Dr. Joel R. Beeke is president and professor of Systematic Theology and Homiletics at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, and pastor of the Heritage Reformed Congregation in Grand Rapids, Mich. He has written, edited, and co-authored numerous Reformed books, journals, periodicals, and encyclopedias.
Turn with me now to 2 Kings 4. I’m going to read a long portion because I cannot assume that everyone knows this wonderful story, in verses 8-37:
And it fell on a day, that Elisha passed to Shunem, where was a great woman; and she constrained him to eat bread. And so it was, that as oft as he passed by, he turned in thither to eat bread.
And she said unto her husband, Behold now, I perceive that this is an holy man of God, which passeth by us continually.
Let us make a little chamber, I pray thee, on the wall; and let us set for him there a bed, and a table, and a stool, and a candlestick: and it shall be, when he cometh to us, that he shall turn in thither.
And it fell on a day, that he came thither, and he turned into the chamber, and lay there.
And he said to Gehazi his servant, Call this Shunammite. And when he had called her, she stood before him.
And he said unto him, Say now unto her, Behold, thou hast been careful for us with all this care; what is to be done for thee? wouldest thou be spoken for to the king, or to the captain of the host? And she answered, I dwell among mine own people.
And he said, What then is to be done for her? And Gehazi answered, Verily she hath no child, and her husband is old.
And he said, Call her. And when he had called her, she stood in the door.
And he said, About this season, according to the time of life, thou shalt embrace a son. And she said, Nay, my lord, thou man of God, do not lie unto thine handmaid.
And the woman conceived, and bare a son at that season that Elisha had said unto her, according to the time of life.
And when the child was grown, it fell on a day, that he went out to his father to the reapers.
And he said unto his father, My head, my head. And he said to a lad, Carry him to his mother.
And when he had taken him, and brought him to his mother, he sat on her knees till noon, and then died.
And she went up, and laid him on the bed of the man of God, and shut the door upon him, and went out.
And she called unto her husband, and said, Send me, I pray thee, one of the young men, and one of the asses, that I may run to the man of God, and come again.
And he said, Wherefore wilt thou go to him to day? it is neither new moon, nor sabbath. And she said, It shall be well.
Then she saddled an ass, and said to her servant, Drive, and go forward; slack not thy riding for me, except I bid thee.
So she went and came unto the man of God to mount Carmel. And it came to pass, when the man of God saw her afar off, that he said to Gehazi his servant, Behold, yonder is that Shunammite:
Run now, I pray thee, to meet her, and say unto her, Is it well with thee? is it well with thy husband? is it well with the child? And she answered, It is well:
And when she came to the man of God to the hill, she caught him by the feet: but Gehazi came near to thrust her away. And the man of God said, Let her alone; for her soul is vexed within her: and the Lord hath hid it from me, and hath not told me.
Then she said, Did I desire a son of my lord? did I not say, Do not deceive me?
Then he said to Gehazi, Gird up thy loins, and take my staff in thine hand, and go thy way: if thou meet any man, salute him not; and if any salute thee, answer him not again: and lay my staff upon the face of the child.
And the mother of the child said, As the Lord liveth, and as thy soul liveth, I will not leave thee. And he arose, and followed her.
And Gehazi passed on before them, and laid the staff upon the face of the child; but there was neither voice, nor hearing. Wherefore he went again to meet him, and told him, saying, The child is not awaked.
And when Elisha was come into the house, behold, the child was dead, and laid upon his bed.
He went in therefore, and shut the door upon them twain, and prayed unto the Lord.
And he went up, and lay upon the child, and put his mouth upon his mouth, and his eyes upon his eyes, and his hands upon his hands: and stretched himself upon the child; and the flesh of the child waxed warm.
Then he returned, and walked in the house to and fro; and went up, and stretched himself upon him: and the child sneezed seven times, and the child opened his eyes.
And he called Gehazi, and said, Call this Shunammite. So he called her. And when she was come in unto him, he said, Take up thy son.
Then she went in, and fell at his feet, and bowed herself to the ground, and took up her son, and went out.
Let’s pray. Great God of heaven, may we learn lessons from this moving, profound, often misunderstood story that may stand us in good stead, not only for our studies, but for our entire lives. Come and bless us now with sweet, submissive, sanctifying faith and may the beauty of that faith shine in our lives as it is done in the life of the Shunammite woman. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
We’re going this morning to five miles north of Jezerial, a little place called, Shunam. Today it is called Sulam, and the archaeological remains of Shunam lay adjacent to Sulam. I had the privilege to see it when in Israel on one of my journeys; we had a little extra time and our guide said to us, “Is there a place you’d like to go?” and I said, “I’d love to go see Shunam, does it still exist?” and he said, “Yes, I’ll take you right there.” And still today, you can look and see Mount Carmel fifteen miles away across the plains of Jezerial. It was here that Elisha often came; Elisha had a little seminary on Mount Carmel with a number of theological students and he would go bi-weekly or monthly, we’re not sure, but regularly make the journey over to the seminary and teach his prophetical students the Word of God. And he would stop in Shunam to take a breather on the way at the home of this great woman. “Great” here meaning “mature,” a woman mature both spiritually and, no doubt, well-off financially, as well. This woman constrains Elisha to stop by regularly; he’s always welcome, in fact, her husband builds a little room for him and they supply his needs and so, he’s very grateful.
On one of the journeys, he says to his servant, Gehazi, “Call that Shunammite.” A prophet usually would speak, in those days, through his servant to the person. So, he speaks through Gehazi to her and says, “What do you want me to do for you? Do you want me to speak to the King for you? Or to the captain of the hosts of army?” And she says, “I dwell among my own people.” Now that’s an astonishing answer. I mean, if someone came to you and said, “I’ve got the ability to speak to the President of the United States of America for you and I’ll do for you anything you want, what would you like to have done for you?” Would you say, immediately, “Well, nothing, because I dwell among my own people. I’m content, I’m submissive to God’s lot for me in life, and I’m truly happy in the Lord; I really don’t want any favors.” That’s a beautiful way to live, that’s really an expression of Jeremiah Burroughs’ classic book titled The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment. But once you understand that this woman was childless and that in Israel, if you were childless, that was considered a sign of the judgement of God; because every faithful, godly Israelite woman had this secret hope in her heart that she or her ancestors would be the bearer of the Christ-child, the Messiah to come. But she doesn’t even mention that. She’s so familiar with embracing her cross of childlessness and so content embracing what, Boston called, “Her crook in the lot, her burden, her cross in life,” that she doesn’t even mention this to Gehazi. But Gehazi does and Elisha promises her, of course through divine revelation, that she will have a child about this time next year. It happens, and then the child grows up, the child of promise, the child of joy; you can image how this woman must have doted over this boy. Special child, given directly through the prophet of God, by God himself. This child grows up and starts to join his father in the fields. One day, it’s very hot no doubt, and the child gets some kind of sun stroke and says to his father, “My head, my head.” The father, not thinking too much of it, sunstrokes weren’t that uncommon in at that time in the heat, says to the young man, “Go carry my son to his mother.”
And then the Bible —you know the Bible often understates things in our kind of expressive society— says he sat on her knees until noon and then died. Died, it says it so simply. But this is the child of promise, this is the child that this woman was hoping for, that from his loins would come the Messiah. Everything was wrapped up in her hopes for this boy, and this boy, the son of promise, the son she loved, the son who had her heart, and the son in whom she couldn’t separate from the very gospel of the coming Messiah, this boy died. Can you imagine the questions that would run through the mind of this women, the riddles, the doubts, the fears, the anger perhaps, and the bitterness? Yet we read none of that, absolutely none of that. Instead we see a response of tremendous faith.
The Bible says she laid the boy on the bed of the man of God, number one; shut the door upon him, number 2; and went out, number 3. May I suggest to you that all three of those actions are acts of faith. Because you see, when you lay the boy on the bed of the man of God, in those days whatever came into contact with death was considered unclean. So, like Abraham with Isaac, this woman, obviously, does not want to make the prophet’s room unclean; she’s not acting out of bitterness, she’s believing, as Abraham did with Isaac when he went up the mount, that God would raise him from the dead. And she shuts the door upon him, that too is an act of faith, because in those days, you see, every burial happened the same day the person died due to the hot climate. As soon as someone died, immediately, you made preparations for burial. The first thing you did was you contacted a group of mourning women, you would hire women to mourn and they would weep, and wale and you would collect their tears in bottles, and you made funeral preparations. She does none of that, she shuts the door. What if someone were to find the boy? And she was gone; she was going to go to the prophet. Would they accuse her of, in our society, of child abuse— neglecting her dead son, what a shame. But by faith, she shuts the door and she goes out.
She goes out by faith and says to her husband, “Send me a donkey, I need to ride to the man of God,” who by this time is all the way at Mount Carmel, 15 miles away. First of all, a woman wasn’t supposed to go by herself like that so far in those days, a five-hour journey. But she gets a rider, she gets a donkey despite her husband’s question, “Why would you go to him today, its neither new moon nor Sabbath?” And she just answers he husband one word, it’s amazing, shalom. But it’s shalom future tense, “Peace, it shall be well.” She has expectant faith for the future, you see? God is going to make everything well, she believes that. And then the young man gets in the cart with her or on the donkey with her, and she says, “Slack not thy riding, except I bid thee.” So, they rush as fast as they can, and they get near the mount and Elisha sees her coming, and he says, “Gehazi, run now to me and then ask her, ‘Is it well with you? Is it well with a husband? Is it well with the child?’” And she gives this amazing answer, shalom, but present tense, “It is well.” Now I want you to think about that a moment; your only son is dead at home and you’re asked how you’re doing, and you say, “I’m well.” That’s phenomenal.
Now there are commentators and they all gloss over this, and they say, “Well, this is no big deal, it’s like somebody asking you today, ‘How are you doing?’ You’ve got a terrible cold and you’re not feeling well at all and you say, ‘Yeah, I’m well, how are you?’” Now that’s not what is going on here. This woman says, “Shalom. I am well, it is well. Everything is well.” How is that possible, how could she have such submission in the midst of such trail? Well, I’d like to suggest to you that there are four steps, and I want you to remember these steps, taking them with you all your lifetime. Four steps of genuine submission you need in every trial of your life if you are really going to honor God to the full.
The first step is to acknowledge God. Every trail that comes your way, God’s hand is in it. You need to acknowledge God. You know, a couple of days ago, we had 9/11 again. Many of you scarcely remember 9/11, some of you don’t at all because you were babies. Well, 9/11 was traumatic for this nation. The day after 9/11, Larry King got four ministers around him and asked them questions about God in relationship to 9/11. The first three said God has nothing to do with it, God is not involved at all, this is just a terrible act of terrorism. John MacArthur was the fourth one, and he said God has everything to do with this; God’s hand is involved in everything. He’s not guilty of the sin, he didn’t perpetuate the sin, but nothing happens outside of God’s providence. If God has nothing to do with our trails then we have an impotent God, is what MacArthur said. So, the first thing you need to know, when a trail comes your way, is you need to get on your knees and say, “It is the Lord. What is the Lord saying to me?” First step of submission. First step of sweet, beautiful, sanctifying, and submissive faith.
The second step is to justify the Lord. To say not only is it the Lord, but to say that it is right. It is right. I never receive anything in my life that is as bad as what I deserve. You know, one time in Grand Rapids, I get on the elevator on floor one, I was going up to floor seven, and a lady got on, she was the only elderly person on the elevator, she had to go to floor seven. I thought, “Well, I’ve got about a minute in a half maybe to evangelize to her,” so I made a comment about the weather, she responded about how people are often unsatisfied with the weather. I said, “Well, it’s a good thing God is in charge.” Then she said to me, “Yes, my mother used to tell me, ‘We have no right to complain about anything, because everything above ground is the mercy of the Lord.’” I was thinking, everything above ground? Well, the only things below ground are death and hell. What she’s saying to me is death and hell are what we deserve, that’s what her mother told her. Suddenly I realized, she’s evangelizing to me. But what a truth there is in this, you see. We justify God no matter what happens to us when we exercise spirit-worked, beautiful, sweet, submissive, and sanctifying faith. It’s the Lord and He’s right. The Lord has given, and the Lord has taken away, Job said. It’s right, he’s the Lord of the earth. I’m unworthy, I’m hell-worthy, I’m death worthy; it is well.
But the third step of true submission, which goes yet deeper, is not only to say, “I acknowledge the Lord and justify the Lord,” but thirdly, “I approve of what the Lord does.” It is well; that goes a lot deeper. Not only has the Lord given and the Lord taken away but blessed be the name of the Lord. Even when I don’t understand His ways, even when I have to say, “Lord, you are right.” In John 13:7, when you say, ‘What I do now, thou knowest not, but thou shalt know hereafter.’” But I approve of thee because I trust in thee; I trust thee more than I trust myself. And so, I approve of whatever thou doest because thou art in charge and I believe that all things work together for good to them that love God. It is well. When you can reach that point where you say, “It is well, and I approve of you, Lord.”, in your deepest trials of life you will have reached great spiritual maturity. You’ll be a great woman or a great man. But also, one deeply contented.
But then there’s a fourth step, the deepest of all and that’s to cling to the Lord. To cling to the Lord when He seems to come out against me as my greatest enemy, to cling to Him as if He were, as He indeed is, our greatest friend. You see that’s what this woman does as well. You know when she comes to Elisha, she grabs Him by the feet, she clings to the God of Elisha and she does that purposefully. Because you see, there’s a difference between submission and lack of caring. I just gave you four positive steps of what submission is, but this story also gives us three negative steps of what submission is not. Now sometimes people think when they really submit to something before God it means they don’t care about it anymore. Well, that’s certainly wrong.
There was a woman in my congregation, she’s gone to be with the Lord now, she really was a God-fearing woman and she had a God-fearing husband who he passed away. Their marriage wasn’t the greatest, I’m afraid. But about three years after he died, she came to me one day and she said, “You know the Lord has given me such sweet submission as a widow that I never miss my husband,” and I’m thinking, “Um, this doesn’t sound too good to me.” That’s not submission. Submission is when the pain is there, and you bow before God. You see, that’s what this woman had. When she said, “It is well,” she wasn’t saying, “I don’t care about my son at home.” No, she comes to Elisha, and she grabs him by his feet, and she says, “Did I not say do not deceive me?” That, again, is not an act of rebellion, but she’s saying, “My heart is full of pain, the son of promise is dead, I bow under it, but I cling to the Lord,” as she clings to the prophet. In her mind, of course, clinging to the prophet means clinging to God because he is the prophet of God. I cling to the Lord, I pour out my soul before Him. So, submission is not sitting there with folded arms and saying, “Well, if the Lord’s going to save me or if the Lord’s going to do this or that it’s going to happen.” No, no, submission is when you bow under God in the midst of pain and you surrender all to Him. And so, that’s what she does. She has true submissive faith concerning the present and concerning the past. She acknowledges God, she justifies God, she approves of God, and she clings to God, but she’s not careless. The sense and feeling of the pain is still there. She feels the reality of sorrow.
And then finally, she also feels in her submission that she has a right to ask the question, why? I’ve had people tell me often, in my own church actually and elsewhere, when God does something, we have no reason and we have no right to ask why. You know, that’s not true. Indeed, we have no reason and no right to ask why if we’re going to ask why with our fist in the face of God, if we’re going to ask in bitterness or anger. We little, tiny pieces of dust on God’s balances have no reason, no right, to ask why that way. But to ask why the way that David asked in Psalm 139, “Search me, O God, and know my heart: [and] try me, and know my thoughts, [root out every evil] way in me, and lead me in the way of everlasting.” To ask why with open palms, that’s not sinful. You want to know why, because you want a close relationship with God and you want God to purge you; that’s God honoring. You know Jesus asked the greatest why question ever asked on earth, “My God, my God,” with a loud voice, “Why hast thou forsaken me?” And Jesus cannot sin. So, there you have proof positive that you can ask God a why-question without sinning, if it’s a sanctified why-question.
So, this woman has this beautiful, sanctifying faith; submissive faith that gives her an inward shalom; a peace for the future, a peace for the present, and a peace for the past. She surrenders all to God in the midst of her pain, and as she does so, as she clings to God, in fact she won’t even let the prophet not come to the home. When the prophet says, “Gehazi will go,” she says, “As the Lord lives, I will not leave thee.” “You must not leave me,” she is saying, and the prophet goes, and you know the story, we just read it. He stretches himself on the child, the child finally awakes, he gives the child back to the mother, she bows before him, and she takes the child. You see this expression three times over in this story, “And she went out” —by faith, by faith, by faith. Now the faith is rewarded, the faith is realized, God does raise her son from the dead, God is faithful, and true to His promise. Now all the mysteries are solved, and the woman’s faith is deepened more than ever before.
I want to say something to you young people; as you study in college, you’ll face challenges as you enter the adult world more and more. You’ll face disappointments in life, you’ll face callings to be submissive and you will experience many times, like me, that you’re not very good at submission and you’re ready to stand up against God. You’re ready to think you have rights, you’re ready to think you deserve better, but remember this story. And remember this: the more you learn to bow under a sovereign God, the more inner shalom you will have, inner peace. And the more you learn to surrender all into God’s hands —even as you labor hard at what you are doing, even as you feel the pain of your sorrows— when you persevere you will be blessed. You’ll learn lessons in times of submission that you could never learn in times of prosperity. It will mature you and though you will never see it in yourself, other people will say of you, “This is a great young man and a great young woman, because I see in that young man and in that young women the beauty of sanctifying, submissive faith.” This is what you need, not just for college years, but for your whole life.
So, I want to close by asking you this question, “Is it well with you?” You’re well into the semester now, is it well with you? Is it well with your soul? Is it well with your relationship with God? Is God at the center of your studies, or are your studies pushing away God? Are you more concerned about grades, the A or the A-, than you are about your relationship with God? Is it well with you? Are you bowing under the present crosses God has put in your life? Are you hating sin, loving Jesus, and pursuing holiness, is it well with you? Do you love God above all? Are you loving your neighbor as yourself? Are you exemplifying Christ-like submission to those around you? Is it well with your soul? What a blessing to be able to say, “It is well with my soul, because I have learned to bow under God, in sweet submission, concerning the past, in the present, and with expectant faith for the future.”
Transcripts are lightly edited.