I went to church with Trish last night. I’ve commented before how topics on my mind seem to crop up throughout the day in surprising places, most notably at church. There was a Bible passage I’d discussed with Toby at work yesterday morning, and when I sat down in the pew for class Wednesday night, I actually thought to myself, wryly, “I wonder how that passage is going to come up in Terry’s lesson.”
Unfortunately, he robbed me of that opportunity. He opened the class with a question — what Bible passages or Biblical concepts do you think of when going through a tough time, for consolation — and the passage on my mind was too perfect an answer. So I brought it up, and spoilt my little game. Alas.
Anyway, here’s the passage we discussed yesterday:
Now the king of Aram was warring against Israel; and he counseled with his servants saying, “In such and such a place shall be my camp.”
The man of God sent word to the king of Israel saying, “Beware that you do not pass this place, for the Arameans are coming down there.”
The king of Israel sent to the place about which the man of God had told him; thus he warned him, so that he guarded himself there, more than once or twice.
Now the heart of the king of Aram was enraged over this thing; and he called his servants and said to them, “Will you tell me which of us is for the king of Israel?”
One of his servants said, “No, my lord, O king; but Elisha, the prophet who is in Israel, tells the king of Israel the words that you speak in your bedroom.”
So he said, “Go and see where he is, that I may send and take him.” And it was told him, saying, “Behold, he is in Dothan.”
He sent horses and chariots and a great army there, and they came by night and surrounded the city.
Now when the attendant of the man of God had risen early and gone out, behold, an army with horses and chariots was circling the city. And his servant said to him, “Alas, my master! What shall we do?”
So he answered, “Do not fear, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.”
Then Elisha prayed and said, “O LORD, I pray, open his eyes that he may see ” And the LORD opened the servant’s eyes and he saw; and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.
When they came down to him, Elisha prayed to the LORD and said, “Strike this people with blindness, I pray.” So He struck them with blindness according to the word of Elisha.
Then Elisha said to them, “This is not the way, nor is this the city; follow me and I will bring you to the man whom you seek.” And he brought them to Samaria.
When they had come into Samaria, Elisha said, “O LORD, open the eyes of these men, that they may see.” So the LORD opened their eyes and they saw; and behold, they were in the midst of Samaria.
Then the king of Israel when he saw them, said to Elisha, “My father, shall I kill them? Shall I kill them?”
He answered, “You shall not kill them. Would you kill those you have taken captive with your sword and with your bow? Set bread and water before them, that they may eat and drink and go to their master.”
So he prepared a great feast for them; and when they had eaten and drunk he sent them away, and they went to their master. And the marauding bands of Arameans did not come again into the land of Israel.
I always have a little trouble at this point, deciding whether to make a sermon out of the passage (as long habit in the church of Christ and as son of a minister have taught me to do), or do I just make my point, and get on with it.
I love II Kings, though, and all the stories therein, so I think I’ll make a sermon out of it, and hope that you get my Conversation points in the process.
First, notice what is going on in this passage. Pay attention to the way Elisha uses the power that God has given him. He is spying on an enemy king, to protect his own nation (and I’m very much caught up in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrel right now, so this concept is very much on my mind). It’s essentially a political use of magic power.
When the Aramean army shows up at Elisha’s house, his servant freaks out. I realize we all know this story, but look what’s happening here (in the terminology I’ve been using). The armies of men show up, all terrifying in their Constructed might. They have learned how to use weapons to impose their will on the world (their own world, and those of others). They have learned how to unite their wills in great numbers, to overpower smaller numbers of men. They show up in great power, to threaten the Man of God, and his servant is afraid.
And Elisha just tuts, and asks God to open his eyes, so that the servant may see the great host arrayed around him. Elisha is a Man who lives by faith, who casually accepts the inexplicable presence of God’s Real Truth in his life, so he’s not blinded by Constructed reality. He doesn’t hide the power of God from his own mind, he accepts it on its terms. He doesn’t recognize the Constructed strength of his enemy, for he knows that, in Real terms, it’s insignificant.
And so he prays, and for a moment at least, his servant is able to see the world as it really is. He can still see the Aramean army around him with their temporal power, but all across the hillside he can see the fiery host, the army on Elisha’s side.
And then…well, there are two ways to interpret what it was he saw. Perhaps it was the Heavenly host, God’s army of angels lined up to do battle with the enemy. That’s what I was always taught to read, here. And if that’s the case, then it’s an army of Real Truth that can wash away Constructed might as though it were nothing, cobwebs and moonlight, by its sheer DENSITY. I think there’s reason to believe differently, though.
The passage just before this, in II Kings, is of the axehead that floats. If you’re not familiar with it, I recommend you go read it. Briefly, a man is out chopping wood, and loses the head of a borrowed axe in the river. It sinks, and the man is distraught, but Elisha comes and convinces the axehead to float up to the surface, and the fellow gets it back.
We are not supposed to believe, there, that Elisha summoned an angel and asked it to fetch the axehead for him. I’ve never been given THAT impression. Rather, I think it was a little Construction on Elisha’s part. By faith, he knows how ephemeral this world is, and by faith he is willing to release himself from it, to shape it as God wants him to. I don’t see Elisha (often) bending the world to suit him. Less so than Elijah, even. He trusts in God, and bends the world to make it more like the kind of world God would want Man to live in. That’s admirable.
I think that’s what we saw with the axehead — Construction. Elisha rearranged the natural laws so that iron would float, for just a moment, in just that place, so that reality itself bent to serve the needs of Man (its master).
And, returning to today’s passage (or, rather, yesterday’s) concerning the fiery host — here’s the thing: he didn’t USE them.
That’s the thing that makes me hesitate to call them an army of angels. Perhaps they are, perhaps the angels are just a great cloud of witnesses, and Elisha wanted to remind his servant that they existed. But it seems more like Construction to me — primarily because they took on precisely the form of an army. A Constructed thing, designed to rival the threat of Men, but magical in nature. When a mighty army of Men came against them, Elisha conjured up a mightier army of fire….
And then didn’t use them. I mean to say, I think this was just an example. Elisha was showing his servant that this world DOES NOT FOLLOW the laws we believe it follows. If a strong man comes against us, we can have something stronger on our side. If an army comes against us, we can have a mightier army on our side. It takes just the faith of a mustard seed to reorder reality….
So the servant’s eyes were opened to the power available to Elisha. The servant was able to see the protectors available. The same might that allowed Elisha to rescue a worker’s axehead also allowed him to defeat an army, but he didn’t use it.
Instead, he prayed. “When they came down to him, Elisha prayed to the LORD and said, ‘Strike this people with blindness, I pray.’ So He struck them with blindness according to the word of Elisha.” And God did as he asked, changing Constructed reality by the power of his almighty hand. This is the density thing, again. The angels could have done the same (well, not the same as God, but they could easily have overwhelmed Constructed reality), but, as I said, Elisha didn’t call on the angels (which is why I doubt they were there — there’s no NEED for them to have been there).
The rest of the story is about respecting human beings as human beings. Elisha’s a funny little guy, but he sure comes off classy in the end of this story (and the king of Israel, not so much). It’s a good resolution, so I left it in the quote, but it’s beyond the scope of my argument, so I’ll leave it at that.
I’ve explored two possible interpretations of the fiery host here, and one is very much within my worldview and the other is probably one you’re more familiar with, but I’m not particularly arguing in support of either. The important point is this: there is something Real, all around us, something available to us that makes us more powerful than reality. More powerful than natural law or even than the world of Men.
There is something unseen, that is more Real than all the reality you deal with every day. Remember that.