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When Elisha is about to die, Jehoash the king goes to visit Elisha and cries before him:

Now Elisha was suffering from the illness from which he died. Jehoash king of Israel went down to see him and wept over him. "My father! My father!" he cried. "The chariots and horsemen of Israel!"

Elisha said, "Get a bow and some arrows," and he did so. "Take the bow in your hands," he said to the king of Israel. When he had taken it, Elisha put his hands on the king's hands.

2 Kings 13:14-16 (NIV empahsis mine)

This strikes me as just a very strange thing to say. Is this some kind of petition? Is Jehoash just worried that the armies of Israel are going to lose if Elisha dies? Why would Jehoash cry out "The chariots and horsemen of Israel" while at Elisha's deathbed?

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To note, Elisha uttered the same phrase upon watching Elijah be taken to heaven. See 2 Kings 2:12. blueletterbible.org/… –  H3br3wHamm3r81 Dec 22 '12 at 8:06

2 Answers 2

up vote 9 down vote accepted

This is indeed a fascinating and cryptic statement... As was pointed out above, this phrase actually occurs twice: earlier, as Elijah was ascending to heaven, Elisha sees "a chariot of fire and horses of fire" (II Kings 2:11), and then cries out, "My father, my father! The chariot[s] of Israel and its horsemen!". Biblical scholars and commentators have different opinions about the symbolism of this phrase.

Many (like the Aramaic Targum cited above) understand this as a reference to the prophet [Elijah] being more important to Israel, especially in its military defense, than chariots and horsemen. Interestingly, a few chapters later (II Kings 6:13-18) Elisha is surrounded by the enemy forces of the king of Aram, including horses and chariots; Elisha's servant/helper fears, but Elisha prays and the youth's eyes are opened and he sees that Elisha is surrounded by "horses and chariots of fire". The Dutch Biblical scholar Martinus Adrianus Beek writes that this story illustrates the theme of the prophetic message: "'those who are on our side are more than those on theirs' [II Kings 6:16]... Therefore every prophet has a right to the title rekhev yisrael upharashaw [chariot and horsemen of Israel]." Beek then connects this to the story of the Exodus from Egypt and the Song of the Sea, where the words "chariot" and "horsemen" also feature prominently, to suggest that this phrase emphasizes the role of the prophet in focusing the people's devotion and trust to G!d rather than Egypt/military might/political alliances. Cf. the passages Beek brings: II Kings 18:21-24, Isaiah 31:1-3, Psalms 20:7, and others, that demonstrate that this title for the prophet represents the direct contrast between the physical horses and chariots of Pharaoh and other mortals versus the word of the prophet, the carrier of G!d's will.

Note: Beek's article, "The Meaning of the Expression 'The Chariots and the Horsemen of Israel'" can be read online here.

Similarly, medieval Jewish commentators (like Rashi, Abarbanel, and Gersonides), understand this as referring directly to the figure of the prophet (Elijah or Elisha) as being the symbolic "chariot and horsemen of Israel". Biblical scholar Joseph Blenkinsopp suggests that this draws on the imagery of YHWH as master charioteer of the hosts of heaven (cf. Psalms 68:5, 68:18), and thus reinforces the image of the prophet as carrier of the Divine word.

Thus if this reading is correct, Jehoash is referring to Elisha and mourning the loss of the great prophet and spiritual defender of Israel, rather than what might appear to be an unrelated cry regarding Israel's army.

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Thanks, your last remark resonates quite a bit given that the phrase is used at the end of the lives of each prophet. Also, welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics! –  Soldarnal Jan 4 '13 at 5:28

Clarke seems to have a good quote to borrow on the matter. According to him the Chaldee translates 2 Kings 2:12 (where Elisha uses the same phrase with respect to Elijah) as: "My master, my master! who, by thy intercession, wast of more use to Israel than horses and chariots."

This seems to make sense. Basically Elisha looked upon Elijah as his spiritual father and great defender of Israel. In the death of Elisha Jehoash has the same attitude and cries with the same words in his mourning. Possibly also to comfort Elisha knowing about the previous use by him for Elijah.

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