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The faithful God of the fickle and feeble.
The undercurrent of Scripture is the sheer fact that Jehovah God is a God of his word.
A version of this article originally appeared on 1517.
As the historian of the Books of Kings retraces the rise and fall of God’s people, he, likewise, beams a bright light on who God is himself. The predominant motif throughout all these narratives is making known both the depths of man’s depravity and the depths of Yahweh’s patience. These accounts are tailor made to bring us face-to-face with the Lord who suffers long over, with, and for his people. Time and time again, he delays judgment until the last conceivable moment. He defers the needed polemic to some such prophet he’s commissioned to do his bidding. His heart is for his people to turn to him. And he stops at nothing if it means they would but see how much he loves them. “He would move heaven and earth to be near them,” asserts Sally Lloyd-Jones. “Whatever happened, whatever it cost him, he would always love them” (8).
That never-stopping love of the Father is, without a doubt, put to the test throughout the ceaseless march of time, as the people of God repeatedly thrust themselves into the oblivion of trusting other gods. The history of God’s people is, likewise, the harrowing history of the tragedy of clutching to carved images for everything that only the One True God can offer. To be honest, it’s quite exhausting to read account after account of Yahweh bringing about his people’s restoration and renewal only for it all to be squandered in the blink of an eye by his people’s egregious decision making. Perhaps, then, we have more in common with those ancient Israelites than we like to think. But such is why I’m grateful to glean from Israel’s history, where in response to his people’s constant unsteadiness, the God of all exhibits his infinite steadfastness.
Man’s faith is fickle.
As 2 Kings 13 begins, the historian quickly situates us into the historical context by reverting to his tried and true method of royal summation. That vicious judge Jehu is gone, with his son Jehoahaz assuming the throne (2 Kings 13:1). This, of course, is the same Jehu who dispensed such ruthless judgment on the lineage of Ahab, leading to Yahweh’s assuring word that even his children “of the fourth generation shall sit on the throne” (2 Kings 10:30). Jehoahaz, then, is the first fulfillment of that promise. But rather than see the hand of the Lord on his daddy’s rise to power, Jehoahaz keeps the “bane of Israel” alive. “And he did that which was evil in the sight of the Lord, and followed the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, which made Israel to sin; he departed not therefrom” (2 Kings 13:2).
For all that God had promised and fulfilled, he and his Word remained unheeded and disregarded. Yahweh barely registered a passing thought in the hearts of those with whom he had covenanted. Instead, Israel clung to the abominable gods of Jeroboam’s phony religion (1 Kings 12:25–33). The hearts of God’s people were in the vice-grip of idolatry and iniquity, pushing the persevering patience of the Lord to the max. It would appear, however, that God had had enough this time, as the historian tells us that “the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel” (2 Kings 13:3). Yahweh’s indignation bubbles to the surface in response to his people’s infidelity. His nostrils flare with holy fury. And, as a result, he raises up King Hazael of Syria to cut down the people of Israel. This work of heavenly pruning is effective, as Hazael leaves the Israelite army in shambles, “like the dust by threshing” (2 Kings 13:7).
But as the Syrian invaders march to war, Jehoahaz gets on his knees and begs God for a miracle. “And Jehoahaz besought the Lord, and the Lord hearkened unto him: for he saw the oppression of Israel, because the king of Syria oppressed them” (2 Kings 13:4). There are several wonderful tidbits in this verse, among which is the historian’s unmistakable nostalgia for compassionate concern for his people. The phrasing evokes that moment from ages before, when Yahweh noticed the oppression of his people at the hands of the Egyptians (Exod. 3:9), which bespeaks the humbling realization that God always takes notice of his people’s plight — even when they themselves were the ones who put themselves in such a predicament.
More remarkable, perhaps, than that is just the sheer fact that God listened to Jehoahaz’s prayer. This was a king who hadn’t once concerned himself with Yahweh or his Word, and yet, Yahweh was attentive to his cry. With political pressures reaching a fever pitch, Jehoahaz talks to the Lord, and “the Lord hearkened unto him.” And more than merely listening, the Lord took action on behalf of his people. “And the Lord gave Israel a saviour, so that they went out from under the hand of the Syrians: and the children of Israel dwelt in their tents, as beforetime” (2 Kings 13:5). Israel is miraculously delivered by the hand of a savior who was sent to them. Now, there’s some debate over who this savior might’ve been, historically speaking. However, much of that is inconsequential to the historian’s point. The point is, Yahweh intervenes, of his own accord, to secure the salvation of those he loves.
And what was the result? National revival? A massive resurgence of temple attendance? Wholesale renewal of interest in Yahweh? Actually, none of those things occurs. Yahweh’s patient faithfulness wasn’t enough to stir the hearts of his people back to him. Despite being on the receiving end of God’s uncanny deliverance, Israel stubbornly continued going their own way, clutching the counterfeit gods of Jeroboam’s phony religion (2 Kings 13:6). Even after the Lord mercifully rescue them out of harm’s way, they remained in their sin. And as much as I don’t want to admit it, that’s me, more often than not. My heart, my faith is incredibly fickle. I change allegiances more often than the weekly weather forecast. And I’d wager you’d have to say the same.
When we find ourselves in a crisis, we end up making all kinds of promises about how we’re going to “change our ways,” and all that. But when the heat cools and the pressure subsides, we revert to the mean. We go back to our same old, same old, seemingly unfazed and unmoved by the merciful patience of God. That, indeed, is the motif which colors the history of Israel as a whole. And, what’s more, it’s the motif which brings to bear the sum and substance of Scripture itself. Namely, that those who are so fickle and so inconstant are in desperate need of something (or Someone) who is always faithful.
Man’s faith is feeble.
After the historian puts a bow on King Jehoahaz’s reign, he utilizes even less ink to summarize the reign of his son, Jehoash (2 Kings 13:10–13). There isn’t much to report, though, with the kingdom of Israel continuing in the same wretched trajectory as before. However, there is one anecdote that’s important enough to be be detached from the rest of his summary. It is the account of the prophet Elisha’s death, which, likewise, exposes the feeble faith of Israel’s king. The prophet had fallen terribly ill, so much so that he was essentially reclining on his deathbed (2 Kings 13:14). The king comes to visit the ailing man of God, and the sight of his frail frame brings tears to his eyes.
King Jehoash weeping over dying Elisha is significant for a few reasons, mostly because hadn’t made the God whom Elisha served and represented part of his life to any degree up to that point. And yet, even still, he recognizes the weightiness of the moment. In a surprising turn of events, the king greets the prophet with the same admirable title which was formerly conferred on Elijah. “O my father, my father, the chariot of Israel, and the horsemen thereof,” he wails (2 Kings 13:14; cf. 2:12). Elisha’s death signaled the end of an era. The kingdom was already largely defenseless after Syria had left the Israelite military in shambles (2 Kings 13:7). But now, devastatingly, the voice of Israel’s God was fading. Elisha, though, puts his final few breaths to good use, taking the king through an “acted oracle,” that is, a prophecy with object lessons:
And Elisha said unto him, Take bow and arrows. And he took unto him bow and arrows. And he said to the king of Israel, Put thine hand upon the bow. And he put his hand upon it: and Elisha put his hands upon the king's hands. And he said, Open the window eastward. And he opened it. Then Elisha said, Shoot. And he shot. And he said, The arrow of the Lord's deliverance, and the arrow of deliverance from Syria: for thou shalt smite the Syrians in Aphek, till thou have consumed them. And he said, Take the arrows. And he took them. And he said unto the king of Israel, Smite upon the ground. And he smote thrice, and stayed. And the man of God was wroth with him, and said, Thou shouldest have smitten five or six times; then hadst thou smitten Syria till thou hadst consumed it: whereas now thou shalt smite Syria but thrice. (2 Kings 13:15–19)
At first glance, this is more than a little strange. The king is commanded to let an arrow fly out the window of his tower, and so he does. Then he’s told to shoot arrows at the ground, but he, apparently gets that part of the process wrong, leading to the man of God to become angry with him — so much so, in fact, that he amends his original prophecy. The arrows are an obvious emblem of Israel’s triumph in battle. As Jehoash loosed them out the east window, he let them fly in the direction of his enemies, foretelling the swift and sure victory that was guaranteed for God’s people. So long as the king trusted in Yahweh’s promise, Israel’s enemies didn’t stand a chance (2 Kings 13:17). The dilemma arises when Jehoash is commanded to “smite upon the ground.”
The historian tells us that the king struck the ground thrice before ceasing. This enrages the prophet, since he should’ve known to strike the ground “five or six times.” Some have attempted to ascribe meaning to the specific number of strikes that were in order. But, I think, the point is not necessarily the number of times the king hits the ground as much as it is the king’s nonchalant and unconvinced compliance to the prophet’s request. Jehoash’s inclination was, “Meh, that’s probably good enough.” He wasn’t genuinely acting on the words of promise delivered to him by the prophet, he was just going through the motions. Elisha, I’m sure, gave him a stern, knowing glare. Rather than take Yahweh at his word, the king acted as if those words were dubious or doubtful. His faith was feeble and frail, at best. He was possessed by a severely limited grasp of Yahweh’s ability to deliver on what he said. Therefore, instead of consuming his enemies, he’d only smite them (2 Kings 13:19, 25). His feeble faith led to feeble results. And I think that describes more than we would ever care to admit.
Our faith is encumbered, more than anything else, by the limits we ourselves impose upon it. We believe but only feebly, only in a limited capacity. We say we believe in the forgiveness of sins, but we often live as though that’s not true. We say we believe in God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit, but we often live as if he’s not interested in us at all. We say we believe that Jesus is “the mighty King, the Master of everything” (Audrey Mieir, “His Name is Wonderful,” 1959), but we often live wringing our hands in fear over the unknown days that lie ahead. I wonder what would happen, though, if we wholeheartedly believed what we said we believe? I think we wouldn’t live in trepidation because we’d know that we are wholly forgiven. Our days would be invigorated by the solid and steadfast love of the Father, which crests the rising tide of sin, hopelessness, and despair. In grace, though, we are permitted to cry, “I believe; help thou mine unbelief” (Mark 9:23–24).
God is faithful forever.
The undercurrent of Scripture is the sheer fact that Jehovah God is a God of his word. He always delivers on what he says. This is evident when you notice that even King Jehoash’s feeble faith is honored by the Lord (2 Kings 13:19, 25). To bring home God’s great faithfulness even further, however, the historian zooms back out to examine the faith of God during the time of Jehoahaz. Remember, during his reign Israel is suffering under the oppressive thumb of Syria. This, of course, is a consequence of God’s people turning their backs on Yahweh once again. But, in an unthinkable expenditure of grace, what do we find God doing in return?
But Hazael king of Syria oppressed Israel all the days of Jehoahaz. And the Lord was gracious unto them, and had compassion on them, and had respect unto them, because of his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and would not destroy them, neither cast he them from his presence as yet. (2 Kings 13:22–23)
Even as God’s chosen people are turning away from him, God is turning towards them. He compassionately regards the tribulation of his people, dealing with their incessant fickleness and inexhaustible feebleness with a unilateral love that is infinitely constant. Immediately preceding that merciful declaration, however, is an entirely unexpected and almost unnerving scene of God’s immaculate power. Smack dab in the middle of these stories of disbelieving kings, the historian inserts a glimpse of what’s to come, both for Israel and the world. Elisha has passed on, with his remains already in the process of decay, when a band of marauders from Moab bear down on the Israelite border. A group of friends had intended to spend their morning giving their beloved friend a proper burial, but the sight of those Moabite raiders startles them, so much so that they toss their friend’s body into the tomb of that late prophet. However, that friend doesn’t join the ranks of the rotting cadavers.
Instead, as the historian reports, “When the man was let down, and touched the bones of Elisha, he revived, and stood up on his feet” (2 Kings 13:21). As soon as his lifeless corpse touches the bones of that dead prophet, “he revived.” Breath returned to his lungs and life coursed through his veins. He that was dead was alive again. A reasonable amount of questions surely race to your mind. How long he was dead? What did he do when he revived? And what did those who saw him die do when he was alive again? Inquiring minds would like to know! But, alas, the historian’s inclusion of this remarkable tale is a timeless message reminding us all of God’s prerogative to breathe life into things that are dead. Just as this man was “revived” by being “cast” into the place of death, so, too, would Israel be “revived” in their place of exile.
Try and fathom what those words must have sounded like to the exiled Israelites who were reading them. They were in the place of exile, the place of death, right then. But, as the historian reminds them, they wouldn’t remain there forever, neither would they be utterly destroyed or cast down (Ps. 37:24). “The men threw the body into Elisha’s tomb and there was new life,” Dale Ralph Davis comments, “so whenever God throws Israel into exile there will still be hope” (199). The One True God is faithful to his Word forever. He is a God who “cannot lie” (Num. 23:19; Titus 1:2; Heb. 6:18). Not one of God’s promises, not even a single syllable, has ever fallen to the ground or missed its target. “Since God is God, His nature is perfection,” observes Alexander Maclaren, “and nothing that He does can fall beneath His ideal and purpose in doing it” (3:1.30). Generations come and go, but through it all, God our Father proves himself faithful forever. “Thy faithfulness,” declares the psalmist, “is unto all generations” (Ps. 119:90; cf. Deut. 7:9).
Even now, even today, that remains true. Our faithful God is great in faithfulness (Lam. 3:22–23). He abounds in steadfast love and patience for those who are fickle, feeble, and faithless. To such, he offers infinite steadfastness. To such, he offers himself. To the very same gaggle of Israelites who were going astray, God gave a Savior (2 Kings 13:5) — which is precisely what he has done for each and every sinner who has ever lived (Rom. 5:6, 8, 10). He enters the tomb of our traitorous hearts and raises us to “newness of life.” He descends to our place of exile and death in order to bring about our resurrection. He is faithful to his Word, forever.
Dale Ralph Davis, 2 Kings: The Power and the Fury (Ross-shire, England: Christian Focus, 2020).
Sally Lloyd-Jones, The Story of God’s Love for You (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015).
Alexander Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture, Vols. 1–17 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1944).