Have you ever seen, either on television or in real life a situation where some guy threw caution to the wind and rushed into a dangerous situation and came out a hero, or else someone who took a huge financial risk and came out a multimillionaire? When they were being interviewed, maybe you heard them say, “I’m not brave – I was desperate! That was my best friend in that burning house! Of course I ran in to get him!” Or maybe you heard the now fabulously rich man say, “I may be fortunate, but hardly courageous. Frankly, I was at a point where I had nothing to lose. You’d have done the same.”
This morning, let’s see what lessons in life we can learn from four “losers”. Please open your Bibles to 2 Kings chapter seven.
This scenario takes place during the period of Israel’s Divided Monarchy, and in the Northern Kingdom Israel, specifically during the reign of Joram (though you have to go back to chapter four to get that information). Joram is one in a long line of really bad kings in Israel. Idolatry held sway for the vast majority of these kings, and they generally relied on their own devices, and not on the Lord. This particular king, Joram, has so little esteem in the eyes of the writer of Kings that, whereas even foreign kings are named by name, he is just called “the king of Israel”.
This is also taking place during the long and impressive ministry of the prophet Elisha, the successor to Elijah. Elisha, you may recall, had asked Elijah that he be given a double portion of the Holy Spirit upon the latter’s departure, and he seems to have gotten it, given the many and impressive miracles accomplished during his ministry.
Now at the time recorded in this narrative Israel and Aram were almost continuously at war. Aram was the ancient biblical name for what we today call Syria. Relations between Israel and Syria have, unfortunately, never been good. In the previous chapter (chapter six), the king of Aram, Ben Hadad, had laid siege to Samaria, (Samaria being the capitol city of Israel in the north). That meant no one went into the city and no one came out of the city. This was a common method among armies in ancient times. A siege was designed to starve the inhabitants of a city into either surrender or else to reduce them to a state of such weakness as to be unable to put up any resistance when once the wall was breached.
Back in chapter six (verse 25) we are told that the famine lasted so long that a donkey’s head cost 80 shekels of silver. First of all, who on earth wants to eat a donkey’s head? I think that’s the point – the inhabitants of Samaria were starving to death – they would have eaten anything! Now I happen to know that silver closed at $10.97/oz. yesterday, and 80 shekels of silver in ancient Israel equaled about two pounds. Would you pay in excess of $350.00 for a donkey’s head for your dinner? I didn’t think so. But that’s how dire the situation was.
Our reading this morning takes place during the most severe time of the famine. The situation was so desperate in Samaria, that people had begun to resort to cannibalism!Two women approach the king of Israel, one of them complaining that the previous day she and her neighbor had struck an agreement: that day they would eat her son, and the following day the other woman’s son. So they boiled and ate the first woman’s son, but the next day the second woman had hidden her son. When the king hears this, he was beside himself. He tore his robe – but not in repentance. Instead of recognizing that this adversity was a judgment from God on account of Israel’s having forsaken the covenant (cf. Deut. 28:53) and repenting instead reacts with rage, directing his anger at Elisha. He swears an oath before God to have Elisha’s head cut off.
As our passage begins this morning, King Joram has arrived at Elisha’s house. Elisha, being the prophet he was, knew beforehand that the king was coming, and what he intended to do. But instead of a stinging rebuke (a well-deserved rebuke, I might add), Elisha gives the king some interesting news – great news!
Reading: 2 Kings 7
Then Elisha said, “Listen to the word of the LORD; thus says the LORD, ‘Tomorrow about this time a measure of fine flour will be sold for a shekel, and two measures of barley for a shekel, in the gate of Samaria.'”
In other words, the famine will be over, and food will once again be plentiful – so much so that we’re not talking about a gradual reduction in prices. The very next day grain and flour would be sold at completely normal prices. That would require a miracle, given the desperate situation at hand. But that’s exactly what is being promised. Elisha, the prophet of God, has declared “Thus says the Lord…”
Did we deserve such a miracle? No way. It is evident from a reading of the books of Kings and Chronicles that our Jewish people were not walking with God. If I’m going to be honest about it, we were undeserving of this miracle. Bear in mind, too, that this is not Jerusalem, it’s Samaria – the capitol city of the rebellious Northern Kingdom. One could understand God’s coming to the defense of Jerusalem, the city in which He has chosen to place His Name; But Samaria…?
So why would God rescue a rebellious people? Because He chose to; Because He is good and merciful. After all, if God only rescued the deserving, where would that leave you and me? You and I could “kiss it goodbye”. Mankind would long ago have ceased to exist if God’s mercy depended on us.
And so God, speaking through the prophet, promises a monumental miracle; to take place by the same time the very next day. How was this news received? With joy? With praise to God? No. With cynicism and unbelief.
The royal officer on whose hand the king was leaning answered the man of God and said, “Behold, if the LORD should make windows in heaven, could this thing be?” Then he said, “Behold, you will see it with your own eyes, but you will not eat of it.”
The king’s #1 guy was cynical. Now, while a measure of skepticism can protect a man from being taken advantage of, this was the man of God speaking. Elisha was a good prophet (unlike the many false prophets who would “prophesy” whatever their benefactors wanted to hear). Secondly, this is good news, not bad! Would it absolutely kill you to believe it? Thirdly, is anything too difficult for the Lord?
Who by His understanding made the heavens;
(His love endures forever!)
Who struck down the firstborn of Egypt, and brought Israel out from among them;
(His love endures forever!)
Who divided the Red Sea asunder;
(His love endures forever!)
Who struck down great kings;
(His love endures forever!)
Who gave the land as an inheritance to His servant Israel
(His love endures forever!)
Falling into cynicism is one of the worst things that could happen to a man. Rabbi Paul wrote, “love believes all things, hopes all things…” the cynic believes nothing, hopes in nothing – because the one thing he is certain of is that he will be let down if he does so. In that way the cynic plays it safe, rather than risk disappointment. Guard your soul against the downward spiral of cynicism. Allow yourself to be vulnerable. Give your brothers and sisters in the Lord the benefit of the doubt. Take God at His word that He will neither fail you or forsake you. He promised you eternal life, and He will deliver.
In the case of this royal official, cynicism would cost him dearly. Elisha tells him he will see this miracle with his own eyes, but will not live to enjoy it. But now let’s meet the protagonists of the story.
Now there were four leprous men at the entrance of the gate; and they said to one another, “Why do we sit here until we die? “If we say, ‘We will enter the city,’ then the famine is in the city and we will die there; and if we sit here, we die also. Now therefore come, and let us go over to the camp of the Arameans. If they spare us, we will live; and if they kill us, we will but die.”
It doesn’t get much worse than to have been a leper in ancient times. In fact, did you know that the word for “leprosy” in Hebrew is tzara’at – from which we get the Yiddish word Tzuris (troubles)? Lepers were complete outcasts from society. They were feared and loathed on account of the perceived threat of contagion. More than that, leprosy was considered by many to be a divine curse upon a man. For that reason lepers were generally not trusted, and thought not to be taken at their word.
These four lepers are sitting outside the gate of the city, and suddenly it dawns on them that they have absolutely nothing to lose! They can’t go inside the city (they’re lepers, besides which, inside the city is a horrific famine), and they can’t just sit there and starve to death. They realize they have only one option that doesn’t guarantee death: go out to the army camp and surrender to the Syrians. If the Syrians let them live, they’ll at least be able to eat and stay alive. If the Syrians kill them, they’ll just die a little quicker.
It’s amazing how much clarity you can have when you’re out of options. We talk about “counting the cost”. Well, when you go to count and there’s just about nothing there, you’ll know you’re free to make your decision. When you come to your wit’s end – that is the very place God wants to meet you! These four lepers “threw caution to the wind”. Really, they took the only logical course of action left to them. Boy, were they surprised at what they found. Let’s see what happened.
They arose at twilight to go to the camp of the Arameans; when they came to the outskirts of the camp of the Arameans, behold, there was no one there. For the Lord had caused the army of the Arameans to hear a sound of chariots and a sound of horses, even the sound of a great army, so that they said to one another, “Behold, the king of Israel has hired against us the kings of the Hittites and the kings of the Egyptians, to come upon us.” Therefore they arose and fled in the twilight, and left their tents and their horses and their donkeys, even the camp just as it was, and fled for their life.
You’ve got to wonder how big this panic was. Enough that they didn’t even have the presence of mind to get on their horses to flee! They heard a thunderous sound – the sound of thousands of horses, causing the earth to shake. But this wasn’t even a real army – it was a perceived army! God caused them to hear something that wasn’t there! You notice that nobody inside the city heard a thing.
- How thunderous a sound to cause trained soldiers to panic and run for their lives!
- The defeat of the massive Syrian army came without Israel lifting a finger. (Completely God’s doing – the “battle” was all in His hands)
- Reminder: Israel was, at this time, completely undeserving of this miracle. (God did it because He is good and kind)
When these lepers came to the outskirts of the camp, they entered one tent and ate and drank, and carried from there silver and gold and clothes, and went and hid them; and they returned and entered another tent and carried from there also, and went and hid them. Then they said to one another, “We are not doing right. This day is a day of good news, but we are keeping silent; if we wait until morning light, punishment will overtake us. Now therefore come, let us go and tell the king’s household.”
This was the last thing the lepers expected to find. It represents quite a reversal – the lepers, the biggest “losers” turn out to be the biggest winners (reversal is a common biblical literary device)!
While initially acting on impulse (eat, drink, grab the gold and silver), the lepers are stricken by their consciences. “We may be outcasts in Israel, but our people Israel are dying at this very moment, and we’ve found food; we’ve made a discovery that will save our people – how can we keep this good news to ourselves?”
So they came and called to the gatekeepers of the city, and they told them, saying, “We came to the camp of the Arameans, and behold, there was no one there, nor the voice of man, only the horses tied and the donkeys tied, and the tents just as they were.” The gatekeepers called and told it within the king’s household.
The lepers had to call to the watchmen from outside the gates. Remember, they’re lepers – nobody wants them in the city. So they call out to the gatekeepers and announce the incredible news.
You know, I really like these lepers. Each time they have a realization, they act on it. First they realized they had nothing to lose, and stepped into the unknown – and look how they were rewarded! Then they realized they should not keep the good news to themselves and they acted on it by announcing it at the city gate (lesser men would have collected as much gold as possible and said to themselves, “The hell with everyone else, I’m going to look out for #1).
Then the king arose in the night and said to his servants, “I will tell you now what the Arameans have done to us. They know that we are hungry; therefore they have gone from the camp to hide themselves in the field, saying, ‘When they come out of the city, we will capture them alive and get into the city.'”
There are two dynamics going on here. Remember, lepers were frequently regarded as being under a curse from God, and were not generally trusted. Secondly, the king of Israel was not a godly, believing man. Immediately, King Joram assumes the worst. It can’t possibly be what it seems to be. He says, “There’s got to be a catch. It’s a trick, I tell you!” Nevermind that Elisha had promised just a day earlier that the very next day God would provide food in abundance. It’s happened, just as promised, but the king isn’t willing to believe it.
This is cynicism at work. I can hear him saying, “Nobody’s going to take me for a fool! I’ll let us all starve to death, but at least I won’t be tricked.” How pathetic is that? Prideful cynicism can be deadly. What do I mean? I mean that every moment King Joram delayed, people in the city of Samaria were dying. What, I wonder, was the cost of his inaction? Thankfully, at least one of the servants in his court had the presence of mind to offer a suggestion.
One of his servants said, “Please, let some men take five of the horses which remain, which are left in the city. Behold, they will be in any case like all the multitude of Israel who are left in it; behold, they will be in any case like all the multitude of Israel who have already perished, so let us send and see.” They took therefore two chariots with horses, and the king sent after the army of the Arameans, saying, “Go and see.”
So at least one of the servants had some presence of mind to suggest they at least investigate the situation. Once again someone realizes that they have nothing to lose!Notice the wording: “five of the horses which are left in the city…”. What had happened to all the horses?
They had to be eaten during the course of the famine!
So they go and they check out the situation.
They went after them to the Jordan, and behold, all the way was full of clothes and equipment which the Arameans had thrown away in their haste. Then the messengers returned and told the king.
These guys panicked so badly, that they not only fled on foot when they could have ridden on horses, but they literally tore off their armor and their weapons as they fled for their lives! So the messengers saw all these goodies strewn along the road, but they went and reported back to the king.
Now I don’t know how much time elapsed between their leaving to investigate and their returning and confirming the lepers’ report, but that was precious time wasted.
So the people went out and plundered the camp of the Arameans. Then a measure of fine flour was sold for a shekel and two measures of barley for a shekel, according to the word of the LORD.
Israel was saved. We were spared. The prophecy of Elisha was fulfilled to the word, and the beauty of it was