“Towards thee I roll, thou all-destroying but unconquering whale; to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.” (Herman Melville, Moby-Dick, Chapter 135.) The interesting, and somewhat odd, comparison has often been made between Melville’s Captain Ahab and Jesus Christ. Ahab spends his life pursuing the whale, against all odds, over and around every obstacle. And Christ spends his life “pursuing” His Father, in the same way. Two men. Two ambitious, radical men. Are they so similar, after all? Might be. But I don’t think so.
“If anyone would come after me,” Jesus said, “let him deny himself, take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23) Ahab had a somewhat similar philosophy. His men, once they became his men, were expected to remain his men, no matter what the cost. They would be led through what seemed to be hell, itself, and they were expected to follow. Everything else had to be put away. The only thing that mattered now was that they follow, wherever that might happen to lead. Both men were radical men. They told people things that hadn’t been heard before. They told people things that seemed impossible. They required an almost immeasurable price: suffering and the very possible threat of death. There was no guarantee of safety, from either; only the guarantee of trouble.
But with Christ there is something that Ahab could not offer. There is comfort. It didn’t matter what the trials might be, because they would come. It didn’t matter how long, or how horrifying, the journey, because it would be worse than they could imagine. It didn’t matter if you died, even. There would always still be this inexpressibly wonderful reward. And it was a far more beautiful thing than the pathetic piece of money that Ahab used to bribe his crew. Jesus threw the tables, but Ahab threw away joy. Ahab’s quest was a quest of self-fulfillment, while Jesus was led by something outside of His own passions. The disciples weren’t following a man obsessed with revenge, rather they followed a good Prince who died to redeem His kingdom from the one who had tainted beauty and truth. This Man was, in the words of C.S. Lewis, “not safe”. But He was good. Ahab died because he was too proud to ever stop defying. Jesus died because He was humble enough to not defy at all. Ahab did not have the ability to focus on the needs of his men. He was too busy clutching at what he thought he needed. But Jesus bids us come to Him when we are weary. He knows how to give us rest. Ahab has no way to promise us anything enduring, but Christ promises everlasting peace. Jesus was not a tame man. He was wild and he was sometimes frightening. He spoke harshly to the air, the sky, the sea, and even they listened. Ahab thought he could control the sea, but he could not. And it was ultimately the sea that killed him.
Ahab, in the end, was a bitter man. He’d “strike the sun if it insulted [him],”(Chapter 36). He was bitter because he had not lived for anything outside of his own desires. “For hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee,” he screamed at the whale. For hate’s sake. That was all he had lived and suffered for. Hatred. And at the last, that sounds so terribly meaningless. “Blessed are those,” said Jesus, “Who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:10). When we live and suffer for righteousness, instead, the kingdom of heaven is ours. That’s the promise. That’s the difference. Ahab fought for hate and he failed. But Jesus fought for righteousness. And that makes the biggest, most wonderful difference in the world. Take heart. He has overcome.