38 And Elisha came again to Gilgal when there was a famine in the land. And as the sons of the prophets were sitting before him, he said to his servant, “Set on the large pot, and boil stew for the sons of the prophets.” 39 One of them went out into the field to gather herbs, and found a wild vine and gathered from it his lap full of wild gourds, and came and cut them up into the pot of stew, not knowing what they were. 40 And they poured out some for the men to eat. But while they were eating of the stew, they cried out, “O man of God, there is death in the pot!” And they could not eat it. 41 He said, “Then bring flour.” And he threw it into the pot and said, “Pour some out for the men, that they may eat.” And there was no harm in the pot.
42 A man came from Baal-shalishah, bringing the man of God bread of the firstfruits, twenty loaves of barley and fresh ears of grain in his sack. And Elisha said, “Give to the men, that they may eat.” 43 But his servant said, “How can I set this before a hundred men?” So he repeated, “Give them to the men, that they may eat, for thus says the Lord, ‘They shall eat and have some left.’” 44 So he set it before them. And they ate and had some left, according to the word of the Lord. – 2 Kings 4:38-44 ESV
Once again, the author provides his readers with two stories that are intended to communicate a message about the spiritual state of apostate Israel and her faithful, all-powerful God. God’s prophet, Elisha, becomes the primary means by which God reveals His power and authority among the people. In this case, Elisha will have to deal with the effects of yet another famine in the land. During the days of Elijah, God had brought a devastating famine on the land of Israel because of the sins of Ahab and Jezebel. Elijah had been forced to deliver God’s message of judgment against the apostate king and his pagan, idol-worshiping wife.
“As the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.” – 1 Kings 17:1 ESV
And that first famine remained on the land until God determined to lift it. But its end came only after Elijah had defeated the 450 prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. Through His prophet, God delivered a devastating and decisive blow to the false god of Ahab and Jezebel. And only after a demonstrative display of His power and authority did God relent and restore fruitfulness to the land of Israel
And in a little while the heavens grew black with clouds and wind, and there was a great rain. – 1 Kings 18:45 ESV
Yet, despite God’s gracious act of undeserved kindness, the people remained just as committed to their false gods. Ahab had died, but his two sons had carried on his legacy of unfaithfulness, continuing to lead the people of Israel in apostasy and idolatry. As a result, God had brought another famine on the land. In doing so, He was purposefully transforming a “land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 33:3) into a wasteland. Because the people of Israel had decided to forsake God and worship the false gods of Canaan, He would withhold the rain and allow their physical conditions to mirror the state of their hearts. Fruitfulness would be replaced with drought.
It would appear that the blessing of rain brought upon the land during the days of Elijah had made little impact on the people. They continued to reject Yahweh as the one true God. So, at some point, God brought yet another famine on the land. And, this time, it was Elisha who had to deal with the effects of this divine judgment.
The scene described in these verses involves the prophets of God who have gathered at a place called Gilgal. The identity of the characters and the location are essential to understanding the story. Elijah had gathered together with other men who served as the spiritual spokesmen for God among the people of Israel. This was a conclave of committed God-followers and they were meeting in a sacred site. Gilgal is significant because it was there that Joshua had erected a stone memorial to commemorate the Israelite’s crossing of the Jordan River.
The people came up out of the Jordan on the tenth day of the first month, and they encamped at Gilgal on the east border of Jericho. And those twelve stones, which they took out of the Jordan, Joshua set up at Gilgal. And he said to the people of Israel, “When your children ask their fathers in times to come, ‘What do these stones mean?’ then you shall let your children know, ‘Israel passed over this Jordan on dry ground.’ For the Lord your God dried up the waters of the Jordan for you until you passed over, as the Lord your God did to the Red Sea, which he dried up for us until we passed over, so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the Lord is mighty, that you may fear the Lord your God forever.” – Joshua 4:19-24 ESV
We have no way of knowing whether the stones were still standing by the days of Elisha, but these prophets of God would have all known the significance of their surroundings. They were standing on sacred ground.
Elisha ordered his servant, Gehazi, to prepare a stew for the prophets. Keep in mind that there was a famine in the land and food would have been scarce. Even these men of God would have been experiencing the impact of God’s judgment on the land. But Elisha, as the primary representative for Yahweh, took it upon himself to care for his fellow prophets. But one of the men made an innocent, yet potentially deadly mistake. In an effort to assist Gehazi, this unidentified prophet gathered some wild gourds and added them to the stew. But the gourds he picked proved to be poisonous. This young man had tried to help but had made things worse. His ignorance proved to be potentially deadly. The prophet’s inability to recognize a poisonous gourd could have ended in a tragedy. But fortunately, his mistake had been caught, preventing any of his fellow prophets from dying as a result of his error.
The lesson here is clear. As prophets of God, these men were to know the difference between the true and the false. They were God’s spokesmen, commissioned by Him to deliver His message of repentance to the people of Israel. They were to point the people back to God. But if they failed to recognize and revere Yahweh as the one true God, they would run the risk of bringing judgment upon the nation. In a sense, the wild gourd is meant to represent the worship of false gods. The young prophet had been fooled by the apparent similarities between a good gourd and one that contained deadly poison. He had not been equipped to spot the differences and his mistake had almost cost his friends their lives. The false gods the people of Israel were worshiping were particularly deceptive because they tended to look like the real thing. They were promoted as powerful deities who shared traits similar to those of Yahweh. These gods had altars and temples. They were said to have supernatural powers and worshipers would coerce the gods to use those power on their behalf through sacrifices and offerings. But the whole point of the story is that false gods are ultimately deadly. They can’t nourish or feed the people. They are a poison that brings nothing but death and destruction.
But the rest of the prophets of God recognized the presence of the poison, warning one another of the invisible danger before any lives were lost. Then Elisha stepped in and remedied the problem. He took flour and mixed it into the poisoned stew. Just as the wild gourd represents that deadly influence of idolatry, the flour seems to stand for the purifying influence of God’s Word. The truth concerning Yahweh and His commands to worship Him as the one true God were the answer to the deadly influence of Baalism. This entire scene was intended to be a powerful reminder to the prophets of God of their indispensable role as God’s messengers. If they didn’t speak the truth, the people were doomed. If they failed to recognize the deceptive and deadly nature of idolatry, the nation had no hope of survival.
But through the actions of Elisha, God purified the pot of stew, making the poisonous contents not only edible but beneficial. And we shouldn’t miss the similarities between this miracle and one that Elisha performed earlier. Back in chapter two, we have the story of Elisha transforming the brackish waters outside the city of Jericho. He had been told by residents of the city that “…the water is bad, and the land is unfruitful” (2 Kings 2:19 ESV). The city had a water source, but it was non-potable. As a result, the land was unfruitful. But Elisha quickly solved the problem, providing yet another decisive demonstration of God’s power and holiness.
“Bring me a new bowl, and put salt in it.” So they brought it to him. Then he went to the spring of water and threw salt in it and said, “Thus says the Lord, I have healed this water; from now on neither death nor miscarriage shall come from it.” So the water has been healed to this day, according to the word that Elisha spoke. – 2 Kings 2:20-22 ESV
Through Elisha, God had made the water drinkable. And He had also made the poisoned stew safe for consumption. God’s presence and power were meant to be tangible and beneficial. He wanted to bless the lives of His people. He alone could bring sustenance and salvation. He was the great provider who could meet all their needs, if only they would turn to Him.
And God gave His prophets one further demonstration of His incomparable power to provide for all their needs. An unidentified man showed up who hailed from the town of Baal-shalishah. The name of the town is significant because it means “thrice great lord.” It was a town named after the false god, Baal, yet a resident of the city was bringing an offering dedicated to Yahweh. He brought 20 loaves of bread as a sacrifice of the first-fruits of his harvest and he gave them to Elisha. The people of Israel had no access to the temple in Jerusalem, so the man had no other way to present his offering to God. When Elisha received the gift, he ordered that it be distributed among his fellow prophets. But Elisha’s servant, Gehazi, informed him that the bread was insufficient to feed the 100 prophets.
Once again, God used Elisha to demonstrate His power to provide. Elisha ordered Gehazi to distribute the bread, telling him “Give them to the men, that they may eat, for thus says the Lord, ‘They shall eat and have some left’” (2 Kings 4:43 ESV). And when Gehazi followed his master’s instructions, a miracle took place. All 100 prophets had more than enough bread to eat and there were even leftovers. This story foreshadows another miracle that would take place centuries later when Jesus fed the 5000 with nothing but three loaves of bread and two fish. Jesus, the final and consummate prophet of God would also demonstrate Yahweh’s power through a miracle of multiplication. And Matthew records that when Jesus had broken the loaves and the fishes, “they all ate and were satisfied. And they took up twelve baskets full of the broken pieces left over” ( Matthew 14:20 ESV).
In the midst of a famine, God miraculously fed His prophets with stew that He had purified and bread that He had multiplied. And hundreds of years later, when the nation of Israel found itself in a time of spiritual famine, God would send His Son as the Bread of Life, to feed those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.
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