A number of years ago I was visiting a woman in the hospital who was dying of cancer. I was wearing a suit, and both she and her husband mistook me for a doctor. They were very eager to see me, thinking that “as a doctor” I might have some encouraging news for them. Actually, I did—the gospel—but they were not interested in spiritual things. Once they found out that I was a minister, it was all over. They could not get me out of that hospital room fast enough. A few days later, I returned to the hospital to visit this woman once again. This time, the husband came to the door, but did not let me in. He told me his wife was not up to a visit at the moment. The door was open far enough that I could see her sitting up in bed, reading one of those Hollywood movie magazines. What a tragic sight. Here was a woman on the verge of death, too busy to talk about her eternal future, but healthy enough to be reading about the fantasy world of Hollywood movie stars.
Our text is about two men on the brink of death (or, in Elijah’s case, the brink of leaving this world behind). Second Kings 1 describes the death of king Ahaziah, the son of Ahab and Jezebel. Second Kings 2 describes the amazing departure of Elijah, in a chariot of fire. There is something for us to learn from the departures of both of these men. Surely they have been placed side by side for a reason. Let us seek to learn what this is, and what it means to us as we look at the exodus of Elijah and the debut of Elisha.
1 After Ahab died, Moab rebelled against Israel. 2 Ahaziah fell through a window lattice in his upper chamber in Samaria and was injured. He sent messengers with these orders, “Go, ask Baal Zebub, the god of Ekron, if I will survive this injury.” 3 Now the LORD’s angelic messenger told Elijah the Tishbite, “Arise and go up to meet the messengers from the king of Samaria. Say this to them: ‘You must think there is no God in Israel! That explains why you are on your way to seek an oracle from Baal Zebub the god of Ekron. 4 Therefore this is what the LORD says, “You will not leave the bed on which you lie, for you will certainly die.’” So Elijah went on his way. 5 When the messengers returned to the king, he asked them, “Why have you returned?” 6 They said to him, “A man came up to meet us. He told us, “Go back to the king who sent you and tell him, ‘This is what the LORD says, “You must think there is no God in Israel! That explains why you are sending for an oracle from Baal Zebub, the god of Ekron. Therefore you will not leave the bed on which you lie, for you will certainly die.”’” 7 The king asked them, “Describe the appearance of this man who came up to meet you and told you these things.” 8 They said to him, “He was a hairy man and had a leather belt tied around his waist.” The king said, “He is Elijah the Tishbite.” 9 The king sent a captain and his 50 soldiers to retrieve Elijah. The captain went up to him, while he was sitting on the top of a hill. He told him, “Prophet, the king says, ‘Come down!’” 10 Elijah replied to the captain, “If I am indeed a prophet, may fire come down from the sky and consume you and your 50 soldiers!” Fire then came down from the sky and consumed him and his 50 soldiers. 11 The king sent another captain and his 50 soldiers to retrieve Elijah. He went up and told him, “Prophet, this is what the king says, ‘Come down at once!’” 12 Elijah replied to them, “If I am indeed a prophet, may fire come down from the sky and consume you and your 50 soldiers!” Fire from God came down from the sky and consumed him and his 50 soldiers. 13 The king sent a third captain and his 50 soldiers. This third captain went up and fell on his knees before Elijah. He begged for mercy, “Prophet, please have respect for my life and for the lives of these 50 servants of yours.” 14 Indeed, fire came down from the sky and consumed the two captains who came before me, along with their men.
So now, please have respect for my life.” 15 The LORD’s angelic messenger said to Elijah, “Go down with him. Don’t be afraid of him.” So he got up and went down with him to the king. 16 Elijah said to the king, “This is what the LORD says, ‘You sent messengers to seek an oracle from Baal Zebub, the god of Ekron. You must think there is no God in Israel from whom you can seek an oracle. Therefore you will not leave the bed on which you lie, for you will certainly die.’” 17 He died just as the LORD had prophesied through Elijah. In the second year of the reign of King Jehoram, son of Jehoshaphat, over Judah, Ahaziah’s brother Jehoram replaced him as king of Israel, because he had no son. 18 The rest of the events of Ahaziah’s reign, including his accomplishments, are recorded in the scroll called the Annals of the Kings of Israel.
As we turn to our text in our English Bibles, we see that we have left 1 Kings behind and moved on to 2 Kings. It may be helpful to remind ourselves that in the Hebrew Old Testament, these two books were one. Thus, there is no real “break” between the two books. We simply move from the death of Ahab in 1 Kings 22 to the death of his son, Ahaziah, in 2 Kings 1.
Ahab was an exceedingly wicked king, and we know that he died in a way that fulfilled divine prophecy. It was not an easy way to die, being struck by an arrow and then having to sit propped up in a chariot all day, bleeding to death. At least there was a certain dignity to dying this way, in battle. There are much worse ways to die. I recently read the account96 of a Russian security guard at a Moscow bank, who asked his partner to help him test the ability of his bulletproof vest to protect him from a knife attack. He died of multiple stab wounds. And then there was the watchman for a communications relay company in Canada, who died early on Christmas morning, literally baked as he warmed himself by stationing himself in front of the microwave dish.
Ahaziah’s death does not appear to be a noble one either. He did not die in battle, as his father Ahab had done. He did not die of old age or of some disease. Somehow this fellow fell out of his upstairs window, and the protective lattice work or netting failed him, causing him to plunge to the ground. What was Ahaziah doing that would cause him to fall out of his window? Was he drunk? Did he do something really foolish, like walk along the ledge of his roof? We don’t really know, but it is obvious that this is not the way a king would want to die.
Confined to his bed, Ahaziah wondered what the future held for him. Would he recover? He had to know. And so he sent messengers to Ekron, a Philistine city approximately 40 miles southwest of Samaria. There, they were to consult Baal Zebub, the god of Ekron, to find out whether Ahaziah would survive from his fall. It would seem that Ahaziah was not only seeking to learn what his fate would be, but that he was hopeful that Baal Zebub might influence the outcome. Ahaziah seems to have hoped he would be healed, or at least be told that he would get better. He did not seek this from the LORD, the God of Israel; instead, he inquired of the Philistine god, Baal Zebub.
The expression, “to ask,” or “to inquire” (of the LORD) is quite common in the Old Testament. Rebekah did so regarding the two twins in her womb (Genesis 25:22). The people came to Moses to “inquire of God” (Exodus 18:15). Jehoshaphat twice “inquired of the LORD” (1 Kings 22:5; 2 Kings 3:11). Even Ben Hadad sent Hazael to “inquire of the LORD” concerning his health (2 Kings 8:8). But unfortunately, men also “inquired” of heathen gods:
14 When Amaziah returned from slaughtering the Edomites, he brought back the gods of the people of Seir. He set them up as his own gods, bowed down to them and burned sacrifices to them. 15 The anger of the LORD burned against Amaziah, and he sent a prophet to him, who said, “Why do you consult this people's gods, which could not save their own people from your hand?” (2 Chronicles 25:14-15, NIV).
This is what God had forbidden His people to do in Deuteronomy 12:29-31:
29 “After the LORD your God has cut off the nations from the place where you are going to dispossess them and you do so and settle down in their land, 30 Be careful not to be ensnared like they are, after they have been destroyed from your presence, and pursue their gods and say, ‘how do these nations serve their gods? I myself will do the same.’ 31 You must not do this against the LORD your God for everything abominable to him, what he hates, they have done for their gods; they even burn up their sons and daughters to their gods” (Deuteronomy 12:29-31).
The most striking example of disobedience to this command in Israel’s not-too-distant past occurred when Saul “inquired” of the witch of Endor, as recorded in 1 Samuel 28:5-25. It is given as the reason for Saul’s tragic death in 1 Chronicles 10:13-14:
13 So Saul died because he was unfaithful to the LORD and did not obey the LORD’s instructions; he even tried to conjure up underworld spirits. 14 He did not seek the LORD’s guidance; so the LORD killed him and transferred the kingdom to David son of Jesse.
When Ahaziah “inquired” of Baal Zebub, God was not about to ignore such blatant disregard of Himself or His law, and so He dispatched an angelic messenger (“the Angel of the Lord”) to give Elijah this message, which he was to convey to king Ahaziah:
“‘You must think there is no God in Israel! That explains why you are on your way to seek an oracle from Baal Zebub the god of Ekron. Therefore this is what the LORD says, ‘You will not leave the bed on which you lie, for you will certainly die’” (2 Kings 1:3b-4).
Elijah intercepted the king’s messengers, who were already on their way to Ekron and delivered the “word of the Lord” to them.
The messengers immediately turned back and returned to king Ahaziah in Samaria. Ahaziah noted that these men had returned far too soon to have made the trip to Ekron and back. The messengers delivered Elijah’s message to the king, virtually verbatim:
“‘“You must think there is no God in Israel! That explains why you are sending for an oracle from Baal Zebub, the god of Ekron. Therefore you will not leave the bed on which you lie, for you will certainly die”’” (2 Kings 1:6b).
Ahaziah had rejected the God of Israel. To inquire about the future from another “god” was to deny any faith in the one true God. Because of this, God has a word for Ahaziah. He rebukes him for rejecting the God of Israel, and then proceeds to inform him that he will never leave his bed, but that he will die. Ahaziah’s first response was not to repent, but to question his messengers so he might discern the identity of the bearer of these bad tidings. He asked his servants to describe the man who had spoken these words. Their description of this hairy man with a leather belt around his waist left no doubt in Ahaziah’s mind as to the identity of this prophet—it was Elijah for certain. He seems to have already guessed as much from the message itself.
Ahaziah does not repent, as his father Ahab had done (1 Kings 21:27-29), but instead he hardens his heart. We should not expect otherwise, because Elijah has already described his destiny. The words which prompted Ahab’s repentance also prophesied the demise of all of his descendants:
17 The LORD told Elijah the Tishbite: 18 “Get up, go down and meet Ahab king of Israel who lives in Samaria. He is at the vineyard of Naboth; he has gone down there to take possession of it. 19 Say to him, ‘This is what the LORD says, “In the spot where dogs licked up Naboth’s blood they will also lick up your blood, yes yours!”’” 20 When Elijah arrived, Ahab said to him, “So, you have found me, my enemy!” Elijah replied, “I have found you, because you are committed to doing evil before the LORD.” 21 The LORD says, ‘Look, I am ready to bring disaster on you. I will destroy you and cut off every last male belonging to Ahab in Israel, including even the weak and incapacitated 22 I will make your dynasty like those of Jeroboam son of Nebat and Baasha son of Ahijah because you angered me and made Israel sin.’ 23 The LORD says this about Jezebel, ‘Dogs will devour Jezebel by the outer wall of Jezreel.’ 24 As for Ahab’s family, dogs will eat the ones who die in the city, and the birds of the sky will eat the ones who die in the country” (1 Kings 21:17-24, emphasis mine).
God’s sovereign plan was being fulfilled, just as God had declared through His prophet Elijah. At the same time, Ahaziah was responsible for hardening his heart, and not only ignoring God’s warnings, but actually seeking to reverse them. Ahaziah preferred false foreign gods, which were not only made by human hands but could be manipulated by men. He would resist any commands set down by a sovereign God. And so Ahaziah sets in motion a course of events which he hopes will thwart the purposes of God, and thus save his own life. Ahaziah intends to make God “jump through his hoops.”
One can hardly explain what follows any other way. The king sent out 50 soldiers and their commander to seize Elijah. The intent of this mission is not stated, but then it hardly needs to be. This was the equivalent of a SWAT team. Does anyone doubt that Elijah was to be placed under arrest and brought before Ahaziah? And once in custody, is it not quite clear that the king plans to intimidate Elijah, forcing him to change his prophecy, and thus Ahaziah’s future? And if Elijah were to refuse, the king would have the satisfaction of taking Elijah with him, to the grave.
Elijah must know how Ahaziah will respond. And yet he does not seek to hide from him (as he had once run from Jezebel—1 Kings 19:1-3). The captain and his men found Elijah sitting at the top of a hill. With the full authority of a drill sergeant, the captain addressed Elijah, the “man of God,” giving him these orders in the name of the king: “Come down!” The words of the commander are fascinating. Elijah is addressed as a “man of God,” and yet he is given orders from the king, as though this should make it clear that he must obey man rather than God (contrast Acts 5:29). The king is giving orders, as it were, to God. The commander, like the wicked, speaks “from on high” (Psalm 73:8).
I am reminded of the time, years ago, when I taught high school classes in a medium security state prison. There was a guard, whose name was Mr. Look, stationed out in the hall. He was an ex-navy sergeant, and this fellow was tough. The guards in that prison wore blue uniforms as I recall, and the inmates wore brown uniforms. Whenever an inmate sought to resist his instructions, Mr. Look would reply with a statement like this: “Well, isn’t that interesting? The way I heard it, the folks in the blue shirts were giving the orders, and the people in the brown shirts were taking orders.” Usually, a few hours of cleaning toilets was then assigned—to emphasize his words. To play out the analogy, the commander of the 50 was wearing a brown shirt, and Elijah was wearing a blue shirt. You would not know it from the way the commander spoke, however. It does not put one in good standing to be giving orders to God, or to His prophet. This fellow didn’t even say “Please.” This fellow is about to be “fired” (sorry, I couldn’t resist).
Elijah takes up the challenge. The captain spoke in the name of the king. Elijah will speak in the name of the King of Kings—the God of Israel. Elijah employs some of the captain’s own words. He had called Elijah a “man of God” (the NET Bible translates this “prophet” and then in a marginal note informs us that the text literally reads “man of God.”). Elijah reasons that if he was, in fact, a man of God, and he spoke with God’s authority, then he should be able to call down fire from heaven to consume the captain and all his men. If Elijah was under divine protection, and the king sought to harm him, then the king (and anyone acting on his behalf—such as this captain) would be the ones in danger. Immediately fire did come from heaven, and the 51 soldiers now lay dead before the prophet.97 I guess we now know who was wearing the blue shirt!
One wonders what the second commander and his men were thinking as they made their way to the place where Elijah was stationed. Had they heard about what had happened to the first group? Did this fellow think that using the same tactics on Elijah as the first captain had tried would really work? The second captain repeats the same words, with what seems to be greater emphasis on the king’s authority. He orders Elijah to come down “at once” (verse 11). Did this captain think that tough talk would frighten Elijah? Elijah simply repeats the same words to this captain as he had spoken to the one before him. If he was a “man of God,” as this captain had said, then let fire come down from heaven and consume this fellow, along with his 50 men. Once again, fire came down from heaven, and consumed all 51 soldiers.
In our text at least, the third time is a charm! This third captain has reasoned this matter out, and he does not intend to end up like his two predecessors. To put it differently, this captain has grasped the “chain of command” correctly. God is the ultimate authority, and because Elijah is a “man of God,” (a prophet), he speaks and acts with God’s authority. No official of the king had better attempt to harm or intimidate Elijah, or even seek to put him under arrest. This captain responds appropriately. He did not order Elijah to do anything. He knows all too well what has happened to those who had come before him, and he is sure that it will happen to him as well if he deals with Elijah in a similar manner. He kneels down before Elijah and pleads for mercy for himself and his men. God graciously responds to this humble petition. The Angel of the LORD instructs Elijah not to be afraid and to go with this man and his men. Now, at last, the orders are coming from the right direction—from the top down.
Notice the tone of our text, as it describes Elijah before the king. Not one word of king Ahaziah is recorded in verse 16. In this verse, only Elijah speaks, and we can certainly say that he “gets in the last word.” The thing that strikes me about Elijah’s words to the king is that they are virtually identical with the words the Angel of the Lord gave to Elijah, as well as the words that Elijah conveyed to the messengers of the king. In spite of all of Ahaziah’s efforts to reverse or to reduce his sentence, nothing has changed so far as his “sentence” is concerned. His death has been foretold. His judgment is sure. As God had said long before, “Thou shalt surely die” (Genesis 2:17). As so the very next words we read in verses 17 and 18 are Ahaziah’s obituary. He died, just as the LORD has prophesied through Elijah.
Because he had no sons, Ahaziah’s brother, Jehoram, took his place. This informs us that the prophecy of Elijah concerning the dynasty of Omri and the house of Ahab has only partially been fulfilled, because the entire house of Omri must die. But as for Ahaziah, he turned from God to the “gods” of the land, and he paid the price for his sin—death.
1 Just before the LORD took Elijah up to heaven in a windstorm, Elijah and Elisha were traveling from Gilgal. 2 Elijah told Elisha, “Stay here, for the LORD has sent me to Bethel.” But Elisha said, “As certainly as the LORD lives and as you live, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel. 3 Some members of the prophetic guild in Bethel came out to Elisha and said, “Do you know that today the LORD is going to take your master from you?” He answered, “Yes I know. Be quiet.” 4 Elijah said to him, “Elisha, stay here, for the LORD has sent me to Jericho.” But he replied, “As certainly as the LORD lives and as you live, I will not leave you.” So they went to Jericho. 5 Some members of the prophetic guild in Jericho approached Elisha and said, “Do you know that today the LORD is going to take your master from you?” He answered, “Yes I know. Be quiet.” 6 Elijah said to him, “Stay here, for the LORD has sent me to the Jordan.” But he replied, “As certainly as the LORD lives and as you live, I will not leave you.” So they traveled on together. 7 The 50 members of the prophetic guild went and stood opposite them at a distance, while Elijah and Elisha stood by the Jordan. 8 Elijah took his robe, folded it up, and hit the water with it. The water divided, and the two of them crossed over on dry ground. 9 When they had crossed over, Elijah said to Elisha, “What can I do for you, before I am taken away from you?” Elisha answered, “May I receive a double portion of the prophetic spirit that energizes you.” 10 Elijah replied, “That’s a tall order. If you see me taken from you, may it be so, but if you don’t, it will not happen.” 11 As they were walking along and talking, suddenly a fiery chariot pulled by fiery horses appeared. They went between Elijah and Elisha, and Elijah went up to heaven in a windstorm. 12 While Elisha was watching, he was crying out, “My father, my father! The chariot and horsemen of Israel!” Then he could no longer see him. He grabbed his clothes and tore them in two. 13 He picked up Elijah’s robe, which had fallen off him, and went back and stood on the shore of the Jordan. 14 He took the robe that had fallen off Elijah, hit the water with it, and said, “Where is the LORD God of Elijah?” When he hit the water, it divided and Elisha crossed over. 15 When the members of the prophetic guild in Jericho, who were standing at a distance, saw him do this, they said, “The spirit that energized Elijah rests upon Elisha.” They went to meet him and bowed down to the ground before him. 16 They said to him, “Look, there are 50 capable men with your servants. Let them go and look for your master, for the wind sent from the LORD may have carried him away and dropped him on one of the hills or in one of the valleys.” But he replied, “Don’t send them out.” 17 But they were so insistent, he became embarrassed. So he said, “Send them out.” They sent the 50 men out and they looked for three days, but could not find him. 18 When they came back, he was staying in Jericho. He said to them, “Didn’t I tell you, ‘Don’t go’?”
From verse 1, we learn that the writer wants us to understand that the events of verses 1-10 are preliminary and preparatory to Elijah’s exodus. In these verses Elijah, accompanied by Elisha, starts out at Gilgal, travels to Bethel, then to Jericho, and finally back to the Jordan River where they will cross to the other side. Each time Elijah sets out, he gives Elisha orders to stay behind. Each time, Elisha refuses to stay behind and leave his master alone. When they come to their destination, they meet a school of the prophets there. Each time they are met by these prophets, Elisha is once again told that this is the day the LORD will take his master from him. Elisha responds by telling these prophets that he knows that Elijah is to be taken from him and to be still.
The perplexing thing about this text is its use of these repetitions. Why does Elijah need to go to all these places before his departure? Why does the reader need to know about these visits? Why does Elijah seem to be trying to get rid of Elisha and to go on alone? Why does Elisha refuse to obey his master and insist on staying with him? What does all this have to do with Elijah’s departure? Let’s consider these questions, because I believe they are important.
First, why does Elijah travel from Gilgal to Bethel, from Bethel to Jericho, and from Jericho to the Jordan, and then across the river? There is some difference of opinion as to which “Gilgal” our text refers. It would seem to me that it is the Gilgal that the author expects the readers to be familiar with, the Gilgal that has already played a significant part in Israel’s history. From Joshua, chapters 4 and 5, we know that Gilgal is the first place the Israelites camped after crossing the Jordan River. This was the staging point for Israel’s attack on Jericho. It was the place where Joshua took the 12 stones from the middle of the Jordan River and made a memorial—to commemorate Israel’s crossing of the Jordan and entrance into the promised land. This is where Joshua circumcised the Israelites, because this second generation of Israelites had not been circumcised during their wilderness wanderings. And finally, Gilgal is the place where the Israelites observed their first Passover, after having entered the land. Gilgal was a place of new beginnings.
Bethel was also a significant place in the history of Israel. When Abraham left his home and family to travel to the promised land, Bethel was the second place he stopped in the land. He built an altar there, and called upon the name of the LORD (Genesis 12:8). It is the place to which Abraham returned after he was sent away from Egypt by Pharaoh (Genesis 13:3). It is the place where Jacob spent the night and had his vision of the ladder ascending into heaven (Genesis 28:19). It is the place to which Jacob returned after his sojourn in Paddam-aram (Genesis 31:13; 25:1). When Samuel was a prophet, Bethel was a part of his preaching circuit (Bethel, Gilgal, Mizpah; 1 Samuel 7:16). Bethel was one of the two cities in which Jeroboam set up golden calves for Israel to worship, so that they would not return to worship in Jerusalem (1 Kings 12:29).
These were very significant places in Israel’s history, and no doubt this is one of the reasons Elijah visited these places just before his death. Was he, in effect, reclaiming these places for God? Ironically, these places which had to be taken from the Canaanites were now possessed by Israelites, but the practices and worship of the Israelites were hardly any different from those of the pagan Canaanites before them.
We should see the importance of Bethel, Jericho, and the Jordan River in terms of what they shared in common, as disclosed in our text. At each of these places Elijah and Elisha were met by a gathering of prophets who made up a “prophetic guild” (NET Bible), a “school of the prophets.” Elijah was making one last circuit, I believe, of those places where there was a “school of the prophets.” He was regarded as the most prominent prophet of the day, and all of the prophets seemed to look to him for leadership. At each place, God spoke through the prophets, revealing that this was Elijah’s day of departure. At each place, the prophets made a point of making this known to Elisha, but not to Elijah. At each place, Elisha informs the prophets that he knows this is the day his master will be taken from him, and he instructs them to be quiet.
So what is this all about? If we take Elijah’s words at face value, as we should, then we know that this journey is divinely directed. God instructed Elijah to go to Bethel (verse 2), then Jericho (verse 4), and finally the Jordan (verse 6). I believe God wanted Elijah to visit the prophets one last time. I believe this is where the “school of the prophets” was located, and that God directed Elijah and Elisha there so that these prophets would prophecy concerning Elijah’s departure. As a result, virtually every prophet in Israel knew this was Elijah’s day to “depart,” to be “taken from Elisha.” It would appear that God wanted Elijah to make this last circuit with Elisha, so that by the time the day was over all the prophets would realize that Elijah was gone and that Elisha was his replacement. God was orchestrating the final events of Elijah’s life in such a way as to designate and accredit Elisha as his replacement.
That final group of 5098 prophets is noteworthy. These men do not accompany Elijah and Elisha across the Jordan. They stand off in the distance, watching the two prophets as they cross the Jordan. They watch as Elijah takes off his robe, folds it up, and strikes the waters of the Jordan River with it, parting the waters so that they can cross the Jordan on dry ground. These 50 prophets also seem to have witnessed the windstorm (2:11, 16), but not the chariot and the horses of fire. Only Elisha returns, and he parts the Jordan just as Elijah had done earlier, using Elijah’s robe (2:13-14). It is apparent from all this that Elijah has been taken away from Elisha, and that Elisha is now Elijah’s replacement. God takes Elijah in such a way that He thereby informs all of the prophetic community that Elijah is gone, and that Elisha now ministers in his place, with even greater power.
In this description of the final moments of Elijah’s life, we see some of the fine qualities of Elisha, qualities which will serve him well in his future ministry. It is not just that he is a man who has the Spirit of God, though he surely does. Our text underscores the kind of man whom the Spirit of God now empowers. Earlier, Elijah left his servant behind, so that he could die alone in the desert (1 Kings 19:3). It would seem that he is attempting to do the same with Elisha, but Elisha will have no part of that. Elisha has faithfully followed Elijah as his servant since the day that Elijah threw his robe over him (1 Kings 19:19); he is determined to be with him till the very moment God takes his master away. Earlier, when Elijah asked God to let him die in the desert, he repeated the statement, “I alone am left.” Now, we see that this will not be the case if Elisha has anything to say about it. Elisha is committed to be with his master to the very end, no matter what that might mean. Here is a faithful servant, a man who serves his master well. Good leaders begin as good servants; good leaders continue to be servants—servant-leaders.
As his time grew short and Elijah knew he could not be rid of Elisha, he asked his servant what he could do for him as a final gesture. Some are inclined to suppose that by his answer, Elisha betrays a kind of ambition that is unseemly. I don’t see this at all. Elisha must have known that he was designated at Elijah’s replacement from the very beginning (1 Kings 19:16, 19-21). Elijah signified this when he threw his robe over Elisha (19:19). Now, Elisha had torn his own robes and was wearing the robe Elijah left behind (2:13-14). If Elisha was to carry out his task of replacing Elijah, then he would need to be empowered by the Holy Spirit to do it. If Elisha thought of Elijah as twice the man he was, then in his mind it would take twice the Spirit to enable him to carry on his ministry. I do not see an ambitious man here; I see a humble man, who desires the grace that is needed for him to do his job well.
I don’t necessarily see Elijah as reluctant to grant Elisha’s request, either. Elijah tells Elisha that his request, though a difficult one, will be granted, but only on the condition that Elisha is with him and sees him as he is taken away. Elijah knows from the time he has spent with Elisha, and particularly from the events of that day, that Elisha will not allow himself to be separated from his master. In other words, the condition that Elijah stipulates is one that is likely to be met. Furthermore, by requiring that Elisha actually “see” (as a prophet or seer must) his departure, he is leaving the request with God, since it is God who opens the eyes of men to “see” such things (2 Kings 6:17).
In this sense, the horses and chariots of fire may be more for Elisha’s benefit than for Elijah’s. The text does not tell us that Elijah got into the chariot of fire and rode off into heaven. It tells us that the fiery chariot and horsemen of Israel appeared, separating Elijah and Elisha. We are actually told that Elijah was taken up to heaven “in a windstorm” (verse 11). While I have always been inclined to think of Elijah as riding into heaven in that chariot, it does not appear to have happened that way. Perhaps the fiery horses and chariot were Elijah’s escort.
Elijah is taken up, out of sight. Elisha knows that his master is gone. Knowing what he does, it was senseless to conduct a search for Elijah. He is clearly in heaven. But the 50 prophets don’t really know this for certain. They, from a distance, have watched these two prophets cross over the Jordan on dry ground, thanks to the actions of Elijah. They seem to have witnessed the windstorm, though I doubt that they saw the horsemen and chariot of fire. They seem to have assumed that Elijah was taken up by the windstorm they witnessed, and thus reasoned that his body might be found somewhere, set down by the same windstorm that plucked him up into the air. They saw Elisha return alone, wearing the robe of Elijah. They realized, I think, that Elisha was Elijah’s replacement, and that he ministered through the same Spirit that empowered Elijah. But they had not really seen Elijah depart, and so they felt compelled to send out a “search party” to see if they could find the prophet, or at least his body. Reluctantly, Elisha granted permission to conduct the search, but he knew they would find nothing—and that is exactly what they found—nothing.
The first thing that strikes me in our text is Ahaziah’s failure to understand authority from a biblical perspective. The account of Ahaziah’s death serves as a commentary on this text in Deuteronomy:
14 When you come to the land the LORD your God is giving you and you take it over and live in it and then say, “I will appoint a king over me like all the nations surrounding me,” 15 you must without fail select over you a king whom the LORD your God will choose. From among your own kin you must appoint a king—you may not designate a foreigner who is not one of your kin. 16 Moreover, he must not accumulate horses for himself nor allow the people to return to Egypt to do so, for the LORD has said, you must never again return this way. 17 He also must not marry many wives lest his affections turn aside, and he must not amass much silver and gold. 18 When he sits on his royal throne then he must make a copy of this instruction upon a scroll given to him by the Levitical priests. 19 It must be constantly with him and he must read it as long as he lives so that he might learn to revere the LORD his God, and observe all the words of this instruction and these statutes in order to carry them out, 20 so that he will not exalt himself above his fellow citizens and turn from the commandment right or left, and so that he might enjoy many years over his kingdom, he and his descendants, in the midst of Israel (Deuteronomy 17:14-20).
Every king of Israel was to write out their own copy of the Law of Moses. They were to keep this law with them and to constantly read it. The king was not to amass military strength, so that he would trust in God for his defense. He was not to be puffed up by his power, exalting himself above his fellow-Israelites. In so doing, he would have a long and fruitful reign. Ahaziah, like his father Ahab, failed at almost every point. He failed to grasp that his authority came from God, and therefore attempted to use his authority to force God’s prophet to do as he wanted. Thus it comes as no surprise that his reign ends as it does.
As I read this account of Elijah’s departure, my mind goes back to 1 Kings 19, where Elijah begged God to take his life. What a contrast we see between the “departure” Elijah sought and that which God “wrought.”
Elijah’s request that God take his life came about when Jezebel threatened to kill him. Elijah was afraid and ran for his life. Now, Ahaziah wants to arrest Elijah, but instead of running, Elijah stations himself on the top of a hill, in public view. And when the soldiers come to arrest him, he calls down fire from heaven.
In his despair, Elijah viewed himself as a failure and claimed to be the only true prophet left. Now, Elijah must travel to various places in order to visit the “school of the prophets.” His ministry is far from a failure.
In chapter 19, Elijah feared for his life. He fled, thinking it was not safe for him to remain in Israel. Now, Elijah is free to travel about Israel. There is no “security problem” here.
In chapter 19, Elijah attempted to quit and wanted to die. God refused his request because it was not his time. Now, every prophet has the same message: “It’s time!”
In chapter 19, Elijah left his servant behind, so that he could go into the desert and die. This time, try as he may, Elijah is unable to convince Elisha to leave him, and besides Elisha, 50 prophets look on from a distance.
If God had granted Elijah’s request in chapter 19, he would have died a failure. It would have been a tragic departure. Now, Elijah goes “God’s way,” leaving behind many prophets to carry on in his absence, and departing triumphantly with an angelic escort—a chariot and horses of fire! What a way to go!
Here is but one very dramatic example of the blessing of unanswered prayer (or, more accurately, prayer that is answered, “No!”). God graciously refused to allow Elijah to take suicide as the easy way out. Instead, God instructed him to get back to the real world and to do what he had been called to do. When it is time for us to leave this world, God will take us away. God’s ways are so much better (and higher) than ours. When God says “No,” just remember from our text that it is because His way is far better than ours.
When the first two chapters of 2 Kings are studied side by side, we cannot help but see the contrast between Ahaziah’s death and Elijah’s departure.
Elijah sought to take his life, and God refused him permission. Ahaziah sought to save his life, and God took it. We are surely reminded of our Lord’s words:
24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone wants to follow me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life on account of me will find it (Matthew 16:24-25).
Ahaziah, and eventually every heir of the house of Omri will perish. There is no one to carry on as king in his place. When Elijah departed, not only would Elisha carry on (with twice the Spirit), but there was an entire school of prophets as well. Ahab’s work abruptly ended. Elijah’s carried on, because it was God’s work.
Ahaziah dies the death of an unbeliever. He enters into eternal judgment. Elijah dies the death of a saint, entering into eternal bliss.
Every single person who reads these words is going to die, either as Ahaziah did, or as Elijah did. Today, as in Elijah’s day, there are only two kinds of people: those who will spend eternity with God, and those who will spend eternity in torment, away from the presence of God. You will either spend your life trying to avoid the judgment of God, and failing to do so, or you will spend your life trusting in God, saved and kept by Him. Your destiny depends upon your response to the person and work of Jesus Christ. He came to this earth to live a perfect, sinless life and to die in the sinner’s place, bearing his punishment. If you acknowledge your sin and trust in what Christ has done on your behalf, you will be saved, and when you die, you will go into the presence of our Lord forever (see 2 Corinthians 5:6-9; Philippians 1:23). To die in unbelief is to face the certainty of eternal judgment.
From the very beginning, Satan has been seeking to assure men that if they disobey God, they will surely not die (see Genesis 3:4). This is a lie, as surely as Satan is a liar, and as surely as Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6). Do not be deceived. No matter how hard you work to avoid the penalty of death, you will fail. The only way that we can escape this penalty is by faith in Jesus Christ, who paid the penalty personally.
There is one last thing I wish to point out from our text. Elijah’s departure is not the exception; it is the rule, for every Christian. Some may think that at his departure Elijah was given the VIP treatment. It is my strong conviction that every Christian gets this VIP treatment at the moment of their death. I would like you to see the similarity of these three texts of Scripture:
11 As they were walking along and talking, suddenly a fiery chariot pulled by fiery horses appeared. They went between Elijah and Elisha, and Elijah went up to heaven in a windstorm. 12 While Elisha was watching, he was crying out, “My father, my father! The chariot and horsemen of Israel!” (2 Kings 2:11-12).
Now Elisha had a terminal illness. Joash king of Israel went down to visit him. He wept before him and said, “My father, my father! The chariot and horsemen of Israel!” (2 Kings 13:14).
22 “Now the poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 And in hell, as he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far off with Lazarus at his side” (Luke 16:22-23).
It is my conviction that every Christian has an angelic escort to heaven when they die. In 2 Kings, this is said of the two greatest prophets of all time—Elijah and Elisha. But in Luke 16, it is said of Lazarus, a poor beggar. The rich man (who is never named) lived well all of his life, and I’m sure that he had a very fancy funeral. But the reality is that when he died, he went to hell. Lazarus, on the other hand, lived a life of suffering. He may not even have been given a funeral. But the angels gave him a heavenly escort to heaven. I believe this informs us that every Christian’s departure is a glorious one—if we could see the heavenly realities, like chariots and horsemen of fire. Those we love who trusted in Jesus Christ may have spent their final hours in physical pain, and may have died in agony, but the heavenly reality is not diminished one bit by this. When it is the Christian’s time to depart from this life, it is a glorious departure. This we must “see” by faith, but it is a certainty. What a glorious day our day of departure will be, if we know Christ as our Savior!
97 Unless, of course, they were consumed entirely, as were the sacrifice, the water, and even the stones of the altar on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18:38). This seems to be the case, since the word “consumed” in 1 Kings 18:38 is the same word that is now used in 2 Kings 1:10, etc.).
98 The number “50” does seem interesting. Ahaziah’s soldiers came to seize Elijah in groups of 50, and they did not succeed. Instead fire came down from heaven and killed them. Now, 50 prophets look on. Unseen to them, fire comes down from heaven and snatches Elijah away. The soldiers experienced the wrath of God; Elijah experienced the grace of God.