The stranger things of God’s sovereignty.
Making sense of a story of a recovered ax head and a story of a foiled invasion.
A version of this article originally appeared on 1517.
Sometimes the Bible plays with our emotions and expectations, almost as if the Holy Spirit relishes in zagging when we might have anticipated him to zig. Just when you thought the narrative was going in a certain direction, God providentially purposes something altogether different. Notwithstanding which way the story twists or turns, it always culminates in a preeminent and powerful display of Yahweh’s glory. That’s the case for the small, individual stories which comprise the pages of Scripture, and it’s true for the big, overarching story of Scripture, too. This is precisely what’s on exhibit in 2 Kings 6, where the historian pits two entirely dissimilar accounts back-to-back. After reading the first half of chapter 6, you might be left scratching your head, feeling utterly perplexed and hard-pressed to find a reason as to why these stories are paired together as they are. But their disparities are precisely why they are put one after the other. Which is to say, God’s glory shines brightly through the contrast of these two stories.
The historian brings us back to the company of Elisha and his prophetic students, with one of them speaking up, raising the issue that their dorms have become way too cramped (2 Kings 6:1–2). We’re not told what precipitated this request, but we might infer that Elisha’s ministry was such that new “sons of the prophets” were being enrolled to study the ways of Yahweh from him. And now they’re running out of room. Their proposal is to construct a new dwelling place on the banks of the Jordan River. Elisha agrees to this plan and is persuaded by the students to accompany them down to the construction site (2 Kings 6:3–4). As it happened, as one of the “sons of the prophets” was chopping down a tree, his ax head fell off its handle, disappearing into the murky waterway. The student-turned-logger is clearly distressed, crying out to his master for help. Elisha doesn’t dilly-dally but comes immediately to his aid. “And the man of God said, Where fell it? And he shewed 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” (2 Kings 6:6–7).
It might, at first, seem minor, but this little tale is definitely a miracle — one which undoubtedly relieves this student of his overwhelming worry and fear. The crux of this account is the fact that this lost-then-found ax head was “borrowed.” It was not his. It was on loan, which meant that he was required, by law (Exod. 22:14), to repay in full the value of whatever was borrowed. In those days, an ax head wasn’t a common tool you’d find collecting rust in the corner of a garage. An ax head forged in iron was an expensive item, with some estimating its value to be comparable to a modern car. If that’s the case, then let’s change the scenario. Instead of a borrowed ax head, let’s say it’s a borrowed car. And you’ve wrecked it. It’s totaled. We might, therefore, have more reason than we think to sympathize with this distressed student’s plight and rejoice alongside him when the leased hatchet was recovered.
Perhaps, though, you are still wondering what the point of this story is. Well, to answer that question, we have to examine its partner story. In verse 8, the historian switches gears in one of the most brusque transitions ever, plopping us in the middle of an ongoing conflict between Syria and Israel (2 Kings 6:8). The king of Syria is getting frustrated, as every military maneuver he conceives is, seemingly, perfectly predicted by the Israelites. Every strategy is thwarted, as if Israelite Central Intelligence knows exactly what’s being planned. Which, of course, they do, as Elisha is able to inform the king of Israel all about Syria’s tactical strategies, “not once nor twice,” but repeatedly (2 Kings 6:9–10). Eventually, the king of Syria calls for a meeting with his servants, convinced that one of them is actually an Israelite spy. His servants, however, reassure him that none of them are leaking any information to the enemy. Actually, something more nefarious and mysterious is afoot. The prophet Elisha is revealed to be the operative, discerning and leaking the Syrian king’s bedroom utterances to his Israeli comrades (2 Kings 6:11–12).
(It is a curious question to ponder: How does Elisha know what he knows? And how these Syrian servants know that Elisha knows what he knows? We assume Elisha’s prognostication is of divine origin, but we’re never explicitly told that. Neither are we told how the advisors to the king of Syria are able to figure out the culprit is Elisha.)
The king of Syria is furious, promptly dispatching “a great host” of chariots and foot-soldiers to surround the place where Elisha dwelt in order to seize him (2 Kings 6:13–14). (Just saying, if Elisha saw his other movements, wouldn’t it stand to reason that he could see this approaching legion, too?) Elisha’s servant is roused from sleep and groggily walks outside. His eyes quickly widen, taking in the sight of the staggering fighting force waiting to greet them. The servant sprints back inside, fully awake, making a beeline to the prophet’s chamber. “Alas, my master! how shall we do?” (2 Kings 6:15). Fear and dread drip from every word. And who could blame him? Elisha, however, replies with calm, collected assurance. “And he answered, Fear not: for they that be with us are more than they that be with them. And Elisha prayed, and said, Lord, I pray thee, open his eyes, that he may see. And the Lord opened the eyes of the young man; and he saw: and, behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire round about Elisha” (2 Kings 6:16–17).
The dimly lit dawn suddenly felt like a mid-summer afternoon, as the whole countryside beamed with the manifestation of the host of heavenly angels, in full battle array, filling the horizon. Everywhere Elisha’s servant looked, he was awash in the radiance of the Lord’s legion, a demonstrable reminder of the might of Yahweh that was for them. Notice, though, how this sequence plays out. Elisha prays that the Lord would smite his enemies “with blindness,” which he does (2 Kings 6:18). We aren’t told how it occurred, but somehow the man of God is able to direct the steps Syrian invaders, leading them off the beaten path. The blindness dissipates, and instead of finding themselves in striking distance of their target, the Syrians are left in the middle-of-nowhere Samaria (2 Kings 6:19–20). And if that weren’t already surprising enough, whereas the king of Israel sees this as a prime opportunity to lay the hammer down on his enemies, Elisha sees it differently:
And the king of Israel said unto Elisha, when he saw them, My father, shall I smite them? shall I smite them? And he answered, Thou shalt not smite them: wouldest thou smite those whom thou hast taken captive with thy sword and with thy bow? set bread and water before them, that they may eat and drink, and go to their master. And he prepared great provision for them: and when they had eaten and drunk, he sent them away, and they went to their master. So the bands of Syria came no more into the land of Israel. (2 Kings 6:21–23)
Instead of a fight, there is a feast. Instead of a skirmish, they have supper. The enemies of God’s chosen people are shown the exact opposite of what they deserved. There’s a word for that: it’s called grace. In a strange twist of fate, God’s sovereign grace intervenes for his people — people, mind you, that haven’t been the most consecrated bunch for the last several decades. Idolatry and iniquity are rampant in Israel. But even more prodigal than that is the grace of Yahweh that works its own glorious ends.
These Old Testament “stranger things” are, indeed, mystifying. How in the world does a story of a recovered ax head and a story of a foiled invasion make sense together? At a fundamental level, both stories involve crises that are averted. But while the latter account deals with a crisis that feels all too prescient, the former account appears significantly less disastrous. Even still, to that student, it was a veritable crisis, poised to put him in difficult straits financially and relationally. And I think that’s the point: Notwithstanding the degree of crisis we endure, the same sovereign God is sovereign over it all. Indeed, what these stories put to rest is the notion that our Heavenly Father is a “distracted dad.” Sometimes dads come home from work with minds that are elsewhere. The “stuff” they’ve been dealing with results in stress levels that are high and fuses that are short. I know this because I’ve been there, too. Coming home from the office can be a challenge because it’s difficult, at times, to turn off “work mode.” And without that switch in the off position, the burdens and concerns of a toddler can seem less than trivial.
Fixing broken toys, assisting with puzzles, or finding batteries for louder-than-necessary gadgets can suddenly become nuisances and triggers instead of opportunities. And even though it might never be vocalized, it’s easy to dismiss such inconsequential troubles. I, too, must confess to this. But, unfortunately, we have attributed similar characteristics to God when it comes to the matter of bringing our problems to him. We know that the Lord governs the universe, and everything in it, which obviously means that he is too preoccupied with too many more important things to listen to me and my issues. At least, that’s what we think. But this isn’t anything like our Heavenly Father. He’s not a preoccupied parent, he’s an invested and interested tender loving Father. He values what perplexes us. He hastens to comfort us in our crisis. He delights to meet our grief with his grace. Whether our predicament is puny or panoramic, he is Lord over, in, and through it all.
There was one time when we lost our pet German Shepherd for nine days. It felt more like ninety, though. My wife and I had just move to a new home in southern Florida, when the dog we’d had since we got married ran away. We ended up scouring Broward County looking for her. But our searches turned up nothing. We were losing our nerve and our hope. I remember praying as I drove around our local streets, and crying as I prayed, begging God to work a miracle to bring our dog home. And that’s when I got a surprise phone call. Our furry family member had been found. A lady in the next neighborhood over had found her and cared for her, feeding and watering our runaway for several of those intervening days. I couldn’t have been more thankful for the grace that lady showed us and the mundane sovereignty that brought our dog home. But that’s Yahweh. His agenda is not so full that your worries and troubles go unnoticed or unheard. God cares about your lost ax heads, your lost dogs, your lost hairs, and your stubbed toes (Matt. 10:29–31). And yet, he also exercises perfect providence over the biggest crises our world faces. “God,” says Steve Brown, “is involved in bald heads, and dead sparrows, and the eternal verities of the Christian faith.” That’s an incredibly trenchant thought.
As I write this, the men and women of Ukraine have been forced to defend their country from a senseless Russian invasion. It’s not hard to imagine Ukrainian believers running to God in the middle of the night with the same cry as Elisha’s servant. “What do we do now, God? Where are you in all of this, God?!” I’m no geo-political analyst nor am I a tactician, so I can’t begin to say what will result in the weeks and months to come on the global stage. I pray, like the prophet, that the enemies are diverted in their cause and that their plans are gloriously thwarted. But what happens if the fighting gets worse? What happens if Ukraine is overrun and the incursions continue westward? Even if that’s the case, we can proclaim that God is still sovereign. The stunning promise of verse 16 would be just as true even if verse 17 wasn’t included. Even without the unmistakable evidence that “they that be with us are more than they that be with them,” we are assured by God himself that that is true (John 16:33; 1 John 4:4). Maybe we haven’t seen visions of armored angels, but his watch-care over us is just as certain. Both now and forever, the God of heaven surrounds his children with his providential protection (Ps. 34:7; 125:2). His purposes for us and his glory haven’t yet been disturbed or upset. And they never will.
The Putins and the Bidens and the North-Korean-despots deem themselves the “movers and shakers” of our time. But nothing could be further from the truth. There is only One true “mover and shaker” of our days, and he’s the one who remains enthroned in the heavens, chuckling at the pitiful power-grabs of puny men (Ps 2:2–4; 37:13; 59:8). The Architect of history is none other than the One True King of all things. And the truly awesome news is that this One True King cares about even our puny, mundane crises. “Both the big picture and the minor details belong to him,” Dale Ralph Davis affirms. “His sway extends from parliaments and war departments to the doorknobs and phone calls and parking places of life” (87). He mercifully tends to our misplaced ax heads and he masterfully bends the plans of global leaders according to his will (Prov. 21:1).
“We make a mistake when we confuse God’s greatness with ‘bigness’ or when we associate his greatness only with bigness,” Davis continues. “Part of his greatness appears in the fact that he does attend to the small problems, the dinky details, the individual needs, the mundane and ordinary affairs of the believer’s life” (104). “He is the God of small spaces,” echoes Chad Bird, “the tiny shards of a shattered heart are just the right size for him to fit inside” (76). The same God of immense galaxies rules and reigns over every one of our moments, orchestrating their ends for our good and his glory. The strange, the sordid, and the superlative all occur according to his sovereign Word.
Chad Bird, Your God Is Too Glorious: Finding God in the Most Unexpected Places (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2018).
Dale Ralph Davis, 2 Kings: The Power and the Fury (Ross-shire, England: Christian Focus, 2020).