11. Death in the Pot (2 Kings 4:38-41)
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.
The Famine and the Pot of Stew (vs. 38)
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.
The Gathering of the Wild Gourds (vs. 39)
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.
There is Death in the Pot (vs. 40)
“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).
The Antidote (vs. 41)
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.