When the servant of the man of God got up and went out early the next morning, an army with horses and chariots had surrounded the city. “Oh no, my lord! What shall we do?” the servant asked. “Don’t be afraid,” the prophet answered. “Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” And Elisha prayed, “Open his eyes, Lord, so that he may see.” Then the Lord opened the servant’s eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha. 2 Kings 6.15-17.
Hearing the phrase “Chariots of Fire”, most people probably think of the 1981 movie of that name. It is a brilliant film (made all the more brilliant by the Vangelis musical score) which dramatises the true story of two British athletes who competed against each other in the 1924 Olympic Games: Eric Liddell, a devout Scottish Christian, who runs for the glory of God and Harold Abrahams, a Jew, who runs to overcome racial prejudice. At the end of the film, there is heard Parry’s setting of William Blake’s poem Jerusalem, and that is the immediate source from which the title of the film was taken …
Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my chariot of fire!
But the origin of the phrase is in 2 Kings 2.11 (where a chariot of fire appears as Elijah is taken up into heaven in a whirlwind) and here in 2 Kings 6 where the Arameans lay siege to Dothan in an attempt to capture the prophet Elisha. For me, this is one of the most thrilling stories in the Old Testament; and I love it because it reminds of an eternal truth that I need to keep before me at all times – that things are never just what they seem; that I am only ever seeing half the picture – or even less; and that hidden from my sight there is at every moment a whole other world all around me, and it is a world in which God reigns supreme and his hosts outnumber anything at all that is arrayed against me in this world.
Once, some years ago, I had an experience that, though it was not at all supernatural, showed me what it must have been like that morning in Dothan for Elisha’s servant when God opened his eyes. My wife and I were on our first visit to Italy. We were in Sorrento and had booked a sea-view room in a hotel overlooking the Bay of Naples. The holiday brochure had promised that, from our room, we would be able to look out across the bay to Naples and Mount Vesuvius; but it was dark when we arrived and the balcony doors were closed and the shutters were down. Next morning, however, we raised the shutters, opened the balcony doors, stepped out into the sunlight, gazed across the bay, and there was … nothing. Just sea and sky seeming to merge into each other on the horizon. We looked to our right. There were some mountains but none that resembled the guide book picture of Vesuvius; and the scene to our left was the same. It was a mystery; and one which was not resolved until the start of our second week. Then, during the night, there was a violent thunderstorm with lightning and torrential rain, but in the morning all seemed still and peaceful so we stepped out onto the balcony. And there, right in front of our eyes, seeming almost close enough to touch, was Vesuvius, with the city of Naples clustered at its feet. It had been there all the time but a heat haze had kept it hidden for a whole week. Where there had been but one reality, there were now two. The reality of the Italy in which we were standing — vibrant with colour and the sound of church bells and clock chimes and car horns, and rich in the smells of basil and oregano and tomatoes and olive oil and garlic and strong dark coffee; and the reality of the Italy across the bay — equally rich in colours and sounds and perfumes of its own; but a reality hidden from us for a while … so that some poor souls who had stayed only for our first week had probably gone home doubting its very existence.
Jesus called the hidden reality that Elisha’s servant was suddenly given sight of, “the kingdom of heaven”; and the heart of his message was this: That kingdom is at hand – right next to us – and we are meant to see it, enter it and live simultaneously in both it and the present world.
Seeing the other reality and entering into it is a life-transforming experience. The sunshine from there streams in at the windows here and shows everything in a new light. Everything is changed. People become different, values become different, situations become different. That’s what Elisha’s servant learned that day in Dothan when he saw the chariots of fire; and it’s what God wants us to learn this day and every day of our lives.
Open our eyes, Lord, so that we may see.