1 Kings 20:1-21: The Syrian Invasion
There are two names in the Bible story that sound much alike, Syria and Assyria. Syria was a shortening of the longer name, but it came to be applied to a different section of country, so that the two names must not be confused. It may be a help to remember that the longer name belongs to the larger country. The center of the Assyrian kingdom was at Asshur, and afterward at Nineveh, on the Tigris River, and its power reached far to the east and west. The name Syria was given to a smaller district; its great city was Damascus, and its farthest limit was the Euphrates River.
Assyria was a strong kingdom about the time that the Israelites under Joshua entered the land of Canaan; and we shall learn farther on in our story, that it afterward became a still stronger kingdom. (2 Kings 15:19, 29; 17:6) In the time of David and Solomon, and for some years after, including the time of our lesson, we hear little of Assyria; but we hear often of Syria, the nearer neighbor; and after the separation of Israel and Judah, these three kingdoms Judah, Israel, and Syria were almost always at war among themselves.
The king of Syria in our lesson is Ben-hadad. The name means "son of the god Hadad," and was the title used by several Syrian kings. In verse 34, Ben-hadad speaks to Ahab of "the cities which my father took from thy father." You can read the story in 1 Kings 15:16-20. Ben-hadad lived in Damascus, that most interesting old city to the east of Mount Hermon. You can see the caravans of camels pass out at the gates for their long desert journeys, or come in with their burdens after their weary march. There are in the city most interesting bazaars, streets lined with little shops, where silks and metal ware and all kinds of Oriental goods are sold, or workers are busy at their trades. There is so much that is old and quaint about Damascus that it seems easy to picture the place as it was in Bible days. The city was there in the days of Abraham. And presently we hear of Damascus in the story of Elisha and Naaman the Syrian.
Ahab was king of Israel, and he lived in Samaria, the city which his father Omri had built on the hill to the northwest of Shechem. Now, as we take up our story, we find Samaria surrounded by a great army of Syrians with horses and chariots. Ben-hadad was their leader, and with him thirty-two smaller kings or chieftains. The king of Syria was so strong and proud, that he sent to Ahab to give him all the gold and silver that he had, and even his wives and children. Ahab said that they should be given up. But Ben-hadad sent again and asked more; he said that his men would go through the palace and the houses of the rich people about the king, and take away all that they valued. Consulting with the elders, the king refused. Ben-hadad's reply was a threat that Samaria would be wholly destroyed; the dust of its ruins would not be enough for each one of the Syrian army to take a handful. A prophet of the Lord encouraged Ahab and told him that the Syrian army would be defeated; it would be done by the young men, servants of the princes of the provinces, who were in Samaria. (There were other prophets besides Elijah. We learn presently of a prophet named Micaiah, and also of companies of prophets at Bethel and Jericho.) The young men came out from the city as a small army, at noon, when Ben-hadad and the kings with him were drinking wine and becoming drunken, in the booths of branches which had been put up for their comfort. The prophet's words came true; the Syrians were defeated, and their king escaped on a horse with other horsemen.
1. Who was Ben-hadad? In what country and city did he live?
2. Who was Ahab? What were his country and city?
3. What was happening at Samaria?
4. What messages did Ben-hadad send to Ahab? What answers did he receive?
5. What word did the prophet bring?
We may wonder that the Lord's prophet should speak good news to Ahab; and that the Lord should give him victory. He was a wicked king, and, we think, did not deserve it. That is true, and still at the same time, because he was the king of Israel, he represented a ruling principle of heavenly life, and even the Lord Himself, the heavenly King. It was because of his office and not from his character as a man, that Ahab could have this meaning, and be given the victory by the Lord. "All the kings of Judah and Israel, of whatever quality they might be, represented the regal function of the Lord; and all the priests, of whatever quality they might be, represented the priestly function of the Lord. Thus the wicked as well as the good were capable of representing the Lord and the celestial and spiritual things of His kingdom. For, as was said and shown above, the representatives were altogether separate from the person." (A. 1025, 1409, 1876)
We must think of the spiritual meaning of Syria. The Holy Land is the type of heaven and of the spiritual life in each one of us. The nations around the Holy Land represent natural, external states and faculties, which may be helpful to the spiritual life, or may be hostile to it. We have thought of Assyria and Syria together, and they are also related in their spiritual meaning. They both represent intellectual powers of a natural and worldly kind, which may be helpful to the spiritual life, or if these become proud and self-confident, work against it. Assyria, the stronger nation, represents the strong power of reasoning, of putting this and that together in their true relations, and drawing just conclusions. It is a noble faculty, but it easily grows self-confident and proud; and then it is dangerous. (Isa. 10:12-13) Syria, where something of ancient wisdom was for a long time preserved, also represents a power of thinking and understanding, but in a natural, worldly way. The Abana and Pharpar, rivers of Damascus, which seemed better to Naaman than all the waters of Israel, represent the streams of natural thought, the judging of right by worldly standards rather than by the Lord's teaching and commandments. The horses and chariots of Syria represent the arguments of the natural thought. The drunkenness of Ben-hadad suggests its self-confident pride which leads to foolishness. (A. 1186, 3249)
Syria was fighting with Israel, and by and by Israel was destroyed by Assyria. For the kingdom of Israel represents a true spiritual intelligence, which is open to instruction from the Lord; and the powers of natural thought and reason, when they grow proud and self-trustful are the special enemies of this true intelligence. (A. 4292, 4720)