The story of Elisha is one you don’t hear about very often. Now Elijah, was one of the most important figures in the life of Israel, but in this story (below) he has just been taken up into heaven, and his young apprentice, Elisha, was returning by himself to Bethel.
I’ve always thought that Elisha is a little bit different from other prophets—he performed some pretty incredible miracles. Some of those stories border on being bizarre, but one is striking: the story of the boys and bears.
The narrative is very strange and can be rather unsettling. It is also quite short. So here it is: “Then he went up from there to Bethel; and as he was going up by the way, young lads came out from the city and mocked him and said to him, “Go up, you baldhead; go up, you baldhead!” 24 When he looked behind him and saw them, he cursed them in the name of the LORD. Then two female bears came out of the woods and tore up forty-two lads of their number. 25 And he went from there to Mount Carmel, and from there he returned to Samaria. “(2 Kings 2:23-25, ESV).
The word “lads” is the Hebrew naar and could mean young boys, youth or servants. But it’s obvious from the context that this was a crowd of young men, perhaps even students of the false prophets of Baal in Bethel; they were following Elisha as antagonists to his prophetic ministry and authority. This is called the story of “the little boys and the bears”, but these were hoodlums, not little boys.
This gang of teenagers mocked Elisha. ”Go on up (like Elisha did)” is what they were probably saying. They are both laughing at Elisha about what they presume to have been the death of Elijah and threatening a similar fate (death) to Elisha.
The background is that Elisha had already been to Jericho were he was greeted and recognized as God’s mouthpiece—one called and anointed by God. But he did not receive the same treatment at Bethel. Bethel was a town that was not very focused upon God or His commands. They still practiced idolatry as had all the northern kings, following in King Jeroboam’s wicked ways. This was a town bent on rejecting God.
Why did these young men do this? Well, why do young men still do things like this? Why do they roam about in gangs, or deface personal property, or taunt people in authority over them? Just look at the news any night of the week. It’s nothing new! But today we make excuses for graffiti and the destruction of businesses, and we seem to show more empathy for the irreverent and destructive youth than for those that have lost their businesses, property and health because of the vandalism.
But not Elisha. He put a quick stop to their stupidity. All the sons of the prophets at Bethel and Jericho knew of Elijah’s ascension to heaven (2 Kings 2:3, 5, 15), and word would have reached the false priests at Bethel’s idolatrous shrine. So when Elisha came near, these boys had heard that Elijah was gone, and they taunted His apprentice, Elisha, who was still mourning; Elisha responded. These youth called God’s anointed mouthpiece, Elisha, “baldy” —-which was meant to be insulting. Maybe Elisha was bald, or maybe he cut his hair short—-who knows. He was not an old man. But these were young men mocking his appearance. They may have also been laughing at his loss of his hero, Elijah. But there is reason to think that they were challenging him to a fight. Forty-two against one. But that’s what’s gangs, losers and hoodlums do. They tend to be cowards alone, but say provocative things with the protection of numbers. Forty-two of them mocked Elisha. But after he responded I bet they never showed a lack of respect to their elders, or God’s elect, again.
I hope we can all see that the story is not about Elisha’s pride or God’s short temper—-neither is true and neither of those things happened here. Rather the story is how foolish and reckless youth, who despise God’s word and the messengers he sends out, are playing with dynamite.
In working with youth, parents, adults and leaders have always had to deal with disrespect. But the greatest disrespect here is in relation to God. These young men were attacking not just Elisha, but they were also attacking the One who sent him. Elisha was God’s man with God’s message and they were disrespecting him. As a result, in the final analysis they were mocking and rejecting God and what He was attempting to do through Elisha as God’s spokesman. Elisha was simply an instrument of God.
The attack of these young men is twofold:(1) “Go up” That is, “Why don’t you just die and go up as you claim Elijah did?” In truth they obviously did not believe that Elijah was “taken up” to be with the Lord. These youth were the agnostics of their day and the enemies of truth. If they did not see it with their own eyes, the would not believe it.
But the important thing here is Elisha’s reaction to this and God’s action in response. This is designed to emphasize to us the seriousness of their sin.
So Elisha Curses the Young Men .
This seems harsh, but God and His leaders have, on occasion, acted harshly in order to impress upon man the seriousness of life and the Word of God. Ananias and Saphira are an illustration of this in the New Testament. But before looking at what Elisha did, let’s consider for a moment what he did not do:
-He did not turn and run.
-He did not argue with them or defend himself.
-He did not respond from the standpoint of his ego or pride.
-He did not sit down and cry about how unfair life is!
What Elisha did simple and precise. He did the opposite of blessing. He called down judgment from God about what they had said. It’s called “cursing” here, but it references the absence, reversal, or removal of a blessed state or rightful position which brings God’s protection, provision and blessing. The principle is very simple: without God’s blessed salvation and protection we all stand cursed. The moment God removed His wall of protection from Job, Satan gleefully attacked him and wrecked havoc in Job’s life.
So he was in effect saying, “May my God deal with you according to what you deserve,” or “May you pay for your sins of rebellion without God’s intervention.” This would demonstrate to the city and to people all around a vital truth: without the Lord there is no protection; those that blaspheme God’s servants and His Word, in order to hinder God’s message, are in serious trouble. Then two female bears came out and tore up forty-two young men.
Like Elisha, we should expect opposition if we’re going to be about God’s work. The more we move out for the Lord, the more attacks we will face from our adversary. As Paul stated it in 2 Timothy 3:12, “In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (NIV). But those who oppose the good work that God has called His prophets, pastors, youth workers, missionaries, counselors and workers to do should recognize that when God’s people cry out to God, God’s punishment can be severe—-and the she-bears are not going to be reasonable. (I Tim, 1:20, “ Among them are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have delivered to Satan, so that they may be taught not to blaspheme.”)
But in conclusion:
1. Nowhere are we told that these 42 youth were killed. They were mauled—-that is, their flesh was torn up and they suffered. Think about what Gideon did to the elders of a city that refused to help him liberate the Hebrews: “ He took the elders of the city, and thorns of the wilderness and briers, and with them he taught the men of Succoth” Judge 8:16, NIV) Apparently Gideon publicly whipped the leaders of the city of Succoth with thorns and briers as a method of public rebuke. In the New Testament some young men went around driving out evil spirits tried to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who were demon-possessed. They would say, “In the name of the Jesus whom Paul preaches, I command you to come out.” Seven sons of Sceva, a Jewish chief priest, were doing this. One day the evil spirit answered them, “Jesus I know, and Paul I know about, but who are you?” Then the man who had the evil spirit jumped on them and overpowered them all. He gave them such a beating that they ran out of the house naked and bleeding. When this became known to the Jews and Greeks living in Ephesus, they were all seized with fear, and the name of the Lord Jesus was held in high honor (Acts 19:13-17 NIV)
2. These boys were mauled because of their arrogance and blaspheming of the Holy Spirit It was a petty thing they did—- their sin was not trivial.
3. Note that Elisha did not call out the bears, God did. Two female bears came out and tore up forty-two young men. Are you afraid that God might call out some mama bears to maul you today? Well, hear this good news: Jesus was mauled for our sins by two Roman torturers—and the Romans were far more able to inflict pain than the two bears that mauled those 42 boys.
Those tormentors tore up the Son of God up as a consequence of my sins——and yours. He was mauled for my transgressions—-and yours’. We don’t need to be afraid of bears because of Jesus. But if we are outside the body of Christ, the bears might be waiting to give you back what you’re earned. Better to be inside the flock of Christ.
4. If you are inside the flock (and thus protected from the bears), shame on you if you are continuing to mock God by living in sin and doing things you know His Son was mauled to atone for.