The compassion of the prophet - 2 Kings 4:1-7

This is a sermon by Nathan Buttery from the evening service on 3rd February 2002.

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January 2000 is a month that Paul Lucas, an amateur diver from Leicester, is unlikely to forget. Mr Lucas was coming the end of his ten week holiday in Thailand and Australia when he opted to go on a diving expedition off the East coast of Australia. He was with a group of twelve divers and was diving with another man when he became separated from the group. There was a strong swell and the waves were big which meant that he could not locate the boat. So he decided to swim back to land. The only trouble was the currents were too strong and so he decided just to tread water using his empty oxygen tank as a buoyancy aid, until help arrived. However, after 24 hours, help had not arrived and he was drifting further out to sea. Luckily he spotted an island out to sea and swum to it where he spent the night huddled in a cave, bitten mercilessly by mosquitoes. His ordeal only ended the morning afterwards when he saw a pleasure cruiser and waved frantically to alert their attention. Eventually he was airlifted to safety, and was taken to hospital, lucky to be alive after suffering what turned out to be a forty hour ordeal. It was truly a story which began with disaster but ended in joy.

Now tonight we are looking at a story in the Bible which tells of one person who was in very deep distress who is also fighting for her life. But this story ends not with a rescue provided by a chance passing of a ship, but with a divine rescue provided by God himself through his prophet Elisha. Elisha is the prophet God has raised up to take over from Elijah. And he is ministering in a time when Israel is rotten with the sin of Baal worship. The country was being led away from God by her kings. But God has sent his prophet to the nation to call them back to God's way and to be a model to Israel of the holy man of God.

Now our passage is the first in a series in chapter four of four miracles performed by Elisha. And it is worth us asking as we begin to study this passage why is it these miracles are here? What are they meant to teach us? Well, often in the Bible miraculous events accompany key times in the Bible's history when God performs a great act and reveals himself as the God of salvation and judgement. So there are a cluster of miracles around the time of Moses, for instance, or Jesus and the apostles. Those times are key events in God's plan of salvation. And miracles in the Bible are always signposts to show us something about God and his kingdom. And here is no exception. Elijah and Elisha are God's representatives bringing his word to the nation, and as such it is a new phase in God's unfolding plan. From these two prophets onwards God will send prophets to call the nation back to God's Word. And through the miracles of Elisha God is revealing his power and care for his people. They are if you like giant signposts to show us something of God.

And so when we come to this story, we're not to think that we are to reflect Elisha's ministry, but rather to think what is Elisha teaching us about God and his ways through these amazing signs. And this miracle from 2 Kings 4 has much to teach us. For here we find a single woman trusting God in the midst of terrible apostasy, and we find that God shows himself to be the God who provides and cares for his people. But we are also pointed forward in this miracle to see one greater than Elisha, the Lord Jesus Christ, who provided for his people in the deepest way possible. So let's turn to the passage and we'll discover three things:

1) A Desperate Situation

2) A Determined Faith

3) A Divine Provision

1) A Desperate Situation

So first, then, we see a desperate situation. And life for this woman could not have been much more desperate. Verse 1: "The wife of a man from the company of the prophets cried out to Elisha, 'Your servant my husband is dead and you know that he revered the Lord. But now this creditor is coming to take my two boys as his slaves.'" This woman is one of the wives of the prophets who gathered around Elijah and Elisha. But here we find her in dire straits. Her husband has just died and he has left two small boys for the mother to bring up and take care of. It's clear they were young, otherwise they would have gone out to work to earn some money. But they cannot and she has nothing, as she says to Elisha in verse 2: "Your servant has nothing at all, except a little oil." And if grief and the burden of raising children is not enough, then we also discover that she has huge debts. It seems that her husband had borrowed money from a creditor and now the creditor wanted his money back. And there was a particularly nasty threat. The two sons would be taken as slaves to compensate for the loss of money if the woman could not pay. Can you imagine how she felt? Her whole life was in the balance. She was without a husband, without an income, facing a future without children, and possibly without her own life. It truly was a desperate situation.

And yet when we read the rest of the OT, we find that this situation should never have come about. This was not the way life was meant to be lived in the promised land with God as their king. You see although there was no Social Security system in Israel, yet God had written into his laws ways for the weak and poor of society to be looked after. There are plenty of verses in the law contained in Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy which describe the treatment of widows. Listen to Exodus 22: "Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan. If you do, and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry. My anger will be aroused and I will kill you with the sword." And later in Leviticus 25, God tells his people to help the poor among them as they would any stranger. They are told not to take interest or sell them food at a profit. And nor are they to enslave them. And then in Deuteronomy 10, God says that he defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow. So it was all there clearly in God's Word. But this was a generation who did not take God's Word seriously. This generation ignored God, and it was the weak and poor who suffered.

You see this poor woman's situation was a picture of what life in the land was like when God's Word was ignored. When the provisions that God lays down for caring for the weak and defenceless are ignored, then those people suffer. Her situation is a picture into the spiritual depravity of the nation. What kind of people neglect a penniless widow and allow her children to be enslaved. Only a nation where God and his word is neglected. But God won't have it. He is a God of compassion and will not let her prayers go unanswered. And his compassionate servant Elisha will provide her with what she needs, just as many years later another greater than Elisha would look on women in great need with pity, and give them what they needed.

And there is a challenge for us here. As God's people we must reflect his concerns for the defenceless and helpless in our body of the church as well as those outside. We, like our compassionate God and his compassionate prophet, must seek to help those in need who the world may reject. The single mums, the widows, those in serious need. When the word of God is at work in the people of God, then the people of God reflect God's priorities revealed in his word. This woman in 2 Kings 4 was a picture of the tragic state of the land when God's laws were neglected. And it is even more desperate when the church of God neglects the Word of God so that its weaker members are left on the sidelines. That too is a desperate situation. Rather God's concerns are to be our concerns. Here the challenge of God's Word and have compassion on those in need. For if God cares for those in need, then so should we.

2) A Determined Faith

But secondly from a desperate situation we turn to a determined faith. And it is the faith of the woman that shines through this passage. The writer tells us in verse 1 that this woman was the wife of one of the company of the prophets and the wife says of her husband in verse 1 that he revered the Lord. Now we have already met these men in chapter 2. They were the bands of prophets who supported Elisha around the country. But there weren't that many of them. In fact, in 1 Kings we find only seven thousand on the whole land. And yet that small number remain committed to God despite the pressures of the people around them to worship Baal and despite the threat of death.

And it is clear that this woman continued where her husband had left off. His faith in the covenant God was found in her too. What is her immediate response to the crisis that threatened her? It is in verse 1 to cry out to Elisha the man of God. And in doing that she showed clearly where she believed her help would come from. She had nowhere else to turn, and her only help was God and his prophet Elisha. And when Elisha began to suggest various strange things, even then she simply trusts what the prophet says and gets on with it, no questions asked. Can you imagine the scene? The woman pours out her story to Elisha over the breakfast table and then all he says is go and see the neighbours. They'll will help you, he says. She could easily have turned round and said to Elisha: "You're mad- what help is loads of jam jars if I've got no oil. Don't you know anything about shopping? You cannot get the jars and expect them to fill miraculously you know!" But she doesn't say that. She humbly obeys the prophet, gets the empty jars from the neighbours and follows the prophet's instructions. That is faith. Taking God at his word and acting on it.

And in the context of 2 Kings there is something even more remarkable about this woman. You see if her neighbours had been in her situation, they would have gone to the local Baal shrine to ask him for help. They didn't have Tesco loyalty cards in those days. They had Baal loyalty cards. And the more you went, the more Baal would bless you, so they wrongly believed. For Baal was said to the be the provider of rain and fertility and food.

But this woman knew better. She went to the only God who could help her. Yahweh, the God of gods, the King of kings. He alone would solve her desperate situation. You see this family, this woman and her late husband represent what life in the promised land with God as the King could be like. It was a life of trust in him and great blessing from him. And they continued to have faith in him despite the peer pressure from their society around them. I guess it would have been very tempting to switch loyalty to Baal. They might look with envy at their neighbours' full cupboards, and their new Y Reg donkey, the posh extension to the home. But not this family. No they were sticking with Yahweh, the true God, despite the severe problems they were having. For only God could help them, and they put their faith in him. This woman had a determined faith, determined to stick with the true God and his prophet despite the immense pressure not to.

And for the first readers of 2 Kings, this would have been a very powerful challenge. You see the first readers of 2 Kings were in exile in Babylon. They had been taken away from their land and were surrounded by all sorts of gods. And the questions would be who should we trust? Babylonians gods or Yahweh. Is God still God? This passage reminds them that they are, and they should have faith in him despite what their neighbours are doing. And that is the sort of people God requires to stand for his truth in our world today. We too live in pressured times when faith in our exclusive God and His Son Jesus Christ is very unfashionable. We are living in exile, strangers away from our spiritual home in heaven. We may well feel that all our friends are getting on much better without God. But we know that it is not Baal, not false gods, that will win but Yahweh. Yes we are in the minority, but faith in the promise keeping God will be seen to be firm. And it is not so much how much faith we have, but where our faith is placed. The story is told of a man who was attempting to cross the St. Lawrence River in Canada. It was winter and so the river was frozen, and so the man got down on his hands and knees and gingerly crawled on the ice. When he got to the middle of the river, trembling with fear, he heard a rumbling sound behind him. To his horror a coach and horses were racing towards the river. But when they reached the frozen river, they didn't stop but just keep going. They bolted right onto the ice and whizzed past him, waving as they went, leaving him to his own embarrassment. If only the man knew how strong the ice was, he'd have had more confidence. Well determined faith knows how firm and certain God is. Determined faith cries out to God knowing that nothing else will help. Determined faith knows that only God and his Word is sufficient to sustain us in this world while all around us are turning to false gods. Be encouraged by this woman to have determined faith in the God of the Bible.

3) A Divine Provision

And then lastly, we come to the divine provision. This is where the story is heading. And it comes in slightly strange circumstances. Elisha tells the woman to collect all the empty jars from her neighbours and then to lock herself in the house with her two sons and start pouring out her only remaining oil. And the miracle is that as she begins to pour, the oil just won't stop. She pours and pours, and the sons bring more and more jars, and then eventually one of the boys says in verse 6: "There is not a jar left," and suddenly the oil stops. You can see now why Elisha told her to get as many jars as possible. If she hadn't trusted God's Word through Elisha at that point, then she'd have very little oil. But her faith is rewarded. And she goes to the prophet in verse 7 and tells what has happened and he tells her to sell the oil, pay off her debts and live on the earnings. It is an amazing tale of God's miraculous provision. And again when we remember the context of 2 Kings and what is happening in the land, this story becomes all the more powerful. The Jones' next door would have gone to the Baal shrine for help. This woman knows that God alone can provide. He is the one that gives help and provides for his people. Don't turn to self help classes or other gods, this passage tells us. It is God who provides for us in our greatest need. And not only has this woman been saved from starvation, but she has been saved from slavery. God has given her food when she is hungry, and freedom when she was to be enslaved. That's the kind of God the God of the Bible is. A generous, loving God who cares for his people when everyone else around them are turning away. And to a people struggling in Babylon far away from their homeland, this would have come as a great encouragement to keep trusting the God who has revealed himself. He does not leave his people in the lurch. This truly is a divine provision.

And once again, there is a lesson here for us to learn, we who are Christians living in spiritual Babylon, away from our true home. We also need to hear the encouragement that it is God alone who can provide our every need. He is the one we must look to and trust to provide us with what we need. What does Jesus say? "Seek first God's kingdom and his righteousness and all these things will be given to you as well." God's promise is to give us what we need to follow him, for he is the God who provides. And in Jesus, the second Elisha, the one whose name also means "God saves", we see our very deepest needs met. What is our greatest need as human beings? Well it is that we be set free from slavery to ourselves and to sin. The Bible teaches us that we are enslaved to a way of life that goes against God. And the only way we can be set free is by God himself breaking the bonds that tie us. And that is what Jesus, the God who saves, did for us. Listen to some words of the apostle Paul: "Once we were enslaved to the basic principles of this worldGod sent his son to redeem those under the law that we might receive the full rights of sons." That is what Jesus Christ has done for us. He has set us free. And we are alive again!Charles Wesley was one man who knew what it was to be enslaved. He was the brother of John Wesley and together the Wesleys would have a huge impact on their country. And yet for Charles life at university and then beyond were years of spiritual drudgery. He was certainly active in Christian things. He set up what was called the Holy Club in Oxford and the group would go and help the poor and homeless. And yet their religion, including Charles' was one of rules and duty. There was no joy or true understanding in Charles' heart. But one day, after meeting some Christians who truly knew and loved their Saviour, Charles suddenly saw what true Christianity was all about. On the 21st May, 1738, God opened his heart and he suddenly saw everything clearly. "I now found myself at peace with God," he said in his journal, "and rejoiced in hope of loving Christ..... I saw that it was by faith I stood, by the continual support of faith.......I went to bed still understanding my own weakness....yet confident of Christ's protection." And then later on, Charles Wesley would write these words: "Long my imprisoned spirit lay, fast bound in sin and nature's night; Thine eye diffused a quickening ray- I woke, the dungeon flamed with light; my chains fell off, my heart was free. I rose went forth and followed Thee."

Charles Wesley knew what it meant to come from slavery to freedom through Jesus' work for him on the cross. And that is God's greatest provision for us. And the Christian life is about living in the freedom that God gives us, trusting him as we live in this world in exile from our true home in heaven. We can live in the knowledge that God will give us the strength to cope with what this world faces us. The challenge is to learn to trust him even when things are at their worst, like they were for this woman. Because at the end of the day, we have nowhere else to turn. That was what this woman discovered. She found that God would provide for her, and that her faith in him was firmly placed. And she found that he could bring her from slavery to freedom to live for him in joy and hope. That's the divine provision.

So tonight we've see a true life story of disaster turned into joy. But along the way we have found many challenges. We've seen the challenge of a desperate situation when God's word is neglected by God's people. We have seen the determined faith of the woman, refusing to bow to Baal, but to trust in the God she knows. And we have seen the divine provision, as God provides for his people in the deepest way possible. So where will you turn as we live our lives in a hostile, godless country. To false gods, or the true God?

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