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ELISHA THE PROPHET
THE history which now follows reads almost like a chronicle of Elisha. More correctly it may be described as the prophetic history of that period. With the removal of Elijah, Elisha had begun his ministry, the test of its reality having been the parting of the waters of Jordan. The next three incidents must be considered as preparatory to his prophetic activity; the first, as regarded his public acknowledgment by the sons of the prophets (2 Kings 2:15-18); the second and third that by the people, when Elisha publicly appeared as the instrument of God - in the one case, for mercy (vv. 19-22), in the other, for judgment (vv. 23, 24). Having thus established his authority, Elisha immediately afterwards assumed the place of God's representative in the affairs of Israel.
1. As we look more closely into it, a special significance attached to each of the three preliminary events just referred to. In the first it was seen that Elisha occupied precisely the same position of superiority as Elijah over the ordinary "sons of the prophets," as also the folly of their attempted interference in his work. Henceforth they would be unquestioning, obedient instruments of his behests, and this was the rightful position alike for them and as regarded the work of Elisha. According to our modern notions the circumstances may seem strange, but they are in agreement with the condition of the times and with the degree of spiritual understanding possessed even by the sons of the prophets. As Elisha returned alone, the "sons of the prophets," judging that the spirit of Elijah rested upon him, perhaps because they had watched as the waters of Jordan parted when he smote them - went to meet the prophet and to do him homage. And yet they began by urging a strange request - perhaps because notions such as they expressed were popularly entertained (as by Obadiah, 1 Kings 18:12) in regard to the influence of the Spirit on the prophets generally, or it may be only on the great prophet of fire. Or perhaps they imagined that Elijah might be in a trance or dead in some valley or on some mountain-height; or it may have been only from morbid curiosity to learn something more of what had happened. In any case their proposal marked an entire lack of spiritual understanding and sympathy.
There were fifty strong men among them, capable of enduring any fatigue, and equal to any work or burden. Might these not go to search whether peradventure the Spirit of Jehovah had not uplifted and then cast Elijah into some remote corner of that desolate and rocky region near Jericho?*
* It will be remembered that Christian legend has placed the scene of the temptation in that neighborhood - it need scarcely be said, contrary not only to the requirements of the Gospel narratives, but to the facts recorded about our Lord's ministry in Galilee immediately after His baptism.
To men who entertained such notions, it would have been impossible to communicate even what Elisha had witnessed, still less its predicted import to himself. Accordingly he contented himself with a simple negative to their request. And this should have taught them what was the first duty as well as qualification alike of a prophet and of the sons of the prophet: simple, unquestioning obedience. But, like many of us, in the process of our personal sanctification, they had to learn it by painful experience. Their insistence at last made him "ashamed,"* since it might seem as if he felt less concern for his master than they, and he yielded to their importunity.
* Bahr would render the Hebrew expression by "till he was disappointed," viz., in his hope of dissuading them. But all the passages in the Psalms to which he refers mean "to be ashamed," although in consequence of being disappointed in hope. In the other passages quoted by that critic (Judges 3:25; 2 Kings 8:11), the term could not possibly mean, disappointed in hope.
When after three days' unavailing search they returned to Jericho, he reminded them of his first refusal - although for reasons which need not be repeated, he did not even then communicate to them what he had witnessed. But ever afterwards a spirit of willing submission to Elisha prevailed among the sons of the prophets.
2. The next requisite seemed to make such public manifestation of his prophetic authority as would secure for his message the faith and submission of the people. Besides, this was necessary in the contest with Baal, whose worship, if it had been finally established, would, so to speak, have denationalized Israel, even as it ultimately led to that banishment which has not yet been recalled. It was of absolute importance that the presence of Jehovah should appear, as it were, in a concrete form, through a living representative, who should be quick to bring blessing or judgment, and so to demonstrate what he proclaimed, in the only manner which the men of that time could understand. This may also in part explain why the mission of Elijah and Elisha differed in so many respects from that of the other prophets. And, as we farther consider it, we have evidence that it accomplished its purpose. We remember how once and again Ahab himself was arrested through the influence of Elijah. At first the reign of Ahaziah had seemed a return to the worst days of Ahab. But Elijah's announcement of his doom, together with the symbolic judgment on those two captains of fifty who had gone to capture the prophet, had had their effect.
Although Joram "wrought evil in the sight of Jehovah," it was "not like his father, and like his mother;" and we are expressly told that "he removed the pillar of Baal which his father had made" (2 Kings 3:2). This does not mean that he either destroyed the Temple of Baal, or even that pillar - perhaps we should rather call it a column or block. Probably all that was done was to remove this great memorial-pillar of Baal from the public position which it had occupied in the square, or in front, or in the gardens, of the palace, or else before the Temple of Baal, and to place it within the precincts of the latter (2 Kings 10:27). But even this implied that the worship of Baal was no longer the national religion - although the alternative was only between it and the worship instituted by Jeroboam. From this general estimate of the public influence exercised by the prophet, we turn to consider more fully the first miracle by which he established his prophetic authority - very significantly in an act of blessing. The men of Jericho interceded with Elisha - probably through their representatives - on behalf of their city. Every one might see how pleasant was its site: the very Paradise of Palestine, its rich soil basking under a tropical sun, yet shaded by palm, mulberry, and fig-trees, while the air was refreshed by perennial springs of bright water, and perfumed by the precious balsam-plants, the scent of which the wind would sometimes carry as far as out to sea. But all this luxuriance was marred by the character of the water. At a distance of about a mile from the ancient site of Jericho (not from the modern village which represents the ancient town), "there is a large and beautiful fountain of sweet and pleasant water,"* the so-called Ain-es-Sultan.
* Compare Robinson's Researches, Vol. 2, pp. 283, 284.
From its situation this must have furnished the water-supply for ancient Jericho, and hence have been the spring which Elisha healed, of which there is this farther confirmation that the other springs in the neighborhood are to this day mostly brackish. To this character of the water the inhabitants ascribed, and as it appears not without reason, the circumstance of the frequent miscarriages which alike diminished the population and the flocks.*
* This is the meaning of vv. 19 and 21, and not as in our A.V. The R.V. is misleading, as conveying that it was the ground that miscarried.
Remembering the symbolic import of the mission of Elisha, as before explained, we should expect the prophet to give heed to so humble a complaint - for such it was, rather than a request. The means used were in accordance with the symbolic character of all else. The healing of the waters, although performed through the prophet, was the direct act of Jehovah (v. 21). Accordingly, as everything connected with the service of the LORD, the cruse to be used must be "new" (Numbers 19:2), dedicated to God alone. And the direct means of the "healing" was "salt," borne in this new cruse. Salt was added to everything offered, as being the emblem of incorruption, and hence of purification. And so they went up to the very spring of the waters, and there, not as of himself, but in the name of the LORD, Elisha "healed" the waters by a symbolic action, resembling that of Moses of old (Exodus 15:25).
Many lessons of deep significance are suggested by this miracle: most notably, how the salt borne in the new cruse when applied to the spring of the waters healed them - hence-forth, completely, and for ever; and again, how in the healing three things were combined - the use of means (in themselves ineffectual), the word of the prophet, and the power of Jehovah. But most of all, does it help us to realize how God is a present help in time of trouble - if only we seek Him in the manner which He appoints.
3. Yet another attestation of Elisha's prophetic authority was needed. This time not in blessing, but in judgment - stern, quick, unrelenting. Those who despised his commission, or rather defied the power that was behind it, must learn in terrible experience its reality. And that this judgment at the beginning of Elisha's ministry was so understood, appears from this circumstance that his ministry never afterwards seems to have encountered active opposition.
Once more the prophet was pursuing his lonely way where last he had walked in company with his master. For it will be remembered, that the last station at which Elijah and Elisha tarried on their way to Jericho and the Jordan was Bethel. And this also is significant. As regards Elisha, because it must have called up most solemn thoughts, especially now when he was entering upon his work; and not less so as regarded the Bethelites who had last seen Elisha in company with Elijah just before his ascent. It did recall to them the last appearance among them of the two, but only to make mockery of the event connected with it. But this was to scoff alike at the dead and at the living prophet, and also at the great power of Jehovah. Thus it was really open defiance of God, all the more inexcusable that it was entirely unprovoked, and that it offended against the law of man almost as much as against that of God. For it was not only a breach of hospitality, but it discarded that reverence for authority specially of a religious kind, which has at all times been a characteristic feature in Eastern life.
* Although we do not agree with Captain Conder (Tent- work in Palestine, Vol. 2, pp. 106-108), that the Bethel of the worship of Jeroboam was, as mediaeval tradition represents it, on Mount Gerizim, we cannot help transferring to our pages some lines of his very graphic description of our Bethel: "Bethel at the present day is one of the most desolate-looking places in Palestine; not from lack of water.... All the neighborhood is of grey, bare stone, or white chalk. The miserable fields are fenced in with stone walls, the hovels are rudely built of stone, the hill to the east is of hard rock, with only a few scattered fig-gardens... The place seems as it were turned to stone."
He was climbing the last height - probably up the defile of Wady Suweinit, where the hills above still bear marks of the extensive forest that once covered them - when he encountered a band of "young men," who, as the text seems to imply, had gone forth to meet him. They were not "little children" (according to our A.V.), but young men, as we infer from the use of the same expression in the case of Solomon (1 Kings 3:7), when he was about twenty years old, and the application of a similar, even stronger, designation to the youthful advisers of Rehoboam.*
* In the present instance, the expression would be equivalent to what in similar circumstances an older man might contemptuously use: a set of boys.
And their presence there meant a deliberate purpose. We have no means of ascertaining how they may have learned the approach of Elisha, or come to know that the great prophet, whom the fifty strong men had sought in vain, had "gone up," even although they may have attached to this only the vaguest notions. But as the taunt, "Baldhead," was undoubtedly a term of reproach, in whatever sense they may have used it,* so the cry "Go up, go up!" with which they followed him, seems to us a mocking allusion to the ascent of Elijah.**
* It is used in different application in the following passages: Leviticus 13:43; 21:5; Numbers 6:5; Isaiah 3:17; 15:2.
** It has been contended that the expression refers only to Elisha's "going up" to Bethel; but it is exactly that which is used of the ascent of Elijah, and it explains alike the temper of those young men, and the judgment that overtook them.
In the spirit that prompted the words of Moses and Aaron (Exodus 16:6- 8), and of Peter (Acts 5:3, 4), not, we feel assured, in that of personal revenge, Elisha turned round and pronounced on them that doom which soon afterwards* overtook them in a manner so strange that it seems to have been specially intended to attract public attention.** For although the exceeding danger from bears, especially when irritated, is frequently referred to in Scripture,*** and the large number (forty-two) slain, not eaten, by the two she-bears, indicates how many youths had combined to go forth for the purpose of mocking Elisha, yet so extensive a calamity from such a cause was so unusual and must have spread such wide mourning as to draw universal attention to the ministry of Elisha.
* It is impossible to decide whether the calamity happened at once or a little while afterwards. But it should be noticed that it was not Elisha who slew those forty-two youths, but the LORD in His Providence, just as it had been Jehovah, not the prophet, who had healed the waters of Jericho.
** It may here be noticed that, if the event had not really taken place, the inventor would have ascribed the destruction of the mocking youths to some less startling cause, say to pestilence, or the sword, or else to a sudden and direct interposition from heaven.
*** Compare here such passages as 1 Samuel 17:34; 2 Samuel 17:8; Proverbs 17:12; 28:15; Daniel 7:5; Hosea 13:8; Amos 5:19.
We can scarcely suppose that Elisha tarried in Bethel. In pursuance of his object publicly to declare himself the successor of Elijah, he passed on to Mount Carmel, where Elijah had been during the latter part of his ministry, and thence returned to Samaria to be in readiness for his work.