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The Rebellion of the Moabites (2 Kings 3:1-12)

Introduction

Chapter three provides a series of striking contrasts between the prophet Elisha and the three kings in this story; between conditions before and after; between the plans of men and the providence of God; and between the arm of the flesh and the arm of the Lord. And, contemplating on the contrasts and events of this passage, it should remind us we do not live in a meaningless vacuum. God’s Word confronts us in the midst of our lives, on every hand, and in all we do. Our lives are never lived, not even for a moment, without implications both for the present and the future.

True godliness means taking God seriously and that means not just when we feel like it, not just when it is convenient, or only when things are getting tough and we are forced to turn to God in desperation. To take God seriously means abiding, living, thinking, speaking, deciding or choosing everything and all things by what He is and says, by the application of His divine essence, His being, and the truths of Scripture or the teachings of the Word.

Many today have a knowledge of God; they believe that He exists; they may even believe in His Son, but they just do not take Him at His word. Many play at their religious life. During the week, by their own viewpoint, priorities and language, they act as though God were not even involved. On Sunday they do their little ‘nod to God,’ but for the rest of the week it is business as usual.

In 2 Kings 3 we see varying degrees of this in the personalities seen in this story. First there is Elisha, the prophet of God, a man who always took God seriously--God and His Word was his life. Then there was Jehoshaphat, a good king, a man who generally took God seriously and sought the way of the Lord, yet at times, he too failed. Finally there was Jehoram, king of Israel, an evil king. He believed in the fact of the Lord of the Old Testament, but he never took God seriously, at least not until he got into a jam, and even then, it was only by way of expediency, a way to get out of his predicament.

Godliness (taking God seriously according to His Word) or the lack of it, is never, ever, without serious implications and results. We reap what we sow. Life is full of causes and effects. God is sovereign, but man is responsible. To a large degree, we are a product of the choices we make in our daily walk.

In the passage before us, Jehoram was faced with the rebellion of the Moabites, one of the long-standing enemies of God’s people. It was Balak, king of Moab, who years before had sought the aid of the prophet Balaam in his attempt to get God to curse Israel. Moab lay immediately across the Dead Sea from Judah, south of the transjordan tribes. David had been victorious over the Moabites and made it a vassal state, apparently allowing them to keep their own king, but under heavy tribute as a tax and to acknowledge their submission to Israel (2 Sam. 8:2; 1 Chron. 18:2). Their rebellion was not only a threat to the northern kingdom of Israel, but also to Judah. This rebellion was undoubtedly a test designed by the Lord to get Jehoram’s attention. How would Jehoram respond? Would he turn to the Lord or to the arm of the flesh, to his own solutions?

The lessons here should be obvious. When faced with the trials and irritations of life, how do we respond? Are we going to think carefully about what God is doing or seeking to do in our lives? Is He calling attention to sin? Is the problem a mirror of reproof? Or is God simply seeking to use us in some way or teach us an important spiritual lesson? Or are we going to turn to our own strategies?

By human strategies we are talking about the kind of things people do to handle the problems of life apart from God’s direction and enablement. The following is a brief list of pictures in the Bible that depict this constant tendency in all of us. They are given as warnings of both the tendency and the consequences.

(1) The picture of filling one’s life with the substitutes of the world. Like one fills an empty bottle we often seek to fill our emptiness with the world’s substitutes to meet life’s needs rather than trusting in the Lord and filling our lives with Him and His Word (Isa. 2:5-12). In Isaiah 2:6, the word “filled” is the Hebrew, male, which suggests the idea of attempting to remove a void, the problem of personal emptiness, but this is something which only God can fill. This word was used of filling something like a pitcher or a bottle with some needed substance (cf. John 7:37-39).

(2) The picture of leaning on the staff of a sharp reed that pierces the hand is a interesting illustration of the detrimental consequences of turning and trusting in our own solutions (Isa. 36:6).

(3) The picture of lighting our own firebrands by which we seek to direct our way. Rather than trusting God by walking in the light of His Word, we tend to fabricate our own sources of light (Isa. 50:10-11).

(4) The picture of sheep which go astray because they are prone to wander and go their own way rather than follow the Lord who is our Shepherd (Isa. 53:6; Ps. 23).

(5) The picture of building our own cisterns rather than drinking from God’s resources as the one and only fountain of Living Water. But as it always turns out, our cisterns are always broken cisterns (Jer. 2:12)

(6) The picture of leaning on the arm of the flesh. I am reminded of the picture on the Arm and Hammer soda box with the implicit promise that this product will do the job, but the arm of the flesh will not (Jer. 17:5).

The Portrait of Jehoram
(3:1-3)

1 Now Jehoram the son of Ahab became king over Israel at Samaria in the eighteenth year of Jehoshaphat king of Judah, and reigned twelve years. 2 And he did evil in the sight of the LORD, though not like his father and his mother; for he put away the sacred pillar of Baal which his father had made. 3 Nevertheless, he clung to the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, which he made Israel sin; he did not depart from them.

Jehoram, the grandson of evil Ahab, became king of Israel (the northern kingdom). Remember, there were no good kings or kings who followed the Lord in the northern kingdom. While they believed and knew very well that Yahweh, the Lord of Israel was God, they had nevertheless forsaken Him and in idolatrous apostasy had become involved in the mysterious and evil cults of ancient Babylon.

In verse 2 we read “He did evil in the sight of the Lord.” Jehoram was not a godly man nor was he a man who took God seriously. He had not sinned in the way of Ahab and Jezebel or his father, Ahaziah, nevertheless, verse 3 tells us, he clung to the sins of Jeroboam. “Clung” is the Hebrew, dabaq, “to cleave, cling, stick to, follow closely.” “It carries the sense of clinging to someone or something in affection and loyalty. Man is to cleave to his wife (Gen. 2:24). Ruth clave to Naomi (Ruth 1:14). The men of Judah clave to David their king during Sheba’s rebellion (II Sam. 20:2).”21 Clearly, the point is though Jehoram turned away from Baal worship, he continued to be loyal to the worship of the golden calf and continued to perpetuate its idolatry and apostasy in Israel (see 1 Kings 12:24-33).

Surely this sordid story of the kings of the north teaches us an important principle. Our beliefs and values, with the behavior those belief systems beget, do cast a long shadow and have grave implications upon our children. A defective son is often the result of a defective father (though not always) and defective children are often the products of defective parents. Note by comparison the following passage.

2 Chronicles 17:3-6 And the Lord was with Jehoshaphat because he followed the example of his father David’s earlier days and did not seek the Baals, 4 but sought the God of his father, followed His commandments, and did not act as Israel did. 5 So the Lord established the kingdom in his control, and all Judah brought tribute to Jehoshaphat, and he had great riches and honor. 6 And he took great pride in the ways of the Lord and again removed the high places and the Asherim from Judah.

The Problem of Rebellion at Moab
(3:4-5)

4 Now Mesha king of Moab was a sheep breeder, and used to pay the king of Israel 100,000 lambs and the wool of 100,000 rams. 5 But it came about, when Ahab died, the king of Moab rebelled against the king of Israel.

The Moabites were a heathen, idolatrous people whom God had subjugated under David’s reign because they were always a threat to the national sovereignty of Israel and their control over the land--the land that God had promised to Abraham and had given to the nation. This rebellion of Moab was, however, a divine chastisement of Jehoram because he had forsaken the Lord. It was another gracious attempt of God to get the attention of the kings of the north.

Life’s problems, and pressures are God’s agents and “attention grabbers.” They are designed to be tools of God, mirrors of reproof, and divine instructors, but for them to have their effect, we need see them as such through the divine viewpoint of Scripture and respond as is necessary according to the Word of God. I am reminded of the words of Psalmist in Psalm 119.

67 Before I was afflicted I went astray, But now I keep Your word.

71 It is good for me that I was afflicted, That I may learn Your statutes.

75 I know, O Lord, that Your judgments are righteous, And that in faithfulness You have afflicted me.

The Plans of Jehoram
(3:6-7)

6 And King Jehoram went out of Samaria at that time and mustered all Israel. 7 Then he went and sent word to Jehoshaphat the king of Judah, saying, “The king of Moab has rebelled against me. Will you go with me to fight against Moab?” And he said, “I will go up; I am as you are, my people as your people, my horses as your horses.”

Now back to 2 Kings 3 and the plans of Jehoram. Noticeably, what does he not do? He does not seek the Lord. He does not call a prophet of God or even pray. He merely plans without fixing his heart upon God. Instead he turns to the arm of the flesh. He leans upon human alliances, upon military strength and strategy that seems so natural and right to men. But it is the Lord who prepares and establishes--so the Lord has something very different planned.

First note the activity and plans of Jehoram: (a) He musters all Israel. He gathers his troops to prepare for battle (i.e. his trust is in numbers). (b) Then he enlists the aid of Jehoshaphat, a godly man whom God had greatly blessed. Jehoshaphat had an able army, but he had unwisely been in alliances with Ahab, Jehoram’s grandfather! Thus there was a chink missing in the spiritual armor of Jehoshaphat.

Jehoshaphat agrees to help, though again an unwise decision. I am sure Jehoram thought that surely they would be successful and the Moabites would be trembling in their boots. Verse 8 shows their military strategy, what appeared to be a surefire winner! The king of Moab would be expecting them from the north around the top end of the Dead Sea, but instead they would take their troops down through the wilderness around the southern end of the Dead Sea through Edom and up into Moab from the south. By this wise strategy they thought they would surprise and defeat the Moabites. But remember:

Proverbs 14:12 There is a way which seems right to a man, But its end is the way of death.

Jeremiah 10:23 I know, O LORD, that a man’s way is not in himself; Nor is it in a man who walks to direct his steps.

Psalm 33:16-18 The king is not saved by a mighty army; A warrior is not delivered by great strength. 17 A horse is a false hope for victory; Nor does it deliver anyone by its great strength. 18 Behold, the eye of the Lord is on those who fear Him, On those who hope for His lovingkindness . . .

In all of man’s plans and preparations, he should always consult the Lord because as we can see from the verses above, it is not within man’s ability and wisdom to direct, to prepare, plan and establish his way.

Proverbs 20:24 Man’s steps are ordained by the LORD, How then can man understand his way?

“Man’s steps are (ordained) by the Lord” is literally, “From Yahweh, the steps of man.” There are two main ideas here: (a) Man needs God’s direction, God’s knowledge and wisdom, and God’s activity on his behalf. (b) God is sovereignly working in every man’s life to bring about events, conditions, etc. to carry out His purposes and plan for his or her life. If this is so (and it is) then we have the responsibility to seek God’s direction and to live dependently on Him in all we do. This is James’ point:

James 4:13-17 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow, we shall go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.”14 Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away.15 Instead, you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we shall live and also do this or that.”16 But as it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil.17 Therefore, to one who knows the right thing to do, and does not do it, to him it is sin.

The question, as Solomon asked, is, “How then, can a man understand his way?” That is, how can he grasp the events and circumstances of his life? Who can understand what God is doing? Only by faith in God’s wisdom, knowledge of God’s Word, by seeking God’s direction, and by taking the fact of God and His working in our lives seriously! But even then, much of what God is doing will remain a mystery, something we will need to rest in His loving purposes and wisdom until we are in His presence in heaven. I am reminded of Ecclesiastes 7:13-14,

Consider the work of God, For who is able to straighten what He has bent (i.e., the trials and pressures of life)? In the day of prosperity be happy, But in the day of adversity consider--God has made the one as well as the other So that man may not discover anything that will be after him.

“God brings both prosperity and adversity into our lives for His sovereign purposes, without revealing the key to His plan.”22 While we can trust and rest our lives in His loving and all wise hands, the key to what He is doing is simply beyond our human comprehension.

So what are we responsible to do? “The mind of man plans his way, But the LORD directs his steps” (Proverbs 16:9).

The mind of man plans (Hebrew is hashab) meaning to “think creatively, devise plans,” etc. Men do need to plan and to think seriously about their lives, who they are, where they are going, and about the consequences and implications of their decisions and actions. But the Lord directs (imperfect of the Hebrew word, kun). The basic idea is “to bring into being and so to establish or fix.” It means (a) to prepare as in setting a table, or as in preparing and equipping an army for battle, and then (b) to establish, fix, make firm his steps. The point is, ultimately God has both the last word and the best word about our lives.

Proverbs 16:3 Commit your works to the LORD, And your plans will be established.

“Commit” (the Hebrew is galal) means to “roll on another and so away from yourself.” Note “works” is plural meaning all of them, everything. We need to take God’s involvement and activity in our lives seriously, seek His guidance, aid and provision. We need to turn our lives over to the Lord--lock, stock and barrel. We need to accept the occurrences of our lives as part of God’s involvement with us.

“And your plans will be established.” (kun) You’re in wise and safe hands when you are in the Lord’s hands because God, in His perfect love, wisdom, and sovereignty, is at work, preparing and establishing His will in your life.

The word “steps” as used in Proverbs 16:9 and Jeremiah 10:23 is the Hebrew mis’ed from saad which means “to march in cadence.” It was used of the methodical movement of a group or band of soldiers moving step by step toward a goal. This word carries with it the idea and principal that our steps have both purpose and consequences, either for good or evil, for blessing or hurt (cf. Prov. 16:4).

In Proverbs 8:7 this verb is used of a lad methodically walking, step by step toward the house of the harlot, knowing the direction he was taking, but nave and blind to the consequences of his steps (vss. 23-29).

Our steps are not without implications and many of them, serious ones. So we must take God seriously. He alone can establish our lives or our path. God is personally involved. He has prepared both people and conditions and circumstances, either: (a) to make our way right, straight and established (i.e., to give real meaning, purpose and fulfillment, or (b) He may prepare other conditions to turn us around, to stop and rebuke our present course to cause us to trust and turn to Him, if we will but respond to His work (cf. Ps. 112:7).

The Predicament in the Wilderness
(3:8-12)

8 And he said, “Which way shall we go up?” And he answered, “The way of the wilderness of Edom.” 9 So the king of Israel went with the king of Judah and the king of Edom; and they made a circuit of seven days’ journey, and there was no water for the army or for the cattle that followed them. 10 Then the king of Israel said, “Alas! For the LORD has called these three kings to give them into the hand of Moab.” 11 But Jehoshaphat said, “Is there not a prophet of the LORD here, that we may inquire of the LORD by him?” And one of the king of Israel’s servants answered and said, “Elisha the son of Shaphat is here, who used to pour water on the hands of Elijah.” 12 And Jehoshaphat said, “The word of the LORD is with him.” So the king of Israel and Jehoshaphat and the king of Edom went down to him.

The wilderness or desert, because of its barrenness, sometimes symbolizes the fruitless life of carnality and being out of the plan of God. I was recently reminded of this on our vacation when we drove through Death Valley. How anyone could want to live there is beyond me. In fact, as we were driving I wondered, “Why in the world did we take this route?” Jeremiah had this concept in mind when he wrote,

Jeremiah 17:5-6 This is what the LORD says: “Cursed is the one who trusts in man, who depends on flesh for his strength and whose heart turns away from the LORD. 6 He will be like a bush in the wastelands; he will not see prosperity when it comes. He will dwell in the parched places of the desert, in a salt land where no one lives” (NIV).

If these kings had known about Murphy, they might have thought Murphy’s Law was surely involved here. If things can go wrong, they will, and at the worst possible time. But let’s remember something, Murphy’s so-called Law is really the outworking of the laws of God and often as the direct intervention of God into our affairs.

We live in an imperfect and judged earth. Things break down and decay. There is sin and Satan and this all works to create difficulties and problems. But God uses these, and often engineers problems to get our attention or to demonstrate His power. So in verse 9 the three kings journey down into the wilderness, but they run into the unexpected. The water holes they had counted on were not there and instead of bringing the Moabites back under submission, they were faced with the possibility of their own defeat and death--wiped out in the desert.

Here is a typical “no water” problem of life, a test, a trial, a problem suddenly interjected into life’s experience. What would you do? What about the problems you are facing right now or that you faced last week or might face in the week to come? As with the three kings, we have two choices: (a) we can take God seriously and respond to Him in faith or (b) we can react, blame God and others and act in unbelief. Our passage gives us an illustration of both responses.

In verse 10 we see the response of Jehoram: “Then the king of Israel said, ‘Alas! For the Lord has called these three kings to give them into the hand of Moab.’”

Remember, depending on our response, pressure will make us better or worse (bitter). It depends on the attitude and the perspective with which we view and face the problem. Swindoll rightly says, “Attitudes are all important.” Jehoram’s mental attitude was negative, but it is typical of the man who refuses to truly get serious with the Lord so that he walks dependently on Him in aspects of life. The typical procedure is to ignore God before trouble, but then blame God and others after it comes.

There are also other typical elements here--unbelief and guilt. Though Jehoram ignored God’s involvement with his life before this trouble, he now recognizes the sovereign action of God as a divine judgment and intervention. Instead of responding in faith and repentance, or instead of seeking the Lord, all he could do was to cry out in defeat as a man without hope. “Alas” is the Hebrew a&h`h, “alas, ah, oh no.” Our word “ah” is practically a transliteration. Interestingly, it is often used with “Lord” or “Lord God.” Here it is an expression showing no hope, only guilt and despondency. How else could he respond? By his continued apathy to God he had hardened his heart.

Our everyday activities have significant implications--they either promote godliness as we spend time with the Lord or they promote ungodliness the more we ignore Him. Our heart and mental attitudes must have the right spiritual diet to live on and that’s a choice we each are faced with every day. I am reminded of David’s cry in Psalm 5. There he declared his determination, “In the morning, O Lord, You will hear my voice; In the morning I will order my prayer to You and eagerly watch” (Ps. 5:3).

In verse 11a we see a contrast in the response of Jehoshaphat.

Note the conjunction “but.” “But Jehoshaphat said, ‘Is there not a prophet of the Lord here that we may inquire of the Lord by Him?’” What a different mental attitude and perspective! We see an attitude that not only recognizes the Lord’s involvement with their lives, but one which is willing to call on the Lord for instruction, wisdom, aid and deliverance. Such a mental attitude sees the purposeful hand of God. It accepts trials as mirrors of reproof, as windows of light, as opportunities to manifest the power of God, the love and grace of God, and as instruments of our transformation.

The prophets were the spokesmen of God and were often sought to seek God’s guidance and truth as it pertained to any particular problem. They were to the Old Testament (along with Old Testament Scriptures) what the completed canon of Scripture and prayer are to us today (cf. Jam 1:5 prayer, 1:16 the Word).

In verse 11b we see God’s gracious supply.

This reminds me of the words of the prophet who wrote: “Before they call I will answer and while they are yet speaking I will hear” (Isa. 65:24). So we read: “And one of the kings of Israel’s servants answered and said, ‘Elisha the son of Shaphat is here, who used to pour water on the hands of Elijah.’”

Let’s note several things of importance here:

(1) The mention of pouring water on the hands of Elijah not only associates Elisha as the understudy of the great prophet, but it calls our attention to the principle of Luke 16:10, “He who is faithful in a very little thing is faithful also in much; . . .” Elisha had been faithful in the small details of ministering to Elijah as a servant and now God was going to use him with kings. This and the fact he had been Elijah’s servant/student, clearly qualified him for this situation. So this brings out the servant character of the prophet. Because Elisha meant business with the Lord and was faithful to his calling, he was available to go and minister to these kings in their desperate need.

(2) What was Elisha the prophet doing here--seven days journey into the wilderness? Does this not point us to the wonderful providence of God? Man plans, but it is the Lord who prepares and establishes our steps. It teaches us that the Lord supplies; victory in the battle is always His. The Lord had prepared and led Elisha to this very place as His servant to be available to these kings and their armies in their time of need.

(3) Our responsibility is to always seek and inquire of our Lord who prepares a way of escape or deliverance. This is absolutely beautiful.

In verse 12 we see Jehoshaphat’s second response to the presence of Elisha.

“The word of the Lord is with him.” Elisha’s reputation had gone before him. Jehoshaphat knew that Elisha was a man who meant business with God and could be counted on to give God’s Word, the truth. The king knew that Elisha was a man who would level with people and honestly inquire of God on their behalf, but there are always those who simply preach what people want to hear--things that tickle their fancy or curiosity or amuse, but who fail to honestly face them with the truth of God, especially as it relates to their responsibilities as the people of God (cf. 2 Chron 18:1-17; 2 Tim. 4:1-4).

2 Timothy 4:1-5 I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: 2 preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. 3 For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires; 4 and will turn away their ears from the truth, and will turn aside to myths. 5 But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.

. . . Pastors gradually settle down and lose interest in being change agents in the church. An unconscious conspiracy arises between their flesh and that of their congregations. It becomes tacitly understood that the laity will give pastors special honor in the exercise of their gifts, if the pastors will agree to leave their congregations’ pre-Christian lifestyles undisturbed and do not call for the mobilization of lay gifts for the work of the kingdom. Pastors are permitted to become ministerial superstars. Their pride is fed and their congregations are permitted to remain herds of sheep in which each has cheerfully turned to his own way.23

But in king Jehoshaphat’s desire to hear from a prophet of the Lord (vs. 11), we see a wonderful attitude for any person, but especially for a king or a leader. Is this not what our nation needs so desperately today? We need people who want God’s answers and direction and who will both study their Bibles and listen to faithful heralds of the Word for God’s direction; we need people who realize that the answer to our problems (big or small) lies in the Word of the Lord. But we also need those who, whether it is popular or not, will faithfully proclaim the truth of Scripture.

In spite of all their troops and wealth, these three kings with their power, muscle, and military strategy are brought to nothing and finally turn to the prophet (a man without money, power or position) that they might find God’s answers. Read 2 Chronicles 20:1-30, the account of Jehoshaphat’s actions when faced with a huge multitude that had come against Judah. The results are significant. Verse 30 reads, “So the kingdom of Jehoshaphat was at peace, for his God gave him rest on all sides” (emphasis mine), but not until Jehoshaphat turned to the Lord and sought His help by claiming the principles and promises of the Word (see vs. 6).

Significantly, Elisha was known not for his dynamic or scintillating personality nor for his oratorical skill, but for two simple but profoundly important characteristics that marked him off as a man of God. He was known as a servant, as one who poured water on the hands of Elijah (cf. Mark 10:45), and as one who was faithful to proclaim the Word of the Lord, “The word of the Lord is with him.”

Unfortunately, too often people look for the wrong things in a spiritual leader--looks, voice, charismatic personality, cleverness--you name it. None of these things are wrong in themselves; indeed, they are gifts of God, but they can be abused. They can be so used that they call undue attention to the messenger and people become enamored with the messenger rather than the message. God wants us, as earthen vessels, to be windows that allow people to see through to the message, the Lord Jesus. But so often we see men and women use their gifts so they become like either stained glass or dirty windows. Either way, it distracts and hinders a clear view of the Lord. It appears to me that Paul played down his own gifts and abilities to protect against this danger.

1 Corinthians 2:1-5 And when I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God. 2 For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. 3 And I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. 4 And my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 that your faith should not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God.


21 Theological Word Book of the Old Testament, R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer, Jr., Bruce K. Waltke, editors, Vol. 1, Moody Press, Chicago, 1980, p. 399).

22 Charles C. Ryrie, Ryrie Study Bible, Expanded Edition, NASB, Moody Press, Chicago, 1995, p. 1025.

23 Richard Lovelace, Dynamics of Spiritual Life: An Evangelical Theology of Renewal, InterVarsity, Downers Grove, 1979, p. 207.

Related Topics: Character Study