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TEXT: II Kings 2:23-25
SUBJECT: Elisha #5: Judgment on Bethel
There once was a prophet in Israel whose name was Elisha. One day, he came to the city of Bethel where he was met by some very bad kids who mocked him, 'Go up, you baldhead! Go up, you baldhead!' This made the prophet mad and so he cursed them in the name of the Lord. Out of the woods came two she-bears who tore up and killed forty-two kids because they did not respect the prophet of the Lord.
CHILDREN AND THEIR PARENTS
This is one of the Bible's great stories and one I've told my own children many hundreds of times. All kids love it because it's full of action, blood, and guts. Some parents, however, find it rather disturbing. They don't want to criticize either the prophet or his God, but they can't shake the feeling that there's something wrong with it. While laughing at a preacher's shiny head is not polite, it is also not a capital offense! Yet, that day, it was. Forty-two real, living children were torn to pieces by angry bears because they made fun of Elisha.
Some try to blunt the story's edge by making the children into young adults who should have known better and got what they deserve. The problem is, that's not what the Bible calls them! The KJV says they were little children; the NASB calls them, young lads, and the NEB, small boys. Had they been young adults-I think-they would have been working the fields instead of playing in the woods. I believe they were just what the Bible calls them, kids. Bratty kids, laughing at a prophet, and dying for it.
However this makes us feel, it is not our job to apologize for God or to edit His Word. If the story makes you uncomfortable-good! It was meant to.
The story takes place on the road between Jericho and Bethel. There's an irony here, one the early readers did not miss. Jericho was a cursed city, and once the capital of God's enemies. But in Elisha's day, it has some fear of the Lord and seeks His favor. They want God to purify their polluted water, and He does just that.
Bethel, on the other hand, was a blessed city. It's name used to be Luz, but now it's Bethel, meaning the House of God. It got the name because it was just that. Long before, Jacob had fled from his brother and sought safety back in Mesopotamia. On his way there, one night he camped in Luz, and had a dream. He saw a ladder coming down from heaven and reaching the earth. On the ladder, angels were climbing up and down. Then a Voice spoke from above,
I am the Lord God of Abraham you father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie, I will give to you and your descendants.Your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth.and in your seed all the families of the earth shall be blessed.Behold I am with you.I will not leave you until I have done what I have spoken to you.
When Jacob woke up the next morning, he could only say,
Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it. How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven!
That's what Bethel was. But not any more. About fifty years before, King Jeroboam had set up a Golden Calf in Bethel, and since that time, the fear of God had left the city and the worship of idols prevailed.
There's a lesson in here for us.
A good upbringing is not enough and neither is a holiness in the past. Maybe you were brought up rightly and, for a time, read your Bible, prayed, and tried to live in obedience to God. But then something happened. Maybe hormones kicked in; or you fell in love with the wrong person; or you got busy or ambitious or in with the wrong crowd. You fell into bad habits and out of good ones.
Growing up in a Christian home is good and so is seeking the Lord for a time. But if that time is past, the blessings do you no good now. The Lord speaks to this issue, in Ezekiel 18:24,
When a righteous man turns away from his righteousness and commits iniquity, and does according to all the abominations that the wicked man does, shall he live? All the righteousness that he has done shall not be remembered.
Bethel is the House of God, but growing up in Bethel does you no good if you ignore and despise the Word of God.
This sad coin has a happy side too. If growing up in Bethel does not save you, then growing up in Jericho doesn't damn you.
Maybe you were brought up wrongly, and never read the Bible, prayed or had the least interest in obeying the Lord. When your hormones kicked in, you followed them and your habits have always been bad ones. The Lord says something to you, too, in Ezekiel 18:21-22,
If a wicked man turns from all his sins which he has committed, keeps all My statutes, and does what is lawful and right, he shall surely live; he shall not die. None of the transgressions which he has committed shall be remembered against him.Do I have any pleasure at all that the wicked should die? And not that he should turn from his ways and live?
History is not destiny. What you used to be does not insure what you will be. For good or bad.
In the setting of our story, we have a hint of prophecy. The first shall be last and the last shall be first. The chosen people are rejected by God and the unchosen are accepted. If Jericho is blessed by the Lord and Bethel cursed, then publican and harlots get into the kingdom of God before Scribes and Pharisees.
On the outskirts of the Bethel, Elisha is met by some kids who welcome him with mockery,
Go up, you baldhead!
Go up, you baldhead!
We fix on the wrong words. Baldhead was no compliment, but that's not what made the prophet so angry. The other words did-Go up.
What do they mean? One of two things and maybe some combination of both. Just a few days before, Elijah had gone up! To heaven in a fiery chariot he went. Or, that's what people said. But maybe the children of Bethel didn't believe the fantastic story, and so they were mocking Elisha with it.
Or maybe they did believe the story (sort of) and were telling Elisha to follow his master to heaven-and get out of here!
In any event, it was not a silly prank they were playing on him, but a bitter insult. Their attitude was the same as the men who dressed our Lord in purple, crowned Him with thorns, and cried, Hail, King of the Jews!
Elisha answered their mockery with a curse in the name of the Lord. He was not abusing them with ugly words, but something far more serious than that. He was asking God to punish them.
How do we square this with loving your neighbor as yourself? That's in the Old Testament, you know, and Elisha knew it. Leviticus 19:18,
You shall not take vengeance nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.
It would be easy to say Elisha was a cranky old man who sinned in flinging the curse at the young people of Bethel. That would be the easy answer. And also the wrong one.
Whether he was a grouch or not, what he said that day was right! We know it was because God backed up the curse.
No sooner had Elisha cursed the kids than two she-bears ran onto the scene and tore them limb from limb. The judgment that fell on the children that day was sudden, public, appalling, and final.
They had no warning. Elisha did not count to ten or give them one more chance. When the words came out of his mouth, the bears came out of the woods.
Everyone in town saw the bodies and knew what had happened to them.
Their deaths could not have been more shocking and hideous. Forty-two mothers and fathers collected the pieces of their dead and mutilated children.
It was final. They had no time to repent. In a few minutes (at the most), they suffered both physical death and the Second Death.
THE HISTORY AND MORALS TO THE STORY
Today's story is true history. There were forty-two kids in Bethel that day, they laughed at a prophet, and were they mauled to death by two angry bears.
Paul says the Old Testament stories were written for us, so that we might not do what the Israelites did back then. The lessons do not need much development.
If the story is history, it is more than that. It is also a prophecy. Like the rest of the Hebrew Bible, it bears witness to our Lord Jesus Christ.
As a prophet of God, Elisha was also a carrier of Christ. He did not come to Bethel to judge the city. Had they welcomed him as Jericho did, he would have performed great miracles for them too. But they did not want him. In fact, they wanted rid of him-and sooner the better!
But Bethel is still the House God, even if the people have polluted it with their idols and blasphemy. Elisha wants to do them good, but if they will not take mercy, they will have judgment. Not because Elisha is mean--or God is--but because they chose punishment over grace and would rather die in sin than live in holiness.
This brings to mind our Lord cleansing the Temple. He came to God's House one day to bless it. But nobody wanted the blessing, and so in flash of righteous anger, He inflicted a judgment. At the time, it was a small one and didn't hurt anybody.
But it also pointed to a Second Cleansing. If the people of Israel went on polluting the Temple, the Lord would cleanse it once and or all. In 70 AD, He did just that, taking personal vengeance on the city and razing its Temple to the ground.
And so, in today's story, we see our Lord Jesus Christ, not as the Savior of the penitent, but as the Judge of the impenitent. He wants you turn to Him; He will forgive you if you do, and not only forgive, but bless you in ways you can't imagine. But, if you remain in your unbelief, there's nothing for you but Judgment. Not angry bears, but something far worse, A consuming fire.
This is the main message of our story. The One who would rather be your Savior will be your Judge, if you insist on it.
THE KINGDOM OF GOD AND THE WORLD
If you didn't notice it, there's a loose end in the story. But I bet you did notice it. Why was Elisha so hard on the children? Why didn't he meekly take their abuse? Why didn't he love his enemies, bless those who cursed him, do good to those who hated him, and pray for those who spitefully used him and persecuted him?
There are two parts to the answer. First of all, these are the rules for life under the sun. As long as the world is under the curse, we have to live in mercy, patience, forgiveness, and prayer.
But life under the sun is not the only life. There is also a life over the sun. And the rules for heavenly life are different than the ones we now have to abide by. Take, for example, the duty of compassion. For now, we ought to feel for others and weep with those who weep.
But is that the duty of people now in heaven? If it is, heaven is a mighty sad place. For, if the glorified saints must weep for the lost then heaven is an ocean of tears! And will be as long as there is a hell!
But, in fact, the saints in heaven do not feel sorry for the lost. Theirs is not a malice or a pride, but a contentment with God's justice. And so, if Revelation 18 describes the destruction of Babylon, Revelation 19 opens with a call to worship,
Alleluia! Salvation and glory and honor and power to the Lord our God! For true and righteous are His judgments, because He has judged the great harlot who corrupted the earth with her fornication; and He has avenged on her the blood of His servants shed by her. Again they said, 'Alleluia', and her smoke rises up forever and ever.
This means the bloody judgment inflicted on the boys of Bethel was the Other World breaking into our world. It was something like the Transfiguration, only this time, it was the justice of God, rather than His mercy, on display.
Thus, it cannot justify our thirst for vengeance. For us, the wrath of man does not work the righteousness of God. We cannot wish ill on others or pray that God will give them what they deserve!
But God is not a man and His wrath does work His righteousness. Therefore, we leave it to Him. With patience. And trembling.
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