September 14, 2021

The Axe Head of the Prophet Elisha as a Foreshadowing of the Cross

In 2(4) Kings 6:1-7 we read:

And the sons of the prophets said to Elisha, “See now, the place where we dwell with you is too small for us. Please, let us go to the Jordan, and let every man take a beam from there, and let us make there a place where we may dwell.”

So he answered, “Go.”

Then one said, “Please consent to go with your servants.”

And he answered, “I will go.” So he went with them. And when they came to the Jordan, they cut down trees. 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.”

So the man of God said, “Where did it fall?” And he showed him the place. So he cut off a stick, and threw it in there; and he made the iron float. Therefore he said, “Pick it up for yourself.” So he reached out his hand and took it.

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- "Elisha, by throwing a piece of wood into the river Jordan, brought up to the surface the iron head of the ax with which the sons of the prophets had begun to cut wood for the construction of a building in which they proposed to read and study the precepts of God; just as our Christ, by being crucified on the wood of the cross and by sanctifying us by water raised up us who had been immersed in the mire of our mortal sins and made us a house of prayer and worship." - Justin Martyr (Dialogue with Trypho 86)

- "And accordingly Elisha, having taken 'wood' and cast it into that place where the iron had been submerged, forthwith it rose and swam on the surface, and the 'wood' sank, which the sons of the prophets recovered. Thus they understood that the spirit of Elijah was presently conferred on him. What is more manifest than the mystery of this wood: that the obduracy of this world had been sunk in the profundity of error and is freed in baptism by the wood of Christ, that is, of his passion, in order that what had formerly perished through the tree in Adam should be restored through the tree in Christ?" - Tertullian (An Answer to the Jews 13)

- "This is a symbol signifying the fall of Adam. For water represents the type of sin. Indeed, through water, sin was redeemed by the deluge at the time of Noah and at the fulfillment of times. It was washed in the water of holy baptism by our Lord when he was baptized in the Jordan by John, when he was received and ate with sinners and in his passion was counted among the reprobates. The wood descended, the iron has emerged, because Emmanuel died, was buried and went down to the infernal regions of earth, and from there he has come back, and in his ascension he has lifted up Adam from the deep towards the heights." - Ephraim the Syrian (On the Second Book of Kings 6.5)

- "When the divine lesson was read now, dearly beloved, we heard that as blessed Elisha was going to the river Jordan with the sons of the prophets to cut some wood, an ax fell into the water, and the man from whose hand it slipped cried out to blessed Elisha, 'Alas, my lord, for this was borrowed.' After this blessed Elisha threw a piece of wood into the place where the ax had fallen, and the iron swam. Elisha typified our Lord and Savior, dearly beloved, as we have frequently mentioned to your charity. Moreover, in the boy who was from the sons of the prophets and from whose hand the ax slipped, we not unfittingly understand Christ our Lord. That ax that fell seems to signify Adam or the whole human race. Therefore, the son of the prophets held the ax in his hand, because our Lord and Savior had in the hand of his power the human race, which he had created. Just as the ax fell out of the prophet’s hand into the water, so the human race through pride shook off itself free from the hand of almighty God, fell and plunged itself into the river of dissipation and the waters of every sin. So the ax lay in the water, because the human race had fallen into the abyss of all vices in miserable ruin. As it is written: 'I am sunk in the abysmal swamp,' and again: 'I have reached the watery depths; the flood overwhelms me.' That river where the ax fell signifies the pleasure or dissipation of this world, which is passing, fleeting and descending into the abyss. A river derives its name from the idea of flowing; since all sinners are said to flow along clinging to transitory pleasures, for this reason that ax lay sunk in the river and mud. At his coming Elisha threw in a piece of wood, and the iron swam. What does it mean to cast the piece of wood and bring the iron to light, except to ascend the gibbet of the cross, to lift up the human race from the depth of hell and to free it from the mud of all sins by the mystery of the cross? After the iron floated, the prophet put in his hand to recover it, and it returned to the useful service of its master. Thus it also happened to us, dearly beloved brothers. We who had fallen from the Lord’s hand through pride merited to return again to his hand and power through the wood of the cross. Therefore, with his help, let us strive as much as we can not to fall again from his hand through pride. Without any preceding good merits of ours we have been brought from darkness to light, recalled from death to life and brought back to the right path from many errors. For this reason let us run while we still possess the light of life and not neglect the passing times of salvation. Let not the unwholesomely sweet and exceedingly dangerous joy of this world delight us, lest we again fall away from good works and the path of justice as from the hand of the Lord and hasten to the wicked river of this world. Let us not be submerged again in the mud of all sins in unhappy destruction, but let us listen to the apostle say, 'If you have risen with Christ, mind the things that are above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Seek the things that are above.' Why does he say 'if you have risen,' unless because we had fallen? Elsewhere the same apostle says, 'Awake, sleeper, and arise from among the dead, and Christ will enlighten you.' Does it not seem to you as though he is shouting to the ax, which is lying in the mud? Awake, he says, you who sleep in the deep waters, and Christ will enlighten you through the mystery of the cross. All these truths have already been fulfilled in us, beloved brothers, through the sacrament of baptism." - Caesarius of Arles (Sermon 130.1–3)