It was a major miscalculation.
It was made out of ignorance.
It was a costly mistake.
In a battle one can never afford to underestimate or misjudge one’s enemy – it can be fatal.
But the Syrians did just that. It proved their undoing.
How and why it happened is fascinating and its lessons timeless.
Israel was, it seems, always under siege and outnumbered by its adversaries. Not much has changed since those Old Testament times of danger and conflict. In I Kings 20, we see a spineless King Ahab giving in to the demands of a Syrian king named Ben-hadad.
Appeasement seldom works well for the country doing it and this was no exception.
After Ben-hadad seized Israel’s women, “the best” of its children and its silver and gold without resistance, he came back for even more. But men made of sterner stuff put an abrupt halt to the policy of appeasement.
“Don’t give in to any more demands,” they told Ahab (I Kings 20:8, NLT).
When the Syrians learned that Israel was done appeasing, they decided to attack. Ben-hadad, literally drunk with greed and hubris, made loud threats about turning Samaria into rubble.
King Ahab warned him:
“A warrior putting on his sword for battle should not boast like a warrior who has already won” (I Kings 20:11, NLT). That’s good advice for candidates just before an election, as well as for kings and generals.
Fighting bravely in the mountains of Samaria, Israel routed Syria, just as an unnamed prophet had promised it would. Then the prophet told Ahab, “Get ready for another attack”; Ben-hadad and his powerful army would be back in the spring (verse 22, NLT).
Licking their wounds in humiliation and dissecting their defeat, the Syrian generals counseled their King:
“Their gods are gods of the hills,” they explained to Ben-hadad, “therefore they were stronger than we; but let us fight against them in the plain, and surely we shall be stronger than they”(I Kings 20:23, KJV).
The Syrians didn’t know God.
They had no understanding of Jehovah. They only knew their own gods – idols constructed out of man’s fear and superstition. The Syrian gods were limited by time and space. The generals assumed Israel had similar ineffectual deities.
King Ben-hadad agreed with his officers and so the battle plans were made. They would meet Israel – and its gods – in the spring on the plain.
Israel was, as usual, vastly outnumbered. Its army “looked like two little flocks of goats” compared to the Syrian forces “that filled the countryside” (verse 26, NLT).
Then the prophet came once again to King Ahab with this word from God:
“Because the Syrians have said, The Lord is God of the hills, but he is not God of the valleys, therefore will I deliver all this great multitude into thine hand …”
And the prophet added this divine postscript for good measure:
“…and ye shall know that I am the Lord.” (verse 28, KJV, emphasis added).
Why would God do this?
Because man had in his ignorance and pride limited God. He had underestimated Jehovah’s power and misjudged his ways. Ben-hadad got God wrong. That’s a serious thing to do. And God was about to correct that misunderstanding. He would not share his glory with the puny impotent deities devised by carnal imagination.
The worst mistake we can make about God is to limit him.
The psalmist declares that “the Lord is a great God, and a great King above all gods” (Psalm 95:3,KJV).
God Jehovah alone is to be praised and feared “above all gods. For all the gods of the nations are idols: but the Lord made the heavens” (Psalm 96:4-5,KJV).
God gloriously and powerfully transcends and supersedes all human boundaries. He doesn’t live only in the hills or only on the plains. He inhabits and rules over every fiber of the universe he himself created.
David beautifully describes the omnipresence of God in the 139th psalm.
“Whither shall I go from thy spirit? Or whither shall I flee from thy presence?” (Psalm 139:7,KJV).
God is everywhere all the time. He is, in the wonderful title of theologian Paul Tillich’s book, The Eternal Now.
God is not only in every place. He’s also present in every situation.
When his wife died of cancer, C.S. Lewis grieved not only her loss but the supposed strange inexplicable absence of God in his grief. “Meanwhile, where is God?” Lewis wrote in A Grief Observed.
Lewis was wrong, as he later confessed.
But many of us have felt that way.
We make Ben-hadad’s mistake.
God is with you not only on your mountaintops of joy but also in your dark valleys of sadness, perplexity and pain. He goes with you through every emotion you experience.
He never leaves you and he will never forsake you.
God is there in the joyful celebration of new birth. He’s also there when your child is diagnosed with leukemia. And he’s there when you learn he’s in remission. God is with you when you get hired but he’s also just as present when you get let go.
God is with you in the good times and in the tough ones.
On the mountains of your lives – and in your valleys.
No, you’re never alone. Not ever. Thank God for his presence always.