2 Kings 5:15-17
No longer, as before, does NAAMAN, in unsubdued pride of spirit, remain seated in his chariot at the door of Elisha. With every trace of his disease obliterated—his recently loathsome flesh and skin changed into that of a little child, he stands in the presence of his benefactor, calling himself "your servant;" and surrounded with his retainers, gives utterance to the sentiments of a full and jubilant heart. If, on the former occasion, the lesson on his conduct was this, "God resists the proud;" we are called now to see how "He gives grace unto the humble." The alabaster box is broken, and the fragrance of the soul's best ointment ascends to God and man. As we see him already bringing forth fruits fit for repentance, we are reminded of the inspired metaphor—"He shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, which brings forth his fruit in his season" (Ps. 1:2).
While doubtless he would consider that a debt of deepest obligation was due personally to the Prophet, it is equally evident that he recognized in the man of God, only the delegate and envoy of a Greater. Behind the direction of the human agent, "Go, wash in Jordan," he listened to "Thus says the Lord." The feelings of his heart and of the hour, were they interpreted, could not be more appropriately expressed than in the opening strain of the later song of the children of the captivity, "Oh, give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good—for His mercy endures forever. Let the redeemed of the Lord say so, whom He has redeemed from the hand of the enemy. He brought them out of darkness and the shadow of death, and broke their bands in sunder. Oh, that men would praise the Lord for His goodness, and for His wonderful works to the children of men!" (Ps. 107:1, 2, 14, 15.)
Let us note these two points, as they are here brought before us in succession—Naaman's avowal of his faith, and the expression of his gratitude.
I. Naaman's confession of FAITH—"And he said, Behold, now I know that there is no God in all the earth but in Israel." This was no ordinary acknowledgment, when we remember by whom it was made. It was a confession, moreover, not whispered confidentially into the ear of the Prophet of Israel, but made, boldly and unblushingly, in the presence of his own heathen servants. Well might the warrior dread the consequences, on his return to Syria, of the adoption of an alien religion. It would, in all probability, compromise his position at Damascus. It might draw down upon him the displeasure of Benhadad, and alienate the goodwill of princes and nobles. Would he not be regarded as a traitor to his country—a wretched apostate from the faith of his ancestors, who had publicly dishonored the guardian divinities of the nation? His life might be the penalty for his religious defection. But he has counted the cost, and is prepared to abide by his resolution.
Observe also, that is it not a mere temporary renunciation of his pagan creed, or a nominal adhesion to that of the Hebrews. He has resolved to renounce idol-worship forever—"Your servant will henceforth offer neither burnt-offering nor sacrifice unto other gods, but unto the Lord." He may forfeit, in the eye of his countrymen, his illustrious name and reputation. He may be no more "honorable" with his master. He may be subjected to misrepresentation, ridicule, and scorn. He may, and doubtless will, feel himself in that most trying of positions, where he has to fight the battle and stem the current alone. But how can he dare forget or renounce the Great Jehovah of Israel, who had "answered him, and set him in a large place"—the Almighty Being to whom he owes his life? What are the honors which a grateful people may have conferred—what the value of the jeweled emblems which glitter on his bosom, compared with all that has been bestowed by Him whom he has been taught to regard and revere as "King of kings and Lord of lords."
"From henceforth," says Paul, "let no man trouble me, for I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus" (Gal. 6:17)—words in which he may probably allude to the infirmity of 'defective vision' from which he had suffered, ever since his eyes were blinded by the blaze of the Shekinah glory on the way to Damascus; as if Christ—his new Master—had from that hour 'marked,' or "branded" him, as his slave and servant. So could Naaman—though in an opposite sense—say, regarding his purified physical frame, freed from the degradation-marks of suffering and misery. When he thought of the living servitude, temporal and spiritual, from which he had been mercifully delivered, he might well say, "O Lord, truly I am Your slave; I am Your slave, You have loosed my bonds. Gentile and idolater as I once was, You have marked me as Your own. And shall I dare now cowardly to deny You? After such indubitable proofs of Your power and mercy, shall I go back a fettered spiritual captive, to offer, with a debauched and demoralized conscience, a hypocritical sacrifice to a senseless idol?" No! at all risks, he casts in his lot with the true children of Abraham. He avows, as Ruth did to Naomi, "Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. The Lord do so to me, and more also, if anything but death parts you and me" (Ruth 1:16, 17).
He returns to Damascus, determined to re-enter on the faithful discharge of his military duties—laying his sword, as before, at the feet of Benhadad—rendering to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, but equally resolved to render to the true God the things that are His. Great would be the trial of his faith and constancy, when his solitary altar was set up in the midst of a city wholly given to idolatry, and, when thousands were doing homage at the great festivals of Rimmon, to find his voice alone silent amid the festal throngs. But he will prove "a mighty man of valor" in fighting these, as well as other and far different battles. He resolves, "Whatever others do, as for me, I will serve the Lord." In the case of an alien from the commonwealth of Israel, the divine promise is to be fulfilled—"They will thrive like watered grass, like willows on a riverbank. Some will proudly claim, 'I belong to the Lord.' Others will say, 'I am a descendant of Jacob.' Some will write the Lord's name on their hands and will take the honored name of Israel as their own." (Isa. 44:4, 5)
What a rebuke to many, who, from cowardly motives, or from unworthy reasons of carnal expediency, shrink from making a bold and decided avowal before the world, of loyalty and allegiance to their heavenly King, the Savior who died for them. Assuredly, if Naaman had been swayed and victimized by that severest of all temptations—the dread of human censure—he would have returned to Damascus idolater as he had left it; buried all the memories of Gilgal and Jordan in ungrateful oblivion, and burned incense, as aforetime, before the shrine of Rimmon. But God has not given to him "the spirit of fear, but of power" (2 Tim. 1:7). He cannot so degrade and humiliate himself at the bar of his own conscience, as to return to his native city with a lie in his right hand. He could not distrust the evidence of his own senses. Jehovah had wrought in his behalf, alike for soul and body, what all the sorcerers and magicians, all the conjurors and necromancers, all the medicines of Damascus had failed to accomplish—and he resolves to return, a missionary and propagandist of the new faith. For so doing, he may forfeit office and influence, name and fame. He may no longer lead the troops of Syria out to battle and victory—the garlands that wreathe his brow may be removed, and given to some subordinate, staunch in his fidelity to the traditional faith of his country—ready to defend alike her hearths and altars. But he rises superior to these, and such like possibilities of national dishonor and humiliation awaiting him. As his chariot is turned from the land of Israel towards the Syrian metropolis, he could say, in the words of a later spiritual hero, "Since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be destroyed, let us be thankful and please God by worshiping him with holy fear and awe." (Heb. 12:28)
Reader! go and do likewise. Let the example of a brave Gentile soldier nerve you to range yourself openly under the standard of the Great Captain of your salvation, and manfully to make the avowal before the world—"I serve the Lord Christ." We know well (especially in the case of the young) the taunt and ridicule which such an avowal may often involve. Peculiarity of position and circumstance may render it no easy matter, in the name of your God, to set up your banners. The weapon with which Satan has defied—aye, too, and defeated multitudes, is the weapon of ridicule—we are not ignorant of his devices. But He who is for you, is greater than all that are against you. Resolve to adhere to the maintenance of Christian principle, undeterred by sneer and frown, ridicule and reproach. Trust God, and He will disarm all difficulties and cover your head in the day of battle—out of weakness making you strong, enabling you to wax valiant in fight, and to turn to flight the armies of the aliens. Thus letting "your light," (not the light of sectarian rivalry, or intemperate bigotry, or offensive parade of goodness and godliness; but the light of a Christian profession and creed endorsed and countersigned by a pure, holy, consistent life)—letting such a light "shine before men," others will "see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven."
II. Naaman's GRATITUDE.Note his gratitude to the human agent. It was not the mere thank-offering of the lip. He desires the Prophet to receive some substantial proof of his heart-sincerity. From these bags of gold and silver, and changes of clothing, which loaded mule and camel in his cavalcade, he says, "Take a gift from your servant." But Elisha, doubtless courteously, but peremptorily, refused the offered gift—"As the Lord lives, before whom I stand, I will receive none; and he urged him to take it, but he refused."
What were the Prophet's reasons for this refusal?They were probably twofold.
(1.) He wished that God should have all the glory of the leper's cure. Had he assented to the proposal, and received the gift, it might have led to the inference that he arrogated some of the honor of the miracle to himself—that it was the arts of priestcraft, some mystic charm in the directions he had given, which had made the washing effectual. Elisha would have Naaman to know that he was the mere earthly vessel—the instrument in the hand of a Mightier, by whom the stricken chief now stood in perfect soundness in the presence of them all. His language, as he repudiates the offered benefaction is—Not unto me, not unto me, but unto the God I serve, give glory for His mercy and for His truth's sake!
(2.) Had he accepted the present, it might have damaged and compromised, in distant Syria, his own character as Jehovah's Prophet. Not without semblance of justice, he might have been charged with some mercenary, ulterior motive, when he volunteered the message to the King of Samaria—"Let him come now to me, and he shall know that there is a prophet in Israel." When the warrior had gone back to Damascus, and his servants had told how costly a memorial and recompense had been left at the Prophet's dwelling, a hundred tongues might have been ready to denounce the covetous spirit of the Hebrew magician and wonder-worker—the old taunt might have been launched on the lowly occupant of the dwelling at Gilgal, that in his vaunting message to the King of Samaria to send the leper to him without delay, he was only desirous to make a gain of godliness.
We may learn from this Old Testament story what a noble thing it is, and specially living under the light and responsibilities of a better dispensation, to manifest an unselfish spirit; ready, if need be, to surrender personal good and worldly interests for the sake of Christ; to forego anything that might, indirectly, tend to have our religion, misjudged in the eyes of others. Paul's was a noble resolve; and the apostolic maxim in this, and other things, should shape our principles of action—"Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall." (1 Cor. 8:13)
But not only does Naaman wish to give a token of his gratitude to Elisha; he is anxious also, by an external action, to testify the deeper and more sacred obligations under which he is laid to Elisha's God. He accordingly requests permission of the Prophet, to carry with him, back to Damascus, two loads of earth; evidently to be utilized and consecrated for some religious purpose—"but please allow me to load two of my mules with earth from this place, and I will take it back home with me. From now on I will never again offer any burnt offerings or sacrifices to any other god except the Lord." 2 Kings 5:17. We are led to pause and inquire, what was the object more particularly contemplated in this unusual request.
(1.) We recognize in it, his desire to render obedience to the will of Jehovah. There was a special divine injunction given to the Israelites, that their altars should be constructed of earth—"An altar of earth you shall make unto me" (Exod. 20:24). It is not a little remarkable, that the command in that same passage is followed up by the promise—"In all places where I record my name I will come unto you, and I will bless you." Who knows but that Naaman, now standing within the walls of a school of the Prophets, may have been informed of this very promise made by the Lord he had confessed to be his God?—that if he reared in heathen Damascus his altar of earth, and there recorded Jehovah's name, that faithful God of all the families of mankind, would fulfill His part of the covenanted assurance; and make it one of the "all places" where He would come and bestow His blessing. As that promise was given strictly in connection with the "altar of earth," when the little mound of Palestine soil was shaped or enshrined for its destined purpose by the grateful Syrian, he could point to it and say, as he invoked the divine benediction, "Remember the word unto Your servant upon which You have caused me to hope" (Ps. 119:49).
(2.) Another reason for the petition doubtless was, that, as a Gentile proselyte, he wished to carry with him to his own home, some permanent memorial of his visit to the country of the Hebrews, and of the wondrous cure effected on him by the Hebrews' God. It is evident this feeling must have mingled in his request; for if he had merely desired to obtain a portion of earth from the territories of Israel, sufficient for the construction of an altar, what need was there of carrying it the whole distance from Gilgal? Why not wait until he and his troop had crossed the hills of Ephraim and Naphtali, and then have laden the mules with their burden? But not only must it be Israelitish soil, it must be from the very scene of the restoration, to make it a significant memento of the miraculous healing.
It would thus be, First, a perpetual remembrance to Naaman himself, of his vows and obligations. He had now publicly renounced idolatry—Rimmon and all his idols he had utterly forsworn. But the restored chief knew (as who does not?) the fickleness of the human spirit. His heart was now thrilling with emotion, warm with the memory of his recent cure. But the hour might come when these memories would not be so vivid—when, dimmed by time and distance, he might be basely tempted to abjure his adopted faith and rejoin the multitude in their adoration of the national idol. If ever seduced to such perjury, the Earthen Altar, strangely unique amid other Syrian shrines of marble, would read a rebuke to his faithlessness. It would remain a perpetual protest against idolatry. Every glance at that heap of alien mold would remind him—"Your vows are upon me, O God."
Add to this—the very earth of which the altar was constructed, would be a keepsake of the land to which he owed so much—a hallowed remembrance of the scene around the willows and palm-groves of Gilgal.
There is a wondrous charm which Romanism has perverted for its own uses, but the spell of which lies deep in our emotional natures, in the possessing and treasuring memorials of sacred scenes and sacred spots. We speak not of a spurious veneration for those paltry relics which superstition often has enshrined in gold and silver caskets, and before which she burns her incense and waves her censers—such as the bones and dust of real or imaginary saints. But who ever gazed, without interest and emotion, on bark cut from the old olives in Gethsemane, or pebbles from the shores of Tiberias, or flint and agate from the rocks around Bethlehem and the Kedron? Nor need we go for holy scenes and associations so far as to the land of Palestine. Who does not value and garner the leaves gathered from the grave of buried love? Who does not cherish the Bible, on whose flyleaf parental affection has put the imperishable inscription, when perhaps the hand that traced it is mouldering in the tomb? Who does not treasure the pilgrim-staff on which some hoary grandfather leaned, or the chair on which venerable age gave forth lessons which time cannot obliterate?
It was with kindred feelings Naaman carried away his two loads of earth. He doubtless desired to retain, in sacred remembrance, that never-to-be-forgotten scene at Jordan and Gilgal. If there was no art to portray the actual landscape, here was a simple, but most impressive and significant method of fixing its memories in his heart. In the courtyard of his palace—or it may be in the very hall, whose marble pavement, in the torture of his disease, he was used in former years to pace—there, in the scene of his misery and despair, he rears this monument of faith and gratitude; and when his own dust mingled with that of other illustrious dead in the sepulchers of Syria, and perhaps no living voice in his household would be raised for the glory of Israel's God; here would be an enduring monument and manifesto of the faith of the old hero; he, being dead, would, in his speechless altar, still speak!
Who can tell, moreover (while thus incidentally referring to Naaman's death and burial-place), but that a portion of that earth may have been specially reserved or appropriated for his funeral rites. We know how eagerly the soil of "holy places" has been, and is still, prized by Orientals in connection with sites and places of sepulture. We have heard how the Hindoo values, above all spices and ointments, the vessel filled with the reputedly sacred water of the Ganges, to be placed by his dead body, and afterwards by his tomb. We know with what fondness, for the same purpose, the Hadji pilgrims carry in the folds of their green turbans, or next their bosoms, a few grains of earth gathered at Mecca. We know the story which has given to Europe the most interesting (we are tempted to add, after personally visiting it), the most magnificent, of all her graveyards; how the Pisans, in the Middle Ages, brought, on the occasion of their invading Palestine, shiploads of soil from a spot overlooking Jerusalem; and among these "loads of earth" the most distinguished of her citizens and nobles eagerly sought the honor of interment. We know how the Jew, when poverty or age prevent him traveling back to the valley of Jehoshaphat—the Valley of tombs—appreciates, as the most cherished equivalent, a handful of debris from the base of Zion's Temple; that in his lonely grave in a land of exile, he may, in the last long sleep, lay his head on the consecrated soil. Who knows but some such motive may, at the time, have suggested itself to Naaman, in soliciting from the hands of the Prophet the strange request we are considering; that when he died, his own fond wish may have been fulfilled and gratified, to have his embalmed remains resting on a pillow of that earth, which his mules bore from the scene of his cure and conversion—a singular, miniature "sacred spot" amid the royal tombs of Damascus?
Once more; he erected this altar of Hebrew earth, possibly for the purpose of offering sacrifice. That once proud, self-righteous leper, had already, by his humility, offered one acceptable sacrifice—"The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit." But during his present sojourn in the land of Israel, and in this brief interview with the Prophet, who can tell but that he may have been, partially at least, initiated into deeper mysteries. The offering of "cattle from a thousand hills," would probably be no strange thing to him in the ceremonial rites within the Temple of Rimmon. But in this new earth-altar there is the suggestion of "better sacrifices than these." Though even to an Israelite himself, in his dim typical dispensation, the coming Redemption was obscurely revealed, may we not imagine that Naaman, along with the materials for his earthen shrine, carried with him into heathen Syria, the foreshadowings, at least, of the great oblation—"The Lamb slain from the foundation of the world." In that same injunction in the book of Exodus to which reference has already been made, regarding the altar of earth, it is added—"You shall sacrifice thereon your burnt-offerings and your peace-offerings, your sheep and your oxen."
When Naaman returned to Damascus, raised his lowly memorial, and the smoke ascended from his burnt-offering, the Lord God of Israel would smell a sweet savor. He would see, in the person of the offerer, a type of those Gentiles—monarchs and warriors and mighty men—who would yet cast their swords and shields, their crowns and scepters, at the feet of Immanuel, and acknowledge Him as Lord over all—in accordance with that striking inscription, which, in the midst of Mohammedan bigotry gleams to this hour, in Greek characters, on the facade of the oldest and grandest temple in Damascus—"Your kingdom, O Christ, is an everlasting kingdom, and Your dominion endures throughout all generations."
Let this remarkable passage in Naaman's history read a lesson to us all. Are there any, on whom may have recently been bestowed gifts and pledges of the divine goodness; some special providential deliverances; some peculiar tokens of spiritual blessing? Go! gather your burden of earth—take it with you to your dwelling; erect, in the midst of your family, your altar of gratitude, and write upon it the indelible inscription—"What shall I render unto the Lord for all His benefits towards me." We know not what may have been the results of Naaman's piety in his Damascus home. The symbol of his faith and love (his earthen altar), may have been handed down, as a precious heirloom and keepsake, from generation to generation; his children's children may have gazed on it, and loved to rehearse to one another the story of their great ancestor's disease and cure.
Let the Christian remember this; that the altar he erects—in other words, the piety of a holy, God-fearing consistent life—does not die with him—his example descends, as the noblest of heritages, to his offspring. Nor, be it added, does anything so tend to hallow and consecrate the earthly home, as the erection of a Domestic sanctuary, where morning and evening "the voice of rejoicing and of salvation" is heard. Sad are those dwellings "unwhitened by prayer"—unblest with the incense-cloud; on whose doors the entry is inscribed, "No altar here." Where shall we go to gather example and reproof for such prayerless homes? Shall it be among the dwellings and tabernacles of Israel? or in following the footsteps of prophets and apostles? Shall we enter the abodes of primitive believers—the Simeons and Annas, the Marys and Lydias of gospel times? No! we travel in imagination to witness a military procession toiling along one of the steep and narrow gorges of ancient Palestine. In the rear of the imposing caravan, two mules are seen groaning under a strange earthen load. It is a heathen of a dim and unprivileged age, carrying away materials for a domestic altar whereon he may serve the true God, and around which he may gather his household.
Who will dare plead the cares of family or the strain and stress of business, or worldly opposition after this? Naaman had the responsibility of the Syrian armies and the weight of government on his shoulders; yet he had time to erect his home-sanctuary and offer his daily sacrifice. Thousands of pagan eyes may have flashed displeasure upon him; but the spiritual hero fought a braver than his earthly battles, and has left a nobler than champion's epitaph inscribed on his tomb. He began his journey a leper and a heathen—he washed in Jordan, and was cleansed—he returned home, and reared his altar.
Beautiful type and delineation of the true Christian! He begins his pilgrimage a "miserable sinner." He washes in the stream of salvation, and is cleansed. His "altar of witness" is erected—the vow of allegiance and love is publicly recorded and devoutly observed. And when his journey is finished—when he reaches his true home in the skies, his nobler indestructible 'altar of gratitude and love' is upreared with the inscription—"thanks be unto God for his unspeakable gift!"