2 Kings 2:1-14
After the confrontation between Elijah and the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18), Elijah fled Jezebel’s wrath and fell into despair (1 Kings 19:1ff.). Yahweh reassured him that there were seven thousand who had not bowed to Baal, and told him to anoint Hazael as king over Aram and Jehu as king over Israel and Elisha as Elijah’s successor (1 Kings 19:15-16). Elisha became Elijah’s disciple (1 Kings 19:19-21), but then disappeared from the narrative. Now we hear of him once again as he prepares to succeed Elijah (2 Kings 2).
The prophets’ names are instructive. “El” is a word for God. Elijah’s name (Hebrew: ˒ē∙liy∙yāˊ∙hū) means El is Yah or “God is Yahweh.” Elisha’s name (Hebrew: ˒ěl-∙˒ělî∙šā˓ˊ – “God is salvation”) is similar in pronunciation and meaning to Joshua’s name (Hebrew: yeho-sua – “Yahweh saves”).
“Throughout his ministry, Elijah is a new Moses, and Elisha his Joshua. Ahab is Pharaoh, and once his son dies (Passover), Elijah and Elisha leave the land whose gods are defeated and whose prince is dead (exodus). Elijah departs on the far side of the Jordan, as Moses does, while Elisha returns to carry on a conquest, significantly starting at Jericho” (Leithart, 172; see also Thomas L. Brodie, The Crucial Bridge: The Elijah-Elisha Narratives as an Interpretive Synthesis of Genesis-Kings and a Literary Model for the Gospels [Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1999]). (NOTE: Ahaziah was Ahab’s son, and his death is recorded in 2 Kings 1:17-18).
2 KINGS 2:1-3. WHEN YAHWEH WOULD TAKE UP ELIJAH INTO HEAVEN
1It happened, when Yahweh (Hebrew: yhwh – Yahweh) would take up Elijah by a whirlwind into heaven, that Elijah went with Elisha from Gilgal. 2Elijah said to Elisha, “Please wait here, for Yahweh has sent me as far as Bethel.”
Elisha said, “As Yahweh lives, and as your soul lives, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel.
3The sons of the prophets who were at Bethel came out to Elisha, and said to him, “Do you know that Yahweh will take away your master from your head today?”
He said, “Yes, I know it; hold your peace.”
“It happened, when Yahweh would take up Elijah by a whirlwind into heaven” (v. 1a). Yahweh has determined to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind. Elijah’s life has been stormy, and his departure will be stormy as well.
“that Elijah went with Elisha from Gilgal” (v. 1b). The journey that Elijah and Elisha trace in these verses (Gilgal to Bethel to Jericho to the Jordan River) appears to be circuitous. If this is the Gilgal on the Jordan River (see Joshua 4:1-9), the journey begins and ends at the Jordan. Bethel is located a few miles north of Jerusalem. Jericho is located about 12 miles (20 km) east of Bethel and about 6 miles (10 km) west of the Jordan River. Once Elijah and Elisha are en route from Bethel to the Jordan River, Jericho is a logical stop along the way.
However, the significance of these places has more to do with their history than their geography. Gilgal is where the Israelites crossed the Jordan River to occupy the Promised Land (Joshua 4:1-9). Bethel is mentioned several times in the account of Israel occupying the Promised Land (Joshua 7:2, 8:9, 12, 17; 12:9, 16; 16:1). Jericho was the site of Israel’s first great victory in the occupation of the Promised Land (Joshua 6). The Jordan River is the barrier that the Israelites crossed to occupy the Promised Land (Joshua 3). By visiting these places, Elijah is reconnecting with the great Joshua narratives of Israel’s early history.
“Elijah said to Elisha, ‘Please wait here, for Yahweh (yhwh – Yahweh) has sent me as far as Bethel.’ Elisha said, ‘As Yahweh (yhwh – Yahweh) lives, and as your soul lives, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel” (v. 2). Elijah three times (vv. 2, 4, 6) tells Elisha to stay where he is and Elisha three times insists on accompanying Elijah on his journey. On each occasion, Elijah says that Yahweh has sent him to a given place, and on each occasion Elisha invokes Yahweh’s name in explaining why he insists on accompanying Elijah. We are not told why Elijah wants Elisha to remain behind. Perhaps he believes that Yahweh intends him to travel alone. Perhaps he is testing Elisha’s commitment.
“The sons of the prophets who were at Bethel came out to Elisha, and said to him, ‘Do you know that Yahweh will take away your master from your head today?’He said, ‘Yes, I know it; hold your peace'” (v. 3). On three occasions in three different locations (vv. 3, 5, 7), Elijah and Elisha encounter three different companies of prophets. On the first two occasions, the prophets tell Elisha that Yahweh will take Elijah away that very day, and on both occasions Elisha silences the prophets. On the third occasion, the prophets simply watch as Elijah rolls up his mantel, strikes the river, and parts the water.
2 KINGS 2:4-5. ELISHA, PLEASE WAIT HERE
4Elijah said to him, “Elisha, please wait here, for Yahweh has sent me to Jericho.”
He said, “As Yahweh lives, and as your soul lives, I will not leave you.” So they came to Jericho.
5The sons of the prophets who were at Jericho came near to Elisha, and said to him, “Do you know that Yahweh will take away your master from your head today?”
He answered, “Yes, I know it. Hold your peace.”
See the comments on verses 2-3.
2 KINGS 2:6-8. ELIJAH TOOK HIS MANTLE AND STRUCK THE WATERS
6Elijah said to him, “Please wait here, for Yahweh has sent me to the Jordan.”
He said, “As Yahweh lives, and as your soul lives, I will not leave you.” They both went on.
7Fifty men of the sons of the prophets went, and stood opposite them at a distance; and they both stood by the Jordan. 8Elijah took his mantle, and wrapped it together, and struck the waters, and they were divided here and there, so that they two went over on dry ground.
“Elijah took his mantle, and wrapped it together, and struck the waters, and they were divided here and there, so that they two went over on dry ground” (v. 8). This is reminiscent of Moses at the Red Sea. At Yahweh’s direction, Moses lifted up his staff and stretched it out over the water to divide the water so that the Israelites could cross through the sea on dry ground (Exodus 14:16, 21-22).
This is also reminiscent of Israel crossing the Jordan on dry ground (Joshua 3). In that instance, when the priests bearing the ark stepped into the water of the Jordan River, the water stopped flowing and stood in a single heap so that all Israel could cross the river on dry ground (Joshua 3:17). Yahweh used this action to exalt Joshua “that they may know that as I was with Moses, so I will be with you” (Joshua 3:7).
Moses, Joshua, and Elijah each use their symbol of God-given authority (staff, ark, or mantle) to accomplish the task.
A mantle is an outer robe worn for protection against the elements and, like certain items of clothing today (liturgical vestments, academic robes), can signify one’s status or position.
“so that they two went over on dry ground” (v. 8b). When Elijah and Elisha cross the Jordan, they pass from “the settled land governed by the king into the wilderness, the inscrutable land of mystery” (Brueggemann, Smyth & Helwys, 295). It was in the wilderness that Israel Yahweh shaped the people of Israel after their departure from Egypt, and it was in the wilderness that Elijah began his ministry (1 Kings 17:3). The wilderness is rough country that encourages people to rely on God. The wilderness will continue to have spiritual significance in the New Testament (Matthew 3:1, 3; 4:1, etc.).
2 KINGS 2:9-12. LET A DOUBLE PORTION OF YOUR SPIRIT BE ON ME
9It happened, when they had gone over, that Elijah said to Elisha, “Ask what I shall do for you, before I am taken from you.”
Elisha said, “Please let a double portion of your spirit be on me.”
10He said, “You have asked a hard thing. If you see me when I am taken from you, it shall be so for you; but if not, it shall not be so.”
11It happened, as they still went on, and talked, that behold, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated them; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven. 12Elisha saw it, and he cried, “My father, my father, the chariots of Israel and its horsemen!”
He saw him no more: and he took hold of his own clothes, and tore them in two pieces.
“Ask what I shall do for you” (v. 9a). Elijah does not promise to give Elisha whatever he asks, but simply invites him to ask.
“before I am taken from you” (v. 9b). Elijah obviously knows that he will be taken away. We don’t know when he learned this or whether he knows the manner in which he will be taken away.
“Please let a double portion of your spirit be on me” (v. 9c). Some scholars believe that Elisha is asking for a double portion of Elijah’s prophetic ability (Leithart, 174), but most think that he is asking for the double-portion of the inheritance that is the right of the firstborn son (Deuteronomy 21:17). A double portion of an inheritance would not be twice the father’s material worth. On the contrary, the father would divide the inheritance into equal parts—the number of parts equal to the number of sons plus one. For instance, a father with five sons would divide the inheritance into six parts. He would give the firstborn son two parts and every other son one part. The firstborn son would thus inherit twice as much as any of his brothers, but far less than his father’s total worth—certainly not double his father’s worth.
In this case, Elisha is not asking Elijah to give him a material inheritance (land or money), but is asking for “a double share of your spirit”—a spiritual inheritance. This is no small thing. Elijah’s spirit gave him power over death (1 Kings 17:17-24) and kings (1 Kings 21) (Brueggemann, Texts for Preaching, 174).
“You have asked a hard thing” (v. 10a). This request is “a hard thing” because Elijah does not have the power to convey his spiritual authority to Elisha. Only Yahweh can grant such a gift. Elijah knows that Yahweh has designated Elisha as his successor (1 Kings 19:16), but cannot dictate to Yahweh the terms of the succession.
“If you see me when I am taken from you, it shall be so for you; but if not, it shall not be so” (v. 10b). Elijah gives Elisha the sign by which Elisha will know whether Yahweh has granted his request or not. If he sees Elijah being taken away, the gift will be granted. Otherwise, it will not.
“It happened, as they still went on, and talked, that behold, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated them” (v. 11a). Chariots and horses are symbols of military might. “But in a nation riddled with Baal worship, they (are) a refutation of the false claim that Baal (is) the ‘rider of the clouds.’ God alone ‘ rides on the heavens for your help, In his excellency on the skies’ (Deut. 33:26)” (Inrig, 205; see also Deuteronomy 20:1; 2 Kings 6:15-17).
In Israel’s history, fire has often been a sign of God’s presence (Exodus 3:2; 13:21; 19:18; 24:17; Deuteronomy 4:12). Yahweh used fire to demonstrate his power on two occasions in Elijah’s life, most notably when fire from heaven consumed Elijah’s sacrifice on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18). Later, Elijah denounced King Ahaziah, Ahab’s son, and Ahaziah sent a captain with fifty soldiers to capture Elijah. Elijah called down fire from heaven to consume the captain and his soldiers—an action that he repeated with a second band of soldiers (2 Kings 1:9-12).
The chariot of fire and horses of fire separate Elijah from Elisha. Elisha has insisted on going with Elijah wherever he goes, but the fiery chariot and horses prevent him from doing so this time.
“and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven” (v. 11b). We usually imagine Elijah to have ridden in the chariot of fire into heaven. However, some scholars interpret verse 11b to mean that Elijah ascended in a whirlwind and not in a chariot (Wiseman, 195; Fretheim, 138; Brueggemann, Smyth & Helwys, 297). But it seems possible that Elijah rode in the chariot as he ascended in the whirlwind (House, 257).
Elijah is the second man to be honored by escaping death. Enoch was the first (Genesis 5:24).
“Elisha saw it, and he cried, ‘My father, my father'” (v. 12a). Elijah and Elisha have enjoyed the relationship of a prophet and his disciple, which is very much like that of a father and a son. It would not be unusual for a disciple to call his prophet “father.”
“the chariots of Israel and its horsemen” (v. 12b). We can’t know with certainty what Elijah means by this phrase. He could be seeing a grand vision of a heavenly host, or he could be referring to Elijah’s ministry to Israel—a ministry more powerful than chariots and horsemen.
In any event, Elijah promised that Elisha would know that his request was granted if he saw Elijah being taken away—and it is clear that Elisha sees that.
“He saw him no more: and he took hold of his own clothes, and tore them in two pieces” (v. 12c). Like all grand visions, this one comes to an end. Elisha tears his clothing as a sign of mourning. He has lost his mentor and closest friend. Now the responsibility for prophecy will fall on his shoulders.
2 KINGS 2:13-14. HE TOOK UP THE MANTLE OF ELIJAH
13He took up also the mantle of Elijah that fell from him, and went back, and stood by the bank of the Jordan. 14He took the mantle of Elijah that fell from him, and struck the waters, and said, “Where is Yahweh, the God of Elijah?” When he also had struck the waters, they were divided here and there; and Elisha went over.
“He took up also the mantle of Elijah that fell from him, and went back, and stood by the bank of the Jordan” (v. 13). Elijah leaves nothing material behind as an inheritance except this mantle. The mantle, however, signifies his authority as Yahweh’s prophet, and that is Elijah’s real legacy.
“He took the mantle of Elijah that fell from him, and struck the waters, and said, ‘Where is Yahweh, the God of Elijah?’ When he also had struck the waters, they were divided here and there; and Elisha went over” (v. 14). The parallel between this action and that of Moses stretching out his hand to divide the Red Sea (Exodus 14:21) is obvious.
Elisha’s ability to part the water confirms that he now possesses Elijah’s spiritual powers.
2 KINGS 2:15-19. POSTSCRIPT
In these verses (not included in the lectionary readings), a company of prophets beseeches Elisha to allow them to send fifty strong men to search for Elijah. Elisha initially denies their request, but eventually he succumbs to their repeated entreaties. They search, but find nothing. This serves to confirm that Elijah has been transported to heaven rather than being hurled across the landscape by a whirlwind.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Achtemeier, Elizabeth, in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The First Readings: The Old Testament and Acts (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001)
Brueggemann, Walter, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: 1 & 2 Kings (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Incorporated, 2000)
Brueggemann, Walter; Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV — Year B (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993)
Dilday, Russell H., The Preacher’s Commentary: 1 & 2 Kings (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1987)
Fretheim, Terence E., Westminster Bible Companion: 1-2 Kings (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999)
Hens-Piazza, Gina, Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries: 1-2 Kings (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006)
Hinton, Linda B., Basic Bible Commentary: First and Second Kings (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1988)
Hobbs, T. R., Word Biblical Commentary: 2 Kings, Vol. 13 (Dallas, Word Books, 1985)
House, Paul R., New American Commentary: 1, 2 Kings, Vol. 8 (Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1995)
Inrig, Gary, Holman Old Testament Commentary: I & II Kings (Nashville: Holman Reference, 2003)
Leithart, Peter, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: 1 & 2 Kings (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006)
Nelson, Richard D., Interpretation Commentary: I and II Kings (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1987)
Provan, Iain W., New International Biblical Commentary: 1 and 2 Kings (Peabody, Massachusetts, Hendrickson Publishers, 1995)
Seow, Choon-Leong, The New Interpreters Bible: 1-2 Kings, Vol. III (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999)
Smith, Norman H. (Exegesis) and Sockman, Ralph W. (Exposition), The Interpreter’s Bible: Kings, Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Job (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1954)
Tucker, Gene M. in Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, B (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1993)
Wiseman, Donald J., Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, 1 & 2 Kings (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1993)
Copyright 2007, 2010, Richard Niell Donovan