Elisha and the salt bowl Bible study - A tale of two vessels

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Bible Study on the Prophet Elisha

Elisha and the salt bowl Bible study - A tale of two vessels

by I Gordon


There are some great little stories in the life of Elisha. There really are. This study will focus on two of them. It is, you could say, be a tale of two vessels, for the two stories are connected as we shall see. And as we look at the two stories, we shall hopefully get some nice little glimpses into God's work in our lives through the gift of His Holy Spirit. Well, that's the plan anyway! The two stories that we will concern ourselves with today can be found in 2 Kings 2:19-22 and 2 Kings 4:1-7. Let's have a look at the first text.

When towns go bad...

2 Kings 2:19-22 The men of the city said to Elisha, 'Look, our lord, this town is well situated, as you can see, but the water is bad and the land is unproductive.' 'Bring me a new bowl,' he said, 'and put salt in it.' So they brought it to him. Then he went out to the spring and threw the salt into it, saying, 'This is what the LORD says: 'I have healed this water. Never again will it cause death or make the land unproductive. ''And the water has remained wholesome to this day, according to the word Elisha had spoken.

So the story begins with Elisha relaxing in Jericho. Now Jericho ('place of fragrance') as its name suggests, was a nice looking town. Even the men of the town are quick to point this out to Elisha for the first thing they say to him was 'the situation of this city is pleasant, as my lord sees.' (NASB). Yep, everything looked very nice, very pleasant. The kind of place that you might want to holiday or retire in I would think! But... there is a 'but'. 'But' the town folk said, 'the water is bad and the land is unproductive'. Now that is a big 'but'! Things are not what they seem down in Jericho. Appearances can be deceptive and if you scratched a little below the surface you would soon see that all is not well for the very springs of water that are meant to nourish and bring life to the town are polluted and bring the opposite. Not a good situation. To be more exact, the word that is translated 'unproductive' above is often translated 'unfruitful' in other translations and in the Hebrew, it contains the thought of 'causes to miscarry'. In other words, it would look like there was going to be fruit. It would look like the land was going to produce a crop... but it would miscarry, turn bad, and once again the hopes of the town would be dashed.

One strange solution...

Now we see that Elisha doesn't hesitate. He knows exactly what has to be done. 'Bring me a new bowl' he yells, 'and put salt in it.'  [1]  A strange solution you may say but one that has some pretty impressive results for we read that '  he went out to the spring and threw the salt into it, saying, 'This is what the LORD says: 'I have healed this water. Never again will it cause death or make the land unproductive.' And the water has remained wholesome to this day, according to the word Elisha had spoken.' 

Ok, so what's in it for me then aye?

Obviously I'm not here to give any gardening tips for unproductive soil. Probably because I don't know any! But in this story we have a great little picture of humanity. You see, this city is representative of humanity as a whole. On the outside, things look quite nice, tranquil and pleasant. Inwardly, below the surface, it is a whole different story. All is not well with our planet. Instead of the presence of God within the life of His creation, we have been born with a nature that is proud, self dependant, jealous, coveting, lustful and greedy. It is self consumed, barren and unfruitful. And all of humanities attempts at producing something worthwhile, fruitful, and lasting end in the same situation that the city of Jericho did in the story presented before us - it miscarries and the results are bad.

So what did Elisha do for he knew the answer...

1) He needed salt: Elisha knew that he needed salt for this problem. Salt, in the Bible, is often a picture of the indwelling life of God. Salt, as you may be aware, was used as a preservative in those days  [2]  as refrigerators hadn't been invented yet! They would place their meat and other food in layers of salt to prevent it from corruption. As such, the Bible often uses salt as a type of God's life within man. It is God's presence that preserves us and keeps us from corruption! It was salt that this city needed. It is salt (God's life) that we need.

2) He needed a new vessel: As mentioned above, Salt was what was needed, but it could only be contained within a new vessel! So it is with humanities problems. It needs the salt of God's indwelling presence once again - that which it forfeited oh so long ago in the garden. But the life of God can only be contained in a new vessel. One that is clean. The Bible doesn't tell people to try to clean up their old lives. It tells them to be born again and become a new creation, a new vessel indwelt by the presence of God's Holy Spirit. Only He can truly change a person and make them 'productive' again.

3) He needed to go to the source of the problem: He didn't look to the outward manifestation of the problem, nor did He try to just get each tree to be more fruitful. He didn't try to give the trees more fertiliser and care, or double the town folk's effort in trying to replant new trees in an effort to get more fruit. No way. Total waste of time! He went straight to the spring of water that was the source of the problem. The moral of the story? Well, the problem is not what we do. It is what we are. You can spend all of your life trying to tackle some outward sins but if you do not see and acknowledge what the source of the problem is, then you will never truly find the right solution.  [3] 

So Elisha knew what to do. It would take the salt (God's life) in a new vessel (our lives after being born again) being poured out into the source of the problem (our old nature). Now, I would draw your attention to another small story that follows on nicely from this one. Please read the following from 2 Kings 4:1-7:

The empty vessel

The wife of a man from the company of the prophets cried out to Elisha, 'Your servant my husband is dead, and you know that he revered the LORD. But now his creditor is coming to take my two boys as his slaves.' Elisha replied to her, 'How can I help you?Tell me, what do you have in your house?' 'Your servant has nothing there at all,' she said, ' except a little oil.' Elisha said, 'Go around and ask all your neighbors for empty jars. Don't ask for just a few. Then go inside and shut the door behind you and your sons. Pour oil into all the jars, and as each is filled, put it to one side.' She left him and afterward shut the door behind her and her sons . They brought the jars to her and she kept pouring. When all the jars were full, she said to her son, 'Bring me another one.' But he replied, ' There is not a jar left.' Then the oil stopped flowing . She went and told the man of God, and he said, 'Go, sell the oil and pay your debts. You and your sons can live on what is left.'

So there's the story. And another fantastic little story it is! We've got a woman, a jar, and a little oil... Not the normal ingredients for a blockbuster but something special is on the way none the less! But let's not jump ahead of ourselves because you've got to feel for this woman. This is a real person with very real and pressing needs! She had lost her husband, lost her money, lost most of her possessions, and now, through the cruel actions of an angry creditor, she is about to lose all that she still had - her two boys. Put yourself in her shoes for a minute. Would you be ready to give up? Though she had little else, one thing still remained... her faith in God! So through faith, she cries out to Elisha to perform the impossible. And in a wonderful miracle, as she presents what she has (only empty jars and a little oil) to all that God is and can do, the oil is multiplied, her debts are paid and she has an abundance!

So what does this mean for me? 

Well, apart from the encouragement that can be taken from the fact that God sees, cares, and provides for His children (even if He does let things get quite low and hard first!), let's look at what pictures are presented to us in this story. You see, if the first story we saw that Elisha needed a new vessel or jar in which to place salt. This emphasised the first and foremost need of becoming a new creation... a new vessel fit for the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. But this story presents us with the next stage. You see oil is also a well known type of the Holy Spirit in the Bible.  [4]  Salt speaks to us of the keeping power of the Holy Spirit, holding at bay the corrupting influence of the old nature. But oil speaks to us of the Holy Spirit's light and anointing to perform that which is now required of a Christian. So with this in mind, let's look at three main points that we can take from this story.

1) Colour, shape and size doesn't matter: You will recall the woman in this story had to go out and find as many jars as she could to be filled. Now, did it matter about the size or shape of the vessel? Did it matter if it was a new jar, an old jar, a pretty jar an ugly jar, a skinny jar or a fat jar? Not at all! The oil could fill the jar whether it was any of these types. Is God limited to only certain types of people today? No way! He uses all that present themselves to Him to be used. The only requirement, as expressed by Elisha, was that ...

2) The jar had to be empty: Obviously the only thing that stops a vessel being filled is if it is already filled with something else! So Elisha instructed the lady to get empty jars. The Bible speaks of us being filled with the Holy Spirit. But it also speaks of the empting process that allows us to be in a state to be filled and used by God. We need to be emptied of pride and self dependence to be filled by God. That is the message of 2 Cor 4. Firstly, it speaks of God's light (the oil giving light of the Holy Spirit) being in our little vessel:

 'For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus' sake. For God, who said, 'Let light shine out of darkness,' made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.' 

And secondly it goes on to show the 'emptying' process that occurs so that we can be filled with the Lord's life and power.

 'We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.' 

3) The vessels had to keep coming: There was an abundance of oil that would keep flowing into the jars as long as there was a jar to fill. Once the woman stopped presenting an empty jar to be filled, then the oil stopped. Let me say it this way. There will never come a time that there is not a need to present yourself back to God, as an empty vessel, in need of His filling. And the oil of the Holy Spirit only stops when we stop presenting ourselves back to Him.


You may recall that Jesus told His disciples, and all that would follow Him, to be two things. He told them to be the salt of this earth and he told them to be a light to this world. Matt 5:13-16: 'You are the salt of the earth...You are the light of the world... In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.

Well, we have seen in this study that the salt and the light (fuelled by the oil) are types of the Holy Spirit, and as such, your ability to be the salt and to be the light as Jesus commanded, comes down to one word - 'responsibility'. That is, your response to His ability. It means having a desire to see His light shine forth through your life, and presenting yourself to Him to be filled with the resources you need to see that performed. And hopefully this 'tale of two vessels' from 2 nd Kings has reminded you of that need once again.

[1] ↩  It always amazes me that God never seems to tackle a problem in the same way. In fact, sometimes you get the feeling that the solutions He comes up with are just made up on the spot! But... if you are thinking that, you would ofcourse be wrong. Every means of deliverance that God uses is there to teach us something. So one day, it will be put a tree into the waters to take away bitterness. The next it will be strike a rock and it will give you water. Now it is fetch me a bowl and put salt in it! All totally different ways that God has given His people water and all with a distinct purpose in mind! Let's think about these three examples for a sec. The first is when God instructs Moses to throw a tree into the water to take away the bitterness so that they can drink and live. (Ex 15:22-27) This of course is a picture of the cross - the tree that Jesus was crucified on to bring us life. The next time the Israelites need water, God instructs Moses to strike the rock (Ex 17) and in doing so it gives forth an abundance of water for all Israel. This again, is a picture of the Holy Spirit (the water) that was given once the rock (Jesus) was struck on the cross. And now we have this incident were the water is bad and the land is unproductive. But I best not be spilling the beans on this just yet else there is no point in reading the rest of the study!

[2] ↩  Because of it's ability to preserve food, salt was incredibly important in those days and people were sometimes paid in salt. You may have heard of the expression 'he is worth ones salt' meaning that he is worth ones wages.

[3] ↩  For getting to the source of the issue, read Romans 7. What did Paul find out? Well, he found that the issue was not what he did but what he was. 'What a wretched man that I am' he cried out. 'Who will deliver me from this body of death?' having come to the true source of the problem, he could then see that the answer couldn't lie within himself but in someone else... It was only then that he made the discovery of 'the law of the spirit of life' that can set us free from 'the law of sin and death'. See Rom 8.

[4] ↩  Amongst other uses, oil was associated with the offerings to God (Num 6:15), at the consecration of priests (Ex. 29:2), the anointing for service (Psalm 23:5), and as the source of light for lamps. (Matt 25:4) In all of these examples it is a type of the Holy Spirit that is the source of our strength, anointing and light.