Sunday, March 20, 2011

Scripture Sunday: The Second Book of Kings

In The Second Book of the Kings, the further history of the divided kingdom of Israel is shown. The king of "Israel" rules in the city of Samaria while the king of "Judah" rules from the city of Jerusalem. In this book, the kings accomplish various things and so do the men of God (prophets), but the men of God and the kings are rarely working on the same side, which says a lot about the state of both halves of Israel during this time period.

Elijah, a major prophet who was established in the previous book, is still alive for the early chapters of 2 Kings. In chapter 1, Elijah prophesies the death of evil king Ahaziah, and the king sends troops to bring him in, presumably for punishment. But Elijah calls down fire out of the sky and it consumes all fifty soldiers. The kings sends another fifty, and they get wiped out, too. By the time the third group of fifty is dispatched to Elijah, their captain has caught on to the pattern and begs for his life. Elijah goes peaceably with this third captain, and when he reaches Ahaziah he just repeats the original message that yes, he's going to die, which he does. Ahaziah seems to have been trying to frighten and bully the man of God, even from his sickbed, but it clearly doesn't go over liked he'd hoped.

In chapter 2, Elijah departs from the world, but he doesn't die, which makes him one of only two people mentioned in the Bible (the other being Enoch in Genesis) to not experience death. Elijah's right-hand man is named Elisha, and Elisha refuses to leave his friend alone when it's time for him to be carried away. Elijah asks his assistant what he can do for him before he leaves, and Elisha says he wants a double portion of the spirit of the Lord that has been on Elijah. He wants twice as much of God's spirit as his predecessor, a.k.a. the man who prayed for a drought in Israel and stopped the rain for three solid years. Elijah himself admits that this is a tall order, and he's not sure if it's possible: "Thou hast asked a hard thing; nevertheless, if thou see me when I am taken from thee, it shall be so unto thee; but if not, it shall not be so."(2 Kings 2:10)  But Elisha does see Elijah ascend to heaven in a chariot of fire and a whirlwind, so he knows his request has been granted.

Elisha follows in his mentor's footsteps and even takes Elijah's mantle (coat) for himself. In plain literary terms, this is seriously symbolic, like a prince inheriting a crown from his father. By taking up Elijah's mantle, he's taking on part of his identity and Elisha becomes the main prophet in Israel and does twice as many miracles as Elijah. However, despite the extra portion of God's spirit, Elisha dies like any other mortal man in chapter 13, but only after having done great works for the Lord. I've always wondered how that worked--why the second prophet had the extra helping of spiritual power, but the first was the one who didn't die. There's clearly a big purpose for Elijah's ascension; it's just one that doesn't get fully explained until later in scripture.

The deeds of the kings, at least the ones that are mentioned, are usually not glorious. Assassinations, betrayals, famine, war and even cannibalism and human sacrifice happen inside the bounds of these once-secure kingdoms. There are a few exceptions to the horrible rule: Jehoshaphat respects the Lord, Jehoash repairs the temple, Hekeziah clings to everything that is good and right, Josiah cleanses Judah and makes a covenant with God, and the prophets stay faithful, of course. But Israel's sins as a whole are so bad that the Lord allows the entire "Israel" portion of the country to be taken away into captivity by Assyria. Judah lasts a while longer, but Babylon finally conquers it. The final verses of 2 Kings mention the final king of Judah, Jehoiachin, and how the king of Babylon actually lifts him out of prison and provides him with food and an allotment of money, even in captivity. Through this we see that though the unthinkable has happened--an entire country has been wiped out and removed from their place--God's plan is still at work, the lineage of kings is unbroken, and the nation of Isarel is going to survive, no matter what adverse circumstances arise.

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