Elisha’s Question about a Favor

Title: Elisha's Question about a Favor

Bible Book: 2 Kings 4 : 2

Author: David E. Owen

Subject: Holy Spirit; God, Help of; Prayer; Trouble



We are considering some questions from the life and lips of Elisha, and we began with his question concerning the Father in 2 Kings 2:14; “Where is the LORD God of Elijah?” Tonight, we’re looking at a situation involving the need of a widow who came to Elisha seeking his help. And how Elisha asked her what favor he could offer.

Often when I visit or speak with folks who have been through a time of sickness of difficulty I will ask them, “Is there anything that you need?” Or, “What can we do for you?” I’m sure you have expressed that same willingness to do someone a favor by asking such a question. Here in our text, a widowed mother of two sons has found herself in a financially urgent situation. To use the words of one needy fellow who came to me for help once, she was “up against it.” And like that needy fellow, this poor widow sought the help of the preacher. In response to her description of misfortune, Elisha asked, “What shall I do for thee?” (2 Kings 4:2).

I. Notice The Crisis In This Situation

Very little is known or stated about this woman to whom we are introduced in 2 Kings 4:1. The Jewish historian Josephus believed that she was “the widow of Obadiah, Ahab’s steward.”[1] Whoever the man was, he had been one “of the sons of the prophets” and someone whom Elisha knew as a “servant” who “did fear the LORD.” Sadly though, this woman said to Elisha, “Thy servant my husband is dead.” So then, her crisis has involved death. But as Mrs. O.F. Walton reminds us, “the story tells nothing of the funeral; it speaks of the scene that followed. The mourning friends have departed; (while) the chief mourners, the poor widow and her boys, are alone.”[2] They were alone with their grief – until the creditor came.

Working under the assumption that this was Obadiah’s widow, Josephus indicated “that these debts were contracted by her husband for the support of those ‘hundred of the Lord’s prophets, whom he maintained by fifty in a cave,’ in the days of Ahab and Jezebel.”[3] “And,” writes Mrs. Walton, “now had come the expense of the funeral to add to the long list of debts that went before.”[4] Many could sympathize with this poor woman in that her crisis has involved debt.

But the burden becomes heavier, for she said, “the creditor is come to take unto him my two sons to be bondmen.” Adam Clarke references Exodus 21:7 and Leviticus 25:39, and reminds us that, “Children, according to the laws of the Hebrews, were considered the property of their parents, who had a right to dispose of them for the payment of their debts. And in cases of poverty, the law permitted them, expressly, to sell both themselves and their children.”[5] This widowed mother has not offered to sell her sons, but the creditor has demanded them as payment, and so her crisis has involved despair. As one writer put it, “How thick did the miseries of this poor afflicted woman light upon her? Her husband is lost, her estate clogged with debts, her children ready to be taken for slaves.”[6] She was definitely in a crisis.

II. Notice The Compassion In This Situation

Rev. George Barlow reminds us that, “The miracle related in this paragraph indicates the sympathy of the prophet with the troubles and needs of human life,” and Elisha “stood as the representative of the compassionate Saviour.”[7] In 2 Kings 3:13 Elisha had repelled the idea of helping the king of Israel by saying, “What have I to do with thee?” However, when this widow woman came to Elisha, there was no such resistance. He did not refuse her, but in compassion he acknowledged her. Elisha said, “What shall I do for thee?”

In a paraphrase of Elisha’s question, John Wesley suggested that the prophet was saying, “How shall I relieve thee, who am myself poor?” But instead of magnifying the obstacles, it seems rather that he was offering his support. Matthew Henry noted that Elisha “did not say, ‘Be warmed, be filled,’ but gave her real help.”[8] In compassion he assisted her, not by pointing out all that she didn’t have, but by reminding her of what she did have. We focus too much on the negative, don’t we? Before God would bestow further blessings, there had to be a surrender of the blessings she already possessed. “And Elisha said unto her, tell me, what hast thou in the house? And she said, Thine handmaid hath not any thing in the house, save a pot of oil” (2 Kings 4:2).

Then, in compassion he advised her. What a strange plan the prophet presented – to borrow empty vessels, and then behind closed doors take the flask of oil that she had and fill the borrowed vessels. She may have thought this was an odd recommendation, but verse 5 reveals that she obeyed nonetheless. Elisha points us to God, who in His compassion, waits to assist and advise us.

There is a beautiful spiritual imagery in this plan – the oil consistently speaks of the Holy Spirit (and James Hastings indicated that this was “a kind of oil which was used for anointing the body after a bath”[9]); the empty vessels are reflections of the empty hearts of those around us, and the activity within the shut door might suggest the prayer life of one “that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High” (Psalms 91:1).

When we surrender what we have to God’s leadership and spend time in that secret place, alone with God, then the Holy Spirit can flow through us into the emptiness of other people’s lives. And in the process of ministering to others, God is ministering to us and meeting our needs.

J.G. Bellett promoted the idea that “the oil waited on the vessels. In other words, divine power waited on faith.”[10] You see – the Holy Spirit stands ready to flow into empty hearts and lives, but we must exhibit our faith in God by bringing the empty vessels inside the door.

III. Notice The Change In This Situation

The instructions of the prophet were followed to the letter, “And it came to pass, when the vessels were full, that she said unto her son, Bring me yet a vessel. And he said unto her, There is not a vessel more. And the oil stayed” indicating that it ceased to flow (2 Kings 4:6). What would happen now? How would all of these full vessels that she had set aside be helpful to her and her sons? There was a final phase to the peculiar plan of the prophet. In verse 7, “she came and told the man of God. And he said, Go, sell the oil, and pay thy debt, and live thou and thy children of the rest.” Adam Clarke identified the creditor as “Jehoram son of Ahab, who lent money on usury to Obadiah.”[11] I don’t know who the creditor was, but he reminds me of “the accuser of our brethren” who will one day be “cast down” (Revelation 12:10). The heavy debt is paid to the creditor, and the burden was removed.

Elisha instructed the widow and her children to “live,” not merely to exist in fear, but to “live!” This word has the idea of being revived from sickness, discouragement, or death, and restored to life and health.[12] The horrible demands of the creditor have been denied, and the boys were reassured.

If the woman’s husband was Obadiah, as has been suggested, then as Barlow states, “While her husband lived, she breathed the atmosphere of a court, and was nourished in the lap of luxury. But when he died, she seems to have been reduced to the utmost poverty.”[13] Life must have been difficult after the death of her husband, but Elisha told the widow to “live... of the rest.” The hard days were over for now, and the blessings were restored.


Sometime around 1940, a Mississippi singing school teacher named J.B. Coats published a song in the Stamps-Baxter hymnal entitled “Where Could I Go?” The first verse goes like this: “Living below in this old sinful world; Hardly a comfort can afford; Striving alone to face temptations sore; Where could I go but to the Lord.” And then the chorus: “Where could I go, oh where could I go; Seeking a refuge for my soul; Needing a friend to help me in the end; Where could I go but to the Lord?”[14]

This poor widowed mother came to Elisha, but she was coming to him as the Lord’s representative. So in reality, she was coming to the Lord for help. Where else could she go but to the Lord? And where else can we go except to the Lord?


[1] William Whiston – Translator, The Works Of Josephus, Hendrickson Publishers, 1993, pg. 248

[2] Mrs. O.F. Walton, Elisha The Man Of Abel-Meholah, The Religious Tract Society, pg. 97

[3] William Whiston – Translator, The Works Of Josephus, Hendrickson Publishers, 1993, pg. 248

[4] Mrs. O.F. Walton, Elisha The Man Of Abel-Meholah, The Religious Tract Society, pg. 97

[5] From Adam Clarke’s Commentary, Electronic Database, Copyright © 1996 by Biblesoft

[6] Bishop Hall as quoted in The Preacher’s Homiletic Commentary – Volume 8, Baker Books, 1996, pg. 413

[7] Rev. George Barlow, The Preacher’s Homiletic Commentary – Volume 8, Baker Books, 1996, pg. 408-409

[8] From Matthew Henry’s Commentary, Electronic Database, Copyright © 1991 by Hendrickson Publishers, Inc

[9] James Hastings, The Greater Men And Women Of The Bible – Volume 3, T. & T. Clark, 1946, pg. 431

[10] J. G. Bellett, Meditations On Elisha, pg. 17

[11] From Adam Clarke’s Commentary, Electronic Database, Copyright © 1996 by Biblesoft

[12] Brown Driver & Briggs Hebrew Lexicon

[13] Rev. George Barlow, The Preacher’s Homiletic Commentary – Volume 8, Baker Books, 1996, pg. 409

[14] Information From The Following Website: http://www.filmsgraded.savantnetworks.com/elvis/1966/f082.htm


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