The time was about 150 years after King David reigned over Israel and several years after the earlier prophet Elijah had been sent to confront the nation, which had become steeped in idol worship. After being humbled by a severe drought and famine, Israel was on the path of returning to true worship.
At the end of Elijah’s lifework, a spiritual revival, however small it seemed, had begun. Be sure to read the article “Elijah the Prophet” to see how God got the attention of the nation. Elisha’s prophetic mission would now prepare Israel for further religious reforms.
Elisha was an Old Testament prophet who lived around 800 B.C., a time when God involved Himself in a very direct way with the people and the leadership of ancient Israel. Around this period, God sent at least 30 prophets, between the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah, in an effort to turn their citizens away from idolatry and other sins.
Elisha the man
God, who sees in secret, always knows all who are His, and He had earlier declared to Elijah that there were 7,000 persons in Israel who had not done homage to Baal during a very wicked time (1 Kings 19:18).
As Elijah was nearing the end of his ministry, God directed him to anoint a younger man named Elisha to take his place. Elisha, son of Shaphat, was from Abel Meholah, of the Jordan Valley (1 Kings 19:16). After a few years of training, Elisha would become God’s spokesman to the northern kingdom; and his ministry would be filled with signs and miracles, proclamations and warnings. He would become known as the prophet of peace and healing.
Starting as a disciple
Elijah was divinely directed by God to seek his successor, and Elijah found Elisha out in a field plowing on his father’s farm. Elijah placed his mantle (an outer garment, like a cloak) on Elisha’s shoulders, and Elisha apparently understood this symbolic act as being appointed to the role of a prophet. Without hesitation, Elisha accepted the call to service, leaving the comfort of his family and home to follow a less predictable life that would require personal sacrifice (1 Kings 19:19-21).
Elisha began his ministry as Elijah’s student and personal attendant. The young man would first prove himself faithful in small things, such as the humble duty of pouring water on the hands of Elijah (2 Kings 3:11). Elisha’s training under Elijah would gradually prepare him for a work that he would one day take up alone.
The schools of the prophets
The Bible mentions both Elijah and Elisha visiting centers of religious learning in Israel that were attended by groups of men called “the sons of the prophets” (for example, see 1 Kings 20:35; 2 Kings 2:3, 5, 7, 15). Commenting on this phrase, Albert Barnes wrote it signifies “the schools or colleges of prophets which existed in several of the Israelite, and probably of the Jewish, towns, where young men were regularly educated for the prophetical office. These ‘schools’ make their first appearance under the prophet Samuel 1 Samuel 19:20” (Albert Barnes’ Notes on the Bible).
At the close of Elijah’s ministry, on a round of service between three of these schools, Elisha’s faith and resolution were tested three times. At Gilgal, at Bethel and again at Jericho, he was invited by Elijah to turn back (2 Kings 2:1-7). But Elisha had learned not to give up easily. Just like in his growing-up years walking behind a plow, now that he had set his hand to the “plow” of another much greater line of work, he would not be discouraged or distracted from his task.
Elisha succeeds Elijah
On the day that the prophet Elijah understood his ministry was coming to a close and that Elisha would take his place, 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’” (2 Kings 2:9).
“The ‘double portion’ is that which denotes the proportion of a father’s property which was the right of an eldest son (Deuteronomy 21:17). Elisha therefore asked for twice as much of Elijah’s spirit as should be inherited by any other of the ‘sons of the prophets.’ He wished to be acknowledged as Elijah’s ‘firstborn spiritual son’” (Albert Barnes’ Notes on the Bible, 2 Kings 2:9).
Elisha didn’t ask for worldly honor or for a high place among men. What he really desired was a large measure of the Holy Spirit that God had so freely placed upon the prophet Elijah. He knew that He needed God’s Holy Spirit to equip him for the responsibilities that lay ahead.
Elijah then answered, “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” (2 Kings 2:10). The Hebrew words in this verse mean that if Elisha would be given the privilege of seeing the miraculous way God would take Elijah away, then it would be a sign that his request would be granted.
“Then 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. And Elisha saw it, and he cried out, ‘My father, my father, the chariot of Israel and its horsemen!’” (2 Kings 2:11-12). God had suddenly taken Elijah out of service, and Elisha was privileged to watch the miraculous way in which his master departed.
Elisha reached down and picked up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from the prophet when he was taken away. This represented the authority God had given His prophet. Elijah had used it earlier that same morning in miraculously causing the waters of the Jordan River to divide (verse 8).
After picking up Elijah’s mantle, Elisha went to the bank of the Jordan River to test whether the spirit of Elijah had really fallen upon him. Approaching the river, he asked, “‘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” (verse 14).
The sons of the prophets also recognized that the “spirit of Elijah” now rested on Elisha, and they bowed before him in respect (verse 15). Elisha then began his prophetic career, which likely lasted some 50 years, as it extended over the reigns of four kings of Israel: Jehoram, Jehu, Jehoahaz and Joash.
Elisha’s ministry differed from Elijah’s
The ministry of Elisha the prophet was different from that of Elijah in some regards. Elijah was commissioned to deliver fearless messages of condemnation and judgment to the king and to the people, warning them to turn from sin. Elisha’s ministry was to build on the work that Elijah had begun by teaching the people God’s ways.
Throughout his long and effective years of labor, Elisha continued to advance the important spiritual education that was so needed at the schools of the prophets. For more understanding of Elijah’s prophetic role, read our article “Elijah the Prophet.”
Elisha’s ministry of miracles
Elisha’s prophetic ministry included works of healing and restoration. The biblical record also shows Elisha bringing joy to people through miracles from God. His gentle spirit enabled him to have a positive influence on the lives of many in Israel and is revealed in several illustrations in 2 Kings 4-6.
Elijah’s ministry began by shutting up the heavens for three and a half years, whereas Elisha’s ministry began by healing a spring of water near Jericho (2 Kings 2:19-22). This spring possessed certain toxic qualities, and one complained to Elisha that it was unfit for drinking and had destroyed the foliage around it. Elisha asked to have some salt in a new bowl brought to him. Elisha tossed the salt into the gushing spring and the poison of the pool of water was suddenly healed.
The use of the salt was symbolic, as it was God who performed the miracle. God declared through the prophet, “Thus says the LORD: ‘I have healed this water; from it there shall be no more death or barrenness’” (2 Kings 2:21).
Elisha’s second recorded miracle granted an impoverished family of faith a financial blessing. A student of one of the religious training centers died and his wife became a widow. She was very poor and owned just one marketable item of value, a jar of olive oil. She had two sons to care for, and she asked Elisha to help her as she feared her sons would be taken away to pay a debt.
Elisha instructed her to go to all her neighbors and borrow as many empty jars as she could. A miracle was going to occur that would allow her to fill every empty jar to the top by pouring from her one jar of olive oil. The one jar of oil was multiplied miraculously, and she was able to sell enough of the valuable oil to pay off her debt and live off the remainder (2 Kings 4:1-7).
Two additional miracles were wrought for a married couple dwelling in the town of Shunem. Elisha the prophet often stayed at the home of this childless couple, as his ministry would take him from town to town. As a gesture of appreciation for their hospitality he prophesied that they would have a son who would bring them great joy.
Later, the little boy suffered an illness while out in the field, and his mother went searching diligently until she found Elisha. The prophet went back to her house to see what could be done. The boy had died but Elisha prayed and God raised the boy from the dead (2 Kings 4:8-22; 2 Kings 4:23-37).
Lessons for today
In all the service and miracles performed by Elisha the prophet, whether it was in response to sickness, death, financial need, hunger or to give wise counsel to kings, something to note is that God didn’t prevent problems and trials in the lives of His people. Instead, God used these occasions to increase their faith and trust in Him. God often allows problems and trials for our learning, for our experience and for our spiritual growth.
Numerous articles would be needed to explore each and every lesson we could draw from the life and work of Elisha the prophet. Studying the Bible stories and miracles in 1 Kings and 2 Kings can have an important impact on the diligent reader.
When we remember these stories, we can draw strength from them and understand that God is willing and able to help us with what we need, when we need it (2 Corinthians 9:8); that He expects us to keep all of His commandments if we are to boldly come before Him in times of need (John 14:12-15; Hebrews 4:14-16); and that those who trust in God are to live by faith and not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7).
Elisha’s lifework was in educating people about keeping God’s requirements and His blessings for living in faith. His message is just as important for us today, as we seek to draw close to and become more like the God who worked through Elisha. We must pray for God’s help and seek His Spirit as Elisha did.
For more study on the prophets of the Bible, see the articles in this section “Prophets.”