II Kings 2:11-12a — As they were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind. Elisha saw this and cried out, “My father! My father! The chariots and horsemen of Israel!” And Elisha saw him no more.
The above picture was in a Bible story book I had as a child, The Bible in Pictures for Little Eyes by Kenneth Taylor. I still have that book, and I knew that picture would be there, and I knew just what it would look like, so vivid is my memory of how this dramatic story struck me even as a child. This is a great story, for children and adults. We all want to go to heaven, but we know what has to come between our lives right now and the life to come in heaven. Death must come to us before we pass from this place unto the next, and we know that the dying process can be pretty awful. But in this story Elijah gets a free pass, and a free ride, directly from this world and this life into heaven. Who wouldn’t be interested in that? That was a blessing not even Jesus received.
What’s more, look at what Elijah is riding in– a chariot of fire pulled by horses of fire. “How did that work?,” I remember wondering as a child as I stared at that picture. How do you sit on fire? Why didn’t Elijah get burned? The answer is simple, of course. God can make anything happen– even a child knows that, and I can remember coming to that conclusion even then. But that doesn’t make the story any less dramatic. A fiery chariot and a free and direct ride to heaven. Wonderful!
All of that makes this story perfect for an African-American spiritual. The African slaves in this country were drawn to the Christian faith of their masters. On the one hand, this is not what you would expect. Why would a people want to embrace the religion of those who captured them like animals, enslaved, and oppressed them? On the other hand, the Christian faith offered hope and comfort to the downtrodden slaves. There is at the center of the Christian faith the promise of a better life to come. Many generations of slaves in this country had no chance of a better life here on this earth. The promise of heaven gave them something to look forward to with hope. Not only that, but the Bible contains many stories of the weak overcoming the strong. The boy David was victorious over the giant warrior Goliath. Gideon, with only three hundred men, defeated an army of many thousand. The early Christians stood firm and courageous against the might of the Roman Empire, and in the end, conquered it. Best of all, by the miracles of God, Moses led the Hebrew slaves to freedom from the Egyptians.
Not only did the slaves love to hear these stories, they also loved to sing them. Few could read or write, but they could tell stories and they could sing. In the midst of their misery, God had given them something to sing about, and out of that dark chapter in American history came some terrific hymns. A Good Friday tradition in many churches is to sing that most favorite all spirituals, “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” “Let My People Go,” tells the story of the escape of the Hebrew slaves from the bondage of Egypt. The children’s song “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder” blends an image from an Old Testament story with the call to faith in Jesus. There are many more.
Elijah’s ride in the chariot of fire has all elements needed for a great spiritual. First of all, it is a vivid image. Second, it is about Elijah, an Old Testament favorite, one who stood up against the powers of oppression both in government and the religious establishment. Elijah stood up to King Ahab, and, he defeated the 400 priest of Baal in a showdown on Mt. Carmel. Elijah, like the slaves, was small and powerless, but with God’s help, he was able to overcome everything. And then, most of all, this story is about going to heaven, one of the favorite themes of the old spirituals.
The slaves found strength in singing about their miseries, as in the song “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.” Someone once said that spirituals are ‘pain set to music.’ But the old spirituals not only sang about their troubles, they also sang of their hope, and their hope was of that better life to come, with Jesus, in heaven. That is where Elijah was going, and that was where they wanted to go when their cotton-picking days of slavery days were done. When they sang about death, the songs were not morbid, but full of hope. So in this song, one of the most popular of all African-American spirituals, even though they were singing about their dying day, the word death is not even mentioned. Rather, it’s all about going home; “Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home.”
Elijah’s chariot in this story becomes a symbol for death. Elijah was carried up alive, and that was too much to hope for; but in death God would send another sort of chariot, just for me. After a life of hardship and pain, that would indeed be sweet. “Swing Low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home,” goes the refrain. The verses are also wonderful: “If you get there before I do… tell all my friends I’m coming too… The brightest day that ever I saw… (was) when Jesus washed my sins away… I’m sometimes up, I’m sometimes down but still my soul feels heavenly bound… swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home.”
Some hymns have profound and powerful theological messages. We learn the content of the faith as we sing them. The spirituals have much simpler lyrics, but in these songs, the power lies in the images created. “Coming for to carry me home” is an image that can give comfort as one faces death. We’re not just working ourselves to death until the undertaker comes to put us six feet under. No, when this life of trouble is over it will be Jesus coming to get us and carry us home. Beautiful!
Swing Low, Sweet Chariot sung by Paul Robeson (1898-1976):
Another one by Paul Robeson; Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen. Tremendous!:
John 14:1-3 — (Jesus said), “Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”
Almighty God, whose love never fails, and who can turn the shadow of death into daybreak; help us to receive your Word with believing hearts, so that, hearing the promises in Scripture, we may have hope and be lifted out of darkness into the light and peace of your presence; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.