In case you've been away or you're new or visiting, last week we started a mini-series in 2 Kings in chapter 12, where Joash, a young King of the southern kingdom of Judah, seemed to start well, doing what was right before God.
But he ended up showing his true colours. His advisors persuaded him to give up restoring the temple, he murdered the son of the High Priest who had nursed him through the early years of his reign, he plundered the temple to try to bribe Judah's enemies so that they wouldn't invade, and God brought judgment on him through those same enemies, who left him wounded, until he was killed in his bed by his own officials.
Ch 13 v1, then, can be boiled down to this: while all this was happening in the southern kingdom of Judah, here's what was happening up north in the kingdom of Israel. So our focus shifts to the northern kingdom, Israel. But it's been a whole year since we last visited Israel, in 2 Kings 10, so since I had to remind myself, I'd better also remind you what's been going on up there.
Israel had been under the influence of its most notorious king, Ahab. 1 Kings 16 sums him up like this:
30 Ahab son of Omri did more evil in the eyes of the LORD than any of those before him. 31 He not only considered it trivial to commit the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, but he also […] began to serve Baal and worship him. […] 33 Ahab also made an Asherah pole and did more to provoke the LORD, the God of Israel, to anger than did all the kings of Israel before him. [1 Kings 16.30-33]
Idols, idols and some more idols. God promised that he would bring judgment on Ahab and his household, including his son Joram, who succeeded him and followed his evil example.
So in chapters 9 and 10 we see God's messenger, Elisha, anointing a military commander, Jehu, as king over Israel, even while Joram still reigned, and sending him on a rampage through Israel and Judah, destroying any trace of Ahab's household. Now the last thing we heard about in the northern kingdom before returning there this morning is the end of Ch 10 – let me read from v28:
28 […] Jehu destroyed Baal worship in Israel. 29 However, he did not turn away from the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, which he had caused Israel to commit— the worship of the golden calves at Bethel and Dan.
30 The LORD said to Jehu, "Because you have done well in accomplishing what is right in my eyes and have done to the house of Ahab all I had in mind to do, your descendants will sit on the throne of Israel to the fourth generation." 31 Yet Jehu was not careful to keep the law of the LORD, the God of Israel, with all his heart. He did not turn away from the sins of Jeroboam, which he had caused Israel to commit.
32 In those days the LORD began to reduce the size of Israel. Hazael [king of Aram (Syria, north-east of Israel)] overpowered the Israelites throughout their territory 33 east of the Jordan…
Jehu dies and is buried, and so we come to Ch 13, with Jehoahaz succeeding his father Jehu as King of Israel, as God promised. But are things going to be better? Will Jehoahaz continue ridding Israel of the idol worship introduced way back by Ahab? Verse 2:
[Jehoahaz] did evil in the eyes of the LORD by following the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, which he had caused Israel to commit, and he did not turn away from them. 3 So the Lord's anger burned against Israel, and for a long time he kept them under the power of Hazael king of Aram and Ben-Hadad his son.
Now the rest of this chapter is structured somewhat oddly, so let me sketch it out before we dive in.
Jehoahaz doesn't get much text to himself. There's the standard 2 Kings formula for introducing and assessing a king in verses 1-2, the standard summary of his demise in v8-9, while in v3-7 we get the important details of his reign. We see the weakness of his army, which causes him to cry to God for his favour. God provides a deliverer.
There's some speculation about who this might be. Around that time the king of neighbouring superpower Assyria began to attack Aram from the east, distracting the Arameans from picking on the Israelites. But verse 22 says that the Arameans oppressed the Israelites throughout the reign of Jehoahaz, so even if Assyria provided some relief, it seems that the proper deliverance comes during the reign of Israel's next king, Jehoash, in which case the deliverer seems to be Elisha.
Anyway, Jehoash gets his standard intro and outro together in verses 10-13. Then v14 to the end of the chapter gives the important details of his reign, namely the proper fulfilment of God's promise of deliverance from the Arameans.
I want us to notice just two themes in this passage.
1 God is merciful to his people and faithful to his promises
2 God does not want half-hearted followers
1 God is merciful to his people and faithful to his promises
Let's look at the events a little more closely.
Verse 2: Jehoahaz did evil in the eyes of the LORD by following the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, which he had caused Israel to commit, that is the worship of the golden calves at Bethel, in the south of Israel, and Dan, in the north.
The consequence of the idol worship of King Jehoahaz and the people of Israel was, verse 3, that the LORD's anger burned against Israel, and for a long time he kept them under the power of Hazael king of Aram and Ben-Hadad his son.
God brings discipline and punishment to his people, just like a responsible parent would do to try to correct a disobedient child, only God's discipline comes at a national scale. And in fact the Israelites had all the blessings and the consequences of obeying and disobeying God's law clearly laid out in the first few books of the Old Testament, perhaps especially in Leviticus 26 – you can look it up later.
So how bad did things get for Israel? Well verse 7 gives a clue:
Nothing had been left of the army of Jehoahaz except fifty horsemen, ten chariots and ten thousand foot soldiers, for the king of Aram had destroyed the rest and made them like the dust at threshing time.
Contrast Israel under King Ahab… he took 2,000 chariots to one of his battles. So Israel was being slowly choked by the Arameans.
We might imagine they'd be queuing up with their ration books past banks of posters saying, 'Keep Calm and Carry On'. But it's worth remembering that unpleasant part of ch 8, which we covered last year. The prophet Elisha wept before Hazael before he became King of Aram. When Hazael asked why he was weeping, Elisha replied, "Because I know the harm you will do to the Israelites… You will set fire to their fortified places, kill their young men with the sword, dash their little children to the ground and rip open their pregnant women."
So in verse 4 we see Jehoahaz at rock bottom. His country was on the verge of being overrun, his people were suffering unspeakably, and his gods, the golden calves, were silent. He was desperate, so he did what many people do in desperation: he prayed to God. He sought the LORD's favour. When his back was to the wall and he couldn't trust his home-made gods, he prayed to God. Still plenty of that going on today, by the way, people pleading and bargaining with God in times of illness or times of no hope, atheists and agnostics crying out in the darkness like everyone else.
But surely God won't help? After all, this desperate situation is because of the Lord's anger against the idol worship of his own people. Verse 4 again: The LORD listened to him, for he saw how severely the king of Aram was oppressing Israel. The LORD provided a deliverer for Israel, and they escaped from the power of Aram. So the Israelites lived in their own homes as they had before.
God listened to him. The king of God's people, Israel, was a calf-worshipper, and yet God listens to him, he shows mercy, he rescues. Just like in the Exodus where God saw the oppression inflicted on his people by the Egyptians, and he listened and rescued. It's almost impossible to believe that God could be this generous, this faithful, this compassionate, saving a nation that time and again has thrown his goodness back at him. And in verse 6 that just what Israel did, just as many a person crying out to God in the dark times of life soon forgets all about their prayer if God answers generously.
So even on the downward spiral of Israel and its kings, God leaves no room for anyone to justify their hard-heartedness towards him. We often worry whether it's fair that God reject people who've never heard the gospel, conjuring up some image of an unreached Amazonian tribe. But how many people march through this life into God's judgment, stepping round blessing after blessing from God, both in the everyday things and in times of hearing the truth about Jesus clearly explained?
As I've said, the full rescue doesn't come until the very end of the chapter, after the death of Jehoahaz, during the reign of his son, Jehoash. Let's skip down to v22 to see that rescue take place.
22 Hazael king of Aram oppressed Israel throughout the reign of Jehoahaz. 23 But the LORD was gracious to them and had compassion and showed concern for them because of his covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. To this day he has been unwilling to destroy them or banish them from his presence. 24 Hazael king of Aram died, and Ben-Hadad his son succeeded him as king. 25 Then Jehoash son of Jehoahaz recaptured from Ben-Hadad son of Hazael the towns he had taken in battle from his father Jehoahaz.
The LORD was gracious to them and had compassion and showed concern for them because of his covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
So we have this two-fold motivation for God's rescue. He has compassion and deep concern for his people, and he has made an agreement with the founding fathers of the nation, and he doesn't break his promises. In fact, God's compassion and mercy stem from his faithfulness to his promises. Humanly speaking, that meagre army with its ten chariots offered almost no hope for Israel's survival, but in truth, survival was guaranteed by a covenant made and upheld by God himself.
It's like that lesson from our series on the Law a few weeks ago. Our obedience to the Law isn't what keeps us right with God – it's simple trust in Jesus' death that does that. That doesn't mean that our behaviour is of no interest to God, but that our security rests with him. God is merciful to his people and faithful to his promises – that's the kind of God he is.
2 God does not want half-hearted followers
So Jehoahaz comes and goes and is succeeded by his son, Jehoash, grandson of Jehu. Jehoash follows in his father's footsteps, rather than his grandfather's, so v11 says, He did evil in the eyes of the LORD and did not turn away from any of the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat… Verses 12 and 13 record his death and the coronation of his son. Standard details out of the way, we then come to the significant episode of the reign of Jehoash as far as Israel is concerned. Let's read from v14.
14 Now Elisha was suffering from the illness from which he died. Jehoash king of Israel went down to see him and wept over him. "My father! My father!" he cried. "The chariots and horsemen of Israel!"
Elisha, God's prophet, God's messenger, the man of God, was terminally ill. He's elderly by now, probably financially poor as well as physically sick.
So Jehoash comes to visit – probably without any grapes, chocolates, flowers or cards… more likely he intended a last shot at getting help against the Arameans. Nonetheless the king weeps over Elisha and cries out, "My father! My Father! The chariots and horsemen of Israel!" It seems he's remembered the times when, with Elisha, Israel has fought with God's help and been victorious against human odds. It seems he is distraught that, without a man of God, Israel will be left defenceless.
Elisha encourages the king. Verse 15:
15 Elisha said, "Get a bow and some arrows," and he did so. 16 "Take the bow in your hands," he said to the king of Israel. When he had taken it, Elisha put his hands on the king's hands. [Elisha is identifying with the king]
17 "Open the east window," he said, and he opened it. "Shoot!" Elisha said, and he shot.
So the king had the humility to do something apparently meaningless, something he didn't understand, simply at the prophet's say so. Then comes the reward, verse 17:
"The LORD's arrow of victory, the arrow of victory over Aram!" Elisha declared. "You will completely destroy the Arameans at Aphek."
How amazing! The king now has a direct promise from God that the tide will turn in Israel's struggle with the Arameans. And it's so precise. You (Jehoash) will do it. In your lifetime – soon even. And you won't just have some small wins, take back a few towns – you'll completely destroy the Arameans. God is going to rescue his people once again in great power, against all human odds. Let's read on, verse 18.
18 Then [Elisha] said, "Take the arrows," and the king took them. Elisha told him, "Strike the ground." He struck it three times and stopped. 19 The man of God was angry with him and said, "You should have struck the ground five or six times; then you would have defeated Aram and completely destroyed it. But now you will defeat it only three times."
20 Elisha died and was buried.
This is why we all love the New Testament. What is going on here?!
Imagine a scenario. Imagine that the doorbell rings, you answer it, and the man standing there introduces himself as Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft and stalwart of any list of the world's wealthiest people. You're a bit suspicious until he starts to make your hall light flash simply using the power of his mind. Apple fans, play along.
Bill Gates explains he's been tracing his family tree and you're a distant cousin, and then he hands you a blank cheque. Not that I'm suggesting in any way that we should be motivated by money; we're using our imaginations here.
So Bill Gates, who is rich to the tune of $50 billion, hands you this blank cheque and a pen, and tells you to fill it in and let him see it. You think about your mortgage, the MOT, and the price of petrol, electricity and gas, and you shrug, jot down $100,000 and nonchalantly pass the cheque back to him. Bill rounds on you for asking for so little – $100,000?! – he could write half a million cheques like that! He tears up the cheque and storms off as if you'd just insulted him to his face.
What's that all about? Well Bill Gates is trying to do something amazing for long lost family, and you shrugged about it and acted like you weren't bothered.
That's what's going on here. God has just written Jehoash a blank cheque for victory over Aram. You would think he would be bouncing off the walls, or weeping with joy or something. If the man of God asked him to strike the ground, whether that means shooting arrows into the ground or actually beating the ground with the arrows, you'd think he'd be going mad doing it, calling for more arrows to shoot or beating them off the ground until they snapped. But instead, Jehoash seems to shrug at this talk of victory over Aram. He strikes the ground three times and looks back to Elisha, as if to say, "There, will that do?"
Elisha is furious that the generosity of God has been met with such indifference. So the Arameans get a death row pardon, and at the end of the chapter Jehoash gets his three victories.
Which just leaves us with the bizarre incident in verses 20 and 21. We've jumped forward a few years. Elisha has died, been buried and decomposed to his bones. A different burial is interrupted by raiders, and the dead man comes alive by physical contact with Elisha's bones. It seems that as news of this incident spread, God was indicating to his people that even though Elisha was dead, the God of Elisha lived on and would bring about those victories over Aram.
Looking further ahead, when the last of God's people were thrown into exile, just as this body was thrown into Elisha's tomb, same verb, there was hope for them, hope through the prophets.
This hope wasn't about touching dry bones, but listening to the words of the prophets, living obediently before God, and receiving the astonishing resurrection of return from exile.
Looking further ahead still, to Jesus, the living word of God, we saw in our second reading that when Jesus died, tombs opened. Despite all that is confusing about that, Matthew wants us to understand that Jesus, in his death, has conquered death, that Jesus' death gives us life. Jesus died and tombs opened.
And if that's not a blank cheque, I don't know what is. God calls us to come his way. He offers life from death. He offers victory and vitality. He offers new life, and true life, and eternal life.
A half-hearted response to that offer simply won't do. A half-hearted response is insulting to God.
In Revelation 3 God addresses a church, saying,
"15 I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! 16 So, because you are lukewarm— neither hot nor cold— I am about to spit you out of my mouth. [The word is literally 'vomit'] […] 19 Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent."
So whether you're a follower of Jesus or not, will you smash the arrows into the ground, so to speak? Will you bounce off the walls or weep with joy? Will you be staggered by God's offer and claim it to the full? Will you expose the idolatry in your own heart and root it out? Will you devote your life to the King of kings in gratitude for what he's done in Jesus?