HEALING IN THE OLD TESTAMENT
The number of specific healings recorded in the Old Testament bears no comparison with those recorded in the Gospels and Acts. In fact there are only twelve recorded in the four millennia of Old Testament history, far less than Jesus sometimes did in a single day!
Signs and Wonders in the Old Testament
Healing is part of the great plethora of divine activities recorded between Genesis and Malachi. Each of Israel’s historical eras is peppered with angelic visitations, divine revelations, anthropomorphic appearances, acts of judgement, supernatural manifestations and miraculous deliverances which are purposefully recorded as evidence of God’s interaction with mankind, but especially his people, Israel.
Moses lifting up the brazen serpent
These miraculous occurrences provided Israel with confidence in their leaders and in the Scriptures that recorded their stories. How else would they have accepted Moses’ ministry and message without witnessing the signs that accompanied him? Moses rod that became a serpent, the plagues of Egypt, the death of the first-born, the pillar of cloud, the pillar of fire and a host of other spectacular manifestations underscored the fact that God was actively involved with his people and that Moses was his messenger.
The same could be said of the rest of the Old Testament with its interweaving of prophetic activity and real-time events. God’s way has always been to endorse his men and their message by signs and wonders that men might believe.
There are two main periods when such activities abounded in Old Testament times. The first was during the time of Moses and the second during the consecutive ministries of Elijah and Elisha. Far more supernatural events were recorded in each of these two eras than in the rest of the Old Testament added together. Though God was always at work in the world and amongst His people, there were special times when his activity was intensified and observable phenomenon flourished. They may be described as ‘times of refreshing from the Lord.’ (Acts 3:19)
Specific Healings recorded in the Old Testament
There are twelve occurrences of individual healings and three corporate healings recorded in the Old Testament.
1. Gen 20:1-18
‘Then Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Abimelech, his wife and his slave girls so they could have children again, for the Lord had closed up every womb in Abimelech's household because of Abraham's wife Sarah.’ Gen 20:17-18
2. Num 12:1-15
God inflicted Miriam with leprosy and Moses interceded for her saying, ‘O God, please heal her!’ Though there is no record of her healing it must be assumed that the Lord exchanged this act of judgement with the lesser penalty of seven days of disgrace outside the camp. There is no further mention of her having leprosy.
3. 1 Sam 1:9-20
Hannah received healing from barreness in response to her personal prayers and Eli, the priest’s declaration.
4. 1 Kings 13:4-6
King Jeroboam pointed his hand in judgement at an unnamed prophet and it ‘shrivelled up.’ The prophet interceded for Jeroboam and his hand was restored to health.
Elijah raises a widows son from death
5. 1 Kings 17:17-24
Elijah raised a widow’s son from death.
6. 2 Kings 4:8-17
Elisha granted a child to the formerly barren Shunnamite woman.
7. 2 Kings 4:18-37
The Shunamite’s son dies and Elisha raised him from the dead.
8. 2 Kings 5:1-14
Naaman, commander of the King of Aram’s army, was healed of leprosy after following Elisha’s counsel.
9. 2 Kings 13:21
A dead man was thrown into Elisha’s tomb and contact with Elisha’s bones raised the man to life.
10. 2 Kings 20:1-7, 2 Chron 32:24-26, Isa 38:1-8
Hezekiah contracted a terminal illness and prayed for healing. Isaiah received a word from God that he would live for a further 15 years. Hezekiah was healed after applying a poultice of figs to the offending ‘boil.’
11. Job 42:10-17
After what some scholars believe to be nine months of serious sickness and loss, the patient and trusting Job prayed for his critical friends and was personally healed.
12. Daniel 4:34, 36
Nebuchadnezzar ‘looked to heaven’ and was healed of insanity.
In addition to these incidences of individual healing there are three occurrences of corporate healing in response to prayer:
1. Numbers 16:46-50
Aaron stopped the plague which had killed 14, 700 people by offering incense and making atonement for the people.
2. Numbers 21:4-9
The Lord sent venomous snakes among rebellious Israel. Moses prayed for them, made a bronze snake and anyone who looked at it lived.
3. 2 Samuel 24:10-25
David sinned by counting his troops and the Lord sent a plague upon Israel which took 70,000 lives. David built an altar, sacrificed burnt and fellowship offerings and prayed to the Lord. He answered and stopped the plague.
Finally, there were other healings from barrenness by sovereign acts of God.
1. Sarah - Genesis 18:10,14, 21:1-3. Isaac was born.
2. Manoah’s wife – Judges 13:5-25. She bore Sampson.
3. Hannah – 1 Samuel 1:19-20. The result was Samuel.
The above lists are all the references to specific healing in the Old Testament.
Promises and Declarations of Healing in the Old Testament
If you listen carefully to the voice of the Lord your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord, who heals you.
Worship the Lord your God, and his blessing will be on your food and water. I will take away sickness from among you, and none will miscarry or be barren in your land. I will give you a full life span.
The Lord will keep you free from every disease. He will not inflict on you the horrible diseases you knew in Egypt, but he will inflict them on all who hate you.
Come, let us return to the Lord. He has torn us to pieces but he will heal us; he has injured us but he will bind up our wounds. After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will restore us, that we may live in his presence.
In that day the deaf will hear the words of the scroll, and out of gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind will see.
No-one living in Zion will say, "I am ill"; and the sins of those who dwell there will be forgiven.
Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert.
But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.
The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion — to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendour.
Fruit trees of all kinds will grow on both banks of the river. Their leaves will not wither, nor will their fruit fail. Every month they will bear, because the water from the sanctuary flows to them. Their fruit will serve for food and their leaves for healing.
But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings. And you will go out and leap like calves released from the stall.
Many Psalms also include references to God’s promise to heal. Eg Pss 41, 103, 116, 147.
The Cause of Sickness
From its beginning to its end there is a clear connection between sin and sickness:
Gen 12:17 Pharaoh’s entire household was inflicted with serious diseases because he took Abraham’s wife into his palace.
Gen. 19:11 Yahweh's angels struck the men blind who were threatening Lot's house.
Gen. 20:18 Abimelech’s household became barren when he unwittingly planned to take Sarah as his wife.
Num 12:10 The sufferings endured by the Egyptians because of their hardness of heart included various plagues, physical illnesses and ultimately the death of their first born. Miriam became leprous for slandering her brother, Moses.
Num. 14:11-12, 36-37; 17:12-15; 25:3-9, 17-18; 31:16 Yahweh threatened the people of Israel with pestilence when they were rebelling against Moses and Aaron, struck down a few and then many, and later inflicted a plague upon them when they turned to Baal of Peor.
1 Sam. 5:6-6:1-12 After the Philistines captured the ark of God, wherever it was taken the townspeople suffered from tumours.
1 Sam. 6:19 The seventy sons of Jeconiah were struck down because they did not rejoice at the return of the ark.
1 Kings 14:10-14 God determined the death of Jeroboam's child in order to wipe out the house of the unfaithful king.
2 Kings 1:16 Because he consulted Baalzebub, Ahaziah was refused healing by Yahweh.
2 Kings 5:26-27 Gehazi contracted leprosy because of his sinful greed
2 Kings 6:18-20 In answer to Elisha's prayer God struck the enemy blind and later restored their sight.
2 Kings 19:35, 2 Chron. 32:21, Isa. 37:36 Sennacharib's army was struck down in the night by the angel of God.
2 Chron. 26:16-20 The king Uzziah was struck with leprosy because of his pride.
2 Chron. 21:14-15 For deserting God, Jehoram was struck down by an incurable disease of the bowels.
2 Sam. 24:10-15, 1 Chron. 21:7-14 Because he took a census of the people, David was given a choice between famine, conquest and plague. He accepted the last and seventy thousand people died in Israel.
Clearly, God’s response to sin was to punish people for breaking his laws by sending sickness. (Though sickness was not the only punishment for law-breakers. God also diminished resources, made the land barren or sent enemies to attack in order to punish or discipline his people.) Sometimes punishment was for personal sin and on other occasions it was for collective guilt when a group, town or nation were judged by association.
The book of Deuteronomy consistently states that health and wealth are the rewards of God for obedience, whereas sickness and misfortune are his punishments. Psalms, Proverbs and the prophets continue this theme.
But not all sickness occurs through sin
There are exceptions to this rule and Job is the supreme example of someone who experienced sickness without any attributed guilt or blame. His ‘wise’ friends assumed his sickness was evidence of secret unrighteousness. Even his wife joined their scornful rebuke – but they couldn’t have been further from the truth. Job was exemplary in every respect and continually maintained his innocence. Finally, God exonerated him and rebuked the accusers of this loved and honoured man.
The entire book of Job, (which, interestingly, is the oldest written book in the Bible) underscores the fact that there are other issues to be considered when determining the cause of sickness.
As far as we know, those healed of barrenness did not contact their condition through sin - either their own or that of others – though it may be concluded that it was because of the collective sin of humanity, which is probably nearer the truth.
Uzziah was a godly man who served the Lord faithfully for many years, but in later life he became proud and thereby contracted leprosy 2 Chron 26:1-23. In contrast, Hezekiah contracted a terminal illness which was not related to any mis-deeds 2 Kings 20:1-6.
The boys raised from the dead by Elijah and Elisha did not die as a result of their sins.
Of the eleven recorded cases of individual’s receiving divine healing, only three are described as being punishment for sin. All three of the collective judgements by plagues which God healed were connected with someone’s sin. But most of the individuals contracted disease through no fault of their own.
In the Old Testament sickness is generally presented as caused by personal sin or by association with others who have sinned, including groups or nations. Nevertheless, there are (more) occasions when sickness has no connection with sin, save that of being associated with a fallen human race. God clearly allows sickness for purposes other than punishment.
This could be most confusing if it were not for the superior revelation that Jesus brought. He taught that sickness was more a matter of fact which required healing regardless of its cause. His ministry seems to attribute sickness to Satan who has access to people because of their fallen state – but his focus was on the cure not the cause.
John 9:1-5 As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" "Neither this man nor his parents sinned," said Jesus, "but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life. As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no-one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world."
The Agent of Sickness
Throughout the Old Testament God is presented as the Sovereign Lord. He is in absolute control and nothing, small or great, happens without his involvement by direct actions or by granting divine permission.
In the beginning God created all things. He gave Adam and Eve life. He selected Abraham to be the father of Israel. He chose Isaac over Ishmael and Jacob over Esau, despite them not being the first-born. He chose the younger Joseph to be the deliverer rather that his older brothers. The foundational truth of God’s sovereignty is repeated from Genesis to Malachi.
It is therefore no surprise that the Old Testament attributes all matters of life and death to God. Sickness and health, prosperity and poverty, victory and defeat – nothing happens without God being actively involved, for he is sovereign.
Daniel, whose prophecies span the centuries, says, ‘All the peoples of the earth are regarded as nothing. He does as he pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth. No-one can hold back his hand or say to him: "What have you done?" Dan 4:35
The first time disease is mentioned in Gen 12:17, the Lord ‘inflicted serious diseases on Pharaoh and his household’ because he unwittingly took Abram’s wife, Sarah for his own.
God said to Moses Ex 4:11 ‘Who gave man his mouth? Who makes him deaf or mute? Who gives him sight or makes him blind? Is it not I, the Lord?’
We find the same sentiment throughout the Old Testament: Amos 3:6, Isa 19:22, 45:7, Jer 14:19, 30:12-17. Hos 6:1.
In Leviticus consumption, fever and pestilence are enumerated along with a variety of other penalties Lev 26:15-26. Deuteronomy extends the list even further in Dt 28.
Dt 32:39 sums up the Old Testament position: ‘See now that I myself am He! There is no god besides me. I put to death and I bring to life, I have wounded and I will heal, and no-one can deliver out of my hand.’ Throughout the Old Testament health and wealth are presented as rewards of God whereas sickness, misery, misfortune, even death, are seen as his punishments. The Psalms concur Ps 6, 38, 78, 88, 102, 106. God is ultimately the author of sickness.
How are Christians to explain or deal with this?
This sounds so different from our understanding of God. Is this not at variance with the New Testament? Does New Testament theology contradict Old Testament revelation?
If the Old Testament was the final revelation from God we would have to conclude that sickness is an inevitable and unavoidable result of our sins and that it is inflicted on us either to punish us (at worst) or to discipline us (at best). It would simply be a matter of cause and effect. If people sin, they can expect calamity. This is the law of God.
However, the revelation that appears in the New Testament opens an entirely different perspective on the source and purpose of sickness. Here is not the place to expand upon this statement except to consider this: Though sickness is always directly or indirectly related to someone’s sin, even if it’s the sin of fallen mankind, God’s heart is one of grace and compassion. His desire is to cleanse from sin and eradicate its consequences. His will is not to punish and harm. Sickness is ultimately a consequence of breaking his holy law. His will is to pardon and heal.
Furthermore, the New Testament reveals Satan and demons as the agents of sickness. Sin has effectively removed the protective covering of God and given Satan the opportunity to infest humanity with sickness and disease. This is a result of mankind’s fall but it is not to be regarded as God’s perfect will. It may legitimately be viewed as his ‘permissive will’ in the sense that he allowed it, but it should not be seen as his ‘second best’ or ‘alternative’ choice. Human afflictions are a product of universal sin and Satan and are never endorsed by God or reflect his will. Rather, in the same way that parental discipline is applied to children, they are necessary actions, allowed to be inflicted to avoid further depravity and moral pollution. God is not willing for any to perish and has done all he can to eradicate the consequences of sin and to destroy all the works of the evil one. 1 John 3:8.
In conclusion, the Old Testament simply lays the foundation that God is sovereign. He is in absolute control and is the ultimate cause of all things. With reference to sickness and calamities, God’s sovereignty still applies but this does not reflect His original intention, but rather is the result of human sin and Satanic interference.
The Old Testament Hope
Despite the rather depressing picture presented above, there is also hope! This Old Testament hope is underscored by three major threads of truth:
1. God is Healer by name and Healer by nature.
There are many names by which God has revealed his nature and activities in the Old Testament. ‘Almighty God,’ ‘the Sovereign Lord,’ ‘the God who provides’ and ‘the Lord our Shepherd’ are a few of the many names that God has employed to convey his magnificent and multi-facetted nature. One of these names was given fairly early in Israel’s history, soon after they had been delivered from their Egyptian bondage – Jehovah Rapha, the Lord your healer.
The Israelites had seen the devastating plagues God released upon the Egyptians and God promised never to do this to the Israelites if they hearkened to His word.
Ex 15:26 He said, "If you listen carefully to the voice of the Lord your God and do what is right in his eyes, if you pay attention to his commands and keep all his decrees, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am the Lord, who heals you."
The last phrase, ‘the Lord, who heals you’ is a translation of two words – ‘Yahweh’ and ‘ropheka.’ This phrase means ‘the healing God’ or ‘God who heals’ conveying something of the very heart and nature of God. In the same way that ‘God is love’ describes something that God is (not just does) God is here described as a God who is by nature a healing God.
There are many who have interpreted this ability to heal as merely spiritual, but the context of the passage is in sharp contrast to this idea for it refers to physical diseases that were inflicted on the Egyptians. These were not ‘spiritual’ diseases but physical ailments.
Regardless of the human causes of sickness and the involvement of demonic entities in disease, healing is at the very centre of God’s heart. It is part of his nature, his character and essential being. It is natural for him to heal. Not to heal is a contradiction or violation of who he is and what he does.
God is a healer by name and a healer by nature!
2. The prophetic hope of an era of healing
The Old Testament is replete with prophetic pronouncements which reveal God’s sovereignty. One major prophetic theme majors on the Messiah and another on the Messianic age and people. The coming of the Messiah is the focal point of Old Testament prophecy. The Old Testament presents an identikit picture of the Messiah so that he is recognisable when he comes. His genesis is carefully described and his demise is similarly and meticulously detailed. Ps 22 and Isaiah 53 are obvious examples.
But it is his supernatural ministry, empowered by the Spirit, that proclaims the hope of mankind. The opening of blind eyes, the hearing of deaf ears, the leaping of the lame and the joyful shouting of the mute will all occur when the Messiah arrives (Isaiah 35:1-10). The Spirit of the Lord will be upon him to heal, deliver and emancipate Isaiah 61:1-3, Luke 4:18-19, 21.
But it’s not only the Messiah that will carry such anointing for ministry. The Spirit of the Lord will envelop the Messianic community who will also bring deliverance and salvation Joel 2:28-32. This is the very platform on which the New Testament church was launched Acts 2:17-22. Their subsequent ministry of signs and wonders, healing and conversions underscores the fact that Jesus opened up a door of supernatural blessing that was to be continually released through the church.
3. Healing and the Cross of Christ (Healing and the Atonement)
The main purpose of the Messiah, according to the Old Testament, was to deal with the spiritual consequences of human sin. He was to pay the wages of sin with his own precious life. His substitutionary death would make salvation available for all. This is central in the Christian faith. This is also the focal point of the New Testament .
However, the great act of atonement for our sin also includes provision for deliverance from sickness.
Isa 53:4-5 Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.
Matt 8:16-17 When evening came, many who were demon-possessed were brought to him, and he drove out the spirits with a word and healed all the sick. This was to fulfil what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah: "He took up our infirmities and carried our diseases."
Barnes notes on these passages make the meaning clear:
“Our English translation of that important passage is, "Surely he hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows." The Greek in Matthew is an exact translation of the Hebrew, and the same translation should have been made in both places. In Isa 53, Isaiah fully states the doctrine of the atonement, or that the Messiah was to suffer for sin. In the verse quoted here, however, he states the very truth which Matthew declares. The word translated "griefs" in Isaiah, and "infirmities" in Matthew, means properly, in the Hebrew and Greek, "diseases of the body." In neither does it refer to the disease of the mind, or to sin. To bear those griefs is clearly to bear them away, or to remove them. This was done by his miraculous power in healing the sick. The word rendered "sorrows" in Isaiah, and "sicknesses" in Matthew, means "pain, grief, or anguish of mind." To "carry" these is to sympathize with the sufferers; to make provision for alleviating those sorrows, and to take them away.
The evangelical Matthew Henry comes to the same conclusions:
Matthew 8:14-17 The accomplishment of the Old-Testament prophecies was the great thing Christ had in his eye, and the great proof of his being the Messiah: among other things, it was written of him (Isa 53:4), ‘Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: it is referred to, 1 Peter 2:24, and there it is construed, he hath borne our sins; here it is referred to, and is construed, he hath borne our sicknesses; our sins make our sicknesses our griefs; Christ bore away sin by the merit of his death, and bore away sickness by the miracles of his life; nay, though those miracles are ceased, we may say, that he bore our sicknesses then, when he bore our sins in his own body upon the tree; for sin is both the cause and the sting of sickness. Many are the diseases and calamities to which we are liable in the body: and there is more, in this one line of the gospels, to support and comfort us under them, than in all the writings of the philosophers—that Jesus Christ bore our sicknesses, and carried our sorrows; he bore them before us; though he was never sick, yet he was hungry, and thirsty, and weary, and troubled in spirit, sorrowful and very heavy; he bore them for us in his passion, and bears them with us in compassion, being touched with the feeling of our infirmities: and thus he bears them off from us, and makes them sit light, if it be not our own fault. Observe how emphatically it is expressed here: Himself took our infirmities, and bare our sicknesses; he was both able and willing to interpose in that matter, and concerned to deal with our infirmities and sicknesses, as our Physician; that part of the calamity of the human nature was his particular care, which he evidenced by his great readiness to cure diseases; and he is no less powerful, no less tender now, for we are sure that never were any the worse for going to heaven.
These two ancient evangelical scholars agree with modern Pentecostal and charismatic scholars that there is facility in the atonement for healing of the body or mind, as well as healing for the soul.
Psalms 103:1-5. Here ‘forgiveness of sins’ is mentioned alongside ‘healing of diseases.’ “Praise the LORD, O my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name. 2 Praise the LORD, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits —3 who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, 4 who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion, 5 who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.”
David says ‘forgives all’ and ‘heals all’ in the same breath, stating them as benefits that believers should not forget. He continues by connecting these statements with the ‘redemption of our lives from the pit,’ which is an obvious reference to being saved from judgement in hell. So, sandwiched between two declarations of ‘spiritual healing’ we find a declaration of physical healing.
Scripture not only presents the possibility of healing but includes it as a benefit of the atonement in these passages. From this, we can confidently conclude that healing is a part of the atonement.
At first glance it appears that sickness and disease are man’s lot in life – inevitable and unavoidable – due to the taint of sin that has affected the entre human race. The law continually warns that man’s waywardness will lead to tragedy.
But closer examination reveals that God did not adhere to a rigid enforcement of his laws. Of the eleven personal healings recorded only four are sicknesses caused by known sin. It was always in God’s heart to be gracious – even in the Old Testament era.
In addition there are numerous references to God’s ability and desire to heal expressed in his promises.
Finally, the Old Testament describes God as a healing God and points forwards to a new era of healing power, firstly in the ministry of the Messiah and then through the Messianic community, the church. This ministry is to be made available through the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross.
In the very last chapter of the Old Testament we see the promise that ‘the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in his wings’ for those who revere God’s name. Mal 4:2