II Kings 5
October 20, 2002
This is the story of a soldier who met God. As we will see, this is one of those biblical stories that at first glance may seem rather remote from life in the 21st-century, but in the end proves the old adage that the more things change, the more they stay the same. From this slice of military life, we learn a great deal about the inner barriers that keep us from facing our problems and finding a way to get better.
It all begins when a powerful Syrian general contracts an incurable disease: “Now Naaman was commander of the army of the king of Aram. He was a great man in the sight of his master and highly regarded, because through him the LORD had given victory to Aram. He was a valiant soldier, but he had leprosy. Now bands from Aram had gone out and had taken captive a young girl from Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, ‘If only my master would see the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy’” (II Kings 5:1-3). There are four things we need to know about this man Naaman. First, he was the military leader of the armies of Syria (Aram was the ancient name for Syria). He wasn’t just a general, he was the General of the Army, a five-star general. Think of Dwight Eisenhower in World War II, the Supreme Allied Commander. Or in our day think of Colin Powell or the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Second, he was a very powerful man. He had power, influence and the great wealth that came with his position. Third, he was successful in battle. Even though he was a pagan and Syria was a pagan nation, the Lord had given him victory on the battlefield.
AIDS of the Old Testament
Fourth, he had leprosy. This is the fact that more than balances everything else. It is hard for us today to understand how the ancients felt about leprosy. In many ways it was the AIDS of the Old Testament. It was so feared that in Israel those diagnosed with leprosy were separated from the rest of society and made to live with other lepers. If they came near the uninfected, someone would go before them shouting, “Unclean! Unclean!” to warn others that a leper was approaching. Leprosy in the Old Testament was a broad term that covered a variety of loathsome skin diseases. It included the modern disease we call Hansen’s Disease and other diseases as well. Basically all the various versions of leprosy were incurable and led to disfigurement and death. Naaman’s leprosy apparently was either in the early stages or was a relatively mild form of the disease. In any case it had drastically changed his life and left him with a very dismal future.
I should pause at this point to comment that even the most powerful people are ultimately powerless. There are some things that money can’t buy and some things that earthly power cannot obtain. Although he was one of the most powerful men in Syria, and although he had access to the king himself, and although he could have anything he wanted, Naaman could do nothing to cure himself. Wealth and power and influence will only take you so far. Naaman could defeat any enemy in battle but he was powerless against the disease that was taking his life.
One day the Syrian army captured a young Israelite girl who became a servant to Naaman’s wife. She must have liked her master because she mentioned to Mrs. Naaman that she knew of a prophet in Samaria (Elisha) who could cure leprosy. Mrs. Naaman told her husband who reacted as any man of the world would. He decided to use his influence with the king to get the help he needed. When the king heard the news, he reacted the way men of the world always react in situations like this. He decided to write a letter to the king of Israel. Men of power like doing things like that. They write letters, make phone calls, send e-mails, they make connections because they know powerful people. It would help his friend Naaman and it would also demonstrate that the king was a man who could get things done.
“Send Naaman to Me”
So he wrote the king of Israel asking for his help. Now the king of Israel (a man named Jehoram) was not a godly man. He was a wicked king who had followed after idols and was leading his country down the path of moral and spiritual ruin. He was a weak, paranoid man who reacted in fear when he received the letter from the king of Syria: “As soon as the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his robes and said, ‘Am I God? Can I kill and bring back to life? Why does this fellow send someone to me to be cured of his leprosy? See how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me!’” (II Kings 5:7). The most fascinating part of this is how he views leprosy. It is so hopeless that the king of Syria might as well have sent him a corpse and asked him to revive it. As far as he is concerned, this was just a ruse to give the Syrians an excuse to attack Israel.
When Elisha hears about the letter, he sends word to the king to send Naaman to him. “Have the man come to me and he will know that there is a prophet in Israel” (v. 8). So now Naaman and his cavalcade of horses, camels, soldiers, servants, flag bearers, and other personal attendants make their way to the humble home of the prophet of God. Naaman is in for a big surprise. He fully expects the prophet to come out to greet him and to personally take charge of his healing. Nothing of the sort happens. Elisha doesn’t even come to the door. Instead he sends his servant to meet Naaman with some very strange instructions: “Go, wash yourself seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will be restored and you will be cleansed” (v. 10).
Nothing is going right for the proud, afflicted Syrian general. He is in enemy territory, desperately trying to find a cure for his leprosy. The king can’t help him and the prophet won’t even meet him personally. And the treatment is ridiculous. Go and wash seven times in the Jordan. Absurd! Why would anyone think that washing in the muddy Jordan River could cure leprosy? Obviously this “prophet” is either a fool or a con artist. Or perhaps the Israelites are playing him for a fool. In any case Naaman is extremely angry by now. Notice the two key words of verse 11: “I thought.” Naaman had come to the prophet with his own ideas of how the healing should take place. “I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the LORD his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy” (v. 11). Evidently Naaman had been watching one of those late-night healing services on Christian television. He envisioned some sort of public spectacle where the prophet would go through his routine and then perform some sort of dramatic healing ceremony. Behind it all is an enormous personal arrogance. “I thought.” Well, who told him to think anything? If you’ve got leprosy, you don’t need to be thinking about anything else but getting healed. And Naaman is in no position to have his own theories about how it should happen. But we’re all like that. We pray, “Lord, your will be done. And if you don’t mind, here is how I’d like it to happen.” We’re all pretty quick to give the Lord advice on how to do his work.
Not Some Ordinary Joe
Naaman’s basic problem is very simple. He thinks he’s somebody. After all, he’s the commanding general of the armies of Syria. That’s got to count for something, right? He lifts his hand and the battle begins. He lowers his hand and the army leaves the field. He has but to say a word and his commands will be obeyed. And he traveled to Israel with this large cavalcade of soldiers, attendants, horses, camels, and so on. That’s got to mean he’s not some ordinary Joe. He’s somebody. Somebody told him he was somebody and he believed it. Now he’s being treated as if he’s nobody special. And it just burns him up.
But there’s more. Naaman objects to the absurd notion of dipping seven times in the Jordan River. It was 25 miles from Samaria to the Jordan. That’s a long day’s journey with his retinue. Plus, the command means that he has to “strip and dip” in the river. Not that he had to strip naked, but it did mean he had to lay aside all the outward trappings of his worldly power. If he had a sword, he had to put it down. If he had a spear, he had to give it to someone else. If he was wearing the robes of a commanding general, he had to take them off. If he wore any special medals, they had to go too. If he wanted to be healed, he had to become just like everyone else. That’s a hard step for a proud man to take.
And if he has to dip seven times, he vastly prefers the rivers of Syria. “‘Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than any of the waters of Israel? Couldn’t I wash in them and be cleansed?’ So he turned and went off in a rage” (II Kings 5:12). Do I detect a bit of ethnic prejudice at work here? As a loyal Syrian, he considered the rivers of Syria far better than the Jordan River. As a matter of fact, he had a good point. The Abana River was called by the Greeks and Romans the “river of God” and the “golden river.” It was a beautiful river with clear, cool water, the perfect place for a swim or for dipping yourself seven times. Far better than the muddy Jordan. Having twice baptized people in the Jordan River, I can testify that it is narrow, winding, often muddy, and generally unimpressive as far as rivers go. To me, the word “river” means the Mississippi River—vast, broad, deep, a mighty stream of water. Compared to it, the Jordan is like a country creek.
God Doesn’t Make Deals
But it doesn’t matter what Naaman thinks. God doesn’t negotiate with sinners—or with lepers. He doesn’t offer his will to us and then say, “What do you think? Do you like it? I can come up with another plan if you’d rather do something else.” God doesn’t prepare a Plan B in case we don’t like Plan A. He doesn’t make deals. In this case, there are two choices: Wash seven times in the Jordan or die of leprosy. Forget about those rivers in Syria. That’s not happening.
So Naaman goes off in a rage. He’s ready to take his people and return to Syria. Pride can make smart people do some very stupid things. It’s Naaman’s pride that’s the problem here, not his leprosy. His pride won’t let him do what Elisha has told him to do. And so he’s going to leave just as diseased as when he came—and all because he couldn’t swallow his pride. The simple things are often the hardest things to do. That’s the point being made by one of his servants in verse 13: “My father, if the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more, then, when he tells you, ‘Wash and be cleansed!’” In this case the servant is right on the money. If Elisha had asked for a million dollars in gold and silver, Naaman would gladly have given it to him. If he had told him to cut himself and offer his own blood on the altar, Naaman would have said, “Give me a knife and tell me where to cut.” If he had told him to crawl across a field of broken glass, Naaman would have immediately dropped down on his hands and knees and started to do it. Sinners always want to feel like they’ve had a part in their own salvation. We want to “do” something so we can feel like we had a part in our own deliverance. It’s very humbling to be told there is nothing we can do. Naaman wanted something “significant” so he could say he had a part in his own healing. But God’s grace doesn’t work that way. You receive what he offers as a gift, or you never receive it at all.
Seven Dips and a Mighty Miracle
The servant’s argument convinces Naaman so off they go to the Jordan River. As we think about the scene, remember that the healing does not come gradually, it comes all at once. So Naaman strips off all the evidence of his greatness and goes down into the muddy water. He dips once and comes up. Still covered with leprosy. Dips a second time. Sores everywhere. Dips a third time. Skin still disfigured. Dips a fourth time. Nothing has changed. Dips a fifth time. Scabs and sores still cover his body. Dips a sixth time. Still a leper. I wonder if he thought to himself, “This is stupid! I’m being played for a fool.” If so, the servant must have said, “Master, you’ve gone this far. Dip one more time and see what happens.” So he does. Down into the water he goes. As he comes up, there is an audible gasp from his people gathered on the shore. The leprosy is gone. Scabs gone. Sores gone. Scars gone. Welts gone. Bumps gone. The disease has vanished. His skin is as pure and smooth as the skin of a little baby. It is a mighty miracle, an instantaneous working of the supernatural power of God. The incurable disease has been cured by the hand of the Lord.
After the celebration dies down, Naaman returns to the prophet. He does two things (vv. 15-16). First, he declares that there is no God but the God of Israel. This is a hugely significant statement coming from a non-Jew like Naaman. It means that he has not only been healed outwardly, he has been healed inwardly as well. He is now a true believer and a worshiper of the God of Israel. Second, he offers Elisha money as a gift. The prophet refuses to take anything. After all, the healing didn’t come from him, it came from the Lord. He doesn’t want Naaman to change his mind later and be able to say that he somehow paid for his own healing. It’s better this way because it means that Naaman was healed as an act of pure grace. He got his miracle and it didn’t cost him anything.
Imitating Pastor Ray
Last night the Allied Force high school ministry sponsored a “road rally.” About 60 of our teenagers took part. I don’t know the details except that they were divided up into nine teams and sent on foot to various locations in Oak Park where they had to find a certain person, give the password, and then at each location they had to perform a specified act. The team that made it to all the stops in the shortest time was the winner. Afterward they had a time for refreshments and testimonies at the church. I know about the event because our house was one of the stops. So between 7:30 and 9:15 p.m. last night, we had nine groups of high school students in our living room. When they arrived, they were told that one person was to give his best impersonation of me preaching on Sunday morning. They all laughed when they heard about it, and there was no shortage of volunteers. So I got to watch nine times as the high schoolers mimicked my preaching. The funniest part was, without any prearrangement, they all did the same thing. They started by saying, “How are ya doin? No, I mean, How are you doing?” Then they would go to one side of the living room and turn it into a timeline, just like I do on the platform on Sunday morning. They waved their hands just like I do and said things like, “This is Genesis.” Then they would take a step and say, “This is where David killed Goliath.” Another step and say, “And this is Goliath.” Another step and say, “This is the Mediterranean Sea.” And to great peals of laughter, they would go to the other side of the room and say, “This is the book of Revelation.” Finally, they came back to the middle and said, “Run to the cross!” Pretty funny because, 1) that’s exactly what I do on Sunday morning, and 2) all the students did the same thing. Just goes to show that even when you think they aren’t listening, they are noticing everything.
The only student who did anything different was one young man who did everything I just said and then added one sentence. He made a motion with his arm like he was ripping something off his chest and said, “You can rip that ‘big G’ off your sweatshirt.” That one amazed me because I haven’t said that in a long time and I really haven’t said it all that often. The “big G” stands for the word “God” and ripping it off means that you don’t have to play God anymore because God is God and we’re not.
“Come Down Where We Ought to Be”
And that’s exactly what Naaman had to do. He had to rip that big G off his uniform before he could be healed. He had to get down off his high horse and join the human race if he wanted to get rid of his leprosy. Perhaps you’ve heard the old Shaker hymn that goes this way:
’Tis a gift to be simple, ’tis a gift to be free,
’Tis a gift to come down where we ought to be.
Naaman was like all of us. He had an inflated opinion of his own importance, and as long as he held onto it, he could never get better. He had to “come down where he ought to be,” which meant giving up his prejudice, laying aside his pride, and dipping himself seven times in the muddy Jordan River. Until he did that, he could never get better.
At the Football Game
Yesterday afternoon my wife, Marlene, and I were at the football stadium watching the Oak Park-Lyons game. Suffice it to say that it was a very long day for Oak Park (although I kept my eye on the left tackle on offense and thought he did a fine job!). It was cold and our guys were getting beat and we were all hanging on, hoping the game would end soon. Someone nearby said, “Pastor Ray! Pastor Ray!” I turned and saw a friend from church who motioned me to come over. When I did, she started talking about the sermon series I began last Sunday called “The Overcoming Series.” It’s all about dealing with the various problems of life, such as insecurity, self-importance, discontentment, fear of the future, and so on. I printed the titles of all ten sermons in the bulletin and my friend wanted me to know that she could provide material for all ten sermons if I needed it. I laughed because I knew it was true. She told me that she is in a 12-step program and that her life is getting better. That was obvious just from listening to her. Then she shared a powerful insight with me. “Pastor Ray, I used to think that the issue was food or alcohol or drugs or sex or money. I thought the way to get better was just to get rid of whatever was bothering me. I thought if food was my problem, then not eating would solve my problem. It took me years to figure out that it’s not about food or alcohol or drugs or sex or money. Those things are symptoms; the real cause is the void in my heart. I’ve discovered that until I fill the void with God, removing those symptoms will never make me a better person and it won’t really solve my problems either. I’ve learned that I need God at the center of my life, and once he’s there, I can start to get better.” She was smiling as she spoke to me. “What you said last Sunday about surrendering was so important. For a long time, I didn’t want to do that. But that’s the whole thing. You have to stop running your own life and you have to surrender it to the Lord. It took me a long time to discover that.” But she has, and her life is not what it used to be.
No one likes being told what to do. We all would rather be in charge of our own affairs, and that’s why the whole notion of surrendering our ego and our pride to the Lord sounds strange at first. But there is no other way to get better. There is no other way to be healed. There is no other way to be forgiven. There is no other way to find a new life.
We can fight the Lord or we can surrender everything to his control.
When we fight, we lose.
When we surrender in faith, we win.
“Man No Be God”
The tragedy is that it takes us so long to learn this basic truth. One of the pieces of really good news in this story is that while our first thoughts about God are often wrong, it’s never too late to change your mind. While there is life and breath, there is always an open door for repentance and change. But you must take the first step.
Greg and Carolyn Kirschner, our missionaries in Jos, Nigeria wrote recently about the importance of prayer in the Nigerian culture. They pointed out that the Nigerians seem more naturally aware of God than most Americans. They saw this sign painted on the side of a bus: “Man no be God.” That sums it up, doesn’t it? You aren’t God, you never were, and you never will be. The sooner we all realize that fact, the better off we’ll be.
So the question comes to mind: What would you give to be free of cancer? What would you give to see your son or daughter cured of cancer? The answer is simple: Name the price and you’ll gladly pay it. What’s money next to the life of a child? What’s fame or wealth or connections or influence next to the life of your husband or wife? It doesn’t mean a thing.
The tragedy is that it takes a tragedy for us to figure that out. We cling to the things of the world as if they really mattered. But we came into the world naked and we leave naked. In between, anything we have is on loan from God. God’s favor can’t be purchased because it’s not for sale. Your money is useless when it comes to the things that matter most. At this point the gospel becomes truly Good News, the best news you’ve ever heard. God’s grace is free to those who receive it with the empty hands of faith. Amen.