Elisha is one of the Old Testament's remarkable characters. He was used by God over a period of probably over 60 years, mainly serving in the Northern Kingdom of Israel, but also in relation to Judah and Syria. The Scriptures allow us to understand the personality of some prophets very well. In Elisha's case we learn about his character not only because of what he said, but also the way he behaved. Perhaps, like the writer, the reader first encountered Elisha, reading Bible stories as a child. However, even after many years, the review of his exploits makes compulsive reading. No other Old Testament prophet raised the dead in the way that he did; indeed, we seem to read about miracle after miracle that God gave him the power to carry out. In addition, he preached to kings, cured the powerful, and provided for the poor. Not many children forget what happened when this prophet was called "bald"!
Yet while Elisha's life is often recounted and described, the spiritual lessons from his actions and character are, at times, missed. There are massive lessons for us from a man who gave up everything to serve God, had to adjust to moving into a position of responsibility on Elijah's departure, felt the burden of bringing the word of God to bear in difficult situations, and remained fearlessly faithful when the people of God were collectively weak. In fact, as Elisha's public life is traced from 1 Kings 19 to 2 Kings 13 we build a picture of a man who put divine service before everything else in life. His character, ambitions and appreciation of divine purpose stand out in contrast against the nation (particularly the majority of those who took a place of leadership and responsibility). Surely saints like this are required today if progress is really desired amongst the various assemblies of the saints.
It is impossible to do justice to this great "man of God" as he is so called in the Scriptures (e.g. 2 Kings 5.8), but in this brief series of articles it is intended to consider the lessons from his life.
To understand fully the significance of Elisha's call it is necessary to give a little background from 1 Kings 19 by way of introduction. The nation was in a perilous spiritual state. Despite the exploits of the prophet Elijah, God's hand seen in power at Mount Carmel, and God again blessing (rain again arrived, 18.41-46), the hearts of nation seemed far away. What appeared to pray on Elijah's mind was that he only seemed to be left: no one else was willing to put the divine interest first and stand for God. In fact the people of God did not want his influence, throwing their lot in with the apostate Baal-worshipping King Ahab and Queen Jezebel (19.10).
He was at the end of his tether. He did not feel he had the strength to continue (v.4). God, however, was not ignorant of the groaning and weakness of His servant; and neither is He today (Heb 2.18).
Perhaps the biggest problem in testimony is that there are not more selfless saints like Elijah, putting God first. However, while it is important to recognise the state of conditions around in the way he did, as well as the failure and departure over many years (like the nation's history, weakness in collective testimony in the UK has not arrived overnight!) those who seek to serve God need to be encouraged in the way that Elijah was.
His encouragement was to come in a number of ways: First, he experienced the provision of God, with sustenance being provided for him in the form of bread to eat and water to drink. God still provides food for the soul today, and if His people want to be encouraged then a good place to start is to enjoy the food and refreshment He provides. Rather than physical food we ought to be feeding on Christ (cp Jn 6.35) and enjoying our souls being lifted from drinking the water of the Word. Elijah enjoyed the provision twice (v.7) and that probably emphasises the need for continual reliance and feeding from God if the servant is to know strength in His service.
There was not only provision to encourage Elijah, but also protection ("he came thither unto a cave and lodged there", v.9). Shelter is still available for the people of God - "a place of refuge, and for a covert from storm" (Is 4.6). The difficulty is that when shelter is sought elsewhere than in the Lord, we do know the anxiousness of being exposed to the storm.
Next, Elijah experienced the power of God. The chapter sets out the way God's creatorial hand was seen. Is it not the same today? Appreciating the character of God is not a dry theological study but should be the meditation that provokes joy and worship in the heart! Connected with his knowing the power of God, was that he heard the voice of God and knew His presence (v.12). That made all the difference. The route to spiritual encouragement is not activity, isolation, or rest in oneself: rather it is to enjoy the presence of God and His provision.
However, the voice of God corrects and challenges. Elijah had been viewing matters from the human perspective. In fact, God had a remnant (v.18) and there was still work for Elijah to do.
The writer knows saints who had every right to give up so far as the flesh was concerned. Their faithfulness was unappreciated. Their closeness to God was misunderstood. But like Elijah they kept going. The work was God's work. In His purpose it had to continue. So it is today and such is the great example of our Saviour (Heb 12.3).
The work to be done involved Elisha being called to service. We are not told whether Elijah knew him, but the choice of Elisha to continue the work was God's. Elijah carried on and fulfilled the work given to him.
As consideration turns to Elisha, it is worth noting the legacy Elijah left. He showed interest in the spiritual development of a younger man. In fact, he was an encouragement. He was willing to realise (it having been revealed to him by God) that he would not complete all the work that required to be done. He had to accept that responsibility would fall to a younger man. Is this not a lesson for our generation? Just as younger men require to rise to take responsibility, an older generation require to accept that the work of God must continue beyond their lifetime, if the Lord be not come. Living with an eye for testimony after personal life on earth has ended is a feature that marks men of God (2 Tim 2.2).
What then of Elisha? The reader is simply introduced to him (v.19) ploughing the fields at home. Without trying to over-spiritualise, it is worth noting that God called a man who was already working hard where he had been placed. It is a fallacy to suggest that work only begins for the believer in response to some future call; God expects worship and service where the believer is currently busy.
Elisha's age appears unimportant. The emphasis would appear to be on the fact that he heard the call of God, he appreciated the cost and reality of that call (implied, in the writer's view, from vv.20-21). He obeyed that call, and moved out in service, ministering to Elijah.
Is the reader willing to hear the call of God to active service? It may be at home, or further away. It may require a period of apprenticeship as Elisha experienced. It may be that there is realisation of the cost of serving God, and the sacrifices it will mean for family and career (some of the animals were literally sacrificed as a result of obedience, v.21), and perhaps material wealth will be lessened.
Elisha understood the cost. Initially his role was perhaps not glamorous - "he poured water on the hands of Elijah" (2 Kings 3.11). He was preparing for a day in which he would be required to move publically for God. However, there is of course a sense in which all the years of recorded service of this remarkable man of God started by simple obedience to the divine call.
Assembly testimony is crying out for younger believers willing to heed the call to service. The work may not be flashy or public; it may be hard work. However, like Elisha, the day is soon approaching when props may be taken away, as they have been in the past, and the people of God will be relying on a new generation to stand for Him.
The writer trusts that the impact of Elisha's unquestioning obedience and life of service will be felt in our testimony today.
To be continued.