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As Matthew Henry pointed out, We may well suppose, after the birth of this son, that the prophet was doubly welcome to the good Shunammite: he had thought himself indebted to her, but from henceforth, as long as she lives, she will think herself in his debt, and that she can never do too much for him. We may also suppose that, the child was very dear to the prophet, as the son of his prayers, and very dear to the parents as the son of their old age.
What is more attractive than a properly trained and well-behaved child!
And what is more objectionable than a spoiled and naughty one? From all that is revealed of this great woman, we cannot doubt that she brought up her boy wisely and well, that he added to the delightfulness of her home, that he was a pleasure and not a trial to visitors. Alas that there are so few of her type now left. Godly and well-conducted homes are the choicest asset which any nation possesses.
The opening clause does not signify that he was now a fully-developed youth, but that he had passed out of infancy into childhood. This is quite obvious from a number of things in the sequel. When he was taken ill, a “lad” carried him back home ( 2 Kings 4:19); for some time he “sat on her knees” ( 2 Kings 4:20), and later she — apparently unaided — carried him upstairs and laid him on the prophet’s bed ( 2 Kings 4:21).
Yet the child had grown sufficiently so as to be able to run about and be allowed to visit his father in the harvest field. While there, he was suddenly stricken with an ailment, for “he said unto his father, My head, my head” ( 2 Kings 4:19). It is hardly likely that this was caused by a sunstroke, for it occurred in the morning, a while before noon. Seemingly the father did not suspect anything serious, for instead of carrying him home in his own arms, he sent him back with one of his younger workers. How incapable we are of foreseeing what even the next hour may bring forth! “And when he had taken him, and brought him to his mother, he sat on her knees till noon” ( 2 Kings 4:20).
What a lovely picture of maternal devotion! How thankful should each one be who cherishes the tender memories of a mother’s love, for there are tens of thousands in this country who were born of parents devoid of natural affection, who cared more for cocktail lounges and the parties than for their offspring. But powerful as true mother love is, it is impotent when the grim reaper draws near, for our verse adds “and then died.” Death strikes down the young as well as the old, as the tombstones in our cemeteries bear ample witness. Sometimes it gives more or less advance notice of its gruesome approach; at others, as here, it smites with scarcely any warning.
How this fact ought to influence each of us! To put it on its lowest ground, how foolish to make an idol of one who may be snatched away at any moment. With what a light hand should we grasp all earthly objects. So, then, the occasion of this miracle is the death of the child.
SECOND, THE MYSTERY OF THE MIRACLE How often the Lord’s dealings seem strange to us. Hopes are suddenly blighted, prospects swiftly changed, and loved ones snatched away. “All flesh is grass” ( Isaiah 40:6), “which to day is and to morrow is cast into the oven” ( Matthew 6:30). Thus it was here. The babe had survived the dangers of infancy, only to be cut down in childhood. That morning, apparently full of life and health, he trotted merrily off to the harvest field; at noon he lay a corpse on his mother’s knee. But in her case such a visitation was additionally inexplicable. The boy had been given to her by the divine bounty because of the kindness she had shown to one of God’s servants; and now, to carnal reason, it looked as though He was dealing most unkindly with her. A miracle had been wrought in bestowing the child, and now that miracle is neutralized. Yes, God’s ways are frequently “a great deep” unto human intelligence. Yet let the Christian never forget that those ways are ever ordered by infinite love and wisdom.
It is indeed most blessed to observe how this stricken mother conducted herself under her unexpected and severe trial. Here, as throughout the whole of this chapter, her moral and spiritual greatness shines forth. There was no wringing her hands in despair, no giving way to inordinate grief.
Nor was there any murmuring at Providence, any complaint that God had ceased to be gracious unto her. It is in such crises and by their demeanor under them that the children of God and the children of the devil are manifest. We do not say that the former always conduct themselves as the great woman, yet they sorrow not as do others who have no hope. They may be staggered and stunned by a crushing affliction, but they do not give way to an evil heart of unbelief and become avowed infidels. There may be stirrings of rebellion within, and Satan will seek to foster hard thoughts against God, but he cannot induce the true child to curse Him and commit suicide. Divine grace is a glorious reality, and in his measure every Christian is given to prove the sufficiency of it in times of stress and trial.
This must be pondered in the light of her subsequent actions if we are to perceive the meaning of her conduct here. There was definite purpose on her part; and in view of what immediately follows, it seems clear that these were the actions of faith. She cherished the hope that the prophet would restore her son to her. She made no preparations for the burial of the child, but anticipated his resurrection by laying him upon Elisha’s bed. Her faith clung to the original blessing: God, by the prophet’s promise and prayers, had given him unto her, and now she takes the dead child to God (as it were) and goes to seek the prophet. Her faith might be tried even to the straining point, but in that extremity she interpreted the inexplicable dealings of God by those dealings she was sure of, reasoning from the past to the future, from the known to the unknown. The child had been given unto her unasked, and she refused to believe he had now been irrecoverably taken away from her.
Her faith was indeed put to a severe test, for not only was her child dead, but at the very time she seemed to need him the most, Elisha was many miles away! Ah, that was no accident but was wisely and graciously ordered by God. How so? That there might be fuller opportunity for bringing forth the evidences and fruits of faith. A faith which does not triumph over discouragements and difficulties is not worth much. The Lord often causes our circumstances to be most unfavorable in order that faith may have the freer play and rise above them. Such was the case here.
Elisha might be absent, but she could go to him. Most probably she had heard of the raising of the widow’s son at Zarephath ( 1 Kings 17:23) by Elijah, and she knew that the spirit of Elijah now rested on Elisha ( Kings 2:15). And therefore with steadfast confidence, she determined to seek him. That she did act in faith is clear from Hebrews 11:35, for that chapter which chronicles the achievements of faith of the Old Testament saints says that through faith “women received their dead raised to life again.” There were but two who did so, and the great woman of Shunem was one of them. “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” ( 2 Kings 4:22).
While faith triumphs over difficulties, it does not act unbecomingly by forcing a way through them and setting aside the requirements of propriety. Urgent as the situation was, she did not rush away without informing her husband of her intention. The wife should have no secrets from her partner, but take him fully into her confidence; failure at this point leads to suspicions, and where they exist love is soon chilled. Nor did this stricken mother content herself with scribbling a hurried note, telling her husband to expect her return within a day or so. No, once again she took her proper place and owned her subjection to him. Though she made known to him her desire, she demanded nothing, but respectfully sought his permission, as her “I pray thee” plainly shows. Faith is bold and venturesome, but it does not act unseemly and insubordinately.
Thomas Scott says, It is happy and comely when harmony prevails in domestic life: when the husband’s authority is tempered with affection, and unsuspecting confidence; when the wife answers that confidence with deference and submission, as well as fidelity, and when each party consults the other’s inclinations, and both unite in attending on the ordinances of God and supporting His cause.
But such happiness and harmony is attainable only as both husband and wife seek grace from God to walk in obedience to His precepts, and as family worship is duly maintained. If the wife suffers herself to be influenced by the spirit which is now so common in the world and refuses to own the lordship of her husband ( 1 Peter 3:6), or if the husband acts as a tyrant and bully by failing to love, nourish, and cherish his wife ( Ephesians 5:25,29) and “giving honor unto the wife, as unto the weaker vessel” ( 1 Peter 3:7), then the smile of God will be forfeited, their prayers will be “hindered,” and strife and misery will prevail in the home. “And he said, Wherefore wilt thou go to him to day? it is neither new moon nor sabbath. And she said, It shall be well” ( 2 Kings 4:23).
While we admire her virtues, her husband appears in a much less favorable light. His question might suggest that he was still ignorant of the death of his son, yet that scarcely seems likely. If he had made no inquiry about the child he must have been strangely lacking in tender regard for him, and his wife’s desire to undertake an arduous journey at such a time ought to have informed him that some serious emergency had arisen. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that his language was more an expression of irritability, that he resented being left alone in his grief. At any rate, his words served to throw light upon another praiseworthy trait in his wife: that it was her custom to attend the prophet’s services on the feast days and the sabbath. Though a great woman, she did not disdain those unpretentious meetings on Mount Carmel. No genuine Christian, however wealthy or high his station, will consider it beneath him to meet with his poorer brethren and sisters.
Those words of her husband may be considered from another angle, namely, as a further testing of her faith. Even where the deepest affection exists between husband and wife, there is not always spiritual equality, not even where they are one in the Lord. One may steadily grow in grace while the other makes little or no progress. One may enter more deeply into an experimental acquaintance with the truth, which the other is incapable of understanding and discussing. One may be given a much increased measure of faith without the other being similarly blessed. None can walk by the faith of another, and it is well for those of strong faith to remember that.
Certainly there was no cooperation of faith in this instance; the husband of our great woman seemed to discourage rather than to encourage her. She might have reasoned with herself, Perhaps this is an intimation from God that I should not seek unto Elisha. But faith would argue, This is but a further testing of me, and since my reliance is in the Lord, I will neither be daunted nor deterred. It is by our reactions to such testings that the reality and strength of our faith is made evident. Faith must not expect a smooth and easy path. “And she said, It shall be well.” That was the language of firm and unshaken confidence. “Then she saddled an ass, and said to her servant, Drive and go forward, slack not thy riding for me, except I bid thee” ( 2 Kings 4:24).
Her husband certainly does not shine here. Had he discharged the duties of love, he would have undertaken this tiring journey instead of his wife, or at the very least offered to accompany her. But he would not exert himself enough to saddle the ass for her, but left her to do that. How selfish many husbands are! How slack in bearing or at least sharing their wives’ burdens! Marriage is a partnership or it is nothing except in name; and the man who allows his wife to become a drudge and does little or nothing to make her lot lighter and brighter in the home, is not worthy to be called “husband.” Nor is it sufficient reply to say, It is only lack of thought on his part. Inconsiderateness and selfishness are synonymous terms, for unselfishness consists largely in thoughtfulness of others. The best that can be said for this man is that he did not actually forbid his wife to start out for Carmel.
We know not how far distant Shunem was from Carmel, but it appears that the journey was long and hard, in a mountainous country. But love is not quenched by hardships, and faith is not rendered inoperative by difficulties.
And in the case of this mother, both of these graces were operative within her. Love can brook no delay and thinks not of personal discomfort, as her language to the servant shows. It is also the nature of faith to be speedy and to look for quick results; patience is a distinct virtue which is only developed by much hard schooling. An intense earnestness possessed the soul of this woman, and where such earnestness is joined with faith, it refuses all denial. While our faith remains a merely mental and mechanical thing it achieves nothing, but when it is intense and fervent it will produce results. True, it requires a deep sense of need, often the pressure of an urgent situation, to evoke this earnestness. That is why faith flourishes most in times of stress and trial, for it then has its most suitable opportunity to declare itself. “So she went and came unto the man of God to mount Carmel.
There are several things of importance to be noticed here. First, like his predecessor, Elisha was the man of the mount ( 2 Kings 2:25), symbolical of his spiritual elevation, his affections set upon things above.
Second, mark how he conducts himself: not in haughty pride of fancied self-superiority. He did not wait for the woman to reach him, but dispatched his servant to meet her, thereby evidencing his solicitude. Third, was it not a gracious token from the Lord to cheer her heart near the close of a trying journey? How tender are God’s mercies! Fourth, “that Shunammite” denotes either that she was the only pious person in that place or that she so towered above her brethren and sisters in spirituality that such an appellation was quite sufficient for the purpose of identification. “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” ( 2 Kings 4:26).
Incidentally, this shows that younger men engaged in the Lord’s service and occupying lowlier positions are required to execute commissions from their seniors (cf. 2 Timothy 4:11-13). We do not regard the woman’s “it is well” as expressing her resignation to the sovereign will of God, but rather as the language of trustful expectation. She seems to have had no doubt whatever about the outcome of her errand. It appears to us that throughout the whole of this incident, the great woman regarded the death of her child as a trial of faith. Her “it is well” looked beyond the clouds and anticipated the happy outcome. Surely we must exclaim, Oh woman, great is thy faith. Yes, and great too was its reward, for God never puts to confusion those who really count upon Him showing Himself strong on their behalf. Let us not forget that this incident is recorded for our learning and encouragement. “And when she came to the man of God to the hill, she caught him by the feet: but 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” ( 2 Kings 4:27).
In the case before us, the great woman appears to have rightly viewed Elisha as the ambassador of God, and to have humbly signified that she had a favor to ask of him. In the rebuffing from Gehazi, we see how her faith met with yet another trial. And then the Lord tenderly interposed through His servant and rebuked the officious attendant. The Lord was accustomed to reveal His secrets unto the prophets ( Amos 3:7), but until He did so they were as ignorant and as dependent upon Him as others, as this incident plainly shows.
Here was still a further test of faith; the prophet himself was in the dark, unprepared for her startling request. But the Lord has just as good a reason for concealing as for revealing. In the case before us, it is not difficult to perceive why He has withheld from Elisha all knowledge of the child’s death; He would have him learn from the mother herself, and that, that she might avow her faith. “Then she said, Did I desire a son of my lord? did I not say, Do not deceive me?” ( 2 Kings 4:28).
Those were powerful arguments to move Elisha to act on her behalf. “As she did not impatiently desire children, she could not think that her son had been given her, without solicitation, merely to become the occasion of her far deeper distress” (Scott).
The second question evidenced that her dependence was entirely upon the word of God through His servant. “However the providence of God may disappoint us, we may be sure the promise of God never did, nor ever will deceive us: hope in that will not make us ashamed” (Henry).