This series on the life of Elisha forms a sequel to the series, Studies in the Life of Elijah. Our study of Elisha actually begins at the conclusion of Elijah’s ministry. First Kings 19 describes the call of Elisha as the mantle of Elijah is cast upon his young student who will become his successor. Second Kings 2:1-11 describes the translation of Elijah with Elisha faithfully at his side. For a complete study on the life of Elisha, please see lessons 17-19 in the Elijah series.
Before moving into the story of Elisha and his ministry in Israel, it will be helpful to set the historical context and the stage onto which this man of God stepped because of the ramifications of this historical material to both the study of Elisha and its application, for none of us live and minister in a vacuum. We live in real-world conditions that call for faith and Christ-like character in the midst of those conditions if we are going to be used as servants of the God of history.
The last chapters of 1 Kings deal with the final days and death of degenerate King Ahab and the ascension of his son Ahaziah to the throne of his father. The book ends with this sad note:
1 Kings 22:51-53 Ahaziah the Son of Ahab became king over Israel in Samaria in the seventeenth year of Jehoshaphat king of Judah, and he reigned two years over Israel. And he did evil in the sight of the Lord and walked in the way of his father and in the way of his mother and in the way of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, who caused Israel to sin. So he served Baal and worshiped him and provoked the Lord God of Israel to anger according to all that his father had done.
The first chapter of 2 Kings takes up the story of the reign of Ahaziah, but it includes some important details of the last days in the life and ministry of Elijah, who also ministered to Ahab’s degenerate son, Ahaziah. Like his father, Ahaziah was engrossed in the cult of Baal-Melqart who was believed to be the god of storm and good crops, a falsity exposed by the prophet Elijah through the famine and the contest on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18:20-40). Baal-Melqart was the cult promoted by Jezebel, that despicable woman whose very name has become synonymous with apostasy and evil (cf. Rev. 2:20).
Elijah’s main impact on Israel lay, as intended, in his vigorous opposition to the cult of Baal-Melqart promoted by Jezebel. His total effect is hard to assess, but certainly was considerable. As noted, it would have been much greater had he not run when Jezebel threatened him; but still the overall influence of the famine, the contest on Mt. Carmel, and the later faithful ministry conducted with Elisha must have left lasting results. The entrenchment of Baal worship in Israelite life would have become far deeper had not Elijah lived and worked as he did.1
It is into this arena that Elisha walked. What was it like? The very first chapter reveals the atmosphere and horrible condition of the nation. It was a time when men and even the leadership of the nation, as we see so often in our day, were turning to the empty hopes of the idolatrous and demonic religious cult of Baal worship.2 In Elisha’s day it was the cult of Baal. The word “baal,” which can mean “lord” or “husband,” corresponds with the analogy of idolatry as spiritual adultery.
Baal was the Canaanite name for the Syrian god Hadad, considered the god of storms and wars. The symbol for this cult was often that of a bull which stood for strength and fertility. This cult was marked by a number of features, three of which have some interesting parallels to our society since we have moved away from our biblical and Christian heritage. These three prominent features were: (a) child sacrifice (cf. 2 Kings 16:1-4; 23:10; Jer. 32:33-35; Lev. 18:21), which compares significantly to abortion in America today; (b) homosexuality with effeminate priests (this clearly parallels the gay agenda in the U.S.); and (c) finally, there was a strong ecological emphasis with their dependence on Baal as the god of good crops and prosperity--much like America depends on man-made solutions for its health and prosperity. Baal was even credited with healing powers. But rather than turning to the God of Israel who had marvelously revealed Himself in the Word and through the ministry of Elijah, they were turning to the likes of Baal-zebub (the “Lord of the flies”; this probably represents an intended spelling change as a mocking alteration from Baal-zebul, which means “Baal the prince” or “exalted lord” [2 Kings 2:1]).
In this very first chapter, we see Ahaziah, which surely represented the people as a whole, seeking help and solutions to the problems and needs of life from Baal instead of turning to the Word of the Lord through the mouth of His prophets or to the Law of Moses (cf. 2 Kings 2:1-18). I am reminded of Isaiah’s word to the people of Judah who were turning to the occult spiritists of his day:
Isaiah 8:16-20. Bind up the testimony, seal the law among my disciples. 17 And I will wait for the Lord who is hiding His face from the house of Jacob; I will even look eagerly for Him. 18 Behold, I and the children whom the Lord has given me are for signs and wonders in Israel from the Lord of hosts, who dwells on Mount Zion. 19 And when they say to you, “Consult the mediums and the spiritists who whisper and mutter,” should not a people consult their God? Should they consult the dead on behalf of the living? 20 To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because they have no dawn.
This is always one of the main issues for heralds of the Word of God and for the people of a nation. Are we going to proclaim the Word of God and listen to its message, or are we going to listen to the many man-made and demonic messages of the world? This was the vital issue that faced both Elijah and Elisha as prophets of God. Second Kings 2:3 makes this clear by the message the Angel of the Lord instructed Elijah to give to Ahaziah, “Is it because there is no God in Israel that you are going to inquire of Baal-zebub, the god of Ekron?”
I pray that we do not miss this opening context that is part of the conclusion to Elijah’s ministry and the beginning of Elisha’s. This is one of the great issues if not the great issue in the church today and as well as our nation. We are so prone to listen to every voice other than God’s voice as it is found for us in His completed canon of Scripture, the Holy Bible. As it was when our Lord came on the scene and during the ministry of Paul, we live in a day when people are putting more stock in human experiences and exciting phenomena (as seen in the charismatic movement) than in the Word of God and its solid exposition.
One of my great concerns is that even when the Word is preached, it is often abused by preachers so that people aren’t truly getting the Word from God. Far too often I hear well-meaning men do eisegesis rather than exegesis in order to promote their own agendas.3 The church has had far too many messages that are little more than meditations or topical sermons which are more or less vaguely connected with a biblical phrase, clause, sentence, verse, or scattered assortment thereof. As someone has put it, these are ‘sermonettes’ which produce ‘Christianettes.’
Clearly, the need is for sound exegetical messages that move from the text of Scripture in context to an exposition of that text without losing sight of either the message of the text or the compelling needs of men and women who need to hear God’s principles and promises as they are carefully related verse-by-verse to the passage under study. This is what brings God’s authority into the message and gives it veracity.
As Walter Kaiser warns in his book, Toward an Exegetical Theology, we must guard against, “. . . mixing the Word with such foreign elements as civil religion, current philosophies, schools of psychology, political affiliations, and personal predilection.”4 To do so, as Kaiser goes on to point out, “is to take the powerful Word of God and to make it ineffective, weak, and despised in the eyes of our contemporaries.”5
In 1742 John Albert Bengel observed: “Scripture is the foundation of the church: the Church is the guardian of Scripture. When the Church is in strong health, the light of Scripture shines bright; when the Church is sick, Scripture is corroded by neglect; and thus it happens, that the outward form of Scripture and that of the Church, usually seem to exhibit simultaneously either health or else sickness; and as a general rule the way in which Scripture is being treated is in exact correspondence with the condition of the Church.”6
Whenever any society turns away from the absolute standards of the Word, as did Israel under the dismal leadership of the kings of the northern tribes of Israel, you begin to hear the word “crisis.” Such a society begins to face one crisis after another.
In a world that has been treated almost daily to one crisis after another in almost every aspect of its life, it will come as no shock to have another crisis announced: a crisis in exegetical theology. Already we have been warned about crises in systematic theology and Biblical theology, and about ignorance of the contents of Scripture.7
So, obviously the same thing is being said and exists in the realm of leadership and the influence we should each have as believers. In his book, The Making of a Christian Leader, Ted Engstrom writes:
Our nation and world today are faced with problems that appear insurmountable. Security and defense problems are staggering. For the most part, our youth, our future leaders, are confused, alienated, and demoralized. Morals are at an all-time low. Moral standards are almost nonexistent. The growing national debt, bankrupt nations, financially troubled cities, and economic instability create more alarm each passing day. Amid these grave circumstances, our generation is facing an equally serious problem: a leadership crisis.8
There is that word “crisis” again and in connection with leadership which was the problem in Elisha’s day. The quality of our leadership and thus its effectiveness is dying; we need a reinvestment in the pursuit of the qualities that form the foundation of biblical leadership. Note I said, foundation and that foundation can be nothing less that the solid exposition of the Bible so that men and women are hearing God’s message and are seeing how that message is unfolded from the Word. In a day when Judah, the southern kingdom, had abandoned the Lord and turned away from Him (Isa. 1:4), Isaiah the prophet spoke directly to the leaders of the nation and said:
Isaiah 1:10 Hear the word of the Lord, You rulers of Sodom; Give ear to the instruction of our God, You people of Gomorrah.
What was the issue and need? To hear to Word of the Lord! Notice how he later described what happens to the leadership of a nation and to its people when they fail to hear and apply God’s Word. He describes them as “mere lads” and as “capricious children” (Isa. 3:4). If this is not a commentary on our leadership today, I don’t know what is.
Next, in 2 Kings 2, we have story of the translation of Elijah which also begins the ministry of Elisha. In fact, the predominant subject of the first ten chapters of 2 Kings deal with the ministry of Elisha, Elijah’s successor. But both of these prophets had to minister in times of terrible national decay, a day very much like ours spiritually, morally, and politically.
As we can see, in moving from the ministry of Elijah to that of Elisha, we witness a transition that took place in the history of Israel.
(1) There is a change in prophets, we move from Elijah to Elisha.
(2) There is a change in books, we move from 1 Kings to 2 Kings.
(3) There is a change in kings, we go from Ahab to Ahaziah, his son.
First and Second Kings give us a history of the kings of Israel. It is a story of transition, but unfortunately, it was a transition of continuous decline from one level down to another with the exception of a few revivals that took place in the southern kingdom.
Before we go on with our study of the life and ministry of Elisha, and because these and other prophets of the day were ministering in days of moral and spiritual decline, I would like to focus on a couple of issues and to some lessons we can learn just by observing some major features in the historical mural God has painted for us in the history of the nation of Israel.
Note that 2 Kings opens with the translation of Elijah, but it closes with the deportation of captive Jews from the southern kingdom to Babylon. This deportation is preceded by the deportation of captive Jews of the northern kingdom by Assyria. This is a tremendously tragic story, not just because of the fall of a nation, but because this nation was the elect people of God who were called, by the grace of God, to bring regeneration and spiritual enlightenment to the nations (cf. Ex. 19:4-6; Deut. 4:4-10). Instead, however, Israel was influenced by the nations; they became so steeped in spiritual infidelity and moral decadence the Lord had to act in judgment against His own people as He had warned them in Deuteronomy 28-30.
Let’s review a moment to get the big picture:
I Samuel is the Book of Transition--from the theocracy to the monarchy. From Samuel, the last judge, to Saul, the first king, and then to the anointing of David and his reign.
II Samuel is the Book of David’s Reign--it gives us the story of David’s triumphs and troubles.
I Kings is the Book of Disruption--after the death of David’s son, Solomon, the kingdom was divided into two, the ten tribes that made up the northern kingdom and the southern kingdom of Judah and Benjamin.
II Kings is the Book of Dispersion--it is always to be remembered as the book where we see God’s people removed from their land and, though a remnant would return seventy years after the Babylonian captivity, 2 Kings is a story of tragedy and failure. When we read it we should be reminded of Proverbs 13:15, “the way of the treacherous (unfaithful) is hard,” or Proverbs 14:12, “there is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death.”
J. Sidlow Baxter draws our attention to a number of maxims: “Inexcusable wrong brings inescapable wrath. Abused privilege incurs increased penalty. The deeper the guilt, the heavier the stroke. Correction may be resisted, but retribution cannot be evaded.”9
In this, we see the law of sowing and reaping, “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man (or nation) sows, this he will also reap” (Gal. 6:7).
In many ways, 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings is a story of kings and the influence they had on their people and the kingdoms they ruled. It is a story of leadership or, in most cases, failed leadership and failed parenthood. In the southern kingdom of Judah there were a few good kings who brought forth revival like Josiah and Hezekiah, but in the northern kingdom it is said of each of them that they did evil--with the exception of one, Shallum who only reigned one month. In fact, 23 times in 1 and 2 Kings we read these word, “he did evil in the sight of the Lord.” And in nearly every case this is in some way related to the fathers that had preceded them with words like “according to all that his fathers had done,” or “in the way of his father,” or “more than their fathers had done.”
It is interesting and enlightening that in the history of the kings of the two kingdoms, Israel and Judah, two men repeatedly stand out as standards of influence and significance.
It is significant that in the case of Judah’s kings, David is the standard according to which their character is estimated. Each king is estimated by the example of David. Again and again we read words such as:
1 Kings 11:4 His heart was not perfect with the Lord his God as was the heart of David his father (cf also verses 6, 33, 38).
1 Kings 14:8 You have not been as My servant David; . . .
1 Kings 15:11 Asa did that which was right in the eyes of the Lord, as did David his father.
This is a great tribute to David. Regardless of the sins that marred his life, Scripture reminds us he was a man after God’s own heart (1 Sam. 13:22; Acts 13:22). He is held up as a model. Why? Because of his trust in the Lord, because of his integrity (generally speaking), because of his jealousy for God’s honor, because of his understanding of God’s grace, but also because of His love and reverence for God’s Word (Ps. 138:2; 19:7-14).
But it is also important to note that in the case of Israel’s kings, we have a negative standard of comparison. As David was the standard or model of good, Jeroboam, the first to occupy the throne of the northern kingdom, became the standard or model of evil which cast its shadow across all the kings of the southern kingdom. The tragic epitaph of Jeroboam might be these words found in 1 Kings at the close of his life:
1 Kings 14:16 And He (God) will give up Israel on account of the sins of Jeroboam, which he committed and with which he made Israel to sin.
So, again and again in the record of the kings of the northern kingdom, Jeroboam is pointed to as an evil influence and as a model of evil which kings followed. In fact, certain words become a constant refrain in 1 and 2 Kings, such as: 1 Kings 15:34, “And he did evil in the sight of the Lord, and walked in the way of Jeroboam and in his sin which he made Israel sin.” Of fifteen of the eighteen kings that followed Jeroboam, it is stated that they did evil after the example of Jeroboam, son of Nebat, who made Israel to sin. The references are: Nadab (1 Kings 15:26), Baasha (15:34), Zimri (16:19); Omri (16:25-26), Ahab (21:31), Ahaziah (22:52); Jehoram (2 Ki. 3:2-3), Jehu (10:31), Jehoahaz (13:2), Jehoash (13:11), Jeroboam II (14:24), Zechariah (15:9), Menahem (15:18), Pekahiah 15:24), Pehak (15:28).
Thus, each of these two kings, David and Jeroboam, cast their shadows over those who followed them, one for good and one for evil.
Elijah and Elisha cast a long shadow of influence that announced to others the reality, power, holiness, love, grace, and mercy of the God of Israel as the only true God. However, though Elisha was the understudy of Elijah, these two prophets were very different in their ministries and in the way God used them. Both were men of godly character and faith who stood firmly on the Word of God. In this sense, Elisha was like his teacher (Luke 6:40), but as his tutor, respecting the individuality God has created in all of us, Elijah did not seek to create another Elijah in temperament and personality. Let’s compare them briefly and as we do, let’s remember the following truth:
1 Corinthians 3:4-9 For when one says, “I am of Paul,” and another, “I am of Apollos,” are you not mere men? What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave opportunity to each one. I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth. So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth. Now he who plants and he who waters are one; but each will receive his own reward according to his own labor. For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.
(1) Declares a long drought (1 Kings 17:1)
(2) Multiplies widow’s flour and oil (1 Kings 17:7-16)
(3) Resurrects widow’s son (1 Kings 17:17-24)
(4) Calls down fire from heaven (1 Kings 18:1-40)
(5) Sends a rainstorm (1 Kings 18:41-45)
(6) Outruns a chariot (1 Kings 18:46)
(7) Predicts Ahaziah’s death (2 Kings 1:1-2)
(8) Ahaziah’s men killed by fire from heaven (2 Kings 1:9-17)
(9) Parts the Jordan River (2 Kings 2:1-8)
(1) Parts the Jordan River (2 Kings 2:13-14)
(2) Makes Jericho spring drinkable (2 Kings 2:19-22)
(3) Sends bears to punish irreverent youths (2 Kings 2:23-25)
(4) Floods ditches to confuse Moabites (2 Kings 3:1-27)
(5) Multiplies widow’s oil (2 Kings 4:1-7)
(6) Shunammite woman bears a son (2 Kings 4:8-17)
(7) Resurrects Shunammite’s son (2 Kings 4:18-37)
(8) Purifies poisoned stew (2 Kings 4:38-44)
(9) Heals Naaman’s leprosy (2 Kings 5:1-14)
(10) Gehazi struck with leprosy (2 Kings 5:15-27)
(11) Floats lost axhead (2 Kings 6:1-7)
(12) Gives special sight to the king’s messenger (2 Kings 6:16-17)
(13) Blinds the Aramean army (2 Kings 6:8-23)
(14) His bones resurrect a dead man (2 Kings 13:20-21)
Elisha performed more miracles, but they were less public than some Elijah performed.
Both prophets were similar in their overall purpose to resist the cult of Baal and to demonstrate by their miracles and ministry that the only true God is the God of Israel. Irving Jensen has a good summary of the differences in their ministries. He writes:
Elijah is noted for great public acts, while Elisha is distinguished by the large number of miracles he performed, many of them for individual needs. Elijah’s ministry emphasized God’s law, judgment, and severity. Elisha supplemented this by demonstrating God’s grace, love and tenderness. Elijah was like John the Baptist, thundering the message of repentance for sin. Elisha followed this up by going about, as Christ did, doing deeds of kindness, and by doing miracles attesting that the words of the prophets were from God.11
In comparing the ministries of the two prophets, Leon Wood adds some similar and insightful thoughts:
. . . Elisha may have come from a wealthy family, for when he was first called by Elijah (I Kings 19:19) he was plowing with a team of oxen in a field where twelve other teams also worked, presumably all owned by his father. If so, he contrasted sharply on this count with his master, Elijah, who had been raised in the poor area of Gilead near the desert. But Elisha’s decision to follow Elijah had been final and decisive. He killed his own oxen to prepare a farewell feast for relatives and friends, and he used the wood from his tools as fuel for the fire (I Kings 19:21).
Elisha’s period of ministry lasted much longer than Elijah’s. He began in Jehoram’s early years, continued through the reigns of Jehu and Jehoahaz, and died sometime while Jehoash ruled (II Kings 13:20), a period of about fifty years (c. 850-800). Though having the same objectives in his ministry as Elijah, his manner in reaching them was somewhat different. In keeping with his contrasting background, Elisha was more at home in cities and even at the palace and was often in the company of kings. Also, Elijah had been more a man of moods, either strongly courageous or despairing to the point of death; but Elisha was self-controlled and even-tempered, found neither in dramatic staged contests nor sulking in a desert. It may be, too, that Elisha was more interested in the needs of people; for many of his miracles, again in contrast to Elijah, were to aid, heal, and give relief to persons he encountered.12
One came from a poor and rugged background and the other from a rather wealthy one, yet God used them both and in different ways. That which made both of them effective in their own unique ministry, however, was their faith and confidence in the person and power of God. Elijah was not hindered nor ashamed of his poor background and Elisha was not dependent on nor spoiled by his former wealth. Furthermore, it appears this difference in their backgrounds did not affect their relationship with each other as mentor and student because their fellowship was based on their relationship with and commitment to the Lord, His calling and purposes for each, and His Word.
There are some important lessons in this for each of us.
Lesson 1: “All of us are casting shadows as we go through this present life. Just as our bodies cast their shadows quite involuntarily, so we are continually and quite involuntarily casting the shadow of our moral and spiritual influence upon other lives.”13
Lesson 2: “We can no more detach ourselves from this involuntary and often unconscious influence upon others than our bodies can rid themselves of their own shadows.”14 We simply cannot avoid the principle of influence. We have no choice in the matter of having an influence as a parent, as an elder, deacon, Sunday school teacher, as a neighbor, or as a friend. Our only choice is the kind of influence we have.
Lesson 3: “What we can determine is the kind of shadow which we cast. Our influence, quite apart from any speech of the lips, may contribute either to the eternal salvation or the eternal damnation of other souls”15 or to the edification or spiritual hurt of others.
Scripture and life teach us we reap what we sow. One of the things we sow is an influence, and nowhere is this more dynamic than in the home. And where do our leaders ultimately come from? They come from our homes and from living under our influence.
Though no longer living, do not the shadows of unbelievers like Voltaire, Dewey, and Huxley still linger over our lives in the philosophy of the humanistic world all around us? Their shadows still stalk the earth in our schools, in the media, and in our government. Of course the same also applies to men like Luther, Calvin, George Washington, George Whitefield, Moody, and Spurgeon.
Some may think this applies more to the outstanding men of society and all those mentioned above are in that category. We may think our influence is very small and the same doesn’t necessarily apply to us. But that viewpoint is totally false. Consider, for instance, Adolph Hitler’s vile shadow. We need to remember that Hitler’s shadow includes the shadows of other men whose names will never be published but who influenced Hitler in his earlier years. Think also about those who influenced the Wesley’s, like their mother, Susanna. You see, we never know when the person we are influencing (a son, a daughter, a neighbor, a disciple) will turn out to be a Moody or a Hitler. A lot depends on the kind of shadow of influence we cast.
Lesson 4: Other than casting a shadow of influence to promote Christ-like character in others, we must learn to respect the godly differences or individuality of others and not attempt to pour them into our mold or expect other leaders to be like someone who has meant a great deal to us, i.e., become entangled in the carnal game of comparing one leader against another as did the church at Corinth (1 Cor. 3:1-9; 4:1-16; 2 Cor. 10:1-10) and as we see happening so often today.
3 Eisegesis (to lead into) is when we read our own ideas into the text to promote some preconceived notion or try to use the text to promote some personal agenda. Exegesis (to lead out) is when we explain the message of the text based on the context, grammar, meaning of words, historical background, cultural conditions, etc. As an illustration, not too many months ago, I was sitting in a conservative Bible teaching ministry where the Word is God is honored and believed. The preacher, who was filling in for the pastor, preached on Phil. 3:4-14. As a staff member of the church, he was concerned about getting the congregation to be willing to change and accept some less traditional ideas. This passage was used to promote forgetting the past, your old ideas, and pressing forward to the future, accepting the change that was needed. Folks, that's agenda preaching and it abuses the Bible.