Elisha: Mighty in Word and Deed
Elisha: Mighty in Word and Deed
2 Kings 3:1–4:44
Main Idea: Elisha the prophet proves to be mighty in word and deed as he speaks in a time of war and performs miracles in times of desperation.
I. Elisha Speaks God’s Word (3:1-27).
A. The need for God’s word
B. The messenger of God’s word
II. Elisha Shows God’s Compassion (4:1-44).
A. Oil for a desperate widow (vv. 1-7)
B. A child for a barren woman (vv. 8-37)
C. Food for the hungry (vv. 38-44)
III. One Greater than Elisha Is Here.
Our kids have been reading several small biographies. I love debriefing them after they finish each volume. One evening Joshua was so excited to teach me about Abraham Lincoln. With serious and childlike happiness, he said, “Papa, I’ve been reading about Abraham Lincoln. He was the sixteenth president. He was against slavery. But then he got shot and died. Now he’s a statue.” My drink came out of my nose! After cleaning myself up, I commended him for his reading and his confidence, but I tried to correct the last part of his lesson, reminding him that when you die, you don’t turn into a statue. He explained what he meant, however. He said, “People make a statue of you when you do something important. They want to remember you.” We went on to talk about Lincoln’s presidency and how his influence continues to be remembered in America.
We just finished the biography of Elijah in 2 Kings 2. The larger-than-life prophet died—well, sort of. He was taken up into heaven in a blaze of glory, and he reappears in the New Testament. Nevertheless he is gone, but his ministry isn’t gone. It continues on, particularly through the life of his successor, Elisha. Elijah passed the prophetic mantle to him. In the opening chapters of 2 Kings, the sons of the prophets affirmed Elisha’s ministry, and now Elisha will prove his ministry to Israel’s King Joram and others in 2 Kings 3–4. From these chapters we see how Elisha, like Elijah, was God’s special agent, sent to speak truth and to display God’s power.
But Elisha not only reminds us of his mentor. As the privileged readers of the Old and New Testaments, we also see how he foreshadows the ministry of Jesus. Elisha’s ministry is a Messiah-like ministry. In fact, Elisha’s ministry is closer to the ministry of Jesus than Elijah’s ministry was in some ways, particularly in the degree of compassion that he demonstrates (though Elijah too demonstrated compassion). Wiersbe overstates it, but he points out the difference, saying that Elijah was “a prophet of fire,” but Elisha was a “pastor” and “minister to the people” (Wiersbe, Be Responsible, 329). Like Jesus, Elisha has compassion on those in need: a widow, a barren woman, a dead son, a hungry multitude, a leper, and those in difficulty (4:1–6:7).
Of course, Jesus’ ministry was much greater than Elisha’s ministry, so while we should look closely at the events recorded in 2 Kings, we shouldn’t stop there. We should go on to look to the greater Prophet-Savior, Jesus. The Elisha narratives make us love this heroic prophet. But these chapters should make us love Jesus even more—our truth-speaking, bread-providing, compassion-showing, sickness-healing, death-defeating Savior.
Many Bible teachers treat chapter 3 by itself and group 4:1–6:7 together. This makes sense. The mighty acts of Elisha are told in rapid-fire succession in 4:1–6:7, much like Mark’s Gospel shows the mighty acts of Jesus (Mark 4:35–5:43). However, I have chosen to include chapter 3 with this section and treat half of the miracle stories of 4:1–6:7. While recognizing some discontinuity between chapter 3 and 4:1–6:7, I think there are some connections in the story of the Moabite revolt in chapter 3. Most relevant is that the point of chapter 3 seems to be to validate the word of the prophet Elisha. The following chapters go on to show deeds of Elisha. I prefer to see these two sections together. Like Jesus, Elisha was mighty in word and deed (Luke 24:19). So let’s look at Elisha’s word and deed ministry by considering four ways his ministry points us ahead to the ministry of Jesus.
Elisha Speaks God’s Word
2 Kings 3:1-27
King Joram of Israel, King Jehoshaphat of Judah, and the king of Edom will go up against King Mesha of Moab in this unfamiliar and puzzling story.
The chapter opens by stating that Joram is the new king in Israel. (The HCSB consistently spells Israel’s king “Joram” and his counterpart in Judah “Jehoram.” In Hebrew the two names are spelled identically.) His reign lasts for 12 years. He was the son of the wicked king Ahab and the brother to Ahaziah, who died in an accident. Joram is an awful king too but not quite as awful. While he did evil in God’s sight, “he removed the sacred pillar of Baal his father had made” (v. 2). This doesn’t mean that Baalism ceased to exist. Joram tolerates the Baal cult, though he apparently doesn’t participate in it. This sacred stone remains in the land until the reign of Jehu (10:26-27). He turns away from the pillar of Baal, but he doesn’t turn away from the sins of Jeroboam. In other words he deserves judgment though he was not as evil as his dad. To say, “I am more righteous than Ahab,” isn’t anything to boast in. That is like saying, “He is the tallest hobbit,” or “That team is better than the Cubs.” God’s Word reveals that the standard of holiness is God, and because of that, we’re in great need.
We need God’s Word to point out essential gospel truths like the reality of our sinfulness. The doctrine of sin isn’t popular, but it’s fundamental. While a person may not be as bad as they could be, no one is as righteous as they should be. We have failed to worship God alone and have been led astray to false gods. We have done evil in the sight of a holy God and need to be made righteous by Him. Only through Christ can we receive righteousness and be accepted by God. Don’t rely on your own efforts to be accepted by God. Sure, you may not be Ted Bundy, but you aren’t Jesus. Though you might have given up robbing banks or cheating on your taxes or committing adultery, you still haven’t earned salvation. You have sinned in thought, word, deed, and motive. The good news of the gospel is that Christ died for sinners like you and me, and He alone makes us holy and acceptable in God’s sight. The gospel says, “Tony did evil in God’s sight, but then he trusted in Christ, and now Tony is accepted in God’s sight.”
We need God’s Word not only to point out essential gospel truths but also to give us personal guidance. The story goes on to tell of Moab’s revolt against Israel (mentioned in 2 Kgs 1:1). After the death of Ahab, Mesha decides to stop being a vassal of Israel. He was a sheep breeder who paid tribute in lambs and wool, but he decides to do so no more. In response Joram decides to exert his authority. He asks Jehoshaphat to go with him. The story echoes 1 Kings 22:4, where Ahab called on Jehoshaphat help him. Jehoshaphat may be kind, but he isn’t wise. In the case of his connection with Ahab, though his alliance was questionable, at least Jehoshaphat sought counsel from the Lord (1 Kgs 22:5). Here in 2 Kings, Jehoshaphat partners again with Israel’s king but doesn’t inquire of the Lord until they get desperate—after the decision to go to war was already made. We’re surprised by his failure to seek God first.
Let this serve as a reminder to us. We will be tempted to live by our impulses rather than by God’s Word. We need to seek God’s Word for all matters of life. Don’t rush off into life without the essential resource: God’s Word. The psalmist reminds us of its necessity when he says, “Your decrees are my delight and my counselors” (Ps 119:24).
The war strategy involves marching through a wilderness in Edom, approaching Moab from the south. The king of Edom joins them (probably another vassal of Israel), they all make an “indirect route for seven days,” and they run out of water (3:9). The account echoes both holy wars, like the battle of Jericho, and the wilderness experience. Because the kings decide to march out without any divine instructions, it shouldn’t surprise us that they will encounter disastrous results even before the war begins. No water. Complaining. Blaming God. It sounds like the exodus.
Joram blames God. He didn’t seek God’s counsel in the first place, but he deems it appropriate to blame God for the result. “It wasn’t my fault” was the attitude. Sinful humanity has been following this pattern of blame shifting since the garden (Gen 3:12; Jas 1:13-15). Joram may be “religious,” but he doesn’t love Yahweh. That’s evidenced by his lack of submission to Him.
Eventually Jehoshaphat asks, “Isn’t there a prophet of the Lord here? Let’s inquire of Yahweh through him” (v. 11). Elisha is then mentioned as the one who “used to pour water on Elijah’s hands” (meaning that he was a servant to Elijah), and he is sought out (v. 12). Surprisingly, Joram concurs in going to Elisha, unlike Ahab who resisted calling on the prophet Micaiah.
The Messenger of God’s Word
Elisha responds to king’s inquiry, “We have nothing in common. Go to the prophets of your father and your mother!” (v. 13). Elisha is offended by the king’s sudden interest and responds sarcastically and harshly. Joram is seeking God’s counsel because of an emergency, not out of wholehearted loyalty to Yahweh. Joram is like today’s pluralists: they don’t acknowledge Christ’s exclusive lordship, but in an emergency they may try anything, including the Bible.
Don’t treat God’s Word like an airbag in your car—only there in case of an accident. God calls us to lifelong submission to His Word, not to temporary, sporadic moments of interest. We need His Word in the normal days of life, not just when we are dying of thirst in a wilderness. Are you really interested in a path of discipleship or just escape from trouble (Davis, 2 Kings, 45)?
Surprisingly, instead of pronouncing doom, Elisha announces God’s salvation. Behold again the goodness of God to undeserving people. Elisha first tells the king that the only reason he will speak the word is because Jehoshaphat is present. Then he asks for a musician, and while one played, Elisha proceeded to speak. The prophets received their messages in a variety of ways, including through music (1 Sam 10:5). Elisha reports the good news. A double promise is presented: God will provide water for the army and the livestock, but He will also provide them with a victory. Can God give us water? Of course! It is “easy in the Lord’s sight.” Elisha also reports that God can do the heavy lifting as well. He says God, in His abundant generosity, will provide a victory for them. What a gracious God, who can do “above and beyond all that we ask or think” (Eph 3:20).
Can God provide for your daily necessities? Of course! It is an easy thing! You can cast “all your care on Him, because He cares about you” (1 Pet 5:7). Seek Him for your provision. But He can do more than give you groceries. God has provided for your greatest need, namely salvation from your enemies of sin and death and the grave. God lavishes His grace on us. He gives us bread to eat, and He gives us eternal life in Christ.
Perhaps you feel no need to ask God for “easy” things because you are so immensely blessed with food and clothing. You should stop and thank Him for such provisions. So what about your heavy things? How will you deal with your sin problem? Look to Jesus, who carried the cross for sinners and died in their place, giving them life. God alone can deliver us from our greatest enemies.
Water came just as Elisha promised; then the victory is described just as Elisha predicted. When the Moabites see the water, they are fooled into thinking it’s blood (more exodus echoes) and the kings have decided to fight each other. But when they come into the Israelite camp, the Israelites drive them back and carry out Elisha’s instructions.
Observe how God saved Israel in this story. The prophet tells of the promise of salvation to Joram. How will salvation come? It will come by God’s grace (for Joram didn’t deserve it). And it will come because Joram is with the Davidic king, Jehoshaphat.
We’re in the same position. We can be saved by God’s grace alone, through our union with the ultimate Davidic King, Jesus. If we are in Him, then we have received grace upon grace. How kind of God to grant sinners salvation!
Just when we think this story looks just like other victory stories, we read of the surprising twist. Mesha responds to his initial defeat in two ways. He first tries to break through the enemy lines, but he and 700 swordsmen could not get through. His second attempt involves him offering up his own son (and heir to the throne) as a sacrifice, probably to the pagan god Chemosh in an apparent attempt to receive divine help. Then we read that his sacrifice actually brought relief. The Israelites retreat to their own land and fail to get complete victory over Moab. Why? After the child sacrifice, “great wrath was on the Israelites” (v. 27). Puzzling.
Whose wrath/fury was this? Was it “against” or “on” Israel? Some suggest it refers to divine wrath (either Chemosh’s or Yahweh’s), but the text never says it was God’s wrath explicitly. I have a hard time believing Chemosh brought relief. Some suggest that Yahweh was angry because this war was never on His agenda; He simply gave them a partial victory. Others suggest it was human wrath, either referring to the Moabites’ fury or the Israelites’ indignation at the gruesome scene. House summarizes this strange ending well:
Given the nature of the author’s theology, however, it is much more likely either that the action inspired Moab’s army to fight more fiercely or that it caused Israel such indignation and sickness of heart that they lifted the siege. Though the exact meaning is unclear, the result is the same: Israel withdraws without further disaster yet also without control of a former vassal. (1, 2 Kings, 264)
As House says, while the meaning of the phrase is difficult to interpret, the result is at least clear: Israel doesn’t achieve total victory. This seems to be another picture of Israel’s decline.
The story’s ending highlights at least two applications for us. First, God is the God of surprise endings. Just when we think we know how this story is going to end, we meet something unusual. God does as He pleases (Ps 115:3) and does more than we can imagine (Eph 3:20-21). Just look at the story of Jesus. He was the innocent One who cared for those in need and spoke God’s word, yet the King of kings is crucified horrifically at the climax of the story. Not the ending most would expect—a King, crucified. But the story doesn’t actually end there. In three days the Son of David vacates the tomb in triumph. I don’t mean we don’t know how the story will end (for we can read it in Revelation!); I simply mean God doesn’t always work the way the world expects, and we will see some surprising things as believers, both in this life and in the next (like which persons get greatly honored in the coming kingdom). We don’t always know what God is doing in this life (especially in hard times), but we know He is good, and therefore there is one thing to do: trust Him (Leithart, 1 and 2 Kings, 183). He is in control. He is good. Trust Him.
Second, we must look to Christ. We should point out from this story the difference in following gods like Chemosh and following Christ. Jesus said,
Come to Me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. All of you, take up My yoke and learn from Me, because I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for yourselves. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light. (Matt 11:28-30)
Dead religion doesn’t offer you liberty; it gives you burdens and bondage. No one but Jesus can offer you an easy yoke. When you submit your life to Jesus and His Word, it actually frees you. When you follow pagan gods, or simply today’s cultural idols of money, sex, power, or fame, they enslave you, they crush you. The Word of God is liberating. Jesus said His “truth will set you free” (John 8:32). You don’t have to live enslaved, sacrificing a child, cutting yourself in attempt to get rid of guilt and shame; you don’t have to live an oppressed life, trying to pay God back for your sins. You can come to Jesus and experience His grace. We don’t have to offer blood, for the blood of Jesus has saved us.
While Joram doesn’t really improve the situation with Moab, he now knows God’s word is with Elisha. He has seen Elijah’s successor’s word fulfilled in this partial victory.
2 Kings 4:1-44
Elisha isn’t just a truth-speaking prophet; he is also a compassionate servant of the people. Let’s consider three displays of God’s compassion.
Oil for a Desperate Widow (vv. 1-7)
Elisha’s ministry continues to echo the ministry of Elijah. This story and the following one remind us of 1 Kings 17, with some differences. Here a widow is desperate because of debt, not because of famine. She is an unnamed widow, the wife of one of the sons of the prophets. But he died, and she is in serious financial trouble. Since she cannot pay off her debts, her sons are to be taken as slaves (cf. Isa 50:1; Neh 5:4-5).
Her faithful desperation and Elisha’s compassion stand out first. She cries out to Elisha. This is important. She isn’t turning away from God in crisis but seeking God. Elisha responds, “What can I do for you?” Notice the compassion of Elisha. This response is different from his response to the inquiry made by Joram. There Elisha said, “We have nothing in common” (3:13). Here Elisha shows us that God cares about nameless, ordinary people. You don’t have to be high and mighty to seek God’s help. The widow cries out to him, and he is eager to help. She prays like Jehoshaphat: “For we are powerless. . . . We do not know what to do, but we look to You” (2 Chr 20:12).
Elisha responds like Jesus responded to blind Bartimaeus: “What do you want Me to do for you?” (Mark 10:51). Elisha’s kindness as a mediator points the way to our Savior, who stands ready to offer grace in times of need. Are you seeking Him in your need? Are you answering the question, “What do you want Me to do?” I’m not advocating prosperity theology; I’m simply encouraging you to present your needs (not your greed) to God. God cares about big stuff and little stuff. He knows the plots of North Korea, and he knows about your car problem in North Carolina. Do you believe He cares and can help? If so, then follow this nameless widow to the throne of grace.
Next we observe her insufficiency and God’s sufficiency. Elisha asks her, “What do you have in the house?” Her modest response: “Your servant has nothing in the house except a jar of oil” (v. 2). Notice the way God often works: it is good for us to consider our inadequacy, for we see our great need for Him. We may have little, but God is the all-sufficient Provider who loves to take what we have and multiply it (2 Kgs 4:38-44; Mark 6:40-44).
Then we read about her obedience and God’s miraculous provision. Elisha gives her specific instructions about how the problem will be solved. She is told to gather up vessels, go inside, shut the door, and pour her little jar of oil into the vessels. After each one is filled, she is to pour oil into the next one. She does everything the prophet says. As in the Elijah encounter with the widow of Zarephath (1 Kgs 17:7-16), her small amount is turned into abundance. God chooses to provide for a lowly widow through a miracle. Does God always do this? No. But He can. Regardless of whether through a miraculous provision or God’s “ordinary providences,” He is still the one who provides for our daily bread.
Consider how this episode takes place in secret. Even though the neighbors would have known about the vessels, no one knows about what happened when she closed the door. God often does His great work in secret. Jesus told us to pray in secret, and “your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matt 6:6). He said the same thing about giving to the needy (Matt 6:2-4). He said you don’t need to blow a “trumpet before you” every time you do a righteous act. While a lot of the Christian life is public, we need to remember that not everything we do for the King needs to be on social media. You may couch your words with “to God be the glory,” but much done in the name of “sharing your testimony” is self-exaltation. Love God in secret.
She tells Elisha when the jars are filled, and he says, “Go sell the oil and pay your debt; you and your sons can live on the rest” (v. 7). Take in these simple instructions and the amazing kindness of God. Not only can she pay off her debts, but she also has an abundance left over to live on.
God’s faithful people matter to Him, even if they are unknown to the vast majority of the world. Here is one little lady being cared for by Yahweh. Truly, He is “father of the fatherless and a champion of widows” (Ps 68:5).
A Child for a Barren Woman (vv. 8-37)
This story is filled with acts of kindness. First, we read of yet another nameless lady who displays kind hospitality to Elisha. She is a woman of means who uses her wealth to bless others. Elisha accepted her hospitality whenever he passed through her area, like Jesus who accepted the hospitality of others. She asks her husband to build a modest guest room for the “holy man.”
Jesus had something to say about welcoming prophets. He told his disciples, “The one who welcomes you welcomes Me, and the one who welcomes Me welcomes Him who sent Me” (Matt 10:40). He then added that the gracious host would receive a reward: “Anyone who welcomes a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward” (Matt 10:41).
We need to remember the significance of hospitality ministry. Gracious hospitality is a trait of the righteous throughout the Bible (Gen 18; 47; Ruth 2:15; 1 Sam 25; Neh 5:14-19; Job 31:32; Acts 16:11-15; 1 Tim 3:2; Jas 2:25). Of course, Jesus didn’t teach that we should only show hospitality to prophets. He also said that we should invite “those who are poor, maimed, lame, or blind” to our parties (Luke 14:13). While they can never repay us, Jesus said, “You will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (Luke 14:14). We welcome all people because we have received God’s gracious hospitality. He has welcomed us (Rom 15:7). Jesus told His disciples that He is “going away to prepare a place for [us]” (John 14:2).
We must welcome others, and when we do, we need to know that this is no small act. Let’s practice hospitality as individual families, and let’s welcome others as a church family (Rom 12:13; 1 Pet 4:9; cf. Luke 10:9-10). Christians often neglect this biblical ministry because of ignorance (unaware of the biblical teaching on hospitality), carelessness (failure to plan on it), greediness (people often want to pamper themselves instead of serving others), or fear (being intimidated by it). Follow this barren lady’s example, if at all possible, and host people regularly.
Have you thought about how you can use your home to bless others? Adoption? Foster care? Itinerant ministers? An elderly widow? Welcoming that functionally fatherless kid down the street?
In response to her kindness, Elisha wants to return kindness (more reward is coming, it seems—see 2 Kgs 8:1-7). He serves as an example of accepting hospitality. He treats their care for him as a big deal and wants to thank her. He doesn’t say, “Oh, I’m a prophet. They should care for me.”
But what do you give the lady who has everything? Gehazi offers a suggestion: “She has no son, and her husband is old” (v. 14). Nothing is more valuable than a human life. Elisha likes the idea, so he calls the Shunammite lady and tells her, “At this time next year you will have a son in your arms” (v. 16). She tells Elisha not to get her hopes up, but sure enough she conceives and gives birth to a son just as Elisha said.
This isn’t the only Bible story of a barren woman giving birth. Sarah, Rebekah, Rachael, Mrs. Manoah, Hannah, and Elizabeth all experience God’s amazing provision. This story is different, however, in that the children of those other ladies were essential for the continuing of the covenant people, or their child becomes a significant leader in a time of crisis. But here we don’t even know the child’s name, and there are numerous other children in Israel. So why does God act? One reason could be that He is pointing to the authenticity of Elisha’s ministry. Elisha is a kind, miracle-working prophet. But perhaps God simply wants to show off His own goodness. Maybe He just wants to bless this lady (Davis, 2 Kings, 63). It may be that simple. God is good, and He does good things. Paul says that God “richly provides us with all things to enjoy” (1 Tim 6:17). Though God is high and lofty, His exaltation doesn’t remove Him from His children; it simply means He has unlimited power to bless them. The psalmist says,
Who is like Yahweh our God—
the One enthroned on high,
who stoops down to look
on the heavens and the earth?
He raises the poor from the dust
and lifts the needy from the garbage pile
in order to seat them with nobles—
with the nobles of His people.
He gives the childless woman a household,
making her the joyful mother of children.
Hallelujah! (Ps 113:5-9)
God is swift to bless, but don’t get the wrong idea. If you show hospitality, you will not necessarily be blessed with a child! Get the major idea: God rewards biblical hospitality. God will ultimately reward every act of obedience for the kingdom of God because it demonstrates that you have welcomed the gospel (Matt 10:14,42; Luke 14:13-14).
Thus, we have a story of the kindness of this lady, the kindness of Elijah, and the abundant kindness of God. Let us “praise God from whom all blessings flow.”
But the story isn’t over. Next we read of mysterious sorrow. After her son is grown, he dies tragically in her arms (vv. 18-20). She isn’t willing to accept this tragedy, though. She lays his body on Elisha’s bed and prepares to confront the prophet. Her husband appears to be somewhat skeptical, maybe because he has not been told of the child’s death. He objects at the timing of her venture, but she goes off anyway, some 15 miles to Mount Carmel. When Elisha sees her coming, he sends his servant to meet her, but she dismisses the inquiry with the same type of evasive response she gave to her husband. She finally reaches Elisha and grabs his feet and proceeds to pour out her heart to him. She refuses to leave him.
While she is upset and mystified by this tragedy, one should stop and commend her for heading to the right person in time of crisis (as in the previous story). Elisha was God’s ambassador, and she knows that. She is essentially clinging to God. What do you call it when you are dumbfounded by the difficult providences of God, but you still cry out to him? Faith! (Davis, 2 Kings, 65). Faith says, “The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away. Praise the name of Yahweh” (Job 1:21). She doesn’t have the answers; she is grieved, but she has not turned away from God.
This lady isn’t the only one with limitations in this story. Did you notice what Elisha said? “The Lord has hidden it from me. He hasn’t told me” (v. 27). Elisha has limited knowledge of the event. (Could he have also had limited knowledge of the events in chapter 3? I think so.) He has limited power. When he sends Gehazi to lay his staff on the head of the child, nothing happens. Now, Elisha was God’s prophet, but he was not God. He has limitations. The only thing he can do is pray (Davis, 2 Kings, 66). When Elisha came to the house, “he went in, closed the door behind the two of them, and prayed to the Lord” (v. 33). Even though Elisha performs physical actions in verses 34-35, the whole episode illustrates his desperation in prayer.
While we hold some people up as marvelous Christian leaders, we are reminded that even the most gifted servants are limited. If Elisha is desperate, how much more are we? Recognize your limitations and pour out your heart to God, who is unlimited in power. We will fail to pray when we do the reverse. When we think we are powerful enough to handle problems and God is small, then we will not pray like this. Rather, we are powerless but God is powerful. Seek Him.
The child eventually sneezes seven times (a sign of complete restoration perhaps) and opens his eyes. Elisha then calls the mother and gives her son to her, similar to the story of Elijah and the widow’s son (1 Kgs 17:17-24).
Thus, another miracle has been performed in secret. Elisha is shown to be an agent of God’s compassion and power who can raise the dead like Elijah. And the recipient of this gift bows to the ground in gratitude.
There’s a similar story in Luke 7, concerning a widow of Nain. Jesus “had compassion” on her and raised the child. The difference is that the Old Testament prophets pray, but Jesus simply speaks. “Young man, I tell you, get up!” He says. Jesus is greater than Elijah and Elisha. He’s our ultimate hope of resurrection. Perhaps you wonder why God doesn’t raise the dead today. Well, in these cases, these children would eventually die again. God has done something greater for us. He has promised that everyone in Christ will be raised permanently (1 Thess 4:13-18). Elijah and Elisha were giving a sneak preview of the resurrection power of Christ. When Christ was on earth, He was giving us a sneak preview of the ultimate resurrection to come. This lady looked to Elisha in desperate trust, but we look to Jesus, who has triumphed over the grave.
In two stories we have two unnamed ladies receiving daily bread, two children, and a sneak preview of the resurrection power of Jesus. Elisha is putting the compassion of God on display. Prophets were not just brash speakers of truth; they were also agents of God’s mercy. How much more so with the Savior. John says He was “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
Food for the Hungry (vv. 38-44)
Elisha displays God’s compassion next to the sons of the prophets. During a famine Elisha instructs his servant to prepare a large pot of stew. This story reminds us of the earlier Elijah narrative, where God provided for the prophets during famine (1 Kgs 17:1-24; 18:1-15), and of chapter 2, where Elisha purifies the water (2 Kgs 2:19-22).
A problem emerges when one of the men goes looking for some herbs and decides to add some wild gourds to the stew, not knowing what they were. The result is disastrous. The men take a bite of these vicious vittles and cry to Elisha, “There’s death in the pot, man of God!” (v. 40). It’s hard to know if the wild gourds could have literally killed them or if it only tasted horrible. Perhaps it was both. Elisha responds in compassion and wisdom. He knows what to add to the pot to cure it. He says, “Get some meal” (v. 41). They do so, he throws it into the stew, and “there was nothing bad in the pot” (v. 41).
Should we take as our application the need to know how to cook? Was Elisha a miracle worker and a master chef? While I do recommend learning how to cook, I think the simple application, once again, is that God provides daily bread for His people. “Give us each day our daily bread” was and is a desperate and regular prayer for those living in agrarian cultures and in poor regions. Some of us in prosperous places may have a hard time identifying with this prayer. When we need food, we go to the grocery store. We complain if we have to stand in line longer than three minutes! In agrarian cultures it wasn’t easy and simple. Starvation and hunger were real problems. Furthermore, this was a time of famine. The people were thus doubly desperate. Yet God takes care of them.
God isn’t distant and remote. He’s involved in our lives. He takes interest in a pot of soup, not just ruling the solar system. God is interested in providing poor students with washing machines and furniture. God understands us. God loves us. God is near to us. God is real to us. God is good to us. God faithfully provides for us. Bless the Lord. Don’t forget His benefits (Ps 103).
This same application continues in the next episode. God’s faithfulness shines as Elisha multiplies 20 loaves of bread and feeds 100 people. The food comes from an unnamed man from Baal-shalishah. He brought Elisha what was to be offered to the priests: “20 loaves of barley bread from the first bread of the harvest” (v. 42; cf. Exod 23:19; Lev 23:20; Num 18:13; Deut 18:4-5). Why does he not give the bread to the priests? Apparently it was because of the corruption in the priesthood in northern Israel. He bypasses them and gives it to the man of God instead. You might say he was a separatist. God had a remnant of loyal followers, and he was one of them (cf. 1 Kgs 19:18).
Gehazi does the math and says that such provision is impossible. Feed 100 people with 20 loaves of bread? That’s either some tiny people or some big bread! However, Elisha insists, “Give it to the people to eat, for this is what the Lord says: ‘They will eat, and they will have some left over.’” So what happens? Yahweh fulfills His word: “So he gave it to them, and as the Lord had promised, they ate and had some left over” (v. 44). God does what He promises. God multiplied what they brought Him (cf. 2 Cor 9:10).
Being a Christian doesn’t exempt you from trouble or even from starvation. God may choose not to provide for some people for His own sovereign reasons. But when provision comes, we should bless His name. And we need to remember that God always keeps His word. Those who are in Christ will one day enjoy the new heavens and the new earth, where all the needs of God’s people are met gloriously, fully, and eternally. Praise God for daily bread, and rest in His eternal promises.
We are left to admire Elisha. He speaks truth in an evil day. He cares for a widow in great need. He provides a child to a barren woman. He raises the dead. He feeds a multitude. He’s a compassionate prophet who points us to Jesus.
Jesus was in Elisha mode on several occasions. He fed 5,000 (Mark 6:30-44) and 4,000 (Mark 8:1-10) and had food left over. The feeding of the 5,000 appears in all four Gospels. In John’s Gospel Andrew reflects the concern of Elisha’s servant. After finding the young lad with five loaves and two fish, Andrew says, “What are they for so many?” (John 6:8). While Andrew has his doubts, Jesus commands the people to sit down in groups. Then Jesus multiplies fewer loaves than Elisha had and fed a greater number of people (Mark 6:39-44). Some in the audience surely reflected on this Elisha story. John says that some said, “This really is the Prophet who was to come into the world!” (John 6:14). Surely, some thought, “One greater than Elisha is here.”
The problem in Jesus’ day was also like the problem of Elisha’s day. Some looked to Jesus only for miracles, not for true spiritual transformation. The miracles should have sent people to embrace Him by faith as Lord; instead they simply looked to Him to help them in a temporary emergency. Jesus said, “Don’t work for the food that perishes but for the food that lasts for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you, because God the Father has set His seal of approval on Him” (John 6:27). He told them that if they come to Him by faith they will never be hungry again (6:35). He called them to believe in Him for eternal life and receive the assurance that He will “raise them up on the last day” (6:40). But sadly, when Jesus finished His discourse, many turned away. A faithful few received Jesus, but many rejected Him. Elisha experienced a similar result. While he was able to provide for the faithful remnant, his ministry didn’t lead to an overall change in the nation. Many ignored or rejected him, as others later did with Jesus and as many do today.
What will you do with Jesus? Will you embrace Him as Lord? Or will you turn away from the One who has had His body torn like bread and His blood poured out like wine in order to grant hungry sinners forgiveness, freedom, eternal life, and joy? May God open your eyes to embrace the One “powerful in action and speech” (Luke 24:19), who conquered death, fulfilling everything written of Him in “the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms” (24:44), and who now grants grace to sinners and clothes them with power to tell the world of His salvation (24:48-50).
Reflect and Discuss
- Why does Elisha oppose Joram?
- The coalition succeeds because of Jehoshaphat. What does this teach about God’s character?
- The author says God’s provision of water for the coalition is “easy.” What “easy” things might God provide to His people today?
- Should it be a priority to ask God for “easy” things (i.e., mundane needs)?
- What does God’s provision for whole armies, lonely widows, distressed mothers, and hungry prophets teach about God’s character? How is each story significant?
- Is it important to live under the Word of God and among the people of God? Why?
- Why might God have given the barren woman a son and then allowed him to die?
- Does it seem unjust when bad things happen to good people?
- Discuss ways God gives simple gifts to His people today.
- The miraculous provision of food and water, barren women giving birth, and dead sons coming back to life—do these stories sound similar to any other biblical stories?