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WHEN THE AX HEAD FLOATED – 2 Kings 6:1-7

Posted by Pastor Greg Allen on February 26, 2012 under 2012 |

Preached February 26, 2012
from
2 Kings 6:1-7

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.

(Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version; copyright 1982, Thomas Nelson, Inc.)

One reason I believe we should make it our habit to read through the whole Bible is because it often teaches us some extraordinarily practical life-lessons through some relatively unexplored passages. This shouldn’t surprise us. After all, as the Bible says of itself, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable . . .” (2 Timothy 3:16a).

Take the story that we find in 2 Kings 6:1-7 for example. It’s a story we rarely give much thought to; and yet, the lessons it has to teach us about our walk with Jesus Christ are among the most practical and important that we could learn.

* * * * * * * * * *

It’s a story that is told to us about a miracle that God performed through one of His greatest Old Testament prophets, Elisha.

Elisha was the prophetic successor of another great Old Testament prophet named Elijah. God had raised Elijah to be His spokesman during the very difficult and wicked times of the kings of Israel. Elijah had served his people faithfully; but the time finally came when God called His prophet to Himself—taking him up to heaven in “a chariot of fire”. But before Elijah departed from this earth, God had called and commissioned his successor Elisha. Elisha stood and watched as his godly mentor was taken up to glory before his very eyes.

Now; before Elijah was taken away, a community of students had gathered around him. They are often referred to collectively in the Bible as “the sons of the prophets”. It appears that they constituted something like a ‘seminary for prophets’; where young men were taught to walk a holy walk before God, and were trained to speak forth God’s message to His people during dark times. And after Elijah was taken up to glory, his successor Elisha—to whom God had given a “double portion” of the prophetic spirit of Elijah—was looked upon as the new head of this “school of the prophets”.

In time, the number of these “sons of the prophets” who had gathered around their mentor Elisha had apparently grown so large that they needed more room. And that’s when we read this morning’s remarkable story:

And the sons of the prophets said to Elisha, “See now, the place where we dwell with you is too small for us. Please, let us go to the Jordan, and let every man take a beam from there, and let us make there a place where we may dwell.” So he answered, “Go.” Then one said, “Please consent to go with your servants.” And he answered, “I will go.” So he went with them. And when they came to the Jordan, they cut down trees. But as one was cutting down a tree, the iron ax head fell into the water; and he cried out and said, “Alas, master! For it was borrowed.” So the man of God said, “Where did it fall?” And he showed him the place. So he cut off a stick, and threw it in there; and he made the iron float. Therefore he said, “Pick it up for yourself.” So he reached out his hand and took it (2 Kings 6:1-7).

* * * * * * * * * *

Now; the reason this rarely-heard-from story is so important and practical is because it is a story about a ‘crisis’. Something had happened to one of the “sons of the prophets” that had placed him in a real fix.

As a student in this ancient school of the prophets, he was a poor man. (Believe me!—most seminary students are very poor! They take to heart the New International Version of Proverbs 4:7—”Though it cost all you have, get understanding.”) When it came to building a meeting-place for their school, these students had to build it themselves. And this particular student was so poor that he had to borrow an ax. It may seem strange to us today; but an iron ax head was an extremely precious and valuable commodity in those days. And when he was swinging the ax, and the ax head it slipped off the handle—as they sometimes did—and flew into the water and completely out of reach, it created a real crisis! The Old Testament law taught that whenever a man lost or damaged something that he had borrowed, he had to replace it and make the loss good to the lender. And this poor man—training as he was to be a godly servant to his people—had no financial means of replacing this valuable item. It could mean that, as a poor man, he would no longer be able to continue his training in the school. It might even have placed him in a serious condition of indebtedness.

And that speaks very much to the kinds of situations that often fall upon you and me in the course of life; doesn’t it? Through no intentional fault of our own—without our seeing it coming—we may suddenly find ourselves in a situation of crisis like that of the poor “son of the prophets”. Something very valuable is entrusted to us that is lost or broken. Or we become somehow responsible to a financial obligation that is far beyond our means of paying. We may become culpable of something that was never intended by us or meant to cause anyone harm. Or something may suddenly come upon us such as an accident, or an illness—or upon someone we love—that completely upsets our whole world and leaves us wondering what we will be able to do.

I suppose that one of the ways we can know that it’s a crisis is when we cry out from the heart—just like that son of the prophet did—”Alas!” I looked this Hebrew word up; and it’s basically pronounce, “Ah—!”; which I think makes it mean pretty much what it sounds like it means. I know most people don’t say “Alas—!” anymore when trouble comes their way; but we do all often say “Ah—!” And a crisis is one of those times in life that suddenly falls upon us, upsets our whole world, and make us cry “Ah—!”

Those crisis times will come upon us, dear brothers and sisters in Christ. But that’s what makes this story so valuable to us. In it, we learn some important spiritual principles about how to trust God’s faithfulness to us in those times of crisis.

* * * * * * * * * *

Look at this passage a little closer with me; and notice, first, how it teaches us that . . .

WE BEST PREPARE FOR A CRISIS THAT MAY COME LATER WHEN WE INVITE GOD’S PRESENCE IN OUR LIVES NOW.

The best time to start preparing your heart to trust God in crisis is not right when the crisis strikes. It’s certainly a good thing when someone finally turns to God in a time of crisis; but that’s not the best time to do so. Trusting God effectively in a crisis is the byproduct of making it a regular habit to seek God’s involvement in every area of your life—long before the crisis comes.

Take a look at how our passage begins. We read, “And the sons of the prophets said to Elisha, ‘See now, the place where we dwell with you is too small for us. Please, let us go to the Jordan, and let every man take a beam from there, and let us make there a place where we may dwell’” (v. 1-2a). More and more men were gathering around the prophet Elisha to learn from him; and in time, the place where they were gathering had become crowded and cramped. Perhaps some had thought back to the spacious places along the banks of the Jordan. It was a place that was dear to their hearts; because it was there that Elisha’s predecessor Elijah had been taken up to heaven. And so, they asked Elisha’s permission to go there and begin building what we might call a “campus” for the school—a place at which they could live comfortably and learn together from him. “So he answered, ‘Go’” (v. 2b).

But just going away with permission from Elisha to build a building was apparently not enough. A request was made that, as it turned out, was crucial to effectively facing the time of crisis later. We’re told, “Then one said, ‘Please consent to go with your servants’” (v. 3a).

Elisha, you see, was God’s representative spokesman to His people at that time. He was—as it says in verse six—”the man of God”. It was through Him that God was conveying His message to His people. It was through Him that God was performing His mighty works. It’s different for us in this age, of course. Each one of us who are in Christ by faith have full access to God the Father directly. But at that time, for this man to ask God’s representative to consent to go with them was as much as asking God Himself to go with them. They didn’t want to go away to the banks of the Jordan River, or begin the work of building a place for themselves, without the blessings of the presence of God with them through the presence of His representative prophet.

And Elisha, the “man of God”, graciously consented their request. “And he answered, ‘I will go.’ So he went with them” (v. 3b-4a). It turned out to be a good thing that he was there. And because he had been invited at the very beginning, he was able to be the instrument of God’s faithfulness in a time of crisis later on.

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ; I don’t think I can stress the importance of this principle enough! When we habitually disregard the Lord in the daily matters of life—or even deliberately choose to exclude Him—we set ourselves up for terrible disaster when crisis finally strikes. But when we make it our habit of life to pause at the beginning of each new day—and in fact, as much as possible, at the beginning of each new task or project or circumstance or meeting—and pray, “Dear Lord; thank You for being with me; I welcome Your good presence in, and invite sovereign hand on, what it is that You have now given me to do; and I ask you to bless my work, and empower me to do what pleases You”—we do the absolutely best thing we can possibly do to prepare ourselves for any crisis that may come along our way in the future. After all; the promise of Proverbs 3:5-6 is just as true in a time of crisis as at any other;

Trust in the Lord with all your heart,

And lean not on your own understanding;

In all your ways acknowledge Him,

And He shall direct your paths (Proverbs 3:5-6).

We truly best prepare ourselves for any crisis that may come later by making sure to invite God’s presence in our lives now—long before the crisis comes!

* * * * * * * * * *

So then; permission was sought and given, the prophet Elisha—as “the man of God”—was invited and went along, and the work of building had begun.

And it’s then that the crisis struck. We’re told, “And when they came to the Jordan, they cut down trees. But as one was cutting down a tree, the iron ax head fell into the water . . .” (v. 4b-5a). I’m taking it that the place into which the ax head fell was too deep—and perhaps the river bank too steep—for the as head to be retrieved. Otherwise, this man and his companions would have simply stepped in and gotten it.

I tried—many years ago—to search for a ring that I had lost in a rafting trip on a river in Washington State. A friend of mine came along; and we put on wet-suits and full diving gear, and spent the whole afternoon looking. But the rocks were too numerous, and the current was too strong, and the water was too deep and murky to find it. I always think of that when I read this story. This poor man and his companions didn’t even have the gear I had! This precious, borrowed ax head was lost in the water and completely out of reach.

Now; I’m speculating a bit. But I suspect that he and his companions at least tried for a while. They walked along the river bank searching into the water as best they could. It may even be that he and some of his friends dove in and made an attempt at going for it. But it was no use. Finally, the prophet Elisha walked by to see what all the commotion was. The poor man came to him; “. . . and he cried out and said, ‘Alas, master! For it was borrowed’” (v. 5b).

And it’s here that I’d like to suggest a second principle we learn from this passage . . .

NO CRISIS IS EVER HOPELESS SO LONG AS WE CRY OUT TO GOD FOR HELP IN THE MIDST OF IT.

The poor man’s cry may have been desperate; and perhaps even offered up with a sense of hopelessness and frustration. It may have been little more than, “Alas!” But it’s here that we can see why it’s so important that we make it our habit of inviting God’s presence in all that we do; because even though it was a desperate cry of “Alas!”, it was a cry that was sent in a God-ward direction.

Dear brothers and sisters; the moment we turn to God in our crisis—even if it’s with a less-than-perfect faith; even when it’s with an attitude of desperation and fear and panic; even if it’s little more than “Ah, Lord!”—our loving Father will hear our cry and come to our aid. We have His own promise on it! In Psalm 50:15, He Himself says,

“Call upon Me in the day of trouble;

I will deliver you, and you shall glorify Me” (Psalm 50:15).

One of my favorite prayers in all the Bible is the prayer that the apostle Peter prayed when he walked out of the boat and onto the water to the Lord Jesus. He had turned his eyes away from the Lord and began to sink beneath the waves in the midst of a storm. He didn’t have time to write a beautiful prayer, or to check to make sure it was theologically profound. All he had time to do was gasp out the words, “Lord, save me!” (Matthew 14:30); and that was enough. The Lord Jesus came to his rescue.

Let’s first make sure that we have invited the Lord’s involvement in our lives. And then, when crisis strikes, let’s be sure that—as the very first thing we do—we cry out to Him. Let’s not worry that our heart-attitude is all perfect. Let’s just cry out to Him—imperfect as we are, and feeling as helpless as we may feel—because no crisis is truly hopeless if we cry out to God in the midst of it.

* * * * * * * * * *

This poor man, then, cried out to Elisha. And we read; “So the man of God said, ‘Where did it fall?’ And he showed him the place” (v. 6). Perhaps he pointed to the general spot in the water where it fell; and perhaps his companions even stood around and confirmed it.

But look at what Elisha does. We’re told, “So he cut off a stick, and threw it in there; and he made the iron float” (v. 6b.) You’d be truly amazed, by the way, at the silly things that some unbelieving commentators have written about this in an effort to offer up some natural explanation. Of course, they usually begin by letting us know that iron can’t float (which always helps to make it a very useful commentary). Then, some go on to explain that Elisha must have inserted a very long stick into the river while keeping hold of the other end of it from the river bank. Then, the other end of this very long stick was skillfully slipped by him through the hole in the ax head; so that he could simply lift this heavy iron ax head out of the flowing water of the river and fling it onto the dry ground. (Must have been a pretty strong stick!) Another explained that he must have thrown this stick into the water like a spear so that it went right into the hole. That way, when the stick floated to the surface, it brought the ax head up along with it (which would have required a remarkable piece of marksmanship, an amazingly buoyant piece of wood, and not really all that much of an iron ax head). One of my favorites was that Elisha threw a stick of a special kind of wood into the river that—somehow—changed the chemical composition of the water to such a degree that the iron ax head was temporarily made to float like a bar of Ivory Soap. (I’d love to see one of these commentators go to a river and try that idea out for a while.)

No, dear brothers and sisters; the iron ax head floated. How did it happen? It was a miracle. It was not something that Elisha brought about. It wasn’t even something that necessarily required a stick. It was something that God did.

But I don’t think that it’s an incidental point that—of all the things “the man of God” could have thrown in—it was a stick that he had broken off. After all; what was it that had brought this crisis about in the first place but the chopping down of trees? Wouldn’t it seem likely that Elisha simply walked up to one of the trees that was being chopped down, broke off a stick, and threw it in?

And this leads us to a very remarkable principle about God’s work in our lives at times of crisis . . .

GOD IS ABLE TO USE THE CIRCUMSTANCES OF THE CRISIS ITSELF IN ORDER TO BRING ABOUT A SOLUTION TO IT.

This is something that—if you’ll think about it for a moment—our sovereign God seems fond of doing in times of crisis. Think back to the time when the apostle Peter came to Jesus at a time when the temple tax was due. Apparently Peter didn’t have the money for it. But Jesus didn’t tell Peter to go look under a rock somewhere and find that the required money would be under it. Peter was a fisherman. He didn’t have money, but had hooks and could catch fish. And so, He sent Peter out to the sea, told him to cast in a hook and open the mouth of the first fish that comes up. And in it, he would find the required money (Matthew 17:24-28). Or do you remember the feeding of the multitudes? Our Lord didn’t just make food appear out of the sky. Instead, Jesus asked what they had; and when the disciples told Him that all they had for 5,000 men were five loaves and two fish, He said, “Bring them here to Me”. And once they brought their woefully inadequate supply to Him, the problem was solved. Everyone ate until they were full.

I believe the greatest example of this is our salvation. As human beings, we are fallen before God. Our first father Adam sinned; and in his sin, he brought the whole human race into a state of alienation from God along with him. But how did God solve our “crisis”? He sent His Son to become a member of the very same fallen human race—taking our own sin upon Himself and dying in our place. God used the very material of the crisis of our condition in order to solve it.

Dear brothers and sisters; let’s never fret in a time of crisis. Our mighty, sovereign God is able to use the very circumstances of our crisis itself in order to bring about a solution to it—and all to His glory! In fact, it seems that it’s even a way that He loves to work!

* * * * * * * * * *

Now; there’s one more lesson for us to learn from this passage about God’s faithful work in our lives in a time of crisis. And it’s this . . .

GOD WILL ONLY MEET OUR NEEDS IN A CRISIS AS FAR AS IS NECESSARY FOR US TO DO OUR PART.

I’m sure you’ll agree with me that the very same mighty God who could make iron float in water could also make it float in air. He could have made the ax head float up to the river bank within easy reach. In fact, if God had wanted to, He could have even had Elisha throw the ax handle itself into the water, have it marvelously join itself to the ax head, and have both of them rise out of the water and into the air, and caused them to rest on dry land. Why, if He had wanted to, don’t you think God could have even made the ax do some chopping all on it’s own? No one else would have had to do a thing—if that had been what God wanted.

But that’s apparently not what God wanted. Instead, after Elisha threw the stick in, and the iron floated to the surface of the water in the sight of the poor man who had lost it, we read, “Therefore he said, ‘Pick it up for yourself.’ So he reached out his hand and took it” (v. 7). He made the man who was in the midst of the crisis do some of the work of releaving it.

I have often imagined what that must have been like. Did the man have to get another stick and try to draw the floating ax head to the river bank so he could reach it? Did he have to have a couple of his friends hold on to the back of his shirt so he could reach out over the ledge to grab it? Was it surprisingly heavy when he picked the bobbing ax head up of the water; and did he have to exert some effort to lift it? Would he have had to do some work of fitting it back on to the handle, and of then securing it so that it wouldn’t fall off again? I’m supposing so. God didn’t do all the work for him.

But what God did do for him in this crisis was what he could not do for himself. This was not a matter of “God helps those who help themselves”; which is a saying that is often expressed in a very unbiblical way. Rather, this was a matter of God helping a man who could not help himself. He could not bring the ax head up from the bottom of the river. Only God could do that. But that’s all God did for him. And once that was done, the man had to take it from there.

Have you ever noticed how, when the Lord Jesus healed paralyzed men, He usually followed it up by telling them, “Rise, take up your bed and walk” (see Matthew 9:6; John 5:8)? He never read that He carried their beds for them. We never read that He did for them what they could justifiably do for themselves. He only made it possible for them to do what they should do by first doing for them what they could not do for themselves. Similarly, God didn’t make the ax head float up into the man’s hand. Instead, He put it within the man’s reach; so that the prophet could say, “Pick it up for yourself.”

I believe that, in a time of crisis, our loving heavenly Father does not want us to be passive spectators. Instead, He graciously allows us to partner with Him in what He does to solve our problems and meet our needs. He does for us what it is impossible for us to do; but then calls upon us to rise up afterward and do what we justifiably can do in response.

* * * * * * * * * *

So; as you can see, this rather obscure story teaches us some very valuable lessons in how God faithfully works on our behalf in a time of crisis—in those times when we cry out “Alas!” And I have a strong feeling, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, that we’re going to need to put these principles to use sometime soon.

May God help us to take them to heart and learn from them now—long before the time comes when the ax head falls into the water!

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