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‘The Lord hath called for a famine.’
2 Kings 8:1
I. What is the meaning of this expression?—Simply, the Lord hath produced it—ordered it; it is part of His Providence. ‘God said, Let there be light: and there was light.’ A wonderful thing is this we find in the whole Bible—God calling for circumstances as if they were creatures which could hear Him and respond to His call; as if famine and plenty, pestilence and scourge of every name, were so many personalities, all standing back in the clouds, and God said, Famine, forward! and immediately the famine came, and took away the bread of the people; but then next door to famine stands plenty, and God says to abundance, Forward! and the earth laughs in harvests; the table is abundantly spread, and every living thing is satisfied. Take Ezekiel 36:29 as presenting the pleasant side of this call by the voice Divine: ‘I will call for the corn, and will increase it, and lay no famine upon you.’ Hear how the Divine voice rolls through all this sphere of revelation. If you proceed to Romans 4:17 you will find in the last clause of the verse words often overlooked: ‘God … calleth those things which be not as though they were.’ God is always creating, calling something out of nothing, amazing the ages by new flashes of glory, unexpected disclosures of presence and grace. Calling for a famine is a frequent expression. You find it, for example, in Psalms 105:16: ‘Moreover He called for a famine upon the land: He brake the whole staff of bread’; and you find it in so out-of-the-way a corner as the prophecy of Haggai 1:11: ‘And I called for a drought upon the land, and upon the mountains, and upon the corn, and upon the new wine, and upon the oil, and upon that which the ground bringeth forth, and upon men, and upon cattle, and upon all the labour of the hands.’
II. The earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof.—So there are men who still believe that plague, pestilence, and short harvest, and things evil that are of a material kind, have a subtle and often immeasurable relation to a Divine thought, to a new disclosure of Divine Providence; that all these things round about us are used as instruments in the chastening, and education, and sanctification of the human race. We cannot be laughed out of this citadel. Sometimes we have half left it under the joke of the jiber, because we had no answer to the mocker’s laugh; but presently we began to see how things are related, how mysteriously earth belongs to heaven, and how the simplest, meanest flower that grows draws its life-blood from the sun; then we have returned into the sanctuary, and said, ‘Be the mysteries dark as they may and all but innumerable, there is a comfort in this doctrine that there is in none other’—and not a quieting comfort after the nature of a soporific, but an encouraging, stimulating, rousing comfort, that lifts our prayer into a nobler elevation, and sharpens our voice by the introduction of a new accent. So we abide in this Christian faith, and await the explanation which God has promised.
‘Benhadad the king of Syria was sick.’
2 Kings 8:7
The life and death of Benhadad has much to say to us—
I. Let us look at one of the two men who took part in that bedside scene which no eye beheld but the all-seeing eye of God.—Benhadad was a man of vast power, ruling over a wealthy and warlike country, a man who loved pleasure, and did not know what it was to be obliged to deny himself in any luxury on which he set his heart. He was a bitter enemy of God’s people; and as licentious as he was cruel. He had as little belief in God as he had in virtue, for he was not only a scoffer at God’s existence—he openly and daringly defied him. There can be no doubt of it—he had by a long course of sin and self-indulgence become a hardened and thoroughly depraved man: insomuch that God sent to tell him that for his persevering iniquity he was ‘appointed to utter destruction.’
II. It is not in that light he appears in the chapter before us.—We do not see him in his pride and reckless dissipation: we see him laid upon the bed of sickness—fearing the approach of death. His uneasy mind turned for some help and comfort to the man of God who was at that time in Damascus. His infidelity failed him then, as it does so often fail in that awful moment.
III. It is indeed an affecting scene, and one that brings home to us some solemn truths which none can deny, and yet all are prone to forget.—Benhadad had everything that heart could wish of this world: he was not only a king, but a king of kings, for he was lord over thirty-two vassal kings; he had tens of thousands of soldiers in his armies—everything was at his service that power and wealth could procure. Yet all these things could not keep off from him the day of sickness, nor save him from the bed of pain and weakness. He had an enemy who was able to steal through all his sentinels, and lay hands on him in the midst of all his luxurious surroundings. He lived as if he were a god who could know neither weakness nor pain; but he learnt that there are messengers of God who, like God Himself, are no respecters of persons. Every one knows this, but how few seem to be influenced by it!
IV. Another no less important truth unveiled to us in Benhadad’s sick-room is the different view men take of religion when they feel death near at hand, from the view they take of it often when they are well.—There was a time when Benhadad thought he could do no better than scoff at God and at the people of God; but he was sick and weak, and ready to die, so he felt that to have God’s man near him when he was dying would be a good thing for him now he was going into God’s awful presence. How often it is so! There are those who shun religious people when they are well as if they were either fools or hypocrites, who are glad enough to see them when the gates of Eternity are opening before them. Benhadad never thought of sending when he was sick to the thirty-two kings who used to get drunk with him at midday, and join him in what he then thought to be a jovial life. Nay, he bethought him of the poor wandering prophet whom he had then despised and scoffed at. Wonderful to say, he even thought that he could be the better for such a man’s prayer! He had hated the sight of him while he was well and strong. If he had only attended to what Elisha said to him in God’s name when he was living, he would have had something better than Elisha’s prayers when he was dying—he would have had the Presence of God.
V. For we learn from that death-bed scene that a change of view about religion, when the end is near, may mean anything but a change of heart towards God.—Benhadad’s anxiety was more about the recovery of his health than about his soul. His was not the cry of the jailer, ‘What must I do to be saved?’ but the concern of one clinging to the world—Shall I recover of this disease? He could not bear to think that he was going to die. He would beguile himself with the prospect of recovery rather than prepare himself for the prospect of eternity. So it is generally in their sickness with those who have lived for this world and lived in pleasure. The real comfort they crave is the comfort of thinking they will get well again—a kind of comfort which those around them are too often ready enough to impart, like Hazael, who, to lull Benhadad’s fears, put a lie into Elisha’s lips, ‘Thou shalt surely recover!’
—Rev. G. Despard.
‘Is thy servant a dog, that he should do this great thing?’
2 Kings 8:13
It is a common saying that we can never tell to what we may come. He who is now the greatest criminal was once an innocent child, and the greatest saint may one day become the worst of sinners. There is no reason to suppose that Hazael spoke insincerely when, on Elisha’s foretelling the cruelties he would one day inflict on the children of Israel, he exclaimed with horror, ‘But what! is thy servant a dog, that he should do this great thing?’ As much as to say, ‘What do you take me for; shall I, who am gentle and kind and who hate cruelty, ever sink so low? No! thy servant is not a dog.’ And yet he did commit these cruelties when the acquisition of the kingdom of Syria had developed germs of wickedness which before temptation revealed them he did not know that he possessed. The lesson we are to learn from this history is that it is very easy to fall—that, indeed, it is impossible not to fall if we live away from the Fountain of all goodness, the Source of all strength.
Let any one consider the character of the first and last temptation in a series of temptations. The first time the temptation occurs to us to commit some pleasant but sinful act, there is a shudder and a horror and a feeling of impossibility. ‘I cannot, cannot do it,’ we say. ‘Is thy servant a dog, that he should do this great thing?’ The next time the tempting thought comes to our mind it is treated with greater civility, it is a more welcome guest. We begin now to reason with it, instead of dashing it from us, which would have been the wisest course. Then we ask ourselves, is it really so bad after all? How can this be such a very great sin when every day thousands whom the world calls respectable commit it? At last the evil thought passes into the evil act.
I. This is every day illustrated by the liar.—We know what horror the child who has been trained to love truth feels when first the temptation arises in his mind to shelter himself from punishment by telling a lie. ‘How can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?’ If he yields to the temptation, he is ashamed and full of remorse because the brightness of his truthful soul has been tarnished by a first lie. And then when years of untruthfulness have passed over his head he begins to consider a truthful man almost a fool, believing as he does that deceit and untruthfulness are the ordinary unavoidable means of gaining our ends in the world. At last he arrives at the liar’s last stage, which is to believe his own lies.
II. Or take an illustration from the easy descent into the hell of drunkenness.—Some of the most gifted of our race have been drunkards, and there are at present about 600,000 confirmed drunkards in Great Britain. Do you think they became drunkards the moment they tasted alcohol? No, the time was when many of them looked upon drunkenness with the same abhorrence that Hazael felt for cruelty. ‘Is thy servant a dog, that he should do this great thing?’ The first time they tasted intoxicating liquor, as children, they probably disliked it very much; but boys fancied that it was a manly thing to drink, and when they ceased to be boys they did not like to resist the apparent good fellowship of friendly glasses. Or some sorrow drove them to drown their senses in the drunkard’s cup of forgetfulness. There is only one way by which any man ever became a drunkard, and that is by growing fond of alcohol, at first in moderate drinking—day by day a little increased, year by year a little multiplied by the solitary becoming the frequent, and the frequent the habitual, and the habitual the all-but-inevitable transgression.
(1) ‘How easily do self-indulgent habits come upon us, and how surely do they lead to great crimes. George Eliot gives in Romola the picture of a man—good, generous, handsome, with all the appliances and means of doing good—who “because he tried to slip away from everything that was unpleasant, and cared for nothing so much as his own safety, came at last to commit some of the basest deeds such as make men infamous.” So true is it that
Small habits well pursued betimes
May reach the dignity of crimes.’
(2) ‘The holy man who exclaimed as he saw a criminal led to execution: “There goes me but for the grace of God,” was not exaggerating, but only speaking from observation and experience.’
(3) ‘As our Lord wept over the fate of Jerusalem, so the prophet wept as he foresaw the evils which Hazael would inflict on his people. But how little we know ourselves. Hazael could not stand the steadfast eye of the prophet, and asked in amazement what he took him to be, that he could prognosticate such a future. We may well appropriate the Apostle’s words, “Lord, is it I?” for there is no limit to the lengths of sin to which we may be led, apart from the grace of God.’
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Nisbet, James. "Commentary on 2 Kings 8". The Church Pulpit Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Week after Epiphany