If you don’t learn to read the Bible stories about judgment, properly and in context, you are going to miss out on the opportunity to see in each case that the tough love of God, patiently expressed in his righteous wrath, is really an invitation to live under his loving rule. Truly God’s judgment is the revelation of his grace.
Going Deep // Focus: 2 Kings 1:13-15
Once more the king sent a third captain with fifty men to fetch Elijah. But this time the captain went up the hill and fell to his knees before Elijah. He pleaded with him, “O man of God, please spare my life and the lives of these, your fifty servants. See how the fire from heaven came down and destroyed the first two groups. But now please spare my life!” Then the angel of the Lord said to Elijah, “Go down with him, and don’t be afraid of him.” So Elijah got up and went with him to the king.
If you read the entire story in 2 Kings 1, you might be surprised by the title of this devotional. For sure, at least half of it is right: Elijah is indeed a grouchy prophet. When the king of Israel twice sends platoons to “escort” the well-known prophet to the palace, he calls down fire from heaven. The charred bodies of 100 men are proof: Elijah was not a cleric with which to be trifled.
But the grace of God—how in the name of all that is right can I refer to God’s grace when he has equipped his spokesmen to annihilate 100 men who were just doing their job? This particular story seems to confirm the suspicions of many that the Old Testament God is unloving, unbending and unfair—and brutal, to boot.
Before I get into why I think Elijah called fire down on the soldiers, let me first address the unfair meme that slams the Old Testament God as a mean deity. First, leveling that accusation against the God who has revealed himself in the Jewish scripture simply reveals that the accuser has not read the whole story. It also exposes a bad hermeneutic. The rules of reading and interpreting literature, any kind of literature, have likely been violated six ways to Sunday—especially the rule of context. It is probable, in this particular case, that 2 Kings 1 was not read against the backdrop of what has been happening throughout 1 Kings, where one king after another, more evil than their immediate predecessor, has led Israel away from God and into the most vile, violent, dehumanizing and degrading practice of idol worship. By all accounts, if anything, we should be surprised that God has not torched the entire nation, and way sooner.
Second, we can call God what we want, but by definition, God gets to choose how he acts. And if he reveals himself as the righteous God who forgives the sins of the repentant but brings judgment upon the persistently sinful, then who are we to judge God? Who are we to say that doing what is deserved is unfair? Who are we to reinterpret righteousness as meanness? That is simply pointless, and wrong. Furthermore, it demonstrates the tendency of human beings to dumb down their version of God to a manageable deity—a softer, kinder God that can be controlled. But think about it: who wants to follow a God they can control. I don’t! I want a God to whom I must surrender, because I am not trustworthy and wise enough to set the rules for him.
Third, when you read the entire Old Testament in context, this God who often gets labeled as mean is actually painfully patient, indefatigably gracious and unceasingly loving. The God you come to know from Genesis to Malachi is truly a Being with paternalistic intent—he is a loving, caring, involved Father. And once the Old Testament concludes, he says, “Look, you still don’t see how loving I am, so let me send you the literal, physical, undeniable, exact representation of my being. Meet my Son, Jesus Christ. When you see him, you see me.”
Now, in light of that, why did God empower his prophet, Elijah, to call fire down from heaven on back-to-back occasions to take the lives of these 100 men who were simply doing what good soldiers do by following their king’s command? The truth is, they were well aware of Elijah. They knew the story of the showdown against the false prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel where Elijah had called down the fire of God. The score in that contest was a shut-out—850 to 0. Elijah came away unscathed while 850 unholy priests lay dead.
These men in the present story knew that Elijah represented a God who demanded (and deserved) total allegiance, and who was not shy about proving that point to kings and people in no uncertain terms. These men knew, or should have known, the likelihood of messing with the man of God. And this was a point in time at which they should have done what we all should do in these kinds of situation: “We must obey God rather than man,” (Acts 5:29) no matter what the penalty for going against the will of the man.
Really, if you can’t read this story, properly and in context, you are going to miss out on yet another opportunity to see that the tough love of God, patiently expressed in his righteous wrath, is really an invitation to live under his loving rule. Truly his judgment is the revelation of his grace.
And one more thing: the grace of that loving, caring Father is available for your life today.