Two Wonderful Manifestations of God's Presence with His Prophet: The Interposition on behalf of "the Sons of the Prophets" by the banks of Jordan, and that in the deliverance of Elisha at Dothan - influence of Elisha's Ministry - God, the ever-present Help and Deliverer in times of Danger - The Syrians led blinded into Samaria - The Conduct of the King and of the Prophet.
(2 Kings 6:1-23.)
FOR a brief space the narrative turns again to the more private and personal ministry of Elisha. Or perhaps it may be more correct to say that the history which now follows is inserted in this connection, immediately after that of Gehazi, to show that as the unfaithful servant who did not realize the presence and help of Jehovah, received meet punishment, so would they who clung to the prophet in faith and with faithfulness experience the deliverance of God, and this, even in seemingly small matters, and, if need be, by extraordinary interposition. Thus the history of the miraculously restored ax would supplement and complement that of Gehazi's punishment - both teaching substantially the same lessons: only the one in their negative, the other in their positive aspect.
We have repeatedly noticed that the ministry of Elisha had its deep influence upon Israel, despite the corruption in Church and State. Perhaps one of the most pleasing evidences of this appears in the growing number of "the sons of the prophets." On a previous occasion (2 Kings 4:43) we found at Gilgal about one hundred assembled to listen to the instruction of Elisha. This would represent a large number in proportion to the small and, in parts, semi-heathen population of the northern kingdom - especially when we remember that there were similar communities at Bethel and at Jericho. It is probably among the latter that the present narrative is laid, and it shows that this community was so prosperous that their meeting-place* no longer sufficed for their growing numbers.
* In v. 1, the proper rendering is "where we sit before thee," in the sense of sitting to receive instruction and direction; though it may well have been that simple huts were reared around for the accommodation of "the sons of the prophets" - not, however, in the monastic manner, since there were married men in these communities (comp. 2 Kings 4:1).
It was this which led to the proposal of constructing another and larger place for their use by the banks of the Jordan. From the abundance of timber in the district it would be easy to provide accommodation sufficient for their simple wants. And the manner in which their proposal was worded (ver. 2) is peculiarly and graphically Eastern. Elisha not only assented to their project, but at their request consented to accompany and remain with them while engaged in their work. It need scarcely be said that this was not asked in order that the prophet might superintend their labors, but to have in their midst the loved master, whose very presence seemed to imply the Divine blessing, and whose words of instruction would secure it. In any case the whole narrative shows, on the one hand, the simplicity and earnestness of their faith, and, on the other, the poverty and humbleness of their outward circumstances.
Evidence of both was soon to appear. As they were engaged in felling the timber the ax-head of one of the workers became suddenly detached and fell into the water. His exclamation of distress addressed to Elisha, with this significant addition, that the ax had been "asked" or "entreated for," constituted an appeal to the prophet. It is of comparatively secondary importance, whether it had been so asked as a gift, or as a loan - though the former seems to us the meaning of the word.*
* Commentators are very keen in discussing this point. In any case the primary meaning of the verb is "to ask," nor do I know any passage in which the secondary meaning, "to ask in loan," can be established. It certainly does not mean "to ask in loan," in the two passages which are generally quoted, viz., Exodus 12:35, 36, and 1 Samuel 1:28.
What followed had best be recorded in a rigorously literal translation of the sacred text. "And the man of God said: Where has it fallen? And he showed him the place, and he [Elisha] cut off wood [a stick, piece of a tree], and put it in there [sent it], and he caused the iron to flow" - on which, the man, as directed by the prophet, "put in ["sent," the same word as before] his hand and took it." The first, but also the most superficial, impression on reading these words is that they do not necessarily imply anything miraculous.
Accordingly, both some of the Rabbis and certain modern interpreters have argued, either that the stick which had been cut off struck right into the hole of the ax-head and so brought it up, or else that the stick thrust under the ax had rendered it possible to drag it to land. But, to speak plainly, both these suggestions involve such manifest impossibilities, as hardly to require serious discussion. It is scarcely necessary to add that every such explanation is opposed equally to the wording and the spirit of the sacred text, which assuredly would not have recorded among the marvelous doings of the heaven-sent prophet a device, which, if it had been possible, could have been accomplished by any clever-handed person. There cannot be any doubt in the mind of every impartial man that Scripture here intends to record a notable miracle. On the other hand, there is nothing in the sacred text which obliges us to believe that the iron "did swim." In fact, the Hebrew word is never used in that sense.* The impression left on our minds is that the iron which had sunk to the bottom was set in motion, made to float, probably, by some sudden rush of water. Beyond this we cannot go in our attempts to explain the manner in which this miraculous result may have been brought about.
* Besides this passage, it only occurs in Deuteronomy 11:4, and Lamentations 3:54.
But in another direction we can go much further. We recall what has previously been stated about the extraordinary character of the mission of Elijah and of Elisha, which accounts for a series of miracles in their history, unparalleled in the Old Testament, and, indeed, quite exceptional, being connected with what may be described as the decisive crisis in the religious history of the kingdom of Israel. If there was to be direct Divine interposition in order to recall Israel to their allegiance to Jehovah, it is evident that the religious state of the people, ripening for a judgment which history has shown to be irrevocable, would render necessary means that were extraordinary, even in the miraculous history of the Old Testament. And if the mission of the prophets was in itself an extraordinary means, chiefly necessitated by the condition of the people, these means now required to be intensified. Accordingly Elijah and Elisha were to be prophets of the prophets - if we may use the expression - in order that this great truth, which alone could have saved the people, might be presented in a concrete and most vivid manner; that Jehovah was the living and the true God, ever-present with His own, whether for blessing or in judgment. And this must be always kept in view when studying this history. Nay, is it not the great truth which should always be present to our minds, alike as the outcome of all history, the lesson of our experience, and the guide in our acting?*
* It is curious, and probably in part due to the rationalizing tendency of Josephus, that, while professing to give a particular account of the "illustrious acts" of Elisha (Ant. 9:4, 1), he studiously omits all notice of the events recorded in 2 Kings 4:8 to 6:7, although there may be some reference to the healing of Naaman in Ant, 3:2, 4.
From this point of view much additional light is thrown on this particular event. Elisha, summoned to be among these poor, simple-hearted workers for God, could not have been deaf to their appeal, nor appeared helpless in presence of their felt need, however humble. Its very humbleness was only an additional reason for the Divine help. It would have been a contradiction in this special history, nay, in the history of Elisha generally, who seemed to embody the eternal presence of the living God among them. And as the man received back the lost ax-head - really to him a new ax-head, now to be used with a new ax-handle, it would teach him many lessons, not the least of them the constant care and provision of the God Whose messenger and representative the prophet was, and which extended as far as our need, however small and humble it might be.
Of this very truth, both Israel, as a nation, and their enemies, were presently to receive evidence, and that on a much larger scale. And this explains the next recorded event, without requiring us to regard it as having followed in strict chronological order on that just commented upon. The sacred text informs us that "the king of Syria was warring against Israel" - indicating rather a state of chronic warfare and marauding expeditions, such as are common in the East, than a regular campaign. In his consultation with his "servants" what place to occupy, there seems to have been a scheme to lay an ambush for the capture of the king of Israel, whether, as Josephus suggests (Ant. 9:4, 3), when Joram was on a hunting expedition, or else when he passed from one palace to another. But each time the prophet sent timely warning, and the king was wise enough to avoid the locality indicated, and, instead of passing that way, to send and obtain confirmation of what had been foretold him.* As this happened repeatedly, the king of Syria suspected a traitor among his counselors, probably the more readily, that information of the king of Israel's projected movements must in every case have come to the Syrians from some confederate at the Israelitish court.
* The text sufficiently vindicates our interpretation of the words in the Hebrew, without entering here on the critical grounds for our rendering.
This explains how one of the servants of Ben-hadad - probably, one of those by whom these secret communications were carried on - could so readily point out that the information was conveyed by Elisha, whose prophetic knowledge compassed the inmost secrets of Syria's council-chamber.*
* There is absolutely no reason for supposing that this servant was Naaman; but much to the contrary.
It also explains how the residence of Elisha could be so readily ascertained, and an expedition planned and hastily carried out with the view of making him a prisoner. We have no difficulty in identifying the Dothan which was now the temporary residence of Elisha, and the object of Ben-Hades' attack. The spot still bears the old designation of Tell (hill) Dothan. The "twin wells" which gave it that name, are north and east of it. The place itself - about twelve miles north of Samaria, and a little to the south-west of Engannim - stands on a green hill, or enclosed upland basin,* overlooking (to the north) one of the richest pasture-lands, the oblong plain of Dothan.
* See Picturesque Palestine (Vol. 2. p. 21), and Canon Tristram's Land of Israel, p. 134.
Here Joseph's brethren could find sufficient sustenance for their flocks when they had exhausted for a time the wider plain of Shechem (Genesis 37:17). Just below it, to the south, is the great caravan-route from Gilead to Sharon, and thence to Egypt, where those Midianites passed to whom Joseph was sold by his brethren. Dothan is surrounded by an amphitheater of hills; but northwards it looks out over the plain towards those defiles through which the Syrian host advanced that was to capture Elisha.
So far from being surprised at the array of "horses, and chariots, and a strong power,"* which Ben-hadad dispatched on this expedition, we feel that it is thoroughly in accordance with the heathen notions of power.
* The expression is difficult. From the after-narrative it cannot mean "a great host" (see vv. 22, 23), and it is even difficult to suppose that it can refer to a large division of footmen, who would be unsuited to such an expedition. The same expression occurs in 1 Kings 10:2.
In the course of this narrative we have repeatedly met instances of this, and even the proposal to send fifty strong men for the rescue of Elijah (2 Kings 2:16) may be regarded as representing the influence of similar ideas in Israel. Besides, it might have been that the people would rise in defense of their prophet. Elisha knew all these preparations on the part of Ben-hadad; knew also, that during the night the city had been surrounded by the Syrians, so that, to the eye of man, there seemed no way of escape. But he rested quietly, for he also knew that "He that keepeth Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps." Nay, does it not seem as if the language of Psalms 121 quite specially described his experience, and as if he had been looking up to those "mountains" from whence his help was to come? And is it not often so in the experience of God's people, as if the wording of the Psalms were almost literally portraying alike what they feel and hope, and what happens to them?
It was early morning, and the servant of the prophet - not Gehazi now, but perhaps one of "the sons of the prophets" - went forth, it may be to make preparation for the return of his master* from Dothan to his permanent home at Samaria (2 Kings 6:32).
* Such peculiarly early rising and forthgoing - that is, for a special purpose - seems also implied in the circumstance that apparently none of the townsmen was up to see the Syrian host. Such "early" rising is very frequently mentioned in the Old Testament as in preparation for a journey (comp. Genesis 19:2, 27; 21:14; 22:3; 28:18; 31:55; Joshua 3:1; Judges 7:3; 19:9, and in other places).
This would throw light on the language which Elisha afterwards held to the Syrians (2 Kings 6:19). But when Elisha's servant saw the town surrounded by the Syrian host, his heart failed him, and he turned to his master with the despairing inquiry what they were to do. If our previous suggestion that they had intended leaving Dothan that morning be well founded, it is not necessary to suppose that the servant knew the expedition to have been especially destined against Elisha; but he would naturally feel that not only was their projected journey now impossible, but that his master and himself were in imminent danger from which there seemed no possibility of escape. What follows is both historically and symbolically of deepest importance. In answer to the prayer of Elisha the eyes of the young man were opened, and he beheld the height which overlooked Dothan - or else that on which it stood - full of horses and chariots of fire. Truly had Elisha said: "Fear not, for more they with us than they with them." It was not only the Divine answer to the Syrian challenge, and the manifestation of the Divine triumphant supremacy over the power of the enemy, but the revelation of the ever-present, watchful help of Him Whose angel "encampeth round about them that fear Him, and delivereth them" (Psalms 34:7; 55:18; 91:11). But although the vision was vouchsafed to the prophet's servant when his "eyes" were "opened" (Genesis 21:19; Numbers 22:31) - that is, a sight of objects granted him, which, in our present state, is preternatural - we regard it as none the less real. And this, though the appearance of "fire," which was the well-known symbol of the Divine manifestation (Exodus 24:17; 2 Kings 2:11; Psalms 1:3; Isaiah 29:6; Ezekiel 1:4, 27), and even the form of "chariots and horses" might be the human mode of presentation familiar to the Jewish mind (comp. also Psalms 104:3; Isaiah 66:15; Habakkuk 3:8). But we entertain no doubt of the real and constant, though by us unseen, presence of those angel-hosts, which alike the Old and the New Testament teach us to believe are the messengers of God's behests and ministering spirits to His saints. And this adds both solemnity and comfort to all our doing.
In view of this heavenly guard there could be no hesitation on the part of Elisha and his servant in carrying out what we have supposed to have been their original intention of returning to Samaria. And so the two went down to the Syrian host.*
* In going down from the hill on which Dothan was built, in order to journey to Samaria, they would necessarily come into the Syrian host which surrounded the place. Our A.V. puts it as if the Syrians had come down to Elisha, which, from the position of the host, would have been simply impossible. It is true, that, in the Hebrew, the pronoun is in the singular ("to him" in the A.V.), but this only means "to it," viz. the host. Indeed, according to the A.V. there would be no mention of Elisha and his servant having left the city.
At the prayer of Elisha they were smitten, not with blindness but with blinding, so that, in the words of the Rabbis,* "they saw, but they knew not."** It was not, therefore, "a lawful stratagem"*** on his part, but literally true, when Elisha said to the Syrians who were about to make their way into Dothan: "This is not the way, and this is not the city; come after me, and I will bring you to the man whom you are seeking."
* Rashi ad loc.
** The Hebrew word used does not mean actual blindness, but blinding in the sense that one does not see the actual object, but an imaginary one. Besides the present passage it is only used in Genesis 19:11.
*** So even Keil characterizes it.
For Elisha was then on his way to his home at Samaria, nor could he who had just pointed his servant to the heavenly defense around them have been tempted to tell a lie in order to escape the threatened danger. His object was to show the Syrians that the God Whose prophet he was could not be contended with in such manner as they thought, nor His purposes frustrated. And not the Syrians only, but Israel also, would have practical proof that He was the living God when Elisha brought his blinded pursuers as his willing captives into Samaria.
It must have been a wonderful sight, alike to Syrians and Israelites, when, in answer to the prophet's prayer, the LORD once more "opened the eyes of the enemy," and they found themselves in the midst of Samaria. We can only indulge in conjecture, how, perhaps, Elisha had hurried on with the swiftest; how the watchman on the tower would have announced the approach of the strange band; how, although no marauding expedition would have been expected to make a raid upon Samaria, yet the royal troops would have mustered under the command of the king himself - and perhaps, as Josephus puts it, in his somewhat rationalistic account of the event, have surrounded the Syrians at the prophet's bidding; and, lastly, what terrible surprise followed when they discovered where they were. It is more important to mark how once more all acted in character. With an eagerness* and a spiritual dullness characteristic of him, Joram would fain have slaughtered these captives of the LORD.
* This appears even from the repetition: "Shall I smite? Shall I smite?" and the very addition, "My father," is instructive in the circumstances.
And with characteristic uprightness and large-hearted generosity, the prophet almost indignantly rebuked the spurious zeal and courage of the king: "Thou shalt not smite! Them whom thou hast made captives with thy sword and thy bow thou smitest."*
* For linguistic reasons interpreters have generally translated: "Dost thou smite," etc. in the sense, that Joram did not even kill his lawful captives, how much less these! But this would give a very inapt and unlikely meaning. Our view of the text is that taken in Josephus' account of the event.
It would have been unmanly to have done otherwise; Jehovah had not brought these blinded men there as His own captives to give the king of Israel an easy and a cruel triumph; nay, the whole moral purpose of this event, its very character, would have been changed, if the proposal of Joram had been carried out. And it was right royal treatment on the part of the Heavenly Conqueror's ambassador, when, at his bidding, they gave them a great meal, and then dismissed them to their master, to report how Jehovah made captives of the captors of His representative, and how He entertained and released His captives.
And what is right is also wise. We do not wonder to read that after this marauding bands of Syrians no longer made incursions into the land. But to us all there are many lessons here: not only of the unseen, but certain presence of our God and of His help; of rebuke to our groundless fears, and encouragement to go forward; but also as concerning the enemies of the people of God and our dealing with them. How often when they have surrounded Dothan, and deemed themselves certain of achieving their purpose, have they seemed blinded, and found themselves in the midst of Samaria. How many times have arguments and measures, which were thought certain of success against the truth or the people of God, ended in quite the opposite result. And lastly, should we not learn to deal with those whom not our own power, but God, has made helpless captives, not as if they were our personal enemies, but generously, while faithfully, although in meekness, instructing those who oppose themselves, if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth (2 Timothy 2:25)? For, as harsh or self-asserting bearing on the part of those who may defend the truth of God would tend to injure that cause, probably more than anything else, so assuredly would it be palpably and painfully incongruous. And yet - the LORD reigneth, and He will take care of His own work.