In this chapter, Israel, Judah and Edom go up and sack Moab.
I'm going to begin with a quick reminder, since not everyone may remember. Verse 3 says that Jehoram "clung to" the sins of Jeroboam son of Nabat. Jeroboam was the first king of the divided northern kingdom, and all the way back in 1 Kings 12 we learned that Jeroboam constructed two idols in the northern kingdom to keep his people from going to Jerusalem to worship. This was the sin of Jeroboam, because it led his kingdom to worship idols contrary to the Law.
Moving on, we see four nations mentioned in this chapter. Judah (the southern kingdom), Israel (the northern kingdom), Edom and Moab. Both Edom and Moab were conquered by David. Edom was conquered by David in 2 Samuel 8:12-14 and forced into subserviance. Moab was also conquered by David, but 2 Kings 1:1 told us that Moab rebelled after the death of Ahab, and now we get a bit more detail on that situation. We learn that Moab used to pay tribute of lambs and wool to Israel. It is likely that after the kingdom was divided, Moab was subjected to Israel, while Edom was subjected to Judah. Moab rebels, but Judah remains strong enough to continue dominating Edom.
After the death of Ahaziah, who did not have a son, Jehoram the son of Ahab (Ahaziah's brother) becomes king.
We saw in 1 Kings 22 that Jehoshaphat was an ally of Ahab, and in this chapter we see that Jehoshaphat remains an ally of Israel after Ahab's death. In the big picture, this is probably a bad thing for Jehoshaphat for the same reason that it was bad last time. Basically, the northern kingdom is drifting into idolatry as per the sin of Jeroboam. This means that the northern kingdom Israel is under the curses from Deuteronomy 28 and in essence that is why Ahab was killed in 1 Kings 22. While the curse is primarily upon Israel, Judah suffers loss by allying themselves with Israel inasmuch as the destruction that befalls Israel strikes them too. To wit, Jehoshaphat may have survived the defeat in 1 Kings 22, but his army was defeated and certainly many men of Judah died because of Jehoshaphat's alliance with Ahab.
With all that context, in this chapter we see that the alliance between Judah and Israel is successful against Moab, because God intervenes on behalf of Jehoshaphat, but in the long run this alliance is going to be destructive for Judah.
So, Jehoshaphat goes out to war alongside Jehoram and Israel, and whether through poor fortune or poor planning, they find themselves with a large army wandering into the desert with no water, and they are miraculously saved. The biggest question in my mind is why; why did God choose to save these armies and deliver the Moabites into their hands? It's the same question I asked when God delivered Ahab from the Arameans twice in 1 Kings 20 and I honestly don't have a good answer here. It's clear from the story that Elisha is only willing to help because of Jehoshaphat, who is a devout follower of the LORD in spite of his alliance with Israel.
Meanwhile, Jehoram insists several times that this is the LORD's fault, that they were "called together" by the LORD to give them into the hands of the Moabites. It's as if Jehoram had heard the stories of how Micaiah prophesied his father's death, and now Jehoram is convinced that God is trying to destroy him. Of course, it's not like Jehoram is repenting or turning away from the sin of Jeroboam, though it does that he Jehoram did not sin quite as much as his father Ahab.
The way that I interpret Jehoram's behavior is similar to Ahaziah. Jehoram appears to be somewhat antagonistic towards Elisha and the LORD, insisting that the LORD is trying to undermine or kill him. Meanwhile, Elisha responds similarly to the earlier prophets, simply refusing to have anything to do with Jehoram but in this case honoring Jehoshaphat.
One thing I should mention, in case it's not obvious, is that all of Elijah, Micaiah and Elisha were sent to the northern kingdom. So far, none of these prophets have really interacted much at all with the kings or people of Judah and that's because to a large extent, these prophets were sent to the king and people who were in a much worse spiritual state. Between Israel and Judah, Judah is much more close to obeying the covenant and following the LORD compared to Israel. Judah is not in as much need for rebuking or prophetic warnings as Israel, and therefore the prophets were sent to the people most in need of that kind of ministry. This is not how prophets always operate, but in this case and in the kingdom period in Israel, most of the prophets we will see are going to be doing a lot of warning and rebuking, while the northern and southern kingdoms gradually drift deeper and deeper into idolatry and sin. Since the northern kingdom is currently in a deeper darkness, they receive the first wave of prophets, whose stories we are now reading.
Now there are a few other things I would like to talk about. I think the miracle in this chapter is pretty straightforward; it is a desert provision kind of thing, similar to what we saw several times in the book of Numbers when Moses drew water out of a rock or when God caused quail to fall from the sky. So I'm not really going to talk about the trenches of water. Instead, the first thing I would like to discuss is verse 15 when it says that Elisha asked for a minstrel to come play for him, before he prophesied. This is really interesting because it distinctively shows the connection that sometimes exists between music and prophetic ministry or (if I may generalize) because music and ministry of any kind. And why music? I don't have a clear answer. We know music has power; much earlier in 1 Samuel 10:5 we learned that the company of prophets would come down from the high place playing many instruments and prophesying. Another time, in 1 Samuel 16:23 we learned that David attended to Saul, relieving him of the evil spirit, by playing a lyre.
I think music has spiritual power; I think these passages demonstrate the spiritual power of music, though without telling us why. I will take a minute to drift into my own personal opinion and muse upon the subject, though I want to state up front that this is my opinion and I don't have firmly grounded scriptural references to back this up. With all that said, I think music has power for two or perhaps three reasons, which in my mind all revolve around the notions of rhythm, frequency and vibration. It is sometimes easy and sometimes hard to explain phenomena in the natural world that revolve around frequency: heart beats, the cycle between day and night, the tides of the ocean, seasonal variation, the ticking of a clock or a hanging pendulum, and so on. In more subtle terms, there is frequency inherent in electromagnetic waves and even in the vibration of particular atoms and even more obscurely, the possibility that is it the vibration of strings that make up all the different kinds of particles in the world (this is called string theory).
All of those things are natural phenomena, but it raises the question of what kind of role vibration and rhythms can play in spiritual phenomena. In Genesis 1, God began with patterns and rhythms, alternating between day and night while progressing through the different realms of creation (I explained a bit of this in my commentary on that chapter). At the same time, the natural world reveals to us aspects of the creator, because his personality and ideals were shaped into the things that he made.
So in the first place, I believe music has power because there is music in the heart of God. I think music speaks to him in some kind of deep and profound way, and he created us in his own image and that is why music speaks powerfully to people as well.
In the second place, I think music has power because of the rhythms, harmonies and frequency that mimic the musical aspects of creation.
In the third place, I think music has power because of its close connection with worship. I think in the spiritual realm music is transformed into a kind of force that can either be used constructively or destructively depending upon the spirit that is infused into the music. A spirit of worship directed towards God can be used to build people up, but a spirit of worship directed towards idols or demons can be used destructively to hurt others or encourage violence.
Anyway, I'm going to move on to the next topic. I will probably discuss music again sometime because it shows up often in the bible and I think there are some really deep spiritual truths in here, but I don't want to lay out a full exposition here.
The last thing I would like to talk about is verse 27. This is a really disturbing image to me. The king of Moab, Mesha, (who did not worship the LORD) offered his oldest son as a burnt offering, presumably to his own god, and this caused a great fury to come against Israel who were evidently defeated in battle and went back to their own country. A plain reading of this text would suggest that somehow his offering to a pagan god caused that god to come to his aid and defeat Israel and the LORD. We know this to not be the case because the LORD is stronger than any other god. A plausible alternative (one proffered by Rashi) is that God remembered Israel's sins, "that they too worship pagan deities and are not worthy of miracles".
Rashi also quotes the Talmud to suggest that Mesha may have asked his servants about Israel and learned that their forefather Abraham had once been told by God to sacrifice his son (in Genesis 22). I think this is less plausible because it isn't necessary to explain Mesha's actions here: in the author's time period, everyone would have understood that the firstborn son is the most important person to a father. The author specifically points out that this is the child "who was to reign in his place," his successor, and we also know from various passages in the bible that sacrificing your children to pagan deities is a moderately common and well known practice, such that Moses felt he had to specifically prohibit it (Deuteronomy 18:9-10). More specifically, Moses said this was a practice of the peoples in Canaan whom the Israelites were coming to displace, so I think it is very likely that the Moabites would have also practiced child sacrifice.
I am not surprised that Mesha tried offering his son as a sacrifice, what surprises me is that it seemed to work. Personally, my opinion is that the "great fury" is the power of the pagan gods awakened by this dark offering, and while the power of God is greater than any false god, Israel was also practicing idolatry at this time and as a result was not under God's covenantal protection. God does perform a miracle to deliver Israel by sending them water in the desert, but that wasn't an act of covenantal protection as much as it was in response to the personal devotion of Elisha.