Divine Sovereignty & Human Responsibility in 2 Kings
On Tuesday morning I was listening through the opening chapters of 2 Kings. There is a very interesting story in chapter 7 about Ben-Hadad, the king of Syria, Hazael, one of Ben-Hadad’s men, and Elisha, the prophet of God in Israel. Take a look:
 Now Elisha came to Damascus. Ben-hadad the king of Syria was sick. And when it was told him, “The man of God has come here,”  the king said to Hazael, “Take a present with you and go to meet the man of God, and inquire of the LORD through him, saying, ‘Shall I recover from this sickness?’”  So Hazael went to meet him, and took a present with him, all kinds of goods of Damascus, forty camels' loads. When he came and stood before him, he said, “Your son Ben-hadad king of Syria has sent me to you, saying, ‘Shall I recover from this sickness?’”  And Elisha said to him, “Go, say to him, ‘You shall certainly recover,’ but the LORD has shown me that he shall certainly die.”  And he fixed his gaze and stared at him, until he was embarrassed. And the man of God wept.  And Hazael said, “Why does my lord weep?” He answered, “Because I know the evil that you will do to the people of Israel. You will set on fire their fortresses, and you will kill their young men with the sword and dash in pieces their little ones and rip open their pregnant women.”  And Hazael said, “What is your servant, who is but a dog, that he should do this great thing?” Elisha answered, “The LORD has shown me that you are to be king over Syria.”  Then he departed from Elisha and came to his master, who said to him, “What did Elisha say to you?” And he answered, “He told me that you would certainly recover.”  But the next day he took the bed cloth and dipped it in water and spread it over his face, till he died. And Hazael became king in his place.
Crazy story right?!? Each time I read the Old Testament I’m blown away by how much more there is to it than I previously realized, especially in the era of Israel’s kings. There’s political intrigue, romance, back stabbing, wars, and all sorts of stuff going on that is simply brushed over nowadays…
Anyway, we’ve got some really interesting stuff going on in this passage. First off, why is Elisha going to Damascus (v. 7)? Why is the king of Syria, Ben-Hadad, Israel’s enemy at the time, calling Elisha his “father” (v. 9)? I’ve got some ideas but I don’t want to address them now. What I’d like to bring up is the age old problem of divine sovereignty and human responsibility.
Once Hazael comes to Elisha he is told that Ben-Hadad will recover from his illness, but that he will die. Then Elisha begins to weep in Hazael’s presence because the LORD has revealed to him that Hazael will become king over Syria when Ben-Hadad dies and do wicked things to the people of Israel. Upon hearing this prophecy Hazael promptly returns to Ben-Hadad and murders him taking the kingship as his own.
This is a classic example of what we know to be a “self-fulfilling prophecy.” It seems that it is Hazael’s hearing of the prophecy that serves as a catalyst to the fulfillment of the prophecy. This is essentially what Shakespeare’s play Macbeth is all about. What would have happened had Hazael never received that prophecy from Elisha? Would treachery and conceit polluted Hazael’s heart like it did upon hearing it? Moreover, how does this fit into the age old philosophical dilemma of how divine sovereignty and human responsibility work together?
I have found it helpful to approach this question from the understanding that God’s Word is creative. When God speaks things happen. Isaiah tells us that God’s Word does not return to him void but accomplishes that for which it set out to do (Isaiah 55:11). Likewise, we all know that when God says “let there be light” the only possible outcome is LIGHT. Moreover, our entire world is upheld by God’s word at every moment (Colossians 1; Hebrews 1).
As John Calvin put it, “The whole world is a theatre for the display of the divine goodness.” Paul spoke in similar terms when he told the Greek philosophers at the Areopagus that it is in God that “we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28)
God is the author of all of creation. There is no “mere” nature. Yet it is within this world, the theatre of God, that we live and move and have our being. We do not live in a clockmaker’s world. Moreover, we do not live in a Darwinian firecracker with atoms aimlessly bounding around.
So on the one hand there is nothing under the sun that God is not the author of (Proverbs 16:33). On the other hand, the fact that God has authored our actions does not make them any less our actions. The characters in a story act the way they do because there is an author. Yet it is the characters who are doing the acting, they have volition. The author writes the character’s actions. This does not make the characters actions any less their actions simply because a sovereign being has prescribed them.
This is a great mystery and above all else God is to be feared and glorified!
Food for thought.