Sermon preached on 2 Kings 4:8-37 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Online Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 05/03/2020.
Our faith can be shown in our works and tested through our trials. That’s something we were reminded of from James 1 back at the start of the current shelter-in-place order. It is something we see brought to our attention again in this passage. While I won’t make quite as much direct application as I did back in that James sermon to our current circumstances, there is application to our current circumstances. And so, we will see this idea of faith at work and faith tested through trial as we consider this wealthy woman today in our passage. Note, that while this woman has a husband and he seems to also be a man of faith, this passage does not center its attention on him. While there are many passages in the Bible that feature godly men, today we are greeted with another wonderful passage about a woman of faith.
Let us begin then today by seeing the faith at work of this wealthy woman in terms of her hospitality. She will have opportunity to bless the prophet Elisha out of her riches. What a helpful contrast from last passage where Elisha was ministering to a poor woman. The work of ministry is not to favor rich or poor, as James 2 reminds. Elisha ministers to not only male and female, but also to rich and poor. I’m reminded of Jesus’ later rebuke of some scribes, that they would abuse poor widows by eating them out of house and home (Luke 20:47). But that’s not Elisha here. Last passage showed Elisha providing financially to a widow in her poverty. But here we see that when this woman has the financial means to provide for him, he gladly accepts her hospitality.
And that is exactly what she is doing. This wealthy woman is performing the righteous work of hospitality. We see the beginnings of this in verse 8. Whenever Elisha would be passing through, she would open up her home and give him a meal. That was very standard practice back then. Elisha’s ministry had an itinerant component to it. He had to travel around the nation meeting up with the various groups of disciples that were being formed – the various “sons of the prophets” that we’ve been seeing in all the cities. That was work Elijah began and Elisha had continued it. Yet, when prophet did such traveling ministry, they would typically need to rely on the hospitality of godly people. Most immediately, that would involve feeding the prophet. But another component of hospitality often included hosting the prophet for the night while they are in town. And so, we see then in verse 10 that this is what the wealthy woman and her husband begin to do. Based on her initiative and insight, she recognizes that Elisha’ work takes him regularly through their town of Shunem. So, she speaks with her husband and they make a small guest room for Elisha for whenever he is passing through.
Recognize that hospitality is a righteous thing in general. The Bible commands hospitality in various places, 1 Peter 4:9 as but one example of many. Hospitality is something good in general, and it is especially wonderful to be able to show such hospitality to a prophet. Such hospitality is a godly stewardship of what the LORD has provided, especially when it is being used to aid in the ministry of God’s word. Not only do we recognize that here, but we see in verse 9 that this is what the woman recognized too. She knew that Elisha was a “holy man of God” and so she wanted to do her part to bless such a ministry. In other words, it was her faith at work to feed and house Elisha. It was her faith demonstrated through works that wanted to make a return to the LORD of how much God had given her by blessing the prophet like this.
We can and should recognize that showing such hospitality can have many benefits that come with it. I remember that story of Mary and Martha in Luke 10 which demonstrated how showing hospitality can either become a burden or a blessing. That was when Mary and Martha had opened up their home to Jesus. Martha had made it into a burden by being overly concerned about the serving, being anxious and troubled about many things. Mary had prioritized visiting with Jesus and learning from him. Jesus lovingly admonishes Martha that given those two options, Mary had chosen the better portion. Well, with this wealthy woman in our passage, having hosted Elisha like this would be an opportunity for much blessing. It would give her opportunity to benefit more closely from his ministry among them. That very point is demonstrated in contrast when she has this emergency arise and the prophet is not in town and she has to travel a long distance to go to him. But obviously when he was nearby, not only in town but in the upstairs of her home, his proximity would be a blessing to her and her family. Of course, to see the prophet being with them as a blessing and not a burden is also an expression of one’s faith.
That leads us then to the second point I’d like us to consider today. Let’s look next at Elisha’s desire to reward this woman for her hospitality. We see that desire in verse 12. He wants to reward her for all the trouble she’s gone to for them. His words recognize that her hospitality has been not only toward Elisha but also toward his servant Gehazi. His words recognize the reality that hospitality does bring with it a burden. Despite the exhortation that we mentioned from Jesus to Martha, there is absolutely a burden component amidst the blessing. Common sense recognizes that. This verse recognizes that. And so, in return, Elisha wants to bless the woman. He suggests some possible things he might be able to do for her. He could put in a good word for her with the king, for example. However, the woman declines those offers. She says she has everything she needs there living with her own people. As a side note, interestingly, there will yet come a time in the future when this woman will need a good word to the King. We’ll see that in chapter 8 and in fact Gehazi will deliver that good word that Elisha had offered here. And it will be a blessing to her then. But for now, she doesn’t have any such need at the moment.
So then, Elisha is not satisfied with that answer. He wants to bless and reward her. So then, he does some brainstorming with his servant Gehazi. Gehazi has a great idea in verse 14 – she has no son and her husband is old. This implies that a natural conception of a child is unlikely. This information is cluing us in to the fact that it is a miracle that she gets pregnant and has a son. And so, Elisha then informs that that in a year she will have a son. We see her glad response by her interesting words in verse 16. She said, “No, my lord, O man of God; do not lie to your servant.” That’s almost a strange response but the idea is basically that she thinks his words are too good to be true. But it’s implied that if they were true, she would gladly welcome such a gift! Of course, having a son meant having an heir and also the family line would continue on into the next generation. Having a son and then grandchildren would often become a safety-net for a woman late in life if she becomes a widow. And, of course, there is a joy in having children!
We might note at this point that the idea of God rewarding godliness, in some sense, is a theme throughout the Bible. We could point to, for example, the blessings and curses held out under the Mosaic Covenant. Deuteronomy 28 lists those in great detail, describing the degree of blessing that would come upon obedience for Israel, and the degree of cursing that would come upon Israel for disobedience. Certainly, this idea is present in Jesus’ teaching on laboring to build up heavenly treasure versus earthly treasure in Matthew 6. Likewise, in the Beatitudes, Jesus says that we have great reward in heaven for enduring persecution as a Christian. On the flip side, Jesus says one could lose a heavenly reward from God by getting rewarded here and now by men if we do our acts of godliness for the purpose of being seen by men. Ultimately, 2 Corinthians 5:10 speaks that everyone will stand before the judgment seat of God and receive what is due to them for their actions, whether good or bad. As a side not, that truth alone is why we need the grace of God in Jesus Christ in order to stand on that last day!
The topic of rewards is a big subject in itself, with some mystery, but we can certainly see that there is a principle where God’s character is demonstrated as one who wants to commend good deeds. By way of analogy, I think of how 1 Peter 2:14 says that the civil government’s job includes punishing evildoers and commending those who do good. That is fitting for authorities to so treat their subjects. Surely, that reflects the very thing God does toward us the humans that he rules over. God’s character is such to commend godliness and punish wickedness. Elisha’s heart to bless this wealthy woman for her hospitality is reflecting God’s heart to commend such behavior.
We might note that what sometimes makes us uneasy as Christians about rewards is the following: One, we know that our righteous deeds are never good enough on our own. They always fall short of the perfect obedience we know God deserves of us. Two, we know that any good deeds we do are ultimately just us doing our duty (Luke 17:10 makes that point). To be rewarded for our basic duties seems unnecessary. Three, we know that any good deeds we do, in light of our fallen nature, is due to the Spirit of God working within us. It seems a bit strange to be rewarded for a good deed that we couldn’t have done and wouldn’t have done apart from God’s sanctifying work of his Spirit within us. Four, like in the case with this woman, often our good deeds are making use of other God-given blessings. This woman couldn’t have blessed Elisha like this if God hadn’t first blessed her with wealth. Yet, despite these facts, it is part of God’s character to so reward imperfect, yet grace-wrought, good deeds and godly stewardship of his gifts. Surely this is not just God’s character to do so, but it is part of how he sanctifies us. As his Spirit prompts and promotes godliness, and we do them and find positive blessings and rewards that flow from them, then we are encouraged that good deeds are in fact good!
More could be said on such a topic, but maybe we can note that ultimately it shows that heaven must be earned. But since we fall short in that, we are thankful that Christ has earned it for us. God has rewarded the perfect active and passive obedience by giving us to Christ as an inheritance and bestowing upon him a kingdom which he makes us a part of. So, in various ways, God’s rewards serve to highlight his righteousness and his grace.
But I digress. For here, we see that God through Elisha does indeed reward this woman’s hospitality. Verse 17 reports the miracle of her conception and subsequent birth, according to the word of the LORD through Elisha. That sets us up then to consider our third and final point for today. To speak of the topic of death and resurrection as it pertains to the boy and to us.
We find this ordeal of death in verses 18-20. The boy has some pain in his head and ultimately dies in his mother’s lap. How terribly sad for this mother. Yet, we see that this becomes a test for her faith. She immediately springs into action. Her first step is to place the boy on Elisha’s bed. That begins to show her hope in the power of God in and through Elisha. Shen then heads out right away to Mt. Carmel where she apparently knows Elisha to be, verse 25. Realize that from her town of Shunem to Mt. Carmel was probably something in the 20 mile range. To get up and go like that shows her desperate urgency, but again it also shows her faith because she is willing to go that far to the prophet of the LORD. We also see that she goes in haste, according to verse 24 – she commands for the donkeys to be urged on their pace!
Along the way she is twice given an opportunity to explain the situation. First to her husband, and then second to Elisha’s servant Gehazi. In both instances, she replies that “all is well.” That might seem like an interesting answer. In her urgency, she might not want to spend time talking to anyone who can’t help her. It also might seem like a disingenuous response – in a very real way all is not well. But assuming the best from the text, we could understand her words from the perspective of faith. All is well indeed if she can immediately go to the LORD through Elisha to find help. As her words imply in verse 28, she presumes God would not have given her a son to just take him away like this. And so, at this point, in the hope of her faith, she can say “all is well.” As she speeds toward Elisha, the hope that God would give aid through him means that in faith she can say “all is well.” That’s how I choose to understand her words there.
So then, she makes her plea to Elisha for the boy’s life. Elisha shows great concern. He immediately sends his servant Gehazi with his staff to the boy with orders to go in haste and lay it on the dead boy. But the woman won’t leave Elisha’s side to go with Gehazi. She demands to stay and cling with Elisha. So then Elisha and her go together to her boy, while Gehazi speeds ahead first. Apparently, Gehazi was able to make the trip quicker than Elisha could. But the point about the woman wanting to cling to Elisha only further shows her faith. Her faith is bound up in Elisha because she knows God’s power is with him.
So then, this is where the story gets a bit strange. Gehazi goes and places the staff on the boy and detects no change in him. Then Elisha finally arrives and prays and stretches himself out on the boy two times. You might recall, the Elijah’s resurrection of the boy of the widow at Zarephath involved him stretching himself out three times on the boy accompanied with prayer. So then, here, after Elisha’s first time stretching out on the boy, there is some warmth returned to the body. After the second time, the boy then sneezes 7 times, opens his eyes, and he is alive!
These interesting details are not explained. They are therefore beyond my ability to definitively explain them. But I will offer some tentative reflections on them. First, it is often assumed that Gehazi’s efforts with the staff were unsuccessful. Jewish legend embellishes the story by saying that Gehazi didn’t follow Elisha’s instructions and even stopped along the way to resurrect a dog, and thus used up the staff’s power. I am not convinced by that legend at all – it just sounds like a fanciful folktale. Rather, I’m inclined to think that Gehazi’s efforts were more effective than they at first look – in a certain sense. Gehazi lays Elisha’s staff out on the boy while Elisha himself hurries to get there. The staff seems to represent Elisha because once Elisha does arrive, he places his own body upon the boy, just like the staff had been put upon the boy. When we remember that Elijah had to stretch himself out 3 times to raise the widow’s boy, we realize that’s essentially what happens here too. Elisha is also stretched out on the boy three times – if you count his staff on the boy as the first time. That first time was representatively performed via Elisha’s staff on the boy. Then two more times physically by Elisha and then the boy is raised.
The fact that Elisha first sends Gehazi is actually somewhat reminiscent of Jesus in Luke 7 where just before raising the widow from Nain’s son, Jesus heals a near-death servant of a Roman centurion. The centurion doesn’t ask Jesus to physically come, but just say the word and the centurion knows he will be healed. The centurion explains how he himself orders his servants and his command is then carried out by his servants. Jesus does what the centurion asks and commends him for such faith – faith that Jesus says is not even present among Israel. As much as this wealthy woman in today’s passage shows faith, by her clinging with Elisha, instead of going with Gehazi, suggests that her faith is not as great as that centurion. But I digress.
As to why it took Elisha 3 attempts to resurrect the boy, well, one possibility is that it was simultaneously an illustration of what God was doing among Israel. Let me explain that with an analogous example. In Mark 8 we see Jesus takes two attempts to heal a blind man. The first attempt only gave a partial recovery of sight. The second time healed him to see clearly. Jesus surely didn’t need two takes to heal the man, so he must have done it intentionally. Well, in the context of Mark’s gospel, it seems likely that Jesus healed the man that way to simultaneously reflect what was going on with the disciples. They had to learn some lessons a second time before they began to see clear enough to recognize that Jesus is the Messiah. Well, maybe something similar is going on here. Elijah and Elisha themselves are repeat ministries to try to raise Israel from its spiritual death. There has begun to be some life – some warmth – starting to return to Israel under Elisha’s ministry when they still seemed cold and dead under Elijah’s ministry. But it doesn’t seem they’ve fully come back from the dead yet. So, maybe these 3 attempt resurrections are simultaneously illustrating the spiritual estate of Israel as a nation.
As for why the boy had to sneeze 7 times. Well, all I have to say is that there may be some theme of recreation being involved here. Interestingly, Elijah had to pray 7 times for the rain to return and God’s curse lifted. Elisha will later tell Naaman he has to dip in the Jordan river 7 times to be cleansed. This sneezing may reflect a removal of whatever disease was in his head that had killed him. But I don’t have more to say at this point about the sneezing.
So, beyond what we don’t know about the manner of this resurrection, what we can say clearly is that this was another foretaste of glory. This boy was resurrected like how in glory all God’s people will be raised to a new better life. But it was only a foretaste because the boy’s resurrection was only temporary. He eventually grew up and lived his life and died again. He yet awaits the final resurrection along with all the saints. Likewise, Jesus’ similar miracles served the same function of a foretaste of glory. Jesus’ miracle in Luke 7 to raise the widow’s son at Nain especially comes to mind. Nain was immediately adjacent to the town of Shunem. The geographical proximity makes us think of both these resurrections of sons. We are encouraged to compare and contrast them. Despite there similarities, one major difference between the two miracles is that while Elisha prays fervently for the boy at Shunem to rise, Jesus merely commands the boy at Nain to rise – and he does! Jesus shows there that he is the resurrection and the life and that those who put their trust in him, though they die, yet will they live.
That is the hope we must all have again today. The foretaste of this resurrection in today’s passage is only useful to us if we all find that same hope of resurrection in Jesus. Elisha’s ministry looked toward the greater ministry of Jesus. Jesus came after Elijah and Elisha to complete the work of resurrecting a dead people to bring them new life in himself. Israel might have had some warmth under the ministry of Elisha, but they fully awake and are recreated from their uncleanness and arise in Jesus! As Elijah and Elisha’ stretching out on the boy demonstrated a union with the boys, that’s even more so with Jesus dying on the cross in our place. Their stretching themselves out upon those boys would have normally made them unclean under the law – you became temporarily unclean by touching a dead body. But God miraculously made the unclean clean by raising the boys from the dead. So too, Jesus took on our uncleanness on the cross to make us clean eternally. So then, we are united with Christ in his death and in his resurrection unto the glory of everlasting life.
May this sure hope enable us to join with the woman and say, “All is well.” No matter the circumstances of our life – whether pandemics assail us or sorrows like sea billows roll, whatever our lot in life, may we be able to say, “All is well.” This is our faith at work and our faith being tested through trials. If you are in Christ, you can say, no matter what befalls you, “It is well with my soul.” Amen.
Copyright © 2020 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.