The Ministry of Elisha
2 Kings 6:1-7:20
In this passage 2 Kings continues with the story of Elisha's ministry to the nation of Israel. The story of Elisha falls within the greater story of God sending prophet after prophet to His people Israel to warn them of dire consequences if they do not repent of idolatry and return to God.
Although much of Elisha's ministry deals with kings and great affairs of state, throughout this ministry we see Elisha dealing with little mundane areas as well. We see him "curing" the waters of Jericho and removing the taste of "death" from a pot of stew for some of the junior prophets. He provides oil for the widow so that her sons will not be sold into slavery in order to pay off her husband's debts. At the beginning of chapter 6 we see Elisha coming to the aid of a member of the school of prophets. While chopping down a tree, the junior prophet accidently flings his axe into the Jordan River. The junior prophet is highly stressed because apparently he is so poor that he either borrowed the axe or else begged until somebody gave him an axe. In either case this axe is important to the junior prophet. Elisha comes to his aid by tossing out a branch into the Jordan River. This action miraculously results in the axe rising to the surface so that the junior prophet can retrieve it.
Many times I fear that we reduce our relationship with God to that of Him finding our car keys for us. God is concerned about BIG things in our lives; however, He is also concerned about all the areas in our lives--big AND small. He shows us His care by providing for us in just these kinds of mundane affairs. While we were in England this past spring, I found all 15 of us dumped off at a place 2 and 1/2 miles away from where I was wanting to go. The people in charge of British transportation assured me that they would take us right to Churchill's home; well, we were dropped off 2 and 1/2 miles away from his home. I went to the local public house to find out about the taxi situation. I was frustrated at every turn. Out of 20 taxi companies, none would help us. Finally, standing in the phone booth, I put my head down while my heart cried out in prayer: "God, I need help. I can't do this." The next taxi company I called came through for us.
Does God really care about us getting to Winston Churchill's house out in the country? Probably not. I don't know. I do know though that God cares for us and comes through for us in these kinds of situation to express His love and care for us.
ELISHA'S FIRST ENCOUNTER WITH THE SYRIANS (6:8-23)
At this period in time when Israel and Judah are in decline, the nation of Syria which lay to the east of Israel is in the ascendancy. The Syrian king Ben-Hadad sends out marauding parties into Israel to plunder the land. God though, to demonstrate His love and care for Israel, informs Elisha of the king's strategies and movements. Each time the Syrian king selects a certain site in Israel to attack, Elisha informs Jehoram of these plans. Jehoram complies with Elisha's advice and successfully avoids these attacks.
After several of these incidents occur, Ben-Hadad suspects that there is a mole among his group of advisers. Once or even twice this happening is not all that suspicious; however, his plans are always foiled. Ben-Hadad is sure that one of his advisers is betraying him to Jehoram. Did Ben-Hadad suspect Naaman since Elisha had graciously healed him? One of his advisers though (Naaman?) informs Ben-Hadad that Jehoram is getting his information miraculously from Elisha, the man of God. Elisha's source of information is so good that he even knows what the king says in the most secret of places, his own bedroom.
Ben-Hadad, instead of repenting--no one ever repents in these stories!, decides the best thing to do is to capture and kill Elisha; therefore, he sends out a large army to Dothan, the place of Elisha's residence, in order to capture the prophet. (The capital of Israel, Samaria, is located in the center of Israel, lying on top of the mountain range which runs through central Israel. Dothan is located 12 miles to the north of the Israelite capital.)
The Syrian army locates Elisha's residence at Dothan and surrounds it in order to capture Elisha. Elisha's servant is naturally terrified when he sees the large army approaching and surrounding his home. Elisha though is calm. He informs the servant that they have nothing to fear since the army with them is greater than the Syrian army approaching them. Elisha then prays and asks God to open the spiritual eyes of his servant. At that moment the servant sees reality. Although all he could see was the Syrian army, realistically he had nothing to fear since the army of heaven had come down to protect him and Elisha from the Syrians. The army of heaven was composed of chariots and horses of fire. After Elisha prays, this heavenly army strikes the Syrian army with blindness. Just a touch of irony here: the man of faith receives spiritual sight, while the unbelieving hordes are struck with physical blindness.
This episode along with the last element in the Lord's Prayer has influenced the way I pray. Each morning I pray through the Lord's Prayer as Jesus instructed us to. Whenever I come to the element, "Deliver us from the Evil One," I pray that God surround my family and me north, east, south, and west with so many angels that no demonic person spiritual or human will be able to get anywhere us. I know it sounds naive to many; however, I believe it acknowledges the forces which are really arrayed against God's people.
I think it is sad though whenever we as Christians don't deal with reality for fear of embarrassment. Why should we be embarrassed to talk this way? People believe in the existence of angels. The latest Gallup poll states that 72% of American men and 84% of American women believe in angels. (The radical liberals are the ones who don't believe in angels, much less God. Why even bother about their attitudes towards us?) I fear that because we don't pray for God's protection out of a fear of embarrassment, we do not receive His entire protection.
At this point Elisha engages in a little bit of "deception," or as Keil and Delitsch call it "a ruse de guerre." He informs the Syrian army that they have gone to the wrong place. Instead he tells them to follow him so that he can lead them to God's prophet. They follow him blindly into the city of Samaria, the capital of Israel. After the army has entered the city and the Israelite army has surrounded the Syrians, God opens the eyes of the Syrians. They are terror-stricken when they realize they are captives to the Israelites.
At this point it would have been normal for the Israelites to annihilate the Syrians. In fact if the wives, children, and livestock of the Syrians had been with them, the Israelites would have slaughtered them also, a regular practice during holy wars. Jehoram goes so far as to ask Elisha if they are to do this very thing. Elisha though speaks against such a move. Instead he wants Jehoram to feed the Syrians a lavish feast and then send them back on their way to Syria, disarmed naturally. Apparently the Syrians are much impressed with this unexpected treatment, a treatment they would not have rendered the Israelites; for a while the marauding stops.
ELISHA'S SECOND ENCOUNTER WITH THE SYRIANS (6:24-7:20)
It does not take too long though for the Syrians to have a change of heart and launch another offensive against Israel. This time a massive Syrian army crosses the Jordan and lays seige to Samaria, the capital of Israel. Apparently the Israelites are so weak militarily that instead of fighting the Syrians, they try to wait out the siege.
The siege though devastates Samaria. Famine and starvation strike the city. Conditions become so bad that a donkey's head, the least edible part of the donkey, goes for ~$100, while 10 cubic inches of a dove's dung is priced at ~$6. The situation hits rock bottom when 2 women approach Jehoram who is walking along the city walls surveying the misery. One woman is incensed with another woman because the second woman has broken her promise. The 2 ladies both had a son and had agreed to eat the first woman's son one day and then the second woman's son the next. Even though they had eaten the first woman's son as agreed upon, the second woman had hidden her son so that he could be spared. The first woman now wants the king to make the second lady give up her son for supper.
The king is appalled at what he is hearing. He tears his robes as a sign of great grief and anguish. The people see that he is wearing sackcloth beneath his robes, a sign that he is a religious person who desires the siege to be lifted. Sometimes though a religious person is not a spiritual person. A religious person wears sackcloth and fasts. A spiritual person may do the same; however, he is also faithful and obedient to the Lord. Although Jehoram is religious, he is not spiritual. He vows that he is going to kill Elisha. Instead of repenting and acknowledging that his idolatry and the idolatry of the nation is killing the nation, Jehoram wants to kill God's prophet. Maybe he thought that releasing the army earlier had given the Syrians the opportunity to launch this offensive, or maybe he believed that Elisha had asked God to bring about this seige much like Elisha's master Elijah had brought a 3-and-a-half-year drought upon Israel. In either case, he wants Elisha dead.
Jehoram is not the only person who acts this way. How many times do we avoid people or even lam-blast them whenever they speak the truth we don't want to hear? Our families experience devastation, our careers tank, our relationships falter, and what do we do? We attack people who speak the truth to us. We claim that we are humble, and yet we become so very defensive when somebody reveals to us the truth about ourselves. "Oh, but they didn't share it the right way!" "Oh, but who are they to tell me what to do?" Instead of repenting and choosing life, we try to destroy those who make us feel uncomfortable.
Jehoram sends his right hand man, an aide de camp, to carry out Elisha's execution. Elisha apparently is sitting with some members of the school of prophets in his home. He knows that the aide de camp is coming and tells the men to block the door. What follows next is confusing. Maybe the king himself had a change of heart and pursued his aide to prevent him from killing Elisha. Regardless of the details, Elisha informs the king that by tomorrow in Samaria a measure of wheat will sell for one shekel, while 2 measures of barley the cheaper grain will sell for the same price. The aide scoffs at this. He claims that even if the Lord opened the windows of heaven, this could not take place. Elisha then informs the aide that although the aide will see this come to pass, he will not get to eat of it.
At this point the scene shifts to 4 lepers sitting outside the city walls. Unlike Naaman the leper who was a Syrian, these 4 Jewish lepers were quarantined since Jewish law forbade them associating with clean people. They are between a rock and a hard place. They are going to starve to death if they continue to sit outside the walls and do nothing. Their only hope is to go to the Syrian camp and receive mercy. They know that this most likely is not going to happen. Rather the Syrians will most likely slaughter them on the spot. But what have they got to lose? Nothing. Certain death is one option, while the likelihood of death but also the possibility of life are the second option. They head for the Syrian camp.
This is truly a great story. So many of us need to leave the walls of the city and head for the Syrian camp, and yet we're not desperate enough. Although things in our lives are not running on all 4 cylinders, at least 1 cylinder is working. Rather than running to the camp where there is food in abundance, we hang onto our lives and eat meager meals. We all need to get to the same point that the 4 lepers came to--the point of utter hopelessness. When we get to the point that we have nothing to lose, then we'll run to the camp, run to Christ. The disciples got to just that same point. When all the other followers of Jesus deserted Him, Jesus turned to the 12 and asked them if they did not want to leave also. Peter's response is classic: "Lord, to whom shall we go? You [alone] have words of eternal life." We've got to get to the point to where we believe there is no one else to go to.
When the lepers enter the Syrian camp, they are astonished at what they find--the camp has been abandoned by the soldiers. Unbeknownst to the lepers, during the night the Lord led the Syrians to believe that they were being attacked by the Hittites from the north and the Egyptians from the south. They not only fled, they were in such a panic that they left all their belongings in the camp or else left them strewn all along the road from Samaria to the Jordan River. (It is by no means an accident that the Syrians hear this noise at the exact time that the lepers choose to approach the Syrian camp. Our faith many times unleashes God's power to act.) The lepers gleefully snatch up food and have a grand feast. They take precious objects and start to stash them away.
At this point the Lord strikes the consciences of the lepers. They utter the truth: "We are not doing right. This day is a day of good news, but we are keeping silent; if we wait until morning light, punishment will overtake us. Now therefore come, let us go and tell the king's household" (7:9). What did they owe people of Samaria? Hadn't they been barred from the city? Hadn't they been more vulnerable to the arrows of the Syrians since they were not given the protection of the city walls? What had the Samaritans ever done for them? That's not the point. The point is that they had good news [a gospel] to share, and that if they did not share it, then God would punish them for it.
Well, the good news they had to share pales in comparison to the good news we have to share. They were to announce the lifting of a seige and the end of a famine. We though can proclaim the lifting of Satan's seige and the end of a spiritual famine and drought. We can share with others that though they are dead spiritually, Christ Jesus has come to give them eternal, abundant life. This is not just the work of the ministerial staff--although it is also their work. (It is sometimes ironic to hear some ministers preach to their flock that they need to reach out while that particular minister does not. Although ministers are to mentor the flock to do the work of service, they mentor many times BY EXAMPLE.) It is the work of each who has come to the feast to invite others to share in this feast.
How do I participate in this feast? Christ claims to be the Bread of Life (John 6:48). I partake of this bread by living daily in a vital relationship with Him, listening to Him and obeying His word to me. Not just the written word of the Bible, but also the specific communications He gives us daily.
The lepers head back for Samaria and share the gospel with the city inhabitants. The king is skeptical. Suppose that the army has just given the appearance of abandoning the camp. Suppose that the Syrians are hiding out on the outskirts of the camp waiting to pounce on the Israelites the moment they leave the security of the city walls. Too risky. So the king sends out 2 chariots (each drawn by 2 horses) to ascertain the situation. True the Syrians might ambush and kill the scouts; however, if nothing changes and the scouts remain in the city, they are going to die anyway. At least by doing this there is the possibility that they might live. So he sends the scouts out to survey the situation.
The scouts come back with the joyous news that the 4 lepers indeed are right! The Syrians have abandoned camp, leaving behind an abundance of food and weapons. The road from the Syrian camp to Syria is strewn with abandoned carts, weapons, food, etc. The city erupts in jubilation. The aide who scoffed at Elisha the day before is standing at the gate of the city, the main exit facing the Syrian camp. As Elisha predicted, the aide does hear the good news; however, also as Elisha predicted the aide does not get to partake of the feast because the people of the city trample him down and kill him as they rush out of the city towards the Syrian tents.