Commentary on Sir 48:1-14
“Having read in the Book of Kings the story of the great Elijah, we now read Sirach’s poetic description and praise of this prophet” (Vatican II Missal)
It is quite normal in our liturgical readings that, after we have been hearing about one of the great personalities of the Old Testament, there is a final encomium taken from the Book of Sirach, also known as Ecclesiasticus. We had a similar reading after hearing about David’s life. These testimonies are taken from a part of the book called “Praises of the Fathers”. The book is listed among the so-called ‘apochryphal’ books which are not part of the recognised canon in either the Hebrew or Christian Scriptures of other denominations.
The author of Sirach here recalls the great exploits of Elijah, including his triumph over the priests of Baal and his bringing down fire from heaven when the Lord burnt up the sacrifice of Elijah but not that of the priests of Baal. He was also instrumental in the breaking of a long drought; he raised a dead child to life; and he brought about the destruction of kings (Ahab).
“You heard threats at Sinai, at Horeb avenging judgements.” This seems to refer to the time when Elijah went to the mountain at Horeb and learnt that God was not in violence but in the gentle breeze. This seemed to be a reproof from Yahweh that violent action was not the way Elijah’s enemies were to be dealt with.
Finally, he anointed kings who would do the Lord’s work; he appointed Elisha as his successor; and at the end was taken up to Yahweh in a fiery chariot, the transport of kings.
There is then a subtle reference to his future coming, heralding the arrival of the Messiah:
You are destined, it is written, in time to come
to put an end to wrath before the day of the Lord,
to turn back the hearts of fathers towards their sons
and re-establish the tribes of Jacob.
The coming of the Messiah will see the inauguration of peace (“My peace I give you… John 14:27); it will be a time of reconciliation; and it will see the inauguration of a new family embracing not just the tribes of Jacob but the peoples of the whole world.
Happy shall they be who see you,
and those who have fallen asleep in love;
for we too will have life.
And yes, says the author in a beautiful turn of phrase, “happy shall they be who see you, and those who have fallen asleep in love”. Here there are intimations of immortality. And those “who have fallen asleep in love” surely means in the love of God. However, the Hebrew text is unclear and the sentence may apply to Elisha, whose praises immediately follow.
Elisha was filled with the spirit of Elijah. He wrought many marvels, nothing was beyond his power – even after his death “beneath him flesh was brought back into life”. This refers to a strange event in the Second Book of Kings which took place after Elisha’s death. Just as a dead man was being buried, a raiding party was seen, so the mourners just threw the dead body into the grave where Elijah was buried and fled. But, as soon as the man’s body touched Elisha’s bones, the man came to life and stood up (2 Kings 13:20-21).
Shakespeare has one of his characters say rather cynically that “the evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones”. Unfortunately that is often the case but as Christians we might make a special point of remembering the good things that people did in their lifetime, as this reading does.