(First read: II Kings 5:1-27)
Naaman & Gehazi
The past few Sundays we’ve been looking at some of the lesser known persons found in the Scripture. Today we are going to focus on two men from the same Biblical account – one of whom may be somewhat familiar to you – while I’m almost certain that the other man’s name will not be familiar at all. The first of these – the potentially familiar one – is a man by the name of Naaman – and Naaman is the commander of the army of the King of Aram, i.e. Syria – a very powerful and proud people.
It is not possible to date exactly when this event took place – following the split in 930 B.C. of the people of Israel into two nations – the Northern Kingdom, which kept the name Israel and which was made up of ten tribes – and the Southern Kingdom, which was known as Judah, and was made up of two of the twelve tribes. Following this split there were off again/on again hostilities with Israel’s eastern neighbor – Syria or Aram. This account dealing with Namaan must have occurred during one of the temporary lulls in hostilities between the two nations.
Naaman is everything the commander of the army ought to be – he is brave, valiant – he may have risen to his position by coming up through the ranks because he seems to be a soldier’s soldier. The Scripture tells us that he was highly regarded, especially by the King of Syria, because he had been particularly victorious in battle. But there is a caveat to his acclaim – a fascinating fact that if you read the passage too quickly you may miss – it is right there in verse one where it says that he was so highly regarded “because through him the Lord had given victory to Syria.”
I doubt that the King of Syria or even Naaman himself would have acknowledged this – if anything they would have thought that Naaman’s success was due to the blessing of Rimmon – or Baal-Hadad – who was the Semitic god of storms, thunder and rain and who was the god worshiped by the Syrians – or that his success came simply because of Naaman’s personal leadership skills and tactical understanding. But no – his success was because of the providence of the Lord (Yahweh) God – the God of the people of Israel, who were time and again – Naaman’s enemy.
This is important for us to see because we tend to view God as one who watches what is going on in this world – or perhaps is involved in the great sweeping movements of history – but do not always look to see His hand at work in all things – even perhaps, in giving the enemy victory to bring about His greater purpose. As the account continues it tells that for all of his outward fame, and in spite of his fortune – that Naaman was a very sick man –he had leprosy – the most feared disease of his day. If in our day all we have to do is hear whispered the phrase the “big C” (Cancer) for panic to overtake us – in Naaman’s day it was the “big L” – Leprosy. Naaman’s rank and privilege – his personal wealth — may have been able to keep him out of the usual destination of the leper – that dumping ground called the leper colony – but it would not stop the ravaging effects of the illness – not only would it destroy and disfigure the body – but eventually it would claim his mind as well – his ability to develop strategy – to lead his men would disappear – his family – his life, his lifestyle would all be shattered. What was this great man to do??
The answer came from a rather unexpected place – the voice of a slave girl from Israel – captured in one of the Syrian army’s raids – but despite her situation, she had not abandoned her God – and she knew where to send Naaman. She talks to her mistress about this – she must have been held in some regard by her mistress and she must have had some feelings beyond compassion for her master. Fascinating isn’t it, one of the key players in this account is a young woman from Israel who is serving as a slave – and we are not even told her name, but it matters not – the glory is not to be ours – it belongs to God. Perhaps we should ask if we would have done what this slave girl did if we were in her place?
Her mistress talks to her husband – who talks to his boss – the King – who then contacts the King of Israel with a request that he cure Naaman of his leprosy. Now as you might imagine the King of Israel reacts with panic – he can’t cure Naaman – and in fact the passage tells us that he believes that it is an attempt on the part of the King of Syria to pick a fight – an excuse to break the truce and start a war. “…he tore his robes and said, “Am I God? Can I kill and bring back to life? Why does this fellow send someone to me to be cured of his leprosy? See how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me!”
Even in those days word of such things got around pretty quickly and Elisha the prophet hears about what has happened and he sends word to the King of Israel– send the Syrian over – I’ll take care of it – no problemo!! Geez you royal types are so skittish. Elisha is one of the great prophets of the Old Testament – yet like the prophet who went before him, Elijah, Elisha has no book of the Bible named after him. Elisha was prophet to the Northern Kingdom, Israel, and served first as a student of and attendant to Elijah. Later, Elijah was directed by God to pass onto Elisha the mantle of the prophet – it was literally a piece of clothing – a cloak usually made of animal hair and it represented the prophet’s calling and office. Elijah was active as a prophet for 50-60 years and served as prophet during the reign of six different Kings of Israel – beginning with Ahab and ending with Jehoash. Although he seems to have kept a house in Samaria – we know that he constantly moved about the land enjoying easy access into the royal courts as well as the simplest of peasant homes. There are records of his ministry in Jericho, Bethel, Shunem, Dothan, Jezreel and on one occasion we find him in the city of Damascus, the capital of Syria, where he anoints Hazael as king of Syria. There is in fact a report that came out in the summer of 2013 that a very well-respected archaeologist believes that he may have discovered what “might have been the house of Elisha the prophet” – in the city of Tel-Rehov. Nothing conclusive mind you – but possible.
Back now to the second half of the ninth century B.C. as Naaman shows up at Elisha’s place – with all the appropriate pomp and circumstance – horses, chariots, dress uniforms – the whole nine yards. But when he got there – Elisha doesn’t even come out to see him – he sends out his servant with a message for the General – go dip yourself in the Jordan River – seven times – and you will be cleansed of this illness. As you might expect – Naaman explodes – it’s bad enough that this prophet of Israel won’t come out to see me in person – Me, the commander of the army of the King of Aram – but to add insult to injury – now he wants me to take a bath in the Jordan River – as if we don’t have better rivers back in Syria – I didn’t come here for this sort of nonsense. Let’s go home – and when we get back this way again – why, this dog of a prophet will see me for sure – face to face – and will he be sorry.
This is so typical of human beings – we are so much more concerned about “how” we are treated by others – than we are about whether we are living in right relationship with God and being obedient to Him. Sometimes it takes a harsh word to get through the hardness of our hearts. It can be a terrible thing when pride gets in the way – and as you no doubt know – pride can be a cruel master – it can tear our lives apart – and it can keep us from being whole. Naaman is about to leave in a huff – when his servants intercede again, O Master, if this dog of a prophet would have asked you to go do something great – you would have done so, without even thinking about it – and we know that what he has asked of you really and truly does sound ridiculous – but why not give it a try? – go and do what he has asked.
We are told that Naaman puts his pride on hold – and goes down to the Jordan River. It was Oliver Wendell Holmes who said that “The greatest act of faith is when a man decides he is not God.” Down he goes – seven times he dipped in the river Jordan – not once, not twice, not three times – but seven times – and his flesh was restored, becoming clean like that of a child – as soft as a baby’s bottom. Why seven times? – I suppose it is to make a point – it’s not up to us to determine how often we must dip in the river – it’s up to the One who has given us the task – it is up to God. Does this bother you?? I expect that it might – most modern day Christians seem to prefer a MacDonald’s kind of faith – drive-up – a fast-food kind of faith. Give me a formula – a “faith” task – and we’ll do it once – well okay twice – maybe three times – and then we get our reward – right?? We don’t really think that God wants us to be consistent about this faith stuff – to do it over and over and over again – do we? We’re willing to admit that Sunday is important – but if that isn’t enough we’ll throw in – say Tuesday and Thursday – but goodness gracious God doesn’t expect us to keep it up all seven days a week – does He? Every week??
In our day I expect that we’d be trying to come up with a money-making angle to this dip in the Jordan – maybe we could bottle this stuff – we could make a mint don’t you think?? I had a bottle Jordan River water at one time – some years ago a member of my church took a trip to Israel and brought me back a clear plastic water bottle full of the River’s water. He thought maybe I would want to put a drop or two in the baptism font every time I baptized a child. Over the years I’ve probably baptized 400 or 500 little ones –but baptism is not about the water. This passage isn’t about some sort of chemical reaction in the water – it’s about a faith reaction – about a desire – a thirst – to better understand who we are – and to know who God is.
For all the longing for “spiritual things” in our day – the truth has not changed over the centuries. God calls us to be people of contrite hearts – to put aside our stubbornness and pride – to put off our intellectual pretense – and to go right down into the stream of the life-giving God, in order that our hearts and souls might be renewed within us. Are we willing to dip consistently and regularly into the waters of worship and Bible-study and prayer and service – allowing God to fill us and cover us – then perhaps the miracle of a changed life and peace will be ours as truly as it was for Naaman.
In response to his healing, Naaman offers Elisha a gift – he urges Elisha to take a gift – but Elisha refuses. So instead, Naaman asks for a gift – as much dirt from that place as two mules can carry as a reminder of what has happened to him in that place – and as a pledge that although the King of Syria may require Naaman to bow in the Syrian temple before the god Rimmon – he will never again make offerings and sacrifices to any other god but Yahweh (the LORD). And this part of the account ends with Elisha no doubt smiling — and saying to the General – “Go in peace.”
This is when we learn more about another character in this story – as Gehazi the servant of Elisha now comes to the forefront. He believes that Elisha has let Naaman off too easy – and decides to chase after him to see if he can’t get a bit of the gift that was offered and refused – for himself. From Naaman he collects two talents of silver and two sets of clothing – Naaman was generous and gave him more than he had asked for – and as he returns home he sneaks his booty into the house and hides it. No doubt he was smiling inside at the thought of the deception that he had just accomplished. Surely he must have forgotten just who it was that he served. I wonder what was on his face when Elisha asked him, “Where have you been, Gehazi?”
“What, who me, I haven’t been anywhere?”
In all the O.T. there was no one who was given the gift of accomplishing the wonderful acts of God through miracles like Elisha. Moses did some pretty spectacular things – as did Elijah — but Elisha was the one who over time became known as the great miracle worker. In fact, until the time of Jesus himself, no one had seen such things accomplished as those things which Elisha did. God had never failed to provide for Elisha – yet if there is one thing that perhaps is even a greater threat than pride to our spiritual well-being – it is greed. For his actions, Gehazi receives the leprosy that had been cleansed from the foreigner, Naaman, and the man of Israel now had skin as white as snow with disease. In all the Jewish tradition – Gehazi is identified as one of only four persons who forfeited his share in the afterlife because of his wickedness.
How sad to see how Gehazi as he began to think of those things that should have been held up as sacred and wonderful – as commonplace and ordinary – as insignificant. He had begun to live so carelessly that he missed the very glory of God that gives all of life its joy – though it was right there before him in each and every day. He had lost his gratitude for God’s blessings and God grace at work in His life. How ironic is this passage wherein we see a successful and powerful enemy of Israel and its God, give up his pride and in his humility he is blessed by God both physically and spiritually – and in response he then takes an oath of allegiance to the Lord God as the only God whom he will serve for all of his days.
In contrast, we also meet the man Gehazi – who had one of the most wonderful jobs a person could ever have – especially for a person who was a part of the people of Israel, the people of God. He had the wonderful joy and privilege of serving each day as the attendant of the prophet of God – hearing the Word of God though the prophet and seeing with his own eyes what the Lord God Almighty was doing through the prophet – indeed, he had the joy of even sharing in the work of the prophet. Yet in the face of these blessings and more – his heart becomes overwhelmed with a deadly greed – and it is his undoing.
Keep watch – lest you take for granted the grace and mercy of God at work in your life and around you. Give thanks for the way God has cared for you – rejoice in His provision for you. Know his Word – that you may be humble in Spirit – and obedient in all that you say and all that you do – that you may worship Him only – that you may bring glory to His name alone.