This is one of those Old Testament stories that offends modern sensibilities: God incinerates two captains and their hundred men (vv. 9-12). “Harsh” barely begins to get at one reaction to this judgment of God. (And, in the days immediately following the controversial “Strange Fire” conference, this story certainly gives pause.)
I find myself asking this morning, did it need to be so? After all, the third captain–with his men–survives the task of bringing Elijah, “man of God”, to king Ahaziah (vv. 13-15). How?
The words of the first two captains contained an essential lie: they address Elijah as “man of God”, yet they presume to place him under command which, even in the space of two iterations, intensifies in its presumption. In this they participate in the same essential deceit of the king who sent them, whose inquiring after some god betrays a denial of the true and living God.
The captains had another option, as did Ahaziah himself. Like the third captain, they could have acknowledged the God of Israel and his authority, and sought him. Hope for life comes when we align ourselves with the judgments of God; death is inevitable when we oppose them.
One might, from this text, call that the “gospel of Elijah”: it is a pointer to a greater gospel, and a more certain Saviour.