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Wash and be clean.
Bathing in the freeness of God’s grace as seen in 2 Kings 5.
It should come as no surprise when we stumble upon unmistakable portraits of the gospel in the Old Testament. And yet, we are often gobsmacked by such passages, stunned even, that in those ancient tomes, the Godhead would reveal what would one day be fully brought to bear in Christ Jesus. Second Kings 5 is, perhaps, one of the more straightforward specimens of this, with the miraculous healing of the Syrian captain Naaman from his leprosy enduring as a profound parallel to the grace of God in Christ which saves those who are “dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1). Indeed, while we might, at first, be given to pay attention to the miracle itself, it is worth noting that the healing is captured in a single verse (2 Kings 5:14), which is indicative of where the historian wishes our attention should be drawn — namely, to the events surrounding the healing, the build-up and the aftermath. That’s where the true story lies.
Naaman’s miracle, then, while remaining indubitably true, carries with it an even more trenchant truth. Beyond just showing us Yahweh’s ability and penchant to heal, the miracle of the Syrian’s recovery brings to bear the condescending and cleansing grace of God in vivid relief. Consequently, if the miracle which occurs in the waters of the Jordan is a portrait of God’s redeeming grace covering the underserving — which, of course, it is — how then is this miracle understood by those involved? What’s evident in both the lead up and the aftermath is that nearly everyone misunderstands and misapplies and misconstrues what occurred. Accordingly, this narrative affords us with a striking scenario in which to examine the ways in which we, too, misunderstand and misapply and misconstrue the grace of God.
By assuming we haven’t carelessly forgotten it.
The events of 2 Kings 5, like the preceding chapter, constitute another saga in the annals of Elisha the prophet and his miraculous exploits. We’re introduced to a man named Naaman, the “captain of the host of the king of Syria” (2 Kings 5:1). Naaman was a great and honorable gentlemen, well-to-do, and highly esteemed by those around him. His valor in combat was the stuff of legend, with the king of Syria venerating him as his empire’s dauntless chieftain. Naaman, by all accounts, had it all. Success. Status. Position. Prestige. And yet . . . “he was a leper.” That little phrase undoes everything that went before it. Despite all the acclaim and attention and accolades, no one would’ve traded places with him. No one wanted to be Naaman. He was a dead man walking, suffering from a terminal skin condition from which there was no cure.
We’re told of one of his valorous crusades, as he and his army plunder and pillage the nation of Israel, taking with them a number of Hebrew captives (2 Kings 5:2). Among them is a “little maid,” who is made to serve in house of Naaman’s wife. This young servant girl is one of the more intriguing people who briefly grace the pages of Scripture, and yet, we know almost nothing about her. Her life was wrecked in a matter of moments. She is seized from her home, never to see her family and friends again, plopped into an foreign culture, and forced into slave-labor the rest of her life. Even still, despite all we don’t know about this “little maid,” we do know something of her faith. Seeing as she “waited on Naaman’s wife,” this girl was in proximity to Naaman himself from time to time. Therefore, she was familiar with the captain’s disease and the pain it caused him on a daily basis. But instead of staying silent and watching as her captor lived out his numbered days in writhing agony as he endured what could’ve been viewed as divine justice for her plight, this young girl speaks up. “Would God my lord were with the prophet that is in Samaria!” she declares, “for he would recover him of his leprosy” (2 Kings 5:3). A glimmer of hope had returned to the house of Naaman, and from the unlikeliest of sources imaginable, too.
Word of this healer and prophet eventually makes its way to the Syrian king, who decides, as a matter of good foreign policy, to compose a letter to Israel’s king inquiring as to the whereabouts of this prophetic healer and how much his fee might be (2 Kings 5:4–5). Naaman, with royal letter in hand and entourage in tow, approaches the Israelite king’s court. The neighboring king is distraught, thrown into a tizzy, but not by Naaman’s cohort. But by the Syrian monarch’s letter. “And it came to pass, when the king of Israel had read the letter, that he rent his clothes, and said, Am I God, to kill and to make alive, that this man doth send unto me to recover a man of his leprosy? wherefore consider, I pray you, and see how he seeketh a quarrel against me” (2 Kings 5:7). His immediate thought was to assume that Syria was merely picking a fight, sniffing for war.
The king was, of course, powerless to help this leper-captain of Syria. It was an impossible errand. No one recovered from leprosy. But neither was he familiar with any so-called prophetic healer who could do such a thing. Which is a very telling insight from this king’s confession. It’s revealing that the leader of Yahweh’s chosen people was so unversed and unacquainted with the ways of Yahweh that he doesn’t even give a thought to seeking out Yahweh (or his prophet) when a difficult matter was brought before him. Furthermore, it’s not conjecture to take this a step further, seeing this king of Israel as a devastating portrait of the spiritual pulse of the nation of Israel. The meter is barely registering. The faithful remnant, though present, was scant. By and large, idolatry had so riddled the land that Israel’s heart had become scorched, forgetting her One True God altogether.
No thought was given to Yahweh’s power or presence; only grief over the impossibility of the issue at hand. And aren’t we prone to the same? We are so susceptible of overlooking the grace of God and its permeating presence in our lives that we end up much like the Israelites, mixing ideologies to combine our own efforts with a sprinkling of spiritual favor. Even though we might say we are Christians, evangelicals even, who are quick to snap at inquiries concerning our orthodoxy with careful affirmations of grace and meticulous definitions of grace and convincing beliefs regarding the applications of grace, we are even quicker to take it for granted. How often do we consciously live our lives knowing that everything we have is a gift? All our supposed blessings and achievements aren’t downstream of our tireless grit and grind. Rather, they’re the direct effect of the uninterrupted flow of God’s grace for us and to us.
By assuming we have the credibility to deserve it.
Another way we misunderstand grace, though, is by assuming we have the credibility to deserve it. After the king of Israel’s embarrassing display, Elisha suggests he take the lead with the leper. Eventually, Naaman and company arrive on the prophet’s doorstep with all the royal trappings befitting the commander-in-chief of Syria. Elisha, however, doesn’t come to the door. Instead, he sends his servant Gehazi to welcome the leprous captain and his cohort with a message that supplants and subverts Naaman’s every expectation. “And Elisha sent a messenger unto him, saying, Go and wash in Jordan seven times, and thy flesh shall come again to thee, and thou shalt be clean” (2 Kings 5:10). This, as you might imagine, doesn’t sit well with the Syrian war hero. With blood boiling, Naaman protests the indecency and disrespect showed to him by the prophet. “Behold, I thought, He will surely come out to me, and stand, and call on the name of the Lord his God, and strike his hand over the place, and recover the leper. Are not Abana and Pharpar, rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? may I not wash in them, and be clean? So he turned and went away in a rage” (2 Kings 5:11–12).
Naaman’s fury was two-fold: (1) This prophet of Samaria didn’t show him the courtesy he thought he was due. (2) Likewise, his prescription for healing was simply a matter of taking a bath in the Jordan. He was disappointed on both accounts since both brought his anticipated glorious healing toppling down. “I thought,” he demurs. Naaman was expecting fanfare. He was expecting a show, with all the smoke and lights and spiritual fuss he figured his status deserved. Therefore, with Elisha’s message sufficiently dashing both his expectations and his ego, Syria’s captain stomps away “in a rage.” “How dare that two-bit Hebrew seer!” he snorts. But as Naaman’s veins bulged out of his forehead, his servants dared to speak up. “My father, if the prophet had bid thee do some great thing, wouldest thou not have done it? how much rather then, when he saith to thee, Wash, and be clean?” (2 Kings 5:13). “Hey, uh, shouldn’t you at least try what the man said, you know, just for kicks?” one sheepishly asks.
These comments are incredibly insightful, revealing Naaman’s heart and mind in this moment. He was an “honorable man,” a “mighty man of valor,” one whose greatness was known throughout the entire Syrian empire. And a great man does great things. That’s what makes him great. Consequently, when the prophet’s prescribed means of healing were revealed to be something so menial a common housewife could do it, he was indignant. The gall of that prophet! That task was not “great” enough for a great man like him. Such things were beneath him. He, you know, was a “somebody,” and he expected to be treated as such. That captain was counting on his credibility to cure him. And don’t we do the same thing?
When it comes to God and the grace he gives us in his Son Jesus Christ, we often operate with the assumption that our credibility is deserving of it. That, somehow, someway, we’ve worked ourselves into a position of meriting the unmerited favor of God. This was the fundamental point of contention between the Pharisees and Jesus throughout the Gospels. The Pharisees, of course, went around everywhere brandishing their religiosity (Matt. 6:5), making sure people were aware of how accomplished they were, proclaiming that they were “great men” who only did great things for the Lord. But, in reality, they were spiritual lepers. They were dead men walking. They were, in Jesus’s words, “whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men's bones, and of all uncleanness” (Matt 23:27). Even the supposedly pristine résumés of the Pharisees were not good enough or credible enough (Matt 5:21). Such is what Jesus came to expose.
In like manner, our credibility, success, and impressiveness, however commendable or spiritual, falls woefully short of deserving God’s grace (Rom. 3:23). God’s gifts are not purchased by us — not by our silver or our gold or our efforts or our energies. There’s nothing we can offer that can reimburse God for what he’s already given us. There’s no accomplishment we can present the Lord that’s worthy of his favor. “The blessings of grace,” writes Rev. Abraham Booth, “were never designed to distinguish the worthy, or to reward merit, but to relieve the wretched and save the desperate” (96). But, like Naaman, we’re dead-set on trying our own way. We stubbornly insist that through enough checkpoints, and with enough effort, we can deserve this gift. In so doing, however, we negate the point of the gift (Rom. 11:6). There’s no sense of deserving when it comes to gifts, or else they’d be rewards. And God’s grace is decidedly not a reward given to the deserving. It’s a gift given to those who deserve the opposite.
By assuming we have the capacity to earn it.
Another way we misunderstand grace is by assuming we have the capacity to earn it. Remarkably, Naaman listens to his servants and comes to his senses, going down to the river and doing exactly as the prophet had prescribed. He washed in the Jordan and — what do you know? — “his flesh came again like unto the flesh of a little child, and he was clean” (2 Kings 5:14). His skin is restored. For whatever reason, I have this distinct image in my head of that gruff war captain suddenly going from grumpily dipping himself in the water to gleefully splashing in the water that had set him free, that had given him his life back. He quickly dries himself off and hastens to the prophet’s house, intent on the man of God taking a blessing from him (2 Kings 5:15). Essentially, Naaaman is attempting to pay for the healing he has just experienced — as if what was given to him without conditions must be reciprocated.
Elisha flatly denies any such payment, to which Naaman responds by making a most striking confession. “And Naaman said, Shall there not then, I pray thee, be given to thy servant two mules' burden of earth? for thy servant will henceforth offer neither burnt offering nor sacrifice unto other gods, but unto the Lord. In this thing the Lord pardon thy servant, that when my master goeth into the house of Rimmon to worship there, and he leaneth on my hand, and I bow myself in the house of Rimmon: when I bow down myself in the house of Rimmon, the Lord pardon thy servant in this thing” (2 Kings 5:17–18). He begs the prophet to permit him to take some Israelite dirt with him, so that when he returns home he can worship on “holy ground.” He also preemptively asks for forgiveness for the part of his job that requires him to accompany his king “in the house of Rimmon.” Naaman wants it to be known that when he goes there, it’s just a formality. And he’s only bowing because that is part of the gig. In a stunning turn of events, “Yahweh’s grace didn’t only heal Naaman of his leprosy,” Dale Ralph Davis notes, “but made him a faithful, fearful worshiper” (94). Elisha, then, sends him away with a reassuring word of peace.
In a way, the historian pits Naaman’s confession of fidelity as a critique targeting Israel, a nation that was so inundated with mixing allegiances to all kinds of idols, with Yahweh thrown in the mix, too. And perhaps we can excuse the Syrian captain (slightly) for wanting to compensate Elisha for his time. After all, that was a customary practice with the oracles in his own country. But, even still, Naaman’s immediate thought to pay Elisha back is indicative our response to grace. What do we often say when we receive a gift from someone? We often reply with some form of “How can I ever repay you?” It’s very telling, I think, that when someone gives us something for free that we immediately begin thinking of all the ways we can and must return the favor. As if by returning the kindness showed towards us we will somehow earn the original gift. But, again, such thinking negates the point of a gift.
Grace, like any true gift, is not given with thoughts reciprocity or payback or earning. There’s no fine print that accompanies it. Neither are there any “terms and conditions” outlining the ways in which we must reimburse the Lord for the immaculate gift he’s given to us. You and I can’t earn what he’s given to us for free, unconditionally. Like Naaman, we’re conditioned for earning. That’s the system that makes sense to us. And, what’s more, we believe we have the capacity to live accordingly. “The natural flow of the fallen human heart,” Dane Ortlund writes, “is toward reciprocity, tit-for-tat payback, equanimity, balancing of the scales. We are far more intractably law-ish than we realize” (157). But “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth” (Rom. 10:4). And the “it is finished” of the cross does not morph into “earn this” after we’re saved. The gospel offers unconditional righteousness to all who believe. Jesus doesn’t bait us by his grace only beat us over the head with his law after we repent and believe. Like the Galatians, we think that way, though. Which is why the apostle’s words are still so resonant. “Are ye so foolish?” he says, “having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh?” (Gal. 3:3). In other words, it’s grace all the way through.
By assuming we have the capability to renegotiate it.
Finally, we misunderstand grace by assuming we have the capability to renegotiate it. Naaman leaves with the prophet’s word of peace ringing in his heart and soul. He takes with him, though, the storehouse of gifts he was ready to give away. Elisha’s servant Gehazi gets the bright idea that those trinkets were just going to be given away, what’s the harm in taking some for himself? “But Gehazi, the servant of Elisha the man of God, said, Behold, my master hath spared Naaman this Syrian, in not receiving at his hands that which he brought: but, as the Lord liveth, I will run after him, and take somewhat of him” (2 Kings 5:20). In Gehazi’s mind, it was an act of mercy that Elisha did not require some sort of remuneration from the healed Syrian.
After catching up to Naaman’s caravan, Elisha’s servant relays a very convincing albeit entirely concocted story expressing the grave needs of two of his fellow prophetic students (2 Kings 5:21–22). Naaman, feeling the guilt of Gehazi’s story, agrees to give what was requested, and then some (2 Kings 5:23). He offers double what was asked of him, which Gehazi gladly accepted. He was, likely, feeling quite proud of himself in that moment. Naaman was well and he was wealthy. It was a win for everyone. But when he returned home, his teacher knew something was up. “But he went in, and stood before his master. And Elisha said unto him, Whence comest thou, Gehazi? And he said, Thy servant went no whither. And he said unto him, Went not mine heart with thee, when the man turned again from his chariot to meet thee? Is it a time to receive money, and to receive garments, and oliveyards, and vineyards, and sheep, and oxen, and menservants, and maidservants? The leprosy therefore of Naaman shall cleave unto thee, and unto thy seed for ever. And he went out from his presence a leper as white as snow” (2 Kings 5:25–27). That’s how serious God is when it comes to grace.
We are all pitiful lepers in the eyes of God, possessed by a disease from which there is no cure (Isa. 1:6). Except for, of course, the remedy laid out for us in the gospel (Zech. 13:1; Heb. 7:25). Those who think they can add, change, alter the conditions of God’s salvation are opening themselves up to judgment. The fine folks at Mockingbird in their primer on Law & Gospel assert that “we do not possess the power to invalidate divine generosity, or renegotiate the terms of our acceptance” (54). That’s infinitely beyond our ken. And yet, such is what Gehazi attempted to do. Such is what plagued the early church. And such is what disrupts the church to this day. The discord that often arises in church bodies is a result of our dogged determination to renegotiate the fine points of God’s grace. The idea of “free grace” stuns and scares us to such a degree that, like Gehazi, we run after ways to couch its freeness. But whenever we add an “and” to what Jesus gives us we lose sight of Jesus. His offer is the same as it always has been. It is the same as what this narrative demonstrates for us. Namely, that the miraculous gift of grace has been given to us free of charge. And all that’s required of us is to wash and be clean. Look and live. Repent and believe.
Abraham Booth, The Reign of Grace, from Its Rise to Its Consummation (Philadelphia: Joseph Whetnam, 1838).
Dale Ralph Davis, 2 Kings: The Power and the Fury (Ross-shire, England: Christian Focus, 2020).
William McDavid, Ethan Richardson, and David Zahl, Law & Gospel: A Theology for Sinners (and Saints) (Charlottesville, VA: Mockingbird, 2015).
Dane Ortlund, Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020).