Elisha Walks With His Master

2 Kings 2

Elisha is an enigmatic character. On the one hand, he is the powerful prophet of God, second in his time only to his mentor Elijah. On the other hand, his life was taken up with secular events and worldly politics.

The story for today is about Elisha's assumption of Elijah's power when Elijah left this world. It is the beginning of Elisha's ministry and it tells us much about the man.

I will not leave you

At the beginning of the story, Elijah is still alive. Elisha was his disciple and his designated successor, so it is natural that the two men were travelling together. (It is likely that there were other disciples and servants also in the party – Elijah was a powerful man in Israel and Judah – but they play no part and are not mentioned here.)

Elijah seems to know that the end of his life is near, but he doesn't speak of it directly. Instead, Elijah begins to tell Elisha to leave him. The prophets are travelling from Gilgal, which is west of the Jordan not far north of the Dead Sea, and they are travelling west toward Bethel. Before they come near Bethel, Elijah says to Elisha, Stay here, for the Lord has sent me to Bethel.

Elisha refuses his master's instruction. (I would suppose that was in itself unusual. The Bible makes no comment on it, but the student would be expected to accept the discipline of his teacher.) Elisha says, As certainly as the Lord lives and as you live, I will not leave you.

What do we learn from this about Elisha? Elisha is loyal to his teacher Elijah; not only loyal to Elijah's cause but personally dedicated to the man. Being separated would be unacceptable. We can already guess that Elisha knows that his master soon will leave him. Neither Elisha nor Elijah speak of this directly. They both know; they know because they are both informed by God; they each know that the other knows and we see here the tender dancing around the issue that happens between two friends who care much for each other. And so Elijah says no more and they go on.

The prophets at Bethel have no such reticence. They take Elisha aside to make certain he knows that Elijah's life is nearly over. They ask Elisha whether he knows this. Yes, I know, Elisha answers. Be quiet. Do not talk about this, he says; it is too painful. Or perhaps he thinks it was disrespectful to speak of Elijah behind his back, especially since it is the season for his leaving.

At Bethel, Elijah again tells Elisha to stay behind and again the disciple refuses his master. Elisha says, As certainly as the Lord lives and as you live, I will not leave you. Elisha is loyal to Elijah, his teacher, but notice that it is the living God who is always first in his statement of loyalty. Elijah has been the prophet of God; it would not be possible to be loyal to Elijah without first being loyal to his Lord and Master.

So they go back east to Jericho, only a few miles from where they began in Gilgal. At Jericho again some of the local prophets speak to Elisha about what is going to happen. Do you know that today the Lord is going to take your master from you? they ask. Yes, I know, Elisha answers. Be quiet.

Travelling together

At Jericho, Elijah again offers to let Elisha stay behind. Again he refuses. So they traveled on together. By this time it is obvious that Elisha will not leave his teacher. Three times Elijah has asked and three times Elisha has refused.

How often must a person defend his loyalty? In the Bible, it is often three times. How often did Jesus ask Simon Peter, Simon, son of John, do you love me? The Gospel According to John tells us that Peter was distressed that Jesus asked him a third time. So it is here. Three times Elijah offers his disciple the chance to stay behind and three times Elisha answers him, As certainly as the Lord lives and as you live, I will not leave you.

The result of this affirmation is that they traveled on together. They travelled east this time, to the Jordan River. Beyond the river is the wilderness – the desert where there were no permanent cities. The local prophets who had accompanied the two men as far as the Jordan do not presume the right to go any farther with them. The river, which is by nature a barrier and a boundary line, serves as a door for the prophets. They go on and disappear from sight.

Now they are alone. Now Elisha's loyalty is certain. Now there is no more dissembling. Elijah speaks plainly. What can I do for you, he asks, before I am taken away from you? And Elisha answers, May a double portion of your spirit come to me. That is, two parts, probably two-thirds of the prophetic spirit that Elijah had received from God. And Elijah agrees; he says, That's a difficult request! If you see me taken from you, may it be so, but if you don't, it will not happen.

There are different kinds of loyalty. Sometimes people are loyal only until they can take power for themselves. Sometimes we are loyal until we have an offer of a better job. There's a place for this sort of temporary loyalty. There was an election for governor when I was working in the state Budget Office and it was fascinating to watch the loyalties change from the old governor to the governor-elect. That was appropriate; civil servants are supposed to be loyal to the governor elected by the people.

The case in our story today is different. The old prophet does not hold power in his own right or even as a representative of the people of Israel. Instead, Elijah is the representative of God. Loyalty to God requires loyalty to his appointed prophet. A new prophet can't take over Elijah's role until God is ready to make the change. Elisha must remain loyal to the very last if he is worthy to become Elijah's successor.

Elisha has been offered the chance to stay behind but he has chosen loyalty instead. And so they walked together, the three of them: Elisha, and Elisha's master, Elijah, and Elijah's master.

Elijah's departure

As they were walking along and talking, knowing, of course, that the end was near, look, a chariot of fire and horses of fire … and Elijah went up to heaven in a windstorm.

Elisha cries out at the loss of his teacher. First he calls to Elijah, My father, my father! for Elijah was indeed his father in a sense; his teacher, his mentor, his example, his leader.

Then Elisha says, The chariot and horsemen of Israel! It is generally thought that this is another reference to Elijah, the "mighty defender of Israel" as the Good News Bible translates this phrase. (A later king of Israel addressed Elisha with these same words at the end of Elisha's life.) On the other hand, Elisha is face to face with the chariot of fire sent to take his master home. Is it not possible that he might be referring to God's power, and not Elijah's, as the defense of Israel?

Battling on God's side

Another story about Elisha will help to illustrate this. Years later, Syria was at war with Israel, and Elisha passed information to the king of Israel about the Syrian army's movements. The Syrian king determined to capture Elisha in order to close this security breach. The king didn't care whether Elisha was a prophet or a spymaster; the king merely wanted to keep his secrets.

One morning, Elisha's servant got up, went outside, and saw a Syrian army surrounding the village. Oh no, my master! What will we do? he cried. But Elisha was calm. Don't be afraid, for our side outnumbers them. The poor servant didn't know what to think, so Elisha asked God to reveal the truth to the man. Then he saw the hill was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha – the Lord's army.

Prophets in those days were far more like warlords than would make me comfortable. But there was this difference: Elisha recognized that true strength was from God, that the horses and chariots of fire outnumbered the chariots of wood and iron.

The rest of this later story is also interesting. God and Elisha work together to confuse the Syrians and lead them to Samaria, then the capital city of Israel. The king of Israel, finding a Syrian army under his hand, wanted to kill them all – but he had the sense to ask Elisha before he did that. And Elisha said, Do not strike them down! You did not capture them with your sword or bow, so what gives you the right to strike them down? Give them some food and water. So instead of death the Syrians were given a feast – and a debt – and then sent home.

Picking up the mantle of Elijah

But all of that is in the future. In today's story, Elijah has just been taken away by a whirlwind. He is not seen again until the Transfiguration of Jesus.

Elisha picks up Elijah's cloak. We have a saying, to succeed another person in office or influence is to pick up his mantle. Here Elisha does exactly that: He picks up Elijah's mantle, or cloak, and also picks up his master's power and office. Elisha returns to the Jordan River, opens the watery barrier just as Elijah had done, and returns to the waiting band of prophets.

Elisha picks up Elijah's cloak, rolls it up, and strikes the Jordan. They had been alone in the desert, Elisha, Elijah, and God. No one else knew what had happened there. Now Elisha is returning to public life and his first act is an unmistakable claim to the power and place that Elijah had held. Elisha held Elijah's cloak in his hand, called out, Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?, and reenacted Elijah's last miracle. The prophets waiting on the other side recognized the meaning of this act at once. The spirit that energized Elijah rests upon Elisha, they said to each other.

There is an element of political and even military power in Elisha's claim to succeed his teacher. I've already said that the great prophets of this time were too much like warlords for my comfort. The other prophets went to meet him and bowed down to the ground before Elisha. The other prophets respected Elisha, but they also wanted to know what had happened to Elijah. I think they had mixed feelings. What if Elijah were still alive and Elisha were seen as a usurper – someone who hadn't been loyal to the end? On the other hand, what if Elijah were dead and the prophets had not properly honored his passing? Their reputation, their status, and perhaps their lives were on the line as much as Elisha's.

For all these reasons, the prophets wanted to search for Elijah, to know what had really happened, but they didn't want to cross the new leader, either. Eventually, Elisha became embarrassed. So he let them go looking in the desert. That they found nothing is consistent with Elisha's story of what happened to Elijah. Elisha has made his claim. But in the uncertainty of the moment, without the benefit of almost 3,000 years of reflection, not finding Elijah or his body really didn't settle anything.

Political religion

There follow two short and (for us) unsettling stories in which Elisha provides some practical evidence to back up his claim to be God's representative. The great prophets of that time were public leaders and people needed to know that Elisha could carry out the role.

In the first story, the leaders of Jericho, the town where Elisha was staying, complained about the bad water in the town's spring. This was, in their telling, Jericho's only flaw. Elisha asked them to bring him a jar of salt, which he dumped in the spring. The spring became fresh and remained so. By doing this, Elisha demonstrated his power to improve the lives of the people.

This first story is unsettling only because it doesn't seem to make practical sense. Throwing salt into the spring would normally poison it, not clear the impurities. And why does Elisha insist on a new jar? Obviously we do not have enough information to provide a scientific explanation, but that is not the point of the story.

The point is that Elisha first demonstrated that God had entrusted him with the ability to help make life better.

In the second of these small stories, Elisha is setting off from Jericho to other towns. A crowd of boys follows, taunting him and shouting, Go on up, baldy! I can't quite imagine that they would have done the same thing to Elijah. The old prophet fought with kings – and against them. He was feared as well as honored. I can imagine the boys hearing their parents say, Well, Elisha may be a prophet but he sure is no Elijah.

Try not to get hung up on the young boys. The word boy can be applied to anyone from a baby to the Lads of the Irish Troubles; Solomon used it for himself after he became king. That they were young boys suggests to me that they were not old enough to leave home and join the bandits or the army. But there were 50 or more of them in the road taunting a powerful public figure. To me this was a teenage street gang deliberately threatening the new leader.

Notice, too, that Elisha did nothing himself against these boys. Rather, he called God's judgment down on them. This is unsettling because I don't like my saints to wish ill on anyone. I like better the words attributed to Thomas More (whose birthday was also in February, by the way): "I do no man harm; I say no man harm; I think no man harm." Elisha said harm to these gang members, and that is uncomfortable for me.

The best I can think is that the boys became so deceived by the illusion of their own power that they ignored the dangers of the woods and marched between the bears and their cubs. However it happened, the story says, Two female bears came out of the woods and ripped forty-two of the boys to pieces. We don't know how many others escaped.

The point of this little story, which is far shorter than my comments on it, is to demonstrate that Elisha was truly God's representative, that any insult or threat against him would be answered – not by Elisha, but by the God that Elisha served.

The good news

Elisha was offered the option of staying back, but he chose instead to remain loyal to his master and to God, who was his master's master. They walked together, Elisha, Elijah, and God, until Elijah was taken away. Elisha's loyalty to God and to Elijah endured to the very end of Elijah's life.

Not everyone is called to pick up the mantle of power; not everyone is chosen as God's prophet. The good news is that we too can walk together with our teacher, our master, our friend. Jesus does not condemn me when I choose to stay in Gilgal, or in Bethel, or in Jericho, and I often do.

The more beautiful choice is to remain loyal and to go with my master into the wilderness. Then we can walk together – you, and I, and Jesus. Our Lamb has conquered; let us follow him.


Scripture quotations taken from the NetBible.

February 26, 2006
June 4, 2006