About 30 years ago, I was in college, visiting a friend’s dorm room at the University of Illinois. For whatever reason that day, I picked up a devotional book he had – which one I don’t know – and it included this little story of Joash and Elisha at the end of the prophet’s life, and I’ve never forgotten the lesson I learned. In fact, I either wrote down what I learned in this book, or I memorized it on the spot. It now serves as one of the little motivational quotes I sometimes put at the top of prayer lists, but before I get to the quote, here is the Bible story it was based on, from 2 Kings 13…
Elisha the great prophet of God was about to die. Joash was King of Israel at the time, and even though Joash has not fully followed God, even he realizes that if Elisha “sleeps with his fathers”, all hope is lost, because he’s the only one who seems to have a direct connection with the God of Israel.
So Joash comes to see Elisha on his deathbed, and this is what happens:
Now when Elisha had fallen sick with the illness of which he was to die, Joash king of Israel went down to him and wept before him, crying, “My father, my father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” 2 Kings 13:14 (ESV)
So it’s almost a comedic scene, for Elisha is the one who is dying, but King Joash comes before him crying about his weak army. But it just so happens that Joash has come to the right guy. Elisha makes a plan…
And Elisha said to him, “Take a bow and arrows.” So he took a bow and arrows. Then he said to the king of Israel, “Draw the bow,” and he drew it. And Elisha laid his hands on the king’s hands. And he said, “Open the window eastward,” and he opened it. Then Elisha said, “Shoot,” and he shot. And he said, “The LORD’s arrow of victory, the arrow of victory over Syria! For you shall fight the Syrians in Aphek until you have made an end of them.” 2 Kings 13:15 – 17a (ESV)
Do you follow what has happened? Elisha has instructed the king to take up his bow and some arrows. Something symbolic is about to take place. Then the king draws back the bow, and then Elisha apparently gets behind him, almost like a master archer teaching a novice how to shoot, but only for a moment because then it seems he takes away his hands and he tells the king to open the window. He tells him to shoot…and the king shoots. It seems that Elisha is symbolically transferring God’s power to the king in an upcoming battle against Syria. And Elisha provides some running commentary…
And Elisha says, “The LORD’s arrow of victory, the arrow of victory over Syria! For you shall fight the Syrians in Aphek until you have made an end of them.” 2 Kings 13:17b (ESV)
But you see that’s just one battle against their dreaded enemy. The king needs to fire some more symbolic arrows to defeat the enemy completely.
So look what happens next.
And he said, “Take the arrows,” and he took them. And he said to the king of Israel, “Strike the ground with them.” And he struck three times and stopped. 2 Kings 13:18 (ESV)
So Elisha says take the arrows and strike the ground with them. Apparently he wants the king to fire the remaining arrows out the window, symbolic of the future victories Israel will have in other battles against this feared enemy. Now we don’t know what’s going on in the king’s mind, but we can guess. He has already begun to think that he is wasting his time coming to see this dying prophet. Here the prophet is asking him to shoot arrows at nothing out the east window, when he really thought the man was going to pray a prayer to simply make all the Syrians die, or something along those lines.
So the king takes the arrows with his bow and his mind is now full of doubt and skepticism, perhaps he looks at Elisha funny and then fires off three arrows. But that’s it. He’s got his hand full of arrows, but he fires off only three.
Now look at Elisha’s reaction:
Then the man of God was angry with him and said, “You should have struck five or six times; then you would have struck down Syria until you had made an end of it, but now you will strike down Syria only three times.” 2 Kings 13:19 (ESV)
And then the story concludes: So Elisha died, and they buried him. 2 Kings 13:20 (ESV)
Now thirty years ago, I read this pithy quote about that little vignette, and it always stuck with me…
“Let it be said to his shame that he did not believe enough, so he did not obey enough. It is what happens in the secret chamber that determines the amount of victory we have in the actual battle of life.”
Joash was told to do something to ensure victory over Syria, and yet…he thought it foolish. Surely firing arrows into the ground could not lead him to victory over the Lord’s enemies. But shooting those arrows out the window was the method God determined to use.
Similarly, our Heavenly Father tells us to pray, but too often we are like that foolish King looking at the prophet like he’s an idiot. Prayer is God’s chosen means for us to win battles, lots and lots of battles. We simply need to get on our knees…and start firing off arrows.