The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
And it came to pass, when the LORD would take up Elijah into heaven by a whirlwind, that Elijah went with Elisha from Gilgal.2Kings 2:1-11
1. And it came to pass, when the Lord would take up [when Jehovah caused Elijah to go up, or ascend] Elijah into heaven [as into heaven] by a whirlwind [in the storm] that Elijah went with Elisha from Gilgal [Gilgal in Ephraim].
2. And Elijah said unto Elisha, Tarry here, I pray thee; for the Lord hath sent me to Beth-el. And Elisha said unto him, As the Lord liveth, and as thy soul liveth [literally, "By the life of Jehovah and by the life of thy soul"], I will not leave thee. So they went down to Bethel.
3. And the sons of the prophets that were at Beth-el came forth to Elisha [who probably walked a little way before his master, to announce his approach], and said unto him, Knowest thou that the Lord will take away thy master from thy head today ["today" is emphatic]? And he said, Yea, I know [rather, I, too, know] it; hold ye your peace [suggesting that the subject was painful both to him and his master].
4. And Elijah said unto him, Elisha, tarry here, I pray thee; for the Lord hath sent me to Jericho. And he said, As the Lord liveth, and as thy soul liveth, I will not leave thee. So they came to Jericho.
5. And the sons of the prophets that were at Jericho came [drew near] to Elisha, and said unto him, Knowest thou that the Lord will take away thy master from thy head today? And he answered [said], Yea I know it; hold ye your peace.
6. And Elijah said unto him, Tarry, I pray thee, here; for the Lord hath sent me to Jordan. And he [Elisha] said, As the Lord liveth, and as thy soul liveth, I will not leave thee. And they two went on.
7. And [Now] fifty men of the sons of the prophets went [had gone], and stood [taken their stand opposite. They wished to see whether and how the companions would cross the stream at a point where there was no ford] to view afar off: and they two stood by Jordan.
8. And Elijah took his mantle [his hairy ʾaddèreth, which characterised him as a prophet], and wrapped it together [rolled it up], and smote the waters [a symbolical action like that of Moses smiting the rock, or stretching out his rod over the sea], and they were divided hither and thither [Exodus 14:16, Exodus 14:21-22; Joshua 4:22, seq.], so that [and] they two went over on dry ground.
9. ¶ And it came to pass, when they were gone over, that Elijah said unto Elisha, Ask what I shall do for thee, before I be taken away from thee [as a dying father, Elijah might wish to bless his spiritual son ere his departure (Genesis 27:4)]. And Elisha said, I pray thee, let [lit., and (i.e. well, then) let there fall, I pray thee, a portion of two in thy spirit, unto me] a double portion [The expression used in Deuteronomy 21:17 of the share of the firstborn son, who by the Mosaic law inherited two parts of his father's property] of thy spirit be upon me.
10. And he said, Thou hast asked a hard thing [Heb., Thou hast done hard in asking. To grant such a petition was not in Elijah's power, but in God's only]: nevertheless, if thou see me when I am taken from thee, it shall be so unto thee; but if not, it shall not be so.
11. And it came to pass, as they still went on, and talked, that, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, and parted them both asunder, and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven [rather, Elijah went up in the storm heavenward, or, perhaps into the air. The words must not be taken in too literal a sense. The essential meaning of the passage is this, that God suddenly took Elijah to himself, amid a grand display of his power in and through the. forces of nature].
The Translation of Elijah
When the Lord would take up Elijah,"—when. There is a great doctrine of Providence there. The life of man is absolutely at the disposal of the Lord—that is the doctrine. One might suppose that man would have some choice as to when he would go. Not the least in the world. We might think that man would be permitted to stay a year or two longer—he might be engaged in finishing a work which would require that time to complete it. No. Well, says one, I have built the column, and the capital is nearly ready to put on: I shall have it done the day after to-morrow—cannot I stay until then? No. "When the Lord would take up Elijah into heaven;" not when Elijah would go, but when the Lord would take him. Is there not an appointed time unto man upon the earth? Let us get out of the practical atheism of imagining that we have anything whatever to do with the length of our life. There is an appointed time to every man. It is true, that on account of our moral depravity we may make ways for ourselves, and determine in some sense our own time: we may be ready with our hands to do things that God has forbidden, but we are referring to the man who wants to be in God's hands only, who says "Not my will, but thine, be done—I will go when thou pleasest—to-day, tomorrow, a year hence, or half a century to come—when thou pleasest." God will know when he wants him, when he is ready to have him home, when the place is fully prepared for him—and then he will send for him.
God knows when our work is done; sometimes we think it is done when it is not; we wonder what more there is to do to it, it seems so trifling, as if it were not worth while doing, reminding us of what the great sculptor said to some one who wondered that he was so long over his marble:—"I know I am doing but a few things that look like trifles, but trifles make perfection and perfection is no trifle." So with us: many a poor life we have seen seems to be doing nothing, and we wonder why it does not go forward into the eternal state. It seems to be just touching things here and there, and to be doing so with a very feeble finger, and yet there is a Purpose that works out our last refinement, waiting about us today with the culmination and perfecting of our character and belongings. We shall not be here a day too long if we put our life into God's keeping. We are not absorbed, we are taken up to heaven: we do not melt into infinite azure or tagger back into everlasting nothingness.
"When the Lord would take up Elijah into heaven."—What is heaven? Critics cannot tell us: they have met in council and can make nothing of it. We must die to know. It hath not entered into the heart of man to conceive God's house. "In my Father's house are many mansions." How many? We know not. What is their size? We cannot tell. All these things we have represented by pearls and diamonds, and amethysts and onyxes—beautiful and expressive symbols, and then it is only a guess, half attempted. It is best so.
"When the Lord would take up Elijah"—that when is the doctrine of Providence over human life—"Elijah went with Elisha to Gilgal." What has that to do with us? A great deal. There is much that is very beautiful and tender in sentiment there. Elijah said, "I will go and visit Gilgal, then I will go to Bethel, and then I will go to Jericho." The great father of the ministry of that day said that he would visit all the schools of the prophets: he would go round to the three great colleges of the prophets of Israel, and have his last look at the young folks, his last prayer with the students, his last burst of holy enthusiasm with the young men who were to succeed him, before he went up by whirlwind or otherwise into heaven. So he went to Gilgal and prayed with the young lads there who were studying the scrolls of Israel, and then to Bethel, and then to Jericho, and so all the tender feelings and recollections revived in his heart. Then he went to Jordan and on to the last scene.
There is something in this we know a little about. We visit places for the last time: we say nothing about why we are doing so, but we think we should like to see the old town, the old schoolhouse, the old mill, the old farm, the old churchyard. Why do impressions come to the mind without explaining themselves: why are we moved by sudden suggestions, the genesis of which we know nothing about, the metaphysics of which puzzle us exceedingly? Yet we are so moved: we cannot tell why we take the journey for the last time, except that we should like to see the old scenes. Is there something coming upon the mind we cannot account for? Thank God we cannot account for everything: if everything could be set down in tables and schedules, life would be much impoverished and weakened. Thank God for the surprises and revelations and mysteries of old things, that come near and go back, and peep and flash and darken. They are God in life, a divine element and force.
And so Elijah goes to Gilgal: it is set down here as if it meant nothing—on to Bethel and to Jericho, as if he were a restless kind of spirit, here and there, going on like some fussy old man who does not know where to rest. But there is plan here, purpose, scheme, Providence; and so there is in our travel and in our movements.
"By a whirlwind."—There is a lesson here for us: and it is this. That the way of our going, as well as the time, is of the Lord's determination, and not of ours. "When [that is, the time, the appointed time] the Lord would take up Elijah into heaven by a whirlwind." He appoints the time, he makes the way, and thou hast nothing to do with it, poor dying man. One says, "I want to die on my birthday;" and God says, "No, perhaps the day after." Another says: "I want to die suddenly;" and God replies, "No, that is not the way: it is in the book, it is all written down in the book: you are to have a lingering death." "I should like to die lingeringly, but quietly," says another man; and God says, "That is not the way in the book: suddenly a bolt shall strike thee: thou shalt go to bed well, and in the morning be in heaven, without pang or spasm or notice given to any one: they shall find thee sleeping on the pillow like a child at rest." Another man says: "I should like to die like a shock of corn fully ripe;" and God says, "No, thou shalt be cut down in the greenness of thy youth, in the immaturity of thy powers." There are others who would like to die in childhood—pass away before five, when the eyes are round wonders, and they know nowise of anything—when everything round about is mystery and puzzle and enchantment; and God says, "No, you shall die at ninety: it is all focussed, all settled."
What have we to do, therefore? God allows us to express our own wishes and wills, he allows us to say what we would like to have done, and trains us to say, "Nevertheless, not my will, but thine, be done." He sends for some in a beautiful chariot made of violets and snowdrops and crocuses, and these are the young folks that go up to heaven in the spring chariot: the vernal coach is sent for them, and they go away—so young! They have just left school, just finished the last lesson, and shut it up, and said "Good-bye" to master and governess, and are supposed now to be ready for life; and God says, "Now, come up;" and they go up amid all the sweet modest spring flowers. And others go up in old age, feeling as if they had been forgotten on the earth, allowed to linger and loiter too long, as if God had forgotten them—some by long affliction, some by sudden call. We should look upon these as ways of the Lord: not haps and chances and accidents, but as appointments of heaven. If you will get into this way of thinking about Providence, life will be an offering unto the Lord, a perpetual sacrifice.
Elijah said unto Elisha, "I am going to Bethel, I am going to Jericho, I am going to Jordan." What is the lesson there? That the close of a man's life is often known to himself and to others without the subject ever being mentioned directly in words. Ah, the little mockeries and cheateries we have amongst one another, the innocent frauds and the pious deceptions! Well, well, he knoweth our frame, he remembereth that we are dust.
Elijah did not say to Elisha, "I am going to die," or "I am going to heaven," but, "I am going to Bethel—stand there." And Elisha said, "No, no, I won't." Elisha did not say, "I know the meaning of this;" no, but he says, "I will not leave thee." And Elijah said, "I am going to Jericho—stand there." "No, no, I won't do that: I shall not leave thee." Why?—There was nothing said, except that he was going to Gilgal, to Bethel, to Jericho, to Jordan—was that all? We never tell the "all": we always have something in reserve: we know that something is going to happen, and we put it into that form of words. You know what we say to one another in view of the great event: we say, "If anything should happen to me"—a form of words we understand. We do not seem to be able to say plainly and with frankness, "Now, if I should die next week------" No, but we say, "We do not know what may happen, and in the event of anything happening to me------" We do not like to mention the monster, and to point a long plain finger into the pit. so we say, "If anything should happen to me—in the event of anything happening to me—going to Gilgal, and to Bethel, and to Jericho, and to Jordan, and------" The rest is silence.
That is the way in the chamber of affliction. We say, "If the wind would only get round out of the east and into the southwest, perhaps we should get you up a little." Never—and we know it. And our friend, unwilling to break our heart, says, "I have been thinking that if the weather were milder, I might perhaps be able to get out a little." Never—and the suffering one knows it: not knows it as an arithmetical and prosaic thing that can be stated in words, but knows it impressionably and conjecturally, miles away from language—so that no lie is told; nothing of the sort, but a hope that is too remote to be real is expressed, and a kindness that wants to heal the suffering round about is uttered. Thus touch is not made to the quick; this man says he is going to Gilgal, and he knows he is going to heaven; he says he is going to Bethel, as if it were nothing—only going to pray with the young ones there. He says he is going to Jericho, as if he is going to stop there—he knows perfectly well he will only be there one night; he is a pilgrim with a staff in his hand and cannot linger. He says he is going to Jordan, and he knows perfectly well that he will never come back over Jordan, but all the time he never says anything about it.
So we let our friends down easily, and prepare them for great events by doing certain intermediate things. We seldom say plainly, "I am going to heaven," but we say, "I am going to Jordan, to Jericho, to Bethel, to Gilgal"—or contrariwise, as the course may lie—and, thank heaven! there are some things that are to be gathered from tone and from look and from hint, that are not to be put into vulgar words. Are you ready in the interpretation of signs? Who wants (it may be right for the doctor) even the doctor to say roundly and bluntly out, "This is death"? No; the gentle man has learned some form of words that conveys the impression without exactly thrusting the rapier through the heart. So he can hint so clearly—too clearly!—he can indicate from remote points: he need not put it so as to be cruel, he may mention Gilgal and Bethel, and Jericho and Jordan—and we know the rest. And yet there be some people so blind, and so dull of hearing, and so inapt that things have to be thrust upon them as with blows and hammers and great thunders and noises. They have no quick eye, no quick hearing, they do not comprehend a thing readily, otherwise we should be sparing some of our friends a little more: we should see the rounding of the shoulder and the stooping of the gait, and the dimming of the eye and the enfeeblement of the hand that used to be strong: and we should hear that the voice had not its old silver ring, and pitch and music, and we should take steps accordingly without seeming to do so, without any ostentation of care: we should modify our behaviour and adapt our great strength to the on-coming weakness of those who are going from Gilgal to Bethel, to Jericho, to Jordan—to the eternal land.
"And it came to pass when the Lord would take up Elijah into heaven by a whirlwind, that Elijah went------" to pay these last visits. We know what is coming upon us without putting it into so many words. I wish we were gifted in the interpretation of silence. "And Elijah said unto Elisha"—the last must come—"Ask what I shall do for thee, before I be taken away from thee." What is the lesson here? That the cessation of our individual life should not put an end to our interest in those we are leaving behind. Have no faith in that man's Christianity who cares nothing for posterity, nothing for those who shall come after him, who says, "My day is done: I am going: the world must take care of itself." That is not in the Bible, not in God, not in Christ. Elijah says, "Ask what I shall do for thee." Heaven is so near, yet he is still thinking about the earth: he is going to join the angels, and yet wanting to do something for the poor creatures yet to linger upon the earth for ten or twenty years. O bold man, bold, bold Elijah! "Ask what I shall do for thee." Why, what could he do? He had no money to leave, what could he do? No estates to dispart and distribute, what could he do? Can a poor man do something—can a man who has no will to make yet will a great deal? It would seem so. "What can I do for thee, child, before going?" I know what you can do: put out those poor bony hands and put them upon his head and say, "God bless the lad." That will do. "What can I do for thee?" Leave me a blessing, leave me one of your old letters, let me have your old Bible: utter one more prayer for me, mention me in the last prayer, let the last sigh mean poor me—me—me. Aye, we can help one another in that way. "Ask what I shall do for thee," I like memorials, last letters, last words—the last time I saw him, the last time he spoke to me, the last time I heard him preach, the last time I gripped his hand, the last time we travelled together. I like this "last time" to be full of tender memories, and as we do not know when the last time may be, let every time have in it some grace of its' own, some flower grown in Paradise.
"Ask what I shall do for thee. And Elisha said, I pray thee, let a double portion of thy spirit be upon me."—That man was fit to go to heaven—from our point of view. A double portion of thy spirit—the meaning being this: in ancient times, when property was given out, the eldest had a double portion, and the younger might share and share alike. Elisha said, "Let me be the eldest: we have been to all these schools, Gilgal, and Bethel, and Jericho, the three centres of education, we have seen all these sons of the prophets, and they have all wanted thee to bless them—now let a double portion of thy spirit be upon me." Ask for wisdom, not for riches; for a large heart, not for a large estate—seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you. Now, what is your supreme prayer? What do you want your father, mother, friend, to leave you? Let them leave you a good example, let them leave you a noble testimony on behalf of the truth, let them leave you an unsullied character, and then they will leave you an inheritance incorruptible, undefiled, and that fadeth not away. If they were able to bequeath the stars, you could spend them all, and be a spendthrift, and a pauper at the last; but if you have the wealth of their example, the pith of their character, the substance of their mind, the inmost and best qualities of their souls, that is an indestructible property. "Let a double portion of thy spirit be upon me." Now, Elijah said, "Thou hast asked a hard thing." That is right—always ask the hardest things: it would have been nothing to have given something outside of him—that is easily done. But "a double portion of thy spirit," as if he had asked for himself twice over, as if he who had sent him upon the earth would allow him to go into heaven and leave his spirit behind him. "Thou hast asked a hard thing: nevertheless------" O bless God for the neverthelesses in Scripture, for those rugged turnings on the road behind which you find all you want! "Nevertheless—nevertheless—" what was that nevertheless? Look at it—"If thou see me when I am taken from thee, it shall be so unto thee; but if not, it shall not be so." Is there any meaning in that? Infinite meaning. Anything for today? Most certainly. "If thou see me." But how could he see him if he did not watch? Ah, that is the whole doctrine. Look, expect, watch: keep your eyes open, fixed, intense—look as if you wanted the blessing, and you will get it. That is the great law, that our power is in proportion to our insight: if a man can see well, he will have power; if he cannot see, he will be artificial, and have no gigantic strength, no real might—an automaton moving upon wires invisible, but not a giant recruiting himself from within himself, because of the indwelling God that is in his heart.
"If thou see me." And Elisha said, "I will see thee, if it be possible; I will keep my eye upon thee." And did God ever disappoint the eyes that were turned upwards? Did he ever say, "The morning shall not shine upon those who look towards the east"? Never. And so if you look into the perfect law of liberty—look into the Bible, you will find it always new, always a revelation, always something fresh—May bringing its own flowers, June her own coronal ever, August its own largess of vine and wheat "If thou see me." Is there any counterpart to that in the New Testament? There is: O wonderful counterpart—"If thou see me, thou shalt have it, if not, it shall not be so." "And he led them"—that greater he—"led them out as far as to Bethany." And he ascended, and they watched him and saw him, and a cloud received him up out of their sight. They watched, they saw, they returned to Jerusalem, and were endued with power from on high. That is God's law, that the watching man gets everything, the man who is nearest and looks keenest gets all and sees all—and it is right. The mountain gets the first gleam of the sun, and then the light gets down into the valleys by-and-by. Have you ever seen that beautiful sight of the mountain getting the first kiss, the first glance, the first visitation? It is a sight to make a man religious, to make him quiet with a quietness that is akin to prayer. The sun is nowhere visible in himself but a light is there, and I have seen that light brightening over the great snowy peaks, like camps of giants that have been sleeping there all night: and down yonder, night, dying night, lingering night, solemn night—fog and cloud and raw damp, and up there heaven. And then down, down, down—all these bits and beams and rays of light shooting into the fog and cloud, and chasing them away, and last of all the little town yonder waking up and saying, "It is morning." Morning? Poor little hamlet, it has been morning an hour or more up there. Aye, the mountains first and the chimneys a long way off; the high peaks first and then your little hamlets by-and-by.
And so—and so—these great rocks of God are watching men: Elisha was a watching spirit: those who see Christ taken up are endued with power from on high. Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; look, and ye shall see; knock, and it shall be opened. Sir Isaac Newton, was once asked why he was so much greater than other workers in his particular science. He said, "I do not know, except that I, perhaps, pay more attention than they do?" Just consider. What is attention? We think anybody can attend. Hardly a man in a hundred can attend to anything. Attention, the power of attention, keen, interested, agonising, persistent, night-long, day-long attention, seems to be a gift of God. Attention—look, expect, watch, and if you do so, you will have a double portion of the Spirit; if not, it shall not be so. The sluggard gets nothing, the shut eyes see not the morning when it cometh, the slumberer's closed vision cannot see the first sparklings and scintillations of the coming day. Lord, open our eyes, that we may see!
And here ends all the direct information which is vouchsafed to us of the life and work of this great prophet. Truly, he "stood up as a fire, and his word burnt as a lamp" (Ecclesiasticus 48:1).... The deep impression which Elijah had made on his nation only renders more remarkable the departure which the image conveyed by the later references to him evinces, from that so sharply presented in the records of his actual life. With the exception of the eulogiums contained in the catalogues of worthies in the book of Jesus the son of Sirach (48) and 1 Maccabees 2:58, and the passing allusion in Luke 9:54, none of these later references allude to his works of destruction or of portent. They all set forth a very different side of his character to that brought out in the historical narrative. They speak of his being a man of like passions with ourselves (James 5:17); of his kindness to the widow of Sarepta (Luke 4:25); of his "restoring all things" (Matthew 17:11); "turning the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just (Malachi 4:5-6; Luke 1:17).... It will be sufficient to call attention to the great differences which may exist between the popular and contemporary view of an eminent character, and the real settled judgment formed in the progress of time, when the excitement of his more brilliant but more evanescent deeds has passed away. Precious indeed are the scattered hints and faint touches which enable us thus to soften the harsh outlines or the discordant colouring of the earlier picture. In the present instance they are peculiarly so. That wild figure, that stern voice, those deeds of blood, which stand out in such startling relief from the pages of the old records of Elijah, are seen by us all silvered over with the "white and glistering" light of the Mountain of Transfiguration. When he last stood on the soil of his native Gilead [see the considerations adduced by Stanley (S. and P.) in favour of the mountain of the Transfiguration being on the east of Jordan], he was destitute, afflicted, tormented, wandering about "in sheepskins and goatskins, in deserts and mountains, and dens and caves of the earth." But these things have passed away into the distance, and with them has receded the fiery zeal, the destructive wrath, which accompanied them. Under that heavenly light they fall back into their proper proportions, and Ahab and Jezebel, Baal and Ashtaroth are forgotten, as we listen to the Prophet talking to our Lord—talking of that event which was to be the consummation of all that he had suffered and striven for—"talking of his decease which he should accomplish at Jerusalem."
And Elisha saw it, and he cried, My father, my father, the chariot of Israel, and the horsemen thereof. And he saw him no more: and he took hold of his own clothes, and rent them in two pieces.2Kings 2:12-25
12. ¶ And Elisha saw it, and he cried [literally, Elisha was seeing, and he (emphatic) was shouting (comp. 2Kings 2:10, "If thou see me taken away")], My father, my father, the chariot of Israel, and the horsemen thereof. And he saw him no more: and he took hold of his own clothes, and rent them in two pieces [from top to bottom, in token of extreme sorrow].
13. He took up also the mantle of Elijah [the badge of the prophet's office was naturally transferred to his successor], that fell from him, and went back, and stood by the bank of Jordan.
14. And he took the mantle of Elijah that fell from him, and smote the waters, and said, Where is the Lord God of Elijah? [has he left the earth with his prophet? The words are a sort of irony of faith], and when he also had smitten the waters, they parted hither and thither: and Elisha went over.
15. And when the sons of the prophets which were to view at Jericho saw him, they said, The spirit of Elijah doth rest [hath alighted, i.e. settled, rested] on Elisha. And they came to meet him, and bowed themselves to the ground before him.
16. ¶ And they said unto him [after he had told them of the Assumption of Elijah], Behold now, there be with thy servants fifty [Heb., sons of strength] strong men; let them go, we pray thee, and seek thy master: lest peradventure the Spirit of the Lord hath taken him up [comp. 1Kings 18:12; Acts 8:39, Acts 8:40. The suggestion of the sons of the prophets is a good comment on Acts 8:11, Acts 8:12. It shows that what is there told is certainly not that Elijah ascended a fiery chariot and rode visibly into heaven, as the popular notion is], and cast him upon some mountain, or into some valley. And he said, Ye shall not send.
17. And when they urged him [Genesis 33:11] till he was [lit., unto being] ashamed, he said, Send. They sent therefore fifty men; and they sought three days, but found him not.
18. And when they came again to him (for he tarried [now he was abiding in] at Jericho), he said unto them, Did I not say [or, command] unto you, Go not?
19. ¶ And the men of the city [not "the sons of the prophets," but the citizens] said unto Elisha, Behold, I pray thee, the situation of this [the] city is pleasant [good; Deuteronomy 34:3], as my lord seeth: but the water is naught [bad], and the ground barren [Heb., causing to miscarry].
20. And he said, Bring me a new cruse [vessel; either dish, bowl, or cup], and put salt therein. And they brought it to him.
21. And he went forth unto the spring of the waters, and cast the salt in there, and said, Thus saith the Lord, I have healed these waters; there shall not be from thence any more death or barren land [the same word as in 2Kings 2:19; lit., and making (or, multiplying) abortion].
22. So the waters were healed unto this day, according to the saying of Elisha which he spake.
23. ¶ And he went up from thence unto Beth-el: and as he was going up by the way [the highway; the way par excellence], there came forth little children [young boys (or, lads)] out of the city, and mocked him, and said unto him, Go up, thou bald head [baldness was a reproach (Isaiah 3:17, Isaiah 15:2)]: go up, thou bald head.
24. And he turned back, and looked on them, and cursed them [to avenge the honour of Jehovah, violated in his person. (Comp. Exodus 16:8; Acts 5:4)] in the name of the Lord. And there came forth [directly fulfilling the menace of Leviticus 26:21, seq.] two she-bears out of the wood, and tare forty and two [showing that the mob was considerable] children of them.
25. And he went from thence to mount Carmel, and from thence he returned to Samaria [where he had his permanent abode. (Comp. chap. 2Kings 6:32)].
When Elijah supposed that his work was done he was ordered by Jehovah to go up and return on his way to the wilderness of Damascus; and he who supposed that his ministry was concluded had yet to anoint Hazael to be king over Syria, and Jehu the son of Nimshi to be king over Israel (1Kings 19:15-16). But the anointing of these kings was a comparatively insignificant circumstance, the great point of the commission we find in the conclusion of the sixteenth verse of the same chapter:—"And Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah shalt thou anoint to be prophet in thy room." Probably it had not occurred to Elijah that he could have a successor. A very subtle indication is thus given of his approaching end; the Lord instead of telling him that he had many a year left to spend in holy service, gave him to understand that even he, mighty prophet though he was, could be dispensed with, and that a man of almost unknown name would be qualified by divine inspiration to take his room. We cannot imagine Elijah's feelings under these circumstances. If a great demonstration of regard had been made, on the part of the Lord God of Israel, because Elijah was weary, the prophet might have supposed himself to be of vital consequence to the divine economy; but to be told that Elisha, a man who was ploughing the twelfth plough in the field whilst his eleven servants were ploughing beside him, would succeed to the high dignity was really to inflict in the most gracious way a very solemn humiliation upon a man who had become so self-conscious as practically to ignore the resources of the living God. Elisha was a man in what we should now term comfortable circumstances. As he was ploughing in his field of Abel-meholah ("the meadow dance"), Elijah drew near and threw over the ploughman his prophetic sheepskin mantle, and passed on in silence, leaving Elisha himself to interpret the graphic symbol. Elisha instantly comprehended the purpose, and running after Elijah he begged to be allowed to kiss his father and mother, after which he promised to follow the senior prophet. It is noteworthy that at this time Elisha must have been quite a young man,—an inference which may be fairly drawn from the fact that sixty years after this event he was still in the exercise of his prophetic office. It is a noticeable circumstance, which repeats itself even in our own day, that Elisha was in many respects the exact counterpart of Elijah. By choosing all kinds of character and capacity to represent the divine kingdom, God shows his infinite wisdom in a way which even the dullest understanding can hardly fail to appreciate. He is not dependent upon one particular aspect of genius, or one particular accent of eloquence; he calls whom he will to the prophetic office and the ministerial function, and it should be our part to accept his vocations, however much we may be surprised at the course which they take and at the social consequences which they involve. At the time in which Elijah and Elisha exercised their functions religion and morals had gone down to the lowest possible point in Israel. The very schools of the prophets had themselves felt the corrupting influence of the times. Ahab was able to gather four hundred false prophets at a time, the remarkable circumstance being that they were not prophets of Baal but false prophets of the Lord himself. It can hardly be matter of surprise, therefore, that a man of burning spirit, arising under such circumstances, should begin his ministry with displays of power which can hardly escape the charge of being stern or even violent.
This chapter introduces us to the beginning of Elisha's ministry. He had just seen Elijah ascend, and he felt that he was left alone to carry on the great work which had been so wondrously conducted by a master-hand. In verse twelve we see how Elisha estimated the character and service of Elijah. He exclaims, "My father, my father:" he thus indicates the most serious loss which can befall human life; this is not altogether a cry of reverence, it is also a cry of orphanhood; in their brief intercourse one with the other, Elijah had naturally taken the paternal place, and Elisha as a very young man had felt the comforting influence exercised upon him by the mighty prophet. This is a cry of young sensibility: the almost child feels himself to be quite alone; he who an hour ago supposed that after all he might be able to continue the work of Elijah now felt how terrible was the void that was created by Elijah's absence. We do not know the bulk and value of some ministries until they are removed from us; we become familiar with them, and attach no particular significance to their exercise; we come to think we have some right in them, and that by some means or other they will always be present with us: when, however, the great removal does take place, and we look around for the familiar face, and expect to be touched by the familiar hand, and our expectations are disappointed, the natural cry is "My father, my father." These words, too, may fairly be construed as suggesting an aspect of Elijah's character which is generally overlooked. Probably it has hardly occurred to us to regard Elijah as a man of special tenderness: we think of him as a great comet, or as a flash of lightning, or as a mighty whirlwind, or under any figure that suggests grandeur, majesty, and force; but we have never associated with Elijah the notion of graciousness, tenderness, love, and that easy familiarity which constitutes the very soul of friendship. Now, however, by the ascription of his name we seem to know somewhat of the genial intercourse which passed between father and son—the senior prophet and the young apostle of God; and it is delightful to infer that that intercourse had been conducted on the one side paternally and on the other side filially. We do not know altogether what men are when we only see them in public life. The great parliamentary orator may be the simplest of all men when he is in the domestic circle. The great commander of armies, whose courage never quails, may have the heart of a woman when he stands in the presence of suffering childhood. It is important for all who attempt to delineate the characters of public men to remember that they see only one aspect of those characters and are therefore not qualified to pronounce upon the whole man.
The next expression of Elisha is, "The chariot of Israel, and the horsemen thereof" (2Kings 2:12).—This is an apparently incoherent exclamation. When properly understood, however, it conveys a further tribute to the ministry which was exercised by the ascending prophet. The real meaning is: My father, my father, so much better than all chariots and horses,—in thy absence the chariot of Israel, and the horsemen thereof, are useless; they were used by thee, and under thy conduct could be turned to good account, but now that thou art gone they do but mock our loneliness and make us feel still more bitterly our helpless condition. A greater question than, Where is Elijah? now occurred to the desolate young man. Instantly he seizes the reality of the occasion, and by exclaiming, "Where is the Lord God of Elijah?" he shows that he is not called to a merely official position, but that he is elected to represent the divine majesty upon earth. The young man thus begins well. There is nothing frivolous in his inquiry or in his interpretation of events. The very depth of his feeling gives us an index to the capacity of his mind. Rely upon it that he who can feel as Elisha did must have a mind equal in its proportions to the fine emotions which enlarge and ennoble his heart. Had the young man deported himself in a way which suggested self-sufficiency, his prophetic office would have been destroyed well-nigh before it was created. It is when we stand back in humility and in almost despair, and cry out in our desolateness, "Where is the Lord God of Elijah?" that we begin our work in the right spirit, and only then. In this whole ministry of righteousness and redemption there is no place for self-sufficiency. The apostle Paul said, "Our sufficiency is of God." The great inquiry, "Who is sufficient for these things?" keeps down human ambition and vanity, and prepares the heart for the utterance of prevailing prayer. The question which was thus propounded by Elisha is full of suggestion to ourselves. When we come to read the Bible we should not inquire so much Where is inspiration: but, Where is wisdom which can be applied to our own circumstances and be made unto us as the very staff of life? We need not exclaim in considering the Christian ministry of our own day, Where are the miracles of the Lord Jesus Christ and his apostles? Our inquiry should be, Where are the healed men, the comforted hearts, the forgiven souls, the rejoicing spirits? Who cares to inquire into the mechanism of the organ when he can hear its music and be bowed down by its most solemn appeals?
"And when the sons of the prophets which were to view at Jericho saw him, they said, The spirit of Elijah doth rest on Elisha. And they came to meet him, and bowed themselves to the ground before him" (2Kings 2:15).
There was no mistaking that spirit. Who can mistake the presence and influence of fire? Better that our spirit should be discovered than that our credentials should be examined. Of what avail is it that a man can produce a whole portfolio of testimonials, if nobody has discovered in him the presence and effect of the divine Spirit? This tribute is also to the credit of the sons of the prophets, for their judgment was vital and not accidental. There are men who will only regard providence as operating in one way or as operating in one form. These sons of the prophets did not belong to such an inferior class of judges. It is remarkable too, that the organic unity of the prophetic office is hereby recognised. The sons of the prophets do not treat Elisha as a novelty, a new sensation, or as representing a new point of departure; they unite the old with the new; though the man has changed, the spirit remains the same. This is what must be always regarded in reading Christian history and in watching the course of the Christian ministry. Old ministers depart, but when new men come they come with the old spirit and the old truth, or if they come with any other spirit or any other doctrine, they should, in the degree of the change, be suspected of being other than genuine successors of the prophets. From the beginning God has signalised ministers less by some outward badge than by an inward and spiritual power. "The Lord came down in a cloud, and spake unto him [Moses] and took of the spirit that was upon him, and and gave it unto the seventy elders: and it came to pass, that, when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied, and did not cease." "The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord." And the apostle Peter recognises the same doctrine as continuing in the Christian Church, for he says, "The spirit of glory and of God resteth upon you." We are thus brought back to pentecostal days and pentecostal signs. The age will care little about names, offices, and ceremonial claims, but will set more and more store upon spiritual insight, spiritual sympathy, and the power of revealing the human heart to itself and applying divine remedies to human diseases.
"And they said unto him, Behold now, there be with thy servants fifty strong men; let them go, we pray thee, and seek thy master: lest peradventure the Spirit of the Lord hath taken him up, and cast him upon some mountain, or into some valley. And he said, Ye shall not send. And when they urged him till he was ashamed, he said, Send. They sent therefore fifty men; and they sought three days, but found him not. And when they came again to him, (for he tarried at Jericho,) he said unto them, Did I not say unto you, Go not?" (2Kings 2:16-18).
This proposal on the part of the young men must not be taken as an evidence of their scepticism, but as a proof of their determination to show that the case was from end to end thoroughly genuine in all its phases. They determined upon going out in quest of Elijah, if haply he might have hidden upon some mountain. They said, "Lest peradventure the Spirit of the Lord hath taken him up, and cast him upon some mountain, or into some valley." Elisha did not need any such demonstration of the reality of Elijah's ascension. Why? because Elisha himself saw the ascension, as we read in verse twelve, and he was therefore in the position of an eye-witness. Elisha insisted that the young men should not go, but they plied him with such importunity that at length he consented. A very beautiful expression occurs in 2Kings 2:17—"They... found him not." All God's ways, so far as they are known to us, prove that when he has accomplished an end it is impossible to reverse it—to open a door which he has shut, or to shut a door which he has opened. When God takes away a man, who can find him? This is not only true of the man bodily, but of the man influentially. We have seen men removed who exercised a very baleful influence upon their age, and not only have they themselves been buried and put out of sight, but their whole influence has been utterly and externally extirpated; so to say, their roots have been torn up out of the earth and flung into the devouring fire, to be found no more for ever. But not to find Elijah suggests the great question whether something better than the merely personal Elijah cannot be found? We can now find Elijah's spirit; we can find Elijah's example; we can, above all things, find Elijah's God. What, then, is it, that is really taken away from us when the great man dies? Is it not his bodily presence only that is removed? We remember him, we can recall his visage, we can reanimate his voice; we know precisely what he would have done under given circumstances; we can now sympathetically commune with him in prayer and study as we read and expound the holy oracles; we know well how spotless and pure was his heroic character;—all these memories and impressions are with us, not only as memories and impressions, but as amongst the most solid certainties of our life; what, then, though we find him not in the body, the man, in the largest and best acceptation of the term, is with us alway, even unto the end of the world.
"And the men of the city said unto Elisha, Behold, I pray thee, the situation of this city is pleasant, as my lord seeth: but the water is naught, and the ground barren. And he said, Bring me a new cruse, and put salt therein. And they brought it to him. And he went forth unto the spring of the waters, and cast the salt in there, and said, Thus saith the Lord, I have healed these waters; there shall not be from thence any more death or barren land. So the waters were healed unto this day, according to the saying of Elisha which he spake.(2Kings 2:19-22).
Elisha begins his ministry by doing good: that is to say, by healing the water that was diseased. This appeal to the prophet to do something for the city or Jericho was itself a tribute to the genuineness of the prophetic office as exercised by him. It is always beautiful to notice how great power is associated with the doing of good. What is it to be a prophet of any age if the age is not practically benefited by the exercise of the office? The age does not want ornamental prophets, nominal prophets, official prophets; the age is crying out for men who can give it bread, who can heal its water, who can mitigate its sorrows, who can destroy its oppressions. By this sign must all prophets live or die. It would have been a poor thing on the part of Elisha to have shown the mantle of his predecessor if he could not also show his power. We are only in the apostolic succession as we are in the apostolic spirit. We may have all the relics which the apostles left behind, the cloak that was left at Troas, and the parchment, and the staff, and the vessels out of which they ate and drank: we may even have the scrolls which they used in reading the Holy Scriptures; but all these things will constitute only a burden if we have not along with all other possessions the mighty and eternal Spirit of the living God, without whose energy even the apostles themselves were but common men. The apostles of the age must come to bless our home, to bless our bread, to sanctify our love, and give our whole life a new and better impulse: in the degree in which they do this they will never forfeit the respect of their contemporaries. Depraved as the world is, it comes in the long run to recognise with gratitude the men who do most for the alleviation of its distresses and the lessening of its burdens.
Elisha having cured the water, he went up from the depressed plain of Jericho to the top of the highland of Jordan, to the height of three thousand feet, that he might come unto Beth-el, which, alas! became the chief stronghold of the calf-worship. The popular sentiment was debased to the lowest possible point; even the little children were tainted with the awful disease of contempt for the greatest names and the greatest thoughts in Israel.
"And he went up from thence unto Beth-el: and as he was going up by the way, there came forth little children out of the city, and mocked him, and said unto him, Go up, thou bald head; go up, thou bald head. And he turned back, and looked on them, and cursed them in the name of the Lord. And there came forth two she bears out of the wood, and tare forty and two children of them. And he went from thence to mount Carmel, and from thence he returned to Samaria" (2Kings 2:23-25).
This miracle has occasioned no little difficulty to those who read it only in the letter. It is not a narrow incident which can be regarded as a mere anecdote and treated as it were within the limits of its own four corners. We must understand the spirit of the age in which the incident occurred; we must realise that the whole air was full of idolatry and blasphemy; we must remember that the very church of Israel itself was deceitful above all things and desperately wicked, with hardly one spot of health on all the altar from the crown of the head to the sole of the foot; we must keep steadily before our minds the fact that the places which are mentioned in this incident had become as Sodom and Gomorrah, not perhaps in the physical and carnal sense, but in the still worse sense of spiritual alienation and spiritual contempt for everything associated with the name of the living God. When Elisha, therefore, wrought this deed of violence—this miracle of destruction his action must be regarded as typically, and as strictly in keeping with the necessities of the occasion. Only this kind of miracle could have been understood by the people amongst whom it was worked, and who had an opportunity of feeling its effects either directly or incidentally. How often it happens that the first miracle is one which is marked peculiarly by a destructive energy! This would seem to be the miracle which our own first zealous impulses would work, had they the power to express themselves in such a form. When the soul is alive with the purity of God, when the heart glows and burns with love, when the whole being is in vital sympathy with the purposes of the cross of Christ, the first and all but uncontrollable impulse is to destroy evil—not to reason with it, or make truce with it, or give it further treatment of any kind, but instantly and violently to crush it out of existence. This impulse will be trained to other uses in the school of Christ. Nothing could have been easier to the Son of God than to have destroyed his enemies; he who raised the dead and quieted the sea could easily have put his hand upon his foes and crushed them so that they never could rise again. Not for this purpose, however, did he come into the world: "The Son of man is not come to destroy men's lives, but to save them." Jesus Christ thus undertakes the most difficult part of all. There is nothing so easy as to destroy; there is nothing so difficult as to save. Who could not in one black night destroy the finest fabric ever raised by human hands? Gunpowder would do it, dynamite would do it;—but who could put up that fabric again in all its massiveness and beauty? Let us always understand that Jesus Christ came to destroy the works of the devil and thus to destroy the devil himself. He would destroy sin; he would save the sinner.