The first notice we have of Elisha is i Kings 19 : 16, when the Lord, while rebuking Elijah for his despondency and self-importance in thinking that all testimony had failed, and that he himself was God's solitary witness on earth, directs him to anoint Elisha, the son of Shaphat, in his room.
Elijah being set aside because he was desponding and discouraged, we may conclude that the prophet anointed in his stead will be one gifted with a character and purpose quite the contrary--even bold and enduring. We often find in Scripture that a man's secular employment gives us an idea of his adaptability for his future service and an intimation of the nature of his course. Elisha is found " ploughing with twelve yoke of oxen before him, and he with the twelfth " ; and he was doubtless a vigorous and a patient husbandman. Elijah passes by, and casts his mantle on him, thus intimating, I should suppose, that he was to take the place and the calling of the owner of it. Elisha evidently so understood it, but, yielding for a moment to his natural affection, he craves permission to return and kiss his father and mother. The prophet's reply is one fitted to throw him on his own reponsibility. " Go back again," he says, " for what have I done to thee? " It was for him to judge whether Elijah's action towards him had been a divine call or not.
That it was divine Elisha's spiritual instincts told him and though his obedience to it is not as prompt as it might have been, still his measure of faith is followed up by true and suited action. He returns to his home not to remain in it, but to celebrate his surrender of it. " He took a yoke of oxen, and slew them, and boiled their flesh with the instruments of the oxen, and gave unto the people, and they did eat." He disposes of his possessions for the benefit of others ; at one and the same moment declaring his readiness to surrender for the Lord and his benevolence for His people; he, in a measure, sold what he had and gave to the poor, and " then he arose, went after Elijah, and ministered to him." The first answer in the soul to the call of God is very indicative of the order and character of the subsequent course, and we shall find it thus with Elisha. Though he delays a little at first, he eventually follows Elijah, and that not grudgingly or of necessity, but as one who follows with a hearty good will. And thus it is that he enters on a course where he is to be a minister and a witness of the most remarkable of God's ways and works.
The word of the Lord had been that he was to be prophet in Elijah's room: that is, to fill up Elijah's ministry, and the two ministries were not to co-exist ; so that it is quite fitting that we should not hear of him again till Elijah was about to quit the scene, and then he is presented to us in the high character of the companion of Elijah and the witness of his rapture. As the one retires, the other is brought prominently before us, and deeply significant is the education accorded to him on this the last day of the one, and (in respect to his ministry) the first day of the other ; for this day he is installed into office. The sons of the prophets with one accord tell him that this is the last day for his master ; and as he walked with Elijah throughout this his last day, he is taught the zeal and duties proper to God's servant, as well as God's glorious way of removing His servant from the sphere of his labours.
The scene which closed Elijah's service inaugurated Elisha's. If Elisha was naturally strong and qualified for hard and patient labour here on earth, he derives from the rapture of Elijah a power and an idea of God's ways and grace which must remain with him throughout his course, because his course dates from it; his mind is endowed, and his conceptions of God formed from it, and his ministry must be characterised by the communications and admonitions of his installation. Elisha could never forget that the power he had received was in consequence of that union of spirit with Elijah, which had resulted from his concentrated attention on him, as he was carried up into heaven. " If thou see me when I am taken from thee, it shall be so unto thee; but if not, it shall not be so," was Elijah's reply to his request for a double portion of his spirit. " And Elisha saw it." Here was the spring and source of all his subsequent power. " The spirit of Elijah doth rest upon Elisha," was the immediate testimony of the sons of the prophets, and according as the Spirit of God acted in him, must he ever afterwards have been carried back to this fine beginning, just as Paul must have recalled the moment when on his way to Damascus he was struck down by the " glory of that light." No doubt the dawn of God's grace in our souls and its effects on us indicate the traits of it which will characterise us subsequently, and we all find that the way in which the gospel is presented to and received by any soul at first, presages the character of its course.
Elijah having disappeared, Elisha's career is begun, and the first test of the grace conferred on him is Jordan, the type of actual death, not of the power of death, but as the last barrier between the wilderness and Canaan. A very suited test was this to be encountered by one endowed like Elisha ; and the first, because he must know at the outset the power which introduces him into God's inheritance, and that Jordan is the portal to it. Unless we pass Jordan we are not in the land, nor have we learnt how God will sustain us there, and how He will drive out before us all our adversaries. Elijah had crossed Jordan, leaving the land in testimony against its evil, heaven being then opened to him as his own personal portion. Elisha recrosses it, and re-enters the land in grace, and in the power of God's Spirit, which was to bear down every difficulty.
Very blessed are the exercises to which he is subjected. Even as the Spirit in double power descended on the church in consequence and in virtue of her union with her ascended Lord, so is it with Elisha : his eye had traced the power and glory of God's grace in removing His servant unto Himself, and now he is a witness of the same power on earth in the waters of Jordan being parted asunder for him to enter on his appointed service ; and thereby he must have learnt that through God every barrier would be broken down. Like Stephen, he had seen how God had raised man to His own glory, and like him, too, he proved that he himself was, through the power of God, victorious over death.
Elisha's first sphere of service in the land is Jericho, and the first opposition he has to encounter is that of those who, by their very calling, ought to have co-operated with him. The sons of the prophets, though they had seen and owned the power which clave the waters of Jordan, refuse to believe in the rapture of Elijah, and raise questions prompted by unbelief, until Elisha suffers them to do as they would, merely to expose their own folly ; for when people will not heed the warnings of the Spirit they must be left to learn by their own mistakes. Elisha learns on the other hand that no help or co-operation is to be expected from the sons of the prophets-the ordained ministry of the day - and that he must be prepared to encounter their ignorance and inapprehensiveness of the mind of God; a very necessary discovery for the servant of God in an evil day, and in such times of declension as Elisha was called to serve in.
Jericho comes after Jordan. Having surveyed the full range of God's grace-its glorious blessedness in the rapture of Elijah into heaven, and its power on earth in making a way for him through Jordan-he must, like Saul of Tarsus, be a minister of it in the place which judicially is at the greatest distance from God in the land of Israel the place of the curse. The men of the city in describing the place sum up in a few words the history of the whole world. " The situation is pleasant, as my lord seeth : but the water is naught, and the ground barren." What a picture! Fair to look upon, but unproductive of what alone can meet the necessities of man. Elisha is the one empowered to meet their need. It is a fine moment, and one of deep edification to his soul, when he is thus allowed to be the instrument of God's grace, and to pronounce the word of the Lord: " I have healed these waters," after putting salt therein out of a new cruse, and the " waters were healed unto this day."
Now this service, which must have established the heart of Elisha in the very grace which he ministered, was brought about by very simple though deeply effective education. He who has learnt for himself the grace and power of Jehovah in heaven above and on earth beneath, knows how to act for Him in scenes morally most distant from Him, as was Jericho; and thus was it with our Lord on the earth. But if Elisha be the minister of mercy, he must experience what it is to be rejected, and that in the very place most distinguished by the favour of God and the revelation of His goodness. From Bethel, the house of God, come forth youths to mock the ascension of Elijah, crying out as they do to Elisha, " Go up, thou bald head; go up, thou bald head." But the truth of God must be vindicated; and Elisha, though he be the minister of mercy, is the one to invoke judgment on the gainsayer of it. " He turned 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 of them." Thus in Jericho and at Bethel he learns two very different lessons. In the one, the mercy of God in meeting the need of man, and in the other, the recklessness of man (where God had shown most favour) and the consequent and terrible judgment that falls on him.
Elisha goes from thence to Carmel, for retirement I should suppose, but ere long he returns to Samaria-the scene of service. We must remember that he is properly filling up Elijah's mission which began with prayer (necessity on the earth looking to God) and closed in glory. And from this (the manifestation of the power of God in opening heaven for the reception of man) Elisha began; and, therefore, in studying his history we should expect to learn how the Lord conducts and uses one who thus begins from above and is not of the earth.
In Samaria he is introduced into a scene which discloses to him the political and moral state of all Israel; chap. 3. Moab has rebelled, and the king of Judah is found in unholy league with the kings of Israel and Edom; and the destruction of all three is threatened, not from the power of the enemy but the failure of water. What a condition and association for Jehoshaphat, the Lord's anointed, and one who was really a godly man, to be in! It is he, however, who at this juncture raises the inquiry, which is always that of a heart which knows the Lord but which is away from Him: " Is there not here a prophet of the Lord?" And this brings Elisha on the scene. An important moment it is to him: important as to the testimony of God which he bore, and as to the personal instruction with which it was fraught. Standing in the midst of the moral ruin of Israel, of which the scene before him was the witness, he, like the blessed One in later times, on the one hand denounces its apostasy, and on the other links himself with the little that remained for God. " What have I to do with thee? " he says to the king of Israel; " were it not that I regard the presence of Jehoshaphat, king of Judah, I would not look toward thee, nor see thee."
But though he can both feel the desolation of Israel, and recognise the remnant, he finds that he is not in a moment up to the mind of God concerning a state of things so discordant to the spiritual mind. He must pause and send for a minstrel. " And it came to pass, when the minstrel played, that the hand of the Lord came upon him." His mind must be diverted, and separated from the confusion and despair around him, before it could be so in tune as to be used of the Lord. His ministry was from above, and therefore, whenever there was danger of his falling into the current of things down here, it was necessary that he should be not only diverted from it, but so guided in the midst of it as to be free to receive and convey God's mind and purpose. Music is used to accomplish this in the soul of Elisha ; and the effect produced typifies that calm, unperturbed state of mind in which one must be to receive the mind of God above and beyond all that is passing around. If I would know that which is from above, even the counsel and mind of God, I must in myself be calm as to the circumstances around me; otherwise I shall not be able to see it or to act on it.
Elisha had now properly commenced his public ministry amid the apostasy. Hitherto he had been the minister of grace and judgment in a more private way; but now the widespread moral desolation of Israel is before him, and he learns to be calm in the midst of it, ere he announces the signal interposition of God on behalf of His people. This is education of the utmost importance. It is a great moment to the soul when it can stand still and see the salvation of the Lord; and especially so with Elisha; for we must again remember that he comes in contact with the ruin and destitution of Israel, after having started with the glorious manifestation of God's grace. He had seen first what God is, and now he is learning down here how ruined and necessitous are the people of the God of grace and glory, because of their apostasy and unbelief. And it is in meeting these varied distresses of God's people, and being exercised in his own soul as to the way in which God would meet each, that he himself is enlarged in the power and resources of God.
The next scene in which we find Elisha (chap- 4: 1) is where he is appealed to by a certain woman of the wives of the prophets, who cries to him, " Thy servant my husband is dead ; and thou knowest that thy servant did fear the Lord: and the creditor is come to take unto him my two sons to be bondmen." Here what is noticeable is not so much the nature of the distress as that a widow of one of the Lord's prophets in His own land should be reduced to such straits ; it reveals to us how entirely the nation must have forgotten and neglected the care of God, when such a case could be found there unrelieved.
Elisha is here from God to be a witness of this misery, and at first he is quite unprepared for such a case and says, " What shall I do for thee? " The extremity of it doubtless astonished him. Here was he, knowing the greatness and power of God toward His people, yet cognisant of the existence of distress peculiar and unprecedented, and it would seem at first as if it were beyond him. He had never before encountered such misery, but it is in such cases that the true servant is taught to trust in God, and by thus trusting to know what to do. Now the first thing for the heart that is simply resting in God is to take into account every provision of God personally possessed; and this is what Elisha does. " Hast thou anything in the house? " is his next question, and when he hears that she has a pot of off he directs her to borrow of her neighbours empty vessels-to be indebted to them only for empty vessels! for these were to contain God's abundant supplies ; and Elisha is vouchsafed the privilege of knowing that there was enough oil, not only to satisfy the creditor, but that from the largeness of the supply there was a provision for the widow and her sons. So ample and generous are God's mercies when they flow; and this is the most interesting and invigorating knowledge which can be communicated to any servant of God.
But, not only was Elisha to witness these things, he was to experience them himself ; not only was he to see things here in striking contrast to that manifestation of glory from which he started, but he must feel the contrast ; and if he minister to God's people in their necessities out of His fulness, he must feel the necessity and must suffer himself in God's inheritance, in spirit with Him who had not where to lay His head. He, the Lord of the earth, was indebted to a few women who " ministered to him of their substance," and Elisha is here found in somewhat similar circumstances (v. 8). A woman, a Shunammite, provides bread and lodging for him, and in this association he is to pass through in miniature the hopes and sorrows of God's. people. God often leads His servants into a small circle of service, wherein the principles of His full purpose are practically made known. It was so with Noah in the ark; with Abraham on Mount Moriah; with Paul with regard to the church ; with Elisha here. Israel, at this time, was like the Shunammite ; her husband was old, and there was no child for a continuation of their name ; so the nation was decaying, and ready to pass away, and there was no heir to carry it into new life and hopes.
Gehazi, who, I suppose, represents Israel after the flesh, sees and tells the prophet this state of things. Elisha promises a son, and a son is born. But before the harvest, before the feast of ingathering, the child dies, the hope of the family is no more, and the mother flies to the prophet in her distress. He is in Carmel, in retirement, and the depth to which Israel is reduced, as typified in this woman, is as yet unrevealed to him by the Lord (v. 27). But now he was not only to learn it, but his own soul was to pass through the wondrous way and manner of God's deliverance of His people from this, their low estate. This is quite new experience to Elisha, and only step by step is he brought into it. He must be taught that Gehazi and the prophet's own staff will not do; that no intervention will repair death; nothing but life can meet death, and this Elisha learns in his own person. It is he who is, through the power of God, made to communicate life to the dead child: a simple and distinct type of Him, who, Himself the Eternal Life, came into this world to impart it; but a wondrous place for a man to be set in and a wondrous display of God's grace to him, ignorant Q unacquainted as he had been with the sorrow that he is now empowered to relieve. In all the exercises which Elisha here passed through, as he walked to and fro in the house, and went up again and stretched himself upon the child and prayed, he is taught, though in a comparatively feeble way, what our Lord passed through so fully; on the one hand, the terribleness of death; and on the other, the blessedness of life.
We next find Elisha at Gilgal ; and here he has to meet the dearth of the land, the sons of the prophets sitting before him. The one who has learned the power and grace of God, as the life-giving God, can easily, trusting in Him in the face of all professors, relieve the casual distresses which afflict us in passing through this evil scene. He says to his servant, " Set on the great pot, and seethe pottage for the sons of the prophets " ; but what Elisha, as the servant of God, is preparing, is spoiled by the intermeddling of the unbelieving. The wild gourds, though supposed by the one who gathered them to be an acquisition, only added death to the pottage; and in the same way do all human additions to faith and to God's way bring death. Elisha, still trusting in the life-giving God, is equal to the emergency. He casts in meal and the deadly element is destroyed. A soul that is simply trusting in God will ever be able to carry out its purpose ; for it is of faith, though it may meet with interruptions and hindrances when it least expects them. Faith always increases by exercise, and its sphere or work is enlarged when used ; consequently we next find Elisha feeding the people (an hundred men) with only " twenty loaves of barley, and full ears of corn in the husk thereof," and notwithstanding the objections of the unbelieving servitor, he replies, " Give the people, that they may eat: for thus saith the Lord, They shall eat, and shall leave thereof."
We have now reached chapter 5 of 2 Kings, where Elisha is to act as the prophet of God outside the limits of Israel. He has been practically educated in the power of God, and therefore is prepared to say of Naaman the Syrian, " Let him come now to me, and he shall know that there is a prophet in Israel." And when Naaman obeys the summons, Elisha only sends a messenger to him, saying, " Go and wash in Jordan seven times, and thy flesh shall come again to thee, and thou shalt be clean." Although quite ready to succour the Syrian leper, he is no respecter of persons, and preserves the dignity of God's servant. He is there to send him forth for salvation and cure, but he makes no account of him as captain of the host of Syria. And hence, when Naaman is healed, Elisha refuses to take anything from him, in the true independence of the servant of God. He would help the Gentile, but not receive from him. And in principle we learn by the judgment passed on Gehazi that if we grasp at and acquire the goods of the world, we shall inevitably involve ourselves in its leprosy.
We should note, that in the history of Elisha there is less apparent need for discipline than in other servants. He is before us as endowed from above, and when we follow him, we see how aptly and beautifully the grace of God flows from the vessel according to the need it encounters ; and though we do not see the discipline through which he learnt so to yield himself to God, that he could fully display His mind-we know that it must have been so; and also that the best evidence of true effective discipline is the meekness and simplicity of heart with which I act according to the mind of God in the various and distinct cases occurring to me. In this light no history is more interesting than Elisha's ; the easy and divine way with which he meets every variety of difficulty is beautiful. It is instructive to us to follow him and see how the servant acts in each varied circumstance, and how the Lord used him to expound that grace which should be so supremely set forth in eternal power by the greatest of all servants-the Son of His love. To be ready as God's vessel for every emergency that arises is the end of all discipline.
Chapter 6. Here we have a circle of wondrous action reaching from a personal to a national calamity; embracing, I may say, in principle, every grade of human sorrow. First, the sons of the prophets, feeling the straitness of the place, propose to Elisha to go unto Jordan, and dwell there. He goes with them; and as one was felling a beam the axe head fell into the water, and he cried, " Alas, master 1 for it was borrowed." Elisha immediately enters into his sorrow and distress, which was not merely the loss, but the man's credit was at stake, because it was borrowed, and the prophet's tender consideration for his distress is very touching ; there is in him both tenderness and power to meet every anxious human sensibility. " And the man of God said, Where fell it? And he showed him the place. And he cut down a stick, and cast it in thither: and the iron did swim. Therefore said he, Take it up to thee. And he put out his hand, and took it."
We next find Elisha bringing about the defeat of the king of Syria, by warning the king of Israel of his approach; chap. 6: 9. And the king of Syria being apprised of this, and consequently exasperated against Elisha, sends spies to find out his abode ; and, having discovered it to be Dothan, he sends thither horses and chariots, and a great host, and compassed the city: all this warlike array being thought necessary to secure the person of one poor unarmed mana striking evidence (even as it was in a later day, when a company with swords and staves was sent out to take the blessed One) that the ungodly instinctively feel their own helplessness in the presence of the power of God, even when it only acts on their fellow-man.
The magnitude of this Syrian host was such, that Elisha's servant was terrified, and says, " Alas, my master! how shall we do? " And Elisha, in the power of that faith which had quieted his own soul., replies, " Fear not: for they that be with us are more than they that be with them." " If God be for us, who can be against us? " was the experience of his soul; and every anxiety of his own being disposed of, he can intercede for others ; he prays that his servant may be assured by that vision of faith which his own eye rested on. " Lord, I pray thee, open his eyes, that he may see." It is not enough for me to rest by faith myself on God's succour, or to ask others to do so., but I must seek to establish them in the power of it. Readily the Lord grants his request. The eyes of the young man are opened, and he sees the mountain full of horses and chariots of fire round about Elisha.
And now he prays again with a different request. When the host of Syria had terrified his servant, he had prayed that his eyes might be opened to see the host of God, and he was heard. Now he prays that the eyes of his enemies may be closed, and he is heard again. The Lord " smote them with blindness according to the word of Elisha " ; they are completely in his power ; he leads them away from the city into the midst of Samaria, and then with touching and instructive kindness and mercy he will allow no revenge to be taken of these captives, but says, " Set bread and water before them, that they may eat and drink, and go to their master." How simple and wonderful for a man to be thus led into the mind and resources of God, meeting every contingency in divine grace and strength ; treating the servant with as much consideration and attention as the king ; attaching as much importance to the loss of the borrowed axe head as to a city compassed about by armies ; thus proving that the circle of God's power and grace embraces the smallest as well as the greatest contingency!
Verse 24. We next find the king of Israel reduced to great straits (there is a famine in Samaria), and, imputing it to Elisha, he vows vengeance against him. Now this proves that no amount of mercy conferred can be remembered or appreciated by the human heart if the fear of death be still impending. Elisha bad been the witness and minister of God's grace and power in averting from the nation manifold calamities, and instead of there being respect or favour for him from the king for the past, his life is threatened unless he continues to succour them. At this juncture the prophet sat in the house and the elders sat with him, I conclude, waiting on God ; and be gets intimation from the Lord of the king's evil intention. When the messenger enters, he says, " Behold, this evil is of the Lord; what should I wait for the Lord any longer? " The time was now come to announce the word of the Lord, and he does so. " Thus saith the Lord, To-morrow about this time shall a measure of fine flour be sold for a shekel, and two measures of barley for a shekel, in the gate of Samaria." And so it came to pass.
This, the greatest, is the last recorded public service of Elisha to Israel. He had been used of God to show forth His power and grace, from the smallest to the greatest, in the whole circle of human necessity. And now it is over; though with him, as with his great Antitype, it might truly be said, he had " laboured in vain, he had spent his strength for naught." He now sends to anoint Jehu to be king over Israel (chap. 9), and he is to smite the house of Ahab, and avenge the blood of all the servants of the Lord.
The last recorded public event of his life is his interview with Hazael at Damascus; chap. 8: 7. The Lord had showed him that Ben-hadad king of Syria, was to die, and Hazael to reign in his stead and as he looked on Hazael he wept, knowing all the evil that he would do to the children of Israel. And with this, his last public act, we lose sight of our prophet on earth. He had started as the, witness of God's supreme power over death, and of the glory beyond it, and he had pursued his course down here, showing forth according to the revealed power of God, the manner and fulness of His mercy and succour to man. He now passes from our view, mourning for what he foresaw should befall God's people, though it was but the consequence of their own sin and folly. In the same way did the greater than Elisha wind up the history of His association with, and unrequited service to, Israel. He wept over the city which had refused to know the things that belonged unto her peace, and which was to pass under the judgment of God, because she knew not the time of her visitation. And from thence He passes from that perfect life-that work of grace which Elisha's had feebly foreshadowed-to the death in which Ehsha could not follow Him.
Yet when Elisha was " fallen sick of the sickness whereof he died " (2 Kings 13 : 14) ; when no longer able to be a public witness ; when Joash, the king of Israel, came down unto him and wept over his face, applying the very words which Elisha had used to Elijah at his rapture, " 0 my father, my father, the chariot of Israel, and the horsemen thereof " ; because the sun of Israel was setting in the person of this great prophet; even then, in this moment, when sinking into death, he is strong and mighty in the power and the grace of God. He tells Joash to take bow and arrow; and when at his direction the king had put his hand on the bow, Elisha put his hand on the king's hands and said, " Open the window eastward. And he opened it. Then Elisha said, Shoot. And he shot. And he said, The arrow of the Lord's deliverance." The Lord's grace towards His people was not yet exhausted. It was not only the arrow of His deliverance from Syria, but the direction to shoot eastward toward the rising sun told of coming glory. Elisha was passing away from the scene, sinking westward, as it were : but glory and power would come as the bright shining of the sun after rain. And in the confidence of this he directs the king of Israel to take the arrow and smite upon the ground. " And he smote thrice, and stayed. And the man of God was wroth with him, and said, Thou shouldest have smitten five or six times ; then hadst thou smitten Syria till thou hadst consumed it: whereas now thou shalt smite Syria but thrice."
In his very last moments the dying prophet has to meet with disappointment from the people whom he served, for they were unable to embrace in its full extent the grace offered to them. The king had no energy to be an instrument of that grace. True energy always shows itself in cheerful, abounding obedience, and the heart is conscious of it. Where there is faith, and according as there is, so is there the manifest expression of it, and the outward acts are always in correspondence with the inward power. How blessedly and how in keeping with his life does our prophet pass away! In his death he is full of the coming glory and deliverance, while he has to witness the feeble faith of those whom he served.
Elisha dies, but so great is the power of life by which his whole history is characterised, that mere contact with his bones restores to life a corpse which was thrown into his sepulchre. The power of God in grace and resurrection life were set forth by him ; and not only is he here a voice from the dead, but a pledge of that power which will yet restore Israel to life.
The Lord give us to learn of Himself, to be meek and lowly of heart, doing His will, that He may be able to use us for any expression of His grace that He chooses, be it little difficulties or for great exigencies, to the praise of His name. Amen.