2 Kings 5:8-12
In some lowly dwelling, situated near the forest of palms by the banks of the Jordan, near Jericho, the great Prophet of the times was at present sojourning. The character of Elisha presented a marked contrast to that of his distinguished predecessor, Elijah. Elijah was bold, stern, impetuous—his life and mission had their appropriate emblem in the earthquake and tempest and flame, on which he gazed from the mouth of his cave in Horeb. Even the remarkable close of his existence was in keeping with his previous history—swept to heaven in a whirlwind, with horses and chariots of fire. The life of Elijah's successor was symbolized by "the still, small voice" which followed the other manifestations of the divine Presence. The one has been well called the Peter, the other the John, of the prophetic age. The soul of Elisha, however, like all true and noble natures, was stirred to its depths by any infraction on the honor of his God. Gentle as a lamb in his daily walk and conversation, when the name and glory of the Great Being he served were at stake, this righteous man was bold as a lion.
The journey to Palestine of the warrior of Syria was of too much importance and interest to have its fame confined to Samaria. A rumor of the pilgrimage of the illustrious Aramite had reached the forest-home of the prophet. It may possibly be, he had learned the purpose of Naaman's mission by express communication from heaven; as also, that Jehoram, who ought to have known that there was both a God and a prophet in Israel, had only in a fit of unworthy petulance and passion rent his clothes, and put the final extinguisher on the Gentile's cherished hopes.
Elisha cannot brook the insult done to Jehovah. Unless prompt measures are taken, the disappointed soldier may return in sorrow and despair to his heathen land more idolater than ever, and the innocent Hebrew slave may have to pay the forfeiture of her young life for her rash and unavailing counsels. Many of the world's gigantic wars have been born of trifles. Many battlefields have sprung from alleged petty wrongs—"injured sensibilities." May not all Syria, in the present case, be roused into new conflict to resent the indignity offered to her hero?
Independent, however, of this, it is enough for the Man of God to hear, that there is a soul at unrest—a sufferer who has come so many leagues from his home, seeking that help which his own deities were impotent to afford. Accordingly, a messenger (probably Gehazi, or one of the young men of the School of the prophets) is despatched to the Palace of Samaria, with a message to the Israelitish monarch, saying, "Why are you so upset? Send Naaman to me, and he will learn that there is a true prophet here in Israel!" Noble is the attitude and bearing of Elisha; he speaks God's word before kings, and is not ashamed; no, he ventures to withstand his anointed monarch to the face, because he was to be blamed. All the magicians and soothsayers and physicians of Syria had been unable to render aid to the leper. But this humble man, in his quiet retreat amid the jungles of the Jordan, stands forth like another Daniel to interpret the dream, and to magnify the power of "the most High God, who rules in the kingdom of men."
Nor can we fail at this point to admire the conduct of Naaman, considering his constitutional impatience. Baffled and duped and crest-fallen, with his pride stung to the quick, we might have expected that the peremptory mandate of a Jewish Prophet would have been received with disdain; that he would have turned at once, and retraced his steps to his Damascus home. 'If the king of Israel' (so we may imagine the soliloquy of the injured Chief) 'gives me such poor encouragement, and vilifies the letter of my royal master, what am I to expect from the Teacher of Gilgal?' He wisely, however, muffles his inward feelings of irritation and wounded vanity. "Skin for skin; all that a man has will he give for his life." This abject sufferer is not to be deterred in the prosecution of his pilgrimage by an initial discouraging reception. The utterances of the Hebrew slave outlive the chilling words which dropped in his ear from the throne at Samaria. He resolves forthwith to repair to the Prophet's home. Accordingly, in the next incident of the story, we see him setting out there, with his horses and servants and chariot.
He reads, in this, a needful lesson and rebuke to us, alike with regard to earthly and spiritual concerns. Is it the lower and more subordinate earthly view? How many an important position in life has been forfeited by injured pride, or paltry wavering and irresolution. One step more, and the goal would have been reached. But a fit of passion, a momentary yielding to hesitancy or selfishness, a morbid dread of the world's censure, or even, it may be, a feeling of mistaken duty or false sentiment, has lost the one golden opportunity, and there is found no place of repentance, though it be sought carefully with tears.
So too in spiritual things. By reason of doubts and misgivings—fightings within, and adverse providences without—how many are like the disciples of old, who, on listening to what appeared to them the Master's "hard sayings," from that time walked no more with Him" (John 6:66); like the children of Ephraim, "armed and carrying bows," yet turning defector in the day of battle; putting their hand to the plough, yet looking back, they have this verdict pronounced by unerring lips on their desertion—"Unfit for the kingdom of God." Naaman, and those who inherit in its higher, diviner sense, Naaman's spirit, are at this juncture of his story like the Magi of old, who, though they lost for a while their guiding-star, still journeyed on, assured it would again gladden them with its radiance. It did reappear; and "when they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy." In the case of the Syrian hero, and in the case of all, who, to withstand in "the evil day," have taken to themselves "the whole armor of God," the gracious promise is fulfilled—"Wait on the Lord, be of courage, and He shall strengthen your heart."
Nor was it Naaman alone, whose heart was strengthened in the present emergency. Elisha, in his own case, and as the type and representative of all God's faithful ambassadors in every age, would receive fresh encouragement and heart-cheer in the prosecution of his life-labors. He had sent the authoritative direction (of which we have spoken) from his dwelling at Gilgal. But with all his apparent boldness and magnanimity, he must have had his own secret misgivings as to how it would be received. In all likelihood, laughed to scorn, or treated with contemptuous silence, he would retire to his solitary chamber to bewail, through discouraging tears, the complaint of many before and since—"Who has believed our report, and to whom is the arm of the Lord revealed?" Little do ministers of the gospel know, when often, in the weakness of their own faith, they may have rushed to the hasty inference that their words are not received, and their work is not prospering; when their hands are hanging down, and their knees are feeble, because no visible response comes to their message—little do they know the Naamans there may be—anxious, perplexed, fevered spirits—who, all in earnest about their souls and heaven, are anxiously listening for needed guidance in their search of the healing waters.
Nothing is told regarding the particulars of the journey to Gilgal. We are left to surmise, that after leaving the beautiful capital of Samaria, with its vine and olive-clad terraces, the cavalcade would probably sweep along the valley flanked by the memorable slopes of Ebal and Gerizim, where another son of Damascus—old Eleazar—had, centuries before, encamped with his master under "the Terebinths of Moreh." If the leper-chief had passed the mouth of that valley nine hundred years later, he would have listened, from the lips of a Greater than Hebrew prophet, to words that would have exactly met his case—"If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that says to you, Give me to drink; you would have asked of Him, and He would have given you living water" (John 4:10).
Continuing, possibly, by Bethel, with its dream-memories, they would proceed down the long descent of Ai and Michmash among the mountains of Benjamin—the gorge which is known by the modern name of the Wady Suweinit, now comparatively bare—then covered with a dense forest; and at the time that Naaman passed, doubtless associated with the recent terrible assault, made on the mocking youths of Bethel, by the bears which roamed its thickets. In due time they would reach the north-eastern side of the extensive palm-forest adjoining the old "City of Palms." There Gilgal stood, on a rising ground or 'swell;' and, surrounded with this sylvan sanctuary, looked down, five miles distant, on the waters of the Jordan. No difficulty would be experienced in finding the lowly home of the Prophet. His name, in all that region, was familiar as a household word. Specially would it be held in grateful remembrance in connection with the spring, which, as "the Fountain of Elisha," bubbles up to this day fresh and clear; the healing of whose waters, by his miraculous agency, conferred so inestimable a blessing on the dwellers in that sultry plain.
"So Naaman," we read (ver. 9), "went with his horses and chariots and waited at the door of Elisha's house." What was the reception accorded to him? We expect, from all we know of the gentleness and goodness of Elisha's character, that he will not be lacking in politeness or civility, to the Syrian noble. We expect to find him on the outlook for the distinguished stranger; ready to receive him with that honor, to whom (from his rank) honor was due. In the immediately preceding incident in the Prophet's history, when he observed, in the distance, the Shunamite approaching his other home at Mount Carmel, he was not contented with patiently waiting her arrival. He hastened to meet her; and not being so swift of foot as his servant Gehazi, he gave him instructions to run with all speed, and to inquire, "Is it well with you? is it well with your husband? is it well with the child?" (2 Kings 4:26).
But where is Gehazi now? There is neither appearance of prophet, nor of prophet's servant, nor of prophet's son, coming through the glades of the forest to do homage to the great captain of the armies of Damascus. The troop is allowed to wend its way unnoticed up the gentle slope which was crowned by the prophet's house. Moreover, when they do arrive, the Prophet does not personally appear. He contents himself with sending what, at first, seems an uncourteous message by the lips of another. Never, doubtless, had the ear of that warrior been similarly welcomed at the gates of castle or palace—much less at the door of a lowly cottage.
We may well believe there was a reason for this. We repeat, we may feel assured that when one of the great men of the earth stood at his door surrounded with a stately retinue, Elisha, both as a citizen and as a prophet, would not, by lack of deference to one of eminent rank and position, have wantonly violated alike a social obligation and a divine ordinance. What, then, it may be asked, was the cause of the unceremonious message and reception?
We answer, first of all, the Prophet may probably have felt (to use a common but expressive phrase) that there were "times for everything". All this pomp and circumstance might have been appropriate enough for a season of jubilee—for the ovation of a conqueror—but it was unseemly and unsuitable for the present occasion, that a miserable leper should come decked out in the trappings of state. It would have been more befitting to ask an audience with dust on his head, and sackcloth on his loins. Further, Naaman perhaps undertook, and now was completing, his pilgrimage, under the impression that his rank and fame and renown—backed up with that wagon-load of costly gifts and treasure—gave him an irresistible claim on the services of the Prophet, and on the Prophet's God. He came to Gilgal, more with the feeling that he was honoring Elisha by allowing him to effect his cure, than cherishing emotions of gratitude in anticipation of the healing he expected to receive at his hands.
"What!" (might be his thought, as he alighted at the modest doorway), "is it the inhabitant of such a dwelling as this, that is to restore me? Verily, it will be the proudest deed of his life!" The man of God was not one of those servile, subservient spirits who would barter principle or duty by a base truckling for favor. If he had been a fawning flatterer of the world, influenced by the common weaknesses and frailties of a weak nature—he would have gone forth from his cottage, bending before the imperial chariot. He would have condoned the warrior's pride and haughty bearing; and overlooking the untimely and ostentatious display of splendor, would have said, "Behold your lowly servant, O Naaman! Speak your will, and it shall be done."
His conduct, however, was regulated by the sublime maxim, which, in future ages, molded and swayed a greater than Elisha—that if he pleased man, he was not worthy to be called the servant of his Lord. He would have the princely petitioner at his gate to know, and would teach us also, that, in the Divine sight, every human creature occupies spiritually the same humiliating level—that in matters which concern the soul, God is "no respecter of people."
The first and the last lesson of the gospel is HUMILITY. In every shape, and under every phase and guise, "God resists the proud." It is the saying of the Redeemer Himself, "Except you become as little children, you cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven."
By this reticence, with its tacit reproof, the Prophet would further tell, that "the kingdom of God comes not with observation." "The battle of the warrior is with garments rolled in blood." Earthly conquests are marked by pomp and parade, with floating banner and flourish of trumpet and beat of drum. But the moral world has been turned upside down (yes, the little world of thought and feeling within every individual bosom), is regenerated and revolutionized—by what? By means of an ancient Book written by vinedressers and herdsmen, fishermen and publicans; or rather, by the secret, remedial influence of a great principle which that Book unfolds. The Jewish Temple which crowned the summit of Moriah, rose in mysterious silence—"There was neither hammer, nor axe, nor any tool of iron, heard in the house while it was in building" (1 Kings 6:7). The Church of Christ, God's living Temple, is not reared amid noise and pomp and plaudits. It is not dependent on wealth, or grandeur, or eloquence; on pride of rank, dazzling ritual, force of intellect and parade of learning—"Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord Almighty" (Zech. 4:6). "The Lord is in His holy Temple; let all the earth keep silence before Him" (Hab. 2:20).
But to pass to the next point which claims our attention in the narrative. Let us listen to Elisha's MESSAGE—"But Elisha sent a messenger out to him with this message: "Go and wash yourself seven times in the Jordan River. Then your skin will be restored, and you will be cleansed of leprosy." 2 Kings 5:10
There is the gospel—the gospel message, the gospel remedy—"Go and wash." Unto every spiritual leper we are empowered and commissioned to echo the words of the Prophet. Yes, and to add the sure promise, the glorious sequel and certainty, "And you will be clean." It is not the word of man, it is the declaration and assurance of God Himself.
Observe these two things regarding Elisha's directions for cure.
(1.) It was a simple method. Nothing surely could be more so. The Jordan was seen flowing amid its reeds, willows, and oleanders, a few miles from the prophet's door; a brief hour would have completed the sevenfold washing. Nor was this repeated washing anything strange and uncommon to Naaman. As an Oriental, he was accustomed to it every day in Syria. Copious marble baths and fountains, fed from the streams of Lebanon, formed the adjuncts of every dwelling; much more so of a palatial home like his.
(2.) It was a cure that involved no labor. It demanded no bodily austerities, no mental torture, no material penalty. Not a mule or camel need be unladen of its burden; not a bag need be opened; not a robe shaken from its folds. "Go and wash"—that is all! Who does not expect to see and hear the leper, in the ecstasy of the hour, first invoking blessings on the head of the Prophet, and then, calling to his charioteer—"Lose not a moment! give rein to the horses! Slack not their speed until you get to the banks of the Jordan! Israel's God helping me, this night, before the sun set on the hills of Benjamin, I shall be myself again, and on my way back to Damascus with a new song on my lips." With the swiftness of another Jehu, the son of Nimshi, we are prepared to see the impatient soldier driving impetuously down the gentle slopes to the river's brink.
2 Kings 5:11– But Naaman became angry and stalked away. "I thought he would surely come out to meet me!" he said. "I expected him to wave his hand over the leprosy and call on the name of the Lord his God and heal me!"
We have had chiefly cause to admire the Syrian hitherto. Up to this point we can even make allowance for his weaknesses and foibles, considering he was an idolater, taking into account also other extenuating circumstances. But we must now alter and modify our verdict.
Poor human nature, unexpectedly, but too truthfully, reveals itself. Those infirmities are dragged to light which are the same in all countries, and under every variety of skin. He feels himself an injured man. He had expected that the Prophet would have come forth from his dwelling with dignified demeanor; that, after the manner of an Oriental magician or sorcerer, he would "wave his hand" (or enchanter's rod), pronouncing a series of mystical words, calling upon the God of the Hebrews in some such imposing manner as doubtless he heard Elijah had done upon the heights of Carmel, on the occasion of the defeat of Baal's prophets.
And then, if any direction had been given, or any miracle wrought, he supposed it would be something on a great scale—something involving vast agency, startling and overpowering in its accompaniments and effects. To employ the graphic description of Krummacher—"He expected that the commencement would be made with a variety of formalities and strange phenomena; that then the wonder worker would appear arrayed in an unusual dress, and with an awe-inspiring countenance, his gestures mysterious and dreadful, his steps measured, his movements solemn and enigmatical, many dark sayings and proverbs in his mouth, and in his right hand a staff, a golden censer, or something of the kind. Then, after having drawn a magic circle, that he would proceed to conjure invisible things, call upon the name of God, and that finally there would be a handling of the leprous person in a solemn manner, a majestic imposition of hands, a significant touching of the wounds and ulcers, and such-like imposing and fantastic ceremonies. Such was the kind of fanciful image that presented itself to Naaman's soul."
But, when the simple washing seven times in Jordan was all that was mentioned, he stalked away in wonder, his eye flashing with resentment at the supposed insult. "What!" we may imagine were his thoughts, if not his words, "dare he thus speak to me, a Noble of the Syrian court, the idol of my army, the confidential adviser of my sovereign? Dare he offer me a wanton affront by so beggarly a prescription? I came thinking this to be a land of miracles, where the heavens were opened, and angels traveled up and down on celestial ladders, and chariots of fire were seen on its mountain-sides. But I am befooled! I was sent first to the King—he took my letter as the pretext for a fresh quarrel. I come now to his Prophet—he has not the civility even to receive me at the door of his dwelling. When he sends his servant to me, it is with the child's message—to go and wash this leprosied body in yonder foul Jordan—which I could do, better far, at home, in Abana and Pharpar. I have been foiled, cajoled, and hoodwinked—made the butt for both nations' scorn—tossed like a broken reed on the waters!" Thus saying, he beckoned his charioteer to turn the horses' heads, "and he went away in a rage."
How difficult for many to be humbled even under the severest dispensations of providence! Sickness, leprosy, bereavement—do not of themselves necessarily soften the heart, or lead with the teachableness of children to the acknowledgment of no way and will but the divine. Sad it is when the effect of these is the reverse—to sour the temper, and to foster pride, murmuring, and rebellion. It is the Holy Spirit alone who can curb the wayward spirit, mold the stubborn will, and bring us to sit in filial submission at the feet of our Great Master.
It is evident that Naaman had settled in his own mind, the manner in which his cure was to be effected. The Prophet's method was far too ordinary and commonplace. He would himself have liked some participation in the remedy. And as to the particular direction regarding the Jordan immersion, his eye falls on the turgid river wending through mudbanks in the valley below, and then his memory reverts to the pure, clear, crystalline streams murmuring amid the groves and avenues of Damascus. "If I wash at all," he says, "I shall do it in my native golden rivers. This despicable Hebrew river shall not have the glory of my restoration."
Is not the feeling of Naaman, and the offence of Naaman, the "offence" of the gospel still? To the pride of the carnal heart, it is too simple a thing to be saved by faith—to be indebted from first to last, for our eternal welfare, to the doing and dying of Another. And also, it is an unlabored cure. The self-righteous legal spirit will cleave, if possible, to the old terms of "work and win." Human nature, (as we had occasion to observe in the preceding chapter in connection with Naaman's gifts) desires something of its own, with which to enforce and substantiate its claim on the divine favor—prayers, virtues, self-denials, charities. As in the case of the Roman Catholic, or Mohammedan, or Pagan devotees (for the principle is the same, despite of all creed diversities), there is a desire for the performance either of some great achievements or of some painful austerities. Let it be the trumpet of chivalry summoning crusaders to wrest the Lord's tomb from the hand of the infidel—let it be a pilgrimage to Mecca with bare and bleeding feet, over hot, burning sands—let it be the votaries of Brahmah, or Vishnu, or Kali, holding up their arms until these become rigid and withered in their sockets—let it be a lonely existence of mortification in monastery or hermit's cell, severed and secluded from the amenities of life—let it be the bestowment of manifold goods to feed the poor, casting with lavish hand golden gifts into God's treasury—it matters not. The longing and ambition with many is—instead of presenting the true "King's letter," signed and sealed with the King's own signet, and having these gratuitous contents—"By grace are you saved, through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God"—to be able at last to knock at the gate of heaven with a chariot-load of good works and merits, and, pointing to them, to say, "Behold, Lord, what I have done to purchase and secure my crown!"
Yes, we repeat, how hard it is to strip away all pleas of self-righteousness, to disown all creature-confidences, all "deeds of law"—to ignore in thought as well as word the utterance of the presumptuous pleader in the Temple of old—"God, I thank You that I am not as other men are!"—and to come as needy beggars to the foot of the cross, saying, in the words of our best-known hymn—
"Not the labor of my hands
Whoever you be whose eyes fall on these pages—old or young, rich or poor, convicted of many sins or few sins, we have but one prescription—"Go and wash!"—"Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you shall be saved." Mix up nothing of your own with His. Abana and Pharpar are rivers, but not the river. It is very notable that though the directions to Naaman were simple, they were precise, stringent. He was to wash in Jordan; and then he was to wash, not five times, or eight times, but seven times. There is but one way—God's gospel way, the specific way, the revealed way, and "neither is there salvation in any other." See that you refuse not him who speaks. See that you perish not, with safety in view. This Syrian was within sight of healing—yet, in the rash pride of his heart, he was about to forfeit his only remaining chance of cure. The divine word was sounding in his ears, the waters of Jordan were gleaming before his eyes; yet, by one heedless, impetuous resolve, he was on the point of forfeiting all the good of his long pilgrimage—ready to turn his back on an offered favor, and to rush to a leper's grave in a heathen land.
How many have their too truthful portraiture reflected in his! By manifold ways, and through manifold instrumentalities, in this Christian realm; by press and by pulpit, by the living voice and by the silent volume, they have the streams of salvation pointed out to them—aye, flowing at their side. They are "almost persuaded to be Christians;" but by reason of pride and self-righteousness and guilty procrastination, they reject the offered mercy, and lapse into their old self-complacency and indifference. Reversing the direction of the chariot, and flinging the reins loose on the coursers' necks, their sad history is thus briefly chronicled—"The way of peace they have not known;" "You knew not the time of your visitation" (Rom. 3:17; Luke 19:44).
It is, moreover, a mournful reflection, how small and insignificant are often the causes which lead those of fair promise to make shipwreck of faith and of a good conscience. It is sad enough the wreck of the noble vessel, wrestling with the storm far out in the trough of the sea—but it is sadder still, to see it go down within sight of the harbor, when the voices of distress can be heard on shore. It was sad, of old, for the manslayer to be overtaken by the avenger of blood on his way to the Refuge-city, but sadder still to be cut down, just as he was within shadow of the gate, and the citizens were crowding the walls cheering on his lagging and wearied steps. Reader, take home the solemn admonition, "Beware lest you also, being carried away by the error of the wicked, fall from your own steadfastness." "Seek the Lord while He may be found; call you upon Him while He is near." "If you seek Him, He will be found by you; but if you forsake Him, He will cast you off forever!"