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Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity: 1 Kings 17:17-24

While the promise of resurrection appears throughout the Bible, within the Old Testament there seem to be only three recorded resurrections:  the widow of Zarephath’s son (1 Kings 17:17-24), the Shunammite’s son (2 Kings 4:18-37), and the man whose body touched the bones of Elisha (2 Kings 13:21).  Old Testament resurrections are therefore confined to the prophetic ministries of Elijah and Elisha.  Given that Jesus declares that John the Baptist is the promised Elijah (Malachi 4:5-6; Matthew 17:11-13), His own miracles of resurrection prove His indirect claim to be Elisha, the One greater than John and having a double portion of the Spirit.  Prophecy and resurrection are closely connected.

The first of these three readings is the selection for the Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity.  It is the second half of the account which begins in 1 Kings 17:8 and an important part of the wider section of 1 Kings 17-18.  Elijah declares to the wicked king Ahab that there will be no rain “except by my word” (1 Kings 17:1).  Through this miraculous drought, Elijah seeks to declare to Ahab that there is not God except the God of Israel.  This is why he will confront Ahab in 1 Kings 18 in a powerful demonstration of the burning altar against the prophets of Baal.  “The Lord, He is God; the Lord, He is God” (1 Kings 18:39)!  Only after this confrontation will the drought come to an end at the word of Elijah in 1 Kings 18:41.

During the time of the drought, the Lord provides for Elijah, first in a miraculous way with the ravens (1 Kings 17:3-6), but then in a more ordinary way with the widow.  This passage is helpful for speaking about what might be called ordinary and extraordinary Providence.  The ravens are a prime example of God’s extraordinary Providence:  He is not bound to our means of providing the things we need in this life.  He may indeed choose to have birds carry bread to His prophet.  But even if we have to bake the bread we eat, it is no less the gift of God, for all things flow from His hand.  He simply chooses, in His ordinary Providence, to use men as the means for providing the things we need.

The Lord commands Elijah to go northward along the coast of the sea to the village called Zarephath (1 Kings 17:9).  Zarephath was deep within Canaanite territory (Obadiah 20).  While it is possible that this widow could be partly an Israelite (as Hiram was the son of an intermarriage in 1 Kings 7:13-14), it is more likely she is a Canaanite, which explains the offense of Jesus’ words to the Jews in Luke 4:25-26.  Being a Canaanite, she is part of the cursed race of Ham (Genesis 9:25) whose continued existence was a mark of Israel’s unfaithfulness (Judges 1:27-36).

Yet even with the ordinary means of Providence, God provides a multiplication miracle as well with the jar of flour and the jug of oil.  Through the Word which Elijah proclaims to her, which the miracle is meant to confirm, the widow and her household, though Canaanites, believe in the Lord.  She has ceased to be a part of the condemned body of Canaan and has now by faith been connected to the body which will be delivered in the day of judgment.  How ironic that Ahab, a son of Abraham, stands under judgment while this woman, a daughter of Canaan, stands before the Lord!

But the woman’s son dies.  She believes it to be a judgment upon her sins (1 Kings 17:18).  While the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23), there is every reason to believe that her son dies so that God may show His power through him.  The man born blind (John 9:1-3) and Lazarus (John 11:14-15) serve God’s purposes in their affliction.  God declared to Moses:  “Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the Lord” (Exodus 4:11)?  Even in affliction and death, the Lord brings those who belong to Him closer to Himself.

Elijah’s method is somewhat unusual, since he stretches himself over the child three times (1 Kings 17:21-22).  One should perhaps not read too much into this, since the prophets frequently do unusual things.  What is interesting, however, is that Elijah calls upon the Lord in conjunction with this act.  Elisha, on the other hand, having a double portion of the Spirit, does not speak a word at all (2 Kings 4:34-35).  Christ Himself raises with His mere command, and He vindicates His claim as the Prophet through His own resurrection.  We have, therefore, an increasing proof of the truth of the Word of God:  Elijah called upon God who answered faithfully; Elisha proves his office of prophet by raising others even merely by the touch of his bones; and Christ through His own resurrection is “vindicated by the Spirit” (1 Timothy 3:16).  We do not believe the Scriptures because of Christ’s resurrection.  The resurrection itself is proof that God’s Word cannot be broken.  As the widow herself says:  “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth” (1 Kings 17:24).

The Ascension of Our Lord: 2 Kings 2:5-15

2 Kings 2 opens an indefinite time after the last recorded act of Elijah.  Ahaziah, king of Israel, increased his great wickedness by inquiring of the false god Baal-zebub whether he would recover from his grievous injuries.  The Lord sends Elijah to pronounce judgment on Ahaziah (2 Kings 1:3), and Elijah also calls down fire upon those who presumed to order him about (2 Kings 1:9-12).  Ahaziah died, just as the Lord had said, and Jehoram reigned in his place, somewhere around the year 852 B.C.

However, though we are not told when Elijah’s translation occurred, it was not, at least, a surprise to anyone involved.  The chapter opens with the words:  “Now when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind” (2 Kings 2:1).  This is not merely literary anticipation, because Elijah knows he will be taken (2 Kings 2:9).  The sons of the prophets whom they meet all know it (2 Kings 2:3, 5).  Elisha himself also knows it.  Elijah doubtless had received this revelation from the Lord, just as he is also told where the Spirit wants him to go (2 Kings 2:2, 4, 6).

Nevertheless, it is a sober occasion.  Elijah tries to persuade Elisha to stay behind, but Elisha refuses out of a faithfulness to his master (compare Ruth 1:16-18).  The sons of the prophets ask Elisha if he is aware of the coming event, and Elisha responds not in anger, but in the spirit of one who is troubled.  In the face of the Lord performing such a magnificent act, it is appropriate to be silent in holy fear (Zechariah 2:13; Habakkuk 2:20; Zephaniah 1:7).

A few items of note before turning to Elijah’s translation.  First, they begin their journey in Gilgal, which, if it is the same as the one in Joshua 5:9, is where Israel demonstrated a renewed faithfulness upon entering Canaan.  More certain, however, is that Elijah and Elisha pass through two wicked places:  Bethel is the site of one of the golden calves of Jeroboam (1 Kings 12:28-29); and Jericho has been rebuilt in spite of the promised divine judgment (Joshua 6:26; 1 Kings 16:34).  Yet in the midst of these cities are the faithful sons of the prophets, those who are yet faithful to the living God.  Just as the Lord had said to Elijah, He has preserved for Himself those who have not bowed the knee to idols (1 Kings 19:18).

Further, when Elijah strikes the water and passes over the Jordan, he does so heading to the east.  Israel under Joshua had crossed the Jordan on dry ground, just like Elijah does now, but heading westward into Canaan (Joshua 3:14-17).  Because Israel passed over “opposite Jericho,” Elijah is effectively retracing this path in reverse.  This is also the land where Moses had been secretly buried (Deuteronomy 34:5-6).

Elijah asks Elisha when they were on the eastern side of the Jordan what he would have him do before he is taken.  Before, not after he is taken, because the time for asking for spiritual things from fellow believers is while they are still in the flesh.  Once Elijah is taken away, he can no longer do anything for Elisha; the only one in heaven who can is the Lord God (Isaiah 63:16; Matthew 6:7-8; Revelation 6:9-10).

Elisha asks for a “hard thing,” namely “a double portion of your spirit.”  This should not be understood as a literal doubling, as if Elisha is asking to do twice as much as Elijah or that the Holy Spirit can be measured, so to speak.  Rather, as Paul says, “earnestly desire the higher gifts” (1 Corinthians 12:31).  To the one who does not seek such gifts out of loveless self-interest, but for the sake of the Church, as Elisha certainly did, such a desire is a godly one.  “If a man aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task” (1 Timothy 3:1).  It is also possible that Elisha is asking for the right of the firstborn son (Deuteronomy 21:17), especially since he calls Elijah “my father.”

The Lord takes Elijah up in a fairly public display of power.  The first man to be so translated, Enoch, could not be found (Genesis 5:24).  Christ in His own ascension had more witnesses (Acts 1:9).  But in every case, the ascension is meant to be a comfort and a sign.  A comfort, because God is faithful in His promises, and those who walk with Him will receive His gifts.  Yet also a sign and a testimony of the coming of the Holy Spirit, to Elisha who saw Elijah taken and to the disciples who heard Jesus promise the coming Pentecost.  In the case of Elisha, he received the promised Holy Spirit and reentered Canaan, crossing again just as Elijah had done (2 Kings 2:13-15).  In the case of the disciples, the Father sent the promised Holy Spirit not many days later (Acts 2).

As a final note, Elisha cries out “My father, my father!  The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!”  While it seems natural to assign this somewhat enigmatic phrase to the event itself, Joash the king of Israel will later use the exact same phrase at the death of Elisha (2 Kings 13:14).  The chariots of Israel and its horsemen therefore refers to Elijah.  It is perhaps best understood as an expression of grief from being separated from his master, which would also explain why he rips his clothes.  Israel’s “strength,” so to speak, is being taken away, yet Elisha will see that the Lord who takes away is also the Lord who gives.  As for the chariots themselves, the Lord can certainly do as He pleases.  But Elisha will later show his servant the chariots of fire which surround the city (2 Kings 6:17), and Psalm 68:17 states that “the chariots of God are twice ten thousand.”  It is possible, but only possible, that these fiery chariots are angels (consider also Luke 16:22).