The two paragraphs that we are to read this evening virtually complete the account of Elisha’s ministry. Apart from a brief notice in the next chapter we will not hear of the prophet again until the account of his death in chapter 13.
When we last met this lady she had a prosperous family, with her husband she owned her own home, and, for her faithfulness to God had been rewarded with a son when she had long since given up hope of children. But now her prosperity was a thing of the past. There is no mention of her husband; in all likelihood he had died. Like Naomi she had been forced from Israel by famine and now had lost title to her property. The property would have come into the king’s possession, apparently, during her absence, so he would need to be the one to return it. This woman’s faithfulness to the Lord – her seeking first the kingdom of God and his righteousness – demonstrated in her loyalty to his prophet, now received still more reward.
Either Gehazi was still the servant of Elisha, even though now a leper, or these events occurred before the events of chapter 5. If you remember, we find similar chronological dislocations in some of the Gospel narratives. But, perhaps he continued in Elisha’s service though a leper.
That the woman should appear at the palace to speak to the king at the very moment he was talking with Elisha’s servant about the miracles that Elisha had performed is another demonstration of the divine providence of which we are given so many in Holy Scripture and of which we have experienced our share in life. The French have a saying: “Coincidence is an event in which God wishes to remain anonymous.” Florence and I arrived in Aberdeen, Scotland in the Autumn of 1975 with no clear plans for a job for her though we needed her to work. In fact we needed her to make more money than we had first thought we would require; once we got there we discovered that our expenses would be larger than we had been led to believe. But we arrived at just the time interviews were being held for an opening for a violin teacher in the Aberdeen public schools. We had no idea, of course, and the job no doubt would have been filled before we knew it existed. But our second Sunday we met a young man in church who taught piano in the local schools. He told us of the opening and arranged for Florence to interview for it. She got the job. Oh, did I tell you: there was not another opening for a violin teacher in the three years we were in Aberdeen. “Coincidence is an event in which God wishes to remain anonymous.” But, of course, a Christian can see God’s hand clear as day.
In other words he asked him about what had happened in the matter of Elisha and her son and got a first hand report from her.
Remember, the original readers of Kings would have lost their homes as well as a result of the destruction of their nation and many were in exile and so this would have been a great encouragement to them. In any case, as the Lord Jesus teaches us in Matt. 10:40-42, the Lord looks out for those who look out for his prophets. [Provan, 205]
Ben-hadad had ruled Syria for some 40 years by this time and so was an older man.
A natural question arises. Where do these details come from? How did the biblical writer know what conversation passed between Elisha and Hazael? Well, in all likelihood so far as we have gathered from the previous chapters of 2 Kings, that conversation would have been witnessed by Elisha’s disciples. He was probably rarely without an entourage of some size, as the Lord Jesus would be rarely without a group of disciples during his ministry. How do we know all the conversations that took place that are recorded for us in the four Gospels. We know because some of the disciples were present.
Ben-hadad had learned by this time that Elisha had special knowledge and power, he was probably the king referred to in chapter 5, Naaman’s king, he would have known of the healing of his military commander, but being a pagan he still imagined that he could buy a better fortune. Nothing is said explicitly but presumably Elisha didn’t take these gifts either. Remember he refused great wealth when he declined to accept Naaman’s gifts for the same reason in chapter 5.
In any case, again and again in Kings and once again here we have the irony that a pagan king knows to consult the Lord while Ahaziah and other Israelite kings consult Baal-zebub and the gods of the ANE. (2 Kings 1:2).
Once again we have an instance of a lie rightly told, or rather not a lie if a lie is always the telling of a falsehood for whatever reason. God is under no obligation always to tell wicked men the truth and more than once we find him in the Bible using a lie to fool a wicked man into a position in which he can be punished. In this case the lie about recovering hides the fact that Ben-hadad would not die from his illness, which is of course what Ben-hadad was asking about – Am I going to die from this sickness? – but he would in fact die from assassination.
Hebrew grammarians tell us that it is likely that it was Hazael who was staring, not Elisha, perhaps befuddled by the news he just received from the prophet. This situation, not knowing what to say and not knowing what next to do, continued until Elisha’s weeping broke the spell.
The ferocity of Syrian attacks upon Israel under Hazael would be long remembered and are referred to in Amos 1:3-5.
If you remember, in 1 Kings 19:15 when the Lord was with Elijah at Horeb, the Lord had given Elijah instructions to anoint Hazael the next king of Syria. Presumably Elijah had not had the opportunity to do so before his death because Hazael does not seem to be aware of such a plan.
Which for all we know may have been the truth; perhaps he would have recovered from his illness had he not been murdered first.
We don’t know how Hazael obtained the throne but he was obviously positioned in the Syrian government to lead a coup and this is what he did.
Hazael would prove to be a strong king, reigning from c. 843 B.C. to 797 B.C. In Assyrian records he is referred to as the “son of a nobody,” indicating that he was a usurper, probably a commoner, and certainly not the king by right of lineage. He would prove to be a scourge to Israel throughout his long reign.
Some of the “lessons” of this text are obvious and repeat some of the central lessons of the book of Kings. We have here the consummation of revelation made to Elijah long before. It was to Elijah in 1 Kings 19 that we first learned that one Hazael would become king in Syria. The Word of the Lord stands firm, however long it may be before its fulfillment. And we have the demonstration once again of the Lord’s concern for and care of his faithful people, in this case the woman whose loyalty and hospitality to Elisha were obviously a demonstration of her faith in Yahweh. This dear woman is an OT illustration of the promise the Lord Jesus made in his Sermon on the Mount:
“Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things [food, clothing, and shelter] will be added to you.”
But I want to examine these two paragraphs, but especially the first, at a deeper level, for they provide another illustration of a fact that troubles our faith and the faith of our children more than we often appreciate. What is revealed here is, for want of a better term, the ambiguity of the providence of God. In so many ways matters do not turn out as we might have expected in a moral universe controlled by a God of absolute and perfect justice. And the fact that they do not poses a perpetual temptation for us. Many of the Psalms treat this problem in one way or another. Job is written to address the same reality. And we find many instances of this in the biblical narratives.
The fact is Jehoram or Joram – remember the same name is spelled in both ways in the Bible – was perhaps the best king of the Omride line. It is possible he wasn’t as able as his father Ahab or perhaps as competent a military leader as either his father or grandfather (Omri), but morally speaking – and isn’t that what should matter most? – he was a better man than either of them. At least he certainly seems to be so far as we can observe his life and conduct. We find him doing the right thing on several occasions. Here, of course, he not only restores this woman (we assume she was a widow by now) to her property, but grants her all that her land produced while she was out of the country for seven years. He didn’t have to do that. The narrator doesn’t explain his motivation to us – though clearly this woman’s association with Elisha was the key consideration – but it is obvious Jehoram was impressed by Elisha, by the miracles he had performed, and, presumably, by the prophesy he had made of the deliverance of Samaria from the siege of the Syrian army. Jehoram behaved in a similar way before this. Remember the respect he showed to Elisha and even the obedience when Elisha led a force of Syrian soldiers, blinded by the Lord, into Samaria in chapter 6. Jehoram wanted to kill them. Elisha forbad it and Jehoram obeyed. He even addressed Elisha as “My Father,” certainly something Ahab would not have done!
Remember, this is the same Jehoram who had put away the pillar of Baal that his father, Ahab, had made (3:2). He had gathered the obvious – that Baal was no match for Yahweh – and had acted accordingly. But there is more than that. Ahab had killed the prophets of the Lord and those he had not killed had saved themselves by going into hiding. But so far as the evidence goes and there is a good bit of evidence in the opening chapters of 2 Kings, during Jehoram’s reign the prophets of the Lord, the sons of the prophets as they were called, flourished. They organized openly into various communities or schools, deputations of these men accompanied Elisha when he traveled, and so on. There was a considerably larger measure of religious freedom for those loyal to Yahweh during Jehoram’s reign than there had been during Ahab’s. As one commentator puts it: [Jehoram] is not Stalin but Gorbachev. [Leithart, 213] He’s not the worst of Israel’s kings but one of the best [the northern kingdom’s kings.]
And yet it will be upon this king that Yahweh’s wrath against the house of Ahab will fall. Somehow we do not expect that divine judgment should fall upon the house of Ahab when it is at its best, not its worst.
In other words we have here, as we have so often in life, a bad man doing good things, even some things noteworthy for their goodness and things that certainly proved a great benefit for the people of God during that time. And it is in this apparent muddle that we must live our lives and in which we have to think about and encounter the world in which we live everyday. Imagine that it were not so. Imagine a situation in which bad men, unbelieving men, rebels against God were obviously and always bad and were constantly getting their comeuppance and all those who served the Lord were evidently noteworthy for their goodness and hardly ever had troubles. Imagine how easy it would be in such a situation to instill moral conviction in the hearts and minds of your children. Imagine how weak the world’s pull would be for you. Constant reinforcement of the difference between faith and unbelief and between righteous and unrighteous living would do its good work moment by moment every day.
But life is not like that in this world. Bad men do good things. And, though this fact is not on display in our text this evening, it is just as true that good men often do bad things. The moral equation is not nearly as clear in life as we might wish it to be. Life would be so much simpler if unbelievers were always vile and believers were always admirable, if evil were always summarily punished and goodness could be counted on to receive its reward. Jehoram did good and was punished; and, though this is not my point tonight, Hazael did evil but, mysteriously in doing so fulfilled a calling from the Lord.
It can be a difficult moment in a young Christian’s life when at university or when he enters the workaday world to meet unbelievers who seem to have more moral passion, more élan vital, and seem to be doing more good than many of the Christians they know. Years ago, had you asked an American college student to name someone who was truly a saint, he might very well have said in reply, Albert Schweitzer. Schweitzer, if you remember, was a great organist, a specialist in the music of Bach, a world renowned scholar, and a medical doctor, who left the comforts of his cultured German life to care for the needy in a mission hospital in equatorial Africa. Surely he was a good man and that was a good work. But Schweitzer, in his biblical scholarship, denied every part of the Christian teaching concerning Jesus Christ. Not to put too fine a point on it, he characterized Jesus as a man not entirely in control of his mental powers; he was on the brink of insanity. In Schweitzer’s telling, right up to the cross Jesus thought he was going to bring in the kingdom of God but, as with so many other messianic figures, it all came to nothing. He was no Christian in any biblical sense of the term, theologically very much a Jehoram, but Schweitzer did many good things and lived a life in many ways impossible not to admire. It is not always easy to tell the difference between the righteous and the unrighteous. Jehoram did some good things. He made some sacrifices for others that are praiseworthy.
Living in a world where the sharp line that separates the righteous from the wicked is obscured is so difficult that we are always being tempted to draw in that line ourselves, to make it all clear and visible. We want the bad to be bad and the good to be good and to be able easily to tell the difference. But, of course, nothing is as simple as the Scripture makes clear. So it has always been and so it is today.
And so the questions pile up. Why does Islam rule a part of the world that used to be the center of Christian civilization? Why does Western civilization continue to be in some respects a force for some good in the world while its center is rotting away as a result of the moral decay which, far from merely tolerated, is now the boast of the powerful and influential in Europe and the United States? The intellectual class of Europe and the United States feel much more strongly that the real index of the superiority of the West is found in the legality of abortion and the celebration of homosexuality rather than in the freedom of religion. What in the world is the Lord doing? And why is the moral equation not more obvious? Why do unbelieving people often do good things and even very wicked people accomplish a great deal?
Well these amount to this question: why did the Lord allow a temporary, superficial repentance on Ahab’s part to stay the judgment that was about to fall upon his house and kingdom only later to bring that judgment down upon the head of Ahab’s son who happened to be a considerably better man than his father? Or why did Jehoram, an admittedly unbelieving king, do good things that blessed the prophets and the people of God?
There are many answers given to such questions in the Bible – important as the questions are and mightily as the answers to them bear on our understanding of life in this world and our making our way through the labyrinth of temptation that this world presents us with all of its ambiguity and confusion. Certainly the first answer is the answer we heard this morning. In the world of grace, if it is to be grace, it has to be mercy, love and salvation to sinners. It has to be the love of God continuing to bless and to keep the life of his people though they continue to be sinners even after they receive the righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is in the life of sin that the grace of God is most magnificently displayed. It is only because of our sin that we can understand the nature of grace. It is only because of our likeness to the world that our deliverance from it by the grace of God strikes us as so amazing and wonderful. It is only the world’s likeness to us that convinces us that the difference between us and them cannot be found in us but must be found in the grace of God. It is our likeness to the world that makes God’s mercy so clear and so undeniable to the Christian mind and heart.
But our text this evening brings other considerations to mind.
I. First, the purposes of God – the “whys” of human life – are almost always inscrutable.
The fact is we know very little about the “why?” of human life and the “why?” of the providence of God. Why were some of the world’s most beautiful art and music produced by morally unworthy men? Many of these great artists were reprobates in the deeper sense of the term. They loved what was evil and despised what was good. On 9-11 why were the righteous and the wicked together swept to destruction, with no visible distinction between them? Questions of this type are endless and the answer to every one of them is the same: we do not know! We do not know why the wicked prosper or why the Lord leaves it to unbelievers to produce so much of what is good, beautiful and impressive in the life of man. Every soldier who throws himself on a grenade to save the life of his fellows is not a Christian. Everyone involved in trying to help the poor is not a Christian.
If my memory serves me right, there is a memorial to the “Four Chaplains” at one of the chapels on Fort Lewis. Do you remember that story? On the night of February 3rd 1943 the U.S.S. Dorchester was torpedoed by a German U-boat. The four chaplains had gone to sleep with their life jackets on, as they had been ordered to do, but which many soldiers on board had not done and so in the chaos after the explosions many couldn’t find their life jackets. So the four men of God, as they would be referred to, gave up their life jackets to other soldiers, though it meant certain death for them. The four men were last seen, arms entwined, on the deck of the sinking ship. Three of the chaplains were Christian ministers; the fourth man was a Jewish rabbi, who in the nature of the case denied that Jesus is the Son of God and the Messiah. But surely he did a very good thing, that Jewish rabbi. He deserves to be remembered and memorialized as he has been.
Again and again in Holy Scripture we are reminded that the ways of the Lord are a great deep and far beyond our finding out. We trust him to do what is right but we do not know and cannot know how he is accomplishing plans that we rightly believe are holy, just, and good in every detail even while they remain inscrutable to us. There is not nearly enough confession of this in the modern church. We do not know what God is doing day by day, why he allows what he allows, and why the world looks as it does. We don’t understand why there continues to be such goodness in unbelieving life even as there is such evil in believing life.
You are familiar with the illustration of a tapestry. If you see the back side, the side where the craftsman does his work, it is all knots and indiscernible patterns and blotches of color. But turn it over and you find a beautiful picture, a landscape or some such, color and pattern all in its place. Well so with the providence of God. We see the back, not the front. We see the threads and the knots, but we cannot see and will not see the completed tapestry until it is turned over in the next world.
We have only hints of how God is working; we can touch only the outskirts of his ways. For example, we know that one reason Jehoram was inclined to think favorably of the Lord’s prophet Elisha was to ensure that this good woman got her house and land back! But more than that we cannot say. God is very great; we are very small.
II. Second, the justice of God’s ways is likewise beyond our calculation.
Was Jehoram in fact a better man than Ahab? Only God knows. He seems to us to have done better things and to have been less an open idolater than his father, to be a friend of the church, we might say, certainly in a way that Ahab was not, but then, despite all that the Lord had showed him and despite his recognition of the authority of Elisha Jehoram never did repent. He knew to take down the pillar of Baal that his father had made but, knowing that, he did not then return to the true worship of Yahweh. We don’t know how the two men will fare in the last judgment. Perhaps Jehoram will fare better than his father and in eternity be beaten with fewer stripes. Still there is so much that we never know about a man’s life or about God’s evaluation and judgment of that life. God knows everything; we know so very little.
And think of these other considerations.
- God’s judgment is generational. Jehoram was judged not only for his own sins but for those of his grandfather, his father and his brother who reigned before him and had rebelled against God before him and in whose steps to a considerable degree he continued to walk. Jehoram by repentance could have escaped God’s judgment but by refusing to repent added to his own judgment that which befell the house of Omri for all its sins. There is very clearly a cumulative effect in sin and judgment. The prophets of the OT make this very clear, going back as they do over sins committed by generations past in explaining the judgment of the Lord that was about to fall upon Israel and Judah.Abraham Lincoln was not an evangelical Christian, alas, but he was biblically literate in a more serious age than ours is theologically and religiously. What he said so famously and beautifully in his Second Inaugural Address was pure Bible.
“Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
Americans, with their triumphant individualism firmly in place, are generally oblivious of the fact that they bear responsibility for sins committed for long years before them but not repented of. I shudder to think what those who must bear the divine judgment for the years of abortion and the years of pornography and the years of family breakdown and other sins in our land will have to endure when the judgment falls, as it will surely fall in due time because so much evil and harm to other human beings has accumulated and has not yet been punished. The Bible teaches us that God’s justice and judgment is stored up over time. No human life, not Jehoram’s, not Hazael’s, and not yours or mine is lived in isolation or without participation in the sins of others when we participate in those same sins. Repentance may relieve us of any such complicity in those sins, but absent repentance our sins are added to the sins of those who came before us.
In other words, a life in which good things are done is often a life that carries the weight of not only its own guilt, which is considerable, but the accumulated guilt of generations past; guilt that is rightly his or hers because he or she has not repented of the sins of his fathers but continue in them.
- And in the calculations of the justice of God remember we are taught everywhere in Holy Scripture to refuse the facile and superficial thinking about good and evil that is so common in the world.You must not think about good and evil as the world does or you will be much more unnecessarily confused than you ought to be. The world does not measure good and evil as God does. It doesn’t measure it according to the law of God as he does; it doesn’t consider the offense that sin is to God himself; it doesn’t consider motive and attitude in its measurement of good and evil as Jesus said God always does; it rarely observes the true difference between the weightier and lesser matters of the law; and so on.
The Pharisees, Jesus said, did many things that were right in themselves, but they did them all wrong, in the wrong way and for the wrong reason and they made the good evil in that way.
Consider this. Most of the real evil that has been done in the world, most of the real harm that has been done to others has been done by sincere men who believed in what they were doing. A great deal of evil has been done in the world by men who had some otherwise admirable qualities. A true viper would be much less likely to convince others to follow him.
T.S. Eliot observed:
“Half of the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important. They don’t mean to do harm – but the harm does not interest them. Or they do not see it, or they justify it because they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves.” [Cited in Sowell, Intellectuals and Society, 88]
This psychological need that drives people is also why so much evil has been done in the name of idealism, progress, social justice, psychological health, and so on. Human beings are very subtle and practiced in justifying themselves and rarely face facts when it comes to their behavior toward God and man and never face facts with respect to the motives of the heart which is the first thing that God judges. But the fact is that the justice and even kindness that Jehoram displayed toward the woman who had left the country for seven years did not nullify the evil that he did: his idolatry, or his lack of repentance toward Yahweh. Even this kindness and justice was itself corrupted by Jehoram’s lack of faith and his rebellion against the Word of God. Jehoram was sometimes well disposed to Elisha some of the time, but he never once really embraced the prophet’s message. Augustine, you remember, referred to the good works of unbelievers as peccata splendida, splendid sins. He didn’t deny the good in them, but he also refused to forget how much wrong there had to be in any act, any work of a person whose whole life was bent toward rebellion against God.
III. Third, and finally, the mystery of the progress of good and evil in this world cannot really be understood at all except from the vantage point of eternity.
What difference does it finally make if Jehoram does a good thing if he is judged and rejected and consigned to punishment on the great day? Everything looks very different from the vantage point of the last judgment and the eternity that follows it.
We do not know how the Lord will sort out and evaluate a life in which some good is done and much evil as well, a life of unbelief. But we know that those and only those who are righteous in Jesus Christ will stand in that judgment. What real difference will it make to an idolater like Jehoram who, as Israel’s king, continued to lead her away from the Lord and his covenant, that he once was nice to a widow?
Everything will someday be made clear, exact justice will be done, and the actual moral quality of every human life will receive its due. In that day all ambiguity will disappear, all confusion will dissipate, and the line that divides the righteous from the wicked will be clear as clear can be.
I sometimes despair of making sense of this world in which we live. I find myself, and I am sure you do as well, often frustrated, wishing that in a world in which the moral nature of human life is the key to everything, that the moral equation were much clearer than it is. But then I am reminded that in the world of grace it is forgiveness in the midst of sin that tells the tale. It is the righteousness of sinful people that is the great message of the gospel and the Book of God.
Everything finally turns on the evaluation of a human life on the redemption of Jesus Christ, on our connection to him by faith. Those who have him are righteous before God, no matter the good and the evil that is mixed together in their lives day after day. Those who do not have him are still in their sins. The difference is absolute, unaffected by a few good works done in the wrong way and for the wrong reason, because it is always the difference between the perfect obedience of the Son of God on the one hand, and no righteousness at all such as God can credit on the other.
But meantime, I’m sure that dear woman was very grateful to Jehoram and thought kindly of him for years to come. It is right to be grateful for the good that even wicked people do, all the more as we remember that every good deed ever done by anyone is somehow, someway God’s gift to them and to us. True goodness, like true beauty can only exist where the living God is at work. That people forget this or refuse to believe it is perhaps the greatest mystery of all.