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Bible Commentaries
2 Kings 4

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-44


2 Kings 4:1-44

WE are now in the full tide of Elisha’s miracles, and as regards many of them we can do little more than illustrate the text as it stands. The record of them clearly comes from some account prevalent in the schools of the prophets, which is however only fragmentary, and has been un-chronologically pieced into the annals of the kings of Israel.

The story of Elisha abounds far more in the supernatural than that of Elijah, and is believed by most critics to be of earlier date. Yet the scenes and portents of his life are almost wholly lacking in the element of grandeur which belong to those of the elder seer. His personality, if on the whole softer and more beneficent, inspires less of awe, and the whole tone of the biography which recorded these isolated incidents is lacking in the poetic and impassioned elevation which marks the episodes of Elijah’s history. We see in the records of Elisha, as in the biographies so rich in prodigies of fourth-century hermits and mediaeval saints, how little impressive in itself is the exercise of abnormal powers; how it derives its sole grandeur from the accompaniment of great moral lessons and spiritual revelations. John the Baptist "did no miracle," yet our Lord placed him not only far above Elisha, but even above Moses and Samuel and Elijah, when He said of him, "Verily I say unto you, of them that have been born of women there hath not risen a greater than John the Baptist."

It is impossible not to be struck with the singular parallelism between the powers exercised by Elisha and those which are attributed to his predecessor. "How true an heir is Elisha of his master," says Bishop Hall, "not in his graces only, but in his actions! Both of them divided the waters of Jordan, the one as his last act, the other as his first. Elijah’s curse was the death of the captains and their troops; Elisha’s curse was the death of the children. Elijah rebuked Ahab to his face; Elisha, Jehoram. Elijah supplied the drought of Israel by rain from heaven; Elisha supplied the drought of the three kings by waters gushing out of the earth. Elijah increased the oil of the Sareptan, Elisha increased the oil of the prophet’s widow; Elijah raised from death the Sareptan’s son, Elisha the Shunammite’s; both of them had one mantle, one spirit; both of them climbed up one Carmel, one heaven." The resemblance, however, is not at all in character, but only in external and miraculous circumstances. In all other respects Elisha furnishes a contrast to Elijah which startles us quite as much as any superficial resemblances. Elijah was a free, wild Bedawy prophet, hating and shunning as his ordinary residence the abodes of men, making, his home in the rocky wady or in the mountain glades, appearing and disappearing suddenly as the wind. He asserted his power most often in ministries of retribution. Clad in the sheepskin of a Gadite shepherd or mountaineer, he was not one of those who wear soft clothing or are found in kings’ houses. He usually met monarchs as their enemy and their reprover, but for the most part avoided them. He never intervened for years together even in national events of the utmost importance, whether military or religious, unless he received the direct call of God, or there appeared to him to be a "dignus Vindice nodus." Elisha, on the other hand, makes his home in cities, and chiefly in Samaria. He is familiar with kings and moves about with armies, and has no long retirements into unknown solitudes; and though he could speak roughly to Jehoram, he is often on the friendliest terms with him and with other sovereigns.

The stories of Elisha give us many interesting glimpses into the social life of Israel in his day. As to their literal historic accuracy, those must make positive affirmation who feel that they can do so in accordance alike with adequate authority and with the sacredness of truth. Many will be unable to escape the opinion that they bear some resemblance to other Jewish haggadoth, written for edification, with every innocent intention, in the schools of the Prophets, but no more intended for perfectly literal acceptance in all their details than the Life of St. Paul the Hermit by St. Jerome; or that of St. Anthony, attributed erroneously to St. Athanasius; or that of St. Francis in the Fioretti; or the lives of humble saints of the people called Kisar-el-anbiah, which are so popular among poor Mohammedans. Into that question there is no need to enter further. Abundet quisque in Sensu suo.

I. On one occasion a widow of one of the Sons of the Prophets-for these communities, though coenobitic, were not celibate-came to him in deep distress. Her husband-the Jews, with their usual guesswork, most improbably identified him with Obadiah, the chamberlain of Ahab-had died insolvent. As she had nothing to pay, her creditor under the grim provision of the law was about to exercise his right of selling her two sons into slavery to recoup himself for the debt. {Leviticus 25:39-41; Matthew 18:25} Would Elisha help her?

Prophets were never men of wealth, so that he could not pay her debt. He asked her what she possessed to satisfy the demand. Nothing, she said, "but a pot of the common oil, used for anointing the body after a bath."

Elisha bade her go and borrow from her neighbors all the empty vessels she could, then to return home, shut the door, and pour the oil into the vessels.

She did so. They were all filled, and she asked her son to bring yet another. But there was not another to be had, so she went out and told the Man of God. He bade her sell the miraculously multiplied oil to pay the debt, and live with her sons on the proceeds of what was over.

II. We next find Elisha at Shunem, famous as the abode of the fair maiden-probably Abishag, the nurse of David’s decrepitude-who is the heroine of the Song of Songs. It is a village, now called Solam, on the slopes of Little Hermon (Jebel-el-Duhy), three miles north of Jezreel. At this place there lived a lady of wealth and influence, whose husband owned the surrounding land. There were but few khans in Palestine, and even where they now exist the traveler has in most cases to supply his own food. Elisha, in his journeys to and fro among the schools of the Prophets, had often enjoyed the welcome hospitality eagerly pressed upon him by the lady of Shunem. Struck with his sacred character, she persuaded her husband to take a step unusual even to the boundless hospitality of the East. She begged him to do honor to this holy Man of God by building for him a little chamber (aliyah) on the flat roof of the house, to which he might have easy and private access by the outside staircase. The chamber was built, and furnished, like any other simple Eastern room, with a bed, a divan to sit on, a table, and a lamp; and there the weary prophet on his journeys often found a peaceful, simple, and delightful resting-place.

Grateful for the reverence with which she treated him, and the kind care with which she had supplied his needs, Elisha was anxious to recompense her in whatever way might be possible. The thought of money payment was of course out of the question; merely to hint at it would have been a breach of manners. But perhaps he might be of use to her in some other way. At this time, and for years afterwards during his long ministry of perhaps fifty-six years, he was attended by a servant named Gehazi, who stood to him in the same sort of relation which he had held to Elijah. He told Gehazi to summon the Shunammite lady. In the deep humility of Eastern womanhood she came and stood in his presence. Even then he did not address her. So downtrodden was the position of women in the East that any dignified person, much more a great prophet, could not converse with a woman without compromising his dignity. The more scrupulous Pharisees in the days of Christ always carefully gathered up their garments in the streets, lest they should so much as touch a woman with their skirts in passing by, as the modern Chakams in Jerusalem do to this day. The disciples themselves, sophisticated by familiarity with such teachers, were astonished that Jesus at the well of Shechem should talk with a woman. "So, though the lady stood there, Elisha, instead of speaking to her directly," told Gehazi to thank her for all the devout respect and care, all "the modesty of fearful duty," which she had displayed towards them, and to ask her if he should say a good word for her to the King or the Captain of the Host. This is just the sort of favor which an Eastern would be likely to value most. The Shunammite, however, was well provided for; she had nothing to complain of, and nothing to request. She thanked Elisha for his kindly proposal, but declined it and went away,

"Is there, then, nothing which we can do for her?" asked Elisha of Gehazi.

There was. Gehazi had learnt that the sorrow of her life-a sorrow and a source of reproach to any Eastern household, but most of all to that of a wealthy householder-was her childlessness. "Call her," he said.

She came back, and stood reverently in the doorway.

"When the time comes round," he said to her, "you shall embrace a son."

The promise raised in her heart a thrill of joy. It was too precious to be believed. "Nay," she said, "my lord, thou Man of God, do not lie unto thine handmaid."

But the promise was fulfilled, and the lady of Shunem became the happy mother of a son.

III. The charming episode then passes over some years. The child had grown into a little boy, old enough now to go out alone to see his father in the harvest fields and to run about among the reapers. But as he played about in the heat he had a sunstroke, and cried to his father, "O my head, my head!" Not knowing how serious the matter was, his father simply ordered one of his lads to carry the child home to his mother. The fond mother nursed him tenderly upon her knees, but at noon he died.

Then the lady of Shunem showed all the faith and strength and wisdom of her character. "The good Shunammite," says Bishop Hall, "had lost her son; her faith she lost not." Overwhelming as was this calamity-the loss of an only child-she suppressed all her emotions, and, instead of bursting into the wild helpless wail of Eastern mourners, or rushing to her husband with the agonizing news, she took the little boy’s body in her arms, carried it up to the chamber which had been built for Elisha, and laid it upon his bed. Then, shutting the door, she called to her husband to send to her one of his reapers and one of the asses, for she was going quickly to the Man of God and would return in the cool of the evening. "Why should you go today particularly?" he asked. "It is neither new moon, nor sabbath." "It is all right," she said; and with perfect confidence in the rectitude of all her purposes, he sent her the she-ass, and a servant to drive it and to run beside it for her protection on the journey of sixteen miles.

"Drive on the ass," she said. "Slacken me not the riding unless I tell you." So with all possible speed she made her way-a journey of several hours-from Shunem to Mount Carmel.

Elisha, from his retreat on the hill, marked her coming from a distance, and it rendered him anxious. "Here comes the Shunammite," he said to Gehazi. "Run to meet her, and ask Is it well with thee? is it well with thy husband? is it well with the child?"

"All well," she answered, for her message was not to Gehazi, and she could not trust her voice to speak; but pressing on up-hillwards she flung herself before Elisha and grasped his feet. Displeased at the familiarity which dared thus to clasp the feet of his master, Gehazi ran up to thrust her away by force, but Elisha interfered. "Let her alone," he cried; "she is in deep affliction, and Jehovah has not revealed to me the cause." Then her long pent-up emotion burst forth. "Did I desire a son of my lord?" she cried. "Did I not say do not deceive me?"

It was enough-though she seemed unable to bring out the dreadful words that her boy was dead. Catching her meaning, Elisha said to Gehazi, "Gird up thy loins, take my staff, and without so much as stopping to salute any one, or to return a salutation, lay my staff on the dead child’s face." But the broken-hearted mother refused to leave Elisha. She imagined that the servant, the staff, might be severed from Elisha; but she knew that wherever the prophet was, there was power. So Elisha arose and followed her, and on the way Gehazi met them with the news that the child lay still and dead, with the fruitless staff upon his face.

Then Elisha in deep anguish went up to the chamber and shut the door, and saw the boy’s body lying pale upon his bed. After earnest prayer he outstretched himself over the little corpse, as Elijah had done at Zarephath. Soon it began to grow warm with returning life, and Elisha, after pacing up and down the room, once more stretched himself over him. Then the child opened his eyes and sneezed seven times, and Elisha called to Gehazi to summon the mother.

"Take up thy son," he said. She prostrated herself at his feet in speechless gratitude, and took up her recovered child, and went.

IV. We next find Elisha at Gilgal, in the time of the famine of which we read his prediction in a later chapter. {2 Kings 8:1} The sons of the prophets were seated round him, listening to his instructions; the hour came for their simple meal, and he ordered the great pot to be put on the fire for the vegetable soup, on which, with bread, they chiefly lived. One of them went out for herbs, and carelessly brought his outer garment (the abeyah) full of wild poisonous coloquinths, which, by ignorance or inadvertence, were shred into the pottage. But when it was cooked and poured out they perceived the poisonous taste, and cried out, "0 Man of God, death in the pot!"

"Bring meal," he said, for he seems always to have been a man of the fewest words.

They cast in some meal, and were all able to eat of the now harmless pottage. It has been noticed that in this, as in other incidents of the story, there is no invocation of the name of Jehovah.

V. Not far from Gilgal was the little village of Baalshalisha, at which lived a farmer who wished to bring an offering of firstfruits and karmel (bruised grain) in his wallet to Elisha as a Man of God. It was a poor gift enough-only twenty of the coarse barley loaves which were eaten by the common people, and a sack full of fresh ears of corn. {see Leviticus 2:14; Leviticus 23:14} Elisha told his servitor-perhaps Gehazi-to set them before the people present. "What?" he asked, "this trifle of food before a hundred men!" But Elisha told him in the Lord’s name that it should more than suffice; and so it did.

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on 2 Kings 4". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/2-kings-4.html.
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