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THE OPENING VERSE of 2 Kings 8 informs us that the Lord had called for a seven years’ famine on Samaria, and we considered one of the things which transpired during that “sore judgment” from heaven. That which is now to claim our attention is not to be regarded as something which occurred after the expiration of the famine, but rather as what took place at its beginning. After tracing the experiences of the woman from Shunem, the Holy Spirit picks up the thread of 2 Kings 8:1 and informs us of the movements of the prophet himself. “And Elisha came to Damascus” ( Kings 8:7). He too left Samaria, for it was no place for him now that the indignation of the Lord was upon it. When God deals in judgment with a people, His temporal plagues are usually accompanied by spiritual deprivations, often by removing His servants “into a corner” ( Isaiah 30:20), and then the people of God are left “as sheep without a shepherd”— one of the acutest afflictions they can experience. It was thus with Israel in the earlier famine days of Ahab. There is no intimation that Elijah did any preaching during these three and a half years, for the Lord sent him to Cherith and then to Zarephath.
Sad indeed is the plight of any people when they are not only scourged temporally but have their spiritual blessings taken from them too. During the times of the judges, when “every man did that which was right in his own eyes” ( Judges 21:25), we are told, “... in those days; there was no open vision” ( 1 Samuel 3:1). This signifies there was no accredited servant of God to whom the people could go for a knowledge of the divine mind and will. So again in the days of Ezekiel it was announced, “Mischief shall come upon mischief, and rumor shall be upon rumor;” and as the climactic calamity: “Then shall they seek a vision of the prophet; but the law shall perish from the priest” ( Ezekiel 7:26).
Little as it is realized by the present generation, the most solemn, fearful, and portentous of all the marks of God’s anger is the withholding of a Spirit-filled, faithful, and edifying ministry. For then there is “a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst of water, but of hearing the words of the LORD” ( Amos 8:11).
Solemn indeed is that brief and simple sentence, denoting as it does that the prophet had left Samaria, left it because his ministry there was unwelcome, wasted. How often we find a parallel to this in the gospels. At the very beginning of His public ministry, we read that Christ “came down to Capernaum” ( Luke 4:31). Why? Because at Nazareth they were filled with wrath at His teaching ( Luke 4:28-29). “He entered into a ship, and passed over.” Why? Because at Capernaum the whole city “besought him that he would depart out of their coasts” ( Matthew 8:34; 9:1). He “withdrew himself from thence” because the Pharisees had “held a council against him” ( Matthew 12:14-15). “He could there do no mighty work... because of their unbelief”. What follows? “And He went round about their villages teaching” ( Mark 6:5-6). “It was necessary that the word of God should first have been spoken to you, but seeing ye put it from you... lo, we turn to the Gentiles” ( Acts 13:46).
When God calls a pastor to another charge, the church he has left has reason to search itself before the Lord as to the cause.
The opening “And” links the incident which follows with the first verse of our chapter. But more, as was the case in several previous instances, it points a series of striking contrasts between this and the events recorded in the context. There, the central character was a godly woman; here it is a wicked man. In the former the prophet took the initiative, communicating with the woman; now, a king sends to inquire of the man of God. There his prophetic announcement was promptly credited; here it is scornfully ridiculed ( 2 Kings 8:13). In the first, the king’s servant told him the truth ( 2 Kings 8:5); in this, another king’s servant tells him a lie ( Kings 8:13). There God put forth His power and graciously provided for one of His own; here He removes His restraining hand and lets one of the reprobate meet with a violent end. The previous miracle closed with the restoration of the woman’s property to her; this ends with a callous murder and the usurper occupying the throne.
Though there is nothing in the narrative to intimate specifically when it was that Elisha “came to Damascus,” yet the introductory “And” seems to make it clear that the prophet took this journey during “the seven years’ famine,” and probably at an early stage. As the Lord was not pleased on this occasion to work in a mysterious and extraordinary way for the temporal preservation of the woman of Shunem (as He had for the widow at Zarephath) but provided for her needs by the more regular yet not less wonderful ordering of providence on her behalf, so it would seem that He did for His servant. And as she sojourned in the land of the Philistines, so he now sought refuge in the capital of Syria, even though that was the very country which had for so long been hostile to Samaria. Nor did he go into hiding there, but counted upon his Master’s protecting him even in the midst of a people who had so often preyed upon Israel. That Elisha’s presence in Damascus was no secret is clear from what follows.
SECOND, THE OCCASION OF THE MIRACLE “And Elisha came to Damascus” — the most ancient city in the world, with the possible exception of Jerusalem. Josephus says that “it was founded by Uz, the son of Aram, and grandson of Shem.” It is mentioned as early as Genesis 14:15, in the days of Abraham, 2000 B.C. It was captured and occupied in turn by the Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans. Paul commenced his ministry there ( Acts 9:19-22). It remains to this day. In the time of Ahab, Ben-hadad, after his defeat by the Samaritans and the sparing of his life, said to the king of Israel, “Thou shalt make streets for thee in Damascus, as my father made in Samaria.” Upon which Ahab said, “I will send thee away with this covenant. So he made a covenant with him, and sent him away” ( 1 Kings 20:34).
That Elisha had not fled to Damascus in the energy of the flesh in order to escape the hardships and horrors of the famine, but had gone there in the will of the Lord is evident from the sequel. In what follows we are shown how that while he was here he received communications from God and was used by Him. That is one of the ways in which the child of God may ascertain whether or not he is in the place he should be, or whether in selfwill he has forsaken the path of duty. “He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me:... and I will love him, and will manifest myself to him” ( John 14:21), make Myself a living reality to his soul, make discoveries of My glory to him through the written Word. But when we take matters into our own hands and our ways displease the Lord, communion is severed, and He hides His face from us. When we choose our own way and the Spirit is grieved, He no longer takes the things of Christ and shows them to us, but disquiets our hearts because of our sins.
Yes, God made use of Elisha while he sojourned in Damascus. But how varied, how solemnly varied, are the several ways in which He is pleased to employ His servants. Not now was he commissioned to heal a leper, nor to restore a dead child to life, but rather to announce the death of a king.
Herein we have shadowed forth the more painful and exacting side of the minister’s duty. He is required to set before men the way of life and the way of death. He is under bond to faithfully make known the doom awaiting the wicked, as well as the bliss reserved for the righteous. He is to preach the law as well as the gospel; to describe the everlasting torments of hell, as well as the unending glory of heaven. He is bidden to preach the gospel to every creature, and announce in no uncertain tones, “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned” ( Mark 16:16).
Only by so doing will he be warranted in saying, “I am pure from the blood of all men. For I have not shunned to declare unto you all the counsel of God” ( Acts 20:26-27). “And Ben-hadad the king of Syria was sick; and it was told him, saying, The man of God is come hither” ( 2 Kings 8:7).
The wearing of a crown does not exempt its possessor from the common troubles to which man is born; rather does it afford additional opportunities for gratifying the lust of the flesh, which will only increase his troubles. It is only by being temperate in all things that many sicknesses can be avoided, for walking according to the rules of Scripture promotes health of body as well as health of soul. When sickness overtakes a saint his first concern should not be its removal, but a definite seeking unto the Lord to ascertain why He has afflicted him ( Job 10:2). His next concern should be to have his sickness sanctified to the good of his soul, that he may learn the lessons that chastisement is designed to teach him, that he may be able to say, “It is good for me that I have been afflicted; that I might learn thy statutes” ( <19B971> Psalm 119:71).
In the case before us it was not a child of God who had fallen sick, but a heathen monarch. “And the king said unto Hazael, Take a present in thine hand, and go, meet the man of God, and enquire of the LORD by him, saying, Shall I recover of this disease?” ( 2 Kings 7:8).
What a startling antithesis this presents from what was before us in Kings 6:31! Only a short time previously, the king of Israel had sworn a horrible oath that Elisha should be slain; here a foreign king owns him as “the man of God” and makes inquiry concerning his own life or death.
Striking too is the contrast between Ben-hadad’s action here and the last thing recorded of him when he sent his forces to take Elisha captive ( Kings 6:14)! How fickle is human nature: Man is one day ready to pluck out his eyes and give them to a servant of God, and the next regards him as an enemy because he told the truth ( Galatians 4:15-16). But now the Syrian king was concerned about his condition and anxious to know the outcome of his illness.
It appears to have been the practice in those days for a king who was seriously ill to make a formal inquiry from one whom he regarded as endowed with supernatural knowledge. Thus we read that when Jeroboam’s son fell sick, he sent his wife to ascertain of Ahijah the prophet “what shall become of the child” ( 1 Kings 14:1-3); and again we are told that Ahaziah sent messengers “to enquire of Baal-zebub the god of Ekron whether I shall recover of this disease.” ( 2 Kings 1:2).
From what is recorded in 1 Kings 20:23 and the sequel, we may conclude that Ben-hadad had lost confidence in his own “gods” and placed more reliance upon the word of Elisha; yet it is to be noted that he neither asked for his prayers nor expressed any desire for a visit from him; seriously sick as he felt himself to be, he was not concerned about his soul but only his body. Throughout the whole of his career there is nothing to indicate he had the slightest regard for the Lord, but much to the contrary. “So Hazael went to meet him, and took a present with him, even of every good thing of Damascus, forty camels’ burden, and came and stood before him, and said, Thy son Ben-hadad king of Syria hath sent me to thee, saying, Shall I recover of this desease?” ( 2 Kings 8:9).
The “present” was to intimate that he came on a peaceful and friendly mission and with no design of doing the prophet an injury or carrying him away as a prisoner. This too was in accord with the custom of those days and the ways of Orientals. Thus when Saul wished to consult Samuel about the lost asses of his father, he lamented the fact that he had “not a present to bring to the man of God” ( 1 Samuel 9:7), and when the wife of Jeroboam went to inquire of the prophet Ahijah she took a present for him ( 1 Kings 14:3). But looking higher, we may see in the lavish nature of Ben-hadad’s present the guiding hand of God and an “earnest” for His servant that He would spread a table for him in the presence of his enemies! We are not told that Elisha refused this present, nor was there any reason why he should; perhaps he sent a goodly portion thereof to relieve the distress of the schools of the prophets still in Samaria. “And Elisha said unto him, Go, say unto him, Thou mayest certainly recover: howbeit the LORD hath shewed me that he shall surely die” ( 2 Kings 8:10).
Observe first a significant omission. Elisha did not offer to go and visit Ben-hadad! That was not because he was callous, for the very next verse shows he was a man of compassion. Rather was he restrained by the Lord, who had no design of mercy unto the Syrian king. Very solemn was that.
But what are we to make of the prophet’s enigmatical language? The disease from which your master is suffering will not produce a fatal end; nevertheless, the Lord has showed me that his death is imminent — by violence: another proof that the Lord God “revealeth his secret unto his servants the prophets” ( Amos 3:7). It is on this same principle we discover the harmony between there being “an appointed time to man upon earth” ( Job 7:1) and “why shouldest thou die before thy time?” ( Ecclesiastes 7:17) — before the normal course of nature; and the fifteen years “added to” the course of Hezekiah’s life — God intervening to stay the ordinary working of his disease.
The first clause must be interpreted in the light of all that follows. Had it stood by itself, we should have understood it to signify that Hazael was deeply grieved by the prophet’s announcement and sought to control his emotions — though that would not account for the prophet bursting into tears. But the sequel obliges us to conclude that, far from being horrified at the news he had just received, Hazael was highly gratified, and the settling of his countenance was an endeavor to conceal his elation. Accordingly, we regard the “until he was ashamed” (the Hebrew word is often rendered, “confounded,” and once, “put to confusion”) as denoting that, under the piercing gaze of Elisha he realized he had not succeeded and was chagrined that his countenance revealed the wicked pleasure he found in the prophet’s reply. God has wisely, justly, and mercifully ordered that to a considerable extent, the countenance is made to betray the workings of our minds and the state of our hearts.
The servant of God was not deceived by Hazael’s playacting, for he not only had the aid of his own eyes to perceive the attempted deception, but also had a direct revelation from heaven concerning the sequel. The weeping of the man of God was not occasioned by his knowledge of the violent end awaiting Ben-hadad, but rather from what the Lord had also shown him concerning the fearful horrors which should shortly be inflicted upon Israel. In his tears we behold Elisha foreshadowing his incarnate Lord, who wept over Jerusalem ( Luke 19:41). Elisha was no heartless stoic: even though he knew that his nation fully deserved the still sorer judgments which God would shortly visit upon it through the agency of the man who now stood before him, yet Elisha could not be unmoved at his prophetic foreview of their terrible afflictions. The prophets were men of deep feelings, as the history of Jeremiah abundantly manifests. So too was Paul ( Philippians 3:18). So is every true servant of Christ.
FOURTH, THE NATURE OF THE MIRACLE “And Hazael said, Why weepeth my lord? And he answered, Because I know the evil that thou wilt do unto the children of Israel: their strong holds wilt thou set on fire, and their young men wilt thou slay with the sword, and wilt dash their children, and rip up their women with child” ( 2 Kings 8:12).
Like the two preceeding ones, this miracle consists of a supernatural disclosure, the announcing of a prophetic revelation which he had received directly from God — in this case a double one: the death of Ben-hadad and the judgments which should come upon Israel. Hazael was far from being melted by Elisha’s tears (he was probably nonplussed by them), and in order to gain time for composure of mind, he asked the question which he did. It is solemn to note that while Elisha announced what he foresaw would happen, he made no effort to dissuade or deter Hazael — as our Lord foretold the treachery of Judas, but sought not to turn him from his evil purpose.
Hotly did he resent such a charge, nor did he at that moment deem himself capable of such atrocities, nor did he wish the prophet to regard him as such a wretch. How little do the unregenerate realize or suspect the desperate wickedness of their hearts! How anxious are they that others should not think the worst of them! When not immediately exposed to temptations, they do not believe they are capable of such enormities, and are highly insulted when the contrary is affirmed. “And Elisha answered, The LORD hath shewed me that thou shalt be king over Syria.” Again we see the extraordinary powers with which the prophets were invested, though Elisha gives God the glory for his. When Hazael ascended the throne, all human restraint would be removed from him, and enlarged powers and opportunities would be his for working evil.
SIXTH, FULFILLMENT OF THE MIRACLE “So he departed from Elisha, and came to his master; who said to him, What said Elisha to thee? And he answered, He told me that thou shouldest surely recover” ( 2 Kings 8:14).
Thus did Hazael seek to put off his guard the one he intended to murder by deliberately lying to him. “And it came to pass on the morrow, that he took a thick cloth, and dipped it in water, and spread it on his face, so that he died: and Hazael reigned in his stead” ( 2 Kings 8:15).
And this was the man who a few hours before indignantly denied he had the character of a savage dog! In the fearful doom of Ben-hadad we see the righteous retribution of God. Having been a man of violence, he met with a violent end — as he had lived, so he died (see 1 Kings 20:1,16,21,26,29; 22:1; 2 Kings 6:8,24). And for Hazael in the future: 2 Kings 10:32.
SEVENTH, THE MEANING OF THE MIRACLE This is so obvious that very few words are needed: it is the glaring contrast between the faithful and the unfaithful servant. Elisha had unflinchingly declared the counsel which he had received from the Lord, however unpalatable it was to his hearer. But Hazael gives us a picture of the hireling, the false prophet, the deceiver of souls. Ostensibly he went forth in obedience to his master’s commission ( 2 Kings 8:9); in reality he was playing the part of a hypocrite ( 2 Kings 8:11). When he delivered his message he falsified it by withholding the most pointed and solemn part of it ( 2 Kings 8:14). How many there are like him, uttering “smooth things” and remaining guiltily silent on the doom awaiting the wicked. As surely as Hazael slew Ben-hadad, the unfaithful preachers of our day are murdering souls. As Hazael became king, so the most faithless now occupy seats of power in Christendom.