Like the ministry of Elijah, the ministry of his successor Elisha took place primarily within the boundaries of the northern kingdom of Israel. So, the events recorded in today’s passage took place in Israel, specifically in the city of Shunem, located about fifteen miles southwest of the Sea of Galilee (2 Kings 4:8).
In our study of the history of the northern kingdom of Israel, we have seen that it was characterized by idolatry and by kings who were far from the ideal leaders of God’s people. Still, not everyone in Israel rejected the Lord. In the days of Elijah, God preserved seven thousand in Israel who did not bow their knees to Baal (1 Kings 19:1–18). In the days of Elisha, there were faithful people as well, among them one of the families in Shunem. The woman in this family recognized Elisha as a holy man of God, so she and her husband prepared a room for him to stay in when he came to Shunem in the course of his itinerant ministry (2 Kings 4:9–10). Wanting to reward her for her service, Elisha found out that she was barren and promised that the Lord would give her a son (vv. 11–17).
Frequently in the history of salvation, God intervened to give a barren woman a child. We recall, for instance, the birth of Isaac to Sarah and the birth of Samuel to Hannah (Gen. 18:1–15; 21:1–7; 1 Sam. 1:1–20). In this case, however, the Shunammite woman’s son played no critical role in the advance of the messianic line or growth of the kingdom. This family was not important in the history of God’s people in the same way that the family of someone such as Abraham or Jesse was. However, this family was important enough to the Lord for Him to bless them. This is a good lesson for us, as one commentator has observed. God does not care only about those who play critical roles in the advance of His purposes, but He does good to all His people.
When the Shunammite’s son was grown, however, he died without any advance warning. God in His grace did eventually raise the young man back to life, yet it is important to note that throughout this episode, the Lord kept His purposes hidden from Elisha (2 Kings 4:18–37; see especially v. 27). As critical as Elisha was in his day for calling Israel to faith and repentance, he was not God but merely a creature. While we should esteem faithful servants of the Lord, we should never allow them to take the place of the Lord in our lives. They will come and go, but the Lord stands forever.