The Oil of Gladness

1 Now the wife of one of the sons of the prophets cried to Elisha, “Your servant my husband is dead, and you know that your servant feared the Lord, but the creditor has come to take my two children to be his slaves.” And Elisha said to her, “What shall I do for you? Tell me; what have you in the house?” And she said, “Your servant has nothing in the house except a jar of oil.” Then he said, “Go outside, borrow vessels from all your neighbors, empty vessels and not too few. Then go in and shut the door behind yourself and your sons and pour into all these vessels. And when one is full, set it aside.” So she went from him and shut the door behind herself and her sons. And as she poured they brought the vessels to her. When the vessels were full, she said to her son, “Bring me another vessel.” And he said to her, “There is not another.” Then the oil stopped flowing. She came and told the man of God, and he said, “Go, sell the oil and pay your debts, and you and your sons can live on the rest.” 2 Kings 4:1-7 ESV

The author has made the corporate nature of Israel’s sin abundantly clear. While he has focused most of his attention on the men who ruled over the northern and southern kingdoms of Israel, he has also exposed the pervasive nature of the unfaithfulness and apostasy that had infected the entire nation. As the kings of Israel continued to stubbornly pursue and promote the worship of false gods, the people followed their example. Yet, despite the ubiquitous presence of idolatry, there was a remnant of those who chose to remain faithful to Yahweh. These faithful few found themselves constantly tempted to compromise their convictions and cave into the pressure to conform. And on those occasions when God was forced to pour out His divine judgment upon the nation, these same individuals suffered alongside their rebellious neighbors.

Yet the author provides an occasional glimpse into the lives of these spiritual holdouts, and when he does, they shine like stars in the darkness of Israel’s apostasy and rebellion. These somewhat rare sightings of the faithful few also provide a powerful reminder of God’s mercy and love. He knows His flock and is well aware of those who still worship Him as God. Not only that, He is fully cognizant of their circumstances and always ready to care for them in their time of need.

Chapter four opens up with one such story, and it follows close on the heels of the account of Israel’s miraculous victory over the Moabites. God had graciously rescued the forces of Jehoram and Jehoshaphat after they had run out of water in the wilderness of Edom. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, had intervened on their behalf, refreshing them with water and then rewarding them with a decisive, yet undeserved, victory over the Moabites.

The prophet Elisha had played a crucial role in this memorable affair, delivering the good news of God’s rescue from pending death and His victory over the enemies of Israel. And when the prophet returned home, he found himself facing yet another crisis, one that was much smaller in scale but just as serious in nature. He was approached by the wife of a fellow prophet. Her husband had recently died, leaving her and her two young boys with no source of income. The creditors were already knocking at the door, demanding payment of her husband’s debts. If she failed to settle her accounts in full, her boys would become indentured servants, paying off the debt through years of forced labor.

This was a common practice in those days, even among the Israelites. Those who were unable to pay off their debts could become servants to their creditor, working off their indebtedness through labor. But God had provided regulations concerning these transactions.

“If you buy a Hebrew slave, he may serve for no more than six years. Set him free in the seventh year, and he will owe you nothing for his freedom. If he was single when he became your slave, he shall leave single. But if he was married before he became a slave, then his wife must be freed with him. – Exodus 21:2-3 NLT

“If one of your fellow Israelites falls into poverty and is forced to sell himself to you, do not treat him as a slave. Treat him instead as a hired worker or as a temporary resident who lives with you, and he will serve you only until the Year of Jubilee. At that time he and his children will no longer be obligated to you, and they will return to their clans and go back to the land originally allotted to their ancestors. The people of Israel are my servants, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt, so they must never be sold as slaves. Show your fear of God by not treating them harshly. – Leviticus 25:39-43 NLT

This widow found herself in a difficult situation, facing the potential loss of her two young sons, so she appealed to Elisha. We are given no insight into what she was expecting the prophet to do for her. Was she hoping he would intercede with her creditors and beg them for mercy? Did she think the prophet would pay off her debt? Even Elisha questioned her expectations.

“What shall I do for you? Tell me; what have you in the house?” – 2 Kings 4:2 ESV

To the widow, this question must have sounded like a request for payment. She heard the prophet asking what she had to offer in return for his help, so she sadly reported, “Your servant has nothing in the house except a jar of oil” (2 Kings 4:2 ESV). Her circumstances were dire. She had nothing to offer the prophet and no way of paying off her debt. From her perspective, everything was hopeless and her prospects for deliverance were bleak. Even if her sons became indentured servants, it would be years before their labor would pay off the debt and, in the meantime, she would be left alone and with no means of financial support. It couldn’t get any worse.

But Elisha saw things from a different perspective. He had just witnessed His God bring water to a desert and rescue the army of an apostate, unbelieving king. And he fully trusted that God could and would rescue this helpless widow in her time of need. So, Elisha instructed her to gather as many jars, containers, pots, and pans as she could find. She was even to borrow them from her neighbors. He wanted her to be aggressive in her efforts, instructing her to find “not too few” of these empty vessels. When she was done, she and her boys were to close the door to their house and then begin the process of pouring the oil from the jar into the various jugs and jars they had gathered.

So she did as she was told. Her sons kept bringing jars to her, and she filled one after another. Soon every container was full to the brim! – 2 Kings 4:5-6 NLT

At no point did the widow question Elisha’s instructions. Despite how strange his orders may have seemed, she and her boys faithfully did as they had been told. And a miracle took place – right before their eyes. The oil in the jar somehow replenished itself and did not run out until the last jar had been filled. Imagine the excitement of those young boys as they brought jar after jar to their mother and watched as she carefully filled them with the seemingly never-ending supply of oil. Soon, their entire house was filled with jars brimming with oil. And when the supply of jars finally ran out, so did the oil. But not before God had miraculously filled every last vessel.

When the woman informed Elisha what had happened, he showed no sign of surprise, but simply told her to take the oil and sell it. She was to use the proceeds to settle her debt. But God didn’t just bring her indebtedness to zero. He gave her a surplus. Once the oil had been sold, she and her sons would have more than enough money to take care of their needs for a long time to come.

This unnamed woman represents the remnant of the faithful who lived all throughout the nation of Israel at that time. In the midst of all the apostasy and unfaithfulness, there were those who longed to have their needs met by the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They had refused to bow the knee to Baal and Asherah. They had resisted the temptation to compromise their convictions. In her time of need, this woman did not call on the false gods of Israel. She sought out the prophet of Yahweh, and she asked for his help. She had no idea what to expect, but she knew that her only hope of rescue would be found by throwing herself at the mercy of the one true God. And He delivered. While Israel had proved to be unfaithful to God, He continued to exhibit His covenant faithfulness to them – in big and small ways. And this story provides a glimpse into the merciful nature of God and His care and concern for those who are “the least of these” (Matthew 25:40).

“For the Lord your God is the God of gods and Lord of lords. He is the great God, the mighty and awesome God, who shows no partiality and cannot be bribed. He ensures that orphans and widows receive justice. He shows love to the foreigners living among you and gives them food and clothing. – Deuteronomy 10:17-18 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

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