I wanted to look at this passage this morning because it is so often misunderstood, particularly because many of us first read it in the old King James version. Now don't get me wrong, I love the old King James version, but in that venerable old translation the youths are called 'little children.' That gives us the impression that they were just a bunch of innocient little kids and Elisha got mad at them for making fun of his baldness and sent two bears after them to kill them!
That's not an accurate picture of this event. Let's take a closer look.
Elisha was on his way from Jericho to Bethel. Now Bethel in those days was a center of false worship. There was an idol there, a golden image of a calf, which had been set up after the death of king Solomon and the split up of Israel. And this false worship system was set up specifially to keep people from going to Jerusalem to worship the true God -- Jerusalem was in the Southern Kingdom and Bethel was in the Northern Kingdom. So Elisha was approaching a city that was the seat of an idolatrous cult that would NOT have been favorably inclined towards a true prophet of God.
We read that these youths came from the city. These were YOUTHS - young men - NOT children. The Hebrew word is na'ar, which CAN be used of a child, but it is also used of Joseph at the age of 17. Since 42 of them would later be mauled by the two bears, we know that there were at least that many of them, and there might have been more. It appears, therefore, that this was an organized demonstration against God's prophet. Some of these youths may even have been 'in training' to become prophets of the idolatrous cult of Bethel.
We read that they mocked Elisha with these words: 'Go up, you baldhead.' Go up? That seems like a strange thing to say to a person. Go up where? The phrase 'go up' refered to the manner in which Elijah was taken up to heaven. Elisha was the student and protege of the great prophet Elijah. Elijah did not die the way that most people die -- he was carried up to heaven directly. And Elisha was there with him when it happenned. A chariot of fire separated the two of them and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind.
Now we can imagine that in his preaching, Elisha had made mention of Elijah's manner of departure. And apparely these youths knew about that part of his message. And they were mocking that message. 'Hey, Elisha, why don't YOU go up to heaven like Elijah did? We don't want you around here, anyway."
They also referred to him as 'you baldhead.' Baldness was considered by some to be a curse (I suppose it still is by those who suffer from it!). It was also considered by some to be associated with leprosy. In fact, in the book of Leviticus, God was very careful to specify that baldness did not make a person unclean -- there is notheing wrong with being bald, and it does not mean that a person has leprosy. Whatever these youths meant by refering to Elisha as 'you baldhead,' it was obvious that they meant it to show contempt.
So this mocking was a sarcastic reference to Elijah's ascension, as well as an insult to God's prophet. This was a challenge to God, on the part of people who were old enough to be held accountable for their action, and could not go unexcused. Elisha pronounced a curse upon those who mocked God's messege and His messenger. But notice that it was not Elisha who sent the bears. Elisha merely pronounced the curse. The form that the curse would take was determined by God, and He chose to send two female bears. Forty two youths, we're told, were mauled. The Hebrew word indicates that the bears inflicted injury on these 42, but it does not necessarily indicate fatal injuries. Perhaps some died, but we're not given any further details.
So now that we've taken a closer look a this passage, we see that this is not a case of a bald guy getting mad at a bunch of little kids, but a confrontation between a true prophet of God and the young, outspoken proponents of a false religion. And that still goes on today. Christianity, and Christians, are often mocked and scoffed at. But although God doesn't send bears to chase away our detractors, He has promised us in His word that He WILL be vindicated, and that all the world will one day realize that the message of the Bible is true.