Peaceful Distress (2 Kings 4)

I’ve been committed over the past few months to making the trek through the Old Testament again. On the surface, there’s certainly less ‘low hanging fruit’ for Christian living than in the Gospels & epistles. But when you DO come  across a timeless truth from dozens of centuries ago, or a Biblical figure whose story resonates with your own, it is a sweet sweet thing. I had one of those moments over the weekend as I crossed into the book of 2 Kings and read chapter 4.
To summarize verses 8-15, a faithful woman in Shunem has shown consistent hospitality to the prophet Elisha, and he discovers that “she has no son, and her husband is old” (v.14). As seen in numerous women of faith throughout the Old Testament who struggle through decades of infertility, the Lord sees fit to bless her with a child even in the unlikeliest of contexts (1 Sam 1:20, Gen 25:21, Gen 30:22, Judges 13:3). We can add 2 Kings 4:17 to that list, and the Shunammite woman would give birth to her first & only boy the following year.
I remember finding out that first time that we were pregnant back in May. While we didn’t have years of infertility in our story, we nevertheless became familiar with the thrilling emotion that I bluntly recall as the “Holy crap, we’ve created another human” moment… It’s really quite something, as the significance of your life seems to simultaneously shrink and balloon at the same time. We were now responsible for another life that we instantly valued above our own. We were parents.
And so the passage continues — and as she watches the boy grow for several years, this faithful Shunammite woman comes to discover one day that her son is not doing well. Though the text is not clear about his condition, it does tell us  that this mother endures every parent’s worst nightmare as she watches her child pass away in her arms. And that scene strikes a mighty strong cord with us as we carry a child conceived with a life-threatening condition. So it is here (as I observed the woman’s response) that I had my first “wow” moment reading Second Kings…

“Then she called to her husband and said, ‘Send me one of the servants and one of the donkeys, that I may quickly go to the man of God (Elisha) and come back again.’ And he said, ‘Why will you go to him today? It is neither new moon nor Sabbath.’ She said, ‘All is well.’ Then she saddled the donkey… And when she came to the man of God, she caught hold of his feet. And Gehazi his servant came to push her away. But the man of God said, ‘Leave her alone, for she is in bitter distress…’” (2 Kings 4:22-23,27)

So which one is it??  Is this woman feeling collected or in agony?  Is it ‘all good’ or are the wheels falling off?  As I reflected, the answer I landed on doesn’t make a good deal of logical sense — but I think it’s possible that she feels BOTH emotions at the same time. And I land there because Kelly & I are learning that suffering & hope may not be mutually exclusive. Maybe it’s not always an “either/or” … maybe a person can be at peace while they’re also in unavoidable pain.

The phrase translated “All is well” in ESV (and “peace” in NIV) is the Hebrew noun shalom, which means “completeness, soundness, wholeness.”  I don’t confuse shalom with blind contentment or naivety. I don’t think this woman is doing cartwheels, and I don’t think she’s in denial. I  think she was probably clinging to two crucial things in her darkest hour:

  1. Her God is SOVEREIGN. He sees it all, and He cares. He’s a good Father. He gives and He takes away, and He makes beauty out of ashes. He was sovereignly & lovingly at work when He entrusted this boy into her care, and would remain sovereignly & lovingly at work whenever his life on earth (and hers) would come to its final rest.
  2. Her God is mighty to SAVE. Simply put, he can do what He wants, when He wants, however He wants. If he couldn’t, He would cease to be our omniscient all-powerful Creator and Sustainer. She didn’t know if He would choose to, but she knew that He could save this child if He wanted to glorify Himself in that way. And if not, He would glorify himself through the testimony of her faith even as she suffered great worldly loss.
Elisha came alongside her in praying boldly to the Lord (which sounds familiar to us), and God did honor their faith by breathing life back into her only son. Will He “flex” in that same way and heal Abel’s body? That we just don’t know… But we believe He could. And we trust He’s good. And we’ve decided that our faithfulness during this scary time of waiting is not contingent upon the outcome He is planning. “Then the mother of the child said, ‘As the LORD lives and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.’” (2 Kings 4:30)  I thanked God that morning for the example of the Shunammite woman in Second Kings 4.

Distress and peace. Bold prayer and sovereign trust. We wrestle, yet we rest. It doesn’t make sense… but as we  seek to navigate through our most challenging season of life, it’s a paradox that’s beginning to resonate with our hearts. Sort of like a person who’s both fully God and fully man at the same time.

-D&K

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