This chapter is the conclusion of God’s command to Elijah in 1 Kings 19. God commanded Elijah to anoint Elisha (which happened immediately), Hazael (which happened in the previous chapter) and Jehu, which happens in this chapter. Jehu, for his part, wipes out the entire existing leadership of both the northern kingdom Israel and the southern kingdom Judah, severing the political and marital union between the house of Ahab and the descendants of Jehoshaphat.
What we saw in the previous couple chapters (but particularly 2 Kings 8) was the Baal worship spreading from Israel south into Judah. Though we can’t be sure, I am guessing that God chose this time to wipe out the kings of both nations in order to reverse this process and preserve Judah from the idolatrous influence of their northern siblings, at least for some time.
Minor note: the Jehoshaphat in v. 2 is a different man from the Jehoshaphat who was king of Judah. There are many people in the bible who share the same name, just as today when there are many Davids and Johns and so forth. I will try to clarify these cases when I can, since the names certainly can be confusing to first-time bible readers.
Anyway, verses 1-3 convey to me both a sense of haste and secrecy. Elisha sends a young man from the company of the prophets because Elisha himself is an old man by this time and would not have been able to run. Elisha is acting like a man who is about to set off a pack of explosives. He is telling this young man to go and act as secretly as possible, and then instantly flee back to where they are presently stationed (which is not mentioned in this chapter). I’m not sure where Elisha lives. In this book he is described (at various times) being in Gilgal, Dothan and Samaria. He is almost certainly in the northern kingdom somewhere, and wherever that happens to be Elisha is clearly expecting immediate retribution or conflict, so he is trying to protect himself and the other prophets by getting this over as quickly as possible. In retrospect, this seems like a wise decision since Jehu immediately initiates a coup against Joram.
Verses 5 and 11 are pretty funny. In verse 5, the prophet goes and says he has a message for Jehu, and it’s as if Jehu is in such disbelief he asks the man to repeat himself. In verse 11, even after receiving the prophecy Jehu is actually dismissive of the prophecy and tries to keep it secret, except that his men insist he shares it with him, and when he does, they immediately declare their allegiance to him.
Broad question here: why did Jehu’s men so quickly declare that they want Jehu to be king, when Jehu himself is acting like he’s not sure he wants to take the job? The text doesn’t really give us an answer to that question, so the best we can do is guess based on previous coups. One common factor is tribal allegiance. If Jehu is from the same tribe or clan as the troops under his command and Joram is not, then they may side with Jehu over Joram. A second possible factor is the ongoing conflict with Aram. Verses 14-15 tells us that Joram had been defending Ramoth Gilead against Aram, and Jehu and his men were there as part of the conflict with Aram. If the troops feel like Joram is an incompetent commander and risking their lives, they could support a coup against him for that reason. Remember that in this time, kings were as much generals as political figures and were expected to lead their nation’s army in battle. Israel had certainly been suffering in battle; they had survived against the Arameans so far, through God’s intervention, but had certainly been defeated many times and were now besieged once more. Personal charisma is another possible factor (Joram may simply be an unpleasant person). Lastly, coups are often decided by whether people think they will be successful, so maybe the army officers think that Jehu is capable of unseating Joram. Regardless of the specific reasons, what we know is that most (if not all) of the army sides with Jehu.
In verse 17 and following, Joram appears to suspect trouble, since his first response on seeing men coming towards the city is not to ask if the battle went well, but to ask if they come in peace. He sends two separate messengers to ask this question, and then then goes himself to ask Jehu if he comes in peace or war. You don’t ask that question unless you think both of those are possibilities. Joram seems to be frozen by indecision, however, because even though he suspects trouble, it’s not until he is face to face with Jehu that he realizes he is betrayed, and by then it is too late.
Again though, we see two messengers go out to Jehu and when Jehu implied his betrayal of Joram, both messengers “fell in behind him”, joining the coup. Similar to the army officers, we are not told why they are disallusioned towards Joram, but we can see that Jehu has this almost magnetic power drawing all the men of Israel behind him.
Even though Jehu’s main target is Joram and the family of Ahab, he kills Ahaziah as well. Ahaziah is arguably part of the family of Ahab because he is the grandson of Ahab through his mother Athaliah. Besides that, Ahaziah is a political ally of Joram and extending Baal worship into Judah, which also possibly makes him a fair target for Jehu. Perhaps even more than that, Jehu might have anticipated that Ahaziah would have rallied the men of Israel against him if Ahaziah had escaped, so it’s possible that Jehu killed Ahaziah to cut off any possible antagonists against his kingship.
Lastly, Jehu kills Jezebel for the same reasons (she is part of the family of Ahab, a Baal worshiper, and a possible political opponent).
In verse 31, Jezebel is not mistaking Jehu for another person. She is making an allusion to Zimri, who killed Elah and briefly ruled Israel in 1 Kings 16:10.
In verse 32, we see that Jehu’s magnetic power extended even to court officials and the servants of Jezebel, who were willing to throw their mistress to her death.
In both the death of Joram and in the death of Jezebel, Jehu makes references to prophecies concerning them, which shows that even though he did not seem to take the prophet seriously in verse 11, once he got the ball rolling and started killing people, he quickly adopted himself as a weapon of judgment on Ahab, his family and his political allies. Of course, Jehu remembers correctly (Ahab’s son, Joram, was condemned to death in 1 Kings 21:29 and Jezebel was condemned to death in 1 Kings 21:23).
All things considered, Jehu is a bit hard to analyze in this chapter given his tepid initial reaction and “driving like a madman” behavior once he gets going. This is a remarkable transition. In addition, he is dismissive of the young prophet at first, but towards the end he is quoting prophecies of the LORD himself, demonstrating what appears to be a zeal for the LORD as he claims. I’m not exactly sure what to think about this.