Sometimes we isolate ourselves from others. We may have been hurt or let down and hide ourselves away to avoid being hurt again. Some of us are happy to be alone and we are content with our own company. Some of us would much rather be alone. It may be that God has given us an introverted personality, and perhaps we struggle with social anxiety. Some of us have made up our mind that we are alone. Like Elijah in a later story, we judge that others don’t match up to our spiritual standards and we only are faithful to God. We say in our hearts, ‘I, even I only, am left’, 1 Kgs. 19. 10.
In the background to this story, Elijah is at the brook Cherith alone, 1 Kgs. 17. Elijah was often alone. He courageously stood, a solitary figure, before king Ahab, 17. 1, and later he was by himself in the wilderness, 19. 4-18. The story of the widow of Sarepta is a lesson of how God used an unnamed vulnerable Gentile widow to teach Elijah the important lesson that ‘no man is an island’. We all need others in our lives, and they also need us.
At the brook Cherith Elijah was close to home,1 with God supernaturally providing everything he needed. The brook dried up, v. 7, and God pushed Elijah out of his comfort zone, directing him to a new phase in his life. Taking the next step can be disconcerting. We may soon be going to college or university, getting married, starting a new job or moving home. It makes all the difference knowing that God is in control.
One of the last places Elijah may have considered moving on to was Zarephath. This town, near to Zidon,2was where Jezebel came from, 1 Kgs. 16. 31, 32. It was almost certainly a stronghold of Baal worship.
Why Zarephath? Could a true believer ever exist in a place like this?3 Here in Zarephath was a woman who believed that Jehovah was the living God, v. 12. Her faith was weak and struggling but it was real, nonetheless. The Lord Jesus mentioned this widow woman before the audience in the synagogue at Nazareth, Luke 4. 24-26. She demonstrated that true faith can exist in some very unexpected places. In contrast, unbelief can also prevail in privileged places enlightened by the word of God. Nazareth was such a place, as the Lord Jesus had resided there for thirty years.4 As a Gentile widow, her background was completely different to that of Elijah’s.5 Like Elijah, God may want us to share in the lives of those we would have little in common with except for the Lord Jesus. God’s intention for New Testament churches is that they are communities that testify to the uniting power of Christ, bridging the divides caused by culture, race or class.6
It is easy to underestimate today the plight of widows in Bible times, in the days before social care and pensions.7 Elijah was caused to depend on a woman whose resources were extremely limited. Similarly, the Apostle Paul, prior to being greatly used by God, was made to depend on a humble believer. In Acts chapter 9, a man called Ananias helped Paul receive his sight again. We know little else about Ananias, but he welcomed Paul on first meeting him, ‘and putting his hands on him said, Brother Saul’, Acts 9. 17. As the body of Christ, God has made us all different, 1 Cor. 4. 7. We all have contrasting yet complementary abilities. God has designed the body of Christ so that we need each other, ‘the eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee: nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you’, 1 Cor. 12. 21. Indeed, God has ordered events so that we rely even more on individuals who may seem less important, 12. 22-25. The great prophet Elijah8 became increasingly dependent on this humble widow as he first receives a little cake (of bread), v. 13, then, later, he is sustained from her barrel of meal (flour) and cruse of oil, vv. 14, 15. Elijah also is provided with accommodation and is hidden away in her loft, v. 19.
In addition to Elijah being helped by the widow, God also sent Elijah to help her. On being asked by Elijah to provide a morsel of bread, she replied, ‘I have not a cake, but an handful of meal in a barrel, and a little oil in a cruse: and, behold, I am gathering two sticks, that I may go in and dress it for me and my son, that we may eat it, and die’, v. 12. The loss of her husband and experience of famine left her utterly overwhelmed. She was ready to give up, and Elijah’s request for food was more than she could take.
Elijah encourages her in several ways. First, he assures her and tells her to ‘fear not’, v. 13. Fear frequently lies behind our lack of faith. We are often concerned with what the future holds. We question whether God is in control of our lives or if He knows what we are going through. Second, Elijah instructs her to put God first, v. 13. Elijah wasn’t being selfish by requesting that he be fed before the widow and her son. As God’s prophet and representative, v. 24, this was a test of whether she would put the things of God before the interests of herself and her family. The Lord Jesus reminds us, ‘Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed?… But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you’, Matt. 6. 31, 33. Third, she is encouraged to trust God and obey. God promises her, ‘For thus saith the Lord God of Israel, The barrel of meal shall not waste, neither shall the cruse of oil fail, until the day that the Lord sendeth rain upon the earth’, v. 14. She took God at His word and ‘went and did according to the saying of Elijah’, v. 15.
In verses 17 to 24, the widow undergoes her greatest test of faith with the death of her only son, v. 17. Losing someone we love can be the greatest challenge of all. She blames God but channels her anger towards Elijah, v. 18.9 Are we angry with God? Perhaps we are diverting our resentment towards those we love or look up to spiritually. Elijah’s response was not to argue with her but to identify with the widow in her suffering. He did this by taking her son to himself and praying about the situation, v. 21. How important to identify with, and to pray for, those we know who are hurting. The Lord Jesus identified with people who were discouraged and distressed. On the road to Emmaus, He encountered two downcast individuals and ‘drew near, and went with them’, Luke 24. 15, later eating with them. For the isolated man whose life had been devastated by leprosy, ‘Jesus, moved with compassion, put forth his hand, and touched him’, Mark 1. 41. With Mary, who was broken by the loss of her brother, we simply read, ‘Jesus wept’, John 11. 35. Like the Saviour and also Elijah, we should identify with broken individuals who are finding the way hard.
Elijah’s prayer provides us with some vital lessons. Elijah’s prayer was alone before God. He took the child up to the loft space where he was living and presented the matter to the Lord, v. 19. Elijah’s prayer was earnest. With honesty he prays, ‘O Lord my God, hast thou also brought evil upon the widow with whom I sojourn, by slaying her son?’ v. 20. God knows what we are thinking, and it is better to express our frustration to Him than to pretend it doesn’t exist and suppress it. Elijah’s prayer was fervent. He cried to the Lord, vv. 19, 20. James reminds us, ‘The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much. Elias was a man subject to like passions as we are, and he prayed earnestly’, Jas. 5. 17, 18.
Then, we read, ‘the Lord heard the voice of Elijah’, v. 22. This first resurrection miracle in the Bible10served to confirm Elijah as a man of God and, more importantly, ‘that the word of the Lord in thy mouth is truth’, v. 24. Some 940 years later, in the first resurrection miracle of the New Testament, we also read of another widow who had recently lost her only son. With a touch, and through just His words, the widow of Nain had her son restored to her. In doing so, the Lord Jesus confirmed that He was, not only a man of God, but the Word become flesh, the very Son of God, the Creator and Sustainer of life.
Elijah was from Gilead, 1 Kgs. 17. 1, on the east bank of the river Jordan, as was the brook Cherith, v. 3.
Zidon, called Sidon in the New Testament, is a large coastal city in modern Lebanon. Tyre and Sidon were the two most important cities of the Phoenician empire and are the subject of several prophecies, e.g., Ezek. 28.
The Lord Jesus encountered another woman from the same region. He described this Syrophoenician woman as a woman of great faith, Matt. 15. 28.
Along with Naaman the leper, Luke 4. 27, the widow is a picture of the blessing of Gentile nations with the gospel following the unbelief of Israel, Rom. 11.
Elijah had been prepared for this event by being sustained by ravens. As carrion eaters, they were unclean animals according to the law, Lev. 11. 13-15.
Gal. 3. 27, 28; Eph. 2. 14-18; Col. 3. 10, 11.
Consequently, widows feature in many Old and New Testament accounts, for example in the book of Ruth, the widow’s two mites, Mark 12. 41-44, and the provision for widows, Acts 6 and 1 Tim. 5. 1-16.
Along with Moses, he was on the Mount of Transfiguration, Matt. 17. 1-13. These two individuals represent the Old Testament revelation by God through the law and the prophets, respectively.
The technical term for this is displaced aggression.
There are ten occasions in the Bible where resurrection miracles took place. Along with, (1) the miracle here, these are: (2) the Shunammite woman’s son, 2 Kgs. 4. 18-37; (3) the man raised out of Elisha’s grave, 2 Kgs. 13. 20, 21; (4) the widow of Nain’s son, Luke 7. 11-17; (5) Jairus’ daughter, Luke 8. 40-56; (6) Lazarus of Bethany, John 11; (7) various saints in Jerusalem, Matt. 27. 50-53; (8) Tabitha, Acts 9. 36-43; (9) Eutychus, Acts 20. 7-12; and, of course, (10) the Lord Jesus, Mark 16. 1-8.