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Siege of Samaria by the Syrians - Terrible Straits and Tragedy in the City - The King sends to slay Elisha, but arrests his Messenger - Announced Deliverance and Judgment on the Unbelieving "Lord" - The Discovery by the Four Lepers - Flight of the Syrians - Relief of Samaria - The Unbelieving Trodden to Death in the Gate. (2 Kings 6:24-7:20.)
THE sacred narrative now resumes the record of public events in Israel, although still in close connection with the ministry of Elisha, which at this crisis appears the primal factor in the history of the northern kingdom. Remembering that it is written from the prophetic standpoint, we do not here look for a strictly chronological arrangement of events, but rather expect to find them grouped according to the one grand idea which underlies this history.
It is impossible to determine what time may have intervened between the attempts and the expedition described in the last chapter and the open warfare against Samaria, the incidents of which we are about to relate. According to Josephus (Ant. 9:4, 4), it followed immediately - the narrative of those who had returned from Samaria having convinced Ben-hadad that any secret attempts upon the king of Israel were hopeless, and determined him to resort to open warfare, for which he deemed his army sufficient.*
* This, however, would scarcely seem to us the likely outcome of the events just recorded. We would rather suggest that some time must have elapsed during which the impression made by the miraculous help to Israel had gradually passed away.
However that may be, he was soon to experience how vain were all such attempts when God was in defense of His people. And here the question naturally arises why such Divine interpositions should have been made on behalf of Israel. The answer is not difficult, and it will throw light upon the course of this history. Evidently, it was a period of comparative indecision, before the final attitude of the nation towards Jehovah was taken, and with it the ultimate fate of Israel decided. Active hostility to the prophet as God's representative and to the worship of Jehovah had ceased, and there were even tokens for good and of seeming return to the LORD. But, as events soon showed, there was not any real repentance, and what to a superficial observer might seem the beginning of a calm was only a lull before the storm. This interval of indecision, or token of pending decision, must be taken into account. The presence of the prophet in Israel meant the final call of God to Israel, and the possibility of national repentance and forgiveness. Every special interposition, such as those we have described, was an emphatic attestation of Elisha's mission, and hence of his message; and every deliverance indicated how truly and easily God could help and deliver His people, if only that were in them towards which the presence of the prophet pointed. And the more minute and apparently unimportant the occasions for such interposition and deliverance were, the more strikingly would all this appear. It is with such thoughts in our minds that we must study the history of the siege and miraculous relief of Samaria.
Ben-hadad was once more laying siege to Samaria (comp. 1 Kings 20). And to such straits was the city reduced that not only levitically unclean but the most repulsive kind of meat fetched a price which in ordinary times would have been extravagant for the most abundant supply of daintiest food, while the coarsest material for cooking it sold at a proportionally high rate. It must have been from want of provender for them that such beasts of burden as asses, so common and useful in the East, were killed. Even their number must have been terribly diminished (Comp. 2 Kings 7:13) when an ass's head would sell for eighty pieces of silver (variously computed at from 5 pounds to 8 pounds), and a "cab* of doves' dung"** - used when dried as material for firing - for five pieces of silver (computed at from 6/ to 10/*** ).
* "A cab," the sixth part of a seah, and computed by the Rabbis as of the capacity of twenty-four eggs.
** This seems the undoubted meaning of the term, although some writers have regarded it as the designation for some kind of vegetable or coarse peas (comp. Bochart, Hierozoicon, II., pp. 45, 46). Some of the Rabbis also regard the "doves' dung" as used for firing, since the city was so shut in that wood could not be got.
*** Classical writers record similar straits. Thus, Plutarch tells that in a famie an ass's head was sold for sixty drachms, while at ordinary times an ass was sold at from twenty-five to thirty drachms, and Pliny that at the siege of Casalinum by Hannibal, a mouse was sold for 200 denars. A tale of even sorer distress comes to us from the last siege of Jerusalem, when the excrements of men and animals were searched for and eaten (Jos. War, 5. 13, 7).
If such were the straits to which the wealthier were reduced, we can imagine the sufferings of the poor. But only the evidence of those who themselves were actors in it could have made any one believe in the possibility of such a tragedy as that to the tale of which King Joram was to listen. While making the round of the broad city wall (the glacis), probably to encourage as well as to inspect the defenders of the city, and to observe the movements of the enemy, he was arrested by the cry for help of a frenzied woman. Probably too much accustomed to the state of famine and misery, the king uttered an ejaculation, indicative not only of the general distress prevailing in the city, but of his own state of mind. His words seem to imply that he felt Jehovah alone could give help,* perhaps that he had some dim expectation of it, but that the LORD withheld from sending it for some reason for which neither king nor people were to blame.
* It is scarcely necessary to say that we regard the rendering: "If Jehovah do not help thee, whence shall I help thee?" as correctly giving the meaning of the original. To regard the words as an imprecation, is evidently incongruous, although Josephus takes that view of them. A similar remark applies to other interpretations of the words.
As we view it in the light of his after-conduct (comp. vv. 31-33), King Joram connected the straits of Samaria with the prophet Elisha, - either they were due to his direct agency, or else to his failure to make intercession for Israel. Such ignorance of the spiritual aspect of God's dealings, even when they are recognized, together with an unhumbled state of heart, unwillingness to return to God, and the ascription of the evils befalling us to the opposite of their true cause, are only too common in that sorrow which Holy Scripture characterizes as "of the world," and working "death."
The horrible story which the woman told to the king was that she and another had made the agreement that each of them was successively to kill her son for a meal in which they two were to share; that the one had fulfilled her part of the bargain, but that, after partaking of the dreadful feast, the other had hidden her son. Whether or not the feelings of motherhood had thus tardily asserted themselves in the second mother, or whether, in the avarice of her hunger, she wished to reserve for herself alone the unnatural meal, matters not for our present purpose. But we recall that such horrors had been in warning foretold in connection with Israel's apostasy (Leviticus 26:29; Deuteronomy 28:53); that they seem to have been enacted during the siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar (Lamentations 4:l0); and lastly, that we have historical evidence of their occurrence during the last siege of Jerusalem by Titus (Jos. War, 6., 3, 4). Even if it had not reminded the king of the predicted Divine curse, such a tale could not have fallen on his ear, especially in existing circumstances, without exciting the deepest and strongest feelings. The story itself was sufficiently harrowing; but that a mother should, even in the madness of self-reproach, make public appeal to the king, that her neighbor should be kept to her part of the compact, revealed a state of matters and of public feeling which called for that universal mourning which the king, as head of the state, inaugurated, when almost instinctively "he rent his clothes." And so, too often, they that will not mourn for sin have to mourn for its consequences.
But as the people watched their king as, with rent clothes, he passed on his way, they took notice that he wore other token of mourning - that "he had sackcloth within upon his flesh." And yet, strange as it may seem, there is not any inconsistency between this and what immediately follows in the sacred narrative. There is no reason to doubt his outward penitence, of which this was the token - perhaps, alas, the main part. Nor do we require to suppose, as has been suggested, either that he had put on sackcloth in obedience to a general command of Elisha, or else that his anger against the prophet was due to the advice of the latter that Samaria should hold out in expectation of Divine deliverance, and that he (the king) had put on sackcloth in the belief that thereby he would secure the promised help. For similar conduct may still be witnessed as regards its spirit, although the outward form of it may be different. A man experiences the bitter consequences of his sinful ways, and he makes sincere, though only outward, repentance of them. But the evils consequent upon his past do not cease; perhaps, on the contrary, almost seem to increase, and he turns not within himself, for humiliation, but without, to what he supposes to be the causes of his misfortunes, perhaps often those very things which are intended ultimately to bring spiritual blessing to him. The sudden outburst of the king's anger against Elisha indicates that he somehow connected the present misery of Samaria with the prophet; and the similarity of his rash vow of Elisha's death with that of his mother Jezebel in regard to Elijah (1 Kings 19:2) would lead to the inference that Joram imagined there was a kind of hereditary quarrel between the prophets and his house. This, although he had but lately experienced personal deliverances through Elisha (2 Kings 6:9, 10). Perhaps, indeed, we may hazard the suggestion that one of the reasons for them may have been to show that the controversy was not with the members of the house of Ahab as such, but with them as alike the cause and the representatives of Israel's apostasy.
But the king's mood was fitful. The command to slay Elisha was immediately succeeded by another resolve, whether springing from fear or from better motives. He hastily followed the messenger whom he had sent, in order to arrest the execution of the sentence on which he had gone. Meanwhile the prophet himself had been in his house with the elders of the city - we can scarcely doubt, making very different application of the state of matters in Samaria than the king had done. We do not wonder that all that was happening should have been Divinely communicated to Elisha, nor yet that he should have described in such language the purposed judicial murder by Joram as characteristic of the son of Ahab and Jezebel. Plain and fearless as the words were, they would also remind the elders of the pending judgment against the house of Ahab. By direction of the prophet they who were with him now prevented the entrance of the king's messenger, who was so soon to be followed by the monarch himself. The words (ver. 33): "And he said, Behold this the evil is from Jehovah, why should I wait [hope] any longer?" were spoken by the king as he entered the presence of Elisha. They are characteristic of his state of mind. It was perhaps for this reason that the prophet apparently gave no heed of any kind to them. They only served to bring into more startling contrast the abrupt announcement which the prophet was commissioned to make. Alike in itself and in the circumstances of the city, it seemed to imply not only a miracle but an absolute impossibility. Yet the message was not only definite but solemnly introduced as "the word of Jehovah." It was to this effect, that about that time on the morrow, a seah (about a peck and a half of fine flour would be sold in the gate of Samaria, where the public market was held, for a shekel (about 2s. 7d.), and two seahs (about three pecks) of barley for the same price.
Such abundance as this would imply could not have been expected even in the most fruitful seasons. The words must have come with such surprise upon all, that only absolute faith in the prophet, or rather in the presence of Jehovah with him, could have secured credence for them. And is it not always so, whenever any real need of ours is brought face to face with a promise of God, - and are we not always tempted, in the weakness of our faith, either to minimize and rationalize God's promises, or else not to realize nor lay hold on them? Thus every promise is a twofold test: of His faithfulness - although only if we believe; and of our faith. And in that assembly there was at least one who did not hesitate to speak out his disbelief, even though the announcement had been solemnly made in the name of Jehovah, by one who had previously often earned a claim to credence, however incredible his predictions might have seemed. But this is the very test of faith - that the past never seems to afford a quite sufficient basis for it, but that it must always stretch beyond our former experience, just because it is always a present act, the outcome of a present life. And apart from the sneer which it conveyed, there was certainly reason in the retort of the adjutant,* on whose hand the king leaned: (Comp. 2 Kings 5:18) "If Jehovah made windows in heaven, would this thing be?"** But it needed not the direct sending of corn through windows made in the heavens. To the lessons of God's faithfulness to His promise there was now to be added, as counterpart, another of His faithfulness as regarded the threatened judgments upon unbelief. The officer who had disbelieved the announcement should see but not share in the good of its fulfillment.
* No really satisfactory explanation of the Hebrew term has been given. But the rendering, "adjutant," gives at least the true, even if it should not be the literal, meaning.
** Other renderings have also been proposed, but it seems to me that this most truly gives the meaning of the original.
As we transport ourselves into the circumstances, it must have been impossible to imagine any fulfillment of the prediction without the most direct Divine interposition. And yet it was only because they were ignorant of what would evolve that any miracle, in the sense in which we use that expression, seemed necessary. As they were so soon to learn, and as we understand it, all happened in the orderly and reasonable succession of events. But the miracle lies in the Divinely arranged concurrence of natural events, with a definite view to a Divine and pre-arranged purpose. And so - if we would only learn it - miracles are such, because we view God's doings from earth, and in the light of the present and the seen; miracles are the sudden manifestation of the ever-present rule of God; and, if we had but eyes to see and ears to hear, we are still and ever surrounded by miracles.
The means employed in the promised deliverance were as unexpected and strange as the deliverance itself. There were four lepers* who, according to the law (Leviticus 13:46; Numbers 5:2), were kept outside the city, at the entrance to the gate.
* According to Jewish tradition these were Gehazi and his sons.
In the straits to which Samaria was reduced, they could no longer expect even the scantiest provision which charity within the city might supply, or careful search without its walls might discover. In the alternative of certain starvation if they remained where they were, or possible death if they fell into the hands of the Syrians, they naturally chose the latter. As the twilight deepened into gloom, they started to carry out their purpose. As we understand it, they made a long circuit to approach the Syrian camp at its "uttermost part,"* that is, the part furthest from Samaria.
* Generally the expression, "the uttermost part of the camp of Syria," is understood to refer to the part nearest the city. But this would not be the obvious meaning of the expression, and, for the reasons mentioned in the text, we have adhered to the primary sense of the words.
This would naturally be their best policy, as they would neither be observed from the city, nor by those in the camp of the enemy, who, as nearest to Samaria, might be expected to be most on the watch, while at the same time it might enable the lepers to present themselves as if they were not connected with the beleaguered. And this also allows sufficient time for the flight of the Syrians having taken place without being observed by the lepers, who probably had made a wide detour around the hills. For while they crept about the camp there was a strange movement within it. It is not necessary to suppose that the "noises of chariots,"of horses," and "of a great host," which the Syrians seemed to hear in the falling darkness, depended on a supernaturally caused illusion of their senses (comp. 2 Kings 6:19, 20); nor yet that the noise itself was supernaturally caused. Such noises are said to be occasionally heard in valleys shut in by mountains, and to have been popularly regarded as portending war.*
* See Bahr on the passage.
The Syrians, at any rate, thought they heard the approach of relieving armies. Tribes from the great Hittite nation in the north, and bands, if not the armies of Egypt, had been hired against them by Joram, and were now simultaneously advancing on them from the north and the south. This would seem to explain how Samaria had held out amid such terrible straits. They had been looking for this succor all along. Terror peopled the night with the forms as well as the sounds of the dreaded host. We imagine that the panic began at the extremity of the camp. Presently they were in full flight, abandoning their horses, their asses, their tents, with all the provisions and treasures which they contained, and hastening to put Jordan between them and their imaginary pursuers.
When the four lepers reached the extremity of the Syrian camp, the fugitives were already far away. They listened, but heard not a sound of living men. Cautiously they looked into one tent, and finding it deserted, sat down to the untasted meal which lay spread, ate and drank, and then carried away, and hid what treasures they found. They entered the next tent, and found it similarly deserted. By the time they had carried away and hid its treasures also, it became quite evident to them that, for some unknown reason, the enemy had left the camp. It was, however, not so much the thought that this was a day of good tidings to Samaria, in which they must not hold their peace, as the fear that if they tarried till the morning without telling it, guilt would attach to them, that induced them hastily to communicate with the guard at the gate, who instantly reported the strange tidings. But so far from receiving the news as an indication that the prediction of Elisha was in the course of fulfillment, the king does not even seem to have remembered it. He would have treated the report as a device of the Syrians, to lure the people in the frenzy of their hunger outside the city gates. Foolish as the seeming wisdom of Joram was, there are only too many occasions in which neglect or forgetfulness of God's promise threatens to rob us of the liberty and blessing in store for us. In the present instance there were, happily, those among the king's servants who would put the matter to the test of experiment. From the few remaining troops, five* horsemen and two** chariots were to be dispatched to report on the real state of matters.
* Five: half of ten, which is the number of completeness.
** Two chariots - probably in order that if one were attacked, the other might make its way back into the city.
The rest is soon told. They found it as the lepers had informed them. Not only was the Syrian camp deserted, but all along the way to Jordan the track of the fugitives was marked by the garments and vessels which they had cast away in their haste to escape. And as the messengers came back with the tidings, the stream of people that had been pent up in the city gate poured forth. They "spoiled the tents of the Syrians." Presently there was abundance and more than that within Samaria. Once more market was held within the gate, where they sold for one shekel two sacks of barley, or else one sack of fine flour. And around those that sold and bought surged and swayed the populace. Presumably to keep order among them, the king had sent his own adjutant, the same "on whose hand" he had "leaned" when Elisha had made his prophetic announcement; the same who had sneered at its apparent impossibility. But it was in vain to seek to stem the torrent of the people. Whether accidentally or of purpose they bore down the king's adjutant, and trod him under foot in the gate. "And he died, as the man of God had said."
We mark at the close of this narrative the emphatic repetition of the circumstances connected with this event. For, assuredly, as it was intended to show the faithfulness of God in the fulfillment of His promise for good, so also that of the certain and marked punishment of unbelief. And both for the teaching of Israel, and, let us add, for that of all men, and in all ages.