Chariots of Fire
2 Kings 1:1–2:25
Main Idea: In this transitional section of the narrative, Elijah denounces idolatrous Ahaziah and later gets carried up to heaven; Elisha takes up the prophetic mantle in the spirit of Elijah.
II. Elijah Confronts a Sick King and Kingdom (1:1-8).
III. Judgment and Mercy (1:9-18)
IV. Elijah’s Ascension: He Finishes His Race (2:1-12).
V. Elisha’s Ascension (2:13-25)
A. A new Joshua (vv. 13-18)
B. A glimpse of Eden (vv. 19-22)
C. To kill a mocking boy (vv. 23-25)
In life we are faced with massive questions: Why am I here? What is my purpose? What job will I pursue? Whom will I marry? However, the most important is, To whom will I entrust my life? When the end of life has come, where will I turn?
We live in a world that turns everywhere. Our world often says all roads lead to the same place, but what if that isn’t true? What if there is only one way? To whom will you entrust your life when you are on your deathbed? Allah? Buddha? Joseph Smith? Yourself? Whom will you seek on the final day?
The main question in this text is, Is there a God in Israel? Whom will they seek? Who will they turn to with their questions and problems? We will see that the king and the mocking boys look elsewhere besides Yahweh. We discover there is one true God we should seek, and He continually provides prophets and His word to turn His people back to Him.
The contemporary mind may object to the miracles in this text. Some people would say we are too sophisticated for the supernatural events that occur in this story. However, if there is a God, then miracles are possible. He has power over nature and can step outside the natural order. In this text we see God operate outside the natural order to validate His message, endorse His man, and bring judgment on those that show derision toward Him.
Second Kings continues the events and narrative of 1 Kings. The conclusion of 1 Kings isn’t a pronounced climax, considering the two kingdoms are in decline and folly. Ahab is dead and gone. We have seen him to be a fool, standing on a shaky foundation, building his whole life on things that pass away and gods who cannot hear or act.
We observe overall that Jehoshaphat was a good king compared to others. He walked in the ways of the Lord, but he wasn’t the long-expected King. Jehoshaphat didn’t tear down the high places, he had bad alliances, and he married one of his sons to Ahab’s daughter (this will have massive repercussions, putting David’s line in jeopardy).
Ahaziah is depicted as an idolatrous train wreck like his father Jeroboam, doing evil in the sight of the Lord. Second Kings picks up right here, with the kingdom spiraling downward toward exile. God’s people are being removed from God’s place because they will not submit to His rule and keep His commandments. This nation, brought into the promised land to be a light to the nations, instead coveted the gods and kings of those nations. So God essentially says, “You love the neighbor’s gods so much, why don’t you go live with them outside the land of promise!?”
Elijah Confronts a Sick King and Kingdom
2 Kings 1:1-8
In an act representative of his kingdom, King Ahaziah essentially falls over a banister and is seriously injured to the point that he doesn’t know whether he will live or die. Ahaziah is living out what was said of him in 1 Kings as he walks in the ways of his father by serving Baal. The king, like his kingdom, is now hurting.
Ahaziah decides to look outside of Israel for an answer. The confrontation on Mount Carmel hadn’t convinced him that Yahweh is strong and Baal is impotent and sleeping, so he seeks another god. Oddly he seeks a localized version of Baal in the land of the Philistines. This is the group that was soundly defeated—their bitter enemies. Ahaziah is seeking out Goliath’s god for an oracle. Even though Yahweh’s prophet Elijah has shown the ability to raise the dead, Ahaziah looks elsewhere. The downward spiral of the kingdom has gotten worse. At least Jeroboam sought out a prophet of God when his son was sick, but not so with the wicked line of Ahab.
The author likely uses a derogatory term Baal-zebub instead of Baal-zebul (v. 6). It’s a play on words, insulting him as the “Lord of Flies” instead of “Baal the Exalted”—the author looks with disdain on this deity that Ahaziah seeks.
The king believes his hope rests in a pagan, enemy, territorial god whom Elijah embarrassed. Ironically, according to the law in Israel, turning to a pagan god is worthy of death. Exodus 22:20 says, “Whoever sacrifices to any gods, except the Lord alone, is to be set apart for destruction.”
Here we see the sins of the fathers manifested in the son. Ahaziah had seen the gracious and harsh acts of God toward Ahab, yet he follows in the evil path of his father. When parents detest God or minimize Him, they shouldn’t be surprised when their children do the same. When we passively and implicitly teach our children that God isn’t important, our children will live it out. Parents who inadvertently teach their children that the world revolves around them by regularly skipping corporate worship to play on a travel baseball team (because their son is “so good”) shouldn’t be surprised when later in life he doesn’t see connection to the local church as that big of a deal. Children will be influenced by what they have been taught, whether it is explicit or implicit.
When you are staring your own mortality in the face, it’s no time to play games with a mute, impotent god. Whom will you seek? This idea of one true God flies in the face of our tolerant culture, but if there is indeed only one true God, then the tolerance of mute, impotent gods is unwise and unloving. Some people are turned off by this idea, saying the exclusive claims of Christianity are intolerant, but what if there is indeed only one way? Is tolerance of the wrong path wise or loving? If you have a heart attack, is the doctor intolerant, unwise, and unloving when he points out that only surgery will save your life?
We can all be tempted to look elsewhere. It could be overt, like horoscopes and palm readers. Or it can be less clear, like trusting Freud for counseling, prosperity teachers for theology, or alcohol or drugs or food as a coping mechanism. It could be turning to work for satisfaction and meaning or to weightlifting because we are obsessed with our looks. It could be turning to immoral sex for fulfillment. We live in a world that will turn almost anywhere for relief but doesn’t want to turn to a God that deserves and demands our all.
God takes violation of the first commandment seriously. Ahaziah has belittled Yahweh, essentially suggesting that there is no God in Israel, or that He is impotent and less powerful than Baal-zebub. This is our idolatry as well: when we seek idols, we are saying either that Yahweh cannot help or that He’s not good enough to handle our problems and desires.
Amazingly, God sends Elijah to deliver a message. God isn’t done pursuing Israel or her wayward kings, and this is an act of mercy, like a doctor telling someone the truth about their sickness. The death notice is issued as the messenger returns to the sick king—what will Ahaziah’s response be?
Judgment and Mercy
2 Kings 1:9-18
Tragically, Ahaziah responds by sending his army to detain the prophet and, like his father, seeks to control the prophet’s word. Their intended goal is foolish, as they try to bring the word of God under human control. Yahweh will again send fire to validate His prophet and judge the idolaters.
Ahaziah has rejected mercy through God’s prophet and instead has shown reverence to a mute god. He now sends captains to arrest Elijah. Throughout the narrative there has been a showdown between Yahweh and Baal, and this is represented in fire (which Baal is supposed to control). However, Baal is an impotent god, and now 100 men will die because of Ahaziah’s ineptness and hubris as Elijah sends fire to judge Israel.
The first captain of 50 asks, and the second captain of 50 demands. Messengers had the authority of the one who sent them. Neither the captains nor King Ahaziah respect the One who sent Elijah. Through judgment, they would learn that they don’t make demands of Yahweh or His man.
The seemingly harsh treatment of the captains and soldiers must be seen not only as judgment but also as an act of protection. It isn’t like the 50 are headed toward him because they want to bring him down to play golf with Ahaziah. Yahweh is choosing to protect His prophet.
These groups are coming to liquidate Elijah. The fact that a regiment is coming shows Ahaziah’s hostility toward the prophet and his hope to silence the prophecy by getting rid of him. He believes he can control the oracle by putting the prophet under his authority. In doing so he has refused to seek Yahweh or listen to His word. Deuteronomy 18:13-15 says,
You must be blameless before the Lord your God. Though these nations you are about to drive out listen to fortune-tellers and diviners, the Lord your God has not permitted you to do this.
The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers. You must listen to him.
Elijah, like other prophets, calls the king back to covenant faithfulness—a covenant made by the gracious God who delivered them out of Egypt. But Ahaziah will not listen.
The third captain of 50 acts as the king and nation should: he gives a gospel response, demonstrating how we should seek One to whom we can entrust our lives. The third captain comes humbly and reverently. He seems truly to believe that Elijah is a man of God. This is a great example of gospel confession and response, a bowing before God and a cry for mercy. He, unlike Ahaziah, recognized that mercy might be available, and it was. The same is true continually for the believer: we daily must fall on His mercy through the gospel.
If the king and nation would respond in the same manner, then they would live and stay in the land (no exile). Ahaziah’s attitude, however, doesn’t change when he comes face-to-face with Elijah, and neither does Elijah’s. Rather, Elijah confronts idolatry and tells the king why his life is demanded. And not surprisingly, the word comes true: Ahaziah dies.
So whom will we seek? Idols? False gods? Functional saviors? Or will we entrust our whole being to Yahweh? To whom are we crying out in times of trouble and distress? Whom will we seek for salvation? The wages of sin is death, and so it is for this one who showed such derision for Yahweh, but mercy is available, as the third captain found out.
Elijah’s Ascension: He Finishes His Race
2 Kings 2:1-12
As Elijah’s earthly ministry draws to a close, a scene ensues where Elijah will go town to town trying to shake Elisha (vv. 1-6). Two of the towns are places known as centers of pagan worship. Bethel was where Jeroboam set up the golden calf, instituted non-Levitical priests, and appointed a feast. Jericho had been cursed by Joshua. In these towns we’re introduced to “the sons of the prophets,” who are pupils of the prophets and part of a prophetic community. The sons of the prophets seem to have been set up strategically in these cities that are deeply entrenched in idolatry. In places of great darkness, we need Bible-preaching and -teaching believers.
Elisha will not let Elijah shake him. Most scholars believe the point of his not leaving Elijah’s side is to test whether Elisha will count the cost of discipleship, probably a final test to see if he will persist. We see something of our own call here—to forsake all for the glory of the Name. The question for us, like Elisha, is, will we persist and persevere? This is the sign of the true disciple: we bring the Word near, and we delight in God above all else. Elisha is a true disciple, for he had forsaken all, burning the plows, to follow Elijah. This won’t be the last time disciples forsake all to follow a great prophet!
Elisha doesn’t want to hear that Elijah is being taken up. A deep bond has probably developed—imagine 18 years of apprenticeship. Elijah, the new Moses, now parts the Jordan, as described in language reminiscent of the exodus, and they cross on dry land. The sons of the prophets witness from a distance this passing of the torch. Elijah has crossed the Jordan and is about to enter the most precious of promised lands.
Once they cross, Elisha asks for “two shares,” referring to the double portion the firstborn inherits (Deut 21:17). In this case it isn’t wealth but prophetic power. Thus, Elisha is essentially saying he will count the cost and dedicate his whole life to continue Elijah’s work as though he is his firstborn. Elisha asks this, not unlike Solomon, realizing he will need great help as God’s representative to complete the task to which he is called.
Now a war vehicle comes for God’s prophet—a “chariot of fire with horses of fire” (vv. 11-12). These aren’t fluffy, cotton candy clouds but a war instrument. Elijah is called the “chariots and horsemen of Israel.” The appearing of the chariot of fire symbolizes that these prophets are the power of Israel, and it is because the power of Yahweh is in them. The chariot was an instrument of military might, and the author is essentially saying Elijah is like the army of God, the true defense of Israel, because God is with him.
Elijah goes on to his eternal reward without tasting death because God is in control of death and can overrule it. Elisha is saddened and shows signs of sorrow over losing a mentor. The text leaves us with some questions: Will we count the cost? Will we persist? Will we seek the glory of God over our own? Will we rely on God’s power to speak God’s Word faithfully in places of darkness?
2 Kings 2:13-25
A New Joshua (vv. 13-18)
We learn some important lessons about Elijah in this passage. First, Elijah points us back to Moses. Both called Israel to covenant faithfulness and then died outside the promised land, leaving behind disciples to take up the work. We now see in Elisha a new Joshua with a similar name—Joshua means “Yahweh is salvation” and Elisha means “my God is salvation.” Elisha comes through the Jordan to Jericho, and he comes to root out Canaanite worship.
Second, Elijah points forward to John the Baptist, a prophet who would wear the same kind of clothes as Elijah. John the Baptist—crying out in the wilderness against a national power, with a woman at the center of it seeking his life—would be a forerunner of Joshua’s fulfillment, Jesus. Like Elijah, John would anoint his successor at the Jordan and see his successor as the firstborn receiving the promised inheritance. God is orchestrating a plan to save His people.
At this moment it may have seemed that Israel’s defense system was gone because the one who had stood in the gap calling the Baal lovers to turn and repent is gone. However, God will not cease to have a man calling Israel to faithfulness. Elijah may be gone, but Yahweh isn’t. The God of Elijah is still here, which is what Elisha is saying when he strikes the river and says, “Where is the Lord God of Elijah?” Elisha believes God has certainly not abandoned them, and he relies on Yahweh for power. The new man is here!
This passing of the mantle to Elisha will be validated in three signs. The new Joshua parts the sea and heads toward Jericho and then to Bethel to root out the pagan worship.
The company of prophets realizes that Elijah has passed his prophetic work on to Elisha with their words and actions. They revere him as the new representative of God for Israel. Elisha gives in to peer pressure here when he first tells them not to seek for Elijah but then gives in to their request. After a fruitless search for Elijah, Elisha basically says, “I told you so.” This validates Elisha as the one who bears not only the power of Yahweh but also His wisdom.
A Glimpse of Eden (vv. 19-22)
Another miracle validates Elisha’s work. The men of the city seek Yahweh’s help. The men essentially say the city is pleasant but something lethal in the water is causing humans and animals to miscarry. Historically, Joshua had cursed anyone who would try to rebuild Jericho, and during Ahab’s day someone did, paying the price of the curse. The city that was under a curse now receives a blessing from Yahweh. Elisha heals the water and assures them it will no longer cause death. Here we glimpse what miracles do. They don’t invade the natural order but restore it.
In miracles you taste the past and the future. We glimpse of Eden where there was no foul water, and we glimpse the future when there will be streams of water that bring life and there is no death. We see grace here! Elisha restores the water to its original design, and the curtain of history is pulled back ever so briefly, and the curse is lifted.
It isn’t just human beings who await the return of the King; the earth itself does. The earth is groaning, Romans tells us, and just briefly those groans stop in Jericho, of all places. This will not be the last prophet with power over water and the curse.
To Kill a Mocking Boy (vv. 23-25)
I have often quoted this passage in response to sarcastic statements about my bald head! It seems to be a favorite text among follicly challenged men like me. But what exactly is going on here?
As you consider everything behind this account, you realize this act involves more than just teenagers joking with their teacher. It’s a serious offense. These guys are mocking the prophet of God. They ridicule this new Joshua who has come into pagan Bethel to root out Canaanite worship.
Bethel is the town Jeroboam used to house the golden calf, so it isn’t shocking that teens here would mock and ridicule God’s prophet. They’re like their fathers. Elisha had proven who he was, yet he still is mocked. This won’t be the last prophet who is mocked.
“Go up, baldy! Go up, baldy!” they say. Even though Elisha probably had his head covered, they apparently knew he was in fact bald, so they decided to mock his physical features as well as his God and his office. In saying, “Go up,” they essentially mean “get out of here; we don’t want anything to do with you.” So they show total derision toward him.
Evil mockery in general is ridiculing those made in God’s image and thus deriding the One who made them. James 3:8-10 says,
. . . but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. We praise our Lord and Father with it, and we curse men who are made in God’s likeness with it. Praising and cursing come out of the same mouth. My brothers, these things should not be this way.
In their mockery these guys are showing contempt and hostility toward Yahweh and His representative. Something more sinister yet is going on. If pagan worship persists, the coming of the Messiah could be compromised. This is Satan’s plan: to compromise the line of the coming One through intermarriage with pagans so God’s people cease to exist as a nation. However, Elisha is the new Joshua protecting the promised Seed by protecting the line that will bless the nations.
The word for “small boys” here could be steward or servant. It’s likely these are officials at the shrine to the golden calf, so the new Joshua is beginning a holy war against the shrines of the Canaanites and their central places of worship set up in Israel.
Elisha brings on God’s judgment, and she-bears attack the boys. The warning in Leviticus 26:21-22 comes to mind:
If you act with hostility toward Me and are unwilling to obey Me, I will multiply your plagues seven times for your sins. I will send wild animals against you that will deprive you of your children, ravage your livestock, and reduce your numbers until your roads are deserted.
We should remember that God will not be mocked. Galatians 6:7 simply says, “Don’t be deceived: God is not mocked. For whatever a man sows he will also reap.” God will have the last word.
We aren’t sure if the boys are actually killed because the word literally means “mauled,” so they may not have died. Whatever the case, covenant infidelity has brought on a curse. This curse on the boys was a warning to the nation. If they persist in mockery, disdain, disobedience, and apostasy, then there will be dreadful consequences. This episode was a vivid sign to the people. Soon a great bear would come maul them and take them to exile.
Elisha, the new Joshua, is on a crusade. He has been shown as a true successor who brings both blessings (for those who cry out to God) and curses (for the mocking enemies of God). Elijah is gone, but everything is OK because Yahweh is present. Elisha is carrying on with power, wisdom, judgment, and grace.
The judgment of both chapters is clear: those who seek and call on the Lord (the third captain and Jericho) will get Him and His grace (restored waters and new creation), and those who don’t will suffer the loss of all things through fire and judgment.
So, in a world where there are many paths to choose, where do the Scriptures tell us to turn? They tell us to seek and entrust ourselves to a greater Prophet. This is a Prophet who will call everyone to turn from false gods. This is a Prophet who judges by fire like Elijah but One who takes the fire on Himself before He pours it on unrepentant sinners. On the last day a fire will come for all who have not fled to Him. This Prophet will set His face like flint toward Jerusalem, saying He has a baptism of fire that He must undergo and how He is anxious to undergo it (Luke 12:50). This Prophet is greater than Elijah; He doesn’t have to escape death by ascension but goes through death so He can defeat it before He ascends.
Another Prophet will be anointed for service at the Jordan River. On that day He will not just get the double portion of the firstborn; He will actually be the firstborn Son of God, in whom God is well pleased. Another Prophet has command over the water; in fact the water will rage against Him, and He will say, “Be still!” And the water will listen! “Who is this man?” people will ask.
Another Prophet will be mocked and have His hair pulled out. Thorns will be put on His head, and He will not be told to go up, but He will be mocked while He is on a cross and be told to come down. This Prophet, even in the midst of persecution, will show that He is a gracious Prophet who would tell one of the mockers who turns and repents that He will be with this Prophet-King in paradise.
This Prophet can pronounce blessing and roll back the curse by crushing that ancient Serpent. This One will share the name of Joshua and Elisha. His name will be Jesus.
One greater than Elijah and Moses is here, the God-Man Jesus Christ. He doesn’t just call us back to covenant faithfulness. He actually bears the penalty that covenant breaking deserves and is lifted up on an instrument of torture so that, if you will seek Him, His judgment will be your judgment, and His resurrection will be your resurrection.
This is the most important question today and on that final day: Whom will you trust? Yourself, Baal-zebub, or this Messiah/Prophet/King? He will come again to judge the world that has rejected Him, and on that day fire will fall. Your judgment can already have been taken at the cross if you will be like the third captain, repenting and saying, “Let my life be precious in Your sight.” We should look to this One: His ministry to the nations has now been mediated to us. We too had brothers standing and seeing the better Prophet taken up, and He like Elijah left His Spirit for us to carry out the tasks given us as successors, heirs, and sons so that nations would delight in Yahweh. Let’s do this work with hope because death cannot touch us; we will ascend one day like our King
You see, this chapter isn’t the last we hear from Elijah. He will make one more appearance with Moses and the two prophets who had been permitted to see the glory of God on a mountain. This time they will once again be on a mountain seeing the glory of God but this time in a face. The question is, Do we see that glory? Or are we looking in Philistine territory? Whom will we trust? Whom will you set your gaze on? Look to Jesus.
Reflect and Discuss
- Why does God oppose Ahaziah?
- Why is the sin of idolatry so offensive to God?
- What is it about Baal that might have appealed to Ahaziah? How might worldly ideas and values appeal to believers today?
- Compare and contrast the attitudes of the three captains of 50 as they approached Elijah.
- Was God harsh in responding to the two captains and their men? Why or why not?
- Why does Elijah lead Elisha around town to town?
- Do the two scenes where Elijah and Elisha part the Jordan River remind you of any other biblical passages? Are these scenes important? Why?
- What do the “sons of the prophets” seem to be concerned about? They honor Elisha, then reject his first counsel. Why?
- How might people today pay lip service to the Word of God yet disobey it?
- How might people today, like the small boys, mock the Word of God and the people of God?