Now when Elisha had fallen sick with the illness of which he was to die, King Joash of Israel went down to him, and wept before him, crying, ‘My father, my father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!’ Elisha said to him, ‘Take a bow and arrows’; so he took a bow and arrows. Then he said to the king of Israel, ‘Draw the bow’; and he drew it. Elisha laid his hands on the king’s hands. Then he said, ‘Open the window to the east’; and he opened it. Elisha said, ‘Shoot’; and he shot. Then he said, ‘The Lord’s arrow of victory, the arrow of victory over Aram! For you shall fight the Arameans in Aphek until you have made an end of them.’ He continued, ‘Take the arrows’; and he took them. He said to the king of Israel, ‘Strike the ground with them’; he struck three times, and stopped. Then the man of God was angry with him, and said, ‘You should have struck five or six times; then you would have struck down Aram until you had made an end of it, but now you will strike down Aram only three times.’
So Elisha died, and they buried him. Now bands of Moabites used to invade the land in the spring of the year. As a man was being buried, a marauding band was seen and the man was thrown into the grave of Elisha; as soon as the man touched the bones of Elisha, he came to life and stood on his feet.
This passage records Elisha’s death and ends the Elijah/Elisha narratives. They have been crafted to demonstrate the power of God over life and death, political and military realms, and all other gods. The final verses illustrate this well. Presumably Elisha’s tomb was a cave since his bones were uncovered. The text implies that such was the divine power mediated through Elisha that even his relics were able to restore life (cf. 2Kgs 4:32-37).
On his deathbed Elisha still represented God’s involvement in Israel’s conflicts with Aram. Joash’s words of address depict him as controller of the divine ‘army’ (cf. 2Kgs2:12; Elisha utters the same phrase as Elijah departs). In his weakness Elisha asks Joash to enact the signs that express God’s word.
The arrow shot to the east indicates the southernmost point that Aram’s incursion would reach before Israel was victorious. Elisha’s angry rebuff when Joash only fires another three arrows instead of five or six, modifies the previous sign – Aram would be subdued but not destroyed. This may reflect hindsight; but perhaps it suggests that Joash failed to use all the resources in his quiver, was half- hearted towards the prophetic instructions. Without total commitment from God’s servants, God may determine to fulfil the divine purposes in a different way.
As I write this reflection conflict continues to overwhelm Syria (modern day Aram) and a just peace between Israel and her neighbours in the Middle East seems a distant dream. As Christians we no longer believe that God takes nationalistic sides but is grieved by humanity’s inability to live in harmony and wills peace on earth.
The Old Testament ends with the hope that Elijah would return to herald the Day of the LORD (Malachi 4:5), a hope continued in New Testament times. This Advent let us proclaim our hope in God’s promised kingdom as we prepare to celebrate the coming of Jesus Christ, God’s living word, the Prince of peace.
Eternal God, you have journeyed with your people through the ages revealing more of your nature and purposes to each generation through your prophets.
Forgive us when the complexities of this age cloud our vision and block our ears, so that we fail to discern your word today.
Stir us to heed your living word, to work for peace between the nations and to proclaim your kingdom come, in Christ. Amen.
The Rev’d Dr Janet Tollington is a retired minister and member of Downing Place URC in Cambridge.