Gleanings From Elisha
His Life and Miracles
FIFTEENTH MIRACLE—A GREAT FAMINE
The Passage which is now to engage our attention is much longer than usual, beginning as it does at 2 Kings 6:24 and running to the end of 2 Kings 7. The whole of it needs to be read at a sitting, so as to perceive its connections, its unity, and its wonders. In it there is a striking mingling of light and shade: the dark background of human depravity and the bright display of the prophet’s faith; the exercise of God’s justice in His sore judgments upon a rebellious and wayward people, and the manifestation of His amazing mercy and grace. In it we are shown how the wrath of man was made to praise the Lord, how the oath of a wicked king was made to recoil on his own head, how the skepticism of his courtier was given the lie and how the confidence of Elisha in his Master’s word was vindicated. In it we behold how the wicked was taken in his own craftiness, or to use the language of Samson’s parable, how the eater was made to yield meat, and how poor outcast lepers became the heralds of good news.
Truth is indeed stranger than fiction. Were one to invent a story after the order of the incident narrated in our present portion, critical readers would scorn it as being too farfetched. But those who believe in the living and omnipotent God that presides over the affairs of this world, far from finding anything here which taxes their faith, bow in adoration before Him who has only to speak and it is done, to will a thing and it is accomplished. In this case, Samaria was besieged by a powerful enemy, so that its inhabitants were completely surrounded. The situation became drastic and desperate, for there was a famine so acute that cannibalism was resorted to. Yet under these extreme circumstances Elisha announced that within twenty-four hours there would be an abundance of food for everyone. His message was received with incredulity and scorn, yet it came to pass just as he had said, without a penny being spent, a gift being made, or a blow being struck. The surrounding Syrians fled in panic and left their vast stores of food to relieve the famished city. Let us now begin our examination of this miracle.
First, the Reality of the Miracle
After our remarks above it may strike the reader that it is quite an unnecessary waste of effort to labor a point which is obvious and offer proof that a miracle was wrought on this occasion. The writer would have thought so too had he not, after completing his own meditations, consulted several volumes on the Old Testament, only to find that this wonder is not listed among the miracles associated with Elisha. Even such a work as The Companion Bible, which supplies what is supposed to be a complete catalog of the miracles of Elijah and Elisha, omits this one. We offer no solution to this oversight, but since other writers have failed to see in 2 Kings 7 one of the marvels of our prophet we feel that we should present some of the evidence which in our judgment furnishes clear proof that a supernatural event was wrought on this occasion, and that we are fully warranted in connecting it with Elisha.
The first thing that we would take note of is that when the people were in such desperate straits and the king was so beside himself that he rent his clothes and swore that the prophet should be slain that very day, we are told "But [contrastively] Elisha sat in his house, and the elders sat with him" (2 Kings 6:32), which suggests to us that they had waited upon the Lord and had received assurance from Him of His intervention in mercy. Second, that the prophet was in communion with and in possession of the secret of the Lord is borne out by the remaining words of the verse, where he tells his companions of Jehoram’s evil intention and announces the approach of his agent before he arrived. Next, we find the prophet plainly declaring that an abundant supply of food would be provided on the morrow (2 Kings 7:1), and he did so in his official character as "the man of God" (2 Kings 7:2, 17, 18, 19), which, as we have seen in previous chapters, is the title that is usually accorded him when God was about to work mightily through him or for him in answer to his prayers.
Consider too the circumstances. "There was a great famine in Samaria: and, behold, they [the Syrians] besieged it, until an ass’s head was sold for fourscore pieces of silver, and the fourth part of a cab of dove’s dung for five pieces of silver" (2 Kings 6:25). Nevertheless the prophet declared that there should suddenly be provided sufficient food for all; and the sequel shows it came to pass such an abundant supply. The manner in which that food was furnished clearly evidenced the supernatural, as an impartial reading of 2 Kings 7:6-7 will make clear, for it was their enemies who were made to supply their tables! Finally, if we give due weight to the "according to the word of the LORD" and "as the man of God had said" in 2 Kings 7:16-17 and link with 2 Kings 4:43-44 where another of his miracles is in view and so referred to, the demonstration is complete.
Second, the Occurrence of the Miracle
This was the terrible shortage of food in the city of Samaria, due to its being surrounded by an enemy, so that none of its inhabitants could go forth and obtain fresh supplies. "And it came to pass after this, that Ben-hadad king of Syria gathered all his host, and went up, and besieged Samaria" (2 Kings 6:24). Strange as it may at first seem and sound to the reader, we see here one of the many internal evidences of the divine inspiration of the Scriptures. This will appear if we quote the last clause of the verse immediately preceding: "So the bands of Syria came no more into the land of Israel." Had an impostor written this chapter, attempting to palm off upon us a pious forgery he surely would not have been so careless as to place in immediate juxtaposition two statements which a casual reader can only regard as a flat contradiction. No, one who was inventing a story certainly would have made it read consistently and plausibly. Hence, we arrive at the conclusion that this is no fictitious narrative from the pen of a pretender to inspiration.
"So the bands of Syria came no more into the land of Israel [of which ‘Samaria’ was a part, as 2 Kings 5:20 shows]. And it came to pass after this, that Ben-hadad king of Syria gathered all his host, and went up, and besieged Samaria" (2 Kings 6:23-24). Now the placing of those two statements side by side is a clear intimation to us that the Scriptures need to be read closely and carefully, that their terms must be properly weighed, and that failure to do so will inevitably lead to serious misunderstanding of their purport. It is because infidels only skim passages here and there and are so poorly acquainted with the Word, that they charge it with being "full of contradictions." But there is no contradiction here, and if it presents any so-called difficulty to us, it is entirely of our own making. The first statement has reference to the plundering and irregular "bands" which had from time to time preyed on the Samaritans (compare the "companies" of 2 Kings 5:2), what we would term today "commando raids"; whereas 2 Kings 6:24 speaks of organized war, a mass invasion, Ben-hadad gathering together "all his host."
"And it came to pass after this, that Ben-hadad king of Syria gathered all his host, and went up, and besieged Samaria" (2 Kings 6:24). The opening clause is far more than a historical mark of time; properly understood, it serves to bring out the character of this man. The introductory "And" bids us link his action here with what is recorded in the context. In the remote context (2 Kings 5), we saw how God graciously healed Naaman of his leprosy. Naaman was the commander-in-chief of Ben-hadad’s army and had been sent by him into Samaria to be cured of his dread disease. But little did the Syrian monarch appreciate that signal favor; shortly after, he assembled an increased force of his bands and "warred against Israel" (2 Kings 6:8). His plan was to capture Jehoram, but being foiled by Elisha he sent his men to capture the prophet. In that too he failed, for in answer to Elisha’s prayer, they were smitten with blindness; though instead of taking advantage of their helplessness, he later prayed for their eyes to be opened, and after having the king give them a feast, sent them home to their master, who had returned to Syria.
"And it came to pass after this"; not that Ben-hadad repented of his former actings, nor that he was grateful for the mercy and kindness which had been shown his soldiers; but that he "gathered all his host, and went up, and besieged Samaria." Not only was this base ingratitude against his human benefactors, but it was blatant defiance against Jehovah Himself. Twice the Lord had manifested His miracle-working power in grace on his behalf; and here was his response. Yet we must look further if we are to perceive the deeper meaning of "it came to pass after this," for we need to answer the question, Why did the Lord permit this heathen to invade Israel’s territory?
The reply is also furnished by the context. Ben-hadad was not the only one who had profited by God’s mercies in the immediate past; the king of Israel had also been divinely delivered from those who sought his life. And how did he express his appreciation? Did he promptly institute a religious reformation in his dominions and tear down the altars which his wicked parents had set up? No, so far as we are informed he was quite unmoved and continued in his idolatry.
It is written, "the curse causeless shall not come" (Prov. 26:2). When God afflicts a people, be it a church or a nation, it is because He has a controversy with them. If they refuse to put right what is wrong, He chastises them. God, then, was acting in judgment on Samaria when He commissioned the Syrians to now enter their land in full force. "O Assyrian, the rod of mine anger, and the staff in their hand is mine indignation. I will send him against an hypocritical nation" (Isa. 10:5-6). So again, at a later date, the Lord said of Nebuchadnezzar "Thou art my battle axe and weapons of war: for with [or ‘by’] thee will I break in pieces the nations, and with thee will I destroy kingdoms" (Jer. 51:20). It is in the light of such passages as these we should view the activities of a Hitler or a Mussolini! Though God’s time to completely cast off Israel had not come in the days of Jehoram, yet He employed Ben-hadad to grievously afflict his kingdom.
"And there was a great famine in Samaria: and, behold, they besieged it, until an ass’s head was sold for fourscore pieces of silver, and the fourth part of a cab of dove’s dung for five pieces of silver" (2 Kings 6:25). Troubles seldom come singly, for God means to leave us without excuse if we fail to recognize whose hand it is which is dealing with us. Ben-hadad chose his hour to attack when Israel was in sore tribulation, which serves also to illustrate Satan’s favorite method of assaulting the saints. Like the fiend that he is, he strikes when they are at their lowest ebb, coming as the roaring lion when their nerves are already stretched to the utmost, seeking to render them both praiseless and prayerless while lying on a bed of sickness, or to instill into their minds doubts of God’s goodness in the hour of bereavement, or to question His promises when the meal has run low in their barrel. But since "we are not ignorant of his devices" (2 Cor. 2:11), we should be on our guard against such tactics.
"And there was a great famine in Samaria." It needs to be pointed out in these days of skepticism and practical atheism that the inhabitants of earth are under the government of something infinitely better than "fickle fortune," namely, a world which is ruled over by the living God. Goodly harvests or the absence of them are not the result of chance nor the effect of a blind fate. In Psalm 105:16 we read that God "called for a famine upon the land: he brake the whole staff of bread." And my reader, when He calls for a "famine," neither farmers nor scientists can prevent or avert it. We have read in the past of famines in China and in India, but how faintly can we conceive of the awful horrors of one in our day! As intimated above, the Lord called for this famine on Samaria because the king and his subjects had not taken to heart His previous chastisements of the land for their idolatry. When a people refuse to heed the rod, then He smites more heavily.
"And there was a great famine in Samaria: and, behold, they besieged it." Their design was not to storm but to starve the city, by throwing a powerful military cordon around it, so that none could either go out or come in. "And as the king of Israel was passing by upon the wall [probably taking stock of his defenses and seeking to encourage the garrison], there cried a woman unto him, saying, Help, my lord, O king" (2 Kings 6:26). And well she might, for they were now deprived of the bare necessities of life, with a slow but painful death by starvation stating them in the face. Ah, my reader, how little we really value the common mercies of this life until they are taken from us! Poor woman, she turned to lean upon a broken reed, seeking relief from the apostate king, rather than making known her need to the Lord. There is no hint anywhere in the narrative that the people prayed to God.
"And he said, If the LORD do not help thee, whence shall I help thee? out of the barnfloor or out of the winepress?" (2 Kings 6:27). That was not the language of submission and piety, but, as the sequel shows, of derision and blasphemy. His language was that of anger and despair: the Lord will not help; I cannot, so we must perish. Out of the abundance of his evil heart his mouth spoke. Calming down a little, "the king said unto her, What aileth thee? And she answered, This woman [pointing to a companion] said unto me, Give thy son, that we may eat him to day, and we will eat my son to morrow. So we boiled my son, and did eat him: and I said unto her on the next day, Give thy son, that we may eat him: and she hath hid her son" (2 Kings 6:28-29). This shows the desperate conditions which then prevailed and the awful pass to which things had come. Natural affection yielded to the pangs of hunger. This too must also be regarded as a most solemn example of the divine justice, and vengeance on idolatrous Israel.
It must be steadily borne in mind that the people of Samaria had cast off their allegiance to Jehovah and were worshipping false gods, and therefore according to His threatenings, the Lord visited them with severe judgments. They were so blockaded by the enemy that all ordinary food supplies failed them, so that in their desperation they were driven to devour the most abominable offals and even human flesh. Of old the Lord had announced unto Israel, "If ye will not for all this hearken unto me, but walk contrary unto me; Then I will walk contrary unto you also in fury; and I, even I, will chastise you seven times for your sins, and ye shall eat the flesh of your sons" (Lev. 26:27-29). And again, "The LORD shall bring a nation against thee... And he shall besiege thee... And thou shalt eat the fruit of thine own body, the flesh of thy sons and of thy daughters, which the LORD thy God hath given thee, in the siege, and in the straitness" (Deut. 28:49, 52-53). This was even more completely fulfilled at the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. No words of God’s shall fall to the ground; His threatenings, equally with His promises, are infallibly certain of fulfillment!
"And it came to pass, when the king heard the words of the woman, that he rent his clothes; and he passed by upon the wall, and the people looked, and, behold, he had sackcloth within upon his flesh" (2 Kings 6:30). According to the customs of those days and the ways of Oriental people, this was the external garb of a penitent; but what was it worthwhile he renounced not his idols? Not a particle in the eyes of Him who cannot be imposed upon by any outward shows. It was a pose which the king adopted for the benefit of his subjects, to signify that he felt deeply for their miseries; yet he lamented not for his own iniquities, which were the underlying cause of the calamity. Instead of so doing, the very next verse tells us that he took an awful oath that Elisha should be promptly slain. "Rend your heart, and not your garments" (Joel 2:13) is ever the divine call to those under chastisement, for God desires truth (reality) in "the inward parts" (Ps. 51:6).
As it is useless to wear sackcloth when we mourn not for our sins, so it is in vain to flock to church on a "day of prayer" and then return at once to our vanities and idols. Israel later complained, "Wherefore have we fasted,... and thou seest not? wherefore have we afflicted our soul, and thou takest no knowledge?" And God answered them by saying, "Behold, in the day of your fast ye find pleasure, and exact all your labors . . . Ye shall not fast as ye do this day, to make your voice to be heard on high" (Isa. 58:3-4). Thus there is such a thing as not only praying but fasting which God pays no attention to. At a later date He said to them, "When ye fasted and mourned... did ye at all fast unto me, even to me? Should ye not hear the words which the LORD hath cried by the former prophets!" (Zech. 7:5, 7). While a nation tramples upon the divine commandments, neither prayer and fasting nor any other religious performances are of any avail with Him who says, "Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice" (1 Sam. 15:22). There must be a turning away from sin before there can be any real turning unto God.