Elijah the Tishbite
The Captains of Fifty
1 Kings 22 and 2 Kings 1
For something like six years the mysterious man was nowhere to be found. He had denounced King Ahab over the affair of Naboth's vineyard and predicted his violent end, and too, that of the evil Queen Jezebel. Then he had vanished, just as he had done on previous occasions, and nobody knew where he was. For three years there was peace between Israel and Syria and King Ahab probably flattered himself that the danger was past and he could relax at ease with his ill-gotten gains. But the judgments of God cannot be thwarted and at the end of the three years he persuaded good king Jehoshaphat of Judah to join him in an offensive against the Syrians to recover the district of Ramoth-gilead that he had lost to them many years before. This was his undoing, for in the battle he lost his life and the prediction of Elijah that the pariah dogs of the city would one day lick his blood in the place where the innocent Naboth was stoned to death, came true. So the wicked Ahab came to his foretold end and his eldest son Ahaziah reigned in his stead. Now Ahaziah was as godless as had been his father and his mother, with the evil Queen Jezebel by his side to abet him in his wickedness. Neither did he learn by the fate of his father that the God of Israel cannot be defied with impunity. He must have known of the affair of Naboth's vineyard but he would have been a lad of ten years of age or less at the time of the three years' famine and the demonstration of the true God on Mount Carmel. So he probably either never gave that story thought or if he did, dismissed it as a fable. So the chronicler says he walked in the way of his father and mother and like them made Israel to sin.
Now the judgments of God come in different ways and sometimes unexpected. This godless Ahaziah had been king for less than two years when he fell out of an upstairs window of his palace in Samaria, and was picked up badly injured. Did he in this extremity remember that the Lord God of Israel would heal those who placed their faith in him and were loyal to his Covenant? If he did, he placed no faith in the promise. He sent messengers instead to the Philistine town of Ekron in the south, seventy miles away, to enquire and supplicate at the shrine of Ekron's pagan god Baal-zebub for recovery. Whether the messengers believed in their hearts that Baal-zebub would do anything about it or even whether he could, they set out because it was the king's command.
And as they went, they came face to face with a terrifying apparition, a giant of a man, goatskin clad, muscular hands grasping a stout staff, penetrating eyes that burned into their very souls. As they stood they realised they were facing the man who had been such a plague to their former king, Ahab. This was the man no one had seen for six years past and no one knew whether he was alive or dead. Now here he was and very much alive. They stood and feared, and waited. "Go, turn again to the king that sent you, and say to him, 'Is it because there is no God in Israel that you are going to enquire of Baal-zebub, the god of Ekron? Now therefore thus says the Lord, you shall not leave the bed to which you have gone, but you shall surely die' "(2 Kings 1.16).
Then he was gone, adroitly, so swiftly that the eye could scarcely follow, that awesome figure had moved off the highway into the bushes and trees which lined its sides, and they saw him no more. The road to the south lay open before them, but see now those scared and somewhat thoughtful men. They had received the answer they sought, but not from the source they expected. Some of them began to remember how the past predictions of this same Elijah had come true, and the more they thought about the matter the less they liked it until with one accord they turned themselves and retracted their steps to tell the king what had happened.
Now see this godless king as he listens. Imagine his brows contracting as he regards his messengers. "What manner of man was he which came up to meet you?" he demands. They tell him. A look of incredulity, and then of realisation, passes over his face. "It is Elijah the Tishbite!" Those few words, set out in cold print in the story, cannot convey the tone in which that godless Ahaziah spoke. Was it of fear? Was it of scorn? Was it of enmity? It might have been any one of these. And his inner thoughts at that moment may hold the key to the rest of the story. At any rate, he sent a detachment of fifty men with their captain to command Elijah to appear before him. "He went up to Elijah who was sitting on the top of a hill, and said to him, O man of God, the king says come down. But Elijah answered the captain of fifty, If I am a man of God, let fire come down from heaven and consume you and your fifty". And fire came down from heaven, and consumed him and his fifty. Now that was a very strange and incomprehensible thing for Elijah to do, and quite out of keeping with his character, and it will take some explaining. It is especially so since when that godless king heard what had happened he quite casually sent another fifty men and they suffered the same fate and then he sent fifty more, and the third time Elijah did come down.
Now it is not reasonable to think that God would destroy a hundred men wantonly and casually when they were only doing their duty to their king. There is something in this story which does not appear in the recorded narrative and that something has to be found by looking for clues. And there are two clues. One is that this godless king, knowing as he must have done of the power of Elijah and the terror he inspired in his father Ahab, would be most unlikely to summon him into his own presence only to hear the words of judgment he would surely pronounce. He may have, and did, tell his men to bring Elijah to him but there could be something in the story which implied that he did not expect to see him. The other is that cryptic word the angel of the Lord said to Elijah respecting the third fifty with their captain, who pleaded for his life. "Go down with him; be not afraid of him". Why should Elijah be less afraid of this one than of his predecessors?
Was this godless Ahaziah repeating what his mother Jezebel had done when she sent messengers to Elijah threatening his life after the scene on Mount Carmel many years before? Is it possible that Ahaziah indicated to the captains that if Elijah did consent to come and if he should most inexplicably meet with a fatal accident whilst in their care so that the king would never see him face to face, then the king would not blame them in any way but just regard the whole thing as a regrettable accident. And if it was the case that these captains and warriors were themselves Baal worshippers as was their king, they too might have no objection to such a removal of a disturbing prophet from their midst! After all, why send fifty men when one single messenger would have been sufficient? If the third captain was sent with the same hint but happened to be an adherent of the God of Israel and determined that he would have no part in such a scheme but would deliver Elijah safe and sound to the king and leave him to sort things out in his own way, then there could be an explanation of why Elijah was told he had nothing to fear from the third captain where by implication he did have something to fear from the others.
Now if this was indeed the position, then these unfortunate men only suffered the same fate as the four hundred priests of Baal at the time of the Mount Carmel incident, and for the same reason, their adoption of Baal worship with all its degrading practices. After all, when one comes to think of it, what is the difference between their fate and that of those in our own day and age who adopt the same practices and die of a foul disease in consequence? Why blame the Lord for a fate one willingly brings upon oneself? Whether that fate be by the agency of a lightning flash ‑ which is the meaning of the "fire from heaven" in the story ‑ or by the ravages of disease, does not make any essential difference, except that the lightning flash is quicker and to that extent more merciful.
So Elijah went down with the third captain knowing that he would certainly be conducted in safety and stand before the godless king Ahaziah. The king must have cringed when he saw him come in, for he knew what he was going to say. "Thus says the Lord: Forasmuch as you have sent messengers to enquire of Baal-zebub the god of Ekron, is it because there is no God in Israel to enquire of his word? Therefore you shall not come down off that bed to which you have gone up, but shall surely die".
Then he was gone, and no man stayed his going. And, says the chronicler, so the king "died according to the word of the Lord which Elijah had spoken".
Just one more declaration of judgment upon the guilty, and Elijah's work was done. And this time it was not a king of Israel, but one of Judah, the nation that on the whole did remain more faithful to God than their kinsmen of the Ten Tribes.
Some thirteen years have passed, and good king Jehoshaphat has gone to his fathers. His son Jehoram reigns over Judah, and he does not follow the ways of his father. He "walked in the way of the kings of Israel, as did the house of Ahab, for he had the daughter of Ahab to wife; and he wrought that which was evil in the sight of the Lord". So the people of Judah, following the example of their king and queen, became as the nation of Israel under Ahab and Jezebel. And the Lord declared that the penalty of the violated Covenant must come.
So, one day, King Jehoram received a letter. It was from Elijah the prophet, hidden away somewhere in the northern mountains of Israel. "Thus says the Lord" it said, "Because you have not walked in the ways of Jehoshaphat your father, nor in the ways of Asa king of Judah. but have walked in the ways of the kings of Israel.... behold, with a great plague will the Lord smite your people .... and you shall have great sickness by disease … " And the plagues came, and the disease, for the Philistines and the Arabians and the Ethiopians invaded his land, and took away all the treasures of the palace, and his wives, and all his sons save one, "and after all this the Lord smote him with an incurable disease". "And it came to pass, that in process of time, after two years ... he died of sore diseases . . . and he departed without being desired".
For some thirty years, Elijah the Tishbite had been the scourge of kings, reproving them for their faithlessness and declaring judgment soon to come. Now the time was near at hand when he was to rest from his labours, and sleep with his fathers….. but his works continue.
(To be concluded)