Elisha and the Siege of Samaria

READ : 2 Kings 7:1-9

Someone has famously described evangelism – the sharing of the gospel message of salvation with non-Christians – as “one beggar telling another where to find bread.” In a famous incident from the life of the prophet Elisha we can see just how true that is.

Elisha, Elijah’s successor, was more than just a prophet; he was a wonder-worker. In fact, only Jesus is recorded in the Bible as having performed more miracles than Elisha. One reason for this, I think, was the critical nature of the times in which Elisha lived. It appeared as though the whole nation might turn away from the worship of the true God and begin to serve the pagan gods of their Canaanite neighbors. The miraculous signs that first Elijah and then Elisha performed were God’s way of confirming those prophets’ spiritual authority, so that the people would know that they truly were men who spoke for God.

The Siege of Samaria

One of the most dramatic incidents in Elisha’s exciting life took place during a war between Israel and its neighbor, the kingdom of Syria. On this occasion, the Syrian king Ben-hadad had laid siege to Samaria, Israel’s capital. The siege went on for a long time, with Samaria surrounded by a large enemy army and unable to receive any supplies. Conditions became indescribably horrible. Normal sources of food were exhausted. Nobody had any more grain or anything else decent to eat. Things were so bad that people even began to eat unclean animals. In fact, the biblical writer says that the head of a donkey was selling for eight pounds of silver in the city, an astronomical price for a very unpleasant object. But there was even worse than that.

At the height of the siege a woman approached the king, Joram, with a grievance. She and a friend had killed her baby and eaten it with the understanding that the next day they would eat the friend’s child. But the friend had reneged on the deal. When he heard this appalling story, the king snapped. The mothers’ cannibalism was more than he could take, and Joram was filled with blinding anger – not so much at the women, but at the God whom he held responsible for the terrible predicament they were all in. And since he could not attack the Lord directly, he decided to kill the Lord’s prophet Elisha. So King Joram sent someone to seize Elisha and cut off his head.

The prophet took the news of his impending execution with remarkable calm, but then, he had a secret advantage. He knew the king’s rage would shortly give way to astonishment at the miraculous deliverance of the city through the power of God. The Lord had revealed to Elisha that the siege of Samaria would be lifted that very night. By this time tomorrow the prophet announced, food would once more be plentiful in the city with prices again approaching normal market levels.

A Miraculous Deliverance

But the best part of this story, I think, is what happened next. There were four lepers loitering out in front of the gates of Samaria. Because of their disease, they had been expelled from the city and were forced to live as outcasts. They stayed as close as they could to the protection of Samaria’s walls. Their situation was desperate, in fact, hopeless. They didn’t even have access to the city’s wretched food rations. But desperate men take desperate chances, and these four lepers decided they had nothing to lose by going to the camp of the Syrian army. After all, you can only die once! Here’s how the biblical writer describes what happened next:

So they arose at twilight to go to the camp of the Syrians. But when they came to the edge of the camp . . . behold, there was no one there. For the Lord had made the army of the Syrians hear the sound of chariots and horses, the sound of a great army . . . so they fled away in the twilight and abandoned their . . . camp as it was, and fled for their lives.

And when these lepers came to the edge of the camp, they went into a tent and ate and drank, and they carried off silver and gold and clothing and went and hid them. . . . Then they said to one another, “We are not doing right. This day is a day of good news. If we are silent and wait until the morning light, punishment will overtake us. Now therefore come; let us go and tell . . .” (2 Kings 7:5-9)

What a story! You can close your eyes and see it happening: the lepers’ misery as they try to survive in the no-man’s land between the walls of Samaria and the Syrian lines . . . their desperate gamble when they realize they have nothing to lose . . . their incredible discovery that the enemy had abandoned the camp and fled . . . the first orgy of eating, drinking and plunder, followed by the sudden realization that they had an obligation to share the news of their discovery with the people of Samaria. It’s all so real and vivid. It almost seems like we are there.

In a very real sense, you and I are there, in exactly that position, if we know Jesus Christ in a saving relationship. We’re just like those lepers. Like them we too suffer from a life-destroying condition, a spiritual disease called sin that makes us unclean in God’s sight and totally unfit to live in his presence. Our situation is desperate. There is nothing we can do to save ourselves. It looks as though there is no escape.

But God has done something extraordinary for us! He has won a great victory on our behalf. God sent Christ into the world to give his life to rescue us from sin and death and hell. When Jesus Christ died on the cross he defeated all the forces of evil. He routed sin, death, and the devil. He made them flee. And he shares that victory with us. If you are joined to Christ by faith, then his blood cleanses you from all sins. You’re no longer unclean. You are pure in the sight of God. And like those besieged people of Samaria, your enemy has been driven off giving you a chance at a new life.

One Beggar Telling Another

This is a tremendous blessing, in fact, it’s the greatest thing anybody could ever have – it is eternal life. But with the blessing comes the responsibility of sharing this good news with others.

There are many reasons why we ought to feel that responsibility. Two are suggested in the lepers’ story. The first reason is that if we fail to tell others about Christ we are really becoming guilty ourselves, guilty of sin and deserving of punishment. We will be held liable for our failure. Notice what the lepers said, “. . . they said to each other, ‘We’re not doing right. . . If we wait until daylight, punishment will overtake us’” (v. 9).

And in the same way, if we do not share the good news of God’s salvation in Jesus Christ with all those who need to hear it, I believe God will judge us for it. I know that’s a negative statement, and we tend to avoid negatives nowadays. But if you remove all the negative warnings from Scripture, we would have a considerably thinner Bible. Negative or not, the statement is true. How do you think God feels when he showers his grace upon us, and then watches us hoard it for ourselves alone without sharing it with others? Don’t you think such selfishness might make him justifiably angry?

I mean, just imagine if people in your town were locked in a dark prison, where they were suffering terribly. Imagine further that they would all die there unless they could find a way out. Then imagine that you were holding the key that would set them free. What if you just put the key in your pocket and walked away, forgetting about them? Wouldn’t that make you in some sense guilty of their destruction?

A number of years ago the great evangelical leader John Stott published a book on evangelism that he called Our Guilty Silence. Notice the title, not just our embarrassed silence or our awkward silence; our guilty silence. You know, someday everyone is going to find out about the truth of the gospel, just as everybody in Samaria saw the abandoned camp of the Syrian Army when morning dawned and daylight returned. The good news about Jesus Christ will always be good, but it will only be news for a limited time. The day will come when every eye will behold Christ in his glory, and the whole world will know that the Bible is true. No one will need to be told then about the cross and the empty tomb. But for those who have not believed, it will be too late. Do you want to have to explain someday why you didn’t care about sharing the gospel with the world when it most needed to hear it?

But here is another, more positive, reason for sharing the gospel. “This is a day of good news!” (v. 9); so the lepers exclaimed. And so we say in an even more profound sense. The gospel season, in which we now live, is a day of good news. The door of heaven stands open; salvation to all that will is nigh. Maybe you’ve heard the old definition of evangelism as “One beggar telling another where to find bread.” Well, that’s exactly what those four lepers did in Samaria. And that is just what we’re doing whenever we tell others about the joy, the peace, the hope we experience in Jesus Christ. We’re not coming out of a position of superiority when we share the gospel with others. We’re simply beggars telling other beggars where we have found bread, the Bread of Life.

The world is dying without the gospel. People everywhere are trapped in sin, gripped by the fear of death, living without God and without hope in the world. Not just people near you who don’t know Christ, but billions of non-Christians throughout the world, including perhaps a billion and a half who still have never even heard the name of Jesus Christ. Do you care about that? Do you care about them? Then why not share the gospel, the good news with them?

But first, make sure you have accepted it for yourself!

About the Author

Rev. Dave Bast retired as the President and Broadcast Minister of Words of Hope in January 2017, after 23 years with the ministry. Prior to his ministry and work at Words of Hope, Dave served as a pastor for 18 years in congregations in the Reformed Church in America. He is the author of several devotional books. A graduate of Hope College and Western Theological Seminary, he has also studied at both the Fuller and Calvin seminaries. Dave and his wife, Betty Jo, have four children and four grandchildren. Dave enjoys reading, growing tomatoes, and avidly follows the Detroit Tigers.