A Great Woman, A Great Miracle
Of all Elisha’s miracles, none was greater than the one he performed for a Shunammite woman.
Some people spend a lifetime trying to acquire a great name or leave a great legacy. There is a special woman in the Bible whose name isn’t even mentioned. Yet, Scripture calls her “great” and “notable,” and the legacy she left still enriches us today.
This great woman’s home was in Shunem, or Shulem, a small, agricultural village overlooking the Jezreel Valley in the hill country of Issachar (Josh. 19:18). The battles of Gideon and Saul, as well as the homes of such well-known women as Abishag (1 Ki. 1:3), have given the town distinction. Yet the woman of 2 Kings 4:8–17, called merely the “Shunammite woman” (v. 12), may have distinguished it most of all.
Her story involves Elisha the prophet, who performed more than two dozen recorded miracles and whose miracles on her behalf changed her life. The account begins when Elisha one day “happened” to go to Shunem (v. 8). Usually, he passed between Samaria and Mount Carmel. Yet this day was different.
A Generous Spirit
From her comfortable home, the woman could see Elisha going by. Sensitive to his need for rest and refreshment, she persuaded him to join her and her elderly husband for a meal. Such hospitality typified God’s people, and providing for a prophet’s needs brought blessing (Mt. 10:41). This was no chance encounter. The Lord had planned it to bless Elisha and, through him, to bless others.
Hosting Elisha once would have revealed the woman’s compassion and concern. However, she extended herself far beyond one invitation, revealing a great heart and generous spirit. As often as Elisha and his disciple-servant Gehazi came by, the Shunammite welcomed them. With each visit, she grew more insightful, concluding the prophet was a “holy man of God” (2 Ki. 4:9).
The desire to bless and honor Elisha led the Shunammite to suggest to her husband that they build a small, upper-room extension on the roof of their home. Their willingness to provide him with a bed, table, lamp, and chair demonstrated their joy in giving.
Today some churches and homes duplicate this “prophet’s chamber” as a ministry to God’s servants. My husband and I lived in one for two years while we ministered in a church early in our marriage.
Grateful for the hospitality, Elisha wanted to repay the woman’s kindness but didn’t know what she needed. So he asked Gehazi to see if she wanted a favor from the king (Joram) or military. Bible scholar Alfred Edersheim noted that the fact Elisha felt comfortable going to the king of Israel on her behalf “implies the existence of better relations between the monarch and the prophet.”1
Yet the Shunammite was a woman of means and simply had no need of this magnanimous gesture. She helped the prophet with no expectation of reward and was content and at peace living among her people. Often, people of means or greatness are restless and discontent. But the woman of Shunem didn’t desire more or give less. She was great because she gave greatly and freely.
Gehazi then shared his observation that their gracious hostess had an elderly husband and no son. “This remark,” wrote Bible scholar John MacArthur, “implied two things: 1) she suffered the shame of being a barren woman . . . (1 Sam. 1:6); and 2) her husband might die without an heir to carry on his name (Deut. 25:5–10).”2
Imagine her shock when Elisha announced, “About this time next year, you shall embrace a son” (2 Ki. 4:16). Not wanting her hopes crushed, she pleaded with Elisha not to make an empty promise. But God never makes empty promises. Through His miraculous work, their long-awaited son was born. The independent woman of Shunem was learning to depend on the strong name of God, whose promises are true and whose prophets could be trusted.
Seeing the Impossible
Like Sarah and Hannah before her, the Shunammite woman’s empty heart was filled with delight. She no doubt enjoyed her beautiful boy through each stage of his childhood. Then tragedy struck.
In the hot Eastern sun of harvest, the boy cried out in pain to his father, “My head, my head!” (v. 19). Immediately, his father summoned a servant to carry him to his mother, who comforted him on her lap until he died at noon (v. 20).
It’s probably difficult for anyone who hasn’t lost a child—and an only child at that—to understand the depth of the Shunammite woman’s grief. Yet I love her response. Without hesitation or alarming anyone, she carried her son to the prophet’s room, laid him on the bed, closed the door, and solicited her husband’s help to call for a servant and donkey so she could race to Elisha at Carmel.
She demonstrated stunning faith, obviously believing God was able to do the impossible for her again
Elisha recognized her as she approached and sensed her great distress. But the Lord had not revealed the cause. Gehazi met the woman, but she saved her depth of feeling for Elisha, falling at his feet:
“Did I ask a son of my lord? Did I not say, ‘Do not deceive me’?” Then he [Elisha] said to Gehazi, “Get yourself ready, and take my staff in your hand, and be on your way. If you meet anyone, do not greet him; and if anyone greets you, do not answer him; but lay my staff on the face of the child” (vv. 28–29).
However, the Shunammite was determined Elisha would return home with her. Gehazi went ahead with Elisha’s staff, which in itself had no ability to revive the boy. Rather, it symbolized God’s power in His appointed prophet.
“When Elisha came into the house, there was the child, lying dead on his bed” (v. 32). Elisha shut the door and prayed. Then he stretched his body over the child to warm him, as he had seen Elijah do. He prayed earnestly to the God of heaven who gives life (Rom. 4:17). Then he walked around and stretched himself out on the child again. At last, the boy sneezed seven times and opened his eyes. What elation must have filled the room, as the prophet presented the raised child to his mother. With inexpressible joy, she fell again at Elisha’s feet, then embraced her living son (2 Ki. 4:37).
Later, Elisha again helped the Shunammite, warning her of a seven-year famine that would afflict the land due to idolatry. He compassionately advised her and her household (her husband probably had died) to leave Shunem for coastal Philistia. When the famine ended, the Shunammite appealed to the king for the return of her property.
As God had arranged it, the king had asked to hear about Elisha’s miracles; and the Shunammite appeared before him at the very moment Gehazi was telling the king how Elisha had restored her son to life (8:5–6). The king commanded all her possessions be returned. Thankful, and in the company of her son, she returned to Shunem.
This true account in 2 Kings is one of many that testify of men and women who lived by faith. (See Hebrews 11.) The Shunammite woman was great because she trusted in a great God who worked in her life to do great things. Her compassion, selflessness, kindness, humility, and faith impacted others and will continue to do so forever through the pages of God’s Word. I am so thankful for women who have touched my life with the same greatness, for His glory.
- Alfred Edersheim, Bible History, Old Testament, bk. 6, The History of Israel and Judah From the Reign of Ahab to the Decline of the Two Kingdoms (1890: reprint, 7 vols. in 1, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1995), 767.
- John MacArthur, The MacArthur Study Bible, New King James Version (Nashville, TN: Word Publishing, 1997), 521, n 2 Kings 4:14.