In How to Read the Bible, author A. J. Conyers, affirms that the Old Testament shows how God was developing several key principles of life. Among them were the following three:
- God is the only God, and as such is the creator of life. The corollary was that the gods of the pagans are false gods, mental figments of the imagination.
- Mankind had the basic characteristic of being separated from God and needing redemption.
- God had a particular group of people to carry out His redemptive work on earth.
These key principles were reinforced time after time in the Biblical stories. The stories are interesting, but even more importantly they support the basic principles that God wants people to know and practice.
Within the past several weeks, I asked a class to join me as we looked together at one of those historical passages. The passage’s setting is one of the critical succession times in Jewish history – when a dominant figure (Elijah) concludes his public service and is succeeded by Elisha.
In such a time, the active players in the event have inescapable concerns.
- Will the successor share the same vision, drive and values of the departed person?
- Will the successor be equally respected and followed?
And, the successor will ask things like –
- Will they respect me?
- Will I live up to the image of the former leader?
On a personal level, I had questions like these when I was out of the blue asked to succeed a highly esteemed and impactful colleague in Argentina, but who went from good health to burial in the British cemetery in Buenos Aires after seven days of spinal meningitis. I wondered if I had the necessary experience, “the skin”, and the acceptance level necessary to assume the position as the mission’s field director and the dean of the college.
In the story of Elijah and Elisha, Elijah had confrontations with kings, queens, and pagan priests – all power figures. 1 Kings 17 through 2 Kings 1 tell us about Elijah. Elisha succeeded Elijah when the latter is removed from the scene in a most unusual fashion. Elisha’s story is found in 2 Kings 3-13. As the successor, Elisha presents several characteristics of critical importance as seen in the transitional narrative, 2 Kings 2. 1-18. Let’s consider these features of Elisha.
Elisha is persevering (vv 1-10)
Somehow Elijah knew that his time of ministry and life was coming to its end. He had no fear of death; in fact there were moments earlier in his life when he had wished he were dead. Elijah knew that God was going to do some strange thing to write FIN to his earthly sojourn. As it turned out, of course, it was strange! Verse 11 tells us that as Elijah and Elisha are walking along, talking, suddenly a chariot of fire with horses of fire come between Elisha and Elijah. A whirlwind suddenly appears and Elijah is carried into the sky.
But, during the days preceding Elijah ascending to the sky, Elisha is portrayed, in verses 1- 10, as the man who will not give in to pressure. He perseveres. He will not surrender. In verse 1-2, Elijah says to Elisha, “Stay here,” when they are on the way from the town of Gilgal. Elisha says NO, I am going with you. In verse 3, at Bethel some of Elijah’s colleagues (“a company of prophets”) try to dissuade Elisha, and again Elisha says NO. He will go with Elijah. In verse 4, still at Bethel, Elijah again tells Elisha to stay. Elisha again says NO, “I am going with you.” Then, in verses 5-6, at Jericho, the same thing happens again with another company of prophets and Elijah himself. Elisha sounds like a broken record, “NO, I am going with you.”
Although Elisha’s persistence is recorded with vivid detail, apparently Elijah was not very upset by it. In fact, I think it is fair to say that Elisha was being tested. Would he persevere or not? In Elisha’s case, the answer is definitely YES.
Thinking about Elisha, I could generalize and say that God expects us to persevere in the practice of Christian virtue. And, that is certainly true. I could name some specific areas of service and relationship with God that appear to me as special areas for the practice of perseverance, such as evangelism and private devotional life. But, in the text, Elisha was persistent in staying close to the man of God.
Elisha had options. He could have returned home, stayed with one of the company of prophets, gone off on his own, founding the “Elisha Prophetic Ministries, Inc.” But, Elisha had made a commitment to Elijah, and he was not going to back out. Elijah was the source of God’s word for Elisha, was the prophetic voice of God, the one speaking forth God’s will for mankind. Elijah spoke for God’s justice and righteousness in a depraved social context. In a real sense, Elijah was the conscience of the nation of Israel.
It can be no less for us. Even when unpopular, even when being counter-cultural, when voicing disliked moral standards, God will use His persevering children in ways that the non-persevering will not be used. It will not be easy, but what nation, or group of people, can survive without a conscience??
In Carl F H Henry’s Christian Countermoves in a Decadent Culture (1986), chapter 2, “Twenty Fantasies of a Secular Society”, lists and defines to varying lengths certain myths, or fantasies, that are widely held among vast segments of our society. They are fantasies that must be challenged by God’s people, acting as a conscience among people who have lost their way. Henry includes among the myths are —
- That natural factors govern the course of history and that political wisdom best guarantees national survival.
- That the American people are essentially good at heart in a world whose inhabitants are more prone to evil.
- That personal earthly survival is the supreme value to which all other concerns should be subordinated.
- That science is our salvation, for it enables us to control the forces of nature and to shape our destiny.
- That the mass media’s prime role is to reflect contemporary personal and social values.
- That Judeo Christian beliefs and values are pertinent only to the private outlook of a specially religious segment of society, and do not illumine the present culture crisis or bear decisively on its outcome.
- That public discussion of metaphysical concerns and ethical absolutes is nationally confusing and in a pluralistic society is unnecessarily divisive.
These statements are examples of what we. with perseverance resist as we accept God’s call to a prophetic role in our society.
2 Elisha — dependent (vv. 9 – 15)
Elisha knew that God did miracles through Elijah. As if he had not seen enough, Elisha now sees the Jordan divided, and both he and Elijah cross on dry ground. Elisha knew that if he were to serve God well, if he were to be God’s spokesman as had been Elijah, he would have to depend on the same inner strength (presence of God) that Elijah had. He could not go it alone. Elisha was so aware of what he lacks that he says, “I need a double portion of your spirit.”
God is gracious to Elisha and gives him what he requested. It was symbolized in the cloak that fell from Elijah as he ascended into the sky, carried by the whirlwind. Elisha’s awareness of depending on God is seen when he asks the question (in verse 14) “Where now is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” You detect some uncertainty in Elisha, and the miracle is God’s confirmation of His presence.
The company of prophets (v. 15) recognizes the relationship of dependence Elisha had with God – “The spirit of Elijah is resting on Elisha.” Elisha’s dependence upon the Spirit of God speaks to us. Of course we need God. But, in our society, the concept of depending on God is challenged in many circles. Our cultural and social contexts emphasize human autonomy and self dependence so much that to recognize dependence on someone else is frequently considered a weakness. For example, I know a person who considers anyone who comes from a Christian family (and thus depending on God for our concept of morality) as coming from a dysfunctional family!!
All around us, people are dependent on fallible items (such as chemicals, alcohol, popular acceptance, personal strength enhancers). These dependencies are acceptable because we think we are in control, and are using them. Being dependent on God is different. God is not at our disposal. We are at His disposal. We even depend on Him for the definition of life’s purpose.
And, of course, we depend upon Him for the spiritual strength to do His will. That is what regeneration is all about. It is not enough to be forgiven by God, as important as that is. We also need God’s Spirit in us. Depending upon that, holy living becomes a realistic possibility. David Seamands’ Healing for Damaged Emotions makes that point. Myriam Fervenza’s manuscript for her book Mentalidad Anti-Depresiva (in Spanish) makes the same point. Both Seamands and Fervenzza provide very sound advice for living productively and healthily in God’s will. They both give emphasis to right thinking, accurate and honest self-analysis. But, they also both make it clear that ultimately God is the source of our spiritual maturity.
3 – Elisha –a tolerant (patient) realist (vv. 16 – 18)
These several verses lend themselves to so much use of the imagination. Picture a wild political meeting, with supporters of differing positions trying to convince each other. The noise is loud and boisterous. Now, go back 2500 years and imagine 50 men arguing with Elisha. “Elijah has survived the whirlwind trip. He is somewhere else on a mountain. Or, maybe he is in some valley, waiting for a rescue squad.” You don’t have to be a 20th century scientist to know that what goes up must come down!!
Elisha knew something the 50 prophets did not know. He knew that Elijah had been taken into heaven, and it was futile to look for either him or his remains. Elisha finally says, “OK, go look for him, but you won’t find him.”
When the prophets returned, there was Elisha telling them the same thing we say in similar circumstances, “I told you so!!” Sometimes when you are right, and the other person is wrong, you just have to be a tolerant realist, and recognize that the best way to handle the situation is not to impose your rightness, but let the other discover his wrongness!!
Yes, it took the men three days to find out that Elisha was right. It was time they could have been doing other things. From that perspective, it was wasted time. But, Elisha let them go and find out the hard way. Elisha let reality verify him. As a consequence, the 50 men had a new appreciation of Elisha.
In life, you gain credibility by being right, not by imposing your will due to your position or rank. Like it or not, this kind of credibility building is time consuming. It can’t be rushed. Elisha’s “You won’t find Elijah” was a negative statement, and we are familiar with “You can’t prove a negative statement.” So, it made no sense for Elisha to try to “prove” that he was correct. He would let the men search and allow reality itself to verify his statement!!
- persevering in fulfilling his duty
- dependent upon God’s grace
- a tolerant realist in building credibility in his relationships with others
They are admirable characteristics, and what God wants His people to have and why God uses some of His children more than He uses others.