A Pot of Oil, a Bowl of Soup, and the Tall Tales of God’s Sufferers

Reading Time: 13 mins

This world of unbearable grief and accidental calamity is being renewed and, soon, will be completely bereft of every pernicious foe.

Do you remember leaning about “tall tales” in elementary school? For some reason, I have a distinct memory of being schooled in the folklore of several characters which hail from those trumped-up stories of the American west, such as Pecos Bill and Paul Bunyan (and his blue ox) and Johnny Appleseed. These partly true but mostly exaggerated stories mix lore and legend in generally good-natured fun to either bring attention or acclaim to some such ideal or movement. At first glance, 2 Kings 4 has a similar vibe, almost as if the historian has collected the “tall tales” of the prophet Elisha from all over the Israelite countryside and put them into a single passage. Some scholars have explained that this chapter is nothing but “prophetic propaganda,” a specimen of later editorial additions inserted into Scripture to paint Israel’s prophets in a better light. The inference being that the reader is right to take many of the details that comprise this narrative with “a grain of salt.” To which I say poppycock!

Every miraculous scene on record, here, is both factual and purposeful, with the power of Yahweh being demonstrated through the works and wonders of his prophet Elisha. It wasn’t by happenstance or dumb-luck that the historian cataloged all of these spectacular events into a single passage. Indeed, I believe it was very intentional, as each vignette reveals not only the nature of Elisha’s prophetic ministry but also the nature of Yahweh himself. What you find in 2 Kings 4 is what the rest of the Word brings to bear, too — namely, that the God of the Word isn’t One who’s afraid of or indifferent towards our suffering. Rather, he’s a God who meets sufferers in their suffering. In those places of abject grief, loss, and despair, that’s where you find him showing up. The abiding wisdom of this text, however, is made apparent as we examine suffering from the personal albeit limited perspective of the sufferers themselves. What does it look like to suffer from a human point of view? And what kind of God do we find there?

Suffering is Hopeless.

The historian thrusts us into the middle of the action by relaying the story of a “certain woman” who suddenly finds herself a widow (2 Kings 4:1). Her late husband was, apparently, a “son of the prophets,” one who studied under the prophetic ministry of Elisha, and did so faithfully. Although he was a devout man, he had amassed a significant debt, such that, upon his death, his creditor threatened to come calling to settle his books. According to the law, that meant this creditor had every right to claim this widow’s sons as “bondmen” until the debt was worked off (Lev. 25:39–41). All of which has this woman feeling no small amount of anxiety. She has lost her spouse and she stands to lose her sons, too — which would essentially mean she’d be left to the streets. Needless to say, she’s at her wits’ end, with a future that looks nothing but grim and grievous.

She relays all of these things to Elisha, who asks her what she expect him to do about it (2 Kings 4:2). The law’s a beast and there’s no taming it. Plus, the widow has nothing of value to her name, save for a single “pot of oil,” a token of just how destitute she was. A solitary jar is all she has left. Her resources are thin, to say the least. (But when has our nothingness every stopped Yahweh?) The “man of God,” then, tells her to go “borrow not a few” pots from all over, from her neighbors, from anywhere she can find them. After she has collected “all those vessels,” she is to fill them with her single “pot of oil” (2 Kings 4:3–4). This, of course, is a preposterous set of instructions. What hope is there of this working? Not much. Even still, this widow sets about to do exactly as Elisha said, collecting pots from here, there, and yon, and filling each of them all the way to the brim. The more she acquires, the more she’s able to fill, until eventually she runs out of pots. “And it came to pass, when the vessels were full, that she said unto her son, Bring me yet a vessel. And he said unto her, There is not a vessel more. And the oil stayed” (2 Kings 4:6). Elisha, then, tells her, “Go, sell the oil, and pay thy debt, and live thou and thy children of the rest” (2 Kings 4:7).

This account is nothing short of amazing. A single “pot of oil” has served to fill an untold number of other pots, enough to settle her account with the creditor, and then some! This widow goes from the edge of hopelessness to having liquid hope flow ceaselessly in her home. She is saved. She is delivered. She is free. And how fitting that that which served as an emblem of her desperation was turned into the means of her deliverance. It’s classic Yahweh. “How often God begins his work at the point of our inadequacies,” comments Dale Ralph Davis. “He makes us recognize how hopeless the whole situation is. And then he may begin, as here, with the very item that symbolizes our helplessness and make it the means of his help.” (56) Whereas that solitary flagon might have originally only been a reminder of just how poor she was, Yahweh has taken this woman’s hopelessness, emptiness, and nothingness, and replenished her with his hope.

There’s a way in which God does this for each and every one of his children. Perhaps it’s not in ways as fantastic as an endless carafe of oil. But the hope that God gives us in our suffering is nonetheless astounding — precisely because he’s given us his Son. “Now the God of hope,” writes St. Paul, “fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that ye may abound in hope, through the power of the Holy Ghost” (Rom. 15:13; cf. 1 John 5:11). Our bouts of suffering can often appear hopeless, as if there’s no way out, no light at the end of the tunnel. But God the Father delights to give his beloved sons and daughters incarnate hope, hope that has skin and bone and sinew. Such is the design of God in the gospel. “The mercy of God and the gospel of Christ,” writes Rev. Abraham Booth, “were never designed to assist and reward the righteous, but to relieve the miserable and save the desperate — to deliver those who have no other assistance, nor any other hope.” (22)

Suffering is Ruthless.

The historian hastens to give us another chapter in Elisha’s “tall tales,” the one about the “great woman” from Shunem (2 Kings 4:8). Whoever this Shunammite woman was, she was important. Her prominence was such that she was able to convince Yahweh’s prophet to dine with her in her house whenever he passed by. She even went so far as to add another room onto her house so that the “man of God” would have a permanent dwelling space in which he could take leave during his travels (2 Kings 4:10). One day, Elisha determines that he’s going return the kindness showed toward him. “Thou hast been careful for us with all this care,” he states, “what is to be done for thee?” To which the Shunammite woman says, “Nothing” (2 Kings 4:13). But that wasn’t entirely true, since, as we’re told, she was barren. “She hath no child,” Elisha’s servant Gehazi reports, “and her husband is old” (2 Kings 4:14).

Barrenness, of course, was one of the severest forms of matriarchal suffering in those days. The social stigma of being unable to bear children and continue your husband’s line was, essentially, the “scarlet letter” of the Old Testament. It didn’t help that her husband was up in years, well beyond the age of virility. Such is what prompts Elisha to relay a most incredible promise: “And he said, Call her. And when he had called her, she stood in the door. And he said, About this season, according to the time of life, thou shalt embrace a son” (2 Kings 4:15–16). The woman is stunned. This is an unconscionable promise, one which doesn’t seem to take into consideration her situation. “Do not lie to me,” she says. “Don’t play with my emotions like that.” Nevertheless, she soon finds herself with child, just as the “man of God” said she would (2 Kings 4:17; cf. (Gen. 18:10–15; 21:1–7; 25:19–26; 29:31—30:24; Judg. 13:2–5; 1 Sam. 1:1–20; Luke 1:5–7).

All of that, however, is merely the introduction to this Shunammite woman’s story. As it happened, her “miracle son” grew up to be a strapping young boy. One day, he followed his dad into the fields when he began complaining about a headache. The dad sends him home to his mom without really thinking anything of it. But as the woman tends to him, he suddenly dies in her arms (2 Kings 4:18–20). You can imagine the unbearable grief that overwhelmed that mother. Her “miracle son” is taken away, in a flash. Devastated, she takes the body of her boy into Elisha’s room and quickly makes arrangements to go to Mount Carmel to see the prophet, a plan which meets much resistance from her husband (2 Kings 4:23). Undeterred, she drives through the night, putting her own life at risk all in the hopes of getting an audience with the “man of God” as soon as possible (2 Kings 4:24).

When she approaches the prophet, she falls to her knees, clutching the prophet’s feet. Gehazi, perhaps agitated by the Shunammite woman’s impropriety, nearly turns her away. Elisha, though, sees her — he sees her suffering. “Let her alone,” he declares, “for her soul is vexed within her: and the Lord hath hid it from me, and hath not told me” (2 Kings 4:27). For whatever reason, Elisha wasn’t able, at first, to discern the woman’s grief. He, too, is troubled by this turn of events. Why would Yahweh let this happen? The woman confesses as much: “Did I desire a son of my lord? did I not say, Do not deceive me?” she laments (2 Kings 4:28). She never could’ve imagined the miracle of having a son at her “time of life.” But she also never could’ve imagined that that “miracle son” would be taken from her so soon. She would’ve rather not have a son at all than have a son die in her arms.

Elisha hands Gehazi his staff and dispatches him to go on ahead and see if he can do something for the boy. He’s unable to do anything, though (2 Kings 4:31). The “man of God” arrives and ministers to that distraught household in the most profound way: “And when Elisha was come into the house, behold, the child was dead, and laid upon his bed. He went in therefore, and shut the door upon them twain, and prayed unto the Lord. And he went up, and lay upon the child, and put his mouth upon his mouth, and his eyes upon his eyes, and his hands upon his hands: and stretched himself upon the child; and the flesh of the child waxed warm. Then he returned, and walked in the house to and fro; and went up, and stretched himself upon him: and the child sneezed seven times, and the child opened his eyes. And he called Gehazi, and said, Call this Shunammite. So he called her. And when she was come in unto him, he said, Take up thy son. Then she went in, and fell at his feet, and bowed herself to the ground, and took up her son, and went out” (2 Kings 4:32–37).

As deep-seated as this woman’s grief was, so now is her joy. Her son is returned to her arms. Her ruthless, merciless suffering had ended. The whole account is stunningly grievous, perhaps reminding us of our own adverse circumstances. There are times when, like this woman, it feels like God has lied to us (2 Kings 4:28). We’ve received a gift from him, but little did we know that anguish would soon follow in its wake. There are, perhaps, too many occasions to count when, like the woman from Shunem, abject suffering occurs after divine blessing. What does that mean? What does that tell us? Is God a grinch? Does he get a thrill out of watching our faces droop in disappointment when what we’ve been gifted is ripped from our fingers? Decidedly not. Rather, this scene is here to reveal the type of God we have.

Our ruthless, unforgiving bouts of suffering, grief, and loss are no match for the God who draws near to us in those precise moments. Here, as in 1 Kings 17:18–24, where Elisha’s predecessor did something similar, we see a “man of God,” a veritable representative of Yahweh, associating with suffering by “stretching himself upon the child” (2 Kings 4:34–35). This is indicative of life and power passing from the living to the lifeless. It’s emblematic of the prophet’s identification with the boy’s death, as if to put himself in his place. Which, of course, is an incandescent picture of the way in which Yahweh identifies with sufferers. He is not aloof and detached from the pain of human existence. He doesn’t stand on the sidelines to watch as ruthless sorrow ravages his creatures. He acquaints himself with it (Isa. 53:3–4). In Christ, Yahweh comes in the flesh to be baptized in the waters of grief and loss and rejection and agony (Mark 10:38; Luke 12:50). The God of our relentless misery is One who comes so close that he takes it all as his own.

Suffering is Senseless.

The historian, then, relays a very curious story concerning a moment of suffering revolving around a pot of stew. A famine has struck the land, with Elisha and all the “sons of the prophets” feeling its devastating effects. “And Elisha came again to Gilgal: and there was a dearth in the land; and the sons of the prophets were sitting before him: and he said unto his servant, Set on the great pot, and seethe pottage for the sons of the prophets” (2 Kings 4:38). One of the students ventures out to the fields to “gather herbs” for the soup he’s making back home for everyone. He happens upon a vine full of “wild gourds,” which he quickly collects and brings back to his kitchen to shred for the “pot of pottage” he’s brewing (2 Kings 4:39). Little did he know that in so doing he just put everyone’s life in jeopardy.

As the soup is portioned out to all the hungry students, it doesn’t take long before each of them begins to notice that something’s off. The taste isn’t what it should be. It’s more than nauseating. It’s toxic. “There is death in the pot,” they cry, channeling their inner Gordon Ramsay (2 King 4:40). Apparently, those gourds were not so innocent after all. Whereas this well-meaning gourd-shredder thought he was gifting his comrades a tasty delicacy in the midst of dearth, he was actually preparing what could’ve been their last supper. And besides nearly poisoning his brothers, he’s now also ruined an entire pot of stew, which didn’t likely make for a happy dining hall, considering the famine outside. Elisha, though, takes swift action, requesting a helping of flour to be brought to him, which he promptly flings into the pot. “Pour out for the people,” he then announces, “that they may eat” (2 Kings 4:41). I imagine some of the “sons of the prophets” giving each other perplexed glances. There was no pizzazz. There was no cloud of magic vapor signaling the transformation of that soup from malignant to benign. But Elisha’s word was firm: “There was no harm in the pot.” The evil of that stew was subsumed by the flour that was suddenly thrust into it.

What do we make of all this? I admit that this is one of the more curious pericopes, not only in Elisha’s life but in all of Scripture. And when compared to the narratives which precede and succeed it, the stakes of this rotten “pot of pottage” seem woefully less severe. There was nothing malicious that occurred. It was purely by accident that everyone almost died. But isn’t that often the bitterest form of suffering we face? What often leaves us breathless are those moments of senseless suffering. The incidents that inflict anguish “by accident” are the ones that usually sting the most. The suffering that doesn’t have someone to blame is often that which leaves the deepest scars. I don’t doubt that you’ve endured something like that. Who hasn’t? But what does God’s Word say about senseless suffering? Namely, that even that will one day be reversed. All the harm and the hurt that this misshapen world can muster will one day be no more (Isa 11:9; Rev. 21:4), subsumed by the Son who suddenly thrusts himself into our realm. This world of unbearable grief and accidental calamity is being renewed and, soon, will be completely bereft of every pernicious foe, gourds and toads included.

Suffering is Nameless.

There’s a recurring theme throughout this chapter that’s worthy of your attention. For whatever reason, the historian employs a curious pattern for tracing the names of all the characters in these various narratives by basically not really being consistent with them at all. If you take a gander at the text, the names of almost everyone remain unknown — the widow with the oil and her sons, the Shunammite woman and her husband and her “miracle boy,” the “sons of the prophets,” and the “man from Baalshalisha” in the closing episode. That’s a lot of people without names attached to them. In fact, the name that pops up the most throughout this chapter is Elisha’s servant Gehazi, occurring seven times. Even Elisha is referred to as the “man of God” eleven times in the text, with his name only being used six times. And in this closing scene, there are no names at all.

With the famine still presumably going on, a visitor approaches the “man of God” and the rest of his brethren, bringing with him the “first-fruits” of his crop, including “twenty loaves of barley, and full ears of corn in the husk thereof” (2 Kings 4:42). This offering, though well-meaning is misplaced. According to the law, this was an offering that should’ve gone to the priests of the temple (Exod. 23:19; Lev. 23:20; Num. 18:13). But since he hails from “Baalshalisha,” a place that’s riddled with the reprehensible worship of Baal, this man takes his offering to Elisha, a known “man of God” who is loyal to Yahweh. Apparently there is a faithful remnant still left in Israel (1 Kings 19:18). Nevertheless, the prophet instructs his assistant to divvy up this offering among the people “that they may eat” (2 Kings 4:42). But considering the size of the crowd and the meager foodstuffs at hand, that was an unfeasible assignment. “And how do you expect me to do that?” Gehazi retorts. “How am I supposed to feed all these men with this lean offering?”

The “man of God,” then, calmly repeats his instructions, this time with the promise that not only will everyone eat their fill but also that there’ll be leftovers to boot. And that’s exactly what happens: “Give the people, that they may eat: for thus saith the Lord, They shall eat, and shall leave thereof. So he set it before them, and they did eat, and left thereof, according to the word of the Lord” (2 Kings 4:43–44). That Baal-worshiping-defector was undoubtedly stupefied, along with every other soul around that dinner table. Gehazi, though, was likely rendered speechless by the display, seeing the abundant multiplication of that offering which filled the bellies of everyone present (Matt. 14:13–21; Mark 6:30–44; Luke 9:10–17; John 6:1–13). It’s interesting to note that Gehazi’s name doesn’t appear in this little pericope. Instead, he’s merely referred to as the “servitor,” the servant of the prophet.

In a way, that’s what happens to each of us in our seasons of suffering. We’re leveled in those times. We’re all brought to the same playing field. No matter who we are, we all suffer trials and tribulations. There’s no safeguard against suffering. Not even if you hail from a faithful household. Not even if you’re hospitable to a “man of God.” Not even if you belong to the “sons of the prophets.” Not even if you are Elisha’s right-hand-man. Suffering is nameless, mercilessly so. It does not care if you are Bill Gates or Joe Schmo. What’s more, the namelessness of suffering often causes us to feel as though no one knows us. No one’s with us. No one understands. How could they? We’re by ourselves, completely alone, with nobody coming to our rescue. Suffering often encourages such agonizing thoughts, but they are wholly untrue. However much you may feel nameless, listless, and lost in your suffering, there is One who does know you. He knows you by name (John 10:27; cf. Ps. 91:14; Isa. 43:1). He knows you so well, in fact, that he knows the number of hairs that are on your head (Matt. 10:29–31).

This is Yahweh. The One who intercedes in all our suffering by the power of his Word, taking up residence in our agony and sorrow. He sets up his office when we’re at our wits’ end, whatever that may look like. And this is so because “desperate people matter to him,” as Dale Ralph Davis says. (60) The heart of God churns to relieve sufferers no matter what form that suffering takes. “It’s simply ‘vintage Yahweh,’” Davis says elsewhere, “to stoop down into his servants’ nasty circumstances and put fresh heart into them.” (117) Our world is like a kaleidoscope of heartache. We are all variously affected by a variety of hardships (James 1:2). Grief isn’t a “one size fits all” sort of deal. But Yahweh’s blessed and everlasting assurance is that in all our seasons of suffering — whatever they may be, whatever they might look like — he is there with us. We will not be overcome by our manifold troubles (John 16:33), because God in Christ has already overcome them himself.