Bible Commentary: 2 Kings 5, 6:1-7

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2 Kings 5, 6:1-7

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The Healing of Naaman

Naaman was a very powerful and successful commander in the Syrian army, and the personal assistant to Ben-Hadad II, the king of Syria. He was, however, a leper. When the Syrians found out that Elisha could perform miracles, Ben-Hadad sent Naaman to Israel. Naaman arrived with an entourage at Elisha's house, expecting an "official" and pompous welcome—and that Elisha would come out and perform a spectacular healing right before his eyes. Elisha, however, told him through a messenger to wash himself seven times in the Jordan to be healed. Naaman became furious, as this "prescription" to restore his health did not meet with his expectations. Receiving second-hand instructions to bathe in the silt-laden waters of the Jordan was offensive to him. Feeling humiliation and anger, he snorted out the names of Syrian rivers, which were cleaner and colder than the Jordan (see Jamieson, Fausset & Brown's Commentary, note on 5:12).

We don't know exactly why Elisha would not meet with Naaman in person. In the long run, that decision certainly helped Naaman to see that it was God, not Elisha, who performed the healing—and that may have been a factor. Perhaps the reason also involved Naaman's disease rendering him unclean—so that contact with Elisha would have made Elisha unclean, interfering with his ministry to others (compare Numbers 5:1-4). The command to wash in running water was in line with the law for those to be cleansed of leprosy by the priesthood (Leviticus 14:8-9). With no Levitical priesthood in the northern kingdom, it seems that God's prophets there carried out certain priestly functions. Perhaps the washing in the Jordan was symbolic. After all, the Old Testament washings prefigured spiritual purification and baptism—and seven times would denote completeness. Moreover, of all rivers Elisha chose the Jordan—which would seem to be symbolic of entering the Promised Land, or at least a connection with it, and receiving God's blessings there. In that sense, it may be that this gentile had to be symbolically "cleansed" before partaking of God's promises to Israel, in this case for physical healing.

It could also be that Elisha's seeming snub and the comparably humiliating instructions were to humble Naaman and test him as to whether he would obey instructions. In any event, Naaman's servants encouraged him to follow Elisha's direction and, to his credit, he did what he was told. When he did, his leprosy was healed. Because health trials have such a profound effect on us, mentally as well as physically, God will often use these experiences to work with us spiritually. It appears He may have been doing this with Naaman.

The commander returned to Elisha and offered him money, but Elisha refused to accept it. Again, as we saw earlier, it was the power of God that healed—Elisha understanding himself to merely be God's instrument. No one can buy this power, nor can anyone "pay" for a miracle. But Elisha's servant, Gehazi, had a different mindset and secretly and deceitfully asked for and accepted payment. Not only was the servant guilty of greed, but also he greatly misrepresented God's truth and His ways. Elisha, though, saw in a vision from God what Gehazi had done and pronounced the curse of leprosy on Gehazi and his descendants.

Before Naaman departed, he told Elisha that he had now accepted the God of Israel as his God. Then he asked for two things—two mule-loads of earth and that he be pardoned for his future bowing in a pagan temple. The Broadman Bible Commentary states: "Naaman leaves Elisha with two requests. His desire for dirt from Israel is closely linked to the common belief that gods were identified with the land itself—an attitude that continued even in Israel for an embarrassingly long period of time.... Naaman's second request dealt with the necessity of accompanying his master (apparently the king of Syria) when he worshipped Rimmon, or better, Rammon, the god of storm and rain better known as Hadad. Elisha apparently grants both requests, for the text records that Elisha sent Naaman away with the traditional benediction, 'Go in peace'" (note on 2 Kings 5:17-19).

Regarding the first item, it would appear that Naaman's belief system was not really "educated" yet. The concept of the God of heaven being connected and somehow limited to the land of a particular territory—if such was his thinking—was not accurate. However, a slightly different explanation of his view on the matter of land is that he accepted the concept expressed in the Old Testament that "foreign lands were polluted by the existence there of idolatry (cf. Josh. 22:19; Hosea 9:3-5; Amos 7:17). In taking back earth from Israel Naaman acknowledged that the Lord is the God of Israel" (Lawrence Richards, The Bible Reader's Companion, 1991, note on 2 Kings 5). It may even be that Naaman viewed the dirt as merely symbolizing his newfound connection with God and God's special land. In any case, the taking of dirt was certainly unnecessary. Whether Naaman knew that or not is now unknowable. Either way, it is likely that, being new to God's truth, his understanding of God's requirements was rather incomplete.

Regarding Naaman's second request—that he be pardoned for continuing to bow in a pagan temple—some might use it, particularly Elisha's perceived approval, to say that a converted Christian can continue to actively participate in non-Christian worship services. But the apostle Paul makes clear that a Christian must never do this (compare 1 Corinthians 10:16-22). Why then didn't Elisha prohibit Naaman from doing so in this case?

Notice up front that 2 Kings 5:19 does not explicitly say that Elisha sanctioned Naaman's chosen course. Jamieson, Fausset & Brown's Commentary states, "Elisha's prophetic commission not extending to any but the conversion of Israel from idolatry, he makes no remark, either approving or disapproving, on the declared course of action, but simply gives (vs. 19) the parting benediction" (note on verse 18). Soncino concurs with this understanding of Elisha's benediction, adding that Elisha left the apparent inconsistency in Naaman's proposed conduct up to Naaman's own judgment (Soncino Books of the Bible, note on verses 18-19).

What, then, are we to make of Naaman's thinking? Again, it may well revolve around the fact that his faith was not yet educated. We do see that he was very concerned about not offending God—and it is clear that his bowing in the temple of Rimmon would be only in compliance with his official duties. But he obviously could not yet have learned all of God's statutes regarding the avoidance of the accoutrements of pagan religion. God teaches us true understanding gradually—not all at once. Christ told His disciples that He had to tell them so much, but that they could not understand it then (John 16:12). They would, however, understand later—in time (verse 13). Indeed, it is not at all unusual for people new to God's truth today to believe that it's acceptable to participate in Christmas parties at work and the like. Naaman may have been reasoning similarly regarding pagan temple services. Moreover, for someone in Naaman's position and society, totally avoiding any appearance of participation in the national religion would be much more difficult than it is in the freedom of the modern Western world.

Yet it should also be mentioned that it's possible that Naaman's kneeling was not really to bow in the temple himself. He mentions the king leaning on his arm. Perhaps Ben-Hadad was frail or infirm and needed someone to physically help him kneel and rise. Naaman's kneeling may have only been to physically assist the king, whom he regularly accompanied, not to bow in the temple. Still, if this is the case, it would seem wiser for Naaman to have had someone else take over this function as it would probably have conveyed a wrong impression to others—either that he was worshiping a pagan god himself or that he was helping someone else to do so. In any case, it appears that Naaman made a commitment to God according to the best of his understanding. And Elisha let it go at that.

The story of Naaman is one that demonstrates that though God is the God of Israel, He loves the whole world (see John 3:16). It shows that God desires to bless the gentiles and bring them—not just the physical descendants of Israel—into a relationship with Him. In fact, as does the example of Nineveh's repentance at the preaching of Jonah, it demonstrates that gentiles have sometimes been keener in responding to God's instructions than the Israelites have. Christ used the example of the faith Naaman had shown to indict the lack of faith among His own countrymen (Luke 4:27).

Floating Ax Head

Next we see Elisha calling on God to miraculously make an iron ax head float that had fallen into the water. As always, no task is difficult for God. If there is a need, "ask, and it will be given to you" (Matthew 7:7). This was not a cheap trick to show off the power Elisha had from God—it was a legitimate need and an example of outgoing concern for the benefit of others, as the ax had been borrowed by his servant and would have to have been replaced by him (2 Kings 6:1-7). Miracles performed by God's true servants have meaning and are not done to draw attention to the person performing the miracles. On the other hand, many prophecies in Scripture foretell the rise of a religious figure called the False Prophet, who will perform "miracles" as well, yet "according to the working of Satan." His "miracles" are described as "lying wonders," as they will be used to impress and deceive people, not to help them (2 Thessalonians 2:9-10). We find a forerunner of this deceiver in the person of Simon Magus, a "sorcerer" who, in the days of the early apostles, attempted to "buy" the Holy Spirit to perform miracles and draw a greater following after himself (Acts 8:9-23). His concern was clearly not for the welfare of others.