2 Kings 6:1-23

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Sticks float when they are thrown into water. Here the stick seems to serve as picture of what the iron is about to do.

There are big miracles and little miracles in the Bible, just as there are miracles witnessed by great crowds and miracles which were witnessed by only a few. This miracle is like the miracle of the coin in the fish’s mouth that Jesus sent Peter to find with which to pay their taxes (Matt. 17:24-27). Stupendous enough, but on a smaller scale.

Among other things, such miracles serve as reminders that God cares about the smaller details of our lives as well as the affairs of nations and that his power is as present to his people in their private affairs as when affairs of state are involved.

On the other hand, we should not underestimate the miracle either. The Iron Age began in about 1200 B.C. We are in 9th century B.C. in 2 Kings 6 but we know from elsewhere in OT history that Israel lagged behind other nations in developing an iron industry. Iron implements were very expensive and hard to replace. So don’t think about an ax such as you or I could replace at Home Depot for a few dollars. Think instead of lending your car to someone and it being wrecked! [Dillard, 125] In other words, as with the miracle of multiplying oil for the destitute woman, Elisha spared this man from what was likely to be financial catastrophe.

King Jehoram remained an idolater and an enemy of Yahweh, but Elisha served Israel’s interest for other reasons than to reward Jehoram, who is soon to be judged and rejected. Jehoram showed himself respectful of Elisha when things were going well (6:21); but remained ready, when things went badly, to order his execution (6:32).

“…sent to the place” apparently means that Jehoram would check Elisha’s intelligence and would again and again find it reliable.

The King of Aram or Syria was used to the idols of the ANE world. They were not all that powerful at their best. They were, it was thought, often at war with one another and taken up with their own struggles to survive. They certainly couldn’t listen in on the king’s pillow talk. Yahweh, however, the living God, knew everything.

Dothan is located about 11 miles north of Samaria.

Given what had happened to Gehazi in the previous chapter, we suspect that this is a different man.

A statement that sounds very like 1 John 4:4: “he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.”

One of many instances in the Bible in which a man speaks falsely but without sin. In this case we have an instance of the ethics of war being different from the ethics of peace. Often spies were employed by Israel’s armies and a spy is someone who in the nature of the case misrepresents himself. Often armies will feint in one direction to draw the enemy’s attention away from the point of the main attack. In the Bible the ethics of states at war are not the same as the ethics that must govern individual life, just as the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount are not the same as those that govern a judge in his courtroom. Soon, however, we will see that even in war there are moral boundaries that must be respected at all times.

In any case, Elisha was not only a one-man intelligence operation, he was a one-man army. That’s what God can make of a faithful servant!

They had begun by besieging Dothan and now found themselves surrounded by their enemies, expecting, no doubt, at best to be given a speedy death. [Dillard, 131]

Prisoners of war were not to be executed but treated kindly and their lives preserved. It was not just to prevent political scandal that the Iraqi captives at Abu Ghraib should have been treated with dignity, respect, and kindness. They should have left prison, as so many enemies combatants left allied prison camps in the Second World War, remarking on how well they had been treated and noticing how different their treatment had been in comparison with the way their own nations had treated enemy prisoners. It is a Christian conviction, founded on the Bible, that we are not to take vengeance on those who have been rendered helpless.

What we have in the text we have read this evening is the demonstration that in every aspect of our lives, from the smallest matter to the greatest, the Lord cares for his people and is powerful to help them. [Dillard, 121] To be sure, in the historical context, the lesson meant more than it may mean today. Were we to lose a valuable item that we had borrowed from a friend, we would, no doubt, be as concerned as the fellow was who thought he had lost the ax head. But, remember, river and sea in the ancient cosmologies were divine powers that threatened mankind. For Yahweh to demonstrate his absolute control over them, as he did here, or as Jesus did when he stilled the storm on the Sea of Galilee, was to prove that human beings had only one thing to concern themselves with, Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who both made the world and rules over it at every moment. That is a key thought in this text, but there is another as well.

I suppose that most of us, at one time or another, have seen the skit that has been performed times without number at youth group retreats, parties, school assemblies and the like. A sheet is hung between the audience and the actors, the main room or auditorium is darkened, and the scene behind the curtain is back-lit so that all the audience can see are shadows behind the sheet.  In my experience the skit usually concerns an operation and we can see the shadow of the body lying on a table, the shadow of a doctor and a nurse, we can often hear them talking, and then we can see what looks like the doctor making an incision and then see the shadows of various objects that the doctor seems to be taking out of the patient, explaining each one as another cause of his illness: they remove what looks like a rubber chicken and a volley ball and other assorted items with comment along the way. I saw that skit in one form or another probably ten times while I was growing up and, my sense of humor being as sophisticated as it is, I howled along with everyone else every time!

The skit works, of course, because the audience can only see the shadows back-lit behind the sheet. If the sheet were to be removed so that the audience could see what was happening, it wouldn’t be funny because it wouldn’t even look as if the rubber chicken was actually being pulled out of the patient’s stomach. But the shadows permit us to indulge the illusion.

Well, most all the time human beings are watching their lives and the lives of others in much the same way we watch the shadows behind the sheet. Things appear to be one thing when they are, in fact, something quite different. More to the point, Christians can be taken in by the shadows and imagine that they are seeing something real when, in fact, they are not.

“Seeing” plays a significant role in this chapter. You find it first in v. 13 when the King of Syria instructs his henchmen to see where Elisha is so that he might seize him. Then in v.17 we have Elisha’s prayer to God that the eyes of his servant might be opened so that he might see the horses and chariots of fire. We have it in v. 18 when the Syrians were struck with blindness and could not see. We have it again in v. 20 when Elisha prays that the Syrians’ eyes might be opened so that they might see where they were.

We have in this account one of the most powerful reminders in all of Holy Scripture that there is an unseen world, a world that is just as real as the world we see and a world that impinges on our world at every turn. It is only when we see that world that we fully understand the world we can see and it is only when we reckon with that unseen world that we can live rightly in the world of sight and sense. But you and I know very well that we are much of the time “functional empiricists” [Leithart, 201] who believe, or at least act as if we believe that only the things we can see are real. We do not believe, as the poet Francis Thompson put it, that we disturb an angel every time we turn a stone or that Jacob’s ladder is pitched between heaven and Charing Cross. [201-202]

Paul, summarizing a mountain of biblical data, reminded us that we must live by faith and not by sight. Or, as he put it in another place, we must fix our eyes onwhat is unseen. The Lord Jesus reminded us of the challenge of this when, in his Sermon on the Mount, he made a point of saying twice that we must pray to our heavenly Father who is unseen!

How many times have we thought, “if only sometimes it were not so!” If only now and then we could see and did not have to believe! Faith is hard, wearying work. Every Christian learns that soon enough. But, if just once or twice when we knelt to pray the Lord Christ appeared to speak with us, filling our bedroom with his glory, listening to us pour out our hearts to him, his rapt attention to our prayers revealed to us by the concentration in his face, perhaps even telling us in what way this prayer or that would be answered. Don’t tell me that the recollection of that single event wouldn’t empower your life of prayer for however many years remain. Surely Elisha’s servant never thought the same way again about the Syrians or about any personal danger he might have faced. In every time of trial he would look around himself and think he could see once more the horses and chariots of fire he once saw surrounding Dothan and remember that what he could see in this world wasn’t the half of what truly is there. Shakespeare never said a truer word:

“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

Or, in some trial that we must face, could we but once get a glimpse into heaven or hell, could we see the angels that are encamped around the righteous, could we see the Lord himself walking with us through the deep waters, surely just once, just a single sight would mightily strengthen our faith throughout the remainder of our years.

Or, indeed, in the midst of a time of great blessing, if once we could see the Lord’s hand extended to us, if we could just once see the great throne of his judgment day and hear the judge ask what a person had done with the gifts he had been given; if we could just once look into heaven and see the angels and the saints rejoicing over the one sinner who has repented, how dramatically it would change the way we evaluate our situation in the world, adjust our priorities, and place a profoundly spiritual interpretation on even the most material of pleasures.

Or, consider the reality of death. Suppose just once we could see a soul depart the body for heaven or hell. Suppose we could just once look up and see the dead being welcomed to Abraham’s side or see a man who was so confident in his unbelief find himself facing the gates of hell? Do you imagine anyone who saw such a thing would think again about his life in the same way? Such a moment of sight would be the absolute contradiction of so many of a Christian’s fears and so many of an unbeliever’s hopes! Years ago there was a popular movie, Ghost, in which the summons of souls to heaven or hell was dramatically depicted. All was light and wonderful – and the Righteous brothers sang Unchained Melody – in the case of those being taken to heaven; all was dark and noisome, with shrieking demons dragging the wicked down to hell. The difference between saints and sinners was, of course, all too typically and utterly misunderstood, the way of heaven was paved with an appallingly modest collection of minor good works – fornication was no obstacle to heaven but money laundering sent you to hell and so on – but the distinction between the destiny of one man or the other was essential to the plot and was made visible to the movie-goer. If only it were so that we could see just once the redeemed and the damned at that fateful moment immediately after death!

The Bible reminds us again and again that there is such an unseen world, that there are other beings in the world besides those we can see, and, supremely, that God himself is abroad in the world and vigorously active in the affairs of men. And yet we find that particularly difficult to remember precisely because we are creatures of sense and precisely because faith is hard work for a sinful mind and heart. I have told you before that people, including ministers, often speak of faith as if it were an easy thing. “All you have to do is believe!” But faith is not easy; it is the most difficult thing of all, which is why no one believes, no one ever believes, unless God gives  him the gift of faith. Real faith is so unnatural to men that God must change a man’s very nature to make him a believer.

No doubt that is why the Bible gives us, from time to time – certainly not frequently – a peek behind the veil. If we must believe, and faith is very difficult, then it is understandable that God should give us some help. If we cannot see the unseen world, at least we can read of those who did. Whether the sight of an angel or, as here, an entire army of angels, or, supremely, the resurrection and ascension of the Lord Jesus, these visible manifestations of the ordinarily  unseen are the proof of so much else and so much more that exists that we otherwise do not and cannot see. And their existence is the absolute demonstration of the Bible’s view of human life.

The difference between you and I, on the one hand, and Elisha’s servant on the other is that we cannot remember for the rest of our lives, as he could, the sight of the horses and chariots and the hosts of the Lord surrounding him to guard and protect him. We must simply believe that it is with us as it was with him just as, of course, we are told to believe a thousand times in the Word of God.

“The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and delivers them.” [Psalm 34:7]

You wish it were not so that we would have nothing but our faith to sustain us in our pilgrimage. I do too. We all recognize and adore the wisdom and justice and goodness of God. He has his reasons for requiring his children to live by faith and not by sight. He has his reasons for, except in a very few instances, never pulling back the veil that separates our world from the world that is unseen, that teeming, active maelstrom of conflict, as angels and demons struggle with one another all around us and in our midst. There is a reason why he never shows his own hand or his own glory to his children.

But hard as it may be to live by faith and confusing as it may be that we must, we take our stand here. There is but one alternative to the life of faith and that is that life in which one lives in utter spiritual blindness and does not open his eyes upon the real world until he is already a captive of his life-long enemies. If we demanded sight before we would confess the Lord as God and Savior, we would not confess until it was far too late, until all opportunity for true life had been lost and lost forever.

Oh no; we are much better off remembering what Elisha’s servant saw, what the Syrians didn’t see, and living accordingly!

Jesus, these eyes have never seen that radiant form of thine;
The veil of sense hands dark between Thy blessed face and mine.
Yet though I have not seen, and still must rest in faith alone;
I love thee, dearest Lord, and will, unseen but not unknown.
When death these mortal eyes shall seal, and still this beating heart,
The rending veil shall thee reveal, all glorious as thou art.

The greatest, the most wonderful thing about the life of faith is that it will end, and the sights we have longed so much to see will fill our eyes!