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.