Michael S. Heiser
When exposed to evil, we might doubt God’s presence. Soldiers’ accounts and memoirs often recall times of doubt as they grappled with war atrocity and, ultimately, the struggle between good and evil. While Scripture is clear that good will triumph, it also says evil will win its share of battles. Second Kings 3 records a war event where evil won.
Yahweh Takes Sides
Second Kings 3 describes the rebellion of Moab, led by its king, Mesha, against the monarch of the northern kingdom of Israel, King Jehoram (3:5). Like his father Ahab, Jehoram solicited King Jehoshaphat of Judah (the southern kingdom) for assistance against his enemy (3:7). They were joined by the king of Edom (3:9).
The invasion route—“by way of the wilderness of Edom”—is critical to the storyline. Edom was the territory settled by the descendants of the red-haired Esau (Gen 25:25; 36:1, 8). “Edom,” a play on the word adom (“red”), was epitomized by the reddish soil and rock of its wilderness.
By taking a circuitous approach to Moab, the invading armies must cross desert terrain without water (3:9). Jehoshaphat called the wilderness-wandering prophet Elisha for advice (3:11–12). After a testy response to Jehoshaphat’s plea (3:13–14), Elisha received word from Yahweh: God would supply the armies with water (3:16–17). It would appear—without rain—in a streambed that was presently bone dry. Elisha had even better news: “This is a light thing in the sight of the Lord. He will also give the Moabites into your hand” (3:18).
No Faith, No Gain
When they arrived at the place of battle, the Moabite soldiers were fooled by the pools of water that appeared red against the ground and the sun’s reflection (3:21–22). They assumed it was blood and that invading armies (often enemies themselves) had erupted in battle against each other (3:23). When the Moabites approached to strip and plunder the dead, they were ambushed by the invading armies.
In desperation, the king of Moab committed a horrible atrocity: “He took his oldest son who was to reign in his place and offered him for a burnt offering on the wall” (3:27). The meaning of the next line is hotly debated: “And there came great wrath against Israel. And they withdrew from him and returned to their own land.” Why did this happen? Why wasn’t Yahweh victorious? After all, Elisha had said God would give the invaders victory (3:18).
In the Old Testament, we read that the Israelites believed the gods of other nations were real, assigned to the nations by Yahweh, who was superior and ruled over all other gods (Deut 32:8–9). They believed these gods were demons—real spiritual beings (Deut 32:17). Given the nature of this worldview, it seems the Israelites were frightened by the sacrifice and lost faith, thinking Moab’s god was angry against them and would empower Moab to win because of the sacrifice.
Elisha had told the kings of Israel and Judah that God would help them. So why had He not? This situation isn’t the first time God promises but chooses not to deliver: God had told the Israelites that they would conquer Canaan under Moses and Joshua, yet they failed because of unbelief (Num 13; Deut 31:1–7; Josh 13:1–5; Judg 1:27–36). Yahweh was not defeated by the god of Moab. He was, and is, ready and able to help His people. But He will not do so if they refuse to believe and act on that belief.
Biblical references are from the English Standard Version (ESV).