Gleanings From Elisha
His Life and Miracles
That Which Occupies the central and dominant place in what the Spirit has been pleased to record of the life of Elisha is the miracles performed by and connected with him. Far more miracles were wrought by him or were granted in answer to his prayers than any other of the Old Testament prophets. In fact the narrative of his history consists of little else than a record of supernatural acts and events. Nor need this at all surprise us, though it is strange that so few seem to grasp its implication and significance. The character of Elisha’s mission and ministry was in thorough keeping with Israel’s condition at that time. The very fact that these miracles were needed indicates the state into which Israel had fallen. Idolatry had held sway for so long that the true and living God was no longer known by the nation. Here and there were individuals who believed in the Lord, but the masses were worshipers of idols. Therefore by means of drastic interpositions, by awe-inspiring displays of His power, by supernatural manifestations of His justice and mercy alike, God forced even the skeptical to recognize His existence and subscribe to His supremacy.
Prophecy and Miracles
It is fitting here that we should make a few remarks upon the reason for and meaning of miracles. Prophecy and miracles partake of much the same nature. Prophecy is really an oral miracle, and miracles are virtually prophecies (forthtelling of God) in action. As God sends forth one of His prophets only in a time of marked declension and departure of His people from Himself, so miracles were quite unnecessary while the sufficiency of His Word was practically recognized. The one as much as the other lies entirely outside the ordinary line or course of things, neither occurring during what we may term normal times. Which of the patriarchs, the priests, or the kings performed any miracles? How many were wrought during the lengthy reign of Saul, David, or Solomon? Why, then, were so many wonders done during the ministry of Elijah and still more so during that of Elisha?
The mission and ministry of Elisha was the same in character as that which God did in Egypt by the hand of Moses. There Jehovah was unknown: entirely so by the Egyptians, largely so by the Israelites. The favored descendants of Abraham had sunk as low as the heathen in whose midst they dwelt, and God, by so many remarkable signs and unmistakable interventions, brought them back to that knowledge of Himself which they had lost. Unless the Hebrews in Egypt had been thoroughly convinced by these displays of divine power that Moses was a prophet sent from God, they never would have submitted to him as their leader. How reluctantly they owned his authority on various occasions! So also in the conquest of Canaan, God wrought four miracles in favor of His people: one in the water, in the crossing of Jordan; one in the earth, in throwing down the walls of Jericho; one in the air, in destroying their enemies by hail; and one in the heavens, by slowing the course of the sun and the moon. Thereby the nations of Canaan were furnished with clear proof of Jehovah’s supremacy, that the God of Israel possessed universal dominion, that He was no local deity but the Most High reigning over all nature.
But, it may be asked, how do the miracles wrought by Christ square with what has been said above? Surely they should present no difficulty. Pause and ask the question, Why did He work miracles? Did not His teaching make clearly evident His divine mission? The very officers sent to arrest Him had to acknowledge, "Never man spake as this man." Did not the spotless holiness of His life make manifest the heavenliness of His person? Even Pilate was forced to testify, "I find no fault in Him." Did not His conduct on the cross demonstrate that He was no imposter? The centurion and his fellows owned, "Truly this was the Son of God" (Matthew 27:54). Ah, but men must be left without the shadow of an excuse for their unbelief. The whole world shall have it unmistakably shown before their eyes that Jesus of Nazareth was none other than "God manifest in flesh." The Gentiles were sunk in idolatry; Judaism was reduced to a lifeless formality and had made void the Word of God by traditions. Therefore did Christ reveal the wisdom and power of God as none other before or since by a series of miracles which warranted His saying, "He that hath seen Me hath seen the Father."
Thus it will be seen that there is another characteristic which links closely together prophecy and miracles: the character of the times in which they occur supply the key both to their implication and their significance. Both of them may be termed abnormalities, for neither of them are given in the ordinary course of events. While conditions are relatively decent, God acts according to the ordinary working of the laws of creation and operations of His providence. But when the Enemy comes in like a flood, the Spirit of the Lord lifts up a more apparent and noticeable standard against him, coming out more into the open and obliging men to take cognizance of Him. But there is this difference: the one intimates there is a state of grievous departure from God on the part of His people; the other indicates that the knowledge of the true and living God has publicly disappeared, that He is no longer believed in by the masses. Drastic diseases call for drastic remedies.
Elijah and Elisha
The missions of Elijah and Elisha form two parts of one whole, the one supplementing the other, though there was a striking contrast between them. Therein we have an illustration of the spiritual significance of the number two. Whereas one denotes there is no other, two affirms there is another and therefore a difference. That difference may be for good or for evil, and therefore this number bears a twofold meaning according to its associations. The second that comes in may be for opposition or for support. The two, though different in character, may be one in testimony and friendship. "The testimony of two men is true" (John 8:17 and cf. Numbers 35:30). Thus two is also the number of witnesses, and the greater the contrast between the two witnesses the more valuable their testimony when they agree therein. Hence it is that all through the Scriptures we find two persons linked together to present a contrast: as in such cases as Cain and Abel, Abraham and Lot, Ishmael and Isaac, Jacob and Esau; or two bearing witness to the truth: as Enoch and Noah, Moses and Aaron, Caleb and Joshua, Naomi and Ruth, Ezra and Nehemiah, the sending forth of the apostles by twos (Mark 6:7 and cf. Revelation 11:3).
This linking together of two men in their testimony for God contains valuable instruction for us. It hints broadly at the twofoldness of truth. There is perfect harmony and unity between the two great divisions of Holy Writ, yet the differences between the Old and New Testaments are apparent to every thoughtful reader of them. It warns against the danger of lopsidedness, intimating the importance of seeking to preserve the balance. The chief instruments employed by God in the great Reformation of the sixteenth century were Luther and Calvin. They took part in a common task and movement, yet how great was the difference between the two men and the respective parts they were called upon to play. Thus with Elijah and Elisha: there are manifest parallels between them, as in the likeness of their names, yet there are marked contrasts both in their missions and their miracles. It is in the observing of their respective similarities and dissimilarities that we are enabled to ascertain the special reaching which they are designed to convey to us.
At first glance it may appear that there is a much closer resemblance than antithesis between the two men. Both of them were prophets, both of them dwelt in Samaria, and they were confronted with much the same situation. The falling of Elijah’s mantle upon Elisha seems to indicate that the latter was the successor of the former, called upon to continue his mission. The first miracle performed by Elisha was identical with the last one wrought by his master: the smiting of the waters of the Jordan with the mantle, so that they parted asunder for him (2 Kings 2:8, 14). At the beginning of his ministry Elijah had said unto Ahab king of Israel, "As the Lord God of Israel liveth, before whom I stand" (1 Kings 17:1). And when Elisha came into the presence of Ahab’s son he also declared, "As the Lord of hosts liveth, before whom I stand" (2 Kings 3:14). As Elijah was entertained by the widow of Zarepath and rewarded her by restoring her son to life (1 Kings 17:22), so Elisha was entertained by a woman at Shunem (2 Kings 4:8-10) and repaid her by restoring her son to life (2 Kings 4:35-37).
Striking as the points of agreement are between the two prophets, the contrasts in their careers and works are just as vivid and certainly more numerous. One appeared suddenly and dramatically upon the stage of public action, without a word being told us of from whence he sprang or how he had previously been engaged; but of the other the name of his father is recorded, with an account of his occupation at the time he received his call into God’s service. The first miracle of Elijah was that for the space of three and a half years there should be neither dew nor rain according to his word, whereas the first public act of Elisha was to heal the springs of water (2 Kings 2:21, 22) and to produce an abundance of water (2 Kings 3:20). One of the most noticeable features of Elijah’s life was his loneliness, dwelling apart from the apostate masses of the people; but Elisha seems to have spent most of his life in the company of the prophets, presiding over their schools. The different manner in which their earthly careers terminated is even more marked: the one was taken to heaven in a chariot of fire, and the other fell sick in old age and died a natural death.
The principal contrast between the two prophets appears in the character of the miracles wrought by and connected with them. The majority of those performed by Elijah were associated with death and destruction, whereas by far the greater of those attributed to Elisha were works of healing and restoration. If the former was the prophet of judgment, the latter was the prophet of grace; if the course of one was fittingly closed by a "whirlwind" removing him from this scene, a peaceful dove would be the more appropriate emblem of the other. Elisha’s ministry consisted largely of divine interpositions in a way of mercy, interventions of sovereign goodness, rather than judicial dealings. He commenced his mission by a miracle of blessing, healing the death-dealing springs of water. What immediately followed was the establishing of his authority, the symbol of his extraordinary office. The work of Elijah was chiefly a protest against evil, while the work of Elisha was an almost continuous testimony to the readiness of God to relieve the distressed and respond to the call of need wherever that call came from a contrite and believing heart.
Unto many it may seem really astonishing that a ministry like that of Elisha should immediately follow after Elijah’s, for in view of the desperate defiance he encountered we would naturally suppose the end had been reached, that the patience of God was at last exhausted. But if we take into account what has been before us above on the significance of miracles, we shall be less surprised. As we have pointed out, a state of general infidelity and idolatry forms the historical background, and thus is the reason for and purpose of His breaking through the darkness and making Himself manifest to a people who are God’s, but know Him not. Now since God is "light" (1 John 1:5), that is, the ineffably holy one, it necessarily follows that when revealing Himself He will do so as the hater and punisher of sin. But it is equally true that God is "love" (1 John 4:8), that is, the infinitely benevolent one, and consequently when appearing more evidently before the eyes of His creatures, it is in wondrous works of kindness and benevolence. Thus we have the two sides of the divine character revealed in the respective ministries of Elijah and Elisha: deeds of vengeance and deeds of mercy.
While their two missions may certainly be considered separately, yet Elisha’s ministry should be regarded primarily as the complement of Elijah’s. The two, though dissimilar, make one complete whole—and only subordinately a thing apart. On the one hand Elijah’s mission was mainly of a public character; on the other, Elisha’s was more in private. The former had to do principally with the masses and those who had led them astray, and therefore his miracles consisted chiefly of judgments, expressive of God’s wrath upon idolatry. The latter was engaged mostly with the Lord’s prophets and people, and consequently his acts were mainly those of blessing, manifestations of the divine mercy. The comforting and assuring lesson in this for Christians today is, that even in a season of apostasy and universal wickedness, when His rod is laid heavily upon the nations, the Lord will neither forget nor forsake His own, but will appear unto them as "the God of all grace." Things may become yet worse than they are now. Even so the Lord will prove Himself to be "a very present help" to His people.
Coming now to the subordinate viewpoint and considering Elisha’s career as the sequel to Elijah’s, may we not find in it a message of hope in this dark, dark hour. Those with any measure of spiritual discernment cannot fail to perceive the tragic resemblance there is between the time in which Elijah’s lot was cast and our own sad day. The awful apostasy of Christendom, the appalling multiplication of false prophets, the various forms of idolatry now so prevalent in our midst, and the solemn judgments from heaven which have been and are being visited upon us and the blatant refusal of the multitudes to pay any heed to them by mending their ways, all furnish an analogy which is too plain to be missed. There is therefore a real temptation to conclude that the end of all things is at hand—some say an end of the age, others the end of the world. Many thought the same when Napoleon was desolating Europe and again in 1914-18 but they were wrong, and it is quite likely that they who think the same today will have their conclusions falsified. There is at least a warning for us here: Elijah was followed by Elisha! Who can tell what mercy God may yet show to the world?
We must be on our guard against missing the consolation which this portion of Scripture may contain for us. The darkest night is followed by the morning’s light. Even if the present order of "civilization" is doomed to destruction, we know not what favors from God await this earth in generations to come. Of necessity there will be a time when this world and all its works will be burned up, and that event may be very near. On the other hand that event may be thousands of years away. If such be the case, then black as is the present outlook and blacker it may yet become, yet the clouds of divine judgment will again disperse and the sun of Righteousness arise once more with healing in His wings. More than once the times of Elijah have been substantially duplicated even during this Christian era, yet each time they were followed by an Elisha of mercy. Thus it may be again, yea will be unless God is now on the point of bringing down the curtain upon human history.
The Written Record
Very little indeed seems to have been written upon the life of Elisha, yet this is not difficult to account for. Though there is almost twice as much recorded about him than his predecessor, his history is not given in one connected piece or consecutive narrative. Rather it is disjointed, the current of his life being crossed again and again by references to others. The scattered allusions to the prophet’s career do not lend themselves so readily to biographical treatment as do the lives of Abraham, Jacob, or David. Why is this? For there is nothing meaningless in Scripture; perfect wisdom directs the Holy Spirit in every detail. May it not be that we have a hint here of the method which will be followed by the Lord in that era which will possibly succeed the period of Christendom’s history foreshadowed by Elijah’s life? May not the broken and disconnected account of Elisha’s deeds presage the form God’s dealings will take in a future generation: that instead of being a regular stream they will be occasional showers of blessing at intervals?