Clearly it won’t be possible to read all four chapters during the Bible study, but do encourage your group members if they can to read them through beforehand. Doing so makes it clear that for the most part Jehoshaphat, like his father Asa, was a good and godly king: he did seek God (17:4, 19:3), he was a man of faith (17:6), a man of the Bible (17:9), and a man of prayer (see ch.20). But like Asa, he was also flawed. We could have an encouraging time studying ch.20 and learning from his faith, but (cynic that I am!) I propose instead that we consider rather his besetting weakness and see if there aren’t challenging lessons for us to learn. The banana skin that our writer shows him slipping up on time and again was the making of foolish alliances – marriage alliances (18:1), military alliances (18:3), and business alliances (20:35-37). It seems it was a persistent weakness, explored particularly in 18:1-19:3, and we will make that story from his reign the focus of our study.
It’s worth making sure people have understood the characters. Jehoshaphat is king of Judah, the southern kingdom ruled still by the line of David and centred on Jerusalem. Ahab is king of Israel, the larger kingdom to the north, which broke away from the Davidic king, centred on Samaria. Ahab, with his ghastly wife Jezebel, was profoundly evil (see eg 1 Kings 16:30,33). Whilst Jehoshaphat was promoting religious reform and sending Bible teachers out into the towns and villages of Judah, Ahab was promoting Baal worship and killing and persecuting God’s prophets. If you were a Christian parent you would not want your son marrying into a family like this! We’re not told why Jehoshaphat made this alliance through marriage, presumably he had good intentions – maybe longing for God’s people to be united again, or hoping to be able to exert a godly influence on Israel – but it was foolish and disastrous (see 21:5,6 for the effect of this marriage on his son). This sets the context for the story that follows.
Jehoshaphat is given the red carpet treatment, a state banquet in his honour, and having enjoyed all this hospitality and display of friendship he perhaps felt he couldn’t refuse Ahab’s request for help. His generous declaration of kinship and unity in part seems good, since the reuniting of God’s people was a right longing, and yet Jehu the seer will later point out the folly of what he was doing (19:2). He does insist they seek the Lord’s counsel, but it’s clear he was already committed. (How often do we pray for the Lord’s guidance, when in our heart of hearts the decision is already made?)
Ahab summons the 400 prophets on his payroll, but Jehoshaphat knows that though they speak in God’s name they do not speak the truth. Reluctantly Micaiah is summoned, urged to speak on message, and mockingly he obliges. Ahab’s response shows that he also knew his prophets were not speaking the truth but only what he wanted to hear, but when the truth is said, Ahab will not listen. Even when clearly told that God is using these prophets deliberately to lure Ahab to his death, he thinks the truth can simply be suppressed and ignored.
Jehoshaphat can’t have felt comfortable having heard that that this mission was doomed and seeing God’s prophet locked in prison, but he still can’t say “No” and lets himself be pushed along, even agreeing to act as a decoy, dressed in his royal regalia, whilst Ahab puts on a disguise. The one glimmer of light in this tragic tale of weakness and compromise is his prayer in v.19, and God’s gracious answer. Wonderfully we see again the truth of 14:11 and 16:9.
Ahab is killed, for God’s word is ever true, and so we listen all the more carefully to God’s words delivered by the prophet Jehu with which the story ends. He spells out the moral of the story, and we will need to think how it applies to our lives and situations. In one sense we are to love all men (even our enemies), but the NIV footnote suggests what the sense of “love” is here. Are we “yoked to unbelievers” (to use Paul’s language in 2Cor.6:14,15) such that in our friendships or working relationships we have let ourselves be so bound that we can’t but go the same way as them? Are we able to say “No”?