“Better than a bronze sculpture by Cellini, or a marble one by Bernini, or even a Beethoven symphony,” I was saying to my colleagues, while our waitress with tray in hand waited attentively for my climatic closure, “I enjoy a great sermon,” whereupon the waitress dropped the whole tray of drinks. But even better than a great sermon, I enjoy meditating on the Old Testament.
People ask me commonly: “What is your favorite book of the Old Testament?” I reply, “Whatever book I am studying at the time.” A secretary once asked me: “How do you stay fresh teaching the same course year after year.” I replied, “By having a bad memory.” More seriously, I read new commentaries each year. This month I am refreshing myself in the book of Kings, and for the past two weeks I have been meditating on the Elisha miracle stories. In response to the request by the editors of Tabletalk to write an article on the joy of meditating on the Old Testament, let me share my joy as I reflect on these thrilling stories as collected and arranged in 2 Kings 2:1-8:6.
Just reading the stories of Elisha’s miracles are enough to, as a senior Scot would say, “stir the blood”: lepers are cleansed, an axe head floats, the dead are raised. And to verify the historicity of these miracles, the narrator cleverly draws them to conclusion with this anecdote: The king of Israel was saying to Gehazi (Elisha’s “bumbling sidekick,” writes Peter Leithart): “Tell me about all the great things Elisha has done.” In other words, the narrator infers these stories were already collected, told, and retold by eye-witnesses.
What Augustine once said of the gospel of John, “shallow enough for a child not to drown, yet deep enough for an elephant to swim,” is applicable to all Scripture. Let’s begin in shallow water. When Elijah elects Elisha by throwing on him his own mantle—the one he wore when God appeared to him on Sinai—he is plowing with twelve yoke of oxen. He immediately kisses his parents good-bye, and when Elijah, who is fed up with being a rejected prophet, tells him to go back home, he does, but not as Elijah intended (1 Kings 19:21). Then, on Elijah’s last day on earth, the old prophet tries to shake off the younger (2 Kings 2:1-9). But Elisha perseveres, and it pays off; he not only succeeds Elijah, he exceeds him.
Now let’s swim into a little deeper water. Elisha shows he is Elijah’s spiritual heir in two ways. First, many of his miracles are for prophets (4:1-7, 38-41; 6:1-7).
Second, his miracles replicate those of Elijah (see, for for example, 1 Kings 18 and 2 Kings 7; 1 Kings 17:8-16 and 2 Kings 4; 1 Kings 17:7-24 and 2 Kings 4:17-24).
Now let’s swim farther out. Our reflection is confirmed in the career of another heir of Elijah’s spirit, John the Baptist. Jesus Christ even equates John with Elijah (Matt. 17:1-13). Elijah and Elisha are types of the transition of leadership from John the Baptist to Jesus Christ. Elijah and John the Baptist announce judgment; call Israel to repentance and are followed by the common people; dress alike in their protests against materialism; confront an ambivalent king (Ahab and Herod) and a blood-thirsty queen; are rejected by authorities immediately after their victories; question God’s calling; and designate a greater successor.
But now let’s really swim by comparing Elisha and the Lord Jesus. Both are designated by a prophet, whom the general populace recognized as a true prophet. Both receive the Spirit on the other side of the Jordan (2 Kings 2:7-15; John 1:28); are surrounded by more disciples than their predecessors; are itinerant miracle workers; give life in a land of death; cleanse lepers (2 Kings 5; Mark 1:40-45); heal the sick (2 Kings 4:34-35; Mark 8:22-25); defy gravity (2 Kings 6:6; Matt. 14:22-33); reverse death by raising dead sons and restoring them to their mothers (2 Kings 4: 1-7; Luke 7:11-17); help widows in desperate circumstances; are kinsman redeemers to save from slavery (2 Kings 4:1-7; Luke 4:19); feed the hungry (2 Kings 4:1-7; Mark 8:1-12); minister to the Gentiles (2 Kings 5:1-16); prepare (2 Kings 6:20-23) and sit at table with sinners (Luke 5:29); lead captives (2 Kings 6:18-20; Eph, 4:7-8); have a covetous disciple (Gehazi and Judas); end their lives in a life-giving tomb from which people flee (2 Kings 13:20-21; Mark 16:1-8).
These replications and foreshadows cry out for reflection. As God’s elect children, we too can inherit—can be filled—with the same Spirit as Elijah, Elisha, John the Baptist, and our Lord by prayer and perseverance (Eph. 4:18). After all, as James says, “They were men just like us” (James 5:7). Elisha is a type of Christ’s disciples: elected by I AM; leaves father and mother behind; forsakes everything to be a disciple to his Master; becomes like his Master; perseveres with his Master; does greater works than these (2 Kings 4:31-35; John 14:12); brings life to those who stay close to their Master in a culture of death; and develops disciples for whom they also serve as types.
I have been refreshed this past month, and I enthusiastically anticipate teaching the same course next semester with a burning heart.