As one of them was cutting down a tree, the iron axhead fell into the water. "Oh, my master," he cried out, "it was borrowed!"
I. THERE WAS INDUSTRY IN THAT COLLEGE. These students in Elisha's college knew how to work, and they were not above doing their own work. They had not reached that high state of civilization when manual labor is considered a disgrace. Their house, which was college and students' residence all in one, had become too small for them. So they said to Elisha one day, "Let us go, we pray thee, unto Jordan, and take thence every man a beam, and let us make us a place there, where we may dwell." It was an enactment of the Jewish religion that every boy, no matter what his position, should be taught some handicraft. The Jewish Talmud says, "What is commanded of a father toward his son? To circumcise him, to teach him the Law, and to teach him a trade." Thus we find that the Apostle Paul, who had sat at the feet of Gamaliel, and was a distinguished scholar, was also a tentmaker. Even when a preacher of the gospel, he labored with his own hands for his support. It is not generally the custom now for ministers of the gospel to follow any other calling. It is found more convenient that they should devote themselves entirely to the work of the ministry, for all men have not the genius of the Apostle Paul. It is true that the missionaries of certain Missionary Societies all learn a trade, and most of them support themselves by their own exertions at farming or other work. But this also has been found very undesirable, and it has been under serious consideration to abandon the custom altogether. But whether they engage in manual labor or not, all ministers and all students for the ministry should be, as these students in Elisha's time were, industrious in their work. In whatever calling we are engaged, let us cultivate habits of industry. Let us remember the apostle's injunction to be "diligent in business, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord."
II. THERE WAS DISCIPLINE IN THAT COLLEGE. These young students, excellent and well-conducted as they no doubt were, did not think they might do as they liked or go where they liked. They came to Elisha, and asked his consent to their proposal. And so it should be in all the relationships of life. "Order is Heaven's first law." There should be discipline in the family, discipline in the Church, discipline in the Sunday school, discipline in the nation, and regard for constituted authority. Dr. Arnold of Rugby once said to his assembled scholars, when there had been some disorder in the school, and he had expelled several boys, "It is not necessary that this should be a school of three hundred, or of one hundred, or of fifty boys; but it is necessary that it should be a school of Christian gentlemen." No wonder there is disregard for authority in the nation when it is not properly taught or insisted on in the home. The Christian Church should be a model of order. Order should characterize its services, its management, its work. "Let all things be done decently and in order."
III. THERE WAS KINDNESS IN THAT COLLEGE. What pleasant and brotherly relations between the prophet and his pupils! He could be stern with the haughty Naaman; he could severely rebuke the covetous, lying Gehazi; but he knew how to unbend among his innocent-hearted students. He had evidently already won their affections. It was a good sign of both him and them they asked him to accompany them. And now he shows his kindly nature once more by going with them at their request. So it ought to be with all Christians. We hardly think enough of Christ's command that we should love one another. What friendly relations there should be between professors and students, between ministers and their people, between parents and children, between teachers and scholars, between employers and employed, between masters and servants! Authority is never weakened by kindness. Some employers, some teachers, seem to think it adds to their dignity and to their influence to be stern to those beneath them. They make a great mistake. The most respected professors are those who treat their students as brothers, and not as inferiors. The most respected employers are those who are kind and courteous and considerate to those in their employment. Kindness does not weaken influence; it increases it. Oh! to be filled with the spirit of Christ, who made himself of no reputation, and took upon himself the form of a servant. Kindness and humility are twin sisters.
IV. THERE WAS GROWTH IN THAT COLLEGE. Under the influence of such a teacher as Elisha, the number of students increased so much that the place became too small for them, and it was necessary for them to build a new school of the prophets. Let me see growth in a Church and I shall believe in its life. A stone does not grow, because it has no life. A tree grows, because there is life in it. If you see that a tree has ceased to grow, to put forth new leaves in the spring-time, you know that it is dead. A Church that is not growing must be a lifeless Church. If you are a living Christian, let the signs of it be manifest in the growth of your Christian graces.
V. THE PRESENCE OF GOD WAS THERE. This was shown in the miracle which Elisha wrought of causing the iron to swim. It was not by his own power, he was only the instrument in the hand of God, and God owned his efforts, for he was engaged in God's work. This last feature of that theological college was the best of all. God's presence was in the midst of it. Without that, of what use would have been their industry or their discipline? Without that, would there have been such bonds of kindness? Without that, would there have been such evidences of growth? "Except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it." Without that, what a mockery it would have been for them to have looked forward to be the teachers of others in the truths of religion! What a mockery for any man to enter a pulpit and speak about the love of Jesus, who is himself a stranger to that love! What a mockery for any man to speak about the grace of God, who has never experienced it in his own heart and life! The late Rev. Dr. Cooke of Belfast once said that "an educated ministry is desirable, but a converted ministry is essential." - C.H.I.
I. THAT IT IS THE PRIVILEGE OF PEOPLE TO EXPECT AND RECEIVE DIVINE INTERPOSITION, WHEN OVERTAKEN BY TROUBLE OF MISFORTUNE, IN ANY LAUDABLE UNDERTAKING. The enterprise in which these young men were engaged was both laudable and praiseworthy. "Into the water!" What an unusual, perplexing occurrence. How trivial it would have been, if it had fallen on the land. Such is life. It is the unexpected that happens. It is what may be called the stupid and vexatious occurrences of life that cause much of our daily trouble and disappointments. This young man was evidently careless, or he would not have allowed the axe to come clear off. I also learn from this narrative that, if a poor man should have no axe, and not well able to buy one, that God has no objections if he should go to a neighbour and borrow one.
But as one was felling a beam, the axe-head fell into the water1. The first thought presented is, when Christ dwells in the hearts of His people there is a deep inward conviction of our own narrowness. The sons of the prophets dwelling with Elisha are conscious of the straitness of their dwelling, and earnestly long for enlargement. So it is with every true child of God. The soul that dwells in Christ and Christ in it is conscious of its straitness. It longs for enlargement. More room for Christ — this is its intense inward breathing. And this yearning cannot rest with inaction. Its course is always onward. "Let us go, we pray thee, to Jordan, and take thence every man a beam, and let us make a place there, where we may dwell. And he answered, "Go ye." "Let us go" — that is its motto. This is the only form in which the yearning within can find rest. It carries the soul with it into higher aims and holier aspirations. It lays hold of everything that would lift it nearer to God.
2. But observe, there can be no onward movement, no enlargement of soul, without God's presence with us. "And one said, Be content, I pray thee, and go with thy servants. And he answered, I will go." The language of this unknown one is that of every true child of God, under all circumstances. The believer knows that God's abiding presence with him can alone assure growth in grace, or security against evil. Without the constant presence of the Lord he has nothing to keep him from lapsing into coldness or deadness, nothing to meet the powers of evil that lie so thickly in his path. The presence of the Lord is his joy, his pavilion in trial, temptation, and danger, his light in darkness, and his life in death.
3. We see these remarks confirmed by what happened in this narrative. "So he went with them. And when they came to Jordan, they cut down wood. But as one was felling a beam, the axe-head fell into the water." Here at this critical moment, the very weapon needed most of all for carrying on the work — the axe-head — suddenly and unexpectedly fell into the water. Alas, alas! how is the wood to be cut down now? How is the building to go on? What are we to do? All is over now! At one sudden stroke everything collapses, and there is a cry of despair. If Elisha had not been with them in this crisis what could they have done? They would have wrung their hands in unavailing sorrow, and the work must have ceased. And are there not such crises in the history of every believer? Has not the Church of Christ, in her passage through this world, volumes of such to record? Some great work of the Lord is prospering when, suddenly, the one who is the very centre of it, on whom it all seems to hang, is taken away by death. Happy for those who have with them the presence of the true Elisha. They "sorrow not as others who have no hope." Their hope is in God.
4. But notice another truth in the reason given for this sorrow here: "Alas, master! for it was borrowed." The axe-head was not this man's own. It belonged to another. See how this applies to the believer. Like these sons of the prophets dwelling with Elisha, he dwells with Christ. Abiding in Him, he fully realises that everything he possesses is only lent. It belongs to another, even God. It is just given him to use for his Master's glory, and nothing else. It is but the axe-head which is "borrowed."
5. But now observe what "a very present help" Elisha was: "And the man of God said, Where fell it?" This was all. All the responsibility now was Elisha's. So is it in the Christian's life. In all our circumstances the Lord is saying, "What is it? Tell Me." He is ever asking us to lay before Him these emergencies. He sends them for this purpose that we may "show Him the place." When this is done He will "undertake for you." You cannot bring up from the deep that that will fill your soul with joy, but He can. So it was here: "And Elisha cut down a stick, and cast it in thither; and the iron did swim." The axe-head — that which your soul needs, that which can alone enable you to make your way, the true Elisha can bring back to your soul. It may seem to you to be hopeless, lost in the fathomless deep; and a world that can see nothing beneath the surface may pity, and write despair on your hopes. But Elisha, Jesus, is with you. "Is anything too hard for the Lord?... I will restore to you the years that the locust hath eaten, the cankerworm, and the caterpillar, and the palmerworm: and ye shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the Lord your God that hath dealt wondrously with you: and my people shall never be ashamed." Oh, trust the Lord! With such assurances as these how can you doubt? He will undertake for you, and the lost hope shall "swim" again before your eyes. You shall "eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the Lord your God."
6. Here is presented a picture of death and resurrection. In the axe-head down in the waters, we see man "dead in trespasses and sins," "far off" from God, a lost and ruined sinner. Who shall go down into the waters of death and bring him up? Jesus, He has done it. "All thy waves and thy billows have gone over Me," was His cry. Thus He went down to the depths, and brought up the poor lost one. In His death the sinner has died. In His resurrection the believer has "risen again from the dead."
7. "And he put out his hand, and took it." Faith is the hand. Have you indeed put it forth, and taken hold of Jesus for your soul? Is it religion with you or Jesus? Which?
(F. Whitfield, M. A.)
1. The man stopped working. Of course, you say; how could he cut down trees when the axe-head was gone? But Christian workers are not always so wise; they think to make up by their own energy and earnestness for the lack of Divine power. They use the haft of human wisdom or ecclesiastical status, although the cutting, driving power of God has been forfeited.
2. He told Elisha at once. That is always the first thing to do. Go and tell Jesus; confess to Him that you have lost the power. In this case the confession was made in public. Sometimes it is well for ministers and workers to acknowledge openly that they have lost the blessing they had. Generally, however, it is enough to tell Jesus. You do not need to tell others; they see it for themselves.
3. He showed Elisha the place where it fell. It is always well to be definite. Confess exactly where it was you lost touch. Perhaps you were puffed up with your success; or you began to distrust and doubt when that trouble came; or you were contaminated by that company; or you allowed that new interest, that book or game, to rob you of your secret time with God.
4. Elisha at once brought it within reach. Interpret as you like, the casting in of the wood. There is one power that always brings forfeited blessing within reach: it is the Cross of Calvary. The precious blood of Christ has brought within faith's reach every blessing that we need. Bring the Cross to bear upon your lost peace and power, and at once it is within reach.
5. The man put out his hand, and took it. There must be the personal appropriation of faith. He did this at the bidding of Elisha. Do the same at the bidding of the Lord Jesus, who still says to His disciples, "Receive ye the Holy Ghost."
(F. S. Webster, M. A.)
II. THAT IT IS THE PRIVILEGE OF GOD'S PEOPLE TO LOOK FOR AND RECEIVE DIVINE INTERPOSITION IN SEASONS OF LEGITIMATE ANXIETY AND WORRIMENT. Every honest man should feel worried, who has borrowed the property of another and cannot return it according to promise. Christian people, especially, should be very sensitive on this point. A religion that does not make a man honest and truthful is spurned and ridiculed by the world, and justly so, for it is worse than no religion at all. This young man had a noble sense of honour and equity about him. As I look at the Divine interposition, in behalf of this anxious, disappointed young man, I draw lessons of encouragement.
1. Let us be sure, first of all, that the business, the enterprise out of which our troubles arise, is legitimate and proper.
2. That we entered upon it in the right spirit. That, during its prosecution, we sought to go in and out under the smile of God.
3. That our troubles are not the result of our own ignorance, indolence, or sin, but from causes we did not suspect, and over which we had no control. The axe is off, and in the water. Legitimate anxiety and worriment from unusual and unsuspected quarters. The zeal and energy of this young man brought him this trouble. I suppose that some men could have used that axe all day, and it might not have slipped a quarter of an inch, But he swung it as a man who intended to make the chips fly. Therefore, I should say it came off, and all this trouble came on. So, the man who works with both hands heartily, in felling souls for the spiritual temple of the Lord, will be sure to make himself trouble. A cold, formal Church and the wicked world will unite to oppose and do him harm. Indeed, any man who has anything worthy of the name of zeal, in the cause of God, will soon find cause for legitimate anxiety about himself, his reputation, and his work.
III. THAT GOD'S METHOD OF INTERPOSITION, IN BEHALF OF HIS PEOPLE, IS FREQUENTLY THROUGH HUMAN INSTRUMENTALITY. Elisha was the instrument God used to help this young man out of his trouble. So now, God often helps us, even answers our prayers, through persons to whom he has given the will and power to do it. There are many striking instances of God's interposition in behalf of His people, in temporal matters.
IV. THAT, ALTHOUGH IN THIS CASE THE INTERPOSITION WAS MIRACULOUS, THE END WAS NOT FULLY SECURED WITHOUT HUMAN CO-OPERATION — "Take it up to thee." In the Divine economy, man must be more than a mere negation, — he must be more than a passive recipient of God's interpositions and blessings. He has raised us to the dignity of co-workers with Himself, in the great work of rescuing our sin-cursed race from the service and dominion of Satan. Just as God and man work together in nature, He always doing the supernatural, — producing the seed, and the vast possibilities of life slumbering in the face of nature, and the external influences fitted to call them forth: and man, as though everything depended upon him, clearing the ground, sowing the seed, cutting weeds and thistles, arranging his fields, gardens, and orchards, until the face of nature is a very paradise of beauty and blessing. So in the spiritual world, God's purpose is that through human and Divine co-operation. Oh for the eager promptness of this young man, in grasping our lost blessings. Reflections: —
1. Learn from this narrative that God is not displeased with His zealous, whole-hearted servant, who by his extra zeal disables himself or loses his axe; and that he would rather work a miracle, to put him in working trim, than to see him lazy and sleepy at his work.
2. That every man who has lost his axe of spiritual power must find it again, or, so far as he is concerned, the work of God is stopped. That one idle man among God's workmen counts more than one in the aggregate of his influence. His very presence will retard the workman and slacken the movements of many.
3. That in seasons of misfortune, it is well to be calm, and not by our own impulsiveness and imprudence make matters worse. Like the man I saw in a machine shop who chaffed his hand in attempting to put the belt on a machine, and became so furiously angry that he cut the belt in pieces, but had to replace it, at the cost of nearly a week's wages.
4. That the sinner should not make his case any more desperate by continuing to sin against God. That it is dangerous, unmanly, add very displeasing to God for one to deliberately add to the moral turpitude of his case, thus necessitating a greater miracle of Divine mercy, in order to save him.
(J. N. Norton.)
Outlines of Sermons.It cannot be denied that the restoration of the lost axe was miraculous, if we consider —
1. That the man who lost it appealed to the prophet, and to him alone, for help in his extremity, as the only person who could help him, because he was the only person to whom it was given to exercise supernatural power.
2. That the axe came to the surface at the very spot where it was dropped. The Jordan is a rapid river, and if the axe had floated from any natural cause, it would have risen to the surface lower down the stream.
3. The means used to raise it were in no way adapted to the end in view. The narrative suggests —
I. THAT THE ACCOMPLISHMENT OF THE GREAT WORKS OF THE WORLD DEPENDS VERY MUCH UPON KEEPING LITTLE THINGS IN WORKING ORDER. A great victory may be lost by the snapping of the linch-pin of an artillery wheel. The sons of the prophet could not raise a house to the honour of God without the help of an axe. "Great weights hang on small wires."
II. THAT WHAT IS SMALL AND WHAT IS GREAT DEPENDS ENTIRELY UPON ITS RELATION. To many men the loss of a five-pound note would be a mere trifle, scarcely worth the mention; to millions it would be the loss of all their ability to feed and clothe their families for many days. So there were many men in Israel to whom the loss of an axe would have been nothing, but to this member of a poor community it was a misfortune so serious that it could only be remedied by a miracle.
III. THE SMALLEST TROUBLE WHICH COMES UPON A SERVANT OF GOD, OR UPON A COMMUNITY OF MEN ENGAGED IN HIS SERVICE, IS A MATTER FOR DIVINE HELP. The Lord God Almighty is indeed the "high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity" (Isaiah 57:15), yet He "considereth all the works of men" (Psalm 33:15), "His eyes are open upon all the ways of the sons of men" (Jeremiah 32:19), and "He dwells with him also that is of a humble and contrite spirit" (Isaiah 57:15). This is sufficient to account for His interposition in the matter of the lost axe.
(Outlines of Sermons.)
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