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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Dictionary of Texts

2 Kings 13

Verses 1-25

Age and Youth

2 Kings 13:14-12.13.19

This is the last hour in a prophet's life. The brave, simple-hearted Elisha, now past eighty years, has lain down to die. He had been not prophet merely, but patriot; and the nation's grief was the more bitter that at this juncture he could ill be spared. Repeatedly in the past he had stepped between Israel and the vengeance of her foes; even now, as he lay waiting for the end, his parting thoughts were given to his country. They must have been sad enough. Israel was in a gravely disturbed condition. Oppressed by the powerful Syrian state, she was also cruelly harassed by the marauding bands of Moab. How the dying man must have gone back in fancy to that day, nearly fifty years since, when he had summoned Jehu to the throne, and, with the animating dreams and hopes of a new start, sped him forth upon his vigorous career! But all had been in vain. Jehu's sons were weak and pusillanimous; and while they reigned the Syrians had trodden Israel's honour in the dust.

Then came what seemed a turning of the tide. Joash, the grandson of Jehu, became king, and the change from the degraded imbecility of his father was very welcome. There was promise in the youth's unwasted energies. And the old prophet, as he looked a long farewell that day to the streets and valleys of Samaria, found himself questioning of what stuff this new leader was made and whether he had it in him to retrieve the national fortunes. Had he the brave purpose, the iron faith, the unselfish and untiring keenness of spirit, which would lift the kingdom out of the slough of impotence and starvation where it lay? Had he the vision of God that makes a man strong?

Joash, as far as we know, appears to have turned out in nature somewhat colourless. He was by no means the worst of the kings of Israel; but if there was no great harm in him, neither was there any great good. The main accusation urged against him is that he failed to stop the public idolatry his ancestors had set up. Well, purely negative persons do not greatly help the world. Possibly they may now and then act as a drag when downhill speed in morals or religion is on the increase; yet since they hinder upward progress still more, the world's gain is less than nothing.

I. Consider first the prophet on his deathbed. It is an exceptional feature in Elisha's end that he was a prophet, and yet died at peace in his bed. Death usually comes to such as he in other ways. Too often the man who spoke fearlessly for God has paid for his courage with his life. Nevertheless, at times we find a bright exception, where a faithful God, keeping watch above His own, has sent light at eventide. Here and there, like Elisha in Samaria, Luther in his cottage at Eisleben, Knox in his quiet house at Edinburgh, a great man of God breathes his last in peace. After life's fever the close arrives calm and tranquil, and the weary sun makes a golden set.

As I look again at this old-world scene, I find yet another point worth our noting. Here is a poor apartment in Samaria the London of the country in which lies a dying man, without money, without fame, without striking powers of mind, his sole weapon 'the word of the Lord'. Yet the king stands beside him mournfully, filled with honest sorrow, and knowing in his heart that, with his passing, Israel's best hope would have departed. 'O my father, my father, the chariot of Israel, and the horsemen thereof.' His tears might well fall. The true benefactors of a nation who are they? Not the men who paint the map red, or invent a new big gun; but those who stir its sleeping conscience, and quicken its desire for the living God, and offer it those abiding and infinite satisfactions that will quench its nobler thirst And in Elisha this has been the true nobility, the simple grandeur of the man, that for two generations he stood among his people as an incorruptibly brave witness to eternal things, with a life that did not sink beneath his message.

II. The younger man. I should question whether a trait of character can be named which more infallibly indicates strength and excellence of mind than affectionate deference to the aged. I should question whether a sort of action is discoverable which is better calculated to gain the onlooker's confidence and regard than an act of courtesy to the old. There are those whose minds appear to be obsessed by the strange delusion that flippant or disrespectful behaviour to the aged has in it something fascinating and attractive; yet if they only marked their own instinctive feeling at the sight of the same demeanour in others they would speedily clear their minds of that hallucination. To all right-minded people any lack of consideration for the old is an extremely grave offence; and that it is so to more than man is indicated by that noble commandment of ancient Israel: 'Thou shalt rise up before the hoary head, and honour the face of the old man; I am the Lord'.

So far, I say, Joash's conduct augured well; but before the scene was over his besetting weakness of character had appeared. It was a fatal lack of energetic faith the same radical defect which has proved the bane of many a life of promise. After the fine piece of symbolism I have described, the king is again bidden take a sheaf of arrows, and smite upon the ground. A strange command, we say; but that is merely because the Hebrew mind is different from ours. In the Old Testament we find prophets, often, performing symbolic acts which are not merely predictive, but, if I may say so, actually productive of the future. So the shooting of the arrows on the ground was an emblematic act, the significance of which must have been understood by Joash perfectly well. His halting after the third time, consequently, was a trifle, but to the watcher's keen eye it betrayed a weakness that would bring disaster some day.

H. R. Mackintosh, Life on God's Plan, p. 198.

The Arrow of the Lord's Deliverance

2 Kings 13:17

We have a picture of the old generation in contact with the new. In it we see the old testing the new, and the old teaching the new.

I. The scene is the test. There are two things which the old prophets knew well were absolutely essential as characteristics and qualifications, if Joash was to fulfil the high destiny which was before him. There mingles in all great men's characters who are capable of achieving high things two elements the one prosaic, the other poetic. It lies upon the surface of things that a man cannot achieve practical work unless he has the prosaic instinct that does not shrink from the drudgery of it. This Joash has not. Is there thoroughness in this man who draws the bow feebly thrice, and looks round for instruction? But he lacks more; he lacks the glorious power of imagination; he does not see what his work means, he does not realize all that the old prophet has put before him. A man who can only look at his life and see only its dry details from day to day, and see no glory, no sanctity, no divinity in it will never do work with that high spirit which carries him by the very rapture of its intensity through the world.

II. The prophet is not merely one to test, but also one to teach. He teaches him, and what is the lesson he teaches? It is this simple one, to realize himself and to realize God. There are only three important things, and the way in which you bring these into contact will be the way in which your life will be marked and measured one is yourself, another is the world with its duties, the third is God overhead. The world has to be faced. Face it as a man, and as a man conscious of your responsibility. Take up arrows, and shoot against the foe that lies before you; but as man, show that man's strength is only perfected in consciousness of your God. What says the Master Himself? If ye abide in Me, if your hearts are open to the heavenly vision, and My words abide in you, you realize the active duties of life, and a life which is full of obedience and faith is also a life of power. Ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done.

III. What then is the lesson to be drawn? I think it is this, that we often live in sore straits because we will forget God.

Bishop Boyd Carpenter, British Weekly Pulpit, vol. III. 1890, p. 145.

A Sacramental Moment

2 Kings 13:18

'Why,' one asks, 'is the prophet wroth? Why should Joash know that three arrows were not enough, that five or six was the number necessary?' Something wants explaining here.

I. If you ever asked that question in your childhood, you were most likely answered, 'It showed Joash had not faith'. The answer only needs to be more precise. For, as I understand it, Elisha was calling Joash to what we should call a sacramental act. He appoints him in this archery an outward sign, and indicates that with it there will go a Divine gift, the grace of victory over enemies.

The young man Arises not to the old man's faith: the flame kindles not in him. He should have snatched the quiver with hands of fire, and sprung arrow after arrow from the string till the quiver lay empty at his side. Instead he makes languid, perfunctory response to the impassioned appeal; shoots thrice (so much respect demanded), and holds his hand. The charm is countercharmed by coldness, the holy spell breaks, the inspiration exhales upon the air, the cup of that wine of strength is spilt on earth, a sacrament has been made null.

II. What does all this mean for us? Perhaps this will do for a meaning.

Moralists often insist on the value of life's daily insignificant things, its common indistinguishable moments. They are not wrong; but let us not forget that there are great moments, outvaluing in their effect on the drift of a man's character the influence of a million lesser ones. I mean the moments when a faith or a decision passes before you, claiming your choice: there is Divine enchantment in the air, an inspiration ready to fall, a mystic force hovers beside you waiting to mix with your own, and some word spoken, or look cast, or act done will set free the force to impel you. These are sacramental moments, moments of the sacrament of Divine impulse. You must give yourself to the sacrament, let it have its way with you, and fear not; or it is null, and your hour has passed you.

III. Do not answer, 'Yes, but if the timid lose a chance, so, too, the rash may blunder'. Do not quote old maxims that say, 'Be wary and mistrustful, the sinews of the soul are these'. That is what I deny. Not the soul's sinews. In these days of ours when a wider but often less vital knowledge is cooling down adventure and disenchanting the fairy horizons of boyhood, what men are wanting is not more knowledge, criticism, caution: it is the power of will. We lack not direction more, but impulsion; not the finger which shall point out the paths which are false, but the hand which shall push us forward in the true one. Whence is this to come? A Christian will answer, in fewest words, "I believe in the Holy Ghost". There is a Spirit whose Name is not only of Counsel, but also of Strength; and though His might is like the wind, and bloweth where it listeth, and you cannot trace its coming or its going, yet I believe that in such moments of an unprepared-for sacrament as I have described these ardours of the heart are the sway of that trackless wind of God upon the heart of a man.'

J. H. Skrine, The Heart's Counsel, p. 146.

References. XIII. 18, 19. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxxix. No. 2303. XIII. 19. Ibid. vol. x. No. 669. J. Baines, Sermons, p. 255. J. M. Neale, Sermons Preached in Sackville College Chapel, vol. iii. p. 116.

The Bones of Elisha; Or the Power of the Past

2 Kings 13:20-12.13.21

This miracle, like other miracles and providences of God, is as a lesson written in characters which all may read written in action. It teaches us the lesson which we are all apt to forget the power the quickening, invigorating power of the past.

I. See how this is the case with nations. To a nation a great past is an integral element of its life, so powerful, so precious, that wise patriots and rulers do all they can to preserve it. What does the past do for a nation? It kindles a nation when depressed by misfortune, or degenerated through luxury, into a new life. A great defeat, or a great failure, or a sensible decline in all that gives a nation moral vigour and self-respect, leads it, or leads its leading minds, to consider what their ancestors were what were the characters, the sacrifices, the actions, by which their own declining greatness was originally won. A degenerate posterity asks itself why, with the same blood flowing in its veins, it should be incapable of the virtues of those who have gone before it. The corpse of national life, the languid pulse of national thought, are thus brought into contact with the past. They touch the bones of Elisha: the country may yet revive and stand again on its feet.

II. Observe the bearing of this principle on the history of Churches. To a Church the past is even more than it is to a nation, since its title-deeds have been given it once for all, and it has had everything in the first age of its existence that it can possibly have now. Churches, particularly Churches, like nations, have their days of glory their days, too, of depression and of shame. To the collective Church of Christ alone is the promise given that the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. If a Church is stricken with the languor of death it must be quickened in the old way by contact new and earnest contact under the guidance of the Spirit, with the sacred past.

III. Observe the application of this principle to the Christian soul. Every Christian soul has its past, its sacred memories known only to itself and to God. But, like nations and Churches, souls, too, have their periods of depression their epochs of growth and decline. The eternal realities have been somehow displaced in its affections by the things of time. That soul is in a fair way to die outright. It is carried out to be buried by the spirit of the world by the forces of circumstances; and then some danger, some illness, some heart-ache which convulses the depths of being, leads it to seek retreat. The Moabites are in sight, and it is thrust into the tomb of Elisha: it is brought into contact with its own buried past with the years of old which have been as forgotten as if they had never been with the thoughts that had once been uppermost with the friends who have long since passed into another world. All that early time which seemed to have perished so utterly is there buried away in the tomb of memory; and the discovery of an old letter, or a visit to an early home, or a conversation with a friend who has not been heard of for years, may waken it, as by a touch of the bones of Elisha.

H. P. Liddon, Penny Pulpit, vol. xv. No. 886, p. 289.

References. XIII. 20, 21. H. P. Liddon, Sermons on Old Testament Subjects, p. 318. J. M. Neale, Sermons Preached in Sackville College Chapel, vol. iii. p. 124. XIII. 21. W. H. Hutchings, Sermon-Sketches (2nd Series), p. 256.

2 Kings 13:21

The Rev. Gordon Calthrop preached from this text in Westminster Abbey three weeks after Livingstone's funeral. The congregation were actually sitting over Livingstone's fresh grave. 'Let us be quickened,' said the preacher, 'into fresh life by contact with the bones of Livingstone, and let thousands of Africans, through the influence of his death, be revived and stand up on their feet.'

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Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William Robertson, M.A., L.L.D. "Commentary on 2 Kings 13". Expositor's Dictionary of Text. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/edt/2-kings-13.html. 1910.