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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
Preached At:Providence Canadian Reformed Church
 Hamilton, Ontario
Title:The Word of God leads from death and slavery to life and freedom
Text:2 Kings 4:1-7 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Role of the Mother

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Note:  all songs from the 2010 Book of Praise

Hymn 66

Hymn 11:9

Psalm 124

Psalm 146:1,4,5

Hymn 55

Scripture reading:  Luke 4:16-30

Text:  2 Kings 4:1-7

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved congregation of Christ,

Who worries more than a mother?  What does a mother worry about more than her kids?  Those of you who are mothers know this better than any of us.  Your kids occupy a special place in your hearts and lives.  After all, most of you carried those kids in your womb for nine months.  You gave birth to them.  You nurtured them and still do.  You prayed for them and still do.  You were concerned for their spiritual well-being and their physical well-being.  When they’re little, you worried about whether they were getting enough to eat.  When they were sick, you took them to the doctor.  When they went to school, you worried about how they would do.  When they get older and become teenagers, a whole new set of worries come along.  Yes, I know that fathers can worry too, but not usually like mothers do.  Normally mothers are the ones who carry a special burden for their children.  It’s natural and normal, the way God designed it.

A mother reads the opening words of our text and feels the acute pain and anxiety of this widow in a special way.  Here’s a mother whose greatest concern is her two boys.  What’s going to happen to her boys?  Her heart is breaking because one disaster has already happened to their family and now another disaster threatens.  She has a tremendous burden on her heart.  Since her husband has died, her boys are all she has left and now it looks like they’re going to be taken away too.  What kind of future will these boys have now?

It appears that death will lead to slavery and slavery to despair.  What can this widow do?  She goes to someone who might be able to help, to a prophet of God.  Specifically, she goes to Elisha.  Elisha had recently succeeded Elijah as the most prominent of the prophets.  Elijah had been the mouthpiece of God in a time of unbelief and apostasy.  Elisha took his place.  Now this widow goes to the one who can bring the Word of God to bear on her situation.  She goes to Elisha and he does what she hoped he would do.  He speaks the Word of God that can transform a situation of darkness into one of light.

I preach to you God’s Word this morning as we see how the Word of God leads from death and slavery to life and freedom.  We’ll consider:

  1. The crisis facing the widow and her sons
  2. The counsel of the man of God
  3. The conclusion of the story

Let’s begin by looking closer at the plight of this family.  First of all, who is this woman?  Verse 1 tells us that she was a wife of one of the sons of the prophets.  The “sons of the prophets” were not literally physical or biological children of the prophets.  So it’s not like this was Elisha’s son who had died.   “The sons of the prophets” were like a school of prophets.  Elijah had been their teacher or leader.  Elisha had taken over for Elijah.  They were called “sons of the prophets,” because their teacher or leader was like a spiritual father for them.

The woman’s husband had been one of these “sons of the prophets.”  Verse 2 fills that in a little more by telling us that this man had feared Yahweh, he feared the LORD.  Beyond that, the Bible does not directly say who this man was.  However, there is a Jewish tradition about his identity.  Jewish rabbis have often made a connection between 1 Kings 18 and 2 Kings 4.  In 1 Kings 18, we read about a man named Obadiah.  He was an official in King Ahab’s palace.  Obadiah feared the LORD greatly, says 1 Kings 18:3.  We also read that when wicked Jezebel persecuted God’s prophets, Obadiah took a hundred of them, hid them, and provided them with food and water.  Jewish tradition says that this Obadiah is the husband of the woman in our text.  Sometime after that episode in 1 Kings 18, he became one of the sons of the prophets.  This is an attractive explanation.  The problem is that the Bible doesn’t explicitly say.  It’s certainly possible and it doesn’t contradict anything in the Bible.  It could have been that Obadiah, but it could also have been someone else.  By the way, as an aside here, this Obadiah from 1 Kings 18 is not the Obadiah who wrote the short little book with that name.  That book comes much later in history. 

Whoever this man was, somehow he came into a situation of being in debt.  Rabbinical tradition says that Obadiah had to borrow money in order to buy food for the prophets he had protected.  Again, it sounds good, but there could also be other explanations.  We do know that the man feared God, so his borrowing seems to have had some good and godly purpose connected to it.

He’d gone to someone and borrowed money from him.  This was allowed by God’s law.  Israelites could not charge each other interest on loans, but they could lend and borrow money using a system of pledges.  In this case, the man involved went to a fellow Israelite and asked to borrow money.  The agreement was that if he could not repay the money in a set period of time, his two sons would become the lender’s servants. His two sons were the pledge on the loan.  Again, this was all following the letter of the law.  This was allowed by God in Israelite society. 

But now, of course, the man was dead.  There didn’t seem to be any possibility at all that the loan would get repaid.  The creditor therefore had a right to seize the pledge.  In this case, the pledge was the two boys.  He had a right to take these two boys and make them his servants. 

Now a sharp student of the Bible might stop right there and say, “Well, that is a bad situation.  But at least this was in Israel.  In Israel, they also had the law of Jubilee.”  Yes, that’s true, at least in principle.  In Leviticus 25 you read about the laws related to the year of Jubilee.  After 49 years, there was to be a fiftieth year in which all sorts of freedoms were granted.  Poor Israelites who had been taken as servants were to be released.  So let’s say that these boys were to become servants – maybe it was another five years to the year of Jubilee.  Then they would be released.  No big deal, right? 

Well, not so fast.  It was a big deal.  There is no evidence in the Bible that the year of Jubilee was ever celebrated in Israel.  Yes, it was commanded in God’s Word and perhaps it was celebrated in times of faithfulness, but we don’t read about it in Scripture.  Moreover, the time of our passage was not a time of faithfulness.  The previous chapter begins by telling us about King Jehoram, the son of Ahab.  He was not as bad as Ahab, but yet he “did what was evil in the sight of the LORD.”  This was not a time known for its close adherence to the law of God.  We can reasonably expect that the law of Jubilee was not being followed in such a time as this. 

What did that mean for this poor widow woman?  Her sons were going to become servants for this creditor and they would likely remain his servants for their entire life.  She was going to lose her sons.  For any mother that would be heart-breaking.  But for a poor widow in Israel, it also meant a life of oppression, constantly under the threat of being taken advantage of by others.  Widows were some of the most vulnerable members of society, and a widow without her sons to protect her was even more vulnerable.  This was the worst thing that could happen to a woman.  She had lost her husband to death and now she was losing her sons to slavery.

What we have here is a picture of a broken world under the curse of sin.  A God-fearing man is taken away by death, leaving behind a widow and two sons and a whole bunch of debt.  Then the creditor comes knocking to collect the pledge on the debt.  Justice must be served.  The debt must be paid.  Slavery seems to be inevitable for these two boys and more misery for mom.  There’s nothing here that’s bright and cheerful.  Verse 1 has this widow in a dark cloud.   Could the Word of God change her situation?  Can the Word address the brokenness in this world, also the brokenness we experience, our concerns and worries? 

That poor widow could only find out by going to the one who had the Word of God, the one who represented the Word of God:  the man of God.  As a prophet, Elisha was commissioned to proclaim the Word of God into the lives of the people.  She goes to the prophet and cries out to him, expecting that he can somehow help. 

In verse 2, he first takes an assessment of her situation.  He asks what the widow has on hand in her house.  She replies that all they have is a jar of oil.  It was just a small container of olive oil.  Olive oil would have been used for food, for burning in lamps, and lots of other purposes.  All the widow has left is this small jar of oil, everything else has been spent.  This family is seriously poor.

Then in verses 3 and 4, we find the remarkable words of the man of God, giving her counsel, telling her what she needs to do.  He tells her to go to all her neighbours and borrow as many containers as she can.  Then she’s to take her sons and go in the house and close the doors behind them.  Once she’s in private, she’s to start pouring oil into the containers.  When one is full, put it to the side and grab another one and keep on pouring.

Now there’s something I want you to notice here.  Elisha does nothing but speak.  He doesn’t even go with the woman into her house.  You see, by his own command, what was to take place had to happen behind closed doors with just the woman and her sons.  He would not be present.  All he did was speak.  This is what prophets do.  They speak and then things happen.  God’s Word never returns to him empty.  It always accomplishes something.

God’s Word here in this scenario would sound foolish to unbelieving ears.  An unbeliever would hear the prophet speaking and say this is total nonsense.  An unbeliever would say, “Elisha should have just forked out the money and helped the poor lady!  How are just his words going to help?”  In today’s world we might say, “He should have started a crowd-sourced fundraising campaign online.  At least that would work – it’s proven to work.  That would have been more helpful than giving her these crazy instructions.”  But he speaks the Word of God to a woman who believes in the Word of God.  Like her husband, she is a covenant child who fears the LORD.  She believes that his Word can change things and lead someone to life and freedom.

Throughout history, God’s Word has done this.  God speaks and things happen.  This is readily evident as we look to the greatest prophet of all, our Lord Jesus Christ.  In Luke 4, he was at the synagogue and read from Isaiah.  Isaiah had written about the year of Jubilee, that neglected and unfulfilled festival of freedom.  Isaiah prophesied that someone was coming who would enact the freedoms envisioned by that festival.  He would be anointed by the Holy Spirit to “proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour,” “to proclaim good news to the poor,” “to proclaim liberty to the captives.”  Proclaim, proclaim, proclaim.  It’s all about the words.  Jesus says in that passage that he has come to fulfill those Words.  He is the year of Jubilee in the flesh, coming with the Word of God to lead people from death and slavery to life and freedom.  His message was simple:  repent and believe the gospel.  Turn away from your sin and believe that Jesus is the Saviour sent by God.  When you trust in him, his perfect obedience is yours.  When you rest in him, the payment he made on the cross for sins is yours.  You will be set free from the slavery of sin.  You will truly live.  Eternal life and freedom come when you hear the Word and believe it.  Real change happens by the Word.

Just like the words of Elisha would sound like nonsense to unbelieving ears, so would the words of Jesus Christ.  When he preached in that synagogue, his words of Jubilee freedom were at first received well.   But what he said afterwards made many people furious.  Their violent reaction was because of pride and unbelief.  God’s Word always accomplishes something.  In that instance, it accomplished hardening due to unbelief.  But with the widow in our text, it led to something far better: to blessing.

Loved ones, that puts the question squarely in front of you:  where is the Word of God leading you?  Where is it leading you right now, at this very moment?  Is it leading you from death and slavery to life and freedom?  What that comes down to of course is how you respond to the Word of God as it’s proclaimed.  There is still a prophetic ministry.  The Word of God is brought to bear on your life right now.  It addresses you with all your worries and concerns, whether as mothers or fathers, or whatever else.  It addresses you also with the most serious concerns of all:  are you enslaved by sin?  If you are, what will become of you when you die?  Where will you go?  What will the Judge of heaven and earth have to say to you when you face him with your earthly life behind you?  The Word calls out to you again today and says, you can have life and freedom.  Don’t doubt it.  Only humble yourself, turn from your sin, and believe in Jesus Christ, the one who fulfilled the festival of Freedom.  The Jubilee year may never have happened in the Old Testament, but with Jesus Christ it has happened, it is happening.  The year of Jubilee is here.  Life and freedom are available in Jesus Christ.  Faith connects you to it.  Believe the Word! 

Belief is what the woman in our text responded with.  In faith, she followed the Word of God as spoken by his prophet Elisha.  That’s how the story concludes and the problem is resolved.  She didn’t protest or ask if there was some other way.  If you were to read ahead in 2 Kings 5, you would read about Naaman.  He’s the Syrian commander with leprosy.  He’s told to wash in the Jordan and he protests.  He thinks there must be a better way.  But not this widow woman.  Just believing, she went ahead and did exactly what Elisha had told her to do.  She gathered all the containers together and went in the house with her sons.  She started pouring, and pouring, and pouring.  Miraculously, the oil did not run out.  There was plenty of oil to fill every single container that they’d collected from their neighbours.  When they came to the last container, the oil stopped.  We don’t know the exact amount of olive oil they collected through this miracle, but it appears to have been quite an amount.

Afterwards, she went back to Elisha and reported the amazing outcome.  Then the man of God gave her one further instruction, “Go, sell the oil and pay your debts, and you and your sons can live on the rest.”  That tells us that there was plenty of oil.  God had given enough so that there would be both freedom from debt and the ability to live without concern.  Everything was taken care of.  God had given both freedom and life through this gracious miracle.  Because the woman believed the Word of God that had been spoken to her, she received these gifts from his hand.

The story ends there.  We don’t hear about the woman again.  We’re left to assume that she did just as Elisha told her.  It’s safe to conclude that her sons didn’t have to become slaves and they were able to live with their mother.  Everything turned out well and we can be sure that they were praising God for this deliverance.

Justice made its demands on her.  It was either pay the money or give up her sons.  One way or another, the debt had to be paid.  Justice required it and justice had to be maintained.  Through his prophet, God provided a way for justice to be upheld, while at the same time showing mercy to this poor widow woman.

What does that remind you of?  All sinners have offended God and owe satisfaction to his justice.  There is a debt that must be paid.  For there to be life and freedom, the debt has to be discharged somehow, some way.  There are only two ways.  You can try to pay for yourself.  The problem is that after a million years of paying, you’ll never be closer to finishing the payment than you were at the beginning.  This is because of the infinite size of the debt.  An infinite debt requires infinite payment.  So paying for yourself is not an attractive option.  The other option is for God’s justice to be met by another in your place.  God has provided a way for justice to be upheld, while at the same time showing mercy to you.  He has provided that way through Jesus Christ.  Again, it’s through Christ that we are led from death and slavery to life and freedom.  There is no other way.  He is the incarnate Word of God who brings to us life and liberty.  All of us are called to place our faith only in him. 

And as we do, the life and liberty he brings extend not only to our eternal destiny, but also to our concerns of here and now.  We can take a cue from our text and think about parents, and especially about mothers.  We can think about mothers and the concerns they have for their children.  There are all kinds of concerns that we can have and these can weigh us down, occupy our minds so much as to almost become a kind of slavery.  How does the Word of God address us? 

God promises us first of all that our children are not our children at all.  They belong to him and he calls us to recognize that and live in the light of it.  They are his covenant children and so we can trust that he will be busy with them, taking care of all they need.  But his Word also calls us to fervent prayer.  He says that we can and must plead with him for our children.  We can plead on his promises.  Like the widow cried to Elisha the man of God, we can cry to God, “Lord, what about our children?  We have all these concerns about them.  Most of all, we’re concerned that they would be enslaved by sin and never find life.  But Father, these children are yours.  They belong to you.  You’ve made gospel promises to them, signed and sealed in their baptism.  O God, remember your promises to our children.  Do not forsake them.  Please hold our children in your loving hands.  By your Word, deliver them from death and slavery and bring them to life and freedom in Christ.  Please give them the gift of your Holy Spirit and work faith in their hearts.  Whatever happens to them, let them and me trust in your Word.”  As we pray in that way, putting our faith into words before God, he will carry our burdens for us.  As it says in 1 Peter 5:7, “Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.”  As we do that, we will grow in trusting his love and power in our lives and in the lives of our kids.

We look at these verses and we don’t merely see a widow, her two sons, and a prophet.  There is far more here than meets the eye.  The person who would only see those four characters would be short-sighted.  In this passage, we see God at work and we see his power.  It’s the liberating power that’s found in his Word, the life-giving and life-affirming power.  It points us again to Jesus Christ.  Loved ones, through him as he’s revealed in Scripture, God truly leads us from death and slavery to life and freedom.  AMEN.                                           


Father in heaven, merciful God,

We praise you for delivering this poor widow woman and her sons in our text.  You did it through your Word, through your servant Elisha.  We praise your Name for setting these covenant people free from death and slavery, from some of the brokenness of this world. 

We are also so thankful to you for Jesus Christ, the one through whom we have life and freedom.  Thank you that we could hear the good news about him again this morning.  Please help all of us to entrust ourselves to him for our well-being for today and for eternity. 

We pray especially for mothers and other parents who have worries and concerns about their kids.  Please help them with your Holy Spirit to trust your promises and to plead on your promises.  We ask for your help so that we will bring all our worries and concerns before your throne in faith, trusting that you will hear and act.  Father, there is no greater concern than that our children would love you, believe in your Son, and live out of faith.  We plead with you to show your mercy to these covenant children and with your Spirit give them all the gift of faith.  Please open their eyes to their sin and misery.  Please turn their hearts towards Jesus in faith.  Please fill their hearts with thanks and love for you so that they live for your praise and glory.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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