The judge and the judgment.
On how Jehu evidences that we need an even better judge than himself to deliver us from evil.
A version of this article originally appeared on 1517.
The eighty-six verses which span from 2 Kings 8:16 to the end of chapter 10 represent one of the more challenging narratives, not only in the Books of the Kings but also in the entire canon. Any attempt to examine this massive piece of history necessitates one retain a wide range of historical and theological context while wading through some of the most gruesome texts in the Old Testament. Grisly and graphic images populate nearly every scene, as the historian takes us by the hand and guides us through all the carcasses and carnage that surround the throne of Jehu. In fact, it’s entirely Jehu’s fault that we’d embark on such an undertaking as navigating this sweeping and spine-chilling chapter in Israel’s history.
Jehu is a complicated figure, to say the least. He’s directly responsible for a litany of acts that are not only troubling, they’re downright disturbing; the sort of stuff that makes your skin crawl. And yet, as the historian concludes the record of his exploits, he’s given a heavenly stamp of approval (2 Kings 10:30). In considering Jehu, therefore, and the judgment he administers, you and I are afforded the opportunity to witness how the sovereign will of Yahweh works mightily through hands that are less than honorable, to put it mildly. As each episode transpires in increasingly unsettling fashion, two responses emerge: a knee-bending marvel at Yahweh’s authority and a jaw-dropping gratitude that you and I are not dealt with so grimly. Let’s explore those themes briefly.
The closing portion of 2 Kings 8 functions almost as a historical preface to the subsequent chapters. After focusing almost singularly on the northern kingdom of Israel for the better part of 2 Kings, the historian finally mentions the southern empire of Judah, recounting the ascension of Jehoram the throne (2 Kings 8:16–17). It’s the same old, same old, though, with that bygone pattern of a vile king being replaced by yet another vile king rearing its ugly head once again. In this instance, though, the results are even more horrid. After all, Jehoram’s father-in-law is none other than the infamous King Ahab — yes, Baal-worshiping, Jezebel-marrying, Yahweh-prophet-killing Ahab! (2 Kings 8:18). Little did Judah know that one of the gifts that came with those nuptials was the plague known as “Ahab’s house” (2 Kings 8:18, 25–27). And with that cancer now fully now metastasized in both kingdoms, the only viable option for God’s people to return to a state of wholeness is the nasty and grueling work of surgery. Chemotherapy won’t cut it. God’s chosen people are compelled to go under the knife in order for all the infected bits to be sufficiently extracted. As 2 Kings 8 draws to a close, Judah and Israel are entirely unaware that they’ve already been wheeled into the O.R., where the Surgeon is already waiting, with scalpel in hand.
Eventually, Joram and Jehoram’s heir, Ahaziah, decide to make war against Syria (2 Kings 8:28–29). During the chaos of battle, Joram is wounded and is hastily brought back to the fortress of Jezreel to heal and recuperate. Ahaziah, likewise, leaves the field to visit his ailing battle-partner. Meanwhile, the prophet Elisha dispatches “one of the children of the prophets” on the critical errand of anointing a new “king over Israel” (2 Kings 9:1–3). The young prophetic student was to venture posthaste to the battlefield, locate Captain Jehu, anoint him with oil, and then scurry out the back door, preferably without too many eyes on him. This is some risky business — the sort that’s talked about in low whispers in dark booths at the back of diners. If the young prophet’s mission had theme music, it’d be composed by Lalo Schifrin.
In essence, Elisha has just commissioned this “young man,” a student in his prophetic school of theology, to divinely sanction an overthrow of the Israelite throne. Those words, I’m sure, were met with wide eyes and raised eyebrows. But make no mistake, this wasn’t Elisha’s conspiracy. He wasn’t meddling where he shouldn’t be. This, you see, was but the fulfillment of the Word of God first given to Elisha’s predecessor (1 Kings 19:15–17). With Hazael sufficiently holding the Syrian scepter and Jehu’s forehead beading with oil, those words to Elijah were coming to fruition.
Nevertheless, the young prophetic student does as he’s told. He makes his way the Judah-Israalite encampment at Ramoth-gilead and barges into the tent where Jehu and the other military leaders were unwinding. After the awkwardness of his entrance had died down, he announces his errand concerning Captain Jehu. The two retreat to a more private room, where the young prophet of Yahweh anoints the captain and declares a word of prophecy over him:
Thus saith the Lord God of Israel, I have anointed thee king over the people of the Lord, even over Israel. And thou shalt smite the house of Ahab thy master, that I may avenge the blood of my servants the prophets, and the blood of all the servants of the Lord, at the hand of Jezebel. For the whole house of Ahab shall perish: and I will cut off from Ahab him that pisseth against the wall, and him that is shut up and left in Israel: and I will make the house of Ahab like the house of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, and like the house of Baasha the son of Ahijah: and the dogs shall eat Jezebel in the portion of Jezreel, and there shall be none to bury her. And he opened the door, and fled. (2 Kings 9:6–10)
Jehu, you see, had been ordained by Yahweh to be an instrument of judgment. He was to be the scalpel in the hands of the Heavenly Surgeon. Through him, the Lord was set to judge “the house of Ahab” swiftly and severely. It is interesting to note how God’s judgmental concerns is focused in on that wretched family. For all their pomp and pride, the Lord was determined to render them like everyone else who had rejected him. That is, nothing more than an afterthought on the scrap-heap of history (2 Kings 9:9). “So here are the also-rans piled in the trash can of history,” as Dale Ralph Davis puts it, “where they were consigned by Yahweh’s word (1 Kings 14:14; 16:1-4). And now with Joram’s coming demise the dynasty of Omri/Ahab will join its predecessors in the royal landfill of Yahweh’s rejects” (152).
But why all this holy fury for “the house of Ahab”? Hadn’t he already succumbed to a most pitiful fate? Well, yes, in fact he had (1 Kings 22:37). But, if you remember, prior to Ahab’s demise, Elisha’s predecessor had warned the king about the awful fate that awaited him, prompting that wicked monarch to fall prostrate in repentance (1 Kings 21:20–24). Ahab’s remorse, genuine or not, successfully wrought the postponement of judgment on the rest of his house (1 Kings 21:27–29). But now that deferred judgment had reached its due date, and with Jehu’s head dripping with oil, it was about to be exacted.
So, while the young prophet scurries out of sight, Jehu returns to sit with his comrades, where they begin to pepper him with questions (2 Kings 9:11). “What the heck was that all about?” they inquire. “What did that madman want with you?” Jehu attempts to brush off their inquiries by reminding them that this isn’t out-of-character for those crazy prophets of Yahweh. “Oh, c’mon, you know what those preachers are like!” But his friends aren’t buying it. They press him to divulge. “Give us the scoop, Captain!” “They said, It is false; tell us now. And he said, Thus and thus spake he to me, saying, Thus saith the Lord, I have anointed thee king over Israel” (2 Kings 9:12). The secret was out. Jehu’s hair was still slick with oil befitting a king, and with barely a moment to register the shock of the news, the men immediately recognize Jehu as king, chanting, “Long live King Jehu!” (2 Kings 9:13). (Which, I’d say, tells us all we need to know about Joram’s approval rating.)
A full-scale insurrection is now in full swing, as Jehu and company make a beeline for Jezreel (2 Kings 9:14–16). The newly anointed king of Israel understood that for any coup to be successful, he needed the backing of the military (check!) and the swift removal of the incumbent monarch. Considering Joram’s health, that second task seemed like a given. Jehu’s chariot caravan is spotted on the horizon by a diligent watchman (2 Kings 9:17). There was no hiding the cloud of dust their blitzkrieg stirred up. Soon, two messengers are sent to ascertain Jehu’s intentions. Was this the approach of friends or foes? Eventually, King Joram himself mounts a chariot, armored and bandaged as he was, in order to figure out what all the ruckus was about (2 Kings 9:21). “Is it peace, Jehu?” he asks, to which Jehu replies: “What peace, so long as the whoredoms of thy mother Jezebel and her witchcrafts are so many?” (2 Kings 9:22).
To be quite frank, Joram should’ve put two-and-two together prior to this exchange, especially after both of his messengers never came back. But it’s not until this moment that Joram figured out he had been had. “There is treachery, O Ahaziah,” he yelped, as he high-tailed it back to Jezreel. But as he ran, Jehu notched an arrow and “drew a bow with his full strength.” The arrow flew true, finding its target in the square of Joram’s back. The scaredy-cat-king slumped in his chariot, where Jehu’s men tossed his lifeless body aside to rot in the field. Notice, though, that Jehu contextualizes his carnage in accordance with “the word of the Lord” (2 Kings 9:25–26; cf. 1 Kings 21:19). But he’s not done yet, not by a long-shot. He aims his fury at that godforsaken goddess, Jezebel.
Word of Jehu’s uprising had, apparently, already reached Jezebel’s ears. When it did, it didn’t take long for her to resign her fate. There was no derailing what Jehu had begun. And so, she dolled herself up to meet her end (2 Kings 9:30), a last gasp of pride for that horrid queen. When that anointed insurrectionist arrived, however, advocates of his cause came out of the woodwork, seizing the queen and throwing her out the third-story palace window, her insides exploding on the pavement below. This, too, of course, was in keeping with what had previously been prophesied (2 Kings 9:33–37; cf. 1 Kings 21:23). But, believe it or not, Jehu’s still not done.
The following chapter (2 Kings 10) recounts a trilogy of wholesale massacres organized by Jehu himself. Verses 1–11 detail his sadistic slaughter of the seventy sons of Ahab. Verses 12–14 tell us about his massacre of the forty-two brothers of Ahaziah. Verses 18–28 recounts the appalling scene wherein all those loyal to the church of Baal were bamboozled into a phony worship service that turned out to be an ambush. This trio of destruction will surely leave anyone feeling more than a little uneasy. And yet, even after such incredibly merciless judgment, through which the “followers of Baal” and the “house of Ahab” are sufficiently extinguished, God gives Jehu his thumbs-up: “And the Lord said unto Jehu, Because thou hast done well in executing that which is right in mine eyes, and hast done unto the house of Ahab according to all that was in mine heart, thy children of the fourth generation shall sit on the throne of Israel” (2 Kings 10:30). But this begs the question: what are we to make of this? And what are we to make of Jehu? What’s the point of rehashing all these bloodbaths?
As I mentioned previously, this narrative ought to inspire two responses: a knee-bending marvel at Yahweh’s authority and a jaw-dropping gratitude that you and I are not dealt with so grimly. Jehu, without question, demonstrates how Yahweh often uses reprehensible individuals to carry out his perfect plans. “God uses wicked people to carry out his divine design,” Dale Ralph Davis comments (163). Jehu was definitely not an upstanding figure, and certainly won’t be the subject of any children’s Sunday school curriculum anytime soon. But, even still, God authoritatively employed him as an instrument of divine judgment. And such is the comforting extent of Yahweh’s authority. Everything is at his disposal, for he rules over everything. In his sovereignty, he even marshals evil kings, nations, and dictators to execute his will.
The oracles of Isaiah and Jeremiah allude to this when they talk about the Lord wielding other kingdoms as battle-axes, hewing down whomsoever he wills (Isa. 10:1–19; Jer. 51:20–23). But we are made to find comfort and consolation in the fact that even those “axes of judgment,” those scalpels in the hands of the Surgeon, are not without a leash. Though the Lord may unfurl his judgment through men and means that rightly makes us shudder and squirm, they aren’t unhinged. Neither the axe nor the scalpel is mightier than the One who wields it. Those instruments of judgment are not stronger than the Judge himself (Isa. 10:15).
It’s safe to say that Jehu was motivated by more than a pietistic “zeal for the Lord” (2 Kings 10:16). For example, the obliteration of the Baal cult (church) was as much a political move as anything else, as the closing verses show. Dale Ralph Davis agrees: “I tend to think that wiping out the Baal cult had more to do with Jehu’s zeal for Jehu than his zeal for Yahweh . . . Jehu, then, likely purged the Baal worshipers not because he was so pro-Yahweh as that he was anti-Ahab. Eliminating Baal eliminated Ahab loyalists, dissolved support for Ahab’s family, and so would consolidate Jehu’s power” (165). He was an axe that boasted in himself against he who was wielding him. The notion that he was God’s head of the department of heavenly justice went to his head, giving birth to more than a little pride in his heart. Such is why we are given the true referendum on Jehu’s reign in 2 Kings 10:29–31. Ironically, for as fierce as his revolution was, Jehu didn’t go far enough — his revolutionary fervor stopped just short of his own heart (2 Kings 10:31). In that way, then, Jehu shows us that we need an even better judge than himself to deliver us from evil. Enter: the gospel.
The good news announces that One who is truer and better than Jehu has already arrived. God’s own Son is our incarnate Liberator, the One who emancipates us from the disease of sin. He appears as the embodiment of “mercy and truth met together” (Ps. 85:10), as the Anointed One sent to dispense an altogether different form of judgment. He comes to deal with the infestation of sin, but in an unforeseen twist of grace, he’s the only one who goes under the knife. Christ takes the scalpel and endures the blow of the Judge’s axe “in his own body on the tree” (1 Pet. 2:21–24). “The only way to solve the problem of evil,” writes Robert Capon, “is for God to do what in fact he did: to take it out of the world by taking it into himself — down into the forgettery of Jesus’ dead human mind — and to close the books on it forever” (56). This is the gospel. The Son of God willingly succumbs to having his body ripped to shreds for your sake and mine. He undoes the power of sin by being undone himself. The Judge undergoes the judgment for those who rightly deserve to be judged.
Dale Ralph Davis, 2 Kings: The Power and the Fury (Ross-shire, England: Christian Focus, 2020).
Robert Capon, The Parables of Judgment (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989).