Gleanings From Elisha
His Life and Miracles
THIRD MIRACLE—TWO AVENGING BEARS
"And He Went Up From Thence unto Beth-el: and as he was going up by the way, there came forth little children out of the city, and mocked him, and said unto him, Go up, thou bald head; go up, thou bald head. And he turned back, and looked on them, and cursed them in the name of the LORD. And there came forth two she bears out of the wood, and tare forty and two children of them" (2 Kings 2:23-24).
First, the Connection of the Miracle
In seeking to give an exposition of this miracle let us observe its connection. It will be noted that our passage opens with the word "And." Since there is nothing meaningless in Scripture, it should be duly pondered. It evidently suggests that we should observe the relation between what we find here and that which immediately precedes. The context records the wonders which God wrought through Elisha at the Jordan and at Jericho. Thus the truth which is here pointed to by the conjunction is plain: when the servant has been used by his Master he must expect to encounter the opposition of the enemy.
There is an important if unpalatable truth illustrated here, one which the minister of Christ does well to take to heart if he would be in some measure prepared for and fortified against bitter disappointment. After a period of blessing and success, he must expect sore trials. After he has witnessed the power of God attending his efforts he may count upon experiencing something of the rage and power of Satan; for nothing infuriates the devil so much as beholding his victims delivered from spiritual death and set free. Elisha has been favored both at the Jordan and at Jericho, but here at Bethel he hears the hiss of the serpent and the roaring of the lion against him. Yes, the minister of the gospel is fully aware of this principle and even often reminds his hearers of it. He knows it was the case with his Master; for after the Spirit of God had descended upon Him and the Father had testified to His pleasure in Him, He was at once led into the wilderness to be tempted of the devil. Yet how quickly is this forgotten when he himself is called to pass through this contrasting experience.
It is one thing to know this truth theoretically, and it is quite another to have a personal acquaintance with it. The servant of Christ is informed that the smile of heaven upon his labors will arouse the enmity of his great adversary, yet how often is he taken quite unaware when the storm of opposition bursts upon him! It ought not to be so, but so often it is. "Think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you" (1 Pet. 4:12). Various indeed are the ups and downs which are encountered by those who labor in the Christian vineyard. What a striking contrast is here presented to our view! At Jericho Elisha is received with respect, the young prophets render obeisance to him, and the men of the city seek his help. Here at Bethel he is contemptuously ridiculed by the children. At Jericho, the city of the curse, he is an instrument of blessing; at Bethel, which signifies "the house of God" and where blessing might therefore be expected, he solemnly pronounces a curse upon those who mock him.
Second, the Occasion of the Miracle
The insulting of God’s servant occasioned this miracle. As Elisha was approaching Bethel, "there came forth little children out of the city and mocked him." Upon reading this incident it is probable that some will be inclined to say that it seems that children then were much like what they are now—wild, rude, lawless, totally lacking in respect for their seniors. From this analogy the conclusion will be drawn: therefore we should not be surprised nor unduly shocked at the present-day delinquency of some of our youth. But such a conclusion is entirely unwarranted. It is true there is "nothing new under the sun" and that fallen human nature has been the same in every age. But it is not true that the tide of evil has always flowed uniformly and that each generation has witnessed more or less the same appalling conduct which now stigmatizes the young in every part of the world. No, very far from it.
When there was an ungrieved Spirit in the churches, the restraining hand of God was held upon the baser passions of mankind. That restraint operated largely through parental control—moral training in the home, wholesome instruction and discipline in the school, and adequate punishment of young offenders by the state. But when the Spirit of God is "grieved" and "quenched" by the churches, the restraining hand of the Lord is removed, and there is a fearful moral aftermath in all sections of the community. When the divine law is thrown out by the pulpit, there inevitably follows a breakdown of law and order in the social realm, which is what we are now witnessing all over the so-called civilized world. That was the case to a considerable extent twenty-five years ago; and as the further an object rolls down hill the swifter becomes its momentum, so the moral deterioration of our generation has proceeded apace. As the majority of parents were godless and lawless, it is not to be wondered at that we now behold such reprehensible conduct in their offspring.
Older readers can recall the time when juveniles who were guilty of theft, wanton destruction of property, and cruelty to animals were sternly rebuked and punished for their wrong doing. But a few years later such conduct began to be condoned, and "boys will be boys" was used to gloss over a multitude of sins. So, far from being shocked, many parents were pleased and regarded their erring offspring as smart, precocious, and cute. Educational authorities and psychologists insisted that children must not be suppressed and repressed but "directed." These professionals prated about the evils inflicted on the child’s character by "inhibitions," and corporal punishment was banished from the schools. Today the parent who acts according to Proverbs 13:24, 19:18, 22:15, and 23:14 will not only be called a brute by his neighbors, but is likely to be summoned before the courts for cruelty; and instead of supporting him the magistrate will probably censure him. The present permissive treatment of children is not normal but abnormal. What is recorded in our passage occurred in the days of Israel’s degeneracy! Child delinquency is one of the plain marks of a time of apostasy. It was so then; it is so now.
Third, the Location of the Miracle
As with the former miracles, the place where this one happened also throws much light upon that which occasioned it. Originally Bethel was called "the house of God" (Gen. 28:16-19), but now it had become a habitation of the devil, one of the principal seats of Israel’s idolatry. It was here that Jeroboam had set up one of the calves. Afraid that he might not be able to retain his hold upon those who had revolted from Rehoboam, especially if they should go up to Jerusalem and offer sacrifices in the temple, he "made two calves of gold, and said unto them. It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem: behold thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt. And he set the one in Bethel, and the other put he in Dan . . . And he made an house of high places and made priests of the lowest of the people which were not of the sons of Levi. And Jeroboam ordained a feast for the eighth month, on the fifteenth day of the month, like unto the feast that is in Judah, and he offered upon the altar. So did he in Bethel, sacrificing unto the calves that he had made: and he placed in Bethel the priests of the high places which he had made" (1 Kings 12:28-29, 31-33).
Thus it will be seen that, far from Bethel being a place which basked in the sunshine of Jehovah’s favor, it was one upon which His frown now rested. Its inhabitants were no ordinary people, but high rebels against the Lord, openly defying Him to His face, guilty of the most fearful abominations. This it was which constituted the dark background of the scene that is here before us. This accounts for the severity of the judgment which fell upon the youngest of its inhabitants; this explains why these children conducted themselves as they did. What occurred here was far more than the silly prank of innocent children; it was the manifestation of an inveterate hatred of the true God and His faithful servant. Israel’s worship of Baal was far more heinous than the idolatry of the Canaanites, for it had the additional and awful guilt of apostasy. And apostates are always the fiercest persecutors of those who cleave to the truth, for the very fidelity of the latter is a witness against and a condemnation of those who have forsaken it.
Fourth, the Awfulness of the Miracle
The fearful doom which overtook those children must be considered in the light of the enormity of their offense. Our degenerate generation has witnessed so much condoning of the greatest enormities that it may find it difficult to perceive how this punishment fitted the crime. The character of God has been so misrepresented by the pulpit, His claims so little pressed, the position occupied by His servants so imperfectly apprehended, that there must be a returning to the solemn teaching of Holy Writ if this incident is to be viewed in its proper perspective. God had said, "Touch not mine anointed, and do my prophets no harm" (Ps. 105:15). They are His messengers, His accredited representatives, His appointed ambassadors, and an insult done to them is regarded by God as an insult against Himself. Said Christ to His ministers, "He that receiveth you receiveth me, and he that receiveth me receiveth him that sent me" (Matthew 10:40); conversely, he that despises and rejects the one sent forth by Christ, despises and rejects Him. How little is this realized today! The curse of God now rests on many a place where His ministers were mocked.
"And we went up from thence unto Bethel; and as he was going up by the way, there came forth little children out of the city and mocked him, and said unto him, Go up, thou bald head." After the vain search which had been made for Elijah (2 Kings 2:17), it is likely that some inkling of his supernatural rapture was conveyed to the prophets at Jericho, and from them to their brethren at Bethel (2 Kings 2:3). Hence we may conclude that his remarkable translation had been noised abroad—received with skepticism and ridicule by the inhabitants of Bethel. In their unbelief they would mock at it. Today apostate leaders of Christendom do not believe that the Lord Jesus actually rose again from the dead and that He ascended to heaven in a real physical body, and they make fun of the Christian’s hope of his Lord’s return and of being caught up to meet Him in the air (1 Thess. 4:16-17). Thus in saying, "Go up, thou bald head," the children were, in all probability, scoffing at the tidings of Elijah’s translation—scoffs put into their mouths by their elders.
Thomas Scott says,
They had heard that Elijah was "gone up to heaven" and they insultingly bade Elisha follow him, that they might be rid of him also, and they reviled him for the baldness of his head. Thus they united the crimes of abusing him for a supposed bodily infirmity, contemptuous behavior towards a venerable person, and enmity against him as the prophet of God. The sin therefore of these children was very heinous: yet the greater guilt was chargeable on their parents, and their fate was a severe rebuke and awful warning to them.
How true it is that "the curse causeless shall not come" (Prov. 26:2). "And he turned back and looked on them," which indicates he acted calmly, and not on the spur of the moment. "And he cursed them in the name of the LORD," not out of personal spite, but to vindicate his insulted Master. Had Elisha sinned in cursing these children, divine providence would have prevented it. This was a fair warning from God of the awful judgment about to come upon Israel for their sins.
Fifth, the Ethics of the Miracle
The passage before us is one which infidels have been quick to seize upon, and lamentable indeed have been many of the answers returned to them. But the Word has survived every opposition of its enemies and all the puerile apologies of its weak-kneed friends. Nor are the Scriptures in any danger whatever in this skeptical and blatant age. Being the Word of God, they contain nothing which His servants have any need to be ashamed of, nothing which requires any explaining away. It is not our province to sit in judgment upon Holy Writ: our part is to tremble before it (Isa. 66:2) knowing that one day we shall be judged by it (John 12:48). As Jehovah was able to look after the sacred ark without the help of any of His creatures (2 Sam. 6:6-7), so His truth is in need of no carnal assistance from us. It is to be received without question and believed in with all our hearts. It is to be preached and proclaimed in its entirety without hesitation or reservation.
Certain so-called Christian apologists have replied to the taunts of infidels by a process of what is termed "toning down" the passage, arguing that it was not little children but young men who were cursed by the prophet and torn to pieces by the bears: but such an effeminate explanation is as senseless as it is needless. We quite agree with Thomas Scott when he says,
Some learned men have endeavored to prove that these offenders were not young children but grown-up persons, and no doubt the word rendered "children" is often used in that sense. The addition, however of the word "little" seems to clearly evince they were not men, but young boys who had been brought up in idolatry and taught to despise the prophets of the Lord.
Others roundly condemn Elisha, saying he should have meekly endured their taunts in silence and that he sinned grievously in cursing them. It is sufficient to point out that his Master deemed otherwise. Instead of rebuking His servant, He sent the bears to fulfill his curse, and there is no appeal against His decision.
Some Bible teachers have asserted mistakenly that this drastic punishment was necessary because the Old Testament period was governed by the law, but that under New Testament grace, this would not warrant immediate judgment. Let such teachers remember that Ananias and Sapphira fell dead as soon as they sinned against the Holy Spirit (Acts 5).
God is even now giving the most awe-inspiring and wide-reaching proof of His wrath against those who flout His Law, visiting the earth with sorer judgments than any He has sent since the days of Noah! The New Testament equally with the Old teaches "it is a righteous thing with God to recompense tribulation to them that trouble you" (2 Thess. 1:6). In the incident before us, God was righteously visiting the sins of the fathers upon the children, as He was by the death of their children also smiting the parents in their tenderest parts. At almost the end of the Old Testament era we read that Israel "mocked the messengers of God, and despised his words, and misused his prophets, until the wrath of the LORD arose against his people, till there was no remedy" (2 Chron. 36:16). Here at Bethel God was giving a warning, a sample of His coming wrath, unless they reformed their ways and treated His servants better.
Sixth, the Meaning of the Miracle
At first glance it certainly appears that there can be no parallel between the above action of Elisha and that which should characterize the servants of Christ, and many are likely to conclude that it can only be by a wide stretch of imagination or a flagrant wresting of this incident that it can be made to yield anything pertinent for this age. But it must be remembered that we are not looking for a literal counterpart but rather a spiritual application. Viewing it thus, our type is solemnly accurate. Ministers of the gospel are "unto God a sweet savor of Christ, in them that are saved, and in them that perish: To the one we are the savor of death unto death; and to the other the savor of life unto life" (2 Cor. 2:14-15). Certainly the evangelist has no warrant to anathamatize any who oppose him, but he can point out that they are accursed of God who love not Christ and who obey not His law (1 Cor. 16:22; Galatians 3:10).
Seventh, the Sequel of the Miracle
This is recorded in the closing verse of 2 Kings 2. "And he went from thence to mount Carmel, and from thence he returned to Samaria." In the violent death of those children as the outcome of Elisha’s malediction, we behold the estating of the prophet’s divine authority, the sign of his extraordinary office, and the fulfillment of the prediction that he should "slay" (1 Kings 19:17)! After his unpleasant experience at Bethel, the prophet went to Carmel, which had been the scene of Elijah’s grand testimony to a prayer-answering God (1 Kings 18). By heading for the mount this servant of God intimated his need for the renewing of his strength by communion with the Most High and by meditation upon His holiness and power. Samaria was the country where the apostate portion of Israel dwelt, and by going there, Elisha manifested his readiness to be used of his Master as He saw fit in that dark and difficult field of labor.
There is only space left for us to barely mention some of the more outstanding lessons to be drawn from this solemn incident. First, "Behold therefore the goodness and severity of God" (Rom. 11:22): if the previous miracle exemplified His "goodness," certainly this one demonstrated His "severity," and the one is as truly a divine perfection as the other!
Second, the words as well as actions of children, even "little children," are noticed by God! (Prov. 20:11). They should be informed of this and warned against showing disrespect to God’s servants.
Third, what must have been the grief of those parents when they beheld the mangled bodies of their little ones! But how much greater the anguish of parents in the day of judgment when they witness the everlasting condemnation of their offspring if it has been occasioned by their own negligence and evil example.