Read 1 Kings 17. 7-24.
Earlier in the chapter, Elijah bursts upon the scene as the attentive and obedient servant of the living God. His ministry takes place amidst rampant idolatry in the northern kingdom of Israel headed up by the weak King Ahab and his wicked consort, Jezebel. A major theme traceable through these passages is the powerful, life-giving word of the Lord.1 Elijah has faithfully delivered the dreadful message of a drought to King Ahab, in line with God’s covenant judgements upon apostasy. Following that fearful edict, there follows the withdrawal of Elijah to the obscurity of Cherith and his miraculous preservation there.2
Why this strange turn of events? It is a further judgement on Israel, for physical drought is not the only, nor indeed the worst form of drought that can afflict a land. Spiritual drought is far worse. ‘Behold, the days come, saith the Lord God, that I will send a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord: and they shall wander from sea to sea, and from the north even to the east, they shall run to and fro to seek the word of the Lord, and shall not find it’, Amos 8. 11, 12. As in the days of Samuel, ‘the word of the Lord was rare in those days; there was no widespread revelation’, 1 Sam. 3. 1 NKJV. Christians can experience spiritual drought. We can be surrounded by expositions of scripture, yet somehow it feels as if the Bible has nothing to say to us. In such circumstances, we need to seek the Lord, Lam. 3. 40.
God had hidden His faithful servant in a ravine near Jordan where he may remain unnoticed. It had a stream from which he could drink. There, ravens brought him food - bread and meat, morning and evening - a triumph of divine provision. The fact that the raven was classified as ceremonially unclean, according to Israel’s holiness codes, Lev. 11. 15, hints that God was preparing the prophet for a challenging extension of his ministry. God was about to sustain him in the home of a Gentile widow in Zarephath, Sidon. Similarly, the Lord opened Peter’s understanding to take the gospel to the Gentile Cornelius through the vision of the unclean animals in the large sheet let down from heaven, Acts 10. 11.
But first, the brook dried up, v. 7. What a test of faith! You can be plumb centre of the will of God, yet circumstances may try your faith to breaking point. In our lives, the easy ‘path of least resistance’ will rarely constitute the will of God! Jonah, when sent to Nineveh, disobeyed, and found a convenient ship at Joppa, but he was sailing completely contrary to the will of God. God’s way can often be the hardest, the costliest, the most humbling, and yet, paradoxically, the most blessed!
Hardships and changed circumstances should cause us to be cast upon God. Perhaps Elijah would have been like Jonah and refused to go to Zarephath if the stream had continued to flow. Again, in Acts the Lord used the vicious persecution of Saul of Tarsus to scatter His people abroad, so fulfilling their commission.3 Had life been easier, many might well have stayed at Jerusalem.
Zarephath … Sidon! ‘I have commanded a widow woman there to sustain thee’. This is deep in Jezebel country! A Gentile, a widow woman to sustain him! It all seems so improbable, indeed impossible. Truly God’s ways are past finding out; His ways are not ours. Note when God says ‘there’, vv. 4, 9 (twice). Are you where God wants you to be, however strange and unsought your circumstances may seem?
We can consider the rest of the chapter as follows:
The widow in scripture often pictures desolation and vulnerability, with no one to provide for her. Here we observe important lessons for Elijah, specifically seclusion, humbling, and dependence.
The major lesson here is that God is sovereign, and interested in individuals, even Gentiles. Let us remember that Israel was sunk in apostasy, and under divine judgement, yet a Gentile widow is singled out for blessing in Zarephath. This surely highlights the sovereign grace of God. In personal evangelism, we should never think of anyone as ‘beyond the pale’. No sinner is too deep-dyed, too ‘way out’, to be beyond the long reach of God’s mercy. Let us not fixate on numbers, size of audience, etc. God saves individuals; the Lord Jesus often dealt with individuals. As the surrounding secular culture hardens against the gospel, friendship evangelism remains a powerful means of fulfilling our great commission.
There is an instructive dispensational foregleam in the fact that God singled out a Gentile widow for blessing. Let the Lord Jesus be our infallible guide, ‘I tell you of a truth, many widows were in Israel in the days of Elias, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, when great famine was throughout all the land; but unto none of them was Elias sent, save unto Sarepta, a city of Sidon, unto a woman that was a widow’, Luke 4. 25, 26. It was at a time when Israel had refused God’s message, and was under judgement, that God sent His prophet to the Gentile.
Likewise, Paul traces God’s mercy to Gentiles through Israel’s rejection of Messiah, Jesus, Rom. 11. 11, ‘I say then, Have they [unbelieving Israel] stumbled that they should fall [irretrievably]? God forbid: but rather through their fall salvation is come unto the Gentiles, for to provoke them to jealousy’. How glad, yet humble, we Gentile believers should be! Let us not boast against the Jewish people, the natural branches of the olive tree, Rom. 11. 17, 18.
A key lesson here is that God honours those who put His kingdom first. It was a supreme challenge for the widow to take the last morsel of food from her only child and give it to the prophet. It defied all the natural instincts of motherhood. Her situation was truly dismal, v. 12. To comply was a supreme act of faith in the word of God.
God will often challenge us to put Him first, even beyond all our natural instincts. ‘Fear not’, v. 13, as if to say, ‘Give me everything you have, and I will give you everything you need’. A bold step of faith was required. Yet at the same time, God was prepared to reward such a venture not only on a one-off, but on an ongoing basis. She obeyed, staking everything on the reliability of the word of God, v. 15.
Are you prepared to take God at His word in some major matter of your life? Christopher Wordsworth was once rector of a parish where the congregation’s giving left much to be desired. Rather than scold them by sermon, he penned a beautiful hymn in praise of God the eternal Giver.
‘We lose what on ourselves we spend,
We have as treasure without end
Whatever Lord to thee we lend,
Who givest all’.
Verse 14 teaches the principle of sufficiency: the barrel of meal was never filled, but it never failed. In that sense, God’s mercy was ‘new every morning’. We may not have abundance, but we will have enough. ‘Having food and clothing, with these we shall be content’, 1 Tim. 6. 8 NKJV. What was merely a handful to the widow was a barrel as far as the living God was concerned. She thus began a journey of faith which would culminate in the death and restoration of her only son. In that respect, we might compare her spiritual growth ‘now … I know’, 1 Kgs. 17. 24, to that of Abraham the father of believers, both Jew and Gentile, Gen. 22. 12.
That life should be preserved under conditions of dearth was amazing, but what if death were to enter the home? Now perplexing questions arise, mainly beginning with the word ‘why?’ Why should God work a miracle every morning, but now allow this lad to die? Why preserve life simply to snuff it out? The Lord may permit circumstances to develop in our lives which will test our faith to the uttermost, John 11. 4, ‘When Jesus heard that, he said, This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God might be glorified thereby’.
God often publicly vindicated Elijah in emphatic fashion, yet sometimes his private experiences seemed far more of a struggle. It is often thus for servants of God, preventing them from presuming upon God’s grace. Past victories are no guarantee of present power and grace.
The man of God carried the dead son up to his chamber, 1 Kgs. 17. 19. He entered into the widow’s despair4 and channelled it into prevailing prayer. He was bold, accusatory, almost provocative, v. 20.
‘Is any among you afflicted? let him pray’, Jas. 5. 13. Rain had been withheld through prayer, Jas. 5. 17; now life was restored through prayer. Moreover, prophets often acted out their ministries in dramatic fashion. Elijah’s stretching himself upon the child was an act of faith, as if pleading ‘let his lifeless body become as my living body’, but at the same time admitting his own helplessness, completely cast upon God’s mercy and power. Similarly, we are utterly dependent on God for the salvation of souls. The son is restored to life only through deep prayer-exercise on the part of Elijah, 1 Kgs. 17. 20, 21. ‘The Lord listened to the voice of Elijah’, v. 22 ESV. What an encouragement!
The widow’s faith triumphed, v. 24; she now proved that God’s word is utterly reliable. He is faithful to His every promise, irrespective of how dark things may seem. God is victor not only over dearth, vv. 1-16, but also over death, vv. 17-24, so we may trust Him fully, and serve Him with total confidence.
So, whether it be a desolate widow sustained by a daily provision, or indeed a dead son brought back to life, in each case the instrument is the infallible, invincible word of the Lord. May we learn to have total confidence in the trustworthiness of God’s word.