CHAPTER 10 - THE MINISTRY OF ELISHA AS THE PERSONAL REPRESENTATIVE OF THE LIVING GOD IN ISRAEL
The Prophet's Widow and her Miraculous Deliverance - The Shunammite and Elisha - The God-given Child - His Death and Restoration to Life - Elisha at Gilgal with the "Sons of the Prophets" - "Death in the Pot" and Removal of the Harm - The Man from Baal-Shalisha - God's Sufficient and Unfailing Provision for His own.
(2 Kings 4)
THERE is something grand and truly characteristic of "prophetic history" when the Biblical narrative abruptly turns from the expedition against Moab, which, although so simply told, was of such deep and lasting political importance, to tell what reads like a summary of the prophetic activity of Elisha. It shows, on the one hand, how all events are regarded from the Divine point of view, while on the other hand, it helps us to understand the real meaning and purpose of the miraculous element in the ministry of Elisha, as designed to recall Israel to a realizing sense of the presence and power of Jehovah, and by such religious revival to avert imminent national judgment. Accidentally we obtain in the course of the narrative, interesting side-glimpses into private and public life in Israel, which generally confirm our confidence in the historic truth of what is related.
At the outset we may say that the impression which this history as a whole makes on us, is that it seems transferred or perhaps rather summarized, from some special narrative or work descriptive of the activity of Elisha. The incidents do not seem arranged in their strict chronological succession, but grouped according to their internal connection, so that an account of the more private activity of the prophet, as regards individuals, families, and communities, is followed by that of his public activity, in its bearing on Israel and Syria. Again, it is reasonable to suppose that all which is here recorded had not occurred exclusively during the reign of Joram, which lasted only twelve years (2 Kings 3:1). For as Elisha died during the reign of Joash (2 Kings 13:14), his ministry must have extended over four reigns, and lasted altogether about fifty-five or fifty-seven years. Hence there would be a blank of forty-five years in the narrative if all that is recorded of Elisha had taken place in the time of Joram. But the deepest lesson which the life and ministry of Elisha were intended to teach was to set forth, as against the dark background of coming judgment upon Israel's apostasy, the tender care, the sufficient provision, the ever-present help which the LORD would extend to His own servants and people.
The first narrative* in this biographical sketch - as for want of better name we may term it - has somewhat inaptly been compared with the account of Elijah's miraculous provision for the widow of Sarepta (1 Kings 17:9-16).
* And the latter part of the second narrative, 2 Kings 4:32-37.
On carefully comparing the two narratives, they will be seen to differ in every detail, except this, that in both instances the recipient of the benefit was a widow. But besides, the great object and meaning of the miracle at Sarepta was to be a prefigurement of the mercy and help to be extended to the Gentile world, with all of warning and teaching to Israel which this implied. Its counterpart, in the history of Elisha, would be the healing of Naaman, rather than this narrative of Divine help granted to the impoverished widow of one of the sons of the prophets.
Josephus and some of the Rabbis have suggested that this widow had been the wife of that Obadiah who had provided shelter and food for the persecuted prophets in the reign of Ahab (1 Kings 18). But here also the only point of similarity between the two narratives is that the widow of the prophet pleads, in the words of Obadiah (1 Kings 18:12), that her husband "did fear Jehovah." The narrative bears that on the death of her husband, who had been one of the sons of the prophets, and (what is even more important) apparently well known to Elisha as one that feared Jehovah, the creditor had come to take her two sons as bondsmen. We know not through what adverse circumstances the family had been so far reduced; but we can readily believe that in those days faithfulness to Jehovah might lead to outward reverses, not to prosperity. And when he was removed who had been the support of his family by that daily labor, which evidently was not regarded as incompatible with his vocation as one of the "sons of the prophets," then "the creditor" seized on the sons of the widow. In so doing he availed himself of his legal right in the matter (Leviticus 25:39; comp. Matthew 18:25),* although his action was unjustifiably harsh and selfish.
* The Athenian and Roman law equally sanctioned servitude for debt, - in fact, this seems to have been the universal practice in the ancient world, and the law of Moses only softened it by special injunctions and provisions, and modified it by the law of the Jubilee.
If in these circumstances the prophet had not given heed to the appeal of the widow, it would have implied either that he was not the living medium between God and His people, which he professed, or else that Jehovah was not the living and the true God in the sense in which Elisha had preached Him. With reverence be it said, the appeal to the prophet could no more have remained unanswered than a cry for help addressed to Christ in the days of His flesh.
A similar conclusion would be reached if, somewhat realistically, we were to transport this history into our own days. If a widow were, in like circumstances, to seek guidance and comfort, she would be pointed to the living God, and to His sure promise of help in all straits. But what is this when translated into concrete fact other than the miracle wrought at the intercession, or, if you please, at the instance, though not by the hands, of Elisha? And may we not say that, as regards the result, the same miracle is still daily enacted, though not in the same manner as regards the succession of events? In truth, the two worlds of the seen and unseen are not so wide apart as some imagine. To many of us the answer to the "Give us this day our daily bread," comes directly from heaven, and more than the daily bread, or the like of it, is assured to us in the realization of His daily and indirect help. And if in this history all this was exhibited in a concrete manner, it was required in the circumstances of the time and for the purposes of the mission of Elisha, although its lesson is to all time and to all men.
We mark, that in order to put aside any idea of direct agency in the matter on the part of the prophet, the miraculous help was not sent by the hands of Elisha, but connected so far as possible with some visible and ordinary means. It is in this manner that we explain the question of the prophet, what the widow had in her house. And when she replied, "Anointing oil,"* the promised help was connected with the use of it as a means.
* Not "a pot of oil." The expression occurs only in this passage. It unquestionably means oil for anointing, which, it is well known, is in universal use in the East. But it must be left undetermined whether, as the LXX. and the Vulgate imply, there was only left sufficient for anointing once, and whether the answer indicates that this had formerly furnished the means of livelihood to the family. The latter view seems suggested by verse 7.
The widow was directed to borrow empty vessels from all her neighbors, then to shut the door behind her and her sons, and to pour from what she had into those empty vessels, when the multiplying blessing of God would fill them. It would be difficult to imagine any symbol more full of meaning and instruction, alike in its general direction and in its details. It showed that God was a present help. His special blessing, given when needed directly and miraculously, would increase our scanty provision. Nor can we be mistaken in supposing that the direction to shut the door behind her and her sons was intended to enjoin not only reverent acknowledgment, but silent worship of God. And truly so ought we also, when seeking help from Him, ever to feel ourselves alone with Him, combining, like her of old, absolute trust in the promise of His Word with active obedience to His direction: doing what lies in us while praying; and praying while doing it. Lastly, it seems quite in accordance with what had passed that when all the borrowed vessels were full, and the oil had stayed, the widow should, before disposing of anything, have gone to the prophet for his direction, and, we may add, equally so that Elisha should have told her first to pay her creditor, and then to employ the rest towards the sustenance of herself and her sons.
The second narrative* in this series of "the acts" of the prophet, transports us to the quiet of the village of Shunem, and the retirement of a pious Israelitish home. We know Shunem from our former history,** but then it was associated with battle or else with scenes far different from those to which we are about to be introduced.
* Here also there are peculiar expressions, confirming the view that the whole section is derived from some special work on the subject.
** We think of it in connection with such battles as those of Gideon, of Saul at Gilboa, and generally with those fought on or by the plain of Esdraelon, as well as with the near palace of Jezreel.
The modern Sulem is a wretched collection of mud-hovels. Except from its situation, it scarcely recalls the thriving, healthy, happy, agricultural village of old, as it seemed to look in sunny contentment over the rich plain of Esdraelon. It was in close contiguity to the summer palace of Jezreel, which was perched on the hill above, occupying a position equally beautiful and commanding. And despite its nearness to a corrupt court, there was quite another moral atmosphere about its homes. Shunem seems to have preserved something of the old Israelitish spirit, some of that purity, earnestness, impulsiveness, and we had almost said intenseness, which even long afterwards characterized Northern Palestine and the people of Galilee. A sturdy sense of independence (2 Kings 4:13), combined with reverent simplicity (verses 9, 10), warm home-affections (verses 16, 18, 20), earnest religiousness, and an unwavering spiritual faith (verses 23, 24, 28) - such are the ideas which we have learned to associate with Shunem. And the very physique of this population seems to have corresponded with this moral healthiness. Apparently Shunem was not only the home of wealthy men, but also of fair women, such as of the beautiful Abishag, King David's maiden wife (1 Kings 1:3), or the lovely Shulamite* who ravished Solomon's heart (Cant. 6:13, etc.), and of the Shunammite of our present narrative.
* Shunem and Shulem evidently represent the same name, and the Shulamite (Shulamith) of Canticles is rendered in the LXX Sunamitis (with an n).
We infer that at this time Elisha had been frequently passing between Samaria* and what was probably his ordinary place of abode on Carmel.
* There could have been no occasion for his resorting to Jezreel.
The direct road from the one to the other place does not lead by Shunem, which lies somewhat farther to the east, at the south-western slope of "little Hermon," and on the opposite side of Esdraelon from Carmel, at a distance of about fifteen or twenty miles across the plain. But it so happened that on a certain occasion Elisha, "passed over [thus literally] to Shunem." According to good Israelitish custom, hospitality would be offered to him; but it was only what was becoming that such should have been extended to the prophet by the mistress of what seems to have been the "great" house* at Shunem.
* It matters little whether we regard the expression "great" as referring to wealth, or, which from the after history seems more likely, to standing and family (comp. 1 Samuel 25:2; 2 Samuel 19:32). The further question, why the mistress, not the master, of the house is named, may be answered by the suggestion that the property had originally been hers, or else that her piety made her take the lead in all good works, to which her husband was more the consenting than the proposing party.
We infer that Elisha was at first unwilling to accept the invitation to the "great" house. Probably there were few such in the land where the prophet could have felt himself at home. But when he yielded to the urgent yet modest importunity of the Shunammite, he must soon have perceived that this was not only a pleasant place of rest on the journey, but one to which he might safely resort for refreshment of body and mind. We are too apt to apply our modern habits of thought and expression to the relationships of ancient times. Yet this may here be pointed out, that the manner in which the Shunammite marked Elisha as a "holy" man of God, indicates enlightened piety; the care with which she received him, affectionate regard; the provision which she made for his absolute privacy, unselfishness and reverence; and the circumstance (later alluded to) of her attendance on Elisha's religious instruction (v. 23), a certain spiritual relationship between them. And so it came that, after this first visit, "as oft" as Elisha "passed across" the plain of Esdraelon, "he turned aside" [and this also literally, since Shunem was not in the direct road] to enjoy the hospitality of the pious mistress of the "great" house at Shunem.
But the frequency of his visits, so far from inducing familiarity, only led to increased reverence on the part of the Shunammite. Her observation had led her to regard Elisha as not only far different from those who at that period may sometimes have passed as prophets, but even from ordinary sons of the prophets - even as a man of God distinguished by holiness. All this she urged on her husband as she proposed to make provision not only for his more proper entertainment, but for his complete privacy. In Palestine an outside stair led up from the road to the roof of the house, so that it was not necessary to pass through the interior of a dwelling. Part of the roof of the house she would now surround with walls, so making an "upper chamber" of it. This would give to the prophet at all times undisturbed, and, if he wished it, unobserved access to, and egress from, his lodging. This was indeed thoughtful, unselfish, and withal, respectful kindness and hospitality. The chamber thus provided, as well as the scanty furnishing of it, may seem to our modern notions very simple. Yet it implied the surrender by the family of the part of the house most appreciated in the East, while the furniture, however scanty according to our ideas, included not only more but better than was ordinarily found in the very simple sleeping apartments of Orientals.* Evidently the object was to provide for a prolonged stay on the part of the prophet, and for his complete privacy, and, as appears from the context (v. 13), it included not only the prophet, but also his servant.
* "A table" was not ordinarily placed in a mere sleeping-room, while the expression "chair," not "stool," as in the A.V., indicates a seat of honor. Comp. here 1 Kings 10:19; 1 Samuel 1:9, 4:13; Psalm 122:5; Nehemiah 3:7. The conceit of the Rabbis that the Shunammite was a sister of Abishag (1 Kings 1) needs not refutation. If the latter had lived, she would at that time have probably been about 140 years old.
There was such delicacy about all this "trouble" with which the Shunammite had been "troubled"* for him and his servant, that Elisha, who had at first been reluctant to accept any hospitality, now regularly availed himself of the provision for his comfort and retirement. It was only natural that he should have thought of some return to his hostess. Accordingly on one occasion he directed his servant Gehazi,** whom we here meet for the first time, to inquire of the Shunammite what service he could render to her.
* The word means unrest and trouble, rather than care.
** Probably "Valley of Vision." The name is perhaps derived from his birth-place, which may have been so called from the sojourn there, or near it, of a prophet.
The suggestion: "Is there [ought] to be spoken for thee [is there occasion for it] to the king or the captain of the host?" indicates a somewhat insecure state of things, as well as a somewhat despotic order in the State when "the captain of the host" stands ominously near to the king. At the same time it also implies the existence of better relations between the monarch and the prophet, and so confirms the view formerly expressed that the ministry of Elijah and Elisha, attested at almost every stage by direct Divine manifestations, tended at least to arrest the progress of apostasy in Israel.
The answer of the Shunammite to Gehazi:* "I dwell among my own people," manifests not only a true Israelitish spirit of frank independence, but reflects a favorable light on that district, which (as all other parts of the country) would be primarily under the rule of its own eldership.
* From ver. 13, we infer that the subject in the last sentence of ver. 12 is Gehazi, not Elisha.
What followed is most pictorially set forth. To the question of Elisha, what there was to be done for her, Gehazi, who certainly had keen worldly insight, replied: "Surely, she has no son, and her husband is old." It was only a suggestion, and in this respect also characteristic of Gehazi. But now, when it was not to be a favor asked of man, but wondrous mercy to be granted by God, Elisha spake to the Shunammite not through Gehazi but directly,* giving her the promise of what under the Old Testament was regarded as bringing far deeper than merely a mother's joy.
* Our Rabbis have it that of three treasures God reserves to Himself the key: of rain, of children, and of raising the dead.
And there is about her answer such air of genuineness, a mingling of hope with a not daring to expect, and withal such absence of any legendary embellishment, that we can almost imagine ourselves hearing her speak it, as she respectfully stands within the shadow of the door.
It was as Elisha had said, and the Shunammite became the joyous mother of a son. Since then years had passed, during which we have no record of Elisha's continued visits to the "great" house, now gladdened by the voice of a child. Perhaps he no longer, or at least, not so often, passed by; more probably Scripture, after its wont, is silent on that which is purely personal in the history. But the child had passed through five of the stages which Jewish affection, watching with special fondness the opening life, has successively marked by no less than nine designations.* They are so interesting that we shall here put them down. The yeled ("born," "babe"** ) had successively become a yonek, or suckling, and an olel, who, no longer satisfied with only this nourishment, asks for bread,*** then a gamel, or weaned one, and next a taph, one who clings to his mother.
* Comp. Sketches of Jewish Social Life in the Days of Christ, pp. 103,
** So also in Isaiah 9:6. For an enumeration of the passages in which the different designations are used, see Sketches of Jewish Social Life.
*** Lamentations 4:4: "The tongue of the yonek cleaveth to the roof of his mouth for thirst: the olalim asks bread."
And he had passed through this stage also, and was just entering on the stage designated by elem, becoming firm and strong. It was the time of harvest, and the child was going out to his father to the reapers, when the hot Eastern sun struck his head. At his cry of pain the father bade one of the servants carry the child back to his mother. All that long morning she pressed his aching head to her bosom, till when the mid-day sun shot down its arrows he lay still and dead in her arms. Not a cry of lament escaped that brave mother to tell them in the house of the terrible desolation that had swept over it. Her resolve was taken with the rapidity and unfailing certitude that comes of faith. To Elisha, or rather to Elisha's God! He had given; He could restore the child. In any case she would go with her complaint, not to man, but to the God of almighty help, and not rest satisfied with anything unless it came directly from Him.
It was quite in accordance with all this, and very significant, that in silence she carried her dead child to the prophet's chamber, and there laid him on the bed. Here let him rest, as it were, in keeping of the prophet's God, whose promise had first brought him, till, if ever, the prophet's God would again waken him. And so, like the prophet's widow when she received the Divine help, she shut the door. For, what had man to do with it? her appeal lay directly to God. But she must have been a strong as well as a good woman, strong also in faith, when she could so well keep her feelings under control that her husband had not even suspicion of aught amiss when she preferred the unusual request that one of the servants and one of the beasts of burden should be sent back from the field, that she might at once resort to the man of God. For it was neither New Moon nor Sabbath, when, as we are led to infer, the prophet was wont to give religious instruction, and people gathered around him, and perhaps came to Carmel from a considerable distance.*
* The inference does not, indeed, seem absolutely certain, but it appears implied that in the time when this narrative is laid the interpretation of the fourth commandment was not so rigidly literal as to forbid the use of an ass for such purposes as that in the text.
With a deprecating "Peace" - as it were, Pray let it be so - she waved aside the inquiry of the busy man. And, once her home behind her, she fully gave herself to what was before her. It was no longer a weak woman on whom the greatest earthly sorrow had descended, but one strong, resolute, bent on a great purpose, and wholly self-forgetful. As she had herself, no doubt for speed, seen to the saddling of the ass (v. 24), so she now bade the servant: "drive on,* go; delay me not in my riding [hinder me not, keep me not back], unless I bid thee."
* The word is the same as in reference to Jehu: "for he driveth madly" (2 Kings 9:20).
The sun must have been declining towards the west, when, after that ride of fifteen or twenty miles, she was nearing Carmel. From a bluff of the mountain the prophet had been watching the rider speeding in such haste across the plain, and recognized the Shunammite. Although not Divinely informed, and therefore not Divinely assured of a happy issue, he must have known that only some great trouble to herself, her husband, or her child, would have brought her on that afternoon and in such manner. And so he sent Gehazi to meet her with an inquiry meant to reassure her, at least so far as his own interest and sympathy were concerned. But all the more that she so understood it, would she be neither detained by Gehazi, nor could she have opened her heart to him. Indeed, to have attempted telling her sorrow or her need to any man would have been to unfit her, in every sense, for telling it to the prophet. At sight of Elisha the strong woman for the first time gave way. She had reached the goal, and now in an agony of passion she threw herself at his feet and laid hold on them, as if in her despair she could not let him go without helping her. It was, as in Jacob's wrestling with the Angel, the mode of agonizing prayer suited to Old Testament times, when God and His help, and, indeed, most spiritual realities were presented in a concrete manner. From a spurious zeal for his master's honor, from false notions of what became, or did not become - the consequences of his utter want of spiritual insight and sympathy - Gehazi would have thrust her away. So would the multitude have silenced blind Bartimaeus, and even the disciples sent away the importunate Syrophenician woman (Matthew 15:23); and so do we in our mistaken notions of what is becoming or unbecoming too often hinder souls from personal contact with our LORD. But Elisha would not suffer Gehazi, for he knew that her soul was in anguish, although as God had not made him to know its cause, he was ignorant of what its issue would be.
It is this, we feel persuaded, which explains much in the conduct of Elisha - such as his first mission of Gehazi, which otherwise would seem strange, if not unintelligible. But surely never was Elisha more humbled than on the eve of the greatest miracle wrought by his hands; never did the poverty of his humanity, as merely an instrument in the hand of God, appear in more clear light than by the side of the help which Jehovah was about to send. And Elisha himself gave vent to these feelings when he spoke with such sorrow of Jehovah having hidden it from him, and not revealed it.*
* It seems well nigh the extreme of critical misunderstanding when these words of Elisha are regarded as meaning that, if Elisha had known it, he would have hastened to Shunem. Comp. the opposite conduct of our Lord in the case of Lazarus (John 11:6).
But this we may say, that never was legend so constructed. To every thoughtful reader such purely human traits of felt weakness and of ignorance not only of the future, but of the present and the past, must carry instructive conviction of the truth of this narrative, full of the miraculous though it be.
The first words which the Shunammite spoke to Elisha revealed the state of the case. They were not an entreaty of help; they contained not even a suggestion of it. And yet they were the strongest appeal that could have been made, since they laid hold on the faithfulness of God to His word and promise. The commission of the prophet to Gehazi to hasten on and lay Elisha's staff upon the face of the dead child seems at first difficult to understand. It is quite true that this was not an ordinary staff, but, as it were, the symbol of prophetic authority and rule, with all that this implied, like the staff of Moses (comp. here Exodus 4:17; 17:5, 9; Numbers 20:8, 9). But it is impossible to believe that Elisha expected either that the staff would restore life to the dead, or that Gehazi would be able to perform such a miracle; or, on the other hand, that Elisha acted under misapprehension, as Nathan had spoken to David when still uninstructed as to the will of God (2 Samuel 7:3, etc.); or else that the prophet could have imagined that the child was not really dead. Nor can we accept the suggestion sometimes made that Elisha had full well known Gehazi would not succeed, but had still sent him, in order to show - either to Gehazi, or to the Shunammite, or to Israel generally - that miracles were not magic, and that neither a Gehazi nor even a prophet's staff could produce them. It is difficult to use moderate language in rejecting suggestions which imply that Elisha had purposely employed what he knew to be useless measures in order to teach some abstract lesson, or that he could have done so at a moment of such agony and suspense. Kindred views in regard to God's dealings with us when under severe affliction are, indeed, too often entertained by Christians. They should give place to more enlightened conceptions of the character of God, and to a more simple and childlike faith in Him, Who afflicteth not willingly, but for our profit.
We feel convinced that the explanation of Gehazi's commission must be sought within the narrative itself. When Elisha dispatched his servant with his staff, it was with the intention that he should take his master's place. What afterwards determined him to go personally was the expressed resolve of the woman: "As Jehovah liveth, and as thy soul liveth, I will not leave thee [viz., behind; I will not go, nor yet go without thee]. Then he arose and went after her." All this seems in accordance with what has been previously stated. If, as Elisha expressed it with sorrow, Jehovah had not communicated to His servant what had happened in the house of the Shunammite, then the prophet was not only ignorant of the final issue, but left without any Divine commission in the matter. In these circumstances he would wait for such direction as might be indicated to him in the course of events. And he received it, clearly and unmistakably, through the expressed resolution of the Shunammite. Accordingly he immediately followed her. The previous mission of Gehazi may have been tentative and preparatory; and the laying of the prophet's staff on the face of the child perhaps symbolic of the arrestment of the progress of decay. Nor can there be difficulty in understanding the prophet's direction to Gehazi not to salute any one by the way, nor to return any salutation. It was intended not only to indicate the necessity of speed on what brooked no delay, and of avoiding any worldly distraction when on such an errand, but also to prevent all such publicity as to the matter in hand, as would have been the natural sequence of conversation, especially on the part of one like Gehazi (comp. here also Luke 10:4).
The narrative passes in silence over the long ride across Esdraelon to Shunem. Evening must have gathered on the deep blue summer sky, when the two at length neared the desolate home. Ere they came to it, Gehazi had met them with the report: "The lad is not awaked," - and this also is significant of Gehazi's thoughts about the matter. He had literally obeyed his master's behest, and laid the staff upon the face of the child, "but there was neither voice nor attending [on the part of the dead child]." But by this time, we dare not doubt it, Elisha knew what he had to do. Even if the Lord had been silent to him, he had already received sufficient direction (comp. here Exodus 14:15). What follows in the narrative (v. 32) is chiefly intended to set more clearly before us the reality of what now took place. Arrived in his chamber, the prophet shut the door upon himself and the dead child that lay on his bed. We have learned to understand the meaning of this act, which symbolically set forth being alone with God. As regards his prayer to Jehovah and the close personal contact with the dead child, Elisha followed, as from every point of view we would have expected, the example of his master, Elijah, when he recalled to life the widow's son at Sarepta* (1 Kings 17:17, 24).
* The attempts at natural explanation of this miracle - such as by animal magnetism, by the administration of something to smell, or of some drug - are so utterly childish as not to deserve discussion.
Differences in detail there are between the two narratives, such as will readily be noticed. But these are best accounted for by the difference both in the circumstances and character and mission of the two prophets. In any case they are not of importance. But alike the symbolism and the lessons of this history must be apparent to all.
First, as regards the Shunammite. We see in her a true and faithful Israelitish woman, who, in a time of general apostasy, owned Jehovah alike in her life and her home. Receiving a prophet, because of Him Who had sent him, because he was a holy man of God - and with humility and entire self-forgetfulness - she received a prophet's reward in the gift most precious to a Jewish mother, which she had not dared to hope for, even when announced to her. Then, when severely tried, she still held fast to her trust in the promise - strong even when weakest - once more self-forgetful, and following deepest spiritual impulse. And, in the end, her faith appears victorious - crowned by Divine mercy, and shining out the more brightly from its contrast to the felt weakness of the prophet. As we think of this, it seems as if a fuller light were shed on the history of the trials of an Abraham, an Isaac, or a Jacob; on the inner life of those heroes of faith to whom the Epistle to the Hebrews points us for example and learning (Hebrews 11), and on such Scripture-sayings as these: "Jehovah killeth, and maketh alive: He bringeth down to the grave, and bringeth up" (1 Samuel 2:6); "Know that Jehovah hath set apart him that is godly for Himself: Jehovah will hear when I call unto Him" (Psalms 4:3); or this: "All the paths of Jehovah are mercy and truth unto such as keep His covenant and His testimonies" (Psalms 25:10).
The last glimpse we have of the Shunammite in this narrative is when called by Elisha to receive back her living son, she bends in lowly reverence, and then silently retires (2 Kings 4:36, 37). When next we meet her, it is in circumstances of trial almost as great as that through which she had formerly passed. Once more she proves true, trustful, and brave; and once more is her faith crowned by mercy and deliverance.
Secondly, we think of the symbolical and typical teaching of this history.* The Rabbis discuss the question, whether the dead child of the Shunammite could have Levitically defiled those who touched him.
* From the time of Origen a somewhat fanciful allegorical view of this history has been presented. The dead lad represented the human race dead in sin; the staff of Gehazi, the law of Moses, which could not set free from sin and death; while Elisha was the type of the Son of God, Who, by His Incarnation, had entered into fellowship with our flesh, and imparted a new life to our race.
This Pharisaic scruple deserves record for the significant answer it elicits: "The dead defileth, but the living does not defile." To us all this includes a meaning deeper than they could attach to it. The story speaks to us of Him through Whom "death is swallowed up in victory." As we think of Him Who, as God Incarnate, and as the Sent of the Father, is to us the Representative and the Prophet of God in a unique sense, we recall that it was not, as by Elijah or Elisha, through prayer and personal contact, but by the Word of His power that He raised the dead (Mark 5:39-42; Luke 7:13-15; John 11:43, 44). And beyond this we remember that "the hour.... now is, when the dead shall hear the Voice of the Son of God: and they that hear shall live"; and that "whosoever liveth and believeth" in Christ "shall never die" (John 5:25; 11:26).
Lastly, as regards the supernatural in this history, we fully admit that, as previously indicated, the history of Elijah and Elisha marks, so to speak, the high-point in the miraculous attestation of the mission of the prophets. But, by the side of it, there are so many elements of purely human interest, so many indications of human weakness, and so many details which would not have found a place in a legendary account (such as the fruitless mission of Gehazi), while, on the other hand, there is such unadorned simplicity about the whole narrative, and so much spiritual and typical teaching in it as to carry home almost instinctive conviction of the truth and reality of what is recorded.
Yet another, we might almost call it twofold, narrative taken from the history of Elisha's more private ministry claims our attention (2 Kings 4:38-44). It is instructive, as confirming the view that this whole section about Elisha's ministry is taken from a special work on the subject, that the scene is now laid at a considerable interval from the previous history, and at a time of famine (v. 38), which is only long afterwards described in connection with Elisha's prophecy (2 Kings 8:1). The prophet is once more at Gilgal - not that near Jericho, but another Gilgal, close to Ebal and Gerizim, south-west of Shilo, and situated on a commanding plateau, 3,000 feet above the sea. Here a community of "the sons of the prophets" seems to have been settled (comp. 2 Kings 2:1). It is impossible to say whether Elisha was in the habit of visiting these settlements occasionally or at regular intervals, or else had come on purpose to share the poverty of the community at a time of exceptional distress. The former seems, however, the more likely, since we are told of "the sons of the prophets sitting before him," which, according to well-known Hebrew usage, means that Elisha was giving them instruction (comp. 2 Kings 6:1; Ezekiel 8:1; 14:1; 33:31; Zechariah 3:8; Acts 22:3).
While thus engaged the prophet directed that the usual humble meal should be prepared for the wants of his hearers. Even although it was a time of famine, yet the fare provided was so poor - and this, so far as the text informs us, not merely exceptionally, owing to the dearth - that our former impressions, derived from the straitened circumstances of the prophet's widow (4:1, 2), are fully confirmed. In truth, "the sons of the prophets" seem not only to have supported themselves by manual labor, but to have lived in the humblest manner. This willing submission to poverty and want from devotion to their work reflects the most favorable light on the institution to which they belonged. In the present instance one of their number was sent to gather "green esculents"* to be seethed for pottage in the great pot in which their common meals were prepared. By some misadventure the person so sent brought among other herbage a very noxious fruit - probably the wild, or so-called "squirting" cucumber,** which he had mistaken for the ordinary cucumber, one of the most common and favorite articles of food in the East.
* This, rather than "herbs." It evidently refers to such "green" stuff as was boiled and eaten.
** The cucumis agrestis or asininus. Others understand by the Hebrew expression the cucumis colocynthi, or colocynth plant. But, from the Hebrew etymology of the word, the former explanation seems the more likely.
The dangerous error was discovered after the meal had begun. An appeal to Elisha as the "man of God" brought speedy help. The symbolic meaning of casting "meal" into the pot was, that this was the ordinary and healthy food by which that which had been bitter and dangerous was now to be changed into palatable and nourishing diet. While the help Divinely brought by the prophet as the "man of God" was miraculous, it had, as we readily perceive, also a symbolic significance, the more so, that "the sons of the prophets" had, as disciples, been learning from Elisha. And thus did it become true in every sense: "Pour out for the people, that they may eat. And there was no harm in the pot."
Closely connected with this is the next event recorded. If the former showed how easily God could remove from the provision of His people that which was hurtful by the addition of that which in itself is nutritious and wholesome, the next event affords another instance how readily He can send unexpected provision to supply the wants of His servants. The lesson which it teaches is as old as that of Isaac's reaping an hundredfold of what he had sowed in Gerar at a time of famine (Genesis 26:12), and as true to all time, and to all God's servants, as it had been to the patriarch. In the present case, much needed help in their straits came to Elisha and to his companions from Baal-Shalisha, or Beth-Shalisha. We remember the district as connected with the history of Saul (1 Samuel 9:4): "the land of Shalisha," perhaps the "three valleys" land. It lay north of Lydda, in the plain of Sharon, and was not far distant from that Gilgal which we have described, and the location of which it confirms.*
* Suffice it that it would have been impossible for a man to have carried such a load of bread and corn "in a sack" from Beth-Shalisha to the Gilgal near Jericho.
We know that the Lord directed the first-fruits to be given to the Priests and Levites (Numbers 18:13; Deuteronomy 18:4). This ordinance could not any longer be obeyed in the kingdom of Israel, since the Aaronic priesthood, for whose support it was destined, was not in office there. But the pious in Israel, to whom such contributions were not merely matter of obligation nor only of law, but who willingly offered to Jehovah, in acknowledgment of His sovereignty and proprietary over the land, knew to observe the spirit, if they could no longer obey the letter, of the law. Accordingly this unnamed man from Baal-Shalisha brought, as is expressly stated, to the "man of God" "bread of the first-fruits, twenty loaves of barley and bruised ears of corn* in his sack."**
* So, according to the Rabbis, who regard the expression as referring to green ears of corn, of which, in some parts, soup is made. Others understand it as meaning fresh and tender ears of corn roasted over the fire. The former explanation seems the more likely, and in that case the scene would be laid about the end of April.
** So, and not "in the husk," as in the A.V.
The provision supplied by the piety of this unnamed giver Elisha would, in the same spirit of devotion, have shared with those around him. But such conduct ill accorded with the spirit of Elisha's servant. Indeed, it may have been that this history was recorded to mark the character of Gehazi. In any case it was not in him at a time of dearth to dismiss the cares of the morrow by unselfish care for others. He would scarcely venture to state his views explicitly, but, adopting the more prudent course, contented himself with pointing out the apparent insufficiency of such provision for so large a company. It might, according to the pious intention of the donor, have supplied for some time the wants of the prophet, but to set it "before an hundred men" - probably a round number for the whole community - was to lose the real good that might be obtained, without an equivalent benefit to others. It needed the direct command of Elisha to secure his obedience. But Elisha did more. For the teaching not only of Gehazi, but of all, he added the promise, of which, indeed, this unexpected provision was an earnest, that, scanty as it might seem, this provision would not only suffice, but that there should be left over from it. And this, as we understand it, in the widest sense of constant and sufficient supply for all the wants of God's servants. For although this narrative is generally, and in a sense correctly, regarded as prefiguring the miraculous multiplication of the scanty provision with which our Lord fed the multitude (Matthew 14:19-21; John 6:9-13), yet the text does not here indicate any such miraculous increase of the food. But it does most emphatically indicate that Elisha was truly the prophet and servant of Jehovah; that his trust in his God was absolute and unwavering; and that, true to His promise, the Lord will always provide for His servants who look up unto Him. And this is the final lesson of this history to all time and to all men.
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