A Famine in the Land

Sermon preached on 2 Kings 4:38-44 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Lord’s Day Online Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 05/10/2020 in Novato, CA.

Sermon Manuscript

I’ve been enjoying the providential fact that many of our Bible passages lately through 2 Kings have lent themselves to some helpful application for living through a pandemic. Yes, a pandemic is not identical with a famine as we see in today’s passage. But there are certainly enough similarities to warrant some helpful application.

Let’s begin then with verse 38 and talk about the context of a famine. That’s the background for the events in today’s passage. There was yet again a famine in the land of Israel. Why was there a famine in the land? That was an important question if you were an Israelite living in the Promised Land under the terms of the Mosaic covenant. What I mean is that when God brought Israel into the Promised Land, he gave them a special promise that it would be a land of milk and honey for them. It was to be a sort of earthly paradise – a type and foretaste of the glory of the age to come. But that foretaste came under the condition that they carefully kept the many laws of the Mosaic Covenant. As they were faithful to the covenant, God sent many forms of blessing, including things like storms to water the earth at the right time and a bountiful harvest. When they were not faithful, God would send the covenant curses upon the land, which included things like drought and famine. The greatest covenant curse would be removal from the land through exile to an enemy nation. We can find these terms for the Mosaic covenant outlined in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28. One that is especially fitting in this chapter, is that Leviticus 26:26 speaks of how Israel would end up having to ration what small amount of bread is available, so that everyone will eat but no one will be satisfied. Clearly here, due to the recent sins of Israel, they were experiencing this famine.

Now let me add a clarification here. Not every famine in the world can be directly attributed to some recent specific sin of a people. Things were rather unique for Israel under the terms of the Mosaic Covenant. God did not say that he would offer those same exact blessings and curses for all nations in all times and places. True, there is a general truth that God rewards righteousness and punishes wickedness. However, books like Ecclesiastes and Job warn us against an overly simplistic application of such a principle. The bottom line is that the Mosaic Covenant’s arrangement of blessings and curses to Israel in the Promised Land was not given as a universal promise to the world. Rather, if you are looking for a more universally given “promise” from God concerning the fruit of the field, go to Genesis 3:17-19. There, in light of mankind’s fall into sin, God cursed the earth and said that it will only be through much pain, sweat, and toil amidst thorns and thistles that we humans will eat our bread from the land. So, in general, when we find things like famine in a land, it not necessarily something we can directly relate back to a specific sin of that land. It might be, but apart from special revelation to tell us such, we should be careful not to be presumptuous in our speech. However, what we can say for sure whenever any famine comes upon the earth is that it is part of the ramifications of the curse from Genesis 3 when mankind fell into sin. We live in a world generally under the judgment and curse of God because of human sin. So then, every famine is ultimately a result of human sin in general, but not necessarily tied some specific occurrence of sin. We can say the same for pandemics.

It was actually that overall curse that had begun to be mitigated to God’s people through the Mosaic covenant. This was not in the full, and it was only as they were faithful to the covenant. But as they were unfaithful, God began to enact the sanctions of the covenant that included famine. And so, when we see such famine in the context of our passage here with Israel, we would be right to see it as a result of the nation of Israel turning away from their God. That’s the role we see so often of the prophets, coming as covenant lawyers to declare the covenant curses upon Israel for their waywardness.

Well, with that background on the covenant curse of famine, notice what we see in that regard here. We see that the faithful among Israel were not ordinarily immune to those covenant curses. Here we see a company of Elisha’s disciples who are being affected by the famine. True, there are sometimes where God’s people have been kept from experiencing the curses that he is putting on the wicked among them. I think of some of the ten plagues during Israel’s time of Egyptians slavery. The Bible records specifically how God spared Israel from some of them. Like when God sent the plagues of flies and hail, such came upon all Egypt except for the town of Goshen where the Israelites dwelt. Yet, often God has allowed the faithful remnant among his people to experience the covenant curses alongside the rest of disobedient people. I think later of the example of Daniel who is exiled to Babylon as part of the covenant curses put upon Judah, despite the fact that he was a faithful servant of the LORD. This is a reminder that there was a corporate aspect to these covenant blessings and curses. And so then, we see here that these sons of the prophets were not immune to the effects of the famine.

While that is true ordinarily, this passage goes on to show God’s miraculous provision for these disciples during the famine. Again, the ordinary experience would be that they would suffer through the famine along with the rest of the nation. But here through the prophet Elisha, God miraculously intrudes some of the blessings of heaven into their situation. Here, he mitigates some of the effects of the famine upon them. That is in fact what ties together both of the miracles described in our passage for today. If you look closely, you see there are really two scenes in our text for today. The first scene is in verses 38-41 regarding the miracle to solve the death in the pot. The second scene is in verses 42-44 regarding the miracle to deal with the insufficiency of the received grain offering to feed all the disciples. Both miracles deal with God providing sustenance to his disciples during this famine. Praise God for his mercy here.

Let’s look next then at this scene concerning the death in the pot. I can’t help but find the outburst of verse 40 a bit comical, “There is death in the pot!” But if I were to actually put myself in their shoes, I’d surely find it less comical for various reasons. Observe the details here. It’s Elisha who specifically directs his servant – likely Gehazi – to get a pot of stew boiling for the disciples. One of them then goes out into the field to gather herbs for the stew and finds a wild vine and gathers a bunch of wild gourds from it. He cuts them up and puts them in the stew. It says that he didn’t know what they were, verse 39. Now, in retrospect, that disciple probably shouldn’t have thrown gourds into the soup that he didn’t know were safe to eat. On the other hand, they were surely very hungry and the prospect a soup of just herbs probably didn’t seem as appealing. The mistake aside, they were now faced with an issue. There is now death in the pot.

A question that is often asked here is if there was really death in the pot or if this was just an exaggerated outburst in response to the taste. In other words, was the soup actually full of poisonous gourds that could kill them or was it just that the wild gourds made the soup really disgusting tasting. While I could imagine the tone of voice of someone who was just complaining about the taste, I don’t think the context sufficiently warrants that view. While it may not completely rule out such an interpretation, the word for “death” in verse 40 and then the word for “harm” in the pot in verse 41 suggest that there was something inedible about the gourds that could harm them physically. Also, the fact that this was highlighted as a miracle seems to imply that they were being saved from physical harm while also allowing them to be fed and nourished during that famine with this stew that otherwise would have gone to waste.

It is interesting that Elisha solves the issue with having some flour being thrown into the soup. We are again told the means of a miracle in these Elijah-Elisha narratives but not told the significance of it. It again is a miracle where God provides through the use of whatever meager resources his people do have. But maybe more so, the use of flour reminds us back to how Elijah had helped provide for the widow of Zarephath during a famine by making her flour jar become unending during the famine. Yet comparisons between Elijah and Elisha often help to note differences too. We might recall that back when Elijah helped feed that widow during the famine, he was helping to feed a Gentile woman. We remarked back then that the fact that God took care of a Gentile during the famine, instead of taking care of Israelites, was to make Israel become jealous unto repentance. Well then, now Elisha is ministering unto this growing number of faithful disciples among Israel. You can’t help but think that God’s provoking Israel to jealousy had had some success. God now through Elisha miraculously feeds repentant Israelites like he had provided before for the Gentile widow of Zarephath.

Sadly, during Jesus’ ministry, this pattern begins to reverse itself. In Luke 4, Jesus references Elijah’s past feeding of that widow at Zarephath in a way to make this point that God had fed a Gentile over Israelites to provoke them to jealousy. Yet Jesus, like Elisha here, stood there ministering to Israelites. Those Israelites hearing Jesus had the opportunity to rejoice that God was then sending them his word through Jesus. Instead, Jesus’ earthly ministry is largely rejected by the Israelites. Yes, many did receive him, but most did not. So then, Jesus sent the gospel out to Gentiles. Yet, praise God that as Paul explains in Romans 11, this is to ultimately serve the purpose of yet awakening many Israelites to jealousy again and therefore to repentance in Jesus Christ. Elisha’s ministry to feed Israelites after Elijah’s ministry to feed Gentiles showed the fruit of this jealousy-to-repentance dynamic. That same hope is continuing to be worked out today as the gospel of Christ is converting Gentiles and in turn some Israelites are becoming “jealous” and also turning to Jesus to be saved. The end result in glory is a people made up of both elect Israelites and Gentiles whom God will feed and nourish for eternity!

Let’s look now at the second scene starting in verse 42. We see there a man coming from the nearby town of Baal-shalishah to bring the man of God a firstfruits offering, both in the form of some loaves of bread and some fresh ears of grain. This is interesting for a few reasons. The firstfruits offering was commanded by the Mosaic Covenant. It was part of the different acts of worship God’s people were supposed be doing. The idea was that you gave some of the first ripening fruits of your harvest unto the LORD. Now normally, that was supposed to be offered at the temple in Jerusalem. But, of course, since the time of King Jeroboam, Israel had been discouraged from going to Jerusalem to worship. That’s why they setup the shrines at Bethel and Dan, to try to get people to worship there instead. Yet, this disciple doesn’t go to Bethel or Dan to offer his firstfruits offering. Rather, he sees it appropriate to bring it directly to Elisha. Elisha doesn’t object. Given that there were no Levites in the northern kingdom anymore, the Spirit-filled prophet Elisha seemed like the closest way to keep the spirit of the law in Israel. In fact, if you think about that the notion of the temple is that it was the location of God among the people – well, there is a sense in which Elisha is painted as being the presence of God among Israel – as the bearer of the Spirit in power.

As a side application, I might note that this man was giving this firstfruits offering during the time of a famine. He could have been selfish and said he better just keep this food for himself and his family. He might have had a protectionist, hording mentality. But in faithfulness to God, he didn’t sacrifice righteousness out of undue concern for self-interest. His sought to live how God would have him to live. Surely there are applications there for us too under this current COVID-19 pandemic.

So, this worshipper brings his offering of firstfruits to Elisha. Elisha then directs that it be given to the men. This is likely the same sons of the prophets mentioned in the previous scene. Notice his servant’s reply verse in 43 – likely Gehazi. “How can I set this before a hundred men?” In other words, as generous as this offering was, it was insufficient to feed that many people.

Elisha responds with the word of the LORD. That’s how verse 44 describes his response. He says that the meal should be served and that not only would it be enough for everyone, but that it would be too much! They would have leftovers. This is again being painted as a miracle. They didn’t just stretch the food out to make it last. They all ate and were satisfied. They all ate until they were full, and there was still food leftover.

We should not miss the similarity here with Jesus. Jesus twice performed such a miracle with his disciples as he taught them. But for Jesus it wasn’t just a hundred men, it was at one point 5,000, and another point 4,000. And in both instances, Jesus had less initial starting food to feed that many people, 5 loaves and 2 small fish for the 5,000 and 7 loaves and a few small fish for the 4,000. And in both instances, there were a lot of leftovers – twelve baskets one time and
seven large baskets another time.

You can appreciate then the rebuke of Jesus to his 12 disciples when later after those miracles that they were concerned that they had no bread. Jesus rebukes them and reminds them of the two miracles of feeding the 5,000 and the 4,000. He specifically mentions how he started with so little food and it resulted in so much leftovers. He asks them, “Do you not yet understand?”

What they were supposed to understand is that a great prophet sent by God was among them. More than that — they were ultimately to recognize that he was the promised Messiah. Obviously, when Elisha here did this miracle to feed so many with so little, it affirmed he was a man sent by God. How much more so when Jesus did these even greater versions of this same sort of miracle. That fact is very important for what Jesus then taught the people after he fed them miraculously. When after feeding the 5,000, many of them came back the next day for more food. And Jesus told them that what they really needed was to eat him. He said he was the Bread of Life that comes down from heaven. Now, Jesus was speaking spiritually, not physically. He wasn’t advocating cannibalism as has sometimes been misunderstood. Jesus told them, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life.” He said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” Jesus is saying his miracles to multiply physical food were ultimately signs to teach them that they needed a “food” to satisfy their souls. Jesus says that he is that food. He is the sustenance for the soul of man. Whomever would have their hearts feast on Jesus will find their souls satisfied in abundance. If this is true of these even greater miracles of Jesus, it is certainly the ultimate application for Elisha’s miracle here too to multiply food for his disciples.

Yes, God does ultimately care that we are fed not only spiritually but physically. In glory, that will be a feature of it – that we will never lack for food again. That’s what is pictured in that vision of Revelation 22 with the tree of life with fruit always in season. But we won’t ever get there if we haven’t first nourished our souls with Jesus Christ. If you haven’t already, embrace Jesus Christ today as your Lord and Savior. Receive him as the Bread of Life and the Living Water. Stop trying to find your soul’s satisfaction elsewhere. Find your meaning in life as a disciple of Jesus Christ.

Trinity Presbyterian Church, I’ll conclude our sermon today with an application to look to “feed” one another. Feed your fellow disciples of Christ. Let me be clear that I’m using that language figuratively and spiritually. We each have been given spiritual gifts to use in nurturing and nourishing and building up one another.
When Jesus did the five thousand, he told his 12 disciples, “You give them something to eat.” He involved his disciples in the miracle. Likewise, you will notice that God through Elisha also used disciples in the process of feeding the others in both of these miracles. In the one case, it was a disciple who went to gather the herbs and gourds for the pot of stew. In the other case, it was this brother who brought the firstfruits offering that was set before the disciples. Elisha involved these disciples in how he worked the miracle to feed so many.

Yet, you’ll note that in both cases, the contribution of the disciples fell short of meeting the need. The one disciple accidently provided bad food for the stew. Surely, he was trying to serve in good conscience, but made a mistake. The other disciple who brought his firstfruits offering surely gave a plentiful offering, but it nonetheless was not enough. He can hardly be faulted for that, but it doesn’t change the facts that it was not enough. And so, in both instances, God through Elisha redeems and multiplies the labors of these disciples who were looking to serve and bless their fellow disciples. The brother who brought bad gourds might have feared that his labor was in vain. The brother who brought the sacrifice might have thought his gift insufficient or not valuable enough. Ps. 90:17 speaks of the desire for God to bless our labors. Psalm 90:17 says, “Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands upon us; yes, establish the work of our hands!” God through Elisha establishes the work of these disciples in their service to help feed one another.

Let us take encouragement that as we look to “feed one another” that it is the LORD who blesses and establishes and sometimes even redeems our work. Of course, the point is not that we should just foolishly conduct our work for the Lord and presume upon God’s mercy to fix our mistakes. No, we ought to look to conduct our labors in wisdom, knowledge, and prudence. Likewise, we shouldn’t give meagerly to the LORD and presume that he will multiply what we weren’t willing to give. Rather, we should be generous in our service. But sometimes we do our best and still make mistakes. Sometimes we give our most and it still is not enough. Let us take encouragement in seeing how God can use and establish our labors even in the ways they fall short. Again, I am not suggesting he will work miraculously through our labors like he did in this passage. But what God does miraculously in this passage is not only a sign that foresignifies the blessing of glory, it also teaches us of his character toward us right now. That character includes a desire to use the labors of his people to build up his church. So, as we strive for excellence in our service to God, let us look to his excellence to prosper our labors unto glory. Amen.

Copyright © 2020 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.

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