Integral to understanding this event in Elisha's life are the various characters involved, as well as the scene of the action. The story takes place in the territory of Issachar in northern Israel. Shunem overlooks the fertile Plain of Esdraelon (Jezreel) toward Mount Carmel more than 15 miles distant where the prophet has a home. It is just a few miles from the towns of Jezreel to the south, En-Dor to the east, and Megiddo to the west.
This episode occurs during the reign of Jehoram (or Joram), second son of Ahab and Jezebel, roughly 850 BC. From all indications, Jehoram gave lip service to God, allowing Elisha freedom to preach and travel, while granting similar freedom to pagan religions. As the writer of II Kings explains, "And he did evil in the sight of the LORD, but not like his father and mother. . . . Nevertheless he persisted in the sins of Jeroboam" (3:2-3).
The story unfolds among four principal characters: Elisha, God's prophet; Gehazi, his assistant; the Shunammite woman, a wealthy and pious woman; and her young son, miraculously born. The interaction of these four people, each with his or her modern-day counterparts, constructs an intriguing parable with pointed lessons for Christians today.
The prophet Elisha is God's servant, Elijah's successor, upon whom God's Spirit rests and by whom God does great miracles. He is a man of God, presented very positively in the biblical record; it is difficult to find a negative description of him or his actions. He represents all of God's true ministers.
Gehazi, on the other hand, stands for the hirelings (John 10:12-13; Zechariah 11:16-17), who set themselves up as ministers of God yet care only for themselves and their well being. This man's greed rises to the surface in the next chapter, when he takes Naaman's money and gifts after Elisha refuses to take them as payment for the Syrian commander's healing (II Kings 5:20-27). For this, God struck Gehazi and his descendants with Naaman's leprosy.
The Shunammite woman is described as "notable" (II Kings 4:8), a Hebrew word that can connote wealth, piety, renown, or elements of each. In the text, however, her piety predominates, as she sets aside a room for Elisha and cares for him whenever he comes to Shunem (verses 9-10). Evidently, she keeps the Sabbaths fastidiously, and her husband shrugs off her visiting Elisha on a normal day (verses 22-24). She is a type of the church as a whole (see Galatians 4:21-31; Revelation 12:1-2; 19:7-8).
Her offspring, a boy, is born as the result of an Abraham-and-Sarah-like miracle (II Kings 4:14-17). Other than that he seems to get along well with his father and mother'something read between the lines'the Bible tells us very little else about this child. To use a literary term, he is Everyman, and as the child of the type of the church, he represents the individual Christian.
Interestingly, the boy's father is an incidental character; he is involved but only in the background. Normally, we might think he represents God the Father, but this conclusion makes no sense in this case. The boy's father plays his bit part because he existed in the historical reality. Parables do not demand that each detail have an exact antitype, for as we all know, all analogies break down if taken too far.
Richard T. Ritenbaugh
Elisha and the Shunammite Woman, Part I: Reviving God's Children
When Elisha arrives at the Shunammite's home, the situation has not changed: The boy lies dead on the prophet's bed (II Kings 4:32). Even this fact is significant in that, though the boy is "with" the prophet and even has close contact with the prophet's possessions, it does him no good—he is still dead. How many Christians are in the church, hearing the truth every week, fellowshipping with God's people, yet remain asleep to their perilous spiritual condition?
Unlike Gehazi, Elisha throws himself into the work of reviving this child. First, he closes the door to his room, shutting everyone else out (verse 33). This kind of work is private, not public. Next, he invites God in through prayer. Elisha knows that he is only a vessel through whom God would work, so he immediately seeks the only true help for the situation. He understands that his relationship with God is the basis for any resuscitation of the boy.
These two points are appropriate spiritually as well. Awakening sleepy Christians is a private affair; it would be shameful and unloving to blare the individual church member's spiritual weakness to the world! What a horrible witness for God this would be! Paul excoriates the lawbreaking Romans: "For 'The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you,' as it is written" (Romans 2:24). It is far better for the church to reduce its public exposure during its revival until it can again represent God properly. Once God is satisfied with the church's spiritual state, He will open doors to proclaim the gospel publicly again.
It is also true that spiritual revival rests on the relationship between God and His true ministers, for the latter are the individuals through whom He works to effect the waking up of others. The preachers drive the revival! If the ministry is not close to God, they will not preach the truth, and revival will never make much headway. However, if the ministry's relationship with God is solid and growing, God will inspire them to preach His Word powerfully, and "those who have ears to hear" will listen and respond.
Notice the effort Elisha makes to heal this child. He stretches himself out on the child, eye to eye, mouth to mouth, hand to hand (II Kings 4:34), picturing total identification between the prophet and the child: They see eye to eye, speak mouth to mouth, act hand in hand. This is a metaphor for unity in understanding, teaching, and works. The ministry and the membership must be unified and work together to cause revival.
But this is still not enough. The flesh of the child warms up, but he is not yet truly alive, awake, and active. He hovers, coma-like, between death and life. Seeing this, Elisha gathers himself and plunges back into his work (verse 35). His walking "back and forth in the house" describes his efforts to restore his warmth after giving all of his to the child. Spiritually, this equates to the ministry preparing themselves for even more intensive work as they "try, try again" to effect revival. A true minister, through all the setbacks and discouragements, never gives up the fight to bring God's people "back to life."
Richard T. Ritenbaugh
Elisha and the Shunammite Woman, Part II: Serving God's Children