2 Kings 1:9-18
Then the king sent an army captain with fifty soldiers to
arrest Elijah. They found him sitting on top of a hill. The captain said to
him, "Man of God, the king has commanded you to come along with us."
"And I will give power to my two witnesses, and they will be clothed in sackcloth and will prophesy during those 1,260 days. If anyone tries to harm them, fire flashes from the mouths of the prophets and consumes their enemies. This is how anyone who tries to harm them must die." Rev. 11:5
In last chapter, we considered the account given of the messengers who were sent by Ahaziah, from his sick-bed, to consult the oracle of Baal-zebub, the fly-god at the Philistine city of Ekron. While hastening on their journey, we found them suddenly arrested by none other than Elijah himself. We followed them as they returned to the chamber of their sovereign, bearing to him the Prophet's doom of death--the merited retribution for so impious a deference to an idol of the heathen, and so insulting a rejection of the God of Israel. We shall now pursue the narrative, and note how the message of these heralds of evil tidings was received by the prostrate king.
The unexpected intervention of Elijah was calculated to fill Ahaziah with dismay. The king knew that the words and threatenings of the stern Prophet carried with them a frightening significance. That never-to-be-forgotten day on Carmel--the fire, the slaughter, the blood--must have engraven itself deep in his young memory. He might well have deemed it the height of madness to trifle with the sayings of one who could unlock the armory of Heaven, and inflict dreadful vengeance on the adversaries of the God he served. Therefore, as a doomed man, we half expect, half hope, to see the tear of penitence trembling in his eye, and messengers forthwith despatched along the plain of Esdraelon, to endeavor to avert or modify the dreadful denunciation. But the blood of his mother Jezebel flows in this sick man's veins. The message of the Prophet rouses him only to wild and frenzied exasperation. He resolves that the Tishbite shall forfeit his liberty or his life for his bold presumption.
How sad when affliction, in whatever shape it comes to us, whether it be sickness, or bereavement, or worldly loss, is not accompanied with the humbling effects of resignation, penitence, submission! Outward trials, as we have remarked before, in speaking of Ahab, if they be not sanctified for softening the heart, must have the opposite result of leading to a deeper hardening and impenitency. So it was now with Ahaziah. We might have expected that his sickness would have proved a salutary warning--a rousing messenger of rebuke and alarm to his soul, humbling him in godly sorrow and tears, and leading him to cry for mercy. But instead of being like oil poured on the troubled waters--calming their fretfulness--that sickness proved rather like oil thrown into the flames, feeding their fury. The dying man presents a picture of what, alas! is not infrequently seen, though the saddest of all spectacles--a scorner and spurner of the most solemn providential warnings at the very last gasp of life--contending with his Maker--lifting his soul in proud defiance against God.
It is evident, from the troop of soldiers the king summons, that he deems the Tishbite no insignificant prey. An officer, with fifty men, is sent in hot haste to bring him dead or alive to the palace of Samaria. Elijah has meanwhile retired to "the top of a hill"--"the top of the mount"--supposed with every probability to be Mount Carmel. There he once more manifests in all its integrity, his old hero-spirit--the truest of all bravery--that of unflinching faith and trust in his God. Seated on the summit, watching the armed band approaching, he would at once conjecture their hostile intent.
Had he been the panic-stricken Prophet we so lately found wandering in the desert of Beersheba, he would have girded up his loins, and with the fleet foot which, on a previous occasion, near this same place, had outstripped the steeds of Ahab's chariot, he would have evaded the vengeance of his pursuers, either by distant flight, or by taking refuge in one of the many caves of Carmel with which he was familiar. But his old watchword and motto again rises to the ascendant. No, under the consciousness of the presence and nearness of the Covenant Angel--the Divine, mysterious Personage, whose voice had a few brief hours before addressed him--he could say, with a special emphasis, "The Angel of the Lord encamps round about then that fear him, and delivers them. O taste and see that the Lord is good--blessed is the man who trusts in him." If one wavering unworthy thought might for a moment have obtruded itself, we may imagine him rebuking it in the words of the Psalmist King--"The Lord is my rock and my fortress, and my deliverer; my God--my strength in whom I will trust; my shield, and the horn of my salvation, and my high tower." Indeed, the lessons of Horeb were now too indelibly written on his inmost soul to be forgotten. The time was when he might have been tempted to succumb before the storm, and in coward unbelief to utter the desponding plaint, "My heart and my flesh fails." But since the Lord had "passed by," and spoken in "the still small voice," he had been taught that "Jehovah was the strength of his heart and his portion forever." Though a host therefore should now encamp against him, his heart does not fear.
The officer or captain of the troop approaches within speaking distance, and exclaims, "O man of God, the king has said, Come down!" "Man of God." This appellation may have been uttered in profane irony--as if this godless captain of a godless king, would make stern proof of how useless was the name, when fifty gleaming swords were ready to leap from their scabbards should resistance be attempted. But even had no such arrogant sarcasm been implied, it was crime and presumption enough to order thus summarily a prophet of Israel, who had done nothing but deliver a message on his Master's authority, to surrender himself captive at the bidding of a treacherous and apostate monarch. It was not so much contempt of Elijah, as insult to Him whose messenger and servant he was. Woe to the earthly power that would dare dishonor an ambassador of the Most High!
Elijah, resolute and unmoved, majestically answered, "If I am a man of God, then let fire come down from heaven and consume you and your fifty." Grandly does the Tishbite appear at this moment--not in anger, but with the calm dignity of conscious POWER, as the divinely-appointed minister of vengeance. He vindicates his mission and magnifies his office. He remembers that his own name signifies "God the Lord"--to rise up therefore against him, was to insult and desecrate the noble character he bore, as the representative and viceregent of Heaven. That captain and his fifty, as the delegates of an earthly sovereign, had dared to defy and outbrave the warning of the King of kings--"Touch not my anointed, and do my prophets no harm." As the Prophet of Fire, Elijah gives the word. The lightning leaps from the cloud. At one flash, the captain and his fifty men lie scattered on the green sward of Carmel--a mass of smouldering ashes--a silent, terrible testimony to the truth, "Jehovah lxives!" "The Lord reigns; let the people tremble." "A FIRE goes before him and burns up all his enemies round about; the heavens declare his righteousness, and all the people see his glory."
The king, meanwhile, has been waiting in the vain expectation of the return of his soldiers with the captured Prophet. He cannot brook delay. Another captain with fifty are commissioned to go forth on the same embassy; and bearing a still more urgent and imperious message. Unappalled by the spectacle of his smitten comrades, the leader of this second band delivers the summons, "O man of God, thus has the king said, Come down at once!" But vain is the arrogant demand. Again the artillery of heaven opens--the volleyed lightning speeds--and the second fifty men share the terrible fate of their predecessors. "The Lord also thundered in the heavens, and the Highest gave his voice; hailstones and coals of fire. Yes, he sent out his arrows, and scattered them; and he shot out lightnings, and routed them," (Ps. 18:13, 14.)
Ahaziah could not fail, by this time, to be fully cognizant of these appalling judgments. He might possibly have ventured to put an atheistic construction on the death of the first fifty--that they had been the victims of unhappy and untoward accident--that the lightnings--the capricious shafts from the quiver of 'nature'--had, by sad mishap, fallen on the slopes of Carmel where his soldiers were. But now that the very same catastrophe had overtaken the second group, there could surely be little debate that a 'Higher hand' had put the bow on the string and made ready the arrows. Blinded indeed must that dying monarch be, if he still refuses to desist from his mad, impotent rage.
If there be no reprieve from the merited doom pronounced on his own head, surely, one must think, at all events, before the retributive sentence is executed, he will with his dying breath do homage to the Almighty Being he has insulted and provoked, and confess that the Jehovah of Elijah is the only true God. Alas! how much it takes to humble the proud heart. Apart from divine grace no outward trial can do it. Impending death itself, that hour when, we might suppose, all false confidences and illusions might well be shaken, finds the hardened and impenitent impervious as ever to conviction. Hence the miserable delusion of those who trust that they will have penitential feelings in their last hours. It is too often a vain unrealized dream. "As men live, so do men die!" The scorner in life, is a scorner at the last--the blasphemer in life, is often a wilder blasphemer at the last. The unjust remain "unjust still" and the filthy remain "filthy still." Oh, it is the saddest picture of moral apostasy--the saddest exponent of the enmity of the unregenerate when even DEATH, the 'king of terrors' brings no terror to the seared conscience and the unfeeling, stubborn, and obdurate soul--the banner of proud defiance against Christ waved, even when the dreadful gloom of mortal darkness is closing in all around!
The king's passion is still roused--the fever of vengeance burns hot as ever; and the last miserable dregs of his life are spent in the renewed attempt to baffle Omnipotence, but only to squander afresh the blood of his innocent soldiers. A third troop of fifty are equipped and sent forth on the same luckless errand. Wise, however, at all events on this latter occasion, is their leader. On reaching Carmel, he sees from the dreadful memorials of rejected warning in the blackened skeletons around, how vain it would be, again contemptuously to summon Elijah to surrender; how vain rather, by assaulting the person of God's ambassador, to rush with madness against the bosses of Jehovah's shield. He falls down a suppliant at the Prophet's feet, begs for his own life and that of his followers. He besought him, and pleaded with him, "O man of God, please spare my life and the lives of these, your fifty servants. See how the fire from heaven has destroyed the first two groups. But now please spare my life!"
Be it ours to imitate the example of this soldier, and take timely warning by the fearful fate of the despisers of divine vengeance. Every narrative of punishment in the olden time, is a parable--the foreshadow of sadder eternal realities, written for our admonition on whom the ends of the world have come. The present incident is one of these Old Testament prefigurations, of the certain doom that will overtake all who dare to fight against God. "Hand" here is "joined in hand"--fifty by fifty league themselves against the Almighty; but their "swift destruction" leads to us the solemn lesson, that "the wicked shall not escape unpunished."
Yes, let all who make light of divine warnings and venture on high-handed resistance to God's word and will, gather around these heaps of smouldering ashes and splintered armor on the slopes of Carmel, and hear the silent voice of the silent dead proclaim the sterner verities of a world to come--"Upon the wicked he shall rain fire and brimstone and an horrible tempest; this is the portion of their cup"--"The chaff he shall burn with unquenchable fire!"
Before we leave the scene of flaming retribution, let us connect it and contrast it, for a moment, with that other "answer by fire," which, ten years before, had descended on this same mountain. The two may not inaptly be taken as symbolic illustrations of the law and the gospel. The GOSPEL lesson and picture is conveyed in the older narrative. The fire from heaven, invoked by Elijah, fell on the sacrifice as an atonement for the sins of the people. The thousands of Israel were gathered around, gazing in expectant silence, while the lone Prophet laid the bullock in pieces on the altar. As the fire at his intercession came down; not an Israelite was touched, not a hair of their head was singed; the visible emblem of God's wrath consumed the vicarious sacrifice--then followed the rain clouds of blessing, and the multitudes dispersed with the praises of Jehovah on their lips--"God is the Lord who has kindled for us the flame. Oh give thanks unto Jehovah; for he is good--for his mercy endures forever," (Ps. 118:27, 29.)
In our present narrative, we behold the emblem of the LAW. That previous, ever-memorable day of sacrifice, seems to be guiltily forgotten and ignored alike by king and soldiers. The altar erected by Elijah is desecrated--the shrine of Baal-zebub at Ekron is madly preferred to it. And now, when above the same hallowed ground, the clouds of heaven again part--the winged lightning--emblem of righteous vengeance--falls on the defiant sinners themselves. The rejected Deity manifests Himself under the dreadful revelation of "a consuming fire."
Do we know the reality of this solemn alternative? "The Lord answers by fire!" Fire--the wrath due to sin--must come down, either on the sinner or on the provided Sacrifice. Reject the Savior and His great atonement, and however splendid or imposing may be our own moralities and boasted righteousness, "fire" must come forth from His presence and "mingle our blood with our sacrifices." Blessed are they who have been enabled to lay hold by faith on the glorious gospel declaration--"Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us." We may devoutly say, in the words of the captain of the third fifty, as we address the true "Man of God"--the "Man of His right hand"--the God-man Mediator--"O man of God, I pray you, let my life be precious in your sight!" 'I have given you,' may He not reply, 'the best proof which, (Omnipotent though I be) I could give, that your life is thus precious in my sight, in not sparing my own, that you might have the gracious offer of a free salvation! The precious blood I shed, is the evidence and exponent of the preciousness of your souls to Me! "I came that you might have life, and that you might have it more abundantly."'
But to return. The supplication of the third captain is graciously heard. As it was with Elijah's Lord in Horeb, so is it with himself now; the voice of mercy follows the earthquake and the fire. The lives of the troop are spared. The Angel Jehovah of the preceding context, again addressing his servant, bids him fearlessly join himself to the armed band, accompany them back to the city, and confront in person the dying king. The Prophet accordingly descends from the summit of the hill, and, unaccoutred with human arms or armor, joins the cavalcade.
We may imagine them entering the gates of Samaria. There is an unusual stir in the royal city. A monarch, whose life is fast ebbing in the palace, would be theme enough of absorbing interest and excitement. But to this was added the strange tale, or rather the startling reality, of the holocaust on Carmel, and the terrible revival of Elijah's power. How the eager crowd would rush to the city-gates to catch a glimpse of the wonder-working Prophet--the captured hero--loved and revered by many--dreaded by all!
And, if such were the feelings of the general population, what must have been those of the king, when, in a few moments, the rough hair-clad man stands at the bedside of the monarch he has doomed! It was the sparrow cowering in the presence of the hawk! We are again forcibly struck, indeed, with the calm dignity of Elijah's demeanor. There is no reference to the miraculous vengeance--the fire-smiting of the earlier part of the day--no boasting or parade of delegated omnipotence. As the minister of the Most High he simply utters his message, and then retires. He solemnly repeats, without comment, "the word of the Lord"--"This is what the Lord says: Why did you send messengers to Baal-zebub, the god of Ekron, to ask whether you will get well? Is there no God in Israel? Now, since you have done this, you will never leave the bed on which you are lying, but you will surely die."
The delivery of this doom ends the remarkable interview. The king is silent. He is too much appalled in the presence of the man of God, or else his bodily strength is sinking too rapidly, to permit him to entertain the thought either of remonstrance or of vengeance. The pallor of death slowly gathers over his countenance--for the solemn statement immediately follows, "So he died according to the word of the Lord which Elijah had spoken." It was the Tishbite's last meeting with the house of Ahab; his last message of wrath--his last protest against Baal. The hours of his own earthly existence were now nearly spent--already the sentence was framing in the upper sanctuary, "Well done, good and faithful servant."
It is pleasing to think of him in this, his closing public act, true as ever to his great life-work and calling, as the unflinching Reformer of his day--denouncing the degradations of the Baal worship, quenching the strange fires on the defiled altars of his country, and rekindling the sacred flames--the same heroic spirit we found him when first presented to us on the sacred page; like Moses, not fearing the wrath of the king, but enduring, as seeing Him who is invisible. "Go down with him, be not afraid," said the Angel-Jehovah to the Prophet. It is the same encouraging word Jesus speaks to us, in all time of our tribulation. He will Himself descend with us from our Carmels, to the battle of life--from our hill-tops of prosperity to the valley of humiliation and trouble. He says to us, as He said to His church in Philadelphia, "I also will keep you from" (yes, in) "the hour of temptation." "At my first answer," says Paul, "no man stood with me, but all men forsook me; notwithstanding, the Lord stood with me and strengthened me; and I was delivered out of the mouth of the lion."
The reference to the incident which has occupied our attention in this chapter would not be complete, without taking in connection with it that parallel passage in the Gospels, where two Apostles, in the blindness of a false zeal, sought to draw, from Elijah's conduct on this occasion, a vindication of their own unworthy desire of retaliation. When our blessed Lord and His disciples were journeying together in this very district, on their way from Galilee to Jerusalem--James and John were stung to the quick by the churlish inhospitality of some Samaritan villagers. These villagers had refused, to the Jewish strangers, the customary courtesies accorded to travelers--and in their passionate misguided zeal, the two "sons of thunder," (as the Lord had well named them,)--perhaps a distant view of Carmel suggesting the precedent, asked permission of their Master, that, in imitation of the old Prophet, they might call down fire from heaven--"Lord, do you us to command fire to come down from heaven, and consume them, even as Elijah did?" The proposal was sharply rebuked and silenced. "You know not," said He, "what manner of spirit you are of. For the Son of man has not come to destroy men's lives, but to save them."
Jesus does not vindicate the conduct of the boorish, sectarian villagers; but He bids the imprecators of vengeance remember that they had grievously mistaken and misapprehended the character of the dispensation under which they lived. The days of Elijah were past. It was now no longer the economy of terror, judgments, visible retribution; but the gentle, peaceful era of the Gospel. The calling down of fire from heaven on the part of the Tishbite, was no more than the visible expression of the character of that severe, rigid dispensation, whose prophet and interpreter he was. It was different altogether under the dispensation of the Spirit--the newly inaugurated era of peace and love.
"The Son of man has not come to destroy men's lives, but to save them!" How this declaration rebukes the spirit of intolerance which has marked for centuries the career of persecuting churches, and more especially the apostate Church of Rome--that Church which has sought to maintain its own supremacy, and to crush truth and freedom, by means of fire, prison, and the sword--and this under the spurious name of "religious zeal." Whatever be the strength of our own convictions, we dare not, as the children of the new dispensation of light and love and charity, attempt to lord it over the consciences of others. Corrupt worship and practice are not to be uprooted and extirpated by violence and penal laws. The weapons of our warfare are not carnal. Those who use the sword must perish by the sword. All acts of resentment, vindictiveness, revenge--either on the part of Christians as individuals, or in their corporate capacity as a church--are inimical to the spirit and character of Him, who was meek and lowly in heart, and whose dying utterances were words of forgiveness.
And if we may draw yet another lesson from this same passage, and one more specially applicable to the times in which we live, it is, that the present tendency to inflame and foster "the war-spirit" is in every way opposed to the economy of the Gospel. Let us not be mistaken or misapprehended. All honor to the brave men who (noble examples of self-sacrifice) are willing to shed their blood and surrender their lives for their country's good--the guardians of our homes, our liberties, and all that are dear to us! Moreover, as society at least now exists, we pronounce those to be the wildest dreamers, who, on spurious "peace-at-any-price" principles, would disband our armies--convert our swords into ploughshares, and pave with cannon our iron highways. But neither can we coincide with those who would draw from the stern conflicts and bloody exploits recorded in the pages of Old Testament story, argument and defense, if not encouragement, for the savage realities of modern war--and for the reason already assigned, that the character of the dispensation is completely changed. As little dare we take the fierce campaigns of Joshua, Gideon, David, and others, with their cruel accompaniments, to justify the modern war-spirit--as we can take the fact of Elijah's slaughter of the apostate priesthood, or Elijah's invoking the fire to descend on Ahaziah's soldiers, as a vindication of the minister or priest who now would gird himself for the work of slaying--or venture, with his own hands, to take bloody retaliation on the enemies of Him to whom vengeance belongs.
Elijah's age (symbolized in Horeb by the earthquake, the hurricane, and the fire) has passed away, and has been succeeded by that of "the still small voice." We maintain, therefore, that War--meaning by that, either the unbridled letting loose of the fierce passions of human nature, or the frantic lust of conquest and aggression--is not more a blot on humanity, than a presumptuous violation and desecration of the spirit of the New Testament--that kingdom which "is righteousness and peace." May God, in His mercy, hasten the time, when the spirit of the new economy shall be more widely recognized and acknowledged--when nations, as nations, shall listen to and obey the great law of the Gospel dispensation, enunciated by the lips of the Prince of Peace, its author and representative--"This is my commandment, that you love one another!"