Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, by Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsh, [1857-78], at sacred-texts.com
4 Kings (2 Kings) 6:1
Elisha Causes an Iron Axe to Float. - The following account gives us an insight into the straitened life of the pupils of the prophets. Kg2 6:1-4. As the common dwelling-place had become too small for them, they resolved, with Elisha's consent, to build a new house, and went, accompanied by the prophet, to the woody bank of the Jordan to fell the wood that was required for the building. The place where the common abode had become too small is not given, but most of the commentators suppose it to have been Gilgal, chiefly from the erroneous assumption that the Gilgal mentioned in Kg2 2:1 was in the Jordan valley to the east of Jericho. Thenius only cites in support of this the reference in לפניך ישׁבים (dwell with thee) to Kg2 4:38; but this decides nothing, as the pupils of the prophets sat before Elisha, or gathered together around their master in a common home, not merely in Gilgal, but also in Bethel and Jericho. We might rather think of Jericho, since Bethel and Gilgal (Jiljilia) were so far distant from the Jordan, that there is very little probability that a removal of the meeting-place to the Jordan, such as is indicated by מקום שׁם נעשׂה־לּנוּ, would ever have been thought of from either of these localities.
4 Kings (2 Kings) 6:5
In the felling of the beams, the iron, i.e., the axe, of one of the pupils of the prophets fell into the water, at which he exclaimed with lamentation: "Alas, my lord (i.e., Elisha), and it was begged!" The sorrowful exclamation implied a petition for help. ואת־הבּרזל: "and as for the iron, it fell into the water;" so that even here את does not stand before the nominative, but serves to place the noun in subjection to the clause (cf. Ewald, 277, a.). שׁאוּל does not mean borrowed, but begged. The meaning to borrow is attributed to שׁאל from a misinterpretation of particular passages (see the Comm. on Exo 3:22). The prophets' pupil had begged the axe, because from his poverty he was unable to buy one, and hence the loss was so painful to him.
4 Kings (2 Kings) 6:6
When he showed Elisha, in answer to his inquiry, the place where it had fallen, the latter cut off a stick and threw it thither (into the water) and made the iron flow, i.e., float (יצף from צוּף, to flow, as in Deu 11:4); whereupon the prophets' pupil picked the axe out of the water with his hand. The object of the miracle was similar to that of the stater in the fish's mouth (Mat 17:27), or of the miraculous feeding, namely, to show how the Lord could relieve earthly want through the medium of His prophet. The natural interpretation of the miracle, which is repeated by Thenius, namely, that "Elisha struck the eye of the axe with the long stick which he thrust into the river, so that the iron was lifted by the wood," needs no refutation, since the raising of an iron axe by a long stick, so as to make it float in the water, is impossible according to the laws of gravitation.
4 Kings (2 Kings) 6:8
Elisha's Action in the War with the Syrians. - Kg2 6:8-10. In a war which the Syrians carried on against the Israelitish king Joram (not Jehoahaz, as Ewald, Gesch. iii. p. 557, erroneously supposes), by sending flying parties into the land of Israel (cf. Kg2 6:23), Elisha repeatedly informed king Joram of the place where the Syrians had determined to encamp, and thereby frustrated the plans of the enemy. תּחנתי...אל־מקום: "at the place of so and so shall my camp be." אלמני פּלני as in Sa1 21:3 (see at Rut 4:1). תּחנות, the encamping or the place of encampment (cf. Ewald, 161, a.), is quite appropriate, so that there is no need either for the alteration into תּחבאוּ, "ye shall hide yourselves" (Then.), or into תּנחתוּ, with the meaning which is arbitrarily postulated, "ye shall place an ambush" (Ewald, Gesch. iii. p. 558), or for the much simpler alteration into לי תּחנוּ, "pitch the camp for me" (Bttcher). The singular suffix in תּחנתי refers to the king as leader of the war: "my camp" = the camp of my army. "Beware of passing over (עבר) this place," i.e., of leaving it unoccupied, "for there have the Syrians determined to make their invasion." נחתּים, from נחת, going down, with dagesh euphon., whereas Ewald (187, b.) is of opinion that נחתּים, instead of being an intrans. part. Kal, might rather be a part. Niph. of חת, which would not yield, however, any suitable meaning. Thenius renders מעבר, "to pass by this place," which would be grammatically admissible, but is connected with his conjecture concerning תּחנתי, and irreconcilable with Kg2 6:10. When the king of Israel, according to Kg2 6:10, sent to the place indicated on account of Elisha's information, he can only have sent troops to occupy it; so that when the Syrians arrived they found Israelitish troops there, and were unable to attack the place. There is nothing in the text about the Syrians bursting forth from their ambush. הזהיר means to enlighten, instruct, but not to warn. נשׁמר־שׁם, "he took care there," i.e., he occupied the place with troops, to defend it against the Syrians, so that they were unable to do anything, "not once and not twice," i.e., several times.
4 Kings (2 Kings) 6:11
The king of the Syrians was enraged at this, and said to his servants, "Do ye not show me who of our men (leans) to the king of Israel?" i.e., takes his part. משּׁלּנוּ = לנוּ מאשׁר, probably according to an Aramaean dialect: see Ewald, 181, b., though he pronounces the reading incorrect, and would read מכּלּנוּ, but without any ground and quite unsuitably, as the king would thereby reckon himself among the traitors.
4 Kings (2 Kings) 6:12
Then one of the servants answered, "No, my lord king," i.e., it is not we who disclose thy plans to the king of Israel, "but Elisha the prophet tells him what thou sayest in thy bed-chamber;" whereupon the king of Syria inquired where the prophet lived, and sent a powerful army to Dothan, with horses and chariots, to take him prisoner there. Dothan (see Gen 37:17), which according to the Onom. was twelve Roman miles to the north of Samaria, has been preserved under its old name in a Tell covered with ruins to the south-west of Jenin, on the caravan-road from Gilead to Egypt (see Rob. Bibl. Res. p. 158, and V. de Velde, Journey, i. pp. 273,274).
4 Kings (2 Kings) 6:15
When Elisha's servant went out the next morning and saw the army, which had surrounded the town in the night, he said to the prophet, "Alas, my lord, how shall we do?" But Elisha quieted him, saying, "Fear not, for those with us are more than those with them." He then prayed that the Lord might open his servant's eyes, whereupon he saw the mountain upon which Dothan stood full of fiery horses and chariots round about Elisha. Opening the eyes was translation into the ecstatic state of clairvoyance, in which an insight into the invisible spirit-world was granted him. The fiery horses and chariots were symbols of the protecting powers of Heaven, which surrounded the prophet. The fiery form indicated the super-terrestrial origin of this host. Fire, as the most ethereal of all earthly elements, was the most appropriate substratum for making the spirit-world visible. The sight was based upon Jacob's vision (Gen 32:2), in which he saw a double army of angels encamped around him, at the time when he was threatened with danger from Esau.
4 Kings (2 Kings) 6:18
When the enemy came down to Elisha, he prayed to the Lord that He would smite them with blindness; and when this took place according to his word, he said to them, This is not the way and this is not the city; follow me, and I will lead you to the man whom ye are seeking; and led them to Samaria, which was about four hours' distance from Dothan, where their eyes were opened at Elisha's prayer, so that they saw where they had been led. אליו ויּרדוּ cannot be understood as referring to Elisha and his servant, who went down to the Syrian army, as J. H. Mich., Budd., F. v. Meyer, and Thenius, who wants to alter אליו into אליהם, suppose, but must refer to the Syrians, who went down to the prophet, as is evident from what followed. For the assumption that the Syrians had stationed themselves below and round the mountain on which Dothan stood, and therefore would have had to come up to Elisha, need not occasion an unnatural interpretation of the words. It is true that Dothan stands upon an isolated hill in the midst of the plain; but on the eastern side it is enclosed by a ranger of hills, which project into the plain (see V. de Velde, R. i. p. 273). The Syrians who had been sent against Elisha had posted themselves on this range of hills, and thence they came down towards the town of Dothan, which stood on the hill, whilst Elisha went out of the town to meet them. It is true that Elisha's going out is not expressly mentioned, but in Kg2 6:19 it is clearly presupposed. סנורים is mental blindness here, as in the similar case mentioned in Gen 19:11, that is to say, a state of blindness in which, though a man has eyes that can see, he does not see correctly. Elisha's untruthful statement, "this is not the way," etc., is to be judged in the same manner as every other ruse de guerre, by which the enemy is deceived.
4 Kings (2 Kings) 6:21
Elisha forbade king Joram to slay the enemy that he had brought to him, because he had not taken them prisoners in war, and recommended him to treat them hospitably and then let them return to their lord. The object of the miracle would have been frustrated if the Syrians had been slain. For the intention was to show the Syrians that they had to do with a prophet of the true God, against whom no human power could be of any avail, that they might learn to fear the almighty God. Even when regarded from a political point of view, the prophet's advice was more likely to ensure peace than the king's proposal, as the result of Kg2 6:23 clearly shows. The Syrians did not venture any more to invade the land of Israel with flying parties, from fear of the obvious protection of Israel by its God; though this did not preclude a regular war, like that related in the following account. For אבי see the Comm. on Kg2 5:13. וגו שׁבית האשׁר: "art thou accustomed to slay that which thou hast taken captive with sword and bow?" i.e., since thou dost not even slay those whom thou hast made prisoners in open battle, how wouldst thou venture to put these to death? כּרה להם יכרה, he prepared them a meal. כּרה is a denom. from כּרה, a meal, so called from the union of several persons, like coena from κοινή (vid., Dietr. on Ges. Lex. s. v. כרה).
4 Kings (2 Kings) 6:24
After this there arose so fearful a famine in Samaria on the occasion of a siege by Benhadad, that one mother complained to the king of another, because she would not keep her agreement to give up her son to be eaten, as she herself had already done.
The famine became great - till an ass's head was worth eighty shekels of silver, and a quarter of a cab of dove's dung was worth five shekels. היה בּ, to become for = to be worth. The ass was an unclean animal, so that it was not lawful to eat its flesh. Moreover the head of an ass is the most inedible part of the animal. Eighty shekels were about seventy thalers (10, 10s. - Tr.), or if the Mosaic bekas were called shekels in ordinary life, thirty-five thalers (5, 5s.; see Bertheau, Zur Gesch. der Isr. p. 49). According to Thenius, a quarter of a cab is a sixth of a small Dresden measure (Msschen), not quite ten Parisian cubic inches. Five shekels: more than four thalers (twelve shillings), or more than two thalers (six shillings). The Chetbib חרייונים is to be read יונים, excrementa columbarum, for which the Keri substitues the euphemistic יונים, fluxus, profluvium columbarum. The expression may be taken literally, since dung has been known to be collected for eating in times of terrible famine (vid., Joseph. Bell. Jud. v. 13, 7); but it may also be figuratively employed to signify a very miserable kind of food, as the Arabs call the herba Alcali Arab. s̆nân, i.e., sparrow's dung, and the Germans call Asa foetida Teufelsdreck. But there is no ground for thinking of wasted chick-pease, as Bochart (Hieroz. ii. p. 582, ed. Ros.) supposes (see, on the other hand, Celsii Hierobot. ii. p. 30ff.).
(Note: Clericus gives as a substantial parallel the following passage from Plutarch (Artax. c. 24): "he only killed the beasts of burden, so that the head of an ass was hardly to be bought for sixty drachmae;" and Grotius quote the statement in Plin. h. n. viii. 57, that when Casalinum was besieged by Hannibal a mouse was sold for 200 denaria.)
As the king was passing by upon the wall to conduct the defence, a woman cried to him for help; whereupon he replied: אל־יושׁעך יי, "should Jehovah not help thee, whence shall I help thee? from the threshing-floor or from the wine-press?" It is difficult to explain the אל which Ewald (355, b.) supposes to stand for אם לא. Thenius gives a simpler explanation, namely, that it is a subjective negation and the sentence hypothetical, so that the condition would be only expressed by the close connection of the two clauses (according to Ewald, 357). "From the threshing-floor or from the wine-press?" i.e., I can neither help thee with corn nor with wine, cannot procure thee either food or drink. He then asked her what her trouble was; upon which she related to him the horrible account of the slaying of her own child to appease her hunger, etc.
The king, shuddering at this horrible account, in which the curses of the law in Lev 26:29 and Deu 28:53, Deu 28:57 had been literally fulfilled, rent his clothes; and the people then saw that he wore upon his body the hairy garment of penitence and mourning, מבּית, within, i.e., beneath the upper garment, as a sign of humiliation before God, though it was indeed more an opus operatum than a true bending of the heart before God and His judgment. This is proved by his conduct in Kg2 6:31. When, for example, the complaint of the woman brought the heart-breaking distress of the city before him, he exclaimed, "God do so to me ... if the head of Elisha remain upon him to-day." Elisha had probably advised that on no condition should the city be given up, and promised that God would deliver it, if they humbled themselves before Him in sincere humility and prayed for His assistance. The king thought that he had done his part by putting on the hairy garment; and as the anticipated help had nevertheless failed to come, he flew into a rage, for which the prophet was to pay the penalty. It is true that this rage only proceeded from a momentary ebullition of passion, and quickly gave place to a better movement of his conscience. The king hastened after the messenger whom he had sent to behead Elisha, for the purpose of preventing the execution of the murderous command which he had given in the hurry of his boiling wrath (Kg2 6:32); but it proves, nevertheless, that the king was still wanting in that true repentance, which would have sprung from the recognition of the distress as a judgment inflicted by the Lord. the desperate deed, to which his violent wrath had impelled him, would have been accomplished, if the Lord had not protected His prophet and revealed to him the king's design, that he might adopt defensive measures.
The elders of the city were assembled together in Elisha's house, probably to seek for counsel and consolation; and the king sent a man before him (namely, to behead the prophet); but before the messenger arrived, the prophet told the elders of the king's intention: "See ye that this son of a murderer (Joram, by descent and disposition a genuine son of Ahab, the murderer of Naboth and the prophets) is sending to cut off my head?" and commanded them to shut the door against the messenger and to force him back at the door, because he already heard the sound of his master's feet behind him. These measures of Elisha, therefore, were not dictated by any desire to resist the lawful authorities, but were acts of prudence by which he delayed the execution of an unrighteous and murderous command which had been issued in haste, and thereby rendered a service to the king himself. - In Kg2 6:33 we have to supply from the context that the king followed close upon the messenger, who came down to Elisha while he was talking with the elders; and he (the king) would of course be admitted at once. For the subject to ויּאמר is not the messenger, but the king, as is evident from Kg2 7:2 and 2 Kings 17. The king said: "Behold the calamity from the Lord, why shall I wait still further for the Lord?" - the words of a dispairing man, in whose soul, however, there was a spark of faith still glimmering. The very utterance of his feelings to the prophet shows that he had still a weak glimmer of hope in the Lord, and wished to be strengthened and sustained by the prophet; and this strengthening he received.