« Prev Chapter VII. Elisha and the Syrians. Next »

66

CHAPTER VII

ELISHA AND THE SYRIANS

2 Kings vi. 1-23

"Now there was found in the city a poor wise man, and he by his wisdom delivered the city."—Eccles. ix. 15.

Elisha, unlike his master Elijah, was, during a great part of his long career, intimately mixed up with the political and military fortunes of his country. The king of Israel who occurs in the following narratives is left nameless—always the sign of later and more vague tradition; but he has usually been identified with Jehoram ben-Ahab, and, though not without some misgivings, we shall assume that the identification is correct. His dealings with Elisha never seem to have been very cordial, though on one occasion he calls him "my father." The relations between them at times became strained and even stormy.

His reign was rendered miserable by the incessant infestation of Syrian marauders. In these difficulties he was greatly helped by Elisha. The prophet repeatedly frustrated the designs of the Syrian king by revealing to Jehoram the places of Benhadad's ambuscades, so that Jehoram could change the destination of his hunting parties or other movements, and escape the plots laid to seize his person. Benhadad, finding himself thus frustrated, and suspecting that67 it was due to treachery, called his servants together in grief and indignation, and asked who was the traitor among them. His officers assured him that they were all faithful, but that the secrets whispered in his bed-chamber were revealed to Jehoram by Elisha the prophet in Israel, whose fame had spread into Syria, perhaps because of the cure of Naaman. The king, unable to take any step while his counsels were thus published to his enemies, thought—not very consistently—that he could surprise and seize Elisha himself, and sent to find out where he was. At that time he was living in Dothan, about twelve miles north-east of Samaria,104104   Gen. xxxvii. 17, Dothain, "two wells" (?). and Benhadad sent a contingent with horses and chariots by night to surround the city, and prevent any escape from its gates. That he could thus besiege a town so near the capital shows the helplessness to which Israel had been now reduced.

When Elisha's servitor rose in the morning he was terrified to see the Syrians encamped round the city, and cried to Elisha, "Alas! my master, what shall we do?"

"Fear not," said the prophet: "they that be with us are more than they that be with them." He prayed God to grant the youth the same open eyes, the same spiritual vision which he himself enjoyed; and the youth saw the mountain full of horses and chariots of fire round about Elisha.

This incident has been full of comfort to millions, as a beautiful illustration of the truth that—

"The hosts of God encamp around

The dwellings of the just;

Deliverance He affords to all68

Who on His promise trust.

"Oh, make but trial of His love,

Experience will decide,

How blest are they, and only they,

Who in His truth confide."

The youth's affectionate alarm had not been shared by his master. He knew that to every true servant of God the promise will be fulfilled, "He shall defend thee under His wings; thou shalt be safe under His feathers; His righteousness and truth shall be thy shield and buckler."105105   Psalm xci. 4.

Were our eyes similarly opened, we too should see the reality of the Divine protection and providence, whether under the visible form of angelic ministrants or not. Scripture in general, and the Psalms in particular, are full of the serenity inspired by this conviction. The story of Elisha is a picture-commentary on the Psalmist's words: "The angel of the Lord encampeth round them that fear Him, and delivereth them."106106   Psalm xxxiv. 7. "He shall give His angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways."107107   Psalm xci. 11. "And I will encamp about Mine house because of the army, because of him that passeth by, and because of him that returneth: and no oppressor shall pass through them any more: for now have I seen with Mine eyes."108108   Zech. ix. 8. "The angel of His presence saved them: in His love and in His pity He redeemed them; and He bare them, and carried them all the days of old."109109   Isa. lxiii. 9.

But what is the exact meaning of all these lovely promises? They do not mean that God's children and saints will always be shielded from anguish or defeat, from the triumph of their enemies, or even from apparently hopeless and final failure, or miserable death.69 The lesson is not that their persons shall be inviolable, or that the enemies who advance against them to eat up their flesh shall always stumble and fall. The experiences of tens of thousands of troubled lives and martyred ends instantly prove the futility of any such reading of these assurances. The saints of God, the prophets of God, have died in exile and in prison, have been tortured on the rack and broken on the wheel, and burnt to ashes at innumerable stakes; they have been destitute, afflicted, tormented, in their lives—stoned, beheaded, sawn asunder, in every form of hideous death; they have rotted in miry dungeons, have starved on desolate shores, have sighed out their souls into the agonising flame. The Cross of Christ stands as the emblem and the explanation of their lives, which fools count to be madness, and their end without honour. On earth they have, far more often than not, been crushed by the hatred and been delivered over to the will of their enemies. Where, then, have been those horses and chariots of fire?

They have been there no less than around Elisha at Dothan. The eyes spiritually opened have seen them, even when the sword flashed, or the flames wrapped them in indescribable torment. The sense of God's protection has least deserted His saints when to the world's eyes they seemed to have been most utterly abandoned. There has been a joy in prisons and at stakes, it has been said, far exceeding the joy of harvest. "Pray for me," said a poor boy of fifteen, who was being burned at Smithfield in the fierce days of Mary Tudor. "I would as soon pray for a dog as for a heretic like thee," answered one of the spectators. "Then, Son of God, shine Thou upon me!" cried the boy-martyr; and instantly, upon a dull70 and cloudy day, the sun shone out, and bathed his young face in glory; whereat, says the martyrologist, men greatly marvelled. But is there one death-bed of a saint on which that glory has not shone?

The presence of those horses and chariots of fire, unseen by the carnal eye—the promises which, if they be taken literally, all experience seems to frustrate—mean two things, which they who are the heirs of such promises, and who would without them be of all men most miserable, have clearly understood.

They mean, first, that as long as a child of God is on the path of duty, and until that duty has been fulfilled, he is inviolable and invulnerable. He shall tread upon the lion and the adder; the young lion and the dragon shall he trample under his feet. He shall take up the serpent in his hands; and if he drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt him. He shall not be afraid of the terror by night, nor of the arrow that flieth by day; of the pestilence that walketh in darkness, nor of the demon that destroyeth in the noonday. A thousand shall fall at his right hand, and ten thousand beside him; but it shall not come nigh him. The histories and the legends of numberless marvellous deliverances all confirm the truth that, when a man fears the Lord, He will keep him in all his ways, and give His angels charge over him, lest at any time he dash his foot against a stone. God will not permit any mortal force, or any combination of forces, to hinder the accomplishment of the task entrusted to His servant. It is the sense of this truth which, under circumstances however menacing, should enable us to

"bate no jot

Of heart or hope, but still bear up, and steer

Uphillward"

71

It is this conviction which has nerved men to face insuperable difficulties, and achieve impossible and unhoped-for ends. It works in the spirit of the cry, "Who art thou, O great mountain? Before Zerubbabel be thou changed into a plain!" It inspires the faith as a grain of mustard seed which is able to say to this mountain, "Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea,"—and it shall obey. It stands unmoved upon the pinnacle of the Temple whereon it has been placed, while the enemy and the tempter, smitten by amazement, falls. In the hour of difficulty it can cry,—

"Rescue me, O Lord, in this mine evil hour,

As of old so many by Thy mighty power,—

Enoch and Elias from the common doom;

Noe from the waters in a saving home;

Abraham from the abounding guilt of heathenesse;

Job from all his multiform and fell distress;

Isaac when his faither's knife was raised to slay;

Lot from burning Sodom on the judgment day;

Moses from the land of bondage and despair;

Daniel from the hungry lions in their lair;

And the children three amid the furnace flame;

Chaste Susanna from the slander and the shame;

David from Golia, and the wrath of Saul;

And the two Apostles from their prison-thrall."

The strangeness, the unexpectedness, the apparently inadequate source of the deliverance, have deepened the trust that it has not been due to accident. Once, when Felix of Nola was flying from his enemies, he took refuge in a cave, and he had scarcely entered it before a spider began to spin its web over the fissure. The pursuer, passing by, saw the spider's web, and did not look into the cave; and the saint, as he came out into safety, remarked: "Ubi Deus est, ibi aranea murus, ubi non est ibi murus aranea" ("Where God is, a spider's72 web is as a wall; where He is not, a wall is but as a spider's web").

This is one lesson conveyed in the words of Christ when the Pharisees told Him that Herod desired to kill Him. He knew that Herod could not kill Him till He had done His Father's will and finished His work. "Go ye," He said, "and tell this fox, Behold, I cast out devils, and I do cures to-day and to-morrow, and the third day I shall be perfected. Nevertheless, I must walk to-day, and to-morrow, and the day following."

But had all this been otherwise—had Felix been seized by his pursuers and perished, as has been the common lot of God's prophets and heroes—he would not therefore have felt himself mocked by these exceeding great and precious promises. The chariots and horses of fire are still there, and are there to work a deliverance yet greater and more eternal. Their office is not to deliver the perishing body, but to carry into God's glory the immortal soul. This is indicated in the death-scene of Elijah. This was the vision of the dying Stephen. This was what Christian legend meant when it embellished with beautiful incidents such scenes as the death of Polycarp. This was what led Bunyan to write, when he describes the death of Christian, that "all the trumpets sounded for him on the other side." When poor Captain Allan Gardiner lay starving to death in that Antarctic isle with his wretched companions, he yet painted on the entrance of the cave which had sheltered them, and near to which his remains were found, a hand pointing downward at the words, "Though He slay me, yet will I put my trust in Him."

There was a touch of almost joyful humour in the73 way in which Elisha proceeded to use, in the present emergency, the power of Divine deliverance. He seems to have gone out of the town and down the hill to the Syrian captains,110110   Adopting the reading of the Syriac version: "And when they [Elisha and his servant] came down to them [the Syrians]." The ordinary reading is "to him," which makes the narrative less clear. and prayed God to send them illusion (ἀβλεψία), so that they might be misled.111111   2 Kings vi. 19. מַנְוֵרִים, ἀορασία, only found in Gen. xix. 11. Then he boldly said to them, "You are being deceived: you have come the wrong way, and to the wrong city. I will take you to the man whom ye seek." The incident reminds us of the story of Athanasius, who, when he was being pursued on the Nile, took the opportunity of a bend of the river boldly to turn back his boat towards Alexandria. "Do you know where Athanasius is?" shouted the pursuers. "He is not far off!" answered the disguised Archbishop; and the emissaries of Constantius went on in the opposite direction from that in which he made his escape.

Elisha led the Syrians in their delusion straight into the city of Samaria, where they suddenly found themselves at the mercy of the king and his troops. Delighted at so great a chance of vengeance, Jehoram eagerly exclaimed, "My father, shall I smite, shall I smite?"

Certainly the request cannot be regarded as unnatural, when we remember that in the Book of Deuteronomy, which did not come to light till after this period, we read the rule that, when the Israelites had taken a besieged city, "thou shalt smite every male thereof with the edge of the sword";112112   Deut. xx. 13. and that when Israel defeated the Midianites113113   Num. xxxi. 7. they slew all the males,74 and Moses was wroth with the officers of the host because they had not also slain all the women. He then (as we are told) ordered them to slay all except the virgins, and also—horrible to relate—"every male among the little ones." The spirit of Elisha on this occasion was larger and more merciful. It almost rose to the spirit of Him who said, "It was said to them of old time, Thou shalt love thy neighbour and hate thine enemy; but I say unto you, Love your enemies; forgive them that hate you; do good unto them that despitefully use you and persecute you." He asked Jehoram reproachfully whether he would even have smitten those whom he had taken captive with sword and bow.114114   Vulg., Non percuties; neque enim cepisti eos ... ut percutias. He not only bade the king to spare them, but to set food before them, and send them home. Jehoram did so at great expense, and the narrative ends by telling us that the example of such merciful generosity produced so favourable an impression that "the bands of Syria came no more into the land of Israel."

It is difficult, however, to see where this statement can be chronologically fitted in. The very next chapter—so loosely is the compilation put together, so completely is the sequence of events here neglected—begins with telling us that Benhadad with all his host went up and besieged Samaria. Any peace or respite gained by Elisha's compassionate magnanimity must, in any case, have been exceedingly short-lived. Josephus tries to get over the difficulty by drawing a sufficiently futile distinction between marauding bands and a direct invasion,115115   Jos., Antt., IX. iv. 4, Κρύφα μὲν οὐκέτι ... φανερῶς δέ. and he says that King Benhadad gave up his frays through fear of Elisha. But, in the first75 place, the encompassing of Dothan had been carried out by "a great host with horses and chariots," which is hardly consistent with the notion of a foray, though it creates new difficulties as to the numbers whom Elisha led to Samaria; secondly, the substitution of a direct invasion for predatory incursions would have been no gain to Israel, but a more deadly peril; and, thirdly, if it was fear of Elisha which stopped the king's raids, it is strange that it had no effect in preventing his invasions. We have, however, no data for any final solution of these problems, and it is useless to meet them with a network of idle conjectures. Such difficulties naturally occur in narratives so vague and unchronological as those presented to us in the documents from the story of Elisha which the compiler wove into his history of Israel and Judah.116116   Kittel, following Kuenen, surmises that this story has got misplaced; that it does not belong to the days of Jehoram ben-Ahab and Benhadad II., but to the days of Jehoahaz ben-Jehu and Benhadad III., the son of Hazael (Gesch. der Hebr., 249). In a very uncertain question I have followed the conclusion arrived at by the majority of scholars, ancient and modern.


« Prev Chapter VII. Elisha and the Syrians. Next »
VIEWNAME is workSection