Most of us have never experienced a famine. We live in a land of such abundance of food that we have become vain to the point of widespread gluttony, excess, wastefulness, and discontent. How thankful should Christians be to the Lord for the abundance of food He provides each and every day?
And Elisha returned to Gilgal, and there was a famine in the land. Now the sons of the prophets were sitting before him; and he said to his servant, “Put on the large pot, and boil stew for the sons of the prophets.” So one went out into the field to gather herbs, and found a wild vine, and gathered from it a lapful of wild gourds, and came and sliced them into the pot of stew, though they did not know what they were. Then they served it to the men to eat. Now it happened, as they were eating the stew, that they cried out and said, “Man of God, there is death in the pot!” And they could not eat. So he said, “Then bring some flour.” And he put it into the pot, and said, “Serve it to the people, that they may eat.” And there was nothing harmful in the pot” (II Kings 4:38-41 NKJV).
When I was in college a friend invited me to a Bible study. The leader of the study had us all read a passage out loud and then asked us all one by one to tell the group what the passage meant to us. No two responses were the same. It came back to the leader of the study who said, “Great study tonight, let’s spend some time praying.” Looking back today, I do not remember the particular passage we read, but I still wonder who was correct.
How many meanings does a passage of Scripture have? Sometimes we read a text and our minds race all over the Scripture with seemingly related texts and many possible meanings. Two of the challenges we can sometimes bring to our reading, interpretation, and subsequent understanding of Scripture are: 1) forgetting what Scripture principally teaches; and 2) confusing a text’s meaning with its application.
What do the Scriptures principally teach? The Bible begins in this way, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” After telling us He was already there in the beginning and He created Heaven and earth out of nothing, hardly a page of Scripture can be turned without the Lord telling us things we are to know, remember, and believe about Him and the duty He requires of us.* “The Scriptures principally teach what man is to believe concerning God and what duty God requires of man.”** When we begin to consider a passage with these two questions: (What is God teaching me about Himself? What is God requiring of me?) We will be well on our way to accurately understanding the meaning.
Today’s portion of Scripture tells us of a physical famine in Israel.*** Israel was still living in sin and worshipping idols but was not experiencing a complete spiritual famine, for Israel still had a prophet in Elisha who was training additional prophets to gather the Lord’s remnant. During the course of their training, the prophets grew hungry and Elisha asked his servant to prepare stew for the group. When the servant gathered the food, he accidentally gathered from a wild vine that produced wild and poisonous vegetables. When the stew was served the mistake was quickly realized. Some commentators have speculated that this was a particularly sour herb and not necessarily poisonous. For a grown man to call something sour “death” and for the text to say “nothing harmful” remained it gives the strong impression of poison.
*Essentially every page of Scripture is teaching us what we are to believe concerning God and what duty God requires of man. A few samples: “Now the Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the LORD…The LORD, the LORD GOD, merciful and gracious, long suffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin…” (Ex. 34:5-6). “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (I John 1:9). (I John 1:9). “He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming quickly.” Amen, Even so, come, Lord Jesus! The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen” (Rev. 22:20-21).
**(Westminster Shorter Catechism Q&A #3).
***It is very likely that this is the same famine that Elisha warned the Shunammite woman to escape from with her family. In II Kings 8 she returned to find her home and land occupied by another person.