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THE PASSAGE which is before us ( 2 Kings 4:38-41) has in it practical instruction as well as spiritual lessons for us, for the Scriptures make known the evils and dangers which are in this world as well as the glory and bliss of the world to come. Elisha was visiting the school of the prophets at Gilgal, instructing them in the things of God. At the close of a meeting he gave orders that a simple meal should be prepared for them; for though he was more concerned about their spiritual welfare, he did not overlook their physical. It was a time of “dearth” or famine, so one went out into the field to gather herbs, that they might have a vegetable stew. He found a wild vine with gourds. Securing a goodly quantity, he returned and shred them into the pot of pottage, quite unconscious that he was making use of a poisonous plant. Not until after the broth was poured out was the peril discovered, for when they began eating the men cried out, “There is death in the pot.” How little we realize the many and varied forms in which death menaces us, and how constantly we are indebted to the preserving providence of God.
The effects of the curse which the Lord God pronounced upon the sin of Adam have been by no means confined unto the human family. “Cursed is the ground for thy sake” ( Genesis 3:17) was part of the fearful sentence, and as Romans 8:22 informs us, “The whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now.” No matter where one looks, the observant eye can behold the consequences of the fall. No section of creation has escaped; even the fields and the woods bring forth not only thistles and thorns, but that which is noxious and venomous.
Some of the most innocent-looking herbs and berries produce horrible suffering and death if eaten by man or beast. Yet for the most part, in fact with rare exceptions, God has mercifully provided adequate protection against such evils. The instinct of the animals and the intelligence of men causes each of them to leave alone that which is harmful. Either the eye discovers, the nostril detects, or the palate perceives their evil qualities, and thereby we are guarded against them.
Among that which is offered for intellectual and spiritual food, how much is unwholesome and vicious. The fields of Christendom have many “wild gourds” growing in them, the use of which necessarily entails “death in the pot,” for fatal doctrine acts upon the soul as poison does upon the body.
This is clear from that apostolic declaration, “Their word will eat as doth a canker” or “gangrene” ( 2 Timothy 2:17), where the reference is to the evil doctrine of heretical teachers. But just as God has mercifully endowed the animals with instincts and man with sufficient natural intelligence to avoid what is physically injurious, so He has graciously bestowed upon His people spiritual “senses” which, if exercised, “discern both good and evil” ( Hebrews 5:14). Thus they instinctively warn against unsound writings and preachers, so that “a stranger will they not follow, but will flee from him: for they know not the voice of strangers” ( John 10:5).
The mercy of the Creator appears not only in the protecting “senses” with which He has endowed His creatures, but also in providing them with suitable remedies and effective antidotes. If there be herbs which are injurious and poisonous, there are others which are counteracting and healing. If the waters of Marah are bitter and undrinkable, there is a tree at hand which when cut down and cast into the waters renders them sweet ( Exodus 15:25). If we read at the beginning of the Scriptures of a tree the eating of whose fruit involved our race in disaster and death, before that volume is closed we are told of another tree, the leaves of which are “for the healing of the nations” ( Revelation 22:2). This fact, then, holds good in both the physical and the spiritual realms: for every evil, God has provided a remedy, for every poison an antidote, for every false doctrine a portion of the truth which exposes and refutes it. With these introductory observations, we may now consider the details of Elisha’s eighth miracle.
It will be remembered that it was from this place that Elisha had started out with his master on their final journey together before Elijah was raptured to heaven ( 2 Kings 2:1), where his sincerity had been put to the proof by the testing, “Tarry here, I pray thee.” From Gilgal they had passed to Bethel ( 2 Kings 2:2), and from there to Jericho, and finally to the Jordan. It is striking to note that our hero wrought a miracle at each of these places in inverse order of the original journey. At the Jordan he had divided its waters so that he passed over dry-shod before the wondering gaze of the young prophets ( 2 Kings 2:14-15). At Jericho he had healed the evil waters ( 2 Kings 2:19-22). At Bethel he had cursed the profane children in the name of the Lord and brought about their destruction ( Kings 2:23-25). And now here at Gilgal Elisha again exercises the extraordinary powers with which God had endowed him. Wherever he goes, the servant of God should, as opportunity affords, use his ministerial gifts. “And Elisha came again to Gilgal: and there was a dearth in the land” ( 2 Kings 4:38).
Gilgal was to the east of Jericho, close to the Jordan, where there would be more moisture and vegetation than further inland. It was a place made memorable from the early history of Israel. It was there that the nation had set up twelve stones as a monument to God’s gracious intervention, when He had caused them to pass through the river dry-shod ( Joshua 4:18-24). It was there too that they had circumcised those who had been born in the wilderness wanderings, thereby rolling away the reproach of Egypt from off them. This evidenced their separation from the heathen, as being God’s peculiar people, who made the circumcision of the heart ( Jeremiah 4:4; Romans 2:29), which is the distinguishing mark of God’s spiritual children. It was there also that they had first partaken of “the old corn of the land” ( Joshua 5:11) so that miraculous supplies of manna ceased. Yet even such a favored spot as this was affected by the dearth, for great wickedness had also been perpetrated there ( 1 Samuel 15:21-23 and cf. Hosea 9:15).
SECOND, THE OCCASION OF THE MIRACLE “There was a dearth in the land.” The Hebrew word for “dearth” (raab ) signifies a famine, and is so rendered in 1 Kings 18:2. This is one of the “four sore judgments” which the Lord sends when He expresses His displeasure against a people: “the sword, and the famine, and the noisome beast, and the pestilence” ( Ezekiel 14:21).
In our day the “famine” with which a righteous God afflicts a land is one far more solemn and serious than that of dearth of material food, as that threatened in Amos 8:11: “Behold, the days come, saith the Lord GOD, that I will send a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the LORD.”
Such a “famine” is upon Christendom today. It has not yet become quite universal, but almost so. Thousands of places dedicated to divine worship have become social centers, political clubs, ritualistic playhouses, and today they are heaps of rubble. The vast majority of those still standing provide nothing for people desiring spiritual food, and even in the very few where the Word of God is ostensibly ministered, it is no longer so in the power and blessing of the Spirit. It is this which gives such pertinence to our present passage. “And Elisha came again to Gilgal: and there was a dearth in the land; and the sons of the prophets were sitting before him” ( 2 Kings 4:38).
What a blessed and beautiful conjunction of things was this. How instructive for the under-shepherd of Christ and for His sheep in a day like this. Though God was acting in judgment, the prophet did not consider that that warranted him ceasing his labors until conditions became more favorable. So far from it, he felt it was a time when he should do all in his power to “strengthen the things that remain, that are ready to die” ( Revelation 3:2), and encourage those who are liable to give way to dejection because of the general apostasy. “Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season” ( 2 Timothy 4:2) is the injunction which God has laid upon His ministers. In seasons of “dearth” the servant of Christ needs to be particularly attentive to the spiritual needs of young believers, instructing them in the holiness and righteousness of a sin-hating God when His scourge is upon the nation; and also making known His faithfulness and sufficiency unto “His own” in the darkest hour, reminding them that “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” ( Psalm 46:1).
See here what a noble example Elisha has left those called by God to engage in proclaiming His truth. The prophet was not idle; he did not wait for needy souls to come to him, but took the initiative and went to them.
Times of national distress and calamity do not exempt any from the discharge of spiritual duties nor justify any slackness in employing the appointed means of grace. Nor did these “sons of the prophets” raise the objection that Elisha sought them at an inopportune time and make the excuse they must busy themselves looking after their temporal interests.
No, they gladly availed themselves of their golden opportunity, making the most of it by attentively listening to the instructions of Elisha. Their “sitting before him” showed respect and attentiveness. It reminds us of Mary who “sat at Jesus’ feet, and heard his word” ( Luke 11:39), which Christ designated that “good part,” the one thing “needful” ( Luke 11:42). And though many today no longer may hear the Word preached, they can still sit and read it. Be thankful for the printed page, if it contains that which strengthens faith and promotes closer walking with God.
The order of action in this verse is significant, for it shows how the needs of the soul take precedence over those of the body. Elisha saw to it that they had spiritual food set before them before arranging for material food.
On the other hand, the prophet did not conduct himself as a fanatic and disdain their temporal needs. Here, as everywhere in Scripture, the balance is rightly preserved. Attention to and enjoyment of fellowship with God must never be allowed to crowd out the discharge of those duties pertaining to the common round of life. As Christ thought of and ministered to the bodily needs of the hungry multitudes after He had broken unto them the bread of life, so His servant here was concerned about the physical well-being of these students: a plain and simple meal in either case; in the one, bread and fish; in the other, vegetable stew. “And one went out into the field to gather herbs, and found a wild vine, and gathered thereof wild gourds his lap full, and came and shred them into the pot of pottage: for they knew them not” ( 2 Kings 4:39) Apparently this person took it upon himself to go out and gather herbs in the field; no doubt his intention was good, but so far as the narrative is concerned, it records no commission from Elisha to act thus — a clear case where the best intentions do not warrant us to act unless we have a definite word from God, and to use only those means He has appointed. It is possible this person may have returned thanks to God when his eye fell upon those gourds and felt that his steps had been directed by Him to the place where they were growing. If so, we have a warning how easily we may misunderstand the divine providences when we are acting in self-will and interpret them in a way which justifies and apparently sanctifies the course we have taken. When Jonah fled from the command the Lord had given him, to “flee unto Tarshish” and went down to Joppa, he “found a ship going” to that very place ( Jonah 1:3)!
Seasons of “death” are peculiarly dangerous ones. Why so? Because in times of famine, food is scarce, and, because there is less to select from, we are very apt to be less particular and act on the principle of “beggars cannot be choosers.” Certainly there is a warning here to be careful about what we eat at such times, and especially of that which grows wild. The Hebrew word here rendered “wild” means uncultivated, and is generally connected with “wild beasts,” which were not only ceremonially unclean under the Mosaic law but unfit for human consumption. It is to be duly noted that there was a plentiful supply of these “wild gourds” even though there was a “dearth” in the land. So it is spiritually; when there is a “famine” of hearing the words of the Lord, Satan sees to it that there is no shortage of spurious food. Witness the number of tracts from cultists and pornographic booklets which are so freely circulated, to say nothing of the vile literature in which the things of God are openly derided.
Yet though these gourds were “wild,” they must have borne a close resemblance to wholesome ones; or he who gathered them would not have been deceived by them, nor would it be said of those who stood by while he shred them into the pot of pottage that “they knew them not.” This too has a spiritual counterpart, as the enemy’s “tares” sown among the wheat intimates. Satan is a subtle imitator. Not only does he transform himself “into an angel of light” but his “deceitful workers” transform themselves “into the apostles of Christ” ( 2 Corinthians 11:13-14). They come preaching Jesus and His gospel, but as the Holy Spirit warns us, it is “another Jesus” and “another gospel” than the genuine one ( Corinthians 11:4). Those who looked on while this person was shredding the wild gourds into the pot raised no objection, for they were quite unsuspicious, instead of carefully examining what they were to eat. What point this gives to the apostolic exhortation, “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good” ( 1 Thessalonians 5:21); and if we refuse to do so, who is to blame when we devour that which is injurious?
FOURTH, THE NECESSITY OF THE MIRACLE “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. And they could not eat thereof” ( 2 Kings 4:40).
It was not until the eleventh hour that they discovered their peril, for the deadly danger of these “wild gourds” was not exposed until they had begun eating them; not only had the gourds’ appearance deceived them, but they had no offensive or suspicious odor while cooking. The case was particularly subtle, for seemingly it was one of their own number who had gathered the poisonous herbs. Ah, note how the apostle commended the Bereans for carefully bringing his teaching to the test of Holy Writ ( Acts 17:11). Much more do we need to do so with the preachings and writings of uninspired men. We need to “consider diligently” what is set before us by each ecclesiastical ruler ( Proverbs 23:1 and cf. Matthew 24:45), for though they be “dainties” and “sweet words,” yet they may be “deceitful meat” ( Proverbs 23:2,8). How we need to make <19E104> Psalm 141:4 our prayer!
It was when the sons of the prophets began to eat the pottage that they discovered its deadly character. Ah, my reader, are you able to discriminate between what is helpful to the soul and what is harmful? Is your spiritual palate able to detect error from truth, Satan’s poison from “the sincere [pure] milk of the word?” Do you really endeavor so to do, or are you lax in this matter? “Hear my words, O ye wise men, and give ear unto me, ye that have knowledge. For the ear trieth words, as the mouth tasteth meat” ( Job 34:2-3).
But let us not miss the moral link between what is said in 2 Kings 4:40 and that which was before us in verse 38. It was those who had just previously been sitting at the feet of Elisha who now discovered the poisonous nature of these gourds. Is not the lesson plain and recorded for our learning? It is those who are instructed by the true servant of God who have most spiritual discernment and better judgment than others not so favored. Then “take heed what ye hear” ( Mark 4:24) and what ye read.
And they could not eat thereof.” What made them aware of their peril we know not. Nor is the child of God always conscious of it when some secret repression or unseen hand prevents him from gratifying his curiosity and turns his feet away from some synagogue of Satan where there is “death in the pot” being served in that place. Have not all genuine Christians cause to say with the apostle, “Who delivered us from so great a death, and doth deliver: in whom we trust that he will yet deliver us” ( 2 Corinthians 1:10).
SIXTH, THE MEANS OF THE MIRACLE “But he said, Then bring meal. And he cast it into the pot; and he said, Pour out for the people, that they may eat. And there was no harm [or ‘evil thing’] in the pot” ( 2 Kings 4:41).
The “meal” we regard as the Word of God: either the written or the personal Word. One of the great types of Christ is seen in the meat (i.e., meal) offering of Leviticus 2. It is only by the Word we are safeguarded from evil. See how graciously God provided for “His own.” Though there was a “dearth in the land,” yet these sons of the prophets were not without “meal”! How thankful we should be for the Word of God in our homes in such a day as this. Though someone else fetched the meal, “he [Elisha] cast it into the pot”!
SEVENTH, THE MEANING OF THE MIRACLE Much of this has been intimated in what has already been pointed out. Let it not be overlooked that verse 38 of 2 Kings 4, begins with “And”: after a reviving, be careful where you go for your food! If you are suspicious of the soundness of a religious publication, take counsel of a competent “man of God.” Let not a time of spiritual “dearth” render you less careful of what you feed upon. In seasons of famine the servant of God should be diligent in seeking to strengthen the hands of young believers. Only by making the Word of God our constant guide shall we be delivered from the evils surrounding us.