Just this past month, I was in Indonesia during the election of the president and vice president. You may remember that several times in 1998 there was serious rioting in that nation. The year 1998 was a very traumatic time in the history of Indonesia. If the results of the election last month had been different, things could have become very messy again. The fellow I was staying with in Jakarta left for the office the morning of the election with these words, “If you look out that window tonight and see fires burning all over the city, you’ll know that the riots have begun again.”
The section we are dealing with in 2 Kings describes the transition of power from Elijah to Elisha. While there were a number of prophets in Israel, it would seem that Elijah was the “senior prophet” of his time. After his departure, it was necessary that his successor be designated in a way that would make it clear he was the one in whom the spirit of Elijah had come to abide.
It took some doing for Elijah to be recognized and respected as God’s prophet in Israel. At the beginning of his prophetic ministry, it was necessary for him to hide out by the brook Cherith, and then at the home of a Gentile widow and her son who lived in the Sidonian town of Zarephath (1 Kings 17). At the end of his ministry, Elijah was able to travel freely about Israel, without fear of being bothered by wicked men. After all, the nation not only knew that he had called down fire on Mount Carmel, but that he had called down fire upon two groups of soldiers who had been sent to arrest him (2 Kings 1:9-12).
Elisha was with Elijah when he was taken up into heaven, accompanied by a chariot and horses of fire (2 Kings 2:11-12). A guild of prophets looked on from a distance as Elijah and Elisha crossed the Jordan River. They saw Elijah take his robe and strike the waters of the Jordan. They observed the waters of the Jordan parting so that Elijah and Elisha could cross over on dry ground. They did not witness Elijah’s incredible departure, but they realized that he was gone when Elisha returned alone. They watched as Elisha took Elijah’s robe and struck the waters of the Jordan just as Elijah had done, and then cross over on dry ground. They realized that Elisha was somehow energized by the Spirit that once had empowered Elijah.
I am inclined to believe that Elisha did not yet have the full respect that his office deserved. I say this because the prophetic guild who were in Jericho were not yet willing to accept Elisha’s word, unchallenged. They must have seen some evidence of the whirlwind that took Elijah up into heaven because they asked Elisha for permission to send out a search party to look for Elijah’s body. I don’t believe they expected to find Elijah alive. It seems their intention was to recover the prophet’s body if at all possible. They may have reasoned that if he was caught up by a whirlwind, his body must have been deposited somewhere, whether in the hills or in the valley. Elisha knew better, and he told them not to go, but they kept pressing him till he reluctantly granted them permission to conduct a search. Their mission was unsuccessful, as Elisha knew it would be. The very fact that they sought to change Elisha’s mind suggests to me that they did not yet sufficiently appreciate the power and position God had given him as Elijah’s replacement. To truly honor a prophet, one must take his words seriously. When spoken under inspiration, his words were the word of the Lord. It is my opinion that Elisha’s words were not yet taken seriously enough,99 and that the three miracles described in our text were divinely designed to accredit Elisha as Elijah’s replacement, who now possessed the office and authority of Elijah.
Elisha Heals the Water at Jericho
(2 Kings 2:19-22)
19 The men of the city said to Elisha, “Look, the city has a good location, as our master can see. But the water is bad and100 the land doesn’t produce crops.” 20 Elisha said, “Get me a new jar and put some salt in it.” So they got it. 21 He went out to the spring and threw the salt in. Then he said, “This is what the LORD says, ‘I have purified this water. It will no longer cause death or fail to produce crops.” 22 The water has been pure to this very day, just as Elisha prophesied.
In America, hardly anyone thinks about the water they drink. My recent trip to Indonesia reminded me of the fact that pure water is a very precious thing. During my stay abroad, I was careful not to drink water from the tap, and not even to brush my teeth with it. I would only drink bottled water in a restaurant, and I was warned to be careful about the ice as well. Although the location of the city of Jericho was ideal, the city had a serious water problem. The city was in the Jordan River valley, approximately five miles west of the Jordan River, and a few miles north of the Dead Sea.101 The land was fertile, but water was needed for drinking and for watering the crops. The city’s water supply spelled the difference between a thriving city and a wasteland. Unfortunately, the waters of the spring at Jericho were “bad” (literally, “evil”). The result was that the water was not drinkable, and the land was barren.
Elisha was told about this problem. He was not exactly asked to do something about it, but it seems those who informed him hoped he might be able to do something about it. I am reminded of the way Mary, the mother of Jesus, informed our Lord that they had run out of wine at the marriage feast in Cana of Galilee (see John 2:3). Elisha instructed them to bring him a new jar, in which salt had been placed. He took the jar of salt and went to the spring, where he proceeded to cast this salt upon the “evil” waters. He then spoke these words: “This is what the LORD says, ‘I have purified this water. It will no longer cause death or fail to produce crops” (verse 21). From that time to the day this book was written, the waters of the spring remained pure.
There are those who have sought to identify the precise problem with the water. The author of our text does not even attempt to do so. I am content to leave it at that. Some seek to explain just how the salt healed the waters. I do not think we were intended to know this, either. What we do know is that the water was “bad” and that it could not be drunk, nor could it be used to water their crops. By what appears to be a symbolic gesture (casting salt upon the waters), Elisha heals the waters of the spring. In the final analysis, it is Elisha’s word that purified the waters (literally, the waters were healed “just as Elisha said,” verse 22).
Here was a miracle that lasted, not only in terms of its essence, but in terms of its effect. The writer tells us in verse 22 that the waters remained pure up to the day the account was written. Surely this is an evidence of the hand of God and made it clear that this “healing” was indeed a miracle. I think the miracle endured in a different way. It continued to be a sign as time passed. Let me see if I can illustrate this.
Years ago when our church was newly formed, we did not yet have a building of our own. We met in a school, and later in a hotel. We observe communion every week, and so each Sunday morning Ray, my brother-in-law, would prepare the communion trays. On one particular Sunday, Ray finished preparing one tray and held it out to me to set aside so that he could pour the grape juice into the cups in the next tray. The humidity was especially low that day, which meant there was a great deal of static electricity. I had just walked some distance on the carpet, and so when I reached out to take the tray from Ray, I got a very substantial jolt of static electricity. I jumped and slopped grape juice everywhere. It was a mess, but Ray graciously helped me clean it up. Later on we were celebrating the Lord’s Table, and as communion was being observed, it happened to be Ray who brought the tray of grape juice to the row where I was seated (on the aisle). It was a most solemn moment, and Ray held out the tray, for me to take it. Then, unexpectedly, he withdrew it. He bent down and quietly whispered in my ear, “Steady, now.” Because of the way I spilled the grape juice earlier, Ray wanted to be sure I did not do it again. My earlier action had continuing results.