2 Kings 3 (NIV)✞: Moab Revolts
Back in Chapter 1 we saw Joram becoming the king of Israal, replacing Ahaziah, but the book of Kings didn’t cover any of his reign until now. This chapter starts out with a bit of a summary of his character:
1 Joram son of Ahab became king of Israel in Samaria in the eighteenth year of Jehoshaphat king of Judah, and he reigned twelve years. 2 He did evil in the eyes of the LORD, but not as his father and mother had done. He got rid of the sacred stone of Baal that his father had made. 3 Nevertheless he clung to the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, which he had caused Israel to commit; he did not turn away from them.
As we get into Joram’s reign, the first thing we hear about is trouble: the nation of Moab had previously been paying tribute to Israel, in the form of lambs and wool (since raising sheep is what they did there). We’ll find out later that they’re actually paying tribute to both Judah and Israel; upon Ahab’s death, however, Moab decides to rebel against Israel and stop paying the tribute. I assume the king of Moab sensed Israel would be weaker without Ahab’s leadership.
In another example of the sometimes friendly relations between Israel and Judah, Joram asks Jehoshaphat, king of Judah, if Judah will join Israel in battle against Moab, and Jehoshaphat agrees. Joram even asks Jehoshaphat what direction they should take on their way to Moab:
7 He also sent this message to Jehoshaphat king of Judah: “The king of Moab has rebelled against me. Will you go with me to fight against Moab?”
“I will go with you,” he replied. “I am as you are, my people as your people, my horses as your horses.”
8 “By what route shall we attack?” he asked.
“Through the Desert of Edom,” he answered.
9 So the king of Israel set out with the king of Judah and the king of Edom. After a roundabout march of seven days, the army had no more water for themselves or for the animals with them.
The ESV Study Bible notes clear up what’s going on with Joram asking for Jehoshaphat’s advice on the marching route:
2 Kings 3:7–9 he went and sent word to Jehoshaphat. Like his father before him, Jehoram seeks help from his southern neighbor Jehoshaphat, whose initial response is recognizable from 1 Kings 22:4: I am as you are, my people as your people, my horses as your horses. Missing on this occasion, however, is any desire on Jehoshaphat’s part to discover the counsel of the Lord before going off to war (contrast 1 Kings 22:5); here he moves directly from agreement to tactics (2 Kings 3:8), and from tactics to action (v. 9). This is surprising. The tactics involve attacking Moab from the south, through the wilderness of Edom, rather than from the north. This is possible because Edom is under Judean rule (1 Kings 22:47) and her king is Jehoshaphat’s deputy rather than an independent monarch. The action involves a march in which the combined armies get lost, caught in a circuitous march. Unsurprisingly, a military venture undertaken without prophetic advice faces disaster.
ESV Study Bible
So, although Moab had been paying tribute to Israel, it was actually under Judean rule (and, presumably, paying tribute to Judah as well as Israel), so of course Joram needs Jehoshaphat’s help in going after Moab – it technically “belongs” to Jehoshaphat!
As mentioned in verse 9 above, though, the kings of Israel and Judah find themselves out of water, at which point Jehoshaphat asks the question he maybe should have asked earlier—which he had done “properly” back in 1 Kings 22—“Is there no prophet of the LORD here, through whom we may inquire of the LORD?” (v. 11✞). In fact, let’s look at verses 11–12:
11 But Jehoshaphat asked, “Is there no prophet of the LORD here, through whom we may inquire of the LORD?”
An officer of the king of Israel answered, “Elisha son of Shaphat is here. He used to pour water on the hands of Elijah.”
12 Jehoshaphat said, “The word of the LORD is with him.” So the king of Israel and Jehoshaphat and the king of Edom went down to him.
The phrase “used to pour water on the hands of” just means Elisha had been Elijah’s servant, but what’s interesting about this conversation is:
- The people from Israel know that Elisha had been Elijah’s servant but don’t seem to be fully aware that he is now a prophet himself
- The king of Judah does seem to know all about Elisha, stating that the word of the LORD is with him
So how does the king of Judah know more about Elisha than the king of Israel, even though Elisha seems to be focused on prophesying to Israel? Or perhaps I’m mixed up about things; maybe they’re in Judah at the moment, and Elisha is living in Judah, and so it makes sense for Jehoshaphat to know about him? (And it’s just that the focus of the text has been on Israel lately, instead of Judah?)
Regardless, they approach Elisha but he’s initially reluctant to inquire of the LORD for them because the king of Israel doesn’t follow the LORD; why not inquire of his own “gods,” rather than bothering the God? (Those are my words, not Elisha’s.) Interestingly, Joram doesn’t even address the question of whether it’s sinful to inquire of other “gods,” he just addresses the practical matter: it was the LORD who called these three kings together to go and fight Moab, so it is the LORD they should now inquire of!
This is the second time Joram has made this claim, though I didn’t see any evidence of it in the text; there is nothing at the beginning of the chapter saying (or implying) that, “the LORD told Joram to go up against Moab” or anything like that. Yet in v. 10✞ and again here in v. 13✞ he’s claiming that it was God who started all this. And just like Joram didn’t address the question of whether it’s sinful to inquire of other gods, Elisha doesn’t address the question of whether Joram is correct in saying that it was the LORD who called them into action. He says that he wouldn’t be paying attention to them at all if it wasn’t for the fact that Jehoshaphat is with them.
But he does agree to inquire of the LORD, and has a harpist brought to play music. While the harpist is playing, “the hand of the LORD” (v. 15✞) comes on Elisha, meaning that God speaks to him. (As a side note it’s interesting to me that Elisha feels the need to have music playing to receive the word of the LORD, but I don’t have any insights about it to call out below.)
God’s message is a good one:
16 and he said, “This is what the LORD says: I will fill this valley with pools of water. 17 For this is what the LORD says: You will see neither wind nor rain, yet this valley will be filled with water, and you, your cattle and your other animals will drink. 18 This is an easy thing in the eyes of the LORD; he will also deliver Moab into your hands. 19 You will overthrow every fortified city and every major town. You will cut down every good tree, stop up all the springs, and ruin every good field with stones.”
And that’s exactly what happens the next morning: enough water flows down into the land that it is filled with it!
This not only solves the immediate problem of a danger of dying of thirst, it also serves to throw the Moabites into confusion: they approach the area where the soldiers from Israel, Judah, and Edom are, but because it’s early morning the reflection of the sun on the water looks red so the Moabites assume that the three armies must have turned on each other and filled the land with blood! They approach confidently, expecting to simply take the plunder.
Instead of finding a lot of dead bodies, however, they find the three armies fully ready to meet them – and then some:
24 But when the Moabites came to the camp of Israel, the Israelites rose up and fought them until they fled. And the Israelites invaded the land and slaughtered the Moabites. 25 They destroyed the towns, and each man threw a stone on every good field until it was covered. They stopped up all the springs and cut down every good tree. Only Kir Hareseth was left with its stones in place, but men armed with slings surrounded it and attacked it.
26 When the king of Moab saw that the battle had gone against him, he took with him seven hundred swordsmen to break through to the king of Edom, but they failed. 27 Then he took his firstborn son, who was to succeed him as king, and offered him as a sacrifice on the city wall. The fury against Israel was great; they withdrew and returned to their own land.
As with many passages in the Old Testament, it’s much easier to follow the details of the narrative of this story than to pick out the spiritual lessons we should be learning from it. At least for me.
I think there’s a lesson to be learned from Jehoshaphat; in a previous passage he’d been faced with a very similar request from a former king of Israel and had properly asked to inquire of the LORD before acting, but in this case he forgets to do so until the soldiers are in danger of dying of thirst. Elisha doesn’t call him out for this—on the contrary, the only reason Elisha agrees to inquire of the LORD at all is because Jehoshaphat is there—so it seems to be a momentary lapse in judgement, not an overall ethical defect.
For his part, Joram doesn’t really seem to learn anything from this episode. There’s no indication that he’s decided to only inquire of the LORD from now on; nobody challenged him on the idea that you inquire of some “gods” at some time and other “gods” at other times – and, frankly, everything worked out for him here, so he probably sees no reason to question it!
The miraculous water sent by the LORD serves two purposes: it prevents the people from dying of thirst, and then provides the illusion of blood that throws the Moabites into confusion. But my favourite Study Bible points out that the judgement against the Moabites seems very harsh:
2 Kings 3:15–19 … The immediate crisis (no water, 2 Kings 3:9) is to be dealt with by miracle, as the nearby streambed shall be filled with water from an unspecified and unexpected source (neither wind nor rain). God will further grant the alliance a comprehensive victory over Moab. They will attack every fortified city and every choice city (or perhaps “major town”), devastating the land as they move through it. Deuteronomy 20:19–20 prohibits this kind of destruction in normal cases, but here it appears that Elisha portrays the Moabites as a nation to be given over to desolation (like the cities of Canaan in Deut. 20:16–18), rather than simply subjugated.
ESV Study Bible
And I think we see a glimpse of why the Moabites are being judged so harshly at the end of the chapter: when he sees the battle is going against him the king of Moab sacrifices his son to his god, which seems to work because the “fury” against Israel is great.
We shouldn’t understand this as God’s fury, of course, it’s the fury of the Moabites. As the ESV Study Bible notes call out:
2 Kings 3:27 Facing defeat by Israel, Mesha offered his son as burnt offering on the wall. As a consequence, there came great wrath (Hb. qetsep) against Israel. This is not to be understood as divine anger, because on the one hand the biblical authors did not regard the Moabite god Chemosh as a real god (1 Kings 11:7), and on the other hand Israel’s God would surely not have acted on Moab’s behalf as a result of a ritual practice that was abhorrent to him (cf. 2 Kings 16:3; 17:17; 21:6). It seems, instead, that this “great wrath” is human wrath (as on both other occasions in Kings when qetsep appears, 5:11; 13:19): Mesha’s troops respond to his desperate act with an anger that carries them to victory against the odds.
ESV Study Bible
However, even though they manage to fight off the armies of Israel, Judah, and Edom, their land is pretty much left in ruins, so I’ll be interested to see if/how the Moabites come back into the book of Kings as we go.