ELIJAH and The Lord of The Flies
2 Kings 1:1-17a
FIRE FROM HEAVEN!
Whenever a citizenry groans under the burden of an incompetent political leader, they always can take hope that someday there will be a change. In a democracy, that change can come at election time. In a monarchy, however, the death of the ruler provides the only opportunity for relief. In ancient Israel the rule of Ahab certainly was a burden to his subjects. He had married a pagan foreign princess, Jezebel (1 Ki. 16:31). He had sponsored the open worship of the false god Baal (1 Ki. 16:32-33). During his reign the disastrous three-and-a-half-year drought had plagued the land (1 Ki. 18:1). Furthermore, he had led the nation’s army into a disastrous military campaign against the Syrians (1 Ki. 22). With his death in that battle, there was no doubt anticipation of a better day coming. That day was not to be, however, for his son and successor, Ahaziah, proved to be his equal in evil.
“Then Moab rebelled against Israel after the death of Ahab” (2 Ki. 1:1). Moab was one of Israel’s neighbors on the eastern side of the Dead Sea. They traced their ancestry to one of the sons of Lot (Gen. 19:37). The Moabites had been enemies of Israel for many years. Balak, king of Moab, had sought to thwart the Israelites in their journey to the Promised Land by hiring Balaam to curse them (Num. 22-24). Moab was not completely subdued by Israel until the military campaigns of King David. “And he [David] smote Moab, and measured them with a line, casting them down to the ground; even with two lines measured he to put to death, and with one full line to keep alive. And so the Moabites became David’s servants, and brought gifts” (2 Sam. 8:2). For over 200 years the Moabites had been paying tribute to the kings of Israel. “And Mesha, king of Moab, was a sheep breeder, and rendered unto the king of Israel an hundred thousand lambs, and an hundred thousand rams, with the wool” (2 Ki. 3:4). Having been oppressed by the wicked kings Omri and Ahab, they seized an opportunity for rebellion after Ahab’s death. The complete story of this rebellion, led by Mesha, king of Moab, is recounted in 2 Kings 3:5-27. Its relevance to this account is to point up the continuing unsettled nature of the community to which Elijah was called to minister. God had promised many times that if His people would follow Him wholly, He would cause defeat of their enemies. “And it shall come to pass, if thou shalt hearken diligently unto the voice of the Lord thy God, to observe and to do all his commandments which I command thee this day, that the Lord thy God will set thee on high above all nations of the earth,” “The Lord shall cause thine enemies who rise up against thee to be smitten before thy face; they shall come out against thee one way, and flee before thee seven ways” (Dt. 28:1, 7). Conversely, if they departed from the Lord, they could expect defeat at the hands of their enemies. “But it shall come to pass, if thou wilt not hearken unto the voice of the Lord thy God, to observe to do all his commandments and his statutes which I command thee this day, that all these curses shall come upon thee, and overtake thee,” “The Lord shall cause thee to be smitten before thine enemies; thou shalt go out one way against them, and flee seven ways before them, and shalt be removed into all the kingdoms of the earth” (Dt. 28:15, 25).
An interesting confirmation of this event was unearthed in 1868. A German missionary named Klein discovered a stone monument at Dibon in the ancient land of Moab (modern-day “Jordan”). On the monument was an inscription of thirty-four lines written by Mesha, king of Moab, to commemorate his revolt against Israel mentioned in 2 Kings 1 and 3. Both Omri and Ahab are mentioned in the inscription as being oppressors of Moab.
For the believer in the Bible such confirmation from archaeology is not needed. To the skeptic, however, this and many other discoveries have served to confirm that the Bible is true in whatever it says.
“And Ahaziah fell down through a lattice in his upper chamber that was in Samaria, and was sick. And he sent messengers, and said unto them, Go, inquire of Baal-zebub, the god of Ekron, whether I shall recover from this disease” (2 Ki. 1:2). The wicked King Ahab had ruled Israel for approximately 20 years (822-802 B.C.) His son Ahaziah’s rule was for only two years (802-800 B.C.). A capsule summary of his character is given in the previous chapter. “And he [Ahaziah] did evil in the sight of the Lord, and walked in the way of his father, and in the way of his mother, and in the way of Jeroboam, the son of Nebat, who made Israel to sin; For he served Baal, and worshiped him, and provoked to anger the Lord God of Israel, according to all that his father had done” (1 Ki. 22:52-53). Like father, like son! If there were ever any hope for an improvement on Ahab, that hope was dashed during the brief reign of that wicked king’s son. The only other reference to Ahaziah is his ill-fated ship-building venture with Jehoshaphat of Judah. “And after this did Jehoshaphat, king of Judah, join himself with Ahaziah, king of Israel, who did very wickedly. And he joined himself with him to make ships to go to Tarshish; and they made the ships in Eziongeber. Then EIiezer, the son of Dodavahu of Mareshah, prophesied against Jehoshaphat, saying, Because thou hast joined thyself with Ahaziah, the Lord hath broken thy works. And the ships were broken, that they were not able to go to Tarshish” (2 Chr. 20:35-37).
One day Ahaziah was relaxing in the upper chamber of his palace in Samaria. Evidently he leaned against the “lattice,” a protective screen over the window, and it gave way, causing him to fall through the window. We do not know the extent of his injuries and the resulting “disease” (fever?), but they must have been severe enough to make him wonder if he would recover. Had he been a follower of Jehovah, this would have provided an excellent opportunity to seek out a “man of God,” express his repentance, and seek the Lord’s favor. Ahaziah, however, only wanted to know, “Will I recover?” and he sought this answer from “Baal-zebub, the god of Ekron,” not from the Lord.
“Baal” means “lord” or “master.” In modern Hebrew it is actually the word for “husband.” When the Israelites entered the land of Canaan they encountered many Canaanite deities, each of which was a “master” or “owner” of a section of land. The gods of individual localities had appropriate surnames, e.g. Baal-peor (Num. 25:3). The name referred generally to the storm and fertility god of the Canaanites in its many manifestations. Elijah’s ministry directed itself against Baal in all his forms. Elijah reminded Ahab, “I have not troubled Israel; but thou, and thy father’s house, in that ye have forsaken the commandments of the Lord, and thou hast followed Baal-peor [plural of Baal]” (1 Ki. 18:18). The false god which Ahaziah sought to inquire of was Baal-zebub, which means literally, “Lord of the Flies.” This was the local deity whose shrine was at Ekron, one of the Philistine cities (Josh. 13:23). As far as can be discerned, the fly was worshipped in some way at Ekron. The reference, however, may be to the deity that supposedly could protect from the flies. Whatever be the actual nature of this false deity, later Jews deliberately corrupted its pronunciation to Baal-zebul, meaning “Lord of the Dunghill.” It is in this form that it appears in the Greek original of Matthew 12:24, where it is referred to as the “prince of the demons.” In any case, Ahaziah seeks the advice of this nonexistent deity much as the ancient Greeks would seek advice from the famous oracle of Delphi. In this the king of Israel proved himself no higher than the pagans in his conception of the deity.
“But the angel of the Lord said to Elijah, the Tishbite, Arise, go up to meet the messengers of the king of Samaria, and say unto them, Is it because there is not a God in Israel, that ye go to inquire of Baal-zebub, the god of Ekron? Now, therefore, thus saith the Lord, Thou shalt not come down from that bed to which thou art gone, but shalt surely die. And Elijah departed” (2 Ki. 1:3-4). The “angel of the Lord” was a visible manifestation of the Lord himself. He appeared to Abraham (Gen. 18), to Jacob (Gen. 32), to Moses (Ex. 3), and to many others in the Old Testament. A study of the passages reveals that the “angel of the Lord” was actually a preincarnate appearance of Jesus Christ. The message of the Lord which Elijah was to deliver was a stern rebuke and promise – because of his seeking Baal-zebub and not Jehovah, Ahaziah would never recover but would die in his bed! “Since he is so anxious to know his fate, this is it, let him make the best of it.” The Hebrew construction reads literally, “dying, thou shalt die.”
It is the exact same promise given by God to Adam in Genesis 2:17: “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it; for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” Other appearances of this dour prediction are Exodus 19:12, Numbers 26:65, 1 Kings 2:37, and Ezekiel 3:18.
After Elijah had intercepted Ahaziah’s messengers and delivered this ominous announcement, they returned to Ahaziah and told him of it (vv. 5-6). When they described to the king that the announcer of his doom was a “hairy man, and girded with a belt of leather about his waist,” he knew it was “Elijah, the Tishbite” (v. 8). Evidently a coarse garment was characteristic of a prophet. Even a false prophet would appear this way (Zech. 13:4)! The coarseness of their clothing stood out as a rebuke to the luxurious lifestyle that they often rebuked. When John the Baptizer appeared with his message of repentance he is described this way, “And the same John had his raiment of camel’s hair, and a leather belt about his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey” (Mt. 3:4). He that was clothed with the Spirit despised all rich and gay clothing.
This was evidently the first and only contact that Ahaziah was to have with the mighty prophet. If he dreamed that Elijah had tormented only his father, he had a rude awakening on his sick bed. Matthew Henry stated eloquently, “He that was a thorn in Ahab’s eyes will be so in the eyes of his son while he treads in the steps of his father’s wickedness.”
Ahaziah was faced with a choice. On the one hand, he could accept the prophets message, acknowledge his sinful ways, and plead for God’s mercy. This was what happened with his father Ahab when Elijah delivered much the same message to him, “And it came to pass, when Ahab heard those words, that he tore his clothes, and put sackcloth upon his flesh, and fasted, and lay in sackcloth, and went softly” (1 Ki. 21:27). Although his outward “repentance” did not avert God’s judgment, it did postpone it. “Seest thou how Ahab humbleth himself before me? Because he humbleth himself before me, I will not bring the evil in his days; but in his son’s days will I bring the evil upon his house” (1 Ki. 21:29). His father’s example, however, was lost on his son. On the other hand, he could have repudiated Elijah’s message as the rantings of a wild fanatic and carried through his idolatrous plan. Elijah had been proven right too many times, however. Therefore, Ahaziah thought he might bargain with the prophet. He sent a group of fifty soldiers with their captain with the message to “Come down” (v. 9). They found Elijah on the “top of an hill,” possibly Mount Carmel, which may have been Elijah’s abode (cf. 1 Ki. 18:42). Elijah was not interested in bargaining with the king. His answer to Ahaziah’s demand was, “And Elijah answered and said to the captain of fifty, If I be a man of God, then let fire come down from heaven, and consume thee and thy fifty. And there came down fire from heaven, and consumed him and his fifty” (v. 10). The king had the audacity to send another fifty with the added demand, “Come down quickly” (v. 11). This group met the same fate as the first (v. 12). The callous Ahaziah then had the audacity to send a third embassage. The captain of this group, however, had learned from the experience of his former colleagues and pleaded for the lives of his company (vv. 13, 14). It was then that the “angel of the Lord” assured Elijah that it was safe to go with this group to the king (v. 15). This last verse gives us the answer to the problem of the morality of this passage. Some have wondered why Elijah would call down fire on soldiers who were simply obeying orders and were not personally guilty. Evidently, however, the first two companies had more than an escort planned for Elijah. His life would have been in danger had he gone with them. No soldier is responsible to obey orders if those orders are from a wicked and perverse king who orders the destruction of righteous people. Their judgment was just.
Elijah, therefore, made his last “royal appearance.” He wasted no time in bargaining, however. He delivered the announcement of Jehovah’s judgment, “Thus saith the Lord, Forasmuch as thou hast sent messengers to inquire of Baal-zebub, the god of Ekron, is it because there is no God in Israel to inquire of his word? Therefore, thou shalt not come down off that bed to which thou art gone, but shalt surely die” (v. 16). “So he died according to the word of the Lord which Elijah had spoken” (v. 17a).
Elijah’s public ministry thus came to a close in the same way it began – with the announcement of judgment to a wicked king (cf. 1 Ki. 17:1).
This dramatic incident was cited by two of Jesus, disciples in an interesting incident recorded only by Luke. “And it came to pass, when the time was come that he should be received up, he steadfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem, And sent messengers before his face; and they went, and entered into a village of the Samaritans, to make ready for him. And they did not receive him, because his face was as though he would go to Jerusalem. And when his disciples, James and John, saw this, they said, Lord, wilt thou that we command fire to come down from heaven, and consume them, even as Elijah did? But he turned and rebuked them, and said, Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of; For the Son of man is not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them. And they went to another village” (Lk. 9:51-56).
The conclusion of Jesus’ Galilean ministry had arrived. It was now time to turn His direction toward Jerusalem, the city where He would be rejected and suffer (Lk. 9:22). Instead of taking the circuitous route around Samaria, as most Jews did in His day, Jesus decided to walk directly south through Samaria as He had done earlier in His ministry (Jn. 4:1-42). He sent messengers ahead to make lodging preparations. One of the Samaritan villages, however, refused to receive Jesus’ party. The reason was “because his [Jesus’] face was as though he would go to Jerusalem” (v. 53). The Samaritans were descendents of pagans who had been brought to this area by the Assyrian king over seven hundred years earlier (2 Ki. 17:24-41). They intermarried with some of the surviving Jews and developed their own homemade religion, acknowledging only the first five books of Moses as authoritative. They even established a rival temple to Jerusalem’s on Mount Gerizim (cf. Jn. 4:20). Therefore, when these Samaritans realized that Jesus was actually heading for Jerusalem’s Temple, they refused to show Him any hospitality at all.
This rebuff prompted the following suggestion by some of Jesus’ disciples: “And when his disciples, James and John, saw this, they said, Lord, wilt thou that we command fire to come down from heaven, and consume them, even as Elijah did?” (Lk. 9:54). James and John were brothers, the sons of Zebedee. Evidently, when Jesus called them to His service, He recognized their volatile nature because He gave them the surname “Boanerges, which is, The sons of thunder” (Mk. 3:17).
Here this thunderous pair desired to emulate Elijah’s deed and thunder judgment from Heaven on these rude Samaritans. Jesus, however, would allow no such treatment. He rebuked them and reminded them that the purpose of His coming was to save men’s lives, not to destroy them (vv. 55-56). It is important to note what Jesus was not doing and what He was doing. Jesus was not approving of the Samaritan worship, nor was He disapproving of Elijah’s action recorded in 2 Kings 1. Jesus was stating that the principles on which His kingdom was based were spiritual and not physical. The way to conquer men’s hearts is not by the sword of destruction, but by the sword of the Spirit. It would have been good if succeeding generations of Christ’s Church had heeded this rebuke given by Christ. Tens of thousands have been put to death for religion’s sake in the annals of church history by those who thought they were God’s appointed Elijahs! The Apostle Paul later remarked, “For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strongholds” (2 Cor. 10:4). The days of the Old Testament theocracy are over. The spiritual nature of Christ’s kingdom demands spiritual methods. It is instructive to note that the Apostle John, at a later period when he had grown in grace, came down to Samaria in a very different spirit. He came with Peter not to call fire down from Heaven, but to confer spiritual blessings on the Samaritans. And we are told that he “preached the gospel in many villages of the Samaritans” (Acts 8:25). The excellent thought of one of the classic commentators on the life of Elijah, F. W. Krummacher, should serve to apply this incident to our lives. “It therefore infinitely more becomes us as followers of the Lamb, to pray for the enemies of His righteous cause, than to desire God’s displeasure upon them. It is unspeakably more befitting us, in patience and meekness to heap coals of fire on the heads of our adversaries, and to overcome them by the power of love; than to call down the wrath of the Almighty upon them. In short, our whole disposition and conduct ought to evidence that we are the disciples of Him who ‘came not to destroy men’s lives, but to save them;’ and that, by the cross of Christ, a fountain of love has been disclosed, which has taught us to bear all things, to believe all things, and endure all things; a love which many waters cannot quench.”