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Bible History, Old Testament

by 'Alfred Edersheim'

Book 6 — The Reign Of Ahab To The Decline Of The Two Kingdoms

Chapter 7 — The Joint Maritime Expedition to Ophir - Ahaziah's Reign and Illness - The proposed Inquiry of Baal-zebub - The Divine Message by Elijah - Attempts to Capture the Prophet, and their Result - Elijah appears before the King - Death of Ahaziah - Accession of Joram - The Ascent of Elijah - Elisha takes up his Mantle

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(1Kings 22:48-2 Kings 2:14; 2 Chronicles 20:35-27).

JEHOSHAPHAT saw two sons of Ahab ascend the throne of Israel. Of these Ahaziah immediately succeeded Ahab. Of his brief reign, which lasted two years, only two events are known: the first connected probably with the beginning, the second with the close of it. We judge that the attempted maritime expedition in conjunction with Jehoshaphat took place at the beginning of Ahaziah's reign - first, because the fitting out and the destruction of that fleet, and then the proposal for another expedition must have occupied two summers, during which alone such undertakings could be attempted; secondly, because it seems unlikely that Jehoshaphat would have entered into any alliance with an Ahaziah, except at the beginning of his reign. There was that connected with the death of Ahab which might readily influence a weak character like Jehoshaphat to think with hopefulness of the son of his old ally, since his accession had been marked by such striking judgments. Even the circumstance that Jezebel no longer reigned might seem promising of good. And, in this respect, it is significant that, with the death of Ahab, the ministry of Elijah passed into a more public stage, and was followed by the even more prominent activity of Elisha.

We remember the notice (1 Kings 22:47) that "there was then no king in Edom." However we may account for this state of matters, it was favorable for the resumption of that maritime trade which had brought such wealth to Israel in the reign of King Solomon (1 Kings 9:26-28). And there were not a few things in the time of Jehoshaphat that might recall to a Judaean the early part of Solomon's reign. Perhaps such thoughts also contributed to the idea of a joint expedition on the part of Judah and Israel. But it was a mode of re-union as crude and ill-conceived as that which had led to the alliance by marriage between the two dynasties, the state visit of Jehoshaphat to Ahab, and its political outcome in the expedition against Ramoth-Gilead. The story is briefly told in the book of Kings (1 Kings 22:48,49), and one part of it more circumstantially in the Second Book of Chronicles (20:35-37). In the Book of Kings two expeditions are spoken of - the one actually undertaken, the other only proposed. Accordingly, only the first of these is recorded in Chronicles. It consisted of so-called Tarshish ships,* which were to fetch gold from Ophir, setting sail from the harbor of Ezion-Geber, on the Red Sea, a port probably on the coast of South-eastern Arabia, although the exact locality is in dispute. ** *

The ill-success of such an alliance with the wicked son of Ahab was announced (2 Chronicles 20:37) by Eliezer, the son of Dodavah - a prophet not otherwise mentioned. His prediction was verified when the allied fleet either suffered shipwreck or was destroyed in a storm. Jehoshaphat took the warning. When Ahaziah invited him to undertake a second expedition, in which (as seems implied in 1 Kings 22:49) Israelitish mariners were to take a leading part - perhaps because the former failure was ascribed in the north to the unskillfulness of the Judaeans - the proposal was declined. *

The brief and inglorious reign of Ahaziah, the son and successor of Ahab, is said to have begun in the seventeenth year of Jehoshaphat, king of Judah, and to have lasted two years (1 Kings 22:51). There is apparently here a slight chronological difficulty (comp. 2 Kings 3:1), which is, however, explained by the circumstance that, according to a well-known Jewish principle, the years of reign were reckoned from the month Nisan - the Passover-month, with which the ecclesiastical year began - so that a reign which extended beyond that month, for however brief a period, would be computed as one of two years. Thus we conclude that the reign of Ahaziah in reality lasted little more than one year. The one great political event of that period is very briefly indicated, although fraught with grave consequences. From the opening words of 2Kings - which, as a book, should not have been separated from 1Kings * - we learn that the Moabites, who, since the time of David, had been tributary (2 Samuel 8:2), rebelled against Israel

after the death of Ahab.

It was probably due to the ill-health of Ahaziah that an attempt was not made to reduce them to obedience. For the king of Israel had fallen through "the lattice," or between the grating, probably that which protected the opening of the window, in the upper chamber. *

In any case it seems unlikely that the fall was into the court beneath, but probably on to the covered gallery which ran round the court, like our modern verandahs. The consequences of the fall were most serious, although not immediately fatal. We cannot fail to recognize the paramount influence of the queen-mother Jezebel, when we find Ahaziah applying to the oracle of Baal-zebub in Ekron to know whether he would recover of his disease. Baal, "lord," was the common name given by the Canaanites, the Phoenicians, the Syrians (Aramaeans), and Assyrians to their supreme deity. Markedly it is never applied to God in the Old Testament, or by believing Israelites. Among the Canaanites (in Palestine) and the Phoenicians the name was pronounced Ba'al (originally Ba'l); * in Aramaean it was Be'el; in Babylono-Assyrian Bel (comp. Isaiah 46:1; Jeremiah 50:2).

The Baal-zebub, worshipped in Ekron* - the modern Akir** - and the most north-eastern of the five cities of the Philistines, E.N.E. from Jerusalem, was the Fly God, *** *** who was supposed to send or to avert the plague of flies.| * Like the great Apollos, who similarly sent and removed diseases, he was also consulted as an oracle.

|* The same deity was worshipped by the Greeks as Zeus apomyios, and in Rome as Myiagros.

We should be greatly mistaken if we were to regard the proposed inquiry on the part of Ahaziah as only a personal, or even as an ordinary national sin. The whole course of this history has taught us that the reign of Ahab formed a decisive epoch in the development of Israel. The period between the murder of Nadab, the son of Jeroboam, and the accession of Omri, the father of Ahab, was merely intermediate and preparatory, the throne being occupied by a succession of adventurers, whose rule was only transitory. With Omri, or rather with his son Ahab, a new period of firm and stable government began, and politically it was characterized by reconciliation and alliance with the neighboring kingdom of Judah, and with such foreign enterprises as have been noticed in the course of this narrative. But even more important was the religious crisis which marked the reign of Ahab. Although Jeroboam had separated himself and his people from the Divinely ordered service of Jehovah, as practiced in Jerusalem, he had, at least in profession, not renounced the national religion, but only worshipped the God of Israel under the symbol of the golden calf, and in places where worship was not lawful. But Ahab had introduced the service of Baal and of Astarte as the religion of the State. True, this progress in apostasy was in reality only the logical sequence of the sin of Jeroboam, and hence is frequently mentioned in connection with it in the sacred narrative. Nevertheless, the difference between the two is marked, and with Ahab began that apostasy which led to the final destruction of the northern kingdom, and to the trackless dispersion of the ten tribes. In this light we can understand such exceptional mission and ministry as those of Elijah and Elisha, such a scene as the call to decision on Mount Carmel, and such an event as that about to be related.

Viewed in this manner, the royal embassy sent to Ekron to consult "the fly god," was really a challenge to Jehovah, whose prophet Elijah was in the land, and as such it must bring sharpest punishment to all involved in it. It was fitting, so to speak, that, in contrast to the messengers of the earthly king, Jehovah should commission His angel, * and through him bid His prophet defeat the object of Ahaziah's mission.

As directed, Elijah went to meet the king's messengers. His first words exposed - not for the sake of Ahaziah, but for that of Israel - the real character of the act. Was it because there was no God in Israel that they went to inquire of the "fly god" of Ekron? But the authority of Jehovah would be vindicated. Guilty messengers of an apostate king, they were to bring back to him Jehovah's sentence of death. Whether or not they recognized the stern prophet of Jehovah, the impression which his sudden, startling appearance and his words made on them was such that they at once returned to Samaria, and bore to the astonished king the message they had received.

It is as difficult to believe that the king did not guess, as that his messengers had not recognized him who had spoken such words. The man with the (black) hairy garment, girt about with a leathern girdle, must have been a figure familiar to the memory, or at least to the imagination, of every one in Israel, although it may not have suited these messengers - true Orientals in this also - to name him to the king, just as by slightly altering the words of the prophet* they now sought to cast the whole responsibility of the mission on Ahaziah. But when in answer to the king's further inquiry, ** * they gave him the well-known description of the Tishbite, Ahaziah at once recognized the prophet, and prepared such measures as in his short-sightedness he supposed would meet what he regarded as the challenge of Elijah, or as would at least enable him to punish the daring prophet.

We repeat, it was to be a contest, and that a public

one, between the power of Israel's king and the might of Jehovah. The first measure of the king was to send to Elijah "a captain of fifty with his fifty." There cannot be any reasonable doubt that this was with hostile intent. This appears not only from the words of the angel in verse 15, but from the simple facts of the case. For what other reason could Ahaziah have sent a military detachment of fifty under a captain, if not either to defeat some hostile force and constrain obedience, or else to execute some hostile act? The latter is indeed the most probable view, and it seems implied in the reassuring words which the angel afterwards spoke to Elijah (v. 15).

The military expedition had no difficulty in finding the prophet. He neither boastfully challenged, nor yet did he fearfully shrink from the approach of the armed men, but awaited them in his well-known place of abode on Mount Carmel. There is in one sense an almost ludicrous, and yet in another a most majestic contrast between the fifty soldiers and their captain, and the one unarmed man whom they had come to capture. Presently this contrast was, so to speak, reversed when, in answer to the royal command to Elijah, as delivered by the captain, the prophet appealed to his King, and thus clearly stated the terms of the challenge between the two, whose commission the captain and he respectively bore. "And if a man of God I, * let fire come down from heaven."

Terrible as this answer was, we can perceive its suitableness, nay, its necessity, since it was to decide, and that publicly and by way of judgment (and no other decision would have been suitable in a contest between man and God), whose was the power and the kingdom - and this at the great critical epoch of Israel's history. It is not necessary here to emphasize the difference between the Old and the New Testament - although rather in mode of manifestation than in substance - as we recall the warning words of our LORD, when two of His disciples would have commanded fire from heaven to consume those Samaritans who would not receive them (Luke 9:54). The two cases are not in any sense parallel, as our previous remarks must have shown; nor can we suppose the possibility of any parallel case in a dispensation where "the kingdom of God cometh not with observation" (Luke 17:20), "but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power" (1 Corinthians 2:4).

At the same time we must not overlook that the "captain and his fifty" * were not merely unsympathetic instruments to carry out their master's behest, but, as the language seems to imply, shared his spirit.

Perhaps we may conjecture that if Elijah had come with them, he would, if unyielding, never have reached Samaria alive (comp. ver. 15). This hostile and at the same time contemptuous spirit appears still more clearly when, after the destruction of the first captain and his fifty by fire from heaven, not only a second similar expedition was dispatched, but with language even more imperious: "Quickly come down!" It could not be otherwise than that the same fate would overtake the second as the first expedition. The significance, we had almost said the inward necessity, of the judgment consisted in this, that it was a public manifestation of Jehovah as the living and true God, even as the king's had been a public denial thereof. It seems not easy to understand how Ahaziah dispatched a third - nay, even how he had sent a second company. *

Some have seen in it the petulance of a sick man, or else of an Eastern despot, who would not brook being thwarted. Probably in some manner he imputed the failure to the bearing of the captains. And on the third occasion, the tone of the commander of the expedition was certainly different from that of his predecessors, although not in the direction which the king would have wished. It would almost seem as if the third captain had gone up alone - without his fifty (v. 13). In contrast to the imperious language of the other two, he approached the representative of God with lowliest gesture of a suppliant,* while his words of entreaty that his life and that of his men should be spared** indicated that, so far from attempting a conflict, he fully owned the power of Jehovah. Accordingly the prophet was directed to go with him, as he had nothing to fear from him. *** ** * Arrived in the presence of the king, Elijah neither softened nor retracted anything in his former message. Ahaziah had appealed to the "fly-god" of Ekron, and he would experience, and all Israel would learn, the vanity and folly of such trust. "So he died according to the word of Jehovah which Elijah had spoken."

Ahaziah did not leave a son. He was succeeded by his brother Jehoram,* or Joram, as we shall prefer to call him, to distinguish him from the king of Judah of the same name. Before entering on the history of his reign we must consider, however briefly, the history of Elijah and of Elisha, which is so closely intertwined with that of Israel. ** *

The record opens with the narrative of Elijah's translation - and this not merely as introductory to Elisha's ministry, but as forming, especially at that crisis, an integral part of such a "prophetic" history of Israel as that before us. The circumstances attending the removal of Elijah are as unique as those connected with the first appearance and mission of the prophet. We mark in both the same suddenness, the same miraculousness, the same symbolic meaning. Evidently the event was intended to stand forth in the sky of Israel as a fiery sign not only for that period, but for all that were to follow. And that this history was so understood of old, appears even from this opening sentence in what we cannot help regarding as a very unspiritual, or at least inadequate, sketch of Elijah's ministry in the apocryphal book of Jesus the Son of Sirach (Sirach 48:1): "Then stood up Elias the prophet as fire, and his word burned like a lamp." But while we feel that the circumstances attending his translation were in strict accordance with the symbolical aspect of all that is recorded in Scripture of his life and mission, we must beware of regarding these circumstances as representing merely symbols without outward reality in historic fact. Here the narrative will best speak for itself.

The rule of Ahaziah had closed with the judgment of the LORD pronounced through Elijah, and another reign not less wicked - that of Joram * - had begun when the summons to glory came to the prophet of fire.

This latter was known, not only to Elijah himself, and to Elisha, but even to "the sons of the prophets." We do not suppose that Elisha, or still less "the sons of the prophets," knew that "Jehovah would cause Elijah to ascend in a storm-wind to heaven" - nay, perhaps Elijah himself may not have been aware of the special circumstances that would attend his removal. But the text (vers. 3,5, 9) clearly shows that the immediate departure of Elijah was expected, while the language also implies that some extraordinary phenomenon was to be connected with it. At the same time we are not warranted to infer, either that there had been a special Divine revelation to inform all of the impending removal of Elijah, nor, on the other hand, that Elijah had gone on that day to each of the places where "the sons of the prophets" dwelt in common, in order to inform and prepare them for what was to happen. *

As Holy Scripture tells it, the day began by Elijah and Elisha leaving Gilgal - not the place of that name between the Jordan and Jericho, so sacred in Jewish history (Joshua 4:19; 5:10), but another previously referred to (Deuteronomy 11:30) as the great trysting-place for the final consecration of the tribes after their entrance into the land of promise. We remember that Saul had gathered Israel there before the great defeat of the Philistines, when by his rash presumption the king of Israel had shown his moral unfitness for the kingdom (1 Samuel 13:12-15). *

The town lay in the mountains to the south-west of Shiloh, within the territory of Ephraim. The site is now occupied by the modern village Filjilieh. A walk of eight or nine miles due south would bring them "down" to the lower-lying Bethel, whither, as Elijah said, God had sent him. Alike Gilgal and Bethel were seats of the sons of the prophets, and the two are also conjoined as centers of idolatry in prophetic denunciation (Hosea 4:15; Amos 4:4; 5:5).

Perhaps on that very ground the two were chosen for the residence of the prophets. The motive which induced Elijah to ask Elisha to leave him has been variously explained. We cannot persuade ourselves that it was from humility, or else because he doubted whether the company of Elisha was in accordance with the will of God - since in either case he would not have yielded to the mere importunity of his disciple. As in analogous cases, we regard it rather (Ruth 1:8,11, 12; Luke 9:57-62; John 21:15-17), as a means of testing fidelity. There are occasions when all seems to indicate that modest and obedient retirement from the scene of prominent action and witness, perhaps even from the dangers that may be connected with it, is our duty. But he who would do work for the LORD must not stand afar off, but be determined and bold in taking his place, nor must he be deterred from abiding at his post by what may seem cross-Providences. Again, we cannot help feeling that the visit of Elijah to the schools of the prophets at Gilgal, Bethel, and Jericho, must have been intended as a test to them; while at the same time it was somehow connected with his approaching departure. This the sons of the prophets evidently perceived, in what manner we know not. But any formal leave-taking would seem entirely incongruous with Elijah's whole bearing - especially on that day; and it is inconsistent with the question to Elisha:" Knowest thou that Jehovah will take away thy master from thy head today?" The word "today" may, indeed, be taken in a more general sense, as equivalent to "at this time," * but even so the question would have had no meaning if Elijah had come to say "farewell."

At each of these places, when Elijah and Elisha left it in

company - in Gilgal, Bethel, and Jericho - the testing suggestion that Elisha should tarry behind, was repeated; on each occasion it was answered by the determined assertion that he would not leave his master. On each occasion also Elisha was met by the same question of those whose morbid curiosity, rather than intelligent interest, had been stirred, and on each he answered * in manner to show how little inward sympathy there was between him and those who would have intruded themselves into the sanctuary of his soul. At last fifty of their number followed to view afar off - not to see how the two would cross the Jordan, but to observe what should happen. It need scarcely be added that, as in all similar attempts to see the Divine, they could not succeed in their purpose.

And now the two had gone down the bank of the Jordan, and stood by the edge of its waters. Elijah took off his loose upper garment, the symbol of his prophetic office, and wrapping it together as if to make it a staff (comp. Exodus 14:16), smote with it the waters. And lo, as when the Ark of God had preceded Israel (Joshua 4:23), the waters divided, and they passed over dry shod. Surely there could not have been more apt teaching for Elisha and for all future times, that the power of wonder-working rested not with the prophet individually, but was attached to his office, of which this rough raiment was the badge. The same truth was conveyed by what passed on the other side. There the reward - or, perhaps we should rather say, the result of his spiritual perseverance awaited Elisha. But although Elijah asked him to say what he should do for him before their parting, it was not his to grant the request. No one would imagine that Elisha's entreaty for a double measure of his master's spirit was prompted by the desire that his ministry should greatly surpass that of Elijah, although even in that case it would not be warrantable to attribute such a wish to anything like ambition. "Earnestly covet the best gifts," is a sound and spiritual principle; and Elisha might, without any thought of himself, seek a double portion of his master's spirit, in view of the great work before him. But perhaps it may be safer, although we make no assertion on the point, to think here of the right of the firstborn, to whom the law assigned a twofold portion (Deuteronomy 21:17). In that case Elisha would, in asking a double portion of his spirit, have intended to entreat the right of succession. And with this the reply of Elijah accords. Elisha had asked a hard thing, which it was not in any man's power to grant. But Elijah could give him a sign by which to know whether God designated and would qualify him to be his successor. If he saw it all, when Elijah was taken from him, then - but only then - would it be as he had asked.

Viewing Elisha's request in that light, we can have no difficulty in understanding this reply. And in general, spiritual perception is ever the condition of spiritual work. We do not suppose that if all the fifty sons of the prophets, who had followed afar off, had gathered around, they would have perceived any of the circumstances attending the "taking away" of Elijah, any more than the prophet's servant at Dothan saw the heavenly hosts that surrounded and defended Elisha (2 Kings 6:14-17), till his eyes had been miraculously opened; or than the companions of St. Paul saw the Person or heard the words of Him Who arrested the apostle on the way to Damascus.

And as we think of it, there was special fitness in the sign given to Elisha. It is not stated anywhere in Holy Scripture that Elijah ascended in a fiery chariot to which fiery horses were attached - but that this miraculous manifestation parted between them two, as it were, enwrapping Elijah; and that the prophet went up in a storm-wind (2 Kings 2:11). The fiery chariot and the horses were the emblem of Jehovah of Hosts.* To behold this emblem was pledge of perceiving the manifestation of God, unseen by the world, and of being its herald and messenger, as Elijah had been. Beyond the fact that Elijah so went up to heaven, ** * and that the symbolic manifestation of Jehovah of Hosts was visible to Elisha - Holy Scripture does not tell us anything.

And it seems both wiser and more reverent not to speculate further on questions connected with the removal of Elijah, the place whither, and in what state he was "translated." If we put aside such inquiries, since we possess not the means of pursuing them to their conclusions - there is nothing in the simple Scriptural narrative, however miraculous, which transcends the general sphere of the miraculous, or that would mark this as so exceptional an instance that the ordinary principles for viewing the miracles of Scripture would not apply to it.

And Elisha saw it. As if to render doubt of its symbolic meaning impossible, the mantle, which was the prophet's badge, had fallen from Elijah, and was left as an heirloom to his successor. His first impulse was to give way to his natural feelings, caused alike by his bereavement and by veneration for his departed master, "My father, my father!" His next, to realize the great lesson of faith, that, though the prophet had departed, the prophet's God for ever remained: "The chariot of Israel, and the horsemen thereof!" We would suggest that the words, "And he saw him no more" (ver. 12), imply that he gave one upward look where Elijah had been parted from him, and where the fiery glow had now died out in the sky. Then, in token

of mourning, he rent his clothes in two pieces, that is, completely, from above downwards. But while thus lamenting the loss of his loved master, he immediately entered on the mission to which he had succeeded, and that with an energy of faith, combined with a reverent acknowledgment of the work of his predecessor, which ought for all time to serve as a lesson to the Church. Bereavement and sorrow should not make us forget, rather recall to us, that Jehovah our God liveth; regret and a sense of loss should not dull, rather quicken us for work, in the name of God. Nor yet should the feeling that we have a call to work, dim our remembrance of those who have gone before us. We are all only servants successively taking up and continuing the task of those who have passed into glory; but he is our Master, Whose is the work, and Who liveth and reigneth for ever.

And so Elisha took up the mantle that had fallen from Elijah. It was not a badge of distinction, but of work and of office. With this mantle he retraced his steps to the bank of Jordan. One upward glance: "Where is Jehovah, the God of Elijah - even He?" * spoken not in doubt nor hesitation, but, on the contrary, in assurance of his own commission from heaven, with all that it implied - and, as he smote the waters with the mantle of Elijah, they once more parted, and Elisha went over.

So shall the waters of difficulty, nay, the cold flood of death itself, part, if we smite in faith with the heaven-given garment; so shall the promise of God ever stand sure, and God be true to His Word; and so may we go forward undauntedly, though humbly and prayerfully, to whatever work He gives us to do.

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