To understand the Elijah story you must consider it on two levels, the biblical-historical and the human level. Because the writers of the Bible exhibit a conscious awareness that their material is more than just history, that it is also the story of God’s redemptive action on earth, we must take the scripture seriously as salvation history. The text has to be interpreted in the context of its significance as a revelation of the redemptive action of God. All through the scriptures the theme of God’s presence arises. In the loneliness of Elijah at the ravine we are reminded that God is there providing for his needs. God responds to his desperate cry at the bedside of the dead widow’s son, which begs the unarticulated question is God still there. The question on Carmel to the people about their apathy concerning God results in a demonstration of his power and presence. Elijah himself receives further personal assurance on Horeb. The question resurfaces in Elijah’s confrontation with Ahaziah’s messenger sent to inquire of the god of Ekron. Finally it is articulated by the loud voice of Elisha as it echoes through the Jordan valley, “Where is God?” Every time there is evidence which points to God’s continued presence and work. He feeds Elijah, raises the widow’s son, rains fire down on the sacrifice, whispers assurance to Elijah, confirms the power of the prophet to Ahaziah and parts the water for Elisha. Although the kingdom of Israel had split north and south, and although the south enjoyed the benefit of the temple and continued richness of the covenant, God had not deserted the north by far. He still had at least 100 prophets, 7000 loyal followers and, in the court of the wicked king, a man who had served him from his youth. The purposes of God were alive and well among his people in spite of their lack of discernment.
But this is a hero narrative and it functions on a human level too as an example of how God’s people should act. No better interpretation of the humanity of the story of Elijah as a hero narrative has been offered than that observation by James, “Elijah was a man just like us. He prayed earnestly…” (James 5:17). James meant that the account of Elijah showed that he was human, with human frailty, but he was a powerful man of God as well. He was a man who found that God’s presence was equal to each task and each stage of his life, no matter how desperate it might be. Even when insecurity plagued him on the inside, Elijah can stand confidently on Carmel in the face of 450 prophets of Baal. Here is the message to God’s people! There is power even in humanity’s weakest moment. But this power depends upon the presence of God. Assurance is found not necessarily in the miraculous moments of great splendor and the demonstration of divine power but even when you are surrounded by loneliness and insecurity, especially at quiet moments of personal revelation from God.
The Elijah and Elisha story in the book of Kings may seem quite strange and different to us. That world was one where rivers part miraculously and chariots and horses of fire come down out of the sky. If we were to look at a bigger picture of that story, we would learn of bears coming out of the woods at the command of the prophet and a magic ritual that purifies a polluted spring. What we have seems to read like an interesting but very updated tale that has little or nothing to do with the twenty-first century and our lives. In fact, the opposite is true. Within this story of Elijah and Elisha is a very subtle message about the human situation of every generation.
In order to see this you must know something about the people in the story. Elijah was the older prophet of Israel. He had been Israel’s spiritual centerpiece for longer than anyone could remember. What a life he had had! Elijah had been the only dissenting voice against King Ahab when Ahab had turned from God to the worship of Baal. It was Elijah who challenged the priests of Baal to a colorful but gruesome contest on Mount Carmel. There he had shown that God was stronger than the idols of Baal. It was Elijah who made the name Jezebel, Ahab’s queen, synonymous with decadence in high places. Through his entire life, Elijah had been a thorn in the side of rulers and all who failed to acknowledge God as the Supreme Being and source of Israel’s life.
Elijah was Israel’s champion and defender of their faith. Elijah was their spiritual link to God. They could not imagine life without Elijah.
In 2 Kings there is a foreboding sense that something is about to change. Elisha, the student of Elijah, feels it. Perhaps it was something Elijah said. Or, it may have been that Elijah’s health had been failing. Whatever it was, both Elijah and Elisha were tiptoeing around it. Neither one directly addressed it. On the way to Gilgal, in the northern area of present day Israel, the drama began. After a day of travel and coming to a resting place, Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here… I am going on to Bethel.” It was an unexpected remark from Elijah, and Elisha seemed to understand that there was ore to Elijah’s words than appeared It was the sort of remark that parents make to their adult son or daughter, “I think you should know where I keep my important papers.” The son or daughter, taken by surprise, says, “Okay…but why are you saying this?” The parent replies, “Oh, just so you know…in case something should happen to me…” It’s the first time, perhaps, that the son or daughter is faced with the reality that life is a journey with an end here on earth, and the prophet is beginning the process of moving on. But for the son or daughter that moment is alarming, even frightening. It is a warning that someday a change will come and there is no holding it back.
When Elijah said, “Stay…I’ll go on ahead,” Elisha had that fear. But Elisha was not about to accept Elijah’s suggestion. “No, I’ll go with you,” Elisha answered. He may have added some reason like “You need someone to help carry your things…” or “I don’t have anything else to do…I’ll just go with you.”
And so Elijah and Elisha traveled on. They came to Bethel, and the same exchange took place. “Stay here…” Elijah said. “No, I’ll go on with you…” replied Elisha.
The two continued on through Galilee, coming to the Jordan River. The river was wide and there was no bridge. Perhaps Elijah thought the river would deter Elisha.
“Maybe he’ll go back now, and let me go alone,” Elijah may have said to himself.
And Elisha may have been thinking, “Not even this river is going to keep me from staying with Elijah. I’ll not let him go!”
“What was going on?” I believe it was something that every one of us experiences, a turning point in our lives where we see change coming, but attempt to do whatever we can to hold on to the known and the familiar. For Elisha call it loyalty, or call it fear, or uncertainty. Elisha, knowing that Elijah was about to leave, did everything he could to hold on to his beloved teacher. By refusing to leave him, by insisting that he would go on a little further, by offering up every excuse, Elisha held on to Elijah and the relationship which had nurtured him and mentored him, a relationship much like a son for a father, that he feared was about to be lost. Elisha was doing anything he could do to hinder or stop the separation.
How well we all know this feeling of Elisha’s. Parents want their children to have a life of their own. We help them learn to reason and use common sense. We raise them to be independent. We support them as they attempt to walk and venture out. They take their first steps and we’re right there to catch them, as a parent should be. But we’re afraid. They go off to school and we worry about them. When they reach college age we see them leave with a reluctance based on concerns of many sorts. Our concern and worry continues even as they become adults.
The other side of this is the concern of middle-aged and older adults for our parents as they grow elderly. In many ways this is also what we find in the behavior of Elisha. As our parents or other older loved ones increase in years and health issues emerge, we not only worry about them but also what our lives will be like if they leave us. We may never say it aloud, but deep inside us a voice says, “Mom…Dad…don’t leave me…don’t go on without me…”
It’s not a stretch of today’s story of Elijah and Elisha to see that it very closely mirrors the thoughts and feelings of all human beings as loved ones and friends suffer unexpected health issues or there is an obvious decline of health. Change is coming, we’re frightened and uncertain, and we search for solutions that will make it stop.
You have heard it said, perhaps you said it yourself that modern medicine has the means to extend life to the point where we can have quantity of years but not quality of life. Why? Because technology allows it. What we have not yet devised is how to improve on the journey.
But the Elijah/Elisha story offers what we need. Elisha’s biggest fear is of change. He did all that he could to cause change not to happen, but he couldn’t. In the end Elijah was carried away and he, Elisha, was left.
What did he do? Of course, he grieved. The lessons says that he tore his clothes, a custom of the time to show that he was in mourning. But, as he looked upon the ground he discovered Elijah’s mantel, or stole. Perhaps you do not know that the stoles which clergy wear are more than just colorful pieces of cloth. The stole is a symbol which goes back to the time of Elijah and is the sign of the minister’s prophetic role. We wear the stole as a reminder that we follow in the footsteps of Elijah with the duty to speak the prophets’ word from God, the word that may at times upset and offend. Elisha discovered that even though Elijah was gone, he had not been abandoned. The prophet’s mantel was there for him to put around his neck. He took it and with a staff touched the water of the Jordan. And the miracle which Elijah, the greatest of the prophets, had done occurred again. The waters divided and Elisha could pass over.
What is the message? It’s not about a miracle. It’s not about the Jordan or even the prophet’s mantel. It is a message to every age about change. Change comes. It is inevitable. Grandparents and parents die. Jobs are not forever. We move. Sicknesses and disease happen. We cannot know the future. We cannot stop either the rising or the setting of the sun. But God is the one constant. God’s presence and God’s love continue unceasingly.
We need to understand even more. God is in the midst of change. The whirlwind of the lesson is not a physical spinning of natural forces but the very being of God who comes and blows away everything. Through all change God reaches out with words and acts of love to sustain us as change causes everything to spin as though there is no control at all.
This is what 2 Kings can teach us in the twenty-first century. Centuries have passed, but like Elisha, we say, “Don’t let things change…don’t go away…don’t grow old…don’t lose your health…don’t let my job ever end…don’t ever get hurt…stay with me…” It cannot be…we know it…but we do all that we can to stop it. What God would have us know and believe in faith is that change is not the absence of God but the very sign of God with us. God is in the midst of change and there is never a time that God does not leave the mantel for us to pick up and go on.
Life transcends change. Life transcends death. Life transcends hurt and pain and unexpected events. We try so much, like Elisha, to hold back changes, many inevitable, forgetting that faith is about the God who is change. We focus on the fears of the present when the bigger picture is the unfailing love of God through change, small and large. This is why Jesus could say, “Follow me” to people who were grieving and to ones who had many other plans. He knew that whatever the pain of the present and whatever the fear of the unknown, God will transform us, giving us new life.
Is there something you’re afraid of? Is there change that you are trying to stop? Are you holding on to something that you should let go of? God will stay with you. God will not abandon you. God will be at your side.