Knowing God

Knowing God

In this morning’s passage we continue to see how the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of Israel, manifests himself as the one true God not just over Israel but over all of the created order and over all nations. Naaman is a commander of the king of Aram’s[1]— present-day Syria’s—army. And though he was a great man in the eyes of his master because of his military accomplishments, the victory he achieved for Aram wasn’t his own doing but “the LORD” was the one who “had given victory to Aram.” Again, this is the nation of Aram—not Israel—we’re talking about. So we have an indication here that there is only one God who is God over all nations, regardless of whether or not they know or acknowledge him as such.

Now Naaman, this soldier of the king of Aram, is a key character in this account. And, again, we’re told that he “was a valiant soldier” despite having leprosy (1)—and most commentators note that the Hebrew word for “leprosy” used here can be used for various diseases affecting the skin so it may not be leprosy in the sense that we usually think it, i.e., Hansen’s disease, the contagious skin disease that can result in disfigurement and deformities. But Naaman did have some disease of the skin.

After being introduced to Naaman we’re told that “bands of raiders from Aram[2]…had taken captive a young girl from Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife” (2). And this girl told his wife that if Naaman were to see the prophet in Samaria[3]—which was the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel at the time—he would be able to cure Naaman of his leprosy (3). So Naaman went to the king and received permission from him to go and see the prophet who turns out to be Elisha, Elijah’s successor. The king of Aram said to Naaman, “By all means, go… I will send a letter to the king of Israel”[4] (5). When Naaman left, he took money with him, probably to pay for the requested healing. Some have estimated the value of these 750 pounds of silver and 150 pounds of gold to be as high as $80,000.[5] That’s one expensive office visit! Naaman also brought along a letter from the king of Aram to the king of Israel stating, “With this letter I am sending my servant Naaman to you so that you may cure him of his leprosy” (6).

Now in order to understand the king of Israel’s response to this letter, we need to keep in mind that these two countries, Aram, or present-day Syria, and Israel had been at war with one another. Though a peace treaty had been signed under Ahab’s[6] reign, there were often skirmishes and raids during the long history of tension between these two countries. Exhibit “A” even in our passage is the young girl from Israel who ended up as servant to Naaman’s wife due to being abducted by bands of raiders. She didn’t go voluntarily. So when the king of Israel tore his robes upon reading the letter from the king of Aram, his distress is understandable as he went on to state, “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!” (7). Given the history of their relations, the king of Israel saw this request not as a favor from a neighboring king but as a command. He assumed that the whole incident was an attempt to create a pretext for a declaration of war. And he rightly viewed a request to heal Naaman as beyond his ability to fulfill.

But what is also instructive about the response of Israel’s king is that he, who as Israel’s king was charged to rule in the name of the LORD, had less faith than the young girl from Israel who had been taken captive. Whereas she had confidence in God’s ability to heal Naaman by means of the prophet Elisha, the king responded in fear. Rather than view this request as an opportunity for the LORD to work, the king’s vision was myopic as he instead concluded that the king of Aram was being confrontational.

Not so with Elisha who responded in a manner consistent with the servant girl’s response. He challenged the king of Israel’s lack of faith. In verse 8 we read, “When Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his robes, he sent him this message: ‘Why have you torn your robes? Have the man come to me and he will know that there is a prophet in Israel.’” Elisha rebukes the king for his lack of trust in God’s ability to work. As was true of the abducted girl, Elisha, too, is confident that the LORD will act on Naaman’s behalf and thus show himself to be God over all nations.

Now when Naaman went to Elisha’s house, rather than meet him personally, he sent him his messenger with his designated instructions: “Go, wash yourself seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will be restored and you will be cleansed” (10). But Naaman was angered by this remedy for his healing. Let’s again look at his response in verses 11–12: “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. 12 Are not Abana[7] and Pharpar,[8] the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Couldn’t I wash in them and be cleansed?” Naaman was not a happy camper! And I think that there are at least three causes for Naaman’s anger, judging by his recorded response:

First, Elisha didn’t go out to meet him personally but sent his messenger. No one is happy to see an aide from the President when they were expecting an audience with the President himself;

Second, the treatment recommended by Elisha wasn’t remarkable, but mundane. Whereas Naaman had counted on Elisha dramatically calling upon God as he waved his hand over him, curing him of his leprosy for all to see, the actual remedy was for Naaman to bathe seven times in the Jordan River. How boring is that??! But lest we judge Naaman too quickly, if we’re honest we might come up with times in our own lives when we wished—or even expected—for God to miraculously intervene. I know that when I was diagnosed with cancer years ago, part of me hoped God would heal me by means prayer and laying on of hands alone. I even began to convince myself that such a healing would be a wonderful testimony to all of the doctors, nurses, and technicians who were treating me. But what God actually used for my treatment was surgery and radiation. Again, how boring! Yet it’s important for us to remember that though God is Spirit and those that worship him must worship him in spirit and truth,[9] he is also the God who created us—both soul and body—as well as the material world in which we find ourselves, declaring on the sixth day of creation, as he looked upon all that he had made, that it was all very good.[10] God is God of both nature and super-nature so we shouldn’t feel disappointment if he chooses to use natural means to work in our lives.

But in addition to probably feeling slighted because Elisha’s messenger had brought him the message and because the recommended cure wasn’t dramatic, a third reason why Naaman wasn’t satisfied with the proposed course of treatment for his healing was because he had been told to bathe himself in Israel, in the river Jordan, rather than in Aram, in the rivers of Abana and Pharpar in Damascus. At least two things may be at play here. One may be that Naaman felt Elisha had been dismissive about the seriousness of his skin disease. If bathing in water was the cure, well, he’d done that many times before and he still had this disease. But, too, it’s important to remember that this was a time in which, unlike today, nations were not only religious but those who lived in them took pride not only in their country but also in the god or gods associated with them. One of the most dramatic examples we see of this in Scripture is when the Pharaoh ruling in Egypt wouldn’t let Moses and the people of Israel return to their homeland. Why should he? His gods had allowed him to prosper whereas the God of the people of Israel, at least in Pharaoh’s mind, surely was weaker as evidenced by their captivity to him. Otherwise wouldn’t Moses have been in charge??? We also got a glimpse of this dynamic a few weeks ago when we considered the battle between the one true LORD of Israel and the gods of Baal[11]—in that instance, Israel’s God was victorious. So it’s likely that at least part of what Naaman was thinking when asked to bathe in the Jordan, was “What’s so special about the Jordan River? Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to receive cleansing in the rivers of Damascus? Aren’t the Abana and Pharpar rivers in Aram even better than those found in Israel?” People take pride in their countries of origin and that may be reflected in Naaman’s response here.

Well, despite Naaman’s displeasure with Elisha’s instructions, his servants were able to talk sense into him as they pointed out, “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’!” (13). So Naaman relented and did as Elisha, the acknowledged man of God, had instructed by means of his servant. Naaman “went down and dipped himself in the Jordan seven times…and his flesh was restored and became clean like that of a young boy” (14). And then we have recorded for us Naaman’s wonderful response of faith as he stated, “Now I know that there is no God in all the world except in Israel” and he offered Elisha a gift in return—which gift Elisha rejected. Naaman rightly saw that his healing was a healing from God, given him by means of God’s prophet, Elisha. And then and there he determined to follow this one true God.

In what follows, it is evident that Naaman’s conversion and desire to follow the LORD is sincere. In verse 17 we see how he told Elisha “your servant will never again make burnt offerings and sacrifices to any other god but the Lord.” And he even asked forgiveness for having to bow down when assisting his master in worship as recorded in verse 18: “But may the Lord forgive your servant for this one thing: When my master enters the temple of Rimmon—[and Rimmon is another name for Baal[12]]—to bow down and he is leaning on my arm and I have to bow there also—when I bow down in the temple of Rimmon, may the Lord forgive your servant for this.” And Elisha assuaged Naaman’s concerns of an appearance of syncretism by telling him to go in peace (19).

As is ever the case in Scripture, there are wonderful—and inter-related—lessons for us in this account of Naaman’s healing by the one true God.

One is that we don’t get to dictate to God how he should work in our lives nor how he should respond to—or answer—our prayers. God is the Creator, we are the created; He is the potter, we are the clay.[13] As such we should recognize and own our creaturely status and trust him not only when things are going the way we think they should be going but especially when they aren’t. And though praying in all circumstances is clearly what Scripture calls us to do,[14] it’s important that we not presume the answer to those prayers but instead understand prayer as a means God’s Spirit uses to draw us closer to himself as we turn to—and wait upon him as we seek his guidance and will for our lives. Ultimately prayer is intended to help us know God and see our lives through the eyes of providence—through God’s perspective. And if the LORD chooses to intervene miraculously—if he chooses to use extraordinary means to remind us of his mercy and presence—all praise be to him! But if the LORD chooses to use mundane means to care for us—even medical doctors and each other!—then all praise be to him as well. And if the LORD chooses not to heal us this side of heaven but calls us home to himself, all praise be to him for this earthly life is the short part of eternity and one day we will be with him and enjoy him forever, not by faith as is the case now, but by sight.

Naaman learned the value of trusting God and his ways when, despite desiring that Elisha dramatically heal him, waving his hand over him and calling on the LORD’s name for all to see, he was healed in the most mundane of ways—by washing himself seven times in the Jordan River. Now make no mistake, this too was miraculous! But it wasn’t the miracle Naaman had originally desired. And it certainly wasn’t a miracle that he expected given his reluctance to follow these instructions in the first place. Nonetheless, by following the instructions of Elisha, God’s prophet, Naaman came to see the error of his ways and ended up following not Rimmon, that is, Baal, the god of his own people, but the LORD—Yahweh—the one true God who is God over all people and nations.

On this Independence Day weekend, another lesson to be found in our passage is that though as a nation we may be celebrating our independence from any and all oppressive governments, as believers in and followers of Christ, we’re called both individually and corporately not to independence from God but to dependence upon him. The unnamed young girl from Israel who was abducted by bands of raiders from Aram understood this when she encouraged Naaman’s wife to have him go to Elisha, by means of whom God would heal Naaman. Even in her captivity, she was able to encourage these foreign captors to turn to the one true God. Though she had been taken from her land, no one could take her away from her God. And her concern wasn’t for her own situation of servitude, separated from her family and friends, but her concern was that others might come to faith in God. Elisha, too, understood this when he rebuked the king of Israel—who didn’t depend upon the LORD—for tearing his robes rather than believing that the LORD would work in Naaman’s healing. Elisha, too, understood all of life through the eyes of providence. Brothers and sisters, when we live our lives in dependence upon the LORD, he is lifted up in a way that can draw others to him, rather than to us.

A final lesson that is evident in our passage is that God cares not only for his own people but he reaches out to all nations. We often mistakenly conclude that what we have in the Old Testament is a record of how God creates a nation—a people—for himself out of one man, Abraham. And this is certainly the case. But what we so often miss is that in his dealings with the nation of Israel, God often reaches out to neighboring nations, seeking to draw them to himself as well. Whether this is in a decisive victory over Baal and Asherah, or through the faithfulness of a Moabitess named Ruth who leaves her god and people to follow the one true God and his people, or by the witness of Daniel and his companions, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, or through the rescue of a foreign harlot, named Rahab, and her family for helping deliver Israel from its enemies, time and time again even in the Old Testament, we see how God desires to bless not only Israel but all who acknowledge him as the one true God he is. I love the last line in our morning’s call to worship: “For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is His love for those who fear Him.” God loves all who fear him—he loves all who desire to know him—even non-Israelites—even Naaman. The God who made us in his image, desires to redeem us by his love. And he will welcome with open and loving arms any and all who acknowledge him as LORD and pledge their loyalty to him.

Now though we no longer live in a time of promise when God had to speak to his people by means of his prophets wince the written Scriptures weren’t yet complete, we have something greater. We live in a time of fulfillment, after which God, in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ, has given his life for us and as such become the means for us to come to our heavenly Father by means of his Holy Spirit who enables us to know, and love, and proclaim him as LORD. Since he’s given us himself and left us his Word, what more, as the old hymn goes, “what more can he say than to you he has said, to you who for refuge to Jesus have fled?” (How Firm a Foundation).

Brothers and sisters, this Independence Day weekend, let us thank God for the freedoms we have to gather this morning—to pray—to sing—to receive his word—to worship, yes! But let us also proclaim not our independence from our God but our dependence upon him, thanking him that we know him—thanking him for his patience—thanking him for his goodness—thanking him for his kindness—thanking him for his faithfulness to us even when we are unfaithful; even when we choose to yield to temptation over choosing to yield to him who is our life.

Let us pray.

[1] NIV: This was probably Ben-Hadad II. Reformation Study Bible agrees (8:7; 13:3; I Kin. 20:1).

[2] NIV: Although Israel had concluded a peace treaty with the Arameans during the reign of Ahab (see I Ki 20:34), minor border skirmishes continued between the two states in the aftermath of the battle for control of Ramoth Gilead, in which Ahab had been killed. I Kings 20:29–34: 29 For seven days they camped opposite each other, and on the seventh day the battle was joined. The Israelites inflicted a hundred thousand casualties on the Aramean foot soldiers in one day. 30 The rest of them escaped to the city of Aphek, where the wall collapsed on twenty-seven thousand of them. And Ben-Hadad fled to the city and hid in an inner room. 31 His officials said to him, “Look, we have heard that the kings of Israel are merciful. Let us go to the king of Israel with sackcloth around our waists and ropes around our heads. Perhaps he will spare your life.” 32 Wearing sackcloth around their waists and ropes around their heads, they went to the king of Israel and said, “Your servant Ben-Hadad says: ‘Please let me live.’” The king answered, “Is he still alive? He is my brother.” 33 The men took this as a good sign and were quick to pick up his word. “Yes, your brother Ben-Hadad!” they said. “Go and get him,” the king said. When Ben-Hadad came out, Ahab had him come up into his chariot. 34 “I will return the cities my father took from your father,” Ben-Hadad offered. “You may set up your own market areas in Damascus, as my father did in Samaria.” Ahab said, “On the basis of a treaty I will set you free.” So he made a treaty with him, and let him go.

[3] NIV: Elisha had maintained a residence in Samaria (see v. 9; 2:25; 6:19).

[4] NIV: the king of Israel was Joram [aka Jehoram] (see 1:17; 3:1; 9:24). Reformation Study Bible agrees.

[5] Oxford Study Bible.

[6] NIV: Although Israel had concluded a peace treaty with the Aramenas during the reign of King Ahab (see I Ki 20:34), minor border skirmishes continued between the two states in the aftermath of the battle for control of Ramoth Gilead, in which Ahab had been killed.

[7] NIV: The Abana was termed the Golden River by the Greeks. It is usually identified with the Barada River of today, rising in the Anti-Lebanon mountains and flowing through the City of Damascus.

[8] NIV: The Pharpar River flows east from Mount Hermon just to the south of Damascus.

[9] John 4:24.

[10] Genesis 1:31.

[11] I Kings 18.

[12] ESV. See note on I Kings 16:31–33: Baal is not strictly a name but a title (meaning “lord”) for the ancient Semitic god Hadad—“Lord Hadad” (Baal-Hadad)—first known from the ancient city of Ebla in northwestern Syria and from Egypt, but mostly thoroughly understood through the Ugaritic texts from Ras Shamra on the Syrian coast. These texts depic Baal (adad) as a storm god; the fertility of the land depends onhis sending rain. He is son of the high god El and husband of the goddess Anat; his enemies are Yam (“Sea”) and Mot (“Death”); his weapons are thunder and lightning; and his symbolic representation is the bull. Baal worship presented an attractive alternative or supplement to the worship of the Lord (Yahweh) for many Israelites throughout their time in Canaan, no doubt partly because that land was so utterly dependent on its fertility.

[13] Isaiah 64:8: Yet you, Lord, are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.; Jeremiah 18:5–6: Then the word of the Lord came to me. He said, “Can I not do with you, Israel, as this potter does?” declares the Lord. “Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, Israel.; Romans 9:20–21: 20 But who are you, a human being, to talk back to God? “Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, ‘Why did you make me like this?’” 21 Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for special purposes and some for common use?

[14] I Thessalonians 5:16–18: 16 Rejoice always, 17 pray continually, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.; Ephesians 6:18a:  And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests.; Philippians 4:6: Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.

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