The Prophet's Apprentice (Elisha Reimagined)

Written by Peter Robert Flounders
(During The First Decade And A Half Of The Twenty-First Century)



(2 Kings 6: 8-23)

When Kings Go To War

It was the spring, the time of year when kings go to war. War, so often lightly undertaken, and yet such a deadly business. War, ingrained in our culture and heritage as over the years we have defended, lost and sometimes regained the lands of God's promise. War, so often the result of our unfaithfulness as God has used other nations to discipline us in our rebellion. But we never seem to learn.

Yet, for a king, staying away from the battlefield may bring its own unique dangers, potentially as deadly spiritually as the battlefield is physically. David, that great, warrior king, unfortunately discovered this when he stayed at home, indolent and lazy, indulging his most basic desires. While his army fought hard and faithfully for God, king and country, he succumbed to the oldest temptation of all. Certainly the king paid dearly for his sin when his judgment was brought to him by Nathan, God's prophet during the reign of David. In spite of his prayers, his contrition and his fasting, David lost his young son.1 Yet the faithful Uriah, a Hittite officer in David's army who loved his king and his men, and who had committed no sin, lost far more - first his wife, and then his courageous life.2 In that particular season, King David should indeed have gone to war.

Ben-Hadad, king of Aram, awoke one fine spring morning and decided to go to war: not a full scale war, neither a proud array of banners and armies, nor a massive deployment of men, weapons and chariots on a chosen field of battle. No, this was war in a fashion that gave no prior declaration of intent, a war of raiding bands making exploratory inroads, raids on undefended villages and hamlets, killing where necessary and sometimes not, but if not usually capturing supplies of food and slaves - and gathering information. Ben-Hadad chose to achieve his heart's desire, the capture or death of King Joram of Israel, by means of a tried and tested plan of war - the ambush. (Joram, the son of remarkably evil parents, a bad beginning to life, surely, but still able to make his own choices for good or, more usually, evil.) Gone was the temporary truce that provided the opportunity for the miracle of Naaman's healing and also forgotten, it seemed, was the memory of God's power. The relationship between Aram and Israel had reverted to the more normal state of permanent enmity and intermittent cross-border raids that would soon inevitably escalate into a more serious state of war. It was the spring and yet again the kings had determined to go to war.

King Ben-Hadad assembled his army at Damascus, his royal capital, calling in his officers and troops from outlying districts and picking up other companies from border posts as he marched south. From there they travelled south along the eastern borders of Mount Hermon through the lands of Bashan, a land once more under Aramean rule. During the time of the conquest, when God was preparing His people for the promised land, Bashan was under the kingship of Og. He was eventually defeated at Edrei by Moses, that mighty man of God, and the invading Israelites. When the battle was over and the spoils of war divided, his lands were given to the tribe of Manasseh.2 Israel has constantly and greatly sinned since those days of faith and power, and much of her land has reverted into heathen hands. She has lost her first love, her faith, and her spiritual pride; her commitment to God and to one another. The wrath and discipline of YAWEH is sometimes slow but it comes as surely as the sun rises and the night falls. And I fear the end is not yet reached.

No doubt the Aramean king force-marched his troops for over a hundred miles until they reached the area south of the Sea of Chinnereth. There he established his main camp, and from that base he dispatched his scouts and raiding parties. They in turn patiently waited and watched, then meticulously reported the movements of King Joram as he rode north on quick forays, accompanied only by small, hand-picked groups of men, trying to determine the extent of the Aramean threat, and perhaps decide a field of battle. Full of confidence, Ben-Hadad laid his trap, north of Samaria on the main road that led to and through Dothan. Already a city with a history of betrayal where Joseph's brothers sold him into slavery,3 it would soon become a place of entrapment for me. And along that road, after conferring with his officers, he told them, 'I will set up my camp in such and such a place.'

While the kings were perfecting their schemes and polishing their plans, I remained in my temporary home in Dothan, meditating on the continuing follies of men, both commoners and kings. Ben-Hadad, in spite of his experience of the power of God, still attempting to set his traps, believing that hidden from men, also meant hidden from the LORD. Presumably he thought that the sun-god, Hadad, would protect and hide his plans from king Joram, from me and from the LORD. And Joram, in spite of all his experiences with me, Elisha, the servant of God, was still ploughing his own furrow without recourse to God or to his prophet. How many more times, I wondered yet again, would I be used to save King Joram from both others and himself. And the answer came as always. As long, and as many times, as I determine. Yes, my Lord.

I sent word to the king of Israel. 'Beware of that place, because the Arameans are going down there.' The king dispatched scouts to check on the place of ambush and verify my words, and was glad that God's prophet was in Israel. Time and time again this was repeated; Ben-Hadad would choose his site, lay his ambush and confidently wait. And each time it was revealed to me and I then revealed it to the king of Israel who would take a different route, taunting Ben-Hadad and fuelling his rage at his own impotency. And each time it happened the frustration of the Aramean king increased. (Later, when his men were prisoners and guests of King Joram, I would learn more of this rage which led inevitably to a potentially deadly mixture of doubt and suspicion which none of his officers was able to escape.)

At last he reached the limits of his self-control and he summoned his officers. When they entered his presence, their stomachs were turning over in sickly dread and real fear for their lives as they beheld the sight and sound of his outrage. They were soldiers, trained to fight and did not ordinarily fear the enemy or even death. But facing their own king's rage was not a battle for which they were trained, and against it they had no defence. They tried to stand straight and tall but their legs betrayed them when he demanded of them, 'Will you not tell me which one of us is on the side of the king of Israel?'

Apprehension and that same pervasive and invidious doubt affected each of them. Officer looking at officer, faces expressing the same doubts and suspicions: Is it you? Is it he who is betraying us? Who can it be? But for one officer there was no doubt or fear. 'None of us, my lord and my king, but Elisha, the prophet who is in Israel, tells the king of Israel the very words you speak in your bedroom.'

The words were not the exaggerated phrases of a servant trying to impress his master - what he said was the truth. If the LORD wanted Joram to know every word that Ben-Hadad spoke, or every action of his made clear as the day, whether in the field on his horse or on his bed in his bedroom, then He would reveal it to me and I would reveal it to King Joram. The king of Aram could not hide his plans because of me, so he took the only action which appeared reasonable and correct to a frustrated warrior; if something or someone dared to thwart a king's plans - remove it or him, using all the resources, if necessary, that a fully equipped army could provide. 'Go, find out where he is,' he ordered his officers, 'so that I can send men and capture him.'

It did not take his spies long to discover where I lived. I made no secret of my location, and discovering my home and my location was part of God's plan, even if I had wished it otherwise. Too many people in the area knew of Elisha the prophet. Because of the way the LORD used me, my name was as famous in Dothan as it was in the rest of Israel. Ben-Hadad's men soon returned to their master, eager and willing to tell him the good news and in doing so totally lift the distrust that still lingered around the shoulders of his officers like an evil, clinging miasma. They reported, 'He is in Dothan.'

And I waited.

During the night King Ben-Hadad dispatched from his main camp a strong force of men complete with horses, chariots and all the equipment necessary for siege or full-scale war, a formidable army that would provoke terror in the hearts of the people of the city as they awoke to a new day. Quietly and efficiently the army surrounded the city of Dothan, my temporary home. Its inhabitants and I were trapped inside its walls with, it seemed, no hope of escape from the might of Ben-Hadad. As the dawn broke on the following day panic was born. Quietly at first, it began to spread through the city as the growing light revealed iron chariots, and leather harness bright with oil reflecting stray beams of the morning sun. Horses stamped and snorted in the cool of the early day, exhaled breaths condensing in the cool air, puffs of smoke from fiery nostrils, their shadowy figures becoming clearer as the sun burnt off the lingering mists that drifted around the army, adding to the growing terror. Men went about their business, caring for horses, readying their weapons and preparing for war. Priests from the temple at Rimmon sounded the long, brass horns calling them to the morning sacrifice and the men, as one, bowed to worship the rising sun. Today they would meet with the LORD and discover how worthless was the worship of the sun, which rose and fell at the LORD's command.

The later rising inhabitants of Dothan were gradually becoming aware of their predicament as their sleep was disturbed by the noisy, fearful chattering outside their homes. Dressing quickly they hurried to join their neighbours, to discover for themselves the cause of all the noise and excitement. But even as their friends told them, they saw for themselves the inescapable danger surrounding the walls of their city. The initial small cries of alarm quickly grew into a frightened swell of noise as fear gripped individuals and spread like a dreadful plague through the street and homes of Dothan. People began to run back and forth like kicked or wounded dogs, seeking escape where there was no escape, and sanctuary where there was no sanctuary to claim. One or two glanced towards me; was it not the prophet who had brought this calamity upon them? But they made no move for their fear of the Arameans was not yet greater than their fear of me.

The underlying, barely controlled panic of the people, not yet fully developed but increasing steadily as the day grew brighter, combined with the easily seen threat of the siege army reduced my servant to fits of moaning and trembling. He could hardly walk or talk as he came to see me, completely unnerved by his fear of the Arameans. 'Oh, my lord, what shall we do?'

I looked at him, this youth who had taken the place of Gehazi as my personal servant. He had no prophetic gifting, no great spiritual yearning, no greed and no pride; but he also had no, or very little, faith. Today, he, the lowliest, just like the kings who considered themselves the highest, would learn again of the LORD's power. And today my servant's faith would begin to grow, and perhaps flourish.

'Do not be afraid,' I answered. 'Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.' He tried hard to believe me. I watched the struggle in his eyes as he looked at me and then glanced away, embarrassed and a little ashamed. Then once more he studied the forces massed outside the city wall. I could see the question in those same doubting eyes, a question he was afraid to ask because then he would be questioning me, his master. But still the question remained. Who, lord, is with us?

I prayed, 'O LORD, open his eyes so that he may see.' Then the LORD opened his eyes and my servant looked and he saw what I saw, he saw men and horses and chariots of fire surrounding me. Not around the city, God was not protecting Dothan, the LORD was protecting his servant. He would allow no harm to His Prophet in Israel. I was not afraid and would never fear man as long as I lived. (So soon those words would turn to dust in my mouth, but not yet.) My servant's eyes lit up like stars on a dark night. He stood in awe, looking from me to the hosts around me, not sure what he was seeing, only knowing that this bright, vast army he perceived with the eye of faith was ours - was there for us. It was enough for him, as it was enough for me.

But then Ben-Hadad's army began to move. Ranks of foot soldiers, interspersed with war-horses pulling war-chariots, marched in strict discipline towards the city gates; later in the battle would come the frenzy when the blood lust overtook them and blinded both reason and compassion, but now the superb discipline of soldiers and charioteers only emphasised the threat. No siege engines pulled by teams of donkeys and men were in evidence; Dothan was not a fortified city and its gates were not built to withstand a determined enemy - and this army was resolved to fulfil its master's command, to wash away in blood the suspicion that had fallen on its officers, and reclaim the honour of King Ben-Hadad - which I had removed.

My servant's faith was wavering and he was not encouraged as he watched me close my eyes in fervent and heartfelt prayer. He had yet to learn that prayer was not the last desperate measure of a desperate man, but the first, last and only weapon in my armoury; a weapon that was both shield and sword that no human weapon could ever penetrate and no human shield ever resist. My prayer to the LORD was short and simple. 'Strike these people with blindness.'

A terrible prayer. An awful prayer. A prayer that would save hundreds of lives. A prayer, that in its awfulness was lifesaving. A prayer that healed. Our God, beyond understanding.

Immediately the sight and senses of the invading army were confounded. Neither officers nor men could see clearly, think coherently or make the simplest decision for themselves. They were as sheep waiting for a shepherd, as helpless as new-born lambs ready for sacrificial slaughter. I ignored my servant's frightened face with his eyes starkly wide in rekindled terror, closed my ears to his entreaties for me to stop, and walked into the midst of them. Quietly I moved among them, touching shoulders, comforting them and giving them leadership - officers and commanders as well as common soldiers - where there was now only confusion.

I assured them, ' This is not the road and this is not the city. Follow me, and I will lead you to the man you are looking for.' They believed me, fully. Yet Dothan was, in fact, the city they desired, but it was not the city destined by God for them to visit that day, and I would certainly lead them to the man for whom they were looking. When their eyes and their senses were restored in full, then they would see me clearly in their midst - Elisha, the man whom they were seeking. Gentle as lambs they followed me in perfect trust, hearts and spirits as tuned to the sound of my voice as I was tuned to the LORD's.

I walked at the head of my flock: soldiers, officers, commanders, horses, chariots and charioteers walking obediently in line behind me, moving neither to the left or the right, until the fortified city of Samaria came into view. Samaria where the king of Israel's palace was located. The city now readying itself for siege as the dust of my flock was sighted, and the steel of their weapons glinted brightly in the eyes of the city's defenders.

Near the gates I halted them and turned to tell them to wait. Along the sides of the column the army of the LORD was in full array, brighter than the noon sun, clothes of blinding white and weapons of burnished bronze. Softly they had kept Ben-Hadad's troops in line, swords used as staffs, and spears as shepherd's crooks, guiding and helping the blind and helpless men. I looked up at the men guarding the gates of Samaria. They saw me and with only the briefest of hesitations obeyed my command to open the gates.

And then I led my flock of lambs to potential slaughter.

Which was the first thought that entered King Joram's mind when at last he could believe what had happened. His eagerness to deal a severe blow to King Ben-Hadad was evident. 'Shall I kill them, my father? Shall I kill them?' And the easy use of father, an instinctive shifting of responsibility for the slaughter of defenceless men which he hoped and expected to follow the bloodless capture. The father giving the son permission to kill defenceless, blinded men that were captured without one drop of blood, Hebrew or Aramean, that would enrich the soil. Let me say, yes, and so take take full responsibility for the slaughter that would follow, led wholeheartedly by the king. But today there would be no slaughter to follow capture. Today was for the giving and learning of mercy - that same undeserving and unconditional mercy that the LORD had shown to Israel so many times in her terrible and sinful history.

'Do not kill them,' I answered. 'Would you kill men you have captured with your own sword or bow? Set food and water before them so that they may eat and drink and then go back to their master.' What would Ben-Hadad their master think of this act of mercy, I wondered, and of the defeat he suffered at the hands of the LORD's Prophet in Israel? How would his future thoughts of the conquest of King Joram and Israel be affected? Both questions were soon to be answered, and in a way that both threatened me and tested me, and for a time made me doubt myself and the strength of my faith. I had judged the faith and fear of my servant - it was imperative, surely, that soon would come the season for me to be measured by that same measuring rod.

But that was to come and now was a time for celebration and mercy.

King Joram exchanged one lust for another with the ease of an adept. His quiet instructions were translated into shouted orders and presently the main hall of the palace resembled a disturbed honeybees' hive - and yet in the apparent chaos was well-ordered discipline as palace stewards and servants prepared a magnificent feast.

The prisoners were slowly regaining senses and sight but their faces showed more and more bewilderment. Palace guards who had recently collected all the armaments now moved among them calming worried individuals and chattering groups, explaining that in place of death or slavery, they would enjoy the king's pleasure and then return to their own king in health, if not in triumph.

King Joram prepared a great feast, sparing neither servants or supplies. The food was indeed fit for a king's table. Freshly slaughtered young goats, lambs and bulls, garnished with freshly baked bread from the king's own bakeries and fruit from all corners of his kingdom. And, as expected with with any royal repast, an unlimited supply of wine. The prisoners experienced brief and understandable uncertainty; was this the last, lavish meal preceding execution, or was it indeed the king's favour for a captured army. Either way, they would lose nothing by enjoying the feast. So they ate and drank with a soldier's determined hunger to fill his bellies whenever the chance arose - a feeling that only soldiers in the field may experience.

Eventually, when they were sated, there came once more the time for doubt. Afraid to look over their shoulders in case their worst fears were realised and there was indeed a man behind each of them waiting for the command to slit their throats, or strangle them. They waited in fearful apprehension as the effects of the feast subsided, and the wine betrayed them by slowly substituting the initial high optimism for the inevitable depression.

Then King Joram rose from his table, neither he nor his chief steward needed to call for silence - the hall was immediately quiet as the prisoner-guests and the palace staff and courtiers waited for the king's commands. The Arameans let go a collective sigh of relief as in a few words he allayed their fears; indeed told them to leave for home - but without their weapons - and return to their king. There, they would tell King Ben-Hadad of the mercy they had received from the royal hand of the king of Israel. I wondered what the repercussions would be. Peace, to repay this unexpected and unprecedented act of mercy? Or war, to repay the immense loss of face and ensuing shame?

The raids stopped.






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