by Hieromonk Maximos
Now it came about after these things that Naboth the Jezreelite had a vineyard which was in Jezreel beside the palace of Ahab king of Samaria. Ahab spoke to Naboth, saying, “Give me your vineyard, that I may have it for a vegetable garden because it is close beside my house, and I will give you a better vineyard than it in its place; if you like, I will give you the price of it in money.” But Naboth said to Ahab, “The LORD forbid me that I should give you the inheritance of my fathers.” So Ahab came into his house sullen and vexed because of the word which Naboth the Jezreelite had spoken to him; for he said, “I will not give you the inheritance of my fathers.” And he lay down on his bed and turned away his face and ate no food.
–1 Kings 21:1-4
I’m not really sure how old King Ahab was when he cast his covetous eyes on the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite. But his sullen depression is so childish, his reaction so puerile and immature, that I suspect it could only be the reaction of someone well into their middle age.
Yes, I know sometimes even young people get depressed. So, all too often, do the elderly. But wouldn’t the covetous eye of a young man be more likely to turn to force, perhaps violent force, to get its way? And wouldn’t the greedy man near the end of his life be just as likely to say, “Oh, to heck with it!” and move on to some other object of distraction?
The young are often buoyed up by their sense of possibility, energized by their ideals. This is so even where those ideals are corrupted toward an ideal future for themselves. And aren’t the elderly often just too weary of the fight, to enervated by the loss of the sense of what’s possible? In either case, might it not be that youth and old age would both, each for their own reasons, do something more—or less—in the face of thwarted ambition than simply lay down on a bed and turn their faces to the wall?
Perhaps it’s just that, as I’m now well into my 45th year, I’m seeing this story as a tale of middle age. I’m seeing just a little too much of myself in King Ahab!
What is it I identify with in the wretched king? One thing is that sense of injustice he wraps around himself like a blanket. In middle age a person has seen more than his or her fair share of injustice, duplicity, unfairness. The middle aged have heard plenty of lies and exaggerations, broken promises, crooked politicians, clay-footed heroes. They’re tired of being duped, afraid of being betrayed, worn by constant raids on their time, bank accounts, ideals. Decisions they thought were absolutely right turn out to have led nowhere. Explanations that used to work now seem paper thin, insubstantial, illusory.
In the middle years we begin to ask ourselves what went wrong. What went wrong with my marriage? How is it that I’m still stuck in this dead end job—or with no job at all? Why was I so loyal to my spouse, boss, child, parent, friend, church; so loyal and yet so let down?
Disillusion can lead in several directions. Ahab took one of those directions and so turned his face away from life, toward the wall. He was reduced to lusting after another man’s property. Others in the middle years turn towards other desires: another man’s wife or another woman’s husband, the body or the libido of the young, the money or the style of living of neighbors or celebrities. We’re all familiar with the notorious “midlife crisis”. There are whole industries out there to cater to it, money to be made peddling relief from the consequences of aging, failing, coping with disappointment.
But there’s another direction in which disillusionment can lead. The midlife crisis need not always be a turn toward the banal. It can also lead toward the eternal.
This is where we can contrast that other central figure in the story of King Ahab: not, of course his partner in cynicism Jezebel, but that utterly different and upright opponent the prophet Elijah. (We celebrate St. Elijah’s feast on July 20).
Elijah also knew the bitterness of the middle years. Having given himself over to the work of proclaiming God’s word, we find him in the 19th chapter of 1st Kings worn out, done in, disillusioned, lying under a juniper tree in the wilderness asking the Lord to let him die: “it is enough; now, O LORD, take my life, for I am not better than my fathers” (1 Kings 19:4).
Where Elijah differs from Ahab is not in their immediate response to the problem of disillusionment. Both fall victim to the depression that dogs the middle years. Elijah, too, has seen his share of lies and cruelty, his devotion to the Lord’s work had not been rewarded with the kind of success he expected. He ended up thwarted, hunted down and betrayed by his own physical weakness as much as by the injustice of the forces of vindictiveness.
Ahab’s great illusion was that it should always be good to be king: what the king wants the king always gets. But Elijah was also laboring under an illusion. He didn’t expect material rewards for his service, but he did expect spiritual ones, emotional ones. He didn’t expect to end up running for his life, collapsed on the burning ground under the sparse shade of a juniper bush.
Disillusion can lead us in different directions. If Ahab took the road to cynical revenge, Elijah was led up the mountain where God revealed Himself in the utterly new and unexpected way, not in the storm but in the gentle breeze (1 Kings 19:12). Then, having rediscovered God in a new way, Elijah could have a new conversation about old grievances, a new conversation open to fresh possibilities:
Elijah…wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood in the entrance of the cave. And behold, a voice came to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Then he said, “I have been very zealous for the LORD, the God of hosts; for the sons of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, torn down Your altars and killed Your prophets with the sword. And I alone am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.” The LORD said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus, and when you have arrived, you shall anoint Hazael king over Aram; and Jehu the son of Nimshi you shall anoint king over Israel; and Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah you shall anoint as prophet in your place.
God called Elijah to an embrace his old vocation as prophet with renewed vigor. But central to this call was the process of stripping away old illusions, of building this new vocation firmly on the ruins of old failures.
Ahab’s midlife despair led nowhere. But Elijah’s led to heaven. The difference was the place to which each one ran in the face of disillusion: Ahab to the wall of his own ego, Elijah to the mountain of the real—not the illusory—God.