Background: the kingdom of Israel, or the 10 northern tribes, had been at peace with Syria for three years. Peace seldom lasted long in those days, and Ahab, the king of Israel, decided to reconquer a city which was still under Syria’s control. Ramoth-Gilead was the name of the city, and the fact that it remained under Syria’s control must have bothered Ahab. He was able to convince Jehoshaphat, king of Judah (the two southern tribes) to join in the battle, but neither of them was able to achieve victory. The plan started at a banquet but went to pieces once the battle was underway.
"Now Jehoshaphat had riches and honour in abundance, and joined affinity with Ahab. And after [certain] years he went down to Ahab to Samaria. And Ahab killed sheep and oxen for him in abundance, and for the people that [he had] with him, and persuaded him to go up [with him] to Ramothgilead. And Ahab king of Israel said unto Jehoshaphat king of Judah, Wilt thou go with me to Ramothgilead? And he answered him, I [am] as thou [art], and my people as thy people; and [we will be] with thee in the war" (2 Chron. 18:1-3, KJV).
This passage tells of two very different kings who ruled over two very different nations. At one time, these two nations were united from the time of Moses until the time of Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, about 120 years before the events in this chapter. The northern tribes declared independence and crowned a new king, Jeroboam, the son of Nebat, promptly acted to make the break permanent. (Read 1 Kings 12-14 for more details.)
Every king of the northern kingdom had followed the religion of Jeroboam, who had set up a pair of golden calves and commanded the people to worship them. That was bad enough, but Ahab had strayed farther down the path of evil by marrying a pagan woman, Jezebel. She wasn’t an Israelite, but was from Sidon (1 Kings 16:31), and introduced Baal-worship into the northern kingdom (reaching Judah, too, some years later, through her granddaughter). To his credit, Jehoshaphat had remained true to the God of Israel and worked to keep the knowledge of God in the southern kingdom.
No one knows why Jehoshaphat made the journey to Samaria. Was it by invitation? Did Jehoshaphat sense a chance to bring a call to return to the God of their fathers? Jehoshaphat may not have been king for very long, and indeed in the third year of his reign he sent people to teach the Law to his subjects (2 Chron 17:7-9). We really can’t say for sure why he went to Samaria.
However, we know Ahab prepared a feast while Jehoshaphat was there! We read that Ahab had prepared oxen and sheep “in abundance" (v. 2) for what seems to be this very purpose. What was that purpose? Ahab had something in mind but hadn’t disclosed it to Jehoshaphat. He would have done well to remember what Solomon wrote about sitting down with a ruler (Prov. 23:1-3).
Most of us are, or should be, familiar with the story of Micaiah, one of the few prophets of the Lord who stayed true to Him in those days. We read of 400 prophets but whether they were lying prophets, servants of Baal who used the name of the Lord in vain, or if they were truly prophets of the Lord who gave a soothing message to Ahab isn’t certain. Given that Jezebel had arranged for the murder of God’s prophets (we’re not told how many in 1 Kings 18:4), it’s a pretty safe wager that any prophet who would be called before the king, to give a prophecy, would give a pleasing message.
Not Micaiah. First Kings 22:13-28 gives one account of Micaiah’s appearance before Ahab and Jehoshaphat. Micaiah was asked to give the same message as the others, but he declared he would only speak the message from God. He did just that, revealing to Ahab a final word of warning (1 Kings 22:28). Ahab ignored the warning, then he and Jehoshaphat mobilized their armies for the joint campaign they had planned for Ramoth-Gilead.
Something always to keep in mind when studying the Bible is to be aware of the physical locations, geography, terrain and other details. This is especially true when looking at a military campaign such as this proposed joint operation with two countries against a third.
Remember that Jerusalem, Judah’s capital, and Samaria, Israel’s capital, were both on the west side of the Jordan River. Both of these cities were more or less centrally located between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean (Great) Sea. Both, also, were several miles away from anywhere close to Ramoth-Gilead, which not only was on the east side of the Jordan but was also about as far away from Israel’s territory as it could get. Besides being a city of refuge (Deut 4:43), it was very close to being a border town between Israel and Syria or any other country. The soldiers of both armies would have a rather long march to get to the Jordan River, let alone to Ramoth-Gilead.
As if the distance wasn’t bad enough, there was also the problem of crossing the Jordan itself! Way back in Joshua’s time, the people were told to cross the river during flood stage (Josh. 3:15), but God provided a way then as the priests stepped forward, carrying the Ark of the Covenant. The problem in crossing the river was two-fold: One, there had to be a fjord or shallow spot where the soldiers could get across, perhaps by wading, without swimming. Imagine trying to swim in a fast-flowing river, wearing any kind of protective armor; two, even if the army could get across, a relatively small number of Syrian soldiers could have mown them down. The Syrians could use any number of weapons: arrows, rocks, boulders or small groups of guerrillas to attack each squad or company of Israelite soldiers as they arrived.
Scripture doesn’t give us many details regarding the battle itself. We read that Ahab took off his robe but talked Jehoshaphat into remaining in his robe, which nearly cost him his life! The king of Syria had told his top officers only to fight with the king of Israel, and when they saw Jehoshaphat, they thought it was Ahab. Jehoshaphat cried unto the Lord, who helped him. The writer said, “Therefore they compassed about him to fight: but Jehoshaphat cried out, and the LORD helped him; and God moved them [to depart] from him" (v. 31).
Yet Scripture gives certain details about the end of the battle. Ahab was dressed as a common soldier, or at least he wasn’t wearing his royal garments. Therefore he may have thought he would remain relatively safe. That wasn’t the case, as a lone Syrian archer drew a bow, and declared, “I haven’t hit anything all day, so what’s the use?” before letting an arrow fly. That arrow had Ahab’s name on it, so to speak, and it hit him in the worst possible place. John Gill in his commentary on 1 Kings 22:34 explained that the arrow may have hit between the breastplate and the armor covering Ahab’s mid-section. Regardless, Ahab had been told he was going to die in the battle. Sadly, that prophecy was fulfilled to the letter.
True enough, Ahab remained propped up in his chariot until the end of the battle (around sundown, 1 Kings 22:35), but he eventually died from his wounds. The armies departed, with apparently no clear victor, just the call, “Every man to his city and every man to his country" (1 Kings 22:36). So it seemed that everybody got away from Ramoth-Gilead as best he could, trying to reach the Jordan River and get back across, eventually reaching home. Still, Ahab died on his way to Samaria and was buried there.
People may propose great things, but only God will allow anything to happen. Jehoshaphat made several mistakes: first, by pledging allegiance and support to an apostate king and nation; second, by ignoring the message from God’s true prophet, Micaiah; third, by proceeding to the battlefield in his royal garments; and finally by allowing the soldiers of Judah to risk their lives for nothing. Judah wasn’t going to conquer Ramoth-Gilead, so why send soldiers to fight for another king’s battles? We’re not told how many soldiers of Judah were killed or wounded in this battle, but had there been any, their blood would have been on Jehoshaphat’s hands.
Ahab’s errors were legion. He had rejected the God of Israel, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and worshiped the golden calves (1 Kings 16:30-ff); he had married a heathen woman (Jezebel) and brought her pagan practices into Israel; he also built a temple and who knows what else for Baal, Jezebel’s god; and had persecuted one of God’s prophets. Furthermore, when God gave him the warning, “You’ll die in the battle you’re planning,” he ignored the warning, perhaps trying to get Jehoshaphat killed in the process! Ironically, he tried to hide himself as a common soldier, but apparently wanted to die like a king, being propped up in his chariot until the end of the day—and the end of his life.
You and I will face challenges, as did Jehoshaphat, from any number of people such as Ahab. My prayer is that when we do, we’ll be faithful like Micaiah, or at least be repentant, like Jehoshaphat, and cry out when trouble comes. Believe me, it will in one way or another. Still, our Lord has promised He will be with us always, even to the end of the age!