Where the world comes to study the Bible

3. The Waters of Jericho Purified (2 Kings 2:18-22)


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).

Historical Background

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.

The Symbols Used

The City

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.

The Bad Water

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.

The New Jar

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

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.

    The Actions of Salt

(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.

    Historical Background

(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.

    Uses of Salt in Scripture

(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).

    The Effects of Salt-Filled Jars

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:

  • Sacrificial Living: Poured out and sold out to Jesus Christ (Phil. 2:17; 2 Tim. 4:6).
  • Evangelism: Seasoned with salt that we might win the lost to Jesus Christ (Col. 4:5-6).
  • Edification or Sanctification: Growing ourselves and helping others to do the same. This heals and preserves. Too often believers are an opposite force and cause sickness, rather than healing. The church at Corinth is a sad example.
  • Unity or harmony with one another: Remember Christ said “Have salt in yourselves and be at peace with one another” (Mark 9:50).
  • Civil obedience and social involvement (Rom. 13:1-10; Tit. 3:1-3; 1 Pet. 2:13-17)

(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.

Applicational Questions:

(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.

18 Richard I. McNeely, First and Second Kings, Moody Press, Chicago, 1978, pp. 96-97).

Related Topics: Character Study

Report Inappropriate Ad