In obedience to his commission from the Lord Jehu has already executed the kings of Israel and Judah and Jezebel the queen mother in Israel. Now, as the account continues, he destroys what remains of the royal houses of Ahab and Ahaziah in Samaria and Jerusalem and the prophets of Baal.
v.1 There is a question as to whether 70 is a symbolic or literal figure. There is an inscription from broadly the same time and place in which another man eliminated the dynasty of a king by massacring 70 of his kinsman. Is 70 a metaphor for everyone? And, as we will read in v. 11, it was not only the blood relatives of Ahab who were killed but anyone who might have a claim on the throne or who might seek revenge on Jehu. Eliminating potential rivals has always been a key part of successful coups.
v.3 Of course that would be a battle against Israel’s top general who had already succeeded in killing the king. Jehu is forcing them to choose sides and pressing the issue to an immediate conclusion. We call that “striking while the iron is hot.”
v.8 This was an ancient Near Eastern custom. The piled up heads served as a warning to the population against rebellion. [Wiseman, 225-226]
v.9 Jehu knew who killed all these men but the people didn’t. They awoke to find the piles of heads at the city gate. It is Jehu’s way of impressing upon the people the fact that the Lord has been in this. “The revolution is bigger than Jehu…” [Provan, 218]
v.13 In other words, they had not heard what had happened to the royal princes.
v.14 The same question confronts us with regard to “42” as with regard to “70.” You may remember that the two bears mauled 42 of the young men who mocked Elijah in 2 Kings 2:24.
v.15 Jehonadab is later remembered in the OT as the founder of the Rechabites, a kind of Puritan movement in Israel and Judah, committed to the old ways. I suppose in some respects we might liken them to Amish Christians today. He was a Kenite and so a descendant of Moses’ father-in-law. If you remember, Jeremiah later held them up as examples of fidelity to their calling (Jer. 35). They were teetotalers and nomads and remained so after everyone else had bought property and begun to drink wine. “Is your heart true to my heart…” means, “Are you with me in this effort to destroy the house of Ahab; which is the same thing as asking are you with the Lord in this?” Jehonadab’s support was important because he was held in high esteem by the people.
v.16 The last person who spoke of his being zealous for the Lord was Elijah himself (1 Kgs. 19:10, 14).
v.18 Jehu feigned loyalty to Baal as part of his subterfuge to lure the major players in the Baal cult to a gathering in Samaria. It was going to be a service of re-commitment to Baal, or so they were led to believe.
v.19 Jehu threatened to kill any Baalist who did not come, because his intention was to kill everyone who did.
v.25 Is something sinister here? Jehu completed the worship service in Baal’s temple. Why didn’t he call a halt as soon as he knew everyone was present? Why did he carry the charade to the end?
v.26 The pillar was probably a stone phallic symbol. It would have been heated in intense fire and then cold water poured over it to crack it open.
v. 28 In other words, the attack on Baal worship begun by Elijah was finished by Jehu with the eradication of the Baal cult in Israel.
v.30 In fact the house of Jehu would last 102 years, the longest dynasty in Israelite or northern kingdom history by some years.
v.31 For whatever reason Jehu did not eradicate the sanctuaries at Dan and Bethel or the golden calves that Jeroboam had made. So while the situation was returned to what it was before Ahab, it was not reformed according to the covenant between Yahweh and Israel. It could not be said that Jehu returned Israel to Yahweh. So Israel remained in spiritual rebellion and things would not improve. Proof of that was that Israel continued to suffer the Lord’s judgments not his blessing.
v.33 A famous obelisk, the “Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III,” shows Jehu and an entourage from Israel paying tribute to the Assyrian emperor Shalmaneser, an event not mentioned in the Bible but recorded on several different Assyrian inscriptions. So Jehu may have dealt a fatal blow to Ahab’s house and to Baalism in Israel, but the northern kingdom did not, for that reason, begin to enjoy Yahweh’s blessing again. She continued to shrink, lose influence, and be forced to submit to nations greater than herself.
It is an observation often made, particularly in our day, that the Bible is a collection of stories. By “story” I don’t mean fiction or invention, but narrative. This characteristic of our holy book is extraordinary. It is not all narrative, to be sure. It contains many different literary genres. It contains laws, hymns, long narrative poems, sermons, letters, and so on. We find in the Bible theological exposition and apocalyptic prophecy, collections of wisdom sayings, covenant documents, and one romantic and erotic poem. But throughout large tracts of the Bible are composed of historical narrative, from Genesis through half of Exodus, Numbers, Joshua through 2 Chronicles, parts of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel, the four Gospels, and the book of Acts. Narrative, an account of what happened, makes up an enormous part of the Bible. And as we have come to see, perhaps more clearly than any previous generation of God’s people, the way the narratives of Holy Scripture are written conveys not simply the history itself, an account of the events, but a theological interpretation of that history. We find in the stories of the Bible warnings and encouragement, inspiration and instruction. We find the promises of God fulfilled in the life of his people; we see what it means to trust the Lord and what happens when people refuse to do so. Virtually every commandment of God’s law, its goodness, its wisdom, and its authority is recommended to us in some story of the OT or NT. The stories connect everything up, show us that the theology of the Bible is true, and demonstrate to us how we should put our faith into practice ourselves. Supremely, the narratives of Holy Scripture show us that God himself is in the world, judging and saving the people whom he has made, bringing his kingdom to pass and drawing his people up into that great work. The biblical narrative taken as a whole is the grand story of God himself, revealing himself to his people, accomplishing his will in the world, and bringing events to pass according to his plan to renew his creation in righteousness. The history of all these people throughout all the years covered in the Bible is the history of the redemption of the world through Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
And the great significance of that for us is that we are, in the ordinary history of our lives, taken up into that very same story. The same sorts of things that happen in the narratives of the Bible happen to us. The same sort of world that the figures of Holy Scripture inhabit we inhabit. We read of the lives of others precisely because our lives are as theirs, we are part of that same story, our lives continue that same story, our lives are, or can be, for that reason, in their spiritual significance, the same as the lives of Abraham, Moses, David, and, may I say it, Jehu. We too can be zealous for the Lord of Hosts, we too can be his servants in the world, we too can contribute something to the advancement of the kingdom of God, we too are witnesses of the work of God himself, we too are his servants, and we too are often a mixture of good and bad. We are part of this great story; it continues past Revelation and is going on today and it is the narratives of the Bible that prove this to us. Human life as the Bible describes it didn’t end at the end of the first century. It has continued onward and the same thing is going on today as went on then.
The fact that all of this is communicated in stories, in historical narratives, is what makes the teaching of Holy Scripture so wonderfully lifelike. But, of course, if it is lifelike, it is not always perfectly plain and clear. We find life sometimes quite confusing, opaque, and hard to read. Things are often in a muddle. We want to know what is what, but sometimes it is hard to tell. There is something to be said on both sides. You may have heard before this classic expression of the fact that you can look at the same thing in very different ways. Here is the speech of an American politician discussing the repeal of the Volstead Act. Was he for ending prohibition or not?
“I’ll take a stand on any issue at any time, regardless of how fraught with controversy it may be. You have asked me how I feel about whisky; well, Brother, here’s how I stand.
“If by whisky, you mean the Devil’s brew, the Poison scourge, the bloody monster that defies innocence, dethrones reason, creates misery and poverty, yea, literally takes the bread out of the mouths of babes; if you mean the Evil Drink that topples men and women from pinnacles of righteous, gracious living into the bottomless pit of despair, degradation, shame, helplessness and hopelessness – then certainly I am against it with all my power.
“But if by whisky, you mean the oil of conversation, the philosophic wine and ale that is consumed when good fellows get together, that puts a song in their hearts, laughter on their lips and the warm glow of contentment in their eyes; if you mean that sterling drink that puts the spring in an old man’s steps on a frosty morning; if you mean that drink, the sale of which pours into our treasury untold millions of dollars which are used to provide tender care for our little crippled children, our pitifully aged and infirm and to build our highways, hospitals and schools — then, Brother, I am for it. This is my stand.”
Well, such is life, is it not? Which is it, is whiskey good or evil, harmful or helpful? It all depends. Well, we have the same question before us tonight regarding Jehu. Was he a good man or a bad man? Was he a righteous man or an unrighteous man? We want to know in the language we use today – “Was he a Christian or was he not?” He certainly did what he was told to do! He was a servant of the Lord in that sense. He accomplished the work of grace the Lord had given him to perform; and it was a work of grace, however violent it was, for Israel had no chance of salvation so long as Ahab’s family was in charge in Samaria and Judah had no chance of salvation so long as Ahaziah and his mother Athaliah were in charge in Jerusalem.
Indeed, the narrator takes time to make it very clear that Jehu was the Lord’s servant in the judgment of these two evil families and dynasties. In v. 10 the narrator tells us not only that Elijah’s prophecy was fulfilled by what Jehu did but that Jehu intended to produce that result and no other. We have the same point made again in v. 17: Jehu exterminated the remnants of Ahab’s influence in Samaria “according to the word of the Lord that he spoke to Elijah.” Certainly his destruction of Baalism was commendable. As we read in v. 28 “Thus Jehu wiped out Baal from Israel.” That was a very good thing. Baal should never have had a place in Israel and Jehu made sure Baal never did again.
But there is more. Not only do we read that he fulfilled the word of the Lord spoken through Elijah, the Lord himself said to Jehu, “Because you have done well in carrying out what is right in my eyes, and have done to the house of Ahab according to all that was in my heart…” your dynasty will endure in Israel for four generations. The Lord himself goes on record as approving of what Jehu did and how he did it. Jehu’s dynasty would last longer than any other dynasty that ruled Israel. And, finally, we have the presence of Jehonadab, the son of Recab. It is hard to explain why the narrator would have mentioned his presence other than further to commend Jehu and his deeds. A man everyone regarded as a good man, a faithful man, a godly man accompanied him in the destruction of Ahab’s house. That seems clear.
But there is another side to all of this about Jehu. In Hosea 1:4-5, in speaking of Hosea’s first son born to him by Gomer, we read this:
“And the Lord said to [Hosea], ‘Call his name Jezreel, for in just a little while I will punish the house of Jehu for the blood of Jezreel, and I will put an end to the kingdom of the house of Israel. And on that day I will break the bow of Israel in the Valley of Jezreel.”
Now the very same massacre that seems to be commended by the Lord in 2 Kings 10, indeed is rewarded in 2 Kings 10, is the reason for divine judgment in Hosea 1:4-5. It is explicitly said to have been Jehu’s violence at Jezreel that now must be judged. But that was the destruction that the Lord seems here in 2 Kings 10 explicitly to approve! Now, to be sure, there are hints that all may not be entirely well in 2 Kings 10 itself. Was he to execute the relatives of Ahaziah? He was not told to do that; indeed, he was never told to execute Ahaziah himself as he did in chapter 9. We also wonder about the deceit Jehu practiced by which he was able to massacre the Baal faction in Israel. Was that proper? Was it necessary to kill them all? It isn’t clear one way or another from the narrative.
What is more, we have the explicit statement in v. 29 that Jehu did not turn aside from the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat the statement that is repeated in v. 31. As Israel’s king he continued to support the worship that involved the golden calves at Dan and Bethel. That was idolatry of a lower grade, to be sure, as being the worship of the true God, of Yahweh, in the wrong way, not the worship of a false god such as Baal. But Jehu certainly should have known better. And, perhaps most revealing of all, Jehu’s sons seem to have been thorough pagans. If Jehu at least did what the Lord commanded him in one respect, his sons couldn’t even make that claim.
So, what was he? Was he a good man or a bad one? The Lord rewarded him with a comparatively long dynastic reign. The Lord judged him to have done right in eliminating the house of Ahab as thoroughly as he did. It is hard to believe that the Lord didn’t approve of the elimination of Baal worship from Israel and the desecration of Baal’s temple. Jehu was zealous for the Lord by his own testimony (10:16) and, reading 2 Kings 10, it is hard to believe that the narrator thought that a sham, a pose.
What is more, kings in the south are said to have done right, as Jehu is said to have done right here in v. 30, even when they did not do everything right, when, for example, they did not remove the high places where pagan worship continued to flourish in Judah. Even many of the good kings of the southern kingdom were not entirely good. They didn’t do everything right. By the way, and this is a point of some importance it seems to me, Jehu was said to do “right” here. Jehu is the only king of Israel of which this was ever said! Otherwise the term is used only of David and the good kings of the southern kingdom. Jehu alone was an Israelite king who did what was “right.”
So which is it? As we might put the question: was Jehu a believer with blind spots or was he an unbeliever who did some good things in obedience to God? We want to know? And the answer is: I don’t know, the commentators don’t know, we cannot know. Life is not always so clear. In the 17th century, Joseph Hall, Bishop of Norwich, published a wonderful book entitled Contemplations on the Historical Passages of the Old and New Testaments. Hall’s comments on the stories of the Bible are full of spiritual wit and wisdom. There is deep reflection on human life, on faith, on judgment in these pages. Here is Bishop Hall’s take on the Jehu story.
“Who, that had seen all this zeal for God, would not have said, Jehu is a true Israelite? Yet he, that rooted out Ahab, would not be rid of Jeroboam: he, that destroyed Baal, maintained the two calves of Dan and Bethel. That idolatry was of a lower rank, as being a mis-worship of the true God: whereas, the other was a worship of the false. Even the easier of both is heinous, and shall rob Jehu of the praise of his uprightness.
“A false heart may laudably quit itself of some one gross sin, and in the meantime hug some lesser evil that may condemn it; as a man recovered of a fever may die of jaundice or a dropsy: we lose the thank of all, if we willfully fail in one.
“It is an entire goodness that God cares for: perhaps such is the bounty of our God, a partial obedience may be rewarded with a temporal blessing, as Jehu’s severity to Ahab shall carry the crown to his seed for four generations; but we can never have any comfortable assurance of an eternal [reward], if our hearts and ways be not perfect with God. Woe be to us, O God, if we be not all thine! We cannot but everlastingly depart from thee, if we depart not from every sin. Thou has purged our hearts from the Baal of our gross idolatries; O clear us from the golden calves of our petty corruptions also, that thou mayest take pleasure in our uprightness, and we may reap the sweet comforts of thy glorious [reward].”
Bishop Hall, I think, seems to be saying that Jehu was not a righteous man. But reading him it is hard to imagine David or Samson or Asa being righteous men either and we know they were. Even the godliest of people remain sinful in this life. But this is all we know about Jehu, what we read in 2 Kings 9 and 10 and that single statement in Hosea 1:4.
Surely we are right to conclude, as Bishop Hall did, that it was a grave mistake for Jehu not to purify Israel’s worship of Yahweh. But southern kings who are said to have done right in God’s sight also failed fully to reform Judah’s worship. So what are we to think of Jehu? I don’t know.
I’m sure we all agree that it is best for a person to live his or her life in a way that makes one’s loyalties crystal clear. It is always best to be an out and out Christian, an unmistakable Christian, a Christian who is seeking in every way to be loyal to the Lord Jesus. Our Savior deserves that from us, it is certainly the very best way to live, and it is a great gift to our loved ones and friends. In that sense Jehu is a cautionary tale, a warning to us. But life does not always turn out as we might wish. Sometimes we can’t tell, we don’t know, and are left unsure even at the end. Perhaps if we had known Jehu after this and for the rest of his reign we would know his spiritual state for sure. But we can’t. And we are left to wonder.
Our Lord Jesus taught us in his parables that the kingdom of God makes its way in the world in surprising, even confusing ways. The Lord is at work accomplishing his will but it is hard for us to see precisely how he is doing that. Who are his friends? Who are his enemies? His ways are far above ours and past finding out. And that mystery applies even to individuals. Thankfully, most Christians are easy to spot and they know and everyone else knows who and what they are. But it is not always the case. Questions remain. Life is shrouded in much mystery and only when we are finally in the glorious light of the heavenly country will we see with perfect clarity. The recognition of our limitations, of our ignorance, of our finitude; the need to put our hands over our mouth and admit that there are many things we do not understand and cannot explain: that too, is the life of faith as we are taught it in the stories of the Bible. God is so much greater than we are and we see so little of what is all known to him.