And so it was, when they had crossed over, that Elijah said to Elisha, “Ask! What may I do for you, before I am taken away from you?” Elisha said, “Please let a double portion of your spirit be upon me.” (2 Kings 2:9)
I’ve heard this prayer so often, and cannot help but wonder how many of us really understand what is involved in asking for a ‘double portion.’ It sounds good. It sounds spiritual. We have the moving example of Elisha asking Elijah for this one single thing at the place of their separation, and it’s so easy to get swept away by the poignancy of the moment without fully considering the implications. We see these bold, courageous men, closely bonded through their ministry, come to a place of parting – one will be swept up to heaven, and the other will return to their earthly calling. It’s a dramatic place, a place of strong emotion and intensely real, and Elisha’s request stands out boldly against this sweeping backdrop like a call to power and transformation. That was, indeed, the manifestation of Elisha’s ministry, but the foundational truth of a double portion presents a very different picture.
A double portion is about responsibility before rights and power.
We have a tendency to focus on the power aspect of everything which, in one sense, is not incorrect. The reality is that we can be and do nothing in this life without the power of God working actively in and through us. There is nothing wrong with asking for a double portion of what we need, providing that we are understand and accept all that it requires. And, lest we enter into confusion, it’s not a matter of earning it. That is impossible. It’s also not about being somehow ‘special’ or extraordinary. We all have the same possibilities in the eyes of God. Like so many things of the Kingdom, it’s about our attitude and our position in Christ.
We need to understand what Elisha was actually asking for, and to do this, we need to visit Deuteronomy 21:17: But he shall acknowledge the son of the unloved wife as the firstborn by giving him a double portion of all that he has, for he is the beginning of his strength; the right of the firstborn is his. Without delving into the matter of the unloved wife, our focus is on that of the firstborn. While a father divided his estate between his sons, the firstborn always received a double portion – the acknowledgement that he was his father’s heir. This is the crux of the matter. Elisha was asking that be acknowledged as Elijah’s heir – the one who would follow after and continue the work Elijah had begun. He wasn’t essentially asking for a double portion of power, though he no doubt knew very well that he would need it. He was asking to assume Elijah’s mantle, to be his heir, and to carry on his ‘father’s’ work.
What is critical is that we understand that a whole lot of very significant history led up to this moment. Their journey to the place of Elijah’s departure carried important truth which we would do well to explore. Before that, however, we need to unerstand the reason why the firstborn received a double portion. It wasn’t because he was special or better than his brothers. It was because, as his father’s heir, he assumed the responsibilities of his father. He was given a double portion as his right only because the weight of responsibility required it. The responsibility came with the right. It was part of it, inseperable and unavoidable.
Elisha had already, in many ways, revealed himself as one having the heart attitude of a firstborn son. In fact, he called Elijah ‘my father,’ according him the respect of both son and servant. At no point do we see him seeking to extend his power beyond his role as Elijah’s servant. On the contrary, his humility is touching because it his servanthood includes the genuine love and respect and son feels for a wise and nurturing father. These two men provide a wonderful and moving example of the nature of real mentorship. Elisha’s rquest for a double portion is revelatory. He is not motivated by a personal desire for power and self-gratification. His desire is to continue the work his spiritual father has begun, to see it finished, and to honour a man who gave his life in the service of God. Elisha is, in effect, surrendering his life at the moment of his request.
This is an important truth. With Elijah gone, Elisha could very easily have simply gone home and entrenched himself comfortably among the other prophets, basking in the ‘reflected glory’ of a powerful master who was no more. Simply being the servant of the man who never died but who was snatched up in the fiery whirlwind would have brought him personal power and prestige enough to last a lifetime. I do sometimes find myself wondering, as I see and hear others asking for a double portion, if this isn’t the prideful reason behind the prayer. We see what Elijah was and desire the same. But, back to the journey, because this reveals the real heart behind this request.
As Elijah and Elisha journey towards the journey, the pass through four places. Each of these represent a moment of choice for the young prophet-in-the-making. He faces not only peer pressure – those voices who remind him that Elijah is leaving and he will soon be alone – to turn aside, but Elijah himself seems set on convincing him that he should stop the journey and let his master go on alone. This journey is, for Elisha, a time of testing, a time which builds in him the resolve and commitment needed to assume the responsibility in asking for a double portion. The places they visit along the way also carry deep personal relevance to the Jews. Each represents something that Elisha had to face, a temptation to settle and remain – a temptation which would ultimately have cost him dearly.
Gilgal, the first of these, represents the ‘place of beginnings.’ It was here that the Israelites celebrated the first Passover in the promised land, where the young males were circumcised and the covenant with God was renewed. This was the place of promise, a place where a man could easily believe in a double portion if he remained to enjoy the inheritance of God’s people. Yet Elisha refused to stay. He remained resolute in his faithfulness to his master and to his calling.
Bethel represents the ‘place of dreams.’ This was the place where Jacob dreamed of the angels ascending and descending the ladder to heaven. Would any of us have blamed Elisha for giving in to the pressure to remain when his own master urged him to do so? Bethel presented the dream of a double portion, for Jacob becamed his father’s heir. Here, a young man could dream a dream that would release wonderful things into his life. Yet Elisha remained resolute. He would follow his master, and he would obey his God.
At Jericho, Elisha is once again urged to remain in this place of ‘great victory.’ He could have chosen to remain in the past, to continue to live in his previous victories and achievements, content to go this far and no further. Beyond Jericho lay territory that was unfamiliar, wild and dangerous, and surely no one would blame him for stopping at that point. For a faithful man, he would surely inherit a double portion even if he remained in the place of victory. But Elisha looked beyond Jericho, beyond the past and his present achievements. He looked to the possibilities that God had laid on his heart, and chose to follow his master.
Finally, at the Jordan, Elisha faced the place of death. That was certainly what lay beyond the river. The Jordan was the boundary of the promised land. Beyond it lay a land outside of the protection of Israel, outside the assurance of the double portion promised to the children of God. With Elijah gone, he would be alone. He would have no one and nothing, and even the whispers of God to his heart must have seemed mere imaginings. Yet this humble servant strengthened his resolve and looked beyond the river. His commitment to his master and God remained strong. He would cross that river, no matter what the cost to him.
This is the nature of Elisha, the humble servant who loved his master and remained faithfull to what God had laid on his heart. This is the man who wept when he faced the reality that he would be alone, that his beloved mentor would be gone, and that everything he held dear would be taken away. This was the heart that received a double portion. The Bible reveals that Elisha’s miracles numbered twenty-eight – exactly double the fourteen of Elijah. God Himself validated this humble man’s request to assume the responsibilities of Elijah’s office by giving him a double portion.
Yes, Elisha received what he asked for. He returned to Israel, to a position as one of the most powerful prophets of God. He ‘outdid’ his master in so many ways and certainly manifested a double portion in his ministry. But before he received, Elisha gave – and he gave everything. He had every opportunity to turn aside, to assume Elijah’s mantle in his own strength – Israel knew he was Elijah’s servant, and it would have been easy to trade on that and take what everyone would have agreed was rightfully his. But Elisha knew that he needed the anointing of God which could only be passed down from Elijah – master to servant, father to son.
At Gilgal, Elisha surrendered his promises of new beginnings. At Bethel, he surrendered his dreams and personal desires. At Jericho, he surrendered his past victories, his personal testimony. And at the Jordan, he surrendered everything he had left. He gave up all that he was to assume Elijah’s reponsibilities. The heart that receives a double portion is the sacrificial heart, the servant heart, the heart that gives itself to testify to the work and power of another. Before we ask, we should examine our hearts. Are we ready, like Elisha, to lay down all?
Lord, Your grace is our strength and Your mercy our salvation. If we have erred in asking for a double portion without understanding what it requires, we ask Your forgiveness. Teach us, Father, and bring us to a place of surrender, where Your plans and purposes are all that matters, and our hearts seek Your will rather than our desires in all things.