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445

CHAPTER XLIII.

THE CALL OF ELISHA.

1 Kings xix. 19-21.

"The one remains, the many change and pass;

Heaven's light alone remains, earth's shadows flee."

Shelley.

Whether Elijah saw or saw not all that God had meant by the revelation at Horeb, much at any rate was abundantly clear to him, and the path of new duties lay straight before him.

The first of those duties—the only one immediately possible—was to anoint Elisha as prophet in his room, and so prepare for the continuation of the task which he had been chosen to inaugurate. He had been bidden to return across the wilderness in the direction of Damascus. Whether he traversed the eastern side of Jordan among his own familiar hills of Gilead, and then crossed over at Bethshean, where there was a ford, or whether, braving an danger from Jezebel and her emissaries, he passed through the territories of the western tribes, it is certain that we find him next at Abel-meholah, "the meadow of the dance," which was not far from Bethshean.705705   1 Kings iv. 12. It was in the north part of the Jordan valley. This, as he knew, was the home of Elisha, his future successor.

The position of Elisha was wholly unlike his own.446 He himself was a homeless Bedawy, bound to earth by no ties of family, coming like the wind and vanishing like the lightning. Elisha, on the other hand, whose history was to be so different and so far less stormy—Elisha, whose work and whose residence was mainly to be in cities—was a child of civilisation. But the civilisation was still that of a society in which anarchic forces were by no means tamed. Dean Stanley, in his sketch of Elisha, seems to dwell too much on his gentleness of spirit. He, too, had to carry out the anointing of Hazael and Jehu. "He was still less capable than Elijah," says Ewald, "of inaugurating a purely benign and constructive mode of action, since at that time the whole spirit of the ancient religion was still unprepared for it."

Elijah found him in the heritage of his fathers, ploughing the rich level land with twelve yoke of oxen. Eleven were with his servants, and he himself guided the twelfth.706706   1 Kings xix. 19. Elijah must have felt that the youth would have to make a great earthly sacrifice, if he left all this—father and mother and home and lands—to become the disciple and attendant of a wild, wandering, and persecuted prophet. He would say nothing to him. He merely left the high road, and "passed over unto him," as he plowed his fields.707707   The Hebrew can hardly bear the meaning that he was finishing the twelfth furrow in his field, ploughed by his single yoke of oxen. Reaching him he took off his shaggy garment of skin, which, in imitation of him, became in after years the normal garb of prophets, and flung it over Elisha's shoulders. This apparently was all the "anointing" requisite, save such as came from the Spirit of God. The act had a twofold symbolism: it meant the adoption of Elisha by Elijah447 to be his "mantelkind," his spiritual son; and it meant a distinct call to the prophetic office.

At first Elisha seems to have stood still—amazed, almost stupefied, by the sudden necessity for so tremendous a decision. The thought of resigning all the hopes and comforts of ordinary life and of severing so many dear and lifelong ties, could not be unmixed with anguish. Again and again we see in the call of the prophets this natural shrinking, the human reluctance born of humility, frailty, and misgiving. It was so that Moses at the burning bush had at first fought to the utmost against the conviction of his destiny. It was so that Gideon had pleaded that he was but the least of the children of Abiezer. It was thus that, in later days, Jonah fled from the face of the Lord to Tarshish; and Isaiah cried, "Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips"; and Jeremiah wailed, "Ah, Lord God! behold, I cannot speak, for I am a child!" And if we may allude to modern instances we know the shrinking hesitations of Luther; and how Cromwell affirmed that he had prayed to God not to put him to his terrible work; and how Wesley hesitated long before he "made himself vile" by preaching in the open air to the Kingswood colliers; and how Father Matthew shrank from his great temperance efforts, till one day, rising from long prayer, and at last convinced of his destined task, he uttered the homely resolve, "In the name of God here goes!"

Elisha did not hesitate long. The mysterious Prophet of Carmel—he whose voice was believed to have shut up the heavens, he who had confounded king and priest and people at Carmel—had spoken no word. He had only flung over Elisha the garment of hair, and then stridden back to the road, and gone on his448 way without once looking back. Soon he would have vanished beyond recall. Elisha decided that he would obey the call of God; that he would not make "the great refusal." He ran after Elijah, and overtook him, and, accepting the position to which he had been elevated, made but the one human natural request that he might be suffered first to kiss—that is, to bid final farewell to—his father and mother, and then he would follow Elijah.

The request has often been compared to that of the young scribe who said to Jesus, "Lord, suffer me first to bury my father"; to whom Jesus replied, "Let the dead bury their dead: follow thou Me." But the two petitions are not really analogous. The scribe practically asked that he might stay at home till his father died; and as that was an uncertain term, and the ministry of Christ was very brief, the delay was incompatible with such discipleship as Christ then required. There was no such indefinite postponement in Elisha's petition. It showed in him a tender heart, not a reluctant purpose or a wavering will.

"Go back again," answered Elijah; "for what have I done to thee?"

The words are often explained as a veiled yet severe rebuke, as though Elijah had meant to say with scorn, "Go back; perhaps you are not fit for the high call; you do not understand the significance of what I have done;" or, at any rate, "Go back; yet beware of being softly led away from the path of duty; for consider how deep is the meaning of what I have done to thee."

The words involve no such disapprobation, nor does the context agree with that view of them. I can detect no accent of reproof in the words. Elijah, as is shown by several incidents in his career, had room449 for tenderness and human affection in his rugged lonely heart. I understand his reply to mean, "Go back; it is right, it is natural that thou shouldst thus bid a last farewell before leaving thy home. Thy coming to me must be purely voluntary; I have but cast my mantle over thee, nothing more. Thine own conscience alone can interpret the full meaning of the act, and God will make thy way clear before thy face."

Such, I believe, was Elijah's free permission. He was no hard Stoic, unnaturally trampling on the sweet affections of the soul. He was no despotic spiritual guide full of gloomy superstition, like the grim Spaniard, Ignatius Loyola, who seemed to hold that God liked even our needless anguish, and our voluntary self-tortures as an acceptable sacrifice to Himself. When St. Francis Xavier, on the journey of the first Jesuits to Rome, passed quite near the castle of his parents and ancestors, the teachings of Loyola would not suffer the young noble to turn aside to print one last kiss upon his mother's cheek. Such hard exactions belong to that sphere of will-worship and voluntary humility which St. Paul condemns. Excessive violence needlessly inflicted on our innocent affections finds no sanction either in ancient Judaism or genuine Christianity.

And it was thus that Elisha understood the Prophet. He went back, and kissed his father and mother, and, like Matthew when he left his toll-booth to follow Christ, he made a great feast to his dependents, kinsfolk, and friends. To mark his complete severance from the happy past he unyoked his pair of oxen, slew them, used the plough and goad and wooden yokes as fuel, boiled the flesh of the oxen, and invited the people to his farewell feast. Then he arose, and went450 after Elijah, and ministered unto him. He was thenceforth recognised as a son of the prophetic schools, and as their future head. For the present he became known as "Elisha, who poured water on the hands of Elijah." His subsequent career belongs entirely to the Second Book of Kings.


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