Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, by Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsh, [1857-78], at sacred-texts.com
4 Kings (2 Kings) 2:1
Elijah's Ascension to Heaven. - Kg2 2:1-10. Journey from Gilgal to the other side of the Jordan. - Kg2 2:1, Kg2 2:2. When the time arrived that Jehovah was about to take up His servant Elijah in a tempest to heaven, Elijah went with his attendant Elisha from Gilgal down to Bethel. בּסּערה, in the tempest or storm, i.e., in a tempestuous storm, which was frequently the herald of the divine self-revelations in the terrestrial world (vid., Job 38:1; Job 40:6; Eze 1:4; Zac 9:14). השּׁמים is the accusative of direction. Gilgal and Bethel (Beitin, see at Kg1 12:29) were seats of schools of the prophets, which Elijah had founded in the kingdom of the ten tribes. It is now generally admitted that Gilgal, from which they went down to Bethel, cannot be the place of that name which was situated in the Jordan valley to the east of Jericho, but must be the Gilgal upon the mountains, the elevated Jiljilia to the south-west of Silo (Seilun, see at Jos 8:35). On the way Elijah said to Elisha, "Stay here, I pray, for the Lord has sent me to Bethel;" but Elisha declared with a solemn oath that he would not leave him. The Lord had revealed to both that the seal of divine attestation was to be impressed upon the work of Elijah by his being miraculously taken up into heaven, to strengthen the faith not of Elisha only, but also of the disciples of the prophets and of all the godly in Israel; but the revelation had been made to them separately, so that Elijah had no suspicion that Elisha had also been informed as to his being taken away. He wanted, therefore, to get rid of his servant, not "to test his love and attachment" (Vatabl.), but from humility (C. a Lap. and others), because he did not wish to have any one present to witness his glorification without being well assured that it was in accordance with the will of God.
4 Kings (2 Kings) 2:3
In Bethel the disciples of the prophets came to meet Elisha, and said to him, "Knowest thou that Jehovah will take thy master from over thy head to-day?" ראשׁ מעל לקח expresses in a pictorial manner the taking away of Elijah from his side by raising him to heaven, like ἐπαίρειν and ὑπολαμβάνειν in Act 1:9-10. Elisha replied, "I know it, be silent," because he knew Elijah's feeling. The Lord had therefore revealed to the disciples of the prophets the taking away of Elijah, to strengthen their faith.
4 Kings (2 Kings) 2:4
In Bethel, and again in Jericho, to which they both proceeded from Bethel, Elijah repeated the appeal to Elisha to stay there, but always in vain. The taking away of Elijah had also been revealed to the disciples of the prophets at Jericho. Thus they both came to the Jordan, whilst fifty disciples of the prophets from Jericho followed them at a distance, to be eye-witnesses of the miraculous translation of their master. The course which Elijah took before his departure from this earth, viz., from Gilgal past Bethel and Jericho, was not merely occasioned by the fact that he was obliged to touch at these places on the way to the Jordan, but had evidently also the same higher purpose, for which his ascension to heaven had been revealed both to Elisha and to the disciples of the prophets at Bethel and Jericho. Elijah himself said that the Lord had sent him to Bethel, to Jericho, to the Jordan (Kg2 2:2, Kg2 2:4, Kg2 2:6). He therefore took this way from an impulse received from the Spirit of God, that he might visit the schools of the prophets, which he had founded, once more before his departure, and strengthen and fortify the disciples of the prophets in the consecration of their lives to the service of the Lord, though without in the least surmising that they had been informed by the Spirit of the Lord of his approaching departure from this life. But as his ascension to heaven took place not so much for his own sake, as because of those associates in his office who were left behind, God had revealed it to so many, that they might be even more firmly established in their calling by the miraculous glorification of their master than by his words, his teaching, and his admonitions, so that they might carry it on without fear or trembling, even if their great master should no longer stand by their side with the might of his spiritual power to instruct, advise, or defend. Btu above all, Elisha, whom the Lord had appointed as his successor (Kg1 19:16), was to be prepared for carrying on his work by the last journey of his master. He did not leave his side therefore, and resolved, certainly also from an inward impulse of the Spirit of God, to be an eye-witness of his glorification, that he might receive the spiritual inheritance of the first-born from his departing spiritual father.
4 Kings (2 Kings) 2:8
When they reached the Jordan, Elijah took his prophet's cloak, rolled it up (גּלם, ἁπ. λεγ. convolvit), and smote the water with it; whereupon the water divided hither and thither, so that they both passed through on dry ground. The cloak, that outward sign of the prophet's office, became the vehicle of the Spirit's power which works unseen, and with which the prophet was inspired. The miracle itself is analogous to the miraculous dividing of the Red Sea by the stretching out of Moses' rod (Exo 14:16, Exo 14:21); but at the same time it is very peculiar, and quite in accordance with the prophetic character of Elijah, Moses, the leader of the people, performed his miracles with his shepherd's crook, Elijah the prophet divided the river with his prophet's mantle.
4 Kings (2 Kings) 2:9
After crossing the Jordan, Elijah allowed his servant and companion to make one more request before he was taken away, in the full confidence that the Lord would fulfil it in answer to his prayer; and Elisha asked, "Let בּרוּחך פּי־שׁנים, διπλᾶ ἐν πνεύματί σου, i.e., a double portion in (of) thy spirit be granted to me." This request has been misunderstood by many translators, from Ephraem Syrus down to Kster and F. W. Krummacher, who have supposed that Elisha wished to have a double measure of Elijah's spirit ("that thy spirit may be twofold in me:" Luther after the Vulgate, "ut fiat in me duplex spiritus tuus"); and some have taken it as referring to the fact that Elisha performed many more miracles and much greater ones than Elijah (Cler., Pfeiffer, dub. vex. p. 442), others to the gift of prophecy and miracles (Kster, die Proph. p. 82), whilst others, like Krummacher, have understood by it that the spirit of Elisha, as an evangelical spirit, was twice as great as the legal spirit of Elijah. But there is no such meaning implied in the words, nor can it be inferred from the answer of Elijah; whilst it is impossible to show that there was any such measure of the Spirit in the life and works of Elisha in comparison with the spirit of Elisha, although his request was fulfilled. The request of Elisha is evidently based upon Deu 21:17, where בּ פּי־שׁנים denotes the double portion which the first-born received in (of) the father's inheritance, as R. Levi b. Gers., Seb. Mnst., Vatabl., Grot., and others have perceived, and as Hengstenberg (Beitrr. ii. p. 133f.) in our days has once more proved. Elisha, resting his foot upon this law, requested of Elijah as a first-born son the double portion of his spirit for his inheritance. Elisha looked upon himself as the first-born son of Elijah in relation to the other "sons of the prophets," inasmuch as Elijah by the command of God had called him to be his successor and to carry on his work. The answer of Elijah agrees with this: "Thou hast asked a hard thing," he said, because the granting of this request was not in his power, but in the power of God. He therefore made its fulfilment dependent upon a condition, which did not rest with himself, but was under the control of God: "if thou shalt see me taken from thee (לקּח, partic. Pual with the מ dropped, see Ges. 52, Anm. b; Ewald, 169, d.), let it be so to thee; but if not, it will not be so." From his own personal inclination Elijah did not wish to have Elisha, who was so closely related to him, as an eye-witness of his translation from the earth; but from his persistent refusal to leave him he could already see that he would not be able to send him away. He therefore left the matter to the Lord, and made the guidance of God the sign for Elisha whether the Lord would fulfil his request or not. Moreover, the request itself even on the part of the petitioner presupposes a certain dependence, and for this reason Elisha could not possibly desire that the double measure of Elijah's spirit should be bestowed upon him. A dying man cannot leave to his heir more than he has himself. And, lastly, even the ministry of Elisha, when compared with that of Elijah, has all the appearance of being subordinate to it. He lives and labours merely as the continuer of the work already begun by Elijah, both outwardly in relation to the worshippers of idols, and inwardly in relation to the disciples of the prophets. Elisha performs the anointing of Jehu and Hazael, with which Elijah was charged, and thereby prepares the way for the realization of that destruction of Ahab's house which Elijah predicted to the king; and he merely receives and fosters those schools of the prophets which Elijah had already founded. And again, it is not Elisha but Elijah who appears as the Coryphaeus of prophecy along with Moses, the representative of the law, upon the mount of transfiguration (Mat 17:3). - It is only a thoroughly external mode of observation that can discover in the fact that Elisha performed a greater number of miracles than Elijah, a proof that the spirit of Elijah rested doubly upon him.
4 Kings (2 Kings) 2:11
Elijah's ascension. - Kg2 2:11. While they were walking on and talking to each other, "behold (there suddenly appeared) a fiery chariot and fiery horses, and separated the two (by driving between them), and Elijah went up in the tempest to heaven." As God had formerly taken Enoch away, so that he did not taste of death (see at Gen 5:24), so did He also suddenly take Elijah away from Elisha, and carry him to heaven without dying. It was בּסּערה, "in the tempest," that he was taken away. The storm was accompanied by a fiery phenomenon, which appeared to the eyes of Elisha as a chariot of fire with horses of fire, in which Elijah rode to heaven. The tempest was an earthly substratum for the theophany, the fiery chariots and fiery horses the symbolical form in which the translation of his master to heaven presented itself to the eye of Elisha, who was left behind.
(Note: All further questions, e.g., concerning the nature of the fiery chariot, the place to which Elijah was carried, the day of his ascension, which C. a Lap., according to the Romish martyrology, assigns to the 20th of July in the 19th year of Jehoshaphat, and others of the same kind, which have been discussed by the earlier commentators, are to be set down as useless trifles, which go beyond the bounds of our thought and comprehension.)
The ascension of Elijah has been compared to the death of Moses. "As God Himself buried Moses, and his grave has not been found to this day, so did He fetch Elias to heaven in a still more glorious manner in a fiery chariot with fiery horses, so that fifty men, who searched for him, did not find him on the earth" (Ziegler). This parallel has a real foundation in the appearance of Moses and Elijah with Christ on the mountain of transfiguration, only we must not overlook the difference in the departure from this life of these two witnesses of God. For Moses died and was to die in the wilderness because of his sin (Deu 32:49.), and was only buried by the hand of the Lord, so that no one has seen his grave, not so much for the purpose of concealing it from men as to withdraw his body from corruption, and preserve and glorify it for the eternal life (see the Comm. on Deu 34:5-6). Elijah did not die, but was received into heaven by being "changed" (Co1 15:51-52; Th1 4:15.). This difference is in perfect harmony with the character and position of these two men in the earthly kingdom of God. Moses the lawgiver departed from the earthly life by the way of the law, which worketh death as the wages of sin (Rom 6:23; Rom 7:13); Elijah the prophet, who was appointed to admonish for future times (ὁ καταγραφεὶς ἐν ἐλεγμοῖς εἰς καιρούς), to pacify the wrath before the judgment, to turn the heart of the father to the son, and to restore the tribes of Jacob (Ecclus. 48:10), was taken to heaven as the forerunner of Christ (Mal 4:5-6; Mat 11:10-11) without tasting of death, to predict the ascension of our Lord, and to set it forth in Old Testament mode; for as a servant, as the servant of the law, who with his fiery zeal preached both by word and deed the fire of the wrath of divine justice to the rebellious generation of his own time, Elijah was carried by the Lord to heaven in a fiery storm, the symbol of the judicial righteousness of God. "As he was an unparalleled champion for the honour of the Lord, a fiery war-chariot was the symbol of his triumphal procession into heaven" (O. v. Gerlach). But Christ, as the Son, to whom all power is given in heaven and on earth, after having taken away from death its sting and from hell its victory, by His resurrection from the grave (Co1 15:55), returned to the Father in the power of His eternal deity, and ascended to heaven in His glorified body before the eyes of His disciples as the victor over death and hell, until a cloud received Him and concealed His figure from their sight (Luk 24:51; Act 1:9).
(Note: The actual truth of this miraculous departure of the prophet is strongly confirmed by the appearance of Elijah, as recorded in Mat 17:3-4 and Luk 9:30, upon which the seal of attestation is impressed by the ascension of our Lord. His ascension was in harmony with the great mission with which he, the mightiest of all the prophets, was entrusted in that development of the divine plan of salvation which continued through the centuries in the interval between Moses and Christ. - Whoever is unable to do justice to the spirit and nature of the divine revelation of mercy, will be unable to comprehend this miracle also. This was the case with Josephus, and even with Ephraem the Syrian father. Josephus, for example (Ant. ix. 2, 2), saying nothing about the miracle, and simply states that Ἠελίας ἐξ ἀνθρώπων ἠφανίσθη· καὶ οὐδεὶς ἔγνω μέχρις τῆς σήμερον αὐτοῦ τὴν τελευτήν, and adds that it is written of Elijah and Enoch in the sacred books, ὅτι γεγόνασιν ἀφανεῖς. θάνατον δὲ αὐτῶν οὐδεὶς οἶδεν. Ephraem, the Christian father, passes over the last clause of Kg2 2:11, "so Elijah went up in the whirlwind to heaven," in his exposition of our chapter, and paraphrases the rest of the words thus: "There came suddenly from on high a fire-storm, and in the midst of the flame the form of a chariot and of horses, and separated them from one another; one of the two it left on the earth, the other, namely Elijah, it carried up on high (Syr. ‛alı̂ lȧmerawma'); but whither the wind (or Spirit? Syr. rôha') took him, or in what place it left him, the Scriptures have not told us. They say, however, that some years afterwards an alarming letter from him, full of threats, was delivered to king Joram of Judah." Following the lead of such predecessors as these, J. D. Michaelis, who boasts so much of his orthodoxy, informed the "unlearned" (in the Anmerkungen to his Bibel-bersetzung) that Elijah did not go to heaven, but was simply carried away from Palestine, and lived at least twelve years more, that he might be bale to write a letter to king Joram (Ch2 21:12), for "men do not receive letters from people in heaven." This incident has been frequently adduced since then as a disproof of the ascension of Elijah. but there is not a word in the Chronicles about any letter (ספרים, ספר, or אגרת, which would be the Hebrew for a letter); all that is said is that a writing (מכתב) from the prophet Elijah was brought to Joram, in which he was threatened with severe punishments on account of his apostasy. Now such a writing as this might very well have been written by Elijah before his ascension, and handed to Elisha to be sent by him to king Joram at the proper time. Even Bertheau admits that, according to the chronological data of the Old Testament, Elijah might have been still living in the reign of Joram of Judah; and it is a priori probable that he both spoke of Joram's sin and threatened him with punishment. It is impossible to fix the year of Elijah's ascension. Neither the fact that it is mentioned after the death of Ahaziah of Israel, which he himself had personally foretold to that ungodly king, nor the circumstance that in the war which Jehoshaphat and Joram of Israel waged with the Moabites the prophet Elisha was consulted (1 Kings 3), warrants the conclusion that Elijah was taken from the earth in the interval between these two events. It is very obvious from Kg2 3:11, that the two kings applied to Elisha simply because he was in the neighbourhood, and not because Elijah was no longer alive.)
When Elisha saw his master carried thus miraculously away, he exclaimed, "My father, my father, the chariot of Israel and horsemen thereof!" and as he saw him no more, he took hold of his clothes and rent them in two pieces, i.e., from the top to the bottom, as a proof of the greatness of his sorrow at his being taken away. He called Elijah אבי, "my father," as his spiritual father, who had begotten him as his son through the word of God. "Chariot (war-chariot) and horsemen of Israel," on which the Israelitish kings based the might and security of their kingdom, are a symbolical representation of the strong defence which Elijah had been through his ministry to the kingdom of Israel (cf. Kg2 13:14).
He then took up Elijah's prophet's mantle, which had fallen from him when he was snatched away, and returned to the Jordan. The prophet's mantle of the master fell to Elisha the disciple, as a pledge to himself that his request was fulfilled, and as a visible sign to others that he was his divinely appointed successor, and that the spirit of Elijah rested upon him (Kg2 2:15).
4 Kings (2 Kings) 2:14
Return of Elisha to Jericho and Bethel, and his First Miracles. - Kg2 2:14, Kg2 2:15. Having returned to the banks of the Jordan, Elisha smote the water with Elijah's mantle, saying, "Where is Jehovah the God of Elijah, yea He?" and the water divided hither and thither, so that he was able to go through. אף־הוּא, which the lxx did not understand, and have simply reproduced in Greek characters, ἀφφώ, is an emphatic apposition, "yea He," such as we find after suffixes, e.g., Pro 22:19; and אף is only a strengthened גּם, which is more usual when emphatic prominence is given to the suffix (vid., Ges. 121, 3). The Masoretic accentuation, which separates it from the preceding words, rests upon a false interpretation. There is no need either for the alteration proposed by Ewald, 362, a., of אף into אך, "he had scarcely smitten the water," especially as not a single analogous example can be adduced of the use of הוּא אך followed by a Vav consec.; or for the conjecture that the original reading in the text was אפוא (Houb., Bttch., Then.), "where is now the God of Elijah?" which derives no critical support from the ἀφφώ of the lxx, and is quite at variance with Hebrew usage, since אפוא generally stands immediately after איּה, when it serves to strengthen the interrogation (vid., Jdg 9:38; Job 17:15; Isa 19:12; Hos 13:10). This miracle was intended partly to confirm Elisha's conviction that his petition had been fulfilled, and partly to accredit him in the eyes of the disciples of the prophets and the people generally as the divinely appointed successor of Elijah. All the disciples of the prophets from Jericho saw also from this that the spirit of Elijah rested upon Elisha, and came to meet him to do homage to him as being now their spiritual father and lord.
4 Kings (2 Kings) 2:16
But the disciples of the prophets at Jericho were so unable to realize the fact of Elijah's translation, although it had been previously revealed to them, that they begged permission of Elisha to send out fifty brave men to seek for Elijah. פּן־נשׂאו: whether the Spirit of the Lord has not taken him and cast him upon one of the mountains, or into one of the valleys. פּן with the perfect is used "where there is fear of a fact, which as is conjectured almost with certainty has already happened," like μὴ in the sense of "whether not" (vid., Ewald, 337, b.). יהוה רוּח is not a wind sent by Jehovah (Ges.), but the Spirit of Jehovah, as in Kg1 18:12. The Chethb גּיאות is the regular formation from גּיא or גּיא (Zac 14:4); the Keri with the transposition of א and ,י the later form: גּאיות, Eze 7:16; Eze 31:12, etc. The belief expressed by the disciples of the prophets, that Elijah might have been miraculously carried away, was a popular belief, according to Kg1 18:12, which the disciples of the prophets were probably led to share, more especially in the present case, by the fact that they could not imagine a translation to heaven as a possible thing, and with the indefiniteness of the expression ראשׁך מעל לקח could only understand the divine revelation which they had received as referring to removal by death. So that even if Elisha told them how miraculously Elijah had been taken from him, which he no doubt did, they might still believe that by the appearance in the storm the Lord had taken away His servant from this life, that is to say, had received his soul into heaven, and had left his earthly tabernacle somewhere on the earth, for which they would like to go in search, that they might pay the last honours to their departed master. Elisha yielded to their continued urgency and granted their request; whereupon fifty men sought for three days for Elijah's body, and after three days' vain search returned to Jericho. עד־בּשׁ, to being ashamed, i.e., till he was ashamed to refuse their request any longer (see at Jdg 3:25).
The two following miracles of Elisha (Kg2 2:19-25) were also intended to accredit him in the eyes of the people as a man endowed with the Spirit and power of God, as Elijah had been. Kg2 2:19-22. Elisha makes the water at Jericho wholesome. - During his stay at Jericho (Kg2 2:18) the people of the city complained, that whilst the situation of the place was good in other respects, the water was bad and the land produced miscarriages. הארץ, the land, i.e., the soil, on account of the badness of the water; not "the inhabitants, both man and beast" (Thenius). Elisha then told them to bring a new dish with salt, and poured the salt into the spring with these words: "Thus saith the Lord, I have made this water sound; there will not more be death and miscarriage thence" (משּׁם). משׁלּכת is a substantive here (vid., Ewald, 160, e.). המּים מוצא is no doubt the present spring Ain es Sultn, the only spring near to Jericho, the waters of which spread over the plain of Jericho, thirty-five minutes' distance from the present village and castle, taking its rise in a group of elevations not far from the foot of the mount Quarantana (Kuruntul); a large and beautiful spring, the water of which is neither cold nor warm, and has an agreeable and sweet (according to Steph. Schultz, "somewhat salt") taste. It was formerly enclosed by a kind of reservoir or semicircular wall of hewn stones, from which the water was conducted in different directions to the plain (vid., Rob. Pal. ii. p. 283ff.). With regard to the miracle, a spring which supplied the whole of the city and district with water could not be so greatly improved by pouring in a dish of salt, that the water lost its injurious qualities for ever, even if salt does possess the power of depriving bad water of its unpleasant taste and injurious effects. The use of these natural means does not remove the miracle. Salt, according to its power of preserving from corruption and decomposition, is a symbol of incorruptibility and of the power of life which destroys death (see Bhr, Symbolik, ii. pp. 325,326). As such it formed the earthly substratum for the spiritual power of the divine word, through which the spring was made for ever sound. A new dish was taken for the purpose, not ob munditiem (Seb. Schm.), but as a symbol of the renewing power of the word of God. - But if this miracle was adapted to show to the people the beneficent character of the prophet's ministry, the following occurrence was intended to prove to the despisers of God that the Lord does not allow His servants to be ridiculed with impunity.
4 Kings (2 Kings) 2:23
The judgment of God upon the loose fellows at Bethel. Elisha proceeded from Jericho to Bethel, the chief seat of the idolatrous calf-worship, where there was also a school of the prophets (Kg2 2:3). On the way thither there came small boys out of the city to meet him, who ridiculed him by calling out, "Come up, bald-head, come," etc. קרח, bald-head (with a bald place at the back of the head), was used as a term of scorn (cf. Isa 3:17, Isa 3:24); but hardly from a suspicion of leprosy (Winer, Thenius). It was rather as a natural defect, for Elisha, who lived for fifty years after this (Kg2 13:14), could not have been bald from age at that time.
The prophet then turned round and cursed the scoffers in the name of the Lord, and there came two bears out of the wood, and tore forty-two boys of them in pieces. The supposed "immorality of cursing," which Thenius still adduces as a disproof of the historical truth of this miracle, even if it were established, would not affect Elisha only, but would fall back upon the Lord God, who executed the curse of His servant in such a manner upon these worthless boys. And there is no need, in order to justify the judicial miracle, to assume that there was a preconcerted plan which had been devised by the chief rulers of the city out of enmity to the prophet of the Lord, so that the children had merely been put forward (O. v. Gerlach). All that is necessary is to admit that the worthless spirit which prevailed in Bethel was openly manifested in the ridicule of the children, and that these boys knew Elisha, and in his person insulted the prophet of the Lord. If this was the case, then Elisha cursed the boys for the purpose of avenging the honour of the Lord, which had been injured in his person; and the Lord caused this curse to be fulfilled, to punish in the children the sins of the parents, and to inspire the whole city with a salutary dread of His holy majesty.
(Note: Augustine, or the author of the Sermo 204 de Tempore (or Sermo 41 de Elisaeo in t. v. of the Opp. August., ed. J. P. Migne, p. 1826), which is attributed to him, gives a similar explanation. "The insolent boys," he says, "are to be supposed to have done this at the instigation of their parents; for they would not have called out if it had displeased their parents." And with regard to the object of the judicial punishment, he says it was inflicted "that the elders might receive a lesson through the smiting of the little ones, and the death of the sons might be a lesson to the parents; and that they might learn to fear the prophet, whom they would not love, notwithstanding the wonders which he performed.")
Elisha went from Bethel to Carmel (see at Kg1 18:19), probably to strengthen himself in solitude for the continuation of his master's work. He returned thence to Samaria, where, according to Kg2 6:32, he possessed a house.