Sermon preached on 2 Kings 5 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Lord’s Day Online Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 05/17/2020 in Novato, CA.
This is one of the stories that Jesus references in the New Testament. He mentions that Elisha didn’t cure any lepers in all Israel, but instead this Syrian. If we were unfamiliar with the history of Israel at this time, we might miss why that might have been especially troublesome to some Israelites. The Syrians weren’t just another nation. At that time, they were enemy number one for Israel. At the end of 1 Kings we saw heated confrontations between King Ben-hadad of Sryia and King Ahab of Israel. Ahab even died in a battle with Sryia. We might also recall that God had told Elijah that he was to anoint Hazael to be King of Syria whom God would then use as a hand of judgment. That hadn’t even happened yet at this point in the timeline. It would yet be Elisha who would commission Hazael in just a few chapters. In fact, the next few chapters will show more Syrian war efforts against Israel. And so, this is not just any Gentile being healed of leprosy, it is a Syrian – Israel’s chief enemy of the time. If you were an Israelite at the time, what would you think of God healing a Syrian while your nation suffers under them? More importantly, what would God want you to think about this?
With that background, let us dig into our first point by looking at the first scene of our passage. I draw your attention to the first five verses. This is where we learn of the background of Naaman, of his condition of leprosy, and how he finds hope for a cure through an Israelite slave girl. Verse 1 then gives us the background of Naaman. Not only is he a Syrian, but he is very powerful and influential Syrian, described as a mighty man of valor. More specifically, we learn that he is the army commander for the Syrians. Think by analogy the role of Joab as army commander during King David’s days. This is not only one of the top leaders in Syria, but he’s the head of the army – you know, the army that has been constantly afflicting your nation. This isn’t just another citizen of Syria – it’s probably one of the names you heard a lot in the news and had grown to fear whenever you hear it. And not only had he served in this role, but he had been very successful in his service as Syria’s army commander. Verse 1 speaks of how pleased the king of Syria was with his service because of the great military success Syria has had under his leadership. Notice why Naaman has had such success according to verse 1. It was because of the LORD. The LORD had given victory to Syria by Naaman’s hand.
Realize that at this point, this is not something the Naaman would have recognized let alone acknowledged. Presumably at this point in the story, Naaman worships the false god of his master, this Rimmon mentioned later in the text. But the God of Israel, the one true God over all, had given victory to this pagan army commander Naaman. Surely that would have infuriated many Israelites to hear that God gave the Syrians the victory. But it was the truth. God is behind all the affairs of human history. No nation has a victory, no leader rises to power, without God ordaining it in his inscrutable providence. Yet, despite God prospering Naaman in so many ways, he did have one blight. He had leprosy.
Well, if anyone among Israel would have reason to hate Syrians in general, and Naaman in particular, it would be this young girl we are introduced to in verse 2. She had suffered at the hand of the Syrian military as a victim of one of their military raids. It’s quite possible that her parents were killed in that raid. She herself was captured and carried off back to Syria. There, she was made a servant girl of Naaman’s wife. That such a thing could happen to a daughter of Israel reminds us that the nation was under God’s curse for their great rebellion against the LORD. Yet, this young girl personally appears to have at least some knowledge and faith in the LORD. She shows mercy and kindness to her master here. Despite the circumstances that resulted in her capture and servitude, she looks to serve commendably in her circumstances. We can remember the similar example of the patriarch Joseph who both in the house of Potiphar and in prison served in righteousness in the midst of his trying circumstances. Despite the injustice that brought him to such a position of servitude, he served as unto the LORD and God prospered him in those circumstances and he won favor in the eyes of his earthly masters. Likewise, we can think about to what the prophet Jeremiah later would tell those Jewish exiles in Babylon. He told them, in Jeremiah 29:7, “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” This young girl commendably did that here for her earthly master. So then, we see in verse 3 that she tells her master, Naaman’s wife, “Would that my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.” She casts any hatred aside for the Syrians, and her captors specifically, and shows compassion and points them to the power of God who can heal even of leprosy.
So then, Naaman takes that advise, and with probably a little bit of faith and surely a lot of hope, goes to his king with the information. He gets officially sent by the king of Syria to go to the Israelite king with a request to be healed. He goes with a huge gift for his would-be healer — ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten changes of clothing.
That brings us to consider the next major scene in this passage in verses 6-19. We go from Syria now to Israel. There Naaman meets with the King of Israel with this official letter from the Syrian King. This is presumably King Jehoram. The King’s response is interesting albeit sad. He tears his clothes and believes Syria is just trying to instigate another fight with them. The situation between Syria and Israel is apparently currently in a momentary state of a cold war – no active battle at the very moment but circumstances remain tense and a new battle could break out at any moment. But the sad part is that he doesn’t think to call for Elisha. Instead, it’s Elisha who hears of the king’s response and takes the initiative to reach out the king and have Naaman sent to him. I love the reason Elisha says Naaman should come to him. Verse 8, “That he may know that there is a prophet in Israel.” That’s a lesson apparently that the king of Israel himself needs to learn as well. The young slave girl seems to have known more about the hope in Israel than the King of Israel did!
So then, Naaman visits Elisha and at first becomes very offended by Elisha’s response to him. Naaman is angry that the prophet doesn’t come out to meet him personally. Elisha just sends instructions through his servant for Naaman to wash seven times in the Jordan river and he’ll be cleansed of the leprosy. Naaman seems to have some sinful pride there at first. Naaman also seems to expect Elisha to operate a certain way because that’s probably how the pagan prophets in Syria would have acted. But Elisha will operate differently because he is a prophet of the LORD. As a side note, we can think of how unbelievers today sometimes also expect God to operate on their terms. How many times today, do unbelievers get upset at the Bible’s claims on their live. They sometimes say things like, “If God wants me to believe in him, then he should personally appear to me.” But their arrogance tries to demand of God what is not theirs to demand. God doesn’t relate to people on their terms, but on his own.
And so, Elisha offers the grace of God to Namaan via a messenger, but it’s held out through a test of faith. Naaman won’t be able to buy a healing with all the gifts that he brought. But he will be required to exercise faith by following these simple instructions. And so then, Naaman’s servants talk some sense into Naaman when, at first, he wants to reject Elisha’s instructions. They show him that if Elisha had given him some grand quest to accomplish, he would have surely done it. But since he had been given such a small thing, would he not be willing to do it? It’s a very fitting test of faith, because it requires not only faith but also humility, but in a way that would ultimately show that Naaman’s healing would be about grace. If Naaman had to do some great thing to gain the healing, he might have given some credit to himself for the healing. But, no, Elisha’s instructions will emphasize grace. And by having him wash in an Israelite river, it would emphasize to Naaman’s thinking that it was the God of Israel that gave him the healing.
And so Naaman finally complies, and he is in fact healed! The requirement for seven dips not only promotes persistent faith, but likely expresses a recreation theme. This is a sort of baptism for Naaman and he is washed and made anew through his time in the Joran. Clearly, this resulted not only in healed skin, but also a cleansed heart. His worship of a false god got washed away in the process. It’s as Elisha had predicted – this miraculous cleansing would result in Naaman recognizing the glory of the one true God. Look at his grand confession in verse 15. Namaan says to Elisha after being healed, “Behold, I know that there is no God in all the earth but in Israel.” What a wonderful thing from the perspective of redemptive history to see a Gentile recanting his pagan beliefs and professing faith in the one true God. We know that not only is there no God in all the earth but in Israel, but we also know that there is a God for all the earth in Israel – for all who would come unto him in faith and humility. Well then, here, it’s clear that Naaman intends to be an ongoing worshipper of the one true God. That’s clear from his request to take back some of the earth of Israel so he could worship on it as a reflection of his devotion to the God of Israel. In his old man, he spurned an Israelite river. Now, in his new man he prizes Israelite land. This is why he also asks in advance for pardon when he continues to serve his king and help his king when his king worships in the temple of Rimmon. Naaman is clarifying that his helping of his king doesn’t mean that he’s worshipping Rimmon. No, from now on Naaman will worship the LORD! So then, it was not just Naaman’s body that washed, but also his heart! We can think of how Jesus himself in healing lepers in the New Testament also pointed beyond the outward cleansing to the need for someone to be cleansed in the heart. Well, that happens here with Naaman.
In the joy and gratitude of the heart, Naaman wants to give a gift – a blessing – to Elisha. Presumably Naaman offers him the entire large amount of silver, gold, and fine clothing that he had brought. Naaman urges Elisha to take it. But Elisha won’t. Now, I don’t see anything wrong with Naaman’s desire. I presume it is a genuine reflection of his gratitude. But for Elisha’s ministry purposes, he refuses. Surely, he didn’t want to muddy the picture of grace by making Naaman in any way think he had to compensate God for God’s gift of healing. More so, we see later in this passage that Elisha didn’t think it was the time to receive such gifts, verse 26.
That leads us then to consider the final scene in our passage for today in verses 20 through 27. We might have assumed the story would be over after Naaman left Elisha. But then there’s an important twist. This twist is sort of like how the parable of the prodigal son doesn’t end with the prodigal son being restored, but with the angry older brother being admonished by the father for his lack of mercy toward his returned brother. Or like how the book of Jonah doesn’t end with Ninevah repenting at Jonah’s preaching, but goes on one more chapter to describe Jonah’s frustration with God’s mercy toward Ninevah. Something similar here is going on with this appendix about Gehazi. Basically, Gehazi disregards his master Elisha’s will and goes and extracts some riches from Naaman under false pretenses. He then lies about it to Elisha, swearing in the name of the LORD. Ultimately, God puts Naaman’s leprosy on Gehazi as punishment.
We might note that often Gehazi is accused here of greed. Surely, there is a component to that. Though, I might note that he does show significant restraint in terms of his request from Naaman. When we compare with what he asks for from Naaman compared to the whole lot that Naaman brought for a gift, it is only a small fraction of the whole: only a tenth of the silver and two tenths of the clothing and none of the gold. Naaman actually graciously gives Gehazi more than he asks. But the heart of Gehazi’s motivation is found in verse 20. We see there what Gehazi was saying to himself. Notice he says that Elisha “spared” this Naaman the Syrian. Elisha “spared” this Syrian. That’s subtle but pointed language. The Syrians have been the repeated enemies of Israel. Whatever current truce might be in place, these Syrians have not been Israel’s friends. Surely, Gehazi’s attitude is expressing the state of conflict between Israel and Syria. Surely, Gehazi thinks here what a lot of Israelites would have been thinking. How could Elisha let off so easily an evil Syrian like this? It’s bad enough that he healed him, but then to not take any of his money? Gehazi thinks its only fair to demand something from someone like this. And so, I think while greed has some part to Gehazi’s motivation, it seems he’s more concerned about the idea of showing such mercy to a Syrian. The very notion seems to anger Gehazi and the extracting of the treasure from Naaman helps him feel a little better about the situation.
Gehazi’s attitude is the contrast to the young servant girl at the start of the passage. In fact, the Hebrew more explicitly contrasts the two. While our English translation calls Gehazi the servant of Elisha, such as in verse 20, the Hebrew is actually that Gehazi is the “young man” of Elisha. It’s the same Hebrew word that is put in the feminine to describe the “young woman” in verse 2. Again, our English translation puts her as “little girl” but that gives a contrast that’s not in the Hebrew. The Hebrew is simply young woman and young man. The passage starts with a young woman who most deserved to hate Syrians but who instead has mercy toward one. The passage ends with a young man who under the tutelage of Elisha should have followed God’s lead to show mercy to this Syrian but instead has a certain hatred for him. Interestingly, this contract of a young person then comes between Naaman and Gehazi. When Naaman is healed of leprosy, verse 14 literally says the he has the flesh of a “young man” – the same exact word used to describe Gehazi. Gehazi of course, gets not only Naaman’s riches but his leprosy. It’s like Naaman and Gehazi exchange skin. Naaman is healed getting a young man’s skin, while Gehazi, as a punishment, gets Naaman’s leprous skin.
But notice what is Elisha’s concern to Gehazi here. By the way, we are reminded here that our secret sins are not secret to God. Elisha by the Spirit of God knows what Gehazi had tried to keep a secret. But notice what is at the heart of Elisha’s concern. He says it’s not the time to take such treasures like this. Interestingly, Elisha’s list of things that it’s not the time to take goes beyond the two things that Gehazi took. That suggests that Elisha’s point is making a larger comment beyond just this specific situation. Elisha’s comment is about the time that they are living in. It’s not the time for Gehazi or anyone to take such things.
What does Elisha mean by this? Often commentators explain Elisha to mean that this was supposed to be a time of grace shown to Naaman and that to take such a gift from him would distort that picture of grace. While I think that is a true point, I think Elisha has something more in mind about what kind of time they were in. Think about what is going on here at that time. God just graciously healed a Syrian leper whom God had been using to afflict Israel. There was absolutely a sense in which Gehazi should be provoked by that. All Israel when they hear of this should be provoked that God would show such kindness to not only to a Gentile, but to one of their biggest enemies. As Jesus pointed out, God wasn’t healing Israelite lepers that time, only this Syrian army commander. A commander who obviously is going back home to keep serving his king and that likely would mean further military campaigns against Israel. Next chapter shows Syria doing just that. There is a real sense that this should upset an Israelite. It should provoke them to anger and it should also provoke them to jealousy that God would show mercy to the Syrians over Israel.
Do you see where I am going with this yet? Moses had prophesied of this in his Song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32. Moses prophesied that one day Israel would forsake God and provoke him to anger and jealousy by their idolatry and by going after gods that were no gods. So, God said in return, he would provoke Israel to anger and jealousy by going after peoples that weren’t a people. Deut. 32:21, “They have made me jealous with what is no god; they have provoked me to anger with their idols. So I will make them jealous with those who are no people; I will provoke them to anger with a foolish nation.” You see, Elisha knows that this is the time they are living in! Gehazi should have recognized this. But unlike the way Elisha served Elijah, Gehazi was no Elisha. But do you see now why it wasn’t a time for taking in riches from the Gentiles? Gehazi was supposed to be angry and jealous. But the wrong response was to try to afflict the Gentiles that God had shown mercy to. The right response was for Israel to humble themselves before God and to repent of their own sins. In fact, Elisha knows that Israel would yet not do this, and that God would further raise up Syria and use them to afflict Israel. That’s what kind of time it was! It was a time for humility, and lamenting, and fasting, and repentance. Gehazi had hardened his heart in the day when he should have been softening it toward the LORD and recognize God’s purposes being worked out in this way.
I think of a very interesting contrast when Jesus was here on earth. In Luke 5:33, Jesus was asked why John the Baptist’ disciples fast, when Jesus’ disciples eat and drink. Jesus replied with a statement about the times. He basically said that while he was there with them, it was not a time for fasting but a time for joy and gladness. He said there would come a time for them to fast when he is taken from them. But while he was with them, they should rejoice. Knowing the times is a very important thing. We look forward to when Jesus will come again and will usher in a permanent and ongoing time of joy and gladness for his people. But for now, we look to be about the work he gives us today. We rest in the finished work of Jesus on the cross, and proclaim the gospel of salvation throughout the world. We give it to both Jew and Gentile, that all God’s elect would find salvation in the name of Christ. Even now, we live in the times where God is saving us Gentiles to yet try to spark anger and jealousy in ethnic Israelites that they would repent of their sins and turn to Jesus for salvation.
In conclusion, I leave us today with the exhortation to love your enemies. We could think of different example applications for that call to love your enemies. Here’s one specific example. Let’s embrace enemies that have become Christians. I think of the book of Philemon where Paul called Philemon to forgive his runaway slave who had become a Christian. Likewise, in a similar vein, I would hope that Naaman went back home and improved his baptism by freeing that Israelite slave girl. For now, she was so much more than a slave to him – they were spiritually family as followers together of the one true God. And God forbid you should ever count any fellow Christian as enemy. Let us love our enemies and be reconciled with them, especially those who are of the household of faith. Amen.
Copyright © 2020 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
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