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Afflicting The Soul

D. Sanz

(2 Peter 2: 8)

This article is based on the story of Obadiah, the man who served king Ahab of Israel. It provides a striking warning for all believers in our day. The reader is asked to consider 1 Kings 18 prayerfully before reading what follows.

As an introduction we will recall the time when Ahab came to power. Following the division of the kingdom He was the seventh king to ascend the throne of Israel, after the death of his father Omri. He was married to Jezebel and established the worship of Baal under the influence of his idolatrous wife. He built the temple to Baal's name and persecuted the prophets of God. We read that he wrought evil more than all his former fellow-monarchs (1 Kings 16: 30, 33). He even allowed his wife to kill the prophets of the Lord. Such a condition in Israel called for a response from above, and God sent the prophet Elijah to meet the prevailing apostasy. He went to the king and told him of the drought that would be in the land. A period of famine followed and the king's reaction was not one of seeking the Lord in time of trouble. Only when the famine became severe did the people and king appear to realise how evil a thing and bitter it is to forsake the Lord God and worship idols, as we will see further on.

The scene changes and brings us to the subject we are considering. Ahab had a governor or steward who ruled over his house and contrary to what we might have supposed he was a pious person, for Obadiah "feared the LORD greatly" and did fear Him "from my youth" (1 Kings 18: 3, 12). The proof was that he "took an hundred prophets, and hid them by fifty in a cave, and fed them with bread and water" (18: 4). We see here an upright man seeking the welfare of these servants of God, and therefore dealing righteously with them in the midst of the idolatrous people and rulers. Such behaviour was worthy of reward: "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these My brethren, ye have done it unto Me" (Matt. 25: 40). However, there was a serious shortcoming. What really shocks us is that he remained faithful to king Ahab. He was the steward of his house and under obedience to the king's commands. How he obtained this position we are not told. It seems that outwardly he pretended to follow Baal while inwardly he feared the Lord. This fear of the Lord was shown in relation to the faithful prophets but hidden from the king and people.

Far from acting positively for the interests of the people and turning to the God of their fathers, Ahab only thought of feeding his animals. He commanded Obadiah to look for green pastures and water for the horses and mules so that he would not have to destroy some of his beasts. He did not care about the people, any more than he cared about the prophets. This selfish man was characterised by weakness in the face of the influence of his wicked wife and it resulted in enmity towards God.

After king and servant separated from one another (v. 6), Obadiah encountered Elijah. This was a meeting between a true servant of God and one who was thoroughly compromised by his association with the wicked king. The contrast between the true character of separation from evil, seen in Elijah, and the hesitation and fear that marked Obadiah, is very clear. Obadiah anticipated a stern rebuke from the prophet. Falling on his knees he said: "Art thou that my lord Elijah?" (v. 7). He had been leading a double life and knew Elijah was morally much greater than he was. Elijah did not rebuke him in an open way, but clearly disapproved of his behaviour. To the prophet, Obadiah was just a servant of Ahab: "go, tell thy lord, Behold, Elijah is here" (v. 8). These words were not welcomed by Obadiah and the answer he gave shows how he drew back from a mission which was likely to provoke the king's anger: "What have I sinned, that thou wouldest deliver thy servant into the hand of Ahab, to slay me?" (v. 9). Elijah was an outlaw who had disturbed the king (cf. v. 17) and Obadiah had met him. Might not the king and Jezebel suspect what Obadiah had managed to keep hidden from them for so long: that he really feared the Lord? The king himself had been looking for the prophet so long that a release of news about Elijah now might mean death for Obadiah. Ahab would be waiting for food, not for this news! Obadiah was unwilling to deliver the message because of his lack of faith in the God that could keep him from the hand of the king.

In this faithless attitude he was unable to accomplish the task. His faith had become dull because of his allegiance to the king. A bad conscience prevented him from having free fellowship with God. Unlike Elijah, he had no confidence that the Lord would protect him against the actions of Ahab, and was not in a fit condition to speak in the Name of the Lord. In order to avoid danger and death, he simply refused to do as he was directed. He tried to excuse this refusal by referring to his own past good deeds: "Was it not told my lord what I did when Jezebel slew the prophets of the LORD, how I hid an hundred men of the LORD's prophets by fifty in a cave, and fed them with bread and water?" (v. 13). This action was commendable but by speaking to the prophet about it he tried to justify his false position. His dilemma was the result of the position he was in. He was governed by what was expedient rather than by divine principles. In contrast to Obadiah's unwillingness, Elijah declared that he would go and show himself to the king. This was the firmness of a servant of God who delighted to carry out his Lord's will (v. 15; cf. Isa. 6: 8). There is also the contrast between Obadiah's life of comfort and luxury in the kings house, and that of the prophet by the brook Cherith, in the house of the widow of Zarephath and in the desert. Elijah had no other comfort except the Lord's company but he had chosen the best part! (cf. Luke 10: 12; 2 Tim. 1: 12).

It would be well for a moment to focus our attention on the matter of the believer's service. There is little doubt that Obadiah tormented his righteous soul day by day, because of his continuing association with Ahab and seeing what went on every day in Israel. When Lot lived in Sodom two angels were sent to destroy it. Likewise this steward had contact with a divinely sent messenger, Elijah, and through the prophet's faithful witness he was confronted with the reality of his association with the evil king. Whether he forsook this evil link we are not told. His remaining where he was would have involved a continuing loss of privileges which can only be enjoyed by those who are found in separation from evil. The Christian cannot serve two masters as Obadiah tried to do, "... for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other" (Matt. 6: 24). If we attempt such a thing we shall be drawn into the world and come under the power of its prince. The world passes away and all its lust, and in the end it will be destroyed by fire sent down from the Lord (2 Peter 3: 10b). Let us therefore turn away from worldly sin and set our hearts and eyes upon heaven and the One who is there. Remaining in false associations will do us no good but only lead to affliction of soul.