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Author:Rev. Reuben Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Mt. Nasura
 Mt. Nasura, Western Australia
Title:God Gives, He Takes Away, He Restores
Text:2 Kings 4:8-37 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:God's Providence

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Ps 147:1,4                                                                                  

Ps 40:5,7                                                                                                        

Reading – Luke 7:11-17

Ps 40:1,4

Sermon – 2 Kings 4:8-37

Ps 56:1,3,5

Hy 85:1,2,3

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

Beloved in Christ, in the first four chapters in 2 Kings we’ve been on a road trip with the prophet Elisha, following his ministry around the land. We first meet him in Abel Meholah—north central Israel—where he was called and appointed by Elijah. Later we see him go from Gilgal (which is in the south), across the Jordan River, then back again and to Jericho where he healed the poisoned waters. From there Elisha traveled north, to Mount Carmel and Samaria—and then south again, to Bethel, where the bears had their lunch.

This is what the job was like for some of the Old Testament prophets. It was an itinerant ministry, moving from place to place, wherever God wanted them to bring a message or perform a miracle. It’d be like a minister today roving all around the countryside, one month preaching in a town here, then a few weeks in a city over there, then down to another place for a Sunday or two. He’d really put on the kilometres.

Elisha’s travels continue in our text, for we see him in Shunem. This is a small town towards the north of the country, not too far from the Sea of Galilee. While he’s up there, doing another circuit of preaching, he meets “a notable woman” (v 8). Unlike the destitute widow whom he helped with the jar of oil, this was a woman of some standing, and it sounds like she has some money.

As Elisha passes through the area, this woman invites him to eat at her home. The Old Testament prophets were often unable to support themselves financially, exactly because they were traveling around and devoting their time to bringing God’s Word. What happens once soon begins a regular practice of enjoying her hospitality: “So it was, as often as he passed by, he would turn in there to eat some food” (v 8).

Now, one of the many blessings of showing hospitality like this woman is how it develops relationships and connections among people. A person who was once a stranger to you—and maybe even someone you considered a bit strange—can become a friend, someone with whom you enjoy the sweetness of fellowship. When you host someone once, afterward there’s often the thought, “We should do that again!”

For the woman of Shunem too, she wants to strengthen ties with the prophet, to continue to help him. So she says to her husband, “Look now, I know that this is a holy man of God, who passes by us regularly. Please, let us make a small upper room on the wall; and let us put a bed for him there, and a table and a chair and a lampstand; so it will be, whenever he comes to us, he can turn in there” (vv 9-10). She’s ready to make an addition to their home, a regular residence for the prophet. It’d be private, and she’d fit it out with the basic necessities and comforts.

Notice the reason she wants to do this: Elisha is “a holy man of God” (v 9). That’s not a meaningless comment. It was a wicked time and the faithful in Israel were a small minority. The true Word of God was not being heard in many places—but when Elisha spoke, the people received the words of life. The woman sees that Elisha has been set apart for this essential task, for he’s a “holy man of God.”

Not everyone gets a job like this, but we can all support those who do. This is what Jesus said in Matthew 10:41, “Whoever welcomes a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever welcomes a righteous person as a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward.”

This woman didn’t know the teaching of Jesus, yet she understood that our treatment of a faithful preacher is revealing. It shows how much we value the Word of God, and how much we revere the God of the Word. Will we give and sacrifice so that the ministry of the gospel is able to continue?

Jesus mentions a reward in Matthew 10, and that’s exactly what Elisha thinks about one day as he’s enjoying the comforts of his own room. He wants to thank her for all her kind hospitality, to bless her somehow for her generosity.

Now, an interesting detail we see a few times in our text is the social distance between Elisha and the woman. Notice that he uses Gehazi his servant as a go-between; for instance, Gehazi has to go and ask the woman what Elisha can do for her, and then report back. This was probably because of the deep reverence that people had for Elisha as God’s prophet—he was busy with important things, so they were reluctant to approach him.

Through his servant, Elisha sends a message, “What can I do for you? Do you want me to speak on your behalf to the king or to the commander of the army?” (v 13). It sounds like Elisha is a man with connections. Back in 2 Kings 3, he’d been in court of the king of Israel, and he was involved in that incredible victory over Moab. He’d probably started to gain some influence, and could put in a good word for her. Elisha might’ve been pondering the woman’s situation: her husband was old, and they didn’t have children. If her husband died, she’d be without support.

But the woman is content. This is her answer to Elisha, “I dwell among my own people” (v 13). In other words, she’s confident that her community will take care of her, whatever happens. That’s actually a beautiful confidence to have, and it’s a right confidence to have.

Remember how this has always been God’s will—it’s revealed to us in the Old Testament and New—that we need to take care of the weak among us, the widows, the vulnerable. It’s not only a task for the deacons, but it’s for all of us, that we look to the interests of others. I hope that those who are seriously sick in our church community, or those who are elderly, or those in strained circumstances, can confidently say the same thing as this woman, “I dwell among my own people. They’ll support me. They’ll help me.” That’s how it should be.

When Gehazi reports back, Elisha sees a possibility of helping this godly woman. And now it’s time to speak with her directly. She comes to the doorway of his little room, and he says, “About this time next year you shall embrace a son” (v 16). God will give her a precious gift, more than money can buy: a son to carry on the family name and to bring them joy in their closing years. But the woman can’t believe it: “No, my lord. Man of God, do not lie to your maidservant!” (v 16).

You can understand why she’s dubious. For think of her situation: after all these years, God hasn’t blessed their marriage with any children—how can that change, now that they’re old? She’s puzzled too, that Elisha should lie like this. She knows him to be someone who speaks the truth, who brings the unfailing Word of the Lord. So how can Elisha promise something that is sure to fail? Few things are more cruel than giving someone a false hope.

But the Bible is so wonderfully matter of fact. Notice how we go from impossibility in verse 16 to reality in verse 17: “But the woman conceived, and bore a son when the appointed time had come, of which Elisha had told her.” It happened just as the prophet said—for this is God’s power, this is God’s truth. He doesn’t ever lie to us, but He keeps every promise.

This miraculous birth should actually remind us of several other impossible births. How many can you think of? There was Sarah the senior citizen who gives birth to Isaac. There was Rebekah, childless for twenty years of marriage, until Jacob and Esau arrive. And Rachel, who was barren for a long time until she had Joseph. Mrs Manoah, who finally bears Samson. Hannah, whose prayer is heard and answered in the child Samuel.

Coming into the New Testament, we see it again: the old Elizabeth and Zechariah, blessed with John. And Mary: young, unmarried, a virgin, yet in the power of the Spirit she conceives and bears a child, Jesus—not just someone who shares her flesh and blood but who is the Son of God himself!

The pattern is really clear, and it puts on display the amazing, life-creating, life-redeeming power of our God. He can do exactly as He says. Nothing is impossible for him. He can and He will do great things for his people!

Even so, there’s something about this son who is given to the woman of Shunem and her husband. For if you look at all the children whom God gave through a great miracle, you see that each of them was part of some key moment in God’s saving plan. Children like Isaac and Jacob were given to preserve the faltering line of promise. A special son like Samson or Samuel or John had a task in the land: fighting enemies, leading with justice, even preparing the way for the Messiah.

As for the child born in verse 17, he seems really normal. After the excitement that probably surrounded his birth, he soon blended in with the other kids in Shunem. We don’t read that he becomes a prominent leader in Israel; he probably took over the family business, led an ordinary life, and then he died. We don’t even know his name! Was there then a point to God doing this? Did this miracle really have a purpose?

Yet there’s something to learn here about God’s goodness. He is generous, but God doesn’t always grant his gifts so that we can fulfil some grand calling. He doesn’t always bless us to make us prominent and equip us for a remarkable position of service. Rather, God simply shows his generosity so that we are moved to humble gratitude. The Lord “gives us richly all things to enjoy” it says in 1 Timothy 6:17. He delights to give his blessings so that as we enjoy his Fatherly gifts, we’ll gladly give him praise and do his will where He put us, even if we go nameless and unnoticed. So thank God for the ordinary. Thank him for the simple. And then live to his glory.

That’s probably all the woman of Shunem wanted to do: enjoy her son, and watch him thrive in the Lord. But the God who gives sometimes takes away. Some years pass, and the child grows. In these years, we presume that Elisha continues to travel around, and continues to drop in on the happy home in Shunem.

But then there is disaster: “Now it happened one day that [the boy] went out to his father, to the reapers. And he said to his father, ‘My head, my head!’ So he said to a servant, ‘Carry him to his mother.’ When he had taken him and brought him to his mother, he sat on her knees till noon, and then died” (vv 18-20). Maybe it was severe sunstroke or meningitis—at any rate, it’s all very abrupt. In three verses he is gone.

The woman of Shunem has gone from having no needs at all, to receiving God’s generous gift, to being desperately sad. This is her response, “She went up and laid him on the bed of the man of God, shut the door upon him, and went out” (v 21). We don’t know what she means by this, but putting him on the prophet’s bed might’ve been a statement that this is his responsibility: if Elisha hadn’t brought this about, there wouldn’t be such a misery in her house. Or maybe she’s holding onto hope; by hiding the body, she wants to prevent all the rituals of mourning from beginning just yet.     

Certainly the woman wants to involve Elisha in what’s going on. She asks her husband for the help of one of the servants, and she makes arrangements for a hasty journey out to where the prophet is. She must’ve concealed the news of their son’s death from him, so her husband is a bit confused, “Why are you going to him today? It is neither the New Moon nor the Sabbath” (v 23). The new moon and sabbath were customary days for worship. But at this time the faithful in Israel couldn’t go down to the temple; instead, they’d gather with the prophets for worship and teaching. Her husband reckons that’s what she’s up to.

And off she goes, on a twenty kilometre journey from Shunem to Mount Carmel. As fast as they can, she and her servant travel. The prophet sees them coming, and again sends Gehazi as messenger, “Please run now to meet her, and say to her, ‘Is it well with you? Is it well with your husband? Is it well with the child?’” (v 26). But she brushes Gehazi off until she reaches the prophet, when she falls at Elisha’s feet and holds onto him.

It’s needless to say, but she is deeply upset. This is a mother who has lost her only son, a son more cherished because he was so unexpected. As she pours out her complaint it becomes clear that she does hold this terrible loss against the prophet. “Did I ask a son of my lord? Did I not say, ‘Do not deceive me’?” (v 28). Why would the prophet give a son, only for him to be taken him away? Years before, the widow of Zarephath said something similar to Elijah when her son fell dead, “What have I to do with you, O man of God? Did you come to remind me of my sin and kill my son?” (1 Kings 17:18).

It seems like a cruel trick. And maybe that’s what God is like too: nasty, cruel, unpredictable. Over the ages, many saints have cried out just like this woman, in bitter distress, not knowing why God has seen fit to crush them with grief or disappointment. What can possibly be the reason for this misery? She’s upset, but she’s also strong. For she won’t leave him, clinging to the prophet. She wants to draw near for she knows that as a man of God, he is the LORD’s representative. Turning to him is like turning to God.

That’s extraordinary, isn’t it? The woman is terribly distressed, but she hasn’t given up. She seeks out the same God who has confused and bewildered her. Like Job once said, “Though He slay me, yet will I trust in him” (13:15). Even in the deepest agony of heart, she knows that she has to keep looking to God. She is hurt, confused, anxious, but she is trusting. Beloved, true faith holds onto the LORD, not only when the circumstances are good and everything is right with our world, but faith holds onto God because He is steadfast and unchanging—He is good, even when there is so much that is bad.

And now listen to Elisha’s response as he speaks to Gehazi: “Her soul is in deep distress, and the LORD has hidden it from me, and has not told me” (v 27). Simply put, Elisha doesn’t know why this has happened. He is a man of God, a special servant, the LORD’s own mouthpiece, but Elisha doesn’t know everything. From him God has concealed the meaning of this event. He doesn’t have the answer, and he won’t presume to give one.

So it is for all servants of God, for all who bless us in God’s name. They’re all limited in knowledge, limited in power. It’s true for pastors and elders, for trusted friends, for a devoted spouse, a wise teacher—they’re all human, and never fully up to the task of helping us. We might deeply value their support and we might admire their character. But the time always comes when we realize that our best human helpers can’t do everything and they don’t know everything. And we just have to lean more heavily on God our Father!

And when we are giving help to someone, we don’t always need to give an answer. Sometimes we think that we know how to respond to suffering and distress. We’re confronted with intense misery and brokenness, and we feel we’ve got just the right words: “This must be why this happened. Remember, all things work for good.” But like Elisha, sometimes we just need to be silent. We still point to God, of course, but quietly, humbly. “I don’t know why this happened. But God does.”

What was it like to be a prophet of the LORD? It’s hard for us to imagine—but our text brings one more aspect to the fore, how Elisha so quickly understands what is to be done. We don’t read that God speaks to him, lays out an action plan—Elisha simply begins giving orders and making preparations to return to Shunem. He must’ve been so united to the mind of God, so in sync with the LORD’s will, that he just knew that God was going to do something marvellous for the woman.

He again uses his servant Gehazi as his representative. He has to take Elisha’s staff—the long stick that he walked around with—and return at once to Shunem. And there he must lay the staff on the face of the child. But once more, the woman is persistent. She refuses to leave the prophet and she insists that he personally be present with the child.

As for Gehazi, he races back to Shunem but has no success is raising the child. This is something that Elisha must do. When he at last arrives, “There was the child, lying dead on his bed. He went in… shut the door behind the two of them, and prayed to the LORD” (vv 32-33). There’s so many fascinating details in this story, but underline that last phrase, “he prayed to the LORD.” Elisha was a mighty man of God, a wonder-worker, a holy prophet—but he was nothing without the LORD. And he showed that by praying. This is his response to trouble: he prays.

We read in James that the prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective. So it is on this day: Elisha prays, and then he “went up and lay on the child, and put his mouth on his mouth, his eyes on his eyes, and his hands on his hands; and he stretched himself out on the child, and the flesh of the child became warm” (v 34). This sounds strange to us, but it’s not magic; it was the kind of thing that prophets did more often, a symbolic act. It was putting into actions these words, “Let his lifeless body be as my living body.”

The child’s cold body begins to warm up, and Elisha waits intently. See how he “walked back and forth in the house” (v 35), then stretched out on the child again. And then the boy awakes, “[He] sneezed seven times, and the child opened his eyes” (v 35). When you sneeze, your body is often trying to get rid of something, a bit of dust or pollen. Symbolically once more, the boy expels whatever it was in his body that had led to death. And seven sneezes signify complete restoration.

With that, Elisha calls in the woman and entrusts the boy back to her. She again falls at the prophet’s feet, acknowledging God’s power and goodness moving through him. God had given, God had taken away, and now God has restored!

We’ve said before that we know very little about what Elisha actually preached about on his journeys—all we have is a record of his miracles. But Elisha’s miracles were in fact his message! These signs and wonders were bold pointers to God’s grace and rule. Everyone who heard about these events would know that there really is a God in Israel; He is the only God; and He is worthy of trust and worthy of worship.

Jesus’ miracles did the same thing. We actually see Jesus doing miracles that were very similar to that of Elisha: multiplying food, healing leprosy, and raising the dead. In Luke 7 we read about a funeral that Jesus chooses to interrupt. It happens in a place called Nain, which, interestingly, is not very far from Shunem—just on the other side of the same big hill. It’s another sad day in Luke 7, as a widow goes out to bury her only son. But Jesus tells the mother not to grieve. He then speaks to the young man, and He raises him from the dead.

This miracle too, is a miracle with a message. It’s the truth that not even death places us beyond Christ’s power, not even the grave can separate us from God’s grace. That’s good to know, because unless Jesus returns soon, we’re all going to die. Many of us have been to funerals, and we have seen the last enemy. But Christ has promised to raise up and restore his people when he returns. Ours is a sure hope because we have a living Saviour!

And that is where God wants us to keep looking, to him and our eternal home. For the reality is that God doesn’t always give a child to a childless couple. God doesn’t always restore the things that we’ve lost. He doesn’t always solve our problems. The LORD gives, the LORD takes away, and sometimes the LORD leaves us with an empty place for many years.

Even so, He would have us trust in him. He gives us his Word, and his Word never lies. He gives us his Son, and his Son never fails. He gives us hope, and it’s a hope that does not disappoint. God wants us to fasten our lives to him, to rest in his grace, whether we have much or we have little. For He is our God, and we are his!  Amen.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2019, Rev. Reuben Bredenhof

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