“Do not touch My anointed ones, And do My prophets no harm.” – Psalm 105:15.
As he (Elisha) 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 2:23-24.
The following situation is a hard thing for a lot of Christians to accept and take in, but you have to realize the time it happened, under the old Covenant Law, and the seriousness of the event as well as the surrounding area that had been given over to pagan worship. God Himself was not pleased with the ways His chosen people had adopted.
So, let’s set the scene here; Elisha had just succeeded his master, the prophet Elijah, when Elijah was caught up to heaven in a chariot of fire within a whirlwind. The sight had to have been absolutely amazing and Elisha was not the only one to witness it, for there were servants that had also witnessed it. Evidently news of it spread rather quickly.
Before his master was caught up to heaven, Elisha had asked Elijah for a double-portion of his spirit to be with him and it was granted. Soon after, Elisha was on his way to Bethel by way of Jericho when Elisha was accosted by a group of what could only be called a gang of ruffians.
This event took place at Bethel, one of the centers for idol worship in the land (1 Kings 12:28–33; Amos 7:13). Now here’s the thing; the Hebrew word translated “little children” in the King James version of the Bible is rather misleading and really means “youths” or “young men.” It refers to people from twelve to thirty years old who were able to discern right from wrong and make their own decisions. This was not a group of playful children making a clever joke about a bald-headed man, but rather, a gang of smart-aleck youths maliciously ridiculing God and God’s servant.
As I stated, Elijah’s ascension and the method by which it happened had already spread. It is important to understand that the phrase, “Go up” refers to that recent ascension of Elijah to heaven. Fifty men saw Elijah vanish from the earth in an instant, and certainly they reported what had happened and the event was discussed widely. The youths were saying, “If you are a man of God, why don’t you get out of here and go to heaven the way Elijah did? We’re glad he’s gone and we wish you would follow him!” For a young person to call any grown man “bald head” would be a gross affront in that day, and to repeat the nickname would make the offense even worse. Gray or silver hair was a “crown of glory” (Proverbs 16:31) among the Jews, but baldness was a rare thing among them and some people considered baldness a disgrace (Isaiah 3:24).
So basically what we have here is a gang of irreverent and disrespectful ruffians mocking God’s servant and repeating words they probably heard at home or in the marketplace. Because he was God’s successor to Elijah at this time and he was well versed in the Word and Law of God, Elisha understood that what they were doing was a violation of God’s covenant, so he called down a curse upon them. (One of the covenant warnings was that God would send wild beasts to attack the people. See Leviticus 26:21–22.) These young men were not showing respect to not only Elisha, but in so doing were disrespecting Elijah and more importantly, the Lord God of Israel, so they had to be judged. The two bears mauled the youths but understand, they didn’t kill them, and you can imagine that for the rest of their days, their scars reminded everybody that they couldn’t trifle with the Lord and get away with it.
Throughout the Old Testament you frequently find the Lord sending special judgments at the beginning of a new period in Bible history, as though God were issuing a warning to His people that the new beginning doesn’t mean that the old rules have been changed. After the tabernacle ministry began, God killed Nadab and Abihu for offering “strange fire” before the Lord (Leviticus 10). After Israel’s first victory in the Promised Land, God ordered Achan to be slain because he took treasures from the spoils of war that were wholly dedicated to God and he done so intentionally and tried to hide it (Joshua 7). At the outset of David’s reign in Jerusalem, he had the Ark of the Covenant brought to the city, and Uzzah was killed for touching it (2 Samuel 6:1–7). When Ananias and Sapphira lied to the leaders in the early church, God took their lives (Acts 5). Now, at the beginning of Elisha’s ministry, the mauling of the youths gave fair warning that the Lord God of Elijah was still reigning and still took His covenant seriously.
The attitude displayed by these youths, as it spread through the land, is what eventually led to the fall of both Samaria and Judah. “And the Lord God of their fathers sent warnings to them by His messengers. . . . But they mocked the messengers of God, despised His words, and scoffed at His prophets, until the wrath of the Lord arose against His people, till there was no remedy.” – 2 Chronicles 36:15–16.
Today we do not live under the old Covenant Law and yet we need to remember that God Himself does not change and neither does His Word. Because we live under the dispensation of grace, we can assume that God’s patience and longsuffering is at work in the world and thus people are not immediately judged. However, God’s promises are also sure and true, and that doesn’t just go for the righteous who abide in Him; it also applies to those who continue to mock His messengers, His Word and thus, Himself.
The Bible is full of lessons that are practical, not just for the times they were written, but for every age that has the Word of God to rely upon.