Is it Because There is No God in Israel?

Sermon preached on 2 Kings 1 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Online Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 03/29/2020.

Sermon Manuscript

What a timely passage of Scripture. As we live in a time of a pandemic, we see an apostate king fall sick who foolishly didn’t call upon the one true God for help. Surely there are applications to us today to call upon God for help.

This passage has a rhetorical question raised three times. God asks Ahaziah three times through Elijah, “Is it because there is no God in Israel that you are going to inquire of Baal-zebub?” The heart of the rhetorical question is if there is a God in Israel. The answer should be obvious to us. Of course, there is a God in Israel! But he wasn’t asking us. He was asking the son of Ahab. Ahab, who himself repeatedly rejected the prophetic word for the prophets of Baal, apparently raised a son to do the same. That son is now reigning, King Ahaziah. He was a wicked Baal-loving king as we read about last week. And so, we can appreciate that, while it what technically a rhetorical question, the answer might not be as obvious to someone so evil at Ahaziah. For him this rhetorical question comes across as a stern rebuke. Yet, actually, if we think about the question a little more, we should recognize the great mercy of God. After such wicked and apostate leaders, after such widespread turning toward idols, maybe it shouldn’t be taken for granted that the one true God would still be among Israel. If in last chapter we saw Jehoshaphat ask Ahab if there was yet a prophet of the LORD in Israel, it might in fact be a fair question if there is yet the LORD himself in Israel. But, in the manifold grace of God, in fact, there was yet both the LORD and a prophet of the LORD among wayward Israel. This passage displays such mercy of God even as his Word comes in such judgment.

Let’s begin then today by looking first Ahaziah’s injury and inquiry. Verse 2 alerts us to the fact that somehow Ahaziah fell from his upper chamber through the lattice. Recall that the law required Israel to have parapets – some sort of low protective barrier on things like roofs, balconies, etc. This lattice that he fell through was probably some sort of barrier that was unfortunately for Ahaziah probably more decorative that functional. And so, somehow, he falls through and gravely injures himself. He is so injured that he’s afraid he won’t recover. We aren’t sure the exact nature of his injury and related sickness from it. But it was apparently so serious that he wanted to call upon a god for help. Even today hardened atheists sometimes turn to prayer when they encounter something life-threatening. I suspect the coronavirus pandemic has increased prayer in our world today. As the proverbial statement goes, “There are no atheists in foxholes.”

But Ahaziah was no atheist. His problem was false religion. And so, in his hour of need he calls out to the false god Baal-zebub who was worshipped by the Philistines in their city of Ekron. For whatever reason Ahaziah’s religion of choice at this moment was to worship the Philistine Baal in Ekron. We don’t know much about such a Baal-zebub in Ekron at that time. This is the only place in the Old Testament that the word appears. The name Baal-zebub literally means Lord of the flies. Some have thought this was the actual name used by the Philistines and that it meant that their god had power to dispel the common nuisance of flies. Others have thought this was an intentionally derogatory misspelling of the name Baal-zebul which would mean Lord of the heavenly dwelling; that God’s people picked a derogatory parody of the pagan god’s name. This is also presumably the same reference to what we find in the New Testament under the Greek spelling of Beelzebul or in some manuscripts Beelzebub. But there in the New Testament, they clearly use the name to refer to the Satan as the prince of demons. Likely the name and usage evolved over time. But all these ideas about the identity of Baal-zebub are ultimately conjecture at this point in history. What we do know with certainty is that Ahaziah was going after a false Baal-deity of some sort that they worshipped in the Philistine city of Ekron.

The rhetorical question raises this question: why would Ahaziah do this? Why would he send to inquire of some Baal in Ekron? Why would he not seek out the God of his own people and land right there in Israel, namely the LORD, Yahweh? If we remember that Elijah the prophet is the prophet who has worked miracle after miracle, even raising the dead, why would he go elsewhere to some other god? Well, we know the answer. It’s from last week’s passage – 1 Kings 22:53. There we find the sad truth and the simple answer. Ahaziah was a Baal worshipper. Seems kind of like an obvious answer. Why did he go seeking help from a Baal instead of the LORD? Because that was his religion. He was a Baal worshipper.

This problem continues today. The Baal of Ekron may no longer be worshipped by anyone, but the demonic forces of false religion still exist and are at work to draw people away from the truth. To state it more pointedly, Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:20 that false religions worship demons. False religion is demonic at its core. True, it doesn’t dress itself up like that. But that’s what it is at the core. And the world today is full of its adherents. Many people throughout the world cry out in vanity to their false gods when troubles come. But they are calling out to the wrong gods. There is only one true Lord of the heavens and the earth – the God of Israel, the God who of old redeemed a people out of the bondage of Egypt, and the same God who sent his son Jesus Christ into this world to redeem a people unto himself. He is the one and only one humans are to pray to for help.

Let’s turn now in our second point to see how King Ahaziah turns in this passage to seek to seize Elijah. You see, after Ahaziah sent his messengers to Ekron, they get intercepted by Elijah. They then quickly return back to Ahaziah, not having made it to Ekron, and they bring Elijah’s prophecy to Ahaziah. Ahaziah then inquires of his messengers what the prophet looked like since apparently Elijah didn’t disclose his name to the messengers. Well, in verse 8 they describe what Elijah looked like. Notice that Ahaziah right away identifies Elijah based on the description. Realize how damning that alone is for Ahaziah. He obviously knew well of Elijah the Tishbite. If he knew so well of Elijah then he should have known to inquire of God through Elijah. But that wasn’t what he had done. And furthermore, when Ahaziah then immediately sends a captain with his fifty men to Elijah, it shows that the king even knew where Elijah was residing at that time. Ahaziah could not plead ignorance for inquiring of Baal-zebub instead of the LORD. It’s not like he couldn’t have found a prophet of the LORD. I even wonder if the prophet Micaiah was not still available in a nearby prison, but again I digress.

But then things get worse for Ahaziah. He proceeds with trying to seize Elijah. When I say seize, that’s what I mean. Don’t miss the military sign of force that King Ahaziah uses to try to go and seemingly arrest Elijah. He sends a captain of fifty with this fifty forces to “apprehend” the simple prophet Elijah. On the one hand I guess this seems like a gratuitous use of force. Maybe the king feared that he might have a crowd of followers that would not gladly take to his arrest. On the other hand, apparently it was not a powerful enough force, since neither the first or second group of 51 men could successfully overpower Elijah to arrest him.

I paint things in these terms here so you can understand a little more about what’s going on here when Elijah starts calling fire down from heaven. The first group of soldiers come and demand Elijah come down and go with them, by order of the king. When they fail, the second group is sent and they ratchet up the rhetoric by not only ordering Elijah to “come down” but to “come down quickly.” They belt out, “come down right now” and think that will make a difference from the first group. But of course it didn’t. So, these first two groups have increasingly hostile demands to Elijah.

Yet, they are met with the same outcome. For both those two groups Elijah calls down fire from heaven upon these aggressors. Interestingly, both groups refer to Elijah as the “man of God” and Elijah turns that back around on them. “If am a man of God, let fire come down from heaven and consume you and your fifty.” The word in Hebrew for man is very similar to the word for fire and Elijah seems to play on that similarity here. But even more noteworthy is the way this recalls the Mt. Carmel event. Remember, that’s where Elijah had faced off against the enemy prophets of Baal. The prophets of Baal were unable to get Baal to call down fire from heaven to consume their offering. But Elijah had no difficulty calling out to God to send fire from heaven which God did and consumed his offering. So, this fire from heaven not only serves to judge these men of Ahaziah whose allegiance and attitude was in the wrong place. But it also reminds of how God had so clearly before demonstrated his power over that of the false religion of Baal.

Now I might note that some have wondered if Elijah was doing the wrong thing here. The notion of him calling down fire from heaven to kill fifty-one people at a time seems outrageous to some. Some have used this to question the legitimacy of the text. Others have faulted the prophet and wondered if God answered his call for fire graciously despite what they believe was inpatient and petty of Elijah. I disagree with all such assessments. We don’t see God in this book overlooking the right thing to do just because one his prophets did it. Remember, this is the book where we’ve already seen two different true prophets mauled by lions sent by God because they did something wrong. God is more than willing to chasten severely one of his prophets. And if Elijah’s call was evil, we can know that the character of God would not answer a prayer for something evil. Surely God would not send forth his judgment fire from heaven upon supposedly “innocent” people at the whim of a wayward prophet. Rather, there is nothing in this text that should make us think Elijah’s actions were wrong here. Quite the opposite. There is everything in this text that should make us afraid for the fact that Elijah’s actions were very much consistent with the character of God who judges the wicked with a judgment of fire and brimstone. More specifically, here the mighty hand of the LORD is protecting his prophet from the enemies of God’s people. It’s implied in verse 15 that Elijah otherwise should have been afraid to be taken by these soldiers to the king. God is protecting Elijah with this judgment fire. This should warn Ahaziah and any who are in league him. While the false god of Ekron is powerless to save life, the true God of Israel is more than capable to take it away.

But, of course, the true God of Israel is also capable to save life — for those who call upon him in humility! That is in fact what we see with the third captain with his group of fifty that is sent by Ahaziah to Elijah. When the third group is sent, you must wonder what Ahaziah is thinking. We might even at first wonder if the third captain is going to yet try to further ratchet up the rhetoric. But this captain is wise and sees the terror of judgment at hand if he should pursue Elijah with force like the first two captains. Oh, what wonderful words come from this third captain’s mouth. Verse 13, he falls on his knees, and humbly begs Elijah that he would find his life, and also the lives of his men, precious in his sight. Indeed, Elijah and the LORD did spare the lives in this last group. God heeded this captain’s humble words. God then commands Elijah to go with them to the king and that he has now nothing to fear. So then Elijah goes with them and finally the king has the audience he had too late sought from Elijah.

You know, it’s very interesting that if Ahaziah in the first place didn’t want to inquire of the LORD God, why would he even at this point been so interested to bring Elijah to him to personally give him the message. Maybe in foolish pagan thinking Ahaziah thought if he could get Elijah to come that maybe he could pressure or intimidate him to change the prophecy – as if that’s how prophecy even worked. But of course, that’s not how prophecy works. But a point that we see here is that Ahaziah compounds his failure of how he first inquired of the wrong source by then inquiring of the right source in the wrong way. Trying to call upon the prophet through force, violence, or intimidation is not the right way to approach a prophet of the LORD because its not the right way to approach the LORD. Rather it’s the humility and meekness of the third captain that demonstrates the right way to approach the LORD God when seeking help and salvation.

That brings us then to our third point for today to consider God’s judgments and mercies in this passage. We find judgment in this passage against Ahaziah. Like father, like son, he had favored the word of Baal over the true word of the Lord and he stood condemned because of it. The prophet Elijah who had previously demonstrated divine power to raise up life from death here has only death to declare on Ahaziah. Verse 16 shows that when Ahaziah finally had Elijah before him, Elijah simply reiterates for the third time in this passage the prophecy of judgment upon Ahaziah.

Yet, while this thrice-repeated judgment is given in this passage, should we not find yet an opportunity for mercy in such? Even with the three-fold groups of fifty-one soldiers, isn’t there multiple opportunities yet available for Ahaziah? What do I mean? I mean Ahaziah in all this had not yet died. Each time that prophetic word came to him, each time the report of fire down from heaven, and especially at the last report of mercy shown to the third soldier group – aren’t these all chances yet for Ahaziah to come to his senses? Remember Ahab in chapter 21. Of all people for whom we might think God’s patience had run out – that’s the chapter where Ahab finally humbles himself at the prophetic word of judgment through Elijah. And yet God took notice and gave him at least some reprieve in the form of a delay of execution of the judgment. All these things in this passage gave Ahaziah one opportunity after another to yet demonstrate repentance, remorse, and humility. I mean, surely, isn’t that what you do when you here a prophecy from God that you are going to die because of your sin? Doesn’t the reasonable person yet get on his hands and knees and beg and plead for God to yet forgive them? Isn’t that the commendable example later on by King Hezekiah who gets an incurable illness, is told by a prophet he will die, and he humbles himself and prays and God grants him an additional 15 years of life, Isaiah 38? I know I am speaking hypothetically here – of what Ahaziah might have done. But doesn’t the third captain act as a foil to Ahaziah to make this very point? But, alas, Ahaziah does not humble himself and repent. And so, he dies here as prophesied, even without any male heirs.

And note that his wickedness extends beyond himself. His folly, his sin and raging against God, resulted in 102 of his soldiers to die too. We might be tempted to cry foul for those men but this reminds us that it matters whom we follow. To be in Christ is for our salvation. To be in the anti-christ is for our damnation. These soldiers placed their allegiance in a wicked apostate king and paid the price for what came along with that. Maybe they should have fled as refugees for Judah and Jerusalem like some others in Israel had done before.

And so, in this passage, we see both judgment and mercy. Judgment to Ahaziah and his blind followers. Mercy to those 51 whom in their captain came in humility and meekness to the LORD and their lives were saved from death. And if we find these two themes of judgment and mercy in our passage again today, then I point you again to how we find those same two themes in Jesus Christ as well.

How great is the mercy of Jesus held out in his first coming. Merciful Jesus rebuked his disciples in Luke 9:54 when they suggested he call fire down upon some inhospitable Samaritans – surely they didn’t understand the times. Or even more so, when his enemies came to the Garden of Gethsemane to arrest him unto death, he still didn’t call fire down from heaven upon them. Why? Because Jesus purposed to go to the cross to die for sinners – so he could pour out the fire of his mercy and grace upon elect sinners. So that he could consume in fire their sinful natures and redeem them by his precious blood. And why would he want to do that for sinners like you and? Because of the deep, deep love of Jesus who has counted our lives precious in his sight. Yet this same Jesus who came at first to bring such mercy is coming a second time to bring the fire of judgment. 2 Thessalonians speaks of Jesus’ return as being revealed from heaven in flaming fire and in inflicting vengeance on the enemies of God and his people.

And so, our passage today reminds us of both mercy and judgment. There is great application for us today during this coronavirus pandemic. This virus is a reminder of the judgment of God upon a fallen world. But it also holds out the opportunity for mercy. Will people who have been living without the one true God, yet humbly and meekly call out to him for help amidst the coronavirus? Or will they call out to their false gods instead? Or worse, will they call out to the one true God in hatred and blame for this virus?

Yes, our modern society doesn’t not want hear about a God who brings judgment. But the coronavirus pandemic is God’s reminder of the reality of his judgment. The world doesn’t want to think about a God who brings a terrible judgment upon sinners. They want to stop their ears up against it. They might even try to seize and silence the prophetic voice of the church as we declare it. But that’s not the right response to the terrors of God’s judgment.

The right response is to humble yourself before the almighty God. To clarify, I’m not saying that being a Christian will protect you from the virus. But it is a reminder that this world is fallen and our bodies along with it. It reminds us that we need to have a hope beyond this present world. And so everyone needs to repent and put our hope in the salvation held out in Jesus. And so in that humbling of yourself before God, the terrors of his judgment can bring you to find the abundant mercies of God in Christ Jesus. May that be our continued confession and proclamation as the church of Christ during this time. Amen.

Copyright © 2020 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.