Sunday 22nd January 2023: Ian Jones

To watch this service, click on the link to our YouTube channel: Kings 4:8-37

The faith of a Shunammite noble woman.

            What struck me on reading our passage, and what grabbed my attention as I was studying it, was the woman’s twice repeated reply: “it is well,” which was given when she was asked if there was anything wrong, when it was clear that things were not well at all (verses 23 and 26). We are like this often in church, aren’t we? When someone asks, ‘How are things?’ we often reply with ‘they’re fine’ or ‘it is well,’ even though we have problems and difficulties like anyone else. Perhaps we are embarrassed to say what our troubles are as others seem to be getting on fine, or maybe we do not want to tell people because they may not understand.

            But why did this woman say twice “it is well” when things were so desperate? Was she in shock perhaps? Her son had suddenly died on her lap. Maybe she was confused and did not know what to say to people? The grieving process can throw up a range of unusual responses. Well, I do not think that any of these types of arguments fit the events at all. She was not in shock and neither was she confused. She did not hide things because she was afraid people would not understand or may judge her. No! She appears to show no emotion in the events described her after her son had died. She simply took her son and laid him on the bed where Elisha stayed, and then made request of her husband to send a young man and one of the donkeys so that she could go quickly to Elisha and then return (verse 22). There was only one thing on her mind. She had to get to Elisha, the “man of God.” After her husband presses her further as to the need for such a journey, she responds by saying “it is well,” (verse 23), and then proceeds to go with speed. She tells the servant to “drive,” “go forward,” and not to “slacken the pace” unless she said otherwise (verse 24). She is clearly a strong-minded woman with some determination, for she had one thing on her mind, to get to the “man of God,” and she was not going to be distracted or deviated by any means. Somehow, she knew that all would indeed be well when she arrived and met with the “man of God.”

            I wonder, can we too say “it is well” when a crisis occurs? Can we sing the hymn:

[1] When peace like a river attendeth my way,
when sorrows like sea billows roll;
whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say,
“It is well, it is well with my soul.”

It is well with my soul;
it is well, it is well with my soul.

[2] Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
let this blest assurance control:
that Christ has regarded my helpless estate,
and has shed his own blood for my soul. Refrain

[3] My sin oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!
my sin, not in part, but the whole,
is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more;
praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul! Refrain

[4] O Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight,
the clouds be rolled back as a scroll;
the trump shall resound and the Lord shall descend;
even so, it is well with my soul. Refrain *

Do we become emotional and out of control in a crisis? Or are we like this woman and can say, “It is well?”

            On approaching Mount Carmel where Elisha was to be found, the prophet sent his servant Gehazi to enquire if all was well, to which the woman replies with the same words she uttered to her husband “it is well” (verses 25 to 27). But when she arrived at where Elisha was, she immediately “caught him by the feet,” an action which Gehazi tried to stop but Elisha allows. The “man of God” knew that there was deep distress in the woman’s soul and that the matter had been hidden from him (verse 27). What we have here pictured for us is a woman who sought out God, for the “man of God” was the mediator here. It is at this point that she pours out her heart. We know little of this woman’s background or what tragedies she may have experienced, but in this event we find her going directly to the “man of God” and pouring out all her deep concerns. What is going on here? What is the Lord saying to us? Well in answer to these questions, what we see is this woman’s faith.

            In the darkest and most distressing of circumstances, this woman’s faith shines out. We ought to paint the picture of the times. Israel, the northern kingdom, had been pushed further toward idolatry by their first king Jeroboam the son of Nebat, who had installed idols at Dan in the north and at Bethel in the south. Elijah, Elisha’s predecessor, had won a stirring victory on mount Carmel against the numerous prophets of Baal installed by Ahab and his wicked wife Jezebel (1Kings 18:20f). You may recall that Elijah became rather downcast after this event thinking he was the only one who truly followed the Lord (1Kings 19:14). But the Lord pointed out that He had reserved seven thousand who had not bowed the knee to Baal (1Kings 19:18). It would seem that this Shunammite woman was probably one of those seven thousand. Now we too live in desperate days. The darkness seems to be getting darker. Not only is God’s Word not revered and honoured today amongst the populace, but it is slighted and treated with utter contempt by those who ought to know better, by those claiming authority in the state or national church and in other denominations too. At such a time we need to express our faith in the same way that this woman did.

            Recall that at the very start of the passage, amidst gross idolatry all around as we have noted, that this Shunammite woman gave hospitality to the “man of God.” She was a highly respected woman for the text calls her a “notable woman” (verse 8). But we find that she did not simply give hospitality to Elisha for “she persuaded him to eat some food” (verse 8). Elisha happened to come to Shunem, but this notable Shunammite saw him and seems to have sought him out to bless him with a meal. Are we keen to bless those who are ministering the Word of God in our day? Do we offer such directed and pointed hospitality? We all have differing gifts. But what this notable Shunammite woman does is simply to attend to Elisha’s needs. We can all do this in a variety of ways according to the gifts and talents God has given us. Are we open to bless in whatever way the Lord leads us?

            At first the Shunammite woman simply persuaded Elisha to take food with them (verse 8). This soon became a habit so that when he returned it became natural for him to “turn in there to eat some food” (verse 8). After some time, presumably through conversation over meals, the woman comes to know this prophet Elisha as “a holy man of God,” and she uses this title to refer to him rather than his name Elisha (see 2Kings 4:9,16,21,22,25,27). The name Elisha only occurs in the narrative at 2Kings 4:8,17,32. Presumably in their conversations the woman comes to understand the things of God amidst a dark and idolatrous nation. And so she seeks to make these occurrences more suitable. Rather than just provide food, she asks her husband if they cannot provide a room with the essentials for him such as, a bed, a table, a chair, and a lampstand (2Kings 4:10). In this simple act it serves to show that God was at work in her life. She wanted to bless Elisha, the “man of God,” but she did not worship him! The description of the provision of a room is quite telling. It was not ostentatious and over the top. It was simple and comfortable with all that was needed. She was not trying to exalt herself in the eyes of Elisha. She was not flattering him. She was not seeking glory by giving so much that Elisha might feel awkward. If she had gone over the top and given luxurious provisions for Elisha that would be like the overly showy cathedrals and great churches, or the super-apostles and evangelists with their showy cars and so on. No! She simply wanted to encourage this “man of God.” There was no need to go over the top. She provided a place for him to stay, to sleep, to study, and to pray whenever he was nearby. She wanted to bless this man in his ministry. Presumably the meals and conversations would continue too.

            Now when we give to the Lord’s work we should be blessed from the ministry, and so Elisha then asks the woman what he could do for her (verses 11 to 13). Again, in her response we see the woman’s faith. She is content. She does not want anything at all. Elisha had suggested some possibilities. He could intercede or mediate for her in regard to dealings with the king or the commander of the army (verse 13). But she simply responds by saying “I dwell among my own people.” It would appear that she was part of a community that cared for one another. We are not told any detail, but the implication is that she wants for nothing, for all was provided and she was content. We might imagine some people making requests of Elisha at this point. But the Shunammite woman was content. Now in the course of time Gehazi finds out that she was childless with an old husband (verse 14)! We are reminded here of other barren women such as Sarah and Hannah. The way the text reads in verse 14 gives us the impression that she was sad about this lack. It was the desire of all Hebrew married women to provide a son to continue the tribal line and maybe even to be included in that line through whom the Messiah would come. And so Elisha calls her and prophesies that in one year’s time she would be able to “embrace a son” (verse 16). Her response seems to indicate that she had already had some sorrow in life, for she imagined the worst and could not face this not coming true. Nevertheless the prophecy was sure and so she had her son “when the appointed time had come, of which Elisha had told her” (verse 17). Thus the Shunammite who responded in such a hesitant or even negative way had to learn that when God said He would do something (for Elisha did not speak from himself but as a “man of God”) then He would most certainly do it.

            The child was born and then grew, but all of a sudden a day came where tragedy takes place (verse 18 and 19). They were wholly unaware of this, of course. There was no gradual preparation of what was to occur. This incident reminds us that we are in a cursed world where disease and disaster are natural occurrences – all on account of curse due to mankind’s sin. After suffering some severe head pains whilst in the field with his father, the boy was taken to his mother where at noon he died as he lay on her lap (verses 19 and 20). Tragedy strikes when we least expect it. They were in the field at harvest time, for there were “reapers” there (verse 18). This was a time of great joy when the harvest was gathered in. But tragedy strikes! When all was seemingly going well, the boy falls ill and dies within hours. But we must always remember that all of this, both the harvest and the boy’s sudden death, were in the hands of the Lord.

Why did the Shunammite not tell her husband as the boy died? Why did she go with haste and immediately to the “man of God” shunning all distractions? The only satisfactory answer is that she wanted to be with God. Elisha had frequented their house and she had come to know of him as “a holy man of God.” He was God’s representative. And she was desperate to get to God. It was, after all, God who gave her this child (Elisha did not suggest this off his own mind for he was acting as God’s man). God knew her pain and suffering and so she must by all means get close to God and so seeking out Elisha, the “holy man of God” was all she could do. Was it not he who had prophesied about her son in the first place? However good and God-honouring her husband may have been (we know little of him) he could not do anything for her in this tragic situation. Only God could do something and so she makes haste to get to Elisha. Why go elsewhere?

Could she not have come to God alone in the house in the quietness of her own home? Well, what we are presented with here is Elisha as a type of the Lord Jesus Christ. In the New Testament we see many bring their sick relatives to Him for healing and other miracles. This is a similar situation. Perhaps she could have cried out to God in the solitude of her home, but going to Elisha shows to us the essential need of coming to Christ. We are dependent. And we are dependent upon Christ. This Shunammite woman had nowhere else to turn. Her husband or the other men in her community and even her own people could do nothing. Her son was dead. What could mortal man do? But Elisha was the one who said she would have a son – this “holy man of God” who spoke from God – so it was essential that she make haste to see him now.

Elisha is given here as the type of Christ. His life foreshadows that of Christ’s, and his ministry showed what we might expect of the true Messiah (although Elisha operated in much smaller measure). Where does our faith lead us? Only to God and only through Christ. All else is false and vanity. And so, it was needful for this woman to run to Elisha, the “man of God.” Now when the woman meets with Elisha, the prophet first sends Gehazi back to the house with his staff which he was to lay on the child (verse 29). Gehazi was to make haste and not deviate or get distracted on the journey. But the Shunammite woman is not going to leave Elisha. She says: “as the Lord lives, and as your soul lives, I will not leave you” (verse 30). She is clinging to the “man of God” (Elisha).

            Consider the amazing story of the raising of Lazarus as recorded in John 11. Mary and Martha, who were sisters to Lazarus, thought that if Jesus had been there before he died then He could have saved their brother. But Jesus purposely delayed his coming in order to show them that He was indeed “the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25).  Both Mary and Martha had to learn that God could not only give life, but He could also give back life or restore it. Does this not thrill us? God can bring life again to us! Are we clinging to the Lord Jesus Christ as the Shunammite clung to Elisha? Servants may be able to lead us to Christ but none can restore life save Christ!

            Now Gehazi set off in haste and did what was asked of him by the prophet, but the child did not come back (verse 31). Meanwhile the prophet and the woman by this time were also on their way, and as they travel Gehazi returned with the news that the child had still not arisen. Eventually Elisha goes to the child in that upper room and he does something that some suggest is a form of resuscitation or perhaps some form of medical procedure. He goes into the room, shuts the door behind him and the first thing he does is to pray to the Lord (verse 33). Following this he lay on the child putting his mouth to the boy’s mouth, his eyes to the boy’s eyes, and his hands to the boy’s

hands (verse 34). Such actions are said by some to be some form of medical procedure or resuscitation, but this is not what was happening at all. Remember that the boy died about noon and then the woman had to arrange to go to Elisha and then they had to return to the house. At least several hours would have passed by this time so what occurs here is not simple medical procedures. We are pointedly told that the child was in fact “lying dead on his bed” (verse 32). As Elisha stretched himself upon the boy, the boy “became warm” (verse 34). After this Elisha walked around in the house and then repeated his act of stretching out on the child at which point the boy sneezed seven times and then opened his eyes (verse 35). At this Elisha calls Gehazi to call for the woman and tells her to take up her son (verse 36). The Shunammite came in to the room and fell at Elisha’s feet bowing to the ground before picking up her son and leaving (verse 37).

            So what was Elisha doing by stretching himself out on the child and putting mouth, eye and hand to those of the boy’s? Well, it seems that in such an act there is an identification of Elisha with the boy. It would also seem as though the prophet is pictorially (that is, in typical fashion) showing us the imputation of life. By laying on the boy in mirror image, such an act points us to Christ’s substitution and identifying with us. He took upon Himself all our sins and died for them in our place. He did what we could not do. In rising from the dead He gave us new life. Thus in a representative way, Elisha demonstrates something of what Christ did for us at Calvary. Why the mouth, the eye, and the hand, and not any other parts? Well (perhaps) these three parts indicate significant aspects of life. The eye is what sees and beholds, the mouth speaks and declares what is in the heart, and the hand does and engages in activities. By such the Lord wants us to see that just as Elisha identified fully with the dead boy and typically imparted his life to the boy, so Christ took upon Himself our sin and rebellion and gave us His life instead! What a glorious Saviour we have!

* This hymn was written by Horatio G. Spafford, a Chicago lawyer who knew the evangelists Moody, Sankey and Bliss. In 1873 Spafford’s wife and four daughters were advised by their doctor to take a holiday in Europe to improve Mrs Spafford’s health. Mr. Spafford was delayed, but his wife and daughters set sail on the S.S. Ville du Havre in November, 1873. On November 22nd an English vessel (the Lochearn) collided with it, and the S.S. Ville du Havre sank in minutes. Sadly all four daughters were lost but Mrs Spafford was rescued. On December 1st when the survivors were landed at Cardiff, Mrs. Spafford sent the message, “saved alone.” Horatio G. Spafford wrote the words of this hymn as the ship taking him to meet his wife neared the spot of the tragedy.