(Script of a devotional given to the Food for the Heart dinner, Lansdale Presbyterian Church, September 27, 2009)
You’ve probably heard it said that a simpleton learns from his own mistakes, a wise man learns from the mistakes of others, and a fool doesn’t learn at all. I’d like to show how this plays out in a not-too-familiar Bible story and see if I can suggest useful ways we can apply it to our own lives.
Before we get to the story, we need some background. It actually begins in the days of King Ahab. He was two things. He was henpecked, dominated by his wife Jezebel; she even determined his religion, the worship of Baal, a god whose name, the Hebrew word ba`al, means “master.” He was also a coward: When one of his subjects refused to sell land to him, he let his wife arrange to have the guy murdered. He was content to take the guy’s land, but he didn’t have the courage to murder the guy himself. Later, when he went into battle for the last time, he knew his enemies were out to get him, so he disguised himself as a grunt and had one of his friends, the king of Judah, dress up as him.
But before these two things this happened, Ahab had a confrontation with a prophet named Elijah. You’ve probably heard the story.
Ahab employed professional prophets, probably at the behest of his wife, because they’re called prophets of Baal. Now the job of a professional court prophet was to prophesy good things about the king. If one of them were to prophesy evil things against him, he was likely to be executed. In fact, when a real prophet did tell him that he was going to die in the battle he actually did die in, he had that prophet jailed. So essentially Ahab was paying these guys to tell him what he wanted to hear.
Elijah told Ahab to take these prophets up Mt. Carmel for a showdown: whoever could get their god to send down fire on a sacrifice would win. These four hundred prophets called out for hours, “Answer us, O Baal.” When that didn’t work, they took knives and cut themselves so there was blood all over the place: “Answer us, O Baal!” No response. Then Elijah spoke one sentence: “O Lord, show these people that you are God and that I am your servant.” And fire came down and consumed the sacrifice.
But Ahab didn’t learn his lesson. It was after this confrontation that he killed the guy to steal his land and almost killed the prophet and his friend. He died a fool.
Now we get to our story. Ahab’s son, Ahaziah, became king. Though Ahaziah’s name means “possession of the Lord,” he also worshiped Baal. One law like the law of gravity is that you become like the god you worship, and just as Ahab had wanted to be a ba`al, a master, so did Ahaziah. But he soon became sick, and Elijah sent him the message that he was going to die. How did Ahaziah react? The typical way any king would have reacted in those days: he sent a captain with fifty troops out to bring Elijah in to be executed.
Now, here’s we see what it means to be a simpleton. If you join the military, you do the work of your commander. As my son the army captain says, “I don’t make the policies. I just do as I’m told.” That’s just the way it is. Now this captain knew about Elijah’s confrontation with Ahab’s prophets on Mt. Carmel. He knew that Ahaziah was a rebel against God, a worshiper of Baal. He knew that his job was to bring Elijah in for execution. But he was a patriotic guy, an obedient subject of God-ordained authority (duty, honor, country, and all that), and so he figured everything would work out fine. He was just following orders. So he went up to Elijah and said, “Man of God”—notice that he knew to whom he was speaking—“the king says”—and the king was the incarnation of Baal—“‘Come down.’” In other words, You may be a man of God, but you have to obey the king—the real power belongs to Baal.
What was Elijah’s response? Exactly what he had said on Mt. Carmel: “If I am a man of God, may fire come down from heaven and consume you and your fifty men!” And that’s what happened. Fifty-one men died. Fifty-one women became widows, and God knows how many kids became fatherless. That’s the fate of the simpleton: “A simpleton sees danger, keeps going, and suffers for it.”
But Ahaziah didn’t learn his lesson: he sent another captain with another fifty men. Now think about these men for a second. They not only knew about the confrontation on Mt. Carmel and about Ahaziah’s character, they knew what had happened to the first group. They have just been asked to do exactly the same thing the first group did. Why did they think their fate will be different? Because they were fools. “A rebuke impresses a man of discernment more than a hundred lashes a fool.” They wanted to please the king rather than to please God.
I can hear the captain now: “We’re not gonna let this raghead get the better of us. C’mon men, let’s roll!” They went and confronted Elijah, and poof! Fifty-one more widows and God knows how many fatherless children.
At this point Ahaziah still had the audacity of hope, so he sent another captain with fifty more men. But this time, he chose a wise man. This captain knew what had happened to the first two groups, and he knew that if he obeyed the king, the same thing would happen to him and his men. But he also knew that if he disobeyed, the king did not bear the sword for nothing and they would die. So he was in a real pickle.
But I think he remembered that years before, when God had told King David that David’s sin would result in punishment, David had responded that that it was better to fall into the hands of the Lord, who is merciful, than into the hands of man. So he went to Elijah, God’s representative, and begged for mercy. He didn’t pretend he had any motives higher than saving his own skin and that of his men. But his fear of the Lord showed that he was a wise man, because the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.
It was now Elijah who had a problem. He couldn’t cast fire on the men, but if he went to the king, he could be executed. At that point the Lord spoke to him and assured him that he would not die. So they all went to the king, Elijah told the king again that he was going to die, the king died, and that was that.
So what can we take away from this?
First, we need to realize that whether we’re at the top of the pile, like the king, or we’re practically slaves, like those soldiers, or we’re just people somewhere in the middle, like the captains, we have the choice of being simpletons, fools, or wise people.
Second, we need to realize we have three evil forces that push us away from wisdom and toward being simple or foolish.
One is our own fallen natures. We want what we want when we want it. We want to have fun. We want to be comfortable. We want to enjoy life. But our hearts are deceitful above all things and desperately wicked, so we can fool ourselves into doing things that we know are wrong just so we can have what we want. And I can tell you the worst mistake I ever made came when I was in a position of influence and convinced myself that evil was good so I could get what I wanted.
Another evil commander is the world system. The simple and foolish captains were decent people like us. We just want to fit in with those around us. We don’t want to be oddballs. And so we go along with other people’s evil. We just follow orders. Everybody’s doing it.
And finally, there is the devil, God’s personal adversary. He dangles things we desire in front of us, knowing that we’ll convince ourselves that it’s OK to do evil things to get them. After all, everybody’s doing it.
So what can we do? The same thing the wise captain did: ask the man of God for mercy. Elijah isn’t here for us, but Jesus is. Jesus is the ultimate man of God because he is the Son of God. He says that he will not reject anyone who comes to him. And he promises to give us the Holy Spirit, God himself, to live in our hearts and guide us into wisdom. But how do we know when we’re listening to the Spirit and when we’re just listening to our own desires? He has given us the Bible, an objective standard that we can read to measure our desires against so we can know when we’re acting foolishly and when we’re obeying.
The choice is yours. Do you want to be a fool, a simpleton, or a wise person?