Where is the God of Elijah?
Scripture: 2 Kings 1:1–2:23
Synopsis: “Where is the God of Elijah?” This was the question Elisha asked as he stood beside the River Jordan after Elijah was taken up into heaven. It is a good question for us today. As we reflect on the life and times of Elijah, what are the lessons we can take away? The bottom line from this message on 2 Kings 1-2 is this: Elijah is gone, but the God of Elijah is still here!
The Old Testament contains three stories of believers who passed from earth to heaven in unusual and dramatic ways. The first one is Enoch in Genesis 5, where we are told that, “Enoch walked with God, and he was not, for God took him.” The writer of Hebrews tells us that Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death, and he was not found, because God had taken him.
The second rather mysterious account is that of the death of Moses. In Deuteronomy we are told,
“So Moses the servant of the Lord died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the Lord, 6 and he buried him in the valley in the land of Moab opposite Beth-peor; but no one knows the place of his burial to this day.”(Deuteronomy 34:5-6)
The text clearly tells us that Moses died, but the intrigue lies in the fact that the Lord himself buried him in an unknown site.
The third and most dramatic story is the one we read in the Scripture reading this morning about Elijah and the chariots of fire.It is the most dramatic, because it is the most complete and we are given the most descriptive detail. But we are still left with unanswered questions.
Before we look at it though, let’s look at one last confrontation that occurred between Elijah and the king of Israel. You will recall that 1 Kings 22 ended with the death of Elijah’s nemesis, King Ahab. Ahab’s son, Ahaziah took the throne. He also did evil by following the idols of his mother. 2 Kings 1 opens by telling us that he had an accident, falling through the lattice of an upper room of his palace. As a result of the accident, he lay seriously ill. In his illness, he turns not to Yahweh, the God of Israel. Instead he sends messengers to inquire of a god named Baal-Zebub, a god of the Philistines. One commentator I read translated Baal-Zebub as the Lord of the Flies, and relates it to an ancient practice by which they tried to read the movements of flies as omens to predict the progress of a disease. Whether that is true or not, the significance of his actions lay not so much in where he turned for help, but rather where he did not turn.
The Lord, however, sends Elijah to intercept the messengers. He sends them back to the king with the stern message that because of the king’s unfaithfulness in turning to false gods, he would never leave his sick bed and would certainly die. When King Ahaziah realizes that it is Elijah who sent the message, he sends a company of 50 soldiers to seize the prophet. They find Elijah sitting on top of a hill.
Let’s read the exchange from 2 Kings 1:9-10:
He went up to Elijah, who was sitting on the top of a hill, and said to him,“O man of God, the king says, ‘Come down.’ ” 10 But Elijah answered the captain of fifty, “If I am a man of God, let fire come down from heaven and consume you and your fifty.” Then fire came down from heaven and consumed him and his fifty.
It reminds me of something my computer tells me now and then when it fails to connect to a website: “Oops! That didn’t go well!”
But back in Samaria, they don’t seem to be paying attention. Instead, the king pushes the “send” button again and sends another captain with fifty men. This man is even more persistent, rude and demanding. Again the king sent to him another captain of fifty men with his fifty. And he answered and said to him, “O man of God, this is the king’s order, ‘Come down quickly!’ ”
Once again, Elijah calls down fire from heaven and fifty more men die. What does the king do? He sends a third captain with another fifty men. But this captain has gotten the message. He approaches Elijah carefully and respectfully, pleading for his life and the lives of his men. This time God instructs Elijah to go with them. So Elijah goes to the king and delivers the message that he is about to die because of his unfaithfulness in turning to idols rather than to God in his time of trouble. And the king died, just as Elijah predicted.
It is another story that illustrates the extreme apostasy of the nation Israel during this period in their history, and also of God repeatedly speaking through his prophets to judge their sin and call the nation back to himself.
That brings us to 2 Kings 2 and the story of Elijah being transported to heaven. As I said, there is a fair bit of detail here, but there is also considerable mystery. The story is narrated in the very stylized fashion of much Hebrew narrative. It starts by Elijah apparently trying to get away from his disciple and helper, Elisha. Three times, he asks Elisha to stay behind while he goes on alone. We are not sure if he truly wants Elisha to stay back, or is just testing him. In any case, Elisha refuses to be separated from Elijah. At each point in their journey, they encounter a group called “sons of the prophets”. Apparently there were schools for training prophets. This may even have been part of Elijah’s ministry following the events on Mount Carmel. Possibly he is making the rounds of these training centers for one last visit before his departure. In any case, these references are one more testimony to the fact that there was a remnant of faithful followers of Yahweh alive and well in the land. At each place, the sons of the prophet warn Elisha that Elijah is about to leave him. Elisha acknowledges that he already knows.
There is time for one more miracle at the hand of Elijah. With fifty prophets looking on, Elijah rolls up his cloak and strikes the River Jordan with it. In a miracle reminiscent of Moses and Joshua, the water separates and the two men walk across on dry land. Once on the other side, Elijah turns and asks Elisha if he can do anything for him before he departs. Elisha draws a deep breath and makes an audacious request: “Let me inherit a double portion of your spirit.”
And he said, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it shall be so for you, but if you do not see me, it shall not be so.”(v. 10)
Why was it a hard thing? Was it because it was so much to ask? Was it hard for God or hard for Elijah to give it? Or is Elijah warning that the mantle of his ministry was a difficult one to wear? In any case, as they continued to walk and talk together, a chariot and horses of fire appeared and separated the two men, and a whirlwind snatched Elijah up into heaven. It is a supernatural event and a somewhat mysterious description. What did Elisha see? He obviously saw Elijah being taken up. But it is intriguing that while we are told that a chariot and horses separated them, Elisha cried out “the chariots of Israel and its horsemen”, implying that there were many.
And then they were gone, and so was Elijah. In a traditional sign of grief and mourning, Elisha tore his clothes. It was then that he saw what Elijah had left behind. His mantle; the same one he had used to strike the water of the Jordan. Elisha picked it up. He walked back to the river, holding the mantle in his hands. He stood by the bank of the river, looking at the rushing water, looking at the mantle in his hands. Then he looked up into the heavens where he had seen Elijah disappear and cried out “Where now is Yahweh, the God of Elijah!” as he struck the water just as Elijah had done. Once again, the water divided to the right and to the left and Elisha crossed over. The disciple had become the prophet. The baton had been passed. The work of God and the word of God would continue to be displayed in the nation to another king and to another generation.
It is a dramatic story and, as I said, a mysterious one, unique in the Scriptures. Who were the chariots and the horsemen? Was it a literal whirlwind? Why did God do it this way? What happened to Elijah’s body? Did he die in the traditional sense, or was he taken alive into heaven like Enoch? Fifty prophets spent three days searching for him or his body and found nothing. We could speculate on the mysteries – but I have chosen not to. Let us leave them as mysteries – something to ask Elijah and Elisha about when we meet them.
Before we leave the story of Elijah, I want to do one more thing. I want to take the thread of Elijah and pull on it, like a thread from a sweater, and see where it leads us in the rest of Scripture.
First, I want to fast forward to the very last book of the Old Testament, the Book of Malachi. Malachi was the last of the writing prophets, the last one to write before 400 years of silence between the Old and New Testament. Let’s read from Malachi 4:5-6. Remember now, these are the final words of the Old Testament:
“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. 6 And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.”
400 years passed without a word from the Lord. Then a man appeared, preaching in the area near the Jordan, not far from where the prophet Elijah disappeared. How was he dressed? Camel’s hair with a leather belt! His message? “Repent and turn back to God! The kingdom of heaven is near!”
The people went out to hear John the Baptist preach. Do you know what they asked him? “Are you Elijah?” He answered, “No!” But that was not quite the end of the story. Later Jesus’ disciples asked him to explain. He did by telling them that while John the Baptist was not, in fact, Elijah returning in the flesh, he had come “in the spirit and the power of Elijah” in fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy.
But even that is not quite the end of the story. Later, in Jesus’ own ministry we are told of another mysterious, supernatural event. Jesus went up on a mountain, and he was transfigured in the presence of Jesus’ three closest disciples. Two men appeared, conversing with Jesus. Do you know who they were? Moses and Elijah! The great law giver and the greatest of the prophets, talking with Jesus. What happened next, though, is very significant. The three disciples were incredibly excited – to be in the presence of these great servants of God was almost more than they could absorb. Peter blurts out, “Master, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah”— not knowing what he said. (Luke 9:33)
At this point, Heaven itself intervenes to set the record straight. This is not a meeting between three equals. This is a meeting of the Master with two of his most trusted friends and servants.
And a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!” 36 And when the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. (Luke 9:35-36)
As great and as honored as Moses and Elijah were, one greater than Moses and greater that Elijah had come; Jesus, the Son, the Chosen One. The culmination of God’s reaching out to man; God, the Word made flesh to dwell among us and to give himself as the atoning sacrifice for our sins.
I love the way the Scriptures all tie together! From Elijah to Malachi to John the Baptist and now, back again to Elijah talking with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration? God is at work, fulfilling his master plan.
What I want to do in the remainder of this message is to step back – from this chapter and from the whole account of Elijah’s life and ministry and to look for the larger lessons of what God was doing in history and what he is still doing in history, and how it relates to us today. Let me try to capture it all in a single summary statement and then examine some implications as a take away from this series of messages on Elijah.
Here is my summary statement: Kings and prophets may come and go, but God and his Kingdom will last forever.
The chapters we have been studying together in this series contain a slice of history: Israel’s history, world history. The defining moment in Elijah’s life and ministry took place on Mount Carmel. I entitled that message, “The Battle on the Mountain.” On a larger scale, we can define all of history as a battle: a battle for the world and for the hearts, minds and allegiance of the human race. It is a war between two kingdoms: the kingdom of darkness and the kingdom of light. The battle is fierce and it is real. Sometimes one side seems to be winning. Sometimes the other has the upper hand. In the days of Elijah and his time period in Israel’s history, the evil kingdom seemed to have the upper hand; evil king after evil king, lying prophets, corrupt and syncretistic worship, oppression and injustice were all the order of the day.
Kings come and go. Evil King Ahab died. But he was replaced by another evil king, and then another. Where was God and his Kingdom? One of the themes in this section of Israel’s history is that of the remnant. God still had his faithful people. They weren’t many – but they were present. Not only Elijah, but Obadiah, Micaiah and other unnamed prophets and even “sons of the prophets”, prophets in training. “I have reserved for myself 7,000 faithful ones who have not bowed their knees to the kingdom of darkness,” God told Elijah.
Think of God’s kingdom as a river, flowing through the land. Sometimes it is a wide, flowing stream. Sometimes, in times of drought, it dries to a small trickle. Sometimes it passes through hard, rocky ground and is even forced underground, out of sight and invisible. But God always has his people. Even in the darkest periods of the history of men and nations, God reserves for himself his faithful ones.
Kings come and go, but God and his Kingdom remain.
Prophets come. In the ongoing spiritual battle, God raises up his heroes, his spokesmen, his prophets. Men and women who take their stand for God and announce his truth and live by his standards. Individuals who stand up and challenge the world and their sphere of influence as Elijah did. “If Yahweh is God, follow him!” Elijah was a bold champion for the Kingdom of God.
Prophets come and prophets go. Today we read of the passing of Elijah. What will happen, now that he is gone? We honor our heroes of the faith. But we can also come to rely on them; to believe that God’s work depends on a certain man or a certain ministry. That is why we need the lesson of this chapter. We need to stand by the river, with Elijah’s mantle in our hands and cry with Elisha, “Where now is Yahweh, the God of Elijah?” Elijah is gone. But the God of Elijah is still here. Prophets come and go, but God and his Kingdom are eternal.
What shall we take away from this series of messages? Let me leave you with three challenges.
1. Heed the challenge of Elijah.
Do you remember it, from the Battle on the Mountain? How long will you go limping between two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.”
We must declare our allegiance in the spiritual battle. We cannot remain neutral. We must make up our minds. Listen to the Apostle John as he issues this same challenge with different language in 1 John 2:15-17:
Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 16 For all that is in the world's the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions—is not from the Father but is from the world. 17 And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.
Elijah says “follow”. John says “love”. But both say to us: “You must make a choice!” As you do, take the long view. “The world is passing away…but God and his Kingdom will last forever, as will those who follow him and do his will.” Have you made that choice?
2. Put your hope and confidence in the God of Elijah.
Kings come and go. We cannot put our confidence in them. Political leaders and rulers are important. But ultimately, the battle in which we are engaged is not a political battle. It is a spiritual battle.
Even prophets come and go. As much as we admire strong and godly spiritual leaders, the Kingdom of God does not depend on them. As one passes from the scene, God is able to raise up others to take his or her place. God always has his people and he is able to and does raise up his champions on every stage to speak forth his truth. Of course he has now revealed himself in his Once For All Time Champion, the Lord Jesus Christ. Where is the God of Elijah? He is here! Put your hope and confidence in him.
3. Be encouraged by the example of Elijah.
Why do I say this? The history of the human race is a history of spiritual warfare. In this war, there are many days, months and even years, decades and centuries in which the kingdom of darkness appears to be winning. We may feel that we are living in one of those times, seasons and epochs when, as the hymn writer wrote, “the wrong seems oft so strong.”
However dark the times in which we live, our calling remains the same: remain faithful to God and his truth as Elijah was. We may at times feel all alone, as Elijah certainly did, but let us always remember that we are not alone. God is with us and God has many others who are standing firm for him. Let us stay true to God and his message as long as he gives us breath.
Because always remember: Kings and even prophets may come and go, but God and his Kingdom remain forever.
QUESTIONS FOR THOUGHT AND DISCUSSION
- Read 2 Kings 1. Why do you think this chapter is included in the Bible? Why do you think God was so harsh in his response to the soldiers sent to seize him? To King Ahaziah?
- Read 2 Kings 2:1-18. What questions does this chapter raise in your mind?
- What do you think about Elijah’s request (2:10)? What would you have asked for? Why do you think it was a “hard thing”?
- Put yourself in Elisha’s sandals. How do you think he might have felt as he walked back across the Jordan on dry land?
- “Kings and prophets may come and go, but God and his Kingdom will last forever.” Reflect on this truth and discuss the implications as it relates to the condition of the world today. What about the conditions in your personal world (job, family, church)?
- Relate your discussion to the three applications from Pastor Cam’s sermon: (1. Heed the challenge of Elijah. 2. Put your hope and confidence in the God of Elijah. 3. Be encouraged by the example of Elijah.)