Gleanings From Elisha
His Life and Miracles
SIXTH MIRACLE—A GREAT WOMAN
First, the Connection of the Miracle
Our Present Narrative opens with the word "And" which intimates that the incident described here is closely related to the preceding miracle, though we must not conclude that this by any means exhausts its force. Sometimes the Spirit of God has placed two things in juxtaposition for the purpose of comparison that we may observe the resemblances between them; at other times, it is with the object of pointing a contrast, that we may consider the points of dissimilarity.
Here it is the latter: note the following antitheses. In the former case the woman’s place of residence is not given (2 Kings 4:1), but here it is (2 Kings 4:8). The first was a widow (2 Kings 4:1); this woman’s husband was alive (2 Kings 4:9). The former was financially destitute; this one was a woman of means. The one sought out Elisha; the prophet approached the other. Elisha provided for the former; this one ministered unto him. The widow had "two sons," but the married woman was childless. The one was put to a severe test (2 Kings 4:3-4); the other was not.
Second, a Word on the Location of the Miracle
The place where this miracle was wrought cannot be without significance, for there is nothing meaningless in Holy Writ, though in this instance we confess to having little or no light. The one who was the beneficiary of this miracle resided at Shunem, which appears to mean "uneven." This place is mentioned only twice elsewhere in the Old Testament. First, in Joshua 19:18, from which we learn that it was situated in the territory allotted to the tribe of Issachar. Second, in 1 Samuel 28:4, where we are told it was the place that the Philistines gathered themselves together and pitched in battle array against Israel, on which occasion Saul was so terrified that, after inquiring in vain of the Lord, he sought out the witch of Endor. Matthew Henry tells us that "Shunem lay in the road between Samaria and Carmel, a road which Elisha was accustomed to travel, as we gather from 1 Samuel 2:25." It seems to have been a farming district, and in this pastoral setting a lovely domestic scene is laid.
Third, the Beneficiary of the Miracle
"And it fell on a day, that Elisha passed to Shunem, where was a great woman" (2 Kings 4:8). The Hebrew word (gadol) is used in varied connections. In Genesis 1:16, 21 and many other passages it refers to material or physical greatness. In Exodus 32:21, "great sin," it has a moral force. In 2 Kings 5:1, Job 1:3, and Proverbs 25:6 it is associated with social eminence. In Psalm 48:1 and numerous other places, it is predicated of the Lord Himself.
This, woman was one of substance or wealth, as is intimated by the servants her husband had and their building and furnishing a room for the prophet. God has His own among the rich and noble. This woman was also "great" spiritually. She was great in hospitality; in discernment, perceiving that Elisha was "a holy man of God"; in meekness, by owning her husband’s headship; in thoughtfulness for others, the care she took in providing for the prophet’s comfort; in contentedness, 2 Kings 4:13; in wisdom, realizing Elisha would desire retirement and quietness; and in faith, confidently counting upon God to show Himself strong on her behalf and work a further miracle as we shall see.
"And it fell on a day, that Elisha passed to Shunem, where was a great woman; and she constrained him to eat bread." Elisha seems to have resided at or near Mount Carmel (2 Kings 2:25, 4:25); but went his circuit through the land to visit the seminaries of the prophets and to instruct the people, which probably was his employment when he was not sent on some special service. "At Shunem there lived a woman of wealth and piety, who invited him to come to her house, and with some difficulty prevailed" (Scott). Several practical points are suggested by this. The minister of the gospel should not be forward in pressing himself upon people, but should wait until he is invited to partake of their hospitality. Nor should he deliberately court the intimacy of the "great," except with the object of doing them good. "Mind not high things, but condescend to men of low estate" (Rom. 12:16) is one of the rules God has given His people to walk by, and His servants should set them an example in this matter.
The Lord’s servants, like those to whom they minister, have their ups and downs, not only in their inward experience but also in external circumstances. Yes, they have their ups as well as their downs. They are not required to spend all their days in caves or sojourning by brooks. If there are those who oppose, God also raises up others to befriend them. Was it not thus with our blessed Lord when He tabernacled here? Though for the most part He "had not where to lay his head," yet there were many women who "ministered unto him of their substance" (Luke 8:2-3), and the home at Bethany welcomed Him. So with the apostle Paul; though he was made as the off-scouring of all things to the Jewish nation, yet the saints loved and esteemed him highly for his work’s sake. If he was cast into prison, yet he also makes mention of "Gaius mine host" (Rom. 16:23). It has ever been thus. The experience of Elisha was no exception, as the present writer can testify, for in his extensive journeyings the Lord opened the hearts and homes of many of His people unto him.
Hospitality (Rom. 12:13) is required of the saints, and of God’s servants too (Titus 3:2; Titus 1:8), and that "without grudging" (1 Pet. 4:9), and this held good equally during the Old Testament era. It is to be noted that this woman took the initiative, for she did not wait until asked by Elisha or one of his friends. From the words "as often as he passed by" we gather that she was on the lookout for him. She sought occasion to do good. Nor was her hospitality any formal thing, but earnest and warmhearted. Hence it may strike us as all the more strange that the prophet demurred and that she had to constrain him to enter her home. This intimates that the servant of God should not readily respond to every invitation received, especially from the wealthy. "Seekest thou great things for thyself? seek them not" (Jer. 45:5) is to regulate his conduct. Elisha responded to her importunity, and after becoming better acquainted with her, never failed to partake of her kindness whenever he passed that way.
"And she said unto her husband, Behold now, I perceive that this is an holy man of God, which passeth by us continually. Let us make a little chamber, I pray thee, on the wall; and let us set for him there a bed, and a table, and a stool, and a candlestick: and it shall be, when he cometh to us, that he shall turn in thither" (2 Kings 4:9-10). Herein we have manifest several other features of her moral greatness. Apparently she was the owner of this property, for her husband is not termed a "great man." Yet we find her conferring with him and seeking his permission. Thereby she took her proper place and left her sisters an admirable example. The husband is "the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church," and therefore explains the command, "Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord" (Eph. 5:22-23). Instead of taking matters into her own hands and acting independently, this "great woman" sought her husband’s consent and cooperation. How much domestic strife would be avoided if there was more of this mutual conferring.
This lady of Shunem was endowed with spiritual discernment, for she perceived that Elisha was a holy man of God. The two things are not to be separated; it is those who walk in subjection to the revealed will of God who are granted spiritual perception: "He that is spiritual judgeth [discerneth] all things" (1 Cor. 2:15), and the spiritual person is the one who is regulated by the precepts of Holy Writ, who is humble and meek and takes the place which the Lord has appointed. "If therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light" (Matthew 6:22); it is acting in self-will which beclouds the vision. "I understand more than the ancients" said David. And why so? "Because I keep thy precepts" (Ps. 119:100). It is when we forsake the path of obedience that our judgment is clouded and our perception dimmed.
While admiring the virtues and graces of this woman, we must not overlook the tribute she paid to Elisha. Observe how she refers to him. Not as a "charming" or "nice man"; how incongruous such an appellation for a servant of God! No, it was not any such carnal or sentimental term she employed. Nor did she allude to him as a "learned man," for scholarship and spirituality by no means always go together. Rather as "an holy man of God" did she designate the prophet. What a description! What a searching word for every minister of the gospel to take to heart. It is "holy men of God" who are used by the Spirit (2 Pet. 1:21). And how did she perceive the prophet’s holiness? Perhaps by finding him at prayer, or reading the Scriptures. Certainly from the heavenliness of his conversation and general demeanor. Ah, my reader, the servant of God should need no distinctive manner of dress in order for people to identify him. His walk, his speech, his deportment ought to be sufficient.
Returning to the "great woman," let us next take note of her constancy. The inviting of Elisha into her home was actuated by no fleeting mood of kindness, which came suddenly upon her and as suddenly disappeared; it rather was a steady and permanent thing. Some people are mere creatures of impulse. But the conduct of those who act on principle is stable.
How often a church is elated when a minister is installed, and its members cannot do too much to express their appreciation for him; but how soon such enthusiasm often cools off. The best of us are spasmodic if not fickle, and need to bear in mind the injunction "let us not be weary in well doing" (Gal. 6:9). It is blessed to see that this woman did not tire of ministering to God’s servant but continued to provide for his need and comfort, and at considerable trouble and expense.
Fourth, the Occasion of the Miracle
"And it fell on a day, that he came thither, and he turned into the chamber, and lay there. And he said to Gehazi his servant, Call this Shunammite. And when he had called her, she stood before him" (2 Kings 4:11-12). Elisha did not complacently accept as a matter of course the loving hospitality which had been shown him, as though it were something due him by virtue of his office. No, he was truly grateful and anxious to show his appreciation. In this he differed from some ministers we have met, who appeared to think they were fully entitled to such kindness and deference. While resting from his journey, instead of congratulating himself on his good fortune, he thought upon his benefactress and wondered how he could best make some return. She was in no financial need; apparently she lacked none of the good things of this life. What then should be done for her? He was at a loss to know; but instead of dismissing the thought, he decided to interrogate her directly.
Fifth, the Peculiarity of the Miracle
"And he said unto him, Say now unto her, Behold, thou hast been careful for us with all this care; what is to be done for thee? wouldest thou be spoken for to the king, or to the captain of the host? And she answered, I dwell among mine own people" (2 Kings 4:13). This miracle differed from most of those we have previously considered in that it was unsought, proposed by the prophet himself. He suggested that royal honors might be bestowed on herself or husband if she so desired. Thomas Scott says,
Elisha had no doubt acquired considerable influence with Jehoram and his captains by the signal deliverance and victory obtained for him (2 Kings 3:4-27), and though he would ask nothing for himself, he was willing to show his gratitude on behalf of his kind hostess by interposing on her behalf, if she had any petition to present.
Yet we feel that the prophet knew her too well to imagine her heart was set upon such trifles as earthly dignities, and that he gave her this opportunity to declare herself more plainly.
"And she answered, I dwell among mine own people" (2 Kings 4:13). It looks as though the prophet’s offer to speak to the king for her intimated that positions of honor could be procured for her and her husband in the royal household. Her reply seems to show this, for it signified, "I am quite satisfied with the portion God has given me. I desire no change or improvement in it." How very rare is such contentment! She was indeed a "great woman." Also, today there are so few like her. As Henry points out, "It would be well with many, if they did but know when they are well off." But they do not. A roving spirit takes possession of them, and they suppose they can improve their lot by moving from one place to another, only to find as the old adage says, "A rolling stone gathers no moss." "The wicked are like the troubled sea, when it cannot rest" (Isa. 57:20), but it should be far otherwise with the people of God. It is much to be thankful for when we can contentedly say, "I dwell among mine own people."
Sixth, the Nature of the Miracle
"And he said, What then is to be done for her? And Gehazi answered, Verily she hath no child, and her husband is old. And he said, Call her. And when he had called her, she stood in the door. And he said, About this season, according to the time of life, thou shalt embrace a son. And she said, Nay, my lord, thou man of God, do not lie unto thine handmaid. And the woman conceived, and bare a son at that season that Elisha had said unto her" (2 Kings 4:14-17). Observe the prophet’s humility: in his perplexity, he did not disdain to confer with his servant. He was now pleased to use his interests in the court of heaven, which was far better than seeking a favor from Jehoram. It should be remembered that in Old Testament times the giving of a son to those who had long been childless was a special mark of God’s favor and power, as in the cases of Abraham, Isaac, Manoah, and Elkanah. We are not sure whether her language was that of unbelief or of overwhelming astonishment; but having received a prophet in the name of a prophet, she received "a prophet’s reward" (Matthew 10:41).
Seventh, the Meaning of the Miracle
This may be gathered from the miracle preceding. There we had before us a typical picture of redemption, a setting free from the exactions of the law, a deliverance from bondage. What then is the sequel of this? Surely it is that which we find in the lives of the redeemed, namely, their bringing forth fruit unto God. This order of cause and effect is taught us in "being made free from sin... ye have your fruit unto holiness" (Rom. 6:22 and cf. 1 Corinthians 6:20). But it is not the products of the old nature transformed bringing forth after its own evil kind, for the "flesh" remains the same unto the end. No, it is altogether supernatural, the "fruit of the spirit," the manifestation of the graces of the new nature communicated by God at the new birth. Accordingly we have here the fruit of the womb, yet not by the ordinary workings of nature, but, as in the case of John the Baptist (Luke 1:7, 57), that which transcends nature, which issues only from the wonder-working power of God.
It is to be carefully noted in this connection that the beneficiary of our miracle is designated a "great woman." As we have pointed out in a previous paragraph, this appellation denotes that she was one upon whom divine providence had smiled, furnishing her liberally with the things of this life. But she was also morally and spiritually "great." In both respects she was an appropriate figure of that aspect of salvation which is here before us. Redemption finds its object, like the widow of the foregoing miracle, in distress—poor, sued by the law, unable to meet its demands. But redemption does not leave its beneficiaries thus. No, God deals with them according to "the riches of his grace" and they can now say, "He ‘hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father’" (Rev. 1:6). The righteousness of Christ is imputed to them, and they are "great" indeed in the eyes of God. They are "the excellent, in whom is all my delight" (Ps. 16:3) is how He speaks of them. Such are the ones in whom and by whom the fruits of redemption are brought forth.
Everything recorded of this woman indicates that she was one of the Lord’s redeemed. She honored and ministered unto one of His servants, in a day when prophets were far from being popular. Moreover, Elisha accepted her hospitality, which he surely would not have done unless he discerned in her the marks of grace. The very fact that at first she had to "constrain" him to partake of her kindness indicates he would not readily receive favors from anybody and everybody. But having satisfied himself of her spirituality, "as oft as he passed by, he turned in thither to eat bread." Let it be remarked that that expression to "eat bread" means far more to an Oriental than to us. It signifies an act of communion, denoting a bond of fellowship between those who eat a meal together. Thus by such intimacy of communion with the prophet, this woman gave further evidence of being one of God’s redeemed.
As the procuring of our redemption required miracles (the divine incarnation, the death of the God-man, His resurrection), so the application of it unto its beneficiaries cannot be without supernatural operations, both before and after. Redemption is received by faith; but before saving faith can be exercised, the soul must be quickened, for one who is dead to God cannot move toward Him. The same is true of our conversion, which is a right about-face, the soul turning from the world unto God. This is morally impossible until a miracle of grace has been wrought upon us: "Turn thou me, and I shall be turned" (Jer. 31:18). Such a miracle as regeneration and conversion, whereby the soul enters into the redemption purchased by Christ, is necessarily followed by one which shows the miraculous fruits of redemption. Such is the case here, as we see in the child bestowed upon the great woman. Remarkably enough, that gift came to her unsought and unexpected. And is it not thus in the experience of the Christian? When he came to Christ as a sin-burdened soul, redemption was all that he thought about; there was no asking for or anticipation of subsequent fruit.