THE ARMY of Ben-hadad, the Syrian king, had been depleted and routed from Israel. (I Kings 20:1-21.) But Ben-hadad decided to enlarge what was left of his army and try again to conquer the limited forces of King Ahab of the House of Israel. During the next several weeks all able-bodied men were conscripted from Syria and adjoining territories that paid tribute to Ben-hadad. By the next spring the army was as large and as well trained as the one that had unsuccessfully besieged Samaria. (I Kings 20:22-25.)
Feeble Human Protection
At the same time Ahab was mustering and training men for a bigger army. He had been told that the Syrians would make another invasion of Israel after the rainy season was over. When that time came, Ahab had a trained army, but it was pitifully small compared to the Syrian fighting force of many thousands of foot soldiers and hundreds of chariots and cavalry. Neither side was aware of the size of the other's army until the Syrians came into the plain east of Aphek. When Ahab learned of this, he took his soldiers to the northeast to meet the Syrians. He wanted to head the enemy off in the event another siege of Samaria was planned. When the Israelites came in sight of the immense number of Syrians spread over the plain, discouragement ran high. At the same time the Syrians felt very confident when they saw that the Israelites had only two small divisions of men. Victory for the invaders looked as though it would be quick and easy. Some of Ben-hadad's officers observed that the previous loss to Syria would be avenged at the cost of moving into Israel with an army that was several times larger than necessary. (I Kings 20:26-27.) "I'll agree with that only after I know for sure that there aren't more Israelite troops concealed in some gully on the edge of this plain," Ben-hadad told his officers. When it was evident to Ahab that the Syrians intended to camp where they were at least overnight, he decided to set up camp two or three miles west of them. That evening was an uneasy one for Ahab, who expected at any minute to receive a report that the Syrians were coming. While he was pacing nervously in his tent, an officer announced that a stranger had been picked up on the edge of the camp. And that he claimed that he had a message he wanted to give only to the king of Israel. Thinking that the man might be a Syrian spy, Ahab asked that he be sent to him at once so that he could question him. The king was relieved and a little surprised when the stranger made it evident that he was a prophet with news from God. "The Syrians have come here with the belief that the God of Israel has power only over the mountains and hilly regions," the prophet told Ahab. "They think that if they do battle with you on a level plain, God can't help you. I have been sent to tell you that He will again give you victory over the Syrian army, so that all will be shown that God has power in every part of every land and over all the Earth, and that great numbers of soldiers, horses and chariots are as nothing to him." (I Kings 20:28.) "But how does God expect me to overcome such a vast army?" Ahab asked.
God Proves Himself Again
"Camp here seven days," the prophet said. "The Syrians won't make a move until then. Don't be afraid to stand and defy them. God will intervene to perform a miracle, just as He did when Samaria was previously surrounded." Knowing when the Syrians would attack was a great advantage to Ahab. His men had a week of needed rest, even though they couldn't forget that they were outnumbered. As the prophet had predicted, seven days later the Syrians started swarming westward across the plain. The footmen came first. The cavalry and chariots had been instructed to hold off until the Israelites were all but wiped out, and then to attack whoever was left so that they could have some part in the defeat of their enemies. When Ben-hadad had found that the Israelite army was so small, he decided to preserve the most formidable part of his fighting force to proudly parade unscathed through conquered Israel and cause the people to regard the Syrians with awe and fear. Ahab's faith in God wasn't very great because he had never turned completely to God for a way of life. As he and his men faced the oncoming enemy, he was fearful that these were his last minutes of existence. He had only a strong hope, instead of a strong belief, that God would save him and his army. As the two bodies of humanity closed in on the plain, the Israelites knew they were fighting for their lives. The Syrians felt that they wouldn't have to exert much effort defending themselves. Their aim was to kill as many Israelites as possible in the shortest time necessary. But a strange thing happened as the two armies met. The confident Syrian warriors were suddenly filled with an awful fear that almost instantly turned them into cringing cowards. They dropped their weapons and shields and turned and ran before the amazed Israelites, who at first thought they were pretending to be afraid. When they saw the Syrians running into each other and stumbling to the ground in wild confusion, the Israelites knew there was no pretense. They took full advantage of the unbelievable situation, charging into the Syrians and dispatching them swiftly. The growing slaughter spread from the foremost ranks of the enemy footmen across the whole army until it became a disorganized, howling, shrieking mob. By the time the sun had set, a hundred thousand Syrians lay dead on the plain. The Israelite army was almost intact. (I Kings 20:29.) The rest of the Syrian footmen fled to the nearby walled city of Aphek, where they looked for refuge. The tremendous carnage shocked Ben-hadad. He fled in fright with his cavalry and chariots, following his foot soldiers to Aphek. Ahab and his troops, though very weary, weren't far behind. But by the time they reached the city the Syrians were inside and the gates were barred. Although Ahab was excited and thankful for the success that had come to his army, he remembered that the prophet had said the victory would go to Israel. He couldn't believe a victory was complete while many thousands of the enemy were taking refuge inside a city against whose walls and gates the Israelites had no equipment for attack.
Walls Are No Protection
As the pursuers paused before Aphek, they saw men appearing on the walls. The number grew rapidly. It was evident that the Syrians intended to make a defense from there if the Israelites came close to the city. Ahab was discouraged. The only thing he could do was besiege Aphek, something he wasn't prepared for because his food supplies were limited. He hadn't planned to carry on warfare very far from Samaria for very long. The problem was settled very soon in a surprising manner. As Ahab and his men moved a little closer to Aphek, more and more Syrians crowded up on the walls, preparing to hurl anything heavy or pointed down on the Israelites. Suddenly there was a sharp cracking sound from the walls, followed by a growing rumbling. Ahab and his troops stared in astonishment as the walls buckled and collapsed in a ground-shaking roar, sending up a huge cloud of dust. Twenty-seven thousand Syrians went to their deaths in the jumble of stones and heavy beams. (I Kings 20:30.) Instead of rushing into Aphek after the dust had cleared, Ahab wisely stayed outside where his troops could attack any Syrians who tried to leave the place. Because they were well inside Aphek and back from the walls, Ben-hadad and his top officers escaped death and injury. With the city exposed, the Syrians hurried to hide themselves in the private quarters of the ruler of Aphek. There they discussed what to do next. If they stayed there, they reasoned, it could be the most perilous thing to do. "The kings of Israel have been known as men who have been unusually merciful to those who ask for mercy," one of Ben-hadad's officers observed. "If we are found concealing ourselves here, probably we'll be slain at once, but if we go out to Ahab with the attitude that we regret what we've done, possibly he'll forgive us and spare our lives. He might even let us go free." "I can hardly believe that," Ben-hadad said, shaking his head worriedly, "but I agree there's nothing to lose by trying it." Then he added bitterly, "As for regret, I have plenty of that. I deeply regret that I listened to you fellows and others when I was talked into building another army for attacking Israel." Ahab and his men were alertly watching for anyone trying to escape from Aphek when they saw a group of men pick their way through the wall rubble and slowly approach them. They were dressed in coarse, raggy cloth, and ropes were draped around their necks. These were ancient eastern signs of humility. "Spare these men," Ahab told his officers. "I want to know what they want." Ahab stood high in a chariot that had been left behind by the Syrians, so that he was easily recognized as the king of Israel by the men who came close to him and prostrated themselves on the ground.
Mercy Without Wisdom
"We have been sent from your servant, Ben-hadad, who has instructed us to ask you for mercy," the fearful Syrian officers declared. "The king of Syria wants you to know he realizes now that he was very unwise to make war against a neighboring nation whose God is so powerful." "From what you say, I know now that your king wasn't killed in the collapse of the walls." Ahab replied. "That is welcome news to me. I have no desire to see him dead. In a way, he is a brother of mine because we are kings of adjoining nations." (I Kings 20:31-32.) The Syrians could scarcely believe what their ears took in. It meant the difference between life and death for Ben-hadad, and probably for them. They were relieved at Ahab's declaration. They reasoned that Ahab surely wouldn't have any further murderous intent toward his enemies. "We are happy that you have such a fair attitude toward our king," one of the subtle Syrian officers said. "Your brother Ben-hadad will be intensely pleased to learn that you regard him as you have said." "Go back into Aphek and bring your king out to me," Ahab instructed the Syrians. Ben-hadad's officers returned through the wall rubble to their leader, whose gnawing fear abated when he learned what Ahab had said. A little later the defeated king emerged with his officers from the broken walls, walking in a slow, respectful manner up to Ahab's chariot. While his officers bowed to the ground, Ben-hadad leaned forward in a stiff gesture of respect. Ahab invited him up in his chariot. (I Kings 20:33.) "I have made a grave mistake in planning war against Israel," Ben-hadad declared in a strained and embarrassed tone. "I had been told that your God dwells only in the hills and the mountains, and couldn't protect you on the plains. His power must be greater and more far-reaching than my advisors realized." "The God of Israel is the most powerful of all gods," Ahab said in all sincerity, even though Ahab practiced idolatry, mostly because of his wife. "I want to be fair to Israel," Ben-hadad nervously continued. "My father took some cities from Israel when your father was king. I will restore them to you. To show you what respect I have for Israel, I will reserve certain streets and dwellings in Damascus, my capital city, for the use of the people of your nation who travel up our way." If Ahab had been led by God's influence, in the manner in which God's servants are guided, he wouldn't have been so friendly with this man who hated him. Ben-hadad and his advisors should have been seized for their murders and given the extreme punishment. Instead, Ahab treated one of Israel's worst enemies like a guest, suggesting to him that they should agree not to war against each other any more. Of course the grinning Syrian agreed, whereupon Ahab said good-bye to him and let him go on his way to freedom — and to prepare for war with Israel three years later. (I Kings 20:34.)
When Invaders Are Not Punished
While Ahab was on his way back to Samaria, a prophet stopped the king. He informed the king that the leader of Israel had made a fatal error in giving Ben-hadad his freedom. "Because you didn't take the life of that heathen king that God has already condemned, your life will be required for his," was the prophet's dismal prediction. The rest of the trip to his palace was a miserable one for Ahab. He knew the man who had spoken to him was truly a prophet of God, and he had no reason to doubt him. (I Kings 20:35-43.) It wasn't until he talked to his wife, Jezebel, that Ahab received some measure of comfort, for Jezebel only laughed, as usual, at what God's prophet had to say. After a season of war, it was a relief to Ahab to get back to the comforts of his palace. While walking about in his garden, he decided that it should be extended so that there would be room to grow more than shrubs, flowers and fruit. He wanted room in which to grow berries, herbs and vegetables for royal consumption. Just beyond the garden wall was a fine vineyard owned by a man named Naboth. He enjoyed a good income from the sale of his choice grapes, wine and raisins. He was thankful that he had inherited such a valuable piece of property from his ancestors who had taken good care of it. His happy and peaceful life was disrupted the day he was summoned to appear before Ahab. "I need your vineyard," Ahab told him. "I want to expand my gardens to include other kinds of produce. Your land is next to mine. No other ground is available adjoining my gardens. I'll pay you what your vineyard is worth. If you don't consider that fair, I'll buy a bigger and better vineyard and give it to you for yours." Ahab was guilty of coveting his neighbor's property. (I Kings 21:1-2; Exodus 20:17; Isa. 5:8.) "I respect your wishes, sir," Naboth replied uncomfortably, struggling to appear composed, "but God's law very plainly states that an inheritance in Israel shouldn't be sold unless the owner is quite destitute, and even then he should have it returned to him when he is able to make payment. If I turned over my inheritance to you for a price, both of us would be guilty before God." (I Kings 21:3; Numbers 27:8-11; Leviticus 25:10-13, 23-28.) Ahab dismissed Naboth with a wave of his hand. He had his mind set on extending his garden, and this rebuff by a common neighbor quoting God's law greatly upset him. Like a child who had been deprived of a wanted toy, he went to his private quarters, there to stay for many hours in a sulky mood. (I Kings 21:4.) Servants reported to Jezebel that Ahab was in bed and hadn't requested food for many hours. The queen took time out from her many pursuits to go to Ahab and ask if he had started on some kind of ridiculous Israelite fast. Ahab explained matters to his wife, who had no sympathy for him. She was disgusted that he had considered Naboth's reason for not selling his property. "This is absurd!" Jezebel scoffed. "Aren't you the king of Israel? Shouldn't your desires come before those of some common grape farmer? Don't brood over this thing. Get up and eat and drink and forget about it for now. I'll handle it for you, and I promise that the vineyard will be yours soon." Ahab didn't want to know how his wife would get the property. He was certain that she would use devious means that might bother his conscience. He decided to forget about it for a time, Besides, he was hungry. Using Ahab's signature and royal seal, Jezebel sent letters to prominent men of the city, telling them to proclaim a public meeting and announce that someone had blasphemed God and the king, and that whoever it was would have to die. (I Kings 21:5-10.) Jezebel then hired two men to appear and swear that Naboth was the guilty one!