In 1 Kings 22, the story is told of King Ahab requesting the assistance from Jehoshaphat, king of Judah, to go to war with Syria in order to recover the territory of Ramoth Gilead. Jehoshaphat immediately agreed to assist Ahab in this battle, but he also asked for Ahab to “inquire for the word of the Lord” (vs. 5). Ahab willingly granted Jehoshaphat’s request, and gathered together nearly 400 of his prophets. After these prophets approved of Ahab’s plan of war, and assured him victory against the Syrians (vss. 6,10-12), Jehoshaphat (apparently sensing that all was not well) asked if there was another prophet that they might consult in order to get more counsel. Ahab bitterly acknowledged that there still was one man who could be consulted regarding his desire to reclaim Ramoth Gilead for Israel—Micaiah, the son of Imlah. As Ahab suspected, once Micaiah (a true prophet of the Lord) was brought before him, he predicted defeat for the confederation (vss. 17-23)—a prophecy that Ahab and Jehoshaphat ignored, but one that was fulfilled. The battle ended with Israel and Judah in retreat, and Ahab dead.
The problem that many people have with this passage has to do with the lying spirit that Micaiah mentioned as coming from Jehovah. The text reads as follows:
Then Micaiah said, “Therefore hear the word of the Lord: I saw the Lord sitting on His throne, and all the host of heaven standing by, on His right hand and on His left. And the Lord said, ‘Who will persuade Ahab to go up, that he may fall at Ramoth Gilead?’ So one spoke in this manner, and another spoke in that manner. Then a spirit came forward and stood before the Lord, and said, ‘I will persuade him.’ The Lord said to him, ‘In what way?’ So he said, ‘I will go out and be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.’ And the Lord said, ‘You shall persuade him, and also prevail. Go out and do so.’ Therefore look! The Lord has put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these prophets of yours, and the Lord has declared disaster against you” (1 Kings 22:19-23).
Few narratives in the Old Testament have been the focus of more infidel criticism than 1 Kings 22, and particularly these five verses. How could God, Who is revealed in the Bible as being One Who “cannot lie” (Titus 1:2; cf. Hebrews 6:18), “put a lying spirit in the mouth” of Ahab’s prophets (1 Kings 22:23)? What rational explanation can be given to this alleged discrepancy? Is God, or Satan, the “father of lies” (John 8:44)?
First, the honest Bible student must observe that the narrative involves a vision that is highly symbolic. Therefore, it would be unwise to press it as though it were a literal circumstance. Micaiah answered Ahab with two parabolic visions. “In the first, Israel was likened to shepherdless sheep scattered on the mountains, which must find their own way home (v. 17). In the second Micaiah described a heavenly scene in which the Lord and his hosts discussed the best way to get Ahab to Ramoth Gilead so that he might fall in battle (vss. 19-23)” (Patterson and Austel, 1988, p. 164). Commentator Adam Clarke wisely noted that this account is an illustration, and “only tells, in figurative language, what was in the womb of providence, the events which were shortly to take place, the agents employed in them, and the permission on the part of God for these agents to act” (n.d., 2:476). Another writer has observed: “Visions of the invisible world can only be a sort of parables; revelation, not of the truth as it actually is, but of so much of the truth as can be shown through such a medium. The details of a vision, therefore, cannot safely be pressed, any more than the details of a parable” (Cook, 1981, 2:619).
Second, there is a common Hebrew idiom used throughout the Old Testament by which the permissive will of God is expressed in forceful, active jargon. The Lord is said to have “hardened Pharaoh’s heart” (Exodus 7:3,13; 9:12; 10:1; et al.), “incited David against” Israel (2 Samuel 24:1), “deceived” His people (Jeremiah 4:10), and given them “statutes that were not good” (Ezekiel 20:25). In the New Testament, God is characterized as sending a strong delusion that some might believe a lie and be condemned (2 Thessalonians 2:11-12). Even Jesus used “commands” at times in a permissive sense. For example, He commanded the demons to “go” into the herd of pigs (Matthew 8:32), yet the preceding verse informs the reader that the demons begged Jesus to let them enter the swine. Thus, He was not the initiator of the demons’ move (from inhabiting man to dwelling in pigs), He merely permitted them to do so. Similarly, when Jesus told Judas, “What you do, do quickly” (John 13:27), He was not giving Him a direct command, or forcing Judas to betray Him. Rather, Jesus permitted Judas’ actions, and (since He knew what Judas was about to do) even encouraged him to do it quickly. All of these passages basically indicate that when men are determined to disobey their Creator, He allows them to follow the base inclination of their own hearts. Such was the case with Ahab and his false prophets. God knew their hearts. He knew Ahab was going to go to war before he ever consulted with his prophets (1 Kings 22:3-4). He knew that the prophets were accustomed to telling the king whatever he wanted to hear (cf. 22:8), and He knew that they were also going to tickle Ahab’s “itching ear” on this occasion (cf. 2 Timothy 4:3-4). Although God’s will was made known to Ahab and his prophets in this case (i.e., Micaiah warned Ahab of the impending doom), He permitted their hardened hearts to believe a lie.
In 1 Kings 22:19-23, and numerous other verses of similar import, the Bible merely expresses what God allows, not what He initiates or forces to happen. Walter Kaiser correctly stated that “many biblical writers dismiss secondary causes and attribute all that happens directly to God, since he is over all things. Therefore, statements expressed in the imperative form of the verb often represent only what is permitted to happen” (1988, p. 119). This account, therefore, should not trouble the sincere student of God’s Word.
Clarke, Adam (no date), A Commentary and Critical Notes (Nashville, TN: Abingdon).
Cook, F.C., ed. (1981 reprint), The Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).
Kaiser, Walter (1988), Hard Sayings of the Old Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity).
Patterson, R.D., and Hermann J. Austel (1988), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: 1 & 2 Kings, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan).
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