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"Theories of inspiration which impaginate the Everlasting Spirit, and make each verse a cluster of objectless and mechanical miracles, are not seriously believed by any one: the Bible itself abides in its endless power and unexhausted truth. All that is not of asbestos is being burned away by the restless fires of thought and criticism. That which remains is enough, and it is indestructible."—Bishop of Derry.




b.c. 855-854

2 Kings i. 1-18

"Ye know not of what spirit are ye."—Luke ix. 55.

"He is the mediator of a better covenant, which hath been enacted upon better promises."—Heb. viii. 6.

Ahaziah, the eldest son and successor of Ahab, has been called "the most shadowy of the Israelitish kings."11   Rawlinson, Kings of Israel and Judah, p. 86. "The name of Ahaziah ('the Lord taketh hold'), like that of all Ahab's sons, testifies to the fact that the husband of Jezebel still worshipped Jehovah. Among the names of the judges and kings before Ahab in Israel, and Asa in Judah, scarcely a single instance occurs of names compounded with Jehovah; thenceforward they became the rule" (Wellhausen, Israel and Judah, Es. 1, p. 66). He seems to have been in all respects one of the most weak, faithless, and deplorably miserable. He did but reign two years—perhaps in reality little more than one; but this brief space was crowded with intolerable disasters. Everything that he touched seemed to be marked out for ruin or failure, and in character he showed himself a true son of Jezebel and Ahab.

What results followed the defeat of Ahab and Jehoshaphat at Ramoth-Gilead we are not told. The4 war must have ended in terms of peace of some kind—perhaps in the cession of Ramoth-Gilead; for Ahaziah does not seem to have been disturbed during his brief reign by any Syrian invasion. Nor were there any troubles on the side of Judah. Ahaziah's sister was the wife of Jehoshaphat's heir, and the good understanding between the two kingdoms was so closely cemented, that in both royal houses there was an identity of names—two Ahaziahs and two Jehorams.

But even the Judæan alliance was marked with misfortune. Jehoshaphat's prosperity and ambition, together with his firm dominance over Edom—in which country he had appointed a vassal, who was sometimes allowed the courtesy title of king22   1 Kings xxii. 47; 2 Kings iii. 9: comp. viii. 20.—led him to emulate Solomon by an attempt to revive the old maritime enterprise which had astonished Jerusalem with ivory, and apes, and peacocks imported from India. He therefore built "ships of Tarshish" at Ezion-Geber to sail to Ophir. They were called "Tarshish-ships," because they were of the same build as those which sailed to Tartessus, in Spain, from Joppa. Ahaziah was to some extent associated with him in the enterprise. But it turned out even more disastrously than it had done in former times. So unskilled was the seamanship of those days among all nations except the Phœnicians, that the whole fleet was wrecked and shattered to pieces in the very harbour of Ezion-Geber before it had set sail.

Ahaziah, whose affinity with the King of Tyre and possession of some of the western ports had given his subjects more knowledge of ships and voyages, then proposed to Jehoshaphat that the vessels5 should be manned with sailors from Israel as well as Judah. But Jehoshaphat was tired of a futile and expensive effort. He refused a partnership which might easily lead to complications, and on which the prophets of Jehovah frowned. It was the last attempt made by the Israelites to become merchants by sea as well as by land.

Ahaziah's brief reign was marked by one immense humiliation. David, who extended the dominion of the Hebrews in all directions, had smitten the Moabites, and inflicted on them one of the horrible atrocities against which the ill-instructed conscience of men in those days of ignorance did not revolt.33   2 Sam. viii. 2. On the ethics of these wars of extermination, such as are commanded in the Pentateuch, and were practised by Joshua, Samuel, Saul, David, and others, see Josh. vi. 17; 1 Sam. xv. 3, 33; 2 Sam. viii. 2, etc., and Mozley's Lectures on the Old Testament, pp. 83-103. He had made the male warriors lie on the ground, and then, measuring them by lines, he put every two lines to death and kept one alive. After this the Moabites had continued to be tributaries. They had fallen to the share of the Northern Kingdom, and yearly acknowledged the suzerainty of Israel by paying a heavy tribute of the fleeces of a hundred thousand lambs and a hundred thousand rams. But now that the warrior Ahab was dead, and Israel had been crushed by the catastrophe at Ramoth-Gilead, Mesha, the energetic viceroy of Moab, seized his opportunity to revolt and to break from the neck of his people the odious yoke. The revolt was entirely successful. The sacred historian gives us no details, but one of the most priceless of modern archæological discoveries has confirmed the Scriptural reference by securing and translating a6 fragment of Mesha's own account of the annals of his reign. We have, in what is called "The Moabite Stone," the memorial written in glorification of himself and of his god Chemosh, "the abomination of the children of Ammon," by a contemporary of Ahab and Jehoshaphat.44   See Stade, i. 86. He gives a photograph and translation of it at p. 534. It is the oldest specimen which we possess of Hebrew writing; perhaps the only specimen, except the Siloam inscription, which has come down to us from before the date of the Exile. It was discovered in 1878 by the German missionary Klein, amid the ruins of the royal city of Daibon (Dibon, Num. xxi. 30), and was purchased for the Berlin Museum in 1879. Owing to all kinds of errors and intrigues, it did not remain in the hands of its purchaser, but was broken into fragments by the nomad tribe of Beni Hamide, from whom it was in some way obtained by M. Clermont-Ganneau. There is no ground for questioning its perfect genuineness, though the discovery of its value led to the forgery of a number of spurious and often indecent inscriptions. There can be no reasonable doubt that when we look at it we see before us the identical memorial of triumph which the Moabite emîr erected in the days of Ahaziah on the bamah of Chemosh at Dibon, one of his chief towns.

This document is supremely interesting, not only for its historical allusions, but also as an illustration of customs and modes of thought which have left their traces in the records of the people of Jehovah, as well as in those of the people of Chemosh.55   See Records of the Past, xi. 166, 167. Mesha tells us that his father reigned in Dibon for thirty years, and7 that he succeeded. He reared this stone to Chemosh in the town of Karcha, as a memorial of gratitude for the assistance which had resulted in the overthrow of all his enemies. Omri, King of Israel, had oppressed Moab many days, because Chemosh was wroth with his people. Ahaziah wished to oppress Moab as his father had done. But Chemosh enabled Mesha to recover Medeba, and afterwards Baal-Meon, Kirjatan, Ataroth, Nebo, and Jahaz, which he reoccupied and rebuilt. Perhaps they had been practically abandoned by all effective Israelite garrisons. In some of these towns he put the inhabitants under a ban, and sacrificed them to Moloch in a great slaughter. In Nebo alone he slew seven thousand men. Having turned many towns into fortresses, he was enabled to defy Israel altogether, to refuse the old burdensome tribute, and to re-establish a strong Moabite kingdom east of the Dead Sea; for Israel was wholly unable to meet his forces in the open field. Month after month of the reign of the miserable son of Ahab must have been marked by tidings of shame, defeat, and massacre.

Added to these public calamities, there came to Ahaziah a terrible personal misfortune. As he was coming down from the roof of his palace, he seems to have stopped to lean against the lattice of some window or balcony in his upper chamber in Samaria.66   2 Kings i. 2; Heb., be'ad hass'bakāh; LXX., διὰ τοῦ δικτυωτοῦ; Vulg., per cancellos (comp. 1 Kings vii. 18; 2 Chron. iv. 12). It gave way under his weight, and he was hurled down into the courtyard or street below. He was so seriously hurt that he spent the rest of his reign on a sick-bed in pain and weakness, and ultimately died of the injuries he had received.

A succession of woes so grievous might well have8 awakened the wretched king to serious thought. But he had been trained under the idolatrous influences of his mother. As though it were not enough for him to walk in the steps of Ahab, of Jezebel, and of Jeroboam, he had the fatuity to go out of his way to patronise another and yet more odious superstition. Ekron was the nearest town to him of the Philistine Pentapolis, and at Ekron was established the local cult of a particular Baal known as Baal-Zebub ("the lord of flies").77   LXX., Βάαλ μυῖαν θεὸν Ἀκκαρών. So, too, Jos., Antt., IX. ii. 1. It is possible that the god was represented holding a fly as the type of pestilence, just as the statue of Pthah held in its hands a mouse (Herod., ii. 141). Flies convey all kinds of contagion (Plin., H. N., x. 28). Flies, which in temperate countries are sometimes an intense annoyance, become in tropical climates an intolerable plague. Even the Greeks had their Zeus Apomuios ("Zeus the averter of flies"), and some Greek tribes worshipped Zeus Ipuktonos ("Zeus the slayer of vermin"), and Zeus Muiagros and Apomuios, and Apollo Smintheus ("the destroyer of mice").88   Pausan., v. 14, § 2. The Romans, too, among the numberless quaint heroes of their Pantheon, had a certain Myiagrus and Myiodes, whose function it was to keep flies at a distance.99   The name, or a derisive modification of it, was given by the Jews in the days of Christ to the prince of the devils. In Matt. xii. 24 the true reading is Βεελζεβούλ, which perhaps means (in contempt) "the lord of dung"; but might mean "the lord of the [celestial] habitation" (οἰκοδεσπότην). Comp. Matt. x. 25; Eph. ii. 2; "Baal Shamaim," the Belsamen of Augustine (Gesen., Monum. Phœnic., 387; Movers, Phönizier, i. 176). For "opprobrious puns" applied to idols, see Lightfoot, Exercitationes ad Matt., xii. 24. The common word for idols, gilloolim, is perhaps connected with galal, "dung." Hitzig thinks that the god was represented under the symbol of the Scarabæus pillularius, or dung-beetle. This fly-god, Baal-Zebub of Ekron, had an oracle, to whose lying responses9 the young and superstitious prince attached implicit credence. That a king of Israel professing any sort of allegiance to Jehovah, and having hundreds of prophets in his own kingdom, should send an embassy to the shrine of an abominable local divinity in a town of the Philistines—whose chief object of worship was

"That twice-battered god of Palestine,

Who mourned in earnest when the captive ark

Maimed his brute image on the grunsel edge

Where he fell flat, and shamed his worshippers"—

was, it must be admitted, an act of apostasy more outrageously insulting than had ever yet been perpetrated by any Hebrew king. Nothing can more clearly illustrate the callous indifference shown by the race of Jezebel to the lessons which God had so decisively taught them by Elijah and by Micaiah.


Quem vult Deus perire, dementat prius;

and in this "dementation preceding doom" Ahaziah sent to ask the fly-god's oracle whether he should recover of his injury. His infatuated perversity became known to Elijah, who was bidden by "the angel," or messenger, "of the Lord"—which may only be the recognised phrase in the prophetic schools, putting in a concrete and vivid form the voice of inward inspiration—to go up, apparently on the road towards Samaria, and meet the messengers of Ahaziah on their way to Ekron. Where Elijah was at the time we do not know. Ten years had elapsed since the calling of Elisha, and four since Elijah had confronted Ahab at the door of Naboth's vineyard. In the interval he has not once been mentioned, nor can we conjecture with the least certainty whether he had been living in congenial10 solitude or had been helping to train the Sons of the Prophets in the high duties of their calling. Why he had not appeared to support Micaiah we cannot tell. Now, at any rate, the son of Ahab was drawing upon himself an ancient curse by going a-whoring after wizards and familiar spirits, and it was high time for Elijah to interfere.1010   Lev. xx. 6.

The messengers had not proceeded far on their way when the prophet met them, and sternly bade them go back to their king, with the denunciation, "Is it because there is no God in Israel that ye go to inquire of Baal-Zebub, the god of Ekron? Now, therefore, thus saith Jehovah, 'Thou shalt not descend from that bed on which thou art gone up, but dying thou shalt die.'"

He spoke, and after his manner vanished with no less suddenness.

The messengers, overawed by that startling apparition, did not dream of daring to disobey. They at once went back to the king, who, astonished at their reappearance before they could possibly have reached the oracle, asked them why they had returned.

They told him of the apparition by which they had been confronted. That it was a prophet who had spoken to them they knew; but the appearances of Elijah had been so few, and at such long intervals, that they knew not who he was.

"What sort of man was he that spoke to you?" asked the king.

"He was," they answered, "a lord of hair,1111   בַּאַל שֵׂצַר (LXX., δασύς), whether in reference to his long shaggy locks, or his sheepskin addereth, μηλωτή (Zech. xiii. 4; Heb. xii. 37). and girded about his loins with a girdle of skin."1212   ζώνη δερματίνη (Matt iii. 4).


Too well did Ahaziah recognise from this description the enemy of his guilty race! If he had not been present on Carmel, or at Jezreel, on the occasions when that swart and shaggy figure of the awful Wanderer had confronted his father, he must have often heard descriptions of this strange Bedawy ascetic who "feared man so little because he feared God so much."

"It is Elijah the Tishbite!" he exclaimed, with a bitterness which was succeeded by fierce wrath; and with something of his mother's indomitable rage he sent a captain with fifty soldiers to arrest him.

The captain found Elijah sitting at the top of "the hill," perhaps of Carmel; and what followed is thus described:—

"Thou man of God," he cried, "the king hath said, Come down."

There was something strangely incongruous in this rude address. The title "man of God" seems first to have been currently given to Elijah, and it recognises his inspired mission as well as the supernatural power which he was believed to wield. How preposterous, then, was it to bid a man of God to obey a king's order and to give himself up to imprisonment or death!

"If I be a man of God," said Elijah, "then let fire come down from heaven, to consume thee and thy fifty."1313   There is perhaps an intentional play of words between "man (אישׁ) of God" and "fire (אשׁ) of God" (Klostermann).

The fire fell and reduced them all to ashes.1414   Hebrew.

Undeterred by so tremendous a consummation, the king sent another captain with his fifty, who repeated the order in terms yet more imperative.1515   "Come down quickly" (2 Kings i. 9).


Again Elijah called down the fire from heaven, and the second captain with his fifty soldiers was reduced to ashes.

For the third time the obstinate king, whose infatuation must indeed have been transcendent, despatched a captain with his fifty. But he, warned by the fate of his predecessors, went up to Elijah and fell on his knees, and implored him to spare the life of himself and his fifty innocent soldiers.

Then "the angel of the Lord" bade Elijah go down to the king with him and not be afraid.

What are we to think of this narrative?

Of course, if we are to judge it on such moral grounds as we learn from the spirit of the Gospel, Christ Himself has taught us to condemn it. There have been men who so hideously misunderstood the true lessons of revelation as to applaud such deeds, and hold them up for modern imitation. The dark persecutors of the Spanish Inquisition, nay, even men like Calvin and Beza, argued from this scene that "fire is the proper instrument for the punishment of heretics." To all who have been thus misled by a false and superstitious theory of inspiration, Christ Himself says, with unmistakable plainness, as He said to the Sons of Thunder at Engannim, "Ye know not what spirit ye are of. I am not come to destroy men's lives, but to save."1616   Luke ix. 51-56. This is a more than sufficient answer to the censure of Theodoret, that "they who condemn the prophet are wagging their tongues against God." The remark is based on utter misapprehension; and if we are to form no judgment on the morality of Scripture examples, they would be of no help for us. Compare the striking remark of the minister to Balfour of Burleigh in Scott's Old Mortality. In the abstract, and judged by Christian standards, the13 calling down of lightning to consume more than a hundred soldiers, who were but obeying the orders of a king—the protection of personal safety by the miraculous destruction of a king's messengers—could only be regarded as a deed of horror. "There are few tracks of Elijah that are ordinary and fit for common feet," says Bishop Hall; and he adds, "Not in his own defence would the prophet have been the death of so many, if God had not, by a peculiar instinct, made him an instrument of His just vengeance."1717   Quoted by Rev. Professor Lumby, ad loc.

For myself, I more than doubt whether we have any right to appeal to these "peculiar instincts" and unrecorded inspirations; and it is so important that we should not form utterly false views of what Scripture does and does not teach, that we must once more deal with this narrative quite plainly, and not beat about the bush with the untenable devices and effeminate euphemisms of commentators, who give us the "to-and-fro-conflicting" apologies of a priori theory instead of the clear judgments of inflexible morality.

"It is impossible not to feel," says Professor Milligan,1818   Elijah, p. 146. "that the events thus presented to us are of a very startling kind, and that it is not easy to reconcile them either with the conception that we form of an honoured servant of God, or with our ideas of eternal justice. Elijah rather appears to us at first sight as a proud, arrogant, and merciless wielder of the power committed to him: we wonder that an answer should have been given to his prayer; we are shocked at the destruction of so many men, who listened only to the command of their captain and their king; and we cannot help contrasting Elijah's conduct, as a whole, with the14 beneficent and loving tenderness of the New Testament dispensation."

Professor Milligan proceeds rightly to set aside the attempts which have been made to represent the first two captains and their fifties as especially guilty—which is a most flimsy hypothesis, and would not in any case touch the heart of the matter. He says that the event stands on exactly the same footing as the slaughter of the 450 prophets of Baal at Kishon, and of the 3000 idolaters by order of Moses at Sinai; the swallowing up of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram; the ban of total extirpation on Jericho and on Canaan; the sweeping massacre of the Amalekites by Saul; and many similar instances of recorded savagery. But the reference to analogous acts furnishes no justification for those acts. What, then, is their justification, if any can be found?

Some would defend them on the grounds that the potter may do what he likes with the clay. That analogy, though perfectly admissible when used for the purpose to which it is applied by St. Paul, is grossly inapplicable to such cases as this. St. Paul uses it simply to prove that we cannot judge or understand the purposes of God, in which, as he shows, mercy often lies behind apparent severity. But, when urged to maintain the rectitude of sweeping judgments in which a man arms his own feebleness with the omnipotence of Heaven, they amount to no more than the tyrant's plea that "might makes right." "Man is a reed," said Pascal, "but he is a thinking reed." He may not therefore be indiscriminately crushed. He was made by God in His image, after His likeness, and therefore his rights have a Divine and indefeasible sanction.


All that can be said is that these deeds of wholesale severity were not in disaccord with the conscience even of many of the best Old Testament saints. They did not feel the least compunction in inflicting judgments on whole populations in a way which would argue in us an infamous callousness. Nay, their consciences approved of those deeds; they were but acting up to the standard of their times, and they regarded themselves as righteous instruments of divinely directed vengeance.1919   This is practically the sum-total of the answer given again and again by Canon Mozley in his Lectures on the Old Testament, 2nd edition, 1878. For instance, he says that "the Jewish idea of justice gives us the reason why the Divine commands (of exterminating wars, etc.) were then adapted to man as the agent for executing them, and are not adapted now" (p. 102). Take, for instance, the frightful Eastern law which among the Jews no less than among Babylonians and Persians thought nothing of overwhelming the innocent with the guilty in the same catastrophe; which required the stoning, not only of Achan, but of all Achan's innocent family, as an expiation for his theft; and the stoning, not only of Naboth, but also of Naboth's sons, in requital for his asserted blasphemy. Two reasons may be assigned for the chasm between their moral sense and ours on such subjects—one was their amazing indifference to the sacredness of human life, and the other their invariable habit of regarding men in their corporate relations rather than in their individual capacity. Our conscience teaches us that to slay the innocent with the guilty is an action of monstrous injustice;2020   Comp. Ezek. xviii. 2-30. but they, regarding each person as indissolubly mixed up with all his family and tribe, magnified the conception16 of corporate responsibility, and merged the individual in the mass.

It is clear that, if we take the narrative literally, Elijah would not have felt the least remorse in calling fire from heaven to consume these scores of soldiers, because the prophetic narrator who recorded the story, perhaps two centuries later, must have understood the spirit of those days, and certainly felt no shame for the prophet's act of vengeance. On the contrary, he relates it with entire approval for the glorification of his hero. We cannot blame him for not rising above the moral standard of his age. He held that the natural manifestation of an angry Jehovah was, literally or metaphorically, in consuming fire. Considering the slow education of mankind in the most elementary principles of mercy and righteousness, we must not judge the views of prophets who lived so many ages before Christ by those of religious teachers who enjoy the inherited experience of two millenniums of Christianity. Thus much is plainly taught us by Christ Himself, and there perhaps we might be content to leave the question. But we are compelled to ask, Do we not too much form all our judgments of the Scripture narratives on a priori traditions and unreasoned prejudices? Can we with adequate knowledge and honest conviction declare our certainty that this scene of destruction ever occurred as a literal fact? If we turn to any of the great students and critics of Germany, to whom we are indebted for the floods of light which their researches have thrown on the sacred page, they with almost consentient voice regard these details of this story as legendary. There is indeed every reason to believe the account of Ahaziah's accident, of his sending to consult the oracle of Baal-Zebub,17 of the turning back of his messengers by Elijah, and of the menace which he heard from the prophet's lips. But the calling down of lightning to consume his captains and soldiers to ashes belongs to the cycle of Elijah-traditions preserved in the schools of the prophets; and in the case of miracles so startling and to our moral sense so repellent—miracles which assume the most insensate folly on the part of the king, and the most callous ruthlessness on the part of the prophet—the question may be fairly asked, Is there any proof, is there anything beyond dogmatic assertion to convince us, that we were intended to accept them au pied de la lettre? May they not be the formal vehicle chosen for the illustration of the undoubted powers and righteous mission of Elijah as the upholder of the worship of Jehovah? In a literature which abounds, as all Eastern literature abounds, in vivid and concrete methods of indicating abstract truths, have we any cogent proof that the supernatural details, of which some may have been introduced into these narratives by the scribes in the schools of the prophets, were not, in some instances, meant to be regarded as imaginative apologues? The most orthodox divines, both Jewish and Christian, have not hesitated to treat the Book of Jonah as an instance of the use of fiction for purposes of moral and spiritual edification. Were any critic to maintain that the story of the destruction of Ahaziah's emissaries belongs to the same class of narratives, I do not know how he could be refuted, however much he might be denounced by stereotyped prejudice and ignorance. I do not, however, myself regard the story as a mere parable composed to show how awful was the power of the prophets, and how fearfully it might be exercised. I look upon it rather18 as possibly the narrative of some event which has been imaginatively embellished, and intermingled with details which we call supernatural.2121   For the idea involved see Num. xi. 1; Deut. iv. 24; Psalm xxi. 9; Isa. xxvi. 11; Heb. x. 27, etc. Circumstances which we consider natural would be regarded as directly miraculous by an Eastern enthusiast, who saw in every event the immediate act of Jehovah to the exclusion of all secondary causes, and who attributed every occurrence of life to the intervention of those "millions of spiritual creatures," who

"walk the earth

Unseen both when we wake and when we sleep."

If such a supposition be correct and admissible—and assuredly it is based on all that we increasingly learn of the methods of Eastern literature, and of the forms in which religious ideas were inculcated in early ages—then all difficulties are removed. We are not dealing with the mercilessness of a prophet, or the wielding of Divine powers in a manner which higher revelation condemns, but only with the well-known fact that the Elijah-spirit was not the Christ-spirit, and that the scribes of Ramah or Gilgal, and "the men of the tradition" and the "men of letters" who lived at Jabez, when they used the methods of Targum and Haggadah in handing down the stories of the prophets, had not received that full measure of enlightenment which came only when the Light of the World had shone.2222   1 Chron. ii. 55, where "Shimeathites" means "men of the tradition," and "scribes," "men of letters."

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