2 Kings 6:1-6
The latest iPhone update—among the biggest technological splashes in the past ten years—got me thinking about my first cell phone and a different kind of splash. I bought this meatloaf of a Nokia that barely fit in my pocket, but still made me feel pretty cool as I toted it around. I took it with me to the Ryder Cup golf tournament that was in town that weekend, and while out on the course, I eventually needed to step into one of the many port-a-johns that dotted the course. You see where this is headed. Fascinated with my new gadget, I couldn’t help but take it out of my pocket, but because it was hard to hold, and unfamiliar too, it slipped and fell into the tank. If only I’d had Elisha nearby. Suffice to say when I took the phone to be fixed, I had to endure the humiliation of having the technician ask about all the slimy stuff embedded inside. I’ll leave how I was able to get that phone from the tank to a technician to your imagination.
There were no cell phones in Elisha’s day. But as it was the Iron Age, an ax head represented the height of technological advancement. And there it sat, sunk to the bottom of the Jordan River. We return to our look at water in the Bible this week. So far this fall we’ve had water separated at creation, water flooding the earth save for Noah’s Ark, water parted at the hand of Moses, and water coaxed out of a rock in the desert. By comparison, this week’s water episode hardly qualifies as a big large event. Chances are you’ve never read this passage before. Why would you? It is totally random and relatively mundane—some would say upsettingly so—inasmuch as it appears to involve an exploitation of heavenly power for pedestrian purposes. Not that we don’t pray for such power ourselves. Who hasn’t invoked divine assistance to help find a wallet or a pair of glasses or street parking downtown? Jesus said there is much rejoicing in heaven over lost coins, lost sheep and sons that are found, why wouldn’t the same hold for glasses, wallets and parking spots?
Elisha’s disciple must have thought so. Upon losing his ax head, he cried out to the prophet, “Alas master, it was borrowed!” implying how desperately he needed Elisha’s help. Iron was not something you could just run down to the hardware store and replace. Not only were there no hardware stores in the Bible, but unlike copper and bronze which could be molded cold, iron had to be worked hot requiring a great expenditure of fuel for heat. This disciple was probably so poor that he couldn’t have managed a replacement even if he wanted to.
I don’t know how much you know about Elisha. He usually gets overshadowed by his more flamboyant mentor, Elijah, who swooped in out of nowhere to confront the maniacal monarchs of Israel. Elijah ran like the wind, raised the dead, called down fire from heaven against evil, and miraculously parted water like Moses, had face time with God, all before leaving the planet in a chariot of fire. Just prior to Elijah’s fiery departure, Elisha requested a double portion of Elijah’s spirit—the firstborn share of inheritance. Elijah complied and immediately Elisha could do as Elijah did—part water, raise the dead, cure the sick, bless and curse and drive kings crazy. But then we get to this odd, matter-of-fact, lost and found occurrence down by the riverside that operates as if it was inserted as an afterthought. You know, “speaking of Elisha, here’s an interesting story.”
It begins with a space problem. Elisha had a large following of disciples, budding prophets eager to pick up some pointers. The company grew so large that they needed a bigger building. Elisha allowed it, and as the students were chopping wood to build it, the aforementioned ax flew off the handle. This was not unusual. It apparently happened often enough that the Torah had a law concerning it. In Deuteronomy 19 we read: “A man may go into the forest with his neighbor to cut wood, and as he swings his ax to fell a tree, the head may fly off and hit his neighbor and kill him. If so, that man may flee to a city of refuge and save himself.” Manslaughter by flying ax head was pardonable under the law.
Fortunately no one was killed in this instance, though Elisha’s disciple had to worry about what the ax’s owner might do to him. He begged for help. So Elisha took a piece of wood and threw it near the spot where the ax head sunk—which should call to mind the way we read about Moses throwing a piece of wood into that desert pool of bitter water to make it sweet. Here the sweet thing was seeing that costly piece of ferrite float to the surface. Elisha’s disciple wasn’t expecting that—any more than we would expect water itself to float. Every basic chemistry lesson suggests that since solids are denser than liquids, water as ice should sink in water as liquid. Instead, as water freezes, its molecules create room between each other as they lock into place. The result is a solid less dense than its liquid. If ice didn’t float, rivers, lakes, and even the oceans would freeze—the ice piling up from the bottom in winter, never melting fully in summer—and most aquatic life would die. As it is, the ice layer across the top of lakes and rivers does just the opposite—it acts as a layer of insulation, keeping the rest of the water warmer than it would otherwise be, keeping it liquid, and allowing aquatic life to survive each winter. That ice acts unlike other solids is a taken-for-granted marvel of nature—signatures of God’s creation that should amaze us.
Here was a hunk of iron acting like ice, so amazing to Elisha’s disciple that Elisha had to tell him to pick it up of the water before it drifted downstream. “So he reached out his hand and took it.” And that was that. End of story. No take home moral. No object lesson or life application. No word from the Lord. Not even a parental “now you be more careful next time.” Why did Elisha do it? Shouldn’t miraculous power be reserved for more important moments? Elisha could have pulled this one off with his own two hands. He could have taken that piece of wood and fished out the ax head. He could have ordered a group of his disciples to wade a few feet into the river. The disciple saw the splash. The ax head wasn’t going to go far from there. Making it float was almost like he was showing off. Or worse, like he was being lazy—like Samantha on some old episode of Bewitched who was too tired to do the dishes so she just twinkled her nose. Making iron float was a miracle, but it seems like a wasted miracle—so frivolous and unnecessary. What are to make of it?
The renown 19th century English preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon once quipped, “If you’re preaching an Old Testament passage you don’t understand, get to Jesus as fast as you can.” Heeding that advice (which is warranted advice since Elisha, like all Old Testament prophets, was a foreshadow of Jesus), I wonder: among they myriad of Jesus’ own Elisha-like miracles—healing the sick, raising the dead, walking on top of water himself—did any border on the frivolous and unnecessary? And if so, would such a similar miracle shed a little light on Elisha’s?
As a matter of fact there was one. It appears in Matthew 17. Jesus’ disciple Peter gets confronted by the Temple tax collectors, a sort of ancient IRS, inquiring as to whether Jesus had paid his Temple tax. The Jerusalem Temple, the center of Jewish religious life, cost a lot to operate: sacrificial animals had to be purchased and prepared, garments bought, priests paid, the building maintained. To keep things going, Jewish law mandated that every Jewish male between the ages of 20 and 50, no matter where they lived, had to pay two drachmas in Temple tax each year—the equivalent of about two day’s wages.
Taxing people to participate in worship was not so odd. They did it for almost 150 years at my previous church in Boston. The church collected what were known as “pew taxes.” As a regular attendee, you could purchase a deed to a pew seat which was taxed annually as with any piece of real estate. The levy supported church operations and building maintenance. On the one hand, it alleviated a lot of the annual anxiety felt by the Church Finance Committee. And on the other hand, it alleviated any aggravation felt by those who entered the church only to find some unsuspecting newcomer sitting in their regular spot. If you were late and someone had your seat, you just showed them your deed and told them to move.
Jesus hadn’t been paying his Temple taxes. But rather than try to explain why, he told Peter: “Let’s not offend the religious authorities, go to the lake and throw out a line. Take the first fish you catch; open its mouth and you will find a four-drachma coin. Give it to the tax-collectors for my tax and yours.” Talk about a random command—a real head-scratcher. Peter surely wasn’t expecting that any more than Elisha’s disciple was expecting iron to float.
As with Elisha and the bobbing ax head, many discount Jesus and his aquatic ATM as a Biblical fish story—an embellishment for the sake of effect. Commentators write that what Jesus really meant was for Peter to use his career fishing skills to earn the money needed to pay their bill. After all, God only “helps those who help themselves.” Miracles are too wonderful to waste. Either that or Jesus was being facetious for the Pharisees’ sake. Since when did he not want to offend the religious authorities? He was always getting their goat.
The problem here, however, is that Jesus’ request seems pretty straightforward. And he was always serious when it came to miracles. So why use one here? Couldn’t the Lord just as easily have fished the money out of his own pocket? What not pass a plate? Or hit Matthew up for it. He was a tax collector; he had money.
Just as Elisha could have fished that ax head out of the river like any other man; Jesus could have fished money out of his pocket like any other carpenter’s son. But Elisha wasn’t just any other man, nor was Jesus just any other son. Their miracles represent divine invasions that convey what could not be otherwise known. A miracle suspends nature’s laws, which is something only God can do because the Creator is the lawmaker. Miracles defy the nature of nature but never the nature of God; they are unmistakable evidence of God.
The Bible refers to Elisha as not just any man, but as the man of God. Floating iron verifies Elisha’s true identity. What Elisha does is what God does. Elisha means “God is salvation,” and through Elisha God saved his people from a whole host of disasters which they and their leaders brought upon themselves. Jesus also means “God saves,” and through Christ God saves us too. He frees us from our sins for the sake of righteousness and life eternal. Elijah anointed Elisha with a double portion of his spirit. John the Baptist—understood as the New Testament Elijah—did the same for Jesus, anointing him with the fullness of the Holy Spirit. Elisha was the Man of God, Jesus is the Son of God. The Bible declares (in Colossians), him to be “the firstborn of all creation; in whom all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created by him and through him and for him.”
And therefore iron can float like ice. Fish can cough up coins on command. The lame walk, the blind see, captives are set free, the lost are found, the unrighteous justified and the dead raised. That Jesus miraculously does this and more authenticates his true identity. Sure, maybe he didn’t need to rig the whole pay your tax with a tilapia thing. He could have pulled whatever money he needed out of his pocket. But the that Jesus did it like he did it proved that all of creation is his pocket. As the Psalmist sings, “In his hand are the depths of the earth and the mountain peaks belong to him. The sea is his, for he made it…” “the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, all that swim in the paths of the sea.”
Of course it is often noted that this particular miracle of Jesus is the only one where the reader is left to infer that it actually happened. No where does it say that Peter in fact took a fishing line to the lake, caught the fish, opened its mouth, extracted the exact change and paid his taxes. It was a random request; a peculiar instruction that followed a long litany of peculiar instructions already uttered by Jesus: Things like “if somebody makes you go one mile, go two,” “love your enemies,” “pray for those who hate you,” “be careful to do the good things you do in secret,” “don’t worry,” “don’t judge,” “lose your life to find it,” “take up your cross to follow.” Face to face before the one whom he confessed as the Christ, the Son of God, the bona fide Lord of heaven and earth in the flesh, Peter is told to go and do this thing he had to have considered to be completely outrageous. We’re left to wonder, does he do it just because Jesus said so?