We are now amid the story of Elisha and his prophetic ministry and admittedly there are some curious things that happen. Our reading begins with the account of the widow and the oil. The fate of widows in the ancient Near East was perilous on a good day. And the test of Biblical piety was to watch how those in power treated widows and orphans. How they were treated was a matter of justice and the Lord was very specific about the treatment of widows, the poor, and orphans. The widow approached Elisha with great fear. There were very few opportunities for widows to support themselves that didn't tarnish their reputations. This woman was afraid because she did not have anything to pay her creditors with except for giving her two sons to be slaves. It was common practice to sell oneself or a family member into slavery to pay off debts. But if her sons were gone then she had nothing. She had only a small jar or flask of olive oil, and that may have been for anointing and not cooking. Elisha’s instructions were specific. She was to borrow as many vessels from her neighbors as she could. The more the better. She did not question why. She just did as Elisha said. Once she had collected all she could she and her sons went into their house, shut the door and the widow began pouring oil from her small flask into the vessels she had borrowed. She continued to pour until all the vessels were filled. Then the oil stopped flowing. The widow and her sons then took the oil to the market and sold it. They received enough money to pay all their debts and have some left over to live. Not only were her immediate needs met but so were the long-term ones.
The story of Elisha and the Shunammite woman is similar to Elijah and the widow of Zarephath. In both cases the prophets were referred to as 'the holy man of God.’ Both women perceived that the men were truly set apart by the Lord for ministry. In a move not unlike others we have seen in our reading, Elisha promises the Shunammite woman that this time next year you will have a son. The woman was somewhat flabbergasted at the promise and she wasn't sure that even Elisha could make this happen. But that same time the next year the woman bore a son. We do not know how old the son was when he became sick and died. The woman put her dead son on Elisha's bed. We see the depth of her faith here. Elisha’s bed is the closest thing she has to Elisha. And it is through Elisha and by the grace of the Lord she had received this child. She makes plans to find Elisha. He had accomplished the impossible once and she was hopeful he could do it again. Her husband didn't seem to share the depth of her faith, but he did not hinder hers either. The reference to the new moon or sabbath means those were days she might have a better chance of finding Elisha, but she needed him right then and there.
She found Elisha quickly and he sent his servant ahead of him with instructions to place his staff on the face of the child. This was Elisha's equivalent of Elijah's mantle. Both of those were symbols of the power of the Lord. By laying his staff on the boy it signified that the prophet would indeed come, and that he had faith God would restore the boy to health. Once Elisha arrived at the woman's house his actions show that his faith was in the power of God alone. His actions were very similar to Elijah's, but we also see that Elisha sought the Lord alone who can grant life. The restoration of the boy's life shows us that life itself is in the hands of God. Many of the accounts of Elisha's actions are brief. He purifies a pot of stew, and in an action much like Jesus feeding the 5,000, Elisha fed 100 men with 20 loaves of barley bread. And there are leftovers.
There is arrogance on the part of Naaman, the commander of the king of Syria's army. He is afflicted with leprosy. Here is where it gets interesting. The servant girl of Naaman’s wife was a Jew and she knew of the prophet in Samaria. If only Naaman would go see him. Naaman received permission from the king of Syria to visit the prophet and he took gifts and some of his servants. He went first to the king of Israel who tore his clothes and sent Naaman on to Elisha. Naaman did not get the greeting he believed he deserved and was furious with the instructions he received from Elisha, whom he never even saw! It was humiliating and he didn't understand what the big deal was with the Jordan River. After all, there were great rivers in Syria. He was ready to leave and go back home but his servants spoke reason to him and Naaman did as Elisha had instructed. Based on the conversation we read, it seems that lepers were considered unclean in Syria too. Once Naaman was clean he could stand in front of Elisha. He came to see that the Lord is God, and he came to faith in the Lord. Elisha would not take payment or a gift because what Naaman received could not have been purchased. And Naaman had a very strange request. He asked for dirt. It was the belief of the ancients that a deity could only be worshiped on the soil,of the land that deity was associated with. By taking some dirt back with him to Syria, he would be able to worship the lord on soil from the nation whose God was the Lord. And in an interesting turn of events, Elisha's servant decided Elisha had been too generous and he went after Naaman to claim some of the bounty he had brought for payment. When Elisha questioned him, the servant lied. As a result, the servant became leprous for the rest of his life.
Syria was a thorn in Israel's side for many years and we see the battles back and forth. There were times of peace, but they never lasted long. And Israel was typically on the losing end of the battle. But we also see the hand of God at work, rescuing His people. The Syrians were camped all around Samaria and in the night they heard the sound of a great army...the army of the Lord. They fled leaving everything behind in their camp. There were enough provisions to supply the Israelites in their famine.
And one last thought today. There was a famine in the land and as we have seen before the Israelites move to find food wherever they can. The Shunammite woman and her family went to the land of the Philistines to find food. Famines were often used by God to chastise His people. When the woman came back, she expected to return to her land. She had not sold it, so it was still hers. She went to the king with her claims and after hearing what Elisha had done for her, the king restored her land and possessions. Elisha was in Damascus to visit the king of Syria, Ben-Hadad. He was sick and couldn't imagine why Elisha was there. If we go back to 1 Kings 19:15-17 we will see God giving instructions about a drastic change in the leadership in Israel. The time had come. But we see a pagan king inquiring of the living God about his illness while a sick king of Israel had inquired of a false god concerning the nature of his illness. Thinking about the upcoming changes made Elisha weep because of the damage the next king would do.
And there is this. Jehoram ascended to the throne in Judah, the southern kingdom. He reigned from 848-841 B.C. There was also a king in the northern kingdom of Israel, named Jehoram or Joram who reigned from 852-841 B.C. For a time both kingdoms were ruled by kings of the same name. Sometimes all the names get confusing!
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W