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Bible Commentaries
2 Kings 4

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries



“All of the miracles of this chapter are miracles of mercy. The first and the last consist of multiplying food, thus belonging to the same class as our Lord’s feeding of the four and the five thousands and Elijah’s increasing the meal and the oil of the widow of Sarepta (1 Kings 17:10-16).”(F1) Nobody knows how these miracles were performed. The sacred author has not informed us, and the speculative guesses of scholars are of no value whatever. “Rationalistic attempts to explain these wonders exhibit weakness and feebleness that are absolutely puerile.”(F2)

In addition to the remarkable evidence of the supernatural in these events, we believe there are spiritual implications of tremendous importance; and we shall attempt to point out some of these.

This section of 2 Kings (2 Kings 4-8:6) is not arranged in chronological order but is arranged so as to show how Elisha continued the work of Elijah in proving to Israelites the superiority and excellence of the God of Israel as contrasted with all the Canaanite gods such as the nonentity called Baal. “All of the miracles in this section occurred during the reign of Joram.”(F3) It is very significant that the influence of the True God was extended even into foreign countries through Elisha.

Verses 1-7


“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 Jehovah: and the creditor is come to take unto him my two children to be bondmen. And Elisha said unto her, What shall I do for thee? tell me what hast thou in the house? And she said, Thy handmaid hath not anything in the house, save a pot of oil. Then he said, Go, borrow vessels abroad of all thy neighbors, even empty vessels; borrow not a few. And thou shalt go in, and shut the door upon thee and upon thy sons, and pour out into all those vessels; and thou shalt set aside that which is full. So she went from him, and shut the door upon her and upon her sons; they brought the vessels to her, and she poured out. And it came to pass, when the vessels were full, that she said unto her son, Bring me yet a vessel. And he said unto her, There is not a vessel more. And the oil stayed. Then she came and told the man of God. And he said, Go, sell the oil and pay thy debt, and live thou and thy sons of the rest.”

“My husband is dead… and the creditor is come to take unto him my two children to be bondmen” Celibacy was never God’s rule either for prophets or priests, despite the fact that the majority of the sons of the prophets were apparently single men living in ascetic communities. This widow’s husband was one of the sons of the prophets.

We find no fault whatever with the Jewish tradition that this widow’s deceased husband was none other than the godly Obadiah, despite the knee-jerk response of most modern commentators that, “No dependence can be placed on it.”(F4) Josephus accepted the tradition and even stated that the debt which the woman’s husband had acquired was contracted for the purpose of feeding the faithful prophets of Jehovah whom he had hidden in caves from the murderous wrath of Jezebel.(F5)

One of the great imperfections of the Mosaic Law was its toleration of the ancient custom of seizing the family of a debtor and pressing them into slavery as payment of a debt. Of course, there was a limitation in God’s law that terminated all such indentures in the Year of Jubilee, but the Jews seldom honored that Law. The passages that detail this practice may be found in Exodus 21:7; Leviticus 25:39; Amos 2:6 and Amos 8:6. Montgomery seemed to think that this practice disappeared after the exile, citing Nehemiah 5 as the basis of his opinion,(F6) but we learn from the Saviour’s parable in the N.T. that the practice was continued to the very end of the Jewish kingdom (Matthew 18:25).

“Thy handmaid hath not anything… save a pot of oil” “The Hebrew text here rendered `a pot’ of oil is unique”;(F7) and is found “only in this passage” in the whole Bible.(F8) “It may refer to a very small jar normally used for unguents.”(F9) It appears likely that something similar to the precious box of nard that was used in the anointing of Christ is indicated here; and, as some have suggested, “The widow had probably reserved it for her burial.” This type of product was very expensive; and the wholesale multiplication of it in this remarkable wonder not only enabled the woman to pay her debt but also to provide a means of her livelihood for a long time afterward. In this quality, the miracle reminds us of the enrichment of the young couple whose marriage was the occasion of Jesus’ changing the water into the very best quality of wine (some 400 quarts of it)!

Such a conclusion as this derives from the fact of the very small container of “the oil” and that the sale of it amounted to more than enough money to redeem two young bond-servants. “The word for jar (pot) here suggests a very small container.”(F10) “No oil at all was left for cooking.”(F11) Cooking oil does not appear at all in this narrative. Our modern equivalent of what is indicated is a very desirable and expensive type of perfume.

“Go, sell the oil, pay thy debt, and live” Matthew Henry commented on God’s method of bestowing charity upon a worthy recipient. “God did not provide her with some small gratuity, but gave her real help. He set her up in the world to sell oil, and put a liberal stock into her possession to begin with. The greatest kindness one can do for poor people is, if possible, to help them into a way of providing for themselves by their own industry and ingenuity.”(F12) The great need of our own nation, currently, is to enable all able-bodied persons to support themselves, instead of merely doling out a monthly check.

Verses 8-17


“And it fell on a day that Elisha passed to Shunem, where was a great woman; and she constrained him to eat bread. And so it was, that as off as he passed by, he turned in thither to eat bread. And she spake unto her husband, Behold now, I perceive that this is a holy man of God, that passeth by us continually. Let us make, I pray thee, a little chamber on the wall; and let us set for him there a bed, and a table, and a seat, and a candlestick: and it shall be, that when he cometh to us, that he shall turn in thither. 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. 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. And he said, What then is to be done And Gehazi answered, Verily she hath no son, and her husband is old. And he said, Call her. And when he had called her, she stood in the door. And he said, At this season, when the time cometh round, thou shalt embrace a son. And she said, Nay, my lord, thou man of God, do not lie unto thy handmaid. And the woman conceived, and bare a son at that season, when the time came round, as Elisha had said unto her.”

Many have praised this narrative as a graphic picture of social life in that period of history. The details are exciting. Note the simple furniture in the room provided by this generous woman and her husband for Elisha and his servant Gehazi (evidently his constant attendant). Do not overlook the care with which all of the characters here avoided placing the Shunammite woman alone with her guest in his room. It is obvious that the woman was wealthy, her house was made of stone or brick; and Elisha’s chamber was built on the wall. It should be noted that this very generous couple were not solicited by Elisha for such help as they gave, but that they sought out the opportunity to do such a thing and “constrained” Elisha to accept it.

Elisha passed to Shunem (2 Kings 4:8). “This place was north of Jezreel, about 20 miles from Carmel where Elisha lived;”(F13) and Elisha was continually passing through it on his way to visit the various schools of the prophets. The Shunammite woman, “According to Rabbi Eliezer, was a sister of Abishag, the beautiful Shunammite woman, well known in the history of David.”(F14)

“And he said unto him” This shows that the conversation between Elisha and the woman was carried on through the servant Gehazi.

“Wouldest thou be spoken for to the king, or to the captain of the host” What an amazing offer by Elisha! From this, we learn that he was a frequent visitor in the king’s court and that he had free access to the king’s attention at all times, the king here being, not Joram, but Jehoshaphat the king of Judah. The contented happiness of this wonderful couple appears in her polite decline of such favors.

“And she answered, I dwell among mine own people” “The eminent place of this great lady in her society is finely presented by this reply.”(F15)

“And when he called her, she stood in the door” Montgomery translated this last clause, as “She came in. The intermediate agency of Gehazi, standing outside, was good manners, for a lady might not easily speak to a man in his chamber.”(F16)

“Gehazi answered, Verily she hath no son” In this chapter we have the first appearance in the Bible of this character who eventually was afflicted with the leprosy of Naaman. Some suppose that the woman had confided this implied request to Elisha’s servant Gehazi, but the woman herself denied that in her rebuke of Elisha (2 Kings 4:28).

“At this season, when the time cometh round, thou shalt embrace a son” This, of course, is Elisha’s prophecy of the birth of a son to the Shunammite and her husband. Calkins preferred the KJV rendition here, “About this season, according to the time of life,” and gave the meaning as, “At this season of the year, according to the period of gestation.”(F17)

“And the woman conceived, and bare a son at that season, when the time came round, as Elisha had said unto her” This type of miracle was performed a number of times in God’s long history of dealing with his people. “The Bible records a number of these wonder birth narratives in which aged and childless persons became parents.”(F18)

These are: (1) the birth of Isaac to Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 18:1-15); (2) the birth of Samson to Manoah and his wife (Judges 13:2 ff); (3) the birth of Samuel to Elkanah and his wife Hannah; (4) the birth of John the Baptist to Zacharias and Elizabeth (Luke l:39ff); and (5) the Most Wonderful Birth of all, that of the Lord Jesus Christ to The Virgin Mary (Luke 1:26 ff).

The great spiritual lesson of this miracle is the proof it brings of God’s merciful and provident oversight and love of his people who truly love and serve the Lord. No one who ever did God a favor by honoring and supporting his servants was ever left unrewarded or unblessed. No man ever gave God anything that he did not receive it again, doubled and redoubled. This was particularly evident also in the ministry of Christ. The lad who brought the loaves and the fishes to Jesus was the legitimate owner of the twelve baskets full of fragments that remained after the feast. What a great blessing was the birth of a son and heir to this childless couple of Shunem! Does God still do things like this? Assuredly, YES! “Lo I am with you always, even unto the end of the world” (Matthew 28:20). See the teachings of Paul on this question (1 Corinthians 9:8-12).

Verses 18-24


“And when the child was grown, it fell on a day, that he went out to his father to the reapers. And he said unto his father, My head, my head. And he said to his servant, Carry him to his mother. And when he had taken him, and brought him to his mother, he sat on her knees till noon, and then died. And she went up and laid him on the bed of the man of God, and shut the door upon him, and went out. And she called unto her husband, and said, Send me, I pray thee, one of the servants, and one of the asses, that I may go to the man of God, and come again. And he said, Wherefore wilt thou go to him today? it is neither new moon nor sabbath. And she said, It shall be well. Then she saddled an ass, and said to her servant, Drive, and go forward; slacken me not the riding, except I bid thee. And so she went and came unto the man of God to mount Carmel.”

It was harvest, the busiest time of the year, and the Shunammite woman avoided the kind of delay and commotion that would have resulted if she had passed along the knowledge of the death of their child. Her husband’s trust of her was so complete that, despite his wondering why his wife was undertaking such a journey on that particular day, he manifested perfect confidence in her good judgment.

“When the child was grown” This cannot mean that the child had become an adult. He was at this time a small boy, easily carried by a servant to the child’s mother, and easily carried by her upstairs to the private room of the prophet.

“It shall be well” The word thus rendered is actually “peace” in the Hebrew,(F19) and carried with it the implication that everything was ALL RIGHT. The dead child’s mother was absolutely unwilling to admit the child’s death to anyone until she had accomplished her appeal to Elisha.

LaSor tells us that the purpose of the servant’s attending this journey was that of “walking by the ass (or behind him) continually urging the beast forward.”(F20)

Verses 25-31


“And it came to pass, when the man of God saw her afar off, that he said to Gehazi his servant, Behold, yonder is the Shunammite: Run, I pray thee, now to meet her, and say unto her, Is it well with thee? is it well with thy husband? is it well with the child? And she answered, It is well. And when she came to the man of God to the hill, she caught hold of his feet. And Gehazi came near to thrust her away; but the man of God said, Let her alone: for her soul is vexed within her; and Jehovah hath hid it from me, and hath not told me. Then said she, Did I desire a son of my lord? did I not say, Do not deceive me? Then he said to Gehazi, Gird up thy loins, and take my staff in thy hand, and go thy way: if thou meet any man, salute him not, and if any salute thee, answer him not again: and lay my staff upon the face of the child. And the mother of the child said, As Jehovah liveth, and as thy soul liveth, I will not leave thee. And he arose and followed her. And Gehazi passed on before them, and laid the staff upon the face of the child; but there was neither voice nor hearing. Wherefore he returned to meet him, and told him, saying, The child is not awaked.”

“And she answered, It is well” This, of course, is the same ambiguous answer to Gehazi that the woman had previously given to her husband (2 Kings 4:23). She was apparently unwilling to admit the death of her son to anyone except the prophet.

“Gehazi came near to thrust her away” The servant no doubt thought that the woman’s action was in some manner contrary to his master’s dignity and would have hindered her; but Elisha discerned the woman’s bitterness and anxiety and forbade it. Even then, the woman had not said, “My son is dead”; and Elijah, judging from her words seems to have conjectured that perhaps the child was ill. He promptly dispatched Gehazi with his staff in the hope that such an action would suffice. However, the woman was far from satisfied with that action. She knew that Gehazi would be powerless to help her.

“As Jehovah liveth, and as thy soul liveth, I will not leave thee” From this, Elisha knew that the child was deceased, and he promptly agreed to accompany her back to Shunem.

“Gehazi passed on before them” There would have elapsed some time during which Elisha prepared to go. In the meanwhile, Gehazi had laid the prophet’s staff upon the face of the dead child, but, of course, there was no response. God allowed that effort to fail, “In order to show that no magical stick would suffice, but that only by humble and fervent prayer could God’s power be successfully invoked in such a situation as that.”(F21)

“The child is not awaked” The text here repeatedly makes it perfectly clear that the child was deceased. There was neither voice nor hearing on the part of the dead. These words from Gehazi indicate that perhaps both he and Elisha may have supposed that they were dealing with, “A case of mere suspended animation, or a swoon, and that the laying of the staff on the face of the child might have acted as a stimulant to revive him.”(F22) No! The child was dead and had been dead long enough to allow travel twice the distance from Shunem to Carmel, that is, about twenty miles.

Verses 32-37


“And when Elisha was come into the house, behold, the child was dead, and laid upon his bed. And he went in therefore, and shut the door upon them twain, and prayed unto Jehovah. And he went up and lay upon the child, and put his mouth upon his mouth, and his eyes upon his eyes, and his hands upon his hands: and he stretched himself upon him; and the flesh of the child waxed warm. Then he returned and walked in the house once to and fro; and went up and stretched himself upon him: and the child sneezed seven times, and the child opened his eyes. And he called Gehazi, and said, Call this Shunammite. So he called her. And when she came in unto him, he said, Take up thy son. Then she went in, and fell at his feet, and bowed herself to the ground; and she took up her son, and went out.”

This amazing wonder is one of a very limited number of such miracles recorded in the entire Bible. There are only three such miracles in the O.T.: (1) this one; (2) the raising of the son of the widow of Sarepta (1 Kings 17:17-23) by Elijah; and (3) the resurrection of the man who was being buried, and who, when the burial party was threatened by marauders, was hastily cast into the tomb of Elisha and was restored to life by his contact with the bones of that prophet (2 Kings 13:20-21).

In the N.T., we have the following cases: (1) the raising of the daughter of Jairus (Matthew 9:18 ff); (2) the raising of the son of the widow of Nain (Luke 7:12-18); and (3) the raising of Lazarus (John 11), all by the Lord Jesus Christ; also (4) the raising of Dorcas by the apostle Peter (Acts 9:36-41); (5) the raising of Eutychus by the apostle Paul (Acts 20:10-12); (6) the resurrection of the saints who came out of their graves after the resurrection of Christ (Matthew 27:53); and (7) the Marvel of All Ages - the Resurrection of Jesus Christ! (Recorded in all of the Gospels).

We are amazed that some scholars have concluded from this narrative that Elisha did not receive the double portion of the spirit of Elijah as he had requested, basing that notion upon the gradual response of the dead child here as contrasted with the quicker response when Elijah raised the son of the widow of Sarepta. We reject such a view, because two miracles of resurrection are accredited to Elisha, one occurring even after his burial, whereas Elijah raised the dead only once.

Verses 38-41


“And Elisha came again to Gilgal. And there was a dearth in the land; and the sons of the prophets were sitting before him; and he said unto his servant, Set on the great pot, and boil pottage for the sons of the prophets. And one went out into the field to gather herbs, and found a wild vine, and gathered thereof wild gourds his lap full, and came and shred them into the pot of pottage; for they knew them not. So they poured out for the men to eat. And it came to pass, as they were eating of the pottage, that they cried out and said, O man of God, there is death in the pot. And they could not eat thereof, But he said, Then bring meal. And he cast it into the pot; and he said, Pour out for the people, that they may eat. And there was no harm in the pot.”

“There was a dearth in the land” “This may well be the same drought mentioned in 2 Kings 8:1.”(F23)

Stigers identified these wild gourds as, “Wild cucumbers, egg-shaped gourds having a bitter taste, and producing violent diarrhea when eaten, or even death.”(F24)

The spiritual lesson to be derived from this has an application to the anti-Biblical teaching that is offered in some seminaries of our day. The brew that is being fed to some young theological students today is most certainly “Death in the Pot.” It is God’s Word, as revealed in the Bible, that yields all of the rich benefits desired for the children of Adam, and not the unbelieving speculative denials and theories of evil men who strive continually to discredit and destroy faith in the Bible!

These wonderful miracles were given for the purpose of certifying Elisha as a true prophet of God, an urgent need sorely felt in Israel at that time.

Verses 42-44


“And there came a man from Baashalisha, and brought the man of God bread of the first-fruits, twenty loaves of barley, and fresh ears of grain in his sack. And he said, Give unto the people that they may eat. And his servant said, What, should I set this before a hundred men? But he said, Give the people, that they may eat; for thus saith Jehovah, They shall eat, and shall leave thereof. So he set it before them, and they did eat, and left thereof, according to the word of Jehovah.”

This miracle, of course, is reminiscent of the Saviour’s feeding the thousands by the Sea of Galilee. As stated in the beginning of this chapter, it is impossible to explain how this happened. Like the creation itself, this wonder belongs to the hidden things of God. The great spiritual lesson is that God provides for his children, no matter what difficulties seem to lie in the way of his doing so.

“And he said… but he said” The prophet Elisha must be understood as the speaker in these clauses. The servant was evidently Gehazi.

“Bread of the first-fruits” “It is very remarkable that this man brought these gifts to Elisha instead of giving them to a priest as the Law specified.”(F25)

“This account furnishes fresh evidence that the godly men of Israel did not regard the religion introduced by Jeroboam as legitimate, but sought and found the true religion in the schools of the sons of the prophets,”(F26)

The appearance of miraculous events in the O.T. always corresponded with the desperate need for the confirmation of the Truth; and the absence of miracles throughout the Christian dispensation after the age of the apostles and those upon whom they had conveyed charismatic gifts is due to the fact that no additional confirmation of the Word of God is necessary. It is the most certain thing on earth today.

However, there are providences of God today that, in every sense, are just as wonderful as the miracles of old. We have recorded one of these in my commentary on Acts.(F27)

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on 2 Kings 4". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/2-kings-4.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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