His mission

Elisha’s work was enormously influential. His ministry spans ten chapters of Scripture, is referred to by Christ and is typical of Christ’s work. He transformed the nation of Israel in a time of dark apostasy, overthrew a godless dynasty and changed the leadership in Syria (the world power of his time). In so doing, Elisha completed the work assigned by God to Elijah. The success of this man is unquestionable, and these achievements grew through the power of the “still small voice”. The voice of Elisha was heard by two key groups of people in Israel: firstly, the sons of the prophets and secondly, the servants.

The sons of the prophets

Elisha spent much of his ministry working diligently with a growing company of faithful disciples. They are described in 2 Kings as “the sons of the prophets”. This group was established by Samuel some 200 years earlier and provided spiritual leadership to the nation of Israel. It appears that they were instigated to lead the nation particularly when the priesthood and king were failing to provide divine direction. These sons of the prophets were found in many locations throughout the land and spoke enthusiastically about God’s Word and sang His praises (e.g. 1 Sam 10:5–10; 19:18–20).

After their establishment, we read very little of the sons of the prophets. And the little we do read is largely within Elisha’s ministry (10/13 references). Before Elisha’s work commenced, we know that Ahab and Jezebel actively persecuted the prophets of God. Obadiah, the servant of Ahab sheltered many prophets in caves and provided them with food (1 King 18:4). It is possible that these men were the sons of the prophets. We see a group of men who are no longer providing leadership, but who are driven away in fear of their lives. It may be that their faith had begun to decline as well. When the sons of the prophets are introduced back into the record, we hear their doubts that God had really carried Elijah away. Perhaps God had dropped him on the side of a mountain (2 King 2:16) Perhaps God’s hand wasn’t quite as strong as it had once been? Perhaps doubt had grown in the minds of these persecuted men.

By the end of Elisha’s ministry, any doubts that may have been in the sons of the prophets had long vanished. Under Elisha’s leadership, the group grew in number. They are once more found throughout the land. They anointed Jehu king and by extension deposed Joram, destroyed Jezebel and changed the monarch in Judah as well (2 King 9). The sons of the prophets were actively going about their work of providing spiritual leadership to Israel when those who should have been – the king and priests – had turned away.

Transformed by Elisha

What was it about the work of Elisha that transformed the sons of the prophets? There are just three incidents within Elisha’s ministry that are directly connected with the sons of the prophets. There must be something about them that influenced these men. The first is found in 2 Kings 4:1–7 where Elisha ensures that a widow’s debt is paid, saving her sons from slavery. The widow was once married to one of the sons of the prophets. Next we read of Elisha feeding a group of the sons of the prophets during a famine and particularly making a pot of pottage edible (2 King 4:38–41). The last incident is found in 2 Kings 6:1–7 where Elisha retrieves a lost axe head by causing it to float. On each occasion, Elisha’s work revolved around the domestic and ordinary. He paid bills, fed people and found the lost. His work was personal and compassionate and offered in the spirit of service. Elisha’s compassionate service transformed the sons of the prophets.

The servants

Elisha commenced his ministry as a servant: he “arose went after Elijah and ministered unto him” (1 King 19:21). He is twice referred to as Elijah’s servant (2 King 2:3, 5) and also the man who “poured water on the hands of Elijah” (2 King 3:11). Once Elijah was taken, Elisha saw himself as God’s servant (cp. 2 King 3:14; 5:16).

This attitude of service as exemplified in the life of Elisha was known far and wide. He was the servants’ hero. His work is known by the servants of the king of Israel (2 King 3:11), by the captive maid in Syria (2 King 5:2) and also by the servants of the king of Syria (2 King 6:12). It seems that the servants everywhere knew all about Elisha and they spoke highly of him.

But not only did the servants know about Elisha, he knew about them too. Servants are important throughout Elisha’s ministry and particularly in his miracles. A widow woman refers to herself as Elisha’s handmaid (2 King 4:2) and speaks of her late husband as the servant of Elisha (2 King 4:1 twice). Elisha responds and multiplies oil to pay the widow’s debt.

Elisha heeds the advice of his servant Gehazi and grants a son to the woman of Shunem (2 King 4:14). Gehazi is sent to raise the Shunammite’s son (4:31) and later to share the good news that life has been restored (4:36). Elisha’s servant makes pottage for the sons of the prophets (4:38) and is involved in miraculously feeding 100 men on another occasion (4:43). The healing of Naaman would never have taken place if it wasn’t for the sage advice of his servants (5:13), and in 2 Kings 6 Elisha performs a miracle solely for the benefit of his servant (v13–18).

Elisha did not see his servants as inferior, but as an integral part of his mission. No one was too small for him. No one escaped his notice. He listened to his servants, he responded to their needs and called on the power of God to help when their faith failed. He served at their sides and in so doing won them over.

Servants are the key

Elisha’s work with the servants was critical to completing his ministry. This is particularly seen in the anointing of Jehu as king over Israel. Elisha chose to send one of the sons of the prophets to anoint Jehu king in place of Joram. The anointing takes place in private and the prophet quickly disappears, leaving Jehu with no one to verify his divinely appointed role. When Jehu announces his new position, it is the servants who quickly give him support (2 King 9:11,13). For a brief moment, the success of Jehu as king and therefore Elisha as prophet, rested in the hands of servants. They could easily have rejected this ambitious captain of the army, but they didn’t. They supported Yahweh’s anointed.

A few moments later, the fate of Jezebel rested in the hands of the eunuch servants (v32). Again, they could easily have remained loyal to their mistress, Jezebel, and refused to follow Jehu’s instructions to push her from the window. But they didn’t. The servants in Israel had long been influenced by Elisha and here was their chance to rid themselves of idolatrous masters.

A message of service

Elisha’s example as a servant is complemented by a message of service; service not only to whom service was due, but also to the enemy. In 2 Kings 6:19–23, we see Elisha leading a helpless band of Syrian soldiers into the very heart of the city of Samaria. To the king of Israel, this presented an opportunity: “My father, shall I smite them? shall I smite them?” (v21). Yet Elisha saw things very differently. He saw these people as servants. And the best way to win them over was to serve them: “Wouldest thou smite those whom thou hast taken captive with thy sword and with thy bow? Set bread and water before them, that they may eat and drink, and go to their master (v22).” Elisha saw the opportunity to serve, and this characteristic empowered his ministry.

“Chalk and cheese”

There are many differences between Elisha and Elijah – their appearance, miracles and work with the nation to name a few. But one example stands out as particularly striking: their response to adversity.

2 Kings 6 describes Elisha in his home in the city of Samaria during the Syrian siege. It was a time of great distress for the nation, with food reserves low, to the point that children are being eaten by their parents. A horrifying thought. The king of Israel, Joram, is aghast to find that his people have descended to such depths during the famine. He responds in rage against God and against Elisha: “God do so and more also to me, if the head of Elisha the son of Shaphat shall stand on him this day”. Strong words from a powerful man. How does Elisha respond? He remains in his house in Samaria. He sits with his companions, and he sends back a message of response to the king. He waits for the king, remaining with his company, composed and in control.

Not long beforehand, Elijah had faced a curiously similar threat. Jezebel, having heard of Elijah’s triumph on Mount Carmel sought revenge by destroying the prophet of God: “So let the gods do to me, and more also, if I make not thy [Elijah’s] life as the life of one of them [the dead prophets of Baal] by tomorrow about this time” (1 King 19:2). And how does Elijah respond? He runs from Samaria. He leaves his servant, and he disappears alone into the desert. There he waits, alone, afraid and confused.

These were two very different men, responding in very different ways to a remarkably similar challenge. Yet these different men are placed side by side in God’s purpose, working together to achieve a common goal with the nation of Israel. Success came when they worked together.

Not just compassion

It is a mistake to conclude that Elijah’s work was one of judgment while Elisha’s ministry was one of compassion. True, there are elements of compassion in Elisha’s work, but his ministry is not altogether without judgment. The beginning of Elisha’s ministry describes the prophet calling judgment from God upon a group of disrespectful youths; we see Elisha cursing his servant Gehazi with leprosy and on at least two occasions disagreeing vehemently with the king. These events hardly describe compassion. But they all demonstrate that there was judgment when it was needed. While these incidents may be difficult to understand, particularly calling a bear to destroy children, we can be sure that they were divinely endorsed. In just the same way, Christ had a mission of compassion, yet his work included severe judgment when required (e.g. in Matthew 23, the denunciation,“Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees,” is repeated seven times). Our God, just like Elisha and Christ, is compassionate; but He is not without judgment where required.

A foreshadowing of Christ

Christ tells his disciples that the work of Elijah foreshadowed the work of John the Baptist (Matt 17:12–13). We can therefore be certain that the work of Elisha foreshadowed the work of Christ, along with the lives of so many faithful in Old Testament times. The spirit of Christ echoes, amplifies and perfects the spirit seen in the ministry of Elisha. He worked with a child, a servant and a ruler alike (Matt 18:2–3; Luke 7:2–3; John 3). He developed a small group of disciples to lead (Luke 6:13). No task was too menial for him (John 13:4–5). He reached out and compassionately responded to the needs of individuals (Matt 20:34). He brought life through the power of the “still small voice” (John 6:63).

Christ calls us to this same spirit of service and we do well to heed his call:

“But Jesus called them unto him, and said, Ye know that the princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them, and they that are great exercise authority upon them. But it shall not be so among you: but whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant: Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Matt 20:25–28).

“So after he had washed their feet, and had taken his garments, and was set down again, he said unto them, Know ye what I have done to you? Ye call me Master and Lord: and ye say well; for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you. Verily, verily, I say unto you, the servant is not greater than his lord; neither he that is sent greater than he that sent him. If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them” (John 13:12–17).