The Famine in Samaria

2 Kings 6:24‑7:20  •  9 min. read  •  grade level: 7
We have in this portion of our prophet’s history something of very peculiar significance. The richest ways of divine grace are illustrated in this striking picture of Samaria’s misery and deliverance.
The siege of that city by the army of Syria reduced it to the extremest wretchedness. An ass’s head was worth eighty pieces of silver, and mothers were compelled to feed upon their offspring.
One need not draw the picture of misery to greater length than this. Here it is, in all its horror! It reminds one of Legion in the gospels: another picture of what the unmitigated and unchecked power of the great captor could do with all of us.
But man is further disclosed in this history. He is seen in the character of his mind, as well as in his misery and state of captivity to his ruthless destroyer. “God do so and more also to me,” says the king of Israel, “if the head of Elisha the son of Shaphat shall stand on him this day.”
This was man charging on God (or His servant—the same thing) all the mischief that was occurring. It was like Adam at the beginning of our sin—“The woman whom Thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat.” It was like Cain—“Am I my brother’s keeper?” It was laying the sin and the sorrow on that head which was alone clear and free of it all. This was an overflowing of sin. Like the cross of Christ, this was the height of evil. This was the moment of Samaria’s fullest iniquity. But, like the same cross of Christ, this same moment was just the occasion for the display of the divine grace. The ruin was complete, and without hope from man. Then it is that Elisha’s lips are opened with a promise, and he delivers a word from the Lord.
For if the power of Israel be gone, and there is none shut up nor left, will not the Lord repent Himself concerning His servants? (Deut. 32:3636For the Lord shall judge his people, and repent himself for his servants, when he seeth that their power is gone, and there is none shut up, or left. (Deuteronomy 32:36).) If God see that there is no man, no intercessor, will not His own arm bring salvation? If the enemy comes in like a flood, will not the Spirit lift up a standard against him? (Isa. 50:16-19.) And such was this moment in Samaria. Such a moment was the moment of God’s glorious grace —that where sin abounded, there grace more abounded—that, as in the cross of Christ, man was at the height of his rebellion so God was also at the height of the glory of His goodness; now when the sin and misery of Samaria were at the full, the cup of divine blessing was also about to overflow. “Then Elisha said, Hear ye the word of the Lord; Thus saith the Lord, Tomorrow about this time, shall a measure of fine flour be sold for a shekel, and two measures of barley for a shekel, in the gate of Samaria.”
“In the gate of Samaria!” Truly precious that thought is to the needy soul—blessed notice of the grace of the gospel! Salvation is not to be sought for either in heaven above or in the depths beneath. It has come to us. The sin offering lies at the door. The Israelite need not leave the lintel of his own house to accomplish the full security of that house from the sword of the destroyer. Grace brings the relief which grace has provided. The fine flour and the barley were to be had by the famished people at the very gate of their city! (See Rom. 10:6-86But the righteousness which is of faith speaketh on this wise, Say not in thine heart, Who shall ascend into heaven? (that is, to bring Christ down from above:) 7Or, Who shall descend into the deep? (that is, to bring up Christ again from the dead.) 8But what saith it? The word is nigh thee, even in thy mouth, and in thy heart: that is, the word of faith, which we preach; (Romans 10:6‑8).)
How are the shining footmarks of the salvation of God to be traced in all this, beloved. “Mercy for fetching,” as one of old said, “nay, for desiring; nay, for nothing but receiving.”
This appears to me to be very striking indeed. And this was Elisha’s glory in this scene; he knew the mind of God. The wicked heart of man was working its worst. The king of Israel was laying the mischief, as I have observed, on the only one who was really clear of it; as the high priest, Caiaphas gave counsel that one must die for the people, lest the whole nation perish, and that one must be He who alone was guiltless of all the nation’s sorrow. (John 11.) But then it is that God’s remedy reveals itself. Then it is that grace abounds. And instead of the ass’s head being bought for eighty pieces of silver, a measure of flour and two measures of barley should now be bought for one shekel in the gate of the self-destroyed city.
But if we have thus before us the height of human evil met by the aboundings of divine grace, we have also the varied way in which this grace is entertained in the world.
It meets with rejection from some. The nobleman exhibits that to us. He would not believe that God could do all that His prophet was now pronouncing. There was a lion in the way. If windows were to be opened in heaven, might this be? And who ever heard of windows in heaven? This is all said just in the spirit of unbelief; in the evil temper of the heart that refuses to receive good tidings from God; who will not have happy thoughts of nor entertain holy confidence towards Him, but who, when He speaks of pardon and blessing, rejects the grace, and will rather cleave to its own hard notions of such grace being a thing impossible—so ignorant, so alien from the life of God, is the heart of man.
There is a generation, however, who have no other hope — a people who have spent all on physicians for the healing of their plague, and are not a whit better. There are lepers outside the camp still—poor convicted sinners, “too bad for any but Jesus,” as one of them once said. Death is before, behind, and around them. The Syrian host, as they judge, before—the famishing city behind—their own diseased, leprous, and dead bodies encompassing them around. To such this grace comes in suited, needed time. They find that it is all to them. It is either certain death for them, or their last, only resource is in God Himself. And such arise, and take the spoil. Their necessities throw them into the place where Christ has gained the victory, and on the store-house which God hath both filled and opened.
Like the four lepers here, they had no help for it. Their very necessities, pressed in by death all around, threw them into the camp of the Syrians, where the Lord, all single-handed and alone, had been gaining victory. For it was the Lord who had made the Syrian host hear a noise of chariots and horses, and thus alone had put them all to flight. Of the people of Israel there are none with Him. It was the time and day of the Lord. Israel was dying in Samaria.
The lepers were dying without. And God meets the Syrian host alone. The poor lepers have nothing to do but to arise and share the fruit of the Lord’s triumph—as the sinner, now. It has been entirely and altogether the victory of Jesus. None stood with Him, or for Him. Alone He met the enemy—alone He suffered the penalty —He drank the cup alone—and three hours of darkness fell from heaven because He was made sin—He alone hung a curse upon the tree. The gospel is the publishing of all this strife and triumph of Jesus, that sinners, dead as lepers, may come and feed and live forever on that feast, that spoil of glorious war, which Jesus has won for them.
And what does their own joy communicate to them? A desire to divide the spoils. They tell what a Savior they have found. They spread the good tidings which they have themselves received, and by which they live.
There is no temper of soul that the spirit of the renewed mind more thoroughly condemns than the selfishness of our old, wretched nature. The working of it is too well known by some of us; but the working of it is so contrary to the glorious and generous grace of God in the gospel, that it leaves, when indulged, the tinge of fear behind it in the soul. “We do not well:” said one of these lepers to the other, “this is a day of good tidings, and we hold our peace: if we tarry till the morning light, some mischief will come upon us: now therefore come, that we may go and tell the king’s household.” And they publish it at once, as in the high places.
All this exercise of heart is easily to be understood by the renewed mind which has tasted of, and been formed by, the grace of the gospel. But there is more in this striking picture. We see weak or slow-hearted faith in the king. He reasons about the good tidings. He does not, in the bold unbelief and scorn of the nobleman at once refuse them, but he reasons about them: “O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken.” But grace abounds. Grace, as in the case of Naaman, can provide a minister as well as a treasury—and the slow-hearted king, as well as the readier lepers, share the spoils of the glorious victory of the Lord, and all the famishing city follow. “The lame take the prey.” None come short but the unbelieving nobleman. Distrust of the divine bountifulness alone cuts off in the day of this feast of Israel. But all is accomplished: the measures of flour and of barley are sold in the gate, and the nobleman perishes alone in his unbelief.*
(* Note that the nobleman’s unbelieving words are twice minutely rehearsed; it is the Spirit’s solemn emphasis upon the way and the end of the scornful—perishing in the very sight of the abundant grace they have despised. Ed.)
The great things of the gospel of God are thus illustrated in this very striking picture of Samaria’s misery and deliverance—materials for our holy, profitable comfort and admonition. But not merely to investigate, and admire these skillful ways of the divine wisdom may it be our purpose, but to mark and digest them, that our souls may be refreshed, and our faith in the gracious Provider for all our need, and all our delights for eternity, be blessedly strengthened!