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Bible Commentaries
2 Kings 3

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-27


2 Kings 3:4-27

"What reinforcement we may gain from hope, If not, what resolution from despair."

-MILTON, "Paradise Lost, " 1:190

AHAZIAH, as Elijah had warned him, never recovered from the injuries received in his fall through the lattice, and after his brief and luckless reign died without a child. He was succeeded by his brother Jehoram ("Jehovah is exalted"), who reigned for twelve years.

Jehoram began well. Though it is said that he did that which was evil in the sight of the Lord, we are told that he was not so guilty as his father or his mother. He did not, of course, abolish the worship of Jehovah under the cherubic symbol of the calves; no king of Israel thought of doing that, and so far as we know neither Elijah, nor Elisha, nor Jonah, nor Micaiah, nor any genuine prophet of Israel before Hosea, ever protested against that worship, which was chiefly disparaged by prophets of Judah like Amos and the nameless seer. But Jehoram at least removed the Matstsebah or stone obelisk which had been reared in Baal’s honor in front of his temple by Ahab, or by Jezebel in his name. In this direction, however, his reformation must have been exceedingly partial, for until the sweeping measures taken by Jehu the temple and images of Baal still continued to exist in Samaria under his very eyes, and must have been connived at if not approved.

The first great measure which occupied the thoughts of Jehoram was to subdue the kingdom of Moab, which had been restored to independence by the bravery of the great pastoral-king Mesha; or at any rate to avenge the series of humiliating defeats which Mesha had inflicted on his brother Ahaziah. A war of forty years’ duration had ended in the complete success of Moab. The loss of a tribute of the fleeces of one hundred thousand lambs and one hundred thousand rams was too serious to be lightly faced. Jehoram laid his plans well. First he ordered a muster of all the men of war throughout his kingdom, and then appealed for the cooperation of Jehoshaphat and his vassal-king of Edom. Both kings consented to join him. Jehoshaphat had already been the victim of a powerful and wanton aggression on the part of King Mesha, {2 Chronicles 20:1-30} froth which he had been delivered by the panic of his foes in the Valley of Salt. Though the king of Edom had, on that occasion, been an ally of Mesha, the forces of Edom had fallen the first victims of that internecine panic. Both Judah and Edom, therefore, had grave wrongs to avenge, and eagerly seized the opportunity to humble the growing pride of the people of Chemosh. The attack was wisely arranged. It was determined to advance against Moab from the south, through the territory of Edom, by a rough and mountainous track, and, as far as possible, to take the nation by surprise. The combined host took a seven days’ circuit round the south of the Dead Sea, hoping to find an abundant supply of water in the stream which flows through the Wady-el-Ahsa, which separates Edom from Moab. But owing to recent droughts the wady was waterless, and the armies, with their horses, suffered all the agonies of thirst. Jehoram gave way to despair, bewailing that Jehovah should have brought together these three kings to deliver them a helpless prey into the hands of Moab. But the pious Jehoshaphat at once thinks of "inquiring of the Lord" by some true prophet, and one of Jehoram’s courtiers informs him that no less a person than Elisha, the son of Shaphat, who had been the attendant of Elijah, is with the host: We are surprised to find that his presence in the camp had excited so little attention as to be unknown to the king; but Jehoshaphat, on hearing his name, instantly acknowledged his prophetic inspiration. So urgent was the need, and so deep the sense of Elisha’s greatness, that the three kings in person went on an embassy "to the servant of him who ran before the chariot of Ahab." Their humble appeal to him produced so little elation in his mind that, addressing Jehoram, who was the most powerful, he exclaimed, with rough indignation: "What have I to do with thee? Get thee to the prophets of thy father,"-nominal prophets of Jehovah who will say to thee smooth things and prophesy deceits, as four hundred of them did to Ahab" and to the Baal-prophets of thy mother." Instead of resenting this scant respect Jehoram, in utmost distress, deprecated the prophet’s anger, and appealed to his pity for the peril of the three armies. But Elisha is not mollified. He tells Jehoram that but for the presence of Jehoshaphat he would not so much as look at him: so completely was the destiny of the people mixed up with the character of their kings! Out of respect for Jehoshaphat Elisha will do what he can. But all his soul is in a tumult of emotion. For the moment he can do nothing. He needs to be calmed from his agitation by the spell of music, and bids them send a minstrel to him. The harper came, and as Elisha listened his soul was composed, and "the hand of the Lord came upon him" to illuminate and inspire his thoughts. The result was that he bade them dig trenches in the dry wady, and promised that, though they should see neither wind nor rain, the valley should be filled with water to quench the thirst of the fainting armies, their horses and their cattle. After this God would also deliver the Moabites into their hand; and they were bidden to smite the cities, fell the trees, stop the wells, and mar the smiling pasture lands, which constituted the wealth of Moab, with stones. That the hosts of Judah and Israel and jealous Edom should be prone to afflict this awfully devastating vengeance on a power by which they had been so severely defeated on past occasions, and on which they had so many wrongs and blood-feuds to avenge, was natural; but it is surprising to find a prophet of the Lord giving the commission to ruin the gifts of God and spoil the innocent labors of man, and thus to inflict misery on generations yet unborn. The behest is directly contrary to rules of international war which have prevailed even between non-Christian nations, among whom the stopping or poisoning of wells and the cutting down of fruit trees, has been expressly forbidden. It is also against the rules of war laid down in Deuteronomy. {; Deuteronomy 20:19-20} Such, however, was the command attributed to Elisha; and, as we shall see, it was fulfilled, and seems to have led to disastrous consequences.

Cheered by the promise of Divine aid which the prophet had given them, the host retired to rest. The next morning at day-dawn, when the minchah of fine flour, oil, and frankincense was offered, {Leviticus 2:1. Comp. 1 Kings 18:36} water, which, according to the tradition of Josephus, had fallen at three days’ distance on the hills of Edom, came flowing from the south and filled the wady with its refreshing streams.

The incident itself is highly instructive. It throws light both upon the general accuracy of the ancient narrative, and on the fact that events to which a directly supernatural coloring is given are in many instances not so much supernatural as providential. The deliverance of Israel was due, not to a portent wrought by Elisha, but to the pure wisdom which he derived from the inspiration of God. When the counsels of princes were of none effect, and for lack of the spirit of counsel the people were perishing, his mind alone, illuminated by a wisdom from on high, saw what was the right step to take. He bade the soldiers dig trenches in the dry torrent bed, -which was the very step most likely to ensure their deliverance from the torment of thirst, and which would be done under similar circumstances to this day. They saw neither wind nor rain; but there had been a storm among the farther hills, and the swollen watercourses discharged their overflow into the trenches of the wady which were ready prepared for them, and offered the path of least resistance.

Moab, meanwhile, had heard of the advance of the three kings through the territories of Edom. The whole military population had mustered in arms, and stood on the frontier, on the other side of the dry wady, to oppose the invasion. For they knew this would be a struggle of life and death, and that if defeated they would have no mercy to expect. When the sun rose, and its first rays burned on the wady, which had been dry on the previous evening, the water which, unknown to the Moabites, had filled the trenches in the night looked red as blood. Doubtless it may have been stained, as Ewald says, by the red soil which gave its name to the red land of the "red king, Edom"; but as it gleamed under the dawn the Moabites thought that those seemingly crimson pools had been filled with the blood of their enemies, who had fallen by each other’s swords. Their own recent experience when Jehoshaphat met them in the Valley of Salt showed them how easy it was for temporary allies to be seized by panic, and to fight among themselves.

The army of their invaders was composed of heterogeneous and mutually conflicting elements. Between Israel and Judah there had been nearly a century of war, and only a brief reunion; and Edom, recently the willing and natural ally of Moab, was not likely to fight very zealously for Judah, which had reduced her to vassalage. So the Moabites said to one another, as they pointed to the unexpected apparition of those red pools: "This is blood. The kings are surely destroyed, and they have smitten each man his fellow. Moab to the spoil!" They rushed down tumultuously on the camp of Israel, and found the soldiers of Jehoram ready to receive them. Taken by surprise, for they had expected no resistance, they were hurled back in utter confusion and with immense slaughter. The three kings pushed their advantage to the utmost. They went forward into the land, driving and smiting the Moabites before them, and ruthlessly carrying out the command attributed to Elisha. They beat down the cities-most of which in a land of flocks and herds were little more than pastoral villages; they rendered the green fields useless with stones; they filled up all the wells with earth; they felled every fruit-bearing tree of any value. At last only one stronghold, Kirharaseth, the chief fenced town of Moab, held out against them. Even this fortress was sore bested. The slingers, for which Israel, and specially the tribe of Benjamin, was so famous, advanced to drive its defenders from the battlements. King Mesha fought with undaunted heroism. He decided to take the seven hundred warriors who were left to him, and cut his way through the besieging host to the king of Edom. He thought that even now he might persuade the Edomites to abandon this new and unnatural alliance, and turn the battle against their common enemies. But the numbers against him were too strong, and he found the plan impossible. Then he formed a dreadful resolution, dictated to him by the extremity of his despair. His inscription at Karcha shows that he was a profound and even fanatical believer in Chemosh, his god. Chemosh could still deliver him. If Chemosh was, as Mesha says in his inscription, "angry with his land"-if, even for a time, he allowed his faithful people and his devoted king to be afflicted-it could not be for any lack of power on his part, but only because they had in some way offended him, so that he was wroth, or because he had gone on a journey, or was asleep, or deaf. {1 Kings 18:27. Comp. Psalms 35:23; Psalms 44:23; Psalms 83:1, etc.} How could he be appeased? Only by the offering of the most precious of all the king’s possessions; only by the self-devotion of the crown-prince, on whom were centered all the nation’s hopes. Mesha would force Chemosh to help him for very shame. He would offer to Chemosh a human sacrifice, the sacrifice of his eldest son that should have reigned in his stead. Doubtless the young prince gave himself up as a willing offering, for that was essential to the holocaust being valid and acceptable.

So upon the wall of Kirharaseth, in the sight of all the Moabites, and of the three invading armies, the brave and desperate hero of a hundred fights, who had inflicted so many reverses upon these enemies, and received so many at their hands, but who, having liberated his country, now saw all the efforts of his life ruined at one blow-took his eldest son, kindled the sacrificial fire, and then and there solemnly offered that horrible burnt-offering.

And it proved effectual, though far otherwise than Mesha had expected. He was delivered; and, doubtless, if ever he reared, at Kirharaseth or elsewhere, another memorial stone, he would have attributed his deliverance to his national god. But here, in the annals of Elisha, the result is hurried over, and a veil is, so to speak, dropped upon the dreadful scene with the one ambiguous expression, "And there was great wrath against Israel: and they departed from him, and returned to their own land."

The phrase awakens but does not satisfy our curiosity. We are not certain of the translation or of the meaning. It may be, as in the margin of the Revised Version, "there came great wrath upon Israel." But wrath from whom? and on what account? The word "wrath" all but invariably denotes divine wrath; but we cannot imagine (as some critics do) that any Israelite of the schools of the prophets would sanction the notion that the chosen people were allowed to suffer from the kindled wrath of Chemosh. Can we then suppose that the desperate act of King Mesha was a proof that Israel, who was no doubt the most interested and the most remorseless of the invaders, had pressed the Moabites too hard, and carried his vengeance much too far? That is by no means impossible. The prophet Amos denounces upon Moab in after years the doom that fire should devour the palaces of Kirioth, and that Moab should perish with shoutings, and all his royal line be cut off, for the far less offence of having burned into lime the bones of the king of Edom. {Amos 2:1-3} The command of Elisha did not exempt the Israelites from their share of moral responsibility. Jehu was commissioned to be an executioner of vengeance upon the house of Ahab. Yet Jehu is expressly condemned by the prophet Hosea for the tiger-like ferocity and horrible thoroughness with which he had carried out his destined work. Only one other explanation is possible. If "wrath" here has the unusual sense of human indignation, the clause can only imply that the armies of Judah and Edom were roused to anger by the unpitying spirit which Israel had displayed. The horrible tragedy enacted upon the wall of Kirharaseth awoke their consciences to the sense of human compassion. These, after all, were fellow-men-fellow-men of kindred blood to their own-whom they had driven to straits so frightful as to cause a king to burn his own heir alive as a mute appeal to his god in the hour of overwhelming ruin. They had done enough:

"Sunt laerimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt."

They hastily broke up the league, dissolved the alliance, returned horror-stricken to their own land. They left Moab indeed in possession of his last fortress, but they had reduced his territory to a wilderness before they retired and called it peace.

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on 2 Kings 3". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/2-kings-3.html.
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