The Protection of Elisha, and other Biblical Thoughts on the Ministry of Angels

Taken, adapted and edited from, “Prophet Elisha”
Written by, John M. Lowrie, 1869

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“Here a bright squadron leaves the skies,
And thick around Elisha stands;
Anon, a heavenly soldier flies,
And breaks the chain from Peter’s hands.

Are they not all thy servants, Lord?
At thy command they go and come;
With cheerful haste obey thy word,
And guard thy children to their home.”

                                                   –Watts.

IT is pleasing to find so many intimations that the great work of Elisha’s life increases as his life goes on…

In the great decline of religion through the wickedness of the Israel’s kings, no more effectual method could be adopted to counteract the prevailing evils than to raise up a new set of teachers; and the schools of the prophets appear to have secured an increasing number of pupils. We read, respecting the school established at Gilgal, that their accommodations were found too narrow; and they represented their case to the prophet, and desired his approbation of measures that looked to the enlargement of the institution. The matter is too briefly recorded to give us a full understanding of it. That is, whether there was an entire removal of the college from Gilgal to the Jordan, the distance being perhaps six miles, or whether they sought timber on the river banks to be carried to their present site, we cannot decide. We see the poverty of his disciples in that they must make these changes with their own manual labor, and that even the tools with which they wrought were borrowed. Quite likely they were unskillful workmen, and want of skill or accident gave occasion for recording another of the prophet’s wonders. An axe-head fell into the Jordan, doubtless in too deep a place to make a recovery. The lamentation of the young man who lost it over an article that did not belong to him led the prophet to recover it by causing the iron to swim. The manner of doing this agrees with the usual practice of Elisha –that he makes a miracle by some external sign. The chief object may have been to confirm the faith of a new company of disciples in the extraordinary qualifications of their chief teacher.

We now turn our attention to new wars between Israel and Syria, and of Elisha’s aid afforded to the king of Israel. The name of the new general of the Syrian army is afterward given; Naaman seems to have lost his place after his return from Samaria. The various plans formed by the king of Syria were supernaturally known to Elisha, and he made them known to the Israel’s leaders. In war, great advantages must ever belong to a bold assailant, who learns as nearly as possible the position and numbers of his enemies, and by concentrating his forces strikes a sudden and unexpected blow. The assailant generally knows his own aim –the attacked are confused by the necessity of guarding against dangers that are magnified because they are not comprehended. If the plans and time of attack are known, it is usually an easy thing to act upon the defense. At this time, Elisha makes known the plans of the enemy and saves the forces of Israel. This was done so often that the king of Syria believed there must be some traitor in his camp. But when a council of officers was called to deliberate upon this matter, one of them solved the perplexity by declaring that Elisha had revealed everything, and could tell their most secret thoughts. The name of Elisha was a familiar one in their ears since Naaman’s cure, and no man was disposed to question this solution of the matter.

It seems strange, however, that in such a case the king should make any effort to lay hold upon the prophet. If Elisha knew every plan that was formed against his people, would he not also know every plan formed against himself? How could the king expect to succeed in this enterprise? Yet how constantly do men fight against a greater than Elisha –even Elisha’s God –as if he could ever be ignorant of the plans they form, could ever lack skill to thwart their wisest devices, or could ever fail to effect all his holy purposes, no matter what is the array of human wickedness against him!
But the prophet teaches the Church a lesson of divine protection from the king’s folly. Benhadad sent messengers to learn where the prophet was, and found him in Dothan, about twelve miles from Samaria. He then sent a considerable force of men, who passed by night to the place, and by the morning surrounded it with their chariots and horsemen. It would have been a very easy thing for Elisha to have avoided the danger entirely, but he would give us a better lesson. The servant of the prophet was doubtless Gehazi’s successor, and though he reverenced his master, he had not acquired the full confidence which results from longer experience. When he arose in the morning and saw the city encompassed by a hostile army, he was greatly distressed.

The prophet took two methods of relieving the young man’s distress: First, he comforted him by the assurance that more powerful protection was afforded to them; and next, he prayed that the young man’s eyes might be opened to see for himself the host of their protectors. So the Lord opened the eyes of the young man, and “behold, the mountain was full of chariots and horses round about Elisha.”

Here we have two distinct things for our instruction: First, we may notice the actual safety of these servants of God; and next, the recognition of this safety by the younger at the prayer of Elisha. The young man and Elisha were just as safe before the chariots and horses of fire were revealed, as they were afterward; yet the young man no longer feared when he saw.

Here we have something that remains permanently true for the servants of God, and something granted especially for the occasion. It remains true for all ages that they that are or God are not feeble and few compared with the number and power of their enemies. It seems so many times. The world seems often given over to iniquity. In great matters revolutions often occur, troublous times arise, things seem all to go wrong, and men’s hearts fail them for fear of the changes that threaten against all their ideas of true advancement.

In individual affairs we are thrown into great perplexity, we encounter unexpected distresses, we see no path of deliverance. So we cry with the servant of Elisha, “Alas, how shall we do? But why may not the long experience of God’s people teach us that these are lessons of faith? None of these perplexities can occur to us but under the divine ordering. He has often led his most faithful servants into straits, and delayed their deliverance until they are forced like Abraham to “hope against hope;” he has still shown his grace and wisdom and power in an opportune time. The enemies of Elisha seem to have gained an advantage when they succeeded in surrounding the city while he was still there; but the advantages gained by the enemies of religion are never any more real than theirs. It is quite impossible that any can ever fight against God, oppose his cause, or attack his servants, and prosper.

The great fact for our consolation in his service is to know that God governs the world. This he does this completely without uncertainty or doubt, and without the slightest exception that can be possible or that can be imagined. There can therefore be no success against him or against anything he designs to protect.

The believer may stand alone against a crowd of opposers, yet they that are for him outnumber them far. This, therefore, may ever be the believer’s song “

“Fear not, though many should oppose,
For God is stronger than thy foes,
And makes thy cause his care.”

Whatever we are called upon to believe as to the means adopted by infinite wisdom for carrying on his government, however much we may sometimes be perplexed to understand why any enemies to it are permitted to exist, are allowed to form plans so audacious, and are able to secure some seeming success which fills them with increasing boldness and causes the hearts of good men to fear, still the great consolation is in knowing that God reigns.

Yet it is to the divine glory that his rule includes and subordinates all inferior agencies: not destroying them, but using them. Let us not busy ourselves in wondering why God has not made the world otherwise than it is, nor in conjecturing that he might govern it differently; let us distinctly recognize that as it is, with its manifold agencies both of animate things and things inanimate, it is governed by its Creator; and that he is fully able, in his own good time, to vindicate all that he has allowed to occur and all that he has done in the orderings of his providence. Enough is constantly brought before us of the beneficence and kindness of his workings to show his mercy to man, while the wonderful leadings of his providence to bless men in unexpected measures give us profound ideas of God’s wisdom. No matter what may be the instrument which he uses to further his designs, –we are authorized to ascribe all to his working.

Nor have we any reason to judge that any failures occur, any procrastination takes place, any mistakes are made in the completion of every design which divine wisdom has ever formed. When we look at the things we can best understand, we see the most unswerving exactness and punctuality observed.

The sun never delays his time of rising or setting, and every variation in changing seasons occurs with the utmost regularity. The laws that govern inferior things around us are of such unchanging operation that any well-established instance of miracle is therefore also a well-established proof of divine working for a higher end than nature can reach. All things are the servants of their Creator. Fire and hail, rain and snow, and vapor, stormy wind fulfilling his word, all are his ministers. Even when men lose sight of the divine rule while they gaze upon the instrumentalities which God uses, it remains true that natural things, and all the laws by which they exist and operate, are subject to his government. His wisdom and power are everywhere.

Without divine energy no existence could be or operate.

In the language of the poet, this—

“Warms in the sun, refreshes in the breeze,
Glows in the stars and blossoms in the trees;
Lives through all life, extends through all extent,
Spreads undivided, operates unspent.”

There is one chapter concerning the government of the world which we read of only in the sacred Scriptures. This chapter refers to the agency of angels in the world’s providential rule. It is a Deeply interesting thing to believe that,

“Millions of spiritual beings walk this earth,
Unseen, both when we sleep and when we wake.”

That the agency is invisible is not strange, since the most powerful agents in nature –gravitation, attraction, electricity ” are known to man only by their unquestioned effects; and no man hath seen God at any time. It is not wonderful to believe that our Infinite God is the Creator of other intelligent beings besides the race of man. “When we know that the stars are innumerable worlds like the earth on which we live, we think it reasonable to judge that he created them not in vain, but formed them to be inhabited, Isaiah 45:18. And in the habitation of his own holiness we are assured that there are hosts of holy, intelligent beings, of powerful intellects and swift to do his will.

Especially are the angels of God employed in matters which pertain to the administration of the covenant of grace. They are therefore called ministering spirits, “sent forth to minister to them that shall be heirs of salvation.” In all the great matters pertaining to the advancement of the Church of God, especially in the earlier dispensations, the angels bore a distinguished part. Perhaps, in the world before the flood, communication between heaven and earth was chiefly maintained by their ministry. And in a certain sense the Mosaic economy was a dispensation given by angels. That is, thousands of angels were present upon Sinai at the giving of the law, and angels rendered various important ministries during that age. It is also true in some sense that the Christian dispensation is not subject to the rule of angels, because the great Mediator has come in human nature. Hebrews 2.

Yet the angels are the obedient servants of Christ Jesus; they delight to do him homage, and the Church under his control is a Church where angels minister. If we read of them in the ancient times ascending and descending over Jacob’s slumbers, delivering Lot from Sodom, and Jacob from Esau, and Daniel from the lions, slaying the first-born of Egypt in their houses and the hosts of the Assyrians in their camps, so we read of them in the New Testament times, rejoicing at the birth of the infant Savior, ministering to him in his necessities and in his sorrows, and watching at his sepulcher. They attended at the ascension of the glorified Redeemer; they surround his throne now with ceaseless praises, save as they are sent to earth on errands of mercy; and when he comes a second time, in the glory of the judgment throne, he will be accompanied by all the holy angels. What their duties are upon earth we may learn either from scriptural precepts or scriptural examples. They minister to the heirs of salvation; they encamp about them that fear God and deliver them; they rejoice over the return of the wandering prodigal. They enter the prison and give aid to the prisoner; they wait around the couch of those that are in distress and offer their unseen ministries; they arc by the departing couch of the dying believer, though he may be like the beggar Lazarus in wretchedness, and they bear away the happy spirit to the bosom of Abraham. Christ is the Lord of angels. At his bidding they come and go. They are great in might and swift to do his will. When he sends they fly quickly; what he commands they do; the meanest saint they are ready to help, the meanest service for him they are ready to perform. These hosts are for God’s people, and they far outnumber all who can be against them.

If we do not often engage our thoughts respecting angels and their service toward the earthly Church, it is not because the Scriptures are too silent respecting them.

“A multitude of writers in the Scriptures –fifteen at least –have described these glorious beings with the most perfect harmony and without a single discordant idea.”– Dwight’s Theol., 1, 313

Christians should think with pleasure of angelic ministries. They are now our guardians; they shall be our eternal associates. They have watched us thus far through all our pathway on earth; they know our history better than we know it ourselves; they are constantly about us; and they have doubtless given us protection and the victory many a time when we knew not of their care. Shall we believe that evil is suggested to the human mind by satanic temptations, and reject the thought that we may receive strength from the angels whom Christ sends to minister to his people? Angelic services are constantly rendered; their hosts encamp around us; they can tell us, when we meet on the heavenly plains, most interesting events of our own lives that were wholly secret to us while we were here below.

Some have been of the opinion that each person has a particular guardian angel assigned to him, who attends him through all the course of his life, to watch over, protect, guide and warn him; the Muslims extend the doctrine so that each has a good and a bad angel –the one protecting, the other devising evil. Two passages in the New Testament seem to refer to the doctrine of a good guardian angel, yet are they not sufficiently explicit to establish it. Our Lord says, “Take heed that ye offend not one of these little ones, for I say unto you that in heaven their angels do always behold the face of my Father which is in heaven,” Matt. 18:10.

This passage teaches that the youngest and humblest of the disciples of Christ is under the guardianship of angels, but does not confine their protection to a single guardian for each. When Peter was delivered from prison, and the disciples could not credit his appearance, they said, “It is his angel!” Their words contain an evident reference to the prevalent Jewish opinion, not only of a special guardian to each individual, but of one whose form resembles him whom they are set to guard. But the passage may but show that these disciples still retained the ideas they formerly held, without proving, in the absence of direct teachings, that this opinion is scriptural. In the case of Elisha we see that many angels were round about the prophet for his protection.
The angels of God arc constantly about us. Paul seems to teach especially that they are ever-present in the worshiping assemblies of God’s people; and we have reason to judge that men are perpetually in the sight of angels. The invisible, eternal world is not far off from us. In our perplexities and distresses, we may be often ready to say, “Alas! how shall we do?”  Yet our deliverers are not far off. True, we cannot discern them with our natural senses, for this is not their capacity. And we cannot even conjecture what intuitive knowledge of the most satisfactory nature might be gained if we possessed the proper faculties. A man born blind cannot possibly know, even though we should attempt to explain it, what light is, and what wondrous revelations light gives to the seeing eye. One glance of perfect vision would avail more to awaken and inform the soul than centuries of instruction upon the wonderful properties of light. So Elisha prays for his servant, Lord, I pray thee, open his eyes, that he may see. This is the view the Scriptures give us of the spiritual world, that it is as much about us as above us; that angels ascend and descend between earth and heaven on errands from their Lord; and that more and stronger are for the believer than can be arrayed against him. Even though our eyes are not opened to see, as were the eyes of the prophet’s servant, the divine rule is unchanged still, and will remain so for ever. The God who then protected his servant in peril by unseen hosts still allows his people to fall into seen dangers and protects them by unseen guardians.

This entire doctrine of unseen spiritual influences has also its fearful aspects.

For there are unseen tempters to evil. Our warfare is with spiritual wickedness. Satan and his angels are ever about us. The invisible things around us, both good and evil, are of great influence upon us. Yet the evil can never force us to evil; they can but suggest and tempt, and they are restrained in various ways.

They who put their trust in Christ Jesus, the Lord of angels, need never fear. For thus runs the promise to the believing: “He shall give his angels charge over thee to keep thee in all thy ways; they shall bear thee up in their hands, lest thou dash thy foot against a stone,” Ps. 91:11, 12.

Was Elisha safe in Dothan when the chariots of God were around him? The Syrians saw them not. His servant did not see them till the prophet prayed that he might. But his safety depended upon their being present, not upon their being visible. And a thousand providences in the history of God’s people show unexpected deliverances that have been effected by ministering angels. No matter that we cannot see. The God of angels pledges his people a full protection; and these are cheerful servants, swift to do his will.

But we return now to the narrative. Elisha further prayed that the Lord would smite the Syrians with blindness. We do not suppose that they were really made blind, so that they could not see at all. In that case, they would hardly have ventured to march to Samaria. For we can scarcely conceive of an army of blind men and blind horses being; able to make a march at all. But as the opening of the eyes of Elisha’s servant was not enabling him to see the invisible hosts with his bodily eyes, but rather giving him a knowledge of their presence, which for want of a fitting term we call seeing or perceiving, so the blindness of the Syrian hosts was rather giving false perceptions. They saw, but not as things really were: they neither recognized Dothan nor the prophet. The words of the prophet are evidently the answer to a question put by the Syrians.

Taken by themselves, they seem to be falsehood upon the prophet’s lips. We know indeed that many of the ancient believers were rather governed by the low standard of morals prevalent in their times than by the strict rule of unswerving truth to which alone the precepts of the Scriptures give their sanction.  To use falsehood in the stratagems of war has been regarded as allowable in the teachings of all other moralists, even including many Christian writers. But no explicit sanction of any falsehood can be found in the word of God: on the contrary, the Scriptures approve of truth, and this so entirely beyond exception or apology that if we judge any man at any time guilty of falsehood, we must condemn it. Elisha was not without his infirmities; though indeed we would not expect him to speak untruly at such a time. And there seems no need of it. Falsehood is generally a confession of weakness. When men can reach the end they seek as easily, they speak the truth, having no object to deceive. Elisha had these men in his power without speaking any untruth. The whole matter depends upon what the question was to which Elisha’s words were a reply. If they asked, “Where shall we find Elisha? the prophet, though lie stood before them, could truly answer, “Not this way, and not this city”; for he intended to let them see him only at Samaria. They were deceived indeed by these words, but the law of truth does not require a man to correct the false conceptions of his enemies.

Elisha led these hosts to Samaria. They were under the influence of these false perceptions until they were in the very city, and were surrounded by the hosts of the king of Israel in such numbers as to make resistance hopeless. Then their eyes were opened and they saw their position. The king of Israel, out of deference to the power of the prophet who had delivered these men into his hands, asked Elisha’s advice respecting the disposal of the prisoners. At his direction no cruelty was exercised upon them: they were kindly treated as prisoners of war, and soon released to return to their own land. Peace was soon made between Israel and Syria. It seemed in vain for the king of Syria to expect success against a people thus protected.

And indeed the guilt of Israel alone did expose them to further wars. For we soon read of new strifes and of new success on the part of Syria, for Jehoram and the people of Israel would not learn repentance, either from the Lord’s judgments or from his mercies.