Then he (Elisha) went up from there to Bethel; and as he was going up the road, some youths came from the city and mocked him, and said to him, “Go up, you baldhead! Go up, you baldhead!” So he turned around and looked at them, and pronounced a curse on them in the name of the Lord. And two female bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the youths. (2 Kings 2:23-25)
Question: “What do you call a preacher’s belt?” Answer: “A fence around a chicken graveyard.” It’s jokes like these that serve to lower the respect that preachers receive. And I’ll freely admit that we preachers don’t always help ourselves by our conduct. When we get caught up in scandals involving money or sex, it hurts our level of respect. When we come off as immature, shallow, uncaring, greedy, or lazy, it hurts our level of respect. When we act more like the world than the Savior we preach, it hurts our level of respect. Furthermore, the problem of “preachers” who aren’t God-called and God-ordained hurts the cause as well. For that matter, there are even many God-called, God-ordained preachers who are out of God’s will being in the churches they currently pastor. This doesn’t help things either.
Still, though, through it all, the authentic preacher really should merit a certain level of respect, and the more of God you see upon the man’s life the more respect you should give him. This is a Bible truth that is on display in our text story. Is it a shocking story? Yes. Is it a tragic story? Yes. But is it an example of a spiritual principle that is still relevant today? Absolutely. It’s an extreme example, I’ll grant you, but it’s an example.
Elisha was a farmer before God instructed the great prophet Elijah to anoint him as his successor (1 Kings 19:15-21). Elisha then became Elijah’s servant, traveling companion, and prophet in training. Elisha was with Elijah when Elijah left this earth and went to heaven by way of a chariot of fire and horses of fire (2 Kings 2:11-12). Just prior to that, Elijah had promised that if Elisha was with him when he was taken up Elisha would receive a double portion of Elijah’s prophetic power (2 Kings 2:9-10). So, as soon as Elijah was taken away Elisha picked up Elijah’s cloak (mantle) that had fallen off during the miraculous event, and from that point Elisha started performing one miracle after another as a part of his prophetic ministry (2 Kings 2:13-14). As a matter of fact, most of the Bible’s stories concerning him involve some type of miracle or incredible event. It’s all a fascinating read. Suffice is to say that if there was one guy in the whole world that you didn’t want to mess with at that time, it was Elisha.
And that brings us to our story. Elisha is in the city of Jericho, and some of his fellow prophets ask him to solve the problem of the city’s bad water supply (2 Kings 2:19). Elisha does this by requesting that a new bowl with salt in it be brought to him. Once he has the bowl, he goes out to the source of the water, casts the salt into the water, and says, “Thus says the Lord: ‘I have healed this water; from it there shall be no more death or barrenness'” (2 Kings 2:20-22). Okay, water problem solved.
Then Elisha departs from Jericho and starts down the road toward Bethel (2 Kings 2:23). Whereas the city of Jericho was very appreciative of God’s prophets, Bethel was one of the primary centers for idol worship in the land (1 Kings 12:25-33, Amos 7:13). It was just the type of city that would produce irreverent, disrespectful young people who would mock and taunt a true prophet of God. Not surprisingly then, somewhere along the road a group of such youths goes out to meet Elisha and give him a hard time.
The classic King James translation has unintentionally caused a distorted view of this story by describing these youths as “little children.” The Hebrew word is na’ar and it is used 235 times in the Old Testament. In a few instances, the word obviously refers to a very young child. For example, 1 Samuel 1:22 uses it to describe a child that hasn’t been weened yet, and Isaiah 7:16 uses it to describe one that doesn’t yet know to refuse evil and choose good. Likewise, 2 Samuel 12:16 uses it in reference to the sickly infant son of David and Bathsheba. By in large, though, the word refers to a much older youth, and this is seen in the K.J.V.’s more frequent translation “young man.” For example, when David’s son Absalom attempted a coup attempt of David’s throne, Absalom was a na’ar (2 Samuel 18:5). Also, when Rehoboam sought council as king of Judah, he received it from a group of na’ar that had grown up with him (1 Kings 12:8). Basically, the word na’ar can refer to various ages and its proper translation into English on a case-by-case basis depends upon the context of the story. In this story from the life of Elisha, clearly these are teenagers or older who are out and about causing problems. They are a large group, at least 42 in number. So, if you are envisioning them as a large gang of young punks and thugs, you’re on the right track.
Their words to Elisha, “Go up, you baldhead! Go up, you baldhead!” have significant meaning. For one thing, the words plainly indicate that Elisha suffered from what we now call male pattern baldness. While this is fairly common among American men, it doesn’t seem to have been so common in ancient Israel, which means that Elisha’s baldness no doubt made him an easy target for ridicule if someone wanted to go there. But then also, the young punks twice tell him to “Go up.” Why did they say that? They said it because the story was now well known of how Elijah, Elisha’s spiritual mentor, had been taken up into heaven by way of a chariot of fire and horses of fire. So, the smart alecks were saying to Elisha, “Why don’t you go on up into heaven too and leave us alone? We don’t want your kind in Bethel. Get out of here.” It’s even possible that the gang was sent out by the citizens of Bethel to intercept Elisha and discourage him from entering the city.
Whatever the exact details of the situation were it doesn’t take Elisha long to get tired of hearing the ridicule. That’s when he wheels around, stares a hole through the young people, and pronounces a curse upon them. The key to the curse is that Elisha does it “in the name of the Lord.” You see, if those youths had simply disrespected Elisha as a man, he could have swallowed his pride and kept moving on down the road. But he understood the spiritual implications behind their taunts. Those ruffians were disrespecting God and the office of prophet. That put their actions onto much more dangerous ground and meant that a lesson was in order.
And so what happened? Oh, not much, just that two female bears promptly came out from somewhere and mauled 42 of those youths. Wow! Wild beasts were actually common in that part of the world. Samson had once killed a lion (Judges 14:5-6), and David had defended his sheep against lions and bears (1 Samuel 17:37). God had even warned the Israelites during Moses’ time that if they would not obey His law He would send wild beasts among them to rob them of their children, destroy their livestock, and make them few in number (Leviticus 26:21-22). I doubt that Elisha had that specific promise from God in mind when he pronounced the curse, but he certainly got an eyewitness taste of it. I say “taste” because it doesn’t seem that those bears actually killed those young men. They just mauled them, whatever that means exactly. One thing is for sure, the point was made: God’s prophet should be respected.
Now, I realize that we don’t have any modern day Elishas. We do, however, still have men who are God-called and God-ordained into the ministry, and these men are to be respected. There are various verses that I could cite here, but I’ll go with 1 Timothy 5:17:
Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and doctrine.
In the New Testament, the title “elder” (Titus 1:5-9) is synonymous with the titles “pastor” (Ephesians 4:11), “shepherd” (1 Peter 5:1-4), and “bishop” (1 Timothy 3:1). The idea of such men having “rule” in the church keeps some people up at night, but it’s actually a common theme when the New Testament talks about the local church (Hebrews 13:7, 17, 24; 1 Timothy 3:4-5). Of course, whatever leadership comes with the role should be exercised in the right way. As 1 Peter 5:3 puts it, these men shouldn’t operate like “lords” over those entrusted to them. Instead, they should serve as examples to their flocks, with the best example being that of servant leader. With this understood, though, the men of God who rule well and labor in word and doctrine should be counted worthy of not just honor but double honor. You see, here again we find the Biblical principle that the God-ordained, God-called man of God should be respected.
I think we all need to be reminded of this principle now and then because the devil and the world have many ways of stealing honor from the man of God. It doesn’t have to be a gang of young punks out on a road. It can be a local gossip, a problem church member, a community leader who wants to push an ungodly agenda, or anyone else who runs down the preacher. And then there are the television and movie industries. Check out how preachers are typically depicted in t.v. and the movies prior to the 1970s. With a few exceptions, they are generally good men trying to do good things. But then pay attention to the t.v shows and movies made during the 1970s and beyond. Somewhere along the line preachers became at best foolish, cowardly buffoons and at worst hypocrites, con artists, liars, thieves, murderers, and sex perverts. It’s no wonder that when many people hear the words “preacher,” “pastor,” “minister,” or “reverend” they just roll their eyes and mock. All I’m saying with this post is, don’t let that be you. I doubt that you will get mauled by bears for doing it, but then again you never know.