‘The Iron Did Swim’
C. Gahan, Ilminster
These two books are well called "The Books of the Kings" for they contain the history of Israel's kings, some nineteen in all. Kingly power, pomp and pageantry are here, but the fact remains that two of the outstanding men of these books are not kings but prophets, the prophet Elijah and the prophet Elisha. In true dignity and majesty these two men of God were head and shoulders above all these kings, and they exercised a far more potent influence for good than any one of them. Yet no two men could have been more unlike one another: Elijah was rugged, lionlike, and uncompromising; Elisha was lamb-like, humble, gracious and gentle. Elijah typifies the law which came by Moses; Elisha typifies the grace and truth which came by Jesus Christ, and in the fulness of time the one superceded the other.
In the meditation before us we shall be thinking of a striking incident in the life of Elisha. The sons of the prophets were students in the school of Elisha and they held him in very high esteem; he was not only their schoolmaster, he was their friend and adviser. It was not surprising, therefore, that the place where he instructed them became too small for their ever-increasing numbers, and in dealing with this situation it was the students who took the initiative. They said to Elisha: "Behold now, the place where we dwell (sit) with thee is too strait (too small) for us. 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. And one said, Be content, I pray thee, and go with thy servants. And he answered, I will go", w. 1-5. These young men were anxious to have both the presence and approval of Elisha in the undertaking they had before them.
Now, the spiritual application of that before us in these verses is not far to seek. Among other things we who are believers are students in the school of grace, and if these sons of the prophets so valued Elisha, much more should not we value Him who was Elisha's God and Lord. What is the extent and value of our appreciation of Him who said, "one is your Master, even Christ", Matt. 23. 8. Do we sufficiently realize the privilege and responsibility of being His disciples? Like these students of Elisha, are we longing for better things? Are we hungering and thirsting for "the things which are Jesus Christ's"?, Phil. 2. 21. To answer these questions, let us consider
A Lesson of Enlargement. The place where these sons of the prophets received instruction had become too cramped for them. Their numbers had been small but now they were many, and the scope of their instruction had widened. Having passed the A B C of things, they were now anxious to get on with the X Y Z of things, and this necessitated more room to live and work in. These young men were suffering from a godly discontent; they were craving for enlargement, enlargement of spirit, soul and mind, and their master, Elisha, approved. What an example for our imitation! Alas, there are many dull scholars in God's school; they never get beyond the A B C of things, they are babes when they should be full-grown men and women. They are Christians, but Christian profession is not enough, there must be Christian progression; it is not enough to stand our ground, we must gain more ground; it is not enough to continue in grace, we must grow in grace. Writing to the Corinthians the apostle Paul complains that they were "straitened" and he urges them cobe "enlarged", 2 Cor. 6. 12, The word straitened here means "not being able to turn oneself, or having no breathing space"; our souls can become pitifully cramped and small, we can become self-centred thinking only of ourselves. The remedy for this is to be found in the words of the prophet Isaiah, "Enlarge the place of thy tent, and let them stretch forth the curtains of thine habitations: spare not, lengthen thy cords, and strengthen thy stakes; for thou shalt break forth on the right hand and on the left", Isa. 54. 2.
A striking picture is this of an active, fruitful, vigorous and consecrated Christian life; this is what enlargement means, it means the development and expansion of our inner spiritual man. If amazing potentials of energy and activity are latent in physical life, then what energy and holy activity are possible to a consecrated Christian life! Not only is it possible, it is desirable; too often we forget that our happiness as well as our usefulness depends on our being actively employed. While some have died from overwork, it is also true that many more have died for want of it. How surely will a man who takes no exercise become a weakling!, and the same thing is true of spiritual life; not to use our powers of energy and activity for God is to lose them. Possibly David was thinking of this when he said, "I will run the way of thy commandments, when thou shalt enlarge my heart", Psa. 119. 32. Enlargement brings a quickened sense of God's will; we do not linger when enlargement comes, we "run". This is the first thing suggested to us in these verses, and its importance is seen when we remember that there can be no enlargement of the Church apart from the enlargement of the Christian. So, also, with the local church, there can be no enlargement of the local assembly apart from the enlargement of its members.
Again, in these verses before us we have
An Illustration of Grace. This we see in the fallen axe head; to provide material for their new building, Elisha and his young men went to the river Jordan to cut down wood, "But as one was felling a beam, the axe head fell into the water; and he cried, and said, Alas, master! for it was boirowed. 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", w. 5, 6.
Here we Have Something Lost. As far as this young man was concerned, through one man's carelessness the axe was lost beyond recovery. Thus was the soul of man lost; it was lost through one man's carelessness, and that man was Adam, the first man. Not only so, Adam was a representative man; when he sinned and fell the entire human race sinned and fell in him. In the words of Holy Scripture, "by one man's disobedience many were made sinners", Rom. 5. 19. Adam's sin has had a disastrous effect on the whole of his race; it has left the heart of man "deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked", Jer. 17. 9. Just as the nature of an axe head is to go down, so in man there is that terrible legacy from the fall, an inborn tendency to go down, ever downwards, further and further away from God and righteousness. The constant testimony of Scripture is this, "all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God", Rom. 3. 23. But there is not only something lost here,
There is Something Found. Elisha the man of God intervened and the lost axe head was found; he cut down the branch of a tree and threw it into the waters of Jordan and, in the words of these verses, "the iron did swim". A beautiful reminder is this of Jesus who came "to seek and to save that which was lost", Luke 19. 10. This constitutes the good news of the Gospel; "This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners", 1 Tim. 1. 15. There is, therefore, a tree in both the story of Elisha and the story of Jesus, and the tree of the Gospel story is the tree once planted at Golgotha. The Gospel story is the story of Jesus, "Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree", 1 Pet. 2. 24; and this recalls another tree and another river. On one occasion in their journeyings the children of Israel had been without water for three days, and when they came to a river to their dismay it was exceedingly bitter and undrinkable; Moses "cried unto the Lord; and the Lord showed him a tree", which, when he had cast it into the waters, became sweet, Exod. 15. 25. Thus did the Lord Jesus; He flung himself into the bitter waters due to our guilt and sin that He might raise our sinking souls into newness of life. All the waves rolled over Him, and now the believer's lost and fallen condition has been annuled. We are no longer identified with the first Adam, the head of a fallen race; we are now identified with the Lord Jesus the last Adam, the head of a new creation. There are many trees in this forest-like world, the tree of knowledge, the tree of science, the tree of philosophy, the tree of fame, the tree of wealth, the tree of pleasure. Some make choice of one tree and some another, but the grand object of the believer's choice is the tree once planted at Golgotha; it was here that he found pardon, peace and power; and here he himself can become "like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth bis fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper", Psa. i. 3. One other thing; here we have
A Parable of Christian Experience. In the iron axe head of these verses we have another weighty and important lesson. We illustrate this with the verse, "For I delight in the law of God after the inward man; but I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members", Rom. 7. 22-23. Here are two principles or laws, the one is spiritual and the other is carnal; the one delights in God's law, the other is opposed to it. Between the two there is constant war, and the battle-field is the believer's soul. We are well aware that some teach that scriptural holiness is the eradication of the entire Adam nature. This is very dangerous teaching as many have discovered to their cost, and such teaching has no warrant in Scripture. If this teaching is true, how are we to explain the many exhortations in the Scriptures to "war a good warfare", to "fight the good fight of faith", to "stand against the wiles of the devil", and to "quench all the fiery darts of the wicked"? In this world the Christian is in enemy country; he has enemies without and within, and the enemy within is the most dangerous. Such is the believer's experience, and in the restored axe head we have an illustration of this and of God's provision for it. Although the axe head had been raised up it still had a natural tendency to sink, and the same thing is true of the Christian; there are gravitating tendencies within which tend to drag us down. To overcome this, provision has been made whereby in the Christian new and holy tendencies are to take the place of these lower and sinful inclinations. For this transcendent purpose the Holy Spirit has been given to us, and dwelling within us He checks and overcomes these downward tendencies; thus we are not only lifted up, we are maintained in our new position. What a debt of gratitude we owe to the Holy Spirit! Let us show our gratitude by "grieving not the holy Spirit of God, whereby ye are sealed unto the day of redemption", Eph. 4. 30. The air-liner flying high into the sky is not exempt from the law of gravity, but the power of the fuel in the engine brings into operation another law which supercedes the downward pull of gravitation. In view of this how important is the exhortation to "be filled with the Spirit", 5.18. For then it is that, instead of sinking and falling, we are able to overcome and walk in newness of life.