NAAMAN THE SYRIAN.
2 KINGS V. 13.
I. THE JOURNEY TO SAMARIA.II. THE PROPHET'S DIRECTION. III. THE MIRACULOUS CURE.IV. THE INTERVIEW WITH THE PROPHET.
THE seasonable hint of the ingenuous Hebrew maiden, that
there was a prophet in Samaria who was able to heal him of his leprosy, has
revived in Naaman's breast the almost extinguished hope of cure, and made him
determine that he will try this one expedient more, of paying a visit to
Elisha, ere he 'shakes hands with the grave,' and yields himself up to a
loathsome and inevitable death. The consent of Ben-hadad to his journey is
easily obtained; he even writes a letter of commendation to Jehoram the king of
Israel, in order to facilitate Naaman's mission, for he is anxious to save the
life of one who has so often led his armies to victory, and has not more proved
himself a valiant leader in battle, than a wise counsellor in peace.
We must imagine Naaman hastening with eager promptitude across the Lebanon, into the land whither a new hope beckons him. He travels in his chariot in a style appropriate to one who stands nearest in authority and dignity to the Syrian throne, with a numerous retinue of attendants, with talents of silver and pieces of gold equal in value to many thousand pounds of our money, and with many changes of those rich festal garments which formed so much of the wealth of the East ; and all this with the evident design, should the attempt to cure him succeed, of bestowing upon his deliverer a princely reward. The vine-covered hills of Samaria and the beautiful valley of the Jordan, which had more than once been the scene of his military forays, open peacefully before him and seem to invite him onward.
But why do his servants direct his chariot to the palace of the king, and not at once to the humble cottage of the prophet? He appears to have supposed with his royal master, that while Elisha was to administer the cure, he must, like the enchanters and necromancers of his own country, be entirely under the king's authority, and that the best way, therefore, to secure his interposition, was first to obtain the king's favour. It is an instance of the stupidity with which men, untaught by divine revelation, often conceive on religious subjects. He did not know as yet, that, in matters of a spiritual kind, Elisha acknowledged no master but God,- that this was a province into which Jehoram must not dare to pass, and that it would be easier and safer to go into the thunder-cloud and command the lightning where to strike, than to intrude within the sacred circle where the prophet of Jehovah exercised his great and awful prerogative. When the letter of the Syrian monarch was read by his royal brother of Israel, its effect was to awaken in him indignation, surprise, and alarm. ' Now, when this letter is come unto thee, behold, I have therewith sent Naaman my servant to thee, that thou mayest recover him of his leprosy.' Read with the jealous eyes of one whose dominions had repeatedly been invaded and ravaged by this very Ben-hadad, it seemed, in requiring him to do what was only possible for the hand of Omnipotence, intended to provoke new quarrels that should lead to new wars and humiliations. And so Jehoram, we are told, idolater though he was, rent his clothes, astonished by the blasphemy and confounded by the arrogant and overbearing unreasonableness of such a demand. 'Am I God,' he exclaimed, 'to kill and to make alive, that this man doth send unto me to recover a man of his leprosy, wherefore consider, I pray you, and see how he seeketh a quarrel against me.' Let us not imagine, however, that this was a useless link in the chain of incidents that were soon to have so remarkable and blessed an issue. We must remember, if we would interpret the whole of this history aright, that the highest end of all that happened was to bring out before the heathen, with irresistible demonstration, the true divinity and omnipotence of the God of Israel,- that ' He was the God;' and that it was therefore necessary, not only that the utter impotence of all the false gods of heathenism for effecting such a cure as Naaman now sought should have been shown, but the equal inadequacy of every other agency than that of the finger of God confessed and proclaimed, and that the stage should thus be cleared of every intervening veil and obstruction, before the prophet of the Lord stepped upon the scene.
All this which was now transpiring in the palace of Jehoram, was not long in becoming known to Elisha. And, before Naaman had time to give vent to his feelings, as not only disappointed, but cruelly duped and mocked, the prophet's servant was standing in the presence of the king and delivering a message from his master, marked by all that simplicity and majesty which became a prophet of God, in which he at once rebuked the needless alarms of the king, and summoned the Syrian chief to the true place of cure. 'Wherefore hast thou rent thy clothes ? Let him come now to me, and he shall know that there is a prophet in Israel.'
The words may, without strain or violence, be imagined by us to have been spoken by the gospel of Christ, when in the ministry of our Lord and His apostles, it appeared in its full might and glory on the earth. Naaman the Syrian represents our fallen race, leprous and wretched through sin and its woeful fruits. Science, and human philosophy, and literature, and government, and the arts, had all done their utmost for ages to make the poor leper better. But his worst wounds remained unbound and the seat of the malady unreached; and when all the experiments had failed, and all these human agents were at their wits' end, Christianity came with its heavenly medicines, having the power of God hidden in them, and said, with a confidence which the history of the evangelized portion of our race has amply justified, ' Bring the leper hither to me.'
It is natural to suppose that Naaman would now return to his chariot, and resume his journey with more of buoyant expectation than ever; for he must have noticed, that the prophet's words not only contained an invitation to come to him, but seemed to hold out no uncertain promise of a cure. There was evidently, however, not a little in the state of his mind, as well as of his body, that needed to be corrected and healed. He counted much on the influence of the rewards which he brought with him, and still more perhaps on the imposing effect of his rank, and style, and retinue, and expected that, as he came up ' with his horses and with his chariot' to the humble gate of the prophet, he, the great Syrian lord, would be welcomed with no small show of deference.
What a contradiction, then, must it have been to his expectation, what a mortification to his pride, what a revulsion to everything that was heathen and even human within him, when, there was no flutter or excitement whatever at his approach - no attempt to meet his 'pomp and circumstance' after its own fashion - when even the prophet himself did not come forth to receive him, but, remaining within the recesses of his chamber, sent out a solitary messenger to him with this strange message, 'Go and wash in Jordan seven times, and thy flesh shall come again to thee, and thou shalt be clean!'
II. To get at the explanation of Elisha's behaviour at this juncture, to see at once its wisdom and its kindness, we must have before our mind the fact, that something more and higher was aimed at than Naaman's cure, even his deliverance from idolatry as well as from leprosy - not only the restoration of his health, but his introduction into the true faith and kingdom of God. There was an unconscious but real and rapid moral education of this interesting man sought by Elisha, in all that he now did or abstained from doing, which was intended to secure that he should derive effectual and permanent religious benefit from his miraculous cure when it was wrought.
Moreover, if we would catch the true spirit of the scene, and look upon it from the loftiest point of observation, we must ever be recurring to the fact, that the omnipotence of the God of Israel, the only living and true God, was meant, by the manner and shape of the incidents, to be placed in as impressive contrast with the impotence of the false gods of heathenism, as in that sublime trial-scene which had been conducted by Elisha's great predecessor on Mount Carmel.
When these principles are kept steadily before our minds, they shed most instructive light upon every part of Elisha's dealings with this Syrian chief. Naaman had counted on deference being shown him because of his rank, and wealth, and renown; he had expected to be cured, not simply as a poor leper, but as the great military commander, the hero of a hundred fights; and he must therefore be taught that all men stand on an equality, as dependants on Heaven's mercy - that 'rich and poor meet together' here, and that ' there is no respect of persons with God.'
Moreover, had the cure been performed in the manner in which Naaman anticipated that it would be done, by the prophet's coming out to him, and with many mystic signs and incantations, and the moving of his hands up and down over the more diseased parts of his body after the manner of the magicians of his own country, he would have been in some danger of regarding Elisha as only a more skilful and dexterous magician than they, and the simple working of the power of God, without any interpbsing sign or human manipulation, would not have been made to stand out in such distinct prominence.
I conceive that the ends contemplated by the prophet were further served, by the fact that Naaman was directed to 'go and wash in Jordan.' For unquestionably it was true that Abana and Pharpar, those beautiful streams flowing from the northern sides of Hermon, which irrigated the orchards and gardens of Damascus, were in themselves far more pure and salubrious than the Jordan; and when its waters were turned into the sign and instrument of healing, it would induce him all the more readily to connect the cure with no particular medicinal virtue in itself, but with the power of God working in it. How very much those improper feelings, to which I have now referred, were at work in Naaman's bosom, and needed to be rebuked and corrected by the treatment which was adopted by the prophet, appears from the effect which the message, at its first announcement, produced on him. It seemed to his still unsubdued and untaught mind, as if there were nothing but meditated slight and insult in this command of Elisha. Every part of it was so contrary to his natural feelings, so opposite to all his preconceived notions, that it sounded to him like mockery at his fatal malady. What! had he come all the way from Damascus to Samaria only to be told to do this? He thought that the prophet would have bid him do some great thing.' If he had been disappointed and chagrined at some of the earlier stages of his visit, he was utterly enraged now. And while the prophet still kept silent and invisible in his chamber, and even to all appearance indifferent whether the chafed Syrian obeyed his directions or not, Naaman had already commanded his chariot away from before his gate, was hurrying back on the road to Damascus, and all his fond hopes of cure seemed on the point of being wrecked and given to the winds.
It was well for him that, at such a crisis, he had servants who, looking at the whole matter more calmly, saw it in its true light, and who loved him so well and served him so faithfully, as not to fall in with his foolish humour or to flatter it, but respectfully to reason with him and persuade him to comply with the direction of the man of God. And it was better still that, after the first outbreak of his foolish anger was over, he began to see the wisdom of their words, and yielded to their faithful remonstrance: My father, if the prophet had bid thee do some great thing, wouldst thou not have done it ? how much rather then when he saith to thee, Wash, and be clean?'
But it is impossible not to see, in all this unreasoning and resentful dislike of Naaman to the cure prescribed for him by Elisha, a vivid representation of the opposition of the natural mind to the divine method of deliverance from the guilt and dominion of sin. And it is all the more proper that we should trace this resemblance, since leprosy under the Old Testament was avowedly typical of the disease of sin and of its consequences. How averse are men to believe in the simplicity and absolute freeness of the divine plan for recovering sinners to God! It so humbles their pride and contradicts all their preconceived notions of what should have been. This 'offence of the cross' has never ceased. Men would prefer some royal road to heaven, in which they should not be regarded and treated simply as sinners, but which should leave them somewhat still in which to glory. That rebellious and presumptuous 'I thought,' the very germ of all rationalism, which would always be telling God in what manner He is to save men, is the resisting power that has shut the gate of heaven against countless thousands. It may be said indeed, however much the saying may have the look of paradox, that nothing is at once so easy and so difficult as the gospel method of human salvation. We shall make the one or the other of these affirmations regarding it, according as we look outward from the sinner, or look into him. Thus, so far as the removal of all legal obstructions out of the way of his pardon is concerned, and the making of a full, complete, and infinitely meritorious satisfaction for his sins, this has all been, done long since in the atonement of the Son of God. The door of mercy stands wide open - the banquet of heavenly and spiritual blessings is spread - all things are now ready, and the invitation and the welcome are addressed to every inhabitant of the earth.
But then, how reluctant is the heart of man to acquiesce in this method of deliverance, just because it is so strangely gratuitous and divinely free! We are always waiting for something more elaborate and more human than 'Heaven's easy, artless, unencumbered plan.' We would prefer washing in our own Abanas and Pharpars. We imagine that we must surely have some great work to do, instead of simply resting with childlike trust in the great work which Christ has done for us. A thousand excuses and delays, with which men keep away from the reception of the gospel, are just so many disguised forms of aversion to it, because it tells them that 'eternal life is the free gift of God through Jesus Christ our Lord.' We would have preferred penances and pilgrimages, laborious outward services, and costly sacrifices - something that would have appeared to give us a personal claim upon God, and have been a price in our right hand, rather than to have been saved as unworthy.
'But Christ as soon would abdicate His own,
As stoop from heaven to sell the proud a throne.'
Then measuring the amount of the divine benevolence by the standard of our own - which is like imagining that there are no more waters in the ocean than we are able to carry in the hollow of our hands - we are slow to believe what the gospel declares of it. The very extent and exuberance of the love, the divine graciousness with which it comes and lays down its gifts at our very feet, makes us question its reality. And yet, if the Lord had bidden us do some great thing, would we not have done it? How much rather then when He says to us, Wash, and be clean? Believe, and live ?
'I say to thee - do thou repeat
To the first man thou mayest meet,
In lane, highway, or open street,
That he, and we, and all men move
Under a canopy of love,
As broad as the blue sky above.'
III. Naaman is at length brought to a sense of his true position as a helpless leper, and we now follow him to the banks of the Jordan to be the delighted witnesses of his cure. And when we call up the whole scene before our imagination, we shall not fail to see that the prescribed measure, easy though it seemed and was, was admirably fitted to put to the test the simple trust of Naaman in the word of the man of God.
In all likelihood, he expected that his recovery would be gradual, and that he would be made gratefully conscious of its progress, as he plunged on the seven appointed times into the surging waves. But on six occasions he has already complied with the prophet's words, and each time has risen to the surface before his anxious and breathless attendants on the river's brink, sadly conscious that as yet there is no change, and with his leprosy still clinging to him like a Nessus robe. With palpitating heart, he goes down the seventh time and is covered with the waters, and now he feels the sudden passage of a new life through his whole frame. He is 'changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye,' 'his flesh comes again to him like the flesh of a little child,' and he leaps forth upon the green sward with more than the glad buoyancy of youth, a leper no more! Had he known the Hebrew psalms, as we may believe he knew them afterwards, we might imagine him singing with his attendants on the bank of the Jordan, those words of one of the grandest of inspired poems: ' Bless the Lord, O my soul; and all that is within me, bless His holy name. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits.'
His body had not alone been the subject of a blessed change ; he had, almost at the same moment, parted for ever with his idolatry. It is astonishing how rapidly the mind works at certain great crises of its history. We live an age in an hour. What a complete and sudden revolution took place in the mind of the Samaritan woman during the brief period of her interview with Jesus at the well of Jacob! From light to darkness - from the love of sin to holy service and discipleship - 'from vile to pure, from earthly to divine,' the experience of that brief hour was like passing from one world into another. There was something similar to this in the working of Naaman's mind now. He compared the utter impotence of the false gods with the omnipotence of the God of Israel, as it had now been so signally put forth in his behalf; he thought with glowing gratitude of the free, unbought, sovereign mercy of this God, which had visited him, a stranger and an idolater, with so great a deliverance; and he returned from the river's bank to the prophet's gate the rejoicing subject of two blessed transformations, to declare his eternal and unqualified renunciation of all the 'lying vanities' of heathenism, to avow his belief that the God of Israel was the only living and, true God who made the heavens and the earth, and to bind himself by the most solemn vows to His service and worship for ever!
IV. This brings us to notice the incidents of Naaman's subsequent interview with Elisha. I regard his words, ' Behold, now, I know that there is no God in all the earth but in Israel,' as expressing at once his casting off of all subjection and allegiance to the idols of his own Syria and of all other lands, his conviction that Jehovah was the one only true God and his immovable purpose that He should henceforth be his God. But there is more than this in his language. He means to say that the matter had just been brought to the test of experiment in his own person, and that the issue had been such as to warrant both parts of his conclusion. 'I know it,' says he. He had now 'the testimony in himself. In like manner, the evidence which is afforded to a true Christian of the divinity of his religion, through its divine effects upon himself, is the most valuable and home-coming of all evidences. It effectually ' garrisons him,' as Owen has said, ' against all the assaults of unbelief.' It is , always near him, and grows with the increase of his own piety. 'Do you demand miracles?' he can reply to his subtle questioner and tempter - I am myself 'a miracle. Do you call for evidences? -I have a whole volume of them in my own heart. Now, I know!
While the Syrian's lips are thus full of praise to Jehovah as the true God and his compassionate deliverer, his hands are full of gifts to Elisha as Jehovah's servant. 'Now, I pray thee, take a blessing,' or thankoffering, ' of thy servant;' and as he said the words, his attendants were ready to unload the precious treasures from his chariot, and to lay them at the prophet's feet. But Elisha solemnly declines the offer, though repeated and urged again and again. ' As the Lord liveth, before whom I stand, I will receive none.' Why so stern a refusal, when Naaman was rich and grateful, and the prophet needy ; and when it would even have relieved the burden of the Syrian's thankful heart to have been permitted to give ? He had not thus declined the use of the little chamber with the bed, and the table, and the stool, and the candlestick, in the dwelling of the grateful Shunamite. Nor did Paul and his companions, many centuries afterwards, reject the proffered hospitality of the newly converted Lydia. The explanation is to be found in the peculiar circumstances of the case.
With Elisha, the honour of God and the character of his religion stood paramount above every other interest. Those could in no degree have suffered by compliance in the other instances to which we have referred; they would even be promoted by it; but in the present case it was otherwise. Naaman was about to return immediately to his own land, his chief impressions regarding the nature of the true religion would necessarily be drawn from his intercourse with the prophet ; and had Elisha accepted his gift, the suspicion might afterwards have arisen in his mind that the hope of reward had been his motive in pointing him to the remedy.
But nothing mercenary must even seem to be associated with the work of God. He will not allow the moral impression of the miracle to be in the least impaired; both Naaman and his servants must be made to mark the contrast between the selfishness of heathenism and the benignant spirit of the true faith ; his cure must ever stand out before him as the fruit of pure divine compassion, and never must the Syrian in future days be able to say, ' I have made Elisha rich.'
But there is much more difficulty found by many, in satisfactorily accounting for the two requests which Naaman next proceeded to address to Elisha - the one being that he might be allowed to take back with him to his own country two mules' burden of the earth of Israel; and the other that, when his master Ben-hadad went into the house of Rimmon, the idol-god of Syria, to worship, and he leaned on his shoulder, he might be forgiven if he 'bowed himself in the house of Rimmon.' For does not the one of these requests appear to savour of superstition, and does not the other propose a compromise with idolatry? This has often been said, but we are disposed to judge Naaman more gently. The former wish might merely be the expression of a sentiment which is strong in human nature, and which is quite innocent when kept within proper bounds - the desire to have some object near us that may help to keep alive hallowed recollections, and that shall be as a link to associate our thoughts with what is loved and distant. Naaman's aim was to have something always in his sight that would bring up Israel and the prophet and all the sacred memories of this blessed visit, readily before his mind. And, moreover, if the altar on which he henceforth sacrificed and worshipped was formed of this earth, it would serve as an indication to his Syrian fellow-countrymen that, while he was of the same nation with them, yet in religion he was identical with the worshippers of the God of Israel.
Was the feeling unnatural or blameable, especially in one whose eyes had just opened to the light, and whose heart was glowing with all the ardour of first love? Such a sentiment might easily degenerate into superstition, but it was not necessarily superstitious. Have you never contracted a special regard for some particular copy of the Bible, which is associated in your memory with interesting passages in your own spiritual history? Have you never found your heart bettered by visiting the scenes of holy and heroic deeds, or even looking on the faded handwriting of one who, while he lived, had made the world his debtor? Could you look without emotion on a vessel of water from the sea of Galilee or from the well of Samaria, or upon a branch that had been plucked from one of the old olive-trees in Gethsemane? And if not, do not blame this grateful Syrian, that, in departing from this sacred land, the place at once of his cure and of his conversion, he ' took pleasure in her stones, and her very dust was dear to him.'
In regard to the second of Naaman's requests to Elisha, we are disposed to speak with more of caution and diffidence; at the same time, when we do not find the prophet condemning him, it will surely be wisest and best so to understand his meaning and design as to be able to add, ' Neither do I condemn thee.' He had that day publicly avowed, in the presence of his Syrian servants and attendants, his unqualified renunciation of all idol-worship. And when he returned to Damascus, his daily offerings and holy services would tell his king and the whole city and kingdom, that Jehovah alone was his God. But then he foresaw that, as the prime minister of Ben-hadad, he would be required to accompany him into the temple of Rimmon, and even to support his person and accommodate himself to its motions while he worshipped there, and he wished Elisha to understand that, in doing this unwelcome work, there would be no conformity to idolatry or complication with it; he would simply be discharging a civil service to his master, not offering worship to Rimmon. Still he was anxious to learn, before he passed fiom the prophet's presence, whether this could be permitted. And we know how many similar questions have been raised in our times by Christian soldiers serving in idolatrous countries or under Papal kings, and how difficult it has been found always to draw with delicate precision the line between what may be yielded to Caesar and what must be rendered to God.
Some have understood the prophet's answer, 'Go in peace,' to indicate forbearance in the meantime with an error which he foresaw that stronger religion would be certain to cure; according to Bishop Hall's apologetic words, ' It is not for us to expect a full stature in the cradle of conversion.' But is it not more natural to regard the language as conveying Elisha's belief that, when Naaman discharged this service to his master, there would be no homage on his part to the idol; and at the same time leaving it with his individual conscience to determine whether it would not be still better that this semblance of evil were avoided, according to the maxim given forth by Paul in connection with kindred matters, ' Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind ?'
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