Chapter 2: Joram
2 Kings 6:24-7:17
24 Afterward Ben-hadad king of Syria mustered his entire army, and went up, and besieged Samaria. 25 And there was a great famine in Samaria, as they besieged it, until an ass’s head was sold for eighty shekels of silver, and the fourth part of a kab of dove’s dung for five shekels of silver. 26 Now as the king of Israel was passing by upon the wall, a woman cried out to him, saying, "Help, my lord, 0 king!" 27 And he said, "If the Lord will not help you, whence shall I help you? From the threshing floor, or from the wine press?" 28 And the king asked her, "What is your trouble?" She answered, "This woman said to me, ‘Give your son, that we may eat him today, and we will eat my son tomorrow.’ 29 So we boiled my son, and ate him. And on the next day I said to her, ‘Give your son, that we may eat him’; but she has hidden her son." 30 When the king heard the words of the woman he rent his clothes—now he was passing by upon the wall—and the people looked, and, behold, he had sackcloth beneath upon his body—31 and he said, "May God do so to me, and more also, if the head of Elisha the son of Shaphat remains on his shoulders today."
32 Elisha was sitting in his house, and the elders were sitting with him. Now the king had dispatched a man from his presence; but before the messenger arrived Elisha said to the elders, "Do you see how this murderer has sent to take off my head? Look, when the messenger comes, shut the door, and hold the door fast against him. Is not the sound of his master’s feet behind him?" 33 And while he was still speaking with them, the king came down to him and said, "This trouble is from the Lord! Why should I wait for the Lord any longer?"
1 Elisha said, "Hear the word of the Lord: thus says the Lord, Tomorrow about this time a measure of fine meal shall be sold for a shekel, and two measures of barley for a shekel, at the gate of Samaria." 2 Then the captain on whose hand the king leaned1 said to the man of God, "If the Lord himself should make windows in heaven, could this thing be?" But he said, "You shall see it with your own eyes, but you shall not eat of it."
3 Now there were four men who were lepers at the entrance to the gate; and they said one to another, "Why do we sit here till we die? 4 If we say, ‘Let us enter the city,’ the famine is in the city, and we shall die there; and if we sit here, we die also. So now come, let us go over to the camp of the Syrians; if they spare our lives we shall live, and if they kill us we shall but die." 5 So they arose at twilight to go to the camp of the Syrians; but when they came to the edge of the camp of the Syrians, behold, there was no one there. 6 For the Lord had made the army of the Syrians hear the sound of chariots, and of horses, the sound of a great army, so that they said one to another, "Behold, the king of Israel has hired against us the kings of the Hittites and the kings of Egypt to come upon us." 7 So they fled away in the twilight and forsook their tents, their horses, and their asses, leaving the camp as it was, and fled for their lives. 8 And when these lepers came to the edge of the camp, they went into a tent, and ate and drank, and they carried off silver and gold and clothing, and went and hid them; then they came back, and entered another tent, and carried off things from it, and went and hid them.
9 Then they said to one another, "We are not doing right. This day is a day of good news; if we are silent and wait until the morning light, punishment will overtake; now therefore come, let us go and tell the king’s household." 10 So they came and called to the gatekeepers of the city, and told them, "We came to the camp of the Syrians, and behold, there was no one to be seen or heard there, nothing but the horses tied, and the asses tied, and the tents as they were." 11 Then the gatekeepers called out, and it was told within the king’s household. 12 And the king rose in the night, and said to his servants, "I will tell you what the Syrians have prepared against us. They know that we are hungry; therefore they have gone out of the camp to hide themselves in the open country, thinking, ‘When they come out of the city, we shall take them alive and get into the city.’ " 13 And one of his servants said, "Let some men take five of the remaining horses, seeing that those who are left here will fare like the whole multitude of Israel that have already perished; let us send and see." 14 So they took two mounted men, and the king sent them after the army of the Syrians, saying, "Go and see." 15 So they went after them as far as the Jordan; and lo, all the way was littered with garments and equipment which the Syrians had thrown away in their haste. And the messengers returned, and told the king.
16 Then the people went out, and plundered the camp of the Syrians. So a measure of fine meal was sold for a shekel, and two measures of barley for a shekel, according to the word of the Lord. 17 Now the king had appointed the captain on whose hand he leaned to have charge of the gate; and the people trod upon him in the gate, so that he died, as the man of God had said when the king came down to him.
As we did not emphasize the miracle of healing or the problem of leprosy in the case of Naaman, so now we shall not dwell on what is usually the theme of commentaries, namely, the extraordinary action of God, the solution to the famine in Samaria, the sound of chariots in the Syrian camp. We shall not stress the fact that here is another instance of the omnipotence of God, who does what he wills, and of the love of God, who does not let his people perish. The lesson seems to me to be larger and more direct, and we shall make the characters in the story our primary consideration.
In this dreadful incident the king of Israel is the same as in the days of Naaman, King Joram, who is generally presented as a good king even though he was the son of Ahab and clung to the error of Jeroboam. He obviously maintained the traditional faith of Israel and we are told that he overturned the statues of Baal that his father had erected. When he was violently questioned by the woman, his reply was not derisive. The woman appealed to him for salvation. Her "save me" (hochi-anna) is highly ambiguous, for it might mean: Save my physical life by giving me food, but it might also mean: Save me before God. After all, our own S.O.S. has the same ambiguity. And in relation to this question of salvation the king draws back. If the reference is to material salvation from the famine, he cannot do anything, and even this is perhaps a manifestation of his orthodoxy. Some commentators think the mention of the threshing floor and the wine press in verse 27 is an allusion to the belief in Canaan (and it extended far beyond Canaan, for one finds it in almost all primitive peoples) that the king is the one who ensures fecundity, or good crops, and that his activity or (sexual) power is the guarantee of abundance for all. If so, then Joram’s reply is: "I am not this kind of king. I am not like the king of Canaan, for the Eternal alone is the one who kills and makes alive." But his answer can also be given a spiritual sense: "It is not I who save but God. For myself I am nothing and I can do nothing." This is indeed a very correct and accurate and scrupulous theological position. No, Joram is not mocking the woman. Nevertheless, his answer is a momentous one, for he is also saying that he refuses to take the risk of faith. He leaves it to God because he refuses to be involved in the adventure himself. Now it is impossible for him not to be involved in it. For he is the king of Israel and this obviously means that he is the representative of God on earth. He is the Lord’s anointed. He is the one who can take a divine decision. In declining to do so he is thus abdicating already as the true king of Israel. At this moment he loses his monarchy.2 Let us take note that this concerns us all, for now in Jesus Christ we are all invested with this power and we have no right to cloak ourselves in good theology in order to evade our responsibilities. Furthermore, in spite of his disclaimer, he is involved in this terrible adventure whether he wants to be or not. He is faced by the dreadful arrangement between the two women to eat their own children. The one refuses to give up her son and the other demands justice. For this is a matter of justice; the contract ought to be honored. Hence the king is involved again, for he is the guardian of right and justice. He must respect the conventions. He must be the judge in atrocious things. Yet he declines once more. He cannot pronounce justice in a matter like this. He cannot insist that the contract be upheld. Nor can he judge and condemn the woman who cries to him: "Save me." At this point we cannot but recall the other story about two infants and the judgment of Solomon. It would have needed the wisdom of Solomon, the true king of Israel, to pass judgment here. But Joram is not Solomon.
Let us take a further step. The king of the chosen people is faced by the most atrocious crime imaginable. A woman eats her child. She is not mad. It is a deliberate act. She does it by contract to save her own life. This is a sign which shows Joram how profound and total is the corruption of the chosen people. A member of this people is like that. And he—the king who represents the whole people, who is the synthesis in himself of the holy nation—he does nothing. He perhaps recognizes implicitly that in the presence of extreme suffering there are no more rules, there is no more morality, there is no more respect for anything. These women may be excused after all. Necessity knows no law. He does nothing but give way, lament, and repent. He rends his garments, and in this state he goes among the people and on the walls. He is the fallen king, the humbled man. He shows to all the people his weakness and his piety, for his piety is manifested in this repentance too. In face of the physical suffering and the monstrous crime he can only fall down before God and ask pardon for himself and his people. He undoubtedly has a proper sense of what penitence is. He has worn sackcloth to mortify himself before God—he, the king, in the name of the whole people. And he has kept this mortification secret, as Jesus will later say we should do. He has the conviction that he is king for repentance and chastisement. He bears the evil of all his people before God. He remains (or would like to remain) the guardian of spiritual things. And he does nothing.
We shall often have occasion to point out that in these stories the feverish activity of the believer is absurd. But we must now emphasize the very opposite. The king is the one who ought to act and intervene and direct. His true piety, his authentic repentance, is not enough. He needs wisdom, i.e., the science of government in accordance with God’s will. And now suddenly this weak and pious king explodes into action. Elisha must be killed. Elisha is responsible for all this, for the military disaster and the moral disaster. For Elisha has always given assurance of God’s faithfulness. He has promised God’s help. But God has patently abandoned his people. Elisha must be put to death because it is he who carries God’s Word, who constantly claims that God intervenes in our lives, and who finally represents God in Israel (the king forgets that he does too!). Behind Elisha, however, God is undoubtedly Joram’s real target. The judgment is clear, man’s judgment on God: "This evil comes from the Lord." It is God who is responsible. If he is Israel’s God, how can he allow what is happening. The king could have endured without collapse the military defeat, the siege, and the physical misery of his people. But things have gone too far. In face of the horrible and abominable thing he has seen he can no longer believe that God is the living and loving God. In killing Elisha, the king is really getting at God.
Undoubtedly, the traditional conflict between king and prophet also breaks out again at this juncture. On the one side is the king, who is the normal and legitimate guardian of established and institutional religion, which is also willed by God (as we so often forget). On the other side the one who represents God is absolutely the wholly other, who cannot be reduced at all to any religious or theological form whatever, who is always absolutely new and surprising, who does not cease to come in the "today" of his presence, who disturbs our ritual, morality, and piety. On the one side is the guardian of what God has done and has been. His role is valuable, legitimate, and divinely willed in the absolute sense. For God is also the one who is constantly telling us in his Word to remember: Remember what I was for you yesterday. He is thus the guardian of true and correct tradition. On the other side is the son of thunder who interferes and overthrows, affirming that God is not the God of the past or of the dead, but the God of the present and the living. It is inevitable that conflict should break out. But we should always remember that both parties in the conflict are equally justified and are equally commissioned to fulfil a divine task. The king cannot tolerate disruption of the established order, and he is right, for he has been instituted precisely to protect and uphold this divinely willed order. He cannot accept the irrational adventure and revolutionary explosiveness of the Word spoken here and now.
Where he is wrong, however, is in playing off the God of yesterday against the God of today and in invoking God for the killing of the prophet, this prophet who in the king’s eyes is involved in the scandal since he does not seem to be scandalized by the awful train of events which has brought on the king’s spiritual crisis.
Finally, to complete the portrait of the king, we find a very characteristic trait. When the lepers come to announce the flight of the Syrians, the king sees in it a classic ruse or trap. They have pretended flight in order to draw us to the camp, and when we have sallied out they will come back and slay us. The king takes a rational and common-sense position. There was no reason for the Syrians to flee. Furthermore, the ruse of besiegers pretending to raise the siege was indeed a classic one. The king’s judgment is thus the normal one any general or politician would reach in the circumstances. It is the attitude of reasonable doubt. Nor should we forget that it was a trait in the character of this king. What we see here we have seen already in the story of Naaman. When he received the letter from the king of Syria he interpreted it as a means of provoking war. One can hardly blame the king for taking this view. He was also the secular and military head of the people. He had to direct and govern it by the best methods, by strategy and reason. He had to use the human means of judgment at his disposal. What kind of king would that be who plunged blindly into every political and military snare? Any king would have thought as he did. The main difficulty for him was that he was not just any king.
He was the king of Israel, God’s people. In this situation, however, he judged according to prudence and not according to faith. He did not listen to the Word that God had spoken to him. He did not see a Word of God in this whole incident. Now if it is common for man not to discern God’s Word, this man who is part of the people of God has been invested at his election by the ability to hear and understand this Word. But now reasonable doubt and political prudence (which he must also exercise quite often) have snuffed out this ability to hear the Word of God when it is spoken to him. He is the man who has received the seed, who hears the Word, "but the cares of the world. . . choke the word, and it proves unfruitful" (Matthew 13:22). We are faced again by the serious problem of the politician. How can he avoid the cares of the world? How can he fail to use prudence, competence, and reason? But how can this long-standing habit not choke the Word of God in its uncertainty, fragility, and unpredictability?
The second character in the story to whom we must now turn is the prophet. Now the story raises already the problem of what makes Elisha a prophet. It is certainly not the power of "sight" he displays in verse 32, the fact that he can see what goes on in the royal palace, that he knows what decision the king has made against him, that he is aware of the king’s intention to assassinate him. Nor is it his power to foretell coming events (7:1), the fact that he declares that the people will be fed the next day. It is not even the miracle that ensues, the flight of the Syrians.
Now in the main facts of this kind are the marks of a prophet in our eyes. In reality, however, such facts are secondary. They accompany prophecy, but they do not constitute the prophet. They are not useless nor mythical. (Bultmannian spiritualizing, for which, if God is the Wholly Other, all these manifestations are just forms of expression with no real content, is certainly quite unacceptable, for why should not the Almighty be free to act in this way too?) But false prophets can also produce them, and so, too, can seers and magicians.
What constitutes the prophet is exact and rigorous proclamation of what God does, of God’s decision, today. With objectivity, with, one might almost say, a certain indifference, a detachment as if it were no concern of his, the prophet says: "Look, God has decided this." But it is not just this unveiling (revelation) of the intention of God that makes a man a prophet. It is also the proclamation of an order: "Listen to the Word of God." There is something more important than trying to engage in trade, or to support oneself, or to watch on the walls, or to punish criminals: stop all that. Listen, now, to God’s Word. The prophet offers a living Word for the present. He offers a Word relevant to the actual situation of men, a Word which will be a solution, but which is completely irrational and unexpected, and which implies for man a strange renouncing of his own methods and policies and normal inclinations. The prophet is in effect the man who brings a Word of God to bear on the actual, concrete situation of man, his political situation.
This is a Word which has no common denominator with our political intentions and appraisals. To come and say that among several political or economic systems this is a good one is not to speak a Word of God; to come and announce that it is necessary to belong to a particular party or union is not to speak a Word of God. To seek solutions to famine or political or colonial slavery is not to speak a Word of God. All this is Joram’s attitude. Certainly the prophet shows that God is present in everyday life, in political dramas. But he does not bring any solution nor engage in any action. He shows but he does not demonstrate. He issues an order: Listen to the Word of God. You are now placed before it. Make your decision. At every point and turn, then, he adopts the starting-point of every attitude of faith. With the prophet there is no progress. There is no progress in the political situation (Naaman was cured but this changed nothing, for war broke out afterwards). There is also no progress in the spiritual situation. The prophet constantly brings us back to zero. The situation is always a completely new one. Our spiritual life is constantly brought back to the decision of faith, to that corner which our moral, theological, and ecclesiastical ruses seek in vain to avoid.
Yes or no, this time, will you listen to this Word of God?
But I already heard it yesterday.
We are now living today.
It’s all the same.
But you are not the same, you have to decide today.
The prophet will not allow us to use faith as a point of departure for taking our journey through life or constructing our morality, ecclesiology, or politics. He addresses faith and demands the decision of faith now, for tomorrow will already be too late. He addresses faith, and only in the response of faith is the word that the prophet speaks a Word of God.
Again, Elisha makes no attempt at all to convince those who are not in faith. As we have seen, he does not demonstrate even to believers, and even less so when faced by unbelief. He pursues no apologetics at any level, whether objective or subjective. Yet in face of the proclamation of the Word, the first reaction Elisha can record is that of unbelief. The officer of the house shrugs his shoulders. What then? Will Elisha start again? Will he engage in discussion? Will he try to convince? Not at all. He simply announces to this man his situation before God: "You shall see it with your own eyes, but you shall not eat of it." The prophet sets aside this man who has refused. He tells him what concerns him, for his unbelief can be shamed only by his destiny. It sets him outside the truth of the Word but not outside the line of his life before God, and this is all that the prophet can say to him.
It is extraordinary to think that Elisha, who abounds in miracles, does not perform any miracle to confirm what he declares, whether to convince or to excite faith. But I think we must be bold and take the text in its entirety. What brought on the whole train of events was the woman’s cry: "Save me." The king was then reduced to despair by the full horror of the situation. Then the prophet stepped in. There is a kind of parallelism with the story of Naaman. The general, too, was crying out: "Heal and save me." The king was again in despair and rent his clothes. In both cases he proclaimed that he could not respond to the cry: "Save me." In both cases the prophet stepped in. In answer to the scandalous question of the woman, to her ignoble and yet desperate situation, the prophet gave God’s answer—a positive answer. To be sure, it was not a personal answer to the woman, whose act would no doubt come under judgment. But it was the collective answer of salvation given because one of these unfortunate people had pushed her despair to the extreme limit. Elisha, then, stood by his people. He, the prophet of God, did not remove himself to judge this people among whom such horrible things had been done. For we must not forget that in addition to the open crime of the woman many other heinous things afflicted the people, e.g., speculation and the crushing of the poor by the privileged, as is suggested by the note on the frightful prices for the least bit of nourishment. The prophet does not attack the people. He does not judge the woman or the speculators. He maintains solidarity with the people. He takes counsel with the elders. He comes to help what is still for him the people of God, the people to whom the Word of God must be spoken, no matter what the circumstances may be. And he also steps forth to announce to it the perseverance of the love of God even when everything seems to lead us to believe that the Eternal is no longer there. He steps forth to announce physical deliverance too.
But once again he does nothing. This is a strange thing to say, and we shall see again that in political problems the prophet remains inactive. He does not effect directly any intervention or miracle even to save himself. The king wants him put to death and sends a messenger to assassinate him. But the prophet does not use his power to save his life. This would have been easy enough for him when we think of all his other miracles. He does not employ any spiritual force. He refrains from asking God for protection. We are inevitably reminded of Jesus in Gethsemane: "Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?" (Matthew 26:5 3). But he did not appeal, and neither did Elisha. Elisha uses purely human means. He closes the doors. He protects himself like anyone else. In this very real danger he does not think he should use his power on his own behalf. God’s power has not been given to him for his own advantage. He takes refuge behind a closed door, and for the moment this flimsy barrier must serve as his only security. For good or ill, therefore, Elisha remains among the men of this Israel of God now that they are in the very depths of misfortune.
This does not mean, however, that he is all sweetness, hope, and charity. He pronounces judgments, judgments against the king and against the officer of the guard. The king who is still Israel incarnate: Joram the son of the assassin, for Joram is indeed the son of Ahab, murderer of the prophets of Yahweh, and also murderer of Naboth (the miserable little story of Naboth continually comes up again); Joram himself an assassin, for it is his intention to continue his father’s work and to slay the prophet—the king is judged; everything converges now. We have seen above that he unwittingly renounces his role, his office as Israel’s king (v. 30). Now with his decision to have Elisha put to death he brings down on himself the express condemnation of the Word of God. This twofold development will take place when Elisha will go to anoint Jehu and to have the king dethroned.
But there is another judgment too. It is on the officer, who finds himself excluded from the promise made to the people. The prophet does not condemn him directly; he simply answers his unbelief. In effect he is condemned to death. The prophet’s condemnations certainly pose the problem of final judgment, of the ultimate salvation of men, of the range of these judgments. Do the words pronounced against the officer and the king, as Words of God, carry with them the eternal damnation of these men? Is God no longer God-with-them? Are these condemnations a final judgment on them? They have not had faith; they are judged already (John 3:18). Or may it be that what we have here are only actual, temporal, and temporary signs of this final judgment, which should serve as warnings as to the seriousness of the Word of God, but which do not necessarily imperil the salvation of these two men for whom Jesus also dies? My own conviction is that in all this we simply have a rejection in time, a condemnation for the moment, not eternal damnation.
They are thus condemned but not damned. They are put outside God’s work but not his love. Historians tell us there was no concept of eternal life or of resurrection in ancient Israel. Hence there was no thought of eternal retribution in good or evil. Everything took place on earth. God’s judgments had validity only for this world. Only with the development which led to the concept of eternal life did another dimension come to be given to the judgment of God. All this may be true, but it is hardly adequate, for we are now confronted by the unity of this Scripture which is recognized in its entirety by faith to be the one Word of God, unique, total, and complete. In this one Word of God we do in fact find two types of eternal decisions regarding man. Some decisions concern his concrete life on earth. Here, too, there may be rejection, condemnation, and chastisement. Each brings down this decision upon himself, and this decision of God can be of infinite seriousness and severity. For after all there is here a twofold condemnation to death. The one may be executed immediately or a dozen years later, it makes no odds. Then we have God’s judgment on the inner core of the problem, on the final relation between this man and God. It is here that Jesus Christ is offered up as an expiatory victim, as a ransom from bondage to death, as God taking man’s place beneath the justice of God. This is also true for Joram and the officer.
But in making this distinction are we returning to ancient ideas? Is the historical rejection in time an expiation for our faults on earth? Is there an earthly punishment even as we await salvation in heaven? To say this is in effect to nullify the work of Jesus Christ. If we are smitten on earth to expiate our faults, then temporal judgment is the same as eternal judgment. But this is not what we learn from the Bible. Are we not arguing that there is a correlation between happiness and obedience to God (or faith), between unhappiness and revolt against God, according to the ancient theory debated in the Book of Job? But again this does not seem to me at all to be the biblical teaching. Furthermore, in these conditions, to what would God’s historical judgment correspond in the concrete life of man? It seems to me that the position is always very clear: God speaks. To this actual, living, present Word of God addressed to a man there must be the reply of an actual, present decision of faith. Now when God speaks to a man, it is never for his personal satisfaction, for the sake of his soul or his happiness. The announcement God makes to him is always connected with an order God gives him, a service he expects of him, a mission he lays upon him. And the reply of faith that God expects is that the man will accomplish this mission and service, that he will enter into God’s design. But when the man refuses to do this, when he does not accept the word as a Word of God, when he takes refuge behind doubt, or eternity, or human wisdom, when this man asks God to wait, then God rejects him, but he does not send him to hell. He discards him as an instrument he cannot use. God has a work to do. He calls a man. This man refuses or does not hear. So God dismisses him and calls another. The first man called is not outside God’s love nor outside salvation in Christ. But he is out of work. He has been dropped from the great adventure, the great history, of salvation. He no longer has a place in God’s plan. God depended on him to say yes or no. He has chosen not to be involved. God accepts his decision. King Joram is no longer the real king of Israel. He is of no use even though he continues to engage in politics and to make wars, even though he is very active and makes alliances. All this is irrelevant. It is outside God’s plan. His enterprises may be discounted by historians. They are just a blank in the work of God. This is the meaning of temporal rejection, just as temporal election is always election for service. To be sure, this temporal rejection is for the spectator a sign and a warning. It reminds him of the extreme seriousness of the Word which is spoken to us. The king’s officer who is crushed to death should not only be a warning in this world. He should also send us back to the infinite grace of God in Christ which changes every condemnation into pardon, or rather which sets every condemnation within the infinite love of God, who punishes to three generations but who pardons to a thousand generations.
Perhaps another question should be raised. Why do we find two different attitudes in the prophet? Why does he not condemn the faults of the people and those of the women who have committed a crime? Conversely, why does condemnation fall on the king and his officer? The answer seems to be quite simple and in conformity with the total teaching of Scripture. In the former case we have moral faults. These are also very important, and sometimes the prophets deal specifically with them. It is certainly no light thing to kill an infant. Indeed, the very reason why there is no reference to the judgment of God on those who commit such crimes, to the judgment of God which falls on his Son, is that nothing can expiate this kind of offense. Here we cannot but be in the presence of this judgment. It cannot be just a matter of refusing service or of not obeying the actual order of God. In the case of the king and the officer, however, the problem is very different. An express Word of God is addressed to them. Before this Word they have to decide. The Word is spoken to them in the first instance because they are responsible at this point. They are guides and authorities for the people. They have to make a decision of faith, a decision for service, to follow and to obey this Word which is spoken to them personally. And the one says: "Why should I wait for the Lord any longer," while the other shrugs his shoulders: "If the Lord himself should make windows in heaven, could this thing be?" This doubt, this refusal of service, provokes the judgment of temporal rejection. The people in its misery has obeyed the law of necessity and done wrong, but God has profound pity on the man who is brought down thus. But the man who receives God’s Word is restored to liberty. The king and the officer to whom the Word is addressed in the first instance have become free to decide, and they are thus in very truth responsible for their refusal to obey. They are without any excuse. They have no recourse apart from the final recourse in Christ.
We now come to the central problem which will constantly confront us in these pages. This is the problem of the relation between God’s decision and man’s. We should first stop to consider God’s own attitude. For if Scripture says little about God’s being or essence, it is constantly revealing his action and presence. Without doubt the first thing to strike us here is the pure freedom of God’s decision. We can find no reason at all for his attitude. Why, for example, does he allow the invasion of Israel? Why is Samaria reduced for the second time to this extremity? Why this distress? Israel is no worse than other peoples. It is no worse at this moment in its history than at other moments. There is no reason, motive, cause, or condition for God’s free will. God is God. He speaks, and things are. We have not to think that behind there might be something different. This unhappy people is again led into even greater evil by the trial itself. Under the suffering of the siege it does not prove to be heroic or virtuous. On the contrary, crime and oppression increase. One might say that God leads his people into an excess of iniquity. Conversely, there is no reason why the trial should cease. There is no comprehensible motive for God’s arresting of the situation and raising of the siege. We wish we could say: "He will not let you be tempted beyond your strength" (1 Corinthians 10:13). But one has the impression this unhappy people has in fact been tempted beyond this point. No, God is not even conditioned by this limitation. He chooses the moment of deliverance, too, in absolute freedom. Neither prayer nor the king’s repentance forces his hand. One day the Word of God will break over man and declare: "Lo, the trial is over." This moment is God’s secret. We are faced here by the same freedom as that which Jesus preserved when he spoke of the end of the ages and said that even the Son has no knowledge on this subject. No preconceived, discernible, or revealed plan exists. There is no premonitory sign that we can calculate. There is no passage of time corresponding to historical periods. No doing of works, no achievements of missions or churches, no propagation of the gospel, no excess of human sufferings, can cause us to say: "Lo, tomorrow. . . ." The Word which will say this will come upon us like the eagle when no one expects it, when no one expects it any more. And I think this strict freedom of God explains all those New Testament texts which historians persist in regarding as written as a result of the mistaken ideas of the first Christians who expected the immediate return of the Lord and were bitterly surprised when it was delayed.
Perhaps the words used may be explained by some such misunderstanding, but the explanation as such is a trite one. For the words express the truth of the freedom of God, who is counselled and controlled by nobody. This is the God, then, who lets the suffering of man go on, who is deaf to his cry, who does not prevent the persecution, who for some time grants neither deliverance nor answer to prayer, so that one can understand the accusation of man against him, the accusation of the king: "This trouble is from the Lord!" Yes, one must accept it. If God is the author of all things. . . . Yet it should be noted that the king makes the accusation only after hearing of the crime of the two women. The king has withstood without flinching the siege, the defeat, the famine. But in face of this moral evil, this scandal, he has reached his limit. As the king of Israel he can no longer bear the burden of such abominations. Not I, but God is now responsible for these atrocities. And it is true that God’s absolute freedom in these matters leads us to this conclusion. Now when he is faced by this accusation, which is repeated a hundredfold by man against God, and which finds an echo in the Bible, God never answers. God does not explain his conduct and decision to man when the latter demands an account, just as God does not justify himself before man. This is the same problem as that of Job. Job, too, accuses God of being the author of evil. And when at last, after a long debate and the prolonged cry of suffering man, God speaks, he does not explain or reply to Job.
There is no theology of expiation, of testing, or of the presence of Satan. All the hypotheses suggested and discarded by Job and his friends are discourses to which no answer is given. God does not choose to set his stamp on any of them. He reveals only one thing to Job, namely, that he is the free God, the unrestricted God, the God who gives an account to no one. But he is also the God who speaks to this man and who is thus with this man. This is enough to demolish all objections, accusations, theogonies, revolts and dramas. "I have uttered what I did not understand" (Job 42: 3). This is all that man can ultimately say when confronted by the revealed freedom of God. Here too, then, God neither explains nor justifies himself when accused by the king. But the prophetic word is uttered at once; in face of the accusation God replies by asking for faith. "Tomorrow," says the prophet, tomorrow there will be full liberation, everything will be resolved and accomplished. Today you have to receive this promise and believe. You have to stop questioning and believe and wait for tomorrow. Things do not happen at once. There is no explosion of miraculous deliverance. All that is given is just a man’s word: Tomorrow. And this is finally the real test to which God is leading man. In his suffering and rebellion today, will he be capable of discerning the presence of God himself in this word? Will he have the patience to wait (he who after many months is waiting for the end of the siege, we who after many centuries wait for the Lord’s return)? Will he have the patience to wait for tomorrow? The prophet gives no direct answer to the accusation of the king. He does not engage in theological discussion. He announces that absolutely free grace will reply to faith. He restricts himself to this announcement. In other words, the problem is not a metaphysical problem. The existence of evil, its cause, God’s attitude to it, the relation of God’s omnipotence to it—these are all matters for an irrelevant metaphysical dissertation. To have knowledge of such things changes nothing whatsoever in our life and sufferings. The doctrine of evil and its origin may satisfy our curiosity but it is unimportant. God is not an encyclopedia whose task is to satisfy our curiosity. The true question is that of man’s attitude in the situation of suffering and the grip of evil. The king revolts; it is God’s fault. He is in despair; what more is there to hope for? The prophet simply calls for faith. No wave of a magical wand can change the evil metaphysically into good, or offer an explanation of it, or modify the objective situation of man. An appeal is simply made to the changing of man in the presence of God’s promise, You are in despair in a hopeless situation. But God’s Word is addressed to you. Tomorrow you will receive (exactly as in the case of the manna in the wilderness, you have to believe each day that you will receive your ration tomorrow). Today, believe. To God’s total freedom, which man can only accept, there should be a response of faith even though no sign is given him today, no sign, in our case, apart from Jesus Christ.
This freedom of God finds expression also in the choice of the means he employs. Samaria will be saved, but to accomplish this God neither uses nor relies on the courage of the soldiers, the skill of the generals, the politics of the king, or the return of all the people to virtue and morality. God will save Samaria by a miracle. He will do it by the most ridiculous, empty, and illusory miracle, by a noise, a wind, an echo, by an illusion which makes a victorious army flee. This is an illustration of the fact that God chooses "things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are" (1 Corinthians 1:28). But it also shows how much noise and how little weight or worth or significance there is in what man does. I think that we who take our politics and bombs and elections so seriously should take this seriously too. Here we have a victorious army, a devastating war, imperial politics, and then an echo; there is nothing left. God in heaven does indeed laugh to scorn the furious raging of the people (Psalm 2: 1ff.). He laughs at our political passions and our military and revolutionary storms. All this, serious enterprises included, has precisely the dimension and the value of a noise. In truth the dramas of the nations belong to this level, so that no one can finally glory in what results. Neither the king of Israel nor his army can indeed be triumphant. We need to be convinced in all our political actions (and they are far from being futile) that we too have no reason to be triumphant.
But God is not content with a miracle in which men have no part at all. He always associates man with himself in his acts and in the execution of his work, for his work is done on man’s behalf.
His work is not abstract. It makes sense only if man grasps and utilizes it. The miracle is not for its own sake. The fact that the Syrians flee means nothing in isolation. Israel has to have a part in what God does. It has to profit by the miracle. The mere fact that the Syrians flee solves nothing for Israel if the latter does not show the attitude of faith which consists in believing that the miracle has taken place. (Believe that you have received already, says Jesus Christ.) The miracle alone is not a miracle. It is a miracle when man accepts and adopts it as such. Here again we see God’s freedom in the choice of means. God chooses some men among others. He associates men secondarily with himself in the doing of his work. But what men?(Not the most qualified, the most informed, the most worthy, the most alert.) We see God choose lepers to discover the miracle just as it is women coming to the tomb with their own material concerns who discover the great miracle. The lepers are rejects. They are unclean. They are specially marked by traces of sickness and the sign of sin. They have been rightly thrust out of the camp and they have no further part in religious life. But it is to these lepers that God gives a place and a task in his miracle. Then at the other end of the story, to execute his judgment, God chooses the crowd, man in his most animal state, at his most unreflecting and irrational. It is man who does what God expects, but certainly not the kind of man that man himself would have chosen for so lofty a function.
Nevertheless we see that for all his freedom God respects the word of the man who adopts and declares it. The prophet’s word is indisputably fulfilled by God. There is no point in pressing this or in raising the insoluble problem whether God caused the prophet to say what he did because he willed that this be done or whether God listened to the word of his prophet and, because he loved him, accomplished what he had said. This is a false dilemma, for both aspects are equally and simultaneously correct. We know indeed that God can sometimes expressly command his prophet to intimate something and then God does not do it, as in the case of Jonah. God treats the king’s saying with the same freedom. The king said: "May God do so to me, and more also, if the head of Elisha... remains on his shoulders today." The head of Elisha did not fall. But God is not invoked in vain. The king himself will be rejected and then put to death. There is need to reflect on this decision and condemnation. God shows hereby that he governs the king and the monarchy. He gives a reminder that he is still the true king of his people, that it is he (and not this feeble king) who commands in Israel, delivers Israel, and serves as its commander-in-chief, that it is he also (and not this king that abdicates his responsibility) who himself bears all the suffering of this people, who takes it to himself and suffers it, that finally it is on him (and not on this blind king) that there falls all the evil committed among his people. This people remains the people of God, and the king of this people, even though rejected, remains a symbol of the true king of this people. What happens with the rejection of the king is what will happen to the true king of the people of God. The dreadful evil, the crime committed, God himself takes it upon himself and will manifest it in his Son Jesus Christ.
Thus everything rests on God’s freedom, and yet the truly astonishing feature in these stories is that everything rests also on human decisions. These are real decisions and not just acts or good works done in obedience to God and in response to his known will, his law, his clear commandment. The prophet gives no order to act. He does not head an operation. He declares what will happen but does not ask specific people to step in. Man himself will choose his own acts for human motives at the level of reason or intuition. The whole story makes it clear that man is not "mechanized" or "inspired" by God. Each man chooses his own way for his own reasons.
We first find the intervention of the lepers. They are outside the town as the law demands (Leviticus 13:46). They live on alms, and in this time of famine gifts are few and far between. They have been shown no special favor by God, for, unlike Naaman, they have not been cured. Once again God seems to be leaving the members of his people aside. They are put in a situation of what one might almost call fate, and we find them reasoning in a very realistic and natural way. If we go into the city we shall certainly die (of hunger or stoning). But if we stay here we shall die just as certainly, for there is no one to feed us. If we go to the Syrians it is possible they might kill us, as lepers and Jews. But it is also possible they might not kill us, and we should then have something to eat. Their choice is dictated by the realistic and irrefutable logic of necessity. They thus act at a strictly human level. The rest of their conduct is also characterized by the same humanity in this restricted sense. When they find the camp empty they help themselves first. They plunder and pillage. They hide their own little piles of loot. They think of themselves first, and it is not for us to blame them, or to moralize; we may simply emphasize that they were not virtuous Israelites anxious to discover and to understand the will of God. No, they acted exactly like any other man without God whose motto is: "Self first; let us profit by the occasion." Nor is their second impulse better than the first. Having satisfied their own needs they then tackle the moral problems and take "religious" stock of the situation. "We are not doing right" (it is a little late to see this), and "if we are silent. . . punishment will overtake us," surely the very lowest "religious" level: a moral vision of the situation before God; repentance out of fear; the idea of a God who punishes according to the balance of good and bad. Here again we have the reaction of the natural man and natural religion. The conduct of these lepers continues to be worthy of note. With the prudence which is customary in such matters, they do not tell their wonderful news to the people and those most concerned. They make their report to the authorities by the chain of command, i.e., from the gatekeepers to the king (for they themselves have no right of entry into the city and they accept their position). Nevertheless, these men who act at a strictly human level, who give no evidence of any spiritual or moral quality, who simply make an objective report on the situation they themselves have seen, these men do exactly what God expected. It is they who confirm the fulfilment of the prophecy. But did they actually know this prophecy of the day before? Almost certainly not. They were outside the city. They have a part in the miracle and yet they do not know that it is a miracle or that God announced it. They see an event and they draw the usual human conclusions. Nevertheless, they are witnesses of the fulfilment; they come to tell the good news to the people of Israel.
We are not forcing the text. The word employed is "good news," normally used for news which comes from God, which announces a divine act. In this sense it is not entirely fanciful to claim that they were, as Vischer says, the four evangelists carrying the good news of deliverance and salvation.
It is in the same sense that the women at the empty tomb were the evangelists of the resurrection. But we notice that this was all unintentional. Or rather, their own clear intention, their conscious decision, their express motivation, had a dimension and signification they could not realize. They could not know the underlying background of their own word and their own will. We see how their own will was inwardly caught up in the intention of God, who did not constrain them in any way. Their free decision was given a place in the secret and vaster plan of God. Others could have filled their role. But it was they who filled it. And they did so without any intention whatever of doing God’s will in this sense.
Along exactly the same lines we next find the free and prudent decision of the king (v. 13). He too, as we have seen, follows purely human motives. He weighs things politically. The decision he reaches (to send five of the thinnest horses with two chariots) is dictated by distrust, prudence, and a concern to risk as little as possible. It is certainly very far from being the decision of faith, of total risk, which God asks us to make. It is the very opposite of the all or nothing which God risked but which we dare not accept.
The king had no faith at all in the Word of God declared by Elisha. Nor did he believe the leper evangelists or their eyewitness. He reacted like a suspicious king, and after free political calculation he took a chance (perhaps this is true after all?) but obviously in such a way that if nothing was gained nothing would be lost, i.e., as little was risked as possible. But again this decision of mistrust (or little faith), of man’s prudence and common-sense, of scepticism, finds a place precisely in God’s design. One might almost say that the king had to make the decision or choice to verify exactly the fulfilment of the prophecy. But for him, too, there was no connection between the prophet and what he had been told; no connection whatever. In his political reckoning, however, he played spontaneously the role which was indispensable if the intention of God for the people was to be accomplished and the prophecy was to be genuinely fulfilled, not just in itself, but for the people which God had resolved to save.
Finally we come across a third remarkable conjunction in the action of the crowd. Once the good news is verified it is spread abroad among the people. Once it is known by the people, the mob is unleashed. There is obviously no holding back these starving wretches who have simply been awaiting death in some way, whether by famine if the siege continues or by the sword if there is a victorious assault. Suddenly the twofold danger has been lifted. They do not stop to talk about it, except perhaps to ask initially how it has happened and to recognize briefly how it relates to Elisha’s prophecy—as we know from the text—which is a result of this kind of reflection. No, there is an instantaneous rush for food. This is liberation. The crowd is unleashed. And again it is every man for himself. The main aim is to get there first so as to get the greatest possible amount of food at once, as though there was not enough for everyone. The crowd obeys its own violence, its own elemental impulse. It is the equivalent of panic, but in a forward rush. And in a crowd unleashed in this way, there are inevitably casualties.
The officer of the king who is at the gate is one of those trampled by the mob. The mob does not crush him intentionally. Yet on this bestial level, through a crowd which is only following its own instincts, God’s judgment is executed. The mob is not an instrument of God. It is not constrained to act by a divine push but by its hunger and the news of food. It simply acts according to the nature of a panic-stricken mob, and that is all. It has no desire to do anything relating to the Word of God. Yet, obeying its own violent impulse, it does just what God expects. In one way or another the officer was condemned, and man decided in what way, even though he did not realize he was carrying out the divine sentence.
Now we must beware of generalization. We certainly cannot say that every time a man acts without thinking, that every time he follows his instinct, he executes a divine judgment. Nevertheless, one has to consider that this is also possible; it cannot be ruled out.
In this full and complex story, then, we find conjoined a miracle and the most banal of human reflection. We find God’s intention fulfilled through a series of free human choices, some strong and some very feeble. We find human decisions intermeshed without any need of divine intervention (for perhaps even the Syrian flight was a phenomenon of mob panic such as can be spontaneously produced). We also find some human decisions that are integrated into God’s decision, while others are not. We learn first that God’s action is certainly not governed or provoked by man. Yet God takes account of man’s distress and his repentance, of his appeals and his revolts. The moment and means of God’s intervention are undoubtedly unknown to us and cannot be foreseen or grasped. At no point is God determined by anyone save himself. What we see already in the story, however, is that God intervenes because he remains the God of this people. He intervenes because the one who incarnates the people, who should normally represent God to the chosen people, the king, ceases to fulfil this role and is no longer the true king. At this moment God takes upon himself the misery of this people, its shame, and the evil that it commits. One might almost say that what "determines" God’s action in a given circumstance is that God takes upon himself the evil and the misery of man. Referring this to Jesus Christ, we may say that what determines the action and decision of God here and now is that he has taken upon himself all the misery of man and all the revolt of man in his Son Jesus Christ: all the misery and all the evil, including that of the particular situation which we are now living out in our own lives. God intervenes in this situation precisely for this reason. This is just another way of saying that God loves every man at every moment in every specific situation as he loved his Son Jesus Christ: not more (for Jesus Christ was delivered up to temptation, to testing, to fatigue, to hunger, to suffering and to death), but not less.
Reciprocally, man’s action is not determined by God any more than that of Jesus Christ was. We always have voluntary action. Wittingly or unwittingly man obeys his calculations, his needs, his passions, and his fears. God grants man freedom to do other than God expects, i.e., to do evil. He grants him the freedom to choose. All the same, everything man does is within the global plan of God. In all the complexity of human choices and interventions, some of them finally participate in this plan, fulfilling and accomplishing it. It is not that there is a preformed plan of God into which the actions of man fit as in a jigsaw puzzle. But in harmony with the perfect will of God, which is both holy and merciful, some human actions are taken by God and used by him to do his work. It is not that there is a work of God in which the actions of man are inserted (and even less mechanically produced). There are works of man—although not all man’s works—which God utilizes for his own work. We do not have a mixture or fusion of God’s will and man’s. Everything that is perfect, everything that is of eternal validity, is God’s will. But none of it is done by anyone but man. Not that man can do anything perfect or holy in and of himself. But God takes from man’s work that which he will make perfect and eternal. Thus one cannot say that on the one side there is in the absolute sense a history of mankind and then independently a history of God or work of God. It is equally wrong, however, to say something that is often advanced today, namely, that the history of mankind is finally the history of God himself with all the sorry deductions drawn from the fact that Jesus is Lord of history, etc. In the vast medley of private and public actions and political and economic decisions, in the enormous and incomprehensible complexity of the history of men, some decisions and works finally accomplish the intention of God, or are at least chosen and adopted by him. Certainly it is man who accomplishes all the history, who does God’s will in this history. It is man alone. But in this medley, this swarm, this chaos, this proliferating incoherence of man, there is a choice that is God’s choice. If the situation is always fashioned by man and God is ready to put himself in it (because he is with man); if God subjects himself to the incoherences and absurdities of man (which he has done in the delivering up of Jesus Christ to men); if the jumble of human decisions constitutes a "history" that historians can write, this does not mean either that all man’s actions are retained by God, nor that the situation is right, nor that there is a shade of progress, nor that the history corresponds to what God himself has resolved to do.
It is never possible to see what act of man does in fact fulfil the will of God. This we shall see only in the final recapitulation of all things in Christ when the greater part of the human agitation we call history will sink into nothingness. But what we need to know now is that it is man and he alone, and for his own motives, who manifests willy nilly the hand which gives and takes away, which slays and makes alive.
But again we must add three remarks. The first is that this fulfilment by man is set in the stream of global, political, and economic history even when we seem to have only private decisions (like that of the lepers).
The second is that it is all set within the people of God and in relation to it. To be sure, we are speaking of the history of men, but of a history which is coordinated with the history of Israel and the church. Certainly it is not the latter history that gives meaning to the history of man. Nevertheless, the history of man is indissolubly bound up with this history, and it is in this relation that God’s decision plays its part.
Thirdly, this doing of God’s will by man in his daily choices obviously does not discharge him from willing obedience as well. No reassurance can be found in the evasion that there are in the totality of my daily actions some which are pleasing to God, which are chosen by him, even though I do not know which these are and even though my most commonplace acts may also serve the divine plan, so that I have no need to try to find out what is God’s will, nor to attempt to do good, nor to enter voluntarily into his design. This type of argument is mere self-justification and hypocrisy. Once the Word of God has been addressed to me (and this applies equally to the king and to the officer), it must be my foundation on which I try to find out what can fulfil it and accomplish it among my acts and decisions.
I have to realize that what will finally be retained by God is not necessarily what I have done with the greatest piety, morality, faith, or searching out of the will of God. I have to realize that the acts I think indifferent might be the very ones that God retains, although he does not have to retain these either. I have to remember Matthew 25: I am still a rebel, a hypocrite, a liar, a blasphemer of God if I use all this to shuffle off the responsibility of doing expressly what God expects of me, to deny the commandment, the order, the explicitly stated will of God. We shall come back again and again to the same crooked human thinking: If God can use anything, I can do anything. This is to treat God with contempt: If I am in any case an unprofitable servant, I do not have to bother about what is profitable as God clearly reveals it in his law. This is the self-justification of a capitalist-type speculator. We have always to remember that it is after and not before I have done all that is commanded (in both faith and order) that I must pass upon myself the judgment of being an unprofitable servant.
The situation of the man to whom the Word of God has not been expressly declared, but whose decisions are also taken up by God, is completely different from that of the man who has received this knowledge, for the latter has no right to avoid an express attempt to fulfil the commandment, without which he falls under judgment like the king and the officer.
All the acts which I have done expressly to serve thee, and also all the acts which I believe to be neutral and purely human, and also all the acts which I know to be disobedience and sin, I put in thy hands, 0 God, my Lord and Savior; take them now that they are finished; prove them thyself to see which enter into thy work and which deserve only judgment and death; use, cut, trim, reset, readjust, now that it is no longer I who can decide or know, now that what is done is done, what I have written I have written. It is thou that canst make a line true by taking it up into thy truth. It is thou that canst make an action right by using it to accomplish thy design, which is mysterious as I write now but bright in the eternity which thou hast revealed to me in thy Son. Amen.
2. As is shown by von Rad (Old Testament Theology, I [E. T.], p. 42) the monarchy does not have in the Northern Kingdom the same character as it does in Judah. It does not rest on a once-for-all choice made by Yahweh in David but on a choice which is renewed each time. Hence each king is endowed with a charisma granted by Yahweh. He thus represents in himself a force and a religious power.