Prayer that Wakes the Dead
Real prayer changes things.
A visiting farmer stopped at a city restaurant to eat lunch. When he was served his food he bowed his head and gave thanks to the Lord. Some teenagers sitting at a nearby table noticed the farmer’s prayer and shouted, “Hey, pops, back where you come from does everybody pray before they eat?”
Their laughter was silenced when the unmoved farmer answered, “No, the hogs don’t.”
Prayer is appropriate before mealtime and any time we can turn to God. Because we can see their effects sooner, we mistakenly think our own efforts are more important than prayer. That’s exactly backwards. We’ll learn this morning that prayer is partner with action. We don’t pray and then wait around for something to magically fall from the sky: we pray and then proceed in the direction God points out to us. Prayer precedes action; it does not replace it.
CONTEXT: You’d assume a book named “Kings” would be about kings, but this chapter is part of a section that centers on the prophet Elijah and his successor, Elisha.
SHUNEM was one of the cities given to the tribe of Issachar (Joshua 19:18). An early church leader named Eusebius said Shunem was five miles south of Mount Tabor, which was in the northern part of Israel, near Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee. The name meant double resting-place, which is very appropriate to this account, as it was a place where Elisha received great hospitality from a woman of the village.
1. The gifting of a child. (vs. 8-17)
The prophet was warmly welcomed in a prominent local woman’s home (8-10). In that culture, hospitality was needed and expected, but this gal went the extra mile. This is apparent in a couple ways.
First, she sought out Elisha and URGED HIM TO STAY FOR A MEAL. This became a regular thing when the prophet was in the area.
Second, while a room on the roof may sound uncomfortable to us, it was one of the choice places at night when the heat of the day raised the interior temperature of the home. The Shunnamite made sure the room was fully equipped.
In gratitude for her hospitality, Elisha offer to pull some strings to get her some unspecified favors. This offer was met with polite refusal. She showed independence in a deferential way proper to a woman in her culture. In modern terms, she said, “No thank you, we country folk take care of our own.”
The prophet asked his servant, Gehazi, for advice. He replied that the woman had not borne a son and as her husband was an old man, it was unlikely she ever would. Since she is not called “barren” or “childless” we can assume she had only birthed daughters. This culture valued sons as the inheritors of the father’s estate and a sign of God’s blessing.
From her reaction to Elisha’s pronouncement (16), we can infer she was disappointed about this. Sometimes we can become so thoroughly disappointed we’re reluctant to allow ourselves even to have hope. However, just as Elisha had predicted, she gave birth to a son about a year later. Hope was realized. A son was given.
2. The re-gifting of the child. (vs. 18-37)
Something very tragic struck the child and he died (18-21). Several years passed; enough time for the boy to become old enough to go be with his father and his workers at harvest time. Suddenly he cried out with head pain and he was carried to his mother. Imagine the tragic scene where the boy died, sitting on the lap of his mother.
The Shunammite woman sought out Elisha to either protest his death or see if the prophet might somehow save him (22-28). This lady went into determined action immediately. She laid her dead son out on the prophet’s bed and immediately left to find him. Elisha was at Mt. Carmel about 20 miles away.
When her husband asked why she was going to find Elisha, she did not even tell him their son was dead. His reference to a NEW MOON OR THE SABBATH were the usual times you’d want a prophet around, conducting a worship service.
Curiously, her reply was only, “It’s all right” (23), an English phrase translating the Hebrew word shalom. As this is what she also said to Gehazi (26), it makes me think she think she wanted only to talk to the prophet.
The Shunammite woman’s emotions become plain when she finally sees the prophet. Elisha can see for himself she was in BITTER DISTRESS, even though God gave him no insight into the reason for it. She TOOK HOLD OF HIS FEET (27), a sign of surrender to his authority. Her taking hold of the prophet’s feet reminds me of how the women took hold of Jesus’ feet at his Resurrection (Matthew 28:9). These were two extremely emotional situations as well.
Her BITTER DISTRESS was evident when she cried, “DID I ASK YOU FOR A SON, MY LORD? DIDN’T I TELL YOU, ‘DON’T RAISE MY HOPES?’” In effect, she is protesting the turn of events; “Why give me a son only to take him away?”
At first, Elisha tried to affect a resurrection by “remote control” but it didn’t work (29-31). This is a curiosity to me. I don’t know why he sent the staff with his servant, instructing him to lay it on top of the boy, but there are three possible explanations.
First, in the Bible, inanimate objects are sometimes imbued with divine power, like Moses’ staff. Elisha may have expected something similar to happen here. In Acts 19:11-12 we read that cloths that Paul had touched cured illnesses and exorcised demons.
Second, it would keep them from burying the boy before they could get there: no one would dare to touch the prophet’s staff or move it off the body. No one would dare touch the prophet’s staff.
Third, Gehazi was a kind of trainee or apprentice in the school of prophets, so this may have been on-the-job training. This also explains why Elisha constantly spoke with the Shunammite through Gehazi.
However we understand Elisha’s reasoning, the boy’s mother was not having it. She was entirely focused on Elisha as the cure. She vowed she would not leave his side (30). The text is not clear whether she was blaming him or had faith in him. Whatever her motive, the woman and Elisha left for Shunem together.
Gehazi traveled to Shunem as quickly as he could, but Elisha and the woman went at a pace more reasonable to an older man. The servant got there much sooner, attempted the instructed cure, and still had enough time to meet Elisha and the boy’s mother on the road to Shunem. He reported the attempted cure failed: he got no response from the boy (31). As “sleep” was a polite euphemism for death, he said, “THE BOY HAS NOT AWAKENED.”
When he went there to pray in person, God gave a miracle (32-37). All three of them went to the rooftop room, but Elisha shut Gehazi and the mother out of the room.
Verse 33 is key to the passage. Elisha PRAYED TO THE LORD. All that follows is a product of prayer. However, the prophet did not only pray, he did something. Though some would look at Elisha’s actions to see if there is some medical explanation, some scientific reason why his laying atop the boy’s body would help him, they are missing the point. These are symbolic actions. Like circling around the city of Jericho, the action cannot be a cause of what happens. The outcome is entirely up to God.
This account is very similar to Elijah restoring the son of a widow who lived in Zarephath (1 Kings 17:17-24). On that occasion, the prophet also laid atop the boy’s body. Elisha may’ve been familiar with that account and attempted something similar.
I believe that occasionally God tests our obedience by requiring us to do things that don’t make sense in our earthly wisdom. Elisha’s actions seem weird to us. The strange action had to be repeated before the boy’s life was restored. Elijah had to do it THREE TIMES to restore the widow of Zarephath’s son!
The boy “awoke” with a sneezing fit (seven, the number of completeness) and opened his eyes. You’d sneeze too if you awoke to find a bearded old prophet lying on top of you!
After expressing her gratitude, we read an understated account of the touching reunion of mother and son in vs. 36-37, a great end to the story. I probably should repeat this sermon on Mother’s Day!
Real prayer changes things.
This account perfectly illustrates the principle of prayer we want to take home with us. When first confronted with the problem, the prophet Elisha didn’t want to have to do anything himself. He attempted to have God do a miracle without any effort on his part. We saw that didn’t work at all.
The prophet was face to face with a determined woman and that wasn’t going to be good enough for her. She vowed she would not leave his side until he got off his fanny and went to her son. After sending his servant with his staff in hand on a fast horse, the prophet himself reluctantly rode with the mother back to Shunem.
It was when he arrived that Elisha got involved. The text tells us the first thing he did was pray to the LORD! Then he went into action. It was not his actions that restored the boy’s life; it was his attention to prayer and obedience to what God showed him.
What we learn about prayer here is encouraging: pray first then act. Don’t wait until after you act and then have to plead with God to “bless your mess!” Make prayer your priority and then see what God will do through you!
Expositor’s Bible Commentary, R.D. Patterson and Hermann J. Austel
The Daily Study Bible, A. Graeme Auld
Zondervan Bible Commentary, F.F. Bruce (Ed.)