Ascension (2 Kings 2:1-18)
This picture is called an icon. Icons are images of saints in Eastern churches, especially in the Orthodox Church. They are mostly painted on wood. Their characteristic feature is that they are consecrated and are to arouse in the beholder deep veneration for the holy image. The intensive red color and the circle attract our attention right away. The circle is bordered by four green and blue rings as if it were a precious jewel. In its luminosity and perfect form, it symbolizes the divine realm permeated by Elijah. Just have a look at how strongly Elisha pulls at the hem of Elijah‘s coat! However, he cannot hold him back any more. And the cross down below? It is supposed to remind us of Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane. There an angel appears to Christ as before to Elijah, to give him strength in a moment of deep grief and loneliness (Gospel according to Luke, chapter 22, verse 43).
Fig. 1: The Fiery Ascent of the Prophet Elijah (center), Elijah in the Wilderness (below). Second half of the 16th century. Icon, Northern Russian, 99.5 x 64 cm. Moscow, The State Tretyakov Gallery.
Now when the LORD was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. They went down to Bethel and on to Jericho. Fifty men of the sons of the prophets also went and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan. Then Elijah took his cloak and rolled it up and struck the water, and the water was parted to the one side and to the other, till the two of them could go over on dry ground. When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Ask what I shall do for you, before I am taken from you.” And Elisha said, “Please let there be a double portion of your spirit on me.” And he said, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it shall be so for you, but if you do not see me, it shall not be so.” And as they still went on and talked, behold, chariots of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.
And Elisha saw it and he cried, “My father, my father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” And he saw him no more. Then he took hold of his own clothes and tore them in two pieces. And he took up the cloak of Elijah that had fallen from him and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. Then he took the cloak of Elijah and struck the water, saying, “Where is the LORD, the God of Elijah?” And when he had struck the water, the water was parted to the one side and to the other, and Elisha went over. 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. 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 for three days they sought him but did not find him.
According to Dt 21:17, the eldest son inherited a portion twice that of the other brothers (a “double portion”). To Elisha, Elijah is like a father guiding and instructing him. Elisha wants to become Elijah’s principal spiritual heir. Elijah’s answer implies that it is God alone who will either pass on the prophetic spirit to him or not. If he can see what human eyes otherwise cannot, his request will be granted. The fulfillment of his plea follows right away: Elisha becomes a firsthand witness of Elijah’s ascension to heaven, whereas his vision is barred to the disciples of the prophets. The wonderful parting of the water shortly afterwards proves that he really has received Elijah’s spirit. Thereby he is not only successor to Elijah, but also to Moses and Joshua, both of whom started their ministry with the miracle of the parting of the waters (cf. Ex 14:21–22 and Jo 3:15– 17).
These pictures show Old and New Testament incidents related to one another. All of them are connected to “the ascent.” The upper left-hand picture shows Christ’s ascension to heaven. Only His footprints remain. Below, Jacob dreams of a ladder reaching to heaven. Angels of God are ascending and descending on it. This story can be found in the Book of Genesis, chapter 28, verses 10–22. To the upper right, Christ can be seen as a Good Shepherd tending His flock (= His people). The picture refers to the New Testament Parable of the Lost Sheep which was found again. Christ carries it to the angels in heaven. The scene below beneath probably needs no explanation….
Fig. 2: The Ascension of Christ (upper left), Jacob’s Dream of the Ladder (lower left), Christ, the Good Shepherd (upper right), Elijah’s Ascension to Heaven in a Fiery Chariot (lower right). Ca. 1360, Mirror of Salvation, Darmstadt, Universitäts- und Landesbibliothek Darmstadt
Elijah’s ascension is not to be taken literally. It is a metaphor for Elijah’s mysterious rapture into the inconceivable realm of God. It became the topic of many legends in Judaism. Until the present day, Jews long for Elijah’s return. Elijah did not die, but was “taken” by God, like Enoch (Gn 5:24). Jewish Seders include an empty chair at the table and a cup in anticipation of Elijah’s return. In both Judaism and Christianity, Elijah is seen as the forerunner to the Messiah. No other prophet is mentioned more often in the New Testament than Elijah (he is named 29 times!). He resembles John the Baptist. Both are clothed in a coat made of camel’s or goat’s hair with a leather belt tied around their waist (cf. 2 Kgs 1:8; Mark 1:6). John the Baptist is seen as preparing the way for Jesus and is once even called Elijah who is to come (Matthew 11:14). In Christian typology, Elijah’s ascension to heaven is seen as a prefiguration of Christ’s ascension to heaven (see adjoining picture).
Fig. 1: akg-images / Sputnik.
Fig. 2: © Universitäts- und Landesbibliothek Darmstadt
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version ® (ESV ®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.