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Bible Commentaries
2 Kings 5

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-27


2 Kings 5:1-27

And Jesus put forth his hand, and touched him, saying, I will; be thou clean. And immediately his leprosy was cleansed.

Matthew 8:3

AFTER these shorter anecdotes we have the longer episode of Naaman.

A part of the misery inflicted by the Syrians on Israel was caused by the forays in which their light-armed bands, very much like the borderers on the marshes of Wales or Scotland, descended upon the country and carried off plunder and captives before they could be pursued.

In one of these raids they had seized a little Israelitish girl and sold her to be a slave. She had been purchased for the household of Naaman, the captain of the Syrian host, who had helped his king and nation to win important victories either against Israel or against Assyria. Ancient Jewish tradition identified him with the man who had "drawn his bow at a venture" and slain King Ahab. But all Naaman’s valor and rank and fame, and the honor felt for him by his king, were valueless to him, for he was suffering from the horrible affliction of leprosy. Lepers do not seem to have been segregated in other countries so strictly as they were in Israel, or at any rate Naaman’s leprosy was not of so severe a form as to incapacitate him from his public functions.

But it was evident that he was a man who had won the affection of all who knew him; and the little slave girl who waited on his wife breathed to her a passionate wish that Naaman could visit the Man of God in Samaria, for he would recover him from his leprosy. The saying was repeated, and one of Naaman’s friends mentioned it to the King of Syria. Benhadad was so much struck by it that he instantly determined to send a letter, with a truly royal gift to the king of Israel, who could, he supposed, as a matter of course, command the services of the prophet. The letter came to Jehoram with a stupendous present of ingots of silver to the value of ten talents, and six thousand pieces of gold, and ten changes of raiment. After the ordinary salutations, and a mention of the gifts, the letter continued "And now, when this letter is come to thee, behold I have sent Naaman my servant, that thou mayest recover him of his leprosy."

Jehoram lived in perpetual terror of his powerful and encroaching neighbor. Nothing was said in the letter about the Man of God; and the king rent his clothes, exclaiming that he was not God to kill and to make alive, and that this must be a base pretext for a quarrel. It never so much as occurred to him, as it certainly would have done to Jehoshaphat, that the prophet, who was so widely known and honored, and whose mission had been so clearly attested in the invasion of Moab, might at least help him to face this problem. Otherwise the difficulty might indeed seem insuperable, for leprosy was universally regarded as an incurable disease.

But Elisha was not afraid: "he boldly told Jehoram to send the Syrian captain to him. Naaman, with his horses and his chariots, in all the splendor of a royal ambassador, drove up to the humble house of the prophet. Being so great a man, he expected a deferential reception, and looked for the performance of his cure in some striking and dramatic manner. "The prophet," so he said to himself, will come out, and solemnly invoke the name of his God Jehovah, and wave his hand over the leprous limbs, and so work the miracle."

But the servant of the King of kings was not exultantly impressed, as false prophets so often are, by earthly greatness. Elisha did not even pay him the compliment of coming out of the house to meet him. He wished to efface himself completely, and to fix the leper’s thoughts on the one truth that if healing was granted to him, it was due to the gift of God, not to the thaumaturgy or arts of man. He simply sent out his servant to the Syrian commander-in-chief with the brief message, "Go and wash in Jordan seven times, and be thou clean."

Naaman accustomed to the extreme deference of many dependants, was not only offended, but enraged, by what he regarded as the scant courtesy and procrastinated boon of the prophet. Why was he not received as a man of the highest distinction? What necessity could there be for sending him all the way to the Jordan? And why was he bidden to wash in that wretched, useless, tortuous stream, rather than in the pure and flowing waters of his own native Abanah and Pharpar? How was he to tell that this "Man of God" did not design to mock him by sending him on a fool’s errand, so that he would come back as a laughing-stock both to the Israelites and to his own people? Perhaps he had not felt any great faith in the prophet, to begin with; but whatever he once felt had now vanished. He turned and went away in a rage.

But in this crisis the affection of his friends and servants stood him in good stead. Addressing him, in their love and pity, by the unusual term of honor "my father," they urged upon him that, as he certainly would not have refused some great test, there was no reason why he should refuse this simple and humble one.

He was won over by their reasonings, and descending the hot steep valley of the Jordan, bathed himself in the river seven times. God healed him, and, as Elisha had promised, "his flesh," corroded by leprosy, "came again like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean."

This healing of Naaman is alluded to by our Lord to illustrate the truth that the love of God extended farther than the limits of the chosen race; that His Fatherhood is co-extensive with the whole family of man.

It is difficult to conceive the transport of a man cured of this most loathsome and humiliating of all earthly afflictions. Naaman, who seems to have possessed "a mind naturally Christian," was filled with gratitude. Unlike the thankless Jewish lepers whom Christ cured as He left Engannim, this alien returned to give glory to God. Once more the whole imposing cavalcade rode through the streets of Samaria, and stopped at Elisha’s door. This time Naaman was admitted into his presence. He saw, and no doubt Elisha had strongly impressed on him the truth, that his healing was the work not of man but of God; and as he had found no help in the deities of Syria, he confessed that the God of Israel was the only true God among those of the nations. In token of his thankfulness he presses Elisha, as God’s instrument in the unspeakable mercy which has been granted to him, to accept "a blessing" (i.e., a present) from him" from thy servant," as he humbly styled himself.

Elisha was no greedy Balaam. It was essential that Naaman and the Syrians should not look on him as on some vulgar sorcerer who wrought wonders for "the rewards of divination." His wants were so simple that he stood above temptation. His desires and treasures were not on earth. To put an end to all importunity, he appealed to Jehovah with his usual solemn formula-"As the Lord liveth before whom I stand, I will receive no present."

Still more deeply impressed by the prophet’s incorruptible superiority to so much as a suspicion of low motives, Naaman asked that he might receive two mules’ burden of earth wherewith to build an altar to the God of Israel of His own sacred soil. The very soil ruled by such a God must, he thought, be holier than other soil; and he wished to take it back to Syria, just as the people of Pisa rejoiced to fill their Campo Santo with mould from the Holy Land, and just as mothers like to baptize their children in water brought home from the Jordan. Henceforth, said Naaman, I will offer burnt-offering and sacrifice to no God but unto Jehovah. Yet there was one difficulty in the way. When the King of Syria went to worship in the temple of his god Rimmon it was the duty of Naaman to accompany him. The king leaned on his hand, and when he bowed before the idol it was Naaman’s duty to bow also. He begged that for this concession God would pardon him.

Elisha’s answer was perhaps different from what Elijah might have given. He practically allowed Naaman to give this sign of outward compliance with idolatry, by saying to him, "Go in peace." It is from this circumstance that the phrase "to bow in the house of Rimmon" has become proverbial to indicate a dangerous and dishonest compromise But Elisha’s permission must not be misunderstood. He did but hand over this semi-heathen convert to the grace of God. It must be remembered that he lived in days long preceding the conviction that proselytism is a part of true religion; in days when the thought of missions to heathen lands was utterly unknown. The position of Naaman was wholly different from that of any Israelite. He was only the convert, or the half-convert of a day, and though he acknowledged the supremacy of Jehovah as alone worthy of his worship, he probably shared in the belief-common even in Israel-that there were other gods, local gods, gods of the nations, to whom Jehovah might have divided the limits of their power. To demand of one who, like Naaman, had been an idolater all his days, the sudden abandonment of every custom and tradition of his life, would have been to demand from him an unreasonable, and, in his circumstances, useless and all but impossible self-sacrifice. The best way was to let him feel and see for himself the futility of Rimmon-worship. If he were not frightened back from his sudden faith in Jehovah, the scruple of conscience which he already felt in making his request might naturally grow within him and lead him to all that was best and highest. The temporary condonation of an imperfection might be a wise step towards the ultimate realization of a truth We cannot at all blame Elisha, if, with such knowledge as he then possessed, he took a mercifully tolerant view of the exigencies of Naaman’s position. The bowing in the house of Rimmon under such conditions probably seemed to him no more than an act of outward respect to the king and to the national religion in a case where no evil results could follow from Naaman’s example.

But the general principle that we must not bow in the house of Rimmon remains unchanged. The light and knowledge vouchsafed to us far transcend those which existed in times when men had not seen the days of the Son of Man. The only rule which sincere Christians can follow is to have no truce with Canaan, no halting between two opinions, no tampering, no compliance, no connivance, no complicity with evil, even no tolerance of evil as far as their own conduct is concerned. No good man, in the light of the Gospel dispensation, could condone himself in seeming to sanction-still less in doing-anything which in his opinion ought not to be done, or in saying anything which implied his own acquiescence in things which he knows to be evil. "Sir," said a parishioner to one of the non-juring clergy: "there is many a man who has made a great gash in his conscience; cannot you make a little nick in yours?" No! a little nick is, in one sense, as fatal as a great gash. It is an abandonment of the principle; it is a violation of the Law. The wrong of it consists in this-that all evil begins, not in the commission of great crimes, but in the slight divergence from right rules. The angle made by two lines may be infinitesimally small, but produce the lines and it may require infinitude to span the separation between the lines which enclose so tiny an angle. The wise man gave the only true rule about wrong-doing, when he said, "Enter not into the path of the wicked and go not in the way of evil men. Avoid it, pass not by it, turn from it and pass away." {Proverbs 4:14-15} And the reason for his rule is that the beginning of sin-like the beginning of strife-"is as when one letteth out water." {; Proverbs 17:14}

The proper answer to all abuses of any supposed concession to the lawfulness of bowing in the house of Rimmon-if that be interpreted to mean the doing of anything which our consciences cannot wholly approve-is obsta principiis- avoid the beginnings of evil.

"We are not worst at once; the course of evil

Begins so slowly, and from such slight source,

An infant’s hand might stem the breach with clay;

But let the stream grow wider, and philosophy,

Age, and religion too, may strive in vain

To stem the headstrong current."

The mean cupidity of Gehazi, the servant of Elisha, gives a deplorable sequel to the story of the prophet’s magnanimity. This man’s wretched greed did its utmost to nullify the good influence of his master’s example. There may be more wicked acts recorded in Scripture than that of Gehazi, but there is scarcely one which shows so paltry a disposition.

He had heard the conversation between his master and the Syrian marshal, and his cunning heart despised as a futile sentimentality the magnanimity which had refused an eagerly proffered reward. Naaman was rich: he had received a priceless boon; it would be rather a pleasure to him than otherwise to return for it some acknowledgment which he would not miss. Had he not even seemed a little hurt by Elisha’s refusal to receive it? What possible harm could there be in taking what he was anxious to give? And how useful those magnificent presents would be, and to what excellent uses could they be put! He could not approve of the fantastic and unpractical scrupulosity which had led Elisha to refuse the "blessing" which he had so richly earned. Such attitudes of unworldliness seemed entirely foolish to Gehazi.

So pleaded the Judas-spirit within the man. By such specious delusions he inflamed his own covetousness, and fostered the evil temptation which had taken sudden and powerful hold upon his heart, until it took shape in a wicked resolve.

The mischief of Elisha’s quixotic refusal was done, but it could be speedily undone, and no one would be the worse. The evil spirit was whispering to Gehazi:

"Be mine and Sin’s for one short hour; and then Be all thy life the happiest man of men."

"Behold," he said, with some contempt both for Elisha and for Naaman, "my master hath let off this Naaman the Syrian; but as the Lord liveth I will run after him, and take somewhat of him."

"As the Lord liveth!" It had been a favorite appeal of Elijah and Elisha, and the use of it by Gehazi shows how utterly meaningless and how very dangerous such solemn words become when they are degraded into formulae. It is thus that the habit of swearing begins. The light use of holy words very soon leads to their utter degradation. How keen is the satire in Cowper’s little story:-

"A Persian, humble servant of the sun,

Who, though devout, yet bigotry had none,

Hearing a lawyer, grave in his address,

With adjurations every word impress.

Supposed the man a bishop, or, at least,

God’s Name so often on his lips-a priest.

Bowed at the close with all his gracious airs,

And begged an interest in his frequent prayers!"

Had Gehazi felt their true meaning-had he realized that on Elisha’s lips they meant something infinitely more real than on his own, he would not have forgotten that in Elisha’s answer to Naaman they had all the validity of an oath, and that he was inflicting on his master a shameful wrong, when he led Naaman to believe that, after so sacred an adjuration, the prophet had frivolously changed his mind.

Gehazi-had not very far to run, for in a country full of hills, and of which the roads are rough, horses and chariots advance but slowly. Naaman, chancing to glance backwards, saw the prophet’s attendant running after him. Anticipating that he must be the bearer of some message from Elisha, he not only halted the cavalcade, but sprang down from his chariot, and went to meet him with the anxious question, "Is all well?"

"Well," answered Gehazi; and then had ready his cunning lie. "Two youths," he said, "of the prophetic schools had just unexpectedly come to his master from the hill country of Ephraim; and though he would accept nothing for himself, Elisha would be glad if Naaman would spare him two changes of garments, and one talent of silver for these poor members of a sacred calling."

Naaman must have been a little more or a little less than human if he did not feel a touch of disappointment on hearing this message. The gift was nothing to him. It was a delight to him to give it, if only to lighten a little the burden of gratitude which he felt towards his benefactor. But if he had felt elevated by the magnanimous example of Elisha’s disinterestedness, he must have thought that this hasty request pointed to a little regret on the prophet’s part for his noble self-denial. After all, then, even prophets were but men, and gold after all was gold! The change of mind about the gift brought Elisha a little nearer the ordinary level of humanity, and, so far, it acted as a sort of disenchantment from the high ideal exhibited by his former refusal. And so Naaman said, with alacrity, "Be content: take two talents."

The fact that Gehazi’s conduct thus inevitably compromised his master, and undid the effects of his example, is part of the measure of the man’s apostasy. It showed how false and hypocritical was his position, how unworthy he was to be the ministering servant of a prophet. Elisha was evidently deceived in the man altogether. The heinousness of his guilt lies in the words corruptio optimi pessima. When religion is used for a cloak of covetousness, of usurping ambition, of secret immorality, it becomes deadlier than infidelity. Men raze the sanctuary, and build their idol temples, on the hallowed ground. They cover their base encroachments and impure designs with the "cloke of profession, doubly lined with the fox-fur of hypocrisy," and hide the leprosy which is breaking out upon their foreheads with the golden petalon on which is inscribed the title of "holiness to the Lord."

At first Gehazi did not like to take so large a sum as two talents; but the crime was already committed, and there was not much more harm done in taking two talents than in taking one. Naaman urged him, and it is very improbable that, unless the chances of detection weighed with him, he needed much urging. So the Syrian weighed out silver ingots to the amount of two talents, and putting them in two satchels laid them on two of his servants and told them to carry the money before Gehazi to Elisha’s house. But Gehazi had to keep a look-out lest his nefarious dealings should be observed, and when they came to Ophel-the word means the foot of the hill of Samaria, or some part of the fortifications-he took the bags from the two Syrians, dismissed them, and carried the money to some place where he could conceal it in the house. Then as though nothing had happened, with his usual smooth face of sanctimonious integrity, the pious Jesuit went and stood before his master.

He had not been unnoticed! His heart must have sunk within him when there smote upon his ear Elisha’s question, -

"Whence comest thou, Gehazi?"

But one lie is as easy as another, and Gehazi was doubtless an adept at lying.

"Thy servant were no whither," he replied, with an air of innocent surprise.

"Went not my beloved one?" said Elisha-and he must have said it with a groan, as he thought how utterly unworthy the youth, whom he thus called "my loving heart" or "my dear friend,"-"when the man turned from his chariot to meet thee?" It may be that from the hill of Samaria Elisha had seen it all, or that he had been told by one who had seen it. If not, he had been rightly led to read the secret of his servant’s guilt. "Is it a time," he asked, "to act thus?" Did not my example show thee that there was a high object in refusing this Syrian’s gifts, and in leading him to feel that the servants of Jehovah do His bidding with no afterthought of sordid considerations? Are there not enough troubles about us actual and impending to show that this is no time for the accumulation of earthly treasures? Is it a time to receive money-and all that money will procure? To receive garments, and olive-yards and vineyards, and oxen, and menservants and maid-servants? Has a prophet no higher aim than the accumulation of earthly goods, and are his needs such as earthly goods can supply? And hast thou, the daily friend and attendant of a prophet, learnt so little from his precepts and his example?

Then followed the tremendous penalty for so grievous a transgression-a transgression made up of meanness, irreverence, greed, cheating, treachery, and lies.

"The leprosy therefore of Naaman shall cleave unto thee, and unto thy seed forever! Oh heavy talents of Gehazi!" exclaims Bishop Hall: "Oh the horror of the one unchangeable suit! How much better had been a light purse anal a homely coat, with a sound body and a clean soul!"

"And he went out from his presence a leper as white as snow." {Exodus 4:6 Numbers 12:10}

It is the characteristic of the leprous taint in the system to be thus suddenly developed, and apparently in crises of sudden and overpowering emotion it might affect the whole blood. And one of the many morals which lie in Gehazi’s story is again that moral to which the world’s whole experience sets its seal-that though the guilty soul may sell itself for a desired price, the sum-total of that price is naught. It is Achan’s ingots buried under the sod on which stood his tent. It is Naboth’s vineyard made abhorrent to Ahab on the day he entered it. It is the thirty pieces of silver which Judas dashed with a shriek upon the Temple floor. It is Gehazi’s leprosy for which no silver talents or changes of raiment could atone.

The story of Gehazi-of the son of the prophets who would naturally have succeeded Elisha as Elisha had succeeded Elijah-must have had a tremendous significance to warn the members of the prophetic schools from the peril of covetousness. That peril, as all history proves to us, is one from which popes and priests, monks, and even nominally ascetic and nominally pauper communities, have never been exempt; -to which, it may even be said that they have been peculiarly liable. Mercenariness and falsity, displayed under the pretence of religion, were never more overwhelmingly rebuked. Yet as the Rabbis said, it would have been better if Elisha, in repelling with the left hand, had also drawn with the right.

The fine story of Elisha and Naaman, and the fall and punishment of Gehazi, is followed by one of the anecdotes of the prophet’s life which appears to our unsophisticated, perhaps to our imperfectly enlightened judgment, to rise but little above the ecclesiastical portents related in mediaeval hagiologies.

At some unnamed place-perhaps Jericho-the house of the Sons of the Prophets had become too small for their numbers and requirements, and they asked Elisha’s leave to go down to the Jordan and cut beams to make a new residence. Elisha gave them leave, and at their request consented to go with them. While they were hewing, the axe-head of one of them fell into the water, and he cried out, "Alas! master, it was borrowed!" Elisha ascertained where it had fallen. He then cut down a stick, and cast it on the spot, and the iron swam and the man recovered it.

The story is perhaps an imaginative reproduction of some unwonted incident. At any rate, we have no sufficient evidence to prove that it may not be so. It is wholly unlike the economy invariably shown in the Scripture narratives which tell us of the exercise of supernatural power. All the eternal laws of nature are here superseded at a word, as though it were an everyday matter, without even any recorded invocation of Jehovah, to restore an axe-head, which could obviously have been recovered or resupplied in some much less stupendous way than by making, iron swim on the surface of a swift-flowing river. It is easy to invent conventional and a priori apologies to show that religion demands the unquestioning acceptance of this prodigy, and that a man must be shockingly wicked who does not feel certain that it happened exactly in the literal sense; but whether the doubt or the defense be morally worthier, is a thing which God alone can judge.

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on 2 Kings 5". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/2-kings-5.html.
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