Tuesday, March 22, 2011
God's Miraculous Provision - Part 1
(First part of a sermon based on 2 Kings 4:1-7)
1 The wife of a man from the company of the prophets cried out to Elisha, “Your servant my husband is dead, and you know that he revered the LORD. But now his creditor is coming to take my two boys as his slaves.”
2 Elisha replied to her, “How can I help you? Tell me, what do you have in your house?” “Your servant has nothing there at all,” she said, “except a small jar of olive oil.”
3 Elisha said, “Go around and ask all your neighbors for empty jars. Don’t ask for just a few. 4 Then go inside and shut the door behind you and your sons. Pour oil into all the jars, and as each is filled, put it to one side.”
5 She left him and shut the door behind her and her sons. They brought the jars to her and she kept pouring. 6 When all the jars were full, she said to her son, “Bring me another one.”
But he replied, “There is not a jar left.” Then the oil stopped flowing.
7 She went and told the man of God, and he said, “Go, sell the oil and pay your debts. You and your sons can live on what is left.”
As a Filipino I long for our beloved country to live out her reputation as a ‘Christian’ nation in the Far East. Sadly, although the Philippines is noted to be a 'Christian' nation yet the evils of corruption, injustice and idolatry are also widespread in the country.
Our situation as a ‘Christian’ nation known for corruption and idolatry is comparable to that in Israel during the time of Elisha. The Scripture tells us that Old Testament Israel is God’s chosen nation. God chose Israel and brought her out of slavery from Egypt to bring her to a land flowing with milk and honey. God has saved Israel so that she will be free to worship Him. And by living as God's chosen people who obey His laws Israel would be blessed and a blessing to the nations for the glory of God.
In many ways, God has blessed Israel with many blessings. Yet as soon as she has experienced abundance and prominence among the nations, Israel forgets the Lord and His covenant. She instead follows the ways of other nations which are detestable to the Lord. And one despicable practice in Israel is the evil of oppressing the poor and the helpless, which is the case in our text.
2 Kings 4 records four miracles which show that God is the giver and sustainer of life for those who come to Him in faith, whether Jew or Gentile. Our text pertains to the first miracle. Here we consider how “The Lord miraculously provides for the widow with oil.” God performs a miracle for the poor widow. We will consider three aspects of this miracle. First, this miraculous provision is a response to a desperate situation; second, it is an act of divine compassion, and third, it is a sign of dramatic redemption.
RESPONSE TO A DESPERATE SITUATION (vv. 1-2)
Our text begins with the wife of a prophet crying out to Elisha. Now we need to understand that this is no ordinary cry. Hers was a plea of a helpless person who is in a very serious situation. The word translated 'cried out' in verse 1 comes from a verb which means 'to cry out for help due to a great distress.' This verb is closely related to the word used in Exodus 2:23, which describes Israel crying out for help to the Lord because of her slavery. In this verb we must feel the anguish and pain in the woman's voice as she approaches her husband's master. “Your servant my husband is dead,” she cries out desperately. She had lost her husband by death. We do not know how he died, but to lose a husband in her time is to lose a human provider and protector. So can you see her helplessness?
But as if her troubles weren’t enough, another misfortune confronts her. She’s also on the brink of losing her children to slavery (v.1b). And you know what that means? She’s in danger of losing her means of support and her hope. Without a husband, her boys are a kind of security for a better future. But her boys are also about to be taken away from her.
We are not told how this debt was incurred. But it is there, bothering her, threatening her very soul. Boys and girls, it's like your parents have incurred a huge debt they cannot pay and the creditor insists that you go to jail instead of them. Isn't that scary? This widow feels distressed just as your parents would feel devastated if you are going to jail for unjust reason. She's in despair.
Now v. 1 also tells us that her husband had been part of a group called ‘the company (or sons) of the prophets.’ In 2 Kings 2 there are several places in Israel where this group exists: Gilgal, Bethel, and Jericho. Many of these men had wives and children, as in the case of the dead husband whose wife is crying out in v. 1.
So who were these men? They were the ones preparing for or engaged in prophetic ministry. Someone has noted that these 'sons of the prophets' may represent the closest Old Testament equivalent to a theological seminary. In that case her husband was a 'seminarian', studying or ministering under the supervision of Prophet Elisha, probably at Gilgal Theological Seminary. And he was a faithful seminarian, mind you. She tries to remind Elisha, “You know that he revered the LORD.”
The text does not tell us how this family ended up in a huge debt, but there are things we need to know why they may have incurred it.
First, it was certainly difficult to be a faithful prophet during this period of Israel's history. Do you know why? If you were a God-fearing prophet at this time you will not be well-supported by the people because they will hate you for the message you proclaim. The people comfortably serve the Canaanite god Baal and if you tell them to repent from their idolatry and follow the Lord, they will not like it. They will disdain you!
So if you are to survive as a prophet you may have to be dependent upon the gifts of the faithful Israelites at that time, and there were only a few of them. You may also have to sell your property or place it as collateral, or you may have to ‘earn your keep’, so to speak. Thus these prophets may have enjoyed just a little more than the barest necessities of life. The prophets and priests of Baal, however, are living ‘the lifestyle of the rich and famous.’
Second, for some years past Ahab and Jezebel were in power. Not only were the faithful followers of the Lord persecuted but also the prophets went in danger of their lives (1 Kings 18:4). The situation did not change a lot during the reign of Jehoram, the son of Ahab and Jezebel. And this story happened when Jehoram was Israel's king. Maybe it was not as bad as it was during Jezebel's time, but still it was a tough time for the servants of the Lord.
You may not be able to identify with the abject situation of these prophets. But you must see their struggle in living their faith in an environment that is cold, if not hostile, to the God of the Scripture. And when you do, you would understand them in their desire to live faithfully in an idolatrous society, just like ours, where the Lord or His word is not widely honored.
So when God's people are disobedient to His Word, they are also negligent to the preacher of that Word. In their unfaithfulness, those who are called to uphold God's honor in the world has instead joined the world in persecuting those who walk according to God's Word. Yes, if you remain faithful to God in a world that denies His rule, you will be persecuted, even impoverished, by the world. But in reality, you who are faithful are blessed in the eyes of God and are rich toward Him. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be filled,” says the Lord.
What I'm saying is that, Israel in general has abandoned her faith in God. She stopped loving the God who never stops loving His people. We see here how unfaithfulness and disobedience to God's law opens up to all kinds of misery. The widow's predicament would never happen in the first place if Israel faithfully obeys the covenant law of God.
Remember that God has instituted in Deut. 4:4, 7-11 a form of relief for the poor among them, which was to prevent this situation. There may be an instance when an Israelite falls into poverty that he had to sell himself as a slave. But then again, Leviticus 25:39-43 states that the master must treat such a person not as a slave but as a laborer.
In other words, God would never allow an Israelite to become a real slave of another Israelite. Nowhere in the law of the Lord can we find any provision granting a creditor to do what the widow in this story feared to happen, i.e., for the creditor to come and take her sons to make them his slaves. In fact, when things like this happen the prophets of the Lord are quick to denounce such injustice, as in the case of Amos (2:6; 8:6) and Isaiah (1:16-17).
God has also provided laws pertaining to kinsman redeemer. And how does this law function? A kinsman redeemer is the nearest relative who could step in and "buy back" what his relative was forced to sell (Lev.25:48ff). The kinsman redeemer is a rich benefactor or person who sets free the debtor by paying the ransom price (Lev.5:25; cf. Ruth 4:4, 6).
We are not told in this story whether the widow had relatives or not who can redeem her and her children from debt. Two things are sure: her children are about to be taken as slaves and she’s a poor widow who owns nothing except a jar of oil (v.2b). She was so destitute that the only thing she had was this oil. Now with these in mind you would understand her earnest plea, wouldn’t you?
We are not also told about the creditor who is coming after her children whether he was a fellow Israelite or not. Whatever the case may be, the creditor could have been a staunch follower of Baal, whose only aim was to become rich and successful even at the expense of others. One author says that the creditor here is the picture of a “stone-hard, a full-blooded materialist who stood on his rights and did not show even a token of mercy.” He is like the devil who oppresses people and treats them without mercy.
So who can save the widow and her sons now from such oppressor? Thank God there is someone in Israel who is full of mercy and compassion for people such as the widow in our story.