This is a violent story, one that I need to handle with care. So to make sense of this text, I do what I always do. I go back, and then I go forward. And in all, I consider the text in light of God’s Heavenly Plan.
First, I get my bearings by getting to grips with geography. In the story before us, Elisha is en route to Bethel, a place that takes us back to Jacob’s encounter with heaven in a dream, a story we commonly think of as Jacob’s Ladder. Here, God makes a promise to Jacob, and here we encounter one of my favourite verses in the Bible.
Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.Genesis 28:15
In response to God’s powerful commitment, Jacob too makes a promise, that if God will be with him and will keep him safe and provide for him, then the LORD will be his God. In the years that follow, Jacob works to return to Bethel, pursuing Rachel for his wife while wrestling with Laban’s deceit. When finally Jacob is close to returning to the land of his birth, only one obstacle remains: his brother Esau. This is a story for another time, but the ending is a good one. Jacob returns to Bethel and makes good on his promise to God. He erects an altar, which he calls El-Elohe-Israel. God, the God of Israel. (Btw, here’s a great sermon on this text.)
Bethel is therefore a site of great significance in redemptive history. And in the story at hand, as Elisha goes up to that Place of Promise, like Jacob he too comes across an obstacle, a group of young lads, coming out of the city.
And here, I need to consider current events. Just prior to our story, Elisha witnesses Elijah’s ascension, while fifty men of the sons of the prophets wait at a distance. Elisha responds to this miracle with immediate worship, but these sons of prophets promptly doubt and urge Elisha to send men to search for Elijah for three days. After all, they say, “Perhaps the Spirit of the Lord has taken him up and cast him on some mountain or into some valley” (v. 16). The text tells us that they urge Elisha, even “until he was ashamed,” not of the power of what he himself had witnessed, but of his companions’ failing faith.
So it is, in all this context, that Elisha meets a group of lads on the way, the sort Paul later warns Timothy about (1 Tim). And as Elisha passes by, he hears these lads calling, not to his face but behind his back, in cowardice,
“Go up, you baldhead,” they jeer. “Go up, you baldhead.”
It’s becoming quite clear, isn’t it? In such a short space of time, weak leadership had already corrupted the minds of the city’s youth. These lads had heard the spreading story of Elijah’s ascension. They had already witnessed and themselves gleefully watered the seeds of disbelief sown by the sons of the prophets. How could Elijah have ascended? And why was this weird, bald man left behind? Perhaps he imagined it all.
And the poisonous fruit of all these murmurings? Ridicule of God’s prophet, which poured out of these lads’ mouths and which would later appear in those of King’s Jehu’s servants as they would also mock, saying, “Why did this mad fellow come to you?” (2 Kings 9:11).
The text tells us that when Elisha looked behind him and saw the lads, he cursed them in the name of the Lord. And immediately, two female bears “came out of the woods and tore up forty-two lads of their number.”
As a mother of a young boy, I find this story difficult to read. But like the story of Ishmael, the story of Elisha and the mocking lads is a story of God’s judgement towards those who are satisfied with the blessings of this world, who become proud and forget His Promise (Hosea 13:8). It is a story of the weightiness of weak leadership. But ultimately, it is a story pointing to Jesus Christ’s defeat of those who likewise mocked Him and even spit upon Him, who scourged and killed Him (Mk. 10: 33-34).
But like every story of judgement, the story of Elisha and the mocking young men is also a story of salvation and of heaven. As Elisha leaves the scene of his humiliation and God’s victory, the text tells us that he goes from there to Mount Carmel, site of Elijah’s defeat of the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:20-40). This is a place that Elisha would make his home (2 Kings 4:25), where the Shunammite woman would seek him out to raise her son to life, a site of plentiful rainfall and beautiful blossoming trees and flowers (Song of Songs 7:5).
In this place in God’s story, Elijah has already ascended to heaven, but in God’s perfect compassion, He gives Elisha an earthly taste of heavenly rest. And to we who put away mocking, to we who believe, in this text God offers us a taste as well, a picture of Final Victory in Jesus Christ and Eternal Rest in Him.
The wilderness and the desert will be glad,
And the Arabah will rejoice and blossom;
Like the crocus
It will blossom profusely
And rejoice with rejoicing and shout of joy.
The glory of Lebanon will be given to it,
The majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
They will see the glory of the Lord,
The majesty of our God.