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What the Bible says about Elijah

2 Kings 2:11

11 As they were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind.

Read more from Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary of the Old Testament

A chariot of fire and horses of fire (2:11). Chariotry and fire have strong associations in biblical tradition with God’s self-disclosure. Both images come together in the most common natural form of divine appearing (“theophany”) in the Old Testament, the thunderstorm. Here the storm cloud represents the divine chariot or throne (Hab. 3:8; Ezek. 1) and the fiery lightning bolts the divine weapons (Ps. 18:14; Hab. 3:11).

We encounter this same combination of cloud and fire in the account of Israel’s journey from Egypt to Sinai (Ex. 13:21 – 22; 14:19 – 20; Num. 10:33 – 34; 14:13 – 14), and God elsewhere reveals himself in fire in such famous passages as Genesis 15:17 and Exodus 3:2 – 4. The chariots of God are said by Psalm 68:18 to be “tens of thousands and thousands of thousands” — the army of God later revealed to Gehazi in 2 Kings 6:17, when “he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.” In 2 Kings 2, then, the divine army, last encountered waging war on Ahab (1 Kings 22:1 – 38), comes for Elijah to take him to God.

We begin to grasp the full import of the symbolism of fiery chariotry when we remember that Yahweh’s chief rival in the Elijah stories is the storm-god Baal (Hadad), son of the high god El, whose weapons were also considered to be thunder and lightning (see sidebar “The Worship of Baal” at 1:2) and whose most common designation at Ugarit was rkb ՝rpt, “rider/driver of the clouds” (the clouds functioning as his war chariot).

Associated with Hadad in the Panammuwa Inscription, found at Zinçirli on a statue erected by Panamuwa of Sam׳al’s son Bar-Rakib around 733 – 727 b.c., are the deities Rakib-El (“charioteer of El”) and Shamash the sun-god, whose trusted advisor Bunene appears in Akkadian texts as his charioteer and in whose cult horses and chariots were prominent (cf. 2 Kings 23:11). It has been suggested that “Rakib-El” is itself an epithet for Hadad, the rkb ՝rpt. Second Kings 1 (along with 1 Kings 18) has already introduced the reader to the issue of which god truly controls “fire”; the symbolism of the biblical story in chapter 2 once again reminds us that it is Yahweh, not Baal or any other deity, who rules.

Luke 1:17

17 And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

Read more from Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary of the New Testament

In the spirit and power of Elijah (1:17).

This verse alludes to Malachi, where the prophet predicts that Elijah will return before the great Day of the Lord to bring about reconciliation within families (Mal. 4:56) and to prepare the way for the coming of the Lord (Mal. 3:1; see Luke 1:76). The reference to Elijah’s “spirit” recalls 2 Kings 2:910, where Elijah’s successor Elisha asks for and receives a “double portion” of his spirit. The “power” of Elijah probably refers to his prophetic authority rather than to his miracles (cf. 1 Kings 1718) since Luke does not record miracles by John. His role, rather, is to “make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

There was speculation in Judaism concerning the return of Elijah, much of it related to Elijah’s role as interpreter of the law. Even today Jews leave an empty chair at Passover in the hopes that the prophet Elijah will come.

1 Kings 18:25 - 1 Kings 18:29

25 Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “Choose one of the bulls and prepare it first, since there are so many of you. Call on the name of your god, but do not light the fire.”

26 So they took the bull given them and prepared it.

Then they called on the name of Baal from morning till noon. “Baal, answer us!” they shouted. But there was no response; no one answered. And they danced around the altar they had made.

27 At noon Elijah began to taunt them. “Shout louder!” he said. “Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.”

28 So they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed.

29 Midday passed, and they continued their frantic prophesying until the time for the evening sacrifice. But there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention.

Read more from Expositors Bible Commentary (Abridged Edition): Old Testament

25-29 Elijah deferred the first opportunity to Baal's prophets. Despite all their plaintive wailing and ecstatic dancing, when morning gave way to noon and still Baal had failed to provide the necessary fire, Elijah began to taunt his antagonists. Was Baal not a god? Perhaps he was lost in deep thought or preoccupied with his many cares or had gone to care for his many commercial interests. All these activities were characteristic of the duties attributed to the pagan gods. Perhaps, like many of the gods of the ancient Near East, he was asleep and needed to be awakened by cultic ritual.

The prophets of Baal became more frantic. In renewed frenzy they lacerated themselves with swords and spears, the blood flowing freely down their perspiration-soaked bodies. The ritual went on and on at an increasingly feverish pitch. As the time for the evening sacrifice came, there was still no response.