23 Then he went up from there to Bethel; and as he was going up by the way, young lads came out from the city and mocked him and said to him, “Go up, you baldhead; go up, you baldhead!” 24 When he looked behind him and saw them, he cursed them in the name of the LORD. Then two female bears came out of the woods and tore up forty-two lads of their number. 25 And he went from there to Mount Carmel, and from there he returned to Samaria.
The event described in these verses may seem repulsive to many and totally out of character with the personality of Elisha, a man who was more peaceful and personal than Elijah. As Krummacher remarks, “A deadly burst of vengeance upon a troop of wanton youths; a curse pronounced upon them in the name of the Lord! How characteristic of the legal dispensation! But how opposite to all we have said of the character and call of Elisha, as a messenger of the kindness and love of God our Saviour!”19
We must remember, however, that the Word of God, which is alive and active, is also the mighty channel the Spirit of God uses to bring men out of darkness to faith in Jesus Christ and to change them by making them like His Son. As a light that shines in the darkness of this world it exposes man’s sin, but man loves the darkness because it hides his evil deeds. He hates the light for that very reason; it exposes his evil deeds (cf. John 3:19-21). These may be deeds of ignorance, of apathy, or of out-and-out rebellion or a combination, but regardless, it often results in hatred of the light that is manifest in one form or another.
The gospel, which is contained in the Word of God, is the power of God unto salvation. Satan, of course, who holds people in bondage to death, neither wants people saved nor experiencing the power of a Christ-changed life by the power of the Spirit. For this reason, as the adversary, Satan never gets more busy than when the Word of God begins to be proclaimed and taught. He hates the Word and people of the Word, especially those engaged in its proclamation. They become the target for his attacks in whatever form he can muster.
Therefore, Bible teaching ministries, pastors, teacher, and other believers involved in the ministry of the Word can expect opposition. It simply goes with the territory. This is clearly evident in this short passage before us. In fact, this is one of the key lessons of these few verses. This was true with Moses, Elijah, and with all the prophets. We can expect attack from the world which lies under the control of Satan. But isn’t it sad when attack comes from the people of God themselves? Unfortunately, Satan is able to use God’s own people to hinder the Word, as he did with the children of Israel on many occasions.
Our Lord said, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her” (Matt. 23:37). Not all Israel was true spiritual Israel, but the fact still remains true. Satan is often able to establish a beachhead among the saints.
“Then” or “thereupon.” Following the ministry in Jericho (which portrayed a kind of firstfruits of the land) Elisha, as a man of God under the direction of God and with the Word of God moves on into the land to minister to the people. They were a people living in idolatry and badly in need of the Word.
“Bethel” means “house of God” or “place of God.” This name spoke of worship and fellowship with God. There was also a school of the prophets in Bethel, but in spite of this the city was now idolatrous and anything but a center of worship. Hosea, who ministered after Elisha, called this city Bethaven “house of wickedness” a name of shame (cf. Hos. 4:15; 5:8; 10:5). It was so called by Hosea because of the idolatrous worship Jeroboam had established in order to effect a complete separation between Israel and Judah. Out of his greed for power and his fear that if Israel went back to Jerusalem to worship, he established two new places of worship in the north with golden calves as the symbol of worship: one at Bethel and the other at Dan. This was of course in complete disobedience to the directives of the Old Testament Scripture.
“Beth” means “house and “el” means God. Aven is the Hebrew awen which means “trouble, sorrow, idolatry, wickedness and emptiness.” The word awen seems to have two primary facets to its meaning: (a) it portrays an iniquity which causes sorrow, calamity and failure (Prov. 22:8). (b) But it also portrays an emptiness which moves on to idolatry as a human means of filling the emptiness. The point is when men are empty of God and His Word, they will fill their lives with vain things whether material or philosophic. This leads to idolatry, which leads to iniquity, which leads to calamity.
Bethel needed the Word to show them their sin and to bring them back to the Lord. This was their only hope and Satan was active to stop it. Elisha was undoubtedly able to minister to the needs of certain ones there (the remnant), but the city as a whole never really turned to the Lord and His Word. Satan was well entrenched there. This is another fact we sometimes have to face. And when this is the case we may need to simply move on as Elisha did and as Paul and others did.
“And as he was going . . .” calls our attention to the time of the attack. It occurred simply in the normal process of his travels to the city. We never know (though the Lord does) when Satan or others under his control or influence, are going to attack. Just about the time we might think pressures are easing up, and things are getting better--the attack increases. This is why we must always, in spite of how things appear, take heed lest we fall (1 Cor 10:12); why we must look to ourselves lest we be tempted (Gal 6:1); and why we must be careful how we are walking (Eph 5:15) because we live in an evil world and Satan is on the prowl. He is warring against the saints.
“Young lads.” The KJV has “little children” which really misses the meaning here. These were not children, but young men. The word “lads” is the Hebrew naar and was used of servants, of soldiers and of Isaac when he was 28 years old. This was a crowd of young men, perhaps students of the false prophets, who were here as antagonists to Elisha’s prophetic ministry and authority. If not students, they were sent by the false prophets or idolatrous priests of Bethel to stop Elisha from entering the city. In Elisha Satan had an enemy and he was acting to protect his territory. Remember, however, Elisha was going to Bethel not to curse, but to bless.
“Came out of the city and mocked him . . . Go up, you baldhead.” “Mocked” is the Hebrew galas and denotes a scornful belittling of something or someone, but it issues from an attitude which counts as valueless that which is really of great value.
Leaders have always had to deal with disrespect. It is seen throughout the Old Testament and it is found in the New Testament as well. But the greatest disrespect here is in relation to God. These young men, undoubtedly under Satan’s influence, were attacking not just Elisha, the man, but they were also attacking his message. But the issue was, regardless of the personality of the man, his physical appearance, or even his short comings, Elisha was God’s man with God’s message. As a result, in the final analysis they were mocking or rejecting God and what He was attempting to do through Elisha as God’s spokesman. Elisha was simply an instrument of God (cf. 2 Thess. 5:12, 13 “on account of the work”). The work referred to in 1 Thessalonians is God’s work--the work of building men in the Word and in Christ through these men. And there is a certain sense in which this applies to all believers.
The attack of these young men is twofold:
(1) “Go up”… “go up.” That is, ascend up as you claim Elijah did. The translation of Elijah was a miracle of God and portrayed the biblical truth and hope of the translation of the saints. Though Old Testament saints did not understand this, it was still a type of this truth. Elisha was a prophet of God and by doing this these young men were denying the work of God, denying the Word of God and God’s actions in history.
(2) The second aspect of the attack is seen in the words: “you baldhead.” Whether Elisha was actually bald, or whether he had a different hairstyle, i.e., cropped short on top, they were ridiculing the prophet and telling him to get lost like Elijah. Krummacher writes:
Baldness was regarded by the lower orders as a kind of disgrace; for as it was one of the usual consequences of leprosy, so it was accounted a sign of personal and mental degradation. Hence, in using this opprobrious epithet, the young profligates had a most malicious intention. Their expressions are not to be viewed as a mere burst of youthful wantonness; but as poisoned arrows, pointed and directed by refined and satanic malignity. It is as if they had said, “Thou effeminate leper! Thou would-be prophet! We fear thee not! Go up! Go up!” as if they mean, “Imitate thy master!” . . . It seems to have been a scoffing allusion to the ascent of Elijah; partly sceptical, and partly in derision of Elisha . . . 20
These attacks are typical of the schemes and methods by which Satan seeks to nullify the ministry of God’s saints and the work of God. He attacks the message (the Word) and the messenger or both. He seeks to discourage or discredit the teacher or he attacks those hearing the message. Regarding the messenger, Satan may seek to call attention to petty issues, circumstances, misunderstandings, or focus on personalities, or physical appearance. It can be almost anything, but whatever, it is a means to a beachhead from whence he seeks to launch one attack after another to get people’s eyes off the Lord and their ears closed to His Word. We must be careful that we do not cooperate with Satan and throw fuel on his fires.
The important thing here is Elisha’s reaction to this and God’s action in response. This is designed to emphasize to us the seriousness of the issues here.
This seems harsh, but God and His leaders have, on occasion, acted harshly in order to impress upon man the seriousness of life and the Word of God. Ananias and Saphira are an illustration of this in the New Testament.
(1) What Elisha did not do: Before looking at what Elisha did, let’s consider for a moment what he did not do! (a) He did not turn and run. (b) He did not argue with them or run after them (Matt 7:6). (c) He did not compromise his message. (d) He was not acting or reacting out of self love or anxiety or self-defense from the standpoint of his ego or pride. (e) He did not complain to the Lord or want to throw in the towel. (f) He simply ignored their words, actions, and attitudes. God’s response proves this.
What does this teach us? When trouble strikes, we should never resort to the solutions of the world, i.e., to human viewpoint escape or defense tactics (cf. Ps. 143:11-12; 147:10-11).
(2) What Elisha did: Elisha took up his armor, “He cursed them in the name of the Lord.” This is not cursing for cursing or reviling for reviling (1 Pet. 2:23). He was trusting in the Lord and leaving it in God’s hands. The key here is in the word “curse.” It does not mean to swear with vile words. This is the Hebrew word galal meaning “be swift, slight, trifling, or of little account.” The primary meaning is “to be light or slight.” Both verb and noun forms seem to represent a formula which expresses a removal or lowering from the place of blessing.
Cursing stands in contrast to the word blessing or favor (cf. Gen. 27:11, 12). The emphasis is on the absence, reversal, or removal of a blessed state or rightful position which brings God’s protection, provision and blessing. The principle is very simple: without God’s blessed salvation and protection we all stand cursed. The moment God removed His wall of protection from Job, Satan attacked him and wrecked havoc in Job’s life.
So Elisha, as a prophet, saw their hardened and rebellious condition, unresponsive to correction. In the name of the Lord (i.e. by His authority) Elisha simply turned them over to the Lord and to their own devises, which had the effect of removing them from even the common protection of God. He probably said something like, “may God deal with you according to what you deserve,” or “may you be cursed for your sins of rebellion.” This would demonstrate to the city and to people all around a vital truth: without the Lord there is no protection and that blasphemy of God’s servants and His Word in order to hinder God’s message is serious business. Note that Elisha did not call out the bears, God did. Two female bears (not three bears--papa bear, mamma bear, and baby bear) came out and tore up forty-two young men.
You would think this would strike the fear of God into the hearts of the entire area for years to come. But no--the heart of man is such that they either ignore it, reject it, or soon forget it.
God does not take it lightly when we ignore His Word or hinder its propagation in the world among His people. This is serious business (cf. 1 Cor 3:16-17 with 10; 11:30).
As believers, we should expect opposition. The more we move out for the Lord, the more attacks we may have to face from our adversary through his various schemes (cf. 1 Pet 4:10-12). As Paul stated it in 2 Timothy 3:12, “In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (NIV).
We need more Elishas, those who will stand fast and act in biblical ways leaving the results to the Lord. This is precisely what Paul did in connection with the strong criticism often leveled at him by some of the Corinthians (cf. 1 Cor. 4:1f). As with Elisha and Paul, we need to move forward in our ministries while always trusting God to make a way and remove the obstacles.