MacLaren Expositions Of Holy Scripture
In the three and twentieth year of Joash the son of Ahaziah king of Judah Jehoahaz the son of Jehu began to reign over Israel in Samaria, and reigned seventeen years.
Now Elisha was fallen sick of his sickness whereof he died. And Joash the king of Israel came down unto him, and wept over his face, and said, O my father, my father, the chariot of Israel, and the horsemen thereof.2 Kings
ELIJAH’S TRANSLATION AND ELISHA’S DEATHBED
2 Kings 2:12. - 2 Kings 13:14.
The scenes and the speakers are strangely different in these two incidents. The one scene is that mysterious translation on the further bank of the Jordan, when a mortal was swept up to heaven in a fiery whirlwind, and the other is an ordinary sick chamber, where an old man was lying, with the life slowly ebbing out of him. The one speaker is the successor of the great prophet, on whom his spirit in a large measure fell; the other, an idolatrous king, young, headstrong, who had despised the latter prophet’s teaching while he lived, but was now for the moment awed into something like seriousness and reverence by his death.
Now the remarkable thing is that this unworthy monarch should have come to the dying prophet, and should have strengthened and cheered him by the quotation of his own words, spoken so long ago, as if he would say to him, ‘All that thou didst mean when thou didst stand there in rapturous adoration, watching the ascending Elijah, is as true about thee, lying dying here, of a common and lingering sickness. My father, my father, the chariot of Israel and the horsemen thereof.’ Seen or unseen, these were present. The reality was the same, though the appearances were so different.
I We have in the first case the chariot and horsemen seen.
To feel the force of the exclamation on the lips of Joash, we must try to make clear to ourselves what its original meaning was. What did Elisha intend when he stood beyond Jordan, and in wonder and awe exclaimed, ‘The chariot of Israel and the horsemen thereof’?
It does not seem to me that the interpretation of the words now in favour is at all satisfactory. It tells us that the expression is to he taken as in apposition with the exclamation ‘My father, my father’; and that both the one phrase and the other mean-Elijah! Yet what a preposterous and strange metaphor it would be to call a man a chariot and pair, or a chariot and cavalry! It seems to me that the very statement of this explanation, in plain English, condemns it as untenable. It is surely less probable that Elisha in that exclamation was describing Elijah than that he was speaking of that wondrous chariot of fire and horses of fire that had come between him and his master, and that his exclamation was one of surprised adoration as he gazed with wide-opened eyes on the burning angel-hosts, and saw his master mysteriously able to bear that fire, ringed round by these flaming squadrons, possibly standing unscathed on the floor of the chariot, and swept with it and all the celestial pomp, by the whirlwind, into heaven.
But why should he say ‘the chariot of Israel’? I think we take for granted too readily that ‘Israel’ here means the nation. You will remember that that name was not originally that of the nation, but of its progenitor and founder, given to Jacob as the consequence and record of that mysterious wrestling by the brook. And I think we get a nobler signification for the words before us if, instead of applying the name to the nation, we apply it here to the individual. When Elijah and Elisha crossed Jordan they were not far from the spot where that name was given to Jacob, ‘the supplanter,’ whom discipline and communion with God had elevated into Israel. And they were near another of the sites consecrated by his history, the place where, just before the change of his name, the angels of God met him and ‘he called the name of the place Mahanaim.’ That means ‘the two camps,’ the one, Jacob’s defenceless company of women and children, the other, their celestial guards.
It seems reasonable to suppose that, in all probability, a reminiscence of that old story of the manifestation of the armed angels of God as the defenders and servants of His children broke from Elisha’s lips. As he looks upon that strange appearance of the chariot and horses of fire that parted him and his friend, he sees once more ‘the chariot of Israel and the horsemen thereof,’ the reappearance of the shining armies whose presence had of old declared that ‘the angel of the Lord encampeth round about them that fear Him, and delivereth them.’ And now the same hosts in their immortal youth, unweakened by the ages which have brought earthly warriors to dust and their swords to rust, are flaming and flashing there in the midday sun. What was their errand, and why did they appear? They came, as God’s messengers, to bear His servant to His presence. They attested the commission and devotion of the prophet. Their agency was needful to lift a mortal to skies not native to him. Strange that a body of flesh should he able to endure that fiery splendour! Somewhere in the course of that upward movement must this man, who was caught up to meet the Lord in the air, have been ‘changed.’ His guards of honour were not only for tokens of his prophetic work, but for witnesses of the unseen world and in some sort pledges, suited to that stage of revelation, of life and immortality.
How striking is the contrast between the translation of Elijah and the Ascension of Christ! He who ascended up where He was before needed no whirlwind, nor chariot of fire, nor extraneous power to elevate Him to His home. Calmly, slowly, as borne upwards by indwelling affinity with heaven, He floated thither with outstretched hands of blessing. The servant angels did not need to surround Him, but, clad no longer in fiery armour, but ‘in white apparel,’ the emblem of purity and peace, they stood by the disciples and comforted them with hope. Elijah was carried to heaven. Christ went. The angels disappeared with the prophet and left Elisha to grieve alone. They lingered here after Christ had gone, and turned tears into rainbows flashing with the hues of hope.
II. We have in our second text the chariot and horsemen present though unseen.
We are now in a position to appreciate the meaning of Joash’s repetition to Elisha of his own words, spoken under such different circumstances.
Elisha was by no means so great a prophet as Elijah. His work had not been so conspicuous, his character was not so strong, though perhaps more gentle. No such lofty and large influence had been granted to him as had been given to the fiery Tishbite to wield, nor did he leave his mark so deep upon the history of the times or upon the memory of succeeding generations. But such as it had been given him to be he had been. He was a continuer, not an originator. There had been a long period during which he appears to have lived in absolute retirement, exercising no prophetic functions. We never hear of him during the interval between the anointing of Jehu to the Israelitish monarchy and the time of his own death, and that period must have extended over nearly fifty years. After all these years of eclipse and seclusion he was lying dying somewhere in a corner, and the king, young but impressible, although, on the whole, not reliable nor good, came down to the prophet’s home, and there, standing by the pallet of the dying man, repeated the words, so strangely reminiscent of a very different event-’ My father, my father! the chariot of Israel and the horsemen thereof!’
And what does that exclamation mean? Two things. One is this, that the angels of the Divine Presence are with us as truly, in life, when unseen as if seen. So far as we know, it was only to Elisha that the vision had been granted of that chariot of fire and horses of fire. We read that at Elijah’s translation on the other side of Jordan, and consequently at no great distance off, there stood a company of the sons of the prophets from Jericho to see what would happen, but we do not read that they did see. On the contrary, they were inclined to believe that Elijah had been caught up and flung away somewhere on the mountains, and that it was worth while to organise search-parties to go after him. It was only Elisha that saw, and Elijah did not know whether he would see or not, for he said to him, ‘If thou shalt see me when I am taken from thee, then’ thy desire shall be granted.
The angels of God are visible to the eyes that are fit to see them; and those eyes can always see them. It does not matter whether in a miracle or in a common event-it does not matter whether on the stones by the banks of Jordan or in a close sick chamber, they are visible for those who, by pure hearts and holy desires, have had their vision purged from the intrusive vulgarities and dazzling brightnesses of this poor, petty present, and can therefore see beneath all the apparent the real that blazes behind it.
The scenes at Jordan and in the death-chamber are not the only times in Elisha’s life when we read of these chariots and horses of fire. There was another incident in his career in which the same phrase occurs. Once his servant was terrified at the sight of a host compassing the little city where Elisha and he were, with horses and chariots, and came to his master with alarm and despair, crying, ‘Alas! my master, how shall we do?’ The prophet answered with superb calmness, ‘Fear not: for they that be with us are more than they that be with them . . .. Lord, I pray Thee, open his eyes that he may see. And the Lord opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw; and, behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire round about Elisha.’ They had always been there, though no one saw them. They were there when no one but Elisha saw them. They were no more there when the young man saw them than they had been before. They did not cease to be there when the film came over his eyes again, and the common round took him back to the trivialities of daily life.
And so from the mouth of this not very devout king the prophet was reminded of his own ancient experiences, and invited to feel that, unseen or seen, the solemn forms stood ‘bright-harnessed,’ and strong, ‘in order serviceable,’ ranged about him for his defence and blessing.
And are they not round about us? If a man can but look into the realities of things, will he see only the work of men and of the forces of nature? Will there not be-far more visible as they are far more real than any of these-the forces of the Eternal Presence and ever operative Will of our Father in Heaven? We need not discuss the personality of angels. An angel is the embodiment of the will and energy of God, and we have that will and energy working for us, whether there are any angel persons about us or not. Scripture declares that there are, and that they serve us. We may be sure that if only we will honestly try to purge our eyes from the illusions and temptations of ‘things seen and temporal,’ the mountain or the sick chamber will be to us equally full of the angel forms of our defenders and companions.
Do we see them for ourselves; and, not less important, do we, like Elisha, lying there on his deathbed, help else blind men to see them, and make every one that comes beside us, even if he be as little impressible and as little devout as this king Joash was, recognise that in our chambers there sit, and round our lives there flutter and sing, sweet and strong angel wings and voices? Will anybody, looking at you, be constrained to feel that with and around you are the angels of God?
Still further, another cognate application of these great words is that one which is more directly suggested by their quotation by Joash. It does not matter in what way the end of life comes. The reality is the same to all devout men; though one be swept to heaven in a whirlwind, and another lady slowly away in old age, or ‘fall sick of the sickness wherewith he should die.’ Each is taken to God in a chariot of fire. The means are of little moment, the fact remains the same, however diverse may he the methods of its accomplishment. The road is the same, the companions the same, the impelling-I was going to say the locomotive-power, is the same, and the goal is the same.
Of Enoch we read, ‘He was not, for God took him.’ Of Elijah we read, ‘He went up in a whirlwind to heaven.’ Of Elisha we read, ‘He died and they buried him.’ And of all three-the two who were translated that they should not see death, and the one who died like the rest of us-it is equally true that ‘God took’ them, and that they were taken to Him. So for ourselves and for our dear ones we may look forward or backward, to deathbeds of weariness, of lingering sickness, of long pain and suffering, or of swift dissolution, and piercing beneath the surface may see the blessed central reality and thankfully feel that Death, too, is God’s angel, who’ does His commandments, hearkening to the voice of God’s word’ when in his dark hearse he carries us hence.
And he said to the king of Israel, Put thine hand upon the bow. And he put his hand upon it: and Elisha put his hands upon the king's hands.2 Kings
THE SPIRIT OF POWER
2 Kings 13:16.
This is part of one of the strangest narratives in the Old Testament. Elisha is on his deathbed, ‘sick of the sickness’ wherewith he ‘should die.’ A very different scene, that close sick-chamber, from the open plain beyond Jordan from which Elijah had gone up; a very different way of passing from life by wasting sickness than by fiery chariot! But God is as near His servant in the one place as in the other, and the slow wasting away is as much His messenger as the sudden apocalypse of the horsemen of fire. The king of Israel comes to the old prophet, and very significantly repeats over him his own exclamation over Elijah, ‘My father! My father! the chariot of Israel and the horsemen thereof.’ Elisha takes no notice of the grief and reverence expressed by the exclamation, but goes straight to his work, and what follows is remarkable indeed.
Here is a prophet dying; and his last words are not edifying moral and religious reflections, nor does he seem to be much concerned to leave with the king his final protest against Israel’s sin, but his thoughts are all of warfare, and his last effort is to stir up the sluggish young monarch to some of his own enthusiasm in the conflict with the enemy. It does not sound like an edifying deathbed. People might have said, ‘Ah! secular and political affairs should be all out of a man’s mind when he comes to his last moments.’ But Elisha thought that to stick to his life’s work till the last breath was out of him, and to devote the last breath to stimulating successors who might catch up the torch that dropped from his failing hands, was no unworthy end of a prophet’s life.
So there followed what perhaps is not very familiar to some of us, that strange scene in which the dying man is far fuller of energy and vigour than the young king, and takes the upper hand of him, giving him a series of curt, authoritative commands, each of which he punctiliously obeys. ‘Take bow and arrow,’ and he took them. Then the prophet lays his wasted hand for a moment on the strong, young hand, and having thus either in symbol or reality-never mind which-communicated power, he says to him, ‘Fling open the casement towards the quarter where the enemy’s territory lies,’ and he flings it open. ‘Now, shoot,’ and he shoots. Then the old man gathers himself up on his bed, and with a triumphant shout exclaims, ‘The Lord’s arrow of victory! . . . Thou shalt smite the Syrians till they be consumed.’
That is not all. There is a second stage. The promise is given; the possibility is opened before the king, and now all depends on the question whether he will rise to the height of the occasion. So the prophet says to him, ‘Take the sheaf of arrows in your hand’; and he takes them. And then he says, ‘Now smite upon the ground.’ It is a test. If he had been roused and stirred by what had gone before; if he had any earnestness of belief in the power that was communicated, and any eagerness of desire to realise the promises that had been given of complete victory, what would he have done? What would Elisha have done if he had had the quiver in his hand? This king smites three perfunctory taps on the floor, and having done what will satisfy the old man’s whim, and what in decency he had to do, he stops, as if weary of the whole performance. So the prophet bursts out in indignation on his dying bed-’Thou shouldst have smitten five or six times; then hadst thou conquered utterly. Now thou shalt conquer but thrice.’ A strange story; very far away from our atmosphere and latitude! Yet are there not obviously in it great principles which may be disentangled from their singular setting, and fully applied to us? I think so. Let us try and draw them from it.
I. Here we have the power communicated.
Now the story seems to indicate that it was only for a moment that the prophet’s hands were laid on the king’s hands, because, after they had been so laid, he is bidden to go to the window and fling it open, and the bedridden man could not go there with him; then he is bidden to draw the bow, and another hand upon his would have been a hindrance rather than a help. So it was but a momentary touch, a communication of power in reality or in symbol that the muscular young hand needed, and the wasted old one could give. And is that not a parable for us? We, too, if we are Christian men and women, have a gospel of which the very kernel is that there is to us a communication of power, and the very name of that divine Spirit whom it is Christ’s greatest work to send flashing and flaming through the world, is the ‘Spirit of Power.’ And so the old promise that ye shall be clothed with strength from on high is the standing prerogative of the Christian Church. There is not merely some partial communication, as when hand touched hand, but every organ is vitalised and quickened; as in the case of the other miracle of this prophet, when he stretched himself on the dead child eye to eye, and mouth to mouth, and hand to hand; and each part received the vitalising influence. We have, if we are Christian people, a Spirit given to us, and are ‘strengthened with might by the Spirit in the inner man.’
That gift, that strength comes to us by contact, not with Elisha, but with Elisha’s Lord and Master. Christ’s touch, when He was on earth, brought sight to the blind, healing to the sick, vigour to the limbs of the lame, life to the dead. And you and I can have that touch, far more truly, and far more mightily operative upon us than they had, who only felt the contact of His finger, and only derived corporeal blessing. For we can draw near to Him, and in union with Him by faith and love and obedience, can have His Spirit in close contact with our spirits, and strengthening us for all service, and for every task. Brethren! that touch which gives strength is a real thing. It is no mere piece of mystical exaggeration when we speak of our spirits being in actual contact with Christ’s Spirit. Many of us have no clear conception, and still less a firm realisation, of that closer than corporeal contact, more real than bodily presence, and more intimate than any possible physical union, which is the great gift of God in Jesus Christ, and brings to us, if we will, life and strength according to our need. I would that the popular Christianity of this day had a far larger infusion of the sound, mystical element that lies in the New Testament Christianity, and did not talk so exclusively about a Christ that is for us as to have all but lost sight of the second stage of our relation to Christ, and lost a faith in a Christ that is in us Brethren! He can lay His hand upon your spirit’s hand. He can flash light into your spirit’s eye from His eye. He can put breath and eloquence into your spirit’s lips from His lips, and His heart beating against yours can transfuse-if I may so say-into you His own life-blood, which cleanses from all sin, and fits for all conflict.
Then, further, let me remind you that this power, which is bestowed on condition of contact, is given before duties are commanded. This king, in our acted parable, first had the touch of Elisha’s fingers, and then received the command from Elisha’s lips, ‘Shoot!’ So Jesus Christ gives before He commands, and commands nothing which He has not fitted us to perform. He is not ‘an austere man, reaping where He did not sow, and gathering where He did not straw’; but He comes first to us saying, ‘I give thee Myself,’ and then He looks us in the eyes and says, ‘Wilt thou not give Me thyself?’ He bestows the strength first, and He commands the consequent duty afterwards.
Further, this strength communicated is realised in the effort to obey Christ’s great commands. Joash felt nothing when the prophet’s hand was laid upon his but, perhaps, some tingling. But when he got the bow in his hand and drew the arrow to its head, the infused power stiffened his muscles and strengthened him to pull; and though he could not distinguish between his own natural corporeal ability and that which had been thus imparted to him, the two co-operated in the one act, and it was when he drew his bow that he felt his strength. ‘Stretch forth thine hand,’ said Christ to the lame man. But the very infirmity to be dealt with was his inability to stretch it forth. At the command he tried, and, to his wonder, the stiffened sinews relaxed, and the joint that had been immovable had free play, and he stretched out his hand, and it was restored whole as the other. So He gives what He commands, and in obeying the command we realise and are conscious of the power. Elisha and Joash but act an illustration of the great word of Paul: ‘Work out your own salvation . . . for it is God that worketh in you.’
II. And now, secondly, look at the perfected victory that is possible.
When the arrows, by God’s strength operating through Joash’s arm, had been shot, the prophet says, ‘The arrow of the Lord’s victory! . . . thou shalt smite . . . till thou have consumed.’ Yes, of course; if the arrow is the Lord’s arrow, and the strength is His strength, then the only issue corresponding to the power is perfect victory. I would that Christian people realised more than they do practically in their lives that while men’s ideals and aims may be all unaccomplished, or but partially approximated to, since God is God, His nature is perfection, and nothing that He does can fall beneath His ideal and purpose in doing it. All that comes from Him must correspond to Him from whom it comes. He never leaves off till He has completed, nor can any one say about any of His work, ‘He began to build, and was not able to finish.’ So, Christian people! I would that we should rise to the height of our prerogatives, and realise the fact that perfect victory is possible, regard being had to the power which ‘teaches our hands to war and our fingers to fight.’ A great deal of not altogether profitable jangling goes on at present in reference to the question of whether absolute sinlessness is possible for a Christian man on earth. Whatever view we take upon that question, it ought not to hide from us the fact which should loom very much more largely in our daily operative belief than it does with most of us, that in so far as the power which is given to us is concerned, perfect victory is within our grasp, and is the only worthy and correspondent result to the perfect power which worketh in us. So there is no reason, as from any defect of the divine gift to the weakest of us, why our Christian lives should have ups and downs, why there should be interruptions in our devotion, fallings short in our consecration, contradictions in our conduct, slidings backward in our progress. There is no reason why, in our Christian year, there should be summer and winter; but according to the symbolical saying of one of the old prophets, ‘The ploughman may overtake the reaper, and he that treadeth out the grapes him that soweth the seed.’ In so far as our Christian life is concerned, the perfection of the power that is granted to us involves the possibility of perfection in the recipient.
And the same thing is true in reference to a Christian man’s work in the world. God’s Church has ample resources to overcome the evil of the world. The fire is tremendous, but the Christian Church has possession of the floods that can extinguish the fire. If we utilised all that we have, we might ‘smite till we had consumed,’ and turned the world into the Church of God. That is the ideal, the possibility, when we look at the Christian man as possessor of the communicated power of God. And then we turn to the reality, to our own consciences, to the state of our religious communities everywhere, and we see what seems to be blank contradiction of the possibility. Where is the explanation?
III. That brings me to my last point, the partial victory that is actually won.
‘Thou shouldst have smitten five or six times; then hadst thou smitten the Syrians till they were consumed. But now thou shalt conquer but thrice.’ All God’s promises and prophecies are conditional. There is no such thing as an unconditional promise of victory or of defeat; there is always an ‘if.’ There is always man’s freedom as a factor. It is strange. I suppose no thinking, metaphysical or theological, ever has solved or ever will, that great paradox of the power of a finite will to lift itself up in the face of, and antagonism to, an Infinite Will backed by infinite power, and to thwart its purposes. ‘How often would I have gathered . . . and ye would not.’ Here is all the power for a perfect victory, and yet the man that has it has to be contented with a very partial one.
It is a solemn thought that the Church’s unbelief can limit and hinder Christ’s work in the world, and we have here another illustration of that truth. You will find now and then in the newspapers, stories-they may be true or false-about caterpillars stopping a train. There is an old legend of that fabulous creature the remora, a tiny thing that fastened itself to the keel of a ship, and arrested it in mid-ocean. That is what we do with God and His purposes, and with His power granted to us.
A low expectation limits the power. This king did not believe, did not expect, that he would conquer utterly, and so he did not. You believe that you can do a thing, and in nine cases out of ten that goes nine-tenths of the way towards doing it. If we cast ourselves into our fight expecting victory, the expectation will realise itself in nine cases out of ten. And the man who in faith refuses to say ‘that beast of a word-impossible!’ will find that ‘all things are possible to him that believeth.’ ‘Expect great things of God,’ and you will feel His power tingling to your very fingertips, and will be able to draw the arrow to its head, and send it whizzing home to its mark.
Small desires block the power. Where there is an iron-bound coast running in one straight line, the whole ocean may dash itself on the cliffs at the base, but it enters not into the land; but where the shore opens itself out into some deep gulf far inland, and broad across at the entrance, then the glad water rushes in and fills it all. Make room for God in your lives by your desires and you will get Him in the fullness of His power.
The use of our power increases our power. Joash had an unused quiver full of arrows, and he only smote thrice. ‘To him that hath shall be given, and from him that hath not shall be taken.’ The reason why many of us professing Christians have so little of the strength of God in our lives is because we have made so little use of the strength that we have. Stow away your seed-corn in a granary and do not let the air into it, and weevils and rats will consume it. Sow it broadcast on the fields with liberal hand, and it will spring up, ‘some thirty, some sixty, some an hundredfold.’ Use increases strength in all regions, and unused organs atrophy and wither.
So, dear friends! if we will keep ourselves in contact with Christ, and tremulously sensitive to His touch, if we will expect power according to our tasks and our needs, if we will desire more of His grace, and if we will honestly and manfully use the strength that we have, then He will ‘teach our hands to war and our fingers to fight,’ and will give us strength, ‘so that a bow of brass is bent by’ our arms, and we shall be ‘more than conquerors through Him that loved us.’