Elisha’s Question About Failure

Title: Elisha's Question About Failure

Bible Book: 2 Kings 6 : 1-7

Author: David E. Owen

Subject: Failure; Weakness



Twenty questions is a guessing game in which one player imagines an object and others try to guess what it is by asking questions that can be answered only with “yes” or “no.” I don’t think there are quite 20 questions to be found in the Biblical record of Elisha’s ministry. But thus far in this thematic study, we have discovered and discussed five questions from the life of this Old Testament prophet.

In 2 Kings 2:14 he said, “Where is the LORD God of Elijah?” In 2 Kings 4:2 he said to a widowed mother, “What shall I do for thee?” In 2 Kings 4:26 he said to the Shunammite, “Is it well with thee? Is it well with thy husband? Is it well with the child?” In 2 Kings 5:8 he said to the distressed king of Israel, “Wherefore hast thou rent thy clothes?” Then in 2 Kings 5:25 he said to his servant Gehazi, “Whence comest thou, Gehazi?” Or as we would say, “Where have you been?” He asked a question about the Father, about a favor, about a family, about faithlessness, and about falsehood.

Tonight, we’re considering yet another question that is found in 2 Kings 6. In the first seven verses of this chapter, we have an account of the sons of the prophets and how they decided to build a larger dwelling place. And as they are cutting timber for their project, one of them loses the head of an axe that was borrowed. In verse 6, “the man of God said, Where fell it?” So we have here a question that relates to failure.

I. Let’s Notice The Situation Of Failure (vs. 1-4)

A. This Situation Had A Commendable Aspect.

(2 Kings 6:1-4) And the sons of the prophets said unto Elisha, Behold now, the place where we dwell with thee is too strait for us. {2} 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. {3} And one said, Be content, I pray thee, and go with thy servants. And he answered, I will go. {4} So he went with them. And when they came to Jordan, they cut down wood.

1. They Were Experiencing Growth

In 2 Kings 4:38, we learn that these sons of the prophets had been at Gilgal.

(2 Kings 4:38) And Elisha came again to Gilgal: and there was a dearth in the land; and the sons of the prophets were sitting before him: and he said unto his servant, Set on the great pot, and seethe pottage for the sons of the prophets.

Gilgal – Hebrew 1536. gilgal, ghil-gawl'; a var. of H1534:--wheel. or circle or rolling

Things were rolling right along as the name Gilgal indicates.

(2 Kings 6:1) And the sons of the prophets said unto Elisha, Behold now, the place where we dwell with thee is too strait for us.

strait – Hebrew 6862. tsar, tsar; or tsar, tsawr; from H6887; narrow; (as a noun) a tight place (usually fig., i.e. trouble); also a pebble (as in H6864); (trans.) an opponent (as crowding):--adversary, afflicted (-tion), anguish, close, distress, enemy, flint, foe, narrow, small, sorrow, strait, tribulation, trouble.

This word suggests that they had outgrown their facilities, which was a good problem to have.

2. They Were Exhibiting Godliness

Both in their devotion to the prophet and their diligence in the project, they were exhibiting godliness. They are consulting the man of God before they begin this project. They desire that he will accompany them in this endeavor. It could also be that they want to build at Jordan as a sort of memorial to Elijah who was last seen there in 2 Kings 2.

B. This Situation Had A Calamitous Aspect.

(2 Kings 6:4-5) So he went with them. And when they came to Jordan, they cut down wood. {5} 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.

1. Notice The Location Associated With This Calamity

In his comments on this situation, Arthur Pink reminds us that “the inanimate iron (was) falling into the Jordan,” which, according to Pink, indicates “the place of judgment.” Crossing the Jordan always represents a turning point or a changing of worlds. The name “Jordan” is derived from a Hebrew word that literally means that which descends or goes downward. And that is the effect that we see at this location in this situation. The axe head went downward, and then the man’s spirit went downward. Furthermore, the axe head fell into the water where it was impossible to retrieve it. The man was incapable of doing anything to rectify the problem. On land, it would have been different, but in this watery, fluid location it magnifies the difficulty of a bad situation. So this is a decisive environment for this man. His world is suddenly changed. He is immediately confronted with a situation that seems utterly impossible.

2. Notice The Loss Associated With This Calamity

(2 Kings 6:5) 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.

The Holman Bible Dictionary says that the word “ax” or “axe head” indicates “cutting instruments used in normal small industry and in war. “Barzel” (which is the Hebrew term used in our text) is the Hebrew term for iron and is used for the iron portion of an ax. The ax (in 2 Kings 6:5) was used to fell trees.

Losing the axe head is a concept that is also mentioned in Deuteronomy 19:5…

(Deuteronomy 19:5) As when a man goeth into the wood with his neighbour to hew wood, and his hand fetcheth a stroke with the ax to cut down the tree, and the head slippeth from the helve, and lighteth upon his neighbour, that he die; he shall flee unto one of those cities, and live:

The point here is that the man didn’t have a good handle on things, and he lost his cutting edge. Has that ever happened in your life spiritually?

II. Let’s Notice The Sorrow Of Failure (vs. 5)

A. Consider The Cry Of Sorrow In This Passage.

(2 Kings 6:5) 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.

The word is also used in verse 15 of this chapter…

(2 Kings 6:15) And when the servant of the man of God was risen early, and gone forth, behold, an host compassed the city both with horses and chariots. And his servant said unto him, Alas, my master! how shall we do?

1. Consider What This Word Means

Alas – Hebrew 162. 'ahahh, a-haw'; appar. a prim. word expressing pain exclamatorily; Oh!:--ah, alas.

2. Consider What This Word Manifests

Arthur Pink said…

His “alas” seems to denote that he regarded his loss as final and had no expectation it would be retrieved by a miracle. The lesson for us is plain: even though (to our shame) we have no faith of His showing Himself strong on our behalf, it is ever our duty and privilege to spread before our Master everything that troubles us.

B. Consider The Cause Of Sorrow In This Passage.

1. Observe His Relationship With The Ax

(2 Kings 6:5) 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.

borrowed – Hebrew 7592. sha'al, shaw-al'; or sha'el, shaw-ale'; a prim. root; to inquire; by impl. to request; by extens. to demand:--ask (counsel, on), beg, borrow, lay to charge, consult, demand, desire, X earnestly, enquire, + greet, obtain leave, lend, pray, request, require, + salute, X straitly, X surely, wish.

The Keil & Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament says…

The prophets’ pupil had begged the axe, because from his poverty he was unable to buy one, and hence the loss was so painful to him.

The Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown Commentary also says…

It was borrowed - literally, begged. The scholar’s distress arose from the consideration that the axe had been lent to him; and that owing to his poverty he could not procure another.

His cutting edge did not originate with him, and yet he had lost it. It was borrowed. It was something that he had diligently requested. How like the spiritual anointing in the life of a Christian. It did not originate with us. It is something that we have desperately desired so that we can be effective workers in the Lord’s work. But there are occasions when it is lost. Just as Samson’s strength departed from him, we can lose our spiritual strength. It’s as easy as flying off the handle!

2. Observe His Regard For The Ax

We too should have a regard for the ax, for it speaks of Christ (see Matthew 3:10). When we have lost that sense of Christ’s presence, it is cause for sorrow.

Cf. (Matthew 3:10) And now also the ax is laid unto the root of the trees: therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.

Adam Clarke paraphrased the sentiment of the man in his commentary…

“Ah, my master; and it has been sought. It has fallen in, and I have sought it in vain. (Or) It was borrowed, and therefore I am the more afflicted for its loss.” And Jarchi adds, “I have nothing wherewith to repay it.”

This loss brought deep sorrow to his heart. And to him, it was irreplaceable by any means of his own … as is the presence of Christ.

III. Let’s Notice The Solution For Failure (vs. 6-7)

A. There Is A Miraculous Element In This Solution.

(2 Kings 6:6) 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.

1. We Find Some Apprehensions About This Miracle

The Keil and Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament takes a humanistic view on this saying…

The natural interpretation of the miracle, which is repeated by Thenius, namely, that “Elisha struck the eye of the axe with the long stick which he thrust into the river, so that the iron was lifted by the wood,” needs no refutation, since the raising of an iron axe by a long stick, so as to make it float in the water, is impossible according to the laws of gravitation.

But others have acknowledged the miraculous…

Alfred Edersheim said…

The first, but also the most superficial, impression on reading these words is that they do not necessarily imply anything miraculous. Accordingly, both some of the Rabbis and certain modern interpreters have argued, either that the stick which had been cut off struck right into the hole of the ax-head and so brought it up, or else that the stick thrust under the ax had rendered it possible to drag it to land. But, to speak plainly, both these suggestions involve such manifest impossibilities, as hardly to require serious discussion. (Bible History: Old Testament – Volume 6, pg. 128)

It was F. S. Webster who said…

Elisha’s recovery of the lost axe-head is a sad stumbling-block to rationalists. The miracle seems to them childish. They cannot explain it away, and they do not like to accept it. The Christian, however, does not sit in judgment upon God’s Word. It is unreasonable to believe in God and to object to miracles. (From The Biblical Illustrator)

The Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown Commentary said…

“Cut down a stick, and cast it in there.” Although this means was used, it had no natural adaptation to make the iron swim. Besides, the Jordan is at Jericho so deep and rapid that there were a thousand chances to one against the stick falling into the hole of the axe head. All attempts to account for the recovery of the lost implement on such a theory must be rejected. “The iron did swim” - only by the miraculous exertion of Elisha’s power.

Another writer said regarding the restoration of the axe…

It cannot be denied that the restoration of the lost axe was miraculous, if we consider 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. (From The Biblical Illustrator)

2. We Find The Appropriation Of This Miracle

(2 Kings 6:7) Therefore said he, Take it up to thee. And he put out his hand, and took it.

Again, F. S. Webster pointed out that…

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. (The Biblical Illustrator)

B. There Is A Meaningful Element In This Solution.

1. It Is Meaningful That We See The Confession Here

(2 Kings 6:6) 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.

2. It Is Meaningful That We See The Cross Here

The word “stick” in the text is the same Hebrew word as the word “gallows” in Esther

(Esther 5:14) Then said Zeresh his wife and all his friends unto him, Let a gallows be made of fifty cubits high, and to morrow speak thou unto the king that Mordecai may be hanged thereon: then go thou in merrily with the king unto the banquet. And the thing pleased Haman; and he caused the gallows to be made.

Hamilton Smith said…

And contrary to all natural laws the axe head is made to swim upon the waters. Thus the very laws of nature are reversed, or held in abeyance, in order to relieve the distress of the man with the borrowed axe. God, the Creator of the laws that govern creation, can alter His laws in order to manifest the grace that enables Peter to walk upon the water in the day of the Lord, and the iron to swim upon the water in the day of the prophet. The very way in which the iron is made to swim makes manifest the power of God; for what relation can we see between cause and effect – between casting a stick into the stream and the swimming of the iron?

May there not be underneath this simple story some deeper spiritual lesson? We see the power of the river overcome by the piece of wood cast into the waters. Seeing that Jordan is a type of death, this striking incident may well signify the power of death overcome by the Cross, and the House of God built by that which comes out of death. (Elisha: The Man Of God, pg. 69)

We read that F. S. Webster said…

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. (The Biblical Illustrator)

If you want to recover after failure and have a renewed sense of Christ’s presence, get back to the cross!


If you were to describe an automobile accident to someone, one of the questions that the listener might have is, “Where did it happen?” When we think about the failures in our lives, perhaps we could take someone to the very place where it all happened, to the very arena where things began to fall apart. And if we would experience recovery from failure we have to go back to that place where it all began to fall apart. We have to go back to that last place where we did have a sense of Christ’s presence in our lives, and to that last place where we experienced the cutting edge of victorious Christian living.

With regard to your failure, “where fell it?”

John Newton wrote…

Not one concern of ours is small

If we belong to Him,

To teach us this, the Lord of all

Once made the iron to swim.


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