His Call, Length of His Activity (§ 1).
His Character Compared with Elijah's (§ 2).
His Patriotism (§ 3).
His Miracles and Prophecy (§ 4).
1. His Call, Length of His Activity. Elisha ("My God is Salvation") was a prophet of the Northern Kingdom, and successor of Elijah. According to I Kings xix. 16, 19, he was born at Abelmeholah and was the son of a wealthy land-owner. He was called by Elijah from the plow to the prophetical work, and willingly left his home, requesting only to be allowed to take leave of his family. He then followed his master, whom he accompanied some time as an attendant (II Kings Hi. 11), whose faithful and active disciple he proved himself until the latter's death. Thereafter he was the leader of the companies of prophets and was universally acknowledged as heir of the dignity of Elijah. His activity lasted for more than half a century; for according to II Kings ii.-ix., xiii. he was active from the beginning of the reign of Jehoram to the beginning of that of Joash of Israel (895 840 or 855-798). The stories of Elisha's work are largely involved in the history of King Jehoram, and this period seems to have been the palmy days of his activity. But even if his labors began in the first year of that king, not all of his deeds recorded up to II Kings viii. 6 find room in that reign. Moreover, that Elisha was inactive during the twenty-eight years of Jehu's reign and the seventeen years of that of Jehoahaz is precluded by II Kings xiii. 14. The time of some events, however, can not be fixed with certainty.
His Character Compared with Elijah’s. The powerful championship of Elijah had effected a great change in the disposition of the people; the God whom he worshiped became again generally honored. True, Jezebel was still alive and had surrounded herself with priests of Baal, and the companions of Jehoram, the so-called Yahweh-prophets, were still less filled with God's spirit. But Jehoram had forbidden the worship of Baal (iii. 2) and treated Elisha with respect (II Kings iv. 13). Thus the prophet could await the issue till he became certain that the execution of the divine judgment on Ahab's house enjoined on him by his master could be accomplished. That done, Elisha's relation to Jehu, the avenger appointed by him, and to his son and grandson, could be more friendly (II Kings xiii. 14). In some places the soil had become fit for the divine gifts of grace, and Elisha, in keeping with his name, could appear as a mediator of divine salvation and blessing. Severity was indeed one trait of his character (cf. II Kings ii. 23, v. 26, ix. 2 sqq.). But as compared with the militant Elijah, Elisha had the more peaceful mission as mediator to the faithful in Israel to bring to them the assistance and blessing of their God. This difference between the activities of Elijah and Elisha depended in part upon the changed attitude of the people and also upon the personalities of the two men. Elisha dwelt more among the people and was more intimate with them than was Elijah. Though he sometimes lived in the solitude of Carmel, he was often in the colonies of the young prophets near Jericho and by the Jordan, at Gilgal and Bethel, and even had a permanent residence in Samaria.
He appeared as a philanthropist, a benefactor of the poor, a helper in distress, manifesting a tender solicitude for even the little needs of domestic life. As a healer of the sick, so the story goes, he became known even in Syria, and the Syrian captain Naaman, suffering from leprosy, came to Israel where he was healed by the prophet. The punishment of Gehazi, servant of Elisha, represents the penalty due to covetousness, and belongs with the last-named episode.
3. His Patriotism. Elisha was not only a private benefactor, he was also the good genius of the country, so that even King Jehoram when in distress was not deprived of his help, though he was unworthy of it. Having been successful, through Elisha's assistance, in a campaign against the Moabites (II Kings iii. 11 sqq.), when distress was caused by the Syrians he relied on the advice of the prophet. So accurately did Elisha inform him of the plans of the Syrians that their king imagined the existence of traitors in his own camp. The Syrian attempt made to capture the prophet was a failure, and resulted only in the capture of the Syrian force, which, by the humanity of the prophet, was spared the fate of prisoners of war (II Kings vi. 8 sqq.). Elisha's power was so manifest that Jehoram attempted to make him responsible for the horrors of a Syrian siege of Samaria (II Kings vi. 24 sqq., vii.). Because of the king's contumacy, involving also the people in divine punishment, Elisha was the channel of the announcement of the coming chastisement of the royal house and of the people. With sorrow Elisha announced to Hazael his elevation to the throne of Syria (II Kings viii. 7 sqq.) and the consequent devastation of the kingdom of Israel.
4. His Miracles and Prophecy. Turning his attention to the affairs of his own people, Elisha caused the anointing of the energetic Jehu (q.v.) who, being an unrighteous instrument of righteous vengeance, destroyed the house of Ahab with unholy impetuosity (II Kings ix. x.). Only by a complete misjudging of the dependence of the true prophet upon a higher will can Elisha be reproached on account of these acts of obedience to his God. The authority among the people which he enjoyed for decades, the testimony at his death of a king who lamented him as a father and as Israel's protection, and his last utterances against the enemy threatening in the North (I Kings xiii. 14 sqq.) prove how much he had at heart the welfare of his country. Thus Elisha worthily followed the footsteps of his predecessor. He was not his equal in his unique spiritual power, but in him was embodied the lovelier grace and providence of God in the minutiæ of life. The miracles accredited to him resemble on a smaller scale those of Elijah. Whether those miracles, which as in the case of Elijah are recorded with intentional emphasis upon the supernatural, are to be considered historical will depend upon one's attitude to the miraculous in general. The knowledge of future events or of things which are removed from the limited view of ordinary mortals can not be denied the prophet, since it must be conceded in the secular domain to the clairvoyant. It must not be forgotten that a childlike faith, especially that of a man of God, may discern as in a higher light things which take place in the sphere of the ordinary (cf. II Kings ii. 19 sqq., iv. 38 sqq., vi. 6 sqq.). In the case of Elisha it would be impossible to ascribe everything to ordinary earthly happenings. Whoever acknowledges in the life of the Son of God analogous deeds which transcended natural ability will not be able to deny them to his Old-Testament antitype or to credit the story to poetical legend.
C. VON ORELLI.
Bibliography: The activity of Elisha is treated in the works on the history of Israel, for which consult the list under AHAB; cf. also the commentaries on the Books of Kings. Consult further: P. Cassel, Der Prophet Elisa, Berlin, 1860; A. Kuenen, Prophets and Prophecy in Israel, London, 1877 (valuable); C. G. Montefiore, Hibbert Lectures, pp. 94-95, ib. 1893; C. H. Cornill, Prophets of Israel. Chicago, 1897; R. C. Dodds, Elisha the Man of God, Winona, 1904; W. Erbt, Untersuchungen zur Geschichte der Hebäer, part i., Elia, Elisa, Jona, Leipsic, 1907; Smith, Prophets, passim; DB, i. 693-696; EB, ii. 1275-78; JE, v. 136-138.