21. The Life and Times of Elisha the Prophet— What It Takes to Make a Prophet Weep (1 Kings 19:15-18; 2 Kings 8:7-15)
There is a very popular children’s movie entitled “Pollyanna,” which we have watched with our children (or grandchildren) several times. A lovely young girl named Pollyanna comes to live with her (grumpy) aunt, who almost precisely epitomizes the false stereotype of a “puritan.” The aunt is supposedly a devoutly religious woman, who is also quite wealthy. She therefore tends to influence the pastor of the church. His sermons are of the “fire and brimstone” type, intended to keep the congregation well aware of the wrath of God toward sin and sinners.
One day Pollyanna comes across the pastor rehearsing his upcoming sermon out in an open field (where else can you go and practice shouting?). He is working hard to produce the gestures and intonations of “prophetic rage” which will enable him to properly chastise the congregation on Sunday. Pollyanna tells this pastor that her father was also a preacher, but that he determined to preach only the “happy texts” of the Bible. This way, he and all of his hearers came away feeling so much better. The pastor decided to take Pollyanna’s advice, and eventually everyone “lives happily ever after.”
I must tell you that if a pastor determined to preach only the “happy texts,” he would not preach the text for this lesson. In 2 Kings 8:7-15, we find the prophet Elisha in Syria, where he meets with Hazael, the servant of the ailing king of Syria. What Elisha tells this servant is so terrible that it brings the prophet to tears. It is not a “happy text” at all. It is the announcement of the beginning of the reign over Syria of Hazael, a man who will bring great suffering upon the people of Israel.
As I finish manuscripting this message, I know that it will shortly find its way to the Internet, where a number of people will read it. Some will come to this message because they have done a search on a certain word, like “holocaust,” and I know that what I am about to say will make them very angry. This message is not politically correct, but I believe that it is biblically correct, and thus I must proclaim it, even though it is difficult for me and distasteful to others. Let us listen well to the words of our text, not to learn what this preacher has to say, but rather to learn what God has to say to us through His Word. And whether it is painful or not, let us determine to hear and to heed God’s truth.
(1 Kings 19:15-18)
15 The LORD said to him [Elijah], “Go back the way you came and then head for the Desert of Damascus. Go and designate Hazael to be king over Syria. 16 You must designate Jehu son of Nimshi to be king over Israel, and Elisha son of Shaphat from Abel Meholah to take your place as prophet. 17 Jehu will kill anyone who escapes Hazael’s sword, and Elisha will kill anyone who escapes Jehu’s sword. 18 I still have left in Israel 7,000 followers who have not bowed their knees to Baal and or kissed the images of him.
While our text is found is 2 Kings 8:7-15, the story really began back in 1 Kings 19:15-18, during the time of the prophet Elijah. During the reign of Ahab and his wicked wife Jezebel, Elijah had announced a drought, indicating that it would not end until he spoke the word. After winning a contest with the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel, Elijah prayed for rain. As a rainstorm was making its way from the Mediterranean Sea to Israel, Ahab was racing toward Jezreel, with Elijah running ahead of his chariot. I am certain that the prophet expected to complete his victory by giving the order to end Jezebel’s life, or at least to end her destructive hold over Ahab and Israel. Instead, Jezebel swore by her gods that she would end the prophet’s life within 24 hours.
Elijah was both angry and frightened. He was frightened by Jezebel and angry that God had not given him the victory he had expected. He fled from Jezreel, and leaving his servant behind he went into the wilderness to die. He wanted to resign from his ministry, and from life. God turned down his resignation and set out to correct his misconceptions about his ministry. God commanded Elijah to turn around and to go back the way he had come. He was first told to go to the Desert of Damascus, where he was to designate Hazael as the king over Syria. He was also to anoint Jehu as king of Israel and to appoint Elisha as the prophet who would take his place.
It seems obvious that all three of these commands are addressed to Elijah, and that he is expected to carry them out immediately. The next verses in 1 Kings19 inform us that Elijah does designate Elisha as the prophet who is to take his place. What we do not see is the carrying out of the first two commands, the command to go to Syria and designate Hazael as king of Syria, and the command to anoint Jehu as king over Israel. When we reach 2 Kings 8, we see that the very first command that God gave Elijah is finally about to be carried out by Elisha, more than 10 years later (as I estimate it) and more than 10 chapters later.
How do we explain this? Why would God give a command that would not be obeyed until much later, and by someone other than the one He had commanded? There are various ways to deal with this problem. The first (and most popular, it would seem) is to ignore it. There are others who seek to explain the problem. One commentator suggests that Elijah really did carry out each command, but only one of these events (the appointment of Elisha) is described. That hardly squares with our text in 2 Kings 8. Here, it appears that Hazael “takes over” the throne of Syria as quickly as he hears that he will be the nation’s next king, after the death of Ben Hadad.
After a fair bit of mental anguish, I think I have finally come to a reasonable explanation of these two (seemingly contradictory) texts. The command was given to Elijah, and except for the last part (the appointment of Elisha), it was not obeyed. I have suggested in an earlier message on 1 Kings 19 that Elijah disobeyed by not doing what he was told at that time. That still seems to be the case. It may also be that Elijah was in some way prevented from carrying out this command or was led to wait. Whatever the reason, I think it is safe to conclude that the first two commands of 1 Kings 19:15-16 were not carried out by Elijah, but rather by Elisha (2 Kings 8:7-15), and a prophet sent by him (2 Kings 9:1-13) a number of years later.
Of one thing I am absolutely confident—if there was a delay in carrying out these commands, it was God’s will. The reason for the delay becomes apparent a little bit later in the story. After the commands are given and Elijah appoints Elisha as his successor, we do not hear of Elijah until chapter 21.146 Ahab wants to purchase an adjoining vineyard in Jezreel that belongs to Naboth. Naboth cannot sell it, regardless of the price, since this is his family inheritance. Jezebel takes charge and sets a plot in motion that robs Naboth not only of his property but also of his reputation and his life. Ahab goes to take possession of this property, but he is met by Elijah, who declares this judgment against him and his family:
21 The LORD says, ‘Look, I am ready to bring disaster on you. I will destroy you and cut off every last male belonging to Ahab in Israel, including even the weak and incapacitated 22 I will make your dynasty like those of Jeroboam son of Nebat and Baasha son of Ahijah because you angered me and made Israel sin.’ 23 The LORD says this about Jezebel, ‘Dogs will devour Jezebel by the outer wall of Jezreel.’ 24 As for Ahab’s family, dogs will eat the ones who die in the city, and the birds of the sky will eat the ones who die in the country” (1 Kings 21:21-24).
I suspect that Elijah may have experienced a certain measure of satisfaction as he condemned Ahab and Jezebel in this way. After all, they had been his enemies; they had sought to take his life. They were the most wicked husband-wife combination that had ever ruled over Israel. But Elijah was in for a great surprise—Ahab repented:
27 When Ahab heard these words, he tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and fasted. He slept in sackcloth and walked around dejected. 28 The LORD said to Elijah the Tishbite, 29 “Have you noticed how Ahab shows remorse before me? Because he shows remorse before me, I will not bring disaster on his dynasty during his lifetime, but during the reign of his son” (1 Kings 21:27-29).
Here is the solution to our problem. God had pronounced sentence upon Ahab and Jezebel. Hazael would become the king of Syria, and Jehu would take over the throne of Israel. But this judgment was delayed in 1 Kings 19 because God intended to bring about Ahab’s repentance, which we see in chapter 21.
Do we not see the same thing occurring in the Book of Jonah? The people of Nineveh come under divine condemnation for their sins, which, in addition to idolatry, included cruelty and brutality. Jonah was commanded to go to Nineveh and to preach against this great city, but he disobeyed. This resulted in some painful consequences for Jonah (I would call it painful to nearly drown and then be swallowed by a great fish, only to be vomited out a couple of days later!). But in the end, Jonah did go to Nineveh, and he did preach the message God gave him to proclaim. The message was simple: “Forty more days and Nineveh is overturned” (Jonah 3:4). The fact is that the city was not overturned after forty days. That is what Jonah was so angry about. And the reason was simple—the people, including their king, repented (Jonah 3:5-9). When God relented (Jonah 3:10), it should have come as no surprise to Jonah, nor should it be to us:
7 “There are times, Jeremiah, when I threaten to uproot, tear down, and destroy a nation or a kingdom. 8 But if that nation that I threatened stops doing wrong, I will forgo the destruction I intended to do to it” (Jeremiah 18:7-8).
Had Elijah immediately anointed Hazael as king over Syria and Jehu as king over Israel, Ahab would not have had the opportunity to repent, and he and all of his family would soon have been put to death. The delay was divinely designed so that Ahab could repent, and so that judgment would be delayed. This is completely true to God’s character and to His Word:
22 God has every right to exercise his judgment and his power, but he also has the right to be very patient with those who are the objects of his judgment and are fit only for destruction. 23 He also has the right to pour out the riches of his glory upon those he prepared to be the objects of his mercy — 24 even upon us, whom he selected, both from the Jews and from the Gentiles (Romans 9:22-24, NLT).
8 Now, dear friends, do not let this one thing escape your notice, that a single day is like a thousand years with the Lord and a thousand years are like a single day. 9 The Lord is not slow concerning his promise, as some regard slowness, but is being patient toward you, because he does not wish for any to perish but for all to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:8-9).
Thus, two of the commands given to Elijah were not immediately carried out, because God had purposed to bring Ahab to some level of repentance, and on the basis of this repentance, He would delay judgment on his house until after his death. Who would have ever expected Ahab to repent and to be granted a delay in judgment? I believe God gave Elijah the order to anoint Hazael and Jehu in his lifetime because he did not wish him to know in advance that Ahab would repent. And apart from his repentance, the fate that God had decreed would have come in the lifetime of Elijah.
There may be one more factor involved in this delay. In 1 Kings 19:18, God informed Elijah that he was not the “only one” left in Israel.147 There were 7,000 who had “not bowed the knee to Baal.” These were people whom God would spare from His coming wrath upon Israel. But by 2 Kings 8, one is tempted to conclude that there are but a handful of faithful saints remaining. True, there was the guild of the prophets, but God had been providing for them, sometimes supernaturally, and He could continue to do so. But when the great seven-year famine is about to come upon Israel, Elisha finds it necessary to send but one woman and her household out of the country. Did God delay His judgment upon Israel until there were only a few saints left in the nation? It almost seems so.
A similar delay of the day of a king’s death is found in 2 Kings 20:1-11, where we find king Hezekiah terminally ill. The prophet Isaiah came to tell him he should prepare to die. He turned his face to the wall and prayed that God would extend his life. Isaiah had barely left the king’s presence when God commanded him to go back and to tell Hezekiah that he would be granted an additional 15 years of life. This prophecy was confirmed by God’s “turning back the clock” (literally moving the sun’s shadow backwards). And so once again, we see that something God says is going to happen soon is delayed until later, and this in response to a humble petition to God.
(2 Kings 8:7-15)
7 Elisha traveled to Damascus while Ben Hadad king of Syria was sick. The king was told, “The prophet has come here.” 8 So the king told Hazael, “Take a gift and go visit the prophet. Request from him an oracle from the LORD. Ask him, ‘Will I recover from this sickness?’
I cannot help but think of an earlier text when I read these words about Ben Hadad’s illness and his efforts to obtain a divine assessment from the God of Israel, through the prophet Elisha:
1 After Ahab died, Moab rebelled against Israel. 2 Ahaziah fell through a window lattice in his upper chamber in Samaria and was injured. He sent messengers with these orders, “Go, ask Baal Zebub, the god of Ekron, if I will survive this injury.” 3 Now the LORD’s angelic messenger told Elijah the Tishbite, “Arise and go up to meet the messengers from the king of Samaria. Say this to them: ‘You must think there is no God in Israel! That explains why you are on your way to seek an oracle from Baal Zebub the god of Ekron. 4 Therefore this is what the LORD says, “You will not leave the bed on which you lie, for you will certainly die.”’” So Elijah went on his way (2 Kings 1:1-4).
Can you imagine such a thing as this? The king of Israel is seriously ill, and rather than turn to the God of Israel, he sends messengers to consult Baal Zebub, the god of Ekron. For this he is rebuked by Elijah and told that he will die. And now, when the king of Syria is seriously ill, he sends a messenger to the prophet Elisha to consult the God of Israel. I am reminded of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 5:1, which inform those in the Corinthian church that the conduct they condone is conduct which the pagans of Corinth condemn. The king of Syria is acting like an Israelite, and the king of Israel is acting like a pagan.
The words of 2 Kings 8:7-8 are all the more amazing when you stop to recall what has already happened in this Book.148 In 1 Kings 20, Ben Hadad suffered two devastating and humiliating defeats at the hand of Israel, through divine intervention and prophetic revelation. An unnamed prophet of God rebuked Ahab for failing to put Ben Hadad to death (1 Kings 20:35-43). In 1 Kings 22, Ben Hadad enjoys a victory over the allied armies of Israel and Judah, but only because God declared that this battle should not be waged. In 2 Kings 6:8-23, we saw how God informed Elisha of the king of Syria’s battle plans, which Elisha then conveyed to the king of Israel. Ben Hadad was repeatedly defeated and humiliated by Israel, thanks to Elisha. The king of Syria was so angry that he sent a large army to capture (and probably kill) him, but this effort failed as well.
What is it, then, which prompts Ben Hadad to inquire of God through Elisha concerning his health? A friend of mine, Marvin Ball, suggested an interesting possibility after I delivered this message. He said that when men are desperate, they seek counsel from every conceivable source, even from their adversaries. I think there is some truth in this. I am also inclined to believe that this king had taken note of what God was doing for Israel when they struggled with Syria. This king had to learn the hard way that it doesn’t pay to oppose the God of Israel.
Even more than this, I think this king had been very closely associated with Naaman in his healing from leprosy at the hand (or, more accurately, at the command) of Elisha, and in his turning to faith in the God of Israel (see 2 Kings 5:1-27). This king was probably the one who allowed Naaman to travel to Israel to seek healing at the hand of the prophet. This king of Syria may have provided the gifts that Naaman took with him to pay for his healing. He would then also be the one who wrote the letter to the king of Israel, asking him to see to it that his servant was healed. He would have been the king who leaned on Naaman’s arm as he worshipped his pagan deities (see 2 Kings 5:15-19). It is my personal opinion that Naaman openly shared his new-found faith with Ben Hadad, and when his life was at risk, he went to the only God he knew he could trust—the God of Israel. How amazing!
The Seer Sees through a Scoundrel
(2 Kings 8:9-13)
9 So Hazael went to visit him. He took along a gift, as well as 40 camel loads of all the fine things of Damascus.149 When he arrived, he stood before him and said, “Your son, Ben Hadad king of Syria, has sent me to you with this question, ‘Will I recover from this sickness?’” 10 Elisha said to him, “Go and tell him, ‘You will surely recover,’ but the LORD has revealed to me that he will surely die.” 11 He just stared at him until Hazael became uncomfortable. Then the prophet started crying. 12 Hazael asked, “Why are you crying, my master?” He replied, “Because I know the trouble you will cause the Israelites. You will set fire to their fortresses, kill their young men with the sword, smash their children to bits, and rip open their pregnant women.” 13 Hazael said, “How could your servant, who is as insignificant as a dog, accomplish this great military victory?” Elisha answered, “The LORD has revealed to me that you will be the king of Syria.
The king of Syria sends his messenger, Hazael, with abundant gifts—40 camel loads of gifts.150 He instructs Hazael to refer to him as Elisha’s “son,” a term indicating deference and submission to Elisha. No order to heal the king is issued, but rather a humble request is made. I have to admit that I am surprised and favorably impressed. Oh, that Joram, king of Israel, had acted in this fashion.
Hazael is the servant of Ben Hadad, the king of Syria. He faithfully conveyed the king’s question to the prophet: “Will I recover from this sickness?” It is Elisha’s answer that perplexes some readers: “Go and tell him, ‘You will surely recover,’ but the LORD has revealed to me that he will surely die” (verse 10). Surely it would be wrong for a prophet of God to lie. Why, then, does Elisha send the king of Syria the message that he will recover, when he tells Hazael that the king will die?
The king’s question was very specific: “Will I recover from this sickness?” The answer to this question is simple and specific as well: “No!” Ben Hadad did not die of his malady; he was murdered. His servant, Hazael, suffocated him. Elisha’s words were completely true, though they did not tell the king all that he would have wished to know. Elisha the prophet did not lie to the king, but neither did he inform the king concerning all that was going to happen. This is because the time for judgment upon Israel had come.
While Elisha gives Hazael a very specific answer to convey to the king, he also informs this messenger that the king is going to die. But Elisha does not reveal to Hazael how the king is going to die. The author of this account tells us that Elisha stared into the eyes of Hazael until he could no longer look at the prophet. What went on in this non-verbal communication? We are not told, but I think it is safe to say that Hazael felt that Elisha was looking deep into his soul. I think he knew that Elisha knew how the king was going to die. The secret thoughts of Hazael’s heart were surely known to God, and I believe to Elisha as well. No wonder he could no longer look at the prophet. As a number of translations render it, he was too ashamed to do so.151
What an unusual experience this must have been for Hazael! I suspect that this fellow has already purposed in his heart to do away with the king and attempt to take his place on the throne. I think he feared that Elisha also knew this, as the prophet’s eyes pierced to his very soul. He carries out his last mission as Ben Hadad’s servant, with his own ambitions and plans. But when he comes face to face with Elisha, he must have felt like Judas in the upper room, when Jesus made it clear to him that He knew what he was about to do. Then, at the very moment when Hazael would like to have run from the presence of the prophet, he sees the demeanor of the prophet completely change. He begins to weep. Hazael is mystified. Why is the prophet weeping? Elisha tells Hazael that he knows the terrible things he will do to the people of Israel. He will not only prevail over Israel in battle, he will destroy places and people with savagery. He will burn down fortresses, kill men with the sword, smash children to bits, and rip open pregnant women (verse 12).
I sense a difference between Elijah and Elisha here. Elijah was frustrated and just plain tired of Israel’s stubborn unbelief (not unlike Moses, when he smote the rock with his staff—Numbers 20:11). He wanted to quit, and he wanted God to give up on Israel as well (see Romans 11:2). Not so with Elisha. This prophet greatly agonizes over the suffering that is to come on the people of Israel, because of their sins. Elijah whined and sought to resign; Elisha weeps and perseveres. There is no question but what Israel deserved what was coming. God had patiently warned and chastened His people, but to no avail. Now, the time for judgment has come. Nevertheless, this judgment causes Elisha great sorrow.
Hazael’s response to Elisha’s explanation for his tears is completely true to his character. Some have tried to minimize his cruelty as you can see when you compare these two translations of verse 13:
“‘But what is your servant?’ Hazael said. ‘How could this dog achieve anything so great?’ ‘In a vision from Yahweh,’ Elisha replied, ‘I have seen you king of Aram’” (NJB, emphasis mine).
So Hazael said, “But what is your servant — a dog, that he should do this gross thing?” And Elisha answered, “The LORD has shown me that you will become king over Syria” (NKJ).
The New King James Version renders the word “great” as “gross.” In other words, they are suggesting that Hazael is horrified by the conduct Elisha has described, and thus he objects that he would be a dog to do such things. This “benevolent” portrayal of Hazael simply does not square with the facts. Hazael is a cruel and violent man. Elisha’s prophecy is not a shockingly evil possibility to Hazael; it is a description of greatness and success. He does not say, “How could I do such a wicked thing?” He asks rather, “Who am I to be able to accomplish such a great thing?” Elisha explains that he will be able to do these things because he is going to become the king of Syria.
I don’t think we can appreciate the delicate nature of this dialogue. Elisha does answer Ben Hadad’s question honestly, because his death will not be the result of his illness. Had Hazael not suffocated the king, he would have recovered from his illness. Elisha tells Hazael more than does Ben Hadad. He tells Hazael two additional facts: (1) the king will die and, (2) Hazael will become king in his place. But Elisha does not tell Hazael everything, either. He does not tell him that he will murder Ben Hadad by smothering him with a wet cloth.
Why not? Why does Elisha hold back from telling Hazael “the whole truth”? Let me see if I can illustrate how revealing too much of the truth ahead of time can have an adverse effect. Let’s suppose I was driving down the street, and I saw a big black limousine pulled over to the curb with a flat tire. I stop my car and get out to help change the tire. Out of the back seat emerges a distinguished looking gentleman who introduces himself as Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve Board. As I am changing the tire, he confides in me that he is in a hurry to get to the airport to catch a plane to Washington, D.C., because in two days he is going to raise the prime interest rate 2%.
Let’s suppose I have just received my IRA retirement check for the year and that I am about to invest all of these funds one way or the other. Do you not think that what Alan Greenspan told me in confidence would affect the way I chose to invest that money? Of course it would! At the very least, I would not invest my funds in a way that I knew would result in great losses, because of the higher interest rates.
Now let’s suppose that Elisha told Hazael everything that was about to happen. Let’s imagine that he told Hazael he was going to return to the king, share the prophet’s response to his question, and then bring about the king’s death by suffocating him with a wet cloth. This would seem to plant in Hazael’s head the idea of killing the king and seizing the throne. It might even be distorted by Hazael to justify his wicked deeds (“After all, how could I resist God’s will?”). And then again, if Hazael realized that Elisha knew what he planned to do, he might fear that his wicked deeds would be exposed, either before or after he killed Ben Hadad. In this case, Hazael might decide not to go ahead with his plans.
As in Elisha’s response to Ben Hadad’s question, the prophet’s words are completely true and accurate, but they do not reveal everything that there is to know. Elisha planted no sinful ideas in the heart of Hazael—they were already there. All Elisha told Hazael was that the king’s illness would not kill him. If Elisha had told Hazael that Ben Hadad would have died from his illness, all Ben Hadad would have had to do is to wait for the king to die. Hazael reasoned that if Ben Hadad’s death would make him king, then why should he not hasten the king’s death? Hazael made that very dangerous leap from “the king will die and I will be king,” to “I will bring about his death, and then be king.” Elisha’s words make it clear to the reader that while Hazael’s sin was in the will of God, it was not God who prompted Hazael to sin.152
The Dastardly Deed Is Done
(2 Kings 7:14-15)
14 He left Elisha and went to his master. Ben Hadad asked him, “What did Elisha tell you?” Hazael replied, “He told me you would surely recover.” 15 The next day he took a piece of cloth, dipped it in water, and spread it over his face until he died. Then Hazael replaced him as king.
Hazael returns to the ailing Ben Hadad, who eagerly asks his servant what response the prophet gave to his question. Hazael assures the king that he will recover from his illness, and then he departs. It is interesting to me that Hazael waits until the next day to kill the king. The explanation may be as simple as the fact Hazael could not arrange to be alone with the king until the following day. The passing of time gives Hazael more time to ponder Elisha’s words and to consider his response to this situation. In my opinion, it makes him all the more culpable, as the murder of the king must be a premeditated act.
My friend, Bruce Beaty, reminded me of the contrast between David and Hazael. Samuel the prophet anointed David, and told him he would replace Saul as king of Israel (see 1 Samuel 16:1, 12-13). When it appeared that God had delivered Saul into David’s hand so that he could kill Saul, David refused to lift his hand against God’s anointed. He insisted that if God were to install him as king in Saul’s place, it would be God who removed Saul, and not David (1 Samuel 24:1-7; 26:7-11). David was the loyal servant of his master, even after his death. Hazael, on the other hand, immediately returns to take the life of Ben Hadad. He does not wait for God to remove Ben Hadad. The man who would do violence to the Israelites does not hesitate to do violence to his master.
The following day, the terrible deed is done. And with the death of Ben Hadad and the rise of Hazael to power, a new era begins:
“As Montgomery and Gehman note, Assyrian records confirm that Hazael did control Syria by 842 B.C. and that he is called ‘a son of a nobody.’ In other words, he was known as a usurper. Hazael rules from about 842 to 806 B.C. and, despite some setbacks at the hands of Assyria, manages to wield serious military influence in his region. Israel is forced to yield to him throughout his reign.”153
Our text is loaded with lessons for contemporary readers. Let me conclude by suggesting a few of them.
First, we are reminded that God’s omniscience (knowing all) includes not only everything that will happen, but also everything that could happen. God’s omniscience includes: (a) all things actual and (b) all things possible. Elisha’s response to Ben Hadad reveals what would have happened had Hazael not murdered him—he would have recovered from his illness. Elisha’s response to Hazael revealed what would happen—Ben Hadad would die. God knows everything that will happen, but in addition to this, He knows everything that would happen given any set of circumstances.
When king Saul was pursuing David, he sought refuge in the city of Keilah. David realized that Saul would seek to capture and kill him there, so he inquired of the Lord. If he remained at Keilah and Saul pressured the people to turn him over to the king, would they hand him over to Saul? The answer he was given was “Yes.” And so David fled from Keilah, and as a result, Saul turned back and gave up his pursuit. The question David asked of God was hypothetical, but God told him what would have happened, had David remained in Keilah. What a great God we serve! He knows everything that will happen in the future. In addition, He knows precisely what would happen in any given circumstance. God is never caught off guard. Whenever I find myself wishing that things had turned out differently, I must remember that God knows exactly what would have resulted if they had. It is obvious that we had best leave our future in God’s hands.
Second, we are reminded of one of the terrifying truths of the Word of God: Our sin merits God’s wrath. The anointing of Hazael as king of Syria sets into motion a series of events that manifest God’s wrath on His disobedient people. In the final chapters of the Book of Deuteronomy (chapters 28-32), Moses warned the Israelites of the judgments that would come upon them if they disregarded God and disobeyed His commandments. During the days of Elijah and Elisha, God brought various forms of adversity upon the northern kingdom of Israel, to get their attention, and to turn them from their sins. He brought various droughts and famines as well as attacks and sieges from the armies of surrounding nations. In spite of all these judgments, and the warnings issued by the prophets, Israel persisted in her sin. Though God had patiently persisted to warn His people of the consequences of their sin, they ignored His rebuke. Finally, payday has arrived.
As I recall, it was Robert G. Lee, one of the great preachers of a bygone era, who delivered the famous sermon, “Payday Someday.” Certainly we must acknowledge that it is now “payday” for Israel. Time after time, God has sought to get Israel’s attention, but no evidence of any real and lasting repentance can be found. The dark days which lay ahead for Israel are an outpouring of God’s judgment on their sin.
In a way, I wish that it all stopped there in those ancient times, but it does not. This ancient judgment also serves as a prototype of future times of judgment for Israel. Just yesterday, I received an e-mail from someone asking me to explain the meaning of this text in Hosea:
Samaria will be held guilty,
because she was rebellious against her God.
They will fall by the sword;
Their infants will be dashed to the ground,
Their pregnant women will be ripped open (Hosea 13:16, emphasis mine).
Would you not agree with me that the wording of this text in Hosea is strikingly similar to that in our own text?
Hazael asked, “Why are you crying, my master?” He replied, “Because I know the trouble you will cause the Israelites. You will set fire to their fortresses, kill their young men with the sword, smash their children to bits, and rip open their pregnant women” (2 Kings 8:12, emphasis mine).
The judgments of God in an earlier time become a warning and an example concerning God’s future judgments. Thus, God’s judgment upon Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19) contains a warning for men of all time (see Deuteronomy 29:23; 32:32; Isaiah 1:8-10; 3:8-9; 13:13-19; Jeremiah 23:14-15; Lamentations 4:1-6; Ezekiel 16:1-59; Amos 4:1-13; Matthew 10:15; 11:23-24; 2 Peter 4:4-10; Jude 1:6-7; Revelation 11:8; also see Jeremiah 49:17-18; Jeremiah 50:1ff., esp. v. 40; Zephaniah 2:9). Thus, we can expect the horrors of the days of Hazael will be repeated in the future, because Israel will continue in her unbelief and disobedience.
Here is where the really difficult part comes. The holocaust of our text in 2 Kings 8 helps us to interpret other similar holocausts in later times. In particular, I am speaking of the holocaust that took place in Germany during World War II. I would not for one moment seek to justify or minimize the horrible injustices and unthinkable acts of cruelty that took place in those death camps. But as horrible as they were, and as wicked as those who performed such atrocities were, I must interpret this holocaust in the light of Scripture. What insight does the Bible (and, more specifically our text) give us into these atrocities? The answer of Moses in the final chapters of Deuteronomy, and of the prophets who come after him, is consistent: “The Jews—the chosen people of God—will suffer terrible adversity and tribulation because they have disregarded God and His laws.” And to bring this into a broader principle that encompasses New Testament times and beyond: “God will bring terrible adversity to the Jews who reject Jesus as Israel’s promised Messiah.” Listen to the words of our Lord, as He wept over Jerusalem, as He taught about the last days, and as He made His way to the cross:
41 Now when Jesus approached and saw the city, he wept over it, 42 saying, “If you had known on this day, even you, the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. 43 For the days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and surround you and close in on you from every side. 44 They will demolish you—you and your children within you—and they will not leave within you one stone on top of another, because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God” (Luke 19:41-44).
20 “But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that her desolation has come near. 21 Then those who are in Judea must flee to the mountains. Those who are inside the city must depart. Those who are out in the country must not enter it; 22 because these are days of vengeance, to fulfill all that is written. 23 Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who nurse babies in those days! For there will be great distress on the earth and wrath against this people. 24 They will fall by the edge of the sword and be led away as captives among all nations. Jerusalem will be trampled down by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled” (Luke 21:20-24).
26 As they led him away, they seized Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the countryside, and placed the cross on him to carry it behind Jesus. 27 A great crowd of the people also followed him, among them women who were mourning and wailing for him. 28 However, Jesus turned to them and said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. 29 For take note: the days are coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are those who are barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed!’ 30 Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us!’ and to the hills, ‘Cover us!’ 31 For if they do such things when the tree’s wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?” (Luke 23:26-31)
It is certainly not politically correct to say that Jewish unbelief was in any way related to the atrocities of the holocaust. But the Bible compels us to raise the question, “Is the suffering of the Jews at the holocaust the result of sin, for which God was judging His people?” I think that the answer of the Bible is “Yes.” This does not justify the wickedness of those who caused the Jews to suffer, and to die. But let us learn from our text that God has promised to bring judgment upon those who refuse to obey His Word. The rejection of the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the “Living Word,” brings eternal judgment, and perhaps temporal judgment as well.
The Bible speaks of the Great Tribulation on a number of occasions. As I understand this terribly dark period of time (a time yet to come), I see that it is not only God’s judgment upon unbelievers, but God’s “wake up call” to men, urging men to repent lest they suffer His eternal wrath.
I must say one more thing about human suffering. I do not wish anyone to conclude that I believe all suffering is the direct result of sin. Unfortunately this was the view of many of the Jews in Jesus’ day, including His disciples. It was a point of view that Jesus corrected (see John 9:1-3). Dr. James Dobson has recently written a book that attempts to address the problem of human suffering entitled, When God Doesn’t Make Sense. He seeks to show that there is some suffering that is not God’s judgment for sin, but that God is using it for some higher (but not necessarily understood) reason. I agree with Dr. Dobson, and I do not wish anyone to think that I believe all suffering is the punishment of God for sin. In 1 and 2 Kings, God had prophets like Elijah and Elisha, who clearly identified Israel’s sins, and who spoke of the judgments to come, as well as God’s deliverance from judgment. In our day, we have the Scriptures, which enable us to identify some “tribulations” which are clearly divine discipline. In such cases, we dare not ignore the cause of such suffering, whether this is politically correct or not.
By the way, we read in the Scriptures about children being smashed and pregnant women being ripped open, and we recoil in horror. Is this not happening daily in the abortion clinics of our land? Where is the horror? Where is the indignation? Where is the repentance?
Elisha must proclaim the bad news to Israel, as he has been doing all along. Now, he must announce that an even greater judgment is coming upon Israel, and for a longer period. But we must carefully note his spirit in all of this. He is not angry or bitter with Israel, or with God. He proclaims the future, but with tears in his eyes, and looking Hazael squarely in the eyes, he also reveals the wickedness of Hazael’s heart and plans. We cannot avoid the doctrine of God’s righteousness and of man’s sinfulness, and the judgment that must come on sinners. It is an essential part of the gospel, and a truth to which the Holy Spirit bears witness:
7 “But I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I am going away. For if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. 8 And when he comes, he will prove the world wrong concerning sin and righteousness and judgment— 9 concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; 10 concerning righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; 11 and concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned” (John 16:7-11).
Likewise, the gospel that Paul preached dealt with sin and judgment:
24 Some days later, when Felix arrived with his wife Drusilla, who was Jewish, he sent for Paul and heard him speak about faith in Christ Jesus. 25 While Paul was discussing righteousness, self-control, and the coming judgment, Felix became frightened and said, “Go away for now, and when I have an opportunity, I will send for you” (Acts 24:24-25, emphasis mine).
Indeed, judgment is a part of the gospel message anywhere you turn in the Bible:
4 For if God did not spare the angels who sinned, but threw them into hell and locked them up in chains in utter darkness, to be kept until the judgment, 5 and if he did not spare the ancient world, but did protect Noah, a herald of righteousness, along with seven others, when God brought a flood on an ungodly world, 6 and if he turned to ashes the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah when he condemned them to destruction, having appointed them to serve as an example to future generations of the ungodly, 7 and if he rescued Lot, a righteous man in anguish over the debauched lifestyle of lawless men, 8 (for while he lived among them day after day, that righteous man was tormented in his righteous soul by the lawless deeds he saw and heard) 9 —if so, then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from their trials, and to reserve the unrighteous for punishment at the day of judgment, 10 especially those who indulge their fleshly desires and who despise authority (2 Peter 2:4-10).
3 Above all, understand this: in the last days blatant scoffers will come, being propelled by their own evil urges 3:4 and saying, “Where is his promised coming? For ever since our ancestors fell asleep, all things have continued as they were from the beginning of creation.” 5 For they deliberately suppress this fact, that by the word of God heavens existed long ago and an earth was formed from water and by water. 6 Through these things the world existing at that time was destroyed when it was deluged with water. 7 But by the same word the present heavens and earth have been reserved for fire, by being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly (2 Peter 3:3-7).
7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You offspring of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Therefore produce fruit that proves your repentance; 9 and don’t think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones! 10 Even now the ax is laid at the root of the trees; and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” 11 “I baptize you with water, for repentance, but the one coming after me is more powerful than I—I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clean out his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the storehouse; but the chaff he will burn up with inextinguishable fire” (the words of John the Baptist—Matthew 3:7-12).
The gospel that we proclaim is the good news of salvation. Only one who is lost needs to be saved. Every human being is a sinner by nature, from the moment of birth, and the sins we commit condemn us. We deserve God’s eternal wrath in hell, but Jesus Christ came to this earth, lived a sinless life, and then died in the sinner’s place, bearing his guilt and punishment. The bad news is that we are all sinners, deserving an eternity in hell. The good news is that Jesus bore our punishment, and He offers His righteousness to us, so that we may spend eternity with Him in heaven. Will you receive this gift of salvation by trusting in Jesus Christ as the One who died in your place? If so, He has borne your judgment. If not, you must bear the guilt and judgment for your sins for all eternity. That, my friend, is the truth, God’s truth, and I hope with all my heart that you believe it and receive God’s gift of salvation.
This text teaches me another very important lesson: God has many instruments available, with which He can bring judgment upon sinful men, and thus He does not need us to execute retribution. Do you remember this text in Romans, where Paul quotes from Proverbs?
12 Rejoice in hope, endure in suffering, persist in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints, pursue hospitality. 14 Bless those who persecute you, bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty but associate with the lowly. Do not be conceited. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil; consider what is good before all people. 18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all people. 19 Do not avenge yourselves, dear friends, but give place to God’s wrath, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. 20 Rather, if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in doing this you will be heaping burning coals on his head. 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (Romans 12:12-21).
When God determines that it is time for judgment to come upon His people, He often uses the heathen to accomplish it. There are those like Hazael who take pleasure in causing pain for others. The same will be true for the Assyrians and the Babylonians. God does not need or ask His saints to bring about retribution. Unfortunately, some professing Christians look upon themselves as God’s instruments for the punishment of the wicked. Bombing abortion clinics and shooting abortionists is not our calling. We are to leave retribution to God. I think that those who are angry and looking for an excuse to strike out at their enemies ought to think twice, based not only upon this text, but many others as well.
Our text also informs me that God is as purposeful in what He conceals as He is in what He reveals. God revealed to Elisha that there would be a famine in Israel, and thus Elisha instructed the Shunammite to take her household out of the country for this period of time. But God did not reveal to Elisha why this woman was so eager to come to him at Mount Carmel (see 2 Kings 4:27). God has a purpose for what He reveals. He also has a purpose for what He conceals. Let us learn to trust Him, in both the revealing and the concealing of His plans and purposes.
Finally, let me say a word to some who might be angry at the realization that God is a righteous God who does execute judgment upon sinful men. Does the thought of Israel’s suffering trouble you? It should. It troubled Elisha as well. But let us not be angry at God for His judgment, as though judgment were unbecoming to God. A holy and righteous God who does not deal with sin and with sinners would not be holy and righteous.
But let me point out also that those who hate divine judgment do not love its counterpart—grace. Stop and think about this for a moment. Do you recall the story of Jonah, and how God commanded him to preach a message of judgment to the Ninevites? Jonah was not angry with God because He instructed him to preach judgment; Jonah was angry because God was gracious to the sinful Ninevites who repented. Isn’t this what the story of the prodigal son is all about (Luke 15:11-32)? Many who say they are opposed to God’s judgment on sinners are the first to protest when God is gracious to sinners. In our text, God showed grace to Ahab, the most wicked king who had ever reigned over Israel. Many don’t like that. If God were to have saved Adolph Hitler, and we knew that he was in heaven today, the protesters would be many.
Those who are self-righteous don’t like divine judgment, because it is too harsh. They think God should give them more credit for their efforts. But neither do they like salvation by grace, because they object that it is too easy. They don’t want charity for themselves, and they most certainly do not want it for the unworthy. Let’s face it, lost sinners just don’t want to agree with God about anything. They don’t want His “interference” in judgment, and they don’t want His “charity” in grace. Those who have experienced the forgiveness of sins, and who look forward to eternity in His presence, should rejoice in His wrath and in His mercy.
150 One commentator has suggested that these camels were not heavily loaded, and that the king’s “gift” was made to look greater than it was by distributing his gifts among these camels. I am not inclined to agree with this suggestion. The king of Syria, more than any other pagan king, would know by now that you can’t fool a prophet of God. He would not wish to be perceived as a deceiver or a tight-fisted giver at this moment in time. Remember, he feared for his life. You don’t insult the person whom you believe to hold the power of life and death.
152 I must confess that in my own mind I believe that Hazael had already purposed to kill Ben Hadad and seize his throne. I think he went to consult Elisha in feigned obedience to the king, just in case there was an outside chance that Elisha might pronounce the death sentence on Ben Hadad. This, in my opinion, is why Hazael could not stand to lock eyes with the prophet. Elisha seemed to look into his soul, and to let this violent usurper know that he knew what Hazael planned to do. The prophet certainly knew what he would do to the people of Israel.
Related Topics: Character Study