Gleanings From Elisha
His Life and Miracles
FIFTH MIRACLE—A POT OF OIL
IN CREATION we are surrounded with both that which is useful and that which is ornamental. The earth produces a wealth of lovely flowers as well as grain and vegetables for our diet. The Creator has graciously provided things which charm our eyes and ears as well as supply our bodies with food and raiment. The same feature marks God’s Word. The Scriptures contain something more than doctrine and precept: there are wonderful types which display the wisdom of their Author and delight those who are able to trace the merging of the shadow into the substance, and there are mysterious prophecies which demonstrate the foreknowledge of their giver, and minister pleasure to those granted the privilege of beholding their fulfillment. These types and prophecies form part of the internal evidence which the Bible furnishes of its divine inspiration, for they give proof of a wisdom which immeasurably transcends that of the wisest of mortals. Nevertheless one has to turn unto the doctrinal and preceptive portions of Holy Writ in order to learn the way of salvation and the nature of that walk which is pleasing to God.
In our earlier writings we devoted considerable attention to the types and prophecies, but for the last decade, we have concentrated chiefly upon the practical side of the truth. Observation taught us that many of those who were keenly interested in a Bible reading on some part of the tabernacle or an attempt to explain some of the predictions of Daniel, appeared quite bored when we preached upon Christian duty or deportment; yet they certainly needed the latter for they were quite deficient therein. A glorious sunset is an exquisite sight, but it would supply no nourishment to one that was starving. The perfumes of a garden may delight the senses, but they would be a poor substitute for a good breakfast to a growing child. Only after the soul has fed upon the doctrine of Scripture and put into practice its precepts is it ready to enjoy the beauties of the types and explanations of the mysteries of prophecy.
This change of emphasis in our writings has lost us hundreds of readers. Yet if we could relive the past fifteen years, we would follow the same course. The solemn days through which we are passing demand, as never before, that first things be put first. There are plenty of writers who cater to those who read for intellectual entertainment; our longing is to minister to those who yearn for a closer walk with God. What would be thought of a farmer who in the spring wasted his time in the woods listening to the music of the feathered songsters, while his fields were allowed to remain unplowed and unsown? Would it not be equally wrong if we dwelt almost entirely on the typical significance of the miracles of Elisha, while ignoring the simpler and practical lessons they contain for our hearts and lives? Balance is needed here as everywhere, and if we devote more space than usual on this occasion to the spiritual meaning of the miracle before us (and similarly in the "Dagon" articles), it will not be because we have made or shall make a practice of so doing.
First, the Connection of the Miracle
Great service had Elisha done in the foregoing chapter for the three kings: to his prayers and prophecies they owed their lives and triumphs. One would have expected that the next chapter should have told us what honors and what dignities were conferred on Elisha for this: that he should have been immediately preferred at court, and made prime-minister of state; that Jehoshaphat should have taken him home with him and advanced him in the kingdom. No, the wise man delivered the army, but no man remembered the wise man (Ecclesiastes 9:15). Or, if he had preferment offered him, he declined it: he preferred the honor of doing good in the schools of the prophets, before that of being great in the courts of kings. God magnified him and that sufficed him: magnified him indeed, for we have him here employed in working no less than five miracles (Henry).
He who has, by grace, the heart of a true servant of Christ, would not, if he could, exchange places with the monarch on his throne or the millionaire with all his luxuries.
Second, the Beneficiary of the Miracle
"Now there cried a certain woman of the wives of the sons of the prophets unto Elisha, saying, Thy servant my husband is dead; and thou knowest that thy servant did fear the LORD: and the creditor is come to take unto him my two sons to be bondmen" (2 Kings 4:1). The one for whom this miracle was wrought was a woman, "the weaker vessel" (1 Pet. 3:7). She was a widow, a figure of desolation: "how doth the city sit solitary, that was full of people! how is she become as a widow!" (Lam. 1:1). Contrast the proud boast of corrupt Babylon: "I sit a queen, and am no widow, and shall see no sorrow" (Rev. 18:7). Not only was she bereft of her husband but she was left destitute, in debt and without the means of paying it. A more pitiable and woeful object could scarcely be conceived. In her sad plight she went to the servant of Jehovah and told him her dire situation. Her husband may have died while Elisha was absent with the kings in their expedition against the Moabites, and thus he was unacquainted with her troubles.
Third, the Urgency of the Miracle
The situation confronting this poor widow was indeed a drastic one. Her human provider and protector had been removed by the hand of death. She had been left in debt and had not the wherewithal to pay it, a burden that would weigh heavily on a conscientious soul. And now she was in immediate danger of having her two sons seized and taken from her by the creditor to serve as bondmen to him. Observe that in the opening words of 2 Kings 4 it is not said, "Now there came a certain woman of the wives of the sons of the prophets unto Elisha" but "there cried a certain woman," which indicates the pressure of her grief and the earnestness of her appeal to the prophet. Sometimes God permits His people to be brought very low in their circumstances; nor is this always by way of chastisement or because of their folly. We do not think that such was her case. The Lord is pleased to bring some to the end of their own resources that His delivering hand may be more plainly seen acting on their behalf.
One of the outstanding characteristics of the regenerate is that they are given honest hearts (Luke 8:15). Therefore is it their careful endeavor to "provide things honest in the sight of all men" and to "owe no man anything" (Rom. 12:17, 13:8). They are careful to live within their income and not to order an article unless they can pay for it. It is because so many hypocrites under the cloak of a Christian profession have been so dishonest in financial matters and so unscrupulous in trade, that reproach has so often been brought upon the churches. Yet, in certain exceptional cases, even the most thrifty and upright may run into debt. It was so with her. The deceased husband of this widow was a man who "did fear the LORD" (2 Kings 4:1); nevertheless he left his widow in such destitution that she was unable to meet the claims of her creditor. There has been considerable speculation by the commentators as to the cause of this unhappy situation, most of which this writer finds himself quite unable to approve. What then is his own explanation?
In seeking the answer to the above question three things need to be borne in mind. First, as we pointed out in our introduction to this study, a prophet was an abnormality; that is, there was no place for him, no need of him in the religious life of Israel during ordinary times. It was only in seasons of serious declension or apostasy that he appeared on the scene. Thus, no stated maintenance was provided for him, as it was for the priests and Levites under the law. Consequently the prophet was dependent upon the gifts of the pious or the productions of his own manual labors. Judging from the brief records of Scripture, one gathers the impression that most of them enjoyed little more than the barest necessities of life.
Second, for many years past Ahab and Jezebel had been in power, and not only were the pious persecuted but the prophets went in danger of their lives (1 Kings 18:4).
Third, it seems likely to us that this particular prophet obtained his subsistence from the oil obtained from an olive grove, and that probably there had been a failure of the crop during the past year or two—note how readily the widow obtained from her "neighbors" not a few "empty vessels."
"And Elisha said unto her, what shall I do for thee?" Possibly the prophet was himself momentarily nonplussed, conscious of his own helplessness. Possibly his question was designed to emphasize the gravity of the situation. "It is beyond my power to extricate you." More likely it was to make her look above him. "I too am only human." Or again, it may have been to test her. "Are you willing to follow my instructions?" Instead of waiting for her reply, the prophet at once asked a second question, "Tell me, what hast thou in the house?" (2 Kings 4:2). Perhaps this was intended to press upon the widow the seriousness of her problem, for the prophet must have known that she possessed little or nothing, or why should she have sought him? Or, in the light of her answer, its force may have been an admonition not to despise small mercies. Her "not anything, save a pot of oil" reminds of Andrew’s "but what are they among so many" (John 6:9). Ah, do not we often reason similarly!
Fourth, the Test of the Miracle
"Then he said, Go,
borrow thee vessels abroad of all thy neighbors, even empty vessels; borrow not
(2 Kings 4:3). It was a test both of her faith and her obedience. To carnal reason it would appear that the prophet was only mocking her, for of what possible service could a lot of empty vessels be to her? But if her trust was in the Lord, then she would be willing to submit herself to and comply with His word through His servant.
Are not His thoughts and ways ever the opposite of ours? Was it not so when He overthrew the Midianites? What a word was that to Gideon: "The people that are with thee are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hands, lest Israel vaunt themselves against me, saying, Mine own hand hath saved me" (Judg. 7:2). And in consequence, his army was reduced from over twenty-two thousand to a mere three hundred (Judg. 7:3-7); and when that little company went forth, it was with trumpets and "empty pitchers" and lamps inside the pitchers in their hands (Judg. 7:16)! Ah, my reader, we have to come before the Lord as "empty vessels"—emptied of our self-sufficiency—if we are to experience His wonder-working power.
Fifth, the Requirement of the Miracle
"And when thou art come in, thou shalt shut the door upon thee and upon thy sons, and shalt pour out into all those vessels, and thou shalt set aside that which is full" (2 Kings 4:4). This was to avoid ostentation. Her neighbors were not in on the secret, nor should they be permitted to witness the Lord’s gracious dealings with her. It reminds us of Christ’s raising of the daughter of Jairus: when He arrived at the house it was filled with a skeptical and scoffing company, and the Savior "put them all out" (Mark 5:40) before He went in and performed the miracle. The same principle stands today in connection with the operations of divine grace. The world is totally ignorant of this mystery—God’s filling of empty vessels: "the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him" (John 14:17). Yes, she must shut the door, so "that in retirement she and her sons might the more leisurely ponder and adore the goodness of the Lord" (Scott).
Sixth, the Means of the Miracle
This was the "pot of oil" which appeared to be so utterly inadequate to meet the demands of the widow’s creditor. It was so in itself, but under the blessing of God it proved amply sufficient. The five barley loaves and the two small fishes (John 6:9) seemed quite useless for feeding a vast multitude, but in the hands of the Lord they furnished "as much as they would," and even "when they were filled" there remained a surplus of twelve baskets full. Ah, it is the little things which God is pleased to use. A pebble from the brook when slung by faith is sufficient to overthrow the Philistine giant. A "little cloud" was enough to produce "a great rain" (1 Kings 18:44-45). A "little child" was employed by Christ to teach His disciples humility (Matthew 18:2). A "little strength" supplied by the Spirit enables us to keep Christ’s Word and not deny his name (Rev. 3:8). Oh, to be "little" in our own sight (1 Sam. 15:17). It is blessed to see that this widow did not despise the means, but promptly obeyed the prophet’s instructions, her faith laying hold of the clearly-implied promise in "all those vessels" (2 Kings 4:4).
Seventh, the Significance of the Miracle
In this miracle we have a most blessed, striking, and remarkable, typical picture of the grand truth of redemption, a subject which is, we fear, rather hazy in the minds even of many Christians. The gospel is preached so superficially today, its varied glories are so lost in generalizations, that few have more than the vaguest idea of its component parts. Redemption is now commonly confused with atonement; the two are quite distinct, one being an effect of the other. The sacrifice which Christ offered unto divine holiness and justice was "that he might bring us to God" (1 Pet. 3:18)—a comprehensive expression covering the whole of our salvation, both in the removal of all hindrances and in the bestowal of all requisites. In order to bring us to God it was necessary that all enmity between us and God should be removed—that is reconciliation; that the guilt of our transgressions should be cancelled—that is remission of sins; that we should be delivered from all bondage—that is redemption; that we should be made, both experimentally and legally, righteous—that is regeneration and justification.
Redemption, then is one of the grand effects or results of the atonement, the satisfaction which Christ rendered unto the law. God’s elect are debtors to the law, for they have broken it; and they are prisoners to His justice, for they are "by nature the children of wrath, even as others" (Eph. 2:3). And our deliverance (or "salvation") is not a mere emancipation when adequate compensation has been made. No, while it is true our redemption is of grace and affected by sovereign power, yet it is so because a ransom is offered, a price paid, in every way equivalent to the discharge secured. In the words, "I will ransom them from the power of the grave; I will redeem them from death" (Heb. 13:14) we are taught that the latter is the consequence of the former. Ransom is the paying of the price required. Redemption is the setting free of those ransomed, and this deliverance is by the exercise of divine power. "Not accepting deliverance" (Heb. 11:35); the Greek word "deliverance" here is commonly rendered "redemption"; they refused to accept it from their afflictions on the dishonorable terms (apostasy) demanded by their persecutors.
Redemption necessarily presupposes previous possession. It denotes the restoration of something which has been lost, and returned by the paying of a price. Hence we find Christ saying by the Spirit of prophecy, "I restored that which I took not away" (Ps. 69:4)! This was strikingly illustrated in the history of Israel, who on the farther shores of the Red Sea sang, "Thou in thy mercy hast led forth the people which thou hast redeemed" (Ex. 15:13). First, in the book of Genesis, we see the descendants of Abraham sojourning in the land of Canaan. Later, we see the chosen race in cruel servitude, in bondage to the Egyptians, groaning amid the brick kilns, under the whip of their taskmasters. Then a ransom was provided in the blood of the pascal lamb, following which, the Lord by His mighty hand brought them out of serfdom and brought them into the promised inheritance. That is a complete picture of redemption.
There are many who perceive that Christians were a people in bondage, lost to God, but recovered and restored to Him; yet some fail to perceive they belonged to the Lord before Christ freed them. The elect belonged to Christ long before He shed His blood to ransom them, for they were chosen in Him before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4) and made over to Him as the Father’s love-gift (John 17:9). But they too fell and died in Adam, and therefore did He come to seek and to save that which was lost. Christ purchased the church of God with His own blood (Acts 20:28) and therefore does the Father say to Him, "By the blood of thy covenant I have sent forth thy prisoners out of the pit wherein is no water" (Zech. 9:11). He has a legal right to them. There is no unavailing redemption: all whom Christ purchased or ransomed shall be redeemed; that is, delivered from captivity, set free from sin. Judicially they are so now, experientially too in part (John 8:36), but perfectly so only when glorified—hence the future aspect in Luke 21:28 and Romans 8:23.
Now observe how all the leading features of redemption are typically brought out in 2 Kings 4.
1. The object of it is a widow. She had not always been thus. Formerly she had been married to one who "feared the Lord," but death had severed that happy bond and left her desolate and destitute—apt figure of God’s elect, originally in union with Him, and then through the fall alienated from Him (Eph. 4:18).
2. Her creditor was enforcing his demands. He had actually come to seize her sons "to be bondmen." The Hebrew word rendered "creditor" in 2 Kings 4:1 signifies "one who exacts" what is justly due to him, and is so translated in Job 11:6. It looks back to, "And if thy brother that dwelleth by thee be waxen poor, and be sold unto thee; thou shalt not compel him to serve as a bondservant: But as an hired servant, and as a sojourner, he shall be with thee, and shall serve thee unto the year of jubile" (Lev. 25:39-40). Our Lord had reference to this practice in His parable of Matthew 18:23-25. Thus the "creditor" of 2 Kings 4:1 who showed no mercy to the poor widow is a figure of the stern and unrelenting law.
3. The widow was quite unable to pay her creditor. So we are utterly incompetent to satisfy the demands of the law or effect our own redemption.
4. She, like us, could rely only on the mere favor of God. "Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus" (Rom. 3:24). That is exactly what we should expect to find in this miracle, for five is the number of grace (see Gen. 43:34, 45:22; 1 Cor. 14:19). Note also the means used, the "oil" multiplied. Oil is a figure of the superabounding grace of God (Ps. 23:5; Isa. 61:3).
5. Yet it was a grace that was wrought "through righteousness" (Rom. 5:21). It obtained the freedom of the widow’s sons by meeting the full due of her creditor.
6. Both aspects of redemption are seen here. First, the price: "Sell the oil, and pay thy debt" (2 Kings 4:7); Second, the power: the miraculous supply of oil.
7. It was not a general and promiscuous redemption. It was a definite and particular one. For a "widow" was the special object of God’s notice (Deut. 24:19; Ps. 68:5; Jam.1:27), and not a mere abstraction of "freewillism."