“Elijah and Elisha: Foreshadowing the Latter-day Work,” Ensign, Mar. 1988, 24
To Paul’s writings is attributed the view that unless one “[sees] Jesus everywhere in the Old Testament, there is no understanding of the Old Testament at all.”1 The Book of Mormon adds similar testimony, summed up by Nephi as he pauses in recounting the words of Isaiah and exclaims with joy, “My soul delighteth in proving unto my people the truth of the coming of Christ; for, for this end hath the law of Moses been given; and all things which have been given of God from the beginning of the world, unto man, are the typifying of him.” (2 Ne. 11:4.)
Like many works of literature, the Old Testament contains several levels of meaning. In addition to historical facts, there are moral examples and religious symbolism. This symbolism, as it relates to Christ and to his future works, is often found in a teaching and prophetic tool called similitudes.
Just as the Lord used parables in the New Testament to teach of future events, in the Old Testament he used similitudes. In fact, the Lord often specifically commanded his prophets to act out similitudes, such as directing Jeremiah to wear a yoke to prophesy of Israel’s impending bondage (see Jer. 27–28), or to do certain things that became similitudes, such as asking Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. This latter act not only qualified Abraham for the highest blessings of the gospel, but was also prophetic of Christ’s future atonement. (See Jacob 4:5.)
Many of these Old Testament similitudes have been frequently identified,2 but other possible similitudes have been overlooked. For example, we know from scripture that Moses’ life was in many ways a similitude of the Savior’s (see Moses 1:6). Elder Bruce R. McConkie suggested that, in addition to Moses, many prophets led lives in which there were foreshadowings of the life and mission of the Savior. “No doubt there are many events in the lives of many prophets that set those righteous persons apart as types and shadows of their Messiah,” he wrote. “It is wholesome and proper to look for similitudes of Christ everywhere and to use them repeatedly in keeping him and his laws uppermost in our minds.”3
The lives of Elijah and Elisha are good examples. A typological study shows many interesting parallels with Christ’s life, which make those prophets’ lives more meaningful. Such a study also provides additional insights into why it was Elijah who possessed and returned the keys for redeeming the dead and the sealing power in the latter days.
The work of Elijah and Elisha, when each is examined alone, shows many parallels to the ministry of Christ. But when seen together, the parallels multiply. Such a linking is not unusual in the scriptures. The scriptures themselves show that sometimes pairs of personalities serve together to establish a similitude. Together their work may witness of Christ and his ministry in ways which neither would alone. For example, the relationship between Ishmael and Isaac—Ishmael as son of a bondwoman, Isaac as the true heir of Abraham—was shown by Paul to have witnessed beforehand of the Mosaic covenant, which was a covenant of bondage, and the greater covenant of heirship wrought through Christ. The witness was that the latter covenant would supersede the former. (See Gal. 4:22–31.)
Paul also showed that the instances in which Jacob was blessed above Esau also foreshadowed the greater covenant of Christ that would eventually perfect and replace the Mosaic covenant because Israel under the law of Moses would stumble and reject the truth. (See Rom. 9:10–33.) Moses himself, whose life in many ways foreshadowed much of Christ’s, nevertheless was not able to lead his people into the promised land. This final work would be done by Joshua, namesake and witness of the victorious Christ.4
Just as the lives of these pairs of individuals bore witness of the earlier Mosaic covenant and the later covenant and work of Christ, there is reason to conclude that the lives of Elijah and Elisha parallel the preparatory work in these the latter days and Christ’s subsequent coming and reign.
To understand how the work Elijah did parallels the labors and events of our day and how Elijah’s work witnessed of the keys which he would restore (as Moses’ work of gathering captive Israel to lead them home to their promised land witnessed of the keys he would restore5), we must review Elijah’s life and work.
Elijah helped reawaken Israel by drawing the people away from the false gods they had worshipped; in doing so, he built a new altar to worship the true God. Specific reference is made to turning the hearts of the people. (See 1 Kgs. 18:17–39.)
While the earth was suffering from a general physical and spiritual drought in Elijah’s time, he was sustained by nourishment from heaven brought by ravens. He also received angelic ministrations. (See 1 Kgs. 17:1–6; 19:5–8.)
As shown by his blessing a widow’s meal and the oil, Elijah had the power to multiply nourishment so that it would not cease until the Lord himself sent rain from heaven. He used this power to bring nourishment to a widow and her fatherless child. (See 1 Kgs. 17:8–16.)
Elijah used his priesthood power to restore the dead to life. (See 1 Kgs. 17:17–24.)
He used his powers to seal and unseal the heavens. (See 1 Kgs. 17:1.)
Elijah called down fire from heaven to destroy the wicked. (See 2 Kgs. 1:10–12.)
7. Elijah was taken into heaven without tasting death. (See 2 Kgs. 2:11.)
In describing Elijah’s work and some of the events during his ministry, we have also described the work of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and some of the events that will precede the second coming of Jesus Christ. Not only is the work in which we are engaged done with the keys which Elijah restored, it is also much the same work done by Elijah.
Modern prophets have clearly indicated what our blessings and responsibilities are. Note the similarities to Elijah’s work:
We are to reawaken Israel by drawing them away from false teachings and helping them to make true covenants at newly built altars in modern-day temples. (In our case, such work is being done for both the living and the dead.)
We will receive spiritual nourishment from heaven in the midst of worldwide spiritual drought.
We are to lead men to the spiritual nourishment of Christ—nourishment that is never-ceasing and therefore eternal, as Christ taught when he said, “I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst.” (See John 6:35.)
We are to give this spiritual nourishment specifically to the widowed and fatherless. In the scriptures, the terms widow and fatherless are often used to symbolize Israel who, by straying from the truth, has become spiritually widowed and fatherless—separated from its true Bridegroom and Father. Through Isaiah, the Lord speaks to latter-day Israel, using this same symbolism:
“Fear not; for thou … shalt not remember the reproach of thy widowhood any more.
“For thy Maker is thine husband; …
“For a small moment have I forsaken thee; but with great mercies will I gather thee. …
“And all thy children shall be taught of the Lord; and great shall be the peace of thy children.” (See Isa. 54:4, 5, 7, 13.)
We are to perform ordinances that will help redeem the dead—help them gain eternal life—through temple work.
Elijah restored priesthood keys in our day that can seal and unseal the heavens—or, in other words, ratify ordinations on earth and in heaven. This work occurs as revelation is dispensed from heaven and the children of God are sealed up to eternal life. Not only can living families be sealed together, but living families can be sealed to deceased family members. These sealings are recognized by God and will endure in the heavens.
The Prophet Joseph Smith taught that “Elijah was to come and prepare the way and build up the kingdom before the coming of the great day of the Lord.”6 He also wrote: “This is the spirit of Elijah, that we redeem our dead, and connect ourselves with our fathers which are in heaven, and seal up our dead to come forth in the first resurrection; and here we want the power of Elijah to seal those who dwell on earth to those who dwell in heaven. This is the power of Elijah and the keys of the kingdom.”7
6. The end of the ministry of this day will end as Elijah’s mortal ministry did just before his ascent into heaven—with fire coming down from heaven to destroy the wicked. Referring to a similar foreshadowing, Jesus taught:
“But the same day that Lot went out of Sodom it rained fire and brimstone from heaven, and destroyed them all.
“Even thus shall it be in the day when the Son of man is revealed.” (Luke 17:29–30.)
7. In that day, the scriptures teach, the faithful, like Elijah, will be taken into heaven without tasting death. (See 1 Thes. 4:17.)
These parallels between Elijah’s work and the work to be done in these latter days may help explain why it was Elijah who came to restore the keys of the work of sealing on earth and in the heavens. His work is our work. (See Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1938, pp. 337–38, 340.)
If Elijah’s history foreshadows the latter-day ministry of the Church, then Elisha, as Elijah’s successor, might well continue that foreshadowing. Indeed, we can find many parallels between the life of Elisha and events still future, particularly those associated with the second coming of Christ.
Some of Elisha’s acts are similar to acts of Moses that Christ himself and other prophets testified were foreshadowings of Christ’s mortal ministry and triumphant return. One of Elisha’s first miracles was the healing of polluted waters—similar to Moses’ healing of the bitter waters of Marah in Exodus 15:23–25. In Elisha’s case, the Lord says of his purposes: “I have healed these waters; there shall not be from thence any more death or barren land.” (See 2 Kgs. 2:21.) Adding to the import of the act is the fact that Elisha heals them with salt—a strange act indeed!
Such a procedure makes more sense when we recognize the symbolic meaning of salt at that time. In the Old Testament, salt was an essential ingredient in offerings made under the Mosaic Law, a law we are taught testified of Christ. The presence of salt was required due to its powers of purification and preservation; thus, it was symbolic of the need for permanence in the covenant between God and man.8 There are scriptural references to the “salt of the covenant” (see Lev. 2:13) and to the children of the covenant as “the salt of the earth” (see Matt. 5:13). Elisha’s healing polluted waters with salt that death might be overcome and new life occur may therefore be prophetic of Christ, whose offerings of atonement permanently overcame death and permanently bring new purity and new life.
In many other ways, the life of Elisha can be seen as a similitude of the second coming of Christ. Elisha helped Israel overcome enemies, as the glorified Lord will in his powerful second advent. (See 2 Kgs. 3.)
Elisha also multiplied oil, breads, and grains, making them never-failing. Further, like Elijah, Elisha provides this oil for a widow. Similar miracles with similar elements usually suggest that a witness is being made. (See 2 Cor. 13:1.) In this case, both miracles bear prophetic witness that Christ and his servants will bring never-ceasing nourishment to “widowed” Israel. In the same way, Christ taught that his multiplication of bread and fish on two different occasions witnessed of himself as the source of eternal life and its eternal nurturing, and he chastened his disciples because they were slow to comprehend that truth. (See Mark 8:14–21 and John 6:33–35.)
Like Elijah, Elisha restored life to one who was dead. Christ raised Lazarus and will bring life to all who die. He will also redeem the righteous from spiritual death. The fact that Elisha’s miracle occurs to a child of promise is undoubtedly also significant. (See 2 Kgs. 4:8–37.)
Elisha removed the effects of food of the wild vine that brought death by providing nourishment that was pure and good. (See 2 Kgs. 4:38–41.)
Elisha also healed Naaman, a gentile from Syria, who was afflicted with leprosy. (See 2 Kgs. 5:1–14.) Certainly among Elisha’s most remarkable and memorable works, this incident has many symbolic overtones. First of all, leprosy, which is a decaying of the flesh, is considered symbolic of both sin and death. Those who were afflicted with it were called “unclean” and were literally cut off from the living. It was much like a living death.
Second, it is clear that the manner in which Naaman was to be cured was important. Only the waters of Israel would bring him the cleansing he sought. (See 2 Kgs. 5:12–14.) Nor should we overlook the description of that cleansing. It is recorded that his “flesh came again like unto the flesh of a little child.” Similarly, Christ is spoken of as the living waters, or fountain, of Israel who would atone for the sins of mankind and bring them to a new life both physically and spiritually. (See Rev. 7:17.)
Third, the blessing was extended to a Gentile, just as the blessings of the gospel are extended today to all families and to all nations, including the Gentiles. (See D&C 1:17–23, 31–35.)
One particularly fascinating aspect of Elisha’s ministry is that he is associated with the armies of the hosts of heaven. In 2 Kings 6:13–18, we are told that he revealed the physical presence of those hosts at a time when he was completely surrounded by enemy forces. Prophecy declares that at the coming of the Son of God the armies of the hosts of heaven will be revealed and come forth to overcome the armies that surround Israel. (See Rev. 19:11–16.)
In 2 Kings 7:3–15 [2 Kgs. 7:3–15], we find an account that is similar to the “last day” parables of the great supper and the wedding feast. In these parables the maimed, the halt, and those found on the world’s highways (physical maladies symbolic of spiritual maladies) inherit the kingdom due to the unworthiness of the first guests. (See Luke 14:16–24 and Matt. 22:1–10.) In Elisha’s time, those who had originally dwelt in power and wealth fled upon hearing the noise of a great host (the hosts of heaven), casting away their vessels and garments (their treasures), while lepers (the unclean made clean) come into the inheritance. (See Isa. 2:19–21.)
It is also interesting that during the time of Elisha, the idolatrous Jezebel is overthrown. (See 2 Kgs. 22–37.) One of Jezebel’s worst sins was seizing a vineyard after having its rightful owner first accused of blasphemy and then slain. This incident resembles the Savior’s prophetic parable of covetous servants who slay the rightful heir of a vineyard (Christ himself) in an attempt to keep it for themselves. (See Matt. 21:33–41.)
A similar prophecy occurs in the book of Revelation, when the great whore of the earth—she who has taken over and corrupted the kingdom of the Lord established when he came the first time—is cast down. (See Rev. 17–18.) While dogs ate the flesh of Jezebel after she fell from a window, the great harlot in Revelation, who also “falls,” suffers a similar fate—“and the ten horns which thou sawest upon the beast … shall eat her flesh.” (See Rev. 17:16.)
Finally, the Bible records that, because of Elisha’s death, another is brought back to life. (See 2 Kgs. 13:20–21.) This is very likely a prophecy of Christ, for Christ’s death resulted in life—or resurrection—for all others.
Truly, Elijah and Elisha were great prophets. There is much in Elijah’s life that parallels the ministry of the Church as we prepare for the second coming of Christ. The work he did in his own lifetime and the work he initiated in our own are much the same. And certainly there is much in Elisha’s life that parallels events associated with the Second Coming itself. At that coming, the Savior will reveal the great hosts of heaven, overthrow the great harlot, heal the land that it bear no more death or barrenness, provide pure and eternal nourishment, cleanse the unclean, and resurrect the dead. When he comes in his glory, all the prophets will turn over to him their keys of authority, and he will reign.
In the meantime, the similitudes we may see in the lives of Elijah and Elisha should serve to remind us of our great responsibility to do the work to which we as a people are called in preparing for the Lord’s second coming.