When the People of God Become the Enemies of God

15 Now when the sons of the prophets who were at Jericho saw him opposite them, they said, “The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha.” And they came to meet him and bowed to the ground before him. 16 And they said to him, “Behold now, there are with your servants fifty strong men. Please let them go and seek your master. It may be that the Spirit of the Lord has caught him up and cast him upon some mountain or into some valley.” And he said, “You shall not send.” 17 But when they urged him till he was ashamed, he said, “Send.” They sent therefore fifty men. And for three days they sought him but did not find him. 18 And they came back to him while he was staying at Jericho, and he said to them, “Did I not say to you, ‘Do not go’?”

19 Now the men of the city said to Elisha, “Behold, the situation of this city is pleasant, as my lord sees, but the water is bad, and the land is unfruitful.” 20 He said, “Bring me a new bowl, and put salt in it.” So they brought it to him. 21 Then he went to the spring of water and threw salt in it and said, “Thus says the Lord, I have healed this water; from now on neither death nor miscarriage shall come from it.” 22 So the water has been healed to this day, according to the word that Elisha spoke.

23 He went up from there to Bethel, and while he was going up on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him, saying, “Go up, you baldhead! Go up, you baldhead!” 24 And he turned around, and when he saw them, he cursed them in the name of the Lord. And two she-bears came out of the woods and tore forty-two of the boys. 25 From there he went on to Mount Carmel, and from there he returned to Samaria. 2 Kings 2:15-25 ESV

After Elijah’s miraculous departure, Elisha was forced to retrace his steps alone. When he arrived at the Jordan River, he used Elijah’s cloak to part the waters, then passed through the river on dry ground. Whether Elisha realized it or not, he was reliving the experience of the people of Israel when they first arrived at the land of Canaan centuries earlier, and he was playing the part of Joshua. When the time had come for the Israelites to occupy the land God had given them for an inheritance, they were under new leadership. Moses had died, and Joshua was his God-appointed replacement. Joshua had inherited the responsibility of leading the nation of Israel across the Jordan River and into the land of promise. And he was old enough to remember that, 40 years earlier, Moses had failed in his first attempt to persuade the people to take possession of the land. So, God promised to give the new leader of His people a sign that He would be with him.

The Lord said to Joshua, “Today I will begin to exalt you in the sight of all Israel, that they may know that, as I was with Moses, so I will be with you. – Joshua 3:7 ESV

God knew that the people would be reluctant to follow Joshua. That’s why He shared the plan He had put in place to solidify Joshua’s role as Israel’s leader.

“Behold, the ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth is passing over before you into the Jordan. Now therefore take twelve men from the tribes of Israel, from each tribe a man. And when the soles of the feet of the priests bearing the ark of the Lord, the Lord of all the earth, shall rest in the waters of the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan shall be cut off from flowing, and the waters coming down from above shall stand in one heap.” – Joshua 3:11-13 ESV

And God’s plan worked to perfection. The waters of Jordan parted, and the people of Israel walked across on dry ground. With their new leader going before them, the nation of Israel left the wilderness behind and began the first part of their God-ordained mission to possess the land He had graciously given them.

Elisha’s crossing of the Jordan mirrors that momentous occasion. Elijah, the former spiritual leader of Israel, was gone, and Elisha, his unproven and inexperienced replacement, required evidence to prove his role as the prophet of God. In a strange case of déjà vu, Elisha found himself mimicking the actions of Joshua once again. The first city the Israelites had encountered after their crossing of the Jordan was Jericho. And that is exactly where Elisha headed. He was met by 50 prophets of God who acknowledged that a transfer of power and leadership had taken place.

…they said, “The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha.” And they came to meet him and bowed to the ground before him. – 2 Kings 2:15 ESV

But you can sense their reluctance to accept Elisha as Elijah’s replacement. They offer to send a search party to look for Elijah. After all, the prophet had a reputation for disappearing for long periods of time and then showing up unannounced. Perhaps he wasn’t really gone for good. While Elisha tried to talk them out of this vain quest, they persisted, and their search party came back empty-handed.

It’s important to remember that the city of Jericho had been destroyed by Joshua and the people of Israel. It was the very first victory that they had experienced as part of their conquest of the land of Canaan. God had told Joshua, “See, I have given Jericho into your hand, with its king and mighty men of valor” (Joshua 6:2 ESV). And He had given Joshua a rather bizarre strategy for conquering Jericho.

“You shall march around the city, all the men of war going around the city once. Thus shall you do for six days. Seven priests shall bear seven trumpets of rams’ horns before the ark. On the seventh day you shall march around the city seven times, and the priests shall blow the trumpets. And when they make a long blast with the ram’s horn, when you hear the sound of the trumpet, then all the people shall shout with a great shout, and the wall of the city will fall down flat…” – Joshua 6:3-5 ESV

But as strange as God’s tactics may have sounded to Joshua and the people, the results were hard to refute. The walls fell, and the entire city was destroyed. And Joshua placed the city of Jericho under a perpetual curse.

“May the curse of the Lord fall on anyone
    who tries to rebuild the town of Jericho.
At the cost of his firstborn son,
    he will lay its foundation.
At the cost of his youngest son,
    he will set up its gates.” – Joshua 6:26 NLT

This is an important point to consider because when Elisha showed up at Jericho, not only had it been rebuilt, but it was occupied by 50 prophets of Yahweh. They even give the city their Goodhousekeeping Seal of Approval: “This town is located in pleasant surroundings, as you can see” (2 Kings 2:19 NLT). The only problem they had with Jericho was its lack of clean water.

“But the water is bad, and the land is unproductive.” – 2 Kings 2:19 NLT

In Joshua’s day, the city of Jericho had represented the pagan nations that occupied the land of Canaan. It was well-fortified and well-defended. But it had proven to be no match for the God of Israel. He had literally leveled the entire city, and His new leader had “burned the city with fire, and everything in it” (Joshua 6:24 ESV).

Now, centuries later, the city of Jericho had been rebuilt and reoccupied. But not by Canaanites. The people of Israel had made themselves at home in the very city Joshua had cursed, and the prophets of God seemed to have blessed their decision. Yet, the city and the land around it unproductive and unfruitful. It was a town without a pure water supply. The revival of Jericho had been incomplete and insufficient. It was occupied but lacking in vitality and fruitfulness. And, once again, the city had become a symbol of all that was wrong in the land of promise.

When Elisha had crossed over the Jordan, he had entered into enemy territory, just as Joshua and the people of Israel had centuries earlier. But this time, the Israelites were the enemy and not the Canaanites. Under the leadership of wicked kings like Jeroboam and Ahab, the people of Israel had become disobedient and idolatrous. As a result, they were under a curse, having long ago replaced God, their only source of sustenance and refreshment, with the false gods of Canaan.

God, in His covenant faithfulness, led Elisha to restore their source of physical water. But He was really calling the people back to Himself. He was reminding them that He was the only viable and reliable source of salvation and sustenance. The prophet Jeremiah would later describe the spiritual condition of Israel in stark terms.

O Lord, the hope of Israel,
    all who forsake you shall be put to shame;
those who turn away from you shall be written in the earth,
    for they have forsaken the Lord, the fountain of living water. – Jeremiah 17:13 ESV

Elisha purified the water source. In doing so, he made it clear to the people that this was an act of God.

“This is what the Lord says: I have purified this water. It will no longer cause death or infertility. – 2 Kings 2:21 NLT

God validated Elisha’s ministry, but, more importantly, He vindicated His own status as the One true God. The author clarifies that while the water had been made pure, the people remained stained by sin. The next event the author describes is intended to provide a stark contrast to the water’s purification. As Elisha made his way from Jericho to Bethel, he was confronted by a crowd of “small boys” (2 Kings 2:23 ESV). This description can be a bit misleading. In Hebrew, the phrase is qāṭān naʿar and carries a wide range of possible meanings. The word qāṭān can be translated as “small, little, or young.” The word naʿar was used to refer to a child, a servant, or even a young man. So, based on the rather harsh actions of Elijah, it seems much more likely that he ran into a group of young adolescent males rather than a group of small boys.

These “juvenile delinquents” confronted the prophet of God, “mocking and making fun of him. ‘Go away, baldy!’ they chanted” (2 Kings 2:23 NLT). Whether they recognized Elisha as a prophet is not clear. But their disrespectful treatment of someone who was obviously their elder was a sign of their rebellious hearts. By their actions, these young men represented the people of Israel, showing disdain and dishonor for the prophet of God. They had no fear of Elisha and no respect for his God. From the oldest to the youngest, the entire nation had become hard-hearted and resistant to the leadership of God’s anointed prophet. The next generation of Israelites had been infected by the apostasy and idolatry of their parents. And, in an act of divine judgment, Elisha cursed these young men.

Then two bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of them. – 2 Kings 2:24 NLT

This time, there would be no gracious act of mercy from the hand of God. Earlier, Elisha had made impure water clean. But this time, he would judge the unjust actions of impure men. As the prophet of God, Elisha could be an instrument of refreshment and renewal. But he could also serve as God’s divine agent of judgment and condemnation. Yahweh wanted His people to return to Him in humility and repentance. He longed to restore and refresh His people, but He was prepared to discipline them should they refuse to repent.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

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