THIS WEEK’S STUDY: 2 Kings 2-5
MEMORY TEXT: “And he took the mantle of Elijah that fell from him, and smote the waters, and said, `Where is the LORD God of Elijah?'” 2 Kings 3:14
THE WITNESS OF PEOPLE AND PROPHET CAN OVERSHADOW A WEAK KING. In spite of the influence of Elijah, the royal family in Israel had taken no steps to establish a kingdom of righteousness. So what happens when the king is evil or simply fast asleep? Must the work of God cease? No. Godly lay people and a bold prophet can still make a name for God and His people. The rest of the world will sit up and take notice.
OVERVIEW: THE POWER OF THE PROPHET AND THE PEOPLE
I. THE MAN WITH THE DOUBLE PORTION: 2 Kings 2
II. A LESSON FOR ISRAEL, EDOM, AND MOAB: 2 Kings 3
III. THE GOD OF LITTLE PEOPLE: 2 Kings 4
IV. THE MOST POWERFUL GOD OF ALL: 2 Kings 5
GOD IS AWAKE EVEN IF THE KING IS ASLEEP. This week’s lesson covers very familiar ground for those who have grown up in Christian homes. The stories of Elijah and Elisha have inspired generations of children and adults: Elijah’s translation in a fiery chariot, Elisha’s claim to the mantle of prophetic leadership, the widow’s oil, the Shunammite woman and her son, Naaman and the little maid — all those stories and more are part of this week’s lesson.
But beyond the simple recounting of impressive miracles, the Scripture passages assigned for this lesson tell another more subtle story, one that can be very encouraging for us today. Since the house of Ahab still ruled in Samaria, the worship of Yahweh, Israel’s covenant God, enjoyed very little support from “official” sources. But in contrast with the days before Mt. Carmel, the worshipers of Yahweh seem to have taken on a new life and boldness. In spite of the official neglect from the royal house in Samaria, the followers of Yahweh were witnessing to their God and were making an impact at home and abroad.
A king can make a difference in the faith of his people. So can a prophet. But the prophet needs help from the people. When the people themselves catch a vision, they can erect a monument to the living God through their testimony. This week’s lesson tells how a bold prophet links up with ordinary people to bear a powerful testimony to the world.
I. THE MAN WITH THE DOUBLE PORTION: 2 Kings 2
The time had come for the mantle of leadership to pass from master to pupil. Elijah had contended mightily for his God. But a great work remained to be done. God needed an effective champion. Would Elisha be equal to the challenge?
- As the moment of Elijah’s translation approached, how many times did Elijah suggest that Elisha should “tarry” while his master went on? 2 Kings 2:1-11.
Sometimes God tests the commitment of his people. Yet his purpose is not just to test, but to strengthen. The Lord tested Abraham by asking him to sacrifice his son (Gen. 22). In a slightly different manner he tested Moses after the rebellion at Sinai: “Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; but of you I will make a great nation” (Ex. 32:10, RSV). By forcing Moses to declare himself as the defender of his people, God stiffened Moses’ resolve, a resolve he would need in the difficult days ahead.
Similarly, Elijah was putting Elisha to the test. By standing firm, Elisha strengthened the resolve needed to carry him through lonely days after his master was gone.
- What was Elisha’s response to Elijah’s offer of a parting “gift”? 2 Kings 2:9.
“When the Lord in His providence sees fit to remove from His work those to whom He has given wisdom, He helps and strengthens their successors, if they will look to Him for aid and will walk in His ways. They may be even wiser than their predecessors; for they may profit by their experience and learn wisdom from their mistakes” (Prophets and Kings, p. 228).
- What emotional question escaped from Elisha’s lips as he stood on the banks of the Jordan with Elijah’s mantle in his hands? 2 Kings 2:13-14.
- The effectiveness of Elijah’s ministry is reflected in the number of schools and communities throughout Israel where the worship of the true God was preserved. On a map of Bible lands, locate the places visited by Elijah and Elisha as recorded in 2 Kings 2.
In spite of idolatrous kings, the worshipers of the true God were making their presence felt in Israel. The judgment against the forty-two mocking boys (2 Kings 2:23-24) is evidence that God was prepared to defend His name and His prophet. Elisha’s hands were strengthened by the seven thousand in Israel who had not bowed to Baal. They were witnessing for their God.
Ask yourself: Is it easier to worship God when surrounded by many miracles? When we see no miracles, does that mean that He has left us? Are there times when we, like Elijah, must stand alone at Mt. Horeb and wait for the still small voice?
II. A LESSON FOR ISRAEL, EDOM, AND MOAB: 2 Kings 3
The story in 2 Kings 3 is a strange one in some respects. For reasons which are not clear to us, Jehoshaphat was again willing to join with the king of Israel in a battle against a neighboring kingdom. In this instance, the coalition also involved the heathen king of Edom.
- What is the biblical judgment on the character of Jehoram, king of Israel? 2 Kings 3:1-3.
- How did Jehoshaphat’s response to the water shortage echo his earlier suggestion in the face of a dilemma? Compare 2 Kings 3:9-12 with 1 Kings 22:5-8.
- How did Elisha judge the sincerity of Jehoram’s claim to be a worshiper of the true God? 2 Kings 3:13-14.
A “salt of the earth” principle seems to have been applicable here. Just as ten righteous people would have been enough to preserve the entire wicked population of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:32), so the presence of righteous Jehoshaphat was a saving influence in the coalition of armies assembled against Moab.
Elisha’s observations about Jehoram confirm the fact that the house of Ahab continued to waver back and forth between allegiance to Baal and allegiance to Yahweh. When it appeared expedient to appeal to Yahweh (for the sake of Jehoshaphat), Jehoram was quite willing to say the right words.
- How did the armies of Israel react when the king of Moab offered up his eldest son as a sacrifice to his god? 2 Kings 3:26-27.
The brief reference to the terror of the armies of Israel at the sight of child sacrifice drops important clues illuminating some troublesome Old Testament narratives.
The power of child sacrifice. Was the promise of a Messiah who would come and die also known among the heathen? While it cannot be proven in a technical or scientific sense, the scattered references in Scripture to child sacrifice suggest such a conclusion. The concept undoubtedly had been distorted from its original simplicity, but the idea of sacrificing the heir was certainly known in ancient times.
The concept of national deities. The story of Naaman illustrates this concept further and with greater clarity. But even the brief reference here suggests that the armies of Israel were not certain that Yahweh was powerful enough to protect them in the land of Moab where Chemosh was the national deity.
From an Old Testament perspective, the god of Moab (Chemosh) would be included among the evil “gods” (elohim), mentioned in Psalm 82. There the elohim (gods, plural) are brought into judgment by the great Elohim (God, singular) for their evil deeds. The word elohim can refer to any supernatural being, and can be either singular or plural. Only the context clarifies the precise meaning of the word.
From our perspective, we may understand these “gods” who are brought into judgment in Psalm 82 to be Satan and his evil angels, but such an explanation was not clear in Old Testament times. Psalm 82 concludes with the ringing statement that the old state of affairs was coming to an end, “Arise, O God, judge the earth; for to thee belong all the nations!”
Once the issues in the great struggle between good and evil are known, God’s people would no longer have to run in terror from a child sacrifice to the elohim of a pagan land. But such a settled conviction would come slowly. For Jehoshaphat’s sake, Yahweh had given a great victory to the kings of Israel, Edom, and Judah. Tragically, the potential impact of the victory was dissipated because the people’s convictions about the power of Yahweh were not strong enough to stand the test.
III. THE GOD OF LITTLE PEOPLE: 2 Kings 4
As Elisha made his way from community to community in Israel, he found many ways to strengthen the believers. This chapter tells of devout followers of Yahweh who were bearing witness to him in Israel. Interestingly enough, the king is virtually ignored in these stories of faith. The king could have been part of the story, too, if he had so chosen. But true religion cannot depend on the support of a king.
- What happened to the flow of oil when the number of vessels collected had been filled? 2 Kings 4:6.
“According to your faith be it unto you” (Matt. 9:29). Are miracles in proportion to our faith? “All things are possible to him who believes” (Mark 9:23). Scripture does not rebuke the widow for not collecting more vessels. But the fact that the oil stopped when there was no place to put it suggests a lesson about the nature of faith that we should not overlook.
- What heartache did Elisha and Gehazi uncover that the woman of Shunem herself dared not express? 2 Kings 4:11-17.
- Who alone did the woman of Shunem trust with the knowledge of her child’s death? 2 Kings 4:20-31.
Only one who has suffered the loss of a loved one can feel the agony which tore the soul of the woman of Shunem. She had not dared to hope for a child. But when God blessed her with a son, she cherished him as a gift from the Lord. And when the gift seemingly was snatched away again, the man of God who had promised her the child was the one to whom she turned again.
The story of the woman of Shunem alerts us to the fact that a dignified and well-disciplined exterior can mask a bleeding heart. The woman was wealthy and lived in a seemingly well-ordered world. She had not allowed herself to express her emotions; even when the child died she kept them well under control. But the hurt was deep and she pushed ahead until she found the man she trusted. Only then did she open her heart.
- How did the woman respond to the restoration of her child? 2 Kings 4:36-37.
Ask yourself: How many women of Shunem are there in my world — people with a serene and well-disciplined exterior but with broken hearts waiting to be healed? How can we best help those who are reluctant to speak of their deep needs? When Gehazi asked the woman if it was well with her husband and child, she responded, “It is well” (2 Kings 4:26). But it was not well. She would not open her heart until she found the person she trusted. What can I do to become a source of healing, a person to be trusted in a cruel and painful world?
- What parallels can you find between the “feeding of the 5000” and the brief “forerunner” of that experience reported in the experience of Elisha? Compare 2 Kings 4:42-44 with John 6:1-14.
“Before Abraham was, I am,” declared Jesus (John 8:58). “Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, and today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). The God of creation is always sensitive to the daily needs of ordinary people. And one of the ways he helps ordinary people is to ask other ordinary people to share their goods. If He has entrusted us with barley loaves, grain, or fish, we can return those gifts to Him to be multiplied for the benefit of our fellow creatures.
IV. THE MOST POWERFUL GOD OF ALL: 2 KINGS 5
- According to the book of Kings, who was responsible for granting victory to the armies of Syria? 2 Kings 5:1.
The first verse in the story of Naaman is particularly interesting because it declares that it was the LORD, Yahweh, the God of Israel, who had given victory to Israel’s pagan neighbor, Syria. That statement becomes even more striking when we realize that Syria had been victorious over Israel. Yahweh supported Israel’s enemies at the cost of His own people. But there was a reason — a lesson to be learned, and truth to be discovered.
- Where and through whom did the little maid suggest that Naaman could receive healing? 2 Kings 5:3.
Even though the God of Israel could bless the armies of Syria, both the little maid and her master understood that the source of power still was in the land of Israel. Naaman would need to go there if he wished to be cured of his leprosy.
- How much “faith” was shown by the king of Israel and how did Elisha rebuke him? 2 Kings 5:5-8.
- What was Naaman’s awareness of Yahweh’s reputation even before he was healed of his leprosy? 2 Kings 5:11.
Naaman already knew about Yahweh when he arrived in Israel. He mentioned Him by name and expected a great show of pomp and ceremony. A lesson in humility was in order. The LORD could and did bless kings and their commanders. But they needed to learn who was Creator and who was creature. High office did not remove the necessity of humility. Indeed, it made the need more urgent.
- How does Naaman’s response reveal his understanding of Yahweh as a national deity? 2 Kings 5:15-17.
Even though Naaman proclaimed his conviction that Yahweh was the only God (elohim) worthy of the name, he still saw Yahweh as being located in the land of Israel. His request for some of Israel’s earth reflects the same kind of understanding. He wanted to worship Yahweh back home in Syria, but felt he could only do so if he had some of Yahweh’s earth with him. Apparently he intended to spread out the earth and reverently offer burnt offering and sacrifice to the God of Israel. That was a bold confession for a pagan commander to make.
- Even though Naaman no longer believed that his national god, Rimmon, had any power, what remarkable request did he make of Elisha? 2 Kings 5:18.
“At the times of this ignorance God winked at” (Acts 17:30). Coming from a pagan, Naaman’s confession represents a significant commitment. The permission Elisha granted him was never given to member of God’s own people. Naaman would go into the temple of Rimmon knowing that the god worshiped there was worthless. How ironic that the king of Israel could enter the temple of Baal believing that the god worshiped there was real.
QUESTIONS WORTH ASKING:
* Do I allow my witness to be determined by the leaders of the church, or am I willing to stand on my own for God?
* Am I willing to allow modern “pagans” in my world the time they need to grow toward a fuller understanding of truth?
* In the light of the story of Naaman in the temple of Rimmon, how can we avoid dangerous compromises and rationalizations?
FURTHER STUDY AND MEDITATION: Read Prophets and Kings, pp. 217 – 53.
SUMMARY: Although the worship of the true God was not “officially” supported by the royal house, God’s people found many ways to bear witness to him. That witness was felt at home and abroad. A good king is a great blessing, but when the king and nation are weak, the people and the prophet still have a work to do. Theirs is the witness that counts for eternity.