Blessings Require Faith
Naaman, the Leper
And there were many lepers in Israel in the time
of Elisha the prophet;
Leprosy is caused by a bacillus similar to the one that causes tuberculosis. Surprisingly, over 95% of the human race is immune and can never become infected. People used to think the flesh of lepers just fell off, but it does not. The disease kills nerves that send pain signals to the brain; so lepers don’t know when their bodies are being damaged. In The Gift Nobody Wants, Dr. Paul Brand says pain is one of the body’s most important protective systems. Lepers can break an ankle and continue walking as though nothing happened because they feel no pain. At one time finger joints in lepers were mysteriously disappearing for no reason in a leprosarium in India where Dr. Brand worked. Eventually he discovered that rats occasionally ate the fingers of sleeping lepers. The problem disappeared when they brought cats into the facility.
Although today leprosy can be cured by a combination of drugs, those infected often hide their symptoms because of the stigma associated with it. It has been said that the social stigma of leprosy is far more contagious than the disease itself. In ancient Israel (and until recent times) anyone displaying the obvious signs of leprosy was banished from the community. But that was not necessarily true in other nations.
Naaman, the Syrian General
“At this time the armies of the king of Syria were commanded by a certain Naaman; a great captain, high in his master’s favour; brave, too, and a man of wealth, but a leper. Naaman’s wife had a servant, a young Israelite maid that had been captured by Syrian freebooters; and this maid said to her mistress, If only my lord would betake himself to the prophet in Samaria! He would have cured him soon enough of his leprosy. Upon this, Naaman went to his master, and told him what the Israelite maid had said; and the king of Syria promised to send him with a letter to the king of Israel. So he set out with thirty talents of silver and 6,000 gold pieces, and ten suits of clothing. And the letter he carried to the king of Israel ran thus, Know by these presents that I am sending my servant Naaman to thee to be cured of his leprosy.—Kings 5:1-61
If Naaman were an Israelite, he would not have been commanding armies. He would have been quarantined and considered unclean. Still he must have been an excellent leader for his king to show him such favor in spite of his condition. Naaman showed faith when he believed a young, foreign maid when she said there was someone in Israel who could help him; he certainly knew there was no help to be found in Syria. Because he was willing to pay a great price to regain his health, he went directly to the king of Israel. If there was a great prophet in Israel, surely he would be at the royal court. But the king of Israel, suspecting some kind of trick, said: “Am I God that he should send a leper to me to be cured?” Everyone knew either God cured leprosy or it didn’t get cured. The king thought this was some kind of trick to start a war.
Why did the king not send Naaman to Elisha? The king certainly knew Elisha, because two chapters earlier he consulted him about a battle he expected to fight. Perhaps he doubted Elisha had the power to cure leprosy or, if he did have the power, that he would use it to cure a Syrian general. But Elisha told the king to send Naaman to him.
“So Naaman came with his horses and his chariots and stood at the door of Elisha’s house. Elisha sent word out to him, Go and bathe seven times in the Jordan, if thou wouldst have health restored to thy flesh and be clean. At this, Naaman was for going back home; Why, he said angrily, I thought he would come out to meet me and stand here invoking the name of his God; that he would touch the sore with his hand and cure me. Has not Damascus its rivers, such water as is not to be found in Israel? Why may I not bathe and find healing there? But as he turned indignantly to go away, his servants came and pleaded with him [to do what the prophet had prescribed].”—2 Kings 5:9-13
Naaman was not used to being treated with such indifference. Elisha didn’t come out to see how great he was and how much he stood to gain by treating him. Yet it says a lot about Naaman’s character that his servants were not afraid to tell him to do something he didn’t want to do. This suggests that Naaman did not become great by surrounding himself with “yes” men. He listened and at the considerable risk of appearing foolish, went down to the Jordan. He dipped himself once. No change. He dipped himself again. Still no change. A third and a fourth time—this really looked like a big mistake. A fifth and a sixth time and still no change. Finally after washing the seventh time, Naaman was healed. In a way, his faith had made him whole. He joyously returned to Elisha: “Now pray accept a gift from thy servant to prove his gratitude! As the Lord I serve is a living God, Elisha answered, I will accept nothing from thee” (2 Kings 5:15,16).
This provides another insight into Naaman’s character. He could have been happy to be healed and congratulated himself on how cheap it was. If Elisha didn’t want to see him, that was his choice. But Naaman returned anyway and tried without success to get Elisha to accept a gift. He felt an overwhelming sense of gratitude for the wonderful salvation he had received from God.
Naaman in the New Testament
During the course of his ministry Jesus returned to Nazareth. The people were amazed at how different Joseph’s and Mary’s son had become. They expected him to do miracles as he did in Capernaum, but because familiarity breeds indifference, if not contempt, Jesus told them that God’s special people don’t always receive the blessing: “But I tell you of a truth, many widows were in Israel in the days of Elias, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, when great famine was throughout all the land; but unto none of them was Elias sent, save unto Sarepta, a city of Sidon, unto a woman that was a widow. And many lepers were in Israel in the time of Eliseus the prophet; and none of them was cleansed, saving Naaman the Syrian” (Luke 4:25-27).
Many lepers in Israel? Indeed! Two chapters after the account of Naaman we read about Elisha and four lepers. Why didn’t Elisha heal those four? It was not because he lacked the power. The likelihood is that they lacked faith that God through Elisha would heal them. So they remained lepers.
It is not the profession of faith that is important. It is easy to say, “Lord, Lord,” but it is the exercise of an active, living faith that brings the blessing. Naaman demonstrated his faith by repeatedly washing himself seven times in the Jordan. Because seven represents completeness, we might say a half-hearted, incomplete consecration will not bring cleansing from a leprous, sinful condition.
The widow of Sarepta and Naaman the Syrian illustrate that God dispenses his benefits when, where, and to whom he pleases. Those in Nazareth could receive blessings from Jesus only if they had the right heart attitude, if they had faith. But they did not: “All they in the synagogue, when they heard these things, were filled with wrath, and rose up, and thrust him out of the city, and led him unto the brow of the hill whereon their city was built, that they might cast him down headlong” (Luke 4:28,29).
Of course they did not succeed. Jesus left that area never to return because they showed they were unworthy of God’s grace. The nation of Israel similarly proved unworthy. So three-and-a-half years after Jesus was crucified, the gospel went to the Gentiles, again illustrating that God’s favors go to those who appreciate them, who have faith in them.
There is another lesson in the account of Naaman and it concerns Elisha’s servant Gehazi: “But to Gehazi, the prophet’s servant, the thought came, Here is this Syrian, this Naaman, with all his gifts, and my master has sent him away no poorer than he came. As the Lord is a living God, I mean to run after him and bring back some trifle with me. So after Naaman Gehazi went; and Naaman, when he saw him running up, dismounted from his chariot and went to meet him; Is all well? he asked. All is well, said the other, but my master has sent me with a message to thee: Here are two young prophets but now come to visit me, from the hill-country of Ephraim; to these thou mayest well give a talent of silver and two suits of clothing. Better two talents, Naaman said, and would take no denial. So two of his servants must shoulder a sack that held a talent of silver and a suit of clothes each of them, and carry these in front of Gehazi. Evening had fallen when he reached home; he took their load from them to lay it up in the house, and sent them away on their journey; then he went in to wait on his master.”—2 Kings 5:20-25
Although Gehazi had had a long association with Elisha, he apparently had learned nothing. Since Naaman was so eager to pay and since Elisha would not take anything, Gehazi decided to help himself. Because he coveted wealth and the things wealth can buy, he:
He got more than he expected when Elisha said to him: “To thee, and to thy race for ever, Naaman’s leprosy shall cling. And Gehazi went out from his presence a leper as white as snow” (2 Kings 5:27).
Paul says, “We … beseech you … that ye receive not the grace of God in vain” (2 Corinthians 6:1). Gehazi surely received the grace of Elisha in vain. He forfeited whatever cleansing he had and became unclean. Jesus said, “What is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Matthew 16:26). According to the Scriptures Gehazi dreamed of money, garments, olive groves, vineyards, sheep, oxen, menservants, and maidservants. He thought he had the whole world, but instead lost his own soul.
Have we learned anything from our close association with our Master? Surely our eyes and ears have been opened. So when we read about Gehazi, Judas, and others who served God at the beginning but later became unfaithful, we should apply the lesson to ourselves. We will not attain salvation just because we have been walking in the narrow way for years. We must continue walking in it until God calls us home.
Although the Bible does not directly say so, leprosy is used as a symbol of sin:
1. Leprosy has loathsome characteristics; it disfigures those who suffer from it.
2. Leprosy is progressive in nature. It starts small and eventually infects the entire body2.
3. Until the middle of the last century, leprosy was incurable by human means.
Sin has disfigured the human race, marring the beauty of perfection in God’s original creation. Sin starts small, but it eventually infects whatever it touches. And sin cannot be eradicated except by God.
The experiences of Elisha and Naaman contain many lessons:
May the Lord give us the strength to continue serving him faithfully until the end.
1. All quotations from 2 Kings 5 are from the Knox translation; they appear in 4 Kings 5 in that translation. Although Elisha’s name appears as Eliseus in that translation, it is shown here as Elisha.
2, In this respect leprosy is similar to leaven, another picture of sin: “Your glorying is not good. Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump? Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened” (1 Corinthians 5:6,7).