Kings in our modern Bibles; about midway through the full account of the kings of Israel (or, the two kingdoms of Israel & Judah) from Solomon through Zedekiah & the exile.

Ahab enters the text in 1 Kings 16:29. He is the son of Omri, who is identified as an important and powerful king of the northern kingdom of Israel. [There is extra-Biblical evidence for Omri’s regional importance.] Ahab is identified immediately as one of the evil kings, particularly because of his marriage to Jezebel, a Phoenician princess. He supports her sponsorship of the “prophets of Baal,” and passively condones her overtly corrupt scheme to acquire Naboth’s vineyard, more or less on a royal whim. However, Ahab is also depicted as repenting in sackcloth when he hears Elijah’s prophecy of doom on his dynasty (1 Kings 21:27-29). [More on Ahab.]

Chapter 22 is framed by references to Ahab, so readers generally assume, naturally I think, that he is “the king of Israel” mentioned in this story. He is named in Micaiah’s prophetic vision in verse 20.

Ramoth-Gilead was a Levitical city, and a city of refuge, east of the Jordan. (Bible History has maps here and here.)

[Also, I hasten to add as of 04.30.31, this is one of those things you’d never know about the Bible if all you knew were the lectionary. As usual, I mention this on principle, in my effort to persuade the Presbyterian seminarians that they actually need to read the Bible, rather than the lectionary version of the Bible, before they take the Bible content exam.]
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CLOSER READING: Although we are focusing on verses 15-23 and 26-28, which deal with the character of the prophet Micaiah, the beginning of the narrative matters for us.

Verse 1 sets the scene by saying that [literally] “there rested three years with no war between Aram (Syria to us) and Israel.” Normally, I think, regular people like the idea of going years and years without war. And these days we usually think there ought to be really good reasons to start a fight. So the fact that “the king of Israel” is going to destabilize this “no war” situation seems significant.

The next verses record a conversation between kings about the matter of Ramoth-Gilead. Jehoshaphat, king of Judah, wants to hear “the word of YHWH” on the policy decision (v5). “The king of Israel” assembles 400 prophets (see 1 Kings 18:19) for the purpose. These are presumably court prophets, official advisers in their prophetic capacity; we might imagine they depend on the king’s favor for their positions. The king phrases his request as a “yes-or-no” question, as anyone would be instructed to do by the Magic 8 ball or other diviner.

The prophets respond “Go up, for my lord will give it into the hand of the king.” (v6) It is conceivable that the 400 prophets are here playing the part of Macbeth’s three weird sisters, and not being entirely specific about which lord will be doing the giving, and which king’s hand will be doing the taking. It sounds like encouragement, but is it? It might or might not be significant that the text doesn’t actually refer to God “by name.”

Jehoshaphat wants a bona fide prophet of YHWH. The king of Israel grumps about the one prophet of YHWH he knows, because Micaiah son of Imlah prophesies not good for the king but evil. Jehoshapat tells him kings shouldn’t talk that way.

Why? Maybe because the point of checking in with a prophet is not to hear “good rather than evil,” but to hear “true rather than false?” Maybe because kings are supposed to desire the best possible intel? Whether or not it supports their proposals? The text does not tell us why Jehoshaphat says this.

The name Micaiah means, literally, “Who is like Yah [YHWH]?”

The messenger who fetches Micaiah (v13) tells him the court prophets’ words are “one mouth” that encourages the king. And he “pleads” or “prays” him to “speak good,” to encourage the king. It is as if he is concerned about what will happen, either to Micaiah or generally, if Micaiah dissents.

Micaiah, of course, says he’ll say what YHWH tells him to say (v14). So we are probably a little surprised to hear Micaiah repeat the words of the other prophets in v15. Maybe he sounds sarcastic; or maybe he has gotten cold feet. We can’t tell from the text.

The king of Israel’s response – “how many times must I make you swear that you will tell me nothing but the truth” – might tell us he has spotted this as untruth. Or it might tell us that he is trying to confirm the truth of Micaiah’s statement – something like “cross your heart and hope to die!” Either way, he seems incredulous.

Now Micaiah relates his vision of all Israel scattered like sheep and the word of YHWH, “these have no lord.” The reference to the people as sheep, implying the king as a shepherd, is a common symbol. Johanna Bos [1] points out that this reference to “all Israel” ought to make the king recognize his responsibility to the people. This is the first time the people of Israel have been mentioned in this story that begins with kings making plans to go off and put those people in harm’s way.

The king of Israel again puts this in the frame of good vs. evil for him. And the evil here seems to be the absence of approbation for his plan to end the peace by having a war to get Ramoth Gilead back.

Micaiah relates another vision in verses 19-23, of the heavenly throne room, and a scheme to entice Ahab to do battle. Micaiah’s testimony in verse 23 raises the question of exactly how all this is working – since at this point, Ahab still has a chance to change his mind. Micaiah is saying, literally, it’s YHWH, and these lying prophets, who have spoken evil on you. What you are calling “good” is actually the evil word, that will have an evil outcome for you.

But by that token, YHWH has also spoken good on Ahab, in the form of Micaiah’s speech, the speech that sounds so evil to the king.

The king has, at least theoretically, a choice of which of these words to pay attention to. His understanding of what good and evil mean, of what it means to speak a good word vs. an evil word, what a good word sounds like in a situation like this, vs. what an evil one sounds like, will make the difference here.

But as we already know, his understanding of good and evil is faulty.

Micaiah suffers a penalty for speaking honestly, we learn in v26-27. He is taken prisoner and assigned “the bread of affliction and the water of affliction.” It will become fatally clear whose word was for good, and was true, as the story unfolds.

It is not entirely clear who speaks the words “Hear, you people, all of you.”

The readers – that is, we ourselves – may be among “the people, all of you.”
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[1] Johanna W.H. Van Wijk-Bos. The Land and Its Kings. 1-2 Kings. Volume 3, A People and a Land. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. 2020. 157.
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Image: Shofar window of Synagogue Enschede, by Kleuske, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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