Great Faithfulness among Great Unfaithfulness

Far Context

We’re not very far into 2 Kings when we see some pretty dramatic things take place.

First, Elisha’s mentor, Elijah, was taken up to heaven (only one of two who didn’t experience physical death). As a result, Elisha takes his place as prophet to Israel.

Second, we learn that Moab rebelled against Israel. Israel, Judah, and Edom come together and with God’s help, put down the rebellion.

Third, a creditor was coming to collect on a widow’s debt, and she had no way to make amends. Elisha provides for her financially by filling her jars with oil so that she could sell them and pay her debts.


Near Context

Now, the place of Shunem was visited frequently by Elisha on his travels and this land was of Issachar’s inheritance (v. 8). In Elisha’s travels, he would visit a woman, who we don’t know much about other than that she lived in this place–the writer saw to leave these details out and keep the focus on the story to come (v. 8). She extended hospitality to him and she recognized that he was a prophet from God (v. 9). In fact, she was so convinced that he was a man of God that they provided a place for him to live in their house, as we’ve heard earlier (v. 10). As a reward, Elisha would put in a good word to the rulers for her because of her hospitality (v. 13). She politely rejects this favor (v. 13). So, instead, Elisha prophecies that she will have a son in a year (which is pretty dramatic given that her husband was old and they don’t have a son) (v. 15-16).

Sure enough, one year later, she bore a son. (v. 17)

And this is rather significant because in the Ancient Near East, the time and place of Israel, to not have a male heir would be that your inheritance in family and land was cut off. For us today, this seems a little odd, but for Israel, it was everything to have at least one son.


Inciting Incident

Some years have passed, enough that the child can go out and work in the fields (v. 18). Only after working for a short time, he complains that his head hurts (v. 19). His mother, the same woman who was promised a son years ago, took care of him (v. 20). However, he dies quickly right after (v. 20). There are several ideas behind what happened here, but whatever the reason, we are sure that he has certainly died in this mother’s lap. In fact, we’ll receive several more confirmations that he is dead as we progress through the narrative.

Now, maintaining her composure, she goes for the “man of God”–Elisha (v. 22). Even though her only promise–the continuation of her family line, her own son–had died, even when she didn’t ask for one in this episode, she still held out that YHWH had a plan in this situation through his servant Elisha–that is faith. I am not sure how painful this loss would be, but I couldn’t imagine the excruciating pain of this sheer loss. My faith would be rocked, but she remains faithful in his painful time. With haste, she goes for Elisha, seemingly without telling anyone what happened to the child. She embarked on quite possibly the longest day of her life as it was about a 20 mile trip–or about a day’s journey to Mt. Carmel.

Instead of Elisha coming to the woman as he normally does, from Mount Caramel (where he lived) he sees her approaching (v. 25). That’s a first! He commands his servant to make haste and go to see her (v. 26). Elisha knew something had to be wrong because this never happened. The servant asks several questions quickly to figure out what’s wrong (v. 26). But how does she respond? “All is well.” (v. 26) I’m sorry, but what? You just lost your son after years of raising him, and “All is well”? That’s the equivalent of us experiencing this loss, going to church, and when someone asks “How are you?” you say “Good.”

But Elisha was preceptive, he knew something was wrong. She finally brings her charge, the first time we see that she is not okay (v. 28). She didn’t ask for a son, but when she was promised one, she told Elisha that he better not be lying to her. After being promised a son, and given a son, her son is taken away. This is surely some cruel joke. Or, Elisha was the biggest liar she ever encountered. Some cruel lie that she would be given such a wonderful gift and have it taken away from her.

So what does Elisha say? He speaks to his servant and says get up, go quickly, and put my staff at the child’s face (v. 29). But what about her response? Nope. She can’t do it. Her son just died, she just spent a day traveling to him, she has to travel a day back, just to lay his staff there? Huh uh. She isn’t going without Elisha (v. 30). So Elisha’s disciple goes ahead of them and does what Elisha commanded. He reports that the child is still lying there dead in Elisha’s room (v. 31) as they go on their journey.

So the woman and Elisha set out for the child, and sure enough, the child is still dead when they arrive (v. 32). Elisha prays to YHWH, the one who commissioned Elisha for his prophetic ministry, as a mediator for this child and his mother.


Climax

Now, what follows seems pretty weird. Elisha lays on the child, face to face (v. 34). No wonder he shut them out! If I were the mom, I would be thinking that this guy, who we opened our house to for years, is now laying on my child. That’s just weird, and so is he. However, this is rather significant because Elisha is identifying himself in the child’s death. This is not a distant problem, but something close to him. Now, notice something–the child starts to become warm. After you’ve been done for probably close to 3 days, you become cold because your blood is no longer warm, because your heart is no longer circulating it. but what we see here is that death is being undone. But not completely yet

He is so distressed by this situation, he gets up and paces around, probably pondering why the child has not been completely healed yet (v. 35). I mean, Elijah did the same thing and boom, kid was up and about after 3 tries! Perhaps Elisha thinks he is a prophetic fraud, and no one would be greater than Elijah.

In one last ditch effort, he does it again. (v. 35)

All of a sudden, the child sneezes, and a lot of times (v. 36). While this seems like an odd fact, it means that the child is alive again, after being dead for several days!


Falling Action

Elisha calls for the mother, he gave her the good news. Honoring him and YHWH, she bows down to them (v. 37). This was one of the greatest tests of this woman’s faith in YHWH, especially in the midst of national unfaithfulness. If she truly followed him, death and life would be her greatest test, and she passed. Not only that, but in one of the greatest acts of Elisha’s ministry, he confirm his call to the prophetic ministry by raising this child to life.


Resolution

She picks up her son, and went out, undoing her earlier entrance when she delivered her son to that special room.

This has been quite the story, and we now probably understand a couple of the components on why the author included some details, but what was God trying to show to his people in this story about who he is and who his people should be?


1) In the midst of great unfaithfulness, we see an example of great faith

In the midst of great unfaithfulness by the people of Israel, God inspires his writer to include this dramatic story to show Israel what faithfulness to God should look like.

Any student of the Bible, anyone who has read the Bible for a number of years would know that Israel’s relationship with YHWH was hit or miss. As the people of God, they would have seasons of great faithfulness, and seasons of unfaithfulness. In the particular time we find this story in, we see this tension between unfaithfulness to YHWH, but not as bad as previous rulers (and future rulers to come).

Time and time again, this people of God, the only people set apart for God, rebel against him. He wants a relationship with them and has established it in Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and in their hearts they probably wanted the same thing, too, but their sin ruled over them constantly, making this special relationship untenable. And what would God do? He would give them over to their sins as punishment. He would give them over to nations who would rule harshly over them.

But what do we see here? An act of covenantal faithfulness.

This woman, who was kind to this prophet of God for many years, was promised a son (which, she probably gave up on getting one years ago because of their age). She was granted a son, but he was taken away through a vicious and sudden thing like death. Out of all the people of Israel, she probably had the most right to not follow YHWH. And yet, what does she do? She continues to pursue YHWH through his servant Elisha, holding out for hope that there must be some, especially in the face of extreme pain.

And you see, this is what Israel was supposed to do, and what you and I are supposed to do today. Israel was supposed to pursue God in everything. God even dwelled in their midst! And they continued to reject him. Today, we are to remain faithful to YHWH and cast off all sins–our blasphemy, disobedience, murder, hate, adultery, lust, theft, and misplaced desires in things. We are to pursue holiness that is only found in God and who he is. In fact, our relationship with God is even more powerful than the one Israel had with him, because God actually dwells in us, if we are saved, through his Spirit, who empowers us to be faithful to God.


2) God is in power over life and death

We should remain faithful to our God because of who he is. He created all things, and given gave humanity life. That’s why when a child is born, it is a special occasion because God has given life. That’s when death touches a friend or family member, it cuts deep.

But we can rest in the fact that these are no random accident, for God is in control over life and death. Very clearly in this story, we see that God gave life to this family by giving them a son, even after the acceptable time when you have children.

However, since he gave, he can also take away. This child’s death, although it seemed random and miscalculated, was very intentional. But even God was still in control when that child done.

And, and this is where things get really interesting, in the face of great faith, he gave life back. Naturally and rationally, that doesn’t happen. But when your God is in charge of everything, even life and death, nothing is impossible.

I want to take a moment to address some of you here specifically. You may have lost a child or a friend or loved one, even sooner than expected. You have probably shed many tears and cried out to God to have that person back. I want to tell you today that I am sorry that you had to experience death, and I won’t even pretend to know what you have experienced. But I want to offer you great hope!

The same God who calls us to repent of our sins and urges us to faithfulness, the same God who gives and takes away, the same God who gives life and determines when it is time for that person to pass away, that same God sent his Son Jesus, and this should be a great comfort for us because of who he is and what he has done. And this leads me to my final point.


3) God is foreshadowing what Christ will do

God, who calls us to faithfulness and is faithful to his people, who has authority over life and death, knew we could not achieve faithfulness to him alone on our own. Ours hearts are naturally turned inward, on ourselves, and, before Christ, when to do something for others or for ourselves, we choose the option that benefits ourselves. But God sent Christ so that we could repent of our sins and its consequences and turn to him for salvation and its blessings.

God sent Christ, and he lived a perfect life. He didn’t even deserve death, but he endured the cross on behalf of us, taking the sin and punishment headed for his people on himself. And he was dead for 3 days.

Just like this son was dead for 3 some days. And that same God, who raised the boy from the dead, rose Jesus from the dead, too. You see, this death and resurrection of the boy was a foreshadow of something greater God would do in that he would raise his own Son from the dead, identifying with his people, ushering in salvation for his people.

This event in 2 Kings should have been enough to call all of Israel back to repentance. I mean, a mere boy was raised to life. But, folks, how much more should we praise God today because he raised his own perfect Son from the dead and he revives our souls when we cast our hope on him?

So what do we do in this state, waiting for the King to return for us? We remain faithful to our God, and whatever spheres of life we find ourselves in.

  • If a student, faithful to our classes and work by not cheating and doing all of the work required.
  • If a parent, faithful to our children and raising them in the Word of God so that they, too, may be transformed Christians.
  • If an employee, faithful to our employer and the people who we impact indirectly by using our time effectively and doing the best work we can.
  • If a child, honoring our parents by obeying their commands.
  • If a church member, submitting to the elders by following the decisions they make and uplifting them in prayer.
  • If a spouse, remaining faithful to them by casting off all forms of adultery, whether full blown or less noticeable like lust.
  • If retired, remaining steadfast to God in your rest, and passing on your faith to the next generations.

However, we can’t remain faithful on our own, especially in all of these spheres. But God, through his Spirit, endows his people and gives them the strength to do so. And when we fail, grace, mercy, and forgiveness are quick to follow.

Just like Israel when they would repent of their unfaithfulness and follow the true God, we too should rely on God’s Spirit to empower us to pursue him in all of the trying circumstances.


This post was originally part of a sermon delivered at Salem Evangelical Reformed Church, Hellers on Sunday, September 22, 2019. It has been modified from its original version.

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