It is a scene that has caused a lot of wonder and a lot of confusion: Elijah being taken into heaven. Why does this happen to Elijah? Why does he not just live a normal life and die like all the other prophets of God? Why is there a special event surrounding the end of his life? We are kicking off our study of 2 Kings by looking at the life of Elisha in a series entitled Bold. The end of Elijah’s ministry is the starting point of Elisha’s ministry as Elisha looks to carry on the work that Elijah began. Not only this, but the life of Elisha is filled with strange miracles like floating axe heads and killing mocking children. What are these miracles supposed to be teaching us? What is God teaching us about our faith as look at this transition from Elijah to Elisha?
Following Elijah (2:1-11)
The first verse makes a statement in such a matter of fact what that it is as if this was expected. “Now when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind….” This is the first time we have been given any indication that Elijah would not die. Perhaps of greater interest is that Elisha and prophets know this is going to happen. Elisha has been following Elijah and Elijah tells Elisha to stay in here while he travels to Bethel where the Lord has sent him. But Elisha refuses and says that he is not going to leave Elijah. Remember that Elisha has kissed his family goodbye and is now following Elijah (1 Kings 19:19). A company of the prophets come to Elisha and ask him he knows that the Lord is going to take his master day from him today? Elisha says that he does know that. Elijah tries to have Elisha stay in Bethel while he goes to Jericho. But again Elisha refuses and they both go to Jericho. More prophets come out and tell Elisha that Elijah is going to be taken away from him today. Yet again Elijah tries to leave Elisha in Jericho as the Lord has sent him to the Jordan. But yet again Elisha refuses and the two of them go on. It did not matter where Elijah went, Elisha was going to follow. There was nothing that Elijah could do to get Elisha to leave him, especially being aware that his master was about to leave him.
When Elijah and Elisha come to the Jordan River, there is another company prophets watching in the distance. Elijah takes his cloak, rolls it up, and strikes the water. When Elijah does this, the water parts on both sides so that both Elijah and Elisha could walk on dry ground. We are immediately reminded of Moses parting the Red Sea during the exodus and Joshua parting the Jordan River during the conquest. Rather than coming into Canaan, Elijah and Elisha leave Israel and go to the other side of the Jordan River.
After crossing the Jordan River, Elijah now asks Elisha want he wants him to do for him since he is about to be taken up (2:9). Elisha asks for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit. Elijah responds that he has asked for a hard thing. But if Elisha sees Elijah taken from him, then he will have that double portion. Now we need to stop and consider what this means. Is this some sort of game? I do not think the point is that Elisha will only have a small portion of the Spirit if he does not see Elijah leave but a larger portion if he does. Nor do I think Elisha is asking for more of the Spirit than Elijah has, in fact, twice as much. Rather, we need to think about the meaning of the double portion. If you received a double portion, what did that mean about you? The double portion of the inheritance was given to the firstborn son and single portions were given to the rest of the children (cf. Deuteronomy 21:17). Elisha is not asking for more power but to be the true successor to Elijah. Elisha wants to pick up in the ministry where Elijah is leaving off. He wants to continue Elijah’s work. This is why Elijah says what he says. What you are asking for is a hard thing. It is not a hard thing to give the Spirit to Elisha. That is the work of God and nothing is hard for God. What is hard is that Elisha is asking to continue Elijah’s work. That is the hard thing he is asking to do. Elijah’s life has been extremely difficult. Elijah has been demoralized. Elijah has had his life threatened. Elijah has repeatedly performed the great works of God and there has been zero heart change or repentance in Israel. Continuing Elijah’s ministry is the hard thing that Elisha is asking for. Therefore, Elijah’s answer is if that Elisha will follow him to such a degree that he sees Elijah taken from him, then he will be Elijah’s prophetic successor. This is exactly what Elisha has been showing. Elijah tells Elisha to stay. But Elisha is not leaving. Elisha is going to follow Elijah anywhere. Elijah tells Elisha that if he continues that, then you have the double portion, that is, be the firstborn son of Elijah, in a matter of speaking. Elisha will be God’s designated successor to continue Elijah’s work when he leaves. Rightful succession is dependent on witnessing Elijah’s departure. They continue to walk and talk when suddenly chariots of fire and horses of fire separate the two of them (2:11). Then Elijah ascends into heaven in a whirlwind. It is an amazing scene where God breaks the power of death again. God has shown this ability before. But the last time we saw something like this is in Genesis 5 regarding Enoch who walked with God and was not. Elijah now shows God’s complete power over death.
The Authority of Elisha (2:12-25)
Elisha picks up Elijah’s cloak that had fallen from him and went back to the Jordan River. Elisha strikes the Jordan River with Elijah’s cloak just as Elijah had while asking, “Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” What Elisha wants to know is that now Elijah is gone, is God still in Israel? The answer is yes as the waters divide just as they had for Elijah and Elisha is able to cross over. Just because Elijah has left does not mean that God has left his work in Israel empty. The work will continue and the work will continue through Elisha. But this transition from Elijah to Elisha needs to be verified. This is what happens in the rest of the chapter.
First, the company of the prophets from Jericho are able to observe that the Spirit of Elijah is now resting on Elisha. The authority that God had given to Elijah now belongs to Elisha. So the prophets come to Elisha and bow before him to show that they are accepting his authority. They say in verse 16 that they are Elisha’s servants. However, they want to search for Elijah. They do not think that Elijah has ascended into heaven. Rather, they think that God has lifted him to some other place. It has been interesting to see how people recognize that Spirit of the Lord on Elijah which would suddenly cause him to move from one geographic location to another. But Elisha says to not send these seekers for Elijah. But they persisted against what Elisha said and sent their messengers anyway. They search for three days but did not find Elijah. Elisha tells them that he said not to go looking for Elijah. Elisha is the one who bears God’s wisdom and power.
Second, the people of the city come to Elisha and tell him that in Jericho the water is bad and the land is unfruitful. This is not a surprise because the city of Jericho had been cursed by Joshua if it was ever rebuilt (Joshua 6:26). In 1 Kings 16:34 we saw a man named Hiel rebuild the city at the cost of his firstborn son and his youngest son. A curse rests on the city, the water, and the land. Elisha has them bring him a new bowl and put salt in it. He goes to the spring of water and throws salt on it. The point is not the action but on the symbolic meaning. Elisha declares that the Lord has healed this water and there will no longer be death or unfruitfulness from it (2:21). This reversal was permanent as verse 22 notes. The second picture of Elisha’s authority is that God has turned his own curse into a blessing by sending his prophet to them. God has reversed Jericho’s condition by his own grace.
The final picture of Elisha’s authority is found in verses 23-25. Elisha goes up to Bethel, the center of false worship in Israel. While he is going along, some boys come out of the city and jeer at him, “Go up, you baldhead! Go up, you baldhead!” Elisha curses the boys in the name of the Lord and the Lord has two bears come out of the woods and kill 42 of the boys. Now this is not a lesson about kids needing to respect their elders. Nor is this a lesson about not making fun of people with balding heads. No, there is an important message that is being given here. The boys are showing contemptuous disbelief, telling Elisha to disappear like Elijah. They are scoffing at his authority. Just as Israel had rejected Elijah, the next generation is going to reject Elisha. They are resisting a prophet of the Lord. When Israel resisted Elijah, fire came down from heaven and consumed the armies of Ahaziah (2 Kings 1). Now Israel is resisting Elisha, and the Lord has bears come out and maul these mocking boys. Israel is going to continue to reject the attempts that God is making through his servants to save his people. The mocking of Elisha’s baldness is contrasted to the description of Elijah as a hairy person (2 Kings 1:8). The boys are saying that Elisha is no Elijah and he just needs to disappear. The contrast is notable for the people of Jericho honor Elisha as God’s true prophet and successor to Elijah while Bethel rejects and mocks Elisha as not God’s prophet or successor. You will notice that Elisha is furthered pictured as continuing Elijah’s work, retracing his journey by going to Mount Carmel and then to Samaria (2:25).
New Testament Imagery
Now why is all of this here for us and why should we care? We need to begin with the symbolism that is threaded throughout this chapter. The first imagery that we have noted is that Elijah represents John the Baptizer. The prophets declared that Elijah would come again and we see Jesus calling John the prophesied Elijah (cf. Matthew 17:10-12). This would set up for us that Elisha represents Jesus as the successor. Elijah giving way to Elisha foreshadows John the Baptizer giving way to Jesus. The miracles of Elisha picture the very works that Jesus would accomplish for Israel. The Spirit of the Lord is upon Jesus and he has come to reverse the curse of sin and now give life. Those who accept Jesus’ ministry will enjoy this life but those who mock him will be destroyed.
But there is a deeper level of symbolism. We have noted how the various people in the scriptures do not merely represent one person but can represent multiple people in God’s plan of redemption. In one moment Samuel has representations of Jesus but then in the next actually seems to represent John the Baptizer. David has many symbols representing the work of Jesus yet then we are told it is his son who will be a picture of Jesus, as seen in Solomon. The point is that one person can show many facets of God’s redemptive work. This is the case here as well.
Elijah strongly represents Jesus in this chapter. Elijah goes around Israel teaching, only to receive rejection throughout his ministry. Elijah calls for his disciple, Elisha, to follow him wherever he goes. Further, Elijah is going to ascend into heaven and Elisha needs to be there to witness the ascension if he is going to carry on the work. Elijah represents Jesus and Elisha represents Jesus’ disciples, more specifically, the apostles. The apostles are going to carry on the ministry of Jesus and carry the same authority as Jesus. One of the requirements of being an apostle was to witness the resurrection and be a follower when Jesus was taken up (Acts 1:22). Elisha’s miracles prove that the Spirit of Elijah is on him and he has God’s authority. The apostles’ miracles also prove that the Spirit of the Lord was on them and they have God’s authority. The defining moment of that transition is in Acts 2 when the Spirit falls on the apostles and they miraculous speak in different languages, proving that they have the Spirit of the Lord and have God’s authority to carry on Jesus’ ministry. This is what the apostle Paul taught also.
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. (Ephesians 2:19–21 ESV)
The ascension of Jesus was not just a miraculous moment in history. The ascension was the transferring of power and authority to the apostles to continue to the Lord’s work. Like Elisha, those who mock the authority of the apostles and do not receive what they teach will be destroyed. The book of Acts declares this very idea in the first sentence of the book. The first book, the Gospel of Luke, was all that Jesus began to do and teach. Therefore, this second book, the Book of Acts, was all that Jesus continued to do and teach as seen through his apostles. What his apostles do is what Jesus is doing. This is why Jesus taught in regarding his apostles that whatever they bound on earth would be bound in heaven and whatever they loosed on earth would be loosed in heaven (Matthew 18:18). The apostles bear the authority of Jesus and we must listen to what Jesus and his apostles declared, as revealed for us in God’s word.
The example of Elisha following Elijah no matter what is a wonderful teaching point for us. God’s people were to listen and follow Elijah because he was God’s servant. God’s people were to listen and follow Elisha because he was also God’s servant. But we are given two pictures of what following is supposed to look like. First, we see the company of the prophets telling Elisha that they are his servants (2:15-16). They recognized him and declared their allegiance to him. Unfortunately, they did not listen to what Elisha said and still went looking for Elijah even though he told them not to. We can do this sometimes. We say that we are going to servants of Jesus and follow wherever he goes, unless something comes along that sounds like a better idea. We will follow you but we still want to do what we want to do.
But did you notice Elisha in this chapter? Nothing could persuade him to stop following Elijah. Once he made his decision to follow, he was not going to turn back. You could not tell him do to anything else but to follow his master. This is the discipleship that Jesus is looking for in us.
57 As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” 58 And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” 59 To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” 60 And Jesus said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” 61 Yet another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” 62 Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:57–62 ESV)
Notice that Jesus has people coming to follow him but he gives a warning. When you put your hand to the plow, you cannot look back. There is no turning around. When we come to Jesus we are truly saying, “Where he leads, I’ll follow.” It does not matter where or how, we are going to follow him. Elijah expected Elisha to be with him at every moment if he was going to continue the work. If are going to continue our Lord’s work, going into all the world and making disciples, then we must have the same tenacity that nothing will stop us from serving, worshiping, loving, and seeking our Lord Jesus. Nothing.