Elisha’s Challenging Start

Morning Message: John Cline

Scripture Text:  2 Kings 2,3,4,5,8

Reader: Ipe Mavunkal

A young man named Elisha was chosen by God to step into the shoes of the illustrious prophet Elijah to carry on the work of being God’s major prophet. The point of being a prophet was to communicate God’s mercy and love to the people so that they would “clean house” in their own lives spiritually, to call them back to God, to warn them to either repent or face the consequences of their telling God to get lost, that being that God would honour their free wills and allow them to try to survive on their own without Him or His protection.

While Elijah had been hiding out on Mount Horeb, the “holy mountain” where God had revealed Himself as YHWH – “I AM WHO I AM” to Moses, God told him to toughen up, get going, anoint Hazael king over Aram, Jehu as king over Israel, and Elisha as his successor prophet. The first two of those – anointing Hazael as Aram’s king and Jehu as Israel’s king – were risky and Elijah left them to Elisha to carry out. As for his anointing of Elisha as his successor, Elijah happily did that one.

So, Elijah went from there and found Elisha son of Shaphat. He was plowing with twelve yoke of oxen, and he himself was driving the twelfth pair. Elijah went up to him and threw his cloak around him. Elisha then left his oxen and ran after Elijah. (1 Kings 19:19)

As you remember, a 3-year drought that Elijah had prophesied had just ended with a barrage of rain (again, just as Elijah had prophesied), and so things were good for farmers such as Elisha’s father. Elisha was in the midst of seeding his father’s farm, thus it was the busiest time of the year for farmers, when Elijah appeared and called him to a different life. Elisha responded positively to his anointing as prophet.

“Let me kiss my father and mother goodbye,” he said, “and then I will come with you.” “Go back,” Elijah replied. “What have I done to you?” So, Elisha left him and went back. He took his yoke of oxen and slaughtered them. He burned the plowing equipment to cook the meat and gave it to the people, and they ate. Then he set out to follow Elijah and became his servant. (1 Kgs 19:20,21)

Elisha gave a very definite “yes” answer to Elijah’s call, as is evidenced by him slaughtering his oxen and destroying his farm equipment. There was no turning back for him. So, Elijah took Elisha on his farewell tour, going first to Gilgal, Elijah’s homeland east of the Jordan River, then to Bethel, the site of Israel’s greatest apostasy of worshipping two golden calves King Jeroboam had erected there, then to Jericho, the site of Israel’s first great victory when they entered the Promised Land, and finally back across the Jordan River, to Gilgal. At each place, Elijah would have taught Elisha about YHWH God and Israel and about being a prophet. And at each spot, Elijah tested Elisha by offering to go on alone, starting with their first stop.

When the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven in a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here; the Lord has sent me to Bethel.” But Elisha said, “As surely as the Lord lives and as you live, I will not leave you.” So, they went down to Bethel. (2 Kings 2:1,2)

Each time Elijah offered to go alone it was a test of Elisha’s commitment to the role of prophet, but Elisha refused as he knew he had a calling, too. After going to all the places on Elijah’s farewell tour, they both went back east across the Jordan River to Gilgal.

When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me, what can I do for you before I am taken from you?” “Let me inherit a double portion of your spirit,” Elisha replied. (2 Kings 2:9)

By asking for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit, Elisha was not asking for more than had been given to Elijah. Rather, Elisha knew his limitations and inadequacy. He was asking for a suitable amount of God’s power to fulfill his task. Elijah was then taken up into heaven and as he was going, his cloak fell off, the same cloak that Elijah had put on Elisha when he anointed him to be God’s prophet (so that cloak had special significance for Elisha).

Elisha then picked up Elijah’s cloak that had fallen from him and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. He took the cloak that had fallen from Elijah and struck the water with it. “Where now is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” he asked. When he struck the water, it divided to the right and to the left, and he crossed over. The company of the prophets from Jericho, who were watching, said, “The spirit of Elijah is resting on Elisha.” (2 Kings 2:13-15a)

This was a critical time for Elisha as he knew he was being watched by others to see if he had the “right stuff” to be God’s prophet. He himself was wondering, as is evidenced in his question when he struck the water, “Where now is the LORD, the God of Elijah?” If he failed the test, others would see it. But now, having succeeded in this first test of striking the water and wondering if the God of Elijah was now with him, the prophets of Jericho were witnesses of his success & calling.

The people of the city said to Elisha, “Look, our lord, this town is well situated, as you can see, but the water is bad, and the land is unproductive.” “Bring me a new bowl,” he said, “and put salt in it.” So, they brought it to him. Then he went out to the spring and threw the salt into it, saying, “This is what the Lord says: ‘I have healed this water. Never again will it cause death or make the land unproductive.’” And the water has remained pure to this day, according to the word Elisha had spoken. (2 Kings 2:19-22)

This second test Elisha passed by doing a thing Elijah had not done. God’s mercy at work. Elisha then left Jericho and went to Bethel, that place of apostasy. Elisha was walking Elijah’s final route in reverse.

From there Elisha went up to Bethel. As he was walking along the road, some youths came out from the town and jeered at him, “Go on up, you baldhead!” they said. “Go on up, you baldhead!” (2 Kings 2:23)

By now, the news of Elijah’s being taken up to heaven had reached the masses and a severe testing of Elisha’s calling was about to happen. Note, it was “children” as the King James Version of the Bible erroneously states, who jeered Elisha. As Hebrew scholar Walter Kaiser notes: the Hebrew words used here (ne’urim qetannim) are translated “young men” elsewhere in the OT to describe, e.g. Isaac, Joseph, and an army of men, all of whom were 17- early ‘20’s. So, it was a gang of at least 42 young men, not a few young children, who surrounded Elisha and jeered him. Elisha would have every right to feel scared for remember, he was a young man himself. The jeering related to his calling as Elijah’s successor. The bullies challenged him to “go on up”, just as Elijah as “gone on up” to heaven. “Elisha was no Elijah”, is what they were saying. These young men had come out of Bethel, no doubt under the influence of the ungodly demons who lived there. This was a spiritual battle akin to Elijah’s fight with Baal’s prophets. By the way, Elisha was not insulted by their comment on his baldness, but about their mocking of his spiritual calling as God’s prophet.

He turned around, looked at them and called down a curse on them in the name of the Lord. Then two bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys. (2 Kings 2:24)

To correct another inaccurate assertion in this passage, no one was killed here! I don’t even think they were “mauled” for the Hebrew word here “bakaw” translated “mauled” is found 51 times in the OT, and this is the only occasion where it is translated as “mauled”. Everywhere else, it means “to divide…break through…split in half…cleave”. Many scholars believe that what happened is that when the 2 bears came out, the gang of 42 young men was “divided… and broken through!” The 42 young men were standing in Elijah’s way and blocking his path. It’s almost laughable that people teach these two bears “mauled” 42 young men, standing by instead of running.

This incident was yet another challenge to Elisha’s calling as God’s prophet, so, thus far, we have seen Elisha being challenged on many fronts as he began his ministry to Israel as YHWH’s prophet. How little or derisively the people thought of him is evidenced in the next event. King Joram of Israel had gone to war against the king of Moab and he had conscripted the kings of Edom and Judah. When the Moabites started to defeat them, Joram blamed YHWH God (though he was no worshipper of YHWH). Elisha, despite being God’s prophet, had been totally ignored by his own king of Israel, Joram. However, King Jehoshaphat of Judah, a worshipper of God, corrected this scene.

But Jehoshaphat asked, “Is there no prophet of the Lord here, through whom we may inquire of the Lord?” An officer of the king of Israel answered, “Elisha son of Shaphat is here. He used to pour water on the hands of Elijah.” Jehoshaphat said, “The word of the Lord is with him.” So, the king of Israel and Jehoshaphat and the king of Edom went down to him. Elisha said to the king of Israel, “Why do you want to involve me? Go to the prophets of your father and the prophets of your mother.” (2 Kings 3:11-13a)

Elisha called Joram out for his hypocrisy. He told Joram to go and consult the prophets of Baal and Ashtoreth that his parents, Ahab and Jezebel, had declared to be the gods of Israel. Joram deflected…

“No,” the king of Israel answered, “because it was the Lord who called us three kings together to deliver us into the hands of Moab.” Elisha said, “As surely as the Lord Almighty lives, whom I serve, if I did not have respect for the presence of Jehoshaphat king of Judah, I would not pay any attention to you. But now bring me a harpist.” While the harpist was playing, the hand of the LORD came on Elisha and he said, “This is what the Lord says…” (2 Kings 3:13b-16a)

God’s mercy and love at work for His people were displayed through Elisha, who went on to accurately prophesy victory for them, but he and YHWH were still not being honoured by the Israelites or their king. Going on to the next scene of testing Elisha’s calling as God’s prophet:

The wife of a man from the company of the prophets cried out to Elisha, “Your servant my husband is dead, and you know that he revered the Lord. But now his creditor is coming to take my two boys as his slaves.” (2 Kings 4:1)

“What good did it do for my late husband to revere YHWH God, if now a man he owed money to is coming to take my sons and make them his slaves?” The widow was complaining about YHWH and questioning the point of even being a prophet. As you know, though we wouldn’t consider it to be good or right, indentured slavery – a contract of financial, enforced labour designed to force someone to work for a designated period in order to pay off a loan to a person owed money – was common in that day. What would Elisha the prophet, and YHWH Himself were being questioned and put to the test.

Elisha replied to her, “How can I help you? Tell me, what do you have in your house?” “Your servant has nothing there at all,” she said, “except a small jar of olive oil.” Elisha said, “Go around and ask all your neighbors for empty jars. Don’t ask for just a few. Then go inside and shut the door behind you and your sons. Pour oil into all the jars, and as each is filled, put it to one side.” She left him and shut the door behind her and her sons. They brought the jars to her, and she kept pouring. When all the jars were full, she said to her son, “Bring me another one.” But he replied, “There is not a jar left.” Then the oil stopped flowing. She went and told the man of God, and he said, “Go, sell the oil and pay your debts. You and your sons can live on what is left.” (2 Kings 4:2-7)

The empty pots that YHWH God mercifully and lovingly filled with oil provided enough money for the widow to pay off her late husband’s debts. Another sign of God’s mercy and love and willingness to provide, as well as another test passed by Elisha! One more test…

One day Elisha went to Shunem. And a well-to-do woman was there, who urged him to stay for a meal. So, whenever he came by, he stopped there to eat. She said to her husband, “I know that this man who often comes our way is a holy man of God. Let’s make a small room on the roof and put in it a bed and a table, a chair and a lamp for him. Then he can stay there whenever he comes to us.” (2 Kings 4:8-10)

On his journeys up and down the land, Elisha often passed through this village, and because of the kindness of this lady, there was always a meal and beds waiting for him and his servant Gehazi. Elisha asked what could be done for that woman to repay her for her kindess. Gehazi answered that she was sad in that she had no son, and her husband was old. So, Elisha called her and prophesied to her, “About this time next year, you will hold a son in your arms.” God’s mercy and love would once again be on display. The woman didn’t believe Elisha but, sure enough, the next year she gave birth to a son, just as Elisha had told her. The boy grew up loving to watch the workers in his father’s fields. One day, though, as he was watching, he collapsed, clutching his head in pain, crying out, “My head! My head!” He tragically died. The mother went to find and blame Elisha.

When she reached the man of God at the mountain, she took hold of his feet. Gehazi came over to push her away, but the man of God said, “Leave her alone! She is in bitter distress, but the Lord has hidden it from me and has not told me why.” “Did I ask you for a son, my lord?” she said. “Didn’t I tell you, ‘Don’t raise my hopes’?” (2 Kings 4:27,28) When Elisha reached the house, there was the boy lying dead on his couch. He went in, shut the door on the two of them and prayed to the Lord. Then he got on the bed and lay on the boy, mouth to mouth, eyes to eyes, hands to hands. As he stretched himself out on him, the boy’s body grew warm. Elisha turned away and walked back and forth in the room and then got on the bed and stretched out on him once more. The boy sneezed seven times and opened his eyes. Elisha summoned Gehazi and said, “Call the Shunammite.” And he did. When she came, he said, “Take your son.” She came in, fell at his feet and bowed to the ground. Then she took her son and went out. (2 Kings 4:32-37)

The chapter finishes with Elisha performing a couple of miracles having to do with food. Commentators point out that just as Elijah preceded John the Baptist with his message of getting right with God and preparing one’s heart to meet God, so was Elisha a forerunner of Jesus and the miracles he did, such as raising the dead and feeding multitudes of people with only small amounts of food that, humanly speaking, would not have fed such large crowds of people. All of the miracles we’ve gone through today have shown God’s mercy and love, but the most amazing miracles lay in the chapters ahead next week. To conclude today, though, we will jump ahead to chapter 8 for it is there that we encounter again the lady whose son was raised from the dead.

Now Elisha said to the woman whose son he had restored to life, “Go away with your family and stay for a while wherever you can, because the Lord has decreed a famine in the land that will last seven years.” The woman proceeded to do as the man of God said. She and her family went away and stayed in the land of the Philistines seven years. At the end of the seven years she came back from the land of the Philistines and went to appeal to the king for her house and land. The king was talking to Gehazi, the servant of the man of God, and had said, “Tell me about all the great things Elisha has done.” Just as Gehazi was telling the king how Elisha had restored the dead to life, the woman whose son Elisha had brought back to life came to appeal to the king for her house and land. Gehazi said, “This is the woman, my lord the king, and this is her son whom Elisha restored to life.” The king asked the woman about it, and she told him. Then he assigned an official to her case and said to him, “Give back everything that belonged to her, including all the income from her land from the day she left the country until now.” (2 Kings 8:1-6)

So, even King Joram of Israel was starting to see that Elisha was truly YHWH God’s prophet, though very reluctantly. This chapter 8 ends with a troubling scene in Aram. Its longtime king, Ben-Hadad, was sick and as is often the case when people are sick, he was desperate for God’s help and so he called his right-hand man, Hazael, to go to Elisha. This Hazael was the man God had instructed Elijah to anoint as king of Aram, but Elijah had passed on that task to Elisha. The problem with anointing Hazael as the king of Aram was that there was already a king of Aram, Ben-Hadad. We can safely state that Hazael had no idea what lay before him or that he was about to be anointed king.

Hazael went to meet Elisha, taking with him as a gift forty camel-loads of all the finest wares of Damascus. He went in and stood before him, and said, “Your son Ben-Hadad king of Aram has sent me to ask, ‘Will I recover from this illness?’” Elisha answered, “Go and say to him, ‘You will certainly recover.’ Nevertheless, the Lord has revealed to me that he will in fact die.” He stared at him with a fixed gaze until Hazael was embarrassed. Then the man of God began to weep. “Why is my lord weeping?” asked Hazael. “Because I know the harm you will do to the Israelites,” he answered. “You will set fire to their fortified places, kill their young men with the sword, dash their little children to the ground, and rip open their pregnant women.” Hazael said, “How could your servant, a mere dog, accomplish such a feat?” “The Lord has shown me that you will become king of Aram,” answered Elisha. Then Hazael left Elisha and returned to his master. When Ben-Hadad asked, “What did Elisha say to you?” Hazael replied, “He told me that you would certainly recover.” But the next day he took a thick cloth, soaked it in water and spread it over the king’s face, so that he died. Then Hazael succeeded him as king. (2 Kings 8:9-15)

Hazael was a murderous thug and that is why Elijah wanted no part of anointing him. Later OT prophets would comment on the horrible acts Hazael’s Arameans did to the Israelites, doing the very acts Elisha had prophesied. This seems like a weird place to end the sermon but actually it works, for I will remind us that Elisha’s anointing and calling by God was not about doing miracles and convincing the people that he truly was God’s prophet nor was Elisha’s role as prophet to present God as a kindly old grandfather who would wink at sin, but to rather to show them that God was a personal God who loves and has mercy towards His people, while also reminding them to repent of their sins and return to God, to worship and serve Him alone. That same message still applies to us thus this is the perfect place to finish today’s message. More next week!

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