The House of Omri

The Mesha Stele is an ancient slab of basalt stone from the 9th century BC. It was named for Mesha, the king of Moab (2 Kings 3:4). This stele is actually an ancient document which records the struggles of the Moabite people at the hands of the king of Israel, Omri. After the split of the Jewish monarchy, following Solomon's reign, the northern kingdom of Israel suffered political turmoil and even civil war until Omri established his dynastic line. Most of his immediate predecessors on the throne of Israel had been short-lived. Nadab lasted no more than two years (1 Kings 15:25). Elah, likewise, only lasted two years (1 Kings 16:8). In fact, it is possible that due to the manner in which years were counted, they may have reigned only a few months. Zimri, who followed Elah, lasted a whole 7 days before he flamed out, literally (1 Kings 16:18).

But Omri was different. He reigned for 12 years. He overcame a civil war. He established a new capital in Samaria. He manufactured an important political alliance with the Phoenicians through an arranged marriage between his son Ahab and daughter-in-law Jezebel. His dynasty lasted for another 100 years. In fact, he had so established himself in the northern kingdom that an Assyrian artifact known as the Black Obelisk refers to Israel simply as the "dynasty of Omri."

This seems to be, by most accounts, a hugely successful tenure as a leader. This kind of accomplishment would be like President Ulysses S. Grant taking office after the turmoil of the Civil War and Andrew Johnson's impeachment and immediately moving the capital of the nation from Washington DC to Nashville, then turning Nashville into an impenetrable citadel and a major hub of international trade. Omri was a political, military, commercial, and cultural dynamo.

But you wouldn't get this impression from the biblical account of Omri. Dale Ralph Davis makes this great point in his commentary on 1 Kings. He notes that the writer of 1 Kings sticks to the regular formula for kings: He became king during the x-year of the other king's reign. He ruled for y-years. He did some things. He did what was evil in the sight of the LORD. He died. If you want more information look at the Chronicles of the Kings. He was followed by son. Davis then adds, "The Bible's account is as scintillating as an obituary."[1]

We shouldn't conclude that the writer of Kings was unaware of what Omri had done. He had obviously read about Omri in the Chronicles of the Kings. It wasn't a lack of knowledge, but rather the writer was making an important theological point. It wasn't that those accomplishments didn't happen, it's that they don't ultimately matter. The reason is simple. The writer's adds that Omri was the most evil of all the kings of Israel. (That is, until his son Ahab comes along and basically says, "Hold my beer." But that's another post for another day.) Omri had walked the well-worn paths of Jeroboam. And he exceeded Jeroboam, the yardstick of heterodoxy, by indulging and promoting idol worship. Omri's regency was defined not by what he accomplished in political, commercial, militaristic, or cultural areas but by his failure to make the most important thing primary.

Jesus confronts this failure when he addressed the crowd in Mark 8. After Jesus told them about his suffering, death, and resurrection that was to come, he then tells the people, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it." This instruction is challenging. Jesus forces us to immediately begin doing the math. We have to start weighing the cost of faithfulness in the most important areas versus an all-too-compelling sense of self-preservation in earthly areas. It is tempting to see the value of saving our lives, building our kingdoms, and taking care of ourselves. But Jesus cuts through this spiritual calculus by explaining, "For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world but to forfeit his soul?" (Mark 8:34-36).

By many accounts Omri had gained the world. But he had forfeited his soul. He had missed the treasure in the field. He had missed the pearl of great price (Matt. 13:44-46). He had settled on what was ultimately trivial. Is your life marked by trivial accomplishments? Ralph Davis asks the piercing question, "Do the passions that drive your living and doing only elicit a yawn from heaven?"[2] That is a sobering thought. Our lives will truly count only if we do what is right in the eyes of the LORD. Our lives will elicit the commendation from Christ, "Well done, good and faithful servant" (Matt 25:21) when we faithfully invest our lives so as to earn an eternal return. The commendation of the world will eventually fade like an obscure ancient stele. But praise of Christ lasts forever.

[1] Dale Ralph Davis, I Kings: The Wisdom and the Folly (Fearn: Christian Focus, 2016), 191.

[2] Davis, 191.