Shunem was a town in the tribal lands of Issachar, three and a half miles north of Jezreel, the home of the summer palace for the kings of Israel. If you have a newer translation, you already know that, at least in this passage, “great” means “wealthy.” Yet this woman was great in our own vernacular as well.
The very fact that she recognized Elisha as a man of God and wanted to help him was amazing in itself. Israel was headed headlong into rampant idolatry and immorality. Jehoram reigned, a son of Ahab, a king of whom the scriptures say, and he did that which was evil in the sight of the Lord. Although he put away Ahab’s pillar to Baal, nevertheless he clung to the sin of Jeroboam the son of Nebat which he made Israel to sin; he did not depart from it (3:2,3).
This woman in the midst of an apostate people managed to remain faithful to Jehovah, to recognize his servant and to offer him a permanent room on his journeys. This was not a spare room in the house, but one she added, increasing the expense of it. It began with her invitation to a meal, then another, and another any time he passed by. He couldn’t offer her a schedule or phone ahead. The terms were always “whenever.” Thus it began and grew to the greater commitment of a furnished room.
Unlike so many other examples of Biblical hospitality, she was the instigator, not her husband, and she did it without looking for a return. Indeed, when a thank you gift was offered, she was surprised. I dwell among my own people, she said, indicating she did not think herself special or worthy at all. This utter humility of a wealthy person is amazing when you see the opposite in so many today. And how many of us would be expecting not only a hostess gift, but the singing of our praises to others as well? She seemed to view Elisha as the worthy one, not herself.
Truly, her greatness was about her faith. She served Elisha, not to gain glory but because he was “a man of God.” She recognized that wealth was to be used in service to God not to self.
Several years later Elisha did her a great favor, warning her of a coming famine. Arise and depart with your household and sojourn wherever you can, he told her. It will come upon the land for seven years (8:1).
How many of us would have the faith to leave everything at one word, not knowing whether we would ever get it back? Wealth was measured in belongings in those days, land and crops and flocks and herds, not in bank accounts, investments, and stock portfolios. She could take none of it with her. When she left, she virtually impoverished herself. Would we do the same, or does it all mean just a little too much to us?
God in his providence took care of this faithful woman. When she returned to the land seven years later and made petition to the country’s wicked king, Elisha’s old dishonored servant Gehazi “just happened” to be there, entertaining the king with stories about his days with the old prophet.
“Why look here!” he told the king. “This is the woman I told you about,” and being in a generous frame of mind, the king restored her land along with all the produce of the fields from the day she left till now (8:3-6).
That “great” woman had no idea she would get it all back. Elisha had never promised her anything except her life and her family’s lives if she left. But she was so “great”—wealthy—in faith that God chose to reward her.
Don’t make any mistake about it. We fit the bill; we are the wealthy ones the scriptures talk about. How is our faith these days? Is it “great” or impoverished? Are we rich toward the world or “rich toward God” (Luke 12:21)? We show the answer by how we use our monetary wealth. We show it by how we expect to be treated by others who are less fortunate. We show it by the importance we place on it.
How would we measure up against this “great” woman?
As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life. 1 Tim 6:17-19