Tying Up Loose Ends

12th Sunday after Pentecost 

II Kings 8:1-25; 9:1-13, 30-37

The village atheists believe that they have found God’s Achilles’ Heel, that weak point by which they can finally do away with the Almighty and His annoying followers.  And what is that weak spot?  God’s violence.

You don’t have to read very far or very wide in the Old Testament without running into it.  It reads as if God had declared, “Thou shalt not kill” but then had added, “Of course, that applies to you, but not to Me.”  There’s The Flood, and the whole human and animal population goes under.  There’s the Exodus, when all the first born males of man and animal die at the hand of the Destroying Angel.  There’s the Conquest of Canaan, where whole populations—men, women, children, and animals—are put to the sword.  And then there are those Psalms that don’t get printed in the hymnals, where the writers say of Israel’s enemies, things such as “Blessed shall be he who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!”  Uff!  And, of course, there’s the violent death of God’s own Son.

The outspoken atheist, Richard Dawkins, has put words to what many people have thought through the centuries, even if not spoken out loud (even the faithful can have creeping doubts about it), namely, that while we say God is good and loving, the Bible says otherwise!  In fact, there are more incidents of violence in the Bible than even in the Qur’an!

Says Mr. Dawkins with some confident vindication, “God…is the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” [Dawkins, The God Delusion]  So, tell us what you really think, Mr. Dawkins!  And sadly…so many of God’s would-be defenders crash and burn in their attempts at a reply.

And now we get these two chapters of II Kings.  Reading them reminds me of that famous sequence of scenes at the end of the first Godfather movie.  While Al Pacino’s character, Michael Corleone, stands as godfather at his nephew’s baptism, his hitmen are going around and whacking all the other heads of the rival families, to consolidate his power as “don” and tie up loose ends after the death of his father, the former godfather, Don Vito Corleone.

And here, “badda bing, badda boom”…down they go, as Don Elisha eliminates rival monarchs.  (In the first 6 verses, however, we see the influence of Don Elisha, where the wealthy woman of Shunem has become impoverished, but because of Elisha, the king of Israel makes the woman an offer, he cannot refuse!)  V7, Elisha goes to Damascus, the Syrian capitol.  The king, Ben-hadad, is sick.  He’s told Elisha is in town—the Elisha who has been the source of so much of Syria’s grief! (And last week, the king had tried to capture Elisha!)  But amazingly, v8, the king said to Hazael, “Take a present with you and go to meet the man of God, and inquire of the LORD through him, saying, ‘Shall I recover from this sickness?’”

Then comes this curious turn of events.  V10 Elisha said to [Hazael], “Go, say to him, ‘You shall certainly recover,’ but the LORD has shown me that he shall certainly die.” 11 And [Elisha] fixed his gaze and stared at him, until [Hazael]was embarrassed. And the man of God wept. 12 And Hazael said, “Why does my lord weep?” He answered, “Because I know the evil that you will do to the people of Israel. You will set on fire their fortresses, and you will kill their young men with the sword and dash in pieces their little ones and rip open their pregnant women.” 13 And Hazael said, “What is your servant, who is but a dog, that he should do this great thing?” [Which is not a very good translation.  Hazael is really asking “What kind of dog do you take me for that I would do such a thing?!”] Elisha answered, “The LORDhas shown me that you are to be king over Syria.” 14 Then he departed from Elisha and came to his master, who said to him, “What did Elisha say to you?” And he answered, “He told me that you would certainly recover.” 15 But the next day [Hazael] took the bed cloth and dipped it in water and spread it over his face, till he died.  And Hazael became king in his place.  One loose end tied up.  It was Elisha’s predecessor, Don Elijah, who was supposed to anoint Hazael king of Syria.  God told him to do it, when Elijah was all bummed at Mt. Horeb.  But Elisha does the dirty work.

Well…on to the next.  Chapter 9.  God tells Elisha, who then sends one of his minions, to go and anoint Jehu, son of Jehoshaphat, son of Nimshi, to be king of Israel, instead of wicked Ahab’s sons. (Something else Elijah was supposed to do!) Vv6-8, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, I anoint you king over the people of the LORD, over Israel. 7 And you shall strike down the house of Ahab your master, so that I may avenge on Jezebel the blood of My servants the prophets, and the blood of all the servants of the LORD. 8 For the whole house of Ahab shall perish, and I will cut off from Ahab every male, bond or free, in Israel.”

In v11, Jehu goes back to his army buddies and tries to dismiss the whole unsettling conversation, but, unconvinced, they get the truth out of him, and, bang!, the coup is on.

V30, Jehu rides to the royal palace at Jezreel, where Jezebel still holds great power over her sons, the kings.  She does the Cleopatra thing, trying to dissuade Jehu with her beauty.  But, v32, he lifted up his face to the window and said, “Who is on my side? Who?” Two or three eunuchs looked out at him. 33 He said, “Throw her down.” So they threw her down. And some of her blood spattered on the wall and on the horses, and they trampled on her.  Jehu then leaves her corpse in the street while he goes in and sits down to eat.  Later, v35, when they went to bury her, they found no more of her than the skull and the feet and the palms of her hands.  What Don Elijah had said came true.  The wild dogs got her.  Not the sort of story you hear in Sunday School!

Now while these episodes are certainly filled with violence and blood, they pale next to the violence at the hands of Moses or Joshua or King David…all at the command of God.  So much violence and bloodshed in the name of the Lord…it’s really unsettling!  To say the least!  So what do we do with it all?  What can we do with it?  Ah…that is the question!

The flippant answer is to say that I doubt whether God is all that bothered by the rantings of Richard Dawkins and his ilk.  The ones who get bothered by the violence of the Bible are those people (and we can be among them) who really want a God who is nice!  A really nice God!  But…clearly, from the Bible, God is not nice…as we define niceness.  He does things and says things that are downright not nice!  And He doesn’t explain Himself.

And yet…this simple fact seems to escape all those noisy atheists and critics.  The not-niceness of God is integrally related to His unfathomable love.  They are not contradictions, but, in fact, are two faces of the same divine being!  And, as all things Christian are, these two faces are most fully revealed in Jesus!

Jesus’ death on the cross is not just another example of the violence in the Old Testament.  It is the focal point of all that violence.  It is the bloody climax!  It wasn’t enough that Jesus simply die.  If that were the case, Jesus could have been born a Viking and died on a raid to Ireland.  But the whole point of the Bible, Old Testament and New together, is that Jesus had to be born a Son of Abraham, a Son of David.  And all the blood that is shed in the Bible, from the beginning, flows like a massive crimson tide toward His cross. 

There’s the blood of generations by the violence of circumcision.  The blood of all those animals sacrificed for generations on the altar at the temple.  The blood of all those nations violently put to the sword by Israel’s commanders and kings because they were not descendants of Abraham, together with all those Israelites slain in bloody violence because they were unfaithful to the God of Abraham. All of that blood, every drop in the Old Testament, all that violence, finds its fullness in the violent, bloody death of the One for the many on a cross; the death of God Himself in human flesh for the sake of His bloody human creation.

So apart from Christ there is only judgment, blood for blood, and that last death, Hell…where violence can hardly be imagined.  But in Christ…oh the wonder…in Christ, with Him, there is now no condemnation.  There is only the mercy, love, and grace.

Great as the violence is, greater still is the grace.  The wonder is not that God is so violent in the Bible…terrible though that violence of God is…the wonder is that all of that violence of God…all of it…should be embraced and held by God Himself, in Jesus Christ, so that no one need ever fear God’s violence against them.  Not ever…in Christ!  The cross is indeed our whole theology!

No, this is not an answer likely to satisfy those atheists.  They think they have found God’s kryptonite and they’re running with it.  They really don’t care so much about God, but, man!, how they love to watch us Christians squirm with their arguments!

But for those of us who fear and love God…both together—fear Him because we know what the Bible says about being apart from God in Christ, and yet who love Him because we know the greater grace that belongs to those who are in Christ—for us who fear and love God we are unmoved by all the critics’ noise.

Unmoved…but we do not return violence for violence (though history shows how little we have understood this), we do not return violence for violence because Christ has taken all the violence…God’s and ours.  Nor do we give them Hell—anyone who has thought at all about what Hell means would not wish anyone ever to end up there.

In reply to every critic, we give them Christ…whether they receive Him or reject Him. For in Christ all fear is swallowed up.  In Christ all loose ends are tied up.  In Christ.  “Here we have a firm foundation, Here the refuge of the lost…None shall ever be confounded Who on Him their hope have built.”  On Christ!  Christ!

Next week…the end comes for Elisha.