The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
Now there cried a certain woman of the wives of the sons of the prophets unto Elisha, saying, Thy servant my husband is dead; and thou knowest that thy servant did fear the LORD: and the creditor is come to take unto him my two sons to be bondmen.2 Kings 4
1. Now there cried a certain woman of the wives of the sons of the prophets unto Elisha, saying, Thy servant my husband is dead; and thou knowest that thy servant did fear the Lord: and the creditor is come to take unto him my two sons to be bondmen.
2. And Elisha said unto her, What shall I do for thee? tell me, what hast thou in the house? And she said, Thine handmaid hath not any thing in the house, save a pot of oil.
3. Then he said, Go, borrow thee vessels abroad [from the outside] of all thy neighbours, even empty vessels; borrow not a few [do not scant or stint.]
4. And when thou art come in, thou shalt shut [and go in and shut (comp. Luke 8:51, Luke 8:54)] the door upon thee and upon thy sons, and shalt pour out into all those vessels, and thou shalt set aside [by the help of thy sons (2Kings 4:5-6)] that which is full.
5. So she went from him, and shut the door upon her and upon her sons, who brought the vessels to her: and she poured out.
6. And it came to pass, when the vessels were full, that she said unto her son [probably the eldest], Bring me yet a vessel. And he said unto her, There is not a vessel more. And the oil stayed [stood—i.e., halted, stopped].
7. Then she came [and she went in] and told the man of God. And he [Elisha] said, Go, sell the oil, and pay thy debt: and live thou and thy children of the rest.
8. ¶ And [And it came to pass at that time, literally, during that day] it fell on a day, that Elisha passed [crossed over] to Shunem, where was a great woman; and she constrained [Heb., laid hold on] him to eat bread. And so it was [it came to pass], that as oft as he passed by [crossed over, as above], he turned in [he would turn aside (Genesis 19:2)] thither to eat bread.
9. And she said unto her husband, Behold now, I perceive that this is an holy man of God, which passeth by us continually [at stated intervals, regularly].
10. Let us make a little chamber [a little upper chamber with walls (comp. 1Kings 17:19)], I pray thee, on the wall; and let us set for him there a bed [the four things mentioned are the only essentials in oriental furnishing], and a table, and a stool, and a candlestick: and it shall be when he cometh to us, that he shall turn in thither.
11. And [see 2Kings 4:8] it fell on a day, that he came thither, and he turned into the [upper] chamber, and lay [down to rest] there.
12. And he said to Gehazi [valley of vision] his servant [his young man (Genesis 22:3)], Call this Shunammite. And when he had called her, she stood before him [Gehazi].
13. And he said unto him, Say now unto her, Behold, thou hast been careful for us with all this care [literally, trembled all this trembling (comp. Luke 10:41)], what is to be done for thee? wouldest thou be spoken for to the king [literally, is it to speak for thee to the king? showing what influence Elisha enjoyed at the time], or to the captain of the host? And she answered, I dwell among mine own people.
14. And he said [when Gehazi had reported the woman's reply], What then is to be done for her? And Gehazi answered, Verily she hath no child [a misfortune and a reproach (comp. Genesis 30:23; 1Samuel 1:6-7; Luke 1:25; Deuteronomy 7:13-14; Psalm 128:3-4)], and her husband is old.
15. And he said, Call her. And when he had called her, she stood [or, took her stand] in the door.
16. And he said, About this season [At this set time], according to the time of life [at the reviving time—i.e., next spring], thou shalt [art about to] embrace a son. And she said, Nay, my lord, thou man of God, do not lie unto thine handmaid.
17. And the woman conceived [comp. Genesis 21:2], and bare a son at that season that Elisha had said [promised] unto her, according to the time of life.
18. ¶ And when the child was grown, it fell on a day, that he went out to his father to the reapers.
19. And he said unto his father, My head, my head. [The young man had a sunstroke. It was the hot season.] And he said to a lad, Carry him to his mother.
20. And when he had taken [carried] him, and brought him [indoors] to his mother, he sat on her knees till noon, and then died.
21. And she went up, and laid him on the bed of the man of God, and shut the door upon him, and went out.
22. And she called unto her husband, and said, Send me, I pray thee, one of the young men, and one of the asses, that I may run to the man of God, and come again.
23. And he said, Wherefore wilt thou go [art thou going] to him today? it is neither new moon, nor sabbath [comp. Amos 8:5]. And she said, It shall be [omit "it shall be." Well = all right] well.
24. Then she saddled an ass, and said to her servant, Drive, and go forward; slack not thy riding for me [literally, restrain me not from riding], except I bid thee.
25. So she went and came unto the man of God to mount Carmel. And it came to pass, when the man of God saw her afar off, that he said to Gehazi his servant, Behold, yonder is that Shunammite:
26. Run now, I pray thee, to meet her, and say unto her, Is it well with thee? is it well with thy husband? is it well with the child? And she answered, It is well.
27. And when she came to the man of God to the hill, she caught him by the [she laid hold of (clasped) his] feet: but [and] Gehazi came near to thrust her away. And the man of God said, Let her alone; for her soul is vexed within her: and the Lord hath hid it from me, and hath not told me.
28. Then she said, Did I desire a son of my lord? did I not say, Do not deceive me?
29. Then he said to Gehazi, Gird up thy loins, and take my staff in thine hand, and go thy way: if thou meet any man, salute him not [enjoining haste. Comp. Luke 10:4]; and if any salute thee, answer him not again: and lay my staff upon the face of the child.
30. And the mother of the child said, As the Lord liveth, and as thy soul liveth, I will not leave thee. And he arose, and followed her.
31. And Gehazi passed on before them, and laid the staff upon the face of the child; but there was neither voice, nor hearing [Heb., attention. 1Kings 18:29; Isaiah 21:7]. Wherefore he went again to meet him [And he came back to meet him (Elisha)], and told him, saying, The child is not awaked.
32. And when Elisha was come into the house, behold, the child was dead, and laid upon his bed.
33. He went in therefore, and shut the door upon them twain [himself and the body], and prayed unto the Lord.
34. And he went up, and lay upon the child [comp. 1Kings 17:21, what is hinted at there, is here described], and put his mouth upon his mouth, and his eyes upon his eyes, and his hands upon his hands: and he stretched himself upon the child [bowed himself (comp. 1Kings 1:47)]; and the flesh of the child waxed warm [the life of the Divine Spirit which was in Elisha, was miraculously imparted (comp. Genesis 2:7)].
35. Then he returned [from off the bed] and walked in the house [Heb., once hither, and once thither] to and fro [in the chamber; showing his intense excitement, expecting the fulfilment of his prayer]; and went up, and stretched himself upon him: and the child sneezed [a sign of returning inspiration (comp. Luke 7:15)] seven times, and the child opened his eyes.
36. And he called Gehazi, and said, Call this Shunammite. So he called her. And when she was come in unto him, he said, Take up thy son.
37. Then she went in [And she came], and fell at his feet, and bowed herself to the ground [in veneration for the prophet], and took up her son, and went out.
38. ¶ And Elisha came [Now Elisha had returned] again to Gilgal: and there was a dearth in the land; and the sons of the prophets were sitting before him [as disciples before a master (comp. 2Kings 6:1; Ezekiel 8:1, Ezekiel 14:1; Acts 22:3)]; and he said unto his servant [probably not Gehazi; but one of the sons of the prophets. So in 2Kings 4:43], Set on the great pot, and seethe pottage [Genesis 25:29] for the sons of the prophets.
39. And one went out into the field to gather herbs, and found a wild vine [a running plant like a vine], and gathered thereof wild gourds [or, cucumbers of bitter taste] his lap full, and came and shred them into the pot of pottage; for they knew them not,
40. So they poured out for the men to eat. And it came to pass, as they were eating of the pottage, that they cried out, and said, O thou man of God, there is death in the pot [the bitter taste made them think of poison]. And they could not eat thereof.
41. But he said, Then bring meal. [Some commentators suppose that by mistake a poisonous (not merely a bitter) plant had been put into the pot, and the prophet neutralises the poison by means of an antidote whose natural properties could never have had that effect. The meal in this case corresponds with the salt in 2Kings 2:21.] And he cast it into the pot; and he said, Pour out for the people, that they may eat. And there was no harm [Heb., evil thing] in the pot.
42. ¶ And there came a man from Baal-shalisha, and brought the man of God bread of the firstfruits [comp. Numbers 18:13; Deuteronomy 23:4], twenty loaves of barley, and full ears of corn in the husk thereof. And he [Elisha] said, Give unto the people [comp. Matthew 14:16], that they may eat.
43. And his servitor said, What, should I set this before an hundred men? [or, How am I to set? (comp. Matthew 14:33)]. He said again [And he said] Give the people, that they may eat: for thus saith the Lord, They shall eat, and shall leave thereof [Heb., eating and leaving! an exclamatory mode of speech].
44. So he set it before them, and they did eat, and left thereof, according to the word of the Lord.
This chapter has been described as containing what may be termed Elisha's private miracles. The first of these relates to the multiplication of the widow's oil. The husband of this woman is brought before us as one who was a faithful worshipper of Jehovah, and on that fact the widow seems to base her appeal. This is in some respects wrong, and in other respects not unnatural. It was wrong in the sense that no one has a right to expect to be regarded as pious on any hereditary account. The woman inherited her husband's estate, bad as it was, but she did not inherit necessarily her husband's good character. The fact, however, that she referred to that character in its religious aspects showed that she expected some good result to accrue to herself from the faith of her companion. It appears that the law of debt was one of remarkable severity, alike in Athenian and Roman law and also in the law of Moses. The Mosaic law did not establish the custom of servitude for debt, but finding it established, adopted it, and graciously defined it by certain limits of its own. The Jewish law limited the debtor's power of pledging within the bounds of a period of jubilee, as we have seen in Leviticus 25:39-41. In the case represented by the widow the creditor had not claimed his right over her sons, but now that the father is dead the creditor claims the services of the sons, as he was by law entitled to do. "If thy brother that dwelleth by thee be waxen poor, and be sold unto thee; thou shalt not compel him to serve as a bondservant:" The Mosaic law recognised rights on both sides. It might be gracious to forgive the debtor, but such forgiveness would constitute injustice towards the creditor. It is a poor law that looks upon one side only, and that is generous at the expense of justice, but a poorer law still that does not proceed upon the principle that justice culminates in generosity.
The way in which Elisha addresses himself to the circumstances of the case is very significant of the method of Jesus Christ. Elisha asked the woman, "What shall I do for thee?" Jesus often asked the same question of those who came to him for healing or relief—"What wilt thou that I shall do unto thee?" Thus the petitioner is made a party to the case in no merely nominal sense, but in the sense of acquiring distinct responsibility of suggestion or advice. No doubt the prophet knew what the widow wanted, yet a good purpose was to be gained in causing her to state her case in her own words. This is how God himself proceeds in the matter of our own prayers. Our heavenly Father knoweth what things we have need of before we ask him; yet it has pleased him to make it part of our education to allow us to state our own necessities and argue our own pleas, leaving him to be sole judge when the case is laid before him. Elisha asked another question which Jesus Christ also put on some occasions. Elisha said, "Tell me, what hast thou in the house?" Jesus Christ asked the disciples what bread they had before he proceeded to satisfy the hunger of the multitude. It is God's plan to start with what we have. He will first take everything that is in our hand, and then proceed to his own work. Thus we become in a sense fellow-workers with God. If we supply the seed (which we only do in a secondary sense), God turns that seed into an abundant harvest. But he will not cause the harvest to grow until we have done all the duty of seed-sowing. So we have certain preliminary duties to attend to; as, for example, finding out the whole of our resources, placing these at the disposal of the master, beginning with a little as if it were a great amount, and gradually proceeding until we ourselves are surprised by the largeness and completeness of the miracle. Now Elisha proceeds to his work:—"Go, borrow thee vessels abroad of all thy neighbours, even empty vessels." This would have committed him to some degree of miraculous interposition, but this was not all he said; he added to his instructions, "Borrow not a few" (2Kings 4:3). In Psalm 81:10. we read, "Open thy mouth wide, and I will fill it." It is. God's joy, if we may so put it, to give large answers to the requests of men. Said Christ, "Hitherto have ye asked nothing in my name: ask, and ye shall receive, that your joy may be full." Not a partial joy, and not the beginning of a joy, but a complete, overflowing, redundant joy. Then comes an instruction which compares strongly with what Jesus Christ himself stated with regard to our action in prayer. The woman was commanded to shut the door upon herself, and upon her sons, and to pour oil into all the vessels which she had borrowed, setting aside the vessels as they became full. "And it came to pass, when the vessels were full, that she said unto her son, Bring me yet a vessel. And he said unto her, There is not a vessel more. And the oil stayed" (2Kings 4:6). It was the vessels that were exhausted, not the hand of God that was emptied. A notable lesson this, that it is never God who fails but always man who comes to the end of his capacity. It was so in the case of the manna, as we have seen in Exodus xvi 18:—"He that gathered much had nothing over, and he that gathered little had no lack." The woman moved by gratitude came and told the man of God. This is recorded to the credit of the woman, but it could not be recorded to the credit of many who are now living; that is to say, they receive mercies from God, hunger is satisfied, thirst is allayed, present appeals are answered, and yet no religious response is made. "There are not found that returned to give glory to God, save this stranger." This is the first of the domestic miracles performed by Elisha.
In Psalm 81:8 we find the beginning of another miracle of the domestic kind. A "great woman" in Shunem was kind to the prophet and his servant. She made a little chamber for the prophet, and put therein a bed, and a table, and a stool, and a candlestick. Poor furniture it may have been indeed from a merely mercantile point of view, but being chosen by the spirit of love, and set up by the hand of care, the whole chamber glowed and shone as with a light from heaven. It has given a name to all the other rooms which have been set apart for the service of good men. To this day we call the room occupied by the pastor, or the evangelist, or the agent of any good cause, "the prophet's chamber." Elisha recognised the goodness of the woman and magnified her attention, describing what she had done in terms that might appear like extravagance, for he said, "Thou hast been careful for us with all this care" (2Kings 4:13). Now the prophet offered her some reward, asking whether she would be spoken for to the king or to the captain of the host. Elisha considered that he had influence at court, as indeed he might well have, because of his great character and his splendid service. But the woman had no such wish. She said she dwelt amongst her own people; she was in peace with all her neighbours; she was not ambitious; celebrity had no charms for her, and she could work more easily under love than under patronage. What she did she did independently, feeling that hospitality shown to a servant of the living God added to her greatness. She had indeed a reward in the very fact that the man honoured her house with his presence. "He that receiveth a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophet's reward; and he that receiveth a righteous man in the name of a righteous man shall receive a righteous man's reward." The prophets of the Lord avail themselves of the courteous attentions and liberal hospitalities of those who are pleased to accord them. Even the Apostle Paul did not reject the obligations of love which were offered to him. He said, "I have all, and abound: I am full, having received of Epaphroditus the things which were sent from you, an odour of a sweet smell, a sacrifice acceptable, wellpleasing to God." Elisha promised that this woman should have a son; and in due time
"When the child was grown, it fell on a clay, that he went out to his father to the reapers. And he said unto his father, My head, my head. And he said to a lad, Carry him to his mother. And when he had taken him, and brought him to his mother, he sat on her knees till noon, and then died" (2Kings 4:18-20).
Does not this seem like mockery on the part of God? The woman was offered a reward for her generous hospitality, and behold the reward was turned into a new trial. Is it not always so? Does not increase of life really mean increase of pain? Or is it not often true that the things we most desire are often turned most heavily against us, so that our comforts become our distresses, our advantages are transformed into our hindrances, and our very pre-eminence over men does but expose us the more openly to the roughest of the wind and the tempest? As increase of wisdom is increase of sorrow—because we say, How much there is yet to be known, and how small a portion of anything is really understood—so increase of life exposes but a greater surface to the darts of the enemy. The woman took a very motherly course. Suggestively, and as it were almost upbraidingly, she laid her dead son on the bed of the man of God, and shut the door upon him, and went out. She would make her own statement to Elisha. She would come unto him on Mount Carmel and chide him because of his cruelty. She seized Elisha by the feet, and the prophet saw that her soul was vexed within her, and yet he knew nothing of the cause, for the Lord had hidden it from him, and told him not. Then she made her speech, full of a mother's eloquence, full of bitter upbraiding, saying, "Did I desire a son of my lord? did I not say, Do not deceive me"? Elisha would send his servant to see what could be done, but the woman said, "As the Lord liveth, and as thy soul liveth, I will not leave thee." Here is a model of importunate prayer. Here, too, is the very ground of prayer. We have what may be termed a natural standing before God, because he hath made us and not we ourselves; and as for all we have, is it not his own special and direct gift? God would seem to allow us to establish the right of speaking to him on the very ground that what we have we have received from himself. There is nothing unreasonable in the theory and exercise of prayer as defined in Holy Scripture. Suppliants in all ages have felt that God would not forsake the work of his own hands. The prophet entered the chamber, and the child was restored to the grief-stricken mother.
Here is a remarkable thing in Bible history—nothing less than that a miracle should miscarry. Here is an attempt to work a miracle, which ends in failure. This is strange and most painful. Who knows what may fail next? The reading about miracles in the Bible is such easy reading, everything goes on so fluently and happily, that one is called up with great abruptness at an instance like the present. Is it without a parallel? Does it stand wholly alone? Are there any purposed miracles suddenly broken in failure? Does the staff ever come back without having done its work? We are bound to ask these sharp and serious questions. Do not let us hasten perfunctorily over the melancholy fact of our failure; let us face it and wisely consider it, and find out whether the blame be in Elisha, or Gehazi, or the staff, or whether God himself may be working out some mystery of wisdom in occasionally rebuking us in the use of means and instruments. Elisha was not a man likely to make vain experiments. He surely would not send a staff that would fail if he knew it. Surely this was not the first time the staff had been sent upon such an errand. Was Elisha an adventurer, an empiric, a man who wanted to do with a staff what can only be done by a life? We must insist upon putting these piercing inquiries because to heal the hurt slightly is but to postpone the pain. We had, therefore, better know with all frankness and simplicity exactly what the case is, for in faithfulness may be the beginning of success. Gehazi came back and said, in effect, "Here is the staff, but it has done no good. There is neither sight, nor hearing, nor sound of returning voice; the child is not awaked." There is the staff, unbroken, uninjured—the prophet's staff. Let him take it back again, and remember that the child is not awaked. Why was that staff useless? A prophet's staff—yet not doing a prophet's work. Does the prophet's staff require a prophet's hand to use it? There may be something in that suggestion. It is not every man who can wear the armour of Saul; it may not be every man who can use the staff of Elisha. Let us, therefore, go into critical inquiry of a moral kind.
Who was this Gehazi? An undeveloped hypocrite. Up to this moment he may have secured outwardly his master's confidence and regard, but we are more than one self. There were three or four different men in that Gehazi figure. There are three or four different men in each of us. Which man is it to whom we speak; who is it that announces the hymn, that offers the prayer, that reads the Scriptures, that proclaims the word? "Things are not what they seem." Gehazi was at this moment an undeveloped knave; and what can he do with Elisha's staff, or with God's sunlight? The bad man spoils whatever he touches. In the fall of man, everything with which man has to do must also fall. Virtue perished out of Elisha's staff; it became in the grip of Gehazi but a common stick. There is law in that deterioration; there is a whole philosophy in that mysterious depletion of virtue, and we ought to understand somewhat of its operation. Sin impoverishes everything. The universe is but a gigantic shell, gleaming with painted fire to the bad man. To him there are no flowers in the garden; there may be some diversity of colour, but flowers as tabernacles in which God reveals himself, creations of the supreme power, there are none, there can be none. The bad man sees no beauty, hears no music, acknowledges no virtue, turns everything into a nature like his own. Therefore, beware of the bad man. Do not let him kiss your little child, he will stain the sweet mouth; do not let him grip your hand, he will leave a mark behind which will be as a wound; do not hold company with bad men. "My son, if sinners entice thee, consent thou not." If they say, "Let us all have one purse, and enjoy ourselves in rattling and dashing gaiety," know that their purpose is the ruin of the soul. There is nothing sacred to the bad man; what he touches he defiles. When we are wrong in our relation to God, we are wrong in relation to everything else. Let us consider that doctrine.
A man cannot go down in his highest religious nature without going down all round. Whatever his pretence of interest may be in things beautiful and musical, and pure and noble, it is only a skilful hypocrisy. When the fool says in his heart "There is no God," he also says in his heart "There is no beauty, there is no virtue, there is no purity, there is no soul." God is the inclusive term, and denial in relation to that term is negation in reference to everything that belongs to it—all music and beauty, all virtue and tenderness, all chivalry and self-sacrifice. You cannot be theologically wrong and yet morally and socially right. We know what it is to have done the evil deed, and then to have seen all the sunshine run away from the universe like a thing affrighted. The bad man draws a pall over the morning, he plucks the forbidden fruit, and his eyes are opened and he runs. Find him a cave where the sun is not, and you find him a resting-place for which his wicked heart is in quest You cannot tell the lie, complete the hypocrisy, pluck the interdicted fruit, break all the commandments, and then look healthy in the face, and smile really the smile of the soul. You may distort your features, you may pucker up the lineaments of your face as if trying to make a smile; but the laughter of the soul, the joy of the spirit, the delight of a pure and happy heart are impossible to the bad man. Thus we may be coming nearer to the reason why the staff failed. The staff is good, the hand that wielded it was bad: there was no true sympathy or connection between the hand and the staff: it was only in the hand, it was not in the heart. There was a merely physical grasp, there was no moral hold of the symbol of prophetic presence and power. Gehazi had already stolen from Naaman, and already there had gone out from the court of heaven the decree which blanched him into a leper as white as snow.
Now, let us come home. We have an inspired book as our staff, our symbol, but are we inspired readers? An inspired book should have an inspired perusal: like should come to like. By inspiration, on the human side, we mean a meek, reverent, contrite, and willing heart; a disposition unprejudiced, a holy, sacred burning desire to know God's will and to do it all. How stands the case now? You read the Bible and get nothing out of it. No; because you read it without corresponding inspiration on your part. Perhaps you read it merely as a lesson; perhaps you read it in haste; you did but skim the letter; you did not see into the inner, deep, sacred, and mysterious spirit; and therefore you came away, saying, "I have read the inspired book, but I find nothing in it." The text may be divine, but if the preacher be less than a true man the text will perish in his lips. No bad man can preach well. He may preach eloquently, learnedly, effectively. He may go very near to being a good preacher in the rigid sense of that term, but the bad man cannot preach well in God's sense and definition of the term. What can the bad man preach? Can he preach salvation by the blood of Christ?—he who knows not what it is to shed one drop of blood for any human creature, to suffer one pain of mind or body that some fellow-creature may be mitigated in the hour of agony supreme. What can he preach? Can he preach the great doctrine of sacrifice who has never lived it? Can he call to pureness who knows not where the angel lives? Can he speak nobly who never felt nobly? We contend, in view of the only possible answers to these inquiries, that no bad man can preach well, can use the staff with high spiritual efficacy, or can bring back tidings that will fill the heart of Christ with sweet contentment. Gehazi cannot represent Elisha; the bad man cannot represent the Son of God; the man who is self-seeking, is idolatrous, and cannot represent a cross every atom of which is a symbol and a type of self-renunciation.
Now, we will go further, and add that, as no bad man can preach well, no bad man can listen well. He is not listening to the truth. He may be listening to some voice which beats more or less pleasantly and fascinatingly upon the ear of his body, but he is not listening to the music of the truth, the sweet, inner strains of celestial melody, the stern voice of righteousness, the pleading tones of persuasion. His soul is not attentive. While in the house of God he may be, as to his affections and desires, in the very den of thieves. It is possible that we may be listening and not hearing; we may assume attentiveness whilst our soul is playing truant and listening to other voices which we would not our dearest friends should hear. This may, perhaps, be a rebuke to some who are wont to say, "I may not be all I ought to be, but I know the truth when I hear it." We meet your assertion with a flat contradiction. If you are not a good man you do not know the truth when you hear it. You know certain phrases, expressions, and sentences: you know if the bells are chiming in regular order, but you only know the letter, not the spirit, and to you, on account of your viciousness, developed or undeveloped, is not given that spirit of power which sees the truth and feels the truth and hails the truth with acclaims of thankfulness when it is presented in some unaccustomed form.
We assert this with the greater breadth and emphasis, because there are certain persons who, being notoriously of the class of Gehazi, are sometimes consulted as to the orthodoxy of certain candidates for the pulpit. They come from their reeking feast, just to give a hint to the officers of the church as to the real soundness and orthodoxy of the young candidate, and they say, wiping their sensuous lips, "I may not be all I ought to be, but I know the truth when I hear it." No; no. The bad man does not know the truth when he hears it. He knows the words, the phrases, the accustomed and stereotyped sentences; but the truth,—what is that? High as heaven, wide as infinity, enduring as God, one as the firmament, separate as the stars. What is the truth? Know—"The secret of the Lord is with them that fear him;" "To this man will I look, to the man that is of a humble and contrite heart, and who trembleth at my word." There is no passage in all the revelation of God which says the bad man knows the truth. The bad man cannot guide you into truth; the bad man cannot be an excellent counsellor. We hear nothing about the bad man but thunders of denunciation, words of wrath, scathing, scorching words, which bid him keep off, and not spoil the holy altar of the sanctuary.
This may take from some of you your blank charter of criticism and right and title to say what is a good sermon and what is a bad sermon, what is orthodoxy and what is heterodoxy. If you are of a humble and contrite heart, trembling in God's house, and saying, "Thy word is a lamp and a great light, and thy word, like thy commandment, is exceeding broad, and thy statutes are many; lead me into the mystery of thy truth and kingdom;" then you will be able to say, "The word was pure, the word was good; the word had unity, the palpitation of divinest life; the word, though feebly uttered, was none other than the word of God." "Except ye be converted, and become as little children," you cannot say what is the truth, and who are its proper preachers.
We are the stronger upon this point, because, in this service of endeavouring to raise dead men and bring men to Christ in Christ's own way, goodness is power. There is a tendency to depreciate goodness. Where is there a man who thinks that he is not entitled to pass a somewhat sneering sentence upon mere goodness? There is no "mere goodness." Goodness is not to be so qualified and limited. Goodness is, in this Christian service, power—ample, enduring, self-renewing power. Why we have sometimes heard talk after this fashion: "So-and-so may be a very good man, but he is a poor preacher;" "So-and-so, I have no doubt, is a good man," and with that card so blank, and signed only by your name, the man is sent out in the direction of social and ecclesiastical contempt. "He is only a good man;" "He may be very good;" "I dare say he is a good man." We strenuously protest against the use of that word "good," if it involve the very slightest sneer against the first qualification of a minister—namely, goodness of character, of intent, and purpose. Character is power; goodness will stand the flame; truth will stand when all things fail, and at the last we shall hear but two words characterising the minister of every grade and name who shall be admitted into his Lord's kingdom, and these two words are "good" and "faithful."
We have now to face a very subtle temptation—namely, the temptation to inquire, seeing that we have not succeeded in our ministry, whether the staff was good. When does Gehazi pierce himself and say, "The blame is in me"? What a temptation there is for him to look at the staff and say, "I may have got hold of the wrong symbol! This is really not Elisha's own staff. Had I possessed myself of the right staff certainly the child would have been awakened when I laid it upon his face." It is so men reason about the Bible. They say, "Can the Bible be inspired when so many persons pay no attention to it? Is it the right Bible? How can it be? When it is read the people do not answer it with a great shout of acquiescence and gladness. How, then, can it be inspired? The Book itself must be the wrong book. We have not got hold of the right staff." When does the reader say, "The blame is mine: I am not in sympathy with the Bible: I am not subject to the same inspiration which indited the holy word: I am self-inspired; I am not inspired from above: I only read the letter; I do not breathe the sacred spirit"? Do you know that it is not every man who can read the Bible at all times? There are some portions of the Bible which we can only read occasionally. There are whole books in the Bible which do not give up their secret and mystery to us in every mental mood and every social condition. The self-idolatrous man, the Pharisee—cleansed well outside, and well-seeming altogether to the public eye, content with himself, counting the beads of his own virtue night and day, finding his only luxury in self-survey and contemplation—cannot read the fifty-first Psalm. He could pronounce the letters; but a very inferior creature could be taught to do that. Only the man whose heart has been broken on account of sin, who has seen its sinfulness, felt its plague, known it in all its abominableness, and tested his own helplessness in the matter, can read with right emphasis the penitential Psalm. He may punctuate it with sobs, he may interrupt his reading with tears and chokings: but it will be fine reading. There will be an unction in the broken rhetoric which cannot be acquired in the schools. The sob of feebleness will be mightier in heaven than the thunder of conscious power. Only he who knows what penitence is can read the words of penitence. The prosperous man—who has never had a day's real sorrow in his life; who lives in the temple of prosperity and in the home of ease; whose water is daily turned into wine; who touches dust and it becomes fine gold; who makes every bargain a success—cannot read the twenty-second Psalm, cannot understand the twenty-third Psalm, does not know the meaning of the fourteenth chapter of John. He calls such Psalms and chapters sentimental, soft, wanting in practicalness; he thinks he can find something better in other literature. But let him be broken on the cross; let him just see once into the valley of the shadow of death; let him once know the meaning of the sandy wilderness, and the rocky desert, and the place where there are no pools of water; let once his heart be shattered in every hope, and the whole sky drape itself in appalling gloom; then let the Psalms be read and the chapter be uttered in his hearing, and he will say, "This is the music I love, this is the voice I needed, this is the tender strain: read on, and on, for ever; for there is comfort in every tone, there is inspiration in every word; this is the balm of Gilead, this is as my Father's house."
When the child is not awaked do not blame the staff; when the neighbourhood is unaware of your spiritual presence do not blame the neighbourhood or the word, but seriously say to yourself, "Am I Gehazi? Am I the wrong man with the right staff? Have I got the right book, but am myself the wrong reader? Is the blame in me? Search me, and try me, and see if there be any wicked way in me, and God be merciful to me a sinner." When there is more of such self-inquisition, and self-searching, and self-immolation, we shall awake to a nobler earnestness and give ourselves to a broader and deeper devotedness. Why did you take the staff? Was it only to see a miracle? Why did you turn preacher? Was it only to get a living? Why did you attach yourself to such and such a church? Was it merely that you might be counted orthodox? Can you say in your heart of hearts, "I would leave this ministry if I did not find bread in it. I would join another church if I should not lose social and ecclesiastical status. My limits chafe me, and I want some broader place, but dare not go forward, because I should leave behind me friends and patronage, personal and social ease and comfort"? If so, I will not pray that your church may be empty, and that your wages night by night may be the keenest disappointment. God will see to it that your teeth are broken with gravel-stones, and that the issue of your hypocrisy will be as a candle blown out, a name hated; when you are buried, it will not be in the sepulchre of the kings, and God will see that Gehazi does not play tricks with Elisha's staff; but he shall be unveiled, self-revealed, openly condemned, and die a leper without cure.
Now shall we change for one moment the point of view, and ask this question: Was not Elisha partly to blame in this matter? Did he send a staff when he ought to have gone himself? Did he seek a proxy? Did he say, "Spare me trouble; save my time; consider my convenience: Gehazi, take this staff, and run along and see what you can do with it"? We should instantly encounter the inquiry with a sharp and indignant denial, if we did not know that many men are practically doing the same thing. Does any man send a guinea when he ought to send a life? Does any man patronise Christ's Church when he ought to die to his own vanity, self-indulgence, and self-idolatry? Does any man endeavour to compound for self-immolation by sending other people to do his work? Jesus Christ gave—what? Himself. Body? Yes. "This is my body, broken for you." Blood? Yes. "This is my blood; eat ye all of this broken bread, drink ye all of this shed blood, this symbolic cup." He gave himself, and self-giving is the only true benefaction and donation. Let us not buy ourselves off by some gift of gold or silver. Such gifts we must give to be in the church at all; but they ought to represent sacrifice, denial, loss of enjoyment; they ought not to be mere asides, collateral incidents of which we take but small note. They ought to take bits out of us. We ought to be made to feel that part of ourselves has gone with every gift we gave.
No other man can do your work. There may be men as good as you, who can do their work better than you could do it; but no man can do your particular kind of work, no man can offer up your particular prayer. Every man has his own calling of God in this as in other matters. We do not all work in the same way. The good man to whom we have referred may not be what is termed a powerful, eloquent, or effective preacher, but he will speak healingly, lovingly, tenderly, and with sweet persuasiveness; and he will get hold of some who might be terrified by another style, and flee away from it, as men would seek to hide themselves from a threatening thunderstorm. No man can give away your tract; no other man can pay your visit to your sick friend. He knows you. A greater man would not be received. In some respects a better man would not be understood; but he knows you—every tone in your voice, every motion of your hand within his, every look of your eye, every variation of your countenance, and a word from you has an effect which it would not have from any other living creature. Let every man, therefore, recognise his individual election and calling in this matter, and fulfil the same self-sacrificingly and gladly. Do not imagine that the failure is always attributable either to Elisha or to the staff, or even to Gehazi. There are some failures in the ministry of the word which are not to be spoken about as involving dishonesty on the part of the particular minister exercising it. Even Jesus Christ himself sometimes said, "The child is not awaked; there is no sound of voice; there is no sign of hearing." Christ could not do many mighty works because of unbelief. God tries us by our failures to see how faithful we really are. There is a temptation in success, and we need occasionally the empty church, the deserted pew, and the ineloquent time in the pulpit, to show us that this work is God's and not ours; that we have the treasure in earthen vessels, but the excellency of the power is of God and not of us.
And whilst there are failures attributable to the Gehazi spirit, and that may be attributable to the neglect of Elisha, there are other failures that have other explanations. My toiling brother, devoted minister, teacher with no harvest into which to thrust the sickle, messenger coming back again with the staff, saying, "The child is not awaked," do not let me afflict you with unjust reproaches. Sometimes all this experience occurs in the case of the best and noblest men. I merely put a case for inquiry. Do not spare the inquiry. Do not withhold your attention from it in all its aspects and merits; and if you can truly say, "I have done my utmost, God helping me; I have not spared myself; I have worked hard; I have been patient and hopeful, and here is the staff—the child is not awaked;" God will see to it that tomorrow you shall do a miracle that will bring back your joy, and seal the validity of your ministerial call. Take an example from the Shunammite herself. When Elisha said, "Take the staff, and run on before," she said, "As the Lord liveth, and as thy soul liveth, thou shalt go too." No staff for her. She wanted the presence of the living man, and she said she would not go without Elisha himself. That was the right spirit. "If thy presence go not with me, carry us not up hence." "I will not let thee go, except thou bless me." We will wrestle here, not till dawn, but till mid-day, and round again to midnight. Throw me in this wrestling. It will be omnipotence conquering feebleness, and that is not a victory. Thou must win. Let my feebleness be my strength: let my poverty be my introduction; let my loving entreaty and desire be the guarantee of my prevalence. "I will not let thee go, except thou bless me."
A noted preacher was being waited for on the hills of Wales. The time had elapsed, the preacher was in the town, but was not on the hillside. The people were impatient, and the host of the preacher sent a messenger to tell him that the occasion was complete, and the people were ready and earnestly expecting him to come. The messenger went. The messenger came back again and said, "I do not know what is the matter, but the chamber door is locked. I heard voices within. I listened, and I heard the preacher say, 'I will not go, unless you go with me.' He is talking to some other man. He wants the other man to come, and unless that other man will come, he says he will not appear amongst us today. What is to be done?" The host understood the case. He said, "All will be well presently." And so it was. The closeted preacher unlocked the door, came out with an invisible companion, "one like unto the Son of man," and old Wales, accustomed to the noblest religious eloquence that ever fell from human lips, was never more deeply stirred and vitally thrilled than when that man spoke in the power of the other Man, and revealed the kingdom of God to an expectant and thankful people. Do not go without the other Man—the Man Christ Jesus. Do not go alone. Say, whenever you go to the pulpit, or class, or sick-chamber, or district for any kind of Christian work whatsoever, say, "I will not go alone," and if that desire be uttered heartily, lovingly, honestly, you shall not go alone. God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Ghost will go with you, and the prey shall be delivered into your hand, and you shall return more than conqueror through him that loved you.
The Bane and the Antidote
There was rest in the days of the early ministry, as we may see the from thirty-eighth verse. A very beautiful picture is given in that verse, and yet a very ghastly one; the ghastliness being seen in the dearth or famine that was in the land, the seven years' dearth of which Elisha had prophesied; and the beauty of it is seen in the simplicity with which service was rendered to the prophet and the sons of the prophets: "Set on the great pot, and seethe pottage for the sons of the prophets." The picture is that of the prophet seated among his young disciples, and caring not only for their intellectual culture but for their bodily welfare. In this sense how beautifully Elisha succeeds to the fatherly office which Elijah had so strongly and nobly sustained: one of the prophets went out into the field to gather herbs. Let him that is greatest amongst you be your servant. There is nothing wrong whatever in any minister whose circumstances dictate such a course going out to do his own work, to attend to his own necessities, and to be his own servant. The young prophet who went out found a climbing plant with tendrils, which was included by the Hebrews under the name of "a wild vine;" and he returned with his shawl full of gourds, and came and shred them into the pot of pottage. Nature grows poison as well as food. The sons of the prophets little knew the hurtful quality of the fruit that was being poured into the pot. In all things nature has its poisonous side as well as its sustaining and comforting aspect. The bane and antidote are both before us in nature. Death lies very near to life in the great open fields. Even our most natural passions lie but a single step from their destructive application. Can it be possible that a son of the prophets went out to gather food for a natural appetite, and came back with poison? This is what is being done every day. We may turn honest commerce into a means of felony. We may go into the market-place to buy food, and yet by some action we may perpetrate in connection with the purchase we may take all virtue out of the food and make it contribute to our worst qualities. Blessed are they who eat honest bread: everywhere the great law of trespass is written in nature. By putting poisons upon the earth so plentifully, what does the Lord say in effect but, Take care, be wise, examine your standing-ground, and do nothing foolishly? Thus nature is turned into a great training-school, within whose walls men are trained to sagacity and discrimination, so that they may know the right hand from the left, and the good from the bad, and thus may turn natural processes and customary daily duties into means of culture. What was the course adopted by the sons of the prophets when they found that they were taking poison in eating of the pottage? They instantly appealed to Elisha, saying, "O thou man of God, there is death in the pot." They did not attempt to work a miracle themselves. They recognised the prerogatives of seniority, and they indicated their own inferior or secondary position. It is not said that the man went out at Elisha's suggestion to gather herbs; probably, therefore, this incident may have been allowed simply for a correction of audacity or obtrusiveness. The man might be seeking to make up by natural processes what Elisha intended to carry out by a course of miraculous interposition. It is God's delight to rebuke and baffle human interference, and to beat off the hands that would support his ark, or help him in the completion of his miracles. Sometimes the point at which human exertion ends is so fine as to be almost invisible, but we should remember that there is such a point, and be continually expecting to reach it, and be constantly praying that we may be saved from trespass or intrusion. The law of self-help is an admirable law within its own bounds, but when it is contributed towards the making-up of a process which God intends to be miraculous, it is then transformed into impiety.
"And there came a man from Baal-shalisha, and brought the man of God bread of the firstfruits, twenty loaves of barley, and full ears of corn in the husk thereof. And he said, Give unto the people, that they may eat. And his servitor said, What, should I set this before an hundred men? He said again, Give the people, that they may eat: for thus saith the Lord, They shall eat, and shall leave thereof. So he set it before them, and they did eat, and left thereof, according to the word of the Lord" (2Kings 4:42-44).
Good fortune now seems to have befallen Elisha. Pious Israelites were now transferring to the prophets what had once been given to the Levitical priests: hence they brought to Elisha "bread of the firstfruits, twenty loaves of barley, and full ears of corn in the husk thereof." Surely this was a new thing to Elisha, and a great change from the mode of life which he had been latterly leading. He began life under very comfortable circumstances, probably being one of the richest men who had up to that time been called into the service of the Lord. He had, however, had his time of trial and suffering, but now the sun seemed to be shining upon him, and plenty seemed to be at his disposal. What did he do with his good fortune? It is remarkable that he did not selfishly appropriate it, but at once said, "Give unto the people, that they may eat." Here again is a foreshadowing of the spirit and method of the Son of God. Whatever he had he held for the benefit of others. He was prepared to give away the five loaves and the few fishes to those who were in need. The servant said, "What, should I set this before an hundred men?" That is to say, how small it is for them; it is more than enough for thee, but how far would it go in satisfying the hunger of an hundred men? Elijah has been considered to be a type of John the Baptist, and in many respects Elisha has been seen to discover traits of character not unworthy of being regarded as typical of Jesus Christ; he was genial in life; he was constantly going about in the cities and villages; his career was remarkable for the private or domestic miracles which he worked, and a singular healing virtue seemed to reside in his bodily frame: surely in all these respects he resembles more than any other prophet resembled him of whom Moses and the prophets did write! Whilst we dwell upon the types of the Coming One we are delighted with them, for they possess a subtle charm, and throw over the mind a fascination which cannot but contribute to the establishment of pious feeling and sacred anticipation; but when we look upon him whom they typified, then how poor do all symbols and emblems become. Then, how we exclaim in the language of the Queen of Sheba, "The half had not been told me!" Surely there are no adequate types of light. Sometimes men, looking upon a beautiful landscape on a grey day, have said that they could imagine what it would be when the sun was shining. But no man can imagine light. Wherever it comes, it comes with a gracious surprise, revealing beauties undreamed of, and showing aspects of the scene which may startle even those who are most familiar with the outline of the land. The colour is never the same for many moments consecutively, and when the colour changes the whole scene seems to undergo transformation. It is even so with the coming of the Son of man. Looking upon all his forerunners we say, we can now surely imagine what Christ will be when he comes. But, lo! when his sun arises with healing in his wings, we forget all the stars that shone before him, and they retire from the sky which they adorned, unable to continue longer, when the true light shineth which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.
God of our fathers be the God of their succeeding race. Let thy light and thy truth shine forth and establish themselves in the love and confidence of all mankind. Hide not thy face from us. In the hiding of thy face is darkness, and the keeping back of thy hand is death. Draw near unto us! To our hearts daily do thou speak comfortably. Rebuke us not in thine anger, chide us not in thy displeasure, for the look of thy judgment will destroy us, and the breath of thine anger will carry us away. Our only hope is in thy love. Thy love we know best in Christ Jesus, the priest, the victim, the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but for the sins of the whole world. In his love would we meet thee, it is thine own love, eternal, unchangeable, infinite. We would hide ourselves in it as in a sanctuary that cannot be violated. May we stand in the infinite enclosure, safe from every assault and every temptation. Thou knowest us every one. Thou art the father which seeth in secret. Thou knowest our innermost thought There is not a word on our tongue that thou hast not weighed. There is not a thought in our heart that thine eyes have not penetrated. What shall we say unto thee, then, but God be merciful unto us sinners. We know the mystery of doubt We know what it is to go away from God, and to endeavour to create for ourselves gardens in the bleak wilderness. We are ashamed of our inventions, we renounce our hypocrisies. We come with the frankness of contrition, owning all our sin, and asking thee whilst looking upon the Saviour's cross to pardon it with infinite forgiveness. Keep us every one during the few days we may have yet to live. Put within us the spirit of wisdom and of patience, and create in us that sacred expectation which expresses itself in filial prayer. Go with us the remainder of the journey. If there be long hills which we have yet to climb, the Lord help us to ascend every one of them in his own strength and grace. If the darkness should soon settle upon us, may we have a light in our hearts which no night can quench. Enable every man who has made a good vow, to keep it. Give answers of peace to those who have sought them in the name of Christ; and give to every one of us such a conception of life as shall make us solemn yet cheerful; sober because of the nearness of death, yet joyous because of our approaching immortality. "Jesus, refuge of my soul, let me to thy bosom flee." "Rock of ages cleft for me, let me find my rest in thee." Blind us to every other attraction, and fix our eyes on thine own fascination, thou Christ of God, fairest among ten thousand and lovely altogether. Amen.