When in Indonesia recently, I taught during my last week at a seminary in Jogjakarta (or Jogja, as most people there call it), about an hour’s flight from Jakarta. I was given the task of teaching through the Gospel of John in three days. It was no easy task, but I will tell you that I actually accomplished my mission in that regard. The faculty at this seminary were very capable and dedicated people. Todd E, a missionary who spent his seminary days in our church, and who is now supported by our church, is one of the professors there. When he learned I was going to Jakarta, he asked me to teach there at the seminary for a week. Todd served as the translator for my teaching.
One of the women in my class was small and appeared quite frail. I was told that just a few days before, her husband, also a student at the seminary, had suddenly passed away. Apparently neither he nor anyone else realized he had diabetes. This man and his wife—like most of the other students there—were very poor. They had almost no money, no job that I knew of, and no regular support. They were truly trusting the Lord for their daily bread. They had apparently been fasting for several days, and this brought about a reaction which put him into a coma, and he died very quickly. It was a strange feeling, teaching through John 11—the story of our Lord raising Lazarus from the dead—with this recent widow looking on, with tears streaming down her face. After that session, the whole class gathered around her to pray for her.
Our text begins with a similar story that reminded me of this grieving seminary student. One of the men who belonged to the prophetic guild had passed away, leaving behind not only his wife, but also two children. She seems to have been left with no visible means of support. Her creditor was pressing her for payment and threatened to take her children as slaves. She was in desperate straits when she came to Elisha and pled with him to help. It is one of several crises described in our text. In each case, Elisha is used of God to minister to the practical, but very pressing, needs of those who knew and trusted God. Let us listen well, for these verses surely reflect God’s compassion and care for His children.
1 Now a wife of one of the prophets appealed to Elisha for help, saying, “Your servant, my husband is dead. You know that your servant was a loyal follower of the LORD. Now the creditor is coming to take away my two boys to be his servants.” 2 Elisha said to her, “What can I do for you? Tell me, what do you have in the house?” She answered, “Your servant has nothing in the house except a small jar of oil.” 3 He said, “Go and ask all your neighbors for empty containers. Get as many as you can. 4 Go and close the door behind you and your sons. Pour the oil into all the containers; set aside each one when you have filled it.” 5 So she left him and closed the door [behind] her and her sons. As they were bringing the containers to her, she was pouring the oil. 6 When the containers were full, she said to one of her sons, “Bring me another container.” But he answered her, “There are no more.” Then the oil stopped flowing. 7 She went and told the prophet. He said, “Go, sell the oil. Repay your creditor, and then you and your sons can live off the rest of the profit.”
It would seem that Elisha is now regarded as the “headmaster” (so to speak) of the “school of the prophets.” A widow is in desperate straits and appeals to Elisha for help. She was the wife of one of the prophets, and her husband is now dead. She is the mother of two boys, and they are deeply in debt. The creditor is threatening to take her boys as his slaves, as repayment for her debt.106 The woman looks to Elisha—and thus to God—for help.
Elisha’s words are a bit puzzling. He first asks her, “What can I do for you?” I do not think that this is meant in the sense, “What can I do for you?”, as though Elisha is suggesting that he is powerless to help her, or that he is unwilling to do so. It seems to be almost a rhetorical question, “Let me see now; what can I do for you?” Then it seems to come to him: “What do you have in the house?” That is, “What are your resources? What do you have to work with?”
She tells him that all she has is a small jar of oil. Elisha tells her to borrow all the empty containers she can from her neighbors, and then to go inside her house with her boys, shut the door, and pour from the oil she has into these empty containers. The prophet encourages her to get all the containers she can. The woman did as she was told, filling all the containers she could acquire with oil. She informed Elisha, who then told her to sell the oil, pay off her debt, and to use the rest of the proceeds to pay her living expenses.
The story is simple and straightforward. There are some aspects of the story which should be highlighted, however.
First, this woman was a “widow indeed” (see 1 Timothy 5:3), in that she seems to have no other means of support and no family members to come to her aid. Her children are young and depend on her for their livelihood. Further, this woman is in debt through no fault of her own. Her poverty is the result of her husband’s death, and from her words, we believe that he was a godly man. Here is a woman who truly needs help.
Second, Elisha provides for this woman’s needs in a way that allows her and others to participate. This woman and her children gather the empty containers and fill them. Then she sells the oil and pays off her debts. The neighbors also play a part,107 and in so doing, they must have been aware of the way God provided for this woman. The Old Testament law instructed the Israelites not to cut the corners of their fields so that the poor could glean from what remained in the field (Leviticus 23:22). Welfare programs should not encourage the needy to sit, inactive, while others harvest, winnow, and cook their food. There seems to be a trend today to return to a more biblical model, establishing help programs that enable the recipient to retain their dignity by doing what they can to provide for themselves. This is what the Bible has taught from the beginning. And it is what Elisha did as well. This woman and her children were encouraged to work hard, and thus to participate in God’s provision for them.
It is possible to place so much emphasis on what God does for us that we conclude we can and must do nothing ourselves. When it comes to salvation, it is all of God in the sense that we can contribute nothing to God’s grace. All things are of Him, through Him, and for Him. Yet having heartily affirmed this truth, it is also true that God does require us to participate in our salvation. We are called upon to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ as the One who died for our sins (see John 6:28-29). We must confess with our mouths that Jesus is Lord and believe in our hearts that God raised Him from the dead (Romans 10:8-11). And we are to be baptized as a public profession of our faith. That, my friend, is participation in (not contribution to) our salvation. And, beyond this, we are to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling” (participation), knowing that it is “God who works in us to will and to do His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13).
I have just returned from Indonesia. One of the things which most impressed me was the dedication and sacrifice of those who know and serve our Lord there. In the seminary where I taught the Gospel of John, I saw many students who had very few resources, and yet they endeavored, by God’s grace, to accomplish much for Him. How often I have excused myself from attempting something because I convinced myself that I did not have the resources to do so! Does our text not teach us that God expects us to use what little we have, trusting Him to provide for all of our needs?
I see this theme repeated over and over in the Bible. Moses makes all sorts of excuses for why he should not go to Egypt, as God commanded. And God says to him, “What is that in your hand?” (Exodus 4:2). It was nothing special; it was just a staff—probably no more than a stick Moses found somewhere, which suited the task of tending sheep. But that staff was used of God in a powerful way to demonstrate that Moses spoke for God. Jesus made the five loaves and two fishes into a meal for thousands (John 6:1-14), and He turned water into wine (John 2:1-11). Paul says that God uses our weakness to demonstrate His power (2 Corinthians 12:7-11). God allows, and often requires, that we participate in His work.
Third, I note that this is a two-stage miracle. Why didn’t Elisha save himself time and trouble by giving this woman all of her instructions at once? At first, Elisha simply tells the widow to borrow as many empty containers as she can, and then to close her door and, with her sons, to fill the borrowed containers with the oil she has. He could have told her why he instructed her to do this. It is only after she has obeyed his initial commands that he gives her subsequent instructions which make it clear how God had provided for her needs.
Is there not a principle implied here, which is just as true for us today as it was for this widow centuries ago? She was to obey what God commanded, even though it did not make sense to her, and even though she did not know the outcome. She was to obey God’s command, without being told why. This is what “boot camp” is designed to do for new recruits in the armed forces. When a superior officer gives an order, the one who is subordinate to that authority dares not ask why, nor does he dare to disobey his orders. The subordinate is to obey, without asking questions, and without being told what part his actions play in the overall scheme of things. The officer who gives the orders is under no obligation to explain why he has given the order, and in some cases, it would be detrimental if he did so.
The Bible is full of commands, but most often they are not accompanied with detailed explanations. If we love our Lord, we will keep His commandments (John 14:15). As Christians, we know that God is good, and that He causes all things to work out for our good, and for His glory (Romans 8:28). We know that God is sovereign, in complete control of all things, so that His plan is never thwarted. We must trust God because we love Him, and because we know His character and attributes. We must obey His commandments, not because He has explained why He has instructed us to act in a particular way, but because He is God, and we are His servants. This woman was instructed to do some very unusual things, without knowing where all this would lead. But she obeyed, trusting God and His spokesman, Elisha. And in the end, she saw how God provided for her in His wisdom and mercy.
Fourth, this was a miracle which enhanced the faith of this woman and her children, and perhaps others who witnessed God’s provision for this family. This truth grows out of the principle stated previously. We are to obey God’s commandments, trusting in Him, even when we have no idea how God will cause everything to work out for our good and His glory. This miracle was accomplished in a way that required the woman’s participation, and this participation was rooted in her faith in God and His Word, as spoken by Elisha. How God must have increased this woman’s faith, and the faith of her children, not to mention the faith of all who witnessed the working of God in this miracle!
Fifth, this miracle is similar to the miracle performed by Elijah in 1 Kings 17. The similarity of this miracle, performed according to the word of Elisha, with that which took place through the word of Elijah in 1 Kings 17, seems quite obvious. Is this not one more instance where God is making it clear to Israel and to us that Elisha is His replacement for Elijah, and that through Elisha, God is performing miracles equal to or greater than those of Elijah? Elisha’s accreditation continues.
Sixth, by means of this miracle, God not only provided for this widow’s immediate needs, but He also made provision for her long-term needs as well. God provided some immediate cash, with which this widow was able to pay off her debts and keep her children from slavery. But God also provided an “endowment fund” as well, from what was left over after the woman’s debts were paid. This miracle solved the widow’s short-term and long-term needs. How often our efforts to help those in need solve short-term problems and create (or aggravate) long-term problems! This miracle freed the widow in need from her immediate and her long-term problems.
8 One day Elisha traveled to Shunem, where a respected woman lived. She insisted that he stop for a meal. So whenever he was passing through, he would stop in there for a meal. 9 She said to her husband, “Look, I’m sure that the man who regularly passes through here is a very special prophet. 10 Let’s make a small private upper room and furnish it with a bed, table, chair and lamp. When he visits us, he can stay there.”
11 One day Elisha came for a visit; he went into the upper room and rested. 12 He told his servant Gehazi, “Ask the Shunammite woman to come here.” So he did so and she came to him. 13 Elisha said to Gehazi, “Tell her, ‘Look, you have treated us with such great respect. What can I do for you? Can I put in a good word for you with the king or the commander of the army?’” She replied, “I’m quite secure.” 14 So he asked Gehazi, “What can I do for her?” Gehazi replied, “She has no son, and her husband is old.” 15 Elisha told him, “Ask her to come here.” So he did so and she came and stood in the doorway. 16 He said, “About this time next year you will be holding a son.” She said, “No my master! O prophet, do not lie to your servant!” 17 The woman did conceive, and at the specified time the next year she gave birth to a son, just as Elisha had told her.
18 The boy grew and one day he went out to see his father who was with the harvesters. 19 He said to his father, “My head! My head!” His father told a servant, “Carry him to his mother.” 20 So he picked him up and took him to his mother. He sat on her lap until noon and then died. 21 She went up and laid him down on the prophet’s bed. She shut the door behind her and left. 22 She called to her husband, “Send me one of the servants and one of the donkeys, so I can go see the prophet quickly and then return.” 23 He said, “Why do you want to go see him today? It is not the new moon or the Sabbath.” She said, “Everything’s fine.” 24 She saddled the donkey and told her servant, “Lead on. Do not stop unless I say so.” 25 So she went to visit the prophet at Mount Carmel. When he saw her at a distance, he said to his servant Gehazi, “Look, it’s the Shunammite woman. 26 Now, run to meet her and ask her, ‘Are you well? Are your husband and the boy well?’” She told Gehazi, “Everything’s fine.” 27 But when she reached the prophet on the mountain, she grabbed hold of his feet. Gehazi came near to push her away, but the prophet said, “Leave her alone, for she is very upset. The LORD has kept the matter hidden from me; he didn’t tell me about it.” 28 She said, “Did I ask my master for a son? Didn’t I say, ‘Don’t mislead me?’” 29 Elisha told Gehazi, “Tuck your robes into your belt, grab my staff, and go. Don’t stop to exchange greetings with anyone. Place my staff on the child’s face.” 30 The mother of the child said, “As certainly as the LORD lives and as you live, I will not leave you.” So he got up and followed her back.
31 Now Gehazi went on ahead of them. He placed the staff on the child’s face, but there was no sound or response. When he came back to Elisha he told him, “The child did not wake up.” 32 When Elisha arrived at the house, there was the child lying dead on his bed. 33 He went in by himself and closed the door. Then he prayed to the LORD. 34 He got up on the bed and spread his body out over the boy; he put his mouth on the boy’s mouth, his eyes over the boy’s eyes, and the palms of his hands against the boy’s palms. He bent down over him, and the boy’s skin grew warm. 35 Elisha went back and walked around in the house. Then he got up on the bed again and bent down over him. The child sneezed seven times and opened his eyes. 36 Elisha called to Gehazi and said, “Get the Shunammite woman.” So he did so and she came to him. He said to her, “Pick up your son.” 37 She came in, fell at his feet, and bowed down. Then she picked up her son and left.
Once again, the story is simple and straightforward. Elisha’s travels often took him near the home of a well-to-do woman and her husband. The woman would not let Elisha pass without stopping in for a meal. She then persuaded her husband to build a small upper room for the prophet, so that when he came their way he would not only have food, but rest and shelter as well. One day when Elisha was staying at this woman’s home, he determined to express his gratitude by doing something for her. He was not really thinking of a miracle, but of some favor that he might grant, like putting in a good word for the woman with the king or with the commander of the army. Elisha gave his servant the task of questioning the woman and then getting back to him as to what he might do for his gracious hostess.
Gehazi did as Elisha had instructed him, but this wealthy woman was not seeking anything, and the truth of the matter was that she did not lack any necessity. She told Gehazi that she was well provided for and needed nothing. Elisha then asked his servant if he knew of anything she needed that she had not mentioned. Gehazi shows some real insight here. He knew that while this woman was still in her child-bearing years, her husband was not. He seems to have discerned that while this was the deepest longing of her life, she would not mention it. After all, it seemed as if it were impossible. It would take a miracle, and while this woman seems to have the faith for such miracles, she is not willing to presume upon this prophet to ask for such a thing.
Elisha seized upon this suggestion and told Gehazi to call the woman. When she came and stood in the doorway, Elisha prophesied that the next year at this time she would be holding a son in her arms. A son! She had not dared to hope for a child, and now the prophet tells her that she will bear a child, and that he will be a boy. In that culture, there was nothing more important to this woman than a son. It was too good to believe, as the Shunammite’s response indicated: “O prophet, do not lie to your servant!” The following year, she held that promised son in her arms. True prophets do not lie.
A few years passed, and the child, now a young boy, went out into the field to be near his father during the harvest. The boy became ill, and the father had one of his servants carry the boy home to his mother. It was there, in his mother’s arms, that the boy died. The woman carried the child upstairs to Elisha’s room where she placed him on the prophet’s bed. She then closed the door and sent word to her husband, asking him for the use of a servant and a donkey. Her husband was perplexed. This was not a Sabbath or a new moon, not one of those times when she usually went to worship where the prophet was. Her husband was perplexed by her request, but she assured him that everything was fine and set out with the servant and the donkey to find Elisha.
From his vantage point on Mount Carmel, Elisha saw the woman approaching in the distance and sensed that something must be wrong. He sent his servant Gehazi to meet her and to inquire if all was well with her and her family. The woman did not wish to discuss this matter with Gehazi, so she simply told him that everything was fine. But when she reached Elisha, she cast all dignity aside, flinging herself at the prophet’s feet and grasping them firmly. Gehazi was shocked and began to try to free the prophet from her grip. Elisha had a better grasp of the situation. Though God had not revealed the problem to him, he knew that this woman was deeply troubled about something.
The woman unburdened her soul to the prophet, informing him of the death of her son in such a way as to appeal to the prophet for his recovery. She had not asked the prophet to give her a son, and when he prophesied that she would bear a son, she begged him not to deceive her about such a thing. In other words, the gift of this child was all Elisha’s doing. The woman never actually told Elisha that the boy had died, at least so far as our text informs us. Elisha had figured that out from what the woman told him. He did not waste any more time talking. Elisha instructed his servant Gehazi to get to the boy without delay. He was not even to stop or slow down along the way to greet anyone he passed. If it were today, and his servant had been driving an emergency vehicle, his red lights would have been flashing all the way. Gehazi was to run ahead of Elisha (and the boy’s mother) and to place the staff of Elisha on the boy’s face. The boy’s mother refused to leave Elisha’s side. I find it almost amusing to read, “So he got up and followed her back” (verse 30). It is obvious that this woman was setting the pace, and it was Elisha who probably had to work to keep up with her. Here was one determined woman.
Gehazi did as he was told. He ran ahead, found the boy in the upper room, and placed Elisha’s staff on his face. It seems that he watched expectantly as he did this, hoping that he might see some sign of life, but no such sign occurred. Gehazi then went back to meet Elisha, informing him that he had placed the staff on the boy’s face, but that the child did not awaken. When Elisha arrived, he went up to his room, where the child had been laid, with his staff now on the boy’s face. He went in alone and closed the door. The child was dead. There is no doubt about this as we are told this twice (4:20, 32). We are also told that the child did not show any response, and that his body had lost its warmth, so that Elisha had to warm it with his own body (4:34).
Elisha’s actions are not merely the motions of a man attempting to give artificial respiration. It is apparent that the child has been dead for several hours.108 Elisha’s actions did warm the boy’s body (verse 34), but the prophet is not constantly working on the boy. Some of the time, he is pacing about, in prayer I would assume (verses 33, 35). The raising of this boy was no mere resuscitation by means of artificial respiration; it was a raising from the dead, through prayer. We know, of course, that Elisha did not raise this boy; God did.
The lad sneezed seven times and then opened his eyes. Elisha called to Gehazi and told him to get the boy’s mother. When she came to Elisha, he told her to pick up her son. She fell on her face at the prophet’s feet and then picked up her son and went out.
The story is the second one in our text which deals with a mother in distress. The two women are quite different in many ways. The first woman was a widow; the Shunammite woman’s husband was alive. The widow had two children, while the Shunammite woman initially had no children. The widow was poor, and the Shunammite woman was rich. The widow pleads with Elisha for help, and the Shunammite says that she has all she needs. Elisha provided for the needs of the widow, while the Shunammite was intent upon meeting the needs of the prophet.
These two women are very different, but there is a point of commonality. Both of these women had a problem related to children. The widow could not provide for her children, who were about to be taken from her. The Shunammite woman could not produce children, though one was to be given to her. The problem these women shared in common in our text is that they had a need which they were unable to meet. In both cases, God met this need.
In both stories, it is the woman who gets the spotlight. In the case of the widow, we know that her husband was a prophet who “was a loyal follower of the LORD” (verse 1). In the case of the Shunammite woman, her husband is alive, but nevertheless it is the wife who gets all the attention. I must confess a certain amount of bias here, because I somehow find myself not very impressed with the Shunammite’s husband. So far as our text is concerned, it is the woman who is said to be “respected” (NET Bible) or “great” (KJV).109 Nothing complimentary is said of her husband. It is the woman who insists that Elisha stop for a meal (verse 8). She is also the one who suggests to her husband that they make a small upper room for the prophet (verse 9). At best, it would seem, the husband went along with the suggestion. It is to the woman that Elisha wishes to give a token of appreciation. It is this woman who is asked what Elisha can do for her.110 It is the woman who is promised that she will have a child by that time next year. And when the boy was with his father and became seriously ill, the father did not bother to attend to his son personally; instead, he had one of his servants take the child to its mother.111
If my observations about the Shunammite’s husband are correct, there is something for us to learn here. This woman is highly commended and greatly blessed of God, regardless of the spiritual state of her husband. There are some who seem to think that because a wife is to be subject to her husband, her spirituality and ministry are thereby limited by the spirituality of her husband. While it is true that a godly husband enhances the ministry of his wife (see Proverbs 31:10-31), it is not true that the wife of an ungodly husband is completely limited by her mate. One dramatic example of this is Abigail, whom David commends for being a wise and godly woman, whose counsel he heeds—and this in spite of the fact that her husband was a fool (see 1 Samuel 25:1-42). The same may be the case with this Shunammite woman. What a tribute the writer pays to this fine and godly woman.
While I do not believe that the Shunammite presumed Elisha would raise her son, I am convinced that she believed it was a distinct possibility. I am inclined to believe that her faith was like that of Abraham, when he was instructed by God to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice:
16 For this reason it is by faith so that it may be by grace, with the result that the promise may be certain to all the descendants—not only to those who are under the law, but also to those who have the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all 17 (as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”). He is our father in the presence of God whom he believed—the God who makes the dead alive and summons the things that do not yet exist as though they already do. 18 Against hope Abraham believed in hope with the result that he became the father of many nations according to the pronouncement, “so will your descendants be.” 19 Without being weak in faith, he considered his own body as dead (because he was about one hundred years old) and the deadness of Sarah’s womb. 20 He did not waver in unbelief about the promise of God but was strengthened in faith, giving glory to God. 21 He was fully convinced that what God promised he was also able to do. 22 So indeed it was credited to Abraham as righteousness (Romans 4:16-22).
17 By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac. He had received the promises, yet he was ready to offer up his only son. 18 God had told him, “Through Isaac descendants will carry on your name,” 19 and he reasoned that God could even raise him from the dead, and in a sense he received him back from there (Hebrews 11:17-19).
Abraham was told that he and his wife Sarah would have a child. Even though they were “as good as dead,” so far as having children was concerned, Abraham believed that God was able to do what He promised. And so when the time came that God commanded Abraham to offer Isaac up as a sacrifice, Abraham reasoned on the basis of his faith. He and Sarah were as good as dead, so far as producing a child was concerned, and yet God promised them a child. God’s promise was fulfilled by the birth of Isaac. Now, God commands Abraham to take the life of this same son, Isaac, by offering him as a sacrifice. Abraham knows that God’s promises are linked to this child. Thus, to put this child to death would seem to nullify all of God’s promises which were to be fulfilled through Isaac (and particularly through his offspring). Abraham reasoned that if God could give a child to a couple who were as good as dead in terms of child-bearing, then God could also bring that same child back to life if he offered him as a sacrifice. Thus, Abraham was willing to offer up Isaac because he was certain that God would raise Isaac from the dead.
I believe the Shunammite woman reasoned in a similar fashion. She did not ask for a son, but God gave her the desire of her heart anyway. Now, for some reason, her precious son was dead. She could not believe that God gave her a son in such a special way, only so that she would lose him so early in life. And so it was, I believe, that she placed the child on the prophet’s bed, and then would tell no one of her plight except the prophet himself. In my opinion, the Shunammite would not leave Elisha because she hoped that just as he was the one who promised her the child, he would also be the one to restore this child to life. Why else would she have acted as she did? This woman’s faith was not only rewarded by the raising of her son, it was greatly strengthened. I know there is a certain amount of speculation here, but surely the writer is informing us that something very special took place here.
If I am right, this story illustrates a principle which we see elsewhere in Scripture: God finishes what He starts. Paul put it this way:
For I am sure of this very thing, that the one who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus (Philippians 1:6).
28 And we know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose, 29 because those whom God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that his Son would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. 30 And those God predestined, he also called; and those he called, he also justified; and those he justified, he also glorified (Romans 8:28-30).
Is it not comforting to know that what God starts always gets finished, because God always finishes what He starts? I believe this was what gave the Shunammite woman hope.
We should also observe that there is a rather obvious similarity between Elijah’s raising of the widow’s son in 1 King’s 17:17-24 and Elisha’s raising of the Shunammite’s son in our text. Once again our author appears to be emphasizing the fact that the miracles which Elijah performed were matched by Elisha. Surely Elisha is Elijah’s successor.
38 Now Elisha went back to Gilgal, while there was famine in the land. Some of the prophets were visiting him and he told his servant, “Put the big pot on the fire and boil some stew for the prophets.” 39 Someone went out to the field to gather some herbs and found a wild vine. He picked some of its fruit, enough to fill up the fold of his robe. He came back, cut it up, and threw the slices into the stew pot, not knowing they were harmful. 40 The stew was poured out for the men to eat. When they ate some of the stew, they cried out, “Death is in the pot, O prophet!” They could not eat it. 41 He said, “Get some flour.” Then he threw it into the pot and said, “Now pour some out for the men so they may eat.” There was no longer anything harmful in the pot.
These were difficult days in Israel. Our text begins with the notation that there was a famine in the land at the time (verse 38). There was not much food to be had at the time, and yet a group of prophets showed up at Gilgal while Elisha was there, and it was obvious that they needed to be fed. Elisha instructed his servant to put the large pot on the fire and to make some stew. (Stew, in my opinion, was and sometimes still is the equivalent of a casserole. Casseroles are sometimes emergency measures, when there is either little time or little food available. I know I have just revealed my prejudice here.) Someone went out to scare up more food to add to the stew and came upon something growing on a wild vine. He picked an apron-full of this fruit and took it back to the “kitchen,” where he cut up the fruit and put it in the pot. (I am of the opinion that others were doing likewise, so that this stew was absolutely a unique recipe.) When the stew was dished out, some began to eat it, and promptly spit it out (this is reading between the lines a bit). We know for certain that they cried out, “Death is in the pot!” I have paraphrased this, “There’s poison in the pot!”
This was not only embarrassing, it was a serious problem. It may well be that the last available ingredients had been put in that pot, so that throwing it all out and starting over was impossible. These visiting prophets were hungry after their journey, and they would have to be fed before they could be sent on their way. What was to be done? The solution was to “save the stew.” Elisha instructed someone to bring him some flour (or perhaps meal). He took the flour and placed it in the pot, and then instructed that the stew be served. The stew had been saved. I am of the personal opinion that the stew was not only nutritious and filling, but that it was also flavorful. I can hardly imagine the stew being served and the guests making horrid faces due to the taste of the stuff, edible or not. If this stew was like the wine our Lord made from water, then it was really great tasting stuff.
42 Now a man from Baal Shalisha brought some food for the prophet—twenty loaves of bread made from the firstfruits of the barley harvest, as well as fresh ears of grain. Elisha said, “Set it before the people so they may eat.” 43 But his attendant said, “How can I feed 100 men with this?” He replied, “Set it before the people so they may eat, for this is what the LORD says, ‘They will eat and have some left over.’” 44 So it he set it before them; they ate and had some left over, just as the LORD predicted.
I would understand that this meal too was served in a time of famine. A man came from Baal Shalisha, bearing the firstfruits of his barley harvest—twenty loaves of bread and some fresh ears of grain. Normally, these offerings would have been brought to the priest in Jerusalem, but this is Israel, and there is no temple or priesthood here. And so the man who wished to abide by the law brought his offerings to the next best person—the prophet Elisha. It is interesting that this man is said to have come from Baal Shalisha. The name of this town includes the name of the heathen god, Baal, which would suggest that this was not a very godly place. Yet in spite of this, the man came to Elisha to present his offering.
Elisha seems to see these firstfruits as firstfruits. They were the promise of more to come. He instructed that this bread and the ears of grain be fed to the people who were there. Elisha’s attendant pointed out the obvious—there was not enough bread or grain to go around. The food was adequate to feed a few, but those gathered to eat were about 100. Elisha was told the obvious. He assured his attendant that God had spoken concerning this matter. The LORD had promised that “They will eat and have some left over.” It will not only prove to be enough, it will be more than enough. And so the food was set out, as Elisha instructed, and when the meal was over, there was food left over, just as God had said.
The similarity of this to the feedings of the 5,000 and the 4,000 is obvious. This miracle is a prototype of the bread our Lord will provide, in even greater quantities. He who was able to “heal” the waters of the spring at Jericho was also able to “save the stew” and to “stretch a meal” far beyond its normal limits. Did Elijah provide food for the widow and her son? Elisha provided oil for a widow and her children, which put food on their table for a long time. Elisha also provided bread for 100 people. Surely Elisha is able to do what Elijah did, and perhaps even more. Elisha is surely Elijah’s replacement.
This past week, we celebrated Thanksgiving. Our tables were filled with all sorts of delicious food, and our refrigerators are probably still overflowing with leftovers. For us, several of the stories in our text must sound foreign. Very few of us have suffered the kind of debt the widow in our text faced, with the likelihood of losing her children as well. Most Americans know of a famine only by reading about it. The closest we come to experiencing the needs we read of in our text is the great depression, and there are few who are old enough to remember that. (My friend, Betty Bob Edling reminded me that she was in the depression, and she does remember it!) The times have been few when we have found it necessary to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11).
Those times could come in the future. Some fear they will come. But let me remind you of what our text should teach us about times of need: God provides for His people. Yes, we see that these miracles are performed by Elisha and that these accredit him as Elijah’s replacement. But behind all this, we see that it is really God who provides—a livelihood for the widow and her children, a son for the childless Shunammite woman, and food for those in a time of famine. God provides. Let us not forget this as we face the new year.
I think I should also point out that God does not always provide as early as we would prefer. The widow and her children were on the brink of disaster. The Shunammite woman seemed to be past the time when she and her husband could have a child, and it surely seemed too late to revive the boy, after he had been dead for several hours. God waited until the stew seemed to be the last meal for these visiting prophets, but in every case, God provided, after it became apparent that men were helpless in and of themselves. I believe God sometimes waits until it is apparent that we are desperately needy, so that He will get the glory and so that our faith will grow.
With a text like this, there is always the possibility of misinterpretation and abuse. In these four stories, we find God miraculously providing for the needs of His people. As I have considered this text and its message to us, I was reminded of the response of the Jews to our Lord’s miraculous provision of food for the 5,000 as recorded in the Gospel of John:
32 Then Jesus told them, “I tell you the solemn truth, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but my Father is giving you the true bread from heaven. 33 For the bread of God is the one who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” 34 So they said to him, “Sir, give us this bread all the time!” (John 6:32-34, emphasis mine).
How sad it was that when Jesus so marvelously provided for the physical needs of this crowd, they did not grasp the meaning of it all, even though He explained it to them! His provision of food for the physical needs of this crowd was meant to show them that He had been sent to meet a much greater and more desperate need—the need for eternal life. He had come as the “Bread from heaven,” so that those who “ate” of Him could have eternal life. He had come as the “Good Shepherd” to “lay down His life for the flock” (John 10:11). He had come as the One who would die for their sins, and who would be raised from the dead so that they might live a drastically different kind of life here and now—life everlasting. But all they could think of was their stomachs.
My friend, I hope that you will see that God is the great Provider. Our text provides us with a few illustrations of how God provides for His people. But the most important provision of all is that of the forgiveness of sins and the gift of eternal life. This is something which everyone desperately needs. It is something we can never provide for ourselves. It is something God has provided for us in the person and work of His Son, Jesus Christ. Do not fail to receive this salvation, the greatest Gift anyone can ever receive.
And finally, let me caution you not to see this text as a pretext for laziness. God does provide, but it is very clear from His Word that He normally provides for us as we work by the sweat of our brows, and as we look to Him to bless our labors so that we can eat and have clothing. And when there are those exceptional times when there are great physical needs within the church and the world, God’s normal way of providing for these is through our hard work and our sacrificial giving:
The one who steals must steal no longer; rather he must labor, doing good with his own hands, so that he may share with the one who has need (Ephesians 4:28).
32 And now I entrust you to God and to the message of his grace. This message is able to build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified. 33 I have desired no one’s silver or gold or clothing. 34 You yourselves know that these hands of mine provided for my needs and the needs of those who were with me. 35 By all these things, I have shown you that by working in this way we must help the weak, and remember the words of the Lord Jesus that he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’” (Acts 20:32-35).
Pure and undefiled religion before God the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their misfortune and to keep yourself unstained by the world (James 1:27).
Let us not expect God to miraculously provide for us or for those around us when it is within our means to provide through our own labor and sacrifice. And when we labor hard and share with those in need, let us be encouraged by the knowledge that we manifest God’s love and care as we do so.
106 See Leviticus 25:39ff.
107 Not only did the neighbors loan this woman their containers, they probably purchased some of her oil. That oil, like the wine Jesus created at the wedding in Cana, must have been the best one could buy, so I’m sure many were eager to purchase oil from her.
108 The child died in his mother’s arms. His mother then had to speak with her husband, acquire a donkey and a servant, and then make her way to Elisha on Mount Carmel, and then return. This had to take several hours.
111 While it is only inferential, from the way the husband responds to his wife’s request for a donkey and a servant in 4:23, I get the impression that this woman went up to the prophet alone, and that he did not go to celebrate or worship with her.