An Interrupted Funeral
Imagine being a pall-bearer at the funeral of a close friend, and then walking home with the one you were about to bury!
This is what happens in 2 Kings 13. We are told in verse 20 that “Elisha died and was buried.” Normally, this is the last that you would expect to hear about a person. His life is over, and his body will now return to the dust from which it was first made. But God is about to do something marvelous.
In the same verse in which Elisha dies, the author says that “Moabite raiders used to enter the country every spring” (v. 20). The Moabites probably came to do what invaders always do—steal, pillage, and rape at will—before rushing off for the security of their own borders.
Today the marauding Moabites interrupt a sombre occasion, the funeral of some anonymous Israelite. As we watch what happens next, keep in mind that graves back then weren’t usually pits dug into the ground like we have. Instead, they were caves in the side of a hill, its opening sealed up by a large stone. Such caves could become the final resting place for the bodies of many people.
The men had already pried open the tomb when they see the approaching raiders. In a panic, the pall-bearers want to be free of their burden as soon as possible so that they can scatter. So they throw the man’s body inside, into a part of the cave that was the final resting place of the prophet Elisha.
But through their haste something amazing happens: “When the body touched Elisha’s bones, the man came to life and stood up on his feet” (v. 21). In that time corpses weren’t carried to the grave in wooden coffins, but wrapped in cloth. So it is that when the dead man revives, he is able to stand at once, walk out of the tomb, and rejoin his companions.
Nowhere else in Scripture do we find this kind of event: that the bones of the dead seem to possess a power, even an ability to revive life. To some commentators this event has the flavour of pagan magic, or superstitions around the dead. Or it makes one think of the relics kept in some churches—an apostolic toenail or a saintly skull—artifacts that are allegedly able to heal the sick and help the suffering.
So how should we understand the mystery of Elisha’s life-restoring bones?
When he was alive, Elisha had to bring God’s Word. That was Elisha’s calling as a prophet. But from 2 Kings we know very little of what Elisha said, and much more about what he did. Again and again, Elisha worked miracles: healing Jericho’s waters, increasing the widow’s oil, raising the Shunamite’s son, purifying a pot of poisoned stew, feeding 100 men from a sack of grain, and so on. Now here is another miracle, a miracle that is even “performed” after his death.
For all of Elisha’s miracles, God was speaking through his prophet, speaking in a way that words could never express. And what was God saying? That God is Almighty. That God is merciful. He is a saving God, who gives deliverance to his covenant people even though they don’t deserve it, but ought to be punished instead. For many years, Elisha was a walking billboard for the amazing grace of God.
So coming back to our text, why is it significant that his bones were able to bring revival to that anonymous Israelite? In Scripture, bones aren’t just those pieces of our internal structure that are visible by X-ray, chunks of calcium and marrow. In a few places, the Bible speaks of bones as the essence of an individual. Think of how Adam describes Eve as “bone of his bones.” He means that this woman whom God has created is one who is fundamentally similar to him—she is essentially his equal.
And as the last part of the body to decay, bones were to be treated with respect. It’s true, touching bones would make a person unclean. This is why the stones that blocked the mouths of graves were painted white: to keep away the living. Yet today Elisha’s old bones don’t have a contaminating effect—they have a resurrecting power!
At one level then, those bones were just bones. They were the skeletal remnants of a corpse. Yet they were also the remains of God’s wonder-working prophet. And the LORD decided that it was time for one last sermon, a message from the grave. And it would be the same gospel that Elisha always brought, but now it would be amplified: the message that God is Almighty, and merciful. That He’s the God of life.
This was a needed message. Israel had fallen to a low state in those days of idolatry and injustice, which saw the beginnings of God’s righteous judgment. But by this miracle at the tomb God says, “The words of my prophet are still certain. Elisha might be silent now, but I haven’t taken back my promises or repealed my covenant of love. I’m still the LORD, who does great things for my people.”
And doesn’t that message point us to our greatest prophet, Jesus Christ? Like Elisha, He was a worker of wonders during his ministry: healing those who were sick, feeding the hungry with very little, overruling the “laws of nature,” even raising the dead. And like Elisha, Jesus had been laid in the grave. Before that, Jesus had hung on the cross in seeming defeat—an ignoble end for what had been a promising career.
But through the cross, the LORD brings abundant life! Remember what happened at the very moment when Jesus breathed his last: “The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life” (Matt 27:52).
That’s a dramatic picture of the gospel in action: dead people who are made alive through the death of Jesus! We once were on a funeral march, ready to be put away forever because of our sin. But when it looked like all was lost, Christ interrupted our misery and gave us victory over sin and the punishment it deserves.
Today we still have enemies who threaten and destroy. But we take courage, because we know Christ has defeated them already! By faith in Christ we have been raised from our graves and can go on our way rejoicing, leaving behind the ways of darkness.
Walk in the light of Christ, in the joy of salvation—in the joy of resurrection!