Hope revived: The Shunammite woman and Elisha

“But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” (2 Corinthians 4:7)

“For this reason he had to be made like them, fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted. (Hebrews 2:17-18)

As far as I can remember, there is nothing airbrushed about the humanity of the men and women described in the pages of the Bible. I can think of several incidents that a 21st-century public information officer would instinctively try to deflect questions about, but they’re all in there—the glorious, the half-hearted, the two-faced and the ugly.

One of the reasons so much of Scripture is narrative, I believe, is encapsulated in Paul’s declaration to the Corinthians (above). The litany of sorrows that immediately follows ought to give every would-be minister pause: “hard pressed,” “perplexed,” “persecuted,” “struck down,” “always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake” (vv. 7-12).

For all the battering these clay vessels endure, they still fulfill their purpose: “so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body.”

But at the same time, “he has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one” (Ps 22:24). He knows what we’re made of because he made us. He doesn’t need to do the kinds of tests engineers do to see how much we can endure before we break.

And don’t ever forget, he is merciful. If anyone knows that, I do, for all the grace I wasted like hot sand absorbing a summer cloudburst. “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out” (Is 42:3).

For these reasons, I appreciate the small narrative details that reveal the vulnerabilities, weaknesses, perplexity, even the heartbreaks, of biblical figures:

The unstinting politeness of Gideon conversing with the angel: “Pardon me, my lord” (Jud 6:13-15).

The cold feet Gideon got when instructed to tear down his father’s altar: “Gideon took ten of his servants and did as the Lord told him. But because he was afraid of his family and the townspeople, he did it at night rather than in the daytime (Jud 6:27). (But he still did it, which is what really counted.)

Joseph’s big letdown: (To Pharaoh’s chief cupbearer) “But when all goes well with you, remember me and show me kindness; mention me to Pharaoh and get me out of this prison.”

“The chief cupbearer, however, did not remember Joseph; he forgot him” (Gen 40:14,23).

Jesus’ merciful diversion for the benefit of the woman caught in adultery: “But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger” (Jn 8:7) to take everyone’s eyes off someone no doubt already overwhelmed with shame. (This is hardly a scholarly conclusion, but it’s this detail that informs my gut feeling that this is a genuine event and not apocryphal.)

As you may have suspected, I have felt these as well as read them numerous times, so I can attest to how important the details are to this clay vessel.

In the personal information I have shared in various posts, I have also tried to be transparent and honest. In The Greatest Love, for example, and the bits and pieces of that story I’ve inserted in other posts, I had to reveal my own failures and weaknesses to make my point (i.e., how powerful love is).

That doesn’t mean I’m proud of all of that. I did have to wrestle with God for many months over a terminated romantic relationship that put “dying to self” to a severe test. But I could have wrestled a lot less if I had obeyed wholeheartedly a lot sooner. (The truth is, in trying to “save my life,” I lost it. That’s the flip side of Jesus’ teaching; look at the rich young man for an obvious example.)

But there is one episode in the life of the prophet Elisha that I’ve always found affecting for its humanity: the Shunammite woman (2 Ki 4:8-37) I think the spare, unadorned prose narrative—you can find the same style in various biblical accounts—makes it even more poignant, but also satisfying.

The prophet passed by this wealthy woman’s house on occasion, and she talked her husband into making a room for him because, she said, “I know that this man who often comes our way is a holy man of God.”

To return the kindness, Elisha asks if there is something he can do for her. She demurs, but then Gehazi (not the Shunammite woman herself, in character) informs him, “She has no son, and her husband is old.” Enough said. 

Elisha prophesies to her the birth of a son. This evokes a strong reaction because that promise resonates with a submerged hope and strong desire within her, her refusal notwithstanding. “No, my lord!” she objected. “Please, man of God, don’t mislead your servant!”

The son is duly born, then one day he falls ill in the fields and is brought home, where he dies in his mother’s lap. She places the body in the prophet’s room and makes haste to go to him.

You should read the whole narrative for yourself. I just wanted to set the stage.

When you read the apparent unhappy ending of this promised son’s death, you want to wonder why. Abraham nearly sacrificed his promised son until he saw a ram caught by the horns. When the Lord fulfilled his promise and also provided the sacrifice then, you know he surely could have done something here to avert a tragedy.

But here, I believe, we’re in the same position as Martha, the brother of Lazarus. When the sisters sent word to Jesus that Lazarus was sick, “he stayed where he was two more days” (Jn 11:6). And then Lazarus died.

When Jesus does show up, Martha says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (11:22). Uh, where were you?

Paul wrote, “We know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (Rom 5:3-5).

But some people can’t see all the way to hope. Life is “usual outcomes” and foregone conclusions and that’s as far as the horizon extends. It produces the kind of stoic, even bitter, resignation that you hear in the Shunammite’s answer to Elisha (“Everything is all right”).

No, it’s not. Not when “hope” puts you to shame or bitter disappointment.

It wasn’t just the son that was revived that day, it was dead hopes, hopes that through too many bitter experiences convince us that all hopes will be dead on arrival.

Hence, her reaction against the promise of a son. Don’t get my hopes up. They soar for a few feet before plummeting to the ground to shatter in pieces. I know. So don’t tell me otherwise.

Was this unbelief? No, I don’t think so. Unbelief is the conviction that God won’t fulfill his promises, not the sometimes keen doubts that dart in and out of our imagination.

And so the whole promise had to be brought to death to revive the life of the Shunammite, not just her son. From then on, she knew hope would not put her to shame. Then, and only then, on the far shore from suffering and disappointment, everything will be “all right.” 

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