The two stories sandwiched together in 2 Kings 8:1-15 might seem not only unrelated but also unremarkable. But just as we know and believe that every moment of our days is governed by the hands of God, so, too, do we know and believe that every text in his Word is preserved by the same sovereign fingers (Rom. 15:4). Therefore, how does a woman getting her estate returned to her and a court official suffocating his king to death tell us anything about our God? Well, let me show you.
The historian does something fascinating here by reintroducing us to “the woman from Shunem” (2 Kings 8:1). Last we heard from her, she was rejoicing over her son who had been miraculously resurrected by Elisha (2 Kings 4:8–37). It’s worth noting that this nondescript woman figures into the narrative of the kings yet again. Clearly, there’s something for us to glean from her life story. Elisha warns her of an impending seven-year famine that was about to “come upon the land” (2 Kings 8:1).
At the sheer word of Elisha, this Shunammite woman packs up all that she has and takes refuge in “the land of the Philistines” (2 Kings 8:2). Then, after the seven years were over, she goes back to her homeland and immediately seeks an audience with the king to get her house and land returned to her (2 Kings 8:3). And it just so happens that as this woman is being ushered into the king’s court, Elisha’s servant Gehazi is informing the king all about the unbelievable travail and triumph this woman’s experienced (2 Kings 8:4–5).
It must’ve seemed too serendipitous to even be real. “Speak of the devil, here she is, O king!” After the woman relays her story, the king is so moved by her testimony that he decrees that her entire estate be returned to her immediately. “And when the king asked the woman, she told him. So the king appointed unto her a certain officer, saying, ‘Restore all that was hers, and all the fruits of the field since the day that she left the land, even until now’” (2 Kings 8:6). It’s a sweet story, right? You almost want to insert “And they lived happily ever after” to cap off the historian’s words. This “woman from Shunem” has been shown an abundance of kindness and favor from Yahweh himself, with not only her son being “restored to life” but also her property fully restored to her possession.
“Restore” is a much more striking word than it first appears.
But what’s the point? Why her? Why make such a big deal about this random woman from Shunem? Well, I think God intends for the people of Israel to see themselves in this woman. In a way, she functions as a living parable of Yahweh’s immaculate promises. All that he would covenant to do with, for, and through his people is seen in this woman’s story — and it all has to do with that word “restored.” Four times in the span of three verses the historian employs the phrase “restored to life” (2 Kings 8:1, 5–6), culminating in the complete restoration of “all that was hers.” “Restore,” though, is a much more striking word than it first appears — literally meaning, “to be quickened,” or “to be revived.” It’s a word that’s used throughout the rest of the prophetic writings, usually in connection with God’s redemptive dealings with his people, sometimes rendered “revive” or, simply, “live” (Ezek. 18:27–28; Hosea 6:7; 14:7; Amos 5:1–6, 14; Hab. 3:2). Most notably, though, this word appears in that seminal oracle from the prophet Ezekiel, who speaks to a valley of skeletons to breathe once more, to be restored to life (Ezek. 37:1–14). Such is the heart of God for his people.
He is a God of revival and renewal and restoration. To a nation who had long rebelled against him — rejecting him and his ways over and over and over — he promises to raise them to life once again. To restore them. To bring them out of the land of their sojourn into the land of promise (Ezek. 36:33–36). This is Jehovah. This is our God. He abundantly restores. He saves to the uttermost (Heb. 7:25). He brings rebels back into the fold of his love, dismissing even the slimmest of inclinations that we should be forgotten, even though we forget him. “He refuses,” writes Dane Ortlund, “even to entertain the notion of forsaking us who deserve to be, or of withdrawing his heart from us the way we do toward others who hurt us.” (149) That’s just who he is. Resurrection and restoration are part-and-parcel of his glad tidings, which he stops at nothing to deliver to his people and to the whole world. And such is the good news. The God who abundantly restores is still in the business of total restoration, even today. Even now the God of heaven restores dead sinners to life.
The historian, then, shifts gears, turning his focus to Elisha and Benhadad the king of Syria. Word of the prophet’s arrival in Damascus soon reached Benhadad’s ears, who, as it happened, had fallen seriously ill (2 Kings 8:7). We know it’s serious because “recover,” in verse 8, is the same word for “restore” used earlier. The Syrian monarch senses that this virus, whatever it was, had fatal potential, such that he’d be requiring the prophet to “restore him back to life,” too. He insists, then, that his court official Hazael inquire with the “man of God” to see if he would “recover of this disease” (2 Kings 8:8). Hazael departs, with a forty camel caravan in tow, each bearing a gift to present to the prophet, perhaps to curry his favor when prophesying about the king’s condition (2 Kings 8:9). After hearing the inquiry, however, Elisha offers a historically enigmatic reply: “And Elisha said unto him, Go, say unto him, Thou mayest certainly recover: howbeit the Lord hath shewed me that he shall surely die” (2 Kings 8:10).
The God who abundantly restores is still in the business of total restoration, even today. Even now the God of heaven restores dead sinners to life.
Wait, did Elisha just contradict himself? What did he mean by that? What’s he talking about? Well, I think what Elisha means to say is that “influenza” wouldn’t be listed on Benhadad’s death certificate. That’s not how he’d go out. And he knows that because “the Lord” revealed it to him. The virus wasn’t the main focus. It’s the fact that the king will “surely die,” with the insinuation being that the “man of God” knows how that will go down, too. Such is when Elisha pauses, almost mid-sentence, fixing his gaze “steadfastly” on Hazael. “And he settled his countenance stedfastly, until he was ashamed: and the man of God wept” (2 Kings 8:11). The prophet was so disturbed, so disappointed by what he knew, by what the Lord had shown him, that he wept uncontrollably. This prompts Hazael to ask, “What’s the deal, Mr. Elisha?” At which point, Yahweh’s representative unleashes the full prophetic gambit of what was in store for this Syrian court official. “And he answered, Because I know the evil that thou wilt do unto the children of Israel: their strong holds wilt thou set on fire, and their young men wilt thou slay with the sword, and wilt dash their children, and rip up their women with child” (2 Kings 8:12).
It’s a nasty prophecy, through and through — full of sorrow and slaughter and unutterable savagery. Imagine, though, being told that this was your fate? You might very well react like Hazael did. “Is thy servant a dog, that he should do this great thing?” he rebuffs (2 Kings 8:13). “Do you really think I’m capable of something as grotesque as all that? Is that what you really think of me? Far be it from me, oh man of God, to ever do anything like that!” Hazael was incredulous. He couldn’t fathom ever participating in anything like this “man of God” just described. He couldn’t wrap his mind around the idea that he would ever be responsible for such atrocities. Which just goes to show that he didn’t know his own heart, because as soon as he leaves Elisha’s presence he acts in violence towards his king, suffocating him to death in his sleep (2 Kings 8:14–15).
And there’s a lesson in that for us, I do believe. We’re often the greatest unbelievers in our own depravity and delinquency. Our first thought when witnessing something criminal or corrupt is, “Oh, I could never do something like that. I’m so glad I’m not as bad that guy.” Such thoughts expose the Hazael in our own heart. We often fail to remember that, as Jacob Smith put it so well, we’re all “three bad days in a row away from becoming a tabloid headline, and most of us are already on day two.” We’re barely aware of the sinful monster that takes up residence in our own hearts.
We’re often the greatest unbelievers in our own depravity and delinquency.
Even so, what makes this scene the tragedy that it is, is that these words to Hazael weren’t Elisha’s, they were Yahweh’s (2 Kings 8:10, 13). What was revealed to Elisha by God was the looming fury about to be unleashed on God’s people at Hazael’s hands. And such is why the prophet weeps (2 Kings 8:11–12). He knew of the violence that would follow Hazael all the way to the throne of Syria. And, furthermore, he knew that that misery would only continue once he got there. Hazael in power meant bloodshed and brutality for God’s people. His rise to power, though, was entirely in keeping with Yahweh’s Word (1 Kings 19:15–17). The ruthless destruction that would follow in Hazael’s mutinous wake was, in fact, the hand of divine judgment being loosed on the people of Israel. They were about to reap what they had sown for all their stubborn disregard and disdain for Yahweh and his Word. And such is why Elisha cried so bitterly. He was aware of the severity that lied ahead for his Israelite brothers and sisters. He understood that for however necessary, and divine, this judgment was, it was still intensely sorrowful.
Within those tears, though, there was something else. Something deeper. Something truer than just a forlorn prophet crushed by the grievous albeit God-given prophecy he was bound to declare. As Elisha stood as a representative of Yahweh’s voice, so, too, are his tears a reflection of Yahweh’s heart. “Elisha’s tears are sent from above,” notes Dale Ralph Davis, “for that is how Yahweh views it. There is no fiendish delight in Yahweh’s judgment. Here is your God and you should prize him for his nature, the God who mingles his tears with the fire and brimstone.” (137) We’ve gravely misunderstood and misrepresented the God of the Bible if we believe his greatest thrill is punishment. And yet, Yahweh is often caricatured in that light, as if he can be found reclining on the porch of heaven, sipping sweet tea, with his feet propped up, as he messes with the world around us. That’s not Yahweh, not by a long-shot. He takes no delight in dispensing judgment, neither does he enjoy seeing people suffer (Ezek. 18:21–23, 30–32; 33:11). The prophet Isaiah even calls that “his strange work” (Isa 28:21).
God’s holy heart is welling-up with mercy, and it pains him when he has to afflict his children because of their sin and unbelief (Lam. 3:31–33; cf. Exod. 34:6; Num. 14:18; Neh. 9:17; Ps. 86:15; 103:8; 108:4; Joel 2:12–13; Jonah 4:2; Rom. 2:4). His judgment, though absolute, is reluctantly administered. “The posture most natural to him,” continues Ortlund, “is not a pointed finger but open arms.” (19) The God of heaven is forever at the ready, waiting to receive every penitent sinner, waiting to abundantly restore them to life. This is the heart of God for you, sinner.