In 2 Chronicles 21, the wicked King Jehoram of Judah receives a letter from the prophet Elijah. The letter from Elijah said this, in part: “This is what the Lord, the God of your father David, says: ‘. . . You have followed the ways of the kings of Israel, and you have led Judah and the people of Jerusalem to prostitute themselves, just as the house of Ahab did. You have also murdered your own brothers, members of your own family, men who were better than you. So now the Lord is about to strike your people, your sons, your wives and everything that is yours, with a heavy blow. You yourself will be very ill with a lingering disease of the bowels, until the disease causes your bowels to come out’” (verses 12–15).
The account of Elijah’s grim and graphic letter to Jehoram seems fairly straightforward—a prophet of God delivers a divine message of judgment to a wicked ruler. However, matters are complicated by a comparison with 2 Kings chapters 2 and 3. In 2 Kings 2, Elijah is translated to heaven in a chariot of fire. Then, 2 Kings 3 relates the story of King Jehoshaphat taking military action against the Moabites and receiving advice from Elisha, Elijah’s successor. The order of events presents a conundrum: if Elijah was taken to heaven during the reign of Jehoshaphat, then how can he send a letter to Jehoram, who was the king after Jehoshaphat?
Today, we are used to having dates of important events clarified. This, however, is not how the Bible is written. Some biblical writers included historical references, such as what king was reigning, and we can use those hints to determine approximate dates, but the Bible rarely goes into specific detail about exactly when events took place. We are used to historical accounts being written in strict chronological order, but, in the Bible, historical events are sometimes grouped thematically, with no real concern for chronology. If we follow the chronology based on the order the events as presented in 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles, here is what led up to Elijah’s letter to Jehoram:
1. Jehoram is anointed king of Judah (2 Kings 1:17), ruling with his father, Jehoshaphat, for the final 5 or 6 years of his father’s reign.
2. Elijah is translated to heaven (2 Kings 2:1–18).
3. Jehoshaphat, advised by Elisha, teams with the king of Israel in a fight against Moab (2 Kings 3).
4. Jehoshaphat dies, leaving Jehoram to rule alone (2 Chronicles 21:1).
5. Jehoram murders all his brothers (2 Chronicles 21:4) and builds idolatrous high places in Judah (verse 11).
6. Jehoram receives a letter from Elijah that details his judgment (2 Chronicles 21:12–15).
According to the above chronology, Elijah was taken from this world during the joint reign of Jehoshaphat and Jehoram. The question then becomes, how did Elijah send a letter to Jehoram about the evil the king did, when Elijah was not around during that time?
There are several reasonable explanations for how Elijah’s letter was delivered to King Jehoram seemingly after Elijah’s translation to heaven:
First, it’s possible that the author of 2 Kings did not place the account of Elijah’s translation to heaven in chronological order with the surrounding chapters. Elijah could have still been serving as prophet until much later in the reign of Jehoram.
Another possibility is that Elijah wrote the letter to Jehoram before his departure to heaven and left it for Elisha or someone else to deliver. Elijah was a prophet, after all. God could easily have given him the words to write ahead of time.
Another possibility is that, before his translation to heaven, Elijah told Elisha what Jehoram would do and what God’s judgment would be. When the time came, Elisha wrote out Elijah’s prophecy and delivered it to King Jehoram.
It’s also been suggested that Elijah was not translated to heaven but was whisked away to another location, much like Philip was in Acts 8:39–40. Elijah then was able to write the letter personally at the time of Jehoram’s sin and have it delivered through a courier. According to this theory, after the whirlwind experience of 2 Kings 2, Elijah lived out the remainder of his days in a secret location.
In any case, the letter from Elijah was prophetic in that it condemned Jehoram’s sin and predicted his judgment before the king became ill.