Would you please explain 2 Kings 5:17-19? Did Elisha permit the Syrian officer Naaman to worship idols in the pagan temple of Rimmon?


Some have used this passage to justify Christian participation in
pagan worship services. This is, however, not the meaning of 2 Kings
5:17-19, and the Bible, as a whole, clearly condemns such practices.
Before analyzing the passage in question, let us review what happened

Beginning in verse 1 of 2 Kings 5, we find that Naaman
was the commander of the army of the king of Syria, a great and
honorable man, but a leper. With the king’s permission, Naaman went to
Israel to be healed by the prophet Elisha from his leprosy. Elisha did
not meet with Naaman, but told him through a messenger to wash in the
Jordan River seven times, to become clean. Naaman had expected to see
Elisha personally and reacted with anger regarding Elisha’s injunction,
belittling the Jordan River in comparison with the mighty rivers of
Syria. His servants persuaded him to obey Elisha, and when he did, he
was healed from his leprosy. Naaman went to Elisha and offered him a
gift, which Elisha refused to accept. Naaman also said: “Indeed, now I
know that there is no other God in all the earth, except in Israel”
(verse 15). Requesting “two mule-loads of earth,” he explained: “…
your servant will no longer offer either burnt offering or sacrifice to
other gods, but to the LORD” (verse 17).

He then continued to
say: “Yet in this thing may the LORD pardon your servant: when my
master goes into the temple of Rimmon to worship there, and he leans on
my hand, and I bow down in the temple of Rimmon–when I bow down in the
temple of Rimmon, may the LORD please pardon your servant in this
thing” (verse 18). The record goes on to say, in verse 19: “Then he
[Elisha] said to him, ‘Go in peace.’ So he departed from him…”

Henry’s Commentary points out, correctly, that both requests of Naaman
are dubious, to say the least: “1. In one instance he over-did it, that
he would not only worship the God of Israel, but he would have clods of
earth out of the prophet’s garden… He that a while ago had spoken
very slightingly of the waters of Israel (v. 12) now is in another
extreme, and over-values the earth of Israel, supposing that an altar
of that earth would be most acceptable to him. 2. In another instance
he under-did it, that he reserved to himself the liberty to bow in the
house of Rimmon, in complaisance to the king his master, and according
to the duty of his place at court (v. 18)… If, in covenanting with
God, we make a reservation for any known sin, which we will continue to
indulge ourselves in, that reservation is a defeasance of his covenant.
We must cast away all our transgressions and not except any house of
Rimmon. If we ask for a dispensation to go on in any sin for the
future, we mock God, and deceive ourselves.”

The Broadman Bible
Commentary points out that Naaman’s “desire for dirt from Israel [was] closely linked to the common belief that gods were identified with the
land itself–an attitude that continued even in Israel for an
embarrassingly long period of time… Naaman’s second request dealt
with the necessity of accompanying his master when he worshipped
Rimmon… the god of storm and rain… Elisha apparently grants both

The Ryrie Study Bible concurs, stating that “Elisha
assured him that God would understand…” But did he? Did Elisha permit
Naaman to worship idols in the temple of Rimmon? If he did, why did he
do it? And, why did Elisha not clearly prohibit Naaman from doing so?

The New Bible Commentary: Revised points out the difficulty with this passage, by stating:

answer is non-committal, but it has given scholars all sorts of
problems in former generations, and even led to establishing an
artificial difference between true worship of the false god and joining
in the ritual act without any faith in the act.”

But such
“difference” is in fact only “artificial”–that is, without value or
accuracy. After all, Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 10:16-22: “The cup
of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of
Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body
of Christ? For we, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all
partake of that one bread. Observe Israel after the flesh: Are not
those who eat of the sacrifices partakers of the altar? What am I
saying then? That an idol is anything, or what is offered to idols is
anything? Rather, that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice they
sacrifice to demons and not to God, and I do not want you to have
fellowship with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the
cup of demons; you cannot partake of the Lord’s table and of the table
of demons. Or do we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than

As we explain on page 18 of our booklet, “Don’t Keep
,” Paul was referring here to the common religious practice of
many to incorporate pagan rituals in their worship of God. Paul
specifically prohibited true Church members to do that. We also note
that Daniel’s three friends refused to bow down before the image or
idol erected by King Nebuchadnezzar, and that they were willing to die
for their refusal to do so (compare Daniel 3).

We also read
Paul’s clear command in 2 Corinthians 6:16-17: “And what agreement has
the temple of God with idols? For you are the temple of the living
God… Therefore, ‘Come out from among them And be separate, says the
Lord…'” Paul tells us to come out of pagan temples and forsake pagan
religious worship–not, to go into those temples and participate in
false religious ceremonies.

Why, then, did Elisha omit to give a similarly strongly-worded prohibition to Naaman?

the narrative, we should be able to see that Naaman was just at the
very beginning stage of understanding small portions of God’s truth.
Although he sounded sincere, he might have been one “who hears the word
and immediately receives it with joy; yet he has no root in himself,
but endures only for a while. For when tribulation or persecution
arises because of the word, immediately he stumbles” (Matthew
13:20-21). Even though, Naaman specifically requested of Elisha to
FORGIVE him his conduct of accompanying the king into the temple of
Rimmon and to bow down there with him. This means, Naaman seemed to
have understood that bowing down in front of an idol was wrong–even
though he would do it in compliance with his duties toward the king. A
modern-day example would be if we would accompany our employer into his
church and knelt down in front of the statue of a “saint.” No true
Christian should ever do this.

IF Elisha expressly permitted
Naaman to accompany his master into a pagan temple and to bow down
before a pagan idol, then, based on the clear instructions of the
Biblical record, such permission would have been against God’s perfect
Will. Many commentaries feel, however, that Elisha’s conduct cannot be
viewed as an express permission.

Jamieson, Fausset and Brown
state: “Elisha’s prophetic commission not extending to any but the
conversion of Israel from idolatry, he makes no remark, either
approving or disapproving, on the declared course of action, but simply
gives… the parting benediction.” Soncino concurs with this
understanding and adds that Elisha left the apparent inconsistency in
Naaman’s proposed conduct up to Naaman’s own judgment.

of how to view Elisha’s conduct in Naaman’s case, the Biblical teaching
for us today is very clear: True Christians must not participate in
pagan worship services, nor must they participate in “Christian”
services and activities which are derived from paganism. God
specifically prohibited ancient Israel, and He prohibits us today, to
inquire how the pagans worshipped their gods, and to adopt their
practices in our worship of the true God (compare Deuteronomy
12:29-32). As Paul very clearly explained: We CANNOT partake of the
Lord’s table and of the table of demons, as we would thereby have
fellowship with demons. To apply God’s prohibition to our day and age,
at least three obvious examples come to mind: A true Christian must not
bow down before the statue of an idol–regardless of what “Christian”
name might be given to that statue. He must not participate in the
celebration of religious holidays which are clearly derived from
paganism, such as Sunday, Christmas and Easter. And, he must not
partake of weekly “communion” in “Christian” churches which have
adopted most of their teachings from pagan beliefs and practices.

Lead Writer: Norbert Link

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