Chapter 3: Hazael
2 Kings 8:7-15; 13:14-25
7 Now Elisha came to Damascus. Ben-hadad the king of Syria was sick; and when it was told him, “The man of God has com here,” 8 the king said to Hazael, “Take a present with you and go to meet the man of God, and inquire of the Lord through him, saying, ‘Shall I recover from this sickness?’ ” 9 So Hazael went to meet him, and took a present with him, all kinds of goods ol Damascus, forty camel loads. When he came and stood before him, he said, “Your son Ben-hadad king of Syria has sent me to you, saying, ‘Shall I recover from this sickness?’ ” 10 And Elisha said tc him, “Go, say to him, ‘You shall certainly recover’; but the Lord has shown me that he shall certainly die.” 11 And he fixed his gaze and stared at him, until he was ashamed. And the man of God wept. 12 And Hazael said, “Why does my lord weep?” He answered, “Because I know the evil that you will do to the people of Israel; you will set on fire their fortresses, and you will slay their young men with the sword, and dash in pieces their little ones, and rip up their women with child.” 13 And Hazael said, “What is your servant, who is but a dog, that he should do this great thing?” Elisha answered, “The Lord has shown me that you are to be king over Syria.” 14 Then he departed from Elisha, and came to his master, who said to him, “What did Elisha say to you?” And he answered, “He told me that you would certainly recover.” 15 But on the morrow he took the coverlet and dipped it in water and spread it over his face, till he died. And Hazael became king in his stead.
14 Now when Elisha had fallen sick with the illness of which he was to die, Joash king of Israel went down to him, and wept before him, crying, “My father, my father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” 15 And Elisha said to him, “Take a bow and arrows”; so he took a bow and arrows. 16 Then he said to the king of Israel, “Draw the bow”; and he drew it. And Elisha laid his hands upon the king’s hands. 17 And he said, “Open the window eastward”; and he opened it. Then Elisha said, “Shoot”; and he shot. And he said, “The Lord’s arrow of victory over Syria! For you shall fight the Syrians in Aphek until you have made an end of them.” 18 And he said, “Take the arrows”; and he took them. And he said to the king of Israel, “Strike the ground with them”; and he struck three times, and stopped. 19 Then the man of God was angry with him, and said, “You should have struck five or six times; then you would have struck down Syria until you had made an end of it, but now you will strike down Syria only three times.”
20 So Elisha died, and they buried him….
22 Now Hazael king of Syria oppressed Israel all the days of Jehoahaz. 23 But the Lord was gracious to them and had compassion on them, and he turned toward them, because of his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and would not destroy them; nor has he cast them from his presence until now.
24 When Hazael king of Syria died, Ben-hadad his son became king in his stead. 25 Then Jehoash the son of Jehoahaz took again from Ben-hadad the son of Hazael the cities which he had taken from Jehoahaz his father in war. Three times Joash defeated him and recovered the cities of Israel.
We now come up against a new aspect of the same relation. We see historical events unroll according to the word of the prophet. To be specific, Elisha provokes a coup d’etat in Syria, brings about a dynastic change, and then provokes a similar coup d’etat in Israel and Judah.
The prophet himself intervenes directly to make Hazael king of Syria and Jehu king of the two kingdoms.
But we are faced at once by a preliminary problem. What Elisha does has not been directly or expressly commanded by God. He does what in fact Elijah had been ordered to do. This was in the days of Ahab. After the victory over the prophets of Baal, the demonstration of the power of God, and a series of miracles, Ahab, egged on by Jezebel, set out to kill the prophet. And Elijah, who had so far been so brave, took refuge in flight. There follows the well-known story of his journey for forty days through the desert, his resting in the cave, and the unforgettable meeting between Elijah and God, who was found in the still small voice. But then this God, so terrible in his public revelation, so tender towards his prophet, invests the prophet with a task he obviously cannot execute (1 Kings 19:15-18). Elijah says, “I, even I only, am left.” All the faithful have been slain, God has been rejected, and now “they seek my life, to take it away,” and I shall soon be dead too.
But the Lord of hosts replies: “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; and when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael to be king over Syria; and Jehu the son of Nimshi you shall anoint to be king over Israel; and Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah you shall anoint to be prophet in your place. And him who escapes from the sword of Hazael shall Jehu slay; and him who escapes from the sword of Jehu shall Elisha slay. Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal. . . .” This, then, is Yahweh’s answer. He does not intervene again to save his prophet. He does not console him directly, although he certainly does so indirectly by sustaining him and showing him his love. He does not confirm him in his abdication and withdrawal. On the contrary, he gives to this despairing, defeated, and solitary man a superhuman and in some degree incomprehensible task. But this task is related to what Elijah himself has proclaimed. The judgment which God has pronounced rests on the whole people. The people has rejected God and broken the covenant. Very well, then; it will be broken too. An external enemy will defeat Israel. And what war spares, revolution will destroy; the division of the people into parties and factions will shatter Israel. Thus disaster is announced, but in the very announcement there is also a promise and a consolation, the seven thousand men, the remnant, for no matter what Elijah believes there is still a remnant, there are still true believers, in Israel. And we should always remember that “seven” is the number of totality.
The remnant which is saved is thus the totality of Israel. There is ambiguity here. On the one hand the seven thousand represent the whole people (pars pro toto), so that the people as a whole is virtually saved by inclusion in the seven thousand. But on the other hand the seven thousand are the totality of the people, the rest are not Israel, and these remain the Israel of God in its fulness. We do not have to decide between the two meanings. We have simply to remember once more that when God rejects and condemns, when his strictness seems most absolute, he conjoins it at once with the announcing of his salvation and pardon—the two are indissolubly related. Judgment and grace are affirmed in the same movement. But this is not the theme of our present meditation. A remarkable point is that the task which God lays on the shoulders of Elijah is a political task. He is ordered to bring about a coup d’ état in Damascus and then another coup d’etat in Samaria. This prophetic command seems to be purely and simply political. Even more surprising is the fact that in reality Elijah does not do what he is ordered to do except as regards Elisha. The text goes on directly to tell us that Elijah departed and then met Elisha. He covered Elisha in his mantle, the sign of his power and also of his total person, so that from this moment Elisha is his successor, a continuation of the person of Elijah. Apart from designating the new prophet, Elijah does not do any of the things he was commanded. He does not go to Damascus, he does not nominate Hazael, nor does he nominate Jehu. On the contrary, the condemnation which God has passed on Ahab and the people of Israel seems to be ineffective.
Historians all agree today that the reign of Ahab was one of glory and power. The text itself shows this. After God’s judgment Ahab wins his greatest victories over Syria. Militarily and politically Israel becomes a great people. Ben-hadad is twice defeated. He has to restore all the towns he had taken from Israel. He has to accept the permanent presence of Israelites in Damascus, where the streets are reserved for them. Even more strangely, it is God himself who announces these victories to Ahab through his prophets (1 Kings 20:13). But the text also states that the army of Israel consisted of seven thousand men (v. 15). And perhaps everything depends on the fact that the Israel of God which would not bow the knee to Baal also numbered seven thousand. However that may be, the king is successful in both war and politics. He can live at ease, and the condemnation passed on him seems very light. But he commits an error. He makes an alliance with the king of Syria. He should really have put him to death according to God’s command. He disobeys the ban.
We thus have here a strange contradiction. Elijah is given the task of staging the coup d’etat in Syria which will replace Ben-hadad with Hazael, but God also considered that Ahab himself should have killed Ben-hadad. It is as though God was wanting to bring out the association between king and prophet. The king, a destructive conqueror, was supposed to slay his enemy according to the customs of war, but he certainly could not choose his successor. The prophet had no power at all to put the king of Syria to death, but he was given a positive order, the nomination of his successor. But this is immaterial, for what God expects does not take place at all. Ben-hadad is not put to death by Ahab and Hazael is not anointed by Elijah. Why does Elijah hold back? Surely it is inconceivable that he should not do what God commands. What is he waiting for? We do not know. The story as it goes on seems to suggest that God’s condemnation is without effect. Israel is in the ascendant and it survives even the notorious Naboth incident. Did this have to come first? But even this did not trigger the revolution. For after Elijah accused Ahab, the king repented, humbled himself before God, acknowledged the true God, and this time seriously. At once the Word of God came to Elijah: You have seen him repent? Very well, in these conditions judgment is temporarily lifted. The chastisement will not fall while Ahab lives. This, then, is what God was waiting for: the repentance of the worst king of Israel. This is why the course of events was delayed. Several golden years were given to Ahab while his repentance and conversion were awaited, and then three more years of peace. Then, his repentance being confirmed, Ahab, as he knew in advance, could die in his last battle. Thus the secret history of God remains secret. Time changes nothing. The judgment is still in force, but suspended for how many years? five or six in the reign of Ahab, two in the reign of Ahaziah, and then another five in the reign of Joram, another son of Ahab. During this whole period the formal and explicit order given to Elijah is not repeated. Elijah does not see the execution of the solemn order and the judgment pronounced in the desert. His role seems to be greatly reduced in the closing stages of Ahab’s reign and in that of Ahaziah. Other prophets now speak to Ahab, especially Micaiah. Elijah intervenes only twice, first with the great prophecy regarding Naboth, and then with the prophecy of the death of Ahaziah. Elijah is then taken up without having done what he was commanded to do, and perhaps he always had the burden of this delay on his heart. Many more years will then pass after the translation of Elijah before Elisha does what his master was ordered to do. It does not seem that the order was given expressly to Elisha or that it was renewed. Probably Elijah himself passed it on to Elisha as a Word of God to be fulfilled. The fact that Elisha will execute it obviously implies a continuation of ministry. What God has said to one prophet may be done by another. Their work is complementary. We are naturally reminded of the words of Paul: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:6). It is always hard for us to understand to what degree we are incorporated together into Christ by the act and decision of God, so that in God’s plan our actions are complementary and necessary to one another.
Incidentally, the delay in the prophecy, and the fact that it was Elisha who finally carried out the order given to Elijah, raises inevitably a problem for modern criticism. The schema of a full-scale historical orientation is well known. The biblical authors, being religious, have supposedly imposed a pattern of religious interpretation on the reality of historical facts. They have tried to show that God was the master of events, that he directed history, that he rewarded the good, and so on. If in some degree a simplistic view of this kind might perhaps be discerned in Chronicles, the same certainly cannot be said here. If the religious authors really wanted to impose a religious interpretation on the historical facts, why did they do it so badly that nothing hangs together? Why did they say that the order was given to Elijah and then for ten or twelve years nothing was done? Why did they not just say that God spoke directly to Elisha and the latter obeyed? Is not this much more satisfying for simple minds? Why say specifically that condemnation is passed on Ahab and then go on to stress his victories? It would have been so much easier to omit this “invention,” a command given to Elijah. Again, why is it that Ahab is defeated and slain after repenting? Why, according to the prophecy, does God say that his Word will be fulfilled in the reign of Ahab’s son (1 Kings 21:29) when nothing takes place during the reign of his first son, Ahaziah, and the prophecy is not fulfilled? It would surely have been very simple to arrange things in such a way that everything fitted properly if, after all, these prophecies, these words of God, these divine interventions in history, are all the religious interpretations of pious authors. Did they really have to be so clumsy, so stupid, so simple, that they could not present a coherent account or clear interpretation, but left things so muddled and ambiguous? But this very point gives us reason to ask whether by chance the simplicity and superficiality are not on the side of our critical historians and their rationalistic or agnostic interpretation of a history which is much more complex and difficult and profound, and in which after all God may have something to say. If only critical historians could advance their ideas as mere hypotheses instead of being so dogmatic!
However that may be, Elisha leaves for Damascus. No reason is given. Why does he do so at this juncture? No express sign has been given him by God. The time is no doubt favorable. There is an interval of peace between Samaria and Damascus. But it is evident that Elisha himself chooses his moment and takes the initiative in fulfilling this day the word that had been spoken to Elijah. It is the day he himself adjudges to be favorable. I think we shall have to speak of a calculated opportunism. It is incontestably left to Elisha’s assessment, and he makes his assessment from a political perspective. Now is the time to thrust the sharp sword of God’s act into the course of politics. But once the decision is made by Elisha according to the light he has, fortuitous circumstances are the direct occasion of the events that follow. The king of Syria is ill and appeals expressly to Elisha. He knows him to be the man of God. This is not surprising, for we recall that this king had Naaman beside him as his first officer. He has no doubt heard Naaman speak of him in a way that carried conviction. He knows what is going on. He thus appeals to the man of God to tell him what the result will be. He perhaps hopes that Elisha will heal him from a distance as in the case of Naaman. But instead we find a strange intermingling of motives and causes. The appeal to Elisha will be instead the cause of the king’s death. Elisha is the bearer of healing to the one and of death to the other. For we now find a new coincidence. The messenger chosen by the king to go to Elisha is the very man who has been nominated as the new king of Syria. We thus have the impression that in fortuitous circumstances it is God who is manifested in the coincidences. It is he who combines things so that the clear and independent decisions of men obviously work together: the decision of Elisha to come to Damascus and the decision of the king to appeal to the prophet. We could hardly be wider of the mark than if we were to say that these human acts are electronically controlled by God. Their cause and their specific meaning are to be found in man and his situation.
Elisha now sets the political events in train by the very ambiguity of his saying. The healing of the king? The question of his illness? “Go, say to him, ‘You shall certainly recover.’” This is the message for the king. The sickness which has struck him is not a fatal one. He will not die of it. Basically we should not take offense at the saying but we should accept it as a word of consolation that Elisha sends to the king.
As regards the precise matter which troubles the king, he may be reassured, and truly so, for what Elisha tells him is God’s assurance. Hypocrisy? No, for while what he says to the king is undoubtedly limited, the limitation is imposed by the king’s own attitude. Ben-hadad has consulted him as a diviner, a magician. All this is clearly at the level of magic and the king is exclusively preoccupied with his illness. God is ready to let himself be consulted at the level of magic too; we have plenty of other examples of this acceptance by God of man’s errors in this area, primarily the Urim and Thummim. And when man consults him at this level he will be given an answer at precisely the same level. An ambiguous reply is given to a magical question. A strictly limited reply is given to a strictly limited question. “Is this illness fatal?” “No”—that is all. But there is a further message for Hazael: “The Lord has shown me that he shall certainly die.” The messenger, who no doubt does not understand the contradiction, does not ask anything. But Elisha knows God’s decision. He is seized by sorrow for his people. Faced by Elisha’s tears, Hazael now has a question. Elisha acts as God’s prophet in telling Hazael what he will do, what God has decided he will be: the scourge of Israel. “I know the evil that you will do. . .” Elisha describes to him the atrocities of war. When he hears it, Hazael is greatly surprised. He does not understand it at all. He is not one of the great commanders of Syria. He has no hope, humanly speaking, of doing what Elisha declares to him.
“How. . . could I do this great thing?” This naive question has two aspects. It shows first the good faith of Hazael. He has no idea what is meant. In other words, he has not been involved in any conspiracy. He has no intention of becoming king. He has no thought of seizing power. Thus it is truly God’s Word which triggers the event, which sets in train what follows. The other aspect of the naivety of Hazael is that he thinks Elisha is telling him a great thing. Elisha has been speaking of evil, of the horrors of war, and Hazael evidently regards it as a great thing. In effect, even in times of peace defeating Israel was very much on the minds of the Syrians, the traditional enemies of Israel. Dashing to pieces Israel’s children and ripping up the pregnant women was indeed a great thing. This Hazael is an admirable specimen of the natural man, very innocent and very simple. To Hazael’s question Elisha replies with God’s Word, which is both precise and also ambiguous: “The Lord has shown me that you are to be king over Syria.” This is clear enough. But the rest is obscure, namely, the “how” and the “when.” Here we are back at the level of human decisions. Elisha, the man of God, tells this messenger what he is (what he actually will be) before God, just as he told the unbelieving officer of Israel what he was (what he would be) before God. But to speak this word, to intimate the actual death of Ben-hadad and the kingship of Hazael, is no easy thing for the prophet. To be sure, he has only to speak (and we shall return to this limitation). But this word is harder to speak, more difficult to formulate, more implicating for his being, more binding for his life, than any great act, even a miracle, could ever be. For this word is spoken against his own wishes. Here again we can see clearly three possible positions. There is first the pure and simple mechanization of man by God, who moves him like a pawn. Then there is the willing obedience of man at any cost to the Word of God spoken to him, an obedience which may sometimes be in accord with the will, desire, intelligence, and choice of man, so that man is full of joy (this will be the situation in the kingdom), but which may also clash with the will, desires, intelligence, and choices of man, so that there is great sorrow as in Gethsemane.
Finally, the third position is that man makes his own decision without any knowledge of God’s intention. Now all the stories make it plain that the first hypothesis can be ruled out completely. If thus far we have seen Elisha in agreement with God, he is still obedient now, but this time in pain, sacrifice, and confusion. Elisha weeps; in his faith and obedience to the Word of God he cannot do anything but speak it. It is by a free decision that he obeys, yet it is against his own will, for he is horrified by the future which he triggers. It is against the love he has for his own people. We have seen already from the story of the siege of Samaria that he does not isolate himself completely from this people, and especially not when the disaster seems to be so gratuitous and without cause, for the people is not now rebellious or in revolt.
Elisha is well aware of this. There is also in Judah a truly good and pious king. Elisha is not told to preach divine chastisement in Israel nor to issue a call for repentance. Nevertheless, catastrophe draws near. Elisha weeps and yet he obeys, pronouncing God’s design. He submits to this incomprehensible decision, and, as a figure of Jesus Christ, he weeps even as he submits to this condemnation. For he and his people are one. It is he who invests Hazael with the power which will allow the conqueror to assassinate both his people and his king. “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above” (John 19:11). Elisha does not differentiate himself from his people. But this trial which God has willed must be endured.
The word of Elisha to Hazael is ambiguous: “He shall certainly die. . . .” “You shall do much evil to the children of Israel. . . .” “You are to be king over Syria.” From this point on man can be allowed to follow his own inclinations. In the eyes of Hazael the word Elisha spoke was not a Word of God. Certainly the prophet spoke twice on the Lord’s behalf, but Hazael had no cause to hear it as a Word of the true God. It is not in obedience to God that he sets to work. What has been said to him, the possibility of becoming king and of eventual glory, is enough to get things moving. Power is put in his hands. All that is now needed is the covetousness which will stir up ambition, the thirst for power, the appetite for renown.1
There is no need to point the way. The suggestion is enough. The ambiguous saying is not ambiguous to Hazael. His sin fulfils God’s will for evil even though God does not command it. All that God does is to lay a simple possibility before man, to open a gate, and to let things develop of themselves. He allows covetousness to rise up in Hazael, and this is all that is needed.
We learn from this two lessons. The first is that in the political context (and we do not have our sights on more than this) God has his Word brought by a man. It is only a human word addressed to men who do not believe. God does not accompany the word with any manifestation of glory or power. This simple word at the everyday level is neither indisputable nor imperative. At no point is man bound to it. God does not work in the heart of Hazael. He simply puts him before the Word. The Word is not a commandment. Hazael might do something very different from what is suggested. God has not traced out an implacable future in which the poor king is involved with no power at all to change anything. He might challenge this word which is spoken to him by a man like himself. The word is not irreducible. He might construe it very differently. For it is ambiguous. Hazael is not a poor figure of a king subjected to an ineluctable fate. It is for him to choose what he will do. It is within his own autonomy and independence that he will undertake to seize power and conquer kingdoms. It seems to me that this situation is a good illustration. The church never has to formulate a commandment of God in relation to political power, which in principle cannot recognize God as the true God. It has never to say to the state: This must be done. It has rather to tell it on God’s behalf what will in effect be done, what the state on its own initiative will undoubtedly be led to do. It has to be a prophet then? In a sense, yes. But serious meditation before God, dispassionate and disinterested understanding in God, should allow it to have a good knowledge of developments. A dispassionate stance is always indispensable, for action or taking sides inevitably veils the significance of the future. This leads us to another aspect of the text. The prophet speaks and that is all. He does not act. He announces this Word of God, but he does not have to make it efficacious or effective. He speaks, and men and events are charged with a kind of force or passion or weight. But the prophet does not lead Hazael. The text does not even say that he “anoints” him king. He gives him no counsel. Just as he does not bear arms in the siege of Samaria, he does not intervene in Damascus, e.g., by forming a group of supporters around Hazael. There is no action to take. Since the Word of God is pronounced he does not have to undertake to do it. He does not have to have a hand in its fulfilment. He does not have to find specific ways of giving it effect; men will see to this themselves. He does not have to demonstrate the efficaciousness of this Word as such. Man is set before it as before a very hard object against which he dashes himself. Now the prophet retires from the scene. The reality of political action is no concern of his. Once Hazael is set moving, he may be trusted to do the rest. He sets out to kill the king, and he himself finds the means to do it without difficulty. He will then reign for half a century and will in effect devastate the people of God. He begins in the territories across the Jordan, which he ravages and annexes. He then marches across all Israel and wounds Joram the king (8:28). He conquers Samaria, destroys its army, over-throws Jehu, and completely subjugates his son Jehoahaz. He leaves in Israel only ten chariots and fifty horsemen, “for the king of Syria had destroyed them and made them like the dust at threshing” (13:7). He also attacks the southern kingdom of Judah. He takes and destroys one of the principal fortresses, that of Gath (12:17). He then attacks Jerusalem. Now at the time there is a good and pious king in Jerusalem, namely, Jehoash, but he is defeated. Jerusalem is besieged, and astonishingly the king is ready to pay a tribute in order to save the city. But this is set so high that the royal treasury cannot meet it and the temple treasury has to be raided, “all the votive gifts that Jehoshaphat and Jehoram and Ahaziah, his fathers, had dedicated,” “all the treasuries in the house of the Lord.” It is on these conditions that Hazael goes away from Jerusalem. In other words, the evil done by the king of Syria is not just political and military. He also desecrates all that is considered most holy. He profanes the divinely instituted cultus. This undoubtedly signifies that God no longer supports the cultus, that he no longer accepts the consecration of cultic objects.
The people has disobeyed too much; it has been too much a “religious” people; it has been too much like other peoples and not itself, the holy people. What is the good of maintaining the cultus and holy things if the people itself is not holy? God manifests in practice his refusal of the worship of this people, and he manifests it by means of this conqueror.
Yet we also find the same recoil as upon the Assyrians. It is not enough for the man who does evil to be able to say: “God has sent me; God wills it; God has prompted it.” The scourge of God is still a scourge. The evil it does is still evil before God, and God judges. There is judgment again on the very instrument of God’s wrath. This “instrument” is in truth responsible. In the presence of God’s Word, which does not constrain, he has chosen to be the scourge of God. Amos, another prophet, announces the punishment of Hazael: “For three transgressions of Damascus, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they have threshed Gilead with threshing sledges of iron. So I will send a fire upon the house of Hazael . . . and the people of Israel shall go into exile to Kir,” says the Lord (Amos 1: 3-5). God is the master of Hazael too. What is contrary to his love for men and for his people is always something God condemns. Hazael cannot plead ignorance that all this is evil. Elisha told him of all the evil he would do. There can be no ambiguity in this regard. And it is again the role of the prophet and the church to show what is bad. But what God tells Hazael is bad he regards as a great thing. From the political standpoint it is in fact a great thing. Political passion causes him to forget that it is all under condemnation. He surrenders to the glory of great political achievements. Thus God is manifested not merely as he who is King of kings and Master of nations but also as he who behind historical success and grandeur issues judgments and fixes the final end.
Note should undoubtedly be taken of the exposition of the Amos passage by Neher. His translation of verse 3 reads: “For three transgressions. . . I will not answer.” God will not answer this people. He does not merely judge it; he refuses to talk to it. For, he says, these peoples are in God’s kingdom by reason of the covenant. Alongside the covenant with Israel there is a universal covenant based on the Noachic covenant, and all nations are the beneficiaries of this. These peoples are now threatened by a new divine scourge, each in turn. Syria has been the scourge of God, and now the Assyrian assumes the role. These peoples, headed by Syria, turn to God, perhaps appealing to him, Hazael and his house after him. But now God will not answer them. “The silence of God reveals the existence of sin.” Hazael has not just committed any sin. He has actually transgressed the covenant. God will not speak any more, and “history will speak the language of God.” As Israel and Judah have been delivered into the hands of history, so it will now be with Syria. The glory of Hazael will be quickly tarnished. The Word of God which launched him will be spoken no more when he invokes it.
Subject at last to this judgment, Hazael must die after a glorious reign of half a century. The story is a gripping one (1 Kings 13:14). Joash, a bad king, is now reigning in Israel. He does what is evil in the sight of the Lord. It is said of him, as of Jehoahaz, that he continues the sin of Jeroboam. This sin of Jeroboam is often recalled, and it is of political importance, for it means using God to enhance the state (we shall examine the significance of this later). Here, then, is the sin that Joash commits again. Nevertheless, he recognizes that Elisha is a prophet, a man of God, of the true God. Thus, when he hears that Elisha is dying, he goes to him and weeps. He perceives that if there is protection for Israel he does not owe it to the golden calves but to Elisha, in whom he discerns the true grandeur of God, real power, “the chariots of Israel and its horsemen.” Elisha is of more value to Israel than all its armies.
There is great merit in the fact that Joash realized this, for during the years of Israel’s defeat Elisha must have seemed to be the prophet of a false god, as under Joram. But Joash, torn by conflicting impulses, even calls Elisha “my father,” and Elisha cannot resist this appeal. He replies and gives the assurance of deliverance. He has the king perform symbolical acts, and the remarkable thing is that the king obeys without demur: “Take a bow and arrows”; “Open the window eastward”; “Draw the bow.” The king does all these things. Then the prophet puts his hands on the king’s hands as he holds the taut bow. Symbolically this means that the prophet transmits his power as a man of God to the king. Joash has recognized that Elisha is the chariots of Israel and its horsemen. He is more Israel’s king than the king himself. He is the incarnation of true royalty. He is the true bulwark of Israel. In response to this confession, the prophet confers his strength on the king.
“Shoot.” The king obeys, and this arrow, shot towards Damascus, is the prophetic sign which Elisha then interprets: “The Lord’s arrow of victory.” God’s decision is now taken. The Lord will now be merciful. He remembers his covenant. He has compassion. The test is now over and Syria’s role is at an end. This is God’s global decision. But there is more to come. Elisha says again to the king: “Take the arrows,” and: “Strike the ground with them.” The king obeys without any attempt to understand and by chance he strikes three times. This arouses in Elisha a last spurt of anger: “You should have struck five or six times; then you would have struck down Syria until you had made an end of it, but now you will strike down Syria only three times.” Here we see again the strange combination of God’s decision and man’s initiative. God has made known his will to the prophet and now the king of Israel will accomplish God’s work, but according to his own means, decisions, and resources. The king is granted liberty to strike the ground twice, three times, five times, as often as he likes; if he stops, it is by his own choice. This will be the measure of his action, which otherwise would be without measure within the good will of God. In fact, military fortunes change and the bad king Joash recaptures all the cities of Israel from Syria.
On the point of death Elisha announces both the end of the trial and also the death of Hazael. Hazael seems to be closely bound up with the existence and presence of Elisha. The prophet provided the spur which brought him to the throne and the prophet now brings about his fall and death, as though the power of Hazael were linked to the presence of Elisha. Nor is it hard to understand this. During the whole of the long life of Elisha Israel is under constant trial. It moves from defeat to famine and from revolution to massacre. The hand of God is heavy upon it at this time. Chastisement follows chastisement. But it should always be remembered that God does not strike without healing, that he does not condemn without consoling, that he does not judge without the gospel. During these seventy years of testing Elisha is there.
Elisha is the visible and active presence of God himself. At every instant he carries consolation for the poor and afflicted. He is the constantly renewed miracle of an incarnate Word. He can grant consolation to the people in every crisis, for he is the sign and proof and witness that God has not abandoned his people. The test can be terrible but the prophet is there, and for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear this is enough. Even if the prophet does not change events, the fulness of God is a sufficient answer. The same seems to be true of the church, the body of Christ. Perhaps it does not have to intervene directly in politics. But its presence is enough to make the worst disasters endurable. And perhaps because Christ has said: “I am with you always, to the close of the age” (Matthew 28:20), the history of the last times can only be a series of disasters from the human standpoint, as the Gospels and Peter and Revelation intimate. Because Christ has come and is always present there can be no progress in the achieving of human happiness.
But now Elisha is dying. The consolation of Israel, the clear indication of God’s power, is being taken from it. So the trial ends. It is more than Israel can bear. God arrests the disasters lest his people, left on its own, should be destroyed spiritually. “He will not let you be tempted beyond your strength” (1 Corinthians 10:13). Yes, Jehu, Hazael, the great destroyers, can arise and are unleashed only when God has provided and sent and set in place the one who consoles and whose presence can make up things for man beyond all he dare hope. Now that Elisha is no more, Israel will have respite. The time of testing and judgment is over. Under the rule of bad, crafty, proud, and idolatrous kings (Joash, Jeroboam, Menahem), Israel will for a period recover its glory, supremacy, and political liberty, and will live in the illusion of its own power and reconstituted glory until the final collapse and deportation.
Historians who think the history told in the Bible is pious and distorted ought to ask themselves why it is that these biblical historians who supposedly want to prove something always tell us about the disasters under good kings and the victories under idolatrous kings. For us, the question is that of the respite which can be granted to a people, the growth of its material prosperity, its glory, its tranquillity, its culture. Satan has fallen from heaven to earth like a flash of lightning because the Son of Man is the Son of God.
The respite of peace should be for us a warning to greater watchfulness and to greater love.
- In passing, the name of the king, Ben-hadad, should be noted. It refers to the god Hadad, to whom was attributed the title of Baal (lord). The god Hadad, who is compared to a bull, causes his voice to be heard in the thunder and dispenses rain. He is lord and procreator (Dussaud, Mythologie phénicienne). Nevertheless, there is no religious motive for Elisha’s action. It is not that the God of Israel is joining battle with the son of Hadad. There is no question of guaranteeing true religion by the murder of the king. And what makes this clear with grim humor is that the son of Hazael will in turn bear the name of Ben-hadad.