1 Now the sons of the prophets said to Elisha, “Behold now, the place before you where we are living is too limited for us. 2 Please let us go to the Jordan, and each of us take from there a beam, and let us make a place there for ourselves where we may live.” So he said, “Go.” 3 Then one said, “Please be willing to go with your servants.” And he answered, “I shall go.” 4 So he went with them; and when they came to the Jordan, they cut down trees. 5 But as one was felling a beam, the axe head fell into the water; and he cried out and said, “Alas, my master! For it was borrowed.” 6 Then the man of God said, “Where did it fall?” And when he showed him the place, he cut off a stick, and threw it in there, and made the iron float. 7 And he said, “Take it up for yourself.” So he put out his hand and took it.
Chapters 6 through 8 continue the story of the ministry of Elisha in the midst of times of national decay and turmoil. Chapter 6 falls into two main sections. First, it continues the record of the wondrous works of Elisha: (a) he made iron swim (vss. 1-7), (b) he discloses the secret counsels of the king of Syria to the king of Israel (vss. 8-12), and (c) he delivers himself out of the hands of those who were sent to apprehend him (vss. 13-23). Second, it records the besiege of Samaria by the Syrians and the terrible distress the city was reduced to (vss. 24-33). Its relief forms another of the wonders accomplished through the word of Elisha, an accomplishment recorded in the next chapter. Elisha is seen as a great blessing from God to both God’s people and to the nation.
As we continue in our study, we must remember that these historical accounts of Elisha and Israel are not only true, but being a part of God’s God-breathed record, they are also profitable for doctrine or teaching, for reproof or exposure, for correction or restoration, and for training in righteousness that God’s people may be fitted out, equipped for every good work (ministry) in a hurting world (2 Tim. 3:16-17). This means these stories illustrate eternal truths that are relevant for today or any time in history.
While God has varied the way He works in human history from one economy to another, certain spiritual principles never vary, but are eternal as they speak of God’s character, care, providence, and man’s need to walk in righteousness by faith in the love and provision of God. With that in view, let’s begin to examine the condition and the character of the school of the prophets who were growing in numbers in these apostate days through the ministry of Elisha.
First, let’s not miss the fact that this account stands in contrast with the story of Gehazi. In contrast to the materialism, the unfaithfulness, and the hypocrisy of Gehazi, we are given a picture of a whole school of men who were faithful, sacrificial, and devoted to the spread of the Word of the God by working toward larger quarters to accommodate their growing numbers. Among God’s people, there are usually some Gehazi-like people, but we should never allow this to discourage us or cause us to become cynical, because if we will look around we can usually find those who are faithful. Our need, as the Lord exhorts us, is to pray to the Lord of the harvest to thrust these out into the fields (Luke 10:2). Or as in Elijah’s day--to get them out of the caves.
Second, we see that Elisha and the school of the prophets of God were growing. As in the ministry of our Lord and the disciples that followed him, the purpose of the ministry and miracles of both Elijah and Elisha was to authenticate the messenger as the one who was truly carrying the message of God. Though the miracles demonstrated God’s love for His people, the primary purpose was to demonstrate the futility of Baal and any way of life that departed from the Lord. God had warned them of this earlier in Deuteronomy with the promises of blessing for obedience and cursing for disobedience. Note what Samuel said in 1 Samuel 12:
20 And Samuel said to the people, “Do not fear. You have committed all this evil, yet do not turn aside from following the Lord, but serve the Lord with all your heart. 21 And you must not turn aside, for then you would go after futile things which can not profit or deliver, because they are futile” (emphasis mine).
These were men who were hungry to know the Lord and be used of Him. I am reminded of what God did for Saul in the beginning of his ministry as king before he acted in self-willed rebellion. We read in 1 Samuel 10:26, “And Saul also went to his house at Gibeah; and the valiant men whose hearts God had touched went with him.” In 1 Chronicles 12:22, we are told of the men who “day by day came to David to help him until there was a great army like the army of God.” Later, in verse 32, we read, “And of the sons of Issachar, men who understood the times, with the knowledge of what Israel should do, . . .” Undoubtedly, these prophets were men whose hearts God had touched, but they were also men who had an understanding of what Israel needed and what they should do--become effective heralds of the Word.
The college here spoken of seems to be that at Gilgal, for there Elisha was (ch. 4:38), and it was near Jordan; and, probably, wherever Elisha resided as many as could of the sons of the prophets flocked to him for the advantage of his instructions, counsels, and prayers. Every one would covet to dwell with him and be near him. Those that would be teachers should lay out themselves to get the best advantages for learning.65
The school could just as well have been located at Jericho (see ch. 2:4f).
Third, we are told that the prophets told Elisha, “the place before you where we are living is too limited for us” (vs. 1). With growth we always experience growing pains, particularly the need for more space and resources to continue the growth of reaching, teaching, and building people in the Lord. Growth is always exciting and a desired commodity in ministry. It can be a sign of a spiritually-healthy church, but in our consumer-oriented society that so often depends on Madison Avenue tactics for growth, we must guard against evaluating success or the work of God by names, nickels, and noses.
The strength and value of any school or church is never its methods or it facilities or its nickels (financial resources) or names (who belongs to our church). What counts with the Lord is the message being proclaimed and the biblical change taking place in the character of the people as measured by the Word of God, our index for faith and practice. Bill Hull writes:
The all-too-common measure of greatness is the number of people gathered for worship. If 3,000 people gather, some may make the snap judgment “this is a great church.” Measuring greatness this way has two important flaws. First, numbers themselves do not indicate greatness. Large groups can gather for any number of events, such as lynchings, mob riots, or Tupperware parties. The more accurate observation concerning a large church gathering might be “the number of people gathered here indicates that those leading the church--pastor and the music leader--must be highly talented.” That would be a good and generally true judgment.
The second flaw of such a superficial measure is that you have asked the wrong question. “How many people are present?” The right question is “What are these people like?” What kind of families do they have, are they honest in business, are they trained to witness, do they know the Bible, are they penetrating their workplaces, their neighborhoods, reaching friends and associates for Christ? . . . 66
Fourth, their approach to solving their problem of space shows us a lot about the character of these men, which also speaks highly of the quality and nature of their training. Though without much by way of financial resources (the lost axe head had to be borrowed), they were industrious and hard working. Their lack of resources did not stop them. Each man was willing to do his part to help meet the need. Yet they undoubtedly were ultimately resting in the resources God would supply. “It is not seeing the difficulties that prevents action, but failing to see the resources.”67 They weren’t expecting someone else to do it for them. Further, their humility is seen in that what they were seeking to build was rather simple and rustic. They weren’t expecting or thinking they needed a marble palace. They simply wanted facilities that would meet their needs. “When they wanted room they did not speak of sending for cedars, and marble stones, and curious artificers, but only of getting every man a beam, to run up a plain hut or cottage with.”68
Once upon a time there were four men named Everybody, Somebody, Anybody, and Nobody. There was an important job to be done and Everybody was asked to do it. But Everybody was sure that Somebody would do it. Anybody could have done it. But Nobody did it. Somebody got angry about it, because it was Everybody’s job. Everybody thought that Anybody could do it, and Nobody realized that Everybody wouldn’t do it. It ended up that Everybody blamed Somebody and Nobody did the job that Anybody could have done in the first place. (anonymous)
Fifth, in their request for Elisha’s presence to accompany them, we see their wisdom and humility. Though they too were prophets, they realized their need of the wisdom and support of their mentor and teacher.
Finally, in the consternation of the man over the loss of his axe head, we see a refreshing picture of honesty, respect for the property of others, and trustworthiness. The lost axe head could have been ignored or blamed on chance or covered up in some way, but the words of the prophet, “Alas, my master! For it was borrowed,” not only show his deep concern, but it demonstrates his integrity.
I have seen highly gifted young people, some who were in training preparing for the ministry, either lose or break equipment that had been borrowed (and without permission I might add) and never even mention it or offer to replace it. Giftedness can never replace integrity, for spiritual character is what is needed to authenticate our message. It shows that the message has impacted the messenger.
Note, we ought to be as careful of that which is borrowed as of that which is our own, that it receives no damage, because we must love our neighbour as ourselves and do as we would be done by. It is likely this prophet was poor, and had not wherewithal to pay for the axe, which made the loss of it so much the greater trouble. To those that have an honest mind the sorest grievance of poverty is not so much their own want or disgrace as their being by it rendered unable to pay their just debts.69
Not only did Elisha give his permission for the project, but he was also willing to accompany them in order to lend his support and encouragement. It was an opportunity for on-the-job training and an opportunity to study these men in their work. It would aid his own ability to minister more effectively to his students. Pastors and teachers alike need opportunities to get to know their flock and to let their flock know them.
Not only did Elisha show interest and concern for the project as a whole, but he demonstrated his involvement even in the smallest of matters as in the loss of the axe head. Of course this incident was no small matter to the man who lost it, but in the final analysis it was a small thing. Rather than write it off as trivial, he reached out to this simple need. When Elisha stepped forward, inquired concerning the place where the axe head went into the water, and made the iron swim with the stick he cut, he was giving this entire school of prophets a wonderful illustration of the sovereign care and providence of God.
God is interested and cares about even the small and trivial incidents in our lives. He tells us to pray about everything and to cast all our cares on Him. Why? Because Peter reminds us in 1 Peter 5:7, “He cares for us.” This statement is given as part of the reason and motivation for submitting ourselves under God’s providential hand by casting all our cares, every single one on the Lord.
We might note two things about this statement as it is given in 1 Peter. First, the verb, “cares,” is in the present continuous tense, which here undoubtedly looks at a general truth about God. It reminds us that God always and constantly cares about us. It serves to remind us of God’s unchanging faithfulness and love. Life changes and seems terribly fickle, but God’s care is steadfast and unfailing. Indeed, it is new every morning (Lam. 3:21-23). Second, the Greek text is a little more emphatic than the English translation. Literally, the Greek text says, “for to Him, it is a care concerning you.” This not only says that He cares for us as His children, but that the whole of our care, which He wants us to cast on Him, is very much His personal concern.
The idea is simply this: “Anxiety is a self-contradiction to true humility. Unbelief is, in a sense, an exalting of self against God in that one is depending upon self and failing to trust God. Why worry therefore, if we are His concern? He is more concerned about our welfare than we could possibly be.”70 Furthermore, He is infinitely more capable of caring for us than we are for ourselves.
Matthew 6:25-34 For this reason I say to you, do not be anxious for your life, as to what you shall eat, or what you shall drink; nor for your body, as to what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they? 27 And which of you by being anxious can add a single cubit to his life’s span? 28 And why are you anxious about clothing? Observe how the lilies of the field grow; they do not toil nor do they spin, 29 yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory did not clothe himself like one of these. 30 But if God so arrays the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, will He not much more do so for you, O men of little faith? 31 Do not be anxious then, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “With what shall we clothe ourselves?” 32 For all these things the Gentiles eagerly seek; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added to you. 34 Therefore do not be anxious for tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.
In this passage the Lord Jesus used basically the same argument to counter anxiety and wrong priorities because of our proneness to anxiety and self-trust. There Jesus reminds us that if God so looks after the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, how much more will He not care for us as our Heavenly Father. The issue then is to put first things first, to seek God’s kingdom and His righteousness, to rest in His loving care, and not worry about tomorrow. That’s in God hands--even an axe head.
The miracle of the axe head illustrates how God uses our everyday circumstances to teach us about Himself and His providential purpose to work all things for our growth if we will only trust Him, and in that trust, have the vision to see Him at work.
Though the lessons are many, the primary lesson in the lost axe head that was made to float is its message concerning God’s relationship to us, especially as His people in the minutia or the small things of life. May I suggest three things for us to ponder about this primary lesson.
(1) God knows us intimately. No detail of our lives, no matter how small, escapes his loving and omniscient eyes. This is clear from Psalm 139. But this is not just a matter of information. It is a matter of an intimate knowing that stems from an intimate and personal love that has promised to never leave nor to forsake us.
(2) He cares about us. No matter what we may be facing, not only does He know it, but He cares and wants to use it to draw us to Himself, build our faith, and change our lives. The problem is, too often we only want God the Rewarder and not God the Reward; we want a solution, not a Savior or His solution. We must never divorce the responsibility of casting our cares on Him and the promise that He cares for us from the preceding verse, “Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God . . .”
“Humble yourselves” is not perhaps the best translation of the Greek text. Though this is a command and points to our responsibility to obey and respond, the verb in the Greek text is in the passive voice and would be better understood as “be humbled” or “allow yourselves to be humbled.” It is somewhat equivalent to “submit yourself to the humbling process of God.” But what exactly does it mean to allow yourself to be humbled?
Remember that God wants to bring us to the place of humility, which is the place of God dependence rather than arrogant independence where we seek to run our own lives. Dependence on the Lord honors God because it recognizes our need of Him and His authority, His sovereignty, and His right to direct our lives. Further, dependence is the place of blessing and fruitfulness; it is the branch depending on the Vine.
Suffering is one of the key subjects of 1 Peter. The word suffer or the concept of suffering occurs over 15 times in this book. Peter sees suffering or the trials and irritations of life as one of the necessary elements of life. Why is this?
Well, what does suffering do? As a loving Father, God uses suffering or the experience of the tests and trials as tools to get our attention and to cause us to grow. This is designed to turn us from depending on our human strategies to living by faith in Him. It forces our faith to the surface, puts it to work, and purifies us from a life of dependence on ourselves and our solutions by which we seek happiness as in possessing the details of life (cf. 1:6-9, 13-16, 17-21).
Trials, afflictions, and irritations are all designed by God to help us see our weakness and the insufficiency of our strategies that we might respond to God’s greatness!
On a visit to the Beethoven Museum in Bonn, a young American student became fascinated by the piano on which Beethoven had composed some of his greatest works. She asked the museum guard if she might play a few bars on it. To help persuade the guard, she also slipped him a lavish tip. The guard agreed and the girl went to the piano and tinkled out the opening of the Moonlight Sonata. As she was leaving she said to the guard, “I suppose all the great pianists who come here want to play on that piano.”
The guard shook his head and said, “Paderewski [the famed Polish pianist] was here a few years ago, and he said he wasn’t worthy to touch it.”
That young woman wanted the chance to play the piano that Beethoven had played, but what she got was a valuable lesson in humility. What is humility? Humility is a fitting response to greatness. That applies not only to how people respond to the likes of a unique person like Beethoven, but to how all of us should respond to God.
(3) He is gracious. In the miracle of the axe head, we are reminded again of how God is not only able to do super abundantly above all we are able to ask or think no matter how small or how large the problem, but He is available in His loving care to reach out to us in our need. This is not to suggest that He always will remove the problem or the pain, but it does stress that He is with us through the problem to comfort and give us strength to bear it.
There is a secondary, but still an important lesson to be learned in this story. It shows us the divine approval and value for God’s people to work hard and do things for themselves when they can. We always need to work in the strength which He supplies, but we must put our hands to axe and even reach into the water to pull out the floating axe head when God does work above the natural order of creation.