The story of Naaman the Syrian is one of the most striking examples within the scriptures of divine providence working to bring salvation to a Gentile, an enemy of Israel during the period of the divided kingdom. Though the story is a short one, divine providence is exhibited both positively and negatively throughout this story. In it, we see God working to bring a gentile healing as well as faith in God. We see greed, we see suffering, and we see the hand of God manipulating events as He wills. The end result should be a confirmation of God’s control over history, as well as His desire to the salvation of all men, not merely those privileged by birth into His covenant people. This should, of course, be the greatest interest to us as we strive to avoid the parochialism that says that we are the only people God is working with in our own day and age.
The Geopolitical Situation of Syria-Damascus
While a complete account of the wars between Israel and Damascus during the period of the divided kingdom would be far beyond the scope of this work (given that Israel and Syria were at a nearly continuous state of war, except for their brief peace before the battle of Qarqar in 853 B.C., which is one of the most important battles of the entire historical period involving a great deal of chariots, but is not included in the biblical account1). During this entire period Syria sought to reduce Israel to the position of a tributary kingdom, several times appearing to do so, but unable to hold on before another period of Israelite resurgence.
During the period of the early monarchy and the early divided kingdom, which was a period of “great power eclipse” in the Bible, there were a few kingdoms that sought to become mini-empires, with three groups of territories: heartlands (the core area of the nation, with the dominant ethno-religious group), conquered territories, and subject-allies (who were not conquered but who demonstrated their support by providing armies in support of the empire’s campaigns). During the reign of David and Solomon Israel had been exactly such a mini-empire, and during the period from 950-850 BC, Syria tried repeatedly to conquer Israel and become a mini-empire itself, without success2.
Nonetheless, during this time the Arameans were a threat to the very survival of the Israelite kingdoms, though the pressure was (temporarily) lessened because the Arameans had to worry about the Assyrians as well, and so the full brunt of the Syrian military could not (yet) be brought against the Israelites3. Nonetheless, the Syrians were an extremely strong military at this time to be able to fight against both the Assyrians (in a defensive struggle) and the Israelites (in an aggressive struggle) with a great deal of success.
The Strange Case of Naaman the Syrian
In 2 Kings 5:1 we are introduced to the personage of Naaman: Now Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Syria, was a great an honorable man in the eyes of his master, because by him the Lord had given many a victory of Syria. He was also a mighty man of valor, but a leper. It is in this situation that we meet Naaman, the commander of the army of Syria, who was a leper. Indeed, in the ancient world leprosy was considered a major curse. Though we are most aware of the biblical laws regulating lepers, this passage indicates (in 2 Kings 6:13-14) that leprosy also caused uncleanness in Syria. The first element of divine providence, therefore, that we find in the story of Naaman the Syrian is that he was a leper. While this may seem ironic, it makes sense in the light of scripture as a whole. All of us are in need of purification, of cleanliness from God to wash away the stain of sin from our lives, but most of us are unaware of that fact (or deliberately keep ourselves from reflecting upon that fact) until God brings it forcefully to our attention.
Jesus Christ, in Matthew 9:9-13 in the NKJV, refers to the purpose of him calling the people he did, which sheds some light on the providential aspect of “sickness” in the metaphorical sense:
As Jesus passed on from there, He saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax office. And He said to him, “Follow Me.” So he arose and followed Him.
Now it happened, as Jesus sat at the table in the house, that behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat down with Him and His disciples. And when the Pharisees saw it, they said to His disciples, “Why does your Teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
When Jesus heard that, He said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. But go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’ For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance.”
Here we see that Jesus is saying that His purpose is to heal the sick as a physician, bringing sinners (those who are spiritually sick) to repentance. While all mankind is spiritually sick, some people are well and righteous in their own eyes, and are not aware of their need for healing. However, being possessed with a sickness as public as leprosy was a reminder that one was sick and in need of healing, and this search for physical healing could easily be used by God to bring about spiritual healing as well.
There is further specific evidence that Naaman’s leprosy was a specific providential act of God. In Jesus’ sermon to his own neighbors of Nazareth, whom he grew up around, we find a rather shocking statement that reflects the providence of God, in Luke 4:27: “And many lepers were in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” Jesus Christ is saying that there was something special about this particular leper that merited God’s healing more than any of the lepers who belonged to the “right people” of the time in Israel. The response of the Jewish childhood neighbors of Jesus was predictable—they were exceedingly wrathful and tried (unsuccessfully) to stone Him (see Luke 4:28-30). Nonetheless, the point is an important one. The leprosy of Naaman was an opportunity for God to show mercy on a Syrian, a gentile, of a people who were the deadly enemies of His own chosen people, as a demonstration of God’s love for all of humanity, not just a single chosen race.
Furthermore, there is another element of divine providence that needs to be noticed but that may pass by. 1 Kings 5:1 also states, rather shockingly, that the good reputation that Naaman had with his master, King Ben-Hadad II of Syria, was due to victories that God had given to Syria through Him. God was directing the hand of Naaman, this gentile foe of Israel, to win victories. This is a remarkable, and surprising, development. We do not expect God to intervene and give victories to the hand of our enemies, but that is exactly what we find here. In addition, the words used to describe Naaman’s character are exemplary—He is described as a great and honorable man, and a mighty man of valor. These are among the highest praise that can be bestowed upon anyone, and they are testaments to the greatness of character and virtue to be found in this Syrian general. They are also testament to the universal, rather than parochial, aspect of God’s behavior.
All Things Work Together For Good
The next aspect of God’s providence in the story of Naaman is also one that, at first blush, does not strike one as a particularly fortunate occurrence, though it was pivotal in providing Naaman with knowledge as to the means by which his physical and spiritual healing would take place. 1 Kings 5:2-3 read, in the NKJV: “And the Syrians had gone out on raids, and had brought back captive a young girl from the land of Israel. She waited on Naaman’s wife. then she said to her mistress, “If only my master were with the prophet who is in Samaria! For then he would heal him of his leprosy.”
There are a few elements of providence here, in this situation that, on the surface, does not appear to be very fortunate at all, especially for the captive girl. Nonetheless, when examined in their whole, it does appear as if everything was orchestrated for a captive maiden (who, given her response to her maid, appears to be at least a pre-teen maiden, rather than a little girl). Since this is an unlikely example of providence, it is best to discuss the coincidences on a step-by-step basis.
For one, the Syrian raiders are guided, seemingly by chance, to take a young lass captive. For another, this young lass is chosen to serve on Naaman and his wife4. Then, as this young lady was apparently observant, noticing or hearing about Naaman’s leprosy and the trial it was for Naaman and his wife, she makes a startling comment that reflects she had some knowledge of Elisha by wishing that Naaman were in Samaria where he would find a prophet who would heal him. How did this young lady know of Elisha, seemingly not by name, though by reputation and place? Apparently, this young woman knew something of Elisha and his healing powers, and was able to speak that convincingly to her mistress, who appears to have relayed the word to Naaman. In all of these there is the hand of God working quietly and seemingly through chance to bring His purpose of healing Naaman and bringing him into obedience into fruition.
This particular passage may be brought forward as one of the most stunning and remarkable confirmations of what is, for many, one of the most difficult verses in the Bible to understand, Romans 8:28, which reads, in the NKJV: And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. This would include Naaman, and it would include the captive who waited on his wife, and it may even have included Naaman’s wife. This striking example of divine providence in fulfilling His will may encourage those of us who have grave difficulties understanding how the circumstances of our life may serve for the glory of God and the furtherance of His purposes. If captivity and slavery, surely a worse fate than most of us suffer in life, can be used to bring about healing and salvation for a great and noble man, then the trials we face can certainly be put to use by God for His purposes, as sore and upsetting as the trials may seem to us at the time.
Taking The Step Of Faith
In this next section of the story of Naaman the Syrian, we find tentative steps of faith on the part of Naaman, with the faithlessness of the Israelite king (King Joram, who in this passage of scripture is not named). This contrast in faith is quite remarkable, as it is here where God further brings along His plan to heal Naaman and bring him to salvation. The contrast between the two is remarkable, especially since Elisha himself is able even at this point to understand the will of God in this matter.
2 Kings 5:4-8 read, in the NKJV:
And Naaman went in and told his master, saying, “Thus and thus said the girl who is from the land of Israel.”
Then the king of Syria said, “Go now, and I will send a letter to the king of Israel.”
So he departed and took with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten changes of clothing. Then he brought the letter to the king of Israel, which said: “Now be advised, when this letter comes to you, that I have sent Naaman my servant to you, that you may heal him of his leprosy.” And it happened, when the king of Israel read the letter, that he tore his clothes and said “Am I God, to kill and make alive, that this man sends a man to me to heal him of his leprosy? Therefore please consider, and see how he seeks a quarrel with me.”
So it was when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes that he sent to the king, saying, “Why have you torn your clothes? Please let him come to me, and he shall know that there is a prophet in Israel.”
These verses say quite a lot about the faith of Naaman, even at this early stage, as well as the lack of faith in Israel. For one, let us note that Naaman goes to his king and gives the source of information about the possibility of healing in Israel. Either Naaman’s need for healing was great, given the severity of his condition, or the young lady who waited on his wife was an exceptionally credible witness to the God-given powers of Elisha in healing, or some combination of the two. At any rate, Naaman bodly went before his king seeking permission to travel to Samaria to find healing.
We also see that Naaman was of such a good reputation with his master, King Ben Hadad II of Syria, that he is not only given permission, but is given an official diplomatic letter to interact directly to the king of Israel. Apparently the king thinks that as a prophet of great power, surely speaking to the king of Israel would be enough to ensure the prophet’s work in healing. Apparently, the Syrian kings overestimated the sagacity of the Israelite kings in ensuring that a prophet of such power as Elisha would be an honored member of the court, respected for his advice.
In contrast, the reaction shown by the Israelite king is one of fear and a total lack of faith. Joram does not appear to think of Elisha at all as the prophet by whom God would heal Naaman, rather cravenly believing that the Syrian king was using the leprosy of Naaman as a pretext to commence hostilities. Instead of seeking out the godly prophet Elisha (who is explicitly called here “the man of God”) so that Naaman could find healing, Joram tears his clothing in fear and impotent rage, not trusting in God nor seeking His servants’ help.
However, upon hearing of Naaman’s arrival in Sameria and the response of King Joram to Naaman’s request for healing, Elisha understands the purpose of Naaman coming to Samaria, so that he may learn there is a prophet in Naaman. Elisha understands the spiritual point of Naaman’s mission as well as the need for healing. The sign of Naaman’s leprosy being healed would also be an opportunity for conversion to the true way of life that Naaman, and indeed all of mankind, was to follow. Indeed, part of the lesson, though it appears to have been ignored, was to remind King Joram, and the rest of Israel, that there was a prophet of God in Israel who was to be respected and honored, whose God was to be obeyed.
Apparently, though, King Joram and the rest of Israel was unaware there was a prophet in Israel, or if intellectually aware, they were not aware of the importance of heeding the words of a prophet or obeying the God whom that prophet represented. While Naaman may have been willing to enter the land of his enemy to find healing on the advice of a slave girl in his household, King Joram and the rest of Israel were not willing to listen to the prophet who lived in their own capital city. That is an embarrassment of a huge order, and something about which the Israelites should have been ashamed.
Healing A Prideful Heart and A Leprous Body, or The Importance of Having A Good Friend
The next example of divine providence to be found in the story of Naaman the Syrian comes in a pair of healings. The first healing is of the prideful heart of Naaman, which is brought about through the command of Elisha to Naaman as well as the intervention of friends to put an upset Naaman into some perspective. The second type of healing is the healing that God gives to Naaman once he bathes seven times in the River Jordan, an action that appears rich in spiritual meaning. Both healings are themselves examples of divine providence and a reminder that sometimes we need to be healed in heart before we can be healed in body.
These verses, 2 Kings 5:9-14, read, in the NKJV:
Then Naaman went with his horses and chariot, and he stood at the door of Elisha’s house. And Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, “Go and wash i the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored to you, and you shall be clean.” But Naaman became furious, and went away and said, “Indeed, I said to myself, ‘He will surely come out to me, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and wve his hand over the place, and heal the leprosy.’ Are not the Abnah and the Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them and be clean?” So he turned and went away in a rage. And his servants came near and spoke to him, and said, “My father, if the prophet had told you to go and to do something great, would you not have done it? How much more than, when he says to you, ‘Wash and be clean?’” So he went down and dipped seven times in the Jordan, according to the saying of the man of God; and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.
These verses have a lot of meaning, and the hand of God is clearly in both Elisha’s command, the wise advice of Naaman’s servants (few people of scripture were better served by their servants, whose advice Naaman greatly valued). First, we see the Naaman, upon receiving the message from Elisha, came and stood at the door (perhaps he even knocked) of Elisha, expecting to see Elisha and receive his healing then and there. However, this was not what happened. Instead, Elisha, though he was at home, sent a messenger to Naaman, telling him to perform a task. It is this task that brings to fore Naaman’s need for spiritual healing (the healing of his proud heart) before his physical healing can take place. Instead of finding it an easy thing to bathe in a little river seven times, Naaman was extremely upset by the request that Elisha made, so upset that he stomps off and appears willing to go back home to Damascus without having been healed?
Why is it that Naaman is upset? First off, we see in his response that his pride appears to have been damaged by both the seemingly humiliating request as well as the fact that Elisha could not deign to speak to him in person. This may have been done in purpose. For one, Elisha could not be around a leprous person and be able to serve others, so him sending a messenger was a way for him to avoid ceremonial uncleanness. For another, the request made to Naaman appears very much like a baptism ceremony of sorts. The location of the baptism, in the Jordan, recalls the scene in Luke 3:1-6, part of which quotes Isaiah 40:3-5:
Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and the region of of Trachonitis, and Lysaniias tetrach of Abilene, while Annas and Caiphas were high priests, the word of God came to John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness. And he went into all the region around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins, as is it is written in the book of Isaiah the prophet, saying: “The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord;
Make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled
And every mountain and hill brought low;
The crooked places shall be made straight
And the rough ways smooth;
And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’ “
Here, in this same region where John the Baptist brought a baptism for the remission of sins and blazed the trail for salvation to come to all mankind, we see the request for Naaman, a gentile, to be baptized in the Jordan (typologically at least) for healing, with an implicit call to salvation. But Naaman is insulted. He cannot understand why Elisha cannot call upon ‘his God’ and heal him right away by waving his hands as if he was performing a magic trick. He could not see that God had something else in mind. Furthermore, he is insulted about the need to wash in the Jordan, which he considers an insignificant river. He correctly understands that Elisha’s request for him to bathe in the Jordan is connected to something that is clean about the Jordan that is not clean about the rivers of Syria. Naaman does not understand that a religious conversion is necessary for him to find healing (as Elisha’s God is not yet his own), but he is aware that there is a greater point being made, and he is upset about it.
Nonetheless, Naaman has some of the best servants recorded in scripture. His servants wisely give him respect, calling him ‘father,’ and then remind him that to bathe in the Jordan is a small thing, and that Naaman would have done something far more glorious for healing, so why turn down the opportunity to do something easy. By slyly repositioning Elisha’s request from something that appears humiliating to something that is easy, Naaman’s servants calm him down and allow him to feel less insulted by the request of the prophet, who is here again called the man of God. And lo and behold, when Naaman does what the prophet told him to do, he is healed. Imagine that!
It is at this point that it may be noteworthy to discuss that the number seven often appears in scripture as a number of completion or judgment5, so it would appear that Naaman is being commanded to seek complete healing in the Jordan, not just healing of his leprosy, but something else as well. And in finding that healing, we see that he is said to have skin like a little child, and that he is clean. Both Naaman’s cleaning, becoming like a little child (no doubt a little more humble too) and the process by which he found healing after initially rejecting it, resemble two lessons brought out by Jesus Christ. The first, of course, is from Matthew 18:1-5:
At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
Then Jesus called a little child to him in the midst of them, and said, “Assuredly I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever receives one little child like this in my name receives me.”
So, we find here that in humbling himself and performing the task of bathing in the Jordan river, Naaman becomes like a little child, and is cleaned from his leprosy. The implication as well is that there is more than simply physical healing going on, but rather spiritual conversion as well. Naaman is completely cleansed, thanks to his seven dips in the Jordan and the miraculous healing power of God through that symbolic act. The initial rejection of the offer of healing by Naaman also reminds one of an intriguing parable from Jesus Christ, found in Matthew 21:28-32:
“But what do you think? A man had two sons, and he came to the first and said, ‘Son, go, work today in my vineyard.’ He answered and said, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he regretted it and went. Then he came to the second and said likewise. And he answered and said, ‘I go, sir,’ but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?”
They said to him, “The first.”
Jesus said to them, “Assuredly, I say to you that tax collectors and harlots enter the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him; but tax collectors and harlots believed him; and when you saw it, you did not afterwords relent and believe him.”
Unlike Naaman, who relented upon the wise advice of his servants, and found healing and, the Bible would seem to indicate, salvation as well (as we will shortly see), the nation of Israel, despite promising that they would obey and follow God numerous times, refused to repent of their sins an obey. The faith and obedience of Naaman, rewarded richly by God, therefore serves as a condemnation of the faithless of Israel during this period. Let it be an example to us so that we are not shown to be like the faithless younger brother of Jesus’ parable while there is still a chance for us to relent and do the will of our Father in this world.
A Freely Given Offer Of Salvation
It is at this point that we see the true result of the healing of Naaman the Syrian, and the result of his new-found faith in God. The goal of God all along in healing Naaman was not merely to heal him of his leprosy, but rather to bring him into His family as a child of God, despite his origin. It is here that we see Naaman becoming fully conscious of the salvation he has been offered and that he has accepted, in a way that would have seemed entirely alien to him before. Rather than merely receiving healing from Elisha’s God, Naaman has recognized the God of Israel as his God, worthy of exclusive worship, as we shall shortly see. This remarkable turnaround is testament to the praise given to Naaman by the author if 2 Kings as well as by Jesus Christ himself, who, as we have already read, used the tale of Naaman to demonstrate the opening of salvation to all people, not merely the physical sons of Abraham. Salvation has always been a matter of grace, and has always required obedience to His laws.
2 Kings 5:15-19 give the account of how Naaman recognized and accepted the gift of spiritual salvation that had been provided to him by God through Elisha, and it reads, in the NKJV, as follows:
“And he returned to the man of God, he and all his aides, and he came and stood before him; and he said, “Indeed, now I know that there is no God in all the earth, except in Israel; now therefore, please take a gift from your servant.”
But he said, “As the Lord lives, before whom I stand, I will receive nothing.” And he urged him to take it, but he refused.
So Naaman said, “Then, if not, please let your servant be given two mule-loads of earth, for your servant will no longer offer either burnt offering or sacrifice to other gods, but to the Lord. Yet in this thing may the Lord pardon your servant: when my master goes into the temple of Rimmon to worship there, and he leans on my hand, and I bow down in the temple of Rimmon—when I bow down in the temple of Rimmon, may the Lord please pardon your servant in this thing.”
Then he said, “Go in peace.” So he departed from him a short distance.
Here we see, at last, the conversion of Naaman from his previous belief system to a true worship of God. This conversion was not merely a syncretistic conversion recognizing God among other gods as perhaps the most powerful of the gods, but is an exclusive worship (one that, it should be noted, was not present in any of Israel’s kings during the divided kingdom period, none of whom worshiped God loyally with their heart). Naaman’s confession of faith stands as a remarkable one, fully justifying his praise in scripture as being a godly man, and he remains an example for us in his acceptance of the need to change his religious life completely to reflect the truth that there is no God except God, and that He demands exclusive and loyal worship.
It is in this light that Elisha refuses payment for his services of healing. For Elisha’s purpose was not merely to heal, but to bring Naaman into the Kingdom of God. In this light, though it may appear to be ironic, Elisha’s actions resemble the command Jesus gave to his disciples before sending them out on their first mission into the land of Israel, in Matthew 10:5-8: “These twelve Jesus sent out and commanded them, saying: “Do not go into the way of the Gentiles, and do not enter a city of the Samaitans. But go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And as you go, preach, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out demons. Freely you have received, freely give.” Though Naaman was definitely a Gentile, a Syrian opponent of the nation of Israel, here we see Elisha acting towards Naaman as Jesus commanded his disciples to act towards the people of Israel—healing their leporsy and bringing news of the kingdom of God to them without payment, freely. Here we see evidence of God’s behavior in adopting Naaman into His people, even though he was a stranger, and the events that have transpired, including even the very fact that Naaman was struck with leprosy, were to bring him into the family of God, evidence of the immense providence God has for all of us, in that He is willing to control events and circumstances to bring about that which He wills, long before we are able to understand what He is doing in our lives.
Nonetheless, the gratitude of Naaman for this healing, and for the salvation (through what appears to be a baptism) he has received, is evidence of the sincerity of his calling. Furthermore, Naaman himself is fully aware of the change in his religious behavior that is required due to his conversion. He recognizes that he can serve no other gods, but only offer up burnt offering and sacrifice to God, signifying that he is a convert to the true faith, without blending or syncretistic elements, in full obedience to the covenant. This recognition can be further seen in that Naaman, in advance, asks pardon for his participation in the civic worship required due to his position as a General in the Syrian army, where he would support his master, the king of Syria, in bowing down insincerely to a god he knew and believed to be false.
What are we to make of this? For one, Elisha grants this request, as the saying, “Go in peace,” means an acceptance of this sincere offer and a granting of the request for pardon on behalf of God. Nonetheless, there is something in this particular request and its granting by God’s servant that might give us, in our own days, some pause. Many people decry any participation in the affairs of this world because they are supposedly dirty and impure, but here we find a General in a pagan army, who had to participate in pagan rites, that his belief in the one true God is sincere and valid, even if by reason of his political position he has to participate in pagan rites insincerely. This is a striking fact, and should give us a lot of cause to reflect upon our own thoughts in this subject. Given that a major theme of this story is the bringing of a powerful pagan into God’s family through physical and spiritual healing, and the subsequent dominion of God over His enemies, does this part of the history of Naaman not tell us that the weakening of the faiths opposed to God by insincere worship forced upon those who truly believe and follow the true way is itself help in furthering along the rule of God over all parts of this earth.
Truly, God was never the God just of Israel, but rather, sought that Israel should prove an example to the world, and thus lead to a worldwide conversion of people into God’s way. The conversion of Naaman through the faithful testimony of his captive girl and the faithful service of His servant Elisha, despite the cravenness of the Israelite King Joram (whose level of worship did not reach that of Naaman) and (as we shall shortly see) the greed of Elisha’s servant Gehazi, was a sign that God’s dominion and concern extended for the Gentiles as well as the Israelites, all of whom were to become a part of His family, and all of whom were under the same standard of obedience. The Jews of Jesus’ day did not understand this lesson, and let us learn likewise, and avoid following that negative example.
Furthermore, the divine providence in bringing Naaman to obedience to God appears to demonstrate that God desires people to be responsible in their civil obligations as they are to be diligent in their obedience to Him. Our obligations to serve our nation do not contradict our obligation to serve God (though to serve God is primary). Rather, our fulfilling of obligations in a public manner, as Naaman did, allows us to serve as an even better example of God’s ways to people than we can merely as private and obscure citizens. Positions of authority are opportunities to greater serve those created in God’s image—all humanity—and to demonstrate the love that God has for us in the way in which we exercise that authority and fulfill the responsibilities of our offices. For, as Romans 13:1-4 reminds us: “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. For he is God’s minister to you for good. but if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil.”
These verses lay down a lot of facts that we may overlook. For one, we should rejoice in the conversion of people of authority like Naaman, who can serve in office as they are meant to, as ministers (that is, servants) of God, executing justice on the ungodly according to the unchanging standards of God’s law. All leaders, being appointed by God, are accountable to the same standard of divine law detailed in the Bible that is to serve as their standard for judgment in all their actions. Since all authority comes from God there is no grounds for any authority apart from God’s law, which sets the standard by which to judge all human activity, including that which is exercised in civil government and military action. Let us rejoice that a man as capable as Naaman, and so able of handling such great responsibility, entered into God’s family as a convert to His faith, for that was a great blessing to his people as well as a sign of the great glory of God. Let us not mock or belittle this blessing by disparaging Naaman’s service in high military and political office, as if that were something to be ashamed of, or a responsibility to be avoided lest we dirty our hands in the affairs of this world, rather than bring all things in this world in obedience to Him through our good and faithful service, as Naaman did.
It is also worthwhile to point out that while Elisha hid his face from Naaman before his healing, that Elisha speaks face to face before Naaman after the healing, as a sign that Naaman, having been healed of his leprosy, is now a full member of the congregation of faith. Though Elisha’s refusal, previously, to see Naaman face to face appears to have piqued Naaman’s pride, now that Naaman’s pride has been humbled and that he has received the gift of salvation as well as of healing, Elisha can greet his fellow servant of God face to face, instead of through intermediaries.
Finally, before we leave this passage, it is somewhat puzzling and noteworthy that Naaman asks for some Israelite land to bring with him back to Syria. Though it was a pagan practice that a god was only to be worshiped in its own soil and could not be worshiped outside of its territory, it would appear as if Naaman has something else in mind, and the granting of this request has other implications. Since Naaman, a Syrian (previously, no doubt, a worshiper of Rammon, the Thunderer, one of the many Baal-like false gods of the heavens, like Zeus and Jupiter and numerous other examples), converted to the true God of Israel, his bringing of the soil of a land he previously disparaged back home with him is a sign of the dominion of God over Gentile lands and not merely over Israel. It was a sign that Israel’s worship of God was to lead Gentiles into repentance. Though, sadly, we have few examples of this, this hope is expressed in the shortest Psalm of the Bible, repeated every year in the Passover Seder. In its entirely, here is Psalm 117:
“Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles!
Laud Him, all you peoples!
For His merciful kindness is great towards us,
And the truth of the Lord endures forever.
Praise the Lord!”
We see here, therefore, that God’s way was never just for Jews, just for Israelites, never just for the physical descendents of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob, even in what we refer to as “Old Covenant” times. There was always the expectation, expressed every year in the Passover ceremony, that all peoples, Israelite and Gentile, would be brought into obedience to Him and could all praise the Lord for the truth, the same for Israelite and Gentile, that had been given freely to all so that every tongue may give praise to Him for the gift of being a part of His people, regardless of their nation of origin, or of their ethnic heritage. God is the God of the whole earth, and of all people within it. So let us praise God for His mercy in bringing us into His truth, and for providing the example of godly gentiles like Naaman to remind us that this offer of salvation has never been an exclusively Israelite affair.
The Greed of Gehazi
It is unfortunate that a story so full of divine providence must end with such a lamentable example of greed and deception, but here, in this closing negative aspect of the story of Naaman we may see divine providence in providing justice for someone who flagrantly abused the trust they were given, and we may see in some way the missed opportunity that Gehazi lost when his greed took advantage of him and revealed his true and immensely flawed character.
2 Kings 5:20-27 gives the full and sad story of Gehazi’s greed and its tragic outcome in all of its glory, showing that while God gives mercy to those who come in humble obedience, He gives judgment to those who take advantage of opportunities to serve (such as Gehazi had) for selfish gain:
“But Gehazi, the servant of Elisha the man of God, said, “Look, my master has spared Naaman this Syrian, while not receiving from his hands what he brought; but as the Lor lives, I will run after him and take something from him.” So Gehazi pursued Naaman. When Naaman saw him running after him, he got down from his chariot to meet him, and said, “Is all well?”
And he said, “All is well. My master hs sent me, saying, ‘Indeed, just now two young men of the sons of the prophets have come to mee from the mountains of Ephraim. Please give them a talent of silver and two changes of garments.”
So Naaman said, “Please, take two talents.” And he urged him,and bound two talents of silver in two bags, with two changes of garments, and handed them to two of his servants; and they carried them on ahead of him. When he came to the citadel, he took them from his hand, and then stored them away in the house; then the let the men go, and they departed. now he went in and stood before his master. Elisha said to him, “Where did you go, Gehazi?”
And he said, “Your servant did not go anywhere.”
Then he said to him, “Did not my heart go with you when the man turned back from his chariot to meet you? Is it time to receive money and to receive clothing, olive groves and vineyards, sheep and oxen, male and female servants? Therefore the leprosy of Naaman shall cling to you and your descendents forever.” And he went out from his presence leprous, as white as now.”
This part of the story is moving and quite stunning. Gehazi let his greed take control of him and lost out on the opportunity to minister to Elisha and be his successor, showing his character in the worst possible way and deliberately blaspheming God’s name in order to achieve wealth for himself though improper means. Instead of understanding why Elisha refused to accept payment for the healing, Gehazi took it upon himself to despoil the new Syrian convert and take advantage of his sincere generosity.
Besides greed, though, there appears to be other motive at hand in Gehazi’s action, though the greed does appear to be paramount. For one, he does not understand why Elisha did not receive payment, and (unlike Elisha) does not appear to recognize the moral reasons why Elisha did not despoil the Syrian. To Gehazi, Naaman is “this Syrian,” not a fellow man of God. For another, Gehazi takes an oath that he will not let Naaman return to Syria without having despoiled him of some of his no doubt considerable riches. It would appear, therefore, that Gehazi views Naaman as a Gentile outside of the congregation of God whose purpose is to be despoiled for the benefit of the Israelites (and, without a doubt, as payment for the raids the Syrians have conducted on Israelite soil that need to paid for).
On the other hand, Elisha sees Naaman as a fellow servant of God, a brother in the faith, and does not see this time of judgment as warranting the conspicuous acquisition of wealth. Indeed, we are reminded of the following grim commission given to Elijah at Mt. Horeb (Sinai) not long before, in 1 Kings 19;15-18: “Then the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the Wilderness of Damascus, and when you arrive, anoint Hazael as king over Syria. Also you shall anoint Jehu the son of Nimshi as king over Israel. An Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel Meholah you shall anoint as prophet in your place. It shall be that whoever escapes the sword of Hazael, Jehu will kill, and whoever escapes the sword of Jehu, Elisha will kill. Yet I have reserved seven thousand in Israel, all whose knees have no bowed down to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.” Here we see that the raids of Syria were judgment upon Israel for their disobedience to God’s laws and their unfaithfulness to God as their Lord and Master. Even Elisha’s work was to be a work of vengeance and judgment, though (as we have seen in the case of Naaman) there was also a work of healing as well. Elisha recognizes that in a time of judgment, it is not wise to acquire conspicuous wealth, as that wealth is particularly fragile in times of great crisis and judgment as fall on those nations who rebel against God’s divinely established moral order.
Furthermore, we shall note that Gehazi blasphemes God’s name. Instead of giving his real reasons for desiring to take about 140 pounds of silver off of Naaman’s hands (that’s how much two talents is, a sizable sum of wealth even in our inflationary days) as well as two changes of clothing, he claims that Elisha needs the sum in order to provide for two sons of the prophets who have come to visit him from the mountains. This is a blatant and bold lie for someone who just made an oath to God that he wouldn’t rest until he had taken wealth from Naaman. Apparently Gehazi views Naaman as an unbeliever, instead of as a (fellow) believer, a monumental lapse of understanding and judgment, and to compound that with a lie in God’s name ups the betrayal considerably. Notably, Naaman suspects nothing and happily gives Gehazi the silver and changes of clothing, which he had wanted to do all along.
It seems unclear how Gehazi expected his secret to be kept, even assuming that Elisha did not have supernatural knowledge (itself a mistaken assumption, especially as 2 Kings 6:8-13 detail some of Elisha’s divinely guided espionage activities for the nation of Israel, suggesting Elisha had been given considerable supernatural knowledge by God in certain respects, itself a story worthy of considerable analysis6). Even assuming that no one saw the two servants bring in 140 pounds of silver (an amount that would seem difficult to bring in unawares), bribing the servants to keep quiet without providing enough wealth to them to avoid suspicion would appear to be a difficult, if not impossible task. Even on a strictly physical level, the monumental level of Gehazi’s greed makes his lies impossible to maintain. The presence of 140 pounds of silver and some fancy new clothes would invite the envious eyes of neighbors to wonder how it was that Gehazi acquired such a wealth, and to imagine that Elisha could be bribed when he refused to accept the payment from Naaman staggers belief. Obviously, Gehazi let his greed get the better of his judgment.
Somewhere, Gehazi even seems to have realized that Elisha would be best not to know about what happens, as he flat-out lied to Elisha about going anywhere. When Elisha reveals that he saw what happened (and furthermore, that his heart was with Gehazi, meaning that Elisha had a particular regard for Gehazi, perhaps even considering him a protege, a future prophet to come after him), Gehazi has no justification for his behavior. Instead, in a rather sad but poetic example of divine justice, Gehazi receives the leprosy that Naaman had, and a promise that leprosy would never depart from his house, a very serious judgment indeed on his behavior, and a suggestion of the deep divine disfavor upon Gehazi’s greed, theft, deception, and blasphemy.
Nonetheless, this is not (quite) the end of the story for Gehazi. While we must recognize both the enormity of Gehazi’s sin and the harsh (if just) nature of the punishment that was given to him, Gehazi himself stands as example of divine providence. In fact, the last mention we have of Gehazi (still a leper, presumably), occurs in another example of divine providence involving Elisha told in 2 Kings 8:1-8, which reads in the NKJV:
“Then Elisha spoke to the women whose son he had restored to life, saying, “Arise and go, you and your household, and stay wherever you can; for the Lord has called for a famine, and furthermore, it will come upon the land for seven years.” So the woman arose and did according to the saying of the man of God, and she went wit her household and dwelt in the land of the Philistines seven years.
It came to pass, at the end of seven years, that the woman returned from the land of the Philistines; and she went to make an appeal to the king for her house and for her land. Then the king talked with Gehazi, the servant of the man of God, saying “Tell me, please, all of the great things Elisha has done.” Now it happened, as he was telling the king how he had restored the dead to life, that there was the woman whose on he had restored to life, appealing to the king for her house and for her land. And Gehazi said, “My lord, O king, this is the woman, and this is the son whom Elisha restored to life.” And when the king asked the woman, she told him.
So the king appointed a certain officer for her saying, “Restore all that was hers, and all the proceeds of the field from the day that she left the land until now.”
In this, the last mention of Gehazi, the leprous and greedy servant, we find him serving as an agent of God’s will, telling the weak-willed king of Israel about Elisha’s good deeds and helping the righteous Shunammite woman receive her land back. We see, even from this example, that God does not cast us aside or stop working with us, even after such a severe judgment for a severe sin as Gehazi committed. While we can reflect over the enormitude of Gehazi’s sin, even God continuing to work good through Gehazi reflects the grace of God and His concern for providing for his people through a variety of means. Even in Gehazi’s case, we should consider him an instrument of grace and divine providence, even as we condemn his sin. As God is merciful, so should we be also.
A Summary of Divine Providence in the Story of Naaman the Syrian
While there are many themes and elements to the story of Naaman the Syrian, we have here focused on the issue of divine providence and how God brought a proud Syrian general to obedience to his way and brought healing to a righteous and just man who had suffered greatly. The examples of divine providence are many, and it is worthwhile to discuss them briefly here in summary as we conclude.
First, Naaman’s leprosy was itself divine providence, in that having leprosy alerted Naaman to the need for healing in life and prompted him to seek out some way of ridding himself of this condition. Sometimes the trials in our lives serve as spurs to bring us closer to God’s way by showing us that we need God’s intervention in our life, bringing us a healing that we were not aware we needed even as God answers our more immediate and pressing concerns.
We see also that there was divine providence related to his victories and his position as a general within the army of Ben Hadad II. For one, God gave him his victories over Syria’s enemies (whomever they may have been, whether Israel or Assyria or some other Aramean state). For another, God brought into his family a captive servant maiden (probaby a teenager), who provided Naaman with the answer to his prayers—the identity of the person who would bring him healing. Furthermore, the victories God gave him and the position Naaman held allowed him to receive from his master, the King of Syria, the permission needed for him to make a journey to Samaria, the home of a great enemy of Syria, not a request to be made lightly.
It is once Naaman reaches Samaria that the examples of divine providence continue and become even more striking and surprising. For one, Naaman’s almost magical ideas of Elisha waving his hands and casting the leprosy away receive a rude awakening, and his pride is dealt with by the skill of his servants, who manage to calm him down and remind him that washing in the Jordan, rather than being a humiliating request, is an easy request that should not be rejected. The presence of so many noble servants in the life of Naaman is itself a great example of divine providence—good help has no doubt been hard to find in all times and places, and Naaman was extremely well-served by the exemplary quality of his servants, and the fact that he listened to his servants also speaks very highly of his own character. Naaman takes the opportunity to get baptized seven times in the Jordan, as it were, and by God’s power is healed, and his eyes are opened as well to his spiritual responsibilities to obey God alone, thus making his conversion and his entrance into salvation, the greatest gift that God can give any one of us.
Lessons For Us Today
Even as we read the story of Naaman, seeking to appreciate the story in its own context and its own times, quite a remarkable example of God’s healing and his control over history, there are many lessons we can learn from this story for our own lives, as we seek to build a faith in God and trust in Him to provide for us even as we act in faith. While there are many lessons that could be drawn, I will only seek to discuss a few, in the interests of brevity:
- God is in control.
The entire passage of Naaman’s life from a leprous general of Syria’s army to a member of God’s congregation of the faithful was orchestrated by God step by step to bring Naaman to faith. Though in our own lives (and this is certainly true with mine), we cannot always see what it is that God is doing through us and by us and for us, God is in control of our lives as well. Even when He does not tell us what He is doing, He is working to bring us where He wants us to be, to fulfill his purpose. We must trust in that, even when we do not understand it7. The story of Naaman helps to show us, in a very implicit and finely written way, that God is in control of history and will shape it to bring salvation to individual people according to His will. If God can bend history to bring salvation to Naaman the Syrian, what can he do for us? Only God knows.
Wisdom comes from surprising places.
Twice in Naaman’s road from Damascus to conversion we see the wisdom and guidance in God’s will provided by servants. First, a captive teenage maiden, perhaps fifteen or sixteen years of age, provides Naaman’s wife with the information that there is a prophet in Israel, Elisha, who could and would heal Naaman of his leprosy. Naaman respects this information enough to bring it to the king of Syria’s attention when seeking permission to travel to Samaria to find healing. Obviously Naaman considered this servant girl’s testimony to be credible. Second, when Naaman is offended at the task Elisha gave him to bathe seven times in the Jordan river to be cleansed of leprosy, he is calmed by his servants, whose advice he follows. The fact that Naaman paid such close attention and followed the advice of his servants speaks highly of his nobility of character, as most people are (foolishly) too proud to accept the wisdom that comes from servants. Oftentimes in life we are blessed to have wise young people in our lives, or wise servants, and we may benefit from listening to the advice of those whose opinions are often ignored because they are too young or of too low of a social standing to be heeded. God provides in unexpected ways, and we should be open to instruction where it may be found, rather than demanding it comes in convenient ways.
- God gives us what we need, even when we do not realize that we need it.
Naaman was concerned about healing his leprosy, because the ostracism that resulted from that malady was a great shame and trial for him. Nonetheless, God was working through the leprosy to bring Naaman to salvation and obedience to Him, something that Naaman was not even looking for long into his search for salvation. Even when he is seeking to be healed, he considers Elisha’s God not to be his own, but once He is healed, and his proud heart is humbled by the wise advice of his servants, He finds himself converted into full obedience to God, understanding the obligations to worship Him alone, and seek forgiveness for sins he knows he will be forced to commit. This is a remarkable example of God’s mercy and foresight, and ought to at least remind us (if not convince us) that God provides for our needs, even when we do not ourselves recognize what we need.
- God works outside of our limited perspective.
The story of Naaman also reminds us that God works outside of the boundaries we place around His work. The Jews of Jesus’ time thought that God was only working with and for the Jews, neglecting that God had universal ambitions, and that the ethnic pride of the Jews in being the only people that obeyed God instead of fulfilling their mandate to bring the world under the dominion of God-fearing people of all races and tribes was something to be condemned, not praised. Likewise, part of Gehazi’s problem seems to be a failure to recognize that God cares for all, whether they are Israelites or Syrians. We should be wise to avoid pigeonholing God’s efforts as if we are the only ones God is working through and for, and remember that Jesus Christ Himself used the example of Naaman to demonstrate that God has always been concerned for those outside of “His People,” for indeed all human beings are created in the image and likeness of God, and God has a concern for all of His children, not just those of whom have been blessed with an understanding of His ways. It is, indeed, a responsibility that those who have been given God’s truth to live according to that truth and to be a good example for others, so that others may be brought into obedience to Him. Let us fulfill the purpose of bringing all things under His feet, rather than fighting and fussing over the supposed boundaries of His people, ignoring that God is the Lord of the whole universe, and that He sent His son to die for the sins of all mankind, not merely ourselves and our small circle of friends and associates.
There is much for us to ponder and study regarding the story of Naaman the Syrian. God’s design for the life of this leprous general has implications in many aspects of our lives even today, and we should be open to learning lessons from all of scripture, even unfamiliar and seemingly obscure historical examples such as this. It is my hope that those who read this essay may reflect upon what the story of Naaman means for them, and what we can do to apply the truth of God’s providence in history in our own lives and in our own times, in dealing with the trials and struggles all of us face. It should be a comfort to know and believe that God is in control over our lives, even when we do not know where God will take us. Let us therefore resolve to be more faithful to Him and more trusting of His plan for our lives, knowing how He uses circumstance to bring us where He wants us to be, into His family as sons and daughters.
11 Kings 20:31-43 tells the story of how, after the Syrians have been defeated a second time, and surrounded in a city, Ahab and Ben-Hadad of Syria made a treaty, a matter which displeased God greatly, since Ben-Hadad had been “appointed for destruction.” Apparently, though the Bible does not explicitly say it, Ben-Hadad may have appealed to the Assyrians as a common enemy the two nations could join together against. Nonetheless, shortly after the battle of Qarqar, we find the two nations again at war over their disputed territory in Gilead.
2Ian Provan, V. Philips Long, and Tremper Longman III, A Biblical History of Israel (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 231-232.
3Ian Provan, V. Philips Long, and Tremper Longman III, A Biblical History of Israel (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 266.
4 This, on balance, does seem fortunate, given the circumstances. While being made a captive is not a pleasant situation in any circumstances, serving a godly man and his wife (who was probably godly also) is a far better alternative than the usual fate of captive maidens, which was to be raped or turned into concubines by the victorious soldiers. In balance, the maiden received a better fate than most other maidens in this situation would have, and her captivity appears to have been for the purpose of bringing her knowledge of Elisha to Naaman’s attention, thus being the conduit through which Naaman was brought to his cleanliness and salvation. God truly does work in mysterious ways.
5James B. Jordan, Judges: A Practical and Theological Commentary (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1985), 254.
6Among numerous other projects, I hope someday to write a paper on the honorable nature of spying in the Bible, the example of Elisha of which stands as but one of several noteworthy examples.
7This is something I struggle with greatly in my own life, trying to fathom the divine providence of my own trials and tribulations, some of them brought on by my own mistakes, my own impatience, my own foolish heart, and some of them brought on by the envy and malice and wickedness of others. God works with us despite of ourselves, sometimes, and even when we do not know what God is doing, we have to allow God to work His will in us, to trust that He will give us what we need, no matter how long we must wait, and no matter how foolish we look seeking to follow the guidance He gives, even as we freely and openly and honestly admit we have fears and worries and doubts about the course of that will in our lives.