This notable widow is directly mentioned in two passages in the word of God: 1 Kings chapter 17 verses 8 to 24, part of the record concerning the ministry of the prophet Elijah; and by the Lord Jesus in Luke chapter 4 verses 25 and 26.1
Elijah comes suddenly into the divine narrative. No details are given concerning his parents, his age or upbringing, and the first reference concerns the day when he appeared at Samaria in the presence of King Ahab, 1 Kgs. 17. 1.2 If his appearance was sudden, we might equally suggest it was also unexpected, given the character of the days in which he lived. What those days were like is indicated in the concluding verses of chapter 16. Two statements seem to summarize the history of Ahab: the first in verse 30, ‘Ahab the son of Omri did evil in the sight of the Lord above all that were before him’; the second in verse 33, ‘Ahab did more to provoke the Lord God of Israel to anger than all the kings of Israel that were before him’. Ahab was the seventh king of the northern kingdom of Israel. When we recall the preceding six kings were all evil men, it says much about Ahab that we are twice told he was worse than all the kings of Israel before him. Against that background, there bursts onto the scene a man who can say, ‘As the Lord God of Israel liveth’. How good to notice that even in those dark days God had His servant, a man who had faith in God, who was conscious that he stood in the presence of God, and one who enjoyed communion with God. Like Elijah, we have to do with the ‘living God’. Paul could say of the Thessalonians, ‘ye turned to God … to serve the living and true God’, 1 Thess. 1. 9, but is there practical evidence in our life of faith in God, conduct and speech that conveys we are conscious of being in the presence of God?
From Samaria, Elijah was commanded to hide by the brook Cherith, (since Ahab would search for him, 1 Kgs. 18. 10) the Lord saying, ‘thou shalt drink of the brook; and I have commanded the ravens to feed thee there’, 17. 4. If there was going to be a drought, then Elijah himself would be affected by it, and how good to see that God was concerned with the daily provision of His servant. The Lord Jesus said later, ‘take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? Or, What shall we drink? Or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? … for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things’, something well illustrated in the life of Elijah, Matt. 6. 31, 32.
After a while ‘the brook dried up’. No doubt God could have sustained the flow of water in the brook had He so chosen. He could even have brought water out of a rock, as He did in an earlier day. Instead, He allowed the brook to dry up. Sometimes God does that in the experience of His people. One has commented, it might be the brook of ‘good health’, of ‘financial resources’, or of ‘human friendship’, but whatever the situation that might arise, we can be sure that God will have the resources to meet our need.
Elijah must have observed the decrease in the flow of the brook, yet he made no attempt to move, until he received a further word from the Lord. It should remind us that God leads His people step by step; not until the brook actually dried up did He give further direction to His servant. Elijah patiently waited and word came from the Lord, ‘Arise, get thee to Zarephath … behold, I have commanded a widow woman there to sustain thee’.
Zarephath belonged to Zidon, a Canaanite stronghold, so the Lord directed Elijah to leave the land of Israel. In Zidon, Ahab’s father-in-law was king, and we can assume it was a centre of Baal worship, 16. 31. But there Elijah would be sustained by a ‘widow woman’.
Could we suggest that nationally it was not a place Elijah would readily have gone to as it was Gentile territory? Spiritually, it was not a location he would have considered, being, as suggested, a centre of Baal worship. Finally, naturally it was not a situation he would surely have chosen, to be dependent upon a widow woman, when widows are usually notable in scripture on account of their extreme poverty. Despite appearances, if God sends then the servant must go, so ‘he arose and went’. We should note the prophet’s obedience. The narrative regarding Elijah and the widow revolves around two events:
In the sovereignty of God, when Elijah came to the gate of the city ‘the widow woman was there gathering of sticks’. We don’t know if Elijah immediately knew this was the widow, but the fact she was there, and that when she responded to the prophet’s request, she made mention only of herself and her son, these intimated to him that this was the woman of whom the Lord had spoken. But what of her situation? She had fared no better in the dearth than the rest of the people. Now supposing we were not familiar with the following narrative, what impression might we have got about this woman from what the Lord had initially said concerning her? Most likely, that here was a choice servant of the Lord, ‘I have commanded [appointed] a widow woman there to sustain thee’, one in possession of notable resources, more than ready to minister to a needy servant of God. If that was the impression Elijah had, then his first contact with her had every potential of being a blow to his faith. Her resources were at an end, ‘an handful of meal … a little oil’. Her thoughts are only of cooking for herself and her son. Her expectation was just one meal that ‘we may eat it, and die’.
This was the woman commanded of the Lord to sustain him.
So, he asks her to make him a little cake first, promising that God would minister to her need. Unlike the people of Israel, in faith she received the word, embraced the promise and ‘went and did according to the saying of Elijah: and she, and he, and her house, did eat many days. And the barrel of meal wasted not, neither did the cruse of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord, which he spake by Elijah’. In the subsequent days, the barrel and cruse were never full and yet each day they contained enough to meet that little household’s need.
A household, in Gentile territory, who lived each day in dependence upon God and their faith was not disappointed.
This is the first recorded instance in scripture of a person being raised from the dead. We have seen that the Lord can minister to the daily needs of His people, and now He can equally be trusted in the face of death. He is the God of resurrection. Space forbids dealing in any detail with this incident in the life of the widow. Both were notable instances of divine intervention, but neither were specifically referred to by the Lord. His comment related merely to the fact of Elijah being sent to ‘Sarepta’, the Greek and Latin name for ‘Zarephath’.
The Lord had been brought up in Nazareth, and, upon His return, as had been His custom in earlier years, He went into the synagogue on the Sabbath.
Having read Isaiah chapter 61 verses 1 to 2a the Lord closed the book and, sitting down, said, ‘This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears’.
He is the One of whom the passage speaks, and through Him salvation was offered to them. But what of their response? While they wondered at His gracious words, they said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’ He had been brought up in Nazareth, they knew Him, and, despite what He said, could not accept that in their midst was the one of whom Isaiah spoke.
Anticipating their reaction, He provided some evidence of His divine claims. The Lord said, ‘no prophet is accepted in his own country’, something He proceeded to illustrate first from the days of Elijah and then from the days of Elisha. There were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah; there were many lepers in Israel in the days of Elisha. In the days of both prophets the nation was in unbelief. To only one widow was the prophet sent, only one leper was cleansed. Both were Gentiles who simply obeyed God’s word without making any prior request for some miracle to substantiate it.
In referring to them the Lord was drawing a parallel between the apostate nation in the days of the two prophets and the spiritual state of the people in His own day. The warning was clear that if they rejected Him, He would turn to the Gentiles who would receive Him.
How did those in the synagogue respond? Their unbelief was manifest. They were filled with wrath, rose up, and thrust Him out. While He was rejected at Nazareth, it is interesting that in the region of Sidon, Christ healed the Syro-Phoenician woman’s daughter, Mark 7. 24-30. Again, we find many Sidonians came to Him, to hear His teaching and be healed by Him, Mark 3. 8; Luke 6. 17.
Perhaps it recalls to our mind the words of John chapter 1 verses 11 and 12, ‘He came unto his own, and his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name’.
Though not directly named she is numbered amongst those women who ‘through faith … received their dead raised to life again’, Heb. 11. 33, 35.
Though 1 Kings chapter 17 is the first mention of Elijah in the pages of scripture, it is not the earliest insight, chronologically, into his history, for that we need to go to James chapter 5 verse 17 where we learn that before he went into the presence of Ahab he had already been in prayer before God.
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