But as one was cutting down a tree, the iron ax head fell into the water; and he cried out and said, “Alas, master! For it was borrowed” (2 Kings 6:5).
Each prophet or prophet’s helper went to the Jordan to cut down trees to build a lodging place. The prophets were poor but willing to do manual labor. The process of building was simple; cut down good trees and build a lodging place. These buildings may have looked like the old log cabins used by the early settlers and pioneers in the United States.
I suggest that this story of the prophets, tucked into the history of Israel like a business card in a person’s wallet, is a picture of ministry and ministers. The trees represent people, the prophets are the builders, the ax heads are the giftings on loan to the minister, and the building is the church.
Our passage focuses on one of the men who “begged” someone to use his ax head as this is the rendering of the Hebrew word translated as “borrowed” (K&D). In other words, He “begged for it.” He didn’t just borrow it. It may have been the only ax the person owned, or it could have been a family heirloom. Whatever the case, the implication is that the owner of the ax loaned it out reluctantly with the expectation that the borrower takes care of it and returns it at the end of the project.
Anyone who has ever taken a class on woodworking, metal-working, automotive servicing, or construction knows that the first subject covered is tool safety. The students may be itching to grab a saw, drill, or jackhammer, but the tool case remains locked until the tool safety aspect of the training is complete. An ax is a tool, and it is a very dangerous tool in the wrong hands. I have used an ax or a splitting mall, and I can tell you they can hurt you or somebody near you badly if you make a miss-lick. They can even be lethal.
With these thoughts in mind, I would like to propose three types of people who use the tools of ministry (as it were):
1. Malicious and deadly
2. Untrained and careless
3. Trained and careful
1. The Malicious and Deadly
This person uses an ax not for its intended purpose but as a weapon. I was at the Patee House Museum in St. Joseph, Mo., where they have a room filled with pieces of evidence confiscated from criminals in the early 1900s. One cabinet contained weapons used to commit 25 murders right in St Joseph, Mo. I was struck (no pun intended) by an ax that was hanging vertically and dead center with a caption, “She used this ax to kill an abusive husband. The wife said he abused her, so she waited for him to go to sleep, and she whacked him twice, killing him.
Just as using an ax as a weapon is deadly, so also, preaching as a weapon can destroy people or their faith. The object of preaching is to speak the word of God. This word will enable the people to do God’s will. It edifies (builds up) the people, and it glorifies God. We need to ask, “What is God saying to the people? What does He want me to say when I preach?” This is NOT the same thing as coming into a meeting intending to take a swing at someone.
An old-time pastor (shepherd) prepared to preach, feeling fed up with the actions of one of his wayward sheep. So he put together a sermon to give this problematic person the “what for” Sunday morning. He took the pulpit and unloaded on that wayward sheep, not knowing that many things he said also struck one of his most faithful leaders. The collateral damage that followed harmed the church and grieved the preacher. He realized he had done wrong, but it was too late. The wounded leader quit the church.
The Bible is not a weapon to use on people when you’re angry. We are accountable to God for the damage we do when we wield the word of God. There was a saying that ministers sometimes used in the old days, “He skinned them tonight!” I’ve heard something similar used to describe a preacher’s sermon afterward. The pulpit is not to be used to “skin people.” I recall many years ago telling a dear Saint, “the pulpit is not a place to come to get things off of your chest.” It’s a place to preach what God leads us to preach from His infallible word. We must preach against sin, that Hell is hot and heaven is real. But we don’t skin people.
2. Untrained and Careless
I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (2 Timothy 4:1–4 ESV).
The Greek word for “myths” in 2 Timothy 4:4 is muthous. They prefer “myths” to “the truth” as some turn away to “humanism,” “Bolshevism,” “new thought,” or any other fad that will give a new momentary thrill to their itching ears and morbid minds. (A.T. Robertson) This could include embellished or exaggerated stories of miracles (so-called evangel-astic) and events meant to cause a more significant impact or reaction than the original story. Some people take the attitude that if a story is worth being told it’s worth exaggerating. But God is not glorified by, nor will He bless false tales. We must do everything possible to ensure that our teaching is based on God’s word and that our illustrations and stories are accurate and factual. If it’s a parable, preface the story with that fact.
God sometimes uses a questionable interpretation of an obscure verse in the minor prophets, but that is not typically how He works. We are to study to show ourselves approved unto God—workers who don’t need to be ashamed—rightly dividing the word of truth. I recall saying to a man once when I was a young teacher, “I’ll just open my mouth, and God will fill it.” He responded, “That’s how a lot of heresies get started.” He was right. I never forgot that and have been careful about what I taught or preached.
In our story of the prophets, the man raised his ax and didn’t bother to make sure the ax head was tight. It was negligent and careless behavior. The ax head flew into the air and could have easily struck and killed one of his coworkers. By way of analogy, this is what happens when ministers “just open up and let-er fly!” We need our sermons, teachings, writings, and song lyrics to be as biblical and “watertight” as possible.
I recall a story of a man who told me that he would do silly and unexplained things as a child. One day he was out in the yard playing with his cousin, saw a chunk of metal on the ground, picked it up, wondering how high he could toss it into the air. He threw this chunk of steel just as his cousin coincidentally started running in the same direction. Not knowing the metal was airborne, it struck him in the head, requiring numerous staples or stitches. It could have killed the kid. Likewise, when that ax handle came off, it could’ve easily killed one of those other prophets. Was he malicious? No! He was careless.
3. The Trained and Careful
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness (James 3:1 ESV).
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they watch on behalf of your souls, as those who will give account, that they may do this with joy, and not with groaning, for that would be unprofitable for you (Hebrews 13:17 WEB).
The late G.W. North once explained that he repeatedly went over the word of God because he wanted to know that he was right because great is the responsibility of those who preach God’s word. He commented to his wife, “You know dear, I have just gone through a period where I thought about all of the people that I have preached to and counseled over the years, and if I have told them wrong, I have damned souls.” He ended this insightful series of comments with a warning, “Some of you would not be as eager to preach God’s word if you knew the enormity of it.”
Faithful ministers are called to study to show themselves approved unto God, workers who need not be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. This is a long way from the pop psychology and the pablum masquerading as “preaching” that frequents the airwaves and the internet today. Those words and sayings are dead in the water to bring any constructive change in a person’s life regarding the kingdom of God. The only thing that can change people is God’s word (emphasis on God’s word and not the words of men).