MINISTERS OF THE WORD SHOULD TURN TO THE MASTER IN CRISIS SITUATIONS BECAUSE HE WILL SHOW CONCERN AND EXERCISE CONTROL
This is a very interesting short story from the standpoint of biblical hermeneutics. What is the point of the author? What main theme was he trying to communicate to his original audience? Why is this story included at this point of the narrative? Dale Ralph Davis (below) gives a good synopsis of some of the different approaches one can take. Usually I would argue against some of the more speculative allegorical or moral object lesson approaches. Partly that is due to my mindset of interpreting the OT prophecies in a literal rather than allegorical fashion. But I must admit that I am probably too unbalanced towards that side of the spectrum when it comes to historical stories such as the one we have here. Certainly, the applications drawn by Tony Warren (see below and in the Notes section in the full pdf download) centering around the redemptive work of Jesus Christ on the cross seem to have merit here. Why else would Elisha use the instrumentation of the cut off stick to perform the miracle of recovery from death in the Jordan? Also the story is directly connected to the account of Naaman’s cleansing in the same Jordan River which is clearly redemptive in motif. However, I would bring out those redemptive lessons more by way of application than interpretation of the historical details.
Dale Ralph Davis: You can go off in the wrong direction with this text. In one sense, it’s easy to do because this little incident is such a teaser. You ask yourself: Why is this story about the aquatic axe in Scripture? Answer: It shows the power of Yahweh working through the prophet. True, but … it seems so trivial, so senseless, so unnecessary, so outlandish. Besides, what substantial teaching can we get from it? So there are various approaches—that go off . . . in the wrong direction.
Some rationalize the episode. What really must have happened, buried as it is under all manner of inevitable accretions and well-meant embellishments, is that Elisha poked around with that branch he hacked down in the place indicated until he successfully inserted it into the socket of the axe-head and lifted it to the seminarian’s waiting hands. Or it could be that the prophet simply scooted the axe-head with his branch into shallower water where the fellow could retrieve it. Never mind that the text does not read this way. Others do not bother to rationalize the story but simply declare it ‘clearly legendary’, an event blown out of proportion by the admirers/disciples of Elisha.
Still others, perhaps with more reverence for Scripture, will allegorize this text; that is, they hold that the text means something other than what it says. For example, the iron axe-head is man’s soul, the Jordan stands for judgment. So man’s soul is hopelessly lost beneath the waters of judgment. The stick or branch is wood, of course—and so is the cross. When the cross of Jesus enters the situation man’s soul is rescued. Nevertheless, faith is necessary—the man had to ‘reach out his hand’ and take it.
Others moralize the text, that is, they find in it some lesson they fancy it teaches. Imagination can run riot here. The story is a rebuke for borrowing other folks’ property. Or maybe we could couch it in proverb-form: Don’t cut wood near a river. If you think about it, that proverb has multiple applications. Maybe it’s a tract against building programs. Or does it suggest we should license axes and/or ban the lending of them? Some of this is clearly ridiculous; but if moralizing is the way, it can be difficult to isolate the more excellent moralizings.
Can we take it straight? And, if so, what does this text intend to teach us?
– God’s concern for a simple need (v. 5a)
If we don’t believe correctly here, then the little problems, the small details, the insignificant matters will pile up and we won’t cast them on our Father because surely he can’t be bothered, so we will think on them, brood on them, fear over them—all because we’re too proud to say, ‘My axe-head’s in the water!’ Do you see the God you have? Heaven is his throne and earth is his footstool (Isa. 66:1)—and your axe-head matters to him.
– God’s power for a genuine need (v. 5b)
The text seems to say that you can expect God’s supply for a genuine need. We may often need divine wisdom to make clear what our real need is. This is especially true for Christians in the west, where we have inflated ‘need’ to cover so much. And we must understand that God may supply need in either a marvelous or a mundane way. However, this text (as the rest of the Bible) testifies that our destitution is the arena for Yahweh’s help and that our emergencies are the props for his finest acts.
– God’s providence for a future need (vv. 3–4a)
There was some jot-and-tittle type of occurrence that never fazed your mind. And later you recognize that it was the hinge of Yahweh’s immense goodness to you. Here is God’s hilarious way of being for his people in the puniest circumstances for their good and deliverance. What should we do but adore and worship?
– God’s appeal to a spiritual need
Here I want to focus on the possible message of this little story as a whole. I admit this procedure can be somewhat speculative but the exercise is, I think, worth our time. I want us to consider how Israel might have heard this little narrative—or how they should have heard it. We know that 1–2 Kings wasn’t completed until after Judah was captive in Babylon (see 2 Kings 24–25). So we might ask: how would the exiles in Babylon hear this story some 300 years after Elisha?
In order to answer this question we must link up 6:1–7 with the four stories in 4:1–44. Those stories, along with 6:1–7, show Yahweh delivering and helping the believing remnant in Israel. Here among the faithful minority were various folks, each with his/her own version of desperation, to whom Yahweh brings his grace and help. The combined testimony of 4:1–44 and 6:1–7 reminds me of the final line in J. Wilbur Chapman’s hymn: ‘Saving, helping, keeping, loving, he is with me to the end.’ That is precisely what Yahweh is doing for his faithful servants in their emergencies, large or small.
Now how might such a testimony strike the people of Judah, years later, who had lost their land and kingdom and had been carted off to Babylon? Could we not understand these stories (6:1–7 among them) as an appeal to this people who had lost their way and had preferred apostasy to fidelity? Are they not saying, ‘Israel, here is the God available to you’? ‘See,’ so they imply, ‘how Yahweh’s arm works for those who fear him, how near he is to the broken-hearted, to the poor and needy. Turn and seek this God who offers himself to you.’
1) Example of Allegorizing the text:
Tony Warren: The question is often asked of me, “what is the significance of the floating axe head?” Was it just to show that Elisha did great miracles by the power of God? Was it to demonstrate that God cares about His people being in debt? Was it a caution to us that we must make sure we return all tools and equipment we borrow? Or perhaps it was just to make a display of the awesome power of God? All of these questions can be categorized as true of course, but is that the point of this miracle performed by Elisha? Why were these logs being cut near the Jordan River that has an obvious spiritual connotation? Why did the prophet Elisha throw in a new piece of wood or branch cut from a tree to retrieve the iron? Why was it an axe head that was lost in the river Jordan? Why did God choose a miracle of making the iron axe head swim or flow to the surface? What part did the branch play in the iron floating? Indeed, why would Elisha do such a miracle at all, since God could have just moved it out of the water with a word, or simply have the axe replaced for the student. The fact is, this sign or miracle is God breathed in all its elements because God wants us to consider it as a token or signification of something far more important than literal iron floating on water. The floating axe head, and indeed the pattern of all God’s miracles recorded in Scripture, always have some deeper spiritual meaning to them. From the creation of the world in seven days, to the clean and unclean animals in the flood by twos and sevens in Noah’s day, to the parting of the red sea, to the five loaves of bread feeding five thousand. They all point to some deeper spiritual truth concerning the gospel of Christ toward His people. In understanding this we know that the primary lesson for the church in the lost axe head that did swim, is its message concerning God’s relationship to His people. So let’s briefly look at seven verses that immediately speak to this question. . .
This story of the miracle of Elisha raising the lost axe head that is recorded in 2nd Kings 6:1-7, is the sign (miracle = sign) of the debtor’s recovery and restoration through Christ Jesus. We see through this story that Elisha used the wood to remove this student’s debt, and this redemption was made through the water of Jordan. This whole episode demonstrates to us the condescension of the Son of God in humbling himself that he might be nailed to a tree (become a curse for us) and come through the waters of death to provide solution for our debt. The miracle performed by the power of God through Elisha of retrieving the axe head by the tree is a spiritual portrait of the work of Christ in redemption through the spiritual water of the river Jordan. A river that we know must be passed over in order to reach the Promised Land. The miracle of the lost axe head teaches us of God’s providential purpose in signs, that we might grow in grace in the revealed vision of His completed/satisfied work. This whole collection of seven passages is a powerful message to us that reveals the ultimate power in “God our Savior” and our help in times of need. Scripture is always, and has always been pointing us to the deliverer Christ, and has been speaking to us through the Spirit of truth. “Christ our Savior” is the miracle of the tree that remedies the problem of His prophet under law, by paying the debt that the law justly requires.
2) Example of moralizing the text:
Wiersbe: The good news is that the Lord can recover what we have lost and put us back to work. If we lose our “cutting edge,” He can restore us and make us efficient in His service. The important thing is to know that you have lost it, and when and where you have lost it, and honestly confess it to Him. Then get back to work again!
3) Some other approaches:
J. Hampton Keathley III: 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 . . .”
(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.
Peter Pett: By this lesson the prophets were made to recognise that without God the truth that they presented would have no cutting edge. It was also an indication to them that God would always help them in their difficulties, especially when disaster struck. The story is a reminder to us that life will not necessarily always go smoothly but that our Father is aware of our needs and of our circumstances, and will meet us at the point of our need when the time is right.
Greg Allen: When the Ax Head Floated
Theme: The story of the floating ax head teaches us some important spiritual principles about trusting in God’s faithful help in times of crisis.
– WE BEST PREPARE FOR A CRISIS THAT MAY COME LATER WHEN WE INVITE GOD’S PRESENCE IN OUR LIVES NOW.
– NO CRISIS IS EVER HOPELESS SO LONG AS WE CRY OUT TO GOD FOR HELP IN THE MIDST OF IT.
– GOD IS ABLE TO USE THE CIRCUMSTANCES OF THE CRISIS ITSELF IN ORDER TO BRING ABOUT A SOLUTION TO IT.
– GOD WILL ONLY MEET OUR NEEDS IN A CRISIS AS FAR AS IS NECESSARY FOR US TO DO OUR PART.
House: Elisha’s next miracle parallels the multiplying of the oil (2 Kgs 4:1–7), the curing of the stew (2 Kgs 4:38–41), and the feeding of one hundred (2 Kgs 4:42–44). Each of these stories portrays Elisha saving the prophets or the prophets’ families from physical want or financial disaster. His miraculous powers help him to be the perfect “master” in these crisis situations.
I. (:1-4) THE MASTER’S CONCERN FOR THE MINISTERS OF THE WORD
A. (:1-2) Provision of Adequate Living Quarters
1. (:1) Cramped Living Quarters
“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. (:2) Construction Proposal
“’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.’”
Mordechai Cogan: The recovery of a sunken ax head is recorded immediately following the story of Naaman because of the associative link created by their common reference to the Jordan. It is as if the storyteller had said, “Here is another tale about Elisha and the River Jordan.”
B. (:3-4) Presence to Encourage and Bless
1. (:3) Solicitation of Elisha’s Participation
“Then one said, ‘Please be willing to go with your servants.’
And he answered, ‘I shall go.’”
2. (:4) Sharing in the Construction Project
“So he went with them;
and when they came to the Jordan, they cut down trees.”
II. (:5-7) THE MASTER’S CONTROL OVER CRISIS SITUATIONS
A. (:5) Devastating Loss
“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.’”
B. (:6-7) Directed Recovery
1. (:6) Divine Miracle
“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.”
2. (:7) Human Responsibility
“And he said, ‘Take it up for yourself.’
So he put out his hand and took it.”