Sermon preached on 2 Kings 13 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 08/02/2020 in Novato, CA.
Today we come to our final passage in the Elijah-Elisha narratives. Related to that, we see that it is also the passage that highlights the end of God’s three-pronged sword of judgment that he had told Elijah on Mt. Sinai that he would use to bring great death to Israel. God had told Elijah that he would raise up the swords of Jehu, Hazael, and Elisha to bring widespread judgment and death upon Israel for their great rejection of the LORD. Well, this passage marks the death of all three. In Jehu’s death, his son Jehoahaz comes to reign, verse 1. Hazael’s death is recorded in verse 24. And Elisha’s death is recorded in verse 20. And so, on the one hand, today’s passage is the culmination of a period of great death and judgment that God had bestowed on Israel especially at the hands of Jehu and Hazael. On the other hand, we’ll see this passage is also a great display of mercy and grace of God again being manifest toward his elect.
In our first point for today, let us observe that sword of Hazael that God had said would kill so many in Israel. 2 Kings has already been showing us Hazael’s sword at work in such a way. We see the rest of its work today. Note the context for his sword. It’s Israel’s continued sin. Even after the Baal worshippers had been wiped out of the land by the sword of Jehu, the people continued in egregious sin against God. Verse 2 records that they continued to sin with the idolatry of the golden calves that Jeroboam had setup. Verse 6 says that they “walked” in these sins of Jeroboam – in other words it was a habitual pattern of their perverted worship of God. And not only that, but verse 6 also notes that they hadn’t gotten rid of the pagan Asherah poles in Samaria. Such sin was the context for God’s continued judgment against Israel at the hand of Hazael.
Verse 3 explicitly makes this connection for us. It says that God’s anger burned against Israel because of their sin and so consequently he gave them continually into the hand of Hazel. In other words, Hazael, king of Syria, kept defeating them in one military battle after another. It was a long period of war between Israel and Syria and Israel wasn’t winning the war. Verse 22 says that all through King Jehoahaz’s reign, Hazael was afflicting Israel. We learn in verse 25 that Hazael’s repeated military victories meant that Hazael was capturing one Israelite city after another and annexing them to Syria. This is surely what verse 5 has in mind when it speaks about how many Israelites were being displaced from their homes – they would have had to flee their cities and towns as Hazael captured them.
The war became so bad in King Jehoahaz’s day for Israel that verse 7 records how the Israelite army was almost completely destroyed – at least in terms of its horsemen and chariots. At one point, there were only fifty horsemen and ten chariots left. Surely, they still had a number of regular soldiers left too, but if this was a chess game, it’s like they had lost almost all of their special pieces. You aren’t usually going to win a game of chess if you only have pawns left. From human standards, the strength of the Israelite army was almost all gone.
That leads us next to see them call out to God for help. We see this in verse 4, “Then Jehoahaz sought the favor of the LORD.” It goes on to say that God heard him with the result that he gave them a savior to deliver them. Let me note how this language is a bit reminiscent of the time of the judges. The book of Judges records how Israel, before it had any kings, would repeatedly fall into the same cycle of sin and restoration over and over again. They’d sin against God especially in forms of idolatry. Then God would allow some neighboring nation or people to afflict them. Then Israel would cry out to God for help. Then God would raise up a judge to save them. And while we often refer to those judges as judges, the book of Judges often referred to them as saviors or deliverers, depending on your translation. So, then, how similar here. Israel had been wayward in its idolatry yet again. God raised up the Syrians through Hazael to greatly afflict them. Through their king they cry out to God for help. And God raises up a savior to deliver them. Interestingly, we are not told the name of this savior. Several options have been proposed by interpreters. Looking at the historical records, the King of Assyria at this time is a major candidate because history records Assyria greatly afflicting Syria in a timeframe that would be consistent with Israel’s help here. Others have suggested King Jehoash here, son of Jehoahaz, who met with Elisha here and received this prophecy of a three-fold victory over Syria. And in context then, it may actually be that Elisha is the referenced savior here, in how God prophetically uses him to deliver an oracle and blessing of victory over Syria. I lean toward either the Elisha answer, or King Jehoash through Elisha’s prophetic empowering, because I think it fits best with the context of the chapter.
At any rate, while we see King Jehoahaz calling out to God for help, notice what we don’t see. We don’t see any stated repentance. We could assume that when he calls for help that there was some repentance going on. That would be typical for such a prayer. Maybe there was some repenting going on, or at least promises of repenting. On the other hand, the text not only doesn’t mention anything explicitly about repentance, but there is also no evidence of it either. If anything, the text seems to speak against any repentance – just look at verse 6. After mentioning the prayer for help, and that God saved him, it says “nevertheless” they didn’t depart from their sins regarding the golden calves and the Asherah pole. Sadly, it is not surprising that their call for help doesn’t seem to have been joined with much repentance.
And yet, surprisingly, we see God nonetheless helped them. And yet, maybe it’s not surprising when we remember the gracious, merciful, and faithful God that we have. In fact, it’s those qualities that we see come out here again. There are two reasons given her for why God heard the king’s prayer and helped them. Neither of those reasons was because of their goodness or faithfulness. The first reason is given in verse 4. It says that God “saw the oppression of Israel, how the king of Syria oppressed them.” So that is the first reason given here. God recognized how oppressed and afflicted his people had been and so he intervenes to save them. Realize this is mercy in the sense of compassion and its grace in that he helps them when they have not deserved it.
The second reason that God helped them is given in verse 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.” So here we see that the character of God was credited in terms of his graciousness and compassion. But we see that such was especially expressed because of his faithfulness toward his covenant with the patriarchs. God have covenanted long before with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to establish through their lineage a special people redeemed unto the Lord. While God would sometimes prune that lineage, he repeatedly refused to utterly cut it off. He continued to preserve a remnant and ultimately bring forth Christ Jesus through that family line in order to bring blessing to all the families on the earth. It’s that same covenant faithfulness and grace and compassion that he now holds out available to the world through the new covenant, through uniting to Christ in faith, and trusting in him for salvation.
So let’s then move on to our third point and see how God prophesies help for Israel through Elisha. While King Jehoahaz was the one who asked God for help, it seems this chapter paints the answer of that particularly coming during his son’s reign, King Jehoash and through the prophecy of Elisha. While the text gives us a brief summary of King Jehoash’s reign in verses 10-13, verse 14 then backs up and tells us about King Jehoash’s interaction with Elisha as Elisha is on his death bed.
You have to love how that episode between Jehoash and Elisha starts out. King Jehoash learns that Elisha is nearing death and he goes down to meet him and weeps over him. As much as King Jehoash is painted in this chapter as an evil king who didn’t depart from his second commandment violations, he had enough religious sense to weep over Elisha’s impending death. Don’t miss his good words to Elisha there in verse 14. He says to him, “My father, my father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” Hopefully, you remember that these were the same words Elisha had said to Elijah just before God took him up to heaven, 2 Kings 2:12. When Elisha said that to Elijah, it acknowledged the fact that Israel having Elijah on their side, was more powerful than any earthly horse or chariot. And when we learned just a few verses prior today that Israel was just about out of horsemen and chariots, it is all the more concerning to think they will lose Elisha since Elisha had filled that role of Israel’s chariots and horsemen. King Jehoash seems to rightly recognize that.
With King Jehoash coming and speaking like this to Elisha, it not only brings out the concern about losing Elisha, but it also reminds of Elijah’s departure and how Elisha then succeeded him. In Elijah’s removal from earth to heaven, God did not leave his people Israel without strength. He gave the spirit of Elijah in double measure to Elisha. So too, here, God would not take Elisha and leave Israel without any strength. Instead, from Elisha’s deathbed, God would use Elisha to prophesy help and bestow strength to King Jehoash.
So then, Elisha instructs the king to take up a bow and some arrows and shoot an arrow which he does. Notice Elisha lays his hands on King Jehoash before he shoots. Elisha then declares that the arrow is the LORD’s arrow of victory and prophesies victory at Aphek over the Syrians. What’s going on is here something we sometimes see God’s prophets do. They sort of act out a parable or have someone act out a parable, and then they give a divinely inspired interpretation and application of that parable.
But that turns out to only be the first part of the prophetic parable. Then Elisha gives him the second part and it turns out to be a test for the king. He is told to take the arrows and strike the ground with them. The king then proceeds to do so, but only three times. This solicits Elisha’s anger that he didn’t strike with the arrows more times. Elisha then interprets and applies this prophetic parable and says that because he only struck the ground with three arrows, that the king’s victory would only be partial. He’ll only have three victories over Syria. And so, the end result is that Elisha prophesies a substantial but incomplete three-fold victory over Syria. In context, we see that this was the ultimate answer to King Jehoahaz’s prayer in verse 4. God raises up a strength in King Jehoash through the prophetic ministry and laying on of hands by Elisha.
At first glance, maybe you might wonder if this was fair of Jehoash to be faulted like this for only striking the ground with the arrows three times. You might wonder, how was he to know that Elisha would have wanted more? But I don’t think that’s the point here. Let me offer a few thoughts instead. First off, at this point, it should have been clear to the king that he was being asked to act out a parable that would have important significance. That had to be clear because Elisha had just interpreted the first part with the first arrow that had been shot through the window. Elisha showed how it represented military victory of Syria – so it seems reasonable for the king to expect something further along these lines with this second thing he was being asked to act out. Second, Elisha’s rebuke is ultimately less about faulting the act itself but is prophesying history as he interprets the king’s actions as he acted out the parable. And by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Elisha interprets that the king’s acted out parable will mirror how he will only have a three-fold victory and not a complete victory. And third, notice that Elisha thinks he should have struck five or six times. In other words, the king struck only about half of what Elisha thinks he should have aimed for.
I think that is a bit telling in context. Think of the contrast when you remember the imagery here in this passage that recalls Elijah being taken up into heaven. Clearly Elijah was passing the baton onto Elisha there. Well, there is a sense in which Elisha is passing the baton onto King Jehoash here – not in terms of the prophetic office, but at least in terms of strength and might as Elisha lays hands on the king here. But think of the contrast. When Elijah was being taken up, what did Elisha seek out with zeal? A double portion of Elijah’s spirit. But here, what does the king seek out from Elisha’s strength as Elisha prepares to leave? According to Elisha, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the king didn’t seek enough. He certainly didn’t seek out a double measure – he sought more like a half measure. And so, one way or another, Elisha prophetically reveals that while he will bestow a measure of strength on King Jehoash, the King’s zeal failed for not desiring more.
Elisha’s story concludes in this earthly sojourning with the miraculous resurrection of someone from the dead in verse 21. Hardly a case for relics like some Roman Catholics would argue, it stands as a pledge of great hope for Israel. While we began today remembering God’s prophecy to Elijah to bring death upon Israel through the three-pronged sword of Hazael-Jehu-Elisha, here their end is marked with life from death. As such, this miraculous resurrection gives hope to the remnant of Israel that God can yet bring new life to this nation that had underwent much judgment. And of course, such life out of death was ultimately an expression of God’s great grace and mercy and covenant faithfulness.
And as we’ve noted, this chapter records the beginning of Israel’s reversal and salvation. They began to regain their cities and live in their homes again. They find victory three times against Syria in the aftermath of Hazael’s death. Under the next king of Israel, Jeroboam II, will be a time of renewed prosperity for the nation. Indeed, God holds out life from death for them in the context of his great grace and mercy.
So then as we conclude today’s passage, I again point you to Jesus Christ. I love how the end of earthly life for both Elijah and Elisha come together in a fuller way with the end of Jesus’ earthly life. Elijah did not taste death and ascended up into heaven to the Heavenly Father. Elisha did taste death but from his death came forth resurrection life. So then we have Jesus – his death, his resurrection, and his ascension – for us and for our salvation. This is the greatest strength for God’s people in which we have been asked to place our faith. And he is not a half-hearted king who will only partially appropriate the power of God. He is rather the one with perfect zeal who has come down from heaven to do the will of God, to lose none of whom the father has given him, and to raise them each up on the last day. This gracious mercy of God is held out to all who would receive it through the new covenant in Christ’s blood. God will be faithful to that covenant to deliver us from death for all who have believed on Jesus.
So then, my closing application would be for us as Christians to be eager to appropriate the blessings of God that he has held out to us. Having found new life in our savior, Jesus Christ, he holds out to us his rich blessings to be found in the Word and sacraments and in prayer. Do we have the promised blessing of the Word but leave it too often on the shelf and neglect the power of its preaching? Do we have the promise blessing of holy communion of the Supper but treat it like some mere ritual void of the power of the Spirit? Do we have the promised blessing of prayer but only meagerly attend to it? May the limited zeal we saw in today’s passage remind us of the value to be eagerly appropriating God’s blessings that he holds out to us. These things are given to us that we might clearly know who our savior is and his work in our lives. Let us seek these things not in half measures but in double portions! Let us be zealously about these things until the day when our savior appears again from heaven to deliver us from all his and our enemies. Amen.
Copyright © 2020 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
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