How the LORD Answered Elijah’s Prayer

How the LORD Answered Elijah’s Prayer

Last week we saw a despondent Elijah who was feeling so low that he prayed the LORD would take his life.[1] After faithfully serving the LORD and proclaiming his Word to his people, his people had responded:

by rejecting God’s covenant,

tearing down his altars,

and putting his prophets to death with the sword.

And now even Elijah’s life was being sought.[2]

Yet our ever-compassionate LORD extended that compassion to his servant Elijah for after feeding Elijah twice by means of one of his angels and then reminding Elijah of his awesome power and greatness in a display of mighty wind, earthquake, and fire—and then speaking to Elijah in a low whisper—he had Elijah return the way he’d come and the LORD promised him relief by means of Hazael, a foreign king; Jehu, a good king who wouldn’t follow the ways of Ahab, one of Israel’s most wicked kings; and Elisha, a successor to Elijah.[3] Well, this morning we get to see how the LORD answered Elijah’s prayer and how the succession from Elijah to Elisha occurred.

Elisha’s original call is recorded at the end of 1 Kings 19, the chapter we considered last week. The end of verse 19 tells how “Elijah went up to [Elisha] and threw his cloak around him.” Elisha accepted this call for he slaughtered the twelve yoke of oxen[4] he had been tending and “burned the plowing equipment to cook the meat and gave it to the people, and they ate. Then he set out to follow Elijah and became his servant.”[5] Now though it appears that Elijah’s anointing of Elisha took place soon after the LORD spoke to Elijah, the other promises made by God didn’t immediately take place for both Hazael and Jehu[6] became kings after Elijah was transported to heaven. Perhaps it is by means of the “double portion” of the spirit Elijah that had been passed down to Elisha—which we see in our passage—that the command from the LORD for Elijah to anoint Jehu was fulfilled.[7]

Regardless, our chapter this morning opens by stating, “When the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven in a whirlwind,…” And I have to stop here. Don’t you love how matter-of-fact Scripture is sometimes? Though this is the only account we have in God’s Word about anyone being taken “up to heaven in a whirlwind,”[8] this extraordinary occurrence that was about to take place is stated in such a plainspoken manner, as though this was the most natural of events. And apparently the LORD had revealed what was about to occur not only to Elijah but also to Elisha and the other prophets. As we read in verse 3, “The company of the prophets at Bethel came out to Elisha and asked, ‘Do you know that the Lord is going to take your master from you today?’” And then again in verse 5, “The company of the prophets at Jericho went up to Elisha and asked him, ‘Do you know that the Lord is going to take your master from you today?’” Because of the LORD’s disclosing to them what he was about to do, all of the prophets living in the various towns where the LORD sent Elijah were on the look-out—as too, of course, was Elisha, Elijah’s servant and heir apparent.

So it’s no wonder that on this day Elisha remained close at hand to Elijah as their LORD and God guided Elijah’s paths while the two of them were on their way from Gilgal. As we read in verse 2, “Elijah said to Elisha, ‘Stay here; the Lord has sent me to Bethel.’” Elisha’s response? “As surely as the Lord lives and as you live, I will not leave you.” And so the two of them went down to Bethel where again, verse 4, Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here, Elisha; the Lord has sent me to Jericho.” And for a second time Elisha replied, “As surely as the Lord lives and as you live, I will not leave you.” And so the two of them went to Jericho. Yet a third time Elijah spoke to Elisha, verse 6, saying, “Stay here; the Lord has sent me to the Jordan.” And we know how Elisha responded: “As surely as the Lord lives and as you live, I will not leave you.” And so on the two of them went.

And it’s at this point that Elisha went from being servant of Elijah to successor to Elijah. Two pieces of information are provided about this passing on of the baton. First, it occurred in the presence of other prophets. As stated in verse 7, “Fifty men from the company of the prophets went and stood at a distance, facing the place where Elijah and Elisha had stopped at the Jordan.” So Elisha wasn’t the only witness to what was about to take place. Second, prior to Elijah being taken up, we see an echo of Moses’ parting of the Red Sea[9] as, verse 8, “Elijah took his cloak, rolled it up and struck the water with it. The water divided to the right and to the left, and the two of them crossed over on dry ground.”

Now once the two had crossed over, Elijah asked Elisha, verse 9, “Tell me, what can I do for you before I am taken from you?” And Elisha replied, “Let me inherit a double portion of your spirit.” Elisha had requested in spiritual terms what was commonly prescribed in material terms for the firstborn in Israel—“a double share of all he [had].”[10] Therefore, as noted by one commentator, by his request Elisha had expressed “his desire to carry on Elijah’s ministry.”[11] Elijah’s response to Elisha is recorded in verse 10, “You have asked a difficult thing…yet if you see me when I am taken from you, it will be yours—otherwise, it will not.” Perhaps this was “a difficult thing” because ultimately this was a prerogative of the LORD, not Elijah. Even so, as the LORD’s prophet, Elijah was able to provide Elisha with the requirement that would be needed in order for the LORD to grant his request, that of Elisha witnessing when the LORD took Elijah away.

Then in one verse, verse 11, we have recorded for us Elijah’s supernatural translation from earth to heaven: “As they were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind.” This was the last time Elisha would see Elijah this side of heaven. When his spiritual father was taken from him he cried out, verse 12, “My father! My father! The chariots and horsemen of Israel!” Elisha understood what he was witnessing. These chariots point to the reality of spiritual warfare for at this time chariots were used for the purposes of war[12] and these were heavenly messengers of the LORD of hosts. These messengers were part of the divine army of the LORD, who is Lord over both earthly and heavenly armies, and they had come to bring his servant home.[13] Little did Elijah know that when years earlier he had prayed, “I have had enough, Lord…. Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors”[14] that this is how the LORD would answer that prayer.

After seeing Elijah disappear in the heavenly whirlwind, Elisha “…took hold of his garment and tore it in two” (verse 12c). The tearing of a garment in this manner was an indication of Elisha’s great sorrow and grief. Next, verse 13, he “picked up Elijah’s cloak that had fallen from him and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan.” In the midst of his heartbreak over the loss of his beloved spiritual father, verse 14, “He took the cloak that had fallen from Elijah and struck the water with it.” Upon picking up Elijah’s cloak, Elisha was literally and symbolically assuming his mantle. And then Elisha asked, “Where now is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” Perhaps by way of response, upon striking the water, the same miracle Elijah had earlier performed occurred, namely, the water “divided to the right and to the left, and [Elisha] crossed over.” Elisha was now the LORD’s prophet even as Elijah had been moments before.

Upon seeing this miracle re-enacted, verse 15, “The company of the prophets from Jericho, who were watching, said, ‘The spirit of Elijah is resting on Elisha.’ And they went to meet him and bowed to the ground before him.” Elijah’s mantle had been successfully passed to his servant, Elisha. But, first they felt they needed to be sure that Elijah was really gone. To be taken by a whirlwind up into heaven was not only unusual but also went against a common understanding held at this time for they believed that when we died we would go down to Sheol, the place of the dead to be gathered with their people,[15] not up into heaven. So the incredulity of the prophets who had gathered is understandable. Perhaps they thought that when God had told them that Elijah would be taken by him, he only meant for the time being. Therefore they said to Elisha, verse 16, “Look,…we your servants have fifty able men. Let them go and look for your master. Perhaps the Spirit of the Lord has picked him up and set him down on some mountain or in some valley.” Humanly speaking, this seemed a reasonable request. Even we today will occasionally hear stories of someone who testifies to having survived a tornado that picked them up in one place and deposited them in another. Yet Elisha knew that to seek for Elijah on earth would be nothing but a fool’s errand. Therefore he replied, “No,…do not send them.” Even so, verse 17, “…they persisted until he was too embarrassed to refuse. So he said, ‘Send them.’ And they sent fifty men, who searched for three days but did not find him.” And so, verse 18, “When they returned to Elisha, who was staying in Jericho, he said to them, ‘Didn’t I tell you not to go?’” Not surprisingly, Elisha had been right. He was a true prophet of the LORD who knew that the search for Elijah would be in vain. His first prophecy in his role as Israel’s prophet had now been confirmed.

This morning’s account about Elijah being taken to heaven by the LORD by means of a whirlwind is one that confronts us with our greatest fear and our greatest hope as believers. The fear it presents is the reality of death, the fact that the earthly part of our lives will one day come to an end. I think I’ve shared with you before that prior to coming to a saving faith and knowledge of Jesus Christ, I considered—albeit briefly—taking my own life. Though I was only seventeen years old, existence felt like a burden. And so late one night I got out of bed, walked into the kitchen, and stood before a wooden knife holder, staring at the promise a knife held of providing relief from the burden I felt. Obviously I didn’t follow through with this as I ended up going back to bed. But perhaps it’s because I had this experience that Elijah’s earlier words resonate with me so much: “I have had enough, Lord…. Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors”[16]

Yet an important and key difference with Elijah is that as the LORD’s messenger, he knew his life was in the LORD’s hands. He knew suicide wasn’t an option for [because] life, no matter how tragic, is a gift from God. So Elijah didn’t ask if he could take his own life, but instead asked the LORD to take his life—which isn’t a distinction without a difference but an important difference. As we saw last week, Elijah’s despondency was genuine and grounded in the fact that despite his faithful service and obedience to the LORD, he felt as though he had failed at his mission for God’s people had turned to other gods and were seeking to take Elijah’s life. But our gracious God ministered to Elijah and he persevered. His fear of losing his life at the hands of his enemies never came to pass but instead he continued to serve as the LORD’s mouthpiece to the day he was miraculously taken to heaven in a whirlwind. This whirlwind was how the LORD chose to answer Elijah’s prayer.

And in Elijah’s being taken up to heaven in a whirlwind, our greatest fear is overcome by our greatest hope—God’s promise that he will never leave or forsake those who are his.[17] For as Jesus Christ, the Son of God who is himself God taught, God who is life gives his very life to those who belong to him. As Jesus responded to the Sadducees, a Jewish sect that didn’t believe in the resurrection of the dead, “37 But in the account of the burning bush, even Moses showed that the dead rise, for he calls the Lord ‘the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’[18] 38 He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.”[19] So beginning with God’s revelation in the Old Testament, our LORD has ever communicated that not only is he the one gives us earthly life; not only is he the one who sustains our earthly life; but the life that he gives is eternal life for he is an eternal God.

Now I feel confident stating that when your time on earth comes to an end and when my time on earth comes to an end, we won’t be taken up to heaven in a whirlwind as Elijah was. And I also feel confident stating that all who believe that Jesus Christ is who he claimed to be—God’s Son who came into the world not to condemn the world but that the world through him might be saved[20]—will, like Elijah, end up in heaven by the power of the Father’s eternal Holy Spirit given to all who turn to Christ. For Christ who is the LORD and Giver of life is the hope our heavenly Father has provided to overcome death, our greatest enemy and fear.

Not long after my seventeen year-old self considered taking her life, I was presented with the hope Jesus promised and offered. My senior year in high school, feeling that my college applications were lacking a “religious” component, I began attending a high school aged youth group at a church on Wednesday evenings. And that was where I first heard about Jesus. And what really caught my attention was learning about one particular teaching he gave concerning himself after his friend Lazarus had died. When Martha told Jesus that had he been there her brother wouldn’t have died, Jesus reassured her that Lazarus would rise again. Martha, perhaps wanting Jesus to know that she knew her theology, said to him “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” But Jesus, supplementing her already good theology, replied, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; 26 and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”[21] Do you believe this? This was the question I was confronted with when I was seventeen. This is the question with which we’re all confronted. Do we believe this? Do we believe that God’s answer to death, our greatest fear, has been provided through his Son, Jesus Christ, our greatest hope? On May 20th of 1979, I told our Father in heaven that I did believe this as I turned my life over to him in a prayer. I believed it then. I believe it today, forty years later.

God answered Elijah’s prayer in a whirlwind. But ever since our heavenly Father sent Christ into the world, he has been answering all our prayers through his Son:

For Jesus demonstrated that he is the resurrection and life by bringing Lazarus back from death;

And Jesus demonstrated that he is the resurrection and the life by himself rising from death on the third day;

And Jesus demonstrated that he is the resurrection and the life by appearing to his disciples for forty days after he had risen from death and speaking to and teaching and eating with them;

And Jesus demonstrated that he is the resurrection and the life by ascending to heaven to rule at the right hand of his Father where he is ruling even today;

And Jesus demonstrates that he is the resurrection and the life by sending his Holy and eternal Spirit to all who believe in him that they might be sealed and indwelled by the very eternal life he gives;

And Jesus continues to demonstrate that he is the resurrection and the life by encouraging us not to let our hearts be troubled and promising to prepare a room, when our times comes, for all who are his;[22]

And when one day he returns to destroy death once and for all, Jesus who is the resurrection and the life, “will wipe every tear from [our] eyes. [And] There will be no more death[23] or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things [will have] passed away.”[24]

Dear sisters and brothers, this is what the Scriptures teach. God knows our greatest fear and he has given us himself in order that our greatest fear might be conquered:

by our greatest hope in his Son, Jesus Christ,

and by the power of his Holy Spirit through whom he unites us with himself and one another now and forever.

All praise be to God that Jesus is how God ultimately will answer all of our prayers and fears.

Let us pray.

[1] 1 Kings 19:4b: He came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” See sermon preached on 2 Kings 2:1–18 on June 26, 2016, Preparing God’s Way.

[2] 1 Kings 19:10 and repeated in verse 14: He replied, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, torn down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”

[3] 1 Kings 19:15–17: 15 The Lord said to him, “Go back the way you came, and go to the Desert of Damascus.] When you get there, anoint Hazael king over Aram. 16 Also, anoint Jehu son of Nimshi king over Israel, and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat from Abel Meholah to succeed you as prophet. 17 Jehu will put to death any who escape the sword of Hazael, and Elisha will put to death any who escape the sword of Jehu.

[4] 1 Kings 19:19b: he was plowing with twelve yoke of oxen, and he himself was driving the twelfth pair.

[5] 1 Kings 19:21.

[6] Ahab was killed in battle as Micaiah had prophesied he would (1 Kings 22:28: Micaiah declared, “If you ever return safely, the Lord has not spoken through me.” Then he added, “Mark my words, all you people!”; 2 Kings 22:34–35, 37–38: 34 But someone drew his bow at random and hit the king of Israel between the sections of his armor. The king told his chariot driver, “Wheel around and get me out of the fighting. I’ve been wounded.” 35 All day long the battle raged, and the king was propped up in his chariot facing the Arameans. The blood from his wound ran onto the floor of the chariot, and that evening he died…. 37 So the king died and was brought to Samaria, and they buried him there. 38 They washed the chariot at a pool in Samaria (where the prostitutes bathed), and the dogs licked up his blood, as the word of the Lord had declared ). Ahab’s son, Ahaziah succeeded him (1 Kings 22:40) and he served for only two years (1 Kings 22:51–53: 51 Ahaziah son of Ahab became king of Israel in Samaria in the seventeenth year of Jehoshaphat king of Judah, and he reigned over Israel two years. 52 He did evil in the eyes of the Lord, because he followed the ways of his father and mother and of Jeroboam son of Nebat, who caused Israel to sin. 53 He served and worshiped Baal and aroused the anger of the Lord, the God of Israel, just as his father had done.). The first chapter in 2 Kings recounts how the LORD sent Elijah to Ahaziah when the latter asked to consult Baal-Zebub, the god of Ekron (2 Kings 1:1–4, 15–17: 1 After Ahab’s death, Moab rebelled against Israel. Now Ahaziah had fallen through the lattice of his upper room in Samaria and injured himself. So he sent messengers, saying to them, “Go and consult Baal-Zebub, the god of Ekron, to see if I will recover from this injury.” But the angel of the Lord said to Elijah the Tishbite, “Go up and meet the messengers of the king of Samaria and ask them, ‘Is it because there is no God in Israel that you are going off to consult Baal-Zebub, the god of Ekron?’ Therefore this is what the Lord says: ‘You will not leave the bed you are lying on. You will certainly die!’” So Elijah went…. 15 The angel of the Lord said to Elijah, “Go down with him; do not be afraid of him.” So Elijah got up and went down with him to the king. 16 He told the king, “This is what the Lord says: Is it because there is no God in Israel for you to consult that you have sent messengers to consult Baal-Zebub, the god of Ekron? Because you have done this, you will never leave the bed you are lying on. You will certainly die!” 17 So he died, according to the word of the Lord that Elijah had spoken.) Since Ahaziah had no son, Joram (Jehoram variant) succeeded him (2 Kings 1:17b: Because Ahaziah had no son, Joram succeeded him as king in the second year of Jehoram son of Jehoshaphat king of Judah.).

[7] Conversely, the Zondervan NIV Study Bible comment on 1 Kings 19:15 suggests that “anoint” in this context “Appears to mean no more than ‘designate as divinely appointed.’” 2 Kings 9:1–3: 1 The prophet Elisha summoned a man from the company of the prophets and said to him, “Tuck your cloak into your belt, take this flask of olive oil with you and go to Ramoth Gilead. When you get there, look for Jehu son of Jehoshaphat, the son of Nimshi. Go to him, get him away from his companions and take him into an inner room. Then take the flask and pour the oil on his head and declare, ‘This is what the Lord says: I anoint you king over Israel.’ Then open the door and run; don’t delay!”; As to Hazael, he made himself king—he wasn’t anointed by Elijah or Elisha. See 2 Kings 8:7–15:Elisha went to Damascus, and Ben-Hadad king of Aram was ill. When the king was told, “The man of God has come all the way up here,” he said to Hazael, “Take a gift with you and go to meet the man of God. Consult the Lord through him; ask him, ‘Will I recover from this illness?’” Hazael went to meet Elisha, taking with him as a gift forty camel-loads of all the finest wares of Damascus. He went in and stood before him, and said, “Your son Ben-Hadad king of Aram has sent me to ask, ‘Will I recover from this illness?’” 10 Elisha answered, “Go and say to him, ‘You will certainly recover.’ Nevertheless, the Lord has revealed to me that he will in fact die.” 11 He stared at him with a fixed gaze until Hazael was embarrassed. Then the man of God began to weep. 12 “Why is my lord weeping?” asked Hazael. “Because I know the harm you will do to the Israelites,” he answered. “You will set fire to their fortified places, kill their young men with the sword, dash their little children to the ground, and rip open their pregnant women.” 13 Hazael said, “How could your servant, a mere dog, accomplish such a feat?” “The Lord has shown me that you will become king of Aram,” answered Elisha. 14 Then Hazael left Elisha and returned to his master. When Ben-Hadad asked, “What did Elisha say to you?” Hazael replied, “He told me that you would certainly recover.” 15 But the next day he took a thick cloth, soaked it in water and spread it over the king’s face, so that he died. Then Hazael succeeded him as king.

[8] Although we are told about Enoch in Genesis 5:24: Enoch walked faithfully with God; then he was no more, because God took him away.

[9] Exodus 14:21–22: 21 Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and all that night the Lord drove the sea back with a strong east wind and turned it into dry land. The waters were divided, 22 and the Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left.

[10] Deuteronomy 21:17.

[11] Zondervan NIV Study Bible note on 2 King 2:9.

[12] See, e.g., in the account of Aram ordering the death of Ahab in 1 Kings 22:31, 34–36: 31 Now the king of Aram had ordered his thirty-two chariot commanders, “Do not fight with anyone, small or great, except the king of Israel….”34 But someone drew his bow at random and hit the king of Israel between the sections of his armor. The king told his chariot driver, “Wheel around and get me out of the fighting. I’ve been wounded.” 35 All day long the battle raged, and the king was propped up in his chariot facing the Arameans. The blood from his wound ran onto the floor of the chariot, and that evening he died.

[13] See the wonderful and wondrous account of this divine army reappearing when Elisha’s servant feared in 2 Kings 6:15–19: 15 When the servant of the man of God got up and went out early the next morning, an army with horses and chariots had surrounded the city. “Oh no, my lord! What shall we do?” the servant asked. 16 “Don’t be afraid,” the prophet answered. “Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” 17 And Elisha prayed, “Open his eyes, Lord, so that he may see.” Then the Lord opened the servant’s eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha. 18 As the enemy came down toward him, Elisha prayed to the Lord, “Strike this army with blindness.” So he struck them with blindness, as Elisha had asked. 19 Elisha told them, “This is not the road and this is not the city. Follow me, and I will lead you to the man you are looking for.” And he led them to Samaria.

[14] 1 Kings 19:4.

[15] See, for example, Genesis 5:24; Hebrews 11:5.

[16] 1 Kings 19:4.

[17] Hebrews 13:5–6:Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.”[Deuteronomy 31:6] 6 So we say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?”[Psalm 118:6,7]

[18] Exodus 3:6: Then he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.” At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God.

[19] Luke 20:37–38. See parallels in Matthew 22:31–32: 31 But about the resurrection of the dead—have you not read what God said to you, 32 ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living.”; Mark 12:26–27: 26 Now about the dead rising—have you not read in the Book of Moses, in the account of the burning bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? 27 He is not the God of the dead, but of the living. You are badly mistaken!”

[20] John 3:16–17.

[21] John 11:24–26.

[22] John 14:1–3: 1 “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.

[23] Isaiah 25:8:  On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine— the best of meats and the finest of wines. On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever. The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove his people’s disgrace from all the earth. The Lord has spoken.

[24] Revelation 21:4.