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The message of the jealous God intercepts them, with a just disdain, as here by Elijah: Is it not because there is not a God in Israel, that ye go to inquire of Baal-zebub, the god of Ekron? What can be a greater disparagement to the true God, than to be neglected; than to stand aside, and see us make love to a hellish rival? Were there no God in Israel, in heaven, what could we do other? what worse?
This affront, of whatever kind, Ahaziah cannot escape without a revenge; Therefore thus saith the Lord, Thou shalt not come down from that bed, on which thou art gone up, but shalt surely die. It is a high indignity to the true God, not to be sought to in our necessities; but so to be cashiered from our devotions, as to have a false god thrust in his room, is such a scorn, as it is well if it can escape with one death.
Let now the famous god of Ekron take off that brand of feared mortality, which the living God hath set upon Ahaziah. Let Baal-zebub make good some better news to his distressed suppliant. Rather the king of Israel is himself, without his repentance, hasting to Beel-zebub.
This errand is soon done. The messengers are returned, ere they go. Not a little were they amazed, to hear their secret message from another's mouth; neither could chuse but think, "He, that can tell what Ahaziah said, what he thought, can foretel how he shall speed: we have met with a greater god, than we went to seek what need we inquire for another answer? With this conceit, with this report, they return to their sick lord; and astonish him with so short, so sad a relation.
No marvel, if the king inquired curiously of the habit, and fashion of the man, that could know this; that durst say this. They describe him a man whether of a hairy skin, or of rough, coarse, careless attire; thus drest, thus girded. Ahaziah readily apprehends it to be Elijah, the old friend of his father Ahab, of his mother Jezebel. More than once had he seen him, an unwelcome guest, in the court of Israel. The times had been such, that the prophet could not, at once, speak true and please. Nothing but reproofs and menaces sounded from the mouth of Elijah. Micaiah and he were still as welcome to the eyes of that guilty prince, as the Syrian arrow was into his flesh. Too well therefore had Ahaziah noted that querulous seer; and now is not a little troubled, to see himself, in succession, haunted with that bold and ill-boding spirit.
Behold the true son of Jezebel: the anguish of his disease, the expectation of death, cannot take off the edge of his persecution of Elijah. It is against his will, that his death-bed is not bloody. Had Ahaziah meant any other than a cruel violence to Elijah, he had sent a peaceable messenger, to call him to the court; he had not sent a captain, with a band of soldiers, to fetch him. The instruments which he useth, carry revenge in their face.
If he had not thought Elijah more than a man, what needed a band of fifty, to apprehend one? and if he did think him such, why would he send to apprehend him by fifty? Surely, Ahaziah knew of old, how miraculous a prophet Elijah was: what power that man had over all their base deities; what command of the elements, of the heavens; and yet he sends to attach him. It is a strange thing, to see how wilfully godless men strive against the stream of their own hearts; hating that, which they know good; fighting against that, which they know divine.
What a gross disagreement is in the message of this Israelitish captain! Thou man of God, the king hath said, Come down. If he were a man of God, how hath he offended? And if he have justly offended the anointed of God, how is he a man of God? And if he be a man of God, and have not offended, why should he come down to punishment? Here is a kind confession, with a false heart, with bloody hands. The world is full of those windy courtesies, real cruelties. Deadly malice lurks under fair compliments; and, while it flatters, killeth.
The prophet hides not himself from the pursuit of Ahaziah; rather, he sits where he may be most conspicuous, on the top of a hill. This band knows well where to find him; and climbs up, in the sight of Elijah, for his arrest. The steepness of the ascent, when they drew near to the highest reach, yielded a convenience, both of respiration and parley: thence doth the captain imperiously call down the prophet.
Who would not tremble at the dreadful answer of Elijah? If I be a man of God, then let fire come down from heaven, and consume thee and thy fifty. What shall we say? That a prophet is revengeful? that soldiers suffer, while a prophet strikes? that a prince's command is answered with imprecation; words, with fire? that an unarmed seer should kill one and fifty, at a blow? There are few tracks of Elijah, that are ordinary, and fit for common feet. His actions are more for wonder, than for precedent. Not in his own defence, would the prophet have been the death of so many, if God had not, by a peculiar instinct, made him an instrument of this just vengeance. The divine justice finds it meet to do this, for the terror of Israel; that he might teach them, what it was to contemn, to persecute a prophet; that they might learn, to fear him whom they had forsaken, and confess that heaven was sensible of their insolencies and impieties.
If not as visibly, yet as certainly, doth God punish the violations of his ordinances, the affronts offered to his messengers, still and ever. Not ever with the same speed; sometimes, the punishment overtakes the act; sometimes, dogs it afar off, and seizeth upon the offender, when his crime is forgotten: here, no sooner is the word out of Elijah's mouth, than the fire is out of heaven.
Oh the wonderful power of a prophet! There sits Elijah in
his coarse mantle, on the top of the hill, and commands the heavens, and they obey him; Let fire fall down from heaven. He needs no more, but say what he would have done: the fire falls down, as before upon the sacrifice in Carmel, so now upon the soldiers of Ahaziah.
What is man in the hands of his Maker? One flash of lightning hath consumed this one and fifty. And if all the hosts of Israel, yea of the world, had been in their rooms, there had needed no other force. What madness is it, for him, whose breath is in his nostrils, to contend with the Almighty!
The time was, when two zealous disciples would fain have imitated this fiery revenge of Elijah, and were repelled with a check. The very place puts them in mind of the judgment: not far from Samaria was this done by Elijah, and wished to be done by his disciples. So churlish a rejection of a Saviour seemed no less heinous, than the endeavour of apprehending a prophet; Lord, wilt thou that we command fire to come down from heaven, and consume them, as Elias did? The world yielded but one Elias: that, which was zeal in him, might be fury in another: the least variation of circumstance may make an example dangerous: presently therefore do they hear, Ye know not of what spirit ye are. It is the calling that varies the spirit: Elijah was God's minister for the execution of so severe a judgment: they were but the servants of their own impotent anger. There was fire in their breasts, which God never kindled: far was it from the Saviour of men, to second their earthly fire, with his heavenly. He came, indeed, to send fire upon earth; but to warm, not to burn; and if to burn, not the persons of men, but their corruptions. How much more safe is it for us, to follow the meek Prophet of the New Testament, than that fervent prophet of the Old! Let the matter of our prayers be the sweet dews of mercy, not the fires of vengeance.
Would not any man have thought Ahaziah sufficiently warned, by so terrible a judgment? Could he chuse but say, "It is no meddling with a man, that can speak lightning and death: what he hath said concerning me is too well approved, by what he hath done to my messengers: God's hand is with him; mine shall not be against him." Yet now, behold, the rage of Ahaziah is so much the more kindled, by this fire from heaven; and a more resolute captain, with a second band, is sent to fetch Elijah to death.
This man is in haste; and commands not only his descent, but his speed; Come down quickly. The charge implies a threat! Elijah must look for force, if he yield not. There needs no other weapon for defence, for offence, than the same tongue, the same breath. God hath fire enough, for all the troops of Ahaziah. Immediately, doth a sudden flame break out of heaven, and consume this forward leader, and his bold followers. It is a just
presage and desert of ruin, not to be warned: worthily are they made examples, that will not take them.
What marble or flint is harder, than a wicked heart? As if Ahaziah would despitefully spit in the face of heaven, and wrestle a fall with the Almighty, he will needs yet again set a third captain upon so desperate an employment.
How hot a service, must this commander needs think himself put upon! Who can but pity his straits? There is death before him, death behind him. If he go not, the king's wrath is the messenger of death; if he go, the prophet's tongue is the executioner of death. Many a hard task will follow the service of a prince, wedded to his passion, divorced from God.
Unwillingly, doubtless, and fearfully doth this captain climb up the hill, to scale that impregnable fort: but now, when he comes near to the assault, the battery that he lays to it is his prayers his surest fight is upon his knees: He went up, and came, and fell upon his knees before Elijah, and besought him, and said unto him, O man of God, I pray thee let my life, and the life of these fifty thy servants, be precious in thy sight. He confesses the judgment that befel his predecessors. The monuments of their destruction were in his eye, and the terror of it in his heart of an enemy therefore he is become a suppliant; and sues, not so much for the prophet's yieldance, as for his own life.
This was the way, to offer violence to the prophet of God, to the God of that prophet, even humble supplications. We must deprecate that evil, which we would avoid. If we would force blessings, we must entreat them. There is nothing to be gotten from God, by strong hand; any thing, by suit. The life of the captain is preserved: Elijah is by the angel commanded to go down with him speedily, fearlessly.
The prophet casts not with himself; "What safety can there be in this journey? I shall put myself into the hands of rude soldiers, and by them into the hands of an enraged king. If he did not eagerly thirst after my blood, he had never sought it, with so much loss." But, so soon as he had a charge from the angel, he walks down resolutely: and, as it were, dares the dangers of so great a hostility. He knew, that the same God, who had fought for him upon the hill, would not leave him in the valley. He knew, that the angel, which bade him go, was guard enough against a world of enemies. Faith knows not how to fear; and can as easily contemn the suggestion of perils, as infidelity can raise them.
The prophet looks boldly upon the court, which doubtless was not a little disaffected to him; and comes confidently into the bedchamber of Ahaziah; and sticks not, to speak over the same words to his head, which he had sent him not long since by his first messengers. Not one syllable will the prophet abate of his
errand. It is not for a herald of Heaven, to be out of countenance; or to mince ought of the most killing messages of his God.
Whether the unexpected confidence, both of the man and of the speech, amazed the sick king of Israel; or, whether the fear of some present judgment, wherewith he might suspect Elijah to come armed, upon any act of violence that should be offered, overawed him; or, whether now, at last, upon the sight and hearing of this man of God, the king's heart began to relent, and check itself for that sin, for which he was justly reproved; I know not but sure I am, the prophet goes away untouched. Neither the furious purposes of Ahaziah, nor the exasperations of a Jezebel, can hurt that prophet, whom God hath intended to a fiery chariot.
The hearts of kings are not their own. Subjects are not so much in their hands, as they are in their Maker's. How easily can God tame the fierceness of any creature; and, in the midst of their most heady career, stop them on the sudden, and fetch them upon the knees of their humble submission! It is good trusting God, with the events of his own commands; who can, at pleasure, either avert evils, or improve them to good.
According to the word of the prophet, Ahaziah dies. Not two whole years, doth he sit in the throne of Israel; which he now must yield, in the want of children, to his brother. Wickedness shortens his reign. He had too much of Ahab and Jezebel, to expect the blessing, either of length or prosperity of government. As always in the other, so ofttimes in this world, doth God testify his anger to wicked men. Some live long, that they may aggravate their judgment; others die soon that they may hasten it.
CONTEMPLATION V.—THE RAPTURE OF ELIJAH. 2 KINGS II.
LONG and happily, hath Elijah fought the wars of his God; and now, after his noble and glorious victories, God will send him a chariot of triumph.
Not suddenly, would God snatch away his prophet, without warning, without expectation; but acquaints him beforehand, with the determination of his glory.
How full of heavenly joy was the soul of Elijah; while he foreknew and looked for this instant happiness! With what contempt, did he cast his eyes upon that earth, which he was now presently to leave! With what ravishment of an inward pleasure, did he look upon that heaven, which he was to enjoy!
For a meet farewell to the earth, Elijah will go visit the