2 Kings 1-2
Elisha ("my God saves") had been Elijah's servant and apprentice for probably ten years, but now time had come for the Lord to call His courageous servant home. We get the impression that they were men with different dispositions, Elijah being the "son of thunder" and Elisha the gracious healer. This doesn't mean that Elijah was never tender or that Elisha was never stern, for the biblical record shows otherwise. But in general, Elijah came like John the Baptist, putting the ax to the root of the trees, while Elisha followed with a quiet ministry like that of Jesus (see Matt. 3:1-12 and 11:16-19). In the closing events of this spiritual partnership, we see revealed four important truths about the God of Israel.
After the death of wicked King Ahab, the nation of Moab took advantage of Ahaziah, his son and successor, and broke the bonds of vassalage that had chained them to Israel (v. 1; see 3:4-5). Years before, David had defeated Moab (2 Sam. 8:2) and Ahaziah's successor, Jehoram (Joram), would join with Jehoshaphat, king of Judah, to fight against the Moabites (3:6ff). But the Lord is in charge of the nations of the earth (Acts 17:24-28; Dan. 5:19, 21; 7:27), and His decrees determine history. Ahaziah was an evil man (1 Kings 22:10, 51-53), but when the Lord isn't allowed to rule, He overrules (Ps. 33:10-11).
Idolatry (vv. 2-4). A decade or so before Ahaziah's accident, Elijah had won his great victory over Baal (1 Kings 18), but Ahab and Jezebel hadn't been convinced or converted and neither had their family (1 Kings 22:51-53). When Ahaziah was severely injured by falling through a lattice, he turned for guidance to Baal and not to the Lord God of Israel. "Baal" simply means "lord," and "Baal-Zebul" means "Baal is prince." But the devout remnant in Israel, who worshiped Jehovah, made changes in that name and ridiculed the false god of their neighbors. "Baal-Zebel" means "lord of the dung," and "Baal-Zebub means "lord of the flies," one of the names Jesus' enemies used to insult Him. (Matt. 10:25).
Why did the king decide to send messengers forty miles away to Ekron to consult the priests of Baal? True, Elijah had slain the 450 prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:19, 22, 40), but that was ten years ago. Surely other priests of Baal were available in the land. The king's parents had fed hundreds of these priests at their table (1 Kings 18:19), and it wouldn't have been difficult for King Ahaziah to import priests of Baal to serve as court chaplains. Perhaps he sent to Ekron for help because he didn't want the people in Samaria to know how serious his condition was. The temple of Baal at Ekron was very famous, for Baal was the chief god of that city, and one would expect a king to send there for help. Note that Ahaziah asked the priests of Baal for a prognosis and not for healing.
God keeps His servants informed about matters that other people know nothing about (John 15:15, Amos 3:7). This "angel of the Lord" could well have been our Lord Jesus Christ in one of His preincarnate appearances (Gen. 16:7, 11; 21:17; 22:11; 48:16). When God's servants are walking with their Lord, they can be confident of His directions when they need them. This had certainly been Elijah's experience (see v. 15 and 1 Kings 17:3, 9; 18:1; 21:18). Elijah intercepted the royal envoys and gave them a message that would both rebuke and sober the king. Why did he want to consult the dead god of Ekron when the living God of Israel was available to tell him what would happen? He would surely die! This ominous declaration was made three times during this event—twice by Elijah (vv. 4 and 16) and once by the messengers (v. 6). Instead of being spokesmen for Baal, the messengers became heralds of God's Word to the king!
Pride (vv. 5-12). It seems incredible that the king's messengers didn't know who Elijah was and didn't learn his identity until they returned to the palace! Elijah was Ahab's enemy (1 Kings 21:20) and Ahaziah was Ahab's son, so certainly Ahaziah had said something to his courtiers about the prophet. The description the messengers gave of Elijah reminds us of John the Baptist who ministered "in the spirit and the power of Elijah" (Luke 1:17; Matt. 3:4). The phrase "a hairy man" (kjv) suggests his garment rather than his appearance. The niv reads "with a garment of hair." Like John the Baptist, Elijah wore the simple camel's hair garment of the poor and not the rich robe of a king (Matt. 11:7-10).
The announcement that he would die should have moved Ahaziah to repent of his sins and seek the Lord, but instead, he tried to lay hands on the prophet. (This reminds us of King Herod's seizure of John the Baptist; Matt. 14:1-12.) Ahaziah knew that Elijah was a formidable foe, so he sent a captain with fifty soldiers to bring him to the palace; but he underestimated the prophet's power. Did Ahaziah think that he could kill the prophet and thereby nullify the prophecy? (The Lord's words in v. 15 suggest that murder was in the king's mind.) Or perhaps the king hoped to influence Elijah to change the prophecy. But Elijah took his orders from the King of kings and not from earthly kings, especially a king who was an idolater and the son of murderers. Years before, Elijah ran away in fear when he received Jezebel's threat (1 Kings 19), but this time, he remained where he was and faced the soldiers unafraid.
The captain certainly didn't use the title "man of God" as a compliment to Elijah or as a confession of his own faith, for "man of God" was a common synonym for "prophet." Elijah's reply meant, "Since you called me a man of God, let me prove it to you. My God will deal with you according to your own words." The fire that came from heaven killed all fifty-one men. This judgment was repeated when the second company of fifty arrived. Note that the second captain ordered Elijah to "come down quickly." Don't keep your king waiting! The memory of the contest on Mount Carmel should have warned the king and his soldiers that Elijah could bring fire from heaven (1 Kings 18).
We must not interpret these two displays of God's wrath as evidence of irritation on the part of Elijah or injustice on the part of God. After all, weren't the soldiers only doing their duty and obeying their commander? These two episodes of fiery judgment were dramatic messages from the Lord that the king and the nation had better repent or they would all taste the judgment of God. The people had forgotten the lessons of Mount Carmel, and these two judgments reminded them that the God of Israel was "a consuming fire" (Deut. 4:24 and 9:3; Heb. 12:29). King Ahaziah was a proud man who sacrificed two captains and one hundred men in a futile attempt to prevent his own death. These were not innocent men, the victims of their ruler's whims, but guilty men who were willing to do what the king commanded. Had they adopted the attitude of the third captain, they too would have lived.
Disobedience (vv. 13-18). Insisting that Elijah obey him, the king sent a third company of soldiers, but this time the captain showed wisdom and humility. Unlike the king and the two previous captains, he submitted himself to the Lord and His servant. The third captain's plea for himself and his men was evidence that he acknowledged Elijah's authority and that he would do God's servant no harm. The Lord's words in verse 15 suggest that the danger lay in the hands of the captains and not in the hands of the king. Perhaps the king had ordered them to kill Elijah en route to the palace or after he had left the palace. If the king had to die, he would at least take Elijah with him!
The king was in bed when Elijah confronted him and for the second time told him he would die. How many times must the Lord repeat His message to a wicked sinner? The king would leave this world with "you will surely die" ringing in his ears, yet he refused to obey the Word of God. Again, we're reminded of Herod's response to John the Baptist, for Herod listened to John's words but still wouldn't repent (Mark 6:20). After about two years on the throne, Ahaziah did die, just as Elijah had predicted, and his younger brother Jehoram (or Joram) became king. Note that the current king of Judah was also named Jehoram (v. 17). To avoid confusion, we shall refer to Ahaziah's brother, the king of Israel, as Joram, and Jehoshaphat's son, the king of Judah, as Jehoram.
Before leaving this passage, we need to remind ourselves that a proud and unrepentant world will one day experience the fire of the wrath of God. It will happen "when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with His mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. These shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power" (2 Thes. 1:7-9, nkjv). God "commands all men everywhere to repent" (Acts 17:30, nkjv), which means that those who do not repent are rebels against the Lord. The gospel isn't only a message to believe; it's also a mandate to obey.
King Ahaziah died but Elijah didn't die! He was taken up into heaven in a whirlwind, accompanied by fiery horses drawing a chariot of fire. Like Enoch of old, he walked with God and then suddenly went to be with God (Gen. 5:21-24; Heb. 11:5). Both men illustrate the catching away of the saints when Jesus returns (1 Thes. 4:13-18). But before Elijah left Elisha to carry on the work, he walked with his successor from Gilgal to beyond the Jordan, and what a walk that must have been! The Lord had at least three purposes in mind when He led these two servants to walk together.
Taking advantage of the present. Elisha knew that his master was going to leave him (vv. 1, 3, 5), and he wanted to be with him to the very end, listen to his counsel and learn from him. It appears that Elijah wanted Elisha to tarry behind and let him go on alone, but this was merely a test of Elisha's devotion. When Elijah threw his mantle on Elisha and made him his successor, the younger man promised, "I will follow you" (1 Kings 19:20), and he kept that promise.
During the years that the two men had worked together, surely they came to love and appreciate one another in a deeper way. "It is not good that the man should be alone" (Gen. 2:18) applies to ministry as well as marriage. Moses and Aaron labored together, and David and Jonathan encouraged each other. Paul journeyed first with Barnabas and then with Silas, and Dr. Luke seemed to be a regular companion to the apostle. Even our Lord sent out His disciples two-by-two (Mark 6:7; see Ecc. 4:9-12). We are not only fellow workers with the Lord, but also with the Lord's people, and there must be no competition as we serve the same Lord together (John 4:34-38; 1 Cor. 3:1-9).
We never know when a friend and fellow worker will be taken from us. God told Elisha that Elijah was leaving him, but we don't know when it is our time or a friend's time to go to heaven. What great opportunities we miss by wasting time on trifles when we could be learning from each other about the Lord and His Word! It rejoices my heart when I see younger Christians and Christian workers appreciating the "senior saints," the veterans of Christian service, and learning from them. One day, these "giants" will be called home and we'll no longer be able to learn from them.
These two men represented different generations and opposite personalities, yet they were able to walk together. What a rebuke this is to those in the church who label the generations and separate them from each other. I heard one youthful pastor say that he didn't want anybody in his church over the age of forty, and I wondered where he would get the wise counsel that usually comes with maturity. I thank God for the "Elijahs" in my life who were patient with me and took time to instruct me. Now I'm trying to share that same blessing with others.
Preparing for the future. At Bethel, Jericho, and Gilgal, the two men visited the "sons of the prophets" (vv. 5,7, 15; 4:1, 38-40; 6:1, 7; 9:1; see 1 Kings 20:35), companies of dedicated men who were called of God to study the Scriptures and teach the people. Samuel led one of these "schools" at Ramah (1 Sam. 7:17; 28:3; see 10:5, 10; 19:20-23). These groups would be similar to the mentoring groups in our churches, or even like our Bible schools and colleges. The work of the Lord is always one generation short of extinction and we must be faithful to obey 2 Timothy 2:2—"And the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also" (nkjv).
These young prophets knew that their master was about to leave them, so these final meetings must have been very emotional. We have "farewell messages" in Scripture from Moses (the Book of Deuteronomy), Joshua (Josh. 23-24), David (1 Chron. 28-29), Jesus (John 13-16), and Paul (Acts 20:17-38 and 2 Tim.), but the Lord didn't record for us what Elijah said to his beloved students. Certainly he told them to obey Elisha just as they had obeyed him, to remain true to the Word of God and to do everything God told them to do as they battled against idolatry in the land. It was their responsibility to call the people back to obeying God's covenant (Deut. 27-30) so that He might be pleased to bless and heal their land.
During the years that I was privileged to instruct seminary students, I occasionally heard some of them say, "Why should we attend school? Charles Spurgeon never went to seminary, and neither did Campbell Morgan or D. L. Moody!" I would usually reply, "If any of you are Spurgeons, Morgans, or Moodys, we'll no doubt discover it and give you permission to stop your education. But let me remind you that both Spurgeon and Moody founded schools for training preachers, and Campbell Morgan was once president of a training college and also taught at a number of schools. Meanwhile, back to our studies."
God has different ways of training His servants, but He still expects the older generation to pass along to the younger generation the treasures of truth that were given to them by those who went before, "the faith...once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 3, nkjv).
Reviewing the past. Gilgal, Bethel, Jericho, and the Jordan River were important places in Hebrew history, each of them carrying a significant message. Before he left the land and went to heaven, Elijah wanted to visit these sites one last time and take Elisha with him. Our eternal God doesn't reside in special places, but we who are creatures of time and history need these visible reminders to help us remember and better understand what God has done for His people. The past is not an anchor to hold us back but a rudder to guide us, and the Lord can use these "tangible memories" to strengthen our faith. The British poet W. H. Auden wrote, "Man is a history-making creature who can neither repeat his past nor leave it behind." It's important for us to remember what God did in the past and to pass this treasure along to our children and grandchildren (Pss. 48:9-14; 71:17-18; 78:1-8; 145:4). That's one of the major themes of Moses' farewell address to the new generation about to enter the Promised Land (Deut. 4:9-10; 6:4-9; 11:19-21; 29:29). "Remember" is found fourteen times in Deuteronomy and "forget" at least nine times.
Gilgal (v. 1) was the first place the Israelites camped after they crossed the Jordan River and entered the Promised Land Josh. 4:19-20). It was there that the new generation of Jewish men submitted to circumcision and officially became "sons of the covenant" (Josh. 5:2-9). Gilgal was the place of new beginnings and Elijah wanted his successor to remember that. Each new generation is an opportunity for God to raise up new leaders, and each time His people repent and return to Him, He can restore them and renew them. At that time, Gilgal was the center of idolatrous worship (Hos. 4:15; 9:15; 12:11; Amos 4:4 and 5:5), but Elijah didn't abandon it.
From Gilgal the two men walked to Bethel (vv. 2-3), about fifteen miles west of Gilgal. Abraham worshiped there (Gen. 12:8; 13:3) and so did Jacob. It was at Bethel that Jacob saw the angels ascending and descending the ladder (or staircase) that reached to heaven. There he heard God promise to be with him and care for him (Gen. 28:11-19). Bethel means "house of God," and there Jacob worshiped the Lord and vowed to obey Him. Years later, Jacob returned to Bethel and, like Abraham (Gen. 13:3), made a new beginning in his walk with the Lord (Gen. 35). King Jeroboam had put a golden calf at Bethel and made it the site of idolatrous worship (1 Kings 12:26-32; Amos 3:14; 4:4-6), but Elijah looked beyond the city's present desecration to the time when it was a place of blessing and renewal.
At Bethel, the students spoke to Elisha about his master's departure. Perhaps they thought they knew something that nobody else knew, an attitude not uncommon among some students. The same scene was repeated when Elijah and Elisha arrived at Jericho (v. 5). In both cities, Elisha politely assured the students that he was aware of what was about to happen, but that their discussing it only added to the pain of his separation from his master. Their approach to what God was doing was purely cerebral, but to Elisha, the loss of his beloved master brought pain to his heart. The mark of a true student of the Scriptures is a burning heart, not a big head (Luke 24:32; 1 Cor. 8:1).
The two men then went fifteen miles west to Jericho, the site of Joshua's first victory in the Promised Land (Josh. 5:13-6:27). It was also the place where Achan disobeyed and took of the spoils that belonged to the Lord alone, a sin that led to Israel's defeat at Ai (Josh. 7). Certainly the wonderful victory at Jericho showed Israel how to conquer the land: get your orders from the Lord; obey them by faith, no matter how foolish they may seem; give all the glory to Him alone. The two times Joshua failed to follow this formula, he experienced defeat (Josh. 7, 9). Joshua had put under a curse anybody who rebuilt Jericho (Josh. 6:26), but during the reign of evil King Ahab, the city was rebuilt (1 Kings 16:34). Jericho would remind Elisha of the victory of faith, the tragedy of sin and the majesty of the Lord who deserves all the glory.
Elijah and Elisha walked five miles east and came to the Jordan River, and surely the record in Joshua 1-4 came into their minds and into their conversation. The Lord opened the Red Sea to let His people out of Egypt (Ex. 12-15), and then He opened the Jordan River to let them into their inheritance. What good is freedom if you don't claim your inheritance? As the nation followed the Ark of the Covenant, the Lord opened the swollen waters of the river, and the people passed over on dry land! To commemorate this miracle, Joshua built a monument in the midst of the river and another one on the shore. Nothing is too hard for the Lord, for with God, all things are possible! And Elijah duplicated that great miracle!
This is a good place to point out the similarities between Moses and Elijah. Both opened bodies of water, Moses the Red Sea (Ex. 14:16, 21, 26) and Elijah the Jordan River. Both called down fire from heaven (Ex. 9:24; Lev. 9:24; Num. 11:1 and 16:35), Both men saw the Lord provide food, Moses the manna (Ex. 16) and quails (Num. 11), and Elijah the oil and flour for the widow, plus his own meals (1 Kings 17:1-16). In the land of Egypt, Moses prayed and God altered the weather, and Elijah prayed and God stopped the rain and then three years later started the rain again. Moses gave the law to the people of Israel and Elijah called them to repent and return to the true and living God. Both were associated with mountains (Sinai and Carmel), and both made journeys through the wilderness. Both men had unique endings to their lives: God buried Moses in a grave nobody can find, and God carried Elijah to heaven by a whirlwind. Both Moses and Elijah were privileged to be present with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matt. 17:4; Mark 9:5; Luke 9:33).
Elijah is a good model for believers to imitate when it comes to the inevitability of one day leaving this earth, either through death or the rapture of the church. He didn't sit around and do nothing, but instead visited three of the prophetic schools and no doubt ministered to the students. He didn't say to his successor "I'm going to leave you" and thus dwell on the negative, but said "I'm going to Bethel—to Jericho—to the Jordan" and kept busy until the very moment the Lord called him. Even more, he didn't ask his successor to give him anything, because we can't take anything in our hands from earth to heaven (1 Tim. 6:7), but instead he offered to give Elisha a gift before the end came. One of the best gifts we can leave is a prepared servant of God to take our place!
As Elijah and Elisha stood by the Jordan River, they were watched by fifty of the sons of the prophets, men who stood afar off. They knew that Elijah was going to leave that day (vv. 3 and 5), but they didn't know how he would depart or when God would call him. It's likely that only Elisha actually saw Elijah go up into heaven (v. 10), and after the prophet disappeared, the fifty students thought he hadn't really left them (vv. 16-18). They saw Elijah open the waters of the Jordan and close them again, and they saw Elisha repeat the miracle, but they didn't see what Elisha saw when the whirlwind took Elijah to heaven. The fifty men were spectators that saw only part of what happened, but Elisha was a participant in the miracle and the heir to Elijah's ministry.
Elijah didn't give his successor three wishes; he simply asked him to name the one gift he wanted more than anything else. Every leader needs to be right in his priorities, and Elisha had a ready answer: he wanted a double portion of the spirit of his master. This was not a request for twice as much of the Holy Spirit, or for a ministry twice as great as that of Elijah, but for a greater degree of the inner spirit that motivated the great prophet. The request was based on Deuteronomy 21:17, the law of inheritance for the firstborn. Though there were many "sons of the prophets," Elisha saw himself as Elijah's "firstborn son" who deserved the double inheritance that Moses commanded. Like a firstborn son serving a father, Elisha had walked with Elijah and attended to his needs (3:11; 1 Kings 19:21), but the only inheritance he desired was a double measure of his master's inner spirit of courage, faithfulness, faith in God, and obedience to God's will. In saying this, Elisha was accepting the prophetic ministry that Elijah had begun and declaring that he would carry it on to completion, with God's help.
Elijah was honest with his friend and told him that such a gift was not his to grant, for only the Lord could do it. However, if the Lord allowed Elisha to see his translation from earth to heaven, that would be proof that his request had been granted. Then it happened! As the two friends walked along talking, a fiery chariot drawn by fiery horses came between them, and a whirlwind lifted Elijah out of sight—and Elisha saw it happen! This meant his request had been granted and the Lord had equipped him to continue the ministry of Elijah. Elijah was certainly the "prophet of fire," for Scripture records at least three instances of his bringing fire from heaven (1 Kings 18:38; 2 Kings 1:10 and 12), so it was right that God send fiery horses and a chariot of fire to accompany His servant to glory.
Elisha's response was one of grief, like a son mourning over the loss of a beloved father. But he paid great tribute to Elijah when he called him "the chariot of Israel and its horseman" (v. 12). This one man was the equivalent of a whole army! In His covenant with Israel, the Lord promised that, if the nation obeyed Him, He would enable a hundred Israelites to chase ten thousand enemy soldiers (Lev. 26:6-8), and Moses promised that God would cause one man to chase a thousand and two men to chase ten thousand (Deut. 32:30). One with God is a majority.
Elijah was gone and Elisha couldn't turn to him for help, but the God of Israel was still on the throne. From now on, Elisha's faith would put him in touch with the power of God and enable him to accomplish God's work in Israel. Three miracles are recorded here, each with spiritual messages that we need to understand today.
Crossing the river (vv. 13-18). Why did Elijah leave the Promised Land and go to the other side of the Jordan? Was he abandoning his own country and people? Certainly God's whirlwind could have lifted him just as easily from Bethel or Jericho. Technically, Elijah was still in Israelite territory when he crossed the river, since Reuben and Gad and the half tribe of Manasseh had their inheritance east of the Jordan. But there was more involved. By taking Elisha west of the Jordan, Elijah forced him to trust God to get him across the river and back into the land! Elijah's successor was now like Joshua: he had to believe that God could and would open the river for him. The students who were watching must have wondered what their new leader would do.
In taking up Elijah's mantle, Elisha was making it clear that he accepted the responsibilities involved as he succeeded the great prophet and continued his work. By using the mantle to open the waters of the Jordan, he was declaring that his faith was not in the departed prophet but in the ever-present living God. Certainly we ought to honor the memories and accomplishments of departed leaders. "Remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you; and considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith" (Heb. 13:7, nasb). But too many dead founders and leaders still control their former ministries from their graves, and their successors find it difficult to make the changes needed for survival. Elisha didn't make that mistake, for he called on the God of Elijah to assist him, and the Lord honored his faith. Elisha wasn't a clone of Elijah, but the two men had this in common: they both had faith in the true and living God. That's why Hebrews 13:7 commands us to remember past spiritual leaders and "imitate their faith."
Elisha's miraculous crossing of the Jordan River not only demonstrated the power of God and the faith of His servant, but it also announced to the sons of the prophets that Elisha was their new leader. When God opened the Jordan so Israel could cross, He used that miracle to magnify Joshua's name and declare that His hand was upon the new leader (Josh. 3:7-8; 4:14). A. W. Tozer used to say that "it takes more than a ballot to make a leader," and he was right. Regardless of how they were trained or chosen, true spiritual leaders assure their followers of their divine calling by demonstrating the power of God in their lives. "Therefore by their fruits you will know them" (Matt. 7:20, nkjv).
The fifty sons of the prophets who saw Elisha cross the river on dry ground had no problem submitting to him and accepting his leadership because God's power was evident in his ministry.
But the fifty students didn't believe that their former leader had actually gone to heaven; they asked for on-site verification. God had openly demonstrated that Elisha was their new leader, so why search for Elijah? And why would the Lord catch His servant up in the whirlwind only to abandon him in some forsaken part of the country? Is that the kind of God they served? Furthermore, it was impossible for the students to search out every part of the land, so why even begin? The entire enterprise was ridiculous and Elisha permitted the search only because he was annoyed by their repeated requests. New leaders must not be vexed by the interest their followers have in their former leader. When the search parties returned to Elisha at Jericho, he at least had the privilege of telling them, "I told you so!"
Healing the bad water (vv. 19-22). Not only did Elisha enjoy the loyalty of the sons of the prophets, but the leaders of Jericho also respected him and sought his help. It should be no surprise to us that the water at Jericho was distasteful and the soil unproductive, for the city was under a curse (Josh. 6:26). The Old Testament Jew thought of salt in terms of God's covenant (Num. 18:19) and personal purity in worship (Lev. 2:13). The phrase "to eat salt" meant "to share hospitality," so that salt implied friendship and loyalty between people and between God and man. The salt didn't purify the water or heal the soil; that was the work of God. This miracle reminds us of the miracle at Marah ("bitter"), when Moses threw in a piece of wood and healed the water (Ex. 15:22-26). At Marah, God revealed Himself to His people as "Jehovah-Rapha—the Lord who heals."
If you visit Jericho today, tour guides will point out "Elisha's fountain" and invite you to take a drink.
Once more, we have a miracle that speaks of a new beginning. Elisha even emptied the salt from a new bowl. The miracle was an "action sermon" that reminded the people that the blessings of God were for a nation that was loyal to His covenant. To disobey His law meant to forfeit His blessings (Deut. 28:15ff).
Judging the mockers (vv. 23-25). This event took place at Bethel, one of the centers for idol worship in the land (1 Kings 12:28-33; Amos 7:13). The Hebrew word translated "little children" in the kjv really means "youths" or "young men." It refers to people from twelve to thirty years old who were able to discern right from wrong and make their own decisions. This was not a group of playful children making a clever joke but a gang of smart-aleck youths maliciously ridiculing God and God's servant.
"Go up" refers to the recent ascension of Elijah to heaven. Fifty men saw Elijah vanish from the earth in an instant, and certainly they reported what had happened and the event was discussed widely. The youths were saying, "If you are a man of God, why don't you get out of here and go to heaven the way Elijah did? We're glad he's gone and we wish you would follow him!" For a young person to call any grown man "bald head" would be a gross affront, and to repeat the nickname would make the offense even worse. Gray hair was a "crown of glory" (Prov. 16:31) among the Jews, but baldness was a rare thing among them and by some people was considered a disgrace (Isa. 3:24).
What we have here is a gang of irreverent and disrespectful ruffians mocking God's servant and repeating words they probably heard at home or in the marketplace. Because he knew the Word of God, Elisha understood that what they were doing was a violation of God's covenant, so he called down a curse upon them. (One of the covenant warnings was that God would send wild beasts to attack the people. See Lev. 26:21-22.) These young men were not showing respect to the Lord God of Israel, to Elijah or to Elisha, so they had to be judged. The two bears mauled the youths but didn't kill them, and for the rest of their days, their scars reminded everybody that they couldn't trifle with the Lord and get away with it.
You frequently find the Lord sending special judgments at the beginning of a new period in Bible history, as though God were issuing a warning to His people that the new beginning doesn't mean that the old rules have been changed. After the tabernacle ministry began, God killed Nadab and Abihu for offering "strange fire" before the Lord (Lev. 10). After Israel's first victory in the Promised Land, God ordered Achan to be slain because he took treasures from the spoils of war that were wholly dedicated to God (Josh. 7). At the outset of David's reign in Jerusalem, he had the Ark of the Covenant brought to the city, and Uzzah was killed for touching it (2 Sam. 6:1-7). When Ananias and Sapphira lied to the leaders in the early church, God took their lives (Acts 5). Now, at the beginning of Elisha's ministry, the mauling of the youths gave fair warning that the Lord God of Elijah was still reigning and still took His covenant seriously.
The attitude displayed by these youths, as it spread through the land, is what eventually led to the fall of both Samaria and Judah. "And the Lord God of their fathers sent warnings to them by His messengers.... But they mocked the messengers of God, despised His words, and scoffed at His prophets, until the wrath of the Lord arose against His people, till there was no remedy" (2 Chron. 36:15-16, nkjv).
Elisha had been with Elijah at Gilgal, Bethel and Jericho, and had crossed the Jordan with him, but now he went to Mount Carmel, the scene of Elijah's greatest triumph. As far as we know, Elisha wasn't there when Elijah called down fire from heaven. Perhaps as Elisha visited the place where the altar had stood, he meditated on what the Lord had done and he was renewed in his spirit. No doubt he gave thanks to God that he was part of such a wonderful heritage. But you can't live in the past, so he left that sacred place and headed for Samaria, capital city of the Northern Kingdom and home of King Joram, son of Ahab. There he would be involved in a war involving Israel, Judah, and Moab against Edom, and Elisha would provide the weapon that would win the battle for the three kings.