Elijah said to Elisha, “Ask what I shall do for you, before I am taken from you.” And Elisha said, “Please let there be a double portion of your spirit on me.”
—2 Kings 2.9 ESV
Years ago I listened to a youth pastor quote this verse as he spoke about how each generation of young people should ideally receive a “double portion” of their parents’ spirit. I’ve heard other pastors teach likewise. By “spirit” they don’t usually mean the Holy Spirit—though sometimes they do, and the preaching starts to turn mighty weird. Most commonly they mean a person’s enthusiasm, their devotion to God, their spiritual activity, and so forth. Ideally, parents should pass this “double portion” to their children, who would in turn pass this “double portion” to their kids, and so on till Jesus returns.
Here’s the thing. By “double portion,” the pastor meant twice as much. The kids would have twice as much spirit as their parents. Their kids would have twice as much spirit as they. Their grandkids would have twice as much spirit as their kids—and, if you do the math, that’d be 16 times as much spirit as the first generation.
In fact, let’s do even more math. Assume the very first generation of Christians, namely the 120-some people who originally received the Holy Spirit on Pentecost in the year 33, were following this “double portion principle,” so to speak. Assume there’ve been 100 generations of Christians since—a really conservative estimate. After 100 generations, the “double portion” we should receive would be 2100 times the original amount of spirit. That’s more than 633 octillion (i.e. followed by 27 zeroes) times the spirit. More spirit than there are atoms in the universe.
So: Why aren’t we Christians walking around with so much spirit that, frankly, whenever we make a new convert, their chest explodes from the amount of spirit suddenly whooshing into them?
Obviously because “double portion” doesn’t mean twice as much. The New Living Translation tacks on a few words at the end of the verse to explain the historical context:
Elisha replied, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit and become your successor.”
—2 Kings 2.9 NLT
In the ancient Middle East, when a father died, his property was divided into equal portions and given to each of his sons. (If he had no sons, the Hebrews had it given to each of his daughters, Nu 27.8.) The firstborn, or the eldest, would be given two of these portions—the double portion. It wasn’t twice as much as his father had; that’s not mathematically possible. It was simply twice as much as his brothers received—and in those days, with those big families, it wouldn’t have amounted to that much. Even in the richest of families. It definitely wasn’t the eldest-male-takes-all system we find in Western aristocracies.
The firstborn inherited the double portion largely because he had particular responsibilities as his father’s successor. He was now responsible for leading his extended family. He had to care for his father’s wives and minor children. He had to arrange husbands for his sisters. If his father was a tribal leader, that role fell to him. If there were any personal blessings or prophecies (or even curses) attached to the family, they might fall to him too.
The birthright Jacob bought off his twin brother Esau (Ge 25.29-34) didn’t threaten to leave Jacob penniless when their father died. It only meant Esau would inherit twice as much—but have ten times the responsibility. The writers of the bible didn’t rebuke Esau for not caring about the stuff; there’s nothing wrong with rejecting material possessions. It was for dodging his duties. It was for setting aside God’s promises to Abraham and his descendants.
When Elisha asked for a double portion, he wasn’t asking for twice as much Holy Spirit. He was asking to be Elijah’s successor—to be recognized as the LORD’s chief prophet in northern Israel, the recognized leader of the LORD’s other prophets, the go-to prophet for kings and priests and people. Now, he could have asked for this because he wanted the honor—although considering how pagan the kings of Israel were, the constant threat of death didn’t make the job that much of an honor. More likely Elisha asked it because he wanted to serve. He recognized the people, in Elijah’s absence, would want someone to look to, and the prophets needed leadership. He offered to do it.
This is why Elijah’s response was, “You have asked a difficult thing.” (2Ki 2.10 NLT) Elijah wasn’t warning Elisha away from his request, or rebuking him for hubris. True prophets, like both Elijah and Elisha, are humble. They know they’re working for God; that titles don’t matter. It was in humility Elisha asked to succeed Elijah. It was in humility Elijah said the decision wasn’t really up to him, but Elisha would get his request if God permitted him to watch Elijah ascend to heaven. And the other prophets confirmed it when Elisha met with them afterward. (2Ki 2.15)
Some of the reason for this twice-the-spirit teaching is partly because people aren’t aware of the historical context. Some of it is human greed—hey, check this out, we can get twice what some other person got, so let’s seek that!—and how the possibility of a really nice blessing appeals to us. And, as usual, if a person we respect teaches it, we pass along that teaching without investigating it for ourselves, assuming the respected preachers probably know what they’re talking about. And sometimes they do. Sometimes not.
Plus there’s evidence: There are more stories about Elisha’s miracles in 2 Kings than there are stories about Elijah’s. Some pastors have estimated there are precisely twice as many Elisha stories, which conclusively proves their twice-the-spirit theory. (In fact there are actually more than twice as many Elisha stories.) Some have even attempted to teach that Jesus’s disciples performed twice as many miracles as did Jesus. (Which stands to reason: Jesus ministered on earth for maybe three years or so, and his apostles ministered for decades.) Honestly, we should see later generations do more in faith because they’re preceded by so many good examples. But it’s not a matter of doubling the power, doubling the spirit, doubling anything. It’s not math.
Math is actually limiting. If you assume you should do twice as much as your predecessors, you may burn yourself out trying to be (or look) twice as busy. You may spend more time trying to perform mighty deeds, and less time getting closer to God, trying to obey him, trying to reform your character, and worshiping him as he wants. There will be this foolish drive to prove your anointing, instead of obeying the Holy Spirit and letting him prove it for you by working with and through you.
Or, on the other extreme: If the Holy Spirit wants to do ten times as much, but you have a mindset of achieving only twice as much, you’re not going reach your potential. The Spirit may be obligated to use someone else—someone with the faith for it—to achieve his big goals. You’re never gonna have the faith to achieve more than the small tasks. (Or the tasks that only appear small.) In many things, twice as much isn’t anywhere near big enough. Certainly not for an infinite God.
But if you want to follow Elisha’s actual in-context example, do this: Get involved in a ministry like Elijah’s. Doesn’t have to be a prophetic ministry; any ministry will do. Assist the leader. Be helpful. Be useful. Be humble. Be Spirit-led. Develop those gifts and abilities that help the ministry, and the Kingdom, most. When the time comes, and you see your talents can serve the ministry best in administration, then ask for that double portion. If you ask in all humility, he may say yes. Or he may not; it’s entirely up to him, and if you did ask in all humility, you’ll be okay with his answer either way. But Christianity always suffers a shortage of humble leaders, and if you want to take on that role, go for it.
~K. W. Leslie