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THE LOST AXE-HEAD
‘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.’
2 Kings 6:1-2
There are two conditions of real personal power in the world. One is the power of insight, and it is that which redeems life from being regarded as commonplace. Everything is tinged with heavenliness for those who see heaven’s light above all, and the possession of this power gives that dignity of conception to life which is one of the secrets of power. The other condition is the strength of personal assertiveness, the power of personal action. These two gifts Elisha possessed.
But there is a third qualification still which is needed, in order that these two powers may be brought into contact with life. Great men are men who are in touch with their own age. A man may have insight and energy of character; but if he have no power of adjusting his capacities in language understood of the men amongst whom he lives, all that power will be thrown away. The scene before us explains that Elisha was largely possessed of this gift. He identifies himself with the men of progress; he allies himself to their individual life. He allows the freest scope of individual activity, but yet preserves them in the great unification of their work.
I. It is not the cry of the Jewish Church only, it is the cry of all ages, ‘The place is too strait.’ The history of the Church of Christ is the history of a thousand regrets. The spirit of prejudice surrounds every aspect with which we regard life and Church movement. It is difficult for a man bred in one communion to believe in the types of saintship which have become the favourites of another.
II. Whenever a new doctrine or a new truth has come up in the history of the Church, it has been held in the first instance by men who lived by it and tied their own lives to it.—Truth is not a thing of the intellect only; it descends into our moral nature; it grafts upon our affections and conscience. The natural history of a doctrine is this: when men are taking it rightly, using it as for God, rightly handling it, it is a power in their hands. Taken up for the purpose of evading the claims of God which other truths may be making upon their minds, it becomes evacuated of its power; it is impotent, it is buried underneath the stream of constantly changing time. When men believed in the inspiration of God and the Bible, it was a power to them; but when this dropped down into a belief that every jot and tittle was part and parcel of God’s inspiration, then they merely crystallised into a dogma what was a great and living truth.
III. You are surrounded by workers.—Your mind is often disturbed among the many cries and many sounds; but believe it, each of you has his own beam, and God can put into your hand the weapon which you are to use in hewing it down. Go forward, and be not afraid.
—Bishop W. Boyd Carpenter.
‘When the episode happens, which often does happen in the story of great movements—when one man’s heart is smitten through with despondency, when the work is still before him, but the power of carrying on the work has dropped from his hand, slipping into the stream which is ever ready to drown our best endeavours, Elisha stands beside a man in despondency, cheers his spirit, which is overwhelmed by hopelessness, and restores to him hope, capacity, and power. This is a man who is, in a great sense, a true prophet of this day, not simply posing for personal admiration, not merely asserting himself and destroying the capabilities of those about him, but with that sweet flexibility and that wondrous firmness combined, which is capable of giving movement to the young life about him, and at the same time drawing them into the one great purpose of existence. And thus it seems to me that the scene spreads beyond its own age. It is a type of all great movements, and it gives us a fitting attitude of those who would direct and control such movements.’
‘He is in Dothan.’
2 Kings 6:13
Elisha was in Dothan at the time of war between Syria and Israel. The Syrians had information of Elisha’s presence, and it seemed a golden opportunity for securing an enemy who was so extremely dangerous to them, for Elisha, as supernaturally informed by his Master of the movements of His people’s enemies, was worth a whole army to the king of Israel. Dothan was so situated that it seemed an easy thing for the Syrians to trap Elisha there. It was a sort of conical mount, on the top of which stood a little fortified town; and granted a sufficient army, in these days before artillery, there was no way in which the people of Dothan might escape. So in the silence of the night the Syrians surrounded Dothan, Elisha apparently asleep in peace, and his young man asleep too; but when he had risen early and gone forth, behold there was a whole camp round the city. The terrible Syrians were there, and the little hill and the town upon it rose up in the midst of the besiegers all around it. It was absolutely cut off. Circumstances, in the form of the Syrians, were most adverse, and the servant, seeing there was no apparent chance of escape, exclaimed, ‘Alas! master, what shall we do?’ Then it was that Elisha answered in those remarkable terms which seemed such an absolute contradiction of facts, ‘They that be with us are more than all that are against us.’
I. Dothan was apparently an exceedingly small place, certainly not a population of warriors.—They were the ordinary people of a little town, and yet Elisha says, apparently referring to the human beings around him, ‘They that are with us are more than that great host in thy sight that are against us’; and then he prayed that the young man’s eyes might be opened, and God would give him second sight. All the while the prophet had been seeing the unseen but real circumstances, and now he prays his young servant-man may see them too; and the young man’s eyes are opened, and what does he see? ‘Behold the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire round about Elisha.” He had mistaken the nearness of things. He thought the nearest thing (and so to human eyes it appeared) was the awful hostile forces, the merciless Syrian camp, the terrible environment. He had forgotten that there was space and room between them and the town for something else, and at the slopes of the little hill there was another camp, the camp of the embattled spirits of God, the ‘angels that excel in strength, that do His commandments and hearken to the voice of His word’; and for them the command was, ‘Keep absolutely safe My servant and his servant too.’
We need not follow the story into its sequel; it is a remarkable one. What is the Lord’s message to us, for discouragements and fears, for the terrors about circumstances that may arise daily, in this message of Dothan—the seen enemies and the unseen friends, the seen siege and the absolutely unseen but infinitely stronger and victoriously prevailing defence? There is not a shadow of a doubt the Spirit of God dictated the insertion of this particular incident, that we might take its message home for the soul and its need, for the heart and its besiegers.
II. First, then, we have the siege.—There is always a threefold unholy alliance combined against us, and its forces are always in the field—the world, the flesh, and the devil. The world—in circumstances that seem adverse to God; the flesh—all that belongs to the life of self; and the devil—the great unseen general and manager and director of the forces of evil; an awfully real personality, and the head of a whole world of personal wills that are against our souls, that mean them unmitigated harm, that intend their ruin, and that have an awful experience of long ages of action against us to show them what to do.
How much circumstances mean to every human being that has life to live! Think of some one converted to God in the slums of a city, where all the public opinion is utterly against everything we mean by God and good. Take a less extreme case, the heart that has just been awakened to the depth of its need, and to the unspeakable necessity of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is, we will suppose, the heart of a son or daughter of a well-ordered home, in which, nevertheless, it would be idle to expect positive spiritual help. Many a heart that thinks itself unfavourably placed owes a great deal of its unfavourableness to its own fault. Don’t let us think, when we have misrepresented religion by our own spirit and conduct, that therefore all these things are against us. They may be only against our own wrongfulness of spirit, and temper, and our exquisite unwisdom of action. Still there comes in a service where all looks easy, and yet there may be difficulties for the heart that wants simply and fully to follow the Lord Jesus Christ.
Now we leave all these to be interpreted by each one, according to what we know of ourselves and those dear to us, as the counterpart of the Syrians of Dothan. We are not thinking so much of persons as of conditions. It is not this or that person, it is the indefinable tone of society that may have to be met, and you are infinitely conscious of what seems to you great weakness of character to resist, great weakness of will and purpose of standing out under these conditions. You have been trying and have failed. ‘Alas! my master, how shall we do?’ I know not which most to deplore—my weakness in this miserable Dothan, or the might and power of the forces against my soul, the circumstances around me, the treacherous self within me, and the knowledge that behind it all are the unseen foes. Is it not a hopeless thing? Shall we not walk out of Dothan and surrender to the Syrians at discretion, and thus have done with a hopeless war? Dear friends, there are souls that have done so, they have discovered their awful weakness without discovering a greater power, and have surrendered at discretion to the Syrians.
III. But now the blessed Word of God comes to give us the second sight.—Faith in the Word of God is the second sight of the Gospel. We walk by faith, not by sight; and faith, taking God at His word, is as a second sight to the soul. And what the Word now says to faith is this: ‘Fear not, discouraged heart—defeated will, disappointed life, tired out with disappointment in your own strength—fear not; that which is with you is immeasurably greater than that which is with them.’ You remember, St. Paul was once in Dothan—I don’t mean geographically but spiritually—when the ‘thorn in the flesh,’ the ‘messenger of Satan,’ brought him to the very verge of despair as to how he was to hold out. As the young man went to Elisha, so St. Paul went to his Lord, with very much the same feeling. ‘Alas, Master and Lord, what shall I do?’ There is nothing for it but flight. ‘I beseech Thee, I beseech Thee, I beseech Thee (you remember it was three times), let this depart from me!’ and then the Lord Jesus opened his eyes that he might see; and he saw something better than horses and chariots of fire, which were but the figures or symbols of the presence. He just told him, ‘My grace is enough for thee.’ That was illumination, that was second sight, that was the hill full of the hosts of God, and the man in that Dothan, whose walls were helpless to keep out the dead weight of the forces which seemed ready to come up against them, was able to keep his place there, gladly, confidently. He no longer wanted to fly. Why should he either fly or yield? His grace is enough! There are circumstances in the shape of the thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan too strong for me, but here is an inner circle within the circumstances around me. This is not a picture, this is not mere imagery—you know, in Jesus Christ, it is fact. Our failures are all our own, our victory is altogether in our Lord.
Bishop H. C. G. Moule.
(1) ‘In Elisha’s case the unseen agencies belonged to what we commonly call Providence. That is, they were concerned about the safety of one of God’s servants; they protected Elisha from danger; they made him secure amidst a thousand enemies; they made him calm for suffering and brave for action, as knowing himself “immortal till his work was done.” Was it only of Elisha that these things were written? Was it only for Elisha that these things were done? Surely we have here the very same revelation of the care of God for His people, which is expressed also, in general, in the thirty-fourth Psalm, “The angel of the Lord encampeth round about them that fear Him, and delivereth them.’ Oh, if our eyes were opened, like those of this young man, what a scene would be discovered in this one aspect!’
(2) ‘If God be on our side, fighting for us, we need not fear what man can do. No one can stand against God; no hosts of evil can do aught if God is fighting our battles for us. Some one once expressed to President Lincoln the hope that the Lord was on the side of the country. The good man replied that that gave him no anxiety whatever—his only care was to know that he and the people were on God’s side. We need to make sure of this; then all will be well. The way to have God with us is to keep near to Him.’
THE CHRISTIAN HAS MORE FRIENDS THAN FOES
‘Feat not; for they that be with us are more than they that be with them.’
2 Kings 6:16
From this story we may learn a lesson of great encouragement; and that is, that the Christian has more friends than foes in his daily warfare. For his life is a warfare. ‘Fight the good fight of faith’; ‘Endure hardness as a good soldier of Jesus Christ’; ‘Put on the whole armour of God’—these are some of the Holy Spirit’s reminders to us, and we know why we were signed with the Cross at our baptism. Now, if we are wise, shall we make light of our foes? Not in that way will the victory be won.
But ‘they that be with us are more than they that be with them.’ Shall we try to reckon up together all that we can count as on our side?
I. First, then, our own friends and relations, those of them, that is, who are like-minded, who are themselves striving to walk with God.—For surely the cases must be very few where the would-be follower of Jesus Christ is quite alone. If ever such a case is found, God Himself is sure to provide specially for it. But most of us have some at least near and dear to us who wish us well. Only let us not desert our true friends for those who are only friends in name and do not really care for us.
II. But we may go beyond our own homes and our own particular friends for help and encouragement.—We may look to other Christians living in the same place. Perhaps you will say, ‘How can they help me?’ Do you not worship together? do you not kneel together at the altar? And is there no strength in that? There is a bond of union between all good neighbours; the very knowledge that there are others treading the same path as ourselves is a source of strength, though it may be we never spoke to them in our lives.
III. And this thought leads us still further.—For what is true of our fellow-Christians in our own neighbourhood is true of all Christians everywhere. Though scattered about all over the world and unknown to one another, yet are we ‘one body in Christ.’ Is it not most cheering and encouraging to think of so many prayers being offered for us—aye, for you and me—that we may be able to conquer our spiritual foes? Is it not most cheering and encouraging to reflect (as surely we may and ought to do) that ‘they that be with us are more than they that be with them?’
IV. Again, there are departed saints.—Those who waged a good warfare themselves and passed away in the faith of Christ. Them may we surely count as our friends and allies. We may not pray to them, but it may be they can pray for us, and if they can, we may be sure they do. I have read somewhere of a beautiful tradition about our first parent Adam: that, watching the events of this world, he mourns over what is bad, and rejoices over what is good; and that, as the number of the elect increases, the robe of glory in which he was created gradually regains its lustre.
V. Then, next, there are the holy angels—those friends of man that were revealed to Elisha and his servant. ‘The chariots of God are twenty thousand, even thousands of angels,’ and ‘the angel of the Lord tarrieth round about them that fear Him, and delivereth them.’ We cannot see them: neither could Elisha’s servant until his eyes were opened by God, but they were there nevertheless, and no doubt if our eyes could be opened thus, we should find our streets and houses peopled with multitudes of heavenly beings coming in and going out; we should learn then how many we had on our side; that, though Satan’s angels are many and strong, the angels of God are more and stronger, that ‘they that be with us are more than they that be with them.’
VI. But there is One Who is with us, Whom I have purposely left to the last— God.—God the Creator, God the Redeemer, God the Sanctifier: God in heaven and God within us: God before, behind, and on every side of us. But all those different friends and allies that we have numbered already as on our side are all so many proofs that God Himself is with us, all so many instruments and means by which He works. The angels are His messengers: angels and men alike His ministers, His representatives. When any one prays for a fellow-sinner, it is God Who prompts the prayer, it is God Who makes it effectual. It is all His doing from first to last; ‘the help that is done upon earth, He doeth it Himself.’
So there is plenty of encouragement for him who would serve God—‘good measure, pressed down and shaken together and running over.’
—Rev. F. J. Middlemist.
(1) ‘What the servant saw of the defence of Elisha was but a glimpse of what is true of every servant of God in every time of danger. Angels always encamp round the godly. We cannot see spiritual battle lines, the hosts of ministering spirits, but they are round about us. We cannot see Christ Himself beside us, but He is always there, “closer than breathing, nearer than hands and feet.” These are the realest things in the universe. Other things are only shadows, but God and His angels are eternal realities.’
(2) ‘No plots can avail against one whom God is defending. We think the prophet’s servant was needlessly alarmed, and that he showed small faith. But are most of us any better? We get frightened very easily when anything seems to go wrong. We forget the Divine promises and the Divine defence, and say, “Alas! what shall we do?” quite as fearfully as this young man did there at Dothan. We need to think of our own weak faith while we talk about his.’
THE LESSONS OF A FAMINE
‘There was a great famine.’
2 Kings 6:25
We say the words, but I doubt very much whether we realise their meaning. We, in England, do not really know what a great famine is. Bad crops we have had, and short ones, but they have never for many, many years failed us altogether. The nearest sight a few who are living now have ever had of famine was when the potato crops failed all over Ireland in 1846, and great sufferings were undergone by the Irish poor. Some saw the grim features of famine at our very doors then, but, by God’s goodness, he did not enter in; and year by year the increase of the corn has come in its season to ‘fill our hearts with food and gladness.’
But in the East it is quite different. These famines are not strange or at all unknown. In prosperous years, when there is abundant rain, the intense heat of the sun stimulates vegetation to the utmost, and produces enormous crops. But when rain fails, as it does once in every few years, this intense heat burns up and destroys everything. The corn plants die in the furrows; the very leaves wither on the trees; the grass shrivels and dries up; the whole country becomes as dry and as hard as the high-road. Then, if the drought goes on, first the cattle die of want of water and of pasture; and then the people die too; die of literal starvation. Weakened by want of food, they fall an easy prey to cholera and dysentry and typhoid, and the many other diseases that lie in wait for those whose vitality is deficient. Now, that is what goes on in eastern countries year by year; great fertility, sometimes balanced and contrasted by pinching famine. So we are told in the text of the famine in Samaria, or of the seven years of plenty, followed by seven years of famine, that were experienced in Egypt when Joseph lived there; or of the famine in Israel in the days of Elijah, caused, just as it often is in India, by want of rain. It is the common course of human life in those lands. But it is none the less hard to bear for that. The griping hunger, the terrible diseases seize upon new victims every time. It is from childish lips and freshly desolated homes that the cry of pain and hunger goes up.
What are the lessons of famine?
I. Surely the chief lesson to us, at all events, is one of sympathy.—‘If one member suffer, all the members suffer with it.’ That ought to be the effect which suffering produces upon Christian hearts. Our Master, Christ, could never see suffering without wishing to relieve it—without doing what was possible (and what was not possible to Him?)—to remove the cause of it. Let us follow His noble example, as far as we may. We do not indeed wield the power that could multiply the wine at Cana, or feed five thousand men with five loaves and two fishes. Man is only the viceroy of the Divine Creator, and not himself the sovereign. He administers laws—the laws of nature—which he did not make; which he may use, but cannot alter. Within the limit which they set he may act freely; outside them his power does not stretch. Where a calamity passes, as this which is before us passes, beyond human powers of effectual relief, all that he can do is to remit it to the Higher Power by prayer for the removal of the cause; he can but apply his feeble efforts to remove some of the terrible effects.
II. Could not this terrible famine be prevented.—Experience has shown that it is perfectly possible to store up in tanks the rain which falls in vast quantities when it falls at all, and which now runs away to waste, so as to provide for the deficiency of the years when there is no rain. Experience has shown also that the planting of trees has the effect of increasing the fall of rain. Where those works have been carried out there has been no famine. That is the way that God recompenses intelligent and industrious following of the directions which His laws of nature give as plainly as possible, to all who have eyes to see or minds to understand. Surely, then, in the face of wasted fields, and hundreds of thousands of emaciated and starved corpses, the country will ask, with a voice which will make itself heard, and must not be passed over with neglect,—Why have not irrigation works been constructed and plantations made, when they would have arrested the deadly drought and brought down from heaven the life-giving rain? God is not deaf to the prayer, although it be without words, which is really put up to Him in the thoughtful and obedient following out of His laws of nature. If you plant a sapling in the soil that suits it, it will grow; if you plant it upon the rock, or where it can get no sun or no moisture, it will wither and die. Why is this? Because in the first case you obeyed the laws of nature, which are God’s laws, and which trees must conform to, if they would live, and which men must conform to likewise, if they would rear up trees; in the other case, the laws of nature were neglected, and therefore the tree died.
III. How we may best save some of the victims who have not been yet quite starved to death.— Starved to death! That is easily said; but as I declared at the beginning, I doubt if we understand what it really means. It is a series of deaths, day after day, as long as it lasts.
I dare say most of us here present have never gone a whole day without food ever since we were born. I may go farther, and say that we have hardly ever known what it is to go without even a single meal. We do not know, probably, what hunger is, except as a coveted spur to the appetite, which we eagerly seek by work and exercise. We play with hunger, that is to say; but it has quite another aspect when the strong stagger because of it, and the weak faint; when the cheek grows thin, and the eye hollow; when the husband sees his wife, and the mother her little children, starving around her; crying for food, and she has none to give them. Think of it; this scene is often going on in tens of thousands of homes in India; reckon, if you can reckon for horror, how many silent hearths, how many families blotted out, how many children starved to death that ghastly total includes. Every One of us can do something, though it may be but a little, to alleviate it, and is responsible if he do not that little. Let it be yours to give that help. Whatever we may do, it is certain that the pittance, which is all that can at the best be given to these sufferers, will leave them only just not dead, only just not starved; whilst without that pittance they must die—and die speedily.
If we have taken the lessons of a time of famine rightly to heart, our souls will be filled with gratitude to God, and heart and hand will alike be open to offer a thankoffering. The lessons which a famine may teach are many; let this lesson in particular, of sympathy and help to the victims of the famine, come home to our hearts to-day.
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Nisbet, James. "Commentary on 2 Kings 6". The Church Pulpit Commentary. https://studylight.org/
the Second Week of Advent