Monday, August 15, 2011

Elijah’s Exit (II Kings 2:11)

Who went to heaven in a chariot of fire? Elijah (II Kings 2:11).

The prophet Elijah knew the day that he was making his final exit from the earth (II Kings 12:3, 5). On that day, he along with his protégé, Elisha, made one last circuit, revisiting places of importance in Israel’s history. They traveled from Gilgal to Bethel (II Kings 12:2) to Jericho (II Kings 12:4) back to the east side of the Jordan River (II Kings 12:6) where they crossed to the other side (II Kings 12:8). The journey encompassed 50+ miles. At each stop, Elijah appears to attempt to do as he had done previously in the desert and leave his servant so that he could die alone (I Kings 19:3). At each site, Elijah ordered Elisha to stay behind and each time his apprentice refused to leave his master (II Kings 12:2, 12:4, 12:6). After crossing the Jordan, Elijah and Elisha were separated by a chariot and horsemen of fire (II Kings 2:11). Elijah “went up by a whirlwind to heaven” (II Kings 2:11 NASB) departing the earth and leaving his successor with only his mantle (II Kings 2:13).

The heaven to which Elijah ascended is not the ethereal place the modern word evokes. Jesus said, “No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven: the Son of Man (John 3:13 NASB).” The Hebrew, shamayim, indicates the sky. This is evidenced by the fact that the fifty prophets who witnessed Elijah’s exit (II Kings 2:7) assumed that the prophet was taken elsewhere and searched for him for three days (II Kings 2:15-18). Regardless of his destination, Elijah went out in style.

Elijah’s end in a fiery blaze of glory was fitting. His greatest triumph was calling down fire to defeat the prophets of Ba’al (I Kings 18:38) and in one of his finals acts, he again called down fire to consume the soldiers of the rebelling king Ahaziah (II Kings 1:10, 12, 14). The horse and the chariot were symbols of battle. The fiery prophet who had spent his life battling for God was given an honorary military procession.

Tradition, reenforced through hymns (“Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”) and paintings, has evoked Ben Hur images of the chariot carrying the prophet away. Elijah was actually taken by a whirlwind, not a chariot of fire (II Kings 2:11). The fiery chariot served to separate the two ministry partners (II Kings 2:11). The horses may not have even been drawing the chariots as Elisha describes them distinctively (II Kings 12:12). Perhaps the fiery horses and chariot were merely Elijah’s escorts.

Elijah knowingly spent his last day on earth traveling Israel, presumably saying his goodbyes. Missionary Jim Elliott (1927-1956) who was martyred at age 28 in Ecuador, wrote in his journal on March 25th, 1951, “When it comes time to die, make sure that all you have to do is die (Elliot, The Journals of Jim Elliott, 324).”

If you could, would you want to know the exact day on which you would die? If you did know that today was your last day, where would you go? Why does Elijah exit the earth in this manner? For whose benefit were the “chariots for fire”?

“Chariots of fire” is now part of the cultural lexicon. Chariots of fire later come to Elisha’s rescue (II Kings 6:17) and similar imagery is used in Isaiah (Isaiah 66:15-16). Though it has numerous religious overtones, the 1981 Academy Award winning film Chariots of Fire is not actually named for this Biblical passage. Rather the title is taken from a line from a hymn sung in the movie, “Jerusalem”. The hymn, written by C. Hubert H. Parry (1848-1918) in 1916, was based upon a William Blake (1757-1827) poem. Blake’s poem was inspired by the apocryphal story of a young Jesus, accompanied by Joseph of Arimathea (Matthew 27:57; Mark 15:43; John 19:38), visiting Glastonbury, England.

It is said that only two Biblical characters did not die: Enoch (Genesis 5:21-24) and Elijah (II Kings 2:1-11). Not surprisingly many legends have arisen around the two figures. Elijah did not die in the sense that his body never decayed but he died like everyone else in the sense that he moved from this life to the next.

What, if anything, do you fear most about death? Do you more dread the transition to the next life or the destruction of the body?

But when this perishable will have put on the imperishable, and this mortal will have put on immortality, then will come about the saying that is written, “Death is swallowed up in victory. O Death, where is your victory? O Death, where is your sting? (I Corinthians 15:54-55, NASB)

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