Preparing the Way for God's Salvation: Elijah and Elisha as Foreshadowing

While the Book of Kings is entitled because of its stories of the kings of Israel and Judah, the very heart of the book (1 Kings 17-2 Kings 9) shifts away from the focus on Kings to shed light on two important characters: the prophets Elijah and Elisha. While prophets have served as important characters in the Biblical narrative up to this point (Moses, Samuel, and Nathan in particular), this is the first time where we see such in-depth discussions of the prophets themselves. They are portrayed as the adversaries of the kings as opposed to their confidantes, and they are portrayed as lonely voices of God in the midst of powerful kings fighting for the Baals. While they are clearly shown to be the primary instruments of God’s judgment upon the House of Ahab, it might be still questioned why the Biblical story seems to slow down so much and focus on these particular two prophets and their stories. One of the reasons for this emphasis appears to be the foreshadowing both Elijah and Elisha bring to the stories of Kings: they stand as clear types, respectively, of the lives of John the Baptist and the messiah Jesus Christ.

Elijah’s connections with John the Baptist are likely the more obvious of the two; after all, the angel in Luke 1:13-17 explicitly identifies the preborn John as “a forerunner before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah…as to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” Both Mark 1:6 and Matthew 3:4 identify John the Baptist as wearing “camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his diet was locusts and wild honey,” which is the same description of clothing given to Elijah in 2 Kings 1:8 (“hairy man” should be more accurately translated as wearing a garment of hair). Beyond the physical similarities, however, there are clear parallels between the missions of Elijah and John the Baptist. Elijah’s most famed exploits are his calling a drought upon the land of Israel and his defeat of the prophets of Baal at Mt. Carmel. While there are hundreds of prophets slain in this episode, it is often forgotten that this is not the end of Ahab, Jezebel, or even the prophets of the idols! In fact, the very next chapter has Elijah fleeing from Jezebel, hiding in the wilderness, and begging for death. It’s not the picture we would expect of a victorious prophet of God!

It is here in 1 Kings 19, however, that we seem to come to the ultimate purpose of Elijah: he is to prepare the way for the next generation of God’s servants who will utterly destroy the House of Ahab. Hazael is to be anointed King of Aram, Jehu as King of Israel, and Elisha as the prophetic successor to Elijah (1 Kings 19:15-18). These three will ultimately completely defeat the House of Ahab, but it means that the final victory will not be Elijah’s. His task is to prepare the way for God’s ultimate victory over the forces of darkness, and warn Israel of the coming Day of the Lord. It is this aspect of Elijah’s character that is then picked up in future prophetic messages. Malachi’s final prophetic oracle is that the Lord is “going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord. He will restore the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers, so that I will not come and smite the land with a curse,” (Malachi 4:5-6). This prophecy had apparently been misinterpreted by Jesus’ day to the point that many expected physical Elijah to return in preparation for the Messiah. Even the apostles were familiar with this explanation given by the scribes, and questioned Jesus about it in Matthew 17 after witnessing Elijah appear before Jesus during the transfiguration. Jesus explained that “Elijah is coming and will restore all things; but I say to you that Elijah already came, and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they wished. So also the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands,” (Matthew 17:11-12). John was not Elijah come back to life; Elijah appearing as a distinct person in the transfiguration confirms that. John was instead a figurative “second coming” of Elijah, and his presence indicated a greater salvation was coming than God’s saving of His people from Ahab.

Elijah also foreshadows John the Baptist in a different way; both Elijah and John the Baptist question their role as preparers of the way. One of the great oddities of Elijah’s story is that it seems he may not have actually followed God’s command for him to anoint the three successors. While Elijah does cast his mantle upon Elisha in 1 Kings 19:19-21, it is surprising that he does not actually anoint him as a prophetic successor (Elisha merely serves as a “minister” to Elijah). Indeed, Elijah seems to try and actively distance himself from Elisha as he is preparing to be taken up by God in 2 Kings 2. He repeatedly tells Elisha to stay while he goes, and it is only the stubborn loyalty of Elisha that keeps him there. When Elisha finally requests for the double portion of Elijah’s spirit, Elijah curiously responds that “you have asked a hard thing,” (2 Kings 2:10). Why would this be a hard thing when Elisha has already been proclaimed by Yahweh as Elijah’s successor? Adding to the seeming reluctance of Elijah to pass on the torch, there’s no mention of Elijah ever anointing either Hazael or Jehu (or even meeting them!); Jehu will be anointed by a follower of Elisha in 2 Kings 9, while Hazael is never outright noted as being anointed. All these oddities seem to add up to portray Elijah as a servant of Yahweh who is reticent (at best) to move aside for another to take up his position. As a side note, this seeming failure of Elijah should provoke a similar question for ourselves: are we ok with being part of God’s plan rather than the central character? Can we be humble enough to embrace having a small role in God’s kingdom rather than a starring turn? While John the Baptist does not seem to struggle with his role of preparer in the same way Elijah did, we do see John outright question whether Jesus is truly the messiah. As he languishes in prison (where he will ultimately be beheaded), John seems to experience a crisis of faith and sends a follower to ask Jesus, “Are you the Expected One, or shall we look for someone else?” (Matthew 11:2-3). While both Elijah and John seem to have their own moments of fallibility, it is important to note that this does not disqualify them from being God’s servants: Elijah is taken into heaven and (as already noted) appears with Moses to Jesus himself, while John is praised by Christ as the greatest of all those born of women (Matthew 11:11).

As Elijah is carried off by fiery chariots and horses to heaven, the focus of the story then falls onto Elisha. While not as well known by many as Elijah, Elisha in many ways is the more important character. It is through his efforts and his guidance that God will triumph over the House of Ahab and see the idolaters completely destroyed. Elisha, then, serves in many ways as a typological figure of Jesus himself. This would be immediately evident to readers of the original languages. Both the names Elisha and Jesus mean “God Saves,” which is also the exact meaning of the name Joshua, another parallel figure to both Elisha and Jesus. Like Joshua, Elisha serves as the successor to a more famous prophet than himself (although both Joshua and Elisha are arguably more successful in leading Israel than their predecessors). Whereas Moses prepared Israel for their conquest of the Land, Joshua was the one to execute it. While Elijah fought both Ahab and the prophets of Baal, it was Elisha who would ultimately bring judgment upon both parties in the form of Jehu.

Elisha was an accomplished prophet in many ways; the double helping of Elijah’s spirit manifests itself in the number of miracles he performs in 2 Kings (14 to Elijah’s 7). Like his predecessor, Elisha provides for the faithful (1 Kings 17:8-16; 2 Kings 4:1-7), raises the dead (1 Kings 17:17-24; 2 Kings 4:32-36), and brings healing even to foreigners (the Widow of Zarephath in 1 Kings 17 and Naaman in 2 Kings 5). Elisha brings salvation to Israel even amidst a wicked king (2 Kings 6:8-23) just as Elijah had brought salvation from the drought (1 Kings 18:41-46). Like Elijah had prophesied destruction upon Ahab in 1 Kings 21:17-24, Elisha prophesies destruction upon Ahab’s descendants in 2 Kings 9:1.

As a parallel to Jesus, Elisha’s connection is less explicitly drawn out in the New Testament than Elijah’s foreshadowing of John. In fact Elisha is only mentioned one time in the whole New Testament in Luke 4:27. There Jesus connects himself to both Elijah and Elisha in that both were widely rejected in Israel yet embraced by foreigners (Elijah with the Widow of Zarephath and Elisha with Naaman). It is possible that the New Testament writers did not write much of the connections of Elisha and Jesus to avoid claims that Jesus was somehow a successor of John and minimize Jesus’ pre-eminence, but there are numerous implicit connections between Elisha and Jesus. Both heal lepers (2 Kings 5; Matthew 8:1-40, both transform water (2 Kings 2:19-22; John 2:1-11) and cause objects to be suspended on top of water (2 Kings 6:1-7; Mark 6:45-52), both raise the dead (2 Kings 4:32-36; Mark 5:21-24), both multiply food (2 Kings 7:11-17; John 11:17-37), both prophetically curse those who do not glorify God (2 Kings 2:23-25; Matthew 21:18-22), and both cause the blind to see and the seeing to be blind (2 Kings 6:8-23; John 9:35-41). Just as Elisha had brought judgment and destruction against the wicked leadership of Israel, so too does Jesus bring judgment upon the hypocritical religious leaders of Israel. Ultimately, both Elisha and Jesus bring about the will of God Himself; they are both instruments of God’s Salvation, per their namesakes.

The prophetic careers of Elijah and Elisha, and their foreshadowing of the pattern of Joh and Jesus, remind us of the interconnectedness of the Old Testament and New Testament. One cannot fully understand either one without the context of the other. Reading the Bible in this holistic fashion reveals the depth and majesty of God’s plan, as well as the continual hand of God throughout history. The God who revealed himself and worked through Elijah and Elisha is the same God who sent John the Baptist and Jesus Christ. It should edify us as modern readers to see these connections between Old and New Testaments, and it should encourage us to keep digging deeper to see more of the interwoven narrative that God has given us. The more we understand and learn of the Word, the more we will be able to use it and be transformed by it!