Within the Bounds of Determination

Now Elisha was suffering from the illness from which he died.  Jehoash king of Israel went down to see him and wept over him.  “My father!  My father!”  he cried.  “The chariots and horsemen of Israel!”

            Elisha said,  “Get me a bow and some arrows,”  and he did so.  “Take the bow in your hands,”  he said to the king of Israel.  When he had taken it, Elisha put his hands on the king’s hands.

            “Open the east window,”  he said, and he opened it.  “Shoot!”  Elisha said, and he shot.  “The Lord’s arrow of victory, the arrow of victory over Aram!”  Elisha declared.  “You will completely destroy the Arameans of Aphek.”

            Then he said,  “Take the arrows,” and the king took them.  Elisha told him,  “Strike the ground.”  He struck it three times and stopped.  The man of God was angry with him and said,  “You should have struck the ground give or six times; then you would have defeated Aram and completely destroyed it.  But now you will defeat it only three times.”

            Elisha died and was buried.  2 Kings 13:14-20a.


This story has been bouncing around in my mind for a long time, and though I’ve used it as an illustration a time or two, I have never just worked it over completely.  It might take a while for me to explore the nuances of the story, but I plan to come back to it every now and again to update my understanding.

What I get out of it now is this:

The king comes to Elisha with a seemingly insurmountable problem—he’s worried his army won’t be enough to beat the Arameans, and he’s probably right.  Jehoash lacked character by dent of his idolatry and devotion to power and pleasure.  In the four verses preceding this story we see this king imitated the ways of Jeroboam, who led Israel into idolatry and some pretty evil practices.  So Jehoash is already a conflicted man when he comes to Elisha as a new king, which divides both his loyalty to God and hurts his determination to lead.

Since Jehoash has been born into privilege, there’s more than a little likelihood he’s also not very disciplined as far as being a leader and example to his own people.  His father wasn’t that great a king and also ignored the God of Israel to his own destruction.  All this to say, it doesn’t take a geneticist or psychiatrist to figure out the son failed from lack of character.

Still, he came to the one person who could probably have helped him, Elisha.  Significant actions on the part of even those who don’t follow God with their whole hearts declare what they truly believe.  Jehoash might have been given over to the temples of other gods for the convenience of the pleasure it afforded not really out of devotion.  When the chips were down, the invading army at the door, and his head in a noose, he came to the one person who could give him any kind of advice or connection with real power.

The first part of Elisha’s prophecy must have filled the king with gratitude and hope—“The arrow of the Lord!”  What happens next should have warned him but it didn’t.  Whether he was so elated by being the “arrow of the Lord” or just simply too spiritually dense to grasp Elisha’s actions, we’ll never know.  I’m going with both, since human nature tends to follow well worn paths. Whatever the case, he failed the test.  I looked up the word “strike” (which is “smite” in the KJV) and it has a variety of connotations but the main meaning is to “touch” or “wound” depending on its context.  In one instance of its use, the story of Abimelech and Sarah (Abraham’s wife), it indicated sexual contact, which illustrates the striking nature of touch in the act of sex in the Eastern mindset.  I believe in this case, Jehoash wasn’t asked to break the arrows but to strike the ground with enough force to show determination.  I also think from Elisha’s response, he probably should’ve broken them.

At this point, I have to say, I feel a lot of sympathy for Jehoash.  I don’t know what I would’ve done in his place exactly, though to be honest, I probably would’ve kept beating the arrows on the ground until Elisha told me to stop.  I follow commands pretty well, I just don’t always grasp the underlying limits of them unless the one who gives them verbalizes them.  At the same time, I can honestly say I wouldn’t have known what to expect/do either.  May be there’s a nuance I’m missing about the Jewish thinking here, but the fact that Jehoash stopped speaks loud and clear he didn’t get the point either.

There are probably more options than I will list but these are probable reasons I think he stopped:


  1. Arrows were hard to make so you just didn’t break them or damage them without good reason
  2. His head was spinning with worry about the impending invasion and being a new king, so his focus was a little off.
  3. Elisha didn’t specify in his instructions what to do other than strike the floor, Jehoash might have hit the floor three times then stopped to look up and check with the prophet.
  4. He lacked enthusiasm for the prophet’s input and instructions.
  5. He lacked conviction in his own life which led him to be half-assed about everything.


I can’t think of anymore right now, but you get the idea.  How we approach each directive may or may not have to do with past experience such as over the top enthusiasm got us laughed at in school, we broke something that required a delicate hand so our gung ho moves worked against us, or we just aren’t that type of person in general.  Whatever the truth about us, we all react differently to these kinds of instructions.

How determined are we to follow the Lord’s will, instructions or be conformed to His mind?  Think about this story today and ask yourself,  “Would I have broken the arrows?”


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3 Responses to “Within the Bounds of Determination”

  1. tlc4women Says:

    I don’t know if I have the strength to break the arrows but I probably would have beaten the ground until he said stop. I’m a rule follower that way.

  2. Ula Says:

    Very interesting reading this post, Jonny. I especially thought about how my fear of failure have lots to do with my past experiences and that fear often keeps me from getting out of my comfort zone. It’s great to read such a thought provoking take on the story of Elisha and the king. Lots to think about. Thank you 🙂

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