Only Elisha witnessed Elijah’s dramatic departure from the earth. Now Elisha must return to the other side of the Jordan where the sons of the prophets were waiting for him.
The sons of the prophets had just witnessed Elisha performing the same miracle that Elijah had performed shortly before, viz. parting the waters of the Jordan River by striking them with Elijah’s cloak. They drew the obvious conclusion: Elisha was not only Elijah’s successor, but had the same measure of the Spirit the great man had had.
Obviously Elisha had told them what had happened but, of course, only he was present to witness the event itself. The others have only his account and are not convinced that Elijah has, in fact, ascended all the way to heaven. All of this, of course, emphasizes Elisha’s unique office: only he saw Elijah leave the world.
To leave a body unburied, all the more Elijah’s body, would have been a scandal and so they pressed Elisha for permission to make sure. A human touch this: Elisha finally relents as if to say, if you want to waste your time, who am I to stop you? Their failure, of course, serves to emphasize the nature of Elijah’s home-going. He really had been taken to heaven, extraordinary as that may have been. His body was nowhere to be found.
The next two brief scenes reinforce what has already been said: Elisha is an authentic prophet with the authority to speak and act in the Almighty’s name, to bless in his name and curse in his name. The mantle of Elijah has fallen upon him. This fact is so hugely important not only for the immediate future but for the whole course of the teaching of Holy Scripture that it receives this treble emphasis.
Remember, Jericho was rebuilt, as we read in 1 Kings 16:34, under the curse pronounced upon the city centuries before by Joshua. That the new town should have a water problem, though it is an oasis in the Jordan Valley, is part and parcel of that ancient curse.
The foremost significance of the miracle was to accredit Elisha publicly as Elijah’s successor and as the prophet of the Lord. Here not a Syro-Phoenician woman but an Israelite town is the beneficiary. Salt, presumably used here as a symbol of preservation, was an image; as Elisha himself says: it was the Lord, not the salt, who turned the foul water sweet and clean. Miracles are not magic; they are the acts of God himself, even if an object, like a bowl of salt, or an action, such as rubbing mud over a blind man’s eyes, is used to highlight the action.
Insofar as Deut. 14:3 seems to suggest that Israelites would not purposely shave their heads, the baldness is likely to have been a natural condition in Elisha’s case. [Hobbs, 24]
The presence of bears in Palestine is attested into the middle ages. Bears are not, as you know, necessarily man-eaters. They are content with berries and bugs if such are in adequate supply. But we are well aware that bears can pose great danger to human beings if they are cornered or hungry. Some 16 fatal bear attacks were reported in North America over the past decade. Mother bears are, of course, particularly dangerous if accompanied by their cubs. We rarely see bears at our cabin in the Colorado mountains, but they are a real nuisance in populated areas not so far away. They rummage through dumpsters and garbage cans for food and residents have a deep respect for their speed, power, and temper. They are given a wide berth. But in biblical narratives we find oxen and lions and donkeys and now bears doing the will of God. It is not the bear’s nature that is most important here, but its complete subjection to its Maker!
The mention of Mt. Carmel, the scene of Elijah’s greatest triumph, reminds us that Elisha, having replaced Elijah, must now take up where the great prophet left off in his war against Baal and Baal worship in Israel. And so he returns to the heart of Baal worship in Israel, the royal city of Samaria. [Provan, 175]
Emily Dickinson, who lived from 1830 to 1886, was, as you know, one of the most consequential of American poets. She was personally a woman beset by fears, obviously in some large part because her parents were beset by fears. Her father, a Massachusetts Calvinist who failed rather miserably to apply his theology to his life, was worried all his life that he wasn’t saved and worried about other things too. Emily wasn’t allowed to play in the snow as a girl or even to go to school if her father thought it too cold. He feared her getting sick and dying. When he left home on business he told Emily “Never go out, and lock all doors at all times.” When in her fifties she recalled riding in a wagon as a child with her father to the mill and his warning her not to get out of the wagon or go anywhere near the mill horse. She remembers, “The horse looked round at me, as if to say, ‘Eye hath not seen, nor Ear heard the things that I would do to you if I weren’t tied.’” Yet, in all likelihood, the mill horse was a tired nag that wouldn’t have hurt her unless repeatedly provoked.
Mr. Dickinson was also a hypochondriac and was preoccupied with finding the best home-made remedy for various ailments. Her mother also worried about everything. She had a motto: “When in doubt, don’t go out.” Emily in turn lived a reclusive life, rarely leaving her family home in Amherst. Emily produced 1,775 poems, nearly all short, only 8 of which were published in her lifetime, none with her permission. She said to a woman who had published some of her poetry, “How can you bear to print a piece of your soul?”
Now, the reason I mention all of this is that, for all the religious and biblical influences upon her life and for all the orthodoxy of her parents, Emily struggled to believe in a benevolent and merciful God. She thought God was unjust and hateful for refusing to let Moses enter the Promised Land after so many years of struggling to get there. She wrote three poems protesting that judgment. And she was particularly troubled by the story of Elisha setting the bears upon the children, the event recorded in our text for this evening. “I believe the love of God may be taught not to seem like bears,” she wrote. She couldn’t believe that a kind and loving God would have bears maul forty-two little boys, even if they were naughty as boys can be. This was no mere story to her; within living memory children had been killed by bears in Massachusetts. [All the above from Paul Johnson, Heroes, 144-155] Emily Dickinson is by no means the only one who has been offended or troubled by this episode. Liberal commentators on the passage have more than once concluded that this is an account unworthy of the Bible. [House, 261]
Now, what are we to make of this offense? We may find in our hearts and minds a certain instinctive sympathy with Emily Dickinson’s take on the passage. It is certainly the case that it has often been taught as a warning for children. The justly renowned J.C. Ryle, Anglican Bishop of Liverpool in the 19th century and staunch defender of the biblical gospel, had a famous children’s sermon entitled “The Two Bears.” It begins predictably enough:
“Dear Children, Did you ever see a bear? Perhaps not. There are no wild bears in this country now…. A bear is a large, shaggy, savage wild beast, with great teeth and claws, and very strong. It will kill sheep, and lambs, and calves, and goats, and eat them. When it is very hungry it will attack men, women, or children, and tear them to pieces. She-bears that have little cubs are particularly fierce and cruel. How thankful we ought to be that we can walk about in England without fear of being caught by a bear! Now I am going to tell you a story about a good man, two bears and some children. It is a story out of the Bible, and so you may be sure it is all true.
Bishop Ryle goes on in his sermon to the children to describe what happened: how the wicked children made fun of Elisha who was bald because he was an old man [we would, I think, rather suppose that Elisha was a young man at this point; being Elijah’s successor we would naturally suppose that he was younger than Elijah had been and we read in 2 Kgs 13:14 that Elisha lived some 50 years after this, i.e. into the reign of Joash. Whether or not Elisha was old or young probably is not very significant but he was probably bald while a young man]. He describes the attack of the bears and then says:
“Think what an awful surprise that must have been! How dreadfully frightened these children must have felt! What running, and screaming, and tumbling over one another, and crying for help, there must have been! How sorry and ashamed of themselves they must have felt. But with many it was too late. Before they could get within the walls of Bethel the bears had caught and killed not less than forty-two children. Forty and two little boys and girls that night never came home to Bethel alive. Forty and two little suppers were not eaten! Forty and two little beds were not slept in! Forty and two little funerals took place next day! Many children, I cannot help hoping, got home safe, and were not hurt. But I am sure they would never forget what they had seen. They would remember the two bears as long as they lived.”
And then the good bishop goes on:
“Now, dear children, this is a sad story. But it is a very useful and instructive one. Like everything else in the Bible, it was written for your good. It teaches lessons which boys and girls ought never to forget. Let me tell you what those lessons are.”
And the lessons were these which J.C. Ryle developed in his inimitable way: 1) God takes notice of what children do; 2) it is very wrong to mock at good people and despise religion; and 3) sin is sure to bring sorrow at last. And to conclude the sermon he gave the children three parting counsels that he wanted them to lay to heart:
- That the way to be happy is to be really good in the sight of God.
- If you wish really to be good you must ask the Lord Jesus to make you good and to put his Spirit in your heart.
- To remember that God sees you and always to live in the awareness that you are always and everywhere in God’s sight.
And the sermon concludes: “Remember these things, and you will have learned something from the “Two Bears.” [BOT 7 (June 1957) 27-32]
Well, is that the idea? Are we to take that away from the account of the two bears? Surely the lessons that Bishop Ryle included in his sermon are biblical and can be found in many parts of Holy Scripture, but are they the burden of this narrative? Let’s take a closer look.
First, take note of the explicit identification of the place. It was near Bethel and the small boys came out of Bethel. Bethel was a center of Baal worship. One of the golden calves that King Jeroboam I had made was also there (1 Kings 12:29). It was at Bethel that the prophet of the Lord had confronted Jeroboam the king and pronounced God’s curse upon him and his family. It was the old prophet from Bethel who had subverted the obedience of the prophet of the Lord who had pronounced that curse, as we read in 1 Kings 13:11-34. Bethel was a center of the opposition to Yahweh in Israel. These “small boys” were representatives of that opposition.
Second, consider the translation we have here in the ESV, “small boys.” The NIV reads “youths,” which conveys a quite different impression. Are we talking about 5 to 7 year olds, 10 year olds, or boys in their late teens, or young men? It makes a considerable difference, doesn’t it, to the impression of the narrative? The term translated “boys” can refer to youths from 12 to 30 years of age. It is found referring to all sorts of age groups in the Old Testament. [House, 260] But the adjective added, “small” or “young,” drops the age downward. But how far? For example, in 5:2 the Israelite girl who had been captured on a Syrian raid into Israel and ended up as a household servant in the home of Naaman, an army commander, is described as a “little girl” in the ESV and as a “young girl” in the NIV. The adjective “young” or “little” is the same employed here in 2 Kings 2:23. But the young girl in 5:2 is old enough not only to be a useful domestic servant but to have an understanding of the spiritual and political situation, to give advice to her mistress that was persuasive enough to be accepted by an adult, and to explain why Naaman should seek help from Elisha. We are probably not talking about a five, ten or twelve year old! Should we think instead of a teenaged girl? That seems likely to me; what do you think? But, if so, it is certainly possible that the “small boys” of 2:23 were old enough not only to know better than to do what they were doing but old enough to represent some actual threat to Elisha. Clearly they had imbibed, from their parents and others, the anti-Yahweh state of mind that Bethel fostered.
Third, note the parallels between this account and the earlier account in 2 Kings 1, where Elijah called down fire upon two companies of soldiers who sought to arrest him at the behest of King Ahaziah. In both cases there was disrespect shown to the Lord’s prophet by someone who ought to have known better. In both cases there was an order given to the prophet – in one to “come down” in the other to “go up” – and in both cases an instrument of divine judgment appeared to execute retribution: fire from heaven in the one case and two she-bears in the other. We may safely interpret this occurrence in terms of the earlier ones.
Fourth and finally, take note of the particular sin committed by these young people: they jeered the Lord’s prophet. They sought publicly to humiliate and belittle the prophet of the Lord and this after all that Elijah had done and all that he had proved to the people of Israel. What in the world was wrong with these boys? What was Israel’s sin? We read in 2 Chron. 36:16, which you ought to have in your margin against “jeer” or “mock,” here explaining the whole sad course of Israel and then Judah’s decline and the judgment that befell the northern kingdom and then finally the southern kingdom as a result.
“The Lord, the God of their fathers, sent persistently to them his messengers, because he had compassion on his people and on his dwelling place. But they kept mocking the messengers of God, despising his words and scoffing at his prophets, until the wrath of the Lord rose against his people, until there was no remedy.”
In other words what these boys did the nation was doing and would continue to do until the judgment of the Lord fell upon Israel and wiped it from the face of the earth and then upon Judah and sent it into exile in Babylon. What we have here is a gracious anticipation of what must come if Israel does not repent and recover a sound mind.
Israel’s sin was not respectful unbelief. It was not even polite indifference. It was open defiance of the word of the Lord and the mockery, the making fun of the men who brought that word. They might as well have been mocking God, who, Paul reminds us, will not be mocked (Gal. 6:7). Lest we fail to gather what this means, it is well to remember that the Lord Jesus was mocked right up to his death. It was not enough to kill him; he had to be belittled before them, he had to be made fun of, he had to be made the butt of their jokes as he suffered, he had to be made the object of public scorn and contempt. The mockery of the priests and elders, of the people, and of the soldiers, was the psychological evidence of their personal animus toward Jesus, their hatred of him. His crucifixion, as is plain enough on other grounds, was no act of justice; it was pure, unadulterated revenge, the effulgence of their hatred and envy.
This was the spirit of those boys and this their crime committed against not Elisha so much as against Yahweh himself. And this is the nature of sin and what sin invariably becomes if nothing is put in the way of its natural development. We see it all the time in this world. Disagreement regarding fundamental things is hard, very hard for human beings to keep from becoming the cause of open contempt and outright hatred. There is that in us that leads us to despise those who disagree with us. Elisha represented the condemnation of Bethel’s way of life and they hated him for it and these boys knew very well what they were doing. They had imbibed the animus of their parents and were happy to give it open expression. They probably thought they would be admired for their disrespectful and arrogant behavior, Bethel being the town that it was.
Shame on Emily Dickinson’s parents for not assuring her of God’s love and care and for allowing her to place God’s justice and the righteousness of his ways – with Moses or with these 42 youths – in doubt. And shame on Emily, careful reader of texts as she was, for not grasping the point of this narrative. What we have here is a community given over to idolatry, a corrupt, sensual, and utterly base form of worship that has so infected the spirit of Israel that even its children have become enemies of their faithful and gracious God, who has continued to stand ready at any point to receive them back and bless them again if only they would repent. They can’t repent; they don’t want to. They have come to love the sewer and want to remain there.
But, on the other hand, let us not give way to the sentimentality that so often substitutes for a clear, faithful, and accurate view of the character of God. It is a fact of life, everywhere to be observed and as it is a teaching of the Word of God, that the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children of those who hate the Lord because the children of those who hate the Lord are so likely to hate the Lord himself. That is precisely what is happening here. It is also a fact, likewise everywhere to be observed, that the way of the transgressor is hard. It is not always so that divine retribution should be so swift and so decisive. God’s patience is such that a great many rebellious young people live long lives doing great damage to many others along the way.
But there is such a thing as God’s judgment and, as this narrative makes perfectly plain, among a great many others in Holy Scripture, the surest way to guarantee that judgment for oneself is to repudiate his Word and defy its message. Believe me, this is a very hard thing for most people in our day and age to accept, especially in the western world where we live so comfortably, and it has perhaps become the most substantial obstacle in the way of belief in the Christian message. Not only the fact of divine punishment, but what it presupposes, viz. that those who do not submit mind and heart to the Word of God are not only wrong, but so wrong that they deserve to be punished severely by a just and holy God.
Many of you love the stories of George MacDonald. There are, to be sure, many things to commend in his writings. There is much that is outspokenly Christian about them. But MacDonald was, in far too many ways, a child of his time, the romantic Victorian era in British literature and in British religion. One thing that is noteworthy about MacDonald was that he became unwilling to face some of the Bible’s most explicit teaching and of course it was the hard teaching that he was unwilling to embrace. He was much moved as a young man by a gravestone he saw in a Scottish churchyard. It read
Here lie, Martin Elginbrodde;
Hae mercy o’ my soul, Lord God;
As I wad o, were I Lord God,
An ye war Martin Elginbrodde.
No one would write such an epitaph or want it standing above his grave who had paid serious attention to our evening text. No one who took sin and divine judgment seriously would presume to suggest that God should do as he would do in the same situation. And no one should imagine that acceptance with God were little more than divine leniency that paid no attention to the obligations of justice and righteousness. What you have in that epitaph is not biblical theology or Christian faith but pure, treacly sentimentalism and that is what you encounter in most of the people you rub shoulders with every single day. “God bless America,” they sing at the baseball game and put on the bumper of their car, but not once do they entertain the possibility that God might judge America. George MacDonald’s is not a serious view of life; it is unworthy of life in a world so chock full of evil, of death, and of judgment. As the poet has it:
Ah, little think the gay, licentious crowd,
How many feel this very moment death,
And all the sad variety of pain.
It is said that Napoleon gave up the Christian faith when a minister he heard declared that Julius Caesar, his hero, was in hell. Well, no Christian minister should be naming the damned, but Caesar, however great a general, however sophisticated a leader, however elegant a writer, was a mass murderer, who killed a million souls to aggrandize himself. It should not surprise us that Napoleon did the same. It is what idolatry does, it destroys human life. It never ennobles it, never honors it, never purifies or saves it.
Israel had been summoned to return to the Lord who had made her his own people, had made her great. We would never have heard of Israel, not one of us in this room today would have heard of Israel if God had not chosen her to be his people. She did not want to be Yahweh’s people; she did not want to live in covenant with the Lord. She would rather live as her neighbors lived: sensually, careless of the commandments of God, by sight and not by faith. Fair enough. But in this world, God’s world, while one can choose his or her way of life, he or she does not remain free to choose his or her destiny. You may choose idolatry but if you do you will face the bears; sooner or later the bears. That is the message of Holy Scripture from Genesis 3 to Revelation 20. If you choose the Lord, you may have many difficulties to be sure, we read about that in Elijah’s life and will in Elisha’s, but never the bears and never fire from heaven. Lest we forget, that is what the Bible is all about, how to escape the bears and fire from heaven.
It should not surprise us – this reality of divine judgment being fundamental to everything, to everything in human life and everything in the Christian faith – that every now and then as an act of kindness on the Lord’s part the point is made with stunning, startling clarity. Jeer Elisah, the prophet of the Lord, and die! And you will die a terrible, frightening death. It is precisely because, as Bishop Ryle was right to tell the children, we must be good and cannot be in ourselves and by ourselves; we must have Jesus Christ to make us good. The bears are the cross, it is the divine judgment reaching out to consume us, and of course devouring Christ instead of us! This is not a story that should offend us or one for which we should apologize. It is rather a window on the world as we encounter that world every single day of our lives every time we open a newspaper, certainly every time we open the Word of God. It is rather for us to take this to heart, to ponder it, and not to rest until we understand why things happened as they did that day: why the youths were as they were, what it meant for them to do what they did, and, supremely, what it means that God did what he did in response. It is a window on the reality all of us must accept or suffer the consequences. There is a way to escape the judgment of God and to be confident, though Emily Dickinson’s father was not and she was not, of one’s reception in his family and among his people, and it begins where one realizes why the bears did what they did.