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Devastation and deliverance.
Rejoicing in the spoils of a triumph we didn’t win but was given to us.
A version of this article originally appeared on 1517.
There are times when the narrative of Scripture puts other portions of Scripture to the test. The account spanning 2 Kings 6:24—7:20 is one such text, in which the veracity of “all things work together for good” is intensely scrutinized by a sordid sequence of events. Indeed, at first glance, it doesn’t seem possible, let alone probable, that anything “good” could ever come out of this situation. Romans 8:28 seems very much like a lie, like a “half-remembered dream.” You have no doubt endured similar times in your own life — times when the last thing you wanted to hear was some pat explanation that “all things work together for good” or “everything happens for a reason.” Those are needed words, at times, but they are definitely not always wanted. And I say that from experience. Life sometimes hurls circumstances at you where you’d have to be worse than foolish to call them “good.” That’s what 2 Kings 6 and 7 convey, in which the historian relays one of the darkest narratives in all of Scripture. But, even still, within these dark materials, there is a King whose power and glory and grace radiates with tremendous intensity.
It’s hard to know how much time has elapsed between 2 Kings 6:23 and 24. In one place, we’re told that the Syrian invaders “came no more into the land of Israel.” And then, immediately after that, we’re told about how the entire Syrian host “went up, and besieged Samaria.” So which is it? What’s the deal? Well, there really is no deal. Whereas we might be quick to assume there’s some underlying historical contradiction here, but that’s merely because these verses are sandwiched together. There shouldn’t be any issue in reading about an invasion suddenly called off only to then be restarted, especially when you consider the circumstances. A “great famine” has struck the land of Israel. Syria, naturally, seizes this golden opportunity to storm the gates of Samaria. And such is what they’ve accomplished, with the historian noting what this incursion has done to decimate Israel’s economy. “And there was a great famine in Samaria: and, behold, they besieged it, until an ass’s head was sold for fourscore pieces of silver, and the fourth part of a cab of dove’s dung for five pieces of silver” (2 Kings 6:25).
The historian’s inclusion of the price of a donkey’s head and “dove’s dung” underscores Israel’s utter financial ruin. (It’s not likely that there was a market for pigeon poop, though that’s certainly a reasonable translation. Most scholars believe, however, that “dove’s dung” was Israelite slang for detestable food.) “This is how bad things got,” the historian seems to say. This economic fact, then, becomes an editorial comment on Israel’s collective morale, which, as it happens, is at an all-time-low at this point. Not only are they coping with a devastating famine, now they’re dealing with the entire host of Syrian cavalry and foot-soldiers slowly putting a stranglehold on God’s chosen people. As death and despair, then, became an increasingly vivid reality for Israel, we’re shown the brutal consequences of God’s people surrendering to that fate. If you can believe it, Israel’s situation gets much worse:
And as the king of Israel was passing by upon the wall, there cried a woman unto him, saying, Help, my lord, O king. And he said, If the Lord do not help thee, whence shall I help thee? out of the barnfloor, or out of the winepress? And the king said unto her, What aileth thee? And she answered, This woman said unto me, Give thy son, that we may eat him to day, and we will eat my son to morrow. So we boiled my son, and did eat him: and I said unto her on the next day, Give thy son, that we may eat him: and she hath hid her son. And it came to pass, when the king heard the words of the woman, that he rent his clothes; and he passed by upon the wall, and the people looked, and, behold, he had sackcloth within upon his flesh. (2 Kings 6:26–30)
As Israel’s king is doing his rounds on the walls encircling Samaria proper, a woman approaches him, begging for help. At first, the king snaps back at the poor woman, condescendingly telling her that he has no help to give. But after cooling off a bit, he inquires about the cause of this woman’s intense weeping and wailing. She proceeds to share her story — a brutal tale about how she and a friend made a pact to boil and eat her son on Thursday and to do the same to the friend’s son on Friday. This, they decide, was the only way to get by. Only Friday came around and the friend’s son was nowhere to be found. He was sufficiently safeguarded from any pot of boiling water. The woman is, of course, distraught — not only over her friend’s betrayal but also over the fact that her only means of survival was to turn her boy into a meal. I don’t mean to be so morbid. But it’s almost unavoidable in this portion of Scripture. We are naturally revolted by such an account, even as our hearts go out to this despondent woman.
The woman finishes her story, leaving the king repulsed by the horrific testimony. The king channels his grief, rage, and despair, though, focusing it on one person: “Then he said, God do so and more also to me, if the head of Elisha the son of Shaphat shall stand on him this day” (2 Kings 6:31). Nothing was going to stop the king from exacting his vengeance on that blasted “man of God.” He surely had something to do with all of this. After all, why wasn’t he petitioning his Lord to do something about Israel’s miserable state? In the king’s eyes, Elisha’s apparent non-activity made him complicit in the atrocities now raining down on his own people.
But we ought to take note of the staggering contrast between the king and the prophet. Rather than pacing and panicking, like the rest of Israel might’ve been doing, Elisha and his elders are sitting (2 Kings 6:32). We aren’t told, but perhaps they’re praying or simply conversing. Either way, they’re certainly not despairing. Indeed, Elisha’s demeanor exudes a calm confidence. He informs his fellow prophetic students that a messenger of the king is barreling towards their residence as they speak, and that they should batten down the hatches. But before the door could be barred, the messenger barges in, relaying the king’s message. “And while he yet talked with them, behold, the messenger came down unto him: and he said, Behold, this evil is of the Lord; what should I wait for the Lord any longer?” (2 Kings 6:33). Israel’s devastation has reached a new low, as the king of Yahweh’s people has just explicitly blamed Yahweh himself for these diabolical days. And it’s worth pausing for a moment on this point.
The woman from earlier is, in a way, representative of Israel writ large. She, like God’s people, was leaderless, listless, lost, and well-nigh hopeless. So, too, is the king’s response indicative of Israel’s heart. His opposition to Elisha is symptomatic of Israel’s collective disregard for Yahweh himself. Indeed, Yahweh’s people had grown so blind, deaf, and unfeeling to the things of Yahweh that they had now come to view Yahweh as the perpetrator of their misery. The very One who had purposed and promised Israel untold blessing was now regarded as the epitome of the Evil One. As the worship of Yahweh became more and more an antediluvian idea, the Israelites opened themselves up to more and more judgment. As God’s Word fell out of favor, so did God’s people, as they blindly and willfully plunged into the very exploits the Lord had warned them of long ago (Lev. 26:27–29; Deut. 28:52–57; cf. Ezek. 5:10; Lam. 2:20; 4:10). Israel might’ve been quick to blame the Lord for their present crisis, but God hadn’t turned his back on them. They had turned their back on him.
And, can I just say, that that’s an atrocious albeit accurate parable of the United States, too. No, we haven’t resorted to “eating” our own children. We’re more civilized than that, by hair’s breadth. But we have turned a collective blind eye and deaf ear to the cries of our young. According to the National Right to Life Committee, over 62 million (!) babies have been aborted, a.k.a. murdered, since 1973. And yet, even still, there rings out loud cries of support among the masses for this wholesale massacre of our own kind. Furthermore, there are now sectors of this country in which parents are being informed that they don’t have a right or a say when it comes to their child’s gender confusion. According to The Daily Wire, a policy from the Washington state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) reads: “School staff should not disclose information that may reveal a student’s transgender status to others, including parents, unless legally required to do so or unless the student has authorized such disclosure.” Maybe I was wrong. Maybe we are eating our own.
These devastating developments are symptomatic of a larger disease. They are downstream of one thing: the unheeded Word of God. Like Israel, as God’s Word falls out of favor, so, too, do the people fall out of line. The truly devastating part of watching this country self-implode is that it does so all while stiff-arming the one and only solution and hope, the Word of Yahweh. Nothing good can ever follow a blatant rejection of the Word of God and the God of the Word. Except, of course, when God purposes to do so.
Elisha’s response to the messenger is phenomenal: “Then Elisha said, Hear ye the word of the Lord; Thus saith the Lord, To morrow about this time shall a measure of fine flour be sold for a shekel, and two measures of barley for a shekel, in the gate of Samaria” (2 Kings 7:1). According to the “man of God,” Israel’s economy will be in recovery within the next twenty-four hours, with the concomitant understanding that their enemies will, likewise, be in remission. All of this sounds more than a little preposterous. What’s been wrecked over the course of weeks (or months) cannot possible be recouped in a day’s time, that’s impossible! Such is what one captain blurts out. “Then a lord on whose hand the king leaned answered the man of God, and said, Behold, if the Lord would make windows in heaven, might this thing be?” (2 Kings 7:2). For the king’s “right-hand-man,” and surely others who were just afraid to vocalize it, any notion of success, let alone relief, was seen as an impossible feat, even for Yahweh. This opinion, though, earns nothing but a severe word of judgment from the prophet. “And he said, Behold, thou shalt see it with thine eyes, but shalt not eat thereof” (2 Kings 7:2).
The narrative then takes a sudden turn, shifting its focus to “four leprous men” just outside the gates of Samaria who are minding their own business and reasoning among themselves:
And there were four leprous men at the entering in of the gate: and they said one to another, Why sit we here until we die? If we say, We will enter into the city, then the famine is in the city, and we shall die there: and if we sit still here, we die also. Now therefore come, and let us fall unto the host of the Syrians: if they save us alive, we shall live; and if they kill us, we shall but die. And they rose up in the twilight, to go unto the camp of the Syrians . . . (2 Kings 7:3–5)
As these four guys discuss the latest headlines concerning the ongoing Syrian siege, they come to the startling realization that they are “dead men walking” no matter what. They can’t keep sitting there. They can’t go inside. The Syrians are out for blood. But at least they have food! So they decide to go to the Syrian camp and take their chances. But upon entering the barracks, much to their surprise, they found no one. “When they were come to the uttermost part of the camp of Syria, behold, there was no man there” (2 Kings 7:5). Not a soul. These four lepers, then, counted themselves among the luckiest men alive. And they started partying like it, drinking and eating to their heart’s content (2 Kings 7:8). But as they were stuffing their faces, they come to another startling realization: “Then they said one to another, We do not well: this day is a day of good tidings, and we hold our peace: if we tarry till the morning light, some mischief will come upon us: now therefore come, that we may go and tell the king's household” (2 Kings 7:9). They couldn’t bear the thought of hoarding these spoils for themselves knowing that a dozen yards away their countrymen were barely surviving. So they hasten back to the city gates to share their good news (2 Kings 7:10–11).
Eventually, the king is apprised of the situation. His response, though, is what any rational thinking person might deduce under the circumstances (2 Kings 7:12). Rather than rejoice in this happy development, he discerns that this is merely a ruse crafted by the Syrians, who are surely waiting to ambush them when the Israelites ventures upon the suspiciously empty encampment. The king’s dubiousness is perfectly legitimate. Such is when one of the royal servants chimes in, offering his own insight (2 Kings 7:13), the gist of which is, “What do we have to lose?” This prompts the king to dispatch two chariots to spy out the lay of the land and verify the lepers’ testimony. And what do you think they found?
They took therefore two chariot horses; and the king sent after the host of the Syrians, saying, Go and see. And they went after them unto Jordan: and, lo, all the way was full of garments and vessels, which the Syrians had cast away in their haste. And the messengers returned, and told the king. And the people went out, and spoiled the tents of the Syrians. So a measure of fine flour was sold for a shekel, and two measures of barley for a shekel, according to the word of the Lord. (2 Kings 7:14–16)
Everything was just as Elisha had said, “according to the word of the Lord.” And that’s just how the Lord works: when he delivers, he delivers completely, inviting others to share in that deliverance. These verses are, in a way, indicative of what the church does every Sunday. We gather as the people of God who’ve been made to share in the spoils of his Son’s victory — a triumph we didn’t win but was given to us. But just as not everyone is part of the church, not everyone is made to share in these spoils. Remember that faithless captain? (2 Kings 7:2). His wretched demise occurs just as the prophet forewarned it would. He witnesses the utter reversal of Israel’s fortunes but was unable to share in any of it (2 Kings 7:17–20). This is, indeed, a devastating denouement appended to a story of unimaginable deliverance. But such is the tragedy of a sinner’s non-acceptance of the greater victory wrought and won by God’s Son.
The crux of this entire narrative, though, is God’s jaw-dropping deliverance. The reason why those “four leprous men” found the camp empty was because Yahweh intervened. “For the Lord had made the host of the Syrians to hear a noise of chariots, and a noise of horses, even the noise of a great host: and they said one to another, Lo, the king of Israel hath hired against us the kings of the Hittites, and the kings of the Egyptians, to come upon us. Wherefore they arose and fled in the twilight, and left their tents, and their horses, and their asses, even the camp as it was, and fled for their life” (2 Kings 7:6–7). That image is so startling it’s comedic. An entire army of bloodthirsty war-weathered soldiers are caught running for their lives all because of “a noise.” It was the sound of their defeat. Such is the handiwork of the King of kings. Yahweh doesn’t need an army. He doesn’t require chariots or spears or swords or cavalry or nuclear power. He employs no flash, no fanfare, and nothing flamboyant in the total decimation of his enemies. Marvelously, his surefire victory is brought about by nothing but “a noise,” a word, a “still small voice.” These are Yahweh’s approved methods for revealing his might. This is how God’s deliverance works. “What is possible for God,” comments Iain Provan, “cannot be measured in terms of what is conceivable to mortals” (201).
By all accounts, Israel’s defeat was imminent. Anything resembling victory was nothing but a pipe dream. And then, suddenly, unbeknownst to the rest of Israel, save for a quartet of quarantined outcasts, the mere Word of the Lord had already prevailed. At just the right time — in the nick of time, as they say — the noise of the Lord’s deliverance sounded, allowing lowly Israel to triumph over her foes. Yahweh purposed to save his people not through manly might but “by a miracle,” as Jacques Ellul notes. “He will do it by the most ridiculous, empty, and illusory miracle, by a noise, a wind, an echo, by an illusion which makes a victorious army flee. This is an illustration of the fact that God chooses ‘things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are’ (1 Cor. 1:28)” (in Davis, 122). And, even more stupefying still, Yahweh purposed a gang of unknown, unnamed, unclean, insignificant outcasts to be the bearers of his good news. “This day is a day of good tidings,” they exclaim, as these lepers become the surprising couriers of a gospel.
Which begs the question: Is this the only example we have of an occurrence like this? Has there ever been another time when a group of news-bearers delivered a message of good news only to be met with scoffing and disbelief? For my own part, I can’t help but notice the parallels between the “four leprous men” and the company of women in Luke 24. The ladies who ventured out in the wee morning hours to the place where their Lord was buried were not anticipating to find anything out of the ordinary. Their thoughts were consumed with grief. Their Teacher and Healer and Master was dead. What they found, though, was more than unusual, it was unprecedented. The empty tomb left those women shellshocked, as they hastened back to tell the apostles and “all the rest” (Luke 24:9). But the apostles aren’t quite convinced. “Their words,” the Gospel says, “seemed to them as idle tales, and they believed them not” (Luke 24:11). The ladies’ testimony sounded like nonsense. The apostles had to see it for themselves. And what do you think they found? Everything was just as their late Teacher had said. It was all “according to the word of the Lord.”
Jesus’s defeat of sin and death is very much like his overthrow of the Syrians. It didn’t come with a flash. It wasn’t accompanied by fanfare. There was no flamboyance. In fact, on the face of it, it looked like failure. The world’s victory over sin was won by Heaven’s Prince who hung ingloriously on a cross. On the surface, this was not the emblem of victory the faithful of Israel longed for. But little did they know that all along “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself” (2 Cor. 5:19). After three days buried, the resurrected Savior King walked out of the grave barely causing a stir, barely making a noise, yet rising triumphant “once for all.” Through his own death, he destroyed “him that had the power of death” (Heb. 2:14). He strode out of that crypt trampling sin, death, and darkness under his feet. “This day is a day of good tidings.” Good tidings for you and for me and for a whole world full of sinners. The Word of the Lord is sure. The enemy is defeated. Salvation is waiting for you — salvation was purchased for you and won for you by the Almighty King of kings.
Jacques Ellul, quoted in Dale Ralph Davis, 2 Kings: The Power and the Fury (Ross-shire, England: Christian Focus, 2020).
Iain W. Provan, 1 and 2 Kings, New International Bible Commentary (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1995).