The lesson of this chapter is that we serve a mysterious God who works for us in ways we often don’t understand and for Himself in ways we often can’t see. Our bewildering God sometimes brings circumstances that can seem arbitrary or cruel – the exact opposite of what we expect from a loving heavenly Father. What we have to understand is that God always works for His glory and our good, and our comprehension isn’t necessary for God to achieve those ends. And the wonderful truth is that the two always go hand-in-hand; what’s good for God’s glory is ultimately best for us.
- This story takes place during the divided kingdom. Israel – consisting of 10 tribes – is in the north. Judah – consisting of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin – is in the south.
- Ahab is king of the northern tribes. He is the most evil king to date in Israel’s history. He and his Phoenician wife Jezebel have introduced Baal worship into the country. He is the first king to bring Canaanite gods to Israel.
- As a result of Ahab’s sin, God sends Elijah to Israel. Ahab’s sin is so great that God sends the greatest prophet since Moses to confront him.
1 Elijah’s message to Ahab is actually a direct shot at Baal, who’s the fertility god responsible for bringing rain and ensuring a good harvest.
Elijah doesn’t say why the drought will take place, but Ahab surely understands it’s God’s judgment on his kingdom.
There will be no rain OR DEW – this is a complete drought with no set end. The drought will end when Elijah says it will (James 5:16-18).
2-7 As soon as Elijah finishes with Ahab, God takes him to a secret place to protect him from Ahab but also to show that He is removing His blessing and word from Israel. God takes care of Elijah but Elijah’s not exempt from the effects of the drought. Once the brook where he drinks dries up, he has to find another place to live.
8-9 Sidon is Jezebel’s home country – it’s essentially the headquarters of Baal worship. The drought is apparently just as severe in the very place where Baal should be the strongest.
God continues to withhold His presence from Israel and so doesn’t allow Elijah to go to an Israelite town.
God tells Elijah that He’s commanded a widow there to provide for him. Possibly God has prepared the heart of the widow to receive Elijah – this would explain why she is so accommodating to him.
10 This in itself may be tough with the drought.
11 He has to know this is a difficult request under the circumstances. Perhaps he asks this knowingly with the intention of using it to show God’s miraculous provision. On the other hand, he knows that God promised a widow in this city will provide for him, so maybe the request is sincere and he just assumes God will make it work.
12 She somehow recognizes that he’s an Israelite and swears by his God – this does not mean that she’s a believer.
Her circumstances are as dire as they could possibly be. She’s a widow with a young son and both of them are about to starve.
Grain and oil are two major exports of Zarephath – this shows the extent of the drought right in Baal’s hometown.
13-16 God effectively says to her, “Give me all you have and I will give you all you need.”
It’s a wonderful picture of faith. Faith is staking everything upon Yahweh’s sheer word, wagering all upon the veracity of God. (Dale Ralph Davis, The Wisdom and the Folly; 216.)
She gives up the certain for the uncertain.
Note that God doesn’t make her rich and He doesn’t give her more than her daily needs at any one time. She will daily depend on God’s provision – just like the Israelites in the wilderness who depended on manna to fall every day.
Think what this would be like for a woman unfamiliar with Yahweh. She’s likely grown up with Baal worship her whole life – a false god who doesn’t actually do anything. She’s a widow – the lowest rung on the social ladder with no means of support other than from charity. She has a small son that she thought was going to starve to death because of the drought. Now she wakes up every morning and sees that Yahweh has again provided her with that day’s (or that particular meal’s) food. She gets to have a new, tangible experience with the living God every day. She has a promise from this new God that she and her son will be fed until the drought is over (which actually turns the drought from a trial to a blessing – can you imagine how differently she views it now? – as long as it doesn’t rain she has all the food she needs and she witnesses a continuing miracle – she may be the one person in Zarephath who has to PRETEND to be upset about the weather). Her life is 180 degrees from what it was before she was introduced to Yahweh through Elijah.
17 Everything changes. The good times come to a screeching halt. The 180 degrees turn 180 degrees. In the middle of providing for the widow and saving her and her son from death, God decides to kill that very son. Why? We have no idea. No one has any idea.
NOTE – this sickness and death apparently were sudden, as there is nothing about her asking for help during the illness.
Imagine how the woman feels. All she’s known from Yahweh – her new God, the God of Elijah – are blessing and provision. She also has Yahweh’s promise that she will have food throughout the drought. But now she finds out that the promise of food didn’t include the promise of life. What good is food for the family if the family isn’t alive? We can picture the widow saying, “Did God save my life so I’d be well-fed when I watched my son die??”
From a human perspective, this makes absolutely NO sense. It’s easy to read the rest of the story and say she’s a Bible character and so this really isn’t that big of a deal. But if we were there with her and didn’t know the future (and had a limited view of this new God), we’d say that God is cruel and has a twisted way of keeping His promises.
From God’s perspective, it also doesn’t seem to make sense. Why disillusion and crush a woman who’s just begun her relationship with Him?
Stories like this in the Bible show us that God has been bewildering His creatures for as long as there have been creatures.
18 There are likely superstitions associated with a man like Elijah. The widow falls back on her pagan beliefs and accuses him of bringing the attention of God on her such that her sins were noticed and she was punished by the death of her son.
We don’t know what sins she speaks of.
19 Elijah doesn’t defend himself or God. He doesn’t respond to the widow’s accusation and he doesn’t try to comfort her. He doesn’t try to explain why the death happened or what Yahweh is doing. He simply acts.
It’s OK sometimes as Christians to not have all the answers – the book of Job is all about not understanding God’s ways. Sometimes the best answer to someone going through a trial and asking “Why?” is, “I don’t know.”
20 Note who Elijah DOES talk to – he talks to God. He didn’t ask for the boy because he had some magic power that he knew he could use. He asked for the boy because he wanted to do the only thing he knew to do – cry out to God.
Note that he is as confused and discouraged as the widow. He complains to God – “How can You DO this?”
“Have you also…” means – “along with blessing her with food, have you also brought death for her son?”
Ultimately, this is an encouraging verse. Here’s one of the biggest names in the Bible complaining to God and crying out to Him in discouragement. Note that nothing in the story implies that God is unhappy with Elijah for this. It’s Elijah’s Job 3 response. We serve a big God who has wired us to be emotional. It’s OK sometimes, when we reach the end of our rope, to just pour out our despair to Him (as long as we come out the right side in the end).
21-22 …stretched himself upon… This is probably a way of symbolically appealing to God to make the boy’s body like Elijah’s (alive).
This is the first account of someone being raised from the dead in the Bible. It shows the amazing level of faith given to Elijah by God.
23 Note that he still doesn’t say anything to her about why this happened. He lets God’s actions speak for themselves. His entire discourse with the widow throughout this event is “Give me your son” and “See, your son is alive.” He doesn’t defend or explain God. There are times in life where neither is possible. [Do you really think that all he said after RAISING HER SON FROM THE DEAD was, “See, your son is alive”? This is a perfect example of the understatement of the Bible. His emotions and extraneous words aren’t important to the ultimate message of the story.]
24 The widow sees Yahweh in a way she wouldn’t have without going through her son’s death. She sees that He not only is the God who can reverse the effects of the drought, He can also reverse the effects of death. He is the God of the living and the God of resurrection.
Think how this experience prepares Elijah to take on the prophets of Baal and turn around an entire country from idol worship (I Kings 18).
God’s ways are not our ways
- We wouldn’t choose a Baal-worshipping widow in a foreign town to provide for our main servant during a drought.
- We wouldn’t kill the son of a woman who had just started experiencing our blessings.
- We wouldn’t take a new believer and make her doubt everything she has just started to believe, or make her lose confidence in the promises she has just learned to trust.
- We wouldn’t send our most important servant to a widow just so he can appear to be the agent of death for her son.
We make a mistake when we assume God operates by our rules and makes His actions fit into our definition of what’s rational. We set ourselves up for discouragement when we require God to meet our expectations of what is reasonable. And we show our arrogance and ignorance when we demand that God, to be a good God, must meet our standards of fairness and justice. The Bible is FULL of stories of God acting in ways that make no sense to man.
We are here for God’s glory
- What happened to the widow only makes sense in light of God pursuing His glory.
- God was glorified by raising the son from the dead, but this meant the son first had to die and his mother had to live through it. The son died for God’s glory. It’s similar to the blind man in John 9:3. He was born blind so that Christ could be glorified through his healing.
- Verse 24 would lead us to believe that God was more concerned with the widow’s BELIEF than her happiness.
- This life is not about us. Our happiness is not the goal of creation. God’s glory IS.
- That said, the woman likely now has a rich relationship with and faith in God that wouldn’t have existed apart from the horrific trial and amazing miracle. She reaps the rewards of a walk with God in this life. So while this life isn’t about our happiness, when God pursues His glory, we always benefit.
- There is no way to fully grasp this concept without having an eternal perspective. When this life is compared to an eternity in paradise, the thought that earthly events may not facilitate our happiness is more easily comprehended.
- The truth is that those who aim at their own happiness never find it. Those who aim for God’s glory, however, find true contentment and joy in this life and the promise of an eternal happiness that dwarfs anything on this earth.
All things will eventually be made right
- By demonstrating His power over death, God shows us in this passage that eventually – whether in this life or the next – all wrongs will be made right.
- Death is the ultimate effect of sin – and God can reverse it.
- Death is the ultimate wrong – and God can make it right.
- Death is the ultimate fear – and God has conquered it.
- If He has power over death, He has power to remedy ALL injustice and ALL sorrow and ALL unrighteousness.
What’s encouraging is that the God who worked so powerfully through Elijah and who saved a widow from starving and who raised her son from the dead is the same bewildering God we serve today. A story thousands of years old is applicable to us because we serve the same God. He is unchangeable, eternal, all-powerful, and available.