GREAT WOMAN OF SHUNEM
The Woman Who Was Both Great and Gracious
Although Rabbinic tradition identifies this woman with Abishag the Shunammite (1 Kings 1:3), the Bible clothes her with anonymity. Great though she was in her own city, that is, a female of high rank and riches (see 1 Samuel 25:2; 2 Samuel 19:33), conspicuous and well-known as she was, she is yet nameless in Scripture. It would have added greater interest to her record of hospitality and benevolence if Elisha had given us the name of this noble woman who had been so kind to him, and for whom he had done so much. All that we know of this lady of social distinction is narrated in the chapter before us.
It is evident that she and her husband were of the Jewish persuasion and that although theirs was a social distinction they were yet humble and devout worshipers of Jehovah. As a true daughter of Issachar, she was faithful to the motto of her tribe, “Ready for the Burden.” Doubtless this childless pair who did not permit their domestic disappointment to embitter them, determined to use their lovely home in the beautiful city of Shunem on the Jezreel plain for the entertainment of God’s people who passed that way. Before any traveler was invited as a guest the wife consulted with her husband as to the invitation. Dutiful, she never acted on her own initiative. Her husband and she were one, thus with her it was always, “Let us” (2 Kings 4:10). Elisha came to experience the delightful harmony that prevailed in their home, and how husband and wife never faltered in their task of happiness which was their way of serving the Lord. It would seem as if the “great woman” was much younger than her God-fearing husband. “She hath no child and her husband is old.” The Shunammite could have made her own way in the world, but as a worshiper of Jehovah she took a partner older in years and experience than herself, and thus prepared to care for the aged Elisha when he came her way.
From the window of their large house the Shunammite and her husband had a commanding view of the well-traveled road from Samaria or Carmel to Shunem and watched the travelers, remarking on those who appeared to be different from others. Such a passer-by was a man of grave and masterful countenance, wearing a pastoral mantle and having a long staff in his hand. Although they may not have known who he was, his whole demeanor attracted attention, and marked him out as “an holy man of God.” Her perceptive ability told her that this man who often passed their way was no ordinary man, and she decided to invite him into the house to rest whenever his mission brought him her way. Perceptiveness is indeed a useful gift and in this case resulted in true considerateness for a weary prophet in need of gracious hospitality. More of us ought to try and cultivate this spirit of perceptive helpfulness so that as tired and needy people pass our windows, we may have the joy of building for them a little chamber on the wall.
When Elisha was a younger man he could make the journey from his home in Carmel to Jezreel in a single day and not feel at all fatigued, but as he grew older his pace slackened and his periodic visits became more tiring and wearisome. As he passed the house of Shunem’s most prominent woman, she noticed how the step of this frequent passer-by lagged, and with her husband she decided to have this man of God, whose fame was in all Israel, to share the rest and refreshment of their spacious home. They felt that this man, looking like a prophet, must be a holy man going about doing good continually. So one day she went out and met Elisha as they noticed his approach and extended to him the generous hospitality of their home.
The decision to invite the prophet in and to make full provision of a guest room for him was taken before they accosted Elisha. On the roof of their house was a small chamber walled on each side against the weather which the Shunammite and her husband felt would secure the prophet from interruption or intrusion on his journey, and they fitted it out with the essentials in oriental furnishing—a bed, a table, a stool and a candlestick or lampstand. We can imagine what pleasure the wealthy woman had in preparing a chamber for a poor prophet. When it was all ready she likely said to her husband, “There, now, when that weary traveler passes this way again, we will ask him to turn in hither, and tell him it is for his use as often and as long as he needs it.” What a sanctum of health and peace to the weary man of God that prophet’s chamber proved to be!
One day as Elisha journeyed along that highway he knew so well, he received the invitation to pause and rest himself. Readily he responded to the kindness extended, and must have been grateful for the provision made for his comfort and needs. Doubtless he spent many happy hours with that godly pair. “Many a night, if not many a day,” says Theron Brown, “Elisha enjoyed that pleasant chamber as his regular way-station, going and coming probably no less than four years. Did he ever look through his windows down the next twenty-eight centuries, and contemplate what multiplicities of comfort to ‘prophets’ yet unborn would during that time develop from his aboriginal bed, table, stool and candlestick?” Throughout the Bible there are many accounts of women in all the circumstances of domestic or public life—wives, mothers, queens, prophetesses—brought into contact with prophets and apostles, even with Jesus Himself and greatly helped them by ministering unto God’s servants of their substance. Prominent among these female benefactresses is the great and good woman of Shunem.
Because of her affluent position the Shunammite needed no remuneration for the food and shelter she afforded Elisha. Noblehearted as she was, as one of God’s own had she been as poor as the woman with her pot of oil, she would have still given of her best for the relief of the prophet. Deeply appreciating all she had done for him, Elisha felt that the Shunammite should have some return for her kindness. Thus one day he sent his servant, Gehazi, with a message that he wanted to reward her for her most gracious and frequent hospitality. Would she like the prophet to further her interests by securing a position for her husband at the court, or in the army, seeing he had influence both with the king and the captain of the host? Her reply was characteristic of the humility of her nobility. “I dwell among mine own people,” or “in the midst of my people I am dwelling far from the court and courtly interests. My husband and I are humble commoners, quietly living in the country, and do not seek the company of exalted personages.”
When Gehazi reported the refusal of the woman to accept any perquisite for service rendered, Elisha said, “What then is to be done for her?” He felt that he was deeply in her debt and must somehow repay her. Gehazi said to the prophet, “Verily, she hath no child and her husband is old.” Immediately Elisha said to his servant, “Call her.” We must pause here and draw attention to Elisha’s manner in dealing with the Shunammite. As a servant of the Most High there was no undue familiarity or worldly courtesy. Elisha approached her through his servant Gehazi. When she did come before the prophet “she stood at the door,” and heard him pronounce the end of her misfortune and reproach. Her barrenness was to end. “Thou shalt embrace a son.” Overcome with emotion she said, “Nay, my lord, thou man of God, do not lie unto thine handmaid,” meaning that she did not want the prophet to raise any delusive hopes (see Isaiah 58:11). Perhaps she remembered the credulity of Sarah when she received the promise of motherhood (Genesis 18:12, 13). The miracle happened, and the glad day the woman of Shunem thought could or would not come dawned, and she nestled her promised baby to her breast. What greater reward could God have given her and her husband for their kind treatment of His servant!
The grateful Shunammite had three or four years of happy motherhood. What a difference her son made in the home! Would you not like to know what she and her husband named him? How eagerly they watched the boy grow up and trot with his daddy to the fields. Alas, however, human hopes are often uncertain, and are sometimes crushed! One day the little boy, with uncovered head, went out by himself to the fields and stayed too long, and under the blazing sun of the hot climate was stricken with sunstroke and could only cry as he held his burning brow, “My head, my head.” The father carried him back to his pang-stricken mother who had bestowed so much care upon the boy, and she nursed him until he died. Up the stairs she went carrying the little corpse. She placed it tenderly on the bed of the man of God, and shut the door. Ellicott comments—
She wished to keep the death secret, and the corpse inviolate, during her intended absence.
As experiences often sanctify places, that precious prophet’s chamber in which Elisha had spent so many hours in prayer and meditation was held in reverence. What better place, therefore, was there in the home for the lifeless form of the child with whom the prophet was the means of delighting the home. As a godly woman, the brokenhearted mother knew that her child was safe in the arms of the Lord, and doubtless felt—
I thought him lovely when he came,
But he is saintly now;
Around his pure angelic brow
I see a slender ring of flame.
In her great grief the Shunammite thinks only of God and of the man of God through whose instrumentality the blessing of motherhood came to her. So she determined to journey to Elisha with the hope in her heart that he might be able to restore her treasure. Seeking the co-operation of her likewise distressed husband, she set out on an ass, accompanied by one of the male servants, and promised to return as soon as possible. The servant was urged to ride without restraint for such was the bereaved mother’s eagerness to tell Elisha what had happened. As she sped along her heart nursed the hope that the wonder-working power of the prophet would reverse the terrible blow that had made her childless. Ultimately Carmel was reached and never had a burdened beast traveled those thirty miles from Shunem so quickly before.
Recognizing the woman in the distance and sensing some calamity had overtaken her, and seeing her visit was unusual, Elisha sent his servant, Gehazi, to inquire if all was well with her and her husband and child. To Gehazi she replied: “It is well.” Then, because she had come to see Elisha and not his servant, the desperate woman fell as a humble and urgent suppliant before the feet of Elisha. Gehazi, thinking her passionate outburst was a trespass upon his master’s dignity, made to thrust her aside (see Matthew 19:13; John 4:27). Elisha intervened and said, “Let her alone; for her soul is vexed [bitter] within her: and the Lord hath hid it from me, and hath not told me.” The latter part of the prophet’s reply reveals that supernatural knowledge of every event was not a characteristic of the gift of prophecy (see 2 Samuel 7:3). The Shunammite’s question to Elisha was the spontaneous outflow of a mother’s poignant sorrow: “Did I desire a son of my lord? did I not say, Do not deceive me?” In effect she meant, It would have been better to have had no son, than to have one and then lose him. From the few words she uttered Elisha discerned that something was wrong with the boy, and surmising that he had fallen into a death-like lethargy, or swoon, sent Gehazi to the home and bade him lay the prophet’s staff across the child’s face.
But a dead stick was of little use in the raising of a dead child, and the grief-stricken mother herself felt that what Elisha had arranged was a cheap substitute, and vowed she would not leave Carmel until the prophet accompanied her. Convinced of the fearful need that compelled the Shunammite not to return to the shadowed home without the prophet, he set out with her, and outside the gate of Shunem, Elisha met the returning Gehazi who confessed that the child was dead and that the prophet’s staff was of no avail to revive him. “The reaper whose name is death,” had visited the hospitable house of the godly parents. Hurriedly, Elisha went up to the room preserved as his chamber, and there on the bed where he had often refreshed his weary frame, was laid out the corpse of the child. Closing the door, and left alone with the dead, Elisha prayed unto the Lord beseeching Him to bring back the departed spirit of the lad.
Earnest intercession was accompanied by vigorous action for Elisha gathered the lifeless form to his bosom and pressed its face to his, as if to impart the magnetism of his own strong vitality, and warm the still, little heart into motion again. In that caress and kiss of life, all the energy of the prophet’s love and faith were focused, and so “the flesh of the child waxed warm” &--;the life of the divine Spirit, the Giver of life, was miraculously imparted by contact with that still, cold form. “All the force and virtue of Elisha’s inspired will pleaded in that contact with the tender clay for the return of its absent soul.” Exhausted, the prophet left the bed and paced the floor, then returned to the child, picked him up and repeated the same embrace, still praying for another’s life as he would never have prayed for his own. Then, what relief, a feeble gasp shook the child’s frame, and he sneezed seven times, the repeated sneezing being a sign of restored respiration, and the boy opened his eyes and with delight saw the saintly face of the prophet.
Exhausted with the stress of trial, Elisha called his servant and told him to bring up the Shunammite who, weak from hours of sleepless exertion and solitude, dragged herself up the stairs. But all pain, strain and despair quickly vanished as she came into “the little chamber” and saw her boy alive, and heard Elisha say, “Take up thy son.” Agony gave way to joy, for the funeral had been turned into a feast. With her mother’s heart overflowing with worshiping gratitude she sank at her benefactor’s feet in deep veneration for his miraculous ministry as a servant of Jehovah.
The man of God came forth and led the child
Unto his mother, and went on his way
And he was there—her beautiful—her own—
Living and smiling on her—with his arms
Folded about her neck, and his warm breath
Breathing upon her lips, and in her ear
The music of his gentle voice once more.
The dark shadow had lifted from that loving home, and once again the laughter of the lad brought joy to his loving parents. Doubtless Elisha continued to visit the home, and enjoyed its ungrudging hospitality. He praised God for His life-giving power as the happy boy “climbed the prophet’s knee the envied kiss to share.”
Alas, our last glimpse of the Shunammite is not a pleasant one! It had been revealed to Elisha that a seven year’s famine would overtake the land as divine judgment upon its idolatry. Because of his long association with the pious Shunammite, Elisha advised her to leave her cherished home and inheritance in Shunem and with her son escape the horrors of the famine by seeking exile on the south seaboard. Because of her faith in and reverence for the prophet she left home and “sojourned in the land of the Philistines.” As her husband is not mentioned again he probably died just before or during the famine. Through all those years of the long and terrible drought the woman must have often thought of her old home and the desolated fields.
Her son, now a strong, fine youth must have been a consolation to her during that trying period: and when, at the end of the famine, she entered her appeal for the restoration of her abandoned possessions, the thought of what her grown son would be able to do, filled her with hope. King Joram asked Gehazi for a recital of the miracles Elisha had performed, and came to the raising of the Shunammite’s son from the dead. The woman herself with her son appeared, and the king asked the woman to verify the story, which she did with a conviction that must have impressed the king for he commanded that all that was hers should be restored unto her. Although she returned to the old home husbandless, she had her son, the image of his father, to comfort and care for her in her old age. Thus her story has a happy ending and with Theron Brown we agree that—
None of all the more glorious females on the roll of ancient Hebrew wifehood, motherhood and queenhood ever more justly earned a place for her picture in the sacred cabinet of nobility and virtue than this highminded daughter of Issachar; and none of all the nameless more richly deserve a name. Were we to invent one for her it would be Asherel—“Blessed of God.”
Among the lessons to be gleaned from the story of the Shunammite there are two we can single out and emphasize. First of all, we have in her the personification of the hospitality the New Testament exhorts us to manifest. Spoken of as a “great woman,” one phase of her greatness came out in her kindness toward God’s servant, Elisha, for whom she provided the best. How lovingly hospitable she was! Hospitality is defined as “the practice of entertaining strangers gratuitously—kindness to strangers,” and the woman of Shunem excelled in such an art. The original word from which hospitality is derived—hospes—means a guest, and also a host, one who entertains a guest. From this word names have come describing institutions, like hospital, for the sick, and hospice, an inn for the benefit of travelers. Hotel is likewise related to hospes. “Use hospitality one to another without grudging,” was a guiding principle of the Early Church (1 Peter 4:9).
The other precious lesson is to be found in the Shunammite’s reply to Gehazi’s question, “Is it well with the child?” Although he had just died, she said, “It is well.” While she may have spoken thus to avoid any further answers, being desirous to tell her grief in Elisha’s ear, and to no other, yet her answer expressed an unfaltering faith in God’s overruling providence and in immortality. With her darling child dead, she was able to say, “It is well.” When death robs our home of a treasure do we share the Shunammite’s secret and confess, “All, all is well”?