I was disappointed when I arrived in the North-East to study here nearly 7 years a go. Newcastle University was at the bottom of the list of places I wanted to study and I had considered re-applying to other places. Looking back though I have a very different perspective though, I love living here and that is heavily coloured by it being the place where I met my wife in fact she helped me move in on the first day I got here. Hindsight as they say is a wonderful thing.
Looking back I can see God's hand at work in bringing me here, even in the way that he did it through disappointment he was shaping me, knocking off some of the rough edges especially of my pride. Now that disappointment is something quite wonderful to me, given the way God has taught me things through it as well as bringing me to just the right place at just the right time. If I apply that experience now it gives me a different perspective on the way God is purposefully planning my life's direction, the way he might be shaping me now.
As we start this series in 2 Kings, or more accurately re-start it in chapter 8 we are joining a people who are also looking back. We are with Israel in about 550 BC exiled in Babylon, 2 Kings is part of their nation's history in chapter 8 we are about 270 years earlier in around 820 BC. There they will see God being merciful; reviving and restoring the faithful. They will also see God's long-held back wrath begin to fall on those who have ignored him. Their task is to see again God's character; His patient love combining with His insatiable appetite for justice and apply that to their context – exiled in Babylon. Our task is similar to remind ourselves of who God is and what He is like and to see 21st Century Gateshead and our lives through that lens.
The narrative this morning is action packed and highly involved, so keep up! We're going to see the story unfold through the eyes of three people and they'll form my three points;
1. The Shunammite Woman
2. King Jehoram
1. The Shunammite Woman – Restoration for the faithful
So first the Shunammite Woman. The who? You may well be thinking. Well we've actually already met her back in chapter 4 let me briefly fill you in;
The Shunammite woman recognised that Elisha was a holy man of God, so she decided to build him a room on her roof which he could use when he was in town. In response Elisha promised her a son a year later, he arrived only to fall ill and die but as Ch8v1 tells us he was restored to life by Elisha. That phrase 'restored to life' is significant. It is used four times in this narrative (v1-6) and then another four times in the story of Ben-Hadad (v7-15) but with very different emphasise. We shouldn't miss it; on the one hand we shouldn't miss it because here it describes how God through Elisha brought the Shunammite's son back to life which is incredible. God raises people from the dead.
But there's more to it, the writer wants us to understand that this phrase 'restored to life' is not just descriptive but characteristic. It describes not just this boy's resurrection but a redeeming God, one who restores life. We see this restorative character shines through again as we move through the story. v2 tells us how Elisha had sent the women away for seven years to avoid famine, her faithfulness is remembered by Elisha and she is protected from the harsh realities of famine, then in v3;
3 At the end of the seven years she came back from the land of the Philistines and went to the king to beg for her house and land. 4 The king was talking to Gehazi, the servant of the man of God, and had said, "Tell me about all the great things Elisha has done." 5 Just as Gehazi was telling the king how Elisha had restored the dead to life, the woman whose son Elisha had brought back to life came to beg the king for her house and land.
By strange 'coincidence' the woman's story is just being relayed to the king as she arrives 'crying out' for her land to be restored to her. So impressed is the king that he appoints an official to make sure the Shunammite woman gets everything back;
'…everything that belonged to her, including all the income from her land from the day she left the country until now.'
We glimpse here God's extraordinary kindness to this faithful woman. He provides her with a son and restores him back to life when he falls ill. God then protects her from seven years of famine and when she returns a detachment from the king restores her land and all the income she would've collected in those seven years. Now let's not fail to notice that this woman's life wasn't exactly easy. She finally bore a son only for him to fall ill and die before being restored to life. She has to flee her home and her land for seven years before it is restored to her. Hers is not a care free life, in some ways it is tragic but it is also marked with God's kindness, she is provided for and shielded from some of the pain she might otherwise have experienced.
Perhaps this is an encouragement for you this morning. Maybe things are tough, perhaps there is tragedy. The Shunammite women doesn't tell us that God will remove all suffering from us, not yet but she does reveal the kindnesses of a reviving and restoring God. She is an encouragement to us all to count our blessings both large and small and a reminder that redemption and restoration are at the heart of God's plans. This is the Lord who revives.
2. King Jehoram – Judgement for the passive observer
What then of this story's hearer; the King? Well he has a back-story too which is recorded in ch3;
1 Joram [or Jehoram] son of Ahab became king of Israel in Samaria in the eighteenth year of Jehoshaphat king of Judah, and he reigned twelve years. 2 He did evil in the eyes of the LORD, but not as his father and mother had done. He got rid of the sacred stone of Baal that his father had made. 3 Nevertheless he clung to the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, which he had caused Israel to commit; he did not turn away from them.
Not a great introduction I think you'd agree; 'He did evil in the eyes of the LORD' not quite as bad as his parents whose Baal worshipping stone he'd got rid of but half-hearted, he didn't turn away from sin. But he is interested in Elisha's exploits here at v4;
'The king was talking to Gehazi, the servant of the man of God, and had said, "Tell me about all the great things Elisha has done.'
'All the great things' are essentially 2 Kings 2-7 and include amongst other things chapter 6 in which Elisha blinds the attacking Aramean army protecting Israel and King Jehoram. However this isn't enough for Jehoram to trust in God's deliverance again in chapter 7 when Israel is besieged. The story is similar here the king is nothing but consistent, consistently half-hearted in his response to God.
The king wants to hear about all the great things Elisha has done, while Gehazi fills him in walks a living example! And you thought putting on a pair of funny glasses to watch a 3D film was amazing, smack here's reality the woman who's Son had been raised to life is there in front of him. What's the King's response well we've already seen he puts an official in charge of getting the woman's land back which is good but not sufficient.
Sometimes when I was at uni we would knock on people's door to ask them about what they believed and no we didn't all wear suits and have the same haircut before you ask. I can remember one girl slamming the door in a friend's house saying she couldn't believe in God unless he spoke to her directly. My friend quickly responded with; 'Don't you think that might have just been him knocking on your door?' He wasn't trying to big himself up; rather he wanted to show how inconsistent she was being –was complaining that God wouldn't reveal himself to her yet she wouldn't open the door to someone who was desperate to do just that.
To be fair to the king he might have opened the door even given us a cup of tea but he isn't willing to repent of his sin and follow God whole-heartedly. Chapters 2-7 are the story of a merciful God time and time again rescuing Israel, giving it a second, a third, a forth chance to come back to Him but Jehoram can't bring himself to do it. He's impressed by Elisha and shows some kindness to the Shunammite woman but his heart has not changed and as we'll see time is running out.
Maybe you know how Jehoram feels, you've been here for a while, you've heard the Gospel, you like Jesus maybe you even feel drawn to him. You see the difference he makes in the lives of the people around them, they're not perfect but there's something different about them. And yet you're not willing to give up on being your own God to follow Jesus. You know there'll be change and your cautious about it, you don't want to become a religious nutcase – good we don't want you to either. You don't want to give up something or someone, can this God really be this good and yet forgive me. He can but you must put your faith in Him, what's really holding you back? God is very patient with us but there is not a limitless amount of time left to follow Him; 'now is the day of salvation' (2 Corinthians 6.2). We'll see now what happens when Israel doesn't respond to God's grace and their time runs out.
3. Elisha – Tears for the lost
Let's take a look at the final story in v7-15. Elisha is in Damascus, enemy territory. The king of Aram recognises like the Shunammite woman that Elisha is God's man. There is a deep irony here, we've just seen how Jehoram the King of Israel fails to recognise God and now his enemy the one who's armies God had blinded and confused wants consul from Elisha who has ravaged his armies, yet in v8 he says;
'Take a gift with you and go to meet the man of God. Consult the LORD through him; ask him, 'Will I recover from this illness?'
This is remarkable but the main thrust of this passage comes later after Elisha reveals Hazeal's trickery in his confusing answer to the King's medical question in v10;
10 Elisha answered, "Go and say to him, 'You will certainly recover'; but [a] the LORD has revealed to me that he will in fact die
There's some debate over the translation of this section but the significant point is that Elisha is allowing for Hazeal's violent taking of power which we see in v15 when Hazeal takes advantage of the King's illness, suffocating him to death. Elisha knows what will happen and so v11;
" 11 He stared at him with a fixed gaze until Hazael felt ashamed.
Then come Elisha's tears;
12 "Why is my lord weeping?" asked Hazael.
"Because I know the harm you will do to the Israelites," he answered. "You will set fire to their fortified places, kill their young men with the sword, dash their little children to the ground, and rip open their pregnant women."
13 Hazael said, "How could your servant, a mere dog, accomplish such a feat?"
"The LORD has shown me that you will become king of Aram," answered Elisha.
Elisha is able to see the bigger picture. Not only is Hazeal going to become King of Aram, he is going to become God's instrument of judgement on Israel. The age of grace is coming to a close, God has put up with Israel's sin for so long but know He must bring justice and wrath. Verse 12 graphically lays out what that will look like, it's horrific but in reality it is just – the Israelites have brought this on themselves. Yet despite this there is no pleasure taken in Israel's punishment Elisha doesn't say 'I told them so' but instead he weeps.
Hazeal doesn't know how to deal with Elisha's weeping and perhaps we don't either. This outpouring of emotion isn't an enlightened modern man, in touch with his feelings crying over the end of the new Toy Story film. This is grief, deep-seated horror and painful regret at the future Israel has chosen for itself. I wonder if we can relate to Elisha's tears? He is broken by Israel's continual decision to reject God and live without Him. Only of course there is no life without Him, do we shed tears over people who do the same; friends, family, colleagues? Elisha's tears are not just for those close to him but for a whole nation. How do we feel about our nation? Are our hearts broken by it's rejection of God or are we tempted towards judgementalism and retreat?
So what have we and the exiled Israelites learned about God looking back on their history?
- We've seen God's kindness sustaining a faithful woman through a difficult and complicated life.
- We've seen a King look right through another live demonstration of God's mercy to him and we've been warned of the inadequacy of a half-hearted response to God's grace.
- We've glimpsed the terrible wrath of God which must come eventually to do justice. And we've seen the grief of a Godly man over a lost nation.
- We've seen the Lord who revives and slays.
The question is how do we respond? Do we need to count the blessings of God's kindness? Do we need to ask God to break our hearts over the lost who don't know Him? Or do we need to learn from the mistakes of the King Jehoram and stop ignoring God's grace, say sorry and follow God. Now is the day of salvation.