The Motivation of Gospel Witness, Part 1: Regrettable Tragedy
This is the first post in a three-part series. Dr. Kim originally delivered his messages at First Presbyterian Church in August, Georgia, for the church’s 2015 Bible and Missionary Conference.
One day Elisha went to Shunem. And a well-to-do woman was there, who urged him to stay for a meal. So whenever he came by, he stopped there to eat. She said to her husband, “I know that this man who often comes our way is a holy man of God. Let’s make a small room on the roof and put in it a bed and a table, a chair and a lamp for him. Then he can stay there whenever he comes to us.”
One day when Elisha came, he went up to his room and lay down there. He said to his servant Gehazi, “Call the Shunammite.” So he called her, and she stood before him. Elisha said to him, “Tell her, ‘You have gone to all this trouble for us. Now what can be done for you? Can we speak on your behalf to the king or the commander of the army?’”
She replied, “I have a home among my own people.”
“What can be done for her?” Elisha asked.
Gehazi said, “She has no son, and her husband is old.”
Then Elisha said, “Call her.” So he called her, and she stood in the doorway. “About this time next year,” Elisha said, “you will hold a son in your arms.”
“No, my lord!” she objected. “Please, man of God, don’t mislead your servant!”
But the woman became pregnant, and the next year about that same time she gave birth to a son, just as Elisha had told her.
The child grew, and one day he went out to his father, who was with the reapers. He said to his father, “My head! My head!”
His father told a servant, “Carry him to his mother.” After the servant had lifted him up and carried him to his mother, the boy sat on her lap until noon, and then he died. She went up and laid him on the bed of the man of God, then shut the door and went out.
She called her husband and said, “Please send me one of the servants and a donkey so I can go to the man of God quickly and return.”
“Why go to him today?” he asked. “It’s not the New Moon or the Sabbath.”
“That’s all right,” she said.
She saddled the donkey and said to her servant, “Lead on; don’t slow down for me unless I tell you.” So she set out and came to the man of God at Mount Carmel.
When he saw her in the distance, the man of God said to his servant Gehazi, “Look! There’s the Shunammite! Run to meet her and ask her, ‘Are you all right? Is your husband all right? Is your child all right?’”
“Everything is all right,” she said.
When she reached the man of God at the mountain, she took hold of his feet. Gehazi came over to push her away, but the man of God said, “Leave her alone! She is in bitter distress, but the Lord has hidden it from me and has not told me why.”
“Did I ask you for a son, my lord?” she said. “Didn’t I tell you, ‘Don’t raise my hopes’?”
Elisha said to Gehazi, “Tuck your cloak into your belt, take my staff in your hand and run. Don’t greet anyone you meet, and if anyone greets you, do not answer. Lay my staff on the boy’s face.”
But the child’s mother said, “As surely as the Lord lives and as you live, I will not leave you.” So he got up and followed her.
Gehazi went on ahead and laid the staff on the boy’s face, but there was no sound or response. So Gehazi went back to meet Elisha and told him, “The boy has not awakened.”
When Elisha reached the house, there was the boy lying dead on his couch. He went in, shut the door on the two of them and prayed to the Lord. Then he got on the bed and lay on the boy, mouth to mouth, eyes to eyes, hands to hands. As he stretched himself out on him, the boy’s body grew warm. Elisha turned away and walked back and forth in the room and then got on the bed and stretched out on him once more. The boy sneezed seven times and opened his eyes.
Elisha summoned Gehazi and said, “Call the Shunammite.” And he did. When she came, he said, “Take your son.” She came in, fell at his feet and bowed to the ground. Then she took her son and went out.
- 2 Kings 4:8-37 (NIV)
In the 1870s, Horatio Spafford was a successful Chicago lawyer and a close friend of evangelist Dwight L. Moody. Spafford had invested heavily in real estate, but the Chicago fire of 1871 wiped out his holdings. His son had died shortly before the disaster.
Spafford and his family desperately needed a rest, so in 1873 he planned a trip to Europe with his wife and four daughters. While in Great Britain, he also hoped to help Moody and Sankey with their evangelistic tour. Last minute business caused Spafford to delay his departure, but he sent his wife and four daughters on the S. S. Ville Du Havre as scheduled, promising to follow in a few days. On November 22, the ship was struck by the English ship Lochearn, and it sank in twelve minutes. Several days later, the survivors landed at Cardiff, Wales, and Mrs. Spafford cabled her husband the brief message, "Saved alone."
When Horatio Spafford made the ocean crossing to meet his grieving wife, he sailed near the place where his four daughters had sunk to the ocean depths. There, in the midst of his sorrow, he wrote these unforgettable words that have brought solace to so many in grief:
When peace, like a river, attendeth my way, When sorrows like sea billows roll, Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say, It is well, it is well, with my soul.
Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come, Let this blessed assurance control, That Christ hath regarded my helpless estate, And hath shed His own blood for my soul.
Just as the story of Horatio Spafford reveals remarkable faith in the midst of unspeakable tragedy, our story this morning of the Shunammite woman and the resurrection of her dead child through the man of God, we will learn how we too, in the midst of regrettable tragedies, can demonstrate resolute faith through resurrection hope.
This, one of the opening narratives concerning the ministry of Elisha, follows these three truths:
- Regrettable tragedy
- Resolute faith
- Resurrection hope
Like most narratives in the Bible, this one begins innocently enough without any mention of apparent conflict or disturbance to the peace of the land, the people, or the prophet. But as we read through the first part of this narrative in verse 8-20, we learn quickly that all is not shalom in Shunem. There exists regrettable tragedy.
Receiving the mantle and blessing of his predecessor Elijah, Elisha begins his prophetic ministry. In the course of his ministry he befriends a wealthy woman in Shunem who shows the man of God gracious hospitality. She not only regularly feeds the prophet and his servant, but this woman, along with her husband, also builds for him a special room where he could regularly stay during his ministry travels. Elisha is so moved by her generosity that he seeks to bless her. And it is here in the narrative that we get the first glimpse that something is amiss.
You see, though she is a wealthy, literally rendered in the Hebrew a “great” woman, we learn from verse 14 simply, but poignantly, that she has no son — her womb is barren. Though she may have all that money and reputation can provide, she has no son to carry on her family’s name. So like Sarai and Rachel before her, this rich woman is quite poor, for the inability to have one’s name survive is a source of shame. But much to her amazement, the man of God declares that she will indeed have a son. And while first skeptical, the Lord conquers her sterility and provides a son, even though her husband was unable. All is well in Shunem. Or is it?
We read in verse 18, that after this miracle child was weaned, he went out with his father to the fields. There he encountered some form of severe head pain that eventually led to his death in the arms of his mother. What a tragedy; a regrettable tragedy. The miracle son, born through the intercession of the man of God, born through the gift and grace of God himself, is dead. Gone.
And though the text is sparse in its details, we can imagine the unspeakable, unimaginable, undeniable pain that this woman experienced. The most precious and valuable thing she had in her life was gone. Why? Why give me a son, only to take him away? All is not Shalom in Shunem.
And its here that we need to see the similarities with this story and the parallel story in 1 Kings 17. The widow in that story exclaims with bitterness to Elijah in verse 18, “What do you have against me, man of God? Did you come to remind me of my sin and kill my son?” Though her retribution theology here is not entirely correct, she rightly shows the unmistakable Biblical truth that death is connected to sin. Sin. From the judgment in Genesis 3 to the verdict in Romans 6, our lack of conformity unto and transgression of the law of God ultimately yields death. Though we were created with original knowledge, righteousness, and holiness, we have been justly sentenced to death as a result of putting our hope and trust in all other things besides God.
And this is the regrettable tragedy for you and for me. For this story was not just written for the Israelites who in their wickedness abandoned their God through the evil kings that led them — it is also for us, who in our rebellion have declared ourselves free from the reign and rule of God. And the judgment we deserve for our hearts that turned away from our Creator and Sustainer, is death. And the pain we feel over death is the pain we must feel for the sin that leads to death. This is OUR regrettable tragedy.
Dr. Julius Kim is the dean of students and associate professor of practical theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Escondido, California. His also serves a church calling as associate pastor of New Life Presbyterian Church in Escondido. Prior to Westminster Seminary California, Dr. Kim served in a variety of ecclesiastical and academic settings. He is a graduate of Vanguard University, Westminster Seminary California, and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.