(This is part one of a sermon entitled "The Goodness and Severity of God". It owes a lot to Stuart Olyott's sermon on the same passage and to Dale Ralph Davis' commentary on 2 Kings.)
Elisha tours back through Bethel and Jericho. And the purpose of this tour back through the towns that Elijah and just travelled through it for the people in these towns to see that although Elijah may be gone, God is still present and working through his prophet Elisha.
The circumstances may have changed but God has not changed. More specifically we learn in these passages that his saving power has not changed, and his wrath at sin have not changed.
This section and the next could be summed up by one New Testament verse, Rom 11:22
Romans 11:22 Behold then the kindness and severity of God (NASB)
And that is what we are going to - to consider the goodness, or the grace of God and also the severity of God.
God still saves undeserving sinners v19-22
Elisha has travelled up from the banks of the Jordan, towards the city of Jericho. It was a fantastically situated city. One commentator describes it as, "A situation of remarkable natural beauty." It stands in the middle of a broad plain, majestic views with mountains rising steeply behind the city. It had been famed for its rich fertile soil, where palm trees of various kinds flourished in abundance.
But now it was the city of the curse. When Joshua and the children of Israel, 600 years previously, had travelled into the Promised Land, Jericho was the first city in Canaan to defy Israel. And it defied not only Israel, but God. And it came under the curse of God. Joshua 6:26 records Joshua speaking God's curse on this defiant city:
Joshua 6:26 At that time Joshua pronounced this solemn oath: "Cursed before the LORD is the man who undertakes to rebuild this city, Jericho: "At the cost of his firstborn son will he lay its foundations; at the cost of his youngest will he set up its gates."
And sometime in the past 22 years, in the reign of Ahab, sure enough someone decided to rebuild Jericho. And as he started we read in 1 Kings 16 his oldest son died, and yet he persisted in his disobedience, and as he finished and put gates on the city, his youngest son died.
It was the city of the curse. Nothing grew well there now. In v19 the men of the town come to Elisha seeking his help. For twenty years they have been seeking to live in this town. Everything is perfect, the view, the city layout, the roads, but there is one problem.
19 The men of the city said to Elisha, "Look, our lord, this town is well situated, as you can see, but the water is bad and the land is unproductive."The trees and the fields and the vineyards were unproductive. In fact the situation is worse than the NIV translation. Literally it says "the land causing to miscarry". The Hebrew phrase vivid in its words, applies not just to the ground, but to the animals and people too. For 20 years they had struggled, crops would die, animals would come to give birth and miscarry. When the fruit trees blossomed and looked as if they were about to give fruit, the fruit came to nothing. When the mothers were pregnant they lost their children before they were born.
Here is a very clear picture of our world, and the lives of many of its inhabitants - the situation of their life is pleasant, well situated, they have a good job, friends, nice house, but they are under a very real and lasting curse. When Adam and Eve sinned they ruined it for all of us, just as surely as the inhabitant of Jericho 600 years previously had ruined the city for these people.
This teaches us straight away that it doesn't matter how materially blessed we are, if we are under the wrath of God, it ruins everything. It is the one thing that we need to get sorted out in our lives. Here also we see that God's wrath and his curse is both real and lasting. It was nearly 600 years since Joshua had in God's name uttered those words that declared God's wrath on the place.
And we learn here that when that is the case there is only one thing to do - come to God and seek his help. In the city for three days there has been this eminent man of God, so the men of the city approach Elisha.
Now look at v20-21.
He tells them to bring a bowl with salt. It is symbolic, as with many miracles. It is to be a new bowl - not one that can be associated with anything else. It doesn't belong to anyone, it hasn't been used for offering incense to another god. In it they are to put some salt. Again symbolic. Salt was used in biblical times for a host of different uses. It was used to preserve meat. It was used to make things palatable. Elisha takes the bowl with the salt - that which preserves, that which makes tasty, and goes to the source of the problem, the spring itself and throws in the salt. But it is not the salt that works the change. Nor is it Elisha. v21 gives us what Elisha said, "This is what the LORD says: 'I have healed this water. Never again will it cause death or make the land unproductive.'"
It is the Lord who works the miracle and Elisha makes sure the people know it. It is a work of God. It is God who is putting the situation straight. And we read in v22 that the cure was permanent.
Here is a great picture of the grace of God
In the place of the curse, God is good. He is actively good to those who don't deserve it, to those who have flouted his laws, and have come seeking his help. And now there is life where once there was death.
There's hope for those who have lived life without God, and come knowing that they have defied God, there is grace where there should be judgment.
Here is encouragement for those whose past holds pain and hurt, and who wonder "How can God delight in me?". God's grace transforms that. Look at Jericho.
Here is encouragement for those whose sin as Christians has clouded their walk with God - and you have wondered "Will I ever enjoy the sunlight God God's smile again?"
Here is encouragement for those of us who have loved ones whom we care for that aren't converted. God brings life where there was death.
Here is a God who delights to show grace to undeserving sinners. V22 is a marvellous verse
2 Kings 2:22 And the water has remained wholesome to this day, according to the word Elisha had spoken.
When a person is changed they remain changed. And sometimes we need to take ourselves mentally to Jericho, or even take others to Jericho and make them stand and look at the city once under the curse of God, now enjoying his grace, and say to them, "Here is your God" - the God who "binds up the bruises of his people and heals the wounds he inflicted." (Is 30:26)
What a great encouragement this is to us as individuals and as a fellowship - How like Jericho Letterkenny is. Yet as Elisha found - God hasn't changed. He still delights to display his grace.
Here is a great picture of the gospel.
The source needs to be put right if we are to be right. All the problems in Jericho were down to the water. The problems in men and women's lives are down to sin. If there is to be any hope for them, they need to go to God.
And it seems an unlikely answer, that a message about death can bring life, people need hope, and we tell them that they are guilty before God. People need their lives put back together and we tell them that they aren't broken enough, that they need to humble themselves before God and seek forgiveness. People need life and we point them to the cross, a place of death.
But how unlikely did Elisha's actions seem - that by adding salt to the water that life could be brought. Victorious armies scattered salt it on land to render it infertile, to curse the land, yet here is God taking the thing used to curse land, and using it to bring life.
But in the place of the curse there is life. When we look to the place where Jesus suffered the wrath of God, there we find life.
Here is a great picture of the power of God in the gospel
How unlikely it must have seemed when Elisha stood with the little bowl of salt at the great rushing waters that fed the town. How insignificant the cure seemed, when such a vast area needed to be covered.
We live in a vast town. Each citizen is under God's curse - they have gone wrong right at the source. And the source needs to be healed if there is to be any hope. And all we have is the gospel, and it mightn't seem like much as we look at all the effects of sin in Donegal, the godlessness, the immorality, the suicide, the depression, disobedience - and we can wonder, what do we have to offer? Elisha learns this lesson early on in his ministry that God solution is enough for the task. His grace is sufficient.
Here is great encouragement for us as we go out with the Gospel. Here we see that God delights to transform curse-ridden sin laden judgment deserving sinners into men and women of grace. God's word through God's people brings God's grace - even to Jericho.
Isn't there hope here for all sinners? Don't you see how powerful God's grace is?
A great picture of the gospel - we go to people whose hearts are poisoned by sin, we take with us the gospel, in a weak earthen vessel, neither looks very impressive, but it doesn't matter because it is God who works!
Behold the goodness of God