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Bible Dictionaries

Whyte's Dictionary of Bible Characters

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ELISHA, the servant and the successor of Elijah, was the son of a prosperous farmer in Israel. Shaphat, the father of Elisha, was a man of substance, but, like all true Israelites, rich and poor, he had brought up his son Elisha to a life of hard work. And thus it is that we come upon Elisha standing in the office of superior over his father's ploughmen, while he is, at the same time, one of those same ploughmen himself. One spring day, when all Shaphat's ploughs were at work in the spring-time meadow, and Elisha's plough the foremost among them, Elijah, the old prophet, came up suddenly behind Elisha and cast his rough mantle over Elisha's shoulder. In a moment the young ploughman saw and understood what it was that had happened to him. Elijah had not spoken a single word to Elisha. But Elijah's solemn silent act was sufficiently clear and eloquent to Elisha. 'When a great teacher dies,' says Sir John Malcolm in his History of Persia, 'he bequeaths his patched mantle to the disciple that he most esteems. And the moment the elect disciple puts on the holy mantle he is vested with the whole power and sanctity of his predecessor. The mantles which were used by ascetics and saints have always been the objects of religious veneration in the East. The holy man's power is founded upon his sacred character, and that rests upon his poverty and contempt of worldly goods. His mantle is his all, and its transfer marks out his heir. Some of these sacred mantles can be traced for several centuries, and their value increases with their age.' This is an old and superstitious tradition now; but in the ploughed field of Abel. Meholah we are back at its very beginning and first performance, when Elijah comes up behind Elisha and casts his cloak of camel's hair over the shoulders of Shaphat's son. And, as if to make it impossible for himself ever to turn back from following Elijah, Elisha made a fire of the wood of his familiar plough, and slew his favourite oxen and made a feast of the flesh, and thereby proclaimed openly to all men that he had put his hand to another plough than that plough of wood, from which he would never draw back. Elisha burned his ships that day, as the Romans would have said. Shaphat, Elisha's father, was growing old, and Elisha would soon have inherited the rich meadow he was then working in; but, in a moment, all that was for ever changed; and Shaphat may now cast his husbandman's mantle over what young farmer he will; his son Elisha is henceforth dead to all that Abel-Meholah has to hold out to him. For the next fifty years Elisha is to be a spiritual ploughman in the Lord's meadows, which are the hearts and lives of the men of Israel.

Elijah's mantle is one of our most expressive proverbs, and so is Elisha's request for a double portion of his departing master's spirit. 'Ask what I shall do for thee,' said Elijah, 'before I be taken away from thee.' And Elisha said, 'I pray thee, let a double portion of thy spirit be upon me.' Not the double of all the gifts and all the graces that Elijah had possessed and had so well employed. That is an impossible explanation of Elisha's petition. I can easily imagine Elijah feeling now that life was over with him, that he had been an unprofitable servant. All true men so feel. I can easily imagine Elijah seeking of God in prayer that his successor should be twofold, should be tenfold, more gifted and more successful than he had been. But I cannot imagine a humble and loyal soul like Elisha so insulting his master on his deathbed as to say to him: 'I hope to have double thy success to show when I come to die.' No; the thing is inconceivable. What Elisha really asked for was simply the fulfilment of what had been already promised him when Elijah's mantle fell on his shoulders. That act of Elijah was the sign and the seal of Elisha's adoption. And the adopted son had always allotted to him the double portion that belonged to the first-born. Not the double of what the adopting father possessed himself; for no man can put into his testament the double of what he has of his own. But he can double the portion that would properly have belonged to one of his younger children. And thus it is that, when it is put to him, Elisha simply, and dutifully, and humbly asks that the divine law of adoption and primogeniture may immediately begin to hold and to take effect in his spiritual sonship to the departing prophet.

The world and the church live and thrive and grow from generation to generation under the guiding and upholding hand of God. All the time that Elijah was repining and meditating death under the juniper tree, God was preparing the young ploughman of Abel-Meholah to wear Elijah's mantle, and to carry forward Elijah's work. And when we are prognosticating the headlessness and the collapse of the church when this man and that man shall have fallen asleep, all the time God has His hidden servants, quite well known to Him, and quite ready to take up this man's and that man's great office when they shall demit it. There may be to be seen following the spring plough in Strathmore or in the Lothians at this moment, some young man who shall be as well known and as great in a few years in Scotland as Elisha was in Israel. There are certainly at school, at college, in the shop, in the office, on the hills, in the mine, young men who, five-and-twenty years after this, shall be as great preachers, as great writers, as great statesmen, as great administrators, and as great discoverers as any of those who are now in such fame, and far better suited for the time to come. Elisha was not Elijah. But he was the gift of the living God to the living Israel of his day. And I would have you all keep your dejected hearts in perfect peace, sure of this, that God will look after both the church and the world far better than the most anxious-minded and censorious-minded of His people.

And let all our prophets, and all the sons of our prophets, go to school in manners and in morals to those fifty sons of the prophets in that day in Israel. Look at them as they hail and bow down before a better man than themselves, though he is as young as themselves, and withal, has not had their schooling for his office. There is blessing in store for Israel, from such young ministers. Elisha had been a ploughman till he became Elijah's servant. And, yet, in a moment, and without a murmur, the fifty sons of the prophets at once accept Elisha as the true successor of Elijah, and as their young master. The old men who had not had great success themselves did not cast up Elisha's youth to him when his success began, nor did the sons of the prophets keep up against him his humble origin, or his lack of letters. There must have been good Divinity Halls in those days when there were fifty probationers just come out of them of such humility, and admiration, and belief in better men than themselves. These prophetical graces are beautiful to us to read about at a distance, but they are far more beautiful to God when they are seen in everyday men like ourselves. Those fifty students must have had good tutors and governors in ministerial morals and in pastoral theology.

About dead men's mantles. Elisha's first instinct was to bury and blot himself out under Elijah's coat of camel's hair and his leathern girdle. And he did actually begin his public life wearing those ancient coverings and austere accoutrements. But Elisha was far too simple and far too sincere a man to continue long wound up in such cerements. He set out, and I do not wonder at it, in Elijah's mantle, and he did his first prophetical work in it; but he wore it awkwardly, and he soon laid it aside. Elisha was an altogether smaller and more homely man than Elijah, and he wisely preferred before long to put on much less startling and outstanding clothes. Elisha was a gentle, homely, kindly lowland minister; as unlike Elijah as the green meadows of Abel-Meholah were unlike the savage solitudes of mountainous Gilead. And we must not demand of our young preachers that they shall all stride out with the same step, and pronounce just with the same accent as the Elijah of our youth. We had Elijah, and he fulfilled his day, and did his work. And no men among us need more to be men of today, and not of yesterday, than they who preach the Word of God to us and to our children. Even the Elijah you so often go back upon, were he here again, he would not be exactly the same man, with exactly the same mantle, the hem and the hair of which you were so wont to kiss.

Every ill-brought-up boy who calls names at old people and at odd people must he reminded of those miserable boys and girls of Bethel who called bad names at Elisha till two she-bears came out of the wood, and tore forty and two children of them. The Areopagus on one occasion sentenced a Greek boy to death only for plucking out a quail's eyes, because, they said, if that boy was let live, he would do widespread cruelty and mischief when he grew up, and he had better die at once; and so they sent him to the executioner. On December the 21st, 1719, Thomas Boston writes this in his journal: A poor boy came into the house begging, having such a defect in his speech that he pronounced the words father and mother fao and moa, at which my wife and others smiling, desired him to speak over again what he had said. In the meantime my little daughter stood looking on with tears in her eyes and in great distress, and at length she came up to her mother, and said, 'Mother, did God make that laddie?' 'Yes, my dear, He did.' 'Will He not then be angry at us all for laughing at the laddie, for my lesson says, "He that mocketh at the poor, reproacheth his Maker"?' She was in mighty concern also to let the boy have some old clothes.

With all that the sacred writer has given us about Elisha, I am not satisfied. I would have liked some more about Elisha's father and mother. I always regret hearing Elisha calling Elijah his father, and no more word of honest Shaphat. Fathers, come with me, and let no man run away with our best name from us! Let no man, no, not Elijah himself, take our crown. Let us determine to be the fathers of our children in the spirit also. Let us be specially jealous of our best ministers, lest our children pass us by, and claim any other man whatsoever as their spiritual father. Let our children be able all their days to say-it was my father; it was my mother. We feed them, we clothe them, we send them to school, and we work and lay up for them. O let no other man, the very best, cast the mantle of the Christian calling and the Christian spirit on the shoulders of our children. Let us do that ourselves; let us do it early; let us do it now. Here am I and the children which Thou hast given me!

Bibliography Information
Whyte, Alexander. Entry for 'Elisha'. Alexander Whyte's Dictionary of Bible Characters. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​wbc/​e/elisha.html. 1901.
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