A Good Word for a
by Evangelist Robert L. Sumner
134 Salisbury Circle, Lynchburg, VA 24562
“And the sons of the prophets said unto Elisha, Behold now, the place where we dwell with thee is too strait for us.
“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. And he answered, Go ye.
“And one said, Be content, I pray thee, and go with thy servants. And he answered, I will go.
“So he went with them. And when they came to Jordan, they cut down wood.
“But as one was felling a beam, the ax head fell into the water: and he cried, and said, Alas, master! for it was borrowed.
“And the man of God said, Where fell it? And he showed him the place. And he cut down a stick, and cast it in thither; and the iron did swim.
“Therefore said he, Take it up to thee. And he put out his hand, and took it.”
– II Kings 6:1-7
We have either listened to or read many sermons on this text during the past six decades of our ministry for Christ. Somehow, in almost all of them, this young prophet has seemed to come out looking bad. Especially is he criticized for borrowing an axe and losing the head in the water. Perhaps he does deserve some criticism for this; then again, perhaps not!
The young man has our support and sympathy at the very outset because he had “forsaken all” to serve God. Jesus said, in Luke 14:26,27, “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple. And whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple.”
This young man had! He meant business for God!
Like Sau1 of Tarsus, who followed him in service by nearly a thousand years, he had responded to the divine appeal by saying in essence, “Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?” (Acts 9:16), and like Isaiah, whom he preceded by less than 200 years, with an enthusiastic “Here am I; send me” (Isaiah 6:8).
The setting of this story is interesting. Although Paul’s command to Timothy was not given until some 950 years later, Elisha was following the philosophy “the things that thou hast heard of me among many witnesses, the same commit thou to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also” (II Timothy 2:2). Call what he had established the forerunner of a Bible institute, a Bible college, a seminary, or anything you please, but Elisha was in the business of training young men to do a job for God.
Bible schools, struggling to get started, have always experienced rough times. We think of the school we attended, as a new Christian, only starting its seventh year at the time we enrolled. It met in a borrowed building (a local church), had no dormitories, offered no cafeteria or meal service of any .kind, and supported a very meager faculty. Some other schools with which we have been associated over the years have been cut from the same cloth. Even Cedarville University, with over 3,000 students, was very small when we first went on the board of trustees.
Elisha’s school was no different, and it had special problems relating to room and board for its students. The problem regarding board is recorded in II Kings 4:38-41. Probably the most common complaint on Christian college campuses relates to meals served in the dining hall. Since it is impossible to mass produce food in the same tasty style as Mother’s home-cooked offerings, the students are never satisfied. Complaints abound that the food is too starchy, that there is not enough variety, often it is too meager a fare – and these are just starters. Yet none had the problem the students at Elisha’s school faced with “death in the pot” (Vs. 40). The entire student body developed an acute case of food poisoning. In fact, it took a miracle from the hand of the man of God to remedy the situation.
Now, the following year, the problem related to the room phase of “room and board.” The opening verse of II Kings 6 tells us the students came to Elisha with their complaint, “Behold now, the place where we dwell with thee is too strait for us.” The dorms were overcrowded, and the young men did not have sufficient space to study; perhaps there was not even enough room to sleep comfortably. Jammed in with three, four, five or more to a room, they come to the school president (this was before everyone wanted to be called “chancellor”) and pleaded for something to be done.
The maligned young man of our text was one of the petitioners and, because he has received so much criticism, we would like to call attention to several of his good characteristics. In the first place,
I. HE WAS “FAITHFUL”
He had responded to the appeal for help in the emergency. There was a very definite and a very real need to be met, and he was neither oblivious to the situation nor indifferent to the crisis. He was faithfully responding to his own personal responsibility to help with the solution.
A sense of responsibility is a noble characteristic. How unusual it is in our day to find someone to whom you can turn over a job and not have to worry about it, never giving it a second thought. There is a definite shortage of people like that, individuals who will face a task and stay with it until it is done. If someone were to ask us to sum up the characteristic of our age, we would be tempted to reply: “a loss of the sense of personal responsibility!” It is safe to say that this young man was doing the job he was supposed to do.
We read one time of a grocer who placed a sign above his fruit display: “Apples you can eat in the dark!” He was saying his fruit was of a trustworthy nature and one could eat it with absolute confidence, never fearing worms or other flaws. If it is important to have trust in apples, how much more in individuals! This young man was a trustworthy young man, one who could be counted upon to do the job he was assigned.
That is not always easy. Ever present is a temptation to do something else. Just as the grass seems to always look greener on the other side of the fence, other duties often look more appetizing, and appealing. The pastor thinks it would be great to be an evangelist, and the evangelist thinks it would be ideal if he could only be a pastor. It is hard to stay on the job, to plug away, to ignore all enticements to leave the task unfinished and substitute a more glamorous service.
Did you ever notice that the percentage of those who stay in school and graduate is far, far lower than the number who enrolled as freshmen? Up to 50 percent – and sometimes more – drop out along the way of a four-year tenure. The studies are too difficult, the finances are too limited, an opportunity comes along to make big money doing something else, or perhaps the love-bug has bitten and the student feels he cannot continue his studies because of the pull in his heart toward the marriage altar. The late Bob Jones called these drop-outs “rabbit-chasers,” those who got off the main trail of treeing the possum.
The young prophet of our text was not a rabbit-chaser and he was not going to let a major obstacle like a lost axe head stop him. I like that! His philosophy was of the kind Jesus described in Luke 9:62, “No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.” He was not looking back.
One who is faithful in his ordinary tasks will be rewarded by God with greater responsibilities. We cannot help but wonder if this young man were not the prophet Elisha selected to anoint Jehu as king over Israel to succeed the wicked Jehoram (II Kings 9:1-10). Or perhaps he was the Jahaziel upon whom the Spirit of the Lord came to assure Jehoshaphat and Judah of victory over the children of Ammon, Moab and Mount Seir in II Chronicles 20. That, you may recall, was the famous battle won by singing praise to Jehovah! Or he may have been the Jehu who faced Jehoshaphat with the stinging rebuke for his alliance with the wicked Ahab.
A German youth, Ulrich Henn, was confined to an American prisoner-of-war stockade in Italy. He spent his spare time carving items out of scrap ammunition boxes. A third of a century later he was selected to prepare four full-sized models from which the huge bronze doors of the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. would be cast. Great feats evolve from faithfulness to small beginnings.
Another thing which commends this young prophet to us is,
II. HE WAS “RESPONSIBLE!”
He was concerned about the axe. We fear that many, standing along the water’s edge and watching the axe head disappear beneath the surface, might have exulted inwardly, “Thank God, that wasn’t my axe head!”
Not this young man! He was concerned even though it was not his, since it was in his care. No doubt he recalled what the Law said about such an incident. The Lord God Jehovah had told Moses to write in Exodus 22:14, “if a man borrow aught of his neighbour, and it be hurt, or die, the owner thereof being not with it, he shall surely make it good.”
It is interesting that the young prophet took full responsibility for the loss. He did not offer any alibi or excuse such as others might today. He didn’t say, “The axe was no good when I got it,” “The head was loose to begin with,” “I didn’t want to cut down a tree that close to the water, but my foreman ordered me to do it,” etc., etc. No, he accepted full responsibility.
This is not usual in our day. Employers, supervisors, foremen and others over workers will tell you how hard it is to get people to acknowledge responsibility. “I didn’t do it,” “It wasn’t me,” “I don’t know anything about it,” are the most common, most popular phrases in our places of business in 2006. Any intelligent boss will realize he has a jewel on his hands when a worker says frankly, “That was my mistake. I am to blame.”
Not only did the student accept full responsibility, he determined to do something about the loss. He immediately launched an effort to get the axe head restored, although the situation must have looked absolutely hopeless to him at the time. He had an attitude to make it right, no matter what it took. Looking back, we are compelled to salute him for his spirit.
Another commendable characteristic lies in the fact,
II. HE WAS “RESPONSIBLE!”
Reread the account in II Kings 6, and you will note that he followed Elisha’s instructions to the minutest detail. He did everything Elisha told him to do.
When Elisha inquired, “Where fell it?” the inspired writer says, (“he showed him the place” (Vs. 6).
When Elisha commanded, “Take it up to thee,” we are told that the young man instantly “put out his hand, and took it” (Vs.7).
In thinking about it, doesn’t it seem reasonable that he might have questioned Elisha’s instructions, observing, “This sounds pretty silly to me”? Yet if he had any doubt at all about what Elisha ordered, the record does not even hint it. He was completely obedient.
The young seminarian’s dedication is also seen in verse 3, immediately after Elisha had given permission to construct the new dormitory. It tells us, “And one said, Be content, I pray thee, and go with thy servants. And he answered, I will go.” Whether our hero is the one who actually made the request of Elisha is immaterial. All of them wanted Elisha to go with them!
Like these young prophets, we had better want our Master with us in our work for Him. Our insistence ought to be the same as that of Moses to Jehovah, “If thy presence go not with me, carry us not up hence” (Exodus 33:15). How foolish to go without God!
As the Savior told His disciples: “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me. I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing” (John 15:4, 5).
Nothing! That is what we can do without Him.
Conversely, there is nothing we cannot do with Him.
David Livingstone caught that truth and, in the heart of the dark continent of Africa, he wrote in his Journal the positive conviction: “If He be with me, I can do anything, anything, anything!”
The next nice thing we wish to observe about our young prophet is,
IV. HE WAS “INTELLIGENT!”
There is a wisdom that comes with “the fear of the Lord” (Proverbs 1:7). One who has been born into the family of God has a secret source of intelligence not available to the unconverted. Paul told the Corinthian believers “we have the mind of Christ” (I Corinthians 2:16), and he explained to young Timothy, “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind” (II Timothy 1:7}.
Part of the young man’s intelligence was seen in the fact that he stopped trying to cut the beam without the head on his axe. He did not flail away at the partly felled tree with the axe handle.
Do you suggest no one would be foolish? Then remember that, spiritually speaking, the axe head is a symbol of the power of the Holy Spirit for service in a believer’s life. Yet many a child of God continues to try to do a job for God without the power of the Spirit of God upon him. In a manner of speaking, he continues to flail away with his axe handle, with the cutting edge of the axe head missing.
Another evidence of the young prophet’s intelligence is seen in the fact that he knew where to go for help in trouble. He did not turn to a fellow student or an immediate supervisor. No, no! He went immediately to Elisha and requested his help.
Note also that he was not of the “Oh, what will I do now?” crowd. He knew what to do, and he knew where to go.
Do you know where to go when you lose your cutting edge in service? Or do you think that attending a service seminar conducted by some popular speaker will unveil to you some new secret of success, some short-cut to triumph in your ministry?
While we do not object to conferences, seminars and “how-to-do-it” workshops, the proper answer to failure in service lies in a new enduement of Holy Spirit power in the life.
A final compliment we wish to pay this young man lies in the fact,
V. HE WAS “DEVOTED!”
There is no question about it; he was sold out to God! In the language of Galatians 2:20, he had been crucified, and the life he now lived was not his own.
The late Arno C. Gaebelein told of seeing a sign in a cleaning shop which said:
“I live to dye, I dye to live
The more I dye, the more I live
The more I live, the more I dye.”
While it is “die” and not “dye” with the child of God, the thought sums up an important truth in the Christian worker’s life and ministry.
The captain on whose ship James Calvert sailed to the Fiji Islands to begin a missionary ministry, knowing of the cannibalism practiced there, sought to dissuade him by saying, “You wil1 risk your life and the lives of those with you if you attempt a ministry among such savages.”
But Calvert simply responded, “We died before we came here.”
Ah, that is it! One who is going to be a success in the service of Jesus Christ will have to die before he begins his work.
The young prophet had that kind of philosophy, that type of attitude. One thing often overlooked by his critics is that he borrowed the axe to be able to help in the Lord’s work. How easy it would have been for him to have excused himself, saying, “I’d really like to help you fellows, but I don’t have an axe!” Can’t you just hear today’s crowd jumping at the chance to use such an ideal excuse?
Not this fellow! He wanted to be right in the thick of the service of the Lord, doing his part to further the work and program of his God.
His devotion is also seen in the fact that he was obviously a man of faith. He expected Elisha could and would do something. There does not seem to have been the slightest question in his mind but what he would have immediate help from Elisha.
In this sense he was like the centurion who sent the appeal to Jesus at Capernaum regarding his beloved servant, about to die with a terminal illness. Through friends he confessed he was not worthy for Jesus to enter his house – in fact, his sense of unworthiness was the reason he did not approach Jesus personally – but his declaration of faith was tremendous. He acknowledged it was not even necessary for Jesus to be present in order for the servant to be healed, suggesting that He merely “say in a word,” and it would take place. Then he said, “For I also am a man set under authority, having under me soldiers, and I say unto one, Go, and he goeth; and to another, Come, and he cometh; and to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it” (Luke 7:8).
Our young prophet approached Elisha in exactly the same spirit. And this is the spirit in which all of us should approach our Master when things go wrong in our service for Him. He is the One who can help, and He is the One who is willing!
The question with which we wish to sum up this study will have more meaning, perhaps, if you are one of those who have criticized the young man of our text in days gone by, but it should carry weight even if you have not. The question is this: Are you as sold out to God and His work as this young man was? Now that you have seen him in a new light, such a question should carry a stronger impact.
Total commitment! This is what the young prophet had, and it is what you and I need as well. The late Robert G. Lee told of Napoleon’s march on Moscow when the Russians set fire to their own city to keep “the little general” and his troops from capturing it. Finding it necessary to go back to France, he instructed his trusted general, Marshall Ney, to command a rear guard. It was the duty of Ney and his men to keep the Russians from Napoleon’s main army until he could get those men safely back to Paris.
His men were totally dedicated to Ney, and they courageously battled the Russians, holding them back as they too retreated. While the Russians were undoubtedly conditioned to the cold nights of that country, they were especially hard on Ney and his men.
So dedicated were his troops to him, that one morning following an unusually cold night, the general awakened to discover he had been covered with two overcoats. When he left his tent, he found, at the door, two soldiers standing stiff and erect, frozen dead .They were the ones who had donated their overcoats to keep their leader warm.
Lee said, “And when they made improvised bridges, some of the men plunged into the icy cold waters and held up the parapets while the rear guard went over. As Marshall Ney went over, he pinned the cross of the Legion of Honor of France on the breasts of the dead men as they stood frozen in the icy water.”
Months later in Paris, a worn, bent and aged officer walked into Napoleon’s headquarters. Some of the officers looked up from their card game, and one jumped to his feet shouting, “It’s Marshall Ney!”
The others immediately rose and saluted, questioning, “Where is the rear guard?”
Ney squared his shoulders, Lee said, and firmly announced, “Sirs, I am the rear guard.”
He alone was left! All the others had given their lives in protecting Napoleon and the main part of the army, allowing them to get safely back to France. Yet the men in Ney’s rear guard did not consider themselves heroic. No, they were simply doing their duty and manifesting allegiance to their earthly leader.
Should we offer any less to our heavenly Leader? We ought to be as sold out to the Lord Jesus Christ as the rear guard was to Napoleon and the young prophet was to Elisha. In fact, our commitment should be even greater!
Perhaps we should ask one other question in the light of our text: Have you lost YOUR axe head”? Are you trying to serve God with the cutting edge of your ministry missing?
If so, what are you going to do about it?
This message taken from the Christian paper, The Biblical Evangelist. www.biblicalevangelist.org Used by permission.