Studies in the Book of Kings 2 Kings 3:1-27


2 Kings 3:1-27

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At the end of chapter 2 we were treated to the record of two episodes that established Elisha’s bona fides. He was indeed Elijah’s successor and wielded the same authority in Yahweh’s name as had his predecessor. Now we are provided a more lengthy account to the same effect, a demonstration that Elisha’s word as a prophet of the Lord is as full of divine authority as Elijah’s had been. That being so, we expect that Elisha will be involved with Israel’s royal house, immersed in politics as his successor had been and that is what we find. [Provan, 181] Despite his success with the prophets and the people of Jericho he has not yet had an encounter with Israel’s king such as Elijah had. Now he will. [House, 262]

Text Comment

v.2

What had seemed to be the case in previous narratives is now confirmed. Elijah’s victory over the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel had done serious damage to the credit of Baalism in Israel. Even Jehoram, Ahab’s son, had lost his enthusiasm for a god who had been embarrassed so thoroughly by Yahweh’s prophet. This is the more noteworthy, because Jezebel, Jehoram’s mother, was still alive and active as the queen mother. We learn in v. 13 that the Baal cult has by no means been eliminated from Israel, but its influence had been greatly reduced and the king’s repudiation of Baal worship must have reduced it still further. But Jehoram tolerated Baalism if he did not participate himself. So if not an advocate of Baal, he was no friend of Yahweh. He was hardly the reformer Israel needed. [House, 262]

v.4

The large numbers seem to be intended to indicate that Israel was unjustly oppressing Moab, imposing draconian tribute upon the nation.

v.5

In other words, he hoped to end his relationship to Israel as a vassal required to send tribute each year. Mesha didn’t dare do that while Ahab was still on the throne but hoped that his son would be less able to suppress Moab’s rebellion, all the more because Assyria loomed as the greater danger to Israel at this time and Mesha may well have supposed that Jehoram would be too preoccupied with enemies to the north to care about the rebellion of a client state to the southeast.

v.7

Jehoshaphat was a good man and a good king, but he was not the sharpest knife in the drawer. After his former experience with Israel, the disaster of the battle against Syria that Ahab had led him into, the battle in which Ahab was killed and Jehoshaphat almost so, one would have thought he would have declined. Yahweh did not seem to be on Israel’s side in battle these days. Judah’s fortunes were not at stake and he knew, or should have known, that Israel had no claim any longer on the help and blessing of the Lord. Indeed, any alert reader of 2 Kings 3 will immediately notice parallels between this situation and the one described in 1 Kings 22 and be forced to ask why Jehoshaphat didn’t notice those parallels as well.

His remark, “I am as you are, my people as your people, etc.” is exactly what he had said to Ahab in 1 Kings 22:4. But this time Jehoshaphat does not consult the Lord before committing to battle. He won’t do that until affairs reach a crisis on the march.

v.8

The plan was to attack Moab from the rear and so avoid its fortifications. That accounts for part of Jehoram’s need to secure Jehoshaphat’s help, as “the way of Edom” required Israel’s army to march through Judah. Further, Edom at this time, was Judah’s vassal (1 Kgs 22:47) and so could not object to the plan to invade Moab through its territory.

v.10

The invasion was off to a very unpropitious start, whether as the result of poor planning on Jehoram’s part or unusually dry weather the narrator does not say. In any case, like father, like son. Jehoram is a whiner just like Ahab had been. [Leithart, 180]

v.11     The impression is that the kings were not yet aware of Elisha’s ministry

v.12

“Who poured water on the hands of Elijah,” indicates that Elisha was Elijah’s personal servant and disciple and thus intimately connected to the great prophet

v.13

Like Ahab he was still aware of Yahweh and still believed in his existence and even his power. He was just unwilling to worship and serve him

v.15

In other contexts in the OT narrative of prophets and prophesying music was employed as a means of bringing a prophet into a state in which he might receive a communication from the Lord. It was by no means regularly the instrument used, sometimes visions, sometimes the actual voice of the Lord was heard, but in some cases this particular means was used to put a prophet into a frame of mind in which he might receive the revelation of God

v.16

The Hebrew is translated differently. In the NIV we read “Make this valley full of ditches.” That is, there was something for the armies to do to catch and contain the water that the Lord would send. The ESV, however, renders the verb in the indicative not the imperative which may be more likely. Nothing hinges on the point, but the question is: was Elisha giving a command or was he simply describing what was going to happen

v.19

What is striking and important about this prediction is that it seems clearly to indicate that the allied armies would violate the rules of war given in the Law of Moses (Deut. 20:19-20). The natural productive capacities of the land and the beautiful things God has made were not to be destroyed willy-nilly. They might cut trees to build siege works but the rules of holy war forbade a policy of scorched earth or devastation for the purpose of revenge as would be the case if an army cut down all the good trees and stopped up the springs

v.20

In other words, the rain fell in the uplands not directly upon the armies of Israel and Judah, but the water ran to the valley and filled the streams and pools. This happens in the American west all the time: floods of water fill arroyos as the result of rains that fell many miles away

v.23

The red stone characteristic of Moab would reflect on the water as red in the sunlight. This led the Moabites to suppose that the alliance of Israel, Judah, and Edom had broken apart violently and they had only to hasten to the scene of their battle to plunder the spoil. They advanced incautiously and the Israelites fell upon them when they were unsuspecting and unprepared

v.26

The forces of the King of Edom would naturally be the least motivated and so the weakest point in the line. Edom had no interest in this, it was somebody else’s fight, they were there because they had to be

v.27

We do not expect the ending. Wrath came upon Israel at the last after all. Just as it had upon Ahab the last time Israel went into battle. Jehoshaphat’s presence may have resulted in God’s blessing the military effort to some degree, but at the last Israel suffered too and returned home with much less than was expected given the great victories she won early in the campaign.  Perhaps we are to understand that the sacrifice of Mesha’s son so inspired the Moabites that they renewed their attack against the allied forces and this time prevailed. But this could happen only because God’s wrath had fallen upon Israel’s endeavor. Ordinarily, when “wrath comes upon someone” in the Bible it is God’s wrath, not man’s. Yahweh had given some measure of success, perhaps for Judah’s sake, perhaps to deal with the idea of Chemosh, the god of Moab, perhaps to lure Jehoram into a situation in which he might the more grievously be given over to his sins, but he withheld the final object, the continued subjugation of Moab. Since Israel was in rebellion against Yahweh, why would the Lord have supported Israel’s endeavors in any case. In other words the invasion was a costly failure.

The famous Moabite Stone (or Mesha Inscription) provides historical background to this chapter. War annals of the ANE, of which the Moabite stone is one, were, of course, propaganda, not faithful history. Defeats and damage suffered characteristically remain unmentioned, only the victory that was thought to reflect glory on the nation’s gods and kings, in this case Chemosh, the god of Moab, and Mesha. The Assyrian annals, for example, mention every positive result of Assyria’s invasion of Judah in 701 B.C. Sennacherib boasts of bottling up Hezekiah in Jerusalem “as a bird in a cage.” But it omits the disaster brought upon the Assyrian army by the angel of the Lord and, by its silence, admits that it failed to take Jerusalem. It offers no explanation for the failure. Only victories are reported. Much like American political speech and party propaganda. But the fact that in the Moabite stone such victory is claimed and that Israelite rule was thrown off comports with the final verse of our narrative. However much damage Israel and Judah did to Moab, they did not force Moab to remain a vassal or maintain the considerable tribute that Moab heretofore had paid into the Israelite treasury. [Cf. Hobbs, 39-41]

There is something subtle here, as so often in biblical historical narrative; something we have to tease out of the account, something not immediately evident and obvious, something the narrator intends the discerning reader to note, to see and to learn. There is something here deeper than a casual reading might suggest. We have events unfolding at the end of the chapter quite differently that we might have supposed, given how matters unfolded at the beginning. There is a question here that needs to be answered in the same way we must answer the question raised by Elisha’s setting the bears upon the boys from Bethel who mocked him.

Three kings against one ought to have been enough to put Moab in its place. Ahab had, by himself, kept Moab in its place for many years. But the expeditionary force met difficult early on. There was no water. No doubt they had expected that water would be available in the usual places. One does not march without some plan as to how the army is to be provided with necessary supplies and there is nothing to suggest that Jehoram wasn’t an able commander as his father, Ahab, certainly had been. Jehoram immediately holds Yahweh responsible for the mess the allied army finds itself in and, like his father, whines:

“Alas! The Lord has called these three kings to give them into the hand of Moab.”

And, though the Lord intervened to help with the immediate problem – explicitly for the sake of Jehoshaphat, who, let there be no doubt of this, should not have been a part of this expedition – what Jehoram says turns out to be the evaluative viewpoint of the narrator. In fact at the end of the day Moab gave Israel, Judah, and Edom such a mauling that they returned home with their tails between their legs and Mesha could boast about his victory on the Moabite stone!

We are inclined to think that the supply of water, miraculously provided by the Word of the Lord through Elisha the prophet, meant that the allies would prevail in their effort to keep Moab in vassalage. But the temporary reprieve and the prophecy of initial success did not lead to final victory. And God was the reason for that. Why, after all, would we expect Yahweh to bless Israel and her endeavors when she has thrown off his rule? Why would we expect the Lord to honor a king like Jehoram who, though having traded Baal for something else, was hardly a faithful king and was surely not a man anyone would have confused with a servant of Yahweh?

Indeed, the narrative itself reminds us of Israel’s infidelity in some subtle but nonetheless striking ways.

  1. It begins in v. 2 with the typical statement that Jehoram did what was evil in the sight of the Lord. He may have not been as bad in every respect as his father, but Ahab being who and what he was, that isn’t much of a compliment.
  2. Then in v. 4 we read of the tribute he had imposed on Mesha, the account of which seems clearly designed to make us think that the amount demanded was draconian, punitive, and oppressive. The fact that the Israelite army took the same route up the eastern shore of the Dead Sea that Israel had taken as she made her way to the Promised Land for the first time should have reminded her that she had once been a slave in Egypt and knew firsthand what it was like to be oppressed by a cruel ruler. They knew what it was like to be somebody else’s slave. But Jehoram didn’t care about justice or mercy!
  3. Then you have Jehoshaphat’s question in v. 11 which reproduces precisely the question he had asked of Jehoram’s father in 1 Kings 22.In that way we are reminded of the ghastly outcome of that military adventure and, of how the Lord had, in effect, lured Israel into battle so he could kill Ahab and send the rest of Israel’s army, scattered and leaderless, for home. Is that what’s happening here? Is Israel being lured into battle to be beaten again? Sounds like it.
  4. Then you have Elisha’s blunt statement in v. 14 that he wouldn’t so much as given Jehoram the time of day had Jehoshaphat not been with him. Not exactly a ringing endorsement of Jehoram’s administration!
  5. And then we have the prophecy of Elisha itself. We read from v. 16 his account, given to him by Yahweh himself, of what was to come. The water would be provided and the Lord would give Moab into Israel’s hand. In v. 19 we read that the allied army would  attack every city and fell every good tree. The question, of course, is whether the statement is simply an indicative – an account of what would happen – or has the burden of a commandment, that Israel should do this. I suspect we should read the prophecy in the former way: the Lord wasn’t telling them to cut down every good tree, as his law forbade them to do; he is only saying that in the event that is what they were going to do. In the same way he wasn’t telling them to violate the laws of war as they are given in Deut. 20:19-20, which they would by cutting down the trees and stopping up the springs, he is simply saying that this is what, in fact, would come to pass. Elisha doesn’t here seem to be interested in telling Israel how to achieve victory. But the prophecy is certainly a test, even a trap that the Lord has laid for Israel and Judah. Would they do the right thing – now that a sinful course has been set before them – or would they continue in their indifference to the law and the Word of God? As we read in v. 25 they did what Elisha said they would do and showed no reverence for the Lord. This was petulant vengeance, not holy war!

Given the larger context of this history in Kings, had Israel and her wicked king actually won a great victory by the blessing of God, we would naturally wonder why. Why would God bless a rebellious people in that way? Why would he grant success to a people who had apostatized and rejected him in favor of the pathetic vacuities of ANE religion? But, as it happened, he did not bless them. He seemed at first to be giving them victory – perhaps putting Chemosh in his place, but also perhaps giving Jehoram over to his sins – but then it all came to nothing and the purpose for which Israel went to war was not fulfilled and Moab was lost to greater Israel.

The Bible is full of such history: of people mistaking temporary success or happiness for a sign of what is to come and then of their hopes being dashed. The history of redemption itself is a study in the overturning of expectations. The greatest king of Israel after Solomon was Jeroboam II, who reigned in the middle of the 8th century B.C. It was a time of great prosperity and political advancement for Israel. The future looked very bright. Twenty years later Israel would no longer exist as a nation state, wiped off the map, just as the Lord’s prophets had said she would be.

Seven centuries later the religious leadership in Jerusalem was sure they had finally dispatched Jesus of Nazareth, whom they hated and feared for various reasons, and solved the problem he had created for them. And a day and a half later the situation from their viewpoint was worse than it had ever been before. And fifty days later the world of Jewry was forever changed by an event that thrust Jesus onto the main stage of world history. There was a great deal of triumphalism in first century among the people of God, but they should have learned a lesson from their own history. Utter catastrophe was just around the corner and would befall the Jews in A.D. 70 for the same reason it befell Israel in 721 B.C. and Judah in 586 B.C.

Now what are we to carry away from our reading, from our consideration of this historical narrative that bristles with subtle but powerful lessons? Elisha’s prophecy of what was to come turned out to be correct in every detail. We now know that Elisha’s word as the Word of the Lord can be relied on absolutely. In the larger context of this section of Kings, in its concentration on the prophets of the Lord and the authority of the Word of God, this is the key point. The Word of God is true and righteous altogether. Elisha never said that Israel would prevail against Mesha and force him to continue providing the oppressive tribute they had imposed upon Moab. His word, the Word of God, was accurate to the detail, but Elisha never finished the account. If Jehoshaphat had any sense whatsoever, having heard Elisha – what he said and what he did not say –, if he had remembered what had happened to Ahab’s army the last time he went into battle with Israel’s king at his side, he would have invented some excuse and headed home as fast as he could. But neither king asked any of the obvious questions, and the one righteous king never explored the obvious issue: an Israelite king who had gone over to paganism nevertheless expecting Yahweh to bless his efforts. It is what Ahab had done and look what happened to him!

The great draw of the world, and all of us know it, is its temporary successes. If offers pleasures for which it seems there are no penalties; rewards that are beguilingly attractive; strategies and procedures tempt us to think that they will grant us many desirable things with no consequence in the long term. This is the Devil’s great temptation, “You surely shall not die,” and the food was good. The apple was the best apple anyone has ever tasted. “You surely shall not die.” The Lord, his Word and his Law were forgotten. This too is from God who allows a measure of success to the world, the unbelieving world, just as he provided water for this disreputable army doing a disreputable thing. But it is for us to notice that God has put the miraculous provision of water and the initial rip-roaring success of the invasion side by side with the calamitous conclusion of the campaign. It is an important comparison of beginning and end to remind us that a favorable beginning matters not at all if we are walking in disobedience to God and in unbelief toward him. Remember the rich man and poor Lazarus!

I remember being arrested by this thought of juxtaposition when I first came upon it in Klaas Schilder’s great book on Hell.

“Poor men! God has placed Zion, the high mountain, and Gehenna, the deep valley close by each other in an eloquent symbol. [Remember, Gehenna, which became a name for hell, was the valley on the south side of Jerusalem, for which Zion was another name. The valley of Hinnom, which is what Gehenna means, was the garbage dump of the city where trash was regularly burning, but it was only steps away from the temple mount.] But men have for the umpteenth time divided what God has placed close together. They hear no more what Gehenna says… Poor men! [Wat is de Hel? 32]

Do you get his point? See how close the Lord put hell to heaven; how near he made the two in Jerusalem; and how often he makes the two so close to one another in human life; how easy to see the one from the other; to see both together. God did this so that we would not forget; so that we would not be beguiled by the things the world offers us into forgetting about the fate that awaits those who will not believe and will not obey. Why is there so much hell in human life? Because God wants us to see it so that we will take great care never to go there but to seek his mercy and find it in Christ. We must see it or we will never avoid it as we must. We must also taste the goodness of the Lord to whet our appetite for what might be ours if we trust the Lord and follow him. We must know that there is a wonderful life, living water and great victory if only we commit ourselves to the Word of God. But, as the Scripture says, we must learn that the kindness of the Lord is designed to lead us to repentance. Jehoram never learned this.

When the water appeared, what should Jehoram and Israel’s army have concluded? Was it that Yahweh wanted them to continue to oppress Moab? Was it that Yahweh didn’t much care what gods Israel worshipped or how she lived her life? Was it that Yahweh’s covenant wasn’t nearly as important as Israel’s economic prosperity? No! It was another demonstration that the Lord is God and that he alone is God. Jehoram should at that moment, having seen again the power and the kindness of God, having the evidence of the reality of Elijah and Elisha’s God once again before his eyes, he should have stopped in his tracks, thought to himself, “What in the world am I doing?” He should have got on his knees, asked Yahweh for forgiveness, and turned to Jehoshaphat and said, from now on my people will be as your people and we will all worship in Jerusalem according to the law of the Lord. I’m going home to raze to the ground those sanctuaries in Bethel and Dan. And I’m getting out of here and sending a note to Mesha apologizing for the tribute he has had to pay and asking him to forgive me. I should not have acted as I did, not if Yahweh is the Living God! God’s kindness should have led Jehoram to all of that; but it didn’t and, alas, it very often does not.

God is bestowing clear, clean water and giving enemies into our hands in a thousand ways everyday all over the world all the time. But his kindness does not lead them to repentance but rather, from it they take comfort in their unbelief and imagine that what they are now enjoying they will continue to enjoy. What folly! The wonderful water led to a beguiling, deceptive victory that led at last to a horrific, crushing defeat. Sometimes even the worst defeat, when unbelief has really taken hold on heart and life, cannot any longer be recognized as the prophetic outcome predicted in the Word of God! We tend not to want to face the fact that the holocaust was divine judgment against the Jews because the Nazis were so evil in what they did. We feel it necessary to concentrate on that and without a theological reason that is what you would concentrate on. But the Assyrians, Babylonians, and Romans were in many respects also racists and also very evil people who did very evil things and did them to the Jews as an instrument of God’s judgment. No one can possibly deny that the destruction of Judah and Jerusalem and its temple in A.D. 70 was directly the result of God’s wrath against an unbelieving people because the Scriptures says that it was again and again. Well, so in the twentieth century. Why the Jews? Why were they marked out for such terrible treatment? The Lord’s wrath had come upon them.

“Prisoner 174517 was thirsty. Seeing a fat icicle hanging just outside his hut in the Auschwitz extermination camp, he reached out of the window and broke it off to quench his thirst. But before he could get the icicle to his mouth, a guard snatched it out of his hands and dashed it to pieces on the filthy ground.

‘Warum?’ the prisoner burst out instinctively – “Why?”

Hier ist kein warum,’ the guard answered with brutal finality – “Here there is no why.”

That for Primo Levi, the Italian Jewish scientist and writer, was the essence of the death camps – places not only of unchallengeable, arbitrary authority but of absolute evil that defied all explanation. In the face of such wickedness, explanations born of psychology, sociology, and economics were pathetic in their inadequacy. One could only shoulder the weight of such an experience and bear witness to the world. …

Yet despite the horror, Levi gave the impression that he had survived the poison of Auschwitz and had come to terms with his nightmarish experience. One of the only three returning survivors of the six hundred fifty Italian Jews transported to Poland in 1944, he eventually married, had children, wrote books, won literary prizes, and lived a full life. His core mission, however, was always to serve as a witness to the truth, a guardian of the memory.

Writing about his deportation to Poland, he stated: ‘Auschwitz left its mark on me, but it did not remove my desire to live. On the contrary, that experience increased my desire, it gave my life a purpose, to bear witness, so that such a thing should never occur again.’ While other direct or indirect victims of the Nazis committed suicide…Levi many times argued against that act.

Thus many people were shocked and saddened when on April 11, 1987, more than forty years after his release from Auschwitz, Primo Levi plunged to his death down the stairwell of his home in Torino, Italy. Feeling the burden of witnessing, the guilt of surviving, the horror of revisionist denials of the camps, the weariness of repeating the same things, and even the anxiety of seeing his own memories fade, he joined the long sad list of the victims of the Nazi hell who took their own lives.

… Significantly, in his last interview he begged the questioning journalist not to consider him a prophet: ‘Prophets are the plague of today, and perhaps of all time, because it is impossible to tell a true prophet from a false one.’ In the same vein he had said earlier, ‘All prophets are false. I don’t believe in prophets, even though I come from a heritage of prophets.’

Prophets the ‘plague of all time’? Levi’s dismissal is understandable, for he was an atheist and had been to hell in his own life on earth….” [Os Guiness, Time for Truth, 69-70].

Elisha a plague? His word to Israel a plague? One shakes his head in great confusion, frustration, and sadness. Primo Levi’s problem as Jehoram’s long before was that he refused to recognize the fact that the Word of God, as it came from the prophets of Israel, was the unvarnished truth in every respect. The prophecy of water was the demonstration of the authority of the entire Word of God; concerning whatever subject it speaks it is always true and always righteous altogether. The prophets warned of hell long before Auschwitz; and they explained the evil of the human heart and they also explained why there was so much heaven to be found on earth. What is more, what the prophets said would happen, happened. What they said would not happen, did not happen. What they explained to be the reason for things unfolding in human life as they did was the reason! If you do not have the Word of God, you don’t know anything! The Word of God which remains forever is the only thing you can be sure of in this world; the only thing you can absolutely rely on. That is the message of this history and that is the lesson of it. As the New Year begins, we are to write this lesson upon our hearts and make it our calling in the coming months: to revere the Word of God as the only thing in this world you know or can know to be absolutely, undeniably, unquestionably and perfectly TRUE!

Think of it carefully,
Study it prayerfully,
Deep in your heart
Let its oracles dwell.
Ponder its mystery,
Slight not its history,
For none ever loved it
Too fondly or well..