Facing a New Day: "When God Replaces Leaders" – 2 Kings 2

Change is never easy – but it can be even more difficult when God decides to change the leader over our ministry, and we have to follow the replacement.

There came about a time, when God decided to change the chief servant He placed to work among the prophets of the day. Like many brothers and sisters have experienced in service to the King, God was bringing one ministry service to an end and beginning another man’s leadership responsibilities – a changing of the guard was near. Elijah came from a mysterious background – a man of Gilead who had the reputation of popping up and disappearing – though a careful reading of the text shows that he was actually just a man that God called for specific tasks, and then told to retreat in obscurity until called for another time. He spent his life beside brooks, in borrowed quarters or in caves. His idea of the school of the prophets was the shade beneath a tree on the slope of Mt. Carmel. He was a simple man, and he had simple tastes.

Elisha was not like Elijah. Elisha was a rich kid from a spur off of the Jordan Valley that stretched westward into the hills of Samaria. He worked a family farm until he met Elijah, and killed the yoked oxen and burned their carcasses on the wood of the yoke – showing his seriousness in pursuit of following God and training under Elijah. It also told us something of the wealth of his family – you don’t kill oxen you can’t afford to own! Elisha initiated a building program just after he took the reins. Caves were quaint – but serious prophets needed to be educated in a serious school environment. He may have appreciated the simplicity of Elijah, but he did not mimic it when the mantle of leadership fell from Elijah onto his shoulders.

Those of us who have served God for many years have seen it dozens of times – changing of the guard of leadership. It is hard on everyone.

To the retiring leader, they find themselves reflecting on the things left undone, or the things they have not done well – all the while hearing the affirmation of those they have served. Their heart is divided – loving people but weary of some of the conflicts that come with leadership.

To the new leader, they find themselves measuring what they see in the work. They are deciding what they will continue, and what they will change. They are observing the love the people have for the outgoing servant of God, and quietly wondering if people will feel that way about them when they are complete their work. Their heart is divided between the exhilaration of starting the new and the concern to respect the past.

To the followers the change is also difficult. We are creatures of habit – some more than others. We have come to rely on the way things have been done. We have trust in the old way, confidence in the tried and true. There is already far too much change in our lives, and this signals yet one more adjustment we need to make in an already dizzying set of changes of life. Things seem to move faster around us, and we struggle to keep up. Resistance is meaningless, since it is all going to happen anyway. Still, there is some resistance in our hearts.

I want to take you back to the transfer of leadership responsibilities from Elijah to Elisha – from poor and scrappy to rich and refined. I want to walk the Jordan Valleys serpentine trail of dust with a group of servants of the Lord, and see the change through their eyes. Then I want to highlight God’s expectations and promises to the servants who pass through the process.

The key principle of the passage is this: Transition is usually hard, but God is working changes in an ever darkening world, saving one at a time – on the way to transforming EVERYTHING to serve His glory.

The test opens in 2 Kings 2:1 with the setting: “And it came about when the LORD was about to take up Elijah by a whirlwind to heaven, that Elijah went with Elisha from Gilgal.”

Transition Time

For a time, God placed the new guy alongside the retiring leader. God knew that filling another man’s sandals is not easy – and often a new leader is somewhat hesitant to take over. Though not often, sometimes in leadership transfers I find the outgoing leader may be somewhat hesitant to let go – though that has been much less the case in my experience. Yet, there is an awkward struggle when the two are paired together for a season. You can sort of feel the awkwardness as Elijah tries to shake off his incessant companion during the process.

I count three times in 2 Kings 2 the request of Elijah to GO ALONE to complete his last moments with those he had served for a generation. Look at the verses closely:

  • 2 Kings 2:2 Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here please, for the LORD has sent me as far as Bethel.” But Elisha said, “As the LORD lives and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel.

I cannot say why God sent Elijah to Bethel, but I can recall with you what Bethel was. It was the place where God started all the promises to the Jewish people. In the heart of the spine like mountain chain that runs north and south through the land of Samaria and down into Judea – atop these hills ran a mountain path used by Father Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and his growing tribe, and Joseph heading toward Dothan to find his brothers. The well-worn pathway was the chief route through the region, and Bethel sat beside it, not far from the ancient Canaanite ruin called Ai. Could it be that Elijah went to see the Bethel campus of the school of the prophets and also to recall God’s promises of long ago?

One of the things outgoing leaders do if REFLECT, and we need to let them do that. The incoming man should be quiet and observe the past with respect – we stand on the shoulders of our fathers in the faith. We didn’t invent the problems or the solutions – we (if we did well) simply played our role in the move called God’s Story. It began before us, and it will continue after us until the Savior rights all wrongs and settles all disruptions.

If I were a betting man, I would wager that watching the process was not easy on Elisha. I suspect that it was PERSONAL to Elijah, and he didn’t want an audience. For a solitary leader that was used to doing things his own way – I suspect he didn’t really want an audience for any of the places God was sending him…Yet, the awkwardness of the a constant companion was his lot….

  • 2 Kings 2:4 Elijah said to him, “Elisha, please stay here, for the LORD has sent me to Jericho.” But he said, “As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they came to Jericho.

Again I cannot say for sure why God sent Elijah to the ruined city of Joshua’s conquest some 700 years before. Obviously he was meeting men from that oasis campus of the school of the prophets, but there may be another reason. Just like God’s promises to Abraham and the altar of the fathers at Bethel, Jericho had to evoke the glorious work of God on behalf of Joshua.

I wonder if you have ever stopped to consider this truth: the men who followed Joshua didn’t really prefer him – they wished they had Moses back. They LIKED Moses. They KNEW Moses. They TRUSTED Moses. As Elijah was preparing to move off the scene of serving them, God gave him instructions to go first to the place of His promise to a Father long gone, then to a place where God showed victory through the hands of the replacement Joshua. I don’t know what was going through the mind of Elijah, but I wonder from his words if he wasn’t struggling as he was heading out the door of ministry – thinking the next leader may not fare as well. Maybe God sent him to Jericho to remind him that our work is NOT OUR WORK. God was doing this BEFORE us, and He can effectively do it AFTER US. Our competence is not the reason things worked well – the purpose and power of God is! There at Jericho, God led Elijah past the place where HE leveled a city in the hands of the new leader, after he retired the older leader. I doubt the imagery escaped him! Yet, God wasn’t done yet…

  • 2 Kings 2:6 Then Elijah said to him, “Please stay here, for the LORD has sent me to the Jordan.” And he said, “As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So the two of them went on.

God called Elijah to cross the Jordan back to the east – the side he was BORN ON. Elijah knew the time had come. There was no school of prophets he was to see – he was going “home”. He was crossing the Jordan the way the old negro spirituals used the term – “I’m just a goin’ over Jordan, I’m just a goin’ over home.” His time was finished.

End Resistance

Why not take Elisha with him? The Hebrew of the passage suggested that Elijah may have sounded more annoyed than we have in English. In the text, 2 Kings 2:9 When they had crossed over, Elijah said to Elisha, “Ask what I shall do for you before I am taken from you.” -may have not been as patient a statement as one reads on the surface. In fact, the text continues: “And Elisha said, “Please, let a double portion of your spirit be upon me.” 10 He said, “You have asked a hard thing. Nevertheless, if you see me when I am taken from you, it shall be so for you; but if not, it shall not be so.” 11 As they were going along and talking, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire and horses of fire which separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind to heaven.

How was making Elisha the spiritual son of Elijah a HARD THING? It was as simple as Elijah offering his mantle to the younger man, and completing the work. Yet, Elijah didn’t argue that it was legally hard – simply that it was EMOTIONALLY DIFFICULT. It is never easy to turn over your hard fought, well-nurtured vision of ministry. It takes something out of a servant. It is HARD.

Though God brought both men to the place of transfer – he opened the river for them both, there may still have been doubts about the new guy in Elijah’s heart. It would have been perfectly natural for Elijah to believe that Elisha had much to learn about navigating the work with these old prophets. There may have been doubts about Elijah’s way of doing things in Elisha’s heart. A cave was fine – why would they need a building? In any case, they had to let this happen – and the Elisha awkwardly had to verbalize his desire to take over. When the sound of “replacement” hit Elijah’s ears, the reality of his termination was difficult to hear. He was heading for his next assignment before God – and that was great. At the same time, heart strings aren’t easily cut without inner pain.

Elijah postponed giving the mantle, and still wasn’t completely sure the new guy was ready. He would leave the timing and conditions up to God. God spoke in the form of response with a “pickup” chariot, and the mantle fell to the ground. It was not handed off – it was PICKED UP. In some ways, that is what it HAS to be. Elijah’s stature wasn’t easy to match, and Elisha had to feel like God answered the call in his heart, but Elijah didn’t leave him very affirmed in the work.

Resistance in the Followers

Now Elisha had to go back to the men he was about to lead. TWO times they showed they were not as sure about his prophetic understanding as they were about their own. Everywhere Elisha went before Elijah was taken up, the prophets felt they needed to “show him the ropes” and tell him what was going on:

  • 2 Kings 2:3 Then the sons of the prophets who were at Bethel came out to Elisha and said to him, “Do you know that the LORD will take away your master from over you today?” And he said, “Yes, I know; be still.”
  • and again in 2 Kings 2:5 The sons of the prophets who were at Jericho approached Elisha and said to him, “Do you know that the LORD will take away your master from over you today?” And he answered, “Yes, I know; be still.”

It kept happening. The men made it clear that Elisha, in their opinion, needed their clarity and coaching to recognize the time. Elisha kept reassuring them – “I know, be still.” What else could he say?

One of the most awkward conversations the replacement has with people is this one – where they try to HELP him, but inadvertently express their lack of confidence in his abilities. I am sure many people don’t MEAN it that way – but it can easily feel that way to the replacement. Smart new guys just keep quiet, and ride out the storm until people gain confidence that you do actually know what you are doing. A quiet and gentle reasonableness, along with a track record, will get the results that nothing else will. Leadership is not conferred – it is earned. Trust is not bestowed – it is gained from a track record. A title can be given to anyone – but some will earn the right to exercise it by handling the title well. Elisha had to do that in order to gain the trust of the men… but it wasn’t easy.

You see, there are stages of leadership transition.

  • There is the CALL while you are out plowing the ground – because God doesn’t want to call people who don’t work hard.
  • There is the MENTORING process – because God doesn’t entrust leadership to unseasoned men – only PEOPLE make that mistake.
  • Then there is the TITLING of leadership – the picking up of the mantle.
  • Finally there is LEADING – that is when people can confidently follow.

Though Elisha recognized how special Elijah was, I SUSPECT it was never as clear to him as when Elijah got his Divine taxi, and God’s stamp of approval on him was clear. You hear the reality set into the voice of Elisha: 2 Kings 2:12 “Elisha saw it and cried out, “My father, my father, the chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” And he saw Elijah no more….”

The weight of ministry sets in after the former leader is gone. There is not one else to blame. All eyes will be cast on Elisha. He WANTED to lead, and now he was forced to live with that decision. In order for Elisha to lead, he needed to put his past behind him and focus on picking up the responsibility that Elijah had borne before. He did it simply: 2 Kings 2:12b… Then he took hold of his own clothes and tore them in two pieces. 13 He also took up the mantle of Elijah that fell from him and returned and stood by the bank of the Jordan.

For a time, he needed to operate in the power and reputation of Elijah, for he had not yet been tested apart from him. He needed the public symbolic title, the tacit endorsement of the now gone leader. He had the mantle of board approval, and he knew he got it from God’s design. Yet, the hardest part wasn’t GETTING the job by DOING the job.

Smart new leaders know that they need to operate, at least at first, in Elijah’s mantle. They need to take off their clothing, as Elisha did, and put on the well-worn clothing of their mentor.

Today I counsel young leaders who see Elijah’s generation as disposable. Some even express they are an OBSTACLE to the future. Young leaders feel the energy of the new, but cannot sense the wisdom of the older – because it sounds like resistance. Often it is not – it is a TRUST ISSUE. Well-meaning but inexperienced leaders take the preferences of the young and ignore the blessing of the more traditional approaches – they want EDGY not STODGY. They are quick to throw out the work that went before them and try to build new – but often it is easier to tear down than build up.

We cannot toss out history to reach for destiny. We can’t navigate our future without consulting our past.

At the same time, we cannot underestimate Elijah’s generation and their ability to make changes. They know change is upon them – they own a mirror on the medicine cabinet. They see the conditions of the world around them and recognize the need to move forward in God’s power. They need to be WON to trust. Getting Elijah’s generation on board is about building trust and communicating that the new leader DOES know about the former days, and does not desire to trample the past to get to the future. Once Elijah’s generation is on board, there will be funding and emotional support to move the work forward – but they need to be brought on board.

Elisha tested the power of the mantle before the Lord: 2 Kings 2:14 “He took the mantle of Elijah that fell from him and struck the waters and said, “Where is the LORD, the God of Elijah?” And when he also had struck the waters, they were divided here and there; and Elisha crossed over.” It worked – he got across the first obstacle, but you can hear in the text the ring of the man uncertain. He ASKED God, assuming nothing. Wearing the mantle was not the same as moving the water.

How did the people respond to the change? Here is the most important part of the process. Nothing good would happen, from that day forward, if the followers failed to follow. It was, admittedly, a rocky start. Expect one, it happens. The public recognition was fine: 2 Kings 2:15 Now when the sons of the prophets who were at Jericho opposite him saw him, they said, “The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha.” And they came to meet him and bowed themselves to the ground before him. So far, so good. They see God’s choice. They acknowledge God’s choice – then the fun begins.

What choices do followers have when a replacement takes over?

#1: Go over his head – try to call the old leader

In short order, the honeymoon was over, and people wanted to reach out and take back the older way of doing things…They pressed to have the familiar, not seeking to change anything or take into account that God may have a new experience for them through the new man. It will show up most vividly, when the new guy asks them to follow him in something they DON’T WANT TO DO. Everyone is in favor of leadership in theory, but many of us think we know better than the next generation of leaders in practice. Maybe we do, but we won’t be there to do it forever – so resistance isn’t going to do much good. The VERY NEXT VERSE showed the people looking to go after the old leader. 2 Kings 2:16 They said to him, “Behold now, there are with your servants fifty strong men, please let them go and search for your master; perhaps the Spirit of the LORD has taken him up and cast him on some mountain or into some valley.” …

The search for the old leader is sometimes physical – a phone call to get the old leader to weigh in on a problem. Sometimes the search is emotional – the silent wearing of the “What Would Elijah Do” bracelets on the hearts of people who remember the “good old days”. We must be careful not to deny a new leader the right to do what God has placed on his shoulders. We can help more effectively if we are open-hearted and not reaching back behind the scenes.

#2 Push the replacement around

Elisha was clear that he didn’t want them to do what they intended. 2 Kings 2:16b: “…And he said, “You shall not send.”

The prophet sounded clear enough, but Elisha’s tone of uncertainly betrayed him. New leaders can be pushed back, embarrassed into allowing things they don’t want – because they don’t want to seem pushy doing the job God gave them. After all, Elisha wanted this – and that didn’t mean everyone else thought he was qualified. The line between counsel and pressure is easy to breach with a new leader. The text continues: 2 Kings 2:17 But when they urged him until he was ashamed, he said, “Send.” They sent therefore fifty men; and they searched three days but did not find him. 18 They returned to him while he was staying at Jericho; and he said to them, “Did I not say to you, ‘Do not go’?

#3: Watch for God’s stamp of approval

God will often bring a situation about to verify His choice of leader. He did it with Joshua at Jericho, when every military leader probably thought Moses should be stuffed and returned to duty. Walking around a city wasn’t brilliant strategy – but it was obedience – and that is what God empowers.

Here God did it again. Some trouble will rippled the water, and God empowered the new man – offering people a visual picture of the truth of the replacement choice. 2 Kings 2:19 Then the men of the city said to Elisha, “Behold now, the situation of this city is pleasant, as my lord sees; but the water is bad and the land is unfruitful.

When trouble arises and the new guy begins to take the reins as leader, people have a choice – follow or not. If he is following God and they follow him, they will get restoration and blessing. Remember, the central issue of the work is submission to God’s Word not popular preference of those who have supported the work the longest.

If the followers kept the focus of the replacement on his own inadequacies, the people of the village would have still suffered, and he would have to work doubly hard to care for the real problems of ministry.

Elisha stepped up. 2 Kings 2:20 He said, “Bring me a new jar, and put salt in it.” So they brought it to him. He could wear the coat, but he needed to do more. He needed his own walk with God to see God’s power work through his ministry. Fortunately, he had one. 2 Kings 2:21 He went out to the spring of water and threw salt in it and said, “Thus says the LORD, ‘I have purified these waters; there shall not be from there death or unfruitfulness any longer.’” 22 So the waters have been purified to this day, according to the word of Elisha which he spoke.

There it was – problem solved. It wasn’t simply that God solved it – Elisha cooperated with God to show the Holy One’s relationship and approval. The followers saw it and must have reconsidered. God used the new guy, even when the seasoned school of the prophets doubted his ability and his understanding. God asked Elisha to submit his will and trust Him, but he also asked something of the followers – “Watch ME work!” said the Lord. They learned a critical lesson: We need to be more generous with praise, and less lavish with criticism.

We are often tempted in the changes to go over the new leader’s head, or push the new guy into doing something we want… but that isn’t God’s way. His way is for us to watch God work through the next generation to renew the hope of the last one.

  • When we cheer the good in the young, we encourage them to put away timidity – and the world they are facing in our own country is much more hostile to the Lord than the one we grew up in. They must find REFUGE in us before they will seek DIRECTION from us. The criticized seldom seek more pain from the critic.
  • When we celebrate the past but speak of the future with HOPE, we affirm that God’s power isn’t a YESTERDAY thing, but that He is an EVER PRESENT God. The next generation must hear more than the good of the past. Blame and guilt cannot replace blessing and guidance – or the young will stumble on without a sense of positive destiny. I encourage you to testify of the past work that God has done loudly, and pray vigorously for the work ahead. Jesus is not finished, because the trumpet is not sounded. God is not done with you, because you are still in His earth movie.

The follower’s role is to encourage – to become the cheerleader for every good thing you see. You will delight those around you, because everyone needs affirmation. Your ability to complain will only put distance between you and others.

The follower’s role is to be a reference – because where God has worked in the past and where the enemy has attacked in the past has everything to do with how both work. Your knowledge of the battle is invaluable. If leaders don’t know that, pray they will hear God’s voice in that area.

The follower’s role is to be a resource – because many of you have only small material goods this side of glory, but you know what it means to be supported by many for even a few dollars a month and an occasional card of encouragement. My terms on the field taught me that most people don’t remember us for very long when we are gone. Send the cards of encouragement and remind those who are serving that they are remembered. You know why better than they do.

The follower’s role is to pray – and I encourage you to do so with all of your might! Cut the veil between the spiritual world and the physical. Fall before God and cry out for the next generation.

Transition is usually hard, but God is working changes in an ever darkening world, saving one at a time – on the way to transforming EVERYTHING to serve His glory.