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How Can I Help You?

Date: May. 3, 2015

Author: Michael Mark

2 Kings 4:1-37

Key Verse: 2 Kings 4:2

“Elisha replied to her, ‘How can I help you? Tell me, what do you have in your house?’ ‘Your servant has nothing there at all,’ she said, ‘except a small jar of olive oil.’”

Has anyone paid attention to the words that are painted on a Chicago police car? What do they say? There’s a motto painted on the police cars that read, “To serve and protect.” I find it interesting that police officers are given authority – but their authority is not to be served, but to serve and to protect by enforcing the laws of the land. If there were no police officers, chaos, destruction and violence could go out of control. To serve and protect sounds like a very noble purpose, and I believe it seems that way because it is a reflection of the character of God. God is the ultimate authority, God establishes his law which preserves and protects life, and he serves and protects all life on earth. We see that he is God of the cities, when he healed the water that was making the land of a certain town unproductive. He protected his servant Elisha from being jumped by mischievous boys. He controls the Israel Bears, and he controls the Chicago Bears as well. We see that he is God of the nations, as he controls the outcome of war between Israel and Moab. Today we will see that he is the God of our homes. He is not some far off, distant God whom you can never call, but he is near, and is among us in the very rooms we live and sleep in. He can serve and protect towns, he can serve and protect nations, and today we will see that he can serve and protect each one of us individually, through how he helps two different women with very different lives.

Look at v.1, “The wife of a man from the company of the prophets cried out to Elisha, ‘Your servant my husband is dead, and you know that he revered the Lord. But now his creditor is coming to take my two boys as his slaves.’” A widow came up to Elisha with an urgent plea. Her husband has died, and we find out that this man belongs to the company of the prophets. These were the true prophets of God, and perhaps they were all together learning how to interpret and teach the will and the words of God, like a seminary or school. We can see that the prophets were not like monks closed off from the rest of the world, learning in some remote place, but that they had wives and families. We can also see that even some of them did not make much money, and were even in debt. The life of a prophet was not very “prophet-able.” This woman’s husband got into some debt, but according to her plea, he was a man who revered the Lord. His debt was not from wasting his money, it may have been from trying to provide for his home, or possibly even paying taxes. It was a law in those days, if a person had a debt and then died, the debt would need to be paid by the children. In this case, a creditor was coming to take the two boys as slaves, so that they could work off their father’s debt. This widow was now in a desperate situation, not only was it bad to lose her sons, but she would also lose those who would help take care of her.

How did Elisha respond? Can we all read v.2 together, “Elisha replied to her, ‘How can I help you? Tell me, what do you have in your house?’ ‘Your servant has nothing there at all,’ she said, ‘except a small jar of olive oil.’” Elisha said, “How can I help you?” What comforting words to hear! One time my friends and I were stuck with a flat tire on a cold night on our way from Indiana. We called emergency and a state trooper came by. We were so relieved to see him! This officer was built like a bear, and he helped us change the tire by pushing against the car and even lifting it a little off the ground! Though he didn’t say the exact words, his arrival meant, “How can I help you?” Elisha had a concern for this widow, and wanted to help her. He asked, “What do you have in your house?” Perhaps, seeing what she could possibly have of value to sell, to which she replied, “nothing at all, except a small jar of olive oil.” She probably had basic furniture, clothes and utensils, but the only thing that might be worth something that she could give was a small jar of olive oil. (Maybe her fridge looked like a college students’ – with just some ketchup and a jar of mayo *joke*).

That was enough for Elisha, so he said, “Go around and ask all your neighbors for empty jars. Don’t ask for just a few. Then go inside and shut the door behind you and your sons. Pour oil into all the jars, and as each is filled, put it to one side.” This was Elisha’s solution. I don’t believe that he was rich, actually he did come from a wealthy family, but he gave that up to become a prophet. His solution was not to give her money, or take up a collection, but it seemed a little crazy. What happens when you pour a small jar into a large one? The small jar gets empty! But not this time. This solution would bring glory to God. Just like how Jesus fed 5,000 people with 5 small barely loaves and 2 fish, God would save this family by a small jar of oil. With man, this is impossible, but with God all things are possible. And like how the boy brought 5 loaves and 2 fish, God would use what this widow brought, so that she would know that it was God alone who helped her, and witness firsthand that nothing is too hard for the Lord to do. She would also witness the intimate and deep love that God had for her, his concern and care for her hardship, and that God also remembered how her husband served. Our labor in the Lord is never in vain, whenever we desire to glorify his name.

The widow responded in faith and obedience to Elisha’s solution. She went out to her neighbors to collect empty jars, and not just a few. She collected many jars, believing in the promise. She then shut the door and kept pouring, and miraculously the oil continued to pour filling up all the jars she collected! When all of the jars were full, she said to her son, “Bring me another one,” but he replied, “There is not a jar left,” and the oil stopped flowing. God had provided all of the oil to fill the jars, and he cut off the supply when everything was full – it didn’t need to keep flowing, since there was nowhere else to pour. This was all done behind a closed door, probably to prevent people with the wrong motives to ask for this miracle jar. Maybe more importantly though, this was done in a private room so that the widow would not be distracted, and be able to continue pray, or to be more able to focus on God, to think about his grace and mercy as the oil is poured out.

She went and told the man of God, and he said, “Go, sell the oil and pay your debts. You and your sons can live on what is left.” We know that she collected many, many jars, because when she sold them it would be able to pay off the debt and allow her family to live on what was left. Perhaps it was also a very high quality oil, and could sell at a good price. I wonder how miracle oil might taste. Here we see that God helped this poor widow, and freed her sons from debt. Not only that, but there was enough left over to provide for the family since the head of the household had passed away. God had served and protected this poor widow through Elisha.

The next scene shows us how God serves another woman who is in a different position in life, showing us how God cares for all people in every walk of life. Look at v.8, “One day Elisha went to Shunem. And a well-to-do woman was there, who urged him to stay for a meal. So whenever he came by, he stopped there to eat.” Shunem was a city in the region of Galilee, in the northern part of Israel. This woman was a well-to-do woman, meaning, she was rich. (Or modestly wealthy). Still though, she had a heart to serve the man of God. I wouldn’t doubt that she revered the Lord in the same way the widow and her husband did. Elisha, as a prophet, travelled around Israel, and may have passed by Shunem often to and from his home base at Mt. Carmel. Now, every time he passed through Shunem, he can expect a delicious, wonderful, home-made meal thanks to this well-to-do woman. I am thankful every week when we come to IIT, that after our worship services, we can all enjoy delicious meals prepared by all of the families.

The woman had such a reverence for the man of God that she went out of her way to build a place for him to stay. She said to her husband, “I know that this man who often comes our way is a holy man of God. Let’s make a small room on the roof and put in it a bed and a table, a chair and a lamp for him. Then he can stay there whenever he comes to us.”   She created a little apartment for him, and it wasn’t just a bed, but it also had a table, chair and lamp, for when he needs to study or write. It was also a private space, extra walls and I think an extra roof would be built, so that he can come and go whenever he wanted, without worry of disturbing the family. He can also pray in the privacy of his own room, without worrying about the family disturbing him. The woman was very thoughtful and considerate when setting up his accommodations.

One day when Elisha came, he went up to his room and lay down there. He said to his servant Gehazi, “Call the Shunammite.” So he called her, and she stood before him (that is, Gehazi). This is the first time we see Gehazi, Elisha’s servant. Elisha said to him, “Tell her, ‘You have gone to all this trouble for us. Now what can be done for you? Can we speak on your behalf to the king or the commander of the army?’” Elisha was not speaking directly to the woman, but asked her through Gehazi – thinking perhaps she might feel more comfortable answering the questions to him. Look again at verse 13, Elisha says, “Now what can be done for you?” This is like “How can I help you?” what Elisha said to the widow earlier. Elisha really wants to serve this woman, but in this scene the woman did not ask him for anything. Elisha wanted to serve because he was shown so much care. He wanted to give back to the woman because he was so thankful and appreciative for what she had done. This is the natural response to receiving a favor from somebody. When someone does a favor for you, you want to return the favor. When people attend a wedding or funeral, thank you cards get sent back from the host. When I was not home, my neighbor picked up a package for me so it would not be left outside. Later, when I saw that newspapers were piling up at his door because he might have been out of town, I picked them up every day until he got back. I believe this is the best motivation for us to serve God: to remember how much he has served us and what he has done for us. We don’t serve begrudgingly because we have to, but we serve thankfully because we want to.

Elisha wanted to do something for this woman, and offered to speak to the king or commander of the army on her behalf. He was basically saying, “I know people, I got connections.” This actually shows the influence Elisha was currently enjoying in his career; that he had some credibility with the king and his second in command, and could ask them favors. I know sometimes we wish we can ask the Mayor to give us some help on the Bible House, but we don’t have the kind of pull Elisha did. How did the woman reply? Look again at v.13, “She replied, ‘I have a home among my own people.’” She was basically saying, no that’s ok – I really don’t need anything, or any political favors. No one is causing me any problems, and my tax returns are all legit. She was content. She had a home, perhaps a nice home, and enjoyed living in a nice community. She was well-to-do. This also shows that she was not going through all this trouble for Elisha for selfish reasons. She gave him room and board purely out of her reverence and adoration of God.

Elisha really wanted to do something for her, so he consulted with his servant Gehazi. “What can be done for her,” Elisha asked. Gehazi said, “She has no son, and her husband is old.” This was a great suggestion! In this society in Israel, it was shameful not to have any children. They endured through this time, and now that her husband is old, there may not have been any more hope for children. If Elisha could promise a child, this would surely be a blessing for them. Gehazi called the Shunammite, and she came and stood in the doorway. She was being modest, so she kept her distance from Elisha, standing at the doorway, but this time Elisha spoke directly to her. “About this time next year,” Elisha said, “you will hold a son in your arms.” “No my lord!” she objected. “Please, man of God, don’t mislead your servant!” Her shock and objection showed that perhaps in the past, she really wanted a child, but now she objected, not believing it could happen. She was telling Elisha not to put up her hopes. She may have thought like Sarah, Abraham’s wife, who was 89 years old, and laughed at the thought when she heard she would bear a son in the next year.

But the woman became pregnant, and the next year about the same time she gave birth to a son, just as Elisha had told her. This may have been a pleasant surprise for the Shunammite. This itself may have been a miracle, but perhaps it was through Elisha’s prayer that he petitioned the King of heaven to grant this woman a child. God had granted this request, and blessed the woman with a son. It was not much longer, that tragedy struck. Look at v.18-19, “The child grew, and one day he went out to his father, who was with the reapers. He said to his father, ‘My head! My head!’ His father told a servant, ‘Carry him to his mother.’” The child was probably somewhere between 4-7 years old, and he went out to watch his father work. Shunem was situated near cornfields, and it was harvest time, so the reapers were harvesting corn. It was take your son to work day (actually sons used to watch quite often, on a family farm), so the boy went out to watch, being entertained by all the workers. During harvest season, the sun was especially hot, and on this day the boy got sunstroke. Sunstroke is a form of heatstroke, caused by the sun. Heatstroke is a condition where the body overheats when it is too hot, and can cause severe illness, and even death. In the US, in 2013 there were 44 heat related deaths caused by children being left in a car. Children can die of heatstroke when their internal body temperature reaches 107 degrees (http://www.chicagotribune.com/classified/automotive/chi-national-heatstroke-prevention-day-campaign-story.html).

The boy was taken to his mother, and sat on her lap until noon, and then he died. He developed sunstroke early, even before noon, the hottest time of the day. Imagine the grief and horror of his mother, doing what she can to relieve his pain, but finally dying in her arms. When he died, she laid him in Elisha’s room, shut the door and went out. She called to her husband and asked for one of the servants and a donkey to go to the man of God quickly and return. She did not tell her husband about the son’s death, because she first wanted to see what the man of God could do about it. This is actually great faith on her part. For most people death is final, but she wanted to know first what the man of God might say or do. She put the boy in his room, probably because no one else except for Elisha might go there. Her husband asked, “Why go to him today? It’s not the New Moon or Sabbath.” It may have been common to go see the man of God on the Sabbath, which is every week, or on a New Moon, the beginning of the month – and maybe to hear his teaching and preaching on the word of God. The woman told her husband, “That’s all right,” and he took her at her word. There was no further discussion, and no question about the son, he seemed to have trusted her, and brought her a servant and a donkey.

She saddled the donkey, and said to the servant, “Lead on; don’t slow down for me unless I tell you.” So she set out and came to the man at Mount Carmel. Shunem to Mount Carmel was about 15 miles, so a similar distance from here in the chapel to Orlando’s house on the north side. To walk there may take 4-5 hours, but the woman was in a hurry, and may have asked the servant to run or jog a little faster, while leading the donkey. I’d imagine that the servant was leading the donkey on foot, while she rode. Hopefully the servant and the donkey are in good shape.

Elisha saw the woman in the distance and sent Gehazi to meet her. He might have wondered why she was coming, and was concerned for her, her husband and her child. Instead of waiting for her to arrive, he sent Gehazi running over to her to meet her. When Gehazi asked, she said “Everything is all right,” not wanting to tell anyone about the situation until after she told the man of God. When she reached the man of God at the mountain, she took hold of his feet. This was also unusual. Remember earlier, when they met, she kept her distance, standing at the doorway – but now, desperate for help and pleading with Elisha, she grabbed on to his feet. Gehazi tried to push her away, but Elisha said, “Leave her alone! She is in bitter distress, but the Lord has hidden it from me and has not told me why.” The Lord may have hidden it from Elisha so that the woman could tell him herself.

Look at v.28. “Did I ask you for a son, my lord?” she said. “Didn’t I tell you, ‘Don’t raise my hopes’?” The woman had been content without a son. She was blessed when she received the son, but now she feels worse for having a son, and having him taken away. She did not ask for a son, but it was given to her, so she is distressed that he was taken away from her like this. Elijah perceived immediately that something was wrong with the boy so he sent Gehazi, “Tuck your cloak into your belt, take my staff in your hand and run. Don’t greet anyone you meet, and if anyone greets you, do not answer. Lay my staff on the boy’s face.” Elisha might not have known that the boy was really dead, and sent Gehazi first to try and heal the boy with the staff. Gehazi would have also been able to get there faster. Thinking that Elisha was not intending to go, the woman said, “As surely as the Lord lives and as you live, I will not leave you.” She was saying, I am not leaving here unless you come with me. She wanted to see what the man of God could do for her son. So Elisha got up and followed her back to Shunem.

Gehazi went on ahead and laid the staff on the boy’s face, but there was no sound or response. So Gehazi went back to meet Elisha and told him, “The boy has not awakened.” Gehazi could not revive the boy, and the staff did not work. When Elisha reached the house, there was the boy lying dead on his couch. Look at v.33, “He went in, shut the door on the two of them and prayed to the Lord.” I’m not sure where the father was at this point – he may still have been out reaping corn, unaware what was going on. This may have been the case so that Elisha could pray uninterrupted. Elisha shut the door and prayed to the Lord. This time it was Elisha behind the closed door. The first thing he did was pray to the Lord. Then he got on the bed and lay on the boy, mouth to mouth, eyes to eyes, hands to hands. This may have been how God instructed Elisha to prepare the body to be revived – to transfer his warmth on to the boy. This was also the way Elijah had raised the son of the widow at Zeraphath. The boy’s body grew warm. This was a good sign.

In verse 35, Elisha turned away and walked back and forth in the room. He may have been excited, and in anticipation of the Lord’s answer to his prayer. Then he got on the bed and stretched out on him once more. The boy sneezed seven times and opened his eyes. He’s alive!!! He has come back from the dead! He sneezed all over Elisha’s face, but that’s ok, he’s alive!! This was a great accomplishment and achievement for Elisha. Like Elijah, he had parted the Jordan river. He was a prophet and advisor to the kings of Israel and Judah. He had helped a poor widow by praying for her, and she received unlimited oil. But now, like Elijah, he raised a dead boy, establishing himself as a true successor to Elijah.

Elisha summoned Gehazi and said, “Call the Shunammite.” She must have gone out farther. When she came, he said, “Take your son.” Unlike the first time, where she stood at the doorway, she came in, fell at his feet and bowed to the ground. This was reverence and adoration for Elisha, who restored her son back to life. Elisha helped her, by praying for her to receive a son. Elisha then helped her again, but praying for her to receive her son again. She did not worship Elisha, but she worshipped God, who used Elisha to bring back her boy. She may have felt worse for losing her son, but now her joy was restored to her with an enhancement, an upgrade, if you will. She witnessed the power of God over life and death in front of her eyes. God came closer to her than ever before, and what she saw was the king of heaven and earth, and his amazing grace. She bowed to the ground. Then she took her son and went out.

Elisha asked the same question to these two different women, in different walks of life, “How can I help you?” The poor widow received oil, which she used to free her sons from bondage and live off of. The rich barren woman received a son, which seemed to be the only thing missing in her life. God looked upon the world, and to each one of us. He sees our bondage and our distress, and asks, “How can I help you?” Not everyone needs olive oil, not everyone needs a son, or a child (many people have children), but these blessings are represented in Jesus Christ – who is what everyone needs. Like the oil, Jesus is the payment for our debt of sin. And the grace of God through Christ is like the rest of the oil money, it is something we can live on for the rest of our lives. And as in the case of the Shunammite woman, Jesus is the Son God have given to us, who was raised from the dead to bless us and redeem us. Jesus said to his disciples, “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Matt 20:28).” Jesus came to serve, to care for the needy, heal the sick, and he came to give his life as a ransom for many. We were born slaves to sin, we sin every day, every hour, every minute – and the wages of sin is death. But God sent his Son into the world, and Jesus laid down his life in our place, to cancel our debt of sin. Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, they have been redeemed, their sins have been forgiven, and they have become children of God. And just as Christ rose from the dead, they have a hope in eternal life in heaven with God.

See what God has done! See how God has served! Believe in Christ, that he can save you, that he can deliver you with a mighty hand. Just as the Shunammite clung to Elisha’s feet, cling to Christ and trust that he has paid your debt and delivered you out of slavery to sin. Repent, and stop sinning, for you are no longer a slave to sin. Trust in him to meet all your needs. Christ has risen, and sits at God’s right hand. Remember when Elijah asked the Shunammite, “Can we speak to the king on your behalf?” Well, Jesus can speak to God, the king on your behalf! Remember his promises, and his mercy, and praise him. When King David heard God’s promise, he said, “How great you are, Sovereign Lord! There is no one like you, and there is no God but you, as we have heard with our own ears.” Indeed there is no God but the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

We can also “live off of Jesus.” His grace fills us all, and like the oil, his grace will never run out. All who come to him he will receive. His grace overflows into our lives. In today’s hymn, we sang, “What a Friend we have in Jesus, / All our sins and griefs to bear! / What a privilege to carry / Everything to God in prayer! / O what peace we often forfeit, / O what needless pain we bear, / All because we do not carry / Everything to God in prayer.” What a Friend we have, what a privilege. What peace we forfeit, what needless pain we bear, when we do not carry everything to God in prayer. Phil 4:4-7 says, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” In every situation, pray, and God will guard your hearts. God truly does serve and protect.

And lastly, a call to serve. Rom 12:1 says “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this your true and proper worship.” Our motive to serve is very important, and in light of God’s mercy, we are given a new motive to serve: out of thanksgiving and for his glory. Otherwise our motive to serve will be either for ourselves, or out of burden. We see in the fallen world service gone wrong. Although “to serve and protect” is a noble purpose, sadly as we have seen in the news some police, not all, but some abuse their authority, and demand to be served, rather than to serve and sometimes the consequences can be severe or even fatal. There are charities which do not donate to what they say they would, or some car salesman who try to cheat you out of your money. Or, people don’t want to serve at all. In one episode of the Simpsons, when Homer became garbage collection commissioner, their motto was “Can’t someone else do it?” And he used up all their budget for the year in a week. Serving with the wrong motive can be hard, but again, God gives us a new motive for serving: out of thankfulness, and for his glory. We can bring glory to God when we serve him, and when we serve one another in love. Paul says, “in view of God’s mercy.” Remember all that God has done for you, think about all you can be thankful for. Elisha and the Shunammite woman had this beautiful interaction of serving one another, and they both served out of their love and adoration of the Lord. If the Lord has paid your debts of sin, and has granted you life to the full in Jesus Christ, then “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another. (Rom 13:8)” As the Lord has served you and gave his life for you, he will also give you strength to serve. In view of God’s mercy, in light of how He has helped you, ask students at IIT, ask those around you, especially your brothers and sisters in Christ, “How can I help you?”

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