In the times of Elisha there lived a remarkable man from the area of Baal-Shalisha. The district wasn’t always called by that name. It was originally known just as Shalisha and was noted as the very place where Saul went searching for his father’s lost asses (1 Sam 9:3-4). With Baal worship becoming prominent in the days of Ahab and Jezebel, it was most likely renamed Baal-Shalisha because it had become one of the centres of Baal worship in the area.

According to the Macmillan Bible Atlas Baal-Shalisha was a district about 12kms north east of Bethel in the tribe of Ephraim, close to the border of Manasseh. Baal-Shalisha means ‘the Lord of the three lands’ and it may have been derived from the fact that it lay in the vicinity of three tribal areas: Benjamin, Ephraim and Manasseh. Be that as it may, it is a land associated in the Scriptures with Baal worship and particularly, the lost. Yet from this land came a remarkable man who defied the characteristics of his homeland and gave generously to the work of God.

2 Kings 4 provides the narrative: “And there came a man from Baal-shalisha, and brought the man of God bread of the firstfruits, twenty loaves of barley, and full ears of corn in the husk thereof. And he said, Give unto the people, that they may eat” (v42).

Several points of interest emerge from this record. It comes immediately after the incident where we learn that there was a dearth in the land (v38). Food was scarce, so much so that the sons of the prophets were reduced to searching the surrounding countryside for anything that could be boiled for a meal. In this incident, Elisha removes death from the pot and in the next incident, God reveals His care for those who work in His service. The two events together were teaching the sons of the prophets that they could rely on God for everything, including the eventual removal of death from mankind.

How was death to be removed? Only once Elisha had cast meal (the Hebrew word means ‘flour’ and represents the miraculous power of God’s Word, 1 Kings 17:12,14,16) into the vessel. This is what can provide life—assimilation of the Word of God into our lives. Following this Elisha said, “Pour out for the people, that they may eat” (2 Kings 4:41). This is very similar to what he said when he received the firstfruits from the man from Baal-Shalisha: “Give unto the people, that they may eat.” The two incidents are linked by these requests.

The man from Baal-Shalisha is remarkable for a number of reasons. The land is in drought, yet despite that hardship he is still able to selflessly offer firstfruits. In a nation scarred by Baal worship and idolatry he saw Elisha very distinctly as a man of God and acted upon that knowledge by donating much needed food to the cause of the prophetic office. He unequivocally supported the sons of the prophets at the time of their direst need.

His offering consisted of “bread of the firstfruits.” Under the Law of Moses, Israel were to give the “firstfruit also of thy corn, of thy wine, and of thine oil, and the first of the fleece of thy sheep” to the priests. But there were no appointed priests in the northern kingdom, neither was there a suitable place of worship to bring the gift to. The priests had been removed from office in the early days of the divided kingdom and had fled south (2 Chron 11:13-14). There was therefore no legal obligation for anyone to give their firstfruits to God. But this man was different. He fulfilled the spirit of the Law and gave to those whom he considered were the next best thing—the sons of the prophets, headed up by the man of God. This is evidence of a deep-rooted faith and desire to support the work of God in the midst of so much idolatry and evil. Here is the spirit of the Law being practiced in a kingdom filled with darkness.

The only other time the expression “bread of the firstfruits” occurs in the Hebrew is in Leviticus 23:20 where it is used to describe the two wave loaves offered on the day of the Feast of Weeks. This day was 50 days after the Passover and later became known as the Day of Pentecost. It pointed forward to the day when Jew and Gentile would be begotten “with the Word of Truth” to become a kind of firstfruits to God (James 1:18). The Word of Truth in the midst of so much apostacy had become another essential ingredient in the man of Baal-Shalisha’s gift.

The gift of this unnamed man also included “twenty loaves of barley.” Barley was much more widely cultivated in that time compared with today and it was the main food of the poor. It was always considered secondary to wheat (2 Kings 7:1; Rev 6:6) and was used to feed the animals (1 Kings 4:28). It became, therefore, a symbol of the extreme degree of wretchedness Israel would suffer for their evil (cp Ezek 4:12-14). In a word, it represented humiliation and it was in this spirit of abasement and humility that the man from Baal-Shalisha offered his gift. He was generous and liberal, but also humble as well. He remains deliberately unnamed in the record to illustrate this characteristic. He never sought to draw attention to himself. He never sought the praises of men.

Lastly, his gift consisted of “full ears of corn in the husk thereof.” The Hebrew word translated “full ears of corn” is ‘karmel,’ which is translated “fruitful field” in a number of places (Isa 29:17; 32:15-16) and “plentiful field” in Jeremiah 48:33, where it is associated with joy and gladness. This latter quote helps explain another aspect behind the man’s giving. He donated to the work of God with a joyful and grateful heart.

The RV and ESV translate “in the husk thereof” as “in his sack.” If this is correct, then we understand that it was only a small gift he could bring, something that you could carry in a sack on your back. Yet he was prepared to travel many miles to seek out the man of God and humbly and sincerely offer this meagre contribution. He was prepared to honour Yahweh with his substance and with the firstfruits of all his increase (Prov 3:9). What a wonderful illustration of the principle Paul spoke of in 2 Corinthians 9:7, “Every man according as he purposeth in his heart, so let him give; not grudgingly, or of necessity: for God loveth a cheerful giver.”

God saw this humility and generosity in the midst of adversity and idolatry. He witnessed the joy of this man’s giving and his acknowledgement of the importance of His work amongst the sons of the prophets. And with that in mind, God told Elisha that this was what His people needed to be sustained by: “Give unto the people (the Hebrew am means ‘the nation’), that they may eat.”

When Elisha conveyed this command, he spoke to no one in particular because he expected all of those who were present to undertake this task. However, the servant of Elisha (note that this was formerly the position Gehazi held), perhaps sensing the futility of the task, spoke on behalf of the group. It would go nowhere near satisfying the hunger of one hundred men, he protested (2 Kings 4:43). But Elisha was insistent: “Give the people, that they may eat: for thus saith the Lord, They shall eat, and shall leave thereof.” On a spiritual plane, Elisha expected the sons of the prophets to feed the people of Israel with the Word of life in the same spirit of humility, joy and truthfulness the man from Baal-Shalisha had demonstrated. The real problem with the servant was not lack of food but lack of faith. When he heard the words, “Give unto the people that they may eat” he should have recalled the previous miracle which had just occurred when Elisha had commanded in a similar fashion, “pour out for the people that they may eat.”

The miracle occurred “according to the word of Yahweh” and it produced a feast in which there would be more than enough. Indeed, there would be some left over for more people to partake of later (v44). God performed the miracle and Elisha merely conveyed this message of hope. Where the servant saw a situation where there was not enough, the man of God saw more than enough. He saw an overflowing abundance of God’s generosity. Faith sees things from a totally different perspective. Rather than seeing scarcity all around him, the man of God saw a world full of divine abundance.

We can imagine the impact this miracle had on those sons of the prophets. In effect, God was saying that He was giving them the grave responsibility of bearing His Word to a wicked and idolatrous nation. Without His strength and provision, the task would seem impossible, but if they could proceed in faith, they could achieve wonderful things. They would face personal hardships, persecutions, times of want, and many other difficulties for which only God was adequate. If they could believe God and trust in Him for all their needs and responsibilities, they could feed the nation. They could take the Word that God had given them and multiply this across the people, trusting that God could work in their midst as He saw fit.

This miracle was therefore primarily for these sons of the prophets. It was teaching them that they were being schooled and educated in the Word, not simply to experience the delights of that Word, but to preach and disseminate it across the nation. They were to be the embodiment of the still small voice. This miracle was encouraging them to feed the people in the north with the bread of life in God’s strength. They might at first respond in doubt, limiting God’s power like Elisha’s servant did, but Elisha was insistent that they needed to go forth according to the Word of God. Faith had to conquer their sense of inadequacy and fear. They were being encouraged to believe that God could prosper and multiply their work and that He could do exceeding abundantly above all that they could ask or think (Eph 3:20).

When we come to the New Testament we find that the miracle of feeding the 5000 is the only miracle recorded in all four gospels and is therefore significant in understanding our Lord’s work. Like everything our Master did, it was always greater than anything the prophets of old did; and that included the miracle under consideration. Our Lord used fewer loaves and fed far more people. Elisha was informed by God that He would supply the food. Christ, however, spoke directly to the people without that need to seek God’s specific consent first because he always did those things that pleased Him (John 8:29).

But there are some clear similarities between the two miracles. Both miracles involved barley loaves. One occurred during a time of dearth, the other in a waste wilderness. Both the followers of Elisha and the disciples of Jesus were invited to feed the people. And just as Elisha’s servant couldn’t see how so few loaves could feed a multitude, so Phillip said, “Two hundred pennyworth of bread is not sufficient for them, that every one of them may take a little” (John 6:7). Just as there was some bread left over in Elisha’s day so when the disciples gathered up the fragments which remained, they “filled twelve baskets with the fragments of the five barley loaves, which remained over and above unto them that had eaten” (John 6:13).

When Jesus said to his disciples, “Give ye them to eat” (Luke 9:13) he was passing the responsibilities of feeding the nation over to them. He would give himself for them as the bread of life, but he sought their faithful cooperation in taking that message to the world. He saw beyond the present and was asking them to feed those who wished to receive the Word. The same commission has been given to us all.

We are commanded to teach and make others wise (Dan 12:3 mg). We are also commanded to encourage and edify the ecclesia (Rom 15:2; Eph 4:12). “The lips of the righteous feed many,” says Proverbs 10:21 and the food is described in Jeremiah 3:15 as “knowledge and understanding.” Indeed, it is particularly the responsibility of the mature in the ecclesia to feed and lead (Acts 20:28; 1 Pet 5:2).

If we can bring to mind the wonderful sincerity, truthfulness, joy and humility of the man from Baal-Shalisha, we will all be the more equipped to support and encourage others in our work of sustaining and feeding. How wonderful our contribution to the work can be if we go forth in faith, constantly understanding that God’s provision is always more than enough.