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IN THE INTRODUCTION we noted the close connection between the missions and ministries of Elijah and Elisha. Let us now consider the personal relation that existed between the two prophets themselves. This is something more than a point of interest. It throws light upon the character and career of the latter, and it enables us to discern the deeper spiritual meaning which is to be found in this portion of the Word. There was a twofold relation between them: one official, and the other more intimate.
The former is seen in 1 Kings 19:16 where we learn that Elijah was commanded to “anoint Elisha to be prophet,” and it is worthy of note that while it is generally believed all the prophets were officially “anointed” yet Elisha’s case is the only one expressly recorded in Scripture. Next we learn that immediately following his call, Elisha “went after Elijah and ministered unto him” ( 1 Kings 19:21), so the relation between them was that of master and servant, confirmed by the statement that he “poured water on the hands of Elijah” ( 2 Kings 3:11).
But there was more than an official union between these two men; the ties of affection bound them together. There is reason to believe that Elisha accompanied Elijah during the last ten years of his earthly life, and during the closing scenes we are shown how closely they were knit together and how strong was the love of the younger man to his master. During their lengthy journey from Gilgal to the Jordan, Elijah said to his companion again and again, “Tarry ye here, I pray thee.” But nothing could deter Elisha from spending the final hours in the immediate presence of the one who had won his heart or make him willing to break their communion. So they “still went on, and talked” ( 2 Kings 2:11). Observe how the Spirit has emphasized this. First “they went down to Bethel” ( 2 Kings 2:2), but later “they two went on” ( 2 Kings 2:6); “they two stood by Jordan” ( 2 Kings 2:7); “they two went on dry ground” ( 2 Kings 2:8). They refused to be separated. But when it was necessary, Elisha cried, “My father, my father” (a term of endearment), and in token of his deep grief “took hold of his own clothes and rent them in two pieces.”
GOD’S COMMAND TO ELIJAH As the invariable rule of Scripture, it is the first mention which supplies the key to all that follows: “Elisha, the son of Shaphat, of Abel-melolah shalt thou anoint to be prophet in thy room” ( 1 Kings 19:16).
Those words signify something more than that he was to be his successor.
This is confirmed by the fact that when he found Elisha, Elijah “cast his mantle upon him” ( 1 Kings 19:19) which signified the closest possible identification. It is very remarkable to find that when Joash the king of Israel visited the dying Elisha he uttered the selfsame words over him as the prophet had used when Elijah was departing from this world. Elisha cried, “My father, my father, the chariot of Israel and the horsemen thereof” — the real defense of Israel ( 2 Kings 2:12), and Joash said, “O my father, my father, the chariot of Israel and the horsemen thereof” ( 2 Kings 13:14).
Another detail which serves to manifest the relation between the two prophets is found in the striking reply made by Elisha to the question of his master: “Ask what I shall do for thee before I be taken from thee,” namely, “I pray thee, let a double portion of thy spirit be upon me” ( 2 Kings 2:9).
That his request was granted appears clear from the sequel. “If thou see me when I am taken from thee, it shall be so unto thee,” and 2 Kings 2:12 assures us “and Elisha saw.” Moreover, when the young prophets saw him smite the waters of the Jordan with his master’s mantle so that they “parted hither and thither,” they exclaimed, “The spirit of Elijah doth rest on Elisha” ( 2 Kings 2:15). The “double portion” was that which pertained to the firstborn or oldest son and heir: “But he shall acknowledge the son of the hated for the firstborn, by giving him a double portion of all that he hath: for he is the beginning of his strength: the right of the firstborn is his” ( Deuteronomy 21:17; and cf. 1 Chronicles 5:1).
Elisha, then, was far more than the historical successor of Elijah. He was appointed and anointed to be his representative — we might almost say, his “ambassador.” He was the man who had been called by God to take Elijah’s place before Israel. Though Elijah had left this scene and gone on high, yet he would be so in spirit. Elisha was to be in “his room” ( Kings 19:16), for the starting point of his mission was the ascension of his master. Now what, we may ask, is the spiritual significance of this? What is the important instruction to be found in it for us today? Surely the answer is not far to seek. The relation between Elijah and Elisha was that of master and servant. Since the anointing of Elisha into the prophetic office is the only case of its kind expressly recorded in Scripture, are we not required to look upon it as a representative or pattern one? Since Elijah was a figure of Christ, is it not evident that Elisha is a type of those servants specially called to represent Him here upon earth?
The conclusion drawn above is manifestly confirmed by all the preliminary details recorded of Elisha before he entered upon his life’s work. Those details may all be summed up under the following heads: his call, the testings to which he was submitted and from which he successfully emerged, the oath he was required to follow, and the special endowment which he received equipping him for his service. The closer these details are examined and the more they are prayerfully pondered, the more evidently will it appear to anointed eyes that the experiences through which Elisha passed are those which, substantially, each genuine servant of Christ is required to encounter. Let us consider them in the order named. First, the call of which he was the recipient. This was his induction into the sacred ministry. It was a clear and definite call by God, the absence of which makes it the height of presumption for anyone to invade the holy office.
ELIJAH SUMMONS TO ELISHA The summons which Elisha received to quit his temporal avocation and to henceforth devote the whole of his time and energies to God and His people is noted in, “So he departed thence, and found Elisha the son of Shaphat, who was ploughing with twelve yoke of oxen before him, and he was with the twelfth: and Elijah passed by him and cast his mantle upon him” ( 1 Kings 19:19).
Observe how that here, as everywhere, God took the initiative. Elisha was not seeking Him, but the Lord through Elijah sought him out. Elisha was not found in his study but in the field, not with a book in his hand, but at the plow. As one of the Puritans said when commenting thereon, “God seeth not as man seeth, neither does He choose men because they are fit, but He fits them because He hath chosen them.” Sovereignty is stamped plainly upon the divine choice, as appears also in the calling of the sons of Zebedee while “mending their nets” ( Matthew 4:21), of Levi while he was “sitting at the receipt of custom” ( Matthew 9:9), and Saul of Tarsus when persecuting the early Christians.
Though Elisha does not appear to have been seeking or expecting a call from the Lord to engage in His service, yet it is to be noted that he was actively engaged when the call came to him, as was each of the others alluded to above. The ministry of Christ is no place for idlers and drones, who wish to spend much of their time driving around in fancy cars or being entertained in the homes of their members and friends. No, it is a vocation which calls for constant self-sacrifice, and which demands tireless devotion to the performance of duty. Those then are most likely to be sincere and energetic in the ministry who are industrious and businesslike in their temporal avocation. Alas, how many who wish to shirk their natural responsibilities and shelve hard work have entered the ministry to enjoy a life of comparative ease. Elisha means “God is Savior” and his father’s name Shaphat signifies; “judge.” Abel-meholah is literally “meadow of the dance” and was a place in the inheritance of Issachar, at the north of the Jordan valley. Elisha’s father was evidently a man of some means for he had “twelve yoke of oxen” engaged in plowing, yet he did not allow his son to grow up in idleness as is so often the case with the wealthy. It was while Elisha was usefully engaged, in the performance of duty, undertaking the strenuous work of plowing, that he was made the recipient of a divine call into special service. This was indicated by the approach of the prophet Elijah and his casting his mantle — the insignia of his office — upon him. It was a clear intimation of his own investiture of the prophetic office. This call was accompanied by divine power, the Holy Spirit moving Elisha to accept the same, as may be seen from the promptness and decidedness of his response.
Before we look at his response, let us consider the very real and stern test to which Elisha was subjected. The issue was clearly drawn. To enter upon the prophetic office, to identify himself with Elijah, meant a drastic change in his manner of life. It meant the giving up of a lucrative worldly position, the leaving of the farm, for the servant and soldier of Jesus Christ must not “entangle himself with the affairs of this life” ( 2 Timothy 2:4). (Paul’s laboring at “tent-making” was quite the exception to the rule and a sad reflection upon the parsimoniousness of those to whom he ministered.) It meant the breaking away from home and natural ties. Said the Lord Jesus, “He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” ( Matthew 10:37).
If such immoderate affection was an effectual bar to Christian discipleship ( Luke 14:26), how much more so from the Christian ministry. The test often comes at this very point. It did so with the present writer, who was called to labor in a part of the Lord’s vineyard thousands of miles from his native land, so that he did not see his parents for thirteen years.
ELISHA’S RESPONSE TO THE CALL There was first, then, the testing of Elisha’s affections, but he shrank not from the sacrifice he was now called upon to make. “And he left the oxen and ran after Elijah.” Note the alacrity, the absence of any reluctance. And he said, “Let me, I pray thee, kiss my father and my mother and I will follow thee.” Observe his humble spirit. He had already taken the servant’s place, and would not even perform a filial duty without first receiving permission from his master. Let any who may be exercised in mind as to whether they have received a call to the ministry search and examine themselves at this point, to see if such a spirit has been wrought in them.
The nature of Elisha’s request shows clearly that he was not a man devoid of natural feelings, but an affectionate son, warmly attached to his parents.
Far from being an excuse for delaying his obedience to the call, it was a proof of his promptness in accepting it and of his readiness to make a deliberate break from all natural ties. “And he [Elijah] said unto him, Go back again: for what have I done to thee?” ( 1 Kings 19:20).
It was as though the prophet said, “Do not act impulsively, but sit down and count the cost before you definitely commit yourself.” Elijah did not seek to influence or persuade him. “It is not to me but to God you are accountable — it is His call which you are to weigh.” He knew quite well that if the Holy Spirit were operating, He would complete the work and Elisha would return to him.
Oh that the rank and file of God’s people would heed this lesson. How many a young man, never called of God, has been pressed into the ministry by well-meaning friends who had more zeal than knowledge. None may rightly count upon the divine blessing in the service of Christ unless he has been expressly set apart thereto by the Holy Spirit ( Acts 13:2). One of the most fearful catastrophies which has come upon the churches (and those terming their’s “assemblies”) during the past century has been the repetition of what God complained of old: “I have not sent these prophets, yet they ran” ( Jeremiah 23:21). To intrude into the sacred office calls down heaven’s curse ( 2 Samuel 6:6-7).
But Elisha’s acceptance of this call from God not only meant the giving up of a comfortable worldly position and the breaking away from home and natural ties; it also involved his following or casting his lot with one who was very far from being a popular hero. Elijah had powerful enemies who more than once had made determined attempts on his life. Those were dangerous times, when persecution was not only a possibility but a probability. It was well then for Elisha to sit down and count the cost; by consorting with Elijah, he would be exposed to the malice of Jezebel and all her priests. The same is true in principle of the Christian minister. Christ is despised and rejected of men, and to be faithfully engaged in His service is to court the hostility not only of the secular but of the religious world as well. It was on religious grounds that Jezebel persecuted Elijah, and it is by the false prophets of Christendom and their devotees that the genuine ministers of God will be most hated and hounded. Nothing but love for Christ and His people will enable Elisha to triumph over his enemies. “And he returned back from him and 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.” This farewell feast was a token of joy at his new calling, an expression of gratitude to God for His distinguishing favor, and the burning of the oxen’s tackle a sign that he was bidding a final adieu to his old employment. Those oxen and tools of industry, wherein his former labors had been bestowed, were now gladly devoted to the celebration of the high honor of being called to engage in the service of God Himself.
Those who rightly esteem the sacred ministry will freely renounce every other interest and pleasure, though called upon to labor amid poverty and persecution; yea, they who enter into the work of our heavenly Master without holy cheerfulness are not at all likely to prosper therein. Levi the publican made Christ “a great feast in his own house” to celebrate his call to the ministry, inviting a great company thereto ( Luke 5:27-29). “Then he arose and went after Elijah.” See here the power of the Holy Spirit! The evidence of God’s effectual call is a heart made willing to respond. Divine grace is able to subdue every lust, conquer every prejudice, surmount every difficulty. Elisha left his worldly employment, the riches to which he was heir, his parents and friends, and threw in his lot with one who was an outcast. Thus it was with Moses, who “refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter; Choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season; Esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt: for he had respect unto the recompence of the reward” ( Hebrews 11:24-26).
Love for Christ and His saints, faith in His ultimate “Well done,” were the motive-springs of his actions. And such must prompt one entering the ministry today. “Then he arose and went after Elijah and ministered unto him” ( 1 Kings 19:21).
That was the final element in this initial test. Was he prepared to take a subordinate and lowly place, to become a servant, subjecting himself to the will of another? That is what a servant is: one who places himself at the disposal of another, ready to take orders from him, desirous of promoting his interests. He who would be given important commissions must prove himself. Thus did God approve of Stephen’s service to the poor ( Acts 7:1,2). Because Philip disdained not to serve tables ( Acts 6:2,5) he was advanced to the rank of missionary to the Gentiles ( Acts 8:5,26).
On the other hand, Mark was discontented to be merely a servant of an apostle ( Acts 13:5,13) and so lost his opportunity of being trained for personal participation in the most momentous missionary journey ever undertaken. Elisha became the servant of God’s servant, and we shall see how he was rewarded.