The Life of Elijah
by A.W. Pink
Directed to Zarephath
"He that believeth shall not make haste" (Isa. 28:16). This is a rule which it is both our wisdom and welfare to heed in all the varied details of our lives—never more needed by God’s people than in this mad age of speed and hurry. Most profitably may we apply it to our reading and study of God’s Word. It is not so much the amount of time we spend upon the Scriptures, as the measure in which we prayerfully meditate upon that which is immediately before us, that so largely determines the degree of benefit the soul receives therefrom. By passing too quickly from one verse to another, by failing to picture vividly before our minds the details before us, and by not taking pains to discover the practical lessons which may be drawn from historical events, we are greatly the losers. It is by putting ourselves in the position of the one we are reading about and thinking what we would most likely have done in such circumstances, that we receive the most help.
An illustration of what we have in view in the above paragraph is supplied by the stage we have now reached in the life of Elijah. At the close of our last chapter we had arrived at the point where, "It came to pass after a while, that the brook dried up: let us not be in too big a hurry to turn unto what follows: rather should we endeavour to visualize the prophet’s situation and ponder the trial which confronted him. Picture the Tishbite there in his lowly retreat. Day by day the water in the brook steadily diminished: did his hopes do likewise? Did his songs of worship become feebler and less frequent as the streamlet rolled less noisily over its rocky bed? Was his harp hung upon the willows as he gave himself up to anxious thought and restlessly paced to and fro? There is nothing in Scripture to intimate any such thing. God keeps in perfect peace the one whose mind is stayed upon Himself. Yes, but in order thereto, the heart must steadfastly confide in Him.
Ah, that is the very point: do we trust the Lord in trying circumstances, or are we merely "fair-weather Christians"? It is much to be feared that had we been there by the drying brook, our minds had been distracted, and instead of waiting patiently for the Lord, had fretted and schemed, wondering what we had better do next. And then one morning Elijah awoke to find the brook altogether dried up and his supply of sustenance completely cut off! What then should he do? Must he remain there and perish? for he could not expect to live long without something to drink. Must he not now take matters into his own hands and do the best he could for himself? Would it not be better to retract his steps and risk the vengeance of Ahab than remain where he was and die of thirst? Can we doubt that Satan plied him with such temptations in his hour of testing?
The Lord had ordered him, "hide thyself by the brook Cherith," adding, "I have commanded the ravens to feed thee there"; and it is striking and blessed to see that he remained there even after his supply of water had ceased. The prophet did not move his quarters until he received definite instruction from the Lord to do so. It was thus with Israel of old in the wilderness, as they journeyed to the promised land: "At the commandment of the Lord the children of Israel journeyed, and at the commandment of the Lord they pitched: as long as the cloud abode upon the tabernacle they rested in their tents. And when the cloud tarried long upon the tabernacle many days, then the children of Israel kept the charge of the Lord, and journeyed not. And so it was, when the cloud was a few days upon the tabernacle; according to the commandment of the Lord they abode in their tents, and according to the commandment of the Lord they journeyed. And so it was, when the cloud abode from even unto the morning, and that the cloud was taken up in the morning, then they journeyed: whether it was by day or by night . . . two days, or a month, or a year . . . the children of Israel abode in their tents and journeyed not" (Num. 9:18-22). And that is expressly recorded for our instruction and comfort, and it is both our wisdom and welfare to heed the same.
"And the word of the Lord came unto him, saying, Arise, get thee to Zarephath," (1 Kings 17:8, 9). Did not this show plainly how worthless and needless was any carnal scheming on the part of the prophet, had he indulged in such? God had not "forgotten to be gracious," nor would He leave His servant without the needed direction or guidance when His time had arrived to grant the same. How loudly ought this to speak unto our hearts—we who are far too full of our own plans and devisings. Instead of heeding that injunction, "My soul, wait thou only upon God," we contrive some way of getting out of our difficulties and then ask the Lord to prosper the same. If a Samuel does not arrive just when we expect, then we try to force things (1 Sam. 13:12).
Let is be duly noted, however, that before God’s word came afresh to Elijah both his faith and his patience had been put to the proof. In going to Cherith the prophet had acted under Divine orders, and therefore was he under God’s special care. Could he, then, come to any real harm under such guardianship? He must therefore remain where he is until God directs him to leave the place, no matter how unpleasant conditions may become. So with us. When it is clear that God has placed us where we are, there we must, "Abide," (1 Cor. 7:20), even though our continuance in it be attended with hardships and apparent hazard. If, on the other hand, Elijah, had left Cherith of his own accord, how could he count upon the Lord being with him both to provide for his wants and to deliver him from his enemies? The same applies to us with equal force today.
We are now to consider the further provision which the Lord graciously made for His servant in his retirement. "And the word of the Lord came unto him." How often has His word come to us: sometimes directly, sometimes through one of His servants, and we have wickedly refused to obey it. If not in actual words, our ways have been like that of the rebellious Jews, who in response to the affectionate remonstrance of Jeremiah replied, "As for the word that thou hast spoken unto us in the name of the Lord, we will not hearken unto thee" (44:16). On other occasions we have been like those spoken of in Ezekiel 33:21, 32, "They sit before thee as My people, and they hear thy words, but they will not do them: for with their mouth they shew much love, but their heart goeth after their covetousness. And lo thou art unto them as a very lovely song, of one that hath a pleasant voice, and can play well on an instrument: for they hear thy words, but they do them not." And why? Because the Word of God crosses our perverse wills and requires what is contrary to our natural inclinations.
"And the word of the Lord came unto him, saying, Arise, get thee to Zarephath, which belongeth to Zidon, and dwell there" (vv. 8, 9). This meant that Elijah must be disciplined by still further trials and humblings. First of all, the name of the place to which God ordered His servant to go is deeply suggestive, for "Zarephath" means "refining," coming from a root that signifies a crucible—the place where metals are melted. There lay before Elijah not only a further testing of this faith, but also the refining of it, for a "crucible" is for the purpose of separating dross from the fine gold. The experience which now confronted our prophet was a very trying and distasteful one to flesh and blood, for to go from Cherith to Zarephath involved a journey of seventy-five miles across the desert. Ah, the place of refining is not easily reached and involves that from which all of us naturally shrink.
It is also to be carefully noted that Zarephath was "in Zidon": that is to say, it was in the territory of the Gentiles, outside the land of Palestine. Our Lord threw emphasis on this detail (in His first recorded public address) as being one of the earliest intimations of the favors which God purposed to extend unto the Gentiles, saying, "there were many widows in Israel" at that time (Luke 4:25, 26), who might (or might not) have gladly sheltered and succoured the prophet; but unto none of them was he sent—what a severe reflection on the chosen nation, to pass them by! But what is yet more remarkable is the fact the "Zidon" was the very place from which Jezebel, the wicked corrupter of Israel, had come (1 Kings 16:31)! How passing strange are the ways of God, yet ever ordered by infinite wisdom! As Matthew Henry says, "To show Jezebel the impotency of her malice, God will find a hiding-place for His servant even in her country."
Equally striking is it to observe the particular person whom God selected to entertain Elijah. It was not a rich merchant or one of the chief men of Zidon, but a poor widow—desolate and dependent—who was made both willing and able to minister unto him. It is usually God’s way, and to His glory, to make use of and place honour upon "the weak and foolish things of the world." In commenting upon the "ravens" which brought bread and flesh to the prophet while he sojourned by the brook, we called attention to the sovereignty of God and the strangeness of the instruments He is pleased to employ. The same truth is vividly illustrated here: a poor widow! a Gentile! dwelling in Zidon, the original home of Jezebel! Think it not strange then, my reader, if God’s dealings with you have been the very opposite of what you had expected. The Lord is a law to Himself, and implicit trust and unreserved submission is what He requires from us.
"Behold, I have commanded a widow woman there to sustain thee" (v. 9). Man’s extremity is God’s opportunity: when Cherith is dried up then shall Zarephath be opened. How this should teach us to refrain from carking care about the future. Remember, dear reader, that tomorrow will bring with it tomorrow’s God. "Fear thou not; for I am with thee; be not dismayed; for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of My righteousness" (Isa. 41:10): make these sure and certain promises—for they are the Word of Him that cannot lie—the stay of your soul; make them your reply to every question of unbelief and every foul aspersion of the Devil. Observe that once more God sent Elijah not to a river but a "brook" —not to some wealthy person with great resources, but to a poor widow with scanty means. Ah, the Lord would have His servant remain a pensioner upon Himself and as much dependent on His power and goodness as before.
This was indeed a severe testing of Elijah, not only to take a long journey through the desert but to enter into an experience which was entirely opposed to his natural feelings, his religious training and spiritual inclinations—to be made dependent upon a Gentile in a heathen city. He was required to leave the land of his fathers and sojourn at the headquarters of Baal-worship. Let us duly weigh this truth that God’s plan for Elijah demanded from him unquestioning obedience. They who would walk with God must not only trust Him implicitly but be prepared to be entirely regulated by His Word. Not only must our faith be trained by a great variety of providences, but our obedience by the Divine commandments. Vain is it to suppose that we can enjoy the smile of Jehovah unless we be in subjection to His precepts. "Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams" (1 Sam. 15:22). Directly we become disobedient our communion with God is broken and chastisement becomes our portion.
Elijah must go and dwell at Zarephath. But how could he subsist there when he knew no one in that place? Why, the same One who had given him this order had also made arrangements for his reception and maintenance. "Behold, I have commanded a widow woman there to sustain thee." This does not necessarily mean that the Lord had acquainted her with His mind—the sequel plainly shows otherwise. Rather do we understand these words to signify that God had appointed it in His counsels and would effect it by His providences—compare His "I have commanded the ravens to feed thee" (v. 4). When God calls any of His people to go to a place, they may rest assured that He has fully provided for them in His fore-determined purpose. God secretly disposed this widow to receive and sustain His servant. All hearts are in the Lord’s hand and He turneth them withersoever He pleases. He can incline them to show us favour and do us acts of kindness, even though we be entire strangers to them. Many times, in widely different parts of the world, has this been the experience of the writer.
Not only was the faith and obedience of Elijah tested by God’s call for him to go to Zarephath, but his humility was also put to the proof. He was called to receive charity at the hands of a desolate widow. How humbling to pride to be made dependent upon one of the poorest of the poor. How withering to all self-confidence and self-sufficiency to accept relief from one who did not appear to have sufficient for her own urgent needs! Ah, it takes pressure of circumstances to make us bow to what is repugnant to our natural inclinations. More than once in the past did we feel it acutely to receive gifts and succour from those who had little of this world’s goods, but we were comforted by the word, "And certain women, which had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities . . . and many others which ministered unto Him of their substance" (Luke 8:2, 3). The "widow" speaks of weakness and desolation: Israel was widowed at this time and therefore Elijah was made to feel it in his own soul.
"So he arose and went to Zarephath" (v. 10). In this Elijah gave proof that he was indeed the servant of God, for the path of a servant is the path of obedience: let him forsake that path and he ceases to be a servant. The servant and obedience are as inseparably linked together as the workman and work. Many today talk about their service for Christ, as though He needed their assistance, as though His cause would not prosper unless they patronized and furthered it— as though the holy ark must inevitably fall to the ground unless their unholy hands uphold it. This is all wrong, seriously wrong—the product of Satan-fed pride. What is so much needed (by us!) is service to Christ, submission to His yoke, surrender to His will, subjection to His commandments. Any "Christian service" other than walking in His precepts is a human invention, fleshly energy, "strange fire."
"So he arose and went to Zarephath." How can I minister the holy things of God unless I be myself treading the path of obedience? The Jew of Paul’s day was very self-important, yet he brought no glory unto God. "And art confident that thou thy self art a guide of the blind, a light of them which are in darkness, an instructor of the foolish" (Rom. 2:19, 20). And then the apostle puts him to the test: "Thou therefore which teachest another, teachest thou not thyself? thou that preachest a man should not steal, dost thou steal?"( v. 21). The principle there enunciated is a searching one of wide application. By it each of us who preach the Gospel should diligently measure himself. Thou that preachest that God requireth truth in the inward parts, art thou a man of thy word? Thou that teachest we should provide things honest in the sight of all men, hast thou any unpaid debts? Thou that exhortest believers to be importunate in prayer, spendest thou much time in the secret place? If not, be not surprised if they sermons meet with little response.
From the pastoral peace of Gilead to the exacting ordeal of confronting the king: from the presence of Ahab to the solitude of Cherith: from the dried-up brook to Zarephath. The disturbances and displacements of Providence are a necessity if our spiritual lives are to prosper. "Moab hath been at ease from his youth, and he hath settled on his lees, and hath not been emptied from vessel to vessel" (Jer. 48:11). The figure used here is suggestive. Because Moab had long been at peace she had become lethargic and flabby. Or, like grape juice unrefined, she had been spoiled. God was emptying Elijah "from vessel to vessel" so that the scum might rise to the surface and be removed. This stirring of our nest, this constant changing of our circumstances, is not a pleasant experience, but it is essential if we are to be preserved from "settling on our lees." but alas, so far from appreciating the gracious designs of the Refiner, how often we are petulant, and murmur when He empties us from vessel to vessel.
"So he arose and went to Zarephath." He made no demur, but did as he was bid. He made no delay, but set off on his long and unpleasant journey at once. He was as ready to go on foot as though God had provided a chariot. He was as ready to cross a desert as if God had bidden him luxuriate in a shady garden. He was as ready to apply for succour from a Gentile widow as if God had told him to return to his friends in Gilead. It might appear to carnal reason that he was putting his head into the lion’s mouth—courting certain disaster by making for the land of Zidon, where the agents of Jezebel would be numerous. But since God had bidden him to go, it was right for him to comply (and wrong not to do so), and therefore he could count upon the Divine protection.
Let it be duly noted that the Lord gave Elijah no more information as to his future residence and maintenance than that it was to be at Zarephath and by a widow. In a time of famine we should be profoundly thankful that the Lord provides for us at all, and be quite content to leave the mode of doing so with Him. If the Lord undertakes to guide us in our life’s journey, we must be satisfied with His doing it step by step. It is rarely His way to reveal to us much beforehand. In most cases we know little or nothing in advance. How can it be otherwise if we are to walk by faith! We must trust Him implicitly for the full development of His plan concerning us. But if we are really walking with God, taking heed to our ways according to His Word, He will gradually make things plain. His providences will clear up our difficulties, and what we know not now we shall know hereafter. Thus it was with Elijah.