Second Kings 2:1-11 is the story of the translation of Elijah which brings to a close his ministry on earth. Elijah’s translation and the events that surrounded it became a means of testing for Elisha whom God had called to step into the shoes of the older prophet. So also God works providentially in our lives through the events and lives of others.
In verses 1-6, there was a test of Elisha’s commitment. When asked to stay behind while Elijah went on, Elisha each time responded with a double oath to show his “bulldog tenacity” to stay with his teacher to the very last, knowing his master was about to be taken. This demonstrated several things about his character--a teachable spirit, loyalty, and a commitment to God’s calling to the very last.
Then, in verses 7-8, Elisha learned a lesson in the miracle of the parting of the waters of the Jordan. As God had parted the waters of the Jordan, so God would enable Elisha to both be and do all that was needed for his work and life as Elijah’s successor.
Now, another test follows--perhaps the most critical of all. It was the test of his longings, a test to see where his heart was (Ps. 26:2; 139:23; Jer. 17:10; Matt. 6:21; 13:46; Phil. 3:8).
In verse 9 we are told that immediately following the crossing of the Jordan, Elijah poses a very simple question. It is a question with tremendous ramifications on the life of any believer in Christ. He said to Elisha, “Ask what I shall do for you before I am taken from you.” Please note the timing of this. Elijah waited until after they had crossed over the Jordan, after this great display of the power and provision of God. Why? What can we learn from this?
(1) I think it teaches us the principle of timing and discernment. We need to discern the right time to witness, confront, challenge, or even to encourage. Sometimes it is just not the right time and our tendency is to speak when we should be quiet, and to be silent when we should speak. “A time to tear apart, and a time to sew together; A time to be silent, and a time to speak” (Eccl. 3:7). “Like apples of gold in settings of silver is a word spoken in right circumstances” (Prov. 25:11). “A man has joy in an apt answer, And how delightful is a timely word” (Prov. 11:23).
(2) This also teaches us that a great time to challenge believers to action is when they have just witnessed the blessing of God and are encouraged by the Lord through His Word or through what He has been doing in their lives.
The question put to Elisha was, “Ask what I shall do for you before I am taken from you.” The reference to being taken also teaches us several things:
(1) None of us are indispensable to God. Sooner or later God is going to remove us or someone whose ministry we are depending on. No matter how important we may think we are or others may think we are to a work, a church, a family, or a nation, the only one who is truly indispensable is the Lord.
(2) God always has someone else, or some other way to accomplish His purposes, or He may have a different purpose or purposes. Our need is to rest in God’s will and then carefully consider our responsibility in view of the removal of that one on whom we have been depending. When it was time for Elijah to go, there was an Elisha. When it was time for Moses to go, there was a Joshua.
(3) Elijah’s question shows us we should seek to be a blessing to others as long as we are here. Always we must recognize that we are only an instrument of God’s grace, a sower, a waterer, or a reaper--but it is God who is the indispensable and ultimate cause.
Primarily, this question was a test. The Lord, if you recall, asked Solomon a similar question at the beginning of his ministry and work as king.
Why ask such a question? Because our desires and requests show the condition of our hearts. It shows just how ready we are for ministry, responsibility, and sacrifice. It shows if our treasure is primarily here on earth or in heaven. It shows if we really see heaven as home or whether we are trying to make this fallen world our heavenly home. It shows if we are ready to be a servant or still want to be served.
Christians who are prosperous and comfortable on earth may give money generously to Christian work, but usually find it hard to think of heaven as home. It is one thing to speak piously about dying as “going home,” but quite another to “put our money where our mouth is.” Tragically, many who talk piously about “home” display little evidence of longing to be there. Home in Florida is more attractive. Tension exists between home on earth and home in heaven, there are practical ways to discover where our real interest lies.36
Our desires and requests reveal where our true treasures are. This in turn shows where our hearts are, which will in turn determine our priorities and pursuits and willingness to make the necessary sacrifices to fulfill God’s will. Ultimately then, the real issue is the motive behind the request, the deep down longings of the soul. Our requests may be good, but our motive may be evil. It may be an attempt to make this world our home. The request may be born of greed, or lust for praise, power, position, applause, prestige, or ease and comfort at the expense of God’s purposes. In other words, it becomes an attempt to find happiness apart from the Lord.
In verse 9 we also see Elisha’s reply. “Please, let a double portion of your Spirit be upon me.” Let’s note several things about this reply:
(1) Elisha was respectful and courteous. A person who says “please” is usually one who will also say “thank you.” He is one who is genuinely appreciative of the loving acts of others. He is usually a person who doesn’t take people for granted. Oh, how we need to cultivate the art and heart of appreciation, thankfulness, courteousness, and respectfulness.
(2) The words “double portion” do not mean two portions or twice as much of something. It especially does not mean twice as much of the Holy Spirit. Remember that the Holy Spirit is a person and not a substance that you can pour in by measure. John 3:34 tells us that God does not give His Spirit by measure. The words “unto Him” in the KJV are not in the original text. In the New Testament the command to be filled with the Spirit is a command to be controlled by the Spirit who indwells, not a command to get more of the Spirit. It means we are to allow the Spirit who indwells us to control more and more of our lives. It’s not that we get more of the Spirit but that the Spirit gets control of more of us.
(3) The expression “double portion” was used in connection with the firstborn son, who by law inherited two parts of his father’s property. He also became the one responsible to be the spiritual head of the family and responsible to perpetuate God’s covenant promises.
So Elisha was not asking for more power or more of the Holy Spirit, but simply that he might be the successor of Elijah to carry on Elijah’s important ministry. From what we know about Elisha’s life and ministry that follows, this clearly was not a request of pride, for personal glory, or selfish gain of any kind. Instead, it was the request of a man responding to the challenge and needs of the day. It was a man wanting to be used of God for God’s glory. And it was a man showing his willingness by faith to accept the responsibility of God’s will for his life. Elisha wanted to be the spiritual firstborn son of Elijah and serve the Lord as God had called him to do. Above all, it was the request of a man with longings that were anchored in eternity. He “was looking for the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Heb. 11:10). He knew God had provided something far better than what we have in this fallen world (Heb. 11:40). He was willing to make sacrifices and live as an alien and sojourner (Heb. 11:9; 1 Pet. 1:17; 2:11).
Are we likewise living as sojourners? Where are our treasures? What drives us? What do we want out of this life--from our family, from our jobs, from our pleasures, etc.? Scripture teaches us that “God has given us all things to enjoy.” If we are trying to use things to make this world our heavenly home and our basic source of satisfaction instead of the Lord, it will never work. We live in a fallen and evil world, not heaven. The ravages of sin are all around us and still in us even as believers (cf. Gal. 5:17). We will end up selling our birthright for a bowl of pottage. We will fail to be good stewards of God’s resources--our talents, treasures, time, and God’s truth.
Scripture has a lot to say about man’s longings, though the word used in our translations is usually the word “lust.” Basically, lust is the strong desire for something caused by longing for satisfaction, security, significance, etc., apart from dependence on God and His righteous plan for one’s life.
Elijah’s answer is given in verse 10. Knowing that he was only an instrument and that such things are in God’s sovereign control, he said, “You have asked a hard thing.” This could mean “this isn’t mine to give. Only God can give it.” Elijah, however, knew Elisha was to be his replacement (1 Kings 19:16). That’s what he had been grooming him for over these several years. It is possible that Elijah is saying “that which you have asked will mean a hard life,” a life with trials, persecution, and great responsibility.
Whatever the case, a condition was attached which would manifest God’s will regarding such a request--the condition of seeing Elijah translated. This would manifest the will of God, demonstrate Elisha’s determination, and show that Elisha, as the witness of this dramatic event, would also be the prophet’s successor.
Our text says, “Then it came about as they were going along and talking, that behold . . .” The Hebrew text is more like, “And it came to pass, they were going along, walking and talking, and behold . . .” The text highlights the fact that this glorious event occurred in the midst of their conversation and fellowship. They were no doubt talking about the things of God, about the nation and its condition, about ministry and the teaching of the Word.
Can we learn anything from this? I think so. Let me suggest a couple of applications.
(1) We see Elijah’s continued commitment to minister to his young student. We also see Elisha learning all he could while he could--soaking up truth and the fellowship of his dear friend. This scene gives us a beautiful example of the importance of discipling among believers.
(2) We see Elijah involved in ministry right up to the moment the Lord took him. Isn’t this the way we should all want to go--in fellowship and serving the Lord, redeeming the time for eternity. This doesn’t mean we don’t take time out for fishing, golf or gardening, or other leisurely activity, but such is never to be our reason for living. We should never retire from ministry!
Next we read, “that behold, a chariot of fire and horses of fire . . .” I am sure Elijah had more he wanted to say to Elisha and certainly Elisha was not ready to lose Elijah. The implication here is that, suddenly, in the middle of their conversation, this manifestation of the Lord’s presence appeared, separated the two, and took Elijah away.
This is the way the Lord works; it’s the way life is. We are never ready to lose a loved one, a good friend or teacher. There is always more to say, more to teach and learn, more times we would like to enjoy together. But God, who alone is the indispensable one, suddenly breaks into our lives and takes our friend or loved one home to be with Him or moves them somewhere else. This hurts and causes pain for us, but it should never neutralize us. Rather, it should thrust us in another direction or into a new responsibility while trusting in the Lord and moving out for God. Life must go on. We must pick up the baton and keep moving toward the goal. Often it is a new goal God has set before us.
Please note that the prophet was not taken to heaven in a fiery chariot. He was taken up in a whirlwind. The chariot and horses of fire were manifestations of God’s divine presence or a manifestation of His angelic forces who came to get Elijah and accompany Him to heaven. The same is undoubtedly true for us in death. Elijah, like Enoch, was translated without seeing death. He was taken up into heaven which represents the paradise of God. He was removed from the pain of this fallen world into the bliss and joy of paradise.
Moses, the great prophet and giver of the Law, died and was buried. Elijah was translated without seeing death. So today, because of the imminent hope of the coming of the Lord, we too have the prospect of not seeing death, but suddenly being changed into glorified bodies and caught up into heaven to ever be with the Lord. This is the blessed hope of the body of Christ. Should it not occur in our lifetime, we still have the confidence that death means to be absent from the body and present with the Lord. Either way, all believers have the hope of being with the Lord--the hope of reward and of being with our Rewarder.
It is right here that we have one of the most important principles of the Christian life. It is a principle that was surely a dominating, driving, life-changing force in the lives of these two prophets--the hope of heaven and eternity and all that it holds. Our ability to live godly lives, to serve God rather than self, to forgive and love others, and find real peace and stability is directly proportionate to the degree that the glories of heaven grip our souls and become the motive and anchor of our lives.
What gave these two prophets the courage to do what they did? What gives us the courage to be the people God has called us to be and make the necessary sacrifices in order to love and serve God and others. One man has defined courage as “the willingness to sacrifice for a better day.”37 Until the refrain in the old hymn, “This world is not my home, I’m just a passing through” becomes real to us, we will not be truly free from those forces that dominate us and keep us from being more available to God and able to love and serve people.
Abraham never saw his vision turn into reality. Though he found the country he was looking for, he never possessed it. His descendants did. But hundreds of years were to pass before even they inherited the promise. Meanwhile Abraham remained a wandering stranger in the country he had intended to settle. He is described variously as “pilgrim,” “sojourner,” “stranger.” Were he a child of the twentieth century, we might call him a “displaced person.”
Abraham is thus the prototype of the follower of Jesus. We do not live in tents as Abraham the sojourner did. We may not even be called to “live out of a suitcase” as some of our modern brothers and sisters. Yet if we are serious about following Christ we share Abraham’s outlook.
We do not “belong.” We are temporary residents only. Our real home is not immediately available, but we refuse to settle permanently anywhere else. We are “pilgrims and strangers.”
We have not chosen impermanence as a preferred lifestyle. We are not nomadic. A nomad thinks only of the next temporary pasture. Deep within us, however, is a longing for our true home. It is this longing that characterizes the people of God. They do not belong to this world because they do belong somewhere else.38
Allender and Longman in Bold Love say:
It seems that most of my life is sacrificed protecting and enhancing a home that is supposedly not my home. I still read self-help books on parenting, hoping someone will finally tell me how to parent correctly so that my children and I can avoid the sorrow of life. I often listen to sermons with the same energy (“tell me how to make this life work better”). The root desire behind our propensity to find concrete, manageable steps for living the Christian life often boils down to a demand to find order, predictability, and consistency in a world where there is little to none. How would you answer the questions, “Do I live for heaven?” or “Do I live demanding that life be like heaven?” Your answers will determine what you will spend your life fighting for.39