This is part of a series: I’m taking a moment in the lives of people in the Bible to see how it might be relevant to our lives, today. That moment may be just part of their story, or it may be all we’re told about them. Either way, you should read it directly from the source. This week’s story comes from 2 Kings 13:15-19:
Elisha said to him, “Take a bow and arrows.” So he took a bow and arrows. Then he said to the king of Israel, “Put your hand on the bow.” And he put his hand on it, then Elisha laid his hands on the king’s hands. He said, “Open the window toward the east,” and he opened it. Then Elisha said, “Shoot!” And he shot. And he said, “The Lord’s arrow of victory, even the arrow of victory over Aram; for you will defeat the Arameans at Aphek until you have destroyed them.” Then he said, “Take the arrows,” and he took them. And he said to the king of Israel, “Strike the ground,” and he struck it three times and stopped. So the man of God was angry with him and said, “You should have struck five or six times, then you would have struck Aram until you would have destroyed it. But now you shall strike Aram only three times.”
This passage was on my mind when I woke up this morning. I should say when I woke this morning, because there was nothing very “up” about it. Despite the tirades you hear these days against busyness, I like being busy. I like feeling that my life is full — full of people, full of activity, full of tasks, even full of work. But mostly, full of meaning. That’s why I became a writer, I want to deal in the currency of meaning.
I’ve had the blessing, for most of my life, of having work that is meaningful. I know why I’m doing it, and even when I don’t enjoy what I’m doing, the pursuit of meaning gets me through. But in every job, in every household, probably in every life, there are some things that just need to get done, with no particular purpose in them but allowing the thing after that to get done. And I HATE that stuff. I don’t have tirades about busyness, I have tirades about laundry.
And that’s why I woke this morning with the story of a half-bit king of Israel running through my head. Joash is best known for having a really evil son, Jeroboam. He’s not even evil enough himself to be truly infamous, and besides the above story and his shoddy use of metaphor, the book of 2 Kings only mentions his death — several times, as if the author was glad to get rid of him — and follows it with one of my favorite biblical literary devices, “As for the other stuff he did, I’m sure someone else wrote about it.”
Why Joash was so unremarkable? Maybe this story gives us insight.
Elisha was dying. Joash had come to him for a final blessing. Maybe the king was hoping he would get to see the prophet go up in a chariot of fire, like Elisha had witnessed Elijah’s ascent into heaven. Instead, Elisha tells him their enemies will be completely destroyed, and then he asks him to do the smallest of things: to beat his arrows into the ground.
Joash does it, and yet he doesn’t do it . . . he obeys the prophet, but his heart is not in it. If Elisha had asked him to sacrifice 40 bulls and 70 rams on the hills above Samaria, he would have hurried to accomplish it, if he had told him to fashion a sword of gold and rubies and carry it into battle, he would have obeyed with gusto. At lot of the commentaries on this passage say that Joash just didn’t want it bad enough, but I don’t think that’s what’s going on here at all.
I think he’s actually disappointed with the smallness of what he’s asked to do. It was not the greatness of the task that daunted him, it was the trivialness. Oswald Chambers writes:
It is inbred in us that we have to do exceptional things for God: but we have not. We have to be exceptional in the ordinary things . . .
Bows and arrows were not glamorous fighting instruments back then, they were the common-man’s weapon, not the stuff of kings. Any shepherd boy would have known how to use one from childhood. Yet the old, wisened prophet puts his own hands over the king’s hands on the bow and tells him to shoot for the victory, to do the small thing for the grand goal. To “serve wholeheartedly,” Paul put it, “as if you were serving the Lord, not people.”
How often is that our task in following Jesus? Every. Single. Day. To feel the hands of the Lord put over our hands . . . and then change the diaper, or wash the dishes, or write the memo. It may feel like you’re beating arrows into the ground, or your fist into a wall, or your head against a keyboard. But the smallest of tasks may be the Lord’s arrow of victory.
You see, it’s the unexceptional things that reveal our heart, and God is concerned most of all with hearts. “One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much.” There’s prophecy for you. Elisha had foretold victory, but Joash revealed his own character. And in the end, his character was his fate. The fullness of the goodness of God is always available to us, in all things big and small, but it is our own hearts that determine if we lay hold of the of the victory, or not.