Yesterday I argued that the biblical case for pacifism is wanting, and that there are times when Christians are expected to use physical force in the suppression of evil. I want to grant that there is a tension between loving your enemies and using the sword against your enemies–yet both are commanded by God. How do they work together?
The clearest example of these two principles working in concert is in the life of Elisha. Perhaps no one in Israel’s history had more opportunities to demonstrate love for his enemies than Elisha, yet we also see that he was hardly a pacifist.
Elisha was God’s chosen messenger in particularly hostile times. His predecessor, Elijah, was run out of the country when the Queen ordered him murdered as punishment for killing the priests of a false god. Rejected by Israel, he fled to Egypt and begged God to take his life.
Instead, God gave him a final task: to anoint Elisha as his successor (1 Kings 19:16). Thus Elisha became a prophet with no shortage of enemies. The Israelite king stood opposed to him—and would soon command his army to take his life—and Elisha was reviled in the surrounding nations as well. He was hated by those who hated Yahweh; he was opposed by those who served Baal; and he was ambushed by the armies that were waging war against Israel. He was betrayed by his friends, doubted by his followers, and despised by nearly everyone else.
Yet he responded by consistently loving his enemies.
This is not to say that he was a pacifist. In fact, when God first made Elisha a prophet, Yahweh said that he would use Elisha to “put to death” the worshipers of Baal (1 Kings 19:17). At one point, when a mob of nearly 50 people surrounded him, peppering him with insults, God sent bears into the crowd mauling them (2 Kings 2:23-24). When Elisha was with the Israelite army in a battle against Moab, he waited until God caused the Moabites to hallucinate, and then he instructed the Israelites to strike them down (2 Kings 3). So Elisha was not adverse to violence.
Still, the record of his life reflects that he showed a persistent love to his worst enemies. He choose Jericho—a city filled with Yahweh’s enemies—as the site of his first public miracle. Hundreds of years earlier God had declared that anyone who dared to settle there would be cursed (Joshua 6:26). Yet Elisha cleansed their land and purified their water, effectively ending the curse against this city (2 Kings2:18-22, 4:38-44).
The Syrians were Israel’s most dangerous and feared enemy. When Elisha was a teenager, the Syrians plundered the temple and kidnapped the royal family (1 Kings 20:2-3). When Israel joined forces with Judah to defend their shared boarder from Syrian incursion, the Syrians not only killed wicked King Ahab, but tried to assassinate the God-fearing king of Judah, Jehoshaphat.
But despite their national animosity, when the leader of the Syrian army contracted leprosy, he sought out Elisha. In fact, at the time Naaman came to Elisha, the Syrian army was preparing to attack Israel and besiege her capital city. That siege was so drastic and severe that it would force the Israelites to cannibalism in order to survive (2 Kings 6:24-31). And still, when Naaman came to Elisha for help, Elisha did not see a wicked general, but instead saw a man who was humbled by circumstances, and ready to turn to God in faith. Elisha told his enemy how to be healed—essentially by trusting in Yahweh—and Naaman believed. In fact, the Syrian general responded to his restored skin with a confession of faith that no Israelite king would ever make: “Behold, now I know that there is no God in all the earth, but in Israel” (2 Kings 5:14).
No one event crystallizes Elisha’s love for his enemies as much as the attempt on his life described in 2 Kings 6. Because he was aiding the Israelite military, the Syrian king ordered his men to ambush and kill Elisha. In the middle of the night, Elisha’s house was surrounded by “horses and chariots and a great army” sent by the Syrians to assassinate him (2 Kings 6:14).
Elisha, unarmed yet unafraid, went out to the Syrians. They moved into position to strike, but were momentarily blinded by Yahweh. They were then supernaturally deceived, and thought that Elisha was their leader. Elisha took advantage of his change in fortune, and led the entire Syrian strike-force on a ten-mile journey deep into Israel. He took them to the capital, had the city doors opened, and led the deluded soldiers inside.When the door behind them closed, their eyes were opened, and the Syrians realized that they had been taken captive.
The Israelite King reasonably wanted to slaughter his newly arrested enemies. But Elisha refused. Instead he commanded the king to “set bread and water before them, that they may eat and drink and go to their master” (2 Kings 6:22). Not content with merely giving them bread and water, Elisha saw to it that this captive band of his enemies was served “a great feast” (v. 23). In fact, Elisha himself personally prepared it for people who moments earlier were trying to kill him.
Elisha is the embodiment of the two commands that are often in tension: he loved his enemies to his own detriment. Yet he was also unafraid to bear the sword. When the enemies were his enemies, he fed them, healed them, and freed them. But when he was with the Israelite army, he wielded the sword powerfully. This is the model for us as well. When we are wronged personally, we should turn the other cheek. But we should not apply that standard corporately, and assume that those who love God eschew the military. If you are a soldier, serve justly and valiantly, following in the footsteps of Elisha, who was a man who loved his enemies.