Sermon preached on 2 Kings 6:1-7 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Lord’s Day Online Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 05/24/2020.
We come today to the memorable, if not seemingly enigmatic, story of the floating axe head. This is a passage that often makes people wonder what the purpose of such a story is for being included in the Holy Word of God. In fact, we’ll see today that in many ways this one miracle embodies in these short seven verses the teaching that was seen back in chapter 4 with forty-four verses and four miracles. It’s the mighty God working miraculously through Elisha to minister to the reviving remnant among Israel.
Let us begin then looking at verses 1-3 and consider the needs of a growing church. Step back and remember the context. This section of Scripture has been showing God’s response to the evil dynasty of the house of Omri in Israel. Omri began his career as king by being more evil than any Israelite King before him. His son Ahab is then said to have been even far worse. The central problem that the house of Omri faced is their introduction of false gods into Israel. They took a nation that had already been struggling with their major perversions to worship of the one true God to then lead the people in a widespread apostasy by going after other false gods. This included a government campaign to kill all the faithful prophets of the LORD among Israel. God’s first response was to raise up Elijah during King Ahab’s day. Elijah had many successes, though much of his ministry was conducted during a time where so few faithful followers of the LORD could be found during Israel’s time. By the time of Elijah’s conclusion of his ministry, there were signs of new life just beginning to form in terms of the true religion. Pockets of disciples were beginning to be found scattered throughout Israel. Elijah’s final days saw him serving as the spiritual leader of these forming groups. Elisha then continued on that role after Elijah was taken up into heaven.
Well, the house of Omri still stood at that time. God would yet finish off that wayward house in Israel. That time is coming soon in our study of 2 Kings. But for now, we are delighted to see in our passage that the faithful remnant is continuing to grow. That’s the first problem we find presented in our passage. Verse 1, “Now the sons of the prophets said to Elisha, ‘See, the place where we dwell under your charge is too small for us.’” This is one of those good problems to have. Apparently, one of these groups of disciples had been lodging with Elisha at his home. Maybe at first this was not an issue. But it sounds like their number was growing and now Elisha’s home was getting too cramped. Here we see the first of several echoes back to the themes of chapter 4. There, the final miracle involved trying to feed the disciples with the firstfruits offering that had been given. But the size of the group of disciples there had grown to such a number, that the food wasn’t going to be enough for them. But God solved that dilemma through a miracle. Well, here they have more growing pains and that is a good thing. It’s good to see a growing number of faithful disciples.
And so, with church growth, comes various practical needs. First, we see here they needed more space. After the disciples present the issue to Elisha, they then propose a solution. They can go to the Jordan river and start cutting down trees and all pitch in to build a new place out there. I appreciate how they seek Elisha’s blessing for this, which he gives them. I also appreciate how each of them are going to help in the process — this is literally edification. They are all going to literally edify – build an edifice!
It is interesting that they chose the Jordan River. Maybe the spot they chose had a lot of trees by the water. We saw back in chapter 2 that there was already at least one group of prophets out somewhere along the Jordan. From a religious standpoint, the Jordan river represents the gateway into the Promised Land. It’s what Moses was not allowed to cross. It’s what Joshua led the people through miraculously on dry ground to enter and begin the conquest of the Promised Land. Here, they go back to the Jordan so they can further regroup and grow as the people of God. You might even think of it as a place for the people to prepare to go back into the Promise Land proper to retake the land for the LORD. That’s akin to even what John the Baptist later would do too. John’s ministry got people to come to him out at the Jordan, repent and be symbolically washed of their uncleanness, and then go back into the Promised Land with the call to live a new life for God.
Notice then one final need that this growing group of disciples had. They had the need for God’s presence. This is seen through their additional request in verse 3. One of the disciples had the wisdom to speak up and say that it was not enough for Elisha to agree for their plan to go to the Jordan and build. That disciple also requests Elisha to go with them. Thankfully, Elisha agrees. Realize then, that Elisha going with them means that God is going with them. That’s what Elisha represented at that time. God had chosen to show his power and presence through Elisha. It’s like he was almost a sort of tabernacle of God’s presence among them. I think of earlier situation where when Israel had been in the wilderness after the exodus and they had sinned against God with the golden calf. After they repented of that sin, God had at first forgave them and said he would still bless their going into the Promised Land – but that he himself wasn’t going to go with them. Moses wasn’t satisfied with that. Moses saw the importance for God’s presence to go with them. So, he kept interceding in that regard, and God ultimately agreed to go with them. So then, this disciple here keenly recognized the value of having God go with them in the person of Elisha. He asks, and Elisha grants the request. This turned out to be very important because otherwise the lost axe would presumably not have been recovered.
That leads us then to our second point for today to consider the problem of the lost axe in verse 5. So then, these disciples are out at the Jordan, felling trees, when all of a sudden a horrible accident happens. One of the disciples is using the axe and the head somehow falls off into the water and it is lost. Here we might pause and find another echo back to the miracles in chapter 4 and remember that disciple who foolishly gathered poisonous gourds and ruined the stew. God through Elisha fixed the mistake of that disciple and redeemed both his labor and the stew. So too, I think we should recognize that while accidents happen, the disciple wielding this axe presumably was at fault at least in part if not wholly in this regard. But God through Elisha would redeem again the faulty labors of his disciples when the axe head is recovered.
Let me explain a few things here so you can appreciate the scale of this issue. First off, let’s begin with the translation. A lot of translations miss something important here. We can see what they missed by comparing the KJV to the NKJV. In this case, the KJV translates too generically “the axe head fell into the water”. But the NKJV translates “the iron ax head fell into the water” and they put “ax head” in italics to tell you that the word is supplied for us in the English but not literally there in the text. So the NKJV offers a great improvement over the KJV in that case because the word “axe head” is merely inferred from context. The word that is literally in the text is “iron”. The “iron” fell into water. Obviously, it’s talking about the iron part of the axe – in other words the head of the axe. But most translations miss something important by being too loose in their translation. This wasn’t just any axe head, it was an iron axe head. Archeologists have found lots of stone axe heads in Israel, and even plenty of bronze axe heads. But this was an iron axe head.
Maybe this emphasis seems especially important to me because just before I studied this passage, I had watched a random documentary on TV that talked about the iron working done during the medieval times in order to make the suits of armor for knights. Beyond the detail of such craft, it showed how much work was involved just in the smelting process to turn iron ore into iron and then to craft and form it into something. You might recall from your humanities classes in school that there is the idea of the stone age, and then the bronze age, and then after that the iron age. The idea of those classifications is that humans began first learning how to work with stone, then an improvement was bronze, and then an even greater improvement was learning how to work with iron. And therefore, an iron axe head, properly forged, would be superior to any stone or bronze axe heads. Superior surely also means significantly more expensive too.
I think we need to all be careful to get our Home Depot consumerism mindset out our thinking here. Today you can find some cheapo-made, mass-produced axe for as low as $40 at your typical big-box hardware store. I did a little searching and found that if you want something more old-school quality, you could still get something very finely crafted for less than $200 from the right vendor. But remember that we have technology and machines that can greatly reduce the amount of labor involved to manufacture iron tools. Back then, a good iron axe head was an item of at least some significant value. It’s hard to say exactly how much. But I think it is safe to understand that this was a costly item that was lost.
But realize that the issue here is more than just the loss of an expensive axe head. That would have been bad in and of itself. But it is worse than just losing the axe head, for as the disciple immediately exclaims, it was a borrowed axe head. Now we are starting to understand the dilemma a little more here. The law in Exodus 22:14 was very clear in such a matter. When you borrow something for free and you destroy it, lose it, or whatever, you have to pay for it. This disciple would be on the hook to pay for this lost iron and it would not have been cheap! It’s interesting, that the law also has another law in Deuteronomy 19:5 that might come to mind here. It’s similar in that it speaks of the exact issue of an axe head flying off the handle when you are chopping down trees. But in Deuteronomy 19:5 it addresses what to do if the axe head then flies off and strikes someone and kills them. In that case, it is a case of “wrongful death” – or at least I think that’s how our legal code would classify it. Well, the Deuteronomy 19:5 law says that if you cause your neighbor to die by the accidental axe head flying off and striking them, then you can flee to one of the cities of refuge. As long as you stay in one of those cities, you would be protected in that instance from anyone looking to avenge this wrongful death.
This Deuteronomy 19 provision for the axe head wrongful death situation only serves to highlight that there is no such provision for accidental loss. If you killed someone with your flying off axe head, you could at least flee to a city of refuge and from there live out your life in freedom. But if you axe head flies off and is lost for good, you are just stuck with a big bill that you owe. You have a literal debt to repay. Righteousness required paying off your debts – as Psalm 37:21 says, it is the wicked who borrow and do not pay back. Here we are reminded again of another echo to the miracles in chapter 4. We are reminded of that widow and her sons who had a debt they could not repay. And that reminds us of what happened in Israel if you couldn’t pay your debt. You were legally liable to fall into a state of slavery if you couldn’t pay your debt. Again, we don’t know exactly how much that iron axe head would have cost back then. We don’t know exactly what financial means this prophet had though I think it likely it was not a lot. The fact that the disciple immediately cries out that it was borrowed makes the point. Note the word “alas!” That’s a word of alarm! Whatever the specifics, losing the axe head put the man immediately into the jeopardy of a significant debt. In the least case, it was a costly mistake that would hurt financially to pay. In the worst case it could literally cost him his life’s freedom if he ends up a slave because of it. But he immediately does the right thing. He calls out to Elisha for help – and so he is crying out to God for help!
So then, we come to our final point today to consider Elisha’s miracle to make the axe head float so it could be recovered. This is verses 6-7. Elisha immediately goes into action. He inquires where it fell. He then cuts off a piece of wood and throws it into the water at that spot. Maybe this piece of wood is like a makeshift staff for the moment. Like how he had stretched out his staff on the dead boy back in chapter 4 before raising him from the dead. Well, this miraculously makes the iron float. By the way, surely, this is miraculous. Despite some who try to rationalize this into something natural, the text is surely intending us to see God’s miraculous power behind the axe head floating here. And I love how this act to make the axe float is done by the hand of Elisha. It is clearly Elisha’s sacrifice of this wood into the water that raises the iron. It is Elisha’s actions that result in grace and mercy to this disciple. And yet we can also appreciate that like other miracles back in chapter 4, he also involves the person too. So then, when Elisha causes the iron to float, he then instructs the disciple to take it up out of the water.
Note then the significance. Saving the iron means that Elisha again does an act of redemption. Restoring this lost axe has the result to buy this disciple back from his debt to the owner of the axe head. As we noted, if this was the worst case, he literally saved his life from slavery. But even in the least case, he redeemed from a costly debt.
We can also acknowledge this significance when we recognize another echo back to the miracles in chapter 4. Elisha’s words to take up the axe head are similar to how he told the Shunammite woman to pick up her son after he was raised from the dead. In fact, the wording used here with the disciple is even a word of raising something up. In fact, if the worst-case scenario of this passage was the case, this disciple does sort of get his life back from the dead when he retrieves that lost iron head.
I know I’ve been making allusions today throughout to the miracles of chapter 4 that seem to find echoes in today’s passage. Well, we could also point out here the echo from last chapter. That’s when Naaman goes in and out of this same river water seven times and finally comes out clean and born anew like a young man. So too, this disciple gets a fresh start in his life when this iron debt was lifted from him as it passed through the waters.
And so, with the various allusions to the previous miracles of the last two chapters, we find in this short passage a summary of Elisha’s miracle-working ministry. In some final analysis of this passage on the whole, I refer you to a God-given promise to Israel through Moses back in Deuteronomy 8. There Moses describes the kind of land God was bringing Israel into. Deuteronomy 8:7-10 says:
For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, flowing out in the valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land in which you will eat bread without scarcity, in which you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills you can dig copper. And you shall eat and be full, and you shall bless the LORD your God for the good land he has given you.
Notice it mentions even the abundance of iron. This good land was intended by God to make them wealthy and prosperous. In fact, that chapter in Deuteronomy then goes on to warn about that. It says that when that happens, don’t forget God who gave you all that wealth by going after other gods, otherwise, they would fall under God’s judgment. Do you see, that’s exactly the state of Israel at this time. They had forsaken God and were under his judgment.
Yet, the “irony” is that this little group that had grown too big for Elisha’s house was the faithful remnant who represented a rebirth and a restoration among God’s people. They were the hope of a restart for Israel. Even their position at the Jordan suggested that. This passage shows that such a restart would not be without its troubles and challenges. We see that this little remnant of the church had not yet entered into the enjoyment of all that Deuteronomy 8 promised for his people. But the restoring of a lost iron was a foretaste of what yet God’s people would enjoy. And as that redemption and even resurrection of sorts was pictured through it, we are right to look to the greater redemption that comes in Jesus Christ. As we know the Scripture say that Jesus came into this world to seek and save that which was lost. Jesus ultimately raises up from death something far more valuable than some forged iron. Jesus has counted our lives as precious in his sight and raises us to the glory of a new life in him. That new life will ultimately end in the glory far better than what Deuteronomy 8 talked about – but a glory typologically described in the language of Deuteronomy 8.
So then, put yourselves in the shoes of some of the people who would have first considered this passage. I mean that the book of Kings is believed to have been a compilation by Jeremiah of these various chronological and prophetic records of Israel’s history. Jeremiah compiled them especially for the Jews to read while in exile after the fall of Jerusalem. In the hope and promise that they were a remnant God had preserved, they looked ahead at the prospect of returning across the Jordan into the Promised Land. This passage would have encouraged them that success in that is reliant on God going with them and blessing them. But it would also speak to some of the natural challenges that might await them in the work of rebuilding and restoration. That God would even involve them in that work of rebuilding and restoration, including in the challenges.
So too, we can find application today. We are not surprised that Jesus’ ministry began at the Jordan River. He is leading us his people to restore and rebuild his kingdom and in fact make it into something more glorious than ever before. He goes with us all the way. It won’t be without his challenges. But he is there with us. He will establish the work of our hands so that our labor will not be in vain. We do all this out of the redemption and new life that we have in him.
And this borrowed floating axe points us ahead to a future where none of us would need to worry should we lose a thousand such irons. Come quickly Lord Jesus. Amen.
Copyright © 2020 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.