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CLOSE OF ELISHA'S PUBLIC MINISTRY: THE BEGINNING OF JUDGMENT
The Shunammite on her Return from Philistia restored to her Property - Elisha's Visit to Damascus - The Embassy of Hazael - Prediction of Future Judgment through him - The Murder of Ben- hadad and Accession of Hazael. (2 Kings 8:1-15.)
THE two narratives which follow that of the siege of Samaria may be characterized as in some sense supplementary to it. On the one hand, they mark the relations between Elisha and Joram; and on the other, those between the prophet and Syria. They also close what seems the more personal account of Elisha's activity. After that we have only an account of his death and burial (chap. 13.), drawn, as we suppose, from the same "memoirs" to which the whole of this series is due; the reference to Elisha's activity in the anointing of Jehu (chap. 9.) forming part of the more general history. Accordingly we again remind ourselves that what is about to be described must not be regarded as following in strict chronological succession what had preceded, but rather as in internal connection with it.
The first narrative introduces once more the Shunammite and her heaven-given, heaven restored son, although in circumstances far different from those in which we first knew them. Indirectly we learn and mark that the relations between the prophet and the family of Shunem had not ceased with the restoration of the child to life, although Holy Scripture has not preserved any record of such intercourse. And this also is instructive as regards Bible history. Further, we mark the affectionate interest of Elisha, and his care for the outward well-being of this family. Among the other dealings of God with Israel we learn that He "called for a famine" - a most emphatic expression (comp. Psalms 105:16; Haggai 1:11). This dearth was to last for seven out of the twelve years of Joram's reign. Before its commencement the prophet "had spoken" to the Shunammite, warning her to betake herself to any place outside the land of Israel where she might be able to secure a temporary home; and "the woman had arisen and done* after the saying of the man of God." Although we have evidence that this famine pressed severely on the people (comp. 4:38), yet the advice of the prophet must have been determined by special circumstances. From the absence of any reference to him, it is probable that the Shunammite had lost her husband, and with him her mainstay in times of trouble and difficulty.
* The verbs in vers. 1:2 must be given in the pluperfect, not the imperfect tense.
We are told that she went to the land of the Philistines - -probably as that nearest to her home, and at the same time least likely to suffer, both on account of its fertility and its easy communication with grain producing Egypt. When the predicted seven years of famine ended, the woman who, as the original expressly marks, had only gone "to sojourn as a stranger," returned to her home at Shunem. But here her faith, which had led her so literally to obey the words of the prophet, was to receive a rude shock. "Her house," to which so many loving and sacred memories attached, and "her land" - her own and her child's property - were occupied by strangers.
We remember the proud feeling of independence with which she had on a former occasion declined Elisha's offer to speak for her to the king (2 Kings 4:13), since she dwelt among her own people. But since then, and in the troubles connected with famine and Syrian invasion, times had sadly changed. And in the circumstances it seems scarcely less indicative of the Shunammite's independence of character, that she now appealed directly to the king, not for favor, but for justice. It was surely in the good providing of God, Who ordereth all things wisely and well, that the Shunammite addressed her appeal to the king just as he was talking with Gehazi, and the latter at his request was telling all the great things that Elisha had done. But we cannot infer from this conversation that their meeting occurred before the healing of Naaman, after which Gehazi was smitten with life-long leprosy, since, although lepers were banished from the cities, all intercourse with them was not prohibited, especially under such peculiar circumstances. On the other hand, it was evidently the period when the authority of the prophet with the king was at its highest, and hence either after the capture of the Syrians in Samaria (2 Kings 6:21), or, as we think, after the fulfillment of Elisha's prediction of the relief of Samaria, and the death of the disbelieving "lord." This would best accord with the present narrative. In any case, the appearance of the woman with her son during Gehazi's conversation would not only confirm its truth, but naturally augment the interest of the king in her complaint. And so he immediately ordered not only the restoration of her property, but a return, probably from the royal treasury, of the value of the produce of the land during the previous years. But to us and to all time this history is chiefly interesting as showing how the obedience of faith will, despite trials or appearances to the contrary, be met by the faithful care of the God of promise - and still further, how God will not allow the day of His people to set in trouble, but cause the light to break forth at eventide.
The second narrative in this history shows how the name and work of Elisha were known, not only in Israel, but beyond it, even in hostile Syria. This, after what we have already learned, cannot surprise us. Although there is not any express statement to that effect, we cannot but connect the journey of Elisha "towards Damascus,"* with the commission formerly given to Elijah to anoint Hazael king over Syria (1 Kings 19:15).
* Ver. 8 shows that it could not have been "to Damascus."
This may help us to understand that the Word of God has a wider than the barely literal application which so often tends to perplex the superficial reader. It also shows that its fulfillment may be delayed, and when made, come in other manner than was expected; and, lastly, that the prophets may for many years have borne about the painful secret of some trouble to come - forbearing to take any part till the moment for action, or rather for their obedience, was indicated to them from above.
It was, surely, not an accidental circumstance that when Elisha arrived in Syria Ben-hadad was on that sick-bed from which his treacherous servant intended he should never rise. For the prophet was not to come until all was ready and prepared for the deed by which Hazael would ascend the throne of Syria, that while in its sequences necessarily connected with the judgments foretold upon Israel, yet no part of the incentive to the crime could be imputed to the agency of the Divine messenger. Evidently, if Hazael had not intended to murder his master, and to pretend that he had died of his disease, the words of Elisha would have had no meaning, nor could they have suggested to him his crime.
On hearing of the near approach of the great prophet of Israel, Ben-hadad charged Hazael, probably his vizier or chief general, to meet Elisha, and inquire through him of Jehovah, whether he would recover from his sickness. After the manner of the time, Hazael went to meet the prophet with a present. We are not to understand that those forty camels which bore "of every good thing of Damascus," were literally fully laden. This magnifying of a present by distributing and laying it on a great many bearers or beasts of burden, is characteristic of the East, and is not uncommonly witnessed in our own days. Hazael delivered his master's message with unblushing hypocrisy. But Elisha had read his purpose, and replied in language which, while it unmasked, could never have suggested his murderous scheme: "Go, say to him, [viz. as thou intendest to do] Thou shalt surely live; however Jehovah has shown me that he shall surely die." And as we recall the hypocritical words by which Hazael had tried to disguise his purpose and deceive the prophet, we feel that this was the most fitting answer to his pretended humility and care.
Yet this was only the beginning of what Elisha had to say to Hazael. "And he [Elisha] steadied his face, and set it till he [Hazael] was ashamed," when reading not only his inmost thoughts, but his future history also, the prophet burst into weeping. When Hazael inquired as to the reason of his tears, Elisha told the terrible cruelties which he knew the Syrian would perpetrate upon Israel. The mock humility of Hazel's answer: "But what is thy servant, the dog, that he should do this great thing?" reveals at least the spirit in which he contemplated such deeds against Israel. If Hazael had still thought to deceive Elisha, the announcement that God had shown to his prophet Hazael as king of Syria, must have convinced him that disguise was useless. Little more requires to be told. Hazael returned to his master, and gave him the lying assurance of recovery, as Elisha had foretold. Then as in his sore sickness Ben-hadad lay prostrate and helpless, Hazael laid upon his face a coverlet which had been soaked and made heavy with water. And so Ben-hadad died, and his murderer, whose crime remained probably unknown, ascended the throne.
The accession of Hazael was only part of the burden of judgment upon Israel which had been announced to Elijah. The other part was the usurpation of the throne of Israel by Jehu. With this twofold accession began the decay of the northern kingdom of Israel. Presently we shall read (10:32). "In those days Jehovah began to cut Israel short; and Hazael smote them in all the coasts of Israel," - a smiting which included the loss of the entire territory east of the Jordan. And we believe that it was to declare, perhaps to warn of, this judgment upon Israel, that Elisha was sent to Damascus, and made to have this interview with Hazael.
For Divine judgment cannot be arrested, though it may be deferred, and what Israel had sown when on the morrow of the decisive contest on Carmel it cast out Elijah, that would it reap, when, nevertheless all mercies shown, the son of Ahab and Jezebel could order, though he dared not carry out, the execution of Elisha. They would have none of His prophets, however clearly their mission was attested of God; nay, rather, they would have none of that God Whose prophets Elijah and Elisha had been. And yet in faithfulness God would reveal the coming judgment to His servants, and through them to Israel.
But quite a peculiar feeling comes over us in these far-off islands of the West, when now, thousands of years after these events, we stand before the black obelisk on which this part of the history of ancient Assyria is recorded,* and there read the names of Ben- hadad and of Hazael of Damascus - the former in connection with "Ahab of Jezreel," who was at one time his ally against Assyria; the latter, as humbly offering rich tribute to the king of Assyria, as also does Jehu, who is styled "the son of Omri" (the founder of the dynasty succeeding that of Omri). And here these histories commingle, and the records of the one will be found to throw welcome light upon those of the other.
* At present in the British Museum.