The Life of Elijah
by A.W. Pink
A Widow’s Extremity
"And the Lord of the Lord came unto him, saying, Arise, get thee to Zarephath, which belongeth to Zidon, and dwell there: behold, I have commanded a widow woman there to sustain thee" (1 Kings 17:8, 9). Notice carefully the connection between these two verses. The spiritual significance of this may be the more apparent to the reader if we state it thus: our actions must be regulated by the Word of God if our souls are to be nourished and strengthened. That was one of the outstanding lessons taught Israel in the wilderness: their food and refreshment could only be obtained so long as they traveled in the path of obedience, (Num. 9:18-23)—observe well the seven-fold "at the commandment of the Lord" in that passage). God’s people of old were not allowed to have any plans of their own: the Lord arranged everything for them—when they should journey and when they should encamp. Had they refused to follow the cloud there had been no manna for them.
Thus is was with Elijah, for God has given the same rule unto His ministers as to them unto whom they minister: they must practice what they preach, or woe be unto them. The prophet was not allowed to have any will of his own, and to say how long he should remain at Cherith or whither he should go from there. The Word of Jehovah settled everything for him, and by obeying the same he obtained sustenance. What searching and important truth is there here for every Christian: the path of obedience is the only one of blessing and enrichment. Ah, may we not discover at this very point the cause of our leanness and the explanation of our unfruitfulness? Is it not because we have been so self-willed that our soul is starved and our faith weak? Is it not because there has been so little denying of self, taking up the cross and following Christ, that we are so sickly and joyless?
Nothing so ministers to the heath and joy of our souls as being in subjection to the will of Him with whom we have to do. And the preacher must heed this principle, too, as well as the ordinary Christian. The preacher must himself tread the path of obedience if he would be used by the Holy One. How could Elijah have afterwards said with so much assurance on mount Carmel, "If the Lord be God, follow Him," if he had previously followed a course of self-pleasing and insubordination? As we pointed out in our last chapter, the correlative of "service" is obedience. The two things are indissolubly joined together: as soon as I cease to obey my Master, I am no longer His "servant." In this connection let us not forget that one of the noblest titles of our King was "The Servant of Jehovah." None of us can seek to realize a grander aim than that which was the inspiration of His heart: "I come to do Thy will, O My God."
But let it be frankly pointed out that the path of obedience to God is far from being an easy one to nature: it calls for the daily denying of self, and therefore it can only be traversed as the eye is fixed steadily on the Lord and the conscience is in subjection to His Word. It is true that in keeping His commandments there is "great reward" (Ps. 19:11), for the Lord will be no man’s debtor; nevertheless it calls for the setting aside of carnal reason, and to take his place by Cherith and there be fed by ravens—how could a proud intellect understand that? And now he was bidden to journey to a far distant and heathen city, there to be sustained by a desolate widow, who was herself on the point of starvation. Ah, my reader, the path of faith is utterly opposed to what we call "common sense," and if you suffer from the same spiritual disease as this writer, then you often find it harder to crucify reason than you do to repudiate the filthy rags of self-righteousness. "so he arose and went to Zarephath. And when he came to the gate of the city, behold, the widow woman was there gathering of sticks" (v. 10). She was so poor that she was without any fuel, or any servant to go and obtain a few sticks for her. What encouragement could Elijah derive from appearances? None whatever: instead, there was everything which was calculated to fill him with doubts and fears if he was occupied with outward circumstances. "And he called to her, and said, Fetch me, I pray thee, a little water in a vessel, that I may drink. And as she was going to fetch it, he called to her, and said, Bring me, I pray thee, a morsel of bread in thine hand. And she said, As the Lord thy God liveth, I have not a cake, but a 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" (vv. 10-12): that was what confronted the prophet when he arrived at his Divinely appointed destination! Put yourself in his place, dear reader, and would you not have felt that such a prospect was a gloomy and disquieting one?
But Elijah "conferred not with flesh and blood," and therefore he was not discouraged by what looked so unpromising a situation. Instead, his heart was sustained by the immutable Word of Him that cannot lie. Elijah’s confidence rested not in favourable circumstances or "a goodly outlook," but in the faithfulness of the living God; and therefore his faith needed no assistance from the things around him. Appearances might be dark and dismal, but the eye of faith could pierce the black clouds and see above them the smiling countenance of his provider. Elijah’s God was the Almighty, with whom all things are possible. "I have commanded a widow woman there to sustain thee": that was what his heart was resting on. What is yours resting on? Are you being kept in peace in this ever-changing scene? Have you made one of His sure promises your own? "Trust in the Lord, and do good; so shalt thou dwell in the land, and verily thou shalt be fed" (Ps. 37:3). "God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore will not we fear, though the earth be removed" (Ps. 46:1, 2).
But let us return to the outward circumstances which confronted Elijah upon his approach to Zarephath. "When he came to the gate of the city, behold, the widow woman was there gathering of sticks. God had told His servant to go there and had promised a widow should sustain him, but what her name was, whereabout was her house, and how he was to distinguish her from others, he was not informed. He trusted God to give him further light when he arrived there; nor was he disappointed. He was speedily relieved of any suspense as to the identical person who was to befriend him. Apparently this meeting was quite casual, for there was no appointment between them. "Behold (ponder and admire) the widow woman was there"; see how the Lord in His providence overrules all events, so that this particular woman should be at the gate at the very time the prophet arrived!
Behold! here she comes forth as if on purpose to meet him: yet he did not know her, nor she him. It has all the appearance of being accidental, and yet it was decreed and arranged by God so as to make good His word to the prophet. Ah, my reader, there is no event in this world, however great or however small, which happens by chance. O Lord, I know that the way of man is not in himself: it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps" (Jer. 10:23). How blessed to be assured that "the steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord" (Ps. 37:23). It is sheer unbelief which disconnects the ordinary things of life from God. All our circumstances and experiences are directed by the Lord, for "of Him and through Him, and to Him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever. amen," (Rom. 11:36). Cultivate the holy habit of seeing the hand of God in everything that happens to you.
"When he came to the gate of the city, behold, the widow woman was there." How this illustrates once more a principle to which we have frequently called the attention of the reader, namely, that when God works He always works at both ends of the line. If Jacob sends his sons down into Egypt seeking food in time of famine, Joseph is moved to give it unto them. If Israel’s spies enter Jericho, there is a Rahab raised up to shelter them. If Mordecai is begging the Lord to come to the deliverance of His threatened people, King Ahasuerus is rendered sleepless, made to search the state records and befriend Mordecai and his fellows. If the Ethiopian eunuch is desirous of an understanding of God’s Word, Philip is sent to expound it to him. If Cornelius is praying for an opening up of the Gospel, Peter is charged to preach it to him. Elijah had received no intimation as to where this widow resided, but Divine providence timed her steps so that she encountered him at the entrance to the city. What encouragements to faith are these!
Here, then, was the widow: but how was Elijah to know she was the one whom God had ordained should befriend him? Well he must try her, as the servant of Abraham did Rebekah when he was sent to fetch a wife for Isaac: Eliezer prayed that the damsel to whom he should say, "Let down thy pitcher," and she should answer, "Drink, and I will give thy camels drink also; let the same be she whom Thou hast appointed for Isaac" (Gen. 24). Rebekah came forth and fulfilled these conditions. So here: Elijah tests this woman to see if she is kind and benevolent: "Fetch me, I pray thee, a little water in a vessel, that I may drink." Just as Eliezer considered that only one possessed of kindness would be a fit companion for his master’s son, so Elijah was convinced that only a liberal-minded person would be likely to sustain him in a time of famine and drought.
"He called to her, and said, Fetch me, I pray thee, a little water in a vessel, that I may drink." Observe the gracious and respectful demeanor of Elijah. The fact that he was a prophet of Jehovah did not warrant him to treat this poor widow in a haughty and overbearing manner. Instead of commanding, he said, " Pray thee." What a rebuke does that contain for those who are proud and officious. Civility is due to every one: "be courteous" (1 Pet. 3:8), is one of the Divine precepts given to believers. And what a severe test it was to which Elijah submitted this poor woman: to fetch him a drink of water! Yet she made no demur nor did she demand a high price for what had become a costly luxury; no, not even though Elijah was a complete stranger to her, belonging to another race. Admire here the moving power of God, who can draw out the human heart to acts of kindness unto His servants.
"And as she was going to fetch it." Yes, she left off gathering sticks for herself, and at the first request of this stranger started for the drink of water. Let us learn to imitate her in this respect, and be always ready to perform an act of kindness toward our fellow creatures. If we do not have the wherewithal to give to the distressed, we should be the more ready to work for them, (Eph. 4:28). A cup of cold water, though it cost us nothing more than the trouble of fetching it, shall in no wise lose its reward. "And as she was going to fetch it, he called to her, and said, Bring me, I pray thee, a morsel of bread in thine hand" (v. 11). This the prophet requested in order to test her still further—and what a test: to share her very last meal with him—and also to pave the way for a further discourse with her.
"Bring me, I pray thee, a morsel of bread in thine hand." What a selfish request this seemed! How likely it was that human nature would resent such a demand upon her slender resources. Yet in reality it was God that was meeting with her in the hour of her deepest need. "Therefore will the Lord wait, that He may be gracious unto you, and therefore will He be exalted, that He may have mercy upon you: for the Lord is a God of judgment: blessed are all they that wait for Him" (Isa. 30:18). But this widow must first be proved, as later another Gentile woman was proved by the Lord incarnate (Matthew 15). God would indeed supply all her need, but would she trust Him? So often He allows things to get worse before there is any improvement. He "waits to be gracious." Why? To bring us to the end of ourselves and of our resources, till all seems lost and we are in despair: that we may more clearly discern His delivering hand.
"And she said, As the Lord thy God liveth, I have not a cake, but a 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 effects of the terrible famine and drought in Palestine were also felt in the adjacent countries. In connection with "oil" being found in this widow’s possession at Zarephath in Zidon, J. J. Blunt in his admirable work, "Undesigned Coincidences in the Old and New Testament," has a helpful chapter. He points out that on the division of Canaan the district of Zidon fell to the lot of Asher (Josh. 19:28). Then he turns the reader back to Deuteronomy 33, reminding him that when Moses blessed the twelve tribes he said, "Let Asher be blessed with children; let him be acceptable to his brethren, and let him dip his foot in oil" (v. 24)—indicating the fertility of that district and the character of its principal product. Thus, after a long spell of famine, oil was most likely to be found there. Hence by comparing scripture with Scripture we see their perfect harmony.
"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." Poor soul: reduced to the last extremity, with nothing but a most painful death staring her in the face! Hers was the language of carnal reason and not of faith, of unbelief and not of confidence in the living God; yes, and quite natural in the circumstances. As yet she knew nothing of that word to Elijah, "Behold, I have commanded a widow woman there to sustain thee" (v. 9). No, she thought the end had come. Ah, my reader, how much better is God than our fears. The unbelieving Hebrews imagined they would starve in the wilderness, but they did not. David once said in his heart," I shall now perish one day by the hand of Saul" (1 Sam. 27:1), but he did not. The apostles thought they would drown in the stormy sea, but they did not.
"Were half the breath in sorrow spent
To Heaven in supplication sent,
Our cheerful song would oftener be
Hear what the Lord hath done for me."
"And she said, As the Lord thy God liveth, 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). To natural sight, to human reason, it seemed impossible that she could sustain anyone. In abject poverty, the end of her provisions was now in sight. And her eyes were not on God (any more than ours are till the Spirit works within us!) but upon the barrel, and it was now failing her; consequently there was nothing before her mind except death. Unbelief and death are inseparably joined together. This widow’s confidence lay in the barrel and the cruse, and beyond them she saw no hope. As yet her soul knew nothing of the blessedness of communion with Him to whom alone belong the issues from death (Ps. 68:20). She was not yet able "against hope to believe in hope" (Rom. 4:18). Alas, what a poor tottering thing is that hope which rests on nothing better than a barrel of meal.
How prone we all are to lean on something just as paltry as a barrel of meal! And just so long as we do so our expectations can only be scanty and evanescent. Yet, on the other hand, let us remember that the smallest measure of meal in the hand of God is to faith as sufficient and effectual as "the cattle upon a thousand hills." But alas, how rarely is faith in healthy exercise. Only too often we are like the disciples when, in the presence of the hungry multitude, they exclaimed, "There is a lad here, which hath five barley loaves, and two small fishes: but what are they among so many?" (John 6:9)—that is the language of unbelief, of carnal reason. Faith is not occupied with difficulties, but with Him with whom all things are possible. Faith is not occupied with circumstances, but with the God of circumstances. Thus it was with Elijah as we shall see when we contemplate the immediate sequel.
And what a test of Elijah’s faith was now supplied by those doleful words of the poor widow. Consider the situation which now confronted his eyes. A widow and her son starving: a few sticks, a handful of meal, and a little oil between them and death. Nevertheless God had said to him, I have commanded a widow woman there to sustain thee." How many would exclaim, How deeply mysterious, what a trying experience for the prophet! Why, he needed to help her rather than become a burden upon her. Ah, but like Abraham before him, "He staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief, but was strong in faith." He knew that the Possessor of heaven and earth had decreed she should sustain him, and even though there had been no meal or oil at all, that had in no wise dampened his spirits or deterred him. O my reader, if you know anything experimentally of the goodness, the power and faithfulness of God, let your confidence in Him remain unshaken, no matter what appearances may be.
"He who hath helped three hitherto,
Will help thee all thy journey through;
And give thee daily cause to raise
New Ebenezers to His praise."
"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." Let it be duly noted that this woman did not fail to discharge her responsibility. Up to the very end she was industrious, making used of the means to hand. Instead of giving way to utter despair, sitting down and wringing her hands, she was busily occupied, gathering sticks for what she fully believed would be her last meal. This is not an unimportant detail, but one which we need to take to heart. Idleness is never justified, least of all in an emergency: nay, the more desperate the situation the greater the need for us to bestir ourselves. To give way to dejection never accomplishes any good. Discharge your responsibility to the very end, even though it be in preparing for your final meal. Richly was the widow repaid for her industry. It was while she was in the path of duty (household duty!), that God, through His servant, met with and blessed her.