A Time of Famine: Chapter 12

2 Kings 4:38‑44  •  12 min. read  •  grade level: 6
A time of famine. Most of us have not lived through a famine, but we have read terrible accounts of famines in other countries. We have heard of whole villages, whole towns, dying of starvation. We have seen pictures of men, women and children reduced to skin and bones, dying from famine.
Famines in Eastern countries have been common occurrences. It is easy to see the reason for this. The whole fertility of the country, in so many places in the East, depends on the rainfall; if therefore the rain does not come, a famine must follow.
Palestine is, and always has been, dependent on the rainfall. There is no river in Palestine except the Jordan, and, being in a deep hollow, it has been little used for fertilizing the land. It is the rain, and the rain alone, which is counted upon to fill the streams and wells and to make the ground fit for the crops, and, consequently, if the rain does not fall in sufficient quantities, famine comes.
We read of famines in the time of Abraham, in the time of Isaac, in the time of Joseph, in the time of Ruth, in the time of David and in the time of Elijah, and we have now come to a famine in the days of Elisha.
We are told that there was a dearth in the land. The ground was parched and cracked, the flowers withered, the streams dry, the wells empty, and bread terribly scarce. Elisha is in Gilgal, where there was a school of the prophets, a college like the ones in Jericho and Bethel and which had been started in the days of Samuel. The prophets went about from school to school, instructing the young men. Elijah had been accustomed to travel from Jericho to Bethel and from Bethel to Gilgal, and now Elisha follows in his footsteps.
It is his day at Gilgal. Famine or no famine, he must continue with his work, though it is hard work teaching when the stomach is empty and the body weak. It is hard work learning also under these circumstances, and as Elisha teaches, seated on a high stool, and as the sons of the prophets listen, sitting on mats at his feet, just as teacher and scholars still sit in the East, he notices how white and exhausted they look.
Elisha is touched by their suffering. How can they learn when they are so hungry? “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” It is useless to expect them to profit from his instructions while they are feeling faint and ill. He stops his teaching and prepares to provide for their needs.
What a lovely picture of Jesus, our great Elisha, always pitiful, always tender, ever ready to be touched even by bodily necessities! Can you not hear Him saying to the apostles, as He looks with compassionate eyes on the hungry crowd which has listened to Him all day, “If I send them away fasting to their own houses they will faint by the way.” Therefore, He fed them.
And the Christ changes not. He is “Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and today, and forever.” “He knoweth our frame; He remembereth that we are dust.” He feels for us in all the weakness and weariness of the flesh. He knows that the body drags us down and hinders us in our attempts at prayer and service. He understands how often the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. Let us remember for our comfort that He is no hard Master but is a loving, pitiful Lord. And in our weary moments let us turn to Him and let us feel assured of His gentle care, His constant sympathy and His ever-ready help.
Elisha calls his servant Gehazi and bids him at once prepare a meal for the hungry students. “Set on the great pot, and seethe pottage for the sons of the prophets.” What is there to put in the soup? Not much of anything, but in soup a little goes a long way.
The fire is made on the ground; the kettle is slung across it, and all the scraps that can be found are thrown into it. Elisha brings out the whole of his little store, and the pot is filled with water. The sons of the prophets would only be too glad to help in getting the meal ready. Some would gather dry sticks for the fire. One would stir the broth with a long wooden spoon, while another goes out into the fields to gather any wild herbs that have not been scorched to death by the sun that he may throw them in the soup to add flavor.
One man comes in from the fields carrying some bright green leaves - a wild vine, he calls it. It has gourds of fruit on it about the size of an orange. The man evidently thinks he has made an uncommonly good discovery, and with great joy he shreds the yellow fruit with his knife and throws the pieces into the steaming soup.
Now the bowls must be filled with the steaming soup. It is ladled out, and the hungry young men gladly begin to eat. But the gladness is soon changed into sorrow. They are seized with pain and sickness; evidently there is something wrong with the soup. A cry of distress goes up: “O thou man of God, there is death in the pot”!
Yes, the gourds were a mistake after all; instead of adding to the value of the soup, they spoil it all. They were the fruit of the colocynth, a poisonous plant, which is not fit to be eaten or even tasted.
That young man was very earnest and very willing with very good intentions, but still he did serious harm. He intended to help make good broth. He thought he was gathering the right sort of herb, but in spite of that he nearly poisoned his companions, the prophet and himself.
We often hear that a certain preacher or teacher is thoroughly sincere and earnest, and the conclusion which is drawn from such a statement is that therefore his doctrine must be correct and his statements the truth of God. But surely that is a wrong conclusion, for a sincere man and an earnest man may, like the young man with the gourds, be doing great harm.
Let us bring all teaching to the test of God’s Word. Let us see to it that there are no wild gourds of error in the pot - no poisonous, false doctrines mingled with the teaching to which we listen, for of many an earnest, impressive sermon the cry may be raised, “O thou man of God, there is death in the pot.” There is much that is good, wholesome and profitable, but a little error, a small quantity of poison, spoils all. Thus, in spite of the intention of the preacher or teacher, souls are hindered and not helped. The pure milk of the Word is adulterated and made harmful. Let us then remember our Lord’s solemn warning: “Take heed what ye hear.”
Did you ever notice how God’s help and God’s deliverance often come at the very moment of extremity? When man can do absolutely nothing, God steps in. When they had no wine, when the wine jars were drained to the very last drop, the Lord Jesus came to the rescue and made more. When Abraham’s knife was actually raised to slay his son, then, and not till then, the angel of God cried to him from heaven. Not when the Israelites stood on the very brink of Jordan, but only when the priests who led the way actually put their feet in the water did the path open for them to cross over.
So, when the soup was made, when the bowls were filled, and when the effect of the poison was beginning to be felt, then comes God’s moment to help. He steps in and delivers them. As soon as the cry of distress went up, it was heard and answered.
It is interesting to notice not only when the help came, but how it came. Elisha did not speak to the soup and say to it, “Be wholesome; be free from poison.” No, he bade the sons of the prophets do their part of the work. He said to the young men, “Bring meal.”
God often uses man in doing His work. The servants at the wedding must fill the waterpots with water; those standing by the grave must roll away the stone for Lazarus; Moses must stretch his hand over the Red Sea. God could have done without man’s aid. The waterpots might have been found full of wine; Lazarus could have been raised without human hands touching the stone; the sea could have been divided without Moses’s rod.
But God has chosen to use us to work for Him. It is when we are ready to do His will that He works through us and by us. God will have no drones in His hive. He trains all His children to be busy. He does not need their help. He can act quite as well without them; yet, for their own sakes, He gives them a share in the work and encourages them to do what they can to help forward the end He has in view.
The meal is brought. It is cast into the pot; a fresh supply is served out, and the last is better than the first; it is wholesome, healing and nutritious.
Of what is the meal an emblem? Is it not a picture of the pure Word of God - the bread of life, the food of hungry souls? There is no poison in the Word; no error is to be found in its pages; all it teaches is healthful, life-giving and true.
That was not the last meal that Elisha and the students had together. Soon after this, a visitor arrived at Gilgal. He had traveled a long distance from Baal-shalisha, a village to the west of Bethel. The traveler is a friend of Elisha - a man who has great love for the prophet and who has evidently been concerned about him in the time of famine.
He has come with a present - twenty beautiful cakes, made of the new corn. The very first part of his field that had ripened, on the sunniest spot, where the ears had been golden while the rest of the field was green -there this man had reaped. He had grown the corn and baked these cakes as an offering for the prophet: bread of the firstfruits of the barley. Then, fearing that if he made more bread, it would become dry before Elisha could eat it, he brought corn in the ear, so the prophet could make more when the twenty cakes were finished.
What a proof we have here of the truth of our Lord’s words: “Give, and it shall be given unto you”! Elisha had given all he had to the sons of the prophets; now he meets with kindness in return. And surely it is ever so. “The liberal soul shall be made fat.” Generous people meet with generosity, kindly people with kindliness. On the other hand, grudging, selfish people meet with the same treatment from others. “With what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.”
What will Elisha do with his present? What a boon it will be! Surely he will go to his own box, lock it up, and bring out loaf after loaf for himself and for Gehazi. That is how some would have acted, but not Elisha. He bids them prepare a great feast, so that everyone shall partake of the nourishing food. Everyone is invited; not one is to be left out.
“Why,” says Gehazi, looking at the twenty cakes, “shall I set this small supply before one hundred men, and they hungry and famishing? If five men divide one small cake among them, each will get a mere mouthful.”
But Elisha says again, “Give the people, that they may eat: for thus saith the Lord, They shall eat, and shall leave thereof. So he set it before them, and they did eat, and left thereof.”
Was it not the foreshadowing of a far greater miracle? Can we not see the five thousand men sitting in rows on the green grass? Can we not hear the voice of the Lord Jesus, uttering the very same words as Elisha: “Give ye them to eat”? “And they did all eat, and were filled: and they took up of the fragments that remained twelve baskets full.”
One hundred men were fed by Elisha - five thousand by Christ. One loaf supplied the needs of five men at Gilgal; one loaf was sufficient for one thousand at Bethsaida. Only a little was left at Elisha’s feast; twelve baskets full were collected by the apostles after the supper on the grass. Yet, still, Elisha’s miracle was a sample of grand and glorious things to come.
As we leave the happy party at Gilgal feasting on Elisha’s store, surely we cannot help feeling what a lovely thing unselfishness is, and yet how rare a plant it is in the soil of this world. In how few hearts does it bloom and bring forth fruit; how few homes are filled with its sweet fragrance!
On the other hand, how many hearts and homes are made miserable by the spirit of selfishness. Oh, for grace to follow Elisha in the cultivation of the lovely plant of unselfishness. Oh, to follow a greater than Elisha - Christ Jesus - for in every footstep of His we see the mark of the spirit of self-sacrifice. Of every action of His life we may say truly, “Even Christ pleased not Himself.”
“As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men” - while we have time, and how long will that be? Who can tell? It may be that the Lord, who alone knows the number of our days, may see that their number is becoming very small.
Let us, then, take each day from His hands and use that day as may best please Him. While we have time, let us live for Christ. In all the tiny details of our everyday life let us strive to please Him. Above all, let us pray that the lovely plant - unselfishness - may grow and blossom in our hearts, so that of us, as of our Master, it may be said that he “pleased not himself.”