Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
THE CLOSE OF THE HISTORY OF ELIJAH. HE IS SUCCEEDED BY ELISHA.
(1-18) Elijah is miraculously taken away from the earth.
And it came to pass, when the LORD would take up Elijah into heaven by a whirlwind, that Elijah went with Elisha from Gilgal.(1) And it came to pass . . . whirlwind.—The compiler has prefixed this heading to the following narrative by way of connection with the general thread of the history. It seems to be indicated that the event happened in the beginning of the reign of Jehoram; but see Note on 2Chronicles 21:12.
When the Lord would take up.—When Jehovah caused Elijah to go up, or ascend. This anticipates the conclusion of the story.
Into heaven.—Heb., accusative of direction, as in 2Kings 2:11. The LXX. renders, ὡς εἰς τὸν οὐρανὸν “as into heaven,” perhaps to suggest that not the visible heavens, but God, was the real goal of the prophet’s ascension.
By a whirlwind.—In the storm.
Gilgal.—Heb., the Gilgal, i.e., the Ring (comp. Isaiah 28:28, “wheel”), a descriptive name of more than one place. Here, Gilgal in Ephraim, the present Jiljîlia, which stands on a hill south-west of Seilûn (Shiloh), near the road leading thence to Jericho. (See Deuteronomy 11:30; Hosea 4:15; Amos 4:4.) Hosea and Amos connect Gilgal with Bethel, as a sanctuary. It was probably marked by a ring of stones like those at Stonehenge and Avebury. From this spot the mountain land of Gilead, the Great Sea, and the snowy heights of Hermon, were all visible; so that the prophet could take from thence a last look at the whole country which had been the scene of his earthly activity.
And Elijah said unto Elisha, Tarry here, I pray thee; for the LORD hath sent me to Bethel. And Elisha said unto him, As the LORD liveth, and as thy soul liveth, I will not leave thee. So they went down to Bethel.(2) Said.—Not spake, as throughout the account in 2Kings 1:2-16; a mark of different origin.
Tarry here, I pray thee.—This was said, not to test Elisha’s affection, nor from a motive of humility, that Elisha might not witness his glorious ascension, but because Elijah was uncertain whether it was God’s will that Elisha should go with him. (Comp. 2Kings 2:10.) Elisha’s threefold refusal to leave him settled the doubt. (Comp. John 21:15, seq.)
The Lord hath sent me to Beth-el.—Why? Not merely to “see once more this holiest place in Israel, the spiritual centre of the kingdom of the ten tribes” (Ewald), but to visit the prophetic schools, or guilds, established there, and at Gilgal and Jericho, and to confirm their fidelity to Jehovah. Gilgal and Beth-el, as ancient Canaanite sanctuaries, were centres of illegal worship of the God of Israel. The guilds of the prophets may have been intended to counteract this evil influence at its head-quarters (Bähr).
As the Lord liveth, and as thy soul liveth.—2Kings 4:30; 1Samuel 20:3. A more solemn and emphatic oath than “As the Lord liveth” (Judges 8:19), or “As thy soul liveth” (1Samuel 1:26). Literally, By the life of Jehovah and by the life of thy soul (i.e., of thyself, thine own life).
And the sons of the prophets that were at Bethel came forth to Elisha, and said unto him, Knowest thou that the LORD will take away thy master from thy head to day? And he said, Yea, I know it; hold ye your peace.(3) The sons of the prophets.—See Notes on 1Kings 20:35; 1Samuel 10:10; 1Samuel 19:20. There was a guild of prophets at Beth-el.
Came forth to Elisha.—Who probably walked a little way before his master, to announce his approach.
And said unto him.—The prophetic college had been divinely forewarned of Elijah’s departure.
The Lord will take away . . . to day.—“To day” is emphatic. “Knowest thou that this day Jehovah is about to take away thy lord from beside thee?” The word “head” may signify self, or person, like the word “soul,” and other terms. (Comp. Genesis 40:13; 1Samuel 28:2; 2Samuel 1:16.) Others explain “from over thy head,” i.e., from his position of superiority over thee as thy master and teacher. (See 1Kings 19:21; Acts 22:3.) Others again, but very improbably, take the words literally as a reference to Elijah’s ascension, “away over thine head.”
Yea, I know.—Rather, I, too, know.
Hold ye your peace.—Elisha says this, not to prevent the gathering of a crowd to witness the spectacle of Elijah’s departure, nor yet to intimate that his master’s modesty will be shocked by much talk of his approaching exaltation, but simply to suggest that the subject is painful both to him and to his beloved master. The Hebrew term, hehĕshû, imitates the sound, like our “hush!”
And Elijah said unto him, Elisha, tarry here, I pray thee; for the LORD hath sent me to Jericho. And he said, As the LORD liveth, and as thy soul liveth, I will not leave thee. So they came to Jericho.(4) And Elijah said.—The exact repetition of the language of 2Kings 2:2-3 in this and the next two verses, appears to indicate that the narrative had originally been handed on by oral tradition, probably in the prophetic guilds at the local sanctuaries.
And the sons of the prophets that were at Jericho came to Elisha, and said unto him, Knowest thou that the LORD will take away thy master from thy head to day? And he answered, Yea, I know it; hold ye your peace.(5) Came.—Drew near.
And Elijah said unto him, Tarry, I pray thee, here; for the LORD hath sent me to Jordan. And he said, As the LORD liveth, and as thy soul liveth, I will not leave thee. And they two went on.(6) Said unto him.—Syriac adds, “unto Elisha;” Arabic, as 2Kings 2:4, and so three MSS.
And he said.—LXX., “and Elisha said”—an improvement.
“Not only Elisha, the intimate companion and future successor of Elijah, but all the disciples of the different ‘schools of the prophets,’ have the presentiment of the loss which threatens them. The Spirit has warned them all; they communicate their fears, but Elisha forbids them to give free course to their sorrow. A respectful silence, a resignation not exempt from foreboding, suits this condition of things. Elisha clings to his master, as though he could keep him back; the disciples follow them with their eyes. The monotony of the successive scenes adds to the solemn effect of the total description” (Reuss).
And fifty men of the sons of the prophets went, and stood to view afar off: and they two stood by Jordan.(7) And fifty . . . went.—Now fifty . . . had gone.
Stood to view.—Taken their stand opposite, i.e., directly opposite the place where the two were standing by the brink of the river, yet at some distance behind. They wished to see whether and how the companions would cross the stream at a point where there was no ford.
And Elijah took his mantle, and wrapped it together, and smote the waters, and they were divided hither and thither, so that they two went over on dry ground.(8) His mantle.—The hairy ’addèreth, which characterised him as prophet. Zechariah 13:4, ’addèreth sē‘ār, “mantle of hair;” Syriac and Arabic, “head-dress” (wrongly).
Wrapped it together.—Rolled it up. Here only. (Comp. “my substance,” or “mass,” Psalm 139:16; “blue mantles,” Ezekiel 27:24, from the same root.) LXX., εἵλησεν; Vulg., “involvit;” Syriac, “rolled it up.”
Smote the waters.—A symbolical action like that of Moses smiting the rock, or stretching out his rod over the sea. (Comp. also the use of Elisha’s staff, 2Kings 4:29.) In all these cases the outward and visible sign is made the channel of the invisible and spiritual force of faith.
And it came to pass, when they were gone over, that Elijah said unto Elisha, Ask what I shall do for thee, before I be taken away from thee. And Elisha said, I pray thee, let a double portion of thy spirit be upon me.(9) I pray thee, let . . .—Literally, And (i.e., well, then) let there fall, I pray thee, a portion of two in thy spirit, unto me.
A double portion.—The expression used in Deuteronomy 21:7 of the share of the firstborn son, who by the Mosaic law inherited two parts of his father’s property.
Elisha asks to be treated as the firstborn among “the sons of the prophets,” and so to receive twice as great a share of “the spirit and power” of his master as any of the rest. “Let me be the firstborn among thy spiritual sons;” “Make me thy true spiritual heir;” not “Give me twice as great a share of the spirit of prophecy as thou possessest thyself,” as many have wrongly interpreted. The phrase, “a mouth of two,” seems to be a metaphor derived from the custom of serving honoured guests with double, and even greater, messes (Genesis 43:34).
And he said, Thou hast asked a hard thing: nevertheless, if thou see me when I am taken from thee, it shall be so unto thee; but if not, it shall not be so.(10) Thou hast asked a hard thing.—Because to grant such a petition was not in Elijah’s own power, but in God’s only. And therefore in the next words the prophet connects the fulfilment of his follower’s wish with a condition depending entirely upon the Divine will: “If thou see me when I am taken from thee, it shall be so unto thee (Keil).” ‘If the Lord think thee worthy to witness my departure, thou wilt be worthy to win thy boon.’ Elijah thus disclaims power to fulfil the request. At the same time, it is implied that his departure will be something exalted above the perception of ordinary men” (Thenius).
And it came to pass, as they still went on, and talked, that, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, and parted them both asunder; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.(11) And it came to pass . . . talked.—Literally, And it came to pass, they (emphatic) were walking a walking and talking, i.e., were going on farther and farther, talking as they went. Whither they went is not told; probably some height of the mountains of Gilead, Elijah’s native country, was the scene of his departure. (Comp. Deuteronomy 34:5; Numbers 20:28.)
That, behold, there appeared . . . fire.—Literally, and, behold, chariots of fire and horses of fire. Rèkeb is generally collective; so the Targum here. (Comp. 2Kings 6:17 : “Horses and chariots of fire round about Elisha.”)
Parted them both asunder.—Or, made parting between them twain, i.e., the appearance of fiery chariots and horses came between Elijah and Elisha, surrounding the former as with a flaming war-host. (Comp. 2Kings 6:17.)
Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.—Rather, Elijah went up in the storm heavenward, or, perhaps, into the air. Sĕ‘ārāh, properly storm-blast; and so storm, thunderstorm. (Comp. Ezekiel 1:4, seq., where Jehovah appears in a “whirlwind,” which is described as a great fiery cloud; and Job 38:1, where He answers Job “out of the whirlwind;” and Nehemiah 1:3 : “The Lord hath His path in whirlwind and in storm (sĕ‘ārāh), and the clouds are the dust of His feet.”) The Hebrew mind recognised the presence and working of Jehovah in the terrific phenomena of nature; the thunder-cloud or storm-wind was His chariot, the thunder His voice, the lightning His arrow. (Comp. Psalm 18:6-15; Psalm 104:3.) We must therefore be cautious of taking the words before us in too literal a sense. The essential meaning of the passage is this, that God suddenly took Elijah to Himself, amid a grand display of His power in and through the forces of nature. The popular conception, which we see embodied in such pictures as William Blake’s Translation of Elijah, that the prophet ascended to heaven in a fiery car drawn by horses of fire, is plainly read into, rather than gathered from, the sacred text.
Went up.—Bähr may be right in asserting that ‘ālāh here means “disappeared, was consumed” (like the German aufgehen). He compares Judges 20:40, “The whole city went up heavenward,” i.e., was consumed, and the Hebrew name of the burnt offering (‘ôlāh). But the same phrase (“to go up to heaven”) is used in Psalm 107:26 of a ship rising heavenward on the stormy waves.
As regards the miraculous removal of Elijah and Enoch (Genesis 5:24), Von Gerlach remarks: “All such questions as whither they were removed, and where they now are, and what changes they underwent in translation, are left unanswered by the Scriptures.” It may be added, that the ascension of Elijah into heaven is nowhere alluded to in the rest of the Bible.
And Elisha saw it, and he cried, My father, my father, the chariot of Israel, and the horsemen thereof. And he saw him no more: and he took hold of his own clothes, and rent them in two pieces.(12) And Elisha . . . cried.—Literally, And Elisha was seeing, and he (emphatic) was shouting. (Comp. 2Kings 2:10, “If thou see me taken away.”)
My father, my father.—Expresses what Elijah was to Elisha. (See Note on 2Kings 2:9.)
The chariot (chariots—rèkeb) of Israel, and the horsemen thereof.—Expressing what Elijah was to the nation. The Targum paraphrases, “My master, my master, who was better to Israel than chariots and horsemen by his prayers.” The personal work and influence of a prophet like Elijah was the truest safeguard of Israel. The force of the expression will be seen, if it is remembered that chariots and horsemen constituted, in that age, the chief military arm, and were indispensable for the struggle against the Aramean states. (Comp. 2Kings 7:6; 2Kings 10:2; 2Kings 13:14; 1Kings 20:1; Psalm 20:7.)
He saw him no more.—After his outcry. He had seen him taken up.
Rent them in two pieces.—From top to bottom, in token of extreme sorrow. (For the phrase, comp. 1Kings 11:30.)
He took up also the mantle of Elijah that fell from him, and went back, and stood by the bank of Jordan;(13) The mantle of Elijah.—See 2Kings 2:8, and comp. 1Kings 19:19. The badge of the prophet’s office was naturally transferred to his successor.
The bank.—Literally, lip. So χείλς is used in Greek (Herod. ii. 70).
And he took the mantle of Elijah that fell from him, and smote the waters, and said, Where is the LORD God of Elijah? and when he also had smitten the waters, they parted hither and thither: and Elisha went over.(14) Where is the Lord God of Elijah?—Has He left the earth with His prophet? If not, let Him now show His power, and verify the granting of my request (2Kings 2:9). The words are a sort of irony of faith. Elisha “seeks” Jehovah as the only source of power. (Comp. Jeremiah 2:6; Jeremiah 2:8, where the priests and prophets are blamed for having recourse to idols, instead of asking, “Where is Jehovah?”)
And when he also had smitten.—The Hebrew is, also (or, even) he—and he smote. There is clearly something wrong. The LXX. does not render the Hebrew ‘aph hû’ “also he,” but copies the words in Greek (αφφω). Keil connects them with the foregoing question, “Where is Jehovah, the God of Elijah, even He?” Thenius objects that this use of ‘aph is doubtful, and supports Houbigant’s correction, ’ēphô, an enclitic then—“Where, then, is Jehovah, the God of Elijah? and he smote,” &c. Perhaps ’êphōh (“where”) was the original reading: “Where is Jehovah, the God of Elijah? Where?”—an emphatic repetition of the question. Or it may be that the words ’aph hû’ wayyakkeh should be transposed: “and he smote—he also (like Elijah),” &c. The Vulgate has the curious renderings, “And with the cloak of Elias which had fallen from him, he smote the waters, and they were not divided; and he said, Where is the God of Elias now also? And he smote the waters, and they were divided,” &c. Such also is the reading of the Complutensian LXX.; but the variation is simply an old attempt to account for the twofold “and he smote the waters.”
And when the sons of the prophets which were to view at Jericho saw him, they said, The spirit of Elijah doth rest on Elisha. And they came to meet him, and bowed themselves to the ground before him.(15) To view.—Opposite, over against. LXX., ἐξ ἐναντίας; Vulg., “e contra” (Deuteronomy 32:52). It is not clear whether these sons of the prophets are the fifty who “went and stood opposite afar off” (2Kings 2:7), or not. On the whole, it seems likely that all the guild residing at Jericho is meant. Awaiting Elisha’s return, they had assembled at the river side and witnessed the miracle, which was evidence to them that Elisha was to be their future head.
The spirit of Elijah doth rest on Elisha.—Hath alighted, i.e., settled, rested. The proof was that Elisha had just repeated his master’s miracle.
And they said unto him, Behold now, there be with thy servants fifty strong men; let them go, we pray thee, and seek thy master: lest peradventure the Spirit of the LORD hath taken him up, and cast him upon some mountain, or into some valley. And he said, Ye shall not send.(16) And they said unto him.—After he had told them of the Assumption of Elijah (Thenius).
Fifty strong men.—See margin. Perhaps these were attendants on the members of the prophetic guild. (Comp. Elisha’s servant Gehazi, and the fifty sons of the prophets, in 2Kings 2:7.) Their being “sons of valour” was important, as the search in the mountains would involve danger.
The Spirit of the Lord hath taken him up.—Comp. 1Kings 18:12; Acts 8:39-40. This suggestion of the sons of the prophets is a good comment on 2Kings 2:11-12. It shows that what is there told is certainly not that Elijah ascended a fiery chariot and rode visibly into heaven, as the popular notion is.
Upon some mountain, or into some valley.—Literally, on to one of the mountains, or into one of the valleys, of the land of Gilead. The motive of the disciples was not a desire to pay the last honours to the body of the departed master, as Keil suggests; for they rather expected to find Elijah alive. After the words “cast him,” the LXX. has “into the Jordan,” which may be authentic. In that case, the disciples may have thought the prophet was hidden somewhere among the reeds and rushes of the river bank, in order to escape some threatened danger.
Ye shall not send.—Or, Ye must not, ye should not, or ought not, to send.
And when they urged him till he was ashamed, he said, Send. They sent therefore fifty men; and they sought three days, but found him not.(17) Urged him.—Genesis 33:11.
Till he was ashamed.—Literally, unto being ashamed. The pronoun is not expressed in the Hebrew. “They pressed upon him, ‘ad bōsh,” means “until he was embarrassed, disconcerted, put out of countenance.” (Comp. 2Kings 8:11; Judges 3:25.) Thenius prefers “they carried their importunity to a shameless length;” Keil and Bähr, “until he was disappointed in the hope of dissuading them.” (Comp. Psalm 22:5.)
And when they came again to him, (for he tarried at Jericho,) he said unto them, Did I not say unto you, Go not?(18) For he tarried.—Now he (emphatic) was abiding in Jericho (while they were searching).
Did I not say.—Or, command. Elisha could now fairly remind them of his authority. So the phrase “Go not” is, in the Hebrew, imperative. (Comp. “Ye shall not send,” 2Kings 2:16.) With these words, the history of Elijah significantly closes. “Elias resembled Moses in courage and eloquence, and no other prophet was his equal. But when he withdrew from the world, that Providence which guided the destinies of Israel did not, therefore, forsake His people. A portion of Elijah’s spirit passed to his disciples; and they are forbidden to seek their departed master in the desert: they must find among themselves the means of carrying on his work” (Reuss).
And the men of the city said unto Elisha, Behold, I pray thee, the situation of this city is pleasant, as my lord seeth: but the water is naught, and the ground barren.(19-25) Elisha, as prophet, heals the waters of Jericho, and curses the scorners of Beth-el.
(19) The men of the city.—Not “the sons of the prophets,” but the citizens make this trial of the prophet’s miraculous powers.
The situation of this (Heb., the) city is pleasant (Heb., good).—Jericho, “the city of palms” (Deuteronomy 34:3), had a fine position, “rising like an oasis from a broad plain of sand.”
The water is naught.—Heb., bad. “Naught” i.e., “naughty.”
And the ground barren.—2Kings 2:21 (“from thence”) shows that the waters, not the soil, were the cause of the evil complained of. “The ground,” or rather, the land is here put for its inhabitants, including the lower animals; and what is said is either “the country bears dead births,” or, “the country has many miscarriages” (pi’el may be either factitive or intensive). (Comp. Exodus 23:26; Malachi 3:11.) The use of different waters is said to have good and bad effects upon the functions of conception and parturition (not “a popular superstition,” as Reuss suggests). “The ground is barren,” or unfruitful, is therefore an incorrect translation.
And he said, Bring me a new cruse, and put salt therein. And they brought it to him.(20) A new cruse.—Vessel; either dish, bowl, or cup (çĕlōhîth); only here. (Comp. çĕlāhôth, 2Chronicles 35:16 : and the Targum, (çĕlûhîthā.) A new one, because the holy purpose demanded an instrument uncontaminated by use. (Comp. Numbers 19:2; 2Samuel 6:3.)
Salt.—As an antiseptic, an appropriate sacramental medium of the Divine influence which was to expel the corruption of the spring.
And he went forth unto the spring of the waters, and cast the salt in there, and said, Thus saith the LORD, I have healed these waters; there shall not be from thence any more death or barren land.(21) The spring of the waters.—Now called Aines Sultân (“the Sultan’s Fountain”), a fine spring of sweet water, which irrigates the neighbouring plain.
Thus saith the Lord.—Not the prophet’s own power, nor the natural virtues of the salt, but the Divine creative will was effectual to the healing of the spring.
There shall not be.—Many MSS., and all the versions, save LXX., read “and there shall not be,” or, “arise.”
Death.—Caused by the unwholesome water, either to the people, or to their unborn offspring.
Or barren land.—The same word as in 2Kings 2:19. Literally, and making (or, multiplying) abortion, which is apparently used as a substantive here (i.e., cause of abortion).
Unto this day.—The time when the narrative was first committed to writing.
And he went up from thence unto Bethel: and as he was going up by the way, there came forth little children out of the city, and mocked him, and said unto him, Go up, thou bald head; go up, thou bald head.(23) Went up.—From Jericho, in the plain, Elisha goes now to visit the prophetic community established at Beth-el, the chief seat of the illicit cultus.
By the way.—The way par excellence; the highroad leading directly up to the gates of the town.
Little children.—Young boys (or, lads). Na’ar is not used rhetorically here, as in 1Chronicles 29:1; 2Chronicles 13:7. The boys who mocked Elisha might be of various ages, between six or seven years and twenty. “Little children” would not be likely to hit upon a biting sarcasm, nor to sally forth in a body to insult the prophet (2Kings 2:24).
Mocked.—Habakkuk 1:10. In Syriac and Chaldee the root implies “to praise, and to praise ironically,” i.e., to deride.
Go up.—Not “as Elijah was reported to have done;” for the Bethelites knew no more of that than the prophets of Jericho. The word obviously refers to what Elisha was himself doing at the time (2Kings 2:23). He was probably going up the steep road slowly, and his prophet’s mantle attracted attention.
Thou bald head.—Baldness was a reproach (Isaiah 3:17; Isaiah 15:2), and suspicious as one of the marks of leprosy (Leviticus 13:43). Elisha, though still young—he lived fifty years after this (2Kings 13:14)—may have become bald prematurely.
And he turned back, and looked on them, and cursed them in the name of the LORD. And there came forth two she bears out of the wood, and tare forty and two children of them.(24) He turned back.—The boys were following him with their jeers. Thenius says, “The wanton young people, who had not courage to attack except in the rear, had stolen round him.”
And there came forth.—Whether at once, and in the presence of Elisha, or not, is uncertain. Thenius supposes that on some occasion or other a terrible calamity had fallen on some person or persons after such a mockery of Elisha, or of some other prophet (!); and that in the desire to magnify the divinely maintained inviolability of the prophetic office, the author of the above narrative has overlooked the immoral character of cursing, especially in the case of wanton children. He then contrasts the behaviour of the “historical” David (2Samuel 16:10). But (1) the curse of a prophet was an inspired prediction of punitive disaster; (2) Beth-el was a chief seat of idolatry (1Kings 12:29, seq.; Amos 4:4; Amos 5:5; Amos 7:10), and the mobbing of the new prophetic leader may have been premeditated; (3) at all events, the narrative is too brief to enable us to judge of the merits of the case; and (4) what is related belongs to that dispensation in which judgment was made more prominent than mercy, and directly fulfils the menace of Leviticus 26:21, seq.
Forty and two.—This may be a definite for an indefinite number. It shows that the mob of young persons who beset the prophet was considerable.
And he went from thence to mount Carmel, and from thence he returned to Samaria.(25) To mount Carmel.—To cultivate the memory of his master in solitude. Elijah had often lived there (comp. 1 Kings 18), as its caves were well fitted for solitude and concealment. Elisha may have retired thither to prepare himself for his public ministry by prayer and fasting. (Comp. Matthew 4:1, seq.)
To Samaria.—Where he had his permanent abode. (Comp. 2Kings 6:32.)