As Elisha nears the final hour of his life, we get this perplexing scene in II Kings 13:
14 Now when Elisha had fallen sick with the illness of which he was to die, Joash king of Israel went down to him, and wept before him, crying, “My father, my father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” 15 And Elisha said to him, “Take a bow and arrows”; so he took a bow and arrows. 16 Then he said to the king of Israel, “Draw the bow”; and he drew it. And Elisha laid his hands upon the king’s hands. 17 And he said, “Open the window eastward”; and he opened it. Then Elisha said, “Shoot”; and he shot. And he said, “The LORD’s arrow of victory, the arrow of victory over Syria! For you shall fight the Syrians in Aphek until you have made an end of them.” 18 And he said, “Take the arrows”; and he took them. And he said to the king of Israel, “Strike the ground with them”; and he struck three times, and stopped. 19 Then the man of God was angry with him, and said, “You should have struck five or six times; then you would have struck down Syria until you had made an end of it, but now you will strike down Syria only three times.”
What a horrible old man that Elisha must have been! A grieving king comes to him in his final hour, full of filial devotion for this departing holy man, and instead he gets yelled at and blamed for Israel’s future ills because he didn’t correctly read Elisha’s mind? How awful!
Just kidding. What, do you people not read the whole Bible or something?
Jehoash, short form Joash, is the son of Jehu, king of the Northern Kingdom sometimes called Samaria. Now Jehu does have the most epic lie in the Old Testament and the most brutally effective way of getting rid of Sidonian death cults, but he’s not, as they say, a good guy. Immediately after purging the Northern Kingdom of Ahab’s shadow, Jehu turns his people to a new idolatry in order to enforce his rule. His son Jehoash follows in his footsteps, and their descendants after them, until at last they are overthrown and the Northern Kingdom enters its final phase of disintegration.
Granted, with Jehoash we don’t get a detailed story of power and perversion like we do with Ahab or a memorable scene like with Athaliah. Instead we get the short formula that he did what was evil in the sight of the Lord (that’s bad), causing Israel to sin in the sin of Jeroboam (that’s bad), and warring against the mildly decent king in Jerusalem, Amaziah (that’s…well actually it’s not clear if you read Amaziah’s story).
So why the crocodile tears when he shows up at Elisha’s death bed? This is the prophet who has been telling him to stop worshiping false gods and whatnot–they are some kind of adversaries. Oh, wait, I see…it’s remorse that the armies of Israel will fail without the prophet…or something?
As usual, it helps to read everything and have a long memory. When Elijah departed this world in a chariot of fire, his slightly dumb disciple Elisha asked for a double-share of his prophetic power. Elijah, not being dumb and therefore knowing that he had no power of his own to give, told his knuckle-head that it was up God to bestow that kind of power. What he actually said was this: “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it shall be so for you; but if you do not see me, it shall not be so.” (II Kings 2:10).
Well Elisha does see Elijah departing and we know that God does give him the prophetic spirit because he immediately performs the same parting-the-Jordan miracle that his master had just performed a moment before. And this double-share idea seems to check out, since Elisha goes on to have a pretty crazy career which, although it doesn’t seem to match up to the pyrotechnic brilliance of his master, does involve defeating entire armies. Yeah, that’s plural.
So then why doesn’t Elisha have a crazy-pants ending to match the chariots of fire Elijah gets? Ok, I guess his miracles have been more understated than Elijah’s “snap my fingers and burn it” approach, but still…this seems oddly anticlimactic to have the old guy just die in his bed yelling at a dumb king.
Well, maybe I should have quoted more of the scene with Elijah in chapter two. Here’s the whole thing, bold for emphasis.
9 When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Ask what I shall do for you, before I am taken from you.” And Elisha said, “I pray you, let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” 10 And he said, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it shall be so for you; but if you do not see me, it shall not be so.”
11 And as they still went on and talked, behold, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven. 12 And Elisha saw it and he cried, “My father, my father! the chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” And he saw him no more.
Remind you of anything? Hint: scroll back up to the beginning of this post.
Elisha finally sees what he had not seen before: the entire angelic host escorting Elijah wherever he went, the supernatural muscle that the prophet took with him on his career against Ahab. That invisible army of fiery angels with their fiery horses and their fiery chariots travels with Elisha wherever he goes. He allows his servant to see them once, to give him courage as they go out to face the entire Syrian army in II Kings 6.
That’s what Jehoash sees when he comes to Elisha’s death bed. This ain’t no old man slowly breathing his last in his bed. It’s a good old-fashioned supernatural moment where heaven makes its presence felt on earth. We’re in a divine test, fellas! More accurately, Jehoash is in a divine test, transported to the heavenly realm–or it briefly transported to him, either way–to give him one last chance to get things right.
Elisha tells him this is a test. The old man is glowing like Yoda and hands him an arrow and says, “THIS IS THE ARROW OF VICTORY OVER SYRIA.” It’s not an arrow. It’s Victory that happens to look like an arrow to dumb mortal eyes. An army of angels are watching Jehoash. Elisha tells him to strike the ground with Victory. As I tell my kids, you’ve seen Black Panther, right? Infinity War? Soul stone tests, vision quests, that sort of thing? That’s what we’re doing here! Whatever you do next in this weird heavenly court Means Something in the mortal realm.
How exciting! What do you do? How many times do you have to strike?
Well you’ve read the story so you know what happens. Elisha gets angry and yells at Jehoash for not doing it right. My students always want to know how Jehoash was supposed to know, even though I spend something like five months setting up for this moment and telling them the answer over and over again before we get here. They never listen.
When you are not sure what to do, try asking God. Turns out His prophet was sitting right there. Sure, it was a big moment. Maybe recognize that and lean on The Guy.