Finally I’m taking a look at 2 Kings: 1 – 14, which my study bible says is “the climax of the narratives about this mysterious figures.” That makes me feel much better! Elijah is mysterious, it isn’t just me being frustrated. I love how it starts: “Now when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind….” as if that’s just a thing that the Lord does. But I don’t think it is — someone correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t Elijah the only one to be sent to Heaven on a whirlwind? And I think that’s why Elijah is associated with coming back. He didn’t die, he was bodily swept up. But the story is about passing God’s power from Elijah to Elisha. It isn’t really fretting over the whirlwind or the ascension of Elijah, in my reading of it anyway.
Many years of adult Sunday school and such, let me make a note about ancient “cosmology”: Heaven was to them right up there, above the dome of the sky. Thus being on a mountaintop put you closer to Heaven and thus to God. It was where God, and angels, lived. It was where God stored the rain and snow and so on. It was not Heaven in our common sense of where you go when you die or fluffy clouds or any common image we have today.
Thus Elijah being swept up to Heaven, to see God (presumably) face to face is more than a natural thing, it is a super-natural thing, yes? It is extraordinary.
So as Elijah and Elisha walked, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated them and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. Just like that! Elisha is amazed and calls out, as I think you would. I like to think that Elijah hopped into the chariot and calmly took control of the horses of fire, but of course none of that is in the story.
So Elijah and John the Baptist are connected in preaching a message of repentance, of being chosen by God, of calling people to remain faithful to Israel’s God, of wearing camel’s hair and leather belts, of desert living. There’s an austerity and fierceness about both of them.
And of course Malachi 4:5-6: “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.”
And that brings us back to the beginning, of a voice crying out in the desert, prepare the way of the Lord.