The Life of Elijah
by A.W. Pink
The Chariot of Fire
After Elijah’s interview with king Ahaziah we read no more of him till we come to the closing scene of his earthly career, but from the hints conveyed by the Divine record in 2 Kings 2 we gather that his last days here were not idle ones. If not engaged in anything spectacular and dramatic, he was employed in doing what was good and useful. It would seem that both he and Elisha not only instructed the people in private but also founded and superintended seminaries or schools of the prophets in various parts of the land. By training them to read and teach the Word of God, those young men were prepared for the ministry and to carry on the work of reformation in Israel, and therein the prophets were well employed. Such sacred activity, though less striking to the senses, was of far greater importance, for the effect produced by witnessing supernatural wonders, though stirring at the time, soon wears away, whereas the truth received in the soul abides for ever. The time spent by Christ in training the apostles produced more lasting fruit than the prodigies He performed in the presence of the multitudes.
Elijah had now almost finished his course. The time of his departure was at hand, how then does he occupy his last hours? what does he do in anticipation of the great change impending? Does he shut himself up in a cloister that he may not be disturbed by the world? Does he retire to his chamber that he may devote his last moments to devout meditation and fervent supplication, making his peace with God and preparing to meet his Judge? No, indeed, he had made his peace with God many years before and had lived in blessed communion with Him day after day. As for getting ready to meet his Judge, he had not been so mad as to postpone that all-important task till the last. He had, by Divine grace, spent his life in walking with God, in performing His bidding, in trusting in His mercy, and in experiencing His favour. Such a man is always getting ready for the great change. It is only the foolish virgins that are without oil when the Bridegroom comes. It is only the worldling and ungodly who put off preparation for eternity till their last moments.
"Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return" (Gen. 3:19): out of the ground was man’s body taken, and because of sin, unto the ground it shall revert. More than three thousand years had passed since that sentence was pronounced against the fallen race, and Enoch had been the only person who was exempted from it: why he, rather than Noah, Abraham, Samuel, should have been so honored we know not, for the Most High does not always deign to give a reason in explanation of His conduct. He ever does as He pleases, and the exercise of sovereignty marks all His ways. In the saving of souls—exempting sinners from merited condemnation and conferring unmerited blessings—He divideth "to every man severally as He will" (1 Cor. 12:11), and none can say Him nay. Thus it is in connection with those whom He spares from the grave. Another was now on the point of being transported bodily to Heaven, but why such peculiar honour should be conferred upon Elijah rather than any other of the prophets we cannot say, and it is idle to speculate.
"And it came to pass, when the Lord would take up Elijah into heaven by a whirlwind, that Elijah went with Elisha from Gilgal" (2 Kings 2:1). That the prophet had received previous notification of the Lord’s gracious intention to give him a supernatural exit from this world appears by his conduct in going from place to place by Divine direction. "Gilgal" marked the starting-point of his final journey, and most suitably so. It had been the first stopping-place of Israel after they crossed the Jordan and entered the land of Canaan (Joshua 4:19). It was there the children of Israel pitched their camp and set up the tabernacle. It was there they had "kept the passover" and "did eat of the old corn of the land" instead of the manna on which they had so long been miraculously fed (Joshua 5:10-12). And Elijah said unto Elisha, Tarry here, I pray thee; for the Lord hath sent me to Bethel" (2:2). Various conjectures have been made as to why Elijah would have Elisha now part company with him: that he wished to be alone, that modesty and humility would hide from human eyes the great honour to be bestowed upon him, that he would spare his companion the grief of final departure, that he would test the strength of his attachment and faith—we incline to this last.
"And Elisha said unto him, As the Lord liveth, and as thy soul liveth, I will not leave thee. So they went down to Bethel" (v. 2). When first called by Elijah he had declared, "I will follow thee" (1 Kings 19:20). Did he really mean it? Would he cleave to the prophet unto the end? Elijah tried his faith, to determine whether his avowal was actuated by a fleeting impulse or if it were a steadfast resolution. Elisha had meant what he said, and refused now to forsake his master when given the opportunity to do so. He was determined to have the benefit of the prophet’s company and instruction as long as he could, and have to him probably in hope of receiving his parting blessing. "So they went down to Bethel," which means "the house of God." This was another place of hallowed memory, for it was the spot where Jehovah had first appeared unto Jacob and given him the vision of the mystic ladder. Here the "sons of the prophets" at the local school came and informed Elisha that the Lord would remove his master that very day. He told them he knew that already, and bade them hold their peace (v. 3), for they were intruding.
"And Elijah said unto him, Elisha, tarry here, I pray thee; for the Lord hath sent me to Jericho" (v. 4). As the Saviour "made as though He would have gone further" (Luke 24:28), when putting to the proof the affection of His disciples on the way to Emmaus, so the prophet told his companion to "tarry ye here," at Bethel—the place of such sacred memories. But as the two disciples had "constrained" Christ to abide with them, so nothing could tempt Elisha to forsake his master. "So they came to Jericho," which was on the border of the land from which Elijah was departing. And the sons of the prophets that were at Jericho came to Elisha and said unto him, "Knowest thou that the Lord will take away thy master from thy head today? and he answered, Yea, I know it; hold ye your peace" (v. 5). The force of this seems to be: What is the use of clinging so tenaciously to your master? He will be taken from you on the morrow, why not stay here with us! But like the great apostle at a later date, Elisha "conferred not with flesh and blood," but adhered to his resolution. Oh, that like grace may be granted both writer and reader when tempted to follow not the Lord fully.
"And Elijah said unto him, Tarry, I pray thee, here; for the Lord hath sent me to Jordan" (v. 6). Much ground had now been covered; was Elisha tiring of the journey or would he continue to the end? How many run well for awhile and then grow weary of well-doing? Not so Elisha. "And he said, As the Lord liveth, and as thy soul liveth, I will not leave thee. And they two went on" (v. 6). How that reminds us of Ruth’s decision: when Naomi bade her, "Return thou after thy sister-in-law," she replied, "Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge" (1:16). "And they two went on," leaving the school of the prophets behind them. The young believer must not suffer even happy fellowship with the saints to come in between him and his own individual communion with the Lord. How richly Elisha was rewarded for his fidelity and constancy we shall see in the sequel.
"And fifty men of the sons of the prophets went, and stood to view afar off: and they two stood by Jordan" (v. 7), probably because they expected to witness Elijah’s translation into heaven, a favour, however, which was granted only to Elisha. Nevertheless they were permitted to witness a remarkable miracle: the dividing asunder of the waters of Jordan so that the prophet and his companion passed over dryshod. How the sovereignty of God is displayed everywhere! The multitudes witnessed Christ’s miracle of multiplying the loaves and the fishes, but not even all of the twelve beheld His transfiguration on the mount. It had pleased God to make these young prophets acquainted with the supernatural exit of His servant from this world, yet they were not permitted to be actual spectators of the same. Why, we know not, but the fact remains, and from it we should take instruction. It illustrates a principle which is revealed on every page of Holy Writ and is exemplified all through history: that God makes distinction not only between man and man but also between His saints, between one of His servants and another, distributing His favors as it pleases Him. And when any dare to challenge His high sovereignty, His answer is, "Is it not lawful for Me to do what I will with Mine own?" (Matthew 20:15).
"And Elijah took his mantle, and wrapped it together, and smote the waters and they were divided hither and thither, so that they two went over on dry ground" (v. 8). This dividing of the Jordan was a fitting prelude to the prophet’s rapture on high. As Matthew Henry pointed out, it was "the preface to Elijah’s translation into the heavenly Canaan, as it had been to the entrance of Israel into the earthly Canaan" (Joshua 3:15-17). Elijah and his companion might have crossed the river by ferry, as other passengers did, but the Lord had determined to magnify His servant in his exit from the land, as He had Joshua in his entrance thereto. It was with his rod Moses had divided the sea (Ex. 14:16), here it was with his mantle Elijah divided the river—each the insignia or badge of his distinctive office. That there is a deeper meaning and broader application to this remarkable incident scarcely admits of a doubt. The "Jordan" is the well-known figure of death: Elijah is here a type of Christ, as Elisha is to be regarded as representative of all who cleave to and follow Him. Thus we learn that a safe and comfortable way through death has been provided for His people by the Lord Jesus Christ.
"And it came to pass, when they were gone over, that Elijah said unto Elisha, Ask what I shall do for thee, before I be taken away from thee," v. 9. Here is proof that Elijah had been testing his companion when he bade him "tarry" at the previous stopping places, for certainly he had not offered such an invitation as this had he been contravening his express desire. The prophet was so pleased with Elisha’s affection and attendance that he determined to reward him with some parting blessing. And what a testing of his character was this, "Ask what I shall do for thee"! One of the Puritans has called attention to the significance of Elijah’s "before I be taken from thee," for it had been useless for Elisha to invoke his master afterward. "He was not to be prayed unto as a "mediator of intercession" as Papists blasphemously teach concerning saints and angels." Christ is the only one in heaven who intercedes for God’s people on earth. How attentively we need to read the language of Holy Writ: that single word "before" gives the lie to one of the cardinal errors of Rome.
"And Elisha said, I pray thee, let a double portion of thy spirit be upon me" (v. 9). Here was his noble answer to Elijah’s "What shall I do for thee?" Rising above both the lusts and sentiments of the flesh, he asked not anything nature might have coveted, but that which was spiritual, seeking not his own aggrandizement but the glory of God. We do not think he asked for something superior to what his master had enjoyed, but a portion "double" that which was communicated to the other prophets. He was to take Elijah’s place on the stage of public action: he was to be the leader of "the sons of the prophets" (as v. 15 intimates), and therefore he wished to be equipped for his mission. Rightly did he "covet earnestly the best gifts": he asked for a double portion of the spirit of prophecy—of wisdom and grace, of faith and strength—that he might be "thoroughly furnished unto all good works."
"And he said, Thou hast asked a hard thing" (v. 10). Elisha had asked not for riches or glory, wisdom or power, but for a double portion of the spirit that rested on and wrought through his master. In terming it "a hard thing" Elijah appears to have emphasized the great value of such a bestowment: it was as though he said, That is much for you to expect. We regard Matthew Henry’s comment as a pertinent one: "Those are best prepared for spiritual blessings that are most sensible of their worth and their own unworthiness to receive." Elisha felt his own weakness and utter insignificance for such a work as that to which he was called, and therefore he desired to be qualified for his eminent office. "Nevertheless, if thou see me when I am taken from thee, it should be so unto thee; but if not, it shall not be so" (v. 10). This is very blessed: his request would be granted and he was to know it by the sign mentioned: a sight of Elijah’s translation would be the proof that his request was agreeable to the will of God and a pledge of his desire being gratified: but in order thereto his eye must continue fixed upon his master! Chronologists reckon that the ministry of Elisha lasted at least twice the length of his predecessor’s and apparently he wrought double the number of miracles.
The grand moment had arrived. Elijah had fully discharged the commission God had given him. He had preserved his garments from being spotted by the apostate religious world. Now his conflict was over, his course run, his victory won. He had no home or resting place here, so he pressed onward to his heavenly rest. "And it came to pass, as they still went on, and talked, that, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, and parted them both asunder; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven" (v. 11). It is to be carefully noted that God did not send His chariot for Elijah while he was in Samaria. No, the land of Israel was polluted and Ichabod was written over it. It was on the far side of Jordan, in the place of separation, that this signal honour was conferred upon the prophet. As the souls of the saints are conveyed to Paradise by the angels (Luke 16:22), so we believe it was by celestial beings, the highest among them, that Elijah was taken to heaven. "seraphim" signifies "fiery," and God is said to make His angels "a flaming fire" (Ps. 104:4), while "cherubim" are called "the chariots of God" (Ps. 68:57 and cf. Zech. 1:8; 6:1) . "Elijah was to remove to the world of angels, and so angels were sent to conduct him thither" (Matthew Henry), that he might ride in state and triumph to the skies like a conqueror.
In the translation of Elijah we have clear testimony to the fact that there is a reward for the righteous. Often this appears to be flatly contradicted by the experiences of this life. We behold the wicked flourishing like the green bay-tree, while the child of God has a bare temporal subsistence; but it shall not always be thus. Elijah had peculiarly honored God in a day of almost universal apostasy, and now God was pleased highly to honour him. As he had taught men, at the constant hazard of his life, the knowledge of the only true God, so he would now teach them by his being taken alive into heaven that there is a future state, that there is a world beyond the skies into which the righteous are admitted, where they shall henceforth dwell with God and all the angelic hosts in glory everlasting. Future bliss shall infinitely compensate present sacrifices and sufferings: he that humbleth himself shall be exalted. Elijah’s supernatural exit from this world also demonstrated the fact that the human body is capable of immortality! It could not witness to the truth of resurrection, for he never died; but his corporeal removal to Heaven furnished indubitable evidence that the body is capable of being immortalized and of living in celestial conditions.
In the translation of Elijah we see how much better are God’s ways than ours. In an hour of despondency the prophet had wanted to leave this world before God’s time had come for him to do so, and by a way far inferior to that which He had appointed: under the juniper tree he had requested that he might die, saying, "It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life" (1 Kings 19:4). Had he been granted his desire, how much he had lost! How much better than to be taken away by death in a fit of impatience! And this is recorded for our instruction, pointing as it does a lesson we all need take to heart. It is the part of wisdom to leave ourselves and all our affairs in God’s gracious hands, trusting Him fully and being willing for Him to use His own measures and methods with us. We are certain to sustain serious loss if we determine to have our own way: "He gave them their request; but sent leanness into their soul" (Ps. 106:15). The mature Christian will assure his younger brethren that today he thanks God for refusing the answers he once craved. God denies thy request now because He has ordained something better for thee.
In the translation of Elijah we have both a pledge and a type of the supernatural exit from this world which every child of God experiences. In the course of these chapters we have pointed out again and again that though in certain respects the character and career of Elijah was an extraordinary one, yet in its broad outlines he is to be regarded as a representative saint. Thus it was in connection with the final event. No ordinary departure from this world was his, and vastly different from the common end to earthly existence experienced by the wicked is that of the righteous. Death as the wages of sin has been abolished for the redeemed. For them physical dissolution is but the body being put to sleep: as for the soul it is conveyed by angels into God’s immediate presence, (Luke 16:22), which is certainly a supernatural experience. Nor shall all God’s people even "sleep" (1 Cor. 15:22). That generation of them alive on the earth at the return of the Saviour shall have their bodies "changed," that they may be "fashioned like unto His glorious body" (Phil. 3:21), and shall be caught up together with the resurrected saints to "meet the Lord in the air," (1 Thess. 4:17). Thus a supernatural exit from this world is assured to all the ransomed hosts of God.