The eventful time had now arrived when the Prophet of Fire was to be carried up in a fiery chariot to his heavenly rest and crown. And yet – notwithstanding the Divine presentiment which he had evidently received of the honor that was in store for him – we could never guess from his demeanor that anything extraordinary was impending. He went on his way from Gilgal, walking side by side with Elisha – calm, unmoved, and unagitated. With the humility of true greatness, he kept the secret locked in his heart.
As in the case of Naomi’s remonstrance with Ruth, it is probable that it was with the view of testing the faithfulness and attachment of Elisha that Elijah thus addressed his trusted brother-prophet at Gilgal: “Tarry thee here, I pray thee; for the Lord hath sent me to Bethel.” He repeated those words at Bethel, and again at Jericho. But Elisha’s constancy was unshaken. Although the two men were very dissimilar in feelings and character, Elisha had been taught too tenderly to love and revere that rough, stern spirit – to whom he owed so much – that he could not desert him in the closing scene of his earthly existence.
There was an unusual and unmistakable stir and excitement in Bethel and Jericho that day. Groups of men – the “sons of the prophets” – gathered in earnest groups around the two prophets of the Lord. They beckoned Elisha aside; and with trembling lips, the secret was whispered in his ears: “Knowest thou that the Lord will take away thy master from thy head to day?” To this query, the reply was given: “Yea, I know it indeed; hush! Be silent!” Parting counsels and blessings may have been given to these men by Elijah; but if so, they were not detailed in this simple record. However, it is a touching farewell memory that his closing earthly thoughts and deeds were in connection with those beloved sons in the faith – whom, for the last decade of his life, he had watched and tended with such fatherly interest and kindness. We may reverently put into Elijah’s lips the same farewell words which our Savior Himself employed when He was about to leave His disciples: “Now I am no more in the world, but these are in the world, and I come to thee. Holy Father, keep through thine own name those whom thou hast given me!”
Elijah and Elisha approached the banks of the Jordan River. And just as the public life of the prophet began, so also would it terminate – by an exhibition of Divine power. The God Whom he served would certify to him – by an outward visible sign – the truth of that promise which others know only by faith: “Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world!” Elijah untied his cloak and wrapped it tightly round and round, in the form of a staff; and then he violently smote the waters of the river, which were divided so that the two prophets could cross over on dry ground.
“What shall I do for thee before I be taken away from thee?” Elijah asked his friend. It was a startling, perplexing question. Elisha knew how much the departing prophet had in his power. But the wealth, honors, and prizes of the world had no fascination in the eyes of one who had already given such noble proof of self-renunciation and self-sacrifice. Elisha’s thoughts were not on himself; his one solitary wish and ambition was that he might be enabled to follow the footsteps of his great predecessor, by glorifying God in his generation. He said, “I pray thee, let a double portion of thy spirit be upon me.” Elijah, in reply, acknowledged that he had asked “a hard thing.” He referred the granting of it to the Divine decision – informing his companion that if he was permitted to see with his eyes the miraculous ascension; he could accept this as a pledge and assurance, on God’s part, that the farewell request was not denied.
As they went on, there was suddenly a great whirlwind; and a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared! Seated in this flaming chariot, the Prophet of Fire was swept upward to the clouds! We cannot attempt to comprehend the magnificence of that flight, as Elijah passed into the presence of the Infinite God! We can only faintly picture the bands of angels welcoming the Lord’s servant within the heavenly gates, as another illustrious member of the covenant-family was welcomed into the Kingdom of God.
The solitary companion of Elijah’s pilgrimage now stood awestruck. He could only give vent through his tears to the unavailing lament: “My father, my father, the chariot of Israel and the horsemen thereof!” Elijah had been the true army of Israel – its bulwark of defense, and its head and shield in the day of battle. Rending his own clothes as a sign of grief, Elisha caught up the cloak that had dropped from the ascending chariot. With that cloak as a treasured keepsake and a pledge of reunion in a better country where no chariot of fire could part them, he hastened back to his work. He struck the waters of the Jordan with the cloak, and they obeyed his summons.
Back at Jericho, Elisha entered upon his ministry. He miraculously healed the barren and corrupted waters of Jericho by throwing salt into the spring. This remedy was of the Lord, and the remedy itself was a picture of Christ – for is not Jesus the healer of all our bitter springs in life?
The chapter ends with the destruction of some wicked children who mocked God’s prophet as he was on his way from Jericho to Bethel. The Lord was pleased to show His abhorrence of this sin by sending awful judgment – in the form of two bears – upon these children.
Lord, help us to look forward in hope to the time when we shall be carried heavenward to meet our Savior! Amen.
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image from The Art Bible, 1896