First Kings spends much time on the reign of King Ahab of Israel, illustrating how awful he could be. Thus far, we have seen Ahab’s idolatry and failure to act appropriately in holy war (1 Kings 16:29–20:43). Today’s passage shows us how ruthless Ahab and his wife, Jezebel, could be to ordinary Israelites.
Ahab wanted a piece of land near his second palace, in the city of Jezreel, for a vegetable garden. Yet, the vineyard’s owner, Naboth, refused to sell the land, for it was the “inheritance of [his] fathers” (21:1–3). This shows Naboth’s godliness. The Mosaic law forbade selling one’s family land except to escape abject, life-threatening poverty (Lev. 25:23–28; Num. 36:7–9), which Naboth did not face.
Naboth’s godliness had no parallel in Ahab and his queen. Jezebel conspired to have Naboth killed, even going through the motions of law keeping. Under her direction, Jezreel’s leaders used two witnesses to accuse Naboth of cursing the Lord and then inflicted the proper punishment for that offense (Lev. 24:13–16; Num. 35:30; Deut. 17:6–7; 19:15). The problem was that the accusations were false. Jezebel’s perfunctory law keeping stands in stark contrast to Naboth’s true piety. The rulers of God’s people were supposed to be model keepers of the law (Deut. 17:14–20), but a powerless landowner was more upright than they. And, Naboth suffered for his righteousness. Israel’s rulers, who were supposed to love and protect their subjects, killed him and stole his land (1 Kings 21:4–16).
Let us pause here and observe, as one commentator notes, that Naboth’s example shows us that righteous people do not always win on this side of glory. Persecution may be our lot, as Jesus said (Matt. 10:16–23). We, like Naboth, might suffer false accusations and even death even though we have obeyed the Lord. We might even suffer such things at the hands of people in the covenant community, the church, for Naboth’s persecutors were fellow Israelites. If we face such trouble, let us not lose heart or compromise the faith. Let us also realize that while sin abides on earth, there are limits to the justice we will be able to achieve, though we should always seek justice insofar as we are able. Let us remember that Jesus Christ is the only King who will never treat us unjustly.
Still, Naboth would finally be vindicated. Ahab’s line would be destroyed for this sin and others (1 Kings 21:17–29). At Christ’s return, all of God’s people will also be vindicated (Rev. 20:11–15).