Commentary on 2 Kings 4-5 (Elisha’s Ministry)

The prophet Elisha is one of the greatest miracle-performing personalities in the entire Bible. We already saw a couple of miracles from Elisha in chapter 2, but chapters 4-5 recall several more that parallel the ministries of Elijah, his spiritual father, and Jesus, his future Lord and Savior.

Elijah, when his ministry was beginning, brought the son of a widow back to life, the first miracle of its kind reported in the Bible. Would Elisha also be able to bring a child back from the dead? Chapter 4, verses 8-37, answers this question.

Elisha frequently traveled through a town called Shunem in the territory of Issachar. A wealthy woman there, whom the author refers to as the Shunammite, offers her house for Elisha to eat a meal whenever he is in the area. In fact, Elisha travels through the area so often that the wealthy woman asks her husband to add permanent sleeping quarters for Elisha on the roof of their house.

Elisha wants to thank the Shunammite, but he isn’t sure how. His servant Gehazi notices that she and her elderly husband are without children. To remain childless, as she had been, was considered to be a great curse on a husband and wife in ancient Israel. Elisha tells the woman that in one year she will be pregnant with a child and that is indeed what occurs. This miraculous birth was a gift from God to honor the Shunammite’s generosity toward Elisha.

Several years later, when the child is old enough to work during the harvest, he complains to his father that his head hurts. We are not told of the exact ailment, but some scholars have speculated that he suffered from a sun stroke. The child is taken to his mother and she sits with him for several hours, but he dies.

She takes him up to Elisha’s bed and lays him there and then quickly gathers a servant and donkey so that they can ride to Elisha’s home at Mount Carmel. When she arrives, Elisha figures out that her son is dead and he sends ahead Gehazi to heal the boy, but Gehazi fails to bring him back to life.

Elisha then arrives at the house of the Shunammite and performs almost the exact same ceremony that Elijah performed to raise the son of the widow. The results are the same. God miraculously raises the child from the dead. The reader is to understand that Elisha is every bit the equal of Elijah, able to even raise the dead.

As we skip to verses 42-44, we see that Elisha faces a situation where he must feed 100 men with only 20 loaves of bread. Elisha instructs the man with the 20 loaves to proceed feeding the men because God will miraculously multiply the bread to the point that there will even be some left over after every man is full. And that is exactly what happens.

Paul R. House, in 1, 2 Kings: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture (The New American Commentary), adds:

This miracle is paralleled in the New Testament by Jesus’ feeding of the multitudes. Such literary features as the questioning of whether there is enough bread to feed so many, the feeding of a large group, and the fact that there is ‘some left over’ appear in Matt 14:13–21; Mark 6:30–42; 8:1–21; Luke 9:13–17; and John 6:12–13. Jesus hoped the miracle would demonstrate his power and mercy, which would in turn lead to faith in him. Unfortunately, people merely tended to look for more miracles (Mark 8:12), and even the disciples saw the feedings as temporary relief from hunger instead of evidence of Jesus’ limitless provision (Mark 8:14–21). Elisha faced a similar problem, for his miracles helped preserve the faithful but never effected permanent change in the nation. Like Moses, Jesus and Elisha worked miracles that were signs of God’s kingdom breaking into history, and both were ignored by all but a remnant of Israel. Still, the remnant did emerge, so their work was not totally in vain.

Chapter 5 recounts the famous story of the healing of Naaman the Aramean (or Syrian) army commander. Naaman has some sort of serious skin disease, possibly leprosy. A captured Israelite servant working for his wife tells him about a great prophet in Israel who can heal him.

With a letter of introduction of his king, Naaman travels to Samaria, the capital of Israel, and presents himself to King Joram of Israel. The king panics because he has no idea how to heal Naaman and fears this will start a war with Syria.

Fortunately for Joram, Elisha hears of Naaman’s visit and tells Joram to send Naaman to Elisha, a true prophet of Israel. When Naaman arrives at Elisha’s residence, Elisha sends a messenger outside to tell Naaman to wash 7 times in the Jordan River and he will be healed. Naaman is angry at the prophet’s solution for healing him, as he expected Elisha to perform similar rituals to the prophets in Syria.

His servants, however, convince him to follow Elisha’s command and he washes himself in the river 7 times and is instantly healed after the 7th washing. Naaman returns to Elisha and makes a profession of faith in the one true God, Yahweh. “Now I know that there is no God in all the world except in Israel. Please accept now a gift from your servant.”

Elisha refuses payment from Naaman, but Naaman asks for two things from Elisha. First, he requests that Elisha allow him to carry soil from Israel to build an altar to Yahweh in Syria after he has returned. Second, he asks Elisha if Yahweh will forgive him when he is forced by the king of Syria to participate in the worship of the god Rimmon. Elisha assures him that he will be forgiven when he tells Naaman to “go in peace.”

Paul House writes about Naaman’s conversion:

This text contains one of the great Gentile conversion accounts in the Old Testament. Like Rahab (Josh 2:9–13), Ruth (Ruth 1:16–18), and the sailors and Ninevites in Jonah (Jonah 1:16; 3:6–10), Naaman believes in the Lord. From Gen 12:2–3 onward in the Old Testament, God desires to bless all nations through Israel. This ideal becomes a reality here due to the witness of the Israelite servant girl and the work of the Israelite prophet.

Naaman’s conversion includes a confession of faith. He states that no other god exists besides the Lord, a conclusion he draws from the fact that only the Lord can heal him. Hobbs correctly claims that Naaman’s confession consists of ‘words which accord closely with Elisha’s words in v. 8. Following a major theme of these chapters, Naaman realizes that only in Israel, and through Israel’s God, is healing to be found. Following this confession, Naaman’s actions support his new-found faith.’ Sadly, Naaman’s confession of faith condemns most Israelites of that era, since they have rejected the one true God and embraced gods that cannot heal. Jesus makes this point while rebuking the people of Nazareth in Luke 4:23–30.