Sermon preached on 2 Kings 2 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Online Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 04/05/2020.
We all know good leaders are hard to come by, in general. But that is particularly the case when you have a religious leader like Elijah who was so powerfully endowed by the Holy Spirit as an agent of God on earth. There have been few people on this earth like Elijah. God worked so powerfully, so supernaturally, through Elijah to a generation that so desperately needed the prophetic word God gave through him. Yes, his ministry included much chastening and judgment declared upon the house of Ahab specifically, and all Israel in general. Yes, he did have many victories in ministry, though surely not in the degree he wanted. In fact, as we come to this chapter today, we see a picture of hope compared to the early days of Elijah’s ministry. Yet, surely there was much work to be done. Therein lies the problem. For we come to the chapter where God would take Elijah from this earth. The question behind this passage is, “Who will replace Elijah?” There was yet evil to confront, yet ministry to carry on. How would the remnant of God’s people carry on without such a leader as Elijah?
So, let’s start with exploring that as a question. Who will replace Elijah? The text makes it very clear as you go through this passage that Elijah is soon to depart. The narrator clues us onto this fact right at verse 1. Then we see Elisha has two different companies of prophets ask him about this, verses 3 and 5. Both groups ask Elisha, “Do you know that today the LORD will take away your master from over you?” Both times he acknowledges to them that he knows this. Then in verse 9, we see that Elijah himself tells this to Elisha. Even after Elijah is taken, verses 16-18 show a company of prophets who go look for him which only emphasizes what Elisha already knows – Elijah is gone. This text goes out of its way to emphasize that Elijah was going away and even afterwards that he did go away.
So, we could say that this is the problem presented in this passage. What to do with Elijah leaving? That seems to be behind why the prophets keep asking Elisha if he knows Elijah is leaving. They seem to be looking to Elisha for direction, maybe hopeful that Elisha might be the one to replace Elijah. But at that point in the chapter, it serves to raise the question: What will we do without Elijah?
That concern seems implied even by Elisha himself when he sees Elijah being taken up into heaven. Look at verse 12. Elisha sees Elijah taken and cries out, “My father, my father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” Elisha reacts with great concern to Elijah’s leaving. We can understand why Elijah would be a father figure to Elisha. He had been Elisha’s mentor and discipler since Elijah called him to follow him back in 1 Kings 19. Since then, Elisha had served Elijah and learned from him. But Elijah had been a spiritual father not only to Elisha, but to the whole nation! Likewise, when we hear Elisha say “the chariots of Israel and its horsemen” we might mistakenly think he’s referring to what he sees in verse 11. There he sees chariots of fire and horses separating him from Elijah. But likely Elisha is not referring those when he says, “the chariots of Israel and its horsemen.” Likely Elisha is referring to Elijah himself. That he’s calling Elijah “the chariots of Israel and its horsemen.” That interpretation seems confirmed later in 2 Kings 13 when Elisha himself is called the same thing just before he dies, and in that case, there were no chariots of fire or heavenly horses on the scene. So, what Elisha is saying here is that Elijah has been Israel’s chief weapon. As the psalm says, “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God” (Ps. 20:7). So too Elijah, as the possessor of God’s Spirit in power and of the prophetic word, had been a weapon more powerful than any human chariot or earthly horse. But do you see the point? Elisha exclaims these words because Israel is losing both its spiritual father and their greatest weapon. Who could replace such a divinely sent and empowered leader? Elisha then proceeds to tear his clothes, probably symbolizing his grief at this loss. Indeed, it would be fitting for all Israel to grieve at that moment.
To yet further to draw out this question about what to do with Elijah leaving, I point you to Elisha’s question in verse 14. After Elijah is taken, he asks, “Where is the LORD, the God of Elijah?” You see this is the heart of the concern. The Lord had been present among Israel through Elijah. If Elijah has departed, then does that mean God has departed? Does Elijah’s exodus mean that God has forsaken his people? We remember at the beginning of Elijah’s ministry there was that three-year drought when everyone was looking for Elijah but couldn’t find him. That had represented a drought of Gods’ word among Israel at that time. Even just last chapter, Elijah confronted the king for inquiring of a false god, implying that he could have instead inquired of the one true God through Elijah. But if such a prophet of God is now gone, what will that mean for the people? Will they still have access to God?
Think of why a replacement for Elijah would be so important at that time. Think of all the great progress that has been made in Elijah’s lifetime. Remember Mount Carmel where Elijah showed the Baal prophets to be frauds and the LORD to the be the one true God. Yet at that time, he still faced persecution from Jezebel and Ahab. Remember Elijah then fled and traveled back to Mt. Sinai. There he lamented to God that he was only prophet of the LORD left in Israel. But God sent him back with new ministry instructions. Think of what good progress for the LORD had been made since that time. Ahab was now dead and his reigning son Jehoram is not as wicked as Ahab had been. We’ll see next chapter, in 3:2, that King Jehoram had begun to pull away from Baal worship. Surely that is a fruit of the LORD’s ministry in the land. And notice what we find in this chapter. Years before Elijah lamented he was the last prophet of Israel left. But now, on this final trip around Israel as he heads out across the Jordan, we see a company of 50 prophets at each of their main stops. Literally in Hebrew, these prophets are called “sons of the prophets” and likely refer to prophets who were under the tutelage of another prophet – presumably Elijah. And so, the sense you have is that God was beginning to raise up companies of true prophets again all over Israel, under Elijah’s leadership. So then, much progress had been made in Elijah’s lifetime of ministry. But now he had left. What will this mean for Israel’s religious future? Because while progress had been made, there was still much work to be done. As one major example, the nation still had not departed from the sin of Jeroboam in their perverse worship of God through the golden calves at Bethel and Dan. As another major example, remember that at Mt. Sinai God had told Elijah that he needed to anoint Hazael to be King of Syria and Jehu to be king over Israel. Those tasks had not yet been completed and here Elijah was leaving them.
Well, with this interesting question of who will succeed Elijah, we find Elijah’s strange and repeated offer to Elisha to stay behind. As God calls Elijah on a journey from Gilgal to across the Jordan, he repeatedly gives opportunity for Elisha to remain behind. Verse 2 out of Gilgal, verse 4 out of Bethel, verse 6 out of Jericho. Each time Elijah asks Elisha to remain behind because God has called him farther in the journey. But each time, Elisha discerns that he is to deny that request. In words that remind me of Ruth who refused to abandon her bereaved mother-in-law Naomi, Elisha vows in the name of the LORD to keep following Elijah. Just before Elijah is taken, we see this was the right decision. Elisha seems to have been tested through those repeated opportunities to quit following Elijah. Finally, because he kept following Elijah, Elisha was given the opportunity to ask for a last request from Elijah. When he asks for the double portion of Elijah’s spirit, Elijah tells him the condition to receive that: he has to see Elijah when he is taken. To put it another way, he needs to be with Elijah up to the very end – which is the very thing Elisha has been doing. As Elijah’s disciple, Elisha’s following of him must be to the full, and then Elijah’s ministry would pass on to him. Indeed, ever since Elisha had put his hand to the plow to follow Elijah, he had not looked back.
And it’s in Elisha’s request of a double portion of Elijah’s spirit that we are again directed to this theme of who will replace Elijah. This language of double portion appears to refer to inheritance concepts. Back then, the firstborn son would get a double portion of his father’s inheritance compared to his brothers. To be the firstborn ordinarily gave you special privilege in the family and you were first among your brothers in various ways. So then, for Elisha to ask for a double portion, he’s basically asking to be Elijah’s firstborn in terms of the “sons of the prophets” Elijah has reared up. Elisha is asking to be set apart from these companies of prophets to be a leader among them. It’s almost akin to how the disciples James and John ask Jesus to be able to be seated at his right hand and at his left hand. James and John were asking for special positions in Christ’s kingdom in relation to Christ Jesus. So here, Elisha is asking to be the one to inherit the ministry of Elijah and his leadership.
This analogy to James and John can help explain another aspect of our passage. When Elisha makes this request of Elijah, Elijah says that he’s asked a “hard thing”. Often people take that to mean that the request will be difficult to grant. But of course, nothing is too difficult for God. Rather, remember than when James and John ask Jesus for special privilege, he responds by asking them if they are able to drink the cup that Jesus himself would drink (Mark 10:38). Jesus at first respond to them by letting them know that to be in such a position would involve much hardship and suffering. Arguably, that’s what Elijah has in mind here for Elisha. He’s not saying that Elisha’s request is hard to grant, but to take on Elijah’s ministry will be a hard thing. Remember how much hardship Elijah faced because of ministry – that’s what Elisha would be taking on. And so, by telling Elisha it will happen only if he sees Elijah when he is taken, he’s giving Elisha one last chance to back out.
But Elisha does not back out. Elisha faithfully follows Elijah to the end. And that is when we see that God has indeed granted Elisha’s request to serve in Elijah’s place. The question so repeatedly raised of who will replace Elijah is answered. The answer is Elisha. That answer is also repeatedly demonstrated.
It’s demonstrated first by Elisha’s return trip across the Jordan River. Elijah’s cloak had fallen from him when he was taken up into heaven. This is the cloak that Elijah had just used to strike the Jordan River and make it part so they could cross together on dry land. Elisha picks that up and asks that pointed question of, “Where is the LORD, the God of Elijah?” He then strikes the river again with the cloak, and now it parts for him and he walks back over on dry ground, verse 14. Elisha’s repeat of the miracle Elijah had done shows the answer to his question. Where is the LORD, the God of Elijah? Has he departed with Elijah? No. He’s right here still. He’s right here with Elisha.
Then in verse 15, he proceeds to be seen by the company of prophets from Jericho. They immediately declare, “The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha.” They recognize that Elisha had taken on Elijah’s role and ministry. The vacuum left by Elijah’s departure would be filled by Elisha. They demonstrate their relationship now to him with a show of respect by bowing to the ground before him. Now they will be looking to Elisha to fill that role of spiritual father that Elijah had been. That’s seen right away even in that they seek his permission to go looking for Elijah.
We are shown one final way that Elisha is now the successor of Elijah’s ministry by Elisha’s dealings with these two towns in verses 18-25. The first town is apparently Jericho and we see him remove curse from that place when the townspeople seek help from God through him. Remember, that long before when Joshua brought the people into the Promised Land, God parted the Jordan River and they came and conquered Jericho. Joshua back then cursed that pagan city that it might never be rebuilt, but recently under Ahab’s reign it had nonetheless been rebuilt. Yet, apparently, it was still suffering from this curse. Verse 19 describes that the land had bad water and thus it, literally, “miscarries”, figuratively meaning unfruitful. So, he miraculously heals the land, lifting the curse.
But then Elisha’s dealing with the town of Bethel is the opposite. There instead of removing curse, he delivers curse upon them. The youths mock the prophet of the LORD and he calls down curse upon them and two bears come and kill 42 of them. This is somewhat reminiscent to how Elijah called down fire from heaven on those soldiers who looked to seize him. This stands in contrast to the Jericho passage. Cursed Jericho finds curse lifted as it received the prophet of the LORD and sought his help. But these inhabitants of Bethel mock the prophet of the LORD and find curse put upon them. A contrast between Jericho and Bethel here is seen in how the Hebrew here seems to allude back to a curse in Leviticus 26:22. The word here about Jericho miscarrying or being bereaved of children, is the language used in a covenant curse mentioned in Leviticus 26:22. There it says that wild animals would come and kill their children and leave the parents bereaved if Israel turned away from God. And so, while Jericho has its land healed of its barrenness, Bethel is experiencing barrenness as these wild animals kill 42 youths. Surely the mocking of the youths reflected the sinful parents who lived in that town of Bethel. Remember, Bethel was the headquarters for Israel’s chief sin with its idolatrous golden calf.
The point is that the Elisha’s ministry to these two towns reflect the kind of supernatural ministry that Elijah had been about. Elisha, like Elijah, would act as covenant lawyer among Israel. He would declare covenant curses to those who reject the word of the LORD. And he would be a means of divine blessing and removal of curse of those who would humble themselves and seek the LORD. This ministry then, and his continued travels in the rest of the passage, generally reverse the journey and ministry that Elijah had taken at the start of this passage. In short, Israel is not left without a prophet of the LORD who comes in the prophetic word, Spirit and in power!
In conclusion, our passage today gets us looking backward and forward. Backward, we remember the succession story of Moses to Joshua who carried on the work Moses wasn’t able to complete himself. Like Moses, Elijah’s life on this earth ended outside the Promised Land, on the other side of the Jordan, where no one could find his body. But Elisha like Joshua enters the Promised Land and leads a conquest of its pagan peoples. In fact, in the Hebrew, Elisha and Joshua’s names are very similar: “God saves” versus “Yah(weh) saves”. Looking forward, we remember how the New Testament speaks of John the Baptist as effectively being the return of Elijah. John paved the way for Jesus. Jesus even receives the pouring out of the Holy Spirit at the ministry of John baptizing him. All this would make Jesus the greater Elisha. Jesus’ name is even a variant of Joshua’s name, so even the names of the three all share that similarity of divine salvation.
And of course, Jesus came to save God’s elect and conquer the enemy in a way greater than both Joshua and Elisha. On Jesus, God gave the Spirit of God without measure, John 3:34. Our Spirit-filled Jesus declared the Word of God, worked in powerful signs and wonders, and went to the cross to destroy the works of the devil and to redeem us from sin and death. Jesus’ ministry brings curse upon those who reject him and the highest blessings upon those who receive him. Jesus’ ministry was the greatest, most powerful, ministry this world has ever seen. The height of that victory here in this world was demonstrated that even after being put to death, he rose from the dead and stood alive again on this earth, declaring that death had no hold on him! What a victor! What an amazing savior! What joy to the world that the Lord Jesus Christ had come!
But he has now ascended. What is to come of this world now that Jesus has left it? We might be tempted to think that Jesus’ departure from this earth is a loss on the highest magnitude. But that’s not what Jesus said. In John 16:7, Jesus told his disciples that it will be to our advantage for him to leave, because he will pour out his Holy Spirit upon us. Elijah seems to be replaced by someone who did even greater works than himself. Even Joshua did what Moses couldn’t – bring God’s people into possession of the Promised Land. So too, John the Baptist was replaced by Jesus who did even greater works than John. But with Jesus leaving, could we possibly think we could fill Jesus shoes? Do we think we could do greater things than him? Well, Jesus said we would. John 14:12, Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father.”
We have been equipped with the Holy Spirit. Jesus ascended – left this world – so that he could be with each one of his disciples. So that his work would be carried on in all of us! Let us not lose heart amidst the troubles of this world. Like Elijah told Elisha, and like Jesus told James and John – this ministry is a difficult thing. But the Spirit of Christ Jesus is within us. He works in and through us to build his church and even now advance the cause of the kingdom. May today’s passage that made us to find joy in Elijah’s successor, may it make us find greater joy in John the Baptist’s successor. And may it humbly encourage us in knowing that we the church have been called and equipped by God to carry on the very ministry of King Jesus here and now on earth. Praise be to God! Amen.
Copyright © 2020 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
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