Elijah the Tishbite
Part 6 The Chariot of Fire
Elijah's work was done. The time had come for him to sleep with his fathers and leave another to carry on the work he had commenced. The Lord at Sinai had told him to take Elisha as his follower and successor and Elisha had willingly accepted the call and was ready now for all that it involved. And as the story goes on in the sacred record it seems that Elisha executed even greater works than had his leader, but that may only appear so because, maybe, all that Elijah did do has not been recorded, at least upon earth. If that should be the case, it would not be altogether a strange thing, for many of the Lord's followers in later days have performed great works of faith and expended all their efforts in fully dedicated lives without anyone to record in writing what they have done. When at last they have come to the end of the way and all their own generation who knew them and knew of their works have gone, likewise there are none to remember and recall. All that they have done is forgotten and is as though it had never been. At least that is how it is in human memory; but in the records of Heaven their deeds are recorded in letters of gold and will remain for ever. Perhaps in the age to come, the day of Christ's kingdom upon earth, when all men will learn of the things of God, those records will be made known. They will then be a help and inspiration to all who are walking the Highway of Holiness to reconciliation with God and to eternal life.
So Elijah set out on his last journey, and his faithful follower Elisha went with him. So simple a story it is, bereft of any incident until the final scene when a fiery chariot separated them and Elijah was carried up into heaven; at least that is what is so often assumed. All kinds of elaborate theories have been woven around that expression, for instance that Elijah was translated into Heaven without dying even, though the Scripture says "what man is he that liveth and shall not see death". None could enter Heaven before Christ at His Ascension and that was many years later. But we have not got to that point yet. Here Elijah is setting out from Gilgal to go to Bethel because the Lord had sent him there, but nothing is said as to why he had to go and what he did when he got there. It is difficult to understand this part of the story, likewise the next part when the Lord sent him onward to Jericho and again nothing is said why he had to go or what he was to do when he got there. It appears almost as if Elijah was trying to shake off Elisha from following him. Was it final test of his loyalty, Elijah having some strong idea of what was about to happen, and testing to the limit the faithfulness of the one upon whom his mantle would fall?
The name "Gilgal", the place where Elijah started his last journey, means "a circle" and denotes a circle of erect stones having a sacred significance. There were several such stone circles in Israel, each bearing the name, each reminiscent of the first Gilgal in the plain of Jordan near Jericho, where Israel erected the Tabernacle after they had crossed Jordan and entered the Promised Land. It is not likely that it was from that Gilgal that Elijah commenced his journey, for 2 Kings 1.2 says that he and his attendant Elisha went to Bethel. That was up in the hills whereas the original Gilgal was in the plain. This Gilgal was in Samaria a little to the north of Bethel and does not figure in Israel's history. It seems to have been no more than a centre where its stone circle marked it as a place holy to God, unlike so many other centres which had started in the same way but had now relapsed into idolatry.
If this were so, then Elijah started his last journey from a place of holiness and communion with God and went thence to Bethel. It was once a place of God ‑ for the name means "house of God" ‑ but had now for many years been controlled by a decadent and idolatrous priesthood. There he found a few "sons of the prophets", who retained their faith in God.
"Knowest thou the Lord will take away thy master from thy head today?" And they saw him go, knowing they would see him no more in this world.
So Elijah went on to Jericho, at the bidding of the Lord. Jericho was a secular town, living by the trade between Israel and Moab across the river. It gave no heed whatever to the things of God and nothing is recorded of Jericho from the time it was rebuilt by Hiel the Bethelite in defiance of the Lord's interdict not many years previously until the days of Jesus in the New Testament.
At the Lord's behest, Elijah went on to Jordan still accompanied by his faithful disciple Elisha. Always in Christian symbolism Jordan is the transition from death of a human to life in the spirit. In Bunyan's famous allegory, Mr. Standfast came to the brink of Jordan, and, "so he passed over, and all the trumpets sounded for him on the other side". So did Elijah pass over.
The final picture has to be fully sketched in. The terrible apparition, a chariot and horsemen of fire, bearing down upon them. As they moved instinctively to opposite sides of the track, it came between Elijah and Elisha and parted them. In its wake was roaring hurricane, not a whirlwind as in the Authorised Version. It was a tornado, an irresistible force that picked up Elijah and carried him away in the heavens, and Elisha saw him no more. And he cried out in his grief "My father, my father, the chariot of Israel". And he mourned, because he too knew that he would see Elijah no more in this life.
What was the chariot of fire? Only Elisha returned to tell the story of what he had seen. The chariot of fire must have deep significance. God, coming forth to judgment, is depicted as coming in just such a way. Isaiah, speaking about the final events of this end of the Age, when the kingdoms of this world are about to give way to the Kingdom of our God, saw just such a sight in vision as Elisha saw in that desolate land beyond Jordan. "Behold the Lord will come with fire, and with his chariots like a whirlwind, to render his anger with fury, and his rebuke with flames of fire. For by fire and by sword will the Lord plead with all flesh" (Isa. 66. 15-16). And immediately after that the prophet saw the Lord sending the ambassadors of Israel to the nations which have incurred that judgment "to the coastland afar off, that have not heard my fame, neither have seen my glory; and they shall declare my glory among the nations". Is that why Elisha cried out when he saw that chariot "My father, my father, the chariot of Israel" sensing perhaps in prophetic vision by the Spirit that which Isaiah in turn saw a century or so later? The sons of the prophets searched three days in the mountains for Elijah, and found him not. Like Moses he had disappeared from among men, and "no man knoweth of his sepulchre until this day".
Many have seen in the life of Elijah a significance for their own time. Four centuries after him, Malachi, the last of the Hebrew prophets, predicted God would send Elijah the prophet back to his people Israel at the Last Day to convert them again to the true God. Israel ever after has looked for the Tishbite to reappear unexpectedly as the herald of that Day and o the appearance of their Messiah to take the lead among his people. To no other Hebrew prophet was that honour accorded. And when Jesus' disciples asked him about this He told them that so far as they were concerned in that day, John the Baptist was the fulfilment of that prediction, speaking and acting "in the spirit and power of Elijah". The disciples then thought that they were living in that Last Day, but they later found it was true only in a limited sense. The true Last Day awaits the Second Advent of our Lord. There are some today who look to see a similar herald that "the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand"
The earthquake, wind and fire that Elijah experienced, followed by the still small voice, were seen in the early twentieth century as signs for that day. The tempestuous wind could be a symbol of war. The earthquake could be a social revolution, the fire, world anarchy. The still small voice would be God's voice speaking peace to the nations.
The catching away of Elijah in a great wind has been likened to the 'catching away' of the church to be with Christ at the end of the age, amid the wars, revolutions and anarchy.
The continuing work of Elisha after Elijah had gone can be taken as a picture of the future age, much as when, in our Lord's day, John the Baptist had laid down his life and Christ Himself took up a greater work, bringing life and immortality to light through the Gospel.
So, Elijah's life had come to an end, but now Elisha carried on his work and to a vastly greater extent in that he purified the poisoned water, he multiplied scanty food, he healed the lepers, he raised the dead—all pictures of Millennial work. But the sturdy man of Gilead in the experiences of his life and death left behind an allegory which reaches down the ages to our own time and takes us beyond, to the final scenes which are yet to be displayed.