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A tale of two cities.
When the law has done its work of whittling us down, it’s time for the gospel to be unleashed to do its redeeming work.
A version of this article originally appeared on 1517.
One of the literary devices the historian of 1 and 2 Kings often employs is the inclusion of a jarring scene in which we’re confronted with the severity of Yahweh’s Word and the gravity of rejecting it. For instance, there are two occasions in 1 Kings in which lions are utilized by Yahweh to execute judgment upon those who disregard his authority (1 Kings 13:23–28; 20:35–36). Both instances appear to be sudden interjections of severe judgment for seemingly harmless grievances. Upon further consideration, however, both cases are revealed to be consistent with the Word of the Lord, with both serving to magnify the attention it deserves and the authority it holds. There is, perhaps, no better specimen of this than the closing episode of 2 Kings 2, in which we find a newly minted prophet calling down a curse on a gang of juvenile delinquents, resulting in a large number of them getting ambushed and ripped to shreds by two momma bears (2 Kings 2:24). We’re right to be unnerved by such texts. If we aren’t, there might be something wrong with us. But for however disturbing this vignette is, its fundamental truth is one which preaches God’s Word to us. Yes, even this disconcerting scene proclaims to us the whole “counsel of God” (Acts 20:27).
The beginning portion of 2 Kings 2 is predominantly concerned with Elisha’s succession of Elijah as Yahweh’s prophetic voice. (I have been greatly helped with some of these insights by the article, “Chariots, Whirlwinds and Jesus,” from Knighton Evangelical Free Church minister, Graham Beynon.) His taking up of “the mantle of Elijah” was an event which was both literal and symbolic, with Elisha donning the robe of his raptured master and thereby assuming the office as God’s messenger to God’s chosen people (2 Kings 2:13–14). Even though the esteemed Elijah had been snatched out of Israel’s midst, the Lord God of Elijah had not departed (2 Kings 2:11, 15). Yahweh was, indeed, still there, still present, still actively filling the mouth of his prophet Elisha with his Spirit, in order that his work in and for and with his people might continue. And so it does in the most extraordinary way.
Elisha, we are told, is abiding at Jericho (2 Kings 2:18) when a group of men approach him with a most pressing concern: “And the men of the city said unto Elisha, Behold, I pray thee, the situation of this city is pleasant, as my lord seeth: but the water is naught, and the ground barren” (2 Kings 2:19). In the eyes of the men, Jericho’s current predicament didn’t add up. The city’s “situation,” literally its location, was ideal, with an abundant water supply flowing nearby and soil that ought to have been ripe for harvesting for generations to come. Jericho, you see, was situated in the fertile Jordan Valley and owed its rich oasis environment to its nearness to a spring. Jericho should have been a prosperous, industrious metropolis — and, indeed, it was for many centuries prior, sometimes being referred to as the “City of Palms.” But something was amiss here. The water supply in Jericho had grown miserably bitter, offering its inhabitants and their livestock neither nourishment or refreshment. This obviously constituted a crisis for the people of Jericho. The “pleasant” real estate of Jericho didn’t ultimately matter. Without the most basic resource to sustain and cultivate life, the urban sprawl of that city would quickly become a ghost town.
The men of Jericho indicate that the ground is “barren,” which is a Hebrew word translated elsewhere in the Old Testament as “childless.” According to these men, the dirt upon which Jericho was founded was not only fallow, bringing about a scarce supply of rations and incapacitating an entire economy, but was also causing the mothers of Jericho to miscarry. The soil and the citizens were barren, with both fields and households feeling the exasperating effects of unfruitfulness, bringing the city to its knees. Therefore, the men approach Elisha, hoping against hope that something could be done to save their city now that a bona fide miracle worker was in their midst (2 Kings 2:13–15).
When told of their predicament, though, Elisha makes an odd request, insisting that a new bowl be filled with salt and brought to him (2 Kings 2:20). I imagine the men of Jericho smirking at the plainness of the requested elements. “What’s a bowl of salt gonna do?” I also imagine some of those men, perplexed by the prophet’s peculiar assignment, murmuring among themselves as they departed to do his bidding. Salt, as you well know, serves as an element which preserves and/or purifies other substances. There are references throughout the Old Testament which prescribe its use and application (Lev. 2:13; Num. 18:19; Ezek. 43:24). However, if you were looking to jump-start an agrarian society, adding salt to the water supply would be an inefficient start, to say the last, since the vast majority of crops can’t be irrigated with salt water. This solution, therefore, must have sounded more than a little unproductive. In fact, it likely seemed downright impossible.
Nevertheless, the requested bowl of salt is brought to Elisha and he promptly departs to find the fountainhead of Jericho’s spring. Once located, he hurls the salt in the spring and, remarkably, the waters are healed. “And he went forth unto the spring of the waters, and cast the salt in there, and said, Thus saith the Lord, I have healed these waters; there shall not be from thence any more death or barren land. So the waters were healed unto this day, according to the saying of Elisha which he spake” (2 Kings 2:21–22). At once, Jericho’s waters are fully and immediately restored. No more arid farmlands. No more childless homes. The cursed city was now healed.
Following the miracle of the purified waters, Elisha makes his way to the city of Bethel. Along the way, a group of youths come “out of the city” with the express purpose of mocking him. This they do, heckling the prophet with the words, “Go up, thou bald head; go up, thou bald head” (2 Kings 2:23). These taunts are enough to get Elisha’s attention, such that he turns and glares at them, cursing them “in the name of the Lord.” At which point, the historian says, “therefore came forth two she bears out of the wood, and tare forty and two children of them” (2 Kings 2:24). A massacre occurs on the road to Bethel, with the bodies of young people strewn all over the pavement. It’s not a pretty sight; certainly not one we’d like to contemplate. And, on the surface, it presents us with a number of difficult ethical questions which appear to have no answer. How should we make sense of this she-bear-bloodbath?
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of this episode is the fact that we’re told that Elisha’s mockers are “little children.” This immediately brings to mind kindergarteners (at least, that’s where my mind goes). Imagining a man of God getting so irate at a group of kindergarteners that he promptly curses them and leaves their fate to be decided by two grizzly bears doesn’t sound pleasant at all. But this is where our English translations of the Bible do us a disservice. The word for “children” in this narrative isn’t necessarily indicative of toddlers, especially considering it’s the same Hebrew word that’s used for the twelve spies that infiltrate Jericho during the Israelite siege of that city (Josh. 6:23). As hard as it is to imagine 5-year-olds acting as spies and finding refuge in the house of a prostitute, so, too, I think, is it unwarranted to imagine Elisha cursing 5-year-olds to be mauled to death. In all likelihood, this mob of mockers were teenagers, adolescents who were, indeed, up to no good. (Whether or not that makes this story more palatable, I’m not sure.)
Furthermore, though, we ought to remember the size of this group that ridiculed the Lord’s prophet. As we’re told in verse 24, forty-two of them are mutilated by the bears, which I understand to be only part of a larger group. This wasn’t a handful of little rascals. This was a host of assembled youths whose entire objective was derision.
That, you see, is another key aspect to understanding this episode. This mass of juvenile delinquents come “out of the city” for the sole purpose of ridiculing a man of God. They didn’t just happen to see a prophet “by the way.” They spied him out and hounded him maliciously. This was a calculated mob who marched to an antagonistic beat because of the mere presence of a man of God. And their malevolence wasn’t just that they mocked Elisha’s shiny head. This insult was more hostile and hateful than merely poking fun at the prophet’s appearance. These youths were, in fact, not only ridiculing Elisha but also, more egregiously, they were ridiculing Elisha’s God. We might render their words, “You say Elijah ‘went up,’ why don’t you go join him? ‘Go up’ and get outta here, baldy!” Their scorn wasn’t withheld, neither was their venom. They respected neither Elisha or the God he represented. Which, effectively, was the nail in the coffin for these hooligans.
All of which to say, if you find fault with this scene, I suggest you take up the matter with God himself, since he’s the One who allowed it. And I don’t mean that to be coy or dismissive. When Elisha turns around to speaks words of judgment upon them, he does so according to the Word of the Lord. As the text says, he “cursed them in the name of the Lord,” with the curse promptly being fulfilled by two momma bears (2 Kings 2:24). If this episode of horrific judgment wasn’t authorized by Yahweh, it wouldn’t have occurred. Accordingly, we must remember that this tragedy — and it is, indeed, tragic — was divinely sanctioned, being the obligatory penalty for the degradation and disdain showed for Yahweh himself. Such is the true travesty of this scene. The youths that mock Elisha are representative of Israel’s collective contempt and disregard for all things relating to their One True God. Elisha, as the Lord’s prophet, was a stand-in for the Lord himself. He was Yahweh’s representative and spokesman, and was, therefore, due the honor deserving of such an office. By disparaging Elisha, these young people had disparaged Yahweh. Consequently, while it at first appears as though the punishment far out-weighs the crime, this judgment befits the gross apostasy of the city of Bethel and its inhabitants. And such is how we are to understand these two scenes.
It’s not by accident that healing came to Jericho. It’s also not by accident that devastation came upon Bethel. Indeed, to understand this narrative, I think we ought to understand it as an Old Testament “tale of two cities.” Jericho, you recall, was a cursed city. Centuries prior to our text, in the aftermath of the Israelites’ siege of Jericho, Joshua announces a curse on anyone who would attempt to rebuild its walls. “And Joshua adjured them at that time, saying, Cursed be the man before the Lord, that riseth up and buildeth this city Jericho: he shall lay the foundation thereof in his firstborn, and in his youngest son shall he set up the gates of it” (Josh. 6:26). These, to be sure, are not empty threats. We have historical record of this curse coming to full effect in the days of Ahab. “In his days,” writes the historian, “did Hiel the Bethelite build Jericho: he laid the foundation thereof in Abiram his firstborn, and set up the gates thereof in his youngest son Segub, according to the word of the Lord, which he spake by Joshua the son of Nun” (1 Kings 16:34). At the cost of two of his sons, Hiel, who hailed from Bethel, of all places, reconstructed the cursed walls of Jericho, thereby exhibiting Israel’s sheer disregard for Yahweh’s Word.
By way of contrast, recall the city of Bethel. Bethel was a site brimming with Israelite history and lore, with ties to such storied Hebrew patriarchs as Abraham (Gen. 12:8; 13:3) and Jacob (Gen. 28:19; 31:13; 35:1–16). Its importance to the people of Israel cannot be overstated, with its name literally meaning “house of God.” All of which serves to heighten the appalling decline of this city, which was nowhere more glaringly seen than in Jeroboam’s installation of his infamous golden calves (1 Kings 12:28–33). The place where God worked so marvelously and should’ve reigned so freely was now the seat of rampant rebellion and paganism and idolatry. Therefore, through his prophet Elisha, Yahweh showcases the awesome authority of his sovereign Word. “At Jericho, the city of the curse,” A. W. Pink writes, “he is an instrument of blessing; at Bethel, which signifies ‘the house of God’ and where blessing might therefore be expected, he solemnly pronounces a curse upon those who mock him” (46). And now I trust you see the point: the cursed location receives God’s healing and the blessed location receives God’s judgment.
The prophet Elisha was in every way the stand-in for Yahweh himself, whose lips declared authoritatively the words of his Lord — words which could heal or kill; save or condemn. The tale of these two cities, you see, brings to bear the fullness of Yahweh’s Word, the Scriptures, which are none other than the Holy-Spirit-inspired revelation of who Yahweh most truly is. God’s Word is a testimony of his heart, revealing the depths of his divine nature. And what do we find throughout? We find words of cursing and words of blessing. Words of severity and words of goodness. Words of judgment and words of grace. In short, we find both law and gospel.
I don’t think it’s too reductive to say that the entire scriptural record could be boiled down to those two words, law and gospel. Throughout God’s Word, we are confronted with God’s word of law, which brings to our attention God’s holy demand, which we all fall short of (Rom. 3:9–12, 23). Over and over again, the heavenly standard is declared in our ears that we might realize the bald truth that there’s no skirting around the righteous requirements of our Heavenly Father. You and I cannot avoid the holy stipulations of God’s word of law. Indeed, as the apostle James suggests, to attempt to do so is akin to a person looking at their reflection in a mirror and then promptly goes their way without adjusting anything, forgetting “what manner of man he was” (James 1:22–25). If you, today, have read the Bible and sat under the preaching of God’s Word and are, nevertheless, still sitting in indifference, rejection, or even unbelief, you’re like the juveniles of our story, who openly and unashamedly mock God’s truth. And to such, I am obliged to say, a fate worse than being torn apart by a bear awaits — that is, a fate of eternal fire (Matt. 13:40–43; 25:46; Rev. 20:15; 21:8).
The severity of those words ought to bring us to our knees. Such, indeed, is their intended effect. We ought to shudder at the gravity of rejecting God’s word of law. We are right to tremble at such strict and unapologetic holiness. Instead of ridiculing such words and going our merry way, the law is meant to drive us to the point where we’re forced to confess that we do indeed need a Savior. As the apostle Paul exclaims, “O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?” (Rom. 7:24). Such is the objective of God’s law, which is exactly when Yahweh’s other word, his word of gospel, pierces our despairing darkness. What was Paul’s solution to his desperate cry for a Savior? “I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 7:25).
When the law has done its work of whittling us down, it’s time for the gospel to be unleashed to do its redeeming work. And only when we’ve been properly crushed by the weight of God’s demands are we ready to receive by faith God’s deliverance. Such is what the prophet Elisha signifies. Through him, the almighty saving power of Yahweh would be evinced. Indeed, most truly, therefore, does Elisha live up to his namesake, witnessing to the world the fact that with Yahweh is salvation. And it starts right here with the city and people of Jericho. Elisha, you see, embodies the gospel for these barren and beaten-down citizens, bringing the hope of God’s healing to those rightly cursed and condemned. It’s not that this city didn’t deserve the ill-effects it was now experiencing, but that now, through Elisha, they were privy to something entirely undeserved, which is the very definition of grace. “The city under a curse now receives a blessing of grace,” comments Dale Ralph Davis. “The place where Yahweh inflicted his destructive word now enjoys his healing word” (36).
The cursed city witnesses a miracle of divine healing, which, I think, is just another indication that God has a special affinity for breaking curses (Gal. 3:13; Gen. 3:15). Just as Jericho’s curse was no match for Yahweh’s word of healing, neither is mankind’s sin any match for Yahweh’s word of salvation. “No sinner can be too guilty to be pardoned,” declares Stephen Tyng. “No man can have fallen to a depth which is beyond the reach of Almighty grace” (363). Yes, indeed, God is a righteous judge (Ps. 7:11) who never compromises one degree of his holiness. But, by the same token, it is his truest delight to give grace to those don’t deserve it. The inexhaustible glory of our Heavenly Father is seen nowhere better than when he brings life and healing to our dead bones. The barren wastelands of our sin and strife are transformed into gardens abounding with beauty and blessedness, all because of the Lord’s healing gospel (Isa. 35:1–10).
My friends, this tale of two cities tells us about the law of she-bears and a gospel of salt. It reminds us of the severe consequences for turning a blind eye and deaf ear to God’s Word, which invites the severest of punishments to be brought down on us. Likewise, though, this narrative announces to us the marvelous words of healing that are contained in God’s gospel. It delcares God’s patient mercy to us, the depths of which we’ll never be able to fathom. No matter how dark the age, God’s purposes persist, surprising us, showing us that he indeed is “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Exod. 34:6–7; Num. 14:18; Neh. 9:17; Ps. 86:15; 103:8; 145:8; Joel 2:13; Nah. 1:3). And such is the counsel of God’s Word for you and for me, today and everyday, which tells us of the stringent penalties that await the world in eternity and of the abundant mercies that are new for us every morning.
Dale Ralph Davis, 2 Kings: The Power and the Fury (Ross-shire, England: Christian Focus, 2020).
A. W. Pink, Gleanings from Elisha: His Life and Miracles (Chicago: Moody, 1972).
Stephen Tyng, Lectures on the Law and the Gospel (New York: Robert Carter & Bros., 1849).