The prophet Elijah is named twenty-nine times in the New Testament while Elisha is named only once. “And many lepers were in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian” (Luke 4:27, nkjv).
Naaman was a Gentile and the commander of the army of an enemy nation, so it’s no wonder the congregation in Nazareth became angry with the Lord, interrupted His sermon and carried Him out of the synagogue. After all, why would the God of Israel heal a man who was a Gentile and outside the covenant?
He was an enemy who kidnapped little Jewish girls, and a leper who should have been isolated and left to die. These people knew nothing about the sovereign grace of God. Like Naaman, they became angry, but unlike Naaman, they didn’t humble themselves and trust the Lord.
The story of the healing of Naaman in 2 Kings 5:1-27 is the account of a man with a very serious medical problem—leprosy. He found no help in his own country, but he had heard that there was a cure available in Israel. He commenced a “top down” approach to bring about his healing, but, to his dismay, found that this method didn’t work. He learned that God had a “bottom up” solution to his problem.
Our text describes how God graciously frustrates Naaman’s “top down” approach and initiates a “bottom up” solution. The fact of the matter is that God is not impressed or moved by man’s “top down” efforts, because it is God who is at the top, and not men, not even men of position and power, like Naaman, or the kings of Syria and Israel. We should listen well and learn about this “bottom up” system, because it is normally the way that God works, especially when it comes to the salvation of men.
An Encouraging Word, From an Unlikely Source 2 Kings 5:1-3 (NIV)
1 Now Naaman was commander of the army of the king of Aram. He was a great man in the sight of his master and highly regarded, because through him the LORD had given victory to Aram. He was a valiant soldier, but he had leprosy.
2 Now bands from Aram had gone out and had taken captive a young girl from Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife.
3 She said to her mistress, “If only my master would see the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.”
The first thing we are told about Naaman is that he was a great man, highly esteemed by his master, the king of Syria. This is the kind of thing which impresses men. It is also the kind of thing which causes some people to think that God should be impressed as well. They foolishly reason that powerful people should gain a hearing from God.
He was a “giant” in the mind of his master, the king of Syria. He had been incredibly successful in leading the Syrians in their attacks against Israel. Our author goes on to inform us that Naaman was indeed a great warrior (verse 1), but then he goes on to tell us something that neither Naaman nor his king knew—Naaman’s military success was not primarily the result of his courage or military skills; it was the result of God’s sovereign plan and purpose: “for through him the LORD had given Syria military victories” (verse 1).
Naaman’s success in his battles with Israel was God’s judgment on Israel, because of the sins of His people: “The heavens above your heads will be as brass and the earth beneath you as iron. 24 The LORD will make the rain of your land like powder and dust; it will come down upon you from the sky until you are destroyed.…” 45 “All these curses will fall upon you, pursuing and overtaking you until you are destroyed, because you do not obey the LORD your God by keeping his commandments and statutes that he has demanded of you. 46 These curses will be as a sign and wonder with reference to you and your descendants forever. 47 Because you have not served the LORD your God joyfully and wholeheartedly with the abundance of everything you have, 48 you will instead serve your enemies whom he will send against you bringing hunger, thirst, nakedness, and lack of everything; they will place an iron yoke on your neck until they have destroyed you” (Deuteronomy 28:23-24, 45-48).
As great as he is, Namaan has one very serious problem—he has leprosy. He is still highly esteemed by his master, the king of Syria, but there is hardly a disease which could be more devastating to Naaman. The king of Syria was Ben Hadad II, and as commander of the army, Naaman was the number two man in the nation. But with all his prestige, authority, and wealth, Naaman was a doomed man because under his uniform was the body of a leper. It appears from verse 11 that the infection was limited to one place, but leprosy has a tendency to spread and if left unchecked, it ultimately kills. Only the power of the God of Israel could heal him.
It would surely spell the end of his military career, and in time, perhaps his life as well. I am sure that he attempted every possible cure that money could buy in Syria, but with no success. A ray of hope came from a most unlikely source—an Israelite slave girl, the servant of Naaman’s wife. She had been captured by the Syrians on one of the raids they had successfully carried out against Israel.
The girl was a slave, but because she trusted the God of Israel, she was free. Even more, she was a humble witness to her mistress. Her words were so convincing that the woman told her husband and he in turn informed the king. Never underestimate the power of a simple witness, for God can take words from the lips of a child and carry them to the ears of a king.
This Israelite slave girl is a most remarkable person. She has every reason to hate Naaman and his wife. Her master is responsible for many raids against Israel, and therefore the death of many Israelites—perhaps even this young girl’s parents. Instead of hating her master and finding a certain amount of pleasure in his humiliating disease, this young girl seems to genuinely care about the well-being of her master and her mistress. She manifests true submission, which is seen in her desire to bring about what is in her master’s best interest.
Naaman’s healing and salvation are directly attributable to the faithfulness of this young girl. The word “young” in verse 2 is translated “little” in several versions of the Bible (KJV, NAU, NJB), and “young” in others (NET Bible, NIV, NKJV). The word in the original text seems to be almost the opposite of the word “respected” in 2 Kings 4:8, describing the Shunammite woman. I believe the author is not only telling us that this “little” girl is “young,” but that she is a person of no social standing whatever. She is on the bottom rung of the Syrian social ladder. (By the way, as a leper, Naaman is nearly on a par with her, socially, perhaps even a bit lower.) It was no doubt humbling for Naaman to have to act on the advice of his young and insignificant Israelite slave girl, but he was a desperate man.
A Top Down Response to Naaman’s Problem – 2 Kings 5:4-7 (NIV)
4 Naaman went to his master and told him what the girl from Israel had said.
5 “By all means, go,” the king of Aram replied. “I will send a letter to the king of Israel.” So Naaman left, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold and ten sets of clothing.
6 The letter that he took to the king of Israel read: “With this letter I am sending my servant Naaman to you so that you may cure him of his leprosy.”
7 As soon as the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his robes and said, “Am I God? Can I kill and bring back to life? Why does this fellow send someone to me to be cured of his leprosy? See how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me!”
Naaman couldn’t leave Syria without the king’s permission, and he also needed an official letter of introduction to Joram, king of Israel. After all, Syria and Israel were enemies, and the arrival of the commander of the Syrian army could be greatly misunderstood. Both Naaman and Ben Hadad wrongly assumed that the prophet would do whatever the king commanded him to do and that both the king and the prophet would expect to receive expensive gifts in return. For that reason, Naaman took along 750 pounds of silver and 150 pounds of gold, plus costly garments. The servant girl had said nothing about kings or gifts; she only pointed to Elisha the prophet and told her mistress what the Lord could do.
Neither Naaman nor his wife seems to have doubted the testimony of the Israelite servant girl. He is faced with a very real problem with protocol. How does a Syrian military commander like Naaman go about requesting the help of an Israelite prophet?
The prophet is the prophet of Yahweh, the one true God. This means that for all intents and purposes, Naaman will be admitting that his “gods” are powerless to heal him, and that only Israel’s God can do so. This also places Naaman in the very awkward position of having to travel to Israel, a country that he has often entered in his official position as commander of the armies of Syria.
In the past, he has come to Israel to attack it and to take prisoners. Now, he needs help from an influential leader in Israel. How does one handle a sticky situation like this?
There seem to be only two possible approaches. The first is the ego-saving method of using the “top down” approach. The second would require Naaman to humble himself and to ask for healing—the “bottom up” approach.
Not surprisingly, Naaman and his master, the king of Syria, chose the “top down” approach. He obtained the king of Syria’s permission and assistance to pursue healing in Israel. The king of Syria (Benhadad I, 890-843 B.C.) wrote a letter to the king of Israel, Joram (Jehoram, 848-841 B.C.), politely demanding that he see to it that Naaman be healed. And if the letter would not intimidate the king of Israel into arranging for Naaman’s healing, there was also the incentive provided by the offer of the money which Naaman had brought with him.
Besides, paying well for his healing would keep Naaman on “higher ground” (i.e., higher status), thus enabling him to maintain his dignity. (If it is embarrassing to have to ask for a ride in someone else’s car; it is not embarrassing for you to ride in the Rolls Royce for which you paid a small fortune.)
The king of Syria’s request was one that the king of Israel could hardly refuse, and yet it seemed that he had no way of fulfilling it. As the reader can see, it was really not a problem at all, but the king of Israel failed to see the solution. The king of Syria assumed that there was a close relationship between the king of Israel and the prophet of Israel, as there should have been. Upon receiving this letter, the king of Israel should have called for Elisha the prophet, who could heal Naaman. But because the kings of Israel had ceased to seek divine guidance, and because they assumed that the prophets always spoke against them, it never entered this king’s mind to turn to Elisha for help when he was in trouble.
The king’s words, “Am I God? Can I kill or restore life?” (verse 7) are most enlightening. The king knows that only God can restore a man to life or cure a leper. The reader knows that both Elijah (1 Kings 17:17-24) and Elisha (2 Kings 4:18-27) have raised someone from the dead. If the curing of the sick and raising of the dead is work which only God can do, then why does it not occur to the king of Israel that the prophet who speaks for God can heal Naaman? Is it that the king does not think of seeking God’s help through the prophet — or that he refuses to do so?
In spite of the king of Israel’s folly, Elisha heard that the king had torn his clothes and so he sent word to the king. His words were a rebuke for the king’s distress, which was completely inappropriate in this situation. There was no need for the king to tear his garments; all the king needed to do was to send Naaman to Elisha to be healed. In this way, Naaman would come to know that there was indeed a prophet in Israel (verse 8).
No Red Carpet Treatment for Naaman – 2 Kings 5:8-14 (NIV)
8 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.”
9 So Naaman went with his horses and chariots and stopped at the door of Elisha’s house.
10 Elisha sent a messenger to say to him, “Go, wash yourself seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will be restored and you will be cleansed.”
11 But Naaman went away angry and said, “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 and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than any of the waters of Israel? Couldn’t I wash in them and be cleansed?” So he turned and went off in a rage.
13 Naaman’s servants went to him and said, “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’!”
14 So he went down and dipped himself in the Jordan seven times, as the man of God had told him, and his flesh was restored and became clean like that of a young boy.
Naaman arrived at Elisha’s house with his whole retinue of attendants. It must have been a most impressive sight to behold. I believe this is precisely what Naaman hoped for, because he was still seeking to be healed from “the top down.” Can you imagine what Gehazi must have thought as he looked out the window and saw this entourage arriving?
Surely Naaman expected the “red carpet” treatment, because he was a VIP. He was a revered and feared military commander. He had a letter from the king of Syria, and he had just come from the king of Israel, with whom he had an audience, even though he had dropped in unexpectedly.
Naaman had his own preconceived ideas about how his healing should take place. He assumed that on his arrival, Elisha would be duly impressed with his power and prestige, and that he would take note of all the chariots (not just one) parked outside his door, along with those who accompanied him. He would have liked to have been able to point out that he had come with silver and gold and fine garments to pay for Elisha’s services. He could not imagine anyone not seizing this opportunity.
Likewise, he expected that this “miracle for hire” would be performed with all the pomp and circumstance that such an occasion required. After all, if you go out to eat at a fine restaurant, you expect the service to greatly surpass that which you would receive at a fast food restaurant.
In Naaman’s mind, he envisioned Elisha coming out personally and giving him his undivided attention. Naaman anticipated that the miracle would then be performed immediately, in some dramatic fashion (not unlike some religious folks perform for their television audiences today). He would certainly call on the name of his god and wave his hand over the diseased area, healing Naaman with the style and dignity that suited a man of his stature.
Things did not go as Naaman expected. From what we can read, there is no indication the king of Syria’s letter ever was read to Elisha, or that anyone even had the chance to explain why Naaman had come. As a prophet (or seer) of God, Elisha would not necessarily have had to be told why Naaman had come—he could have known (see 2 Kings 5:26). And of course the prophet could also have been informed by someone who had been there when Naaman appeared before the king of Israel.
I am inclined to think that Gehazi came out and began to convey Elisha’s message to Naaman before this Syrian commander had the chance to say anything. This was a way of letting Naaman know from the beginning that Elisha was in charge. And so Gehazi conveys Elisha words to Naaman: Naaman is to go to the Jordan River and to immerse himself seven times, after which he will most certainly be healed of his leprosy.
When Naaman hears this message, communicated to him by a (mere) servant, he becomes furious. He is insulted that he has not been treated in a manner worthy of his position. He expected to deal directly with the prophet and to “take charge” of his healing.
Elisha knew that Naaman had to be humbled before he could be healed. Accustomed to the protocol of the palace, this esteemed leader expected to be recognized publicly and his lavish gifts accepted with exaggerated appreciation, because that’s the way kings did things. But Elisha didn’t even come out of his house to welcome the man! Instead, he sent a messenger (Gehazi?) instructing him to ride thirty-two miles to the Jordan River and immerse himself in it seven times. Then he would be cleansed of his leprosy
Naaman had been seeking help and now his search was ended. He wanted the prophet to heal him immediately and in the manner he expected. He was insulted that he would be told to immerse himself. Worse yet, he was greatly angered that he would be told to immerse himself in the muddy waters of the Jordan. In his homeland, there were many beautiful rivers. If he had to immerse himself, he would do so in one of the crystal clear rivers of Syria, like the Abana or the Pharpar.
Why is Naaman so angry? What is the problem? If Naaman began his journey at Damascus, then he had traveled over one hundred miles to get to Samaria, so another thirty miles or so shouldn’t have upset him. But it did, for the great general became angry. The basic cause of his anger was pride. He had already decided in his own mind just how the prophet would heal him, but God didn’t work that way.
The Lord had already been working on Naaman’s pride and there was more to come. King Joram wasn’t able to heal him, the prophet didn’t come to court or even come out to greet him, and he had to dip in the dirty Jordan River, not once, but seven times. And he a great general and second in command over the nation of Syria!
If he were to be “saved” from his incurable disease, he wanted to be saved “his way,” in a way that was easy on his ego, and which left him in control of the situation. It was humiliating enough for a Syrian celebrity to come to Israel and to seek healing from an Israelite prophet. But to be told he must be healed in such a humiliating fashion was more than he was willing to tolerate.
Fortunately for Naaman, his servants reasoned with him and prevailed. They were very diplomatic with their master, and their argument was convincing. Naaman was desperately in need. He was willing to pay a very high price, or to do something very difficult, if necessary.
Once again, the Lord used servants to accomplish His purposes (vv. 2-3). If Naaman wouldn’t listen to the command of the prophet, perhaps he would heed the counsel of his own servants. Elisha didn’t ask him to do something difficult or impossible, because that would only have increased his pride. He asked him to obey a simple command and perform a humbling act, and it was unreasonable not to submit.
When he came up from the water the seventh time, his leprosy was gone and his flesh was like that of a little child. By his obedience he demonstrated his faith in God’s promise, and the Lord cleansed him of his leprosy. One writer said, “He lost his temper; then he lost his pride; then he lost his leprosy; that is generally the order in which proud rebellious sinners are converted.”
Naaman gave a clear public testimony that the Lord God of Israel was the only true and living God and was the God of all the earth. He renounced the false gods and idols of Syria and identified himself with Jehovah. What an indictment this testimony was against the idol-worshiping king and people of Israel!
Naaman grasps the logic of the argument and concedes the point. He goes to the Jordan and dips himself seven times in its waters. And when he comes forth after dipping the final time, his skin was like that of a young child. He was completely healed.
No Tipping Please – 2 Kings 5:15-19a (NIV)
15 Then Naaman and all his attendants went back to the man of God. He stood before him and said, “Now I know that there is no God in all the world except in Israel. Please accept now a gift from your servant.”
16 The prophet answered, “As surely as the LORD lives, whom I serve, I will not accept a thing.” And even though Naaman urged him, he refused.
17 “If you will not,” said Naaman, “please let me, your servant, be given as much earth as a pair of mules can carry, for your servant will never again make burnt offerings and sacrifices to any other god but the LORD.
18 But may the LORD forgive your servant for this one thing: When my master enters the temple of Rimmon to bow down and he is leaning on my arm and I bow there also–when I bow down in the temple of Rimmon, may the LORD forgive your servant for this.”
19 “Go in peace,” Elisha said….
The man who did not even see Elisha when he first arrived outside his house now has a face-to-face conversation with the prophet. Naaman’s words are exactly what we would hope for in a new believer. I think our author meant for Naaman to be a rebuke to the Israelites who would read this account. Here was a man whom we would have called a “raw pagan” at the time he first arrived in Israel. There is a radical change in this man’s attitudes and actions after his healing. Naaman came from a country that worshipped false gods, and yet after his healing, he was able to confess, “I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel” (verse 15).
It is one thing to say that God alone is God, but Naaman sought to apply this newly obtained knowledge. First, Naaman sought to apply this knowledge as it related to his personal worship. It may seem somewhat strange to us, but Naaman asked Elisha for two mule loads of earth to take back to Syria with him. Here is a man who recently boasted that the waters of Syria were far superior to the waters found in the River Jordan. Now, he finds Israelite soil more precious than Syrian soil. How can this be?
Naaman was starting to grow in his understanding of the Lord, but he still had a long way to go. Elisha refused his gifts, but Naaman asked if he could take some native soil with him to Syria to use in his worship of Jehovah. In those days, people had the idea that the gods of a nation resided in that land, and if you left the land, you left the god behind. But Naaman had just testified that Jehovah was God in all the earth (v. 15)! However, taking that soil was a courageous act, because his master and his friends would surely ask Naaman what it meant, and he would have to tell them of his faith in the God of Israel.
In his second request, Naaman showed unusual insight, for he realized that the king would expect him to continue his official acts as the commander of the army. This included accompanying the king into the temple of Rimmon, the Syrian equivalent of Baal. Naaman was willing to perform this ritual outwardly, but he wanted Elisha to know that his heart would not be in it. Naaman anticipated that his healing and his changed life would have an impact on the royal court and eventually lead to the king’s conversion. Instead of criticizing believers who serve in public offices, we need to pray for them, because they face very difficult decisions.
It’s interesting that Elisha didn’t lecture him or admonish him but just said, “Go in peace.” This was the usual covenant blessing the Jews invoked when people were starting on a journey. The prophet would pray for him and trust God to use him in his new ministry in Syria. Naaman’s leprosy was gone, he still had the treasures, he carried soil from Israel, and he knew the true and living God. What a witness he could be in that dark land—and Naaman’s servant girl would join him!
Naaman was concerned about his worship in another way, which concerned his work. As commander of the army of the king of Syria, it would seem that he was also the king’s bodyguard. As such, he would accompany the king wherever he went, providing him with protection. This included the king’s worship of his heathen god at the temple of Rimmon. The king would literally be leaning on Naaman’s arm as he bowed down to his god, and this would require Naaman to bow down, too. Naaman assured Elisha that even though he might be bowing down with the king, he would no longer be worshipping Syrian gods. That was now a part of his past.
With these words, this new convert, Naaman, revealed insight which the people of Israel lacked. He knew that to truly worship God, he must worship as God had instructed. He knew as well that to worship God alone meant that he could worship no other gods.
Naaman responded in another way to his newly found faith in God. He sought to show his appreciation by offering Elisha the payment for services rendered which he had brought with him. He had originally planned to purchase his healing, and Elisha had overruled that plan. But now that he is healed, I think Naaman simply wishes to meet Elisha and to sincerely express his deep gratitude and appreciation. We know that he wanted to discuss his concerns about worshipping the one true God appropriately.
Naaman was prepared to express a great deal of gratitude. He had brought with him 10 units of silver, 6,000 shekels of gold, and 10 suits of clothes (verse 5). It is difficult and probably impossible to express this in monetary terms that would be meaningful to us, but one Old Testament text makes it clear that this “payment” was worth a great deal of money.
In 1 Kings 16:24, we are told that king Omri of Israel paid Shemer two talents of silver for the hill on which he then built the capital city of Samaria. The silver alone which Naaman brought was worth five times this much, and that does not take into account the gold and the clothing. Naaman came prepared to pay generously for his healing.
Naaman was completely healed, and he could not have been happier with the results of his visit to Israel. It is easy to see why he would wish to meet with Elisha, and why he would gladly leave all that he had brought with him to pay for his healing. He urged Elisha to take it, but Elisha firmly refused. This was a work of God’s grace, and he did not want Naaman to have any confusion on this point. Elisha did not want to leave room for Naaman to conclude that he had contributed, in some measure, to his healing. It was only after it became clear that Elisha would not be persuaded to take any gift that Naaman asked if he could take some Israelite soil back to Syria. As Naaman left to return to his homeland, it was apparent that he had gained much and had lost nothing but his arrogance and his leprosy.
 Bible Exposition Commentary (BE Series) – Old Testament – The Bible Exposition Commentary – History.