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23 April. 2 Kings chapters 9-11
Several years earlier, God had told Elijah (1 Kings 19:15-17) that he was to anoint Hazael as king of Aram and Jehu as king of Israel – two countries that were at war on-and-off throughout this period of history – and that between them these two kings and Elijah’s successor Elisha would kill all the worshippers of the false god Baal. Now this prophecy comes true, although Elijah had been taken up to heaven and it is Elisha who anoints the two kings. He sets Jehu – an army commander – against the previous king Joram, and Jehu is a ruthless man who starts by having all seventy of Ahab’s sons killed, along with Jezebel his widow, and king Ahaziah of Israel. He then proceeds to destroy the temples of Baal in the two main Israelite cities of Jereel and Samaria along with those who worship there. The job of killing all Ahaziah’s family is carried out by his mother who intends to reign as queen in her own right, although one baby is rescued by his aunt and seven years later proclaimed king by his own supporters. Hazael meanwhile “does his bit” by wiping out the Israelites living east of the Jordan.
In all this we are told that God’s will is being done because the false Baal worship is being wiped out from the land. It is uncomfortable reading when we think of a God of peace and mercy who commands “you shall not kill”. But the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) is the story of God choosing the descendants of Abraha and Isaac as his special nation, provided they follow his teaching and worship him alone. He saves them from all their enemies, both external and internal, so those Israelites who follow false Gods – whether commoner or king – are subject to God’s judgement. How do we explain that?
The last verse of the prophecy to Elijah tells us that just seven thousand true worshippers of God would remain in the land in Elisha’s time. God’s chosen people were coming close to being wiped out. If this purge had not happened, the true faith, so vulnerable at times, may not have survived to this day, either in the form of Judaism as we know it today, or Christianity whose founder was descended from the house of David. Fortunately they are both peaceful religions for the most part, but both still face challenges to survival in a largely hostile world. Jews still face unfounded discrimination, and Christians in many parts of the world including England worry about the younger generation which seems to have no interest in organised religion.
The ‘false god’ of our time is not the Phoenician deity Baal, but (as the Archbishop of Canterbury has reminded us) ‘mammon’, that is the lure of wealth and material comfort which can be just as damaging to true religion. “Dethroning mammon” requires not Jehu’s armies of chariots and swordsmen, but prayer and teaching, and the example of lives devoted to God. Many times God’s people have been close to extinction but many times God has stepped in when all seemed lost, and saved them in some unexpected way. We need to have faith in this Easter season that he will do so again.