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Infinite Mercy

Date: Mar. 8, 2015

Author: Dan Bockenfeld

1 Kings 20:1-43

Key Verse: 1 Kings 20:28

“The man of God came up and told the king of Israel, ‘This is what the Lord says: “Because the Arameans think the Lord is a god of the hills and not a god of the valleys, I will deliver this vast army into your hands, and you will know that I am the Lord.”’”

How big is infinity? What can we compare it to? The Universe is pretty big. We almost like to think that it is infinite, but it is not. Most scientists agree that the Universe is finite but unbounded. It can continue to grow, but it has an edge. The visible universe is 91 billion light years across. So a light year is the distance it takes for light to travel one year. The light from the sun takes about 8 minutes to reach the Earth, making it 15.8 micro light years (15.8 x 10-6 light years) away or about 93 million miles. That make one light year is approximately 6 trillion miles. The closest star to our sun is Proxima Centauri, which is 4.24 light years away. At the speed of light, it would take four and a quarter years to reach it. Our galaxy is 100,000 light years wide and our nearest galactic neighbor is the Andromeda galaxy, which is 2.5 million light years away. So our galaxy is a billion times larger than the distance from the Earth to the sun and the universe is a million times bigger than our galaxy. It is vast, but it is not infinite. It is estimated that the universe has 300 sextillion stars (3 x 1023 stars). That is a huge number of stars, but again, not infinite. There are more stars than the human body has cells (37 trillion cells in an adult human body). All of creation has limits. Those limits may be mind boggling, but they are still limits. Imagine for a moment something greater than the Universe. It is huge but there is greater. God is greater and his mercy knows no bounds.

For the past few passages, we have been focusing on Elijah and how God has been using him and helping him understand the nature of God, but now, there is a shift in the narrative and the focus is on King Ahab. The passage starts out, “Now Ben-Hadad king of Aram mustered his entire army. Accompanied by thirty-two kings with their horses and chariots, he went up and besieged Samaria and attacked it.” (1) Ben-Hadad was king of Aram and he came and attacked Samaria. It must have been a big force, since there were thirty-two other kings with him. These kings were probably from kingdoms that paid tribute to Aram. They were conquered kings and allies of Ben-Hadad. They would share in his plunder or feel his wrath.

While having the city surrounded, Ben-Hadad made some demands, “He sent messengers into the city to Ahab king of Israel, saying, ‘This is what Ben-Hadad says: “Your silver and gold are mine, and the best of your wives and children are mine.”’ The king of Israel answered, ‘Just as you say, my lord the king. I and all I have are yours.’” (2-4) Ben-Hadad told Ahab that the gold, the women and children were now his. It was an unconditional surrender that Ben-Hadad sought, and Ahab agreed. To me, I would have a hard time surrendering my wife and children to someone else, but Ahab did so to save his own hide. He was fully submitting himself to Ben-Hadad and his army, but it wasn’t enough. “The messengers came again and said, ‘This is what Ben-Hadad says: “I sent to demand your silver and gold, your wives and your children. But about this time tomorrow I am going to send my officials to search your palace and the houses of your officials. They will seize everything you value and carry it away.”’” (5-6) It wasn’t enough for Ben-Hadad to own all the silver and gold, the women and children. The Arameans wanted to come in and plunder the palace and the homes of all the officials.

Ahab was fine with the humiliation of having his gold, wives and children taken from him, but to have everything stripped from him was too much. Ahab talked to the elders and they told him to not listen to Ben-Hadad’s demands. Then Ahab told Ben-Hadad that he was still willing to give in to the first set of demands, but the second set was just too much. Ben-Hadad didn’t like the response and essentially promised to crush Israel. Ahab shot back, “Tell him: ‘One who puts on his armor should not boast like one who takes it off.’” (11) This is a standard saying that means something like, “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch” or “Don’t get ahead of yourself”. Ben-Hadad was proud of his army. It seemed unstoppable and his victory appeared to be assured. Then there was this upstart Ahab, a lone king that tells him “Not so fast.” When Ben-Hadad hears this, he is infuriated. Of course, he is drinking, but now he is drunk and angry. So what does a drunk and angry person do? What every drunk and angry person does: he prepares to attack.

Now, things look really, really bad for Ahab. His city is already surrounded and under siege, but now, the battle was coming to his doorstep. Active war was coming and it was a force that was as massive the Universe. To me, this looks like Ahab might be getting what he deserves. This looks like God is getting ready to pass judgment on Ahab and remove him from power. Ahab was more wicked than any other man before him. He thought it was trivial to commit the sins of the kings before him. Instead, he brought outright Baal worship to Israel. The Lord tried to show Ahab that he was God and not Baal. There was the three-year drought and then the epic battle that proved once and for all that the Lord is God, and Ahab never really bat an eye about it. He did not repent. He did not acknowledge that the Lord was God. He did nothing, and now there was an army at his door. Maybe the Lord is done with him. Maybe Ahab was just too blind. Maybe Ahab was just too wicked. He had done so much evil that, maybe, there is no more redeeming him – there is no way back. I think that you might agree with me on this one. The city getting attacked and Ahab probably being killed is just what he deserves. But is that really what is going on?

Let’s go back into the passage and find out. “Meanwhile a prophet came to Ahab king of Israel and announced, ‘This is what the Lord says: “Do you see this vast army? I will give it into your hand today, and then you will know that I am the Lord.”’” (13) So, wait a moment. Let me get this straight. God was going to give victory into Ahab’s hands? The Lord was going to deliver Ahab from Ben-Hadad and the thirty-two kings. This is so strange and so counter to what I would have expected. Ahab gives God no reason to help. And yet, God initiates the help. God reaches out to Ahab and tells him that he will give Ahab the vast army. Ahab will be victorious and then he will know that God is the Lord.

I want to see how this plays out before talking too much more about it. So, Ahab asks about who is going to lead the attack. Ahab wants to know how it’s all going to play out. The prophet tells Ahab that the junior officers would lead the attack. God chose these junior officers because they have little experience in commanding an army. By putting these inexperienced people in charge, there would be no doubt that the Lord is the one who gave victory. That is very important, because God is really trying to show Ahab who he really is. God has power over nature and now he was going to show his power over humanity.

So Ahab gathers up the 232 junior officers and puts them in charge, and then he gathers up the rest of Israel to serve as the army, 7,000 in all. Compared to the number of people that are called up elsewhere for Israel, the 7,000 men seems a bit small for the entirety of the army. Elsewhere we have seen tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands serving as the army of Israel, but now it was down to 7,000. I am not sure why the number is so low, but it serves as a testament of the fact the God was going to win the victory and no Ahab. So we have a small army with inexperienced leadership heading out to face a vast army.

When Ben-Hadad’s scouts saw the army coming out of Samaria, they reported it so Ben-Hadad, who told them to take them alive. However, Israel did not have such peaceful intentions. They attacked Ben-Hadad’s army and afflicted heavy losses on the Arameans. This was definitely a surprise to the Aramean king. He fled so that he could regroup. It was a devastating blow to his ambition. After the victory, the prophet returns to Ahab and tells him to be prepared because the Arameans will return in the next spring.

Now, Ben-Hadad’s officials advised him to round up another army, remove the kings from their command and give it to some inexperienced officers, just like Ahab did. Then they were to meet Israel for battle on the plains, because according to them, Israel only won because their god is only a god of the hills and has no power on flat land. It was a fluke that they won and if they changed their tactics, then their god would no longer have any power and victory would be assured. So Ben-Hadad gathers up another army and it is just about the same size as the previous one he had. Another vast army was going to go up and attack Israel. Sure enough, Ben-Hadad gathers up another vast army and meets Israel at Aphek. “The Israelites camped opposite them like two small flocks of goats, while the Arameans covered the countryside.” (27) Again, it looked like an impossible situation.

At this time, the prophet comes back and tells Ahab, “This is what the Lord says: ‘Because the Arameans think the Lord is a god of the hills and not a god of the valleys, I will deliver this vast army into your hands, and you will know that I am the Lord.’” (28) Despite the fact that Israel would be outnumbered by a lot, God was going to victory to Ahab and again, this was because God wanted Ahab to know that he Lord is God. Again, this is what the Lord told Ahab the first time. Sure enough, that is what happens. The Israelites kill one hundred thousand on the battlefield and a wall crushes another twenty-seven thousand. After a humiliating defeat Ben-Hadad runs into the city and hides in an inner room.

It is amazing to note how God defeated the Arameans. They were handily routed by an inferior force. The Israelites had no tactical advantage over the Arameans, but God gave them victory over their enemy. Again, we come to the question of why is God doing this. Why did the Lord give this victory to Ahab and Israel? They abandoned him and committed horrible acts of sin against him, but God showed mercy upon them. We even know that God knows everything, so he knows what Ahab is going to do next and set his enemy free. Ahab is going to disobey God’s will one more time. I am certain that God knows that, but he still helps Ahab out. It doesn’t seem fair or productive. All the work that God does to show that he is God is just set aside after the victory.

This is the Lord’s infinite mercy. God’s mercy is so vast that it can cover over a multitude of sin. God said to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” (Romans 9:14, Exodus 33:19) It is up to God to choose who he wants to have mercy on. This might sound arbitrary. It almost looks like God can just pick and choose whomever he wants to show mercy to. It sounds almost like a corrupt politician, bending the rules to suit his own agenda. However, God is good and just. Even though God shows mercy on whomever he wants, he still makes sure that justice is still served.

In this passage, Ahab sees an opportunity with Ben-Hadad’s humiliating defeat. He makes a treaty with him and sets him go. It almost looks like Ahab is having mercy on Ben-Hadad, but really, it is for a self-seeking purpose. Well, the Lord wasn’t pleased at this outcome. He sent another prophet to him to rebuke him for his actions. The prophet had himself injured and disguised himself as a wounded soldier. Then the prophet told this story: “Your servant went into the thick of the battle, and someone came to me with a captive and said, ‘Guard this man. If he is missing, it will be your life for his life, or you must pay a talent of silver.’ While your servant was busy here and there, the man disappeared.” (39-40) When Ahab heard the story, he said that the prophet had announced his own punishment. It would be his life for the life of the prisoner.

At that, the prophet removed his disguise and revealed himself to the king and turned it back on Ahab, “This is what the Lord says: ‘You have set free a man I had determined should die. Therefore it is your life for his life, your people for his people.’” (42) When God said that he was giving the Aramean army into his hands, it meant that the army was to be completely destroyed. Ben-Hadad was given to Ahab to destroy or at least hold him captive, but Ahab let him go. He disobeyed God for personal gain and God was not pleased. God’s mercy did not mean that he is unjust as he still rebuked Ahab for his disobedience.

What I really want to focus on here is not Ahab or Ben-Hadad, but God and his mercy. God’s mercy truly knows no bounds. No matter how bad you are or what evil that you have done, God is still willing to show mercy. Ahab is a prime example. Ahab is an evil dude who is just oblivious about God. It’s like he majored in going against the Lord, and yet, God is willing to show his mercy to him. Now, you might be thinking that Ahab doesn’t deserve God’s mercy and he should just fry in hell for what he did. He needs to be punished for his actions. It is not fair for God to show this mercy to him. You would be right. God is not fair. The Bible never calls God fair. God is good. He is righteous. He does not show favoritism. God is just, but nowhere is God referred to as fair, at least how we know fair. When Jesus hung on the cross, two criminals flanked him. One of them hurled insults at Jesus and the other repented of his actions and asked Jesus to remember him. Jesus, on the cross, forgives the one criminal right before his death. The man was able to live a complete life of sin and repented on his deathbed. How fair is that? He was shown so much grace.

The root of this mercy and grace is God’s love. God loves us; he loves people, even the ones lost in sin. Peter, one of Jesus’ top disciples and a man who let Jesus down on a number of occasions, wrote, “love covers over a multitude of sins.” (1 Peter 4:8) Because God loves us, he is willing to have mercy on us. That is what is going on with Ahab. He is a complete idiot when it comes to God, but in his infinite mercy comes to him. God says to all of us, “I love you so much that I want for you to know me, and I will do whatever it takes for you to know me.” The Lord showed Ahab through the victory over Aram and he shows his love and mercy to us through Jesus. We might cry foul over God’s fairness, but if God was truly fair, we would all be dead. Any of our sins is punishable by death, but God has mercy on us and the punishment for our sins was put on Jesus. Jesus took our sins and had them nailed to the cross along with his body. It is not fair that Jesus had to be tortured and die. It is not fair that Jesus’ blood flowed at Golgotha. It is not fair that Jesus was broken for me and I am thankful for it. It is not fair, but it is just: life for life, blood for blood. The punishment that brought us peace was on him and by his wounds we are healed. (Isaiah 53:5)

Just how infinite is this mercy? It doesn’t matter how bad you are or what you have done or how many times you have done it, God’s mercy is greater than all that because it knows no bounds – it is infinite. I’ve heard people say that they think that they have done too much evil. They have done too many bad things to receive God’s forgiveness. How could God ever do that? Why would God ever forgive them? I heard from someone that they thought the Bible would catch on fire if they ever touched it because of all that they did. But God loves them and God loves you.

There was a man named Saul and he was a self-righteous man. He was about as self-righteous as they come. Saul rounded up Christians wherever he could find them. He honestly thought that it was the right thing to do. But what he was doing was sending innocent men and women to their death all because they loved Jesus. Saul thought that he was doing God’s will, but in reality, he was God’s number one enemy. So what did God do to his number one enemy? Did he strike him down with fire? Did God drop him down a dark hole never to see the light of day again? Did God turn him inside out? No, God had mercy on Saul. Jesus appeared to Saul in blinding glory while he was walking along the road. Saul was forgiven and called to serve God for real. Saul eventually changed his name to Paul and became God’s greatest proponent of Jesus and wrote about half of the New Testament.

God’s mercy is truly infinite. No matter how bad you might be, no matter how much evil you might have done, God’s mercy is greater still. The Universe might be 91 billion light years across, and all of it could be filled with sin, but God’s mercy knows no bounds. God loves you. He will do and has done everything to make sure that you that. Some people see more mercy and grace than others but that is because it is a longer road back to God for them. It is not about how much grace and mercy someone receives, but the fact that they are brought back to God. And, until the day they die, each person is given countless chances to receive God’s mercy. There is a song called Drops in the Ocean and part of it says:

If you wanna know how far my love can go
Just how deep
Just how wide
If you wanna see how much you mean to me
Look at my hands
Look at my side
If you could count the times I'd say you are forgiven
It's more than the drops in the ocean

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