My wife, Jeannette, and I know something about making do with a little. When we came down to Dallas to attend seminary, we had one child and another on the way. My income covered about half of our expenses for the month. During those days, the Lord provided for us in some very interesting ways. We purchased a small freezer from a friend for $15. The freezer contained venison, which supplied meat for several months. Then, we received a call from a meat packing company, informing us that our “order” was ready to be picked up. We informed the person who called us that we had not ordered any meat. We were told that the meat had been ordered in our name, and was already paid for, and that all we had to do was to pick it up.
Perhaps the most exciting provision was through a seminary student friend who worked at a local dairy. He could take home all the “out of code date” ice cream he could carry. There was nothing wrong with the ice cream; it just could not be sold any longer. And so this fellow literally brought us home cardboard boxes of ice cream, which we kept in our small freezer. During those days, we became connoisseurs of ice cream, so much so that we asked him not to bring us any more “Banana Brazil Nut” ice cream. There were a few times when ice cream may have been the main course, but you would never have heard us complain about that.
Compared to others, Jeannette and I can hardly claim to have gone through “hard times.” Some of you have probably seen much worse times than this. But I doubt that any of us has experienced the kind of hard times that we read about in 2 Kings 6:24–7:20. In this text, the city of Samaria is under siege, and food supplies have run so short that things that are abhorrent to us were sold as food at a premium price. Worse yet, some even practiced cannibalism. These were terrible days for the people of Israel, and yet God miraculously came to their aid. While these events happened to people who lived long ago and far away, our text teaches us lessons that apply to us in our own times. Let us listen well, then, and look to the Spirit of God to guide us in our study of this portion of His Word.
24 Later Ben Hadad king of Syria assembled his entire army and attacked and besieged Samaria. 25 Samaria’s food supply ran out. They lay siege to it so long that a donkey’s head was selling for 80 shekels of silver and a quarter of a kab of dove’s manure for five shekels of silver.
26 While the king of Israel was passing by on the city wall, a woman yelled to him, “Help us, my master, O king!” 27 He replied, “No, let the LORD help you. How can I help you? The threshing floor and winepress are empty.” 28 Then the king asked her, “What’s your problem?” She answered, “This woman said to me, ‘Hand over your son, we’ll eat him today and then eat my son tomorrow.’ 29 So we boiled my son and ate him. Then I said to her the next day, ‘Hand over your son and we’ll eat him.’ But she hid her son.” 30 When the king heard what the woman said, he tore his clothes. As he was passing by on the wall, the people could see he was wearing sackcloth under his clothes. 31 Then he said, “May the LORD judge me severely if Elisha son of Shaphat still has his head by the end of the day.”
As you can see, there appears to be a contradiction between verses 23 and 24. In verse 23 we read:
So he threw a big banquet for them and they ate and drank. Then he sent them back to their master. After that no Syrian raiding parties again invaded the land of Israel (emphasis mine).
But then in the very next verse we read: “Later Ben Hadad king of Syria assembled his entire army and attacked and besieged Samaria” (verse 24, emphasis mine).
Verse 23 seems to say that after the Syrian soldiers are fed and sent home, there is no more conflict between Syria and Israel. And yet in the very next verse (24), we read that the Syrian army besieges the Israelite city of Samaria. Is there a contradiction here? How do we explain verse 24 in the light of verse 23? We should begin by noting that if this were a problem, surely the author would have been just as aware of it as his readers. And if his words were to cause anyone to doubt the reliability of his account, then surely the author would have avoided saying what he has, or at least taken the effort to minimize the apparent contradiction.
Several observations may help us with the meaning of the author’s words in these two verses. First, we should take note that in verse 23, the author refers to the Syrian fighting forces as “raiding parties,” while in verse 24 he speaks of Ben Hadad’s “entire army.” I believe this difference in terminology alone would be sufficient to answer the charge that there is a contradiction in our text. The Syrians did cease employing raiding parties to attack Israel (verse 23). We never read of raiding parties again. But the Syrians did attack Israel again, this time with their entire army.
A second observation is that when we come to verse 24, some time has elapsed since the events referred to in verse 23. The events of verse 24 occur “later” (NET Bible; “after this,” KJV, NKJV, NAU; “some time later,” NIV) than the events of verse 23 and earlier.
A third observation is that the expression which is used here does not always imply that whatever action is terminated has ceased permanently. As I look at the passages which employ the expression used in our text (or one that is similar), I see an emphasis on the cessation of some action, rather than on the permanence of that cessation. For example, in 1 Samuel 7:13 we read, “So the Philistines were subdued; they did not again approach the border of Israel. The hand of the LORD was against the Philistines all the days of Samuel.”
We know, of course, that the Philistines most certainly did “approach the border of Israel” later on in Israel’s history. The author is informing us that after Israel’s decisive victory over the Philistines, they ceased hostilities against Israel during Samuel’s lifetime. Afterward, the Philistines will once again attack Israel (1 Samuel 9:16; 13:3ff.; 14:11ff.). It was David’s slaying of the Philistine, Goliath, which commenced his rise to fame and position (1 Samuel 17:1ff.). And so we see that the cessation of hostilities referred to in 1 Samuel 7:13 is to be understood as something other than a permanent cessation of all hostilities between Syria and Israel.126 I believe the same is true in our text. Thus, Elisha’s single-handed victory over the Syrian army brought about the cessation of the surprise attacks which the marauding bands of Syrians had been carrying out, but in due time, Ben Hadad resumed hostilities, this time by assembling the entire army with which he surrounded the city of Samaria.
Ben Hadad’s strategy was very effective. It focused all of Syria’s forces on one city, Samaria, the capital city of Israel. Inside Samaria was the king of Israel and all of the elders of the city. This would be something like laying siege to Washington, D.C.. Hardly a shot had to be fired. No one dared to leave the city, just as no one dared to attempt to enter it. This meant that the city was cut off from all its necessities. Our text does not indicate to us whether or not there was a shortage of water in the city. What is very clear is that the city is virtually out of food.
Our passage is a textbook illustration of the principle of “supply and demand.” Food of any kind is now in very short supply. As a result, the demand is great, and the price of food inside the city has skyrocketed. A donkey’s head, we are told, sold for 80 shekels of silver, while a 1/4 pint of dove’s dung127 sold for five shekels of silver. It is one thing to pay a high price for a good cut of meat, or even for some staple like potatoes, but eating any portion of a donkey appears to be forbidden by Israelite food law.128 Certainly dove droppings would not have been considered “clean” either. These things were so offensive that it would hardly have been necessary to ban them as food for an Israelite. Supplies were so scarce that such “foods” as these were almost considered a delicacy. In those desperate days, no husband came home and greeted his wife with the words, “Honey, what’s for dinner tonight?” If he did, his wife would probably have asked, “Heads (as in donkey head), or tails (dove droppings)?”
As distasteful as donkey head or dove droppings may be, these are nothing compared to the meal that two women shared. Even a man as wicked as the king of Israel was shocked when he heard what they had done. One of the women saw the king as he was walking by on the wall of the city. She cried out to him, begging him for help.129 As I read the king’s response to this woman, I get the feeling that the king is not only frustrated, but he is also very angry. His words are very significant. In effect, he tells the woman not to cry out to him for help, but to God. It is almost as though he said, “Don’t ask me for food; that’s God’s job. He’s responsible for the production of food; I’m only responsible for its distribution.”
God is graciously reminding the king of Israel of a most important fact: he is not God; God is. Do you remember how the king of Israel responded when Naaman showed up, letter in hand, asking that he see to it that Naaman was healed? “Am I God? Can I kill or restore life? Why does he ask me to cure a man of his skin disease?” (2 Kings 5:7).
The sad fact is that kings often suffered from what we might call the “God complex.” They had great power and authority, and they sometimes needed to be reminded that God alone is truly sovereign. This was a lesson that Nebuchadnezzar learned the hard way (see Daniel 4). The king of Israel had been asked to do things that only God can do, which forces him to acknowledge that he is a mere man, and not God, and that only God can do what has been requested. We should also consider the fact that it is not just kings who suffer from the “God complex,” but anyone who becomes too impressed with their position and power.
The woman who pled to the king for help now explains her dilemma. Thinking they were about to starve, she and another woman made an agreement. This woman agreed to kill her son and to make a meal of him, which she would share with another woman. The other woman promised that they would eat her son the next day. But the next day she learned that the other woman had hid her son. The mother who had sacrificed her son does not spell out what she wants from the king, other than his “help.” Does she want the king to force the other woman to produce her son, but is afraid to say it? Does she want the king to become a party to such a horrendous sin as the sacrifice of a child for a meal?
The king is horrified and incensed. You would think that he would have been angry with this woman, for the terrible sin she had committed. The heathen sacrificed their children to pagan gods, but even they did not eat them, so far as I am aware. Here is a mother who would not lay down her life for her child, but took her child’s life to spare her own. Why was the king not angry with her? Why did he not seek to punish her? Instead, the king vented his wrath on Elisha: “Then he said, ‘May the LORD judge me severely if Elisha son of Shaphat still has his head by the end of the day’” (2 Kings 6:31).
The king did not seem to grasp or accept the fact that all of this was happening because of Israel’s sin, but centuries earlier Moses had prophesied that these things would take place when Israel disregarded and disobeyed His law. He spoke of defeat by foreign armies, of hunger, and even of cannibalism. For example, we read these words:
47 “Because you have not served the LORD your God joyfully and wholeheartedly with the abundance of everything you have, 48 you will instead serve your enemies whom he will send against you bringing hunger, thirst, nakedness, and lack of everything; they will place an iron yoke on your neck until they have destroyed you. 49 The LORD will raise up against you a distant nation, one from the other side of the earth as the eagle flies, a nation whose language you will not understand, 50 one of stern appearance that will have no regard for the elderly nor consideration of the young. 51 It will devour the offspring of your cattle and the produce of your soil until you are destroyed; it will not leave you with grain, new wine, olive oil, increase of herds, or growth of flocks until it has demolished you. 52 It will besiege all of your villages until all of your high and fortified walls collapse, those in which you put your confidence throughout the land. It will put under siege all your gates in all parts of the land the LORD your God has given you. 53 You will then eat your own offspring, the flesh of the sons and daughters the LORD your God has given you, because of the stressful siege in which your enemies will constrict you. 54 The man among you who is by nature tender and very sensitive will look with evil upon his brother, his beloved wife, and his remaining children 55 and will withhold from all of them his children’s flesh that he will eat, there being none left, because of the bitter siege with which your enemy will oppress you in your villages. 56 Likewise, the most tender and delicate of your women, who would never think of even putting the sole of their foot on the ground because of their daintiness, will turn against their beloved husbands, their sons and daughters, 57 their afterbirth, and their newborn children, for they will eat them secretly in their need because of the severe siege which your enemy will impose upon you in your villages” (Deuteronomy 28:47-57).
The people of Samaria were getting just what they deserved. No doubt Elisha told them so, but they did not heed his rebuke—and neither did the king of Israel. As he walked along the wall, people who looked up could see that under his clothing the king wore sackcloth. Sackcloth was to be worn as a public sign of mourning and repentance (see Jonah 3:5-9), yet it certainly does not appear that the king was truly repentant. He does not wear his sackcloth openly. We read of no repentance on his part. And, instead of heeding God’s word and honoring Elisha, His prophet, the king issues an order for Elisha to be killed. “May the LORD judge me severely if Elisha son of Shaphat still has his head by the end of the day” (2 Kings 6:31).
Like Herod centuries later, who orders that the head of John the Baptist be cut off (Matthew 14:8-10), the king of Israel swears that the day will not pass before Elisha’s head is cut off.
The king of Israel also sounds a great deal like his mother, Jezebel, and Ben Hadad, king of Syria:
Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah with this warning, “May the gods130 judge me severely if by this time tomorrow I do not take your life as you did theirs” (1 Kings 19:2).
Ben Hadad sent another message to him, “May the gods judge me severely if there is enough dirt left in Samaria for my soldiers to scoop up in their hands” (1 Kings 20:10).
One has to wonder why the king of Israel is so angry with Elisha, when he is God’s prophet. I believe that it is precisely because Elisha is God’s prophet. I am assuming that as God’s prophet, Elisha predicted this siege and its outcome. The king’s messenger seems to have said as much:
He [Elisha] was still talking to them when the messenger approached and said, “Look, the LORD is responsible for this disaster. Why should I continue to wait for the LORD to help?” (2 Kings 6:33).
These words imply that just as Elisha predicted this crisis, so he also promised that God would deliver Israel from the Syrians and starvation. Why else would the servant say it was futile to wait any longer “for the LORD to help”?
The king of Israel seeks to kill Elisha just as Elijah before him was sought by the king. In both instances, the king wants to put God’s prophet to death for speaking the word of the LORD. Unbelievers do not wish to hear a word from God, and they certainly do not wish to hear what He has to say to them about their sin and their need to repent. Our Lord Jesus was the ultimate spokesman for God the Father (Hebrews 1:1-4), and yet He and His message were rejected (John 1:9-11). They wanted to kill Him, just as the Jews sought to kill the prophets who came before Him (Matthew 5:12; 12:31; Acts 3:14).
My good friend, Bobbie Harmon, was discussing this text with my wife, Jeannette, and me this past week, and she made this insightful remark: “It reminds me of the Tribulation.” I think she’s absolutely right. Those who would speak for God today may suffer rejection and persecution, but in the very difficult days of the Tribulation, those who trust in God will experience great persecution. Those who hate God take it out on those who love Him. This is seen at the beginning of man’s existence on earth, when Cain killed his brother Abel (Genesis 4:1-15), and it has been going on ever since. Christians should be prepared for opposition from those who are in rebellion against God, and who do not want to hear the “word of the Lord.”
32 Now Elisha was sitting in his house with the community leaders. The king sent a messenger on ahead, but before he arrived, Elisha said to the leaders, “Do you realize this assassin intends to cut off my head?” Look, when the messenger arrives, shut the door and lean against it. His master will certainly be right behind him.”131 33 He was still talking to them when the messenger approached and said, “Look, the LORD is responsible for this disaster. Why should I continue to wait for the LORD to help?” 7:1 Elisha replied, “Hear the word of the LORD! This is what the LORD says, ‘About this time tomorrow a seah of finely milled flour will sell for a shekel and two seahs of barley for a shekel at the gate of Samaria.’” 2 An officer who was the king’s right hand man responded to the prophet, “Look, even if the LORD made it rain by opening holes in the sky, could this happen so soon?” Elisha said, “Look, you will see it happen with your own eyes, but you will not eat any of the food.”
We should note that on this occasion Elisha is not hiding out somewhere in the wilderness; he is dwelling in the city of Samaria. This means that he, too, was suffering from a lack of food, just as the others in Samaria were hungry. Elisha was sitting in the house where he lived, and with him were the elders of the city of Samaria. We would hardly expect this, unless these men had come to accept Elisha as God’s prophet. It would therefore appear that the king was acting without the support of the leaders of the city, and indeed was in opposition to them.
Elisha was a prophet, a “seer.” He knew the secret plans that Ben Hadad made in secret (see 2 Kings 6:12). He “saw” his servant Gehazi take a gift from Naaman (2 Kings 5:26). And now, Elisha knows that a messenger is on his way from the king, to cut off his head. Elisha informs the city leaders who are with him and instructs them not to let this man enter when he arrives. For whatever reason, the man did gain entrance. He expresses the thoughts of the king of Israel who had sent him to kill Elisha. If Elisha had prophesied that disaster would come to Samaria, it has surely come. But if he also promised deliverance, that had not yet come, and many doubted that it ever would. The king of Israel—and therefore his servant as well—was not willing to wait any longer. He was going to have Elisha’s head for this.
Elisha had further revelation from God on this matter of a divine deliverance, which he now declares to the king’s servant:
“Hear the word of the LORD! This is what the LORD says, ‘About this time tomorrow a seah of finely milled flour will sell for a shekel and two seahs of barley for a shekel at the gate of Samaria’” (2 Kings 7:1b)
Within 24 hours, Elisha declares, God will completely reverse the deplorable conditions in the city of Samaria. Supplies will be plentiful, and thus the price for food will be very reasonable. There will be both barley and fine wheat flour, which will be sold for an unbelievably low price the very next day.
I realize that many of the translations render verse 2 as though the “opening of heaven’s windows” were the promise of coming rains. I’m not convinced that this is necessarily the case. In Genesis 7:11 and 8:2, the “windows of heaven are opened,” and the rains certainly come flooding down upon the earth. In Malachi 3:10, the “windows of heaven” open, but with blessings, not just with rain. In Isaiah 24:18, the “windows of heaven” are opened in judgment (not unlike Genesis 7 and 8). When God “opens the windows of heaven,” something is going to come down to the earth, but I’m not so sure that it is always rain.
In the context of 2 Kings 7:2, it would hardly seem that the king’s servant is speaking of rain. Rain would not produce the immediate bounty of grain that Elisha has promised. In our text, we are not told that the food shortages are due to drought, but rather are due to the siege. What Elisha promises includes freedom from the Syrian blockade (so that food can be brought into Samaria, or so that Samaritans can go out to get food), and a vast supply of grain close at hand. The servant’s words indicate that even if God were to open the windows of heaven and literally pour out grain, there is no way that the prophecy of Elisha could be fulfilled that soon. God’s ability to provide for the people of Samaria vastly exceeds the servant’s imagination.
Elisha responds to the unbelief of the king’s servant. He assures the servant that the prophecy of a bounty of grain within 24 hours will be fulfilled. He also informs the servant that due to his unbelief, he will not participate in the benefits. He will see the fulfillment, but not taste of it. Graciously, perhaps, Elisha does not tell the man why he will not eat any of this grain. Once again, it would seem that God delights in creating seemingly impossible situations, so that His power might be displayed.
3 Now four men with a skin disease were sitting at the entrance of the gate. They said to one another, “Why are we just sitting here waiting to die? 4 If we go into the city, we’ll die of starvation, and if we stay here we’ll die. So come on, let’s defect to the Syrian camp. If they spare us, we’ll live; if they kill us, well we were going to die anyway.” 5 So they started toward the Syrian camp at dusk. When they reached the edge of the Syrian camp, there was no one there. 6 The LORD had caused the Syrian camp to hear the sound of chariots and horses and a large army. Then they said to one another, “Look, the king of Israel has paid the kings of the Hittites and Egypt to attack us.” 7 So they got up and fled at dusk, leaving behind their tents, horses and donkeys. They left the camp as it was and ran for their lives. 8 When the men with a skin disease reached the edge of the camp, they entered a tent and had a meal. They also took some silver, gold, and clothes and went and hid it all. Then they went back and entered another tent. They looted it and went and hid what they had taken. 9 Then they said to one another, “It’s not right what we’re doing. This is a day to celebrate, but we haven’t told anyone. If we wait until dawn, we’ll be punished. So come on, let’s go and inform the royal palace.” 10 So they went and called out to the gatekeepers of the city. They told them, “We entered the Syrian camp and there was no one there. We didn’t even hear a man’s voice. But the horses and donkeys are still tied up, and the tents remain up.” 11 The gatekeepers relayed the news to the royal palace.
12 The got up in the night and said to his advisers, “I will tell you what the Syrians have done to us. They know we are starving, so they left the camp and hid in the field, thinking, ‘When they come out of the city, we will capture them and enter the city.’” 13 One of his advisers replied, “Pick some men and have them take five of the horses that are left in the city. (Even if they are killed, their fate will be no different than that of all the Israelite people—we’re all going to die!) Let’s send them out so we can know for sure what’s going on.” 14 So they picked two horsemen and the king sent them out to track the Syrian army. He ordered them, “Go and find out what’s going on.” 15 So they tracked them as far as the Jordan. The road was filled with clothes and equipment that the Syrians had discarded in their haste. The scouts went back and told the king.
16 Then the people went out and looted the Syrian camp. A seah of finely milled flour sold for a shekel, and two seahs of barley for a shekel, just as the LORD had said they would. 17 Now the king had placed the officer who was his right hand man at the gate. When the people rushed out, they trampled him to death in the gate. This fulfilled the prophet’s word that he had spoken when the king tried to arrest him. 18 The prophet told the king, “Two seahs of barley will sell for a shekel, and a seah of finely milled flour for a seah; this will happen about this time tomorrow in the gate of Samaria.” 19 But the officer replied to the prophet, “Look, even if the LORD made it rain by opening holes in the sky, could this happen so soon?” Elisha said, “Look, you will see it happen with your own eyes, but you will not eat any of the food.” 20 This is exactly what happened to him. The people trampled him to death in the gate.
When I was in college, a professor made two speaker enclosures for me, which became a part of my stereo system. I have to confess that when Jeannette was not in the house I would turn up the stereo until the dishes rattled in the cupboards. Today, young people drive around with their radios so loud you can hear them coming for blocks. Moviemakers boast of the quality of their sound track, and theaters work to have the finest sound system available.
A good sound system is one that reproduces sounds as close to the original sounds as possible. I assure you that no sound system has ever been built that could compete with the “life-like sounds” that were produced outside of Samaria during the Syrian siege of that city. What the Syrian soldiers heard was so realistic that it sent the entire army into a panic. They did not attempt to retreat; instead, every man ran for his life.
When I was in Indonesia recently, the nation was in the midst of their election of a president and vice president. Things were a little tense for a while, and there were armed troops stationed very visibly throughout the city of Jakarta. On the day of the elections, some violence had broken out, and the soldiers portrayed a fierce readiness with some very intimidating weapons. They expected trouble, and they wanted everyone to know that they were ready to deal with it. But for several weeks prior to this, the military was just making its presence known. I did not see an impressive display of weapons or of fierce resolve. As one of the large trucks rolled by, carrying around 20 soldiers, I could not help but smile as I saw one soldier, sitting on the tailgate of the truck, playing his guitar. I think the others were singing.
I suspect that this was very much the way it was in the Syrian camp at this point in the siege. The Syrian forces would hardly have been on alert, and they may have become downright sloppy about maintaining a state of readiness. After all, their forces greatly outnumbered any army that the king of Israel might be able to muster. They had successfully surrounded Samaria, creating a virtual stranglehold on the city. The siege had gone on for months, without resistance. All the Syrian army had to do was to wait. Either the people of Samaria would starve to death, or they would surrender. They were in no condition to fight.
Whether it was late in the evening or very early in the morning, God terrorized the Syrian soldiers in the twilight hours.132 This gave them just enough light to escape, but not enough light to fully see what was happening. It would have been something like listening to the old radio program, “The Shadow,” in the dark. It was an auditory experience unlike anything anyone has ever heard, before or since. We know that the horses were unhitched (from the chariots), or unsaddled, and secured for the night (2 Kings 7:10). The Syrians were probably asleep when the terrifying sounds occurred. They all heard the sounds of a massive armed force approaching and very near the camp. They had heard sounds like this before, as they advanced upon their enemies. But the volume and intensity of the sounds convinced them that the approaching army was even greater than theirs. The only army this large was that of the Egyptians, or the Hittites, or perhaps even both!
There was no opportunity to calmly assess the situation and organize a response. There was no time to think. There was not even time to get dressed, to put on one’s armor, or to hitch up the horses. Everyone panicked and ran for their lives. In my mind’s eye, I see the Syrians terrified by the thought of a massive army and of a great slaughter. They scattered into the night in their undergarments. Who would take the time to get dressed? This is where some of the clothing came from that was left behind (7:8). And so the Syrians flee, without food, without much clothing, and most likely without their weapons. It must have been a long, hard journey home. And for those who did arrive home in Syria, there would have been a lot of explaining to do. But to deliver the people of Samaria from the Syrians and from starvation, God orchestrated all of this.
The first to taste of God’s provisions were four lepers. These men were outcasts, who were not allowed inside the city of Samaria. They were most likely beggars. You can imagine how much success they would have had asking for alms in these difficult times. They were in a desperate situation, and so they decided to take desperate measures. They knew there was no food in Samaria. They assumed that there was plenty of food in the Syrian camp. And so they agreed to go to the Syrians and beg for mercy. If the Syrians killed them, they would simply die a little sooner, and perhaps more mercifully than by starvation. But if the Syrians took pity on them, then they might continue to live. None of these lepers anticipated what did happen. I think that we can safely conclude that none of them acted in true faith. This was a gamble they were willing to take because they believed they had nothing to lose. And remember that seeking refuge in the camp of the Syrians was to become a traitor to Israel.
Put yourself in the sandals of one of these men for a moment, and live out the drama of that moment. As they approach the Syrian camp, they see the tents from a distance. As they get nearer, they see the horses, still tied up, but they do not see so much as one Syrian. They must have made their way into the camp with fear and trembling. (I am tempted to think that the campfires were burning, with breakfast still cooking on the fire.) One of them works up the courage to pull back the flap of one of the tents, but no one is inside. They look in one tent and then another, but there is not one person in the entire camp! The tents are not empty, however. Inside each tent is great treasure—food, clothing, money, and the spoils of war. The supply tents are full of grain and other food. These lepers have struck it rich.
The first inclination of these four men is to gather up all the treasure they can find and to hide it. When I was young, my family used to go wild blackberry picking. These delicious berries are not always easy to find, nor are they easy to pick. And so when we would find an especially good berry patch, we would be very quiet and not tell anyone. (If the truth were told, I would race ahead and try to pick as many berries as I could before my sisters came along to get in on the bounty.) These four lepers are frantically hoarding and hiding the treasures they have found, but there is so much of it there is no way they can possibly gather it all.
The lepers finally come to their senses. They realize that while they are stuffing themselves with food and gathering up wealth, the people back in the city of Samaria are on the brink of starvation. It is only right that they return to the city and share the good news of God’s provision for His people. And so they return to the gates of Samaria, where they call out the good news to the gatekeepers (it seems clear that they were banned from entering the city). The gatekeepers passed this report on to the king, who had to be awakened from his sleep. His response should not surprise us. Surely this was a trap, he reasoned, and the Syrians were hiding out nearby, just waiting for the people of Samaria to come out of the city, where they could fall upon them and kill them.
From a military point of view, this was a very logical and reasonable conclusion. But there was another factor that the king had ignored: Elisha had prophesied the very thing that the lepers were reporting. It seems that Elisha had been promising God’s provision for some time (6:33), but the previous day he had indicated that God’s bountiful provision of food would come within 24 hours (7:1). The king did not make any connection between the promise of Elisha and the proclamation of the lepers. He expected disaster, and not deliverance, even when that deliverance was promised and proclaimed.
We know that there were several servants who overheard the king’s response,133 but only one servant offers wise counsel to the king. His words are well chosen for a king who does not believe in God. He simply encourages the king to consider what he has to lose by checking out this report more carefully. His logic is essentially the same as that of the lepers. They were all going to die anyway, so why not take a chance if it might save their lives? The king could well afford to send a few good men to the Syrian camp to see if there was any truth to the report of the lepers. If it was a trap, and they were killed, they would have died of starvation before long anyway. And if the report was true, then the whole city could be spared. The king has nothing to lose—and everything to gain.
The king cannot escape the logic of his servant’s counsel, and so he sends a small group of men to go to the Syrian’s camp and investigate. To their amazement and delight, they see with their own eyes that the lepers were right. The Syrian camp had been abandoned. The horses and chariots, food and supplies, have been left there at the camp. The road to the Jordan River is strewn with discarded clothing and equipment, as the Syrians shed every “besetting thing”134 which hindered their rapid escape. Everything that the lepers had said was true.
Let me point out something that may be worth noting. The evidence of a Syrian retreat was there for all to see, but the explanation for their flight is given only to the reader. Who would have known that God had created the “sounds of war” when there was no approaching army? The reader is told so that he will recognize the hand of God in all of this, bringing about in a most unusual way the fulfillment of His word. I never cease to be amazed at the creativity of the Creator. He seldom works according to the same script, but each time He saves, He does so in a unique way that shows His wisdom and power. So far as I can recall, this is the only time that God saves His people in this fashion. God is never limited as to the means He can employ.
I should point out something else from this miracle. God accomplishes several things at one time here. First, God rids Samaria and Israel of the Syrian army and of the threat it posed to Israel’s national security. It put an end to the blockade of the city. Secondly, it also provided an abundance of food for the people of Samaria. Isn’t this just like God? He uses those who had come to destroy Israel, and He causes them to be the means of Israel’s deliverance. What a marvelous God we serve! But there is possibly a third accomplishment here as well. Suppose that Naaman was still the commander of the Syrian army at this time, or at least that he was somehow among the Syrians at this camp. If this were the case, God would have spared his life without the shedding of any Syrian blood. The method God used to disperse the Syrian army did not include confrontation and warfare. God graciously spared the Syrians, as well as the people of Samaria. They were simply his “chastening rod” for disciplining the people of Israel. God’s salvation of His people, the Jews, does not prevent Him from saving Gentiles as well.135
The last paragraph of our text (2 Kings 7:16-20)136 emphasizes the reliability of God’s Word by stressing the fulfillment of prophecy in these events. First, God’s promise to provide food for the people of Samaria was fulfilled, exactly has prophesied (verse 16). As incredible as Elisha’s prophecy seemed, it was precisely fulfilled by the scattering of the Syrians.
But there is another promise that is kept as well, one that is given even more emphasis. The king’s servant had refused to believe the promise of God’s provision, and so Elisha prophesied that he would see the promise fulfilled, but would not partake of it (7:2). The fulfillment of this prophecy is described in 2 Kings 7:17-20. The king’s servant who was sent to kill Elisha, and who doubted the prophecy of an abundance of food within 24 hours, was appointed as the “gatekeeper” by the king. (Do you suppose that this was done as punishment for not cutting off the head of Elisha as he was commanded? This would be like a detective being given school crossing duty.) He may very well have been on duty when the lepers reported that the Syrians had fled (2 Kings 7:10). When the people of Samaria heard the report of the king’s scouting party, they rushed toward the gate to get to the food in the Syrian camp. The king’s servant was no match for this crowd, who trampled the man to death on their way to “deliverance.”
I may be working too hard at making this point, but the appointment of this servant as a gatekeeper and his death while on duty seems to be significant. As I have given this a little thought, I realized that we were introduced to this fellow as he broke through the door of Elisha’s house. Elisha had instructed those with him in the house to blockade the door, so that the servant could not enter. Somehow, the servant was able to force his way in, and thus the confrontation with Elisha that is recorded in our text. And now, it is this same servant who is the gatekeeper. The crowds break down the gates, it would seem, and the gatekeeper is crushed. It seems more than coincidental that the king’s servant would die in a manner that recalls his abrupt entrance into the home of the prophet. He who lives by the sword dies by the sword. He who breaks down doors is crushed by gates that are broken down.
This is an amazing text. It shows man at his (or her) worst, as we see in the case of the women who covenanted to cannibalize their children. The fact is, no one looks good in our text, except Elisha. The people of Samaria show no signs of repentance, even though their plight is the result of their own sin. The king gives no evidence of repentance either, and indeed he issues an order for Elisha to be put to death. The lepers and those involved in sending out the search party to the Syrian camp do not seem to act out of faith, but only as a calculated risk, believing that they have little to lose. The king’s servant refuses to believe a very specific promise that Elisha makes of God’s provision for the people of Samaria.137
The Bible was not written to glorify man, and it’s a good thing because man has no cause to glory, except in God. In our text, God provides for His people, not because of their goodness, and not even because of their repentance. God provides salvation (physically speaking) for them in spite of their sins. I cannot help but think of how much like this God’s provision of spiritual salvation is:
6 For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 (For rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person perhaps someone might possibly dare to die.) 8 But God demonstrates his own love for us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Much more then, because we have now been declared righteous by his blood, we will be saved through him from God’s wrath. 10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of his son, how much more, since we have been reconciled, will we be saved by his life? 11 Not only this, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received this reconciliation (Romans 5:6-11, emphasis mine).
Now, as then, God deals bountifully with men on the basis of grace. It was not that the people of Samaria deserved anything from God, other than judgment. Indeed, their oppression at the hands of the Syrians was the just consequence of their unbelief and rebellion against God. In spite of their sin, God brought about a mighty salvation, so that we might forever marvel at His power and grace. Nowhere is the sinfulness of men and the grace and power of God more evident than at the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, and His empty tomb. By this one great act, Jesus bore the punishment for our sins, and accomplished salvation for all who believe in Him.
As I have reflected on this text, I have come to realize how much it exemplifies Deuteronomy, chapters 28-31. In these chapters, Moses speaks for God, summarizing the blessings and cursings of God and their basis. It also parallels these chapters in Deuteronomy in terms of its proportions. In Deuteronomy, God promised His people that He would greatly bless them if they observed His laws. These blessings are summed up in Deuteronomy 28:1-14—a mere 14 verses. The cursings begin at Deuteronomy 28:15, and go on and on. God knew from the beginning that men would not keep His law, and that the judgment section would thus be the one that would apply to Israel throughout its history. And so we find in our text that one verse (7:16) stresses the fulfillment of the promise that God will provide for the people of Samaria, while four verses describe the fulfillment of Elisha’s prophecy of judgment upon the unbelieving servant of the king of Israel (7:17-20). The “blessings” and “cursings” of Deuteronomy are fulfilled, in part, in our text.
As you well know, next Sunday will be the second day of the new millennium. Y2K fears have been troubling many over this past year, and some have agonized about this for an even longer period of time. I believe that Christians should be prudent about preparing for the future. But I also think that some Christians have become almost paranoid in their fears about what is going to happen this coming week. Our text should help us put this matter into perspective. If it teaches us anything, it is that God cares for His people. The means for that provision were not evident beforehand, and they were not even clearly understood afterward. But God did provide, just as He had promised, and He did so through the very people who seemed destined to destroy them—the Syrians. Let us remember our text as we deal with our fears concerning the future.
25 “Because of this I say to you, do not worry about your life, as to what you will eat or drink, or about your body, as to what you will wear. Isn’t there more to life than food and more to the body than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the sky: they do not sow, or harvest, or gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Aren’t you more valuable than they are? 27 Can any of you add time to his life by worrying? 28 Why worry about clothing? Think about how the flowers of the field grow. They do not work or spin, 29 yet I say to you that Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these! 30 And if God clothes the grass of the field this way, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire to heat the oven, won’t he clothe you even more, you people of little faith? 31 So then, don’t worry saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ 32 For the unconverted pursue these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and righteousness, and all these things will be given to you. 34 So then, do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Today has enough trouble of its own” (Matthew 6:25-34).
The Y2K bug is the result of the work (computer programming) of those who did not take into account the long-term consequences of their actions. They focused only on the relatively near future. It is not that programmers did not realize there would be a problem; they simply put off dealing with it. It is interesting to me to see how concerned people have become over the consequences of Y2K. Great amounts of money have been spent to avoid potential disaster, and many have agonized about what the outcome might be.
Why is it that so many people have become so concerned about preparing for the next millennium, but have given almost no thought to the coming “great millennium”—the time that will follow the return of our Lord Jesus Christ to this earth? There is a much more serious “bug” to be reckoned with, that will have far more devastating consequences if ignored. It is the problem of man’s sin and of God’s absolute holiness. Many go about their lives as though the future will not come, and so they live day-to-day, thinking only in terms of the near future, rather than in terms of eternity. Failure to address the “bug” of our own sin, and of our not being ready to stand in the presence of a holy and righteous God, will have eternal consequences. There is only one “fix” to this millennium problem, and that is the shed blood of Jesus Christ. He died to solve the problem of our sins, and all those who have trusted in Him will reign with Him when He returns to rule over this earth. Are you ready for this millennium? It may come sooner than you think.
Our text also teaches us a lesson about evangelism. There is the feeling among some that evangelism comes from the “top-down.” We don’t see much of this top-down evangelism in the Bible. We do see the Israelite slave girl telling Naaman about the God of Israel (2 Kings 5:2-3), and here in our text, we read of four lepers telling the people of Samaria where to find bread. Evangelism does not place the emphasis on the messenger, but on the message, and on the great need of those who are lost to hear the good news of the gospel. You and I may be beggars, my friend, but if we have come to faith in Christ, we have found something that the world desperately needs. Just as the lepers would have sinned by not sharing their discovery with those who were perishing, so you and I sin when we keep the good news of the gospel to ourselves.
This text teaches us about faith. I think that there is an important principle for all of us to learn here: “Do not limit your faith to what your mind can imagine.” The king’s servant could not imagine how so much food could become available so quickly (even if the “windows of heaven” were opened). That did not keep God from providing the food He promised. Unbelief only prevented the king’s servant from partaking of this bounty. Too often I find Christians trusting God only as far as their imagination will take them. But let us remember our text, and these words that Paul has written:
6 Now we do speak wisdom among the mature, but not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are perishing. 7 Instead we speak the wisdom of God, hidden in a mystery, that God determined before the ages for our glory. 8 None of the rulers of this age understood it. If they had known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. 9 But just as it is written, “Things that no eye has seen, or ear heard, or mind imagined are the things God has prepared for those who love him.” 10 God has revealed these to us by the Spirit. For the Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God (1 Corinthians 2:6-10, citing Isaiah 64:4).
This text is in complete harmony with the rest of the Bible in that it encourages the people of God to persevere and to hold fast until our Lord provides what He has promised. The king’s servant was not willing to “wait for God” any longer (6:33). The two women were not willing to believe God’s promise of divine provision, and thus they covenanted to cannibalize their children. God often waits till the last moment to provide what He has promised, so that we might learn to persevere, and to trust Him.
There are those whose marriages are not what they had hoped. Many who have been disappointed in their marriages have abandoned them. They were not willing to wait on God. There are those who have greatly desired to be married to a godly mate, only to despair when God does not answer as quickly as they had hoped. I know of all too many who have hastily entered into marriage with an unbeliever, fearing that this was their only chance. And those who have done so have, without exception (in my experience), come to regret it. Sadly, I must also say that I have known of some who concluded that life’s problems were too much for them to bear, and who have taken their own lives. How sad that they did not wait to see the provision of God for their needs.
For a few moments, let’s refocus on the events of our text. Suppose that we were able to observe the city of Samaria by satellite, that we were able to “zoom in” on the city, to see these events, and to hear the conversations. We look down on Samaria and see Elisha preaching on the city streets. We hear him informing the citizens that their plight is the result of their disobedience to God’s laws, and their rebellion against God. He is also promising them that God is going to provide, and that they will not perish, and this within 24 hours. Next, we zoom in on the two women as they are sacrificing the first child for a meal. In their minds, there was nothing else they could do. They were convinced that they would starve otherwise.
We now switch to a wide-angle lens. We see the city of Samaria from a distance. We see the Syrian troops who are encamped outside the city. And off in the distance we see a caravan approaching, a caravan that has come from Damascus, loaded down with a fresh shipment of supplies. We watch as those supplies are brought into the Syrian camp and unloaded into supply tents. And then we look on as the Syrian soldiers scatter, fleeing for their lives (or so they think).
Both the Syrian soldiers and the people of Samaria were guilty of failing to perceive reality—to see things as they really are. We can excuse the Syrian soldiers because it was God who deceived them. They could believe nothing other than what He intended for them to believe. But the people of Samaria were different. They had God’s Word, and they had God’s prophet, Elisha. They were told why they were suffering, and what they should do. They were promised that God would provide abundantly for them. And yet the people of Samaria refused to believe.
When we see things as they really are, we see that a good and loving God is in control. We see that it is our sins that have brought our suffering upon us. And we see that it is God who provides the solution for all of our needs. May this text help us to see our world more clearly, and to learn to trust and obey our great God.
127 Some commentators tell us that this is not dove’s dung, but a kind of seed pod (so NIV). I’m not convinced, and neither are most of the translators, as can be seen by the fact most translations render it dove droppings by one expression or the other. Frankly, “seed pods” are not nearly as detestable as dove dung. The writer of our text wants us to know that things have really become desperate in Samaria.
130 The same Hebrew word (Elohim) is used in 2 Kings 6:31; 1 Kings 19:21; and Kings 20:10. Most often it is used to refer to the God of Israel, but pagans also use it in reference to their “gods.” One might argue that the king of Israel used the term in the pagan sense, but if not, then he has now learned to curse in the name of the God of Israel, rather than the gods of the pagans. How ironic that the king would take an oath in the name of the same God whose prophet he intends to kill.
131 The words of Elisha would more literally read, “Is not the sound of his master’s feet behind him?” (So, NASB, NKJV, etc., even the NIV). These words do pose a bit of a problem in that we read nothing indicating that the king actually did arrive at Elisha’s door. Surely we do not wish to say that Elisha, the “seer” was wrong. He was right in “seeing” that this servant was coming, and that he intended to cut off his head. I believe that we have a couple of options which would provide a reasonable explanation. First, we could assume that the king actually did come, but that for some reason, he did not kill Elisha. In this case, it may be that the city leaders talked him out of it. For whatever reason, the author did not choose to focus on this event. The other possibility is that Elisha was using a figure of speech, which would be more loosely rendered, “Isn’t he coming in his master’s place, to carry out his master’s evil intent?” The king is virtually “present” with the servant in what he is doing. I am inclined to this last option, though I must confess I have not seen it suggested elsewhere.
137 I am surprised by Wiseman’s statement: “God never fails to meet the need of his people when they trust him.” Donald J. Wiseman, 1 and 2 Kings: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove, Illinois, U.S.A.; Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1993), p. 212. I see no “trusting” here, but only unbelief. Gratefully, God is faithful even when we are not (2 Timothy 2:13).