We have before us this evening the sort of text that persuades a great many preachers not to preach through books of the Bible because sooner rather than later you end up with something like 2 Kings 13 before you and you find yourself thinkingm “What do I do with this to the blessing and benefit of the people of God? Well we’ll see.
After reviewing the reign of Joash in Jerusalem, we now return to Israel and to two kings who came to power in Samaria during the time Joash reigned in Jerusalem. You remember that this is the most obvious difference between Kings and Chronicles. The latter concerns itself only with the southern kingdom and its kings; the former narrates, in varying measures of detail, all the reigns of all the kings of both Judah and Israel. Both of these kings of Israel reigned until the end of their lives, as the Lord had promised Jehu they would (2 Kgs 10:30).
v.4 Jehoahaz is a wicked king in the typical fashion of the kings of Israel, but the Lord nevertheless heard Jehoahaz’s prayer, perhaps largely because he had already made a promise to Jehu that his sons would sit on Israel’s throne to the 4th generation. The Lord’s promise to Jehu, in other words, was functioning in the north as the Lord’s promise to David had functioned in the south to keep the line of David alive. [Provan, 227]
v.5 We are not told who the “savior” was. Was he Elisha? Some have thought so. Was it a particularly gifted Israelite general? Some have thought that too. Or, more likely, was it the Assyrians or a particular Assyrian leader whose attacks from the east weakened Aram significantly in the last quarter of the 9th century B.C. [Hobbs, 165] Hazael died in 806 B.C. and Ben-Hadad, his son, suffered further defeats at the hands of the Assyrians. Jehoahaz reigned from c. 818 to 802 B.C. and Jehoash from 802 to 787 B.C, in other words at just the time Aram was being diminished by Assyrian incursions from the east. We are not told who this “savior” was, but by this means the Lord preserved Israel from destruction at the hands of the Arameans (Aram is the ancient name for Syria).
“…lived in their homes again” may suggest that the Arameans had displaced Israelites in places near the original border between the two countries, just like Israel and Lebanon have done to one another over these past many years, and that when the Israelites drove the Syrians back, they were able to recapture their towns and the citizens of those towns were able to live again in the homes from which they had been driven. Or it may simply be a typical way of saying that Israel once again enjoyed peace.
v.6 The Asherah pole, not unlike the totem pole, was a fixture of the worship of Baal and his consort, Asherah. There had been such a pole built in Samaria, if you remember.
So, lest anyone think that Jehoahaz’s turning to the Lord for help and the Lord’s answer amounted to some sort of spiritual turning, that thought is quickly laid to rest.
v.7 As punishment for Israel’s continued sins against the Lord and his covenant with Israel, Jehoahaz’ army was reduced in continued fighting with the Syrians to a pitiful remnant of a fighting force. Only a few generations before this Ahab had disposed 2000 chariots at the battle of Karkar.
v.10 Remember, Joash and Jehoash are two forms of the same name.
v.13 There is not much of interest to report about the 16 year reign of Jehoash (or Joash), though his war with Amaziah king of Judah will be recounted in the next chapter. His claims to fame will be his encounter with Elisha at the time of the prophet’s death and his son, Jeroboam II, also called Jeroboam the Great, who, though an idolater like his father, was a very able king who restored the fortunes of Israel to such a height that it made the Israelites unable to credit the prophecies of Amos and Hosea that ultimate catastrophe for Israel lay just around the corner.
v.14 Distressed over the diminished fortunes of his kingdom and the weakness of what was left of his military and fearing a still more devastating defeat at the hands of the Arameans, Jehoash sought an audience with Elisha. After all, it had been Elisha who had virtually single-handedly defended Israel against Syria in days gone by. When Jehoash cried, “The chariots of Israel and its horsemen,” he was probably referring to the actual army in its pathetic condition. But Elisha, who had more than once seen the chariots of fire and the hosts of the Lord, knew that it was not the condition of Israel’s military that would tell the tale.
Elisha has not been part of the narrative since 9:1-10 when he anointed Jehu. We have now moved forward some 50 years. What was Elisha doing all that while? We are not told. Perhaps his was the thankless task of a Jeremiah or of an Amos or Hosea, preaching the Word of the Lord to a population uninterested and unwilling to repent.
v.16 Laying his hands on the hands of the king Elisha identified the king’s actions as his own.
v.17 You will notice the emphasis on the fact that Jehoash did precisely as he had been instructed to do, one instruction after another. The arrow flew east presumably because that was the direction of Aram or Syria, though we don’t know where Elisha and the King were when this was done.
Aphek lies on the route between Israel and Damascus.
v.19 In response to the fifth and last instruction Jehoash responded obediently but without the sort of enthusiasm and determination Elisha expected. As one commentator tartly puts it: Jehoash was a man with “a lack of grit and determination” and a tendency to think small. [Hobbs, 170] As a result, Israel would not enjoy as thorough a defeat of Aram as might have been the case.
v.21 This curious little piece of history reminds us of what Israel had lost when Elisha died and where the true power of life was to be found: in the Word of the Lord believed and obeyed. That Israel had ignored Elisha’s teaching and his warning of judgment to come if she persisted in her idolatry is once again revealed to be astonishingly foolish. But the resuscitation may also be a foretaste of Israel’s political and economic revival under Jeroboam II.
Tombs in Israel were characteristically either dug out of soft rock or located in caves, so men in a hurry could easily have hastily deposited the body in the same tomb where Elijah’s bones were buried. Obviously this incident occurred some time after Elisha’s death as only the prophets bones remained.
v.23 We do not expect to find here a reference to God’s covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but we are reminded of that ancient promise, so often renewed in Israel’s history, and that God stands ready to bless his people to some extent even when they persist in breaking that covenant. What is more, since one of the promises of that covenant was that Abraham’s descendants would receive the land of Canaan, it should not surprise us that this covenant be mentioned as a reason for the delay in Israel’s expulsion from the land. She had been an idolatrous people for a long time, but she still remained in the Promised Land. That, of course, would not always be the case. The “to this day” emphasizes the Lord’s patience with his rebellious people, a patience explained because of his faithfulness to a promise made long before. The resuscitation at Elisha’s tomb and the mention of Yahweh remembering his covenant with Abraham is a reminder that Israel had all the resources she would ever need for both safety and prosperity available to her if only she would live in faithfulness to the Lord.
A point is made here that we have already noticed in Kings. Here is an idolatrous Israel, well into her history as an idolatrous people, having largely thrown off the true worship of Yahweh and having resorted to the forms of paganism in her worship, is nevertheless still considered the people of God. We evangelical protestants need to face this fact and realize that Christian churches with whom we have deep and proper disagreements and whom we regard as having abandoned biblical truth in various ways (whether Roman Catholic or mainline Protestant) are not, for that reason, no longer the church and people of God. Should God return in favor to his people, we should expect that favor to befall those churches (as it has in the past), not simply those of us in the so-called “separated” denominations.
v.25 That is, Elisha’s prophecy of v. 19 was fulfilled to the letter.
Now, as so often in these narratives, the great themes of Kings reappear: the faithfulness of God, the unfaithfulness of his people, the divine punishment by which God’s people are summoned back to faith and obedience, the power of God once again displayed for the deliverance of God’s people, and the stupidity of that people who can never seem to learn even the most painfully obvious lesson. Indeed, it has been suggested that a Hebrew reader of 2 Kings 13 would immediately detect a repetition of the themes of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt at the exodus; that is, here too the old pattern emerges.
In 13:5 for example, literally Israel “went out” from the hand of Aram: it is the standard term for the exodus itself, a going out. “Savior” in the Hebrew of v. 5 could be a pun on the name of Moses, as the one word sounds much the same as the other, and “homes” in that same verse is literally “tents,” which evokes images of Israel in the wilderness on its way to the Promised Land. Later the narrator recalls the covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob which was explicitly said to be the reason why the Lord responded to Israel’s plight in Egypt (Ex. 2:24-25). The word for oppression in 2 Kings 13:4 is the same word employed for Israel’s oppression in Egypt.
Once again there is a turning to the Lord in Israel’s time of need, once again the Lord intervenes to help them against a more powerful foe, and, once again, neither the king nor the people respond with true and lasting faith. What Kings forces upon us again and again is the recognition that this pattern of life repeats itself ad nauseam in the history of the kingdom of God. And, to be sure, nothing has really changed in this respect in the new epoch. The same cycle of unbelief taking hold of the church, of her punishment, and of the Lord delivering his people can be found times without number in the history of the church since Pentecost.
Now, to be sure, as we have pointed out before, a text like this one – a narrative of two bad Israelite kings – does not set before us in any explicit way the saving grace of God, or the work of the Holy Spirit transforming hearts and lives, or the triumph of the Lord Jesus on the cross over our sin and guilt, or, even in a clear way, the free offer of the gospel, that there is deliverance from sin and guilt for all who seek it from God. It is ours to ask, then: why is such history included in the Bible? Well there are reasons, surely.
For example, there is for the faithful believer real encouragement here: the Lord will return to his people and will deliver them. No one can say when or how, but his patience is such, his mercy is such, his faithfulness to his ancient promises is such that we can count on the fact that even the gates of hell will not prevail against the church of God. Who would have thought, in those ancient days, that the promise God made to Abraham would guarantee the place of the people of God in the history of mankind and guarantee their eventual triumph in the world? And who would have thought, many times throughout history since, that the church of the Lord Jesus Christ would be growing all over the world as it is today, that persecution in China and India couldn’t stop its rise, that the last few generations have seen the appearance of hundreds of millions of Christians in Africa?
But there is something else in the chapter that I think is worth our notice. We have encountered this emphasis as well earlier in Kings but it is strikingly present in this narrative, indeed in the narrative of both kings: Jehoahaz and Jehoash. For believers there is a lesson here in the nature of faith, although it is given to us in a negative form. The Bible often does this. It teaches us important lessons in positive ways but also in negative ways. It is both ways together that give us a deeper understanding. A thoughtful Christian wants a thorough-going understanding of the truth. Here the subject is the nature of true and living faith in God. What are the characteristics of genuine faith as opposed to its counterfeits? And here in 2 Kings 13 we see counterfeit faith.
We certainly find here a certain measure or kind of faith in the case of both of these Israelite kings. But theirs is a faith characterized by half-heartedness, by an utter lack of spiritual drive. You have this lack in Jehoahaz, who, to be sure, “sought the favor of the Lord.” That sounds worthy and commendable. That is what faith does. That is what a believing man or woman does. But, in fact, it was not the crying out to the Lord that we usually observe in the case of men who have some spiritual sense, some grasp of the issues of life, some spirit of true repentance, and some ardor in their faith in God. The verb translated by the ESV, “he sought the favor” of the Lord is used only one other time in Kings, when an equally unrepentant Jeroboam asked for healing. [Provan, 231] In other words, Jehoahaz needed help and knew to turn to the one who could supply it – that is surely faith of some kind – but he asked half-heartedly, with no thought of what it implied that he should have to seek help from Yahweh, and certainly with no intention to honor the Lord in his life subsequently. V. 6 follows hard on the report of Jehoahaz’ request and reminds us that nothing change in Israel, there was no repentance, no determination to rid the nation of the calves at Dan and Bethel or of the Asherah pole. Jehoahaz did as little as he possibly could to secure some help from Yahweh and when it came he forgot all about Yahweh. How many people in and out of the church does that describe!
And the same lack of intensity, spiritual feeling, and zeal is even more strikingly on display in the conduct of Jehoash. It is made a turning point in vv. 18-19. Jehoash did precisely what he was told – surely that is faith of some kind – and, if Elisha had told him to strike the ground with the arrows five or six times, he no doubt would have done that. But none of this obedience was coming from deep within him. It was not Jehoash, it was Elisha’s faith that was really working here. The king was obeying specific directions, to be sure, but the entire context – Elisha’s miraculous powers that had been on display years before, the Word of God, the covenant that Israel had broken, the Lord’s grace and power, the fact that Israel’s troubles were the Lord’s judgment of her infidelity – none of this registered with Jehoash, none of it mattered to him, none of it motivated him. He wanted help with Aram, that’s all. He wanted, as Francis Schaeffer would have put it, his own personal peace and affluence. He wouldn’t have cared where the help came from but Elisha was his last resort. Baal and Asherah were no help; Yahweh had been a great help in the past, so why not ask him.
You can well imagine David taking his arrows and having to be told to stop striking the ground. He would have seen the spiritual issue in the instructions he had received and responded with fervor. But Jehoash was clueless. He knew Yahweh had power to help but nothing else about Yahweh interested him and he didn’t care about Elisha. He just wanted some magic that would put Israel back on top in its dealings with the Syrians.
We’ve seen this again and again in Kings: men who do some of the things they ought to do; they have enough faith to turn to the Lord from time to time for help in a crisis, but their lives are dominated by spiritual disinterest. The insincerity of their faith reveals itself in half-heartedness, in a complete lack of fervor regarding God and his covenant.
What does the Lord say to his people through Jeremiah his prophet: “You will seek me and you will find me when you seek me with all your heart.” [29:13] Jehoahaz sought favor from the Lord and so did Jehoash, but neither man sought the Lord with all his heart.
Long before, in Deut. 4:27, Moses warned Israel that if they proved unfaithful to the Lord he would drive them from the Promised Land.
“The Lord will scatter you among the peoples, and only a few of you will survive among the nations to which the Lord will drive you. There you will worship man-made gods of wood and stone, which cannot see or hear or eat or smell. But if from there you seek the Lord your God, you will find him if you look for him with all your heart and with all your soul.”
It is in the Bible, from beginning to end, a mark of true and living faith is that there is something extravagant about it, something extreme, something that embraces the whole of the person, and something that won’t take “No!” for an answer. We are told, you remember, that we are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our strength, and with all our mind, and to love our neighbor as much as we love ourselves. There is an extravagance to Christian faith, feeling, and working.
And then think of the countless illustrations of this extravagance to which we are treated in Holy Scripture. Everywhere we look we find men and women whose hearts are aflame!
- Think of Abraham preparing to sacrifice the son of his old age, willing to do even that in obedience to the Lord because he believed him who had made the astonishing promise to him of a people and a land forever.
- Think of Judah offering to spend the rest of his life in slavery, if not in prison in Egypt for the sake of the freedom of his younger half-brother Benjamin because his repentance from long ago sins he had committed would not permit anything less.
- Think of David taking on Goliath in the name of the Lord, or pleading for the life of his infant son on his face in the sanctuary. These were acts of faith on the part of a man who looked to the Lord in full confidence.
- Or in the NT think of the Lord’s long nights of prayer; no mere asking for the Lord’s favor for him!
- Or think of the dear woman who wet his feet with her tears or Mary pouring the expensive perfume over his feet, wiping it off with her hair. This was faith that would not be denied.
- The list goes on and on.
These were all men and women with sins and weaknesses. Their lives were marked by failure as well as by success, but their faith was not the indifferent, unaffected, undetermined faith of Jehoahaz or Jehoash.
And, of course, this measure of devotion continued full blown into the history of the Christian church, in its great men, its martyrs, its missionaries, but as well in its simple souls who loved the Lord and feared the Lord greatly, what was said of Obadiah in 1 Kings 18 but which could never have been said of Jehoahaz or Jehoash, who knew the Lord and depended upon him to a point, but never greatly. The number of those who, in the name of Jesus made extraordinarily extravagant sacrifices is very large.
When the faith is taught it is always taught in these extravagant terms, in the OT and the NT alike. Consider Jeremiah 48:10:
“Cursed is he who does the work of the Lord with slackness…”
Or think of the Lord’s teaching. It was as if the Lord wanted to avoid anyone thinking that he could be a half-hearted follower of Jesus when he told the rich young ruler to sell all that he had and follow him, or another man to leave others to bury his dead father (Matt. 8:21) and to follow him immediately, or when he his disciples to expect to give up their houses, fields, parents, children, everything to follow him. Or think of Paul beating his body and making it his slave or telling us that Christ redeemed us that we might be “zealous for good works.” True faith, even in a heart that is still very sinful, is always the expression of a heart whose passions and convictions are shaped by gospel truth and by confidence in the presence, power, and goodness of the Lord. A certain extravagance is the mark of this genuine faith.
Think of all the men and women who made just that measure of sacrifice for the Lord. I always think of William Burns, the Scottish preacher upon whose sermons the Spirit of God fell when revival came to Scotland in the 1830s and 40s. He could have had any pulpit in the land and spent his life bathed in the honors of a grateful church. Instead he believed himself called to China and lived a difficult life as a missionary, for years with little to show for his work. Then when he died was buried in China his friends sent his possessions – his worldly wealth – back to Scotland and when the box was opened it was found to contain two shirts, a pair of trousers, a book, his Bible, and a Chinese flag. Not much to show for a lifetime’s work unless a life is measured by other things! But Burns had faith in God and that faith compelled him to make sacrifices. Or, rather, it made his life something Burns would not have thought a sacrifice. He was like David Livingstone who suffered and eventually died for the gospel in Africa but who once said, “I never made a sacrifice.” Faith that grasps the realities of life and of divine grace does not think in terms of sacrifice but of the irresistible logic of it all.
The Bible is chocked full of zeal and it is chock full of lukewarmness as well. We are to be inspired by the one example and disgusted by the other. But we are also to see with ever-increasing clarity the illogic and the logic of both positions. It is not as if we should have any difficulty repudiating half-heartedness in the Christian life or justifying deep earnestness as the characteristic of a Christian. There is a logic to Christian zeal, “logic on fire,” as someone has described it. Why should one’s faith as a Christian not be a matter of heartfelt devotion? It is faith in a God who loved us and sent his son for us, who made impossibly great sacrifices on our behalf. Surely a tepid, indifferent response – all the more to one who looks upon the heart – would not simply be inadequate. It would be offensive. “If Jesus Christ be God and died for me,” said the English missionary C.T. Studd, “then no sacrifice can be too great for me to make for him.” Isn’t that right? Is it possible that should not be right?
What is more, if we have faith at all we know that we are talking about matters that bear on the eternal destinies of ourselves and others. Surely then we ought to be zealous when so much depends upon the outcome, for ourselves, for our children, for others. We ought not simply to wish we weren’t sinners, we ought to hate our sins and work to kill them dead. We ought not simply to wish from time to time for the salvation of others, we ought to be praying for it and working for it and feeling the lostness of those who have no faith. No one every swam away from a sinking ship half-heartedly to a lifeboat, or dove half-heartedly into a fox hole when the bombardment began, or strolled half-heartedly from a building engulfed in flames. We are living in a sinking, burning world; we pass our lives not on a playground but on a battle field strewn with the corpses of the dead. The one thing that cannot be justified here, on the brink of eternal life or death, is lackluster indifference. This is the utter stupidity of a man like Jehoahaz or Jehoash, recognizing the Lord and his power on the one hand, and remaining supremely indifferent to him on the other.
You may remember my telling you, years ago, of Arthur Stace, an illiterate former soldier, petty criminal, and alcoholic homeless man who became a devout Christian in the late 1940s in Sydney, Australia. Unknown to anyone else, as a witness to the people of his city, he would walk the streets of Sydney at night and write in chalk upon the sidewalks and walls of the city the word “Eternity.” It was graffiti, to be sure, but in chalk that would disappear in the rain, and with the best possible motive: to remind people of what was coming. Stace had a unique kind of copperplate handwriting; it looked like engraved script, so it was clear that the same individual was writing “eternity” around the city. It is estimated that Stace wrote the word over half a million times. His identity remained a secret until 1956.
Alas, “eternity” has been incorporated into the spiritual stupor of modern Australia. It was illuminated as a sign on the Sydney Harbor Bridge during the New Year’s Day celebrations in 2000 and was created again as part of the opening ceremonies of the Sydney Olympics later that same year, beamed to billions of television viewers. In 2001 the Council of the City of Sydney was granted a trademark on the script to protect it from unauthorized commercial use. Imagine! “Eternity” has been turned into a commercial trademark, the perfect illustration of the philistinism of modern Western culture. That is precisely what Jehoahaz or Jehoash would have done and neither man would ever have noticed the irony. Both of these men had “Yahweh” in their own names! That is the “Je” at the beginning of each, a short form of Yahweh. But they carried the Almighty’s name with utter unconcern and indifference. A matter of such terrible importance – a reality that had motivated a kind hearted and zealous Christian to write it everywhere – had been turned into simply an item of commerce and a patriotic symbol. Talk about missing the point! Such is the mental paralysis of the unbelieving heart.
We often are confronted with the reality of temporary faith, in the Lord’s teaching, the Sermon on the Mount and his kingdom parables especially, in historic figures of the apostolic age – for example, Judas and Demas – and in the teaching of the New Testament, such as what we find in 1 John and Hebrews. And we can’t help but wonder what the difference is between true and lasting faith and its counterfeit. There is no simple answer to that question: it doesn’t help us much to hear that we can’t tell the difference until temporary faith peters out and true faith carries on. We want to know now! Well, there is no sure way to tell in all cases. But here is one element of spurious faith that we would do well to remember. It is often half-hearted; it lacks zeal, determination, seriousness, and extravagance. Growing faith is not the few strikes at the ground of Jehoash; but a hitting of it until we are told to stop or too exhausted to carry on!
Both these kings knew to turn to the Lord, they did turn to him. But both lacked any extravagance, any drive, any determination to their faith. They were at best lukewarm and at worst, barely warm at all. It is one of the ways to test our own faith and one of the ways to teach our children what the Lord requires of them. We ought not simply to give lip service to a holy life; we ought to be zealous for good works, as our Savior intended we would be. We have been given a picture of the wrong sort of faith and obedience, the kind that does not touch the heart or the passions in the behavior of Jehoahaz and Jehoash, asking for help with half a mind. No wonder the help given, even by the ever patient and merciful God, was only temporary.
You have it in your own hand to melt your heart of ice into a pool of heavenly love and zeal. Remember, the same Holy Spirit who gave Christ his zealous heart and Paul his heart of flame, is in you! [Whyte, Walk, Character, and Conversation, 160] Now, be honest before the Lord. What is there in your life that a half-hearted faith will indulge and endure but a true and living faith should not, must not, and will not? Is it the wrong sort of sexual infatuations or indulgences? Is it a failure really to love and cherish your wife or husband? Is it indifference to the heart and spiritual life of your children? Is it too much drink or the use of drugs? Is it sloth and laziness? Is it anger? What is it about which you may have turned to the Lord once or even many times, but then went on with as before?
No! Look at these two worthless and miserable men and confess and repent of your likeness to them in this way or that. Seek help, from your pastors, or other Christian friends. They would willingly help you. You may think they won’t but they will. They have areas of the same sort of half-hearted faith and will probably ask you to help them as they help you. But see half-heartedness and indifference for what it is and repent of it before the Lord and cry out to him. Don’t simply seek his favor, cry out to him!
Jehoahaz and Jehoash didn’t. The great point of 2 Kings 13 is that we are not to be like them and a real Christian wants to be as different from them as possible.