Judgment From the Man of Grace

 •  6 min. read  •  grade level: 11
The ministry of Elisha was characterized by grace, in contradistinction to that of Elijah, which was characterized by law. However, in considering the history of Elisha, we cannot help but be arrested by a most notable exception to this, in the case of the little children (or “little boys”) who mocked him as he went up from Jericho to Bethel. The incident is most solemn, for when these children mocked Elisha with the words, “Go up, thou bald head,” his cursing them in the name of the Lord caused two she bears to come out of the wood and tear forty-two of them. When we consider what angry she bears can do, we can only imagine the terrible carnage that occurred at this time and the grief of the families whose children were taken from them in this awful way.
The Uncharacteristic Judgment
At first glance, the whole incident seems totally out of character for Elisha. Is this the same man who could heal the waters of Jericho — a city that had been rebuilt in direct defiance of God’s command — or heal a Naaman, a man whose armies had previously devastated Israel? We might well ask why no grace was shown to these children, or perhaps a stern rebuke given, instead of this appalling judgment.
While not attempting entirely to explain the reasons for this terrible judgment, I would suggest several considerations and several important lessons which God seeks to teach us in all this.
We must remember that Elijah and his ministry had been well-known, not only in Israel, but also in the surrounding nations. In particular, his signal vindication of the true God on Mount Carmel was before all Israel and had taken place some years before Elijah was taken up and Elisha became prophet instead. Evidently, too, the miraculous ascension of Elijah had become known in a relatively short time, even to little children. Had all this had the proper effect on Israel? Rather it seems that, just as Elijah was disliked, so also was his successor. They would gladly have seen Elisha go away too, so that their idolatry and sin could continue without any interference.
The God of Judgment
First of all, then, this awful judgment reminded the people that, while God might act in grace, He was still a God of judgment. He might show mercy, as He is doing today in this world, but this did not negate His holy character. During Elisha’s life and ministry, there were other evidences of God’s judgment, such as the dearth in the land (2 Kings 4:38), the famine in Samaria (2 Kings 6:24-33), and his anointing of Jehu (2 Kings 9:1-6). He was also commissioned to tell Hazael that he would be king over Syria (2 Kings 8:13), although Elisha wept when he considered the evil that Hazael would do to Israel. In connection with the healing of Naaman, Gehazi was judged very severely for his covetousness and lying, but perhaps most of all for misrepresenting the character of the God of Israel. So God may be gracious, and we can be most thankful that He is, but He cannot pass over evil. Elisha had acted in grace toward Jericho and had healed the water and the land. But grace despised brings judgment, for what more can God give?
The Spirit of Grace
Second, it was a most serious thing that these children said. There is no doubt that Elijah had failed in some ways, but he had been a most faithful man, and Elisha had learned much from him. As a result, God had taken Elijah home in a very honorable way, and Elisha’s last request had been for a double portion of his spirit, for he saw in Elijah something to be desired. For children to mock that spirit and the way he had been taken up into heaven was a solemn thing, even from little children, for it showed contempt for the testimony of the Lord.
The Rejection of Elisha
However, even these considerations would scarcely bring down such an awful judgment on little children. But there is a third perspective on the incident which I suggest is perhaps the most important. It is highly questionable whether these children had made up the mocking words themselves, since the Spirit of God takes care to identify them as “little children.” Children are well-known to repeat what they have heard from adults, especially those whom they admire and respect. It is most likely that these little children were only repeating what they had heard at home or in conversation among their parents and other adults. Their mockery thus reflected the common feeling among many who, while respecting the power that Elijah had wielded on behalf of the Lord, nevertheless heartily wished that he would go away and leave them to their sin and idolatry. When Ahab had said to Elijah, “Art thou he that troubleth Israel?” (1 Kings 18:17), his comment doubtless reflected not only his own feelings, but the general attitude in his kingdom. When the chariot of fire took Elijah away, they were dismayed to find another taking his place and would gladly have seen him go away too. God makes them feel the seriousness of despising His grace and rejecting His servants, by a judgment likely to be felt the most — the death of their little children.
We have other examples of this in Scripture. When “all Jerusalem” was troubled at the birth of the Lord Jesus, God allowed Herod to destroy all the children in and around Bethlehem, from two years old and under, as a voice to those who did not recognize their Messiah. (See Matthew 2:3,163When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. (Matthew 2:3)
16Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men. (Matthew 2:16)
.) Likewise, God allowed the child of David and Bath-sheba to die, as part of His government on them. In both of these cases, the children were entirely innocent, yet they were taken away as God’s voice to their parents. Other cases, such as the death of the young son of king Jeroboam, could also be mentioned.
Grace and Judgment
No doubt all these children, taken away in their tender years, fell under the provision of God given to us in Matthew 18:10-1110Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones; for I say unto you, That in heaven their angels do always behold the face of my Father which is in heaven. 11For the Son of man is come to save that which was lost. (Matthew 18:10‑11): “In heaven their angels do always behold the face of My Father which is in heaven. For the Son of Man is come to save that which was lost.” However, the grief and agony suffered by their parents and others who witnessed their death was a solemn reminder that “God is not mocked” and that the One who is a God of grace is also a God of judgment.
In the prophetic sense, we see a picture here of apostate Israel in a coming day. Having broken God’s law, rejected their Messiah, and despised the grace of God offered to them through the Lord Jesus, they will fall under the most awful judgment. The two she bears may well represent the beast and the antichrist, who will torment apostate Israel for forty-two months — the number of the children who were killed. But after judgment there is grace once more, and Elisha subsequently goes to Mount Carmel, not only the place of God’s judgment on Baal, but also the place of fruitfulness and blessing.
W. J. Prost