9. The Shunammite Woman Receives a Son (2 Kings 4:8-17)
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).
The Ministry of the Shunammite
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.
A Ministry of Hospitality and Faith (vss. 8-13)
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.
God’s Reward of Her Service (vss. 14-17)
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).