Even now the ax is laid at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
[Matt 3:10 NET]
The picture is very suggestive. The axe lying at the tree’s root, or raised in the woodman’s hand to strike, shows that judgment impends, hangs ready to fall. Any moment the tree may be cut down. The axe lying at the tree’s root unused tells of patience in the husbandman; he is waiting to see if the fruitless tree will yet bear fruit, The axe leaning quietly against the tree is very suggestive, The meaning is very plain. God waits long for impenitent sinners to return to him; he is slow to punish or to cut off the day of opportunity; he desires all to repent and be saved. Yet we must not trifle with the Divine patience and forbearance. We must remember that while the axe is not lifted to strike, still there is not a moment when it is not lying close, ready to be used; when the summons may not come, “Hasten to judgment.” The axe of death really lies all the while at the root of every life. There is not a moment when it is not true that there is but a step between us and death.
The lying of the axe at the root suggests that its use is not pruning but cutting down. God has two axes. One he uses in pruning his trees, removing the fruitless branches, and cleansing the fruitful branches that they may bring forth more fruit. The work of this axe is not judgment or destruction, but mercy and blessing. It is the good, the fruitful tree that feels its keen edge. Then God has another axe which he uses only in judgment, in cutting down those trees which after all his culture of them bring forth no fruit. Life is all very critical. There is not a moment in any day on which may not turn all the destinies of eternity. It certainly is an infinitely perilous thing for an immortal soul to rest an hour with the axe of judgment waiting to strike the blow that will end for ever the day of mercy. Only supremest folly can be blind to duty in such a case.