Elisha – Prophet in a Bad Economy

Elijah was the prophet of Fire (1 Kings 18:24). Elisha was the prophet of healing and everyday miracles (2 Kings 4:37-41). Elijah looked ahead to John the Baptist. Elisha foreshadowed many aspects of Jesus’ own ministry (Luke 4:27).

Elijah ministered in times of phenomenal prosperity – his enemy King Ahab had married Jezebel of Tyre which connected Israel to the fabulously prosperous Phoenician Empire (Ezekiel 27). Israelite grain and barley supplied urbanized Tyre and Sidon with vital foodstuffs. Trade flourished, along with idolatry. The country was filthy rich (1 Kings 22:39) yet poor towards God (Amos 2:6-8). The down and out were losing their land, the courts were rigged, the system corrupt (1 Kings 21). By calling for a famine Elijah effectively struck at Israel’s usefulness to the Phoenician Empire (1 Kings 17:1-3).

For not the first time, a prophet was bad for business.

Profits and Prophets

The economy apparently tanked. Then came Elisha, ministering in a time of steep recession and decline for the Israelite nation. Even axe handles were valuable for they had to be borrowed (2 Kings 6:5-7). Yet Elisha was given a double portion of the Spirit and worked twice as many miracles as Elijah (2 Kings 2:9). In so doing he kept knowledge of the true God alive and supplied hope for people who were really up against it.

Elisha’s ministry stretched over fifty years including the reign of such kings as:

Ahab, husband of Jezebel (874-853)
Ahaziah (853-852)
Joram (852-841)
Jehu (841-814/13)

Elisha it was who anointed Jehu as king (2 Kings 9:1-6). Jehu was the man who would wipe out the dynasty of Omri and Ahab (2 Kings 10) as Elijah had foretold. The British Museum possesses the famous Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser, a tall monument that shows King Jehu bowing before the King of Assyria. Thus, with Assyria invading, Moab rebelling and Edom marching in, Israel was being reduced in power and stature. As usual, the poor people of the land suffered the most under these national reverses. But Elisha was a terrific ever-active force for good. His reputation travelled (2 Kings 5:3).

Creditors and Debtors

The name Elsiha means “God is Salvation” – El-Yashua. Yashua or Joshua relates to the Greek for the Hebrew “Joshua” which is “Jesus.” We can thus expect to see many prophetic overtones and hints of Jesus’ peaceful ministry to the poor of Galilee in the life of Elisha. In just one chapter we see him work four miracles flowing from his active day-today faith. In an amazingly relevant section for those of us facing creditors and mortgage collectors today, Elisha was appealed to by a poor widow. She had fallen so far behind in her payments that slavery threatened (2 Kings 4:1). The laws of Israel were not meant to apply to us today but some of them showed how the well-off should care for their poor brothers (Leviticus 25:35). But once falling below the severe poverty line slavery or some form of servitude was the penalty (Exodus 21:1-11).

The widow trusted Elisha's God and was blessed.

Elisha asked the widow what she had. The answer was, not much, just a jar of oil. As a man of faith Elisha told her and her children to gather as many empty vessels as they could. God cares about widows and he was still on the scene – part of Elisha’s mission was to show God is alive and he is our Salvation. Pouring out the small jar of oil the lady found that she could fill all the pots in her house. Elisha had done a miracle amazingly resonant of Jesus and the five barley loaves in the Gospels. But such was the way of Elisha – a prophet for the down and out.

In 2 Kings 2:19-22 one of Elisha’s earliest miracles set the stage for his whole career. The water at Jericho was bitter so Elisha used a pot of salt and with a “Thus says the Lord” cleansed the water of the city, one of the oldest in the world and significant as the site of the first Israelite conquest under Joshua. So here the Holy Spirit showed Elisha as a minister of healing and purification.

Of course, healing and purifying were mainstays of the healing work of Jesus our Messiah. St Paul said it very well in Romans 8:3, “For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man.”

As the great Edinburgh theologian Thomas Torrance explains (paraphrased):

“How did God choose to deal with evil? Not from outside by caging Satan or rounding up all the evildoers like John Wayne or Clint Eastwood. Jesus cleansed us from within the very wellsprings of our existence, purging the roots of the human conscience through his becoming one of us and overcoming the human nature he shared with us and its lustful pulls. His sacrificial and atoning blood was an offering to cover us.

“That is to say, He healed and sanctified our human nature by descending to the very depths from whence sin springs. He struck at the source, by undermining it from within its evil base in our corrupted heats and minds and warped conscience. By so doing he recreated humanity as the New Creation through the holiness and perfection of a sinless life. He became sin for us on the cross and died to sin by dying the death of a sinner (though totally innocent) only to triumph over it by his resurrection which broke the hold sin has on all of us.

“The Bible uses different words for this – atonement, expiation, substitution, redemption, sanctification and reconciliation, but if we are “in Christ” we have participated in His saving work since he is our federal Head i.e. His spotless life represents all of us at the throne of grace in heaven. And if he is ‘in us’ we have received the purging of our conscience and the freedom to live for him. We have overcome by the blood of the lamb”(The Mediation of Christ, page 62-65, abstract).

Hard Hard Times

Yes, the aspect of purification and purging that Jesus performed in his person were anticipated by Elisha’s purifying miracles, sometimes with something as mundane as a poisoned pot of stew (2 Kings 4:38-41). Talk about an everyday miracle! How poor were the folks of that time when a prophet had to save the stew for the people to eat? How reduced were their circumstances when a borrowed axe-head lost in water was a cause for another miracle (2 Kings 6:1-7). The evangelical writer John Newton who penned the famous hymn, Amazing Grace, also wrote these lines:

Not one concern of ours is small
If we belong to him,
To teach us this, the Lord of all
Once made the iron to swim.

Exactly. The ministry of Elisah continued very much in this vein. The parallel to Jesus is brought out perhaps most clearly in the “feeding of the 100” in 2 Kings 4:42-44.

In the end even the idol-worshipping king of Israel was sorry to see Elisha go. He was worth 100 chariots to the nation (2 Kings 13:14). Elisha helped renew the covenant between God and Israel. His fame reached even beyond the borders of Israel (2 Kings 5:2). God granted Israel 100 extra years of grace after Elisha’s death (2 Kings 13:23).

Romans 15:4 says we in the church can profit from this story. Lessons? Many, but certainly one of them is that in tough times the Just shall live even more by faith and that God will not forsake those who look to him. Lost any axe-heads lately?