Chapter 10: Elijah and Elisha
In the preceding chapters, we considered several prophets, and that would be largely true if we were to take the traditional approach of associating individuals with that role only when their main job was that of a prophet, who were directed by the Lord to make predictions concerning the future, who heard and passed on direct messages from Him and what they said would happen, did happen. Yet there is a temptation when thinking about Bible prophets to overlook these and begin with Elijah and Elisha, along with those labelled as the four major and twelve minor prophets. There is no question though that Elijah and Elisha fitted the bill perfectly when it came to identifying prophets. A lot is written about their ministries, which included prophesying and doing miracles and having direct contact with the rulers of their day, even though the detail given on their lives are limited. We will give special attention to Elijah and Elisha as there are many lessons, including generic ones, we can learn and spiritual applications.
Elijah appears on the scene without any ado or context provided, other than the dire state of the Northern kingdom and its ungodliness. “And Elijah the Tishbite, who was of the inhabitants of Gilead, said unto Ahab, As the Lord God of Israel liveth, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years, but according to my word. And the word of the Lord came unto him, saying, Get thee hence, and turn thee eastward, and hide thyself by the brook Cherith, that is before Jordan. And it shall be, that thou shalt drink of the brook; and I have commanded the ravens to feed thee there. So he went and did according unto the word of the Lord: for he went and dwelt by the brook Cherith, that is before Jordan. And the ravens brought him bread and flesh in the morning, and bread and flesh in the evening; and he drank of the brook” 1Kings 17:1-6.
Even from this opening, we learn a lot about Elijah, even though the only thing we are told about his background is that he is a Tishbite and, as for his calling to the ministry and early life, we know very little. Clearly, he had the ear of the king, Ahab, who we learn elsewhere was a weak king as well as a wicked one, who was married to someone more wicked than he, Jezebel, who in effect ran things. We might surmise that the drought Elijah said would happen (and it did) was part of God’s judgment. We learn that Elijah was obedient to and trusted in God, in confronting the king which, could have been life threatening, following God’s instruction where to hide, and trusting God to take care of his temporal needs. He gives the impression of someone who is adept at roughing it.
It should be noted that Elijah ministered to the breakaway Northern kingdom. It was sixty years prior to when Ahab came to power that Israel split into the ten tribes of the North under Jeroboam and the two tribes (Judah and Benjamin) of the South under Rehoboam. While, as far as this chapter goes, our focus is on events to do with the Northern Kingdom, known as Israel, as opposed to the Southern Kingdom, known as Judah, there was some interaction, even though the two kingdoms operated independently, sometimes cooperating; sometimes in conflict. Both, especially Israel, had been turning away from God, notably by practising idolatry and yet, at least at the time Elijah came on the scene, they were experiencing a measure of prosperity and had been able to keep enemies at bay. While Ahab and his successors, Ahaziah and Joram, were all wicked, the Judah kings at the time, Asa and Jehoshaphat, were good in comparison. A final point concerns the large number of little known prophets around, especially in the North. Some intersperse with the Elijah story and were his contemporaries. There was little clue of the prophets personally interacting, yet their ministries complemented and were significant. These will be considered in Chapter 11.
Back to the Elijah story, we read how the Cherith brook dried up and the Lord told him: ““Go at once to Zarephath in the region of Sidon and stay there. I have directed a widow there to supply you with food.” So he went to Zarephath. When he came to the town gate, a widow was there gathering sticks. He called to her and asked, “Would you bring me a little water in a jar so I may have a drink?” As she was going to get it, he called, “And bring me, please, a piece of bread.”” 1Kings 17:9-11. It was there he performed two more miracles. The woman was low in spirits and she and with her son were expecting to die from starvation and yet the food she had never run out. As for her son, he later died and was brought back to life, after which she believed in YHWH. Like so much of the Elijah (and Elisha) narratives, lesson can be drawn, but we will resist the temptation to elaborate and turn to Elijah moving on, when “after a long time, in the third year, the word of the Lord came to Elijah: “Go and present yourself to Ahab, and I will send rain on the land.” So Elijah went to present himself to Ahab. Now the famine was severe in Samaria” 1Kings 18:1,2.
IKings 18 recounts how Elijah met with Obadiah, a trusted servant of King Ahab but one who feared God and had hid 100 prophets who Queen Jezebel wanted to kill. He is able to set up a meeting between Elijah and the king and what follows is a remarkable account of how Elijah suggests a contest between he and the prophets of Baal on the top of Mount Carmel. The God who sends fire from heaven to consume the sacrifice is the true God. The Baal and Asherah prophets have first chance to intreat their gods and despite their frantic efforts fail. After significantly Elijah challenges the people “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him” (v20), “he repaired the altar of the Lord, which had been torn down” (v30), before drenching the sacrifice with water so there would be no doubt that what followed would be a miracle. The result was spectacular: “Then the fire of the Lord fell and burned up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and also licked up the water in the trench. When all the people saw this, they fell prostrate and cried, “The Lord—he is God! The Lord—he is God!”” (38,39).
The net outcome of the contest was the onlookers believed and put to death the false prophets. Then the rain came. This may be seen as one of the highlights of Elijah’s career, indeed of any of the prophets. After seeing God work, we might expect Elijah would follow it up with a revival. Except Jezebel had other ideas and Elijah responded to her threat to kill him by running away and showing the signs of spiritual depression. If nothing else, it should give us ordinary believers hope. “The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective. Elijah was a human being, even as we are. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops” James 5:16-18.
The next chapter, 1Kings 19, follows Elijah running away, being looked after by the angel and his exchange with God at the holy mountain: “And, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice” (11,12). From being burned out, feeling he was all alone, wanting to die and now getting off his chest his complaint, he is given a new commission by the Lord and while he does not get all the answers, he is granted further insight into His purposes: “And the Lord said unto him, Go, return on thy way to the wilderness of Damascus: and when thou comest, anoint Hazael to be king over Syria: And Jehu the son of Nimshi shalt thou anoint to be king over Israel: and Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abelmeholah shalt thou anoint to be prophet in thy room. And it shall come to pass, that him that escapeth the sword of Hazael shall Jehu slay: and him that escapeth from the sword of Jehu shall Elisha slay. Yet I have left me seven thousand in Israel, all the knees which have not bowed unto Baal, and every mouth which hath not kissed him” (16-18).
As for anointing the two kings, this was done by Elijah’s successor, Elisha, who he was to mentor. The fact God appoints unlikely characters as kings (Hazael of Syria and Jehu of Israel) tells us something about God’s purposes, and ought to be an item for praise. The fact God uses Elijah to anoint and then to train up his successor, tells us that the work of God does continue, even when a legend like Elijah departs from the scene, and He uses unlikely instruments and quite different characters to accomplish his purposes. Before we go onto Elisha, there are two further Elijah stories, involving Naboth and Ahaziah, worth mentioning.
The Naboth story begins: “And it came to pass after these things, that Naboth the Jezreelite had a vineyard, which was in Jezreel, hard by the palace of Ahab king of Samaria. And Ahab spake unto Naboth, saying, Give me thy vineyard, that I may have it for a garden of herbs, because it is near unto my house: and I will give thee for it a better vineyard than it; or, if it seem good to thee, I will give thee the worth of it in money. And Naboth said to Ahab, The Lord forbid it me, that I should give the inheritance of my fathers unto thee” 1Kings 21:1-3. This upset Ahab but Jezebel found a way to take the vineyard by force. Naboth and his family were executed based on a false charge and Ahab was able to take the vineyard. Elijah was told by God what had happened and confronted Abel with the inevitability of God’s judgement. But there was a twist because Ahab repented, and because Ahab repented God showed mercy although judgement was to happen with Ahab’s family and all this was revealed to Elijah.
The Ahaziah story begins: “Then Moab rebelled against Israel after the death of Ahab. And Ahaziah fell down through a lattice in his upper chamber that was in Samaria, and was sick: and he sent messengers, and said unto them, Go, enquire of Baalzebub the god of Ekron whether I shall recover of this disease. But the angel of the Lord said to Elijah the Tishbite, Arise, go up to meet the messengers of the king of Samaria, and say unto them, Is it not because there is not a God in Israel, that ye go to enquire of Baalzebub the god of Ekron? Now therefore thus saith the Lord, thou shalt not come down from that bed on which thou art gone up, but shalt surely die. And Elijah departed.” 2Kings 1:1-3. The king sends out three companies of soldiers to arrest Elijah and for the first two times fire is sent to consume them at Elijah’s word. The third time the captain asks for mercy and Elijah accompanies him back to the king. Elijah relays the message he gave the first time and the king dies. Like so many of the stories associated with Elijah and Elisha, there is hidden depth of meaning and, among other things we learn here, it is God is not to be messed with, nor his prophet.
It is worth reflecting how esteemed Elijah was, including the New Testament. Right at the end of the Old Testament we read: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord: And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse” Malachi 4:5-6. We now turn to the New, specifically Matthew’s gospel, where Elias equates to Elijah. The forerunner to Jesus, John the Baptist, was a prophet in the Elijah mould. “For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John. And if ye will receive it, this is Elias, which was for to come” (11:13-14). When Jesus asked who do people say he was, the answer came back: “And they said, some say that thou art John the Baptist: some, Elias; and others, Jeremias, or one of the prophets” (16:14). Elijah, with Moses, appeared at Jesus’ Transfiguration: “And, behold, there appeared unto them Moses and Elias talking with him” (17:3). As far as Jesus was concerned: “But I say unto you, That Elias is come already, and they knew him not, but have done unto him whatsoever they listed. Likewise shall also the Son of man suffer of them” (17:12). As Jesus was calling out to His Father as he was dying on the cross, we find that: “Some of them that stood there, when they heard that, said, This man calleth for Elias” (17:47).
Which brings us to Elijah’s final act as he departs from this earthly scene in spectacular fashion. For his final journey, he is accompanied by his prodigy, Elisha, who he invites to make a final request. Elisha’s request is for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit, which he is informed will only happen if he sees Elisha taken, which is what happens, as Elijah is whisked away to heaven in a chariot of fire. Elijah takes Elijah’s cloak, depicting the succession had been passed to him, and he does his first miracle, to part the waters just as Elijah had done a little earlier. Other miracles were soon to follow, starting with the healing of bitter waters and barren land, showing God as the one who heals.
Early on, we read of a group of youth coming to mock Elisha because of his bald head, and Elisha cursing them in the name of the Lord and them being torn apart by bears. We mention this incident here precisely because it is one that some will have difficulty with. For just as King Ahaziah found he could not mess with Elijah, God’s anointed, the people were soon to realise this also applied to Elisha. As for his anointing, this as we find out from reading on, was evident and also necessary for Elisha’s ministry. While Elijah was a hard act to follow, the work of God had to continue even though this farmer from a well to do family may have been quite different to the one who was once described as “an hairy man, and girt with a girdle of leather about his loins” 2Kings 1:8. The importance of passing the cloak and mentoring is soon seen. As for having a double portion of Elisha’s spirit, who can say it was not so? Someone who has counted the number of Elisha’s miracles found it was twice as many as Elijah’s. It is nigh impossible to do full justice to Elisha’s prolific, varied and impactful ministry, but will consider the early chapters of 2Kings, where Elisha features, along with other happenings that were related or not to the ministry of Elisha.
Chapter 3: This is an unusual account when Joram, king of Israel, teams up with Jehoshaphat, king of Judah and the king of Edom, to bring Moab to heel for not paying Israel protection money. It was an awkward situation. Elisha’s advice was sought by Joram, at the request of good king Jehoshaphat. While he showed contempt for Joram, he respected Jehoshaphat. He did not have a ready answer and only when the harpist played he got the word of the Lord (a further example of the link between music and prophecy). The outcome was the triple alliance got a resounding victory, by God’s hand and exposed the evil of Edom.
Chapter 4: This contains four fascinating stories which like so many in the Elisha narrative provide fertile ground for expository preachers. The first is about an impoverished widow. Elisha tells her to gather as many receptacles as she could get hold off and pour into them the little oil she had. Only when there were no more pots to be had did the oil run out, but at least now she could sell the oil, pay of her debts and support her family. The second involves a wealthy lady that thoughtfully made available rooms in her house for Elijah to stay in. The one thing she wanted was a son and Elisha prayed and she got her son, who later died but was brought back to life by Elisha. The third involves death in the pot when unwittingly the meal being prepared contained something poisonous: “But he said, then bring meal. And he cast it into the pot; and he said, pour out for the people, that they may eat. And there was no harm in the pot” (41). The fourth might be seen as the OT equivalent of the feeding of the 5000.
Chapter 5: This tells one of the well recounted (to children) stories of the Bible and involves Naaman, the Syrian general and his being cured from his leprosy at the word of Elisha. If nothing else it revealed to this pagan man something of the power of YHWH. Elisha accepted no reward when it was offered, as he wanted to give God all the glory. His servant, Gehazi, had other ideas and as a result of his duplicitous efforts that Elisha saw, that leprosy came upon him.
Chapter 6: We are reminded here of such a thing as schools of prophets and it would seem Elisha was their principal. The strange tale involved constructing a new building to accommodate the students and a borrowed axe falling into the water but at Elisha’s word was made to float and thereby could be recovered. Then comes a story of the King of Syria, now at war with Israel, sending his men to capture Elisha. He had gotten wind that Elisha knew of his plans to attack Israel and by warning the King of Israel they were able to fend off the attacks. Not only was Elisha’s prophetic insights quite something (we could do with someone like that today!) but when the army detachment came to surround Elisha’s house with the view to taking him, while that was all his servant could see, Elisha could also see a heavenly army and at his word the Syrians’ eyes were blinded. Then came the rather bizarre spectacle of them being tricked and led off by Elisha into the city of Samaria, making them easy targets but instead under Elisha’s command they were given food and let go, after which the raids stopped. The rest of the chapter is devoted to an account of a severe famine in Samaria as a result of a Syrian siege, with things getting desperate for the inhabitants and the king angry at Elisha and wanting to kill him.
Chapter 7: Here we see the resolution to the siege story begun in the previous chapter. The siege was lifted as Elisha said it would and the city spared, while in the panic when people from the city sought to take spoils from the Syrian camp, now vacated because of a rumour, the messenger who had been sent to take Elisha was trampled under foot, just as Elisha predicted. Strange story, and make of it what you will. God is not mocked. He judges and he has mercy and while the king wanted to kill Elisha the messenger, it was the messenger that knew what was happening, why it was happening and what would happen next.
Chapter 8: Here we see Elisha showing kindness to the woman who had earlier shown kindness to him, by warning of a famine to come and when she returned intreating the king to restore to her, her property. We see read of his encounter with Hazael, the one Elijah had been told by God many years earlier to anoint as king. Again, a strange meeting as Elisha tells him that the king, whose health he was sent to enquire about, of the prophet, would die and he would replace him and, moreover, breaks down weeping telling Hazael how he would inflict cruelty on the Israelites. Hazael goes back, kills the king, and becomes king in his place. The rest of the chapter is about Judah and does not involve Elisha.
Chapter 9: Interesting, but Elisha is not mentioned other than giving a young prophet the job of anointing Jehu (as Elijah had been told) and Jehu beginning the job of cleaning house as per God’s command, and was the end of Jezebel.
Chapter 10: Interesting, but Elisha is not mentioned. However, we are given details of how Jehu was God’s instrument in underdoing Ahab’s legacy, although the tragedy was that despite being God’s anointed, he created his own awful legacy, which reading on we find God pouring out judgement over.
Chapter 11: Interesting, but Elisha is not mentioned.
Chapter 12: Interesting, but Elisha is not mentioned.
Chapter 13: We read of King Jehoahaz taking over from Ahab. “And he did that which was evil in the sight of the Lord, and followed the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, which made Israel to sin; he departed not there from. And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he delivered them into the hand of Hazael king of Syria, and into the hand of Benhadad the son of Hazael, all their days” (2,3). We were reminded in 2Kings 8 that Hazael was to be anointed king even though he would oppress the Israelites, but then only as far as God allowed and with the purpose of getting His people to return to Him. This clearly had an effect because “Jehoahaz besought the Lord, and the Lord hearkened unto him: for he saw the oppression of Israel, because the king of Syria oppressed them” (v4). And later in the chapter we come to the last recorded act of Elisha which concerned Jehoahaz son, Jehoash, who came to visit and pay his respects to Elisha as he lay sick and soon to die. The king shared his concerns over national security and, as was his custom, Elisha told him to do something strange. “And Elisha said unto him, Take bow and arrows. And he took unto him bow and arrows. And he said to the king of Israel, Put thine hand upon the bow. And he put his hand upon it: and Elisha put his hands upon the king’s hands. And he said, Open the window eastward. And he opened it. Then Elisha said, Shoot. And he shot. And he said, the arrow of the Lord’s deliverance, and the arrow of deliverance from Syria: for thou shalt smite the Syrians in Aphek, till thou have consumed them. And he said, Take the arrows. And he took them. And he said unto the king of Israel, Smite upon the ground. And he smote thrice, and stayed. And the man of God was wroth with him, and said, Thou shouldest have smitten five or six times; then hadst thou smitten Syria till thou hadst consumed it: whereas now thou shalt smite Syria but thrice. And Elisha died, and they buried him” (15-20). While he didn’t have a spectacular exit like Elijah, the aftermath was no less impressive. We read “And it came to pass, as they were burying a man, that, behold, they spied a band of men; and they cast the man into the sepulchre of Elisha: and when the man was let down, and touched the bones of Elisha, he revived, and stood up on his feet” (21). And life went on, including oppression by Hazael and limited respite.
The principles underlying their ministries can be universally applied. Before going to the next chapter, talking about the prophets we have missed so far and then the chapters following, concerning the four major and twelve minor prophets, which the Bible record has much to say, let us pause and reflect on the lessons we have learned thus far, specifically on Elijah and Elisha. What is all too clear is as remarkable as these two were, they were ordinary men (besides Elijah’s foibles, we should recall that Elisha like many of the prophets was a reluctant prophet). They were merely the Lord’s messengers, who He had anointed and empowered to speak truth to power and bless the people, but were faithful in carrying out the job God gave them, without fear or favour. But the work of the Lord remains and new instruments of His purposes are raised up to do the work (including you and me) and is a work that is ongoing to this day.