Chapter: Elisha, the Successor of Elijah (2 Kings 2:1-18)

The story of the carrying away of Elijah is focused on the link which unites Elijah to Elisha. In the first words of 2 Kings 2, the narrator announces the ascension of Elijah: “And it came to pass, when the LORD was about to take up Elijah into heaven by a whirlwind” (v. 1). In doing so he removes all suspense connected to Elijah’s destiny. This direct jump start is astounding, because in the Elijah cycle the narrator had taken pains to surround the prophet with an aura of mystery. Every step of the prophet was unforeseeable. Elijah himself lived one day at a time, often not knowing what the next would bring. Everything changes with the story of his ascension.

In the story Elijah ceases to be the main actor, firstly because he leaves the earth, and then because he leaves his ministry to a man who will be anointed with a double portion of the Spirit and will thus make people quickly forget him. The author reinforces this dismissal in his manner of recounting the event. The plot of the narration centres around Elisha and not Elijah.

The story that follows reinforces this impression. Everyone knows about the ascension: the sons of the prophets of Bethel and the sons of the prophets of Jericho are informed of Elijah’s departure and repeat this to Elisha, who also knows the news (2 Kings 2:3-5). On the other hand, the extent of Elisha’s ministry remains a mystery until the very end.

At first, Elijah wants to separate himself from his servant, but Elisha solemnly refuses. Three times a verbal exchange takes place between the two men (2 Kings 2:2, 4, 6). The reader may ask why Elisha should be sent off. Had he perhaps displeased his master? Elisha’s insistence on following Elijah also raises questions. Why does he wish to accompany Elijah at all costs? Why disobey him? Would this disobedience be sanctioned by Elijah (because in the past, two prophets had been stricken dead for not following orders, e.g. for being unfaithful: 1 Kings 13:21-24; 20:35-36)? Amazingly enough, the opposite happens: Elijah suddenly proposes to reward Elisha with the most generous possible. Elijah signs a sort of blank cheque: “And so it was, when they had crossed over, that Elijah said to Elisha, ‘Ask! What may I do for you, before I am taken away from you?’” (2 Kings 2:9).

Elisha’s reply involves his ministry. He wishes to have a double portion of the spirit of Elijah. How should this request be understood? Does Elisha want to be the successor of Elijah or does he want to surpass him? How will the Spirit be manifested in Elisha? What similarities and what differences will we be able to observe? The narrator also emphasises another line of questioning which is not linked to the meaning of the request, but to its granting. Can Elisha receive what he asks? Elijah himself does not know. We must wait until Elijah’s departure to find out: “Nevertheless, if you see me when I am taken from you, it shall be so for you; but if not, it shall not be so.” (2 Kings 2:10). The story line centres on the conditions surrounding the ascension and not the ascension itself. The narrator draws our attention to the succession between Elijah and Elisha.

Elisha sees his master rise up to heaven, receives his mantle and carries out the same miracle which he himself has just seen happen. He separates the waters of the Jordan in full view of the sons of the prophets, and thus proves that he is the worthy successor of Elijah. The servant has fully followed his master and carries out the same miracles as he.

The story of Elijah’s ascension basically centres on Elisha. Elijah nonetheless plays an important role. As to the structure, the story fits perfectly into two cycles: that of Elijah (see Elijah between Judgment and Grace, p. 61) and that of Elisha. We have chosen to comment on this story both in the book on Elijah as well as in the one on Elisha. The detailed analysis of verses 1 to 14 is almost identical in both books (pp. 187-195 on Elijah and pp. 57-67 on Elisha). Verses 2 to 18 form an intricate chiasm.



Dialogues between Elisha and the sons of the prophets concerning the departure of Elijah (2:2-6)


Presence of fifty sons of prophets on the bank of the Jordan (2:7)


Elijah parts the waters of the Jordan (2:8)


Elisha wishes to be the successor of Elijah (2:9)


Elisha must see Elijah depart in order to be his successor (2:10)


Elijah and Elisha are separated by the chariot and horses of fire (2:11)


Elisha sees Elijah depart (2:12)


Elisha gathers up the Elijah’s mantle (2:13)


Elisha parts the waters of the Jordan (2:14)


Presence of fifty sons of prophets on the bank of the Jordan (2:15)


Dialogues between Elisha and the sons of prophets concerning Elijah’s departure (2:16-18)


Elisha Insists on Following Elijah (2:1-6)

1 And it came to pass, when the LORD was about to take up Elijah into heaven by a whirlwind, that Elijah went with Elisha from Gilgal.

2Then Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here, please, for the LORD has sent me on to Bethel.” But Elisha said, “As the LORD lives, and as your soul lives, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel. 3Now the sons of the prophets who were at Bethel came out to Elisha, and said to him, “Do you know that the LORD will take away your master from over you today?” And he said, “Yes, I know; keep silent”

4Then Elijah said to him, “Elisha, stay here, please, for the LORD has sent me on to Jericho.” But he said, “As the LORD lives, and as your soul lives, I will not leave you!” So they came to Jericho. 5Now the sons of the prophets who were at Jericho came to Elisha and said to him, “Do you know that the LORD will take away your master from over you today?” So he answered, “Yes, I know; keep silent!”

6Then Elijah said to him, “Stay here, please, for the LORD has sent me on to the Jordan.” But he said, “As the LORD lives, and as your soul lives, I will not leave you!” So the two of them went on.

Elijah ascends to heaven, but his work does not end with his departure. A successor will continue his ministry and give it a new direction. The account of the “taking up of Elijah” is also the story of the “sending out of Elisha”. The text deals with both prophets and puts them side by side to better emphasise the contrasts between them.

Elisha reappears at the announcement of Elijah’s departure (v. 1). The man is introduced in 1 Kings 19:15-21, but disappears from the story right afterwards. Other prophets appear, but the name of Elisha is not mentioned again. Not until the departure of Elijah can Elisha enter into action. If Horeb is the site of Elisha’s calling, then the Jordan marks where he is sent out.

The relationship between the two men is ambiguous. Elijah asks Elisha not to accompany him, either to Bethel or to Jericho, nor over the Jordan, and each time the latter replies solemnly that he will follow him to the end (“As the LORD lives, and as your soul lives,” v. 2, 4, 6, “I will not leave you!”) Does Elijah really want to be alone at the moment of his ascension? Does he want Elisha to leave him? If that is the case, then why does he permit Elisha to follow him? Why is Elisha rewarded with a double anointing of the Spirit (2 Kings 2:9-10) instead of being punished for his “disobedience”? Obviously Elijah did not expect Elisha to leave. The sons of the prophets had already indicated that the ascension would take place: “the LORD will take away your master from over you” (v. 3, 5), thus confirming the necessity of Elisha’s presence at that particular moment. Does Elijah then wish to test Elisha to see the extent to which he is attached to him? Certain things in life have no value unless they are offered freely. Elisha is called to the ministry of a prophet, but this ministry is not easy. Will Elisha be ready to go as far as his master? Elijah wishes so but cannot demand it.

Elisha is deeply attached to his master. His desire to follow him expresses his affection. He knows that Elijah does not really wish him to leave, and he is deeply hurt by the departure of his master. He asks the son of the prophet who mentions the departure of Elijah to be silent so as not to push the knife further into the wound.

The triple reiteration of the ties between Elijah and Elisha draw the reader’s attention to this relationship. This insistence also suggests the theme of “repetition”. Elisha will succeed Elijah. He will continue the ministry begun, all the while giving it a new orientation. The relationship between the two men is significant because it illustrates the convergence of their ministries. The two vocations are different, but still display a profound unity. Elijah is primarily the prophet of judgment, but his ministry also reflects grace. The ministry of Elisha is essentially one of grace. Elisha does not contradict Elijah, but does develop the aspect which has been latent in the ministry of his predecessor.

The relationship between the two men also underscores their characters. Elijah is the prophet who aspires to solitude. On the other hand, Elisha is a more social man (see pp. 14-16). He regrets the departure of his master and wants to stay with him as long as possible. The sons of the prophets do not have any contact with Elijah, whom they perhaps fear. But they call Elisha twice, and he replies. Of course he asks them to be silent (v. 3, 5), but this is not to cut off all contact. Elisha knows that the sons of the prophets understand his pain in seeing Elijah leave, and he asks them not to speak of this event so as not to make him suffer more.

The identity of the “sons of the prophets” has been a popular subject. One often speaks of schools of prophets or communities of prophets. Perhaps they were simply communities of the faithful. Today we would say “house groups” to describe those who are not satisfied with the official mainstream, who live and celebrate their faith outside of church structures. Let us not forget that in the northern kingdom the official religion centred in Bethel and Dan was, to a great extent, corrupted. These sons of the prophets perhaps did not exercise any particular prophetic activity, but faithfully followed the teachings of the prophets. The sons of the prophets are informed of the departure of Elijah, but this could have been communicated to them previously by Elisha. These men thus remind the prophet of the imminent departure of Elijah.

The geographical route is described precisely. From Gilgal Elijah “goes down” (v. 2) to Bethel (located more than 800 m above sea level), from Bethel he goes to Jericho (300 m below sea level), then from Jericho he goes to the banks of the Jordan (about 400 m below sea level), and finally descends to the bed of the Jordan to cross the river without getting wet. The downward movement is obvious. It is followed by a double movement upwards: Elijah is raised to heaven and Elisha does a partially reverse movement from the bed of the Jordan to Jericho and then to Bethel.

Gilgal is not the city located in the Jordan valley, near Jericho, because the two prophets go down to Bethel. It is more likely that this is the town situated 12 kilometres north of Bethel on the road to Shiloh (Jos 9:6).

Apart from the geographical side of the question does the mention of the three cities indicate a symbolic dimension? If so, which? Gilgal, Bethel and Jericho were associated with the conquest of the land in the time of Joshua (Jos 2-8), but they were also cities marked by sin: Bethel was the place of an impure altar (1 Kings 12:28-29; 13:1-5), Jericho was cursed by Joshua (Jos 6:26; 1 Kings 16:34), and Gilgal was a den of prostitution (Hos 9:15; Amos 4:4). Did Elijah pass through these impure cites one last time before ascending to his God, or did he choose this path to symbolise a new conquest of the Promised Land, a “country” situated in heaven? The sequel points to the second hypothesis, as Elijah crosses the Jordan without getting wet just as Joshua had done in the past.

Elijah Makes a Path for Himself toward the Promised Land (2:7-8)

7And fifty men of the sons of the prophets went and stood facing them at a distance, while the two of them stood by the Jordan. 8Now Elijah took his mantle, rolled it up, and struck the water; and it was divided this way and that, so that the two of them crossed over on dry ground.

In Jewish tradition the crossing of the Jordan is associated with the conquest of the Promised Land. Elijah crosses the river, but in the opposite direction, thus indicating a different expectation from that of the past. Joshua had entered a “terrestrial” place, whereas Elijah ascends to the heavenly kingdom. Joshua had conquered the territory with his people; Elijah enters God’s kingdom alone and without a battle.

Elijah also reminds us of Moses, who himself had left a country of oppression (Egypt) by parting the waters of the Red Sea. Moses had raised his staff (Exod 14:16), whereas Elijah strikes the water with his mantle. The rolled-up mantle recalls the staffs of Moses and Aaron, which were so often used for miracles. At the end of their earthly existence the bodies of the two men mysteriously disappeared east of the Jordan (Deut 34:5-6; 2 Kings 2:12-18).

The fact that this miracle is confirmed by witnesses is important for the continuation of the story. The fifty sons of prophets could confirm that Elisha was the worthy successor of Elijah when he performed the same miracle.

Elijah Offers an Inheritance to Elisha (2:9-10)

9And so it was, when they had crossed over, that Elijah said to Elisha, “Ask! What may I do for you, before I am taken away from you?” Elisha said, “Please let a double portion of your spirit be upon me.” 10So he said, “You have asked a hard thing. Nevertheless, if you see me when I am taken from you, it shall be so for you; but if not, it shall not be so.”

Elijah’s offer is more than generous. It is proof of his satisfaction with Elisha. Never in the past had he offered the slightest thing and now he says “What may I do for you?” The proposition is unlimited. This recalls the Lord’s offer to Solomon at the beginning of his reign: “and God said, ‘Ask! What shall I give you?’” (1 Kings 3:5). In Hebrew the two phrases are formed by four words, and only the verb changes. The Almighty proposes to give and Elijah to do. Solomon had made the right choice by asking for wisdom. What about Elisha?

“In this case it is not land that he has in mind, but spirit, for Elisha has already left behind normal life and normal rules of inheritance (cf. 1 Kings 19:19-21)”. He asks for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit. Does he wish to surpass Elijah or simply receive the share of the inheritance of an oldest son, which was twice that of the other sons (cf. Deut 21:17)? The union between the two men and the spirituality of Elisha exclude any notion of rivalry. Elisha wishes to walk in the footsteps of the one who has called him in the past (1 Kings 19:19-21). Does he seek power, sanctity or consecration? He is aware of the demands of the ministry and of his own limits. He knows he will not be able to carry out his task properly without the aid of the Almighty.

“You have asked a hard thing.” At first sight it is not evident that he will be following the footsteps of Elijah. Elijah sets down a condition for the fulfilment of the wish: “if you see me when I am taken from you, it shall be so for you; but if not, it shall not be so.” Why such a condition? The proposition of Elijah is unconditional (“Ask! What may I do for you”), because he wants him to have the best; but Elijah cannot himself grant what Elisha requests. God is sovereign in the area of prophetic calling, and only he can grant such a request. Elijah knows that on Mount Horeb the Lord had designated Elisha to replace him, but would Elisha have a double portion of the Spirit? Would he be a prophet of Elijah’s level or even superior to him? God alone knows. The Lord can nevertheless give a sign and that sign symbolises several things.

Firstly, on the human level, Elisha must follow Elijah to the end, up to the moment of ascension. This illustrates Elisha’s affection for Elijah. Elisha must be ready to act like his predecessor. The ministry of Elijah must be taken up and further developed.

Secondly, Elisha must see Elijah ascend into heaven. This not only means that he will be physically present at the moment of the ascension, but that he will be able to discern hidden things. His ministry will touch the invisible world, the hopes of the faithful, the inheritance that God reserves for them in the hereafter.

Thirdly, the ministry of Elisha will be marked by vision. He will see Elijah rise into heaven, but he will also see many other things. Elisha will know everything, even to the point of revealing all of the planned attacks of the Syrians. He will also be capable of giving or veiling sight. At Dothan his servant sees the heavenly armies, whereas the Syrian soldiers are blinded (2 Kings 6:8-23). Elisha will be the prophet of signs, as a large part of his ministry will be carried out in a visual manner.

The ministry of Elisha seems to be superior to that of Elijah (is it twice as great?) because Elisha unveils the expectations of the saints, particularly the coming of the Messiah. Elisha’s affection for Elijah heralds the ties which link the New Testament to the Old; it is a deep, complete affection, but also a renewal centred on grace.

Elijah’s Ascension (2:11-14)

11Then it happened, as they continued on and talked, that suddenly a chariot of fire appeared with horses of fire, and separated the two of them; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven. 12And Elisha saw it, and he cried out, “My father, my father, the chariot of Israel and its horsemen!” So he saw him no more. And he took hold of his own clothes and tore them into two pieces. 13He also took up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and went back and stood by the bank of the Jordan. 14Then he took the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and struck the water, and said, “Where is the LORD God of Elijah?” And when he also had struck the water, it was divided this way and that; and Elisha crossed over.

The man whose life was constantly threatened leaves this world without dying. Elijah’s experience is particular and special, but also rich in general teaching. Elijah’s ascension into heaven shows that human life is not limited to the earth. There is another life beyond, in the presence of God. The hopes of the faithful should not be restricted to earthly matters. The taking up of Elijah prefigures the taking up of all Christians at Christ’s return (cf. 1 Thess 4:15-17). This verse is at the core of 1–2 Kings (see pp. 50, 51, 57).

A chariot of fire and horses intervene. They probably serve as transportation for Elijah. The prophet who had refused to climb into the royal chariot of Ahab so as not to associate himself with a sinner (1 Kings 18:45-46) is now transported in a divinely provided chariot. The man who refused compromises which would have honoured him among men is honoured by God at the end of his earthly existence. “The chariot was the mightiest military instrument known to the ancient world and was therefore symbolic of God’s incomparable power.” The whirlwind symbolises the forces of nature which are controlled by God. The natural and supernatural worlds are involved in the ascension of Elijah.

The tearing of garments is a gesture which is often mentioned in Scripture. It generally symbolises mourning and dismay. In the book of Kings, four kings and one queen do this: Ahab (1 Kings 21:27), Joram twice (2 Kings 5:8; 6:30), Athaliah (2 Kings 11:14), Hezekiah (2 Kings 19:1), Josiah (2 Kings 22:11). Here the gesture indicates rather the end of an era and the beginning of a new one. Elisha takes up the mantle left by Elijah to indicate that he will continue his ministry. This mantle had already been thrown on his shoulders at his first calling (1 Kings 19:19).

Once he has gathered up the mantle Elisha crosses the Jordan in view of the sons of the prophets, who recognise that “the spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha.” This first miracle recalls the act by which Joshua was elevated in the eyes of the people after the death of Moses (Jos 4:14). He also had crossed the Jordan to enter the Promised Land near Jericho. The names of the two men have the same meaning: Joshua means “Yahweh saves” and Elisha “God saves”. The name of Jesus also has the same significance as it is derived from the name “Joshua”. The three forerunners (Moses, Elijah and John the Baptist) precede three men whose names announce their ministry of redemption. The three redeemers are publicly acknowledged at the Jordan at the beginning of their ministry. Joshua and Elisha cross the Jordan, whereas at the baptism of Jesus at the Jordan a heavenly voice announces that he is the beloved Son (Matt 3:13-17; Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21-22; John 1:32-34). In summary we can say that Elijah recalls Moses and announces John the Baptist (see Elijah between Judgment and Grace, pp. 39-42 and pp. 49-54), just as Elisha recalls Joshua and announces Jesus Christ.

Elisha’s first miracle is followed by many others. Elisha can begin his ministry once Elijah has left, just as later on Jesus begins his Galilean ministry from the moment of John the Baptist’s arrest.

Regarding the link which unites Elijah and Elisha we also note that the two men make the same gesture in sight of the faithful in order to cross the Jordan, but Elisha parts the Jordan in order to cross it in the opposite direction, thus indicating a ministry which is of the same order but at the same time different. Elijah is the characteristic prophet of the Old Testament—does he not represent the Old Testament on the Mount of Transfiguration? In contrast Elisha embodies the New Testament, particularly Jesus Christ, as his ministry is essentially one of grace. His miracles and his signs open a window on the glorious expectation of the Messiah.

Confirmation of Elijah’s Ascension (2:15-18)

15Now when the sons of the prophets who were from Jericho saw him, they said, “The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha.” And they came to meet him, and bowed to the ground before him. 16Then they said to him, “Look now, there are fifty strong men with your servants. Please let them go and search for your master, lest perhaps the Spirit of the LORD has taken him up and cast him upon some mountain or into some valley” And he said, “You shall not send anyone” 17But when they urged him till he was ashamed, he said, “Send them!” Therefore they sent fifty men, and they searched for three days but did not find him. 18And when they came back to him, for he had stayed in Jericho, he said to them, “Did I not say to you, ‘Do not go’?”

The Jordan is crossed twice in the presence of witnesses. The sons of the prophets have proof that Elisha is Elijah’s successor. Nevertheless, they remain confused about Elijah’s ascension. Why do they want to look for his body? Do they doubt that the prophet has been raised to heaven, or do they think that he has departed only in spirit but that his body has remained on earth? In that case they would need to find the body and bury it quickly to prevent it from being desecrated.

The dialogue between Elisha and the sons of the prophets at the end of this section recalls the dialogue between Elijah and Elisha at the beginning of the chapter. In both cases men argue with their master, but there the resemblance ends. Elisha does not wish to be separated from his master, whereas the sons of the prophets ask permission to leave and search for the body of the one who has disappeared. Elisha disobeys Elijah in refusing to leave him but still does what is pleasing to him. On the other hand the sons of the prophets obey Elisha (they do not leave until they receive permission), but they still do what Elisha disapproves: “Did I not say to you, ‘Do not go’?” (2 Kings 2:18). Elisha knows that Elijah has risen to heaven, not only in spirit but also in the flesh.

The attitude of Elisha towards the sons of the prophets shows his compassion. Because these men are sceptical Elisha allows them to verify the reality of the ascension. They discover by themselves that the word of the new prophet is entirely worthy of confidence, just like that of his predecessor.