Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Bible Commentary - 2 Kings 5

In this chapter, Elisha heals an Aramean general and Gehazi tries to profit from it.

This is another significant chapter, not because it does much to advance the overall course of Israel's history, but because it can teach us some really important principles about exercising divine authority on earth.

Now that I have thrown out a big, ambiguous term like "divine authority", what do I mean?  I'm not going to offer a formal definition right now because I'm not sure if I even could formally define or encompass divine authority, but I'll try to give a brief explanation and a few examples.  Divine authority is the power given to God's representatives on earth, chiefly through covenantal relationships.  It is "divine" because it comes from God and it originates with God, and it is "authority" because those who are given divine authority do not have the power within themselves to do anything, but they have authority over aspects of the natural world to reshape things in accordance with God's purposes.  It is "authority" because it is delegated to such people, much like how a king or president might give authority to his officials to carry out various duties.  Examples will perhaps help to make this more clear.

Example 1: Genesis 2:23-24.  This is something I briefly discussed in my commentary at the time, but in this passage the man is making a formal pronouncement, echoing the creative acts of God in Genesis 1, and verse 24 tells us that because of the man's statement, marriage now exists.  We know that Adam did this in accordance with God's will because in that same chapter God said that he would create a "helper" for Adam (v. 18), and then in verse 23 Adam makes a declaration in agreement with God.

Example 2: Exodus 7 (and following).  In this passage, particularly v. 1, God says that he is going to make Moses "like God to Pharaoh", essentially granting Moses the power to do whatever miracles he needs to do to bring Israel out of slavery.  What follows in this chapter (and later chapters) is Moses performing a sequence of increasingly devastating plagues in judgment of Egypt's misbehavior towards Israel.  In essence, God gave Moses both the capability and the prerogative to destroy Egypt.  Moses had this power for the completion of a specific task (freeing Israel) that was in accordance with God's will.

Example 3: 1 Kings 18:36-38.  Elijah demonstrates divine authority by making a verbal declaration (through his prayer) in agreement with God's will in order to fulfill God's purpose (restoring Israel to their faith).  In this case, Elijah has power to perform supernatural miracles because of this divine authority.

There are many more examples but this selection should give my readers a general flavor for what I am talking about.  In these cases, God empowers specific people to work in accordance with his plans.  Natural or physical laws are overruled by God's laws and power.

Now, with all of this as the context, we can properly read 2 Kings 5 and why Gehazi is punished for trying to receive payment from Naaman.  I think the heart of this chapter is in verse 26.  God did not send Naaman to Elisha so that Elisha or Gehazi could become rich, but so that Naaman could be saved from idolatry and enter into faith in the LORD.  This is Gehazi's sin: he wanted to use divine authority (expressed through Elisha by healing Naaman) for personal gain.

It is interesting to contrast this with the miracles that occurred in the previous chapter when Elisha multiplied oil to provide for a widow and bread to feed the company of prophets during a famine.  Those instances are substantially different in character from what Gehazi is doing here.  In both of those previous cases, Elisha performed a miracle to meet an urgent need, whether it is hunger or a widow's children about to be taken into slavery.  In this chapter, there is no indication that either Gehazi or Elisha were in any desperate need; indeed, even if they were, the critical point we should have learned by now is that God could provide for them.  There is no reason why a prophet should ever need to receive payment in exchange for a miracle.  If a prophet is in need, God provides for that man or woman, like when God sent meat and bread by ravens to feed Elijah in the wilderness (1 Kings 17:6) or caused flour and oil to multiply when Elijah stayed with the widow of Zarephath (1 Kings 17:16).

Elisha's criticism of Gehazi is that he sought to use God's power to multiply fields, vineyards and slaves, to become a wealthy and great man, to feed off the largesse of God's sovereign grace to enrich himself.  This is a profound corruption of God's purposes and authority.  Also, think about how it would have affected Naaman if Elisha had accepted payment from him.  It would have taught Naaman that he could buy miracles, that God is a heavenly merchant who sells healing, rather than a heavenly king who demands obedience and devotion.  This means that Gehazi's behavior could subtly poison Elisha's influence by turning the power of God into something that can be bought, accessible to the wealthy and denied to the poor.  Instead, Elisha often demonstrates an egalitarianism by performing miracles for the poor and the wealthy alike, accepting payment from none.

Next I would like to discuss Naaman's response to Elisha.  At first, Naaman is angry that Elisha asked him to do something simple.  Expecting a fanciful demonstration and religious ritual, he got no such thing.  Nor was he given a complex or challenging task, not even a single offering to make: simply wash and be clean.  How remarkable that sometimes the simplest task requires the greatest faith, because when there is a long and elaborate ritual, we can often build our faith upon that ritual.  Naaman expected Elisha to perform some sort of incantation as if healing required it, and I can't help but imagine that we often think likewise.  I would also imagine this is precisely why God wanted no fancy rituals, because he wanted Naaman to understand that God's power and Elisha's authority does not depend on any pattern of behavior.  Divine authority.  It's like when Elijah called down fire from heaven with a simple prayer, when the frantic dancing and self injury of the prophets of Baal did nothing.

The only ritual that can ever compel God to act are the rituals that he tells us to use.  But in that case, it's not a ritual in the true sense of the word, because the real power behind such actions is not in the ritual itself, but in our obedience to God's will.  "Obedience is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams."  (1 Samuel 15:22).  God commanded Israel to perform many sacrifices in the Law of Moses, but the sacrifices mean nothing in themselves; it is only in the spirit of obedience to God that the sacrifices have meaning.  For instance, the sons of Eli exalted themselves above God by taking meat with fat still on it when people came to offer sacrifices (1 Samuel 2:12-17).  Even in the midst of offering sacrifices and serving as priests, because the sons of Eli did not act in obedience, they were cursed by God and died.  Similar to Gehazi, the sons of Eli sought to enrich themselves through their position as priests, stepping beyond their proper bounds.

After Naaman is healed, Elisha refuses to take his gift and Naaman declares that he would worship the LORD only.  There are two parts to this that I find interesting.  The first is that we have no indication that Naaman did anything to start following the Law of Moses.  Naaman did not get circumcised, nor did he begin keeping the regulations of the covenant.  And yet, by Elisha's response in v. 19, it appears that Elisha accepted Naaman's declaration.  The second part I find interesting is the exception that Naaman requests in v. 18.  He basically says that part of his royal duty is to physically support the king when the king bows down to a particular idol, Rimmon, and in carrying out his duty, Naaman must also bow before Rimmon.  Naaman asks to be pardoned for this, and Elisha grants him this pardon.  I think this is also very interesting because it goes to the heart of what devotion to God even means.  What Naaman is saying is that his body would bow to Rimmon, but his heart would remain devoted to the LORD, and this is accepted in God's sight.

If I had to summarize these topics, I would refer to 1 Samuel 16:7: "man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart".  God is not interested in the appearance of obedience or devotion, he wants people to be devoted to him in their hearts.  The reason why God does not try to force Naaman to obey the Law is that it would have been impractical for him to do so, and would have forced Naaman to leave his position in the Aramean army, where he holds considerable influence that he could use for good or evil.  In fact, God is willing to grant Naaman an exception, permitting him to bow before Rimmon, which Naaman (by his own conscience) recognizes is contrary to God's will.

Obeying the covenant is a mark of devotion for Israel because God commanded them to obey the covenant.  But we must always remember that obedience is better than sacrifices: it was never the covenantal laws that mattered, but always obedience and devotion to God.  In this matter, Naaman demonstrates devotion to God but in a way that is different from the covenantal laws.  This is what makes following God very challenging: there is no set or rules or laws governing behavior that we can follow that would be sufficient to please God.  The only way to please God is to listen to what he says and do it.  Rules and laws are "safe" because they are predictable, understandable and definite.  God is unpredictable (to us), not understandable (most of the time) and indefinite.  Listening to God means that we will often be surprised, challenged and even confused.  The bad news is that God is not willing to change to suite our desires, so the only thing we can do is learn to deal with it.  The good news is that life with God is defined by our relationship with him, which means that we can (and should) talk about it with him and even though God will not change, he is willing to explain a lot of these things to us and help us.

It's a hard thing to learn dependence on another, especially when that "other" is God, but it is also deeply fulfilling to enter that place of trust once we have grown enough to recognize his faithfulness in everything he does.  We still don't understand, we will still be surprised and challenged and all those things, but when we learn to trust him in spite of it all, we can find a deeper peace than could ever be known in a purely abstract code of rituals and laws.  There is no abstract moral code that is capable of giving life to man; the covenantal laws were only meant to provide structure and patterns for Israel to build a relationship with God.  But it is a profound mistake to put that structure and patterns in the very place of God, thinking that in the laws and apart from God we can find what we are looking for.  It has always been, and always will be, the relationship with God itself that is the essence of our healing, like the healing of Naaman.  If God wishes to change or negate that structure entirely, that is his decision to make and our obedience to follow.

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