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Micaiah’s Courtroom Vision: 1 Kings 22:19-23

October 23, 2011

Introduction

The historical narrative of 1 Kings 22 is one of the most theologically challenging passages in the Old Testament.[1]  The issues revolve around the actions attributed to YHWH in Micaiah’s vision of the heavenly courtroom (vv. 19-23).[2]  Numerous explanations have been offered in an attempt to reconcile these actions with the way in which YHWH is portrayed elsewhere in Scripture.  Following an exegetical analysis of the passage, the present essay will evaluate these various interpretations and conclude with the one that squares best with the text.

Exegesis of 1 Kings 22:19-23

The three years of peace that had settled between the nations of Israel and Aram came to a sudden end when Jehoshaphat, king of Judah, travelled north to visit Ahab, the king of Israel (vv. 1-2).[3]  During his visit, Ahab enlisted the help of the southern kingdom in recapturing Ramoth-gilead, a city that held important political and geographical advantage for Israel.[4]  Prior to joining forces with Ahab, Jehoshaphat wanted to know if this military campaign had the seal of divine approval, so he requested to hear a word from YHWH (v. 5).  Four hundred prophets were summoned who all agreed that YHWH would give the city into the hands of the king (v. 6).[5]  Unconvinced, Jehoshaphat enquired if there was any other prophet of YHWH (v. 7).  Ahab admitted that there was, resentfully describing him as one who never had anything good to say about matters in which Ahab was involved.  At Jehoshaphat’s insistence, Ahab reluctantly sent for Micaiah son of Imlah (vv. 8-9).[6]  Upon his arrival, Micaiah initially parroted the words of the other prophets, agreeing that the battle would be a success.[7] But his sarcastic support of the battle was immediately looked upon with suspicion by Ahab who demanded that he speak the truth (v. 16).  Micaiah’s response was given in the form of two visions.  In the first, he saw a flock of scattered sheep that no longer had a shepherd, symbolising Israel following the death of Ahab (v. 17).  In the second, he saw a heavenly court scene where YHWH was revealed to have sent a deceiving spirit into the mouth of Ahab’s prophets, thus explaining why they were unanimously in favour of going to war with Aram.  It is to this second vision that we will now turn to explore in more detail.

The passage begins with Micaiah seeing YHWH sitting on His throne, and all the host of heaven standing by Him on His right and on His left (v. 19).  This scene finds a number of similarities elsewhere in the Old Testament, most notably Job 1-2.[8]  The צְבָא הַשָּׁמַיִם (“host of heaven”) was a term often used to describe the celestial bodies that were worshiped by foreign nations.[9]  In this context however, the heavenly host seems to consist of YHWH’s attendants.  The literary structure in which this heavenly courtroom forms the central part (vv. 15-28) finds significant parallels with the earthly courtroom (vv. 5-14), suggesting that there is a relationship between the heavenly and earthly thrones.[10]  As the two kings sat on their thrones surrounded by their courtiers, so YHWH was seen sitting on His throne surrounded by His courtiers.

With this scene before him, Micaiah heard YHWH ask, Who will entice Ahab to go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?” (v. 20).  This question presents the first theological challenge in the interpretation of this vision, but more on that anon.  Here we find the first of three occurrences of the verb פתה (“to entice”) that forms the central theme of this vision (vv. 20, 21, 22). The basic meaning of the word is to be “gullible,” “inexperienced,” or “foolish.”[11]  In the piel form which the verb takes in this passage, it means “to treat as a fool.” [12]  Ahab will be seen as being a simple-minded fool because he will march into war knowing full well that he will be defeated and meet his death on the battlefield.  Similar instances of YHWH “enticing” evildoers towards their own demise are found throughout the Old Testament.[13] An obvious example is that of Pharaoh whose heart was hardened by both himself and YHWH, which ultimately led to his burial in a watery grave.[14]

After some initial hesitancy in the heavenly court where one said this while another said that, a spirit came forward and stood before YHWH and said, “I will entice him” (v. 21).  From among the heavenly host, one particular spirit offered to perform the divine task, literally referred to as הָרוּחַ (“the spirit”).[15]  The identity of this spirit has been the cause of much discussion as it has significant bearing on the theological interpretation of the text.  Some have suggested that the spirit is the devil or a demon that had YHWH’s permission to go and deceive.[16]  Although this has often been the way in which the passage has traditionally been interpreted, it is without exegetical support.  Reasons for this include the fact that the passage is devoid of any satanic or demonic thought.[17]  It also fails to take into account the definite article; it is not simply a spirit, but the spirit.  Furthermore, Satan is never called a רוח in the Old Testament.[18]  Instead, the context itself seems to suggest that רוח refers to prophetic inspiration.  Evidence for this is seen in the both the wider context, where the issue revolves around true and false prophecy,[19] and the more immediate context, where the destination of this רוח is in the mouths of Ahab’s prophets (vv. 22-23).  In connection with the divine assembly the writer “has here understood prophetic inspiration as a divine being which attends upon the heavenly King and functions as his advisor.”[20]  It therefore seems best to understand הָרוּחַ as the personification of prophetic inspiration.[21]

Stepping forward to take on the assignment, the spirit is asked how he would accomplish the task of enticing Ahab.  His response was that he would go out and be a deceiving spirit in the mouth of all his prophets” (v. 22).  It is important to note that the spirit first appears as a רוח and only subsequently announces that he will become, temporarily it seems, a רוּחַ שֶׁקֶר (“lying spirit”).  This would further suggest that the spirit is not one of evil substance or intent, but rather takes on the quality associated with his activity.[22]  Satisfied with his answer, YHWH commissioned the spirit: “You are to entice him and also prevail. Go and do so.”  This, explained Micaiah, was the reason why the prophets had spoken supportively of Ahab – because they were deceived (v. 23).  The question then arises, by whom were they deceived?

Interpretation of 1 Kings 22:19-23

Having now laid an exegetical foundation, we are in a better position to begin exploring the various theological interpretations of this passage.  Perhaps the most widely accepted interpretation of this vision among Christians grows out of the presupposition that YHWH is portrayed in the Old Testament as committing that which He permits.[23]  Both the good and the bad are attributed to Him.  The vision is therefore understood as YHWH allowing a demonic spirit to go out and cause the four hundred prophets to utter a false prophecy that would lead to the death of Ahab.  Although this understanding of YHWH seems to sit well within the general cultural worldview of the Old Testament, as an explanation of this passage it does not give full weight to the evidence present in the text.  Most significantly, it does not grow out of an exegetical understanding but an a priori understanding.  First, YHWH is not portrayed as merely stepping aside and permitting the spirit to go out and deceive Ahab, as in the case of הַשָּׂטָן (“the satan”) in Job 1-2. He “actively solicits a volunteer and orders him to follow through with his plan.”[24]  Second, those who interpret the text this way also automatically assume that the רוח is demonic.  Our exegesis has revealed otherwise.  Unlike other passages that specifically refer to a רוח as being evil,[25] there is no hint of that in the vision.

Others have interpreted the courtroom scene as being figurative or symbolic.  This position is articulated best by Moberly: “The court of YHWH is the spiritual counterpart to the court of Ahab, it is the other side of one and the same coin. The scene of YHWH’s court interprets to Ahab the reality of his court.”[26]  Support for this is found in the deliberate parallels drawn between the heavenly and earthly thrones.  The vision is simply understood as being a parable of how God would use Ahab’s own prophets to bring about his downfall.  It would therefore be unwise to press the details of the vision as though it were describing a celestial council that literally took place.  This neat-and-tidy interpretation almost manages to avoid the exegetical and theological landmines that are often triggered by other interpretations.  As appealing as this is, it is not without its weaknesses.  For instance, unlike the first vision which is clearly figurative and even written as a parable, the courtroom vision is written as a narrative which would most naturally be understood as describing events that had taken place.  Micaiah’s own interpretation seems to indicate this was how he himself understood it (v. 23).

Although weaknesses can be found in almost every interpretation, the one that seems to fit best with the evidence is the one that takes the passage as it reads.  As Crenshaw notes, the story is quite straight forward, “there can be no question about the fact that this story depicts the ‘false prophets’ as men who gave in good faith the message conveyed to them, and portrays God as the source of this lie, even if mediated by a spirit.”[27]  This of course raises a number of theological questions, the most obvious of which is how can YHWH be responsible for sending a lying spirit into the mouths of the prophets when the New Testament affirms that it is impossible for God to lie (Heb. 6:18)?  Clearly, it was not YHWH Himself who did the lying, but He is certainly seen as calling for and commissioning the spirit to deceive the prophets.  What is often forgotten in discussions on this and other similar passages is that the actions of YHWH in this vision are in fact consistent with the way He is portrayed throughout Scripture, in both the Old and New Testaments.[28]  The common theme that runs throughout the biblical narrative is that YHWH will often use means that may seem offensive to us in accomplishing His purposes.[29]  He is kind to the kind, blameless to the blameless, pure to the pure, but cunning with the crooked (Ps. 18:25-26).  As Nelson notes, “Sometimes prophecy contradicts itself, but both true and false prophets serve God’s greater purpose.”[30]  So why did YHWH inspire the four hundred prophets to prophesy a false message?  As Lindström writes, “The answer provided by the passage under discussion is that they [were] commissioned in order to help realize a divine decree of destruction.”[31]  In other words, to deliver His people from the menacing king Ahab.

Conclusion

By first laying an exegetical foundation, the present essay has attempted to construct a theological interpretation of Micaiah’s courtroom vision from the building materials found within the text itself and from similar passages elsewhere.  Two other alternative interpretations were examined and found wanting.  The understanding that YHWH Himself was behind the false prophecy of the four hundred prophets has been shown to square best with the exegetical analysis of the text and the theological contours of Scripture.  One final question remains, did YHWH actually deceive Ahab?  Not exactly.  In His mercy, YHWH revealed the situation to Ahab and yet he still marched into battle knowing full well the outcome.  Simply put, Ahab chose to believe the lie.


[1] Peter J. Leithart, 1 and 2 Kings (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2006), 162; Richard D. Nelson, First and Second Kings (Louisville, KN: John Knox, 1987), 153; See Robert B. Chisholm, “Does God Deceive?” Bibliotheca Sacra 155 (1998), 11-12, for an outline of some of the theological difficulties inherent in the narrative.

[2] A parallel account is found in 2 Chron. 18:18-22. See Ray Dillard, “The Chronicler’s Jehoshaphat,” Trinity Journal NS 7, no. 1 (1986), 20-22 for a discussion on the differences between the two accounts.

[3] The identity of the two kings and time period in which the events described took place has been called into question by some commentators. See Simon J. De Vries, Prophet Against Prophet (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1978), 93-111.

[4] John Monson, “1 Kings” in Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, John H. Walton, ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 92; John I. Lawlor, “Ramoth-Gilead,” in The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible : Me-R, Katharine Doob Sakenfeld,ed. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2009), 734.

[5] The same number of prophets is mentioned in 1 Kings 18:19 where they are clearly identified as being false. This is perhaps a deliberate reference on the part of the author to draw a connection with the themes of judgment and prophecy that are present in the Carmel narrative.

[6] Commentators have often wondered why Elijah, who played a major prophetic role during the reign of Ahab, is absent from this story.

[7] עֲלֵה [רָמֹת גִּלְעָד] וְהַצְלַח וְנָתַן יהוה בְּיַד הַמֶּלֶךְ  (vv. 12b, 15b).

[8] See also Isa. 6:1-8; Jer. 23:18-22; cf. Ps. 103:21.

[9] See for instance Deut. 4:19; 17:3; 2 Kings 17:16; 21:3.

[10] See Leithart, 1 and 2 Kings, 161, n 3 for a diagram of thse parallels.

[11] Mainz Mosis, ” פתהpth in Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, vol. 12, edited by G. Johannes Botterweck, Helmer Ringgren, & Heinz-Josef Fabry (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), 169.

[12] Compare the use of the verb in 2 Sam. 3:25.

[13] Mordechai Cogan, 1 Kings (New York, NY: Doubleday, 2001), 492.

[14] Ex. 7:3, 13; 8:15, 32; 9:12; 10:1; 14:8.

[15] For a detailed discussion on the significance of the article and the ways in which it can be interpreted, see Chisholm, “Does God Deceive?”, 15-16.

[16] For a sophisticated defence of this understanding, see Richard Mayhue, “False Prophets and the Deceiving Spirit,” The Master’s Seminary Journal 4, no. 2 (1993), 135-163.

[17] Terence Fretheim, First and Second Kings (Louisville, KY: WestminsterJohn Knox, 1999), 124.

[18] Leithart, 1 and 2 Kings, 162.

[19] A theme which begins in 1 Kings 13. See Cogan, 1 Kings, 497; Leithart, 1 and 2 Kings, 158.

[20] Fredrik Lindström, God and the Origin of Evil: A Contextual Analysis of Alleged Monistic Evidence in the Old Testament (Lund: CWK Gleerup, 1983), 88-89.

[21] Simon J. De Vries, 1 Kings (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2003), 268.

[22] Lindström, God and the Origin of Evil, 89.

[23] Mayhue, “False Prophets and the Deceiving Spirit,” 135.

[24] Leithart, 1 and 2 Kings, 163.

[25] For instance Judges 9:23; 1 Sam. 16:14; 18:10; 19:9.

[26] R.W.L. Moberly, “Does God Lie to His Prophets? The Story of Micaiah ben Imlah As a Test Case,” Harvard Theological Review 96, no. 1 (2003), 9. See also David M. Howard, An Introduction to the Old Testament Historical Books (Chicago, IL: Moody, 1993), 196.

[27] James Crenshaw, Prophetic Conflict: Its Effects Upon Isrealite Religion (Berlin: De Gruyter, 1971), 84.

[28] Ex. 4:21; Judges 9:23; 2 Sam. 24:1; 1 Kings 13; Jer. 4:10; 20:7, 10; Ezek. 14:9; 2 Thess. 2:11-12.

[29] N. T. Wright, Evil and the Justice of God (London: SPCK, 2006), 33. I think Walter Brueggemann overstates the case somewhat when he says that “Yahweh can act in such a cunning and unprincipled way,” although that may be the way it appears to us (Theology of the Old Testament, [Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1997], 629).

[30] Richard D. Nelson, First and Second Kings (Louisville, KN: John Knox, 1987), 152. Although, in the case of true and false prophecy in 1 Kings 13, ascertaining the divine purpose behind the story is difficult.

[31] Lindström, God and the Origin of Evil, 91. For a similar conclusions see  Chisholm, “Does God Deceive?”, 28; Leithart, 1 and 2 Kings, 163-164; Fretheim, First and Second Kings, 127-128; De Vries, 1 Kings, 272.

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