One thing that is sometimes forgotten about the people spoken of in the Bible is that they really are people. This is especially easy to forget regarding those we consider to be Biblical “heroes,” the giants of faith that did so many great things throughout the course of history (many of whom are mentioned in Hebrews 11’s “Hall of Faith”). When the truth of their humanity is brought up, it is usually to say that they had sin in their lives, just like we all do. Instances such as Abraham’s affair with Hagar, Moses’s inability to control his anger at key points, and Peter’s threefold denial of Jesus are used to make the point that these men and women were imperfect, too. However, other aspects of this idea are often overlooked. These people dealt with sin just as much as anyone, but they also dealt with a wide range of emotions, even in their faithfulness to God. The joy, pleasure, fear, grief, and even anger of God’s followers, among many other feelings, have all been used to accomplish His purposes.
One example of this fact is found in 2 Kings 8, beginning in verse 7. In this passage, Ben-Hadad, the king of Syria, has fallen ill. This is the same Ben-Hadad who was responsible for the recently ended siege of Samaria that had brought the kingdom of Israel so low, as well as several other outbreaks of violence against God’s people. Despite this history, Ben-Hadad decides to inquire of Elisha, a known man of God staying nearby, as to whether or not the Lord will allow him to live through this sickness (isn’t it curious that many people become more religious on their deathbeds than at any other time?). The king sends his servant Hazael and several lavish gifts to Elisha, evidently trying to win God’s favor through the use of his earthly wealth.
When Hazael reaches Elisha in verse 9, he tells the prophet, “Your son Ben-Hadad king of Syria has sent me to you, saying, ‘Shall I recover from this disease?’” Elisha’s response in the next verse seems to be very out of place for a man of God, as he instructs Hazael to lie to the king and tell him that his health would return when the king was actually dying. This apparent break in character is explained a few verses later; after delivering Elisha’s message of false hope, Hazael ends up killing his master and becoming king of Syria himself in verse 15. What Elisha instructs the servant to say is true in a way, as it more truthfully represents the intent of Hazael to find the king’s favor while also conspiring against him.
There is more to Hazael’s encounter with Elisha, however. After Elisha declares what the Syrian is to say, he stares intently at the man for some length of time, implying his strong distaste for Hazael’s future actions, and then begins to weep. When Hazael asks why Elisha is so distraught, Elisha responds, “Because I know the evil that you will do to the children of Israel. Their strongholds you will set on fire, and their young men you will kill with the sword; and you will dash their children, and rip open their women with child,” (v. 11). In letting him look at Hazael’s future, God had allowed Elisha to see not only that he would become king, but also the severity of his wrath that would be executed against Israel. Elisha’s emotions in this verse seem to be twofold. At first, as he stares him down, he is angry with Hazael for his deception of the current king. Then, in a very powerful moment, he is overwhelmed with grief as he sees the future of his people, a people fallen from the grace of God and into the ruthless devices of the world. Elisha’s tears reveal his true love for Israel, even as they are trapped in their sinful ways.
We see here a man faithful to the Lord dealing with great emotional distress while still accomplishing his task, remaining true to the Lord’s word, and reflecting His love for the world. As Christians, we will all probably have to do the same at some point. After all, we are called to accomplish the same task today, and we will also go through a period of distress at some point. There is, therefore, an important question that we must ask here: How does Elisha manage to remain constantly attached to the Lord and deliver the message of truth in the midst of such pain that the message itself caused him?
The answer may be found in one of my favorite verses in the entire New Testament, in the example of the Savior. At the end of Matthew 9, Jesus has just finished healing several people of their physical infirmities, and now another huge crowd of people is coming to Him, wishing that more of their needs and desires might be satisfied. Matthew 9: 36 summarizes the Lord’s response – “But when He saw the multitudes, He was moved with compassion for them, because they were weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd.” I imagine that the feeling Jesus is experiencing here is similar to what Elisha felt when he saw the future of Israel’s calamity in the eyes of Hazael. Both were aware of the terrible situation that God’s people were in. Notice, though, what Jesus’s response is in the following verses: “Then He said to His disciples, ‘The harvest truly is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest,’” (v. 37-38).
There will be times when delivering the truth to the world will bring us great discomfort and even distress. It may be that people close to us reject us in rejecting the message. It is also possible for an earthly reputation to be damaged as a spiritual message is proclaimed. When this is true in our lives, we must realize what Elisha and Jesus both knew: that truth is the world’s only hope. As painful as our lives might be currently, the destruction that will be brought upon the world when it is condemned is so severe that we should have no choice but to proclaim the gospel of Christ. Only when our hearts are moved with compassion will we be able to declare the truth to the world, a truth that will one day make us all free.