25 When the man of God saw her coming, he said to Gehazi his servant, “Look, there is the Shunammite. 26 Run at once to meet her and say to her, ‘Is all well with you? Is all well with your husband? Is all well with the child?’” And she answered, “All is well.” 27 And when she came to the mountain to the man of God, she caught hold of his feet. And Gehazi came to push her away. But the man of God said, “Leave her alone, for she is in bitter distress, and the Lord has hidden it from me and has not told me.” 28 Then she said, “Did I ask my lord for a son? Did I not say, ‘Do not deceive me?’” 29 He said to Gehazi, “Tie up your garment and take my staff in your hand and go. If you meet anyone, do not greet him, and if anyone greets you, do not reply. And lay my staff on the face of the child.” 30 Then the mother of the child said, “As the Lord lives and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So he arose and followed her. 31 Gehazi went on ahead and laid the staff on the face of the child, but there was no sound or sign of life. Therefore he returned to meet him and told him, “The child has not awakened.”
32 When Elisha came into the house, he saw the child lying dead on his bed. 33 So he went in and shut the door behind the two of them and prayed to the Lord. 34 Then he went up and lay on the child, putting his mouth on his mouth, his eyes on his eyes, and his hands on his hands. And as he stretched himself upon him, the flesh of the child became warm. 35 Then he got up again and walked once back and forth in the house, and went up and stretched himself upon him. The child sneezed seven times, and the child opened his eyes. 36 Then he summoned Gehazi and said, “Call this Shunammite.” So he called her. And when she came to him, he said, “Pick up your son.” 37 She came and fell at his feet, bowing to the ground. Then she picked up her son and went out. – 2 Kings 4:25b-37 ESV
Oftentimes, when reading the stories contained in the Scriptures, we find ourselves trying to ascertain their meaning or attempting to discover some helpful point of application. We desperately search for some relevant truth that we might apply to our own lives. And while this is a worthy goal, our relentless quest for a personalized point of application can leave us missing the primary message of the passage. This can be especially true when we lift these stories out of their surrounding context. When we turn the stories of the Bible into Bible stories, we tend to rob them of their Scriptural context and meaning.
In reading the story of the Shunammite woman, it would be easy to focus our attention on the loss of her child and the faith she exhibited by seeking out the prophet. And while there are lessons to be learned from her actions, the author seems to have a far greater and more important point of emphasis. This entire story takes place in the context of Israel’s ongoing apostasy. It is a time of spiritual darkness and moral apathy. The kings of Israel have consistently led the nation away from the worship of Yahweh by promoting their own replacement deities. From the golden calves erected by Jeroboam to the Canaanite gods, Baal and Asherah, the people of Israel have had a host of idols from which to choose. But through it all, Yahweh has remained faithful and all-powerful. And He has chosen to reveal Himself through His prophets. First, He spoke and exhibited His power through Elijah. Then, upon Elijah’s death, God continued to reveal Himself through Elijah’s former servant, Elisha.
But the stories involving Elijah and Elisha are not intended to focus our attention on these two men, as much as they are to draw our eye to the God who worked through them. They were messengers of Yahweh and human conduits of His grace, mercy, power, and, at times, His judgment. They are the human representatives of God Almighty, speaking and acting on His behalf, and displaying before the people His divine attributes.
So, when the Shunammite woman discovers her son is dead and seeks out the prophet of God, it is less a statement about her faith than it is about God’s invasion of the darkness of Israel. All that takes place in this story is intended to point to Yahweh, not the woman, Gehazi the servant, or Elisha the prophet. But because we’re human, we tend to focus all our attention on the human actors in the drama and, in doing so, we run the risk of minimizing the role of the leading actor in the play: God Himself.
If we isolate this story from its context, we will miss out on all that the author has been trying to reveal about God. Earlier, in chapter 17 of 1 Kings, the author told the story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath. After his decisive victory over the 450 prophets of Baal, Elijah had been threatened with death by Queen Jezebel. So, he had run for his life. But God had intercepted His fearful prophet and sent him to the town of Zarephath in Sidon. There Elijah met a poor widow who was gathering wood in order to cook a final meal for her and her son. But Elijah had performed a miracle, providing the woman with a seemingly never-ending supply of flour that would sustain their lives for a long time to come. Sound familiar? It should. Because a very similar scene took place when Elisha encountered the prophet’s widow in 2 Kings 18. This woman was about to lose her boys to slavery because of an unpaid debt. She was destitute and down to her last jar of oil. But Elisha intervened and miraculously multiplied her oil so that she had enough to satisfy her debt and sustain her boys for years to come.
But the similarities don’t stop there. The feel-good story of the widow of Zarephath also contains a less-than-happy plot twist. Her young son dies unexpectedly, and she confronts Elijah about this devastating turn of events.
“O man of God, what have you done to me? Have you come here to point out my sins and kill my son?” – 1 Kings 17:18 NLT
Even Elijah was at a loss as to why this tragedy had taken place, and he expressed his exasperation to Yahweh.
“O Lord my God, why have you brought tragedy to this widow who has opened her home to me, causing her son to die?” – 1 Kings 17:20 NLT
But the point of the passage is not the woman’s anger or Elijah’s disappointment with God. It is the divine intervention of Yahweh.
And he stretched himself out over the child three times and cried out to the Lord, “O Lord my God, please let this child’s life return to him.” The Lord heard Elijah’s prayer, and the life of the child returned, and he revived! – 1 Kings 17:21-22 NLT
Remember, both Elijah and Elisha had been chosen by God to be the human vessels through whom He revealed Himself to the people of Israel. They were nothing more than men, but God had set them apart for His use. He spoke and acted through them and, oftentimes, in spite of them.
But don’t miss the significant parallels found in all of these stories. The Shunammite woman, like the widow of Zarephath, suddenly finds her joy interrupted by the death of her child. So, she seeks out the prophet of God. This time, it’s Elisha. And she confronts him about this devastating turn of events. Her worst nightmare has come true.
“Did I ask you for a son, my lord? And didn’t I say, ‘Don’t deceive me and get my hopes up’?” – 2 Kings 4:28 NLT
She was angry and justifiably so. And Elijah was caught off guard, having been given no prior insight from God concerning the death of her child. God had not revealed the nature of her distress or given the prophet a solution to remedy it. But once Elisha discovered what had happened, he acted promptly. At one time, Elisha had been the servant of Elijah, and he would have been intimately familiar with the story of the widow of Zarephath. Most likely, he had been there to witness the miraculous death-to-life transformation that had taken place.
So, fully trusting that God would intervene yet again, he commanded his servant to take his staff and lay it on the body of the dead child. But this “remedy” proved ineffective. That was not the way God was going to restore the boy’s life. He wanted Elisha to be personally and physically involved in the miracle. It was not that God could not or would not operate through a staff. He had done so before and could do so again – if He so chose. Consider all the miracles God had performed through the staff of Moses. But on this occasion, God was going to require that Elisha be intimately involved in the delivery of the miracle. And just as Elijah had “stretched himself out over the child” (1 Kings 17:21 NLT), so Elisha “lay down on the child’s body” (2 Kings 4:34 NLT). In both cases, these men acted as God’s hands-on representatives, illustrating His intimate concern for His people through their own physical touch and personal involvement.
In a sense, the God of the universe had required both Elijah and Elisha to have some skin in the game. They became active agents in the delivery of God’s miracle. But neither of these men was meant to be the focus of the story or seen as the source behind the miracle. They were simply instruments in the hand of God. But their personal touch made the transcendent God more knowable and relatable. Through their intimate involvement, they made the care and concern of God tangible and visible. God chose to revive the lives of these two boys through the personal touch of His chosen prophets.
And, once again, let’s not miss the overall context of Scripture. These two stories point to an even greater display of God’s love and intimacy that was to come. Centuries later, God would send His own Son as His anointed messenger, delivering a message of repentance and renewal to the rebellious people of Israel. Jesus would become the final prophet of God, who would make the power and presence of God known through His incarnation. He would become God in human flesh, delivering the divine message of redemption and spiritual rejuvenation. Like Elijah and Elisha, Jesus would be required to personally engage with the nation of Israel. But His involvement in the restoration of life to the spiritually dead nation would require a far greater price than either Elijah or Elisha had paid. Jesus would end up sacrificing His own life so that many might live. He would stretch out His hands on a cruel Roman cross, paying the penalty for mankind’s sin by offering His own sinless life as a substitute. He would die so that we might live. He would pay the ultimate price so that those who were dead in their trespasses and sins might experience new life and enjoy a new relationship with God.
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