Now the men of the city said to Elisha, “Behold, the situation of this city is pleasant, as my lord sees; but the water is bad, and the land in unfruitful.” He said, “Bring me a new bowl, and put salt in it.” So, they brought it to him. The he went to the spring of water and threw salt in it, and said, “Thus says the Lord, I have made this water wholesome; henceforth neither death nor miscarriage shall come from it.” So the water has been wholesome to this day according to the word which Elisha spoke. II Kings 2:19–22 (RSV)
The curse in life can be removed by God alone. Jericho was a very desirable location for a city. But the water was bad, “and it causes miscarriages in the land” (Berkeley). Jericho had been rebuilt by the evil Ahab in direct disobedience of God’s Word (Josh. 6:26), thus erasing its ruins and denying the message of salvation by grace which they memorialized. The city was rebuilt, providing Ahab’s kingdom with protection against the enemy, but the curse remained. It spoke very loudly of the fact that fruitlessness is the reward of all who seek life apart from the Life-giver, of all who will not walk in the way of His Covenant.
From Exodus 23:26 and Deuteronomy 7:14 we learn that in Israel barrenness of man and beast stands in connection with the blessing and the curse of the Covenant. But this general observation requires particular application when we note that the water of Jericho is salty, and that the people there are prevented from enjoying the blessing promised to the dwellers of the Promised Land. This is a particular curse of God upon these people! Literally the people report to Elisha that the water caused miscarriages. Life was “nipped in the bud.” God’s Word had been despised, and Israel thought it quite possible to protect its own life, and to insure its own future.
The failure of Baal and Ahab and Hiel (I Kings 16:34) is implied in the coming of Jericho’s citizens to Elisha, whose name means: “My God is salvation.” And Elisha may open his ministry to Israel by revealing that his God is merciful and gracious, and that he is able by his own means to remove the curse which his people have brought upon themselves. For salt means many things in Scripture (it purifies, prevents corruption, preserves, is a symbol of the Covenant), but I doubt if anyone of these is to be thought of here. Here the question might well be, Can more salt make salt water fresh and wholesome? Obviously, then, the re-creative Word of God is the real means of grace, the actual instrument of restoration, the tool in God’s equipment case by which the curse is lifted.
Elisha’s speech is not the mumbling of a magician. God speaks, says he, to pronounce the water pure so that death and miscarriage no longer come from it (vs. 21). And so the blessing of the Covenant returns. For curse and blessing are righteous, forensic pronouncements of God. They demand of us, therefore, that we walk in the ways of Jahweh, that we honor His Word as the power of God which always fulfills its own pronouncements.
Salvation is, therefore, only by faith. Faith alone can discern the presence of Covenant blessing, and faith alone fears its counterpart, Covenant curse, or, if you will, arrested grace. Hiel’s sons died, one at the beginning of the Jericho rebuilding project, another at its close, but only those who are alert to the Word will conclude that this was not an unusual coincidence but that it truly revealed God’s attitude of disfavor. Only those who know the Lord and who build upon his Word, the Word that promises and threatens, can distinguish between curse, punishment, trial, temptation, chastisement, between blessing and success.
“We believe that this true faith, being wrought ill man by the hearing of the Word of God and the operation of the Holy Spirit, regenerates him and makes him a new man, causing him to live a new life, and freeing him from the bondage of sin” (Article 24, Belgic Confession).