At its heart, 2 Kings 2:1-12 is a passage about prayer—two prayers, to be precise—and the responsiveness of God. The first prayer was prayed by a faithful prophet of Yahweh, the prophet Elijah. Throughout his ministry, Elijah had ministered in opposition to the reigning king of the Israel’s northern kingdom, King Ahab, and his wife, Jezebel. Ahab, Jezebel, and the vast majority of the Israelites of the northern tribes had embraced the worship of a local, Canaanite deity named Ba’al.
This conflict reached its climax in 1 Kings 18 as Elijah challenged four-hundred-fifty prophets of Ba’al to prove the superiority of their deity on Mount Carmel. After failing to conjure Ba’al or to elicit a response from the god, Elijah had opportunity to appeal to Yahweh. And Yahweh responded by sending fire from the heavens upon the altar that Elijah had prepared. Afterward, Elijah executed the four-hundred-fifty prophets of Ba’al who had joined him on the mountain.
To Elijah’s consternation this miraculous demonstration of Yahweh’s reality resulted in little practical change in Israel. Once news of what had happened was reported to Jezebel, she gave orders for Elijah’s execution. So, Elijah fled into the wilderness. It was there that Elijah prayed the prayer that God chose to answer in 2 Kings 2:1-12.
4 But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” 5 Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep…
What the New Revised Standard Version translates as “He asked that he might die” is more literally in the Hebrew, “He asked his nephesh to die.” In essence, Elijah was first talking to himself. In Hebrew one’s nephesh is one’s entire living self. In the account of humanity’s creation in Genesis 2, we are told that God formed humanity out of the dust of the earth, and breathed into humanity’s nostrils the breath of life, and the human became a nephesh—a living being. So, before praying to God, Elijah asked his own body and spirit to expire.
After this Elijah lifted his voice to God and asked God, literally again in Hebrew, to take his nephesh away. God did precisely that in 2 Kings 2:11 when a chariot of fire was sent out of the heavens to retrieve Elijah’s nephesh (his entire body and spirit) and bring him to God. It is not surprising that James the brother of Jesus called upon Elijah as an example of the effectiveness of the prayers of the righteous in chapter 5 of the New Testament epistle which bears his name.
So the first prayer was a prayer of Elijah. He had asked God to die, and God answered his prayer by taking him, body and spirit, into the heavens. The second prayer that informs this narrative was a prayer of Elisha.
9 When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.” Elisha said, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” 10 He responded, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.”
It may appear that Elisha’s request was made simply of Elijah. However, Elijah revealed, by his response, that God would have to grant such a request. And Elisha would discern the willingness of God to do so by the fulfillment of a sign—Elisha would have to witness Elijah’s departure. Elisha did bear witness, and his request was granted.
But, what precisely was Elisha’s request? On a first read through in twenty-first century English it would appear that Elisha was asking for a greater anointing of the Spirit of God than Elijah himself had experienced. But, that’s not quite right. Elisha was asking to be Elijah’s spiritual heir. As was true of the material inheritance of every firstborn male in Israel, Elisha was requesting a double portion of Elijah’s spiritual estate.
Elijah had long believed himself to be the only true prophet of Yahweh alive in his time. When he confessed as much to God in 1 Kings 19:10 and 14, Yahweh revealed to him that there were in fact seven thousand prophets who had remained faithful. And yet, out of those seven thousand, Elijah was the only one who had publicly confronted Ahab and Jezebel, and he was the one prophet God had allowed to speak for Him.
When Elisha asked for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit, he was asking to inherit Elijah’s ministry. And God granted his request. In many ways, the ministry of Elisha surpassed that of Elijah, both in scope and in works of power.
Two prophets, two prayers, and two responses. One prophet depressed, worn out, and longing to be released from his calling. The other, newly called and anxious to take up the mantle of ministry in Yahweh’s name. Both prophets answered by the God who called them. In these two men of God, we witness the life of faith fully orbed, in all its despair and promise.
And yet, perhaps more importantly still, the experiences of Elijah and Elisha put flesh on what is meant by the watchcare, the providence of God. As a minister, I have had the privilege to pray both for life and for death. Life is the more common request, and the much easier for which to ask. Prayers like that of Elisha are invigorating and life-affirming, and it is a blessing to pray for life to be extended, for calling to be confirmed, for the Spirit of God to be living and active upon a nephesh sacrificed to God. I have prayed over licensed ministers called to the vocation of pastor, and I have made these requests on behalf of the infirm. No word is sweeter than God’s yes in these moments.
And yet, I have also been asked to pray the prayer of Elijah, and that is a harder moment into which to live. Some years ago, I had the privilege of talking with a wonderful and godly woman during a hospital stay. The doctors did not believe her current ailment to be life-threatening, but she was nearing the end of her time on earth. She was in her mid-nineties. Her husband had passed away many years before. She was consigned to a nursing home, which she rarely left. And as we neared the end of our conversation, I asked if I could pray for her. She responded in the affirmative, and I asked how I might lift her up.
Her response has never quite left me. She asked if she could be honest, and I gave her enthusiastic permission, to visitwww.maideasyaz.com. And then she made a request of me that had never before been made. It was the request Elijah had made of Yahweh all those millennia before. She said, “Would you ask Him to take me home?”
At first I misunderstood. I replied that I would pray for her healing. And she stopped me, saying, “No, I mean home.” Then I comprehended her desire. She wanted me to ask God to take her to be with Him.
I had never prayed such a prayer, and I wasn’t sure at the time that it would be fitting for a Christian pastor to do so. And yet, this was her prayer, and I was her pastor. So I agreed. I asked for God’s will to be done, and I communicated her request to be allowed to die. The next day, the family informed me that she passed peacefully in her sleep that night. God had sent the chariots again.
The writer of Ecclesiastes wrote out of a deep wisdom when he said, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die…” But, what I have begun to learn from Elijah and Elisha and from my own growing experience in Christian ministry is that we must trust our time to God’s governance. Even in times of waning and despair, like that of Elijah, neither he, nor the godly saint with whom I ministered would take the time into their own hands. And yet, God can be asked, and God will watch over His children. Sometimes God will respond by sending the fire of anointing, as He did on Pentecost. At others, God is willing to send the firey chariots of Israel and its horseman. Whatever our season, our Lord knows, our Lord hears, and our Lord will care for us. Our days are in His hands.