Bible studies in the life of Elijah
The Widow at Zarephath and the Provision of God
By Fraser Gordon
Last time we looked at 1st King 17:2-7. We saw that there was not going to be any rain for 3 ½ years so God told Elijah to go to the brook Cherith. Cherith means “a cutting off or to cut off”. It was a place of isolation and he was taken right out of the picture. There were three main lessons that Elijah learned at this place. God wanted to teach him certain things here and the first thing was he had to be obedient - simple obedience. He had to do what God had told him to do. The second thing was that he had to trust God's provision and that provision is sometimes not what we think it would be. He provided for Elijah’s needs by the brook Cherith from which he could drink and He commanded the ravens to come and feed him. The last thing we looked at was that God led him to something that was going to dry up. So we saw that in our lives things don't always last. Sometimes we believe that we are in God's will and we are led to certain things, only for them to be taken away from us or dry up. But God's will and His plan are above what we understand. This is very much the case with Elijah. He would have seen that brook become a trickle and then only a handful of water. But Elijah waited for God and knew that as God had called him to this place, so it was God's business to move him on!
Now this study will look at the next part in chapter 17:8-16.
Where to next Lord?
1 Kings 17:9 Go at once to Zarephath of Sidon and stay there. I have commanded a widow in that place to supply you with food.
So the brook dried up and Elijah sat still until the word of the Lord came to him. God called him to go to Zarephath which is in Sidon. God is now calling Elijah to the very place that Jezebel was brought up in! Her father still lived in the region, so God is actually calling Elijah to the very home of Baal worship. For Elijah this would have been a hard thing for him to do. He has come to pronounce a judgement on the land because of Baal worship and here is God calling him in a very unconventional way to the birthplace of Baal worship. This region was actually given to Abraham as part of his land. When you get to the book of Joshua, you find that they conquered all of this land and Joshua handed out the inheritance to the tribes of Israel. Asher gets given this part of the land but Asher never subdued the Canaanites that were in there even though he was given it. So because of that fact, through Jezebel and her father, Baal worship was at home in this area and in reality the Canaanites became a snare to them later on. So Elijah was sent to Zarephath, which means the ‘place of refining or smelting furnace’. It is interesting that the first place Elijah was sent to (Cherith) meant a “cutting or to cut off” and from there he is sent to a “smelting furnace or refining”. From this you can see that God is working in the character of His prophet. It would have been incredibly difficult for Elijah to go there because it was a Gentile place, full of people that didn’t worship his God. We also know that Jezebel and her associates were all hunting for him.
First unclean ravens, now provision from a gentile?
Again, it would have been incredibly hard for Elijah, for not only is it a place of Baal worship, but he is also going to a widow who God has commanded to provide for him… and she is also a Gentile widow. Jews did not, in those days, associate with Gentiles. But God is actually calling him there and is saying “look, even though this doesn't appear to be normal, I am going to provide for you in this area”. This woman actually gets a mention in the New Testament. She would never have believed that her life would go down in history, but Jesus refers to this woman in Luke chapter 4.
Luke 4:16-30 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read. (17) The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: (18) The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, (19) to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." (20) Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, (21) and he began by saying to them, "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing." (22) All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. "Isn't this Joseph's son?" they asked. (23) Jesus said to them, "Surely you will quote this proverb to me: 'Physician, heal yourself! Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.' " (24) I tell you the truth, he continued, "no prophet is accepted in his hometown. (25) I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah's time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. (26) Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. (27) And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed--only Naaman the Syrian." (28) All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. (29) They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him down the cliff. (30) But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.
This is the first sermon of Jesus. He was comparing His present time in Israel to that of Elijah and Elisha. So if you have not been accepted for anything you have said about the Lord, you are in good company! What Jesus was doing was comparing His day to that of Elijah and Elisha’s time. Those were dark days; the land was absolutely polluted and God’s judgment was upon it. What Jesus is saying here to these people is “you are going to reject Me, and you are going to reject My message in the same way that Elijah was rejected”. For this reason they wanted to kill Him and it says that they led Him out to the cliff and were going to try and throw Him over but it wasn't yet God's time for Him to die - especially in that way. God had another purpose for Him, so He passed through the crowd. But He mentions the widow here that Elijah was sent to. There were many widows in Israel, but it is only to this one that Elijah was sent. So she gets a mention in the New Testament of someone who actually had faith and someone that God used to provide and make provision for the prophet.
So back to 1st Kings... It would have been incredibly hard for Elijah to go to Zarephath. The whole land is searching for him as Jezebel wants to take his life because of what he had said. And Elijah goes and hides in her father's home town where she was brought up! It is a little bit like when they were looking for Osama Bin Laden and he was right under their nose. The other thing God is saying here is that sometimes a door will close, just like the brook drying up - that is a closed door. However another door will always open. When the brook dried God provided someone else to make provision. You don't expect God to act or work in this way, but Elijah was called to trust what God had planned.
Have you seen the unseen hand of God?
1 Kings 17:10 So he went to Zarephath. When he came to the town gate, a widow was there gathering sticks. He called to her and asked, "Would you bring me a little water in a jar so I may have a drink?"
They believe it was about 100 miles for Elijah to travel from the brook to this place. It doesn't say how long it took or how he went, either on foot or by donkey, but it is a fair way to travel. But I love scripture because you see the providence of God and the hand of the unseen God everywhere. So he arose and went to Zarephath and came to the gate of the city where a widow was gathering sticks. At the very precise moment that he arrived at the gate, here is the woman that God has commanded to make provision for him. All through scripture you see the providence of God. Another really good example of providence is Abraham when he wanted to seek a wife for Isaac. Abraham said to his servant “I want you to go to my own household and find a wife for my son.” The servant went and when he reached the well he prayed “Lord, if this is the one, I will ask her for a drink and if she says ‘yes, but I will water your camels as well’, that will be the one”. He hadn't even finished praying and the Bible says that “out she came”. God is always working above and beyond what we can believe and this is the providence of God. He arranges things so perfectly without us actually knowing what is going on. When you look at your own life you can see God's hand of providence in many ways. You can have divine appointments through the people that you meet or the places that you go to. God's hand is actually behind it. I was thinking earlier of when we went to do short term mission work. We would see the hand of providence all the time. I remember once when we were in Thailand and we had no way to get out to the refugee camps that were on the border between Burma and Thailand. We walked into a shop to find transport as we needed four wheel drive vehicles. I went up to the counter where there were two men, one the shopkeeper and the other a customer. The shopkeeper asked me what I wanted. I told him I was trying to find a way to the camp and the customer who was standing there said “I am actually going out that way this afternoon and I have a four wheel drive and can take you there”. It is hard to believe that you can walk into any random shop in a city and God has made a way. I also remember a time when we went into a village and performed skits during the night before giving a gospel message. One night we didn't have an interpreter and a man who lived in another village and didn't know that there was a team there, thought he would come and visit the village. So he came and had really good English and we needed an interpreter badly! They brought him in to us half an hour before commencing the skits and the message, to be our interpreter. After interpreting for us, with many people giving their hearts to the Lord, the interpreter himself believed the message and was saved! As he was interpreting the message to the Thai people he himself was being convicted. Only God could order all of those things. He knows, he acts, and that is providence. And it's all through scripture. Quite often there is providence in our lives and we don't always recognise it. Sometimes there are big incidents where we do, but the unseen hand of God is always in the things that we are doing.
Would you give all that you had?
1 Kings 17:11 As she was going to get it, he called, "And bring me, please, a piece of bread."
So Elijah gets to this gate where “indeed, a widow was there gathering sticks” and he called to her and said, “Please get me a little water in a cup that I may drink”. As she was going to get it he called to her and said “please bring me a morsel of bread in your hand”. Remember she is a complete stranger. She didn't go down to the gate to meet a guest that day… she went down to gather sticks. She only had a little and she was going to prepare her last meal as it says, and he is actually asking her to give all that she had! This is a big thing. When I read that it reminds me of the boy that came to Christ when the disciples had asked Jesus “what shall we do for we have so many people sitting out here needing food?” Jesus said to them “what do you have?” Andrew said “all we have is a little boy who has come forward and he has five loaves and two small fish, but what is that amongst so many”. Jesus took that small amount and made it useful and a blessing to provide for 5,000 in that instance. It speaks to us that even the little that we have can be used mightily in the hand of the Lord. And it is the same here with the little that this woman has for Elijah. She had virtually nothing but Elijah is asking something of her. But you see that this woman was willing to do this very thing. She wanted to bless this prophet. It is interesting that when I looked at this I thought God sent Elijah to a widow, who didn't have a husband, and had very little. God didn't send him to someone who had abundance. He could have sent Elijah to all the prophets that were hidden in the cave. He could have sent him to someone who had plenty, but He didn't. He sent Elijah to someone who was poor, who was a widow, who was destitute, and didn't have the ability to provide for him.
What God can do with an empty barrel
1 Kings 17:12-13 As surely as the LORD your God lives, she replied, "I don't have any bread--only a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a jug. I am gathering a few sticks to take home and make a meal for myself and my son, that we may eat it--and die." (13) Elijah said to her, "Don't be afraid. Go home and do as you have said. But first make a small cake of bread for me from what you have and bring it to me, and then make something for yourself and your son.
Upon thinking further about this, I saw how much God loved this widow with an empty barrel. For it says in verse 12 that the widow replied “As the Lord your God lives”. This shows that she recognised something about Elijah - she saw that he was a man of God. She had some faith, she saw that he was a prophet, but she said “I don't have bread, I only have a handful of flour in a bin, and a little oil in a jar and so I am gathering a few sticks that I may go in and prepare for my son and myself, that we may eat it and die”. Then Elijah said to her “do not fear, go and do as you have said but make me a small bread cake from it first, and bring it out to me and afterwards make some for yourself and your son”. So Elijah is asking her to give. God loves to use those that are poor and those who have an empty barrel. All the way through scripture you see this; its so that God can show Himself for who He is. He didn't send Elijah to the one who had everything, he sent Elijah to someone who had nothing. When you look through scripture you see people who don't have the means to provide what God is asking. Gideon is a classic example. When the angel speaks to Gideon he says “O mighty man of valour” but Gideon is hiding away in a wine press, trying to hide things from the enemy. He calls him and says “go in your strength” and Gideon says “Who am I? I am the least in my tribe and the least in my father's house, why are you calling me?” Gideon is saying “Look I am an empty barrel, I don't have the ability”.
Moses was the same, forty years schooled up in the wisdom of the Egyptians. He had it all. Then God took forty years in the desert stripping it all away until He spoke to him in the burning bush and called him saying “I want you to go down to Egypt”. Moses says “you have the wrong man, I can't speak, I am just an absolute failure”. At that point in Moses’ life he was, in his opinion, an empty barrel, with nothing to actually give. Peter was the same, he had these big proud boasts “Lord I will follow you to death” but after he failed the Lord comes to him very gently and says “Do you love Me? Do you love Me?.. I want you to go and look after my sheep”. He once considered himself a full barrel, but after the Lord had worked with him he was broken, he was empty, and then God called him to be a blessing and called him to feed His sheep. So I was interested in the fact that God's method of provision here was that he sent Elijah to a poor widow, somebody that didn't have the ability to make provision.
God’s work, done in God’s way, will never lack God’s supply
1 Kings 17:14-16 For this is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: 'The jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry until the day the LORD gives rain on the land.' " (15) She went away and did as Elijah had told her. So there was food every day for Elijah and for the woman and her family. (16) For the jar of flour was not used up and the jug of oil did not run dry, in keeping with the word of the LORD spoken by Elijah.
This woman had three hungry mouths to feed. She had Elijah, herself and her young son, and if anyone has young boys they know how much they can eat. It is interesting how God did this miracle, because the barrel never had abundance in it... it was never flowing over, but the bin of flour and the jar of oil were never empty. So everyday Elijah and the widow would look into the barrel and there would be a little bit in the bottom and a little oil and they would take their breakfast. It only had a handful in it but each time they went there, there was always enough. It was never full but it was never empty. We know that this period of judgement was three and a half years. We don't know how long he spent at the brook and how long he spent here but even if we halved it you would be looking at a year and a half in both places, so it is a long time. There was never abundance but it never ran dry and it reminds me of how God's supply is always like that. We always have what we need for the day. We may not have an abundance of things, but we have what we need. And this is what God promised. It was His provision for Elijah. Just like the wilderness supply, the children of Israel would go out and there would be enough manna for the day. There would be manna in the morning and meat in the evening. Not everything that they wanted, but enough for the need. I saw how true this is with God - there is always enough for the need and many of us can testify to God’s provision in this way. I myself have not lacked. I may not have everything I want but I haven't lacked. God is committed to us in this way.
The meal and the oil also speak of the things of Christ. They speak of the Word of God and the Holy Spirit. It also speaks of the life of Christ that is actually within us. If you have Christ in your life, you have whatever it takes to meet that pressing need that is upon you today. Hudson Taylor, a British missionary to China, one of the early pioneers and an amazing man of faith, said this quote “Our Heavenly Father is very experienced. He knows that His children wake up with a good appetite every morning. He sustained three million Jews in the desert for a period of forty years. We do not expect He would send three million people to China, but if He did He would have ample ways to sustain them all. Depend on it. God's work, done in God's way, will never lack God's supply”. That is so very true!
Elijah in this passage didn't have a clue what God was doing and to him it seemed really foreign. He had been sent to a place of Baal worship and to a Gentile woman, but God knew what He was doing and all Elijah really had to do was simply be obedient. He had to do what God had called him to do. God's work, done in God's way will never lack God's supply as Hudson Taylor said. So this passage spoke to me because we may not understand God's provision for us, we may not understand His ways, but we need to trust Him that He actually knows. God sent Elijah to a widow who had no possible way of providing for him but God came through! In the same way that God commanded the ravens, He commanded this widow. She had an empty barrel but God always ensured that there was enough in the bottom for every meal for those years.
So the lessons that God is teaching Elijah here is one of simple faith, simple trust and simple obedience and understanding that God uses unconventional ways – you can't put Him in a box, but we need to trust that He knows what He is doing.