The last-recorded event in Elisha’s life seems a bit strange at first. A king of Israel named Joash visits him on his death-bed, weeping. A few verses earlier, the passage says Joash did evil in God’s sight. As a young prophet, Elisha had told King Jehoram of Israel that he wouldn’t give him the time of day if it weren’t for the presence of King Jehoshaphat of Judah (2 Kings 3:14). What’s different about Joash?
Elisha tells him to take a bow and arrow and says he can destroy the kingdom of Syria, but then seems to take it back. He told Joash to strike the ground with arrows. Joash did it three times and quit. It made Elisha angry.
On more careful consideration, we find lessons about being religious as opposed to being faithful and the pitfalls of partial obedience.
Who was King Joash?
Joash was grandson of Jehu. In 1 Kings 9, Elisha sent a young man to anoint Jehu as king in place of Jehoram. Jehoram was son of Ahab, the most evil king in the history of Israel. Ahab, through his wife Jezebel, introduced Baal worship to Israel and tried to kill everyone who worshiped the Lord. Worship of Baal included both temple prostitutes and sacrificing babies. Jehoram stopped persecuting worshipers of God but continued to support Baal.
So Jehu shot him in the back and staged a bloody coup. He explicitly acted in the name of the Lord but seems to have been more driven by ambition than piety. And he continued the idolatries of all the other kings of Israel. They worshiped golden calves, pretending they had brought the people out of Egypt under Moses.
God rewarded Jehu for such faithfulness as he had by promising him a dynasty that would last four generations. Jehu and the next three kings after him all died in bed. No other two consecutive kings of Israel died natural deaths.
So this evil dynasty was less evil than the one it supplanted. All its kings probably thought they were faithfully worshiping the God of their fathers. The Bible even mentions that Joash’s father prayed at least once.
Being less bad is not the same as being good, but it may explain Joash’s affection for Elisha and Elisha’s acceptance of his attention (2 Kings 13:14-19). In fact, Joash’s words to Elisha exactly quote Elisha’s words when Elijah was taken up from him.
Elisha’s conditional promise
Joash apparently went to pay his last respects, not expecting ministry. But Elisha told him to get a bow and arrow. When he took the bow in his hands, Elisha placed his own hands over them. He told the king to open a window facing east and shoot an arrow outside. (Elisha must have been living in the countryside. Shooting an arrow out the window of a house in the city would have endangered street traffic.)
Then Elisha told Joash that the arrow represented victory over the king of Syria, who had plundered Israel at will for decades. After giving that promise, he told the king to take arrows and strike the ground.
For years, I envisioned Joash taking a handful of arrows and hitting the ground with them. Once would have been enough, so it seemed strange that he would do it three times and stranger that Elisha got angry.
But Elisha said strike the ground, not the floor. That first arrow Joash shot struck the ground. He had no target to aim at. Elisha wanted him to shoot more arrows out the window to strike the ground. He had just told Joash that the first arrow represented victory. If Joash had believed the prophet of God and truly desired to obtain the promise in its fulness, shouldn’t he have emptied his quiver?
Instead, Joash must have thought the exercise entirely pointless. He stopped after three arrows.
- He was a man of religion, but not a man of faith.
- Religion was for him a matter of public display, and maybe genuine opinion, but not a matter of the heart.
- He thought that as king, he was in charge and not in the mood to obey one of his subjects.
- Surely he must have known that his idolatry displeased God, but he didn’t care.
Why this story matters today
God pours out his grace on sinners. Think about it! To whom else can he show grace? It’s easy to see the outpouring of God’s wrath in Scripture, especially in the Old Testament. But we mustn’t miss the fact that God’s grace appears as the companion to wrath everywhere. I recently wrote about how he extended grace to wicked Ahab.
On the other hand, some Christians today see grace so clearly in Scripture that they reject the wrath imagery. God is love, they say, and a loving God wouldn’t engage in such wanton destruction. A loving God wouldn’t judge people to hell.
How like Joash!
God has revealed his ways and his nature through his prophets. He has caused that revelation to be preserved in writing. And some people, offended by what they find written there, declare that the Bible is a very flawed book and somehow they know God better than that. They have nothing but their own experience, feelings, and intellect to fall back on.
In John 6:60-66, some of Jesus’ followers became offended at his teaching and ceased to follow him. Speaking to some of these same people beginning in John 8:31, he eventually called then children of the devil (v. 44).
Joash had his position as king and his long tradition of “worshiping” God by worshiping forbidden idols. He thought his own ways were sufficient. He loved and respected Elisha, but obey his word? There seemed no point. He forfeited the blessing God wanted to give him.
It’s not enough to believe in God. Believe God. Lose the preposition! Believe even the scriptures that seem repellent. And believing God, obey. Even if it seems pointless. His way is best.