This series on the life of Elisha forms a sequel to the series, Studies in the Life of Elijah. Our study of Elisha actually begins at the conclusion of Elijah’s ministry. First Kings 19 describes the call of Elisha as the mantle of Elijah is cast upon his young student who will become his successor. Second Kings 2:1-11 describes the translation of Elijah with Elisha faithfully at his side. For a complete study on the life of Elisha, please see lessons 17-19 in the Elijah series.
Before moving into the story of Elisha and his ministry in Israel, it will be helpful to set the historical context and the stage onto which this man of God stepped because of the ramifications of this historical material to both the study of Elisha and its application, for none of us live and minister in a vacuum. We live in real-world conditions that call for faith and Christ-like character in the midst of those conditions if we are going to be used as servants of the God of history.
The last chapters of 1 Kings deal with the final days and death of degenerate King Ahab and the ascension of his son Ahaziah to the throne of his father. The book ends with this sad note:
1 Kings 22:51-53 Ahaziah the Son of Ahab became king over Israel in Samaria in the seventeenth year of Jehoshaphat king of Judah, and he reigned two years over Israel. And he did evil in the sight of the Lord and walked in the way of his father and in the way of his mother and in the way of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, who caused Israel to sin. So he served Baal and worshiped him and provoked the Lord God of Israel to anger according to all that his father had done.
The first chapter of 2 Kings takes up the story of the reign of Ahaziah, but it includes some important details of the last days in the life and ministry of Elijah, who also ministered to Ahab’s degenerate son, Ahaziah. Like his father, Ahaziah was engrossed in the cult of Baal-Melqart who was believed to be the god of storm and good crops, a falsity exposed by the prophet Elijah through the famine and the contest on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18:20-40). Baal-Melqart was the cult promoted by Jezebel, that despicable woman whose very name has become synonymous with apostasy and evil (cf. Rev. 2:20).
Elijah’s main impact on Israel lay, as intended, in his vigorous opposition to the cult of Baal-Melqart promoted by Jezebel. His total effect is hard to assess, but certainly was considerable. As noted, it would have been much greater had he not run when Jezebel threatened him; but still the overall influence of the famine, the contest on Mt. Carmel, and the later faithful ministry conducted with Elisha must have left lasting results. The entrenchment of Baal worship in Israelite life would have become far deeper had not Elijah lived and worked as he did.1
It is into this arena that Elisha walked. What was it like? The very first chapter reveals the atmosphere and horrible condition of the nation. It was a time when men and even the leadership of the nation, as we see so often in our day, were turning to the empty hopes of the idolatrous and demonic religious cult of Baal worship.2 In Elisha’s day it was the cult of Baal. The word “baal,” which can mean “lord” or “husband,” corresponds with the analogy of idolatry as spiritual adultery.
Baal was the Canaanite name for the Syrian god Hadad, considered the god of storms and wars. The symbol for this cult was often that of a bull which stood for strength and fertility. This cult was marked by a number of features, three of which have some interesting parallels to our society since we have moved away from our biblical and Christian heritage. These three prominent features were: (a) child sacrifice (cf. 2 Kings 16:1-4; 23:10; Jer. 32:33-35; Lev. 18:21), which compares significantly to abortion in America today; (b) homosexuality with effeminate priests (this clearly parallels the gay agenda in the U.S.); and (c) finally, there was a strong ecological emphasis with their dependence on Baal as the god of good crops and prosperity--much like America depends on man-made solutions for its health and prosperity. Baal was even credited with healing powers. But rather than turning to the God of Israel who had marvelously revealed Himself in the Word and through the ministry of Elijah, they were turning to the likes of Baal-zebub (the “Lord of the flies”; this probably represents an intended spelling change as a mocking alteration from Baal-zebul, which means “Baal the prince” or “exalted lord” [2 Kings 2:1]).
In this very first chapter, we see Ahaziah, which surely represented the people as a whole, seeking help and solutions to the problems and needs of life from Baal instead of turning to the Word of the Lord through the mouth of His prophets or to the Law of Moses (cf. 2 Kings 2:1-18). I am reminded of Isaiah’s word to the people of Judah who were turning to the occult spiritists of his day:
Isaiah 8:16-20. Bind up the testimony, seal the law among my disciples. 17 And I will wait for the Lord who is hiding His face from the house of Jacob; I will even look eagerly for Him. 18 Behold, I and the children whom the Lord has given me are for signs and wonders in Israel from the Lord of hosts, who dwells on Mount Zion. 19 And when they say to you, “Consult the mediums and the spiritists who whisper and mutter,” should not a people consult their God? Should they consult the dead on behalf of the living? 20 To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because they have no dawn.
This is always one of the main issues for heralds of the Word of God and for the people of a nation. Are we going to proclaim the Word of God and listen to its message, or are we going to listen to the many man-made and demonic messages of the world? This was the vital issue that faced both Elijah and Elisha as prophets of God. Second Kings 2:3 makes this clear by the message the Angel of the Lord instructed Elijah to give to Ahaziah, “Is it because there is no God in Israel that you are going to inquire of Baal-zebub, the god of Ekron?”
I pray that we do not miss this opening context that is part of the conclusion to Elijah’s ministry and the beginning of Elisha’s. This is one of the great issues if not the great issue in the church today and as well as our nation. We are so prone to listen to every voice other than God’s voice as it is found for us in His completed canon of Scripture, the Holy Bible. As it was when our Lord came on the scene and during the ministry of Paul, we live in a day when people are putting more stock in human experiences and exciting phenomena (as seen in the charismatic movement) than in the Word of God and its solid exposition.
One of my great concerns is that even when the Word is preached, it is often abused by preachers so that people aren’t truly getting the Word from God. Far too often I hear well-meaning men do eisegesis rather than exegesis in order to promote their own agendas.3 The church has had far too many messages that are little more than meditations or topical sermons which are more or less vaguely connected with a biblical phrase, clause, sentence, verse, or scattered assortment thereof. As someone has put it, these are ‘sermonettes’ which produce ‘Christianettes.’
Clearly, the need is for sound exegetical messages that move from the text of Scripture in context to an exposition of that text without losing sight of either the message of the text or the compelling needs of men and women who need to hear God’s principles and promises as they are carefully related verse-by-verse to the passage under study. This is what brings God’s authority into the message and gives it veracity.
As Walter Kaiser warns in his book, Toward an Exegetical Theology, we must guard against, “. . . mixing the Word with such foreign elements as civil religion, current philosophies, schools of psychology, political affiliations, and personal predilection.”4 To do so, as Kaiser goes on to point out, “is to take the powerful Word of God and to make it ineffective, weak, and despised in the eyes of our contemporaries.”5
In 1742 John Albert Bengel observed: “Scripture is the foundation of the church: the Church is the guardian of Scripture. When the Church is in strong health, the light of Scripture shines bright; when the Church is sick, Scripture is corroded by neglect; and thus it happens, that the outward form of Scripture and that of the Church, usually seem to exhibit simultaneously either health or else sickness; and as a general rule the way in which Scripture is being treated is in exact correspondence with the condition of the Church.”6
Whenever any society turns away from the absolute standards of the Word, as did Israel under the dismal leadership of the kings of the northern tribes of Israel, you begin to hear the word “crisis.” Such a society begins to face one crisis after another.
In a world that has been treated almost daily to one crisis after another in almost every aspect of its life, it will come as no shock to have another crisis announced: a crisis in exegetical theology. Already we have been warned about crises in systematic theology and Biblical theology, and about ignorance of the contents of Scripture.7
So, obviously the same thing is being said and exists in the realm of leadership and the influence we should each have as believers. In his book, The Making of a Christian Leader, Ted Engstrom writes:
Our nation and world today are faced with problems that appear insurmountable. Security and defense problems are staggering. For the most part, our youth, our future leaders, are confused, alienated, and demoralized. Morals are at an all-time low. Moral standards are almost nonexistent. The growing national debt, bankrupt nations, financially troubled cities, and economic instability create more alarm each passing day. Amid these grave circumstances, our generation is facing an equally serious problem: a leadership crisis.8
There is that word “crisis” again and in connection with leadership which was the problem in Elisha’s day. The quality of our leadership and thus its effectiveness is dying; we need a reinvestment in the pursuit of the qualities that form the foundation of biblical leadership. Note I said, foundation and that foundation can be nothing less that the solid exposition of the Bible so that men and women are hearing God’s message and are seeing how that message is unfolded from the Word. In a day when Judah, the southern kingdom, had abandoned the Lord and turned away from Him (Isa. 1:4), Isaiah the prophet spoke directly to the leaders of the nation and said:
Isaiah 1:10 Hear the word of the Lord, You rulers of Sodom; Give ear to the instruction of our God, You people of Gomorrah.
What was the issue and need? To hear to Word of the Lord! Notice how he later described what happens to the leadership of a nation and to its people when they fail to hear and apply God’s Word. He describes them as “mere lads” and as “capricious children” (Isa. 3:4). If this is not a commentary on our leadership today, I don’t know what is.
Next, in 2 Kings 2, we have story of the translation of Elijah which also begins the ministry of Elisha. In fact, the predominant subject of the first ten chapters of 2 Kings deal with the ministry of Elisha, Elijah’s successor. But both of these prophets had to minister in times of terrible national decay, a day very much like ours spiritually, morally, and politically.
As we can see, in moving from the ministry of Elijah to that of Elisha, we witness a transition that took place in the history of Israel.
(1) There is a change in prophets, we move from Elijah to Elisha.
(2) There is a change in books, we move from 1 Kings to 2 Kings.
(3) There is a change in kings, we go from Ahab to Ahaziah, his son.
First and Second Kings give us a history of the kings of Israel. It is a story of transition, but unfortunately, it was a transition of continuous decline from one level down to another with the exception of a few revivals that took place in the southern kingdom.
Before we go on with our study of the life and ministry of Elisha, and because these and other prophets of the day were ministering in days of moral and spiritual decline, I would like to focus on a couple of issues and to some lessons we can learn just by observing some major features in the historical mural God has painted for us in the history of the nation of Israel.
Note that 2 Kings opens with the translation of Elijah, but it closes with the deportation of captive Jews from the southern kingdom to Babylon. This deportation is preceded by the deportation of captive Jews of the northern kingdom by Assyria. This is a tremendously tragic story, not just because of the fall of a nation, but because this nation was the elect people of God who were called, by the grace of God, to bring regeneration and spiritual enlightenment to the nations (cf. Ex. 19:4-6; Deut. 4:4-10). Instead, however, Israel was influenced by the nations; they became so steeped in spiritual infidelity and moral decadence the Lord had to act in judgment against His own people as He had warned them in Deuteronomy 28-30.
Let’s review a moment to get the big picture:
I Samuel is the Book of Transition--from the theocracy to the monarchy. From Samuel, the last judge, to Saul, the first king, and then to the anointing of David and his reign.
II Samuel is the Book of David’s Reign--it gives us the story of David’s triumphs and troubles.
I Kings is the Book of Disruption--after the death of David’s son, Solomon, the kingdom was divided into two, the ten tribes that made up the northern kingdom and the southern kingdom of Judah and Benjamin.
II Kings is the Book of Dispersion--it is always to be remembered as the book where we see God’s people removed from their land and, though a remnant would return seventy years after the Babylonian captivity, 2 Kings is a story of tragedy and failure. When we read it we should be reminded of Proverbs 13:15, “the way of the treacherous (unfaithful) is hard,” or Proverbs 14:12, “there is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.”
J. Sidlow Baxter draws our attention to a number of maxims: “Inexcusable wrong brings inescapable wrath. Abused privilege incurs increased penalty. The deeper the guilt, the heavier the stroke. Correction may be resisted, but retribution cannot be evaded.”9
In this, we see the law of sowing and reaping, “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man (or nation) sows, this he will also reap” (Gal. 6:7).
In many ways, 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings is a story of kings and the influence they had on their people and the kingdoms they ruled. It is a story of leadership or, in most cases, failed leadership and failed parenthood. In the southern kingdom of Judah there were a few good kings who brought forth revival like Josiah and Hezekiah, but in the northern kingdom it is said of each of them that they did evil--with the exception of one, Shallum who only reigned one month. In fact, 23 times in 1 and 2 Kings we read these word, “he did evil in the sight of the Lord.” And in nearly every case this is in some way related to the fathers that had preceded them with words like “according to all that his fathers had done,” or “in the way of his father,” or “more than their fathers had done.”
It is interesting and enlightening that in the history of the kings of the two kingdoms, Israel and Judah, two men repeatedly stand out as standards of influence and significance.
It is significant that in the case of Judah’s kings, David is the standard according to which their character is estimated. Each king is estimated by the example of David. Again and again we read words such as:
1 Kings 11:4 His heart was not perfect with the Lord his God as was the heart of David his father (cf also verses 6, 33, 38).
1 Kings 14:8 You have not been as My servant David; . . .
1 Kings 15:11 Asa did that which was right in the eyes of the Lord, as did David his father.
This is a great tribute to David. Regardless of the sins that marred his life, Scripture reminds us he was a man after God’s own heart (1 Sam. 13:22; Acts 13:22). He is held up as a model. Why? Because of his trust in the Lord, because of his integrity (generally speaking), because of his jealousy for God’s honor, because of his understanding of God’s grace, but also because of His love and reverence for God’s Word (Ps. 138:2; 19:7-14).
But it is also important to note that in the case of Israel’s kings, we have a negative standard of comparison. As David was the standard or model of good, Jeroboam, the first to occupy the throne of the northern kingdom, became the standard or model of evil which cast its shadow across all the kings of the southern kingdom. The tragic epitaph of Jeroboam might be these words found in 1 Kings at the close of his life:
1 Kings 14:16 And He (God) will give up Israel on account of the sins of Jeroboam, which he committed and with which he made Israel to sin.
So, again and again in the record of the kings of the northern kingdom, Jeroboam is pointed to as an evil influence and as a model of evil which kings followed. In fact, certain words become a constant refrain in 1 and 2 Kings, such as: 1 Kings 15:34, “And he did evil in the sight of the Lord, and walked in the way of Jeroboam and in his sin which he made Israel sin.” Of fifteen of the eighteen kings that followed Jeroboam, it is stated that they did evil after the example of Jeroboam, son of Nebat, who made Israel to sin. The references are: Nadab (1 Kings 15:26), Baasha (15:34), Zimri (16:19); Omri (16:25-26), Ahab (21:31), Ahaziah (22:52); Jehoram (2 Ki. 3:2-3), Jehu (10:31), Jehoahaz (13:2), Jehoash (13:11), Jeroboam II (14:24), Zechariah (15:9), Menahem (15:18), Pekahiah 15:24), Pehak (15:28).
Thus, each of these two kings, David and Jeroboam, cast their shadows over those who followed them, one for good and one for evil.
Elijah and Elisha cast a long shadow of influence that announced to others the reality, power, holiness, love, grace, and mercy of the God of Israel as the only true God. However, though Elisha was the understudy of Elijah, these two prophets were very different in their ministries and in the way God used them. Both were men of godly character and faith who stood firmly on the Word of God. In this sense, Elisha was like his teacher (Luke 6:40), but as his tutor, respecting the individuality God has created in all of us, Elijah did not seek to create another Elijah in temperament and personality. Let’s compare them briefly and as we do, let’s remember the following truth:
1 Corinthians 3:4-9 For when one says, “I am of Paul,” and another, “I am of Apollos,” are you not mere men? What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave opportunity to each one. I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth. So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth. Now he who plants and he who waters are one; but each will receive his own reward according to his own labor. For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.
(1) Declares a long drought (1 Kings 17:1)
(2) Multiplies widow’s flour and oil (1 Kings 17:7-16)
(3) Resurrects widow’s son (1 Kings 17:17-24)
(4) Calls down fire from heaven (1 Kings 18:1-40)
(5) Sends a rainstorm (1 Kings 18:41-45)
(6) Outruns a chariot (1 Kings 18:46)
(7) Predicts Ahaziah’s death (2 Kings 1:1-2)
(8) Ahaziah’s men killed by fire from heaven (2 Kings 1:9-17)
(9) Parts the Jordan River (2 Kings 2:1-8)
(1) Parts the Jordan River (2 Kings 2:13-14)
(2) Makes Jericho spring drinkable (2 Kings 2:19-22)
(3) Sends bears to punish irreverent youths (2 Kings 2:23-25)
(4) Floods ditches to confuse Moabites (2 Kings 3:1-27)
(5) Multiplies widow’s oil (2 Kings 4:1-7)
(6) Shunammite woman bears a son (2 Kings 4:8-17)
(7) Resurrects Shunammite’s son (2 Kings 4:18-37)
(8) Purifies poisoned stew (2 Kings 4:38-44)
(9) Heals Naaman’s leprosy (2 Kings 5:1-14)
(10) Gehazi struck with leprosy (2 Kings 5:15-27)
(11) Floats lost axhead (2 Kings 6:1-7)
(12) Gives special sight to the king’s messenger (2 Kings 6:16-17)
(13) Blinds the Aramean army (2 Kings 6:8-23)
(14) His bones resurrect a dead man (2 Kings 13:20-21)
Elisha performed more miracles, but they were less public than some Elijah performed.
Both prophets were similar in their overall purpose to resist the cult of Baal and to demonstrate by their miracles and ministry that the only true God is the God of Israel. Irving Jensen has a good summary of the differences in their ministries. He writes:
Elijah is noted for great public acts, while Elisha is distinguished by the large number of miracles he performed, many of them for individual needs. Elijah’s ministry emphasized God’s law, judgment, and severity. Elisha supplemented this by demonstrating God’s grace, love and tenderness. Elijah was like John the Baptist, thundering the message of repentance for sin. Elisha followed this up by going about, as Christ did, doing deeds of kindness, and by doing miracles attesting that the words of the prophets were from God.11
In comparing the ministries of the two prophets, Leon Wood adds some similar and insightful thoughts:
. . . Elisha may have come from a wealthy family, for when he was first called by Elijah (I Kings 19:19) he was plowing with a team of oxen in a field where twelve other teams also worked, presumably all owned by his father. If so, he contrasted sharply on this count with his master, Elijah, who had been raised in the poor area of Gilead near the desert. But Elisha’s decision to follow Elijah had been final and decisive. He killed his own oxen to prepare a farewell feast for relatives and friends, and he used the wood from his tools as fuel for the fire (I Kings 19:21).
Elisha’s period of ministry lasted much longer than Elijah’s. He began in Jehoram’s early years, continued through the reigns of Jehu and Jehoahaz, and died sometime while Jehoash ruled (II Kings 13:20), a period of about fifty years (c. 850-800). Though having the same objectives in his ministry as Elijah, his manner in reaching them was somewhat different. In keeping with his contrasting background, Elisha was more at home in cities and even at the palace and was often in the company of kings. Also, Elijah had been more a man of moods, either strongly courageous or despairing to the point of death; but Elisha was self-controlled and even-tempered, found neither in dramatic staged contests nor sulking in a desert. It may be, too, that Elisha was more interested in the needs of people; for many of his miracles, again in contrast to Elijah, were to aid, heal, and give relief to persons he encountered.12
One came from a poor and rugged background and the other from a rather wealthy one, yet God used them both and in different ways. That which made both of them effective in their own unique ministry, however, was their faith and confidence in the person and power of God. Elijah was not hindered nor ashamed of his poor background and Elisha was not dependent on nor spoiled by his former wealth. Furthermore, it appears this difference in their backgrounds did not affect their relationship with each other as mentor and student because their fellowship was based on their relationship with and commitment to the Lord, His calling and purposes for each, and His Word.
There are some important lessons in this for each of us.
Lesson 1: “All of us are casting shadows as we go through this present life. Just as our bodies cast their shadows quite involuntarily, so we are continually and quite involuntarily casting the shadow of our moral and spiritual influence upon other lives.”13
Lesson 2: “We can no more detach ourselves from this involuntary and often unconscious influence upon others than our bodies can rid themselves of their own shadows.”14 We simply cannot avoid the principle of influence. We have no choice in the matter of having an influence as a parent, as an elder, deacon, Sunday school teacher, as a neighbor, or as a friend. Our only choice is the kind of influence we have.
Lesson 3: “What we can determine is the kind of shadow which we cast. Our influence, quite apart from any speech of the lips, may contribute either to the eternal salvation or the eternal damnation of other souls”15 or to the edification or spiritual hurt of others.
Scripture and life teach us we reap what we sow. One of the things we sow is an influence, and nowhere is this more dynamic than in the home. And where do our leaders ultimately come from? They come from our homes and from living under our influence.
Though no longer living, do not the shadows of unbelievers like Voltaire, Dewey, and Huxley still linger over our lives in the philosophy of the humanistic world all around us? Their shadows still stalk the earth in our schools, in the media, and in our government. Of course the same also applies to men like Luther, Calvin, George Washington, George Whitefield, Moody, and Spurgeon.
Some may think this applies more to the outstanding men of society and all those mentioned above are in that category. We may think our influence is very small and the same doesn’t necessarily apply to us. But that viewpoint is totally false. Consider, for instance, Adolph Hitler’s vile shadow. We need to remember that Hitler’s shadow includes the shadows of other men whose names will never be published but who influenced Hitler in his earlier years. Think also about those who influenced the Wesley’s, like their mother, Susanna. You see, we never know when the person we are influencing (a son, a daughter, a neighbor, a disciple) will turn out to be a Moody or a Hitler. A lot depends on the kind of shadow of influence we cast.
Lesson 4: Other than casting a shadow of influence to promote Christ-like character in others, we must learn to respect the godly differences or individuality of others and not attempt to pour them into our mold or expect other leaders to be like someone who has meant a great deal to us, i.e., become entangled in the carnal game of comparing one leader against another as did the church at Corinth (1 Cor. 3:1-9; 4:1-16; 2 Cor. 10:1-10) and as we see happening so often today.
3 Eisegesis (to lead into) is when we read our own ideas into the text to promote some preconceived notion or try to use the text to promote some personal agenda. Exegesis (to lead out) is when we explain the message of the text based on the context, grammar, meaning of words, historical background, cultural conditions, etc. As an illustration, not too many months ago, I was sitting in a conservative Bible teaching ministry where the Word is God is honored and believed. The preacher, who was filling in for the pastor, preached on Phil. 3:4-14. As a staff member of the church, he was concerned about getting the congregation to be willing to change and accept some less traditional ideas. This passage was used to promote forgetting the past, your old ideas, and pressing forward to the future, accepting the change that was needed. Folks, that's agenda preaching and it abuses the Bible.
For a study on 2 Kings 2:1-11, please see the Elijah series, lessons 18-19.
How we respond to the situations of life, whether pleasant or painful, is tremendously illuminating. Our responses expose our true spiritual condition. How we respond reveals something about our beliefs, values, priorities, and our spiritual condition and focus at any particular moment. And even if our beliefs, values, and priorities may be right or biblical, if our focus is wrong or if we have been walking by our own abilities (really weaknesses) then we will surely act in ways that contradict our basic beliefs.
I think this is why Peter describes the variegated trials of life as “the proof of your faith” (1 Peter 1:7). “Proof” is the Greek dokimion, a word used of the smelting process for refining and testing precious metals to either remove the impurities or prove the quality of the metal. Dokimion comes from a word group that was used of the test or trial itself, or of the results, the proof, the pure gold that was left.
Because we live in a fallen world, every day is filled with trials, obstacles, and irritations--things that test us. As with the smelting process, they not only expose our true spiritual metal at any given moment, but, by God’s design, they are designed to purify us. Someone once said, “talent is formed in solitude, but character in the storms of life.”
Phillips Brooks is quoted as saying, “O, do not pray for easy lives; pray to be stronger men! Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers; pray for powers equal to your tasks. Then the doing of your work shall be no miracle, but you shall be a miracle.”
The translation of Elijah was a test designed to reveal the character and qualification of Elisha to be the successor to Elijah. In 2 Kings 2:12-14 we see Elisha’s response to the painful loss of his mentor and teacher. It is a response that tells us even more about the spiritual character of the prophet Elisha.
2 Kings 2:12-15 And Elisha saw it and cried out, “My father, my father, the chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” And he saw him no more. Then he took hold of his own clothes and tore them in two pieces. 13 He also took up the mantle of Elijah that fell from him, and returned and stood by the bank of the Jordan. 14 And he took the mantle of Elijah that fell from him, and struck the waters and said, “Where is the LORD, the God of Elijah?” And when he also had struck the waters, they were divided here and there; and Elisha crossed over. 15 Now when the sons of the prophets who were at Jericho opposite him saw him, they said, “The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha.” And they came to meet him and bowed themselves to the ground before him.
“And Elisha saw it.” This focuses our attention on the fact he met the condition given by Elijah in verse 10. This is perhaps not as easy as it might appear. If he had looked off for just a moment he could have missed the departure and the blessing, but Elisha had been faithful to stay with Elijah and to faithfully watch for the translation. He would be the one to take on the responsibility of his mentor. How many times do believers miss God’s will because they become preoccupied with their problems, or people, or success, or, well, you name it. Elisha could have become occupied with himself and the new position of authority and responsibility that he was about to receive, but his response as seen in the words he cried out as he saw Elijah pass from the scene demonstrates a different heart, one that exposes the young prophet’s heart and perspective about life itself.
Notice how, as an apprentice and student, Elisha called Elijah “my father,” which was a term of endearment, respect, and submission. This stands out in stark contrast to the independent spirit of self-willed rebellion so often found today in our society. Ours is a day when all the accepted authorities (parents, school, university, state, church, Bible, pope, God) are being challenged and resisted. The prevailing mentality is, “I am going to do my own thing in my way. Nobody has the right to tell me what to do.” Now, I am not for a minute promoting blind submission to authority. There is certainly a need for responsible, mature, and wise evaluation of those to whom we submit and why. But clearly a vital element of any strong society is careful discipling or mentoring that promotes spiritual maturity and ministry in others.
By the words that followed along with the tearing of his clothes, itself a sign of mourning, we get a glimpse of the pain he felt at the loss of this warrior in Israel and his faithful mentor. It truly demonstrated Elisha’s love and respect for his teacher. It demonstrated Elisha’s attitude regarding the importance of such a man as the prophet Elijah to the nation.
But what about the strange statement that he made at Elijah’s departure, “My father, my father, the chariots of Israel and its horsemen!”? What does this mean and what does it say to us today?
The chariot and horsemen represented one of the strongest military instruments of ancient times. It stood for military power at its greatest. If you recall, God’s power and presence are pictured by horses and chariots encircling Elisha and his servant in 2 Kings 6:15. There it portrays God’s power and His ability to protect and deliver Elijah and His servant.
Here, however, Elisha was speaking of Elijah and declaring that the real strength and the ultimate protection and defense of Israel lay in the ministry of this great prophet. Why? Because he was a herald of the Word of the Lord. He was also the head of the schools of the prophets, the place where other teachers of the Word were trained and prepared to minister the Word to others.
Not only did this demonstrate Elisha’s perspective and faith in God’s Word, but it demonstrates a vital principle, one echoed over and over again throughout the Old Testament: On the one hand knowing, believing, and obeying the righteous principles of God’s Word produces wisdom and justice and brings blessing and the prosperity of God to a nation. On the other hand, ignorance, unbelief, and disobedience to God’s Word leads to foolishness, unrighteousness, injustice, and moral collapse. This in turn eventually brings God’s discipline and the fall of a nation unless there is repentance and a return to God.
Hosea warned: “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge. Because you have rejected knowledge, I also will reject you from being My priest. Since you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children” (Hos. 4:6).
Isaiah likewise warned Judah: “Therefore My people go into exile for their lack of knowledge; And their honorable men are famished, And their multitude is parched with thirst” (Isaiah 5:13).
The ultimate defense or source of blessing for any nation is never its military or economic policies. Its ultimate defense always lies in a godliness based on biblical absolutes. I am reminded of a statement made by Francis DeToqueville, a French philosopher, at about the turn of the century. He had just returned from touring America to discover for himself what had made America great. When asked what he found, he replied that the secret to America was its pulpits ablaze with righteousness. In other words, it was the preaching of the Word of God and its impact on the lives of people.
Proverbs 14:34 reads, “Righteousness exalts a nation, But sin is a disgrace to any people.”
Psalm 33:12-19 says:
Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord. The people whom He has chosen for His own inheritance. The Lord looks from heaven; He sees all the sons of men; From His dwelling place He looks out on all the inhabitants of the earth. He who fashions the hearts of them all, He who understands all their works. The king is not saved by a mighty army; A warrior is not delivered by great strength. A horse is a false hope for victory; Nor does it deliver anyone by its great strength. Behold, the eye of the Lord is on those who fear Him, On those who hope for His loving kindness, to deliver their soul from death, and to keep them alive in famine.
Psalm 127:1-2 echoes a similar principle.
Unless the LORD builds the house, They labor in vain who build it; Unless the LORD guards the city, The watchman keeps awake in vain. It is vain for you to rise up early, To retire late, To eat the bread of painful labors; For He gives to His beloved even in his sleep.
Certainly nations need to be strong militarily and they need wise and just social and economic policies, but for that to be effective, they must know the righteous principles of the Word; they need the absolutes of God’s Word as a foundation for morality. More importantly, if this is going to take place, people must be prepared spiritually to know, believe, and obey the principles of God’s eternal Word. For that to happen, people need men who are trained and skilled in the proclamation of the Word, men who are adept at wielding the sword of the Spirit, the Word of God.
Our nation has fallen to its present state in part because many of our seminaries departed from the Bible as their primary focus and trust, and put their trust in the philosophies and ideas of man. And surely this was aided by the fact the church sat back and did nothing about it. We let down our guard and allowed men in our pulpits who were not sound in the faith. My grandfather (who died in 1940) was a conservative, Bible-believing pastor in the Methodist denomination. In fact, I came to know the Savior in an old-time camp meeting where he was one of the preachers. But even back in the 1930’s, a liberal theology that was denying many of the truths of Scripture had a strong hold on his denomination and was a cause of great heartache to my grandfather.
Obviously, if we are going to have a nation of godly leaders, men and women of integrity instead of capricious politicians (cf. Isa. 2:22-3:5), and a constituency of people who know the Lord and are sound in Scripture, we need schools and churches that are committed, not to a social gospel or some watered-down version of what God has called the church to believe and be, but to the faithful proclamation of the truth of the Bible (cf. Acts 20:28f; 2 Tim. 4:1-5; Jude 1:3-4).
So, with Elijah gone, how would Elisha respond? Would he go back to farming? Would he complain and question God’s timing in removing Elijah. After all, was not the nation still in a degenerate condition; and who could truly replace the great prophet?
Please note the very first words of verse 13 are, “He also took up the mantle of Elijah that fell from him . . .” What can we learn from this?
The mantle of Elijah spoke of the prophetic office and gift, and of God’s call of Elisha to this ministry and responsibility. For Elisha this meant responding to God’s call on his life. It meant carrying on and taking Elijah’s place as the head of the schools of the prophets, a daunting task to say the least.
Note that the text says, “He also took up . . .” The word I want us to focus on is “also.” Though he had experienced pain at the loss of his good friend and teacher, this did not neutralize him or make him bitter or feel that all was hopeless. Rather, Elisha saw this as a call to move forward and carry on the work that Elijah had been engaged in. I’m sure you can see the obvious application here. (Compare Phil. 1:12-14.)
This is not only a challenge to church leaders--to elders and deacons--but to all of us for we are all called to be ambassadors and ministers in the service of the Savior.
Now let’s not miss the picture here. Looming before Elisha was the River Jordan, which stood as a barrier to his entrance back into the land where the other prophets were also waiting for his leadership. Isn’t this interesting? Before he could begin, God put Elisha on the other side of the Jordan. Historically and biblically, the Jordan River was representative of the barriers and problems of life which would stand in the way of Elisha’s ministry, and which likewise stand in the way of our ministries today. So Elisha’s actions, striking the water as Elijah had done previously, demonstrated Elisha’s faith in the power and provision of God and his willingness and determination to fulfill the calling and ministry to which God had called him (cf. 2 Tim 4:1-5).
Now let’s recap and note the movement of the events of these verses.
(1) Elijah is taken away leaving a vacancy and a need. Note that though Elijah was taken, his mantle was not. His mantle was left which meant God was calling Elisha to pick up where Elijah left off. So today, God takes men and women who have ministered to us, but not their mantles or the need of others to step into their places of ministry. This is why it is so important that we each be not only involved in ministry, but in building and multiplying ourselves in others.
(2) Elisha cried out and tore his clothes in mourning indicating he recognized the value and importance of men like Elijah to the nation. His parting was painful, but not fatal to God’s work and purpose.
(3) In faith, Elisha picked up the mantle, which represented his calling and gift, moved to the Jordan, which represented the barriers he would face in ministry, and then cried out, “Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” By this question he was not questioning God’s presence or actions, but demonstrating three things: (a) his faith and dependence on the Lord, (b) that, regardless of his gifts, Elisha knew he was totally insufficient in himself to be and do what lay ahead of him, but also (c) that, as God had been with Elijah, so God would be with him. He knew that power and sufficiency for ministry always belongs to God (2 Cor. 2:16; 3:5).
(4) The waters parted and he walked across on dry ground. This demonstrated that the Lord was truly with Elisha as He had been with Elijah.
(5) The sons of the prophets saw this and became convinced of Elisha’s character and qualifications to lead them and they bowed in respect to demonstrate they recognized him as Elijah’s successor.
Elisha was a gifted and capable man. In addition, he had excellent training as the apprentice of Elijah. He may have had many other exceptional qualities mentally and physically, but being blessed, gifted, and well trained in the best schools or churches is simply not enough--essential as that is. So what does this mean?
(1) It means we must each be faithful to draw upon our resources in the Lord so we can develop true, honest, godly and faithful character (Heb. 12:15; Phil 4:13).
(2) It means we must be genuine in our walk with God and be willing to deal honestly with those things in our lives, which if unchecked, ignored or rationalized, will hurt our walk with the Lord and our ability to serve.
(3) It means we must each look for the Jordan Rivers in our lives--our fears, our excuses, our lack of involvement, or whatever, and become willing to trust God to remove them so we can take on the ministries He has called us to.
Here we see the effect of reality in a man’s life. The prophets recognized he was Elijah’s successor and truly qualified to become their leader. Elisha had proven the reality of his walk with the Lord and demonstrated he was qualified for the ministry he was called on to do.
It is never enough for us to make claims to giftedness or qualifications for ministry. People need to see the reality in our daily walk over a period of time which tests us in the ups and downs of life. It’s far too easy to fake it and play the game of religion, but if we are authentic in our walk with the Savior, in time, the reality of our walk with God will show through as we are faced with the tests of life. This is why Scripture warns us against laying hands suddenly on someone without prior knowledge of their faithfulness or without the time needed to test their qualifications and the quality of their walk with the Lord. How do we do this? Through appointment via the recommendations of others or prior knowledge through those who know (Acts 16:1-3) and through appointment via observation over time (Acts 6:3; 20:28; 1 Tim. 3:1-13; note especially vs. 10).
It is hard to determine if a person is qualified for ministry when they are sitting on the sidelines. Elisha was a man who was involved and his involvement provided opportunity for both his growth in the Lord and for the manifestation of his gifts and his godliness.
One of the most harmful and debilitating diseases in the church today is what some have called spectatoritis. Sometimes people are afraid to get involved because they are afraid of making mistakes or they are afraid of failure. But we all make mistakes and we all fail. Often failure to get involved is the product of a wrong view of the church, of ministry, and of the pastorate, or what people expect of a pastor.
In his book, Outgrowing the Ingrown Church, John Miller quotes Richard Lovelace who writes,
. . . Pastors gradually settle down and lose interest in being change agents in the church. An unconscious conspiracy arises between their flesh and that of their congregations. It becomes tacitly understood that the laity will give pastors special honor in the exercise of their gifts, if the pastors will agree to leave their congregations’ pre-Christian lifestyles undisturbed and do not call for mobilization of lay gifts for the work of the kingdom. Pastors are permitted to become ministerial superstars. Their pride is fed and their congregations are permitted to remain herds of sheep in which each has cheerfully turned to his own way.16
Miller also speaks about what he calls the religious cushioning:
The local church was intended by Jesus to be a gathering of people full of faith--strong in their confidence in Him--not a gathering of religious folk who desperately need reassurance. Perhaps seeking personal comfort is not wrong in itself. But it is desperately wrong when it becomes the primary reason for the existence of the local church. When that happens, the local church is no living fellowship at all, but a retreat center where anxious people draw resources that enable them merely to cope with the pains of life. The church then becomes a religious cushion.
This religious cushioning may take a number of forms. In its liberal variety, its primary concern is to comfort suburbanites with a vision of a God who is too decent to send nice people like them to hell. In its sacerdotal form, its purpose is to tranquilize the guilt-ridden person with religious warmth of its liturgy. Among conservatives and evangelicals, its primary mission all too often is to function as a preaching station where Christians gather to hear the gospel preached to the unconverted, to be reassured that liberals are mistaken about God and hell, and to renew one’s sense of well being without having a serious encounter with the living God.17
Elijah and Elisha form good examples for what God wants in each of our lives. Depending on where we are in our Christian walk and growth, there are a couple of obvious applications here:
(1) The Lord wants us to be mentoring others and preparing them to take up our mantle, i.e., to become reproducing believers. Are you mentoring others? Are you available to teach, train, or disciple others in their walk with Christ?
(2) He wants us to pick up the mantle that has been dropped in front of us, to face the Jordan-like barriers that may stand in the way of ministry (our fears, ignorance, indifference, lack of training, finances, etc.) and cross over by the power of God to serve the king.
16 C. John Miller, Outgrowing the Ingrown Church, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1986, p.19, quoting Richard Lovelace, Dynamics of Spiritual Life: An Evangelical Theology of Renewal, InterVarsity, Downers Grove, 1979.
Writing against Jerusalem and Judah, Isaiah described the nation in terms that graphically portray the sick conditions of our nation and the world today. He wrote:
Isaiah 1:4-6 Alas, sinful nation, People weighed down with iniquity, Offspring of evildoers, Sons who act corruptly! They have abandoned the Lord, They have despised the Holy One of Israel, They have turned away from Him. Where will you be stricken again, As you continue in your rebellion? The whole head is sick, And the whole heart is faint. From the sole of the foot even to the head There is nothing sound in it, Only bruises, welts, and raw wounds, Not pressed out or bandaged, Nor softened with oil.
We too live in a sick society and a curse-ridden world. The barrenness caused by the streams of spiritual death and the blindness of man’s mind flowing throughout society are everywhere evident in the political, religious, and moral atmosphere of our times. Yet, this condition is not always as apparent as it might seem. For there is much that is deceptively pleasant and appealing to our society and our world, especially in our country. Materialistically there is a great deal of prosperity. There are majestic landscapes, magnificent buildings, gigantic malls of consumerism, educational facilities, electronic gadgets designed to make life easier, huge and wealthy religious organizations and structures, and on the list goes.
Still in the midst of all this the misery level is at an all-time high. Spiritual barrenness, like a giant shadow falls over our land. No matter how hard men try, by-in-large, they are turning to the wrong sources for happiness--the land remains barren. The streams that water the land are poisonous. The land is cursed.
Jerry Falwell in Fundamental Journal (July/Aug), wrote that the Secretary of the Interior, James Watt stated recently that our National Anthem is the only one in the world that ends with a question: “Does that star-spangled Banner yet wave o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?” Falwell went on to say, it reminds us of the fragile nature of freedom and serves as a warning that the freedom that has been won at great cost can be easily lost. The great lesson is that nations, no matter how blessed, can easily degenerate and come under the divine discipline of God. The Scripture says “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord” (Psa. 33:12). But it is equally true that cursed is the nation whose god is not the Lord (i.e., whose god is materialism, or consumerism, or humanism, or communism, or any other idolatrous god).
Our passage for this lesson reminds us of this truth, but, thankfully, it also points us to God’s solution and to our responsibilities as believers who are left here as ambassadors to represent the Lord, the Sovereign Creator and God of the earth.
This historic passage illustrates spiritual truth found everywhere in Scripture. It employs symbolism which is ultimately the key to its meaning and application for us today. The symbolism is found in the following:
(1) The city which is Jericho (2:18-19). This city had been cursed (cf. Josh 6:26)
(2) The bad water which caused the land to be unfruitful (2:19).
(3) A new jar with salt which purified the water (2:20-21).
18 And they returned to him while he was staying at Jericho; and he said to them, “Did I not say to you, ‘Do not go’?” 19 Then the men of the city said to Elisha, “Behold now, the situation of this city is pleasant, as my lord sees; but the water is bad, and the land is unfruitful.” 20 And he said, “Bring me a new jar, and put salt in it.” So they brought it to him. 21 And he went out to the spring of water, and threw salt in it and said, “Thus says the LORD, ‘I have purified these waters; there shall not be from there death or unfruitfulness any longer.’” 22 So the waters have been purified to this day, according to the word of Elisha which he spoke.
The story is short and simple, yet its truth is profound and far reaching. This was a city controlled by Israel and in which there was a small seminary (a school of the Prophets), but the water of the city was bad and caused unfruitfulness in the land. If you will notice, in 2:19 the men of the city of Jericho (cf. 2:15) reported, “the situation in the city is pleasant.” At first glance things looked prosperous in the city. There were beautiful buildings, trees, gardens, and much activity--but no actual fruitfulness. Literally the Hebrew says “the land causes barrenness.” This may indicate the water contained mineral deposits which hindered growth or fruitfulness. Things grew, but before they produced fruit, the fruit would drop off or the plants would wither.
Another suggestion is that the problem may have been related to human life. McNeely tells us John Gray reports that a recent study of the region showed that certain springs in the area have contacted radioactive strata. Combining these substances with water has polluted the water in such a way to cause sterility.18 This then produced barrenness and the barrenness related not to plant life as much as to human life.
The men recognized the authenticity of Elisha as a prophet of God who had walked across the Jordan, an evident token of the power of God in his life. So they came to Elisha and requested help for their problem. Elisha then requested a new jar filled with salt, casts it into the spring, and by a miracle of God the water was purified with permanent results. Evidently, the spring to this day is okay. Please note in 2:21, Elisha gives God the credit. It was not Elisha and it was not the salt--it was God. Elisha was only a representative agent of God and the salt a symbol.
Jericho had originally stood as a fortified city against the occupation of the land of Canaan by the people of God (see the book of Joshua). Jericho is very prominent in Joshua. The destruction of Jericho stood as a kind of firstfruits of promise for the occupation of the rest of the land. However, the city was cursed in the sense that anyone attempting to rebuild the city, especially as a fortified city, would lose their sons (Josh 6:26). It could be the problem of barrenness was a continuation of this curse generation after generation.
Jericho portrays the world which is under the curse of God. This is a curse which only God can lift by His plan of salvation as revealed in the Word of God. The world stands as a hindrance, indeed, as a satanic fortification against men occupying God’s plan of salvation and deliverance in Christ.
Mankind and the world system of Satan offers substitutes--human philosophies, religious systems, and materialistic solutions. These substitutes may be pleasant, but the world solutions always result in barrenness and are vain in fulfilling their promises. They may sound good, they may look appealing and they may satisfy the flesh for awhile, but the ills of man just continue to grow worse. Only God can remove the curse.
Water in Scripture is often a symbol of the Word, of the Spirit who cleanses and refreshes, and even of life. Water which is bad naturally portrays the opposite. (a) In place of God’s Word, we have man’s futile viewpoint, humanism, idolatrous systems, and ideologies. (b) In place of the Holy Spirit, there are evil spirits who promote these doctrines (doctrines of demons) (1 Tim. 4; 1 John 4). (c) In place of cleansing, refreshment, and life there is pollution, weariness and death.
In Scripture, believers are portrayed as mere earthen vessels containing the treasure of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ so that the power of salvation might be clearly seen to be of God and not of man (2 Cor. 4:6-7). Note also that Elisha requested not just a jar, but a new jar (vs. 20), which perhaps portrays the believer, a regenerated, new person, a new creation of God, who is to represent the Lord in the world as an ambassador and priest of God who is to declare the excellencies of God and His salvation in Jesus Christ to a lost and cursed world (cf. 2 Cor 4:4-7; 5:20, 21; 1 Pet 2:9).
The salt is the most significant of the symbols here. To see this let’s take a look at the actions of salt and its uses in Scripture.
(1) It is preservative. It retards spoilage and putrefaction.
(2) It seasons, gives flavor and makes food more palatable and enjoyable.
(3) It causes thirst. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. Right? Not necessarily, you can feed him salt and then he will drink.
(4) It irritates. Did you ever get salt in a wound?
(5) It is a healing and purifying agent. It purifies.
(1) Salt was one of the most important staples and commodities of ancient times. It was viewed right along with wine and oil as a sign of prosperity.
(2) Because of the lack of refrigeration, meat would spoil almost immediately without salt.
(3) It was taken from the Dead Sea and dug up from marsh areas. This meant that sometimes it was impure and mingled with vegetable and earth substances. Salt from the Dead Sea was often mixed with gypsum and if in sufficient quantities, the salt would become alkaline and lose its salty character.
(1) Leviticus 2:13 teaches us that under no circumstances were any offerings to be brought without salt. Without salt they were unacceptable no matter how sincerely offered, no matter what the sacrifice or the cost or how pure the motive (cf. Ezek. 43:24). It was the salt that made the offering or sacrifice acceptable because the salt spoke of God’s covenant to save us through the person and work of Christ. Covenants in ancient times were ratified with salt. God’s covenant is to save us from our sins and to bring us into fellowship with Himself. The salt speaks of the person and work of Jesus Christ poured out for us who then, as the resurrected Lord, provides the ministry of the Holy Spirit, springs of living water (John 7:37-29). So no sacrifice we make counts unless it is a product of Jesus Christ in us and the control of the Spirit and His love at work in our lives (cf. 1 Cor. 13:1f).
(2) In Matthew 5:13a, Christ told His disciples, “you are the salt of the earth.” Here the salt analogy portrays the impact that believers are to have in the world as the representatives of Christ. The emphasis of Scripture is not that the believer himself is salt, but that the believer, as a new jar full of salt (the character of Christ), is to have the effect of salt upon the earth.
(3) But Matthew 5:13b warns us that salt can become tasteless, i.e., lose its saltiness. Remember, historically speaking, because of the way salt was often procured, it was sometimes impure and full of gypsum, or adulterated with earthen substances. The picture should be obvious. If a believer, even as a new jar, becomes adulterated with the world and its substitutes, he becomes useless to the Lord. He loses his sense of purpose.
(4) Mark 9:50 teaches us that salt in a believer’s life is good; it’s what makes us useful and profitable vessels or servants for the Lord. So we must be salty, not an old salty dog, but salty in the biblical sense of manifesting the character of the Savior.
So, what does the salt in 2 Kings 2:19-20 refer to? Salt in this passage refers to two things:
(1) Because of its Old Testament usage, it may speak of the salt of the covenant, the person of Christ in the life of the believer who gives the Holy Spirit as a spring of living water (Lev 2:13; Ezek. 43:24; 1 Kings 2:20, 21; John 7:37-39).
(2) The Word of God (Col. 4:6) which seasons and gives flavor to the believer’s life with the character and purpose of God (cf. Col. 3:16). In essence, as believers in Christ, our lives must be filled with both the Spirit and the Word.
We should conclude with a look at Luke 14:34-35 which adds to the emphasis in Matthew 5:13b:
Therefore, salt is good; but if even salt has become tasteless, with what will it be seasoned? 35 It is useless either for the soil or for the manure pile; it is thrown out. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.
Again we see this important warning: without its saltiness, salt becomes perfectly useless. It was good for nothing, not even for the soil as fertilizer or for the manure pile. The point is, as long as our lives are filled with and adulterated by the substitutes of the world (like the love of money or possessions) we are useless to the Lord as disciples or as vessels of the Lord (cf. Luke 14:33 in its context).
If we are correct in analogy, and it certainly fits with the earthen vessel concept of 2 Corinthians 4:7, it illustrates the principle of purpose. As instruments of God, we are to live with God’s purposes always in mind and as the goal of our lives. We are not simply here to please ourselves or to live for ourselves (cf. Phil 1:27 with 2:4-5). When believers live purposefully, with salt in their lives, they have the following effects in fulfilling their purposes.
(1) A preservative and healing force in society. This has both a negative and positive emphasis.
Negative: It shows us what the world is like and will become without the salt effect of believers. Scripture teaches us that without the salt effect of believers with their moral absolutes and through the indwelling ministry of the Spirit, the world will become morally and spiritually putrid because of the condition of man’s sin, his human viewpoint, and Satan’s constant activity.
Positive: We must realize our responsibility to be seasoned with the savor of Christ’s life through Word-filled, Spirit-filled lives that we might have a preservative and healing effect upon society. This means at least five things:
(2) An Irritating Force. Salt not only seasons, purifies, and preserves, it also irritates. Living the Christian life and fulfilling the will of God will always rub some people the wrong way (John 15:19). Godly living is a rebuke to many and they will criticize and hate believers for it. Remember the only salt that will not irritate is salt that has “lost its saltiness.” Unfortunately, this is what characterizes much of the church in America today. It has lost its distinctiveness. Most of us have heard about the polls taken in our country which reveal how the values and priorities of the typical Christian is very similar if not the same as those who make no claim to being Christian.
God worked a miracle in the life of Elisha to teach us the kind of effect and the purpose believers are to have in this world. Men came to Elisha from Jericho because of the authenticity of his life and ministry. Elisha demonstrated that God was real, that God alone had the answers to the barrenness of life, and that God alone could give meaning and fruitfulness to life.
(1) Are we living authentic Christianity, seasoned with the life of Christ, living purposefully, sacrificially, revealing the person and love of Christ to a sick and lost world?
(2) Are we involved in our society for good, or are we part of the problem?
(3) Are we a force for unity and harmony within the flock of God, or are we a force for disunity, a sower of discord among the brethren?
One of the greatest hindrances to evangelism is disharmony. So let’s be new vessels, full of salt, seasoned and poured out for a sick and dying world.
23 Then he went up from there to Bethel; and as he was going up by the way, young lads came out from the city and mocked him and said to him, “Go up, you baldhead; go up, you baldhead!” 24 When he looked behind him and saw them, he cursed them in the name of the LORD. Then two female bears came out of the woods and tore up forty-two lads of their number. 25 And he went from there to Mount Carmel, and from there he returned to Samaria.
The event described in these verses may seem repulsive to many and totally out of character with the personality of Elisha, a man who was more peaceful and personal than Elijah. As Krummacher remarks, “A deadly burst of vengeance upon a troop of wanton youths; a curse pronounced upon them in the name of the Lord! How characteristic of the legal dispensation! But how opposite to all we have said of the character and call of Elisha, as a messenger of the kindness and love of God our Saviour!”19
We must remember, however, that the Word of God, which is alive and active, is also the mighty channel the Spirit of God uses to bring men out of darkness to faith in Jesus Christ and to change them by making them like His Son. As a light that shines in the darkness of this world it exposes man’s sin, but man loves the darkness because it hides his evil deeds. He hates the light for that very reason; it exposes his evil deeds (cf. John 3:19-21). These may be deeds of ignorance, of apathy, or of out-and-out rebellion or a combination, but regardless, it often results in hatred of the light that is manifest in one form or another.
The gospel, which is contained in the Word of God, is the power of God unto salvation. Satan, of course, who holds people in bondage to death, neither wants people saved nor experiencing the power of a Christ-changed life by the power of the Spirit. For this reason, as the adversary, Satan never gets more busy than when the Word of God begins to be proclaimed and taught. He hates the Word and people of the Word, especially those engaged in its proclamation. They become the target for his attacks in whatever form he can muster.
Therefore, Bible teaching ministries, pastors, teacher, and other believers involved in the ministry of the Word can expect opposition. It simply goes with the territory. This is clearly evident in this short passage before us. In fact, this is one of the key lessons of these few verses. This was true with Moses, Elijah, and with all the prophets. We can expect attack from the world which lies under the control of Satan. But isn’t it sad when attack comes from the people of God themselves? Unfortunately, Satan is able to use God’s own people to hinder the Word, as he did with the children of Israel on many occasions.
Our Lord said, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her” (Matt. 23:37). Not all Israel was true spiritual Israel, but the fact still remains true. Satan is often able to establish a beachhead among the saints.
“Then” or “thereupon.” Following the ministry in Jericho (which portrayed a kind of firstfruits of the land) Elisha, as a man of God under the direction of God and with the Word of God moves on into the land to minister to the people. They were a people living in idolatry and badly in need of the Word.
“Bethel” means “house of God” or “place of God.” This name spoke of worship and fellowship with God. There was also a school of the prophets in Bethel, but in spite of this the city was now idolatrous and anything but a center of worship. Hosea, who ministered after Elisha, called this city Bethaven “house of wickedness” a name of shame (cf. Hos. 4:15; 5:8; 10:5). It was so called by Hosea because of the idolatrous worship Jeroboam had established in order to effect a complete separation between Israel and Judah. Out of his greed for power and his fear that if Israel went back to Jerusalem to worship, he established two new places of worship in the north with golden calves as the symbol of worship: one at Bethel and the other at Dan. This was of course in complete disobedience to the directives of the Old Testament Scripture.
“Beth” means “house and “el” means God. Aven is the Hebrew awen which means “trouble, sorrow, idolatry, wickedness and emptiness.” The word awen seems to have two primary facets to its meaning: (a) it portrays an iniquity which causes sorrow, calamity and failure (Prov. 22:8). (b) But it also portrays an emptiness which moves on to idolatry as a human means of filling the emptiness. The point is when men are empty of God and His Word, they will fill their lives with vain things whether material or philosophic. This leads to idolatry, which leads to iniquity, which leads to calamity.
Bethel needed the Word to show them their sin and to bring them back to the Lord. This was their only hope and Satan was active to stop it. Elisha was undoubtedly able to minister to the needs of certain ones there (the remnant), but the city as a whole never really turned to the Lord and His Word. Satan was well entrenched there. This is another fact we sometimes have to face. And when this is the case we may need to simply move on as Elisha did and as Paul and others did.
“And as he was going . . .” calls our attention to the time of the attack. It occurred simply in the normal process of his travels to the city. We never know (though the Lord does) when Satan or others under his control or influence, are going to attack. Just about the time we might think pressures are easing up, and things are getting better--the attack increases. This is why we must always, in spite of how things appear, take heed lest we fall (1 Cor 10:12); why we must look to ourselves lest we be tempted (Gal 6:1); and why we must be careful how we are walking (Eph 5:15) because we live in an evil world and Satan is on the prowl. He is warring against the saints.
“Young lads.” The KJV has “little children” which really misses the meaning here. These were not children, but young men. The word “lads” is the Hebrew naar and was used of servants, of soldiers and of Isaac when he was 28 years old. This was a crowd of young men, perhaps students of the false prophets, who were here as antagonists to Elisha’s prophetic ministry and authority. If not students, they were sent by the false prophets or idolatrous priests of Bethel to stop Elisha from entering the city. In Elisha Satan had an enemy and he was acting to protect his territory. Remember, however, Elisha was going to Bethel not to curse, but to bless.
“Came out of the city and mocked him . . . Go up, you baldhead.” “Mocked” is the Hebrew galas and denotes a scornful belittling of something or someone, but it issues from an attitude which counts as valueless that which is really of great value.
Leaders have always had to deal with disrespect. It is seen throughout the Old Testament and it is found in the New Testament as well. But the greatest disrespect here is in relation to God. These young men, undoubtedly under Satan’s influence, were attacking not just Elisha, the man, but they were also attacking his message. But the issue was, regardless of the personality of the man, his physical appearance, or even his short comings, Elisha was God’s man with God’s message. As a result, in the final analysis they were mocking or rejecting God and what He was attempting to do through Elisha as God’s spokesman. Elisha was simply an instrument of God (cf. 2 Thess. 5:12, 13 “on account of the work”). The work referred to in 1 Thessalonians is God’s work--the work of building men in the Word and in Christ through these men. And there is a certain sense in which this applies to all believers.
The attack of these young men is twofold:
(1) “Go up”… “go up.” That is, ascend up as you claim Elijah did. The translation of Elijah was a miracle of God and portrayed the biblical truth and hope of the translation of the saints. Though Old Testament saints did not understand this, it was still a type of this truth. Elisha was a prophet of God and by doing this these young men were denying the work of God, denying the Word of God and God’s actions in history.
(2) The second aspect of the attack is seen in the words: “you baldhead.” Whether Elisha was actually bald, or whether he had a different hairstyle, i.e., cropped short on top, they were ridiculing the prophet and telling him to get lost like Elijah. Krummacher writes:
Baldness was regarded by the lower orders as a kind of disgrace; for as it was one of the usual consequences of leprosy, so it was accounted a sign of personal and mental degradation. Hence, in using this opprobrious epithet, the young profligates had a most malicious intention. Their expressions are not to be viewed as a mere burst of youthful wantonness; but as poisoned arrows, pointed and directed by refined and satanic malignity. It is as if they had said, “Thou effeminate leper! Thou would-be prophet! We fear thee not! Go up! Go up!” as if they mean, “Imitate thy master!” . . . It seems to have been a scoffing allusion to the ascent of Elijah; partly sceptical, and partly in derision of Elisha . . . 20
These attacks are typical of the schemes and methods by which Satan seeks to nullify the ministry of God’s saints and the work of God. He attacks the message (the Word) and the messenger or both. He seeks to discourage or discredit the teacher or he attacks those hearing the message. Regarding the messenger, Satan may seek to call attention to petty issues, circumstances, misunderstandings, or focus on personalities, or physical appearance. It can be almost anything, but whatever, it is a means to a beachhead from whence he seeks to launch one attack after another to get people’s eyes off the Lord and their ears closed to His Word. We must be careful that we do not cooperate with Satan and throw fuel on his fires.
The important thing here is Elisha’s reaction to this and God’s action in response. This is designed to emphasize to us the seriousness of the issues here.
This seems harsh, but God and His leaders have, on occasion, acted harshly in order to impress upon man the seriousness of life and the Word of God. Ananias and Saphira are an illustration of this in the New Testament.
(1) What Elisha did not do: Before looking at what Elisha did, let’s consider for a moment what he did not do! (a) He did not turn and run. (b) He did not argue with them or run after them (Matt 7:6). (c) He did not compromise his message. (d) He was not acting or reacting out of self love or anxiety or self-defense from the standpoint of his ego or pride. (e) He did not complain to the Lord or want to throw in the towel. (f) He simply ignored their words, actions, and attitudes. God’s response proves this.
What does this teach us? When trouble strikes, we should never resort to the solutions of the world, i.e., to human viewpoint escape or defense tactics (cf. Ps. 143:11-12; 147:10-11).
(2) What Elisha did: Elisha took up his armor, “He cursed them in the name of the Lord.” This is not cursing for cursing or reviling for reviling (1 Pet. 2:23). He was trusting in the Lord and leaving it in God’s hands. The key here is in the word “curse.” It does not mean to swear with vile words. This is the Hebrew word galal meaning “be swift, slight, trifling, or of little account.” The primary meaning is “to be light or slight.” Both verb and noun forms seem to represent a formula which expresses a removal or lowering from the place of blessing.
Cursing stands in contrast to the word blessing or favor (cf. Gen. 27:11, 12). The emphasis is on the absence, reversal, or removal of a blessed state or rightful position which brings God’s protection, provision and blessing. The principle is very simple: without God’s blessed salvation and protection we all stand cursed. The moment God removed His wall of protection from Job, Satan attacked him and wrecked havoc in Job’s life.
So Elisha, as a prophet, saw their hardened and rebellious condition, unresponsive to correction. In the name of the Lord (i.e. by His authority) Elisha simply turned them over to the Lord and to their own devises, which had the effect of removing them from even the common protection of God. He probably said something like, “may God deal with you according to what you deserve,” or “may you be cursed for your sins of rebellion.” This would demonstrate to the city and to people all around a vital truth: without the Lord there is no protection and that blasphemy of God’s servants and His Word in order to hinder God’s message is serious business. Note that Elisha did not call out the bears, God did. Two female bears (not three bears--papa bear, mamma bear, and baby bear) came out and tore up forty-two young men.
You would think this would strike the fear of God into the hearts of the entire area for years to come. But no--the heart of man is such that they either ignore it, reject it, or soon forget it.
God does not take it lightly when we ignore His Word or hinder its propagation in the world among His people. This is serious business (cf. 1 Cor 3:16-17 with 10; 11:30).
As believers, we should expect opposition. The more we move out for the Lord, the more attacks we may have to face from our adversary through his various schemes (cf. 1 Pet 4:10-12). As Paul stated it in 2 Timothy 3:12, “In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (NIV).
We need more Elishas, those who will stand fast and act in biblical ways leaving the results to the Lord. This is precisely what Paul did in connection with the strong criticism often leveled at him by some of the Corinthians (cf. 1 Cor. 4:1f). As with Elisha and Paul, we need to move forward in our ministries while always trusting God to make a way and remove the obstacles.
Chapter three provides a series of striking contrasts between the prophet Elisha and the three kings in this story; between conditions before and after; between the plans of men and the providence of God; and between the arm of the flesh and the arm of the Lord. And, contemplating on the contrasts and events of this passage, it should remind us we do not live in a meaningless vacuum. God’s Word confronts us in the midst of our lives, on every hand, and in all we do. Our lives are never lived, not even for a moment, without implications both for the present and the future.
True godliness means taking God seriously and that means not just when we feel like it, not just when it is convenient, or only when things are getting tough and we are forced to turn to God in desperation. To take God seriously means abiding, living, thinking, speaking, deciding or choosing everything and all things by what He is and says, by the application of His divine essence, His being, and the truths of Scripture or the teachings of the Word.
Many today have a knowledge of God; they believe that He exists; they may even believe in His Son, but they just do not take Him at His word. Many play at their religious life. During the week, by their own viewpoint, priorities and language, they act as though God were not even involved. On Sunday they do their little ‘nod to God,’ but for the rest of the week it is business as usual.
In 2 Kings 3 we see varying degrees of this in the personalities seen in this story. First there is Elisha, the prophet of God, a man who always took God seriously--God and His Word was his life. Then there was Jehoshaphat, a good king, a man who generally took God seriously and sought the way of the Lord, yet at times, he too failed. Finally there was Jehoram, king of Israel, an evil king. He believed in the fact of the Lord of the Old Testament, but he never took God seriously, at least not until he got into a jam, and even then, it was only by way of expediency, a way to get out of his predicament.
Godliness (taking God seriously according to His Word) or the lack of it, is never, ever, without serious implications and results. We reap what we sow. Life is full of causes and effects. God is sovereign, but man is responsible. To a large degree, we are a product of the choices we make in our daily walk.
In the passage before us, Jehoram was faced with the rebellion of the Moabites, one of the long-standing enemies of God’s people. It was Balak, king of Moab, who years before had sought the aid of the prophet Balaam in his attempt to get God to curse Israel. Moab lay immediately across the Dead Sea from Judah, south of the transjordan tribes. David had been victorious over the Moabites and made it a vassal state, apparently allowing them to keep their own king, but under heavy tribute as a tax and to acknowledge their submission to Israel (2 Sam. 8:2; 1 Chron. 18:2). Their rebellion was not only a threat to the northern kingdom of Israel, but also to Judah. This rebellion was undoubtedly a test designed by the Lord to get Jehoram’s attention. How would Jehoram respond? Would he turn to the Lord or to the arm of the flesh, to his own solutions?
The lessons here should be obvious. When faced with the trials and irritations of life, how do we respond? Are we going to think carefully about what God is doing or seeking to do in our lives? Is He calling attention to sin? Is the problem a mirror of reproof? Or is God simply seeking to use us in some way or teach us an important spiritual lesson? Or are we going to turn to our own strategies?
By human strategies we are talking about the kind of things people do to handle the problems of life apart from God’s direction and enablement. The following is a brief list of pictures in the Bible that depict this constant tendency in all of us. They are given as warnings of both the tendency and the consequences.
(1) The picture of filling one’s life with the substitutes of the world. Like one fills an empty bottle we often seek to fill our emptiness with the world’s substitutes to meet life’s needs rather than trusting in the Lord and filling our lives with Him and His Word (Isa. 2:5-12). In Isaiah 2:6, the word “filled” is the Hebrew, male, which suggests the idea of attempting to remove a void, the problem of personal emptiness, but this is something which only God can fill. This word was used of filling something like a pitcher or a bottle with some needed substance (cf. John 7:37-39).
(2) The picture of leaning on the staff of a sharp reed that pierces the hand is a interesting illustration of the detrimental consequences of turning and trusting in our own solutions (Isa. 36:6).
(3) The picture of lighting our own firebrands by which we seek to direct our way. Rather than trusting God by walking in the light of His Word, we tend to fabricate our own sources of light (Isa. 50:10-11).
(4) The picture of sheep which go astray because they are prone to wander and go their own way rather than follow the Lord who is our Shepherd (Isa. 53:6; Ps. 23).
(5) The picture of building our own cisterns rather than drinking from God’s resources as the one and only fountain of Living Water. But as it always turns out, our cisterns are always broken cisterns (Jer. 2:12)
(6) The picture of leaning on the arm of the flesh. I am reminded of the picture on the Arm and Hammer soda box with the implicit promise that this product will do the job, but the arm of the flesh will not (Jer. 17:5).
1 Now Jehoram the son of Ahab became king over Israel at Samaria in the eighteenth year of Jehoshaphat king of Judah, and reigned twelve years. 2 And he did evil in the sight of the LORD, though not like his father and his mother; for he put away the sacred pillar of Baal which his father had made. 3 Nevertheless, he clung to the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, which he made Israel sin; he did not depart from them.
Jehoram, the grandson of evil Ahab, became king of Israel (the northern kingdom). Remember, there were no good kings or kings who followed the Lord in the northern kingdom. While they believed and knew very well that Yahweh, the Lord of Israel was God, they had nevertheless forsaken Him and in idolatrous apostasy had become involved in the mysterious and evil cults of ancient Babylon.
In verse 2 we read “He did evil in the sight of the Lord.” Jehoram was not a godly man nor was he a man who took God seriously. He had not sinned in the way of Ahab and Jezebel or his father, Ahaziah, nevertheless, verse 3 tells us, he clung to the sins of Jeroboam. “Clung” is the Hebrew, dabaq, “to cleave, cling, stick to, follow closely.” “It carries the sense of clinging to someone or something in affection and loyalty. Man is to cleave to his wife (Gen. 2:24). Ruth clave to Naomi (Ruth 1:14). The men of Judah clave to David their king during Sheba’s rebellion (II Sam. 20:2).”21 Clearly, the point is though Jehoram turned away from Baal worship, he continued to be loyal to the worship of the golden calf and continued to perpetuate its idolatry and apostasy in Israel (see 1 Kings 12:24-33).
Surely this sordid story of the kings of the north teaches us an important principle. Our beliefs and values, with the behavior those belief systems beget, do cast a long shadow and have grave implications upon our children. A defective son is often the result of a defective father (though not always) and defective children are often the products of defective parents. Note by comparison the following passage.
2 Chronicles 17:3-6 And the Lord was with Jehoshaphat because he followed the example of his father David’s earlier days and did not seek the Baals, 4 but sought the God of his father, followed His commandments, and did not act as Israel did. 5 So the Lord established the kingdom in his control, and all Judah brought tribute to Jehoshaphat, and he had great riches and honor. 6 And he took great pride in the ways of the Lord and again removed the high places and the Asherim from Judah.
4 Now Mesha king of Moab was a sheep breeder, and used to pay the king of Israel 100,000 lambs and the wool of 100,000 rams. 5 But it came about, when Ahab died, the king of Moab rebelled against the king of Israel.
The Moabites were a heathen, idolatrous people whom God had subjugated under David’s reign because they were always a threat to the national sovereignty of Israel and their control over the land--the land that God had promised to Abraham and had given to the nation. This rebellion of Moab was, however, a divine chastisement of Jehoram because he had forsaken the Lord. It was another gracious attempt of God to get the attention of the kings of the north.
Life’s problems, and pressures are God’s agents and “attention grabbers.” They are designed to be tools of God, mirrors of reproof, and divine instructors, but for them to have their effect, we need see them as such through the divine viewpoint of Scripture and respond as is necessary according to the Word of God. I am reminded of the words of Psalmist in Psalm 119.
67 Before I was afflicted I went astray, But now I keep Your word.
71 It is good for me that I was afflicted, That I may learn Your statutes.
75 I know, O Lord, that Your judgments are righteous, And that in faithfulness You have afflicted me.
6 And King Jehoram went out of Samaria at that time and mustered all Israel. 7 Then he went and sent word to Jehoshaphat the king of Judah, saying, “The king of Moab has rebelled against me. Will you go with me to fight against Moab?” And he said, “I will go up; I am as you are, my people as your people, my horses as your horses.”
Now back to 2 Kings 3 and the plans of Jehoram. Noticeably, what does he not do? He does not seek the Lord. He does not call a prophet of God or even pray. He merely plans without fixing his heart upon God. Instead he turns to the arm of the flesh. He leans upon human alliances, upon military strength and strategy that seems so natural and right to men. But it is the Lord who prepares and establishes--so the Lord has something very different planned.
First note the activity and plans of Jehoram: (a) He musters all Israel. He gathers his troops to prepare for battle (i.e. his trust is in numbers). (b) Then he enlists the aid of Jehoshaphat, a godly man whom God had greatly blessed. Jehoshaphat had an able army, but he had unwisely been in alliances with Ahab, Jehoram’s grandfather! Thus there was a chink missing in the spiritual armor of Jehoshaphat.
Jehoshaphat agrees to help, though again an unwise decision. I am sure Jehoram thought that surely they would be successful and the Moabites would be trembling in their boots. Verse 8 shows their military strategy, what appeared to be a surefire winner! The king of Moab would be expecting them from the north around the top end of the Dead Sea, but instead they would take their troops down through the wilderness around the southern end of the Dead Sea through Edom and up into Moab from the south. By this wise strategy they thought they would surprise and defeat the Moabites. But remember:
Proverbs 14:12 There is a way which seems right to a man, But its end is the way of death.
Jeremiah 10:23 I know, O LORD, that a man’s way is not in himself; Nor is it in a man who walks to direct his steps.
Psalm 33:16-18 The king is not saved by a mighty army; A warrior is not delivered by great strength. 17 A horse is a false hope for victory; Nor does it deliver anyone by its great strength. 18 Behold, the eye of the Lord is on those who fear Him, On those who hope for His lovingkindness . . .
In all of man’s plans and preparations, he should always consult the Lord because as we can see from the verses above, it is not within man’s ability and wisdom to direct, to prepare, plan and establish his way.
Proverbs 20:24 Man’s steps are ordained by the LORD, How then can man understand his way?
“Man’s steps are (ordained) by the Lord” is literally, “From Yahweh, the steps of man.” There are two main ideas here: (a) Man needs God’s direction, God’s knowledge and wisdom, and God’s activity on his behalf. (b) God is sovereignly working in every man’s life to bring about events, conditions, etc. to carry out His purposes and plan for his or her life. If this is so (and it is) then we have the responsibility to seek God’s direction and to live dependently on Him in all we do. This is James’ point:
James 4:13-17 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow, we shall go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.”14 Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away.15 Instead, you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we shall live and also do this or that.”16 But as it is, you boast in your arrogance; all such boasting is evil.17 Therefore, to one who knows the right thing to do, and does not do it, to him it is sin.
The question, as Solomon asked, is, “How then, can a man understand his way?” That is, how can he grasp the events and circumstances of his life? Who can understand what God is doing? Only by faith in God’s wisdom, knowledge of God’s Word, by seeking God’s direction, and by taking the fact of God and His working in our lives seriously! But even then, much of what God is doing will remain a mystery, something we will need to rest in His loving purposes and wisdom until we are in His presence in heaven. I am reminded of Ecclesiastes 7:13-14,
Consider the work of God, For who is able to straighten what He has bent (i.e., the trials and pressures of life)? In the day of prosperity be happy, But in the day of adversity consider--God has made the one as well as the other So that man may not discover anything that will be after him.
“God brings both prosperity and adversity into our lives for His sovereign purposes, without revealing the key to His plan.”22 While we can trust and rest our lives in His loving and all wise hands, the key to what He is doing is simply beyond our human comprehension.
So what are we responsible to do? “The mind of man plans his way, But the LORD directs his steps” (Proverbs 16:9).
The mind of man plans (Hebrew is hashab) meaning to “think creatively, devise plans,” etc. Men do need to plan and to think seriously about their lives, who they are, where they are going, and about the consequences and implications of their decisions and actions. But the Lord directs (imperfect of the Hebrew word, kun). The basic idea is “to bring into being and so to establish or fix.” It means (a) to prepare as in setting a table, or as in preparing and equipping an army for battle, and then (b) to establish, fix, make firm his steps. The point is, ultimately God has both the last word and the best word about our lives.
Proverbs 16:3 Commit your works to the LORD, And your plans will be established.
“Commit” (the Hebrew is galal) means to “roll on another and so away from yourself.” Note “works” is plural meaning all of them, everything. We need to take God’s involvement and activity in our lives seriously, seek His guidance, aid and provision. We need to turn our lives over to the Lord--lock, stock and barrel. We need to accept the occurrences of our lives as part of God’s involvement with us.
“And your plans will be established.” (kun) You’re in wise and safe hands when you are in the Lord’s hands because God, in His perfect love, wisdom, and sovereignty, is at work, preparing and establishing His will in your life.
The word “steps” as used in Proverbs 16:9 and Jeremiah 10:23 is the Hebrew mis’ed from saad which means “to march in cadence.” It was used of the methodical movement of a group or band of soldiers moving step by step toward a goal. This word carries with it the idea and principal that our steps have both purpose and consequences, either for good or evil, for blessing or hurt (cf. Prov. 16:4).
In Proverbs 8:7 this verb is used of a lad methodically walking, step by step toward the house of the harlot, knowing the direction he was taking, but nave and blind to the consequences of his steps (vss. 23-29).
Our steps are not without implications and many of them, serious ones. So we must take God seriously. He alone can establish our lives or our path. God is personally involved. He has prepared both people and conditions and circumstances, either: (a) to make our way right, straight and established (i.e., to give real meaning, purpose and fulfillment, or (b) He may prepare other conditions to turn us around, to stop and rebuke our present course to cause us to trust and turn to Him, if we will but respond to His work (cf. Ps. 112:7).
8 And he said, “Which way shall we go up?” And he answered, “The way of the wilderness of Edom.” 9 So the king of Israel went with the king of Judah and the king of Edom; and they made a circuit of seven days’ journey, and there was no water for the army or for the cattle that followed them. 10 Then the king of Israel said, “Alas! For the LORD has called these three kings to give them into the hand of Moab.” 11 But Jehoshaphat said, “Is there not a prophet of the LORD here, that we may inquire of the LORD by him?” And one of the king of Israel’s servants answered and said, “Elisha the son of Shaphat is here, who used to pour water on the hands of Elijah.” 12 And Jehoshaphat said, “The word of the LORD is with him.” So the king of Israel and Jehoshaphat and the king of Edom went down to him.
The wilderness or desert, because of its barrenness, sometimes symbolizes the fruitless life of carnality and being out of the plan of God. I was recently reminded of this on our vacation when we drove through Death Valley. How anyone could want to live there is beyond me. In fact, as we were driving I wondered, “Why in the world did we take this route?” Jeremiah had this concept in mind when he wrote,
Jeremiah 17:5-6 This is what the LORD says: “Cursed is the one who trusts in man, who depends on flesh for his strength and whose heart turns away from the LORD. 6 He will be like a bush in the wastelands; he will not see prosperity when it comes. He will dwell in the parched places of the desert, in a salt land where no one lives” (NIV).
If these kings had known about Murphy, they might have thought Murphy’s Law was surely involved here. If things can go wrong, they will, and at the worst possible time. But let’s remember something, Murphy’s so-called Law is really the outworking of the laws of God and often as the direct intervention of God into our affairs.
We live in an imperfect and judged earth. Things break down and decay. There is sin and Satan and this all works to create difficulties and problems. But God uses these, and often engineers problems to get our attention or to demonstrate His power. So in verse 9 the three kings journey down into the wilderness, but they run into the unexpected. The water holes they had counted on were not there and instead of bringing the Moabites back under submission, they were faced with the possibility of their own defeat and death--wiped out in the desert.
Here is a typical “no water” problem of life, a test, a trial, a problem suddenly interjected into life’s experience. What would you do? What about the problems you are facing right now or that you faced last week or might face in the week to come? As with the three kings, we have two choices: (a) we can take God seriously and respond to Him in faith or (b) we can react, blame God and others and act in unbelief. Our passage gives us an illustration of both responses.
In verse 10 we see the response of Jehoram: “Then the king of Israel said, ‘Alas! For the Lord has called these three kings to give them into the hand of Moab.’”
Remember, depending on our response, pressure will make us better or worse (bitter). It depends on the attitude and the perspective with which we view and face the problem. Swindoll rightly says, “Attitudes are all important.” Jehoram’s mental attitude was negative, but it is typical of the man who refuses to truly get serious with the Lord so that he walks dependently on Him in aspects of life. The typical procedure is to ignore God before trouble, but then blame God and others after it comes.
There are also other typical elements here--unbelief and guilt. Though Jehoram ignored God’s involvement with his life before this trouble, he now recognizes the sovereign action of God as a divine judgment and intervention. Instead of responding in faith and repentance, or instead of seeking the Lord, all he could do was to cry out in defeat as a man without hope. “Alas” is the Hebrew a&h`h, “alas, ah, oh no.” Our word “ah” is practically a transliteration. Interestingly, it is often used with “Lord” or “Lord God.” Here it is an expression showing no hope, only guilt and despondency. How else could he respond? By his continued apathy to God he had hardened his heart.
Our everyday activities have significant implications--they either promote godliness as we spend time with the Lord or they promote ungodliness the more we ignore Him. Our heart and mental attitudes must have the right spiritual diet to live on and that’s a choice we each are faced with every day. I am reminded of David’s cry in Psalm 5. There he declared his determination, “In the morning, O Lord, You will hear my voice; In the morning I will order my prayer to You and eagerly watch” (Ps. 5:3).
In verse 11a we see a contrast in the response of Jehoshaphat.
Note the conjunction “but.” “But Jehoshaphat said, ‘Is there not a prophet of the Lord here that we may inquire of the Lord by Him?’” What a different mental attitude and perspective! We see an attitude that not only recognizes the Lord’s involvement with their lives, but one which is willing to call on the Lord for instruction, wisdom, aid and deliverance. Such a mental attitude sees the purposeful hand of God. It accepts trials as mirrors of reproof, as windows of light, as opportunities to manifest the power of God, the love and grace of God, and as instruments of our transformation.
The prophets were the spokesmen of God and were often sought to seek God’s guidance and truth as it pertained to any particular problem. They were to the Old Testament (along with Old Testament Scriptures) what the completed canon of Scripture and prayer are to us today (cf. Jam 1:5 prayer, 1:16 the Word).
In verse 11b we see God’s gracious supply.
This reminds me of the words of the prophet who wrote: “Before they call I will answer and while they are yet speaking I will hear” (Isa. 65:24). So we read: “And one of the kings of Israel’s servants answered and said, ‘Elisha the son of Shaphat is here, who used to pour water on the hands of Elijah.’”
Let’s note several things of importance here:
(1) The mention of pouring water on the hands of Elijah not only associates Elisha as the understudy of the great prophet, but it calls our attention to the principle of Luke 16:10, “He who is faithful in a very little thing is faithful also in much; . . .” Elisha had been faithful in the small details of ministering to Elijah as a servant and now God was going to use him with kings. This and the fact he had been Elijah’s servant/student, clearly qualified him for this situation. So this brings out the servant character of the prophet. Because Elisha meant business with the Lord and was faithful to his calling, he was available to go and minister to these kings in their desperate need.
(2) What was Elisha the prophet doing here--seven days journey into the wilderness? Does this not point us to the wonderful providence of God? Man plans, but it is the Lord who prepares and establishes our steps. It teaches us that the Lord supplies; victory in the battle is always His. The Lord had prepared and led Elisha to this very place as His servant to be available to these kings and their armies in their time of need.
(3) Our responsibility is to always seek and inquire of our Lord who prepares a way of escape or deliverance. This is absolutely beautiful.
In verse 12 we see Jehoshaphat’s second response to the presence of Elisha.
“The word of the Lord is with him.” Elisha’s reputation had gone before him. Jehoshaphat knew that Elisha was a man who meant business with God and could be counted on to give God’s Word, the truth. The king knew that Elisha was a man who would level with people and honestly inquire of God on their behalf, but there are always those who simply preach what people want to hear--things that tickle their fancy or curiosity or amuse, but who fail to honestly face them with the truth of God, especially as it relates to their responsibilities as the people of God (cf. 2 Chron 18:1-17; 2 Tim. 4:1-4).
2 Timothy 4:1-5 I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: 2 preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. 3 For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires; 4 and will turn away their ears from the truth, and will turn aside to myths. 5 But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.
. . . Pastors gradually settle down and lose interest in being change agents in the church. An unconscious conspiracy arises between their flesh and that of their congregations. It becomes tacitly understood that the laity will give pastors special honor in the exercise of their gifts, if the pastors will agree to leave their congregations’ pre-Christian lifestyles undisturbed and do not call for the mobilization of lay gifts for the work of the kingdom. Pastors are permitted to become ministerial superstars. Their pride is fed and their congregations are permitted to remain herds of sheep in which each has cheerfully turned to his own way.23
But in king Jehoshaphat’s desire to hear from a prophet of the Lord (vs. 11), we see a wonderful attitude for any person, but especially for a king or a leader. Is this not what our nation needs so desperately today? We need people who want God’s answers and direction and who will both study their Bibles and listen to faithful heralds of the Word for God’s direction; we need people who realize that the answer to our problems (big or small) lies in the Word of the Lord. But we also need those who, whether it is popular or not, will faithfully proclaim the truth of Scripture.
In spite of all their troops and wealth, these three kings with their power, muscle, and military strategy are brought to nothing and finally turn to the prophet (a man without money, power or position) that they might find God’s answers. Read 2 Chronicles 20:1-30, the account of Jehoshaphat’s actions when faced with a huge multitude that had come against Judah. The results are significant. Verse 30 reads, “So the kingdom of Jehoshaphat was at peace, for his God gave him rest on all sides” (emphasis mine), but not until Jehoshaphat turned to the Lord and sought His help by claiming the principles and promises of the Word (see vs. 6).
Significantly, Elisha was known not for his dynamic or scintillating personality nor for his oratorical skill, but for two simple but profoundly important characteristics that marked him off as a man of God. He was known as a servant, as one who poured water on the hands of Elijah (cf. Mark 10:45), and as one who was faithful to proclaim the Word of the Lord, “The word of the Lord is with him.”
Unfortunately, too often people look for the wrong things in a spiritual leader--looks, voice, charismatic personality, cleverness--you name it. None of these things are wrong in themselves; indeed, they are gifts of God, but they can be abused. They can be so used that they call undue attention to the messenger and people become enamored with the messenger rather than the message. God wants us, as earthen vessels, to be windows that allow people to see through to the message, the Lord Jesus. But so often we see men and women use their gifts so they become like either stained glass or dirty windows. Either way, it distracts and hinders a clear view of the Lord. It appears to me that Paul played down his own gifts and abilities to protect against this danger.
1 Corinthians 2:1-5 And when I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God. 2 For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. 3 And I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. 4 And my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 that your faith should not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God.
There are many lessons of faith in this section of 2 Kings 3. One is that victory over our enemies is a very little thing with God, the Creator of the universe and sovereign Savior of man. No matter how big or small our problems, God cares and He is more than adequate. The miraculous is a very little thing with God.
But there is another prominent lesson that flows though these verses like a uniting thread. In fact, all through Scripture the Bible is pregnant with this emphasis. While miracles are a very small thing to God, watching after our relationship with Him daily and moment by moment is a very big thing. It is the most important thing in life. In fact it is what life is all about. It is the root of success or the root of defeat. It is the spring of life or the cause of spiritual drought.
As Proverbs 4:23 literally says in the Hebrew: “Above all keeping, keep your heart (the inner sanctuary of one’s relationship with God), for from it flow the springs of life.”
We pick up our story in 2 Kings 3 with the three kings in a real predicament. They are in the wilderness and about to perish because of a lack of water. But remember, this was the result of not taking God seriously and consulting Him concerning their plans. So ultimately, the greater enemy was not the Moabites, but their own failure to seek God’s direction.
13 Now Elisha said to the king of Israel, “What do I have to do with you? Go to the prophets of your father and to the prophets of your mother.” And the king of Israel said to him, “No, for the LORD has called these three kings together to give them into the hand of Moab.” 14 And Elisha said, “As the LORD of hosts lives, before whom I stand, were it not that I regard the presence of Jehoshaphat the king of Judah, I would not look at you nor see you. 15 But now bring me a minstrel.” And it came about, when the minstrel played, that the hand of the LORD came upon him.
As we can see from these verses, Elisha was a man not prone toward partiality for even a moment. His allegiance was to the Lord and to the principles of His Word regardless of a person’s position, power, or wealth (cf. 1 Tim. 5:20, 21). Because he took God seriously and was willing to trust the Lord regardless of the outcome, like Elijah, he could stand fearlessly and declare the truth. He knew he was surrounded by a multitude of the hosts of the Lord and stood in the presence of the living God whom he represented (cf. vs. 14 with 1 Kings 17:1 and note 2 Kings 6:15-17).
“What do I have to do with you?” Elisha didn’t pull any punches did he? He came directly to the point. In this question he was saying, what do we have in common, why have you, an idolater, a rejecter of the commandments of God come to me? Your sins have separated you from God (Isa 39:2) and from any message or help God may have for you.
“Go to the prophets of your father and mother” is probably a reference to his grandparents, Ahab and Jezebel. So who were these prophets to whom Elisha referred? They were the prophets of Baal, the false prophets of idol worship who had no word from God as demonstrated so clearly in 1 Kings 18. All they had to offer were the false and deceptive visions of the Satanic world. They were prophets who said what the kings wanted to hear. Elisha, then, was telling Jehoram to be consistent. They had been ignoring God and following after their idols, so why run to God now that they were in big trouble? Elisha was using irony by asking, can’t your present religious system and your present way of life deliver you? Don’t your prophets have the answers? Do you think you can ignore God and then, at your whim, when trouble strikes, just turn to God as though he were a genie in a bottle?
Elisha would never have spurned the genuine requests of a repentant man, but he knew Jehoram and said what he did in cold irony to emphasize the futility or vanity of the life he had chosen. God often engineers defeat, failure, and frustration, seeking not only to get our attention, but to teach us the futility of our present course of action in order to draw a confession from us of our ways with a view to repentance, a change of our course (cf. Jer 2:19; 2:26-28).
Of course, we do not need a literal idol to be an idolater. Scripture teaches covetousness or greed is a form of idolatry (Eph. 5:5; Col. 3:5). Anything which takes the place of the worship of God, or that we depend on for our security, satisfaction, or significance in place of God--money, wealth, power, praise, pleasure, etc.--becomes a form of idolatry.
In verse 13b we see the king of Israel’s admission that the false prophets cannot help, they are futile. He is saying, no, he can’t turn to them, they cannot help. Then he adds “For the Lord has called these three kings . . .” In this we see: (a) that he knew Yahweh of Israel was God--the true God. But it was a belief like the devils who believe and tremble; it was a belief without repentance and faith in the power of God. He knew his ways were wrong, guilt filled his soul and he knew he deserved God’s wrath.
Guilt, unresolved by the grace of God through faith in the Savior, can only bring a feeling of condemnation and ruin. Guilt causes man to resort to all kinds of escape mechanisms to stifle the guilt and escape the judgment of God.
It might be well to note a few of the forms these escape mechanisms might take:
(1) It may be Freudian philosophy that seeks to deny our guilt.
(2) It may be human works or religious systems we engage in that we think will atone for our sins.
(3) It may be an appeal to conditions and circumstances like, “the devil made me do it!”
(4) It may be some kind of bargaining appeal with God as here where Jehoram subtly implies that he was not there alone; there were three kings. Was God going to kill them all? Was that fair?
(5) It may be an apparent confession and admission of guilt. A sorrow of the world but without a genuine repentance and return to the Lord. Such is the case here as it was with Judas and Esau.
Now remember, it was Jehoshaphat who asked for a prophet of the Lord that they (the three kings) might inquire of the Lord by a prophet (vs. 11). But Elisha’s rejection of Jehoram as expressed in verse 14 illustrates the concept of unanswered prayer and God’s refusal sometimes to bring deliverance because of the spiritual condition of the heart.
Isaiah 59:1-2 Behold, the LORD’s hand is not so short That it cannot save; Neither is His ear so dull That it cannot hear. 2 But your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, And your sins have hidden His face from you, so that He does not hear.
We fail to see God’s answers to prayer and His deliverance for a number of reasons:
(1) Failure to honestly confess sin with a view to dealing with a sin: “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me” (Psalm 66:18).
(2) Failure to hear and respond to the Word: “He who turns away his ear from listening to the law, Even his prayer is an abomination” (Proverbs 28:9).
(3) Asking for the wrong motives: “You ask and do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, so that you may spend it on your pleasure” (James 4:3).
(4) Failure to ask in faith, believing God: “But let him ask in faith without any doubting, for the one who doubts is like the surf of the sea driven and tossed by the wind” (James 1:6).
(5) Domestic problems, wrong relations with others: “Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers” (1 Peter 3:7 NIV).
(6) Failure to know the Lord and to come to God through Jesus Christ: “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me’” (John 14:6).
Now in verse 14 we see Elisha’s reply to Jehoram. This is both a tacit or implied rebuke to Jehoshaphat and an encouragement to the good king. The basis of Elisha’s actions: “As the Lord of hosts (armies) lives, before whom I stand.” Literally, “As living, is Yahweh of armies.” Again this puts the futility of their actions (trusting in the arm of the flesh or their own plans and the futility of their idols and the false prophets of Jehoram) in striking contrast to the true God (the only true God who really lives and the One whom Elisha served).
Note two things that Elisha’s statement teaches us about his ministry and life: (a) it declares the reality of God and His power as the Lord of armies to deliver us. (b) It further declares Elisha was aware of God’s presence and that he was a personal representative of God, one sent there to minister the word of God uncompromisingly, and one protected and enabled by the Lord who was always with him.
My friends, this is what it’s all about! There is a living God who is powerful and He desires to save and minister to the needs of men. Amazingly, God has chosen men (mankind) to be the agents of His message of grace and salvation. And we must not only recognize our responsibility as His representatives, but we must also live in vital awareness of God’s presence and plan to use us to share His life and message with others.
Living with an awareness of God’s presence and ourselves as God’s representatives and agents of His glory is one of the keys to effective, meaningful, and purposeful living and service. Such a goal-oriented attitude and awareness is both motivational and correctional. It gives courage and produces concern for people, so that we are not simply people pleasers.
1 Thessalonians 2:1-4 For you yourselves know, brethren, that our coming to you was not in vain, 2 but after we had already suffered and been mistreated in Philippi, as you know, we had the boldness in our God to speak to you the gospel of God amid much opposition. 3 For our exhortation does not come from error or impurity or by way of deceit; 4 but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not as pleasing men but God, who examines our hearts (NIV).
Again Elisha sternly rebukes Jehoram while tacitly rebuking Jehoshaphat:
(1) To Jehoram he was expressing the biblical concept of Isaiah 59:1-2 referred to earlier.
(2) To Jehoshaphat there is the implied rebuke that he had no business being there with one whom God would neither look upon nor hear. This was an unholy alliance and a failure to take the Lord seriously in all areas of his life. His very presence in this alliance was presumptive disobedience.
Because Jehoshaphat was (on the whole) a godly man who sought the Lord, the Lord spared him in this alliance with Jehoram. This was pure grace, but oh, how this is always true for all of us! I am reminded of Psalm 143:1-2:
1 Hear my prayer, O Lord, Give ear to my supplications! Answer me in Your faithfulness, in Your righteousness! 2 And do not enter into judgment with Your servant, For in Your sight no man living is righteous.
Elisha had been agitated by his confrontation with Jehoram and bothered by the alliance of Jehoshaphat. He was in no mood to receive and to give the Word of God. His anger had been godly indignation. He had not sinned, but still his heart and mind needed to be prepared by the Lord to be able both to hear God’s Word and to give it.
What an important lesson for us to grasp! Not only does the heart need keeping (Prov. 4:21), but it needs preparing (put right) that we might be in a condition to hear, grasp, and respond to the Lord. Failure to prepare the heart can lead to unfaithfulness (Ps. 78:8). Where there is known sin in one’s life, of course it needs to be honestly confessed (Ps. 66:18; Isa. 59:1f), but we also, as the Psalmist shows us, need to ask that God might open our eyes to properly behold the wonders of His precious Word (Ps. 119:18). But there are other things that are helpful to the preparation process like music, the kind that can quiet the spirit and help one to focus on the things of God. This probably expresses my bias and personal choice, but some of the music I hear in churches today is too loud and too jivey to quiet my spirit. Nevertheless, since music can be an important part in preparing the heart and soul to hear the Word, Elisha called for someone to come and play. When the minstrel played, the hand of the Lord came upon Elisha--God moved to give His word and direction on this matter.
There is another important element to the lesson here. Deliverance out of their predicament of no water and victory against the Moabites was dependent on Elisha’s ability to both hear and deliver God’s message. Friends, the same is true today. Without God’s Word on the issues of life faithfully and accurately presented to others, people are left in despair and defeat. If we do not prepare and keep our hearts, how can we faithfully and accurately minister God’s Word?
Since the matter of preparation for worship and hearing the voice of God in His Word is so important, I have included a portion of a study from Luke 22.
The key events in this chapter are the celebration of the Passover and the institution of the Lord’s Supper. Since both were acts of worship and fellowship which visualized God’s activity and provision for man in the person and work of Christ, and man’s need of faith and commitment to live through fellowship with God’s Son, we can learn some important lessons that pertain to worship.
Verses 7-13 form part of the background and scenario to that special night with the Lord and drive home two key responsibilities, preparation and submission. The simple thrust of these verses is that for all genuine, bonafide, and meaningful worship, indeed, for true spiritual living, we need careful preparation that leads to resting in the Savior and out of that, to submission and obedience to the person of Christ.
The concept of preparation and its necessity for a truly worshipful observance of the Passover is found in at least six places in this passage.
First, it is found in the anticipation of the Passover in verse 1. It was time for the celebration of the pascal lamb. If it was to be celebrated with meaning, obviously certain things had to be done. In fact, “it seems that since the days of the dispersion, the Jews had added an extra day at the beginning of the eight days of this festival season and called it the Day of Preparation.”24 This, then, was the day of preparation.
Second, the idea of preparation is seen four more times in the repetition of the word “prepare” in verses 8, 9, 12, and 13.
Finally, the idea of preparation is seen a sixth time in the provision of the large, furnished, upper room, a special place where the disciples could meet privately, like a family, and observe the Passover with Jesus.
Note two things about this time of preparation:
(1) There was the Command of the Lord (vs. 8): The preparations were done at the Lord’s command. What was done here was a result of His directions and the obedience or submission of the disciples.
(2) There was the Provision of the Lord (vss. 10-12): There may be an element of the miraculous in this. Some think that previous arrangements had been made. The text does not say and the manner in which they were to find the furnished room seems a little at odds with a prearranged set up. At any rate, the point is the Lord provided that which was necessary for this time of fellowship and worship.
Does this not remind us of how the Lord provides all that we need to both know and relate our lives to His glorious life? Our need is to respond in faith, and then, through dependence on His life, to be obedient and prepare for worship that we might appropriate what He has provided.
Let’s note some of the effort that was involved in preparation for the Passover.
(1) A site had to be selected. This was no small thing for thousands of pilgrims were in Jerusalem looking for a suitable place to celebrate the Passover. The point is, the Lord will provide a place and a means to get to know Him and what His person, death, and life mean to us if we are available.
(2) The site had to be made ready. It had to be cleansed or purified.
(3) A lamb had to be selected. It had to be taken to the temple, examined, sacrificed, and roasted.
(4) The other food items had to be provided, the bitter herbs, the bread, the sauce, and the wine.
(5) And above all of this, there was the need of spiritual preparation. For effective and meaningful worship to occur (worship that is not merely lip service) there must be, by the very nature of worship, the proper preparation both physically and spiritually. The Lord and Scripture demand this. As the Lord told the woman at the well, “God is spirit, and those that worship Him, must worship in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24).
Like the disciples, we tend to readily take care of the physical preparation, but oh, how we need care in the spiritual realm of preparing our hearts so we can truly relate our lives to the living God.
This the disciples failed to do. Satan had made inroads into their lives, and their hearts and minds were not in the least prepared for what they were doing. As the verses that follow show us, though they all appeared to have the same agenda, each of the disciples had agendas that were very different from Christ’s. Through the symbols of the Passover and the communion He would institute, His agenda was to teach them truth that would always remind them of the nature and value of His life to theirs. Because of this, later that evening, the Lord, taking the position of a slave which none of them were willing to do, addressed the need of preparation both directly and symbolically in His actions and instruction in John 13.
While the Lord selflessly anticipated the blessings to come through His sacrifice (cf. 22:15), the disciples were selfishly striving for positions of honor at the table and in the kingdom (22:24f). Rather than resting in their significance through their relationship and union in Him, they were vying for position.
On the basis of this emphasis in these verses, I would like to suggest some concepts of preparation that I believe are essential for the proper worship of God, for worship that has an electric impact on our lives.
You can’t lay hold of a million volts of electricity without a corresponding effect. Likewise, we can’t worship the living God in Spirit and in truth without a corresponding effect. The issue is, are we doing that? Worship in spirit and truth demands biblical preparation!
At Home: A good night’s rest, setting out clothes for the kids the night before, rising early enough to get to church without being in a rush and without being half mad at each other or the kids, etc.
At Church: A lot of work goes into preparation for an effective worship service, the cleaning of the building, preparing and setting up of visual aids, the preparation of a bulletin and the elements when the Lord’s Supper is observed, and on the list goes. This is all needed and helpful and it makes our worship time more enjoyable and meaningful. But this is not the crucial part.
(1) Modulation, Mobilization and Means:
Modulation: This is the process of changing from one tone to another; to modulate means to tune, to adjust to another key. It’s equivalent to getting in tune, adjusting to pitch with God.
Mobilization: This means putting into movement, making ready; to mobilize means to release resources for use, to mobilize for action.
Means: Restoration--modulation and mobilization requires restoration to fellowship: seeking to maintain a conscience void of offense according to the standards of God’s Word, His Truth (2 Cor 11:27-30; 1 John 1:9; John 13:8f).
So what exactly does this mean? It means humble and contrite openness before God as is seen in the response of Isaiah when he saw the Lord high and lifted up. If that is not there, then we haven’t really seen the Lord. I am reminded of the statement of Augustine. Erwin Lutzer writes, “Augustine spoke of those who have tried unsuccessfully to find God. ‘They were probably inflated by their pride of learning and so were misled into seeking Him by throwing out their chests rather than beating upon their breasts.’”25
Modulation and mobilization demand that we refocus; it calls to mind the principle of refocusing our hearts on God. To worship means to expose the life to the who and what of God. “To worship,” William Temple said, “is to quicken the conscience by the holiness of God, to feed the mind with the truth of God, to purge the imagination by the beauty of God, to open the heart to the love of God, and to devote the will to the purpose of God.”
An important principle to keep in mind--the form of our worship is not nearly so important as the spiritual condition of the heart. The disciples followed the directions the Lord gave for setting up the room for the right form of worship, but their hearts were not in tune with Christ.
By harmonization I mean getting in harmony not only with God, but with other members of the body of Christ. We are a body, a spiritual organism. Each is a separate member with his or her own part to play, but we must be in harmony with one another or we will look and sound horrible. We will be a strident, discordant noise that will turn people away from God and God from us.
What does harmonization involve?
First, harmonization involves the principle and responsibility we all have to be like-minded, to have the mind of Christ, to think with the Word, to bring every thought into obedience and captivity of Christ, to have biblical values, goals, priorities, and attitudes toward others: being understanding, loving, patient, forgiving (Phil. 1:27; 2:1-5).
Here is where modulation forms the foundation for harmonization. David said, “Unite my heart to fear Thy name” (Psalm 86:11). What does he mean by “unite my heart to fear Thy name”? It means to have a heart that is one with the will and purposes of God. It means “Lord, may it no longer be divided among a multiplicity of objects so it is drawn here and there by a multitude of different aims and aspirations that distract our heart and our attention from God.” To worship as a congregation we must come to God single-mindedly in full commitment to the purposes of God.
Second, harmonization involves the responsibility for reconciliation and restitution with other members of the body of Christ with whom we may be out of harmony (1 Cor 11:17-18; Luke 22:24; Matt. 5:23-24; 1 Pet 3:7).
In his book, The Ultimate Priority, John Mac Arthur wrote: “. . . if our corporate worship isn’t the expression of our individual worshipping lives, it is unacceptable. If you think you can live any way you want and then go to church on Sunday morning and turn on worship with the saints, you’re wrong.”
By contemplation I mean reflective meditation and research or review in preparation for the services.
This is important for teachers, singers, musicians, music directors, for those who read the Scriptures and pray. Every aspect of the service should be thoughtfully researched and thought out. This means we need to do away with the last minute or Saturday night scramble.
This is also important for the audience because it is important that they be very much involved in what is going on. How can the audience prepare? By meditation beforehand, by reading a Psalm of worship or praise, by reading the passage to be studied as announced in the bulletin or the previous week or by reviewing last week’s lesson if a teacher is going through a series of lessons.
Anticipation pertains to all of us as we participate in worship in all aspects of the service. We must gather for worship so that through prayer and reliance on the Spirit of God, we come anticipating fellowship with the living God. This means seeing God in truth, beholding wondrous things from His Word (Ps. 119:12-18).
As Christians who have access to God through Jesus Christ, we should long to draw closer to God in truth. Lutzer writes, “If we are quenching our thirst at forbidden fountains, we have no reason to expect God to be satisfying. If we are not nourished by the bread from heaven, we will satiate ourselves with crumbs from the world. Once we have become addicted to the world’s nourishment, our appetite for God is spoiled”26
“We must worship in truth. Worship is not just an emotional exercise, but a response of the heart built on truth about God. ‘The Lord is near to all who call upon Him, to all who call upon Him in truth’ (Psalm 145:18). Worship not based on God’s truth is but an emotional encounter with oneself.” To speak of worship without obedience to truth and surrender of one’s life, values, etc., is like asking a man to walk naturally with one leg.
(5) Familiarization or Rehearsal:
By familiarization I am speaking about the pursuit of excellence, not to please men, or to receive praise and applause from men, but to bring glory to God and to be instruments for the blessing of men. My wife and I visited friends who own a lovely beach house on Whidbey Island overlooking the water. (Whidbey is one of the Islands on the Puget Sound across from Seattle.) The scenery is beautiful and their home has a picture window that gives a clear view of the water and more of the island across the harbor. If the window was stained glass (calling attention to itself) or coated with grime and dirt, it would certainly mar the view. But as it is, it allows a full and unhindered view of the beauty of God’s creation. Proper preparation for worship is needed by all if the worship service is to honor the Lord and reflect His glory, but it is particularly important for those who have a part in leading the service not so they can be a stained glass window that calls attention to itself, but that they may clearly point people to the Lord Jesus.
We need to work and practice on what we are doing in the worship service or in a Sunday School class or whatever. Musicians should know their music, song leaders should know their hymns, teachers should know their material, ushers should be versed in their responsibilities, and preachers, of course should know their subject and be ready to proclaim the message God has given them from His Holy Word.
Indeed, the absence of proper preparation can often hinder and detract from our worship. On the other hand, one can rehearse until the cows come home, but if the heart is not right with the Lord, it will be just cold religious externalism (Isa. 29:13).
(6) Submission or Obedience:
This simply means that we should all be obedient and submissive to the biblical principles laid out for us in the Word that pertain to our worship or to the times we meet together. The disciples, Peter and John, followed the Lord’s directives as to the physical arrangements, but they all had much to learn in the realm of spiritual preparation without which there is no worship in spirit and truth.
No matter how eloquent the physical presentation or the setting, without the proper preparation, both the physical and the spiritual preparation of the heart, worship loses its power and potential for God’s glory and our edification. We assemble, as Paul warns us, “not for the better, but for the worse” (1 Cor 11:17).
Though this study concerns the battle against the Moabites, let’s not forget that the subject and focus of this series concerns the life and ministry of Elisha as he ministered among God’s people that they might know God and His provision and purposes in life. Elisha was truly a man of God, a godly man who might be describe as a man for all seasons. Godliness, as stressed previously, consists of taking God seriously. It involves meaning business with God in all aspects of life, in every decision, in every situation, in every problem, and in every relationship but always in accord with God’s Word, which is His guide for both the source, means and description of godliness. Godliness is also complete devotion to God in a way of life that not only puts God first (Matt. 6:33; 22:37), but brings the power of God to bear on the situations of life so that we can experience God’s deliverance according to His purposes.
We all face variegated problems, testings, and trials that require faith and God’s wisdom that we might make biblical decisions that honor God, promote godly growth, and bring deliverance according to the will of God (Jam. 1:2-5). Vital to the whole process are men of God teaching and building others in the Scripture and in their relationship with God (2 Tim. 2:1-2). Elisha was just such a person. Not only was he the head teacher in a school of prophets, but he was sent out by the Lord to herald the Word to others, including kings. As we have seen, Jeroboam was faced with one of those testings of life God uses to get our attention, correct our path, and draw us to Himself, but rather than turn to the Lord, Jeroboam sought help in his own strategy of a human alliance with King Jehoshaphat of Judah, and the king of Edom. As it usually happens, when we walk by our own wisdom, these kings quickly ran into another trial, the problem of finding no water for their armies and livestock. Jehoshaphat, being a godly king, woke up to the fact of the real problem; they had not sought the wisdom and provision of God and suggested they seek God’s direction and help through a prophet of the Lord. Not by accident, but by the providence and the grace of God, Elisha, a man for all seasons, just happened to be in the area.
16 And he said, “Thus says the LORD, ‘Make this valley full of trenches.’ 17 For thus says the LORD, ‘You shall not see wind nor shall you see rain; yet that valley shall be filled with water, so that you shall drink, both you and your cattle and your beasts. 18 And this is but a slight thing in the sight of the LORD; He shall also give the Moabites into your hand. 19 Then you shall strike every fortified city and every choice city, and fell every good tree and stop all springs of water, and mar every good piece of land with stones.’”
People often think of godliness in terms of moral living (behavior) and religious living--keeping the Ten Commandments, or the Beatitudes, or keeping a set of do’s and don’ts, or going through the motions of religious rituals. But we can be moral and religious, even busy in God’s work and yet be anything but godly. True godliness will result in Christian character and actions, but by itself such is not necessarily godliness. Godliness is an attitude of devotion that stems from knowing God through His Word. It is the fruit of a Word-filled, Spirit-filled life because it is the ministry of the Spirit using God’s Word who is God’s change agent, the one who forms the character of Christ in a believer’s life.27
Jerry Bridges in his book, The Practice of Godliness, suggests that this attitude consists of three essential elements: (a) the fear of God--reverential awe and trust; (b) the love of God; and (c) the desire for God. And the point is all three of these focus on God. Godliness is a mental attitude then, one which results in a disciplined kind of life, one which seeks God as the force, source, and course of life. Godly behavior (Christian character) is thus a result of true godliness, otherwise we become burdened in God’s work and frustrated and discouraged in the Christian walk. As Bridges rightly says,
So often, we try to develop Christian character and conduct without taking the time to develop God-centered devotion. We try to please God without taking time to walk with Him and develop a relationship with Him. This is impossible to do.28
But how is such a devotion to God, a God-focused mental attitude developed? In God’s Word, of course. The Word of God is His ‘training manual’ which focuses us on God and brings devotion to Him.
Titus 1:1 Paul, a bond-servant of God, and an apostle of Jesus Christ, for the faith of those chosen of God and the knowledge of the truth which is according to godliness . . .
1 Timothy 4:6 In pointing out these things to the brethren, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, constantly nourished on the words of the faith and of the sound doctrine which you have been following. 7 But have nothing to do with worldly fables fit only for old women. On the other hand, discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness; 8 for bodily discipline is only of little profit, but godliness is profitable for all things, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.
Psalm 138:1-2 A Psalm of David. I will give You thanks with all my heart; I will sing praises to You before the gods. I will bow down toward Your holy temple, And give thanks to Your name for Your lovingkindness and Your truth; For You have magnified Your word according to all Your name.
When we down grade the importance and priority of the Bible to our lives, we automatically down grade or shrink God in our thinking and reduce His importance. Like Jeroboam, we then think we can handle things ourselves and we go off half cocked.
As verse 16 shows with the words, “Thus says the lord,” this is precisely where the prophets of old stood in their ministry to men whether kings or widows. They were the heralds of God’s Word, His messages to men, messages which were designed to teach them about God and bring godliness into their lives. Again, this emphasis is designed to stress how important it was for Elisha to prepare his own heart that he might accurately hear and deliver God’s Word. He simply did not take the Lord for granted. He was truly a godly man.
The Principle of Old Testament Analogies
As we consider the battle with the Moabites, and for the purpose of relating this to our own lives by way of application, it would be helpful to recall what Paul teaches us in 1 Corinthians 10:6-11. There he tells us that the life of Israel and God’s dealings with the nation are full of spiritual analogies and illustrations of spiritual truth for the church today. As we study the Old Testament pages of Scripture within the context, primary purpose, and historicity of each passage (i.e. according to the grammar, context, historical background), we should also look for these spiritual analogies, at least by way of application within the passage. There are several in our passage.
First Corinthians 10:8 has a specific reference which ties in directly to the 2 Kings passage by way of the people of Moab. A number of Israelites had died as result of seduction by Moabite women as Balaam had suggested to the king of Moab.
The first analogy: Because of their historical acts against Israel, the Moabites stand as an illustration of the enemies that always stand opposed to the believer and his walk with God, particularly by way of seduction through the lusts of the flesh (Num. 22:1-6ff; 25:1; 31:16; 2 Pet 2:15; Jude 11 and Revelation 2:14). But how was this seduction accomplished? It was often accomplished through false prophets like Balaam who merchandised his gifts. He was a man who was controlled by greed and covetousness. Balaam, who taught the Moabites how to cause Israel to stumble, is mentioned three times in the New Testament as a warning to us (2 Pet. 2:15; Jude 11; Rev. 2:14). So the Moabites are analogous to those enemies who stand as a threat to our walk with God and our devotion to Him.
The second analogy, as already intimated, is found in Elisha’s repeated statement, “Thus says the Lord,” in verses 16 and 17. Here God was revealing Himself and His plan directly through the prophet. God gave special revelation to Elisha to show the three kings what they were to do and what in turn was to inspire their faith and devotion as these miraculous events were designed to develop their concepts of God.
According to the analogy, today we have a completed revelation, the inspired Word of God; this is our “thus says the Lord” book and the means by which we learn about God and about ourselves. In it we learn of God’s will, deliverance, love, and care; and about the means God uses to develop our devotion to Him so that we may know, fear or reverence Him, and love and desire Him (Rom. 10:17; 2 Tim. 3:16-17; Heb. 4:12; 1 Pet 2:2). There can be no godliness, no devotion to God, no deliverance, no ability to find God’s will, etc. apart from the principle of “thus says the Lord” (2 Tim. 2:15).
Verses 16-18 describe what God would do to solve the problem of no water and simply declares that the Moabites would be delivered into their hands, but without telling them how.
The First Instruction and Promise From the Lord (vss. 16-17)
“Make this valley full of trenches.” Why trenches? To hold the water which the Lord would miraculous bring apart from any natural means as such as rain or a thunderstorm accompanied by strong wind (vs. 18). This portrays the provision of the Holy Spirit whom God gives, miraculously, apart from human works or natural means to fill our lives with His power, to refresh and enable us for spiritual combat (cf. John 7:37-39 with Isa. 44:3; Eph. 3:16-18; Gal. 5:16).
The provision of water in this miraculous way became a guarantee, an incentive to obedience by illustrating God’s power and the means of the defeat of the Moabites. How like God’s miraculous provision of the Spirit, whom the Lord likened to rivers of living water (John 7:37-39), as our means of deliverance and incentive to obedience. Victory would be theirs if they were obedient to their human responsibilities of digging the ditches. This would demonstrate their dependence on the Lord, a change from their former self-dependence which, without the Lord’s help, had already failed them. The valley was probably the valley of the Zered on Moab’s southern boundary. “The Israelite armies were encamped in the broad valley (the Arabah) between the highlands of Moab on the east and those of Judah on the west, just south of the Dead Sea.”29
The Explanation and Promise (vs. 18)
“This (referring to the miraculous provision) is but a slight thing in the sight of the Lord” called their attention and ours to a vital principle. God’s provision whether providing for our daily needs or against the enemies that stand opposed to His glory and our walk with Him is never a question of the sufficiency of God’s ability. Nothing is too small or too great for Him to handle.
So verse 18b immediately gives the promise, “He shall also give the Moabites into your hand.” In this we see the ‘as so’ concept of Scripture. As He would miraculously provide the water, so He would deliver the Moabites into their hands. For some other illustrations of this principle in Scripture, compare the following:
Joshua 1:5 Just as I have been with Moses, I will be with you; I will not fail you or forsake you (emphasis mine).
Joshua 8:2 And you shall do to Ai and its king just as you did to Jericho and its king; you shall take only its spoil and its cattle as plunder for yourselves (emphasis mine).
Romans 8:31-32 What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? 32 He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?
Though “as” and “so” are not used in Romans 8:31-32, the concept is nevertheless evident.
The Second Instruction and Responsibility of the Armies (vs. 19)
The problem or issue is never God’s power or provision. The real issue is our trust and obedience to the truth of His Word or acting in faith on the promises of God. Would they dig the ditches and would they follow the instructions given in verse 19?
Verse 19 describes how the three kings were to carry out God’s judgment upon the land to render it completely inoperative and defeat the Moabites. This stresses the completeness of God’s provision against the enemies of His people if they will simply appropriate His provision and be obedient to His Word. Cutting down all the good trees would make it difficult for the Moabites to have fruit to eat and would mean they would have little shade. Stopping up all the springs would limit the Moabites’ water supply, and putting large stones in the fields would retard cultivation and lessen their productivity.30
20 And it happened in the morning about the time of offering the sacrifice, that behold, water came by the way of Edom, and the country was filled with water. 21 Now all the Moabites heard that the kings had come up to fight against them. And all who were able to put on armor and older were summoned, and stood on the border. 22 And they rose early in the morning, and the sun shone on the water, and the Moabites saw the water opposite them as red as blood. 23 Then they said, “This is blood; the kings have surely fought together, and they have slain one another. Now therefore, Moab, to the spoil!” 24 But when they came to the camp of Israel, the Israelites arose and struck the Moabites, so that they fled before them; and they went forward into the land, slaughtering the Moabites. 25 Thus they destroyed the cities; and each one threw a stone on every piece of good land and filled it. So they stopped all the springs of water and felled all the good trees, until in Kir-hareseth only they left its stones; however, the slingers went about it and struck it.
In these verses we have (a) the supply of water (b) the obedience of the three kings and their armies and (c) the partial defeat of Moab. But there is one thing that is of special significance (vs. 20), and that is the timing of the provision of the water.
Special note is made of the fact that the water did not come until the time of the morning offering (vs. 20). As the Old Testament offerings pointed to the Savior, waiting until the time of the morning offering may well portray the suffering Savior followed by His gift of the Holy Spirit whom He likened to rivers of living water (John 7:37-39). Water was not given until this time in keeping with the principal that the Holy Spirit could not be given until the Lord had died, risen and was ascended. Such blessings of grace only come through the Lord Jesus Christ (cf. John 7:37-39; 14:17-30; 15:26; 16:7). The basis of the gift of the Holy Spirit and all victory is the death, resurrection, ascension and session of the Lord, the victorious Savior.
My friends, if it were not for the historic coming, sinless life, death, resurrection, ascension and session of our Savior, the only spirit we could receive would be the evil spirit of the satanic world system. Today the world wants to deny the historic person and finished work of Jesus Christ. In its place it seeks deliverance and religious experiences on its own without God’s Word and the Christ of Scripture. What it gets instead are evil spirits. There is no salvation or true deliverance apart from the death of Jesus Christ, but there are a lot of counterfeits.
What happened in verse 20 may well illustrate the common experience of flash flooding in the otherwise dry wadis which was common enough in arid portions of the world. Living in certain parts of Texas, I have seen flooding along rivers and streams where there was not a drop of rain, but the water came from rain miles up stream. We must not, however, attribute this event simply to the normal occurrences of the weather, for “not only the timing of the heaven-sent waters, but the total effect of their arrival bespeak the miraculous fulfillment of Elisha’s prophetic message.”31
These waters were to spell death for the Moabites. Viewing that same water, reddened by the soil and gleaming all the redder in the rising eastern sun, the enemy mistook it for blood and, surmising that the three former antagonists had had a falling out that had led to their near mutual extermination, they rushed to the Israelite camp intent on plunder. Too late they realized their mistake. The disorganized Moabite soldiers were met by the well-stationed allies who not only turned them back but, in turn, invaded Moab, effecting a great destruction. The Moabites fell back in disarray as far as Kir Hareseth, where they determined to make a final stand.32
Concerning this, Thomas Constable writes in the Bible Knowledge Commentary:
The border where the Moabites were stationed early in the morning was the boundary between Moab and Edom east and south of the Dead Sea. Not expecting water, the Moabites assumed that the water shining in the sunlight was blood. So the Moabite army erroneously concluded that the Israelites, Judahites, and Edomites had had a falling out and had slaughtered each other—not an unrealistic possibility. Rather than advancing with weapons drawn for battle they ran to plunder the “dead” soldiers’ armor and weaponry. But instead, they ran into the waiting ranks of their enemies. Defenseless, the Moabites . . . fled before the Israelites. The Israelites, and presumably their allies with them, invaded Moab, slaughtered the people, destroyed many towns, and did to the fields, springs, and trees what God had instructed (cf. 2 Kings 3:19). But Kir Hareseth, the major city, could not be taken. It was situated at the end of a valley and successfully resisted the attacks of the stone slingers surrounding it.33
26 When the king of Moab saw that the battle was too fierce for him, he took with him 700 men who drew swords, to break through to the king of Edom; but they could not. 27 Then he took his oldest son who was to reign in his place, and offered him as a burnt offering on the wall. And there came great wrath against Israel, and they departed from him and returned to their own land.
In verse 26-27 we see two attempts by the idolatrous king of Moab to escape total defeat. The first is by means of breaking through to the king of Edom. Apparently he either assumed he could induce Edom to turn against Israel and Judah or he assumed this was the weakest link in the three-nation alliance. Either way he was badly mistaken and his attempt failed because the real strength of this alliance through the ministry of Elisha now lay in the power of God.
The second attempt is seen in verse 27 and sadly it did appear to be effective, but only because of the incomplete obedience of the three kings. Idolatry which has its source in the demonic powers of Satan, a murderer and hater of mankind, often included human sacrifice, especially the offering of children. In fact, “defeat in battle was regarded by pagan Near Eastern warriors as a sign that their gods were angry with them. To propitiate his god, Chemosh (1 Kings 11:7, 33; 2 Kings 23:13), Mesha offered his firstborn son, the heir to his throne, as a human sacrifice on top of the city wall.”34 See also 2 Kings 16:3; Jeremiah 7:31; Numbers 21:29; Jeremiah 48:7, 46.
The statement, “And there came great wrath against Israel,” is difficult and is viewed differently. In his notes, Ryrie says, “The Israelites were so frightened at what an aroused Moabite army might do that they retreated.”35 Most commentaries, however, see the wrath as a reference to a stunning indignation over such a gross act that it caused the three armies to go home. “Wrath” is the Hebrew q#x#P, can mean indignation and in this context even “righteous indignation.” “Against,” the Hebrew preposition u^l, “above, upon, against, beside, concerning, over,” could be used with a word like “wrath, indignation” to express great feelings of emotion by emphasizing the person or persons who are the subject of the emotion and who feel the emotion acting upon them, i.e., great indignation came upon Israel, they were appalled by this act so much so they turned and went home--stunned.
The king of Moab, seeing his defeated army and ransacked land, tries to flee; the Edomites prevent him. He then sacrifices his oldest son on the city wall to Chemosh, the Moabite god. The horror and consternation upon seeing this sacrifice causes the three armies to withdraw rather than to wipe out such evil and desecration of children. Moab is not brought under Israel’s domination. Later the Moabites attack Judah and Israel (2 Kings 13:20; 24:2; 2 Chron. 20). Had Elisha’s instructions been carried out, these later attacks may have been avoided.36
By way of application, two things should be noted here:
First, failure to follow through on the principles and imperatives of Scripture have negative consequences. As mentioned above in the Evangelical Commentary, the failure of the alliance to complete the destruction opened the way for later attacks. The principles, promises, and imperatives of Scripture are not given to make life miserable and take away our fun. Rather, they are given to bring maximum blessing and happiness and to protect us from the sad results of our own foolishness.
Second, the act of child sacrifice illustrates the results of ungodliness, idolatry, and what happens when people turn away from the revelation of God. When men turn away from the Lord, they are turned over to the vile imaginations of their own depraved hearts and all the escape and defense mechanisms that the human mind can imagine. This includes the gamut from the mental escapes routes--resentment, criticism, hiding, rationalization, etc., to the lower forms of man’s sinfulness like homosexuality and idolatry in its various forms even leading to the murder of children. The Moabite king rationalized this would appease his god and deliver his city. Today babies are aborted and the rationalization is that the mother has the right to such a choice; it’s her body, it is reasoned, and it would relieve her of a great deal of stress and responsibility.
In this passage we see the extreme consequences of idolatry, but the principle is the same--wrong relations with God (indifference to Him) always leads to wrong relations with people--family, friends, neighbors, etc.--and many other frightful and degrading sins.
Here again we can see how important it was for Elisha to be there and available, to deal with his own heart to make sure he was in the right spiritual condition so he could carefully hear and deliver God’s message. Elisha did not take the Lord for granted--he took God seriously. He was truly a godly man with a timely word from God.
How about us? Before we make that call, before we witness or talk to that person, before we begin to prepare that Sunday school lesson, or come to Bible class etc., do we take God seriously and prepare our hearts? This is why we should be hungry to hear God’s Word so that it enhances our focus on the Lord and our devotion to Him that He might be our Force, Source and Course in all of life.
27 Compare Galatians 4:19 and note the passive voice in the words, “be formed in you.” The Galatian believers were trying to be spiritual by religious works or by their own human effort (cf. 3:1-5). So in chapter 5 the Apostle points them to the need for walking by means of the Spirit as the means of Christ formed in one's life, the fruit of the Spirit.
Elisha’s prophetic ministry, which is especially highlighted in chapters 4-8, clearly demonstrates that God cares for His people and that He sometimes works in sovereign and mighty ways that extend far beyond that which we are able to do or think as He reaches out to meet needs according to His will. But before we look at the details of this story, we should note the contrast between chapter 3 and chapters 4-8. We are taken from the prophet’s ministry before royalty to that of the very poor. In chapter 3 God used him to save these kings from death and defeat. Without the ministry of a man like Elisha, where would the kings be? Dying of thirst in the desert! We would expect that they might have at least tried to honor him in some way, but if they did, it is certainly not mentioned in Scripture. I rather suspect no such honor or even thank you was offered. As Matthew Henry comments:
No, the wise man delivered the army, but no man remembered the wise man, Eccl. 9:15. Or, if he had preferment offered him, he declined it: he preferred the honour of doing good in the schools of the prophets before that of being great in the courts of princes. God magnified him, and that sufficed him--magnified him indeed, for we have him here employed in working no fewer than five miracles.37
So often people in ministry, especially those in the public eye, are more concerned with their reputation and popularity than they are for meeting the needs of people. Unfortunately, our pulpits and other places of public ministry are too often filled with those who, like Diotrephes, love to have first place (cf. 3 John 9 and Luke 22:24 with 2 Thess. 2:1-13). But the prophet Elisha was not concerned with the praise of men nor with position or power or prestige. Though his ministry was filled with miracles they were for edification, not for show. Like the Savior, he came not to be ministered to, but to minister.
Furthermore, Elisha’s day was a time of great national degeneracy and apostasy, much like the times in which we live. The world as a whole was unsympathetic to God’s people and to the ministry of His Word. It was tough to be a believer and to stand for the things of God. For many believers it was often hard to even make ends meet.
Such was the case with the widow in our passage. She was evidently a believer and her husband had been a prophet, a man of God who was involved in the ministry and teaching of Elisha. But one of the lessons of the passage is that regardless of the times in which we live and the problems we face there is no problem or need which God cannot meet if we will simply trust and obey Him. God cares (1 Pet. 5:6-7). The real issue is not the problem, but in our response to the Lord in the face of problems. How do we respond or react? This is the crucial issue!
Though the lessons of the passage are many, it does deal with a financial problem or need and as such it particularly speaks to our physical needs.
1 Now a certain woman of the wives of the sons of the prophets cried out to Elisha, “Your servant my husband is dead, and you know that your servant feared the LORD; and the creditor has come to take my two children to be his slaves.” 2 And Elisha said to her, “What shall I do for you? Tell me, what do you have in the house?” And she said, “Your maidservant has nothing in the house except a jar of oil.” 3 Then he said, “Go, borrow vessels at large for yourself from all your neighbors, even empty vessels; do not get a few. 4 And you shall go in and shut the door behind you and your sons, and pour out into all these vessels; and you shall set aside what is full.” 5 So she went from him and shut the door behind her and her sons; they were bringing the vessels to her and she poured. 6 And it came about when the vessels were full, that she said to her son, “Bring me another vessel.” And he said to her, “There is not one vessel more.” And the oil stopped. 7 Then she came and told the man of God. And he said, “Go, sell the oil and pay your debt, and you and your sons can live on the rest.”
In verse one we are simply told “a certain woman of the wives of the sons of the prophets cried out to Elisha” for help. Then, in her statement to the prophet, “Your servant my husband is dead, and you know that your servant feared the Lord,” we learn a few more details about this widow, exactly who this woman was is simply not disclosed. There are a number of principles to glean from these verses:
(1) Though she is not identified in the text and was not on the “who’s who” list of Israel’s prominent people (as most of us are not), the principle is she was not unknown to God. Each one of us are personally known and loved of God; we are the personal objects of His love.
Psalm 147:4 He counts the number of the stars; He gives names to all of them.
Psalm 50:11 I know every bird of the mountains, And everything that moves in the field is Mine.
Matthew 6:26-30 Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they? 27 And which of you by being anxious can add a single cubit to his life’s span? 28 And why are you anxious about clothing? Observe how the lilies of the field grow; they do not toil nor do they spin, 29 yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory did not clothe himself like one of these. 30 But if God so arrays the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, will He not much more do so for you, O men of little faith?
Matthew 10:29-31 Are not two sparrows sold for a cent? And yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. 30 But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. 31 Therefore do not fear; you are of more value than many sparrows.
2 Timothy 2:19 Nevertheless, the firm foundation of God stands, having this seal, “The Lord knows those who are His,” and, “Let everyone who names the name of the Lord abstain from wickedness.”
Our needs are never unknown to our sovereign Lord. Though our God is transcendent, above and sovereign over this world, He is also immanent, very much involved with His creation and with His people and the details of their lives. This will be clearly emphasized in the story of the ax head that will follow in chapter 6. Since her husband was one who feared the Lord and since she appealed to the prophet, she was certainly a believer, an Old Testament saint who had a relationship with God. As an Old Testament believer she was the special recipient of God’s very personal care as one of His special children (Phil 4:19).
(2) Though her appeal here was ultimately to the Lord, she sought help through Elisha. Her appeal was based on two facts: (a) as one of the sons of the prophets, her husband had been a servant and student of Elisha, and (b) her husband had revered (had been faithful to) the Lord. This scenario reminds us of how God usually meets the needs of His people through people, especially believers ministering to other believers. That we have such a caring responsibility to one another is one of the great themes of the New Testament, but this especially draws attention to our need to be more involved in the needs of those in our personal care or in our ministry.
Galatians 6:9-10. And let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we shall reap if we do not grow weary. 10 So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all men, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith.
Her plight is spelled out in her statement, “and the creditor has come to take my two children to be his slaves.” That her husband was a man who revered the Lord indicates the problem she faced was not caused by her husband’s folly, but by circumstances imposed upon him as a believer in his day of apostasy. According to the Old Testament Law, a person in debt and without the means of repayment or collateral could be forced into bondage as a servant (or his sons) until the year of Jubilee. The sons would have to work off their father’s debt (Lev. 25:39ff).38
“What shall I do for you?” As a man of God, Elisha was as available to a poor widow woman as he was with kings, so he was quick to come to her aid. As God shows no favoritism, but treats all men alike if they will come to Him in faith, so the people of God should show no favoritism and be just as available to minister to the poor as to the rich and the powerful. James, remember, warns us of the sin of partiality:
James 2:1-9 My brethren, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism. 2 For if a man comes into your assembly with a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes, and there also comes in a poor man in dirty clothes, 3 and you pay special attention to the one who is wearing the fine clothes, and say, “You sit here in a good place,” and you say to the poor man, “You stand over there, or sit down by my footstool,” 4 have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil motives? 5 Listen, my beloved brethren: did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him? 6 But you have dishonored the poor man. Is it not the rich who oppress you and personally drag you into court? 7 Do they not blaspheme the fair name by which you have been called? 8 If, however, you are fulfilling the royal law, according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. 9 But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.
The qualifications for elders, deacons, or for putting widows on the list for support relate only to Christian character or marks of maturity; they have nothing to do with position, power, or wealth.
Perhaps an illustration will help:
A Chicago bank once asked for a letter of recommendation on a young Bostonian being considered for employment.
The Boston investment house could not say enough about the young man. His father, they wrote, was a Cabot; his mother was a Lowell. Further back was a happy blend of Saltonstalls, Peabodys, and others of Boston’s finest families. His recommendation was given without hesitation.
Several days later, the Chicago bank sent a note saying the information supplied was altogether inadequate. It read: “We are not contemplating using the young man for breeding purposes. Just for work.”39
As we think about Elisha’s question, “What shall I do for you?,” we need to remember that Elisha was no ordinary prophet because of his many miracles. In a very unique way, he represented the person, power, and care of God. The widow, as the wife of one of the prophets under Elisha’s ministry, must have been familiar with what God had been doing through the prophet Elisha. In essence, then, she was seeking God’s provision through the prophet.
In those dark days of apostasy, God had acted powerfully first in Elijah and then in Elisha to authenticate His covenant care of Israel and the nation’s special purpose in the plan of God. When Elisha asked, “What shall I do for you?,” he was in essence saying, what do you want God to do for you through me? This question reminds us of James’ warning, “you do not have because you do not ask” (Jam. 4:2). Of course, it is also true that often we do not have because we ask with selfish motives that are based on self-centered living (Jam. 4:3).
There is no question that one of our great failures is our failure in prayer. Though we are always to ask according to the will of God and godly motives, we are still commanded to take our needs to the Lord and to entreat others to pray for us.
John 14:13. And whatever you ask in My name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.
Matthew 21:22. And all things you ask in prayer, believing, you shall receive.
John 15:7. If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it shall be done for you.
Matthew 7:7-11. Ask, and it shall be given to you; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it shall be opened. 9 Or what man is there among you, when his son shall ask him for a loaf, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he shall ask for a fish, he will not give him a snake, will he? 11 If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more shall your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him!
Ephesians 6:18-19. With all prayer and petition pray at all times in the Spirit, and with this in view, be on the alert with all perseverance and petition for all the saints, 19 and pray on my behalf, that utterance may be given to me in the opening of my mouth, to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel.
God wants us to come to Him as His children and in faith, with His glory always in view, to ask for our needs according to the will of God. Too often we either take Him for granted or act as though He does not care.
Interestingly, Elisha did not wait for an answer, at least one is not recorded. Why? Well, because her needs were obvious and she had already come to him and declared her problem which also indicated her request--income to pay off her financial obligation and save her sons from slavery. I am reminded of Matthew 6:8 and 32. God knows our needs before we ask; in fact, He has known them from all eternity. Then why do we need to ask? Because it causes us to be dependent on Him; it demonstrates our faith and demonstrates that it is He who ultimately meets our needs.
In verse two Elisha says, “Tell me, what do you have . . . nothing except a jar of oil.” Oil was a very important commodity; it was like money or gold. Oil is often a picture or type of the Holy Spirit inasmuch as the Old Testament practice of anointing priests and kings served as a type of the ministry of the Spirit. Oil as a type of the Spirit is clearly in view in Zechariah 4 where the constant flow of oil from the lampstand depicted the constant flow of God’s power and is interpreted as such by the words, “not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit” in verse 6. But that does not seem to be the emphasis here. Rather, the focus in this passage is on the way the Lord takes what He has given us like our talents, gifts, physical abilities, financial provisions and multiplies them if we have faith to trust Him to take what we have and multiply it.
She was so destitute, that the only thing she had was this oil, which was used for anointing the body or for cooking--or she may have been saving it for her burial. But there is a principle here which we find repeated in Scripture: the way God generally meets our needs is to take what we have and to multiply it as we turn our lives over to Him and obey the principles of His Word. This is true of our talents, gifts, finances, or physical assets.
We need to investigate what we have in all areas and then, using those blessings as good stewards of God’s grace, however small they may seem, surrender them to the Lord and trust the Lord to bless and provide as He sees fit. Compare Elijah and the widow of Zarephath (1 Kings 17:8-15) and the Lord with the loaves and fish (Mark 6:30-44).
But many today want to win the sweepstakes or lottery rather than have to trust God with whatever He has allotted them. Sometimes God does supply from places unknown and in ways beyond our imagination. But our responsibility is to take what we have no matter how small or large and turn it over to Him.
In verse 3 the widow was told to go and borrow “empty vessels.” Full vessels are heavy to carry, but that’s not the point is it? God can’t or will not put anything into full vessels without at least emptying the vessels first. As long as there were empty vessels there was God’s supply to fill them with the oil. The oil only stopped flowing when there were no more empty vessels to fill.
There are some important lessons for us here:
(1) The number of empty vessels brought into the house showed the woman’s faith, obedience, and her submission to God and His promise to her through the prophet.
(2) If we find that the supply of God stops, then either the need has been supplied according to His will, or there are no more empty vessels. If she had brought only a few, that would suggest there was insufficient faith, obedience or submission to God as her sovereign Lord and supplier of her need.
Note that she was not requested to gather a specific number of vessels; God wanted her to act in faith. For this reason Elisha warned, “do not get a few.” In other words, bring as many as you have faith that God will fill. Through the prophet, God was telling her (and us), “Believe me for your total need. Don’t skimp on my ability and willingness to do super abundantly to meet your need” (Eph. 3:20-21). “The limitation was not in the supply of oil but in the lack of empty vessels to be filled. We can always come in faith to God’s abundance of grace with our empty vessels to receive of His fullness of grace.”40
(3) God’s supply would be (and was) as large as her faith and obedience, without greediness. The moment we become greedy and selfish in our request, we not only stop the flow of God’s provision (Jam. 4:3), but we end up going in circles like a dog chasing his tail.
A man in Dallas had a Rolls Royce with an expensive phone in it. His friend in Houston saw it and decided he too should have such a beautiful car with his own private phone. So he saved for a year and finally accumulated enough to get his expensive car with his own private phone. Immediately, he called his friend in Dallas and said, “Bob, this is Bill in Houston calling from my Rolls Royce.” Bob then replied, “Hi Bill, can you hold a minute? One of my other car phones is ringing.”
The widow woman was to consider all of her needs--her debts, living expenses, ministry--and then act in faith accordingly, but without a spirit of greediness which, for one thing, would demonstrate, not faith in the Lord, but in what He supplied. Do I seek God, the Giver because I want to know Him, or do I seek the gifts God gives as though He were simply my genie?
A little girl accompanied her mother to the country store where, after the mother had made a purchase, the clerk invited the child to help herself to a handful of candy. The youngster held back. “What’s the matter? Don’t you like candy?” asked the clerk. The child nodded, and smilingly, the clerk put his hand into the jar and dropped a generous portion into the little girls’ handbag.
Afterward the mother asked her daughter why she had not taken the candy when the clerk first offered some to her. “Because his hand was bigger than mine,” replied the little girl.
I believe this godly woman brought vessels sufficient for her needs and stopped before greed took over. The amount of vessels was limited by the size of her room. God has promised to meet our need, but not our greed. But I wonder what I would have done? Would I have gone out and borrowed and borrowed until my whole house and yard was full?
“And you shall go in and shut the door behind you . . .” (vs. 4). The closed door suggests the principle of privacy. What she did was to be done without distractions so she and her sons could focus on the Lord and set their hearts upon Him in faith. To be alone with God is one of the vital needs of any believer in any time, but it is especially true in the days in which we live with all the noise and extreme busyness. One of the reasons we often do not see God multiplying our gifts and abilities is because we fail to get alone with Him individually and corporately to call upon Him and to focus our hearts upon His grace and supply.
Furthermore, Elisha’s absence when the miracle took place would demonstrate that the power came from God alone, not Elisha. This was certainly designed to encourage her to greater faith and dependence on the Lord. Devout faith and obedience produces an abundance of spiritual blessings.
These verses draw our attention to the nature of God’s person as powerful, loving, gracious, merciful, and like a Father to His children--they display the goodness of the Lord. He is the Father of the orphan, the friend of the widow, the Shepherd of the sheep, and the Protector of His undershepherds and their families (cf. Psalm 145:14ff).
Elisha was a man who had a heart for serving others whether wealthy or poor. He did not minister to people based on how they might promote him or provide for him. He was only concerned that people might know and experience God’s grace and power in their lives. How available am I to do the same?
Like the poor widow, we all have certain needs--spiritual, emotional, and physical, but God knows those needs completely and He cares about them personally. Our most fundamental need is to come to him in faith, but with empty vessels that He might multiply our lives according to His purposes. While trusting Him to meet our need and never our greed, let us come not with just a few vessels. In other words, let’s not limit our loving and gracious God by our lack of faith and obedience to Him. He is the One who is able to do superabundantly above all we ask or think, but He has promised to do as the Psalmist said, in due season, in His own timing according to His perfect understanding.
Local bodies of believers have many needs--both spiritual and physical, both large and small. We live in a world which is basically antagonistic to the work of God, but the problem we face is not in God’s supply of the oil or in people’s ability to meet needs. The real problem lies in our faith, in our obedience and submission corporately and individually.
Please note the emphasis here: As earthen vessels, we must empty ourselves of wrong mental attitudes, priorities, pursuits, or goals, and present ourselves as vessels of God to be filled (controlled) by the word and the Spirit of God. If our lives are cluttered with bad mental attitudes, with grumbling, with selfishness, preoccupation with the things of the world and there is indifference to God’s work, God may stop the supply of oil. And one reason the supply is stopped is that believers stop coming to Him. Carnal believers do not seek the cause of God and the supply of God, they are too caught up with their own world.
I believe this must begin with an evaluation of our own stewardship of giving, believing God that our giving will not be our lack. This means evaluating our own use of the funds God has allowed us to have. We need to begin with the oil we have individually and corporately.
But this also means in addition to our own financial responsibilities with the oil we have, looking to God to supply from other sources according to the wealth of His might, if that is what is needed. We must not turn this around and ignore the responsibility we have with our resources. It is our responsibility to ask God to multiply those resources for the purpose of greater giving and not simply pray for a miracle. In other words, we can’t simply pray for God to supply the oil, and ignore our responsibility to use the oil we have. We must first take the oil we have, trust God to multiply it, and then as the Lord supplies, not only pay our debts, and expenses, but give unto the Lord a return on His investment in us.
Remember, the oil was a very valuable commodity and stands for the valuable resources God has given us whether talents, spiritual gifts, physical abilities, or financial blessings, etc. Let us not limit the Lord. Let’s believe God. Let’s bring empty vessels, and not a few.
38 Servitude as a means of debt payment by labor was permitted in the Mosaic law (Ex. 21:1-2; Lev. 25:39-41; Dt. 15:1-11). It appears that the practice was much abused (see Ne. 5:5, 8; Am. 2:6; 8:6), even though the law limited the term of such bondage and required that those so held be treated as hired workers (NIV Study Bible, p. 528).
As with all the events and miracles in the life and ministry of Elisha, 2 Kings 4:8-37 illustrates and teaches a number of very practical truths:
(1) It strongly illustrates the loving and providential care of God for all His saints: young and old, rich or poor, weak or powerful.
(2) It demonstrates God’s involvement in the lives of men in all walks of life if they will but respond to His loving grace.
(3) It also demonstrates the necessity of faith for everyone regardless of their social standing or financial position in life. It illustrates, “the just shall live by faith,” that “without faith it is impossible to please God,” and “that which is not of faith is sin” (Rom 1:17; Hab. 2:4; Heb 11:6; Rom 14:23).
(4) Another thing this passage demonstrates about faith is that “faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God” (Rom. 10:17). The faith of this woman and that of her husband was developed because they had not neglected gathering together at the proper times for fellowship with believers and for instruction in the Scriptures (2 Kings 4:22-23). These verses suggest (see verse 23) they gathered together with others to hear the prophets on certain holy days to get biblical teaching. This is why the woman’s husband was surprised when she wanted to go to the prophet other than on one of these special days. Their normal routine was to gather together with others for that purpose on those special days. This was the key to this lady’s faith in these terrible days of apostasy.
The passage breaks down or centers around 2 key events: (a) The Shunammite woman receives a son (4:8-17) and (b) she received her son back from death (4:18-37).
8 Now there came a day when Elisha passed over to Shunem, where there was a prominent woman, and she persuaded him to eat food. And so it was, as often as he passed by, he turned in there to eat food. 9 And she said to her husband, “Behold now, I perceive that this is a holy man of God passing by us continually. 10 Please, let us make a little walled upper chamber and let us set a bed for him there, and a table and a chair and a lampstand; and it shall be, when he comes to us, that he can turn in there.” 11 One day he came there and turned in to the upper chamber and rested. 12 Then he said to Gehazi his servant, “Call this Shunammite.” And when he had called her, she stood before him. 13 And he said to him, “Say now to her, ‘Behold, you have been careful for us with all this care; what can I do for you? Would you be spoken for to the king or to the captain of the army?’” And she answered, “I live among my own people.” 14 So he said, “What then is to be done for her?” And Gehazi answered, “Truly she has no son and her husband is old.” 15 And he said, “Call her.” When he had called her, she stood in the doorway. 16 Then he said, “At this season next year you shall embrace a son.” And she said, “No, my lord, O man of God, do not lie to your maidservant.” 17 And the woman conceived and bore a son at that season the next year, as Elisha had said to her.
This story primarily centers around this great woman of faith. There are four other actors in this drama--Elisha, his servant Gehazi, the woman’s husband, and of course her son. But the central figure is this woman and her ministry of faith by which she showed hospitality to Elisha as a man of God.
This illustrates again the prominent and important place women have in the Bible, in God’s work in the ministry and in the family. Though men and women are equal in Christ, Scripture makes a distinction with men being given the role of leadership. This is, of course, to be a loving servant-type of leadership in the family as well as the church. The role of women is indispensable and they can have vital ministries for which every man should have great respect and appreciation. We are very dependent upon the ministries of godly women in a multitude of ways.
In verse 8 we read, “Now there came a day when Elisha passed over to Shunem.” Elisha is seen here as a prophet moving about the country carrying on his ministry to the people while also stopping at the various schools of the prophets. Elisha was involved with his work, but he had special needs of his own and we see here how God graciously works through the lives of other believers to meet those needs.
“Where there was a prominent woman . . .” Literally, “a great woman.” The word “great” is sometimes used of wealth, influence or character (1 Sam. 25:2; 2 Sam. 19:32), so it may mean “great in importance, influence and character (1 Kings 10:23). From our passage it is easy to see that she was a prominent lady in the community, was somewhat wealthy, and undoubtedly exercised a considerable influence by her spiritual perception and godly character. She was a great lady for a number of reasons--she was full of faith and good works and undoubtedly had a great deal of love and respect for the teaching of the Word.
Her godliness and respect for the Word is seen in her hospitality. As we see in these verses, she willingly opened her home to those in need. She extended her hand to the needy; she shared in the good things God had given her (Prov. 31:20).
In Ancient times there were no Holiday Inns or Motel 6’s. Those who traveled were dependent upon the gracious hospitality of the people in the land, especially the prophets in their itinerant ministries as they traveled about from place to place.
In the New Testament this is one of the signs of maturity, a qualification for elders, and a general responsibility for all believers, especially to fellow believers or members of the body of Christ. And it is especially mentioned as one of the requirements for widows to be placed on the list for support (cf. Matt. 10:40-42; 25:35-40; 1 Tim. 3:2 and 5:10).
Our cultural situation today in our country is quite different, but there is still the need and the application of this principal in numerous ways. Believers need to open their homes for Bible studies, for baby sitting during the studies, for times of Christian fellowship, for visiting missionaries and speakers, for youth gatherings, and for lifestyle evangelism or out reach to neighbors. In addition, there is the need for housing foreign exchange students, for taking in unwed mothers, or foster children and battered women.
This lady was also great because she was interested in and wanted to promote the work of God, especially the preaching of the Word. She did what she did for Elisha because she perceived he was a man of God, that is, a prophet teaching the Word and doing the work of God (vs. 9). By her concern and her actions she was promoting the preaching of the Word.
Her actions illustrate the principle of the body functioning together with every believer using their gifts and talents to promote the evangelization of the lost and the edification of the saints. This godly lady took God seriously and got involved with God’s work according to her abilities and the opportunities God gave her (1 Pet 4:10-11; Gal 6:15). She made no excuses, nor sought any. She was available and as a result she became a vibrant testimony for the Lord and a source of comfort and encouragement to Elisha who for the most part was ministering in a hostile and idolatrous environment. This family was like an oasis in the desert.
In verse 10 we see a third way the Shunammite demonstrated her prominence; she was great because of her discernment and the degree of her concern.
First, as a discerning believer she demonstrated her concern for God’s work. But note, she did this with respect for her husband’s authority and leadership. She politely involved him in this matter and appears to have left the final decision up to him. This beautifully illustrates the influence, aid, and support a godly wife can have on her husband. I can’t begin to remember how many times my dear wife has shown discernment in areas of need that I didn’t notice for one reason or another. It naturally works both ways, but our wives often show a special capacity for the benevolent concerns of others that men are so often blind to. The point is that husbands and wives are a team. Scripture describes her as the husband’s helpmeet, a helper especially suited to him. They are to compliment, help, and fulfill each other’s needs and potentials. However, husbands must recognize this, and capitalize on it, rather than react in proud arrogance or stubbornness. Men, draw on your wife’s insight and perception. Further, wives must be wise and submissive, showing respect for their husband’s position of leadership as did this Shunammite woman.
Second, she also discerned the degree of Elisha’s need and their responsibility to the prophet because of the ability God had given them. She was not simply satisfied with a place for Elisha to turn in. She knew he needed a private place, a place to pray, meditate, study, relax and be alone with the Lord. This woman knew they had the capacity to do all of this. What a thoughtful and caring lady.
The principle is she was concerned for the details of his needs. In general, women tend to generally be more detail-oriented whereas men tend to think in more general terms. It reminds me of a man who wants to surprise his wife with a two-week Caribbean cruise, so he plans the date, buys their tickets, and plans how he will surprise her. Thinking he’s taken care of everything, he takes his wife out for a special dinner and presents her with the tickets. Immediately her mind goes into gear: Who’ll keep the kids? What about the dog? Who in the world can I get to teach my Sunday school class on such short notice? Help! I don’t have anything to wear! I’ll need a perm! How in the world can we afford a trip like this? The poor man is totally surprised because it takes her a while before she can respond with any semblance of the excitement he expected!
But there is more. In her discernment she demonstrates the principle of Galatians 6:6-10.
6 And let the one who is taught the word share all good things with him who teaches. 7 Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap. 8 For the one who sows to his own flesh shall from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit shall from the Spirit reap eternal life. 9 And let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we shall reap if we do not grow weary. 10 So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all men, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith.
This was manifested in her actions and in God’s reward for her faithfulness.
(1) As one who shared in the things Elisha taught, she wanted to share with him in all good things which she had (vs. 6). So she saw to it that all his needs were met according to her ability.
(2) She was sowing, properly using the blessings God had given. She was laying up treasure in heaven.
(3) She did this while she had the opportunity; she didn’t procrastinate. She used her blessings for the blessing of others. How we need to seize the opportunities and redeem the time.
She was a great lady because of her contentment. When Elisha, being appreciative for her warm hospitality, wished to reward her by offering to use his influence with the king or his military commanders, she politely refused. She had no desire for worldly advancement; she was not wanting to climb the social ladder of success. She was content with what God had provided her and with her place of service and ministry in the community. She was content with her home, her position, her friends, and her ministry. What a rare attitude! She knew and believed she was where God wanted her and with that she was content. This lady had it together! Compare 1 Timothy 6:6.
First, note that Elisha was very appreciative and thankful for what this woman had done for him and his servant. There is a mental attitude of thankfulness and appreciation that characterizes the godly. One of the products of a Spirit-controlled, Word-filled life is thankfulness, not only to God, but to others for what they mean to us, to our ministry, and to others (cf. Eph 5:18-20 and Col. 1:9 with vs. 12 and Phil. 4:10-19).
Second, Elisha was not just thankful, he wanted to express his thanks in concrete terms so he sought something he could do for her to show his appreciation. People cannot read our minds, we need to say and do things to express our appreciation. That is encouraging to them and honors the Lord.
We all need to do this more. Have you demonstrated to God and to others how thankful you are? How much and in what ways can you express your appreciation for your parents, friends, and others who have ministered to your life? Let’s not just take people for granted? They are really gifts from God.
So, in verse 14, Elisha turned to his servant and said, “what then is to be done for her?” First, this illustrates a bit of on-the-job-training. He was involving his servant in his ministry and at the same time even seeking his help. This is bound to have been encouraging to Gehazi. Gehazi had noticed that she was without a child, which for Jews was a great burden. So he called this to Elisha’s attention. This showed discernment on the servant’s part. He was learning to watch for needs and he knew that God could meet such a need because God had provided Abraham and Sarah a child even when they were old.
When Elisha promises she will embrace a son next year, she begs him not to raise her hopes unless he could truly deliver what he promised. Undoubtedly she said what she did because it had been a real matter of grief to her for many years. But Elisha was speaking for the Lord, the One who is able to bring the nonexistent into existence and to make dead things alive (cf. Rom 4:17f).
In this story we see a great lady, a lady of faith, appreciated and soon rewarded and blessed for her service to the Lord and to His prophet. But I think there are some things that need to be said here lest we come away with a wrong perspective, a one-sided perspective, especially in our day.
First, people are not always appreciated, thanked, and encouraged for their work and ministries, nor do we always appreciate others as we should. So what then? May I make some suggestions:
(1) When we are unappreciative of others, we need to deal with it! This means we may need to go the person--mom, dad, Sunday school teacher, friend, neighbor, etc., whoever it might be, and make things right by expressing our appreciation. Further, we need to strive to be more alert and ask the Lord to help us in this area.
(2) When others are unappreciative of us, we feel like nobody cares, and we are tempted to throw in the towel and go off and eat worms, may we remember this: (a) The Lord cares (1 Pet. 5:7) and our service never goes unnoticed by Him (cf. 2 Tim 2:8-10). Remember--ultimately, we serve the Lord Christ (cf. Col. 3:22-25). (b) Our responsibility is to simply do our work as unto the Lord and not for the notice of men or to please them. Our need is to please the Lord. That’s what counts (1 Thess. 2:1f; 1 Cor. 10:31; Col. 3:17; 1 Pet. 4:11). (c) Also, the fact others do not show their appreciation does not mean they do not appreciate us. It may just mean they are people preoccupied with problems and other things just like you and me.
Doing our work as unto the Lord will help us get your eyes off the grandstands and people’s applause (Col. 3:17). Let us deal with our attitudes. Let us remember the Lord. Let us do our job or service as unto Him! That’s unselfish living and service.
Second, many times we see some rewards for our service in this life in special blessings which God lovingly gives us. But we need to remember we may not and often do not. But that does not mean we are not rewarded. It just means God is waiting for eternity or for a better time and a better reward.
So let’s keep our eyes on the light at the end of the tunnel (cf. 1 Cor. 15:57, 58 with Paul’s words to Timothy, “Remember Jesus Christ as risen from the dead.” See also Revelation 22:12, 16.
Some years ago I heard a story about Napoleon which I think illustrates our point.
The English had an arrangement for signals to signal across the channel the results of the battle of Waterloo. If Napoleon won they would signal with two lights, one after the other, if Wellington won they would signal with three. Men were stationed on both sides, one group on the shores of Europe to flash the lights, and the others on the shores of England to watch and to pass the word. Finally, during the evening the signals came. First one light, then two, but then before the third could be given, that famous fog settled in. England thought at first that Wellington had been defeated. But the next day, the truth of the matter was received. After daybreak it was learned that Napoleon had been defeated.
That’s the way life is: In this life we often seem defeated, our prayer unanswered, and our work unrewarded, but not so when the morning Star shall come for it is He who ends the night and brings the light of day. It is then that the answer to our prayers will be seen and our work surely rewarded, but in a better time and in a better way.
Let us then, as this great lady of faith did, keep on abounding in the work of the Lord--the Lord is faithful. Let us never “Lose heart in doing good, for in due time we shall reap if we do not grow weary” (Gal 6:9). And let us “Be patient, therefore brethren, until the coming of the Lord . . .” (Jam. 5:7-9).
This account of the Shunammite’s son is one which teaches us about faith. It shows us something about what faith is and how faith works. The passage tells us very little about this woman and her background and how she became a believer or where she came from, etc. In fact, it does not even directly speak of her faith, but the events in the passage demonstrate it, and after all, it is more important to demonstrate our faith than to talk about it (Jam. 2:14).
However, the New Testament does tell us that this woman was a believer who lived by faith. In Hebrews 11 the author speaks of the testimonies of Old Testament saints who lived by faith. Among these he speaks of the “women who received back their dead by resurrection” (Heb. 11:35) showing us that all the events of this chapter in 2 Kings 4 were the result of this woman’s faith in the Lord.
As seen in the previous study, verse 8 explains that the Shunammite was a prominent women, literally, “a great woman.” This word “great,” if you recall, was used of wealth, influence, and character. This lady was prominent in her community not only because she and her husband were well-to-do, but because of her spiritual character as well. We saw she was a great lady for a number of reasons. All of these were attitudes and actions that demonstrated her faith.
But you know what? Our faith needs to grow! God wants us to grow in our trust and relationship with Him. He wants to teach us how to turn our entire lives over to Him--all our fears, hopes, dreams, or problems, whatever they might be.
But we are often happy and comfortable with the status quo, with our religious routines and the comfort of our lives. The Lord, however, wants to stretch our faith and He often tests us in some area where we not only need it, but where we are the most sensitive and vulnerable--a physical weakness, personality trait, our spouse or children, our job, our pocketbook--God knows us and works accordingly.
And so it was with this Shunammite woman. She had a special need in her life, and this need was in an area of great vulnerability for her. In ancient times, being without a child was a great burden for a couple, but especially for the woman. Children are blessings from God. They are the result of the direct blessing of God for it is the Lord who opens or closes the womb. Deuteronomy 7:13, 14; 28:4, 18 and Psalm 127:3-5 draw our attention to this fact. In God’s covenant with Israel as spelled out in Deuteronomy, children were a blessing of God for obedience and the absence of children was a curse for disobedience. Yet, sometimes God closed the womb for other reasons. Sometimes it was to develop faith and to magnify His name, as was the case not only with this woman but with Sarah in Genesis and Hannah in 1 Samuel.
So here was a godly woman who for years had undoubtedly longed for a child yet she had been barren. And may I suggest she had become vulnerable in this area because of the many years she had gone without a child.
We also saw in the previous study this wonderful son was a reward for her faithful service and ministry to Elisha. Her husband was old, so this meant a regenerating miracle of God as with Abraham and Sarah. Remember, that at the announcement of this promise she said, “No my lord, O man of God, do not lie to your maid servant” (vs. 16). This expressed her anxiety about setting her hopes on a son and then have them dashed to pieces if the promise was not fulfilled.
It is so easy for people to get wrapped up in their children that they actually seek their own happiness and sense of worth in their children’s accomplishments rather than in the Lord. They become wrapped up in their children’s lives--their growth, changes, talents, accomplishments, problems, pursuits, and successes. Naturally, this is normal to a point, and a legitimate means of joy, but nothing is to take God’s place in our lives as the source of our security, significance, satisfaction, and the means of stability, nothing not even our children.
This woman had accepted her lot in life and was involved in serving the Lord, her husband and her community. Now suddenly, after many years, she is faced with the promise of a child with all the joy, responsibility and change that would bring.
Scripture does not describe her response, but I think we can begin to grasp what immediately went through her mind; the joy and hope as well as the fear of disappointment. The issue of children had been settled long ago; she had accepted it or resigned herself to life without a child, but once again it becomes an issue and a hope, but also a fear, a vulnerability.
With the prospects of this there was a short lapse in her faith--probably in two areas--both of which were a test of her faith which the Lord wanted to develop. First, this would require a sexual regenerating miracle in her husband. But then she probably remembered Abraham and Sarah and was able to rest this in God’s hands.
But there was another test here. We must learn by faith to overcome and handle all of our fears as we trust in the good hand of God. We all tend to become settled and comfortable in our lives as they are. Any real change means becoming more vulnerable and susceptible to pain, pressure, and the things which can bring sorrow and suffering. Or it can even mean a test of our allegiance to our Lord because as He gives us our desires, it is so easy for us to cling to them rather than to the Lord. God gives us all things to enjoy, but we need to have a light grip on these things (1 Tim. 6:17-19).
Proverbs 30:7-9 Two things I asked of You, Do not refuse me before I die: 8 Keep deception and lies far from me, Give me neither poverty nor riches; Feed me with the food that is my portion, 9 Lest I be full and deny You and say, “Who is the Lord?” Or lest I be in want and steal, And profane the name of my God.
See also Deuteronomy 6:10-12; 8:11-14.
A strong faith and one that is growing is one that learns to trust God with the whole of our lives. This means we must learn to step out in faith, to be vulnerable, to leave the future in the Lord’s hands, trusting Him daily and enjoying each day as the Lord gives it while obeying His Word.
For instance, some people are afraid to get close to people or establish close relationships because they don’t want to become vulnerable; they do not want to risk being hurt. As a result, they miss the joy of meaningful relationships as well as the opportunity of ministry to others and being ministered to by others.
The Hebrew words used in this passage may suggest this. The Hebrew word in verse 16 for “lie” is (kazab), which means “to lie or deceive by lies.” But it goes beyond that to mean “to disappoint,” to get one’s hopes up because of what is promised and then to become disappointed. Believing God for this promise not only included faith that He would do this, but faith beyond, faith that God would be sufficient for whatever might come later. She was afraid of getting her hopes up and then being disappointed.
But later in this chapter, when her child died, she reminded Elisha of her words, only there, she changed the verb to shala. This word means “to be quiet, at ease,” and then, “be prosperous, secure,” but in the hiphil stem as it used here, it means “to be deceived, misled.” In Psalm 30:6 the noun form, shalu, “prosperity,” is used. But there the context suggests the idea of being misled by the delusion that prosperity guarantees stability or security. Perhaps we can see in this choice of words the element of her fear of vulnerability. She was afraid that in this blessing and prosperity of having a child she might be deceived and find instead pain and sorrow; she had become comfortable and secure in her present life and she was afraid of her vulnerability.
But God is in the business of developing our faith, of stretching our lives, of broadening our vision or our horizons of His grace, love, and His ability to meet our needs no matter what life may bring.
Let me suggest a few verses that remind us of God’s plan and the way He works in the every day affairs and occurrences of our lives in order to develop our faith and build spiritual and biblical character into our lives.
In Psalm. 4:1 David wrote, “You have relieved me in my distress.” But literally, the text may be translated, “by or in my distress, you have enlarged me.” The verb here is rahab, “be or grow wide, large.” It could be used here of a figure of physical deliverance, but may I suggest the idea here in David’s mind is that of the spiritual growth, of the enlargement of his heart and faith which the testing had produced. In faith, then, David counted on the Lord’s strength and provision (cf. Ps 119:32, 67, 71, 75; Jam. 2f; 1 Pet 1:6f).
The NIV Bible Commentary has a good summary of the events described in verses 17-37.
So it came to pass, at the appointed time the child was born and in time grew into a young lad. One day as he helped his father in the field, the lad was taken suddenly critically ill and died. After placing the lad’s body on the bed in the chamber of the prophet who had first announced his life, the Shunammite lady immediately set out for Mount Carmel where Elisha was ministering. Her faith convinced her that somehow Elisha could be instrumental in again doing the seemingly impossible. He had previously announced life for her who had no hope of producing life; perhaps he could once more give life to her son. Bypassing Gehazi whom Elisha had sent to meet her, she made directly for Elisha; and grasping tightly his feet, she poured out the details of the tragedy.
29-30 Elisha quickly sent Gehazi ahead with instructions to lay the prophet’s staff on the dead lad. Although the author of Kings assigns no reason for Elisha’s instructions and actions, Elisha surely did not send Gehazi on a hopeless mission. Because he was young, Gehazi could cover the distance to Shunem quickly; and it was imperative that a representative of God arrive there as soon as possible. Very likely Gehazi’s task was preparatory and symbolic of the impending arrival of Elisha himself.
But the woman, who apparently had never trusted Gehazi, would entrust neither herself nor the final disposition of her son to him but rather stayed with Elisha until he could reach Shunem. Her faith and concern for her son’s cure were totally centered in God’s approved prophet.
31-37 As Elisha and the mother approached the city, Gehazi reported that, though he had carried out Elisha’s bidding, nothing at all had happened. Perhaps Gehazi had expected something extraordinary. But the merely routine fulfilling of one’s duties will never effect successful spiritual results. Elisha went straight to the dead lad and, putting all others out and shutting the door, besought the Lord for the lad’s life. His prayers were followed with prophetic symbolic actions, doubtless learned from his teacher Elijah’s experience with the widow of Zarephath (cf. 1 Ki. 17:17-22). Elisha stretched his body on the lad’s so that his mouth, eyes, and hands correspondingly met those of the lad; and the boy’s body grew warm again. After rising and walking about in continued prayer, he repeated the symbolic action. This time the lad sneezed seven times and opened his eyes. Having sent Gehazi for the mother, Elisha delivered the recovered lad to her. The woman gratefully thanked the prophet, joyfully took up her son, and went out.
As in the case of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath, both Elisha and the Shunammite woman had seen their faith successfully tested; and they were rewarded with the desires of their hearts and corresponding increase in their faith.41
And so concludes the story of the Shunammite and Elisha’s ministry in her life. But let’s summarize what this simple story teaches us about the life of faith and our walk with the Lord.
May I suggest that we can see here at least five key lessons in the life of faith from 4:8-37:
(1) The Shunammite was a well-to-do lady, but since financial prosperity can never insulate us from sin and the trials and stresses of life, she still had to learn to live by faith because “without faith it is impossible to please God.” In fact it is often more difficult to live by faith with plenty because of man’s tendency to trust in money and the things it can buy than it is to live by faith when people have very little and are forced to turn to the Lord. She illustrates the principle of 1 Timothy 6:17-19: (a) she did not trust in the uncertainty of riches, (b) she was not proud and arrogant over her wealth, and (c) she used her wealth for others in need, laying up treasures in heaven.
(2) She believed in the value of God’s Word and thereby supported the ministry of the prophet. This was a testimony to her faith and values as products of her faith. It was also a means of her faith, for faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God (Rom. 10:17). The principle here is that our faith must have the right object and for that we need the inspired revelation of God.
(3) She demonstrated her faith was growing and active by her attitudes and her works. This is the concept of James 2:14-18. Faith needs to grow; it cannot stand still. Either it grows or it will regress. We must progress in our life of faith and grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ (cf. Rom 4:19-20). The Shunammite’s faith grew: her faith was demonstrated by her desire to know the Word, by her hospitality, by her contentment (see verse 13), by being willing to take a risk, and finally, by her calm dependence in the midst of great sorrow as she sought God’s solution and answer to the loss of her son.
(4) To truly live by faith means we must learn to be vulnerable and to trust God with all our fears and anxieties and unknowns if we are going to experience the maximum out of life and see the power of God (Heb. 11:8).
(5) To live by faith also means learning to immediately go to the Lord in all of life, not only in its trials, pressures, or calamities, but in everything because we believe that He is the God of all wisdom and comfort and He alone is able to direct our lives. (Jer. 10:23; Prov. 16:1; 2 Cor. 1:3-5). We may not see an immediate solution or deliverance from our calamity as did the Shunammite in receiving her son back to life, but believing in the Lord’s compassion, love and eternal purposes we can find comfort and hope and know that God will answer our need and our prayers in a better time and in a better way (cf. Heb 11:38-40; 12:25-29).
Even though we may lose our homes, our business, a job for taking a stand for Christ, or our bodies may come down with a terrible disease, in Christ we have that which cannot be destroyed, shaken or taken away from us--we have an eternal home, “an inheritance which is imperishable (untouched by death) and undefiled (unstained by evil) and will not fade away (unimpaired by time), reserved in heaven” (1 Pet. 1:4). Clinging to these truths by faith becomes the glorious light at the end of the tunnel and the means of letting go and resting in the Lord and risking. It was this hope that gave the Apostle Paul the capacity to risk, to be vulnerable and move out for others in ministry regardless of what it might cost him (see 2 Cor. 4:7-18).
An illustration of the importance of letting go and resting and risking:
Top Gun, a hit a movie of 1986, is the story of Lt. Pete Mitchell (“Maverick”), played by Tom Cruise, as he attended the Navy school for select pilots. Maverick was reckless, daring, and willing to take risks. His abandonment of life made him fearless in the face of the enemy. His main competition to graduate top in the class was “Iceman,” played by Val Kilmer, who was cool, calm, and calculating.
Maverick seemed unbeatable until his back-seater “Goose” was killed while trying to eject after they got caught in jet wash and found themselves in a flat spin. Thereafter Maverick just wasn’t the same. According to his commander Maverick had “lost his edge and would not engage the enemy.” He lost his confidence. He lost his willingness to take risks. He was holding on to Goose.
The story ends well. Maverick faces his fear, engages the enemy, and saves Iceman in a dogfight over the Mediterranean. In a final scene Maverick hurls Goose’s dog tags into the sea, finally letting go of him.
The story of Maverick has a lot of parallels to our spiritual journey. Jesus has called us to engage the enemy. To be effective in that battle we need to abandon life. Otherwise fear can overtake us in our mission as well.
Sometimes we are holding on to something that keeps us back. Maybe the lure of the world, the fear of financial insecurity, or the fear that the congregation won’t like you, keeps you from fully engaging the enemy and being totally free in your ministry. Without that freedom, your confidence is drained and you shrink back in fear. Are you holding on to something?42
To grasp the significance of the miracles of Elijah and Elisha, it is important to remember that nearly everything they did in their ministries, especially their miracles, was done against the backdrop of the idolatrous cult of Baalism as a polemical statement against the evil of Baalism and its futility in contrast to the righteousness, power, and activity of Yahweh, the true and covenant God of Israel.
In the northern kingdom of Israel where Elijah and Elisha ministered, the people, including their leaders, had abandoned the Lord and His Word and had gone into Baalism like an adulterous wife playing the prostitute.
In the Palestinian Covenant of Deuteronomy the Lord had promised the nation that if they were faithful to Him and obeyed His Word (the Old Testament Law) they would be blessed, but if they disobeyed and went after the idolatrous gods of the nations, they would be cursed. For obedience there would be blessing but for disobedience there would be cursing (divine judgment). This was not because Israel was something special (cf. Deut. 9:3-6), or so they could be fat and comfortable, but because God had chosen them to be the custodians of His truth (Rom. 3:2; 9:4), to be the channel of Messiah (Gen. 12:3; Rom. 9:5), and to be a witness to the nations of the righteousness and power of God and of the truth of God’s Word (cf. Ex. 19:4-6; Deut. 4:5-8). If Israel would fulfill their purpose, they would also be able to demonstrate the futility and falsehood of the false gods of the nations. This fact would be made clear by God’s blessing for their obedience and cursing for disobedience.
Leviticus 26 sets forth the laws of God concerning obedience and blessing and disobedience and cursing. The cursing is described in five cycles of discipline which God would bring upon Israel one after the other. The discipline would continue through each cycle (unless Israel repented) until the fifth which would result in captivity and dispersion among other nations. One aspect of God’s blessing that demonstrated His reality and power was the blessing of rain and the productivity of the land (cf. Lev. 26:4). As we have seen, Baal was proclaimed as the god of thunderstorms, the god who brought rain and productivity to the land; he was also hailed as the god of fertility. So the miracles of Elisha and this famine, much like the days of Elijah, disproved this. It proved Baal was impotent and could not supply the needs of the people. In place of rain, they received no rain.
Basically, what was the real problem? Just as today, it was a battle for the minds and beliefs of men. In essence, it was a battle for the Bible. It involved what we can call the vacuum action of the mind. If men are not listening to the Word of God on a regular basis and obeying its truth, then, they will automatically take in the viewpoint, values, and belief systems of the world and its counterfeits. When societies go this route they become like a pot of death, filled with the bitter poisonous stew of the devil’s disciples.
It was for this purpose that God raised up Elijah and Elisha, two mighty prophets of God, men through whom God performed miracles to authenticate the reality and truthfulness of the Word of God. Through these men the Lord sought to turn Israel back to Himself and His Word and away from the idolatrous cults of the nations and their false philosophies of life. As always, miracles were performed as authenticating tools of God’s messenger with God’s message. The miracles were first and foremost signs to authenticate the messenger, but only in order to authenticate the message.
Though the nation as a whole had turned away from God, many had not. There were at least 7,000 who had not bowed the knee to Baal. This included at least three schools of prophets which were somewhat like seminaries. One such school was at Gilgal where we pick up our story in 2 Kings 4:38-41.
38 When Elisha returned to Gilgal, there was a famine in the land. As the sons of the prophets were sitting before him, he said to his servant, “Put on the large pot and boil stew for the sons of the prophets.” 39 Then one went out into the field to gather herbs, and found a wild vine and gathered from it his lap full of wild gourds, and came and sliced them into the pot of stew, for they did not know what they were. 40 So they poured it out for the men to eat. And it came about as they were eating of the stew, that they cried out and said, “O man of God, there is death in the pot.” And they were unable to eat. 41 But he said, “Now bring meal.” And he threw it into the pot, and he said, “Pour it out for the people that they may eat.” Then there was no harm in the pot.
Elisha returned to Gilgal where a school of the prophets was located. The first point brought to our attention in verse 38 is the fact of Elisha’s return. Elisha could have remained in the home of the Shunammite where he would have had comfort and provision of food, but as a true shepherd and a godly man who meant business with God, he was bound in duty and heart to the prophets and their need. This time of famine, not unlike the famine that existed for the teaching and hearing of the word (Amos 8:11), was a great opportunity to communicate the truth of God’s Word to these future preachers of the Word.
But like the Lord, whom Elisha so resembled in his ministry, he would use this famine and the current conditions and events to illustrate certain truth and to teach the reality of God’s covenant with Israel. A good shepherd does not abandon the fold when trouble comes, but stays with the sheep to encourage and instruct them through the events of life.
The second point brought to our attention is the fact of the prophet’s return in a time of famine. The words, “there was” are in italics in the NASB and the KJV, which means they do not exist in the Hebrew text. Literally, “and famine in the land.” This is a nominal sentence and is slightly emphatic. Immediately, the point brought to our attention is Elisha’s return, but it was during a time when there was famine in the land.
What land is this? It is the land of promise. It is the land which God swore to give to Israel, and which He had done. Further, He had promised to bless the land and make it fruitful if Israel would obey the Lord. He promised in Deuteronomy 28:12, “the Lord will open for you His good storehouse, the heavens, to give rain to your land in it seasons . . .” But God had also promised, if they would not obey Him and His Word, “the heaven which is over your head shall be bronze and the earth which is under you, iron. The Lord will make the rain of your land powder and dust; from heaven it shall come down on you until you are destroyed.” (Deut 28:23-24).
And so now to an Israel that was drenched in the teaching and ideas of the false cult of Baalism and its phony claims that Baal was the god of thunderstorms, there was famine in the land exactly as God had promised. Of course, the real problem was the spiritual famine of a godless and idolatrous society, a society which was seeking to live without the inspired Word of God.
There are some principles which we should see from this:
(1) When a nation turns away from the Lord it not only reaps what it has sown and brings on itself the judgment of God, but the godly who are left also suffer (as were these prophets). Even though God would (and did) supply their needs, they were still suffering the consequences of idolatry. Likewise, because of the spiritual and moral breakdown in our nation today, it is unsafe to walk down the street at night in most of our cities.
(2) This further reminds us of the need and responsibilities that we have to function as light and salt to illuminate the darkness and preserve our nation from decay. Christians need to stand up and be counted!
(3) But such conditions also mean times of need and opportunity for the people of God. We need to gather together often for teaching and encouragement and to be equipped to reach out to a lost and hurting society, which is precisely what we see here in these disciples of Elisha (Mal. 3:16; Heb. 10:24-25).
But let’s not forget that one of the reasons nations turn away from the Lord (i.e., stop taking time for God’s Word, and instead taking in the poison of the world) is that they become so wrapped up in their own affluence, prosperity, and pursuits that they forget the God who gave it to them (Deut 6:10-12 cf. with 4-6).
Verse 38 continues, “As the sons of the prophet were sitting . . .” What do you suppose they were doing? Playing monopoly? Hardly. No, they were in Bible class learning the Word, listening intently to the prophet, the one known as God’s man for the hour, a man who demonstrated that God was real.
In this context of physical and spiritual famine, Elisha said to his servant, “put on the large pot . . .” Here was a perfect time for an illustration. Like our Lord often did (compare the feeding of the five thousand in Mark 6), Elisha was going to kill two birds with one stone. First, he was going to meet their need for food, but at the same time he was going to use this as an opportunity to illustrate and reinforce an important spiritual truth (cf. Mark 6:51, 52).
The word for “stew” is the Hebrew nazid, which refers to “soup or stew, or that which is boiled in a pot, pottage.” It consisted of a conglomeration of things boiled together, usually vegetables and meat or vegetables and meal.
There is an instructive analogy here. The pot is like the world, a conglomeration of man’s ideas, religions, cults, and humanistic philosophies by which people attempt to satisfy their spiritual appetites and deal with the spiritual famine that is in the world. The parable of the wheat and tares is a similar analogy.
This verse reveals they got the ingredients for the pottage, wild herbs, from the field. “Field” is the Hebrew sadeh which refers to an open, uncultivated area of land where you can only find that which grows wild. The unnamed gatherer of the herbs went out and found what he thought would make a good stew. These herbs were soft, succulent plants without a lot of woody tissue; they were palatable, and often used for medicinal purposes or for their sweet flavor and aromatic scent. But what he found out in the field (a picture of the world) were poisonous herbs. Untrained in these matters, he mistook the wild vine for an edible cucumber or squash. What he found is believed to be the citrallus colocynthus, which had a leaf like a squash but was bitter and poisonous due to its very severe purgative qualities. If eaten in large amounts it would tear up the digestive tract and could even cause death. In small amounts you might not die, but you might think you were going to--and might even want to.
What’s the picture? The world is full of poisonous ideas that may look harmless and even resemble the truth, but they are bitter and bring unhappiness to man. To be able to recognize this and to protect others from these bitter herbs, men need to be trained in the Word of God that they may in turn equip others in the truth. Compare Paul’s challenge to Timothy (2 Tim. 2:2) and his instruction in Ephesians 4:12-16 and note the parallel with Elisha in the school of these prophets.
“And so they poured it out for the men to eat.” Unsuspectingly, they dished up this poisonous stew, but soon the effects were experienced; it was bitter and they undoubtedly quickly began to experience stomach cramps. They rose from the table in pain and fear. There was death in the pot. The wild herbs picked from the field, without the discerning expertise of a master herbalist who knew the difference between what was edible and what was not, were poison. So the prophets cried out to the man of God, for only God has the antidote and the means of life.
The pictures here are clear enough. The world is full of poisonous ideas and solutions to life. To the untrained, undiscriminating ear and eye, they sound and look good, but they are full of death and misery.
Further, in this picture, we see the believer’s responsibility. In Jesus Christ and His Word we have the antidote--the answer to man’s death and the means of life eternal and life abundantly (John 10:10). Unfortunately, our tendency is to follow our own instincts and that which seems right to us.
In Guideposts, Ronald Pinkerton describes a near accident he had while hang gliding. He had launched his hang glider and been forcefully lifted 4,200 feet into the air. As he was descending, he was suddenly hit by a powerful new blast of air that sent his hang glider plummeting toward the ground.
“I was falling at an alarming rate. Trapped in an airborne rip tide, I was going to crash! Then I saw him--a red-tailed hawk. He was six feet off my right wing tip, fighting the same gust I was . . .
I looked down: 300 feet from the ground and still falling. The trees below seemed like menacing pikes.
I looked at the hawk again. Suddenly he banked and flew straight downwind. Downwind! If the right air is anywhere, it’s upwind! The hawk was committing suicide.
Two hundred feet. From nowhere the thought entered my mind: Follow the hawk. It went against everything I knew about flying. But now all my knowledge was useless. I was at the mercy of the wind. I followed the hawk.
One hundred feet. Suddenly the hawk gained altitude. For a split second I seemed to be suspended motionless in space. Then a warm surge of air started pushing the glider upward. I was stunned. Nothing I knew as a pilot could explain this phenomenon. But it was true: I was rising.43
As the Psalmist challenges us, man’s need is to:
Trust in the Lord with all your heart, And do not lean on your own understanding. 6 In all your ways acknowledge Him, And He will make your paths straight. 7 Do not be wise in your own eyes; Fear the Lord and turn away from evil. It will be healing to your body and refreshment to your bones (Prov. 3:5-8).
Elisha called for meal (flour) and threw it into the pot and by a miracle of God the flour neutralized the poison. This beautifully illustrates a wonderful spiritual truth, an analogy for faith and obedience. Isn’t it interesting that in order to live, they had to eat in faith of that which had been poisonous? There was no neutral position. They either ate of the flour-sweetened stew or they died.
“Meal” is the Hebrew word, gemah, a form of flour or meal. It was used of both a very coarse and very fine flour (Gen. 18:6) and of the ingredient for unleavened bread or cakes (Jud. 6:19). The normal word for very fine flour is selet, the type used with all the animal sacrifices. But as a form of flour, it had definite symbolical significance.
Meal or flour is used in making bread and Jesus Christ is the Bread of Life. Further, there were the Old Testament meal offerings which stood for the person of Jesus Christ, but they were always offered with the animal sacrifices, a picture of the death of Christ (cf. Num. 15:1f). This demonstrates the absolute necessity of both the person and work of Jesus Christ. There can be no salvation and forgiveness apart from both. But from the standpoint of the offerer, the meal offering represented the offerer’s property, his possessions which, when presented with the animal sacrifice, showed the connection between pardon from sin and devotion to the Lord. Devotion to the Lord flows out of our pardon for sin. Being saved to serve is the obvious picture.
So the meal stands as a picture of Jesus Christ, the Living Word of God, the Bread from heaven, who of course is revealed only in the Bible, the written Word.
The point of the lesson is that only God’s Word which reveals Jesus Christ is the antidote to the death in the pot. Only Jesus Christ can give life and remove the spiritual famine of the world or feed us in the midst of famine.
But note the last part of verse 41, “Pour it out for the people that they may eat.”
First, please note that in order to live, they had to eat of the now harmless, life-giving pot of stew. We must feed on God’s Word and its precious revelation of Jesus Christ. The prophets had to believe God, and by faith eat of this stew in order to be delivered from the poisonous stew.
Second, notice there is no neutral position. Either one feeds upon Jesus Christ or he must starve and die as he attempts to live off the pottage of the world. A neutral position toward the Word is really a positive position for the world. Either we feed off God’s life-giving Word or we feed off the poisonous words of the world.
Rom 8:5-7 For those who are according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who are according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. 6 For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace, 7 because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so;
Hosea 4:6 My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge. Because you have rejected knowledge, I also will reject you from being My priest. Since you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children.
1 Corinthians 1:20-25 Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. 22 For indeed Jews ask for signs, and Greeks search for wisdom; 23 but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block, and to Gentiles foolishness, 24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
12:1 I urge you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. 2 And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.
God’s people must constantly be transformed by God’s Holy Word, the Bible.
As you study the life and ministry of Elisha, it is easy to see how his character and works resemble many of the features of the ministry of our Lord. The story of the man from Baal-shalishah is very similar to the feeding of the 5,000 or the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fish. The famine that existed in the preceding story of the poisonous pottage is still in effect in this event (2 Kings 4:38-41). There the emphasis was on the flour which nullified the poisonous pottage, a picture of the Lord Jesus and His Word, the only antidote to the various poisons of the world. Here the emphasis will be similar. Bread and grain are provided which again portray the Savior and His Word as the answer to the spiritual famine, only now, another dimension is added, that of our responsibility to trust God to multiply what He has given us as we share Him with others.
As the disciples were to learn from the feeding of the five thousand, so here we have a group of prophets gathered together around Elisha because it was to these men that God had given the responsibility of carrying His Word to an idolatrous nation. This was a difficult, if not impossible task apart from the divine enablement of God. They would face personal hardships, persecutions, times of want, and many other difficulties for which only God was adequate. In this text, they were called on to believe God and trust Him for all their needs and responsibilities. As we relate this to our own lives, let’s ask a couple of pertinent questions:
First, what are some of our needs for which we need to trust the Lord? These include our own personal weaknesses and failures; our need to grow in faith and obedience; our ignorance and lack of spiritual discernment; our physical needs and wants; our needs of guidance and wisdom, courage, honesty or character, and many like things.
Second, what are some of our responsibilities? These include the use of our gifts, talents, and the ministries God has given us and wants to give us; our responsibility to study, pray, love and care for others (family, friends, neighbors) and many other things.
2 Kings 4:42-44 Now a man came from Baal-shalishah, and brought the man of God bread of the first fruits, twenty loaves of barley and fresh ears of grain in his sack. And he said, “Give them to the people that they may eat.” 43 And his attendant said, “What, shall I set this before a hundred men?” But he said, “Give them to the people that they may eat, for thus says the LORD, ‘They shall eat and have some left over.’” 44 So he set it before them, and they ate and had some left over, according to the word of the LORD.
Who was this man from Baal-shalisha? His identity is simply not given. Perhaps he represents so many of us whose names will never be in a hall of fame or on a who’s who. Clearly, he represents a faithful believer who gave of his substance, but the Lord knew him and will never forget him. “For God is not unjust so as to forget your work and the love which you have shown toward His name in having ministered and in still ministering to the saints” (Heb. 6:10). The author of Hebrews goes on to say “We desire that each one of you show the same diligence so as so realize the full assurance of hope until the end” (Heb 6:11). With this in mind, we should also remember Paul’s exhortation, “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Cor 15:58).
The fact this man is not identified also reminds us of another truth, one expressed by John the Baptist when he was questioned by his disciples over the growing influence and popularity of Jesus with a corresponding decline in the influence and popularity of John. John showed no jealousy or concern, but rather reaffirmed what he had said all along. He was but a witness of the Savior (see John 3:26-29). In the growing influence of Jesus, John found his own joy fulfilled just as the friend of the bridegroom, the best man, is there to support the groom and finds joy in that role. John then made this important statement, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). As servants and instruments of the Lord, we should never call attention to ourselves, but to the Savior we represent because He alone is sufficient for the needs of mankind. But, unless we are truly finding our significance and joy in the Savior, the constant temptation is for us to want to be in the limelight if we are seeking our significance in the praise of men.
Though the man is unidentified, the text tells us he was from Baal-shalishah. Where exactly was that? From the text this seems to be more significant than the man’s name. Why? Man’s chief end is to glorify God, to exalt the Lord and draw attention to Him because of who and what He is to men and the universe. That he was from a place called Baal-shalishah does this very thing. The fact the man was from this particular place during a time of famine was a polemic against the worship of Baal.
Remember that Elisha’s miracles were often performed as an argument and an appeal against the idolatrous cult and worship of Baal, the god of storm and fertility. God’s supremacy over Baal and Baal’s impotence is constantly affirmed in the stories of Elisha and his acts served as a polemic against the very powers that were attributed to the pagan nature deity who was supposed to control fertility in agriculture, in man and beast as well as the rain.
The fact this man comes from Baal-shalishah demonstrates this.
First, the term baal means “owner, husband, master,” but it was often used simply as a name for the Canaanite deity called Baal. Sometimes the verb form, B`u~l, was used of the Lord, the true God of Israel to express His relationship to Israel as master or husband with whom they were in covenant relation.
Jeremiah 3:14 “Return, O faithless sons,” declares the Lord; “For I am a master (B`u~l) to you, And I will take you one from a city and two from a family, And I will bring you to Zion.”
Jeremiah 31:32 “not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband (B`u~l) to them,” declares the Lord.
When Israel was obedient to this covenant then Yahweh, her husband or master and provider, would bless the land (Deut 28:29). When disobedient to the covenant, they would experience cursing such as famine. Israel had been disloyal to Yahweh and had gone into baalism, thus, there was famine in the land.
Second, shalishah mean’s “third” and can stand for the idea of “multiplicity” because in Hebrew the number three was the smallest number which set forth the idea of multiplicity. So the name Baal-shalisha could mean “the Lord of multiplicity” or perhaps, “the Lord who multiplies.” So here a man, a worshipper of Yahweh, the true God and husband of Israel, was coming to the true prophets of God with bread and grain which Yahweh would miraculously multiply as the God of multiplicity. This would again demonstrate that He alone was the true God who would meet their needs and multiply their ministries.
Third, note that he came to the “man of God,” to that man who stood opposed to the prophets of Baal and his worship. God was honoring the ministry of Elisha and the true prophets of God.
Fourth, what he brought is described as the “first fruits” of his crop. This proves he was a godly and true believer in Yahweh who was bringing from God’s blessing in accordance to the Old Testament Law, God’s covenant with Israel. The first fruits or the first portion of the crop was to be given to the Lord in obedience and as a sign of faith that Yahweh, the God of Israel, the covenant-keeping God, would give the rest of the crops. It was an act of faith that demonstrated the person believed God’s covenant and that more would follow because Yahweh was faithful to His promises.
Fifth, in this act of faith by this one unknown man, we see how God takes the faith of one believer, never mentioned again in Scripture as far as we know, and uses that man as a demonstration of His steadfast love and as a means of encouragement and hope, but also as a training aid for Elisha to use with his men.
Sixth, note that what this man brought was not a great amount; he simply brought what he had. The amount is never what is important, for God is able to multiply our gifts and talents.
Finally, the loaves naturally speak of the Lord Jesus as the Bread of Life and the grain as the seed of the Word which not only feeds us, but is to be sown in the world.
“Give them to the people that they may eat.” Elisha, a man totally occupied with the Lord God and motivated and directed by the principle of His Word saw in this event a tremendous opportunity. It was one of those situations that demonstrate the principles of Romans 8:28 and 32. So it was an opportunity to teach and demonstrate two important truths.
First, it taught them who and what God was to them as teachers of God’s Word. It was He who would multiply and supply their needs, whatever they might be as they sought to minister to a spiritually starving nation. But it also taught them something of their responsibilities as they went forth to spread the Word and minister to people. They were to take whatever God supplied and use it, trusting God to multiply it as He might see fit.
This passage not only illustrates God’s faithfulness and His ability to supply our physical needs such as food and clothing, but as with our Lord and the feeding of the five thousand, it was intended to be an analogy of God’s power and provision for them as preachers of His Word and of their responsibility. It was an illustration of their responsibility vertically to God. They must always walk in dependence on Him rather than in their own abilities.
It also illustrated their responsibility to men in breaking and sharing the bread of Life with others and in sowing the seed of the Word. The statement in Mark 6:34, “Like sheep without a shepherd” sets the stage and atmosphere for the feeding of the 5,000 and what our Lord was seeking to teach the disciples and us. In a similar way, surely Elisha was saying the same thing. He was saying, “I want you to take these loaves, a picture of the Word which was to be fed to others.”
But this is a very big responsibility for which no man is equipped no matter how gifted or brilliant or capable. So this event was designed to teach us a very important truth, a truth brought about by the large number of men. A hundred men were present, but they had only a very small number of loaves. Far too little to adequately feed the whole crowd.
Why are we so often inadequate in our responsibilities and in our ministries? Because of the confinement of our perspective or vision, which like the bars of a cell, keep us from seeing how the power of God can multiply the very little that we have. Often this comes out of adversity. In our weakness, God’s abundant strength is multiplied.
A couple of years ago I was teaching full-time at Moody Northwest in Spokane, an extension of Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. I developed severe throat problems and was forced to cut back to just one class a week. At first it was a though God was silencing me, but instead God marvelously opened a new and much broader ministry--that of writing full-time for the Biblical Studies Foundation.
“What, shall I set this before a hundred men?” The attendant was confused and confined, limited by his unbelief, but his unbelief was caused by measuring his own ability to feed so many rather than by who and what God was and always is. Measuring our ability or capability or success in any aspect of the ministry (or whatever God may call us to do) by the puniness of ourselves must automatically confine us, resulting in confusion and defeat. We must learn to take whatever God has given us and then, trusting in the will and power of God, use it knowing that God is able to multiply it super abundantly above all that we can ask or think if He desires to do so.
So the issue here was not the small number of loaves, but the ability to see beyond the loaves to the Almighty. It was an issue of having the wrong perspective, a perspective which measures our ability by who and what we are and have rather than by who and what God is to us.
The key lesson of the passage is that God’s wants us to learn to measure life by God’s infiniteness which is without measure.
Here Elisha repeats his former instruction, “Give them to the people that they may eat, for thus says the Lord, ‘They shall eat and have left over.’” As the statement, “for thus says the Lord” indicates, Elisha was given direct revelation from the Lord that He was going to multiply the loaves. It was a promise from the Lord to Elisha, but only, it appears after Elisha exercised faith in the Lord, trusting Him to perform this miracle.
Elisha wanted to demonstrate what God was to these prophets in their ministries so that they might learn to measure their lives, their work, and their challenges, not by the size of the problems or their own resources, but by the greatness of their God.
For us today, the words, “thus says the Lord,” stand as an illustration and a picture of our need to know and understand the principles and promises of the Word and then count upon them for the provision of God. Elisha was teaching these prophets (and us) what God will always be to us if we will adopt the disposition of faith in the Word and the promises of God that Elisha had toward the Word of the Lord.
“So he set before them.” First let us note that the attendant was obedient to God and the command and believed in the promise of God. This is foundational. Until God’s people learn the moral necessity to both believe and obey the Scriptures, there is going to be a spiritual famine, confusion, and confinement in our lives and our ministries.
Second, “They ate and had some left over.” God’s provision is always more than enough for our real needs, not our greed, but for the real needs of our lives.
Finally note the words “according to the word of the Lord.” The point is, it happened just as God promised. God’s Word is tried and true. God is faithful to His Word. We can count on the Lord.
The problems we so often face or fail to adequately solve are often caused by the confinement of our perspectives, and our unbelief in the Word. Oh, that we might learn to measure life and deal with its needs not by who we are, but by who and what the Lord is and has promised.
George Müller’s life so beautifully illustrates one who truly believed God’s Word and His promise to provide our needs. Mr. Müller established several orphanages solely by faith that God was leading him to do so and he believed God’s promise that He would provide their needs. Needs were never made known, no indirect hints were made that funds were needed, and even when in dire straits, those who inquired as to the needs were never informed so that the ministry would be a testimony to God’s faithfulness. Mr. Müller said he was kept in peace by “not looking at the little in hand, but at the fulness of God.”44 His desire was to prove to all men that it is safe to trust only in the living God.
Portraits of How God Saves
The healing of Naaman, the Leper is not just a story of the healing of a man from one of the most dreaded diseases of ancient times, but it is a story of salvation, one which illustrates the spiritual salvation man finds only in Jesus Christ and how men come to find that salvation in Christ. In Naaman’s healing there are a variety of people who play different parts; some good and vital to the salvation and healing of Naaman and others not so good. All illustrate the various good and evil persuasions of people that either aid or hinder bringing men to Christ.
As we step into this scene, we leave the land of Israel, a nation that was to be a light to the Gentiles and a nation of priests. We step into Syria to the north, a heathen (pagan) nation surrounded in darkness, a place of idolatry and heathen blindness. In these verses there is an anticipation of the gospel that would go out from Israel through Messiah and then out from the church carrying the light of Jesus Christ to the Gentile nations. Naaman’s healing was an illustration of what God would later do in the ministry of the Lord Jesus and His church. Here, then, is a classic illustration of God’s Love, of how He reaches out to a people in utter darkness and uses their afflictions to draw them to Himself if they will only respond to His pre-salvation work of grace wherein God seeks to bring men to repentance (Rom 2:4).
Now Naaman, captain of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man with his master, and highly respected, because by him the LORD had given victory to Aram. The man was also a valiant warrior, but he was a leper.
In this we have a picture of the sinner before he comes to God.
Naaman comes from the Hebrew verb naem, “be delightful, pleasant, beautiful.” It has the idea of “gracious” or “well formed.” Because of the significance of names in Scripture, this tells us something about the man. His name suggests he had undoubtedly been a handsome man, at least before the leprosy. Further, the implication is that he was also a gracious and delightful man. But his name became a reproach and a striking contrast to his appearance and probably also to his disposition because of the disease which had attacked his body. It provides a striking picture of mankind created physically and spiritually beautiful in God’s image before sin began to take it’s toll on both the disposition and physical body of man.
The way Naaman is first described gives us a picture of him as he was seen by people who tend to look mostly on the outward appearance.
(1) His position. He was “captain of the army of the King of Aram.” This means he was the General of the Syrian or the Aramean Army, second in command to the King. He was a man of great authority and position.
(2) His popularity and prestige. This is noted in the words, “a great man with his master, and highly respected . . .” Here was a popular man. He was a national hero as the general who had been victorious over the enemies of the nation of Aram. Upon his head were the laurels or wreaths of victory and upon his chest, medals of honor and valor. But would you also note the biblical perspective and truth regarding the source of victory and valor; it is the sovereign plan and power of God. He was a man whom God had used as He had Pharaoh and the Kings of Assyria and Babylon. Here again we see how the Lord uses the saved and unsaved alike to carry out His purposes and plans. But being so used does not save a person.
(3) His problem. He was a Leper. “But he was,” italicized in the NASB, is not in the Hebrew text. In the original Hebrew text we find only the word “leprous,” which highlights or emphasizes Naaman’s problem--the dreaded disease of leprosy.
In Scripture, leprosy is a portrait of sin and man’s true spiritual condition without the saving grace (spiritual healing) of God’s salvation in the Lord Jesus Christ. Regardless of how men may see us or we may see ourselves, in God’s Holy eyes, we are leprous without the righteousness of Christ imputed to us through faith in the person and work of the Savior. This one word gives us God’s perspective of the true condition of this man regardless of how he was seen and thought of by man. Here we see a holy God’s perspective of man without Jesus Christ and the ravages of sin.
The principle we need to see is that “many today are perishing from the loathsome leprosy of sin. One may be great, successful, wealthy, honorable and mighty, but spiritually lost. To realize one’s lost condition before God, and to desire to escape from it are the first steps toward salvation. Naaman discovered this.”45
But what exactly does leprosy in the Bible teach us about our sin and its effect in our lives? What can we learn from this story about man’s condition in sin and what God does for man in Jesus Christ to heal him from the leprosy of sin? Before we continue, let’s look at the subject of leprosy itself.
The biblical instructions for leprosy, the separation, isolation, and cleansing of the leper and thus the biblical foundation as a picture of sin are described for us in Leviticus 13-14. The Hebrew word for leprosy, x`r^A^T, was actually used of a wider range of skin diseases as well as what is today called leprosy or Hansen’s disease caused by the bacillus mycobacterium leprae. The Greek word is lepra from lepw which means, “to peel off in scales.” It is equivalent to psoriasis, only it was far more serious than the psoriasis we think of today. Scholars are somewhat in disagreement regarding biblical leprosy, but it appears that there were two main types. “The first, and by far the more dangerous, is called lepromatous; and the other, a more benign type, is designated as tuberculoid . . . Both start with discoloration of a patch of skin. This patch may be white or pink. It is most likely to appear on the brow, nose, ear, cheek or chin.”46
(1) The Lepromatous Type: As this form begins to spread, portions of the eyebrow may disappear, then spongy tumor like swellings appear on the face and body. The disease is systemic and involves the internal organs as well. It is deep seated in the bones, joints and marrow of the body resulting in the deterioration of the tissues between the bones. The results are deformity, loss of feeling in the appendages, and in the fingers and toes eventually falling off. This form is incurable and lasts until the victim finally dies often by the invasion of other diseases because of the weakened condition. They may live for twenty or thirty years in this miserable condition.47
(2) The Tuberculoid Type: This form is less severe and begins much like the lepromatous form with a change in skin color in one area and then spreading to other areas. This form is limited in its effects and often only lasts from one to three years. The person with this form, unless miraculously healed, could return to the priest and be declared cleansed or healed after observation. Other types of skin diseases were observed and when found not be to true leprosy or they disappeared, the people with these forms were also declared clean. Other than by God’s direct intervention, it appears the Hebrews had no cure for leprosy. In modern times there are very effective medicines available, and leprosy patients are usually not isolated.48
One thing is certain, the term leprosy referred to several types of skin diseases which were rooted in the blood stream. When they were the lepromatous type, they were incurable and led to horrible consequences. Because of this, specific directions were given for leprosy in Leviticus 13-14. This was done first as a protection against possible spread in case it was contagious, but there was also a ceremonial or spiritual reason. Leprosy stood as a picture of sin and all its features and effects upon man and upon his relationship with God.
(1) The leper was considered unclean and had to be isolated from society to a certain degree. Wherever he went he was to cry out, “unclean, unclean,” and he had to wear black with a hood covering his face and live outside the city walls.
(2) Whenever the Lord Jesus healed a leper he always pronounced the person, not healed, but cleansed.
(3) True leprosy was incurable by man in Bible times just as sin is incurable for man (Jer. 17:9, “desperately sick,” “beyond cure” or “incurably sick”; see also Isa. 1:5-6). There is nothing man himself can do to deal with his sin problem. Further, his sin separates him from God and even from intimate fellowship with people (cf. 1 Cor. 5:9-13; 2 Cor. 6:14-7:1). When the Lord healed a leper, therefore, the picture should have been obvious. His power to cleanse a leper demonstrated He was the solution to man’s sin and defilement; He alone was and is the means of reconciliation, peace with God and man.
(4) The rite of purification in the Old Testament did not cure, it only recognized the fact a leper was cured, he was clean of the disease, or that he never really had the incurable type of leprosy. He could then be reconciled to society.
(5) Leprosy, like sin, begins within (with what we are) and then erupts on the skin (on the surface). As such, it clearly reminds us of the principle that men are, by an inherited nature, sinners and that it’s not just what we do that is so bad, but what we are. The point is the mouth speaks and hands do as a result of what the heart is and thinks (Luke 6:43-45; Ps. 51:5; 58:3; Matt. 12:33-34; Eph. 2:1f). With this in mind, compare Leviticus 13:1-4. Even the slightest blemish in the skin, a swelling (a boil), a scab (a small tumor), or a bright spot (a red or scaly place) was to be carefully observed to see if it was the product of something deeper, i.e., some form of true leprosy.
(6) The priest was to examine the skin and pronounce the person clean or unclean depending upon his observation of the facts. So today, since Christ has provided cleansing from sin, every believer as a believer priest is to detect sin in their own life and pronounce it sin when it first appears (1 John 1:8-10).49
(7) The pain of leprosy, at least in certain forms, was not acute because it also killed the nerves in the affected area, but it kept the victim restless, miserable, and frustrated as they felt the stigma of the disease. They saw portions of their bodies become numb, muscles atrophy (waste away), tendons contract making the hands like claws, and then the ulceration of the fingers and toes and hands and feet resulting in their loss bit by bit until the whole hand or foot was gone. We must not miss the picture God wants us to see from this emphasis in Scripture. Sin is like this. Because of man’s separation from God, because of his spiritually dead condition and the hardness of his soul, he becomes insensitive, callused, restless and never satisfied. He often does not experience severe pain from his sin and waywardness, only insensitivity, restless misery, and futility, ever seeking some means of fulfillment running from one thing to another (cf. Isa. 57:20-21; Eph. 4:16-19). Even in apparent prosperity and happiness, not only is there a certain amount of inner peace and true happiness missing, but their ultimate plight is death, loss, and the judgment of separation (Ps. 1:4-5; 73:1-28).
(8) Because of the nature of the disease, the leper was often considered as dead; it was a kind of living death though physically alive. So men without Christ are nothing more than the living dead; though walking about they are spiritual zombies (Eph. 2:1).
(9) Regardless of one’s position, honor, power, possessions, or wealth, leprosy, like sin, is no respecter of persons. Naaman was a man of position and prestige, but he was also leprous.
(10) As seen previously, in Israel, according to the Law, lepers were excluded from society as a picture of sin and its effects. God used this to remind Israel of His holiness. Cleansing a leper meant being restored back to a normal life. The term “cure” in 2 Kings 5:3 literally meant, “to receive back.” This provides us with a fitting picture of our reconciliation to God and to one another (cf. Isa. 59:2 with 2 Cor. 5:18-21).
(11) Finally, the leprosy of sin destroys the pleasantness and beauty God meant for mankind in His creation. Sin deforms us, but in Christ we are made new creations and can be transformed into His glorious likeness (2 Cor. 5:17; Rom. 12:1-2; Gal. 4:19). See also 2 Kings 5:14.
Namaan held a high position, but had a very great problem. We need to understand that God often uses the personal failures, sicknesses, and problems of men as a means so bring them to the end of themselves and to a knowledge of the Lord and His salvation. (Ps. 119:67, 71, 73). God uses problems in life to force us to face our deeper problem, the problem of sin, and the need of God’s forgiveness and salvation in Jesus Christ. This chapter illustrates this. Naaman went from his problem to God’s solution which was more than simply the healing of his leprosy. As we will see, Naaman came to know the true God. So, with verses 2 and following we will see how God worked in various ways, through the disease and through people to bring Naaman to the Lord. In these verses we have portraits of how God saves.
2 Now the Arameans had gone out in bands, and had taken captive a little girl from the land of Israel; and she waited on Naaman’s wife. 3 And she said to her mistress, “I wish that my master were with the prophet who is in Samaria! Then he would cure him of his leprosy.”
Here we see how the Lord always has His messengers of the Word. When there is a person whose heart has been prepared, God always has his messengers. Here, God’s messengers begin with a little captive slave girl. In fact, by His matchless grace, God worked through the unrighteous deeds of Naaman’s own army to bring this little slave girl into his own home to be the instrument of God’s Love.
But what kind of messenger does God use? He uses those who are available--those who know and love the Lord. Here was a small girl, humble, obedient, insignificant to men, living under dire conditions, but with a Romans 8:28 mental attitude; she was a girl using the problems of life as opportunities or as open doors to witness for God.
Though small, weak, and insignificant, this little girl knew the omnipotent and sovereign Lord of the universe with whom there was healing. She was willing to point others to the most significant Being of the universe, YAHWEH OF ISRAEL, who alone could cure Naaman’s disease.
Why do you suppose Naaman listened to her? After all what could a slave know? May I suggest that he listened because perhaps her life spoke volumes! Her life had been such a testimony that it gave credibility to her words.
4 And Naaman went in and told his master, saying, “Thus and thus spoke the girl who is from the land of Israel.” 5 Then the king of Aram said, “Go now, and I will send a letter to the king of Israel.” And he departed and took with him ten talents of silver and six thousand shekels of gold and ten changes of clothes. 6 And he brought the letter to the king of Israel, saying, “And now as this letter comes to you, behold, I have sent Naaman my servant to you, that you may cure him of his leprosy.” 7 And it came about when the king of Israel read the letter, that he tore his clothes and said, “Am I God, to kill and to make alive, that this man is sending word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? But consider now, and see how he is seeking a quarrel against me.”
In verses 4-7, we have an excellent illustration of how salvation cannot be obtained. Oh, how these verses reveal the natural tendencies and perspective of the carnal mind. Here is a typical man who recognized his need to some extent, but he wanted to have a part in his healing. He was trusting first in power, position, and riches. Instead of thinking in terms of God’s grace, he naturally thought in terms of favoritism, the leverage of power, wealth, and what one can earn or buy.
First, in verse 4, Naaman went into the king with the news and to get permission from his king to go to Israel. The king was willing to help, and that’s good, but they immediately thought in terms of political and financial clout (vss. 5-6). They thought they could buy the favors of God from the prophet of Yahweh through the king of Israel. So Naaman was sent to the king of Israel rather than to the prophet of God. With him he took a large amount of silver, gold and clothes as payment. This was the typical cultural pattern of that day (and ours as well), but it is not God’s pattern.
So now with verse 7 we see the response of the king of Israel. First, this was the wrong response for the king. Though he had power, position and wealth, yet unlike the little slave girl, he had no witness. Instead of immediately pointing Naaman to Elisha, the prophet of God, he was paralyzed with fear; he was paranoid. He thought that the king of Aram was seeking some cause to create an incident and reason to attack. Instead of seeing this as an opportunity to demonstrate the power of the Lord, he thought only of himself. What a contrast to the little slave girl who thought of others rather than her own plight. Note that she could have thought, as many would, that he was getting just what he deserved. Or she could have tried to strike a bargain in exchange for her freedom.
Like the king of Israel, how quick we are to read things into situations and expect the worst rather than take life’s situations as opportunities to serve the Lord and to see Him work. Why? Because we are blinded and paralyzed by our self love.
But wait a minute, maybe there is a lesson for us here. It’s the lesson of the growth potential of accountability, service, and suffering. Through her accountability to her master, her service to his wife, and her own suffering being uprooted from her home and family, this little girl had learned to trust the Lord and then to think of others and their needs. The king, on the other hand, considered himself accountable to no one (a serious error). Further, he was always served by others and failed to see himself as a servant of the people. Thinking only of himself was simply a natural product of the kind of luxurious life he lived.
But from Naaman’s standpoint, what did this do for him? It shattered part of his trust in his human resources. That which he thought would buy his cure was worthless. He was literally left holding the bag, the bag of money in his leprous hand. He needed to learn, as all of us do, that we must never trust in the uncertainty of riches, or power, or position, but instead, to trust only in God’s grace and work in His Son. Compare Ephesians 2:8-9; Titus 3:5; 1 Tim. 6:17f; 1 Peter 1:17-21; and Revelation 3:17-18.
Money, power and wealth cannot save us, make us spiritual, effective witnesses, or deserving of responsibility or leadership in the body of Jesus Christ. Only God’s grace and his gifts and blessings in Jesus Christ can do that.
8 And it happened when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, that he sent word to the king, saying, “Why have you torn your clothes? Now let him come to me, and he shall know that there is a prophet in Israel.”
Does this not illustrate God’s loving concern for the sinner. Again, God has his messengers. Though some will fail in their responsibility and ministry, the Lord watches over the seeking soul and at just the right moment, he sends one of his own with whatever is necessary to take the seeking person another step toward the Lord and salvation (cf. Rom 2:2-8).
Naaman represents the seeking soul, one in need of the Lord. Remember, God was using his leprosy as a means to bring him to a knowledge of the Lord. Elisha on the other hand represents the Lord. And Elisha, as God’s representative, said “let him come to me,” words which the Lord wants to speak to every unsaved person. For Naaman to come “to know that there was a prophet in Israel” was to come to know that the God of Israel was the only true God, and the only real hope in life (cf. John 7:17; Jer. 29:13; Acts 17:27; Rom. 2:2-8; 1 Pet. 3:9; Matt. 11:28; Rev. 3:20).
9 So Naaman came with his horses and his chariots, and stood at the doorway of the house of Elisha. 10 And Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, “Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored to you and you shall be clean.” 11 But Naaman was furious and went away and said, “Behold, I thought, ‘He will surely come out to me, and stand and call on the name of the LORD his God, and wave his hand over the place, and cure the leper.’ 12 “Are not Abanah and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them and be clean?” So he turned and went away in a rage.
In these verses we have a picture of the simplicity of salvation and of the necessity of humility in finding the Lord.
This must have been an imposing picture. Naaman in his chariot with his fine horses, with his gold and silver and fine clothes standing in front of the prophet’s house which was probably very unimposing by Naaman’s standards. Naaman was a proud man. He was proud of his accomplishments, talents, power, position, and wealth. He rode up arrogantly and thought, surely this lowly prophet of Israel will come out to me, Naaman the great warrior; and he will wave his hand over the area of my leprosy and I will be cured. We see his pride expressing itself in verses 9, 11 and 12, but especially in his anger at being told to go and wash seven times in the Jordan.
But who was Naaman? He was a sinner and a mere creature of God, who drew his breath from two small slits in his face (Isa. 2:22). Even the power, the victories he had enjoyed, and his accomplishments were given him by the Lord of the universe (so the importance of verse 1). What does the Scripture teach about the pride of man?
Naaman had to be brought low; he had to be knocked off his high horse! (cf. Obadiah 3 and 4). God cannot and will not bless us as long as we are full of pride.
Why will a man’s pride bring him low? James gives us part of the answer. After telling us about the grace which God gives, he also reminds us that “God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” Who can experience God’s grace? The humble! Then from whom does God withhold his grace? The proud! Who are the proud? Those who are indifferent to God’s plan, who refuse to commit themselves to God’s plan, who attempt to handle life by their own abilities or strategies.
That which the prophet does in this passage may seem rude; in fact, he would be severely criticized by many church members today and our politically correct society. His actions would be viewed as unloving, rude, and arrogant. But what Elisha did was really an act of love. It was a means of showing Naaman his pride so he could receive God’s grace and begin to count for God himself.
Sure Naaman reacted and snorted off. But note that Elisha didn’t run after him; it appears he simply turned it over to the sovereignty of God who then worked through the life of another to bring Naaman to his senses. As long as Naaman was proud, he would never obey the Lord in humble belief or faith.
Self conceit and the various ego trips of men are typical of the unregenerate heart and even of the carnal mind of the regenerate. It is so hard to realize just who we are, mere creatures, and to submit to God’s plan. We must let God be God!
First, let’s note what Naaman said as he went away in his fury in verse 11, “Behold I thought.” What verse of Scripture comes to your mind here? “There is a way that seemeth right unto man, but the ways thereof are the ways of death” (Prov. 14:12). Irving Jensen says of this: “This leprous, dying man had actually the presumption to devise in his own mind exactly the plan by which he wanted his cure to be affected.”50
But that’s not all. Naaman had contempt for God’s solution and plan. To him it was base and foolish. He was thinking, why should I go wash in the muddy Jordan River in Israel when I have clear streams of water in Damascus? Of all the absurd ideas! Note the human reasoning here. The implication is: If a cure comes through bathing in a stream, then I have better streams in which to bathe myself.
But read Paul’s comments about man’s wisdom and solutions versus God’s wisdom and plan of salvation in the cross of Christ in 1 Corinthians 1:20-31. The world’s standards and ideas of salvation seem so much more logical in comparison to God’s which seems foolish and so simplistic. “Go wash in the Jordan seven times . . . and you shall be clean.” A very simple thing to do, surely, but Naaman objected. And so the Bible teaches, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved” (Acts 16:31). But simple faith is not so simple; men object. Ironically, Naaman “was willing to pay any price, willing to do any great deed of prowess, to make any fatiguing pilgrimage, but he was unwilling to obey a simple command ‘wash and be clean.’”51
What was the issue here? The washing? No. Would that cure him? No. It was the obedience of faith. It was personal faith in the command of the prophet and not the evidence of his faith, washing, which cured him. It was his simple faith in the word of God, the root. Washing was simply the fruit, the result.
So today, men are saved simply and solely by the obedience of faith, by believing in the Lord Jesus Christ as one’s personal Savior. The obedience God asks is the obedience of faith in Christ. So Acts 6:7; Romans 1:5 and 16:26;52 1 John 3:23 (here “believe” is the root and “love” is the fruit).
Man is so self willed. By his ego, his reason, by his own experience and desires, he wants things his own way; he wants to be saved his way; he wants to be spiritual his own way; he wants the church to operate his way, and on the list goes. But man must submit humbly to the wise plans of God or there can be no salvation, no real joy and fruitfulness, no deliverance.
Verse 12 shows that in Naaman’s heart a struggle was going on between faith on the one hand and unbelief on the other. It was the crucial moment for Naaman, and Satan was trying hard to get the victory, as he does with every person on the point of making the great decision. Satan first appealed to Naaman’s reason: “See how unreasonable this remedy is! If bathing is the cure for leprosy, there are far better streams than this Jordan in which to wash.” He argued, “Are not Abana and Pharpar, rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel?”
Satan also played on Naaman’s pride, and pointed to the way in which he had been treated. Naaman, a great personage, had come to make a request of a king and pay handsomely for services rendered. First he was sent to the lowly dwelling of a prophet, who did not even come out to meet him, and then he was sent off in this way, without any display or notice, to wash in the muddy Jordan River! So he turned away in a rage, and it seemed as though Satan had won.53
What are some of the key lessons we can glean from this story?
(1) God is constantly at work to lead people to Himself, no matter how dark their condition.
(2) God uses any committed believer, no matter how ordinary or insignificant he may be. How? Because of the mighty God who indwells us. This makes us significant as His instruments of light.
(3) The grace of God cannot be bought with silver and gold or power or position. We must come to God in faith and believe His revelation in the Scripture.
(4) In fact, power and position, silver and gold, can be a hindrance and an impediment to coming to Christ, as well as to effective service.
(5) Two of the greatest hindrances to experiencing God’s blessing for believers and unbelievers alike are: (a) our pride--Naaman almost lost out because of his pride, and (b) our opinions--Naaman almost lost out because his thinking was contrary to Scripture.
All appeared to be lost, it appeared Satan had won and that Naaman would go away without healing and without the saving knowledge of the Lord. But something happened. In the following, another part of the picture of how God saves comes into focus.
Then his servants came near and spoke to him and said, “My father, had the prophet told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more then, when he says to you, ‘Wash, and be clean’?”
This verse gives us an illustration of the value of loving care and of the importance of the right words at the right time to the unsaved (cf. Prov. 15:23, 28-29, 31; 16:21, 23). First, though we need to be praying for the Lord of the harvest to thrust out laborers into the fields, these verses illustrate how God somehow finds agents for His purposes. Perhaps these servants were themselves believers in the Lord of Israel and knew the power of the Lord, but probably not. Other than the fact they were attendants to Naaman, we know nothing about them. Still, they had wise counsel for the general.
Nevertheless, this may also illustrate the importance of wise and timely persuasion needed in personal evangelism. Notice the following points about the wisdom of their answer, an answer of the tongue as a timely word with sweetness of speech, yet honest and courageous evaluation.
(1) They were courteous. They called Naaman “my father,” showing respect and submission. They chose their words carefully that they might persuade Naaman and help him.
(2) They spoke from what they knew about Naaman. He was proud and courageous; they knew he was willing to do a great deed.
But, it was precisely this, Naaman’s pride and his personal opinion which was keeping Naaman from being healed. So, the four concerned servants tactfully sought a way to show Naaman that it was not his greatness, by which he would be healed, but by the greatness of the God of Israel. They were able to see from their more humble state and perspective that this was designed to demonstrate the power of the God of Israel. Should he not, then, heed the simple instruction of the prophet.
Finally, this simple command beautifully illustrates the simplicity of the gospel message of salvation in Jesus--that salvation is by faith alone in Christ alone (Eph 2:8-10). The invitation of the gospel is “come, purchase without money and without price . . .” (Isa. 55:1). And how do you do that? By faith. The way of faith is the way of humiliation and repudiation of self worth, human ability, or religious works, which then casts us on the grace of God (Rev. 21:6; 22:1; Rom. 4:1-5; Eph. 2:8-9; Tit. 3:4-5). Faith is the one thing we can do without doing anything. Faith is the recognition of God’s ability and the repudiation of ours. Of course, there are those who read this passage and use it to promote baptismal regeneration, but the analogy of Scripture and the abundance of clear passages teach us that water baptism, as important as it is, does not save us. If that was true, then water baptism would be a part of the gospel message but the apostle Paul repudiates that idea in 1 Corinthians 1:14-17.
14 I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 that no man should say you were baptized in my name. 16 Now I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized any other. 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not in cleverness of speech, that the cross of Christ should not be made void (emphasis mine).
So he went down and dipped himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.
The immediate cleansing illustrates the complete and instantaneous nature of salvation. We note that he was cleansed “according to the Word.” Salvation is always and only according to the Word, and never according to our feelings or emotions or human reason (cf. Rom 16:25-26). He was cleansed instantly and completely so that his flesh became like that of a little child, but not only his flesh, but his heart also. He became a new creature by faith in the Lord of Elisha the prophet.
When he returned to the man of God with all his company, and came and stood before him, he said, “Behold now, I know that there is no God in all the earth, but in Israel; so please take a present from your servant now.” 16 But he said, “As the LORD lives, before whom I stand, I will take nothing.” And he urged him to take it, but he refused.
These verses provide us with an illustration of the first fruits of salvation. First, he confessed and acknowledged his faith in the Lord (vs. 15). From a grateful heart he wanted to give a present to Elisha to express his appreciation for what God had done.
However, Elisha, carefully and wisely refuses. Why? Elisha had accepted help from the Shunammite woman and her husband, and Scripture teaches it is right for those who are taught the Word to share all good things with him who teaches (Gal. 6:6) So why did he refuse to accept a gift from Naaman? Because there were other implicating issues that would be compromised by receiving a gift at this time. He wanted Naaman and all those watching to know he was a servant of Yahweh and not like the greedy heathen priests in the service of Baal. He also wanted them to understand that salvation and all of God’s blessings are free, they cannot be bought nor can they be earned (Rev. 21:6; 22:1; Rom. 4:1-5; Eph. 2:8-9; Tit. 3:4-5). Elisha refused to take anything lest he compromise the name of God and His grace (cf. 1 Thess. 1:5; 2:5; 2 Thess. 3:7-8 with Phil. 4:15-17).
17 And Naaman said, “If not, please let your servant at least be given two mules’ load of earth; for your servant will no more offer burnt offering nor will he sacrifice to other gods, but to the LORD. 18 In this matter may the LORD pardon your servant: when my master goes into the house of Rimmon to worship there, and he leans on my hand and I bow myself in the house of Rimmon, when I bow myself in the house of Rimmon, the LORD pardon your servant in this matter.” 19 And he said to him, “Go in peace.” So he departed from him some distance.
This certainly illustrates the kind of concern God’s people should have regarding their worship, their testimony and the appearance of evil. Naaman knew that he would have to return to his old environment and live in the midst of idolatry and evil. He was concerned that he might have a proper means of worship for he could no longer worship in the house of Rimmon. He would not compromise Yahweh. He needed a place and a means for worship, so he asked for permission (note the sudden change in attitude) to take two loads of soil back home. The exact reason is not specified, only implied. Some believe it was so he could erect an altar to Yahweh for a memorial or witness to the God of Israel in his own land. On this he could offer sacrifices as an evidence of his determination to forsake all other gods.
Another suggestion is, “Naaman asked Elisha whether two mule loads of Israelite soil might be taken with him back to Syria so that whenever circumstances forced him to bow ceremonially to the Aramean gods with his king, he might in reality be placing his knees in the soil of the true God of Israel.”54 Regardless, Naaman was concerned about what God would think about his presence in the house of Rimmon.
Elisha’s only response was, “Go in peace.” This implies Elisha’s assurance that God understands. The issue was his attitude and heart. Perhaps this illustrates the principle of separation versus isolation. Believers are to infiltrate or penetrate the world for the Lord. As the Lord put it, we are to be in the world, but not of it (John 17:15-17).
So Naaman knew he would have to go back into the world and face the evil of that day. It was his responsibility, but he knew he needed fortification through the true worship of the true God if he was to be an effective witness.
49 1 John 1:8-10 deals with confession of three issues: (1) confession of the principle of sin, the fact of a sinful nature (vs. 8), (2) confession of the particular, personal sins (vs. 9), and (3) confession of the practice, we are sinners (vs. 10).
52 There are always those who claim that we are saved by human obedience, the obedience of water baptism and other good works. They seek to support this with passages like Acts 5:32, “. . . whom God has given to those who obey Him,” Romans 1:5 and 16:26, “the obedience of faith.” But the obedience mentioned in Acts 5:32 is obedience to the command to believe in Christ, to put one's faith in Him as an abundance of Scripture shows. Compare John 3:16-18, 36; 6:29; 1 John 3:23; and Acts 6:7, “were becoming obedient to the faith.” Further, Romans 1:5 and 16:26 can mean, “the obedience produced by faith,” or “the obedience which is faith.” The obedience required is faith, faith defines the obedience. In the light of Paul's theology of salvation and sanctification, probably both ideas were included in Paul's statements; his goal as an apostle was to bring men to faith in Christ, but then through their new life, to be full of good works. For the issue of water baptism, see the studies on “Assaults on the Gospel” in lesson 7, Part 3 of the ABCs Series,
The Bible not only gives us portraits of God’s grace, as with the healing of Naaman, but it also gives us striking, clear, and up-front portraits of man’s sinfulness and perversion. It’s never a pretty picture, but it is a necessary one if we are to see our sickness and helplessness and turn in repentance to the grace of God. These portraits in Scripture serve as instructions and warnings to turn us to God and a life of godliness and away from a life of ungodliness (cf. Rom. 15:4; 1 Cor. 10:6, 11, 12).
This story of Gehazi is a sad story, but it is one which happens thousands of times every day, and in the lives of believers to one degree or another. It is a story that stands in strong contrast with the preceding passage where we saw Naaman healed of leprosy as he turned to God in simple faith. But here we see Gehazi struck with leprosy because he turned away from God to blur the truth of the free nature of salvation.
In one story, leprosy portrays sin in its universal scope as it falls upon all men. But in the story of Gehazi we see the specific sin of greed (covetousness and materialism) and the way it destroys the ministries of men and their capacity to serve the Lord.
In the story of Gehazi we see the process and consequences of greed or covetousness which always hinders godliness and godly service. It is the picture of religious hypocrisy, of failure to progress spiritually, of false values that destroy a man’s pursuit of righteousness, of human rationalization that seeks to find good reasons for a bad thing, of rebellion and insubordination to authority, of unfaithfulness or disloyalty, and of the process of regression or the downward spiral of sin (chain sinning).
20 But Gehazi, the servant of Elisha the man of God, thought, “Behold, my master has spared this Naaman the Aramean, by not receiving from his hands what he brought. As the LORD lives, I will run after him and take something from him.” 21 So Gehazi pursued Naaman. When Naaman saw one running after him, he came down from the chariot to meet him and said, “Is all well?”
The story is introduced with Gehazi being described as “the servant of Elisha, the man of God.” Here is one of the things that makes this story so sad, and at the same time a warning to each of us. He was not a man without opportunities. As a servant of Elisha, he was also a student of Elisha. He had the privilege of knowing this great man of God. He had the example of Elisha’s life and the message of his lips as a tremendous source of instruction, challenge, learning, and motivation for godliness and a life of service. Yet he failed to capitalize and grow through this privilege.
We can see several important principles of warning and instruction from this passage:
(1) Opportunity and privilege are no guarantee of success. We must take advantage of the opportunities God gives us or we loose the blessings and impact of those opportunities. Just being around the Word and godly examples never guarantee the communication of biblical truth, spiritual growth, and personal godliness. The disciples were with the Lord. They heard His words. They saw His works. Yet they often gained no insight from these events and their hearts became more and more hardened (cf. Mark 6:52). Likewise many sit in a Bible-teaching ministry; they hear the Word taught Sunday after Sunday, but because of their own self-centered desires and commitments, they never allow the Word to get in. They are like a barrel in the midst of the sea with both ends tightly sealed. There is plenty of water all around, but nothing gets in.
(2) Opportunity and privilege must be pursued diligently. (cf. 2 Tim. 2:15; 1 Pet 2:2, “desire earnestly”; 2 Pet. 1:4-5; 1 Tim. 4:7; Heb. 12:14-17). Failure to be diligent will result in the forfeiture of blessings and opportunities. Many Christian have access to all they need for growth and fruitfulness--the Word, solid teaching ministries, the Holy Spirit, etc., but they fail to make use of those resources.
(3) The principle of our treasures. The question is, where is my treasure? Where and in what is my system of values? The Lord carefully warns us in Matthew 6:21, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also,” i.e., your devotion, your pursuit, your preoccupation, your goals, and so also your commitment. John White remarks,
Jesus knew the tug of war in our hearts between heavenly and earthly homes. He knew our struggle between money, love and heavenly treasure. He told us we need ‘a single eye.’ He warned that without that single (or sound) eye, we would grope in terrible darkness (Matt 6:22, 23). Torn perpetually in two directions, we could never see clearly the issues confronting us. We would go through life confused and bewildered. Plagued with a sense of guilt and alienation and never sure where we were going.55
We might add, when our vision is double, we are unable to lay up treasurers in heaven. Our lives, like Gehazi’s, will be misdirected, disloyal, and a disaster from God’s viewpoint.
(4) The principle of regression. There is simply no standing still in the pursuit of godliness. Either we are pursuing godliness, drawing close to God, or we are regressing, going downhill. This is one of the most basic principles of the Christian life. Growth is progressive and we never arrive. If we stop the process, we will not simply stand still, we will reverse it and begin to regress. Regression is slow and subtle and deceptive. The signs are there, but we often don’t see them until it’s too late. A person can be a believer who regularly attends church, is around the Word, even involved in Christian service, but on a downhill slide into regression.
The word “discipline” which Paul uses in 1 Timothy 4:7 is the Greek gumnazw meaning “train, exercise, discipline.” It literally means to exercise or train stripped down or naked. The key note implied here is that it is a process which must be continued or we will lose ground. Anyone who has trained as an athlete knows that from experience.
Gumnazw occurs four times in the New Testament. Three are positive (1 Timothy 4:7; Hebrews 5:14; 12:11), and one is negative (2 Peter 2:14). The 2 Peter 2:14 passage is very instructive to our study of Gehazi and the problem of greed. The NASB has “. . . having a heart trained in greed.” The point is, it is very possible to train ourselves in the wrong direction.
As Jerry Bridges points out,
There is a sense in which we are growing in our character every day. The question is in which direction are we growing? Are we growing toward godly character or ungodly character? Are we growing in love or selfishness; in harshness or patience; in greed or generosity; in honesty or dishonesty; in purity or impurity? Every day we train ourselves in one direction or another by the thoughts we think, the words we say, the actions we take, the deeds we do.56
“But Gehazi . . . thought, ‘Behold . . . ’” Literally, the Hebrew says “Gehazi . . . said,” but this expresses not what he said with his lips, but what was going on in his mind. Verse 26 shows us further what was really going on in his mind, as the prophet under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit knew what he was thinking and planning. Gehazi deceived Naaman in order to satisfy his desire for gold and silver because of what he thought it would give--happiness, security, significance.
So we have here another principle which is important in understanding the defection and greed of Gehazi as a further instruction and warning to us.
(5) The principle of our thought patterns. Our thought patterns shape our character, and our character shapes our conduct. If you will notice, there is a definite relationship in these verses between thought patterns, personal character, and conduct. First, we see something of Gehazi’s thought patterns which had helped to move him into the realm of greed or covetousness. From verse 20, it appears he was thinking that because they did something for Naaman, he owed them. This kind of thinking is not only contrary to God’s grace, but has its roots in the attitudes of the world. Then, in verses 21-25 we see his conduct--deception and defection.
There is a very close relationship between our thoughts, our character, and our conduct. Repeated actions (conduct) reveal our inner character and the thought processes (mental attitude) that produced it. Radmacher writes:
“An attitude is a mental and neural state of readiness, organized through experience, exerting a directive or dynamic influence upon the individual’s response to all objects and situations with which it is related.” An attitude, therefore, is a state of mind toward a value. Consequently, it seems to me that any genuinely dynamic Christian life will be the outgrowth of a dynamic Christian attitude, shaped and locked into our thinking by the Word of God. And any faulty, unproductive Christian life will be the outgrowth of attitudes shaped and locked into our thinking by an unholy world system. This is the age-old relationship of cause and effect, root and fruit, a belief that behaves and an attitude which acts.57
Part of the dynamic behind the temptation that Gehazi faced stemmed from his attitude. Radmacher quotes D. G. Kehl who provides an excellent observation about temptation in “Sneaky Stimuli and How to Resist Them” (Christianity Today, January 31, 1975). He writes:
Many Christians have a simplistic concept of temptation that goes something like this: Satan, at a particular moment, flits to our side and whispers “Do it,” and we either do or do not, depending upon our spiritual strength at that moment. We might be more consistently victorious in not “doing it” if we realized that there is much more to temptation that the overt, momentary solicitation to evil and that our strength or weakness at that moment is based upon attitudes that have been forming for weeks, months, even years prior.
We do not fall in a moment; the predisposition to yield to sin has been forming, building, germinating--but not necessarily consciously so. Sin has both a cumulative and a domino effect. Satan plants subtle stimuli, often subliminal ones; he influences an attitude; he wins a “minor” victory--always in preparation for the “big” fall, the iron-bound habit. The words of James support such a view: “Every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed. Then when lust has conceived, it bringeth forth sin . . .” (James 1:14, 15). It is the time between “conceiving” and “bringing forth,” that shadowy interim between stimulus and response, that may be largely subliminal.58
(6) The principle of divided allegiance. In verse 20, Gehazi is described as “the servant of Elisha.” Further, he even refers to Elisha as “my master,” all of which is tremendously suggestive of one of the key issues in the sin and failure of Gehazi and in all of us today to some degree. Divided allegiance, failure to submit to authority in God’s chain of command, is often a sign of slavery to personal aspirations and desires that, if allowed to dominate and control, quickly take the place of God’s authority and His direction over us through the chains of command He has established in Scripture. This naturally leads to discontent with one’s lot in life, followed by actions of rebellion as seen here with Gehazi.
Divided allegiance quickly stifles submission to God for, “No one can serve two masters, . . . you cannot serve God and money” (Matt. 6:24). Let’s face it, if the treasure of my heart is money, or any of the other lusts patterns, then I will be serving myself and not God regardless of how I may appear on the outside. Judas is a classic case in point. He was as phony as a lead nickel, but he gave the appearance of being a disciple, even caring for the poor. But what are lusts patterns generally speaking? They are often nothing more than legitimate desires pursued to the point of idolatry; seeking from the things we desire what we ought to seek only from God.
If we are divided between God as our master and our reputation, our bank roll, our career, our hobbies, our plans, or our desires of any kind, we will end up in deception, acting out a lie. We will deceive ourselves and defect, selling the Lord short in some manner.
Divided allegiance is closely associated with our next principle.
(7) The principle of freedom and contentment. In what are we seeking our significance, security, satisfaction or contentment?
If you remember, the Lord gave us a double warning in Luke 12:15 regarding greed and discontent with whatever God brings into our lives by way of possessions or our place in society. He said “Beware and be on your guard against every form of greed for not even when one has an abundance does his life consist of his possessions.” (emphasis mine)
Contentment is one of the most distinguishing traits of the godly person, because a godly person has his heart focused on good rather than on possessions or position or power. As William Hendriksen has observed so well, “The truly godly person is not interested in becoming rich. He possesses inner resources which furnish riches far beyond that which earth can offer.59
Gehazi became a slave to his lust patterns because he was not content with what God was doing in his life. He was no longer free to be devoted to God, so he became disloyal, unfaithful, and in general, a hindrance to the ministry of Elisha and the grace of God. “Freedom is an inner contentment with what you have. It means to covet only heavenly treasure.”60
What does such a commitment and mental attitude do for us? It frees us to make the right choices, it changes our vision of who we are as sojourners, of why we are here (servants), and it enables us to look at our life in a new way with biblical purposes. Freedom does not consist in doing what I want to do; but in doing what I ought to do and as I was designed to do it by the strength which God gives.
If we do not want our lives to end up like Gehazi’s, we must look at our treasures--those things to which we cling and which have us chained as slaves--and cast them off by making our great goal in life the glory of God and treasures in heaven. May we commit ourselves to God as sojourners on this earth, and citizens of heaven. Let’s release our grip on the detail of life and live for eternity while making the most of this life within the will of God, resting in his care. Then we can sing with John Wesley: “My chains fell off, My heart was free, I rose, went forth, and followed thee.”
(8) The principle of rationalization. Rationalization is seen in Gehazi’s statement, “Behold, my master has spared this Naaman . . .” Elisha had refused to receive anything from Naaman when he was healed for specific biblical and spiritual reasons. He was teaching Naaman the principle of grace and the freeness of God’s salvation. But Gehazi was blind to this and saw it as failing to take from this Gentile that which he thought he rightfully owed the Jews. After all he had raided and stolen from the Jews time and again. He felt it was only just that Elisha accept something. Shouldn’t he? And so goes the mind with its rationalizations when greed is controlling the mind.
(9) The principle of religious hypocrisy. Gehazi’s statement, “As the Lord lives, I will run after him
. . .” is a classic illustration of mere external religiosity. He uses the right words, words he had often heard Elisha say, but their spiritual reality were far from his heart. There was no real fear of God in his heart as the Almighty who truly lived, the omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent God who knew his every thought, motive, and goal. The Lord later made this evident through Elisha in verse 26. If he really believed in the aliveness of God, he would have thought again about the motives and reasoning of his heart. Sure, he believed it intellectually, but practically speaking he was acting as though God was dead or at least unconcerned and uninvolved with his personal life.
But oh, how we can be just like this! We learn to use religious words--which too often become trite religious clichs. We bring God into our plans, and prayers, and act as though we are trusting him and following his guidance, which we completely ignore through our greedy rationalizations. And we reject the plain truth of Scripture with its principles and promises.
Let us earnestly pray with David, “Search me, oh God, and know my heart, . . .” Let us genuinely ask God to show us the truth about our hearts, our thinking, our values, and our priorities.
22 And he said, “All is well. My master has sent me, saying, ‘Behold, just now two young men of the sons of the prophets have come to me from the hill country of Ephraim. Please give them a talent of silver and two changes of clothes.’” 23 And Naaman said, “Be pleased to take two talents.” And he urged him, and bound two talents of silver in two bags with two changes of clothes, and gave them to two of his servants; and they carried them before him. 24 When he came to the hill, he took them from their hand and deposited them in the house, and he sent the men away, and they departed. 25 But he went in and stood before his master. And Elisha said to him, “Where have you been, Gehazi?” And he said, “Your servant went nowhere.” 26 Then he said to him, “Did not my heart go with you, when the man turned from his chariot to meet you? Is it a time to receive money and to receive clothes and olive groves and vineyards and sheep and oxen and male and female servants? “
The downward trend is evident by the processes at work in verses 22-26. First, he sought to convince Naaman that Elisha had experienced an unexpected need (verse 22). By this guise of a sudden need, he managed to extract a generous gift from the grateful commander. Of course, knowing what he did was wrong, Gehazi subsequently concealed his treasure until he would have the opportunity to extract it. He then attempted to sneak back to Elisha’s house unnoticed--only to be confronted by the prophet himself. His master knew all that had transpired! Rather than confess his duplicity, Gehazi, in a continued downward spiral, lied which only worsened the situation.
Proverbs 28:13-14 He who conceals his transgressions will not prosper, But he who confesses and forsakes them will find compassion. 14 How blessed is the man who fears always, But he who hardens his heart will fall into calamity.
Sin is very serious business. Not only does it grieve and quench the Spirit of God (Eph. 4:30; 1 Thess. 5:19) but it hardens the soul (Heb. 3:7-13). Consequently, we are turned over to our own devices so that one thing leads to another; sin snowballs and we hurtle downward moving further and further away from the Lord and fellowship with Him. We become more and more callused and insensitive to God’s Word and the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
Many times we attempt to play Gehazi’s game--we manage to put on a religious front. We say the right words and go through the right motions when in reality the destructive power of the leprosy of greed has us in its grip. Like the numbness experience by a leper, we become insensitive to sin’s grip and we become numb or hardened. Oh, the blindness and hardness that greed can bring on our hearts. We must recognize our sin and confess and renounce it .
Because of his greed, Gehazi became unfaithful to the Lord, to Elisha, and to the principles of God’s grace. Because of his greed, Gehazi wasted his life and the opportunities God gave him. He was an unfaithful steward of God’s grace and His word because, by his deception, he compromised the work of God as being free, without cost. Further, he was unfaithful to Elisha and to his ministry because he was critical of Elisha’s policy and had underminded his ministry to Naaman.
What is faithfulness? Faithfulness means “dependable, reliable, trustworthy, loyal.” But biblically speaking, a faithful person is one who can be counted upon to do what is right through thick and thin because that person is full of faith--faith in the values and priorities of Scripture. Gehazi was full of greed, not faith.
Regarding faithfulness there is such a thing as a fair-weather friend. This kind of person can only be counted on when there is no stress, or when their greed is being satisfied, i.e. their lust patterns for power, position, praise or whatever it is they lust for. But Proverbs 17:17 says, “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.”
There is also a blind, false kind of faithfulness or loyalty. Blind loyalty is actually unfaithfulness. It refuses to admit the mistakes or faults of a friend, a church, or a spouse, and so it refuses to take whatever action is necessary in the best interests of the people involved as well as for the Lord and others. “Faithful are the wounds of a friend, but deceitful are the kisses of an enemy” (Prov. 27:6). Only the true and faithful friend--one full of faith in the precepts of Scripture--will care enough about truth, God’s glory, and what is best for all concerned to do what is right whether it is pleasant or not and whether it is understood by others or not.
Please note the contrast with Elisha in verses 25-27. By contrast Elisha was faithful to God--to truth--but also to Gehazi. To let Gehazi get by with this would be a disservice and a lack of true love and faithfulness. At least now Gehazi could see the nature of his sin and turn back to God in repentance. We are not told if this occurred, but I believe it did (cf. 6:15f with 8:4f).
Another contrast to be observed is the change seen in Naaman.
What a contrast can be seen in the meeting between Naaman and Gehazi! Naaman’s descent from his chariot to meet Elisha’s servant was a mark of his being a changed man. No longer a proud, arrogant person, the grateful, reverent, and humble Aramean came down from his honored place to meet a prophet’s servant. He who had been a fallen, hopeless sinner displayed the true believer’s grace. Contrariwise Gehazi, who had enjoyed all the privileges of his master’s grace, was about to abuse them and fall from that favor.61
Our souls are held by what they hold;
Slaves still are slaves in chains of gold;
To what ever we may cling,
We make it a Soul chaining thing;
Whether it be a life, or land,
And dear as our right eye or hand.62
“Therefore, the leprosy of Naaman shall cleave to you and to your descendants forever.” So he went out from his presence a leper as white as snow.
Accordingly, Elisha announced Gehazi’s punishment: Since Gehazi had compromised the truth of the free nature of God’s grace, Naaman’s leprosy would become Gehazi’s judgment or discipline undoubtedly designed to bring about his repentance. Perhaps it did, because we still see him referred to as “Gehazi, the servant of the man of God” in 2 Kings 8:4-5. This understudy to Elisha who had known such privileged opportunities was banished in disgrace, for he had abused his favored opportunities in an attempt to acquire the details of life for himself.
The story of Gehazi is a sad one, but in keeping with the honesty of the Word, it gives us all an illustration to teach us a much-needed lesson--that the ministry has no place for those who would make merchandise of it. Indeed, this is a truth that should apply to all of life since all our so-called secular work should be viewed as opportunities to minister to people. The Christian businessman has to make a profit to stay in business, but he should never use his business as a vehicle to merchandise people.
The moral and spiritual flaws in his character that one senses in the previous record have surfaced. His basic spiritual insensitivity had betrayed him in the time of testing so that rather than his character being refined, his work was refused.63
The story of Gehazi is one which deals with the sin of covetousness or greed. As such it might be helpful to briefly look at this specific sin.
(1) Covetousness is one of the most devastating sins man commits, one which is the root of most of our sins.
(2) Covetousness is at the core of most of the misery that exists in the human race.
(3) Covetousness is a sin which touches every one of us to some degree. Not one of us can say we escape this sin.
(4) It rears its ugly head in many ways and has many effects.
(5) In fact, it was the first sin. Eve saw what she couldn’t have. She wanted it and took it.
(6) Paul teaches us in Romans 7:7-8 that it was the Old Testament commandment, “Thou shall not covet,” which made him aware of his own sinfulness. Surely what was true of Paul is true of us all.
One day Abraham Lincoln was walking down the street with two small boys who were both crying loudly. A neighbor passing by inquired, “What’s the matter, Abe? Why all the fuss?” Lincoln responded, “The trouble with these lads is what’s wrong with the world; one has a nut and the other wants it!”
This is an old story and a little humorous, but it humorously illustrates a big problem and the oldest one known to man--greed.
Covetousness is a discontent with what we have and an intense desire for something else, something we believe will make us happy or satisfied. As lust, it is often a legitimate desire carried to the point of idolatry which worships the thing lusted for. This is why covetousness or greed is defined by Paul as idolatry twice in his epistles.
Colossians 5:5 Therefore consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which amounts to idolatry.
Ephesians 5:5 For this you know with certainty, that no immoral or impure person or covetous man, who is an idolater, has an inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.
Covetousness is not simple appreciation of people or things. Nor is it the desire for something you do not have. Basic and legitimate desires become covetousness when they are uncontrolled and cause us to do the following:
(1) To neglect biblical priorities, ignore the Lord and His will, His leading and His provision, or to ignore the responsibility of pursuing heavenly treasures and biblical priorities, goals, commands, and principles.
(2) When we become unhappy, miserable, angry, bitter, envious, jealous, or critical of others who have what I want.
(3) When it cause us to go to unreasonable or unscriptural limits and extremes to get it such as stealing, adultery, murder, rape, going in debt beyond our financial ability to pay, or so we cannot use our resources effectively as good stewards of God’s gifts (cf. Luke 3:8-14).
Interestingly, the Greek words for covetousness or greed come from pleon, “more” plus ecw, “to have.” It refers to one desirous of having more.
Ephesians 4:28 Let him who steals steal no longer; but rather let him labor, performing with his own hands what is good, in order that he may have something to share with him who has need.
Most people labor in order to have more and more for themselves, and in their pursuit for the so-called good life they not only ignore their responsibilities to be good stewards of God’s grace, but often step on others in their scramble up the ladder of success. Especially in a consumer-oriented society, we don’t tend to labor according to our need, but according to our greed. We constantly seek to raise our standard of living rather than our capacity to give and serve the Lord.
Covetousness has its root in discontent, i.e. seeking our happiness, peace, and well being in the details of life (money, position, power, possessions). But this is mirage which can never be fulfilled and which always escapes us, for only God can give us true happiness and meaning in life. This does not mean the things we grasp won’t give some degree of temporary joy or security or meaning to life. But God tells us in Scripture that if we have food, raiment and shelter, we are to be content (1 Tim. 6:8; Prov. 30:7-9).
The ultimate or root cause of covetousness, therefore, is our failure to pursue godliness and the Lord as our secret source of joy, meaning, stability for life and security (Phil 3:7f; 4:10-13; Matt 6:33; 1 Tim 6:6-12).
Two key passages stress this as a warning to us:
Luke 12:15 And He said to them, “Beware, and be on your guard against every form of greed; for not even when one has an abundance does his life consist of his possessions.”
Romans 7:7-8 What shall we say then? Is the Law sin? May it never be! On the contrary, I would not have come to know sin except through the Law; for I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, “You shall not covet.” 8 But sin, taking opportunity through the commandment, produced in me coveting of every kind; for apart from the Law sin is dead.
The subtlety of this is seen in the false motives that can drive a person in ministry. We can labor in Christian service out of a spirit of covetousness for things such as: applause (how do I do?), appearance (how do I look?), status (how important am I?), reputation, power, recognition, as well as for money and possessions and pleasure.
Scripture warns us about the devastating consequences of covetousness in 1 Timothy 6:6-12 and 17-19. The love of money refers to the sin of covetousness. As such, covetousness becomes the root--the source of all sorts of evil. Furthermore, covetousness blinds. Not only does it deceive us, but it will harden us against the Lord if we do not deal with it. Compare Ephesians 4:22 (lusts of deceit) with 17-19 (note the words “excluded,” “callous,” and “given over to sensuality”) and Heb. 3:13, “hardened through the deceitfulness of sin.”
In the deluded belief that things can give security, satisfaction, and significance, it also hardens the soul. Consequently, a further product, as seen with Gehazi and Judas, is unfaithfulness, rationalization, criticism of others, and religiosity. It causes men to lie, steal, defraud, murder, commit adultery or fornication, and all kinds of evil, especially the neglect of spiritual values and priorities.
The rich fool was not a fool for harvesting abundant crops. He was a fool for letting his crops fill his horizon and determine his lifestyle. He was a slave to barns and grain, and seems to have had no interest in God. When God’s awful voice awakened him from his dreams saying, “Fool, this night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” he had to leave his barns and enter the Presence naked. Had he sent anything on in advance? Jesus didn’t say. Presumably he had forwarded nothing. His heart was back among his mountains of grain.
But notice the conclusions we have reached. The thrust of Jesus’ teaching does not deal with the virtues of poverty or the sin of riches. Rather he seeks to show us first the greater value of heavenly treasure and the folly of seeking earthly. Then he warns us of the seductive power of riches, the love which draws our hearts away from him and renders us incapable of serving him. Finally he upbraids us with the unbelief which underlies our anxiety about our material needs.64
There is not only a great delusion about the things we covet, but a subtle futility that is a part of Satan’s delusion that the things we covet will meet our need and make us happy. Surely, this is part of the message of Solomon in Ecclesiastes with his “futility of futilities.” This futility carries with it a stroke of serious irony. Why? Because it is full of surprises. Think about it for a moment. The things we value or treasure consistently prove false; efforts that should succeed in giving us whatever--happiness, security, satisfaction--come to failure; the pleasures we think will satisfy ironically just increase our thirst. How ironic! What futile irony! Is this not the fabric of life when it is lived independently of God?
1 Now the sons of the prophets said to Elisha, “Behold now, the place before you where we are living is too limited for us. 2 Please let us go to the Jordan, and each of us take from there a beam, and let us make a place there for ourselves where we may live.” So he said, “Go.” 3 Then one said, “Please be willing to go with your servants.” And he answered, “I shall go.” 4 So he went with them; and when they came to the Jordan, they cut down trees. 5 But as one was felling a beam, the axe head fell into the water; and he cried out and said, “Alas, my master! For it was borrowed.” 6 Then the man of God said, “Where did it fall?” And when he showed him the place, he cut off a stick, and threw it in there, and made the iron float. 7 And he said, “Take it up for yourself.” So he put out his hand and took it.
Chapters 6 through 8 continue the story of the ministry of Elisha in the midst of times of national decay and turmoil. Chapter 6 falls into two main sections. First, it continues the record of the wondrous works of Elisha: (a) he made iron swim (vss. 1-7), (b) he discloses the secret counsels of the king of Syria to the king of Israel (vss. 8-12), and (c) he delivers himself out of the hands of those who were sent to apprehend him (vss. 13-23). Second, it records the besiege of Samaria by the Syrians and the terrible distress the city was reduced to (vss. 24-33). Its relief forms another of the wonders accomplished through the word of Elisha, an accomplishment recorded in the next chapter. Elisha is seen as a great blessing from God to both God’s people and to the nation.
As we continue in our study, we must remember that these historical accounts of Elisha and Israel are not only true, but being a part of God’s God-breathed record, they are also profitable for doctrine or teaching, for reproof or exposure, for correction or restoration, and for training in righteousness that God’s people may be fitted out, equipped for every good work (ministry) in a hurting world (2 Tim. 3:16-17). This means these stories illustrate eternal truths that are relevant for today or any time in history.
While God has varied the way He works in human history from one economy to another, certain spiritual principles never vary, but are eternal as they speak of God’s character, care, providence, and man’s need to walk in righteousness by faith in the love and provision of God. With that in view, let’s begin to examine the condition and the character of the school of the prophets who were growing in numbers in these apostate days through the ministry of Elisha.
First, let’s not miss the fact that this account stands in contrast with the story of Gehazi. In contrast to the materialism, the unfaithfulness, and the hypocrisy of Gehazi, we are given a picture of a whole school of men who were faithful, sacrificial, and devoted to the spread of the Word of the God by working toward larger quarters to accommodate their growing numbers. Among God’s people, there are usually some Gehazi-like people, but we should never allow this to discourage us or cause us to become cynical, because if we will look around we can usually find those who are faithful. Our need, as the Lord exhorts us, is to pray to the Lord of the harvest to thrust these out into the fields (Luke 10:2). Or as in Elijah’s day--to get them out of the caves.
Second, we see that Elisha and the school of the prophets of God were growing. As in the ministry of our Lord and the disciples that followed him, the purpose of the ministry and miracles of both Elijah and Elisha was to authenticate the messenger as the one who was truly carrying the message of God. Though the miracles demonstrated God’s love for His people, the primary purpose was to demonstrate the futility of Baal and any way of life that departed from the Lord. God had warned them of this earlier in Deuteronomy with the promises of blessing for obedience and cursing for disobedience. Note what Samuel said in 1 Samuel 12:
20 And Samuel said to the people, “Do not fear. You have committed all this evil, yet do not turn aside from following the Lord, but serve the Lord with all your heart. 21 And you must not turn aside, for then you would go after futile things which can not profit or deliver, because they are futile” (emphasis mine).
These were men who were hungry to know the Lord and be used of Him. I am reminded of what God did for Saul in the beginning of his ministry as king before he acted in self-willed rebellion. We read in 1 Samuel 10:26, “And Saul also went to his house at Gibeah; and the valiant men whose hearts God had touched went with him.” In 1 Chronicles 12:22, we are told of the men who “day by day came to David to help him until there was a great army like the army of God.” Later, in verse 32, we read, “And of the sons of Issachar, men who understood the times, with the knowledge of what Israel should do, . . .” Undoubtedly, these prophets were men whose hearts God had touched, but they were also men who had an understanding of what Israel needed and what they should do--become effective heralds of the Word.
The college here spoken of seems to be that at Gilgal, for there Elisha was (ch. 4:38), and it was near Jordan; and, probably, wherever Elisha resided as many as could of the sons of the prophets flocked to him for the advantage of his instructions, counsels, and prayers. Every one would covet to dwell with him and be near him. Those that would be teachers should lay out themselves to get the best advantages for learning.65
The school could just as well have been located at Jericho (see ch. 2:4f).
Third, we are told that the prophets told Elisha, “the place before you where we are living is too limited for us” (vs. 1). With growth we always experience growing pains, particularly the need for more space and resources to continue the growth of reaching, teaching, and building people in the Lord. Growth is always exciting and a desired commodity in ministry. It can be a sign of a spiritually-healthy church, but in our consumer-oriented society that so often depends on Madison Avenue tactics for growth, we must guard against evaluating success or the work of God by names, nickels, and noses.
The strength and value of any school or church is never its methods or it facilities or its nickels (financial resources) or names (who belongs to our church). What counts with the Lord is the message being proclaimed and the biblical change taking place in the character of the people as measured by the Word of God, our index for faith and practice. Bill Hull writes:
The all-too-common measure of greatness is the number of people gathered for worship. If 3,000 people gather, some may make the snap judgment “this is a great church.” Measuring greatness this way has two important flaws. First, numbers themselves do not indicate greatness. Large groups can gather for any number of events, such as lynchings, mob riots, or Tupperware parties. The more accurate observation concerning a large church gathering might be “the number of people gathered here indicates that those leading the church--pastor and the music leader--must be highly talented.” That would be a good and generally true judgment.
The second flaw of such a superficial measure is that you have asked the wrong question. “How many people are present?” The right question is “What are these people like?” What kind of families do they have, are they honest in business, are they trained to witness, do they know the Bible, are they penetrating their workplaces, their neighborhoods, reaching friends and associates for Christ? . . . 66
Fourth, their approach to solving their problem of space shows us a lot about the character of these men, which also speaks highly of the quality and nature of their training. Though without much by way of financial resources (the lost axe head had to be borrowed), they were industrious and hard working. Their lack of resources did not stop them. Each man was willing to do his part to help meet the need. Yet they undoubtedly were ultimately resting in the resources God would supply. “It is not seeing the difficulties that prevents action, but failing to see the resources.”67 They weren’t expecting someone else to do it for them. Further, their humility is seen in that what they were seeking to build was rather simple and rustic. They weren’t expecting or thinking they needed a marble palace. They simply wanted facilities that would meet their needs. “When they wanted room they did not speak of sending for cedars, and marble stones, and curious artificers, but only of getting every man a beam, to run up a plain hut or cottage with.”68
Once upon a time there were four men named Everybody, Somebody, Anybody, and Nobody. There was an important job to be done and Everybody was asked to do it. But Everybody was sure that Somebody would do it. Anybody could have done it. But Nobody did it. Somebody got angry about it, because it was Everybody’s job. Everybody thought that Anybody could do it, and Nobody realized that Everybody wouldn’t do it. It ended up that Everybody blamed Somebody and Nobody did the job that Anybody could have done in the first place. (anonymous)
Fifth, in their request for Elisha’s presence to accompany them, we see their wisdom and humility. Though they too were prophets, they realized their need of the wisdom and support of their mentor and teacher.
Finally, in the consternation of the man over the loss of his axe head, we see a refreshing picture of honesty, respect for the property of others, and trustworthiness. The lost axe head could have been ignored or blamed on chance or covered up in some way, but the words of the prophet, “Alas, my master! For it was borrowed,” not only show his deep concern, but it demonstrates his integrity.
I have seen highly gifted young people, some who were in training preparing for the ministry, either lose or break equipment that had been borrowed (and without permission I might add) and never even mention it or offer to replace it. Giftedness can never replace integrity, for spiritual character is what is needed to authenticate our message. It shows that the message has impacted the messenger.
Note, we ought to be as careful of that which is borrowed as of that which is our own, that it receives no damage, because we must love our neighbour as ourselves and do as we would be done by. It is likely this prophet was poor, and had not wherewithal to pay for the axe, which made the loss of it so much the greater trouble. To those that have an honest mind the sorest grievance of poverty is not so much their own want or disgrace as their being by it rendered unable to pay their just debts.69
Not only did Elisha give his permission for the project, but he was also willing to accompany them in order to lend his support and encouragement. It was an opportunity for on-the-job training and an opportunity to study these men in their work. It would aid his own ability to minister more effectively to his students. Pastors and teachers alike need opportunities to get to know their flock and to let their flock know them.
Not only did Elisha show interest and concern for the project as a whole, but he demonstrated his involvement even in the smallest of matters as in the loss of the axe head. Of course this incident was no small matter to the man who lost it, but in the final analysis it was a small thing. Rather than write it off as trivial, he reached out to this simple need. When Elisha stepped forward, inquired concerning the place where the axe head went into the water, and made the iron swim with the stick he cut, he was giving this entire school of prophets a wonderful illustration of the sovereign care and providence of God.
God is interested and cares about even the small and trivial incidents in our lives. He tells us to pray about everything and to cast all our cares on Him. Why? Because Peter reminds us in 1 Peter 5:7, “He cares for us.” This statement is given as part of the reason and motivation for submitting ourselves under God’s providential hand by casting all our cares, every single one on the Lord.
We might note two things about this statement as it is given in 1 Peter. First, the verb, “cares,” is in the present continuous tense, which here undoubtedly looks at a general truth about God. It reminds us that God always and constantly cares about us. It serves to remind us of God’s unchanging faithfulness and love. Life changes and seems terribly fickle, but God’s care is steadfast and unfailing. Indeed, it is new every morning (Lam. 3:21-23). Second, the Greek text is a little more emphatic than the English translation. Literally, the Greek text says, “for to Him, it is a care concerning you.” This not only says that He cares for us as His children, but that the whole of our care, which He wants us to cast on Him, is very much His personal concern.
The idea is simply this: “Anxiety is a self-contradiction to true humility. Unbelief is, in a sense, an exalting of self against God in that one is depending upon self and failing to trust God. Why worry therefore, if we are His concern? He is more concerned about our welfare than we could possibly be.”70 Furthermore, He is infinitely more capable of caring for us than we are for ourselves.
Matthew 6:25-34 For this reason I say to you, do not be anxious for your life, as to what you shall eat, or what you shall drink; nor for your body, as to what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they? 27 And which of you by being anxious can add a single cubit to his life’s span? 28 And why are you anxious about clothing? Observe how the lilies of the field grow; they do not toil nor do they spin, 29 yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory did not clothe himself like one of these. 30 But if God so arrays the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, will He not much more do so for you, O men of little faith? 31 Do not be anxious then, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “With what shall we clothe ourselves?” 32 For all these things the Gentiles eagerly seek; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added to you. 34 Therefore do not be anxious for tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
In this passage the Lord Jesus used basically the same argument to counter anxiety and wrong priorities because of our proneness to anxiety and self-trust. There Jesus reminds us that if God so looks after the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, how much more will He not care for us as our Heavenly Father. The issue then is to put first things first, to seek God’s kingdom and His righteousness, to rest in His loving care, and not worry about tomorrow. That’s in God hands--even an axe head.
The miracle of the axe head illustrates how God uses our everyday circumstances to teach us about Himself and His providential purpose to work all things for our growth if we will only trust Him, and in that trust, have the vision to see Him at work.
Though the lessons are many, the primary lesson in the lost axe head that was made to float is its message concerning God’s relationship to us, especially as His people in the minutia or the small things of life. May I suggest three things for us to ponder about this primary lesson.
(1) God knows us intimately. No detail of our lives, no matter how small, escapes his loving and omniscient eyes. This is clear from Psalm 139. But this is not just a matter of information. It is a matter of an intimate knowing that stems from an intimate and personal love that has promised to never leave nor to forsake us.
(2) He cares about us. No matter what we may be facing, not only does He know it, but He cares and wants to use it to draw us to Himself, build our faith, and change our lives. The problem is, too often we only want God the Rewarder and not God the Reward; we want a solution, not a Savior or His solution. We must never divorce the responsibility of casting our cares on Him and the promise that He cares for us from the preceding verse, “Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God . . .”
“Humble yourselves” is not perhaps the best translation of the Greek text. Though this is a command and points to our responsibility to obey and respond, the verb in the Greek text is in the passive voice and would be better understood as “be humbled” or “allow yourselves to be humbled.” It is somewhat equivalent to “submit yourself to the humbling process of God.” But what exactly does it mean to allow yourself to be humbled?
Remember that God wants to bring us to the place of humility, which is the place of God dependence rather than arrogant independence where we seek to run our own lives. Dependence on the Lord honors God because it recognizes our need of Him and His authority, His sovereignty, and His right to direct our lives. Further, dependence is the place of blessing and fruitfulness; it is the branch depending on the Vine.
Suffering is one of the key subjects of 1 Peter. The word suffer or the concept of suffering occurs over 15 times in this book. Peter sees suffering or the trials and irritations of life as one of the necessary elements of life. Why is this?
Well, what does suffering do? As a loving Father, God uses suffering or the experience of the tests and trials as tools to get our attention and to cause us to grow. This is designed to turn us from depending on our human strategies to living by faith in Him. It forces our faith to the surface, puts it to work, and purifies us from a life of dependence on ourselves and our solutions by which we seek happiness as in possessing the details of life (cf. 1:6-9, 13-16, 17-21).
Trials, afflictions, and irritations are all designed by God to help us see our weakness and the insufficiency of our strategies that we might respond to God’s greatness!
On a visit to the Beethoven Museum in Bonn, a young American student became fascinated by the piano on which Beethoven had composed some of his greatest works. She asked the museum guard if she might play a few bars on it. To help persuade the guard, she also slipped him a lavish tip. The guard agreed and the girl went to the piano and tinkled out the opening of the Moonlight Sonata. As she was leaving she said to the guard, “I suppose all the great pianists who come here want to play on that piano.”
The guard shook his head and said, “Paderewski [the famed Polish pianist] was here a few years ago, and he said he wasn’t worthy to touch it.”
That young woman wanted the chance to play the piano that Beethoven had played, but what she got was a valuable lesson in humility. What is humility? Humility is a fitting response to greatness. That applies not only to how people respond to the likes of a unique person like Beethoven, but to how all of us should respond to God.
(3) He is gracious. In the miracle of the axe head, we are reminded again of how God is not only able to do super abundantly above all we are able to ask or think no matter how small or how large the problem, but He is available in His loving care to reach out to us in our need. This is not to suggest that He always will remove the problem or the pain, but it does stress that He is with us through the problem to comfort and give us strength to bear it.
There is a secondary, but still an important lesson to be learned in this story. It shows us the divine approval and value for God’s people to work hard and do things for themselves when they can. We always need to work in the strength which He supplies, but we must put our hands to axe and even reach into the water to pull out the floating axe head when God does work above the natural order of creation.
This section calls our attention to the hostilities that Israel was experiencing with the king of Aram (Syria). The principle source of these hostilities continued in the form of invading bands or plundering parties who would make border raids against the Jews (cf. 6:23) rather than an invasion of an organized Syrian army as mentioned in 6:24.
8 Now the king of Aram was warring against Israel; and he counseled with his servants saying, “In such and such a place shall be my camp.” 9 And the man of God sent word to the king of Israel saying, “Beware that you do not pass this place, for the Arameans are coming down there.” 10 And the king of Israel sent to the place about which the man of God had told him; thus he warned him, so that he guarded himself there, more than once or twice. 11 Now the heart of the king of Aram was enraged over this thing; and he called his servants and said to them, “Will you tell me which of us is for the king of Israel?” 12 And one of his servants said, “No, my lord, O king; but Elisha, the prophet who is in Israel, tells the king of Israel the words that you speak in your bedroom.” 13 So he said, “Go and see where he is, that I may send and take him.” And it was told him, saying, “Behold, he is in Dothan.” 14 And he sent horses and chariots and a great army there, and they came by night and surrounded the city.
Each time the Syrians would make a raid into Israel their plans were spoiled through the revelation given by God to Elisha. Elisha would inform the king of Israel who would then take precautions against their invasions. This naturally enraged the heart of the king of Aram (Syria) who first thought that he had an informer among his troops (vs. 11). He was then told of Elisha’s ability as a prophet of Israel to know of the king’s plans, even while he spoke of them in secret (vs. 12).
Obviously, the king of Aram knew that if his plans were to be successful, he would have to do away with Elisha. This meant the prophet became the object of his attack. The king inquired of Elisha’s location, who was at that time staying in Dothan. Upon learning of this, he immediately sent an entire army to surround the city and take the prophet with the obvious intention of putting him to death.
What can we learn from this by way of application?
(1) In this scenario we have an illustration of how Satan, through his various avenues and strategies, is ever seeking ways to attack the people of God as a whole, but especially His teachers of the Word by which they are able to warn and see people (both believers and unbelievers) delivered from Satan’s attacks and plans (Eph. 2:1f; 6:10f; 2 Cor. 2:11; 2 Tim. 2:23-26; 1 Pet. 5:8).
(2) This story also gives us a good illustration of the omniscience of God Who knows the plans of the enemy and Who has provided special revelation for us that we might be informed to protect ourselves from Satan’s attacks through the full armor that comes to us in Christ (Eph. 6:10-18).
(3) If, when we are warned, we do not appropriate God’s provision and armor against Satan’s devices, we have no one to blame but ourselves. Unfortunately, though the king of Israel was quick to listen to the warnings regarding the physical attacks of the Syrians, he was slow to heed the warnings of Elisha regarding his sin and refusal to truly follow the Lord. But is this not typical? People are often ready to heed the counsel of medical doctors in reference to problems of health, but slow to listen the counsel of the Word of God.
15 Now when the attendant of the man of God had risen early and gone out, behold, an army with horses and chariots was circling the city. And his servant said to him, “Alas, my master! What shall we do?” 16 So he answered, “Do not fear, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” 17 Then Elisha prayed and said, “O LORD, I pray, open his eyes that he may see.” And the LORD opened the servant’s eyes, and he saw; and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.
Of course, God’s people need two things if they are going to appropriate God’s resources against the enemy and experience God’s deliverance. They need insight or illumination, eyes to see the mighty power and provision of God, but they must also believe God and put on their God-given armor that they might take a stand against Satan and his forces. In verses 15-23 we have an illustration of both.
In verse 15, Elisha’s attendant went out seemingly oblivious to both the fact of the enemy and of God’s provision. Like for a lot of Christians, the new day simply meant business as usual. He was going to take care of his chores and had no mind or concern for the spiritual battle around him, which meant he was also completely unprepared for what he faced.
As Christians, we can be the same way. Too often we don’t take our spiritual warfare seriously. We act as though Satan and his kingdom were asleep or posed no problem to us. We go out unprepared spiritually. Consequently, when faced with some form of spiritual warfare, like Elisha’s attendant was, our response is consternation, “Alas, my master! What shall we do?” At least the attendant had the good sense to seek the counsel of the prophet, which is more than we can say for a lot of believers who often turn to the world for their advice (cf. Ps. 1). How quick we are to listen to the advice of the world rather than to meditate on the Word.
By contrast, we see Elisha who surely already knew of the surrounding armies. This was no surprise to him, but more importantly, he was focused on God’s surrounding armies who were greater in strength and numbers. By Elisha’s time, the Psalms of David had been written, and whether he had them available or not, certainly he was thinking of the truth of Psalm 27:1-3 and 3:6.
Psalm 27:1-3. The Lord is my light and my salvation; Whom shall I fear? The Lord is the defense of my life; Whom shall I dread? 2 When evildoers came upon me to devour my flesh, My adversaries and my enemies, they stumbled and fell. 3 Though a host encamp against me, My heart will not fear; Though war arise against me, In spite of this I shall be confident.
Psalm 3:6 I will not be afraid of ten thousands of people Who have set themselves against me round about.
In all of this, Elisha was calm, relaxed, and confident, not in himself, of course, but in His God. He not only saw the problem, but he saw the solution and knew the God of the solution. Like Hezekiah who would later face the armies of Assyria, Elisha sought to convey the same truth that Hezekiah communicated to his people in 2 Chronicles 32:7-8.
“Be strong and courageous, do not fear or be dismayed because of the king of Assyria, nor because of all the multitude which is with him; for the one with us is greater than the one with him. 8 With him is only an arm of flesh, but with us is the Lord our God to help us and to fight our battles.” And the people relied on the words of Hezekiah king of Judah.
In verses 16-17 we learn about the three ways Elisha dealt with his servant’s fear: (a) by a demonstration of personal concern through a word of encouragement, “Do not fear,” (b) by biblical instruction designed to give a reason why he should not fear, “for those who are with us are more than those who are with them,” and (c) by prayer for the servant’s illumination, “Then Elisha prayed and said, ‘O Lord, I pray, open his eyes that he may see.’”
Wow! The lessons here are so practical and powerful. How can we minister to the fears of people? Just like this! We need to show personal concern and involvement, provide biblical instruction, and go to the Lord in personal dependence on Him to illuminate them to His resources and sufficiency, for unless the Lord prospers our ministry, our work is futile (cf. 1 Cor. 3:7).
Our tendency, however, is to neglect one or the other of these important ingredients. Either we are impersonal and cold in our teaching and relationships with people, or we are warm and personable, but we fail to communicate God’s truth, or because we are trusting in our personality or skill as a teacher, we fail to pray. We so need to grasp the balance here. God uses people, God uses His Word, but even though God often uses His Word because it is alive and powerful in spite of us, it is prayer that gives power to our personal love and teaching. This is dramatically seen in the life of Paul. Just compare the prayers of Paul in Ephesians 1:15-23; 3:16-21; Philippians 1:9-11 and Colossians 1:9-12.
18 And when they came down to him, Elisha prayed to the LORD and said, “Strike this people with blindness, I pray.” So He struck them with blindness according to the word of Elisha. 19 Then Elisha said to them, “This is not the way, nor is this the city; follow me and I will bring you to the man whom you seek.” And he brought them to Samaria. 20 And it came about when they had come into Samaria, that Elisha said, “O LORD, open the eyes of these men, that they may see.” So the LORD opened their eyes, and they saw; and behold, they were in the midst of Samaria. 21 Then the king of Israel when he saw them, said to Elisha, “My father, shall I kill them? Shall I kill them?” 22 And he answered, “You shall not kill them. Would you kill those you have taken captive with your sword and with your bow? Set bread and water before them, that they may eat and drink and go to their master.” 23 So he prepared a great feast for them; and when they had eaten and drunk he sent them away, and they went to their master. And the marauding bands of Arameans did not come again into the land of Israel.
Though the king of Syria had sent a huge force of horses, chariots, and a large army of men to apprehend one prophet, thinking there was no way Elisha could escape, Elisha knew that all the forces of this king were merely the arm of the flesh and no match for the power of God. So Elisha prayed and asked the Lord to strike his opponents with blindness so that they might not see (or perhaps recognize) the prophet. This prayer was miraculously answered and Elisha led them into the city of Samaria and into the hands of the king of Israel where they were at his mercy. Quoting James Gray, Irving Jensen remarks,
Elisha’s words of verse 19 are not an untruth, as “his real residence was Samaria; and in the end he led them to himself, not to harm them, but to repay evil with good.”71
Below are Matthew Henry’s second and third comments on this passage:
2. When they were thus bewildered and confounded he led them to Samaria (v. 19), promising that he would show them the man whom they sought, and he did so. He did not lie to them when he told them, This is not the way, nor is this the city where Elisha is; for he had now come out of the city; and if they would see him, they must go to another city to which he would direct them. Those that fight against God and his prophets deceive themselves, and are justly given up to delusions.
3. When he had brought them to Samaria he prayed to God so to open their eyes and restore them their memories that they might see where they were (v. 20), and behold, to their great terror, they were in the midst of Samaria, where, it is probable, there was a standing force sufficient to cut them all off, or make them prisoners of war. Satan, the god of this world, blinds men’s eyes, and so deludes them into their own ruin; but, when God enlightens their eyes, they then see themselves in the midst of their enemies, captives to Satan and in danger of hell, though before they thought their condition good. The enemies of God and his church, when they fancy themselves ready to triumph, will find themselves conquered and triumphed over.72
Elisha, whose ministry so often portrays and parallels that of the Lord, brought Syria into this predicament not to kill them, but to communicate by bold demonstration the power, wisdom, and mercy of the God of Israel. What Elisha did demonstrated what he could have done--caused their destruction. But by his acts of a mercy and abundant provision he sought to convince, convict, and even shame them, but not kill them (vss. 22-23).
The king of Israel seemed frustrated and uncertain of what to do and thought only of their destruction as a means of removing them as a menace (cf. vs. 21), but the prophet commanded the opposite--provision and release. The effect of this was an end to the marauding bands of the Arameans, though later Ben-hadad king of Aram (Syria) would lay siege to Samaria (vss. 24f). Evidently, in view of the siege that later followed, this had little effect on Ben-hadad, but the immediate cessation of the marauding bands suggest this had some impact on some of the people of Syria. It may well illustrate the truth of 2 Corinthians 2:14-17.
14 But thanks be to God, who always leads us in His triumph in Christ, and manifests through us the sweet aroma of the knowledge of Him in every place. 15 For we are a fragrance of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; 16 to the one an aroma from death to death, to the other an aroma from life to life. And who is adequate for these things? 17 For we are not like many, peddling the word of God, but as from sincerity, but as from God, we speak in Christ in the sight of God.
Elisha’s triumph here was designed to manifest the sweet aroma of God’s love as a fragrance. For some it undoubtedly led to life through the witness of the power and truth that the God of Israel was the true God. But in others, it was a fragrance that led only to their eventual death as they left in the same unbelief in which they arrived. Certainly, in Elisha’s actions, we see one who honestly communicated God’s grace. He sought neither vengeance nor praise nor reward.
This story reminds us that when believers are serving the Lord, especially when training others in the Word and how to teach the Word, Satan will do his best to thwart their efforts. Elisha was the head of a growing and successful school of theology. Further, he was serving his country and God’s people by the exercise of his gifts in demonstrating the power and reality of the God of Israel. This was having a powerful effect against the plans of Satan who was seeking to promote Baalism.
In this story we again see how Satan uses human instruments and all kinds of methods to do whatever it takes to nullify the ministry of believers. But the power of God is always greater. In fact, he often uses these very situations to manifest that power in order to draw men to himself.
We understand the following story was reported by a medical missionary at his home church in Michigan. We aren’t sure from whom this story originated so we are unable to give credit, but it beautifully illustrates our point:
While serving at a small field hospital in Africa, I traveled every two weeks by bicycle through the jungle to a nearby city for supplies. This required camping overnight half way. On one of these trips, I saw two men fighting in the city. One was seriously injured, so I treated him and witnessed to him of the Lord Jesus Christ. I then returned home without incident.
Upon arriving in the city several weeks later, I was approached by the man I had treated earlier. He told me he had known that I carried money and medicine. He said, “Some friends and I followed you into the jungle knowing you would camp overnight. We waited for you to go to sleep and planned to kill you and take your money and drugs. Just as we were about to move into your campsite, we saw that you were surrounded by 26 armed guards.”
I laughed at this and said I was certainly all alone out in that jungle campsite. The young man pressed the point, “No, sir, I was not the only one to see the guards. My Jave friends also saw them and we all counted them. It was because of those guards that we were afraid and left you alone.”
At this point in the church presentation in Michigan, one of the men in the church jumped up and interrupted the missionary, and asked, “Can you tell me the exact date when this happened?” The missionary thought for a while and recalled the date. The man in the congregation told this side of the story:
“On that night in Africa it was morning here. I was preparing to play golf. As I put my bag in the car, I felt the Lord leading me to pray for you. In fact, the urging was so strong that I called the men of this church together to pray for you. Will all of those men who met with me that day please stand?”
The men who had met that day to pray together stood--there were 26 of them!
The response of the servant to the hosts of Syria shows us how fear can paralyze us. Fear can keep us from serving the Lord, it can keep us from enjoying God’s blessing and power, or it can keep us from moving ahead with a project by giving up or running away.
It is also important that we see the cause of the servant’s fear. Was it because he saw too much? No! It was because he saw too little. He only had eyes to see the problem or the danger. Seeing the problems or the dangers is not wrong. It is wise for it shows us our need and inadequacy. The real problem was what he did not see--the hosts of God and God’s divine presence which always surrounds us like a wall or a shelter in every time of storm.
Finally, this story teaches us the need of patience and prayer. When the servant came back to Elisha, fearful over the enemy that had surrounded them, Elisha was patient and loving. He did not respond with, “You dummy, don’t you see the hosts of God? Man, get your eyes on the Lord! Trust God!” Instead, he encouraged and instructed him. He knew the servant needed spiritual illumination and understanding before he could stand fearlessly in faith.
In closing, let’s look at some principles related to God’s providence and protection, promises, and the principles of Scripture that we can believe and claim.
(1) We need to remember the truth and principle of God’s presence, providence, and provision of angels who act as ministers to believers (see Ps. 91:1-11; Heb. 1:14; 13:5-6).
(2) No problem or danger can touch us without the divine approval and sanction of God. For His own purposes He does allow suffering and difficulties beyond our understanding, but this is always in accord with His eternal and wise will.
As an illustration, we might remember Joseph who was sold into slavery by his own brothers. The only other mention of Dothan is in Genesis 37:17. In search of his brothers Joseph followed them to Dothan where they plotted against him, captured him, and sold him into slavery. We might ask, “Where were the chariots of fire then or the hosts of the Lord?” They were there, but God’s purposes for Joseph were different. There is as much if not more evidence for the hand of God on the life of Joseph through all that followed than for Elisha, yet God never appeared to Joseph and never performed special miracles through him. Rather, He allowed him to be sold into slavery, a condition in that day that could be worse than death. But Joseph had eyes of faith and, regardless of his conditions, he knew he was in the hand of God. Note Joseph’s response in Genesis 50:19-21 when finally, years later, his brothers stood fearfully before him.
19 But Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid, for am I in God’s place? 20 And as for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive. 21 So therefore, do not be afraid; I will provide for you and your little ones.” So he comforted them and spoke kindly to them.
Another illustration can be seen in the life of Job:
Job 1:10-12. “Have You not made a hedge about him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. 11 But put forth Your hand now and touch all that he has; he will surely curse You to Your face.” 12 Then the Lord said to Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your power, only do not put forth your hand on him.” So Satan departed from the presence of the Lord.
(3) Even though Job was wealthy, healthy, and seemingly secure, his life was struck with extreme disasters. It is really not a matter of the degree of the danger one faces. Why? Because without the protection of God, Satan would move immediately to snuff out your life and mine no matter how apparently safe we may think we are--whether driving a car or riding a motorcycle or flying a plane or walking with both feet firmly planted on mother earth. Just a small earthquake can demonstrate that fact.
Psalm 68:19-20 are two precious verses to me. In fact, I remembered these verses every time I mounted my Honda Interstate, which my wife and I rode over most of the western United States.
19 Blessed be the Lord, who daily bears our burden, The God who is our salvation.[Selah.] 20 God is to us a God of deliverances; And to God the Lord belong escapes from death.
(4) This fact, however, does not mean we are free to tempt the Lord by presuming on His grace by acting carelessly or foolishly. We must act with caution and care in whatever we do. Therefore, I won’t step in front of a eighteen wheeler nor throw myself down from a tall building and expect God to deliver me. When I ride in a car, I will buckle up, not only because it’s the law, but because it is wise. When riding a motorcycle, I’ll wear a helmet, watch the other guy, and seek to drive safely. Our Lord was faced with this very temptation by the Devil:
Matthew 4:5-7 Then the devil took Him into the holy city; and he had Him stand on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 and said to Him, “If You are the Son of God throw Yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will give His angels charge concerning You’; and ‘On their hands they will bear You up, Lest You strike Your foot against a stone.’” 7 Jesus said to him, “On the other hand, it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
Faith believes God’s promises, but it does not presume upon the Lord by not claiming His promises nor test the Lord by not taking normal precautions.
(5) God has promised to be with us, to give His angels charge over us. Yet, by God’s sovereign will and plan and for purposes of His own, He may allow disaster and suffering as He did with Joseph and Job and Peter and Paul. But such is never the result of the degree of danger, unless we test God by presuming upon Him by acting carelessly. Even then, God may choose to overrule.
What we need are eyes of faith to see and believe God for the fact of the dangers Satan and his hosts may bring against our lives. But we also need eyes of faith to believe God for the fact of His divine presence, sovereign and all-wise plan, and His omnipotent provision.
24 Now it came about after this, that Ben-hadad king of Aram gathered all his army and went up and besieged Samaria. 25 And there was a great famine in Samaria; and behold, they besieged it, until a donkey’s head was sold for eighty shekels of silver, and a fourth of a kab of dove’s dung for five shekels of silver. 26 And as the king of Israel was passing by on the wall a woman cried out to him, saying, “Help, my lord, O king!” 27 And he said, “If the LORD does not help you, from where shall I help you? From the threshing floor, or from the wine press?” 28 And the king said to her, “What is the matter with you?” And she answered, “This woman said to me, ‘Give your son that we may eat him today, and we will eat my son tomorrow.’ 29 “So we boiled my son and ate him; and I said to her on the next day, ‘Give your son, that we may eat him’; but she has hidden her son.” 30 And it came about when the king heard the words of the woman, that he tore his clothes--now he was passing by on the wall--and the people looked, and behold, he had sackcloth beneath on his body. 31 Then he said, “May God do so to me and more also, if the head of Elisha the son of Shaphat remains on him today.”
32 Now Elisha was sitting in his house, and the elders were sitting with him. And the king sent a man from his presence; but before the messenger came to him, he said to the elders, “Do you see how this son of a murderer has sent to take away my head? Look, when the messenger comes, shut the door and hold the door shut against him. Is not the sound of his master’s feet behind him?” 33 And while he was still talking with them, behold, the messenger came down to him, and he said, “Behold, this evil is from the LORD; why should I wait for the LORD any longer?”
7:1 Then Elisha said, “Listen to the word of the LORD; thus says the LORD, Tomorrow about this time a measure of fine four shall be sold for a shekel, and two measures of barley for a shekel, in the gate of Samaria.’” 2 And the royal officer on whose hand the king was leaning answered the man of God and said, “Behold, if the LORD should make windows in heaven, could this thing be?” Then he said, “Behold you shall see it with your own eyes, but you shall not eat of it.”
The mention of the siege of Samaria in verse 24 stands in strong contrast to the peaceful conditions that had resulted from the ministry of Elisha. How much later, we are not told, but sometime later Ben-hadad besieged the city of Samaria. One of the messages of the prophets, and this was undoubtedly true of both Elijah and Elisha, was to remind Israel that God had promised blessing for obedience to His covenant with them, but cursing for disobedience. Certainly, the temporary lull brought about by the ministry of Elisha had been divinely designed to remind Israel of God’s steadfast love and ever present involvement with his people. God had sent and authenticated men like Elijah and Elisha by the miracles He performed through these men of God, but typically (especially in the northern kingdom) there was no evidence of repentance by Israel or her kings. So in keeping with His warning in Deuteronomy 28-30, God withdrew his protective hand. As a consequence Israel faced a full-scale Aramean (Syrian) invasion. The Arameans had been so successful they were able to penetrate the land of Israel and put the city of Samaria under siege.
The length and severity of the siege is seen in the extreme famine that led to such scarcity that a even a donkey’s head, on which there is very little meat, was sold for eighty shekels of silver (about two pounds of silver) and a fourth of a kab (an uncertain quantity) of dove’s dung for five shekels of silver (about two ounces). According to the Old Testament law, a donkey was an unclean animal and was not to be eaten under any conditions (see Lev. 11:2-7; Deut. 14:4-8), but the famine was so bad that they not only ignored the laws of uncleanness, but the least edible part of a donkey became very costly. The dove’s dung probably refers to small grain, hence, the NIV has, “a quarter of a kab of seed pods for five shekels,” though in the margin it reads, “dove’s dung.”
But matters grew even worse so that as the king was walking on the wall of the city, probably to inspect conditions, he came across a case of cannibalism. This obviously sickened his heart, but rather than repent of his own disobedience and failure to follow the Lord and accept the fact the famine was a judgment from God for Israel’s disobedience, he looked for scapegoat and not only blamed Elisha, but swore to see him put to death (vs. 31).
Instead of vowing to pull down the calves at Dan and Beth-el, or letting the law have its course against the prophets of Baal and of the groves, he swears the death of Elisha, v. 31.73
Why he blamed Elisha is not stated. Perhaps he thought Elisha should have prayed for a miracle as he had done in the past. Or perhaps he looked back and thought Elisha should have ordered the death of the Syrians when they had them within the walls of their city. The NIV Bible Commentary has this to say of verses 31-33.
Enraged and blaming Elisha for the whole affair, he dispatched a messenger to seize and behead Elisha. When he had come to himself, however, he ran after his messenger, hoping to stay his hand. By divine insight Elisha knew the details of the whole episode and instructed certain elders who were with him to bar the door of the house until Jehoram could overtake his executioners. When the king arrived, he was admitted into the house. Convinced that the Lord had pronounced the doom of the city, Jehoram had all but given up any hope of the Lord’s deliverance. Yet perhaps his realization that all that had transpired was from the Lord carried with it the faintest hope that God would yet miraculously intervene. The restraint of the messenger and the king’s words hint at the faint hope of divine consolation. Such comfort Elisha would proceed to give.74
That Elisha knew the king had changed his mind about his order for Elisha’s death is suggested by the fact Elisha had the elders hold the door against the messenger until the king arrived to revoke the order.
When the king arrived he not only admitted the famine was a judgment from the Lord, but he believed things were so helpless that there could be no solution other than to surrender to the Syrians. Elisha had undoubtedly told the king to repent and wait on the Lord for deliverance, but the king in his unbelief was ready to throw in the towel.
Regardless, the Lord reached out in His grace and mercy and revealed through Elisha that deliverance (the end of the famine and the inflation) would come miraculously on the very next day (7:1). But how could such a sudden deliverance take place? The king undoubtedly believed it for there was no comment from him and he certainly was no longer seeking to take Elisha’s life, but his first officer scoffed at Elisha’s promise just as men today scoff at the promises of the Word.
The aide’s words are filled with ridicule and heaped with sarcasm, as if to say, “Oh sure, The Lord is even now making windows in heaven! So what? Could this word of yours still come to pass?” Whether the aide thought of the biblical phrase (Ge 7:11) or of the heavenly windows of the Baal fertility cult is uncertain. In any case he was skeptical of the whole thing.
The prophet assured Jehoram’s aide that not only would the prophecy come true, but the officer would see it with his own eyes. However, he would not eat any of it! His faithless incredulity would cause him to miss God’s blessing on the people.75
In this scenario, the king despaired and his first officer mocked. Things seem totally impossible. But our extremities are God’s opportunities to demonstrate His power for His own purposes that we might learn He is able to do super abundantly above all we can ask or even think (Eph. 3:20). But consistently, the Lord acts for his people when they come to the end of themselves and find their strength is gone. (Deut. 32:36; 2 Cor. 12:9-10).
Finally, Elisha’s words to the royal officer poses a warning to all of us. He told the officer that though he would witness the miraculous provision, he would not be able to eat of it (see 7:17-18). When we fail to believe the promises of God, we fail to experience the blessings of God whether for salvation or in sanctification.
Hebrews 3:16-19 For who provoked Him when they had heard? Indeed, did not all those who came out of Egypt led by Moses? 17 And with whom was He angry for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? 18 And to whom did He swear that they should not enter His rest, but to those who were disobedient? 19 And so we see that they were not able to enter because of unbelief.
1 Now Elisha spoke to the woman whose son he had restored to life, saying, “Arise and go with your household, and sojourn wherever you can sojourn; for the LORD has called for a famine, and it shall even come on the land for seven years.” 2 So the woman arose and did according to the word of the man of God, and she went with her household and sojourned in the land of the Philistines seven years. 3 And it came about at the end of seven years, that the woman returned from the land of the Philistines; and she went out to appeal to the king for her house and for her field. 4 Now the king was talking with Gehazi, the servant of the man of God, saying, “Please relate to me all the great things that Elisha has done.” 5 And it came about, as he was relating to the king how he had restored to life the one who was dead, that behold, the woman whose son he had restored to life, appealed to the king for her house and for her field. And Gehazi said, “My lord, O king, this is the woman and this is her son, whom Elisha restored to life.” 6 When the king asked the woman, she related it to him. So the king appointed for her a certain officer, saying, “Restore all that was hers and all the produce of the field from the day that she left the land even until now.”
In the previous chapter, the northern kingdom experienced a wonderful deliverance and example of the love and power of God, but how quickly they forgot and returned to their idolatrous ways. Here Elisha predicts another famine, which for Israel was a matter of divine judgment for their refusal to return to the Lord and walk with Him according to His Word. And certainly, many believe this is also true with the seeming rise in the number of catastrophic events our nation has been experiencing over the past twenty or so year. Some 15 years ago J. Vernon McGee wrote:
Frankly I believe that the different tragedies that have struck our land in recent years have been a warning to our nation. The earthquakes, hurricanes, storms, and other tragedies that have swept across our land have, I think, been warnings from God to stop and think and change our ways.76
Things haven’t gotten any better. The tragedies just seem to grow all across our land. But are we listening? No! We just want to blame these tragedies on things like global warming (which is probably a hoax promoted by special interest groups or people with certain political agendas) and on warm currents in the Pacific Ocean like El Nio.
With this prophetic revelation given to the Shunammite woman about the famine, we have another contrast in the narrative of the ministry of Elisha. The royal officer scoffed at the prophetic word of the prophet and failed to experience its blessing. But this godly woman of faith, representing the believing remnant in Israel, believed the prophetic word of the prophet and because she acted on her faith and obeyed and left the country, she was blessed and escaped the famine.
Just as Elisha had prophesied, at the end of seven years the famine came to an end and the woman returned to her home from the land of the Philistines. When she returned home, however, she found others were living on her land so she appealed to the king for her house and her field (vs. 3).
As a wonderful illustration of God’s providential care, the king had been talking to Gehazi, the servant of the man of God, about the great things Elisha had done. And as God would have it in His sovereign care, just as “he was relating to the king how he had restored to life the one who was dead, that behold, the woman whose son he had restored to life, appealed to the king for her house and for her field. And Gehazi said, ‘My lord, O king, this is the woman and this is her son, whom Elisha restored to life’” (vs. 5). That we might clearly see the emphasis here on God’s sovereign care, the text has the word “behold,” a particle of interjection (the Hebrew, henneh) to arrest the attention, “behold, look, see.”
With the wonderful story of God’s resurrection power and loving care and the sudden appearance of this woman with her son, the king, on hearing of her need, immediately restored “all that was hers and all the produce of the field from the day that she left the land even until now” (vs. 6).
This story clearly illustrates the steadfast love and providential care of God for His people, especially those who walk with Him by faith. We must not conclude from this, however, that the Lord always warns us of famine and restores what we have lost. It simply declares God’s love, concern, power, and ability to do beyond all we can ask or think. Sometimes that means in another time and other ways. No place better expresses the issues here than the author of Hebrews in chapter eleven. Before recounting a long list of those who walked by faith, many of whom were tortured or died for their faith (11:35-40), he wrote:
13 All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. 14 People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. 15 If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 Instead, they were longing for a better country--a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them (NIV).
At the end of this long list, we read these words,
39 These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. 40 God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect (NIV).
Think what would have happened if the Father had delivered His Son from the cross when He cried, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” Rather, He delivered His Son in a better time and in a better way through His glorious resurrection after He had successfully born our sin on the cross. Consequently,
Rom. 5:1-5 . . . having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we exult in hope of the glory of God. 3 And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; 4 and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; 5 and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.
Do you remember the story about how England was to receive news of the results of the Battle of Waterloo from a previous lesson? Men were stationed on the shores of Europe to flash a signal while men on the English side watched so they could pass the word. If Napoleon won there were to be two flashes; if Wellington won there would be three. Finally, during the night the signals came--first one, then a second, but before the third could be given, that famous fog settled across the channel. The English thought Wellington had been defeated, but at daybreak the truth of the matter was received--Napoleon had been defeated.
That’s the way life is. In this life we often seem defeated, our prayers seem unanswered and our work unrewarded, but God does care and is involved in all the details of our lives. For now, we may not be removed from the famine, have our property restored to us, or a spouse or child, but when the Morning Star arises, that is, when the Lord Jesus comes, He who ends the night and brings the light of day will show us He has answered in a better time and in a better way. It is then that the answer to our prayers will be seen and our work surely rewarded, but in a better time and in a better way.
7 Then Elisha came to Damascus. Now Ben-hadad king of Aram was sick, and it was told him, saying, “The man of God has come here.” 8 And the king said to Hazael, “Take a gift in your hand and go to meet the man of God, and inquire of the LORD by him, saying, ‘Will I recover from this sickness?’” 9 So Hazael went to meet him and took a gift in his hand, even every kind of good thing of Damascus, forty camels’ loads; and he came and stood before him and said, “Your son Ben-hadad king of Aram has sent me to you, saying, ‘Will I recover from this sickness?’” 10 Then Elisha said to him, “Go, say to him, ‘You shall surely recover,’ but the LORD has shown me that he will certainly die.” 11 And he fixed his gaze steadily on him until he was ashamed, and the man of God wept. 12 And Hazael said, “Why does my lord weep?” Then he answered, “Because I know the evil that you will do to the sons of Israel: their strongholds you will set on fire, and their young men you will kill with the sword, and their little ones you will dash in pieces, and their women with child you will rip up.” 13 Then Hazael said, “But what is your servant, who is but a dog, that he should do this great thing?” And Elisha answered, “The LORD has shown me that you will be king over Aram.” 14 So he departed from Elisha and returned to his master, who said to him, “What did Elisha say to you?” And he answered, “He told me that you would surely recover.” 15 And it came about on the morrow, that he took the cover and dipped it in water and spread it on his face, so that he died. And Hazael became king in his place.
In this story, we see not only the remarkable way God used the prophet, but we get a glimpse at the heart of the prophet and his love for the people to whom God had sent him to minister, the northern kingdom of Israel. We also see in this story the impact Elisha had made even on his enemies. Ben-hadad, king of Syria, had attempted to capture and kill Elisha, but now the king is old and sick. He is informed that Elisha was in Damascus so he sends Hazael, his trusted servant, to take a gift to Elisha (whom he interestingly calls “the man of God”) and inquire regarding the king’s recovery.
Now think about this a moment. What does this tell us about the heart of man? This king had respect for Elisha. He knew the prophet was truly a man of God and knew things ordinary men could not know. He had heard of the miracles God performed through the prophet and evidently believed they were of God for he called him “the man of God.” Regardless, he refused to repent and turn to the God of Israel. He continued to pursue a path of unbelief and idolatry. Why? Was it because of the moral twist so prevalent in men that even when faced with the truth men reject it because they want to pursue their own lifestyle?
Fearing death and hoping the arrival of the prophet was fortuitous, the king thought he could buy the services of Elisha. He was not simply hoping Elisha could tell him of his recovery, but that perhaps Elisha might restore him to health. But what he could not know was that the prophet’s presence was somehow related to the Lord’s instructions to Elijah relative to dynastic change, both in Damascus and in Samaria. In Kings 19:15-17 God had sent Elijah to anoint Hazael to be king over Syria. Hazael had been anointed king many years earlier. As McGee says, speaking of Hazael,
. . . he is just waiting around for old Ben-hadad to die. You can well understand that it would be very difficult for the king’s successor--whether it be a son, a general, or someone else--to shed very many tears at his funeral because it was his funeral that would bring his successor to power. So Hazael went out to meet Elisha, but I don’t think he went with a great deal of enthusiasm.77
When Elisha and Hazael met, Hazael gave Elisha the king’s request, “Will I recover from this sickness?” But Elisha’s answer sounds like a riddle or an enigma. He replied, “Go, say to him, ‘You shall surely recover,’ but the Lord has shown me that he will certainly die.” In other words, “you will surely recover, but you won’t live.” What was Elisha saying? Elisha knew Hazael’s character. He knew he had just been waiting in the wings for the king to die and that he would use this as an opportunity to play ‘Doctor Death’ even though he could recover. So Elisha predicts the treason of Hazael.
Though Israel, the northern kingdom had been persistently rebellious and idolatrous with no time of repentance in the face of one miracle after another, Elisha never stopped loving his people. We never see him displaying bitterness or impatience or giving up. He weeps over the prospects of what he knows Hazael will do to Israel (vs. 12). Like our Lord who wept over Jerusalem, Elisha wept over Israel.
Do we not need such a heart today in our ministry to individuals and to churches? How did Elisha manage to keep such a heart? Remember, Elijah wanted to throw in the towel and he became seriously despondent over the conditions in Israel, but not Elisha. I have no way to prove this, but I suspect that as his mentor Elijah shared this with Elisha who learned from Elijah’s experience to keep his focus on the Lord rather than on his hopes or the actions of the people. He managed to rest in the still small voice of God’s Word and God’s sovereign plan.
Verses 11-15 concludes this story of treason as prophetically seen by the prophet. Verse 11 tells us Elisha stared steadily into the eyes of Hazael until he was ashamed. Hazael could tell Elisha knew the selfish and devilish thoughts he was thinking as he anticipated stepping into the role of king. But Elisha’s gaze soon turned to weeping. This surprised Hazael, who then inquired as to the reason for his weeping.
In answer to Hazael’s question, Elisha indicated that he wept for the great barbarity that Hazael, as Aram’s next king, would inflict on Israel. Despite Hazael’s protests to the contrary, such would indeed be the case (cf. 10:32-33; 13:3).
Doubtless Elisha’s assurances to Hazael that he would be the next king of Damascus gave pretext to him that he had a mandate to be carried out. When he returned to the palace, he told his master the good news: the king would surely recover. However, the next day opportunity came to carry out the long-standing purpose. Having smothered the king, he assumed the throne.78
Even in his final days and in his death, God used the prophet to demonstrate that the God of Israel, Yahweh, was the true God and that the prophets of God who proclaim God’s truth are sources of strength and life to the nation. Again we must emphasize the miracles of Elisha (as with Elijah) were designed to demonstrate this fact and to call Israel to repentance and faith. They were messengers authenticating the message of God.
This fact is here stressed even in the death of the prophet by the context. In verses 10-13, we have reference to the reigns of Joash king of Judah and of the sixteen-year reign of Jehoash who became king over Israel in Samaria. But note what the record reveals regarding Jehoash: “And he did evil in the sight of the Lord; he did not turn away from all the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, with which he made Israel sin, but he walked in them.”
It is in this context that we read of two final miraculous acts of the prophet: the prophecy of the victories of Jehoash and the death of Elisha and the miracle at his tomb. Note that the “Joash” of the NASB and KJV is a variant form of Jehoash and should not be confused with the Joash of Judah mentioned in verse 1.
14 When Elisha became sick with the illness of which he was to die, Joash the king of Israel came down to him and wept over him and said, “My father, my father, the chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” 15 And Elisha said to him, “Take a bow and arrows.” So he took a bow and arrows. 16 Then he said to the king of Israel, “Put your hand on the bow.” And he put his hand on it, then Elisha laid his hands on the king’s hands. 17 And he said, “Open the window toward the east,” and he opened it. Then Elisha said, “Shoot!” And he shot. And he said, “The LORD’s arrow of victory, even the arrow of victory over Aram; for you shall defeat the Arameans at Aphek until you have destroyed them.” 18 Then he said, “Take the arrows,” and he took them. And he said to the king of Israel, “Strike the ground,” and he struck it three times and stopped. 19 So the man of God was angry with him and said, “You should have struck five or six times, then you would have struck Aram until you would have destroyed it. But now you shall strike Aram only three times.”
In verse 14 we read of the visit that Jehoash made to see the prophet when he was ill.
Elisha the prophet now reenters the narrative. He was suffering from a terminal illness. Out of respect for this man of God, King Jehoash paid him a visit. The fact that the king wept over him reveals that though Jehoash followed in the ways of Jeroboam I (v. 11) he also revered Yahweh. He anticipated the great loss that the death of this servant of God would be to Israel. He regarded Elisha as superior to himself, calling him my father in true humility. By the phrase the chariots and horsemen of Israel, he showed that he recognized in Elisha, and behind him in the Lord, the real defense and power of Israel against all her adversaries. Elisha had used the same expressions himself when Elijah’s ministry was terminated by God (2:12).79
Elisha had been a tower of strength to the nation and he was highly respected. The king knew he would be missed, but again, we see how men in high places are often so dominated by their love for power and position and possessions that they refuse to allow the testimony of men of God to impact their lives to the degree that they will wholly turn to the Lord and follow Him in faith. Many of our own leaders have been influenced by well-known men of God like Billy Graham, but not to the degree that it transformed them from capricious politicians into statesmen as was the case with so many of the founding fathers of this country.
But let’s not just point to our political arena. Where do these political leaders come from? They come from the homes of the populace--from people like you and me. In other words we have reaped what we have sown. So the question is, how responsive are we to the testimony and ministry of the godly men and women of this country who have ministered to us through their lives, their writings, and their teaching? This, of course, includes godly parents and teachers where we have had the privilege of that kind of influence at home and in the classroom.
With verse 15, Elisha gives his last prophecy. The NIV Bible Commentary says:
15-20a Elisha instructed Israel’s king to pick up his bow. When he had done so, the prophet placed his own hands on those of the king, thereby indicating that what he was about to do would be full of spiritual symbolism. That act was the shooting of an arrow out the east window--toward Aram. Elisha explained the deed: Jehoash would win a total victory at Aphek against Arameans. But the divine promise was to be augmented by personal participation. Accordingly, Jehoash was told next to shoot arrows into the ground; obviously victory at Aphek was to be followed by subsequent victories over the hated Arameans. Jehoash obediently complied, but with his own reasoning powers. He struck the ground three times with his arrows rather than using the five or six arrows that he had with him. Elisha was justifiably angry with the king. Had he used all his arrows, the Arameans would have been completely vanquished. Now Jehoash would gain but three victories. With this pronouncement the aged prophet had finished his earthly course.80
In other words, even though he had seen the power of God in the life and ministry of Elisha and appreciated the prophet, Jehoash had failed to completely trust God even though he knew what God had promised.
20 And Elisha died, and they buried him. Now the bands of the Moabites would invade the land in the spring of the year. 21 And as they were burying a man, behold, they saw a marauding band; and they cast the man into the grave of Elisha. And when the man touched the bones of Elisha he revived and stood up on his feet.
Soon thereafter Elisha died. His ministry spanned at least 56 years, having begun as a servant of Elijah during Ahab’s reign (which ended in 853 B.C.) and dying during Jehoash’s reign (which began in 798 B.C.). After his body was wrapped in linen cloths, the prophet was probably buried in a cave or tomb hewn out of a rock as were most of the early Israelites (v. 21).81
Some time later some men were laying another man’s body to rest near Elisha’s tomb. They were surprised by a group of Moabite raiders who were apparently going to rob whomever they met. To flee quickly, the Israelite pallbearers removed the stone in front of Elisha’s tomb, threw the corpse of their friend in the tomb, and retreated. When the new corpse touched Elisha’s he came to life and stood up on his feet. Evidently the men who placed the body in Elisha’s tomb observed this. Doubtless they told their story far and wide, and it probably reached the ears of Jehoash for whom this miracle seems to have been intended primarily. Such a sign of the power of God working even through His prophet’s corpse may have both encouraged the king as he anticipated his battles with the Arameans and rebuked him for his lack of faith (cf. comments on vv. 18-19).82
In Elisha’s death, we see not only the miracle of resurrection in anticipation of the life and ministry of Christ, but we see anther vital principle. The mention of the invading Moabite raiders immediately upon the death of Elisha is instructive. I believe it shows us that a nation can expect divine judgment in the form of spiritual and moral degeneration, as well as other forms of judgment, when there is the removal of God’s faithful teachers of the Word, or when there is a famine of sound theological teaching that instructs people about God and how to know and love him.
But why does God do this? For the same reason that parents who loves their children will discipline them--to correct their behavior. God disciplines us to draw us back to Himself, which is always the place of blessing and peace.
In bringing the study in the life of Elisha to a close, we perhaps would do well to look at the main emphasis seen throughout his life and work. The main emphasis all through his ministry is that of resurrection and hope of new life. J. Sidlow Baxter has an excellent summary of this. He wrote:
The nation has now sunk into such a state that it can scarcely be recovered except by something equal to resurrection. Therefore, through the ministry of Elisha, the people are given to see, in a succession of symbolic miracles, the power of resurrection at work, and the hope of new life which is theirs in Jehovah, if they but return to him.
Just let the mind run through some of Elisha’s miracles. See how characteristic is this suggestion of life out of death (i.). His very first miracle is the healing of the death-giving waters of Jericho, so that what had given death now gave life (ii.). Then comes the saving of the armies from death by miraculous water supply (iii.). And in the next chapter we find the raising of the Shunammite woman’s son from death to new life (iv.). This is followed by the healing of the poisoned pottage: “Death in the pot” is changed to life and wholesomeness (iv.). And in the same chapter we have the miraculous multiplication of the barley loaves. Then comes the healing of Naaman, by that symbolic baptism in Jordan, with its washing away of death, and the coming up in new life (v.). The miracle of the recovered axe-head, which next follows, speaks of the same thing in a different way. “The iron did swim”--a new life-power overcoming the downward pull of death. Finally, not to mention the intervening miracles, we have the strange miracle in which the man is brought to life at Elisha’s grave, by accidental contact with the deceased prophet’s bones. The emphasis on resurrection and new hope running through these miracles is surely clear to see.83
We might also ask, as we reflect on the life and ministry of both Elijah and Elisha--why so many miracles? Again let me quote Baxter:
The very fact that the ministries of Elijah and Elisha were so full of supernatural wonders is itself intense with meaning. God is meeting a critical situation by super-normal measures. Apostate and degenerate as the nation has become, a final bid shall be made, by special messengers and startling miraculous signs, to recall the sinning people to Jehovah and to the true faith of Israel. Even to the last, God will seek to turn His idolatry-infatuated people from their corruptions, and thus avert the culminating catastrophe of the Dispersion which must otherwise overtake them.
Alas, the louder the warning and the clearer the sign, the deafer and blinder do the unwilling people become! “The heart of this people is waxed gross.”84
Though miracles are recorded throughout the Bible, they are the exception, not the norm. The clusters of miracles as seen with Moses, with Elijah and Elisha, in the ministry of Christ, and with the Apostles and the early church were designed as God’s special means to authenticate the messenger and his message. But as Baxter points out, very often, “the louder the warning and the clearer the sign, the deafer and blinder do the unwilling people become.”
In Luke 16, our Lord made this point clear Himself in the story of the rich man and the poor man named Lazarus. When the rich man found himself suffering in Hades, he asked if someone could go to his brothers to warn them. Abraham’s answered,
“They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.” 30 But he said, “No, Father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!” 31 But he said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead.”
The man thought such a miracle would surely convince them. But the answer given to him was, not so. It is ultimately a matter of the heart’s willingness to listen and believe the message of the Bible. Miracles were designed to authenticate the message, but if people will not be persuaded by the message, then their lives will not change. Miracles aren’t the change agents; it is the Bible’s message of God’s love and grace in the person and work of Christ as revealed by the Holy Spirit that changes lives.