A Floating Ax Head and Chariots of Fire

1 Now the sons of the prophets said to Elisha, “See, the place where we dwell under your charge is too small for us. Let us go to the Jordan and each of us get there a log, and let us make a place for us to dwell there.” And he answered, “Go.” Then one of them said, “Be pleased 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 felling a log, his axe head fell into the water, and he cried out, “Alas, my master! It was borrowed.” Then the man of God said, “Where did it fall?” When he showed him the place, he cut off a stick and threw it in there and made the iron float. And he said, “Take it up.” So he reached out his hand and took it. 

Once when the king of Syria was warring against Israel, he took counsel with his servants, saying, “At such and such a place shall be my camp.” But the man of God sent word to the king of Israel, “Beware that you do not pass this place, for the Syrians are going down there.” 10 And the king of Israel sent to the place about which the man of God told him. Thus he used to warn him, so that he saved himself there more than once or twice.

11 And the mind of the king of Syria was greatly troubled because of this thing, and he called his servants and said to them, “Will you not show me who of us is for the king of Israel?” 12 And one of his servants said, “None, my lord, O king; but Elisha, the prophet who is in Israel, tells the king of Israel the words that you speak in your bedroom.” 13 And he said, “Go and see where he is, that I may send and seize him.” It was told him, “Behold, he is in Dothan.” 14 So he sent there horses and chariots and a great army, and they came by night and surrounded the city.

15 When the servant of the man of God rose early in the morning and went out, behold, an army with horses and chariots was all around the city. And the servant said, “Alas, my master! What shall we do?” 16 He said, “Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” 17 Then Elisha prayed and said, “O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see.” So the Lord opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw, and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha. 18 And when the Syrians came down against him, Elisha prayed to the Lord and said, “Please strike this people with blindness.” So he struck them with blindness in accordance with the prayer of Elisha. 19 And Elisha said to them, “This is not the way, and this is not the city. Follow me, and I will bring you to the man whom you seek.” And he led them to Samaria.

20 As soon as they entered Samaria, Elisha said, “O Lord, open the eyes of these men, that they may see.” So the Lord opened their eyes and they saw, and behold, they were in the midst of Samaria. 21 As soon as the king of Israel saw them, he said to Elisha, “My father, shall I strike them down? Shall I strike them down?” 22 He answered, “You shall not strike them down. Would you strike down those whom you have taken captive with your sword and with your bow? Set bread and water before them, that they may eat and drink and go to their master.” 23 So he prepared for them a great feast, and when they had eaten and drunk, he sent them away, and they went to their master. And the Syrians did not come again on raids into the land of Israel. 2 Kings 6:1-23 ESV

Let’s face it, even for a prophet of God, Elisha had some rather strange experiences. And the two that are recorded in the opening verses of this chapter are among the most bizarre. At first glance, the only thing they appear to have in common is Elisha. But upon further examination, one can see that both stories are meant to accentuate the power of God’s prophet. The first is short and to the point but displays the supernatural, yet highly practical nature of Elisha’s divine enablement. This man was God’s representative and, as such, he was to display the caring concern that Yahweh had for His children.

Elisha’s fellow prophets approach him, seeking his approval to build a larger complex in which to house their growing number. They had chosen a spot near the Jordan River and were intending to work as a team in the construction of their new home. Elisha gave them his blessing to begin the project, but they requested that he accompany them. Which he did. But as they were going through the laborious process of cutting down the trees to make logs for their new headquarters, one of the men lost the head to his ax. It flew off the handle and landed in the river, disappearing from sight. To our minds, this doesn’t appear to be a life-and-death situation. Obviously, they had more than one ax, but the author reveals that this particular ax had been borrowed and iron was a costly commodity in those days. So, the one who had borrowed the ax was deeply concerned over his bit of bad luck. He would have been required to replace the lost ax head and, on a prophet’s salary, that would have been difficult.

It’s difficult not to read this story and not think about the words that Solomon recorded in the book of Ecclesiastes.

One who digs a pit may fall into it,
and one who breaks through a wall may be bitten by a snake.
One who quarries stones may be injured by them;
one who splits logs may be endangered by them.
If an iron axhead is blunt and a workman does not sharpen its edge,
he must exert a great deal of effort;
so wisdom has the advantage of giving success. – Ecclesiastes 10:8-10 NET

Chopping wood with a loose ax head would have certainly fit into this category of unwise decisions. But rather than embarrass this poor man for his lack of forethought, Elisha simply asked him for a general idea of where the ax head entered the water. Then Elisha did something completely unexpected but highly practical. He “cut a stick and threw it into the water at that spot. Then the ax head floated to the surface” (2 Kings 6:6 NLT). Miraculously, the heavy iron ax head rose to the surface where the man easily and eagerly retrieved it. His problem was solved, thanks to Elisha’s quick thinking and practical application of the divine resources at his disposal.

The second story is a bit more complex, and far more in line with what we would expect a prophet of God to do. Rather than the prophets of Yahweh constructing a new dwelling place, we have the Syrian king and his officers plotting an invasion of Israel. But before they could implement their strategy, Elisha received divine insight into their plans and warned the king of Israel. And much to Ben-hadad’s frustration, this happened repeatedly.

This led the Syrian king to assume that he had a traitor in his camp. Someone was passing on their top-secret plans to the Israelites.  But his officers assured him that the problem was far worse than he thought. Yahweh, the God of Israel, had been listening in on all their secret strategy sessions and then passing the information on to Elisha, who warned the king of Israel.

Determined to put a stop to this leak in his communications network, Ben-hadad sent a large contingent of troops and chariots to capture Elisha. When Elisha’s servant woke up the next morning, he saw Syrian troops as far as the eye could see and he cried out, “Oh, sir, what will we do now?” (2 Kings 6:15 NLT). But the prophet handled the news with the same degree of calmness he had exhibited when he heard about the lost ax head. He simply stated, “Don’t be afraid! For there are more on our side than on theirs!” (2 Kings 6:16 NLT). 

The petrified servant must have questioned his mater’s sanity. How in the world could the prophet think that they had the Syrians outnumbered. But Elisha had every confidence that the same God who raised the ax head from the bottom of the Jordan could raise an army to defeat the Syrians. So, he confidently called on the power of Yahweh.

Then Elisha prayed, “O Lord, open his eyes and let him see!” The Lord opened the young man’s eyes, and when he looked up, he saw that the hillside around Elisha was filled with horses and chariots of fire. – 2 Kings 6:17 NLT

This “heavenly host” was intended to bolster the faith of Elisha’s servant. But, interestingly enough, the horses and chariots of fire did not engage the Syrians in battle. They were a tangible visual representation of God’s power. It’s similar to what happened when Elisha witnessed God take Elijah to be with Him.

As they were walking along and talking, suddenly a fiery chariot pulled by fiery horses appeared. They went between Elijah and Elisha, and Elijah went up to heaven in a windstorm. – 2 Kings 2:11 NLT

God didn’t use the fiery chariots to transport Elijah and He would not use them to save Elisha and the city of Dothan. Instead, Elisha asked God to blind the eyes of the advancing enemy. Then, the prophet led the confused and completely helpless Syrian army to the capital city of Samaria. When they arrived, “the Lord opened their eyes, and they discovered that they were in the middle of Samaria” (2 Kings 6:20 NLT).

But rather than order the slaughter of the disoriented and disadvantaged Syrians, Elisha instructed King Jehoram: “Give them food and drink and send them home again to their master” (2 Kings 6:22 NLT). So, Jehoram threw a great feast and then sent the Syrians home. The details of this incredible Israelite victory would make it all the way to the palace of Ben-hadad, informing him that the God of Israel was greater than the gods of the Syrians. God had protected His prophet and had provided the innocent people of Dothan with a gracious and merciful rescue from certain destruction. The same God who cared enough to return a lost ax head was willing to display His supernatural power over the enemies of Israel. There is no water too deep, no enemy too powerful, and no problem too difficult for God.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

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