2 Kings 4 Study Notes

4:1-7:20 These four chapters demonstrate two themes. First, they record more miraculous encounters between the followers of Yahweh and the paganism of the Israelites. Second, they report the work of the prophets, the new representatives of God, in correcting the pain brought on by the failure of the kings, who had forsaken their sacred responsibilities. These encounters began with Elijah.

Up to this point, the records of this conflict have been incorporated into the overall chronological structure of these books. In these four chapters the treatment of miracles changes. The writer here recorded miracles separated from the sequential structure of the book. Because of this technique some of the events involve anonymous kings whose chronological place may be unclear. The sign ministry of Elisha covered a long period; therefore, some of these events could have taken place as late as the period of weakness between the reigns of Jehu and his grandson, Jehoash (798-782 BC). Unless chronological sequence is explicitly indicated, these events should not be taken as chronologically arranged. The normal chronological pattern of 1 and 2 Kings resumes with the record of Jehoram, son of Jehoshaphat (8:16).

Since these chapters develop the theme of power encounters, they are best understood in terms of the lessons they taught and their strengthening of faith in the Lord in conflict with their unfaithfulness and paganism. The data indicate that the reputation of the miracle-working men of God extended beyond Hebrew territory. Because of this reputation the prophets could, on occasion, act in an international context. This wider influence, like the influence of the Jewish synagogue in the exile and early Christian era, indicates that God was affecting the larger Gentile world.


Hebrew pronunciation [SHEH men]
CSB translation oil, olive oil, perfume, rich
Uses in 2 Kings 7
Uses in the OT 193
Focus passage 2 Kings 4:2,6-7

Shemen denotes oil (Gn 28:18), particularly olive oil (Dt 33:24) used in lamps (Ex 27:20), foods (Ex 29:2), and holy anointing oil (Ex 30:24-25). Shemen describes “wood” as olive wood (1Kg 6:23). “Son of shemen” is translated very fertile (Is 5:1). Shemen denotes something large (Is 10:27). It suggests rich (Is 28:1) or choice (Is 25:6). Emaciated is literally “grows lean of fat” (Ps 109:24). Shemen signifies perfume (Sg 1:3). The adjective shamen (10x) means fat (Ezk 34:16), rich (Gn 49:20), fertile (Nm 13:20), stout (Jdg 3:29), or plentiful (Is 30:23). The verb shamen (5x) denotes become fat (Dt 32:15). The causative indicates become prosperous (Neh 9:25); it describes dulling minds (Is 6:10). Mishman (4x) suggests well-fed (Is 10:16), rich part (Dn 11:24), healthy (Is 17:4), or fit (Ps 78:31). Shaman (2x) means richness (Gn 27:28); ’ashman, healthy (Is 59:10); and mashmanniym, what is rich (Neh 8:10).

4:1 The social evil in this incident had two causes: societal evolution that broke down the old tribal and clan responsibilities, and the moral callousness that grew out of apostasy. When people find themselves in changed societal conditions where the traditional safety nets have disappeared, godlessness can lead to the creation of destructive new norms and practices. This incident (vv. 1-7) showed the power of God to relieve the hurts and pains that were inevitable in an increasingly godless society. When the covenant laws, which specified the responsibilities of the clan and tribe, were functioning properly, enslavement for debt would not have happened. Disallowing such abuses was one responsibility of a godly, responsible relative (Hb go’el, “redeemer”) or even the king himself.

4:2-7 A miraculous provision by the man of God, Elisha, compensated for the injustice and the failure of the system that God had established but that apostasy had corrupted. The provision for the woman and her children was a private act, but the canonical record of this deed was a public witness to God’s provision; the story may have been well known before it became canonical.

4:8-10 The man of God made such an impression that one prominent family wished to show special hospitality to him. In a society that had become largely pagan, a display of friendship to the man of God possibly indicated faith in God.

4:11-13 Apparently Elisha could have influence with an ungodly king or other authorities. This is an example for Christians living in a corrupted political system. The woman expressed contentment with her situation.

4:14-17 The woman was barren in a society in which barrenness was seen as a curse. At the same time, any act of power could be a vindication of God’s truth. Therefore this special help for the woman was a witness for God. More specifically, it was a statement that God could still give blessings to those who were faithful to him.

4:18-26 When death entered the home of the Shunammite family, there was another opportunity to show that God could miraculously bless. The OT promise of earthly blessings for keeping the law was a general promise, not an absolute promise to every faithful person. There were many people who had faith but were not rewarded with freedom and prosperity, as in the case of Naaman’s Jewish servant girl (5:2). Nevertheless, any blessing is an example of God’s care for his faithful ones. To common perception, for the Shunammite woman to lose her son could send a negative message about God’s dispensing of blessings. Her seeming statement of faith in vv. 23,26 (“Everything is all right”) is striking.

4:27 Elisha modeled both sensitivity and a recognition of his own limitations. His words the Lord has hidden it from me showed limitation to the knowledge and power God granted him.

4:28 Her ecstatic hopes are suddenly dashed, and her spirits are lower now than they had been before she was blessed with a son. Some grief is too painful to share with just anyone. Concealing her thoughts from her husband and from Gehazi, the woman wanted to deal with God’s prophet Elisha, the source of her blessing.

4:29-31 When sent to bring healing to the woman’s son, Gehazi was to be focused on the task. Gehazi’s failed attempt to bring healing also revealed the human limitations of the man of God. Elisha had seemed confident that sending Gehazi was sufficient to heal the woman’s son.

4:32-37 When Elisha arrived, he carried out a more complicated procedure for healing the son. In that day and time, even some sincere worshipers of the Lord might have taken this healing act to be a result of magical power given by God. In this way some may have mistakenly taken Elisha to be a man gifted with rare powers. Such notions are contrary to biblical revelation. We must understand that in the era of epic power encounters between the men of God and representatives of darkness, men such as Elisha performed spectacular feats only because they served as channels for God’s miraculous power. There was no magic to it, nor were the powers given to the men of God in such a way as to make the powers their own. Here Elisha’s success was dependent on his prayer to the Lord.

4:38 Since the text had earlier placed Elisha and the prophets in a northern Gilgal near Bethel (see note at 2:1), this is likely that same northern Gilgal. The prophets’ way of life, at least on some occasions, demanded that they forage for their food. Apparently they partly supported themselves by such foraging and partly by gifts from pious Israelites.

4:39-40 While foraging, one of the prophets gathered some poisonous gourds. This may have happened on other occasions as well, but this time the occasion gave an opportunity for a miraculous provision.

4:41 Elisha neutralized the poison with another miraculous deed. The lesson was that God’s power could protect his people from careless dangers even in a serious famine.

4:42 Another opportunity for a miraculous provision occurred when a supporter brought a gift of bread to the prophets. This gift could indicate that the giver had rejected the apostate priesthood of the north since he gave this gift to the faithful prophets of the Lord. The location of Baal-shalishah remains uncertain.

4:43-44 This miracle sounds remarkably similar to the feeding of the 5,000 in the NT—similar enough that one could wonder if there are deeply rooted, long-lived reasons for the similarities (Mt 14:13-21). Perhaps Jesus consciously imitated this episode as yet another indication that he was the fulfillment of the OT (Mt 5:17). Here the instructive value of the miraculous work includes elements such as questioning the sufficiency of the gift, making an insufficient gift sufficient, distributing the food, and having more than was needed. The global lesson is God’s ability to provide.

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