Thursday, April 21, 2016

Prophets And Kings, Day 74. King Ben-Hadad Murdered

Prophets And Kings
Day 74
King Ben-Hadad Murdered

King Ben-Hadad is ill today, but that's not the cause of him ending up dead. A trusted servant takes his life. 

2 KINGS 8:7-15
We have met up with Ben-Hadad, the Syrian king, a number of times. He's been a stubborn fellow who refuses to keep his word and he's attacked Israel time and again. Now he is very ill. "Elisha went to Damascus, and Ben-Hadad king of Aram was ill." (2 Kings 8:7a) The Bible doesn't tell us why Elisha goes to visit the territory of a man who once tried to have him killed. Some scholars believe Elisha goes hoping he can persuade the king to repent and come to the Lord. Others believe the two men have come to a truce and to a position of mutual respect over the years. 

"When the king was told, 'The man of God has come all the way up here,' he said to Hazael, 'Take a gift with you and go to meet the man of God. Consult the Lord through him; ask him, 'Will I recover from this illness?'" (2 Kings 8:7b-8) Even in Syria, Elisha is known as the man of God. It is recognized that his words are the Lord's words. Ben-Hadad has been witness to this truth, for Elisha was prophetically warning the king of Israel every time Ben-Hadad plotted to attack him. Plus Elisha deceived the men Ben-Hadad sent to kill him, calling down temporary blindness upon them and leading them away from the company of the prophets. Elisha even healed Ben-Hadad's officer Naaman of leprosy. The king knows there is power in the God of Israel and power in God's prophet. 

"Hazael went to meet Elisha, taking with him as a gift forty camel-loads of all the finest wares of Damascus. He went in and stood before him, and said, 'Your son Ben-Hadad king of Aram has sent me to ask, 'Will I recover from this illness?'" (2 Kings 8:9) Forty camel-loads is an enormous gift. The Bible doesn't say whether Elisha accepted it or whether he refused it as he refused Naaman's gift. It could be the king hopes Elisha will beseech the Lord on his behalf after receiving such bounty. Or it could simply be that the king wants to send a gift that reflects the high esteem he now has for Elisha. The words he tells the Hazael to say, calling the king Elisha's son, are quite respectful, giving honor to Elisha as an elder of Israel.

"Elisha answered, 'Go and say to him, 'You will certainly recover.' Nevertheless, the Lord has revealed to me that he will in fact die.' He stared at him with a fixed gaze until Hazael was embarrassed. Then the man of God began to weep." (2 Kings 8:10-11) Elisha isn't telling a lie because Ben-Hadad's illness is not terminal. Whatever sickness he has, with time and proper care it will gradually clear up on its own. But the Lord has revealed to Elisha that Ben-Hadad will die by some other means: murder. And Elisha knows whose hands will accomplish this wicked deed; he's standing right in front of him. Elisha stares Hazael in the eyes to let him know he is aware of the harm he intends toward the king. Elisha's words and his stern gaze should have caused Hazael to repent, but instead Hazael drops his eyes and hardens his heart. Elisha is saying something like, "The illness won't result in death. If allowed to recover, Ben-Hadad will overcome his sickness. But the Lord has revealed a plot against the king's life. And if the man behind the plot does not turn from this wrong course, the king will die by unnatural means. He will be betrayed and killed by someone he trusts."

Ben-Hadad has troubled Israel but Hazael will trouble Israel in ways Ben-Hadad never dreamed of. This is why Elisha weeps. "'Why is my lord weeping?' asked Hazael. 'Because I know the harm you will do to the Israelites,' he answered. 'You will set fire to their fortified places, kill their young men with the sword, dash their little children to the ground, and rip open their pregnant women.'" (2 Kings 8:12) What a ghastly prophecy! No wonder Elisha is weeping. If we knew an enemy was coming against our own nation to do such things, we'd weep too.

"Hazael said, 'How could your servant, a mere dog, accomplish such a feat?" (2 Kings 8:13a) Some commentators believe Hazael doesn't yet realize he is capable of such evil. Others believe he knows it but wants to know how a man in his position will ever have the power to do what Elisha says he will one day do. I think he already harbors murderous feelings toward the king. I think he already has a lust for power. I think he already believes he could be a better king than Ben-Hadad. What Hazael is about to do won't be a crime of passion, a murder committed in the heat of the moment due to rage or some type of violent argument. He is about to commit first-degree murder. He's about to assassinate the leader of his nation. I don't believe a bold decision like that happens in a split second.

Hazael can protest all he wants and put on a front of false modesty but Elisha sees right through it. Elisha sees through it because the Lord sees through it. It's ironic that Hazael's name means "Whom God Sees." God does indeed see Hazael's heart and all He finds is wickedness there. 

Elisha tells him, "The Lord has shown me that you will become king of Aram.'" (2 Kings 8:13b) This is one of those cases in prophecy where the Lord is simply revealing something that will take place; The Lord doesn't force Hazael's hand to wickedness. It appears it is God's will for Hazael to be the next king of Aram, because one of the last things the prophet Elijah did before being taken to heaven was to anoint Hazael king over Aram (1 Kings 19:15) But Hazael could have trusted in the Lord and waited patiently for the throne, just as David trusted in the Lord and waited patiently for the throne of Israel. David had several opportunities, after being told he would be the next king, to assassinate King Saul, but he would not do it. Hazael could have chosen that same route. He could have walked in David's footsteps. Had he done so, he wouldn't have had to fulfill the rest of Elisha's prophecy about the violence he will bring on Israel. He could have turned to the Lord and could have been a good king when the time came. Instead he takes matters into his own hands. 

"Then Hazael left Elisha and returned to his master. When Ben-Hadad asked, 'What did Elisha say to you?' Hazael replied, 'He told me that you would certainly recover.'" (2 Kings 8:14) Hazael keeps to himself the rest of what Elisha said. After performing his duties for the king that day, Hazael goes to his own quarters in the palace or to his own house. And he thinks. And he plots. The last thing he wants is for Ben-Hadad to recover and he knows he will because Elisha said so. The king is still very ill, his symptoms being so severe that he had feared for his life until the good news came that he would survive. Likely all the palace and the people of the nation are fearful their leader will die. And while Hazael ponders all night, maybe even pacing the floor, he realizes that no one will be shocked if Ben-Hadad does indeed die. Everyone will naturally assume the illness took his life. It could be that only Hazael and Ben-Hadad know that Elisha said he would recover and so no one will suspect foul play. But how to accomplish the murder without leaving any trace? No one must ever guess at Hazael's part in this matter. By morning he has decided how he can murder the king and get away with it.

"But the next day he took a thick cloth, soaked it in water and spread it over the king's face, so that he died. Then Hazael succeeded him as king." (2 Kings 8:15) The original language indicates that this is a heavy cloth, maybe even an animal skin with hair still on it. While Ben-Hadad sleeps deeply from exhaustion, illness, or sedating medication, he smothers and/or inhales water into his lungs and dies. It took "malice aforethought", as a lawyer might put it, to decide on a course of action and go to the king's room, to take the cloth or animal skin, to saturate it with water, to place it over the king's face, and then to stand there and watch him die. This had to take several minutes at least, and at any point Hazael could have stopped, but he didn't. 

There is still an inscription written about King Hazael by the Assyrian king Shalmaneser III which says of the fate of King Ben-Hadad, "Hazael, son of a nobody, seized his throne." He was a high official in Ben-Hadad's court but his background was obscure. He was a nobody from some backwoods town in Syria. But wasn't David a nobody from a backwoods town in Judah? In both these cases, God instructed a prophet to anoint each of these men as future kings. Samuel anointed David the future king of Israel and Elijah anointed Hazael the future king of Syria. The circumstances of their early lives seem quite similar but the condition of their hearts couldn't be less similar. I think David would have been happy watching the sheep for the rest of his life, composing songs to the Lord and enjoying the Judean countryside. Even after the throne was promised to him, he was content to let God handle it in His own time and in His own way. But Hazael, on the other hand, was never content with his position in life. From humble beginnings he moved up through the ranks until he became one of the most trusted officers of the king. But it wasn't enough for him and when Elijah anointed him king, he must have started thinking about how great a king he could be. He must have begun to look down on Ben-Hadad and to criticize him in his heart. He wasn't content to wait for God's timing. Ben-Hadad was going to recover from his illness but he was growing old. A time would come when some other natural cause would take his life, or else he would be killed in battle. But Hazael wants the throne and he wants it now. So he does something David vowed to never do: "The Lord forbid that I should do such a thing to my master, the Lord's anointed, or lay my hand on him; for he is the anointed of the Lord." (1 Samuel 24:6) Saul too had been anointed king and he was God's anointed king until the Lord took him out of the way and put David in his place. It wasn't up to David to take Saul's life. If only Hazael had David's godly attitude. So many things could have been different.

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