Of the three commissions God has given, Elijah has personally only appointed Elisha as his successor. There he goes first, and not to Hazael and Jehu who are mentioned earlier by the LORD. The story continues immediately with the calling of Elisha, the third and last part of the Divine command.
This does not mean the end of Elijah’s own service work. We read about him again in 1 Kings 21, where he denounces Ahab the judgment in the vineyard of Naboth (1Kgs 21:17-2217Then the word of the LORD came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying,18“Arise, go down to meet Ahab king of Israel, who is in Samaria; behold, he is in the vineyard of Naboth where he has gone down to take possession of it.19You shall speak to him, saying, ‘Thus says the LORD, “Have you murdered and also taken possession?”‘ And you shall speak to him, saying, ‘Thus says the LORD, “In the place where the dogs licked up the blood of Naboth the dogs will lick up your blood, even yours.”‘“20Ahab said to Elijah, “Have you found me, O my enemy?” And he answered, “I have found [you], because you have sold yourself to do evil in the sight of the LORD.21Behold, I will bring evil upon you, and will utterly sweep you away, and will cut off from Ahab every male, both bond and free in Israel;22and I will make your house like the house of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, and like the house of Baasha the son of Ahijah, because of the provocation with which you have provoked [Me] to anger, and [because] you have made Israel sin.), and also in 2 Kings 1, where he denounces Ahaziah’s death (2Kgs 1:3-43But the angel of the LORD said to Elijah the Tishbite, “Arise, go up to meet the messengers of the king of Samaria and say to them, ‘Is it because there is no God in Israel [that] you are going to inquire of Baal-zebub, the god of Ekron?’4Now therefore thus says the LORD, ‘You shall not come down from the bed where you have gone up, but you shall surely die.’” Then Elijah departed.). For Elisha, these years, in which he lives in the proximity of the prophet and serves him, have undoubtedly been a good time to prepare for his own task.
The anointing of Elisha is done in a symbolic way. The symbolic act of Elijah in the calling of his successor is that he throws his mantle on him (verse 1919So he departed from there and found Elisha the son of Shaphat, while he was plowing with twelve pairs [of oxen] before him, and he with the twelfth. And Elijah passed over to him and threw his mantle on him.). The gesture is telling enough. With this he tells Elisha to succeed him. He doesn’t persuade Elisha to follow him; he leaves that to the LORD. Elisha must draw the conclusion himself.
Elisha receives the mantle of the prophets from Elijah’s hand and will in the future be allowed to wear it (2Kgs 2:12-1312Elisha saw [it] and cried out, “My father, my father, the chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” And he saw Elijah no more. Then he took hold of his own clothes and tore them in two pieces.13He also took up the mantle of Elijah that fell from him and returned and stood by the bank of the Jordan.). This mantle also plays an interesting role later on, when Elijah is taken up into heaven. The water of the Jordan divides to both sides as soon as Elijah and later Elisha hit the water with the mantle (2Kgs 2:8,148Elijah took his mantle and folded it together and struck the waters, and they were divided here and there, so that the two of them crossed over on dry ground.14He took the mantle of Elijah that fell from him and struck the waters and said, “Where is the LORD, the God of Elijah?” And when he also had struck the waters, they were divided here and there; and Elisha crossed over.). The Jordan, which ends in the Dead Sea, can be called the Death River. The power of death must give way to the power of God that reaches farther than the limits of death.
While Elijah, which means ‘my God is Yahweh’, is described as the prophet of judgment, Elisha, which means ‘my God is salvation’, is pre-eminently the prophet of grace. Every time we see him healing and saving. Where he appears on the stage, there is life and hope.
Elisha participates in the spirit of Elijah when he sees him go to heaven. Thus we have been given part in the Spirit of Christ after His glorification in heaven. In the power of that Spirit we can fulfil our calling and task. When Elisha is called to follow Elijah, he is busy on the land. Even now, God is still calling people in the midst of their busy work to give it up and to give their time and strength to Him (cf. Mt 4:18-2218Now as Jesus was walking by the Sea of Galilee, He saw two brothers, Simon who was called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen.19And He *said to them, “Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.”20Immediately they left their nets and followed Him.21Going on from there He saw two other brothers, James the [son] of Zebedee, and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets; and He called them.22Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed Him.).
Elisha must have been a rich farmer. He has to give up a lot. We see this also with Moses and Paul who also gave up all natural benefits for the Lord. God calls Moses when he is in the most privileged position. Moses gives up that position for “the reproach of Christ” (Heb 11:24-2624By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter,25choosing rather to endure ill-treatment with the people of God than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin,26considering the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt; for he was looking to the reward.). In the same way, Paul gives up an enormous privileged position in the religious world.
If people give up their jobs and want to go into the work of the Lord because they do not like their jobs, it is not from the Lord. For example, a businessman whose business is going badly must not give up doing business in order to do the Lord’s work. He must consult with the Lord on how to improve his business.
Elisha is plowing with twelve oxen in front of him. He is at the twelfth pairs of oxen. God calls him where he is, at the twelfth pair of oxen. The number twelve is emphasized. It recalls the altar that Elijah built and for which he used twelve stones (1Kgs 18:3131Elijah took twelve stones according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of the LORD had come, saying, “Israel shall be your name.”). The number twelve makes us think of all the people of God. Twelve pairs of oxen point out that God wants His whole people to serve Him.
Elijah throws his mantle on Elisha’s. From now on, Elisha shall no longer go through life as a farmer, but as a prophet. God calls whomever He wills, and He calls where He wills. He calls honorable and He calls low people. He calls farmers to plough in the fields of this world and then sow the seed of the Word of God. He calls fishermen to make them fishers of people. God is sovereign and His calling is living and powerful.
Elijah does not convince Elisha with words to follow him. Through a gesture Elisha is brought into exercise. To persuade a person to serve the Lord without his heart and conscience being exercised only brings misery.
Elisha first wants to greet his father and mother and say goodbye to them. He asks Elijah for permission to do so. Elijah does not answer this question. He does not ask Elisha to be held accountable. He leaves it a matter between Elisha and God.
God’s calling often intervenes deeply in existing situations and relationships. Calling is not without obligation and can lead to a break with family members or close friends. We also see this in the life of Elisha. He has to say goodbye to his family, his father and his mother (verse 2020He left the oxen and ran after Elijah and said, “Please let me kiss my father and my mother, then I will follow you.” And he said to him, “Go back again, for what have I done to you?”). He willingly follows and leaves his oxen, just as later the disciples abandon everything they possess in order to follow the Lord Jesus. Even though he is rushing after Elijah, he had the problem of his family relationships: “Let me kiss my father and my mother, then I want to follow you.”
The prophet’s answer is permissive, but it clearly reminds him also of God’s calling, which can no longer be undone: “Go back again, for what have I done to you?” The wording of this answer is a bit vague. Elijah leaves it to Elisha. Elisha didn’t have to follow Elijah so much, but succeed him.
In the Gospels we read about someone who wants to follow the Lord Jesus, but makes it a condition: ““I will follow You, Lord; but first permit me to say good-bye to those at home” (Lk 9:6161Another also said, “I will follow You, Lord; but first permit me to say good-bye to those at home.”). Presumably he wants to use this as an excuse to postpone the following of the Lord. But the Lord, Who knows and understands the hearts, then answers him as follows: “No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God” (Lk 9:6262But Jesus said to him, “No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.”).
God’s calling doesn’t allow any delay. This calling requires a determination of the heart to serve the Lord and the setting of certain priorities. The kingdom of God must come first in our lives. Happily with Elisha there is no hesitation to follow. He is prepared to put his hand to the plough, no longer in the field of his father but in the ‘field’ of God, the working field of the twelve tribes of Israel. Although from a human point of view he is facing an uncertain future, God gives him a much greater field of work than the one he leaves behind.
Elijah’s response is responded to by Elisha by taking a radial decision. We do not read that he has been to his parents. It can be. What we read is that he completely breaks with the past. He does not hesitate. He burns all his bridges, as it were. That’s how he starts his new task. He certainly did not begin to perform signs and miracles under Israel. He must first listen to the words of the prophet Elijah and, among other things, take care of his personal needs (2Kgs 3:1111But Jehoshaphat said, “Is there not a prophet of the LORD here, that we may inquire of the LORD by him?” And one of the king of Israel’s servants answered and said, “Elisha the son of Shaphat is here, who used to pour water on the hands of Elijah.”). He starts with simple work, but to live near the prophet gradually prepares him for other tasks.
This principle also applies to us. Living in the presence of our Lord and Master and listening to His Word form the necessary basis to fully equip us “for all good work” (2Tim 3:16-1716All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness;17so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.).