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The Lepers and the Famine

This morning I want to continue on in our story of Elisha. We’ve been going through some of the incredible stories of the Bible and last week we looked at how God, through Elisha, caused an iron axehead to float in the Jordan River. The ax had been borrowed to cut down trees for a new building where Elisha could meet with some of his students – a group known as the ‘sons of the prophets’. Their existing building had grown too small and so they set out to build another. But as they were chopping down trees by the Jordan River, the axehead flew off the handle and landed in the water. Of course, iron tools back then would have been terribly expensive to replace – putting the young man who had borrowed the ax in quite a predicament with whoever loaned him the ax!

But mercifully, God bent the laws of nature so that the iron axehead floated to the surface where if could be retrieved! And we were reminded once again that our God is the God of compassion and mercy. As we read in Matthew 10:29, if God cares about even the little insignificant sparrow, we can know that he certainly cares for us.

So that was last week’s incredible story – not overly dramatic, but certainly a great illustration of God’s mercy and kindness.

Now today, our story is on the opposite end of the dramatic spectrum. While last week’s story was primarily about the mundane activities of life – this week’s story includes the siege of a city, assassins, deadly stampedes, human cannibalism, and lepers. It’s pretty much the opposite of mundane! And like last week’s story, today’s story is again, perhaps not the most well-known story in the Bible – in fact, when I was talking to Brian and described to him the story I had in mind, even he wasn’t overly familiar with it – so you know it must be obscure!

But this story is found in 2 Kings chapter 6 – it begins right in the same chapter as the story of the floating axehead. It’s a significantly longer story than last week, so I won’t read through the whole thing at once, I’ll just read a few verses at at time and point out a few things as we go along.

We begin in verse 24.

24 Some time later, however, King Ben-hadad of Aram mustered his entire army and besieged Samaria. 25 As a result, there was a great famine in the city. The siege lasted so long that a donkey’s head sold for eighty pieces of silver, and a cup of dove’s dung sold for five pieces of silver. 2 Kings 6:24-25

So just to give you a bit of the background here… At this time, Samaria was the capitol city of Israel. You’ll recall that after the time of Solomon, the nation of Israel split into two separate nations. The southern nation took on the name “Judah” and kept the original capital city, Jerusalem. The northern kingdom kept the name Israel, but took on a new capital city – which was at this time Samaria.

The King of Israel – who remains unnamed throughout the story – is actually King Joram, the son of King Ahab. King Ahab was most famous for leading Israel to worship idols (particularly the idol of Baal) – the Bible describes Ahab as doing more evil in the eyes of the Lord than any of the kings before him. And, his son, Joram, is not much better. As we read on in the story, we’ll see evidence that Elisha had warned Joram that God would send judgement in response to Joram’s (and Israel’s) disobedience.

And that’s just what’s happening. Because of their wickedness, God allowed King Ben-hadad of Aram (Or of Syria, as some other translations clarify) to invade their land. The Syrians lay siege to Samaria – and as a result, no one goes into the city and no one goes out – including those who would supply food to the everyone who lived there. 

The result is a severe famine. We read in verse 25 “The siege lasted so long that a donkey’s head sold for eighty pieces of silver, and a cup of dove’s dung sold for five pieces of silver.” As you might guess, a donkey’s head or a cup of dove’s dung would not be terribly nutritious – these are not choice meals! But yet even they are extremely expensive!

My rough calculations put the cup of dove dung selling for about $100 in today’s money and the donkey’s head for about $1,600. You could only imagine what real food might cost!

But all this to show that the famine in the city of Samaria was severe! And if you’re still not convinced, the story goes on to illustrate just how bad it was!

26 One day as the king of Israel was walking along the wall of the city, a woman called to him, “Please help me, my lord the king!”

27 He answered, “If the Lord doesn’t help you, what can I do? I have neither food from the threshing floor nor wine from the press to give you.” 28 But then the king asked, “What is the matter?”

She replied, “This woman said to me: ‘Come on, let’s eat your son today, then we will eat my son tomorrow.’ 29 So we cooked my son and ate him. Then the next day I said to her, ‘Kill your son so we can eat him,’ but she has hidden her son.”

30 When the king heard this, he tore his clothes in despair. 2 Kings 6:26-30

This paragraph stands as one of the most appalling and disturbing stories in the Bible. Not only has the famine driven people to desperation, but the level of moral depravity that Israel has sunk to is astounding. For a mother to kill and then eat her own child for survival is almost unimaginable! And I say, ‘almost’ unimaginable, because sadly, we’ve seen too often throughout history that sinful people are capable of doing unimaginable things. 

Think of the horrors of the holocaust. Think of the children involved in human trafficking. Think of the millions of babies killed by abortions each year! We should certainly not think that we are too sophisticated or too civilized to commit similar atrocities.

Jeremiah reminds us in Jeremiah 17:9…

9 “The human heart is the most deceitful of all things,

    and desperately wicked.

    Who really knows how bad it is?”

Jeremiah 17:9

The sinful nature that we inherited from Adam makes everyone of us capable of incredible wickedness. We are fooling ourselves if we think otherwise. I’ve seen enough in my own life to know how desperately wicked my heart is.

But you know, that’s exactly what makes the good news such good news! Jesus Christ died for our sinfulness. He hung on a cross so that my wicked heart could be transformed and renewed. My sins (and they are many!) can be forgiven and I have the hope of heaven where my sinful nature will be gone forever.

8 If we claim we have no sin, we are only fooling ourselves and not living in the truth. 9 But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness.  1 John 1:8-9

That’s what salvation is all about. We’re not just saved from the consequences of our sin – we are saved from our own sinful nature. We are cleansed from our wickedness! That desperately wicked heart in each one of us can be transformed and renewed to again, reflect the heart of God.

And so I just want to remind you this morning, that no matter how great the sins that you may have committed – there is forgiveness available to you through Christ! Jesus died for all sin and for all sinners! He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness! 

To get back to our story, the king, upon hearing from these two women, tears his clothes in despair! And based on what happens next, I would say his despair is not because of the sinful state of his nation, but simply because of the desperation of the famine. It says in verse 30….

30 When the king heard this, he tore his clothes in despair. And as the king walked along the wall, the people could see that he was wearing burlap under his robe next to his skin. 31 “May God strike me and even kill me if I don’t separate Elisha’s head from his shoulders this very day,” the king vowed. 2 Kings 6:30-31

Now we don’t get much explanation for why, but the king is very clearly blaming Elisha for the mess that they were in. We can see he is ready to behead Elisha. He’s very much following the footsteps of this father – Ahab. We see the same attitude in King Ahab earlier when he was facing a similar famine because of a drought that was sent by God due to Ahab’s wickedness.

If you jump back to 1 Kings chapter 18 – we read this:

16 So Obadiah went to tell Ahab that Elijah had come, and Ahab went out to meet Elijah. 17 When Ahab saw him, he exclaimed, “So, is it really you, you troublemaker of Israel?”

18 “I have made no trouble for Israel,” Elijah replied. “You and your family are the troublemakers, for you have refused to obey the commands of the Lord and have worshiped the images of Baal instead.

1 Kings 18:16-18

King Ahab believed that Elijah was cause of their trouble – he was the trouble-maker of Israel. But Elijah hadn’t done anything – He was really just God’s messenger. Ahab and his family were really the cause of the famine because they had refused to obey the Lord.

And I think that’s what is happening in our story with Elisha. Elisha, as the prophet of God, had no doubt warned King Joram that God was going to send disaster because of his disobedience! But instead of taking responsibility and admitting and repenting of his sin, King Joram decides he’d rather blame the messenger! He believes Elisha is the cause of all this trouble, and thus vows to separate his head from his shoulders by the end of the day – an action that would likely compound the king’s troubles, not solve them! The story continues in verse 32.

32 Elisha was sitting in his house with the elders of Israel when the king sent a messenger to summon him. But before the messenger arrived, Elisha said to the elders, “A murderer has sent a man to cut off my head. When he arrives, shut the door and keep him out. We will soon hear his master’s steps following him.”

33 While Elisha was still saying this, the messenger arrived. And the king said, “All this misery is from the Lord! Why should I wait for the Lord any longer?”

2 Kings 6:32-33

It seems the king arrives at Elisha’s house just behind the messenger. At this point, it seems King is willing to admit that this disaster is from the Lord – and not necessarily from Elisha – however, we still don’t see any evidence that the king is willing to admit his own part in causing this. The blame is now squarely on God. 

And if I were to try to read between the lines a little bit, I would guess that perhaps Elisha had already told King Joram to wait for the Lord’s deliverance – that’s why the king says now “Why should I wait for the Lord any longer?” It would appear that somewhere along the way, Elisha had told the King that God would rescue them – just wait for His deliverance! 

But at this point, things have gotten so hopeless, Joram is ready to throw in the towel and surrender to the Syrians. He’s got no other options. He’s given up hope that God will rescue him.

Despite the fact that God had delivered on his promise of judgement, it seems that King Joram doubts his promise of deliverance. But deliverance is exactly what’s coming! Flip over to chapter 7 now to continue.

Elisha replied, “Listen to this message from the Lord! This is what the Lord says: By this time tomorrow in the markets of Samaria, six quarts of choice flour will cost only one piece of silver, and twelve quarts of barley grain will cost only one piece of silver.”

2 The officer assisting the king said to the man of God, “That couldn’t happen even if the Lord opened the windows of heaven!”

But Elisha replied, “You will see it happen with your own eyes, but you won’t be able to eat any of it!”

2 Kings 7:1-2

Like King Joram, the king’s officer (perhaps the one that was sent to cut off Elisha’s head), doubts the Word of the Lord. The Lord declared that by the next day, food would once again be plentiful – as reflected in the much more reasonable prices for grain. But the officer claimed that even God couldn’t do such a miracle. As the result of his disbelief, Elisha prophecied that while he would see it with his own eyes, he would never get a chance to eat any of it! And we’ll see how that plays out in just a bit.

At this point, the story shifts from Elisha and King Joram to an entirely different set of characters. We read in verse 3 now…

3 Now there were four men with leprosy sitting at the entrance of the city gates. “Why should we sit here waiting to die?” they asked each other. 4 “We will starve if we stay here, but with the famine in the city, we will starve if we go back there. So we might as well go out and surrender to the Aramean army. If they let us live, so much the better. But if they kill us, we would have died anyway.” 2 Kings 7:3-4

So here we have four desperate men in a desperate situation. As lepers, they were not allowed to be anywhere near anyone else – that’s why they were outside the city gates. Levitical law required that lepers had to live apart from general population so that that they would not spread the disease to others.

Actually, I read that in the New Testament times, they ease restrictions a little bit and allowed lepers to attend worship services, but they had to be the first to arrive, the last to leave, and they had to stay six feet away from everyone else. So I guess we’re not the first ones to experience social distancing!

But anyways, these guys were outside the city – starving with very little options! They could stay where they were and starve to death. They could go into the city – where they would starve to death. Or they could go out and surrender to the Arameans – where perhaps they would be killed, but at least there was a chance they might be spared. So of their limited options, surrender seemed to give them the best chance of survival. And so that’s what they did.

5 So at twilight they set out for the camp of the Arameans. But when they came to the edge of the camp, no one was there! 6 For the Lord had caused the Aramean army to hear the clatter of speeding chariots and the galloping of horses and the sounds of a great army approaching. “The king of Israel has hired the Hittites and Egyptians to attack us!” they cried to one another. 7 So they panicked and ran into the night, abandoning their tents, horses, donkeys, and everything else, as they fled for their lives.

2 Kings 7:5-7

Despite the fact that the only ones outside the enemy camp were these four lepers, the Arameans were convinced that a great army of Egyptians and Hitties were coming to get them! God caused the Arameans hear the sounds of chariots, horses and many soliders – even though there was no-one there. And their panic, Arameans fled for their lives – leaving everything behind. Verse 8 continues.

8 When the men with leprosy arrived at the edge of the camp, they went into one tent after another, eating and drinking wine; and they carried off silver and gold and clothing and hid it. 2 Kings 7:8

These four lepers couldn’t imagine their good fortune! They had never had it so good! Eating and drinking all they wanted – gathering up gold and silver and new clothes! They must have been convinced that God had finally smiled upon them.

You see, in those times, having leprosy was considered to be a curse from God – a punishment for some sin! In fact, there was a time in the New Testament when the disciples asked Jesus about a blind man. They said, “Who sinned – this man or his parents – that he was born blind?” But Jesus answered his disciples in John 9:3,

 “It was not because of his sins or his parents’ sins,” Jesus answered. “This happened so the power of God could be seen in him.” John 9:3

Likewise, these four men were not necessary cursed by God with leprosy because of their sin – nor was this great windfall in the enemy camp evidence of their righteousness. But this happened so that the power of God could be seen in them!

And by the way, that might just be an encouragement to you today too. We ought not think that our difficulties and struggles in life are always the result of some sin. Sometimes they are, for sure! 

Often we are the authors of our own demise, so to speak. Sometimes, because of our own foolish, sinful decisions – we suffer the consequences – much like Joram and his father, Ahab. It was their own disobedience that brought on their troubles!

However, that’s certainly not always the case. Sometimes, like Job or Joseph, we suffer despite living righteously. Our trials in this life are not necessarily the result of God’s wrath upon us. Suffering is not evidence of God’s disapproval! 

I mean, just think of Jesus – he suffered more than anyone – and yet God said “This is my son – whom I love, with Him I am well pleased!” (Matthew 3:17)

No, sometimes God allows suffering in our lives for His own good purposes. And sometimes, He allows blessings and abundance for those same reasons!

So in the case of the four lepers in our story – God had allowed their leprosy and he had allowed them stumble upon this great discovery of abundance. God allowed both of those things in their lives for his own good purpose.

And as they were scurrying around collecting food and gold and silver – they came to realize that hoarding all this good that they had found was pretty selfish of them. It says in verse 9.

9 Finally, they said to each other, “This is not right. This is a day of good news, and we aren’t sharing it with anyone! If we wait until morning, some calamity will certainly fall upon us. Come on, let’s go back and tell the people at the palace.”

10 So they went back to the city and told the gatekeepers what had happened. “We went out to the Aramean camp,” they said, “and no one was there! The horses and donkeys were tethered and the tents were all in order, but there wasn’t a single person around!” 11 Then the gatekeepers shouted the news to the people in the palace.

12 The king got out of bed in the middle of the night and told his officers, “I know what has happened. The Arameans know we are starving, so they have left their camp and have hidden in the fields. They are expecting us to leave the city, and then they will take us alive and capture the city.”

13 One of his officers replied, “We had better send out scouts to check into this. Let them take five of the remaining horses. If something happens to them, it will be no worse than if they stay here and die with the rest of us.”

14 So two chariots with horses were prepared, and the king sent scouts to see what had happened to the Aramean army. 15 They went all the way to the Jordan River, following a trail of clothing and equipment that the Arameans had thrown away in their mad rush to escape. The scouts returned and told the king about it.

2 Kings 7:9-11

As these scouts had discovered, the lepers report was all true! God had miraculously delivered them from the Arameans. God had done exactly as He promised He would.

Earlier in the story, King Joram said to Elisha – “All this misery is from the Lord! Why should I wait for the Lord any longer?”

Well, there’s your answer. This is exactly why you should wait for the Lord any longer. Because the Lord always does what He says He will do.

In fact, the story continues in verse 16.

16 Then the people of Samaria rushed out and plundered the Aramean camp. So it was true that six quarts of choice flour were sold that day for one piece of silver, and twelve quarts of barley grain were sold for one piece of silver, just as the Lord had promised. 17 The king appointed his officer to control the traffic at the gate, but he was knocked down and trampled to death as the people rushed out.

So everything happened exactly as the man of God had predicted when the king came to his house. 18 The man of God had said to the king, “By this time tomorrow in the markets of Samaria, six quarts of choice flour will cost one piece of silver, and twelve quarts of barley grain will cost one piece of silver.”

19 The king’s officer had replied, “That couldn’t happen even if the Lord opened the windows of heaven!” And the man of God had said, “You will see it happen with your own eyes, but you won’t be able to eat any of it!” 20 And so it was, for the people trampled him to death at the gate!

2 Kings 7:16-20

Once again we see, that the Word of the Lord always comes true. It doesn’t matter how unlikely it is – it doesn’t matter how impossible it seems. What God says will come to pass!

And not only does He keep His Word, but He does it in a way that is way better than anything we could imagine.

I love how God didn’t just rescue them from the Arameans – but he also provided for them immediate relief from the famine! And what’s more, the Israelites didn’t have to do a thing – they didn’t have to meet their enemy in battle or anything like that – they just had to wait for the Lord as Elisha had instructed – God did all the work.

And maybe that’s the encouragement you need this week – To wait for the Lord. So often we try to push our own agenda – we rush ahead of God and either end up in disaster or at the very least, we end up missing out on God’s best plan for our lives!

But many times, all that is required of us is to wait for the Lord. Trust in His promises. Do what He has already told us to do. And wait for God to prepare the way.

God’s ways and God’s plans are always so much better than our own.

Isaiah 40:30 says…

30 Even youths shall faint and be weary,

    and young men shall fall exhausted;

31 but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength;

    they shall mount up with wings like eagles;

they shall run and not be weary;

    they shall walk and not faint.

Isaiah 40:30-31

I think sometimes, God brings us to the end our strength – where we have no other options but to wait for the Lord. And that’s a good thing – because those who wait for the Lord – trusting in Him – will renew their strength. Our strength and our wisdom is so limited, but when we trust God to act on our behalf – God’s strength enables us to rise up with wings like eagles. We can run and not be weary – we can walk and not faint.

Because God will do what He says He will do – as we’ve clearly seen in this story. His strength is not limited by anything. He has more creative ways to carry out his good plans than we can imagine, and His plans will always come to pass. 

So I just want to encourage you this morning – to wait upon the Lord. Trust in His promises. Do what He has already told you to do. And allow God to lead the way.

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