A version of this article originally appeared on 1517.
In 2 Kings 3, the historian returns to form, so to speak, opening this particular narrative by relaying the chronological and political situations of Israel and Judah. Ahab is dead, as is his son, Ahaziah, having succumbed to the infection he suffered after falling out of his palace window (2 Kings 1:2, 17). And because he had no heir, Ahaziah’s brother, Jehoram, ascends to Israel’s throne, he being another son from the ill-fated union of Ahab and Jezebel. Because his mommy and daddy were who they were, you likely already have a well-formed opinion on how Jehoram’s reign might go, which is mostly true, but not entirely. The historian informs us that he continued Israel’s downward trajectory into evil, “but not like his father, and like his mother” (2 Kings 3:2). Jehoram’s vileness would be different, as he’s seen tearing down the idols of Baal his father had erected, which, at first, might make us think that he’s actually on the upward path — that reform is finally on its way to Israel. But such hopes are deflated with the historian’s next remark: “Nevertheless he cleaved unto the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, which made Israel to sin; he departed not therefrom” (2 Kings 3:3).
Any notion that Jehoram’s leadership would prove advantageous for Israel’s spiritual well-being are dashed in a flash. We might summarize the historian’s comments by saying that while Jehoram wasn’t as bad as he might’ve been, he still wasn’t as good as he should’ve been either. He was by no means a virtuous king, least of all righteous. Indeed, although his perversion was “different” than his parents’, his résumé was still marred with the blight of “cleaving” to the trademark scourge of Israel’s post-Solomon monarchs, i.e., “the sins of Jeroboam.”1 Baal might’ve been “put away,” but he was merely replaced with another image, another idol. A different form of paganism is still paganism. A different idol is still idolatry. Yahweh was still relegated to the sidelines of Israelite life and culture. And the Davidic standard was still left to mold and rot in the gutters of the soul of Israel.
Nevertheless, with Ahab out of the picture, Mesha the king of Moab determines the time is right for the Moabites to be a free people (2 Kings 3:4–5). Moab, you see, was a feudal district that had been under Israelite control since the days of King David (2 Sam. 8:2). But after generations of paying homage and tribute to kings for whom they harbored no loyalty, the Moabites decide to revolt against the transitioning Israelite government and win their independence. This, of course, sends Jehoram for a loop. He certainly didn’t want to be viewed as a weak ruler, nor did he want to be remembered as the monarch who lost control of Moab, not under his watch. Notice, though, his first resort when news of this revolution came to his ear: “And king Jehoram went out of Samaria the same time, and numbered all Israel” (2 Kings 3:6). Instead of seeking counsel with Israel’s One True God, Israel’s king scurries about counting all of Israel’s men. His recourse in this crisis was to conduct a military censure, to see if sheer numbers would win the day — which, much to his dismay, perhaps, he found out that his numbers wouldn’t be sufficient. Such is why he urges an old “friend” of his late father, Jehoshaphat king of Judah, to go into battle with him against his revolutionaries (2 Kings 3:7).
Jehoshaphat, you might remember, is the same Judean king who previously rushed into an ill-advised war with King Ahab and the Syrians (1 Kings 22). Here, he is seen repeating nearly the same gullible pattern, aligning himself with one of Ahab’s sons (2 Kings 3:7; cf. 1 Kings 22:4). This, in my mind, solidifies the idea that despite how well-intentioned he was, Jehoshaphat was a king who couldn’t get out of his own way. For all of his upstanding accomplishments, he was never more than an arm’s-length away from wicked leaders, the likes of which he should’ve distanced himself. His kingly career is, therefore, riddled with some good counsel but even more pitiful choices. He’s sort of a sympathetic character, in that way. But, as we’ll see shortly, naïve Jehoshaphat turns out to be the most crucial figure in this entire narrative.
It’s determined that this Judean-Israelite confederation will take an indirect route on their way to Moab, approaching that region from the south by passing through “the wilderness of Edom,” around the southern shoreline of the Dead Sea (2 Kings 3:8). There are, perhaps, a number of reasons for marching the long way. Traversing through Edom allowed for an opportunity to add some Edomite soldiers to the ranks (what with Edom being a district under Judean rule). Another reason, and perhaps the most likely one, was that the southern border of Moab wasn’t as well defended, making it more vulnerable to attack. But as tactical as that might’ve been, it wasn’t very practical, with the three armies soon seeing their water supply completely dry up (2 Kings 3:9). This devastates Jehoram, who sees this latest development as a sure sign of God’s judgment, as the direct activity of Yahweh against he and his allies. “Alas!” he cries, “that the Lord hath called these three kings together, to deliver them into the hand of Moab!” (2 Kings 3:10). His complaint rings all too familiar, doesn’t it? God often gets the blame for the tragedies that comprise our days. But while we’re always quick to hold God responsible for the troubles of the moment, we’re rarely (if ever) as quick to give him the credit for our blessings. When pundits analyze our present upheaval, the question of why God would allow such travesties to occur is often put forward. This inquiry is seen as very reasonable and even rational. But it’s funny (in the agonizing sense) how those same inquirers who never darken the doors of a church or read a page of the Bible still expect and assume God will come through for them.
Jehoshaphat, though, comes through with a healthy dose of wisdom. “Is there not here a prophet of the Lord,” he asks, “that we may enquire of the Lord by him?” (2 Kings 3:11; cf. 1 Kings 22:7). If Yahweh’s going to get the blame, he should at least be consulted first. “We should at least ask him what the deal is before jumping to conclusions,” we might render Jehoshaphat’s words. Such is when one of Jehoram’s servants chimes in, reminding them all that there was still a prophetic representative of Yahweh in their midst, Elisha, son of Shaphat. It’s worth noting who the historian credits for this reminder — specifically, “one of the king of Israel’s servants.” This, I do believe, was a modest slight at Israel’s king, exposing just how unheeding and unmindful of Israel’s God he was. Jehoshaphat, however, was apparently well aware of Elisha and the authenticity and authority of his prophetic ministry (2 Kings 3:12). The three kings, then, make haste to consult the prophet. But upon getting an audience with him, they are greeted with the most unexpected welcome:
And Elisha said unto the king of Israel, What have I to do with thee? get thee to the prophets of thy father, and to the prophets of thy mother. And the king of Israel said unto him, Nay: for the Lord hath called these three kings together, to deliver them into the hand of Moab. And Elisha said, As the Lord of hosts liveth, before whom I stand, surely, were it not that I regard the presence of Jehoshaphat the king of Judah, I would not look toward thee, nor see thee. But now bring me a minstrel. And it came to pass, when the minstrel played, that the hand of the Lord came upon him. (2 Kings 3:13–15)
Elisha’s sarcastic reception surely threw them off guard. “Why are you here?” he asks. “Why this sudden interest in what Yahweh has to say?” You get the sense that Elisha resents Yahweh’s Word being regarded as nothing more than a fire extinguisher, the sole purpose of which is to be used in emergency situations. Jehoram’s parentage was suffused with paganism and idolatry. His entire life has had nothing to do with Yahweh — so why should Yahweh have anything to do with him? Such coarse rhetoric seems improper when coming from one who represents the Lord of all things, who desires that none should perish (2 Pet. 3:9). But such is the supreme significance God’s Word ought to have on our lives. The Word of Yahweh is not a trifling thing that can be visited only when it’s convenient. Neither is it a book of purely cataclysmic comfort. It’s not a book of divine fire insurance. It’s a book of life, for all of life, that imparts life to those who believe in it and the God of it.
The shock of such sentiments likely rendered everyone in earshot speechless. Especially considering Elisha’s terse remarks went even further, suggesting that the only reason he had any patience at all for the likes of Jehoram was because of the company he kept. “Were it not that I regard the presence of Jehoshaphat the king of Judah,” the prophet declares, “I would not look toward thee, nor see thee” (2 Kings 3:14). (Insert an awkward glance between Jehoram and Jehoshaphat, here.) The three dumbfounded kings were, then, even more perplexed when Elisha summoned “a minstrel” to come and play for him (2 Kings 3:15). “We don’t have time for a concert, man!” they surely protested. “Don’t you know what’s going on out there? We gotta revolution on our hands!” To be sure, the prophet’s request seems wholly out-of-place. Why is he sending for a musician in a war-room? For however bizarre this bidding sounded, though, Elisha was demonstrating exactly what it meant to live “according to the word of the Lord.” By calling for a minstrel to come and play, he bore witness to the fact the worship of Yahweh comes before anything and everything else, even calamity. It’s reminiscent of the psalmist’s priority in Psalm 46, when he sings, “Be still, and know that I am God” (Ps. 46:10). That is a truth worthy of our praise, not just in disastrous situations but in all of life.
During the worship, “the hand of the Lord” came upon Elisha. When the music ceased, he delivered Yahweh’s words to the three kings. “Make this valley full of ditches,” he declared (2 Kings 3:16). And we are obliged to pause in order that we might make sense of this befuddling command. Remember the jam in which these armies find themselves: they have no water. They’re marching towards certain conflict with the bloodthirsty revolutionaries of Moab, but the successful defense of their domain is all but squandered because their water supply had evaporated. Which just goes to show that all the might and mechanisms of man can be foiled with the move of a pinky finger, if God so chooses.
To these perplexed kings and parched soldiers, the prophet’s word is, “Dig.” A heavy dose of frustration no doubt descended on that chamber. It didn’t make sense that the solution to the soldiers’ dehydration would be a valley full of ditches. And, what’s more, it definitely didn’t make sense for those same exhausted soldiers to expend more energy staying up all night digging those ditches. This prophecy defied reason and logic. And as if that weren’t enough, Elisha augments their bewilderment with even more head-scratching words: “Ye shall not see wind, neither shall ye see rain; yet that valley shall be filled with water” (2 Kings 3:17). The trench digging would commence without any accompanying sign that rain would actually come. It’d be one thing if Elisha’s words were uttered under grey skies with thunderclouds on the horizon. But I imagine this scene occurring under clear, blue skies, with nary a cloud in sight. The three kings likely gave each other blank stares at the absurdity of the prophet’s words. Elisha’s sayings, however, were certain and steadfast — precisely because they came they came from Yahweh alone. To these desperate kings, the prophet’s words must’ve sounded too good to be true, promising them refreshment and guaranteeing their victory.
For thus saith the Lord, Ye shall not see wind, neither shall ye see rain; yet that valley shall be filled with water, that ye may drink, both ye, and your cattle, and your beasts. And this is but a light thing in the sight of the Lord: he will deliver the Moabites also into your hand. And ye shall smite every fenced city, and every choice city, and shall fell every good tree, and stop all wells of water, and mar every good piece of land with stones. (2 Kings 3:17–19)
A dire need of water? That’s a walk in the park for the One True God. “That’s a piece of cake for Yahweh,” we might translate Elisha’s words. “In fact,” he continues, “Yahweh’s gonna throw in sweeping success over your enemies just for good measure.” “He will deliver the Moabites also into your hand” — as if his people’s triumph in battle was merely the icing on a miraculous cake. All of which, I think, gives us a glimpse of the extent of Yahweh’s omnipotence. No one else in the universe can claim that quality.2 Yahweh’s power is both unlimited and unrivaled. Ours is a God whose might cannot be measured or quantified. Any human estimation of his ability and authority doesn’t go far enough. Our appraisal of Yahweh’s sovereignty is infinitesimally small. No crisis is bigger than the omnipotence of God.3 He can quench the thirst of three full armies just as easily as he can guarantee their landslide victory in battle. He can forgive a man of a lifetime of sin just as easily as he can say “Get up and walk” to a man paralyzed from birth (Mark 2:3–12). Such is the gracious omnipotence of our Heavenly Father, who wields his all-mighty power on behalf of his people. And to think that even a king as reprehensible as Jehoram is made to benefit in his cause, all because of who stood with him.
The troops, apparently, went about without delay to fulfill Elisha’s command, since we’re informed that the entire “country was filled with water” as soon as the next morning (2 Kings 3:20). The valley was flooded by an unforeseen rainstorm, which left no visual indications that rain had actually fallen. News, then, comes to Mesha’s ear that Israel is marching on Moab from the south. He mobilizes his forces to stand at the ready to meet the descending armies at the border (2 Kings 3:21). Upon coming to the valley where the three kings were stationed, however, it’s immediately noticed that the whole field was flooded with what appears to be blood. “This is blood,” Mesha proclaims, “the kings are surely slain, and they have smitten one another: now therefore, Moab, to the spoil” (2 Kings 3:22–23). As the sun rose that morning, its rays colored the entire valley in a blood-red hue, which gave Mesha and his hoard reason to believe that the three king confederation was now defunct. Perhaps they had devolved into political squabbles, which then escalated into outright bloodshed. Nevertheless, Mesha and his cronies assume the worst luck had befallen their enemies and the best luck had befallen them. “Moab, to the spoil!”
Yet, what do the Moabite revolutionaries find when they descend upon the Israelite encampment? They find Israel and their allies very much alive and very much ready for war:
And when they came to the camp of Israel, the Israelites rose up and smote the Moabites, so that they fled before them: but they went forward smiting the Moabites, even in their country. And they beat down the cities, and on every good piece of land cast every man his stone, and filled it; and they stopped all the wells of water, and felled all the good trees: only in Kirharaseth left they the stones thereof; howbeit the slingers went about it, and smote it. (2 Kings 3:24–25)
The Moabites are entirely taken by surprise. Instead of finding the Judean-Israelite-Edomite coalition licking their wounds after a night of incivility and insubordination, they’re found fully equipped and ready for war. They derail the insurgent Moabite forces, pushing through their line of defense and pursuing the retreating revolutionaries deep into the heart of their own country. As the three armies ransack the Moabite countryside, Mesha attempts to mount a counter-attack with 700 of his best swordsmen. But that plan falls short, too (2 Kings 3:26). With all hope seemingly lost, the king of Edom flees behind the walls of his citadel and, in a last ditch effort to curry favor from his god, Chemosh, he sacrifices his eldest son “as a burnt offering upon the wall” (2 Kings 3:27). This grotesque sight was enough to discourage further assault from the three armies, as the horrific spectacle of public child sacrifice stirs up “great indignation against Israel,” causing each king to disperse “to their own land.” So ends the Moabite uprising.
What, though, are we to take away from such a narrative? A few things stick out to me. First, Yahweh gives you a book for everyday life. This point was hinted at earlier in the narrative, but it bears repeating: God’s Word isn’t merely a book for dire circumstances. Yahweh has preserved his Word for us not so that we can pull it out in a crisis only to put it back on the shelf when the crisis is over. Rather, he gave us his Word for us to live by. His words are our lifeline and our delight (Ps. 1:2; 119:16, 24, 47, 70, 77, 92, 143, 174). Segregating the Word into its cob-webbed-cubby as we attempt to maintain our “well-ordered lives” isn’t what it means to be Christian. Indeed, rather, the truth of God’s Word is meant to saturate and permeate our everyday lives.
Second, Yahweh gives you a faith without sight. The soldiers were instructed to dig without any evidence or confirmation that their efforts would prove worthwhile (2 Kings 3:16–17). Likewise, you and I are encouraged to believe in the true hope of the Word of God without any other evidence than the Word itself. That’s what faith is, you know: it’s taking Yahweh at his sheer word, apart from any corroborating proofs or signs or logical reasonings. To be sure, we often imagine our faith would be better, truer, or stronger if there was some accompanying sign. But Jesus’s words to Thomas are words which ought to encourage us: “Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed” (John 20:29). And, truth be told, you’ve already been given the truest and best sign God could ever give: Jesus himself. Jesus, God’s own Son, is all the evidence you’ll ever need that God the Father isn’t aloof or indifferent or uncaring. Rather, he stands for you.
Accordingly, it’s of utmost importance, though, that you notice, thirdly, that Yahweh gives you a truer companion than any brother. “A man that hath friends must shew himself friendly,” King Solomon writes, “and there is a friend that sticketh closer than a brother” (Prov. 18:24). In a very real sense, that’s exactly what Jehoram found in Jehoshaphat. The brother who, perhaps, inadvisedly stuck close to him eventually stood as the channel through which sustenance and deliverance was gifted to him. Jehoram became the recipient of a blessed prophecy because (and only because) Jehoshaphat stood with him. If Jehoshaphat hadn’t accompanied him before Elisha, Jehoram would’ve been “dead meat.” But because of his friend’s presence, not only were the needs of his soldiers met but also the success of their endeavor was guaranteed. And isn’t that just like our relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ? He’s the One who stands beside wrecks and wretches like you and me in order to secure their victory. So notes Dale Ralph Davis:
If you receive any benefit from God it is because you stand next to the Davidic king — Jesus, the descendant of David and Jehoshaphat. You are in exactly the same position as Jehoram. You don’t deserve heaven’s crumbs but receive massive mercies only because Jesus, the David king, stands beside you.4
On our own, you and I are no better off than Jehoram before Elisha. We stand before God the Father as dead meat, “condemned already” because of our sin (John 3:18). At the desk of Heaven’s Judge, we have nothing to offer. Our vile works are known and accounted for by the All-Wise Judge (Rev. 20:12), who judges us accordingly. By rights, God should not “look toward us, nor see us.” Our loathsome unrighteousness deserves nothing of the Lord’s favor — not even the most the minuscule scrap of mercy. We, like Jehoram, are born into sin and condemnation, and there’s nothing we can do about that. We deserve to be turned away. And yet, what does the gospel say? It announces that there’s a truer and better Friend than Jehoshaphat who stands beside you, and his name is Jesus. He’s a Friend who longs for you and your soul’s salvation. His faithful companionship is powerful enough to win your pardon, your freedom, your righteousness, your all. He doesn’t have to accompany you before the judgment seat. He does so because he loves you. How dreadful will that scene be for those who spurn the presence of this Heavenly Friend? However, those who receive by faith the redemptive presence of the Lord Jesus are those who are seen standing in victory when the end comes (Isa. 44:22; Zech. 3:1–5; Rev. 7:14) — precisely because they are the recipients of a victory given to them.
There’s a beloved hymn that’s often sung in churches which extols this incomprehensible victory that’s is given to those who decidedly don’t deserve it. The refrain goes like this:
Oh, victory in Jesus, my Savior forever
He sought me and bought me with His redeeming blood
He loved me ’ere I knew Him and all my love is due Him
He plunged me to victory beneath the cleansing flood5
My friends, you and I can sing that song because of the One who stood with you and beside you, never leaving your side, all the way to the cross. The only question that remains, then, is do you know that Friend? Do you know of the Friend who “sticketh closer than a brother”? He won’t turn you away. He’s waiting for you with open arms.
See especially 1 Kings 15:26, 30, 34; 16:19, 26; 22:52; 2 Kings 3:3; 10:31; 13:6, 11; 14:24; 15:18, 24, 28; 17:21–23.
See, for instance, 1 Kings 8:23, 60; Deut. 4:35, 39; 6:4; Isa. 37:20; 43:10; 44:6; 45:21.
See especially Gen. 18:14; Exod. 15:11; Deut. 3:24; 1 Kings 8:23; Ps. 40:5; 78:4; Jer. 32:17, 27; Zech. 8:6; Matt. 19:26.
Dale Ralph Davis, 2 Kings: The Power and the Fury (Ross-shire, England: Christian Focus, 2020), 48.
E. M. Bartlett, 1939.