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head, the refusal had been just and thankworthy; but now that he says, In the word of the Lord, smite me, this kindness is deadly: because thou hast not ob yed the voice of the Lord, behold as soon as thou art departed from me a lion shall slay thee. It is not for us to examine the charges of the Almighty. Be they never so harsh or improbable, if they be once known for his, there is no way but obedience or death. Not to smite a prophet, when God commands, is no less sin, than to smite a prophet, when God forbids. It is the divine precept or prohibition, that either makes or aggravates an evil.
And if the Israelite be thus revenged, that smote not a prophet, what shall become of Ahab, that smote not Benhadad?
Every man is not thus indulgent. An easy request will gain blows to a prophet, from the next hand; yea, and a wound in smiting.
I know not whether it were a harder task, for the prophet to require a wound, than for a well-meaning Israelite to give it. Both must be done. The prophet hath what he would, what he must will, a sight of his own blood; and now, disguised herewith, and with ashes upon his face, he waylays the king of Israel, and sadly complains of himself in a real parable, for dismissing a Syrian prisoner delivered to his hands, upon no less charge than his life; and soon receives sentence of death, from his own mouth. Well was that wound bestowed, that struck Ahab's soul, through the flesh of the prophet. The disguise is removed. The king sees not a soldier, but a seer; and now finds, that he hath unawares passed sentence upon himself. There needs no other doom, than from the lips of the offender: Thus saith the Lord, Because thou hast let go out of thy hand a man whom I appointed to utter destruction, therefore thy life shall go for his life, and thy people for his people. Had not Ahab known the will of God concerning Benhadad, that had been mercy to an enemy, which was now cruelty to himself, to Israel. His ears had heard of the blasphemies of that wicked tongue. His eyes had seen God go before him, in the example of that revenge. No prince can strike so deep into his state, as in not striking. In private favour, there may be public unmercifulness.
CONTEMPLATION II.-AHAB AND NABOTH.
1 KINGS XXI.
NABOTH had a fair vineyard. It had been better for him, to have had none: his vineyard yielded him the bitter grapes of death. Many a one hath been sold to death, by his lands and goods wealth hath been a snare, as to the soul, so to the life.
Why do we call those goods, which are, many times, the bane of the owner?
Naboth's vineyard lay near to the court of Jezebel: it had been better for him, it had been planted in the wilderness. Doubtless, this vicinity made it more commodious to the possessor; but more envious and unsafe. It was now the perpetual object of an evil eye; and stirred those desires, which could neither be well denied nor satisfied. Eminency is still joined with peril; obscurity, with peace. There can be no worse annoyance to an inheritance, than the greatness of an evil neighbourhood. Naboth's vines stood too near the smoke of Jezebel's chimneys; too much within the prospect of Ahab's window.
Now lately had the king of Israel been twice victorious over the Syrians. No sooner is he returned home, than he is overcome with evil desires. The foil he gave was not worse than that he took. There is more true glory in the conquest of our lusts, than in all the bloody trophies. In vain shall Ahab boast of subduing a foreign enemy, while he is subdued by a domestic enemy within his own breast.
Opportunity and convenience are guilty of many a theft. Had not this ground lain so fair, Ahab had not been tempted.
His eye lets in this evil guest into the soul, which now dares come forth at the mouth. Give me thy vineyard, that I may have it for a garden of herbs, because it is near to my house; and I will give thee a better vineyard for it; or, if it seem good to thee, I will give thee the worth of it in money.
Yet had Ahab so much civility and justice, that he would not wring Naboth's patrimony out of his hand by force, but requires it upon a fair composition, whether of price or of exchange. His government was vicious; not tyrannical. Propriety of goods was inviolably maintained by him. No less was Naboth allowed to claim a right in his vineyard, than Ahab in his palace. This we owe to lawful sovereignty, to call ought our own; and well worthy is this privilege, to be repaid with all humble and loyal respects.
The motion of Ahab, had it been to any other than an Israelite, had been as just, equal, reasonable, as the repulse had been rude, churlish, inhuman. It is fit, that princes should receive due satisfaction, in the just demands, not only of their necessities, but convenience and pleasure. Well may they challenge this retribution, to the benefit of our common peace and protection. If there be any sweetness in our vineyards, any strength in our fields, we may thank their sceptres. Justly may they expect from us the commodity, the delight of their habitation; and if we gladly yield not to their full elbow-room, both of sight and provision, we can be no other than ungrateful. Yet dares not Naboth give any other answer to so plausible a motion, than, The Lord forbid it me, that I should give thee the inheritance of my
fathers. The honest Israelite saw violence in this ingenuity. There are no stronger commands, than the requests of the great. It is well, that Ahab will not wrest away this patrimony: it is not well that he desired it. The land was not so much stood upon, as the law. One earth might be as good as another; and money equivalent to either. The Lord had forbidden to alien their inheritance: Naboth did not fear loss, but sin. What Naboth might not lawfully do, Ahab might not lawfully require.
It pleased God, to be very punctual and cautelous, both in the distinction and preservation of the entireness of these Jewish inheritances. Nothing but extreme necessity might warrant a sale of land; and that, but for a time: if not sooner, yet at the jubilee, it must revert to the first owner. It was not without a comfortable signification, that, whosoever had once his part in the Land of Promise, could never lose it.
Certainly, Ahab could not but know this divine restriction, yet doubts not to say, Give me thy vineyard. The unconscionable will know no other law, but their profit, their pleasure. A lawless greatness hates all limitations, and abides not to hear men should need any other warrant but will.
Naboth dares not be thus tractable. How gladly would he be quit of his inheritance, if God would acquit him from the sin! Not out of wilfulness, but obedience, doth this faithful Israelite hold off, from this demand of his sovereign; not daring to please an earthly king, with offending the heavenly. When princes command lawful things, God commands by them; when unlawful, they command against God. Passive obedience we must give; active, we may not. We follow them as subordinate, not as opposite, to the Highest.
Who cannot but see and pity the straits of honest Naboth? Ahab requires what God forbids. He must fall out, either with his God or his king. Conscience carries him against policy; and he resolved not to sin, that he might be gracious. For a world, he may not give his vineyard.
Those, who are themselves godless, think the holy care of others but idly scrupulous. The king of Israel could not choose but see, that only God's prohibition lay in the way of his designs; not the stomach of a froward subject: yet he goes away into his house, heavy and displeased: and casts himself down upon his bed, turns away his face, and refuses his meat. He hath taken a surfeit of Naboth's grapes, which mars his appetite and threats
How ill can great hearts endure to be crossed, though upon the most reasonable and just grounds! Ahab's place called him to the guardianship of God's law; and now, his heart is ready to break, that this parcel of that law may not be broken. No marvel, if he made not dainty to transgress a local statute of
God, who did so shamefully violate the eternal law of both
I know not, whether the spleen or the gall of Ahab be more affected. Whether more of anger or grief, I cannot say; but sick he is, and keeps his bed, and balks his meat, as if he should die of no other death, than the salads that he would have had. Oh, the impotent passion and insatiable desires of covetousness! Ahab is lord and king of all the territories of Israel; Naboth is the owner of one poor vineyard: Ahab cannot enjoy Israel, if Naboth enjoy his vineyard. Besides Samaria, Ahab was the great Lord Paramount of Damascus and all Syria, the victor of him that was attended with two and thirty kings; Naboth was a plain townsman of Jezreel, the good husband of a little vineyard Whether is the wealthier? I do not hear Naboth wish for any thing of Ahab's; I hear Ahab wishing, not without indignation of a repulse, for somewhat from Naboth. Riches and poverty are no more in the heart, than in the hand. He is wealthy, that is contented; he is poor, that wanteth more. O rich Naboth, that carest not for all the large possessions of Ahab; so thou mayest be the Lord of thine own vineyard. O miserable Ahab, that carest not for thine own possessions, whilst thou mayest not be the Lord of Naboth's vineyard!
He, that caused the disease, sends him a physician. Satan knew of old, how to make use of such helpers. Jezebel comes to Ahab's bed-side, and casts cold water in his face, and puts into him spirits of her own extracting: Dost thou now govern the kingdom of Israel? Arise, eat bread, and let thine heart be merry, I will give thee the vineyard of Naboth. Ahab wanted neither wit nor wickedness; yet is he, in both, a very novice to this Zidonian dame. There needs no other devil, than Jezebel; whether to project evil, or to work it. She chides the pusillanimity of her dejected husband; and persuades him his rule cannot be free, unless it be licentious; that there should be no bounds for sovereignty, but will.
Already hath she contrived to have, by fraud and force, what was denied to entreaty. Nothing needs but the name, but the seal of Ahab let her alone with the rest. How present are the wits of the weaker sex, for the devising of wickedness! She frames a letter, in Ahab's name, to the senators of Jezreel, wherein she requires them to proclaim a fast, to suborn two false witnesses against Naboth, to charge him with blasphemy against God and the king, to stone him to death. A ready payment for a rich vineyard!
Whose indignation riseth not, to hear Jezebel name a fast? The great contemners of the most important laws of God, yet can be content to make use of some divine, both statutes and customs, for their own advantage. She knew the Israelites had so much
remainder of grace, as to hold blasphemy worthy of death; she knew their manner was, to expiate those crying sins, with public humiliation; she knew that two witnesses at least must cast the offender all these she urges to her own purpose. There is no mischief so devilish, as that which is cloked with piety. Simulation of holiness doubleth a villainy. This murder had not been half so foul, if it had not been thus masked, with a religious observation.
Besides devotion, what a fair pretence of legality is here! Blasphemy against God and his anointed may not pass unrevenged. The offender is convened before the sad and severe bench of magistracy. The justice of Israel allows not to condemn an absent, an unheard malefactor. Witnesses come forth, and agree in the intentation of the crime. The judges rend their garments, and strike their breasts as grieved, not more for the sin, than the punishment. Their very countenance must say, "Naboth should not die, if his offence did not force our justice;" and now, he is no good subject, no true Israelite, that hath not a stone for Naboth.
Jezebel knew well to whom she wrote. Had not those letters fallen upon the times of a woeful degeneration of Israel, they had received no less strong denials from the elders, than Ahab had from Naboth; "God forbid, that the senate of Jezreel should forge a perjury, belie truth, condemn innocency, brook corruption. Command just things; we are ready to die, in the zeal of our obedience: we dare not embrue our hands in the blood of an innocent." But she knew whom she had engaged; whom she had marred, by making conscious.
It were strange, if they, who can countenance evil with greatness, should want factors for the unjustest designs. Miserable is that people, whose rulers, instead of punishing, plot, and encourage wickedness. When a distillation of evils falls from the head upon the lungs of any state, there must needs follow a deadly consumption.
Yet, perhaps, there wanted not some colour of pretence, for this proceeding. They could not but hear, that some words had passed betwixt the king and Naboth. Haply it was suggested, that Naboth had secretly overlashed into saucy and contemptuous terms to his sovereign; such as neither might be well borne, nor yet, by reason of their privacy, legally convinced. The bench of Jezreel should but supply a form, to the just matter and desert of condemnation. What was it for them, to give their hand to this obscure midwifery of justice? It is enough, that their king is an accuser and witness of that wrong, which only their sentence can formally revenge.
All this cannot wash their hands, from the guilt of blood. If justice be blind, in respect of partiality, she may not be blind, in respect of the grounds of execution. Had Naboth been a blas