Gleanings From Elisha
His Life and Miracles
SECOND MIRACLE—SALT-HEALED WATERS
"And They Said Unto Him, Behold now, there be with thy servants fifty strong men; let them go, we pray thee, and seek thy master: lest peradventure the Spirit of the Lord hath taken him up, and cast him upon some mountain, or into some valley" (2 Kings 2:16). Two things must be borne in mind in connection with this request, lest we be too severe in our criticism of those who made it. First, these young prophets had known that Elijah was to be removed from Elisha that day, as is clear from their words to him on a former occasion: "Knowest thou that the LORD will take away thy master from thy head to day?" (2 Kings 2:5). As to how they had learned of this, we cannot be sure; nor do we know how full was their information. Yet it seems clear they knew nothing more than the general fact that this was the day which would terminate the earthly career of the renowned Tishbite.
Second, we are told, "And fifty men of the sons of the prophets went, and stood to view afar off: and they two [Elijah and Elisha] stood by Jordan"(2 Kings 2:7). Here again we cannot be certain what it was or how much they actually saw. Perhaps, some are ready to exclaim, if they were definitely on the lookout, they must have seen the remarkable translation of Elijah, for the "chariot of fire and the horses of fire" in midair would surely have been visible to them. Not necessarily. Probably that "fire" was very different from any that we are acquainted with. Moreover we must bear in mind that on a later occasion "the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire round about Elisha," yet his own personal attendant saw them not until the prophet asked, "LORD, I pray thee, open his eyes, that he may see" (2 Kings 6:17)! We are therefore inclined to believe that as these young prophets watched, Elijah suddenly and mysteriously disappeared from their view, without their actually seeing his miraculous translation to heaven. Consequently they felt that something unprecedented and supernatural had taken place, and they ascribed it to a divine intervention, as their reference to "the Spirit of the LORD" intimates.
Though they must have realized that an event quite extraordinary had occurred, yet they were uneasy, fearful that something unpleasant had befallen their teacher. They were deeply concerned, and veneration and love for Elijah prompted their petition. Let us seek to put ourselves in their place and then ask, Would we have acted more intelligently? At any rate, was their request any more foolish than Peter’s on the mount of transfiguration when he said to Christ, "If thou wilt, let us make here three tabernacles; one for thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah" (Matthew 17:4)! Moreover it should be observed that they did not rashly take matters into their own hands, but respectfully submitted their request to Elisha. Before criticizing them too harshly let us make sure that our hearts are as warmly attached to God’s servants as theirs, and that we are as troubled over their departure as they were.
Elisha tersely refused their request. "Ye shall not send." But why did he not explain to them the uselessness of such a quest, by informing them exactly what had happened to Elijah? Probably because he concluded that if the Lord had intended them to know of His servant’s miraculous exit from this scene, He would have opened their eyes to behold what he himself had been permitted to see. Not all of the twelve witnessed Christ’s transfiguration either. Moreover, is there not a hint here as to why this privilege had been withheld from them, in the statement that "they stood to view afar off"? Not so Elisha, who followed his master fully. It is only those who "draw near" that enjoy the highest privileges of grace. Finally we may learn from Elisha’s reticence that there are some experiences which are too sacred to describe to others. Oh for more of such holy reserve and modesty in this day of curiosity and vulgar intruding into one another’s spiritual privacy.
"And when they urged him till he was ashamed, he said, Send. They sent therefore fifty men; and they sought three days, but found him not" (2 Kings 2:17). Let it not be forgotten that up to this time only one individual from all mankind had gone to heaven without passing through the portals of death, and it is very doubtful if the contemporaries of Enoch (or those who lived later) knew of his translation, for the words, "He was not found" (Heb. 11:5) intimate that search was also made for him. Elisha’s being "ashamed" means that he felt if he were to continue refusing them they would likely think he was being influenced by an undue desire to occupy Elijah’s place of honor. "And when they came again to him, (for he tarried at Jericho,) he said unto them, Did I not say unto you, Go not?" (2 Kings 2:18). Now they must have felt ashamed. "This would make them the more willing to acquiesce in his judgment another time" (Matthew Henry).
First, the Order of the Miracle
This brings us to Elisha’s next miracle. First, let us consider the order of it. It was Elisha’s second one, and the scriptural significance of that numeral casts light upon this point. One expresses unity and sovereignty. One stands all alone; but where there are two, another element has come in. So in the first miracle Elisha acted alone. But here in this one Elisha is not alone. A second human element is seen in connection with it—the "men of Jericho." They were required to furnish a "new cruse" with "salt therein" before the wonder was performed. Probably this very fact will prove a serious difficulty to the thoughtful reader. Those who have followed closely the preceding chapters will remember how we pointed out again and again that Elisha is to be regarded as a representative character, as a figure of the servants of Christ. Some may conclude the type fails us at this point, for it will be said, Surely you do not believe that ministers of the gospel demand something at the hands of sinners in order to be saved! Our answer will be given under the meaning of this miracle.
Second, the Place of the Miracle
Let us take note of the place where this occurred: it was at Jericho. This too is very illuminating. Jericho had been the first city of the Canaanites to defy the children of Israel, for it was closed and barred against them (Josh. 6:1). Whereupon it was pronounced "accursed," and orders were given that Israel should not appropriate anything in it unto themselves: "And ye, in any wise keep yourselves from the accursed thing, lest ye make yourselves accursed, when ye take of the accursed thing" (Josh. 6:18). By the power of Jehovah, Jericho was overthrown, following which His people "burnt the city with fire, and all that was therein" (Josh. 6:24). Afterward the fearful denunciation went forth, "Cursed be the man before the LORD, that riseth up and buildeth this city Jericho" (Josh. 6:26). But both of those divine prohibitions were flouted. The first was by Achan, who "saw among the spoils a goodly Babylonish garment, and two hundred shekels of silver, and a wedge of gold" (Josh. 7:21), which he coveted and stole, for which he and his family were stoned to death and their bodies destroyed by fire.
The second prohibition was broken centuries later, in the reign of the apostate Ahab: "In his days did Hiel the Bethelite build Jericho" (1 Kings 16:34). Thus Jericho was the city of the curse. It was the first place in Canaan where defiance of the Lord and His people was displayed. It was there that Israel, in the person of Achan, committed their first sin in the land of promise. A fearful curse was pronounced against the man who should have the effrontery to rebuild the city. That there is an unmistakable parallel between these things and what occurred in Eden scarcely needs pointing out. But we must not anticipate. That which is now before us is the fact that, in defiance of the divine threat, Jericho had recently been rebuilt—probably the attractiveness of its locality was the temptation to which Hiel yielded (as the pleasantness of the fruit in Eve’s eyes induced her to partake: Genesis 3:6), for we are told "And the men of the city said unto Elisha, Behold, I pray thee, the situation of this city is pleasant" (2 Kings 2:19).
Third, the Object of the Miracle
"And the men of the city said unto Elisha, Behold, I pray thee, the situation of this city is pleasant, as my Lord seeth: but the water is naught, and the ground barren" (2 Kings 2:19). Herein God had evidenced His displeasure on that accursed rebuilding of Jericho by making its water unwholesome and the ground barren, or as the margin notes, "causing to miscarry." The Jewish commentators understood this to mean that these waters caused the cattle to cast their young, the trees to shed their fruit before it was mature, and even the women to be incapable of bearing children. The Hebrew word which is rendered "the water is naught" ("ra") is a much stronger one than the English denotes. In the great majority of cases it is translated "evil" (as in Genesis 6:5; Proverbs 8:13), and "wicked" no less than thirty-one times. Its first occurrence is in "the tree of knowledge of good and evil" (Gen. 2:9)! But it signifies not only evil but that which is harmful or injurious to others, being translated "the hurtful sword" (Ps. 144:10).
Jericho then was a pleasant location, but there was no good water for its inhabitants or their flocks and herds. This was a serious matter, a vital consideration, for the Israelites were an essentially pastoral people. (Observe how often we find mention of the "wells" in their early history: Genesis 16:14; 21:25; 26:15, 22; 29:2; Numbers 21:16-18, etc.) Jericho in spite of all its ideal qualities then lacked the one thing essential.
How this reminds us of another and later incident in the career of Elisha: "Now Naaman, captain of the host of the king of Syria, was a great man with his master, and honorable, because by him the LORD had given deliverance unto Syria: he was also a mighty man in valor, but he was a leper" (2 Kings 5:1). In spite of his exalted position, his wealth, his exploits, he lacked the one thing needful—health. He was a leper and that nullified everything else. And thus it is with every man in his natural sinful condition; however favored by creation and by providence, the springs of his life are defiled.
Fourth, the Means Used for the Miracle
"And he said, Bring me a new cruse, and put salt therein. And they brought it to him. And he went forth unto the spring of the waters, and cast the salt in there" (2 Kings 2:20-21). The appropriateness of this particular means for counteracting the effects of the curse is at once apparent. Salt is the grand purifier and preserver. It is by means of the salty vapors which the rays of the sun distill from the ocean that the atmosphere of our earth is kept healthy for its inhabitants. That is why the sea breezes act as such a tonic to the invalid and the convalescent. Salt prevents putrefaction. Hence, after the backs of prisoners were scourged, salt was rubbed into the wounds; though extremely painful, it prevented blood poisoning. Salt is the best seasoning; how insipid and unsavory are many foods without a sprinkling of it. Salt is the emblem of divine holiness and grace, and so we read of the "covenant of salt" (Num. 18:19; 2 Chronicles 13:5). Hence also the exhortation, "Let your speech be alway with grace, seasoned with salt" (Col. 4:6), the savor of true piety. The ministers of Christ are therefore denominated "the salt of the earth" (Matthew 5:13).
Fifth, the Instrument of the Miracle
Obviously the salt itself could not heal those unwholesome waters, any more than the "rods" or twigs of the trees with their "white streaks" that Jacob set before the flocks, were able to cause the cattle to bring forth young ones that were "ringstreaked, speckled and spotted" (Gen. 30:37-39). Though the men of Jericho were required to furnish the salt, and though the prophet now cast the same into the springs, yet he made it clear this would avail nothing unless the blessing of Jehovah accompanied the same. His power must operate if anything good was to be accomplished. Therefore we find that as Elisha cast in the salt he declared "Thus saith the LORD, I have healed the waters; there shall not be from thence any more death or miscarrying" (2 Kings 2:21, ASV). Thereby the prophet disclaimed any inherent power of his own. Yet he was instrumentally employed of God, for the very next verse says, "So the waters were healed unto this day, according to the saying of Elisha which he spake"! How very similar to Paul’s experience, which he expressed, "I have planted, Apollos watered [they were the instruments]; but God gave the increase" (1 Colossians 3:6).
Sixth, the Meaning or Typical Significance of the Miracle
The first key to the meaning is found in the order of it. Under that point we intimated that probably some readers would find a difficulty in the men of Jericho being required to furnish the salt and be inclined to object that surely the minister of the gospel (for as a figure of such Elisha is to be viewed here) does not demand anything at the hand of sinners in order for them to be saved. But such a difficulty is self-created through entertaining vague and general concepts instead of distinguishing sharply between things that differ. When we speak of "salvation" we refer to something that is many-sided. If on the one hand we must guard most carefully against the error of man’s contributing to his regeneration, on the other we must watch against swinging to the opposite extreme and denying that man is required to concur with God in connection with his reconciliation, preservation, etc. The typical picture which is here set before us is divinely perfect; yet we need to view it closely if we are to see its details in their proper perspective.
The first miracle, the smiting of the Jordan, suggests the ministerial power of the evangelist over spiritual death, in connection with salvation. But this second miracle foreshadows a later, second experience in the history of those truly converted. This miracle at Jericho speaks of neutralizing the effects of the curse, overcoming the power of innate depravity. And here the minister of the gospel acts not alone, for in this matter there is the conjunction of both the divine and the human elements. Thus the second key to its meaning lies in the place where it occurred. It is true that the conjunction of the divine and human elements in conversion cannot be so closely defined as to express the same in any theological formula; nevertheless the reality of those two elements can be demonstrated both from Scripture and experience. We do not like the expression "man’s cooperating with God" for that savors too much of a dividing of the honors, but man’s "concurring with God" seems to be both permissible and necessary.
The third key is contained in the fact that these men of Jericho are represented as taking the initiative, coming unto Elisha, acquainting him with their need, supplicating his assistance! Apparently they knew from his dress that Elisha was a prophet; and as he no doubt still carried Elijah’s mantle, they hoped he would use his power on their behalf. The servant of God ought to be readily identified by his (emblematic) "garments" or spiritual graces, easily accessible and approachable, one to whom members of a community will gladly turn in their troubles. Elisha did not repulse them by saying this lay outside his line of things, that his concern lay only with the young prophets. Instead he at once intimated his willingness to help. Yet something was required of them (compare 2 Kings 4:41 and 5:10 for other illustrations of the same principle). They were told to provide a "new cruse" with salt therein. That was a test as to whether they were willing to follow the prophet’s instructions. They promptly heeded. How different from many who disregard the directions of God’s servants!
This miracle then does not give us a history of the servant of God going to those who are utterly unconcerned, dead in trespasses and sins, but rather that of awakened souls, seeking help, acquainting the minister with their need. In the first miracle it is God acting in sovereign power, enabling His servant to ministerially triumph over death; here it is His servant addressing human responsibility. In bidding awakened and inquiring sinners to provide a "new cruse and put salt therein," he is saying to them, "Cast away from you all your transgressions, whereby ye have transgressed; and make you a new heart and a new spirit" (Ezek. 18:31 and cf. James 4:8). These men of Jericho could not have procured the new cruse and the salt unless God had first placed it at their hands, and the sinner cannot bring a responsive and obedient heart to the minister until God has previously quickened him. That this miracle is, instrumentally, attributed to the "saying of Elisha" (the Hebrew term dabar is rendered "word" in 1 Kings 17:2, 8) denotes that awakened sinners are delivered from the effects of the curse as they obey the instructions of God’s faithful servants.
Seventh, the Permanency of the Miracle
"Thus saith the LORD, I have healed these waters; there shall not be from thence any more death or miscarrying: so the waters were healed unto this day, according to the word of Elisha which he spake" (2 Kings 2:21-22, ASV). It was no superficial and temporary change that was wrought, but an effectual and permanent one. "I know that, whatsoever God doeth, it shall be for ever: nothing can be put to it, nor any thing taken from it" (Eccl. 3:14). Herein we see again the appropriateness of the salt, the emblem of incorruption, used in the covenant to express its perpetuity. Placing in a "new cruse" and then casting into "the springs of water" give figures of the new and honest heart, out of which are "the issues of life" (Prov. 4:23). The nature of fallen men, even the most attractive specimens, is like unwholesome water and barren soil; it must be renewed by God before any good works can be produced. Make the tree good and its fruit will be good. The miracle is attributed, instrumentally, not to the faith or the prayer of Elisha (though there was both), but to his word. By His response God avouched His prophet and sustained his testimony in Israel.