His Selection by Elijah--Immense Influence of Elisha --His Numerous Miracles--His Vitality--His Leaving His Father and Mother--His Youthful Modesty Hardening Into the Pride of Office--Dangers of Ecclesiastical Snobbery--The Purifying of the City Water Plant at Jericho--Elisha's Cruelty in Murdering Little Children--The War with Moab--The Three Kings--War's Destruction--Tine Widow's Debt--Hospitality of a Prominent Society Woman--The Pleasant Study and Bedroom of Elisha--His Restoration of the Sun-struck Boy--Browning's Allusion--Story of Naaman--Religious Etiquette--Fate of Gehazi--Raising of the Axe--Imponderable Allies in Battle--The Famine at the Siege--Degradation and Approaching Destruction of Israel--Elisha's Brand of Patriotism-- His Weeping--Hazael the Dog--The Revolution of Jehu--Assassination of Two Kings--Defiant Jezebel-- Bloody Days--Athaliah and the New King--The Arrow at the Window--Death of Elisha--His Influence.
Four years before the death of King Ahab, Elijah appointed Elisha, the son of Shaphat, to be his successor; until the translation of the prophet, the younger man acted as a kind of private secretary and body-servant, accompanying the man of God on his pilgrimages hither and thither; but after the flaming exit of his master, Elisha became Prophet of Israel and held this exalted and dangerous post fifty-five years. He is one of the grandest figures in Hebrew history. His importance and influence are marked by the extraordinary number of miracles he performed; his career was filled with amazing adventures. He must have found life tremendously interesting, for there was scarcely a day without excitement. Although his personality lacks the romantic gloom enveloping the lonely figure of Elijah, the disciple became more powerful than his teacher, exerting a deep influence on both Israelites and aliens. He kept the faith with unswerving passion; the consciousness of his divine mission was so paramount that he spoke to kings and nobles as a plenipotentiary speaks to a vassal.
The name Elisha means God is Saviour. During his life he saved many, and his vitality was so astounding that even after his death and burial, his dry bones had more force than radium.
Seldom has so distinguished a career been told in so few words; the sayings and deeds of Elisha are immortal both in literature and in their moral influence; yet his entire biography covers only a dozen chapters in the Bible.
The first meeting of Elijah and Elisha is charming. The former had left the cave where he had listened to the still small voice, and had walked directly to a great farm. There he found Elisha, the son of Shaphat, plowing with twelve yoke of oxen before him, and he with the twelfth. Does this mean that the young man was driving twenty-four oxen in pairs before the plow? If so, he must have been a more skillful driver than Ben-Hur, and the soil must have been tougher than the Puritans found in New England.
However this may be, Elijah silently cast his mantle upon him, significant of the day of wonder when he should receive it in perpetuity; Elisha knew instantly that his work as a farmer had ended forever. But he was an affectionate son; he ran after the man of God, and said, "Let me, I pray thee, kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow thee." Elijah must have smiled, perhaps for the only time in his life. He looked on the young man and loved him, and answered softly, "Go back
again: for what have I done to thee?" Elisha ran to the farmhouse, kissed old Shaphat and his wife, hurried back to where Elijah was waiting, slew two oxen, built a fire with the wooden harness, and there was a solemn farewell feast, in which the family and all the farm-hands participated. Then Elisha followed Elijah, and ministered unto him, leaving Shaphat solitary but proud--proud as only a religious old farmer can be, when his son becomes a clergyman.
It is perhaps unfortunate that the sweet and unaffected humility which characterised the young Elisha should have left him on his assumption of office. But such is the way of all flesh; the frank young prince may become the domineering king; the humble priest may become the haughty cardinal; the unassuming parson may grow into the arrogant bishop. Not even God's holy servants can all stand prosperity; but are to their own past as the Trust Magnate is to his distant clerkship. Early modesty sometimes disappears in the pride of office and the smother of flattery accompanying it. Some golden-hearted village preachers become ecclesiastical snobs. It is especially necessary that all professional religious teachers should pray every day, Lead us not into temptation.
Whatever may be the necessity or the desirability in hierarchical forms of religion, I think it is fortunate that the ordinary Christian minister has lost the social prestige and authority that formerly envel-
oped his person. It is well that there should be respect toward the Servants of God, as toward the Servants of the Nation; but the respect should be to the man rather than to the office. In Puritan days, the minister walked the street as a captain treads the quarter-deck; people doffed their hats, and spoke to him with deference. I am sure this was not always good for these religious chieftains. Pride establishes an insuperable barrier between human hearts. If I were a minister, I should feel insulted if men changed their ordinary conversation as I entered the room; or if on the train some commercial traveller swore, adding, "Beg your pardon, parson," as if I were a woman. As in the days of chivalry, such thin courtesy fails to conceal the real contempt. It is impossible that all men who hold high office in the church should, in the beauty of their character, equal the marvellous bishop in Les Misérables, who yet was drawn from the life; but there is no greater tragedy than by becoming a leader to cease being a Christian.
Have we misjudged here, over-armed our knight,
Given gold and silk where plain hard steel serves best,
Enfeebled whom we sought to fortify,
Made an archbishop and undone a saint?
As soon as the last trace of flame that marked the ascending Elijah had vanished from the sky, Elisha seized the mantle, and returned toward the river Jordan. As he stood on the edge of the flow-
ing stream, he cried out, "Where is the Lord God of Elijah?" Suiting the action to the word, he smote the water with Elijah's mantle; a dry lane appeared, and Elisha crossed to the opposite bank. The same divinity students of Jericho that had watched the two prophets with such curiosity, now saw the younger man returning alone. They came up to him, bowed to the ground, and made a singular request. Fifty of them were athletes, and asked permission to go and search for Elijah, "lest per-adventure the Spirit of the Lord hath taken him up, and cast him upon some mountain, or into some valley." Elisha naturally refused; but their continued pertinacity made him ashamed, and he finally granted the desired permission. Fifty of them eagerly departed on the trail; how they crossed Jordan we do not know; but their expedition was fruitless, and they returned rather crestfallen to Jericho, where Elisha had waited for them. He said, "I told you so."
His confidence in his miraculous powers, established by the separation of the waters of Jordan, was further increased at Jericho. The citizens called his attention to the fact that the city water supply had become contaminated, so that frequent deaths resulted. Elisha ordered them to bring him a new, clean vessel, and to put salt in it. With this in his hand, he went to the reservoir, threw in the salt, and declared the water healed. It has been pure ever since.
Immediately after this good work of sanitation came the event which has left on the character of Elisha an ineffaceable stain. Elijah was a hairy man, but Elisha, although he was young, was noticeably bald; and, like many who have lost their hair, "was sensitive. As he drew near to the town of Bethel, swelling with the new grandeur of his office, feeling his prophetic oats, a covey of little children came flying toward him, and instead of being overawed by his dignity, they were amused by his premature baldness--trust them for noting any peculiarity! They mocked him, and shouted, "Go up, thou bald head; go up, thou bald head."
These children are the same in all places and all times; they are the children of the streets, the newsboys, gamins, sharp-eyed waifs. The muckers of the city of Bethel were in nowise different from the muckers of Paris, London, or Chicago; they saluted Elisha in the same derisory fashion as greets any rather pompous pedestrian. Elisha, alas, had no sense of humour, and a dreadful thing happened. He turned back and cursed them loudly; and before the echoes of his cursing had died on the air, two she-bears came out of a thicket, and tore forty-two children. It is not recorded that the prophet felt any remorse; at that moment he was more like the wild beasts than like a little child.
In no justification of this abominable deed, but as an explanation of his uncompromising severity, it should be remembered that the prophet Elisha lived
in days of apostasy and sin; all around him he saw a decadent and corrupt society, that had cynically turned its back on both God and morality. He was a voice of truth in an age of error. The times were evil. Idolatry and sensuality were rampant, and every hour brought nearer the shadow of Assyria.
Jehoram succeeded his father Ahab on the throne of Israel; he was an improvement, for he put away the image of Baal; but he followed Jeroboam in the ways of darkness. The subjected king of Moab had paid a mighty tribute of provisions to Israel, sending regularly a hundred thousand lambs and a hundred thousand unsheared rams. But after the defeat and death of Ahab, he thought it safe to stop these payments. Accordingly, Jehoram collected an army for a punitive expedition. He sent to the worthy Jehoshaphat, king of Judah, whose advancing years had not lessened his extraordinary amiability. Jehoshaphat made the same reply that he had formerly made to Ahab, "I am as thou art, my people as thy people, and my horses as thy horses." With the monarch of Edom as ally, the three kings advanced with their armies. But there was no water, and Jehoram was in despair. Jehoshaphat reminded him, as he had reminded his father, that it might be well to take counsel of a prophet of the Lord. It is perhaps natural that the name of Elisha should have been better known to the servants of the king than to the king himself; at all events, one of Jehoram's servants suggested that the
famous successor of the famous Elijah was within reach; and the good Jehoshaphat said delightedly, "The word of the Lord is with him."
It is an interesting and significant fact, that instead of sending for Elisha, the three kings paid him a visit in person. Their reception was anything but respectful. Elisha glared at Jehoram, and in the most insulting tone recommended him to consult the prophets of his father and mother. The king of Israel must have been very thirsty, for instead of resenting this language he begged Elisha to help them, saying they were in deadly peril. Elisha looked at the benevolent countenance of the good king of Judah and said sternly, "Were it not that I regard the presence of Jehoshaphat the king of Judah, I would not look toward thee, nor see thee."
Then Elisha called for a minstrel; and as the minstrel played ravishing music, he was inspired. He told them to make many ditches, for although there would come neither wind nor rain, water would flood the valley, so that there would be more than sufficient for man and beast. The Moabites would be delivered into their hands, and they should show no mercy.
Next morning, indeed, the valley shone with water, and to the disordered eyes of the Moabite host it looked like blood. They believed that the three kings had fought with one another; "now, therefore, Moab, to the spoil." Unfortunately for them, they found a united and grimly determined
host, who slaughtered them relentlessly. The Israelites pursued the shrieking fugitives into their own country. They killed all the men, women, and children ; they stopped all the wells of water; they felled all the good trees; they ruined every piece of profitable land.
War is always horrible. No nation in ancient or modern times suffered worse than those who were defeated by the children of Israel; the method was annihilation, which spared neither women, nor children, nor farms, nor temples; they were meaning to make their foes permanently helpless. It is not at all surprising that we find the Bible historian commenting on the feelings of the defeated Moabites in this fashion: "And there was great indignation against Israel." What savages, they must have reflected, were the chosen people!
We forget how destructive war is till we live under its curse. One reason why the recent great war had such a novel air of horrible wickedness is because people for the most part do not read history; apart from the devilish inventions of science, the same things happened in our time that have so often followed the track of war--slaughter, destruction of orchards and crops, sickness, famine, and the high cost of living.
A certain widow came to Elisha, and told a story in which the woe of a million defenceless widows is revealed. In the permanent absence of the man of the house, the cruel creditor descended upon the
lone woman, and threatened to take away for payment of debt the only property she had. This consisted of her two sons, who were to be seized. Elisha asked her what she had in the house. It appeared that the poor creature had nothing except one pot of oil. He accordingly told her to borrow "not a few" empty vessels of her neighbours, to retire into the house with her sons, to shut the door, and then to pour oil into the numerous receptacles. This she did until all were filled. She was then informed that she must sell the oil, pay the debt, and live in security on what remained. I wish I could have seen the countenance of her creditor when she paid him in cash as hard as his face.
Cultivated and fashionable women have often received spiritual leaders with enthusiasm. One day, when Elisha was in Shunem, he met a prominent society woman; she was impressed, and invited the prophet to dinner. Thereafter, whenever he happened to visit the town, he accepted her standing invitation, and always stopped at her house. In view of the frequency of these journeys, she suggested to her husband that they make a slight addition to the house, consisting of a new room on the roof, that should be for the exclusive use of Elisha, where he could keep what things he needed, and always feel at home. This was done; a room was built, and furnished with a bed, a table, a chair, and a candlestick; it must have been exceedingly attractive in its quiet seclusion; there the prophet could
study, think, and have repose. He was naturally grateful, and on one occasion he told his servant Gehazi to call the lady of the house, and she soon stood before him. He reminded her of all her graceful hospitality, and asked what he might do for her in return. Would she like to be recommended to the king or to the commander-in-chief? But she replied that she was contented to dwell in her household with her numerous friends. The prophet was at a loss, but as soon as she had left the room Gehazi, who never lacked assurance, suggested that she was childless and perhaps lonely, as her husband was an old man. Elisha had her recalled, and as she stood in the doorway he gave her the amazing news that in one year hence she should hold a baby boy in her arms. Like Abraham, she thought this was a pleasantry and was not altogether appreciative; but the next year she had her son.
When he was about six years old, he went out to the wheat-field on a day of fierce heat. Suddenly he cried out to his father, "My head! My head!" His father had him taken home immediately and his mother held him in her arms until noon, when he died. In her desperate anguish, she thought on the man of God, and believed in his power even over the grave. She carried the body up to the guest room, laid it on the bed, asked her husband to send to her immediately one of the young men, and to have an ass saddled, that she might hurry to Elisha.
She mounted the ass, bade the young servant drive and run alongside as fast as possible, and after a time they appeared before the man of God. But he had seen her while she was yet a great way off. He sent Gehazi to meet her, and to enquire after the health of the family. Perhaps no greater instance of faith is recorded than in her answer. Gehazi asked, "Is it well with the child?" She answered, "It is well."
Then she fell before Elisha, and clasped his feet; and when Gehazi roughly tried to drag her away, the prophet commanded to let her alone, for her distress was evident. She breathed out some incoherent remark about her son, and Elisha told Gehazi to take his staff and run straight to the lady's house, saluting no man on the way, and there to place the staff on the face of the child. But this did not suit the mother at all; she wanted the specialist, not his assistant; so Elisha himself had to go back with her. Gehazi did as he was told and, meeting the prophet on his way, the servant said ironically, "The child is not awaked."
The man of God went into the room and shut the door. He prayed; he covered the child with his own warm body, mouth to mouth and eyes to eyes. The rigid little form grew flexible, the child sneezed seven times, opened his eyes, and looked around in bewilderment. Elisha called for Gehazi, and told him to fetch the mother. As soon as she entered the room, he said calmly, "Take up thy son." She
bowed down in rapture, fell at the feet of the man of God, and carried away her boy in triumph.
In The Ring and the Book, Browning makes a striking reference to this incident; he is speaking of his own recreation of a story, long dead, which now is made to live again by the creative power of imagination:
Was not Elisha once--
Who bade them lay his staff on a corpse-face?
There was no voice, no hearing: he went in,
Therefore, and shut the door upon them twain,
And prayed unto the Lord: and he went up
And lay upon the corpse, dead on the couch,
And put his mouth upon its mouth, his eyes
Upon its eyes, his hands upon its hands,
And stretched him on the flesh;the flesh waxed warm;
And he returned, walked to and fro the house,
And went up, stretched him on the flesh again,
And the eyes opened. 'Tis a credible feat
With the right man and way.
One day at Gilgal, while the sons of the prophets were sitting at his feet and listening to his talk, he commanded Gehazi to set a great pot on the fire and boil herbs for a repast. One went out into the fields to gather and unknowingly put poisonous wild gourds into the pot. As they were eating, they felt sharp pains and cried, "O thou man of God, there is death in the pot." But he told them to bring meal, and Elisha cast it into the stew, after which they ate with security. Their faith in him equalled his own powers.
The story of Naaman is one of the most attractive in the Bible, though it has a tragic conclusion. Naaman was commander-in-chief of the Syrian forces, and a favourite of the king, because of his ability, wisdom, and valour; but he was cursed with leprosy. A little Jewish maid, brought to the court as a captive, was in attendance on Naaman's wife, and one day as she was brushing the hair of her mistress she became garrulous and prattled about the leprosy and how she knew a great doctor in Samaria who could cure it. The story came to the ears of the Syrian monarch, who sent Naaman to the king of Israel, with magnificent gifts and a letter which requested the monarch to cure Naaman. The king of Israel was both surprised and dismayed when he read this letter. He tore his clothes; he shrieked, "Am I God, to kill and to make alive? The purpose of this letter is to pick a quarrel." But Elisha, hearing of what had happened, sent word to the king that there was no cause for distress, and suggested that Naaman come in person and he would learn something to his advantage.
Accordingly, the mighty Naaman, with his horses and his chariots and his splendid retinue, came and stood before the portal of Elisha's house, like a modern millionaire coming to a specialist. Elisha did not trouble himself to come to the door or to look out of the window, but sent Gehazi to tell Naaman to go and bathe seven times in the river Jordan. Naaman was not accustomed to take or-
ders from anyone except the king of Syria; his pride had already been irritated by being passed along from the king of Israel to someone else; he had at least supposed that the doctor would come out and perform solemn and mystic rites. Furthermore, what was the tiny stream of Jordan compared to the broad rivers of Damascus? He turned away in a rage.
Then one of his servants--Naaman was certainly fortunate in his servants--taking his courage in both hands, mildly suggested that if the prophet had bade him go through some long and tiresome regimen, he would have obeyed; how much better merely to wash and be clean. Naaman was impressed. He went to the banks of Jordan, and dipped six times with no result. How sceptically, how hopelessly he must have plunged in the seventh time! But to his amazement his hot, dry, diseased skin changed into the fresh, soft, clear skin of a little child, and he was clean. With what unspeakable delight he came up out of the water!
With all his followers he returned to the house of the man of God and Elisha looked upon him graciously. Naaman said exactly the thing the prophet hoped he would say: "Now I know that there is no God in all the earth but in Israel." Then he naturally tried to induce Elisha to accept a fee, which was firmly refused, though Naaman was very persistent. Finally, he asked for a load of earth to take back to Syria, for he meant henceforth to worship
Jehovah, and to offer burnt offerings on this hallowed soil.
Naaman was a gentleman and did not wish to fail in his loyalty to his king, though he had quite ceased to believe in his country's religion. He therefore put a delicate question of religious etiquette before Elisha. It appeared that when the king went into the house of Rimmon to worship, he always leaned on the arm of Naaman, and they bowed down together before the god. Naaman explained that he himself could not now believe in this worship, but that he did not want to make an unpleasant scene. Would it be proper, therefore, for him to show formal respect in the house of Rimmon by bowing the knee, while in his heart remaining faithful to Jehovah? Elisha showed both common sense and courtesy in instantly reassuring the honest warrior-- "Go in peace."
(It was good advice. If I were in a temple of Buddha, or in a place of Mohammedan worship, I hope I should show the proper respect and reverence, though Buddha and Mohammed are no more divine to me than Thor or Apollo.)
The pretty story of Naaman does not have a happy ending. The horror of its close takes us unawares. Gehazi had been a silent spectator of Naa-man's offer of reward and his master's refusal; what an idiot to let such an opportunity pass! He followed after the chariot of Naaman; the mighty man
alighted in rare good humour and asked if there was anything he could do. Gehazi said that two divinity students had just called on Elisha, and that his master would be pleased if Naaman would send back some money and clothing for them. It was a skilful lie, and the Syrian, only too delighted to show his gratitude, gave Gehazi double what he asked. The servant hid the stolen goods, and stood before his master, who asked sternly where he had been. Gehazi said he had not gone out. Elisha informed him that he had seen the whole transaction as clearly in his mind as if he had been present in person. "Now, Gehazi, you are rich, and can buy all manner of real and personal property, and can have servants to do your bidding. But the leprosy that has left Naaman shall abide with you and your descendants forever." Gehazi said not a word; the pallor of fright blanched into the horrible pallor of disease. And he went out from his presence a leper as white as snow.
I do not think any man, woman, or child has ever read that tragic sentence without terror.
Not only did Elisha perform great miracles, such as bringing the dead back from their slumber, and miracles on a large scale, dealing with vast numbers, but he was not averse to the employment of his powers for any little deed of kindness. Perhaps constant exercise was necessary, and it was important to keep in practice. Once upon a time the divinity students came to him and said that the
theological building which they occupied had become too small for their needs. They requested permission to go to the banks of the Jordan, cut down timber, and build there a substantial and spacious dormitory. He consented and even accompanied them thither. As one of the young men was felling a beam, he hit with all his might, and the axe-head flew off the handle and into the river. He cried out in dismay, for he had borrowed the axe, and probably could not afford to buy another. Elisha asked him to point out the exact place where the metal had sunk in the stream; then the prophet took a stick, tossed it on the water, and the iron head of the axe rose like a trout to a fly. The young man reached out and secured it, with what surprise and pleasure may be easily imagined.
Elisha was worth more to the king of Israel in war-time than a thousand generals; for whenever the Syrians planned an ambush or a night attack, the seer, by an admirable system of mind-reading, revealed everything to the king. Naturally the king of Syria believed there was a traitor in his own camp, and he made strenuous efforts to discover his identity. But one of his courtiers, who knew the common gossip, told him that when he lay in bed thinking, his thoughts were revealed to the king of Israel by Elisha. Spies were sent out, who brought back word that the man of God was in Dothan. Accordingly in the night a whole division was sent against the town; and in the morning light, when
Elisha and his servant walked forth, they saw the city encompassed with horses and chariots and armed men. The servant trembled, and said: "Alas, my master, what shall we do?" The answer came with calm assurance: "Fear not: for they that be with us are more than they that be with them." All the imponderable forces were on the side of the man of God, but it was natural that the young attendant could not see them. Those who are close to God undoubtedly see visions that are completely out of the range of the children of this world. Spiritual realities are sometimes hidden even from the wise and prudent; but they are nevertheless there. Elisha prayed that the young man might for once see what he himself saw; and to his astonished gaze the mountains were full of horses and chariots of fire, round about, compared to which the glittering host of the Syrians was both dull and puny. As the servant's eyes were opened, the eyes of the Syrians were blinded; so that Elisha walked boldly to their leaders, told them that he would bring them directly to the man they sought, and he did; he led them into the heart of the city of Samaria; there they received sight, and to their bewilderment found themselves in the enemy's capital. The king of Israel hated to let such a chance slip, and said eagerly to Elisha, "My father, shall I smite them? Shall I smite them?" But Elisha refused to allow such treachery; instead of smiting them, he bade the Israelites give them a fine dinner, and they returned
to their king with the amazing story. The result was a long peace.
What a pity that this method has not been more frequently adopted! To receive an enemy with hospitable kindness is to disarm him. How the soldiers of the two hostile camps must have fraternised as the food and drink were served! If invading hosts could be invited to dinner, it is possible that much loss and suffering could be averted. If thine enemy hunger, feed him. Plain common sense.
Later, Benhadad, the king of Syria, laid siege to Samaria, with the result that has been so often repeated in history. The price of provisions rose to such a height that a little dung was sold for much silver, and unnatural tragedies became common. As the king of Israel was walking along the wall, a woman cried out for justice. It appeared that she and another woman had compacted to eat their babies; she had boiled hers in good faith; both had shared in the repast; and now the other woman would not play fair, and had hidden her son. When the king heard this dreadful story, which excited the attention of a listening crowd, he tore his clothes in horror and despair; and as the people gazed at his parted garments they saw that he was wearing sackcloth next his skin.
Suddenly the king thought of Elisha, and in his frenzy he determined to kill him, for he believed that all this suffering came from Jehovah. He sent a messenger to Elisha's house, and followed hard
after. Now Elisha was sitting within, surrounded by the elders; he told them that they would soon hear the murderer's knock on the door, but not to let him in until the king appeared. Close behind the servant came the king himself, leaning on the arm of a noble; but before the king could open his mouth, Elisha predicted that the next day rich and plenteous provisions would be sold cheaply in the very gate of Samaria, a peck of fine meal for a piece of silver and two pecks of barley for the same price. Unfortunately for his future welfare, the lord accompanying the king sneered, and suggested that if Jehovah would conveniently provide windows in heaven, this event might come to pass. Elisha looked at him coldly and replied, "Thou shalt see it with thine eyes, but shalt not eat thereof."
Four lepers outside the gate took counsel together, and seeing no hope within or without the city, and being in that reckless state of mind that is sometimes characteristic of those suffering from an incurable disease, hit upon the wild plan of going directly into the enemy's camp and asking for food, for the bitterness of death was past. There they found signs of a panic; the Syrians had imagined that they heard the noise of advancing armies, and had fled in such confusion as to leave provisions and jewels in abundance. This was a great night for the lepers, the best the poor wretches had ever known; they feasted prodigiously, hid costly gems, and then returned to the gates of Samaria before dawn and
roused the porters. There was a mad rush to the Syrian camp, and as the sceptical lord happened to have charge of the gate, the mob in their wild fury for food rushed right over him; he was trodden under foot, and died, according to the word of the prophet.
The last days of Elisha were clouded by the ruin of Israel, which he knew to be imminent; foreign conquest and civil war were both to devastate the land.
It should be remembered again that it was Judah, and not Israel, that kept alive the Mosaic law and the true Hebrew religion; the northern tribes of Israel were apostate, and under the leadership of their abominable kings, following in the wake of Jeroboam, and led wholly astray by Ahab, from whose rule the country never recovered, their apostasy became so general that the true faith was almost extinguished. When we speak of the Hebrew religion as it has come down to us, we really mean Judaism, Jerusalem lasted longer than Israel, but succumbed to Assyria at last.
The history of Israel, beginning with the reign of Ahab, is worse than a decline; it is symbolised by a rudderless boat on a rushing river, running toward irretrievable disaster with constantly accelerating speed until the roar of the drowning cataract is heard.
Elisha saw this as plainly as if it had already happened, and his heart died in his breast; for he loved his country. He loved his country with a
love unknown to noisy patriots; he spoke bitterly against the national vices and sins, he condemned the government and the rulers; if he had been indifferent to the nation's welfare he would have remained silent. Often those who speak out most strongly against a national policy are filled with a love of their country so much greater than that of jingo orators that their passion for the fatherland is quite beyond the common understanding. This is nevertheless one of the highest forms of patriotism.
Why Elisha journeyed to Damascus we do not know; but there he was, and Benhadad, the king of Syria, confined to his bed with sickness, heard of his presence, and having a wholesome respect for him, sent a messenger with forty camels laden down with gifts, to ask the prophet if he should recover of this disease. The messenger was Hazael, who, like Macbeth, did not dream of the evil in his own heart. Elisha told him that Benhadad would surely die. When Elisha had said this, he gazed into Hazael's face with such steadfast and searching scrutiny that the bold messenger became embarrassed. . Suddenly the man of God burst into tears.
Perhaps no one ever had more self-control than Elisha. This only recorded occasion when he wept unrestrainedly is therefore highly significant. Hazael asked, "Why weepeth my lord?"
Because I know the evil that thou wilt do unto the children of Israel: their strongholds wilt thou set on fire, and their young men wilt thou slay with the sword, and wilt dash their children, and rip up their women with child.
And Hazael said, But what, is thy servant a dog, that he should do this great thing?
How many youths would feel insulted if some one should tell them in advance of all the evil deeds they would perform during their lives! Perhaps their amazement would be greater than their resentment. "What, do you take me for a beast?" The answer is, "Yes: the very things from which you now recoil in horror, and loudly condemn in others, you yourself will do."
Hazael did not know his own mind, having never explored it. The next day, smitten with ambition, he assassinated the sick king by smothering him with a wet cloth, and thus succeeded him on the throne of Syria.
Joram, the son of Ahab, was king of Israel; he fought against Hazael, lost the battle, was grievously wounded, and returned to Jezreel to recover. There he was visited by Ahaziah, king of Judah. Elisha sent a divinity student to Captain Jehu, telling him to anoint the captain as king of Israel; then to open the door and run away as fast as his legs could carry him. Jehu was at mess with the other officers, and they were naturally curious when the excited messenger sought a private interview with him. No sooner had he returned to the room than they asked him, "Wherefore came this mad fellow to thee?" Captain Jehu told them the truth; with one accord they rallied around him, blew trumpets, and announced the revolution.
Jehu was a man of war--hardy, resolute, and impetuous as fire. He was known everywhere for his daring adventures, and for his reckless driving. As his chariot drew near to the walls of Jezreel, in which city were the two kings of Israel and Judah, he was seen afar off by the watchman on the tower. By the order of King Joram, first one messenger and then another were sent out; but they did not return. By this time the approaching chariot was very near, and the watchman said to his king, "The driving is like the driving of Jehu the son of Nimshi; for he driveth furiously."
Then Joram knew his hour had struck; both he and Ahaziah went out to meet the captain, and they encountered him in that very garden of Naboth which Joram's father had stolen. When they came within earshot Joram cried, "Is it peace, Jehu?" and Jehu replied by calling his mother Jezebel a vile name. Joram wheeled his chariot about, to escape; but Jehu drew a bow with his full strength, the arrow transfixed Joram, and he died in the portion of land that had been stolen from Naboth.
Then Ahaziah fled by way of the garden house, but Jehu was out king-hunting that day, and the retreating monarch of Judah was slain in his chariot.
Long ago, Elijah had foretold the death of Jezebel; she had survived her husband, had now lived to see her son assassinated, and knew that she and the whole race of Ahab were to be exterminated. But it is impossible to withhold admiration for the
manner in which this iron-hearted queen met her fate. She had been the wife of Ahab, and was the daughter of a king. She was high-bred, and showed no fear, but only defiance, as the revolutionary chieftain approached. She painted her face and adorned her head, as if for a state occasion, and looked out from an upper window. As Jehu, flushed with tasting blood, entered the palace yard, she greeted him with a taunt, reminding him that he was nothing but a traitor and a foul cutthroat. Jehu called aloud; some servants looked out of the windows, and Jehu commanded them to throw her down. She was hurled to the ground, and Jehu drove furiously over her prostrate body. He then went in to eat, but looking up from the table, he gave orders to bury the accursed woman, "for she is a king's daughter." The attendants found nothing but a few bones; the dogs had already devoured her, as had been long since foretold by Elijah the Tishbite.
Jehu was not satisfied with having killed two kings and a queen in one expedition; he sent word to Samaria, and had the heads of Ahab's seventy sons, every head in a separate basket, brought to him. He then gave orders which resulted in the destruction of every relative of Ahab's family, so that the whole house perished from the earth. These were bloody days. Jehu was determined to clean house and after he had slaughtered every relative and servant of Ahab, he killed all the priests
of Baal and turned their temple into a public convenience.
Yet, after all this holy zeal, King Jehu departed from the worship of Jehovah and set up a golden calf. He was like average humanity in being part good and part evil; the reign of this man of violence lasted twenty-eight years, and he died in his bed.
After the death of Ahaziah, king of Judah, who was killed by Jehu, his mother Athaliah--a desperately wicked woman--slew all the seed royal, except Jehoash, who was hidden by his aunt. Athaliah reigned six years, thinking she was secure; when one day young Jehoash was suddenly brought out in public and crowned by Jehoiada the priest. The people clapped their hands and shouted, God save the king! Athaliah heard the sound of the trumpets and the voices of the multitude, and came out of the palace, where, to her amazement, she saw her living grandson receiving public homage. Athaliah rent her clothes and cried Treason, Treason--but those were her last words, and Jehoash became king of Judah.
Racine wrote a play about this royal adventuress, as he did of Esther; but even his genius failed to equal in force the language of the Bible.
Jehoahaz the son of Jehu succeeded his father on the throne of Israel, and was constantly humiliated by the victorious Hazael, king of Syria, so that only a remnant of power was left to the nation. It was during the reign of Joash, the son of Jehoahaz,
that Elisha fell into his last sickness. He was old and full of honours, universally respected; King Joash paid a visit in person to his bedside. When he entered the room and saw the once haughty prophet lying helpless on his bed, the king wept and repeated the words that Elisha had cried out to the departing Elijah: "O my father, my father, the chariot of Israel, and the horsemen thereof!"
The dying prophet commanded the king to take bow and arrows, and fling wide open a window to the east. Then when Joash had drawn back the bowstring, Elisha raised himself up in bed and placed his hand on the hand of the king, and said "Shoot." The arrow flew far away in the direction of the land of Syria, and Elisha told Joash it was a symbol of deliverance from the ever-threatening peril. Then he told the monarch to smite the floor with arrows; and he smote three times and stopped. The old prophet was angry, and said he had stopped too soon; if he had struck five or six times, he would have completely beaten the Syrian forces. Now he should enjoy only three victories.
The prophet's anger has always seemed to me unreasonable; how was the poor king to know the number of times he should smite the floor? But I suppose Elisha meant him to keep on striking until he should hear the command to desist; or perhaps he struck the floor without any conviction, thinking it was just a dying man's whim, and humouring him
as we humour those who are very sick. He had cause later to regret it.
Elisha died, and long after his death, when nothing remained of him but dry bones, his skeleton had such vitality that a corpse, being let down into the same grave, happened to touch the dusty remains of the prophet; and to the astonishment of the mourners, the dead man sprang out of the tomb. There was no danger that Elisha would ever be forgotten.
Benjamin Franklin once said, "If the people are as bad as they are with religion, what would they be without it?" Thus, considering how evil the children of Israel were under the constant admonitions, warnings, and mighty deeds of Elisha, what would they have been without his presence? All nations, I suppose, have been destroyed from within; the neglect of religion and morality has set many proud empires on the slope to ruin. Yet even in the darkest days, when doom is certain, there has always been some witness to the power of truth and righteousness ; some man who has not surrendered to the gods of folly and selfishness. Such a tower was the prophet Elisha; he was like a tall lighthouse on a dark night; he blazed out the truth faithfully, and it was not his fault when the ship of state went on the rocks.