For my weekly quiet time this week, I studied II Kings 13.
Northern Israel is having trouble with Syria to her north. God has delivered Northern Israel into the hands of Syria, on account of Northern Israel’s continuance in the sins of Jeroboam, who set up two golden calves. But Jehoahaz, the king of Northern Israel, calls on the LORD, who sends someone to save the Israelites from their Syrian oppressors.
There is debate about who this savior is. Some say it’s the Assyrian king Adad-Nirari III, who picked on Syria and thus distracted her from oppressing Northern Israel. Some say it’s Zakur of Hamath, who ruled a Syrian city and may have challenged the authority of the king of Damascus, the top dog in Syria. Some say it’s the prophet Elisha, who enables King Joash of Northern Israel to smite the Syrian army. After all, Joash calls Elisha the chariot of Israel and her horsemen (v 14), probably because Elisha’s prayers and prophetic activity brought the LORD’s blessing upon Northern Israel, delivering her from her enemies. In a sense, Elisha was a savior of Northern Israel! Some say it’s Joash’s successor, Jeroboam II, who hits Syria with a severe blow in II Kings 14. Some say it’s an angel.
But the LORD sent a savior to save Israel, and the Israelites could then dwell in their tents, as they did before. I couldn’t find much of an explanation for why the Israelites dwelt in tents. Josephus in Antiquities 9.8 simply states that God restored Israel to the prosperous state that she had before the Syrians invaded her. But John Gray actually offered explanations for the tents. For Gray, the defeat of Syria placed Israel in a state of security, and so the Israelites could freely go to their farmlands during the spring grazing and the summer activity among the crops and dwell in their light shelters, or tents; they didn’t have to worry about the Syrians attacking them, for the Israelites were secure. Another explanation that Gray offers for the tents is that they were for pilgrimage: after God defeated the Syrians, the Israelites honored God by going on a pilgrimage, which required them to dwell in tents.
And yet, how secure was Northern Israel really? The chapter talks about war between Northern Israel and Judah, as well as Moabite raiders, who flee when they see other raiders. There are times when we are more or less secure, but is life ever without problems?
The chapter contains a story about King Joash of Israel’s visit of the prophet Elisha, when Elisha is sick and about to die. Joash, to his credit, weeps over Elisha, for he appreciates what Elisha has done for Israel. But Elisha wants Joash and Northern Israel to receive a blessing. Elisha tells Joash to shoot arrows out of the window, and Joash does so, as Elisha’s hand touches the hand of the king. Elisha says that the arrows concern the LORD’s deliverance of Israel from the hands of Syria, predicting that Joash will smite the Syrians in Aphek, until he consumes them. Elisha then instructs Joash to smite the ground with the arrows that he just shot, and Joash does so, three times. Elisha is mad at Joash because Joash should have smitten the ground five or six times, not just three. Elisha prophecies that Joash will only smite Israel three times, rather than smiting them until he consumes them.
Commentators have applied this story to a variety of lessons. Ron Dart related the story to Ecclesiastes 9:10, which exhorts us to do our work with all of our might. Joash, by contrast, was half-hearted in smiting the ground, when he should have been enthusiastic about defeating the Syrians.
Some apply this story to the need for Christians to tenaciously pursue and grasp the blessings that God has in store for them.
Keil-Delitzsch quotes Clericus, who states that Joash was afraid that Elisha’s prophecy about Israel’s victory would not be fulfilled were Joash to smite the ground more than three times. And so Joash was walking on egg-shells before God, trying to stay on the safe side. He should have had more faith that God desired his good and the good of Israel.
Matthew Henry states: The king showed not that eagerness and flame which one might have expected upon this occasion, but smote thrice, and no more. Either out of foolish tenderness to the Syrians, he smote as if he were afraid of hurting them, at least of ruining them, willing to show mercy to those that never did, nor ever would, show mercy to him or his people. Or, perhaps, he smote thrice, and very coldly, because he thought it but a silly thing, that it looked idle and childish for a king to beat the floor with his arrows; and thrice was often enough for him to play the fool merely to please the prophet.
There are times when mercy may not be the appropriate action, but justice should be pursued to protect oneself and others (consider I Kings 20); love for an evil person and love for society are factors that should be weighed when one seeks to make a hard decision. And there are times when God may want us to set our ego aside, which could be why Elisha desired for Joash to do something that looked silly, namely, smiting the ground with an arrow! What was the worth of Joash’s ego, compared to the freedom and security of Northern Israel?
Joash had some good characteristics, for he cared enough about Elisha to visit him, and he believed that the LORD was the security of Northern Israel. Yet, Joash should have been more enthusiastic about the LORD’s offer to deliver Israel, for a king (or any leader) should eagerly desire the well-being of the people he serves.
Some words on the next story: there are bands of Moabites invading Israel. As they bury a man, they notice another band, and so they hurry along their burial, throwing the corpse into Elisha’s sepulchre. When the corpse touches the bones of Elisha, it comes back to life. We see an event that may or may not relate to God: Moabites invade, and they come into contact with another band. And yet, God is still on his throne, with his own plans and purposes. God used Elisha, and Elisha can affect the course of events, even when he is dead. There are times when God’s involvement in human affairs is heavy-handed, as when God punishes Israel with Syrian oppression, or frees Israel from it. Then there are times when events just happen—maybe God is causing them, and maybe not. Yet, God is still at work in the world, with his own plans and purposes, whether our designs line up with them or not. And maybe God’s activity in the world can touch us in a positive way, even when we’re not looking for it—as was the case with the Moabite who came back to life after touching Elisha’s bones!