Christian Articles Archive

The Paradox of Voluntary Slavery

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson

William Blake, 'Urizen in Chains,' Plate 20 from The First Book of Urizen (1794). Department of Prints & Drawings, The British Museum.
William Blake, "Urizen in Chains," Plate 20 from The First Book of Urizen (1794). Department of Prints & Drawings, The British Museum.

The Prophet Elijah says a very strange thing to King Ahab (who was married to Queen Jezebel):

"You have sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the LORD." (1 Kings 21:20).[1]

What does he mean -- sell yourself? In ancient times, you might sell merchandise, crops, and land. But you could also voluntarily sell yourself as a slave to pay your debts.[2] Ahab "sells himself to do evil" when he embraces Jezebel's Baal worship, but it comes at a cost -- and Ahab does not escape the final consequences of his evil.

We have similar idioms in modern English.

  • "Selling one's soul to the devil," comes from European folklore, made popular by Christopher Marlow's play "Doctor Faustus" (about 1590), who makes a bargain with the devil.
  • A congressman "sells out" when he compromises his principles so he can get his own legislation passed, be reelected, or refrain from acting properly to avoid offending a powerful patron.
  • "I sold my soul to the company store," is a line from the Merle Travis song, "Sixteen Tons" (1946) about getting into debt you'll never be able to repay.[3]


Selling oneself is a transactional concept. You do something that helps you now, but there is a cost to that decision. You do something crooked that makes you rich or helps you avoid taxes, but you lose something much more precious -- your integrity and righteousness. When you sell your soul, you sell yourself. You end up belonging to another. You are now enslaved, no longer free, forced to do another's bidding. Ahab (in our text) gambles by selling himself and loses big time.


This concept of enslavement by sin is found throughout the New Testament. Jesus says,

"Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin." (John 8:34)

Paul agrees.

"Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?" (Romans 6:16)

Peter says,

"Whatever overcomes a person, to that he is enslaved." (2 Peter 2:19b)

Even those on the edges of the Christian faith, perhaps believers, can fall into "the snare of the devil, being captured by him to do his will" (2 Timothy 2:26).

The Patient Predator

Sometimes we underestimate the power of sin, and so we dabble in things that we know are wrong, being so naïve as to believe that there is no real cost, no downside to sinning so long as we don't get caught. We imagine that sin can't overpower a child of God.

God describes sin to Cain as a patient predator.

"Sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it." (Genesis 4:7)

The idea here seems to be of a lion lying in wait, "lurking" (NRSV) just outside your door, waiting for you to let it in.[4] Lions were loose in the land of Israel, dangerous to both man and beast. Peter says, "Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour" (1 Peter 5:8).

Sin deceives. It doesn't look that bad. Just a little won't hurt you. But sin corrupts your soul. Peter says that sin "wages war against your soul" (1 Peter 2:11). Sin takes you onto the wrong path, the wide path that leads to destruction. Satan, disguises himself, but his real nature is as a thief who "comes only to steal and kill and destroy" (John 10:10a).

The Kinsman-Redeemer

But sin doesn't have the final word, nor do we. Jesus does.

In the Old Testament, a close relative could redeem a relative who had become enslaved because of debt. This kinsman-redeemer could reclaim family property that had been sold. The kinsman-redeemer could pay a debt on behalf of his family members. In the Book of Ruth, Boaz is an example of such a kinsman-redeemer.

Jesus is our Kinsman-Redeemer. He humbles himself to become a man, born to a virgin in an obscure town in the hills of Judah (Philippians 2:6-8). And becoming a man, he becomes like us -- one of the human race. Yes, he is the Son of God, but he is also our Kinsman, our Brother.

"He had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people." (Hebrews 2:17)

The Ransom or Slave Price

But the cost to redeem us from our slavery is exceedingly great. The Greek word group lytroō relates to paying a ransom, especially for the manumission or freeing of slaves.[5]

"You were ransomed ... not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot." (1 Peter 1:18-19)

Jesus himself said,

"The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." (Mark 10:45)

You may have gotten yourself enslaved by dabbling with sin. Or maybe you were enslaved because the enemy who took advantage of you, capturing a weak and unsuspecting victim, and reduced you to fear, addiction, hopelessness -- to the place where you think you'll never be free again.

I have good news. The jailer is coming back to your cell, unlocking the door.

"You're free to go."

"How? Why?" you ask.

"Oh, someone came and paid your fine, made your bail. We can't hold you any longer."

"Who was it ?"

"He says he is your brother."

You walk down the hall, and there he is waiting for you. And together you and Jesus walk out of that jail, that place of slavery


You have been tempted. Perhaps you have "sold yourself to do evil," like Ahab, I don't know. But now you are free! Jesus your Kinsman-Redeemer frees you!

Yes, you goof up. You may be tempted to ditch Jesus from time to time, and disappear for a few hours or a few days. But you know that this only leads to a renewal of your slavery. So you learn walk with Jesus at his pace. You know that by yourself, you're vulnerable, but with him at your side, you stay free.

We are freed because Jesus paid for our sins through his death on the cross on our behalf. But we stay free by walking with him.

"If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free."[6] (John 8:31-32)

The word "abide" (Greek menō) is key to our understanding of this verse. It is variously translated "abide" (ESV), "continue" (NRSV, KJV), and "hold to" (NIV). The root idea is "remain, stay."[7]

God Our Fortress

God is our Shield, according to the Psalmist. He is our Fortress, our Hiding Place. By ourselves we are weak, vulnerable, subject to constant attack. But when stay or abide with Jesus, when we hang out with him we are safe. He is our Redeemer and Defender. And in him we find joy and peace.

Friend, if you've never asked Jesus to forgive your sins and be your Savior -- the one who saves or rescues you -- then now is the time. But if you know him, and have strayed outside the Fortress and have been wounded by sin, even taken prisoner again, call out to him, and he'll gladly rescue you afresh. He's already paid to set you free from slavery. He'll reassert that he has redeemed you, and you'll be free again.

Now, with Jesus at your side on this journey, he'll help you walk free. From one former slave to another, that, truly, is Good News!

[1] The phrase occurs elsewhere in both 1 Kings 21:25 and 2 Kings 17:17.

[2] The Hebrew word mākar used here means "to sell." It can also be used figuratively to mean "give oneself up to." William L. Holladay, A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, based on the Lexical work of Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans / Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1988), pp. 194-195; also in R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer, Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke, Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament ("TWOT"; Moody Press, 1980), #1194). The Lord sold his people into the power of their enemies when he became displeased with them (Deuteronomy 32:30; 28:68; Psalm 44:12; Isaiah 50:1; Ezekiel 30:12).

[3] "Sixteen Tons" (1946) by Merle Travis, was also recorded by Tennessee Ernie Ford (1955) and others.

[4] "Crouching" (ESV, NIV), "lurking" (NRSV), "lieth" (KJV) is the Qal stem of rābaṣ, "to lie down," used of people, domestic animals, birds, as well as predators (Genesis 49:9) (William White, TWOT #2109).

[5] "Ransomed" in 1 Peter 1:18 is the Aorist passive of the verb lytroō, initially, "to free by paying a ransom, redeem" (BDAG 606, 1b). "Ransom" in Mark 10:45 is the noun lytron, "price of release, ransom (especially also the ransom money for the manumission of slaves)" (Walter Bauer and Frederick William Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature ("BDAG"; Third Edition; based on previous English editions by W.F. Arndt, F.W. Gingrich, and F.W. Danker; University of Chicago Press, 1957, 1979, 2000), 605).

[6] "Set you free" (ESV, NIV), "make you free" (NRSV, KJV) is eleutheroō, "to cause someone to be freed from domination, free, set free" (BDAG 31).

[7] Menō, "remain, stay," To continue in the same realm or sphere (BDAG 631, 1aβ).

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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