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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: H. Hastings Weld :: The Women of the Scriptures

H. Hastings Weld :: The Shunamite

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In Shunem, one of the cities of the tribe of Issachar, in the time of Elisha the prophet, there dwelt one who in the language of scripture is called "a great woman," (2Ki 4:8)-a person of importance, for wealth and influence seem to be intended by this description. She, it seems, "constrained" the prophet to take refreshment in her house. The word "constrained" is, in this case, expressive of courteous importunity. It was not a cold ceremonious invitation that caused the prophet to turn aside and enter the dwelling of the Shunamite. It was a cordial, hearty, sincere entreaty-the result of genuine good feeling, not formal politeness, or worldly ostentation. The prophet evidently enjoyed the society of the Shunamite, and the refreshment of her hospitable dwelling, for, "as oft as he passed by, he turned in thither to eat bread." It does not appear that the Shunamite had any idea of the prophetic character of her venerable guest. What was rendered at first as an act of kindness due to his age, and not less due to her own conviction of duty, became soon imperative from the excellence she found in him. Perceiving his contemplative character, it was the perfection of her hospitality that she determined on providing him with a dwelling that should be suited in all respects to his habits and pursuits. "And she said to her husband, Behold now, I perceive this is a holy man of God, who passeth by us continually. Let us make a little chamber, I pray thee, on the wall, and let us set for him there a bed, and a table, and a stool, and a candlestick: and it shall be that when he cometh to us, he shall turn in thither." (2Ki 4:9-10.) The motive to this special act of hospitality was the holy character of the guest. The home of the Shunamite was doubtless often a refuge for the weary wayfarer. The sons and daughters of affliction frequently found succour at her hands, for it is quite in accordance with her benevolent character, "that her pity gave ere charity began:" but discrimination marks her hospitality; the abiding guest must have moral qualifications. It was because she had discovered that Elisha was "a holy man of God," that she desired permanently to promote his comfort. The manner of the act was as praiseworthy as the motive. Doubtless, in the large establishment of this "great woman," she could have set apart a room for the prophet's use, in the house, but none that could be at once so secluded from interruption, and so convenient of ingress and egress to the occupant, as that little room which she caused to be built on the wall, with special reference to the habits and pursuits of her illustrious guest. The simplicity of the arrangements was evidence both of her wisdom, and the prophet's moderation. She desired to serve Elisha in the way most likely to be useful and agreeable to himself, and therefore provided for his necessities, but did not indulge any personal ostentation, by providing luxuries foreign to his habits; real kindness, not love of display, influenced her.

There was a harmony of noble qualities, an exactness of moral symmetry, in the character of the Shunamite. Her hospitality was not a solitary virtue, the mere result of good nature and ample means. It was one of many excellencies, all springing from the grand source of all genuine virtue-religious principle. The prophet deeply felt her considerate and active kindness, and, with the zeal of a grateful nature, desired to make some suitable return. It seemed to him not enough that he should warmly acknowledge her hospitality, exclaiming "Behold thou hast been careful for us with all this care," (2Ki 4:13) but, recognising the intellectual character of his hostess, he thought she might very properly desire an extension of her sphere of usefulness. She was "a great woman" in Shunem, but she had qualities that might lead to greatness in a far more extended sphere, and therefore the holy Elisha asks her "wouldest thou be spoken for to the king, or to the captain of the host?" (2Ki 4:13.) The reply to this offer, while it evidenced the perfectly disinterested character of the good Shunamite's hospitality, showed also a noble spirit of contentment worthy to be ranked with the finest instances of practical philosophy on record. "And she answered, I dwell among mine own people." She had found happiness in the discharge of the duties that had devolved on her in her present sphere, and no ambitious longings for greater distinction moved the calm depths of her serene spirit. Her relatives, friends; dependants, neighbours, were all comprehended in the affectionate phrase, "Mine own people:"-these constituted her world. "The world! what means it? Mine is here." With them she had lived, sympathized, acted; with them she hoped to die. Her elevated character, her kindly nature, had diffused around an atmosphere of light and love.

Why should she leave the scene that her own kind nature had made pleasant, her own active piety had rendered happy? Here she was useful, loving, and beloved. What had courts to offer of higher worth? Hers was not the restless longing of an ambitious spirit, seeking for a wider sphere, and a more distinguished station; but the wise moderation of a contented heart, conscious that real usefulness is a very different thing from apparent greatness and worldly eminence.

And as the prophet must have admired the contented spirit and quiet dignity of this reply, he still felt the unsatisfied desire of a grateful heart, that knows not how practically to manifest its gratitude. Courtly patronage he sees is valueless in the Shunamite's estimation, and Gehazi, his servant, calls his attention to the fact that no offspring gladdened the home of this admirable woman; that her kind and womanly heart is denied the exercise of the tenderest feminine affection; and well did he judge that the spirit which was too noble to court artificial distinction, would dearly prize the holy privilege of maternity. True she had uttered no expression that led to such an inference:-reserve, delicacy, the contentment of her equable character, had forbidden speech; but the secret wish is palpable to the man of God. Accordingly the prophet has her called again to his presence, and makes the announcement, that in due time she shall "embrace a son." (2Ki 4:16.) We are led to infer the strength of the secret wish of this good Shunamite, from the solemn energy of her reply, "Nay, my lord, thou man of God, do not lie unto thy handmaid." She felt that the very recesses of her heart had been fathomed by the searching thoughts of the prophet; and startled out of her usual calmness by a multitude of conflicting emotions, she utters a strong remonstrance against any trifling or uncertainty on this, to her, important matter. It is not the sceptical thought of Sarah, nor the passionate appeal of Rachel, nor the deep sorrow of Hannah, that dictates her words. It is the sudden surprise of a new hope, too exquisite to be for a moment entertained, unless in the full security of ultimate realization.

The Shunamite was not doomed to disappointment;-when did the voice of inspiration deceive the sincere and humble listener? A son to keep up his father's name,-a child to cheer her declining years, is given. Alas! how true it is, that with the increase of our joys, is the probable increase of our sorrows. Those who are richest in friends and dear family ties are the most exposed to the contingencies of sorrow, by the possibility of their loss. This child, "God's living gift of love," grown out of infancy, and fondly twined with added years around the hearts of both parents, is suddenly smitten in the harvest field with a sun‐stroke; is carried to his sorrowing mother, and, borne on her knees for a brief space, expires in her arms. In this crisis a new phase of the Shunamite's admirable character is shown. She does not sit down passively and lament her son. No; a sudden resolution is inspired by the exigency of the case; she lays the breathless form of her beloved child "on the bed of the man of God," (2Ki 4:21) in the room her hospitality had erected, and securely closing the door safe from all intrusion, she sends to her husband for an attendant to convey her with all haste to the man of God, in Mount Carmel. She does not send word that the child is dead,-her lips refuse to utter that word; neither can she find in her heart to inflict such a pang on her husband. In her reply to his astonished inquiries as to the suddenness and strangeness of her visit, her answer is, "It shall be well." (2Ki 4:23.) She would fain leave a comforting, encouraging message. Of such a wife it may be safely affirmed, "The heart of her husband trusteth in her." (Pro 31:11.)

Elisha from the lofty solitudes of Mount Carmel beheld the rapid approach of the energetic mother; for she "said to her servant, Drive and go forward, slack not thy riding for me, except I bid thee." (2Ki 4:24.) In the paroxysm of her emotion, her determination was as swift as it was resolute, and it gave speed to her actions. The manner of her coming, so different from the calmness of her ordinary movements, astonished the prophet: and as soon as he recognised her, he sent Gehazi to inquire if all were well. "Is it well with thee? Is it well with thy husband? Is it well with the child?" (2Ki 4:26.) Oh! lofty power of faith that dictated her brief reply, "It is well." She will not recognise that it can be otherwise than "well." Her soul is assured in her lofty faith, though the conflict of her feelings is almost too mighty for frail humanity. We perceive this outbreak of strong emotion when she reaches the man of God, for she forgets all ceremony of lowly observance, such as she was wont in gentle courtesy to use towards the prophet, and she throws herself before him and catches him by the feet. The servant approaches "to thrust her away;" (2Ki 4:27)-is it thus that a mortal shall approach one who has held converse with Jehovah? Beautiful is the concession to human feelings made in the words of Elisha;-"Let her alone; for her soul is vexed within her: and the Lord hath hid it from me, and hath not told me." There is something in this mother's grief so sublime, that it arrests with awe and wonder the soul of God's prophet. He who had seen the most wondrous spiritual manifestations, and celestial glories, stands amazed before the strong appeal of human emotion,-the might of human affection. He comprehends her loss when she exclaims, "Did I desire a son of my lord? did I not say, Do not deceive me?" (2Ki 4:28.) How much was conveyed in this sentence! It said, "I was not impatient, though I might be sorrowful over my privation, in the want of offspring. Why, when I remonstrated with thee beforehand,-why call up new feelings only to wound them? why give a blessing only to withdraw it? As a childless wife I was resigned,-nay, contented; as a bereaved mother, how great is my anguish!"

With swift sympathy the prophet instantly sent his servant with the miraculous staff to restore the child: but the mother's yearning, anxious love, is not satisfied with this; there is the same feeling alive in her heart, that spoke in the words of the sisters of Bethany to One far mightier than Elisha:-"Lord, if thou hadst been here, my brother had not died." (Jhn 11:21; 11:32.) The prophet, himself-not a substitute, however endowed-is the object of her faith. Oh! who would stop short in secondary measures, that can appeal to a primal agent? What an encouragement is the importunity of the Shunamite to every faithful spirit to take its plea with humble boldness to the throne of grace, in the full assurance of the blessed promise, "Lo! I am with you always, even to the end of the world!" (Mat 28:20.) In this wrestling spirit, "the mother of the child said, As the Lord liveth, and as thy soul liveth, I will not leave thee." (2Ki 4:30.) It is very striking to note the scripture narrative referring to the maternal character of the pleader, as if to sanction her importunity, and the strong language in which she utters her feelings. This agony of impassioned earnestness shows us, also, that when the Shunamite said to Gehazi, "It is well," it was not from a cold stoicism that she spoke, but from an earnest assurance of all‐prevailing faith, "that laughs at impossibilities, and cries, It shall be done." Elisha "arose, and followed her."

How well arranged was the plan of this fervent woman in placing the child in the prophet's chamber! There was feminine tact in this plan. The place pleaded as well as the mother: he could not enter into that room without remembering that the child was given as an unsolicited, but precious requital of free genial hospitality. The earthly hope of her who "had been careful with all care" for his wants, was now stretched lifeless on the bed that her friendship had provided. It seems as if this event was hidden by the Most High from the prophet, at the time of its occurrence, in order to call forth the deep gratitude of his sanctified nature, as well as to show the power conferred on him by Jehovah. We read with solemn awe of Elisha entering the presence of the dead;-that "he shut the door upon them twain, (the living and the dead,) and prayed unto the Lord." (2Ki 4:33.) The agonizing importunity of the mother, which made her cling in passionate supplication to the feet of the prophet, knew its just limits. She enters not into, that chamber, where, as from the holy of holies, the man of God in solitude offers up his prayer. Neither, as in the strong agitation of his spirit at the stupendous miracle permitted to his prayer, Elisha "walked in the house to and fro," (2Ki 4:35) did she venture to break in upon his meditations. It was enough, the man of God was there in compliance with her entreaty; her duty now was patient waiting; with what emotions, scripture passes over in eloquent silence. At length the servant of the prophet calls her to his master's presence:-and the words, "Take up thy son!" (2Ki 4:36) fall upon her ear, as she gazes upon his re‐animated form. Ah! then how changed her manner to the man of God! Overpowered, "she fell at his feet, and bowed herself to the ground" (2Ki 4:37) in speechless gratitude and joy, "breathless with adoration!" No more vehemence, no more anguish;‐a profound awe prostrates her in lowly reverence before those feet she had so wildly clasped in her sorrow. Emotions too solemn for words, too deep for tears, possess her soul. Her child is twice given-doubly precious! "She took up her son and went out."

What a powerful human interest attaches to this affecting narrative! How encouraging is the thought that the Almighty condescends thus to human affections! Though demanding the supreme love of his dependent creatures, he requires no stern ascetic sacrifice of natural feeling, and kindred ties. He makes the heart that is drawn out in love to himself, the receptacle of the most tender and deep social sympathies;-nay, more, the possession of those sympathies is made one of the truest tests of love for him. "If any man love not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?" (1Jo 4:20) is the inquiry of the beloved disciple. The heart that is fullest of pure human affections is likely to be the most enlarged for the reception of ennobling spiritual love. Not the cold, the supine, the phlegmatic, but the earnest, the tender, the benevolent, who love kindred and kind "with pure hearts fervently," are most likely to have "the love of God shed abroad in their hearts." (Rom 5:5.)

"He prayeth best who loveth best
All things, both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all."

The history of the good Shunamite does not end with this stupendous miracle wrought in her favour. Some time after the events recorded, the prophet still remembering her hospitality, warned her of a grievous famine that should fall upon the land, and counselled her to go with her household, and sojourn in some distant place, that she might avoid the calamity. The same faith that had marked all her former conduct was here again manifested. She obeyed the man of God with unhesitating confidence, and removed with her household to the land of the Philistines, and abode there seven years. This was no small proof of obedience and faith. At the expiration of that time she returned to her country, and it was her lot to experience the vicissitudes of human life in relation to worldly circumstances. Her house and land had been taken during her absence. Could it be that the neighbours, whom she had so affectionately called "mine own people," had so forgotten her kindness? that they had risen up against their benefactress? Was it the lot of one who had received such proofs of gratitude from the holy man of God, to have, by the ingratitude of others, such a powerful contrast forced upon her, of the difference between sanctified and unregenerate human nature? She whose life had passed in acts of private duty, had now "to cry unto the king for her house and for her land." (2Ki 8:3.)

It is probable from this business devolving on the Shunamite, that she was at this time a widow. Yet, if so, the God and judge of the widow and the fatherless still surrounded her with a beneficent Providence. At the very time of her presenting her plea to the king for the restitution of her property, Gehazi, the servant of the prophet, was recounting, at the request of the monarch, the great deeds of his master, and as he was telling "how he had restored a dead body to life," (2Ki 8:4-5) he recognised the Shunamite and her son, and exclaimed, "My lord, O king, this is the woman, and this is her son, whom Elisha restored to life." We do not read in so many words that Gehazi had spoken of the Shunamite, but only stated the miracle that had been wrought in restoring the dead to life. Yet, it is evident from the remark, "This is the woman," that the deeds of the Shunamite had not been omitted in the narration, especially as the king instantly gave audience to her. Her claim was admitted; restitution of "all that was hers" was not only immediately ordered, but compensation of "all the fruits of the field, from the day that she left the land, even until now." (2Ki 8:6.) Thus, throughout a chequered life, the hospitality which was the primary excellence of this distinguished woman's character, was not suffered to pass unrecompensed. A gift beyond price was bestowed as a reward of combined contentment and benevolence; was withdrawn as a trial of faith and gratitude, to be restored and rendered doubly dear. She was subsequently removed, by the strong necessity of a famine‐stricken land, from her "people," that she might learn fully to estimate the instability of human prosperity, and the vacillation of unsanctified human nature. In her extremity of adversity, as in the ecstasy of her sorrow, the Lord interposed for her. Through all the changing scenes of her life, her kind, earnest, active character is manifest for our instruction. The power to build a dwelling, or to offer munificent hospitality to the excellent of the earth, may not be ours, to the same degree possessed by this "great woman;" but let us ever remember, it is not the amount of an action, but its motive, that the Lord judges; for it is written, "Whosoever presents a cup of cold water to one of my disciples in my name shall not lose his reward." (Mar 9:41.)

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