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The Limits of Political Office

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Every revolution needs slogans.  Here is mine:  politics fourth. —Gary North, Political Polytheism (1989)

Real change has to start with the culture.  All we can do on Capitol Hill is try to find ways government can nurture healthy cultural trends. —Bill Wichterman in Nancy Pearcey’s Total Truth (2005)

In the Corridors of Power

The famine was six months into its fourth year.  The streams were dry.  The grass was dead.  The horses and mules were starving.  King Ahab and his steward Obadiah divided the land and began a search for some sort of water, some way of saving the few horses that were left.  Israel’s military might depended on these beasts.

Obadiah was known for his faithfulness, hard work, and humility.  He got his job done without ever drawing attention to himself.  He had a servant’s heart.  In fact, his name meant “the servant of Yahweh.”  Obadiah feared God greatly.

Ahab didn’t.  Ahab and his Phoenician wife Jezebel had established Baal worship as Israel’s state religion.  Their approach hadn’t been subtle.  They set up the idols, issued the decrees, and then set out to make martyrs of all of God’s prophets.  This is where Obadiah had played a crucial but quiet role.  He had quietly taken away a hundred of God’s prophets and hidden them by fifties in caves.  Then he fed them with bread and water from Ahab’s own table.

In all other respects Obadiah did his work faithfully.  Ahab trusted him completely.  When it was clear that the horses, Israel’s most important military weapons, were in real jeopardy, Ahab relied on Obadiah’s discretion and help.  And Obadiah followed Ahab’s orders.  He set out looking for water.  It was then that Obadiah met Elijah, possibly for the first time.

Elijah Returns

Obadiah recognized the prophet at once.  After all, Ahab had distributed his description to all his officers and to all the kings and rulers round about Israel:  “A hairy man wearing a leather belt”—a religious fanatic (2 Kings 1:8).

Elijah told Obadiah, “Go tell your lord that Elijah is here.”

Obadiah was frightened.  He knew that God had protected Elijah for three and a half years.  He knew that Ahab would try to kill Elijah as soon as they met.  At that point, anything could happen.  God might snatch Elijah away, and Obadiah would be left to answer his king.  Ahab would be murderously angry.  From Obadiah’s perspective, there was no way this could end well.

So Obadiah protested:  “Once I tell Ahab you’re here, the Spirit of Yahweh will carry you away to I don’t know where…and when Ahab can’t find you, he’ll kill me” (18:12).  Obadiah reminded Elijah of his service behind the scenes:  “Wasn’t it told you what I did when Jezebel murdered the prophets of Yahweh?  How I hid a hundred of Yahweh’s prophets by fifties in a cave?” (v. 13).

Elijah reassured him.  “As Yahweh of hosts lives, before whom I stand, I will surely show myself to Ahab today” (v. 15).  Meekly, Obadiah went to find Ahab and deliver the message.

The Fanatic and the Compromiser?

As James Jordan has pointed out, it would have been easy for these two men of God to misunderstand each other.  Obadiah could have seen Elijah as a troublemaker, a fanatic, and a firebrand.  “You’ve pushed for escalation,” he might have said, “and it came.  But while you were safely in hiding, the rest of us suffered.  Jezebel murdered the faithful by the hundreds.  And if I hadn’t stepped in, she would have killed all the prophets.  God’s people would be without any spiritual leadership.  This is what comes of your fanaticism!”

Elijah, on the other hand, could have seen Obadiah as a compromiser and a coward.  He might have said, “You’ve sold out to the system.  You play it safe, cash your paycheck, and go home every night to a comfortable home.  Meanwhile, I’m standing for the truth, and it’s cost me plenty.  I’ve been on the run—exiled to the wilderness, to Gentile territory, living on bread and water.  But at least I’ve got a spiritual backbone!”

Obadiah’s Ministry

No one questions Elijah’s ministry.  We know he was obeying God’s direction at every step.  But what about Obadiah?  Was he a compromiser, a carnal believer?  Here are the charges against him:

Obadiah didn’t confront Ahab over his many sins.  He didn’t remind him of his duties as the king of God’s people.  He didn’t bear witness to the gospel, even though God had put him where he had the king’s ear.  He misappropriated royal funds.  He lied and practiced deceit.  He helped to perpetuate a government and bureaucracy that rested on idolatry and tyranny.

We can gain some perspective on Obadiah’s life by looking at the lives of others who have worked for wicked regimes.  Daniel and his three friends come quickly to mind.  Like Obadiah, they went quietly about their assigned work.  They worked to maintain Nebuchadnezzar’s empire.  They oversaw wealth and power that came to them from his brutal conquests.  And though they bore witness to God’s law and grace in very blunt terms, they did so only when God’s providence and Nebuchadnezzar’s own orders invited them to do so (Dan. 2; 3; 4; 5).

And how can we forget the Hebrew midwives who answered to Pharaoh (Ex. 1:15-21).  They refused to murder the baby boys born to Hebrew mothers.  They made up a nonsense story to cover their civil disobedience.  And God blessed them for it.

The truth is that God uses many sorts of men and women in many different roles.  Some slay tyrants while they’re sleeping (Judg. 4:21); some slip away from them by night (Matt. 2:14); some face them in open battle (Num. 21).  Some rebuke kings (Mark 6:18); some patiently bide their time at court until God gives them an opening (Neh. 1—2).  It’s a foolish pietism that takes no account of spiritual gifts, opportunities, and timing (Prov. 15:23; Eccles. 3).

The Limits of Political Office

We need to consider what Obadiah couldn’t do.  He couldn’t abolish Baal worship.  He couldn’t break Ahab’s entangling alliance with Phoenicia.  He couldn’t arrange for lower taxes.  He couldn’t even convince Ahab to care more about his people than his war-machine.  In fact, he couldn’t do much.  Most of his daily efforts actually helped to maintain Ahab’s power.  In the end, Obadiah did only one significant thing that a competent unbeliever probably wouldn’t have done.  He saved the lives of a hundred prophets.  But God approved of Obadiah.  The inspired writer says, “Now Obadiah feared Yahweh greatly” (v. 3).

There is a lesson here.  Political office has only so much to offer.  Faithful Christians who come to office shouldn’t expect to change very much.  They will quickly find themselves part of a huge and complicated system that doesn’t allow for significant innovation or reform.  This is political and bureaucratic reality.  And so it shouldn’t surprise us that Scripture never holds up political action as the primary means of religious reform or cultural transformation.

Yes, God says to His holy City, “Kings shall be thy nursing fathers, and their queens thy nursing mothers” (Isa. 49:23).  He promises that the kings of the earth will “bring their glory and honor” into the New Jerusalem (Rev. 21:24).  But He never says that the kings and queens of this world will create the City of God.  God’s City descends from heaven. It is born of God’s grace and truth (Rev. 21:2).  It brings light to the world and draws the nations and their kings to the glory of God’s salvation (Isa. 60).  Kings and politicians and bureaucrats can all play some part in the coming of the kingdom, but most of those parts will be small and routine.  A few, in time, will prove extremely important and be given critical roles.


Doubtless, Obadiah’s faith was weak in spots.  When Elijah told him to call Ahab, he hesitated and babbled a bit.  His fear even bordered on superstition and paranoia.  Yet when Elijah encouraged him with the word of God, he went.  He brought Ahab back to Elijah, the king to the prophet, and so set in motion the major confrontation between Yahweh and Baal that we find at the end of the chapter.  He may even have made the arrangements.

When Obadiah first entered Ahab’s service, he probably hoped he could do great things for God.  In the end, he did.  But they probably weren’t at all the sorts of things he had hoped to do.  Obadiah discovered very quickly the limits of his office.  He was reminded of God’s priorities—the preaching of the word, the abhorrence of idols, faithfulness in the midst of worldliness, obedience in the face of death.  He also learned that small and quiet things can make a world of difference when they have the blessing of God.

At the end of the day, God calls all of us, politicians included, to try as hard as we can at whatever it is we put our hand to do. The openings, the opportunities and the outcomes are in his hands. That assurance should be a delight to us.

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