by Isaac Ewan
The Prophet, by Scottish poet Isaac Y. Ewan, retells in vivid and poignant tones the story of the courage of a lonely faithful prophet (Micaiah) and the death of a scheming corrupt monarch (Ahab). It would pay you to become familiar with the story in 1 Kings Chapter 22 to really appreciate the way in which this gripping poem captures the drama, intrigue and pathos of that fateful day in 897BC.
Robed in his radiant hues, as oft before,
O’er such fair scenes in distant days of yore,
The sun arose in silent majesty,
And from his bath of glory splashed a ray
Across Samaria. The ruddy glow
Gleamed on the turret high, the lattice low,
The silv’ry cypress and the palm tree tall,
The solitary sentry on the wall.
The sombre battlement and peaceful fold
Blushed ‘neath the kiss of dawn all red and gold;
The dauntless cactus and the rip’ning corn
Shone in the rosy splendour of the morn.
Mount Ebal grim stood in the morning light,
Stern in its barren eminence and might;
But Gerizim, in clouds of conflict drest,
An aspect bore of trouble on its breast.
Long ere a sound disturbed the city still
Of early women grinding at the mill,
Or through the night the dawn’s outriders sped,
Or easy Ahab left his royal bed
With watchful eye He saw, Who all things sees,
Th’ imprisoned prophet praying on his knees,
With hands outstretched, and look uplifted high,
A world of pleading in his mournful eye,
A wealth of grace upon his visage meek,
The tears like jewels glist’ning on his cheek.
With martial ring the rousing trumpet spoke,
And round and round the mocking echoes woke
Through answering arch and alley, till the call
Died far among the hills beyond the wall.
The city stirred, and, from its still repose,
Like drowsy giant dreamily arose,
Broke through the heavy curtains of the night
With bustling toilet in the morning light.
In festive zeal the rising murmuring grew,
The bucklers shone and broad the banners flew;
And all declared in prodigal display
Samaria would hold high holiday.
The moving crowds, commingling, paused to greet
Acquaintances in every lane and street,
And, in the shady covert of the glades,
Judea’s soldiers and Samaria’s maids
Sought in their new-found friendships light and gay
The cheap romance that withers in a day.
All inconvenient scruples they appeased,
Forgot their differences as they pleased
And raised their loud, unanimous huzzah
Jerusalem had joined Samaria;
The breach was bridged; again the two were one
To stand together as they once had done;
Jehoshaphat had graciously come down
To Ahab’s level and to Ahab’s town.
Right glad indeed to do his very best
To entertain his compromising guest
He sheep and oxen in abundance slew;
‘Twas all the complimented king could do.
But he who parts with principles for friends
Will find there fellowship with heaven ends,
And soon be left alone. Yet there are schools
Of hard experience that teaches fools.
Beflagged and cheered, before the city gate
In regal pomp and ceremonial state
The ill-assorted rulers sat enthroned
Each wore the finest royal robes he owned –
And old king Compromise his diadem:
Samaria had won Jerusalem.
Said Ahab to his guest, “Dost thou not know
That Ramoth-gilead is ours, and lo,
We take it not?” He would suggest it was
At least a righteous and religious cause;
A refuge city it in Joshua’s day.
What would the godly king of Judah say?
Jehoshaphat, although he feared he lied,
Accommodating courteously, replied,
“I am as thou art, and my people are
As thine; we will be with thee in the war.”
They hailed the word as if the thing were done,
The battle over and the vict’ry won;
As if the whole affair were carried through
And nothing but the shouting left to do.
Ahab forgot the word he had to say
To proud Benhadad on another day
“Let him not boast who girds his armour on
As he who puts it off.” The clarion
Full of the wind of vanity, was blown
To mark a triumph that would ne’er be known.
Man setting sail on seas of wishful choice
Imagines heaven obliged to hear his voice
And help his cause. He takes a fleet in tow,
With hired anticipation at the prow.
If truth the ship capsise untutored zeal
Will gravely nail its colours to the keel
And hold its course. Ahab would let them know
Jerusalem had not a braver show:
Four hundred prophets in their places stood,
Well trained in prophesying what was good,
Paraded all before Jehoshaphat;
He surely should be satisfied with that.
But no; they were too well agreed; a band
That Ahab had by far too well in hand
An easy-going, mercenary kind
That had their bread and butter in their mind.
With reverence and awe respecting well
The sustentation fund of Jezebel
They knew the work for which they had been hired.
Of them the king of Israel enquired,
“Shall we go up to Ramoth-gilead?”
To this the prophesying synod said,
“Go up, go up and prosper, for the Lord
Shall give it thee according to our word.”
‘Twas clear that prophesying was their trade
Two horns of iron, wide and strong they made
For Zedekiah son of Chenaanah.
“With these,” said he, “thou shalt push Syria
Until they be consumed.” And all could tell
One horn was Judah; one was Israel.
The king of Judah viewed the chanting throng,
And marked the motive of their ordered song
With veiled contempt. “Is there not here,” said he,
“A prophet of the Lord besides, that we
May thus enquire of Him?” With low’ring eye
And deep displeasure Ahab made reply
“There is one, but I hate him, for he will
Not prophesy a word of good, but ill.
Micaiah, son of Imlah, is his name.”
‘Twas evident that he was not the same.
“Let not the king say so,” his guest replied;
While conscience loud within protesting cried.
The irate tyrant gave his countermand,
And charged his ready officer at hand:
“Micaiah, son of Imlah quickly fetch;”
As if he summoned some unworthy wretch
Before his royal presence. As he went
On such a doubtful sort of errand sent
Respect and pity moved him for the man
Who braved the perils of the royal ban.
He to Micaiah said, “Good is the word
Of all the prophets, and with one accord;
Let thy word be like theirs, and speak thou good.”
But he the man of God misunderstood.
With fearless heart that every bribe defied
The faithful prophet of the Lord replied:
“As the Lord liveth, what my God will say,
That will I speak.” The order of the day
To him was clear and plain – to speak the word
As it became a prophet of the Lord.
The tumult ceased. A breathless silence fell
Upon the people like a mystic spell.
There was a moral challenge in the air:
A more important personage was there;
And royal robes, and thrones, and crowned kings
Appeared comparatively trivial things.
Here was no jobbing prophet of a myth;
They felt the man’s association with
The Living God; and consciences, long dead,
Awoke, and much resented things they said.
Alone for God before the kings he stood,
A lonely man against a multitude,
A rock impregnable against the tide,
With hostile elements on every side,
Immovable and still. A strength serene
His peaceful countenance and humble mien
Adorned with easy grace; as when the sun
On lofty Carmel, when the day is done,
Ere it retires, with parting emphasis,
Plants on its brow its rosy good-night kiss.
Upon his noble head was soon to fall
A long, dark night behind a prison wall;
And yet, what scintillating gems of light
And stars of truth would beautify that night!
Deep mirrored in his meditative soul,
Great recollections through his mind would roll
Of Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham,
Isaac and Jacob; of the land of Ham
Where suff’ring Joseph, by his brethren sold,
Languished, for virtue, in a dungeon cold
Till God exalted him in honour meet
And brought his brethren begging to his feet.
What beams would beautify that night as thus
He mused on Moses and the exodus,
The thunders loud that made grim Sina quake,
The trumpet and the smoke, the Voice that spake,
The trembling multitude that heard with awe
The clear enunciation of the law,
The High-priest Aaron in his wondrous dress,
The Tabernacle in the wilderness!
Such constellations, vivid and serene,
And myriad details clustering between,
And more than these, with all their bright array –
The truth that lay behind the history;
Such things would ever through his mem’ry roll,
An endless moving picture to his soul.
Ahab his limbs with iron chains could bind,
But never bolt the door upon his mind.
What though, offending even nature’s laws,
His brethren hated him without a cause?
The God of Joseph, though He now seemed dumb,
Would turn the tables when the time was come.
“Micaiah son of Imlah,” Ahab said,
“Shall we go up to Ramoth-gilead
To battle, or forbear?” In ridicule
He piped his answer like a child at school;
As did another on Mount Carmel fair,
Who mocked Baal’s pagan prophets to despair.
“Go up,” he sang, “and prosper, for the Lord
Will give it thee according to our word.”
The guilty monarch quivered to the core.
Spake not Elijah thus nine years before?
Now this bold man had at his prophets scoffed,
And that before his royal throne. “How oft
Shall I adjure thee by the Lord,” said he,
“That thou say nothing but the truth to me?”
The truth to Ahab! ‘Twas a lie; forsooth,
Right small regard had Ahab for the truth.
Sentence of death upon his royal head
The prophet then pronounced as thus he said,
“I saw all Israel on every side
As sheep that have no shepherd, scattered wide.
‘These have no master,’ saith the Lord, ‘Let each
Return in peace and his own dwelling reach’.”
The wrathful king turned to Jehoshaphat
And fiercely said, “Did I not tell you that?”
Surveying both the thrones, the hirelings proud,
The mustered armies and the wond’ring crowd
Again the prophet spoke: “Hear ye the Word,
Upon His throne on high I saw the Lord
I saw the host of heav’n on His right hand
And on His left in rapt attention stand
To whom He said, ‘Who, with his own device,
Shall Ahab, king of Israel entice
To go and fall at Ramoth-gilead?’
And one said this, and that another said.
Then from the left, with cringing turpitude,
There came a subtle spirit forth and stood
Before the Lord. ‘I will entice,’ he said,
‘This man to go to Ramoth-gilead.’
‘Wherewith?’ the Lord enquired. ‘I’ll go and be
A lying spirit in the mouths,’ said he,
‘Of all his prophets.’ ‘Go; thou shalt not fail;
Thou shalt entice him, and thou shalt prevail,’
And he went forth. Therefore the Lord hath put
A lying spirit, subtle and astute
In these thy prophets’ mouths; and thus the Lord
Hath spoken ill against thee by His Word.”
Then Zedekiah rose in bitter gall
And smote him on the cheek before them all
(The smack of it was heard in highest heaven;
Such things can hardly ever be forgiven)
And said in scorn, “Which way went forth from me
The Spirit of the Lord to speak to thee?”
The smitten prophet said in answer meek,
Unruffled all in spite of tingling cheek
And open shame, “In that day thou shalt know
When to an inner chamber thou shalt go
To hide thyself.” Ahab, with anger red,
His final crime committed as he said,
“Take ye Micaiah, carry him away
To Arnon, city governor, and say,
Thus saith the king, This fellow straitly put
In prison with dishonour absolute.
On lowest prison fare let him be fed –
Affliction’s water and affliction’s bread –
Till I return in peace.” With courage high
The lonely witness made his last reply:
“If thou return at all, by me the Lord
Hath spoken not; ye people hear the word.”
They led Him, like a criminal, away
Amid the hireling prophets’ mockery
A conqueror in chains.
The war was on.
At Ahab’s word the order forth had gone.
Excitement filled the air. On every tongue
The song of battle rose. The bows were strung,
The quivers filled, the bucklers burnished bright
The steel flashed coldly in the morning light.
The banners were unfurled on every side
And stirred the martial and religious pride
Of all the tribes. The hillside near and far
Displayed the sinister array of war-
The haughty captains girded for the fray
The stern rank-marshals ready to obey
The keen-eyed archers, posted in the rear;
The strong-limbed wielders of the sword and spear;
The guilded chariots with crimson round;
The tasselled chargers pawing at the ground.
By both of Judah’s flags, and Israel’s ten,
The serried ranks of brawny, bearded men
Stood in array. Their lord, in high conceit,
Surveyed the host assembled at his feet,
Perceived in all its ordered breadth and length
The flesh and blood expression of his strength.
Yet, smitten in his guilty soul with dread,
He to the troubled king of Judah said,
“I will, disguised, give place to thee to-day
Put on thy royal robes and lead the way.”
The artful Ahab, as it served him best,
Would thus exploit his compromising guest
To save his royal skin would let him go
A decoy target for the twanging bow.
It was a great success; no Syrian eyes
Could penetrate that well assumed disguise
Though close around his chariot they trod.
It was a great success – with all but God.
The trumpet sounded, and the order shout
To march formation turned the host about.
The columns moved; the wond’ring children cheered
The thoughtful aged watched, and hoped, and feared
The tender infants, lifted up on high,
Heard war-girt fathers shout their last goodbye;
And sad-eyed women, waving to their men,
Smiled as they have so often done since then,
As sickly sunbeams struggle through the clouds
Before the lashing storm the light enshrouds;
And sometimes through the farewell shoutings came
The tender accents of a woman’s name.
At home the whole four hundred prophets stayed.
War was too rough for them. They pled and prayed
That their good prophesying would come true,
For any other thing would never do.
The ready Syrian met them on the way,
And there they set themselves in grim array.
The ghastly game began. From friends and foes
The inharmonious din of battle rose –
The clattering thud, the sudden, gasping cry
As thrusts went home and smitten men must die;
The muffled shriek; the horrid gurgling groan;
The whimper of the wounded left alone;
The hoarse, deep-throated roar, the clash of steel,
The ruthless churning of the heavy wheel;
The thunder of the hoofs; the furious dash;
The heaving, tangled heaps; the sick’ning crash.
Such were the sounds as, on the breeze’s swell,
The symphony of Cain arose and fell.
They did not take so long in battle then
To lay in death a hundred thousand men.
They simply slew and slew till they were slain
And fell with foemen on the gory plain;
Or turned their unprotected backs about
And fell the faster in the common rout.
Benhadad’s two and thirty captains bold,
The captains of his chariots, were told
To let the fight go on, but closely scan
The field of battle for a certain man.
“Fight not with small or great,” he charged them well,
Save only with the king of Israel.”
‘Twas all in vain, the keenest Syrian eyes
Failed to detect that well assumed disguise.
One Syrian captain stayed his charger’s pace,
A red-stained hoof upon a Hebrew face,
Perceived, as he supposed, the wanted king
Enclosed within a battling Syrian ring,
And urged them on but, with an honest eye,
The man in royal robes looked up on high
And cried to God. He knew then he was wrong,
And shouted to the fierce encircling throng:
“That is Judea’s king, Jehoshaphat;
The man we look for could not speak like that.
Leave off. “The savage spearmen moved away,
And thus Jehoshaphat was spared that day.
While many arrows, aimed by human skill,
May miss their mark and neither wound nor kill,
But find a harmless target in the sod,
Mark the unerring archery of God:
The sun was slowly sinking in the west,
And neither side had triumphed in the best,
When, at a venture, one man drew a bow,
And at the Hebrew host he let it go.
He aimed that shaft Who all such things appoints;
It smote king Ahab ‘twixt the harness joints.
Shall men do wrong and hide it from His sight?
Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?
The smitten king, for prestige in the fray,
Still in his dripping chariot would stay,
Until, at last, he turned him as he bled
And feebly to his faithful driver said,
“Turn thou thy hand and have me from the host,
For I am wounded sore.” Still at his post,
The royal chariot about he wheeled
And bore the dying monarch from the field.
Throughout the host a proclamation went,
“Let each man to his country and his tent
Return.” The day was lost.
As oft before,
O’er scenes like these in distant days of yore,
The sun went down in silent majesty,
And from his blood-red bath he splashed a ray
Across the battle-field. The ruddy glow
Gleamed on a mingled host in death laid low.
The tarnished buckler and the blood-stained steel;
The tattered banner and the broken wheel;
The crimsoned, unavailing coat of mail;
The dented helmet and the visage pale;
The tasselled trappings trampled in the mud;
The tangled harness and the pools of blood;
The glassy eye; the dying and the dead
Gleamed in the lurid light of sunset red.
Far at the real, his race of evil run,
Ahab went down as sank the setting sun;
Not as a king but as a captive down,
Leaving behind his kingdom and his crown;
Down to a dawnless night, without a ray,
With nothing but his sins for company.
A cold, pale moon, as if afraid to look,
Crept o’er the hills and one brief survey took,
Then hid her face behind a heavy cloud,
And left o’er all the scene a dim, grey shroud
That veiled from sight the ruin spread afar,
The sad and sick’ning aftermath of war
A dim, grey shroud from human eyes to shield
The red-beaked vultures flopping o’er the field.
The mournful wind arose, a fitful gale
That carried in its dirge the piteous wail,
The sob, the curse, the lamentable cry
Of some poor wretch who found it hard to die.
And sometimes on its laden sigh there came
The plaintive murmur of a woman’s name.
In sad Samaria the moonlight fell
On men escaped, each with a tale to tell,
Recounting to the startled, stricken crowd
That cried for news, and wept and wailed aloud,
How men had died, and where, and when, and who
And every name a note of anguish drew
From that vast choir of grief and bending low,
Grey heads went down beneath a load of woe.
Young shoulders shook with sobs, and bosoms heaved,
And bitter tears were wrung from hearts bereaved
For every tale of battle had its groan,
And every heart a sorrow of its own.
Close by Samaria’s pool, where Jezebel,
Because his heritage he would not sell,
Had Naboth stoned to death, falsely accused,
For Ahab’s sake, with Ahab’s signet used,
According to the Word, on that same spot
The soldiers washed a gory chariot
The city dogs sniffed at the clotted stains
And lapped the royal blood from Ahab’s veins.
A searching shaft of moonlight, pale and dim,
Shone through the lattice of a dungeon grim
And showed the sullen keeper of the keys
Th’ imprisoned prophet praying on his knees,
His hands outstretched, his look uplifted high,
A world of pleading in his mournful eye,
A wealth of grace upon his visage meek
The tears like jewels glistening on his cheek,
A glory round him nought on earth could hide,
Affliction’s bread and water at his side.