The books of 1 and 2 Kings record the history of the nation of Israel from the time of Solomon through the division of the kingdom, the fall of the northern kingdom in 722 with the Assyrian captivity, and then the fall of the southern kingdom in 586 BC with the Babylonian captivity. The kingdom divided into the southern kingdom of Judah, consisting of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, and the northern kingdom of Israel that consisted of the remaining ten tribes.
During this time there were some good kings who reigned in the southern kingdom and who brought about spiritual reforms. But in the northern kingdom (where Elijah and Elisha served) all the kings were evil and there were no true revivals. All the kings of Israel (the northern kingdom) did evil in the sight of the Lord.
In the midst of this degenerate and idolatrous kingdom ruled by vicious, cruel, and degenerate kings, the Lord called two men, one the successor of the other. These two prophets stood as the heralds of God and His Word. They were also leaders for a school of prophets who actually served in both the northern and southern kingdoms.
Elijah’s ministry does not end with the call of Elisha who became Elijah’s attendant and student. Instead, it continued for several years as the mentor of Elisha. After his renewal by the Lord on Mount Horeb, Elijah began a ministry of mentoring or discipling Elisha. Mentoring others is one of the most important ministries any of us can have, especially leaders, but one that should not be limited to leaders.
Actually, the ministry here was dual. Not only did Elijah minister to Elisha, but undoubtedly, Elisha became a great comfort and encouragement to Elijah. At one time, Elijah thought he alone was left to carry on the work of God, but he was informed this was not the case at all. In fact, there were 7,000 who had not bowed the knee to Baal. Among these were several schools of the prophets. Until this time, they were hiding in caves, afraid to come out and speak for the Lord. But after Elijah’s experience and renewal on Mount Horeb, he began traveling over the country teaching in these schools with Elisha as his attendant and disciple.
In verse 19, we find Elijah now moving out of the place of loneliness and discouragement. The Lord had sought him while he was in that condition and revitalized and restored him to his ministry through the spiritual insight he received from the Angel of the Lord. Restored with new understanding about the way God works, the prophet left the mountain and found Elisha. The anointing of the kings mentioned in 19:15-16 would come later. The first priority was to find Elisha.
This illustrates how God’s Word works to restore and renew our lives. Graciously, He works to put us either on track or back on track to make us fruitful. Like Elijah, we too can easily find ourselves down, lonely, and discouraged, but the Lord is the God of all comfort (2 Cor. 1:3) and He has committed Himself to our renewal and restoration. What a loving and gracious Lord, but we need to make ourselves available to God’s resources for renewal: (a) The Word (Rom. 15:4), and (b) other believers encouraging one another (2 Cor. 1:4; 1 Thess. 5:11; Heb. 3:13). Thus, Elijah first went to find Elisha who became an encouragement to the prophet.
Elijah found Elisha “while he was plowing with twelve pairs of oxen before him, and he with the twelfth.” This seems to indicate that Elisha belonged to a family of considerable wealth. To obey the prophetic call would mean doing so at a considerable personal loss, financially speaking. It would mean counting the costs. It meant counting his financial security as loss and becoming a soldier of the Lord in the trenches of a tremendous spiritual conflict. But Elisha’s responses in verses 20 and 21 show us he was a man of faith who was willing to do just that.
Elisha had developed biblical values, priorities and eternal perspectives that had captured his heart which then controlled what he did with his life. As a result, he acted on his faith by following God’s call. He was willing to be uprooted from his quiet, peaceful, and rural life with its financial security to follow the Lord. Obviously he knew what his nation needed was the Word of the Lord. Like the sons of Issachar, he understood the times and knew what he must do (1 Chr. 12:32).
But I think it is also important to note where Elisha was when Elijah found him. Though he belonged to a prominent family, he was at work in the field with the rest of the field hands. Though wealthy, he was not irresponsible or lazy. This didn’t make him a leader, but it certainly demonstrated he had already developed the kind of character needed for leadership. Not only did hard work build character, it gave him a testimony to those around him.
I think it is interesting to note how many great men of the Bible were called into some special ministry after they had already demonstrated an ability and a willingness to work and where they had also shown faithfulness and loyalty? Note the following illustrations:
Many young people go through college or Bible school and then on to seminary. Upon graduation they seek a full-time ministry without the beneficial experience of having worked in the work place, been in the military or learned a trade. Then we wonder why they have problems in the ministry when faced with its rigid demands. Well, this can be one of the causes. Unless they worked their way through school, many do not really know what it is like to face the trials of the work place, nor have they developed the discipline of work. Furthermore, if, for whatever reason they must leave full-time ministry and work in a secular job, they have difficulty in supporting themselves and their families because they never learned a trade. When support for his ministry was lacking, the apostle Paul always turned to his trade as a tent maker.
As parents, we need to teach our children to work, first at home around the house and then encourage learning a trade as a part of their education. Learning to work helps to develop character, faithfulness, resourcefulness, and responsibility.
“And Elijah passed over to him (Elisha) and threw his mantle on him” (vs. 19). Let’s notice three things:
(1) This mantle was the official garment of a prophet. There were three types of mantles worn in biblical times. This is the `adderet, a cloak that could be made of animal hair and was a garment of distinction worn by kings and especially by prophets (1 Kgs. 19:13, 19; 2 Kgs. 2:8, 13-14; Zech. 13:4). The mantle automatically marked a man as a prophet, a spokesman of God. It was also a symbol of sacrifice and commitment. The life of a prophet was not a life of luxury. The mantle represented a man’s gift, the call of God, and the purpose for which God had called him.
(2) Throwing it over the shoulders of Elisha was a symbolic act denoting his summons to the office of prophet, but it was also a sure sign of God’s gift that enabled him to fulfill the prophetic office and ministry. This act by Elijah was a prophetic announcement that the gift of prophecy had been given (or would come) to Elisha. It was immediately understood by Elisha even without words.
(3) While some will disagree, I do not believe God calls believers in the same way today. Today, every believer is a priest of God (1 Pet. 2:5, 9) and is in some sense called to full-time service to represent the Lord even if their occupation is secular. As believers in Christ, we are God’s representatives and called to ministry according to the gifts God gives us. Part of this occurs in the work place, part in the home, part may occur in the church, and part may occur with a neighbor, etc. Every believer has a spiritual gift (or gifts) and this represents at least a portion of the mantle of God’s call on one’s life.
What God has gifted you to do, He has called you to do. What He has called you to do, He has gifted you to do. How do you know God’s call? By knowing your gift(s).
Understanding that all believers have been given a spiritual gift(s), we should seek to recognize our gift(s), develop them, and through God’s leading, put them to work. Knowing what our gifts are automatically determines a great portion of God’s will and direction for our lives from the standpoint of priorities, commitments, goals, and training. For instance, if a person does not have one of the speaking gifts (teaching, exhortation, etc.), God has not called him to preach or be a pastor. While we are all to do the work of evangelism and should look for opportunities to disciple and mentor others on a one-to-one basis, we should do people a favor by staying out of the pulpit or classroom as a teacher unless we are so gifted. One’s gift may be helps, or showing mercy. If so, that is where God wants to use us. 1 Peter 4:10 says, “As each one has received a special gift, employ it in serving one another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God.” A good steward is one who employs his gifts (accepts his mantle) by faithful development (training and use).
This concept is true regardless of one’s occupation. Our occupation may be anything from an engineer to a doctor, from a housewife to an executive secretary, a nurse or doctor. But our vocation, our calling, is to serve the Lord according to the way He has gifted us. Perhaps you know, as I do, of some who have found ways to reduce their workload and time in their business or profession in order to increase their capacity for other kinds of ministry. In some cases it meant reduced income, but they did so to invest more time with their families and in ministry. In some cases, God even blessed their occupation more. Their giving was not their lack. This, however, is not to suggest one’s secular work is not a form of ministry. I believe it is and not just as a platform for the gospel. For an excellent book on this, may I suggest: Your Work Matters to God, by Sherman and Hendricks.
Elisha’s response was immediate. There was no hesitation or riding the fence. As we will see, his request regarding his father and mother was not an act of hesitation. Rather, Elisha was decisive, which undoubtedly indicated the previous work of God in his life and the perfect timing of this event. For Elisha (and so it should be for all of us), there was no decision to make. The fact of God’s call automatically made that decision for him. Any other decision would only lead to futility, unhappiness and a lack of purpose in life, a chasing after the wind.
Let’s say, for the sake of illustration, someone has the gift of teaching or showing mercy. God’s mantle or call on their life is to get involved to some degree and in some manner with the development and use that gift. They do not have to ask, “Lord, should I develop this gift and seek a place of ministry to use it?” To think and pray like that is equivalent to asking the Lord if they should use their feet and legs for walking. Of course, there are other factors involved for which we should seek wisdom and pray such as: what are my gifts and what training do I need to prepare for the opportunity and the specific place where the Lord wants me to serve? But we do not have to ask, should I use my gift(s)?
There are special commands concerning spiritual gifts: (a) we are to know our gift(s)--Romans 12:3; (b) we should never neglect our gift(s)--1 Timothy 4:14; (c) we are to stir up, be zealous for our gift(s)--2 Timothy 1:6; 1 Thessalonians 5:19-20; and (d) we are to use our gift(s) in love, serving others by the strength which God supplies and for the glory of God--1 Peter 4:10-11; Romans 12:4f.
Elisha requested that he might go back to “kiss my father and my mother, then I will follow you” (19:20). This was not an attempt to put off the call nor an act of hesitation. Some have wrongly related this to Luke 9:57-62. The Lord knew the heart of the men in Luke 9 and saw that for what it was, a lack of commitment and an attempt to avoid His call. It was a failure to deny themselves, etc.
But with Elisha, the case was entirely different. Elisha’s request was prompted by two things: (a) It was an act of genuine respect and honor for his parents, and (b) it was prompted by a desire to celebrate his entrance into this ministry and to declare and confirm his commitment to follow the Lord before friends and family. We will see this in 1 Kings 19:21.
Elijah allowed Elisha’s request. He said, “Go back again . . .” Then he added a word of caution and said, “for what have I done to you?” This statement seems to be an idiom that sounds rather abrupt or even meaningless to us. According to the idiom, we might translate it something like, “go back and bid farewell, for I have done something very important to you, but think carefully on what I have done to you, for your call is not from me, but from God!” The idea is that Elisha was accountable to God for what he did, not to Elijah. What Elijah had done was to express God’s call. Elijah would become Elisha’s spiritual leader and mentor, but Elisha must understand that ultimately, he was accountable to God, not to a man.
As the servants of God, we must ever remember that we are ultimately accountable to the Lord for what we do with our lives. God uses men and women in our lives to reach us, to train us, to challenge us, etc., but they are only instruments God uses to point or guide us in the right direction. We are accountable to one another to some degree, but our ultimate or primary accountability is to the Lord (Rom. 14:11-12). It seems to me there is an important principle here. One of the goals of leadership, as with parenthood, is to help people learn to become accountable to God (Heb. 13:17).
The oxen and the implements, the wooden plow with the yokes, represented the tools of his trade and the means and basis of his past life. Verse 21, then, is basically Elisha’s declaration of his commitment to follow the Lord. In essence, he was burning his bridges and counting his past as loss for the Lord that he might gain and attain the new life and ministry that God had for him as a prophet (Phil. 3). Elisha was showing family and friends that he had new goals, aims, aspirations, new commitments, values, and priorities. It showed his determination to never look back, seek to go back, or leave the calling of God no matter how tough it might get. This is a must for believers and especially spiritual leaders. Romans 12:1-2 forms the foundation for the emphasis that follows. Romans 12:3-21 exhorts us to know and use our gifts in ministry.
Through the actions of Elisha, God is showing us we need to develop an unwillingness to throw in the towel, to never say “I quit.” Life and service to the Lord are like a cross country race--not a hundred yard dash! One of the greatest needs in the Christian life as fathers or mothers, as husbands or wives, or as servants in any area is endurance with the commitment. We need to be problem-solvers, to work through our problems rather than quit. Elisha was burning his bridges on his past life.
Elisha became the attendant, the servant of Elijah (2 Kgs 3:11). His time with Elijah was not only an education in theology and in practical ministry to others, but in humility, submission to authority, loyalty, faithfulness, and obedience in being a servant. All of this was vital to his training and preparation for ministry. In order to lead, one must first learn how to be led. In order to give directions, one must first learn how to receive and follow directions. In order to be faithful, one must first learn faithfulness. This seems to be one of the lessons of Luke 16:10, “He who is faithful in a very little thing is faithful also in much; and he who is unrighteous in a very little thing is unrighteous also in much.” Elisha’s preparation reminds me of Christ’s comment in Mark 10:43-45, “but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first shall be slave of all. For even the Son man did not come to be served, but to serve.”
God has placed a mantle, a call, upon every believer in Jesus Christ (1 Pet. 4:10-11). As believer priests, this mantle is our God-given spiritual gift(s). As gifted ones, we are each to be good stewards of the stewardship He has entrusted to us regarding our time, talents (including our spiritual gifts), treasures, and His truth. This requires Elisha’s kind of commitment. When commitment is not there, we will be tottering on the fence and we will be unable to make the tough decisions needed to follow the Lord. This is undoubtedly what Jesus Christ meant in Luke 14:26, 27 and 33. The three conditions mentioned in Luke 14 deal with the necessity of total surrender. Without total surrender, we cannot be His disciples; we simply will not be able to make the sacrificial decisions that following Him will require. This means a reevaluation of our values, priorities, attitudes, and pursuits, but above all, answering the question, who and what is the source of my faith? Is it the Lord? Do I truly believe He will be all I need? Or is my faith in reality anchored in the details of life--pleasure, position, power, prestige, possession? Elisha, like Elijah, was an ordinary man, but he became extra-ordinary because he was available to the Lord, because he turned his life over to the Lord, lock, stock, and barrel, and God was able to use him in tremendous ways.