God still punishes unrepentant sinners
Here is the miracle of the cursing of delinquent children. And the purpose of this passage is to teach us that God's wrath is just as real as his grace. The unchanging God who is good is also severe.
Elisha leaves Jericho and travels to Bethel. Now Bethel is almost the exact opposite of Jericho. Bethel is a place with a great history. This is where Jacob lay down to sleep and he had the dream with the ladder with angels ascending and descending, and he awoke and said, "Surely God was in this place and I knew it not." He called it Bethel, meaning house of God. It was the place where God had given his people a great victory in the days of the Judges. Samuel visited Bethel in his preaching circuit.
It was a place that had known blessing from God, whereas Jericho had known God's curse. And where we saw God bringing forth blessing in the city of the curse, now we see God bringing a curse in the city of blessing.
Straight away we see that we must never think that God's blessing and grace clings to a particular place, or a particular congregation or family. The place of blessing can become a place that provokes the wrath of God. God's house can become a house of wrath.
In fact in the intervening years Bethel had actually become a place of idol worship. In two generations it went from being the House of God, to what Hosea calls Bethaven, The house of Wickedness.
Elisha travels to this town, and news of what had happened in Jericho surely travelled before him. Certainly news of Elijah's going to Heaven had reached the town - that's why the children cry out, "Go up!". But such is the town of Bethel, that before he has even made it inside the city walls, a crowd of young boys come out to him.
Now the NIV says youths, and that conjures up ideas of 18-25 year old louts. The KJV has 'little children' - and that gives ideas of 5-6 year olds. Neither gives the right impression. NKJV - young lads - You'll not be far off if you think of 8-14 year olds - really, little youths. Boys, not teenage thugs.
And as Elisha is approaching the town they spy him and go out to meet him. Note they went out of the town - they had to go out of their way to mock the man of God. This wasn't the case of Elisha walking down the High Street and a few of the town wags having a bit of a laugh. They saw him and left to harass the man of God. And it's a sizeable crowd - because look at v24, 42 of them were mauled. Those words, "of them" are significant. More than 42 children were involved.
And it is not a childish prank. They weren't just calling him "Baldy". They were shouting "Go up, Go up". They were telling him to do what Elijah had done. Get up to Heaven, you baldy man. GO on get out of Bethel and go up, go up to Heaven. They were mocking the things of God, and they were mocking God and they were mocking the man of God.
You might be thinking "That sounds a bit advanced for 10, 11 year olds to be thinking". And you might be right - but where do children learn things that are beyond their years? How often have you heard a child express an adult opinion, and where has he heard that adult opinion? In the home. Have you ever noticed this happen, much to the embarrassment of parents? Children repeating swear words and its obvious where it has come from? Where do loyalist children in the north learn their hatred?
And you can be sure that in the homes of Bethel in the days before, there were parents talking over the dinner table, and they were talking about Elijah, and the rumours of the fiery chariots, and they were wishing him good riddance, were talking about Elisha - baldy so and so, and the school of the prophets in Bethel, and they knew Elisha would be visiting the prophets - and they wanted nothing to do with the baldy old goat, and if he would just get away on up like his master that would suit everyone nicely.
And at the table were little ears drinking it all in - the distain and disregard of the parents for the man of God and for the things of God. That's the way mummy and daddy think, so that must be the way to think.
When children snigger and sneer at holy things, that is because they have learnt it at home. And when children hold the things of God and the prophet of God in contempt, then we have reached an all time low. And children don't get there until their parents get there.
So here is a warning for parents. Your attitude to the things of God, to God's word, and to God's house, and to God's day, and to God's people, and to God's ministers will hugely influence your children. Some of you aren't parents, some of you have children who are grown up, but nevertheless there are still children who see you at church each week. And you set them an example either for good or for bad.
What happens next? Look at v24.
Note carefully this is no act of a petty petulant man, who has had his pride wounded by some likeable but high-spirited children. If this had been a rash act of revenge, then the LORD would not have confirmed Elisha's words by sending the bears. God is under no obligation. And Elisha can't command bears. This is the punishment of a righteous judge.
And God had warned the people that if they forsook his covenant, if they abandoned him, then this would happen. In Lev 26 God states the blessings that follow when his people walk in his ways. But he also states what happens when his people will forsake his ways.
Leviticus 26:14 "But if you will not listen to me and carry out all these commands, and if you reject my decrees and abhor my laws and fail to carry out all my commands and so violate my covenant, then I will do this to you: I will bring upon you sudden terror. 19 I will break down your stubborn pride and make the sky above you like iron and the ground beneath you like bronze.They had just had three and a half years of drought.
20 Your strength will be spent in vain, because your soil will not yield its crops, nor will the trees of the land yield their fruit.Jericho had experienced this, and they had repented.
21 "If you remain hostile towards me and refuse to listen to me, I will multiply your afflictions seven times over, as your sins deserve. 22 I will send wild animals against you, and they will rob you of your children, destroy your cattle and make you so few in number that your roads will be deserted."If you look at the text, you'll see that Elisha didn't call the bears, he simply called down a curse - a covenant curse on a covenant breaking people. And God did what he said he would do.
Because God will not be mocked. He says in Gal 6:7
"Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows."
And God will not allow his messengers to be mocked either. Matthew 10:40 "He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives the one who sent me.
How do you think the parents felt? Those boys had only spoken what they had heard their mum and dad say, those boys only had attitudes and beliefs that their parents had had.
Their children had paid the penalty because of the godless lives of their parents. Make no mistake - it was the children's sin, but they wouldn't have been in that terrible condition if their parents had been different. Their parents had broken the covenant, and God was faithful to his word. At each baptism we recognise the covenant that God makes with believers and their families, that covenant carries great promises for those parents who are faithful, but it also carries terrible promises for those who squander the blessings available to their children, who fail to bring them up in the ways of God.
And I say this in love, if some of you have children that are not interested in the things of God, or who despise the things of God, it may be the case that you need to seek forgiveness from God for the signals they have picked up from you. I say signals, because you can go to church, but children aren't stupid, they can see whether or not this Christianity is a living breathing reality for mummy and daddy.
And God's promises of judgment are real. He is slow to anger, but he will display that anger. He is not some unhearing unseeing god like the Baals. He notes, he sees. And those who breaks God's rules will find not the God is gracious, but that he is severe. He will not let the guilty go unpunished. And across the centuries comes this warning voice - "Be not deceived, God is not mocked."
Because God is a God who is severe with unrepentant sinners.
So what have we seen?
We have seen that those who live and displease God, in which God will show that he is severe.
Or like those who lived in Jericho, they can repent and turn to God, in which case they will discover that God is a God who delights to show grace and mercy.
Behold the goodness and severity of God.