Studies in the Book of Kings 2 Kings 5:15-27

2 Kings 5:15-27

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After the wonderful healing reported in the first half of the chapter comes a depressing conclusion to the story.

Text Comment

v.15

It is noteworthy, as we noticed last week,  that the manner of Naaman’s cure led him not to confidence in Elisha, but in Yahweh himself, which, no doubt, was the very reason Elisha had sent him away to the Jordan. Naaman had expected some magical incantation, some exercise of the prophet’s own power; what he experienced instead was the power and grace of a personal God.

v.16

The lesson having been learned, Elisha was keen to drive it home. [Provan, 193] He wanted Naaman to leave Israel knowing that he was the beneficiary of God’s free gift.

v.17

The two mule-loads of earth were apparently to create a mound upon which an altar might be constructed at which Naaman might offer sacrifice to Yahweh. There is obviously much that Naaman did not know about the right worship of God, but his heart was in the right place. He had certainly grasped the main point: there is but one living and true God and he is Yahweh. To worship another so-called god, therefore, would be very foolish, very ungrateful, and very wrong. Rimmon, by the way, was simply a Syrian name for Baal.

v.19

It is a remarkable reply in a certain way. Elisha appreciated that Naaman, by his office, would be required to participate in religious rites at court. His “Go in peace” is more than a polite farewell; it is a statement to the effect that Naaman is in covenant relation both with Elisha and Yahweh! The Lord’s shalom would go with him as he returned home.

Elisha’s favorable reply to Naaman’s dilemma is highly interesting and needs to be set side by side with texts that tell us to “flee idolatry” and “obey God rather than men” on the one hand and “live at peace with everyone”, and “submit to the authorities” on the other. Remember, we’ve already met Obadiah in 1 Kings 18, an Israelite who feared the Lord greatly but who managed to remain in Ahab’s confidence as one of his chief ministers. Obadiah managed to remain a faithful “Yahwist” in a Baal-loving court. Indeed he managed to do that while acting on a number of occasions in direct contradiction to the will of his master. He must have feigned interest a great deal in the same way Naaman would have to do! I think it is a wonderful thing that Elisha replied as gently as he did. A few years ago there was another split in the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland. It was occasioned by the fact that the Chief Legal Officer of Great Britain, the man who holds the position we would call Attorney General, had a colleague die, a minister in the government, and as you would expect he went to the funeral. However, the funeral was a Roman Catholic Mass. A great many of his Free Presbyterian ministers and elders took umbrage at the fact that he had attended a Roman Catholic service. Those who were in favor of what he did divided from those who were against what he did in a church that was already way too small and became smaller still. They should have read together 2 Kings 5!

v.24

“The hill” is probably “the hill of Samaria.” He didn’t want people to see this little procession so he took the gifts and sent the servants of Naaman back to their master.

v.25

What Gehazi had done threatened to change the news that Naaman took home. When the general, back in Syria, told his story to his family and friends who clamored to know what on earth had happened to him and how he was healed, he might well have no longer said that Yahweh’s gift had been free. The flesh, in other words, might boast a little bit in God’s presence. Personally, given that Naaman gave his gifts to Gehazi after the fact and in a spirit of gratitude, I doubt that Naaman’s story did change. But Gehazi’s act tempted him to change the news he brought home. Fact is, we don’t know that Naaman ever learned that Elisha had never sent Gehazi, that there never were two visitors who had arrived for whom gifts were needed.

v.26

“Olive orchards, vineyards, sheep, oxen, and servants” indicate where Gehazi’s real interest lay: in wealth and status. [Provan, 194]

v.27

There are various reasons for this particular punishment. Obviously it is important that Gehazi was to suffer from the same disease from which Naaman had just been healed. But it is also important to note that the judgment of the Lord upon this man and his descendants was the very punishment promised in the law of God and, in particular, in the second commandment, the commandment against idols. Gehazi was an idolater; money and status were his gods. And the punishment for idolaters according to the Ten Commandments is this: “for the Lord your God is a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me…” It is not only in the NT that we learn that greed is idolatry as Paul says in Ephesians 5.

Now put yourself in the place of those who would have read Kings for the first time. They had been defeated by their enemies because Yahweh had handed them over to destruction on account of their sins. They had betrayed the Lord’s covenant with them and squandered their inheritance as the people of God. When they read this chapter the reversal it narrates would have hit them like a punch in the solar plexus. Here is a Syrian, Israel’s avowed enemy – remember he had an Israelite maid in his domestic service because he had captured her on one of his military forays into Israel – who sees clearly what Israel had forgotten or refused to remember, viz. that Yahweh is the one living and true God! And here was an Israelite, Gehazi, who cared less for the honor of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob than Naaman did. Naaman was concerned to honor him in his life, but Gehazi was not. Naaman thought about what Yahweh’s glory must mean for him as he returned home, Gehazi did not.

You will perhaps better appreciate the wrench that an Israelite reader would feel reading this text if I were to remind you that Elisha assisting and blessing a Syrian general would be akin to an American pastor helping a British general during the Revolutionary War or, even better, akin to an oppressed Jew watching Jesus do wonderful things for Roman soldiers and centurions who were there to impose and keep upon them the crushing power of the Roman state. Or an Israelite today who happened to be a Christian reaching out to Lebanese Palestinians and caring for them; very hard things to take. [Leithart, 196]

For the first readers of this book this narrative is far from a simple account of God’s goodness to a Gentile, a goodness we take for granted because almost all of us are Gentiles! It would be more like a slap in the face and a reminder of how abjectly they had failed to be faithful to God. When a Syrian general knows better than an Israelite assistant to a prophet what it means to honor Yahweh, things have reached a pretty pass. And when all of God’s grace to Naaman was set in motion by the witness of an Israelite girl to her Syrian master, the tables have been completely turned on the ordinary Israelite way of thinking. Where is Israel’s special place in the economy and plan of God? I am absolutely sure there were many Israelite readers of Kings who struggled to come to terms with what we have just read in 2 Kings 5! This was far and away not their favorite passage in the book.

What could be clearer? Naaman comes to Israel a leper, encounters the grace and power of the living Lord and leaves for home entirely healthy and, what is more, a new man in every way. Gehazi, who has been an Israelite from birth, who was the chief servant of Elisha, no less, and who had never had leprosy, becomes and remains a leper. Naaman gained Yahweh’s favor and Gehazi – who in many ways represents all of the northern kingdom – lost it. The Gentile is in covenant with the Lord and Israel is not! This account is as surely upsetting as an account of the Lord shaking the dust of his feet off against Israel as anything we read in the New Testament; at least to a Jewish reader of the Gospels.

But it was imperative for the early reader of Kings, as it is for us today, to appreciate that this reversal was based on reality. Yahweh was not simply exchanging one people for another. The Syrians didn’t become his covenant people in due time, once Naaman had an opportunity to do some evangelism among them, though it is hard to observe Naaman here and not think that his own family and some others would have become loyal servants of Yahweh under his influence. But the fact is, Naaman had become an Israelite in the true sense and Gehazi had become a Syrian in the true sense. There had been an exchange, a reversal, a switching of places. It had nothing to do with where the man lived or his nationality or his occupation. It had only to do with his heart and his behavior.

Naaman had become a grateful man, conscious of the Lord’s goodness to him. As his remarks to the prophet indicate he knew he had Yahweh to thank for his healing, not Elisha himself. Accordingly, he had become a reverent man, concerned to honor Yahweh’s name even when he returned to idolatrous Syria. He had become a theologically minded man, whose life and worship were now subject to what he knew of the one living and true God. Wouldn’t we all love to know what became of the life of this fortunate believer once he returned to Syria! A Syrian general who was now a son of Abraham!

But compare him to Gehazi. Gehazi showed himself to be what Naaman had once been but was no more. When Naaman came to Israel he was a calculating man. He believed that his prestige and his wealth would secure him the attention of Israel’s miracle worker. He brought a huge some of money with him to buy his cure. But he was carrying all of it back to Syria with him, the gift having been free. But Gehazi has Naaman’s former spirit. He’s a calculating man. He thinks the matter through. If he asks for too much, Naaman might get suspicious. So he instead of asking for all ten talents of silver, he asks for but two. Instead of all ten changes of clothes, he asks for only two and tells a story that cleverly masks his avarice behind a pretense of charity. This is paganism pure and simple, the idea that one can manipulate the gods and secure a favorable result. Naaman has got shut of his idolatrous worldview; Gehazi, the Israelite, might as well be a Syrian.

But there is much more to Gehazi’s discredit. There was precious little theology in Gehazi’s mind and heart. He believed what Naaman had once believed about Elisha but did no more. “See, my master has spared this man…” Where is the Lord in that? Naaman knew to say, “Behold I know that there is no God in all the earth but in Israel,” but Gehazi still seems to think that Elisha affected Naaman’s healing. The living and true God weighed so little on Gehazi’s mind and heart that he invoked God’s name on behalf of his dirty little plan to aggrandize himself at Naaman’s expense. “As the Lord lives, I will run after him and get something from him.” That is what Gehazi said, “As the Lord lives, I’m going to lie and steal my way into a small fortune.”

There is no gratitude or grace in Gehazi’s spirit for what the Lord had done. Did you detect that smug, supercilious, arrogance in Gehazi’s characterization of Naaman? “this Naaman the Syrian…” Not “General Naaman,” which would at least be properly respectful of the man’s station and accomplishment. Not “Naaman, the man whom Yahweh has healed and saved” which would show respect for the judgment of the Lord. Not “Naaman, the man of faith” which would have indicated some spiritual discernment regarding the stupendous change that the grace of God had worked in this foreigner. Not “My Lord Naaman” which might have expressed Gehazi’s own gratitude for the Lord’s kindness to this Syrian general. But “this Naaman, the Syrian…” as if to say, “Here is a man who’s got money and is taking it home; here is a man I need not respect or care for; here is a man to take advantage of. Why should I care about such a man as this, a foreigner, an enemy? Shouldn’t I get from him what I can?”

There was no truth – no love of the truth, no commitment to it – in this man either. Gehazi is a liar through and through. He lied to Naaman and he lied to Elisha. His was the art of the little lie and the big lie. He lied about his motives, he lied about what he did, and he told a second lie to cover the first. He was even an artful liar. Notice the special touch in the lie he told to Naaman: “There have just come to me from the hill country of Ephraim two young men of the sons of the prophets.” Convincing detail that, don’t you think? Like Achan in Joshua 7 and Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 8 he sought to cash in on an act of God and so, as Joshua told Achan and as the apostles told Ananias and Sapphira, they lied not first, not ultimately, to men but to God. And it is all the more tawdry, all the more disreputable because Naaman stood so willing to be taken in by Gehazi’s lies; he believed the lies precisely because he was so grateful to God! It makes the blood boil; it’s supposed to!

There is here and emphatically so, as everywhere in the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, a connection drawn between faith and conduct, between faith and holiness of life, between the knowledge of God and godly behavior. The second half of 2 Kings 5 is like so much of the Lord’s teaching, like so much of the teaching of the Apostle John we have been considering these Lord’s Day mornings. It is not enough that Gehazi is an Israelite; it is not enough that Naaman has confessed Yahweh as God. In each case the man demonstrates his spiritual and theological commitment by his actions, his behavior.

In the one case, his new theology and his faith in Yahweh utterly altered Naaman’s former way of life. He knew that he was now living in the light whereas before he had been living in the darkness, and that was going to have massive implications for his life back home. He was already beginning to think them through when he stopped to say thank you to Elisha!

In Gehazi’s case, his paganism was revealed and demonstrated by his calculating, dishonest, and disreputable behavior. We must ring the changes on this, we parents must be emphatic with our children on this point again and again, and we must demonstrate the truth of all of this in our lives because we today live in a world in which the moral equation has been so muddied, in which moral conviction has been so undermined, that, hard as it is to say, still harder as it is to believe, many in our culture today would find Naaman’s scruples about worship in Rimmon’s house completely unnecessary and wouldn’t find Gehazi’s behavior all that disreputable. They really wouldn’t. Nobody it seems; everybody is a thief in our culture. I surprised myself recently at how natural, inevitable it seemed to me that everyone steals nowadays, including those who don’t need to. A few years ago the Ritz hotel in London, the most storied and certainly one of the most expensive London hotels, a hotel for wealthy people almost exclusively, reported that in a single year their patrons had swiped 300 tea strainers, 3,000 washcloths, 6,000 ashtrays, and 5,000 pairs of slippers! We have become a society of Gehazis! There they are, no one will go after us, let’s take it. In fact, morality has been so turned upside down in our culture that evil has actually become good. Once a behavior is no longer condemned, it will take only a short time until it is actually required. In the minds of most people in our culture nowadays there is something wrong with a young woman who won’t sleep with her boyfriend. Is she a prude? Is she afraid? Is she unsophisticated?  If a man refuses to lie for the sake of the company’s bottom line, he isn’t a team player. He can’t be trusted. We have come, as an electorate, to accept that character assassination and campaign promises no one has any intention of keeping are simply part of the political process. Inveterate lying may have embarrassed President Clinton, but it didn’t hurt him politically and, in fact, has had little effect on what is nowadays referred to as his legacy. Though, in fact, I think the main result of his presidency will probably continue to be the mainstreaming of the big lie; a most significant shift that has taken place in American politics.

Indeed, a year after his impeachment for lying under oath, President Clinton was a guest of honor at the White House correspondents’ dinner in Washington D.C. Impeached, fined for being in contempt of court, exposed as a womanizer and shameless liar, accused publicly of sexual harassment, thuggery, and rape, the President joked to the assembled journalists and political bigwigs that his disgrace did not even make the top fifty in a recent list of the twentieth century’s top hundred stories

“I don’t mind telling you I made the list…” Clinton said. “Fifty three? I mean, what does a guy have to do to make the top fifty around here?” [Cited from Os Guinness, Time for Truth, 64-65]

The moral world of Gehazi, the world Naaman once occupied: corrupt, dishonest, morally confused and inconsistent, calculating, sinister, and utterly, utterly unmindful of God and God’s judgment, has become so much a part of American life that it can be joked about in public with absolutely no fear of consequences.

You remember Senator Moynihan’s famous phrase: how Americans have “defined deviancy down.” What was deviant fifty years ago is today the new normal. You would expect me to talk now about American sexual practices, abortion, gay rights, or euthanasia. We could. But how about this?

Kay Haugaard, a southern California college professor, has for years charted the response of students in her classes, from young undergraduates to older folk, to the famous Shirley Jackson short story The Lottery. Some of you may remember that story. Set in a small town in rural America, the townsfolk are gathering for some ritual that they obviously believe is critical to their welfare, to a good harvest. At the center of everyone’s thoughts is the lottery. Jackson’s skillful writing makes the buildup to the lottery full of tension. Suddenly at the end of the story all is revealed: the draw is for human sacrifice. Tessie Hutchinson, wife, mother, and neighbor, chooses the slip of paper with the black spot. At once she is isolated in the center of a cleared space. Everyone has stones in his or her hands; even her small son Davy has pebbles. “Come on, come on, everyone,” Old Man Warner urges the villagers. “It isn’t fair, it isn’t right,” Tessie screams, but there is no stopping the ritual. The story ends with this sickening thud: “…and then they were upon her.”

When first published in the New York Times in 1948 the newspaper was deluged with letters of protest. In the moral climate of the late 1940s the very idea of human sacrifice was both outrageous and repulsive. But times have changed and Prof. Haugaard has noted the changes as the years have passed. In the 1970s foul language made its way more commonly into the stories students read and so into their own writing, then the themes of sexual liberation, homosexuality, multiculturalism, became commonplace. And all the while they were still reading The Lottery. Through the 70s and 80s it still elicited a strong negative moral response. It engaged the students’ sense of right and wrong. That is, it did until the 90s. One night Haugaard encountered a class that registered no moral response at all. “The end was neat,” one woman student said in the discussion. “They just do it, it’s their ritual,” said another. Haugaard’s own concerned deepened as unconcern pervaded the classroom.

“I was stunned,” she later wrote after questioning Beth, a stylish student in her forties, that ‘this was the woman who wrote so passionately about saving the whales, of concern for the rain forests, of her rescue and tender care for a stray dog.”

Another student, Richard, thought that a certain amount of blood-shedding was necessary in society. A nurse in the course summed up her view by saying,

“Well, I teach a course for our hospital personnel in multicultural understanding, and if it’s a part of a person’s culture, we are taught not to judge, and if it has worked for them…”

“At this point I gave up,” Haugaard reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “No one in the whole class of more than twenty ostensibly intelligent individuals would go out on a limb and take a stand against human sacrifice.” [Guinness, 21-23]

Well, we should not be surprised at this; we of all people. We who have the Bible in our hands morning, noon, and night should know very well the deep evil that lies in the human heart and of the ever new ways the Devil finds to encourage the practice of it. They practiced child sacrifice in the ancient world and we do it today: we just call it abortion or euthanasia, the sacrifice of a human baby or an older person in hopes of better things for ourselves. Human life has always and everywhere been profoundly callous and dishonest as it is today. The desire for wealth and status has led people at all times and in all places to do despicable things, to deceive and mistreat others, and to calculate without regard to God or man.

But God’s grace makes a new man or new woman and that new life is revealed inevitably in a life lived in honesty, reverence, and obedience. It is not an easy thing to live in the light. It would not have been easy for Naaman to figure out how to be a theological Israelite while serving the king of Syria in just the same way it can be difficult for us to know how to be honest in a culture that does not expect honesty and often does not reward it, to be pure in culture that expects and rewards impurity, and to be reverent in a culture that has lost all sense of the majesty and glory of God and doesn’t understand what reverence is. It just seems weird to them.

But if Naaman teaches us anything, as Obadiah before him, living in the light can be done and will be done by those who love the Lord. And if the hard work of faithfulness to God and to God’s law, if the demands of reverence should prove highly inconvenient or even dangerous, if honesty in a culture like ours is likely to mean much less silver and less attractive clothes, then remember this.

You can lust after money and lifestyle, you can worship idols if you choose, but there is a price to pay. Gehazi got his two talents of silver and his two sets of clothes, but he got leprosy too and gave it to his children and grandchildren. God will not be mocked: whatsoever a man sows, whether in Israel or Syria, that shall he also reap.