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Wednesday, February 22, 2017

That Wacky Old Testament (10)

The book of 2 Kings starts with a bang — or at least with fire from heaven, which is plenty eventful enough for most of us.

The prophet Elijah has just passed on another of his many messages from God, this one to the effect that the illness suffered by wicked King Ahaziah will surely result in his death. Ahaziah is understandably less than thrilled to receive this news. He sends a military unit of fifty men with their captain to bring Elijah back to Samaria, where he lies bedridden, presumably in hope of intimidating the prophet into foretelling a fate more to his taste.

The captain is insufficiently deferential to the prophet, who promptly calls down fire from heaven on him and on his soldiers.

And ... Take Two!

So Ahaziah tries again with another unit of fifty men, the captain of which has apparently never heard the adage that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. (To be fair, George Santayana didn’t say it until the mid-1800s.)

Same request, same result.

The third captain may not have heard the ‘condemned-to-repeat-it’ thing, but he instinctively grasps the essence of what is really a very useful truism. He approaches Elijah on his knees and begs for his life, and this time Elijah is told by God that it’s safe to cooperate.

The modern reader may be forgiven for asking “What about those hundred innocent men incinerated by fire from heaven? What did they ever do?”

Indeed. They were just soldiers following orders, right?

Maybe. Let’s think about that for a minute.

Innocent? Hmm.

First of all, we’re speculating. We’re reading a story that in English has no more than a few hundred words, and we’re importing into it our own ideas about the innocence of the soldiers and the options they had open to them. For all we know, every man of them was a Baal-worshiping deviant like his master. For all we know, any of them might have just finished sacrificing one of his own children at his local high place. In a time when Israel’s governing practices were deeply sinful, the king’s character was most often reflective of the character of those he governed. Certainly the passage is clear that if Elijah feared the first two groups that came for him, he did so with good reason.

But I’m speculating too. My point is that we have no evidence either way, and no cause to presume either particular innocence or guilt on the part of the soldiers sent to bring Elijah back to Samaria.

Everybody Dies

Second — and how can I put this delicately? — everybody dies sometime.

Okay, I could probably have been more delicate there. But it’s true. Apart from those of us who will one day meet the Lord Jesus in the air, every one of us will experience death. It’s merely a question of how and when we go. As to the how, instant death from a heavenly fireball or a lightning strike doesn’t sound tremendously appealing, but I’d take it over drowning or a protracted consumption by cancer cells, wouldn’t you?

As to the when, well, let’s think about that too. Godly men and women throughout the ages have been notoriously unconcerned about the timing of their own deaths. As the writer to the Hebrews so eloquently puts it:
“Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated — of whom the world was not worthy.”
He’s speaking here of Old Testament saints, not apostles and New Testament prophets who were assured that “in my father’s house are many mansions”. Godly men who lived at the time of Elijah had much less concrete evidence to go on, but they thought the same way about death as the apostles who had actually met the Son of God and seen him raised from the dead. Sure, those Old Testament heroes may have felt visceral terror at the prospect, but their actions demonstrated that they believed pleasing God was WAY more important than whether one lived or died. And good for them.

No, it’s the Ahaziahs of this world who panic at the thought of departing this life and being held to account by a God they fervently hope does not actually exist. As a general rule, godly men and women do not.

We Were Just Following Orders ...

Third, this whole “following orders” excuse is vastly overused. Human authority is instituted by God and is to be respected wherever possible, as our New Testaments make very clear, but the authority of kings, governors, prime ministers, mayors or congress is not limitless and it is not to be obeyed in circumstances where the authority itself is thumbing its nose at the God we purport to serve. Thus when the high priest charges the apostles “not to teach in this name”, Peter’s answer is “We must obey God rather than men”. Not “we like to” or “we prefer to”, but “we MUST”.

Every one of those Israelite solders who chose to follow their commander up that hill did so knowing that he was representing the enemy of God and God’s servant, with the goal of taking that servant back to Samaria against his will. Further, most of them had to be aware that this same servant of God had singlehandedly put to death 450 prophets of Baal only a few years earlier. Elijah was not to be trifled with, and Israel knew it. Walking up that hill was like putting your head in a tiger’s mouth or swimming with sharks. If you did it, you were thumbing your nose at God too, not to mention that you were so stupid it would probably have taken you an hour and a half to watch 60 Minutes.

Don’t tell me there were no other options open to these soldiers.

When Pharaoh charged the midwives with killing Hebrew babies, they lied to him and God blessed them for it. When Saul tried to kill David, he ran. When Rahab’s fellow citizens prepared to fight Israel, Rahab sheltered two Israelite spies in the fear of God, though it made her guilty of treason by the way this world keeps its accounts.

Don’t tell me there are no alternatives to blindly obeying orders. In fact, the third captain of fifty in our story found one: he came to Elijah on hands and knees, an act of humility that I guarantee would have sent King Ahaziah into an absolute frenzy if he’d witnessed it. It was a creative alternative that managed to be obedient to the letter of his orders while showing appropriate reverence to God. Such alternatives are often open to those who think outside the box.

When you follow the marching orders of authorities who reject the will of God and deliberately set themselves against him, you can expect to be judged with them. After all, you are identifying with them.

Aren’t you?

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