Elijah and Elisha: A Comparison
2 Kings 2-13
As we conclude this series on these two great Old Testament prophets, I want to compare Elijah and Elisha along a number of lines, then look at certain lessons we can learn form this comparison. First, however, let's consider how they were similar . . .
Both were appointed by God to be the lead prophets of Israel for a period of time.
Both evidently trained the sons of the prophets as a key priority of their ministries (2 Kings 2:3, 5, 7; 4:1, 38; 5:22).
Both were empowered by God in extraordinary ways. That is, they had ministries in which miracles played a major role (miracles of judgment on apostasy and miracles of restoration for the faithful).
Both had very unusual departures from this life. Elijah was taken up without experiencing death (2 Kings 2), while Elisha's bones brought a corpse back to life (2 Kings 13).
Some of the differences between these two men are more basic and constitutional:
SOCIO-ECONOMIC: Elijah came from rustic Gilead beyond the Jordan River, and was probably from a relatively poor home. Elisha, on the other hand, came from Abel Meholah in Israel proper, and appears to have had a wealthy upbringing (12 oxen).
PERSONALITY: Elijah seems to have been a man of moodsexperiencing great emotional swings between euphoria and depression. We see no such evidence of this in Elisha, who was probably more even-tempered.
PHYSICAL APPEARANCE: Elijah was a hairy man (2 Kings 1:8), while Elisha was bald (2 Kings 2:23). (Personally, I think Elisha got the better deal here!)
Some of their differences are more central to their ministries.
On the one hand, Elisha's ministry superseded Elijah's in certain ways.
Elisha's ministry lasted about twice as long as Elijah's (14 and prematurely terminated to almost 50 years).
The Kings narrative also records twice as many miracles by Elisha as by Elijah (14 to 7). Some scholars speculate that this difference was part of God's answer to grant Elisha a double portion of Elijah's spirit (2 Kings 2:9).
On the other hand, Elijah's ministry was clearly more dominant in many ways. Elijah was truly a larger than life figure.
Most of his ministry was directly confronting powerful worldly figures (Ahab; Jezebel; Ahaziah). Elisha, on the other hand, dealt mainly with common people whose names we will never knowa widow, a laborer, a Shunnamite woman, etc. And when Elisha did deal with powerful figures, he did so indirectly and carried out God's directives to Elijah.1
Similarly, most of Elijah's miracles were dramatic and judgmental on apostasy (DROUGHT; FIRE FROM HEAVEN). By contrast, most of Elisha's miracles were modest and deeds of compassion. He cleansed the waters of Jericho (2:19-22). He increased a widow's supply of oil, which saved her children from being sold into slavery (4:1-7). He cleansed a pot of food into which a poisonous herb had been mistakenly added (4:38-41). He fed 100 hungry men by multiplying a small amount of barley loaves and corn (4:42-44). He cured a Gentile of his leprosy (5:14). He recovered a lost axe head that a man had borrowed, and thus saved him from financial ruin (6:1-7).
Because of the above, Elijah was and still is famous in his own right. He towers above every Old Testament figure except Moses. Elisha, however, remains clearly in Elijah's shadow. He spent the first 10 years ministering to Elijah. Even after Elijah departed, he was known as Elisha . . . who used to pour water on the hands of Elijah (2 Kings 3:11).
Even the New Testament recognizes Elijah as the predominant figure. He is mentioned by name 29 times and alluded to a few other times. But Elisha is mentioned only once.
Elijah cast a very long shadow, and Elisha lived under it his whole adult life? Most of us have or will live under someone else's shadow (parent, friend, ministry leader, etc.), and most us have or will have others in our shadow (child, disciple, etc.). Do you know how to handle being in someone else's shadow? Or do you compete, resent, run away from them, etc.? Do you know how to help those who live in your shadow? We don't specifically how Elijah and Elisha handled this situationbut we have principles from scripture that teach how to handle this in a godly way. Let's look at two of them . . .
We can get at the first lesson by asking this question: Who was better suited for his roleElijah or Elisha?
At first glance, most people would answer Elijah. He was the more dominant personality, he performed the more dramatic miracles, he dealt with the more powerful figures, etc.
Yet the correct answer is: They were both suited perfectly for the different roles God gave them.
Elijah's bold personality and dramatic miraculous deeds were needed to call the nation back to God from the brink of total apostasy.
Elisha's compassionate miracles for the common Israelites provided them a needed reminder of God's love for all of them, and of his faithfulness to them when they were faithful to him.
God says the same thing to Jeremiah when he called him to his to his unique role as a prophet to the nations of his day (read Jer. 1:5).
Elijah, Elisha, and Jeremiah are examples of something wonderful that God says about each of us: God has fashioned each of us perfectly for unique roles in his service.
This is exactly what God says in Ephesians 2:10 (read). Paul here likens God to a SCULPTOR who fashions each of us uniquely, suiting us for the significant work he has already planned for us. Your personality, body, natural talents, spiritual gifting, experiences in your upbringing, the time and place in which you live, etc.—none of this is a mere accident of history and genetics and environment because God is sovereignly over and involved in every aspect of your life. God has a unique purpose for your life, and he has been mysteriously at work to sculpt your life for his good purpose, which he wants to lead you into.
But notice that God's fashioning work is in Christ. You can learn the true purpose for your life and how you have been suited for it only after you have been reconciled to your Maker. And you can be reconciled to God only through Jesus Christ, because only he died to pay the penalty for your guilt before God. That's why this verse follows 2:8-9 (read). For some of you, this is the first order of business—be reconciled to God by putting your personal trust in Christ as your Savior. Then you can begin to discover the true purpose for your life and how God has fashioned you to fulfill it!
After you have come to Christ, you will need to (repeatedly) agree with him on this point and affirm from the heart that he knew what he was doing by fashioning you the way he has. As we look at other people (including other Christian friends and workers), it is easy for us to conclude: If only I had those spiritual gifts/that IQ/that personality/that person's upbringing/their friends/his looks/her conversion experience/etc., then I could be more effective and fulfilled. But such thinking is fundamentally wrong, and unless corrected it will lead to increasing mistrust in God and a serious spiritual breakdown.
We all struggle with this at times because we are fallen, but some of us get stuck here chronically. When this is the case, it is usually a signal that we still are committed to our agenda for our lives, and we want God to fulfill our agenda (get others to praise and serve us)—instead of abandoning this whole project and giving ourselves to God's agenda for our lives (draw others to praise and serve Christ).
We are like the picture frame, and the picture is Christ. A good picture frame draws the viewers' attention to the picture rather than to itself (ORIGINAL FRAMES AT RIJKS MUSEUM IN AMSTERDAM). When you disagree with God about how he made you, is it possible that you want to be the picture rather than the frame? If you could change certain things about yourself, would it be to bring more glory to Christor to yourself? Don't just give the correct answer to these questionsask God to search your heart. The result may be painfully convicting, but also wonderfully liberating when you repent.
If Elisha had compared himself with Elijah, or listened to those who did so, he could have concluded that he was unsuited for his role. But thankfully, he affirmed this truth and gave his life to the Lord. When we feel this way, we need to imitate Elisha.
The second lesson flows directly from the first lesson. Whose life was more successful: Elijah's or Elisha's? The answer depends on which audience you consult.
If you asked the majority of the Israelites at this time, they would have said that neither was successful. After all, neither sought nor attained material wealth. Both obstructed the worship of Baal, which the majority wanted.
If you asked most of those who followed YHWH, they would have said that Elijah was more successful than Elisha. They're the ones who described Elisha as the one who poured water over Elijah's hands. After all, Elijah had the more powerful personality, Elijah dealt with the movers and shakers of society, Elijah did the dramatic miracles.
Yet both of these evaluations are wrong. To the only audience that counts (God), I feel certain that his answer is: They were both successful because they both fulfilled the roles I gave them.
Here is another crucial lesson for us to learn. We all want to be successful, and we all live our lives before the audiences whose evaluation we value. But God says that success is faithfully fulfilling his role for you.
One of the most important decisions in your life is which audience matters most to youother people or God. God has been nailing me on this issue in a variety of ways for the last several months. I have been especially arrested by the chapter in Os Guinness' book The Call which is entitled The Audience of One. In it, Guinness says, Most of us, whether we are aware of it or not, do things with an eye to the approval of some audience or other. The question is not whether we have an audience but which audience we choose.2
Conversely, we should not define success by how much approval we get from our culture. But the Bible calls this way of evaluating your successfulness fundamentally foolish. Jesus is especially tough on this point. He is the One who warns us: That which is highly esteemed among people is detestable in the sight of God (Luke 16:15). One of his favorite expressions was: Then the last shall be first, and the first shall be last. On that day when all of us will be evaluated by God, there are going to be some big surprises. Many people who were viewed by their society (and church) as winners will be declared failures by God; and many for whom society had no use will be exalted and rewarded by God. The way the world evaluates success is usually so different from the way God evaluates it that it is both useless and perilous to look horizontally for your progress report.
Also, we should beware of defining success in Christian ministry by comparing ourselves to other workers. Those who gauge their success (including spiritual success) by how they compare to other people inevitably fall prey to the twin vices of pride and envy. Read Galatians 5:26; 6:4-5.
Pride grows when I conclude that I am more successful than others in any area. It is not only corrupting, but blind because the issue is not how much I have accomplished compared to others, but how well I am fulfilling the potential God gave me to serve him. This is the perspective that keeps me humble and motivated to press on.
Envy grows when I come up short compared to others in any area of talent or results that is important to me. I know from personal experience how ugly this is. Instead of being thankful for their contribution, I resent their ability and accomplishments because I feel like a failure. Why? Because I am evaluating my success as a person by arbitrarily comparing myself to another person instead of simply doing my best to be a faithful steward for God. When I recover this perspective, I can focus on simply being where God wants me to be, doing what God wants me to doand I then experience God's peace and empowering and fruit and satisfaction.
Let's listen to Ish Gajary as he shares what he's learned about living in my shadow . . .
1 In these events Elisha seemed to be in the center of the action. But two things should be noticed. One is the roundabout way in which Elisha operated. When Elijah confronted power, he did it directly, nakedly,. Elisha, however, frequently communicated his messages indirectly through messengers. Second, even then Elisha himself often was an intermediary, for he was carrying out God's commands to Elijah. God had ordered Elijah to 'anoint Hazael to be king over Syria; and Jehu the son of Nimshi shall you anoint to be king over Israel' (1 Kings 19:15-16). Long after Elijah had been taken to heaven, then, Elisha carried out these commands in his circuitous way. So even though Elisha was in the center of things, he was still, in a very real sense, pouring water on Elijah's hands. Francis A. Schaeffer, No Little People (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1980), pp. 150,151.
2 Os Guinness, The Call, p. 73.
Copyright 1999 Gary DeLashmutt