Among the Soldiers: Chapter 7

2 Kings 3:1‑20  •  15 min. read  •  grade level: 6
A large encampment - thousands of tents - a grand military array - for all the tents are filled with soldiers. We hear warlike sounds everywhere: the clash of swords, the tramp of sentinels and the notes of military music. And, in the very midst of the camp, surrounded by the soldiers, we find the very last man we should expect to find there - Elisha, the man of grace and peace.
We have seen him following the plow; we have watched him leading a quiet life at his father’s farm. We have noticed him in the caves and lonely valleys, hiding away from Jezebel with his master Elijah. We have seen him surrounded by quiet citizens, by thoughtful young students and by peaceful country folk. Now we are to see Elisha among the military.
Why was he there? Let us take up the history of the times, and we shall see. Wicked King Ahab was dead, but Jezebel his wife still lived. Ahab had left two sons. The eldest, Ahaziah, had succeeded him. He had reigned two years and then died of a terrible accident. His brother, Jehoram, now came to the throne. He was startled by his brother’s death, and he did not dare follow entirely in his brother’s wicked footsteps. He put away the great statue of Baal, which his father had made. He did not worship Baal nor did he encourage his people to do so. But Jezebel, the queen mother, still kept her heathen priests, while the king went to Bethel, bowed before the golden calf and called that worshipping Jehovah. It was a poor, miserable attempt at reformation, and in God’s sight it was a dead failure.
God said, “He wrought evil in the sight of the Lord; but not like his father, and like his mother: for he put away the image of Baal that his father had made. Nevertheless he cleaved unto the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, which made Israel to sin; he departed not therefrom.”
Many people are like Jehoram. Perhaps there is a sudden death in their family, and they are frightened. For a time they alter their behavior. They leave off any glaring sin in which they may have indulged; they attend church services and, after their own fashion, they serve God. But the golden calf - self -is still worshipped in their heart. They fondly dream that they are worshipping God, but, after all, it is the golden calf - self - that rules supreme. There is in them, as there was in Jehoram, no real turning to God, no true repentance.
Over the Jordan among the blue mountains lived the Moabites who were the descendants of Lot. Years ago, in the days of Omri, Ahab’s father, the Israelites had attacked Moab, defeated their king and made them pay a yearly tax. The tax was 100,000 rams and 100,000 lambs, with the wool.
All through the reigns of Omri and Ahab this tax had been paid. It was a very heavy tribute for the Moabites to raise, seeing that their whole country was only the size of an average-sized English county. So it’s not surprising that as soon as the news of Ahab’s death reached them, the Moabites rose in revolt and determined not to pay the tax any longer.
King Jehoram was very indignant. He was determined to punish these Moabites for their rebellion. He did not dare, however, to attack them alone, so he sent a message to the king of the southern kingdom of Judah, Jehoshaphat, the king of Jerusalem, to ask for his help against the Moabites.
Jehoshaphat was very willing to assist him, for he had his own private grudge against the Moabites. Only the year before they had marched into Judea and Jehoshaphat had trembled before them, for they had brought a great host to attack him, and he saw no way of escape. But he had turned to God in his trouble. God had helped him, and the Moabites had been driven back into their own country.
Still, Jehoshaphat felt that at any time they might return, and so he was ready to join with Jehoram to try and break their power. He sent this message back to Jehoram: “I will go up: I am as thou art, my people as thy people, and my horses as thy horses.” In other words, he said, “Use my people and my horses as if they were your own. I place myself and my people completely at your disposal.”
They held a council of war to plan their attack on Moab. Two courses lay open to them. Two roads lead into the land of Moab. One was close at hand, easy and straightforward. Elijah and Elisha took this road as they passed through Jericho and went down to the Jordan, crossing it a few miles north of the Dead Sea. But, to our surprise, we find that the kings decided to go quite a different way.
One asked, “Which way shall we go up?” The other answered, “The way through the wilderness of Edom.”
Through Edom. Then they must go through a fearful wilderness on the western shores of the Dead Sea. They must make for the southern boundary of that sea, and then they must work around it, through the land of Edom, northwards again into Moab. What a roundabout way to take! Surely there were no wise men at that council of war. What was their idea? What possible reason could they have had for taking such an extraordinary course? No one knew or could make out their motive for going so far out of their way, along such a terrible road. Some have suggested that it was because they were anxious to get the king of Edom to help them, and they wished to pass through his country that their forces might be joined to his. But surely, instead of dragging two large armies all that terrible way, it would have been far simpler for the king of Edom to meet them, and then for all of them to enter Moab by the easy road at the north of the Dead Sea.
The decision of these kings always seemed strange and mysterious and no one was able to understand it until the year 1870. Then it was discovered that the men in this council of war were not foolish but were wise men. We shall see presently how this discovery was made.
We are told, “They fetched a compass,” that is, they went around the land of Edom. They had only one hundred miles to go before they reached the southern limit of the Dead Sea, where rose Mount Seir, the rocky home of the Edomites. Yet, although they had so short a distance to travel, the way was so rough and the heat so great that it was a week before they had crossed the wilderness and had reached inhabited country.
At the end of the week came trouble. They had used up their water. So far they had carried water with them in leather bottles, slung across their mules and camels. For seven weary days they tramped through the hot desert. The air was filled with salt from the Dead Sea, making their mouths and nostrils dry, making their tongues parched, and causing their skin to crack and peel.
But they had held on, drinking as little as possible. They were trying to make the water hold out until they reached a certain valley at the south of the Dead Sea. There was a well-known spring of water, much prized, for even in the hottest season it had never been known to dry up.
When they reached this spot, to their intense horror and dismay they found that the spring had, contrary to all their expectation, dried up. The stream that flowed from the spring was dry and parched with not a single drop of water in it. The plants and flowers which grew on its banks were fast dying beneath the fearful heat of the sun.
In this valley, the Valley of Salt, the armies of Israel and Judah encamped, and here they seem to have met with the king of Edom. Many were the sighs and groans of the soldiers as, with tongues cleaving to the roofs of their mouths, they unloaded their mules and put up their tents.
How little most of us know of thirst! I once saw a party return from a trip into this very wilderness on the west of the Dead Sea. I shall never forget the awful condition they were in. They had lost their way and had wandered many miles without water in the intense glare of the sun. Almost dying of thirst, they at length reached a village, but so parched were their tongues that it was some time before they could make the Arab inhabitants understand what they wanted. When I heard their tale, I began to realize what are the horrors of thirst.
Here, then, in the Valley of Salt, were three armies, surrounded by the wilderness, without a drop to drink, and with no hope whatever of getting any water.
At that moment, conscience was busy. Is it not at times like this that the sleeping conscience wakes up? In days of sorrow or pain as we lie on our bed, in days of bereavement when we mourn one who was to us as life itself, in days of intense anxiety and care - at such times the hand of God arouses the long-dormant conscience, and we are compelled, whether we wish it or not, to ask ourselves, Why is this? What does it mean? Why has God sent me this trouble?
Jehoram had a sleeping conscience, but it woke up that dreadful day in the Valley of Salt. He felt God had sent the trouble as a punishment for his sin. Perhaps his thoughts flew guiltily to the golden calf at Bethel as he cried, “Alas! that the Lord hath called these three kings together, to deliver them into the hand of Moab!”
Then Jehoshaphat, the servant of God and the king of Judah, spoke up. He knew where to turn in the time of trouble. Only a year before God had delivered him in a most marvelous way from these very Moabites. He had good reason to say, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” He said, “Is there not here a prophet of the Lord, that we may inquire of the Lord by him?”
A prophet of the Lord among the soldiers? “Yes,” says one of the king of Israel’s servants. There in the camp, unnoticed by the leaders, there among the common soldiers was Elisha who had poured water on the hands of Elijah.
“Ah,” says Jehoshaphat, “he will do; I know him well by report. The word of the Lord is with him. He is not one of the prophets of Baal or of the golden calves; his advice is worth having; his assistance is just what we need.”
Where is Elisha? He is not close at hand, near the royal tent; he is at the other end of the camp. Do they send for him? No, they go to him. The three kings so deeply feel their need - so earnestly long for help -that instead of summoning him into their presence, they condescend to go down to him.
At once Elisha turns to Jehoram. It was his grandfather who led Israel into idolatry. It was his father who hunted Elisha’s beloved master Elijah from place to place, who set a price upon his head and who would gladly have murdered him. His mother was even now sheltering, feeding and encouraging the priests of Baal. He himself was upholding the idolatry of Bethel, maintaining the worship of the golden calves. So Elisha turns to him and says, “What have I to do with thee? Get thee to the prophets of thy father, and to the prophets of thy mother.”
Some people today are just like Jehoram. The sailor who swears in fine weather may be down on his knees in the storm; the man who in perfect health declares that there is no God may cry out in terror to that very God when the hand of death is upon him. Man’s self-sufficiency will not stand rough weather. It does well enough when the sun shines, but it is a dead failure in the time of storm.
The prophets of Jehoram’s father and mother could do nothing for him now, and no one knew it better than he did. “Nay,” he says; “reproach me not, since I am in a sore strait, and not only I, but these two other kings also. The Lord Jehovah is about to deliver us into the hand of Moab. If you cannot or will not help me, at least do not reproach me.”
And Elisha said, “As the Lord of hosts liveth, before whom I stand, surely, were it not that I regard the presence of Jehoshaphat the king of Judah, I would not look toward thee, nor see thee.” He lets Jehoram know very plainly that the coming deliverance will be given, not for his sake nor because he has asked for it, but solely because of the presence of Jehoshaphat.
“Ye,” says our Lord to His people, “are the salt of the earth.” He would teach us that just as salt keeps meat from decaying, so do God’s people preserve this evil world from being destroyed. “I cannot do anything,” said the destroying angel to Lot, “till thou be come thither.” Till you are removed to a place of safety, my hand is stayed. Not until Lot was in Zoar did God’s judgments on the wicked cities fall.
For Jehoshaphat’s sake the deliverance shall be given. “Bring me a minstrel,” says Elisha. The bystanders listen in dead silence as the sweet tones of the harp and the low, quiet song of the minstrel fall upon the ear. Then, as the music goes on, the hand of the Lord comes upon Elisha, and the message of the Lord is given to the three kings.
At once the soldiers are turned out to dig trenches or pits across the valley. Empty pits, dry pits and useless pits they seemed when the work was done. Then came a quiet, still night. There was no sign of rain, for in that country if there is no wind, there will be no rain. Our Lord connects the two when He said, “The rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew.”
Although no rain fell during the night, in the morning the ditches were full of water. A stream of water had come rushing from the land of Edom, and the country was filled with water.
Oh, how thankful the soldiers must have been as they took a long drink of the cool waters and as they led their exhausted cattle and mules to drink at the ditches which, while they slept, had been filled to overflowing!
Then they prepare to face their enemies. They had seen them, the day before, standing in battle array, the great host of the Moabites, drawn up on the north side of the valley. It was a mighty host; everyone who could put on armor had been pressed into service.
But a great change has come over the Moabite army. Early in the morning they had risen from sleep, eager for battle. They had looked across the valley in the direction of their foes. But what had they seen? The whole country appeared to them to be filled with blood. They saw pools, where there were no pools yesterday. The wilderness, the dry wilderness, was broken up by them. Surely the pools were pools of blood, thought the Moabites, as they reflected the rosy light of the rising sun.
Surely the same thing has happened to them as happened to us Moabites a year ago when we went against Jehoshaphat. Then, we and our allies quarreled and began to kill one another. Now these Edomites, Israelites and men of Judah have evidently done the same. No rain can have fallen, for we have heard no wind. Surely then the pools are filled with the blood of the slain.
So, in mad haste, the Moabites rush out in confusion to the Israelite camp, and the three armies who are drawn up in battle array win an easy victory. King Mesha is beaten and driven back into the land of Moab.
Surely we have in this story a picture of ourselves. Here we are in the wilderness of this world. Our hearts are dry and parched, and some of us have, it may be, begun to feel it. Some of us are longing for a blessing, craving for something which shall make our souls very different from what they are now, which shall satisfy the heart thirst that comes over us even when we seem most happy, yearning to be filled with the Holy Spirit.
Listen, if such be the cry of your heart, to the voice of God. He bids you do, too, as Elisha instructed, “Make this valley full of ditches.” If those soldiers had not worked with their spades, the water would never have come. And if you do not open your heart to receive it, be sure of this, you will never be filled with the blessing.
Even today the stream is on its way from the land of Edom. Quietly, silently, the Spirit moves. “Ye shall not see wind neither shall ye see rain.” All unseen, the blessed flood of spiritual life comes on its way. Oh! Make ready for it. Make your valley, the valley of your heart, full of ditches to receive it.