Date Posted: June 27th, 2012
1 Kings 20
June 24th 2012
by Pastor Colin S. Smith
“Their gods are gods of the hills, and so they were stronger than we. But let us fight against them in the plain, and surely we shall be stronger than they…” 1 Kings 20:23
A dear friend and mentor of mine preached a sermon using this title over 30 years ago. There are not many messages that you remember after 30 years, but this one has stayed with me and helped me, and I hope that it might be the same for you.
There are several members of our congregation who come from Syrian or are of Syrian descent. You will find the message today to be full of hope. The eyes of the world are on the nation of Syria at this time, and its suffering people need our prayers.
The Story of Ahab’s Wars with Syria
Ben-hadad the king of Syria gathered all his army together. 1 Kings 20:1
We are told that “thirty two kings were with him,” along with horses and chariots (20:1). This was an overwhelming force. Ben-hadad gives an ultimatum to Ahab, the king of Israel: “your silver and your gold are mine, your best wives and children are also mine” (20:3).
Ahab knows that he is faced with an overwhelming force and he decides that discretion is the better part of valor. The choice seems to be between submitting to Ben-hadad or being wiped out by him. So,“the king of Israel answered, ‘As you say, my lord, O king’” (20:4).
Then Ben-hadad ups the ante (20:6). Now he will send messengers to walk through Ahab’s palace, and they will take anything they want. Imagine that: “You like this? Now it’s mine.”
At this point Ahab calls in the elders (20:7): “Ben-hadad is looking for trouble. What should we do? I’ve been compliant with his demands, now he wants more. It’s beginning to feel like blackmail. Where will this end?”
The elders and all the people said to Ahab, “Do not listen or consent” (20:8). It was courageous advice. So Ahab sends messengers to Ben-hadad: “All that you first demanded of your servant I will do, but this thing I cannot do” (20:9). Here’s where I draw the line.
Ben-hadad is not pleased. His response amounts to this: “By the time I’m finished, there won’t be enough dust left in Israel for each of my men to take a handful” (20:10).
Ahab sends back another message, “Let not him who straps on his armor boast like him who takes it off” (20:11). In other words, don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched!
Ahab was a wicked king, but what he did here was surely right. He had gone as far as he could for peace. Ben-hadad was incorrigible, and Ahab finally decides that he must stand up to him.
God intervenes on behalf of a wicked king
A prophet came to Ahab… 1 Kings 20:13
With conflict on the horizon, God steps in. This is the grace and mercy of God. Under Ahab’s reign, the prophets had been persecuted and murdered. They’d been hiding in caves. But God sends a prophet to him anyway.
The prophet has good news for this wicked king, who now has his back against the wall: “Thus says the Lord, ‘Have you seen all this great multitude? Behold, I will give it into your hand this day, and you shall know that I am the Lord” (20:13).
Why would God show this kindness to Ahab, the most wicked of kings? God does not treat us as our sins deserve, or repay us according to our iniquities. God comes along to Ahab at the most difficult point in his life and he shows him grace and mercy and help.
You see the patience of God here. The events at Mount Carmel had already made it clear that the Lord is God, but the impressions of Carmel had faded quickly, and here was Ahab as far from God as ever. But God is still speaking into His life.
He says to this man who has done so much evil, a man who has had no time for God or His word: “I want you to know that I am the Lord.” Ahab had an army of just 7,000 people, a small number in the face of Ben-hadad’s massive force, but God was with them and for them.
God gives a sobering victory
Ben-hadad was drinking himself drunk in the booths, he and the thirty two kings who helped him. 1 Kings 20:16
It’s not hard to imagine the scene. Then we’re told—Ben Hadad’s scouts spotted the movement of Ahab’s small 7,000-man army. They reported to the kings in the drinking tent and asked for the king’s command.
The orders they were given could only have come from a king in an advanced state of inebriation: “If they come out for peace, take them alive or if they have come out for war, take them alive” (20:18).
How in the world do you take a whole army alive if they are coming out for war? Surely what Beh-hadad meant to say was, “If they come for war, take them dead.” But he was too far gone to string two sentences together.
Without coherent orders Ben Hadad’s army was put to flight and Ahab saw again that the Lord is God. The key moment of the story comes after the king of Syria has sobered up and knows he has suffered a great defeat.
The post-war analysis
“Their gods are gods of the hills, and so they were stronger than we. But let us fight against them in the plain, and surely we shall be stronger than they.” 1 Kings 20:23
Ben-hadad’s advisors were wise enough to know something miraculous had come about in Israel’s victory because of their God. But they believed in many gods, each with their own sphere of influence—gods of the fields, gods of the rivers, gods of the hills, and gods of the valleys.
Armed with that conviction, they concluded: Although we suffered defeat, it happened in the hills, so their gods must be gods of the hills. If we attack them in the valleys, their gods won’t be able to help them.
Theology is simply what a person says or thinks about God. I’m using the phrase Syrian theology to describe what Ben-hadad’s commanders said and thought about God: “Their gods are gods of the hills” (20:23).
There are three massive misconceptions in this Syrian theology:
1. They said their gods, as if there were many. But God is one, the only God there is.
2. They said He is their God, as if He was their God only, but He’s the Creator and ruler of all.
3. They said He is the God of the hills. But He is the God of the valley also. He is the sovereign Lord, who created not only hills and valleys, but the entire universe.
Syrian theology limits God. It puts Him in a box, and it assumes that He is confined or restricted. Syrian theology forgets that He is the Sovereign Lord of heaven and earth.
On the basis of this bad theology, the Syrian army comes out for war the following spring, and this time they take their positions on the plain. Ben-hadad had left nothing to chance…
He got rid of the 32 kings, so there will be no repeat of the binge drinking (20:24). He appointed new generals. He replaced the entire army he had lost, “horse for horse, and chariot for chariot” (20:25).
The new army is overwhelming in numbers and in power: “The people of Israel encamped before them like two little flocks of goats, but the Syrians filled the country” (20:27).
What changed the course of the battle
“Because the Syrians have said, ‘the Lord is a god of the hills but he is not a god of the valleys,’ therefore I will give all this multitude into your hands, and you shall know that I am the Lord.” 1 Kings 20:28
I want you to notice why God gave this second victory to Ahab. It wasn’t because Ahab was a good king or because Ahab was saying his prayers. God gave the victory “because the Syrians have said ‘the Lord is a god of the hills and he is not a god of the valleys…’” (20:28).
God gives great promises to His people: “If my people will humble themselves and pray, I will heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:14). God moves when His people pray, but that is not what happened here.
On this occasion God moved in power, not because believers had been praying, but because unbelievers had been blaspheming, not because of His people’s effectiveness, but because of His enemy’s offensiveness.
The victory did not come because Israel praised Him, but because Syria belittled Him. God said, “I won’t allow them to say that about Me,” so He moved to vindicate His own name. Because they said, “the Lord is a god of the hills, not a god of the valleys,” it changed the course of the battle.
How to Defend Yourself Against…
…the Subtle Slide Into Syrian Theology
Theology that limits God is profoundly offensive to Him. It is asy for us to slide into our own versions of what I am calling Syrian theology, often without even knowing it.
I don’t want to be someone who belittles God. I don’t want to offend Him in the way that I speak or think about Him. I don’t want to slide, as a Christian, into Syrian theology.
So, let me suggest some applications that will help us see where Syrian theology might be lurking, so that we may be sure that we speak and think about God in a way that honors Him.
1. The Lord is God for every person
There’s always the danger we might limit God to people who have great gifts, great privileges and great advantages in life: “He’s the god of people with stability and opportunity, but He isn’t the god of people who’ve been mangled by hardship and dysfunction.” That’s Syrian theology. Dale Ralph Davis puts this so well…
“The Holy Spirit may regenerate and sanctify more kosher folks, but… He cannot do anything with the absurd medley of genetics, environment and folly that have made me the twisted mass of hopelessness that I am.” 
I wonder if that’s you. You’ve looked at your own life, your genetics, and the result of your own choices, and you say “I’m a twisted mess!”
Satan wants you to believe that you are beyond the range of God’s ability. But He is the God of the valleys, not just the hills. The Lord is God for every person and that includes you.
2. The Lord is God in every story
The danger here is of limiting God to certain kinds of experience. We hear stories of people with remarkable conversions. They lived wild lives… until God intercepted them in a dramatic way. They can tell you the date, the time and the place of their conversion.
You say: My story is not like that. My story is not worth telling on a platform. All I know is that I love Christ, I trust Christ, and I know that I’m a sinner, but I came to these things gradually.
Here’s what you are saying: He is the God of the dramatic conversion, but He is not the God of the quiet opening of the heart. Why would you say that? That’s Syrian theology!
The book of Acts tells us about the dramatic conversion of Saul of Tarsus, a violent man saved through a miraculous intervention by the risen Christ. Then we’re told about Lydia, a middle class, middle-aged woman. The Bible says simply and beautifully, “The Lord opened her heart” (16:14).
God was at work in her salvation as much as in the apostle Paul’s, because the Lord is God of every story. If you have come to love Christ and trust Christ as your Savior and Lord, then however simple it was, God has done this in you. It would not have happened otherwise.
3. The Lord is God in every season
There are special pressures when you are young. There are special pressures when you are old. There are special pressures in the middle of life too. There are different pressures in every season of life, and God is sufficient for all of them
When you’re young, it is easy to get the idea that God can use people with wisdom and experience, but He cannot use you. That’s Syrian theology. When you’re older, it is easy to say, “God can use younger people, but it’s really too late for me to be useful.” That’s Syrian theology as well.
Whatever stage of life you’re in, God is sufficient for everything that you will face in this season. Face your challenge, whatever it is, with faith and perseverance, and you will bring Him glory.
4. The Lord is God in every struggle
The issue here is limiting God to certain battles: “He is God when it comes to occasional sins, but He is not God when it comes to compulsive sins, or longstanding sins or besetting sins.”
So we allow ourselves the luxury of saying, “Well, that’s just me. It always has been, and it always will be.” That’s Syrian theology. The Lord is God in every struggle, not matter how intense or long. However many times you have failed, you can look to Him and find hope in Him today.
5. The Lord is God in every time and place
We read about revivals and see how God has worked in remarkable ways in the past, and we find it hard to imagine Him moving in power today. That’s Syrian theology. He’s the God of past centuries or other places, but not here, not now.
We look at the world and see how many countries seem closed to the Gospel, and wonder about the future of world mission. Conversion to faith in Christ is illegal in many parts of the Middle East and Asia.
Many countries in Europe are post Christian. People see the Gospel as part of a discredited past. They feel they’ve moved beyond it, and they have absolutely no interest, it seems, in turning back.
We look at the history of the church in the west: Massive recovery of truth in the 16th century, powerful pursuit of holiness in the 17th century, awesome movements of the Holy Spirit bringing revival in the 18th century, and widespread, fruitful evangelism in the 19th century.
But then, in the west, a great decline 20th century. Now in the 21st century, the rise of postmodernism, a rampant new atheism, and most of all, the exaltation of the self as god.
We may not say it, but it is easy in our hearts to get the idea that the Lord is the God of the past, but He is not the God of the present or of the future. If that thought ever comes into your mind, what you need to say is: That’s Syrian theology! And it is deeply offensive to God.
The Lord is God in every time and place. If we believe this, it will motivate us to great endeavors of mission in the greater Chicago area and around the world.
Out of Syria
This story in 1 Kings took place about 750 years before the birth of Jesus. Roll the story forward, because the Bible is one book and it’s important to tie things together, and Jesus Christ is born into the world.
You can’t limit the blessing of God
On one occasion, Jesus travelled north to Tyre and Sidon, and He met a woman from the land of the Syrophonecians (Matthew 15, Mark 7). This lady asked Jesus for help, and Jesus tested her faith by saying, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24).
The woman said “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” She was saying to Jesus, “You can’t limit the blessing of God to Israel.” She was absolutely right. Jesus came first to the house of Israel, but He is the Savior of the world.
Jesus commended her faith, and He gave her the blessing that she sought. The woman who said this was Syrian, but what she said is the very opposite of what we’re calling Syrian theology.
The bridgehead for world mission
Roll the story forward again: Jesus dies on the cross for sinners, and He rises again on the third day. Then He ascends to heaven, where He is given the name above every name.
There is a man who hates Christ and His church. His name is Saul. He is about as far from God as a person could be. But Christ appears to this man and saves him, and this happens on the road to Damascus—the capital city of… Syria.
Follow the story of Saul, later called Paul, who settles into a small church in a place called Antioch. There are two Antioch’s in the Bible, one is called Pisidian Antioch, which is in modern-day Turkey, the other was known as Syrian Antioch, because at that time it was part of Syria.
Here’s the fascinating twist in the story: Read the book of Acts and you will discover that the great initiative of world mission, the grand enterprise to take the Gospel across the Roman Empire, did not flow from the church in Jerusalem. It came from the church at Antioch (Acts 13:1-3). The Gospel came to the world through a small church in Syria.
The believers there were largely Jewish, though many Greeks there had also put their faith in Christ. But as Paul puts it in Romans 3:29, they said:
Is God the God of Jews only?
Is He not the God of Gentiles also?
Yes, of Gentiles also. Romans 3:29
The early church’s answer to Syrian theology came out of a local congregation of believers in Syria, as the church in Antioch became the bridgehead for world mission!
He is not the God of the hills only—He is the God of the valleys too. He is not the God of the Jews only—He is the God of the Gentiles too. He is not the God of the privileged only—He is the God of the disadvantaged too. He is not the God of other times, people and places only—He is God for us, He is God for you, and He is God today.
 Dale Ralph Davis, The Wisdom and the Folly, p. 293, Christian Focus, 2007
Please include this statement on every copy distributed:
By Colin S. Smith. © Colin S. Smith. Website: UnlockingtheBible.org