Bridgeway Bible Dictionary
At the time of the ministry of Elijah and Elisha, Israel’s ancient religion was threatened by the Baalism that Jezebel had brought with her from Phoenicia. Through her husband, King Ahab of Israel, Jezebel had tried to establish Phoenician Baalism as the official religion of Israel (1 Kings 16:30-33). The man who began the long and difficult job of removing this Baalism from Israel was the prophet Elijah (see ). By God’s direction Elijah passed on the unfinished task to Elisha (1 Kings 19:16; 1 Kings 19:19), whose ministry lasted through the reigns of six Israelite kings. The extent of his ministry was about fifty years. The period was the latter half of the ninth century BC.
Successor to Elijah
From the beginning Elisha showed a willingness to succeed Elijah, in spite of the obvious difficulties ahead. Originally a farmer, he gave up his former way of life for the unpopular task of being God’s messenger to the hardened and idolatrous people of Israel (1 Kings 19:19-21). Like Elijah, Elisha would have to move around the country, strengthening the believers and opposing the idolaters. Elijah tested him to see if he would try to avoid some of the difficulties by remaining at one of the schools for young prophets. But Elisha was determined to carry on Elijah’s work. He was Elijah’s spiritual heir, and he remained with Elijah to the end to receive the spiritual inheritance (2 Kings 2:1-12).
A miracle at the Jordan River quickly proved that God’s power had now passed from Elijah to Elisha (2 Kings 2:13-14). Many more miracles would follow, showing what a serious threat Jezebel’s Baalism was to Israel’s national life.
Elisha’s ministry was to be twofold. It was to be concerned on the one hand with preserving the faithful minority in Israel (the remnant), and on the other with preparing judgment for the unfaithful nation (1 Kings 19:15-18). His first two miracles symbolized these characteristics of blessing and cursing. To those who were in need he brought healing, but to those who rejected his message he brought judgment (2 Kings 2:19-25).
A combined Israelite-Judean attack on Moab gave Elisha the opportunity to demonstrate to the two kings his opposition to Baal. He refused to help the Baal-worshipping Israelite king, though he passed on advice to the godly Judean king (2 Kings 3:9-15).
Caring for the faithful minority
Faithful believers were rare in Israel, and Elisha had to help preserve them, lest the true worship of Yahweh vanish from the nation. He helped the poor widow of one of the godly prophets by giving her a miraculous supply of oil that saved her entire family (2 Kings 4:1-7). He also secured the future for a wealthy believer by giving her a son. When, years later, the son died, Elisha brought him back to life (2 Kings 4:8-37).
Many of the faithful were to be found in the schools where young men trained to be prophets. Like Elijah before him, Elisha moved around these schools, with the aim of strengthening those who could later help rebuild the religious life of the nation (2 Kings 2:1-7; 2 Kings 2:15; 2 Kings 4:38; 2 Kings 6:1).
These communities were very poor. They had difficulty getting enough food to eat each day, and they lacked even the basic tools to rebuild their inadequate housing. In one place Elisha worked a miracle to save the day’s food from being lost, and in another he miraculously recovered a borrowed tool that had fallen into the river (2 Kings 4:38-41; 2 Kings 6:1-7). On one occasion he miraculously multiplied a gift of food to feed a large group of his followers (2 Kings 4:42-44).
By the healing of Naaman, Elisha showed God’s power to the commander of the army (Syria) that God was going to use to punish Israel (2 Kings 5:1-14; cf. 1 Kings 19:15-17). Naaman’s knowledge of the one true God was still imperfect, but at least he had a more sincere faith in Yahweh than did many Israelites (2 Kings 5:15-19).
Preparing Israel for judgment
God’s intention to use Syria to punish his people did not mean that Elisha had to desert Israel and join the Syrians. In fact, the Syrians saw him as an enemy and tried to capture him. Instead Elisha captured the Syrian soldiers and led them to the Israelite capital, Samaria. When the Israelite king wanted to kill them, Elisha directed him to feed them. The incident brought a temporary peace, and should have taught both nations that God controlled their destinies (2 Kings 6:8-23).
Neither king learnt much from the incident. The Syrian king attacked Jerusalem afresh, and the Israelite king blamed Elisha for the suffering that resulted (2 Kings 6:24-31). Elisha assured Israel’s king that the siege would be broken and there would be plenty of food the next day. But when Elisha’s prediction proved to be true, the king was slow to believe (2 Kings 7:1-15).
Syria’s partly successful attacks on Israel were only the beginning. The attacks would become increasingly successful and violent. When Hazael of Syria murdered his king and seized the throne, a new era of terror began. Elisha wept when he saw the trouble that Hazael’s cruelty would bring upon Israel (2 Kings 8:7-15; cf. 1 Kings 19:15). With Hazael now king of Syria, the time had arrived for Elisha to carry out his last major responsibility, the anointing of Jehu to be king of Israel. Jehu’s job was to remove Jezebel’s Baalism from Israel’s leadership by destroying Ahab, Jezebel and all their Baal-worshipping family (2 Kings 9:1-10; cf. 1 Kings 19:16-17; see ).
Elisha lived to see the divine judgment carried out, first on Ahab’s family and then on Israel as a whole. After that, he saw the beginnings of Israel’s recovery, and might have seen Israel overthrow Syrian power completely had not the Israelite king been lacking in faith (2 Kings 13:14-19). Even after Elisha’s death, dramatic events at his burial place showed that the God he served was still alive and powerful (2 Kings 13:20-21).
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Fleming, Don. Entry for 'Elisha'. Bridgeway Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/bbd/e/elisha.html. 2004.