Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Searching for Elijah

1 When the LORD was about to take Elijah up to heaven in a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were traveling from Gilgal. 2 And Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here, for the LORD has told me to go to Bethel.” But Elisha replied, “As surely as the LORD lives and you yourself live, I will never leave you!” So they went down together to Bethel. 3 The group of prophets from Bethel came to Elisha and asked him, “Did you know that the LORD is going to take your master away from you today?” “Of course I know,” Elisha answered. “But be quiet about it.”. . . 9 When they came to the other side, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me what I can do for you before I am taken away.” And Elisha replied, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit and become your successor.” 10 “You have asked a difficult thing,” Elijah replied. “If you see me when I am taken from you, then you will get your request. But if not, then you will not.” 11 As they (Elijah and Elisha) were walking along and talking, suddenly a chariot of fire appeared, drawn by horses of fire. It drove between the two men, separating them, and Elijah was carried by a whirlwind into heaven. 12 Elisha saw it and cried out, “My father! My father! I see the chariots and charioteers of Israel!” And as they disappeared from sight, Elisha tore his clothes in distress. . . . 15 When the group of prophets from Jericho saw from a distance what happened, they exclaimed, “Elijah’s spirit rests upon Elisha!” And they went to meet him (Elisha) and bowed to the ground before him. 16 “Sir,” they said, “just say the word and fifty of our strongest men will search the wilderness for your master (Elijah). Perhaps the Spirit of the LORD has left him (Elijah) on some mountain or in some valley.” “No,” Elisha said, “do not send them.” 17 But they kept urging him until they shamed him into agreeing, and he finally said, “All right, send them.” So fifty men searched for three days but did not find Elijah. 18 Elisha was still at Jericho when they returned. “Didn’t I tell you not to go?” he asked. 2 Kings 2:1-3, 9-12, 15-18 (NLT)

Where is Elijah? Many people have asked that question. Elijah was taken to heaven in bodily form suddenly when a chariot of fire, drawn by horses of fire, appeared and carried Elijah away by a whirlwind (see 2 Kings 2:11). After Elijah’s departure, a group of mighty men searched diligently for Elijah, but the men could not find Elijah (see 2 Kings 2:16). Therefore, the question remains, “Where is Elijah?”

Elijah was a prophet from Tishbite, who came from the region of Gilead in Transjordan (see 1 Kings 17:1). Biblical scholars have translated the name Elijah to mean, “Yahweh is God,” “the Lord, He is God,” and “the Lord is my God.” The essence of Elijah’s message was to declare to Israel that Yahweh is the only true God of heaven and earth (see 1 Kings 18:21, 39). “Yahweh” is the Name of the living God. In older Christian tradition, the Name of God was pronounced “Jehovah,” although this pronunciation was never actually used in the Biblical period. Most English translations of the Holy Scriptures represent Yahweh as “LORD” (using small capitals). 

Elijah conducted his prophetic ministry in the northern state of Israel from approximately ca. 875-850 B.C., during the Omride Dynasty, principally during the reign of King Ahab and his wicked foreign wife, Jezebel.  In the Old Testament, the principal sources of Elijah’s life are found in 1 Kings 17:1 through 2 Kings 2:12. Elijah is one of the Scriptures greatest prophets. Unlike many other prophets, the Holy Scriptures has no book named after Elijah. Important events in Elijah’s life include raising the widow's son (see 1 Kings 17:17-24), the contest on Mount Carmel with the prophets of Baal (see 1 Kings 18:20-40), the encounter with God on Mount Horeb (see 1 Kings 19:9-18), and his sudden departure from this world in a chariot of fire (see 2 Kings 2:11-12). The living God sent Elijah to turn Israel’s whole hearts to Him and away from worshipping other gods, such as Baal, and man-made gods, such as the golden calves at Dan and Bethel (see 1 Kings 12:25-33; 1 Kings 16:29-33).

Elijah’s distinguished disciple, Elisha, succeeded him after his departure into heaven (see 2 Kings 2:12-18). Elisha was Elijah's faithful servant and apprentice for probably ten years (see 1 Kings 19:19-21). Some biblical scholars see Elisha as a second Joshua. Elisha’s name means, “God is salvation” or “God saves,” while Joshua means, “Yahweh is salvation.” Elisha was a young farmer living with his parents when he was called to be Elijah’s successor (see 1 Kings 19:19–21). Elijah found Elisha while Elisha was working the fields, and he threw his mantle (some translations say “coat” or “cloak”) across Elisha’s shoulders making Elisha his successor (see 1 Kings 19:19-20). Elijah’s mantle was a symbol of his authority as God’s prophet.  The living God had ordained Elisha to succeed Elijah as a Spirit-powered prophet (see 1 Kings 19:16). Elisha left home and family to faithfully follow Elijah (see 1 Kings 19:20-21). Later, when the transfer of authority was complete, Elijah left his mantle for Elisha at his departure to heaven (see 2 Kings 2:11-14).

Just before Elijah’s departure to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah traveled from Gilgal into Bethel, then Jericho and to the Jordan River (see 2 Kings 2:1-2, 4, 6). During Elijah’s travels, Elisha faithfully accompanied Elijah and never left Elijah’s side before Elijah’s departure to heaven (see 2 Kings 2:2, 4, 6). Elisha wanted to be with Elijah to the very end, listening to his counsel, and learning from him. 

Gilgal, Bethel, Jericho, and the Jordan River were important places in Jewish history.  Possibly the author of 1 and 2 Kings wanted to draw attention to the special roles of Elijah and Elisha in Israel’s history. Gilgal, Bethel, Jericho, and the Jordan River each carried a significant message. Gilgal was the first city where the ancient Israelites camped after they crossed the Jordan River and entered the Promised Land (see Joshua 4:19-20). At Bethel, Abraham and his son Jacob called upon and worshipped the living God (see Genesis 12:8; Genesis 13:3; Genesis 28:11-19; Genesis 35:1-15). Bethel means “house of God.” Unfortunately, evil King Jeroboam also caused Israel to sin by placing a golden calf at Bethel and made Bethel the site of idolatrous worship (see 1 Kings 12:26-32; Amos 3:14; Amos 4:4-6). Jericho was the site of Joshua’s first victory in the Promised Land (see Joshua 5:13-6:27). Finally, the Jordan River is where the Lord God opened the rushing waters to allow the ancient Israelites to enter into the Promised Land and conquer Canaan after living in the wilderness for 40 years (see Joshua 3:1-4:24).

During Elijah and Elisha’s travels before Elijah’s departure, a group of young prophets met Elijah and Elisha from Bethel, Jericho, and the Jordan (see 2 Kings 2:3, 5, 7). Bible translators also call the group of young prophets a “company of the prophets” or “sons of the prophets.” The group of prophets was like school or seminary of dedicated men called of God to study the Scriptures and teach the people.  The Holy Scriptures first mentions a company or school of prophets in 1 Samuel 10:5, 10 and at 1 Kings 20:35. Samuel led one of the group of prophets at Ramah (see 1 Samuel 7:17; 1 Samuel 28:3). The group of prophets warned Elisha that God was about to take Elijah away from the earth (see 2 Kings 2:3, 5, 7). However, Elisha informed the group of young prophets he know the living God was about to take Elijah (see 2 Kings 2:3, 5, 7).

While at the Jordan River, Elijah folded his mantle (cloak) together and struck the waters with his mantle (cloak) and the river divided (see 2 Kings 2:8). Fifty of the young prophets stood at some distance from them, as Elijah and Elisha stood by the Jordan River (see 2 Kings 2:7). Elijah and Elisha walked across the Jordan River on dry ground (see 2 Kings 2:8)!

Many scholars note similarities between Moses and Elijah as the two greatest prophets in the Bible. In fact, some scholars identify Elijah as a second Moses. Both Moses and Elijah opened bodies of water – Moses the Red Sea (see Exodus 14:16, 21-22, 26) and Elijah the Jordan River (see 2 Kings 2:7-8). Also, Moses and Elijah called down fire from heaven by God’s power (see Exodus 9:22-24; Leviticus 9:23-24; Numbers 11:1; Numbers 16:35; 1 Kings 18:38; 2 Kings 1:10, 12). Moreover, both Moses and Elijah saw the living God provide food. Through Moses, God provided Israel manna and quails from heaven (see Exodus 16:1-36; Numbers 11:4-35). Through Elijah, God provided oil and flour for the widow and his meals (see 1 Kings 17:1-16). In the land of Egypt, Moses prayed and God altered the weather (see Exodus 9:13-35), and Elijah prayed and God stopped the rain and then three years later started the rain again (see 1 Kings 17:1; 1 Kings 18:1; James 5:17-18). Moses gave the covenant of God to the people of Israel, and Elijah called the people to repent and return to the true and living God and His covenant given by Moses (see Exodus 20:1-23:33; 1 Kings 19:10). Both Moses and Elijah were associated with mountains – Mount Sinai (Horeb) and Mount Carmel (see Exodus 19:1-3; 1 Kings 18:20-40; 1 Kings 19:8). Moses and Elijah both made journeys through the wilderness (see Exodus 3:1; Exodus 19:3; Exodus 24:18; 1 Kings 19:4-8). Moreover, Moses and Elijah had unique endings to their lives: God buried Moses in a grave nobody can find (see Deuteronomy 34:1-12) and God carried Elijah to heaven by a whirlwind (see 2 Kings 2:11-12). Both Moses and Elijah had faithful successors to their ministries – Moses to Joshua and Elijah to Elisha (see Exodus 24:13; Deuteronomy 34:9; 1 Kings 19:19-21; 2 Kings 2:14). Finally, both Moses and Elijah were privileged to be present with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration (see Matthew 17:1-8; Mark 9:2-13; Luke 9:28-36).

When Elijah and Elisha arrived on the other side of the Jordan River, Elijah said to Elisha, “Ask what I shall do for you, before I am taken from you” (see 2 Kings 2:9, ESV). Elisha replied to Elijah, “Please let there be a double portion of your spirit on me” (2 Kings 2:9, ESV). One translation says that Elisha requested from Elijah “twice as much prophetic power as you have had” (see 2 Kings 2:9, TLB). The Holy Spirit mightily empowered Elijah, and Elisha realized he could never follow in Elijah’s steps in his human strength. As with Moses, the spirit of Elijah was transferrable to others (see Numbers 11:16–17, 24–26). Elijah informed Elisha, “You have asked a hard thing” (see 2 Kings 2:10, TLB). However, Elijah informed Elisha that if Elisha sees him when he was taken from him, then Elisha will get his request (see 2 Kings 2:10). Nonetheless, if Elisha did not see Elijah, then Elisha would not receive his request (see 2 Kings 2:10). Elisha requests of Elijah what the eldest son would expect of a father in Israel. A “double portion” was the inheritance or spiritual blessings that a firstborn son would receive from his father (see Deuteronomy 21:15-17). Many commentaries see Elijah as Elisha’s spiritual father and personal mentor.

As Elijah and Elisha were walking and talking, suddenly a chariot of fire, drawn by horses of fire, appeared and drove between and separated Elijah and Elisha (see 2 Kings 2:11). Fire in the Old Testament is associated with God’s presence (see 2 Kings 1:10, 12). The chariots and horses belong to the living God (see Habakkuk 3:8). Then, God carried Elijah by a whirlwind into heaven without dying, and Elisha witnessed Elijah’s departure (see 2 Kings 2:11). Because of Elisha’s eyewitness of Elijah’s departure, the Lord God equipped Elisha to continue Elijah’s prophetic ministry. Elijah’s departure into heaven “in a whirlwind” means literally “in the storm of the heavens.”  The whirlwind or storm is associated with God’s presence and activity (e.g., see also Job 38:1; Job 40:6; Jeremiah 23:19; Jonah 1:4-5; Zechariah 9:14).

Elijah is the second person mentioned in Holy Scriptures that did not experience death and was taken bodily by God. Enoch was the first to be taken by God without dying (see Genesis 5:21-24). Like Elijah, Enoch faithfully walked and pleased God and then suddenly went to be with God (see Hebrews 11:5-6). Both Enoch and Elijah illustrate the catching away (rapture) of faithful believers at Jesus’ second coming to earth (see 1 Corinthians 15:51; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). Notably, Jesus also was taken to heaven in bodily form after His resurrection from the dead (see Mark 16:19; Acts 1:9). Some theologians believe the two faithful witnesses in Revelation 11 that reappear before Jesus’ second coming is either Enoch and Elijah or Moses and Elijah (see Revelation 11:1-13).

Upon seeing Elijah’s sudden departure, Elisha cried out, “My father! My father! The chariots and horsemen of Israel” (2 Kings 2:12, NIV). Elisha saw Elijah no more (see 2 Kings 2:12). As the chariot of fire drawn by horses of fire disappeared, Elisha tore his robe in utter sadness and distress (see 2 Kings 2:12). The “chariots and horsemen” refer to the Lord God’s heavenly divine army that had come for Elijah and that would also be Israel’s continued defense (see 2 Kings 6:15-17). God’s divine army is forever present (e.g., see Numbers 22:31; Luke 2:13). Also, the “chariot of fire and horses of fire” supported Moses’ ministry (see Exodus 15:1-10). Elijah embodied the strongest instrument of God’s power for Israel because he was the equivalent of a whole army!  Also, Elisha so faithfully followed and pleased God that Jehoash king of Israel went down to see him and wept over him and cried, “My father, my father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen” (see 2 Kings 13:14, ESV).

Then, Elisha picked up Elijah’s prophetic mantle (cloak) and returned to the bank of the Jordan River (see 2 Kings 2:13). Elisha struck the Jordan River with Elijah’s mantle and cried aloud, “Where is the LORD, the God of Elijah?” (2 Kings 2:14, RSV). Upon striking the Jordan River, the waters parted and Elisha went across the Jordan River on dry ground and without harm as had Elijah (see 2 Kings 2:8, 14). The Holy Spirit who empowered Elijah had now come upon Elisha (see 2 Kings 2:15), and miracles immediately followed Elisha’ ministry (e.g. see also 2 Kings 2:19-22; 2 Kings 4:1-7). Elisha’s prophetic authority and power were immediately demonstrated by three miraculous episodes: (1) the dividing of the Jordan River as Elijah (see 2 Kings 2:8, 13-14); (2) the purifying of the bad waters (see 2 Kings 2:19–23); and (3) judgment on the mocking youths (see 2 Kings 2:23-24). Also, Elisha’s parting of the Jordan River parallels Joshua’s parting of the Jordan, which likewise demonstrated God’s presence with Joshua shortly after he succeeded Moses (see Josh 3:7–8, 15–17).

When the young prophets of Jericho saw what had happened, they shouted, “The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha” (2 Kings 2:15, RSV). The young prophets went to meet Elisha and greeted Elisha respectfully by bowing to the ground before him (see 2 Kings 2:15). Then the young prophets asked Elisha, “just say the word and fifty of our best athletes will search the wilderness for your master; perhaps the Spirit of the Lord has left him on some mountain or in some ravine” (see 2 Kings 2:16, TLB). However, Elisha told the young prophets, “do not bother” (see 2 Kings 2:16, TLB). Nevertheless, the young prophets kept urging until Elisha was embarrassed and finally said, “All right, go ahead” (see 2 Kings 2:17, TLB). Then, the fifty men searched diligently for three days for Elijah’s location, but the men could not find Elijah (see 2 Kings 2:17). Elisha remained at Jericho (see 2 Kings 2:18). When the fifty men returned to Elisha, Elisha growled and told the men, “Did I not say to you, ‘Do not go’?” (see 2 Kings 2:18, ESV). Finding no physical trace of Elijah confirmed that the living God took Elijah.

In later Judaism, Elijah came to be seen as a forerunner of the Messianic Age based on the prophecy of Malachi (see Malachi 3:1; Malachi 4:5-6). In the Old Testament book of Malachi, the prophet predicted that the return of Elijah would come before the “great and terrible day of the LORD” (see Malachi 4:5). John the Baptist came in the spirit and power of Elijah (see Luke 1:16-17). Jesus proclaimed that Elijah had already appeared in the person of John the Baptist (see Mark 9:11-13). Indeed, many people believed that Jesus was Elijah (see Mark 8:27-28). At the Transfiguration, Jesus talked with Moses and Elijah, who represented the Old Testament Law and the Prophets. At Jesus’ second coming, Elijah will also reappear (see Revelation 11:6). Thus, Elijah’s life is tied to redemptive history. Without Elijah, there will be no redemption!

Also, Elijah is referred to frequently in the Jewish Talmud and the later mystical writings of Judaism as one who visited the rabbis and mystics, instructing them the meaning of the Torah (the Mosaic Law).  Elijah is believed to be present in the contemporary Jewish ritual of circumcision, and an empty chair is set out for him, his presence symbolizing faithfulness to the covenant. Elijah is also a significant figure in Islam. The Koran of Islam refers to Elijah.  Elijah’s efforts to turn people away from the worship of Baal, back to the true faith in God, is used in Muhammad’s preaching to exemplify true prophecy.

Apologetics Study Bible: Understanding Why You Believe (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2012).
Faithlife Study Bible (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2012).ESV
ESV Study Bible, English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2008).
Life Application Study Bible (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Pub., 2005).
Wiersbe, Warren W. Bible Exposition Commentary – Old Testament (Victor Books, 1989).

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