Second Kings begins on a positive note: Ahab is dead. You may think that is a nasty sentiment, but you must remember that Ahab was a conduit that allowed pagan sewage to engulf Israel (1 Kings 16:29-34), one who tolerated injustice (1 Kings 21), and who hated God's word (e.g., 1 Kings 22). But the Ahabs always die—that is good news. The bad news is that Ahab, Jr., follows him. Ahaziah is a chip off the old, dead block. Welcome to Israel, 852 bc.
One could develop this exposition under various schemes but since Old Testament historical narrative is 'a declaration from God about God' (Alec Motyer) I far prefer highlighting how Yahweh reveals himself in this passage.
Who knows exactly how it happened? Ahaziah fell from the second floor when some screen-work gave way. Apparently a serious injury since his inquiry implies he was uncertain of recovery. We needn't debate whether Ekron's god was Baalzebub or Baalzebul. The Baal-prefix says it all: he walks in the religious rut of his father as goaded by Jezebel (1 Kings 16:29-34). The king in Samaria thinks his hope for years to come squats in a temple forty-five miles (seventy-two kilometers) away in Philistia.
'But the angel of Yahweh spoke to Elijah the Tishbite...' (v. 3a). God doesn't twiddle when apostasy is afoot. There were Ahaziah's messengers (v. 2) and now there is Yahweh's messenger sent to intercept them. Elijah's message is both question and judgment:
Is it because there is no God in Israel that you are going to inquire from Baalzebub god of Ekron? Now therefore, here's what Yahweh says: 'The bed to which you have gone up—you will not come down from it, but you will surely die' (vv. 3-4).
So Elijah went off per instructions (v. 4b).
The next thing we know, Ahaziah's lackeys are reporting back to him (v. 5). The writer assumes that we are intelligent readers, so he omits details of the actual encounter between Ahaziah's men and Elijah. Assuming it took place as directed, he focuses the king's surprise at their swift return (v. 5b). Ahaziah knows they've aborted their mission. Why? They tell the king of the man who met them, the orders he gave, the message he announced (v. 6). They obeyed his orders; the stranger's authority trumped the king's authority. The king presses for a description of the culprit (v. 7). Hearing that he was a 'hairy man wearing a leather belt around his waist' (v. 8, NKJV), he knew—probably with a mix of despair and rage—that it was Elijah.
What do we meet in this section of the story? Above all, an intolerant God. The suave, self-appointed connoisseurs of religious taste in our time will be aghast if ever they happen on to this story. How can Yahweh in his wild, untamed holiness sentence a man to death simply for exercising his religious preferences in a critical hour of his life? Yahweh here is not the democratic sort of God people crave, according to the polls. Our times would prefer the mythology of the Ancient Near East, where gods and goddesses were permissive and casual and never insisted upon exclusive loyalty. None of these deities thought it a mortal sin should one of his/her devotees want to be ecumenical in his devotion. But in the Bible we meet Yahweh and keep bashing ourselves against his first commandment (Exod. 20:3). Nor is it any better in the New Testament. Jesus goes around insisting folks must smash idols if they would follow as disciples (Mark 10:21-22). He is as obnoxious as Yahweh. Who does he think he is?
We also meet a trenchant idolatry here. We must not think Ahaziah's resort to Baalzebub was simply a sudden act of desperation in a moment of weakness. Flip back your Bible page to 1 Kings 22:52-53, where the writer summarizes the policy of Ahaziah's reign. 'He served Baal and bowed down to him' (v. 53). In verse 2 (of the present text) Ahaziah only displays the consistency of his 'faith'. His appeal to Baal was not a knee-jerk reaction in a sudden emergency. Baal has always been Ahaziah's deity of choice; he has had no place for Yahweh. His idolatry was due to preference, not to ignorance or weakness.
In one of his books Carl Henry discusses the view of Hoyle and Wickramasinghe that life arrived on earth from outer space. Hoyle and Wickramasinghe 'project a supraterrestrial principle of intelligence, one somewhat more than human yet less than ultimate and absolute and hence not a personal God.' Looking beyond the earth to the whole universe for an explanation of life has, according to these theorists, distinct advantages. 'For one thing,' they say, 'it offers the possibility of high intelligence within the universe that is not God.' That is a most revealing statement. Whom are they trying to avoid? Looks like they have a vested interest in positing something, anything, so long as 'it' is not the personal, omnipotent God. Their idolatry seems light-years away from Ahaziah's but at root it is the same: a commitment has already been made that wants no truck with Yahweh. For the king the idol was Baal; for the scientists a nebulous, non-divine super-intelligence afoot somewhere in the universe.
Yet Ahaziah's was also a foolish idolatry. For a believer in Yahweh there is such a sadness about it all. Here is the king, perhaps near life's end—at least his request (v. 2) suggests Ahaziah knew it could be his 'last illness'. And in this desperate moment we hear, 'Go, inquire of Baalzebub.' The moment so crucial; the recourse so asinine. The spectre of death does not necessarily produce good sense.
In one of his novels Walker Percy has his lead character, Will Barrett, writing a letter in which he lampoons both Christians and unbelievers—particularly the latter. According to Barrett, an unbeliever is crazy partly because
he takes comfort and ease, plays along with the game, watches TV, drinks his drink, laughs, curses politicians, and now and again to relieve the boredom and the farce (of which he is dimly aware) goes off to war to shoot other people—for all the world as if his prostate were not growing cancerous, his arteries turning to chalk, his brain cells dying off by the millions, as if the worms were not going to have him in no time at all.
Staring our end in the face, whether slowly or suddenly, ought to drive us to sobriety and truth. But it doesn't necessarily drive us to sobriety; that was Will Barrett's point. And sometimes it makes us sober (as, apparently, in Ahaziah's case) but not smart (seeking Baal, not Yahweh). Death is no time to be playing with dead-end religious options. We must have the One who has the words of eternal life (cf. John 6:68). But here is Ahaziah about to step off the edge of life with nothing but Baal, or, I should say, with nothing.
We also run into a kind severity in this passage. No doubt about the severity—Yahweh's wrath glows at white heat, his disdain oozes out of his question, 'Is it because there is no God in Israel that you are going to inquire of Baalzebub?' (v. 3). His judgment is unsparing: Ahaziah will be bed-ridden and death-stricken (v. 4).
Yahweh's words are repeated three times (vv. 3, 6, 16)—clearly they highlight the central concern of the narrative. When Ahaziah sends to Philistia he implies Israel has no God; when he appeals to Baalzebub he is implying that Yahweh is either nonexistent or irrelevant and inadequate. (Is this not, in principle, the essence of all our idolatry? By taking first recourse to other helps and supports we subtly confess the inadequacy and insufficiency of Yahweh to handle our dilemmas.) So Yahweh's intrusion is anything but affable and courteous. He sends Elijah to cut off and stifle the king's godless expedition. The command Elijah hears is very similar to one he received in 1 Kings 21:17-18. There Ahab had allowed Jezebel to shove Naboth and his sons through her meatgrinder so that Ahab might obtain Naboth's vineyard. Then 'the word of Yahweh came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying, "Rise, go down to meet Ahab king of Israel, who is in Samaria..."' And here in 2 Kings 1 we find the same idiom: 'But the angel of Yahweh spoke to Elijah the Tishbite, "Rise, go up to meet the messengers of the king of Samaria..."' (v. 3). Rise, go down to meet; rise, go up to meet. But the import is the same: nail him in his tracks.
If, however, Yahweh is severe, he is at the same moment merciful. His nasty interruption of Ahaziah's mission is, if the king could only see, a last opportunity. Yahweh did not allow Ahaziah's idolatry to proceed in peace but invaded his space and rubbed his face in the first commandment again. Again we see our uncomfortable God: Yahweh is furious, not tolerant; holy, not reassuring; loving, not nice. But there is love in his fury. He won't let you walk the path to idolatry easily; his mercy litters the way with roadblocks. That is a wonder considering he so detests our idols.
Some commentators are quite clear that this section is not one of their favorite Bible stories. John Gray, for example, writes:
There may well be a nucleus of historical fact in Elijah's protest against Ahaziah's appeal to the oracle of Baal of Ekron (vv. 2-8, 17), but in the annihilation of the king's innocent emissaries by fire (vv. 9-16) there is a moral pointlessness, which relegates the tradition to the same category as Elisha's baneful curse upon the rude boys of Bethel (2.23f.).
Another writes of the 'preposterousness of the miraculous element' in the story and laments 'its inhumanity with the destruction of the innocent fifties'. Now some difficulties cannot be alleviated. Some scholars and readers will always find the miraculous preposterous, and no story of 102 troops turned to toast can meet the standards of middle-class refinement. But 'moral pointlessness'? Has anyone who holds that really read the story? So we must dive in.
Let's begin with blame. Why did Elijah do that? Answer: he didn't. The first two captains come strutting onto the scene each with his own brand of arrogance. The first emphasizes royal authority: 'The king has ordered, "Come down"' (v. 9b); the second demands speed: 'O man of God, here's what the king says: "Come down—quick!"' (v. 11b). In each case Elijah replies, 'If I am a man of God, let fire come down from heaven and consume you and your fifty men' (vv. 10a, 12a). When we are told that fire 'came down from heaven' (vv. 10b, 12b) we are to understand that God answered Elijah's call affirmatively. If Elijah's request was wrong-headed or reprehensible or perverse, God would not and should not have assented. The account shows that Yahweh approved Elijah's call for fire. So let's quit beating up on Elijah. Blame Yahweh—he did it.
Now we must consider intent What was the king trying to do by sending two military contingents to apprehend the prophet? This question mystifies some commentators: '[I]t is unclear why Ahaziah, who had already received Elijah's word through messengers (v. 6), should now wish to consult him through military personnel.' Unclear? Ahaziah wished to 'consult' Elijah? Do you send a fifty-man posse to procure a consultant? Some interpreters never understand this passage because they never consider Ahaziah's intention. Ellison is right: 'The fifty men were not intended to be a guard of honour! It was an open declaration of hostilities, and Elijah treated it as such.' Ahaziah planned to silence the word of God through Elijah—probably by liquidating Elijah (cf. the implied danger to Elijah's life in the angel of Yahweh's words in v. 15). The king was not inviting Elijah to dinner. Why is this so hard to see? Here is an undefended prophet accosted by royal military muscle. The palace intends to use its police in order to dispose of the prophet.
We are ready then to consider the function. That is, why the fire (vv. 10b, 12b)? What was Yahweh's objective in sending his judgment in this form?
One cannot understand 2 Kings 1 unless one remembers 1 Kings 18. The latter passage relates the 'god contest' on Mount Carmel, Yahweh versus Baal. Fire was the burning issue of the day: the God who answered by fire would show himself to be the real God (1 Kings 18:21, 23-24, 36-39). It was a matter of proof. That is the function of the fire in 2 Kings 1 as well. Oh, it should have been unnecessary. King Ahaziah surely knew what had taken place just a few years before at Mt. Carmel. It was a public, prime-time affair covered (if one may be anachronistic) by all the major news networks. It was not done in a corner. It scared the liver out of the folks who saw it and they never stopped talking about it. Carmel Day made the point: Yahweh is the real God, Baal a sorry non-entity. But Ahaziah didn't get the point. When he has an urgent need for health care, he appeals to Baal (v. 2)—Baal the loser (1 Kings 18). What do you do when someone is so dense, so 'thick,' that he doesn't grasp what fire (1 Kings 18:38) means? You send more fire (2 Kings 1:10b, 12b)! The point is the same, i.e., Yahweh is the only God, but the fire is not only demonstrative (as at Carmel in 1 Kings 18) but destructive (102 seared remains, thanks to Ahaziah). The first commandment really matters to Yahweh, and Ahaziah just doesn't get it.
The fire, however, also functions as protection. Here it is Yahweh's means of defending the bearer of his word, his undefended prophet. God does not always provide such protection, as 1 Kings 18:4, 13 show. Even in Elijah's own time Yahweh did not grant all prophets immunity from Jezebel's bloody pogroms. Yet in this instance Elijah is protected from Ahaziah's clutches. What is the significance (i.e., the sign-value) of this? Does not Ahaziah represent the power of any kingdom, any throne, any ruler, any government that tries to stifle Yahweh's word and silence his witnesses? And does not this little scenario testify that no king, no despot, no tyrant will ever be able totally to extinguish the witness of the word of God in this world?
Perhaps Cornelius Martens is another case in point. Martens, a Baptist preacher in the 1920s in the Soviet Union, was once taken to the office of the local Communist Party boss, apparently for interrogation. The Party boss ordered two men to strip Martens of his clothes, but Martens told them not to trouble themselves, that he would undress, adding, 'I don't fear to die, for I shall be going home to the Lord. If He has decided my hour hasn't come, you can't do me any harm here.' This last remark drove the Party boss into a rage: 'I'll prove to you that your God will not deliver you out of my hands!' He lifted his revolver to drop Martens in his tracks, but his finger froze on the trigger. Three times he tried to fire and failed. His face grew red, his body began to shake, and he looked ready for a coronary episode. At last he lowered the gun and asked a lesser official what Martens was condemned for. The official answered, 'He is a Baptist. Can't you see God is fighting for him?' The boss ordered Martens to get out and stay away.
Did that usually happen? No, the blood of God's servants ran deep in the Soviet Gulag where they were mashed without pity. But sometimes, in the midst of it all, the Lord of the church gives the power-grubbers of this age a sign of how abysmally helpless they are. That fuels the holy defiance of God's servants, for it shows them again that the word of God will have free course and none of the puny, piddly, royal Ahaziahs of this age can stop it!
What if there had been cable television news coverage in 850 bc? Here is this officer sitting in the barracks with a few of his men, eyes glued on the monitor, watching the live report of the recent tragedy, with shots of emergency vehicles rushing to the scene and clips of some arriving at hospital emergency rooms. Then a dispatch arrives from the palace for our captain. His face drops as he reads the first line: 'Take fifty men...'
This third captain does not spout the previous arrogance (vv. 9, 11). He is different in his posture ('and knelt on his knees before Elijah,' v. 13b), in his purpose ('and he made a plea for grace to him,' v. 13c), and in his petition ('O man of God, let my life and the life of these fifty servants of yours be valued in your eyes,' v. 13d). The man was clearly terrified, for he fully knew what had happened to the former two contingents. In verse 14 he so much as says, 'I know I am within a centimeter of destruction—please spare me.' He knelt, he pled, he trembled—he lived.
In my previous studies of this passage I have usually ignored the response of this third captain. I think that was patently wrong. His response stands in dead opposition to that of the first two officers. Surely the writer wants us to note that. Perhaps the writer even wants to suggest that here, in this third captain's words, Israel has a model response to Yahweh's wrath. Here Israel can see the way to life.
There are always some who will object. They will say that our motives should be more positive, that we should not be driven to repentance by something so servile or negative as the simple terror that drove this captain. But this captain is walking down the hill alive at Elijah's side (v. 15) and he knows such sentimentality is nonsense. There is nothing wrong with terror, so long as it is a true terror for that can become—as it did for him—a saving terror. Better to be trembling and alive than a puddle of carbon.
It must have been a similar fear that gripped hearers that August day in 1756 when George Whitefield preached in William Grimshaw's Yorkshire parish. Grimshaw had had an elevated pulpit constructed outside the south wall of the parish church—the number of hearers would not then be restricted to the capacity of the church building. Whitefield stood there as he addressed a massive throng. After prayer he solemnly announced his text. It was Hebrews 9:27. 'It is appointed unto men once to die and after this the judgment.' He paused, was about to proceed but was cut off by a wild, curdling shriek from the middle of the congregation. Pastor Grimshaw hurried to investigate and, after some minutes, returned to tell Whitefield that 'an immortal soul has been called into eternity.' This news was announced to the people. After a few moments Whitefield again announced his text: 'It is appointed unto men once to die...'
Another piercing shriek rose from another part of the crowd. Horror settled over the assembly when they heard a second person had fallen dead. After the turmoil had subsided somewhat, Mr. Whitefield indicated his intention of proceeding with the service. He did so, doubtless announcing his text again to an assembly as still as death. Do you suppose they listened to Whitefield that day on that text? And why did they do so? Fear. Indeed, terror. It was unnerving but not unhealthy. Not if it humbled them to hear. If we ever get past the first stanza of Newton's hymn we understand that: 'Twas grace that taught my heart to fear.'
There was no interview. Elijah simply announced to Ahaziah, eyeball to eyeball, the same word the king had already heard (vv. 3, 6) and rejected, ending with 'You will surely die' (v. 16). 'So he died according to the word of Yahweh' (v. 17a). The writer's comment is both immediate and almost laconic. As if to say, 'What do you expect? If Yahweh speaks, it happens.'
We haven't time nor space to punch rewind or fast forward buttons on the text of 1-2 Kings. So permit me to dogmatize: the fulfillment of Yahweh's word is a major theme of 1-2 Kings. Here is another case in point. The writer wants you to see it again in verses 16-17a: what Yahweh says, Yahweh does. He is the God who delivers on his threats. 'So he died according to the word of Yahweh.'
This point cuts both ways, however, for this text implies that if Yahweh so certainly fulfills his threats he will just as certainly fulfill his promises. What Yahweh declares can be counted on—that is the point. Hence his assurances are as reliable as his judgments. Christ's flock needs to know that when they look at John 6:37 or 14:3. King Ahaziah experienced one side of the certainty of God's word, but that sure word can shield as well as shatter you, can support you as well as smash you.
The writer cleans up Ahaziah's reign, using his semi-conventional formulas (vv. 17b-18). B. O. Long draws attention to the peculiar nature of the account:
Aside from the brief notice about Moab's rebellion, v. 1, this narrative is the only incident reported for the reign. Curiously, the writer recounts not how the king ruled but how he died!
There's something haunting then about this record of Ahaziah's brief tenure. In the supreme need of his life he did not seek the real God—that's all we know about him. That's both sad and stupid. Yet Ahaziah is not the focus of the story. God is. I've tried to stress this in the way I have stated the main points. You ought to deal with him. Of course, you can do what you want with this strange story. You can call it legend; you can aver that it deals with a primitive level of religion; you can claim it is morally offensive; or you can face the God of whom it speaks.