Studies in the Life of Elisha (1)
Stephen Rudge, Winshill, England
The ministry of the prophet Elisha offers some valuable instructions for us today. We shall consider some of these instructions in these studies.
The Context of Elisha's Ministry
God kept His promise to His servant Abraham, and the children of Israel entered the Promised Land under the leadership of Joshua the son of Nun. In the land, the Israelites soon began to murmur against God, just as they did in the wilderness. They wanted a king like the nations around them. Eventually God 'gave them up', Psa. 81. 12,1 to that which they desired and Samuel anointed Saul the first king of Israel. David succeeded Saul and did that which was right in the sight of the Lord, 2 Kgs. 18. 3, and Solomon, the wisest of men, 1 Kgs. 4. 29-31, succeeded David. As predicted by Ahijah, 1 Kgs. 11. 29-31, after Solomon's death the kingdom divided into two. The Northern Kingdom (Israel) was comprised largely often tribes ruled by Jeroboam I, while the Southern Kingdom (Judah) was comprised principally of the tribes Judah and Benjamin, ruled by Rehoboam, Solomon's son.
It was among the people of the Northern Kingdom that Elijah and Elisha ministered. Elijah ministered during the reign of Ahab and his son Ahaziah, and Elisha from the reign of Ahaziah through to Jehoash over fifty years later2. The tribes of the Northern Kingdom were eventually taken captive by Shalmaneser into Assyria, and never returned to the land.
When the kingdom divided into North and South, Jeroboam's immediate concern was to maintain his authority. To ensure that he kept his throne he re-wrote the constitution. The rebelling tribes had given him political power, 1 Kgs. 12. 1, but the seat of religious power remained at Jerusalem. This posed a threat, for the people might, in time, switch their allegiance back to 'the house of David'.
Jeroboam did four things so that the people's worship would be redirected. He changed:
* The Person * The Priesthood
* The Place * The Pattern
Instead of Jehovah being the object of worship, Jeroboam 'made two calves of gold'. He said to the people, 'It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem: behold thy gods, O Israel which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt', 1 Kgs. 12. 28. In 2 Chronicles it is not just 'calves' which are mentioned as being the object of Jeroboam's worship but 'devils' as well, 2 Chron. 11. 15. He made the changes surreptitiously. Already, the children of Israel had fallen before a golden calf, and we remember what the people said when they saw it then, 'These be thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt', Exod. 32. 4. We need to exercise vigilance in the things of God, for Satan will array himself as 'an angel of light', 2. Cor. 11. 14.
The place was a particular dilemma for Jeroboam. For 'out of all the tribes of Israel, such as set their heart to seek the Lord God of Israel came to Jerusalem, to sacrifice unto the Lord God of their fathers', 2 Chron. 11. 16, and Jerusalem was in Judah! So Jeroboam set up his golden calves in Bethel and Dan. These were to become the new religious centres for the Northern Kingdom. They were designed to attract all, Dan being in the North and Bethel in the South, en route to Jerusalem. For New Testament believers there is no specific place, in terms of a city or a building, where God wants us to be. However, 'where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I i n the midst of them', says the Lord Jesus, Matt. 18. 20. His desire is that we meet with those who love His name whenever they meet, and in meeting with them we meet with Him.
Jeroboam 'made priests of the lowest of the people, which were not the sons of Levi', 1 Kgs. 12. 31. Again, Jeroboam turned away from what God had ordained. He set up a new religious system framed upon the old so that it remained palatable to the people. Satan's strategy is similar today. Many new ideas and movements look genuine and are often called Christian, but when examined in the light of the word of God they prove to be false. The danger is that sometimes we do not examine them - we just accept them. There is a different order which God has ordained for the church. All believers are priests, offering up spiritual sacrifices to God. The way into the Holiest is open to us all, in the name of Christ, Heb. 10. 19, 20. Do we take up the opportunity and privilege which God affords us?
God gave His people a set order, a pattern to direct their worship. It was to be carried out in a certain way and at a specific time. Beautiful pictures of Christ are given to us in the Old Testament, and many of them come from the strict instructions that God gave for the temple and tabernacle furnishings and formalities. There was also a set calendar of ceremonial feasts to remind the people of what God had done for them in the past. 'Jeroboam ordained a feast in the eighth month, on the fifteenth day of the month, like unto the feast that is in Judah . . . even in the month that he had devised in his own heart', 1 Kgs. 12. 32, 33-4. God's feast was on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, the Feast of Tabernacles, Lev. 23. 33. A pattern has been given to us for the administration of the local assembly. That pattern needs to be understood by us, God's people, and put into practice; lest we find ourselves practising that which has been devised in our own hearts.
The context of Elisha's ministry is important. He was standing for God among people who were largely apostate and idolatrous. They had rejected the ways of God. Elijah felt at one point that he was the only true believer left. Nineteen kings ruled over the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Jeroboam was the first. They were all evil. The foundation which Jeroboam had laid had its repercussions for the duration of the Northern Kingdom. Again and again we find this testimony, 'and he did that which was evil in the sight of the Lord: he departed not from the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, who made Israel to sin', 2 Kgs. 15. 28. What foundations are we laying, for ourselves, for our children, or for our fellow-believers?
1 There are five references in the Scriptures where we read God 'gave them up' and it was not always Israel. In each instance evil results. The references are: 2 Chr. 30. 7, Psa. 81. 12, Acts 7. 42, Rom. 1. 24 and Rom. 1. 26.
2 For a complete overview of the chronology of the kings and prophets of the Old Testament, see John C. Whitcombe's 'Chart of the Old Testament Kings and Prophets', available from The Tabernacle Bookshop, London SE1 6SD.