II Kings 6:24–7:20. Four Beggars at the Seige of Samaria.
Key Notes: Despair and starvation. Salvation and bread. God can do it.
This is a horror story of life in a besieged city, with people starving, a king in despair and the prophet Elisha sitting quietly by. God brought Samaria to the edge of ruin. Elisha ultimately saved the city. There is a lighter theme in the behavior of four beggars and another story of salvation.
6:24–30. The third attack by the Syrians on the city of Samaria was not relieved at once as the first two had been. The siege was so prolonged that people paid large amounts of money for any kind of food. Women even ate their own babies. Siege warfare was especially cruel because women and children were involved in a total war which used starvation and thirst as weapons.
The story opens with the king walking along the wall. (Walls of ancient cities were wide enough for a chariot to drive on.) A woman begged the king for judgment. Her baby had been consumed the previous day by her and her friend and the other live baby was now being protected by its mother.
The woman said “Help, my lord, O King”.
The king replied “If the Lord will not help you, from what shall I help you?”
Justice was the least of his concerns. He was powerless and grieving, wearing sack-cloth under his royal robes. Only God could relieve their suffering.
6:31–7:2 The king, in his rage against God, decided to kill Elisha. He sent a messenger, probably an executioner. He could not kill God but he could hurt His messenger. Elisha knew he was coming and bolted the door. The king came right behind his messenger. In his distraught state, he cried out ”This trouble is from the Lord. Why should I wait for the Lord any longer?”
Elisha replied that the siege would be lifted within 24 hours and food would be abundant and cheap. [Why did the king wait so long to come for help?] The king’s bodyguard refused to believe it. Elisha said he would see it but not eat of it.
7:3–8 Four starving lepers outside the city contemplated their options. They would die if they stayed where they were outside the city and they would die if they went in among the starving. If they went with the Syrians perhaps their lives would be spared. So they ventured into the Syrian camp at twilight. No one was there.
The Lord had stampeded the Syrians with a roaring sound. They thought armies of Hittites and Egyptians were upon them. They left tents and goods, and even their horses and mules behind. The camp was intact.
7:9–15 The beggars ate and drank and hid money and clothing. Then they thought. We have to tell the good news. If we wait until morning we will be punished. So they went to the city gate and told the gatekeepers what they had found.
When the word got to the king, he suspected a military trick: the Syrians wanted to lure the Israelites out into the open with food so they could get into the city. One of the servants suggested a search-party. Five of the surviving horses and two mounted men were sent out. They confirmed that the road to the Jordan was littered with equipment and clothing.
7:16–20 The people rushed out of the city and plundered the Syrian camp. Elisha’s prophecy was confirmed: the price of food dropped very quickly. The guardsman who had refused to believe was trampled by the stampede at the gate—-and died in the sight of food.
The king’s encounter with the two women tells us how severe the famine really was. It points out the king’s utter helplessness: civilities were gone; the social order was destroyed and he could not do anything about it. He could not offer justice. He could not win the war. He could not even feed his people. He was no longer the leader. The elders were sitting with Elisha. 6:32
Why did God bring Samaria to such an extremity?
He had promised them through Moses six centuries before that there would be health, prosperity and victory if they obeyed Him. If they did not, drought, plague, starvation --to the point of cannibalism-- and political ruin would come upon them. Yet if they humbled themselves, God would remember his covenant. Num.26. Deuteronomy 28 repeats the message.
The prophecy was being fulfilled.
What was the prophet doing? He did not denounce their sin. He did not offer to rescue them. He sat in the city, suffering with the people, in silence, waiting for the king to give up—not to the Syrians, but to God.
Was Jehoram an evil king? He was the son of Ahab and Jezebel. He was not as evil as his father Ahab had been. He cut down the pillar of Baal that his father made, but continued the calf-worship of Jeroboam. (IIK3:1–3). He spoke the name of the Lord. He called Elisha “my father”. (IIK. 6:21). Elisha had no regard for him (IIK.3:14) and called him “this son of a murderer”. (IIK.6:32)
Israel, Syria and God were in a peculiar relationship. Ahab was given victory over the Syrians in the first two engagements. (IK.20:15, 29). Yet Ahab called Benhadad “brother” (IK.20:32) and was rebuked by a prophet. The Syrian attacks continued. Hazael of Syria speaking to Elisha calls Benhadad “your son”. (IIK. 8:9). Hazael calls Elisha “my lord”. (IIK.8:12). In the Syrian attempt to capture Elisha, God allowed the Syrians safe-passage home. In this siege, the Syrians also escaped without loss of life but with loss of honor and material.
A partial interpretation is that God was defeating the Syrians' war-god Rimmon, showing that their god was defenseless against the true God, the God of Israel. Rimmon means “thunderer” from the word to roar. Syria was stampeded by a roaring sound. God was also attacking Israel’s Baal, the Canaanite god of fertility and food-crops.
Israel would be harassed by Syria for a hundred years. That was a Hundred Years War. Victory finally came at the hand of Joash. Damascus was eventually conquered by Jeroboam II.
The story of the four beggars gives us a parable of salvation.
Lonely outcasts, sinners with leprosy (a type of sin), carried the message of salvation.
They made a calculated wager in desperation:.they found bread. They had enough to make themselves rich for the first time in their lives.
They knew they should not keep the life-saving bread to themselves. If they did, they would likely be punished.
The king, the politician, was suspicious, saw a trap.
A servant advised taking a risk to find the truth.
The one who refused to believe died hungry.
The chain of communication required at least eight people: lepers, gatekeepers, voice relays to the palace, the king, the servants, the searchers, back to the king, and finally the hungry people.
The scenario is reminiscent of Naaman’s cure. In both cases a network was required. For Naaman, health was the need. Here life—-life for thousands of people--was at stake. The word was passed from one to the other: there’s food out there! There was resistance too: could it be a trap? And there was unbelief.
Words to live by:
“We are not doing right. This day is a day of good news; if we are silent and wait until the morning light, punishment will overtake us. Now therefore come, let us go and tell the king’s household.”
The beggars knew nothing about nutrition, finances, distribution systems, or military strategy. Likewise, we may know little about apologetics, theology, psychology or church history. The simplest kind of witness is to point people to the “Bread of Life”.
Try this question. “Do you have a source of spiritual nourishment?”
Against all complaints against Christians as elitist, bigoted, exclusivist, arrogant and divisive, we offer a simple apology: we are just beggars who found the Bread.
Come and eat and live.
Don’t die saying God can’t do it.