The Spirits of Ahab and Jezebel (I Kings 21:1-17)

King Ahab and Queen Jezebel are two historical monarchs who appear in the narratives of the Old Testament. Ahab is best known for his failure to lead and his open endorsement of idolatry. Jezebel is best known for her bad behavior unbecoming of a queen, so much so that calling a woman a “Jezebel” is equivalent to using profanity in Christian circles. Yet Jezebel’s reputation is well earned because, throughout I and II Kings, she constantly exhibited an attitude of control that defied God and openly embraced evil to trample upon others.

Now, why is it important for us to study Bible characters who have been dead for thousands of years? Because the spirits of Ahab and Jezebel are alive and well today whenever we see power acting with an arrogant, presumptuous security in which in which it treads beneath its feet all divine and human rights. Notably, the roles of Ahab and Jezebel do not necessarily have to be gendered, although they generally are: that is, a man can be taken with a Jezebel spirit, and a woman can be taken with an Ahab spirit.

Let us remember that Jezebel was the wife of King Ahab, and there’s a reason for that. You see, Jezebel was permitted to thrive in her wickedness only because Ahab refused to lead. This is the crucial point: you can’t have an active, control-hungry Jezebel without a passive, weak-willed Ahab. Hence, the real problem wasn’t the woman; it was her husband. And the spirit of Ahab is alive and well today in those who refuse to take responsibility and stand for what is true. They see evil, know it’s evil, and have the power to say, “Stop it!” but fail to act. They rationalize to themselves, “I am good by not doing bad,” when in reality they are enabling evil by inaction. Ironically, you can have a room full of Ahabs with only one Jezebel, and because she will not be restrained, she can do all the evil she desires and thus cause more damage than all the Ahabs combined. Ahab is dangerous because he does not act; Jezebel is dangerous because she acts. Let us not be distracted here: thinking biblically does not persuade anyone to pit men against women. Thinking biblically enables a person to discern the interplay between the two spirits.

For an example of how Jezebel and Ahab interact, let us go to the Scriptures. Our text comes from I Kings 21:1-10:

Now it came about after these things that Naboth the Jezreelite had a vineyard which was in Jezreel beside the palace of Ahab, the king of Samaria. And Ahab spoke to Naboth, saying, “Give me your vineyard so that I may have it for a vegetable garden, because it is close beside my house, and I will give you a better vineyard in place of it; if you prefer, I will give you what it is worth in money.” But Naboth said to Ahab, “The Lord forbid me that I would give you the inheritance of my fathers!” So Ahab entered his house sullen and furious because of the answer that Naboth the Jezreelite had given to him, since he said, “I will not give you the inheritance of my fathers.” And he lay down on his bed and turned his face away, and ate no food.

But Jezebel his wife came to him and said to him, “How is it that your spirit is so sullen that you are not eating food?” So he said to her, “It is because I was speaking to Naboth the Jezreelite and saying to him, ‘Give me your vineyard for money; or else, if it pleases you, I will give you a vineyard in place of it.’ But he said, ‘I will not give you my vineyard.’” Jezebel his wife said to him, “Do you now reign over Israel? Arise, eat bread, and let your heart be joyful; I will give you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite.”

So she wrote letters in Ahab’s name and sealed them with his seal, and sent the letters to the elders and to the nobles who were living with Naboth in his city. Now she had written in the letters, saying, “Proclaim a fast and seat Naboth at the head of the people; and seat two worthless men opposite him, and have them testify against him, saying, ‘You cursed God and the king.’ Then take him out and stone him to death.”

So, Ahab covets something that is not his: Naboth’s vineyard. He can’t get what he wants, so he sulks like a child. His wife then steps in and develops her own diabolical scheme to fulfill the sinful desires of her husband. She even encourages him to be joyful that she is about to falsely accuse an innocent man and have him murdered. Ahab and Jezebel are godless and immoral, so they have no conflict of conscience in sacrificing people for things.

And what happens next? In I Kings 21:11-16, the text tells us that the elders and nobles—that is, more spiritual Ahabs—living in Naboth’s city do exactly as Jezebel instructs them in the letters she sent. They proclaim a fast, two false witnesses accuse Naboth, and he is stoned to death outside the city. Once Jezebel gets word that Naboth is dead, she commands her husband to arise and take possession of the vineyard that he covets. Also note that Ahab only takes action when his perceived impediment no longer exists. This is how weak men operate: they don’t work to clear a path, they only move when the path is clear. Cowards are always victims and want other people to solve their problems for them.

The crucial insight in this narrative is to recognize that Ahab enables the Jezebel spirit rather than commanding authority over it. As a husband, Ahab bears responsibility for leading his household to do what is right. Instead, he literally lays down and watches as his wife not only devises evil, but pulls others into her web of darkness. Ahab represents the man who is expected to take responsibility for a situation but fails to do so. This gross lack of male headship is further highlighted by the fact that Ahab was the king of Israel. He was therefore not only the head of his house but, legally, the natural head of the nation of Israel. He had the God-ordained responsibility of carefully following God’s Law (Deuteronomy 17:14-20) and being a mediatorial instrument of justice so that no one would turn away from the commandments either to the right or to the left. Ahab failed first as a husband, and then as a king. Accordingly, the queen would not have been able to have such power and persuasion without her husband. The Jezebel spirit thrives in the presence of say-nothings and do-nothings. Of course, this is understandable because nature abhors a vacuum: if there is an empty space, something rushes to fill it. In the case of Jezebel and Ahab, evil control rushes to fill a gap where righteous responsibility is absent.

Let us go even deeper still. The problem of Jezebel-Ahab does not begin in I Kings. It begins with the genesis of humanity. That is, the real problem in the Garden of Eden was not that Eve was tempted by the serpent; the real problem was that Adam was standing right next to her and did nothing (see Genesis 3:1-6, and note that in verse 6, Adam was “with her” the whole time). Hence, the Jezebel-Ahab dynamic began with the Eve-Adam dynamic, which has played out through human history. For the majority, social evil happens by means of omission, not commission. In not confronting evil, the Ahab spirit thereby allows and accommodates it. This principle is exactly what the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., alluded to when he said that evil triumphs not when bad men act badly but rather when good men see evil and do nothing.

Like the era of societal decay in which Jezebel and Ahab lived, our contemporary era is also one in which those two spirits thrive: the Jezebel spirit (a spirit of control) and the Ahab spirit (a spirit of weakness). The reason why the prominence of these two spirits coincides with societal decay is that they are synonymous with the degradation of the family and the undermining of the dignity and sanctity of the home, which is the basis of human society. These spirits are also synonymous with the decay of religion, which fades into a mere form, losing touch with life, and thus losing power to guide people.

So, what does the text tell us happens to Jezebel? She dies violently after being thrown down from the top of her own home. This comes to pass because a prophet by the name of Jehu takes responsibility and refuses to budge from saying “Stop!” to Jezebel’s wickedness. Jezebel’s body is trampled by horses and then eaten by dogs. Ahab dies after being struck by an arrow in battle and bleeding out. Dogs lick up his blood.

As stated before, it is crucial not to miss that the Jezebel spirit can only thrive in the presence of an Ahab spirit. Unfortunately, the Jezebel spirit is what happens when the flesh takes action, so no sinner needs help to act like a Jezebel: “I will do what I want, when I want, how I want, and if getting what I want requires others to be destroyed, then so be it.” The Ahab spirit can only thrive when Jezebels are around, because if she is doing all the work, then why should he lift a finger?

Now that we have established the dynamic of Ahab and Jezebel, it’s important to apply our understanding to three separate areas: in the family, in the world, and in the church.

In the family. The family is the core social unit upon which all of society is built. In a family, the husband is called to be a faithful protector, and the wife is called to be the supportive nurturer. The mutual love and respect between the husband and the wife serves as the model by which to raise up children, who are to be raised up in things of the Lord (Ephesians 5:22-6:4). Men are called to act like men, and women are called to act like women. There is no allowance for swapping roles in God’s economy. Furthermore, there are many relationships within the family that are primary, outside of a person’s relationship to Christ. Jezebel will try to usurp control and tell parents that she wants to parent for them, or she’ll try to redefine the roles of husband and wife in her eyes. Don’t be an Ahab and simply roll over. So, for example, your children are not their school’s ultimate responsibility, nor are they even your church’s ultimate responsibility. The government certainty is not a co-parent with you. Parents, take responsibility for your children, because God has made them your responsibility.

In the world. This point relates to the first. In the West in the last two years, what we have seen is an explosion of the Jezebel spirit: secular authorities have used crises to tell citizens what they should do with their own health and their children’s health, how they should work, and how they should travel, just to give a few examples. Unfortunately, secular authority often grows out of the soil of a Jezebel spirit, because when you give the flesh an opportunity to control others, it will gladly take it. But according to God’s Word, secular authority—just like parental and church authority—is limited in its jurisdiction. Government’s power is defined by a sphere of control, and the government has no authority outside of that sphere: it doesn’t, for example, intrude on either the family or the church. This is an often-missed point of Christ’s words in Luke 20:25. There, the Lord says:

Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.

 In other words, there are some things that do not belong to Caesar. It’s no surprise, then, that the language of Luke 20:25 is echoed in Romans 13:6-7, the chapter in the New Testament that gives Christians the clearest instructions on how to interact with the State. The point is that secular authority must be disobeyed when it instructs us to sin or when it seeks to impose its power outside its assigned sphere. When Jezebel tries to call the shots in your home or your church, the answer is a firm, resolute “No!”

In the church. It should not surprise us that in His messages to seven churches in Revelation, Christ specifically mentions the woman Jezebel and all that she has done to lead the people astray. Of course, Jesus is not speaking of a literal woman but of the spirit of Jezebel that also seeks to overrun the Church of God. This is what Jesus says to the church in Thyatira in Revelation 2:19-23:

I know your deeds, and your love and faith, and service and perseverance, and that your deeds of late are greater than at first. But I have this against you, that you tolerate the woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, and she teaches and leads My bond-servants astray so that they commit sexual immorality and eat things sacrificed to idols. I gave her time to repent, and she does not want to repent of her sexual immorality. Behold, I will throw her on a bed of sickness, and those who commit adultery with her into great tribulation, unless they repent of her deeds. And I will kill her children with plague, and all the churches will know that I am He who searches the minds and hearts; and I will give to each one of you according to your deeds. (italics mine)

The simple lesson here is that because all the Ahabs in the church tolerated Jezebel, she led many to their destruction. Jezebel acts against God and does not want to repent, because hatred of God is in her nature. She draws people in with false doctrine (e.g., that God wants everyone to be prosperous and healthy in this earthly life or that you are saved by your works) and things that superficially seem to be virtuous but in reality go against the gospel (e.g., the social gospel). Jezebel also disguises herself as an angel of light in order to draw many into darkness. Jezebel is dangerous in the world because she can hurt people. She is particularly dangerous in the church because she can hurt people in the name of God. Whenever anyone or anything suggests something that goes against God’s inerrant and infallible Word, the simple response is a firm, resolute “No!” If you choose not to act, consider the consequences that Jesus warns about in Revelation 2.

Anyone with a sense of authority in his life, and who demands responsibility for what is taking place around himself, will never let a Jezebel spirit thrive. It is the job of the upright, mighty man of valor and the upright, virtuous woman to say “No!” to these spirits. The question everyone must ask themselves is simple: Who will you be? Ahab? Jezebel? Or will you be a true prophet who stands for God’s Word, speaks the truth in love, and refuses to compromise with evil when all it requires is for you to keep silent and do nothing?

Dr. C. H. E. Sadaphal

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