Friday, March 07, 2008

Chariots of Fire (II Kings 1-7)

With apologies to Gustave Dore (and every other biblical illustrator), Elijah did not ride a chariot of fire into Heaven. Yup, you heard that right.

The story begins with him and his apprentice, Elisha, travelling together. Elisha knows somehow that this is the day that the Lord will take his master away, and so takes special care to remain by his side (despite Elijah’s hints to let him go on alone). Elisha asks to be his heir – his first born – receiving a double portion of his spirit. The apprentice will not let go of his master until he blesses him.

Suddenly a furious detachment of fiery chariots roar between the two of them. From the other side of the train, Elisha watches helplessly as his master is taken up to Heaven in a whirlwind. Looking up, he cries:
My father, my father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!
I’m no Old-Testament scholar, but these chariot-drivers seem like the same warriors that guarded Eden with the flaming sword. The cherubim are the gatekeepers of the throne of the Almighty, who firmly decide that Elisha may go no farther. After picking up his master’s fallen cloak, the grim apprentice heads back across the Jordan to Israel.

Thus begins the ministry of Elisha. His wondrous acts are reminiscent of those of Elijah, and are perhaps even greater. He brings water to a parched army dying of thirst; he supplies oil to a widow about to lose everything to a creditor, he provides a son to a barren woman and later raises him from the dead; he cures a Syrian general from his leprosy; he even causes an axe head to float so that the man can return it to the one who lent it to him; he announces God’s rescue of starving Samaria from a deadly siege. These are more than mere marvels; they are prophetic symbols of the God who intends to bring hope to the hopeless.

One day, the king of Syria sends an army to apprehend Elisha.
When the servant of the man of God rose early in the morning and went out, behold, an army with horses and chariots was all around the city. And the servant said, “Alas, my master! What shall we do?” He said, “Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” Then Elisha prayed and said, “O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see.” So the Lord opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw, and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.
He makes his messengers winds, and his ministers a flaming fire. The chariots of Israel and its horsemen are not a taxi service to Heaven. The Lord is acting here, now, on this Earth, through his prophet, to topple those tyrants who would aggrandize themselves, and to bring relief to a famished people who have forgotten how to hope.

It is refreshing to read your analysis of the account of Elijah's departure, especially your attention to detail. I believe that you are correct; most art incorrectly depicts what actually happened.

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