King Ahab, the enemy of Elijah, has died and his son Ahaziah has taken his place as king of Israel (the year is 853 BC). Elijah is still the anointed prophet of God, but his time is coming to an end. Some years earlier Elijah had already selected his successor, a young man named Elisha (see 1 Kings 19), but Elijah had a few remaining things to take care of before he was taken to heaven by God Himself.
As 2 Kings 1 opens, we learn that King Ahaziah has an unfortunate accident. He falls through a window in his home and seriously injures himself. Instead of consulting Yahweh or one of God’s prophets about his condition, he instead sends messengers to consult a Philistine god, Baal-Zebub. Baal-Zebub translates to “Lord of the flies” but most scholars seem to think that the writer of 2 Kings deliberately altered the real name of the god, Baal-Zebul, which means “Lord Prince” or “Exalted Lord,” to ridicule the fictional Philistine god.
The angel of the Lord gives a message to Elijah for Ahaziah: “Is it because there is no God in Israel that you are sending men to consult Baal-Zebub, the god of Ekron? Therefore you will not leave the bed you are lying on. You will certainly die!”
Elijah intercepts Ahaziah’s messengers on their way to Ekron and delivers the message from the angel of the Lord. The messengers return to Ahaziah and relay the message. Ahaziah’s reaction is to send two groups of 50 fifty soldiers to arrest Elijah and bring him to the king, but each group is immolated by fire from God. Amazingly, Ahaziah then sends a third group of soldiers, but this time the captain of the fifty begs Elijah for mercy instead of ordering Elijah to come with him as the previous two captains had done.
The angel of the Lord instructs Elijah to go with this third captain to personally deliver God’s message to Ahaziah. Elijah does indeed deliver the message to the king and the king dies shortly thereafter. His brother, Jehoram (or Joram), takes his place as king of Israel. Jehoram would reign for 12 years before his death, thus ending Ahab’s dynasty, as Elijah predicted.
Chapter 2 of 2 Kings records the passing of the baton from Elijah to Elisha. Elijah knows that today is his last day on earth because God has told him. Elijah travels to three different locations during the day (Bethel, Jericho, and the Jordan River), each separated by several miles. Each time he arrives, he suggests that Elisha stay behind and rest, but Elisha insists that he follow Elijah wherever he goes that day.
The implication is that Elijah is testing Elisha’s commitment to assuming the responsibility of becoming the primary prophet of God in Israel, taking over Elijah’s work. If Elisha will not follow his master to the very end of his life, then he is not fit to be the Prophet of Israel.
When they reach the Jordan River, Elijah rolls up his cloak, strikes the water, and the river dries up, allowing them to cross on dry land. After they’ve crossed, Elijah asks Elisha what he wants and Elisha responds that he wants to inherit a double portion of Elijah’s spirit. Since the firstborn of any man was entitled to his successor as head of the family, and the firstborn would receive a double portion of the inheritance given to all the children, Elisha was effectively asking to become Elijah’s spiritual successor.
Elijah tells Elisha that the evidence that God has chosen Elisha will be if Elisha sees Elijah taken up to heaven. Sure enough, as they are walking, “suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind. Elisha saw this and cried out, ‘My father! My father! The chariots and horsemen of Israel!’ And Elisha saw him no more. Then he took hold of his own clothes and tore them apart.”
The chariot and horses of fire represent the might and power of the God of Israel. Elijah was used by God to project His power into the land of Israel. Likewise, Elisha would now be the chariot and horses of fire for Israel. Elisha considered Elijah to be a father to him and when Elijah departs in a violent storm, accompanied by chariots and horses of fire, he is overwhelmed and tears his clothes in mourning.
The final day of Elijah and the manner of his departure are full of theological importance. Consider the words of Paul R. House in 1, 2 Kings: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture (The New American Commentary):
Elijah’s ‘death’ has proven as spectacular as his life. Just as fire from heaven once proved Yahweh is more powerful than Baal, so now a similar heavenly fire proves that Elijah is the prophet par excellence. And just as another fire from heaven protected him from wicked King Ahaziah (1:9–12), so now it removes Elijah permanently from any further dangers or discouragements. Cogan and Tadmor note that this nondeath ‘invested him with the quality of eternal life, surpassing even Moses, the father of all prophets, who died and was buried (albeit by God himself: Deut 34:5–6).’ Because he never dies, Elijah later becomes the symbol for great future prophets, including the forerunner of the Messiah (Mal 4:5–6). Several Jewish legends also rise up concerning him, and the New Testament patterns its portrayal of John the Baptist (Matt 3:1–12; John 1:19–23) and one of the two witnesses of Rev 11:1–14 after Elijah’s ministry.
Elijah is understood by Jews to be the second Moses. His life has several parallels with Moses. John J. Bimson writes in the New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition,
Previous events in Elijah’s life recalled aspects of Moses’ ministry, e.g. like Moses, Elijah received a revelation of God on Mt Horeb, and his slaughter of the prophets of Baal had echoes of the aftermath of the golden calf incident (Ex. 32:25–29). Now he crossed to the eastern side of the Jordan (in a manner similar to the crossing of the Red Sea under Moses’ leadership), where Moses’ ministry also came to an end. Indeed, the end of Moses’ life was almost as mysterious as that of Elijah’s (Dt. 34:6). The parallels between the lives of the two men are underlined in the NT when they both appear speaking to Jesus at his transfiguration (Mt. 17:3).
Moses was the mediator of the covenant at Sinai/Horeb, the prophet (Dt. 18:15; 34:10) through whom Israel was brought into that covenant relationship and made the people of God. Elijah was the prophet through whom the people were turned back to the Sinai covenant and Israel’s special status was saved. In short, the parallels with Moses dramatically heighten Elijah’s importance in Israel’s history and in the books of Kings in particular.
Now that Elijah is gone, the reader wonders if God will give Elisha his mantle. Elisha calls out to God and strikes the Jordan River as Elijah did. The river dries up and he crosses back over to the western side, in the sight of a company of prophets. The prophets acknowledge that the spirit of Elijah has passed to Elisha and they bow down in respect.
In the remaining verses of chapter 2, Elisha is twice more confirmed as the successor of Elijah, the messenger of God. First, Elisha travels to Jericho from the Jordan River (just as Joshua did) and performs a miracle which purifies the polluted water supply. Recall that Joshua has cursed Jericho, but Elisha has now lifted the curse. Second, as Elisha travels from Jericho to Bethel, a large group of young men (more than 40) mocks and threatens Elisha. As Elisha is now the spokesman for God in Israel, the young men are not only insulting Elisha, but they are insulting God Himself. Elisha curses them and God sends two bears into their midst; the bears maul 42 of them.
Just as Elijah is the second Moses, Elisha is the second Joshua. John Bimson writes,
If Elijah is identified as a second Moses, Elisha would appear to be in the mold of Joshua. As Joshua succeeded Moses as leader of the people, so Elisha succeeded Elijah, crossing the Jordan on dry land from east to west as Joshua did (14) and following in Joshua’s footsteps by going on to Jericho (15–22). (Even Elisha’s name recalls that of Joshua. Elisha means ‘God is salvation’, while Joshua means ‘Yahweh is salvation’.)
Elisha would serve God in Israel for about half a century and would perform numerous miracles intended to bring the people of Israel back to the true God who brought them out of Egypt.