Gleanings From Elisha
His Life and Miracles
NINTH MIRACLE—TWENTY LOAVES OF BARLEY
It Seems Strange so few have perceived that a miracle is recorded in 2 Kings 4:42-44, for surely a careful reading of those verses makes it evident that they describe the wonder-working power of the Lord. How else can we explain the feeding of so many with such a little and then a surplus remaining? It is even more strange that scarcely any appear to have recognized that we have here a most striking foreshadowment of the only miracle wrought by the Lord Jesus which is narrated by all the four evangelists, namely, His feeding of the multitude from a few loaves and fishes. In all of our reading, we have not only never come across a sermon thereon, but so far as memory serves, not so much as a quotation from or allusion to this striking passage. Thomas Scott dismisses the incident with a single paragraph, and though Matthew Henry is a little fuller, he too says nothing about the supernatural character of it. We wonder how many of our readers, before turning to this article, could have answered the question, Where in the Old Testament is described the miracle of the feeding of a multitude through the hands of a man?
First, the Occasion of the Miracle
Though there was a "dearth [famine] in the land" (2 Kings 4:38) yet we learn from the first verse of our passage that it was not a total or universal one: some barley had been grown in Baal-shalisha. In this we may perceive how in wrath the Lord remembers mercy. Even where the crops of an entire country are a complete failure—an exceedingly exceptional occurrence—there is always food available in adjoining lands. Therein we behold an exemplification of God’s goodness and faithfulness. He declared, "While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease" (Gen. 8:22). Though more than four thousand years have passed since then, each returning one has furnished clear evidence of the fulfillment of that promise—a demonstration both of the divine veracity and of God’s continuous regulation of the affairs of earth. As we have said, it is very rare for there to be a total failure of the crops in arty single country, for as the Lord declares, "I caused it to rain upon one city, and caused it not to rain upon another city: one piece was rained upon, and the piece whereon it rained not withered" (Amos 4:7).
Second, the Contributor to the Miracle
"And there came a man from Baal-shalisha, and brought the man of God bread of the firstfruits" (2 Kings 4:42). Let us begin by observing how naturally and artlessly the conduct of this unnamed man is introduced. Here was one who had a heart for the Lord’s servant in a time of need, who thought of him in this season of scarcity and distress, and who went to some trouble to minister to him. Shalisha adjoined Mount Ephraim (1 Sam. 9:4), and probably a journey of considerable distance had to be taken in order to reach the prophet. Ah, but there was more behind this man’s action than meets the eye; we must look deeper if we are to discover the springs of his deed. It is written, "The steps of a good man are ordered by the LORD" (Ps. 37:23). And thus it was in the case before us. This man now befriended Elisha because God had worked in him "both to will and to do of his good pleasure" (Phil. 2:13). It is only by comparing scripture with scripture we can discover the fullness of meaning in any verse.
Before passing on let us pause and make application to ourselves of the truth to which attention has just been called. It has an important bearing on each of us, and one which needs to be emphasized in this day of practical atheism. The whole trend of things in our evil generation is to be so occupied with what are termed "the laws of Nature," that the operations of the Creator are lost sight of; man and his doings are so eulogized and deified that the hand of God in providence is totally obscured. It should be otherwise with the saint. When some friend comes and ministers to your need, while being grateful to him, look above him and his kindness to the One who has sent him. I may pray, "Give us this day our daily bread" and then, because I am so absorbed with secondary causes and the instruments which He may employ, fail to see my Father’s hand as He graciously answers my petition. God is the giver of everything temporal as well as spiritual, even though He uses human agents in the conveying of them.
"And there came a man from Baal-shalisha." This town was originally called "Shalisha" but the evil power exerted by Jezebel had stamped upon it the name of her false god, as was the case with other places (cf. "Baal-hermon," 1 Chronicles 5:23). But even in this seat of idolatry there was at least one who feared the Lord, who was regulated by His law, and who had a heart for His servant. This should be a comfort to the saints in a time of such fearful and widespread declension as now prevails. However dark things may get, and we believe they will yet become much darker before there is any improvement, God will preserve to Himself a remnant. He always has, and He always will. In the antediluvian world there was a Noah, who by grace was upright in his generations and walked with God. In Egypt, when the name of Jehovah was unknown among the Hebrews, a Moses was raised up, who refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. So now there is one here and there as a voice in the wilderness. Though the name of this man from Shalisha is not given, we doubt not it is inscribed in the Book of Life.
"And there came a man from Baal-shalisha, and brought the man of God bread of the firstfruits." Again we point out that there is more here than meets the careless eye or is obvious to the casual glance. Other passages which make mention of the "firstfruits" must be compared if we are to learn the deeper meaning of what is here recorded and discover that this man’s action was something more than one of thoughtfulness and kindness to Elisha. "The first of the firstfruits of thy land thou shalt bring into the house of the LORD thy God" (Ex. 23:19, 34:26). The "firstfruits," then, belonged to the Lord, being an acknowledgment both of His goodness and proprietorship; a fuller and very beautiful passage is found in Deuteronomy 26:1-11. From Numbers 18:8-13 we learn that these became the portion of the priests. "Whatsoever is first ripe in the land, which they [the people] shall bring unto the LORD, shall be thine [Aaron’s and his sons]; every one that is clean in thine house shall eat of it" (Num. 18:13). The same holds good in the rebuilt temple. "The first of all the firstfruits... shall be the priest’s" (Ezek. 44:30).
This man from Shalisha then, was, in principle, acting in obedience to the divine law. We say "in principle," because it was enjoined that the firstfruits should be taken into "the house of the LORD" and that they became the priest’s portion. But this man belonged to the kingdom of Israel and not of Judah; he lived in Samaria and had no access to Jerusalem, and even had he gone there, entrance to the temple had been forbidden. In Samaria there were none of the priests of the Lord, only those of Baal. But though he rendered not obedience to the letter, he certainly did so to the spirit, for he recognized that these firstfruits were not for his own use; and though Elisha was not a priest he was a prophet, a servant of the Lord. It is for this reason, we believe, that it is said he brought the firstfruits not to "Elisha" but to "the man of God." That designation occurs first in Deuteronomy 33:1 in connection with Moses, and is descriptive not of his character but of his office—one wholly devoted to God, his entire time spent in His service. In the Old Testament it is applied only to the prophets and extraordinary teachers (1 Sam. 2:27, 9:6; 1 Kings 17:18); but in the New Testament it seems to belong to all of God’s servants (1 Tim. 6:11; 2 Tim. 3:17).
What has been pointed out above should throw light on a problem which is now troubling many conscientious souls and which should provide comfort in these evil days. The situation of many of God’s people is now much like that which prevailed when our present incident occurred. It was a time of apostasy, when everything was out of order. Such is the present case of Christendom. It is the clear duty of God’s people to render obedience to the letter of His Word wherever that is possible; but when it is not, they may do so in spirit. Daniel and his fellow Hebrews could not observe the Passover feast in Babylon, and no doubt that was a sore grief to them. But that very grief signified their desire to observe it, and in such cases God accepts the will for the deed. For many years past, this writer and his wife have been unable to conscientiously celebrate the Lord’s supper; yet (by grace) we do so in spirit, by remembering the Lord’s death for His people in our hearts and minds. "Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together" (Heb. 10:25) is very far from meaning that the sheep of Christ should attend a place where the "goats" predominate, or where their presence would sanction what is dishonoring to their Master.
Before passing on, we should point out another instructive and encouraging lesson here for the humble saint. This man from Shalisha, acting in the spirit of God’s law, journeying with his firstfruits to where Elisha was, could have had no thought in his mind that by this action he was going to be a contributor to a remarkable miracle. Yet such was actually the case, for those very loaves of his became the means, by the wonder-working power of God, of feeding a large company of people. And this is but a single illustration of a principle which, under the government of God, is of frequent occurrence, as probably most of us have witnessed. Ah, my reader, we never know how far-reaching may be the effects and what fruits may issue for eternity from the most inconspicuous act done for God’s glory or for the good of one of His people. How often has some obscure Christian, in the kindness of his heart, done something or given something which God has been pleased to bless and multiply in a manner and to an extent which never entered his (or her) mind.
"And brought the man of God bread of the firstfruits, twenty loaves of barley, and full ears of corn in the husk thereof." How it appears that it delighted the Holy Spirit to describe this offering in detail. Bearing in mind that a time of serious "dearth" then prevailed, may we not see in the varied nature of this gift thoughtfulness and consideration on the part of him that made it. Had the whole of it been made up in the form of "loaves," some of it might have become moldy before the whole of it was eaten. At best it would need to be consumed quickly; to obviate that, part of the barley was brought in the husk. On the other hand, had all been brought in the ear, time would be required for the grinding and baking, and in the meanwhile the prophet might be famished and fainting. By such a division, both disadvantages were prevented. From the whole, we are taught that in making gifts to another or in ministering to his needs we should exercise care in seeing that it is in a form best suited to his requirements. The application of this principle pertains to spiritual things as well as temporal.
Third, the Generosity of the Miracle
Before noting the use to which Elisha put this offering, let us observe that gifts sometimes come from the most unexpected quarters. Had this man come from Bethel or Shunem there would be no occasion for surprise, but that one from Baal-shalisha should bring God’s servant an offering of his firstfruits was certainly not to be looked for. Ah, does not each of God’s servants know something of this experience! If on the one hand some on whose cooperation he had reason to count, failed and disappointed him, others who were strangers befriended him. More than once or twice have the writer and his wife had this pleasant surprise. We cherish their memory, while seeking to forget the contrasting ones. Joseph might be envied and mistreated by his brethren, but he found favor in the eyes of Potiphar. Moses may be despised by the Hebrews, but he received kindly treatment in the house of Jethro. Rather than have Elijah starve by the brook Cherith, the Lord commanded the ravens to feed him. Our supplies are sure, though at times they may come from strange quarters.
"And he said, Give unto the people, that they may eat" (2 Kings 4:42). In the preceding miracle this same trait is manifest: nothing is there said of Elisha partaking of the pottage, nor even of the young prophets in his charge, but rather "the people." Such liberality will not go unrewarded by God, for He has promised "Give, and it shall be given unto you" (Luke 6:38). Such was the case here, for the very next thing recorded after his "Pour out for the people that they may eat" (2 Kings 4:41) is the receiving of these twenty loaves. And what use does he now make of them? His first thought was not for himself, but for others. We must not conclude from the silence of this verse that the prophet failed either to perceive the hand of God in this gift or that he neglected to return thanks unto Him. Had the Scriptures given a full and detailed account of such matters, they would run into many volumes. According to the law of analogy we are justified in concluding that he did both. Moreover, what follows shows plainly that his mind was stayed upon the Lord.
The situation which confronted Elisha is one that in principle has often faced God’s people. What the Lord gives to one is not to be used selfishly but is to be shared with others. Yet sometimes we are in the position that what is on hand does not appear sufficient for that purpose. My supply may be scanty and the claims of a growing family have to be met. If I contribute to the Lord’s cause and minister to His servants and people, may not my little ones go hungry? Here is where the exercise of faith comes in. Lay hold of such promises as Luke 6:38 and 2 Corinthians 9:8; act on them and you shall prove that "the liberal soul shall be made fat" (Prov. 11:25). Especially should the ministers of Christ set an example in this respect; if they be close-handed, it will greatly hinder their usefulness. Elisha made practical use of what was designed as an offering to the Lord, as David did not hesitate to take the "shewbread" and give to his hungry men.
Fourth, the Opposition to the Miracle
"And his servitor said, What! should I set this before an hundred men?" (2 Kings 4:43). Ah, the servant of God must not expect others to be equally zealous in exercising a gracious spirit or to cooperate with him in the works of faith. No, not even those who are his assistants—none can walk by the faith of another. (When Luther announced his intention of going to Worms, even his dearest brethren sought to dissuade him.) But was not such an objection a natural one? Yes, but certainly not spiritual. It shows how shallow and fleeting must have been the impression made on the man by the previous miracles. It was quite in keeping with what we read elsewhere of this "servitor," Gehazi. His language expressed incredulity and unbelief. Was he thinking of himself? Did he resent his master’s generosity and think, We shall need this food for ourselves? And this, after all the miracles he had seen God work through Elisha! Ah, it takes something more than the witnessing of miracles to regenerate a dead soul, as the Jews made evident when the Son of God was in their midst.
Fifth, the Means of the Miracle
Faith in God and His Word was the only human means involved. "He said again, Give the people, that they may eat: for thus saith the LORD, They shall eat, and shall leave thereof" (2 Kings 4:43). Where there is real faith in God it is not stumbled by the unbelief of others; but when it stands in the wisdom of men, it is soon paralyzed by the opposition it encounters. When blind Bartimaeus began to cry out, "Jesus, thou son of David, have mercy on me," and many charged him that he should hold his peace, "he cried the more a great deal" (Mark 10:46, 48). On the other hand, one with a stony-ground hearer’s faith endures for awhile, "for when tribulation or persecution ariseth because of the word, by and by [quickly] he is offended" (Matthew 13:21). When Elisha had first said, "Give unto the people, that they may eat," it was the language of faith. 2 Kings 4:41 seems to show that the people had been seeking the prophet in the extremity of their need. His own barrel of meal had probably run low, and it is likely he had been praying for its replenishment. And here was God’s answer—yet in such a form or measure as to further test his faith! Elisha saw the hand of God in this gift and counted upon His making it sufficient to meet the needs of the crowd. Elisha regarded those twenty loaves as an "earnest" of greater bounties.
Do we regard such providences as "a token for good," or are we so wrapped up in the token itself that we look no further? It was a bold and courageous faith in Elisha; he was not afraid the Lord would put him to confusion and cause him to become a laughingstock to the people. At first his faith was a general (yet sufficient) one in the character of God. Then it met with a rebuff from Gehazi, but he refused to be shaken. And now it seems to us that the Lord rewarded His servant’s faith by giving him a definite word from Himself. The way to get more faith is to use what has already been given us (Luke 8:18), for God ever honors those who honor Him. Trust Him fully and He will then bestow assurance. The minister of Christ must not be deterred by the carnality and unbelief of those who ought to be the ones to strengthen his hands and cooperate with him. Alas, how many have let distrustful deacons quench their zeal by the difficulties and objections which they raise. How often the children of Israel opposed Moses and murmured against him, but "by faith . . . he endured, as seeing him who is invisible" (Heb. 11:27).
Sixth, the Antitype of the Miracle
There is no doubt whatever in our minds that the above incident supplies the Old Testament foreshadowment of our Lord’s miracle in feeding the multitude, and it is both interesting and instructive to compare and contrast the type with its antitype. Note, then, the following parallels: (1), in each case there was a crowd of hungry people; (2), Elisha took pity on them, and Christ had compassion on the needy multitude (Matthew 14:14); (3), a few "loaves" formed the principal article of diet, and in each case they were barley ones (John 6:9); (4), in each case, the order went forth "give [not ‘sell’] the people that they may eat" (cf. Mark 6:37); (5), in each case an unbelieving attendant raised objection (John 6:7); (6), Elisha fed the crowd through his servant (2 Kings 4:44) and Christ through His apostles (Matthew 14:19); (7), in each case a surplus remained after the people had eaten (2 Kings 4:44 and cf. Matthew 14:20).
And now observe wherein Christ has the preeminence: (1), He fed a much larger company, over five thousand (Mark 14:21) instead of one hundred; (2), He employed fewer loaves—5 (Matthew 14:17), instead of twenty; (3), He supplied a richer feast, fish as well as bread; (4), He wrought by His own power.
Seventh, the Meaning of the Miracle
It will suffice if we just summarize what we have previously dwelt upon. (1) The servant of God who is faithful in giving out to others will not himself be kept on short rations. (2) The more one obtains from God, the more should he impart to the people: "Freely ye have received, freely give." (3) God ever makes His grace abound to those who are generous. (4) A true servant of God has implicit confidence in the divine character. (5) Though he encounters opposition, he refuses to be stumbled thereby. (6) Though other ministers ridicule him, he acts according to God’s Word. (7) God does not fail him, but honors his trust.