‘They also serve who only stand and wait’

Recently my husband and I read the story of Elisha and Naaman. Recall that Naaman was the commander of the Aramean army. “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,” says 1 Kings 5:1.

The Arameans (Syrians) and Israel were regularly at war during the period of the kings of Israel and Judah. Bands of raiders from Aram had taken some Israelites captive, among whom was “a young girl” who was brought into Naaman’s household as a servant to Naaman’s wife. It is that unnamed Israelite girl and later several Aramean male servants of Naaman’s – lowly and inconsequential, all – who pique my interest.

The Israelite girl was ripped from her own parents, family, culture – and God. Yet she had not only adjusted to life as a captive in a foreign culture but was faithfully serving Naaman’s wife. There was rampant idolatry in Israel then, but the girl must have had believing parents. She knew God, and she knew that the true God had a true prophet; she even knew where Elisha lived: Samaria. And she had no doubt at all that he could cure Naaman of his leprosy. She didn’t withhold that information just because she was in Aram with Naaman and his wife against her will. She volunteered it – eagerly so, implied by her words, “If only my master would see the prophet.”

So Naaman tells his king (likely Ben-Hadad II). And the king says, “Go! I’ll write you a letter for Israel’s king.” Was it natural for an ancient king to think that another king with a powerful god could affect such a cure? Or did Naaman neglect to mention the prophet? Or did Ben-Hadad assume that Elisha was under the King of Israel’s control? Whatever the case, Ben-Hadad sends Naaman off to see Joram, King of Israel; and not empty-handed. Naaman takes along a gift, a bribe as it were: 10 sets of clothing, 10 talents of silver, 6,000 shekels of gold (NLB: 750 pounds of silver and 150 pounds of gold!).

Fearless advice
Joram was a son of the notorious Ahab and Jezebel. He, like his parents, “did evil in the eyes of the LORD” – but wasn’t as bad as his father and mother (2 Kings 3:2). Joram was an idolater but he knew enough of the true God to be thoroughly dismayed at Ben-Hadad’s letter. He tears his clothes, exclaiming, “Am I God? Can I kill and bring back to life?” He immediately assumes Ben-Hadad is trying to pick a quarrel with him.

Elisha quickly hears about the incident (he seems to have had an amazing communications network). He chides King Joram for his failure to realize that God rules over life and death – and has a prophet in Samaria.

You know the rest. Naaman is angered by Elisha’s instructions – not even face-to-face, but through his servant – to wash in the Jordan River seven times in order to be cured. And here’s where those other servants come in. They work for Naaman, and bravely step into the breach, as the Israelite girl had done first. They boldly chide Naaman (don’t forget he has life and death power over them). They reason with him audaciously. If Elisha had asked something hard, you’d do it, they say. How much more something as easy as washing in the Jordan? Naaman shows his righteous character by listening to his servants and taking their advice. And, as we know, he is cured.

I find the actions of the Israelite girl and these servants instructive. Socially they are the next thing to slaves. Morally and spiritually they are people of integrity, and God uses them all out of proportion to their human-presumed importance to enact the outcome he desires.

This makes me think of John Milton’s famous sonnet on his blindness. He wonders whether God has a place and service for one so “useless” as he, whose “light is spent,” who cannot function in polite society. Then in a beautiful, biblical manner he answers his own doubts, having Patience personified speak these famous, insightful, encouraging words:

“God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts: who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.”

  • Marian Van Til is a former CC editor who lived in Canada from 1975-2000. She now freelances for journals and writes books. Marian is also a classical musician and the music director at a Lutheran Church. She and her husband, Ed Cassidy, live in Youngstown, NY.

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