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 Enticing Spirits

Sermon - 8/19/12
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

1 Kings 22:1-28

This is one of my favorite "least known" stories of the Bible, and if you haven't heard of it before, that's really no surprise because I've never preached on it before. It's not one of the Scriptures found in the lectionary used on Sunday morning for churches that follow the lectionary. And it raises so many thorny issues that probably most preachers would just as soon avoid it.

So, a little background on the story: we have been covering the formation of the monarchy in ancient Israel for a number of weeks now, so hopefully those who have been here by now know that there were three Kings, right, in that period of the united monarchy: Saul, David, and Solomon. So that's the period of the united monarchy, it covered most of the 10th century before our common era.

And then right around the year 930-931 before the birth of Christ, the kingdom split in two -- there was a struggle after the death of Solomon, Solomon's son becomes King in Jerusalem, and the 10 tribes of northern Israel appoint their own King. They then make Samaria their capital, and they remain a separate country for most of 200 years, until that country is destroyed by Assyria and the people are taken into exile and never heard from again -- that's what we call the 10 lost tribes of Israel.

The southern nation is known as Judah (Judah in the south, Israel in the north), and Judah only has 2 tribes -- Benjamin and Judah. It remains intact for another hundred and 50 years or so, until Babylonia takes those people into exile, but then of course they return.

The stories of these two nations, then, are told in first and second Kings, and first and second Chronicles. One of the most famous Kings in the northern Israel is Ahab, and his wife Jezebel. It's during their reign that the prophet Elijah emerges on the scene to challenge their authority, in particular their adoption of the fertility cults of Baal and Asherah. At the conclusion of Ahab's reign, another prophet emerges that we had not heard of before and he is the focus of our text this morning.

Micaiah, not to be confused with Micah (of which there is of course a book of the prophets) who comes about 50 years later in the south, in Jerusalem. So Micaiah's a prophet of the north in Samaria.

And this then is the one and only story we have about Micaiah. It's found in Chapter 22 of 1 Kings, I'm going to read most of it, it's a long story, but it's a great story, as you'll see:

For three years Aram and Israel continued without war. [Aram is what we know today as modern-day Syria] 2But in the third year King Jehoshaphat of Judah came down to the king of Israel. 3The king of Israel said to his servants, ‘Do you know that Ramoth-gilead belongs to us, yet we are doing nothing to take it out of the hand of the king of Aram?’ [This area is just south of what we would now call the Golan Heights, it's probably actually in Jordan.  At this time it's controlled by Syria, at one point probably controlled by Solomon, it became part of the Hebrew territory, they've lost it, and want to get it back] 4He said to Jehoshaphat, ‘Will you go with me to battle at Ramoth-gilead?’ Jehoshaphat replied to the king of Israel, ‘I am as you are; my people are your people, my horses are your horses.’

[Now, it's not just the case that these 2 Kings get along really well together because they're cousins.  But rather, because Ahab with 10 tribes is the much stronger of the 2, and Jehoshaphat is in essence a vassal to Ahab]

5 But Jehoshaphat also said to the king of Israel, ‘Inquire first for the word of the Lord.’ 6Then the king of Israel gathered the prophets together, about four hundred of them, and said to them, ‘Shall I go to battle against Ramoth-gilead, or shall I refrain?’ They said, ‘Go up; for the Lord will give it into the hand of the king.’ 7But Jehoshaphat said, ‘Is there no other prophet of the Lord here of whom we may inquire?’ [He's a little suspicious of these prophets employed by the King] 8The king of Israel said to Jehoshaphat, ‘There is still one other by whom we may inquire of the Lord, Micaiah son of Imlah; but I hate him, for he never prophesies anything favorable about me, but only disaster.’ Jehoshaphat said, ‘Let the king not say such a thing.’ 9Then the king of Israel summoned an officer and said, ‘Bring quickly Micaiah son of Imlah.’ 10Now the king of Israel and King Jehoshaphat of Judah were sitting on their thrones, arrayed in their robes, at the threshing-floor at the entrance of the gate of Samaria; and all the prophets were prophesying before them. [Probably in an ecstatic frenzy of dancing, engaged in some kind of experience to bolster this prophetic spirit] 11Zedekiah son of Chenaanah made for himself horns of iron, and he said, ‘Thus says the Lord: With these you shall gore the Arameans until they are destroyed.’ 12All the prophets were prophesying the same and saying, ‘Go up to Ramoth-gilead and triumph; the Lord will give it into the hand of the king.’

13 The messenger who had gone to summon Micaiah said to him, ‘Look, the words of the prophets with one accord are favorable to the king; let your word be like the word of one of them, and speak favorably.’14But Micaiah said, ‘As the Lord lives, whatever the Lord says to me, that I will speak.’

15 When he had come to the king, the king said to him, ‘Micaiah, shall we go to Ramoth-gilead to battle, or shall we refrain?’ He answered him, ‘Go up and triumph; the Lord will give it into the hand of the king.’ [Great!  Unanimous!  Let's go to battle!  Doesn't happen quite that way -- the King knows better] 16But the king said to him, ‘How many times must I make you swear to tell me nothing but the truth in the name of the Lord?’ [In a way, he invites the judgment upon himself, much as the way David did in that story we saw earlier with Nathan] 17Then Micaiah said, ‘I saw all Israel scattered on the mountains, like sheep that have no shepherd; and the Lord said, “These have no master; let each one go home in peace.” ’ 18The king of Israel said to Jehoshaphat, ‘Did I not tell you that he would not prophesy anything favorable about me, but only disaster?’

19 Then Micaiah said, ‘Therefore hear the word of the Lord: I saw the Lord sitting on his throne, with all the host of heaven standing beside him to the right and to the left of him. [In other words, it's very similar to the scene they're seeing, with these Kings with all of their entourage.  So we have kind of a contrast between the two royal courts]  20And the Lord said, “Who will entice Ahab, so that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?” Then one said one thing, and another said another, 21until a spirit came forward and stood before the Lord, saying, “I will entice him.” 22“How?” the Lord asked him. He replied, “I will go out and be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.” Then the Lord said, “You are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go out and do it.” 23So you see, the Lord has put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these your prophets; the Lord has decreed disaster for you.’

24 Then Zedekiah son of Chenaanah came up to Micaiah, slapped him on the cheek, and said, ‘Which way did the spirit of the Lord pass from me to speak to you?’ 25Micaiah replied, ‘You will find out on that day when you go in to hide in an inner chamber.’ [Presumably fleeing invading forces]  26The king of Israel then ordered, ‘Take Micaiah, and return him to Amon the governor of the city and to Joash the king’s son, 27and say, “Thus says the king: Put this fellow in prison, and feed him on reduced rations of bread and water until I come in peace.” ’ 28Micaiah said, ‘If you return in peace, the Lord has not spoken by me.’ And he said, ‘Hear, you peoples, all of you!’

Well, of course, as you may have guessed, the battle doesn't go well for Ahab, he actually disguises himself as a common soldier, thinking he can escape his fate. But an arrow pierces his armor and he dies in battle, and indeed the troops (without their King), return home and that's the end of the war.

So, the first encounter I had with this story actually came in seminary. I think it was one of those stories professors like to use to shake-up freshman, right? Never read this before, and it's kind of a shocking story. If you think too hard about this story, it makes your head explode. First of all, just take this notion of a divine council engaged in brainstorming. Have we ever portrayed God in that way? A brainstorming session with the divine spirits?

You've heard that a camel is a horse designed by committee :) Well, here it is! They're probably the ones that designed the camel! It might also explain why women are from Venus and men are from Mars -- we're not created in the image of God, we're created by sub-committees!

Then you have this lying spirit sent by God to deceive the King. So, God causes people to lie? So what happened to the 10 Commandments, God? Right? Were those rules only for us, and not for you? That explains a whole lot -- like the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, remember that? A vote in Congress (415 to zero in the House of Representatives, and 98 to 2 in the Senate) and of course that was the justification used by the Johnson administration to escalate the Vietnam war, which was later to be revealed to have been an intentional provocation by US forces just for that purpose -- so that we would have a reason to go to war. Thank you Senator Wayne Morse, from Oregon, one of those two dissenting votes who would not go along with it. Voted against the lie that ultimately would kill half a million American soldiers and of course millions of Vietnamese.

How about more recently -- Secretary of State Colin Powell's testimony before the United Nations revealing the evidence of weapons of mass destruction possessed by Saddam Hussein. Turned out to exist only in the minds of certain U.S. officials who were determined to go to war. And all the Kings men said "Go up and triumph, the Lord will give it into your hands". I mean, this is a familiar story.

I think comedian Flip Wilson said it best: "The devil made me do it" :) Only, in ancient Israel of the 9th century, there was no devil. There's no Satan, so it's got to be the Lord's doing. You can't blame anyone else.

You say, wait a second, I know my Bible, what about that story of Adam and Eve, the serpent, isn't that Satan? Go back and read that story -- nowhere in that story is the serpent identified as Satan. It's only our interpretation of that. That serpent could be the subconscious of the Id, or the Super-Ego of Freud, right? It could be one of these lying spirits, sent from the divine council.

Or maybe it's simply the first incarnation of Shirley MacLaine :) I mean, who knows? It's our interpretation of it, but the story itself leaves it kind of ambiguous, you've got to make something out of it on your own.

How about Satan and the story of Job? Yeah, Satan is mentioned in that story -- but if you read it carefully again, that Satan is a member of the divine court. That Satan is God's prosecutor, not God's adversary. A different concept.

The fact is, there is no concept in Hebrew Scripture of a devil. That is a concept that does not appear in ancient Israel until just a couple centuries before the birth of Jesus. It appears to be an idea imported from some of the dualistic religions of the East as the best explanation for evil -- how do you explain why bad things happen to good people? And so that is then incorporated into our New Testament. I plan to come back to this topic in October, so I'm just planting a seed now. It's not that I expect any evil to occur in football season (when is the USC game? :), but I'm not going to say anything more about it now, other than to say that I find that concept of a conscious evil being to be totally absurd (with the exception of a few radio talk-show hosts :), because it's unhelpful to developing a mature faith that must struggle with these ideas of good and evil which is in each of us and is certainly in our world. I'm not saying evil is not real -- evil is very real. But resorting to explanations of supernatural powers which manipulate us like puppets on a string (totally absolving us of any responsibility for our actions) can only perpetuate the evil we would oppose. So to be clear, in my own humble opinion evil exists not because of some external force that causes bad things to happen, it exists because we humans cause it, or we allow it. As Edmund Burke famously said: "All that is necessary for the forces of evil to win is for enough good people to do nothing". And witnessed the whole gun control debate.

It's only when we accept responsibility for our actions that we can begin to truly combat evil in our world. But I'll come back to that later.

So back to Micaiah and Ahab. In the ancient world, seeking guidance from the spiritual world was a very common practice. In the World-of-Paul pilgrimage that some of us took last year, we visited the Delphi, the most famous oracle of the ancient world. Perhaps others have been there, in Greece. A fabulous site, a World-Heritage site, built on a hill-side. It's where people journeyed for miles for nearly a thousand years to seek the guidance of the Oracle, believed to reside there. And virgins, forcibly employed into the service of the Oracle, were induced with drugs into ecstatic states, who then gave often very cryptic messages from the spiritual world that really sounded a lot like this one from Micaiah, with images and metaphors that you had to then interpret what they meant.

The Oracle at Delphi was so renowned that archaeologists have found artifacts brought as gifts to the Oracle from more than a 1000-mile radius all around them. So the request of Jehoshaphat reflects this practice of seeking an Oracle from the Gods. And Ahab employs an entire troop of prophets for this purpose. You may recall that story of Elijah, and his confrontation with these prophets that occurs earlier on Mt. Carmel. In that story, as in this one, those prophets engage in ritualistic dancing to induce an ecstatic experience. I mean, we have the same thing today, just with different names -- political campaigns, very similar, we get all worked up in a frenzy over it, right? :)

Not surprisingly, these government-sponsored court prophets all support the King's desires (I'm talking about ancient Israel, not the present :). The point of the story told by
Micaiah is not that God causes them to lie, but simply buying whatever the source may be that they cannot therefore be trusted.

There's an easy lesson for us here, as well as a hard one. The easy one: be wary of court prophets. Religion that serves the interests of the state is not in the interest of God. And that's why I'm such a big believer in the separation of church and state. President James Madison said it best "Religion and government will both exist in greater purity the less they are mixed together".

Indeed, if there was ever a biblical story to justify separation of church and state, this is it.

Now, we all hope, of course, that our service to country can also be a service to God, and vice-versa. But as Jesus says, you cannot serve two masters -- sooner or later the two come into conflict with one another and you have to make a choice. So, better we make that choice upfront as the Church (the body of Christ in the world) by keeping our independence and maintaining respectful distance from the state, than we unwillingly become those prophets of the court who bless whatever the King desires. That's the easy lesson. It may not be as easy as it sounds to do.

The hard lesson from this story is how do we discern God's will, given that both false prophets and true prophets speak the word sent from God? I mean, does God really do that? Is God in such total control? What role does free-will have if these prophets are just doing God's bidding to trip-up Ahab? I mean, who's to say God isn't doing that now? This is why preachers avoid texts like this. Like I said, it makes your head explode trying to figure this out :)

This story raises more questions than it answers. We preachers think our role is to give answers, not to raise questions. And the answers
Micaiah gives are not ones we like. Nor does the King. So the King throws him in jail in an attempt to silence him. And there he remains for all we know the rest of his life, because we don't hear from him again.

Truth be known,
Micaiah is a troublemaker, and no one likes troublemakers, especially when they claim to speak for God.

J. Edgar Hoover infamously tried to brand Martin Luther King Jr. as a communist. And if the recent movie about him is to be believed, even tried to blackmail King into declining the Nobel Peace Prize but fortunately did not succeed. In every age, there are those who the powers that be attempt to silence, as Ahab does here, but who in-time prevail with their insights into God's word and will.

And so
Micaiah's last words echo throughout time to us: "Hear you peoples, all of you". So do we hear?

Finally, we must acknowledge ourselves, in all sincerity and truthfulness, do we hear the voice of God when it speaks of what we wish not to hear?

Do we see the face of God in those we would ignore or even oppose?

Do we feel the heart of God break for the death of those that this government or that government name as enemies?

Do we know the mind of God when ours is already made?

Do we follow the dictates of the national religion ("obedient onward Christian soldiers marching as to war"), or do we pay heed to the troublemakers and the naysayers like Senator Morris and Martin Luther King Jr?

If we dare to heed the call of
Micaiah, we will not at least fear asking those hard questions. And then, then there is at least the chance we may discern the word and will of God for us today.


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