Thursday, April 14, 2016

Prophets And Kings, Day 67. Elisha Heals Naaman The Leper

Prophets And Kings
Day 67
Elisha Heals Naaman The Leper

This mornin we looks at one of my favorite Bible stories. A man named Naaman, the commander of the army of Aram, comes to Elisha because him haves heard that this prophet haves power from the Lord.

2 KINGS 5:1-19a
Today's passage is a story about a man with a high position in Aram, which is what we know today as Syria. He's a sick man with a terminal illness whose only hope is Elisha and the God Elisha serves.

"Now Naaman was commander of the army of the king of Aram. He was a great man in the sight of his master and highly regarded, because through him the Lord had given victory to Aram." (2 Kings 5:1a) Because his king values his service and because he is commander of a great and victorious army, Naaman feels he has good reason to take pride in himself. He has advanced to the highest position in the army. He is given credit for its victories. Some Jewish scholars believe he may be the man who shot the arrow that killed King Ahab of Israel, removing Israel's threat to King Ben-Hadad of Aram. 

Everything seems to be going well for this successful man, except for one thing, and it's a disastrous thing. "He was a valiant soldier, but he had leprosy." (2 Kings 5:1b) He has a terminal illness and it's not just any terminal illness, it's an illness that brings disfigurement and shame. He is made unclean by his condition. There is no cure and he has no hope. At least, not until a young Israelite servant girl brings up the name of Elisha.

"Now bands of raiders from Aram had gone out and had taken captive a young girl from Israel, and she served Naaman's wife. She said to her mistress, 'If only my master would see the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.'" (2 Kings 5:2-3) The Lord has orchestrated some divine appointments in this passage. At some point in the recent past, raiders from Naaman's nation made a foray into Israel, and on this trip they brought back a young girl who ends up being the maid of Naaman's wife. Likely the raiders took more than one captive, but this is the only one pertinent to our story and the only one the Bible mentions. There must have been something about this girl that made her seem like she'd be a good maid for Naaman's wife. Maybe she had a polite and humble spirit. Maybe she seemed intelligent and responsible. Or maybe something in Naaman's heart, though he didn't realize it, told him to bring this girl home to his wife.

The little maid is a godly young woman. She is not one of the idolaters prevalent in Israel at the time. If she were an idolater she would never suggest going to one of God's prophets. She would instead suggest making an offering to some pagan god. She's been wrenched away from her family, from the parents who brought her up in the fear of the Lord, but she's determined to serve the Lord wherever she is. What an admirable quality. What a great example this is to us. I don't know about you, but when I end up someplace I don't want to be, I tend to complain and try to figure ways out of it. This young girl has purposed in her heart to be a living testimony to the Lord no matter what.

Being told you have a terminal illness and that there is no hope must be a dreadful thing. I was with my mother when she was diagnosed with terminal cancer and when the oncologist told her even the strongest chemotherapy would only buy her an extra six to eight months. I've never felt so sorry for anybody. It seemed horrifying to be told such things. It was horrifying for her and for everyone who loved her. Naaman has received a similarly horrifying diagnosis. He's looking at a long and progressive illness, one that will disfigure him, one that will make him so monstrous that nobody will be able to look at him. Is it any wonder he jumps at the slightest chance of help, even if it comes from a nation with which Aram is not friendly? Upon hearing about the prophet in Israel's capitol of Samaria, he immediately decides to act on the information.

"Naaman went to his master and told him what the girl from Israel had said. 'By all means, go,' the king of Aram replied. 'I will send a letter to the king of Israel.' So Naaman left, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold and ten sets of clothing. The letter that he took to the king of Israel read: 'With this letter I am sending my servant Naaman to you so that you may cure him of his leprosy.'" (2 Kings 5:4-6) The king thinks so highly of Naaman that he writes a personal letter to the king of Israel, who is not his friend. But he wants to insure that Naaman is not forbidden to enter the nation and seek the help of the prophet. 

"As soon as the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his robes and said, 'Am I God? Can I kill and bring back to life? Why does this fellow send someone to me to be cured of his leprosy? See how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me!'" (2 Kings 5:7) The arrival of Naaman and this letter sends King Joram into a fit. The letter's author, the king of Aram, was the cause of Joram's father's death in battle. Ben-Hadad refused to return one of Israel's territories to her even though it was part of their cease-fire agreement and so Israel and Judah came together against Aram to take the territory back. Joram sees the king as his enemy, the one whose archer took his father's life, and he believes the letter is sent as a means of accusing him of something and dragging him into a war. 

King Joram knows nobody can cure leprosy but God. In reading the Old Testament rules regarding skin diseases, it appears there were occasional incidences of spontaneous remission/miraculous healing, for the law told the person to show himself to the priest when he noticed his skin disease had disappeared. But likely these healings were few and far between. More lepers were healed in the New Testament by the power of the Lord Jesus Christ, but His advent is still a long way off in the time of Naaman. Joram thinks the king of Aram is seeking a way to accuse him of not helping Naaman. Furthermore, Joram and Elisha are not friends and Joram doesn't feel confident he can arrange a meeting between the two men. Elisha wouldn't have helped Joram in the war with the Moabites if King Jehoshaphat of Judah had not been with him, so Joram has a legitimate reason for doubting Elisha will do him any favors. Joram believes Israel will be attacked if he has to send Naaman back to Aram unhealed.

But Elisha is a wise man who keeps on top of all the news and events in Israel. He quickly gets word of what's happened at the palace. "When Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his robes, he sent him this message: 'Why have you torn your robes? Have the man come to me and he will know that there is a prophet in Israel.'" (2 Kings 5:8) Elisha and the young servant girl have something in common: they have both decided to bloom where they are planted. They have both decided to remain in their present circumstances and glorify God. As Christians we often try to find a way out of working at a place full of unbelievers. We try to shield ourselves from any situation where we find ourselves surrounded by those who don't honor the Lord. But what if the Lord has arranged a divine appointment for us? What if He put us in the midst of unbelievers to shine a light in the darkness? What if He intends our manner of living to be a testimony of what Christ has done for us? Elisha and the other prophets are minorities in Israel. They are surrounded by idolaters. But instead of packing up and moving to Jerusalem where there is a temple and a godly king, they have decided to stay put and be a light in a godless nation. When Elisha says Naaman will know there is a prophet in Israel, this is the same as saying Naaman will know there is a God in Israel. Elisha will be able to heal him only through the power of God, the one true God.

"So Naaman went with his horses and chariots and stopped at the door of Elisha's house." (2 Kings 5:9) Naaman arrives with much ceremony, his wealth and position being made known by the large entourage with him. The money he's carrying has been estimated to be well over one million dollars in today's currency. 

I don't know exactly what kind of grand reception Naaman expects as his impressive caravan pulls to a stop in front of the prophet's house, but it wasn't this. "Elisha sent a messenger to say to him, 'Go, wash yourself seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will be restored and you will be cleansed.'" (2 Kings 5:10) Naaman is accustomed to being treated with respect and honor. As commander of the army, he's used to saying "Jump!" and having the men reply "How high?" He's made this long journey to see Elisha, bringing extravagant payment in exchange for the medical care he expects to receive, and now that he sits in his fine chariot outside the prophet's shack Elisha doesn't even stick his head out the door to say hello.

As usual, Elisha uses something very ordinary in a miraculous way. We've seen him make springs pure by adding salt. We've seen him neutralize poison stew by adding flour. Now he instructs Naaman to go down to the Jordan and dip seven times. The water itself isn't miraculous but a miracle will take place if he accepts in faith what the Lord has instructed Elisha to tell him to do. 

Naaman doesn't take it very well when the prophet himself doesn't come out to him. "But Naaman went away angry and said, 'I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy. Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Couldn't I wash in them and be cleansed?' So he turned and went off in a rage." (2 Kings 5:11-12) The pagan cultures liked to put a lot of ceremony in their religious practices and attempted miracles. We saw how the followers of Baal behaved on Mount Carmel when they called all day to their god. They danced and sang, prayed, cried, and finally began cutting themselves. The idolatrous religious ceremonies included a lot of noise and action. Naaman doesn't believe a prophet can simply speak a word through a servant and bring about healing. He wants Elisha to put on a show full of fancy rituals and long incantations and expansive hand movements. But Elisha hasn't even looked at him, much less touched him. Moreover, the Jordan is a dirty river compared to the rivers of Damascus, Syria. If water is all it takes he would far rather bathe in those pure waters than in the Jordan. He decides Elisha is a fraud and stomps off in fury.

When we come to a holy God for help we need to be prepared to do things His way, even if His way doesn't make sense to us. Naaman is angry because God's way is not his way. And when we come to a holy God for salvation there is only one way: through the Lord Jesus Christ. God has made the plan of salvation simple and we can only come to Him in the way He has set for us. We don't have to perform complicated rituals or rely on good works to get us to heaven. We only have to do it God's way: through His Son.

Naaman's servants display wise character now and he should be thankful for friends like these. "Naaman's servants went to him and said, 'My father, if the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more, then, when he tells you, 'Wash and be cleansed!' So he went down and dipped himself in the Jordan seven times, as the man of God had told him, and his flesh was restored and became clean like that of a young boy." (2 Kings 4:13-14) It's not our own great works that make us clean. It's the blood of Christ that makes us clean. It's the simplicity of the gospel. We can't add anything to what Jesus did for us. We can't achieve salvation by our own power but only by the One who is the truth, the life, and the way. It may not make sense to us that God chose this method to make us right with Him, but it is the method He has chosen. It may seem too simple to us as if we should add to the work of Christ, but God says the work of Christ is enough. When we have a relationship with the Lord, good works will naturally flow from that relationship, but works won't save us. It's the simple plan of grace that saves us.

"Then Naaman and all his attendants went back to the man of God. He stood before him and said, 'Now I know that there is no God in all the world except in Israel. So please accept a gift from your servant.'" (2 Kings 5:15) Naaman repents of his anger. Because his pride has now been replaced with faith, he gets an audience with the prophet.

"The prophet answered, 'As surely as the Lord lives, whom I serve, I will not accept a thing.' And even though Naaman urged him, he refused." (2 Kings 5:16) Naaman wants to honor Elisha with a gift. I don't believe he's trying to buy Elisha's favor because he received his healing before any mention of a gift was made. But Elisha must refuse it or else lose standing as a prophet. If word gets out that he has accepted money, people will twist the truth and claim Elisha is selling his services. They will mock him and say the grace of God has a price and that only those who pay the prophet can expect to receive help from the God of Israel. The Lord Himself would be blasphemed in Israel if Elisha accepted any payment and so he kindly refuses it.

"'If you will not,' said Naaman, 'please let me, your servant, be given as much earth as a pair of mules can carry, for your servant will never again make burnt offerings and sacrifices to any other god but the Lord.'" (2 Kings 5:17) It was a custom in those days for pagan people to bring back soil from holy sites. We see Naaman's pagan background coming through in this request but we also see his complete conversion. He wants to take home some soil from Israel to spread about the place he will use to make offerings and sacrifices to the God of Israel. No more will he bring offerings to false gods. Naaman has come to a saving knowledge of the Lord today. He believes that the Lord is God and that there is no other god. Naaman has the kind of faith the author of Hebrews says God is pleased with, "And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to Him must believe that He exists and that He rewards those who earnestly seek Him." (Hebrews 11:6)

The last part of today's passage has been controversial among both Christian and Jewish scholars. "But may the Lord forgive your servant for this one thing: When my master enters the temple of Rimmon to bow down and he is leaning on my arm and I have to bow there also---when I bow down in the temple of Rimmon, may the Lord forgive your servant for this.' 'Go in peace,' Elisha said." (2 Kings 5:18-19a) The majority opinion of this verse renders it exactly as it is translated here, that Naaman is asking forgiveness for his future action of having to accompany his master to a heathen temple. Some scholars reject this idea and say he is asking forgiveness for past offenses. I tend to agree with the former opinion, that Naaman will have to go home and resume his duty of accompanying the king to the temple of Rimmon and help the king to bow down. Since the king is leaning on Naaman's arm, it sounds as if he is becoming either elderly or feeble in health, but either way this duty will be required of Naaman and it may cost him his life if he doesn't comply. His heart, however, will not be in it. The bowing is not giving worship to a false god but simply performing a duty for his master. All Naaman's worship will be given only to the God of Israel. 

I can well understand the controversy over the above passage because our faith never gives us freedom to sin. But Naaman is new in the faith and caught between a rock and a hard place. Disobeying the king could cause his death and he is too new in the faith to give his life for it. Elisha's instruction to "go in peace" seems to indicate that martyrdom is not required of Naaman. Later, when the disciples see the risen Lord and their faith is raised beyond the level of anyone before them, all but John will give their lives for the faith. They will have what it takes to stand up to such a threat. Naaman does not and the Lord does not ask it of him. Naaman just became a believer today and he knows he doesn't have it in him to refuse the king. He received a miracle but has not yet formed a relationship with the God of Israel. He believes God is the only God and that the only power to heal is from Him, but he doesn't yet know God's character and personality. He doesn't yet understand God's love. Naaman has been given some wonderful things today but the relationship will come as Naaman walks with the Lord day by day and year after year. God knows Naaman's heart and how small his faith is at this time and doesn't ask more of him than he's able to do. On the day we came to Christ, were we ready to get up off our knees and go to the death for Him? I know I wasn't! Twenty-four years later I still can't be certain what I'd do if faced with such a decision. Would my faith be strong enough? Or would my natural human fear of death cause me to deny my Lord? If it ever comes to that I can only rely on the Holy Spirit to give me whatever I need to face such a situation honorably.

We learn some important things from Naaman's conversion. First, we must never let pride get between us and Jesus. Second, God's ways are not our ways and may not make sense to us, but we should obey Him anyway. Third, the plan of salvation is simple and there's nothing we can add to it. It may seem too simple to us because our human tendency is to create ostentatious displays and complicated rituals. But it's the blood, only the blood, of Jesus that makes us clean. Our Lord says, "Wash and be cleansed!"

Below is one of my favorite worship songs about the blood of Jesus and the simplicity of the gospel that saves us. I believe listening to it will bless your soul today.

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