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WE HAVE NO MEANS of ascertaining the exact age of Elisha when he was overtaken by his fatal sickness, for we know not how old he was when called to the prophetic office (though from the analogy of Scripture, he would probably be at least thirty at that time). Nor does there appear any way of discovering how long a period he accompanied and ministered to Elijah before his rapture (some writers think it was upwards of ten years); but if we total up the years which the various kings reigned over Israel, who were all outlived by our prophet (beginning with Ahab), it will be seen that he was a very old man. One commentator supposes him to have been “at this time fully one hundred and twenty years of age.” Good it is to be assured that, whether our appointed span be long or short, our “times” are in the hands of the One who gave us being ( Psalm 31:15). God recovers His people from many sicknesses, but sooner or later comes one from which there is no deliverance. It is well for us if, when that time arrives, we conduct ourselves as Elisha did and use our remaining strength to the glory of the Lord.
ELISHA’S LAST TIMES The final incidents in connection with Elisha are in striking keeping with the whole record of his remarkable mission. No commonplace career was his and most extraordinary are the things which mark its closing scenes.
First , we learn that the reigning monarch called upon him during his fatal illness! Kings are not accustomed to visit dying people, least of all the servants of God at such times; it might be good for them if they did. Still more unusual and remarkable was it for the king to weep over the prophet because he was on the eve of leaving the scene. Even more noteworthy was the language used by the king on this occasion.
Second , so far was Elisha from considering himself flattered by the presence of such a visitor that he took complete charge of the situation, gave orders to the king, and honored him by giving a message from Jehovah, which was as striking as any he had delivered on earlier occasions.
That which is recorded in the second half of 2 Kings 13 speaks of what was really another miracle in Elisha’s memorable life. This is intimated by the Spirit referring to him there as “the man of God” ( 2 Kings 13:19), which, as we have so frequently pointed out, was used only when he was acting in his official character and discharging his extraordinary office, a fact which seems to have escaped the notice of other writers. Like several others which have been before us, this miracle consisted of a divine revelation being communicated through him, his uttering a supernatural prophecy. Previous to this incident nothing is recorded about his activities or how he was employed, yet it must not be concluded that he was under a cloud and rusting out. No, that lengthy silence is broken in such a way as to preclude any thought that he had been set aside by his Master, for the Lord here makes signal use of him as He had done formerly. Elisha, like other (though not all) of God’s servants, brought forth “fruit” in his old age ( Psalm 92:14). “Now Elisha was fallen sick of his sickness whereof he died” ( 2 Kings 13:14). “The Spirit of Elijah rested on Elisha and yet he is not sent for to heaven in a fiery chariot, as Elijah was, but goes the common road out of the world. If God honors some above others, who yet are not inferior in gifts and graces, who should find fault? May He not do what He wills with His own?” (Henry) God does as He pleases and gives no account of His matters. He asks counsel of none and explains His actions to none. Every page of Holy Writ registers some illustration and exemplification of the exercise of His high sovereignty. “Moses was an hundred and twenty years old when he died: his eye was not dim, nor his natural force abated” ( Deuteronomy 34:7).
Whereas of Joshua, who lived ten years less ( Joshua 24:29), we read that he “waxed old” and was “stricken in age” ( Joshua 23:1); yet certainly he was not inferior in spirituality, nor did he occupy a less eminent position in the Lord’s service than did his predecessor. So it is still; God preserves the faculties of some unto old age, yet not so with others. “And Joash the king (also called ‘Jehoash’ in 2 Kings 11:21, the grandson of Jehu; he is to be distinguished from ‘Joash the king of Judah’ in 2 Kings 13:10-13), came down unto him” ( 2 Kings 13:14). This indicates that the prophet had not spent his closing years in isolated seclusion, for the king of Israel, not long come to the throne, knew the place of his abode. But this mention of the king’s visit also informs us that the man of God was held in high esteem, and though the royal house had sadly failed to respond to his teachings, yet they recognized his value to the nation. Israel’s fortunes had fallen to a very low point, for a little earlier than this we are told, “In those days the LORD began to cut Israel short: and Hazael smote them in all the coasts of Israel; From Jordan eastward, all the land of Gilead, the Gadites, and the Reubenites, and the Manassites, from Aroer, which is by the river Arnon, even Gilead and Bashan” ( 2 Kings 10:32-33).
What would the end be if Elisha were now removed! “And Joash the king of Israel came down unto him, and wept over his face, and said, O my father, my father, the chariot of Israel, and the horsemen thereof” ( 2 Kings 13:14).
While this visit of the king probably indicated his respect for Elisha, yet his tears are not to be regarded as proof of his affection for him; the second half of the verse really interprets the first. The king was worded over the assults of Hazael, and greatly feared that upon the death of this man whose counsels and miracles had more than once been of service to the royal house and saved the nation from disaster ( 2 Kings 3:16-25, 6:9, 7:1), it would henceforth be left completely at the mercy of their enemies. Joash regarded the prophet as the chief bulwark of the nation, and the prospect of his speedy removal filled him with consternation and sorrow. Thus there was a strange mingling of esteem and selfishness behind those tears; and is not that generally the case even in connection with the departure of a loved one?
The practical lesson for us here is plain. In the words of another, Let us seek so to live that even ungodly men may miss us when we are gone. It is possible for us in a quiet, unobtrusive manner, so to adorn the doctrine of God our Savior in all things, that when we die many shall say “Let me die the death of the righteous, and let my last end be like his,” and men shall drop a tear, and close the shutter, and be silent and solemn for an hour or two when they hear that the servant of God is dead. They laughed at him while he lived, but they weep for him when he dies: they could despise him while he was here, but now that he is gone they say: — “We could have better missed a less-known man, for he and such as he are the pillars of the commonweal: they bring down showers of blessing upon us all.” I would covet this earnestly, not for the honor and esteem of men, but for the honor and glory of God, that even the despisers of Christ may be compelled to see there is a dignity, a respect, about the walk of an upright man. “And said, O my father, my father, the chariot of Israel, and the horsemen thereof” ( 2 Kings 13:14).
This was an acknowledgment that Joash regarded Elisha as the chief security of his kingdom, his best defense against aggressors, as the piety and prayers of God’s people are today the nation’s best protection in a time of evil, being far more potent than any material weapons. But we must note the striking language used by the king on this occasion as he gave expression to that truth. In the opening paragraphs of our last chapter we dwelt at some length upon the connection which the ministry of Elisha has to that of his predecessor: how he was raised up to act in his stead and carry forward the work which he began. The final confirmation of the identity of the latter with the former is found in these words of the king, for they unmistakably make clear the unusually intimate relation he sustained to the Tishbite. As he had gazed on the departing form of his master, Elisha had cried “My father, my father, the chariot of Israel, and the horsemen thereof” ( 2 Kings 2:12), and now that he was on the eve of taking his departure from this world, another utters the same words over him!
ELISHA’S LAST PROPHECY We turn now to consider Elisha’s response to the king’s visit, his tears, and his acknowledgment. The prophet was very far from acting as a flatterer before Joash on this occasion, but maintained and manifested his official dignity to the end of his course. He was an ambassador of the King of kings, and conducted himself accordingly. Instead of any indication that he felt himself to be honored by this visit or flattered by the monarch’s tears, the man of God at once took charge of the situation and gave orders to his earthly sovereign. Let not young ministers today conclude from this incident that they are thereby justified in acting haughtily and highhandedly in the presence of their seniors and superiors. Not so. Such an inference would be entirely unwarranted, for they do not occupy the extraordinary office which Elisha did, nor are they endowed with his exceptional gifts and powers. Nevertheless, they are to maintain their dignity as the ministers of Christ: “Let no man despise thy youth: but be thou an example of the believers, in word, in [behavior], in [love], in spirit, in faith, in purity” ( 1 Timothy 4:12). “And Elisha said unto him, Take bow and arrows. And he took unto him bow and arrows” ( 2 Kings 13:15).
What follows is virtually a parable in action. It should be remembered that in Eastern lands, instruction by means of symbolic actions is much more common than it is with us; and thus we find the prophets frequently using this method. When Samuel would intimate unto the self-willed Saul that “the LORD hath rent the kingdom of Israel from thee this day,” he “laid hold upon the skirt of his mantle, and it rent” ( 1 Samuel 15:28,27).
When the prophet Ahijah announced that the Lord would “rend the kingdom out of the hand of Solomon and give ten tribes to another,” he caught hold of the new garment upon Jeroboam and “rent it in twelve pieces” and bade him “take thee ten pieces” ( 1 Kings 11:29-31). Even the false prophets employed such means (see 1 Kings 22:10-11).
Significant emblems were presented to the eye to stir up the minds of those who beheld them and evoke a spirit of inquiry (see Jeremiah 27:2 and cf. 28:10-11 and see Ezekiel 24:17-19). To this custom God referred when He said, “I have also spoken by the prophets, and I have multiplied visions, and used similitudes, by the ministry of the prophets” ( Hosea 12:10).
For a New Testament example see Acts 21:10-11.
When Elisha bade Joash “Take bow and arrows,” he was making use of a visual “similitude.” The articles selected at once explain it. In response to the king’s lamentation the prophet said, in effect, Weeping over my departure will avail the nation nothing: stand fast in the faith, quit you like a man, be strong ( 1 Corinthians 16:13). Take not the line of least resistance, but assemble your forces, lead your army in person against the enemy. Though I be taken away from the earth, Jehovah still lives and will not fail those who put their confidence in Him. Nevertheless, you must discharge your responsibility by making good use of the means at hand.
Thus Joash was informed that he was to be the instrument of Israel’s deliverance by means of his own military efforts, and that if he trusted in the Lord and followed out His servant’s instructions, He would grant him full success. There was no need then for the king to be so distressed. If he acted like a man, God would undertake for him! “And he said to the king of Israel, Put thine hand upon the bow.
Here again we see the commanding authority and influence which the prophet had, under God, for Joash made no demur but meekly did as he was ordered. By placing his hands upon the king’s, Elisha signified his identification with what he should yet do, thereby intimating that he owed it to the prophet’s mission and ministry that Israel was to be spared and that God would again intervene on their behalf. By symbolic action, Elisha was saying to him, “The battle is not your’s, but God’s” ( 2 Chronicles 20:15). How little is that recognized today! “He teacheth my hands to war” ( Psalm 18:34) was what Elisha now sought to impress upon his royal master. “And he 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, and the arrow of deliverance from Syria: for thou shalt smite the Syrians in Aphek, till thou hast consumed them” ( 2 Kings 13:17).
In those words the prophet explained to the king the meaning of his symbolic actions, and what should be the outcome of them. It evidenced that Elisha’s mind was still occupied with the welfare of Israel. It demonstrated that he still acted as the servant of Jehovah; it was the final use of his prophetic gift and proof of his prophetic office. “Eastward” was the portion of the land which Hazael had already conquered ( 2 Kings 10:33), and in bidding the king shoot in that direction Elisha indicated where the fighting would have to be done. Notice the striking conjunction of the divine and human elements here, and the order in which they were made. It should be “the arrow of the LORD’S deliverance,” yet “thou (Joash) shalt smite the Syrians.” God would work, yet by and through him! “And he said, Take the arrows. And he took them. And he said unto the king of Israel, Smite upon the ground. And he smote thrice, and stayed” ( 2 Kings 13:18).
In the light of what follows it is clear that the king’s faith was here being put to the test; the prophet would have him indicate his reaction to the reassuring message he had just heard. “Smite upon the ground” and intimate thereby how far you believe the words which I have spoken and really expect a fulfillment of them. Did the Lord’s promise sound too good to be true, or would Joash rest upon it with full confidence? Would he lift up his heart and eyes to God and say with David, “Thou hast also given me the necks of mine enemies; that I might destroy them that hate me” ( Psalm 18:40), or would he follow the temporizing course which Ahab had pursued, when instead of following up his victory by slaying Ben-hadad whom the Lord had delivered into his hand, spared his life, made a covenant with him, and then sent him away ( 1 Kings 20:29-31)? “And the man of God was wroth with him, and said, Thou shouldest have smitten five or six times” ( 2 Kings 13:19).
There are some who teach that a saint should never lose his temper, that all anger is sinful, which shows how little their thoughts are formed by Scripture. In Ephesians 4:26-27 Christians are thus exhorted: “Be ye angry, and sin not,” though it is at once added, “let not the sun go down upon your wrath: Neither give place to the devil.” There is a holy and spiritual anger — a righteous indignation — as well as a carnal and sinful one. Anger is one of the divine perfections, and when the Son became incarnate we read that on one occasion He “looked round about on them with anger, being grieved for the hardness of their hearts” ( Mark 3:5).
Elisha was disgusted at the half-hearted response made by the king to his message, and from love for Israel, he was indignant that Joash should stand in their way and deprive them of full deliverance from their foes. And if we had more zeal for God and love for souls we would be angry at those who deprive them of their privileges. “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” ( 2 Kings 13:19).
What possible difference to the issue could be made by the number of times the king smote upon the ground? If God had foreordained that the Syrians should be “consumed” ( 2 Kings 13:19), then could any failure on the part of Joash prevent or even modify it? But do not Elisha’s words plainly signify that the extent to which the Syrians would be vanquished turned upon the response made by him to the divine promise? We shall not here give a solution to this problem.
Instead of wasting time on metaphysical subtleties let us learn the practical lesson which is here pointed, namely, “According to your faith be it unto you” ( Matthew 9:29). For it was at that point Joash failed; he did not thoroughly believe the prophet’s words. The majority of God’s people today need to realize that the exercise of faith does make a real difference in what they obtain or fail to obtain from God, as real and as great a difference as between Joash “consuming” the Syrians (the Hebrew word is rendered “destroy utterly” in Leviticus 26:44 and “make an utter end of” in Nahum 1:8-9) and the “three times” he beat Hazael ( 2 Kings 13:25). Most Christians expect little from God, ask little, and therefore receive little, and are content with little. They are content with little faith, little knowledge of the deep things of God, little growth and fruitfulness in the spiritual life, little joy, peace, and assurance. And the zealous servant of God is justified in being wroth at their lack of spiritual ambition. “And Elisha died, and they buried him” ( 2 Kings 13:20).
It is to be noted that nothing is said here of any burial service. Nor is there anywhere in the Scriptures, either in the Old Testament or the New Testament. Elaborate, mournful ceremonies are of pagan origin and are neither authorized nor warranted by the Word of God. If the body of Christ was tenderly and reverently interred without the mummery of any “service” over His corpse, shall the disciple be above his Master! What slaves many are to “the way of the heathen” ( Jeremiah 10:2), and in what bondage do they let themselves be held through fear of public opinion, afraid of what their friends and neighbors would think and say if they should be regulated only by Holy Writ. “And the bands of the Moabites invaded the land at the coming in of the year. And it came to pass, as they were burying a man, that, behold, they spied a band of men; and they cast the man into the sepulcher of Elisha: and when the man was let down, and touched the bones of Elisha, he revived, and stood up on his feet” ( 2 Kings 13:20-21).
Behold here once more the sovereignty of God; He honored Elijah at his departure from this world, but Elisha, in a different way afterward. It was the Lord’s seal upon His servant’s mission. It indicated that the Lord was his God after death as well as before, and thus furnished evidence both of the immortality of the soul and the final resurrection of the body. It was an intimation that other miracles would yet be wrought for Israel in response to his prayers and as the result of his labors. Thus to the end, miracles are connected with the mission of Elisha.