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