A Myrtle Still: Chapter 10

2 Kings 4:8‑17  •  12 min. read  •  grade level: 6
“A myrtle in the desert will be a myrtle still.” So runs the old Jewish proverb. What does it mean? It means this, that a man’s character is the same, whatever his surroundings may be. Sweet myrtle can only be sweet myrtle, regardless of the soil it grows in. The God-fearing man, even when he is surrounded by nothing that is helpful to godliness, will still be a God-fearing man. Wherever he dwells, in whatever company he is found, he will be a myrtle still; all shall know that he is indeed a servant of God.
Elisha, the prophet, was a myrtle tree; his surroundings did not alter him. We have seen him the companion of the old prophet Elijah; we have also seen him surrounded by the young sons of the prophets. We have heard him addressing the three rich kings, and we have also noticed his words to the poor widow. But wherever we have seen him, we have found him acting as a true man of God, God’s myrtle tree, shedding a holy sweetness on all around.
We are now to see Elisha out visiting, and we shall find him at meals what we have found him elsewhere, a holy man of God. Look at him; he is on a journey, staff in hand. By his side walks a young man who waits upon him, as he waited upon Elijah. The young man’s name is Gehazi, and he is known to all as the servant who pours water on the hands of Elisha.
Elisha and Gehazi walk across a fertile plain called the Plain of Esdraelon. Grain fields are on each side of the path. Wild flowers line the edge of the road, for it is the time of spring. On their left is a conical hill, Mount Tabor, a well-known hill in Jewish history. As they pass it, surely Elisha will remember the wonderful battle which took place on that very spot when Deborah and Barak assembled their forces on Mount Tabor and came down to fight upon the very plain that he and his servant were crossing.
Then, as the two men look ahead, they see Jezreel, standing on the spur of the mountains of Gilboa. In that fashionable city still lives the wicked Jezebel, who hated and ill-treated his master; that building, glittering in the sunshine, is her ivory palace, and there, close by it, is that coveted vineyard of Naboth.
They are nearing the village of Shunem. There it lies, nestling on the hillside at the foot of Little Hermon. All around it are high hedges of prickly pear; close to it are lovely gardens, full of the choicest fruit. The master and the servant make their way through these and turn towards the khan. A khan is something like a large compound, with a roof overhead to shade travelers from the sun. In some places those who enter the khan are supplied with food by the village, according to the laws of eastern hospitality.
In the village of Shunem, as Elisha saw it, would be a number of small, flat-roofed houses, built one above another on the hillside, and there would be one house, much larger than the rest, belonging to the sheik or chief man of the village.
Unknown to themselves, the two travelers are being watched by the wife of the sheik. And as they approach the khan, they hear footsteps following them. Turning around, they see approaching them the wife of the sheik, the most important woman in the village.
What does she want? She has come to entreat the weary travelers to go to her house and rest. She wants Elisha to dine with her. She tells him she has often seen him pass before in his journeyings to Jezreel and to the Jordan, and she asks him to give her the honor of his company at dinner in the great house on the hill.
Elisha seems at first to have hesitated; he cared not to be found in great men’s houses. But we read, “She constrained him,” that is, she earnestly urged him.
At last Elisha consented to come. That very day found him sitting at the table in the great house on the hillside. It would be a thoroughly Eastern house, all the rooms on one floor, built around a courtyard, and in the dining room would be no carpet but divans on which to recline and a table in the middle. It would be a very quiet house; no children’s voices would be heard nor merry shouts nor little feet running up and down the stone floor, for the lady of Shunem is childless.
Before them would be spread beautiful fruits from the gardens of Shunem: figs and olives, prickly pears and melons with piles of cakes baked on the hearth. There would not be much meat of any kind, perhaps a kid from the flock of goats which climbed up Little Hermon or some chickens from the lady of Shunem’s poultry-yard. But there would be nuts and sweetmeats of all kinds in abundance.
As they ate they would talk, and Elisha would speak to them of his God and instruct them more perfectly in the things of Jehovah. This man and his wife were godly people, although they lived in bad days. The wicked Jehoram was king and the wretched Jezebel was queen-mother; the worship of Baal was the popular worship, and all Israel was going astray after idols.
Elijah had once complained sorrowfully, “I, even I only, am left,” I only serve the true God in the midst of this perverse nation. But God had let him know that there were no less than seven thousand true, devoted men and women who still served Jehovah. Two of these faithful ones were living in the great house of Shunem. The lady of Shunem and her husband feared and loved the God of Israel, and so they welcomed His prophet into their home.
Elisha seems to have enjoyed his visit, and as he often passed through Shunem, he turned into the great house to be welcomed to the hospitable table of the lady of Shunem. This Shunammite women found him a blessing to her house. She says to her husband, “Behold now, I perceive that this is a holy man of God, which passeth by us continually.”
Yes, Elisha was the myrtle tree, whatever his surroundings. His talk at the dinner table evidently agreed with his discourse as a prophet. His conduct in the family was the same as his conduct when on his prophetic mission. By his words and his behavior, the Shunammite could see that he was a holy man of God.
How is it with us? Are we the same on weekdays as we are on Sundays? Do others recognize that we are one of God’s children? Is our light burning clear and steady? Can those in our own homes and those with whom we mix daily take knowledge of us that we have been with Jesus? Do our words and our actions show whose we are and whom we mean to serve?
But Elisha improved on acquaintance. The more the Shunammite saw of him, the more she liked him; the oftener he sat at her table, the more sure she felt that he was indeed a holy man of God.
To this woman, Elisha’s visits seemed all too short. Night came on, and the prophet must go on his way. He must gird up his loins, take his staff in his hand and continue his journey. After much consideration, she, in the largeness of her heart, devises a plan for his further comfort, but before she carries it out, like a good wife, she consults her husband. To him she says, “Let us make a little chamber, I pray thee, on the wall; and let us set for him there a bed, and a table, and a stool, and a candlestick: and it shall be, when he cometh to us, that he shall turn in thither.”
She prepares most carefully for the prophet’s comfort. Eastern houses have generally nothing but a bed in the sleeping room, but the lady of Shunem wishes the chamber on the wall to serve as a little study for him also. Even the earthenware lamp, filled with olive oil, is not forgotten, that Elisha may have a light in his room after sunset so that he may read or write in quiet, as he sits on the wooden stool by his little table.
Are we like the lady of Shunem? Do we love to show kindness to the people of God? The Lord’s instructions to us are very clear on this point: “Do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith.” Let us then remember His Word. We are to be good to all and are specially to show kindness to those who belong to the Lord, His dear children. When we care for them, the Lord says, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these My brethren, ye have done it unto Me.” If the Master were on earth now, how gladly would we minister to Him!
The heavens have received Him; the white cloud has borne Him out of our sight. We cannot wash His feet with our tears or anoint Him with sweet ointment or follow Him during His preaching tours that we may minister to His comfort or welcome Him to our house and to our table. But He has left behind Him His representatives, and each act of kindness done to these brings joy to His heart.
So the chamber is prepared. The bed is made. The stool, table and candlestick are ready. When the prophet came again to Shunem, what a pleasant surprise awaited him! A neat little room which he could call his own, into which he could turn when hot, dusty and tired, and where he could enjoy quiet rest in spite of the hot midday sun. Elisha’s heart is full of gratitude to the Shunammite.
Holy men are grateful men. Ingratitude is sin. It is a sin which we specially need to guard against, for it is one of the characteristics of the end of this age. Elisha felt grateful; he did more — he said he was grateful; he did more still — he proved he was grateful. (He gives us an example well worth following.) In gratitude he said unto her, “Behold, thou hast been careful for us with all this care; what is to be done for thee? wouldest thou be spoken for to the king, or to the captain of the host?”
Elisha knew that the king owed his life and the life of his army to him. He knew that the captain of the host would be more than willing to grant any request of his. Had he not brought water to save the king, the captain of the host and the whole army in the Valley of Salt? Had he not prayed to God for deliverance from Mesha, king of Moab? Surely, then, a word from him would be sure to have influence and would bring the Shunammite into notice at court.
But the lady of Shunem was not ambitious. “I dwell,” she said, “among mine own people.” I have no desire to be introduced at court or to shine in Jezreel. I am content with my own life at home, among my own people, my neighbors, my friends and my household. She was a true woman, this lady of Shunem, and a good wife, a stayer at home and a minder of her own business, doing her duty in that state of life into which it had pleased God to call her.
Elisha’s speech to the Shunammite was no mere compliment. He did not at once dismiss the subject, feeling that he had done his duty by asking her the question. He really desired to give her pleasure, so he holds another consultation with his servant. Gehazi has noticed the one great want of the house. Money, rank, a beautiful home, a kind husband: all these the lady of Shunem had, but she had no child. There was no heir to the estate at Shunem; there was no loving and beloved child to be the joy and sunshine of the home. And this was a very special trial to a Jewish father and mother, who hoped, above all else, to be among the number of those honored parents from whom, in regular descent, the Messiah should spring.
The Shunammite is called, and to her astonishment she is told that springtime next year, when all nature is bursting forth into life, she will embrace a son. It seems too good to be true, and the woman can hardly bring herself to believe it. But she found, as we ourselves have found again and again, that nothing is too hard for the Lord.
Let us look at the village of Shunem a year later at springtime. The fig tree is putting out its tender shoots, the gardens are once more covered with green, the plain of Esdraelon is full of young corn, and on the slopes of Little Hermon the flowers of spring, the scarlet anemone, the delicate cyclamen, the bright pheasant’s eye and the lilac crocus, are clothing the ground with beauty. The world is full of young life; it is the time of life.
At the Shunammite’s house, we shall find the fairest flower of all. God’s word by His prophet has come true; the Shunammite has a son. What rejoicing there is! The whole village is feasting; the father is sending presents to all his friends that they may rejoice with him. So the lady of Shunem had her reward for her kindness to the holy man of God. “God is not unrighteous to forget your work and labor of love, which ye have showed toward His name, in that ye have ministered to the saints, and do minister.”
What does our work amount to? Oh, how little do any of us do for Christ! It has been well said that we stand up and sing,
Were the whole realm of nature ours,
That were an offering far too small.
And then, because the whole realm of nature is not ours, we do nothing and give nothing at all — and this, in spite of all His wonderful love to us, in spite of His blood shed and His life given!
Let us say, as we think of what He has done for us, “What shall I render unto the Lord for all His benefits?”