For historians of the ancient Near East, the area we call the Middle East, the Battle of Qarqar is one of the most famous battles in ancient history. A group of eleven kings in an alliance, including King Hadadezer (known as King Ben-Hadad in the Bible) of Damascus and King Ahab of Israel, two famous people in the Bible, stopped an Assyrian invasion in the area that is now known as Syria. Not only does the Assyrian stele (or stone tablet) mention King Ahab as a powerful ruler, but it also marks the first time the Arabs are mentioned by name in world history. This is a famous battle including biblical people, and yet the battle is mentioned nowhere in scripture.
Why is this? Why is such a famous battle, with a massive alliance of nations opposing the evil king of Assyria not mentioned at all in the Bible? What lessons does the Bible’s silence about this battle give for us today? What can we learn about the Bible’s silence about this bloody and large battlefield, where tens of thousands of troops fought and died in a war that the Bible is not concerned with at all? It is those lessons that I wish to discuss today as we discuss the Battle of Qarqar.
The Battle of Aphek
As I have mentioned, the Bible does not refer to the Battle of Qarqar at all. But it does refer to another battle, lost to history outside of the Bible, called the Battle of Aphek. In this battle the same Syrian forces that were seeking to oppose the Assyrians were trying to take over Israel. We will begin the story of the Battle of Aphek in 1 Kings 20:23-30. Here Israel defeated the first attempted Syrian invasion in a siege of Israel’s capital, Samaria, and the Syrians are trying again. 1 Kings 20:23-30 reads: “Then the servants of the king of Syria said to him, “Their gods are gods of the hills. Therefore they were stronger than we; but if we fight against them in the plain, surely we will be stronger than they. So do this thing; Dismiss the kings, each from his position, and put captains in their places; and you shall muster an army like the one you have lost, horse for horse and chariot for chariot. Then we will fight against them in the plain; surely we will be stronger than they.” And he listened to their voice and did so. So it was, in the spring of the year, that Ben-Hadad mustered the Syrians and went up to Aphek to fight against Israel. And the children of Israel were mustered and given provisions, and they went against them. Now the children of Israel encamped before them like two little flocks of goats, while the Syrians filled the countryside. Then a man of God came and spoke to the king of Israel and said, “Thus says the Lord: ‘Because the Syrians have said, “The Lord is God of the hills, but He is not God of the valleys,” therefore I will deliver all this great multitude into your hand, and you shall know that I am the Lord.’ “ And they encamped opposite each other for seven days. So it was that on the seventh day the battle was joined; and the children of Israel killed one hundred thousand foot soldiers of the Syrians in one day. But the rest fled to Aphek, into the city; then a wall fell on twenty-seven thousand of the men who were left. And Ben-Hadad fled and went into the city, into an inner chamber.”
The Assyrian records of the Battle of Qarqar list an army of more than 50,000 people led by Syria and Israel against their own forces. Here the Bible lists an army of more than 100,000 people against Israel from those same Syrian forces. These are not unrealistic numbers, even if they represent close to the largest forces possible that these areas could muster into war given the technology and agriculture and transportation of the time. The battles of the ancient world in the Middle East involved large armies fighting for control of other nations and the trade routes that ran through them. In addition, Syria and Israel were being taught a lesson by God about God’s rule over the entire earth, the hills as well as the plains, since Syria had blasphemed God by claiming that the Eternal only ruled over the hill country of central Israel and not the plains of the Jordan River. Obviously, if God is ruler over the entire world, then surely He is God over more than just the little area of Israel. So, why does the Battle of Aphek receive biblical attention while the Battle of Qarqar doesn’t even get mentioned at all? I want you to think about this question, because it has powerful implications for our own lives and plans.
A Foolish Alliance
One would think that after Israel had won such a victory, with the command by God to destroy the whole army that had opposed them, and they had their enemies trapped in a city where the walls had just fallen down on them that Israel would be able to obey God’s command and destroy those who had blasphemed God as merely the ruler of the hills, especially on a victory that appears to have taken place on the Sabbath, on the seventh day that the armies had faced each other. But sadly, that was not the case. We read in 1 Kings 20:31-34 that Ahab and Ben-Hadad made a treaty, instead of Ahab destroying King Ben-Hadad of Syria as he had been commanded to do. 1 Kings 20:31-34 reads as follows: “Then his [Ben-Hadad’s] servants said to him, “Look now, we have heard that the kings of the house of Israel are merciful kings. Please, let us put sackcloth around our waists and ropes around our heads, and go out to the king of Israel; perhaps he will spare your life.” So they wore sackcloth around their waists and put ropes around their heads, and came to the king of Israel and said, “Your servant Ben-Hadad says, ‘Please let me live; “ And he said, “Is he still alive? He is my brother.” Now the men were watching closely to see whether any sign of mercy would come from him; and they quickly grasped at this word and said to him, “Your brother Ben-Hadad,” So he said, “Go, bring him.” Then Ben-Hadad came out to him; and he had him come up into the chariot. So Ben-Hadad said to him, “The cities which your father took from your father I will restore; and you may set up marketplaces for yourself in Damascus, as my father did in Samaria.” Then Ahab said, “I will send you away with this treaty.” So he made a treaty with him and sent him away.”
The leaders of Israel have a bad reputation for being too merciful. There is nothing wrong with mercy, and we all need God’s mercy toward us, but when God pronounces judgment on a person or a nation, as He did against Syria, it is our job to enforce that judgment. There is a time for mercy and kindness when the guilty show puppy dog faces and make big eyes and beg for mercy out of sincere repentance, and there is a time to be harsh and strict. King Ahab, like many leaders of Israel, didn’t know the proper time to be harsh against evil. As a result, he allowed himself to be manipulated by the Syrian snakes who were looking to escape judgment for their own sins after having blasphemed God. We ought to learn a lesson that puppy dog faces and pouting does not absolve one of proper punishment.
What is it that Ahab did that was so wrong? He failed to remember that God had placed both Syria and its king under judgment, and instead made a treaty with Ben-Hadad, for a few cities to be returned and a free trade agreement and an equal alliance as brothers against common enemies. Instead, God had to use Assyria to judge both Syria and Israel for their sins, rather than Israel being fit to judge on God’s behalf. And it was during this brief time while Israel and Syria were allied that the Battle of Qarqar took place. Soon after the battle Syria and Israel were at war once again, and their alliance as brethren was forgotten. After Qarqar Israel and Syria did not fight together in the next few years of Assyria’s war against Syria, and Ahab ended up dying not too long afterward in fighting against Syria.
Your Life Shall Go For His Life
Was God displeased at the alliance and treaty of Ahab? Absolutely. And He made His displeasure plain, as we read in 1 Kings 20:35-43. 1 Kings 20:35-43 reads: “Now a certain man of the sons of the prophets said to his neighbor by the word of the Lord, “Strike me, please.” And the man refused to strike him. The he said to him, “Because you have not obeyed the voice of the Lord, surely, as soon as you depart from me, a lion shall kill you.” And as soon as he left him, a lion found him and killed him. And he found another man, and said, “Strike me, please.” So the man struck him, inflicting a wound. Then the prophet departed and waited for the king by the road, and disguised himself with a bandage over his eyes. Now as the king passed by, he cried out to the king and said, “Your servant went out into the midst of the battle; and there, a man came and brought a man to me, and said, ‘Guard this man; if by any means he is missing, your life shall be for his life, or else you shall pay me a talent of silver.’ While your servant was busy here and there, he was gone.” Then the king of Israel said to him, “So shall your judgment be; you yourself have decided it.” And he hastened to take the bandage away from his eyes; and the king of Israel recognized him as one of the prophets. Then he said to him, “Thus says the Lord: ‘Because you have let slip out of your hand a man whom I appointed to utter destruction, therefore your life shall go for his life, and your people for his people.’ “ So the king of Israel went to his house sullen and displeased, and came to Samaria.”
Here we see God using an object lesson from a prophet to give a message of judgment to a wicked king. God often has had prophets give stories, like the story about a lamb that the prophet Nathan told to King David, as a way of pronouncing judgment indirectly, so that the wicked king would condemn himself. And so it was here. King Ahab, who was a very wicked king himself, had been promised a victory by God Himself because of the blasphemy of King Ben-Hadad of Syria. And yet instead of achieving that victory, Ahab preferred a free trade agreement and an alliance with King Ben-Hadad, and so God promised that it would be life for life. And so it was. Not long after that, after the Battle of Qarqar, Syria and Israel started fighting again, and this time, Ahab was killed by Syria despite a divine warning that he was going to his death. Not too long after that, Elisha anointed King Hazael to kill King Ben-Hadad and take over the throne of Syria for himself. Thus both men died by divine command. God took the actions of Ahab and Ben-Hadad very seriously, and both of them died as a result of their flagrant disobedience of God, in preferring the alliances of men to a covenant with God.
The Relevance Of The Battle Of Qarqar
What does this mean for us? What importance does the Battle of Qarqar have for us today? After all, few here could even find the general area of the battle on a map, or name more than a couple of the armies that fought there almost 3000 years ago. Why should we care about this battle? There are a few reasons. For one, this battle was an immense battle of great interest to historians, who consider the Battle of Qarqar to be one of the most important clues in dating biblical history. This is a good enough reason for me to care about the battle, but it may not be for you.
So let us look at other reasons. Even though this battle is one of the most famous battles of ancient history, and includes several figures mentioned in the Bible, including an Assyrian king, a Syrian king, and a biblical king who has several chapters involving several battles devoted to him, God somehow did not think enough of the alliance of Ahab and Ben-Hadad to consider their alliance worth discussing. Why not? Because God had not blessed their alliance, and so it did not prosper; the allies did not win, and neither did the alliance last. In fact, both of the kings of the alliance died within a few years—and Ahab probably died within a few months of the alliance.
When God makes a command, He expects it to be obeyed. When God gives someone the task of judging sins, we cannot let our desire for popularity with others lead us into making alliances with the wicked whom God has placed under condemnation. We cannot prefer the alliances and networks of corrupt and wicked people to the blessings promised for obedience by God. In our lives we often have to face the choice of whether to seek the approval and support of mankind or follow the expressed will of God. Which do we choose? God allows us to decide for ourselves whether we value His blessings or the praise of men more. But there are consequences for our choices, as King Ahab and King Ben-Hadad both found out unpleasantly. May we profit from their example.