May 29, 2012

Wise Words from a Wicked King

“Let not him who girds on his armor boast like him who takes it off.” 1 Kings 20.11

That sentence may sound like it would fit perfectly into the book of Proverbs … but it was actually spoken by Ahab, king of Israel. He was one of the worst kings that God’s people ever knew – establishing the worship of Baal, shedding innocent blood, and setting himself up as the arch-nemesis of that mighty prophet Elijah. But, as the saying goes, ‘Even a broken clock tells the right time twice a day.’ And so it was with old king Ahab! He gives us, in 1 Kings 20, one of the great pithy statements of wisdom in the Bible: “Let not him who girds on his armor boast like him who takes it off.”

Those words were spoken to Ben-Hadad, king of Aram. He had besieged Israel’s capital city and was quite certain that he would overrun it with minimum difficulty. So great was his self-confidence that he sent messages to Ahab proclaiming: “Your silver and your gold are mine; your most beautiful wives and children are mine also.” And, to all outward appearances, Ben-Hadad’s boasts seemed legitimate. Ahab and Israel had no legitimate hope (humanly speaking) of breaking through the siege and winning the day. But Ben-Hadad forgot one thing – God loves His people, and the honor of His own name! And perhaps Ahab had at least a hint of faith in this God behind his pen when he wrote what is surely one of the classic war-time messages ever recorded: “Let not him who girds on his armor boast like him who takes it off.”

‘Do not boast,’ in other words, ‘simply because you have put on your Kevlar suit and are well-prepared for the battle. Boast, rather, when you have returned to your barracks alive and victorious, and have the wherewithal to actually take that armor back off again.’ Such a jab must have infuriated Ben-Hadad! But it was wisdom indeed … and ought to serve us better than it evidently served the Aramean king!

It is not the flash with which we begin a task that is so important, but whether or not we are actually able to carry that task to completion. The diploma is not handed out on the first day of college, but on the last. It’s not what your wife says about you on the wedding day that is the measure of your character, but what she says about you after 50 years. It’s not the score in the first quarter that finally counts, but the numbers on the board at the end of the fourth.

More vitally – and completely contrary to our cultural values, often even in the church – it is not so much the glitz and flare of youth that is worthy of our celebration, but a life lived well all the way to the finish. When we are young (or young in the faith), we are really just putting on our armor; readying ourselves for the fight. And there is no great cause for boasting in that. Many people gird on their armor; but far fewer actually finish the fight and are able to remove it. Many people set out on the Christian journey; but not all of them finish well. Many of us younger people are (praise God!) gung-ho and eager to 'do something for God.'  But being gung-ho at the beginning, and being faithful to the end, are two different things. We need both! But it’s the latter, Ahab reminds us, that is really praiseworthy! So let’s be thrilled when our young people begin to gird on their armor. But let’s rejoice even more exceedingly at the old saints who have fought well enough, also, to take it off!

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