Why did God take Elijah to heaven on the chariot of fire?

Marko Joensuu         No comments

In 2 Kings 2:11, the prophet Elijah is taken up to heaven on the chariot of fire. This miracle is often portrayed as a highlight of Elijah’s ministry, but it seems evident that God took Elijah away before time to protect Elijah from the consequences of his disobedience.

Common explanations for the chariots of fire include God rewarding Elijah for his obedience. But that seems unlikely, as before that, Elijah had refused to obey God’s command to anoint three leaders.


Elijah’s disobedience

We all know the story about the prophet Elijah challenging the prophets of Baal and Asherah on the Mount Carmel and fire coming down from heaven to burn his sacrifice. 

In 1 Kings 18:1 it says, 

After many days the word of the Lord came to Elijah, in the third year of the drought, saying, ‘Go, present yourself to Ahab; I will send rain on the earth.’

Because of drought the famine was severe in Samaria. 

Elijah doesn't tell Ahab about the coming rain, but challenges the prophets of Baal to a confrontation. The fire falls from heaven on Elijah’s altar, and Elijah slaughters 450 prophets of Baal. But after a threat by Queen Jezebel, Elijah flees to Mount Horeb, fearful and depressed. 

In 1 Kings 19:11-18 God speaks to Elijah, 

He said, ‘Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’ Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ He answered, ‘I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.’ Then the Lord said to him, ‘Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram. Also you shall anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king over Israel; and you shall anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah as prophet in your place. Whoever escapes from the sword of Hazael, Jehu shall kill; and whoever escapes from the sword of Jehu, Elisha shall kill. Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.’ 

This is after Elijah had had killed 450 Baal’s prophets with a sword. But as he is full of fear, Elijah is saying that all God’s prophets have been killed with a sword!  

The first thing Elijah is asked to do is to go to the wilderness of Damascus and anoint Hazael as king over Aram. Then he is asked to anoint Jehu, son of Nimshi, over Israel, and then to anoint Elisha to be a prophet in his place. 

The Hebrew word translated here as “in your place” is also translated in the Old Testament as “under”, so it is not conclusive whether God was terminating Elijah’s prophetic office, or if he was asking Elijah to begin to prepare for succession but with Elisha under Elijah’s leadership. But there is a strong sense that God is dissatisfied with Elijah's response to his encounter with God.

But rather than going to Damascus to anoint Hazael, Elijah goes to find Elisha. And rather than anointing Elisha, he only throws his mantle over him. 

There are several acts of disobedience. 

First, he doesn’t go to anoint Hazael. In human terms, this could have been understandable, as Hazael was an enemy of Israel, and Elijah would have anointed Hazael to attack Israel. But God doesn’t give us the freedom to disobey commands that we dislike. 

Second, Elijah doesn’t anoint Jehu.

Third, he goes straight to Elisha, but he doesn’t anoint Elisha either. Instead, he throws his mantle over Elisha.

In fact, Elijah doesn’t anoint anyone. And he gives Elisha his mantle without anointing. 

A mantle without anointing. It seems that Elijah might have wanted Elisha to fail. Because he would have known the significance of anointing. 

But God had already anointed Elisha. He only wanted Elijah to recognise that anointing.

We often talk in the charismatic church about receiving someone’s mantle in a celebratory manner, but in fact what we celebrate is an act of disobedience, or at best, an act of partial obedience.

Perhaps Elijah became angry at the thought of Elisha replacing him. We don’t know. But Elijah never anointed Elisha. Instead, Elisha became his disciple and servant. Perhaps Elisha was supposed to be anointed to serve “under” Elijah to become a prophet “in his place”; perhaps both translations of the Hebrew word are correct.

This is not dissimilar to what often happens in our churches. So often, leaders are happy to serve as long as they remain the main protagonist of the narrative. But if God asks them to step aside and give someone else space to operate on the same level, that they won’t accept.

But it is clear that Elijah is taken to heaven prematurely, without completing the assignment God had given to him. 

After a long time Ahab repents, fasts, and puts on sackcloth, and 1 Kings 21:28-29 says, 

Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite: “Have you noticed how Ahab has humbled himself before me? Because he has humbled himself, I will not bring this disaster in his day, but I will bring it on his house in the days of his son.”

This story begins with God sending the prophet Elijah to Ahab after he promises rain for Israel. But rather than telling Ahab that, Elijah challenges the prophets of Baal to a confrontation.

We can see that all this time it was in God’s heart to bring Ahab to repentance.

There have been situations in my life when God has asked me to give a good news prophecy to someone who has maltreated me. I wonder if God was testing Elijah to see if he was willing to bring positive news to his persecutor. 

Would Ahab have repented earlier had Elijah given him the good news? But now I am reading between the lines as someone who has a prophetic ministry.

After Elijah has been taken up to heaven, 2 Kings 8:7-15 says,

Elisha went to Damascus while King Ben-hadad of Aram was ill. When it was told him, ‘The man of God has come here’, the king said to Hazael, ‘Take a present with you and go to meet the man of God. Inquire of the Lord through him, whether I shall recover from this illness.’ So Hazael went to meet him, taking a present with him, all kinds of goods of Damascus, forty camel loads. When he entered and stood before him, he said, ‘Your son King Ben-hadad of Aram has sent me to you, saying, “Shall I recover from this illness?”’ Elisha said to him, ‘Go, say to him, “You shall certainly recover”; but the Lord has shown me that he shall certainly die.’ 11 He fixed his gaze and stared at him, until he was ashamed. Then the man of God wept. Hazael asked, ‘Why does my lord weep?’ He answered, ‘Because I know the evil that you will do to the people of Israel; you will set their fortresses on fire, you will kill their young men with the sword, dash in pieces their little ones, and rip up their pregnant women.’ Hazael said, ‘What is your servant, who is a mere dog, that he should do this great thing?’ Elisha answered, ‘The Lord has shown me that you are to be king over Aram.’ Then he left Elisha, and went to his master Ben-hadad,[a] who said to him, ‘What did Elisha say to you?’ And he answered, ‘He told me that you would certainly recover.’ But the next day he took the bed-cover and dipped it in water and spread it over the king’s face, until he died. And Hazael succeeded him.

Elisha doesn’t want to anoint Hazael to attack Israel. Instead, he weeps. We don’t know how much he knew about the assignment God had given to Elijah. But perhaps God didn’t ask Elisha to anoint Hazael, but only to prophesy to him, so he probably didn't disobey God. But even Elisha found it hard to prophesy to Hazael.

In 2 Kings 9:1-3 it says

Then the prophet Elisha called a member of the company of prophets and said to him, ‘Gird up your loins; take this flask of oil in your hand, and go to Ramoth-gilead. When you arrive, look there for Jehu son of Jehoshaphat, son of Nimshi; go in and get him to leave his companions, and take him into an inner chamber. Then take the flask of oil, pour it on his head, and say, “Thus says the Lord: I anoint you king over Israel.” Then open the door and flee; do not linger.’

It is Elisha who completes Elijah’s tasks because Elijah refuses to anoint three people. But even now Elijah delegates the task to one of the prophets who are in his company. Perhaps God didn't ask Elijah to perform the anointing personally. 

But how many leaders have lost their anointing because they have refused to leave the centre stage and honour someone else that God wants to lift?

Many people are willing to die with public glory, to get their names etched on the tablets of history, but how many people are willing to die the way of John the Baptist, by decreasing? 

What happens to us when we refuse to do God’s will? It seems to me that because Elijah disobeyed God, his ministry was on its way to destruction, and that God took Elijah to heaven before he would encounter the consequences of his disobedience. After all, God has no use for a prophet who refuses to do God’s will. 

Some time ago I visited a large church in an event where there were many great speakers. I must admit that I felt a pang of jealousy when I listened to these speakers. But each time I felt jealousy, I felt the Holy Spirit say, “Marko. If you were doing what they are doing, I would have already taken you from earth.” I didn’t get the message immediately, as each one of these speakers was doing great things in their real life, and they weren't just conference speakers. But I got the sense that my days on earth would already have been over had I even tried to do what they were doing. I have survived accidents where I could easily have died, so I don’t think God was talking about being taken up in the chariots of fire. 

As I reflected on this, it became clear to me how much God values obedience. I heard the same response of the Holy Spirit again and again. But I think it was the voice of God’s love.

No matter, how successful we might be on the outside, God has no use for prophets who don’t do his will. And it was God’s love that took Elijah up in the chariot of fire, because he wanted Elijah to finish well.

You can connect with Marko on Twitter @markojoensuu and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/mpjoensuu/ or by visiting markojoensuu.com. 


Published by Marko Joensuu

Marko Joensuu has worked for over sixteen years in the publishing and media ministries of Kensington Temple. He is an author, publisher and screenwriter.
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