And when the servant of the man of God arose early and went out, there was an army, surrounding the city with horses and chariots. And his servant said to him, “Alas, my master What shall we do?”
So he answered, “Do not fear, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” And Elisha prayed, and said, “LORD, I pray, open his eyes that he may see.” Then the LORD opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw. And behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha. So when the Syrians came down to him, Elisha prayed to the LORD, and said, “Strike this people, I pray, with blindness.” And He struck them with blindness according to the word of Elisha. Now Elisha said to them, “This is not the way, nor is this the city. Follow me, and I will bring you to the man whom you seek.” But he led them to Samaria… And the LORD opened their eyes and they saw; and there they were, inside Samaria! … Then (the king of Israel) prepared a great feast for them; and after they ate and drank, he sent them away and they went to their master. So the bands of Syrian raiders came no more into the land of Israel.
2 Kings 6: 15-23
The way God does battle is so counter-cultural, so counterintuitive that at first this whole episode, in the typical Old Testament matter-of-fact unembellished narrative, seems disjointed and maybe even unintelligible. You see, the way we imagine winning wars with God on our side is perhaps with him charging up front before us, buttressing our legitimacy, using the same methods (the numbers game, the clever strategy) only with overwhelming power and superhuman cunning. But our God is far more subtle than that: what would have been a straightforward account of a battle is a marvelous foreshadowing of God’s paradoxical, ever-surprising tactics – a glimpse into his character, and dare I say it, his beautiful, gentle sense of humour.
Let me trace out a few reversals here:
1) This passage turns on the wonderful metaphor of blindness and sight. Elisha says two prayers: one to open his servant’s eyes, and one to strike the Syrians blind. It is a beautiful moment when the servant’s eyes are “opened” in that momentary lifting of the veil between the material and spiritual world and he sees the fiery chariots. It is a terrible thing to feel alone (I know, I’ve been living in New York City for a month and a bit now), and there are these occasional flickers of utterly undeserved grace – the mountaintop moments, when it is absolutely tangible that we are not alone. But the curious thing is we do not know that Elisha sees the chariots of fire – I do not think that he in fact lives daily with angels before his eyes; in fact he does not need it, so great is his faith and assurance; it is only because of the servant’s fear that the veil is lifted as a gesture of grace to him. We are meant to live in faith, which means being blind but acting as though we can see: to be struck continually with apocalyptic vision is not to need faith, and not to be human, at all.
2) When the chariots are revealed, we think: Hah! God has more chariots, therefore His side will win! Not so – despite first appearances, God is not playing the numbers game. The greater numbers are not what causes Israel’s victory, and this is underscored by the fact that the chariots do not charge. Instead, the Syrians are struck with blindness. This is peculiar, because what would have made sense is if the Syrians’ eyes were opened just like Elisha’s servants – a surefire way to win the battle, beat them psychologically just before decimating them under those fiery wheels. But no – blindness cloaks them, becomes the outward sign of their spiritual state, and in fact protects them, lulls them, takes them out of battle altogether to think they are being met not by an enemy but a friend, a friend who directs them to “the man whom you seek”.
3) But the even stranger thing is that Elisha is not deceiving the Syrians when he pretends to be a friend. You might think this is a clever ruse – to lead them into an ambush while they are mysteriously blinded, lulling them into a false sense of security. You might think God, having eschewed the numbers game of brute strength, is using the higher-order tactics – being the wily war strategist rather than the brawny warrior. But no: the apparent lie turns out to be mysteriously true. Because they are led to the man whom they seek – the king of Israel – and what’s more, instead of killing them, this king sits them down to a dazzling feast, turns out to be a greater friend even than one who would lead them to their enemy. And when their eyes are opened, they are nolonger at war, but at a banquet – nolonger enemies, but honoured friends. And though they probably did not know it, it is a far greater opening of the eyes than merely seeing those chariots of fire would have been for them. Because what they saw was not just God’s power, but His extraordinary and mysterious predilection towards grace. Aren’t you glad we have a surprising God? What a way to win a war!