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TEXT: II Kings 13:14-19
SUBJECT: Elisha #16: Arrows of Mercy
For the last several months we have been closely following Elisha's career. From the time he was called to follow Elijah to the day he anointed a new king in Syria, the Bible tells us a great deal about the man and what the Lord was doing through him.
But now, in the prime of his life, the Bible drops his story, and doesn't pick it up again until he's on his deathbed thirty-five years later!
What was he up to all this time? We can't be sure, but I suspect he was serving the Lord faithfully, but not preaching the way he once had or doing the miracles that so punctuated the first years of his ministry.
The decline was not the result of his backsliding, but it was a punishment on Israel. If the people had listened to the Word, more of it would have been given to them. But by not listening to the Word, they ended up losing what they had of it.
As God removed His light from Israel, of course, the darkness grew deeper and wider.
At home, the House of Ahab was wiped out by the blood-thirst General Jehu, who also massacred the worshipers of Baal. This would have been a good thing had the general been a good man, but he wasn't a good man. His zeal for the Lord, was, in fact, zeal for himself and the Golden Calves which he and his sons continued serving.
If things were bad at home, they were no better abroad, for the king who could kill his own people wasn't so good at killing their enemies. Hazael, the king of Syria, began taking wide swaths of land from Israel. The inheritance God gave His people was being lost, piece-by-piece. Before long, it would all be gone.
These were bad days for Israel, when the curses of the Old Covenant were falling all around them-and falling hard.
This is the background for today's story.
There once was a prophet in Israel whose name was Elisha. For many years he had served the Lord and His people, but now he was an old man and down with the sickness that would take his life.
When the king learned he was dying, he hurried to the old man's bedside to pay his respects, and-he hoped-to receive a blessing. The king was not a God-fearing man, but he was a man, and he felt for the old prophet. On entering the man's house, he greeted him with the words Elisha himself had spoken forty years before-
O my father, my father, the chariots of Israel and the horsemen thereof!
You're the defender of Israel-he means-and we owe our safety more to your preaching and prayers than to all the chariots and horsemen we can muster. The words are better than the man who said them, but the Lord is pleased with them-and no good deed will go unrewarded.
Elisha revives a bit and preaches the Gospel one last time. He tells the king to pick up a bow, open the window, and shoot an arrow to the east. When the king does it, Elisha tells him what it means, The arrow of the Lord's deliverance from Syria.
Next, the old man tells the king to take the other arrows and shoot them into the ground, which he does. But Elisha is not happy with what he has done-and neither is the Lord. The king had five or six arrows, but shot only three of them. This means he will have three victories over Syria-and that's all! Had he emptied the quiver, he would have broken the Syrians for good and saved his people for many years to come.
But that's not what happened. After losing three battles, the Syrians hit back with a vengeance and had their way with Israel for more than a hundred years.
THE RIGHT QUESTIONS
If the story is easy to tell, its meaning and application are a bit harder to find. What did the story mean to the people who first read it? And, how does it apply to us?
To answer the big questions, we have to start with some smaller ones. They're easy to answer-if only we thought to ask them. But there's the rub: we don't think to ask them. Let's give it a try.
First of all, when was the story written? It was written during the exile in Babylon. How do we know that? Because that's where the book ends, with the people being carried into exile.
Secondly, to whom was the story written? In a general way, it was written for God's People in all ages and every place. But, in particular, it was written for the Jews in exile.
Thirdly, what did it say to the Jews in exile? It said two things:
Fourthly, the story told them to do something. It told them to hope in the Lord. Though things were bad now, they would soon be better because the Covenant that had expelled them from their land was about to be replaced by a New Covenant that would restore their fortunes and fulfill every promise God ever made to His people!
THE MESSAGE TO ISRAEL
The story's message to Israel, therefore, was hope in the Lord's mercy. This is sound advice for all of God's people, whether they're ancient Jews stuck between the Rivers Tigris and Euphrates or modern Christians stuck between the Highways 680 and 880!
THE MESSAGE TO US
If the story said that to Israel, it says the same to us-hope in the Lord's mercy-only to us, His mercy is far deeper and richer and more lasting than it was to them.
What mercy did the Lord promise King Joash? He promised him three victories over Syria, which he got, and had he wanted more, he would have gotten them as well. To that unworthy king, the Lord was rich in mercy.
What mercy does the Lord promise us? He promises all mercy. Paul says every spiritual blessing; Peter adds, all things which pertain to life and godliness; Paul again, Exceedingly abundantly above all we ask or think. Our Lord says the Father knows how to give good things to those who ask Him, and in another telling, identifies the 'good things' He gives as, the Holy Spirit.
Why should we have a greater mercy than King Joash and his people? Why would God rescue us from sin and misery, while only saving them from Syria? It would be flattering to say that we are more deserving than they were. Flattering, but false! In fact, we are no more worthy of His mercy than they were. Yet, like them, we have it, but unlike them, we it all! We have every mercy an all knowing God can think up and every mercy an almighty Lord can give.
That's a lot of mercy!
But again, why should we have more than they had? It's because we have the better Covenant. Israel lived under the Old Covenant, which was a very great one. But we live under the New Covenant, and its glory is so great that, in comparison, the glory of the Old Covenant is no glory at all!
The prophets and the Apostles name some of the mercies we have, but Israel did not.
Their mediator was a very great man, Moses. But our Mediator is a far greater man who is also God! If Moses was the family's chief servant, our Lord is the family's father.
Their sacrifices washed away some of their sins and postponed many judgments. But our Sacrifice removes every sin and cancels all judgment. Their daily sacrifices lasted twelve hours; their Day of Atonement held good for a year, but our Sacrifice is so complete so that a single offering is enough-once and for all the Bible says!
Their knowledge of God was shared by a small remnant, but all of the Lord's People today, know the Lord, from the least to the greatest. If the Promise was surprising, its Fulfillment is staggering, They shall all be taught of God. Men, women, children; the educated, the illiterate, the brilliant, the ordinary, the slow, and the mentally retarded. Every single one of God's People knows the Lord because every single one of us has been forgiven!
In Israel, the Spirit was given only to a few, and sometimes He left them. But, in the Last Days, starting on the Day of Pentecost, about 30 AD, God poured out His Spirit on all flesh-Jewish, Gentile, male, female, old, young-All flesh, Isaiah says, shall see the salvation of God!
If Christ is our Mediator and Sacrifice, if the Spirit has been poured out, and we know the Lord, then all the mercies of God have been promised to us, and, in God's good time and place, we will have every last one of them!
Therefore, we must do fully what King Joash did only in part. We must put our hope in the mercy of God. But, of course, we all see this in the abstract. But what does 'putting our hope in the mercy of God' mean in the details of daily life?
It means when we sin, we confess our wrongs to the Lord, and we believe He has forgiven us! Not that He might forgive us if we feel guilty enough, if we pray hard enough, and 'don't do it again long enough'. No, we confess our sins, we accept His forgiveness, and we drop our guilt!
It means when we get bad news we feel bad-but we don't despair! Because we know the most painful things in life will somehow end up being a mercy to us. Because the most painful things in life are under His loving Lordship.
It means worldly things are not as attractive as they used to be because the mercy of God is so much better.
And so, what does a person look like who puts his hope in the mercy of God? He looks happy, hopeful, and holy.
We need, therefore, to hope in His mercy. To help you do it, remember: His mercy does not depend on your character, but on His character-I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy. Therefore, it is not him who runs, neither him who wills, but God who shows mercy!
Read the Bible with an eye to His mercy. There's a story in I Kings that I read differently now than I used to. Ahab was the wickedest king who ever ruled God's people. One day, he wanted a man's vineyard, and when the man wouldn't sell it, the king went home, got in bed, and sulked. His wife came in and wondered what was wrong with him. Ahab told her, and she said, Cheer up, I'll get the vineyard for you. She pays men off to accuse the vintner of blaspheming God and the king, and that day the man is stoned to death, and Ahab swoops down on the vineyard.
The king is giddy with his new toy until Elijah shows up and tells him he's busted and that he and his whole family will be wiped out.
Now I come to the point: When Ahab heard the Word of God, he tore his clothes and put sackcloth on his body, and fasted and lay in sackcloth, and went about mourning.
And then, The Word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying, 'See how Ahab has humbled himself before Me? Because he has humbled himself before Me, I will not bring the calamity in his days; but on the days of his son I will bring the calamity on his house.
Fifteen or twenty years ago, I preached a sermon on this passage titled, Repentance: True or False. My point was: Even though Ahab acted sorry for his sins, he wasn't really, and the judgment of God fell on him.
This is all true, of course. But its focus is all wrong. The Leading Character of this story is not Ahab and his hypocrisy, but the Lord and His mercy! Ahab is the vilest man in the world, but when he even semi-repents, the Lord pours out His mercy on him.
I first read it with an eye on the judgment, but then I started looking for the mercy. This is a good rule of thumb: Look for the mercy in God's Word, even in the parts where it's tucked away in some dark corner.
Recall the mercies He has already granted you. How many prayers has He answered? How many favors has He given you unasked for? Review your own life and you'll soon find, His mercy endures forever.
Most importantly, meditate on the cross. For it is there that the fullness of God's mercy was shown. The cross is not subject to your feelings; it's not all in your head. In fact, it's not in your head at all and your feelings have no effect on it! The cross is a real, solid fact of history that cannot be undone! There God proves His mercy. A mercy you can put your hope in, and not be sorry you did!
That's the message of today's story-to Israel and to us.
Let Israel hope in the Lord,
For with the Lord there is mercy,
And with the Lord there is plenteous
Redemption. And He will redeem Israel
From all his iniquities.
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