This is the second post in a three-part series. Dr. Kim originally delivered his messages at First Presbyterian Church in August, Georgia, for the church’s 2015 Bible and Missionary Conference. Read the first part here.
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. 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.”
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. 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?’”
She replied, “I have a home among my own people.”
“What can be done for her?” Elisha asked.
Gehazi said, “She has no son, and her husband is old.”
Then Elisha said, “Call her.” So he called her, and she stood in the doorway. “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!”
But the woman became pregnant, and the next year about that same time she gave birth to a son, just as Elisha had told her.
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!”
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His father told a servant, “Carry him to his mother.” After the servant had lifted him up and carried him to his mother, the boy sat on her lap until noon, and then he died. She went up and laid him on the bed of the man of God, then shut the door and went out.
She called her husband and said, “Please send me one of the servants and a donkey so I can go to the man of God quickly and return.”
“Why go to him today?” he asked. “It’s not the New Moon or the Sabbath.”
“That’s all right,” she said.
She saddled the donkey and said to her servant, “Lead on; don’t slow down for me unless I tell you.” So she set out and came to the man of God at Mount Carmel.
When he saw her in the distance, the man of God said to his servant Gehazi, “Look! There’s the Shunammite! Run to meet her and ask her, ‘Are you all right? Is your husband all right? Is your child all right?’”
“Everything is all right,” she said.
When she reached the man of God at the mountain, she took hold of his feet. Gehazi came over to push her away, but the man of God said, “Leave her alone! She is in bitter distress, but the Lord has hidden it from me and has not told me why.”
“Did I ask you for a son, my lord?” she said. “Didn’t I tell you, ‘Don’t raise my hopes’?”
Elisha said to 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.”
But the child’s mother said, “As surely as the Lord lives and as you live, I will not leave you.” So he got up and followed her.
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.”
When Elisha reached the house, there was the boy lying dead on his couch. He went in, shut the door on the two of them and prayed to the Lord. Then he got on the bed and lay on the boy, mouth to mouth, eyes to eyes, hands to hands. As he stretched himself out on him, the boy’s body grew warm. Elisha turned away and walked back and forth in the room and then got on the bed and stretched out on him once more. The boy sneezed seven times and opened his eyes.
Elisha summoned Gehazi and said, “Call the Shunammite.” And he did. When she came, he said, “Take your son.” She came in, fell at his feet and bowed to the ground. Then she took her son and went out.
– 2 Kings 4:8-37 (NIV)
The story in Shunem continues and from verse 21 on, we read a remarkable tale about resolute faith. That is the second truth we see in this story, in the midst of regrettable tragedy, we see a resolute faith that is unshakable and unflinching.
After the boy’s death, the mother takes her child and places him on the bed of Elisha’s guest room. Without hesitation, she tells her husband that she will find the man of God. Though her husband discourages her to go to Elisha in light of the apparent protocol or visitation rules that existed at that time, she replies simply, “shalom,” it is well. She has lost her child, but not her faith. Her faith is so resolute that she is sure the prophet will see her, regardless of whether it is the appropriate spiritual day to see men of God like Elisha.
So with a renewed sense of tenacity, she throws off all pretension and decorum as she saddles up her own donkey and sets off, telling her servant to keep a brisk pace. When she finally approaches the man of God, the urgency of the moment is further reiterated as Elisha tells his servant to run and greet her. We read in verse 26 that Gehazi is told to ask her, “Are you shalom? Is your husband shalom? Is your child shalom?” Are you well? Is your husband well? Is your child well? Her response is again simple, and yet profoundly instructive for us. She replies, “shalom,” it is well.
Now, isn’t this the same woman who has just lost her only child? The miracle child that God himself provided and is now dead? Now some may think at this point that her responses don’t reveal any sort of resolute faith, but that she is in some sort of strange emotional denial, detached from all reality. But what we see is quite the opposite. Though she may not understand God’s providence and timing, she shows how entirely human she is as she exposes the raw pain and grief falling and grabbing Elisha’s feet. And while Gehazi attempts to push away this woman who has clearly lost all sense of propriety and respectability, Elisha discerns that she is in a state of “bitter distress” (v. 27). You see, in responding, “shalom,” she was not some sort of automated robot shutting down of all of her emotions. She was professing her resolute faith in the God of shalom; the God who gives, takes away, and can again bring back.
Again, she lost her son, but not her faith. She had resolute faith that the same God who gave her the seed of life in her womb could just as easily restore that life that has just died on her lap. Even her words to the prophet are a sign of her faith. In words reminiscent of the widow in 1 Kings 17, she cries out not only in accusation, but also in confidence that only Elisha will be willing and able to act. That is why she is unwilling to accept the plan of the servant laying the staff of the prophet on the boy. She has resolute faith only in the man of God.
And the resolute faith of this Shunammite woman is a challenge to our faith. Do you remember that great chapter of faith in the New Testament? Hebrews 11 is often called the “hall of faith” because it lists for us all those men and women, many named, some unnamed, who are called out by God as those displaying the kind of faith in their lives that pleased God. Well, after commending heroes of the faith from Abel to Abraham to Moses, the author concludes the chapter this way:
“And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets – who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received back their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated – of whom the world was not worthy – wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.” – Hebrews 11:32-40
The writer of Hebrews presents these people as real people who in the midst of unspeakable and regrettable tragedies nevertheless responded to God’s promise with resolute faith. The Bible honors them for their faith, not for their perfection. They were but ordinary recipients of God’s grace who exhibited extraordinary faith even in the midst of death. Of all the people in the Bible, it is this unnamed Shunammite woman that receives the honor of being included in the hall of faith.
History has provided us with thousands of stories of God’s people down the ages who have faced death with an unshakeable faith and a triumphant spirit because of the Gospel – even the story of an unnamed Shunammite woman who had resolute faith and received back her dead by resurrection. This leads us to our third and last truth.
Dr. Julius Kim is the dean of students and associate professor of practical theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Escondido, California. His also serves a church calling as associate pastor of New Life Presbyterian Church in Escondido. Prior to Westminster Seminary California, Dr. Kim served in a variety of ecclesiastical and academic settings. He is a graduate of Vanguard University, Westminster Seminary California, and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.