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Author:Rev. Reuben Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Mt. Nasura
 Mt. Nasura, Western Australia
 frca.org.au/mountnasura/
 
Title:God Defends the Honour of his Prophet Elisha
Text:2 Kings 2:23-25 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Preaching
 
Preached:2019
Added:2019-10-06
 

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Ps 144:1,5                                                                                      

Ps 25:3,4                                                                                                        

Reading – 2 Kings 2:19-25; 2 Chronicles 36:15-21; Hebrews 1:1-4

Ps 109:11,12,13

Sermon – 2 Kings 2:23-25

Hy 12:1,2

Hy 15:1,2,3

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.


Beloved in Christ, the Bible has some difficult stories. Difficult in the sense that there are times where we struggle to see how God can allow certain violent or brutal things to happen—and not only allow these things, but sometimes even command and approve of them.

The story in our text is one example: 42 young people torn apart by bears. But there’s other examples in Scripture, like when God ordered the total destruction of Canaanite cities: every man, woman, and child had to be wiped out—not just the fighting men, but everyone. Or when God commanded the entire tribe of Benjamin to be punished for the rape of a woman at Gibeah—at the end of a few days of slaughter, tens of thousands are dead.

These are the kind of stories that have led some to say that the God of the Old Testament is a bloodthirsty god. He’s a moral monster, vindictive and harsh, and He’s certainly not the same God whom we meet in the New Testament, who is full of grace and kindness.

Our text today too, is often cited as a major problem for God’s reputation. What can really be the point of this incident, some will ask? Why would Elisha curse these young people for something that sounds as minor as a schoolyard taunt, a juvenile insult? And why would God listen to his prophet by sending two bears to kill a heap of kids?

There are some of the questions to explore in this sermon. Along the way we’ll see how this text confronts us with truths about God that we might be uncomfortable with. But God always calls us to submit to the wisdom of his Word, and to stand in awe of his glory. I preach God’s Word to you from 2 Kings 2:23-25 on this theme,

God defends the honour of his prophet Elisha:

  1. the offense of the youths’ mockery
  2. the rightness of the LORD’s wrath

 

1) the offense of the youths’ mockery: The prophet Elisha has been staying at Jericho for a while. But after healing the deadly waters of Jericho’s spring, it’s time for Elisha to move on: “Then he went up from there to Bethel” (v 23). Bethel is a town which wasn’t far from Jericho, just to the northwest.

For a long time, Bethel was an important city in Israel. This is the place where, centuries before, Abraham built an altar and sacrificed to God. Later on, his grandson Jacob visited Bethel on his journeys and had an awesome vision of a staircase into heaven, and where Jacob too, worshiped God. Once Israel got into the Promised Land, for a time the ark of the covenant stayed at Bethel—which was in keeping with the meaning of Bethel’s name, “the house of God.”   

But more recently, Bethel had become a most unholy place. This was one of two cities where King Jeroboam had set up his golden calves, as a way to keep the ten northern tribes from going to Jerusalem to worship the LORD. For more than eighty years already, Bethel had been the chief centre of this false, pagan-style worship. This is why God often sent prophets to Bethel, to pronounce judgement and condemnation. You can read how both Amos and Hosea speak against the wickedness that was happening at Bethel.

So Elisha wasn’t exactly dropping in on friends and supporters as he approached Bethel. Most of the people who lived here would’ve been loyal to their crude bovine idols, and they would have little affection for one of the LORD’s prophets. It’s often the case that those who worship idols hate to be confronted with the truth of the one and only God.

We don’t know what God wants Elisha to do in Bethel, and we never find out, because “as he was going up the road, some youths came from the city and mocked him” (v 23). This is not going to end well…

Let’s note an important detail, which is that these young people have deliberate intent. This is not an accidental meeting, as if Elisha was going one way and they were going the other way, and they happened to have a run-in. Rather, Elisha is walking along the road, and the youths “came from the city.” They want to meet up with the prophet, because they have something to say to him—they have a malicious purpose.

How old were these young people? We can’t say for sure. The Hebrew word here is sometimes used to describe little children, as young as five or six years old. But the same word is also used for servants or for people of marriageable age—early to mid-teens. And in this crowd there was likely a range of ages, with perhaps ten or twelve years old as an average. What’s clear is what we just mentioned: they’re old enough to know what they’re doing. They’ve gone out from the city because they’ve heard that Elisha is on his way.

And meeting him, they “mock him” (v 23). I think we all understand what mockery is, because I’m pretty certain we’ve all done it. We’ve mocked someone in the home, on the playground at school, or at a party with some friends. Mocking someone is a special kind of insult. You’re not just calling them a rude name, or telling them to get lost, but you’re speaking to them with scorn and contempt. A mocking insult often takes what is dear and personal to someone, and ridicules it, makes light of it. Mockery cuts deep.

These young people are out to scorn God’s prophet. And this is what they say, “Go up, you baldhead! Go up, you baldhead!” (v 23). Today we sometimes like to poke fun of people who are follicly-challenged, and we call them names like “chrome dome” or “egg-head” or some variation. But there’s more to what these youths are saying.

First of all, baldness in Bible times was seen as a disgrace. In Isaiah 3, the prophet speaks about how the fineries and luxuries of Judah will be removed in God’s judgment: “Instead of a sweet smell there will be a stench; instead of a sash, a rope; instead of well-dressed hair, baldness; instead of a rich robe, a girding of sackcloth” (v 24). There was shame in being bald, and the young people want to remind him of it.

Second, remember that Elijah, the predecessor of Elisha, was seemingly known as a hairy man. Elisha was much younger, but it seems that he suffered from an early loss of hair. To mock his baldness was probably to insinuate that Elisha will hardly be Elijah’s equivalent, hardly as strong or brave as the great prophet. This didn’t mean that the young people held Elijah in respect, it just meant they were looking for a way to cut Elisha down. So these youths haven’t just dreamed up a random insult, a mild personal offense about his appearance, but one that attacks Elisha in his position as God’s prophet.

And that’s shown clearly by the other part of their taunt, “Go up, go up.” Where did they want Elisha to go? It seems like everyone knew that Elijah had recently been taken up in the whirlwind, that he was no more. This crowd is basically saying to Elisha, “If you’re really a prophet of God, why don’t you try an ascension too? Why don’t you go on up too, and get lost?” They don’t want a true prophet around Bethel—there’s no telling what uncomfortable things he’ll say—but they’re keen to see him go.

Just to complete the picture of this verbal assault on Elisha, see how it says that the bears attack “forty-two of the youths.” This means that it’s not just 42 people going after the prophet, but a much larger group, a whole mob. If you’ve got a group of say, 60 or 70 or 100 people, and they’re all angry and yelling, it can be a scary sight. If they’re all raging at you, it’s even more scary. And if they’re all raging at God’s prophet, it’s deadly serious.

It’s a shocking incident, but this was actually something that happened more often in Israel: true prophets of the LORD were ridiculed, beaten up, and killed. Elijah himself had endured years of persecution. Jeremiah was tormented physically—once even thrown down a well—and he was often abused verbally. He complained to God, “I am in derision daily; everyone mocks me” (Jer 20:8).

Prophet-mocking was one of Israel’s perpetual sins. At the end of 2 Chronicles there’s a sad summary of what led to the exile in Babylon, “And the LORD God… sent warnings to them by his messengers, rising up early and sending them, because He had compassion on his people and on his dwelling place.  But they mocked the messengers of God, despised his words, and scoffed at his prophets, until the wrath of the LORD arose against his people, till there was no remedy” (36:15-16). God wanted his people to hear his Word—He even wanted sinful Bethel to hear his Word—but they didn’t want to listen, and they held his prophets in contempt.

So of course this event isn’t really about Elisha and his baldness. It’s about the God who sent Elisha with something to say, and about the people who wanted nothing to do with God’s words. And God always takes that personally. God’s Word is very dear to him, because his Word reveals his glory, it teaches his wise will, it commands and rebukes and enlightens. He wants to speak, and He wants to be heard.

Hebrews 1 says that God spoke “in time past to the fathers by the prophets, [but He] has in these last days spoken to us by his Son” (v 1). God sent Jesus to earth as the greatest prophet, the one who revealed God’s will to us about our redemption. Jesus too, was despised and rejected; by so many people his message was not accepted.

And Christ knew this would happen, not only to him, but to those He sent out. This is what He said to his disciples when they went for some preaching practice, “Whoever listens to you listens to me; whoever rejects you rejects me; but whoever rejects me rejects him who sent me” (Luke 10:16). Whenever you try to shut down and ignore the Word, think about who you’re really shutting down and ignoring.

The fact is, we can relate a little to how the people of Bethel acted. They didn’t want to hear the Word, for God’s Word is confronting. If your heart is crowded with sin—if false worship is the only thing you’ve known, or if you’re in love with your possession and pleasures, or if you’re stuck in a godless pattern of living—then it’s going to be very painful hearing God’s message that you need to repent and return to him.

And one way to avoid the message is to make fun of it, or scoff at the one who is bringing it. Then it doesn’t seem so urgent that we listen. Maybe we close the Bible, so that we don’t always have to read about our sin. Perhaps we avoid close friendships, so that we can better hide our weakness. Perhaps we shut down conversation with the elders, or we find reasons to tune out the Sunday preaching, because then we can carry on without being confronted.

The Word can hurt, but remember this: God speaks to us because He loves us. In compassion He sent the prophets to Israel, and in grace He sent his Son to this earth. He wants us to hear the good news of salvation. It’s the good news that we don’t have to be captives to sin, we don’t have to die in misery, but we can be set free and live. But we do need to listen.

 

2) the rightness of the LORD’s wrath: As the storm of insults falls onto Elisha, he pauses; “He turned around and looked at them, and pronounced a curse on them in the name of the LORD” (v 24). This is where readers of the Bible start to get uncomfortable. Why is Elisha so savage? Is he grumpy, that he needs to react with a curse, on a bunch of children at that?

But Elisha knows the holy position God has given him, and the need for people to respect this work. Even in the law—in Deuteronomy 18—God said that whoever refuses to hear a prophet would have to answer to God himself.

And if Elisha was wrong to curse in God’s name, and he was speaking harshly and out of turn, the LORD would not have acted. But in what happens next, we see that this is not simply an annoyed prophet, but this is a holy and judging God: “Two female bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the youths” (v 24). In the first miracle done by Elisha, God showed dominion over the waters of Jericho—now He shows his rule over the bears of Israel.

If you visit Israel today, you won’t see any bears. But there used to be some larger predators in that land: the Old Testament mentions lions, crocodiles, and leopards. Bears too, were found in the region of Israel up until the middle ages.

God uses these two bears to inflict his righteous wrath on a wicked people. In the time of Elijah, God had sent drought and famine to punish the disobedience of Israel. In our text we see this again. Listen to what we read in Leviticus 26:21-22, “If you walk contrary to me, and are not willing to obey me, I will bring on you seven times more plagues, according to your sins. I will also send wild beasts among you, which shall rob you of your children, destroy your livestock, and make you few in number.” Covenant unfaithfulness brings on a covenant curse. Even the wild beasts will be used to carry out God’s judgment. As one commentator writes, “[These] were covenant bears.”

At the end of this dark day in Bethel, forty-two of the youths are left injured and dead. It was a severe punishment not only for them, but also for their parents. Dads and Moms throughout the area would be deprived of their descendants, left to grieve their loss, left to regret their failure to train up their children in the ways of the LORD.

Nothing more is said about this event. Afterward, Elisha simply moves on. He’d been on his way to Bethel, but in God’s providence this was the extent of the message he had to bring: a dire warning about the need to listen to God’s prophet. Now he carries on, “Then he went from there to Mount Carmel, and from there he returned to Samaria” (v 25). In both of these places Elijah had ministered, and in these places Elisha will continue the prophetic work.

And so before we too carry on to the next chapter in Elisha’s ministry, let’s reflect a little more on the meaning of this event. What is it all about? How are we to understand this dramatic and violent judgment of God?

First, let’s see when this event takes place, right at the beginning of Elisha’s ministry. Earlier in this same chapter Elisha has been empowered as God’s servant, filled with a spirit of wisdom and strength. From the first moments of his ministry, when he crossed back over the Jordan on dry ground, it was clear that God was moving in him. So here is God’s prophet, setting out in his holy work. As a prophet, Elisha will speak God’s Word in either grace or judgment, depending on whether there is faith or unbelief. With very good reason, God’s Word is called a double-edged sword, because his Word brings either healing or harm, deliverance or disaster.

And when you read our text alongside the Jericho story just before it, you see how the Word of God leads to different responses and it has different effects. It cuts both ways. The people of Jericho accepted Elisha as prophet, and they were blessed. The people of Bethel rejected him, and were cursed. So right at the outset of Elisha’s ministry, this is a warning for all who will interfere with the prophet in the coming years. God demands respect for his Word, and for those who bring his Word.

In that too, there’s a valuable lesson for us. I hesitate to put an equals sign between Elisha and ministers, or Elisha and the elders. Elisha had a special task as a man who could boldly speak for God, the Holy Spirit moving him for a dramatic ministry of miracles. Those who lead the church are not Elisha, but like Elisha they do bring the Word of God. The office bearers bring God’s Word to us in the preaching, in teaching, through visits and other interactions. The Scriptures are really the foundation of their authority—it’s the Word of God which gives us something meaningful to say, in the lounge, on the pulpit, in the classroom, on the church parking lot.

And so the New Testament urges us to accept our leaders and to listen to their words. For example, we’re exhorted in 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13, “We urge you, brethren, to recognize those who labor among you, and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake.” The leaders of the church won’t be perfect—far from it—but they will bring us the Word of God, so let us esteem them highly in love.

Because having church leaders is something that God has set up for us, we know that He’ll bless us when we do it his way. It’ll be for our good and benefit when we accept the Scriptural direction of our leaders. Think of how Hebrews 13 exhorts the church to submit to her leaders, men who watch over our souls: “Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you” (v 17). What will be to our advantage is when we accept the work of our leaders, and give them great reason for joy.

Think too, about the role of children in this story. We’ve spoken about their cruel intent, and about their deliberate rejection of Elisha as God’s prophet. But don’t forget that behind every child stands a parent. The reality is that 60 or 70 or 100 mocking and godless youths don’t come out of nowhere. The youth of Bethel have been trained for this moment. Living in a city of idolatry, they long had this example in their lives, an example of rejecting God’s truth. They hardly know any different.

That’s a warning, and an encouragement. First, it’s a dire warning that to neglect the training of our children is to invite a world of trouble. To neglect their spiritual upbringing, to pass our idols onto them, is to set them up for failure in the worst possible way—even to put them on the road to eternal ruin.

But there’s also an encouragement that we can do so much better. The parents of Bethel failed, but we don’t have to. God says there is so much potential good when we are busy training our children. Teach them to listen to the Word. Teach them to love Christ, our Saviour, and to submit to him. Model for your children what it means to be a joyful and devoted child of God. The LORD can use this good instruction to bless them for the rest of their lives.

And finally, and most importantly, this text gives us another glimpse of God’s glory. It’s not a part of his character that we’re necessarily comfortable with, because it’s about his holiness and his wrath. God will defend the honour of his name, and He will uphold the truth of his Word. God even puts those who reject him under his curse, and his curse is a terrible thing. What happened to the Canaanites or the Egyptians or even the people of Bethel is but a faint picture of God’s righteous wrath. Scripture says that there is not only temporal death for those who reject him, but eternal death—everlasting curse.

So let us be moved to a humble fear of God! Our God is holy, and He takes most seriously our sin. He consumes the wicked who do not repent from their evil way, and He judges the unrighteous. But God also forgives the repentant, and He richly blesses those who seek him. Listen to what God says in Isaiah 66:2, “These are the ones I look on with favor: those who are humble and contrite in spirit, and who tremble at my word.”

Whenever we hear God’s Word, He wants us to tremble. To tremble not in fright, not in dread of being mauled by bears, or bitten by snakes, or burned by fire, but to tremble in awe. The living God speaks to us! God wants us to know his will! He seeks to be closely involved with us through the work of his only Son and through the presence of his Holy Spirit. So hear his Word, believe it, and put it into practice!  Amen.




* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2019, Rev. Reuben Bredenhof

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