God Will Not Be Mocked

At that time Rezin the king of Syria recovered Elath for Syria and drove the men of Judah from Elath, and the Edomites came to Elath, where they dwell to this day. So Ahaz sent messengers to Tiglath-pileser king of Assyria, saying, “I am your servant and your son. Come up and rescue me from the hand of the king of Syria and from the hand of the king of Israel, who are attacking me.” Ahaz also took the silver and gold that was found in the house of the Lord and in the treasures of the king’s house and sent a present to the king of Assyria. And the king of Assyria listened to him. The king of Assyria marched up against Damascus and took it, carrying its people captive to Kir, and he killed Rezin.

10 When King Ahaz went to Damascus to meet Tiglath-pileser king of Assyria, he saw the altar that was at Damascus. And King Ahaz sent to Uriah the priest a model of the altar, and its pattern, exact in all its details. 11 And Uriah the priest built the altar; in accordance with all that King Ahaz had sent from Damascus, so Uriah the priest made it, before King Ahaz arrived from Damascus. 12 And when the king came from Damascus, the king viewed the altar. Then the king drew near to the altar and went up on it 13 and burned his burnt offering and his grain offering and poured his drink offering and threw the blood of his peace offerings on the altar. 14 And the bronze altar that was before the Lord he removed from the front of the house, from the place between his altar and the house of the Lord, and put it on the north side of his altar. 15 And King Ahaz commanded Uriah the priest, saying, “On the great altar burn the morning burnt offering and the evening grain offering and the king’s burnt offering and his grain offering, with the burnt offering of all the people of the land, and their grain offering and their drink offering. And throw on it all the blood of the burnt offering and all the blood of the sacrifice, but the bronze altar shall be for me to inquire by.” 16 Uriah the priest did all this, as King Ahaz commanded.

17 And King Ahaz cut off the frames of the stands and removed the basin from them, and he took down the sea from off the bronze oxen that were under it and put it on a stone pedestal. 18 And the covered way for the Sabbath that had been built inside the house and the outer entrance for the king he caused to go around the house of the Lord, because of the king of Assyria. 19 Now the rest of the acts of Ahaz that he did, are they not written in the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Judah? 20 And Ahaz slept with his fathers and was buried with his fathers in the city of David, and Hezekiah his son reigned in his place. 2 Kings 16:6-20 ESV

As we have already seen, Ahaz patterned his reign after his contemporaries in the northern kingdom. The author states that “he did not do what was right in the eyes of the Lord his God, as his father David had done, but he walked in the way of the kings of Israel” (2 Kings 16:2 ESV). Rather than promote the worship of Yawheh, Ahaz adopted a variety of pagan gods and not only authorized but encouraged their worship. And as evidence of his personal commitment to these false gods, Ahaz made human sacrifices, offering up his own sons on their altars.

He even made metal images for the Baals, and he made offerings in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom and burned his sons as an offering, according to the abominations of the nations whom the Lord drove out before the people of Israel. – 2 Chronicles 28:2-3 ESV

As a result, God authorized the Syrians and the Israelites to act as His agents of judgment against the kingdom of Judah. And while these two nations ended up making Ahaz’s life miserable, they were not allowed to defeat Judah. Yet their constant attacks resulted in the loss of land and lives. Hundreds of thousands of the citizens of Judah were killed or captured, leaving the rest of the people in a state of constant fear. And because Judah’s army had been unable to prevent these costly attacks, Ahaz was forced to seek assistance from the Assyrians.

So Ahaz sent messengers to Tiglath-pileser king of Assyria, saying, “I am your servant and your son. Come up and rescue me from the hand of the king of Syria and from the hand of the king of Israel, who are attacking me.” – 2 Kings 16:7 ESV

Of course, Ahaz knew Tiglath-pileser was not going to provide assistance without some form of compensation.  So, to pay off his rescuers, Ahaz drained the royal treasury and then pilfered silver and gold from the temple coffers to sweeten the deal. And while Ahaz’s plan came with a high price tag, it proved effective. The Assyrians immediately launched an attack against Damascus, the capital city of Syria. Rezin, the king of Syria, was killed in the battle and the city was taken. When King Ahaz received word of the victory, he traveled to Damascus to meet King Tiglath-pileser. While there, he became obsessed with one of the many altars dedicated to the Syrian gods. He had a model made and sent to Uriah the high priest, who was ordered to build an exact replica in Jerusalem. Uriah complied with the king’s command, and when Ahaz returned to Jerusalem, he offered sacrifices to the Syrian god. And adding insult to injury, he also ordered the removal and relocation of the bronze altar that stood in the courtyard of the temple.

These were just a few of the many “reforms” that Ahaz instituted. He was making wholesale changes to the religious institution that God had ordained for His chosen people. While he didn’t completely abandon the worship of Yahweh, Ahaz did create an unauthorized and fully syncretized form of worship that transformed the religion of Judah from monotheism to polytheism. God Almighty became just one more deity among the many whose altars and high places filled the land of Judah.

But Ahaz would soon discover the error of his ways. In time, the ambitious king of Assyria would turn his sights on Judah.

So when King Tiglath-pileser of Assyria arrived, he attacked Ahaz instead of helping him. Ahaz took valuable items from the Lord’s Temple, the royal palace, and from the homes of his officials and gave them to the king of Assyria as tribute. But this did not help him. – 2 Chronicles 28:20-21 NLT

Once Tiglath-pileser saw how easily Damascus had fallen, he became greedy and determined to make Jerusalem his next point of conquest. So, as he had done before, King Ahaz attempted to buy off the Assyrians. And with the treasures of the palace and temple depleted, he was forced to ransack the private property of his own officials. But, this time, his plan failed. King Tiglath-pileser gladly took his money, but refused to call off his troops. This left Ahaz in a state of desperation. He was left with no other choice but to seek divine help. But rather than seek the aid of Yahweh, Ahaz “offered sacrifices to the gods of Damascus who had defeated him” (2 Chronicles 28:23 NLT). Ironically, in an attempt to thwart the Assyrians, Ahaz put his hope in the gods of the nation whom the Assyrians had easily defeated. He unwisely rationalized, “Since these gods helped the kings of Aram, they will help me, too, if I sacrifice to them” (2 Chronicles 28:23 NLT).

But his reasoning proved faulty and it produced a painfully predictable outcome. Rather than providing deliverance from his enemies, these false gods produced “his ruin and the ruin of all Judah” (2 Chronicles 28:23 NLT). With a blatant and stubborn disregard for Yahweh, Ahaz continued to place all his hope in the false gods he had adopted. Not only that, in anger and defiance, Ahaz ordered the desecration of Yahweh’s temple. He even barred the doors to prevent anyone from worshiping or calling upon the one true God.

The king took the various articles from the Temple of God and broke them into pieces. He shut the doors of the Lord’s Temple so that no one could worship there, and he set up altars to pagan gods in every corner of Jerusalem. He made pagan shrines in all the towns of Judah for offering sacrifices to other gods. In this way, he aroused the anger of the Lord, the God of his ancestors. – 2 Chronicles 28:24-25 NLT

Ahaz did all of this in a misguided attempt to stop the threat of the Assyrians. But what he failed to realize was that the presence of the Assyrians was due to his disregard and disrespect for God. Everything he was doing was going to backfire because he was refusing to give Yahweh the glory and honor He deserved. Ahaz had tried to relegate God Almighty to an inferior status among all the gods. He treated Yahweh with contempt, acting as if He was powerless and incapable of delivering either redemption or judgment. But little did he know that this impotent God was about to bring down judgment against his northern neighbor. And God would use the dreaded Assyrians to accomplish His divine will.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

 

A Turn for the Worse

32 In the second year of Pekah the son of Remaliah, king of Israel, Jotham the son of Uzziah, king of Judah, began to reign. 33 He was twenty-five years old when he began to reign, and he reigned sixteen years in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Jerusha the daughter of Zadok. 34 And he did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, according to all that his father Uzziah had done. 35 Nevertheless, the high places were not removed. The people still sacrificed and made offerings on the high places. He built the upper gate of the house of the Lord. 36 Now the rest of the acts of Jotham and all that he did, are they not written in the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Judah? 37 In those days the Lord began to send Rezin the king of Syria and Pekah the son of Remaliah against Judah. 38 Jotham slept with his fathers and was buried with his fathers in the city of David his father, and Ahaz his son reigned in his place.

1 In the seventeenth year of Pekah the son of Remaliah, Ahaz the son of Jotham, king of Judah, began to reign. Ahaz was twenty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned sixteen years in Jerusalem. And he did not do what was right in the eyes of the Lord his God, as his father David had done, but he walked in the way of the kings of Israel. He even burned his son as an offering, according to the despicable practices of the nations whom the Lord drove out before the people of Israel. And he sacrificed and made offerings on the high places and on the hills and under every green tree.

Then Rezin king of Syria and Pekah the son of Remaliah, king of Israel, came up to wage war on Jerusalem, and they besieged Ahaz but could not conquer him.2 Kings 15:32-16:5 ESV

In the northern kingdom of Israel, they were going through kings so quickly that the royal palace needed revolving doors to handle the high traffic volume. In just 14 years, they had gone through six different kings, most of whose reigns ended because of assassination. But back in Judah, it was a different story. Azariah (Uzziah) had served as king for 52 years and for the last 11 years of his reign, his son, Jotham served as his co-regent. Their sharing of the kingly role had been necessitated because Azariah had contracted leprosy and was confined to his home. His disease required that he be quarantined and made governance of the nation almost impossible. So, “Jotham the king’s son was over the household, governing the people of the land” (2 Kings 15:5 ESV). The sad reality is that Azariah’s condition was the direct result of his own pride and his decision to violate the Mosaic law. His disobedience incurred God’s divine wrath and judgment, in the form of leprosy. But despite his condition, Azariah was able to continue ruling over the nation of Judah, with his son’s assistance. This also provided Jotham with on-the-job training that helped prepare him for the day when the monarchy would become his alone.

While the final 11 years of Azariah’s reign were marked by leprosy and forced isolation, he had been a good king. For the majority of his 52-year rule, he had done “what was right in the eyes of the Lord, according to all that his father Amaziah had done. He set himself to seek God in the days of Zechariah, who instructed him in the fear of God, and as long as he sought the Lord, God made him prosper” (2 Chronicles 26:4-5 ESV). And it seems that Azariah’s love for God was far more infectious than his disease because the author lets us know that Jotham “did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, according to all that his father Uzziah had done” (2 Kings 15:34 ESV).

But the author of 2 Chronicles adds a few pertinent details that paint a slightly darker image of this young 26-year-old king.

…except he did not enter the temple of the Lord. But the people still followed corrupt practices. – 2 Chronicles 27:2 ESV

The first part of that statement seems to reflect Jotham’s anger at Yahweh for having struck his father with leprosy. One of the results of Azariah’s contraction of this dreaded disease was that it rendered him unclean and, therefore, unable to enter the temple of God. The book of Leviticus provides the specific command detailing the isolating aspect of the disease.

“Those who suffer from a serious skin disease must tear their clothing and leave their hair uncombed. They must cover their mouth and call out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ As long as the serious disease lasts, they will be ceremonially unclean. They must live in isolation in their place outside the camp. – Leviticus 13:45-46 NLT

It would seem that Jotham’s decision to avoid the temple was either out of resentment for God’s harsh treatment of his father or out of fear that he might suffer a similar fate.  It’s interesting to note that Jotham “built the upper gate of the house of the Lord” (2 Kings 15:35 ESV). According to Thomas L. Constable, the upper gate was “an opening between the outer and inner courts on the north side of the temple near the altar of burnt offerings.” This becomes more relevant when you consider that Jotham’s father had been punished by God because he had “entered the temple of the Lord to burn incense on the altar of incense” (2 Chronicles 26:16 ESV). In doing so, he assumed the role of the priest, in direct violation of God’s law. Now, his son had built a gate that made entrance into that area of the temple more accessible than ever. Perhaps Jotham intended this construction project to be a not-so-subtle statement about his father’s actions and subsequent punishment.

While Jotham accomplished a variety of noteworthy renovation and expansion projects, he also failed to remove the high places on which the people sacrificed to false gods.  As a result, “the people still followed corrupt practices” (2 Chronicles 27:2 ESV). So, while he was busy making improvements to the temple grounds, the people continued to worship idols. But, for the most part, Jotham proved to be a faithful king who tried to honor God. And this brought about the blessing of God.

Jotham became mighty, because he ordered his ways before the Lord his God. – 2 Chronicles 27:6 ESV

And yet, we also begin to see glimpses of God’s coming judgment against the nation of Judah. While the southern kingdom had managed to remain far more faithful than its northern neighbor, there was still a growing sense of spiritual infidelity among its inhabitants. And we see God responding to this unfaithfulness by allowing the nation of Judah to experience His disfavor in the form of foreign powers who begin to harass and test them.

In those days the Lord began to send Rezin the king of Syria and Pekah the son of Remaliah against Judah. – 2 Kings 15:37 ESV

Eventually, Jotham dies and his son, Ahaz takes his place on the throne of Judah. But Ahaz does not share his father’s love for God. In fact, the author’s mention of God sending foreign powers against Judah is a kind of foreshadowing. The nation is about to take a dark turn for the worse. Under Ahaz’s reign, the spiritual fortunes of Judah will decline sharply. He will not continue the godly legacy of his father and grandfather. Instead, he will emulate and even eclipse the sins of the kings of Israel.

He did not do what was pleasing in the sight of the Lord his God, as his ancestor David had done. Instead, he followed the example of the kings of Israel, even sacrificing his own son in the fire. In this way, he followed the detestable practices of the pagan nations the Lord had driven from the land ahead of the Israelites. He offered sacrifices and burned incense at the pagan shrines and on the hills and under every green tree. – 2 Kings 2-4 NLT

Ahaz “walked in the ways of the kings of Israel” (2 Chronicles 28:2 ESV). And his decision to fully embrace the false gods of the Canaanites would cost him dearly. This was a man who became so sold out to idolatry that he regularly “burned his sons as an offering” (2 Chronicles 28:2 ESV). He was willing to sacrifice the lives of his own children in order to win the favor of the gods. But while spilling the blood of his sons failed to garner the attention of his false gods, it did manage to bring down the judgment of Yahweh.

Because of all this, the Lord his God allowed the king of Aram [Syria] to defeat Ahaz and to exile large numbers of his people to Damascus. The armies of the king of Israel also defeated Ahaz and inflicted many casualties on his army. In a single day Pekah son of Remaliah, Israel’s king, killed 120,000 of Judah’s troops, all of them experienced warriors, because they had abandoned the Lord, the God of their ancestors. – 2 Chronicles 28:5-6 NLT

God would use the Syrians and the Israelites as His instruments of judgment against Ahaz and the people of Judah. But despite Ahaz’s blatant displays of unfaithfulness, God would not allow these outside forces to completely destroy Judah. The situation quickly became a cycle of sin and judgment. Ahaz’s worship of his false gods would bring the judgment of Yahweh in the form of the Syrians and Israelites. These attacks would cause Ahaz to intensify his efforts to gain the favor of his many gods. His desperation to find a solution would produce further idolatry and result in additional judgment from God. But in his stubbornness, Ahaz never stops to consider that repentance and a return to Yahweh might be the best answer to his problem.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

 

The Lord Gave Israel a Savior

1 In the twenty-third year of Joash the son of Ahaziah, king of Judah, Jehoahaz the son of Jehu began to reign over Israel in Samaria, and he reigned seventeen years. He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and followed the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, which he made Israel to sin; he did not depart from them. And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he gave them continually into the hand of Hazael king of Syria and into the hand of Ben-hadad the son of Hazael. Then Jehoahaz sought the favor of the Lord, and the Lord listened to him, for he saw the oppression of Israel, how the king of Syria oppressed them. (Therefore the Lord gave Israel a savior, so that they escaped from the hand of the Syrians, and the people of Israel lived in their homes as formerly. Nevertheless, they did not depart from the sins of the house of Jeroboam, which he made Israel to sin, but walked in them; and the Asherah also remained in Samaria.) For there was not left to Jehoahaz an army of more than fifty horsemen and ten chariots and ten thousand footmen, for the king of Syria had destroyed them and made them like the dust at threshing. Now the rest of the acts of Jehoahaz and all that he did, and his might, are they not written in the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Israel? So Jehoahaz slept with his fathers, and they buried him in Samaria, and Joash his son reigned in his place. 2 Kings 13:1-9 ESV

God had used the Syrians to inflict judgment upon the southern kingdom of Judah. Because of the rebellion of His people, God had given King Hazael and his Syrian troops a resounding victory over the much larger and more powerful army of King Jehoash. Having been wounded in battle against the Syrians, Jehoash became an easy target for some of his disgruntled officials. They had strongly opposed his murder of Zechariah, the son of Jehoiada the priest, and saw the nation’s recent defeat by a much smaller Syrian force as a sign of God’s judgment. So, these two men took it upon themselves to assassinate the king while he lying in bed recovering from his injuries. He was then replaced by his son, Amaziah.

In the meantime, the northern kingdom of Israel was having its own set of struggles with the Syrians. Jehoahaz had ascended to the throne of his father, Jehu, and had managed to keep Israel’s legacy of apostasy alive and well.

He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and followed the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, which he made Israel to sin; he did not depart from them. – 2 Kings 13:2 ESV

In other words, it was business as usual in Israel. But, God had grown weary of watching each successive royal administration try to outdo the sins of their predecessors. Fed up by their stubbornness and blatant unfaithfulness, He unleashed His righteous indignation against Israel and “gave them continually into the hand of Hazael king of Syria and into the hand of Ben-hadad the son of Hazael” (2 Kings 13:3 ESV).

The Syrians became the proverbial thorn in the side of the disobedient Israelites. This imagery was in keeping with God’s earlier warnings against Israel compromising with the pagan nations that occupied the promised land.

But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then those of them whom you let remain shall be as barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides, and they shall trouble you in the land where you dwell. – Numbers 33:55 ESV

God would later provide the Israelites with another warning, meant to encourage them from intermarrying with the pagan nations that occupied the land of Canaan.

…know for certain that the LORD your God will no longer drive out these nations before you, but they shall be a snare and a trap for you, a whip on your sides and thorns in your eyes, until you perish from off this good ground that the LORD your God has given you. – Joshua 23:13 ESV

And when the Israelites failed to drive out the inhabitants of the land, God announced that they were on their own. They would have to deal with the consequences of their disobedience.

“So now I say, I will not drive them out before you, but they shall become thorns in your sides, and their gods shall be a snare to you.” – Judges 2:3 ESV

Yet, when God sent the Syrians to plague and provoke the unfaithful people of Israel, King Jehoahaz “sought the favor of the Lord” (2 Kings 13:4 ESV). The constant pain inflicted by this divinely-ordained “thorn” was more than Jehoahaz could bear, so he did something none of his predecessors had ever done: He humbled himself and cried out to God. And his cry was heard and answered. The author states that God, the very nne who had sent the Syrians, “saw the oppression of Israel, how the king of Syria oppressed them” (2 Kings 13:4 ESV). This statement makes it sound like God was surprised by what He saw. But it would be better interpreted as a declaration of God’s recognition of the suffering His chosen people were having to endure. His judgment, while fully just and well-deserved, had produced its intended results, and He felt compassion for the plight of His people. His discipline of His children was not an indication that He had fallen out of love with them. In fact, the book of Proverbs reminds us, “the LORD corrects those he loves, just as a father corrects a child in whom he delights” (Proverbs3:12 NLT). And the author of Hebrews quotes this very proverb, then adds a further point of clarification.

As you endure this divine discipline, remember that God is treating you as his own children. Who ever heard of a child who is never disciplined by its father? If God doesn’t discipline you as he does all of his children, it means that you are illegitimate and are not really his children at all. – Hebrews 12:7-8 NLT

God had lovingly disciplined them for their disobedience and unfaithfulness. But, as the text reveals, He heard the humbled cry of their king and responded in love and compassion. He did for them what they couldn’t do for themselves. He rescued them from the very plight they had brought upon themselves.

Therefore the Lord gave Israel a savior, so that they escaped from the hand of the Syrians, and the people of Israel lived in their homes as formerly… – 2 Kings 13:5 ESV

This scene brings to mind the book of Judges, which chronicles the period of Israelite history long before they had a king. They had managed to enter Canaan, but had failed to completely eliminate the pagan nations that had occupied the land before them. As a result, they ended up intermarrying with these nations and worshiping their false false gods. Which led God to punish them.

…the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and served the Baals. And they abandoned the Lord, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt. They went after other gods, from among the gods of the peoples who were around them, and bowed down to them. And they provoked the Lord to anger. They abandoned the Lord and served the Baals and the Ashtaroth.  So the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he gave them over to plunderers, who plundered them. And he sold them into the hand of their surrounding enemies, so that they could no longer withstand their enemies. – Judges 2:11-14 ESV

But in time, God would raise up a deliverer who rescued His wayward people and restored them to a right relationship with Him.

Then the Lord raised up judges, who saved them out of the hand of those who plundered them. – Judges 2:17 ESV

Sadly, this cycle would repeat itself over and over again. The people would sin, so God would send a plunderer, Then, when the suffering became unbearable, the people would cry out, and another deliverer would show up to rescue them.

Now, hundreds of years later, the people of Israel would reveal that little had changed. They cried out and God sent them a savior. We have no way of knowing the identity of this individual. Some have speculated that it was King Adad-Nirari III of Assyria. The Assyrians were the new kids on the block, an up-and-coming nation that was beginning to flex its military muscle in the region. In order to access the Mediterranean Sea and the fertile valleys located in Canaan, they would have to pass through the land belonging to Syria. It could be that God used this rapidly expanding world power to harass and distract the Syrians, buying King Jehoahaz and the Israelites a much-needed respite.

But regardless of the identity of this God-appointed “savior,” the people of Israel proved to be far from grateful for their rescue. In time, they fell back into their old habits.

But they continued to sin, following the evil example of Jeroboam. They also allowed the Asherah pole in Samaria to remain standing. – 2 Kings 13:6 NLT

Nothing had changed. Jehoahaz remained just as stubborn and unrepentant as always. Even the fact that God had allowed the Syrians to drastically reduce the fighting capacity of Israel’s army failed to elicit a change in Jehoahaz. The oppression of the Syrians had gotten his attention and forced him to cry out to God. But, once rescued, he continued to pursue the same ungodly agenda as before. The loving discipline and gracious deliverance of God failed to make a lasting impression on Jehoahaz. He was allowed to complete his reign but, with his decimated army,  he was a king in name only. He would die and his son would inherit his throne and diminished kingdom.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

Our Sovereign God

1 Now Elisha had said to the woman whose son he had restored to life, “Arise, and depart with your household, and sojourn wherever you can, for the Lord has called for a famine, and it will come upon the land for seven years.” So the woman arose and did according to the word of the man of God. She went with her household and sojourned in the land of the Philistines seven years. And at the end of the seven years, when the woman returned from the land of the Philistines, she went to appeal to the king for her house and her land. Now the king was talking with Gehazi the servant of the man of God, saying, “Tell me all the great things that Elisha has done.” And while he was telling the king how Elisha had restored the dead to life, behold, the woman whose son he had restored to life appealed to the king for her house and her land. And Gehazi said, “My lord, O king, here is the woman, and here is her son whom Elisha restored to life.” And when the king asked the woman, she told him. So the king appointed an official for her, saying, “Restore all that was hers, together with all the produce of the fields from the day that she left the land until now.”

Now Elisha came to Damascus. Ben-hadad the king of Syria was sick. And when it was told him, “The man of God has come here,” 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?’” So Hazael went to meet him, and took a present with him, all kinds of goods of Damascus, forty camels’ 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 to 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 embarrassed. 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 kill their young men with the sword and dash in pieces their little ones and rip open their pregnant women.” 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 the next day he took the bed cloth and dipped it in water and spread it over his face, till he died. And Hazael became king in his place. 2 Kings 8:1-15 ESV

Hazael meets prophet Elisha and asks for healing for his master, King Ben Hadad of Syria (2 Kings 8). Wood engraving, published in 1886.

It’s difficult to determine exactly when the two stories that open up chapter eight took place. But the author’s decision to include them at this point in his narrative doesn’t appear to have been based on a desire for chronological accuracy. He was trying to make a point about the spiritual conditions in and around Israel, and so he used the stories of two very different characters as illustrations. One we have met before. The Shunammite woman was first introduced to us in chapter four. She was a faithful follower of Yahweh who had shown gracious hospitality to Elisha and his servant, providing them with shelter and food every time they passed through her town. And God had rewarded her generosity to His servant by allowing her to conceive and bear a son, something she had never been able to do. But sometime in his early childhood, her son became ill and died. Her joy turned to sorrow. But the prophet of God intervened and restored the child to life. And now, in chapter eight, the author decides to pick up the story where he left off.

Now Elisha had said to the woman whose son he had restored to life, “Arise, and depart with your household, and sojourn wherever you can, for the Lord has called for a famine, and it will come upon the land for seven years.” – 2 Kings 8:1 ESV

The prophet informed the Shunammite woman about a famine that God was about to bring upon the land because of Israel’s ongoing apostasy. He gave this faithful servant of Yahweh the opportunity to escape and find shelter until the seven years of famine had passed. And she took the prophet’s advice and fled with her family to the land of the Philistines. But seven years later, when the famine was over and she returned to Shunem, she was homeless and landless. It could be that she sold her husband’s inheritance before she left seven years earlier. But it could be that the crown had confiscated her land in her absence. But in either case, the Mosaic law required that she be given the right to reclaim her land at any time (Leviticus 25:23-28). It would have been part of her husband’s inheritance and protected by law.

So, upon her return, she headed straight to the palace to make an appeal to the king. It seems likely that her husband had died. We know from chapter four that he was more advanced in years (2 Kings 4:14). Yet it could be that he was alive but physically incapable of presenting his case before the king, so his wife acted on his behalf.

This is where the story gets interesting. In a display of divinely inspired timing, the woman arrived at the palace at the exact moment when Gehazi, the servant of Elisha, was having a conversation with King Jehoram. The fact that Gehazi was standing before the king would indicate that this story took place before he had been stricken with leprosy (2 Kings 5:20-27). The author doesn’t reveal the purpose behind Gehazi’s appointment with the king, but he does let us know what they discussed.

Now the king was talking with Gehazi the servant of the man of God, saying, “Tell me all the great things that Elisha has done.” – 2 Kings 8:4 ESV

Jehoram’s relationship with Elisha had been anything but cordial. Like all the kings of Israel, he had a love-hate relationship with God’s prophet. Jehoram was the son of Jezebel and, like his wicked mother, he had continued to lead the people of Israel in the practice of idolatry. So, it seems a bit out of character for him to ask Gehazi to regale him with all the exploits of the prophet of God. But, once again, this reveals the divine timing and providential planning behind all that is taking place in the story. God was orchestrating everything, down to the last detail.

It just so happened that as Gehazi was telling Jehoram how Elisha had restored the woman’s son to life, she walked in the door. Gehazi, shocked at seeing the woman show up at just that moment, exclaimed, “My lord, O king, here is the woman, and here is her son whom Elisha restored to life” (2 Kings 8:5 ESV). This wasn’t a case of kismet, karma, fate, or good luck. It was the sovereign will of God Almighty on display. He had pre-ordained and orchestrated it all. And the result was that the king ordered the immediate restoration of the woman’s land, “including the value of any crops that had been harvested during her absence” (2 Kings 8:6 NLT). He richly rewarded her for her faithfulness.

And this sets up the second story. In this one, the location shifts from Samaria, the capital city of Israel, to Damascus, the capital city of Syria. In verses 1-6, the author presented the story of a faithful servant and a curious king. But in verses 7-15, he tells a strikingly different story about an unfaithful servant and a critically ill king. These stories are arranged as they are for a reason. They are meant to stand in stark contrast to one another. But they are also intended to demonstrate the sovereign hand of God over all that takes place. From the palace of the king of Israel to the royal court of the pagan king of Syria, God is in full control of all things. There is nothing that escapes His notice or falls outside His divine jurisdiction.

In another display of divine timing, Elisha has arrived in Damascus at the very same time that Ben-hadad, the king of Syria, has become ill. Upon hearing of Elisha’s presence in his capital, Ben-hadad determines to take advantage of this fortunate opportunity. He sends Hazael, the governor of Damascus, to ask Elisha whether he will recover from his illness. And, in a not-so-subtle attempt to garner a favorable response from the prophet, Ben-hadad includes a lucrative welcome gift. And when Hazael delivers the king’s gift and message to Elisha, the prophet responds with a rather cryptic answer.

“Go and tell him, ‘You will surely recover.’ But actually the Lord has shown me that he will surely die!” – 2 Kings 8:10 NLT

What followed this exchange was a long and awkward staredown between Elisha and Hazael. The prophet knew exactly what was going on in Hazael’s heart. God had revealed to Elisha exactly what the governor was planning to do. So, he locked eyes with Hazael, perhaps hoping that the awkward silence would lead the governor to have second thoughts about his evil plan. But there was no confession from Hazael. Instead, Elisha began to weep. He knew exactly what was going to happen and the long-term ramifications for the people of Israel.

“I know the terrible things you will do to the people of Israel. You will burn their fortified cities, kill their young men with the sword, dash their little children to the ground, and rip open their pregnant women!” – 2 Kings 8:12 NLT

God had given Elisha a glimpse into all that was going to take place. Ben-hadad would recover from his illness but would die at the hands of Hazael. And when Hazael ascended to the throne of Syria, he would wreak havoc and destruction upon the nation of Israel. He would become God’s chosen instrument of judgment upon His unfaithful people. And this had always been part of God’s sovereign plan.

All the way back in chapter 19 of 1 Kings, we have the story of Elijah running from the threat of Jezebel’s revenge. He escaped to the wilderness where he sought shelter in a cave. But while there, he received a visit and a message from God.

And the Lord said to him, “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.” – 1 Kings 19:15-16 ESV

Don’t miss the significance of what is going on here. Years earlier, God had commanded Elijah to anoint Hazael to be the next king of Syria. And Elijah had obeyed that command. This means that long before Elisha showed up in Damascus and had his face-to-face encounter with Hazael, this man already had God’s divine seal of approval to be the next king of Syria. He had already been anointed by Elijah but had not yet assumed the throne. But it was just a matter of time. It was inevitable and unavoidable because it had been ordained by God.

And God had made it clear to Elijah that He would one day use Hazael as His instrument of judgment upon the rebellious people of Israel.

And the one who escapes from the sword of Hazael shall Jehu put to death, and the one who escapes from the sword of Jehu shall Elisha put to death. Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.” – 1 Kings 19:17-18 ESV

Now, that prophecy was about to be fulfilled. God had shown Elisha what was about to happen and the thought of it brought him to tears.

“The Lord has shown me that you are to be king over Syria.” – 2 Kings 8:13 ESV

The judgment of God was about to come upon the people of Israel. And while He had rewarded the Shunammite woman for her faithfulness, He was about to bring death and destruction upon unfaithful Israel. And the author closes his story with the fateful words: “the next day he [Hazael] took the bed cloth and dipped it in water and spread it over his face, till he died. And Hazael became king in his place” (2 Kings 8:15 ESV).

The man whom God had ordered Elijah to anoint years earlier, was now the king. The sovereign will of God had been fulfilled. And the next phase of His plan for the rebellious people of Israel was about to begin.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Famine to Feasting

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 a donkey’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 on the wall, a woman cried out to him, saying, “Help, my lord, O king!” 27 And he said, “If the Lord will not help you, how shall I help you? From the threshing floor, or from the winepress?” 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 tore his clothes—now he was passing by on the wall—and the people looked, and behold, he had sackcloth beneath on 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 messenger came down to him and said, “This trouble is from the Lord! Why should I wait for the Lord any longer?” 

1 But Elisha said, “Hear the word of the Lord: thus says the Lord, Tomorrow about this time a seah of fine flour shall be sold for a shekel, and two seahs of barley for a shekel, at the gate of Samaria.” Then the captain on whose hand the king leaned 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.”2 Kings 6:24-7:2 ESV

One thing that becomes painfully evident when reading God’s Word is that it tends to paint humanity in far-from-flattering terms. The characters found in the Bible are presented with all their flaws fully exposed. We get to see the good, the bad, and the ugly aspects of their character. There are examples of mankind’s more positive traits, but they seem few and far between. From the opening pages of the book of Genesis to the closing chapters of Revelation, the fallen nature of humanity is presented with painstaking accuracy. Throughout the book, we see a litany of vices on display, including all of the seven deadly sins: pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, anger, and sloth. There are countless stories that chronicle mankind’s stubbornness, arrogance, and selfishness. And they are intended to stand in stark contrast to the righteousness of God. All throughout the Bible, we see fallen humanity displayed against the stark backdrop of God’s incomparable holiness. Yet the stories of their unfaithfulness, arrogance, pride, and sin are seamlessly woven together with the countless examples of God’s power and sovereignty. We have one such example in today’s passage.

For some time, Ben-hadad II, the king of Syria, had been trying to develop secret plans to invade Israel. But each time he attempted to put them into action, the Israelites were one step ahead of him. He discovered that Elisha the prophet had been receiving secret intel on all their planning sessions, and it had come directly from Yahweh, the God of Israel. Since Ben-hadad couldn’t do anything to stop Yahweh, he decided to capture Elisha. But, once again, his strategy failed miserably. When his troops laid siege to the city of Dothan, where Elisha was living, God blinded them. Then Elisha led them to Samaria, where the king of Israel spared their lives and threw them a feast. These men returned home, grateful to be alive.

But then we read, “Afterward Ben-hadad king of Syria mustered his entire army and went up and besieged Samaria” (2 Kings 6:24 ESV). We’re not told how much time transpired between Ben-hadad’s last failed attempt to attack Israel and this latest campaign. But it’s quite clear that he had not given up his intentions to conquer the nation of Israel. This man’s stubborn persistence is on display. Despite what had happened to his troops the last time they went into Israelite territory, he was determined to carry out his latest plans.

As a result of the siege, the conditions inside Samaria quickly deteriorated. Food became scarce and the people within the walls of the city became desperate. Price gouging was prevalent because there was nothing to eat. People were willing to pay exorbitant prices for anything that even remotely resembled food.

The siege lasted so long that a donkey’s head sold for eighty pieces of silver, and a cup of dove’s dung sold for five pieces of silver. –  2 Kings 6:25 NLT 

These were desperate times. And to make sure we understand just how bad things had become, the author reveals that the people had resorted to cannibalism. And to make matters worse, it involved a mother sacrificing her infant son so that she and her friends could survive. This sickening story is told to King Jehoram as he walked along the walls of the city, surveying the worsening conditions of his people. What makes this incident all the more repulsive is that it involved deceit and dishonesty. Facing starvation, two mothers had agreed to kill their own children and eat their flesh in order to survive. One had followed through on her commitment, but when it came time for the second mother to kill her child, she couldn’t bring herself to do it.

King Jehoram was sickened by what he heard and tore his clothes as a sign of mourning. Yet, rather than see the situation as a sign of God’s judgment against apostate Israel, the king decided to blame Elisha.

“May God strike me and even kill me if I don’t separate Elisha’s head from his shoulders this very day.” – 2 Kings 6:31 NLT

Jehoram was about to make the age-old mistake of killing the messenger. He knew that Elisha spoke for God, so he assumed that if he could eliminate the prophet, the conditions in Samaria would improve. But Elisha was not the cause of his problem or the source behind the judgment he was experiencing. It was the sovereign, all-powerful hand of God.

Jehoram’s decision to kill God’s prophet was doomed to failure. But fueled by anger, arrogance, and pride, the king sent a messenger to retrieve Elisha and bring him back to the palace. But Elisha was one step ahead of Jehoram, having been informed by God of the king’s intentions.

“A murderer has sent a man to cut off my head. When he arrives, shut the door and keep him out. We will soon hear his master’s steps following him.” – 2 Kings 6:32 NLT

When the messenger arrived, he found the door to Elisha’s home blocked. So, he delivered his message from the king.

“All this misery is from the Lord! Why should I wait for the Lord any longer?” – 2 Kings 6:33 NLT

Jehoram acknowledged that God was behind the siege, but he also revealed his doubt that God would ever rescue them. Since he couldn’t take out his frustration on God, he had decided to kill God’s prophet. He was following the same strategy his mother Jezebel had used. When Elijah had defeated and killed the 450 prophets of Baal, she had ordered his death (1 Kings 19:2). Now, years later, here was her son attempting to thwart the plan of God by killing the prophet of God. Jehoram’s pride, arrogance, and anger are on full display. But at no point does he take ownership of his godless leadership of the nation. He displays no remorse or repentance.

But the prophet delivered an unexpected and inexplicable message to the king.

“Listen to this message from the Lord! This is what the Lord says: By this time tomorrow in the markets of Samaria, six quarts of choice flour will cost only one piece of silver, and twelve quarts of barley grain will cost only one piece of silver.” – 2 Kings 7:1 NLT

Things were about to take a dramatic turn for the better. In just 24 hours, God was going to miraculously reverse the conditions in Samaria. The long-lasting famine would come to an abrupt end and the people living inside the walls of Samaria would suddenly find food readily available and at affordable prices. But the king’s messenger found Elisha’s prediction to be far-fetched and refused to believe a word he said.

“That couldn’t happen even if the Lord opened the windows of heaven!” – 2 Kings 7:2 NLT

This arrogant man questioned the words of the prophet but, more importantly, he doubted the power of God. And Elisha warned him that he would pay dearly for his mistake.

“You will see it happen with your own eyes, but you won’t be able to eat any of it!” – 2 Kings 7:2 NLT

God was about to do something incredible but this emissary of the king refused to believe that any of it was possible. Like his boss, he had long ago given up any belief in the sovereignty and power of Yahweh. From his godless and apostate perspective, this problem was too big, even for God.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

A Floating Ax Head and Chariots of Fire

1 Now the sons of the prophets said to Elisha, “See, the place where we dwell under your charge is too small for us. Let us go to the Jordan and each of us get there a log, and let us make a place for us to dwell there.” And he answered, “Go.” Then one of them said, “Be pleased to go with your servants.” And he answered, “I will go.” So he went with them. And when they came to the Jordan, they cut down trees. But as one was felling a log, his axe head fell into the water, and he cried out, “Alas, my master! It was borrowed.” Then the man of God said, “Where did it fall?” When he showed him the place, he cut off a stick and threw it in there and made the iron float. And he said, “Take it up.” So he reached out his hand and took it. 

Once when the king of Syria was warring against Israel, he took counsel with his servants, saying, “At such and such a place shall be my camp.” But the man of God sent word to the king of Israel, “Beware that you do not pass this place, for the Syrians are going down there.” 10 And the king of Israel sent to the place about which the man of God told him. Thus he used to warn him, so that he saved himself there more than once or twice.

11 And the mind of the king of Syria was greatly troubled because of this thing, and he called his servants and said to them, “Will you not show me who of us is for the king of Israel?” 12 And one of his servants said, “None, my lord, O king; but Elisha, the prophet who is in Israel, tells the king of Israel the words that you speak in your bedroom.” 13 And he said, “Go and see where he is, that I may send and seize him.” It was told him, “Behold, he is in Dothan.” 14 So he sent there horses and chariots and a great army, and they came by night and surrounded the city.

15 When the servant of the man of God rose early in the morning and went out, behold, an army with horses and chariots was all around the city. And the servant said, “Alas, my master! What shall we do?” 16 He said, “Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” 17 Then Elisha prayed and said, “O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see.” So the Lord opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw, and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha. 18 And when the Syrians came down against him, Elisha prayed to the Lord and said, “Please strike this people with blindness.” So he struck them with blindness in accordance with the prayer of Elisha. 19 And Elisha said to them, “This is not the way, and this is not the city. Follow me, and I will bring you to the man whom you seek.” And he led them to Samaria.

20 As soon as they entered Samaria, Elisha said, “O Lord, open the eyes of these men, that they may see.” So the Lord opened their eyes and they saw, and behold, they were in the midst of Samaria. 21 As soon as the king of Israel saw them, he said to Elisha, “My father, shall I strike them down? Shall I strike them down?” 22 He answered, “You shall not strike them down. Would you strike down those whom you have taken captive with your sword and with your bow? Set bread and water before them, that they may eat and drink and go to their master.” 23 So he prepared for them a great feast, and when they had eaten and drunk, he sent them away, and they went to their master. And the Syrians did not come again on raids into the land of Israel. 2 Kings 6:1-23 ESV

Let’s face it, even for a prophet of God, Elisha had some rather strange experiences. And the two that are recorded in the opening verses of this chapter are among the most bizarre. At first glance, the only thing they appear to have in common is Elisha. But upon further examination, one can see that both stories are meant to accentuate the power of God’s prophet. The first is short and to the point but displays the supernatural, yet highly practical nature of Elisha’s divine enablement. This man was God’s representative and, as such, he was to display the caring concern that Yahweh had for His children.

Elisha’s fellow prophets approach him, seeking his approval to build a larger complex in which to house their growing number. They had chosen a spot near the Jordan River and were intending to work as a team in the construction of their new home. Elisha gave them his blessing to begin the project, but they requested that he accompany them. Which he did. But as they were going through the laborious process of cutting down the trees to make logs for their new headquarters, one of the men lost the head to his ax. It flew off the handle and landed in the river, disappearing from sight. To our minds, this doesn’t appear to be a life-and-death situation. Obviously, they had more than one ax, but the author reveals that this particular ax had been borrowed and iron was a costly commodity in those days. So, the one who had borrowed the ax was deeply concerned over his bit of bad luck. He would have been required to replace the lost ax head and, on a prophet’s salary, that would have been difficult.

It’s difficult not to read this story and not think about the words that Solomon recorded in the book of Ecclesiastes.

One who digs a pit may fall into it,
and one who breaks through a wall may be bitten by a snake.
One who quarries stones may be injured by them;
one who splits logs may be endangered by them.
If an iron axhead is blunt and a workman does not sharpen its edge,
he must exert a great deal of effort;
so wisdom has the advantage of giving success. – Ecclesiastes 10:8-10 NET

Chopping wood with a loose ax head would have certainly fit into this category of unwise decisions. But rather than embarrass this poor man for his lack of forethought, Elisha simply asked him for a general idea of where the ax head entered the water. Then Elisha did something completely unexpected but highly practical. He “cut a stick and threw it into the water at that spot. Then the ax head floated to the surface” (2 Kings 6:6 NLT). Miraculously, the heavy iron ax head rose to the surface where the man easily and eagerly retrieved it. His problem was solved, thanks to Elisha’s quick thinking and practical application of the divine resources at his disposal.

The second story is a bit more complex, and far more in line with what we would expect a prophet of God to do. Rather than the prophets of Yahweh constructing a new dwelling place, we have the Syrian king and his officers plotting an invasion of Israel. But before they could implement their strategy, Elisha received divine insight into their plans and warned the king of Israel. And much to Ben-hadad’s frustration, this happened repeatedly.

This led the Syrian king to assume that he had a traitor in his camp. Someone was passing on their top-secret plans to the Israelites.  But his officers assured him that the problem was far worse than he thought. Yahweh, the God of Israel, had been listening in on all their secret strategy sessions and then passing the information on to Elisha, who warned the king of Israel.

Determined to put a stop to this leak in his communications network, Ben-hadad sent a large contingent of troops and chariots to capture Elisha. When Elisha’s servant woke up the next morning, he saw Syrian troops as far as the eye could see and he cried out, “Oh, sir, what will we do now?” (2 Kings 6:15 NLT). But the prophet handled the news with the same degree of calmness he had exhibited when he heard about the lost ax head. He simply stated, “Don’t be afraid! For there are more on our side than on theirs!” (2 Kings 6:16 NLT). 

The petrified servant must have questioned his mater’s sanity. How in the world could the prophet think that they had the Syrians outnumbered. But Elisha had every confidence that the same God who raised the ax head from the bottom of the Jordan could raise an army to defeat the Syrians. So, he confidently called on the power of Yahweh.

Then Elisha prayed, “O Lord, open his eyes and let him see!” The Lord opened the young man’s eyes, and when he looked up, he saw that the hillside around Elisha was filled with horses and chariots of fire. – 2 Kings 6:17 NLT

This “heavenly host” was intended to bolster the faith of Elisha’s servant. But, interestingly enough, the horses and chariots of fire did not engage the Syrians in battle. They were a tangible visual representation of God’s power. It’s similar to what happened when Elisha witnessed God take Elijah to be with Him.

As they were walking along and talking, suddenly a fiery chariot pulled by fiery horses appeared. They went between Elijah and Elisha, and Elijah went up to heaven in a windstorm. – 2 Kings 2:11 NLT

God didn’t use the fiery chariots to transport Elijah and He would not use them to save Elisha and the city of Dothan. Instead, Elisha asked God to blind the eyes of the advancing enemy. Then, the prophet led the confused and completely helpless Syrian army to the capital city of Samaria. When they arrived, “the Lord opened their eyes, and they discovered that they were in the middle of Samaria” (2 Kings 6:20 NLT).

But rather than order the slaughter of the disoriented and disadvantaged Syrians, Elisha instructed King Jehoram: “Give them food and drink and send them home again to their master” (2 Kings 6:22 NLT). So, Jehoram threw a great feast and then sent the Syrians home. The details of this incredible Israelite victory would make it all the way to the palace of Ben-hadad, informing him that the God of Israel was greater than the gods of the Syrians. God had protected His prophet and had provided the innocent people of Dothan with a gracious and merciful rescue from certain destruction. The same God who cared enough to return a lost ax head was willing to display His supernatural power over the enemies of Israel. There is no water too deep, no enemy too powerful, and no problem too difficult for God.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

41 Jehoshaphat the son of Asa began to reign over Judah in the fourth year of Ahab king of Israel. 42 Jehoshaphat was thirty-five years old when he began to reign, and he reigned twenty-five years in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Azubah the daughter of Shilhi. 43 He walked in all the way of Asa his father. He did not turn aside from it, doing what was right in the sight of the Lord. Yet the high places were not taken away, and the people still sacrificed and made offerings on the high places. 44 Jehoshaphat also made peace with the king of Israel.

45 Now the rest of the acts of Jehoshaphat, and his might that he showed, and how he warred, are they not written in the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Judah? 46 And from the land he exterminated the remnant of the male cult prostitutes who remained in the days of his father Asa.

47 There was no king in Edom; a deputy was king. 48 Jehoshaphat made ships of Tarshish to go to Ophir for gold, but they did not go, for the ships were wrecked at Ezion-geber. 49 Then Ahaziah the son of Ahab said to Jehoshaphat, “Let my servants go with your servants in the ships,” but Jehoshaphat was not willing. 50 And Jehoshaphat slept with his fathers and was buried with his fathers in the city of David his father, and Jehoram his son reigned in his place.

51 Ahaziah the son of Ahab began to reign over Israel in Samaria in the seventeenth year of Jehoshaphat king of Judah, and he reigned two years over Israel. 52 He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and walked in the way of his father and in the way of his mother and in the way of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, who made Israel to sin. 53 He served Baal and worshiped him and provoked the Lord, the God of Israel, to anger in every way that his father had done. 1 Kings 22:41-53 ESV

Once again, the author shifts the focus of his narrative from Israel to Judah. With Ahab’s God-ordained demise, the northern kingdom of Israel found itself with a new ruler, Ahaziah, the son of Ahab. But in Judah, Jehoshaphat, who had survived the failed battle against Ramoth-gilead, continued his long reign over the southern kingdom. While Ahab’s exploits clearly portray him as the most wicked of all the kings of Israel, Jehoshaphat provides a refreshingly stark contrast. The author provides a brief, yet positive summary of his reign:  “Jehoshaphat was a good king, following the example of his father, Asa. He did what was pleasing in the Lord’s sight” (1 Kings 22:43 NLT).

But two significant stains marred Jehoshaphat’s 25-year reign. First, while he remained committed to the worship of Yahweh, he failed to remove all the pagan shrines dedicated to the false gods of the Canaanites. As a result, the people continued to offer practice idolatry in direct violation of God’s command. Secondly, Jehoshaphat had made a treaty with Ahab, the king of Israel. Like his father before him, Jehoshaphat put his faith in an outside power rather than trust in Yahweh. In Asa’s case, he had chosen to align himself with Ben-hadad, the king of the Syrians, hoping he could protect Judah from the ongoing threat of Israelite aggression. But he had been reprimanded for placing his trust in someone other than God.

“Because you relied on the king of Syria, and did not rely on the Lord your God, the army of the king of Syria has escaped you. Were not the Ethiopians and the Libyans a huge army with very many chariots and horsemen? Yet because you relied on the Lord, he gave them into your hand. For the eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to give strong support to those whose heart is blameless toward him. You have done foolishly in this, for from now on you will have wars.” – 2 Chronicles 16:7-9 ESV

Now, his son, Jehoshaphat, was guilty of the same sin. Rather than making a treaty with the Syrians, he had chosen to work hand-in-hand with Ahab, the king of Israel. According to 2 Chronicles 19:1, Jehoshaphat made a marriage alliance with Israel, agreeing for his son, Jehoram, to marry Ahab’s daughter, Athaliah. And this decision would end up putting Jehoshaphat in an awkward position, forcing him to side with Ahab in his ill-fated battle against Ramoth-gilead. While Ahab lost his life in the battle, Jehoshaphat was able to return to the safety of Jerusalem, where he was immediately confronted by the prophet of God over his role in the whole affair.

“Should you help the wicked and love those who hate the Lord? Because of this, wrath has gone out against you from the Lord. Nevertheless, some good is found in you, for you destroyed the Asheroth out of the land, and have set your heart to seek God.” – 2 Chronicles 19:2-3 ESV

Yet, despite these two rather egregious mistakes, Jehoshaphat was a good king who tried to encourage the people of Judah to worship God. Early on in his reign, he had sent a contingent of officials, including Levites and priests, to all the cities of Judah, with instructions to teach the Book of the Law to the people (2 Chronicles 17:7-9).

He also appointed judges in the land, instructing them to do their jobs with integrity and honesty, providing the people with just and wise decisions.

“Always think carefully before pronouncing judgment. Remember that you do not judge to please people but to please the Lord. He will be with you when you render the verdict in each case. Fear the Lord and judge with integrity, for the Lord our God does not tolerate perverted justice, partiality, or the taking of bribes.” – 2 Chronicles 19:6-7 NLT

But sadly, the righteous reign of Jehoshaphat did not end well. Once again, he made an unholy and unwise alliance with the king of Israel – this time with Ahaziah, the son of Ahab. We get a more detailed explanation of this failed agreement in the book of 2 Chronicles.

Some time later King Jehoshaphat of Judah made an alliance with King Ahaziah of Israel, who was very wicked. Together they built a fleet of trading ships at the port of Ezion-geber. Then Eliezer son of Dodavahu from Mareshah prophesied against Jehoshaphat. He said, “Because you have allied yourself with King Ahaziah, the Lord will destroy your work.” So the ships met with disaster and never put out to sea. – 2 Chronicles 20:35-37 NLT

What makes this decision by Jehoshaphat so difficult to understand is that it came after God had provided Judah with a stunning victory over the Ammonites and Moabites. The people of Judah had found themselves outnumbered by their enemies, but God had given His assurance that He would fight for them. They had no reason to fear.

“Listen, all you people of Judah and Jerusalem! Listen, King Jehoshaphat! This is what the Lord says: Do not be afraid! Don’t be discouraged by this mighty army, for the battle is not yours, but God’s. Tomorrow, march out against them. You will find them coming up through the ascent of Ziz at the end of the valley that opens into the wilderness of Jeruel. But you will not even need to fight. Take your positions; then stand still and watch the Lord’s victory. He is with you, O people of Judah and Jerusalem. Do not be afraid or discouraged. Go out against them tomorrow, for the Lord is with you!” – 2 Chronicles 20:15-17 NLT

And God had kept His word. Not only did He destroy their enemies, but he blessed the people of Judah with an abundance of unexpected wealth.

When Jehoshaphat and his people came to take their spoil, they found among them, in great numbers, goods, clothing, and precious things, which they took for themselves until they could carry no more. They were three days in taking the spoil, it was so much. – 2 Chronicles 20:25 ESV

Their God had not only protected them, but He had provided for them. They lacked nothing as long as they placed their hope and trust in Yahweh. Yet, for some reason, Jehoshaphat chose to join Ahaziah in the construction of ships to bring back gold from Ophir. But those ships never made it to sea. They were destroyed before they could ever leave the port. Like his father before him, Jehoshaphat placed his trust in someone other than God and paid a high price for his mistake. And his unwise decision left a permanent stain on his legacy.

But as 2 Chronicles 17-19 reveals, there were many positive aspects to Jehoshaphat’s reign. All in all, he was a good king who loved Yahweh and tried to shepherd the people of Judah as his ancestor David had done. Yet, the same thing cannot be said of Ahaziah, the son of Ahab and the king of Israel. The author paints a rather bleak portrait of his short and sin-stained reign.

He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and walked in the way of his father and in the way of his mother and in the way of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, who made Israel to sin. He served Baal and worshiped him and provoked the Lord, the God of Israel, to anger in every way that his father had done. – 2 Kings 22:52-53 ESV

And with that assessment, the book of 1 Kings comes to an abrupt and less-than-flattering end. The two kingdoms continue the downward spiral that began with the reign of Solomon. There have been brief glimpses of faithfulness, but for the most part, the nations of Israel and Judah remain plagued by infidelity and idolatry. Their kings are revealed as flawed men who tend to use their God-given power to promote themselves and their own agendas rather than lovingly shepherd the flock of God according to the will of God. And that pattern will continue as the author begins the second half of his history of the divided kingdom.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

A Life Gone to the Dogs

29 So the king of Israel and Jehoshaphat the king of Judah went up to Ramoth-gilead. 30 And the king of Israel said to Jehoshaphat, “I will disguise myself and go into battle, but you wear your robes.” And the king of Israel disguised himself and went into battle. 31 Now the king of Syria had commanded the thirty-two captains of his chariots, “Fight with neither small nor great, but only with the king of Israel.” 32 And when the captains of the chariots saw Jehoshaphat, they said, “It is surely the king of Israel.” So they turned to fight against him. And Jehoshaphat cried out. 33 And when the captains of the chariots saw that it was not the king of Israel, they turned back from pursuing him. 34 But a certain man drew his bow at random and struck the king of Israel between the scale armor and the breastplate. Therefore he said to the driver of his chariot, “Turn around and carry me out of the battle, for I am wounded.” 35 And the battle continued that day, and the king was propped up in his chariot facing the Syrians, until at evening he died. And the blood of the wound flowed into the bottom of the chariot. 36 And about sunset a cry went through the army, “Every man to his city, and every man to his country!”

37 So the king died, and was brought to Samaria. And they buried the king in Samaria. 38 And they washed the chariot by the pool of Samaria, and the dogs licked up his blood, and the prostitutes washed themselves in it, according to the word of the Lord that he had spoken. 39 Now the rest of the acts of Ahab and all that he did, and the ivory house that he built and all the cities that he built, are they not written in the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Israel? 40 So Ahab slept with his fathers, and Ahaziah his son reigned in his place. 1 Kings 22:29-40 ESV

Despite being warned by the prophet Micaiah that his attack of Ramoth-gilead would end in disaster and his own death, Ahab had chosen to go through with his ill-fated plan. But in an attempt to thwart the will of God, Ahab had come up with the brilliant idea to wear a disguise that would keep the Syrians from recognizing him as the king. He knew he would be a target of Ben-Hadad’s wrath because his attack on Ramoth-gilead would be in violation of their long-standing peace agreement. And he was right to be worried because Ben-hadad had commanded his troops to focus their attention on Ahab.

Now the king of Syria had commanded the thirty-two captains of his chariots, “Fight with neither small nor great, but only with the king of Israel.” – 1 Kings 22:31 ESV

Ahab’s decision to go through with the battle despite Micaiah’s warning clearly indicates the rebellious nature of his heart and his blatant disregard for the will of Yahweh. He truly believed he could devise a plan that would allow him to escape God’s wrath and accomplish his will at the same time. Ahab was conniving and manipulative and, evidently, quite persuasive because he was somehow able to convince King Jehoshaphat of Judah to go into battle wearing his royal armor while he wore a disguise. He hoped that, in the heat of battle, the Syrians would mistake Jehoshaphat for himself and focus all their attention on him. Somehow, he convinced the king of Judah to go along with this blatant display of self-centered self-preservation.

And his plan almost worked. As the battle began, the Syrians spotted Jehoshaphat and gave chase, but they soon realized they were pursuing the wrong man. Ahab had managed to fool the Syrians, but he would not be able to hide his identity from God Almighty. And he would not be able to escape the judgment God had decreed against him.

As the battle raged, one of the Syrian archers loosed an arrow that flew through the air and ended up striking Ahab “between the scale armor and the breastplate” (1 Kings 22:34 ESV). But this seemingly lucky shot had been sovereignly ordained and directed by the hand of God. Ahab had tried to escape God’s will but had failed. His disguise had been unable to hide him from God’s all-seeing eye, and his armor had proved to be insufficient protection from God’s all-powerful judgment.

And as the battle continued all around him, Ahab slumped in his chariot, his blood pouring from his wound and his life slowly ebbing away. At sunset, he took his last labored breath and died, and the news of his demise quickly spread across the battlefield.

 …at evening he died. And the blood of the wound flowed into the bottom of the chariot. And about sunset a cry went through the army, “Every man to his city, and every man to his country!” – 1 Kings 22:35-36 ESV

Micaiah had warned Ahab that his death was inevitable because his actions were in direct violation of God’s will. If he chose to go through with his attack on Ramoth-gilead, Ahab would suffer the divine consequences. And when Ahab died, lying in a pool of his own blood on the floor of his chariot, his troops abandoned the battle. The sheep found themselves without a shepherd, so they returned to their homes in peace, just as God had predicted they would.

“I saw all Israel scattered on the mountains, as sheep that have no shepherd. And the Lord said, ‘These have no master; let each return to his home in peace.’” – 1 Kings 22:17 ESV

With Ahab’s death, the battle for Ramoth-gilead came to an abrupt end, and the armies of Syria, Israel, and Judah abandoned the field and returned home. Ahab’s body, still lying in his chariot, was returned to Samaria. Amazingly, this wicked and rebellious king was given the honor of a royal burial. But the author describes a rather macabre scene that stands in stark contrast to the state funeral given to this unrepentant and undeserving king. As Ahab’s body was interred with all the pomp and circumstance that comes with a royal funeral, servants went about the unpleasant task of washing his blood from his chariot.

…his chariot was washed beside the pool of Samaria, and dogs came and licked his blood at the place where the prostitutes bathed, just as the Lord had promised. – 1 Kings 22:38 NLT

This scene took place in direct fulfillment of the words of Elijah the prophet. He had warned King Ahab that his complicity in the death of Naboth would result in his own death.

And you shall say to him, ‘Thus says the Lord: “In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth shall dogs lick your own blood.”’” – 1 Kings 21:19 ESV

It would seem that the place where the servants chose to wash Ahab’s blood from the chariot was the same place where the innocent Naboth had been stoned to death. Ahab’s body was buried in a royal tomb, but his life’s blood was unceremoniously poured out in a place recognized for its sin and degradation. It was a site within the walls of Samaris inhabited by those who were considered unclean and immoral. And the king’s blood was literally licked up by scavenging dogs.

Ahab’s reign as king of Israel came to an abrupt and violent end. And while he would be remembered for many of his achievements, he would go down in history as one of the most wicked of all Israel’s kings. His legacy would be marked by apostasy, rebellion, idolatry, and immorality. He had proved to be a competent king, but his stubborn refusal to honor God would forever mar his reputation and leave a permanent stain on the northern kingdom of Israel. And when the author states that “Ahab slept with his fathers” (1 Kings 22:40 ESV), it is a thinly veiled inference that Ahab died unrepentant and unforgiven, just like his predecessors. While alive, Ahab made no place for God in his kingdom. In death, he would discover that he had no place in God’s kingdom. In life, he had chosen to replace God with false gods, and that decision would prove to have eternal consequences.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Getting to Know God the Hard Way

16 And they went out at noon, while Ben-hadad was drinking himself drunk in the booths, he and the thirty-two kings who helped him. 17 The servants of the governors of the districts went out first. And Ben-hadad sent out scouts, and they reported to him, “Men are coming out from Samaria.” 18 He said, “If they have come out for peace, take them alive. Or if they have come out for war, take them alive.”

19 So these went out of the city, the servants of the governors of the districts and the army that followed them. 20 And each struck down his man. The Syrians fled, and Israel pursued them, but Ben-hadad king of Syria escaped on a horse with horsemen. 21 And the king of Israel went out and struck the horses and chariots, and struck the Syrians with a great blow.

22 Then the prophet came near to the king of Israel and said to him, “Come, strengthen yourself, and consider well what you have to do, for in the spring the king of Syria will come up against you.”

23 And the servants of the king of Syria said to him, “Their gods are gods of the hills, and so they were stronger than we. But let us fight against them in the plain, and surely we shall be stronger than they. 24 And do this: remove the kings, each from his post, and put commanders in their places, 25 and muster an army like the army that you have lost, horse for horse, and chariot for chariot. Then we will fight against them in the plain, and surely we shall be stronger than they.” And he listened to their voice and did so. 

26 In the spring, Ben-hadad mustered the Syrians and went up to Aphek to fight against Israel. 27 And the people of Israel were mustered and were provisioned and went against them. The people of Israel encamped before them like two little flocks of goats, but the Syrians filled the country.

28 And a man of God came near and said to the king of Israel, “Thus says the Lord, ‘Because the Syrians have said, “The Lord is a god of the hills but he is not a god of the valleys,” therefore I will give all this great multitude into your hand, and you shall know that I am the Lord.’”1 Kings 20:16-28 ESV

King Ahab found himself in a strange predicament. His capital city, Samaria, was under attack by a confederation of 32 kings, led by King Ben-hadad of Syria. But much to Ahab’s surprise, a prophet of Yahweh had appeared with a plan for Israel’s deliverance.

“Thus says the Lord, Have you seen all this great multitude? Behold, I will give it into your hand this day, and you shall know that I am the Lord.” – 1 Kings 20:13 ESV

The very God whom Ahab and Jezebel had attempted to replace with their false gods had announced that He was going to rescue His disobedient and unfaithful people. And God had told Ahab exactly how the victory would take place.

By the servants of the governors of the districts.” – 1 Kings 20:14 ESV

God was not going to utilize Ahab’s army to fight the Syrians. This is significant because Ahab, like all his predecessors, had assembled a large military force. There is even evidence to that fact, found on an ancient Assyrian stone tablet. It bears an inscription describing the battle of Qarqar between Ahab and his enemy King Shalmaneser III of Assyria. The tablet records the size of the army that assembled to do battle that day: “2,000 chariots and 10,000 men of Ahab king of Israel.”

But on this occasion, God chose to place Ahab’s formidable resources in a secondary position, choosing instead to use “servants” – a group of common people who, when assembled, amounted to only 7,000 in number.

Confident that he would defeat the Israelites, Ben-hadad and his vassal kings were drinking themselves drunk in a pre-victory celebration. So, when scouts arrived with a report that Israelite forces had been seen leaving the city, Beh-hadad had assumed they were bringing news of Israel’s surrender or their decision to continue the battle. While he and his military commanders continued to toast their inevitable victory, the 7,000 servants made their way to the Syrian camp, followed by Ahab and his army.

This surprise attack caught the Syrian forces completely unawares and unable to respond. Led by the 7,000 servants, Ahab’s army quickly routed the Syrians, forcing them to abandon camp and run for their lives. Quickly sobered by this unexpected reversal of fortunes, Beh-hadad managed to escape. But the rest of his forces didn’t fare as well.

And the king of Israel went out and struck the horses and chariots, and struck the Syrians with a great blow. – 1 Kings 20:21 ESV

Notice that the author conveniently eliminates any mention of Ahab’s name. He simply refers to him as “the king of Israel.” He repeats this obvious slight in the very next verse, refusing to give Ahab any credit for the victory. He simply warns him that the battle may be done, but the war is from over.

“Come, strengthen yourself, and consider well what you have to do, for in the spring the king of Syria will come up against you.” – 1 Kings 20:22 ESV

Ben-hadad would be back. He had suffered a devastating defeat, but once he had time to assess what had happened that day, the Syrian king would return, more determined than ever to avenge his loss by destroying the Israelites. And his advisors encouraged his plans by suggesting that his loss had been divinely ordained. In their pagan way of thinking, the only thing that could explain a loss of this magnitude was the intervention of the gods. They rationalized away their defeat by concluding that they had chosen the wrong place to do battle.  They absolved Beh-hadad of any responsibility for the loss by assuring him, “Their gods are gods of the hills, and so they were stronger than we. But let us fight against them in the plain, and surely we shall be stronger than they” (1 Kings 20:23 ESV).

Little did they know how right they were. Their defeat had been the result of divine intervention, but geographic location had played no role in it. Yahweh was the God of the hills and the valleys. He was sovereign over all the earth. Unlike their false gods, Yahweh was unbound by time and space. The extent of His power was limitless. To the God of Israel, the location and the size of the opposing army made no difference. And so, when Ben-hadad’s advisors counseled him to rebuild his army and restructure his military command, it would prove to be futile advice. They had no idea what they were dealing with and their ignorance led them to make some very dangerous assumptions. First, they assumed that the God of Israel was similar to their own gods – limited in power and vulnerable to defeat. After all, their gods had failed to deliver them. So, if they could find Yahweh’s weak spots, the next battle would go their way.

And Ben-hadad, eager to avenge his loss, took their advice and spent the winter rebuilding his army. He replaced the 32 kings with seasoned military commanders. He ordered the construction of new chariots. And he made plans to take the fight to the valley, where the God of Israel would have no power and play no role in the outcome of the battle.

It is fascinating to consider that all of this was in the sovereign will of God. He had orchestrated all the details concerning the original battle, including Ben-hadad’s escape. God had even told Ahab that the Syrians would return. Ben-hadad’s rebuilding and reconfiguring of his army had been part of God’s plan. The original battle had been intended to restore the Israelites’ belief in God. Prior to their victory, God had told them, “I will give it into your hand this day, and you shall know that I am the Lord” (1 Kings 20:13 ESV).

But God knew that little had changed in Israel. Even after their miraculous defeat of the Syrians, the people still remained unconvinced of Yahweh’s status as the one true God. When spring rolled around, they found themselves facing their former foe again. This time, Beh-hadad showed up with a much larger and better-equipped army than before, and rather than laying siege to the city, they gathered in the Valley of Aphek. Ben-hadad had brought a bigger, better army and had chosen a battleground that was outside the reach of Yahweh’s power. Or so he thought.

The stage was set. The enemy of Israel had returned. And the author paints a rather bleak and foreboding picture of the situation.

Israel then mustered its army, set up supply lines, and marched out for battle. But the Israelite army looked like two little flocks of goats in comparison to the vast Aramean forces that filled the countryside! – 1 Kings 20:27 NLT

Here was Israel, outnumbered and underequipped yet again. They were no match for the Syrians. And this time, they would not have the walls of the city to protect them. They would be fighting on open terrain, facing an army equipped with chariots and horses and motivated by revenge.

But God sent another prophet with a promise of His presence and power.

“Thus says the Lord, ‘Because the Syrians have said, “The Lord is a god of the hills but he is not a god of the valleys,” therefore I will give all this great multitude into your hand, and you shall know that I am the Lord.’” – 1 Kings 20:28 ESV

Despite the overwhelming odds, God would provide another victory over their enemy. By the time this day was over, they would know that He was the one true God. But notice that in verse 28, the author leaves out Ahab’s name again. He simply refers to him as “the king of Israel.” God was going to deliver this victory despite Ahab, not because of him. Not only did Ahab deserve to lose this battle, but he also deserved to die for his blatant rebellion against God. But God was acting on behalf of His covenant people. He was doing this to protect the integrity and honor of His name. He had made covenant promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He had given His word to Moses and David. And while Ahab had failed to use his position as the shepherd of Israel to lead them in faithful obedience, God would prove Himself true to His word and committed to His covenant promises.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Seek God Now, Not Later.

An oracle concerning Damascus.

Behold, Damascus will cease to be a city
    and will become a heap of ruins.
The cities of Aroer are deserted;
    they will be for flocks,
    which will lie down, and none will make them afraid.
The fortress will disappear from Ephraim,
    and the kingdom from Damascus;
and the remnant of Syria will be
    like the glory of the children of Israel,
declares the Lord of hosts.

And in that day the glory of Jacob will be brought low,
    and the fat of his flesh will grow lean.
And it shall be as when the reaper gathers standing grain
    and his arm harvests the ears,
and as when one gleans the ears of grain
    in the Valley of Rephaim.
Gleanings will be left in it,
    as when an olive tree is beaten—
two or three berries
    in the top of the highest bough,
four or five
    on the branches of a fruit tree,
declares the Lord God of Israel.

In that day man will look to his Maker, and his eyes will look on the Holy One of Israel. He will not look to the altars, the work of his hands, and he will not look on what his own fingers have made, either the Asherim or the altars of incense. – Isaiah 17:1-8 ESV

DamascusWith the opening of chapter 17, Isaiah delivers God’s oracle against Damascus, the capital city of Syria. As verse three reveals, Israel is included in this oracle, referred to by the name of Ephraim, the largest of the ten tribes that made up the northern kingdom. Israel had formed an alliance with Syria in order to attack the southern kingdom of Judah (see chapter seven).

As has been the case with each of the other oracles, God is speaking a word of warning aimed directly at His own people, the divided nations of Israel and Judah. Their repeated attempts to seek help from foreign nations rather than trust in Him were going to bring His judgment. He has already told what will happen to Babylon, Philistia, Moab and Assyria. Now, He turns His attention to Syria, located to the northeast of Israel. And He cuts to the chase, describing the Syrian capital as “a heap of ruins.” He predicts the utter devastation of the fortified cities of Syria and Ephraim, which would include the Israelite capital of Samaria.

The fortress will disappear from Ephraim,
    and the kingdom from Damascus;
and the remnant of Syria will be
    like the glory of the children of Israel,
declares the Lord of hosts. – Isaiah 17:3 ESV

Syria would share Israel’s fate. Both nations, because of their arrogance, would suffer greatly under the hand of God Almighty. But God’s primary judgment seems to be directed at the children of Israel. He states that their former glory will be greatly diminished, and He describes it is stark terms:

…in that day the glory of Jacob will be brought low,
    and the fat of his flesh will grow lean. – Isaiah 17:4 ESV

Once again, we see God promising to humble the proud and destroy bring low the self-sufficient. Israel had reached the point in their downward spiritual spiral where they no longer believed they needed God. Under the leadership of their king, Jeroboam, they had long ago created their own gods and set up their own places of worship.

Jeroboam then built up the city of Shechem in the hill country of Ephraim, and it became his capital. Later he went and built up the town of Peniel.

Jeroboam thought to himself, “Unless I am careful, the kingdom will return to the dynasty of David. When these people go to Jerusalem to offer sacrifices at the Temple of the Lord, they will again give their allegiance to King Rehoboam of Judah. They will kill me and make him their king instead.”

So on the advice of his counselors, the king made two gold calves. He said to the people, “It is too much trouble for you to worship in Jerusalem. Look, Israel, these are the gods who brought you out of Egypt!”

He placed these calf idols in Bethel and in Dan—at either end of his kingdom. But this became a great sin, for the people worshiped the idols, traveling as far north as Dan to worship the one there. – 1 Kings 12:25-30 NLT

And a long line of kings who succeeded Jeroboam continued the idolatrous trend, leading the people of Israel further and further away from God. But God does not leave sin unpunished. He cannot and will not overlook the rebellion of His people. So in 732 BC, the Assyrians fulfilled God’s word by destroying Damascus. And then years later, they would destroy Samaria, the capital city of Israel.

And the aftermath of the Assyrian conquest will leave the land looking “like a grainfield after the harvesters have gathered the grain. It will be desolate, like the fields in the valley of Rephaim after the harvest” (Isaiah 17:5 NLT). It is a picture of desolation and devastation. All the glory is gone. Everything the people had placed their hope in and based their pride upon would be gone. Only a remnant of the people of Israel would remain in the land.

“Only a few of its people will be left,
    like stray olives left on a tree after the harvest.
Only two or three remain in the highest branches,
    four or five scattered here and there on the limbs,”
    declares the Lord, the God of Israel. – Isaiah 17:6 NLT

This image stands in stark contrast to the promise God had made to Abraham.

“Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” – Genesis 15:5 ESV

God had kept His promise to Abraham and had made of him a great nation. While the Israelites had lived in Egypt for 400 years, their numbers had grown to such a degree that the Pharaoh had become fearful of their presence in the land. So he began to treat them as slaves, keeping them under intense subjection so that they might not rise up against the Egyptians. But God had delivered them from their slavery and had brought them to the land of Canaan, where He had given them victory over their enemies and provided them with land, villages and houses in which to live.

But the people of Israel had proved unfaithful to God. Over the centuries, they had repeatedly disobeyed God by worshiping the false gods of the Canaanites. They had intermarried with the nations, failing to maintain their ethnic purity but, more importantly, their spiritual identity as the chosen people of God. They had been set apart by God and commanded to live according to His laws. They were to be a living example of how sinful man can live in covenant community with a holy God. But they had failed.

And the core issue here is not the litany of sins the people of Israel committed, but their lack of belief in God. The goal of Satan is not so much to get mankind to commit sins as it is to get them to doubt God. That’s the tactic he took in the garden with Adam and Eve. He came to the woman in the guise of a beautiful serpent and said, “Did God really say you must not eat the fruit from any of the trees in the garden?” (Genesis 3:1 NLT). Notice that he raised doubts about God’s command. And Eve correctly responded, “It’s only the fruit from the tree in the middle of the garden that we are not allowed to eat. God said, ‘You must not eat it or even touch it; if you do, you will die’” (Genesis 3:3 NLT). Then Satan did what he always does, he contradicted the very word of God. “You won’t die!” (Genesis 3:4 NLT). And he followed that up with a compelling lie: “God knows that your eyes will be opened as soon as you eat it, and you will be like God, knowing both good and evil” (Genesis 3:5 NLT).

Eve and her husband listened to the lies of the enemy. But it was not the eating of the fruit that was the cause of their fall. It was their rejection of the word of God. They failed to believe what God had said. The enemy replaced the truth of God with a lie, and they accepted it. They took the bait. Satan’s promise sounded more plausible and appealing than God’s offer of life in the garden with Him. And mankind has been taking the bait of Satan ever since.

The fellowship with God that Adam and Eve had once enjoyed came to an abrupt end. Sin broke the bond. It severed the relationship they had enjoyed. They were cast out of the garden and away from the presence of God. And, as time passed, they and their descendants would find themselves moving further and further away from God – physically, as they journeyed away from the garden, and spiritually, as they allowed sin to separate them from Him.

But God describes a day when the fall of Israel would leave His people calling out to Him once again. In their devastated and demoralized state, they would find themselves without hope and devoid of any other source of help.

Then at last the people will look to their Creator
    and turn their eyes to the Holy One of Israel.
They will no longer look to their idols for help
    or worship what their own hands have made.
They will never again bow down to their Asherah poles
    or worship at the pagan shrines they have built. – Isaiah 17:7-8 NLT

It is amazing how easy it is for the people of God to turn their backs on Him until they find themselves in a state of hopelessness and helplessness. In those moments of trial and trouble, when they no longer have any other options or tricks up their sleeves, they tend to turn back to God for help. When their man-made gods no longer come through for them, they decide to give God one more try.

And the same is true of us as God’s people. While our false gods to be more sophisticated, they are still man-made and poor substitutes for the one true God. Yet, we find it so easy to place our trust in anything and everything but God, until those things fail to come through for us. When all the money in the world can’t heal us from cancer, we turn to God. When our intelligence proves insufficient for the crisis we face, we turn to God. When all our possessions fail to bring us the happiness they promised to deliver, we turn to God. And while it is true that “God is our refuge and strength, always ready to help in times of trouble” (Psalm 46:1 NLT), He longs for us to seek Him at all times. He desires that we make Him our first and only option. Which is why Jesus said, “Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need” (Matthew 6:33 NLT).

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)
Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson