Being in self-isolation has got me thinking about faces. And as I like to do, I will begin a short series studying faces in the Bible with an enigmatic story, about Elisha and Hazael in 2 Kings 8:7-15. Why this one? Because this short story not only involves faces but takes us right back to the beginning and right the way forward to the end and the new beginning. My favourite thing ever.
First, the stage. The story of Elisha and Hazael comes to us straight after the glorious account of the restoration of the Shunammite woman’s inheritance, a glimpse of hope which heightens the contrast with what follows. The text tells us that Elisha came to Damascus, in the western part of Aram, an area nearly synonymous with Syria, a collection of states that often waged war with God’s people (see 1 Kings 19:15).
In Hebrew, Aram means “height, high region,” which gives us a sense of the dark spiritual forces at work here. During King David’s reign, he subdued the states of Aram, a supremacy his son Solomon maintained (2 Samuel 10), an eschatological vision of Christ’s defeat of His enemies. But after their reign, Israel lost their period of peace, and war raged again with Aram.
This troubled history (peace, no peace) between the tribes of Israel and Aram prepares us for our story here, where we learn that Ben-hadad king of Aram is sick. He sends his officer Hazael to the prophet Elisha to ask if he, Ben-hadad, will recover. And here is where things really get interesting, where we learn just whose offspring is Hazael, officer of the king of earth’s heights.
Then Elisha said to him, “Go, say to him,
‘You will surely recover,’
but the Lord has shown me that he will certainly die.”
2 Kings 8:10
In these words, we travel back in time to the Garden of Eden, except this time it is Hazael who is the serpent. We need to be clear here. What Elisha says in the verse above does not point to a change in God’s character. God is not asking Hazael to lie. Rather, Elisha’s words expose Hazael’s heart, revealing what God knows will happen, what His sovereign will allows, that Hazael will echo his father Satan’s words promising that if God’s people ate of the fruit, they would surely not die.
Hazael’s stoney response confirms what Elisha already knows from God. In fact, Hazael’s arrogant nerve, his shameless gaze, his face of stone is so defiant that it stuns Elisha. And Elisha weeps, knowing full well the magnitude of suffering, death and destruction that Hazael’s reign will bring.
But what does all this have to do with faces? If Hazael’s face is not telling enough, read on and see for yourself what Hazael does, how he assassinates Ben-hadad.
14 So he departed from Elisha and returned to his master, who said to him, “What did Elisha say to you?” And he answered, “He told me that you would surely recover.”
15 On the following day, he took the cover and dipped it in water and spread it on his face, so that he died. And Hazael became king in his place.
2 Kings 8:14-15
Just look at what God is doing here! Back we go to Creation itself, where the Spirit hovers over the face of the waters and separates water from land (Gen. 1:2). Then on to the Flood itself, where God turns back the clock, uniting land and sea, covering the face of the earth with water in an act of judgement and salvation (Gen. 7:23).
But here we stop and recall God’s promise. He will never again destroy the earth with a flood. And the bow is His promise (Gen 9:11-16).
Are you with me? In calling our minds to these events, to these promises, we see in full colour Satan’s hatred of God on display in our story here. In this text we meet Satan’s symbolic destruction of the earth through Hazael using exactly the means God had promised never to use again.
And what happens next? As the text tells us, just as God said, Hazael becomes king in Ben-hadad’s place. And that takes us to another set of stories, to the death of Elisha, another enigmatic story, and beyond.
But look here, just look where it all ends, in 2 Kings 13:22-25. A generation later, Jehoash, son of Jehoahaz, king of Israel, defeats another Ben-hadad, son of Hazael, not once but three times and compels him to restore all the land of Israel his father Hazael had taken.
In the assassination of Ben-hadad, in the story of Hazael, God offers us another vision of what He has waiting for us, what He promised Elijah in 1 Kings 19:18, what He promises we who believe: Satan will have his way for a time. But God will always preserve a remnant, a lamp for Judah and his descendents forever (2 Kings 8:19).
Your sun will no longer set,
Nor will your moon wane;
For you will have the Lord for an everlasting light,
And the days of your mourning will be over.