Transition of power from one leader to the next is not always easy. Years ago I was a high school teacher in a state prison. I taught there the summer between my first and second year of seminary. At the end of the summer the full-time teacher who was to replace me came to my last class session. Someone must have given him some advice about “taking charge” because he let it be known to those inmates that he was going to be the one “in charge.” As the inmates filed out of class, one of them came up to me and whispered softly, “We’ll see.”
Just this past month, I was in Indonesia during the election of the president and vice president. You may remember that several times in 1998 there was serious rioting in that nation. The year 1998 was a very traumatic time in the history of Indonesia. If the results of the election last month had been different, things could have become very messy again. The fellow I was staying with in Jakarta left for the office the morning of the election with these words, “If you look out that window tonight and see fires burning all over the city, you’ll know that the riots have begun again.”
The section we are dealing with in 2 Kings describes the transition of power from Elijah to Elisha. While there were a number of prophets in Israel, it would seem that Elijah was the “senior prophet” of his time. After his departure, it was necessary that his successor be designated in a way that would make it clear he was the one in whom the spirit of Elijah had come to abide.
It took some doing for Elijah to be recognized and respected as God’s prophet in Israel. At the beginning of his prophetic ministry, it was necessary for him to hide out by the brook Cherith, and then at the home of a Gentile widow and her son who lived in the Sidonian town of Zarephath (1 Kings 17). At the end of his ministry, Elijah was able to travel freely about Israel, without fear of being bothered by wicked men. After all, the nation not only knew that he had called down fire on Mount Carmel, but that he had called down fire upon two groups of soldiers who had been sent to arrest him (2 Kings 1:9-12).
Elisha was with Elijah when he was taken up into heaven, accompanied by a chariot and horses of fire (2 Kings 2:11-12). A guild of prophets looked on from a distance as Elijah and Elisha crossed the Jordan River. They saw Elijah take his robe and strike the waters of the Jordan. They observed the waters of the Jordan parting so that Elijah and Elisha could cross over on dry ground. They did not witness Elijah’s incredible departure, but they realized that he was gone when Elisha returned alone. They watched as Elisha took Elijah’s robe and struck the waters of the Jordan just as Elijah had done, and then cross over on dry ground. They realized that Elisha was somehow energized by the Spirit that once had empowered Elijah.
I am inclined to believe that Elisha did not yet have the full respect that his office deserved. I say this because the prophetic guild who were in Jericho were not yet willing to accept Elisha’s word, unchallenged. They must have seen some evidence of the whirlwind that took Elijah up into heaven because they asked Elisha for permission to send out a search party to look for Elijah’s body. I don’t believe they expected to find Elijah alive. It seems their intention was to recover the prophet’s body if at all possible. They may have reasoned that if he was caught up by a whirlwind, his body must have been deposited somewhere, whether in the hills or in the valley. Elisha knew better, and he told them not to go, but they kept pressing him till he reluctantly granted them permission to conduct a search. Their mission was unsuccessful, as Elisha knew it would be. The very fact that they sought to change Elisha’s mind suggests to me that they did not yet sufficiently appreciate the power and position God had given him as Elijah’s replacement. To truly honor a prophet, one must take his words seriously. When spoken under inspiration, his words were the word of the Lord. It is my opinion that Elisha’s words were not yet taken seriously enough,99 and that the three miracles described in our text were divinely designed to accredit Elisha as Elijah’s replacement, who now possessed the office and authority of Elijah.
19 The men of the city said to Elisha, “Look, the city has a good location, as our master can see. But the water is bad and100 the land doesn’t produce crops.” 20 Elisha said, “Get me a new jar and put some salt in it.” So they got it. 21 He went out to the spring and threw the salt in. Then he said, “This is what the LORD says, ‘I have purified this water. It will no longer cause death or fail to produce crops.” 22 The water has been pure to this very day, just as Elisha prophesied.
In America, hardly anyone thinks about the water they drink. My recent trip to Indonesia reminded me of the fact that pure water is a very precious thing. During my stay abroad, I was careful not to drink water from the tap, and not even to brush my teeth with it. I would only drink bottled water in a restaurant, and I was warned to be careful about the ice as well. Although the location of the city of Jericho was ideal, the city had a serious water problem. The city was in the Jordan River valley, approximately five miles west of the Jordan River, and a few miles north of the Dead Sea.101 The land was fertile, but water was needed for drinking and for watering the crops. The city’s water supply spelled the difference between a thriving city and a wasteland. Unfortunately, the waters of the spring at Jericho were “bad” (literally, “evil”). The result was that the water was not drinkable, and the land was barren.
Elisha was told about this problem. He was not exactly asked to do something about it, but it seems those who informed him hoped he might be able to do something about it. I am reminded of the way Mary, the mother of Jesus, informed our Lord that they had run out of wine at the marriage feast in Cana of Galilee (see John 2:3). Elisha instructed them to bring him a new jar, in which salt had been placed. He took the jar of salt and went to the spring, where he proceeded to cast this salt upon the “evil” waters. He then spoke these words: “This is what the LORD says, ‘I have purified this water. It will no longer cause death or fail to produce crops” (verse 21). From that time to the day this book was written, the waters of the spring remained pure.
There are those who have sought to identify the precise problem with the water. The author of our text does not even attempt to do so. I am content to leave it at that. Some seek to explain just how the salt healed the waters. I do not think we were intended to know this, either. What we do know is that the water was “bad” and that it could not be drunk, nor could it be used to water their crops. By what appears to be a symbolic gesture (casting salt upon the waters), Elisha heals the waters of the spring. In the final analysis, it is Elisha’s word that purified the waters (literally, the waters were healed “just as Elisha said,” verse 22).
Here was a miracle that lasted, not only in terms of its essence, but in terms of its effect. The writer tells us in verse 22 that the waters remained pure up to the day the account was written. Surely this is an evidence of the hand of God and made it clear that this “healing” was indeed a miracle. I think the miracle endured in a different way. It continued to be a sign as time passed. Let me see if I can illustrate this.
Years ago when our church was newly formed, we did not yet have a building of our own. We met in a school, and later in a hotel. We observe communion every week, and so each Sunday morning Ray, my brother-in-law, would prepare the communion trays. On one particular Sunday, Ray finished preparing one tray and held it out to me to set aside so that he could pour the grape juice into the cups in the next tray. The humidity was especially low that day, which meant there was a great deal of static electricity. I had just walked some distance on the carpet, and so when I reached out to take the tray from Ray, I got a very substantial jolt of static electricity. I jumped and slopped grape juice everywhere. It was a mess, but Ray graciously helped me clean it up. Later on we were celebrating the Lord’s Table, and as communion was being observed, it happened to be Ray who brought the tray of grape juice to the row where I was seated (on the aisle). It was a most solemn moment, and Ray held out the tray, for me to take it. Then, unexpectedly, he withdrew it. He bent down and quietly whispered in my ear, “Steady, now.” Because of the way I spilled the grape juice earlier, Ray wanted to be sure I did not do it again. My earlier action had continuing results.
That is the way it must have been with the water in that spring at Jericho. Can you imagine finding that spring after a long journey, hurrying to it and taking a great gulp of water, only to spit it out in disgust? Having once drunk from these “evil” waters, one would not be so quick to try again. You would be reminded of the previous condition of this spring every time you drank from it in the future. From this day on, every time someone drank from that well, they would be reminded that these waters were once bad. And thus, it would seem to me, one would have to exercise a certain amount of faith every time you drank from this well. Would there not be the lingering thought, “I wonder if the purification of these waters is still in effect.”?
By the healing of these waters, God gave life to an entire city through His prophet, Elisha. And by the healing of these waters God was once again showing His sovereign control over His creation. Did the heathen look to their gods for rain and crops? The God of Israel is God alone. He gives water, and He gives crops, as He does here by the hand of Elisha.
23 He went up from there to Bethel. As he was traveling up the road, some young boys came out of the city and made fun of him, saying, “Go on up, baldy! Go on up, baldy!” 24 When he turned around and saw them, he called God’s judgment down on them. Two female bears103 came out of the woods and ripped 42 of the boys to pieces. 25 From there he traveled to Mount Carmel and then back to Samaria.
It’s a very simple story, really, but one that troubles many. Some people seem to read the story as though it went like this (I caution you to read carefully, forewarned that the following is not what the biblical text says, or what I understand it to mean. What follows is a description of how the critics and skeptics tend to read this text.):
Elisha made his way to Bethel. Outside town, a group of children was playing. Elisha happened to pass by. Innocently (or at least ignorantly) a child took note of the fact that the prophet was bald, and commented about this. The other children took up this theme and chanted or sang it, thinking that Elisha would see the fun in it all. The grumpy prophet did not see anything funny about this at all. Instead, he exploded in anger and pronounced a curse upon these children, so that two bears came on them and they were brutally maimed.
It was, indeed, a long, hot twenty-five mile trek from Jericho (some 1300 feet below sea level) to Bethel (which was 2,000 feet above sea level). Bethel was not just any Israelite city, either. Bethel was one of two cities that Jeroboam had designated as places of worship for the northern kingdom of Israel when Solomon’s kingdom was divided between his son Rehoboam and his enemy, Jeroboam. Jeroboam feared that these two kingdoms might be tempted to re-unite because of the one central place of worship (Jerusalem) which was located in Judah. And so Jeroboam made a bold move—he established two places of counterfeit worship in Israel. One was in Dan, at the northern edge of Israel. The other was in Bethel, at the southern edge of Israel, a mere 12 miles from Jerusalem. One of the golden calves Jeroboam had provided for Israel to worship was placed in Bethel (see 1 Kings 12). This was a very pagan place, where God and His Word were no longer revered. The disrespect which Elisha received by these young Bethel boys was typical of the attitude of the general population in Bethel toward any true prophet of God.
The term used by our author to refer to these young men is one that is quite flexible. It is used of a young child, but it can also refer to what we would call a “young man.” It is apparent to me that these are not “little boys” who accost Elisha, but “young men.” My junior high school teacher, Chet Dombroski (I can remember some things), used to call fellows like this “local toughs.” This was not a group of little boys; it was a gang of young trouble-makers. Remember, we know that 42 were injured. That means that the smallest number for this “gang” was 42, and there could have been others who were fortunate enough to escape from the bears. This could have been a very intimidating confrontation for Elisha. The “bad boys of Bethel” got what they deserved. Would they try to bully Elisha? Then let them face two mother bears and see what real intimidation feels like.
There are various explanations of the words these young men spoke to Elisha, but I think we can be certain of several things. First, these young men were both hostile and insulting to the prophet. The expression “bald head” is no compliment, but rather a most offensive insult. We do not know for sure what they meant by the words, “Go up,” either. Were they challenging Elisha to do what Elijah had just done (“Go up” into heaven?)? It’s possible, but I rather doubt it. After all, even the prophets who looked on from a distance were inclined to think that Elijah was “taken up” by a windstorm. I think the essence of what these boys were chanting was something like this: “Keep on going up that road!” In more contemporary terms, these young men were shouting for Elisha to “Get out of town!” These young men, like the rest of those who lived in Bethel, did not want Elisha around. They did not want to hear “the word of the Lord.”
Let me remind you that Elisha did not personally harm any one of these trouble-makers. Elisha pronounced a curse on them, but in and of itself, that is not an act of violence. By pronouncing a curse, he left judgment where it should be—in the hands of God. We are intended to conclude that the two she bears attacked the young men simply because Elisha pronounced a curse on them. This is true, but we must also see that it was God who brought about the judgment these young men deserved. If we do not like the judgment that was executed here, then we have a problem with God. I believe that God “tried these young men as adults” (in today’s legal language) and found them guilty. Thus He carried out their rightly-deserved punishment by means of the bears.
Before anyone gets too worked up about this incident, they should seriously consider several other biblical texts in relation to what is reported in our text:
In the Law, God warned His people that if they refused to obey Him, He would send wild animals against them, and their children:
21 “‘If you walk in hostility against me and are not willing to obey me, I will increase your affliction seven times according to your sins. 22 I will send against you the animal of the field and it will bereave you of your children, annihilate your cattle, and diminish your population, and your roads will become deserted”(Leviticus 26:21-22, emphasis mine).
Later on, God’s judgment came upon His people because they rejected and ridiculed His prophets:
15 The LORD God of their ancestors continually warned them through his messengers, for he felt compassion for his people and his dwelling place. 16 But they mocked God’s messengers, despised his warnings, and ridiculed his prophets. Finally the LORD got angry at his people and there was no one who could prevent his judgment (2 Chronicles 36:15-16).
Do we really think that God indiscriminately pours out his wrath on “innocent little children”? It was Jonah who lacked compassion toward the innocent, and God who refused to punish those who were not yet accountable for their actions (who “did not know their right hand from their left”):
10 The LORD said, “You have compassion for the plant, something that you have not worked over nor made to grow, a thing that lasted a night and perished after a night. 11 Now should not I have compassion for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than one hundred twenty thousand people who do not know their right from their left, besides many animals?” (Jonah 4:10-11, emphasis mine).
For me, the most forceful and relevant Old Testament text is this one, recorded in the first chapter of the Book of Proverbs:
8 Listen, my child, to the training of your father and do not forsake the teaching of your mother. 9 For they will be a garland of grace for your head and a pendant for your neck. 10 My child, if sinners entice you do not consent. 11 If they say, “Come with us; we are going to lie in wait for blood we are going to lie in hiding for an innocent person for no reason. 12 We will swallow them alive, like the grave, and whole, like those going down to the pit. 13 We will get all kinds of precious wealth, we will fill our houses with plunder. 14 Throw your lot in with us, and we will all have a common purse.” 15 My child, do not go in the way with them, withhold your foot from their path; 16 for their feet run to evil, and they hasten to shed blood; 17 for it is futile to spread a net in front of all the birds! 18 But these men lie in wait for their own blood, they lie in hiding for their own lives. 19 Thus is the end of all who unjustly gain profit; it takes away the life of those who get it. 20 Wisdom calls out in the street, she lifts up her voice in the plazas; 21 at the head of the noisy streets she calls, in the entrances of the gates in the city she makes her speech: 22 “How long will you simpletons love simple ways? How long will mockers delight in mockery, and fools hate knowledge? 23 If only you will respond to my rebuke, then I will pour out my spirit to you, and I will make my thoughts known to you. 4 Since I called but you refused me, I stretched out my hand but no one paid attention, 25 and you neglected all my advice and did not comply with my rebuke, 26 then I will laugh at your disaster, I will mock when what you dread comes, 27 when what you dread comes like a whirlwind, and your disaster comes like a storm, when distress and trouble come upon you. 28 Then they will call to me, but I will not answer; they will look to me, but they will not find me. 29 Because they hated knowledge and did not choose the fear of the LORD, 30 they did not comply with my advice, they spurned all my rebuke, 31 then they will eat from the fruit of their way and from their counsel they will be satisfied. 32 For the turning away of the simple will kill them, and the careless ease of fools will destroy them. 33 But the one who listens to me will live in security and be at ease from the dread of harm (Proverbs 1:8-33).
These were not innocent little boys, naively teasing a prophet in an inappropriate fashion. Elisha was not needlessly harsh, nor was God. God’s judgment was poured out on those who rebelled against God, who disobeyed His Word, and who mocked His servants, the prophets. If there was one lesson that the people of Bethel learned that day, it was that they must reverence God and His spokesmen.
1 In the eighteenth year of King Jehoshaphat’s reign over Judah, Ahab’s son Jehoram became king over Israel in Samaria; he ruled for 12 years. 2 He did evil before the LORD, but not to the same degree as his father and mother. He did remove the sacred pillar of Baal that his father had made. 3 Yet he persisted in the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, who encouraged Israel to sin; he did not turn from them.
4 Now Mesha king of Moab was a sheep-breeder. He would send as tribute to the king of Israel 100,000 male lambs and the wool of 100,000 rams. 5 When Ahab died, the king of Moab rebelled against the king of Israel. 6 At that time King Jehoram left Samaria and assembled all Israel for war. 7 He sent this message to Jehoshaphat king of Judah: “The king of Moab has rebelled against me. Will you fight with me against Moab?” Jehoshaphat replied, “I will join you in the campaign; my army and horses are at your disposal.” 8 He then asked, “Which invasion route are we going to take?” Jehoram answered, “By the road through the Desert of Edom.” 9 So the kings of Israel, Judah, and Edom set out together. They wandered around on the road for seven days and finally ran out of water for the men and animals they had with them. 10 The king of Israel said, “Oh no! Certainly the LORD has summoned these three kings so that he can hand them over to the king of Moab!” 11 Jehoshaphat asked, “Is there no prophet of the LORD here that we might seek the LORD’s direction?” One of the servants of the king of Israel answered, “Elisha son of Shapat is here; he used to be Elijah’s servant.” 12 Jehoshaphat said, “The LORD speaks through him.” So the king of Israel, Jehoshaphat, and the king of Edom went down to visit him.
13 Elisha said to the king of Israel, “Why are you here? Go to your father’s prophets or your mother’s prophets!” The king of Israel replied to him, “No, for the LORD is the one who summoned these three kings so that he can hand them over to Moab.” 14 Elisha said, “As certainly as the sovereign LORD lives (whom I serve), if I did not respect Jehoshaphat the king of Judah, I would not pay attention to you or acknowledge you.” 15 But now, get me a musician.” When the musician played, the LORD energized him, 16 and he said, “This is what the LORD says, ‘Make many cisterns in this valley,’ 17 for this is what the LORD says, ‘You will not feel any wind or see any rain, but this valley will be full of water and you and your cattle and animals will drink.’ 18 This is an easy task for the LORD; he will also hand Moab over to you. 19 You will defeat every fortified and every important city. You must chop down every productive tree, stop up all the springs, and cover all the cultivated land with stones.”
20 Sure enough, the next morning, at the time of the morning sacrifice, water came flowing down from Edom and filled the land. 21 Now all Moab had heard that the kings were attacking, so everyone old enough to fight was mustered and placed at the border. 22 When they got up early the next morning, the sun was shining on the water. To the Moabites, who were some distance away, the water looked red like blood. 23 The Moabites said, “It’s blood! The kings are totally destroyed. They have struck one another down. Now, Moab, grab the plunder!” 24 When they approached the Israelite camp, the Israelites rose up and struck down the Moabites, who then ran from them. The Israelites thoroughly defeated Moab. 25 They tore down the cities and each man threw a stone into every cultivated field until they were covered. They stopped up every spring and chopped down every productive tree. Only Kir Hareseth was left intact, but the slingers surrounded it and attacked it. 26 When the king of Moab realized he was losing the battle, he and 700 swordsmen tried to break through and attack the king of Edom, but they failed. 27 So he took his firstborn son, who was to succeed him as king, and offered him up as a burnt sacrifice on the wall. There was an outburst of divine anger against Israel, so they broke off the attack and returned to their homeland.
There are several things we need to review before we consider the “three kings” of 2 Kings 3. We need to remember that we are now in the period of the divided kingdom. The “Israel” over which Saul, David, and Solomon reigned is now two nations: the northern kingdom of Israel, and the southern kingdom of Judah. Israel will be carried off to captivity by the Assyrians; later, Judah will be carried off to Babylon by the Babylonians. Both Elijah and Elisha were prophets to the northern kingdom of Israel. At this point in Elisha’s ministry, Israel continues to be ruled by the house of Omri, or more specifically at this point in time, by Ahab’s son, Jehoram.104 Judah is still ruled by Jehoshaphat.
The story of the “three kings” is all the more perplexing in the light of 1 Kings 22:1-40. On this earlier occasion, Ahab wanted to go to war against the king of Syria in order to regain possession of Ramoth Gilead. Ahab asked Jehoshaphat to join him in this battle, and the king of Judah agreed, with almost the same words that we find in 2 Kings 3:7:
“I will support you; my army and horses are at your disposal” (1 Kings 22:4b).
“I will join you in the campaign; my army and horses are at your disposal” (2 Kings 3:7b).
In this earlier alliance with a king of Israel, Jehoshaphat is clearly set up by Ahab, who disguises himself and sends the king of Judah out to battle in his royal attire—something which nearly costs Jehoshaphat his life. God providentially intervened, however, sparing Jehoshaphat’s life, and bringing about the death of Ahab by what seemed to be a random shot (1 Kings 22:29-38).
One has to marvel that Jehoshaphat would so readily join with Jehoram, king of Israel, especially after this stinging rebuke for going into battle with Ahab:
1 When Jehoshaphat king of Judah returned home safely to Jerusalem, 2 the prophet Jehu son of Hanani confronted him and said to King Jehoshaphat: “Is it right to help the wicked and be an ally of those who oppose the LORD? Because you have done this the LORD is angry with you. 3 Nevertheless you have done some good things; you removed the Asherah poles from the land and you were determined to follow the LORD” (1 Chronicles 19:1-3).
I am inclined to wonder if the words of 2 Kings 3:1-3 may not have been a factor in Jehoshaphat’s decision to go with Jehoram:
1 In the eighteenth year of King Jehoshaphat’s reign over Judah, Ahab’s son Jehoram became king over Israel in Samaria; he ruled for 12 years. 2 He did evil before the LORD, but not to the same degree as his father and mother. He did remove the sacred pillar of Baal that his father had made. 3 Yet he persisted in the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, who encouraged Israel to sin; he did not turn from them.
We are told that Jehoram, Ahab’s son, became king (after the death of Ahaziah) and reigned for 12 years. Like Ahab his father, Jehoram was also evil. But he was not as evil as his father or his mother (Jezebel) had been. It may be that Jehoshaphat reasoned that while Jehoram was not the man he should have been, he was not as bad as he could have been, and he was surely not as bad as Ahab or Jezebel. Perhaps, then, Jehoshaphat reasoned that Jehoram was a good enough king to form an alliance with him in a time of war. After all, many of those who are our allies in a time of war are not our close associates in a time of peace. Perhaps this is why the author gives us this evaluation of Jehoram at the beginning of this account.
Ahab, king of Israel, has died, and Jehoram his son now reigns in his place. When Ahab was king, he prevailed over the surrounding nations, collecting tribute from them. Moab (located on the eastern side of the Dead Sea), ruled by king Mesha at the time, paid tribute in the form of 100,000 male lambs and the wool of (100,000) male rams. When Ahab died and Jehoram took his place, Mesha saw this as his opportunity to break away from Israelite domination and to avoid further payments of tribute.
Jehoram was not inclined to let Mesha get away with this rebellion. Not only would Israel lose the tribute Moab paid them, but other subject nations might also try to break away from Israel’s domination. And so Jehoram appealed to Jehoshaphat for help against a common enemy. Jehoram’s strategy was brilliant, or so it seemed. Now, two nations were going to join him in his battle against the Moabites. It hardly seems coincidental that Edom is also an ally of Israel and Judah in this war. I understand that Edom was subject to Judah at this time, and thus when Jehoshaphat committed Judah to this battle, he was as good as committing Edom also. How could the king of Edom say “No”?
The route of their attack further entangled Edom in this alliance. Edom and Moab were neighbors. Moab was on the eastern side of the Dead Sea, and Edom was located at the southern end of the Dead Sea, just below Moab. Rather than attack Moab by crossing the Jordan River and marching south (thereby attacking Moab’s northern border), Jehoram planned to march south, down the western side of the Dead Sea. Then the three kings and their armies would pass through Edom and attack Moab at their southern border, which was perhaps not as heavily armed. This was all Jehoram’s plan, a plan that Jehoshaphat did not devise or propose. It is a plan to which Jehoshaphat rather foolishly submitted himself, his army, and Edom as well.
It really did seem like a clever plan, and at first it appeared to be working well. The three kings and their armies marched down the western coast of the Dead Sea, intending to pass around the end of the Dead Sea, passing through the Desert of Edom. This is where things really began to go wrong. The text seems to describe their journey as though these three armies were “wandering around,” as though they had lost their way (2 Kings 3:9). We are then told that they ran out of water while still in the desert. As someone has said, “This does not bode well.” The king of Israel was one of the first to figure out that they were all in very serious trouble. He saw this as the judgment of God—the God of Israel—Who was intent upon bringing about the destruction of all three kings and their armies. How interesting that this polytheist would see these events as coming from the hand of God.
Jehoshaphat was not willing to accept Jehoram’s assessment of the situation. It was certainly a bit late, but Jehoshaphat decided it was time to seek divine guidance. He wanted this guidance from a true prophet, a “prophet of the LORD” (2 Kings 3:11). Jehoram has no one to recommend, but one of his servants does. He reports to Jehoram that Elisha, the one who formerly served Elijah, was living nearby. Jehoshaphat was certain that this prophet was one through whom the LORD spoke (3:12).
The three kings then made their way (literally “went down”) to where Elisha was staying. Elisha immediately rebuked Jehoram, asking why he had come, and instructing him to go and consult the prophets of his father (Ahab) and mother (Jezebel). This meeting is probably as distasteful to Jehoram as it is to Elisha. He would prefer to consult other prophets, except for one fact—Jehoram was convinced that Yahweh, the God of Israel, was behind this disaster, and that He alone could save them. Unpleasant as it might be, he had no alternative.
This would not have been enough to convince Elisha to come to his aid. Elisha made it very clear to Jehoram that his help would be for Jehoshaphat’s sake. The kings of Israel and Edom would be spared, but only on account of Jehoshaphat. I am reminded of the principle which Paul set down in 1 Corinthians 7:12-14:
12 To the rest I say—I, not the Lord—if a brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is happy to live with him, he should not divorce her. 13 And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is happy to live with her, she should not divorce him. 14 For the unbelieving husband is sanctified because of the wife, and the unbelieving wife because of her husband. Otherwise your children are unclean, but now they are holy (1 Corinthians 7:12-14).
This text encourages the Christian spouse not to divorce their unbelieving mate and to live with their unbelieving partner so long as they are willing to do so. The reason Paul gives is that, in some sense, the children of this marriage are “sanctified” or “set apart.” I would suggest to you that our text in 2 Kings 3 sheds some light on Paul’s words. Neither the king of Edom nor the king of Israel were saints, but in spite of this they were “blessed” because of their association with Jehoshaphat. In the same way, I believe, the unbelieving spouse and children of a “mixed marriage” (spiritually speaking) benefit from living in association with the parent who is a believer. “Second-handedly,” they experience God’s blessings on the believer, with whom they are associated.
Having decided to seek divine guidance on behalf of Jehoshaphat and his associates, Elisha asks for a musician, perhaps a harpist like David.105 While this was not the norm, music sometimes played an influential role in the realm of the spirit. This is most apparent in the life and times of David. For example, Samuel informed Saul that he would be overcome by the Spirit of God, which would indicate to others that God had empowered him to serve as their king:
3 “You should continue on from there, coming to the tall tree of Tabor. At that point three men who are going up to God at Bethel will encounter you. One of them will be carrying three kids, one of them will be carrying three round loaves of bread, and one of them will be carrying a flask of wine. 4 They will ask you how you’re doing and will give you two loaves of bread. You will accept them. 5 Afterwards you will go to Gibeah of God, where there are Philistine deputies. When you enter the city, you will meet a company of prophets coming down from the high place. They will have harps, tambourines, flutes, and lyres, and they will be prophesying. 6 Then the spirit of the LORD will rush over you, and you will prophesy with them. You will become a different person. 7 “When these signs have taken place, do whatever your hand finds to do, for God will be with you. 8 You will go down to Gilgal before me. I will come down to you to offer burnt offerings and to make peace sacrifices. You should wait for seven days, until I come to you and inform you of what you should do.” 9 As he turned to leave Samuel, God changed his thinking. All these signs happened on that very day. 10 When they arrived at Gibeah, a company of prophets was coming out to meet him. Then the spirit of God rushed on him, and he prophesied in their midst. 11 When everyone who had known him previously saw that he was prophesying with the prophets, the people all asked one another, “What on earth has happened to the son of Kish? Does even Saul belong with the prophets?” 12 A man who was from there replied, “And who is their father?” Therefore this became a proverb: “Is even Saul among the prophets?” 13 Then when he had finished prophesying, he went to the high place” (1 Samuel 10:5-13, emphasis mine).
We are also told that when Saul was troubled by an evil spirit, David’s music seemed to calm him:
And so it was that whenever the spirit from God would come on Saul, David would take his lyre and would play it with his hand. This would bring relief to Saul, and things would improve for him. The evil spirit would depart from him (1 Samuel 16:23).
The musician came as Elisha requested, and as he (or she) played, the Spirit of God [literally, the “hand of the LORD”] came upon Elisha. Elisha spoke the word of the LORD to them. They were to create cisterns or ditches in the valley where they were. This “valley” would be what we in Texas might call a “wash.” Here, it is not a constantly flowing, year-round stream or river; it is a dry river bed, where the waters would gather to run off when it rained sufficiently to produce a stream (or, in some cases, a torrent). God is assuring Jehoshaphat and the other kings that He will fill the “wash” with water, so they are to dig out small reservoirs which will contain some of the water, and thus obtain water for themselves and their animals to drink.
In some ways, it sounds as though God is saying, “Get ready, it’s going to rain!” But Elisha makes it clear that God is going to do something unusual. He is going to fill the “wash” or valley with water, but in such a way that they will not see the source of the water which God provides. They will not observe the phenomena which are normally associated with rain. They will see neither wind nor rain. Usually, if water were to be found in this wash, it would be because a storm had brought rain. This water will seemingly come from nowhere.
I believe there are several reasons for this unusual provision of water. First, I believe that God does not allow Himself to be “put in a box,” as some are inclined to do with God. Why is it that we so often try to find human explanations for His actions? When we read in the Book of Jonah that Jonah was swallowed by a great fish, and then escaped, we seem to find great comfort and assurance in reading stories about others who have been swallowed by fish and have survived. Why is this? Do we believe only the believable? I believe that whether or not anyone ever survived being swallowed by a fish before or after, Jonah did. After all, God prepared this fish. God did not wish to provide water in a normal fashion, but He chose to do it in a most unusual way. Because He is God, this is no problem to Him. God is not restricted to man’s ways, or even to man’s imaginations (1 Corinthians 2:9).
Second, God provided water for these three kings and their armies in a very unusual way in order to emphasize His ability to give them the victory over their enemies, the Moabites. That is what these words seem to mean:
“‘You will not feel any wind or see any rain, but this valley will be full of water and you and your cattle and animals will drink.’ 18 This is an easy task for the LORD; he will also hand Moab over to you. 19 You will defeat every fortified and every important city” (2 Kings 3:17b-19a).
The God who provided water “out of nowhere” is the God who will give them the victory, when there seems to be “no way” that can happen. He is the God of the impossible.
Third, the water is provided in an unusual way because it is not only the instrument of salvation for these three kings and their armies, but it is also God’s instrument of destruction for the Moabites. If the water had come from the rains, the Moabites would probably have seen this. The text would indicate that when the Moabites looked out and saw the water, they assumed that it was blood. They seem to have no idea that this could be water, because they had not observed any rainfall. They expected any water in that wash to come about normally, but God provided the water in an unusual way, a way undetected by the Moabites. Supposing that this divinely-provided water was the blood of their enemies, the Moabites reasoned that these three approaching armies had turned against one another. If this was the case, they did not need to come prepared to have a fight; they needed to come prepared for hauling freight. I can almost see them laying aside their swords and their shields to lighten the load of their chariots, or to leave their arms free to carry off the spoils. And so with this very unusual provision of water for the three kings and their armies, God put their enemies at a tremendous disadvantage. They left their fortifications and came out into the open, not fully armed (it would seem) but largely unarmed, because they wrongly supposed that their enemies were already dead.
God had made it clear that when he gave Jehoshaphat and his colleagues success, they were to totally devastate the land. They were to capture and destroy the major cities, to chop down the trees of value, to cover the land with stones, and to stop up every spring (2 Kings 3:19). In so doing, they would virtually cripple the nation of Moab for years to come. The Moabites would think twice before they made an enemy of God’s people again.
From the outset of the fighting, it was apparent that the Moabites were losing. The allied army did just as God had commanded throughout the land of Moab. Only the capital city of Moab remained, and here is where the battle got ugly. Kir Hareseth was under attack by the “slingers.” It was not just David who was highly skilled with the sling, but a number of Benjamites, and perhaps others (see Judges 20:16). I think the present day equivalent would be the “sharpshooters” who are used in very specialized situations. They were attempting to “pick off” those Moabites who made the mistake of giving these sharpshooters any target at all.
The king of Moab seemed to realize that it would only be a matter of time before the city fell. He assembled 700 of his swordsmen and made a desperate attempt to break through and attack the king of Edom—who seemed to be the weakest link in the allied army’s defenses. This did not work, and so in one final act of desperation, the king of Moab offered up his son as a burnt sacrifice on the wall of the city, in the sight of all. This seems to be an act of appeasement to his god, Chemosh, with the hope that his god would save the Moabites. The result was an outbreak of anger against Israel. There is a great deal of discussion about this anger. Was it God’s anger against Israel? Was it anger on the part of the Moabites? I cannot say for certain. But it is safe to say that this “anger” caused the allied armies to give up their fight and go home. I think we can also conclude that the war accomplished the goal of delivering Jehoshaphat and those with him and of dealing a devastating blow to the Moabites. At the same time, the way this war ended did not allow anyone to feel really good about it. We must remember Elisha’s words to the king of Israel, which indicated that he had little concern for saving this idolater, but only concern for Jehoshaphat. A foolish alliance—and perhaps a foolish war—was concluded safely, but without the usual thrill of victory.
Let us conclude this message by considering what these miracles accomplished then, and what they have to teach us now.
First of all, these miracles served to accredit Elisha as the successor of Elijah. Moses parted the Red Sea, and Joshua the Jordan river. So, too, both Elijah and Elisha parted the Jordan River. As Moses “healed” the waters of Marah (Exodus 15:22-26), so Elisha healed the waters of the spring at Jericho. Elisha is one of a line of men whom God used to save His people. It was through Elisha that God spared Jehoshaphat and the kings of Israel and Edom, along with their armies. We hear it from the lips of the servant of Jehoram, as well as from the king of Judah—“the Word of the LORD is with Elisha” (2 Kings 3:11-12).
Second, God is a saving God. God “healed” the waters of the spring at Jericho, and He provided “streams in the desert” which spared the lives of Jehoshaphat and those with him. His salvation is gracious; it is unmerited. He saved the Edomites and the Israelites, along with their kings, only because they were associated with Jehoshaphat. God saved Jehoshaphat, in spite of his foolish decision to enter into an alliance with pagans. I am reminded of this verse from the Psalms: “Yahweh looks after the simple, when I was brought low he gave me strength” (Psalm 116:6, NJB).
How grateful I am that God not only saves, but that He saves the simple! How often God has saved me from my own folly.
Third, God is a God who saves, but He is also the God who judges sin. We see God’s saving hand in our text, but we dare not overlook the incident with the “Bad boys of Bethel” and the bears, or the defeat of the Moabites. Those who reject God and who reject His Word are those who place themselves in harm’s way. God may delay His wrath, but He will not overlook sin indefinitely. The God who saves is also the God who judges.
I am reminded of Paul’s words here, calling our attention to the “kindness and harshness of God”: “Notice therefore the kindness and harshness of God—harshness toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness toward you, provided you continue in his kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off” (Romans 11:22).
God was gracious to Jehoshaphat, even though he had done something foolish. In spite of his folly, Jehoshaphat was a man who trusted in God, and thus God was kind toward him. Those who mocked Elisha also mocked his God, and because of this God dealt with them severely.
My friend, how will God deal with you? Will He deal with you severely, or with kindness? The answer to this question is determined by your response to the person and work of Jesus Christ. Your relationship to Jesus Christ determines whether you spend eternity in heaven with God, or an eternity in hell, separated from God. You and I are saved, not by any good works or merit of our own, but on the basis of our relationship to Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ died on the cross of Calvary, bearing the guilt and the penalty for our sins. Those who acknowledge their sin and who trust in Jesus Christ are promised the forgiveness of their sins and the assurance of eternal life.
When our Lord Jesus came to this earth, He came as God’s final messenger, exposing our sin, suffering its guilt and punishment, and offering eternal life to those who trust in Him. If God dealt severely with those young men who mocked Elisha (as God’s messenger), how do you think He will deal with those who reject Jesus Christ as His final messenger?
33 “Listen to another parable: There was a landowner who planted a vineyard. He put a fence around it, dug a winepress in it, and built a watchtower. Then he rented it to tenant farmers and went on a journey. 34 When the harvest time was near, he sent his slaves to the tenants to collect his portion of the crop. 35 But the tenants seized his slaves, beat one, killed another and stoned another. 36 Then he sent other slaves, more than the first, and they treated them the same way. 37 Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 38 But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and get his inheritance!’ 39 So they seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. 40 Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 41 They said to him, “He will put those evil men to a miserable death, and he will rent the vineyard to other tenants who will give him his portion at the harvest.”
42 Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. This is from the Lord, and it is marvelous in our eyes’? 43 For this reason I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a people that will produce its fruit. 44 The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and the one on whom it falls will be crushed.” 45 When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they knew that he was speaking about them. 46 They wanted to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowds, because they regarded him as a prophet.
1 Therefore we must pay closer attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. 2 For if the message spoken through angels proved to be so firm that every violation or disobedience received its just penalty, 3 how will we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was first communicated through the Lord and was confirmed to us by those who heard him, 4 while God confirmed their witness with signs and wonders and various miracles and gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will (Hebrews 2:1-4).
It is my hope and prayer that you have given heed to our Lord and to His message. If you have trusted in Him, then you can rest assured that He will save you, and show His kindness to you.
99 Remember, too, that Elisha had served as Elijah’s servant for some period of time (2 Kings 3:11). It would take a little doing for people to think of Elisha as the “father” of the prophets, rather than as the servant of Elijah.
103 It was also near Bethel that the “young prophet” was killed by a lion (see 1 Kings 13).
104 There are actually two Jehoram’s (see 2 Kings 8:16): Jehoram, son of Ahab (sometimes also called Joram), and Jehoram, the son of Jehoshaphat. This can obviously be confusing. It is the first Jehoram (king of Israel) with whom we are dealing in our text.
105 In the NET Bible, the translator’s note on 2 Kings 3:15 reads: “The term used refers to one who plays a stringed instrument, perhaps a harp.” The NIV renders it, “bring me a harpist.”