II Kings 1:1-18
“Some persons of a scientific turn were once discussing pompously and, to him, distastefully, about the incredible distance of the planets, the length of time light takes to travel to the earth, &c., when he burst out, ‘Tis false! I was walking down a lane the other day, and at the end of it I touched the sky with my stick.’” [A. Gilchrist, Life and Works of William Blake] Well…it is a matter of perspective!
The world of quantum physics is in major celebration mode these days. They have touched the sky with their walking stick. More accurately, they have discovered the existence of the long-theorized Higgs boson…a sub-atomic particle which has the potential of explaining the mass of the universe. This tiny, tiny, tiny particle is suddenly very big!
What adds a wrinkle to all the hoopla is that this Higgs boson has been dubbed—“pompously” to borrow William Blake’s term—it’s been dubbed “the God particle.” Well…it’s not the first time in history that an overly-enthusiastic supporter has claimed more than he or she should.
Now the discovery itself is incredible! It is this generation’s “giant leap for mankind.” But the meaning of this discovery…well, we shall have to wait and see how that unfolds… But calling it “the God particle” is like a child saying he now knows where milk comes from because he has discovered the dairy case at the grocery store. The physicists themselves are more circumspect. Said one, “It is a beginning, not an end.”
This exciting discovery from the world of science is but another verse in the old, old song which now has so many, many verses. The song, “What does this mean?”
That’s a good question to ask of our text today. As the second Book of Kings begins, some time has passed since we left Elijah at Mt. Sinai in last week’s text. There has been war with Syria, and Ahab has been killed in one of the battles. His death is one thing…it’s a fact. But the meaning of his death…ah, that is something else entirely!
There was a little incident in I Kings 21, where King Ahab wanted to acquire a nifty little vineyard located right next to the palace. The man who owned the vineyard wouldn’t sell, because it had been in his family for generations. Ahab pouted, but Jezebel plotted.
They have the poor man set up on false charges of treason, and then quickly executed. The plot works! They get the vineyard and they get away with murder…except God knows. The Lord sends Elijah to confront the monarchs. Elijah says to Ahab, “Because you have sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord, behold I will bring disaster upon you.” And then he added this little ominous bit, “In the place where the dogs licked up the blood of Naboth [the man they killed for his vineyard] there shall the dogs lick your own blood.” And concerning Jezebel, Elijah says, “The dogs shall eat Jezebel within the walls of Jezreel.” Woof!
And sure enough, as I Kings came to an end, Ahab dies in battle. And as the servants are cleaning up his chariot after that battle, dogs come and lick up Ahab’s blood as it drips down onto the city street beneath the chariot. One down. One to go. But we’ll get to Jezebel’s grisly demise when we get to Elisha’s story.
But you see…this is what the Bible often does. It provides the meaning to events. History can document the event, such as a great battle. But the meaning of that history can read differently depending on whether the writer is on the victorious side or the losing side!
So here. A king dies in battle. That’s history. But that his death came as a judgment of God on his evil, that is something only God can reveal. So God calls His prophets to make it known.
Or consider a most famous example. That a man named Jesus of Nazareth once lived in the 1st Century and died by crucifixion at the hands of the Romans…that is something history can document. Ah…but the meaning of this Man’s life, and His death…that is something only God can reveal…and which faith only can receive.
So God calls preachers, like prophets, to make that meaning known. How could one Man’s death mean eternal life to all men? Scientifically, historically, it makes no sense. It is foolishness. Except God has made it known. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by His grace as a gift… The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” So He said. So we preach. So we believe, because we listen. But not all listen…so not all believe.
As II Kings opens, Ahaziah is now the king of Israel, reigning after his father’s death. V2, Now Ahaziah fell through the lattice in his upper chamber in Samaria, and lay sick; so he sent messengers, telling them, “Go, inquire of Baal-zebub, the god of Ekron, whether I shall recover from this sickness.”
How the king came to fall through the lattice work covering his upstairs windows, that’s not so important to the writer. What is important, is what the king does in response. His momma, Jezebel, trained him well. Ahaziah appeals to Baal…specifically to a variation on the name Baal, Baal-zebub…meaing, “Lord of the flies.”
Now, we today cannot hear that name without immediately thinking about the devil. There’s a reason for that. The name Baalzebub (or in some manuscripts, Baalzebul), reflects the understanding of the Baal worshipers that where flies where gathered, there was sickness. There’s some truth in that! Thus, they reasoned, if Baal commands the flies to depart, the sickness will buzz away with those flies. A conclusion, not so good.
Well, over the centuries of Christian history, this Old Testament name, Beelzebub, gradually became associated with Satan as the name of one of his chief lieutenants. And flies became a sign of demon possession. Even today many stories and movies have reference to swarms of buzzing flies wherever Satan is at work.
This idea found classic expression in the 1954 novel, “Lord of the Flies” by William Golding. It’s all about those school boys stranded on an island after their plane crashed, killing everyone else. Slowly the struggle between order and violence gives way to greater and greater violence. A turning point comes in the novel when the boys kill a wild pig. Rather than seeing it as an act of survival, it becomes a sign of their will to power…and it incites a desire for more blood-thirsty violence…against each other.
They put the dead pig’s head up on a pole and call it “the Lord of the flies” because of all the flies and bugs drawn to it. The author implies a demonic meaning! At one point, one of the boys thinks he hears the pig head talking to him: “There isn’t anyone to help. Only me. And I’m the Beast…. Fancy thinking the Beast is something you could hunt and kill! I’m part of you. Close, close, close! I’m the reason…why things are the way they are.” It’s no surprise to the reader when, later, the boy they have come to call “Piggy” is likewise killed. The Lord of the flies, Beelzebub, inspired their bloodlust.
While that novel is dark, reflecting the fears of those post-war years, the darkness around Ahaziah is of a different sort. This is a story about meaning and faith. Ahaziah interprets his injury and illness as a job for Baalzebub, a call for power. The writer sees it is an insult to the Lord God and His gifts.
So, v3, the Lord sends Elijah to give the king a message. “Arise, go up to meet the messengers of the king of Samaria, and say to them, ‘Is it because there is no God in Israel that you are going to inquire of Baal-zebub, the god of Ekron? 4 Now therefore thus says the LORD, You shall not come down from the bed to which you have gone up, but you shall surely die.’”
In other words, this is not just a tragedy with ancient health care. This is about faith. Ahaziah put his faith in the power of Baal. He will reap the cost of that decision. Had he called out to the Lord God, things might have turned out differently. That possibility is suggested by the writer in this episode of the soldiers!
In v9 and following, King Ahaziah dispatches a company of 50 soldiers with a captain to seize Elijah for his rude pronouncement. They find him on a hilltop and the captain commands, “O man of God, the king says, ‘Come down.’”
V10, 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.” Then fire came down from heaven and consumed him and his fifty. Woof! They’re toast.
V11, Ahaziah sends another company. This captain commands more insistently, “O man of God, this is the king’s order, ‘Come down quickly!’” “Achtung! Macht schnell!” And poof! They’re toast as well.
In v13, a third company goes after Elijah. But captain #3 has been taking notes. When they catch up to Elijah, this captain falls on his knees. “O man of God, please let my life, and the life of these fifty servants of yours, be precious in your sight.” And they are spared. No fire from heaven. Elijah goes with them willingly.
So…what?! The moral of the story is to remember to say please? To grovel a little? No. The point here, is that this captain had a faith which the others did not. He recognized that it would only be by the gift of God that he was going to get out of this alive and not end up fried! Not by power, his or the king’s or Baal’s. Not power. Gift. Elijah learned that the hard way last week. This King never learns.
V17, He dies…according to the Word of the LORD. No help from Baalzebub. No power. Help comes from the Lord God of Israel, whom Ahaziah failed to call on, because he lacked the faith which listens to God, the faith which receives the gift God has to give.
This is the wonder of living by faith—whether B.C. or A.D. Living by faith is not about hanging on to whatever “buzz” we believe. No, living by faith means that we know, because we listen to, the things God has said. And whether it concerns our own health and happiness, or a landscape in the throes of a drought, or the exploration of the tiniest particles of the universe’s dark matter…faith knows that there is always more at work than we can either see or say, because God has said so. And listening to the things which God has said—by the prophets, by the apostles and evangelists, by His Son Jesus—our lives and everything in them, take on great layers of meaning, listening to the things God has said!