Sermon preached on 2 Kings 3 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 04/19/2020 in Novato, CA.
We now return today to our regularly schedule programming here in 2 Kings 3. I am not referring to the fact that last week we took a week of for an Easter sermon. I mean that 2 Kings took 2 chapters off from its main story line to tell us who would succeed King Ahab and the prophet Elijah. If you go back to the start of 1 Kings, in chapter 1:1, we are told “After the death of Ahab, Moab rebelled against Israel.” That line would make perfect sense if today’s chapter started out like that. In fact, that line is here – verse 5 of our chapter says the same thing. And so, 3:5 and 1:1 bracket that material about who would replace King Ahab and prophet Elijah. Ahab at first was replaced by his firstborn son Ahaziah who was very much like his father Ahab and his mother Jezebel – in terms of being a flagrant worshipper of Baal. That is specifically said at the end of 1 Kings 22:52. Likewise, Elijah was replaced by his spiritual firstborn son Elisha who was very much like his spiritual father Elijah. But for Ahaziah, to be like his father and mother was a bad thing, while Elisha’s resemblance to his spiritual father Elijah was a good thing. So then, God quickly removes Ahaziah not allowing his lineage to continue, and his brother Jehoram is given the throne instead.
Apparently Jehoram had seen how things went for his father Ahab and his brother Ahaziah, because we are told how he was not like them nor his mother Jezebel. That’s verse 2. So then, Jehoram began religious reform in Israel. He put away the pillar of Baal that his father had made. That is a very important first step. He turned away from false religion. Yet, his religious reform did not go far enough. He continued in the sin of Jeroboam, a reference especially to the idolatry of the golden calves. This partial reform was important, but still majorly lacking because we see in verse 2 that Jehoram is still described as doing evil in the LORD’s sight. The passage recognizes rightly that there are degrees of evil. Not all sins are as equally heinous in the sight of God. Jehoram here fixes a first commandment violation but leaves a second commandment violation. Unfortunately for Jehoram, this second commandment violation was still very heinous in God’s sight.
Nonetheless, stepping back, we see that the aside of the first two chapters in 2 Kings was to reflect on the next generation of leadership in Israel. While the office of prophet was doing well with Elisha, this next King of the house of Omri only made partial improvements. We will have a chance to see how that plays itself out in this chapter and in the coming ones for Israel. And for some starting application, it reminds us that each new generation comes with a call for reflection on the past and consideration of how we will live. Will those who follow faithful fathers continue in such ways? Will those who follow faithless fathers turn from such ways? That’s a question for us all to ask in our day. But for now, then, we are brought back to the regularly scheduled programming, so to speak. We are brought back to the concern of 1:1 and now 3:5 – the issue with the King of Moab rebelling from Israel.
You might recall that Moab is a distant relative to Israel. Moab’s ancestry traces back to Lot, nephew of Abraham, Israel’s patriarch. Because of this family connection, long before God told Israel through Moses not to harass or go to battle against Moab or to try to take their land because God had given it to Moab. Despite this, Israel and Moab had been repeatedly in conflict over the generations. Moab was often the aggressor and instigator in such conflicts, Kings Balak and Eglon being two examples. Well here, generations later, we find Israel that had managed to subjugate Moab under the reign of King Ahab, son of Omri. Israel was extracting a huge financial tribute from Moab, in the form of so many lambs and wool. This is something archeology confirms. The Louvre museum currently holds the ancient Mesha Stele which records this history from the perspective of King Mesha of Moab – the one mentioned in our passage. It records how a son of Omri had subjugated them. It goes on to describe what we find in verse 5 – that Mesha did what his father couldn’t do – successfully rebel throw off Israel’s yoke.
So then, King Jehoram decides that he needs to respond in force to Moab’s rebellion, per verse 6. Here, Jehoram will act a bit like his father Ahab. What I mean, is that this chapter parallels in many ways 1 Kings 22. That’s the chapter when Ahab wanted to go out and initiate a battle against Syria and he asks for Jehoshaphat, King of Judah, to help, just like Jehoram does here. Jehoshaphat in both chapters agrees to help with the same response of unity as here in verse 7. In both chapters Jehoshaphat at one point asks if there is a prophet of the LORD that they can inquire. Surely, these two chapters have parallels that are meant to be considered and contrasted.
So then, King Jehoram gets King Jehoshaphat to help and he decides that they should go the long way to Moab by going south then east, picking up help from the King of Edom along the way. At that time, Edom was under the rule of Judah (c.f. 2 Chron 21:8). From there they would go north into the territory of Moab. I might note that while this conveniently allowed them to pick up Edom’s forces along the way, it placed the battlefront much closer to Judah and Edom than Israel. That reminds me of how in that parallel chapter Ahab goes to battle in disguise but has Jehoshaphat wear his royal robes – but I digress.
At any rate, they run into trouble quickly, verse 9. They run out of water 7 days into the marching of the troops. There, in the wilderness of Edom, the soldiers and their animals are in serious trouble. You can survive a while in a wilderness without food, but not without water! Jehoram particularly recognizes that if Moab were to see them coming and attack now, they’d be easy targets when they are faint with thirst, verse 10. Unfortunately, Jehoram is quick to blame the LORD God. In verse 10, he says, “Alas! The LORD has called these three kings to give them into the hand of Moab.” I could imagine how given his history of watching God bring judgment upon his father and brother that he had learned a sort of brutish fear of the LORD while not truly understanding God’s character. He seems to see here the LORD as a God who is just out to get him. Maybe that’s even what motivated him to have put away the Baal pillar in the first place. Maybe he’s just feared God in a sense of simplistic terror without really coming to understand what God truly requires of him. And so, he blames God here for their troubles.
But thankfully the godly King Jehoshaphat has a better religious sense of what to do. He knows that such times of peril are not when you start blaming God, but when you need to call out to God for help. By the way, we might wonder why it’s at this point that Jehoshaphat asks about inquiring of God. Back in the parallel chapter with Ahab, Jehoshaphat makes this request before they even set out for battle. That seems like the better time to do that. Of course, we might even wonder why Jehoshaphat is even out helping in battle another evil Israelite king, since when he did that before he received a rebuke from the LORD. Maybe Jehoshaphat thinks this time is different since Jehoram is not as evil as his father had been. Or maybe Jehoshaphat had forgotten that he had been rebuked like that just a few years before. We don’t know, but it too is an interesting question as we think of how to do better than the past.
So, then they inquire of the prophet Elisha. Elisha begins by rebuking Jehoram suggesting he should inquire of his parents’ Baal prophets. That’s an interesting statement since Elijah had rebuked Jehoram’s brother in chapter 1 for doing that and saying he should have inquired of the true God instead. That’s why I think that Elisha’s words here ultimately serve as a bit of a test to Jehoram. They invite a response of the sort that Jehoram gives in verse 13. There, I believe Jehoram rightly recognizes that LORD’s providence and why they need to inquire of him and not Baal. Well, Elijah says he’s willing to minister the Word of God to them, not for Jehoram’s sake, but for the sake of King Jehoshaphat. There is a wonderful application here toward us in Christ. King Jehoshaphat, as a Davidic king, is a type of Christ in this regard. For his sake, God would minister his Word to a sinner. Well, we sinners have been blessed to receive God’s Word and blessing, not for our sake, but for the sake of King Jesus and his righteousness. A wonderful reminder of the blessing from above that we have for Christ’s sake.
Elisha then proceeds to give them the word of the LORD. A few things stand out. First, God will miraculously send them water without any visible sign of a storm in the area. But he also says that to just provide them water would be too little. The gracious LORD would also give them great victory over the Moabites. Elisha then proceeds to detail how the Israelites would prevail over Moab. He describes a sort of scorched-earth policy where Israel will go through not just having victory over all the major cities, but also ruining the land as they go through. They’ll cut down all the good trees – surely a reference especially to the fruit bearing trees. They’ll also stop up all the springs and cover the farmland with stones. This will make it hard for Moab to resettle and reuse the land in the future.
Now on this scorched-earth matter, we should note that the grammar is ambiguous. Elisha’s words are technically put in the future tense, but someone might have taken them as a command. But was Elisha commanding that or just describing that this is in fact what Israel would do? The reason this is an important question is because the law in Deuteronomy 20:19 forbids this sort of thing, at least in terms of needlessly cutting down an enemy’s trees during war, especially fruit trees that should be used for food. Some understand Elisha’s prophecy here to be God giving Israel special permission to do this this time. Some think the law in Deuteronomy doesn’t strictly apply to this situation. Others, such as myself, tend to think Elisha is just being prophetic and descriptive here of what Israel will do, and not necessarily advocating the practice. Elisha would later in chapter 8 prophesy to King Hazael of Syria of the things he would do, and there its clear that while he predicted them he was not advocating them. Maybe he is doing the same here.
Well, Israel didn’t need to wait very long for the fulfillment of God’s promised water. It arrives the very next morning, apparently as some sort of flash flooding coming from the direction of Edom. Notice in verse 20 the occasion for the water coming. It came at the same time of the morning grain offering. And so, it’s in an act of worship that they receive this water from God. To be reminded of blessing coming through worship is a blessing in itself!
So then, we see that this water becomes the occasion for Moab’s major defeat. Starting in verse 21, we see that Moab learns of the approaching coalition of three kings. They muster their army and then discover the pools of water amidst the Israelite armies in the distance. Unfortunately for them, the way the sun shone on the water, it looked like pools of blood to them. They mistakenly think the armies of the three kings turned on each other and killed one another off. So, they foolishly send out their forces thinking they can take whatever spoil was left behind by this supposed blood bath. That’s when they discover to their demise that the Israelite coalition of forces is alive and well.
That’s what enables Israel to massively strike the Moabite forces and send them fleeing. Then Israel goes through Moab overturning city after city. They also implement that predicted scorched-earth policy, chopping down all the good trees, stopping up the springs, and covering the fields in stones. This victory was so massive that it drove Moab back to their stronghold in Kir-hareseth to take their final stand. From there things continued to get worse, so the King of Moab thought he better try to even retreat from there. Verse 26 says he tries to break through the coalition of armies where the Edomite forces were. But he is unsuccessful.
From here, something horrible happens. Moab looks out of options. The Israelite coalition of forces has the city surrounded. Defeat looks imminent for Moab. There is no record of Israel offering terms of surrender for Mesha at that point. At this point it looks like they might just utterly destroy them. That’s when King Mesha does a great evil. He sacrifices his firstborn son, heir to the throne, on the wall of the city for all to see. This would have been a sacrifice to the Moabite false god Chemosh. Child sacrifice like this was sadly a practice of some heathen people back then. This would have been seeking to placate any anger Chemosh may have had with his people and beg for his help. For Mesha to sacrifice his firstborn, it would have been a cry of utter despair to his god. It would have been an expression that he was willing to give anything for Chemosh’s help.
It’s at that point, the passage ends with a statement that great wrath came upon Israel resulting in Israel picking up their camp and going home. Many translations say the wrath came against Israel but more literally it came upon Israel. This phrase has challenged interpreters and various understandings have been proposed. Is this Moab’s anger upon Israel – that they were so outraged at the King’s son having to be sacrifice that they had a swell of wrath that was going to fall mightily upon Israel – so Israel decides to retreat? Or is this God’s anger upon Israel – possibly because of how they scorched the land like they did and then were apparently about to utterly wipe out their distant relatives. Or is this Israel’s own anger – that they were so indignant at the practice of child sacrifice before their eyes that they were disgusted and went home. Grammatically that seems the most probable to me, though maybe hard to imagine for Israel as we know them at that time. I think it’s possible the author was intentionally ambiguous because all these sources of anger were present and we were meant to reflect on each. All we can say for sure is that somehow, some great anger resulted in Israel abandoning their final destruction of Moab.
At this point, we might reflect on the success of this military campaign by Israel. Was this a profitable venture by them? They don’t apparently end up subjugating the Moabites here. Yes, they dramatically crippled Moab so they weren’t going to be imposing any military threat against them. Though, it’s not apparent that Moab had even been threatening Israel, just overthrowing Israel’s subjugation of them. The Mesha stele records that Moab had taken back the cities that Israel had previously taken from them. Well, while Israel here had knocked back Moab to their last stronghold at Kir-hareseth, it’s not like Israel is going to want to reassume any of their Moabite lands themselves – not after their scorched-earth policy. And even if they had managed to put Moab back under a tribute relationship – it’s not like Moab would have been in any place to send them such tribute after this scorched earth policy. So, yes, Israel had a sort of victory over Moab. But the victory was only a partial victory in the grand scheme of things. But I guess that is fitting to have a partial victory when Israel’s religious reforms had only been partial at best.
Think about how Moab might have interpreted all this. That Mesha stele actually helps answer that question. They saw success in throwing off the Israelite oppressors. They also attributed it to Chemosh’s anger being turned away. That Mesha stele doesn’t mention the sacrifice of the king’s son. But when we connect the dots, we can see how they might have foolishly thought the sacrifice worked. They might have thought that Mesha’s sacrifice of his son appeased Chemosh and saved the day. The Mesha stele seems to imply that Mesha was better than his father in being able to restore Chemosh’s favor. Sadly, Mesha’s son wouldn’t be given the same opportunity!
We can imagine how a pagan Moabite perspective could see what transpired and come to faulty conclusions that Chemosh saved them. But what is God’s perspective in this? Well, we know from Scripture that such pagan child sacrifice is abhorrent to him, Deuteronomy 12:31. Moreover, I would propose this to you. Whatever we don’t know about how this passage ended and whose wrath came upon Israel – I think we should recognize something. In God’s providence, Moab is not wiped out that day. A remnant was preserved. Ought we not credit that to the LORD? Not Chemosh, and not because of their child sacrifice, but in spite of it. In fact, later the prophet Jeremiah 48:47 prophesies about a future time when Moab is almost completely wiped out by the Babylonians. But the prophet Jeremiah offers a silver lining to that terrible future judgment against Moab in Jeremiah 48:47. It says, “Yet I will restore the fortunes of Moab in the latter days, declares the LORD.” I think it is right to see the same spirit here in this passage. God’s later promise to preserve a remnant to Moab couldn’t have happened if Israel wiped them out here. That proves the point that God intended to preserve a remnant even of Moab down through the ages so that one day they could be saved. While the visibility of the Moabite people group has been lost to human history, so has the so-called lost tribes of Israel. But surely neither has been lost the God of Promise.
Surely, then, these latter days have come upon us, where Jew and Gentile, Israelite and even Moabite, can and have begun to find salvation in the Messiah, Jesus Christ. Formerly, Moabites were “darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart.” But surely now God in these latter days is bringing his promised salvation to the remnant of Moabites and to all who find such in Jesus Christ. This is true for all the families on the earth. To as many who will call upon God in the name of Jesus Christ.
Trinity Presbyterian Church, in a passage that has several unanswerable questions to us, we have this clear answer of God’s purpose. In a passage full of partial reforms and partial victories, the full and complete redemptive plans of God are always being accomplished. May we be reminded today to seek the LORD God in Jesus Christ and according to the fullness of his word. Let us carry on the past work of those fathers of the faith before us. Let us turn away more fully from those parts of our heritage that have been at odds with the true faith. And may we look to leave a heritage to our children that is worthy of imitation. All by the grace of God and to his glory! Amen.
Copyright © 2020 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
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