The Shunammite Woman and Greatest of all Rewards

There are two women in 2 Kings Chapter 4. The first is an impoverished widow and the latter is a wealthy (yet either barren or sonless) wife living in Shunam--a town near Mount Gilboa (1 Samuel 28:4). The Scripture states that, whenever Elisha journeyed to Shunam, this woman urged him to eat in her home. She was sincere and insistent in her offer and the prophet accepted her invitations.

Her growing acquaintance with Elisha only increases her hospitality. At some point, the woman goes to her husband with this suggestion: “I know that this is a holy man of God who is continually passing our way. Let us make a small room on the roof with walls and put there for him a bed, a table, a chair, and a lamp, so that whenever he comes to us, he can go in there” (2 Kings 4:9-10).

I used to read the Shunammite’s offer too quickly, never pausing long enough to consider the full extent of her proposition. We learned in the account of David and Bathsheba that roofs in those days functioned much like patios today. Houses were constructed with side stairs leading to flat roofs which served various purposes--ranging from relaxation (2 Samuel 11:2) to storage (Rahab’s flax on the roof (Joshua 2:6)). In providing a small room for Elisha, the Shunammite forfeits a portion of her roof. She encloses the space with walls, furnishes it and turns it over to the prophet. In all, the woman demonstrates incredible openhandedness in her care for Elisha. 

Her act of hospitality is certainly the embodiment of Matthew 10:40-41: “Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. The one who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and the one who receives a righteous person because he is a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward.” The Shunammite Woman shelters an emissary of the LORD on the basis of his holiness. In so doing, she communicates her own regard for the LORD--and the LORD remembers her. Her work in receiving God’s prophet is rewarded.  

But how should be understand this notion of rewards for works? We know that the believer is justified not by works but by faith (Galatians 2:16). Yet saving faith will produce good works in the life of the believer. And the LORD is pleased with the Spirit-wrought works of His own (Hebrews 13:21). The person, saved through the work of Christ alone, is empowered by the Holy Spirit for good works, which God prepared in advance for him/her to do (Ephesians 2:10). God is pleased to (eternally and even temporally) reward such work. The words of the London Baptist Confession of Faith (1689) are helpful to us here:

Yet notwithstanding, the persons of believers being accepted through Christ, their good works are also accepted in him; not as though they were in this life wholly unblameable and unreproveable in God’s sight; but that he, looking upon them in his Son, is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although accompanied by many weaknesses and imperfections (Chapter 16, Article 6).

In the way a father is pleased with the imperfect yet sincere gifts of his young children, the Shunammite’s gracious care of Elisha is accepted by the LORD (2 Kings 4:11-17). One day, while resting in his upstairs chamber, Elisha calls the woman and is eager to return some kindness. He inquires of a need--perhaps she needed someone to address the king on her behalf (see how God satisfies this very need in 2 Kings 8:1-6!). But the Shunammite makes no request; her service had not been some "seed" sown for the purpose of reaping a divine favor. She simply welcomed Elisha on the basis of his holiness. And for this she is blessed. 

Like barren Sarah before her, the Shunammite is promised a son within a year (Genesis 18:9-10). But this reward seemed too good to be true (2 Kings 4:16). A hope deferred makes the heart sick and the Shunammite’s ailing heart struggled to take hold of God’s promise (Proverbs 13:12).

How many years had this woman pined for a son to no avail? Her husband was old. Without an heir, the family’s fortunes would go to another and this woman would be worse than the widow of 2 Kings 4:1-7--for at least she had sons who might work for her care. But the Shunammite had determined her heart to live without this hope. Would she now welcome a son?

Praise God who guarantees His Word--not by the strength of our faith but ultimately--by His own faithfulness (Isaiah 45:23; Hebrews 6:13). In spite of the woman’s uncertainties, she conceives and bears a son the following spring (2 Kings 4:17 ). A desire fulfilled is a tree of life (Proverbs 13:12)! Surely, her laughter rang out like Sarah’s (Genesis 21:5-6). If so, how sad to consider the immediate distress of 2 Kings 4:20.

The Shunammite’s son dies seemingly without warning. And the mother’s reaction is surprising (2 Kings 4:18-30). The child dies in her arms yet we hear no cries. She doesn’t summon her husband to mourn. Instead, she quietly places the body on Elisha’s bed and rides to the prophet at Mount Carmel. Her words to Elisha are bitter yet she resolves not to leave his side. He is moved to follow her back to the boy and, like the Zarephath widow, the Shunammite is handed a resuscitated son to embrace (2 Kings 4:32-37).

The woman who struggles to take hold of God’s promise now kneels thankfully at the feet of God’s prophet. I’m reminded here of Abraham who, when given a son through the deadness of Sarah’s womb, believed that God could raise even the dead (Hebrews 11:19). Yes, God gives His children good gifts. Yet His blessings are always meant to offer more than mere provision--they are given to reveal more of Him to us. And that is by far the greatest reward of all!

*Thanks for reading! This post is part of my Mothers in the Bible Series; we are looking for glimpses of the gospel in the lives of biblical women--from Eve to Mary, the mother of Christ. Click here to see other writings. And please let me know your thoughts!