What is the Spiritual Significance of the Story of Elijah and Elisha?

The previous article, “What Can We Learn from the Story of Elijah and Elisha?” responded to this Spiritual Conundrum submitted to Spiritual Insights for Everyday Life by a reader named Adom Ameyaw:

Can you explain and give the significance 2 Kings 2:1–18 in the life of a Christian?

In that article, we drew out a few of the lessons in that Bible story that are plain for anyone to see.

In this second (and final) article in response to Adom’s question, we’ll dig deeper, and look at the spiritual significance of this story for our Christian walk.

We’ll draw on the method of Bible interpretation offered by Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772), and on various commentaries inspired by that method, without actually quoting from them. But mostly, we’ll look more deeply at the text of the story itself, and sleuth out a few of the spiritual insights it contains.

The background

To understand the deeper meaning of this story, we need to know its background in the Bible narrative.

By the time of Elijah’s and Elisha’s prophetic careers, the glory days of the nation of Israel were already behind it. King David’s spectacular military conquests, which enlarged the borders of the nation to its widest extent, were now a matter of history. His son Solomon’s lavish reign was also a distant memory.

In fact, it was Solomon’s lavish reign that led to the breakup and decline of the nation. You can read all about it in 1 Kings 10–12. Solomon built up a vast and very expensive royal court, including “seven hundred wives of royal birth and three hundred concubines” (1 Kings 11:3). Supporting this lavish court put a heavy financial burden on the people. After Solomon’s death, when his son Rehoboam foolishly refused to lighten that burden, but vowed to make it even heavier, the northern part of the kingdom rebelled, seceded, and set up its own separate kingdom.

This was the beginning of the period of the “divided kingdom,” in which Judah and a few other southern tribes remained loyal to David’s dynasty, forming the kingdom of Judah, while all of the northern tribes became the separate kingdom of Israel.

The northern kings recognized that if their subjects continued to go to the Temple in Jerusalem to offer their sacrifices, their rule would be threatened. So they set up two golden calves as idols in the southern and northern part of their kingdom, and commanded their people to offer their sacrifices at these shrines instead of at the Temple. The Bible narrative therefore considers all of these northern kings to be evil kings. And rather than establishing a stable dynasty as the southern kingdom of Judah had done, these northern kings were often deposed in bloody coups.

Most of Elijah’s prophetic career took place during the reign of one of the more successful—and one of the more reviled—kings of Israel: King Ahab reigned over Israel for twenty-two years. And “Ahab son of Omri did more evil in the eyes of the Lord than any of those before him” (1 Kings 16:30). Meanwhile, the name of his foreign wife Jezebel became synonymous with “a very wicked woman.”

Elisha’s long career also began during Ahab’s reign, and extended for over fifty years through the reigns of five of Ahab’s successors to the throne of Israel.

These were decades of gradual decline in glory and power for the divided kingdoms of Judah and Israel. Little by little enemies rose up and stripped them of their land, money, and power. Ultimately, the northern kingdom of Israel came to its end a little over a century after Elisha’s death, when Assyria conquered it and deported all of its wealthy and educated elite. The southern kingdom of Judah lasted over a century longer, eventually being conquered by Babylon and ceasing to exist as a nation.

To understand the spiritual meaning of the story of Elisha succeeding Elijah as the leading prophet in the land, it is necessary to understand that this was a time of increasing apostasy and decline, ultimately leading to the end of Israel as a nation.

The Story

In the previous article I provided a link to the Bible story so that you could read it if you so desired. This article, however, won’t make much sense if you don’t read the story. So here it is before we move on:

When the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven in a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here; the Lord has sent me to Bethel.”

But Elisha said, “As surely as the Lord lives and as you live, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel.

The company of the prophets at Bethel came out to Elisha and asked, “Do you know that the Lord is going to take your master from you today?”

“Yes, I know,” Elisha replied, “so hold your peace.”

Then Elijah said to him, “Stay here, Elisha; the Lord has sent me to Jericho.”

And he replied, “As surely as the Lord lives and as you live, I will not leave you.” So they went to Jericho.

The company of the prophets at Jericho went up to Elisha and asked him, “Do you know that the Lord is going to take your master from you today?”

“Yes, I know,” he replied, “so hold your peace.”

Then Elijah said to him, “Stay here; the Lord has sent me to the Jordan.”

And he replied, “As surely as the Lord lives and as you live, I will not leave you.” So the two of them walked on.

Fifty men from the company of the prophets went and stood at a distance, facing the place where Elijah and Elisha had stopped at the Jordan. Elijah took his cloak, rolled it up and struck the water with it. The water divided to the right and to the left, and the two of them crossed over on dry ground.

When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me, what can I do for you before I am taken from you?”

“Let me inherit a double portion of your spirit,” Elisha replied.

“You have asked a difficult thing,” Elijah said, “yet if you see me when I am taken from you, it will be yours—otherwise, it will not.”

As they were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind. Elisha saw this and cried out, “My father! My father! The chariots and horsemen of Israel!” And Elisha saw him no more. Then he took hold of his garment and tore it in two.

Elisha then picked up Elijah’s cloak that had fallen from him and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. He took the cloak that had fallen from Elijah and struck the water with it. “Where now is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” he asked. When he struck the water, it divided to the right and to the left, and he crossed over.

The company of the prophets from Jericho, who were watching, said, “The spirit of Elijah is resting on Elisha.” And they went to meet him and bowed to the ground before him. “Look,” they said, “we your servants have fifty able men. Let them go and look for your master. Perhaps the spirit of the Lord has picked him up and set him down on some mountain or in some valley.”

“No,” Elisha replied, “do not send them.”

But they persisted until he was too embarrassed to refuse. So he said, “Send them.” And they sent fifty men, who searched for three days but did not find him. When they returned to Elisha, who was staying in Jericho, he said to them, “Didn’t I tell you not to go?” (2 Kings 2:1–18)

The story then goes on to recount a few more of the early miracles Elisha performed.

The Downward Journey

Like the downward trajectory of the nation of Israel where Elijah and Elisha had their prophetic careers, this is the story of a literal downward journey.

Map showing Elijah and Elisha's journey

Map showing Elijah and Elisha’s journey (in red)

As shown on this map, the Gilgal from which this journey started is not the same as the Gilgal in the story of Joshua’s initial conquest of the Holy Land. (See “What is the Meaning and Significance of Gilgal in the Bible?”) It is another Gilgal located in the highlands above Bethel. Notice that early in the story, when they left Gilgal, it says, “So they went down to Bethel.” Bethel was also situated in the highlands. But Jericho was built in the lowlands of the Jordan River valley. So it was a downward journey from Bethel to Gilgal as well. And of course, the Jordan River was the lowest elevation in that area.

Spiritually speaking, then, this is not a story about our ascending up to higher things. Rather, it is a story about a downward spiritual journey—meaning a time when we are losing our sense of closeness to God and spirit, and getting more engrossed in practical and worldly things. We’ll return to that in a moment.

“A double portion of your spirit”

Some commentators have mistakenly believed that Elisha’s career was to be greater than Elijah’s because of Elisha’s request to inherit a double portion of Elijah’s spirit—which was granted because Elisha did indeed see Elijah taken from him up to heaven. However, in the context of that culture, what Elisha was really asking of Elijah was to be considered his “firstborn” and primary heir as a prophet.

You see, in ancient Hebrew culture a man’s firstborn son received double the inheritance that each of his younger brothers received, as seen in this passage:

If a man has two wives, one of them loved and the other disliked, and if both the loved and the disliked have borne him sons, the firstborn being the son of the one who is disliked, then on the day when he wills his possessions to his sons, he is not permitted to treat the son of the loved as the firstborn in preference to the son of the disliked, who is the firstborn. He must acknowledge as firstborn the son of the one who is disliked, giving him a double portion of all that he has; since he is the first issue of his virility, the right of the firstborn is his. (Deuteronomy 21:15–17, italics added)

Obviously the eldest son did not inherit twice as much as his father possessed! Rather, he received a percentage of his father’s property that was twice as large as what each of his younger brothers received.

In the same way, when Elisha inherited “a double portion” of Elijah’s spirit, it did not mean that he would be twice as great a prophet, but rather that he would inherit a larger portion of Elijah’s spirit than any of the other prophets among the “company of the prophets”—or more literally, the “sons of the prophets.”

In short, the “double portion” of Elijah’s spirit that Elisha inherited meant that he would be the leading prophet and Elijah’s primary spiritual “heir.” And that is precisely how the Bible story treats him.

If we read the stories of Elisha’s prophetic career compared to that of Elijah, we find that Elijah focused more on standing up for the God of Israel against popular pagan gods and goddesses. Elijah’s career was dedicated to maintaining the presence of God among the people. It was a lonely life of bucking the political and social trends of his time.

Elisha’s career was more focused on dramatic miracles and engagement with the political and social life of the nation. Elisha was a popular and politically connected prophet and a man of the people. Though he was a prophet of God, he focused less on maintaining the worship of the God of Israel, and more on injecting God’s will into the social and political activities of his nation.

And that brings us back to the deeper meaning of this story for our lives.

A downward spiritual journey

When we first start out on our spiritual journey, dedicating our life to God and consciously working on becoming a more spiritual, faithful, and loving person, we may think that from now on our life will follow a continuous upward path.

But life is what happens when we’ve made other plans.

The reality is that just as the terrain of the Holy Land has both mountains and valleys, so also the terrain we travel on our spiritual path has its ups and downs.

And some of our downs go way down.

Very often our spiritual life takes a downward plunge when the practicalities of life in the world rear their ugly head. We fall away from our spiritual study and focus because all of our time is taken up just dealing with work, money, food, housing, family and community responsibilities, and so on.

This is a deeper meaning of the transition from Elijah, with his focus on maintaining God’s presence in his nation and among his people, to Elisha, whose career was immersed in the practical, political, and social affairs of his people.

The necessity of Elisha

It was Elijah, not Elisha, who became the representative Old Testament prophet. He is the famous prophet mentioned time after time in the New Testament. In the judgment of history, Elijah remains the greater prophet.

And when we are on the downward spiritual path from Gilgal to Jordan, from Elijah’s God-centered career to Elisha’s people-centered career, we may feel a terrible regret that we have fallen from our former spiritual heights to a materialistic low point. And in a sense, we have.

And yet, our spiritual journey must also be a practical journey. If learning to love God doesn’t take us into the trenches of practical service to our fellow human beings, what good is it?

God did not create us to spend our whole life cloistered away in ethereal contemplation of God and spirit. Our spiritual mountaintop experiences are meant to inspire us to become more willing and able to love and serve our fellow human beings in good and practical ways.

There is no need for us to become discouraged when our times of enlightenment and closeness to God give way to times in which life is a whirlwind of work and social activities. After all, it was a whirlwind that carried Elijah up to heaven. And in the whirlwind of our daily tasks and activities, we can also experience the presence of God and spirit working in our life.

Just as Elisha was inspired by seeing his master and mentor carried up to heaven in a whirlwind, and went on to do great deeds of help and service to his fellow citizens in the name of the God of Israel, so we can come away from our times of closeness to God newly inspired to serve our neighbor in practical ways. After all, Jesus taught us that as much as we have loved and served our fellow human beings in need, we have loved and served God (see Matthew 25:31–46).

There is far more to the spiritual meaning of this story than we can possibly cover in a single article. I hope the few that we have covered here give you some sense of the spiritual treasures hidden within the story of Elijah and Elisha.

And I hope they give you new inspiration to get up each day and bring God into the world in practical actions of service to your fellow human beings, just as Elisha did for the people of his nation.

This article is a response to a spiritual conundrum submitted by a reader.

For further reading:

About

Lee Woofenden is an ordained minister, writer, editor, translator, and teacher. He enjoys taking spiritual insights from the Bible and the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg and putting them into plain English as guides for everyday life.

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Posted in The Bible Re-Viewed
2 comments on “What is the Spiritual Significance of the Story of Elijah and Elisha?
  1. Mike W says:

    These past two articles have come at the perfect time as I’m researching the same topic. So thank you!

    I just wanted to point out what I believe is a typo in the paragraph about Elisha’s prophetic career compared with Elijah’s. I think you wrote “Elijah was a popular and politically connected prophet..” instead of Elisha.

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