2 Kings 5:1-7:20
Elisha was first mentioned by the author of 1 and 2 Kings in 1 Kings 19:16. His death is narrated in 2 Kings 13:14-21. Within that span of chapters, Elisha is the major figure in 2 Kings 2-8. The ministry of Elisha is generally dated from approximately 850 BC to 800 BC. This time span is reached by noting that Elisha's ministry began in the final years of the reign of King Ahab and lasted into the reign of King Joash. The material about Elisha is almost always connected to a miraculous deed or word. In many ways Elisha becomes a symbol for God Himself. The prophet's presence and power is designed to remind the people (and the readers - past and present) of God's presence and power.
The miracles of chapter 2 serve to show that God's power had really passed from Elijah to Elisha. The miraculous supply of water in 2 Kings 3 reveals that the prophet of God really stands above the king of Israel in the possession and exercise of authentic power. The miracles of chapter 4 demonstrates the compassion of God in intervening into life-and-death situations to supply needs, restore life, and create health. The theme of health is expanded in chapter 5 with the healing of Naaman's leprosy. However, the fact that Naaman was a Syrian rather than an Israelite also shows that the power of God is not limited to Israel. In fact, Elisha's power over the Syrians will be a recurring theme in chapters 6 and 7.
The Healing of Naaman the Syrian - 2 Kings 5:1-27
Chapter 5 has two main actions. The first describes healing Naaman of leprosy, and verses 1-14 provide the story. The second is the story of Gehazi being stricken with leprosy, and it is specifically described in verses 20-27. Verses 15-19 form a hinge that unites the two actions. However, it is important to see chapter 5 as a whole rather than breaking it down into its parts. The two actions are connected, and the connection is more than simple chronological [and logical] closeness. The movement of thought in the chapter is from leprosy to wellness and then from wellness to leprosy. Both stories ultimately turn our attention to the connection between sickness/health and trusting God.
Verse 1 introduces the human protagonist of the story. Naaman was apparently a common name in ancient Syria since the name was used in the Ugaritic tablets. The name means "fair" or "gracious," and the very meaning of the name would dispose the ancient reader to think positively about Naaman. He is described as the commander of the army. The Hebrew expression implies that he was the commander-in-chief and reported directly to the king of Syria. That king was probably Ben-Hadad, though he is not mentioned directly in the chapter.
The author of 2 Kings notes that Naaman enjoyed high regard or special favor in the sight of the king because Yahweh had used him to bring victory to the Syrians. Most scholars assume that the incidents of chapter 5 took place at a time when Israel and Syria were at peace. Otherwise the victories would have been at the expense of Israel, and Naaman's visit to Israel in search of healing would have been much less likely. Regardless of who Syria's enemies were, the author regards Yahweh as the source of victory.
Verse 1 also notes that Naaman was a great warrior. The Hebrew could also be translated as a mighty hero. All the attributes of Naaman have been positive and have constructed a picture of a man of great influence and authority in his world. The final statement, however, totally dismantles all the accolades given to Naaman in the rest of the verse. He was a leper.
The Hebrew word translated leprosy in the Old Testament appears to have described a variety of skin diseases. Leviticus 13 gives the most comprehensive discussion of the kinds of leprosy and the symptoms of the various types. Exact understanding of the modern medical terms for those diseases is not possible from just the symptoms listed in Leviticus 13. However, it is almost certain that the disease now known as leprosy or Hansen's disease was not one of the diseases described in the Old Testament. The Old Testament understood that these leprosies were contagious and stringent quarantine regulations were enforced for certain types of leprosy. Second Kings 7:3-4 provides a case in point. Leprosy was sometimes considered a judgment from God against sin, as Numbers 12:10-15 shows.
All the success, status, and power of person mean nothing when one's life and health are at stake. However, Naaman's attractive qualities were evident to the young slave girl from Israel that he had captured and given to his wife. Though we might have expected her to gloat over the illness of the enemy commander who had invaded her land, defeated her people, and stolen her away as a captive, she did not. Rather, she thought of the resources available through Yahweh that could heal her new master. She spoke to Naaman's wife, who spoke to him, and he raised the issue with the king of Syria. The value the Syrian king placed on his commander can be seen by his willingness to send a letter of introduction to the king of Israel.
There is a mysterious providence at work in these verses. Some may believe that God arranged for Naaman to capture the Israelite girl, that He caused her to want to help Naaman, and that He brought peace between Syria and Israel all so that Naaman might be healed. Others will believe that God did not cause the capture of an innocent young girl, nor did He control her attitude toward Naaman, nor was the peace His doing, but that God still used all those events brought about by purely human choices to accomplish His good will for the life of Naaman. In either case the final result is the same; Naaman is healed and God is glorified. That God would be so involved in human lives (via either method) is a wonderful demonstration of His grace.
The culture of the Ancient East expected that a person would take a gift with them when they visited another. The visit of the Queen of Sheba with Solomon and her gift mentioned in 1 Kings 10:10 is an example of how extravagant such giving could be. The resources carried by Naaman to serve as a gift were also extravagant. Ten talents of silver would be equal to about seven hundred pounds of silver. Six thousand shekels of gold would represent about 145 pounds of gold. With gift and letter in hand Naaman went to the king of Israel. The king is not named, though it is probably Jehoram. Naaman would have assumed that the king was the most powerful man in the land of Israel and that healing would have come through him. The king did not appreciate the compliment. He understood that God is the giver of life and health. That the king of Syria would send his commander in chief to him with such a request struck the Israelite king as an effort to bait or trap him.
Several important dynamics are work at this point of the story. Obviously the king should have immediately called upon the prophet of God. The fact that he did not shows how out of touch he was with the theology of his people. It also shows how completely he lacked a relationship with God. There is also irony in that Naaman came to him assuming he was the most powerful man in Israel. The reader of 2 Kings already knows that Elisha is more powerful than the king. That has been demonstrated in previous chapters. The king also knew but would not admit that reality. However, the request of Naaman required access to God that the king did not have. Only Elisha had that access, and the king was not willing to admit his weakness in the face of Elisha's strength. All the king could express was frustration. The king's response is very instructive of what happens to people who refuse to enter into relationship with God themselves, and yet who resent the power with God enjoyed by those who are obedient.
Elisha did not make the king feel any better when he found out about the king's dilemma. Verse 8 specifically describes Elisha as a man of God. He instructed the king to send Naaman to him so that Naaman may know that there is a prophet in Israel. The clear purpose for Naaman's coming to Israel is not healing but understanding the reality of God. Yet when Naaman arrived at Elisha's house and stood ready to greet him, Elisha snubbed the great commander. He refused to come out of the house himself but sent a messenger. (The Hebrew word for "messenger" and "angel" is the same word. Here it seems most likely that the "angel" messenger was a human servant.)
The instructions were simple. Naaman was to wash in the Jordan River seven times and he would be restored to health. The language of washing was associated with leprosy in Leviticus 14:8-9, but there washing was symbolic of cleansing. Here, washing would be the action that led to cleansing. The number seven was used in Leviticus 13:4 and five of the days of quarantine. Here, seven is the symbolic number of fullness or completion. Naaman was to completely, fully wash in the Jordan. Scholars have no satisfactory explanation for the command to wash in the Jordan River. However, it should be noted that the Jordan was the border of the Promised Land. It may be that healing would not be available until one came to the edge of the promise and was cleansed.
The flow of the story thus far has predisposed the reader to want Naaman to be healed. Elisha gave him the "classic" test - do something that appears to be silly. Naaman's response was anger, and he turned his back on the promised healing. It appears that he will fail the test, and there is a sense of disappointment, a desire to reach into the story and grab Naaman to tell him to obey the word from God. There is anxiety from the reader for Naaman, but does that anxiety arise because we know that we have often missed what God would have done for us?
It was Naaman's servants who persuaded him to at least try the solution offered to him by the prophet of God. They reminded him of an important truth. His goal in coming to Israel was to be healed, not to have his ego stroked. There is an interesting interplay between the so-called "important" people in this story and the so-called "insignificant" people. The highly respected Naaman has leprosy and is in desperate need. The lowly slave girl points him toward the solution. The high and mighty king of Israel is powerless and paralyzed by Naaman's need. The lowly prophet must step in to rescue the situation. The mighty military man is about to let arrogance slip healing from his hands. His servants speak a word of common sense and obedience.
One can powerfully see the Messianic description of Luke 1:52 at work in the story of Naaman, "He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly." Without the "insignificant, little" people, Naaman never would have been healed and Elisha would not have been able to convey God's gracious healing to him. More often than we realize, it is the obedience of people who are not in the spotlight of the world that brings life changing and world changing grace from God. The servants' word led Naaman to obey "according to the word of the man of God," and he was healed.
For many readers the healing of Naaman in verse 14 is the climax to the story. But the real climax of the story is Naaman's confession in verse 15, "Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel. Please accept a gift from your servant." Naaman's arrogance of verses 11-12 was gone and he offered Elisha the rich gift he has brought. When Elisha refused the gift, Naaman asked for two mule-loads of dirt from Israel to take with him back home. Two explanations have been given for this request. The first and most likely is that Naaman understood that Yahweh was especially connected to Canaan, to the Promised Land. Since he would have to leave Yahweh's Land to return to his job in Syria, could he take some of Yahweh's land with him as a sign of the relationship he had established with God? A second suggestion is that since altars were made of earth and unhewn stone, Naaman wished to take building materials for an altar back to his home. (See Naaman, Dirt, and Territorial Gods: The Canonical Function of 2 Kings 5:17-19).
Then Naaman made a request that is very strange to us. He pointed out that part of his job as commander-in-chief was to escort the king into the temple of the god, Rimmon, and to assist in the royal worship of Rimmon. Naaman asked God's pardon to continue his job with this idolatrous duty. Our instincts immediately cry out, "No!" Naaman must cut the ties with his pagan past and trust God to provide a new job. But Elisha simply said, "Go in peace." It may be that the point was effectively made to the Jewish readers. You have been unrepentantly dabbling in idolatry with foreign gods when your duty and tradition is the one, true God. Look, this foreigner, who by rights could worship his own idol without apology, has confessed Yahweh and is asking forgiveness for being forced to go through the motions of worshipping Rimmon when he knows that Yahweh is the true God.
Naaman's request and Elisha's response may be calculated to shame Israel into obedience. Or, it may be that God is less rigid and more understanding than we are. Perhaps He is not offended by a person, new to the faith, who hasn't made all the right decisions yet, but who is struggling in his or her heart to express love and loyalty to the Lord.
Naaman departed, and again the reader is tempted to think that the story is over. Only the bright side has been told; now the dark tale must be revealed. Elisha's servant, Gehazi, decided that Naaman had received grace too cheaply. He pursued the Syrian and lied to him to get some of the great gift. When he returned he hid his ill-gotten gain and then lied to Elisha about it. The pronouncement of judgment was swift and incisive. Just as the money had left Naaman's hand to enter Gehazi's hand, so the leprosy that had left Naaman's body would invade Gehazi's body. And in that instant Gehazi was covered with leprosy.
As exciting as Naaman's healing was to us, Gehazi's judgment is disturbing. Our sympathy is too much with Gehazi. His thoughts and our thoughts are so close - is judgment that close to us? We would like to leave the ending off Naaman's story. But the whole story belongs together; it is symmetrical. The story is not about Naaman and Gehazi. The story is about trusting and obeying God. That stands at the center. The foreigner believed and obeyed. The insider, the Israelite, the prophet's right hand man, betrayed the faith and disobeyed. God is no respecter of persons. The insider, the religious Gehazi, disobeyed and was condemned. A thousand years of religious tradition from Abraham to Elisha counted for nothing when Gehazi disobeyed. But the outsider, Naaman, trusted, obeyed and was healed. His pagan background and total ignorance of God were no impediments. God looked on his heart. That is the way it always is with God.
Elisha and the Syrians - 2 Kings 6:1-33
Chapter 6 has three parts. Verses 1-7 describe the floating of the ax head. Verses 8-23 pit Elisha and the power of God against the king and armies of Syria. Verses 24-33 relate the desperate circumstances of a Syrian siege of Samaria, Israel's capital.
Verses 1-7 relate an incident in which the school of the prophets went out to cut wood for a building project. As they worked, one of the ax heads flew off the handle and sank in the river. The ax wielder was in despair; the ax was borrowed, and he had no money to replace it. Elisha calmly cut some wood and tossed into the river at the spot the ax head sank. The head floated and Elisha instructed his student to pick it up.
The physical impossibility of this miracle is no greater than that of raising the dead. In fact that is the point of this story. Through the prophet God did an impossible thing to help out a despairing man. That was also the experience of blind Bartimaeus and Zacchaeus. It is the experience of everyone who comes to God in his or her moment of deepest need.
The story of verses 8-23 is developed with much greater detail. Verses 8-10 describe how the man of God (Elisha) seemed to have knowledge of the very thoughts and plans of the king of Syria. By passing those plans onto the king of Israel, Syria's military strategy was foiled. This happened enough times that the king of Syria was convinced that one of his inner circle of military confidants was betraying him to Israel. But when he confronted them, they replied that the "leak" was Elisha the prophet, "who tells the king of Israel the words you speak in your bedchamber."
To this point the narrative has been extolling the insight of Elisha. All seems well, but suddenly praise turns to danger. The king of Syria set out to capture Elisha and sent a great army with horses and chariots to surround the city of Dothan where Elisha is staying. The reader (ancient and modern) is tempted to despair. The insightful prophet is now threatened with death. Elisha's servant was also unnerved when he saw the Syrian army surrounding the city.
Only Elisha seemed unperturbed and calm. "Do not fear," he told his servant, "for there are more with us than there are with them." He then prayed for the eyes of his servant to be opened. The narrator then states that Yahweh opened the servant's eyes and he saw … horses and chariots of fire surrounding Elisha. The story suddenly shifts gears from the servant to the Syrians. Elisha prayed that they would become blind and they did. Elisha then led the blind Syrian army to Samaria, prayed that their eyes would be opened, turned them over to the king of Israel, and ordered the king of Israel to not kill them but to feed them and send them home (see Open Our Eyes! Reflections on 2 Kings 6:8-23).
Several important ideas are at work in this story. There is the contrast between the prayer for the servant's eyes to be opened and the Syrian's eyes to be blinded. It is fascinating that as soon as the servant's eyes were opened and he saw the horses and chariots of fire, he disappeared from the story. The point was not to tell us about the servant's experience at Dothan as the Syrians tried to capture Elisha. Rather, the point is that God, and the man of God, have resources available to them that are not visible to normal vision.
In some ways this story is the explanation for many of the other Elisha miracles. Things are not really the way they look. God has resources that cannot be seen from the viewpoint of the world as we usually experience it. To those who have eyes to see, iron can float, water can appear in the desert, oil can flow unceasingly from a jar, barren women can give birth, the dead can be raised, the hungry can be fed, and leprosy can be healed.
When the eyes of our hearts are enlightened (see Ephesians 1:18), suddenly we see Jesus (see Matthew 11:2-6) in the ministry of Elisha. More precisely, in both the ministry of Jesus and Elisha, we see God at work bringing hope in the midst of despair, turning darkness to light. The problem in these verses is more difficult than getting the iron to float. Here the problem is to get the servant to see.
But once the servant saw, Elisha immediately asked for blindness for the enemy. The two are related. When the servant of God sees, the enemy of God cannot see. The enemy of God will never perceive the power of God; he will never see the horses and chariots of fire. He will only see the world as it seems to be. He will only see human resources and power at work. As long as the servant of God does not see, the enemy of God is okay. But when the servant sees, realities come into being that did not exist before. The enemy of God must now be blind for he cannot see God's resources. In fact, Elisha shows the foolishness of the enemy who is limited to his own vision by leading them blindly into the capital of Israel. He illustrates their utter powerlessness by having them fed and released. The king of Israel is incredulous, "Shouldn't they be killed?" "No," Elisha replies, "when your eyes are really opened you understand that these Syrians have no power." And the proof is mentioned in verse 23. The Syrians no longer invaded Israel.
Verse 24 jumps forward a considerable time in history to a point when the Syrians are again a serious military threat. However, the author of Kings compresses that long period into a single phrase. The reason is that the readers (and Israel) must now be tested to see if they really learned the lesson of verses 8-23. The Syrians laid siege to Samaria, and it was so successful that almost all food is gone inside the Israelite capital. People were reduced to eating donkey heads and dove dung and paying dearly to do so. In fact, cannibalism was beginning. The situation was desperate beyond imagination.
The lesson is clear. The king of Israel's eyes needed to be opened. The eyes of the people of Samaria needed to be opened to the mysterious working of God. But they were not. There was hostility and hatred against Elisha, and the king verbally rejected God in verse 33, "Why should I hope in the Lord any longer?" In fact there is no need and no ability to hope in the Lord when one's eyes have not been opened. Chapter 7 will provide the resolution.
The Syrians and the Lepers - 2 Kings 7:1-20
In the midst of the desperate circumstances of 2 Kings 6:24-33, Elisha did not pray for the eyes of the king and the people to be opened. He expresses it in another way, "Hear the word of the Lord." The word of God can create the new situation, the new vision, and the new reality that transforms human hopelessness. The Lord declared that within 24 hours fine flour and barley would sell for a fraction of what donkey heads and dove dung were costing. The crisis would be over. Verse 2 returns to the theme of seeing. The captain who attended the king of Israel remarked on how impossible the promise of God was. The prophet replied that the captain would see it happen but would never experience its reality.
The scene suddenly shifts to four lepers outside the city. They knew there was no hope in Samaria with their own people. They decided to try their luck in visiting the Syrian camp. Upon arriving they discover it deserted. Verse 6 wryly notes that the Syrians heard the sound of chariots and horses - probably the same ones the servant of Elisha saw in chapter 6. They supposed that the Israelites had formed an alliance with the dreaded Hittites and Egyptians and that those enemies were arraying against them. The Syrians fled in fear, leaving all their possessions behind. Just as God had struck the Syrians of chapter 6 with blindness, he struck the Syrians of chapter 7 with an overly imaginative gift of hearing.
The lepers began looting the camp before they remembered their patriotic duty. When they did, they reported to the king of Israel. Though he did not believe them at first, their story checked out. Israel looted the camp and captured so much food that fine flour and barley sold for the fraction of the price of donkey heads and dove dung just as the prophet had said. The skeptical captain saw it but did not experience it. He was trampled to death in the gate by the people pouring out to loot the enemy camp and to buy the flour and barley at the price the prophet had said.
The king of Israel flunked the test. Neither were his eyes opened nor did he hear the word of the Lord. The skeptical captain saw but did not see. His lack of faith blinded him. The images struck his retina, but because he had doubted he did not get to taste the reversal of fortunes that God brought about. The lesson for us is clear. The word of God brings into being a reality that goes beyond normal human sight and sound. Only the eyes and ears of faithful trust are enabled to see God at work. But when those eyes and ears are opened, there is no problem severe enough to cause fear.
Study Questions for Reflection and Discussion
These readings and study questions are in preparation for next week's lesson.
As you study each day ask the Lord to make his word come alive in your heart. Ask him to help you understand how his word should apply to your life.
First Day: Read the notes on 2 Kings 5:1-7:20. Look up the Scripture references.
1. Identify one or two insights that seemed important to you and describe why they were significant.
2. Select a truth that has a personal application in your life. Describe how it would apply to you.
3. Write a brief prayer asking the Lord to open your eyes to His resources for you.
Second Day: Read 2 Kings 8:1-29. Now focus on 2 Kings 8:1-15.
1. What are the similarities and the differences between verses 1-6 and Genesis 26:1-5? Has God ever used "Philistines" to help you?
2. Why do you think Elisha wept in verse 11? How did his reason to weep compare with that of Jesus' weeping in John 11:35?
3. How do verses 7-15 relate to 1 Kings 19:15-16? What does it say to you about God's timing?
Third Day: Read 2 Kings 8:1-29. Focus on 2 Kings 8:16-29.
1. What is the author's evaluation of King J[eh]oram of Judah? How does he compare with his father Jehoshaphat (1 Kings 22:41-44) and his grandfather Asa (1 Kings 15:9-15)?
2. Why did God not destroy Judah for J[eh]oram's sin? What does that tell you about God? What does it say about the importance of your life?
3. How did J[eh]oram's military expedition against Edom turn out? How did his son turn out? What would have made the difference in his life?
Fourth Day: Read 2 Kings 9:1-37. Focus in on 2 Kings 9:1-13.
1. Why was the young prophet told to flee as soon as he anoint Jehu as king?
2. How do the words of the young prophet in verses 7-10 relate to what Elijah said in 1 Kings 21:20-24? Do you suppose Ahab's family had forgotten Elijah's words? What should they have done in the interval between Elijah and these focus verses?
3. How did Jehu's companions react to the young prophet and his message? Do you think their response affected Jehu? How do your companions influence you?
Fifth Day: Read 2 Kings 9:1-37. Focus in on 2 Kings 9:14-37.
1. What impression do you get of Jehu from these verses? Why was he the man God chose to destroy the family of Ahab?
2. What future do you suppose will face Jehu? Can he act with the deceit and brutality he showed and not face similar consequences?
3. Is God just? Was God even in control in these verses? How will you live your life in light of your answer to these questions?
Sixth Day: Read 2 Kings 10:1-36. Now focus on 2 Kings 10:1-17.
1. How far did Jehu carry out the plan to destroy the family of Ahab? Did he go too far?
2. Read Jeremiah 35:1-19 and describe the heritage of the Rechabites. Why do you suppose Jehu wanted to make a good impression on Jehonadab the Rechabite?
3. Write a brief prayer asking the Lord to help you establish a heritage like that of the Rechabites rather than like that of Jehu.