II Kings 5:1-15a
Every time we sit down we manifest faith. We trust that the chair will still be there when we transfer weight from our legs to our chairs. This is not to be taken for granted. When I was young and immature I helped more than one person find the floor instead of the chair by pulling it out from under them just at the moment of weight transfer. We trust that the chair will hold up under our weight, which we should also not take for granted. Carla warned me that it was a child’s chair and would not carry me, but I believed that the construction was the same as an adult chair and would be fine. She was right and I ended up on the ground with a broken chair.
Every time we face a problem without prayer we manifest unfaith. We try to fix it by ourselves or we find experts to help us and we fail to believe that God is able and compassionate.
How does faith work in your life? Do you believe? Does unbelief sometimes make its way in your life? What does it mean to believe?
This morning we will be looking at a story from II Kings 5:1-15 which invites us to consider what it means to believe. Read II Kings 5:1-15.
There are four characters in this story and each one manifests a different aspect, or perhaps we could say level of faith.
In order to properly understand some of the things in this story, we need to understand the context in which it occurred. The story takes place in Israel, that is to say, the northern area of the land of the Jews at a time after the kingdom was divided into north and south. The northern tribes, which were known as Israel, more quickly deviated from following God than the southern tribes, known as Judah. The king of Israel at this time was Joram and he was not a king who faithfully followed God. Because of that, God sent invading armies to try to drive the people towards seeking God. In II Kings 3 Moab fought against Israel and in II Kings 6 Aram made a direct attack. From II Kings 5 we know that Aram had made raids into Israel several times to harass them. Verse 1 of our text is an interesting perspective which tells us that Aram attacked Israel and had military victory over them from time to time because God gave that victory. That was how an Israelite girl became the slave of a military general from Aram who was plagued with leprosy.
The four primary characters in the story are the young girl, Naaman, Joram and Elisha. Each of them manifested a different level of trust or lack of trust in God. As we examine their faith in God, it will be an opportunity for us to understand what faith is and to examine our own response to God.
The young girl mentioned in the story is not named. She was an Israelite but had been captured in a raid which military bands from Aram had made into Israel. We don’t know much about her, only enough to guess that she was probably too young to be married but old enough to be a servant. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be captured and forced into slavery. I wonder what would go through a person’s mind and heart. Would you rebel? Would you be angry and sullen? How would you cope with sudden slavery?
It speaks well for the girl that she seems to have accepted her situation. In fact, we see into her heart when she expresses compassion for the leprous condition of her master. She cared enough about him to desire that he be healed.
The other thing we see in the girl is that she believed that God was at work through Elisha. She suggested that if Naaman would go to Elisha, he would be cured.
I think that the kind of faith we see in this young girl is a “child-like” faith. She must have heard the stories about Elisha and what he had done before she was captured. She believed the stories and the connection seems strong enough that she believed that God was at work through him. Her statement suggests a simple confidence that God would act.
We expect that as people grow up that they will not be naïve. We expect that if they do believe it will be because they have examined the possibilities and have decided that faith makes sense. There is a place for an examined faith and we certainly see that with Naaman and how he came to believe in God. Nevertheless, the Bible also affirms childlike faith. There is a place for the simple, confident trust which is so often expressed by children. In Mark 10:14, 15 we read the words of Jesus who said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”
What are the implications of affirming such a childlike faith? It means that when children declare their faith in Jesus, even though they have not even begun to consider all the implications, we should affirm that faith in them and nurture it so that it will weather the storms of doubt and disappointment which will come later. It also means that it is good to continue to believe in God even when we don’t understand everything. Instead of giving up on faith until it all makes sense, it is better to continue in faith and grow in our understanding even when there is a lot of confusion.
So the first level of faith, which Scripture affirms is child-like faith.
Joram’s response was quite different.
Ben Hadad who was king of Aram probably assumed that if there was a prophet in Israel he would be attached to the king in some close way, so it is not surprising that the request of Naaman would be directed first to the king of Israel. Although Joram is not named in the story, we know that he is king from II King 3.
When Joram received the letter, he responded with deep emotion. The letter presented him with two significant challenges. First of all, he was upset because he knew that he had no power to do what the letter demanded. The wording of verse 6 suggests that there was an expectation that healing was going to happen. The wording does not place the request into a conditional phrase, such as, “we have heard that it may be possible that you might be able to heal him.” It is “that you may cure him of his leprosy.” Joram had no hope that he would be able to do what was asked.
Therefore, he viewed it as a trap, a provocation to war. Since he could not cure him he assumed that the king of Aram knew he could not cure him, and the only explanation that made sense to him was that Ben-Hadad was trying to find an excuse to make war against Joram.
The response of the king was to tear his robes. He felt trapped. His action arose out of feelings of frustration, anger and fear. In reality his reaction demonstrated lack of faith. Why do we see this as a response of unfaith?
The foundation of Joram’s life was not one of trust in God. When he became king, he was introduced in 2 Kings 3:1-3 in the following way, "Joram son of Ahab became king of Israel in Samaria…He did evil in the eyes of the Lord, but not as his father and mother had done…he clung to the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, which he had caused Israel to commit; he did not turn away from them." Yet he had had previous experiences in which he had seen what God could do. Just like the little girl, he had heard the stories of what was happening through the work of Elisha and he had had personal experience of observing God at work. In II Kings 3:11-20 there is an account of a battle in which the Kings of Israel, Judah and Edom had attacked the king of Moab. In that story, the king of Judah had requested a word from God through Elisha and the word from God was that God would cause a great flood to come into the valley and that because of that flood the Moabites would be defeated. This word from God through Elisha came to be and Joram observed the authority of Elisha and saw the power of God at work.
When Elisha heard about Joram’s response to the present crisis, his words function as a rebuke to Joram’s unbelief. In 2 Kings 5:8 we read, "When Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his robes, he sent him this message: “Why have you torn your robes? Have the man come to me and he will know that there is a prophet in Israel.”" The question “why have you torn your robes?” is a rebuke implying that getting upset and angry is not really necessary when you know that God is able to help you in all situations. The statement “he will know that there is a prophet in Israel” is also a rebuke for it implies that Naaman was going to discover what Joram should already have discovered and that is that God was at work in Israel. His response was unbelief because it manifested his understanding that authority and power ended with him. He saw no power or authority outside of himself. He did not believe in God or what God could do.
We may not be as wickedly inclined as Joram, but his response strikes a chord with us because we are quite familiar with the responses of anger, fear or frustration when we face a challenge which is beyond us.
We don’t know what Joram believed, but his unbelief is clearly manifested in the way he responded to the challenge. How often is our unbelief manifested in the way we respond to situations? Do we not manifest unfaith when we think that we have to solve problems ourselves, when we don’t pray, when we doubt that God will act, when we act without reference to God?
Although it seems that Psalm 14:1, 2 is written to the wickedly ungodly, I wonder if it is not also written to us. It says, "The fool says in his heart, “There is no God…The Lord looks down from heaven on the sons of men to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God." In spite of the fact that we have so much evidence of God at work, we still so often fail to turn to God, seek God or trust Him. The unfaith of Joram stands as a rebuke to our unfaith and invites us to turn from it and to trust God.
The central figure in these chapters of II Kings is Elisha. It is interesting that when Elisha heard about the response of the king, he invited Naaman to come in order that he would know “that there is a prophet in Israel.” It is interesting because he does not say, “there is a God in Israel.” Yet when Naaman experienced healing, he did not praise Elisha, but put his faith in God. Elisha represented God, spoke for God and did the work of God. Throughout II Kings 2-13, we read one story after another of the effective work of Elisha.
I heard recently that the Catholic Church is going to make Pope John Paul II a saint. One of the requirements is evidence of a miracle. They mentioned the miracle attributed to John Paul and I have to confess that it seemed a little less than convincing to me. That was not a problem for Elisha for the evidences of miracles were abundant. Among the amazing stories is one of my favorites and that is the story in II Kings 6 in which this same king of Aram was looking for Elisha because he was always messing with his military plans by his prophetic statements. The servant of Elisha was terrified when the king of Aram surrounded the town in which Elisha was staying. Elisha pointed out that the army protecting them was much larger than the army of the king of Aram and allowed his eyes to be opened so that he could see the chariots of fire of the Lord’s army surrounding the city.
That was the life and ministry of Elisha and it demonstrates another level of faith and that is the special gift of faith given to certain people to accomplish particular things for God. When Elisha became the lead prophet in Israel, we read in II Kings 2:9 the request of Elisha that he would have a double portion of the spirit which was present in his predecessor, Elijah. The promise was that if Elisha was present when Elijah was taken up to heaven, that request would be granted, and so it happened.
Not everyone has what Elisha had, but the Bible does speak about the gift of faith which is given to some people to do God’s work. This is true not only among Old Testament prophets, but is also still true today. Romans 12:3-6 speaks of the different gifts given to God’s people in the church. We read there, "For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you. We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man’s gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith..." In this passage, we read about “the measure of faith God has given.” We read about using a gift “in proportion to … faith.” This teaches us that some have been given a greater gift of faith than others. The same thing is taught in I Corinthians 12:7-9 where we read, "Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit the message of wisdom, to another the message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit…”
There are two problems which often arise with this gift of faith. One is that we believe that everyone should be able to do the kinds of things Elisha did. Some believe that everyone should have the gift of faith. As a result we may experience an expectation that everyone should have that kind of faith and produce the kind of miracles that Elisha and others did. From what we have seen in Romans and I Corinthians, however, we learn that that is not the case. Not everyone has been given the same kind of faith. Some have been given a special gift in order that God will do special things through them.
The other problem is that we do not believe that anyone can do what Elisha did. As a result, we mistrust those who have a special gift of faith and doubt that they are God’s servants. Scripture also does not support that. Elisha had a special gift and as we read in Romans and I Corinthians, there are also others who have a similar gift of faith. Every one of us is called to trust in God in every situation, but that is a different thing than having the gift of faith. Some are given a gift to do special works for God. Faith in God means trusting Him in every situation, but faith in God also means recognizing what He is doing in those who have the gift of faith.
In Naaman’s story we see another perspective on faith, we see a man who did not believe, but who ended up believing.
Naaman was in a unique position. He was highly honored as a leader in his country, but he had leprosy. In Israel, as a leper, he would have been shunned, but in his country, he continued to be involved in leadership, but obviously had problems and was under constraints because of the disease.
The suggestion by the young girl was taken seriously by Naaman and we wonder why he would take her suggestion so seriously. Did her character demonstrate to him that she was a person who had enough integrity to be listened to? Was he so desperate for some kind of a cure that he would try anything? Had he also heard about what Elisha had been doing in Israel? I think it is clear at this point that he did not listen to her because he believed in God.
In order to make such a journey he needed the approval of the king, who not only sent him, but provided a pretty large gift to be given for the cure. This shows us just how much the king valued him.
So he went to the king of Israel and was directed to go see Elisha. When he finally came to Elisha it is interesting that Elisha did not treat him as someone to be highly honored. He didn’t even go out to see him, but simply sent a message, probably through his servant that Naaman should go to the Jordan and wash in it seven times.
Naaman was deeply disappointed at this prescription. He had an expectation about how a healing should happen and washing in the Jordan did not meet that expectation. He expected that the prophet would meet him personally and do some special actions. His expectations probably arose out of his assumptions about how a god works. In pagan religions saying the right words, having the right formulas were considered important in making things happen. We sometimes fall into the same trap in terms of how we expect God to respond. If we think that we have to pray with a certain formula or pray on our knees or pray with enough urgency, then God has to help. That kind of thinking is seriously flawed and does not honor God. It makes God a servant of our prayers instead of the sovereign of the universe. It puts the power to make things happen in our hands instead of emphasizing an attitude of submission to the sovereignty of God. It makes prayer magical instead of a relationship to the God of the universe who loves us.
His disappointment was necessary to humble him and teach him what it means to trust in God. After his servants persuaded him to follow the prescription, he did it. We read in verse 14 that he did “according to the word of the man of God.” As a result he was healed and we read that his flesh became like that of a child which means that he was healed better than before.
As a result, this man came to faith and we see the very positive response to God which follows. He confessed “Now I know that there is no God in all the world except in Israel.” It is important to note that this man who was not from the nation of Israel became a follower of God. How did faith work in his life? Faith began because he was willing to seek help. Psalm 34:8 invites us, "Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the man who takes refuge in him." Faith often begins when we are willing to turn to God and seek Him. How will we know if God is faithful if we never reach out to Him?
Faith became real in him when he saw God at work. When we step out to trust God, we will very soon discover that He is faithful. In order to build such deep faith in God it is important to constantly reach out to Him and to constantly have our eyes opened to see what God is doing.
What kind of faith do you have?
I trust that no one lives in the unfaith of king Joram. The evidence of the work of God is just too great not to believe. If you are hesitant to trust in God, I invite you to see His great love and trust Him.
Whether we have a childlike faith or a tested faith which has been affirmed by God’s work, I would invite all of us to grow in faith. As we continue to reach out to God, seek Him and see His work we will grow in faith.
I also want to affirm those who have the gift of faith. I want to invite all of us to recognize that such a gift exists in the church and not to diminish that gift or mistrust it, but to test it to see if it is from God and to affirm it and learn from those who have such a gift.
How can we move from unfaith to a confident faith? I would suggest two prescriptions.
One is to meditate on all of God’s works – what He has done and what He is doing.
The other is to ask God for a greater faith as the prayer of Mark 9:24 expresses when the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”