"And his servants came near, and spoke unto him, and said, My father, if the prophet had bid you do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much rather then, when he says to you, wash, and be clean?"—2 Kings 5:13.
To resume the narrative. We left the Syrian warrior when he had just received the humbling and unexpected message from Elisha, to wash seven times in Jordan. Chafed and irritated, he could not tolerate the imagined indignity. In a moment the cavalcade turned. With knitted brow, and smarting with injured pride, he had his back on the Prophet's home, and his face towards Damascus! Nothing but the divine intervention could now save him! If we had not indeed already known the sequel, we would have considered his case as hopeless, and looked upon that cavalcade as a funeral procession, wending their way to a leper's grave!
Not a few, doubtless, can recall similar perilous seasons in their own history, when, in some sudden gust of passion or of temptation, they have turned a deaf ear to the voice of Providence. By one rash "thought," one depraved act, one ungodly counsel, they have been ready to sacrifice and surrender a lifetime of promise, making shipwreck of faith and of a good conscience—that, too, with the waters of salvation (like the Jordan at Gilgal) in sight—and spiritual guides, like Elisha, faithfully directing their way. But God has mercifully borne with their folly—manifesting patience and forbearance, where there might righteously have been rejection and abandonment. He has not cast them off—though they were on the point of casting Him off. He has sent His 'servants', like those of the Aramite chief—to reason and expostulate—to warn of guilt and danger—to put a restraint on demon-passion—and turn the helm—when the rocks would have been otherwise struck and the ship hurried in the blinding tempest to irrevocable doom. Yes, how many have to tell—But for these messengers appointed to plead with us—a faithful Friend, Sickness, Affliction, Bereavement—we might this day have been journeying backwards, each to his own Damascus, with the fouler gangrene—the deeper taint of moral leprosy—claiming us as its hapless victims!
But let us proceed to gather, from the verse heading this chapter, a few plain, practical LESSONS chiefly bearing on everyday conduct and life.
1.Let us mark the effect of timely ADMONITION. The caravan has commenced its retreating movement; the procession is actually wending its way from the Prophet's watchtower up the pass of Ai, soon to be lost from view among the glens of Ephraim—when Naaman's Syrian attendants duteously approach the side of the chariot, saying, "My father, if the prophet had bid you do some great thing, would you not have done it? how much rather then, when he says to you, Wash, and be clean?"
The first impulse of these servants might have been very different. Nor could we have wondered, or condemned them, if they had keenly felt and promptly resented a supposed insult—venting their indignation against the discourteous prophet who had so duped both their leader and themselves. Sulkily falling back in the rear of the procession, and leaping on their saddles, they might have held on their way in sullen silence. Or, taking a more favorable view of their feelings; supposing they had not thought so hardly of the Prophet's message as their master had done, we might, at all events, have imagined them saying to one another, "Would that he had assented to the directions of this Hebrew! But we dare not interfere. It would ill become us to interject our opinion. It would be the height of presumption to venture an admonition. It is to be regretted that a gust of ill-timed passion should ruin the whole object of the journey. We are, however, only menials and dependants; our duty, in any circumstances, is to remain passive. It would be at our peril to incite such a hurricane. It might be instant death to intermeddle with the 'chafed and galled lion'. Let matters take their course—he will be the sufferer—it is nothing to us."
Not so! Theirs might be the more daring and riskful, but it was "the most excellent way." They exemplified, by their conduct, the truth of the saying, "A word spoken in due season, how good is it!" Ah! how much evil in the world (yes, too, and in the little world of our individual influence) might often be averted by well-timed admonition! How often, by a guilty silence, do we allow great opportunities for good to pass away! How many vessels, driven on the sands of unbelief or profligacy, might, humanly speaking, have been saved, had the beacon been pointed out in time, and the voice of counsel and warning been judiciously lifted up! Had that parent been more faithful in checking the incipient tendency to dissipation; had that employer, to that friendless young man environed with the temptations of city life, spoken solemnly and seriously, now that he was removed from the hallowed restraints of the old homestead. Yes; and those poor, hapless wrecks of society, who dishonor their name and sex—wretched outcasts from virtue and peace—how often might they too have been snatched as brands from the burning, if some earnest, tender, faithful word had been whispered in their ears—if a cruel world, in the first moment of suspicion, instead of turning its back coldly upon them, hurling envenomed darts of slander and reproach and scorn, had acted the nobler and more Christian-like part—of pleading with the yet unseared and sensitive conscience—urging instantaneous return to the good old paths—saying, as the great Lord of conscience did to one such pining, withered flower, whom others had mercilessly trodden and trampled under foot, "Neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more."
2.A second lesson we may learn is, to beware of the latent pride of the human heart. The servants of Naaman, in their admonition with him, seize at once on the reason of his disappointed and outraged feeling. "My father, if the prophet had bid you do some great thing, would you not have done it." Their master would have preferred, and doubtless expected, some instruction that would have been flattering to his pride and vainglory. It was, as has been already noted, the insignificance of the Jordan washing that was offensive and distasteful to him. If the Prophet (as we have had also occasion to illustrate in a previous chapter, but which again meets us more appropriately here)—if the Prophet had required of him the performance of some great feat, or subjected him to some great privation, or demanded some costly sacrifice, he would probably have unhesitatingly assented. Had it been the toil and effort of a lengthened pilgrimage, or the pain of bodily penance—had it been the charging of royal fees from his Syrian possessions—herds of cattle, the pride of Lebanon's cedars, or the wealth of olive-groves by the Abana—he would, without much reluctance, have taxed his princely revenues to liquidate the debt. But to undertake all that tedious journey, and simply to be told at the end of it, and as the result of it, to "wash in Jordan"—there was no heroism, no chivalry, about that! It was what the humblest Jew who lived near its banks was in the habit of doing daily. To obey such an injunction, would be to put himself on a level with the peasants and farmers and slaves in the Hebrew villages around. The old blood of the warrior was roused—the resolve was taken—and the homeward journey commenced.
The conduct of Naaman has here, too, its faithful analogy and counterpart in the opposition of many to the gospel plan of salvation. They have no idea of being saved in the same manner and on the same conditions, as the vilest and most abandoned. Give them some special and exceptional recipe and prescription for their acknowledged spiritual maladies; let them get into heaven by the entrance which admits the honest, and virtuous, and reputable, and charitable. But to put them on the same footing—to make them walk in the same pathway and to bathe in the same stream as yonder profligate and drunkard and liar—men once of demoralized habits, degraded principles, and vicious life—the pride of nature revolts at the thought! They must have a 'respectable method' of restoration, or they will reject and repudiate the revealed one.
It was for this reason the gospel proved to the Jew a stumbling-block, and to the Greek foolishness. The son of Abraham, with his long pedigree, his pride of national descent, his covenant privileges, and punctilious performance of ritualistic ceremony—the Greek, with his boasted worldly wisdom and his systems of refined philosophy—could not tolerate the idea of being placed on a level with the ignorant and vile—with slaves and publicans, sinners and harlots—and of being brought to own, as their Savior, the crucified Son of a Hebrew laborer—a lowly carpenter of Galilee!
This, however, is that gospel's first and indisputable lesson—to count all native excellencies and graces and endowments and virtues—as loss, for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus. At His cross the rich and poor must meet together, for He, the Lord, is the Redeemer of them all. Great and base—noble and despised—the man of fair character and irreproachable life—as well as the lowest profligate bathed in tears of penitence and shame—all must endorse the one utterance and employ the one prayer—"God be merciful to me a sinner!" The hungry He fills with good things, while the rich (in their own estimation) He sends empty away!
3.We may also learn here that God is glorified by obedience to His will in LITTLE things. Naaman was willing enough to do "a great thing." He was unwilling to stoop to do a little one. How many there are—and that, too, in "the religious world"—who are ready and eager to enlist in some bold and startling enterprise—ready for a life of high consecration in a large and influential sphere, but who dwarf and dwindle into inaction and listlessness in a small and limited one. In some prominent position on the Church battlements, they are all ardor and devotion, all activity and zeal; but they have no taste nor patience for subordinate place or lowly duty; prepared to undertake the toilsome pilgrimage, or to embark in the herculean task—but ready with a refusal, whenever anything so insignificant is mentioned as the Jordan washing.
We believe we have abundant warrant for the assertion, that those most glorify God, who, without the often false stimulus of outward and secondary motives, perform gladly that class of humble, unostentatious deeds and services, which, requiring no intellectual effort, no brilliant gifts, are unacknowledged by the world's approval—unapplauded by the world's hosannahs. Such, assuredly, will not be unowned or rejected by the Great Recompenser, because they have nothing better or costlier to offer.
While it is said of "the mountains" (the Church's great ones) that they shall "bring peace to the people," "the little hills" (the Church's humble, unknown, obscure ones) are to do so also "by righteousness" (Ps. 72:3). Let none be coveting opportunity for the execution of ostentatious labors, or for occupying conspicuous positions, as if these enjoyed a monopoly in the divine favor and approval. The hewer of wood and drawer of water in the Tabernacle and Temple of old—if (what might be deemed) his drudgery were performed from a principle of obedience and lowly fidelity—served the God of the temple, as much as the High Priest with his breastplate gleaming with the Urim and Thummin.
Motive is everything with the omniscient Heart-searcher! And He is satisfied, if we fulfill with a good conscience our apportioned place and destiny, whatever that may be. The little firefly illuminating the darkness in the balmy plains of the south, is one of the tiniest lamps in God's magnificent Temple of night—a mere glimmering spark compared with other and nobler Altar-fires of moon and stars in the same great sanctuary. But that insect does not refuse to rise on its wings of flame, because unable to emit a greater amount of light; it is content to shine with the luster assigned to it in its humble place in the universe, and the Creator is glorified thereby.
The insignificant, "nameless rill" does not refuse to sing its way to the ocean, because, on the opposite side of the mountain or valley, a mighty torrent is thundering along, and bearing in its course a larger and wealthier volume. It carries its appointed tribute to the sea; and He who "sends forth the springs into the valleys which run among the hills," expects from it no more. "She has done what she could," is the divine word of approbation. The one lowly talent conscientiously traded on, will receive its own, with interest. The widow's mite and the cup of cold water are owned and accepted, and the intention and desire would be accepted, if there were no mite and no cup to give.
"I would not have the restless will
"So I ask You for the daily strength
"And if some things I do not ask
4.Let us learn, from the servants of Naaman, a similar lesson to that which we drew, in a former chapter, from the example of the little captive maid—the divine art of speaking kindly. If these servants had, with coarse and blustering demand, assailed their master, the likelihood is they would only have added fuel to the flames and augmented his anger. But, though naturally irritable, and from his rank and preceding behavior, impatient of contradiction, they knew Naaman was not ungenerous nor inaccessible to courteous and well-meant admonition. Coming up, therefore, to the side of his chariot, they addressed him by the affectionate term, "My father."
Let it be our uniform endeavor to cultivate, in daily communion and conversation, this 'grace of manner and speech'—this gentle, kind consideration for the feelings, it may even be the foibles and infirmities, of others. Some there are, wittingly, others unwittingly, who cannot convey a remark or an advice but in rough and rugged tones—harshly grating on feelings that may be more delicately strung than their own—leaving behind unpleasing memories—sometimes inflicting wounds that a lifetime cannot heal.
On the other hand, what a winning power there is in kindness! How softly and musically the wheels of daily life revolve, when they are touched and softened with this "excellent oil!" What conquests it can win over the morose and sullen, the selfish and irritable!
The moral of the old fable is true to the letter, which describes the conflict between the wind and the sun, as to which one would induce the traveler, most readily to part with his cloak. The tempest takes the initiative. But the whirlwind of passion—stormy rage, and angry tones—only lead to the wrapping of the cloak more closely around. The other competitor plies, in turn, his milder influences. The sun shines—the gentle, glowing beams of kindness begin to play—fold by fold is unloosed—the triumph is complete.
In the iron viaduct, greater is said to be the bending caused by the solar rays, than when the heaviest train is passing over it. So the genial influence and sunshine of kind words, can bend and subdue when nothing else can. As in the great war of the elements among the cliffs of Horeb—what the earthquake, the hurricane, and the fire fail to effect, is often compassed and insured by "the still, small voice."
A gentle child, to recur to a former illustration, smoothing the furrowed and anxious brow, can ward off tears and summon smiles, and bend and alter stern purposes, which the world's cold reasoning, dogged mandates, and imperious tones could never accomplish. "Be kind one to another—tenderhearted." "Be kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly love." Speak gently—act gently. It is an inexpensive way of dispensing blessings—a cheap road to favor and regard—whether it be master to servant, or parent to child, or neighbor to neighbor, or friend to friend. We need the interchange of loving sayings and doings, amid the rough contacts and blasts of life. When wagons on the world's highway come into collision—when the wheels are locked and the bales tumble into the mud—the gospel method is not for the wagoners to pull up the team and to vent on one another a hailstorm of wrath, when both are likely to have a share of the blame—but to see, rather, who will be the first to leap down, extricate the goods from the mud, and do their best to make the thoroughfare smooth again.
Alas! that lack of courteous, considerate, gentle dealing, by word and deed, is often "the fly in the apothecary's ointment," which spoils and injures character otherwise estimable, and takes happiness and brightness from otherwise favored homes. Let us again remember here, the conduct and example of the Great Master. Prophecy had, ages before the Incarnation, prepared the world for the advent of One into whose lips "grace (kindness) was poured;" who would not "strive nor cry, nor cause His voice to be heard in the streets;" who "would not break the bruised reed, nor quench the smoking flax." How exactly did the character and actions of the Christ of Nazareth accord with the prefiguration! "And all bore Him witness, and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of His mouth" (Luke 4:22). See Him in His hour of deepest abasement, when He most needed the presence and wakeful sympathy of His trusted followers—how graciously and tenderly, even when administering a rebuke, He tempers it with a merciful apology for their slumbering and unwatchfulness—"The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak." And when the most faithless and renegade of their number has, with cruel aggravation, disowned and denied Him—see, when confronted on the shores of Tiberias, how his injured Lord, oblivious of all the past, has no harsher reproof to utter than that contained in the thrice-repeated refrain—"Simon, son of Jonah—do you love me?"
5.Once more; the same lesson again claims our attention, in the case of these Syrian servants, which we have, also in an earlier chapter, deduced from the story of the captive maid—the possibility on the part of all (however lowly their rank, and however secular their calling) of exercising a beneficial influence. It is one of the many heresies of modern days—not in the region of dogma, but of practice—that effort and work, whether religious or philanthropic, belong mainly, if not exclusively, to those who are invested with priestly and ministerial gifts and qualifications, and that, outside these accredited 'orders', responsibility ceases. How different are the teachings of Scripture, both in the Old Testament and in the New! Naaman, this imperious Syrian captain, is soothed, calmed, made to relent—by whom? Not by God's Prophet—Elisha does not interfere—he keeps within the walls of his Gilgal dwelling, and attempts personally no admonition with the irate warrior.
It is the word of the servants, which arrests the chariot, and alters the petty and otherwise fatal resolve. If these servants had reasoned, as many now-a-days do, they would have said, "If the man of God chooses to reject the cure, let him do so. That leprosy being connected with sin, the dealing with it is a religious matter. We do all that is required of us, if we faithfully perform our secular work, whether it be that of bodyguard, or camel-driver, or charioteer. It is not for us to usurp the office of teacher or judge. Business has its allotted and recognized sphere and season, and so has religion. We keep to our province, let the priest keep to his." Or, translating it into modern phraseology—We have to do only with buying and selling, with bargaining and trading, with bills and exchange, with business and counter.
Or—Are there servants in our household doing our drudgery—strangers, it may be, from distant homes, who might be the better now and then for a kindly word, a pious advice, or salutary warning?—this is the vocation of their religious instructors, not ours; the less we meddle with their ways and affairs the better.
Or—There is one we know who is undergoing severe family affliction; we cannot fail to be cognizant of the cheerlessness of his position, and the solitariness of his heart. A word, or letter, or message of sympathy, would tend to soothe his anguished spirit. That unused book in our library, that "Afflicted Man's Companion," might prove a comfort and solace as he sits down at night by his lonely fire, and misses the face of wife or children. But this is not our concern. To be "sons of consolation" is no work of ours.
Or—Yonder is our early friend; his presence was often used to gladden our home, and we valued his cheerful society. He has, as the world calls it, "forgot himself." He is trembling on the brink of the precipice. We might, by timely stretching out our hand, or by a judicious word now spoken, yet save him from perhaps sadder deterioration. But what business, after all, is it of ours to interfere, or what thanks shall we get for our pains? Let the chariot move on, and the leprosy-spot increase—if his minister's visit and the Sunday sermon cannot reclaim him, what chance have we?
The servants of Naaman furnish us with a more hopeful—a more brotherly view than this. No, we would venture to aver, that agency and intervention akin to theirs, often reaches and succeeds, when, what might be deemed and called "influential instrumentality" fails and falters. Perhaps, even if Elisha had come out on the present occasion, and pled with that galled and fretted Syrian, he could not have prevailed half so powerfully, as his own personal servants. His interposition might have been spurned and rejected, while theirs was accepted and triumphed.
Specially under the higher and nobler spiritual dispensation under which we live, let us never forget, as members of the Christian priesthood, our individual responsibility in the sphere which we are called to occupy. To each one, whatever be his position or circumstances, the command of the Great Husbandman is imperative, "Son, go work in my vineyard" (Matt. 21:28). Nor is it unworthy of note, for the encouragement of those whose sphere is limited, that all throughout this inspired narrative of the Syrian leper, we have nothing but a series of humble agencies. The chariot of the warrior was set in motion by a little Hebrew slave. The next personage mentioned was a potent and influential one—Joram, king of Israel—he could do nothing. The next was the servant of this unostentatious prophet, sent to invite Naaman to Gilgal. Then, we have his own personal attendants here remonstrating. And finally, we have the washing in Jordan—an unworthy stream, compared with the Abana and Pharpar of his own Damascus.
Who dare decry or depreciate the smallest and unlikeliest instrumentality? "A little one shall become a thousand, and a small one a strong nation" (Isa. 60:22). Lowly may be the means God employs in speaking to us, as He did to Naaman. As our chariots move on in life's highway, let us listen meekly to the humblest providential voices; and regard them as divine delegates, beckoning us to turn our back no longer on the waters of salvation, but to close with the free invitation; or, if we have already thus closed, to cling with greater trustfulness and faith to the sublime simplicity of the gospel plan and message—"Wash, and be clean!"