2 Kings 5:1 “Now Naaman was commander of the army of the king of Aram. He was a great man in the sight of his master and highly regarded, because through him the LORD had given victory to Aram. He was a valiant soldier, but he had leprosy.”
The narrative of the healing of the leper Naaman is one of the most beautiful and compelling chapters in Scripture. At a purely literary level it is a magnificent piece of writing with its deep humanity and ultimate resolution. As we read it we come across an example of role reversal when a little servant girl becomes the counsellor of her illustrious master. There are also contrasts between the selfless and the selfish, and while one man is healed of leprosy another man is punished with leprosy. The splendid theology of the writer is concerned to show us not only God’s sovereign control over military campaigns, victory and defeat but that he is a God who uses the shy words of a concerned Christian girl. Of the biblical narratives it reminds me most of all of the history of Joseph in the Old Testament and the parable of the prodigal son in the New Testament. In this chapter we find a number of intriguing personalities, the commander in chief Naaman himself, the anonymous slave girl, Elisha the prophet of Jehovah, and Gehazi his servant. Here we meet the only example of the healing of a leper during the ministries of Elijah and Elisha, a miracle that prepares us for our Lord Jesus’ coming and those months during which he banished leprosy from communities and individuals in every part of Galilee. It also points further ahead to the end times and what the Lord Christ can and will yet do. In this chapter we also meet the conversion of a pagan who begins to worship the true and living God, and that is a foretaste of the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch through the ministry of Philip the evangelist, and the wildfire spread of the gospel throughout Asia Minor and Greece and Rome and on to the ends of the earth.
The story is so simple yet intriguing that even children can remember, understand and profit from it. From this one incident they may learn the essence of salvation. The narrative is like those other incidents in the Old Testament where God, as it were, opens a window and focuses on a certain aspect of redeeming grace. What would be the events that I’m referring to? An ark being built under the direction of God; Noah and his family getting into it and so kept from the condemnation which destroyed the world. Then there were the children of Israel taking refuge under the blood sprinkled on their doors while the firstborn of the Egyptians perish. Again there was the brazen serpent set up on a pole and all who looked to it were delivered from the mortal wound of the bite of the snakes. Then have you heard of the cities of refuge and each one who fled to such a place entering through its gates was delivered from the manslayers pursuing him there? All such graphic stories point to different aspects of the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, and of course there are many such illustrations or types in the Old Testament.
NAAMAN WAS GIVEN GREAT GIFTS BY GOD.
We are told, “Now Naaman was commander of the army of the king of Aram. He was a great man in the sight of his master and highly regarded, because through him the LORD had given victory to Aram. He was a valiant soldier” (v.1). The writer of the second book of Kings extols Naaman, and so we have to say that God the Holy Spirit extols him; that “He was a great man” was the verdict of God himself. The reason God can make a statement like that is that all good gifts around us are sent from heaven above. Here is a military leader who didn’t know God; he didn’t worship the Lord, but we are told that God had blessed him greatly with the gifts of what we’ve come to call ‘common grace,’ such as intelligence, self-control, modesty, loyalty, leadership, discernment, an entrepreneurial spirit, compassion, physical strength and dexterity. They are gifts for which the possessors are indebted to God. How good God is to men and women who yet ignore and defy him. Those gifts are rooted in the fact that we are all made in the image of God. Their refinement and strengthening are due to the special blessings of a stable family, and to an earlier grace of Jesus Christ in the land, in other words, the momentum of the blessings of better years for the church – blessings for which our contemporary atheism can claim no epistemological entitlement. I picture Richard Dawkins as an intelligent and healthy child sitting securely on the lap of his loving father and smacking his Dad on the face.
The abundance of such gifts in even some agnostic lives can be due to the privileges of having been raised in a Christian home as well as a society where the gospel was once powerful. I am saying that it is through our Creator – the one in whom we live and move and have our being – that people are given a variety of those talents and abilities that so enrich life. Naaman, like all men, was certainly made in the image and likeness of God, and all people are to be treated as such; but all are equally depraved, while all Christians are equally privileged by grace to know forgiveness and to own God as their Father. My main point is that there is an enormous variety of talents displayed by the natural man. Think of a skilled teacher who can make a subject come alive so that you fall in love with that culture or that science through his or her influence. The fact that Einstein was a Jewish agnostic did not invalidate his great scientific studies. There are wonderfully united families which are not Christian in their beliefs. Who has made you differ from other boys or girls of your age? God has made you who you are. Then what are you doing with your physical strength, with your powers of leadership, with your intelligence, with your gifts of affection and understanding? Are you honouring God and serving your fellow men?
So here is Naaman, an outstanding figure in Syria in those days, a man any nation would be glad to have in a place of leadership. We have a few in the world today, people like Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Rostropovich of Russia, maybe even our own Gwynfor Evans who was a figure of immense moral stature and accomplishment. This man from Syria, Naaman, was one of those gifted personalities of his own day, his reputation spreading out beyond the boundaries of Syria. His name ‘Naaman’ was common enough in Syria. Its meaning happens to be ‘gracious’ and this name has been discovered on many clay tablets from that civilization which have been retrieved from such places as Ras Shamra. So here was a man who believed in the god Rimmon, and worshipped in his temple, and yet God says about him, “He was a great man,” and I have told you that there are some leaders like that in the world today for whom we thank God for his goodness to all men.
What characterized Naaman? What does God say about him more specifically?
i] “Naaman was commander of the army of the king of Aram.” He was an army man, and my contacts with men who have served as officers in the forces has given me an admiration and respect for them, their quiet authority, their military bearing, their sense of leadership, which is also under some restraints as men who themselves are under authority. They have a certain indefinable toughness which stops the garrulous when those noisy men come into their company. Had Naaman risen through the ranks, or had he obtained that office through the position of his family? We don’t know, but we do know that he was “a valiant soldier.” So his prominence was not solely because of being related to the royal family. Here was a man at the height of his profession, the commander in chief of the Syrian armies.
ii] Naaman was “a great man in the sight of his master.” It has not always been that the head of state and the army chief of staff have had a relationship of mutual trust and admiration. Admiral Horatio Nelson’s leaders sought to control him; they might have tried to control the wind. They wanted him to conduct his operations in a different way, but Nelson put his telescope to his blind eye and gazed out to the horizons protesting that he could see nothing preventing him carrying on as before. The conduct of General Douglas MacArthur leading the American forces in the Korean War antagonized Washington, and the thirty-third president of the U.S.A., Harry S. Truman terminated his leadership and brought the commander home. There was no such tension between Naaman and his master (who was probably Ben-Hadad III). When the king of Syria saw Naaman enter the throne room his face would turn into a smile. “He’s my right arm, a great man,” he could about Naaman. An attempted military coup could never succeed while the king had such a trusting relationship with the army head of staff.
iii] Naaman was “highly regarded” in other words, by the king of Syria. It is developing the former point; Naaman was shown extraordinary royal favour. It meant that he would have had the highest salary in the forces or in the civil service. He had the largest house in the country after the royal palace, with an army of slaves to cater to his every need, especially to look after the farms, stables and the pastures where his vast herds were constantly driven from one water hole to another, and where his crops were grown. He was highly regarded.
iv] Naaman was “a valiant soldier.” He possessed courage and resolution; he was daring and fearless. He led from the front; he wouldn’t ask his men to do what he was not prepared to do himself; he was no chocolate soldier. I have been reading General Peter de la Villiere’s book Supreme Courage because one of you commended it to me. It is a story of some of those who have been awarded the Victoria Cross. What a splendid book it is, and when you’ve read of men prepared to lay down their lives for their friends you feel more eager to work and sacrifice for the brave Captain of our salvation. What exhortations the Lord gives us; don’t seek a long life – Christ had a short one. Don’t live in luxury – Christ lived and died poor. Don’t live in pleasure – Christ pleased not himself. Don’t live for fame – Christ made himself of no reputation. Don’t live at ease – for you Christ suffered nakedness, the scourge, the cross, the nails and spear thrust. Don’t lose this opportunity of your one life to inherit an eternity of shame and regrets hereafter.
What more could any man wish? Naaman had everything that the world admires; he had made good; he had prospered; he had fame and popularity. Naaman was a household name in the land. Fathers lifted their children high to cheer, wave and see his chariot and body-guards riding past. Parents held Naaman up as an example to their sons. What a brilliant life; all the glittering prizes were his. The honours and awards in keeping with his success were his. There were neither pop-stars nor sports-stars in his day. There were few philosophers or traveling orators during the reigns of Ben-Hadad and his line. At this time in human history men of renown were all warriors. A great general was the greatest hero of all.
NAAMAN WAS GIVEN MILITARY SUCCESS BY GOD.
We are told that “through [Naaman] the LORD had given victory to Aram.” There are some commanders who have been a head of a nation’s armies throughout decades of peace. In other words, a single bullet has not been shot by one soldier during their time of being the major general. No one knows what kind of leader these soldiers would have become because they’ve never had to lead their country during war, but Naaman had fought long campaigns and he had been victorious. Now how can I apply that?
I should say that I guess that this was a ‘just war’ in which God had given him victory. When the police deal with suicide bombers and terrorists and go in armed and protected and shooting live ammunition then that is a just engagement. When we are under attack from an enslaving persecuting power then to defend ourselves by force is to fight a just war. To protect millions of Jews from being annihilated in gas chambers is to participate in a just war, and for the churches and preachers to pray publicly for victory in such military exercises is proper praying. There were no doubt preachers who prayed that Hitler and the Nazis would win but that was unacceptable praying because their cause was not just.
What do I mean by a ‘just war?’ I mean that a just war should only be waged as a last resort; all non-violent options must be exhausted before the use of force can be justified. A war is just only if it is waged by a legitimate authority. Even just causes can’t be supported by actions taken by individuals or groups who are self-appointed men. A just war must be fought to redress a wrong that’s been suffered. For example, self-defense against an armed attack is always considered to be a just cause, just like a man who fights to protect himself and his little girl from a gang of psychopaths. Such physical defence is just. Further, a just war can only be fought with ‘right’ intentions: the only permissible objective of a just war is to redress the injury. Again, a war can only be just if it is fought with a reasonable chance of success. Deaths and injury incurred in a hopeless cause are not morally justifiable. The ultimate goal of a just war is to re-establish peace. More specifically, the peace established after the war must be preferable to the peace that would have prevailed if the war had not been fought. The violence used in the war must be proportional to the injury suffered. Countries are prohibited from using force not necessary for attaining the limited objective of addressing the injury suffered. The weapons used in war must discriminate between combatants and non-combatants. Civilians are never permissible targets of war, and every effort must be taken to avoid killing civilians. The deaths of civilians are justified only if they are unavoidable victims of a deliberate attack on a military target. That sort of thinking is the attitude that we Christians in a fallen world have displayed towards war. I admire and believe in such arguments. We Christians are not required to be pacifists. So I am saying that it would seem that Syria (or Aram) was given victory by the Lord because Naaman fought a just war. He did not lead a group of mercenaries looting, pillaging and raping across the borders of Syria. That is perhaps what this verse is alluding to.
On the other hand these words “through [Naaman] the LORD had given victory to Aram” might be simply claiming – rather more generally – that when Naaman defeated other pagan powers his victories were due to that divine providence that had been assisting him without him yet knowing it. In other words, a simple point is being made that Naaman’s victories were not due to luck. The power and wisdom of Almighty God always lay behind what Naaman achieved, or what you have achieved. Is there any triumph anywhere that ultimately should not be ascribed to the Lord himself? So I can apply this point to all of you, whatever you may or may not believe, that all of you are debtors to God’s goodness towards you for all that you are and all you have done. God has given you triumphs, for example, in the way your company has flourished, the success you’ve known in your exams, the number of children God has given to you, the many years of marriage you have known or the length of life that you’ve lived on this earth. You can attribute none of these things to luck, but it is through the Lord God that these things are yours. I am urging you to ascribe to God the praise and thanks that is due for the countless mercies you’ve received. Thank God that Hitler did not prevail in 1940, and that we’ve lived in a free nation, that the Second World War ended in victory for the countries on the side of justice and liberty. Thank God that the Cold War ended with the collapse of communism in eastern Europe. God heard our prayers for the suffering church. However, you do understand don’t you that I’m not saying that every war is a just war. I do not believe that to be the case.
Thank God that he has given you peaceful years in which you have flourished, your industry and intelligence has been rewarded, and your children have grown up healthy and successful. I can remember 65 years ago on one Sunday night, we in the congregation of the Welsh Congregationalist chapel in Dowlais moved outside the door of the church at around 7.30 and standing on the steps looked south down the Taff valley to the sky above Cardiff 25 miles away, red with the reflection of the flames of the incendiary bombs that had been dropped on the capital city of Wales that Lord’s Day. We could hear the ‘thump’ of the distant explosions. The congregation was mute; I held my mother’s hand; women quietly cried. Wales was at war, and all the families had some soldiers on the front line. Thank God that this generation has not seen that. God has been good to you, and so you are a debtor to God. You will answer to God for all the blessings he has given to you. Have you lived to his glory? Have you been a good steward of all his riches?
Yet there is another thing we must see about Naaman. He had been given great gifts; he had also been given military success, but he was also given one more thing.
3. NAAMAN WAS GIVEN LEPROSY BY GOD.
“He was a valiant soldier, but he had leprosy” (v.1). He had position, fame, esteem, possessions, and success in his vocation. “What about job satisfaction Naaman?” you could have asked him. “Ten out of ten,” he would have replied without hesitation, but then one day when he was bathing, he found a swelling, or a scab, or a white spot. He tried to ignore it, but from that time at night on his hand would go to it and feel it. Then this infectious skin disease slowly butrelentlessly spread across his body; it wouldn’t go away. It was soon joined by other dark patches and flaking skin, and soon he was wearing long-sleeved and full-length clothes to hide the tell-tale marks. He read all he could about it, and ate the best foods that money could buy. Soon he was secretly sending for one top physician in Aram after another, and they were all anxious to gain prowess in the nation for having cured the commander in chief, but alas, they could do nothing to help him, not one of them, and some made things worse. He offered them gold and plantations and stallions, and they suggested this potion or that ointment. Did one recommended treatment in hot sand, another submersion in hot oil, another that he took daily baths of asses’ milk? Certainly no expense was spared, but none of the treatments was successful, and soon there was hardly any part of his body free from the dreaded leprosy.
For some reason leprosy was judged to be different from all the other diseases of this age, different from a heart condition, or dementia, or cancer, and in this way, that the leper was removed from living amongst his family and friends and was taken to a colony without contact with anyone else. That would have been because leprosy was considered to be highly infectious, and so isolation was insisted upon. Miriam the sister of Moses wasn’t allowed to be an exception. Uzziah the king was prevented from staying in the royal palace and meeting with his officials and family. We know that those suffering for example, with cancer, were not forced to live apart. They could suffer, be nursed and die in the bosom of their families, but not the leper. Off he was driven to live with other leprous men and women, occasionally to wave and weep at his wife and children standing across on the other side of the valley half a mile away, but no nearer. What a disease!
There are Bible handbooks that tell us that Naaman did not necessarily have Hanson’s bacillus disease, that is, modern leprosy, that it was first ideintifed in Egypt in the second century B.C. Maybe it was worse, a malignant skin disease, enough to be called by men of that day and God himself in Scripture ‘leprosy’ and this is what the great Naaman had. We have one description of it, when Gehazi received the very same disease that Namaan had had, then his skin became as white as snow (v.27). How fearful a disease it appeared. Can you imagine loving grandchildren being taken in to the bedroom to visit Grandpa as he lay ill in bed and seeing there this utterly ghostly figure? Have you ever witnessed two figures covered in white from top to toe, standing in a tableau on a stage in the main street of a market town, perhaps during a festival, or perhaps you’ve seen them in Covent Garden? They are immobile; they look like statues carved out of chalk, as white as two snowmen, and then suddenly one moves, and you jump at seeing that they’re alive but covered in white pancake cosmetics and chalk dust. Next time you come across such a scene you think of Naaman the fabulously rich and most popular man in Aram, the best friend of King Ben-Hadad III of Syria, but now desperately ill, his skin as white as snow. What can we say about it?
i] All envy for Naaman’s exalted status and possessions disappeared. Would the lowliest slave in the land, the man who had to clean out the city toilets each day, would he change places with Naaman? “You can keep your Naaman,” he would say. “A live dog is better than a dead lion.” With all Naaman’s greatness, fame and wealth he lived with this fearful handicap, that he had leprosy, and it brought upon this beloved general not the envy but the pity of every private in his army. He might have been commander-in-chief of the armies of the king of Syria; he might have been a great man in the sight of his master; he might have been a valiant soldier and given many victories in battle; he might have had a cellar full of gold, but what was all of that? Naaman had leprosy.
ii] It was an incurable condition. There was no prescribed remedy. Only an act of God could heal the leper. What the psalmist says must be true; “Man is a mere phantom as he goes to and fro: He bustles about, but only in vain; he heaps up wealth, not knowing who will get it” (Ps. 39:6). Are you deeply aware of that reality of how fleeting is our hold on every single attainment? What achievements many of you have known. Academic success, personal wealth, a name in the locality, your business has prospered, your property has increased, you have added one house to another, and then another and still another. Men speak well of you, however, mortality is written over your life isn’t it? Your days are numbered. Another week has ended never to be repeated. You advance imperceptibly nearer death, and then what? I am saying that your soul is suffering from a disease that you cannot cure and there is no one in the world that can heal you. I was walking through the graveyard by the seaside in Aberystwyth last month and I came across the gravestone of a woman called Anne Lewis who died in 1838 aged 29. This is what she chose to inscribe on her tomb;
Like as a bud nipped off a tree
So death has parted you and me.
Like as I am soon you must be.
Therefore prepare to follow me.
iii] It was a shameful condition. How could it be otherwise, transforming a man from pink-cheeked health to a skin with the pallor of driven snow? Excluded from his family and friends he carried about with him every moment this utter humiliation. From it there was no escape. The law of Moses said, “The person with such an infectious disease must wear torn clothes, let his hair be unkempt, cover the lower part of his face and cry out,`Unclean! Unclean!’” (Lev. 13:45). What a spectacle! What abject misery! “Now Naaman was commander of the army of the king of Aram. He was a great man in the sight of his master and highly regarded, because through him the LORD had given victory to Aram. He was a valiant soldier, but he had leprosy” (v.1).
iv] It was a divinely appointed condition. I am not saying that Naaman was given leprosy because of any wickedness that he had done. I do not believe that there is a necessary connection between disease and sin except in the most general sense that through the fall of our father Adam death has passed upon all men for all have sinned. Of course there are sexually transmitted diseases, and there are illnesses that come because of drug abuse and excess alcohol and nicotine, and such links are to be found between sin and sickness, but there is no link between having measles and being a bad girl. Our illnesses are part of the fallenness of humanity. We live in a groaning creation and Christians are not exempt from any disease whatsoever. We will all die one day of one illness or other. I can say only this, that the Bible regards our afflictions as appointed by divine providence. The thorn in the flesh was given to the apostle Paul. He said to the Philippians, “For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him” (Phils. 1:29). You are concerned about government grants and educational grants; well you must be concerned about this divine grant of your sufferings.
You can’t get this truth properly into your heads except by the grace of God. The troubles that so often come upon us – as they came upon Naaman – come utterly unexpectedly, but they are not bad luck. This leprosy was no accident; it was not sheer chance. I am saying that all our trials have been fore-ordained by an almighty and all-wise God, just as surely as was Christ’s coming into the world and his death upon the cross. That is every believer’s view of affliction. You will understand that what I am giving you now is the personal, but Bible taught, conviction of a Christian who also has to take up his own cross and deny himself and follow Christ. This is what I believe, that those trials that have come into my life have come from heaven. I do not wish that the birth of Christ, the sufferings of Christ, and the death of Christ had never happened. All of us who are Christians shrink back from such a thought, because you have learned something about those sufferings and their tremendous significance.
But the pains that he endured
Our salvation have secured.
I say, then, that you ought to have the same view of your own afflictions, or those sufferings of the ones you love the most. View them, I say, as you view the sufferings and death of Christ. Christ’s pain was fore-ordained by his Father, and so have been your own trials and afflictions. As I said to you, the apostle says that there was given to him a thorn in the flesh and such means of pain are called ‘afflictions’ that is means by which God afflicts us, and they are appointed by the Lord for our eternal good. I want to take you right to the heart of this matter. Don’t allow yourself to be tempted to look upon your leprosy (or whatever your own illness might be) as an accident or as having happened outside of the providence of God – apart from God himself. You notice with Naaman there was a little Old Testament Christian girl that God had put under his roof, even as the Lord had given him this disease, and she was the one who linked his leprosy with God, as I am seeking to link all the ailments and afflictions that are in your family and every family, to God. I want you to think of them in this way that what providence brings into you life is never apart from the God of providence himself. Not a sparrow falls to the ground without his decree. The grave does not fill by accident. Everything that causes you pain and that hurts your soul or body, in your own family or in your community, is all fore-ordained. You can read of the terrible grief and you say submissively, “It is the Lord,” even while recognizing the factors of disease, and human error that bring many griefs into the world. I plead with you not to complain, and not to give up.
One more thing I must say although I have often brought it before you. Somehow or other there is something in us virtually constitutionally that causes us to require the rod of God upon our backs to keep us right. In what I am about to say, I am including myself as well as you, and I would include all the members of this church even if it were twenty or a hundred times its present size. If my voice could reach them, I would say it loudly and clearly to every one of them too. The fact is that if we get on in this world in some way – a little like Naaman – in our business, in our family life, in our education; if we get the good things of life, the sweet luxuries, then we are liable to forget God. It is indisputably so! It requires the strokes of God to be upon us to make us holy and humble, and keep us focused on Christ. I don’t intend to reason or to argue, but I can say this, and I appeal to the experience of every Christian person: hasn’t it been the case that when things were really bad with you, when God had to chasten you, that you prayed more earnestly and thought more of him in one week than you did in a whole year before then? Of course it is! We never pray more often or earnestly until we are put into the den of lions, into the furnace of fire. Then we do it.
Consider that brilliant Scotsman, Thomas Chalmers, teaching in St Andrews University for six months each year mathematics, chemistry and zoology, and then for the other months a minister and warning his congregation about the dangers of evangelical Christianity. Then in the summer of 1808 his dear sister died after a month’s illness and the following year his favourite uncle died – he was found dead on his knees in prayer.It was then that Chalmers himself contracted a disease so that for four months he hung between life and death. What was his mathematics, his chemistry and his zoology worth to him then? What did he learn from his illness? The shortness and insignificance of life. “I had been studying mathematics,” he said, “but I had forgotten two magnitudes. I thought not of the littleness of time, and recklessly I thought not of the greatness of eternity.” When he prayed he cried, “O God, fit a poor, dark, ignorant and wandering creature to become a minister of your Word.” How God answered that question! How mightily he changed the face of Scotland for good. How many poor people in Glasgow were later to be helped by him. Soon two men were walking home at the end of a service in which Chalmers had preached on John 3:16. One said to the other, “Did you feel anything in particular in church today? I’ve never felt myself to be a lost sinner till today when I was listening to that sermon.” “That’s very strange,” said his companion, “it was just the same with me.”
It was illness that transformed Chalmers, bringing him low and showing him the emptiness and brevity of hope in this life only, and it was also illness that was to change Naaman. I pray that it might not be the case with you. I pray that you might be awakened in health, and, with your vigour, present your body as a living sacrifice to God henceforth to serve him. But I must also pray that every shattered hope, and every cloudburst of disillusion that falls over you, every time your heart is broken, every time shame covers your face, in every sickness and all the fears of death that come upon you that you will flee to the heavenly Friend of the leper and that you will never cease crying to him until you know that through him you have received life and forgiveness.
19th August 2007